Comic Town Throwdown
Jacky To The Rescue. . .
Comic Town Throwdown is a 3D beat 'em up where the player takes on the role of an everyday construction worker turned vigilante. With only his trusty jackhammer to aid him, Jacky A.K.A. Justice Fist must save his city by fighting through hordes of evil henchman, recovering the all important plot device, and facing off against the insidious Repto-Bismol.
<- PS4 controller only
In Comic Town we were primarily attempting to parody comic book tropes. Things like the unlikely hero, the villains who don't take him seriously, the cheesy catch phrases, and the city in need of saving. We used this line of thinking to influence most of our design philosophy. Our goal was to make a game that had simple yet enjoyable combat, an engaging yet groan worthy narrative, and a world that felt right out of a comic book.
Additionally, we got the opportunity to bring our game to the Champlain Games Festival where it was well received!
My primary role was as level designer where I created an initial city block to showcase gameplay in our pitch, then created a new three part level once we were green lit. This meant that the bulk of my work was in blockouts and scripted events. I also concepted our core systems and combat mechanics but handed that off to Calvin once we ramped up production. I worked with the artists to create animation trees and export poses as well as implement and tweak lighting. Additionally, I held a lead designer, QA lead, and repository management role.This meant being in constant communication with all disciplines, helping lead meetings, distribute work, and solving merge conflicts alongside our lead programmer. Beyond this I conducted smoke, defect, and usability testing at least once a week at the Champlain QA lab. To visualize it a little better, this was our design pipeline (with mine being the purple one on the left):
Phase 1 - Demo
At the beginning we were given three weeks to create a demo of what we wanted our larger game to be. Having our concept nailed down, but only four members at this point, we didn't waste any time getting into engine. Right away I started working with our programmer to prototype mechanics and set up animation trees. I then blocked out a basic city square and park to give the artists an idea of what I was imagining. After that I worked with the artists to export animations and implement the art.
Top Down View
First Art & Lighting Pass
Phase 2 - Back to the Drawing Board
Once we were green lit, we onboarded 7 new members which meant a lot of restructuring as well as the challenge of redefining our scope. For me this meant nailing down the length of our experience and creating a level that fit the bill. Where my original level wasn't going to fit in with our new systems I ended up scrapping it and starting from scratch. As such, I started sketching out layouts in my notebook and then when I decided on one I took it into SketchUp and remade it.
City - High Rises
Park and Fountain
City - Residential
Phase 3 - Level Creation
This is where I made a huge mistake. I decided to skip doing a blockout and started creating the level with the art we already had. I was too focused on how it looked and not enough on how it played. The only upside was that with CGX (Champlain Games Festival) coming up just before our Alpha milestone we had a build with entirely functional gameplay that also looked great. Due to this we came in third for the audience vote which was a big morale boost for the team!
For the tutorial I went with a more hands off approach where I told the player the buttons and let them explore the rest on their own. The original plan was to run the player step by step through a different area teaching each control, but due to time and feedback I decided against it.
To guide the player I made heavy use of lighting and natural barriers (fences, road signs, and concrete blockers). Things that made the environment unique while still blocking the player, thus making it less of an annoyance.
As the player completes the tutorial they are rewarded with a comic. These can be found at every major plot point and help tell the player what's going on in the narrative. As the player exits the first one they are also left with a view of the entire city. This lets them know exactly where they are going from the beginning. I also made sure that from here they could see major landmarks from each part of the level i.e. the billboards in the distance, the fountain in the park, and some of the graffiti directly in front of them. I wanted the player to have a clear goal of what they were doing and how they needed to progress.
Once the player makes it through the first part of the level they arrive at the park. This is meant to be a change of pace just before the player reaches the rising action. There are less enemies and the lighting is dimmer here. This is meant to give the player a chance to breathe and look at what's around them. They can look up and see the skyscrapers showing what's ahead of them or make note of the graffiti scattered around giving additional narrative context and sometimes hinting at easter eggs.
After the player makes it through the park they are ambushed. This is meant to signal an uptick in the pacing and get the player to have a renewed sense of urgency. Also, note that the golden path has the player constantly going up in elevation. This helps provide a clear path forward and allows them to make use of a new system; knocking over billboards.
To teach this I started off by hinting at its existence i.e. showing a billboard knocked down as a pathway shortly before the player is asked to do it themselves. Then to indicate to the player what to do I put up a piece of graffiti that showed the player what to do, but had to switch it to show a button prompt as testers were having difficulty.
As the player makes it to the final area, Repto-Bismol jumps out of nowhere and fences begin to rise as the music gets louder. It's time for the finale; a cage match to the death.
Making this into a cage match was actually never intended, it came about because our lead programmer said he needed something for Repto to crash into while testing. As the game is set in a wacky fantasy world and makes use of a heavily rock soundtrack I figured this would fit right in and help confine the player throughout the duration of the boss fight. It was only meant as a temporary measure but the testers and the team liked it enough that it made the final cut.
-If your level can't be adapted to new systems or isn't fitting the intent you have to cut it. While it can be painful, the game will be better off for it
-Adding art into the level too early makes it difficult to properly iterate
-Risk management is critical; this project was where a lot of us learned our limits and just how important it is to evaluate scope on a consistent basis
-Make sure everyone on the team is comfortable with version control otherwise all hell will break loose
-Showcasing everyone's progress on a weekly basis helps boost morale and accountability