The Pilone Jam:
Knight of Cups was built from scratch in 14 hours, following user suggestions
On Monday, April 17th 2017 we streamed designing and developing a game from scratch for the first ever Pilone Consulting Game Jam For Charity. In just over 14 hours, Chris Germano (Director of Operations and Founder of Pilone Consulting) built a first-person action/adventure game following user suggestions. Prior to the live stream, a public survey was distributed across social networks asking for suggestions on genre, camera, and other categories related to creative direction.
Inspired one suggestion regarding tarot Cards, we looked for specific cards that inspired us and came across the Knight of Cups. There was something a little special about a knight that fights demons and death itself while clutching a goblet most likely filled with wine or mead. And knights are always on adventures, right? Conceptually, it just made sense.
It was an easy decision to make. Our game would be Knight of Cups: a first-person adventure game inspired by tarot cards.
Knight of Cups: Baby Steps
In a game jam, effective time management is a top priority. Thankfully, deciding on a concept and high-level design didn't take long at all. Being a one-man operation, finding appropriate resources for the project was important: no matter how comfortable you are in multimedia, you will rarely have time to simultaneously design and develop creative assets alongside the game itself. Being familiar with content licenses, we knew that assets with Creative Commons Zero would be the easiest for us to work with. Anything with attribution or limitations would put additional restrictions on our work and it would ultimately become a distraction. Between the Unity Asset Store and popular CC Zero marketplaces, we found a number of simple assets we could use alongside 3D primitives to create our characters and world.
Right off the bat, we developed two powerful mechanics: a native UI health bar and data-driven animations. Because the Knight of Cups is always holding a crystal goblet, we thought using a proportional amount of red wine in could effectively display player health without sacrificing immersion. Initially, we considered allowing the player to drink from the glass to replenish health (at the expense of sobriety), but ultimately this would have been too confusing. The second part, the core of the combat system, was a simple data-driven animation system for player and enemy attacks. Using arrays of positions and locations, unique and complex attack animations were easily prototyped in minutes, where traditional animation could have taken hours. We've made the relevant code public, in case anyone wants to use it for their game (link).
There's not much to say about the enemy design. Following the Death tarot card, we wanted to design a death-like character with a little bit of a twist. Instead of a human skull we used a bull skull, and instead of a cloak we experimented with the Unity fabric object. A fun little learning experience!
After spending arguably too much time on creating light, heavy, and ranged attacks for the player (as well as melee attacks for the enemies), we realized enemies needed the same versatility in their attacks or else combat would get pretty stale pretty quickly. While the final product isn't exactly what we had in mind, it proved our hypothesis enough to justify taking the time to make a ranged attack. This time, we kept it simple: a projectile with particle systems is spawned, fired in the direction of the player, and remains on the ground indefinitely as a little "landmine". This made tight encounters deadlier and added a bit of unforeseen deadliness to an otherwise tame attack. All in all, the enemy combat came out well, and we were ready to build the world the Knight of Cups inhabits.
Knight of Cups: Taking Shape
A significant portion of the live stream was dedicated to designing the level by hand with various terrain tools in Unity. Although we probably spent over an hour on the terrain alone, it wasn't quite polished to the point where we're completely satisfied looking back at it. While the overall shape, progression, and design are effective at guiding the player and opening up unique second-to-second experiences, there are two noteworthy choke points where the design falls apart (not to mention one significant exploit early on in the game).
If there's anything to learn, it's that paper prototyping is incredibly powerful and highly recommended, even outside of game jams. Design your levels with extreme precision, and always take a minute to step back and question your decisions. It only takes one miscalculation to ruin the flow of the level, and ultimately the player experience.
Knight of Cups: Playtesting and Polish
At this point the core mechanics and level were complete, and it came down to polish. We were lucky enough to find some fantastic models in the Unity Asset Store that really brought some areas to life. Again, too much time was taken with arbitrary details, but all in all it wasn't for nothing.
We also added hidden wine bottles that refill the player's cup (and their health). However, each bottle increases the player intoxication, affecting their walking. With more time we would polish this mechanic, as it's certainly disorienting in its current state but doesn't quite have the intended effect.
Knight of Cups: Mushroom Boys
The biggest mystery during the jam was the emergence of "Mushroom Boys." What started as a random discovery in the Unity Asset Store became a driving force in the game that took it to a new level of absurdity. Friendly NPCs were introduced to inject a unique variety of humorous dialogue and direction throughout the level. One Mushroom Boy acts as a blacksmith and replaces your sword if you accidentally threw it into an inaccessible area.
Knight of Cups: Post Mortem
Avoiding a traditional user interface was a goal from the start. Between the use of red wine representing player health and floating dialog to avoid classic text overlays, a small amount of immersion is generated in an otherwise ridiculous project.
As previously detailed, the data-driven animation system allowed for more rapid development and resulted in a simple, versatile system that can be utilized in any Unity 3D project.
Quickly choosing assets on the app store saved a lot of time during development as no asset creation outside of Unity was required. The unique variety of assets gave the game a unique aesthetic and fun appearance.
While only truly addressed near the end of development, bringing humor into the game added a lot to the player experience and gave Knight of Cups an extra bit of personality.
Finally, what worked the most during the 14 hour marathon was effective prioritization. By spending the most time on what the player experiences the most, the best parts of the game get the most attention. Combat is versatile and levels are detailed and full of variety.
Ultimately, Knight of Cups didn't reach the desired level of polish. Many elements needed a bit of additional time, whether to improve mechanics or fine tune user experiences. The end game experience was rushed, and the start screen, player death screen, and game over screen were all done extremely quickly.
An avoidable issue that was unfortunately left unaddressed was the ability to exploit object collisions to force the player through certain objects, bypassing area restrictions.
Player death was handled mostly as an afterthought and certain elements were left underdeveloped. Player death is sudden, jarring, and always unexpected. While the game over screen has a bit of polish, it's very rough around the edges.
The biggest disappointment with the final product was the end game content (or lack thereof). While the game was thought out, the ending was completely improvised. Working with limited energy and wanting to reuse resources, a lazily designed "boss fight" was developed with a victory screen as jarring and rough as the player death screen. The entire experience yells "Oh, that was it? I guess I won, cool".
On a (very) related note, cutting corners at the end of development unfortunately not only tarnished rushed areas, but that feeling spread out to other elements of the game that would have been otherwise satisfactory. If anything, it reinforces the fact that simplicity is key in time-sensitive environments, and developing a smaller polished game will ultimately be far more rewarding and enjoyable than a larger, occasionally rough around the edges, production.
Knight of Cups: Conclusion
If you made it this far, we salute you. Overall, building Knight of Cups was a greatly enjoyable and rewarding experience. The game is full of little hidden gems, but unfortunately contains scattered rough patches. The best part of it all was we raised some money for Extra Life in the process! If you'd like to donate to our page, it's not too late: please take a minute to visit our profile here.
We'll be making Knight of Cups available for pay-what-you-want download where all proceeds go to Extra Life. Available soon!