fishbane devlog, pt. 3

hello, i’m allan. i helped droqen a bit with fishbane. i served as back-seat designer, built some levels, and was generally his guy friday. mostly though, i just pester him a lot ;P. i have been keeping a development log over at the tigsource forums. the first piece is about game design, and was written in the thick of development. the second was written just before the game went up on newgrounds, and is about the tech involved, and the sponsorship process. this one is about criticism and player feedback.

the reason i’m guest posting here, instead of following up on the forum, (besides the fact that the thread is fairly old at this point) is that the last post was referred to by community heroes chevy ray and alec holowka as a ‘post-mortem’. fair enough. unlike the tigforums, i’m not exactly sure who the audience is for droqen’s blog besides me and jmickle (hi jmickle!), but i hope that it’s good for whoever drops by.

so! my last entry was certainly not the last word on fishbane. neither monetary concerns over sponsorship, nor the nature of the tech at work under the hood of the game are nearly as important as the development journey’s destination. these details might have worked out differently, but the last stop would still be the same. the final joy is in you! playing fishbane!

i was recently reading a book about classical animation. the author, in conversation with one of the original disney animators, was discussing the complexity of the work involved. being a good animator requires not only a thorough grasp of art fundamentals, but additional skills in draftsmanship, and a deep understanding of timing and spacing. why, the author asked, would someone with such a breadth of theoretical knowledge settle for the tedious work of animation? the answer was something like, “watching  your characters come to life is magical; an experience beyond compare”.

anybody who has played with a flipbook as a kid can relate to this. that initial thrill quickly be quelled in the thick of the creative process though. it’s sort of natural to start to hate something the more you stare at it. in a dvd extra for pixar’s ‘finding nemo’ one of the creators discussed sitting in on an early screening of the film, and learning to love it again through the reactions of the audience. after years of keyframing mouth movement, he had forgotten that ellen degeneres’s delivery in the recorded dialog was actually pretty funny.

if simple animation is this compelling, how much more so might making a videogame be? the expression goes, that a picture is worth a thousand words. while you’re watching a film, the possibilities of what may occur within the next frame are infinite, but at the end of the show, the book is written, so to speak. this is why games, especially videogames, are so compelling; each moment is full of possibility, and you’re playing sixty thousand words per second. having direct control over the stimuli on the screen is thrilling.

perhaps a more relevant connection than the animator, is the game-designer-as-composer. while a director can observe the reaction of his audience, a composer has a much broader spectrum of feedback in seeing a musician perform his work. likewise, the greatest return for a game designer is in watching other people find joy playing something you’ve created.

not pictured: droqen, a tester, or fishbane. we did test the game in this same seat in this same downtown bar on the same model computer a little while later though!

player feedback was an important part of fishbane’s development. unfortunately, it can be a double edged sword. the problem is that players are often not content to discuss the successes and failings of a game, but frequently want to play armchair designer, proposing the exact changes that they think should be made. this is a topic that derek yu has discussed with regards to spelunky. no two people will have an identical level of skill after all, and if droqen caved to every complaint instead of knowing when to stick to his guns, we would’ve ended up with a flat, dull, challenge-free game.

most of the feedback we get on fishbane relates to the game’s controls. the rules of fishbane’s world may be jarring for long-time platformer players; a few of the games nuances are quite unique, and may seem opaque at first. fishbane is a puzzle platform game. the nature of the game lies in finding a solution to get where you need to go, and then executing your plan. an example of a pure puzzle game being eggerland, and a pure platforming game, super mario bros. the nuances i refer to are related to fishbane’s platforming.

most platformers find their complexity in momentum. mario even has a ‘momentum button’. fishbane is unique in that horizontal movement is binary; press the button and the character will walk precisely one pixel in the indicated direction.

fishbane’s depth arises from vertical movement. the character’s jump is variable (although it is not entirely necessary to understand this), and the breadth of the game’s mechanical challenge lies in timing harpoon throws in tandem with your vertical movement. this is the main hook of the game: throw your harpoon into a wall and use it as a platform, or throw it mid-jump in order to leap on it and ride it through the air. it initially feels strange that while riding the harpoon as a moving platform, fishbane’s horizontal movement retains the same limits as when he is on the ground. that is to say, he can not gain additional speed by walking in the direction the harpoon travels (he is already headed that direction at his top speed, one pixel), but he can walk in the opposite direction, off of the harpoon. though some find it jarring at first, it is a crucial rule of the game.

naturally, it’s key that any game have a good, simple, responsive control scheme. players may complain that there are problems with the way the game works, when in fact it is a technical problem on their end. herein lies the problem: a lot of keyboards (specifically those on notebook and netbook computers), don’t handle multiple inputs very well. here, player feedback was essential for developing an ideal layout.

