Of late, the monthly adventure game studio competition or ‘MAGS’ has caught my eye. Participants take part my making a game with Chris Jones’s Adventure Game Studio engine in just one month – restricted by a specific theme set by the previous month’s winner.

MAGS is a great way of making short, fun games in a very focused manner. This idea of making many short games in focused periods of development wouldn’t have interested me a few months ago but it was in fact a development ‘big push’ on my long term project: The Longevity Gene that persuaded me to try developing a short game.

This March, I locked myself in my room for about a week and a half and worked solid on The Longevity Gene. I managed to complete the development of three puzzles in their entirety and I’m now very close to a (although unpolished) complete build. So, what is all this about a ‘3 day month’? Basically, 3 days before the May MAGS deadline I noticed the theme was ‘complete your game’. Fellow Zombie Cow Studio forumites and a few AGSers too will be aware I’ve had a little Wall-E fan game knocking about for a year or so now and I couldn’t help but see the MAGS rules as a golden opportunity. I’d made the game as a present for my girlfriend and had worked on it in a couple or short, fevered bursts. It was just a tech demo, really with a few short but fun interactions and animations from the film – it had no puzzles or story structure. The old project fitted the rules perfectly.

Now the game is completed (or as complete as a MAGS game gets before some post-competition polish) I’ve decided to look back on what I have learnt. It feels great to have a game released, up on the AGS database. The Wall-E is something I’m never going to take any further, it’s an unoriginal IP and The Longevity Gene represents a lot more for me in terms of writing and puzzle design. What I have taken away from the project however, is a taste for developing short games and a lot of practice with animation.

Once puzzles started appearing in Wall-E, having a narrator became important.

I think I will now work more short, focused projects. In fact, I have a couple thought out. And, rather than my attitude a year ago, perhaps, of getting frustrated because I couldn’t work on them, I may take the time out to build a strong, varied catalogue of games. The advantage of thinking small or short is ability to think outside your developer’s comfort-zone. I have ideas for short adventure games, yes. But I also have ideas for flash and iPhone games, opening up the opportunity for learning new skills and platforms or for collaboration.

The very nature of the characters in Wall-E forced me to think about animation from a more systematic perspective. The movements I aimed to express were mechanical and, as they had to mimic human emotion, exaggerated. Knowing the robots’ arms and bodies would move, generally, along lines or pivots of motion rather than in the wholly dynamic way a human character would move, I took care to draw their sprites in layers. The layers would be: far wheels, body, near wheels, arms for example. Animation could then be approached from an angle more akin to stop-motion, where each part is moved a little for each frame. I could do this simply by high-lighting the whole layer and moving it across, up or down a few pixels for each frame. With human animation, although the same stop-motion analogy could remain, one ends up stuck in the habit of drawing each frame as a separate image. Very quickly, the overall motion can be lost track of. Animations didn’t suddenly become easy but the different approach was welcome and it took a long time to get bored of the process; and when I did, the first thing I wanted to do was go back to human character animation in The Longevity Gene.

My favourite animation is Wall-E's walk-cycle.

I will never back down from the principles I outlined in The Idealist’s Way of believing in your game, however ambitious; of sticking with your game, learning as you go, rather than ditching it for a fresh start but this month’s MAGS competition provided me with a lot of fun. And the practice of developing little projects is becoming ever more appealing to me.

Mark’s MAGS May entry, Wall-E (Fan Game) can be downloaded here. Don’t vote before you’ve played the others, though! 😉