Original Game: Shape’Scape
Project Length: 20 Weeks (10/16/12 – 3/12/13)
Team: Rotten Ideas (5 Members)
My Roles: Concept art, Story, Level Design, Character Development, Set Pieces, NPCs, Easter Eggs
End Product: Game Demo
In the winter of 2012/13, I was part of a game design team called Rotten Ideas. Over the course of 20 weeks, we developed Shape’Scape, a multi-character puzzle-platformer. I was responsible for the story, character designs, facial expressions, NPCs, set piece assets, and about 30-40% of the level design. I also participated in the overall concepting of the game, but that was a shared process amongst the entire team.
Our project lead, Alex Boyd, composed this trailer to show off the game’s main features. The music is from Little Big Planet.
Whenever artwork is created, it doesn’t merely exist on the screen or paper it was designed upon; it also exists in the world of Prim, the land of all 2D and 3D shapes. One side of the world is called Crayon Country, where all of the flat art resides, while the other half is the DDD Kingdom, home to all multidimensional artwork. The relations between the two haven’t been great, but they haven’t been terrible… until now.
One day in Crayon Country, all of the most talented shapes decided to put on an exhibition show for their president, Ms. Paint. The green circle showed off her ability to double jump and slow time, the blue square demonstrated how he can flip gravity for himself, and the red triangle
had an ulcer froze anyone that got too close. Everyone was very impressed, and the event was a great success!
Suddenly, King DS Max III arrived from the DDD Kingdom with his minions, and kidnapped all of the talented shapes! Unless and until they agreed to work for him in his castle, he threw them into the dungeon, where they would’ve spent the rest of their lives until they died. Luckily for the trio, they escaped! That’s where we, the players, come in!
Play Shape’Scape yourself here, courtesy of my teammate, Jason Stanczyk.
Shape’Scape is a single-player game that allows control over all three characters. Depending on the needs of the given obstacles and puzzles, players are able to swap out control between the shapes to venture further into the game. Sometimes this leads to branching paths that eventually reunite, while other times a single shape can lead the way and “call” the other two to the current location and continue. All damage is a one-hit kill to keep the game simplified.
The game has two levels. Each level has four segments, and each segment has three puzzles/obstacles to clear. In the first level, the shapes struggle to find a way out of the tortures of the castle dungeon, whereas the second level finds them crashing a posh party in the king’s living space. If the shapes can just make it out the front door, from there it’s just a mad dash home.
When setting out to create this game, Rotten Ideas had originally envisioned a game designed for two players and required them to work cooperatively, yet kept them competing for advantages. The contrast of the two goals drew a lot of interest, but it was decided that the concept would require far more fine-tuning than we’d be able to effectively accomplish in 20 weeks. Keeping the scope of our time and resources in mind, the team switched gears and made it a single-player game, but maintained the theme of teamwork throughout the project.
As noted above, I wore many hats for this project. Rotten Ideas had five team members, which required all of us to perform several different tasks. In the initial concepting phase, I was given the task of brainstorming some potential character ideas that could potentially be used as a springboard for further concepts. I doodled various organic faces and heads, but I don’t remember what it was that made me simply draw a triangle, a circle, and a square with faces. I know that I was aiming for simplicity, so it was likely connected to that. Whatever it was that possessed me, my team found the idea intriguing, and it led to the idea of the player controlling several characters instead of just one.
While we worked together to iron out the mechanics, I was also constructing the story at the same time. Even though I knew there didn’t need to be a heavy hand in this area, I felt that there were too many opportunities for puns to let them slip by, which led to absurdities such as King DS Max III (aka 3DS Max) and Ms. Paint (MS Paint) as rulers of opposing dominions. Even the world name, Prim, is a reference to the term “primitive,” which is used to describe basic shapes in both 2D and 3D. (Fun fact: Prim was also a proto-name for the game itself, but was eventually discarded for being too simple.)
The story turned out to be quite useful toward the end, as it was decided that it would be perfect for our tutorial. I was instructed to create storybook pages featuring simple, childlike drawings and featuring a short but informative script. I take exceptional pride in the work I did for this, because my instructor — a teacher that harbors absolutely no affection for story in video games — read my script once, and immediately responded with, “I love it.” Unfortunately, the tutorial never made it into the final demo.
The next phase largely involved getting the base coding of the game functioning, so I decided to get a head start on the level designs, along with fellow teammate Jason Stanczyk. We agreed that it would be wiser to build individual obstacles/puzzles first and create the connective passages around them afterward, rather than trying to design entire levels in full and attempt to hamfist challenges in after the fact. Jason and I developed a highly productive rhythm or brainstorming puzzles on our own, then presenting them to one another for adjustments and/or approval, and afterward laying out drawings of the approved puzzles to organize them into level segments. Our project lead, Alex Boyd, later joined us to contribute a handful of puzzles as well. All level designs were finished within three weeks using this method.
Each puzzle was given a complexity/difficulty ranking of 1, 2, or 3 after we put our heads together to critique them, with 1’s being more simple and 3’s more challenging. Some of the levels appear in the game exactly as they were concepted, or with only minor changes. Other puzzles were used with some technical changes, and others were cut entirely.
With that task completed, my focus then turned to artwork. I joined another of my teammates, Edgar Cuna, to work out the visual aesthetic of the game. It was agreed that the 2D homeland was intended to be unpolished and have a crayon-like texture, whereas the 3D realm would be composed to cleaner and more detailed designs. This would not only help to differentiate the settings, but it reinforced the gameplay by making the protagonists stand out against their background.
