Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Making a Game Maker: Hatching Chicken Wiggle 🐣



Development of Chicken Wiggle started in February, 2016 with a single image I created; an idea for a player package. The majority of Chicken Wiggle's production was done by myself and Matthew Gambrell. Matthew did the programming, music, and sound effects. I did the design, art, business, and marketing.

Please try to ignore the fact that the little red dude is the hero from Xeodrifter. :) At that early stage, I did not know what the main player(s) was going to look like so I grabbed the nearest sprite on hand.

The main emphasis with this player package was the balance between the short jump/close attack range and the far range “hook shot” ability that enabled the player to travel up/across relatively long distances. The two extremes seemed to complement each other and rely on each other, which was a pleasing concept. Later, we decided to use the “hook shot” to stun enemies – making the close-range attack less scary to use – which really cemented the synergy between the player’s different abilities.


The core gameplay idea was originally something that could be described as a 2D Pushmo; played from a side view perspective. Draw simple images with a handful of colors to create a level, and then navigate through the level by jumping/destroying tiles of the level to reach a goal. Looking at what Chicken Wiggle ended up being, we might have gone a little further with the design and complexity of the game. Maybe a lot further.

But, before I get ahead of myself I should chat about how we decided on a chicken and a worm as the stars of the game. As shown above, with the initial player package, we started with a compact character that was the same unit size as the level tiles they interact with. This immediately puts a framework in place in terms of size and proportions. He’s basically square!

I kicked around a few different ideas for what the player could be, in terms of a theme that could work across the whole game. Some of the early candidates included a cute mountain climber with grappling hook, a kid with a yo-yo, and a bird with a worm in his backpack. None of them are technically right or wrong, better or worse. It really came down to personal preference and what we thought was fun to embrace.


The cuteness and absurdity of a bird and worm combo was too funny to resist. I experimented with many color variations to make it not look too similar to the many bird characters out there, such as those found in a certain game about birds that are angry. This led me down the path of considering a chicken instead of a “regular” bird, which immediately adds an additional level of fun and absurdity.


Initially, I adopted a similar 8-bit-ish style to Mutant Mudds, with a black outline and very few colors. This worked fine, but I further experimented with a more shaded 16-bit SNES style with colored outlines and more colors for highlights and shadows. I was much happier with this look. You’ll also notice that the worm got a lot bigger than the original bird/worm design. This was to ensure he could have visible eyes, which immediately makes him more interesting and identifiable than without – ignoring the fact that this chicken is either super tiny or has a GIANT worm in his backpack. Chicken Wiggle was born!

Wanting the game to be something really special, we let our imaginations go wild. Designing the gameplay for Chicken Wiggle was very different than designing Mutant Mudds or Xeodrifter. With Chicken Wiggle, we first had to create the level editor that the user would ultimately use in the final game before we could design any levels for the game. This was difficult, frustrating, and a little maddening. But, it had to be this way. I wanted to make sure the level editor was awesome, and what better way than forcing myself to use it to make the levels for the game itself?


Making a level editor is basically like making an application, like a paint program or a sophisticated word processor. You must think about the layout, content, interactivity of each element, and much more. It’s complex, so it takes deep forethought, some trial and error, and a lot of time to carefully build it one brick at a time. All the while, I would try to make rudimentary levels, but I had to accept they would never represent the final levels because I didn’t truly know what the final level editor product would look like until it was finished.

It took a lot of discipline and patience to wait until all of the 100+ ingredients that are at the user’s disposal were all designed, implemented, and working properly before making level 1-1. I made countless experimental levels to ensure the level editor was functioning as desired, while also exploring level design approaches. I didn’t know how I wanted to present the “game” aspect to the player, so it was a good opportunity to make lots of different styles of level designs to find the right one.

Should a single level focus on a single item that is available in the level editor, and fully explore all the ways of using that item as a way of teaching the player how the ingredients can be used? Or perhaps each level can contain any number of the ingredients, and the focus should simply be on fun!? In the end, I went with something that explores a small handful of items in a single level to show them on their own as well as how they can work with other items – all while considering a gradual difficulty curve from the beginning of the game to the end.


