Zero2Hero – Our design process

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Over the past weekend, I took part in the Global Game Jam (GGJ), a 48 hour hackathon-like event for making games. It was my first game jam ever – heck, I’ve never even taken part in a hackathon before. Yea, unbelievable right? We made this 8-bit, 2 player game called Zero2Hero, and I’m very pleased with it! (: So, how did we arrive with this idea?

Zero2HeroA screenshot from Zero2Hero

First, a little background about my team. My team consisted of 5 people: me (programmer and producer), Eugene (programmer), Justin (programmer), Hill (game and sound designer), and Ross (artist). I was pretty happy with my team, mainly because

  1. Eugene already had a number of existing, reusable code snippets, like an input controller.
  2. Hill has a programming background and has done game jams before, which means she knows exactly what’s feasible, and can implement her own sound manager so the programmers don’t have to worry about sound at all.
  3. Best of all, having 3 programmers means we wouldn’t have to work all night and can SLEEP!

And now, the theme for the game jam. It was… *cue drumroll* RITUAL. If you’re like me, your first reaction might be, what?? So the first thing my team did was… go have dinner LOL. So important to not be hungry when you’re brainstorming! (I should totally add this to my previous post on brainstorming).

For our brainstorming session, we gave ourselves a few constraints:

  1. Art style would be 2D pixelart, because we only had 1 artist.
  2. Definitely a multiplayer game, because those tend to be a lot more fun.
  3. No magic circles/pentacles or summoning stuff, because that’s too cliche.
  4. Something that’s both fun to play and fun to watch.

The session actually dragged on pretty long (around 2 hours!), because none of us could come up with an idea which everybody was OK with implementing. A few of our game and character ideas:

  1. Brushing teeth. If you brush too fast the gums bleed, too slow the plaque build up (ritual here refers to a habit).
  2. Game jam sim. You can select different people to take part in the game jam and they will say different things and produce different mini game for you to play.
  3. T-rex with mechanical arms! Because poor T-rexes have tiny arms and they can’t brush their teeth. (“They can’t hug either! ):”)
  4. Daily life sim. Just get the player to do the same thing over and over for days in the game and make them wonder what the heck they’re doing.
  5. DOG PEOPLE INSTEAD OF HUMANS. Dogs have a lot of rituals, like smelling each other’s butts. (“Wait, so we’re gonna make the players smell each other’s butts?!”)
  6. Old couple’s daily lives. You keep doing the same thing until one day you your partner is missing and that’s because s/he DIED. Inspired by the Pixar movie Up.

At around this point in time, we were kinda saturated and started losing our focus. Eugene and Justin left for a bit, Ross started doodling human like dog family on the whiteboard, Hill sketched out a Dragon Ball-esque character transforming, and I just stared blankly at the whiteboard thinking I want more pasta. And then… MAGIC STARTED HAPPENING.

The rest of the team came back. I commented that Hill’s drawing reminded me of Dragon Ball. Hill started talking about how Japanese animes always had this long transformation scenes before they came to power, almost as if it were a ritual. Eugene agreed and started doing all those actions and making funny sound effects. And suddenly all of us were like OMGOSH LET’S MAKE A GAME ON THIS!!!

At this point, the ideas began flowing quickly. Let’s just do 4 directions of actions which can map to the arrow keys. The heroes will do actions in those directions. The player has to press the arrow keys in order to power up the heroes. Super heroes should look funny! Omgosh the arrow keys thing reminds me of the game Audition let’s go watch some of the gameplay videos and see what we can learn. We should start with fewer keys first then increase the number. Or how about bonus keys which are optional! Turn them into dogs if they press a wrong key! NO TURN THEM INTO POOP!!! Let’s have them destroy the other player’s city and use the city as an indicator of health because health bars suck and are boring. Can each of us be one hero character and then the heroes get randomly selected! The hero transforming should take up most of the screen because that’s the main part. No, the heroes fighting is the main part! Ok let’s do half-half. The keys will be at the bottom. The heroes will punch each other and fly out of the screen when they die, like that Hadoken thing! And so on and so forth.

jam char2 hero
Grandma transforming into a hero!

I just love it when my team hits upon a brilliant idea which everybody likes! It was almost 10pm at this point, and we decided to split up the work so we could get cracking. Hill would work on the sound manager and a game design document, while Ross would pump out art assets. Us programmers discussed out responsibilities a bit more, and settled for Eugene working on the building manager and seeing which of his existing scripts could be reused, Justin working on all hero related stuff, and me working on all the keys/arrows related stuff.

