Sky's Isles was a game I made for the 2014 Indie Game Maker Contest. The goal was to make any game in any engine in a month, and I decided to make a hand drawn 2D platformer shooter, the main twist being that it took place in a world of small floating islands which you could explore in a hot air balloon. Before we look into what I got right and what I got wrong, it's probably useful to check what exactly I was hoping to achieve with this project:
- Practice finishing a game: I've been playing around with gamedev since I was little, but I was never very good at finishing something that was longer than a week. Now that I'm seriously interested in making it my full-time job, finishing projects is an essential skill I need to practice, and the pressure of a deadline is a good way to do that.
- Learn new techniques and practice old ones: Before the contest, I was working on a game called Life's Impetus. Part of me just wanted to continue working on it instead of doing something for the contest, but in the end I convinced myself to participate because it was a good opportunity to learn and experiment, something which would help me with LI. Because of this I'll be mentioning LI a lot during the postmortem. And...
- Make an enjoyable game: Always important to remember.
(at some point I also wanted to win a prize too, but it didn't take long for me to realize this wasn't very probable...)
What Went Right
Simple but Charming Art Style
For Life's Impetus I also plan to use a hand-drawn style, so I decided now was a good time to practice it, although a simplified version. The main characteristic of my style is that it's a combination of watercolors and ink, so I decided to use the same materials but with simpler designs and backgrounds. For me, simple usually means cute (or at least my simple drawings always tend to be cute), so I concentrated on achieving that, while making sure everything was still easy and quick to draw. It took some (quick) iterations, but the final result came out pretty well, and I managed to make all the assets I needed in less time than what I expected. And in the end... it seems like the art style was what most people liked about the game. It felt kinda strange since it was something I didn't spend that much time working on, but looking at it now it is one of the better and more unique aspects of Sky's Isles. The lesson I learnt from here is that if you make an initial effort, a simple art style can be just as charming as more complex ones, but they require much less work.
(nevertheless, Life's Impetus will have a more complex style...)
Going for a Proven Gameplay Concept
One of the main problems I had earlier on with Life's Impetus was that my original gameplay design didn't work, so I spent nearly half a year before deciding to scrap everything and start anew (luckily, it's working). I wanted to avoid a mess like that since I only had one month, so I went for a genre that was proven and safe but I hadn't tried before: the platformer. Why was this good? More than anything, it let me concentrate on creating fun content because I knew it was a solid base to work on. I could still experiment, but it was less risky and easier. I messed around with vertical levels and a slower, relaxed pace (mostly by making a bow and arrow the main weapon). And in the end, it was fun! It's definitely not great, but by following proven concepts I managed to make something enjoyable on my first try, and I didn't lose any time iterating over the main gameplay. In the long run, I don't think it's a good idea to always stick to conventional genres and ideas, but since I only had a month, this was really useful.
What Went Wrong
Strong Theme, Weak Story
If you want to tell a good story, you need to make sure of two things: first, you need something interesting to say, and second, you need to be able to say it well. For Sky's Isles, I feel like I got the former right, but completely messed up the latter. You see, theme was something I had in mind from when I decided to work on this concept. I wanted to make a game inspired by the line "No man is an island", something that I was thinking about at the time, and you can see this theme quite literally in the game. Sky's Isles takes place in a world that consists of floating isles where people live alone and separated from each other. You play as a person in search of others. It was rough and simple, but I liked a lot how it related to theme of the game. There was one problem though... I didn't start working on it until three days before the deadline. As you can guess, the final result was terrible. I didn't have time to do much more than simple text cutscenes and conversations, but that's not the main issue. I did my best to do follow the theme, but my attempt was weak at best , and there's was no really development or cohesion to the story as a whole. There was somebody looking for others, and there were people to find, but not much more than that. I rushed in a final boss that gave some kind of closure, but it didn't really make sense nor was it explained. The lesson I learnt here was that even if it's a simple story, you need more than a good idea to make it work.
Simple and Ambitious Can Go Together
Since I had to make the game in a month, I made sure to choose an idea I could work on and finish in that timeframe. So, I chose an idea that was simple: a basic platformer with no more than jumping, a relatively simple weapon (bow and arrow) and, to make sure things didn't get stale, a method of transportation that could be used to travel between levels (perhaps not a good idea if I wanted to keep things simple, but it was easy to do). As I explained before, I also went for a easy art style. Nevertheless... I ended up having to rush everything.
I was confident I was going to have enough time to finish everything for one reason: everything was so simple. And effectively, it was; I didn't encounter any major problem while developing the game, and the ones I did were minor or could be cut without impacting the game. The problem was not the difficulty of the tasks at hand (I had made sure to avoid that), but the amount of them. Yes, my scope was too big. But the real problem isn't that, I still managed to finish the game for the deadline. The thing is, I didn't notice that my scope was too big. And that's when it hit me; simple and ambitious can go together. Simple things might be faster to make than more complex ones, but if you have too much things they'll be as much work as something more complicated. The problem is that it's easy to delude yourself that you're going to be fine because it's simple.
You could rant forever about why a big scope is bad, but looking at my goals, there's one I didn't accomplish because of this: learn new techniques and practice old ones. I did mess around with some things that I hadn't used before, but in general, I can't say I gained much experience. Since I was doing everything in a hurry, I didn't have the time to do things calmly or try new ideas. I couldn't think about what I was doing, I just did it.
He Who Grasps at Too Much Holds Nothing
I'd say the two most important lessons I learnt here were, first, that you shouldn't bite off more than what you can chew, and second, that you can bite off more than what you can chew without even noticing before it's too late. Looking back at my original goals, I'd say I accomplished the first and third one, but as I said before, I didn't manage to improve my technique very much. After making this game, I think there's one thing I want more than anything: time. It's probably a side effect of the stress of having to rush everything, but beyond that, I feel that by not having it, I realized it's value. Before this, I was working on Life's Impetus at a reasonable but strict pace, but for now, I think I'll take things slower, which is luckily an option since I'm working in my free time. Sky's Isles might have not been the best game ever, but it definitely has motivated to concentrate not on finishing something, but making something great.