A couple of weeks ago, I had this exchange with a good friend of mine:
The ‘Jam’ in question was The Folklore Game Jam, being hosted on the itch.io website. For those of you not in the know, A Game Jam is a small contest where entrants are tasked with creating a small game from scratch based on a unique prompt, usually in a short span of time. In this case, the prompt was ‘folklore’ and the contest asked specifically for Analogue Games, i.e. ones played with physical components like board or card games.
Though the contest opened on the first day of August, my friend didn’t hear about it until September, and didn’t approach me asking to team up until the 18th. So, with a deadline set for September 31st, instead of having two months to make and complete a submission…
We had 13 days.
Our game is called ‘It Was Bigfoot‘ and everything we made for the game we did in that fortnight.
My friend approached me with an idea pre-formed; he wanted to make a card game where you play as scientists trying to prove the existence of Bigfoot. The idea was still in its nascent stages, however, so we had plenty of back-and-forthing to try and hammer it into a more gamelike shape. To add an extra dimension to the concept of playing as a scientist, we added the idea of ‘hoaxes,’ a mechanic that would in one way or another involve using non-scientific evidence to give you an advantage, and give other players a chance to disprove your research.
The timeline for us working on our submission looked something like this:
Stage 1 (Day 0): General idea generation and coming up with the ‘theme’ of our game
Stage 2 (Day 1 – Day 3): Building on this idea and turning it into a set of rules and mechanics/begin planning visual design of cards
Stage 3 (Day 4 – Day 9): Be self-satisfied with amount of progress made so far and procrastinate, mostly by talking about Naruto
Stage 4 (Day 10 – Day 13): Panic at approaching deadline and begin crunch time, finalise cards and format into rulebook
While I did offer some input on hashing out ideas and helping to refine how we wanted the game to play, my main role was to help with the visual side of the game. This meant designing the layout of our cards, the art on the cards, and eventually our rule book. Naturally, designing the cards took up the bulk of my work right up until the deadline, as it was important that the cards ‘felt right’ and read intuitively for players. Measurements vary, but a playing card will generally measure 63mm x 88mm. We had to fit each cards title, category, art, rules text, and the title of our game, and somehow make all of it readable at this size.
When working with dimensions this small, hierarchy of information is crucial to get right. So I did what all good artists do, and looked for someone better than me to steal from. For this project, the main target of my theft was Magic: The Gathering, a card game that has persisted through 27 years of streamlining, modernising, and changing design sensibilities. Somehow it’s come out the other side with a card design that is able to express the games fantasy flavour and still remain efficient in conveying information clearly to players.
Over time, the design of Magic’s cards has prioritised a cards functionality over its flavour. On all cards, names and rules text are placed onto an off-white background with black text, and use a serif typeface to help with readability at reduced sizes. The art of the card is roughly the same size, and therefore has roughly the same priority, as the box reserved for rules text. Lower priority information, such as flavour text or explanations of terminology, are italicized to help distinguish them from the higher priority text. While form is welcome on a card, it can’t come at the expense of function. The Youtube channel Rhystic studies has these two excellent videos that break down this balancing act.
So going in to the project, those were the observations I kept in mind as I drafted layouts for our cards. The rules and mechanics of the game were still in flux as I began my first sketches, so ideas had to stay open to change to allow for information being removed or added from cards as necessary.
While we were designing the layout of the cards, we also started working on the artwork for each card, and trying to figure out our process. Since we had such a small time frame to work in, and a lot of cards to make (we ended up with 24 finished cards by the deadline,) we needed a rigid method for making each piece of art that wouldn’t be too labour intensive. We decided to make our art by photo bashing a combination of stock photos and found images, then running these through software meant to emulate watercolour paintings. The photo bashes took 1-2 hours each, on top of the filter software needing to be tinkered with. However, this still worked out to be much faster than trying to draw each piece by hand. The way our roles ended up splitting was that I produced the majority of the photo bashes, and my friend would then use the watercolour filter and make retouches from there.
