Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Shoplifter Shuffle Postmortem: Part 1

I am reposing this article that was submitted to my company blog here: http://blog.arkadium.com/shoplifter-shuffle-postmortem-part-1 .

Shoplifter Shuffle is a charming little game developed in 48 hours for the Global Game Jam. Two of us here at Arkadium contributed to the project – R&D developer David and game designer Brian– along with three other members from the gaming community.

If you haven’t checked out Shoplifter Shuffle, here’s the premise. It’s an asymmetrical, local 2-player game where one player secretly selects a character to be the shoplifter, trying to blend in with the AI-controlled crowd and get past security. The other player plays the security guard, looking for the shopper who’s acting out of the ordinary. The game doesn’t just take place inside the computer monitor, however. Since the two players are seated directly next to each other, the security player can closely watch the shoplifter’s fingers, while the shoplifter can do what he can to cover his hands or press decoy keys to throw off the security. The unique interactivity and fun presentation charmed the judges and our peers, and the game took home a nomination for the Most Innovative Award and won first place for the Audience’s Choice Award.
Some members of the team were experienced game jammers, but this year, they approached the game jam from a completely new perspective. We're here to give a short retrospective of the things that went well for us and a couple of things that didn't. For our Part 1 of the series, check out our breakdown of what went well:
What Went Well
1.       Using an additional time constraint
The Global Game Jam was 48 hours long, and anyone who’s ever had to make a game in 48 hours can tell you it’s not much time. In previous years at the Global Game Jam, we’d stay up all night working, sustaining ourselves with caffeinated beverages and scrambling until the very last minute.
This year, however, we were less inclined to pull all-nighters; four out of five of us are married and most of us had other obligations for the weekend. David (the programmer) had a sister visiting from overseas that same week, Brian (the designer) had to spend half his Saturday helping his brother move, and Gary (the musician) was repainting his house before his parents came back from vacation. Overall, we knew we didn't have 48 hours to spare.
So we said, “Let’s do it in 8.” That sounds crazy, but for us it was a breakthrough. It’s far too easy to let your scope get out of hand, even with the prior knowledge that you only have two days to work on it. The additional, self-imposed time constraint forced us to keep our scope as limited as possible and throw away any ideas that were even moderately big.
Reducing your scope not only decreases development time, but it has a useful secondary effect: it keeps your game simple. I can’t stress how important that is in a game jam environment where people’s interaction with your game is about 5 minutes long. A simple, concise game tends to “demo well” and leave a more lasting impression.
And yes, we did make our game in 8 hours. Well… we did spend 2-3 additional hours playtesting and fixing bugs, but that doesn't count, does it?
In the end, our schedule broke down this way:
On Friday night, right after the theme was revealed, our team went to dinner for some brainstorming. By the time we finished eating, we had found a concept we all liked, and we agreed to run with it. Rather than begin development that night, we decided to go home and start fresh the next day.
On Saturday, we met in the afternoon at David’s house and did pretty much all the art, programming, sound, and design work in one sitting (besides a short break for dinner). Most of us wanted to head home by midnight, and we cut a few features to make sure the game was code-complete by that point.
On Sunday, we met in the morning and did some polish, bug-fixing, and final balancing before the presentations started.
2.       Avoiding the obvious
In addition to the stricter time constraint, we had a second self-imposed rule going into the game jam, which was to not make the obvious. We didn’t want to present our awesome game only to find out that three other teams had the same idea. But how do we determine what is obvious and what isn’t? One simple trick is to take the first three ideas that come to mind and throw them away.
This year’s theme was the sound of a heartbeat. To us, the obvious three ideas were:
- A game about an actual heart, pumping blood or doing whatever hearts do.
-  A game where your character’s ability is directly mapped to their heart rate, e.g. they can jump higher or hit harder if they have a lot of adrenaline.
- An audio-based game where the sound of heartbeats gives you clues on your objective.
Not to say that these options were bad; in fact, Inde’Pulse of the Samurai, and Silent Hunter followed these three ideas respectively and all won or got nominated for awards. But our team wanted to ensure we were completely original in both theme and mechanics.
We interpreted the heartbeat theme to mean tension and nervousness, which led us to discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and Chris Hecker’s Spy Party. We were drawn to the idea of one player keeping his identity secret, and having the secret be communicated by a heartbeat.
Jumping off from that point, we decided to make a multiplayer game about deduction, body language, and the tension players feel when they’re sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and competing – especially when one is keeping a secret from the other.
We used the heartbeat sound as a way to increase tension at a critical moment in the game. When the security guard is “looking at” the shoplifter (i.e., putting the cursor over the shoplifter’s character), the shoplifter hears a pounding heartbeat through the headphones. This the shoplifter’s moment to panic and think, “Oh no, they've found me!” and it makes for a more cathartic experience when the tension is resolved.
3.       Playing to the team’s strengths
We had an incredible 2D artist, whose specialty was drawing cute animated characters with tons of personality, and a musician with a quirky sense of humor. So straight off the bat, we knew that making something quirky and weird would be our best bet.
While choosing the theme for our game mechanic, we started off with a generic sniper idea similar to Spy Party, which later turned into a border patrol officer overseeing people crossing a bridge. These antagonistic and perhaps controversial themes didn't really fit our team’s strengths, however. We suggested a lighter paparazzi theme, where a photographer is trying to find a secretive celebrity among a crowd of AI characters. This worked better, though there are already similar paparazzi games out there. Finally, we settled on security guards (or “loss prevention officers”) trying to catch a shoplifter in a department store.
While this theme was unusual, it was also relatable to anyone playing the game – we’ve all had our receipts checked by these loss prevention officers before. Our artist really made the game come to life with his art, creating eight distinctive characters and adding all these little touches (like the NTSC scan lines on the security feed) that maintained a consistent visual style. Our musician also ended up writing a theme song to go along our intro screen, which turned out to be a hit among players.
Shoplifter Shuffle,
Stay out of trouble,
Blend with the crowd,And stay in a huddle!
But of course every time you’re trying something new, not all things work out well. Check back tomorrow to see our breakdown of what didn’t go well, and our final takeaways from creating our game and working within a game jam!

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