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Postmortem: tiny dungeon (tic-80)

TINY DUNGEON is a video game I made for the TIC-80. I started at the start of November 2017, and I got the bulk done in about a month, being close to ready to ship at around the end of December 2017. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do with it - the original concept was "lightning-paced dungeon crawling", since dungeon crawling tends to be pretty slow and methodical in most games, and while I don't mind it, that's definitely a taste thing. That's me liking games that are methodical. It was also "perfectly scoped" for the TIC-80, which has a lot of size restrictions - I really pushed the limit on what would fit, compressing and minifying code wherever I could to fit things in.

In the end, it's not really either of those things. I think the postmortem might wind up being better.

Edit after I've finished writing it: It's okay. It's not great. Which, I guess, tracks.

What went right: Mechanical design

I really like the mechanics of tiny dungeon - in tiny dungeon, your only form of interaction with the world is using a dash mechanic. It's got a cooldown on it, but it's short enough that it can be used aggressively. Along with that, there's combo mechanics - each successive hit with the dash reduces its cooldown and increases the range of enemies hit. It helped guide along a very aggressive playstyle, that I really, really liked.

Along with this, choosing 4 HP with no increases was a good pick. I just thought it was a nice balance. Pattern recognition kicks in after three attempts and allowing pattern recognition to kick in is pretty essential to balancing a video game, I think.

What went wrong: Level design

The TIC-80 map is a square, with 64 17x32 grids. This is a regular shape for rooms to be, but it's not necessarily the right shape for a map to be. This made making the map a complex shape almost inevitable. Along with that, I wound up not really implementing a map - this was a bad idea. It's easy to get lost, and without a map, it becomes intolerable. I don't think anyone's ever completed tiny dungeon, and if I had to hazard a guess, that would be why.

What went right: Enemy design

I really like the enemy designs done here! The most fun I had making this game was drawing out the pages of the art book, because the enemy designs are really fun! I like them. There's not much to say on the matter. They serve the rooms well and can be very fun. They are very good at being what they are, and reusing them in a better game is going to do me so right. I love these guys.

You can check out the art book here.

What went wrong: Scope

You could say this about every game I've ever made. I did my best to scale this one properly, based on what I know I could do and still kinda fell short - again, the map that would have made the game infinitely more tolerable didn't quite make it in-engine, and the game lacked a lot of really essential design work. A lot of rooms were just made, not tested. But by the end, I had pressed up against the TIC-80's restrictions so often that it became miserable to work on. The process of writing code in an external editor, then minifying it through a website, then pasting it into TIC-80 was just plain old awful. I think it's interesting how the inability to write code unimpeded is a major reason I will drop a project, rather than stick with something. Once I start hating writing code, it's a death knell for it.

What went right: Music

I did my first "collab" outside of arm's length, with Maxie Satan, for this game. She makes great music, and her track for Tiny Dungeon (the final boss music, Sporic Diaspora of the Celestial Sea [remade here for Tiny Dungeon 16, TBA]) is so goddamn good. She's super good at what she does and it's also, good to have friends who can just cover for you.

What went right/wrong: Story

TINY DUNGEON has story, actually. Hard to grasp, I know.

Scattered throughout the game are shattered tanks, often wired up, as well as one unshattered tank, that contains a being, the only overtly humanoid shape in the game. The plot is the orb friend, going through and gathering 4 orbs, guarded by bosses, to power the tank that contains the only human-like being, and when it has enough power to act of its own accord, it steals the orbs with malicious intent, but is not quite fully formed enough to guide that intent into harm, and winds up falling apart in the final fight with the orb friend, who takes them back.

The human-like being is definitely derived from the Warrior, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, being this sloppy, incomplete being that wields more power than any individual being, but that doesn't really come through in the game, other than just being a tough fight.

I considered TINY DUNGEON "like Zelda 1, but if you hated Zelda 1" and in this sense, it's very similar - it's a top-down "action adventure" game, mostly about clearing single-screen rooms while a vague and ill-defined plot happens around you, and I thought in this sense that being restricted to things like environmental storytelling would help, but in TIC-80, where there's limited sprite space, and limited tile space, and limited code space, that's so hard. One of the common adages of game development is "restrictions breeds creativity" and I guess that's fair, almost all the restrictions on my games - GB color palette, TIC-80, rules set for myself like "stick to the NES palette" - are really good at reducing the possibility space for games, but the thing is, it's hard to make a good video game to begin with, it's extremely hard to make a video game with restrictions.

Tiny Dungeon: One more final.

This game is not great. I kind of wanted TINY DUNGEON to be one piece in a bigger story, but in practice it wound up being extremely a game, where it feels like its components are extremely clear - sprites are sprites are sprites, and never quite break past immersion into a cohesive world.

But whatever, it's more an experiment than a game, and its results were useful, if not particularly positive. Maybe one day I will finally scope a game properly. I think the next game for autopsying is Dream Museum, which is neat, because I think that game is pretty good actually! That's the first good game that's out there!