Early game jam development

2018-06-25 22_18_59-Unity 2018.1.2f1 Personal (64bit) - BirdsOnWire.unity - WorldIsAliveJam - PC, Ma.png

Birds on Wire has now been in development since June. Getting close to 4 months now. Currently I don’t have any set release date, but it feels like the end is getting close and that I need to begin ramping up my marketing efforts along with polishing the game up. I thought it might be nice to share how the early concept came to be.

This game started out as a simple game jam game with the Portland Indie Game Squad. They do a few jams over the summer that they like to call “Summer Slow Jams”, since they take about a week or two. That gives people like myself with day jobs a little bit of breathing room to program after work. The theme was mini-games, the type you will typically find as maybe a game-within-a-game. Mario Party comes to mind.

After learning about the jam’s theme, “The world is alive”, I went to McMenamin’s with Megan and we talked about some possible ideas. Almost every one was centered around animals. One involved a raccoon stealing trash, another involved navigating through a herd of buffalo. The one that caught my attention though was creating a game around birds landing on a wire, much like a certain short movie by Pixar. The idea for Birds on Wire was born and I got to work immediately.

Early concept of placing birds and having the wire slowly move down with more weight.

I worked nonstop through the weekend and went straight home after work to put more hours in. Looking back at some of my twitter posts and gifs helped me remember how it all went down. I remember pretty distinctly though that part of the trouble I had was not thinking through the game elements enough. The first iteration was a lot like Don’t Break the Ice, with players taking turns seeing which bird would make the cable snap.

Initial blender model of the bird.

I’m not much of a 3D modeler or artist, but I had an idea in my head of what I wanted the bird to look like and I just went about trying to create it in Blender without even much of a sketch. The initial bird model really encouraged me since it was so cute and fun to look at.

I got pretty hung up with trying to get the wire created, which I accomplished by joining a bunch of thin cylinders with hinge joints.

The wire concept with an imported bird model. I added some random color to make it a little more snazzy.

After getting these key pieces together it felt like the game was really coming along. The only problem was I continued to not really think much about what the gameplay would be like in the end. I imagined people happily passing a controller back and forth on a couch or something. Probably not very realistic looking back.

More of the fleshed out early game. Scores and cursors added.

A really fun moment came when I figured out how to get the wire to break. Initially I wanted it to break in the middle, but the physics and the way I had it implemented made it never work quite right (I now know this is because I was freezing where each cable piece is allowed to be). A quick solution for the jam was to simply break the cable on both ends and let the birds fall along.

Start menu with a lot more models and polish.

I continued to work more on the look. Looking back I really do think I should have spent a solid day just thinking and working through gameplay, but many of the things I wanted were just very time consuming. The next few days were just one piece of polish after another. A modeled telephone pole from scratch, a skybox, a few cubes in the far background to represent a city.

I worked through a few Unity features that I've never tried before to get the right look, like adding a post-processing “depth of field” effect to get a nice film look. I still really love this look, but I’ve encountered a lot of issues with it down the road and eventually just ended up removing it from the current game.

Along the way I reached out to PIGSquad to see if anyone was interested in doing music. I could tell pretty early on that teaching myself how to make the sort of music I wanted, basically an upbeat coffee shop jazz vibe, was going to be a really tall order for the amount of time I had. Sam Alexander stepped up to offer assistance. When he shared the music he came up with it just blew me away, I couldn’t stop hearing the music in my head while I continued on the rest of the game jam.

At this point the jam was about over and I had a pretty great looking, great sounding game that was…kind of dull. Most people who played it at the showcase lauded the look of the game, but had lots of questions about what to do or what the end goal was.

What the game looked like at the Summer Slow Jam showcase.

What the game looked like at the Summer Slow Jam showcase.

I should probably just say the game at this point was totally different from what it has now become. Players would hand a controller back and forth placing their color of bird. Scoring was based on how far in the center you placed a bird, which was confusing to most. Whoever placed the bird that tipped a certain weight would cause the wire to break and the game would end, that player would then get 0 points and the group could choose to play again.

One player from the jam mentioned that they were trying to match the same color bird, which made a lot of sense to me. Ultimately I decided that while I loved the look of the game, I didn’t really enjoy playing it. It seemed like a match-3 style of game might be a better fit, especially for solo play.

Current game progress with animations, different types of birds and even eyelids!

The funny thing to me is that the game mostly still looks about the same, although just a lot of things have been added over time. Reworking the gameplay with what I’ll call “game jam code” was a difficult process and probably set the development back by a few weeks. A few pieces of code still linger from the early concept such as bird weights and different player cursors and UIs, but at the moment none of that is really being used anymore.

While the gameplay concept was a little flawed, I still really love how the game came together by the end of the jam. And of course, I’m very excited about the future release of the completed game. If you’re interested in following us, sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Twitter @BirdsOnWireGame.