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Prototyping the Cannon

March 12, 2013 at 6:34 PM

Hey guys, I’m Ian, the artist and level designer for Life Goes On. Today I’d like to babble endlessly about a new gameplay mechanic we just finished prototyping.

This is an idea that’s been near and dear to our hearts since the beginning. It was even part of the game pitch for the 2012 Global Game Jam where we got our start! Ultimately, impaling knights on spikes, roasting them in fire, flattening them with crushers, and flinging them into sawblades just wasn't enough. Something was missing. That something was the ability to send a knight anywhere, any time! The ability to crash through walls! The ability to impart so much velocity to the poor knights that they will bounce off the solid wall we’ve launched them into!

That something… was cannons.

Or, at least, we hoped so. Despite it featuring prominently on our wish list for quite some time, cannons hadn’t been prototyped in any major way. We didn’t have levels that used them, we hadn’t locked down quite how they’d function, and we didn’t know if they’d be any fun. Creating new features is expensive in terms of time and effort, so what we needed to do was build a rough, simple prototype and validate our ideas before committing too much effort to them.

Now, as the artist, I needed to build prototype assets for the cannon so that we’d have some bare basics to look at while we evaluated it. Placeholder assets don’t need to be much. In fact, it’s often best if they’re as bare-bones as you can possibly make it. The goal is to do things quickly, and not to burn cycles doing expensive, good-looking stuff that might be thrown out later. Simple models, simple (or non-existent!) textures, and basic animations are ideal.

So… one out of three isn’t bad, right?

Okay, so, predictably, I had a little trouble with the idea of “placeholder assets”, and went completely overboard, delivering this steampunk monstrosity. This is something I’ll definitely try harder to avoid in the future. Even if this mechanic works out and we get to keep the model and animations, it’ll now be that much harder to justify redoing the model or animations to the design or aesthetic of the cannon later if we decide it isn’t fitting thematically or mechanically. One of the big advantages of placeholder assets is that they are obviously not final content, and you’re never tempted to keep them in because they look laughably bad. If you start with “acceptable” content, it becomes much easier to avoid redoing it to make it “fantastic” in favour of keeping the “good enough”.

But hey, we have a cannon now! Now that knights are lining up to be used as impromptu ammunition, all our worries are behind us!

Well, okay. The next step was to validate the cannon as a good idea, and for that we needed levels to show that they could work as parts of a puzzle, and that they were unique and entertaining enough to be worth polishing. This was actually the trickiest part, for me, because on first glance I was having a lot of trouble differentiating the cannon from all our other mechanics. It didn’t really seem all that different… it was just a way of being able to do the same things you could always do from a greater distance. Shoot a knight into spikes, and they’re stuck there just like they’d be if they’d walked into the spikes themselves. Shoot ‘em into flame and they burn, shoot ‘em onto a pressure plate and they’ll weigh it down, shoot them into a button and they’ll trigger it. Being able to do that from the other side of the map opened up a few possibilities, but it didn’t drastically alter the playing field.

The only explicitly different interaction we had built in was the idea of being able to break down certain walls and level fixtures by shooting them. These would be a one shot deal… once they’re broken, they’re broken, and the passageway is open, or the stalactite has fallen in the lava to make a platform, etc. This is a nice, unique interaction, but there’s not a lot to it aside from aiming. Any puzzles that would arise from this would be based around denying access to the cannon… either blocking off the cannon itself or placing obstacles in the world that would deny a clear shot to the player. Either way… the same obstacles could probably be used to create a gate with existing mechanics. Again, the cannon wasn’t doing anything all that new.

All the things I was trying or thinking about seemed to revolve around using the cannon as a precision instrument. Ricocheting knights around corners is fun and all, but that’s a challenge of dexterity and precision, not of puzzle solving. Life goes on is a puzzle game first and a platformer second, so this was a little worrisome to me. If the cannon didn’t have any special utility for creating puzzles and was just a mechanism for trick shots, then it wouldn’t fit the game and would probably need to be axed.

The point where it finally clicked for me was when I remembered that there was a thing called physics, and that a knight at an absurdly high velocity probably has a fair amount of inertia. Now we’re talking… you can get a heavy suspended platform swinging, or knock a boulder down a hill, or accelerate a big wheel into a spin. Viewed from this perspective, the cannon was primarily a tool for moving big, heavy objects in the environment by applying physical force, and a mechanism for moving bodies around second. This is great… the neat ideas that come up from earlier can be used, but now we’ve got a whole new type of physics based puzzle that we can engage in that we couldn’t before. That's what I wanted out of a new mechanic!

Once I built a couple prototype levels and felt confident that this physics-heavy approach would work for us, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. That week I’d spent modelling and animating a mechanism I wasn’t sure we’d ever use hadn’t been a huge waste of time and energy! Whew!

Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to be done here. Aside from the obvious tasks of creating materials for it and adding particle effects and sound, new levels need to be drafted and the whole process of aiming and firing the cannon needs to be streamlined significantly before it’ll “feel” right. Even so, I’m happy with the direction it’s going and I think that with a bit of experimentation it’s going to be a lot of fun in the final game.

Speaking of experimentation, I’m going to go bounce a few knights off the wall. FOR SCIENCE.

Category: Development Logs

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