Let’s Get Physical

The day after I wrote my previous post I opened up the Road Bastard project, and realised right away that I was sick of the way it looks. Almost every project I start gets made with Unity’s standard primitives – cubes, cylinders and spheres etc. and I tend to just throw a few plainly-coloured materials at them to make sense of things. It’s a really quick way to get a project up and running, but it does mean they tend to all look the same. And I’m a bugger for picking the same colours. I like most of my colours to be a bit on the blue side, so I generally have bluish grey for metal or concrete, and bluish greens for grass and trees etc. and I’m now thoroughly bored of it. So the first thing I did was find a couple of better materials for the road and the grass that I’d downloaded free from the Asset Store, and then darkened up the remaining flat colours a bit to make it look a little different. I’ve no idea what the final art style will be, but this at least isn’t boring me silly:

(There is an issue with these materials in that something about the way they’ve been made means that lights and effects don’t show up anywhere near as well as they should, so I will need to replace them again, shortly.)

Next up I added some camera shake for when the car is on the grass. I have this in almost all my projects – it’s a very quick way of adding a bit of visual interest – so it was just a case of copying and pasting some code from another project. I forced this in, by just applying it when the car is a certain distance from the centre of the road for now. I stupidly didn’t think to also check that the car is moving, so it shakes even if you sit still on the verge. Never mind – needs doing properly at some point anyhow – the point was more to get the code up and running.

I also got around to buying a fog asset from the Asset Store. I added this with default settings, and it didn’t seem to show up, but then I remembered the new materials don’t like special effects, so I tried turning the lights out:

Looks like it’ll work, but I’ll play with this later. I’ve bigger fish to fry.

Next up I decided to do something a bit more important – change the control of the car over to being physics-based. This actually involved re-working pretty much everything. If you’ve read the first post on this game you’ll know that the game was originally meant to be a very simple lane-changing game. Because of this, it was written in a very cheat-y fashion. Basically the player’s car never moved down the road – the road moved towards the player. As the player accelerates the road just moves towards them faster. Likewise all the other cars are moving at their own speed, but also towards the player at whatever speed the player is currently at. I can’t remember exactly why I did this at the time, but it was a valid approach – it would have worked. But now I want to use physics to get proper collisions etc. and so this all needs ripping out and putting back in properly.

A quick change to the player code adds physics-based handling – but in a limited way. I’m not about to write a vehicle simulation – that would be beyond me, and unnecessary for what I still see as a simple game. So I’m cheating again. When the player accelerates I apply a force to the car that pushes them straight down the road. When the player steers I apply a force that pushes them across the road, and I also turn the car to face into the turn. This is different to what should be happening – which would be turning the car and then applying acceleration along the car’s forward axis. I could be wrong, but I think that doing it properly would cause lots of problems. My way allows me to take advantage of Unity’s physics system for collisions, but also gives me very tight control of the car. I’ve also restricted the physics quite a lot – there’s no gravity involved, and the car can’t rotate in any axis due to a collision. I may relax some of these if needed, but for now I want control. Anyway, basically I get the car running with physics quite quickly. The handling is awful, but I can tweak that later.

Next up I redo the road system, which was always a kludge. Basically the road is made up of a number of “tiles” that move towards the player. As the nearest one moves out of camera, I simply moved it to the back of the queue, and the whole thing just continued, looking like the player was moving, but they’re never actually getting anywhere. The change is a simple one – decouple it from the player’s position and move the piece further away from them, so that as they move down the road there is always a new bit to encounter. It’s still a kludge but it will work.

The final piece to getting this working is to change the camera so that its position is tied to the player’s car, rather than just floating in space (without this the player’s car zooms off out of view quite quickly). With that sorted we’re almost back where we started I just need to deal with the other cars.

At this point I added a traffic manager script to start controlling the way cars are spawned. I’ll go into this later because it’s complicated, but for now I’ll just say I had a couple of ideas about how this would work, and I’ve already realised they won’t work at all. So it goes. For now it just chucks cars along each lane at a different speed at 2 second intervals. I also added oncoming traffic on the other side of the road at this point. I then tweaked the cars to add physics to them, and then unleashed them.

Phew! A lot of text to get through, but that leaves us with things being done a little more correctly, physics is enabled so the player can collide with stuff, and there’s a script firing lots of cars with no AI at all down the road at varying speeds. Which results in this:

Now that looks like there’s proper potential to be a “Road Bastard” there to me. It’s actually quite good fun just driving along nudging other cars off course and seeing the results, which given that it’s all so basic is quite encouraging. One of the first things I’m going to do next is add an explosion for major car-to-car collisions to start getting a bit of feedback in there. Then I need to probably look at creating better traffic patterns, or maybe add some car AI.

One thing I need to think about though is how to keep as much as the action on-screen as possible. Because the player is driving fast (and at the moment nowhere near as fast as I’d like) there’s the potential for a lot of the chaos created to be lost as the player zooms past as it’s happening. I need to try to make as much happen further down the road as I can so that the player a) sees it, and b) has to deal with it.

Who Turned Out The Lights?

I only managed a couple of hours work today, but they were pretty good ones. As mentioned yesterday, the empty spaces off to the sides of the road were annoying me, so the first thing to do was knock up a couple of quick bits of scenery – one for either side. As with the rest of the game so far, these are all made with Unity’s primitive shapes right now, because otherwise I’d have to finally get around to learning how to use Blender to create 3D objects (I’ve spent 20-odd years using 3DS Max, but can’t justify the expense right now so need to make the change, but it’s a very reluctant one. Also, I hate learning new software – I genuinely find it immensely frustrating to have powerful tools but not the knowledge to use them – and it’s one of the few areas in life where I lack any degree of patience. It’s why I generally learn the bare minimum I need to get by with any software package, and use those tools exclusively – even if I’m aware there are better ways to tackle a job, but would need to learn how to use them.)

Anyhow, after maybe quarter of an hour of playing with capsules and cylinders and cubes I’ve got something serviceable, and I think it helps a lot. The grass verges make me think the car should shudder when travelling over them, and kick up dust. It’s also a good excuse to add camera shake, so these get added to the list of things to do. All non-essential, but all will add to the feel of the game, which is all I’m after right now.

