We’re doing our best to release an extra level for our Keen Demo as soon as possible. We already have a lot of bug fixes and graphical improvements, but we REALLY want to show people some more playable content.
What we’ve been tentatively dubbing “the prison stage”, or even “level 5” is going to add two new mechanics: pushing blocks and destroying blocks. The level, set in a private prison facility to where Kim was taken after being captured on Level 4 (the factory) also debuts the sentry bot — a very strong robot that will only activate when it sees Kim. The overall tone of this level is a bit darker, but still ironic, as most of the game’s art.
Pushable blocks allow for more complex accessibility puzzles, as well as Sokoban-like segments. When combined to breakable blocks, pushable blocks can form locks that can only be opened from one side.
I know the whole point of a Global Game Jam is to try working with new people and yatta yatta, but we, at Cat Nigiri, are so morbidly codependent we had to work together. Team was Me (Caio, Game Designer), Juliane (Music), Frango (Art), ex-Cat Nigiri Marcello (Game Designer) and Estevão (awesome programmer at Hoplon).
We came up with this hyper-80ies sort-of-shooter called SUPER RAD LASER, about a laser beam, set in a super rad universe. The theme for this year’s GGJ was “waves”, so a light beam made sense. Player controls the amplitude and the frequency of the beam, and shoots a pulse to damage enemies.
Aside from the futuristic skyline, all art and animation was made entirely by Frango during the jam. He is THAT fast. The music, by Juliane, reminds me a lot of Giorgio Moroder’s work. In fact, the game was supposed to be about Giorgio Moroder shooting stuff — we’d call him “Giorgio Marauder”, but we went for a more abstract approach later on.
Game design-wise, the game is somewhat broken as of now, as it has a clear dominant strategy. We — that was basically Marcello at that point — were able to mitigate that though level design, but some key features were still missing at the end of the jam, making balancing this game a tricky task.
The game was coded in Unity 5, and we plan to release a better-balanced, low-bug version soon.
Our backers, players and fans will get to play the game with its core mechanics no matter if we reach the goal. We opened the crowdfunding campaign to allow players to get more involved with the project, and to be able to participate in a special way. This means that every penny we get goes directly into the creation of additional content. The more we gather, the more fun we’ll be able to create.
This will make the game ––much–– better in three major ways:
We’ll be able to get more people in the team to launch the game faster with much more quality;
The input and participation from the community would create unique tailor-made experiences;
More levels and more gameplay with additional and creative content.
To back up this compromise, we have solid playable builds, such as the Pre-Alpha and the Alpha versions you can play for free. Backers will get to play closed Beta versions as we build up the levels.
A couple months ago (a couple dozen months, to be precise), during last year’s GDC, we found out that, although Keen’s gameplay was near spot-on, some other aspects of the game could be improved. Game Connection — a huge matchmaking event for developers and publishers — made us see lots of people from all around the globe give their impressions on Keen. Some Japanese players said it looked too Chinese. Chinese players felt the game was too Japanese. A couple industry hotshots found the game’s setting somewhat unappealing, and the protagonist a bit generic.
Off we went, back to Brazil, to fix most of these issues. The key changes, so far, are:
1- Not Japan, not China, not Asia. Keen overall aesthetics was always evidently influenced by Asian tropes, but, unlike Star Wars, our depiction of Asia was overly stereotypical, if not a bit sloppy; we were mixing lots of nations, as if Pelé dancing some Tango in Caracas was a good example of the Peruvian culture. We got rid of overly obvious references and re-imagined Keen’s universe as a brand new place, using Asia as a guideline, rather than copying/pasting cliches.
2- Kim was dull. Swords are awesome, but swords are also ridiculously overused. We switched Kim’s mighty blade to a Naginata — a weapon more associated with female warriors. Plus, we finally gave her some skates, to go with her rad, roller-derby-esque “Tony The Tiger” attitude. It also makes a whole lot of sense, as she’s the only character sliding instead of walking tile by tile (plus, it introduces a new VIDEO GAME LOGIC question: who skates on grass?)