Programming wise, did have a few miscommunications at first, mostly because we only discussed the general structure of the code instead of the specifics, and Eugene was working in another room on another floor. Being in a different place really makes things a lot harder, even though we could still communicate via chat, and Eugene decided he would bring his laptop to work in our room for the next 2 days. Hill was also not feeling very well (turns out she had the flu), so we all felt bad that she was doing work instead of resting. Overall, I felt the first day went pretty well. We all left before 2am to get some sleep, and us 3 programmers came back the next day at 10am excited about the challenge ahead.

The second day went a bit slower, and we weren’t able to playtest as soon as we would have liked. Yes, we all knew the importance of playtesting and to do it as early as possible. We  knew the concept of pressing arrow keys as fast as possible against another player was fun – just look at Audition – so we could skip playtesting that. But aside from that, how do you playtest when your game still has no UI (I was printing all the arrow keys to the console)? In the end, we only managed to get in a proper playtest in the late afternoon.

From those playtests, we realized we needed to do a lot of balancing. People who were good at it (like myself – nobody has beaten me yet :P) would trash those who weren’t, in part because the extra power from the bonus keys way too huge an advantage. We started tweaking the game with that in mind, and decided to add in Ross’s T-rex as well. The T-rex had the equivalent of 6 (?) heroes’ health and power, and had a probability of appearing on the weaker player’s side once the score difference got too large.

Somehow the T-rex became a fire breathing Godzilla thing.
Somehow the T-rex became a fire breathing Godzilla thing.

We also realized that while our game was really fun to play and also to watch, the two felt disjointed. Players rarely ever looked up to see the funny animations, and spectators didn’t feel the sense of urgency that the players did. We didn’t know how to solve this (and still don’t) because stuff like increasing the delay between key sequences in an attempt to get the players to look up didn’t work. Well, it did work for me – I ended up being able to play the game by myself, with my left hand as player 1 and right hand as player 2 LOL – but that was only because I was already really good at the game. We decided to just KIV that and only return to it if we had time.

The last day was a huge rush. We came in at 10am again, playtested more, had to fix everything and add in the start and end screens for submission at 2pm. We only got the T-rex asset at 11+, which was cutting it super close. It was pretty nuts, but I really enjoyed that adrenaline rush 😀 Ended up missing lunch though, because when I went down at 2+, all the sandwiches had been snapped up T.T On the bright side, I still got to see and play a lot of the other games people made. There was so much amazing stuff! We also got to showcase our game, and oh man does it feel good when people tell you they love your game! 😀

Showcasing Zero2Hero.Showcasing Zero2Hero.

Ultimately, GGJ has been a really awesome experience. Our game got an Honorable Mention, and Adam Nelson, founder of Pittsburgh’s City of Play and one of the judges, came up to us after the event, said ours was his favorite game, and asked us to please consider showcasing it at their upcoming Rec Room: Winter Games event!

Oh and fun fact: we were very tempted to change the name of our game from Zero2Hero to OH SHIT!, because that’s what most people exclaim when they miss a key 😛 The best part is, turning the player to poop was totally coincidental hahahaha!

Want to try out our game? Download it here!

Zero2Hero Team picture!Zero2Hero Team picture!


3 thoughts on “Zero2Hero – Our design process

  1. Sarah, your tone in this post is so upbeat, I can almost hear your voice relaying your thoughts about the game jam to me. This is definitely a good record of your process during the game jam, from brainstorming to implementation. I’m surprised by how you even had a game design document in the works. You guys seemed to do things in a very organised fashion and everything appeared to go rather smoothly. You also make a good point about how difficult it is to make a game fun to play as well as fun to watch, something that is hugely important nowadays especially with Let’s Players and eSports growing in popularity. If you manage to figure it out, you’ll have a great edge in the game development world.


  2. I can totally relate to the sequence of events that lead to the final idea of the game. You’re sitting there, staring at the whiteboard and then out of nowhere things start to fall in place. It is quite magical as you explained it. I am curious how you were able to get in all those play tests early in the iteration as we struggled with that a little (despite going home to get some good amount of sleep). The entire post outlines how cool and composed you guys were through the process and it was nice to see that composure throughout the entire process of the game jam.


  3. The style of this post is so you! It’s like you are talking to me through your game jam process. You had a really strong and balanced team. Since I have played your game, I totally agree that the experience of playing the game is quite different from watching the game and it’s hard to combine these two fun parts together. I guess increasing the delay is a way if you can design it well, like using sound or visual effects to make them look up. Another way that might work is to redesign the layout of the game, maybe put the arrow buttons around the hero or put them in the middle part of the screen, things like that. However, this needs a lot of playtests to find the best way.


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