So, when I started 1GAM, I knew I wanted to use it both as an opportunity to learn new development tools and a way to force myself to get off the endless treadmill of prototyping and nitpicking that leads to never actually producing a finished product. I won my first NaNoWriMo this past year, so I figured 1GAM would be a good motivator as well.
My first 1GAM project started off as just a sandbox project in Unity where I was experimenting with getting my development tools and asset pipeline in order and sorting out what exactly I wanted to try to do. Before I realized what was happening, my UnityPathfindingSandbox project started to pick up a theme, and a simple gameplay mechanic. It snuck up on me so quickly, I didn't see it coming at all.
I did not expect that my first arguably "finished" game in 17 years would be a reworking of one of the most hated and villified video games in history.
Poor, Unloved E.T.
When I was a kid, we had an Atari 2600, and among our games was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Looking back, I rather enjoyed playing E.T. at the time, so when I was older and learned the story of this game, how it was so well known for being terrible, horrible, unplayably bad, almost single-handedly destroying the home video game market of its time, I was puzzled as to where this disconnect could have come from. I know there was more to it than just the gameplay, with the ridiculous over-production of the cartridge and unrealistic sales expectations and all that, but the game itself was infamous for being terrible. Did I miss something, or did everyone else? Was my judgment terribly flawed somehow, or was I just young and forgiving then?
I decided to embrace this as my project for this month - analyze the theme, structure, and mechanics of E.T. 2600, decide what had appealed to me as a kid and what I'd just let slide at the time, and see if the underlying mechanics could be rebuilt as something more interesting and fun. It also allowed me an excuse to do the one thing I probably enjoy more than anything else - drastically over-analyzing something entirely unimportant.
I'll assume from this point on at least a passing familiarity with E.T. as a film and as a game. First, I advance the radical notion that E.T. 2600 is, in fact, not the worst game of all time, or even a particularly bad game for its time, and achieves its goals in some respects.
What Didn't Work?
Adapting What Worked
So with all that in mind, I started thinking about how to incorporate some form of the parts that worked, while either eliminating or replacing the parts that didn't, adding some niceties of modern games, and seeing what I ended up with.
Changing What Didn't Work
- The idea of "zones" was abandoned entirely. All abilities can be used anywhere, and the limitation comes from the fact that the abilities consume energy and two of them, the cloak and enhanced radar, must be found before being available.
- Each piece of equipment gets its own UI widget indicating its state, and a keybind is displayed for each so the player can enable or disable them individually at will.
- A message log was also added, which displays tutorial messages early in the game and displays notifications to help explain events taking place.
- The separate step of eating candy is eliminated. The analogues in this game, energy crystals, are immediately converted to energy on pickup as they serve no other purpose.
- Penalty for missteps - Humans are now numerous and will swarm a player who goes the wrong way, draining energy.
- Random locations for phone pieces - Equipment is now salvaged from the impact sites of debris crashing down randomly around the area.
- Hiding place - Pits in ET 2600 could help the player evade a human. I added two natural areas, a forest in the northwest and a wetland in the southeast, which serve as cover and make the player hard for the humans to track.
- Finished. This was goal #1 for nitpicky perfectionist me - use programmer art and placeholders where needed, let things be simple, and get a finished game, with gameplay and win and lose conditions and generally in a playable state, done in a month. The last game I got to a finished state was one I made in high school. Hurray, 1GAM.
- Learned a ton about Unity and got my feet wet with some Mecanim-compatible rigging.
- I think the interface works, though it could use polish. Unity's GUI system is generally not well liked for anything complex and has an official replacement in the pipeline, so I didn't want to spend too much time learning this version, but what's there is functional and hopefully fairly straightforward. Certainly a step up from the "zones" method.
- Game play is a lot smoother without the interruption of the pits.
- In general, gameplay is faster and has more of a sense of urgency than the original. Everything you need is out in the open, and once the game has run for a bit there's a ridiculous number of natives to avoid, and getting swarmed by a big pack can change your outcome in a hurry.
- I'm pretty sure at this point that at least half of ET 2600's reputation is unearned. It has some solid game play mechanics, and in some ways it was way ahead of many games of its time.
- SimplePath - I tried out several pathfinding solutions, and most of them were intensely frustrating when actually used. I've implemented A* with path simplification and smoothing myself in a Java/LWJGL game engine before, so I know how it should work, and I was hoping to skip that step during 1GAM since re-implementing A* didn't feel like a productive or interesting use of my limited dev time this month. SimplePath is fantastic, the developer knows what he's talking about, and he's responsive to questions and concerns on the Unity forums. Totally worth it.
- Still not a lot of game here. Once you know the tricks you can complete a game in a few minutes, depending on your luck with equipment recovery. It could be fleshed out with more equipment options, more areas, and a more elaborate multi-stage progression, but again, 1GAM - get it wrapped up and done.
- There's actually less interaction with the humans in X.T. than in ET 2600, because there's no friendly native like Elliot. I had some preliminary work there but it just wasn't going to happen in this time frame.
- At its core, this is still basically a game of Run Away. Goals appear on the field, whether equipment or energy or the rescue site, and you run between those and the safe zones while a mob tries to catch you and drain your energy. Not sure there's a lot of longevity in this, no matter how much you dress it up - it's like Pac-Man with no power pills, so you're always running from the ghosts.
So in summary, like I said before, here's me spending a lot of time thinking too much about unimportant things. Enough with talky, make with the gamey.