Conceptual Evolution:

Super PAC Bros! was a 2D shooter and political strategy hybrid game, intended to be a satirical look at the loose campaign finance laws surrounding Political Action Committees, as well as the presidential election cycle in general. My team’s programmer, Tyler, and I were initially inspired by Duck Game, a then recently-released 2D shooter game about ducks shooting each other. We were drawn into the game’s sense of humor, and wanted to make something that we found just as ridiculous. I started looking at absurdist literature and philosophy, and proposed the concept of Sisyphus, a Quake III-style shooter where everything was made to reflect the futility found in said philosophy.

Tyler suggested a “Capitalism” mode where players’ ammunition was tied to their currency, and having more money made players a bigger target. When bringing this up during the ideation phase of class, it received interest from the rest of the class, so we were encouraged to pursue the idea further. Our producer, Nate, really jumped on the idea, and started looking into using financial investment as a theme for the game. Moving the game back to 2D, we presented our change in direction to the class, but were met with comments that the game was shallow as it was. Our professor suggested adding a different mode that would be in between rounds of the shooting gameplay.

I started thinking about what other contexts would fit with money as ammunition, and with coverage of the next presidential race ramping up, it occurred to me that politics would fit just as well with our game. Adding a “Campaign” mode in between rounds of shooting gameplay (now called “Debates”) where players funneled their money to states in order to influence polls in their favor. This new gameplay mode and context got everyone in our class very interested, which encouraged us to commit to this idea over others we were developing at the time.

What Went Right:

The concept was a bit of a double-edged sword- while it made people unwilling to join our team later, testers definitely found the idea of politicians fighting with money to be funny. Our intended tone and message, even at an early stage, seemed to be carrying through. Our artist, Amanda, also mentioned once that a group of testers talked about the influence of money in elections after playing our game. Even if it was just one group of people, I’m glad that Super PAC Bros! managed to get someone to think about the issues we were raising with it.

I also felt that I grew a lot as a designer on this project, especially in terms of systems design. Most designers haven’t had a class for systems yet, myself included, and I felt myself lacking in this aspect. Being forced into this situation, I focused mostly on forming gameplay loops for the players, a strategy that I felt was very effective. I started diagramming all of these using flowcharts made in Google Draw, and made tweaks to them based on feedback from my teammates in order to prevent further communication issues. Using these, adding new systems and generating a systems list was quite easy.

I think I fell into the trap of making things too complex, though- initially, there was way too much information for the players to keep track of, with both a PAC and a poll budget for each player per state. Players were really confused with transferring money to and from State PACs, and didn’t know what a large part of the UI meant. We paid very close attention to their feedback, since this was the largest hurdle for our game. Getting ideas from others, we tried to reduce the complexity by condensing State PACs into one National PAC for each player, a step that seemed to result in more positive player feedback. In addition to this, we resorted to expressing a lot of information visually (bar graphs, pie graphs) instead of, or alongside, the raw numbers that they were representing. We went through a few sizable iterations with the UI and, while it isn’t perfect, player understanding in our QA surveys was increasing all the time.

Lastly, I felt that we handled scope very effectively. One of the initial reasons we went with this idea was that it was a much smaller game to make than our other ideas. However, we still had to cut back on implementing certain systems and looking into new ones because of our workload, and because we needed to spend more time on improving what we already implemented. Though this was the basis for one of our provisions after passing (the faculty felt that we hadn’t fully explored the issues in American elections), I still think we made the right call. The essential core of the game, having outcomes in both Debate Mode and Campaign Mode affect the players’ money and polling, was there, and I think it’s because of the improvements we tried to make to it that we passed at all.

What Went Wrong:

It’s sort of tough to write about what went wrong, since some issues that arose because of our team’s shortcomings seem very intertwined with the issues that occurred from the way the course was run between sections. The most prevalent issue was that we weren’t really aware that the purpose of the course was a conceptual or pre-production class as opposed to a production class until about two-thirds of the way through the semester. We were looking towards the way other sections were being run, and asking teams how they met requirements for different project stages. In theory this would have been fine, since all sections were supposed to be held to the same standards, regardless of professor. In practice, though, this was not the case- while our professor held us to the standards of the syllabus that required us to do research on our concept, other teams we talked to weren’t expected to do as much for their concept. While I don’t regret looking more into what our game was about, this disconnect left us directionless for a while.

While I still feel that we made great strides toward simplifying the game, some team members were unclear as to what the rules of the game were up until the last week. I feel like a large part of this was the major changes we had to make to the systems, but I also think that if I had been more effective in communicating how the game played these issues wouldn’t have arisen. Though I did make changes to my documentation in order to make it more readable for others, my team was still unclear on a couple of things. For instance, everyone else thought that “winning” a Debate meant that the state it took place in would not be able to be influenced by players in later Campaign modes. Another instance was when one of Amanda’s UI mockups was implemented, one that omitted a whole pie chart per state, leaving a large amount of necessary information absent from the game. By the time I clarified these issues with my team, it was too late to make the changes that we would have needed to.

Speaking of UI, I think that it was unclear as to whose responsibility that was. I largely looked at it from a design perspective, “What needs to be shown to the player, and how can we arrange it?“, whereas Amanda came at it from the art perspective, “How can we make this look good and not take up so much space?“. I certainly don’t think that Amanda was in the wrong for trying to help with the arrangement of it, but the number of dueling mockups we made were hindering progress, and lead to the issue mentioned above. I now know I should have been more proactive here, sharing the load with Amanda instead of trying to take it on myself.

What I Learned:

As I mentioned before, I felt like I made the most progress with Systems Design. Though keeping the Gameplay Loop in mind was my guide here, I still solicited a lot of advice from faculty as well as fellow students, which I found extremely helpful. The issues I ran into with needing to reduce complexity was also very helpful, and because of that I tried looking at adding systems and mechanics that would interact with pre-existing ones. The intent was that this would introduce more depth than complexity, and is something I will try to keep in mind in the future.

I also learned more about communicating with my team. As I mentioned before, I made changes to my documentation in order to help Tyler implement systems more easily- a good example of this was adding a table of the variables I used in system flowcharts, as well as their definitions. I was also proactive with generating asset lists, a concept I learned about in Level Design II, for Amanda when trying to create art for levels. Apparently no previous designers she worked with had done this for her, and she was vocally grateful about it.

One of the most important things I started to think about, though, was the idea that a game had a “philosophy”, or a central idea that the player was supposed to be pushed towards. I see now that our research was intended to help us define this, and though we had issues with getting on the right track with this, I think that this research-based approach for concepts is really interesting. The more that we researched politics for Super PAC Bros!, the more that we realized we wanted the player to “win the presidency by acting un-presidential”, a statement that perfectly encapsulated our tone. I learned a lot from using this approach, and it encouraged me to use it again to try to make games that make a statement in the future.