It's around 11:00PM on Sunday December 9th when I feel kind of relaxed for the first time in weeks.
An hour before, I had an amazing idea for a new puzzle. I put it in and it felt really good. It made me think about the game as a whole… if I was still having fun adding puzzles, then why were we going to send the game off to Nintendo in two days?
This realization got me thinking. Why were we so focused on getting the game out before Christmas? Why in the world would we put so much pressure on ourselves, when we do not have a publisher or investor pushing us? Is this something we inherited from our days as a work-for-hire developer? I decided to talk it through with Martijn during our morning commute, and by the time we reached the office we had agreed to delay the game.
Now we only had to let the others know, and inform Nintendo that one of their Christmas games would not meet its deadline. Nintendo was amazing and said:“That’s tough for you guys, let us know when it’s good enough!’ So we told the rest of the natives at Two Tribes and decided to play through the game to get a feel for where we stood…
It wasn’t pretty. It was very ugly actually. There was no way in hell we would have been able to ship the game the next day. Not because I could still think up new puzzles, but because we had fooled ourselves into thinking it could be possible, ignoring the obvious truth.
Which brings me to the informative part of this post. What were the major points we wanted, no, needed, to improve before we could send the game off to Nintendo and feel good about it? In retrospect it’s easy to compile this list, but in the weeks after our delay we only slowly started to realize what the problems were.
Where to go?
When we decided to ditch the standard level structure most puzzle games use, we moved to a more open design. All the levels in the game are connected, and you can determine your own route through it if you so desire.
Sounds great, and it certainly has its benefits, but it turned out to be a design nightmare. We had to find a way to accommodate novice players, as well as experienced puzzle game players. In the end it resulted in many question marks above the heads of our testers.
We are now addressing this by catering a bit more to the tastes of the novice players. It’s still as open as before, but we don’t advertise it as much anymore.
I’ll let the animated GIF do the talking here. One frame is from before the delay and the other is taken from today’s version, pretty sure you’ll be able to spot the differences.
You could argue that we could’ve shipped the game with the lesser graphics in place,but in this case they also improve the player’s sense of place. The goal of this scene is to show you path to the city isn’t available, which we visualize by showing a broken bridge.
Toki Tori 2 may look like a simple game because of its 2D nature, but the code behind it is managing things like realtime shadows, behavior simulations for the creatures, dynamic fluids, etc. We did not give ourselves time to optimize the game, which resulted in us accepting a 30 frames per second screen update. This broke my designer heart, but it was something that was acceptable given the time constraints.
Fortunately the design was more behind than the code, so we had some programming time to spare. The result is that the game now runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second and it’s a much better experience for it.
Simply put, the game was not tested properly. Up until that Sunday when I regained my sanity, I was the only one who had played all the content in the game. Now I pride myself in being a pretty decent designer, but my ego isn’t big enough to think I’d do a perfect job without the need for some serious testing.
So since the delay we’ve had day-long play sessions with several people, providing us with a massive amount of feedback on how the game flows from start to finish. We’re taking our time to ensure everyone will have a great experience, which is what we should have been doing all along.
Now I’m off, back to polishing the heck out of Toki Tori 2, together with everyone else at Two Tribes, except for Hessel who’s gone for the week, but he says hi!