Friday, December 30, 2011

A Shift in Code and Platforms That Provide Downward Opposition

There was a newer version of the base platforming code I was using that decided to implement. It provides several bug fixes, which is helpful. But most importantly it has built-in infrastructure that allows for jump through platforms and moving platforms. This code is a revised version of brod's work, created by a dude who goes around the Internet with the name "Ace." So one of those. But despite my apparent disrespect for the lack of originality in his online handle, his revision work is very useful. It was originally connected to a more vast engine of his but I severed it off since I'm not in need of the other features his engine offers. Transferring the code, I cleaned up the grammar to match that of the rest of my code and re-implemented the modifications I made to the previous set. This process went surprisingly smoothly with almost no problems. I was afraid that Ace's more complex code would present some problems I couldn't foresee, but apparently I am becoming a better programmer. Hurray.

With this new code, I was able to quickly add jump through platforms. Now those exist in my game, bringing me one step closer to realizing my ridiculously ambitious vision. Thankfully, after some experimentation with room transitions, I have already started to scale back the vision to something both more reasonable and interesting. That is a good sign. Always.

Earlier I had mentioned that some of the ideas I currently have for this project have it leaning towards being like Zelda. I was originally going to have large dungeons that consisted of large grids of rooms. There would be no scrolling of the screen, just individual frames. This concept is hard to explain in words, but an example of this is the overworld of the original Legend of Zelda, where the player moves from area to area, each area filling the screen. An other example can be found in a game like Knytt Stories. I ran into some issues making this work in a satisfying way however, and now the idea is that each dungeon is simply a small, one room affair, each with its own idea. I think this is an interesting direction to go in; it is a beautiful return to the simple, one room stages of early video games.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Up We Climb to Reach the Top

I added ladders.

They were actually pretty interesting to code. While they initially presented some major technical issues, most of these problems have been thoroughly handled. All that is left is one pesky animation bug that I am hoping will be more easily solved when the whole animation system is implemented. The player snaps to the ladder they are climbing and can get off either by moving right, left, or jumping. The controls here don't feel quite perfect, but I'm going to have to start designing actual play environments to decide on what works and what doesn't. This process is some time away, so I'm going to leave ladder behavior the way it is and move on to jump-through platforms.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Beauty of Stealing Other People's Work and Flexible Dialog Systems

So I have realized that in my last post I didn't even really mention what it is exactly I am making. All I had mentioned was that it was some sort of action/adventure game that was far to ambitious. Well, it is indeed that. Basically, the game's temporary title is Zelda 2 Kinda Not Really. It is a side-scroller and it borrows some of the ideas (the good ones) from the typical pacing and structure of the Zelda games. So it's kinda like Zelda 2, but not really since it is more of a platformer and has no blatant RPG elements (because those usually are unnecessary, despite what modern design practice might teach you).

This project has been in development for a massive total of 3 days. I can just smell the success. Since I'm lazy and inexperienced, I was browsing the Game Maker Community forums searching for simple code that allowed for smooth, pixel perfect platforming. Nothing more, nothing less. I would build upon this code and add all of the actual features of the game. I found the perfect solution in a very simple script developed by a guy who goes by the name "brod." Smooth, adjustable jumping combined with horizontal motion that could handle any type of slope are some of the features I was looking for and this script delivers. It still has one glitch, but I am almost certain of its cause and I have seen some branches of this code that are supposed to fix the problem, so I will look to those when the time comes to eliminate it. And best of all, it is simple to understand and extremely flexible.

So with that in place and after some of my own modifications, I have ended up with this beauty of a test room.

Look at the irregular terrain! Behold the naked NPC's!

I get around to coding clothing sometime. I spent quite a bit of energy adjusting and then testing out different values that controlled the jump physics. Thankful the brod's script has several values that can be modified, and they give the designer a great amount of control. Currently I have something acceptable in place, but only until everything comes together will I know if it needs any more tweaking.

I have made some changes to the art style. When the player was talking to NPC's, the two characters blended into each other and created a lumpy mess of fleshy pixels. So, in order to make objects of interaction stand out (ie. stuff that isn't background material or detail), I outlined each sprite with a thin black line. This is possible because the 8x8 sprites are scaled up to 32x32 sprites.

 The first element I added to the game was something I have never done before; non-playable characters. I usually associate NPC's with eccentric and unnecessary comments, but I'm going to need them for this project. Right now they only have one behavior, which is just to stand around and maybe talk to the player. Of course, this means I also have already developed the dialog system for the game, and while it is definitely not finalized, its nice to know that I have finally reached the point where I can actually make one.

Each NPC can have different types of dialog boxes, dialog color, and dialog box positions. I will eventually add even more flexibility, like variable fonts, effects and so on. I wanted to keep the dialog quick and simple. Like I said, I was only taking the good ideas from the Zelda series for this project, and one of the most terrible things in that whole entire franchise is the super slow and annoying dialog code. "Oh, but what if the poor children accidentally skip very important text that tells them what to do in the game!" says Nintendo apologetically. Well, in that case, something is probably wrong with the design if it relies on text alone to convey important gameplay information. Obviously, there is a middle ground to how to approach the problems that arise, but I believe that quick and simple dialog works out best in the end.

