Zylatov Sisters (80’s arcade-style co-op)

Dec 11, 2011

Zylatov Sisters is now finished and online. It’s the result of 10 weeks of work by 10 student developers, myself included. We created it alongside classwork and our various other obligations – none of us were on it full-time. We used an unusual design process to orchestrate our work and decisions in a modular fashion with minimal management overhead, which increased ownership over particular elements for each designer. I documented the first four weeks of that process in a previous HGD entry about the making-of. I think it worked out pretty well, came together better than I expected, and required significantly less coordination than I’m used to doing with other teams.

Zylatov Sisters a fixed difficulty game, tuned and paced to the difficulty of pinball in terms of approximate expected time per ball/life. The player is almost always within seconds of losing a life. Loss tends to occur from a lapse in attention, errors in timing, or overreaching in taking excessive risks under pressure. Player high scores are stored locally, rather than using global leaderboards. Gameplay is endless until all lives are lost, striving for an ever higher score rather than trying to overcome a boss or fixed number of levels. The enemy AI types are simple, each a combination of momentum and randomness, making them fairly easy to anticipate (or at to least interpret the probability of loss due to being within any given distance and angle of them) but impossible to manipulate.

Stringing together frags raises the player’s multiplier, with special events happening at 5X (crate appears with special weapons or extra lives), 10X (temporary invulnerability), and 15X (instant level clear), serving to temporarily recognize varying degrees of exhilarating emergent moments. The game features no unlocks, partly because I didn’t want it to be a digestible, completable experience, partly because it works better this way for student portfolios, and partly because I wanted to follow my own theory that with varied content, everything should be unlocked. This resulted in a ‘horizontal’ game design, more like a row of pinball tables to pick from, rather than a sequentially locked tunnel. Which level players see first is random every time to avoid any notion of a “first” level.

We also made the decision to credit our inspirations upfront: Super Crate Box, Bubble Bobble, and pinball. We did this because (a.) as students, we see real value in crediting sources and believe it’s the right thing to do and (b.) our game is sufficiently different from any of the inspirations that we’re not worried about it being redundant. It’s atypical to see this type of acknowledgement in entertainment/fiction, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that on the rare occasions when we do see it there’s either large settlement payments made under duress (as with Harlan Ellison’s acknowledgment at the end of Terminator), or comes across as a junky SEO attempt to get search attention (“If you liked Angry Birds, then you’ll love…”). For what it’s worth, Vlambeer, Super Crate Box‘s developers, gave us their blessing via e-mail, however I did not attempt to contact Taito. Taito is a big overseas corporation, Bubble Bobble came out 25 years ago, and the original designer Fukio “MTJ” Mitsuji (who is the only person I would care to hear the ok from) passed away in 2008.

In a similarly odd decision, we crammed all the credits upfront. I first tried this approach with Alice in Bomberland. I did so because I wanted to credit individuals rather than an abstract logo, but also because I’ve never worked with the same team twice – any such logo would be a one-off anyway, rather than a meaningful brand. In this case it’s also relevant that Zylatov Sisters is intended as portfolio work for students, so specificity and visibility regarding contributions helps toward that end. Lastly, given my own priorities as a hobby videogame development evangelist, I like that this approach emphasizes to players that games are a craft made by people working together. (This last point may sound silly or obvious to adults, but as a child it didn’t occur to me until I saw “Made in Japan” on a SNES cartridge – the layers of consumer process are very distancing. Games just seemed like magical things that mysteriously showed up on shelves for purchase, like apples or hot dogs.)

Anyhow, nothing I write here is going to say more about Zylatov Sisters than playing Zylatov Sisters (click here to play). This isn’t a post-mortem in a magazine about some $60 game for hardware you may or may not own, that would need weeks of play to yield context. It’s a free 6 MB cross-platform game, with all content unlocked upfront, played entirely in-browser, involving rounds that typically last 1-5 minutes. Give it a shot!

Note: If the above game links don’t work, try playing it on NewGrounds. If that doesn’t load either, a newer version of Flash player might be needed.

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