Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some Changes of Thought with a Little Bit of Flash

Stuff is changing quickly as time seems to roll along faster and faster. First, I would like to present some more progress on "Aldea Lenta" in the form of a small little image.

This is a little segment of the main title background, showing off the location of the game, "Shipyard 31."

Now I have previously stated that I was going to be using Game Maker as the engine for the game. This might change. It is very likely. I have been looking into some other avenues of distribution that I believe could bring the game to a larger audience. I am looking into Flash.

I have always had a sort of distaste for Flash games. They had always felt cheap. Many of the games I had seen in the past used foul or cliche content to rack up the amount of players and consequentially, the money made on advertising. Let me point out quickly that the decision is NOT a financial one; I have no need for money at this moment and the small wages provided by Flash game development do not really interest me. What does interest me are the multitudes of game portals willing to freely host my game online. This provides me with a large audience that can gain quick, easy access to my games. No download, no hassle. I know that YoYo Games offers a "Quick Play" feature and I have had interest in this, but I do not want to be limited to only their website.

This is nothing definitive of course. I know only the basics of Flash development and I have just started to check out potential game libraries such as Flixel and Flash Punk. From what I can tell so far both of these are great for those who are interested in making Flash games.

Finally, I have been thinking long and hard about what to do regarding some of the mechanics I had planned for "Aldea Lenta." There might be some big changes to what the game is. If I do decide to venture into the realm of Flash game development, I will put "Aldea Lenta" on hold and instead focus on creating a few smaller games to get a grasp of the technology.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Establishing Overall Goals for the Player

It was in my previous post that I mentioned that the structure of "Aldea Lenta" is focused upon giving the player a list of tasks which they can go out and accomplish in any order that they so please. Today I sat down and started to list out what each of these tasks are. To my surprise, this was a lot more challenging than I had initially expected. I should have known better, but that is alright, I am doing this to learn.

In order to evenly distribute the tasks throughout the game world I split the current design of the galactic shipyard into ten distinctly seperate parts. In each of these sections I designated an "overworld" task that the player had to solve and a "hall" task that was found within what could be considered the game's dungeons. Two of the overworld tasks are the introduction and the conclusion to the game.

The experience of conjuring up problems to be solved in a science fiction universe is quite entertaining and I can now see why there are such terrible explanations for many of the things found in these types of narratives. Science is hard stuff. It is even harder to properly integrate into a story or game in a way that both creates a sense of reality and adds entertainment value. It is easy for these two qualities to come into conflict with each other, so it is necessary to put lots of thought into how the systems represented by one's game are presented.

Tomorrow I will have access to my computer again, so actual work can resume. Plans are to start adding gameplay elements so that I can have a prototype as soon as possible. I also want to get the title screen out of the way; we will see if that happens or not. It does not need to be done till the end of development, but it would be nice to get it out of the way. I am starting to worry a tad bit about my impatience, but I should be fine...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Story and Restraint in "Aldea Lenta"

So let me talk about story in "Aldea Lenta."

I have previously said that I am not a fan of story in games. Let it be known that this does not mean that I am saying that games should avoid having any narrative. Video game design is about making entertainment and millions of people around the world have found enjoyment from the different stories that have been told through games. There is something to be taken from this. And I love to create fictional worlds, full of imaginative places and interesting characters. Games need context and theme. But linear narratives clash so ferociously with the infinite space of possibilities presented by meaningful interactivity.

Perhaps I should say that I am not too keen on how stories are integrated into games today. I do not enjoy starting a new game only to find that the first hour or so consists of mostly cutscenes, dry dialogue, and very little gameplay. That is a huge turnoff that I personally want to avoid in my designs. "Aldea Lenta" is going to behave in a way similar to the single player experiences developed by Valve (Half-Life, Portal) in that the player never loses control of their avatar. While this solution is far from perfect (dialogue heavy scenes can allow the player to jump and run around frantically, ruining the tone of the current story thread), I believe that if I set in place a few restraining rules most issues could be fixed.

The story structure of "Aldea Lenta" is in some ways similar to that of the original "Legend of Zelda." In "Zelda," the player is dropped into a large, mysterious world with a singular goal; collect all the pieces of the Triforce and defeat the evil Ganon. How the player went about accomplishing this was up to them; there are an endless amount of ways to approach this goal. Over the years the Zelda games have became more and more guiding due to the recent trends of popular game design, but I still believe that the original was the most effective in allowing the player to explore the themes of adventure and discovery. At the beginning of "Aldea Lenta," the player is taken through a 30 minute, linear intro to the gameplay, game world, and the game's goals. After this, they are released into the expansive wild, out to fend for themselves and complete the game. Finally, at the end, they are taken to another 30 minute, linear conclusion that closes everything that they have experienced.