Okay, I am now tried of writing. Above one can see what the dialog boxes in this game currently look like. With basic NPC stuff out of the way, I am now interested in adding in some more platforming fundamentals; on the list are ladders, moving platforms, and jump-through platforms.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Another Horribly Ambitious Action/Adventure Project that Can Only End in Disaster

Yes, it is true. I have fallen prey to the powers of childish ambition once more. "Hey guys," I say, "this new game will be the greatest game of all time. Just you watch and see! The story is epic and the game has like 340 hours worth of content. It is going to be amazing. I'm making it by myself and I think it will only take a month if I work hard enough." Everyone else just scoffs and rightfully so. I am a fool and the game will never be finished; once again it will lose cohesive direction or I'll run into some seemingly unassailable technical problems and it will be thrown into the massive heap of unfinished projects that has been rotting away on my hard-drive for years. Maybe some day I'll be some famous wizard of ludology and this junk would instantly turn into a gold-mine worth millions. Scholars around the world will analyze what I was trying to build, finding brilliance where there is none. Fanatics will take the games and finish them for a novelty effect; the arguments over what I had originally intended the games to be will be glorious.

Unfortunately, most of the stuff I had worked on at a very young age using programs like Klik'n'Play is lost forever. Which is no tragedy; it was all garbage. But in my hypothetical dream future this fact would inspire all sorts of speculation. These horrible, horrible games of the 7 year old mind would be legends. There will be archeologists digging through landfills searching for the hard-drive that holds these relics.

That is a bit of a tangent. Hope you enjoyed my very arrogant indulgence of ego! Eh, so my point is that I have started some casual work on another game that, based on early signs, I will not get around to finishing. I am, though, intending to learn some new things in the process so that my time isn't completely wasted.

To start things off on a brilliant note (and by that I mean the most stupid note I could have possibly started them of on), let me speak briefly about what I am currently doing with the art style of this new project. About a year ago I created an 8-bit color palette (256 colors) for a modification of Doom that I was considering. I ran into some problems with custom fonts and scripting in that engine so my intentions never went very far. The color palette I had created was interesting because instead of focusing on a wide range of tones, it instead tried to have a variety of color hues. I was intending to make something a little more colorful than the typical stuff people do with Doom.

When creating art I want a consistent set of colors to work with. I think it has to do with my perfectionism mixed with the fact that it helps to keep the visual style consistent. For all my pixel art I use Gimp, which allows me to load and then use color palettes like this one. So, ever since I had made this palette I have been using it for all of my work. So, for instance, all the graphics from Reconstructing S-31 used this palette.

However, after working with the palette for a while and especially after doing some of the work for my current endeavor, the very limited selection of tones really started to become a problem. Since I was no longer working within a 256 color limit, I decided to expand this palette into this:

This palette has the same color hues but greatly increases the amount of tones to work with. Now why was I running into so many problems with the original palette? Well, my current project consists of 8x8 tiles, making the fidelity of the sprites extremely low. The reason why I choose to do this is because it allows me to make finalized artwork really fast, since it doesn't take very long to make something that is 8x8. Drawing it so it looks good can often times be challenging, but having an expanded color palette allows me to add more details.

The most difficult things to portray in 8x8 sprites are, of course, the characters. However, I did come across a solution early on. An independent developer who goes by "oryx" created some really expansive sprite sheets for an 8x8 rogue-like. Currently he is using the sprites for the game Realm of the Mad God, but I've seen them used else where as well. They are really quite wonderful and they are free for anyone to use. My characters are based around the general shape of his, but I intend to go in some different directions with how I shade them.

Oryx's sprites can be found here:

And, finally, a naked dude. Enjoy.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64: World 1 Warp Zone and Other Secrets

One of the things I most love to implement into a traditional video game design are secrets, especially when the space to hide them in is three dimensional. I love all of the hidden and mysterious things one can find while exploring Peach's Castle in Super Mario 64 or running through the expansive canyons of Greenflower Zone 2 in Sonic Robo Blast 2. The behind-the-scene chambers found in Portal, the well hidden quad damage items in the simple maps of the fast-paced FPS multiplayer experiences of the Quake era, and the procedurally generated natural wonders of Minecraft are other examples of spatially hidden secrets in video games. So, it would make sense for me to have some hidden discoveries for the player's to find in Super Meat Boy 64.

In Super Meat Boy, there are portals to hidden warp zone levels found in each of the worlds. These warp zone levels are much more difficult than their contemporaries, but yield large rewards including including new playable characters. Each warp zone also had its own theme, usually harkening back to the visual and stylistic limitations (or perhaps, qualities!) of old video game hardware. There are levels that look like a Atari 2600 game. There are levels that look like they belong on the Gameboy and there are levels that would be at home on the Nintendo Entertainment System. And the warp zones are just a small fraction of the hidden content of Super Meat Boy. It seems that Team Meat has just as much of an affinity for providing opportunities of discover to their players as I do.

So as such it be natural for the inclusion of warp zones in Super Meat Boy 64. There is only one warp zone hidden in World 1 and it can be found in a underground section of 1-5. I hide the portal to the warp zone and Rykuta actually created it. I must say, he did a fine job, even though it is hard to make it stand out visually from the rest of the stages using Blockland's rendering engine.

The warp zone of World 1 is almost too graphically ambiguous. It is difficult to perceive both the depth and the edges of the structures due to the bright, uniform colors that texture their bodies. This effect was intended to make the stage stand out from the rest of World 1 as something special. While it might get in the way of fairer play, it definitely adds a new layer of challenge, though a tad thin and frustrating.

In particular, I really enjoy the vertical nature of the warp zone. It is really unlike anything else we built for World 1 and adds a unique pace and flow.

