JUGGLE! STARTED LIFE as Juggly, a very basic Multimedia Fusion 2 prototype. I wanted to make a game right there and then using the fewest toys – familiar toys in a familiar context but with a twist. I had the likes of Breakout, Pong, Practice and the Higinbotham tennis in mind at the time.
The first ever version of Juggly was played on a landscape screen with just a block paddle at the bottom and block balls introduced from off the top of the screen every few seconds. The paddle was controlled by the mouse and highly responsive so you could cope with multiple balls at once. This crude play felt… interesting.
The balls were affected by gravity; they didn’t maintain a constant speed and direction until they bounced like in Pong or Breakout. The balls only bounced off the sides of the playscape, not the top, and were lost if they fell off the bottom. The balls got faster and harder to hit over time. That was it. It’s obvious enough and simple enough, sure, but there was something curiously compelling about this.
Colin picked up on it and we soon found ourselves competing to see who could play for longest and keep the most balls in play at once. It helps to have such direct contact with an audience. You have a kindred spirit to share with – a mirror for your game’s soul and an alternative fuel source for the fire. Having Colin to test out ideas was so useful – if not to confirm my design suspicions then to tip the balance or suggest alternative desires. It’s like the benefit of Pilot Not Flying.
From these humble beginnings my experimentation snowballed… Man, you wouldn’t believe how many different tests I tried. (Come to think of it, if you know me at all, you would believe it.)
The screen orientation quickly changed from landscape to portrait, to give more room to juggle. I briefly toyed with the idea of different shapes of playscape but, after a disappointing test with obstacles (they – surprise – got in the way), I quickly settled for rectangular.
Bricks to bash just felt misplaced. At one point I had targets appearing at random positions on screen with the idea of hitting them before they disappeared but the game started to feel like some freakish fusion of Breakout and Space Invaders, which was not what I had in mind. Pinball table parts such as bumpers, ball locks, channels and hotspots to illuminate felt interesting but also a little too far ‘off-piste’ for my liking, so I went back to refining core play.
NOT ALL BALLS ARE CREATED EQUAL
Playing the prototype you’d find yourself getting quite attached to balls you’d managed to keep in play for a while and it soon became desirable to know which balls were oldest. Sticking rigidly to monochrome I used numbers to show how many times the balls’d been hit, which was OK but a bit too clinical. I broke my rules to add colour, but different shades and blatant rainbow contrasts just didn’t feel obvious enough.
The solution turned out to be size: the balls shrink (rather than grow) with every hit. Not only was this effective – it was dramatic. It takes a lot more skill to keep smaller balls in play and I liked the increase in tension. (Ultimately I found the smallest balls weren’t obvious enough and didn’t feel special enough, so now they flicker like fireflies, which is pretty funky.)
I tried different sizes of ball. The bigger the ball, the more confident you are of hitting it. However, a ball too big and too fast can be too intrusive or intimidating. I tried balls spinning but that started to get confusing. I tried balls with different properties: balls of different shapes (too unpredictable); balls with less bounce; balls that hung in the air longer; balls like golf balls and cannonballs and beach balls (which felt fine – until you play with different types of balls at the same time, like cool jugglers do… AAARGH!).
Balls rebounding according to the speed of the paddle or the direction in which it was moving made play far too tough. It made most sense to use a tried and tested system with the angle at which the ball bounces off the paddle determined by where it hits the paddle (some Breakout-style games have represented the paddle curved to accentuate this effect). For example, a ball hitting the paddle’s centre rebounds straight up, whereas a ball hitting the paddle’s outer edges rebounds at 45°.
The rebound angles deliberately don’t get too shallow and unpleasant, but I did find the balls felt too fast when they rebounded at the shallowest angle, so to compensate the gravity is reduced slightly, so the ball flies that little bit further and gives you a little more time to react.
PEDDLE PADDLE PIDDLE PUDDLE
Experimenting with different paddle sizes resulted in a preference. There’s a certain ratio of paddle to screen coverage that feels best – that gives you confidence. Too small and it’s too scary; too big and it’s too comfortable. Emotionally there’s a different feeling to a paddle that’s around a fifth of the screen wide (which is what it ended up as) compared to one almost the width of the screen. A thinner paddle didn’t feel substantial enough while a deeper one felt… inelegant and inappropriate.
The position of the paddle in the playscape also makes a difference. Too close to the bottom of the screen feels uncomfortable – as does too high, not just because it reduces how much playscape is available.
(This picture shows Juggly with balls too big and a paddle too thin, too small and too close to the bottom of the screen for comfort.)
The paddle bouncing slightly in reaction to ball hits made play feel too soft. Balls and paddles with their physical presence (‘collision areas’) slightly larger than their visible presence also made play feel too soggy. The paddle and balls have to feel solid, so I settled on ‘what you see is what you hit’ approach instead.
I love feeling lucky in games. Near misses – close shaves – improve the drama. In Juggle!, the ball is always hit back into play as long as it touches the paddle. This means you can whizz the paddle across the screen so its side rams a ball just about to fall into the abyss and it rebounds as if it’d hit the top extreme edge of the paddle, which feels good and makes you feel good.
Multiple paddles side by side (like in Revenge of Doh) or stacked (like in Avalanche) didn’t work. One paddle for each hand was horrible, even when both paddles were controlled through one device, because you’d end up getting confused about which paddle was best to use and drop the balls.
Inspired by the intense Japanese Breakout-style game Block I tried to deepen play with a pinging action to toss the balls higher. Then I tried a timely click to straighten the balls rebounding from the paddle. Neither feature added anything to the experience (if anything they made play less fun because there was too much more to think about).
I fiddled with many other features such as accessories to enlarge the paddle and to only rebound balls straight up but I couldn’t figure out decent rules for triggering these and, trickier still, why they’d obviously stop.