Rat and Jolt: A short guide to game design

Imagine a 2D game where you are a scientist performing a simple test on an experiment to turn electricity into physical matter. While you are experimenting, you turn yourself into pure electricity. The experiment also overloaded all the outlets in use, destroying the outlets the devices they were connected to and shutting down all power in the building.

Now due to the electricity, you are bound to electrical machinery and as times passes, are slowly dissipating. Your only hope is to make it to the backup generator located on the far side of the facility by hopping from machine to machine using whatever conductive material is connecting them, with help from your trusty pet rat, Spunky. I call my game creation, “Rat and Jolt.”

This is a game called "Pretentious Game" made by a game creator called keybol. It was created with minimalistic graphics and was surprising a very popular game due to its story, gameplay and music, proving you don't need great graphics to have a great game.  Photo courtesy by newgrounds.com

This is a game called “Pretentious Game” made by a game creator called keybol. It was created with minimalistic graphics and was surprising a very popular game due to its story, gameplay and music, proving you don’t need great graphics to have a great game. Photo courtesy by newgrounds.com

That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it? What if I told you that you could make a game like this? Well, as many beginning game developers and kickstart people found out, making a game is not easy, and making an actual good game is extremely hard. Let me go through some of the steps to get through this game.

First and most importantly, a plan needs to be drawn up for the game. You would need to decide how many levels to include, what kind of gameplay the game should have, what type of graphics, music and sounds, what size the game characters and objects should be and what should the environment look like. These elements can change during the game making process, but it’s good to have an idea in mind before doing any work, especially for the size of objects and characters.

Doing this may not only prevent you from having to redo artwork or designs, but it will help you determine if your ideas can be made into a game in the first place and may even help you plan out a schedule for how much time to spend working on the game each day. Even the creators of the Mario series drew out their levels before programming them.

As for my game, I’ll include 10 levels for now (as I can always add more later), the gameplay will requires using buttons on the keyboard to move around and interact with the world. The graphics will be pixelated and simple, as my art skills are still developing. For sound and music, I’ll just include some noises related to the environment (dripping water from the ceiling, crackling electricity, just to name a few) and perhaps some low, intense music with a constant beat to create suspense, like the sound of a pulsating violin.

This is a layout for a level of "Rat and Jolt" that Weidman created. Photo courtesy by M.Weidman/Setonian

This is a layout for a level of “Rat and Jolt” that Weidman created. Photo courtesy by M.Weidman/Setonian

For the size of the objects and characters, the rooms will be very long and tall to make room for the many machines, the rat and professor will be rather small compared to their surroundings, and the environment will be a rather messy lab building.

For those who feel that they don’t possess the necessary skills (drawing, programming, or overall design skills for example) to create a game, there is still hope. Many great creators collaborate with others online. You could try introducing your idea to potential partners who are also starting out, which is another good reason to plan out your game. This shows them that you know what you want and that you are motivated to finish it. Too many times, I’ve come across people who begin a project and then abandon it soon after.

Now for the game art, you can make most of the objects and backgrounds in a downloaded art program (I personally use SketchBookExpress, but there are tons of good ones out there though you may have to pay a few dollars for them). I would suggest finding one that allow you to remove the white background completely, otherwise you will have to manually cut out objects from it like a piece of paper before putting them in the game.

These are four frames Weidman created for a rough animation of the rat using the Piskel. Photo courtesy by piskelapp.com

These are four frames Weidman created for a rough animation of the rat using the Piskel. Photo courtesy by piskelapp.com

Now, “Rat and Jolt” does not include any enemies or dragons to hurt players, so the only two characters I’ll have to animate moving are the rat and the professor. A good tool to use for this, especially pixel art animations, is an online program called Piskel. In games with really simple graphics, you may only need to make two or three pictures to make a character look like they’re moving. In this case, we only need to make the rat look like it’s walking left and right (in Piskel, you can invert all the pictures to make it look like the rat is walking the opposite way, so this takes out some of the work).

For the professor, he/she is a ball of energy, so I’ll make a yellow ball that wiggles and has white zig-zag lines coming off of it. If I finish the game and don’t like some of the objects or characters, I can always redo some of the artwork, just as long as the size of them still matches with the environment.

The original Super Mario game levels (as well as many levels in Mario sequals) were drawn out on graph paper by the creators. Photo courtesy by qz.com

The original Super Mario game levels (as well as many levels in Mario sequals) were drawn out on graph paper by the creators. Photo courtesy by qz.com

Now that everything is planned out and drawn, what do you use to bring it all together? A game creator program. Believe it or not, there are some programs that are completely free that were created for the specific purpose of making games like Stencyl, Flixel, Game Maker Studio and Unity. These programs take most of the need for coding out of game creating (although it still provides the option to use coding).

They usually offer tutorials and the best part is that there are online communities that you can connect with to seek help and collaborate with. Keep in mind though, the tutorials only show you the basics so you’ll need to do some reading and start experimenting to learn all the ins and outs of the programs, but for the most part, everything you could need is provided.

Now for one of the most important details. Whether you use code or not, it’s important you understand the concept of cause and effect. This allows the game to move forward in a coherent way. For example, remember when you were young, how you were told you couldn’t have dessert until you finished dinner? Well, the same rule applies to games. You can’t access level 2 until you have reached the flag at the end of level 1.

This is a 2D horror game called "Gyossait," created by Amon26. It was created using the Stency1 game creator. Photo courtesy by newgrounds.com

This is a 2D horror game called “Gyossait,” created by Amon26. It was created using the Stency1 game creator. Photo courtesy by newgrounds.com

For “Rat and Jolt”, most of the causes will come from the rat interacting with the game world. For example, when the rat is near object A (you can specify an exact distance in the program) and the player hits button x, a pipe falls. Each program may present this situation in slightly different lights, but in the end, it all comes down to cause and effect.

Lastly, (and perhaps most importantly) ask people, both online and in person, to test your game. It’s hard for a creator to be truly objective with their own game, so asking others their opinion on it gives you feedback on what needs to be improved, fixed, added or taken out of your game. Also, I’ve tested a number of games and I can assure you that strange things happen when a game is faced with unexpected contradictions.

I apologize that I couldn’t go into more detail on the actual programs, creating an opening movie for the game, voice acting and game design. However, two of the most important things to have when creating a game are curiosity and perseverance, as these will help you through the struggles you may face.

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