Sunday, April 15, 2012

Prototyping Experiments

I'm sure most of you are familiar with the concept of prototyping. Often it's the only way to determine whether a game will pan out (in terms of gameplay ideas).

For Creatures & Castles, the only prototype was in my head. The game was written without any extensive testing of ideas - I already knew what I wanted to do. Not so for "Shattered"...

I know what the basic storyline is, and I know I have some interesting and original game mechanic ideas that lend themselves well to that story line. What I don't know is how well they will work in practice.

With that in mind, I'm planning on implementing a quick prototype of some of the ideas in Monkey. It's  a fun little programming language, and (despite not having a debugger), it's a pretty good fit for what I want to do. Of particular interest to me is the ability to target multiple platforms (currently HTML5, OsX, Windows, XNA (and hence Windows Phone and XBOX 360) as well as iOS and Android. That's a whole lot of platforms. Of course, that doesn't mean I intend to test my prototype on all of those platforms, but if you have a simple 2D game idea in mind, there are certainly worse programming languages to use to target all those platforms at once.

In my case, the choice of prototyping language is due to a golden rule I always intend to follow when prototyping but never quite manage to do so; that is all prototype code should be thrown away at the end of the prototype. It will have been munged and hacked, and probably stinks to high heaven. If I wrote it in the target language to start with, it would be tempting to just use it as is instead of rewrite it properly. By using a different language, I have no choice.

Another issue with prototyping is the use of test art. I'm not really an artist - I dabble, but that's about it... Ian, on the other hand, is an excellent artist, but I'm not about to ask him to produce a load of throwaway art so I can use it in a prototype.

With that in mind, I searched for some stick-art walk and run cycle animations on the web. I was unable to find any suitable (although I was amazed to find that there are websites devoted to stick-art animation). I did find a fairly decent tool called Stykz designed for animating stick art characters and - after about an hour of playing around managed to put together a reasonably decent walk and run cycle.
run cycle
walk cycle 

Now admittedly they are not perfect, but they will do for my prototyping purposes (and you are welcome to them for you own use if you think they'd be useful).

Hopefully, I'll be able to get some prototype screenshots up and running in a few days - although I have a sneaking suspicion that this prototype may be strong enough to stand up as a game in its own right. We shall see... 

If so, it will certainly be an interesting detour before returning to Shattered, and will give Ian even more time to produce artwork.

ADDENDUM: Monkey is, so far, proving to be a total pain in the arse. There is no debugger! Apparently one is in the works. I shall persist for a little while more to see if the pain eases. Failing that, I'll put it to one side until the promised debugger appears!

ADDENDUM 2: I'm starting to grok it a little bit. The lack of a debugger is painful, but with careful programming (and judicious use of logging) it's possible to get stuff working. After a day, I have this (as well as a reasonable understanding of the framework).

Exciting Stuff! (It's a prototype, dammit!!!)

ADDENDUM 3: A few days later and I'm getting a feel for it. The lack of a debugger is an unholy pain, but it has the advantage of making you think about the code more before you run it. Additionally, it's possible to load the XNA target into Visual Studio and debug it there - the code mapping is remarkably one-to-one.

I see shiny things.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gentlemen of Leisure

Some days I swear I have ADD; I seem to be able to come up with the idea for a new game at the drop of a hat, inspired sometimes by the most unlikely sources. Other times, I see a new game I like and I think "Hey, wouldn't it be cool to do something like that." Now to be fair, most of these ideas are fleeting (and crap) but sometimes I come up with a gem. In fact, I come up with far too many so that it's difficult to decide which one to start working on next.

I have a document titled "Game Ideas 2012" that I use to keep track of game ideas that I have had so far this year as well as those of my artist, Ian Maclean. There are far more good ideas in that document that I can possibly work on, and I always want to start on two or three, with the current favorite depending on such factors as what mood I am in on a particular day. I only wish I had the time and resources to work on multiple projects.

This kind of analysis paralysis, as many of you will know, is extremely counterproductive. By prevaricating and procrastinating on which game to work on next, no work gets done at all.

So. In order not to just spin my wheels indefinitely I had to come up with a concrete plan. My last blog post actually provided some of the seeds for this plan, which I shall detail below.

The first part of the grand plan is to pick one of the game designs and flesh it out into a full plan. The second part of the plan is to start working on better PR. From my observations it seems that a game being good (or at least not terrible) isn't enough. I've seen good games fall by the wayside and not so good games go on to great success and all combinations thereof, examples being VVVVV, Hack Slash Loot, Cthulhu Saves the World, Magnetic Billiards, They Must Be Fed and Cave Story. I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader as to which game fits into which category.

So, without further ado, it's time to make a decision. Our next game is going to be an old school flick-screen platform adventure games along the lines of the old ZX Spectrum game Universal Hero.

Universal Hero (ZX Spectrum)
The new game (with the working title of "Shattered") is in the early planning stages right now. Obviously we don't just want to regurgitate a standard platform adventure without attempting to bring something new to the genre. We won't go into great detail as to what we will be bringing, simply because it's still in flux. In the meantime, we do have an early work-in-progress screenshot of one of the earlier screens in the game. Bear in mind that this is a work-in-progress. The final game should look much better. However, there is some benefit to documenting our progress both for the benefit of ourselves and others.

"Shattered" WIP 
Sure, it might not look like much yet, but remember it's only a very early shot. Hell, we don't even have the game engine in place yet. Right now we're mainly fleshing out the story and working on the look and feel we want for the game. It may well change radically before long. And if and when it does, you'll be able to read about it here.

So - other news? Ian, the artist, liked my last blog post ranting about us describing ourselves as Gentlemen Game Developers(TM), that he ran with it, coming up with this awesome logo.

"We're not indies, we're gentlemen game developers"

It still needs a few tweaks here and there, but it's pretty close to being done. I'm really happy with it. It will make a fine public image for this and future projects. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend taking a look at Ian's website for other examples of his fine artwork - especially if you need a versatile and very reasonably priced artist to work on your project.