by Jonathan Port. Continued from Part 4.
The game has come a very long way since the early build on the iOS platform when I first showed the game to Huey Games in a noisy and dimly lit pub meet up for indie game developers. Since that time, we have all shared the same vision for where we wanted to take the game and how we wanted it to turn out. From a design point of view there have been few, if any, major roadblocks. The game has mainly progressed the way we planned. Any issues we may have come across during development have by and large been solved without too much fuss or hair pulling. We’re a small team and I think, for this game at least, that has worked to our benefit. There have been no great committees or drawn out planning meetings. We’ve stuck to our design, followed through on our philosophy and solved issues with relative speed as they have come along. There have been times where something in the game may not have quite clicked straight away and we couldn’t put our finger on why. More often than not the evolution of the game itself has presented the solution. An important part of problem solving has been taking the game out and getting people to actually play it. This has been an ongoing process during most of the game’s development.
Hyper Sentinel has been to many game shows and conventions across the UK, Europe and the globe, including Gamescom, EGX, Play Expo and many Retro gaming events. These events are, of course, a great way to get the game known and recognised by a wider audience. It’s a real pleasure to see your game advertised on a big banner, in the same hall as well known AAA games from major platform holders. Having people who have just played on the latest Mario or Call of Duty, sit down to play your game is a real treat – it’s hard work to get them there – but once you do, it’s a thrill. Once you’ve been to a few shows with your game, you start to learn that there is a much more important reason to have your game on display and available for all to play: feedback.
When you’re making a game, you get very close to it. You understand the mechanics without thought, you understand the objectives without requiring prompts, and having played it so much you are totally adept with how it controls. These are tools a person doesn’t have when first sitting down with your game. When you first show your game, it’s a proud time and you are eager to explain how it works and show off all the great things it can do. You are keen to hang on to the player’s shoulder and help them out immediately, should they get stuck in any way. You learn over time that these are the things you shouldn’t be doing. In the first few shows, even if you know this golden rule, you’ll find you need to be on hand to help. This is how you find out how well you have executed your design.
For Hyper Sentinel there were many small snags and areas of the game that weren’t immediately intuitive during its early showings. These included (but were not limited to) game objectives, game controls, play area, and misinterpretation of what is and what isn’t an enemy in the game. At each show we would all make our own notes and then afterwards combine them on to a Trello board of issues to be addressed. This is an ongoing process, each and every show, and is critical! Sometimes it would take a few showings for us to successfully address something that we could see players were struggling to understand. Most of the time the adjustments required are actually very small, it may be just a single sound effect or a change in colour that needs addressing.
If you have been following along with the Kickstarter video diary for the game you might even be able to pick out some of these adjustments. There have been many and most have gone into the game without fanfare. You won’t notice them now when you play the game and that’s really the point! As the shows went by, the aim, as I saw it, was to become less and less involved with having to explain the game and how to play it. In the last couple of shows I think we got to the point where we could hand the controller over and say nothing. Only then did we feel confident that the game was ready to ship.
I remember driving back from one of the Insomnia events at the NEC in Birmingham. One guy had come back to play Hyper Sentinel time and again, and he had figured out a way to exploit the score system! Jonathan and I discussed the issue on the motorway heading back to Manchester and basically thrashed out a re-design for what became the final score system, in the space of a car journey.
These kinds of conversations are my favourite moments in any game development project – when you are on completely the same wavelength with another developer, the solution simply emerges organically until everything clicks. This happened a great deal working on Hyper Sentinel with Jonathan Port and John Ogden, both of whom are without a doubt amongst the most talented developers that I have had the privilege of working with.
As I’ve mentioned, the driving force behind our game has always been Neo Retro; the philosophy of making a game that is imagined in a retro style, but that plays in the modern world. I could point out many examples that highlight this idea at work: pulsating Fractures soundtracks, supersonic speed in 4K at 60fps, layers of particle effects and alpha trails, and even the retro graphics modes using modern shader techniques to toggle between them at an instant. But perhaps one of the most interesting examples of our Neo Retro approach has been our work on the Mixer Mode. Here is a cutting-edge technology (and believe me when I say we’ve really pushed this) gelled together with our core retro-styled gameplay.