Next I decided to address the horn, changing it from a short beep to a loopable sound, allowing the player to sound properly angry if they wish. I suggested yesterday that maybe the horn would intimidate the car in front – I’m wondering now if making that a function of time would work too – so some drivers panic immediately, while others need a longer blast (possibly over-complicating things, but probably worth looking into). I recently got a bunch of sound effects in a Humble Bundle, so I looked through these and found several car horns, but none of them looped. So I picked one I liked, opened it in Audacity and cut out the middle section and tried playing it looped. Huge clicking sound when it looped, so I nibbled a bit off the end and tried again. And again. And again. Then I tried nibbling a bit of the start. And again, and again. After whittling away at it for ages I finally had a (very short) loop that wasn’t too bad – it still clicks a bit, and will need replacing, but it will do for now. Audio is one of my least favourite jobs (which is a shame, because it has such a huge impact on a game).

Next up I decided to look at adding night time to the mix (this will also pave the way for all manner of colour schemes). A little tinkering with the light settings helped me find decent values to make a start, so I then coded a routine to fade between different sets of light settings at the press of a button (for now). That worked a treat – could hardly see a thing, so next up I strapped a couple of spotlights to the front of the player’s car, and – crikey – for something so cobbled together it actually looks rather neat. As you can see in the video below – night falls like a dropped brick right now – I’ll slow that down later. Next up I added tail lights to all the cars, and then when night falls the game manager script tells all the cars to put their lights on. The important thing here is that the cars each generate a random delay before they do this, to prevent all the lights coming on at the same time as if a switch had been pushed. Pleased with this.

Whilst rummaging around in the RenderSettings to adjust the lighting values I noticed the settings for fog too – I hadn’t thought of this, but fog would work a treat. So next up I spent a bit of time monkeying around with fog values – again putting them on a button press for ease of testing. I’ve soon got a real pea-souper. It’s not right, but it has definite potential:

So, next I think what happens if I mix it with night time, and this is what you get, which again could be really nice:

This is part of why it’s so very hard to finish a game. At this end of development, it’s almost like the game makes itself. It’s like it runs away, and you’re just trying to keep up with it, new ideas coming thick and fast, and you cobbling stuff together in minutes and getting cool results. It’s almost intoxicating. At the other end of development, you end up desperately trying to drag the bloody thing across the finish line, and it’s really reluctant to go. Every little thing seems to take an age to finally put to bed, and whilst what you’re working on is probably essential, you know nobody will even notice it. At some point the balance tips from that rush of ideas to that slog of just trying to kick the thing out the door, and at that point starting something new and interesting is always going to look much more appealing.

Anyway, at this point I decide to make a build to grab a video, and realise that the fog doesn’t show up in a build. A quick Google shows this is a known issue – fog works in the editor, but not in the final build. I try a few of the suggested workarounds, but none of them work for me. I soon get bored of this, so turn to the Unity Asset Store and find a few snazzy-looking foggy assets – and that’s where I’m at now – trying to decide whether to buy some fog I didn’t know I needed 20 minutes ago. They do look very good, so I’m very tempted (who knew you could make money selling fog?).

Tomorrow I’ll probably decide about the fog, and maybe look at adding camera shake and a few particle effects. After that I’m probably either going to have to bite the bullet and start using Blender to get some proper geometry in there as I search for an art style, or I’m going to have to look at getting the traffic working properly (which is perhaps the biggest unknown right now). Or I might put these off, and mess around with a few more cosmetic touches, because that’s much more fun.

Is This Thing On?

Hello. Long time no see. With a week off work I have a little time to tinker with potential new projects, and so I thought I’d also look at firing up this blog again – hopefully I can stick with it this time.

 

So I decided to sift through all my old prototypes looking for something I fancied revisiting – and came across the rather uninspringly named “DrivingGame” (I’ve mentioned before that the first thing you need for a new project, even before you’ve drawn a pixel or written a line of code, is a name for your game, and I’ve long-since given up trying to be clever with these).

Regardless, I want to do something nice and quick, and this feels about right. It was originally meant to be a very simple game of dodging traffic, with the player not having full control of the car – just the ability to switch lanes, and accelerate and brake. It was loosely based on a spiteful old arcade game that I have a fondness for – Road Fighter:

 

This first attempt never went anywhere – perhaps because it felt a bit “appy”. But firing it up again, I rather liked the look of it, and remembering the game it was based on, I came up with a new idea and a new working title – Road Bastard! This isn’t just a working title – this is pretty much my entire game design document right now. Enable the player to be a “road bastard” (whatever one of those is), and reward them for it.

 

A word on game design documents. When I worked as a Creative Manager, and then as a Game Designer, game design documents were things I came to hate with a passion. You had to write one for every project, detailing the story, and the characters, and the gameplay mechanics, and every other aspect of the game to win a contract with a publisher initially, and that’s fine and understandable. But the moment you win that contract the thing should be thrown in the bin and never mentioned again. It isn’t though. It’s maintained throughout the duration of the project to record the current state of the game. But because the game will almost certainly deviate from the design document within weeks of the start of development (at most) and continue to do so throughout its development, the game design document then spends the entire project chasing the current state of the game, needing to be updated every time a new change is made. It’s a colossal waste of time for a document that I’m pretty sure never gets read by anyone other than the poor sod who has to maintain it.

 

Anyhow, the first thing to do to make this better was to rip out the old control method and put in a new one, allowing proper freedom of movement. First up this meant just getting the car to move across the road, rather than snapping from lane to lane. This was an improvement, but not enough. So then I just added the cosmetic touch of rotating the car as it moved from side to side, and that immediately felt so much better with the car weaving, rather than sliding, around (so often these tiny touches are critical). Obviously, this is made entirely out of placeholders so far, but it has potential, I think:

 

As you can hear in the video, the car has a horn – if you’re making a car game then you can’t add the horn early enough, IMO. Maybe wait until it can move and steer first, but there’s no harm in doing it first. It doesn’t matter if you don’t plan on making it affect the gameplay at all – there is no downside to adding a horn. In the case of this game I’m thinking of perhaps making it intimidate the car ahead of you – maybe make them act erratically – that could be funny.

