January 7, 2009 8:00 AM |
[Game designer and GameSetWatch columnist Gregory Weir recent released web-based abstract Flash game (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty of Colors' to acclaim, and over 700,000 gameplay sessions thus far -- and in this article he analyzes the genesis and outcome of the intriguing project.]
"Last night I dreamed I was an immense beast, floating in darkness. I knew nothing of the surface world until I fell in love with the majesty of colors."
(I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors is a pixel-horror Flash game that puts the player behind the tentacles of a titanic, writhing sea creature. It’s a tale of love, loss, and balloons with five different endings. In this postmortem, I'll discuss the inspiration for the game, how the design developed, and what the sponsorship process was like.
"The Majesty of Colors" has its origins in a sketch and a title. I'd been playing around with a few ideas for my next game, and TIGSource's Lovecraft competition was just getting started. Inspired by Lovecraftian themes, I had the idea of an enormous creature from beneath the waves discovering the world above. When I think of the deep ocean, I imagine darkness and a lack of color. When I think of color at its simplest, balloons come to mind: floating spheres in primary shades.
Contrary to what many players have guessed, the game was not actually based on a dream I had. I was aiming for a dream-like atmosphere, but the concepts came from a more prosaic source: brainstorming. My actual dreams are typically much weirder than "Majesty."
My initial design sketch depicts a multi-tentacled beast reaching from beneath the sea toward a number of balloons. The accompanying title then sprang fully-formed from my head. I knew that the creature had to be a simple being, and that the game mechanics had to be equally simple. The tentacles immediately suggested a pair of strong verbs: PICK UP and RELEASE.
With this simple mechanic and atmospheric theme in place, I was reminded of Daniel Benmergui's game I Wish I Were the Moon, which had similarly surreal premises and simple gameplay. I decided that a chunky, low-res pixel style would suit the game well. With this aesthetic in mind, I made a graphics mockup in the GIMP.
On a whim, I posted this mockup in a thread on the TIGSource forums dedicated to work in progress. I received several positive responses to the concept and art style, which made me step back and make sure that I was doing the idea justice with the game.
My mockup had the creature wielding two tentacles, with the idea that the player would somehow control each one individually. In the interest of simplicity, I cut that down to a single tentacle, with the creature's body positioned so that additional tentacles were suggested but not shown. Over the course of development, the design was simplified further; the original concept involved a long time passing over the course of the game, with the scenery changing with the seasons and more communication with the humans.
I wrestled with a big design dilemma during production: how much narration should I include in the game? "Majesty" would have been a cleaner, purer game without any text, but I wanted to provide hints at certain parts and make sure that the player understood what was going on. In retrospect, I probably should have given the player more credit, and gone lighter on the narration text. I've received several suggestions to that effect.
My primary concern during initial development was in bringing the mockup to life. Given the simplistic pixel art, I felt that it was important to provide detailed motion, so that the game wasn't just a static picture with a tentacle floating on top of it. I sliced the original mockup into layers that moved independently of each other, creating a rather complex animation. While at a glance the game could have been created on an 8-bit system, it actually uses alpha blending and large moving textures to generate a convincing ocean with waves and seagulls.
The most important graphical element was the creature's tentacle. I knew that convincing tentacle movement would be the key to the game's graphical charm. I wanted an appendage that would move in a complex fashion, yet would still read well at the low game resolution. I decided upon an inverse kinematic system. Used often in 3D animation, IK systems are much less common in the Flash world. However, a simple iterative IK system allowed me to simulate a multi-jointed arm stretching toward a certain point on the screen, and could be drawn quickly and simply while maintaining the illusion of life when animated.
The other priority from a graphical perspective was the depiction of color. In order to properly portray the creature's discovery of color, I needed to begin the game with no visible color and introduce the concept through actual gameplay. I'm quite pleased with how the transition from black-and-white to color turned out. By using a color transform that slowly faded to an identity matrix, I got a slow and steady fading-in of color. To accentuate the transition, I accompanied it by crossfading from a distorted wave background sound to an undistorted one, to represent the creature's realization of the nature of the world above.
My main regret from development is the lack of organization to my program structure. Due to the drawn-out development of the game and the complexity of the multiple endings, I didn't modularize or order the code as well as I would have liked. The main gameplay code is frankly a mess, full of conditionals for all parts of the game. If from the beginning I had adopted a structure for game scenes and events, I think I could have made a more detailed and complex plot with more responsiveness to the player's actions.
It's worth noting that development cost me nothing other than my personal living expenses. I coded using the freely available Flex compiler and the excellent IDE FlashDevelop. The sounds came from soundsnap.com, an excellent source for free sound effects and loops. I made the art myself in the open-source graphics editor, the GIMP. These resources make Flash game development an excellent choice for developers interested in making money off of small-scale projects.
"Majesty" was the second game that I got sponsored. I placed it up on FlashGameLicense.com and sent out a round of e-mails to a number of sponsors. In the world of Flash games, much of the money is in sponsorship, where a web portal pays money in exchange for a splash screen and link in a developer's game. That way, if a game becomes popular, it drives traffic (and ad revenue) to the sponsor's site.
I've been quite pleased with FlashGameLicense as a tool for recording bids, but most of the bids I received were in response to the e-mails I sent. In the future, I intend to continue with the system of using FlashGameLicense as a central bidding location and self-promoting my games via e-mail.
Patience played a large role in the sponsorship process. I put the game up on FlashGameLicense on November 15, 2008 and sent out e-mails on Nov. 22. It took two days after that to get my first bid. My final bid had not been received until December 2. After an anxious period waiting to see if any more bids rolled in, I accepted on the eighth. The game was finally published and I was paid by December 10. In total, it took almost a month from when I finished the game to when it paid off. It's entirely possible that I could have gotten a higher bid if I had waited longer or been more aggressive in contacting other potential sponsors.
As it is, I feel quite satisfied with how I did on sponsorship. The bid I finally accepted, from Kongregate.com, was for several thousand dollars. Once you add in advertising revenue and a secondary site-locked sponsorship, I earned over a hundred dollars for each hour I spent on the game. These results are not typical for me; I earned significantly less on my other sponsored game, Necropolis, and I have two Flash games that I've finished but never gotten sponsored or released.
"Majesty" has been played over 700,000 times, according to my stats at the time of this writing. It's being played at over 60 sites around the web. It has a rating of 3.79/5.00 at Kongregate and a rating of 4.35/5.00 at Newgrounds. There are 198,000 Google results for the title, and it's gotten linked by Kotaku, by Jay Is Games, and by Play This Thing, among many others.
The reviews have been mixed. Many folks enjoyed the concept, but wished it had more interaction or was less slow-paced. Others dismissed the game as pretentious and boring. A whole lot of players enjoyed it, though, and one of the most common demands is for a sequel to the game.
If I had the game to do over again, I would spend more time on incidental interactions, to better maintain the illusion of a world that responds to the player's actions. I also think the game would have benefitted from a more detailed physics engine, so that the player could actually throw things in a parabolic path. Finally, I would adjust the pacing of the game so that on the second or third play-through players wouldn't be bored waiting for things to happen.
My biggest success was in translating the original concept and mockup into a fully developed game with simple gameplay. The mood and graphical style turned out exactly how I wanted them to, and many players seemed to get what I was aiming for with the game as a whole. I can only hope my future games come out so well.
[Gregory Weir is a writer, game developer, and software programmer. He maintains Ludus Novus, a podcast and accompanying blog dedicated to the art of interaction. He can be reached at Gregory.Weir@gmail.com.]