Scratching the surface
Nov 30, 2019 :: Jakub Wasilewski

Time for another Slipways update!

I'd like these posts to give you a real window into the game's development instead of just putting a change log online. I feel like this works out better for everybody: you get a more entertaining article to read that doesn't boil down to a bulleted list, while I get the benefit of collecting and writing my thoughts down, which is sometimes the best route to understanding them yourself.

For this reason, the first part of this update focuses much more on the "why" than the "what" of the happenings this month – especially since what I've focused on might seem a bit counter-intuitive.

The joys of selling things

Once you switch from a hobbyist mindset to trying to make a living out of games, many things in your thinking have to change. One of the biggest shifts is the different focus you need to have in early development. When you're a hobbyist, all you care about is whether you'll be able to make a working game and whether or not it's shaping up to be any good. These are still important for professionals, of course, but there are additional considerations. When distilled, these considerations sum up to one unpleasant truth. Making a good game is not enough for success – it also has to be marketable.

Earthlike planets showing the new procedural biomes available

One useful concept when thinking about this is something the ProIndieDev people call a game's surface. This term includes everything that could potentially convince a potential player to invest themselves into your game, whether by wanting to learn more about it or by actually buying it. Note that when defined as such, this purposefully excludes any deeper consideration to whether your game is any good! It is of course of great importance that your game is fun to play, deep, balanced, replayable. These things are paramount to what the players will ultimately think about your game. But when they first learn about it, it is all about whether it looks fun, deep and replayable.

As game developers, we often have only the briefest of moments to pique the player's interest: a quick glance at a thumbnail, a single sentence in a tooltip, a few seconds of footage shared on social media. This little snapshot of the game must be enough for the player to immediately find something worth digging deeper, since you often won't get another chance to grab their attention.

In my mind, the way to achieve this is through telling the player a story. Please mind, I don't mean the actual in-game plot, though this can be part of it. I mean the story we tell the player about the experience they are going to have. A story about how much fun they are going to have with the game, in which they star as the main character.

This is the point I'd like to get to: every screenshot and piece of footage of Slipways being something that gives you ideas about the game and lets your imagination run wild with the possible scenarios. Much of this work focuses necessarily on the visuals – a picture is worth a thousand words and the way to grab people's attention is through showing, not through telling. This means that I have to strike a balance between working on implementing my vision and working on things that will make other people share it.

A short bit of gameplay showing the new backgrounds, planets and UI

That's the theory.

Down in the trenches, achieving this goal meant a lot of work dedicated to replacing the remaining placeholder graphics. We now have a new, procedurally-generated nebula background that you can appreciate in the video above in all its parallaxy glory. The planet generator was upgraded to work with any number of biomes, which was used to implement grass and snow and replace some of the dull placeholder planets with beautiful, procedurally generated globes that beg to be colonized. There are also a lot of improvements on the core UI side, like replacing the placeholder colonization menu with a more handsome version that's much better at getting the point across.

The idea is for all this visual work to culminate in a trailer video, whose purpose will be to show what the game is all about in under two minutes. Having a trailer is worthwhile on its own, of course, but having it outlined already is also great as a source of direction for development: a guideline to which parts of the project really need more concepting or polish before they can stand on their own.

Gather your party before venturing forth

Another thing that was happening throughout this month is assembling a team to help deliver this vision to all of you. I'm happy to announce that this has now happened!

Johan Törnlund will be helping out with 2D art. We have already started fleshing out the first alien race to feature in Slipways, the Ba'qar – you can see the concepts above.

Sketches and a final concept for the Ba'qar race

Chris Donnelly is joining to handle the musical and sound design end of things. We're working through concepts for the music right now, and while we're not ready to have you a listen just yet, we're pretty close to nailing the right sound for the game.

Kacper Citko has signed up to help with 3D modeling, to beef up the game's visuals where my own 3D skills are lacking. We're starting off with some structure models (the laboratory being first, since it's the most important structure in-game), trying to find the right visual style that will work best.

Together, I'm sure we can deliver something awesome, with the production values to support the game's mechanical heart.

Everything worth doing is worth redoing

The increased focus on surface appeal doesn't mean there's nothing happening on the gameplay front!

The idea in this department is to get the game's engine to parity with the original PICO-8 version as quickly as possible, while still making sure it's extensible enough to handle the new things to come. Having the original gameplay reimplemented will give us a solid base for further experiments and iteration, while also letting us inch closer to a working demo.

Building and inventing with the first UI implementation

This month, I got as far as slotting in the support necessary for technologies and building structures, which means that most of the basic user interactions from the original are now implemented – even if much of it is using placeholder graphics for now.

The next step here will be porting all the technologies and structures from the original, along with a few remaining mechanics like happiness and scoring, so that the game can be finally played from start to finish in a manner close to how the PICO-8 version worked.

Month by month

That's it for November! For December, the focus stays on delivering a solid visual concept of the game, while still working towards porting all the game mechanics from the original PICO-8 version.

Originally, I promised these updates would be coming every two weeks, but it turns out harder than I anticipated. There is just so much work to do to get this thing off the ground that it's hard to carve time out to stop and describe them! I think we're gonna switch to a monthly schedule that will be much easier to keep – as a bonus, there will probably be more interesting stuff to talk about each update!

If you just can't wait for news on Slipways and my monthly summary is not enough for you, my Twitter account offers much quicker turnaround – so please consider following that if you'd like an almost-daily look into Slipways development.

Either way, don't be a stranger!

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