After finishing our work on Dance Central with Harmonix it was late August 2009 and we were trying to figure out what to do next. The prototype we had worked on so many months ago felt stale and unpolished, and we were certain we could do a better job if we started from scratch. Furthermore with the Nintendo greenlight we decided to switch engines to Gamebryo since it was cross platform (i.e. we could switch release anywhere, assuming we got lucky and managed to find a publisher willing to back us).
So we started over in the new engine with the following goals for improvements:
- Make the game easier to just pick up and play
- Combine the fighting and building better. In particular everyone should have to fight and build at the same time, and at no point should you just be doing one thing while your teammate handles the other.
- Make building simpler. People were spending too long thinking about where to put blocks in the tangram prototype so we wanted to decrease mental load for building.
- Make it easier to just dive into the fighting. In particular we wanted to make it feel more like a button mashing brawler.
Here’s what we came up with:
Once again, huge changes. Probably the biggest that you’ll notice is that this version was far more polished than anything else we had done before – we finally figured out (more or less) what direction we wanted to go in artistically. The cartoony look would eventually carry over to Slam Bolt Scrappers, and some parts (like the viking helm and sombrero) are still available in the game now.
The building elements were incredibly simplified – beat up geckos, get material, and then slap it on the dam to try to plug up holes. Doing so caused the material’s color to change to match the builder, but that was it. This was really the simplest direction we could come up with for building, and in hindsight we went too far. The tangram building may have been too complicated, but swinging this far in the other direction was a mistake too as building never felt very satisfying and was more of a chore than anything else. The game was fun despite the building, not because of it.
The brawling in this game was simplified as well to a simple button masher. This made it very easy to get in to but not especially deep, something we wound up fixing to some degree in Slam Bolt Scrappers. You can also see that the players have a dash attack which consumed energy that gradually restored on its own with time; this wound up getting tweaked into the comet power up. The one power up that did exist in the level, the ice gun, was cut as it was felt that the hero shouldn’t have a ranged attack.
While the level had a cool side scrolling feel you didn’t feel much of a sense of accomplishment when you moved from one area to the next, nor weas there much of a sense of danger at any point. Going underwater felt (and sounded) cool but was super confusing as there was no such thing as drowning and the lose condition was water reaching the top of the screen. Finally the boss fight at the end of the level was just… long. Not especially rewarding, not especially fun, and certainly a grind.
We submitted this build to several competitions like IGF and the Indie Games Challenge in late 2009… and failed to place in any of them. Meanwhile we were hearing grumbles from testers that the game felt mediocre, and that they weren’t sure they would want to play a full game that felt the same as the one level that we had created. We knew something was off, but we weren’t sure how to fix it.
Another big problem we were facing was a rapidly ballooning scope for the project. The game was supposed to have a different building mechanic on every level to keep it feeling fun and interesting, and we had no idea how to actually go about designing that. We had a tentative design for level two but we weren’t even sure how fun it would be, and the task of making a different design for every level was daunting.
We knew that while this game was better than the first versions in some ways (especially in terms of looks) it was probably worse in others (perhaps in terms of game mechanics) and in late December 2009 we weren’t quite sure what we could do to fix it. At the end of the year we all went on break, hoping that in 2010 we would get some ideas for how to turn things around.