The making of StarTrail

I hear this all the time from people (who don’t make games): “I’ve got a great story for a game!”. This supposes that the story (or theme or fiction, as you will) is central to a video game. It’s usually not. In most Agon/Alea dominant games the fiction of the game world is secondary to the gameplay and strong, interesting mechanics.

 

The first name we thought up for StarTrail was actually StarMiner. Actually, it was Shape Shifter, which was kind of a working title. Once we saw that the prototype was reasonably compelling, we started thinking of the fiction/game world. This was important because we had to start creating art assets. For 2D art, I managed to rope in Sanjay, who used to work with me at Gameloft (and still did!) I didn’t know him well back then, and I remembered that he was the guy always looking at pictures of semi-naked women on the Internet. It turns out that was a study of female anatomy – he’s not like that at all.

In case you missed it, here’s the release trailer of StarTrail:

 

In this post, I will try to reflect upon a few design choices that were made while making the game.

 

 

Here’s a mockup of the screen that I made during the Pre-production:

Screen_mockup

And here’s a screenshot from the actual finished game:

2012-10-28 11.19.09

To illustrate the iterative design process, I’m going to focus on one example where we changed our Power-Up system during early production. In the mockup screen above, you will see a HUD to the right with “Power UP” on top, with a vertical series of symbols. This was the initial system of activating the Power-Up (during the Power-Up, the spaceship would speed up to twice the speed and be able to pick up all objects irrespective of shape or color).

This system required the player to look at the sequence of objects and colors indicated on the HUD and pick up the exact same sequence to activate the Power-Up. As soon as one object in the sequence was picked up, it would be greyed out indicating the remaining ones that were needed to complete the sequence. If the player picked up anything out of sequence, the sequence would reset.

This did not work, for reasons that now seem obvious. Playing the game (well) required the player to keep her eyes glued to the scene, picking up objects that got larger with time. There was not even a split second to spare, to divert one’s eyes to another part of the screen and actually memorize a sequence of objects and colors. Doing so meant….well, death. During play-testing, players simply ignored the bar to the right and continued picking up objects in sequence. The Power-Up had become an unused accessory.

Here’s an early in-game screenshot with the “Power-Up Combo” visible to the right. The left sequence shows the current sequence of objects picked up.

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Once I realized that this was not working well (at all!!), I needed to come up with an alternative way to activate the Power-Up without taking ones eyes off the screen. After some brainstorming with the team, I figured that one way would be to make a particular object the ‘fuel’ for the Power-Up, and that would logically be the ‘Energy Spheres’. We implemented the present system of charging up the Power Bar using the energy spheres, and that worked quite well!!

Powerup full

Above, the Power-Up bar is ‘full’ and the round button at the bottom is ‘flashing’, inviting the player to tap it and unleash the Power Up.

I wanted some degree of depth and replay ability to the game, and as that’s not easy to achieve in an endless runner (or flyer!). This was done by:

1. The PowerUp, which is activated by filling the PowerUp bar, which in turn needs energy spheres.

2. An upgrade purchase system for the spaceship that rewards extended play…

Upgrade system

3. A Pickup that temporarily enhances the abilities/performance of the spaceship….

I introduced a ‘Mystery Box’ that spawned every 1200 points or so, which gave the player some or the other temporary ability like a shield, or instant PowerUp.

We also went through a few iterations of our HUD. I now knew that the player would almost never look away from the trail of objects on the screen towards another element like the score or fuel gauge. I therefore decided to group together as much information as possible in one place-the top-right hand corner of the screen. Here are some options that we were offered by Sanjay:

  HUD options

HUD option

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