Recently, I completed my second game project for MI 455 in the Game Development program in Michigan State. This game project was a bit of an occasion, however, as all of our games were also being entered in the Capital City Film Festival. As always, we were given a theme (this theme was "Mutation"), and a choice of genres (RPG, Adventure, and Vehicle Simulation).
We knew a little bit about the kinds of games our judges would like based on the games that won last year, so we did our best to profile what they might be looking for. We knew that they would likely be film critics, so we predicted that they were looking for something artsy and creative. Also - considering they probably wouldn't be hardcore gamers - we decided that we wanted to make a very simple game. This made our choice of genres very easy; we were pretty confident that an RPG would be very hard to do in the allotted time (and very hard for the judges to play and analyze), and an adventure game suffers from similar scope problems. So, that narrowed our choice of genres down substantially - we were making a vehicle game.
Then the question of the hour became what kind of vehicle game? Racing games are incredibly cliche, and it's really hard to have an open-mind when playing a racing game without comparing it to your personal favorite. This is where we had to get creative. I read a book on game design recently called Level Up by Scott Rogers, and he talks about the idea of "Un-fun". If you have a game idea that's fun, you should try stripping everything away that isn't fun. What you're left with is the fun essence of the game in it's purest form. Personally, the most impactful (and enjoyable) vehicle game that I've ever played is Grand Theft Auto. And what is fun about Grand Theft Auto? Literally, just hitting things.
There's something incredibly satisfying about destruction. It's the reason why games like "Rampage: Total Destruction" exist. It's the reason that there are tons of casual Grand Theft Auto players who do nothing but high-jack taxis and dodge the cops for hours without playing any of the game's missions. So that's what we wanted to make our game about - the primal human urge to crash cars into things (especially other cars). That was Rat Rage.
We then tied the "Mutation" theme into the aesthetic of the game - the characters in Rat Rage are heavily mutated rats who have gained enough intelligence to build cars made out of trash they found. Using these new pieces of technology, they have begun battling in a bumper-cars-style fashion to claim dominion over the sewers.
We had our pitch. Excessively simple game-play, satisfying game-feel, and a fun, creative aesthetic.
Knowing that we had a game that was sitting in a very reasonable scope, we started focusing on something that I had never done before - packaging. We knew that we were capable of creating a polished, fun experience with this game, so now we were working on delivering it as flexibly as possible. Doing this required making multiple levels, two different game-modes, graphics settings, multiplayer support, and support for a wide variety of controller types and operating systems. Putting these things together was an incredible challenge, but was necessary for making sure that our game could be enjoyed by any player.
The game was a really interesting challenge. I was largely the project-lead and Designer, but also did a lot of technical art for the game. I wrote a shader to simulate the water effect to act as the death-zone for the levels, as well as making the procedural materials for the maps (and some materials for our artist to use during texturing). I got to do a lot of VFX work as well, and decked out the car controllers with skid marks, exhaust, boost visuals, sparks on collisions, etc. This was a really exciting role for me, as it was my first time being a really dedicated "Technical Artist", but I really enjoyed all of the tasks. It's definitely a role and field of study that I will continue working to improve in for future projects. It also gave me a really interesting element of control as a designer. Being a technical artist is similar to being a back-seat driver for your artists - you have a lot of unspoken authority regarding how they do things simply based on how you write the tools that they use, which can help you as a designer to line up the art-styles and make sure that everything is done with consistent methods and standards.
However, this game certainly went through changes during development. Our initial goal was to create a Networked Multiplayer system to allow people to play online, which eventually was scrapped and replaced with AI. We felt that AI was a better feature to enable a larger population of players - not everyone has enough friends to play with them, even with online capabilities. AI ended up being a great call, because it allowed the local multiplayer games to be much more exciting (with up to 8 total players!), and fulfills the same goal of letting single players still enjoy the game. We also had a fair amount of struggling with the controller script, which did its best to recognize the controller type that was plugged in and assign the correct control scheme based on that. It also intelligently determined how many people could play the game based on how many controllers plugged in (ex: You couldn't play a 4 player game with only 1 controller plugged in).
In the end, we got a result we were incredibly happy with. Unfortunately, we didn't place in the contest, but I think that is more of an issue of not quite understanding what the judges were looking for. The game they ended up choosing was a very mobile-optimized endless runner game, whereas we tried to go with a AAA packaging for our game (making multiple play modes and focusing on variety). In fact, the review board made up of program alumni really enjoyed our game, and have suggested we publish it online to reach a wider player base. We are currently working to do that now.
As a designer, I am incredibly pleased with Rat Rage. It employed a design philosophy that I had never really used before, but I am incredibly happy with its results. Getting to the raw fun of a genre is something that I hope to do in my future games. Rat Rage is likely my proudest game, as it was well scoped, well designed, and - most importantly - well executed. I'm proud of my team, and I'm thrilled to have been a part of this project.