On the Development of Bottles (Pt.3 - Alpha, Beta, COVID)
Three weeks before our Alpha deadline the team was in a slump. We had just returned from winter break, our momentum from December had run out somewhere around Fall semester finals, and we had precious little time to scope down to something that we could feasibly complete if we wanted to make Alpha.
I went to my advisors and a trusted professor, asking for help. How could I rally my team? How could I renew their investment in the project, instead of simply driving them into the ground by brute forcing our way to a deadline?
What they recommended was this: Take a week. Get the team to do something creative and completely different. Let them design any kind of level they want, no restrictions on setting or content save that it has to use the rotation mechanic and take place in a bottle. Emphasize that it must be completed in a week. Then, people will be creating something that they can be excited about, can get invested in, and the product will be finished. It’s possible that if the content is good enough, you can put it right in the game.
It was a risk to take that week off, to do something that had no guarantee of pushing us towards Alpha, but to this day I think our “jam week” was one of the best things we did on this project. In that week we separated into two teams and spread artists, designers, and engineers between us. I stepped back and let them take the creative wheel, offering suggestions or opinions but largely trying to make way for my team’s own ingenuity to shine through.
By the end of the week we had one completed level, and another halfway done but with a more ambitious concept. The ambitious level is still an idea I think is ingenious to this day: an hourglass-shaped bottle, where the player controls two characters at once by switching back and forth between each end of the hourglass. One side is the past, one side is the present, and in order to solve the level you must pass objects back and forth through the aperture, as well as through space-time. Even though this level was never completed and eventually was set aside, it still was a fantastic testament to the kind of off-the-wall things you could do with our rotation mechanic.
The other level, the completed one, quickly became our flagship level to show off the foundational idea of what Bottles’ mechanic had to offer. This one was simply called “Shipwreck”.
Shipwreck was, true to its name, a bottle in which the player navigates through a sunken Titanic-esque cruise ship by rotating and swimming through the rooms in what was essentially a 3D maze. We already had the fully-rigged octopus model, and wanted to play around both with the simple act of weaving through doorways and also with the idea of a dark level, where the player must light their own way. Though many rooms are dead ends, in creating a space that felt complete and meaningful, we wanted to encourage exploration for exploration’s sake. The level itself leans heavily on the soundscape and art for that reason. At the end of the first iteration of this level we had our player find an old radio that still functions after all this time underwater, and the octopus settles in to listen to music as the scene fades to black.
In order to make the milestone we scoped down to two levels: Shipwreck, which was fully functional by the end of Jam Week, and Office, which had been in progress since earlier iterations of the game and was already up to par. We made the Alpha deadline on February 6th, 2020, with both levels fully functional as well as the menu system.
The Pre-Alpha build of Office
The (Slightly Longer) Road to Beta
Post-Alpha we moved towards a redesign of Shipwreck, prioritizing that in production to ensure that we have at least one level to Beta quality before attempting to take on a second. Anyone who was not able to do work on Shipwreck was given tasks on Office, but generally speaking our approach was that a smaller, high-quality product was better than a larger, less-quality one.
The advent of COVID-19 changed a lot of things. We began working remotely. I confirmed that every member of the team was somewhere safe, secure, and was staying healthy. It was a rocky transition period but we were still under the same deadlines as before-- so we had to adjust our production schedule and Office ended up being dropped as a level for Beta in order to accommodate.
But the quality of life of my team came before any final product. We all needed time to adjust to a new normal of life. Our pace slowed but did not stop, and in the end we focused down on making Shipwreck the best level it could be for our showcase and live demo at the newly-digital USC Games Expo 2020.
The trailer for Bottles from the USC Games Expo