 

So, that’s the current state of play. Next up, I want to work on some “low hanging fruit” to push it towards where I want it to be. I’ll add in some scenery to fill in the gaps off to the side because they’re bugging me. I also want to add a night-time mode. Whilst working on this I remembered some of the very early arcade driving games like Night Driver, and I think a brutally dark colour scheme would work well here (whilst the player should be a bastard, the game will probably be a bastard right back at them). Also – and this is very important – I’ll look at replacing the current horn sound (beep) with an angrier looping sound, so that the player can hold it down for as long as they want – that’s what a “road bastard” would want.

W.I.P. 6 – Star Weasel

Oh, let’s start with names again shall we?

When you set out to paint a picture you start with a blank canvas, and a world of possibilities. You can then dip your brush in oil paint or gouache or watercolour paint and let rip with your imagination. Likewise if you decide to write a short story, or a poem, or a sonata you start with a blank page and a pen and the freedom to express yourself. Going digital, if you want to write a word doc, or create an image in Photoshop, a model in 3DS Max, or write a blog post in WordPress you fire up your program of choice and start with a clean state that you can immediately attack with keyboard, or mouse, or touchscreen or tablet. These are endeavours that typically take hours, (but may last days (or maybe longer)).

When you set out to make a video game, you fire up XNA, or Unity or GameMaker, and the first thing it asks is for the name of the project. Before you can place one pixel or create one polygon or type one line of code it wants the name of the thing that you will be creating. This is a project that could last months or years. A name, right now, before you go any further.

Fingers crossed in a short while I’ll finish my current game, and release it to critical acclaim, and people will love it, and the rather silly name “Super Thrustforce: Orbital Meat Police” will be known to gamers across the world.

But deep down I’ll always know it lives in a directory called “TestProject01”.

I tend to start lots of projects – I’ll often abandon them quickly afterwards, and then start something else instead. So I’m used to having to name these things with temporary names, knowing that I’ll live with something placeholder, but can rename the end product if it ever materialises. However, if I haven’t started something new in a while I tend to forget this part of the process, and the request for a name upfront is always jarring.

To cut to the chase, many years ago I decided to have a pop at writing a Uridium-style game in XNA – a bi-directional side-scrolling shoot-em-up played over the surface of giant enemy dreadnought spaceships. I wanted this to be a short project with a definite goal to aim at, and this seemed small enough. I gave it a quick think over, thought it should be easy enough and then fired up XNA. I hit the project name barrier. I dunno, let’s try “SHMUP”. Nope – it already exists. Of course it does, I’ve had half-hearted stabs at my favourite genre loads of times. OK “Shooter01”? Already exists. “ShootEmUp”? Gone. Fuck it, “Star Weasel”? New project created – result! Blank canvas time, let’s make a game.

I now have a game called Star Weasel, for no reason other than I have an abiding fondness for all of the sock-shaped creatures of the mustelid family (stoats, ferrets, polecats and weasels), and a mental toin coss picked “Star” over “Space” as a way to make a critter sound like a game name.

So after all that preamble here’s a quick video of the game:

This was made in late 2009 to early 2010. I think it holds up fairly well, and bears an awful lot of similarities with current project STOMP. Possibly too many. Bold colours, untextured polygons relying on a shader to look nice, 2D game in a 3D world, a background starscape with 3D planet and moons orbiting far faster than they should etc.

More worryingly – that ship. On the left Star Weasel, on the right STOMP:

sw01

Look at them! They’re almost identical. And they’re both dreadful (of all the models in STOMP the thing I like least is the player’s ship – it’s getting a redesign right now). Four or five years and any number of different projects separate these two games, and yet I made the same godawful spaceship for both. STOMP’s ship actually started off blue, but somewhere along the line I recoloured it on a whim, and somehow managed to make it almost the same as the ship in Star Weasel – THAT I NEVER LIKED THEN EITHER.

Moving on, and to follow up on my post I <3 3D, here’s a quick video showing off the various camera angles I added for the fun of it:

So to smmarise what we have then is the basic framework for a Uridium style game, with some shootable objects and enemy turrets and whatnot. Not shown are enemy homing mines, which were implemented quite nicely, but I’ll get on to them later.

So, what went wrong with the Weasel? Two things mainly.

The first was scope. The game became far too complex and daunting. As with Dogfight Thing I started with a simple premise and quickly over-complicated it to the point that it became a mountain to climb. For starters I’d decided (because the enemy dreadnoughts were component-based) to make a level editor, and that’s a whole heap of no-fun whatsoever in its own right. However the biggest issue was in the actual game design, and looking back I think I can see exactly how it went wrong.

I started out as an artist, and one of the things I know I’ve always been weak at is making superfluous shit up. In art classes back in the day I used to love drawing dragons and monsters and castles and stuff, and was pretty good at it, because I could justify everything I was drawing. So what if my dragon has a few ear-piercings? It’s a dragon with a strong sense of identity and a personal stylist with very little regard for their own personal safety.

I was rubbish at spaceships though (and as we’ve seen – I still am). Good spaceships tend to be covered in clutter – all manner of vents, and panels and stuff. Superfluous shit. I struggle with this – I want to have a reason for everything.

So I start working on a game featuring enemy dreadnoughts with shootable surface objects, and I immediately have to start giving functions to these things. That’s a shield generator, that’s a radar nodule, that’s a power unit, etc. Suddenly I see a very different game emerging, with interwoven systems like a fully-functioning star-destroyer might have. Do you take down the tough defence cannons first, or try to endure their onslaught whilst you soften them up by destroying the shield generators? Destroying weapons-guidance systems would make enemy fire less accurate, and getting rid of radar would make enemy fighter passes less frequent. Suddenly we’ve gone from a game where I can just place lots of stuff that needs shooting, to one that needs careful planning and balancing so that all of these systems justify their existence, and levels will need to be populated with extra care and attention.

I still think there’s a really nice game in this, it’s just not the one I set out to make.

The second problem was that the game was in 3D. I was going to do a companion piece to my I <3 3D blog post (called “I h8 3D”), about the unforeseen problems that using a 3D engine can bring, but never got around to it. However, this game illustrates one of the main issues really nicely.

