Zeno Jam 2022 was a three day jam which is quite a nice length. We decided to finish the game in a normal 48 hour weekend then have an extra day for play testing and feedback. The theme of 'Light Attracts Bugs' was interesting in that it was so narrow compared to many themes.

Once we had the theme we started with ideation. Most of the ideas were around either moving bugs using lights or tower defence using lights. We had a think about how to turn "Why do programmers prefer dark mode ? Cause light attracts bugs." into a game but couldn't find a good fit. In the end, the winner of the ideation was a camp fire attracting bugs that needed to be squashed. The player would be able to place lights to attract bugs before the camp fire and make them easier to squash. There were a lot of ideas of different types of bugs and lights and how to make a complex game out of it.

With this vague goal everyone got to work building pieces. I think we got a bit off track here as by the end of Saturday we had a lot of the components we would need, but it was not yet a playable game. Sunday morning was picking up all the pieces and working out the game play loop. Basically this came down to squashing bugs gave money and buying lights cost money. The amount of bugs coming sped up over time and the cost of lights increased as you bought more. Once it was playable some gameplay issues were identified and we tried different combinations of speed and money for the bugs to find a good balance.

On the Monday we handed the game out and got a good amount of feedback. There were some performance issues identified and a lot of information that would be good to expose the the player. Based on this feedback, the final screen got how many bugs were squashed and the time you had survived so you could compare across games and with others. One suggestion was to have an interesting metric for the time as how many marshmallows you had roasted which made it into the final game.

One feature that was missing was the people around the camp fire. Two frames of a moving sprite had been drawn but based on the marshmallow suggestion we decided to have a new sprite of that. This drawing ended up not being ready by the deadline so I made the moving frames speed up their animation as the happiness meter went down. This simple solution was a hit as one of our comments was on how they liked the animation. We had also planned a feature of having bugs follow fireflies in addition to lights. I added this right at the end which was a bit foolish. Squishing it into the light logic, in the initial testing I found fireflies trying to follow themselves which was an easy fix. Unfortunately I missed that fireflies could follow each other which in some circumstances meant that two fireflies off the screen were doing circles around each other drawing in increasing amounts of bugs. This was a major source of performance issues which stood out in the feedback.

After the jam finished I wanted to have another crack at the light algorithm. This ended up being more efficient in general and having more interesting firefly behaviour. They now ignore lights, heading straight for the camp fire and pull other bugs in range away from human created lights. This gives an interesting gameplay mechanic where fireflies are now a large threat if you have a number of bugs safely contained by a light. I also added some music to liven it up a bit so it feels like a well rounded experience.

Lessons Learnt

Plan the actual gameplay loop so everyone knows what you are heading towards.
Having a day of play testing was helpful.
Don't add potential performance issues at the last minute.
Get some placeholder music in early incase you run out of time.