Polish and Preparation for Shaped

Eric and I are putting some final touches on to Shaped.

We’re at the stage now where we’ve implemented every feature that we think is reasonable for the game. What occupies our hours is the details, the shifting around of subtle factors: stranger shape density, player speed, camera distance, stranger shape rotation and travelling speed. Trying very hard to maintain challenge while at the same time making it so its the players own fault if he gets hit. Not as easy as it sounds.

Obey my will, little shapes.

Meanwhile, in marketing land:

We’ve agreed that we want to make a push to go for iOS devices – which will mark the first significant investment our little enterprise will have to make. $400 dollars for the iOS licence in Unity, and $99 dollars to the Apple app store comes out to about a $500 investment to split between us. I’ll have to admit that’s a bit daunting… especially considering that most titles on the app store only earn their budding programmers small sums of cash to begin with.

Then again, our investment to make the software was pretty slight – only a few weekends of hard coding, plus the $500 in licences. Factoring in Apple’s 30% commission on every sale (wow! great deal for those guys) and the 1% we intend to give to charity, we would need to sell about 660 copies to make up our initial investment. Sounds feasible, in the long run. I found a great article advising apple coders on how to price their products – very interesting.

I think sometimes about how this interest in videogame design is turning out as a “hobby.” We’re at the point now where serious questions begin to get asked. Can I do this sort of thing full time? Can I earn a living off of it? Should I even considering it considering all the time (and cash) I dumped into a masters degree. I can’t deny a certain feeling of trepidation. But equally, I have to say that my time spent with Eric thinking creatively about puzzles, about art, about player interfaces have been incredibly engrossing and rewarding. However large a role it ends up playing, I can say with certainty that I want game design to be a part of my life right now.

Alright, my brute strength is requested and required by my aunt.

Derek, out.

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Musings: Protest

I tuned in to PRI: The World during a long car ride last night and listened to an article on the revolution in Syria. Some 70,000 protestors took to the streets in Homs this week, in a country where it is decidedly dangerous to march or voice dissent with the government. The story set me pondering on a topic that’s consumed much of my attention throughout the year: protest and revolution. It strikes me that a game on these topics could, if executed properly, be an engaging and interesting title.

Eric and I have a few things to polish up with Shaped, but we discussed adopting a protest game as our next project and we both felt the idea had some merit. I’ve spent this morning thinking about imagery and themes, and am working my way around to imagining gameplay. I’m blogging now about these musings in an effort to organize my thoughts and capture the game-making process, which both Eric and I love to do.

Some thoughts:

Eric and I agree that the game should probably not be a sim. The goal is not to expose the player to the logistics of protest – as fascinating as those may be. For this title I want to avoid as much as possible the use of numbers and gauges or tech trees. Nor are we looking to make the game about a particular issue: civil rights, abortion, the arab spring (although I have to admit that the imagery of the Arab spring really does inspire me.) This game would seek to capture various themes of protest: resistance, bravery in the face of danger, many becoming one, protesting in the face of pain or grief, being part of a movement, the human mass, non-violent courage… etc.

I’ve spent the morning doing some research and building up a library of protest images as a reference.

Next on the list is to build up a library of protest videos and – what I’m really looking forward to – chants. I have a strong feeling that the game will focus heavily on human voices. It can be a great way to demonstrate progression for the player. At the start of a protest the player might be a single voice, but as the crowd/movement/mob grows the chant would be repeated by many. There’s real power in human voices working together. It could make sense musically, too – I could develop 10 or so chants and use them to provide the beat for a musical theme… God I’m looking forward to making the music and chants for this game.

The lesson we learned from Shaped was to simplify, simplify. So off the bat I should realize that the game can’t be everything I want it to be. It certainly can’t capture every mood associated with protesting. Maybe Eric and I should focus on 3, and work off of that.

I’m going to do some drawing, now. See what kind of style hits me.

Derek

Ludum Dare Postmortem (by Eric)

What Went Right:

1) Small and Simple: Simplicity and a small scope is absolutely vital for a small, two-person indie team like ours. Shaped was created for a Ludum Dare game jam, which meant we had to take the game from concept to publishing in 48 hours (it is normally 72 hours, but we could not work on Monday). This small timeframe forced us to keep the game super tiny, meaning one environment, and über simple, meaning just a few mechanics. When the creative juices are flowing, its easy to get swept away in the tide and end up with a game concept far too ambitious to finish yet too beloved to compromise. This has happened to me with more game ideas than I would like to admit. Luckily, our short deadline forced us to reject ideas, no matter how great, if they would add more than 30 minutes to our production time. While Shaped is a short game, it is a complete one. Completion, we’ve found, is crucial for morale. If you are a small team like ours, I cannot recommend simplicity and limited scope highly enough.

2) Good Team Dynamic: Derek’s already said much the same in his post mortem, but it remains true nevertheless. Having people with whom you can be productive and simultaneously have a good time with is key. Not only does it keep the energy and optimism up, but it creates an comfortable atmosphere where all ideas and feelings can be expressed and considered. Most of my ideas are utterly bad, but Derek will always genuinely consider them as if they were great ones. Perhaps more importantly, he will give me honest criticisms which I can take without clamming up and getting defensive. What it boils down to is respect and the right attitude. With Shaped, we kept the environment fun and supportive and that really contributed to swift decision-making, quality work, and a fun development process.

