People often tell me that the single most common reason why amateur creative projects fail is because they are unrealistically ambitious. Usually they are telling me this in response to some complaint I have about the latest game I’m working on, so it’s not usually something I want to hear, but I’m smart enough not to ignore depressing advice. Around this time last year I was trying to think of ways to expand my portfolio while looking for work, and asked myself: What kind of game would be so simple, so totally idiotproof, that I couldn’t possibly fail to complete it? The logical answer was Pong.
Perhaps I could have come up with an easier game, but Pong is also extremely elegant – perfectly balanced in strategic terms, and a good mix of reaction and prediction. If you need convincing, I’d suggest you read the theory of Pongism. There was no doubt in my mind that I could knock together a working version in Game Maker, but obviously there was little value in making an exact copy. What kind of changes could I make that would notably change the gameplay without losing its elegance? I thought about games like Llamatron and Galaxian, before realising that it probably wasn’t going to help much. I didn’t want to add or remove anything, just change the way the game was played, and I realised the key to that was to change the timing of the game. It followed that the simplest way to change its timing was to make it turn-based – to split the game into a ‘movement’ phase where the ball is locked but the paddles can move, and an ‘action’ phase where the paddles are locked and the ball can move.
Then I got a new job and suddenly the portfolio stuff didn’t seem so important and the idea was shelved. Here is another valuable lesson in why creative projects don’t get finished.
Over the last year I’ve been regularly taking part in Klik of the Month Klub, a 2-hour game-making contest fought using the most awkward and unusuable tools it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. This month I decided to kick it up a notch and enter Ludum Dare. I thought it might be a fun way to start my Christmas holiday! Well, right from the start I was disappointed when ‘discovery’ was chosen to be the theme of the contest – considering how popular Minecraft has become since the summer, I was expecting a lot of the games to follow similar themes of digging and spelunking. In a more general sense, every adventure game ever involves discovering strange new locations, characters and artifacts. I wanted to something a bit more unusal, more like the kind of weird junk I turn out for Klik of the Month Klub, so I thought about ways to turn the theme around and make it more interesting.
Instead of being about the act of discovery, my game would be about the fear of being discovered! You are hiding something from someone you care about and you will jump through hoops to prevent them learning your terrible secret. Perhaps you are a serial killer who has invited his friends round for a dinner party, but has carelessly left a load of corpses and murderous implements lying around the house? I decided this was too morbid – like with my experiments with Wario Ware DIY, I think I prefer making games that are broadly family-friendly. How about this: You are a gay teenager and you are trying to hide this fact from your family! It was an interesting idea, and if the subject matter was handled well it could have ended up as a really good game.
But then I remembered the old advice about not being over-ambitious. I scaled my ideas back, thought things over, scaled them back, thought things over, and eventually ended up thinking about my idea for turn-based Pong again. It was perfect! Hide the ball and make it a game of deception, where players use radar sweeps and other tools to bring together partial scraps of information about the ball’s location, deploy decoy balls and counter-intelligence to keep their opponent in the dark, and all in the midst of a regular, back-and-forth game of Pong.
Well. I realised early on the second day that there was no chance of me finishing the game in time to enter Ludum Dare, but I did have time to comfortably complete my original turn-based Pong idea. Instead of trying to fudge in the counter-intelligence effects, I focused on just polishing up the game I had – adding some little messages and visual effects, fixing the one little niggly bug I found regarding deflection angles, etc. I think it came out alright! The bats are a bit too small perhaps, and I think I should compile another version that runs at a smaller resolution – currently it’s running in 1280×720 – but I’m happy with it. It came out pretty much exactly how I expected. The only disappointing element is the name – I couldn’t decide what to call it, and I wasn’t sure if mentioning Pong in the title could lead to legal issues.
Download Generic Turn-Based Video Tennis Game HERE (Windows only).