Once upon a time there was a prototype called Pillars or Jump Fail and a few more other such misbegotten names. For years it was one of many I created and I stumbled upon it by accident, feeling it wasn’t really worth indulging in. Fast forward a few years, and I am founding Frying Jelly and we plan to release a mobile game and a premium Steam game, or test our mettle on either and pick a path. That old prototype, a single-button high stakes precision platformer, becomes a candidate for the mobile game. We grab another prototype I created, and we start building RingRaceR (more in an upcoming post!), a sci-fi competitive racer with weapons and stunting that some see as a successor to UniRacers (UniRally in Europe). This is going to our premium Steam game.
So we start working on both games in tandem. But as we work on the mobile prototype of 99 Fails, we quickly decide it’s too simple and needs to be different. Really, really different. I start coming up with bizarre entities and sourcing my archive of creations, and 99 Fails comes to life. Conceived as a game anyone can play, but very few will master – and almost impossible-to-ignore weird. In the meantime, we make good progress on RingRaceR Our art and previews are so well received, that we decide to drop RingRaceR for now and focus on 99 Fails, eventually naming it Neebota: 99 Fails.
Neebota is the world of the protagonist Zeebo, an alternative universe where portals to earth appear. We decide to bring to life new and fresh IP with a big and long future, and this becomes our initial mission: building inimitably original games with rich worlds and IP. So the game introduces a compelling backstory where Zeebo is morphing terribly in his bizarre dream, and each morph is a new mechanic the player has to master. Zeebo has either long legs and arms, becomes a nightmarish spider, or a raging bull.
Levels are selected in his bedroom, which can be explored by the player and parts of which unlock as the player progresses. The video below showcases the bedroom as it was last April. Beware, there some minor spoilers as there are 6 areas in the bedroom and you unlock 2 of them in act 2 and 3, respectively.
Meanwhile, we have two main game design pillars to test for Neebota: 99 Fails, which also translate to our marketing strategy: the challenge of the game and its weirdness. So we decide to push out video content to test our music and visuals, releasing our first music video on Tiktok, being completely new to the platform. To our delight the video explodes upon upload. It was quite a sight to behold. Over 70K likes 1600 comments and 1.2M views! With this exploding attention we pitch VCs in fall and winter 2021, and successfully raise our seed round from Smok.VC!
But, as it often goes in gamedev,..delays set in. In the game the protagonist Zeebo’s body changes shape 9 times in his surreal nightmare, and each shape is a different mechanic to master. In our testing and exploration we created over 15 of these. Some wildly different. We call place each mechanic in their own its own dream layer and that’s how we start referring to it. We generally concept on paper, create quick ‘n dirty gameplay prototypes, and hand-animate ideas like the one below:
Even after pruning, we’re not happy with all the gameplay. In fact, only 4-5 are good enough in our eyes. So we explore further and revise and iterate. We even cut back from 9 layers to 6, just keep only the best in. The game has 3 acts, so that left us with 2 gameplay mechanics per act. Graphically too, we feel we can’t get things to where we need them, having to accommodate for mobile.
The core loop becomes traveling across 99 pillars or markers, while avoiding the bizarre entities and dealing with what we call surreal sequences. These are events in the dream that slow down time, speed up time, distort visuals, or are all together mini-games or events the player has solve, cross or persist through. You’re playing and all of the sudden you’re knocked out of the dream and behold a grid of dream layers, having to pick the one you were knocked out from. You died, but didn’t and are now floating through the air, looking for your lost eyes. Each surreal sequence is either survived or resolved which allows you to continue your progress in the current dream layer.
Eventually came to a point, not too long ago, where we streamlined the game structure and level design in a way that allows us to better implement the particular ideas we had for the gameplay mechanics that weren’t up to snuff. And voila, the game has a solid 9 gameplay mechanics to master now. And as we travel down that rabbit hole, we decide to do something drastic. We’re not developing Neebota: 99 fails for mobile anymore, so that we gain the freedom to put in more interesting controls and upgrade it graphically.
But then – all the delays are taking their toll and we’re behind schedule last May. What if we grab that misbegotten old prototype, and grab all of that popular 2D art of ours – and make a semi-promotional 2D version of the game? We work in Unity. We have our own FJ framework to speed up development. Couldn’t we do it quite quickly? We could. We’d call it simply 99 Fails again and release a preview version called lite with one of 3 mechanics from the main game, the arcade mode and multiplayer. And so we did. In matter of weeks we pumped out 99 Fails Lite and launched it on Steam!
99 Fails Lite is generally well received with over 90% positive reviews from players and a few critics, and Streamers and Youtubers alike are hitting our goals of finding it either very challenging and a bit frustrating, and are surprised by its weirdness and bizarre entities.
By now we’ve released more music videos and materials have gone viral repeatedly. As we gather data from 99 Fails Lite from about 15K players, we start building out 99 Fails (wishlist it, it helps!)…and start making the next few changes in our approach to our upcoming games as things take shape. We build modes, decide the fate of Neebota: 99 Fails and more, all in part 2. 🙂