While technical limitations eventually made us scrap the idea, there were also intentions to hide bandages in each level for the players to find. I even had several of the dedicated testers help me find spots to place them and showed me the bounds of what could be done to traverse the environments in search of the bandages. As the overhead map of the levels shows, all of the stages are connected to each other. The binding landscape was accessible, to the dismay of many and to the delight of myself. Its game breaking? Oh no, the player can start in one level and finish in another! And along the way they can find all sorts of hidden secrets. Excuse my self praise, but I call that brilliance. It was unfortunate that the bandages had to go, but in the new format that Rykuta and I had established they would once again be a design possibility. Yeah boi!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64: World 1-4,1-5, and World 1 Boss

Of the levels found in Super Meat Boy 64, World 1-4, 1-5, and the World 1 Boss are probably the sloppiest. World 1-4 suffers from being just to difficult for how early it is encountered in the "game," even though I do think it has an interesting gameplay element. World 1-5 was designed around an idea that was eventually discovered to not work in Blockland's engine properly, and thus half the design is plagued by a visually uninteresting replacement. And finally, since Blockland doesn't allow for complex enemy AI, or for that matter, enemies, (there are mods that do add enemies, but we didn't have the ability to make our own custom model/code for the first boss) we couldn't create a proper boss and thus we resorted to a "boss stage" which would be more sinister in theme and play.

World 1-4 is one of two stages which I had no hand in designing; it was completely designed by Rykuta. It definitely feels as if it was designed by the primary scripter. The main gameplay elements here are disappearing blocks which the player must time their jumps to properly land upon. Compared to the previous hazards, these are more complex in how they are scripted (though as anyone who knows Blockland's scripting system should understand, it is actually quite simple to execute). While the artistic vision isn't as strong, for the stage is contained within a more basic looking square arena, the gameplay is the tight, hard stuff Rykuta is so good at creating. Unfortunately, World 1-4 innocently spikes the difficulty curve. I can attest to this from personal experience, but it was very noticeably seen in the advancement of play testers as well. Everyone got stuck on World 1-4 and almost gave up. Almost though, since the design is still fun to play on, even on the 30th time through.

The gray blocks fade in and out of space in a rhythmic fashion.

The black pit of doom is ugly and almost nonsensical in hindsight.

The last stage I designed for World 1 was 1-5. Now at this point I had definitely started to become well adapted to the tools I was using. One of the things I have learned from playing Super Mario is that a great platformer needs a new idea to be expressed in each level. This design technique is simple and is used in all sorts of games; the idea is introduced in an controlled environment and then, as the level progresses, the player learns to use the element in new ways while the situations that demand its use become more difficult. Rare does this almost obsessively in the Donkey Kong Country series.

The new concept I wanted to introduce in 1-5 was a box that shot out saw blades (taken from Super Meat Boy of course). After some experimentation and the breaking of false hopes, it eventually came to be that due to technical issues too obtuse to describe through text that it wasn't possible to make these work without more extensive modification of the game's fundamental code. Which wasn't going to happen. So a substitute was implemented, and just didn't have the same feel of potential. Basically, the replacement was a electric floor that let out a shock every few seconds. Players would respond to it similarly as they would the blades in that section of the level, but it really stuck out as a tacked on and undesirable solution.

The beginning of World 1-5 starts the player off in a cavern system beneath the rest of the level. It is here where the saw blades where originally intended to be placed.

 The upper level of 1-5 turned out very well; it might be the most interesting part of World 1 in its entirety.

 Fans and spikes collide to test the player's sense of air control.

For some reason I took a lot of screenshots of this stage...

There is not much to say about the boss stage of World 1 except that there is no boss and it is highly unlikely that a boss like the one found in Super Meat Boy's World 1 could even be made to satisfactorily work in Blockland. Anything is possible, but the estimated opportunity cost is way too high for a rather dull result. This part of the forest is drenched in fire and has a floor of lava, because if the history of video games has taught use anything, those two objects = boss-ish stuff.

In the boss stage, the player is jumping from falling platform to falling platform over a pit of lava to reach the end. There was some tweaking that needed to be done to the amount of time before the platforms fell in order to make the stage fit in anywhere as the next step after 1-5 in difficulty, but otherwise, there is not much I can say about it, since the majority of it was designed by Rykuta (I did decoration and tweaking).

And some images of the dark world versions of these stages, of which I have nothing to state. As always, Rykuta succeeds in making very difficult, very fine tuned, yet very satisfying variations of my designs.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 Dark Worlds 1-2 and 1-3: Difficulty is Difficult to Implement

It is not that there is an inherent challenge in making a game either easy or hard, rather, I would say that the problem is in making the game, whether easy or hard, entertaining. With this mindset, I would say that in my personal experience making an easy design entertaining is far less formidable a task than balancing out a design that uses high-level play fairly to present a hardened player a more challenging situation. Personally, it has always been more fun to design the easy, introductory levels for a game rather than the clever, more challenging ones player's expect to find later on. This is evident in the recent trend in on-the-rails, roller coaster ride spectaculars popularized by the recent single player campaigns of the Call of Duty series. While certainly there is a balanced and fair challenge to be had in the shoot outs, the most exciting moments for the players are always designed to be the scripted scenes where they hope into a helicopter, become almost completely invincible, and then mow down tons of enemies. Perhaps fun on the first playthrough, this experience has little to none replay value. And while it was probably difficult to design visually, the actually gameplay presented is extremely simple and basic.

Super Meat Boy handles difficulty extremely well; while frustration might sink in, the player is always aware that the game's mechanics for platforming are very fair. The level design, as the game progresses, reaches levels of near impossibility. Yet, with enough will and faith, a player who exhibits a high level of play can conquer it. Rykuta and I tried to implement this experience into 3D platforming with our project. Honestly, from all the games I have played, it is one of the few times someone has ever really thought about making a super difficult, twitchy, 3D platformer (though Marble Blast Gold and its sequel Marble Blast Ultra are the two examples of such that I can think of off the top of my head).

