Nautical Nonsense is a couch competitive-cooperative party game where players step into the shoes of crew members aboard rival pirate ships. The goal of the game is to fire wacky weapons, steer a whale-towed ship, and keep the ship afloat in order to defeat the other team in naval combat. The winner of each ship battle will earn a key, and the first team to gain enough keys will be able to unlock the Ultimate Treasure and win the match. Between ship battles, players dock their ships on one of 4 unique islands to gather ammunition for the next battle. Players will need to move fast, strategize, and work together to emerge triumphant and to find the Ultimate Treasure!
This was my final project as a game design major at Champlain College. The game began in the first semester of my senior year, for my capstone class. In this class, game development students of all different disciplines form small groups to create a “Vertical Slice” of a bigger project, in the hopes that it will be picked up to continue development through the next semester. My original team had just 5 members: Two designers, two artists, and one programmer.
At the beginning of that first semester, we started with a few concepts and built on each for awhile. Eventually, we cut the others and decided to create a cooperative pirate ship battle game which would take a unique perspective on naval combat. The first prototypes of the game featured up to four player cooperative 3rd person split-screen. Each player controlled a crew member on the ship, which was viewed as if the boat was split in half vertically.
By the end of the semester, we had built a vertical slice where players aboard a ship could battle other ships controlled by enemy AI throughout several levels. The game took on more of a “nonsensical” theme, and thus featured a few strange weapons such as electric jellyfish and exploding pufferfish. Players could run around the ship to find find weapons, fire them in a first person cannon mode, and repair damage with hammers above deck to gain back some health. Should the players be successful, they would earn money to spend on new weapons, and unlock subsequent levels with harder enemies.
At the capstone show, each team pitched their game and why it should move forward. We presented what we had created so far, and proposed to use additional resources next semester to create a deeper combat experience with more cooperative strategy, as well as a bigger world to explore with interesting an narrative and characters to boot. Over half the teams were cut, but Nautical Nonsense was selected to move forward, and we were able to add 4 more full time team members to our crew. You can see the trailer we presented at the capstone show below:
As you can see, the game turned out drastically different than it once was, on a fundamental level! At the beginning of second semester, old and new members of the team came together to discuss our future. After much deliberation, we decided to make some dramatic, arguably risky changes to our plans. The team ended up agreeing that the original intended experience had several major flaws. First, our core combat loop was generally repetitive and boring. We had ideas to develop more types of crazy weapons to use, but this wouldn’t solve the root issues with our play. We wanted to encourage more cooperation between teams, but there wasn’t really any drive to do so.
Making big changes so late in the game was viewed as a big risk, but we eventually determined that our original intent had a much more dangerous scope. We didn’t have the time or resources to create an entire “campaign” which wouldn’t feel derivative or uninteresting. All the different characters we had planned seemed like fun, but they would’ve been a lot of work to implement. Another big issue was our lack of developed enemy AI. The team felt we wouldn’t be able to create all the different enemy classes needed to make the game great in a successful manner.
These are the major revisions Nautical Nonsense went through second semester:
We entirely scrapped the plan to create a fully cooperative adventure in favor of a more compact player vs player party game. This would cut our fears of creating intricate enemy AI and an expansive, interesting game world with quirky characters. By pitting players against each other, we could more easily create strategic cooperative play which players would actually be invested in.
Players were given the ability to steer the ship. Originally we never wanted this, because we didn’t want to create too much of an asymmetric experience, but it was still the most requested feature at QA. The design team cleverly came up with an indirect method of steering the ship which used existing systems as to not break immersion, and which also fit with our nonsensical theme. The ships are towed by whales, which can be directed by setting “waypoints” in the ocean, by means of firing bait out of cannons. The system is easy to use, but doesn’t give players more control then we want them to have. Additionally, with three core tasks (shooting, repairing, steering) and two players on each ship, this creates a more wild and frantic pace for the game like we’d always intended.
With these changes, our original camera system wouldn’t work at all. We scrapped the first person camera system entirely, and enhanced our targeting arc system. The game actually went through several iterations of POV even midway through the semester. We toyed with 2-way shared splitscreen by team where players could see the whole ship at once, complete with a dynamically panning camera and transparency shaders to see below deck. But no matter what, this didn’t allow for enough detail, the camera was always too far. The island was a single screen with a top-down view, and had the same problem. We eventually decided to return to 4-player split screen, but this time with a rotatable 3rd person camera. This allowed us to keep our original intended level of immersion, and gave players a smooth experience where they could see everything they needed.
Lastly, we needed a new overarching game flow. What would be the player’s new overall goal? Even after scrapping the plan for an exploration based campaign, we still wanted some form of progression. In the end, we decided to go for a round-based party game, and crafted a new, simpler narrative revolving around finding keys to unlock a treasure chest. In the past, players found our island areas unsatisfying, so we scrapped the currency system, and turned the islands into a frantic resource gathering minigame. This gave the island mode a more meaningful place in the overall structure of the game, while still featuring mechanics which are fun and complement the Nautical Nonsense aesthetic.
Some people thought we were crazier than the characters in our game for trying this, but really, it would’ve been crazy not to. It was a ton of hard work, there were times of crunch, and it was difficult having to start over in many ways and wait for payoff while other games in the class were just adding content. But the team knew this was best for the game, and these decisions ignited a new fire of motivation which wasn’t as present in first semester.
By prioritizing satisfying gameplay, we were able to get more valuable feedback more quickly because players were having fun and could see promise in the intended experience. By committing to a more contained experience, we were better able to achieve a higher level polish and in-game feedback.
It was tough to get to where we are now, but the whole team is very proud of what we’ve accomplished. Nautical Nonsense is a complete experience which is loved by it’s players. The game’s in depth tutorial makes it easy for new players to learn the basics of the game, and the overall combat system has enough depth for hardcore players to develop serious cooperative strategy. The game looks beautiful and feels great to play, and it a worthy showcase of the culmination of our skills gained at Champlain College.