Editor’s Note: When a developer shares a developer diary with us, the term “diary” is usually something of a misnomer. Matthew Hall, the mind behind the one man studio KlickTock, decided to take the word literally – and we couldn’t be more delighted that he did. What follows is a fantastic journal showcasing Matthew’s day-by-day thoughts and experiences over the last two months as he prepared his upcoming mobile game ZONR for release. It’s a rare window into the creative process as it happens, and we sincerely thank Matthew for giving us the opportunity to share it with our readers.
1st August, 2011
About 6 months ago, at a friend’s party, an idea popped into my head. A standard grid filled with icons, but with the aim is to find the largest contiguous connected list of shapes. Several games have tried this sort of concept before. Ancient Quest of Saqqarah and Line-Up. But – what if I could made it FAST?
I tapped out the idea onto on my phone, and later copied it into in my book of ideas, then promptly forgot about it until this week. I’ve been improving my game engine over the last couple of months, trying to reduce the amount of time I spend to get it out on the App Store. It’s been so long since my last release I wanted to find a concept I can prototype and release as soon as I could.
So how quickly can I develop this game?
2nd August, 2011
With help from Google Translate I decided on a name for the game: Zona! And, in just 24 hours, I’ve been able to construct a working prototype of the game. My original idea was to collapse the grid after each contiguous zone was found, but it make the game way too slow. Instead I chose to just whip away the grid and present another.
Playing the game really makes the mind work hard. Trying to do this task rapidly is almost fatiguing and requires quite a lot of concentration. But it definitely passes the fun test. The game is REALLY ugly though.
3rd August, 2011
The first few days of a game always seem like the most productive; this project is no exception. With a large game board, the frame rate was choppy. So I’m using a new “render to texture” routine to draw the game board just once.
I was never an artist in my work-for-hire gaming career. I learnt a lot during the making of Little Things, and these days I’m fascinated by modern illustration. One of my favourite artists is Serge Seidlitz and I’ve been referring to his work a lot today. With this game I want to make it look like a living illustration. I want to make a puzzle game you wouldn’t be afraid to wear on a t-shirt.
Went a long way toward this lofty goal today. Instead of a rigid game board, I give it a slight “tilt” each frame to make it feel more organic. I spent a lot of time selecting an initial palette and constructing the board giving it a 3D look. Very happy so far and I think this could look great as I spend more time on it. Try to make it look hand drawn.
Time estimate: I think I can get the game completed in just 4 weeks. Fingers crossed!
5th August, 2011
Documentation is a funny thing. Something that was browbeaten into me at my old job was “documents documents documents”. And for the longest time I believed it. Now that I’m free, my game design process relies on only a handful of documents.
First (for the designer/producer in me), I keep a large list of things called TO DO but this changes every single day. Items are added, modified and deleted. As they’re completed – they get moved to the bottom and dated, so I can look back and feel like I’ve accomplished something.
Secondly (as a programmer), I keep is I always leave good comments in my code, and fairly detailed notes whenever I check in my work in Subversion. My notes are written like diary entries and they’re useful for figuring out later WHY I’ve done something.
Thirdly (as an artist), I draw on sheets of A4 whenever I’m trying to figure out an idea visually. These can be for look, or scribbles trying to clarify a thought, or flow-charting. Once I’ve solved my problem, I pop it in a little plastic pocket.
7th August, 2011
When I wrote Super Search 60, I was obsessed with game feel. I wanted it to feel as satisfying as popping bubble wrap. (Which is why the pieces make a “pop” sound when you touch them). I spent much of today working on a “disintegration” special effect. Touch the correct zone and the little squares on the board break off and fly away. Touch an incorrect zone and the board shakes violently. Game feel is especially important for a touch screen game. Though there’s no sound, I think the time I put into this effect was well spent.
10th August, 2011
I played a lot of casual games before I started KlickTock and I was always drawn to games with polished transitions. With Little Things I wanted to make a game that NEVER faded to a black screen. It took a lot of time, but it’s something I’m very proud of; even if most people wouldn’t ever notice. I expanded my engine to have a Photoshop-like “layers” system. Polishing transitions is painstaking work but the results are worth it.
Spent some time with the A4 to figure out the transitions for this game. This work is always ongoing, but it’s best to try to work it in from the start of the development. Adding transitions at the end the end of a project always causes headaches.