Edgar worked primarily on model textures and background images while my attention centered on the three protagonists. I had originally shied away from defining a gender among any of the characters, but the two rulers of the land had already been designated as male and female, and I quickly noticed all of my teammates referring to each character as “guy” or “man.” As a female gamer myself, I made the decision to make at least one of the characters female. This ended up being the circle, as women are often curvier than men. I also made it a point to NOT make the female character pink or purple, since that’s often a default mindlessly foisted upon female characters.
Even though these characters didn’t have any lines in the game, I still felt it was important to give them some degree of personality, which could be achieved by their visual design. Granted, that wasn’t necessarily an easy task when the character is nothing more than a basic shape with a face on top, but facial expressions can be powerful. I went back to my initial drawings from the beginning, which featured the square looking angry, the circle looking happy, and the triangle crying (due to the face that he was upside down, orientation-wise). I ran with these ideas further and created full mood charts for all three characters, which were provided to the programmers to use under various conditions. Each character had a total of 9 expressions, in addition to a tenth “blink” frame in case it was needed for transitions. (This frame is not included in the face charts because it’s the same as the Inactive expression but with flat eyelines.)
There was still some time left in the project, and my tasks up to that moment had been completed, so I turned my eye back to the game to evaluate what else I could do to improve upon it. It quickly became apparent to me that the game was extremely sterile and lifeless. None of the environments felt like real spaces because they weren’t populated, and completely lacked props and set pieces. In order to make the game more lively, I went to work building all of the small background assets for the game. This ranged from shackles in the dungeon to vases at the posh party. Some items were built to stand alone, such as the chandeliers, whereas others were made repeatable with end pieces, as was the case with the chains and the velvet ropes. By building the assets in this way, the programmers had far more versatility in the ways in which the props could be utilized within the game.
I’d also like to point out that I created the pick-up item, which is the flag of Crayon Country (visible among the Level 1 assets). The flag is shown to the player repeatedly during the opening/tutorial level, allowing them to recognize it as a good thing in-game.
The other thing that made the game feel sterile to me was the lack of other characters for the protagonists to encounter. Sure, there were 3D shapes all over the place as enemies, but the entire point of kidnapping shapes was to make them work in the castle. It needed other prisoners, as well as 2D shapes that had caved and began serving King DS Max III.
I created several main categories of NPCs: skeletons, executioners, guards, and butlers. (One could technically also count the artistic statues in this section, even though those were technically props, but they were ‘people’ statues in a Venus de Milo style.) I had originally only built a couple of characters for each of these roles, and they all shared the same shapes as the protagonists. In a moment of clarity, I decided I was being ridiculously narrow in my approach, and I expanded the NPC cast to include trapezoids, rhombuses, stars, and rectangles. In the case of the butlers, I also gave each of these characters a unique facial expression. It really helped to bring the settings to life.
As a side note, I’d like to point out that none of these NPCs are drawn crayon-style. From a design perspective, this is to help keep them distinct from the protagonists, so the player won’t get confused and think they can interact with them. Storywise, however, I determined that all of the characters we see working in the castle have gained crisper lines and colors due to having become “one of them.”
I personally happen to be a gamer that loves hidden extras, and since my team was moving along on schedule, I started dabbling with the notion of Easter eggs. We had joked all along that Jason would be dead (in a comical manner) somewhere in every level, but I decided to take a different approach. I drew a bit of inspiration from the game ‘Splosion Man, which featured numerous references and jokes about the dev team themselves. Even though I didn’t necessarily get everything I was looking at, I still found it amusing, and it made me feel good about the team for not taking themselves too seriously.
One of the most important set pieces I’d created was the portrait of King DS Max III, and I had actually spent quite a bit of time on the picture frame used for it. I decided to bank on the hard work I’d already put in by adding in portraits of each member of our team, along with a humorous but relevant title below our name. I even threw in a picture of our teacher, who was not only a bit of a meme in and of himself, but was essentially acting as our publisher, so it felt appropriate.
I have to say that working on this team has been the single best experience in my game design journey. Rotten Ideas was a team that didn’t silence dissent, encouraged and nurtured ideas, and allowed each other to work independently but not without direction. Everyone pulled their weight, and if there was a problem, everyone put their head together to solve it. Critiques were always constructive, and no one dug in their feet and refused to compromise. When we had to cut down or completely scrap plans, everyone took it in stride instead of getting upset.
Perhaps the most important element of this experience, however, is simply the fact that everyone maintained a positive attitude and creative energy. I looked forward to every day of this project. There was always laughter, and there were no arguments that I can think of. We were energized and eager to work. There was no drama.
Honestly, if I got a call tomorrow informing me that Rotten Ideas was getting back together to make a new game, I’d ask when the first meeting was. It was an amazing experience, and I’d love to do it again.
Shape’Scape is the property of myself and the rest of my team, Rotten Ideas: Alex Boyd, Jason Stanczyk, Edgar Cuna, and Cole James, No part of this game or its elements may be reproduced in any form without full consent from the team.
Posted on April 29, 2013, in Artwork, Creative Writing, Documentation, Game Design, Game Idea, Level Design, Original Characters, Plot, Script, Storyboard, Video Games, World Building and tagged Shape'Scape. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.