Prototype Postmortem: PixelCraft

I have been working towards a couple prototypes for different possible games. My hope is that one of them will have the potential for a complete game. My direction is intentionally unorthodox, because I do not want to re-tread the ground of previous games. This also means that things don’t always work out like you want them to. 🙂

One of the ideas is PixelCraft: a game where you draw pixel art. You complete ‘waves’ and as you complete levels, you uncover more of the art. The idea is to make it feel more like drawing than tracing. You start with raw shapes and sculpt at them, drawing pixels then removing them. Starting loose and tightening as you progress.

I liked the idea of making a game that wasn’t a traditional drawing game that mirrored the act of drawing. One of the intents was to ‘reveal’ the drawing slowly instead of providing the final image. By providing an image of what you might be drawing that would feel more like copying or tracing.

My first attempt involved showing you the first few pixels, and then revealing the ones around you as you painted.


I then continued with the ability to remove pixels…WITH FIRE.


This worked well in the sense that it kept the act of drawing accessible. You knew where to fill in, and you could continue to draw. It didn’t provide the ability to mess up, i.e. ‘lose’ if we’re going to take the act of drawing into the Game Department. So it was a very winnable game, to the point it was…kinda boring.

And so I put together a few ‘waves’ of pixels to draw a slime:

And then nyan cat:

When creating the cat level I wanted to see what different content would look like. And also how much effort would be involved in making more content. I thought that from a meta-game perspective you could potentially unlock more levels: Mexican Nyan Cat or Afro Nyan Cat. So much nyan nyan nyannnnn.

After showing to a few people it was clear that the game wasn’t coming through. It had a few benefits. It was easy to play. It was quick to complete a drawing and some reward in doing so. There was a progression of complexity as the level increased colors. BUT it had no lose condition, and it felt too much like tracing. The fun factor wasn’t obvious.

I decided to try an alternate style and see how things would work. And so the Pixel Ray was born:


The idea is that you can draw freeform: make mistakes, fill areas, or erase. And what you’re intending to draw is shown by waving  the ‘Pixel Ray’ over the image. It will show you the image temporarily, and after a while, the image fades out. You need to remember what was shown, or draw over while its still visible, then re-apply the Pixel Ray to reveal the image again.

This approach added a large amount of complexity to the game, and it took a good amount of iteration to get it to feel right. Because making mistakes was now expected, there needed to be proper support to be able to fix bad input. This required communicating to the user what the expected image should look like.  The user had to be able to use any color that was introduced so far, instead of being locked into the ‘correct’ colors.

It also became obvious that drawing individual pixels required the user to be very, very zoomed in. And once you’re zoomed in you need a way to pan around.  So the Pan Tool was born.  Initially the game was zoomed out more. The zoom level was the one shown when using the Pixel Ray.

Even with these features, it was very, very easy to draw accidentally on a phone. Add to this the fact that you can’t see where your finger is painting easily. I added a ‘mouse fudge’ feature that moved the pixel drawing area up. This then became a guessing game and a ‘crosshair’ needed to be added. But I needed a way for the user to know where they were about to draw, but there wasn’t any way for the program to know before the finger touched down. Ultimately I added an animation to the crosshair where it transitioned in for 1 second then started painting. This allowed me to tap and get a feel of where the finger would paint, and I could hone in on the correct location. You’ll noticed that I tap a lot in the videos to get a feel for where to draw, and this actually works really well.

Pixel Ray levels required a lot more effort, and there is a skill to it. It almost feels like you could also score your ability on how few mistakes are made. I say ‘ability’ and not ‘drawing ability’ because the ability to precisely place these pixels feels like a separate skill from drawing.

The amount of time required for the Pixel Ray version of Nyan Cat was 6m 22s, compared to 2m 07s for the ‘Paint Wave’ version. Three times longer to complete…and that’s if you’ve played it a lot 😛 . The time felt a little long. I do feel like there were points where I was actually getting into the zone and able to focus and improve my skill at the game.

There are a few unsolved problems, some technical but mostly from a design perspective. First is that the game has little in the way of retention. What makes me want to continue? One of the ideas is to unlock more content, but I don’t think that is enough. There would need to be an ability to unlock different play styles, ‘wave’ types, and explore different ways of painting.

Another is replayability. What makes me want to re-visit a level? It seems like improving accuracy could be a reason. Different color variants? Taco Nyan Cat? That would be better served if you could provide an ability to unlock skills/tools that would allow you to cruise through the level faster and get the satisfaction of skill progression. But what those tools or skills are I have yet been able to unlock inside my head. 🙂

It was a positive experience to get this prototype made and explore the concept. I am sad to say that it is not a very good game…but that’s OK. That’s why you prototype. You learn…and you move on!