3- Logo had nothing to do with the rest of the game. Ok, it was a neat logo, but it was totally off; had different finishing, with a big katana sword that could be seen NOWHERE throughout the game. It also had crappy legibility when small, relied too much on colors, and some people read it “Kccn.” The new one has more of that cutey “sticker look” we use everywhere else in the game.
Check out Keen’s modifications and tell us your impressions! Demo version can be downloaded here and here.
Fine-tuning the controls for the core gameplay took quite some time, but the game is finally behaving the way we needed. Keen is a turn-based game, meaning you can only play after the opponent makes his move — the opponent being the CPU-controlled creeps. There are a lot of great turn-based dungeon games, as it really fits the genre nicely, but Keen was begging to be something else. The whole ninja sword-slashing thing, along with her quick sliding moves implied a sense of speed that had nothing in common with the choppy gameplay normally found in turn-based titles. Kim controls needed to be responsive and fast-paced LIKE A NINJA; it needed to feel real-time, even if it wasn’t.
We had essentially two major in-game situations: a) Kim is moving around alone in the room, and b) there are enemies in the same room as Kim. In situation A, the game was already flowing rather fast from the get go. We just made Kim speed huger, and implemented an “input list”, to Commander Keen command Kim to move even if the keystroke happened before the end of the turn. What this input list does is basically stitch turns together, should the player input commands faster than the turns take to end. Easy Peasy. Situation B was a lot more complicated because the enemy had to be perceived moving, otherwise the player would not know what just happened and would deem our game garbage. For the sake of legibility, enemies were only moving after Kim’s turn ended, which was forcing the player to wait for their move regardless of input list and movement speed. No player wants to have his/her input denied for a couple hundred milliseconds on every turn, as that makes the pace of the game appear dragged, like playing Sonic on a very laggy emulator. We could’ve said “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” but the player has no obligation to understand why sometimes our game controls differenly than others. This kind of inconsistency can ruin the experience for a lot of people (myself included), so we had to ensure the game would have snappy controls regardless of the complexity of the turn. The solution was to move every enemy simultaneously with Kim, so that all turns would be roughly the same duration. If the player commands Kim to move but there’s an enemy still finishing his animation, the game will finish all enemy animations abruptly (no worries, nobody notices it!). In case of combat, all enemies will wait until the attack animation ends. During the attack animation, player controls are mute. This worked pretty well because battle animations are really short in this game, and watching the combat is actually important to help players understand what happened. Plus, a lot of action games deliberately halt controls just to make a stylish slow-mo stunt (see Batman: Arkham series).
You’ll see all that!
…in a couple months.
Like with the gameplay, Keen’s general concept took a while to be settled (and we’re still never too sure about it). As I said a couple posts ago, the dashing moves and slashing attacks of our character got us flirting with the idea of making it about a ninja. That was further endorsed by Nando’s admiration (more like fanaticism) for feudal Japan. I’m not saying the game actually takes place in real Japan (or in the past), as the world of Keen is all made up; we just wanted to have a well-established aesthetic to our hero that could convey the values of respect, dedication, hard work, honor, and all that Hollywood ever implied to medieval Japan. It is a trope, I know, but we’re using it mildly, like George Lucas did with the samurai in Star Wars.
Another thing we quickly decided was that our hero would be a girl named Kim (now THAT’s an intended pun!). There’s not much to say about why she’s a girl — we just felt like it — but a lot to say about how to make a female character that wouldn’t perpetuate gender stereotypes, which is a subject for a whole post on gender representation in Keen.
Finally, the setting. Keen is a clash of the Eden-like village where our heroine has always lived, with the corrupting power of a highly industrialized, techno-megalopolis, represented by the evil Chikara Corporation. All enemies are either robots produced by Chikara, or people brainwashed by it. Everything practical comes from the City, whereas all things mystical are from the village. This rather satirical take on globalization was probably infused in my head after watching a bit of Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi/Baraka with Frango. Again, Keen setting should become a post of its own.