And thus, the first time for us to truly display this Super Meat Boy mentality in our project was with the sinister Dark World's 1-2 and 1-3.

Dark World 1-2 is presents large walls standing in the way of previously easy jumps. The players need to master air control to pass through this section.

Spikes make some the more open running space from 1-2 hellish in the Dark World.

The cramped lower tunnels of 1-3 are now filled to the brim with deadly obstacles.

Honestly, Dark World 1-3 was probably one of the hardest levels that Rykuta refurbished. Some of the jumps the player must makes are simply maddening.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-3: Interactive Playtesting is Amazing!

I am going to use the World 1-3 as my example to fully explain the playtesting ability of Blockland that I have been continually gushing about in the last few posts. World 1-3 was the 4th level to be made (Rykuta, my partner in crime, made 1-4 beforehand) and by this point I had definitely gotten my groove on with these types of designs. It was time to push things a little further. First, I decided to have the level take place within a cavern, changing the type of space I had to work with. Second, I introduced a gameplay element that required more precision on behalf of the player and their jumping; the saw blade. These were all over the place in Super Meat Boy, so I had to implement them here somehow. While they are square, I used a swirling animation on them to hopefully convey the idea to the player that they are swift moving pizza slicers of dismemberment. Third, I was going to have our growing gallery of fans (there were about four people on the server who were really excited about the project by this point) help me test how fun and difficult the level was, with a particular focus on the placement of the saw blade elements.

In Blockland, each online server has builds (made of Lego bricks) and mini-games (made of rules). With this project, the levels were the "build" and the mini-game was a set of rules that defined check-points, player type (to control speed and jump height), and a few other other things pertaining to the proper operation of a simultaneous platformer experience. Since there is only one instance of a level on the server, players share the space and thus can interact through collision and spacial positioning.
Since the creation of a build is handled live on the server, players can play through a level while the administrators make modifications. For example, this allows me to place a tester at the beginning of a level, watch them play it to the end, and then get direct feedback afterwards. From here I can instantly make a change; in the example of 1-3, I would have to move a saw blade to decrease difficulty and to make the level more approachable.

This is really quite incredible. In the past, especially with single player experiences, designers would have to struggle through far more obtuse work flows in order to make playtesting happen. When the tools are divorced from the playable client, this is the natural result. Thankfully, the trend with professional game engines has been a move towards being able to play within the editor, simplifying the work flow in order to allow the designer to focus on more important issues (UDK is an example of the move in this direction; Source is an example of the more dated approach).

Using the images, try to see that World 1-3 consists of two basic layers. The bottom is a twisting tunnel, riddled with saw blades on both the floor and ceiling. On the top is a large bed of spikes resting on the floor of a more open space, presenting the player with a different challenge half-way through. The second half of the level is hinted at throughout the first with gaps in the ceiling of the tunnel showing that more awaits the player as they continue onward, building excitement for the next challenge.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-2 and Dark World 1-1: Using Dynamic Gameplay Elements and Play Testing to Create Obscene Difficulty

After finishing World 1-1, the exciting potential of this creation dawned upon me; I set forth to build World 1-2 with a new found spirit and attitude. In my previous experience, these two emotional modifiers are rather beneficial especially when one is tackling a difficult task whose completion requires focused passion. First, I actually sat down and planned out what I wanted out of this design this time instead of throwing myself into the project manically without purpose or reason. This served as some sort of meaningful improvement. Second, my attitude transformed into a healthy ambition; World 1-2 was to be larger and more elaborate than 1-1. While boring, World 1-1 was surprisingly not completely dismissed by our testers, some even said it was good. World 1-2 was destined to be of a significantly higher quality than this.

The idea was to follow in the footsteps of the Mario series and introduce a new gameplay element in every single stage. In further stages, this element would be used in new and interesting ways and new depth could be found in the combination of previous elements. World 1-2's new element was to be a giant floor fan that would give player's an aerial boost when standing above it. Since the model and animations already existed in a mod for Blockland, implementing this idea and turning it into a reality was easy.

Here is the beginning are of World 1-2. As one can see, the fans give players a boost up to high areas their jump ability can not get them to.

World 1-2's flow has a theme of ascent. Each fan moves the player higher and higher up the mountainous landscape.

Another view of World 1-2's opening segment.

While I worked joyfully on World 1-2, Rykuta was at work on introducing the first Dark World level, Dark World 1-1. Super Meat Boy has both light and dark world versions of its levels, with the latter being considerably more difficult than the former. We decided to follow this concept; after all, it was a relatively low cost way of creating extra high quality content that would challenge hardened players. Rykuta has a talent for making obtusely difficult gameplay experiences, twisting standards that I would normally honor as sacred. He uses the real time playtesting that Blockland provides to fine tune his creations to be a frustrating as possible. This feature of the game is almost revolutionary and I will continue to elaborate further on its use.

 The spikes in this twisted version of 1-1 definitely say to the player visually that they are in for a sadistic gameplay experience.

The color scheme was originally going to be monochrome; however, I decided that color was too important in its role of differentiating gameplay elements. Even here it can be seen that the contrast between the gray walls and dark teal floor helps the player read the environment more effectively. I also think that, subjectively, the dark blue trees evoke a nice "midnight forest" motif.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-1: The Fine Gradient Between Apathy and HOLY CRAP THIS IS AMAZING!

