Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Some Background On Social Sessions

Social Sessions, going live on the Google Play Store next week, and on the Apple App Store soon after that, is a simple puzzle game with a "group therapy" theme of making everyone happy amidst interconnected relationships. Each level is a group of 3 to 8 people that you try to make happy by "encouraging" or "discouraging" them one at a time. The tricky part is that each person has relationships with others in the group, and so your encouragements extend to your target's friends, and get twisted into unhappiness to your target's "enemies". It's kind of like a twisted up version of the classic game, Lights Out. However, the game has gone through several iterations and designs before ending up with what you see here.

The original idea, about 2 years ago, had the game centering around some public space (a school playground, a college quad, etc.), where everyone had relationships with everyone else. The key would be that there were some popular kids, and you were trying to get "in" with them by being nice to their friends and being mean to their enemies. Ultimately, having more than a handful of people became a nightmare to try to keep track of all those relationships while solving the puzzles!

So I scaled back the idea and went with just a few entities. In this concept phase, the game wasn't set in any particular environment, and so it was just cubes and lines. The relationships weren't completely positive or negative; instead, they were a gradient from red to green (negative to positive), and when you did a positive action to someone, you moved their color a little from red to green, and affected their relationships only as much as they had strength.

I quickly found, however, that when people played, they almost always just went click-click-click really fast until they made the entity either completely green or red, and the same was true with their relationships. So I decided to drop the gradients and just go with a straight up "happy" or "sad" or "nothing" for the entities, and "positive", "negative", or "none" for the relationships. This really simplified the game down and stripped away unnecessary clicking and calculations about how much an action would affect someone. This is around the time when the gem within the idea started to shine. The game was now just about a simple sequence of actions that led to a success. And if the relationships fell in the right layout, you could really get some twisty and interesting sequences. Now it was a good puzzle game.

The therapy theme just kind of grew out of the way that I was thinking about these entities in my own head. I was making them happy and sad, and trying to get them all to get along and be happy. It just seemed natural that I slap faces onto the cubes, a diploma wall in the background, and skin it like the player is a therapist going throughout their day. And something about seeing those weird little faces get happy and sad is just so satisfying. ;)

You're probably wondering how it took me two years to make such a simple game. Well, first of all, this is a one man show for crying out loud. I've learned the hard way why people tend to make games in teams and not as lone wolves. But also, it's been on and off. When I first started toying with the idea, I didn't say "I'm gonna make a mobile game and publish it". I just toyed with it for several months, among other ideas. It probably wasn't till about a year ago when I decided to do something with it. I actually released an older version of this game on Kongregate last year. Looking back, that version was extremely rough. It looks basically the same, but the game progression was so bad, there were hardly any instructions or explanations. There's a pretty steep learning curve, and it's easy to lose players in the first few levels because they just don't get it. Holding players' hands a little at the beginning with tips and instructions has proven to be a huge necessity in getting people into the game, because it's a little hard to wrap your head around the puzzles at first. Kongregate saw an exciting first week (about a thousand players, about a 3.5 star rating, and front page attention for about an hour), but after that it faded into obscurity. In hindsight, I don't think that's really the right market for a puzzle game. This is the kind of game that you want to pull out occasionally when you're going to the bathroom, or sitting on a bus, not the kind of game that you want to play while sitting at a desktop computer on a browser for hours on end. And plus, it wasn't nearly as compelling with a mouse and keyboard.

It's also the first game I've made with Unity, and the first real game I've made, period. I couldn't write a line of code 3 years ago, and making this game, and playing with a few other ideas, has been what's taught me programming and game development. So, as you'd expect, the game saw several "rewrites", which were fairly major refactors of the entire game, as my programming skills matured. But if you need a confidence boost, I'm now a full fledged Game Designer and Game Scripter at a tech startup called MaxPlay (www.MaxPlay.io) that is doing exciting things in the gaming industry.

Okay, this post is probably long enough. Hope to see your name on the leaderboards soon! Enter your email on the side panel to subscribe to updates if you want to stay informed!

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