12th August 2011
My previous games required strong reading comprehension to enjoy, putting it out of reach of younger children and also those for whom english is not their first language. Doodle Find was eventually translated into many languages by fans of the game (thank you everyone!). But I want to make a “finding” game, but without any text at all. Angry Birds’ approach is a big influence.
But how to explain the concept of the game without any words? Today I put together a special tutorial at the start of each game. The game starts with small grids with areas clearly bigger than the rest. Trial and error will hopefully let the player understand the rules. The game timer starts only once these tutorial boards have been completed.
13th August 2011
Good news! Zona has passed the “baby” test. My 2 year old daughter managed to figure out how to play. That’s a pretty good sign my tutorial is working.
22nd August 2011
SCOPE CREEP: you may not have heard this game development term before. What it means is that when a game design grows beyond the initial specifications. It’s something that keeps work-for-hire producers up at night, but I’m just a one-man-band now, so good ideas can be
integrated without fear of being yelled at!
I’ve been wrestling with “progression”, making people want to play beyond just achieving a high score. Also I feel the game is looking a little samey. While in the shower (all good ideas are born in the shower), I came up with the idea for multiple “themes” which can be accessed from the title screen with a quick flick of the finger. It’s going to add quite a bit of time to the title as I’m going to have to change the way I do the rendering and put together a special class which is able to manage all of the palette and background changes. But I think it will make the difference between a good game and a great one. It’s going to blow out the development beyond my 4 week guess, so I’d better get to work!
26th August 2011
All the work for allowing the theme switching has been completed, and I’ve also prepared a new “Ink Spot” theme. It’s much harder to play without colours on the board, so I’ll add in a special achievement for those who are able to get high scores playing this unusual theme.
Had another good idea today. The GAME OVER screen should be rewarding, especially when I force players to look at it every 90 seconds. I came up with the idea of destroying the game board at the end of the game to reveal the score displayed underneath.
At one point during the development of this I was able to play the game with numbers written all over the board. Made it devilishly difficult to play, but was a very cool accident.
1st September 2011
An important part of making games is playing games! I always try to take time off from my work to try to play everything and keep up on Neogaf and other gaming websites. FEZ is an outstanding looking game that I’ve been looking foward to playing for quite a while now. Today, Polytron published a “long screenshot” of their game. I was blown away by not only the visuals, but also the soundtrack. I quickly looked up the musician and discovered DISASTERPEACE.
I was really inspired by what I heard and – hopefully – I can get them on board to write the music for this game!
9th September 2011
The App Store is very crowded and therefore it’s no guarantee that a good game will sell well. Developers need to do everything they can to ensure that a good game can be found. Integrating Game Center is a necessity. Not just to add that social discovery and competition, but so that Apple takes your title seriously.
Today I’ve added the “share” button. Pressing the share button at the end of the game will take a screenshot of the final game board as “proof” for bragging rights! Later I’ll add the ability to tweet your score. Hopefully this unique feature is useful to those of us who like to compete against our friends.
15th September 2011
PANIC STATIONS! This morning I was forwarded two pieces of bad news. The first is an app called “Zona” just launched in the App Store! With so many apps being released a day this kind of thing can happen – though very unlikely. Additionally, my Hebrew speaking friend informed me I look up what “Zona” means in Hebrew. I urge you all to also – modesty permits that I don’t reveal it here.
And so, after sweating and brainstorming, Zona has become ZONR! Funnily enough I like the new title better.
16th September 2011
Working from home has positives and negatives. Although it means I can spend more time with my young daughter – programming can be difficult without being able to maintain concentration. Today I had to clean up after “accidents” no less than 3 times in 12 hours – a new record!
23rd September 2011
Now that in-app purchases are working (another few days work), I’m very near the end of development. Time to whip out the Wacom and add even more themes to unlock! I’m not a trained artist, so often I find this difficult going as my first attempts generally look terrible. I’ve produced a horrible “Patriot” theme that I need to improve, but I’m not sure how to go about it!
One theme that I’m very happy with is the “Twilight” theme (vampires not included) that I’ve assembled. I wanted an early evening look, and what better way to do that than with fireflies! It took many attempts to get the motion and look exactly what I was after – but this is definitely my best attempt to date.
30th September 2011
And this marks the end of the development diary. Release is only a few weeks away. Sound and music will be completed in the next few weeks. A game trailer is next on my list of things to do so I can submit my game to IGF (which will be KlickTock’s first ever entry into the festival).
Thanks for reading and please keep an eye out for ZONR and its fancy icon on the App Store!