BIOMASS: Postmortem


wow, what a weird phrase: postmortem.

anyway, with biomass's fleshy and earnest attempt at a gamejam entry finally beginning to decay, with the jam long since over, i figure it's time i spend a little bit of time going over the project itself and what was going through my head while i drank gallons of coffee over a weekend to bring it to life.

major spoilers ahead!

DAWN OF THE FIRST DAY: 72 HOURS REMAIN
the theme was announced around 11 AM my time, i think, and i immediately got to work deciding on an art style and getting the main assets together. the theme, of course, was "the more you use an action, the worse it will perform."
right away i set out to replicate the gameboy color's graphics, playing an OG gameboy cartridge: very specific, but the GBC allowed for two palettes to be drawn when playing a non-color game. one palette used for tiles and one for sprite elements: and this, of course, is reflected in the gameplay, with some liberties taken here and there.

the vision i had, for the game's concept in gameplay and graphics, was very clear from the very beginning: constantly decaying gear that you have to manage constantly against a constantly growing threat. this was the perfect opportunity to take a metroidvania concept and flip it over on its head: you don't grow stronger on your way to the final confrontation, but you're always at risk of becoming weaker as your gear takes more and more abuse from the monsters infesting the station. this was balanced by the cloning pod, which also provided an in-universe explanation for why/how you have all these extra lives. the cloning pod prints out a fresh clone, and when you run back to the spot you died, the rooms you've cleared stay cleared and the bosses remember their health from your last encounter.

after i got the main bits drawn up, including the level tiles, main character, four enemy types and a first boss, i immediately got to work perfecting the platforming engine, automating as much as i possibly could through the use of a few clever scripts i wrote. level tiles are automatically placed in the room based on the collision objects, enemies and room-generated items are all tracked on a per-room basis and the set-up for that was made to be as simple as possible. optimization and peak performance took a back-seat to what i knew would work and be simple to work with later on. this was critical as the hours rushed past.

by the end of that night, i had a few playable rooms leading to the first boss and most of the main mechanics completely finished.


DAWN OF THE SECOND DAY: 48 HOURS REMAIN
the second day was spent mapping the entire station's skeleton, and working on the second half of the station, leading to the mercenary ship, drawing the mercenary suit itself and making that boss fight.

i had originally intended for there to be simply one suit you use for the whole game, but after drawing the mercenary's heavy combat suit, it was too cool to leave the player without. managing the player's suits was something i had to rework a bit, since i now had two suits to keep track of, but it resulted in being able to infinitely expand the number and types of suits available to the player. sadly, i never took advantage of this, and stuck with the two suits you get in the game, but that's still a major upgrade the player gets - and for a game made in 72 hours, it's an impressive element to include.

this is also where i added in the pause/map screen and made sure the gamepad support was perfect.

the level tiles also got a total re-design, with unique assets for the station's hangar, mercenary ship and general lab area each. i had to also make sure i implemented and balanced the armor, weapon and cloning pod's status and resulting decay coming from their usage.  the weapon, constantly breaking down, was the hardest thing to balance. too little decay and it's hardly noticeable, too much and it's a frustrating slog where you're constantly on one round of ammo.

i implemented the item pickups to repair your gear as well as a suit recharger to power your hp back up.

DAWN OF THE FINAL DAY: 24 HOURS REMAIN
the third and final day, i was exhausted. nonetheless, i had to keep going. i drew up the level assets for the final area of the station and a pretty rough sketch of the final boss, and took a small break when my lovely fiancee brought me a fancy ramen bowl from the really good ramen place downtown. i cried into the broth because it was so damn good.

i couldn't afford to spend any more time on balancing the main stuff and i had a lot ahead of me: the final boss and ending are supposed to be the biggest, baddest culmination of everything in the game so far. 

the final boss turned out to be a scientist character who injects themselves with the eponymous biomass just to see what happens - their motives aren't especially clear, but they're obviously out of their mind and pose a huge threat. i drew a giant, nasty-looking mutant head for the guy and said, ''there we go, that's the boss.'' i was honestly tempted to just have the scientist turn into one of the generic zombies you've already killed several of, but i had enough time to at least do something neat, so i did.

there was only about 6 or 7 hours left when i was just about finished, and i had my fiancee and a friend of mine both test the game, and we noticed the suit recharger broke. that had to get axed, but the rest seemed to work!

i spent the final parts of the night after staying up until about 7 AM and submitting the game.

