No Time To Play

The state of modern audio libraries

by on Jul.21, 2016, under Opinion

Imagine the following scenario: you’re prototyping a game, and for now all you want is to put a colored box on the screen. It should be a simple function call, right? Wrong. For one thing, you can’t just draw anything you want, it has to come from an external image file. Which is in a complex, multi-layered format that can only be created with large specialized software suites, most of them expensive, and requiring semi-professional knowledge to use at all. Then there’s the code itself: you have to unpack the file, pick only the parts you need from it, and set up the display just so before sending any data to the screen…

Thankfully, various people have created more friendly wrappers, that let you load a 3rd-party image and blit it to the screen with just a couple of function calls. Then you discover that the image format you’re using does not, in fact, work on another operating system, contrary to what the library documentation claims…

A while later, a consortium of vendors releases a portable API that does, in fact, let you draw directly to the screen. Except it takes telling the machine exactly how to line up each pixel so that they form a box, for every color channel separately. And then you have to funnel the resulting data through the pathway described above…

Ridiculous? Absurd? Implausible?
(continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #129

by on Jul.17, 2016, under Gamedev, News

You know, it’s funny. Usually when I’m working on something not related to games, the newsletter tends to be pretty thin, since my attention is directed elsewhere. This week is an exception, and a big one at that.

Let’s start with news from interactive fiction, where there’s a new authoring tool on the block. After years in development, Texture was just opened to the public, prompting Emily Short to interview co-author Jim Munroe. An interesting experiment, but I’d rather explore the interface from Infocom’s Journey, as detailed by Jimmy Maher

Moving from IF to retrocomputing, via Vintage Is the New Old we get an interview with a C64 developer from Sweden — an intriguing history lesson. And from the same source, Nintendo launches a NES clone with dozens of classic games built-in… more than ten years after cheap South Asian clones of the legendary console went out of fashion. Good morning, big N. Last but not least, the world’s first graphical MMORPG (it ran on the C64 nearly 30 years ago!) has been open sourced, and they’re trying to get it running again. Specifically, the server, which is a rather thorny problem, for reasons both technical and legal.

To end with a trio of random links, the annual Procjam conference and gamedev event just announced its upcoming zine (with a call for submissions), and for fans of tabletop roleplaying there’s a new web-based tool to make rule supplements that look just like official D&D books. And knowing the kind of work that goes into good-looking RPG books, I can only appreciate the effort. Last but not least, let me highlight ComboPool, a Pico-8 game that manages to blend billiards with 2048, of all things.

Goes to show that limitations really do spur creativity. So be creative.

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Weekly Links #128

by on Jul.10, 2016, under Gamedev, News, Off-topic

Hello, everyone. This week I must confess to a couple of broken promises. I didn’t get around to uploading a fix for the bug found in the online version of Glittering Light. And last time I forgot to announce my decision to abandon the graphical port of Tomb of the Snake. Sorry, but an already overengineered game was only getting even more so, FreeBasic’s supposed portability turned out to be illusory where it mattered (though SDL carries part of the blame), and the community less than friendly. But I learned a few things; my next projects will be tools, not games. Hopefully you’ll find them useful.

In other news, early this week Konstantinos Dimopoulos alerted me about Procedural Content Generation in Games, an academic textbook on the topic that’s nevertheless an easy enough read overall. It seems the project was launched a few years ago, but it’s only now ready for publication. Grab it while it’s still free!

Also in the way of long reads, Hardcore Gaming 101 is running a six-part feature on the Fallout series. And for the impatient, my friend Chris Meadows compares two online games of Catan. Last but not least, a piece of news not related to games, but just too cool to pass up: the source code for the Apollo 11 mission is now on GitHub! Amusingly, lots of people have been submitting pull requests, some jocular, others not so much.

But that’s about it for the past week. See you around.

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Weekly Links #127

by on Jul.03, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. This week felt like very slow progress, but after a long coding session yesterday, the game ended up nearly complete:

glittering-20160702-2

Not depicted: the horrible screen flickering every time you make a move on higher zoom levels; hopefully it will go away on more powerful computers, because clearly double buffering in sdlBasic isn’t working the way I thought. But hey, it runs, and looks just fine too. Water is surprisingly nice for such a simple trick, and knowing the exact screen aspect ration enabled me to come up with a nice non-verbal HUD — the minimap is displayed on-demand like in the new online version. Speaking of which, I found a bug in the latter that made speed boosts basically useless by the time you found any. Going to upload a fix soon, along with the desktop port.