It’s all very well thinking “I’ll make Uridium in 3D”, spending a bunch of time knocking up some models, whipping together an XNA project and getting the basics of a side-scrolling shoot-em-up in place, but you really should spend a little bit of time thinking through the mechanics of the game and how they’ll translate to a 3-dimensional solid world beforehand.

In the original game, the player shoots targets and dodges obstacles on a 2d plane, and that bit’s easy to replicate in 3D. In the original game the enemy fighters and mines live on the same plane and yet ignore the targets and obstacles – they simply appear to fly over them, because sprites can do that if they want to. You can’t do that in 3D – you’d see them fly through solid objects. To fly over the obstacles they have to actually fly over the obstacles, and if they’re doing that then the player can’t shoot them, so there’s no point in them being there.

The alternative then is rather than having waves of stupid enemies that simply pass back and forth (nice and easy to program), is to have smart enemies that can navigate around all the clutter that someone stupidly positioned all over the otherwise nice empty deck (much much harder to program). And those nicely-implemented homing mines I mentioned earlier? In their simple-minded desire to head straight for you, they’ll fly straight through anything in their path, which looked rubbish. So then I made them destroy whatever they hit instead, which meant they were more of a threat to their own ship than the player was because they almost always hit something friendly. It was kind of amusing for a while, but it looked pretty stupid in the scheme of things. The other option was making them explode on contact but not destroy the target, but this still meant they rarely bothered the player, and also robbed them of the ability to look like dangerous explosives. Basically they needed to be much smarter, or they needed removing.

I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that I’ve tended to struggle even getting started with AI. I always want to do it well, so put it off until later to do it properly, and often never get back to it. In this case, it was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’d only wanted to work on a short project, and suddenly it had become a lot more complex than that, and I just lost the will to carry on with it. I actually really like the idea of making the game at its fullest – with complex functioning systems, and smart enemy defence forces – it’s just not something that I enjoyed stumbling into at the time. One to revisit later, maybe.

Punslinging

For this post I thought I’d write about something close to my heart – puns. I love puns, and wordplay of all kinds, and whilst I’m generally pretty modest I will claim to be pretty good at punning. Whilst not strictly game design related, puns are something I’ve tried to work into almost every game I’ve worked on (assuming they’ve not already been designed in as standard). Games tend to need a fair few things naming (levels, achievements etc.), and if the tone of the game doesn’t preclude making puns then each of these names is an opportunity to amuse the player, which is kinda the point of making games in the first place. This is especially pertinent for me now, because I intend to throw as many puns as possible at STOMP.

However whilst I love my punning, I’m still not entirely sure why some puns are better than others. So I thought I’d take a look at some puns I’ve come up with for the games I’ve worked on to see if I can make any insights.

I’ll start with the last game I worked on at Blitz as a designer – Puss in Boots (I genuinely believe we made a really good Kinect game with this – if you’ve got kids and a Kinect I recommend it). The puns for PIB were mostly for achievement names, and sadly THQ dismissed some of our better ones – partly because of copyright worries (even when invalid – “A Tale Of Two Kitties” was perfect and Dickens is out of copyright) and partly because I think they didn’t understand them. However one that did make it was “Well Balanced” which was an achievement for crossing a tightrope perfectly. This one pleases me. It’s not funny. It’s not that clever. It’s just an existing phrase that also happens to perfectly describe what you’ve just done. There are no loose ends though, and that helps it a lot. Often a pun doesn’t quite “fit” the situation you’re using it in and that’s unsatisfying. I used “Prevent the meat death of the universe” in my STOMP trailer. I love the wordplay, but it doesn’t fit the scenario well enough – you’re just trying to rescue Earth’s cows – if you fail there will still be lamb and pork and squirrel and all the other critters folk eat around the world. This inaccuracy bothers me, and if I didn’t like the notion of “the meat death of the universe” quite so much I wouldn’t have used it (I’d have saved it for later though – there’s almost certainly a game in there somewhere).

There’s one pun for Puss In Boots that got rejected that I loved to bits though, and again that’s because it fit so neatly. In each of the game’s levels there was a fragment of golden egg to collect. When you collected all of them you’d get an achievement. I understand why my idea wasn’t picked for a game with a worldwide release, but I still resent that achievement not being called “They think it’s all ova – it is now!”.

One of the first games that made me appreciate that puns are a force for good was Fuzion Frenzy. This was a party game for the original Xbox, and the puns here were used for naming the individual minigames. However the minigames for Fuzion were handled by two different teams, and the other team didn’t want to play ball, so around half the minigames were named with puns, but half weren’t. So the game ended up being a bit schizophrenic in this regard. We had games called Tailblazer, Blast Man Standing, Rubble Alliance and Twisted System (I love a (somewhat obscure) pop culture reference), and theirs were called functional names like Collector and Bumper Race. I don’t get why you wouldn’t try to spice them up a bit. (As a side note, one of our minigames involved catching falling sparks from fireworks. I don’t think this was one of my names, but up until weeks before mastering this minigame had the placeholder name “Up the glitter”. Eventually we explained to our American producers about cockney rhyming slang, and changed the name for something a tad more acceptable.)

The last game at Blitz that I provided achievement names for was Ace of Spades (I didn’t work on the game, but was called on for the punning), and I like to think some of these are pretty good despite them having to be done at short notice – Turret Syndrome, Mountain Casualties, Butte Hurt… There are two I thought I’d expand on though. The first is “Pillar Assault” – awarded for shooting out a number of pillars in a certain bit of architecture. I have no way of knowing how many people actually spot the loose homophonic reference to Lot’s wife here, but I love including less-obvious stuff in the hope that a few folk do at least notice it. Once again, the punnish element isn’t funny, and is in no way relevant to the game, but it’s a little extra something for those that happen to catch it. And the name fits the achievement like a glove, so the irrelevance isn’t compromising the functionality at all. The second is another that I’m not entirely happy with, but it was just too good not to use. It’s an achievement for tea-bagging enemies (it would take an entire blog post to explain fully why I love this achievement). The name was “Plumming the deaths”. I sniggered to myself for quite a while after coming up with that one, I must admit. But I’m not actually that happy with it. It’s so close, but it’s just far away enough to be unsatisfactory. It wanted to be “Plumming the dead” to make sense really, but “dead” is far too far from “depths” to make the phrase work. Even “deaths” is a little bit more of a stretch than I’d like (that “p” is really important in the word “depths”), so it sits in an uneasy middle ground of not being ideal in either direction – it doesn’t quite sound close enough, and it doesn’t quite mean what it should, but it’s as close as I could get it. If the verb “plumming” didn’t amuse me quite as much as it does I’d have come up with something else instead.

