(These programming-project memoirs are usually called "Postmortem"s, but
this game feels more like a child that still has potential for greater
things than something dead that I'm happy to be rid of. Maybe that name's
another facet of the
"perpetual crunch" culture I touch on at the end. Most of this is copied
from the "get to know the designers" questionairre that The Experimental
Gameplay Project emailed me after I created this game for their contest.)
In The Pit: PostnatalAbout the Programmer:
what previous experience did you have making games?
I wrote a Gameboy Color game in 1998 that tied for third prize in an amateur coding competition. I made some card games from 2000-2003 before slowly getting back into video games, writing a few flash games and a Gameboy Advance game called "Season Stacker".
What about Programming? Art? Sound/music?
I've taught myself C/C++, Perl, and Actionscript. I've done some art for a few of the card games I created. Sound has been a weak point in the games I've made so far, which is part of why I decided to make "In the Pit" audio-only, as an excercise in focussing entirely on the sound.
About The Game:
9 days, off and on.
Engine/tools/etc used. How did you decide which to use?:
I programmed this in C++ rather than Actionscript because C++ gave me better control over the sound, and let me use the vibrating 360 controller. The game uses the Audiere audio library, which I found while working on a game in Irrlicht (a 3D library with no inherent audio support).
I'd picked up a wired XBox 360 controller to work on a project that I was hoping to eventually port to XBox Live Arcade, and found it VERY easy to program for. Since I was going to make a game with absolutely no video, I decided that vibration would give me another form of feedback to help compensate for the total lack of video. I knew that I would be losing most of my audience by making it require a 360 controller, but since the competition is about experimental gameplay and innovation rather than mass appeal, I decided to stick with it.
Tell about the assets (ie. art, sound, music). How did you find/create them:
I did all the male voices and creature sounds (and the female breathing) myself, and convinced my otherwise very shy wife to do the female voices. Originally I was going to be super-ambitious and make TWO games for the competition, but the other game, a sort of abstract bacteria game in Flash, didn't pan out. I had, however, figured out how to make a cool heartbeat-like drum beat in Modplug Tracker for that game, and when it fizzled I just made the beat even more heartbeat-like and used it for "In The Pit". The splash is part of a sample I found at freesound.iua.upf.edu which is a giant repository of free sound samples. I used Zerius Vocoder to mix my voice with some PC-fan noise for the level announcements, which I wanted to sound sort of like a voice on the wind.
Tell about your game design process:
How did you decide on your final idea?:
A couple weeks ago I found an audio-only Space-Invaders-style game called "Sonic Invaders". Before that point the thought of an audio-only game had never even crossed my mind. Since I'd been playing too much "Rez", my immediate thought was to make a fully-3D, synchronized-music, audio-only abstract space shooter, which would have been absolutely terrible. That idea gradually settled down into a sort of pseudo 3D, "stealth action", Splinter-Cell-like game in total darkness (although I've never actually played any of the Splinter Cell games). When the "consume" theme was announced, the player's character morphed into a monster at the bottom of a well, eating people who fell in, and a few days into programming it I had the idea of the evil king, who gives the game diagetic narration and a good fun character since the monster itself didn't really have a personality.
What did you try that didn't work? What failed?:
The Flash game totally failed. It was going to be something about blobs eating each other inside a cell, and bursting out into other cells, with groovy Mizuguchi-style gameplay-affected-music. I hit a total dead end on that one, though, and while I was clawing at my brains trying to figure out a solution I realized, "wait, I already have a whole other idea to work on, I'll just put more energy into that instead". I have a VERY large number of failed projects, but the best part of failed projects is that you can always raid them for stuff that didn't quite work in the failed project, but will work perfectly in some other project you're working on down the road.
"In The Pit" worked out very well right from the start; the only stumbling block was that the breathing wasn't a precise enough indicator of where the victim was; even though it's loudest when you're right on top of the victim, and the controller vibrates at that point, there was too much space where you could hear the breathing but couldn't find the center. Then I added the heartbeat, which kicks in when you're even closer to the victim than when you can hear the breathing, and that worked perfectly. In fact, quite by accident, I discovered the the breathing was the perfect sound to get a quick general idea of where the victim was, and that the heartbeat worked really well for a narrow area. If I reversed the sounds, they weren't nearly as useful.
Anything else you want to tell about?:
A technique I just figured out on this project that I thought was really helpful was to "bookend" the game; once I'd written the basic game engine and the first level, I then wrote the frontend and the ending. At that point, no matter how many levels I made or didn't make, I'd still have a complete game. Originally I'd planned for four levels (the fourth victim being a Gladiator who fights back), and I still had an hour left before the deadline by the time I finished the third level. I knew I could probably get that fourth level in if I crammed, but I was already getting a little tired, so I thought, "no, I've already proven my concept. I'll submit it as it is, while I'm just a little tired and still happy, instead of crunching for that last hour, making myself miserable, and ending up with all my happy memories of making this game replaced by horrible crunch-memories". (I'd already had my horrible crunch experience when I submitted "Season Stacker" to the IGF competition, and discovered one morning that instead of the 3 months I thought I still had to work on it, I actually had 15 hours, and the deadline was midnight that night!) I think that was an excellent decision, to quit while I was ahead, and it honestly gave me the feeling that if the huge game companies made more 2-hour games instead of driving their programmers into the ground with perpetual crunch, there'd be a lot more happy programmers, and a lot more interesting, innovative games.
Once I finished the game I was faced with the problem that I was the only person I knew with a wired 360 controller, which would make it rather difficult to get feedback from my friends. I IMed one friend who had offered to playtest anything I made, and browbeat him into buying a wired 360 controller for himself on the way home from work. He loved the game, and it worked out especially well because the next day he had a barbecue, and as guests arrived we "threw them into the Pit" by dragging them into his computer room, putting the headphones on them and the controller in their hands with no prior information about what was going on, starting up the game and leaving the room.
Unanimously, once one of the guests had finished the game (s)he'd stagger, glassy-eyed and grinning, out to the patio and demand more levels. When someone tells you your game is cool, they might be lying to save your feelings. When someone with a look of maniacal glee demands that you make more levels immediately, especially when they threaten you with bodily harm if you don't make more levels, that's a pretty sure sign they liked your game. By the end of the party, most of the guests who hadn't played the game yet had learned that "The Pit" was something really fun even though they had no idea what it was, and pleaded to be taken there. It was a very fun barbecue.
The other day someone emailed me about "In The Pit" and said "well, this certainly settles the whole 'gameplay versus graphics' argument". I'd never thought about that when I was working on it, but yeah, I guess it does.