In other news, this week I found yet another HTML5 library to ease roguelike development. Unlike the competition, rl.js is a single 600-line file, and doesn’t try to include the kitchen sink. It handles input, output, tilesets — including procedural art features — and manages the map, including collisions. In other words, a focused (and very well documented) product. Only its use of the General Public License is a potential obstacle.

Still on the same topic, there’s a new roguelike review blog in town, and it might just be worth following for a fresh perspective. And speaking of perspectives, just yesterday I was pointed at an academic, yet quite readable, article on diversity in games with procedural generation. Tl;dr version: the data structures and algorithms we use, even the programming languages, encode biases and assumptions, of which we have to be aware, lest we end up conveying unintended messages.

Last but not least, the news surfaced a few days ago of the brand-new Interactive Fiction Technology Foundation, which aims to future-proof certain tools and services the IF community has come to depend on. A most welcome initiative.

But I’m over my quota again. Until next week, code mindfully.

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Weekly Links #126

by on Jun.26, 2016, under Case study, Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Hard to believe it’s been only one week since I started work on a desktop port of Glittering Light, because it already looks like this:

Mind you, it’s not even an alpha right now, and there are compatibility issues that may yet kill the project; but even if it does, I’ll still recommend sdlBasic as a nice little tool for rapid prototyping and such — it’s a surprisingly well-designed dialect and implementation, with a tiny but friendly community.

In the mean time, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam, after closing yesterday, reopened again for a few more hours. (If you’re reading this on Sunday, you might still catch it!) My list of favorites however remains unchanged: Total Oblivion, an experimental tabletop RPG with an intriguing subject matter that’s quite relevant these days; Kulhwch, a text-based room escape game made in Twine (and in verse, no less), which proves — in the small — that you don’t need hunt-the-pixel puzzles for the genre to work; and an interactive comic prototype by a veteran of the interactive fiction community. Other entries are worth a look as well; if you drop by, leave the authors a comment, because socialization has been scarce during this jam as well.

On to more conventional news. While my neighbor from the south Konstantinos Dimopoulos writes about implying size and complexity in game cities (goes for any kind of virtual environment, really), one of Defender‘s creators talks about the bright future of arcade games. Last but not least, in Le Monde of all places there’s an interview about what made Super Mario 64 so special. It’s all in French, but the short version is, that was the first console game to feature a vast, wide open 3D world with sandbox gameplay — something we nowadays take for granted on all platforms.

So, games to play, lessons to learn and a new toy to play with. It’s been a pretty good week after all. Have fun, and see you next time.

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Weekly Links #125

by on Jun.19, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Having at long last finished with a translation project that took me all spring and then some — way longer than expected — I finally had a few days to work on the desktop port for Tomb of the Snake more intensively. And it’s also taking longer than expected. Too much, in fact, for a project I won’t be able to monetize. At least it’s this far along:

It’s basically just an interactive mock-up at this point, but the framework is in place to add mouse support next, along with modal overlays like the help screen. I still don’t know what the cave levels will look like, or where to get all the icons for the game screen (it should be entirely playable with either mouse or keyboard). As for the inventory screen… more experienced game programmers dread coding them. But you can’t make a graphical RPG without knowing this stuff.

It will all have to wait, however. Got another game port in the works that’s both smaller and more likely to sell, then the book mentioned above. In the mean time, let’s see this week’s other news:

As announced three weeks ago, the Bring Out Your Dead game jam started yesterday, and as of this writing there are fifty entries, with nearly as many to come if the number of people subscribed is any indication, so I’ll wait until next week to highlight my favorites.

Until then, the same Emily Short just got herself an interactive fiction column in Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and her first article is about parser games with a reduced command set — a topic myself and others have also covered as of late. This is turning into a trend; hopefully something will come out of it.

Last but not least, it was great to learn that the issue of videogame preservation has now come to the attention of academia, and the article presents not just some issues I hadn’t thought about, but also some novel solutions. Tl;dr — Let’s Play videos may be more valuable than you think.

And speaking of game preservation, only yesterday I stumbled upon a site where you can play DOS games right in your web browser. Has it been two years already since DOSBox got an Emscripten port? My, how time flies…

Either way, sometimes living in the future is awesome. See you next time.

