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The Spilt Milk Live Post-mortem: Week 1: In The Beginning There Was Tron.

By on May 6, 2011
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Andrew Smith, drinking a beer

Hi folks! Andrew J Smith here, managing director of Spilt Milk Studios, a new independent developer currently focused on making some kick-ass iOS games. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking very openly and honestly about the development of our second full game, imaginatively named ‘Project2’. We’ll also carry the diary on post-release (everyone with half a brain knows that’s just the start these days) and delve into sales progress, stats, successes and failures – unedited and ‘live’. Fingers crossed this work out, as far as I know nobody’s done a ‘Live Postmortem’ before.

The honesty starts here; we’ve got several aims with this diary, in rough order of importance.

  1. Get word out about the game and the company.
  2. Take the opportunity to learn about the project while it is still ‘alive’ and try to fix mistakes before they take root.
  3. Gain some knowledge we otherwise wouldn’t have through feedback and dialogues opened up as a direct result of these posts.
  4. Impart some of our hard-won knowledge to anyone reading.

So ultimately a fairly selfish-seeming set of goals! This week we’re going to take a look at the early gestation of the project, the first prototype, and some of the challenges we faced in those early days (which – being halfway through January 2011 – aren’t that long ago).

The prototype.

The idea for Project2 came when a coder friend of mine Nicoll Hunt was discussing the movie Tron 2. In short he didn’t enjoy it  and I did, but we both agreed that the official iPhone game was a disappointment. Fiddly controls, pointless objectives and messy graphics ruined what could’ve been a fun little arcade game.

My confession at this point is that I’ve never liked the Tron-style arcade games, nor their weird offshoot Snake. They just seemed dull, plain and way too simple for their own good. Jokingly, I suggested we could do better, and so ‘Project2’ was born.

So with not much of a plan (other than bringing ‘Tron ’ up to date in the way that Pacman: Championship Edition and Pacman: CE DX did so well) we kicked off. The basics were obvious. Get a player-bike moving around, colliding with walls and AI-controlled competitors, and give them some pickups to increase speed, length and score. To get this going as quickly as possible (in his own words Nicoll is a “lazy programmer” – I think he just means efficient) he plumped for Cocos2D, a free 2D engine that enabled him to get a version of the game running within 4 hours.

The Simple Demo

It was simple but showed us what we believed – it’s not hard to make this kind of game fun and that we should explore the game’s design as much as possible over the next few weeks.

Of course that’s where the first hurdle lay. Nicoll has a day-job programming software for a film company. I couldn’t pay him either, so we’ve both been working on faith, a 50/50 split and passion. (As I’m writing this I realise I need to get a contract out and signed that locks us in to that, if only for each other’s peace of mind.)

Anyway, I previously mentioned that I’ve never been a fan of the original arcade games so the first thing we tackled was the control system. Initially we allowed the player to turn their ‘bike’ left or right, which had a couple of advantages on paper – the controls were two ‘buttons’ (left half of the screen, right half of the screen) and so seemed very simple to pick up, while also allowing us to create multiplayer on the same device which was a bit of a coup.

Playtesting

Once we got it in game and started showing it to friends and family however, it became apparent the control system was not up to scratch. People got easily confused while imagining which direction their bike would need to turn (it was relative to the bike’s facing direction) and most players never got to even destroy an enemy bike, let alone enjoy the game.

I’m ashamed to say we didn’t fix that for another 2 builds!

The other early addition was of course scoring. Initially we had just killing enemies as rewarding points, but my hatred of the stilted Tron games of old meant we added pickups pretty sharply. By v4 we had a much more interesting game, with a control scheme that we felt was both easy to understand and empowering. It was fairly good fun just romping around the arena and scoring points, but something was missing.

That something turned out to be a placeholder piece of music, plus of course the genius little tweak that is required for any point-chasing game – the multiplier! We added a base multiplier for going in a long straight line (possibly going to be removed soon… more on that in a few diaries time) because we thought it contrasted with the player’s natural need to turn a lot thereby introducing an element of risk and reward.

Of course this triggered a veritable waterfall of little tweaks, additions and dead-end ideas which lead us nicely into next week’s… Diary 2 – Bringing It Together.

Early Days Fun facts:
Project start date – 9th January 2011
First name – Bits ‘n’ Bikes
Development team – 1 coder/artist, 1 designer/artist, outsourced audio
First music track – Arcade Fire’s ‘Ready to Start’ (first used in v7)
Build 1 Size – 691kb

About Andrew Smith