Toy Box Metropolis Review

<- Back to blog | Posted on 2 January 2017 by Adam Summerton

Toy Box Metropolis was our entry for Ludum Dare 37.  Below is our developer chat on what went right and what went wrong.  This is a bit of a shorter one, as we did it quite a while after the jam ended.  
I have back-dated the blog post to when we should have done it, but let’s try and keep that a secret. Taking part in this chat are:

Edge: Made the game and the music
James: Designed and animated the buildings
AdamD: Designed the background, scenery, roads, HUD and UI

Edge: Welcome to the Toy Box Metropolis post-mortem-review-chat thingy. I'll get right into the profound questions.  What are your general impressions of it as a whole?  I sort of hated it when we'd finished, but going back to it I feel so much better about it.

James: I remember you weren't happy with it at all.

Edge: I think I was overly harsh on myself.  I'm pretty happy about it now

James: That's good to hear.

Adam D: I like the art style and the animations, and I like the game in general, it could just do with a bunch of UI improvements and more balancing/clear goals.  The music is good too.  Why do you think you were so unhappy with it to begin with?

Edge: I think my issues are mainly the interface and the controls, I know from playing other similar games how I wanted it to feel, stuff like that needs to be intuitive and it really wasn't.

James: I guess part of the problem was it was our first time doing something like this.

Adam D: Yeah the interface is what mainly holds it back, it is a bit clunky and tedious to do everything. James is right though, it was a learning experience.

James: I think the level is too big as well, it could have done with some balancing.  Also we didn't have time to play test which is pretty normal for us.

Adam D: I think the mood for the game helps make it more unique and helps it to stand out a bit in spite of the interface issues.

Edge: One of the reasons I feel better about it is that I have some distance and I realise what a big learning experience it was. I see that as a positive now.

James: Totally, it made us leave our comfort zone.

Adam D: It was good for us to make a departure from our usual games.

Edge: As this is a forum for honesty, I have to say initially I had some reservations about the graphics too (Although I feel better about them now).

James: What reservations did you have?

Edge: Well it's weird, sort of holding 2 opposing opinions at once... It was very clean, and I like that a lot.  It looked professional and the animations on the buildings were really nice.  But it didn't initially feel like us, as in it felt a bit cold and clinical (maybe like a really polished mobile game).  I wonder if that was the colour palette?

Adam D: Yeah I can see that, there are a lot of those isometric city-based click games on mobile and Facebook. I liked the look of it though, I think without James' animations it would have lost a lot of character.

James: I was really pleased with the way it looked, if I had a choice actually I would have gone simpler and cleaner.  I would have had a plain background and just a fairly small square to build on (like the start screen image).

Adam D: Your original design sketch was very minimalist James, I think it would've looked nice...not sure I would have had much to do though!

James: That's true and your background stuff worked really well, it did move it away from being too cold and clinical.

Edge: I liked the animations a lot, I guess it would have felt more 'us' if the buildings had been quirkier maybe.  I don't want to sound like I don't like the clean minimal style, because I really do.  I wonder if again it's just because it was different.  The more I look at it the more I think it's the colour palette - I feel like something warmer would have been my preference.

Adam D: I do like very minimalist game graphics when they are designed well. I definitely suffer from the "surely I need to do more" syndrome. I do like detail and rendering, but I need to try and hold myself back more at times. I always feel the need to over do it, that is my style though really.

Edge: I agree that we could have decluttered, like there didn't need to be gridlines maybe.

James: I think if there were fewer buildings I could have spent more time designing more interesting stuff, I did feel a bit rushed so maybe didn't spend enough time designing them.

Edge: We did too much again didn't we, 24 buildings with an average of 3 states each.  That was 72 things you had to draw James. 72!  What is wrong with us?

Adam D: Some game types and styles call for adding a bit more, I think this is an example of where we could have held back. I think we could have had fewer buildings and more interesting interactions between buildings, e.g. when you put a power-station next to a drive-in movie then nobody turns up to the movie.  That would probably be over-complicating it for the jam though.

Edge: Yes I think that would have been too complicated.  As I mentioned before, I started with the concept of different building types, and having to use a preset amount of them, and then working towards city stats.  So I essentially started with strategy mechanics and then built a city game around it.  That was madness, I should have made a fun little builder and put in strategy if there was time.  Probably why I was so annoyed with myself.

Adam D: It's a difficult one to work out, I think the game needs more interesting interactions but it also needs to hold back on the options. It needs a set of simple interactions that are fun and intuitive, that create interesting combinations and then build from there.