since at least 3 simultaneous inputs were necessary for fishbane (for example, ‘run right’, ‘jump’, and ‘throw harpoon’), we had to ensure that users had access to a workable configuration. the modern pc game control standard (arrow keys to move, z and x for actions), very often does not function properly given multiple inputs. if you’ve ever found you can’t jetpack and shoot simultaneously in cave story, this is why. flash is badly in need of joystick support, an issue they are aware of. in the mean time, alternative control schemes are a necessity, and in order to play with a pad, third party software such as joytokey is necessary.


join the cause!

even for players who are able to pick up the game without control issues, there are those who find the game’s difficulty curve too steep. suggestions include an ‘easy mode’ with an increased jump height (which of course, would only aggravate jumping complaints, not to mention break the entire game hilariously), as well as mid-level checkpoints, which would defeat the nature of the puzzles and carefully considered level flow. fishbane isn’t perfect. most notably we’ve made some changes to level layouts over time, in order to accommodate both beginners and skillful players, and in order to correct our own mistakes. we are certainly not averse to criticism, and are completely okay with the fact that some people will hate the game. it is nonetheless rather tiresome to deal with feedback from those who don’t really know what they’re talking about. we’ll still listen though!

some of the earliest post-release feedback we received was from review portals. it’s been fairly well documented that of all media, videogames have some of the worst published critics. mainstream videogames press (online and off) tend to fall into the ‘enthusiast’ category; they’re pressured by gatekeepers and advertisers (mainstream game publishers) into lauding praise on unworthy work, or writing glorified  consumer reports under the guise of ‘reviews’ that offer no meaningful critical insight. thankfully, independent coverage tends to be a bit more thoughtful. too often though, independent review portals fall into the trap of needless digression in armchair designer fashion (as mentioned earlier), attempting a faulty deconstruction instead of a proper analysis of the final work. honestly though, i feel fishbane has received a fair shake from the indie games press. i was especially happy to see earnest game critic aderack tackle the game. his review, though short, best encapsulates the general reaction to the game as we’ve gauged it.

before i go on, i’d like to talk about two (embedded) modes of play available in fishbane. the first is the causal playthrough, for people who only want to see the general path the game has to offer, finish the levels, and reach the credits. completing all the quests and nabbing all the tokens is not necessary to do this. the alternative is the completionist playthrough, where everything is collected and all the secrets and extra content are unlocked. it was important that both methods were acceptable, in order to keep the game accessible. droqen and i both despise wasteful design, and therefore fishbane’s tokens were sparsely and thoughtfully placed, and all of the ‘additional content’ was heartfelt.

after fishbane’s release, youtube user DarknessKight began recording a playthrough. his early videos were magical for us; seeing a stranger on the internet puzzling his way through our levels was a joy. soon after, he began a speedrun. speedruns are recorded performances, and a true test not only of the player, but of the game’s mettle. at its climax, DarknessKight’s run is incredibly impressive, and helped seal our pride in the game. the nature of fishbane’s scoring system required him to play the completionist route in order to have his time saved.

a little later, as mentioned in droqen’s previous post, we got paste’s ‘let’s beat fishbane’. this playthrough is in the mold of “let’s play” videos, which are typically casual playthroughs, with added flavour by way of the player’s voice over. generally players tend to go one of two routes with this; either they ape seanbaby‘s tone of mocking condescension towards the game, or they attempt to be clever, and let their own humour add to the experience. i’ll be honest, i kind of hate “let’s play”s. they are usually terrible, and narrated by unpleasant people. of course there are a couple exceptions, where the format has been used to great effect. maybe it’s only because it’s our game, but me and droqen find paste’s narrated playthrough to be charming as hell.

watching him work his way through the game while keeping a running dialog of his thoughts and injecting his own humour, along with deft editing in later clips, keeps things entertaining. we rejoice as he figures out each screen, occasionally, like the speedrunners, in ways we had never anticipated. we cheer with him, as he falls prey to a particularly nasty-yet-hilarious pitfall, or finally deciphers the way an enemy behaves, or stumbles across the solution to a puzzle. we also, occasionally, feel his pain when he encounters certain problems; we probably could have polished this-level-or-that a little better. it’s interesting to note that paste is playing with joytokey, and that while he limits his videos to the main quests of the game, he still challenges himself to collect all the fish. maybe it’s his own fondness for fishbane, or maybe it’s just shiny object syndrome. either way, we’ve found his videos a delight.

without player feedback, the game might as well not exist. not only did it help shape the final release into something enjoyable, but it has since reaffirmed our purpose and drive to make games. our initial testers who are in the credits, as well as those who came after, such as the various critics who wrote reviews, as well as DarknessKight and paste who shared their playthroughs, are invaluable to our own reflection on the game whether they know it or not. we are incredibly grateful that they’ve shared the experience with us.

if you have enjoyed (or hated!) the game, please get in touch, we would love to hear from you.

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About Offal

Allan O. is a game designer from Toronto, Canada. View all posts by Offal

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