One of the my previous examples of failure in game narrative is dialogue. I am going to solve this issue for "Aldea Lenta" by restraining to use any character dialogue. They characters will simply make express sounds, like the androids of other science fiction works. There is no expository text, and there is only a few briefly spoken announcements from the on board computer. This makes it more challenging to express certain things to the player, but the visual is just as powerful, if not more powerful than the written.

Story is to be told through gameplay, not around it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Since today marks the beginning of my summer vacation, I have taken most of my time and have dedicated it towards some well deserved rest. However, I have still gotten around to contributing a little bit more work to "Aldea Lenta," most of which is simply concept art and world structuring. While I do not believe that stories are particularly important to games, I am adding a rather basic one to "Aldea Lenta" in order to simply push the player along on their journey and to provide more context to what they are doing and where they are going. Playing around with the story for a bit in my mind, I think that I now have something quite suitable. One of my main goals now is to put down on paper as soon as possible.

So the fruit of my labor today is an extremely foundational piece of concept art that establishes the "place" of "Aldea Lenta." The game takes place inside a remote ship yard on the gas planet Clonox III. The large ship constructing facility is quite thought out; not a single piece of the design is wasted or pointless. It has been thousands of years since humans had been to Clonox III, so the facility is self-sustaining, taking energy from the depths of the planet in order to power its hordes of slaving androids who put together immense galactic freighters that are sent off to civilization for use.

Part of the concept includes the cooperation behind this complex operation; CAPE Manufactoring. For now, at least, I am going to avoid the typical science fiction tropes regarding large cooperations and leave CAPE simply as a background entity who's sole purpose is to establish the reason why the main character exists in the first place. They are protrayed neither as good or evil; they simply manufactor stuff. And like all larger than life manufactors in fiction, CAPE has a logo that I can use to brand the more mundane objects that will be found within the game adding more detail.

The most important thing I have accomplished by laying out the location of the game in detail is that I have limited the scope of the game to a reasonable scale that can not get too out of control at this point, unless I feel the need to add more locations and places for the player to visit (which honestly, from a time stand point, I cannot). When creating games my greatest weakness, and many others' as well, is an unreasonable ambition that lets projects grow too huge. My proof is the thirty something games I had started to create that soon became too much for me to handle.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Games I Desire to Bring Into Existence: Train of Thought

Progress on "Aldea Lenta" continues to steadily move. For the next couple of a days I will be sitting down and laying out the big picture layout of the game, planning its structure and brainstorming some ideas to fill in the important details. Until I have enough content to post on that experience, I am going to start what I hope will be an interesting returning feature: "Games I Desire to Bring Into Existence." The title is self explanatory so I won't waste any space dedicated to explaining what the feature is about.

Here we go!

At a time when I was significantly younger I came into possession of a rather obscure puzzle game created by Sierra Entertainment called "3D Ultra Lionel Traintown." Unlike almost all other video games in history that had taken the concept of trains as their primary theme, "Lionel Traintown" was not a simulation of any kind. Instead of attempting to emulate the complex systems that exist in the world of trains, "Lionel Traintown" decided to take its inspiration from the model train world (hence the licensing of the Lionel name).

To explain the gameplay of "Lionel Traintown" in as briefly a manner as I possible can, the basic mechanics are selecting different chains of train cars and choosing a speed at which they either move backwards or forwards along the rails, changing the direction that a switch track leads, and picking up and dropping off goods. Using these basic gameplay concepts, the designers of "Lionel Traintown" craft some really interesting spacial puzzles that test the player's ability to successfully organize and plan the movements of their trains in order to accomplish their given goals.

I would really like to see this idea expanded upon and brought into the modern era of video game design. There is nothing like "Lionel Traintown," and its unique, casual, and addictive qualities could allow a game like it to find great success in today's downloadable market. I see fully 3D-dimensional environments allowing for more complex and beautiful track layouts and puzzle designs. With an appropriately simple cartoon-like art style, the game could look amazing. One of the few flaws of "Lionel Traintown" are its clunky controls coupled with some really frustrating timed missions. The controls need to no longer be tied to the interface. No more timed missions; puzzle games usually suffer greatly from unnecessary action mechanics (if a designer feels the need to use these they should really consider the quality of their current design).

Of course, a puzzle game like this that is based around designer created levels could easily grow a strong, dedicated community. If powerful tools are built to allow for easy user content creation and a easy to use distribution model was built around delivering this content to other players (look at Trackmania or LBP), there could be some serious increase in replay value. And if supported by occasional content updates that introduced new features and gameplay elements (similar to what Valve is currently doing with TF2 and L4D), this new take on "Lionel Traintown" could have a long fruitful live in digital stores.