James: That stuff comes with practice and as it was the first time we've done anything like this we just didn't know.

Edge: Changing the subject slightly - I sat and watched my mum play it for 45 minutes.  It was really interesting and made me feel a lot better about it.  She seemed to really enjoy it.

James: Getting someone totally removed from the game to play it is always interesting, I guess we can't always see the problems.

Edge: She's not a big gamer in the traditional sense, but is open to them and plays a lot of puzzle games.  She always gives our games a go but this is the first one that she played all the way through.

Adam D: It is hard to see when you're close to the project. I do think it is one of our more accessible games, but maybe that makes if feel more like a mobile/casual game.

Edge: She got really into getting the stats to match up, and liked most of the game.  She did repeatedly swear at the screen for 3 reasons though.

Adam D: Was placing roads one of those reasons?

James: Give them to us in list form.

Edge: OK.  #1 "I didn't mean to do that, how do I undo? What do you mean I can't?  Can I delete?  Why the hell not?"

Adam D: Ah yes, that is a good one.

Edge: #2 "How the hell I am supposed to make an informed decision about what building to make when I can't see what they do?"

James: I didn't even think of that.

Edge: #3 "When I build roads why do I have to keep clicking up there?"

Adam D: Yes, that got my brother when I watched him play, and it did frustrate me.

James: I can see why all those things would be annoying.

Adam D: #4 for me and my brother "Why do I have to click on the button, then click on the building to upgrade? Why not just click on the building and have an upgrade option?"

Edge: Yes I agree with that one too.

Adam D: All of these are about making the interface more forgiving and intuitive, and you only learn these things by giving it a go. I think it's just about reducing the steps that the player has to go through, and making options more immediately accessible.

James: That can be applied to lots of different kinds of games we do.

Edge: A lot of it was down to the constraint of only having a set number of each block.

James: You mean the amount you could place down?

Edge: Yeah, it forces you to make decisions based on the constraints, but that was communicated badly and there is no information to help you make the decision.  That's the bit I want to update in some small post-jam changes.

Adam D: I think it uses trade-offs well, teaching players the core mechanics of a game can be really hard.

Edge: Once I explained to Mum that central idea, and gave her some insider knowledge on the buildings, then it actually worked well as a gameplay mechanic.

Moving on to the audio - you guys were nice about the music, but I don't think it was my best.  I felt like I was just going through the motions a bit.  I really need to get a better music setup, GarageBand on the old iPad is so creaky.

Adam D: I really like it, but I understand sometimes needing a change/new set up to push things a bit further. Do you have anything in mind?

Edge: Not sure really, I have a Korg MicroSynth and all the required cables, I just need some proper software.  Proper software is expensive, and I find it super difficult to learn music recording software. It seems to be designed to be as obtuse as possible.  Probably just because I've never committed the time to learn it.

Adam D: You lost me at Korg MicroSynth.

Edge: Actually I let myself down there, because it's technically Korg microSynth. The capital M is an abomination.

Adam D: I know all of the kit/software can be ridiculously expensive though. I've seen things, musical things, they look deeply inaccessible.

James: "I've seen things, musical things, they look deeply inaccessible". I imagine you saying this in a darkened room, only your face lit, your voice shaking.

Edge: That comment did sound like the start of a horror movie about murderous synth keyboards.  Or maybe a haunted Tuba.

Adam D: That's exactly how it was James, it's a shame we don't have video.

Edge: Other than the fact we ran out of time for tutorials etc, I think I've covered most of my points. Last thing was the design process we go through up-front. I feel like we need to improve on that somehow.

Adam D: In terms of design process, I think we covered a lot of ground with the Midnight Fields chat. We really need to focus on the central idea.

James: Yes, I think the same conclusion about working on the core idea applies here as well.

Edge: Dear future us - if you want to know what your past selves are talking about, then read the Midnight Fields developer chat.

Adam D: There are a lot of shared problems throughout our games, but I think that is understandable and gives us solid ideas about where to improve.

James: So I think we can all agree, this wasn't our favourite game but we learnt valuable lessons.

Edge: Yes agree, and this one was better than we think... but lots of room for improvement.  And possibly haunted Tubas.  Anyway I think that's a wrap, thank you and goodnight.

Adam D: Always room for haunted Tubas. Thanks guys, that was good. We are starting to have a clear plan of action for our future games.

James: Yes, I can see a clear theme emerging.

Edge: Now we just need to grab that theme and punch it until it does what we say.

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