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The technical side of 39 Days to Mars is coming together well, with the biggest improvement this month being a controller selection screen at the start of the game. However, the big changes in this update are how I'm approaching puzzle design and developing the gameplay.

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What's New this Month?

The technical side of 39 Days to Mars is coming together well, with the biggest improvement this month being a controller selection screen at the start of the game. I still haven't decided upon the final layout, but I'm aiming for the PC release to support game controllers (as well as the mouse & keyboard) out of the box.Here's a picture of it in action.

As usual, it's using placeholder artwork and may not even be the final layout:

The biggest progress, however, is on the gameplay front. This is something I've been struggling with over the last month or two, because the puzzles and controls have felt a bit akward, and the game was often boring or confusing rather than fun or exciting. Things never really clicked the way I wanted them to.

Fixing Almost Everything

I made two major steps this month that turned the game around, and have once again made me feel excited about what's being produced!

The first was a big decision about the direction to take the gameplay, and how I've been implementing puzzles. From the very first design all the way up until this point, I've been designing the game as a series of puzzles, each with two parts for the two characters. A huge constraint was the need to design the puzzles so that they could be played by one person (on one controller) switching between two on-screen characters, as well as by two people with two different controllers. This meant that the puzzles couldn't have too many real-time elements, because a single player would need time to switch between roles. It meant that when playing co-op, the two halves felt disconnected, and when playing alone, the tasks felt too menial. Parts of the puzzles ended up being written twice anyway because the control schemes were so different.

So I made the decision to design puzzles specifically for co-operative play.

This doesn't mean that I'm dropping the ability to play through the game solo, just that some puzzles will only be possible when playing with a second person. If you're playing by yourself, these puzzles will probably be replaced by single-player alternatives.

Here's the first cooperative-only puzzle for the game:

By removing so many of the design constraints, it was significantly easier to design this puzzle than the previous fit-all-sizes type puzzles. It was also faster to implement, and it's more fun to play!

The second big step was having an "indie development day" that was organised with another game designer, and a writer, who were both in similar stages of their projects. The idea was to set aside a full day, and then focus on each project in turn to solve the problems and roadblocks that we were struggling with.

It worked exceptionally well. We sat down and explained our projects, brainstormed ideas, and before long my folder was filled with all sorts of notes, scribbles, and diagrams. I playtested a puzzle, and implemented a second one in the course of an afternoon. We hashed out the overall shape of a 20-minute mission, and came up with some exciting ideas about storytelling. There's still a lot of work to do, but it really feels like the work I've been doing over the last few months has started to come together.

Watch this Space

I'll be implementing a third cooperative-only puzzle next week, and then moving on to the resource management aspects. I'll also be tweaking some of the movement controls to feel faster and more responsive, in line with the short mission times.

Don't forget to follow @philipbuchanan on Twitter for more regular updates and development news!

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