Laserface Jones Postmortem

Justin FicarrottaMay 05, 2009

Background Info

After growing up wanting only to make videogames, and making a few small games with Pascal and later Hypercard in grade school, I released my first game for the uDevGames contest in 2004, called Kill Dr. Coté. It won the award for Best Gameplay, was a fan favorite, went on to be published by Freeverse, and got me my first job in the industry as a programmer.

Since then, my output has been scarce. I quickly followed up with “Arachnoid: Predator of Worlds” in July 2005, but after that, working full time in the industry drained me and thwarted any progress on independent work. Several years passed, and during that time I first yearned for the energy to work on a project, and after that failed, I started to even doubt whether I would be capable of such a project and still keep myself fed. When I heard that uDevGames 2008 was starting, I figured it would be the best time to find out once and for all. While in 2004, my purpose was to prove my talent and ability to the world, this time around it would be to prove it to myself!

About Laserface Jones

Laserface Jones vs. Doomsday Odious is a dual-analog, omni-directional scrolling shooter. Setting-wise, it follows in the trend of science fiction B-movie style of my previous games. An alien known as Doomsday Odious is a planet-sized ameoboid that devours entire worlds whole, and it has set its sights on Earth. You play Laserface Jones, a robot that knows only how to destroy, and you must fight your way inside the beast and destroy it from the inside.

It’s definitely an old-school, arcade shooter. The difficulty is off the charts, but done so in such a way that teaches you how to beat it, not just to kick your ass and laugh at your suffering. There’s no doubt, though: it’s a quartermuncher, and it’s proud of it!

Laserface Jones draws inspiration from a lot of sources. I take a lot of joy in hiding little homages to other games and media. If you pay attention you’ll catch references to Gradius, Life Force, Contra, Axelay, LOST, Battlestar Galactica, and Emerson Lake & Palmer.

Flight of the Jones

There were four distinct phases to the development of Laserface Jones:
  • Idea selection
  • Gameplay Prototype
  • Level Editor
  • Content Creation

Idea Selection

When uDevGames 2008 started, my first task was to choose an idea. This was a bigger step than it would initially seem. I had three ideas that had been swirling around in my tempestuous mind for some time. The first was TANK, which was germinated on my podcast with Blake Buck and William Miller as a game we wanted to make, and never did. I do, however, have an entire design laid out, again, in my brain. The second idea was the dual-analog scrolling shooter. It was to take the winning mechanic of Kill Dr. Coté and address the main criticism, which was the lack of variety. The third idea was an experimental, abstract shooter. It would have been an experiment in adaptive difficulty, and the gameplay felt solid (in my head) but it lacked in ambition.

Narrowing down these three ideas to one was a difficult process. TANK was easily the favorite idea at the outset. It had style, it had frantic (but untested) gameplay, and it had a lot of potential. The problem, however, was that it required a LOT of art assets, which I knew from the get-go would be my weakness. That alone was enough to eliminate TANK as an option.

So it was between the shooter and the experiment. I knew that having competed before, plus what I was capable of then versus how much more I know now, that I could easily complete the shooter in three months. The problem, however, was that I also now had a full-time job to contend with. Would my ability be able to offset the loss of five days a week to work? I “decided” on both ideas several times, settling on one and then see-sawing to the other, over a period of about two weeks.

It was the formation of a title that cemented the shooter in place as my idea. The original title was “Gunkaiser” but a quick google search revealed that people were already using it as the name of a Gundam or something like that. So a quick brainstorming session turned “Gunkaiser” into “Gunface” and then to “Laserface.” A hop, skip, and a “Jones” later, and I had my character and my game.

Gameplay Prototype

This phase went remarkably fast, maybe about a week or two. I knew from Kill Dr. Coté that the mechanic of using WASD to move and the mouse to aim and shoot was a winner. I just needed to make sure I added to it, and provided enough content to keep the game fresh.

Level Editor

I knew off the bat I would need a level editor. I got away with having no level for awhile, and just having a constant rightward movement and automatically spawning enemies, but that was not to last.

The level editor is build into the game. Hitting TAB in a debug build brings up the Edit Mode, where you can click to place obstacles and enemy formations, and drag them around.

The editor took about two weeks to create to the point where it was functional enough to make levels, and another few weeks afterwards to polish up to the point where it was 100% satisfactory. So about a month altogether.

In addition to the editor, the game can read in .svg files that define the “path” of the level. I’m super proud of this, as it means I could draw the levels out in Illustrator. Something didn’t work right, or a turn was too sharp (or not sharp enough?) Easy. Open it up in Illustrator, tweak a few control points, and resave. This also allowed me to very easily do crazy things with the scrolling, as opposed to straight right or straight down. For instance, the first level has a section that waves back and forth as you navigate the rocky shell of Doomsday Odious, and level two actually does a loop-de-loop.

Content Creation

This phase was the final part of the dev cycle, and was the most rushed. After dilly-dallying with a few in-engine features that I ended up cutting out of the game completely (enemies with build in obstacles, obstacles that would rotate in-game) it became imperative that I actually make the damn game! I had a functional-but-bad first level that needed to be redone, and levels two and three didn’t even exist yet!

Thankfully, the Level Editor made it a lightning fast process. After trashing what I had done on the first level, recreating each of the three levels took about 48 hours, not including the time required to create new enemies to populate those levels. The first level took the most time in that regard, requiring a few weeks to get all enemy types in. The second level was much faster, and the third level just reused enemies from the first two levels. (If you couldn’t tell that I was strapped for time by the third level, you may also notice there’s no crazy curve in level three, just a straight line!)