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13 May 2015

Things Indie Developers Need To Know: The Art Of Juicing Your Indie Game

Have you ever wondered why certain games just…feel better? You know what I’m talking about: when you play certain games, they just feel more together than other games in their genre. Even if the gameplay is identical to other games in said genre, it doesn’t matter: the game in question feels more complete, alive, and well, there’s only one way to explain it: the game just feels…better.

About a year ago, I wrote a post that described the concept of ‘juicing:’ a technique that is used to make games feel more alive. I mentioned it’s one of the differences between Super Mario Bros. feeling like a generic platformer and being the milestone in gaming that it is. From unique sounds that stem from Mario shooting a fireball, jumping, etc. to the shininess of the power-ups to even the colorful textures of the game, juicing your indie game makes all the difference in the quality of a game.

But what is it, exactly? Is there a definition?

Defining juicing

The best way to define juicing is to think about it in layers. For those of you that have experience with Photoshop – even minimal experience (like me) – you are going to understand what I’m trying to say. When you have an image that looks almost perfect, yet you want to add some finishing touches on it, what’s the first thing you usually do? You add a few layers to the image and begin editing it appropriately. As you add your layers and work your magic, theoretically, the image is going to look perfect and more improved than the original.

Without the extra layers, your image isn’t as strong as it needs to be. Sure, the original image may look good enough, but you don’t want ‘just good enough.’ You want perfection! The added layers to the image gives it that extra ‘oomph’ it needs to be better than the best, and it puts the image at an entirely different level.

Juicing your indie game works the same way. It’s the reason why Angry Birds was the breakout hit that Crush The Castle – the originator of the Angry Birds gameplay formula – was not. While Crush The Castle’s gameplay is identical to that of Birds, Angry Birds used juicing techniques to be the better game. Every action has a unique and memorable sound effect, the animations are cartoonish and charming (and they align perfectly with the graphics), and so on. Quite literally, it’s the same game as Crush The Castle with added layers.

How can you juice your indie game?

The short answer? Any way you want! Juicing can be as subtle (such as the unsheathing noise of a sword) or as in-your-face (such as the tune that’s played when Mario obtains the star power-up) as you wish. As long as whatever is done makes your indie game feel more vibrant, alive, and brings out the best in your indie game, anything is fair game!

I want to show you a quick example of how flexible juicing can be. Derek Daniels (former combat designer for God of War) gives an example of subtle juicing in this Street Fighter Alpha 3 clip. According to Daniels:

“First you see Sakura doing her standing Fierce (Hard Punch) attack which she hits no one with. Then she makes contact with Dhalsim on what is known as a ‘clean’ hit or a ‘normal’ hit. Alpha 3 has a major counter system where if you interrupt the opponent’s attack with your own you get a ‘counter’ hit. What you are seeing with the last attack is Sakura landing the same standing Fierce but this time in a counter situation. We get a great sound and even a 1 frame white flash, some particles around her hand and the whole game coming to a stop for a few frames before continuing with the action. This last attack feels vastly different and you really feel like you put the hurt on someone. While this pause is going on none of the players have the ability to move which also helps sell the overall feel of a hard hit.”

The crazy thing about juicing is that ordinary players are probably never going to notice the extra layer added to Sakura’s counter-strike: yet without it, the game would feel like it was lacking. The small flash, the tiny particles floating around, and the ‘barely there’ white flash come together in such a unique way that it tells the player, “hey, this attack is stronger than the previous one and it’s special,” without the player even knowing it.

The title of today’s post is ‘The Art of Juicing,’ and it’s not there just because it sounds like a cool title: there truly is an art to juicing. Just like a sound engineer knows he/she is doing his/her job correctly when no one recognizes his/her contributions to a film, game, album, etc., the same can be said about juicing. Most people will never know you added an extra layer of awesomeness to your game to make it feel more alive, but they’ll appreciate how complete the game feels all the same.

So tinker with your indie game and figure out additional ways to juice it to perfection! Apply sound effects to certain animations, actions, etc., tinker with the movements of your protagonist, and figure out new ways to help it to reach that new level. Your indie game is going to benefit from it, so start experimenting and figuring out how to bring out the absolute best in your project!

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