Following up from the obscure reference to Lot’s wife, perhaps the most obscure reference in one of my achievement names happened completely by accident. In Powerup Forever there’s an achievement called “Bully” awarded for squishing 111 tiny enemies in any given level. Why 111? Why not? Round numbers are boring, and people tend to use them without thinking. I think nothing in game design should be done without thinking – you should have a reason for everything. As I said at the start, all names are a chance to amuse the player. Numbers can be too (see 42 and 69 for easy examples). So why 111 exactly? I’m English and I love a bit of cricket. 111 is the English bogey score – superstition dictates that English batsmen tend to get out more often on a score of 111 (or multiples thereof). This score is known as Nelson. Most of the world will take nothing from the total being 111 (or will be confused, which is a positive in my book – anything to make the world a weirder place…), but the few who do recognise what I intended may be ever-so-slightly amused. If I’d have used 100 no-one would have cared either way, so this is a net gain. Anyway, we now have an achievement called Bully where you need to score a Nelson. Result!

So that brings me up to STOMP, where I’m free to indulge myself to the full. Another pun I used in my first trailer was “That really takes the brisket”. I think this one deserves groans. I try not to use puns that deserve groans (people often groan at puns regardless of whether they deserve it or not – but I will admit this does deserve it). In fact, in the trailer the cows were originally in a green grass field, but I changed it to brown dirt so that if I had time I could have added a tumbleweed pass after the “brisket” pun – that’s how bad I think it is. The thing is the pun was originally a potential level name – “Taking the brisket”, and I don’t think that’s anywhere near as bad. I’d happily name a level that. And this is what puzzles me – why am I happy with that, but not the version I actually used? Is it just the attitude? “Taking the brisket” feels kind of passive – it’s just sitting there minding its own business, whereas “That really takes the brisket” feels much more cocksure and in-your-face, and that bothers me.

One final pun – or rather two takes on the same device, and some thoughts upon them. Amongst my very favourite puns for STOMP is a level called “There’s something about dairy”. I am really happy with that one. However I first came up with the dairy/Mary swap for “Dairy Poppin’s” – which will probably still lead to me creating a new game mechanic (or at least some background graphics). But despite these two using the exact same device, “Dairy Poppin’s” is nowhere near as good as “There’s something about dairy”, IMO. I think the main reason for this is expectation. With “There’s something about dairy” you have expectations of how it’s going to end that are then confounded when the switch takes place, but you’ve been given so much to work with that it’s effortless. With “Dairy Poppin’s” the switch happens at the start meaning you’re expecting something to follow naturally from “dairy”, but then have to work backwards once you’ve heard the lot to make sense of the thing. There’s also the fact that “There’s something about dairy” immediately makes sense as a sentence in its own right where “Dairy Poppin’s” doesn’t – and I think even if I do get exploding cow bombs in the game to illustrate the concept it still won’t ever be as strong.

That’s probably enough for now. I may well revisit the topic again though – whilst I have well over a hundred cow puns lined up for STOMP (I’m hoping I get to use them all), and I’m still coming up with new ones all the time, and I would love to figure out what really makes the difference between good and bad ones.

I <3 3D

Later than intended (I took an impromptu holiday) here’s a quick post about why I love making 3D games (or games with 3D assets at least).

One of my favourite things about working in 3D is that it allows me to monkey around with the camera angle really cheaply. As mentioned in my WIP for Super Critter Kill, that game started life as a different game entirely, and all it took was a camera switch and a fake arm to make it look like a completely different genre using exactly the same assets. I’ve also done it in another old project that I’ll hopefully do a WIP for in the near(ish) future. So it’s only natural that at some point I’d have a play with the camera in STOMP too, and so far I’ve done 3 different things.

The first thing I tried really early on was simply to make the camera more dynamic by making it look-ahead of the player – the faster they’re moving the further it looks ahead.

 

I rather like this, but  I’ve had it disabled ever since because it needs more work (it’s a tad harsh), and needs testing with finished levels to assess whether it affects gameplay negatively. In its current, 2-lines-of-code, implementation it also suffers from a big problem which is if you smack into a wall at speed it instantly slams the camera back to default which is really jarring – so if I keep this it’ll need some easing applied to fix this (which would help smooth it out generally too). Also camera shake values that work well for the fixed camera are pretty brutal with this one.

The next thing I tried was more of an experiment – fixing the camera to the player’s ship so it rotates with them. This causes the world to rotate around the player, with the player’s ship remaining vertical on screen always – like in the (top notch) arcade game Assault (there’s another future WIP subject here). I don’t have any video for this, sadly. I thought this would be unplayable, but actually it wasn’t *that* bad. It was a little strange, and fairly tricky to find “up” so that I could hover, but I could actually play it. The biggest issue was that because the camera was tightly tethered to the ship, and because the ship turns fast and stops turning instantly, and because you’re constantly making adjustments to your heading, the scenery whips around constantly, spinning and stopping in a really harsh fashion. It should be possible to alleviate this with easing again – but I wonder if that might feel a bit woolly. It should be fairly quick to try though, and if it works it may well make it into the game as a bonus.

The last thing I tried – and I’m amazed it took me so long to think of giving it a go – was to make the camera 1st person (okay – it’s strictly 3rd person – but only so you don’t get weird fragments of ship obscuring your vision). This again is really quick to implement – quite literally 2 lines of code. But this time I was right – I thought it would be largely unplayable, and it certainly is. Largely. However it does look kind of cool.

