Monster Putt

Plan, do, watch, repeat. This is the Angry Birds formula, and I thought I could bring it to golf. Monster Putt is a hole-in-one mini golf game and below are some thoughts on why and how I made it.

Angry Birds spawned a lot of clones. And for good reason: it’s a well balanced game that hits on many pleasure centres: destruction, physics based chain reactions, instant restarts, consequence free experimentation, graduated success states and a low skill floor. Mini golf seemed a perfect match for many of these things.

One of the founding principles of Purple Dog Games was to make each game having something novel in it, to not just be a clone of a game you have already played. So my mini golf was to have hidden contours and obstacles (that also saved on art) and would require a hole in one to beat each level.

The first idea, of hidden contours, was based on an idea I’d had about per pixel calculations. I wanted the ball to look at the 8 pixels around it and roll according to which was lower than the 1 it was on. And I’d generate some nice randomly sloping terrain for this and use the height value in the colour blending to make great looking green contours. And that was the problem: I never did figure out how to generate terrain that varied gently from pixel to pixel, in natural slopes. I could only ever make incredibly jagged noise. Which also helped prevent me going too far down this path, as the calculations required would have slowed my game to a crawl. Later on, reading about per pixel stuff like the destruction engine in Lemmings boggled my mind. I should never have even entertained the idea. So I made simple 2d areas that applied a certain force in a certain direction and placed them on the levels. Easy. Now the ball had a certain motion added to it while on one surface, and if it touched a different surface it had a different force applied to it. I could just lay slopes around the place and make my levels. It just didn’t look very good to have areas of affect visible, and using arrows to signify direction and strength was something many old golf games used, and I didn’t want to just remake those. So I made them invisible.

The idea of needing a hole in one to beat the level came from play testing. I found myself trying to max each level, and got great pleasure in scoring a hole in one. In fact, with my standard practice of mapping R to restart the level, I found myself infrequently attempting a 2nd putt. One day, I decided that my behaviour is a pretty strong tendency, and matched how I played Trials, score attack modes in Skate and Angry Birds itself. Once the opportunity for a great score was lost, I restarted. I liked that about those games, and I wanted it in mine.

The problem with needing a hole in one to beat the level was that you either got it or you didn’t. There would be no reason to ever go back and do better once you got it, and this was one of the appeals of Angry Birds. You could beat the level and move on, and then come back later to get a better score. A binary win/loss state was not what I wanted to do, and once again just playing the game gave me a solution. I got most excited about long putts that slowly snaked their way in. Direct short putts when I was still trying out 2nd and 3rd putts were inconveniences, not celebrated and actually a reminder of my failure to make the first putt. And long slow putts just felt better. So I added a timer to the putt, and scored the player on their slowest and fastest putts. So now you could just make the putt to clear the level, but you had two more goals: make the putt in the longest slowest putt, or the most direct and quickest.

The added beauty of making the contours invisible was that it flipped the successful formula of ‘plan, do, watch, repeat’ into ‘do, watch, plan, repeat’. It forced the player to learn by doing, and that’s a holy game mechanic grail for me. Just click, see what happens. Watch the path and trail of the ball, learn something about the level, make a plan for the next putt and execute it. The same button to putt the ball is the button to reset the ball, is the button to interrupt the putt as soon as you know your current plan has failed and you want to try a new one. That is the beauty of my game, and why I think you should play it.

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