The Great Hogrocket Level Design Competition
This article was originally posted on the Hogrocket Blog. Hogrocket is our indie development studio based in Liverpool, UK. This article talks about our level design competition for our recently released title Tiny Invaders which was released on the App Store on Sep 1st, you can view our trailer here.
It all began at the Indie Develop Conference on the 21st July this year with a casual meeting at the spacious bar of the Hilton Brighton Metropole. We met with Iain Simons the head honcho and all round cool (and very tall) chap at GameCity. It wasn’t particularly rock and roll, myself and my co-founder Ben sipped the most expensive cokes we had ever purchased and to top it all the battery had died on the iPhone carrying the latest Tiny Invaders build. So it is very much to Iain’s credit that he took us on our word that we were making an awesomely fun game...
If I’m honest the whole idea came completely from left-field and by left-field I mean Ben, who was to the left of me. In his usual enthusiastic style Ben’s arms flailed around in a manner not unlike Stan from Monkey Island. But the blur of arms and frenzied chatter that came forth was matched by an ever widening grin from Iain. Yes this was another harebrained scheme cooked up between two extroverts of which I was to find myself the victim...ahem I mean linchpin, in this ridiculous plan:
Ben: “You see Iain, we’ll have Pete up on stage and he’ll be frantically churning out levels! In the level editor!! LIVE and all mic’d up!!!”
I hadn’t particularly remembered signing up to this, but Iain and Ben were already shaking hands and congratulating each other on a great idea. I was to be some sort of performing design monkey. How is it, even when running my own company, I’m still in this situation?! So there I was, signed up for two events; a presentation at GameCity Nights and some kind of mental competition on stage at Gamecity Festival...and to top it all even the expensive coke hadn’t even tasted that nice.
It was Rehearsed:
The rehearsal for the crazy level design competition was due to take place on the evening of 29th September at the fabulously frantic GameCity Nights event in Nottingham. This is an event held every month at the Antenna building and is well worth the trip; with other indie developers in attendance, beer, comedy, whisky, fun presentations and beer. Here Ben and I took to the stage and largely got in the way of the projector screen and blindly fumbled around in front of the glaring lights and two film cameras trained on us. But by all accounts it had gone well, we talked about the formation of Hogrocket and the development of Tiny Invaders. Although one of my main memories was during the QA and having to dodge a brick when I proudly claimed one of my favourite games of all time to be Elite II Frontier...Luddites.
Beyond my gymnastic brick dodging skills however the highlight of the evening was the level design/puzzle element competition we ran. The task, I boldly claimed across the mic, was to come up with a new puzzle element monster for Tiny Invaders and to design a level featuring it...without resorting to drawing a cock and balls. I can proudly say that this was achieved by about 45% of the chattering and excitable crowd that took part. God bless ‘em. To be fair some of the cock and balls-esque levels were very creatively woven into their designs. The wooden spoon winner was rewarded with a Pez dispenser for their lovely rendition of a tank with a cock and balls as a gun and turret combo, I think that was more of a sketch than anything directly related to Tiny Invaders however. We did however receive a significant and weighty pile of acetate laden with some epic designs and funny monsters. This event proved that a competition at the festival itself would work. Not only this but I had fallen in love with the old style use of the official (if a little rickety) GameCity office Over-head-projector (OHP for short) for going through the winning designs. This took me right back to science classes with Mr Pavey at Holyrood School - Somerset circa 1995. Brilliant.
It was Competed Over:
The competition was scheduled for 2pm-3pm, Thursday 27th October at the Old Market Square, GameCity Festival in Nottingham. We were to run a competition where we would ask the crowd to design a new level for the game that would actually be included in our next level-pack for Tiny Invaders. This is a pretty awesome prize, if I may say so myself. However disaster struck a week before the event! It struck Ben to be precise, one of his teeth starting falling apart and it turned out he would need emergency dental surgery and the only day that it could be done was the day before the competition. In many ways I attributed this to Karma. After that fateful meeting in the Hilton back in July, the universe was telling Ben that his fellow co-founder is a not a commodity to be shipped from festival to festival, but I digress. To be fair the poor chap was really suffering, Ben would have to be left alone in a drug riddled, drooling quagmire of pain and I would have to do the competition alone. I wasn’t prepared to do this however. So I quickly phoned our stand-in-Hogrocketeer Ami who would prove to be a much more beautiful and useful companion on the day than Ben anyway.
