Dev Thoughts: Starting from Scratch

As college kicked into full force for me, development slowed down. We did spend a lot of our free time planning and talking about the game, but not a lot of time actually executing anything. At the end of the summer, I felt like something was off. I didn’t like the direction my art, or the game, was heading in. It looked…okay? But it didn’t make any sense. So we had a meeting. A lot of them.

📌 Issue #1: It was scattered

When we started this project in May, we were honestly not expecting much to come of it. We thought, “we’ll do this project in our free time, and release it eventually somewhere and see what happens”. I wasn’t anticipating the attention and love it would get through social media, and we’ve become exponentially more invested in snacko since then. Through that process, we realized we didn’t really know what our game was. That’s a problem…because we’re making it. Where did this lack of direction show?

  • We didn’t have a solid 30-second “elevator” pitch
  • The setting was dubious and was only cute consumed in small chunks
  • The town, farm, and dungeon areas were not backed by any world building or narrative, and it felt flimsy as a result
  • It looked and played like a pile of things thrown together that we personally liked – which was exactly what it was

📌 Issue #2: It had no central mechanic

We had to sit down one day and ask ourselves, “do we have a unique hook”? You might’ve heard this as USP, unique selling point, or unique selling proposition. Whatever you like to call it, it is essentially one thing that will make the game different compared to the hundreds of farming games before it.

As best put by game designer Jaime Griesemer, during an interview about Halo,

“In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game.”

Of course, the 30 second loop in farming games is usually a little longer: clear up the environment, decide where to put your resources, harvest them for money, buy more seeds to grow your veggie empire. A step beyond that, though, would be a longer gameplay loop. Sort of like how Animal Crossing’s loop is quite stretched out: do tasks for Bells, decorate the town and your home, expand your home, do tasks for Bells to decorate new real estate, and so on. We needed a long-term goal like paying off debt to expand your home in Animal Crossing.

We settled on villager recruitment; using a letter system that would use a custom written bag-of-words model, what the player writes in their recruitment posts will attract different animals with different jobs and personalities. We felt like this opened up a lot more customization value on top of the existing building mechanics we decided to add in early on, and would also feed into the existing gameplay loop of expanding your farming operations by giving players buffs depending on the NPC (e.g.: a resident merchant may boost your shipping prices for certain crops).

📌 Issue #3: There was 0 world-building

I think there’s a lot of misconception with games that games don’t need “a story”, or a narrative. It’s easy to pick up the mindset of, why bother spending so much time thinking of lore when you can just make a simple and fun game? That mindset is false, though. Even something as old and straight-forward as Pacman had a narrative. Narrative doesn’t necessarily mean branching paths, or an epic following 4 heroes out to save the world and their romantic lives. Narrative, to me, simply means “motivation”. Why should the player care? Why should the player feel compelled to press buttons for 30+ hours? Why is the player doing what they are doing? Without these questions answered, the art and the way the world was laid out made no sense, and the gameplay was suffering because of it. Since our prompt was “Rebuild”, we had to come up with a reason why Momo was rebuilding a town. Many ideas were thrown across the dinner table that night, including:

  • Momo’s humans abandoned her and she started a village with feral cats (this was rejected because it was too sad for us)
  • Momo is an adventurer who discovered an abandoned island, and tries to set up a trading post/town there (needed more work to have narrative believable)
  • The country used to have towns, but they split up due to a tragic event; Momo wishes to revive the practice of having a tight-knit community again (we went with this)

In our quick prompts, I also listed what I think the type of art style would suit it best, and what would make that particular prompt hard to execute. This helped narrow in on my reference gathering and research once we decided on one. Sadly, this also meant I had to get rid of a lot of my old assets, like the convenience store.

📌 Addressing These Issues

It all boiled down to this: the game was inconsistent, had no direction, and had no meat to hold it all together. We scrapped almost everything asides from core mechanics like movement, farming, etc. Although it was hard removing almost 200 assets from source control, 4 months later, I can say I don’t regret a bit of it. Our project started out as us doing whatever we wanted to. I wanted to make an ATM, now there’s an ATM. I wanted to make cloth banners advertising ramen, I made cloth banners advertising ramen. Did it make sense why this gameplay was in this sort of world? Nope. But I wanted to make the asset.

Even after the redesign, I still find myself struggling to keep within the style. For example, the earliest revision of the storage box was, well, a storage box. How else am I supposed to make a storage and shipping box? They’re pretty much just a box in real life, and in other farming games, too! This is fine!

And then I realized: we’re not making “just another” farming game. We’re making a farming game with cats. I could get away with so much, and here I was, making a box.

So I made a hollowed out log with a nub and a leaf as the handle.

You can see the old storage box in the back
New storage container

As long as the style looked like it belonged in the world, as long as it was believable enough in construction and its purpose was read clearly, it was OK. Once I embraced that, the game started to come together a little more easily.

📌 Take Aways From Our Experience

  1. Have a good idea of what your game is about, and what will drive the player before you start making the game, or a least before you make any serious assets. Or at least don’t throw a fit when you have to redo everything
  2. Reference collecting is game development. Research, research, research! The more you expose yourself to, the more solid your references, the easier time you will have down the line.
  3. Stop yourself often and ask: “does this make sense? Did I do this because I want to, or because I should?” It’s amazing how many decisions you make with bias that are detrimental to the project!
  4. Consistency > realism. If it doesn’t look right, even if you’re technically correct, it will look wrong

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