3) Unity3D: Having never taken a computer science course in my life, I find it somewhat strange that I ended up as the programmer. What I have taught myself over the past few years,  I largely credit to Unity3D and its superb community. The visual nature of the engine allows for non-code-savvy teammates to understand and contribute to the process without having to look at a line of code. This also helps self-taught programmers like myself to understand what, in general, my code is doing. The way in which variables are displayed and the ability to adjust them during gameplay helped us both hone and test player and NPC behaviors until they felt just right. Lastly, the ease with which we could import assets from one another and get them up and running was incredibly valuable given our brief timeline. Other than a brief moment of glitch-induced panic due to hosting our Unity project files on Dropbox, the entire process of building with Unity was streamlined and fast. It is for these reasons and many others that we will be sticking with Unity for the foreseeable future.

4) Give Yourself Audience: This one may sound weird but filming our process really helped us to not only feel like “real” game developers but it also made the process more fun in general. Even if it is a Youtube video that nobody but you will ever watch, positioning yourself as ifthere was an audience really helps you to stay on task. Instead of treating the game development process as something that maybe comes after a few episodes of your favorite TV show, filming it gave us an audience (however imaginary) that we had to answer to and work for. I guess it’s where the adage, “Fake it till you make it” comes in. You and your team may not be Valve yet but if you treat the game development process as if you were that awesome, you probably stand a greater chance of finishing your game than if you think you and your game idea is unimportant and unnoticed. For Shaped, Derek and I did a Justin.tv/Twitch.tv live stream as well as a time-lapse using Gawker and it kept us honest. It also made the process more far enjoyable. Why? I will not speak for Derek, but for me it was vanity. There is something rewarding about being on screen and feeling like you are important and, hell, if you can harness some of that vanity to make your game development process more enjoyable, do it. Whatever keeps the ball rolling. If you do not like being on camera, write blog posts and tweets. You may find more people are following the development process than you think.

What Went Wrong:

Derek and I had such a positive experience with Shaped that it is a little hard to find things we did wrong. Perhaps we just didn’t have enough time to make significant blunders, or maybe I am still just riding the high. The few I could think of are below.

1) The Cold: Stay warm, your code-per-minute rate and immune system will thank you.

2) Not understanding 3D programs very well: I think if Derek and I had more of a grasp of 3D programs like Blender, 3DSMax, or Maya, we would have had accurate colliders for the more difficult shapes instead of primitive colliders that come with Unity. Getting knocked down a level in Shaped by an invisible sphere collider far outside the edge of an NPC’s visible edge is frustrating and, in the end, inexcusable.

3) Space-Heaters Don’t Burn Down Villages…Actually, they could so please follow the directions: Did I mention that weekend was as cold as the windswept plains of northern Skyrim? Well it was, and you know how the Frost spell slows you down as well as causes damage? Well, the cold room was like that on my hands and joints as I tried to code. I felt like Tin-man without his oil-can.

All in all, our experience creating Shaped for Ludum Dare 22 was a superb experience and has really inspired us both to pursue game development as a living. Stay tuned for more games from Send More People! Good luck with your games!!!

Ludum Dare Postpartum (by Derek)

This is the title screen from our game, Shaped.

It’s been a few days since the Jam ended for our team (Send More People) and I thought I’d throw in a few thoughts on the Ludum Dare Jam experience. These are in no way organized or comprehensive – just a few thoughts that came to mind.

I was surprised how much fun it was

Maybe I shouldn’t have been. I had expected the main fun of Ludum Dare to be hanging out with my partner Eric as we worked on a project. Eric is a rad guy and generally everything is fun around him, but truth be told I was nervous that any game we would make would feel stinted and unfinished, and that this would diminish the pleasure of our developing. Part of the reason for this was our prior experience. Eric and I have been working on a single, very ambitious project for months. Drift is an endeavor with many highs but also a lot of lows, particularly because we keep altering the concept. We are ambitious people and have big goals. So, before this project I wouldn’t have thought that we could finish a title together so quickly. Now I know that we are totally capable of it, and the project was more fun because of it.

Sometimes time crunch can be a good thing.

As I said, we’re ambitious and our projects have a tendency to expand, expand, expand. One benefit of doing a project over a weekend is that we were forced to stay focused and on task. The game we made was largely the game we planned on, and any additions to the project occurred as a natural development of features we were working on. We made decisions and were pretty much forced to stick with them. This was actually liberating, in a sense, since we weren’t constantly rehashing the same topic.

Good lord, I love 2D!

Our other game project is 3D. Shaped is 2d! It’s a simpler design, but we were able to get a much more refined look out of it. Again, simpler is often better. Drift could be interesting but unpolished. Shaped, by comparison, seems smooth even without a whole bunch of refinement. That’s not skill, its just the benefit of the medium and the simplicity of the art style.

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Friends made it work

Eric and I were essentially attached at the hip for 48 hours over the course of Ludum Dare. That might have been a terror if we didn’t get along so well, but the reality is that I was enjoying myself every minute of the experience. Getting along well with your partner(s), having fun, seems to be a really important part of the coding experience. We actually made the game-developing process fun, laughing and joking throughout the day even while we were setting our minds to work on challenging puzzles. It smoothed over the points where we disagreed on where the project should go, and made the successes where we agreed on a concept feel shared. I was very doubtful when Eric suggested a seek-pellet… I thought it would be making the game too easy… but it turns out that it was a central component of the feel of the game. I trusted Eric even when I disagreed with him, and that allowed the game game to be much better.

So! Probably nothing mind bending here. like who you work with and simple is ok seem to be the major lessons I’ve walked away with. It may not be much, but it certainly made the development of Shaped into a satisfying and meaningful experience.

Where have we been?

Mostly, in Skyrim.

But I have also been working on the voxel-system which should make pretty procedurally-generated asteroids and make the game run really fast. Still in its infant stages (see below), but it’s coming along nicely. Our plan is to have that all up and running by the new year. Here’s to New Years Resolutions! …Right?!

Stay tuned Driftaz!

– Eric