A friend of mine, Rykuta, convinced me to join his "Blockland" server to help him create a platforming "challenge" (the "Blockland" community's word for "obstacle course" (GAH, TOO MANY QUOTATION MARKS)) themed around the indie game "Super Meat Boy." I begrudgingly accepted, with knowledge that previous designs of this type were often uninteresting, exploitative, and beyond tedious. Oh, and they were also notorious for being unanimously unfinished. These doubts, as well as my long sustained jadedness towards "Blockland" in general, guaranteed that when I was asked to build 1-1 I did not take the task seriously. I started by creating a small, rectangular area with cliffs on all sides holding the player within; the least inspired creation one can spit forth for a video game. It was insulting. The lack of ambition was palpable, almost embarrassingly so. Well, embarrassing if I had honestly cared or had put honest effort into such.

But here, something interesting started to happen. I had set a precedent; every level that was to be designed from here on out was to be bound by the expectations and the reality set in place by 1-1. Structures in "Blockland" are literally made out of Lego bricks. This meant that for large environments, the types that a platformer would require, one would have to use an excessive amount of bricks to create a single level. This is one of the main reasons why builds of this type had in the past been quickly abandoned. However, one of the later updates to "Blockland" included large, cube blocks that allowed for the creation of elaborate, enormous, and rather square landscapes. These creations were able to be swiftly composed without the interference of tedium and had initially served basic aesthetic purposes. In the past I had used these special blocks before to experiment with a first person shooter concept that blended the ideas of Half-Life 2 and Metroid Prime, crafting a large, detailed mountain environment. Out of sheer laziness, I decided to use these cubes to create my boxy "vision" for 1-1, making platforms and gaps that the player would have to maneuver around using their jumping ability. Pure platforming, yet very elementary.

And so, after the addition of a spawn, a goal (player's rescue Meat Boy's girlfriend Bandage Girl at the end of each level), and some decorative trees, I ended up with this.

Boring; but effective. I played through the level, jumping from rock to rock, and beat it within seconds. The jumping mechanic worked surprisingly well for being operated from the first person perspective. This is when things started to snap in my mind.

Rykuta and I were using a public server, so several players started to join. Of course, their use was to test our creations. Soon, with the introduction of live, dynamic playtesting and the rediscovery of the vast potential of "Blockland," my attitude began to shift towards manic enthusiasm as the possibilities in superb platforming level design began to emerge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Introduction to "Blockland" as a Game Design Tool and the Making of "Super Meat Boy 64"

"Blockland" is an amazing game because of how many penises have been built in it. Wait, let me explain. I remember listening to a presentation on play in video games and the speaker mentioned that the depth of the play = how long it takes for someone to create or introduce a penis using the tools that the game presents. Obviously this formula should not be taken too seriously since after all it is just a clever joke and not all deep games give the player creative tools (in example, "Go" has a deep space of play, yet its rules do not define artistic tools that allow the player to create images such as a penis; though I am certain a penis has been made out of stones on a "Go" board).

I must apologize, the last paragraph might have been difficult to take seriously.

But the point is that "Blockland" presents this incredible toolbox that allows for the creation of all sorts of wonderful Lego like structures, functional and artistic, and that the boundaries of its creative space of possibilities will never be completely charted. This, when combined with networked multiplayer and a framework for constructing rule based minigames, provides a rather brilliant environment for game design. It is the perfect situation for practicing game design technique and some of the accidental features I have discovered in "Blockland" could potentially be in the future of professional design tools. I will elaborate further in my next post.

In the past "Blockland" has been used essentially as an engine for all types of games: simple arcade games, dogfight games, FPS games, racing games, Role-playing games, and even games that emulate the experience of being on a live game show. Basically, the environments in which this play happens are built out of an infinite selection of Lego bricks and then individual bricks are scripted to behave in functional ways (an example would be a brick that operates as a button; the player clicks it and a door somewhere opens up). Certain gameplay elements such as weapons, vehicles, player types, and terrain must be built outside of the game, but the community already provides so much content in these areas that anyone can hop in and start creating pretty much anything they can dream of. To see some of these neat creations, look into the gallery on the game's forum: Blockland Gallery (Pro Tip: The "Blockland" forums are not for the faint of heart; beware, most of the posters on there are extremely young and well... just look at the pretty pictures).

Anyways, recently a friend and I started work on a 3D platformer within "Blockland" based upon the hit indie game "Super Meat Boy." It was one of those projects that one is thrust into, skeptical of its merits from the beginning, but soon a strong appreciation for the project grows. At the end of this series of posts I will talk about the current state of the project, but for now I am going to go through each level in the first edition of World 1 and talk about both its design, history, and how it uses the great tools presented by "Blockland." It should be noted that this version of World 1 has been completely scrapped for a better, more thought out rendition. Nevertheless it still is of a good quality and it presents many things to both see and learn.

(I'm going to assume this image is hard to visually parse, so I'll explain what it is. This is a top down view of both the light World 1 and the dark World 1 found in the early rendition of Super Meat Boy 64.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Video Recording of "Reconstructing S-31" Prototype

While I have put aside my "Reconstructing S-31" project, in order to experiment with my recently took some footage of the game's early prototype. It is clear from the footage that what I had implemented gameplay wise was rather uninteresting and that it would take a fundamentally game changing mechanics to salvage the dull play experience. It is also clear that I have a lot to learn regarding video recording. Regardless, this means that I now have a YouTube channel which I plan to use from time to time.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swimming in the Depths of Kinetics and Physically Rooted Leisure Sports

This past Friday, as a friend and I were attempting to pass the time despite its dry nature, I became inspired to create a real life version of Angry Birds. Regardless of the fact that this idea was probably the result of heat delusion, I mentioned it briefly to another friend of mine via text and he pointed out to me that such had already been executed.