I have always enjoyed playing and analyzing Nintendo’s work, and especially Mario games. Super Mario World was a big inspiration for Mutant Mudds level design. But, with Chicken Wiggle I had a much larger pool of ingredients to play with! This led me to look at New Super Mario Brothers, Mario Galaxy and the newer Super Mario 3D Land/World titles. In addition to playing the games, I also watched a lot of gameplay videos on YouTube, which is great when you just want to analyze the content of something instead of how it feels. This led me to Mark Brown’s “Game Maker’s Toolkit” video series.

One particular video resonated with me in a major way and helped me cement my thoughts. It is called “Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design" (included above). In the video, Mark dissects how the level design of 3D Mario games have progressed over the years, and culminate into a very concrete system with the release of Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U. As with most things that inspire me creatively, I try to understand the core principles of what the source is achieving and then I see how that may apply to the unique needs of what I want to accomplish in my game.

In this case, I created a seven-step level design guide to follow:

Step 1: Introduce new device in safe environment.
Step 2: Repeat device without safety net.
Step 3: Introduce new hazard.
Step 4: Repeat device with new variation and safety net.
Checkpoint
Step 5: Repeat hazard with extra challenge.
Step 6: Combination of device and hazard without safety net.
Step 7: Repeat device with safety net to reach goal.

The level above is the first level in Chicken Wiggle, after the playable intro level. Let's go through the steps! Step 1 introduces the spring device in a safe environment where it is impossible to be hurt. I also include a ring that can be grappled up to, reminding the player of the grapple ability established in the intro level. Step 2 repeats the same device while introducing death below. This ensures the player understands how to interact with the device before continuing in the level. Step 3 introduces a new hazard in the form of a stationary bat. I also included the destructible pink block (first introduced in the intro level, prior) to remind the player they can peck to destroy things. Step 4 repeats the device with a variation in a safe environment. Familiarity with a twist. Check point! Step 5 repeats the hazard with a variation. In this case it is the simplest of variations. The player is required to jump and grapple-stun and/or attack. This is to ensure the player knows this is possible and potentially expected in the future. Step 6 combines the device and hazard with death below! This allows the player to put all of what they have learned into practice in a hazardous situation. Exciting! Step 7 is a calm reward for making it to the end; the same device with another slight twist to present something familiar with something slightly new.

As you can see, this level design approach generally relies on the use of two items. One “device”, and one “hazard”. In this example the device is a spring, which makes the player bounce higher, and the hazard is a static enemy that hurts the player if collided with. Really basic stuff. Then, there can be supporting items that facilitate the level, such as solid blocks (ground, walls, and ceiling), death spikes, wind currents, and jump-through platforms, and so on, which can all help create a level flow that is interesting, varied, and/or dangerous.

And then there are the pick-ups, which can provide an addition goal and sense of accomplishment in the form of 100 gems to collect in a level and three bonus FUN letters – some of which are perhaps hidden away slightly off the main path for a sense of mystery and discovery.

Hopefully, you can see that we start to have a decent set of ingredients to play with as a designer. But, we now need figure out what to use where and why, and with what? In order to accomplish this, I listed all of the devices in a column and then in the neighboring column I tried to match them up with what could be interesting hazards. Something like this:

Springers             Blubats
Springers             Eyehoppers
Balloons               Thorny Vines
Balloons               Spike-a-boos

And so on…

Once I had a long list of every combination that I thought were decent in concept, I graded each combination with what seemed to be a suitable level of difficulty, from 1 to 5. 1 being easy, and 5 being difficult. Throw into this mix the need for ghost themed levels and levels that utilize power-ups, the list of possibilities quickly became quite huge.

I set myself the arbitrary goal of eight worlds with six levels in each – totaling 48 levels. That seemed like a reasonable number of levels for the story mode, knowing that I intended to upload “Official Atooi” levels after launch for players to download at no extra cost.

