The Fab 48 Hour – The Voxel Agents game plan
We’re loud and proud of the fact that it was the 2008 48 Hour Game Competition that inspired us to start our own games studio, and so it is with a sense of purpose and trepidation that we are preparing for the 2010 challenge. Over the next 48 hours we’re going to laugh, we’re going to cry, we certainly aren’t going to sleep very much, and we’re going to make a game.
We have a lot of respect for everyone entering the competition. It’s not a small undertaking to start with nothing but a blank canvas and the need to turn three obscure words into a workable game concept.
Indeed coming up with an initial concept is one of the hardest parts of the competition (second only to the stamina that is required) so we thought we’d share the process we employ to turn those three keywords into a set of game mechanics.
To begin with, we get away from the computer. The core game mechanics are vital. We need to get our core concept worked out. So we resist the urge to fire up Photoshop and instead welcome pen and paper as our first set of tools.
For our 2008 entry, Melonauts, we had a big piece of butcher’s paper and on this we drew three columns. At the top of each column we wrote one of the keywords. In each column we extracted any verbs (action words) related to the keyword that we could think of.
For example, in 2008 the keywords were “watermelon”, “astronaut”, and “summertime”. Beneath summertime we wrote dozens of keywords including “seasons, summer, cycle, heat, sun”. Beneath “watermelon”, there were “smashing, growing, planting, harvesting, juicy”. Astronaut had concepts of “gravity, spacesuit, planets, and travel”.
We then started combining the keywords. There is an obvious link between “planting, growing, harvesting” and “seasons, cycle”. This link immediately suggests a game mechanic based on growing a watermelon crop.
Another potential concept was to combine astronaut with planets and sun. These concepts are related in a thematic way in that a game could be about an astronaut exploring different planets with different suns that affect the way plants grow.
So we had two concepts. One was a highly mechanic based game of growing and harvesting crops in cycle with the seasons, the other involved an astronaut going on a journey and exploring how watermelons would grow on different planets.
To decide between these concepts we looked to our strengths as a team. We were able to rapidly create game mechanics and we had experience in developing mechanic’s based games, but no one in the team had experience or significant ability in creating story driven exploration games.
We also considered what we were making the game for. It was the 48 Hour Game Comp and so the judges had a bunch of games they had to play. They would only have a few minutes to play each game so whatever we created had to be instantly pick up and play, and needed to express its concept within the first two minutes to be effective.
For those reasons, we chose to play to our strengths and we developed the concept where watermelons needed to be planted and harvested in cycle with the seasons. At this point astronaut was doing little more than contribute a theme to the game, and the planting and harvesting needed a purpose, and so we took the inevitable decision to make our astronauts space marines who needed to fight and needed watermelons to do so.
And so Melonauts was born. The words “summertime”, “astronaut”, and “watermelon” became distilled into a set of game mechanics based on planting and harvesting, watermelon fuelled space combat, and a relentless cycle of seasons.
To summarise our process, it is focused on producing actions words and verbs. It is the actions that translate directly to gameplay and game mechanics. We avoid exploration or story driven gameplay because that isn’t our strength and because it’s very difficult to make a story driven game compelling within just two minutes of gameplay.
There are different approaches to take. “My Mechanical Romance” by Curious Bear won in 2009 and that was largely a story driven game where they elegantly expressed a complex concept through simple game interactions. It was a beautiful game and so we don’t mean to say that being exceptionally focused on mechanics and action words is the only or the best way to approach the keywords.
We follow our mechanics driven approach because it suits our strengths. If you have a team that is great at producing concept or narrative driven gameplay, make that type of game. If you have a brilliant artist who can produce content rapidly, make a content heavy game. Play to your strengths, and us that means producing a set of simple mechanics and refining those mechanics into a short sharp game that is instantly understood and endlessly replayable.
Massive props to the SIF90 team. Simon, myself, and Matt (the three on the back right) owe a debt of gratitude to Joe Gatling (back left), Jon McEwan (front left), and Michael Szewczyk (front right) for working with us to create Melonauts. It’s a game we can all be proud off.