Multiplayer has always been something that we’ve thought about, but as a small team with tight deadlines it hasn’t been top of our priority lists. But with the delay we had to make for a 2018 release, it did free up a little more of my time. So, while John Ogden was busy burning the midnight oil to get the game optimised perfectly for all the launch platforms, I got involved with our Mixer project.
Rob had obviously been keeping his eye on the technology and had drawn up, what turned out to be an ingenious design concept for how Hyper Sentinel could work with Mixer. A mock-up of the concept was first put together by John while I was finishing some of the final elements of the main game. The concept and design received such a great response that I was soon working on fleshing out the prototype in full. It was a bit of a whirlwind of game development as we were working on a roughly ten-day work around between content demonstrations. I started out with getting a solid code base for the back end (a term used for the non-visual ‘behind the scenes’ parts of the game code) in place. I knew this needed to be done first so that it could be afforded proper time; if this wasn’t done right, the rest of the game mode could fall like a house of cards.
Thankfully it fit together well, and after the first week or so, I had a working set of code that implemented the design for both the attacker and defender parameters of the game, which included the code that calculated cooldowns, costings, click-counts and player scalability. Rob and John demonstrated the game behind closed doors and were getting an excited response. Next up I worked on ‘object tagging’ for the game. I developed a way that from an incoming Mixer message I could gather various attributes such as player gamer tag, which team the players were on etc., and then put them together into a virtual tag that I could attach to any object in the game. For example, if a player launched an Asteroid attack, I could attach the ‘tag’ to the asteroid so that when it hit the player I had the metadata that I needed to record away for each team. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but at this point it struck us that we could then show a name label on screen when a successful hit was made. Other participants in the game would then be encouraged to get their name on screen too! The whole design concept worked really well and came together surprisingly quickly considering this was brand new technology for all involved. Thinking back now I’m still surprised how quickly and solidly that code was made!
The origin of Mixer mode is an interesting story. My Dad and I had attended an Xbox event, which was primarily about publishing on Xbox and the best ways to approach marketing. Mixer was a new area of focus, so they had it as part of their marketing presentation. At first, I couldn’t see a way of applying it to Hyper Sentinel, but gradually an outline of the idea emerged in my mind as I sat there in the audience.
Later, at the Develop conference in Brighton, I had a meeting with a representative from ID@Xbox to run through our marketing plan. I had slotted a slide for the Mixer mode idea into the plan as potential DLC:
This became a focal point for our discussions – they thought it was a really cool and unique idea. We agreed there and then for a follow up meeting with another Microsoft representative at Gamescom.
My trip to Gamescom was challenging to say the least, as readers of the Huey Games blog will know (see https://huey.games/2017/09/15/gamescom-a-tale-of-triumph-disaster/). However, the Microsoft meeting went brilliantly, and I have a feeling I will forever remember Gamescom 2017 as one of the most important events for Huey Game as a result.
As everything was coming together, the idea came about that we could make this game mode different still. We already had Survival mode fully implemented in the game, and the Mixer mode was originally considered as an online version of that mode. However, as we were thinking about game balance the idea came about that we could play it a little differently. We decided the main game player would start with a fixed score, which would increase as she or he evaded the enemies of the attacking side. To balance this out, players would lose score if they shot down any enemies. As the intensity of the level builds, the player must quickly decide whether to evade (leaving the enemies on screen) or lose some score, but get some breathing space.
Next we needed to consider the defending side, the idea being that defenders could give the player energy or Powerdroids that could be used against the enemies without affecting the player’s score. Cooldown periods would be set so that the defenders needed to be strategic on when they launched the power ups. It was set up to play like a game of cat and mouse between the attackers and defenders. To tie it all together, I coded in scoreboard panels during the game so that each side could see how many hits and attempts they had made and individual players could see the best-performing people on their side (attacker or defenders). At the end of the game we thought it would be cool to have a sliding swingometer that would show the winning side. The whole concept is a thoroughly modern design and it just slotted straight into the game code with little disruption to the main game.
I guess it’s amazing how these crazy ideas sometimes work out. Come to think of it, that just about sums up Hyper Sentinel from my point of view. A crazy dream that worked out!