September 7, 2013 11:40 PM | John Polson
"Our game sends you, with a jetpack, to save these poor cleaners from a horrible death."
[Last month's Screenshot Daily looked at larger game projects. This week, I'm going to look at how developers tackle art in games made in tight schedules. Today we chat with Dominique 'dom2d' Ferland about browser-based Every 10 Seconds a Window Washer Falls to his Death made for Ludum Dare 27.]
How many jams have you done? What lessons have you learned in creating art for smaller, quicker games?
So far, I've participated in nine jams, and the tenth one is happening in two weeks with Indie Speed Run. I've done Global Game Jam, Ludum Dare, Indie Speed Run and the best of them all, ToJam (Toronto Game Jam). The biggest lesson I've learned was at my first ToJam with Les CollÃ©giennes (Devine Lu Linvega, Renaud BÃ©dard, and Henk Boom), during which we made Diluvium. In our game idea, we wanted players to summon any existing animal by typing its name, then have battles with other summoned animals.
At first, the idea seemed impossible for a 3-day jam - then I discovered the magic of taking shortcuts through style. Instead of drawing full animals, we'd only summon squarish animal heads. Instead of drawing them full color, I'd only use black and white, which would also let us use the same picture for multiple animals. It saved us a lot of time and in the end, gave our game an original look that seemed to please players (and media!). Since then, in any game project I work on, I always look for stylistic choices that also save us time and energy and it usually leads to fresh new visuals.
The other trick I've learned from Les CollÃ©giennes is to aim for a first playable as early as possible. At Global Game Jam 2012, before I became part of their team, Renaud and Devine created Volkenessen, a refreshing take on the fighting game. After less than 24 hours, they had a solid playable version that was fun and pretty much complete, so they took the rest of the week-end to tweak the controls and the physics, add visual effects, warping sound effects and epic music. This pass of polish turned the simple gameplay into a game jam masterpiece.
So for Window Washers, Fernando and I created a solid playable version with all the core mechanics in the first 16 hours. I'll give him most of the credit though, that man is a machine! When I woke up on Saturday morning, we had jetpack controls, kicking birds, repairing ropes, falling dudes, almost everything. We played it for a while, adjusted our plans for the rest of the week-end, then Fernando went to bed while I was working on the essential art assets. We spent a lot of time tweaking the main mechanics, playtested the game with a couple friends, added a second mode and animated just enough of the art to make the game feel complete, all thanks to a very early first playable.
Any special techniques or tools used in each?
I'm pretty set on using Photoshop for everything, drawing assets digitally with my Wacom tablet. After discussing the game mechanics and our plan for the week-end, I doodle designs in a sketchbook until we're happy with them and know that we can do the art in a short time, then jump right into Photoshop to create assets quickly. It's usually best if programmers use placeholder assets for a while so there's no bottleneck situation.
I even use Photoshop's limited animation tools to animate, but I'm not sure I would recommend it - it's got a lot of weird little quirks and is not very versatile. I should start using Flash more, but I find it tedious to structure files and export assets from it for now.
What is the art style and influence in this particular game?
My main inspiration was classic Game & Watch games from the 80's, like Fire or Cement Factory. Taking this approach would let me have very simple animation, as those old games usually had 2 frames per character, and a limited color palette, which is easier to manage during a jam. At first, I targeted a Game & Watch color scheme, but switched to greyscale and primary colors to make gameplay clearer. I regret losing the reference to Nintendo's early portable games a little bit.
Character design evolved from Game & Watch characters to its current cartoony style when I started digitally illustrating them. I wanted the window washers to show a lot of emotion, especially as they were falling, to make their fall more dramatic for the player, so the black-only designs seemed too simple. I was also afraid of having the washers and the hero be too similar, since they would overlap a lot during gameplay, so I assigned a color to each of them, gave a big hat to the cleaners and a big rocket jetpack to the hero. At some point I decided to create a female hero too, and Fernando made the game pick male or female at random every round.
What have you learned so far in doing your own art vs doing it for someone else?
Whenever I work on my own games, I get to take more risks, try weird styles, use new color schemes, because nothing's cemented in other people's mind. If a client expects a specific style, by his own demand or because I suggested it in pre-production, it's a lot harder to diverge into different, new, inventive directions. There's also less of a time constraint, and less expectations of success, whenever I do my own art, so I get to do more iteration. I'm not afraid of failure, especially during a jam, so I let myself try new things as much as I can.
And you based your game on a true story?
I first learned about the unbelievable death tolls in the skyscraper window cleaning field in an article by a very reputable news source. I was discussing game ideas for Ludum Dare 27 with Fernando Serboncini, my partner on Every 10 Seconds a Window Washer falls to his Death, looking for anything related to the jam's theme, "10 Seconds". After reading the article, the crazy picture of window washers constantly falling off to their death formed in my mind, and I'm sorry to say, but Fernando and I thought it was hilarious! As soon as the word jetpack was mentioned, we were set on making a game about saving the poor window washers from hitting the pavement.
Any recent jam games catch your eye?
I'm a big fan local multiplayer games, so I fell in love with Juicy Beast's Toronto Game Jam entry, Toto Temple.
Their art is always incredible, and I'm sure you'll agree if you've played Knightmare Tower or Burrito Bison. Everything's just so colorful, clear, and just oozes with personality and joy, which fits a local multiplayer brawl perfectly.
As for Ludum Dare games, I've been super impressed with the quality of the pixel art in games like Clockwork Cat,
along with previously mentioned TimeSpunkers, Proletarian Ninja X, The Duelists and others. Since I'm pretty new to the art of the pixel, I have huge respect to artists who manage to create a beautiful pixel style in a week-end!