Welcome back! Last week, I pretended to be a tester for the indie hit FTL and documented everything I experienced and did in the game. This week, the second exercise of the Game Design Workshop Wednesday series makes me nervous: writing down what I didn’t like about a game.
Each week, I’ll go through an exercise from Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Third Edition. Fullerton suggests treating the book less like a piece of text and more like a tool to guide you through the game design process, which is why the book is filled with so many exercises.
This section of the first chapter discusses what it takes to make a game. Good communication skills, teamwork, and a good dose of process are all needed.
Exercise 1.2 asks you to think about a game that was dead on arrival, then write down what you didn’t like about it and identify how the game could have been improved.
As I said, I’m nervous about this exercise.
Nervous about writing that I didn’t like a game? This is the Internet! People do it all the time!
I’m nervous because I don’t like raining on someone’s parade. Even if a game was flawed, there are people behind it who put their livelihoods on the line, who may have struggled and fought to get this game out the door. It’s easy to complain about the quality of something when you don’t have an idea of what went on behind the scenes.
In this case, I have some idea. I attended the post-mortem of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 2005, hosted by the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes, with tight schedule pressures, lots of stakeholders, and a team that managed to pull it off despite having to throw away a lot of development effort more than once throughout the project.
I can’t find any information for how well it sold, but reviewers weren’t impressed with the game. I remember reading that it bombed in the market, although even poorly made licensed games tend to sell fairly well so it’s hard to say.
I met a developer who worked on it, and he had mentioned what a frustrating experience it was…to put it nicely.
I purchased the Gamecube version when I saw it discounted and put in the impulse-buy section of the checkout line at the store. My thought at the time was that playing bad games means I’ll better appreciate what it takes to design a good game.
I haven’t played it since I got it, and even then I didn’t get too far before giving up. When I started a new game recently for this exercise, I was experiencing it almost as if it was the first time.
Starting The Game
The first thing that struck me is the music loop on the title screen. Most of the time, music loops are seamless, as if you couldn’t tell that it stops and starts. Instead, there’s a noticeable cut. Now, this might be a minor thing, but I started noticing quite a few areas that felt similarly unpolished.
The game starts with a pre-rendered movie introducing the story, including the other children finding the golden tickets and Charlie feeling poor, until a $10 bill appears at his foot. Then the game starts, with you chasing the bill as it flies improbably around town.
Whenever you get close to the money, wind blows it somewhere else, and so you go chase it. When the money gets caught on a chain-link fence, some help text appears and says, “You have the knock the money off the fence.”
Now, what comes immediately to mind is that I need to perform a specific action, such as throwing something at the fence, or walking up to the fence and pressing an action button of some kind. But no sooner did I have this thought when I found out that walking up to the fence is all that is required. The fence shakes as you near it, and the money flies away. Now, why the heck did I need help text to tell me to do something if the most natural thing to do, walking towards the bill like I’ve been doing the entire time, works just fine?
Later I found myself frustrated because I didn’t know what to do and there was no such needed help appearing.
Ah, I can pick up boxes, which means I can put them down and climb on them to get to higher places. The help text tells me what button to press, which is fine as I’ve never done it before and so wouldn’t know what to do to pick a box up.
When the bill ends up flying onto a roof, I noticed the cutscene was not pre-rendered and seemed to use in-game graphics. Charlie slides down a roof for about a second, and then I can play again. Uh, ok. So I walk over to the bill, which is stuck on a chimney, and…another cutscene.
This one is another example of a lack of polish. Charlie screams “Oh, no!” yet doesn’t look like he is doing anything that matches. It’s as if they recorded the audio and made the scene separately, then never put them together until the last moment. It takes a few seconds after the scream before Charlie starts to fall.
Ok, so Charlie falls. He lands on a garbage can lid, apparently at the highest point of the town, and now you’re chasing the bill while sliding through the icy streets. You can knock over snowmen and garbage cans, and trucks pull out from side streets, but nothing actually hurts you and there’s no point but to get to the end of the sliding, where Charlie lands in front of a candy shop with his new treasure.
The Cutscenes and Augustus Gloop
If the introduction was a pre-rendered cutscene, and the other cutscenes were using the in-game engine to render them, Chapter 1 starts now, with page-turning transitions and…suddenly everything is hand-drawn? Oh, and Chapter 2 starts right after without any game play in between. These inconsistencies contribute to the feeling of a lack of polish, as if the game wasn’t finished or was rushed.
