Time-frame of project: October – November 2012
Project status: complete
Role: Game Designer
About: After graduating from Georgia Tech, I joined Thrust Interactive for 3 months as a game design intern. After a few weeks of doing some re-design work there on their internal projects, they gave me a chance to be the lead game designer on some client work. Zombie Smokeout was created for the American Cancer Society as part of their yearly “Great American Smokeout” campaign to encourage smokers to quit. The basic details of the game were set out before I joined the project: the story, basic gameplay (runner game where you shoot zombies with a water gun), and scope. My job was to take a simple feature set and turn it into a full design document, and then to work on tuning the game throughout the short, 4-week development.
In Zombie Smokeout, players control Ally C. Smith as she runs away from a giant secondhand smoke cloud in a post-apocalyptic world ruined by cigarette smoke. Players try to last as long as the can avoid obstacles and shooting zombies with a water gun before they enter the smoke cloud on the left side of the screen. Players earn points for running long distances and shooting zombies, and a combo system is in place to reward players for never missing a shot.
Runner games aren’t my favorite genre, but it was very fun to really get into the genre and figure out what about them is appealing to players and to try to do something unique in the genre in such a short time-frame. In the short time-frame of the project, we really only had enough time to get the very basic mechanics in place, and so I wanted to make sure that both the shooting and jumping felt good and stayed interesting for as long as possible.
We had a little bit of a rocky development start, where Thrust was a little reluctant to go fully into production until all of the contracts with ACS were signed, and so we faced a very tight development schedule (as we really wanted to hit the release date of November 15th on the app store to coincide with the Great American Smokeout). Once we started production, we have very little room to change the design or test out new ideas.
I feel like the shooting mechanic in the game is its most unique and best feature. I wanted to make a runner that required good twitch reflexes and precise touches. Besides making the shooting precision-based, my other large contribution to the design was adding in a combo system to encourage players to shoot their shots wisely and not just spam their shots on the screen. Overall I think both systems turned out pretty well, although if I could do it again I would have thought about how to make the art look better. In order to have the aesthetics “make sense” to the player, we have a very weird perspective in the art style that can become disorienting if the game moves too fast (don’t get me wrong though, the art that is in the game is beautiful, but when put in motion was very disorienting before we fixed it). It was completely unforeseen during the initial design and we had to make a lot of tweaks to the art, difficulty, and speed of the game to keep as much of the disorientation out of the game as possible. It worked out pretty well in the end, but caused a big headache during development.
I gained a lot of experience working for clients during this projects. I usually had complete creative control over my projects during school, but this was the first time I was working on a game for someone else, and it created its own set of challenges. There were a few instances where our clients would want us to make a change to the game that would likely take away from the experience (such as asking to make the game almost only shooting zombies instead of jumping over obstacles), and we had to explain to them how the fun in the game came from the combination of jumping and shooting and never knowing what was going to happen next.
I also gained a lot of experience in learning how to except feedback from other people on my games. The best example of this is the addition of the smoke cloud near the end of development. One of my managers thought that we needed more explanation for why the game is a runner in the first place, and suggested that the main character be running away from a smoke cloud. Usually I am not concerned at all with narrative in games as I always tend to focus on gameplay, but he was right in that adding an extra narrative bit into the gameplay would help make the game easier to understand for players. In the end I think it worked out OK, although I think we never really nailed a good indicate on-screen to show how losing health equated to making the smoke cloud close-in on the player. I think if we had more time we could have come up with a better art solution for it.
The project was a blast to work on and I hope one day I can make another similar game (sequel or otherwise) with more fleshed out mechanics and more varied gameplay (different shooting mechanics, enemies, environments, etc). I think we did a great job for a one month long development cycle, but I’d love to do a sequel in a three month development cycle.