So I watched this and was quite impressed:

I love this kind of stuff. Limited by the bounds of the physical world, one sets out to use illusion and practical means to create a fantastically experience. The greatest example of this craft can be found in the work of the Disney Imagineers and the incredible work found within the Disney Land theme parks.

After some convincing, I got my buddy to take me out to the his shed to look for some cardboard boxes to build the destructible structures with. We then grabbed a bag of around twenty tennis balls and started to experiment away. One of the great advantages of creating a sport is that one does not have to program the physics engine, thus the focus could be entirely on drafting rules, discovering new ways of play, and testing out new gameplay elements.

By this point the idea to recreate Angry Birds had evolved into something much more interesting. Instead of launching projectiles using a sling (the general lack of elastic in American homes contributed to this development) we decided that are game would have the players simply throwing the tennis balls at the cardboard structures. There was experimentation with what sort of goals and challenges could be interesting to achieve using reality's physics. In Angry Birds the goal is to kill pigs by inflicting a certain amount of stress upon them; having them fall from a great height or be crushed by a collapsing pillar. To emulate this we implemented water balloons, but these proved to be too time consuming to produce and far too fragile. So instead, we focused on placing cones within our layouts that the player would have to knock over. These worked far better, but the types of structures we could build were extremely limited by the rather unfortunate selection of corrugated boxes presented to use.

After all of this there are now plans to purchase high quality boxes to use for building structures and to further experiment with both the rules and the play of the game. While this activity is not quite a formal game yet, it still presents an excellent opportunity to learn and have fun and to perhaps create something new and exciting.

As far as I know, this could turn into the great new sport of the 21st century. Yes, idealistic, but hopeful!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Simple(ish) Response to the Founding Question of Electronic Arts

There are some things that are best expressed through the visual image; I am certain this is one of them.
Electronic Arts, back in the 1980's, set forth to answer the question, "Can a computer make you cry?"
Refenced again and again throughout the industry as an inspirational, as well as a humorously ironic quote, it has come to evolve into a more specific form in the game development circles.

"Can a game make you cry?"

And so, there have been many attempts since the question has been posed to prove that indeed yes, they can. It has been a race to discover "the Citizen Kane of games" (puke). Or, rather more honestly, to show the world that games are just as respectable a human construction as the other art forms.

Developers waiting to create the first game that drives human emotion so deep as to bring forth tears, behold! The answer does not lie in the next big cinematic science fiction RPG. No, the answer is to be found in these images:

There are going to be perfectly valid examples in folk games, board games, and even some multiplayer video games as well. Tears of victory; tears of defeat. Tears of shame; tears of relief. In my experience playing competitive sports, I will vouch for the fact that crying is not an uncommon emotional response to the results of a game.

To answer the original question, "Can a computer make you cry?", it is important to remember that crying is an emotionally response, and that emotion is unique to humans and an other instances of natural life. Will someday that human element be brought in effectively enough into the systems, the AI and the representative imagery of a video game in order to allow these emotional responses to come solely from the interactive aspects of a single player experience? Maybe; give it another twenty years. Can emotions be brought forth from allowing the human element to be better expressed and shared in networked electronic game play? Yes; however, the technology for such is not yet here.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Experimenting with Concept Art and Vector Graphics

Recently a friend asked me to do some concept work for a weapons mod he is hoping to sometime release for the sandbox, brick building game Blockland. His idea is to have two competing manufacturers' guns available for players to use. When the focus is on only one aspect of the game, in this case the weapons, there is a more abundant attention to the finer details. So currently there is a semi-huge back story to the universe in which these weapons exist that informs their cultural significance, their meaningful design, and overall context.

My role in this creation process is to basically draw up concept art that the 3D modeler can use as a reference for his work. I decided to try something new and enter the realm of vector graphics, using a wonderful open source program called Inkscape. So far it is rather intuitive to use and fits my needs perfectly; the tools do a serviceable job of letting me use my angular artistic style. I am trying to feel my way through understanding everything that is possible with vector graphics and how they should be properly handled.

The other challenge is learning how to properly draw interesting weapons that look like they function properly. Function is extremely important to providing a sense of realism. I am not at all an expert in guns, but I know some of the basics and am trying to further educate myself in the subject.

Here is a sample of what I am working on. This is a pistol from the cooperation Visage, whose products are focused on both great useability and stylistic looks:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Note to Self...

...remember that competing in the "Ludum Dare" competition would be an excellent opportunity to create a small, reasonable game with the incentive based motivation of competing with other developers. I have been spending some time over this weekend watching Notch (the man who made Minecraft) work on his entry for the 21st competition over a live stream he is broadcasting. And while his work is definitely some of the most inspirational out there, watching him program fills me with all of the positive emotions I associate with game development. To start from scratch, having to create a simple pseudo 3D game, is really impressive. Anyways, here is a link to the Ludum Dare website for further reference:

Monday, August 15, 2011

On a New Approach to Dialogue Trees

This is concept is based upon what I was talking about earlier in reference to my interest in a radio drama like game. When the player is given only audio to comprehend the game world, what sort of input should they use to interact with it? Though in the end it is probably too simplistic and limiting, I have been considering what this type of game would be like if the player had access to only one button. Though it is not a perfect solution for all interactions, after some thought I have found that it could probably work well for dialogue trees.

