Sparky the Road Clown – Evolution of an Idea
When I tell people I’m making a game about running over clowns, I invariably get the “wow, how on earth did you come up with that idea??” look and/or question. This article will trace the evolution of that idea, the gameplay and the graphics from a silly name to a finished game.
Just a name
The name Sparky the Road Clown is actually a name I’d had in my head for years. When somebody would cut me off in traffic or something like that, I’d say something like, “Hey, Sparky- nice driving!” or “Watch it, Sparky!” and I imagine a lot of other people say similar things. Over time, I associated Sparky and road craziness and I came up with the name Sparky the Road Clown and even came up with a little backstory: he used to be Sparky the Rodeo Clown but had since gone off the deep end and became Sparky the Road Clown. This name (and the concept of rodeo clown to road clown) stuck in my head for several years before iPhones were even around.
Unity 3D and the birth of the idea
I got involved with iPhone development pretty early on with a group that had a game almost out when the app store opened. A few months after that, in early 2009, I bought a macbook, iPod Touch and sent my $99 to Apple to start developing. In the fall of that year, I discovered Unity 3D and started working with it. I kicked around a few ideas, but I kept coming back to Sparky the Road Clown, trying to figure out what kind of a game I could make from a name like that. My first thought was a clown standing in the median yelling at the cars as they drove past, but I didn’t see how that would be much of a game. Then, I thought maybe it could be like Frogger where the clown was dodging cars. Then I came across a great Lon Chaney quote about clowns:
“A clown is funny in the circus ring. But what would be the normal reaction to opening a door at midnight and finding the same clown standing there? A clown in the moonlight is not funny.”
That quote helped solidify the basic idea — car vs clown. I considered calling the game “Die, Clown, Die”, but everybody I talked to thought it was much more entertaining to focus on and call the game Sparky the Road Clown. So with that, I had the idea of a clown in a dark alley, late at night, with the player driving a car at the mocking clown. I pulled up Cinema 4D and started working with some of the built-in content to try and mock up the rough idea. Here’s the result, from October 13, 2009:
Warning! Programmer Art Ahead!
The graphic designer had nothing to do with the preceding graphic!
I used Cinema 4D to do this basic mockup in a very short period of time — it gave the basic idea of a car, an alley and clown (well, a french clown, but it’s all they had in the stock 3D objects). From there, I talked to a good friend of mine and sent him a very rough sketch. Thankfully, he is a talented 3D character artist and he did wonders with the concept art and resulting 3D model and animations.
So we run over the clown. Now what?
I knew I needed more than “let’s drive into the clown!” so I talked to another talented friend who does voiceover and audio work in Memphis and asked him, “How is your angry, disgruntled clown voice?” and if he was interested in working on this project with me, and he was happy to help. So, at that point, I had an angry, cigar-toting animated clown who mocked you until you ran over him.
Running over the clown was pretty entertaining, but only for so long. My game needed more depth. I started with the idea late one night that I’d give points for various parts of the car that hit the clown, with more points going to the more difficult parts — like if you whack him with the back fender, that’d be worth a lot of points because you’d have to REALLY work that to make it happen. From points, that went to multipliers so you got 1x for the first piece of the car you hit (they were separate colliders within Unity 3D, so I could tell what was being hit), 2x for the next piece of the car, and so on. That got old pretty quick, too. One day as I was working on the car physics (which continue to haunt me), I was going through Unity 3D’s “arcade style race car set up” tutorial to see if there was anything I could glean from it, and on a whim, I thought it’d be fun to put a large rectangle on top of the sports car in the tutorial and have it spin around like a big stick on top of the car. It was a lot of fun. So I immediately bugged Chris (the artist) about making a “big clown hammer” for the top of the car and sure enough, he came through again.
Clowns and cars and hammers, oh my!
The colorful spinning mallet on top of the car was the final piece of the puzzle. That added an entirely new aspect to the game — how far can you knock the clown? I change the multiplier to denote how many different objects in the game you’d hit so far and it didn’t reset every round, so if you hit a new barrier/train/building that you didn’t hit before, your multiplier goes up one more point. Score is tallied by distance you’ve knocked the clown in the current round times your current overall multiplier. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m much happier with the gameplay where it stands now as opposed to where it stood a year ago. The graphics continue to evolve as well as shown in this side-by-side shot from last June and last December on the Facebook version. The iPhone version of Sparky is a little more low-res, the iPad version of Sparky looks pretty close to this Facebook screenshot.
As I get ready to send the game off to Apple after working on it almost a year and a half in my spare time, I’m excited and anxious. It’s come a long way from the vague idea/name that I had in my head, and I suspect it’ll continue to evolve. No quality game is ever fully developed on paper — it has to go through playtesting and have feedback and be tweaked and changed accordingly, with nothing held sacred. We haven’t had nearly enough time to implement the various mini-games and other things that we’ve got planned, but we’re going to go ahead and unleash it on the iOS world anyway. With new projects starting up, I’m worried that if I don’t get it out there now, it’ll turn into the dreaded “never quite finished, never quite released” project and I’ve worked too hard on it to give up like that. Whether people love it or hate it, hopefully they’ll smile a little bit when they play it and whack the clown with the big spinning mallet.
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