UE4 March Jam – Post Mortem
A bit more than a week ago I participated in the Unreal Engine 4 monthly game jam (March 2016). I decided to go solo to better manage my time and get some game design practice as well as some more experience with the engine.
As with most game jams, all participants started out with a common theme. The theme for this month was “The Sky is the Limit”, chosen and inspired by the impressive Vulkan demo running on mobile. My resulting product was a game I decided to name Sky Climb.
Sky Climb is a first-person game where your goal is to reach the sky. Mechanically speaking, this means that for each level your goal is to touch a checkered plane positioned above you. To help you reach the goal you can grab and place various objects, some of which can be fixed in the air and others which fall. You can also use what I call a “force jump” which is similar to a rocket jump from old-school fps games. It pushes you backwards from your viewing direction and is useful to reach higher areas or jump large gaps.
All assets of the game, except for music/sound, the fonts, a few icons, and the sky sphere, were made entirely by me during the jam period.
You can read more about the game on its portfolio page where you also should be able to download it and try out.
Sky Climb wasn’t the initial idea. When I first got the theme I spend a few hours on and off trying to interpret it and get some original designs going. I wrote down a bunch of small ideas such as a “Pilot game where you control an airplane with harsh weather conditions that limit your traversal”.
One of the more elaborate write-ups was for a god game where you “control what skies different worlds receive. The skies determine the outcome of the world; war, peace, chaos, extinction etc. Skies are the limitation of your power as a weather god, while other gods toy around with the different worlds, creating menace”. I started scratching out the design for this but it ultimately fell due to too complex mechanics and the thought that it would be too serious and grounded, whereas most “fun” games are just that, fun and simple, especially for the short development cycle of a game jam.
Wanting something more comprehensible I finally came up with a very simple idea of just literally reaching the sky, which would be the “limit” for each level. The concept fit the jam perfectly, as it would be simple to create, potentially fun (as physics games are), and expandable if time allowed for it.
Admittedly, the design had some major flaws. The controls were complex and I had to rely on conveying it through text via in-game signs, which probably meant that players maybe overlooked vital information, such as how to rotate a grabbed object. I say “probably”, because I had no testing at all done, which is a problem you may encounter during a jam, especially if you’re working solo.
The mechanics as well had some holes in it, which I however see as “alternative solutions”, although some are too overpowered. For example, instead of grabbing objects you can just use the force jump, as it’s a tad bit too strong. You can also just grab a single object and repeatedly jump, grab it, place it closer and repeat (similar to the exploit present in HL2 games). I planned to solve most of these flaws however with a challenge system, where it’s fine if you complete a level in any way, however you can unlock extra material or achieve some kind of score if you also do challenges, such as “no force jumps” or “can only place an object once”. This would also help with replayability.
One of my “not-so-jam-friendly” characteristics is that I tend to spend way too much time on small details. If I may say so myself, Sky Climb is very polished for the short duration it was made in. There is a lot of transitional effects, UI fading, tweaked sfx pitch modulation etc. So while the overall design is sub-perfect, I take pride in the minor details (just look at the sign text transition!).
Just a quick note on the art style; I choose the low-poly graphics as it’s extremely easy to create and iterate, requires almost no textures or UV-mapping, and I find it nice and stylistic to look at. It’s “game jam friendly” in a sense.
I’m quite happy with my submission. It was a fun project to make and I didn’t aim for, nor do I anticipate winning any of the categories. There were many cool and great projects created for this jam. Unreal Engine 4 makes prototyping quite easy and fast, and as evident you can create pretty large projects in a short time span (this jam lasted ~4 days). I don’t plan to work anymore on this project for now, as it would requires a somewhat major design overhaul.