Jam Retrospective


Aerostat started as a desire to create a shmup (shoot 'em up) game. Games characterized by waves of enemies, high-technology, and bullets flying all over the screen. Lately, I've had an interest in boiling down a genre and removing aspects or mechanics to get a feel for what the genre really is at its core. This jam began as a brainstorming session exploring how to create a shmup game that did not focus around jets, spaceships, or high tech crafts.

Initial Plans

Letting minds wander and googling around for inspiration, the idea of creating a shmup focused around a Hot Air Balloon came into existence and enticed us. We spent a few hours doodling some concept art and came across a somewhat good set of core mechanics:

  • The Player only directly controls vertical movement
  • Gameplay focus on interaction with the ground (such as delivering packages)
  • Player interactions should have a physics feel to them

Our first efforts to design this game followed the tried and true shmup auto-scroll mechanic (where the camera scrolls at a fixed rate, and the player can move within the screen). We held on to this design aspect until we found ourselves getting frustrated with how the gameplay was feeling. None of us were quite able to pin down a 'fix' for it. The realization came in the final 24 hours of the jam that the control scheme was fundamentally at odds with an auto-scrolling camera. The two major problems were:

  1. The Player would get pulled along the back of the screen if they missed certain wind currents - this felt like the game somewhat plays itself if you let it.
  2. The Player could keep themselves at the front of the screen if they stayed in the wind, making it hard to react to incoming objects and defeating much of the level design effort.

So we took it out. The slow, floaty controls suddenly felt like a core feature of the game, rather than just something making the player feel like they are fighting the scrolling camera. Our game finally had a personality, but it did mean we were drifting further from recognizable shmup traits.


Now that the game design had been liberated, the design really fell into place. Moving around the map felt clean, item interactions didn't feel forced, and the player could go at their own pace. We only put together four levels for the jam submission. The idea was to keep a small but focused set of levels to teach the player how the mechanics work. Despite being relatively short game, it was received very positively. We scored 19th place overall and 10th place in gameplay out of 135 entrants. It's hard to complain about being in the top 15% of games, and breaking into the top 10 in gameplay is a very satisfying feeling. It indicates that the idea is worth pursuing. Our plan is to keep working on the game to really explore what the mechanics have to offer.

Data Detour

Before we end this, we should talk about some numbers and how they have affected our approach to game jamming. Anonymous analytics in a handful of our previous jam games have shown that people generally don't play jam submissions for very long. Relatively few players even finish the game, even when they are well-received ideas. Some numbers to back that up:

Over the course of the rating period for Aerostat we saw:

  • 43 unique players 
  • 236 minutes of total play time (Mean play time of 4.51 minutes. Median play time of 2.30 minutes)
  • Average player reached level 3 (Mean of 2.43)
  • 9 players completed the game (Only 21% of players)

We intentionally made it impossible to "lose" in our game as previous data suggests that a large portion of players stop playing once they die or otherwise have to redo some part of the game. Even with taking this insight into account, less than a quarter of players finished a game that takes roughly 5 minutes to complete. Players are even able to ride the wind straight to the end of each level, should they choose to. The data here only reinforces the principles we've been trying to move forward with for game jam submissions, specifically:

  • Aim to create an experience that is 5 minutes or less - additional content will not be seen by the majority of players rating the game.
  • A polished idea is worth more than additional content - the first couple of minutes are the majority of what players are going to see.
  • Take the effort to teach the player how to play the game (tutorial, intro stages, etc) - reviewers are unlikely to put effort into learning how to play otherwise.

Leave a comment

Log in with itch.io to leave a comment.