TV Games – SpongeBob SquarePants Dilly Dabbler

SpongeBob SquarePants Dilly Dabbler

As I was preparing to write up this piece, I realized that there simply aren’t any screen shots or video online of most of the games on which I worked. Considering that most of them were intended for very young children, this wasn’t much of a surprise. So I invested in a (very) cheap video capture device. It certainly isn’t the highest quality, but it’ll do for this purpose. I’m so dedicated to this podcast!
In my previous entry about my Spider-Man game, I mentioned that working with licensed properties can be a hassle. This was a point that was heavily reinforced while working with Nickelodeon on SpongeBob SquarePants Dilly Dabbler.

By the time we started working on this product, there were one or two SpongeBob TV Games out already. Nickelodeon and Jakks wanted something different for this one. Instead of a collection of mini-games, Dilly Dabbler (their name) was going to be a collection of “activities” that would be aimed at younger kids. Both companies were quick to stress that they didn’t wants “games” here. Of course, the original request was for something along the lines of 10-12 different activities, which would have been very difficult to fit on the 1MB ROM with which we had to work, especially if we wanted to use different artwork in each activity (for backgrounds and whatnot) to keep them visually interesting. Eventually, we talked them down to a more realistic seven activities. Nick and Jakks suggested a couple possible activities; my first job was to fill out the rest and implement their ideas into the design document.

This one gets a bit long, so there’s more after the jump.

Mr. SpongeHead

This, as the title suggests, is a Mr. Potato Head knock-off. There’s not a whole lot too it, really. You just mix and match SpongeBob’s parts to make him look as goofy as you want. In addition to swapping the parts, you can also drag them around SpongeBob’s face a bit to mix things up even more. Luckily, Kevin James (no, not that Kevin James…this Kevin James is far more talented), the artist who worked on this project, was a big SpongeBob fan, so he was eager to suggest all sorts of costumes and props to use for this and the other games.

Seaside Sliders

Man, I hate these sliding tile puzzles. I always have, and I always will. Not much to say about this one, either, but hey…we do have three levels of difficulty, so that’s something. See? It’s a game that the whole family can enjoy! Also, one of the available pictures shows Patrick doing some sort of workout (or something) that involves him stretching one of his legs. It looks really inappropriate. It is, however, official Nickelodeon art, so don’t blame us.

Gary’s Gooze Art

Gary’s Gooze Art (named after SpongeBob’s pet snail) is a simple drawing program that turned out to be slightly more difficult to program than originally anticipated. Still, it worked out pretty well. I really like the Gary sprite that is used as your cursor. Originally, I had titled this activity “Gary’s Slime Art” since snails, you know, leave a trail of slime behind them. “Slime” was changed to “Gooze” as per Nickelodeon’s suggestion. I believe that Gooze was some sort of slime toy that Nick had on the market at the time.

Mix & Match Patrick

Did you ever see one of those books that have pictures of people (or monsters or whatever) in different outfits and they’re cut up into three parts? You can flip through the different heads, bodies, and legs to create all sorts of silly combinations? That’s what this is. To add a little bit of depth to the activity, we also added a “Done!” button that plays a little victory tone if you press it after correctly matching the parts.


Color Me Spongy

It’s a coloring book. Pretty basic, really. You choose which picture you want to color (all the pictures from the Seaside Sliders activity are reused here), cycle through the different palettes, and color away. Instead of a standard brush, you’re using what is essentially the “fill bucket” from most paint programs. You could also click on the eraser icon to clear out an area that you’ve already colored. Talk about options! We would reuse the coloring book template for the Blue’s Room TV Game.

Metal Shaving Makeover

I was actually pretty proud of this activity. It’s inspired by the old Wooly Willy toy, which allows you to use a magnetic wand and metal filings to sculpt wacky hairdos on a hairless cartoon fellow. The programmer did an excellent job of recreating the behavior of the old toy. By tapping the joystick button, you can pick up clumps of the “metal shavings” and position them on the face of SpongeBob and four of his friends (Patrick, Sandy, Gary, and Squidward). You can also hold down the button to drag the shavings around. Just like the real toy, this is somewhat imprecise, and the shavings will occasionally fall off the wand and scatter about. Like I said, it does a good job of feeling like the toy.

One problem with this activity was that due to sprite limitations, we couldn’t have as many shavings as we would have liked. To get around this problem, we originally allowed the player to “draw” on full body shots of the characters. This allowed the player to, say, give SpongeBob a huge afro or a long, flowing beard. However, Nickelodeon insisted that we zoom in on the characters’ faces. Because of this, it’s a lot harder to make extremely goofy hair styles as the available shavings don’t go as far when you’re looking at a close-up.

