It all started with a one-level prototype almost two years ago. We built it out using basic 3D assets with the idea that it would be a first person puzzle platformer in the ilk of Portal or Swapper or Talos principle (all amazing games we love). The primary gameplay mechanic was there from the beginning: you’re a time traveler who can swap between two time periods and you solve puzzles based around causal changes you make in the past or future. But, as play testing showed, the prototype itself needed a lot of work before it was ready for players.
First off we needed a way to simplify the game so that we could actually finish it with a 2-person team. So we made the hard decision to move from 1st person to 3rd person sidescroller. It’s just a lot easier to make assets when you only need to build a set instead of a fully articulated world. But it actually ended up improving our initial gameplay concept for a number of reasons:
1) precision platforming usually works better when you can see your player and where his feet are. That’s why the vast majority of platformers are 3rd person.
2) restricting movement to two dimensions actually opened up more puzzle ideas that weren’t easily identifiable in 3D.
3) the game is a ton easier to grok when you have a third person view. This is especially true when you’re working through complex multi-part puzzles that really benefit from a bird’s-eye view. And the fact that every level has two versions, past and future, makes the bird’s-eye view even more desirable.
Even though the sidescroller decision was pragmatic, it ended up helping gameplay immensely. So we threw away prototype #1 and moved onto #2. The next piece to tackle in making prototype #2 was the difficulty of our gameplay concept. We greatly underestimated how challenging our first puzzle design was. We initially thought it could be one of the first levels you encounter, but after a lot of testing we found it needed to be placed almost halfway through the game. Before that puzzle we had to introduce a lot of “teaching levels,” which are really just easier levels with fewer moving parts (see this link for a great analysis of this technique https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2013/09/20/untold-riches-an-analysis-of-portals-expressive-level-design/ ), wherein the player learns time-travel and causality in the context of our game. We started with one tutorial puzzle, hoping that would help the learning curve. By the end, we added a dozen more at various difficulties before players truly understood the mechanic.
Our final prototype #2 was an hour-long game that most players could finish. And more importantly, they had fun doing it! At that point, we decided we could make a full game out of this kernel of an idea and began planning out the story and art. Which will be topics for a next post…