We arrived at the venue and I immediately demanded my beloved OHP. This competition was going lo-fi and I would be rushing around the lovely people in attendance as they scribbled their designs onto acetate once more. I’d given up on Ben’s idea of doing the levels live on stage as to be quite honest it was a bit mental and our editor application is no Little Big Planet. Here is a picture of me taken whilst I was talking the entrants through the Tiny Invaders design considerations. Thanks to the lovable rogue Johnny Minkley of Eurogamer for taking the photo below. Here is also the EGTV video piece on GameCity Festival where we're featured at 6mins in.
It was Fought Over:
As with the GameCity Nights entries, I was blown away by the creativity of the awesome group in attendance. We also had a large contingent of young students from a project organised by the County Youth Arts Team in Mansfield and taught by the exceptionally friendly and forward-thinking Mr Salt. Getting to work directly with the up and coming game designers of tomorrow really made this event particularly special. Just look at the giant pile of level design entries from the day...oh and my cat Smudge:
But three main prize winners needed to be announced. For each of the three finalists we were giving away the fantastic (indie budget) prize of Blur for the 360 (courtesy of my old employer) and £5 of iTunes vouchers. The reason I didn’t pick an out and out winner on the day was that I had about 5 minutes to judge them! My experience from GameCity nights had taught me that when I got home I had totally missed loads of great entries. So out of everyones entries a grand prize winner would still be announced and they would get their level in Tiny Invaders. But these were the finalists and rather triumphantly two of the entries happened to be from the same group of 3 young designers from Mr Salt’s class named: Oliver, Bradley and Nathanial, congrats chaps and well gamed on the prizes!
In Hogrocket competitions though, nobody goes away empty handed. Everyone was to become the first recipients of the Hogbuck; our new currency, which with every note gives away a promo code for Tiny Invaders. At 69p worth of promo code in comparison to the note value of 1m it doesn’t make our currency worth a great deal, but these will be collectors items one day I tell ya! As one of the kids delightfully proclaimed upon receipt of the note; “TO EBAY”. Remember kids I own the printing press of this puppy, hyperinflation or not I’ll derail the Bank of Hog and retire in a blaze of glory if I have to!!...ahem.
It was Won:
There had to be one winner though. Over the past few days I’ve been feverishly building and trialling a lot of the designs in our Tiny Invaders level editor. However one stood out in it’s simplicity. It is a timing based level involving the lavish use of teleporters and a tricksy dose of white blood cell avoidance. In short it is the exact kind of pulling your hair out/addictiveness required for the next level-pack. The winners were Kat Wojna and Adam Butler, here is their design, followed by the level in-game:
Adam and Kat were delighted to have won the competition and were asked to name their level. They came up with the perfectly apt name ‘Tiny Teleportz’ and had the following to say:
"As aspiring game developers we are extremely happy that our efforts have been implemented into a game, it almost feels like our first step into the games industry. We are looking forward to people being able to play and enjoy the game level we made :)"
It was Concluded:
So there we have it, the great GameCity adventure closes for another year. The mad plan concocted in July has resulted in us crowd-sourcing our levels and puzzle ideas across GameCity Nights and GameCity Festival to great affect. At every step along the way I have been warmed by the enthusiasm of all involved and amazed at the creative output. I’ve learnt that kids are like knowledge sponges and pick up concepts and new ideas incredibly quickly. I’ve also learned that given enough beer adults are also very capable and stunned me with incredible breadth of creativity and imagination when it comes to drawing a cock and balls.
The new level-pack will be available in early Dec. I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as I did. I’d like to conclude with a fantastic piece of feedback we received from Mr Salt after the Festival which really made the whole event worthwhile for us here at Hogrocket:
"The students that came to it with me said it was the best part of their day and two of my kids won the comp on the day so they were well chuffed about that. I also found out that one of my students had a dream about tiny invaders believing himself to be a 'tiny invader'!"