Obviously the turn speed is far too quick for comfort, the lack of awareness of your surroundings is a killer (maybe a rearview mirror would help), and knowing which way gravity is acting is really tricky (it’ll be so much worse when I start switching gravity around later in the game). It also shows up the fact that the scenery is “sliced vertically” and that my skybox has no proper roof on it, but those are minor concerns. However I may still try to find a way to get it in the game. Even if I just throw it in as an easter egg the player can give it a pop with invincibility turned on if they wish.

Accessibility

One of the things I’m keen to do with STOMP is to make sure that it is accessible as possible. Thrust-style games are fairly tricky beasts if you’re not used to them, so I want to make sure that newcomers can have a pop at this one at a level that suits them, and also experience everything the game has to offer. Here’s how I’m going about that.

First off – and the most obvious approach – the game features difficulty levels (currently easy, normal and hard – but I may well expand this, if only to add some super-hard stuff). The difficulty levels aren’t fully implemented yet, but they affect things like enemy fire rate, bullet speed, accuracy etc, rather than just altering the hit points of enemies (which currently I don’t plan to do). I’ll probably extend this so that the easy difficulty level also mitigates damage taken from enemy fire and impacts too.

On top of that I’m also giving the player the option to turn on invincibility to play the game. This makes them impervious to damage (obviously) but also grants unlimited fuel (and by association therefore grants infinite shielding). This allows the player to practice the tricky control method in safety without having to endlessly play the tutorial level where they’d be largely safe. They can play the whole of the main game this way (in each of the difficulty levels), and unlock each of the levels for single level replay too. The only thing that will be restricted when playing with invincibility activated is posting highscores (although scoring potential will be reduced anyway, since the game won’t award low-damage and fuel remaining bonuses to invincible players). This ensures that anyone at all can see all the content in the game that they’ve bought.STOMP_levSelect01

I’m toying with the idea of splitting the invincibility option into bits too so that the player can toggle whether they need to refuel, whether they take damage from enemy weapons, and whether they take damage from collisions. This not only provides the most options for tailoring the game to suit the player, it also allows the game to be played differently – certainly the option to ignore collision damage would allow the player to rattle around the levels like a thing possessed which could be fun. (I’ve just realised that if I add impact damage to enemies and other destructibles that you hit (not currently the case) that this could be a thing in its own right. Feature creep ahoy…)

The game also features bonus mini-games. I’m hoping to have 24 of these – 3 for each of the game’s 8 levels. One of these will be unlocked by collecting a pickup hidden in each level – it doesn’t matter if you do this whilst invincible or not really (whilst it’s true the freedom to explore given by not having to worry about fuel makes this easier, there’s no point in making the player do it again “properly” once they know where it’s hidden). The other two are for completing each level with a good score, and a fast time. These will still be unlockable with invincibility on – but because they’re skill-related these will only be partially-unlocked if you do it that way. You will be able to play the mini-games (which is the important thing), but the unlocking won’t contribute towards completion of the game (and any achievements I happen to tie to that), which only really matters to people who care about that sort of thing. You will still need to hit the goals normally to achieve completion.

Beyond that, in the menu I’m giving the player options to unlock the main game levels and each category of mini-games at the press of a button anyway. You don’t even have to play the game once to get at all the content. Why? Why not? The player will have paid for it, and it makes no sense to wall them off from it. If they aren’t skilled enough to beat the time or score I set for a level – or if either of those goals don’t really appeal to them – I’m happy for them to get the content without jumping through the hoops I’ve set up. And if I’m allowing the player to unlock them whilst invincible, then the only thing standing between the player and the levels is their time – something I’m loathe to waste. People who care about unlocking things the way I’d like them to are free to ignore these options, and gain the satisfaction that that provides. People who don’t can just cut to the chase.

As with using invincibility, these options only partially unlock the levels – if you want achievements and completion you still have to actually do what the original goal was. I also plan to allow to allow the player to lock these things again (although I’ve just realised I can do this on two levels – lock everything (to wipe the slate clean so that it can be done all over again) or just lock those that haven’t been fully unlocked already – more feature creep, perhaps).

There’s an added advantage to this too. I’ve personally played many games to death on one machine, and then installed them on another and been annoyed that I couldn’t get at my favourite bits until I’ve unlocked them all over again. This fixes that.

This is the sort of stuff I’d love more games to look at doing. I can count all the novels I’ve started reading and not finished on the fingers of one hand. I’ve lost count of the number of games I’ve given up when encountering difficulty spikes. I’m not a big fan of story in games, but still it annoys me that each of those is an unfinished story that I’d have happily followed to the end if the game had let me. Why not let me toggle invincibility and bludgeon my way through it? The game can withhold achievements from me for wussing out by all means, but it doesn’t have to deny me access to the rest of the game I paid good money for just because I can’t beat a particular collection of poorly-judged design decisions (usually a boss fight).

W.I.P. 5 – Maps and Legends

OK, here’s a look at the hobby project I was actually working on when I got made redundant and decided to go Indie – Maps and Legends. The name once again was very much placeholder (and REM fans may recognise it as the title of a nice track from the album “Fables of the Reconstruction”). Maps and Legends (MandL as I tend to call it) got shelved immediately since there wasn’t a chance it would be completed before I ran out of money, and I’m not entirely sure how easy it would be to make money from it. Here’s a screenshot:

mandl04A quick disclaimer on the graphics – I really don’t like how it looks. The whole game is really rough tbh, but specifically the island graphics are rubbish. The thing is it’s largely unimportant – the game could be in lushly textured 3D, plain old sprites in 2D or even ASCII – it’s just a map at the end of the day – the gameplay is all in the text.

Another disclaimer – having said that the text was all first draft too. The examples I’m posting could all do with work.

Also, once again there’s no playable version. As it stands it’s awful – largely unfinished, with most of the existing content actually disabled, and what’s left in there happening all the time. When making a game built almost entirely of random events you soon learn that you want the ones you’re currently working on to happen all the time, and everything else to GTFO.

So first a quick overview. MandL got a quick mention in my first WIP – the game was born as an entry for a coding competition back at Blitz Games with the theme being procedural generation. I decided to procedurally generate an island populated with tribes and NPCs that the player could explore with the intent of creating a game a bit like Strange Adventures in Infinite Space or The Wager. There would be no combat – the game would be all about decisions and consequences. It soon became clear that this was far too large for the monthly competition, so I split that away and made Super Critter Kill for the competition, and kept MandL as my main project at home.