In conclusion, I would like to clarify some of the thoughts I have tired to share with some links. First off is a link to the Wikipedia article on "3D Ultra Lionel Traintown." It includes a far more in depth description of the game's workings than my brief paragraph and anyone who has a further in the game should check it out: 3D Ultra Lionel Traintown: Wikipedia. Second, if anyone is actually interested in purchasing the game and giving it a try (which I do highly recommend; it is an extremely underrated classic), check out some of these cheap, used copies on Amazon: 3D Ultra Lionel Traintown: Amazon. From all the reports I have heard, there should be no issues with trying to run the game on newer operating systems like Windows 7 or Vista.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Rails to be Ridden Upon in "Aldea Lenta"

One of the more obviously unique qualities of "Aldea Lenta" are the rails that define the paths that the player can take. These rails allow for a different approach to level design; more control is given to the designer regarding where the player may go and what type of movements they can make within the 2D dimensional space of the game's world. Even though the player is snapped to the rails, limited in the locations they can visit, this does not automatically mean that the "Aldea Lenta" is linear. In fact, it is not. Just like the rails that make up a train system, the rails in this game create a complex web.

Above is an elementary example of how these rails look and connect. As one can see, amongst the expected, straight rails are what I have come to call "rail nodes"; spots where the player is able to come to a stop and decide which direction to go next. It should be noted that the game's logic dictates that once the player has chosen to take a path, they cannot stop until they reach another node.

The complex, winding structures that are made up out of these rails exist as a pure example of the tree of potential choices a player can make in a game. Each decision leads to certain gameplay results, whether they be progress or regress. This is one of the most defining qualities of games; there are not branching results to be found in other mediums like film, theater, or literature (though there are odd exceptions that might exist as hybrid forms of entertainment, such as "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books, they really are not representative of their purely linear peers).

I am hoping that rails provide a new experience to players. I believe that even more innovation can be found in designing gameplay elements that are compatible with this system.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Backstory and Game Maker

So I suppose that anyone who has read my previous post must be beyond confused. There really wasn't any formal introduction; I just jumped straight into talking about my project. Let me elaborate. I am currently working on an independent game code named "Aldea Lenta" (Spanish speaking readers will notice this means "slow village"; I am taking inspiration from all the other meaningless, pretentious project code names). It takes after games, but I would pin "Portal" and "The Legend of Zelda" as the main inspirations. Why am I making this game? Basically, I am interested in some day developing video games professionally, whatever that means. This is practice and portfolio work; the best advice I have ever seen given to aspiring game developers has been, "Just simply make games." And that is what I am doing here.

Regarding the tools being used to craft this piece interactive entertainment, I am currently using Game Maker as the engine and GIMP for visuals. I am not completely decided on my audio tool set quite yet; it is in this field that I lack the most experience, so a lot of research and learning will go into making that a possibility. Currently I am looking at Audacity, LMMS, and sfxr as possible options. Currently the budget for the game has been $25, which was for the Professional copy of Game Maker, so things are being done on the extremely cheap side.

All the programmers out there (which would include many game devs) are probably rolling their eyes at my usage of Game Maker. Simply put, I want to create and finish the project as soon as possible and Game Maker, despite its many limitations and problems, provides a very quick and easy interface game creation. I know C++ and little bit of Java; I am familiar with the modding tools of quite a few mainstream games, so it was not out of sheer naivety that I made this decision. Many other independent developers have also reaped the benefits of this approach, using limited yet accessible game creation tools.

Hopefully this information is enough to explain the current state of affairs. Probably not, I am certain I have forgotten something, but regardless, I believe this info dump is helpful in understanding my previous post and the posts to come.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Desiging a Modular Character

Inspired by some ideas I have had cooking for the opening sequence to my current project "Aldea Lenta," I started some work on the character design for the main protagonist. Though he doesn't have a name (yet) and I'm almost certain the design will eventually change, I am happy with the direction I have so far. This character is an android who moves throughout his environment primarily by riding along rails (someone's been playing Portal 2). The design has to be simple, bold, and expressive. Simple to fit in and animate well with the restrictions of a 16x16 grid. Bold to stand out amongst the rails and all of the background clutter. Expressive to show character emotion visually without text. So far all of these criteria are properly dealt with, but I still see some issues. The character's rectangular body is almost too basic and it is really difficult to convey the idea of a screen within a space of about 80 pixels (though I am hoping animation can aid in that).

Okay, after loading that image up, the design is really, REALLY simple. The eyes are inspired by similar designs from the Mario series. Of course I can't just post this up here saying, "Hey guys! This is what my HARD work for the day has led to." The really interesting part about the character is his interior; all the bits and pieces that are put together to create his body. These things include energy tanks, processing cores, frames, and a protective layer. It is all detailed in the sketches and the sprite sheets. When designing the game the character's modularity could lead to new interesting gameplay concepts. What if the character lost one or more of his vital parts in the middle of the game? How would it affect the way he functions and the way the player controls him?