Stugan Update 2: Circling the Game

My usual development style for solo projects involves something I call “circling the game”. I alternate between multiple tasks—such as writing, music, coding, design, and concept art—very rapidly throughout the project. Each small piece of work creates new ideas that influence the rest of the project. The idea is that by circling around like this, instead of executing one aspect of development at a time, all the parts contribute to the whole and make sense together. While this has worked for smaller projects, with Sunshine I think I’ve crossed a threshold that makes progress a bit too slow.

With previous projects I wrote story as I prototyped levels and gameplay, but with this game the workload is a bit too high to jump so quickly between tasks.

With previous projects I wrote story as I prototyped levels and gameplay, but with this game the workload is a bit too high to jump so quickly between tasks.

I could solve this a couple ways. I could bring on other team members, maybe an artist and a more skilled programmer. This is an idea I like but I’m not sure if it’s reasonable to bring on other people for an oddball freeware game. I could shrink the scope of the game, but I think that would work against the central experience I want to create. I’ve already made harsh tradeoffs to make the project feasible, such as a flat-poly art style and strict restrictions on NPC behavior and world generation.

My other option is to change how I approach development. This is the path I’m going to try out. Rather than constantly circling around different dev tasks, I’m going to add a little more structure. So for the next week or so I will focus on finding what is most compelling about the stealth aspect of the game. This means greyboxing levels, testing stealth gameplay against level geo and player verbs to see if it’s interesting enough, and experimenting with new ideas that are directly related. Writing and art design will be put on hold instead of being part of the work cycle.

"Greyboxing" is a method of sketching out levels so you can focus on mechanics and don't get hung up on how things look.

“Greyboxing” is a method of sketching out levels so you can focus on mechanics and don’t get hung up on how things look.

I am also shifting my goal for what I want to achieve by the end of Stugan. Instead of getting the whole game finished, I am going to focus on creating a vertical slice—a representative chunk of gameplay. The “vertical slice” is a bit of a weird concept for a short experimental game like this. If I’d done the same thing for A Night in the Woods, for example, the experience would be terrible. It was the story that made the paper collection interesting. But I’m going to try making a vertical slice for Sunshine and see how it works.

With each game I’ve made so far, I have increased the complexity a bit. The idea is to challenge myself in ways that are manageable during development. That way I can leave with lessons that stay with me, rather than being too overwhelmed to really think the process through. I got thrown off my rhythm with my past couple games, though, ironically because development went so smoothly. I got used to projects being easy and everything coming together just right. Now I’m returning to the normal world of hard questions and struggle. It’s kind of nice to be back.