So Tom has been getting on my case to post a new blog entry and I kind of promised I would. I was wondering what to write about since we haven’t gotten far enough into development on Revahlen to show off something really cool. However, we did just release Happiness! and so I figured I might take some time to go over how we developed that game over the course of less than a year.
A little bit of history…
The cause for the existence of Happiness! can be blamed squarely on me biting off far more than I could chew. I was originally working on an action RPG that I was codenaming “Eclipse” at the time, the RPG that would later evolve into Taiscrethea (which would in turn cause another reassessment that brought about Revahlen). It had gone through several iterations through the various phases across the years, but the most recent iterations have been by far the most serious. I had gone through several restarts on it, optimizing and optimizing, with a little tool called Construct (now called Construct Classic). However, Scirra had been working on a more stable followup they dubbed Construct 2. Initially the features were slim, as it was released in its infancy. However I knew early on that I would be developing games using this tool. What I also figured out early on was that I would have to adjust and learn how to use Construct 2, and that it wasn’t quite yet suitable for the hefty endeavor that Taiscrethea was proving to be. So I began to think about scaling back and making a far simpler game, something along the lines of an NES style platformer.
I began to brainstorm ideas for the game and sketching out a few character designs and the like in the spring of 2012. I knew it would be a platformer in the vein of the classics like Mario, Mega Man, and Sonic, but I initially had a little trouble developing the hook for it. I don’t remember the moment the idea popped into my mind, or if it was even as much of a moment as it was something that phased in and out over time, but at some point I decided that the game would be the Anti-Mario. And I don’t mean Sonic.
The Mario games are violent. Like, really violent. Of course, almost all video games are violent. But I use the Mario series as an example because of the cute and family friendly image it has, in spite of the questionable ethics in stomping the existence out of sentient shiitaki mushrooms and black magic practicing turtles. I thought how it might be funny if, instead of jumping on a goomba you gave it a hug instead. Don’t kill things, hug them. Love everybody. Suddenly the game design started falling into place, even if a bit haphazardly. I had a mission. Of course, this mission would also lead to a far more complex project than I had realized/intended, but by the time the difficulty dawned on me it would be too late.
Coloring Between the Lines
It was around that time that the sketches of the characters were coming out. I made a doodle in a book of a little boy in a baseball cap.
The Dreamer about a quarter way through development, seen here with a very confused/upset Mr. Teeth. This was roughly the final state he ended up in at the concept stage.
A nameless hero, he was to go around the world trying to bring happiness to all he came across. The idea of him hugging horrific vicious monsters was an early one. I just found the notion that this little boy would hug these dangerous beasts absolutely hilarious. I also designed the little girl very shortly after as well, though digging up their original concepts is proving difficult. I have them boxed away somewhere, never to be seen again. The concept pieces in these entries are among the half of them that I can find.
After sketching out the two protagonists I had sketched out the father and an abandoned villain that would have been called Professor Pessimist, who was intended to be the final boss. However, the game proceeded to take a more interesting route not long after that led to Professor Pessimist’s omission from the final product. It was well into the stage concepts that I finally realized what direction the “story” to the game should take, which eventually lead to a redesign and retheming for the game on a whole.
Psychology and Symbolism
Initially the stage ideas were your standard fare. You had a forest stage, a haunted house stage, a water stage, a city stage, a fire and lava stage, so on and so forth. All in all, only a few stages felt interesting, and most of them featured uninteresting MOBs (I use the term mobs here because there are no enemies, only upset creatures in need of help). The current plot was that at the beginning of each stage, your father would come home upset about some sort of state in the world, at which point you would try to go out into the world and fix that problem. A few stages had pretty specific themes, and at some point it was decided to base the stages around negative emotions. I started polling people on what kinds of things make them sad, trying to compile a list of possible stage themes.
The “Lonely Sands” stage features cyclopean single celled organisms in keeping with the themes of ’1′ for the stage.
Then I got an idea to change the plot a bit. I decided on a more “realistic” approach, and simplified the story to a child unable to understand a parent’s suffering. The child would go to bed unable to help their mom/dad and then all the dreams would revolve around trying to understand how to help. When I shortened the stage themes list to around 8 or 9 I started researching conditions and symbolism connected to each emotion, creating palette themes for each stage to make them feel more unique and to bring out the emotions meant to be associated with them; blues for loneliness, yellows in the boredom stage because the goal is excitement, green with envy in the stage about missing pieces, so on and so forth. The mobs even were able to easily come together once the stage themes had been figured out.
The fear stage featured woods, a cave, a factory, and a haunted house / laboratory. It got divided into the Incomplete Machine, Cavern Asphyxia and Fear House stages.
If all of this seems very vague and shot from the hip, that’s because it was. In fact, the game was constantly evolving up until about halfway to two thirds through development. A boss encounter was redesigned because it sent the wrong message. A stage themed around “greed” was scrapped for being difficult to solve the problems for and sending mixed and easily misinterpreted messages. Happiness! was not going to be a soap box for political issues, nor was it going to promote unhealthy behavior by encouraging people to try to help others at the cost of their own health. And most of an overly complex stage got turned into three simpler and more iconic stages.
Fun for Everyone!
The most important question of the game was always going to be “is it fun?” Everything designed in it was to try to balance out what would be fun for as many people as possible. You don’t want to make the platforming segments too easy, but you don’t want to make it impossible to beat for casuals either. The solution for that was to give the players infinite lives. There was also the question of speedrunning, something I feel strongly about myself. However, I didn’t want to sacrifice the point of the game (spreading cheer) by saying “well, it’s okay to not help out others as long as you’re going for a good time.” The only way to beat a stage is to make at least one person happy, and the only way to record your time is to find all the special coins in the stage and solve all the mobs’ problems. As extra encouragement to help out, there are 3 endings depending upon how many mobs in the whole game you make happy. Ultimately, the goal of the game is to encourage kindness in the player.
To be continued…
I’ve done a lot of rambling in this entry, but that’s just kind of how the whole conceptualization process went down. A lot of ideas bubble up to the surface and then get refined and such. A lot of the game was a learning experience as well, and an exercise in “just finishing the damn thing”. That said, I hope it was interesting regardless, and I also hope that I can put a bit more of a sense of focus in the coming entries. Next time I’ll go into developing games with Construct 2, how Chris and I teamed up to develop the music with Famitracker, how I use the ancient Paint Shop Pro 9 to create all the graphics you see in the game, and how it all gets glued and forced together.