Speaking of Frango, now that’s a nice guy to have around your projects. Frango is Keen’s Art guy, but he surely does a lot more than that. He also was responsible from taking Keen from this (left) to this (right):
Keen’s kitten-filled younger brother is hitting the stores (both Google Play and App Store)!!
Kitty Kitchen was a very quick project to develop. Cat Nigiri had a game about cats and food that was scrapped for parts in late 2014 due to production issues. We had characters animation sheets, background music and interface art, all sitting around in our Google Drive doing nothing. One day Nando and I stumbled upon Guilherme Grillo, a young indie programmer who wanted to develop something with us. Grillo liked the idea behind Kitty Kitchen, and the project quickly jumped back into production. The original idea was quite different from the game we were starting to make, so most of our assets became unsuited for this new direction we were taking — the game was now far more frantic and action-oriented, whereas the original was a relaxing little puzzle. Luckily, the kittens’ animations could be used — and they all look so nice! Keen art director/producer Felipe “Frango” Gall made all the rest of the art, came up with sound effects, and picked some nice royalty-free gamey tunes from a site called incompetech.com. The game was developed using Game Maker over the course of three months.
Super Metroid is my all time favorite. That perfect blend of ominous sci-fi ambience with the dreaded sense of being the sole benevolent creature on the whole planet hooked me instantly. I played it for the first time when I was 24, so there is no way I’m mistaking nostalgia for quality. It’s still fresh, still engrossing and still relevant, even 21 years after being released. Brilliant people like Axiom Verge‘s Thomas Happ, or VVVVVV‘s Terry Cavanagh make me I feel like I shouldn’t retire before working on a Metroid-like title of my own too! Well, my Metroid game is not going to be Keen, though its vision of progression and level design was — and is constantly being — strongly shaped by Nintendo’s genre-defining platformer.
Keen was now being thought as a candy-crushing collection of mini-levels comprising one room each. Similar to the mobile “saga” trend, our levels would be variations of a few main game modes, such as “kill everybody,” “collect all objects,” “survive N waves,” and “time attack”. All that made sense for a casual, mobile free-to-play, but soon that started to feel too shallow to hook players in the long run. It needed a bit of exploration and surprise. We went on to implement a Binding-of-Isaac-esque dungeon crawler level structure, forcing the player to navigate between several rooms within a level. This way it was possible to add Zelda-like soft locks (like keys and switches), ensuring a good amount of backtracking to an otherwise pretty straightforward puzzle game.
The idea for this crawling mechanic was to make the player pick one of the four directions (represented by open doors) from a menu after the room puzzle was beaten. That was also a very dumb idea, as it ignored the fact that reaching for the doors could work as a mini-puzzle on its own. A couple lines of code later and the player was now able to walk to any door he could reach, which opened a great number of possibilities for intricate dungeon design. Soon the game started to resemble another awesome title I’m very fond of: 1987’s Metal Gear, for the MSX (pictured).
Keen still kept a core distinction from Zelda/Metal Gear/Metroid by having several self-contained levels instead of a single, massive level. The level progression in Keen is like if every stage in Mario was a huge Zelda dungeon, or an abridged version of Metal Gear’s Outer Heaven.
In June 2015, Nando and I took a small demo level of Keen to a game developers convention in São Paulo. This time, virtually everybody loved the game (or convincingly lied about it). We even had devkits being offered to us by major console manufacturers! After half a year blindly tweaking the game, seeing all that people playing obsessively through the demo dungeon was very reassuring; we really didn’t see that one coming. Once again, we got back home ready to give our best to overcome yet another challenge: Keen had zero art direction.
Although Keen has grown a lot in 16 months, not a single picture of our baby was posted here. Like young, inexperienced parents feeling guilty for not posting their toddler’s first steps on YouTube because they were too busy watching BoJack and Seinfeld reruns (not autobiographical, although very likely to be, if I ever have kids), it is imperative to post a nice retrospective of our most ambitious project to date. Keen won’t be around for the next one year, at least, but we’re inviting you to watch Keen grow with us. From time to time, you’ll be able to give it a go, and we’d love it if you could kindly share your thoughts on how it’s shaping up.