Krabby Patty Fry Fest

Oh, Krabby Patty Fry Fest. It’s actually my favorite activity in this little compilation (it’s certainly the most interesting to look at), but man, was it a chore getting there. During the initial planning stage, I came up with a concept that was essentially a Simon-style memory game that had SpongeBob building burgers. The Jakks producers really liked the idea, but our mutual concern was that Nickelodeon would consider it too “gamey” for an “activity” collection. Thus began a few days of back-and-forth as we chopped out any potential game elements. There would be no scoring and no real “win conditions.” You were just shown what to put on the burger and you built it. It would be something like the Mix & Match Patrick game–if you built the correct burger, you got a little victory noise; if you build the wrong burger…well, just keep trying ’till you get it right. Not terribly exciting, but certainly not a game.

Eventually, the concept was submitted to Nick and it was approved. After a week or two, we submitted an early build of the game to Jakks to show them our progress. I received a surprisingly stern phone call from the Jakks producer complaining about how boring the burger game was. I explained that the “activity” played exactly as we had planned during those few days of discussion. He told me that he was aware of that, but it was still boring. He suggested that we implement some sort of scoring system and a harsher penalty for building an incorrect burger. Essentially, he wanted to rework the concept to my original pitch. I was fine with this, but reminded him that Nick would probably consider it to be a “game” if we were to do so. This sparked roughly another week of discussion between me, Jakks, and Nickelodeon as we figured out just how many “game” elements we can toss into it. Then, of course, the programmer had to alter how the game was played afterward. Eventually, after weeks of debate and reprogramming, we ended up exactly where we began–with the final activity being almost identical to my original pitch.

That said, it ended up as a pretty fun (if simple) little memory game. It’s a dumb touch, but I love the way SpongeBob’s eyes blankly follow the cursor around the screen. That was a little gag suggested by the programmer as he was working on the cursor’s movement. Another (mildly) interesting tidbit is that when it was first programmed, the burger ingredients were truly random. The programmer and I then decided to make it so that each randomized burger included at least one patty. You know, so it could officially count as a burger. These are the things you need to think about when you’re making a video game, folks!

As an amusing footnote, I also got an angry call from the Jakks producer at the eleventh hour right before our final build of the game was due. He was convinced that we were going to get the game rejected by Nickelodeon because we had screwed up the official SpongeBob art. It was pointed out that in all of the activities, SpongeBob’s cheeks went up over his eyes when he smiled. The Jakks guy was convinced that this was not how SpongeBob looked and that we had altered the artwork. I explained that no, we made no modifications to the official art and that is simply how SpongeBob’s character design looks. He would hear nothing of it. After all, he explained, he had watched SpongeBob with his kids–he knew how SpongeBob looked.

I offered to e-mail him examples of the official art and suggested that he do a Google Image Search for SpongeBob to see that yes, SpongeBob’s cheeks really do work that way. He refused to listen, though, and seemed to suggest that we were trying to sabotage the project. I eventually had to tell him that I could get Kevin to alter the art to his liking, but it would cause us to miss our deadline by a day, Nickelodeon would reject the game because we altered its official art, and that would add even more time to our missed deadline. He, of course, didn’t like that idea, so I told him that I would take care of it and hung up. I then sent him a few pieces of official art to show him that he was wrong, and went back to work to make sure the game was finished on time. Not surprisingly, I never got an, “Oh, my mistake…sorry about that” from him.

Yeesh.

Despite all the trouble, I’m really proud of how Dilly Dabbler turned out. As an activity center for little kids, it’s actually pretty fun. We were even able to sneak a little bit of game in there, too.

Up next: Tele-Doodle!

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7 Comments

  1. WayneR
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    These first couple TV games segments have been surprisingly interesting.

    I love hearing about the problems and solutions you had during development. I feel like there isn’t a lot of that kind of behind the scenes talk when it comes to gaming (especially the way you handled the official art).

    Usually when I see a Development Documentary it’s about how great everything was during development. One exception being the Halo 2 special DVD where they admitted the first level previewed at e3 was not going to fit in the game as they had hoped.

    I say keep these up, very good piece you have going here.

  2. Kevin
    Posted February 7, 2011 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    This is a great series of posts! Can’t wait to hear more!

  3. Posted February 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    Great article, Phil. It is always interesting to see behind the curtian of the creative process. It’s even more informative to see it warts and all. Keep up the great podcasts!

  4. Kevin James
    Posted May 10, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    I was proud to be a part of this project, as well as the three others we made concurrently!

  5. killdash9
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I spoke to the lead engineer on this and the other 3 concurrent projects just a few months before you wrote these blog posts. Great to read more about them (and great to see the lead artist appear in these comments as well!). I would like to ask some more in-depth questions about these experiences of yours, Phil, if I could; please e-mail me if that would be okay, and I’ll send you my questions.

  6. killdash9
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Incidentally, the Nickelodeon slime product is “Goooze,” with 3 ‘o’ letters in a row.

  7. Posted May 11, 2011 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    @killdash9
    Are you signed up on our forums? If not, you should sign up and PM me any questions you might have.

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