Monday, December 12, 2011

Continued development, level design, and a huge turning point for the game

Hello, and welcome to the third blog entry for BlastZone 2!  In my previous blog entry, I described my experiences developing the game up to December '06 when I won my first game development contest at my college.  Steady progress continued for the game until September '07.  At that time, I considered the technical features of the game 95% complete, but I only had the first two levels of mission mode complete.  I thought it was a good breaking point for the game so I released the first official public demo of the game including the two mission mode levels built so far and the classic survival mode that mimicked the gameplay of BlastZone 1.  People who played that demo release provided a lot of useful feedback.  Above all else, the response I got was that the game was way too hard.  Since I had been working on the game for about a year and a half at that point, I had too much practice to be a good gauge of difficulty.  I could beat those first two levels without dying, but I knew that if new players died too quickly, they wouldn't have enough fun to drive them to play through the rest of the game.  I had to figure out ways to reduce the difficulty while keeping up the same level of intensity I wanted.  It's easy to just reduce the amount of enemies and bullets in the levels, but that would make the game boring, and I didn't want that.

From the BlastZone 2 v0.95 demo released Sept '07

I needed to take a break from the game for a few months while I finished my Computer Science degree.  I figured it was a good time to take in all the feedback and decide what direction I wanted to take the game from there while I devoted most of my time to other things in my life.  Around that same time, the demo release of my game got quite a bit of attention, including a freelance sound designer who wanted to help with the game.  I graciously accepted his offer and he supplied a wealth of great new sound effects for the game.

By December '07 I was done with school and could finally devote much more time to my game.  At that point I decided to take a long break from the technical side of the game and solely focus on level design for the rest of mission mode.  I had a goal of choreographing a half hour long experience for it.  I knew it would take a long time for such a task, but I knew it would be worth it in the end and really make my game stand out from other shooters out there.  Most shooters I played only had a handful of standard enemy types and each level would throw handfuls of them at the player, only varying where and when they would appear.  This I thought would detract from other shooter games that were otherwise very well designed.  My goal was to hand animate every individual enemy in the game to make the experience completely unique from beginning to end.  While I made sure the game had cool weapons and abilities for the player to use, I made the conscious decision to focus the vast majority of my gameplay design on level design.  I knew there would be players out there who would look for the kind of level design many other shooters have, so I addressed that with the "Enhanced Survival" mode, which used a dozen or so base enemy types and generated levels on the fly, but with the extra speed and intensity I wanted to maintain in the game to keep its identity.

My process for designing each level was to create storyboards scene by scene, then animate them all out using 3D Studio Max.  I did this to save time over creating my own level editor from scratch.  I created several 3DS Max plugins to export to the level file formats I created for the game and effectively turned 3DS Max into a level editor.

Progress on level design went very well and most of it was done until November '08, which was a big turning point for the project from the technical side.  I had an interview with a bigger game company in NYC.  I was happy with where I was working at the time, but I wanted to test the waters and see what other opportunities were out there for me.  Since BlastZone 2 was the center piece of my portfolio, I had them analyze parts of my codebase.  The response I got was rather jarring, pretty much saying that while I was able to accomplish amazing things, my codebase was poorly designed.  Looking at my code, this response made sense to me, since BlastZone 2 initially had a very small scope, then was expanded later on.  The basis I started with was not designed to manage such a huge game and adding new features was getting more painful to do and maintain.  In the end I did not get the position I interviewed for, but the lesson I learned from that experience was extremely beneficial.  At that point, I decided it would be worth while to redesign my entire codebase from the ground up and do it right this time.  This process took about 11 months to complete, ending in October '09, but the benefits were huge.  Now I could add new features and polish existing ones with much less effort and I even created an alternate render path for OpenGL ES support, which is used for iOS and Android devices.  In the end, I was able to create a much better and more polished game from the redesigned code.

Stay tuned for the next blog entry for BlastZone 2 and its continued development!


  1. I remember when I started to date Matt, he showed me his game on the second date and I started asking him a zillion questions and it might have sounded like I was yelling at him, but I was wondering how he developed BlastZone2. What I admired the most thought was his passion and how he could spend hours on end working on improving his skills and making the game better. His passion for his game has made me want to help him anyway possible to build fans and support for BlastZone2! Thanks for checking out Matt's blog site and continue to stay tuned for more posts!

  2. "I needed to take a break from the game for a few months while I finished my Computer Science degree. I figured it was a good time to take in all the feedback and decide what direction I wanted to take the game from there"

    I had gotten similar advice when I was working my novel and, foolishly, I did NOT heed it. The result, at the time, was a finished product--one that I thought I was satisfied with. Now, in retrospect, I am mortified that I put forth such a horrendous display of my writing. Had I held off releasing it, coming back to it a few months later, I would have seen how poor the writing was. At the time, I was too close to my project and had been for too long so it was impossible for me to see its flaws; the fact that you were able to break away from yours is a testament both to your dedication and your abilities. Glad things have worked out the way that they have for you Matt!

  3. Thanks a lot for the comments! Back then it was a tough decision to take a break from working on the game for a few months, and it was even tougher to find out that while the game looked great to me, it wasn't enjoyable to others as it was way too hard. I knew it was important to listen to my audience and the game was much better for it in the end. Its good to see others know how it is.