As a brief overview of the game, the player takes the role of a Victorian explorer and would start having made landfall on a mysterious island shrouded in darkness. The choice of Victorian explorer gave me a very clear voice to write with and lots of character, but also led to me adding a faithful manservant who would accompany you, which opened up lots of opportunities for humour.

The player explores by moving one square at a time, and when they enter a new square they might encounter a tribe or an NPC who they could talk to, or they might get a random event, which could be based on their location or the time of day, or any number of other triggers. These events could be chances to gain cash, useful items, extra resources etc. but could also be much more complex, or just be for fun. Below is one example where the player can lick a frog to see if it has any special effects (they can also get their trusty manservant “Branston” to do it instead).

mandl002

This event could lead to one of a variety of “drugged” status effects which would have all manner of repercussions (some good, some less so), or could do nothing at all, as below (where your manservant is now called Duckworth-Lewis – note to self: random generation makes coherent screenshotting very tricky indeed.)

mandl03
The original idea was to create a game that could be played in a lunchtime, but would stand up to countless replays with the player always getting new adventures (hopefully). So there had to be loads of these events, and to keep them fresh they needed to vary each time you received them – hence numerous “drugged” effects coming from one event. However to go further I then decided to try and generate the description of the event itself – so that even if you happened to get the same event, chances are you wouldn’t have read the same words before. This would involve all sorts of techniques – random phrase selection, changing events based on the player character’s gender, what they were wearing and so on. So if you met an NPC whilst wearing a remarkable hat you might get different text than if you weren’t. Obviously this makes generating the events far more tricky and time-consuming, and in truth I’d barely scraped the surface on this aspect.

And the plan was even larger still – those “drugged” effects I mentioned earlier included “paranoid” which would stick with the player for the rest of the game and would affect a huge number of events – meetings with NPCs, dealing with tribe leaders, and probably most mentions of the player’s manservant. (If theres enough mileage in it I could also include the option of a paranoid manservant if you chose to get him to lick the frog instead.)

Another good example of the scope of the game (and the feature creep involved) was an event that would occur on the coast – finding a message in a bottle. This could turn out to be many different things – treasure maps, useful information, coded messages and loads of other things I haven’t even thought of yet. It could also simply be Victorian spam (note that this example is tailored to the player being female – with the player’s manservant (now called “Ives” – thanks again random number generator) being judged as satisfactory (the typo in “satisfying” has now been corrected, fyi):

mandlSpam01

But then I came up with the idea of it being an order for pizza. This led to me spending a fair while writing code to randomly generate pizza orders in a variety of styles – a basic list, a Victorian gentleman, a pirate etc. This involved creating daft names for pizza establishments and a full menu of pizzas, side-orders and beverages so that every order would be different. The text in the following example needs a ruddy good editing, but it’ll do as an example:

mandlPizza01

So when playing the game if you move into a beach tile there’s a smallish chance you’ll get an event. There’s a small chance that this event will be a message in the bottle, and then there’s a small chance that it will be a pizza order. This all adds up to the chances of you getting the pizza order event in any given game being basically very low indeed. Regardless, I spent lots of time making sure that if you happen to get it again in a different game chances are it will read entirely differently. That was my intended approach to many of the events in the game and there would have been hundreds and hundreds of them.

Furthermore, with the pizza example I figured if someone’s ordering pizza then somewhere there must be a pizzeria – so why not this island? So I added a chance of the island having a pizzeria. Now when the player gets the pizza order event they can choose to throw it back in the sea, take the money that’s included with the order, or take the bottle – each of which then allows the interaction with the pizzeria to change if they happen across it whilst exploring. The original low-odds pizza order event has birthed an entirely new set of events that now need to be written.

This is feature creep writ large – something that conventional game-dev wisdom is largely against – but here I’d argue it is critical to the game I was making. It’s something that one person on their own can afford to do, and in many cases should do – providing they can see that it’s actually benefitting the game.

An additional example of this is the pack animals. Along with your manservant, you’re also given a pack-animal at the start of the game. This is chosen at random (horse, donkey, ox etc.). It would then pop up from time to time in events with different outcomes for each (if a bear attacks it might scare off a pony, kill an ox, or be scared off by a horse as it lashes out with its hooves, for example). Also each type would generate its own events from time to time. Basically each pack animal was a significant amount of work, but only a small part of the game. So adding a new one should require a lot of justification – right? Nope! It needed me to think up just one pun about a goat.

To add the goat (an unusual choice of pack animal admittedly) I wrote a new intro that involved your intended pack animal being washed overboard from your boat on the voyage to the island, leaving you with a goat that was meant to be used for milk/food. This can’t happen often (not only would it get old fast, but also it would be a handicap for the player because the goat – crucially – can’t carry as much weight as the other critters), so you’ll be much more likely to get one of the other animals. At some point I’d then need to write all these goaty events and alternatives as they occurred (much of this isn’t yet implemented). Finally I then needed to add a very low-odds event where you stumble across a large stash of very heavy treasure.

All of this extra work is so that if you happened to get the slim chance treasure adventure whilst having the rare goat pack animal you’d find that the goat couldn’t carry all the heavy treasure. I was prepared to do all this extra work for the chance to use this line:

“We’re going to need a bigger goat.”

Get in!

I love puns, and think they’re worth celebrating, and will go to great lengths to do so. And whilst there will be a lot of extra work to get this one pun in, its all a bunch of opportunites to make even more good stuff that will benefit the game. And beyond that if anyone playing the game finds that as amusing as I do, chances are they’ll tell their friends about it, and that is worth an awful lot.

That there is one of the reasons I love this game so much, and also the reason I immediately put it on the backburner when I went indie. The scope of it allows me to indulge all my silly ideas, whilst writing about pirates and dragons and fairies and elves and anything else that I can think of, but it also means that as a job of work it’s an unkown size, certainly already very large, and would continue to grow if I worked on it.

