SideKick

Info:

Genre: Platform Game
Team: 2 Artists, 1 Programmer,
1 Project Leader, 1 Sound Designer
My Role: Programmer
Made in: XNA with C#
Project Date: April 17 2012
Project Duration: 10 weeks

My Task: Programming the entire game, including an AI system to control the hero and its enemies.

Sidekick is a platform game where you don’t play the hero, but the Sidekick instead, whereas the hero is controlled by a rather overconfident AI. It is a game where you should assist the hero, by preventing him from doing anything stupid, while he tries to keep you safe.

This game was originally seperated into two individual projects: “I want you” and “Here I am”. I want you was a project meant for two people, wherein the groups were formed freely. For this, I had chosen an artist that i can work really well with. The two of us then had to design a game, which should be presented and explained shortly after to the rest of the school. If people liked the idea, we would get the manpower to develop the game further.

After two days of writing and creating ideas, prototyping the lot of them, we quickly discovered that there were two games amongst them we liked the most: Sidekick and Sickness (in which you had to escort a sick girl through the various levels of the game, challenged by what the girl can and can’t do). Both were paper prototyped once more and this time, we got a lot of people to test the two games. Because these people liked Sidekick more than Sickness, we eventually chose to present Sidekick.

During the presentations, every team was also required to list the types of people they would like to join their groups. We had chosen for the following people:

A designer, specialised in narrative design. This designer should also be responsible for testing the game and well, finishing the game design. Originally in our prototype (see picture), we had a couple of features to symbolize the brawns/brains (in this case: brawns stands for the powerful AI hero, while brains stands for the clever player) idea, like multiple type of enemies (archers, that the hero neglects, and only the sidekick can attack, versus ground units, which were way too strong for the sidekick, but could easily be defeated by the hero), puzzles such as lava which the hero neglects, but the Sidekick can’t get across and levers the hero walks past by, but the Sidekick can use. However, these features were just ideas. We required a designer to finetune them (or to think of other features alltogether).

We also asked for another 2D artist, seeing the fact that we wanted to make a full-fledged game for a change (and this is kind of hard to make with only one artist) and, if possible, we wanted a sound designer for our game, because a platformer can hardly survive without any sounds in it.

The second project: “Here I am” followed shortly after, after our game was chosen to be developed further. We got all the extra man power we asked for. A designer, specialised in narrative design. An 2d artist. And finally, we also got the sound designer we requested for. However, things didn’t work out as planned.

I called myself a programmer during that project. And a programmer, i figured, shouldn’t have anything to do with the design. I could just work at home, do my programming, and if I finish it all in time, nothing could go wrong. There were however, some mistakes I made. For an instance, I made the game in XNA. That is, because I let the team decide whether the game should be made in XNA, Flash or Unity, but I didn’t spend time researching the various engines, and neither did they. And XNA, as a matter of fact, is not the best engine to program a 2D platformer in. I also didn’t use any free code samples, that would hasten the developing process. All of this caused me to do a lot more work than I planned for. I didn’t complain though, because it helped me improve my programming skills.

We on the other hand didn’t know what was the actual problem, seeing the fact that the design was sort of: already made, during the first project. And the small things that still had to be decided, such as the story, were up to the designer to decide. It was her “job”, so to say. This however, is not how design works. Design should be discussed with the entire team, and preferably with the target audience. We did neither. Of course, the designer had no right to say: well, because I won’t get any input, I won’t do anything at all, but we didn’t have the right to blame it all on the designer as well.

As the weeks went by however, this particular problem had found no solution whatsoever. Moreover, I got more and more agitated by the fact that I was asked for design issues, by the artists, while I already had a full time job handling the programming. Of course, I like designing things, and can even think of a good idea once in a while, but I couldn’t stop wondering why I was asked, and not the designer. I shared these thoughts with my fellow artists, and they said that our designer wasn’t really worth much. She just didn’t do anything. I told the designer to do something more; create enemies, think of a second level, or even make dialogues (it was supposed to be a story driven game, but no story was made yet), but she just kept on saying that there was no use for it, because no one listened to her anyway.

When we showed our game to one of the teachers, we really got the worst feedback ever. Basicly, it was just bad. Bad, because the art was lacking. Bad, because the programming really could have been made a lot faster, if we hadn’t chosen XNA to be our engine. And bad, because design wise, the only thing you were allowed to do, was stabbing some enemies. That wasn’t what the game was intended to do! We sat around, discussing these issues, but the designer had to leave, so again, we weren’t with a full team. We could make some choices however, to increase the fun of the game, but after discussing it with the designer for two hours afterwards, we got a: “I don’t want to talk about this”, after which she left skype.

At this point, we didn’t doubt anymore, and just blamed it on the designer. We tried to discuss it with her during the next two weeks, but when that didn’t work out, I finally took further action. As my programming came close to an ending, I realised that the only thing I was still doing, was designing, because I was the only that actually gave answer to everyone’s design related questions. I was the one that had to make some important decisions in a matter of minutes, and meanwhile implement all of the art, that was arriving way too late (it was my first time implementing sprite sheets and sounds, so I needed some time to get used to with how that works within XNA). I really had enough of it, so I called upon the two artists, to just discuss this with the entire group, and get some explanations why this isn’t working.

We simply talked. We had a good talk after we made very clear to the designer that this can go on no longer. Apparantly, she didn’t know she had done anything wrong, because she honestly didn’t know what to do. We never defined what we expect from a designer. Not face to face. Of course, we said that I should be the programmer, and that the two artists should fulfill the task of being an artist, but simply saying one should be a designer is not enough. One of the artists didn’t even know what a designer is, while the two of us (the other artist and me) thought that the way I design, is sort of a convention; the way everyone designs. Obviously, that isn’t the case. Even though I, as designer, can mostly think of something to do and some task to perform, not all designers know exactly what to do at which time.

After we had that one talk, eventually everything worked out (apart from the fact that we had five weeks of delay). Me and the two artists had to work like we have done before (the last three days, I simply did not sleep, and worked sixty straight hours) to finish the game in time, while the designer helped us where she could. She couldn’t do much though. The time wherein a designer could be of use, had long past.

In the end, she did make a decent team lead though (always strict on time, arranged a lot of working space to work in), and I have learned a great deal of the design process (most importantly: always define clearly what everyone does). However, the fact that this game wasn’t really playtested a lot, because we never defined that that is what expect of a designer to do, made it a worse game than what we had hoped for.

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