From quarters on a paper board to an exploration-driven puzzle/adventure: Shaping Keen
Origins (4.5 bya – September 2014)
Once upon a time Keen was nothing. Didn’t even have a name. Like every other citizen of the world, I’ve spent the first half of 2014 playing the hit Italian masterpiece “2048”. Not going to digress over the whole Threes/1024/2048 who-came-first debate (or talk about the origins of any non-Keen game under the “origins” section of my Keen-related post, for that matter), as they are all brilliant. The way the same gameplay would become increasingly harder by itself, without any external arbitrariness like timers and whatnot, was pure elegance. But what really got me about “2048” was the simplicity of its controls. So comfy, so accessible, so… portable. I mean, if something can be played on a keyboard and on an iPhone with the same ease, putting those idiotic on-screen virtual pads to rest, that thing must be mercilessly copied instantly. I’ve been obsessing about decent directional controls on mobile for 5 years, and 2048 solution was probably the best one for turn-based games I’ve seen. “X-COM” Also made me very keen (nothing to say about pun intentions) to work on a tactics game of any sort, so I quickly started to conceive the core mechanics for a slide-moving, 2-players board game about 3 beans that wanted to shoot down 3 quarters that also wanted to shoot down those 3 beans, on a pen-and-paper grid. I figured that if my fellow tester Olivia (pictured) and I could play such a complex tactics game making all the pesky turn and pathfinding calculations in our heads, and still have a marginally good time, the idea could be promising. Luckily, we had some moderate fun that afternoon, so Cat Nigiri started prototyping proto-Keen in Unity 3D. It was a 3-on-3 tactics game with moving/attacking sub-turns that controlled like a slide puzzler on a 7×13 tiles board.
I feel awful about that, but I don’t have any screenshots of our first digital draft of Keen, creatively named “tactics.” This journey to computerland would not be possible without the help of a guy named Gabriel (pictured), who helped us prototype my crazy beans/quarters idea. Back then, the player had to kill 3 sliding Hyrule Guards utilizing his 3 sliding Links in an arena made of tilesets downloaded from RPG Maker communities (thank you, uncredited artist). The 3 Links would move 5 times, all at the same time, then select their attacks from a collapsing menu, and wait for the three Guards to do the same. Basic gameplay was like this, but trading cheerful kittens for confusing menus and intricate gameplay. “Tactics” was deemed fun enough, so we took it to Europe to show it off to fellow developers in Cologne, Germany.
Cologne sort of liked it, but the prototype faced a fair share of criticism for being too complex, specially for its mobile intentions, so the first thing we did as we got home was rethink the whole gameplay. I went on a simplifying spree. Three Links were two too much; Five moves per turn? What about one! and finally: what if the movement and the attack controls shared the very same sliding mechanic? Come to think of it, sliding Link around was the only undisputed, flawless feature we had in our prototype; why not make the whole game flawless?
In a matter of a couple days we had a new build of the game. And omg, was that different! Link was slashing fluidly through the enemies, moving freely like a ninja. It felt like every turn was Link’s turn. It started to strike us that maybe that was not a turn-based game anymore. It had turns, but it was starting to feel more actiony. This time I’m not only going to show a screenshot of it, I’m also providing a link for you to play the prototype we had 14 months ago.
You cannot slash through enemies like a ninja and NOT be a ninja, so, much to Nando’s — Cat Nigiri’s co-founder and go-getter — delight, the game went with an oriental setting. To be fair, me and Nando actually thought of a few other excuses for the hero’s movement to be like that, but neither “he/she is on roller skates” nor “it’s a world made of ice” grew that much on us. Also, nobody thought of making it about bears destroying art either.
“Tactics” was now called “Keen,” and was all about cutting bad guys with sharp blades. The game was far from ready, as we only had an endless puzzle game with placeholder art, but we now had a name, a setting, and a core gameplay to start working with. We just had to figure out how to turn that into a solid video game experience.