A huge issue with it as it stands though is that it’s really inefficient to work on the way I currently have it. Every event is custom written, because every event is generated differently, and I never sought to mitigate this at all. Actually creating content for it is cheap and easy – it’s just text – but the way it’s currently implemented means getting it actually in-game, suitably randomised and generating the right number of player responses based on circumstances (if you’ve lost your manservant for example (snigger) then you can’t get them to lick the frog, obviously…) is much trickier than it needs to be.

However, I am currently looking at getting this back up and running in Unity as a side project. The main plan for it is to look at solving the issues with implementation to make it as easy as possible to add content, because if I can get that sorted, it’s an ideal project to have pootling along in the background. It just needs shedloads of text throwing at it, and that can be written anywhere and anytime. As mentioned at the top, the graphics are immaterial, so if I can build up the essential content to a point where it looks like a viable project I can start worrying about getting it to look the part so that people will be prepared to pay for it.

The Name Of The Game

I’ve mentioned before in my blog that I struggle with naming my projects, and STOMP is no exception. I’m still not sure what I feel about STOMP (Super Thrustforce: Orbital Meat Police) as a name. I settled on it because the game needed a name at the time, rather than because I felt it was a particularly amazing thing to call it. Obviously I’d love to have come up with something I thought was perfect for the game, but there came a tipping point where it was more important that the game had a name, than that it had the perfect name. STOMP was good enough.

Here’s how I got there.

I’ve always wanted to make a Thrust-style game, but until getting my paws on Unity I haven’t really had the tools I needed to do the job. (I did pitch a really nice Thrust-like game for Blitz Games Arcade division, but sadly it didn’t get picked up). I also had a stab at making one in XNA, but knew it was probably doomed to failure. The name of this project though was “Thrustforce”; a portmanteau word of the two main influences – “Thrust” on the C64, and Amiga classic “Gravity Force”. As expected I didn’t get far with this in XNA, but the name would return later.

So fast forward to Christmas 2013 and I’d been trying to think of a decent name for the game for a good couple of months on-and-off and failing. The cattle abduction theme had been in place for a little while now, but I was still thinking of maybe having different aliens which abducted different critters, so I needed something general. “Meat” then was the starting point. (I’m not ruling out other critters, but the cows are providing so much great material I don’t think I need them).

So then the idea of “Meat Police” popped into my head – it says what you’re doing in the game and I found the notion amusing. So then we just need to say where the meat policing is happening, and for some reason “Orbital” was the first word that popped into my head. Orbital Meat Police. Whilst I’m not going to say that STOMP as a whole is a great name for a game, I find something inherently pleasing about “Orbital Meat Police” as a phrase. Orbital Meat Police – it trips off the tongue nicely. It’s no “cellar door” perhaps, but there’s something there I like. I later tried replacing the “O” with “Off-World” (which would allow me to set a level in deep space, if I wanted, without being semantically incorrect), but it’s nowhere near as nice. (If I do set a level in deep-space I’ll happily let the name be wrong.)

So, Orbital Meat Police it was. However, the thing I really wanted from the game name was to tell the player what the game was. Orbital Meat Police tells you what the mission is, but not what you actually do. I wanted this specifically for fans of Thrust-style games. I’m one of them, and know I will happily jump on any new Thrust-style game I come across. I know if I read a name that suggests the game is a bit Thrusty (“Thrust”, “Gravity”, “Rocket” maybe…) then I will investigate it*. So that’s a thing that needs to happen, even though it almost certainly necessitates the intervention of a colon.

The first thing that occured to me though is that I’ve now painted myself into a corner. Orbital Meat Police gives me “OMP”. Whatever I add now really has to make the best of that, because you don’t get a free OMP too often, and so wasting it on something meaningless like AOMP, DOMP or VOMP would be unthinkable. So let’s look at the alternatives – POMP, ROMP, WHOMP, STOMP… “Hang about, I’ve already got a T”.

Thrustforce: Orbital Meat Police. Sorted!

The “S” is a no-brainer. I’ll happily stick “Super” on the front of any name – it’s probably harder to get me to leave it off, to be honest. “Super” is a great word. It isn’t trying anywhere near as hard as “Hyper” or “Mega” (I personally would probably only ever use those in parody). It’s enthusiastic without being obnoxiously so. In certain circumstances it can come across as charmingly naive, which is a lovely thing to be (One of my very favourite uses of it is in the shoot-em-up Gundemonium Recollection, where the 2nd level is called “Super Train Robbery”.)

So, STOMP it is. As I said at the top I’m still unsure what I feel about it as a name, but it has a good stab at explaining what you are and what you do and that I’m really happy with. It also gave me “STOMP” which is as good an acronym as I could hope for, but may well also inform some parts of the game (I already have a model of a shiny STOMP badge that could be used to represent this gung-ho squad of militaristic space police should I decide to push that angle).

 

*I will also be disappointed when said game doesn’t turn out to be Thrusty. /Gives Gravity Rush got a particularly withering Paddington Hard Stare./

Sneak Peek – Super Thrustforce: Orbital Meat Police

With my game featured on flyers at GDC and soon to be shown (in a small way) at EGX Rezzed it occurs to me that perhaps I should at least acknowledge its existence, even if I’m not ready to push it in people’s faces just yet. So a quick blog post will have to suffice…

So this is Super Thrustforce: Orbital Meat Police, a game about aliens, cattle abduction and retribution via the twin barrels of your spaceship’s miniguns. That and cow puns. Lots and lots of cow puns.

I’m not ready to announce too many details on the game  just yet, but I’m currently planning to release on PC, Linux and Mac at some point this year.

I will hopefully do a more formal announcement in the near future. I also intend to start blogging occasionally about development, so please follow me on Twitter where I’ll announce new posts.

A note on the music in the video. Originally I cheekily used the awesome Orange Goblin’s equally awesome track “Your world will hate this” for this video for the Rezzed game show (and before that I had Ace of Spades), but wanted something I could use freely to post on Youtube. More out of hope than expectation I started with Empire of the Claw, whose music I used in my game “A Vicious Circle”, and when I dropped “Trance of the 80’s Arcade” in I was taken aback by how well it fit (from a things-happening-at-serendipitous-moments point of view). Ideally I wanted something a bit more rock (hence the original Orange Goblin), but so many bits work here that I felt I’d be daft not to run with it.