Stay Alive: The Making Of

A turn based, hidden information game for the Jam-O-Drum.The four players are lost at sea on a small raft and must attempt to survive for 7-10 weeks at which point they are rescued.The main mechanic is voting. Every week four players must vote to eat or not as their remaining food dwindles. When food runs out, players can make the difficult choice to cannibalize a boatmate to ensure that someone makes it out alive.

Round 4 of Building Virtual Worlds is a story round. It requires us to develop a game which tells a story. To create a unique story, we 4 members of the team spent a couple of days in discussing the theme before developing. During the brainstorm, we proposed some ideas that we thought they might be cool, such as commit suicide, turning back time, schizophrenia, etc. But we soon found out that these topic had been used in games for a number of times.

Later I came up with an idea, which is the original idea of Stay Alive. It’s an idea of a voting game, inspired by the movie 12 Angry Men. I suggested to use 12 Makey Makey (a kind of input equipment, each equivalent to a button) for 12 players as the jury to judge whether the Non-Player Character in the game is criminal or not. However, this required a ton of workload of script writing, which would definitely be a burden for a 3-week prototype. Hence, through discussion, we decided to change the scene from a court to the ocean.

At the end, a prototype of a survival game rose. We reduced the amount of players from 12 to 4, placing them into a lost raft drifting on the sea. The voting mechanism is preserved, except that they are voting whether to eat the limited food every round now. Furthermore, we no longer wrote the story ourselves. Instead, we allows players to discuss their choice each round to generate the story. To enhance the sense of tense and surprise, we introduced the option of cannibalism when players exhausted all the food.  Considering the mechanism is now kind of like a board game, we used Jam-O-Drum as our platform, which may be a rare choice for the story round.

At this point, game data balance matters. The amount of food, the percentage of hunger that every round drops, the percentage of  nutrition that every banana (we choose banana to represent food because it’s easy to be recognized, though a little bit irrational in the scene) or human body gives… To enhance the feeling of uncertainty, we even used a range of random number of the hunger point and the day (later changed to “week” to be more realistic) the rescue ship may come. A slight change of number may change the whole tempo of the game, making it too fast to be immersed or too slow to be dull. Therefore, before coding, we did a lot of playtestings through paper prototype to find the “sweet spot” of the data. During playtesting, I used google sheet to simulate the calculation of the game controller, and to record the game data for analysis later.

We did gain a lot of helpful inspiration during playtestings. They helped us to observe behaviors of players thereby draw up the rules of the game. For example, at the very beginning our voting mechanism was a unanimous vote, until we encountered a mischievous player who voted against eating every round, causing a “wiped out” of the game eventually. We also introduced an emoji system to indicate the physical condition of the characters publicly, which may cause interesting conflicts as the video shows above (4:35 – 4:50).

As a turn-base game, it’s really important to clarify the step of the game to the programmer. As a developer who has experience of game design, I took the responsibility of arranging the game design document and setup the rules of the game. Using google sheet, I can clearly explain my design to the programmer, passing my thoughts to him efficiently.

Link: Game Design and Playtesting Record Sheet

When porting the game from paper prototype to video game, art style and sound design are come into consideration. Considering discussion is the most important part of the game, I decided to weaken background music and sound effect, only using ambient sound of ocean waves and simple repeating background music. Besides, with the process of the game, the background music will gradually accelerate, giving mental stress to the players. The most important part is the cannibalism design. It has to be intense enough, but can’t be too much to disgust the players. With the experience of drama making, I raised the idea to shed a red light on the player who was eaten, with the sound effects of murder and eating. It turns out to be a successfully ambiguous design. Players are able to get the point and appreciate it.

Link: Different versions of Background Music

Happened to play the entire session of the audition file and it sounds like this… SO COOL!

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