When someone is considering what they should say, there is a thought process. They twist and turn through different reasoning, considering different options as their understanding evolves. Based upon what has happened or been said before, their brain processes the next course of action. In an aural game, the player's controllable character's thought process is heard and it is up to the player to determine when to stop thinking and act. One single press of a button accomplishes this. There is a balance to be considered; choosing to act too hastily can lead to a bad decision, but over thinking the solution can also result in bad answer. However some situations will call for strictly quick action, since there is not enough time to completely think everything through. If the systems behind this can become dynamic enough to be satisfying and deep, it could really be an innovative new approach to the rather elementary concept of dialogue trees.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Games are Typically Extremely Social in Nature

In fact, I would argue that games can create some of the most satisfying, encouraging, and constructive social experiences to be had. Put away the connotations of the shut-in playing computer games in a basement for their entire existence; instead, picture a high school football match or a midnight round of Settlers of Catan. These are the games that are coming to my mind when I think about games socially. Even video games, which, thanks to the predominance of single player experiences, have been seen as naturally anti-social (rightfully so), are starting to show their capability as an impressive social platform due in part to the rise of networked play.

I truly do believe that if one's task was to, as easily and non-awkwardly as possible, introduce several strangers to each other, that the best way to warm them up to engaging in social interaction with each other is through some sort of analog game (board game, sport, or folk game). The magic circle breaks pretensions and fears, allowing for the players to work towards a goal either with or against each other in a common universe of understanding.

While the conversational interaction found on an online multiplayer video game server leaves much to be desired for, it is soon to evolve in quality to someday match the depth of conversation found in reality. If computer AI technology slows in its growth, a multiplayer predominate industry, instead of a single player predominate industry, is a very possible, very real, and very bright future. The communities focused on competition and custom content found for many PC games such as Quake and TrackMania will become the norm. And while the audience who grew up on single player experiences of the past three decades will probably have a large resentment for the trend (as they already do now), they will have to realize that, with all of humanity in mind, they are a niche. Single player games will always exist, but soon they will no longer be as common and widespread as they are now.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Brief Analysis: Mass Effect

With the passing of the most recent Steam summer sale I have been left with an intimidating backlog, and one of the games on that list that I am currently trying to knock out is Bioware's space RPG; Mass Effect. The concept of the game is appealing to me; a heavy science fiction atmosphere, action RPG gameplay, and a large universe to explore. Back when the game came out in 2007 it was met with critical praise and admiration, especially for its approach to narrative.

I am now playing the game four years later and I am a little confused as to why the game was given such high regard. I have not yet finished the experience, so maybe some of my notes make less of an impact when the experience is taken as a whole (which is often the case for a game that focuses heavily on story). Currently I am playing in hour to hour an a half intervals, since I can only play so much until I get disgruntled by some element of the game and outright quit.

The single most infuriating part of the game design is by far the overly simplistic and uninteresting dialogue wheel component. There are two major issues with how it functions. First, the "good", "neutral", and "bad" selections are always obvious due both to how they are written, but also due to where on the wheel they are placed. This really trivializes any attempts the developers make to have the player's conversational interactions meaningful or interesting. Second, the player's character, Commander Shepherd, will always paraphrase the responses chosen by the player on the dialogue wheel. So, for example, I select for Shepherd to say, "Get out of here! I'll handle this situation." But what he actually says in the game is phrased so differently from this at times that it gains new connotations and sometimes even causes something to happen completely contrary to what the player was hoping for. Unpredictable, random, and even unfair results from player decisions are not bad, in fact, they should be encouraged, but when the player chooses to specifically do something, that thing should happen. Does Mario only sometimes jump when I press the jump button and other times run? No, because in such an unstable system as such the player's ability to make meaningful decisions is hindered greatly.

Most of the dialogue falls flat from just being personality-less and at times unbearably formulaic. While the game must certainly have an extremely large script, taking into account such things as NPCs, quest events, mid-battle chatter, mid-elevator chatter (I am not going to go into technical issues in this analysis since they are more a failure of the early UE3 and the game's first in a series status than bad game design decisions on Bioware's part), and codex entries, there should be plans to approach such ambition properly. The dialogue's inability affects the story and characters, making them harder to immerse in.

And finally, the shooting is just bad and the inventory is unnecessarily tedious to operate. These points I am too lazy to elaborate on.

The sound design, and in particular, the soundtrack, are fantastic however. The synthesized electronic music that features throughout the entirety of the game is both atmospheric and unique. One of  the better moments of the game is just simply pressing "start" on the front menu. A crisp image of earth fills the screen, and when the player presses start a beautiful electronic note chimes as the camera pans to deep space and fades into the menu.

I also like where some of the art direction tries to go. The alien races, while most are humanoid, aren't as embarrassingly dull as the near human races found in other science fiction series (Star Trek in particular is the main offended I am afraid). The environments and the objects within are also pleasant designs, mostly playing off of the clean, white future promised by Apple.

Though I was at first surprised and upset that I had united with my whole party very early into the game, looking back I think it was an interesting and risky move on Bioware's behalf. What if the JRPG tradition of acquiring new party members along the long journey was put aside for a static cast of characters who would all get equal development and screen time thanks to being introduced all in the beginning? Game designers and their games need to be far more open to this breed of subversion.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Quick Thought From the Dark Depths of My Mind

Since my schedule specifically dictates that I am to be heading to sleep within the next forty minutes, I have decided to make a quick post sharing what is perhaps a whiny and petty thought.

But a thought none the less, right?

What should be the proper way to discuss a game experience with another person, whether they participated in the game or not? Does there exist an adequate vocabulary to share these experiences or is there current dialog just lacking in depth? A lot of times I struggle to listen to other people, friends and what not, talk about their times playing games such as Call of Duty. It can sometimes be painful, even for someone like me who has a deep interest in games and the sorts of stories that come out of them. Is it because most modern video games rely heavily on space, which due to its very nature is hard to put into words? What about how people verbally communicate the happenings of competitive games, such as sports, chess, or Star Craft? Should gamers and game designers look to these communities to see what terms have developed and perhaps borrow a few?