The first art completed was for the ‘Eyewitness Testimony’ card. Being our first attempt, it helped identify faults in our design process, and ways to streamline it.
The first mistake I made was spending much too long editing and adjusting the photos I used, and wasting effort on making the edits ‘clean.’ As you’ll see, the watercolour filters obscure smaller detail and make edits difficult to spot, if not completely invisible, so as more art was made I got a better understanding of exactly how much time I needed to spend making my photos blend together. The second mistake was adding extreme filters through Photoshop to try and obscure our using photos. In ‘Step 3’ here, I used a combination of filters, only for the end result to look amateurish. In my second attempt and in future photo bashes, I used filters more subtly.
The last big mistake I made was in having too rigid an idea of what I wanted the composition to be going into the photobash process. In this case, I knew I wanted a close up of a crazy-looking redneck waving his hands around like he was telling tall tales. As I soon learned, it was difficult and time consuming to find photos that lined up properly with what I had in mind, and even then the photos needed edits that ate up yet more time. I found my headshot of a crazed redneck, but the real challenge was finding a good photo of hands for his wild gesturing. When I finally did find a pair I was happy with, they were women’s hands, shot in the wrong lighting, meaning I had to spend more time adjusting their colour and proportions to make them just right. As we made more art and got closer to our deadline, I learned to loosen up my ideas and let the photos I found dictate my composition, and not the other way around. This ended up saving a lot of time, and stimulating my idea making to boot.
Around the time we were a dozen cards in, I returned to the card frames. So far I was using a pretty rudimentary template, just barely coherent enough to see how our art would look on a “card.” By now we knew that we wanted the design of the cards to evoke scientific literature, specifically journals and newspapers. Luckily enough, newspapers lend themselves to card design pretty well; they’re boxy, have a clear hierarchy of information, and use easily legible type.
This is the design we ended up using (at least for the contest deadline.) The card frame has a bias towards showcasing the card’s art, as each cards rules text was brief enough to squeeze into a smaller space. Different card types have variations on this template to help signify which type they fall under for the sake of the player, and to add a little visual variety. For example, our ‘hoax’ cards use some extra splashes of colour to make them resemble the kind of lower quality tabloids that publish stories about Bigfoot sightings. This also served to signal to the player how they behave differently from the other card types, and make playing them feel more significant.
The last three days before the deadline were spent by my friend and I frantically making card art as fast as we could, and then spending about half an hour at the end trying to figure out how to format everything into a rulebook for the submission. In hindsight, it was obvious that we should have put more time aside at the end to make a nice rulebook and allow for problems to be solved, but in the heat of the moment finishing the cards took absolute priority. In the end, we submitted our game a whole two minutes before the contest closed.
The major lesson of the experience is well surmised by Trey Parker, Co-Creator of South Park:
“You’re not as far ahead as you think you are.”
South Park episodes have been made from scratch over a six day period, for its entire run of 1997 to now. So it’s fair to say that Trey Parker knows a little about working to tight deadlines.
The five-day elephant in the room is the period of procrastination we had where we meandered and made little progress in the games development. While I could try to rationalise it as us not having a structured plan to follow and therefore struggling with what to do next, it was mostly due to us thinking we had enough time to afford ourselves this long relaxation period. If we had committed to working on the game equally over the 13 days, we would have saved ourselves a lot of crunching and stress, as well as been able to improve our presentation and polish. For future projects of this nature, I’ll be keeping in mind the importance of having a more rigid work schedule.
Our game is free to download from itch.io, however there is a ‘name your price’ system where you can pay what you think we deserve. I encourage any of you who have taken an interest to the game to keep an eye on it, as we are in the process of updating and polishing our assets. You can find my friend and Co-Creator here on his Twitter. We also have a Halloween expansion in mind for the near future. Stay tuned!
The Feed SBS – South Park behind the scenes: With Trey Parker and
Rhystic Studies – Framing 25 Years of Magic
Rhystic Studies – Legends Need Not Apply
GDQ – Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned
Unsplash – Free To Use Stock Photos