So my new game is done. Click the image to play:
This was kind of a strange project for me for a few reasons, not least of which being that I actually got it done in a timely manner. When I finished Magnetic Butterfly, I noted that the game took me about six-seven months to finish despite only taking about a month of active development, so it was nice to actually finish Balance in a timely fashion. I also believe that the short development time helped me focus in on translating the initial emotion/inspiration for the game into the final game without losing a lot in between. One of the down sides to the rapid development is that I’m fairly certain the scripts which make up the project are readable only by me, which is okay, and probably ludicrously inefficient, which isn’t as okay. That said, much like when I was working on Asplode!, I seem to be much more productive and creative with what I do when I treat the writing of game logic as the equivalent of a sketch.
The two primary constraints I had for this project were that the game had to use only a single button for input and that I had to adhere to the thematic inspiration for the project with no mechanics which worked against it. When I decided to do a one button-game, that included the constraint that I was also not going to allow movement support of any kind. It would have been easy to make a game, or even this game, work with, technically, one-button input and mouse scrolling or something, but that seemed like it would be cheating. To work the game’s theme into the mechanics and the one-button constraint then, I decided to severely limit a player’s agency in the game. The player cannot move of his own volition, he can only rely on any number of other entities in the game world to guide motion. This logic ended in the “attraction” mechanic that the game is based on and while the spawning of the pegs in the game world is random, players are not completely without agency to, roughly, guide their movement through the game world.
Ironing out the attraction logic was, without a doubt, the most difficult part of the project. The peg spawning is random, and that’s intentional and desirable (from my perspective), but the player should always have a rough idea of what will happen when he starts attracting to pegs. This was easy enough to smooth over when I had it so that the player could only attract to one peg at a time, but not only did that not feel right or interesting but it didn’t support the theme. Adding logic so that the player could, potentially, be attracting to every peg in the scene almost instantly felt like the right move both as a design and aesthetic consideration. Some early play-tests from friends, however, found the movement at this point in the project completely frustrating. One testimonial went: “this game is monumentally frustrating. I think I hate you for it. you should seriously be punched in the junk.”
That reaction made me revisit the movement mechanics of the game one more time (about four or five hours before the game was “done”). Initially, all of the pegs the player was attached to had “strengths” and these were modulated by their distance from the player. The issue was that the strengths varied so wildly and the distance modulation was so progressive that it was possible for the furthest peg to have the most pull. When I revisited this logic, I reduced the range of strengths (which now only vary by +/-0.1 units as opposed to +/-1.0) and also made the closest peg have a clear domination over any of the secondary ones (its strength is increased by 75% and the secondary have their strengths reduced by 50%). This change, alone, made the movement mechanics far smoother.
The biggest failure of Balance is the concept of the player’s “energy,” and it’s either an issue of an unnecessary mechanic (which is arguable) or simply being a poorly-communicated one (which is a fact). A player has an energy value in the range of [0,1], starting at 1.0 when the game starts, and that value is constantly decaying. The player is gaining energy whenever he is attracting to pegs or takes hearts. When a player is at full energy and is still gaining energy, that’s when the score goes up. If the player is at low energy (and the white ball is at its darkest) and continues to lose energy, the score goes down. I thought about ways to better communicate this mechanic, but it would have necessitated additional visual complexity as either another in-world effect (which would have muddied up the aesthetic) or a HUD element (which I absolutely did not want). I decided to leave it in the game for the release, as I think it has some promise, it’s just broken in its current state.
More than anything else, I think Balance helped me solidify what I think will be my game “style” for a couple more projects. This project my first real attempt at “expressing myself” through a game and either for that reason or the hyper-abbreviated development cycle, it was a lot a fun.