Or maybe I am just sick of Call of Duty...

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Human Imagination as the Magic Missing from Major Video Games

Today's post will be a quickie as I talk about some of my thoughts that have led to me formulating an interesting game design concept.

There is an aspect to literature that I believe to be the most beautiful of all. And it is this; each reader develops in their mind their own picture of the fiction, of the characters and universe described. Mere words craft in to being a vivid and personal vision. Every person will imagine a character in their own unique way, based upon the connotations they associate with certain words and their personal experiences with similar imagery. It is magical in the same sense that dreams are magical.

So recently my thoughts have been directed towards bringing this same magic to games and it very quickly (as in 5 seconds quickly) came to me that this very magic had been in use for games since the beginning of history. Particularly, the human imagination had been used in five specific ways:

1. Physical games and board games have always been using imagination to turn a playground's sand into lava and the king piece of a chess board into a living figure of royalty.

2. Early text adventure computer games and their modern incarnation, interactive fiction, use words too draw images in the same way as literature.

3. Video games found on simple hardware capable of only low resolution graphics (ex. Atari 2600) required the player to look at 14 pixels and say, "Hey look! That's ET."

4. Mods for video games will use the assets of the parent game to represent entirely different items or objects. Usually this is done when the mod developer doesn't have the resources to create their own assets to import into the game or when they can't import their own resources into the game. For instance, look at how much of the more scripted community content for Garry's Mod uses default Half-Life 2 assets to represent other objects which they are not.

5. Finally, I'll end with the method I currently have an interest in (since, from what I have seen, it is the least used of all these approaches to evoking emotion); audio only games. Currently there are only two deeply communicative output types that video games utilize; the screen and the speakers (yes, rumble and smell-a-vision also exist, but do not have the fidelity of the two major output methods). I imagine these games relating to radio dramas in much the same way as the text adventures relate to books. I personally only know of two games that use this concept, so I have an interest in developing it further, despite the fact that it might not seem all that progressive.

(The title might seem misleading, but it makes clear very briefly a point I would like to get across.)

Monday, August 8, 2011

So I Have Noticed I Am Terrible at Posting Regularly...

This blog is for my benefit. I become a better writer by contributing to it because it counts as experience. I become a better designer since it requires me to transfer my abstract ideas into words, making them some sort of reality; not a playable reality, but a reality none the less. I gain a heightened sense of accountability, of responsibility, to make sure that my thoughts are of some sort of higher caliber because I am posting them on the Internet in a place where the public can potentially judge them, even though at this moment in time I am almost certain no poor soul has had to wade through all of my tripe.

So to ignore this blog for around a months time (what happened? I don't even know, unfortunately) is really hurting me and my future. But whateves! Right? Wrong! I'm going to try once again to keep myself working hard to write regularly, and this time I am going to try doing this not in the middle of the summer, but in the middle of school. It is actually uncertain whether or not this or boost productivity; it will be fascinating to see.

Everything learned about game development between this post and the previous one is conveniently listed below:

1. Cloning Tic-Tac-Toe is not fun, and regardless of how easy it is to do, it does not inspire one to build an acceptable interface around its system.

2. Avoid any RPG Maker program like the plague. I remembered having fun with these tools in middle school and now, as an older, wiser designer I see that they do nothing but inspire uninspiredness. Strangely enough, they are dangerously simple.

3. Tools, tools, tools. I made an entire sokoban engine, but then discarded it since I wasn't willing (and probably not able) to create the proper level design tools. It will be great, intuitive tools that will save this industry from spending 200 million dollars to produce a game.

4. Are you starting a project by first creating character sprites or drawing the tileset for the second world? Yeah, that project isn't going to ever be finished, thought I'd let you know ahead of time.

5. Working with other people, even one other person, makes all the difference in the world. There is no shame to be had in looking for support in a team.

6. Live, networked playtesting on a server for single player content is an amazing approach to getting player feedback. A buddy and I did this for a small platformer build in a game called Blockland (I will write up a post about this game someday).

Here is to the hope that I might deliver my next post within a weeks time!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Short Return to Sonic Robo Blast 2

Sonic Robo Blast 2 is a Sonic the Hedgehog fangame; a bizarre and brilliant attempt to take 3D Sonic games in a different direction using the Doom engine. It really succeeds with its momentum based platforming, levels ripe for exploration, and unique and fresh multiplayer. The game has a surprisingly solid community that supports it with custom levels, characters, and entire mods. Seven or eight years ago I used to play the multiplayer quite often and I got into making some of my own levels for the game. Recently I had just released a level that I had made several years ago that I never got around to distributing. Here is what I had to say on the SRB2 forum:

It has been a while since I have posted on here...

This is an older level of mine that I had recently stumbled upon again. I always meant to release it, but for some reason which I can not remember at the moment, I did not (maybe I thought it was terrible, though I would actually say it is just average). Marine Court Zone was basically an experiment map for me, as I used it to learn how to implement custom textures into SRB2. The plan was to use what I had learned for a single player map with the same theme as this one, but nothing really came out of that due to that horrific combination of the forces known as laziness and frustration.

So anyways, enough with the history, here is the map. It is small, given no playtesting, and contains some rather bland textures now that I look back in hindsight (I was using MSPaint at the time). I do like the general style I was going for though; definitely unique for SRB2.


The download link for the map can be found in the forum thread here:

To find out more and download SRB2, visit the official website here: