Game Dev Diaries: Entry 2 — Make it, break it, test it, break it again.

Game Dev Diaries is a series of articles and videos that follows a cohort of young game design students as they embark on their final projects. With interviews, insights, and interesting viewpoints, these articles aim to showcase these talented game designers and give you a peek into what it’s like to learn and become an indie games designer through university. For the second entry, we sat down to see how development was progressing and spoke about features, playtesting, and the ups and downs they have faced since we last spoke.

This article is part of an ongoing series that follows a group of game design students as they develop their final projects. These are On The Brink by Holly Stevenson and Jay Sculfor, Cryptid Party by Tia Cameron, and Cauliflower Knight By Edward Hayward, Casey Cooper, and Mihails Mozajevs. Check out the other entries to Game Dev Diaries to see how the games develop and hear from these talented young developers!

During this visit to CCCU and its year 3 students, it became clear to me that these budding designers have not been sitting idle: There’s been some big changes and new features added, challenges that have tested their skills and patience, and they’ve dealt with the nerve-wracking experience of playtesting. It’s safe to say it’s been a very busy few weeks.

For the amount of work and stress they are dealing with, you’d think their moods and drive would have fallen off a cliff. To my surprise, it was quite the opposite. I realised this whilst they were cracking jokes about myself and Luke’s attire and telling me about their progress, they were clearly all in high spirits. It was nice to see them all just as enthusiastic — albeit slightly more tired — as they were in our last meeting, and their work showed that.

It’s not uncommon for games to evolve during development, with new ideas or features sometimes changing the whole gameplay experience. That’s the feeling I had once I saw the newest version of Cauliflower Knight, which has seen some big additions in its combat. 

Game Dev Diaries
More enemies and features look to make Cauliflower Knights combat just as engaging as the puzzles.

‘We’ve added being able to attack, being able to take damage, systems that interact with other characters in the game’ Edward began before detailing the myriad of additions made to make combat functional and fun, such as working health, deflection, and projectiles. With the introduction of enemies and combat mechanics, I’ve started to see the full vision and potential for Cauliflower Knight. Edwards’ attention to detail on level design and puzzles was already evident from my first visit. Now with the introduction of combat and hearing their plans to expand and refine it, I’ve no doubt he will have even more opportunities to create interesting gameplay. 

The same can be said for Casey and Mihail’s work, with both putting just as much effort into the technical and visual elements of Cauliflower Knight. Mihail’s been busy working on implementing the combat systems and doing general magic coding, whilst Casey has added more of her artistic flair to the world and characters. Some lovely facial expressions have been personal favourites, adding a little more polish and personality to the game. Plus, they added cel-shading, which just makes the game look cooler.

For On The Brink it’s been quite a busy few weeks from what I saw and discussed with Jay and Holly. Variety has been the focus of their recent developments, with a lot of focus put onto more enemy types. It’s been a frequent point raised by testers, and one that these changes could bring together the core experience and enhance the moment to moment gameplay. Upgrades will play just as big a part, with different bullet types and upgrades being added that give that nice bit of player choice, and ultimately make it more fun. 

Game Dev Diaries
On the Brink’s Upgrades hope to add some variety to the gameplay.

‘The moment-to-moment gameplay was a little bit boring, for lack of a better word,’ Holly tells me, a point raised by playtesters and friends who played the game. ‘We’ve been studying a lot of roguelikes and looking into things, getting a bunch of feedback, and trying to spice it up a bit.’ They hope to give more strategy and interesting choices, something Jay touched on when telling about their plans. ‘Adding variety makes it a bit more sporadic, like what enemies am I gonna face now, how can I use this bullet?’ It’s frankly admirable the amount of work that’s gone into the game the last few weeks. Adding in upgrades is no easy feat, it can be a balancing nightmare and is generally a long and sometimes gruelling process. But what’s been done so far shows a lot of promise, now as they refine and expand what they have, things are looking up for On The Brink.

For Cryptid Party, Tia’s been busy getting the party going, which is to say adding in more of her great artwork to make the environment more alive. From simple robed cultists to tiny gremlins in need of a bloody mary, it’s been great to see more of the visually stunning artwork, and it’s all adding to that great sense of place and style that’s oozing from her project. Cutscenes have also been on her mind as a way to add some highly requested narrative to fill out the world. ‘My teachers recommended I use cutscenes in the form of comics or just images that play before you actually start the game,’ something myself and others feel could help set the scene of the game, which Tia made mention of during our conversation and has considered the idea. If all goes to plan, it will add even more charm and character to a game already full of it. 

If that’s not enough, you can also drop items now. Yes, it sounds simple and maybe less important, but it’s simple mechanics that are vital to the gameplay experience. ‘I got specific requests multiple times from playtesters saying they wish they could drop an item if I’m trying to find another Cryptid’s item.’ Something as small as dropping items makes a lot of difference to players, and truthfully it’s a simple but welcome addition to the party and is one of many small changes that are made during development to make the experience run smoothly. It’s had a few growing pains here and there, but Cryptid Party seems to be coming along very nicely since our last chat, and I’m now eager to see how Tia takes her great work and keeps on making it better. No doubt it will be even more charming the next time I see the game, hopefully with the narrative on full display.

That’s not to say it’s been smooth sailing the whole way through. Making games is tough and full of challenges, sometimes minor issues and others game-breaking, and that’s no different for some of these young designers. For Tia, coding has been a big hurdle to overcome in recent weeks. ‘The biggest challenge for me was understanding how to program in Unreal. I’ve been getting a lot of help with that [coding] from other students.’ Thankfully a course like this is perfect to ask people for help or advice that can make all the difference, and now her focus can be on art and narrative, and really make her project come alive.

Lets take the party outside!

With the variety and dynamic gameplay now being addressed, it’s the story that’s proving to be the next challenge for On The Brink. ‘That’s what we’ve been focussing on mainly for the last bit of [the] last sprint and most of this sprint is getting environmental storytelling in place,’ Holly told me and expanded on their challenges since we last saw their game. ‘[we’re] just trying to make it feel more alive for lack of a better term,’ with hopes that new enemies, bullets, and the expanded story will tackle these issues. I have to say what they told about the narrative was pretty in-depth, to say the least, and it certainly seems like a hefty task to undertake. That said, both Holly and Jay seemed positive about being able to handle the workload; With plans to use environmental storytelling and a myriad of other methods tell what sounds like a much more intricate story than I was expecting, but one that could be quite compelling.

It’s not enough to simply make a game. Like every creative endeavour, it’s easy to get so invested in the work, you can’t see the problems staring you in the face. That’s where playtesting comes in, something these students have been doing since day one of their time on their course. Put simply, playtesting is having a variety of people try a game during its development, looking for flaws, and design issues, giving all-important feedback to the developers.

Game Dev Diaries
Defend yourself, Cauliflower Knight!

It’s a daunting prospect, having people try an unfinished game and putting your work out for criticism. But during my interviews, I was surprised to see it hasn’t been quite as intimidating for these young designers as I’d expected. Edward of Cauliflower Knight summed up the experience pretty well, telling me ‘It’s been overall a really positive and helpful experience,’ and that ‘once I get past that layer of dread and regret, it’s like, there’s so much helpful input.’ More than anything, it helped the teams to fix and improve what they are building, and in no small way has it been wasted time. Truly, it’s probably one of the most important aspects in game design, and it’s one that the teams have been open to and used to their advantage, taking on board what they heard and using that feedback to create better projects, and ultimately, more fun games.

After my day of talking and checking out the games, I was again impressed at the amount of talent on display. All the projects were progressing with great new additions and refinements, but more than anything I was impressed simply by how well they were facing the tasks and stresses of making a game. Their attitude towards feedback and advice was incredibly refreshing, and it’s clear they have taken on board every piece of advice, and continue to put in just as much work and effort despite the challenges and sometimes stressful workload. It was frankly quite inspiring.

On The Brink is implementing an interesting narrative that’s got both humour and commentary on big business.

Even as I write this they are still hard at work to make their games better, fixing and changing their projects to create something special, and if the last few weeks have been any indication, they are on the right track to making that a reality. With goals for more narrative, more robust combat, and more detailed game worlds, they will be very busy before I see them next. But I’ve no doubt they will rise to the occasion, and I look forward to seeing what that looks like soon.

Thank you to Kyran Broadhurst for stepping in as sound editor for our video content!

If you want to see how these projects develop, be sure to check back for the next entry soon!

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