When I finally can play, I’m supposed to find two Oompa-Loompas to work on some machines to pump Augustus Gloop out of the tube he is stuck in. Now, the bellows are hidden under the meadow, which was a neat way that the level designers were able to work around the fact that they were required to use the movie sets, which normally aren’t created to make for good game play.
Once Gloop is freed, you are told to find some Wonka-Vite for energy in a quick cutscene. You are also given Ever-Lasting Gobstoppers, which function as a projectile weapon. You can throw them at trees and objects to knock candy down.
So, using some gobstoppers and an Oompa-Loompa’s help, I manage to procure some Wonka-Vite. Now what? Grandpa Joe’s advice to find Wonka-Vite when I already found some didn’t help matters. I must have walked around that meadow a half dozen times trying to find an exit before I discovered I had to find multiple Wonka-Vites before I could proceed.
Why couldn’t there be a mission objective to indicate how many I had to get? Also, it wasn’t clear what “energy” it was giving me, as I didn’t notice I was using any energy in the first place. The HUD shows some tubes on the top right, but the game gives no context for them and they didn’t seem to matter, so I ignored them. Plus, the controls felt a bit awkward, as it was difficult to aim the gobstoppers, jumping around felt sloppy, and occasionally the camera would end up in an bad angle. All of these things combined made me feel confused and frustrated as I played.
The Jelly Beanstalk Level
The next level shows that Gloop is still stuck in the pipe, only this time in the jelly beanstalk room. You can now use Jelly Beanstalk Candy, which you can throw to create vines which snare the unwary. Oompa-Loompas seem unaffected, and they don’t seem to do anything to Charlie, either. Oh, I see. Once I get the Wonkabots to appear, I can trap them into a ball of vines, then throw those balls into the vents to help increase the pressure to get Gloop through the tube.
The vine balls appear near where the robot and the vines are, but they never seem connected quite right. The vents are in a thorny patch I can’t walk on, and it took me some time before I realized I could throw a vine ball into the area to try to get them into the vents.
The entire level is geared around multiple floors of vents arranged in various angles in a patch of thorns, with nearby Oompa-Loompas who I charge with fixing the machine to create Wonkabots so I can create vine balls and throw them at the vents over and over until I succeed in getting them all. Oh, and between each floor, I need to jump from leaf to leaf of the giant jelly bean plant, which is not very easy to do. Haven’t enough people complained about jumping puzzles over the last few decades? And the target audience has to be children who may or may not be as dexterous with the controls, right?
So after saving the jelly beanstalk plant, I find that Chapter 3 starts, and I end my play session.
Again, I feel bad about writing about all of the bad things about this game, knowing what the development team went through. And perhaps it isn’t fair to call it “dead on arrival.” I’m leaving out the bits of delight I experienced because I’m focusing on what was wrong for this exercise. Considering how rushed it was and the constraints they were under, they managed to put together something. It just never felt cohesive or polished, and the few times I was pleasantly surprised by the game were marred by the confusion and frustration and tediousness of the rest of it.
For instance, why was I allowed to hit the Wonkabot with a gobstopper and see an animation of it falling down if there wasn’t supposed to be combat? Or why was candy allowed to get stuck on top of trees, resulting in Oompa-Loompas tasked with collecting the candy running in place? Why were some cutscenes pre-rendered, some in-game engine, and some illustrated, and why were there so many of them?
Some consistency would have helped, and I think if they had more time to playtest, they would have found areas which were confusing to new players. Letting the player know that Willy Wonka wants you to find five Wonka-Vites, for instance, would have meant that after finding the first one, I wouldn’t have felt lost. Perhaps the controls could have been tightened up, although I wonder if part of the problem is how Charlie was animated. I recall picking up a vine ball next to the thorny patch, only to be surprised that Charlie’s pick-up animation moved him forward into the patch, which forced him to drop the ball. I also wonder if the game could have been improved if there were fewer cutscenes, allowing more of the story to be revealed during game play instead.
But of course, these things take time, and when your deadline is the release date of the movie with a quick production schedule, things can slip. It’s hard not to imagine what the game could have been with a little bit more polish, as the people who worked on it loved the story and probably feel terrible for every flaw they know about that I might not have noticed.
Exercise Complete. Pencils Down.
That’s it for this week’s exercise. If you participated in exercise 1.2 on your own, please comment below to let me know, and if you wrote your own blog post or discuss it online, make sure to use the hashtag #GDWW.
Next week, I’ll describe five areas of my life that could be games.