The best thing about Ludum Dare is that it ends, and ends quickly. My biggest concern for my first ever game jam was a too large scope for a tiny time frame. That didn't turn out to be the problem at all. My friend Page and I were able to put together a simple but complete game by the end of the second day. The challenge came when we saw what we made in front of us, knew it needed more, but didn't know what it needed more of.
Curling Cubes is inspired by the gym games you played in school, mixed in with a little curling/air hockey. Each player's goal is to put the 8 balls in the middle into their opponent's circle and to keep them out of their own circle. For each ball in your circle, your score goes up. More balls means your score goes up faster. The player with the lowest score at the end of the game wins.
Our theme was "The more you have, the worse it is". On its face, that's a tough mandate. Our minds jumped immediately to making the gameplay harder or worse based on how the player was performing. Judging by some of the other entries, we weren't the only ones with that thought. But that has a spiral effect if you decide to punish the player who is already struggling. Our initial idea was to make movement wonkier (slides are further and turns take longer) for the player who is losing. It turned out that it was very hard to tell that was happening unless we adjusted it so drastically that playing was almost impossible. In testing it felt like you were getting worse at playing when in fact the game was getting harder to control. So we ditched that.
Once we had the gameplay locked in, we went back and forth on what the goal was. First it was to get balls on the other player's side while keeping them out of your own, then it was to get as many balls as you could on your own side. After observing that it took very little skill to just push the balls to one side or the other, we added the circles and greatly decreased the friction on balls within either circle. At this point we were still considering having the balls in your own circle to be a good thing, so the more balls you had, the faster your score would increase.
It was then that we realized we had stripped out any semblance of the theme. Your movement was no longer affected by having more balls, and in fact you wanted more to increase your score. We were a bit stuck. Then one of us had the genius idea of making the person with the lowest score the winner. Ridiculous, you're thinking. Everyone knows a higher score is better. Our solution to this? Tell players that a high score is bad, actually. A couple quick code changes and suddenly the more you have, the worse it is. Page added a challenging but beatable AI for solo players and Curling Cubes was born.
I am happy that we produced a complete package, but the package is definitely thin. When we started I thought we'd end up with an unfinished mess. Instead, we had plenty of extra time to think about what to add. We had ideas that we thought had an equal chance to improve the game or make it worse. But game jams are not conducive to picking a bunch of potential features and testing them all. There are almost no potential features, in fact. If something goes in, it probably has to stay. So we ended up keeping things simple and adding little extras like a pause screen, enemy AI, and an animated background for the menu.
Not knowing what else to add was an unexpected issue. It's a problem I face in my hobby game development when there are no deadlines. But I assumed that with only 72 hours and a partner with a head full of good ideas, we wouldn't have time to fit in all the features we wanted. I'm still not sure how to solve that "developer's block", for lack of a better term. Maybe the thing is to try a bunch of small changes and see if one catches our eye. We got nervous about making the game worse at the end and not being able to fix it, but the cost was making something pretty conservative.
It feels good to having something complete, which is why game jams' arbitrary deadlines are so useful. I hope you'll check out Curling Cubes and tell me what you think.