The final level list is below. It may have changed slightly once everything was in place, but this represents a fair idea of what I felt was a good way to present the ingredients of the level editor to the player in an informative and entertaining way. I don't think it's much of a spoiler, but if you would prefer not to even get a whiff of what may be in the levels you should skip over the table.

Cloud Tower
1-1
Springers
Blubats
2
1-2
Hero Mask!
Windies
3
1-3
Touchables
Eyehoppers
2
1-4
Invisibles
Vert. Flyers
3
1-5
Peckables
Blubats
2
1-6
Cloud Reprise
All
2
Treetop Tower
2-1
Balloons
Thorny Vines
3
2-2
Speed Shoes!
Spike-a-boos
3 or 4
2-3
Jumpers
Flame Heads
3
2-4
Secret Walls
Spin-a-spikes
3 or 4
2-5
Cloudaways
Slyders
3
2-6
Forest Reprise
All
3 or 4
Dusty Old Tower
3-1
Balloons
Tough Eyehoppers
3
3-2
Demo Hat!
Catbats
4
3-3
Jumpers
Slyders
3
3-4
Invisibles
Goblins
3 or 4
3-5
Touchables
Spin-a-Spikes
3
3-6
Dusty Reprise
All
3 or 4
Tubular Tower
4-1
Peckables
Mr. Bones
3
4-2
Jetpack!
Flame Heads
3
4-3
Cloudaways
Prank Imps
4
4-4
Ghost Touch!
Hori. Helmets
4
4-5
Peckables
Green Gobs
4
4-6
Tubular Reprise
All
3 or 4
Slumber Tower
5-1
Balloons
Spike-a-boos
4
5-2
All The Power
4
5-3
Accord-a-likes
Prank Imp
4
5-4
Secret Walls
Mr. Bones
4 or 5
5-5
Jelly Jelly
Thorny Vines
4
5-6
Reprise 5
All
4
Temple Tower
6-1
Rollabouts
Tough Eyehoppers
4
6-2
Hero Mask!
Spin-a-spikes
4
6-3
Springers
Eyehoppers
4
6-4
Invisible
Growers
3 or 4
6-5
Switcharounds
Cannon-ons
4
6-6
Reprise 6
All
4
Under Construction
7-1
Jelly Jelly
Eyehoppers
4
7-2
Jetpack!
Tough Green Gobs
5
7-3
Balloon
Catbats
4
7-4
Secret Walls
Reactors
5
7-5
Switcharounds
Tough Eyehoppers
4
7-6
Reprise 7
All
5
Tours De Dessert
8-1
Touchables
Slyders
5
8-2
Demo Hat!
Prank Imps
5
8-3
Rollabouts
Spin-a-spikes
5
8-4
Invisible
Vert. Helmets
5
8-5
Jelly Jelly
Tough Green Gobs
5
8-6
Reprise 8
All
5

The really exciting thing for me was that the story mode all focused around the “Rescue Friend” gameplay rules in the level editor. This fit with the story presented at the beginning of the game. However, there are five other gameplay rules to choose from: Grab the Loot, Remove Meanies, Lock & Key, Take Me Home, and Destroy Blocks. These are rules I will be exploring with the Official Atooi levels that will be available for players to download.


In the end, Chicken Wiggle drew on a collection of different games for inspiration. Super Mario Maker for the whole level creation aspect, Banjo-Kazooie for the duo and backpack and classic story vibe, New Zealand Story for some art and level design styles, and The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse for art style and some music style. I’m sure there are many other sources of inspiration for the game, but these stand out in my mind.
Illustration by @anniemae04

We finished the development of Chicken Wiggle and submitted the game to Nintendo for lotcheck approval on June 9, 2017 – 16 months after we started. After two failed attempts and some fixes later, Chicken Wiggle was approved on August 2, 2017. The game could have been released on August 10, 2017 in North America, but with the additional time and complexities involved in a European launch due to the number of countries, the earliest simultaneous release possible was August 17, 2017.

Thanks for reading, and happy gaming!


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