Obb postmortem 1/3 - game concept

I'm going to write a 3-part postmortem. I feel really self-indulgent doing this, so I hope it doesn't offend anyone. Please don't read it if you're not interested! This first part covers the game concept, the second part the development process, and the third part the graphics engine.

I started Pyweek 13 saying I wanted to do something different, to challenge myself somehow. In retrospect, my initial idea for Mutate! was the least different of the five, but I found ways to challenge myself. It certainly was not as unorthodox as it would have been for More Criticals, but as for my goal of doing something different, it was a minor success.

The final game is pretty much what I had in mind from the beginning. When I was brainstorming on the theme of Mutate, I considered genetic algorithms and natural selection simulations. Genetic algorithms are actually my favorite technique for solving optimization problems, and I use them every chance I get. But I decided not to go with my first instinct, and instead thought about as unrealistic, science-fictiony mutation as possible. I think this was a good choice, because lots of games wound up with a simulation aspect, and it would have been harder to distinguish myself.

One way I tried and failed to innovate was to make the instructions wordless. This is something I'd like to get good at, to make games that internationalize easily. The word balloons that appear were originally going to be pictographic instructions...

However at one point I made the (very wise) decision to change from manual healing of organs to automatic healing. (Originally you'd click the heal icon and then click on an organ to heal it. Now when you click on the heal icon, you go into a mode where you can toggle whether individual organs heal automatically. The new method is much better.) But I hit an absolute block trying to represent "toggle auto-healing of organs" pictographically. What I'm sure would happen is that you'd click on an icon that has something to do with health (red cross or heart) and no indication of "toggle automatic". Then you'd click on an organ and turn it red and wonder whether you just healed it or what. Then 10 minutes later that organ would be destroyed and you'd have no way to make the connection to the action you took 10 minutes ago, if you even noticed that the organ was missing. So I abandoned this goal. I think the game would have been much more frustrating and confusing if I'd stuck with it. But hopefully I'm learning some lessons about it.

Another concept I abandoned was exploration. I wanted you to be able to find weird and interesting items in space, but I couldn't think of anything good. I wanted the spaceships that attack you to resemble heroic ships from fiction, like Star Trek and Star Fox. You know, to remind you that this is essentially a space monster story from the monster's point of view. But yeah that didn't make it in.

So how about the things that actually made it into the game? Honestly, I lucked out majorly with the gameplay. I spent almost no time planning it, and it worked out pretty well. The concept of using hexes, the positioning of stalks and organs with respect to each other, and the idea of three colors corresponding to three types of organs you would need to build up in parallel, all just came to me while I was working on the graphics and layout engine and needed something to test it out. The fact that those concepts needed little refinement to get somewhat interesting gameplay was rather surprising.

I did need to spend some time at the end thinking up new organs, because I knew that the game wouldn't be nearly as much fun with only 3 different organs. But even that was inspired by the graphics engine: I thought, okay what can I render, and what would an organ looking like that do? The eye and the brain were the most obvious ones. They're definitely in there because I could draw a good-looking eye and a good-looking brain. I'd originally planned leaves, and mouths with tongues that shot out. But when I tried to render them I couldn't think of a way to make them look right with my graphics. So they became the stars and the laser bulbs.

In this game there's no way to win and no way to die. I didn't plan it like that originally. I originally planned to have different stages. After you survived a certain number of waves, you would reproduce by budding off another mouth, which would travel away and then begin the next stage. It was a conscious choice to switch to the current system of one unending stage, because I don't think the gameplay is interesting enough to bear repeating. I guess I could have put up a you win game over screen after a certain amount of time or something, but as much as I miss not having a win condition, I think this game as it is is better without one.

Incidentally, this is the third sci-fi real-time strategy game I've done for Pyweek. I think this might be my favorite genre to write. I'm definitely progressing at it.
PyWeek 6 screenshot
PyWeek 8 screenshot
PyWeek 13 screenshot

This postmortem is getting kind of long, so I think I'll split it up. I still want to talk about the traditional "what went right/wrong", and also go into some detail about the graphics engine.

Thanks for playing!

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Hmm... interesting to hear your thoughts behind your game. Yeah, I think it would have been better with things to find when you explore.
Absolutely. I had this whole fog-of-war thing going and it uncovers nothing but more stars. Got any good ideas for interesting things you could discover? Like I said, I spent some time thinking about it and no wonderful ideas ever struck me....
Hm, what about unique body parts which have a fixed position and can be integrated into your organism. Eg like some kind of AI command station (reminds me of AI Wars) which adds nanobots to your organism which results in faster healing or some alien life forms.
Yeah organs that you have to build out to connect to, and once you do they become activated. That's a great idea, I like it!
Or maybe you could find new background songs? Or planets to devour. Or minigames!
Haha minigames? Really? I've already got two different types of gameplay integrated together. That already seems like a recipe for disaster in PyWeek. Minigames mean even more types of gameplay.

Anyway, these ideas I guess are not really what I had in mind, but I definitely appreciate them. It's great to hear feedback. Just keep in mind that I had to write this in a week just like you did. ;)

I was thinking more like funny objects floating through space, like they had in Kite Story.
Why didn't you just drop the auto-healing toggle feature? I certainly never used it.

That said I think the writing lends personality to the character, so I'm glad you didn't go words-free.
Yeah you're right, that would be even better. I don't use auto-healing either. :)

You're right about the character. I'd like to someday get to the point where I can infuse a character with personality without dialogue. I'm sure we can all think of good video game examples. But it's definitely not easy.