WHAT I LEARNED:
this is actually the second game jam i've tried to cram an entire metroidvania into, and this went infinitely better, considering that last game jam was 10 years ago and i've got way more experience now and know what to prioritize. i don't regret a single ounce of polish i put into the game, even if that time could've been spent on more features or levels. the game turned out to be noteworthy enough for attention by one of my favorite youtube channels and one of my favorite indie gaming blogs; and that was an enormous accomplishment for me that i haven't felt for a long time.

automating repetitive tasks that you could write a script for is absolutely necessary. invest a couple hours and save close to a hundred later on- you can always manually edit the small stuff later. sticking to simple graphics with a well-defined style is also critical to making sure you can stick to a timeline. you can see this in many of the other entries here: trying to cram in 3D assets or high-resolution 2D assets into a mere 72 hour time window is an extreme challenge and that time spent making those assets, or even finding suitable ones if you can't make your own, is always better spent fleshing out a good concept.

i spent more of the time working on my game than any of the other entries i know of - if anyone else worked relentlessly for close to 60 hours and only slept 6 hours each night in between, let me know. i put myself through hell to get this done, except it was more like DOOM 2016's depiction of hell, in that it was a lot of fun to rip and tear all the bugs that came up, and i came out of it far stronger than i was when i began.

that said, not everything went well: the difficulty of the game itself was a huge barrier for most players getting into it, and it's certainly not at all a new problem i've run into with the games i've made. this was at least partly due to the fact that players often missed the main mechanic of the game and didn't realize that they'd be cloned after death, maintaining their progress in the game. they'd reset the game to the very start when they died. this isn't because they're dumb! this is especially due to the fact they'd run to the spot where they first picked up the suit, and when it wasn't there, they assumed the game was broken. not a bad assumption to make for a game made in a mere 72 hours. of course, the suit was stored wherever they'd last died, but the player had know way of knowing this without opening the map/pause screen, which i failed to mention to the player during gameplay. that's kind of a major thing to gloss over.

when you start from the very beginning each time, you're likely going to have a tough time even getting past the first boss, since you're not able to whittle down its health with clone after clone. the further you get, the more likely you are to die to something.

even for players who played the game close to the right way, the game was a bit too tough: i watched one person burn up all of their weapon durability just shooting for fun at the walls, and then be left with one bullet for the bosses. they also didn't realize the importance of clearing rooms, and wound up resetting rooms back to full enemy spawn by crossing through it multiple times without killing all of the enemies first. i didn't really do a great job at explaining why that's a bad idea, but it does come back later in gameplay as extreme punishment when you've used up your weapon's strength and your armor strength by killing enemies that keep coming back.

for players who were willing to pay the patience demanded by the game and learn exactly how to get through it, even they were rewarded with one of the most bonkers, obtuse, and big-brained escape sequences for the final act: there's a giant pit that you drop down to get to the final area, that you cannot climb back up. when you kill the final boss, you're stuck in that area, with a countdown to your seemingly inevitable doom. no matter what you try to do, you cannot get out of that pit alive: and that's the key. you have to die, and then get re-cloned in the cloning lab.

of course, when you're in the cloning lab, you'll still be clueless about where to go unless you've been paying close attention to your surroundings. the mercenary ship that's docked is a little hard to tell as a spaceship, and even then, you're expected to figure out on your own that the station is about to blow and you need to take a ship to escape. it didn't seem like a huge logical leap to me,  but that's because i came up with it. as a player going into it blind, the game's asking a lot of you to figure it all out at once, with no warning, and if you fail: you don't get re-cloned. you don't start off back in the lab. there's no lab left, because the station explodes! it makes sense, but that doesn't make it fair, from a gameplay sense, to get all the way to the final boss, beat it, only to be left with no idea where to go to escape your demise.

overall, the biggest thing i need to work on is accessibility for my games: if players can't figure out the mechanics that make my game unique, they suffer as a result. if they figure it out, and it's still too difficult and punishing to get through, they lose out on a lot of the things i worked on later on to be a reward. overall i beg players in my games to have faith that their efforts are worth it, but it's often asking too much patience and persistence.

overall, i had way more fun than i expected with this game jam, and i'm looking forward to spending more time as part of that jam's community and applying what i've learned here to whatever i try in the future.

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Comments

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That was a very informative read. Thank you for sharing. Even with the difficulties you mentioned, the game is tightly designed and extremely well fleshed out for something created under such strict time constraints.

A couple of thoughts on the accessibility issues you mentioned... A bit of text or auto-opening the map could help to explain where to get your suit when you die.  Communicating the room clearing aspect could be done by locking the player in a room with enemies once or twice and not letting him leave until they are destroyed.  Even those first two scientist-zombies could block your path back to the cloning chamber when you return with the suit.

Regarding the ending, it's a great concept, and I think it's totally worth being obtuse about what the player needs to do and where he needs to go, especially since it fits so well with the theme of the game.  One way you might make this more obvious without hitting the player over the head is to more clearly communicate that the docked ship is just that - a docked ship - and not another part of the station.  A computer terminal outside the door could help to explain this overtly, or you could have the player run through a long docking tube before reaching the ship, which would make it stand out from the rest of the experience.

Anyway, just a couple of thoughts should you decide to revisit the game.  It's absolutely worth playing as it is, and the accessibility issues actually play into the game's charm, its sense of dread, and the overall feeling that the odds are stacked against you.  It's funny that the recharging stations didn't work out in the end, because this only helps to further support these themes.