Syncomania. How we delved into game development with zero experience and succeeded (kind of)

It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you’re attempting can’t be done. Terry Pratchett

Hello everyone! We are Aidar and Ed, a physicist and a mathematician from Russia, the creators of puzzle game Syncomania.

Aidar: “The story of our game begins with a strange dream that I had one night. I vividly saw four white balls moving in sync on a square grid. When one of them broke outside of the grid, I woke up. In the morning I called Ed. Two hours later we were sitting on a bench, discussing what would become our first mobile game.”
Ed: “In the summer I had plenty of free time, so I accepted the challenge. I didn’t realize what difficulties we would face.”

In the beginning we felt enthusiastic. Everything seemed exciting and easy. This is the most fun stage of development. And we’d like to share its story with you.

We had a very simple idea of controlling four playable heroes with one motion.

At first, we had to decide on the genre of our game. Clearly, it was not an arcade. Controlling this many moving elements at once is nothing short of a disaster. Luckily, we both love slow intellectual games, so we agreed on making Syncomania a turn-based puzzle. Yet, this didn’t make things easy. The game turned out to be hardcore. We also decided not to introduce any random or unpredictable elements. The game should depend on player’s actions only.

Ed: “Without thinking too much, I chose Processing as a programming language. It allowed us to create the prototype without any adjustments and settings. That was what we needed to keep things simple and stay motivated. Besides, the Java syntax enabled us to port the logics of the game on Android using the magical CTRL+C, CTRL+V technique. So we created four white ellipses as our heroes and controlled them with arrows on the keyboard.”
Aidar: ”The initial positions of the heroes were set in equidistant spots. Why? First, because everybody loves symmetry. Second, why not? Eventually, we decided it would be cool if all levels began like that.”

After a bit of experimenting with controls we understood that the heroes need a goal — a sort of exit from the level. In the beginning we toyed with the idea of getting the heroes off the grid (like in Aidar’s dream). Yet, a single exit seemed more dramatic. It would set more restrictions and from restrictions comes creativity. So we came up with the one and only option for victory: all the heroes must quit the level safely. The exit sign is usually green. So we made ours green as well.

Control 4 heroes at once
“The next day They created the wall. Let the wall be in the middle of the level, and let it separate the heroes from the exit.”

Walls are natural obstacles and the main tool for building level scenarios. It felt natural to make the heroes stop when they hit the wall. Walls are often made of stone, so we made ours look like grey squares.

Walls and corridors

The playing grid is basically a chess board with the size 11 by 11. This made it easier to keep and move objects. For instance, if a hero is in the lower left corner, its coordinates are [0][0]. To move the hero up by one cell, we add 1 to the value of the row: [0+1][0]=>[1][0]. Only one object can occupy each cell. Hence the question: “What will happen if two objects are on the same spot?” The first time we thought of it was when one hero was stuck at the wall and another bumped into it. That’s how we came up with the first way to lose: two heroes on the same cell destroy one another.

It’s a hit!

One more way to lose came to our mind when we created a trap. Heroes die when they step on a trap. We needed it to look dangerous, so we painted it red.

It’s a trap!
Ed: “I’m a fan of a board game called RoboRally. Players control a robot in a dangerous factory filled with moving conveyor belt. Conveyors trigger after a robot’s turn and move objects according to the arrow’s direction. We incorporated similar elements into our game and called them streams.”

The streams have two main functions:

1. The one way door. It allows things in, but never out.

One way door

2. The conveyors. They can move heroes, enemies and boxes (more on them later) in preset directions.

Aidar: “Feeling blood-thirsty, we started looking for more ways to kill heroes. So we decided to develop the idea of traps and make them movable. Our first take on that was the pendulum — a trap moving from one cell to another with a certain frequency. Yet, the trap able to move along the entire grid seemed to be a much cooler idea. We called these elements enemies.”

Random enemies seemed too chaotic. So we made a decision that a player should control them. Being heroes’ antagonists, enemies move in opposite directions. For example, if a hero goes right, an enemy goes left.

Enemy mine

On levels abound with enemies you have the illusion that they take on a life of their own. They roll in streams, beat their heads against walls, die in traps or hit each other, quit the game world through the exit and try to kill our heroes on purpose (not really).

Mad world
Ed: “While we were testing the game, enemies seemed so irritating that I always craved revenge. We needed a tool, a kind of a weapon against them that heroes could use. Having considered several options, we picked heavy objects as our weapon of choice.”

We turned to classics and took the idea from Sokoban, adding boxes to our game. Boxes are basically movable walls. We made them look like smaller squares with a cross. They perfectly matched the rules of our game. If you push a box to the cell already occupied by a hero or enemy, the latter will die, as two objects can’t be on the same cell at once. Apart from that, you can move boxes in streams and destroy them in traps. As in Sokoban, you can’t move more than one box in the line, so there’s a possibility that a hero can get stuck.

Let me out
Aidar: “We noticed that Ed and I complete levels differently. When creating a level, it’s almost impossible to predict all the solutions. And it’s not surprising, because with each new turn the number of possibilities grows exponentially.”

The variability of gameplay is the feature of Syncomania that we are sincerely proud of. Of course, you can complete many levels without thinking. But then you would need, say, 40–60 turns instead of 20. Thus, we came up with the idea of replaying the levels to find the shortest way.

Two solutions
Ed: “Looking for the optimal way to complete the level is my favourite part of the game. At the beginning, we created a chart where all our friends were sharing their high scores. Breaking records and being in that chart motivated us to go further.”

Before the game release, we had to collect the shortest walkthroughs of all the levels to present them as paid hints. That’s why we programmed a simple search algorithm. But, it was taking forever to find the right solutions, especially on levels with many objects. When the time of search started exceeding several days, we turned to crowdsourcing. If a player beats our record on one of the levels, we will get his or her walkthrough in the form of the sequence of turns. Experienced players usually complete a level heuristically and avoid redundant turns. Crowdsourcing turned out to be surprisingly fruitful, and we still have players breaking new records. We carefully put them down and update them in new versions of our game.

Eventually, we made a game with 96 levels and published it on Google Play. We were naive to expect fast money. With the lack of proper marketing our game didn’t draw much attention.

All 96 levels of Syncomania

So we tried to promote Syncomania on Instagram recreating the levels with objects at home, e.g.

dried flowers and candles
home-made cookies and milk

Yet, this is a story for another day…

As of now, Syncomania is available on Android for free awaiting to be found.