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Musings on pixel art in 2016

by on Jun.16, 2016, under Opinion

I remember playing with a ZX Spectrum on an 11″ black-and-white TV, and marveling at the way you could distinctly see each individual pixel — the resolution was that low. Yet if you put just 64 of them together, suddenly they looked like something: part of a brick wall, a ladder, a jewel…

Fast forward 20 years, when a friend (hi, fluffy!) praised me for the work I put into Escape From Cnossus to make it look like an 8-bit game. I had to explain it was an 8-bit game running in an emulator. Makes me wonder how many of the people playing it on itch.io realize the truth. The game looks just that good — my best-looking at the time in fact.

Most people nowadays seem to associate pixel art with classic NES games. I associate it with everything from the aforementioned Speccy, through Flashback and Street Fighter II Turbo on the SNES, to mid-1990s games like Master of Orion and SimCity 2000 on the PC. Not to mention 2.5D arcade games like Space Harrier and countless racers. So you’ll understand my annoyance at indies who keep churning out cutesy platformers and nothing else, but also at all the snobs who mock them. (continue reading…)

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Weekly Links #124

by on Jun.12, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. Once again I have a newsletter with none of the links promised in the title (well, one — see below). At least I have a screenshot for you, after a little coding marathon yesterday:

tots-20160611

It’s all very early, of course, but the switch to graphical tiles already reveals multiple problems with the village level generator, that ASCII art was concealing. And it’s beginning to dawn on me that I won’t be able to sell this new version either, despite the fact that it will take a lot more work than expected. Not with all the free games out there looking much better. But hey, I’m learning things, and if it appeals to people other than UNIX beards for a change, it’s already a win.

Speaking of which. I’m using a Creative Commons tileset by David Gervais (via the downloads on Open Game Art). If it looks unimpressive, well, blame my relatively primitive level generation; those tiles are capable of much more. And while they look individually tiny, collectively they allow for a fairly generous game window — one that still fits on cheap laptop screens. But boy, was it tricky to think of a good window size and layout! What is it with pixel art being largely stuck in the NES era? The Super Nintendo already used tiles of 64×64 pixels a quarter of a century ago — not that tiles have to be square. But more about that in an upcoming article, if I manage to order my thoughts about it.

Until then, don’t dismiss retro graphics.

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Weekly Links #123

by on Jun.05, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone. After a week lost to false starts and self-doubt, I’m ready to announce that my roguelike Tomb of the Snake will be getting a graphical port for Windows and Linux, more than a year after launch. The “graphical” part is central, because it will make the game appealing to more people, and also it will keep things fresh for me. Not that I’m looking forward to designing an inventory screen from scratch, but it beats being bored.

In other news, this week Shamus Young wrote about the mistakes Doom didn’t make (that would be the new one, not the 1993 original), and the quest designers of Witcher 3 wrote about their approach. But more interesting to me is an article Nightwrath sent about a new trend in retro game aesthetics. Remember two years ago when a blogger was complaining about the supposed ugliness of early 3D games? Turns out, people actually like that look enough to revive it on a wide scale these days, introducing a whole new generation of gamers to the pleasures of using their imagination.

Once again, it turns out style matters. Do you have a favorite game aesthetic?

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Weekly Links #122

by on May.29, 2016, under Gamedev, News

Hello, everyone! After bringing the desktop port of RogueBot to a playable state, I went back and redid the original online edition as well, to make it look better and bring it more in line with the new version. And while the results aren’t perfect, it’s a good time to take a break and give another project some love.

In the mean time, we have an interview with two Greek game developers about adventure games, and a feature about the founders of Id Software now that they moved on. In the way of hands-on gamedev articles, you can read some musings on making failure fun, and some more on the subtle differences between user interfaces. And while the latter uses examples from interactive fiction, the lessons it teachers are widely applicable.

(Since I mentioned interactive fiction, it’s worth nothing that the XYZZY Awards ceremony was last night, and Birdland, a Twine game, basically took all. Haven’t played it yet, but it’s at the top of my wishlist.)

And from the same Emily Short, who is active as always, stay tuned for the upcoming Bring Out Your Dead game jam, an event where you can show off your works in progress that never went anywhere, but you think are worth seeing anyway. Amusingly enough, another very similar jam is running right now, and I already entered my visual novel intro Before the Faire, that I made two years ago but couldn’t finish, despite a good start.

Last but not least, lately I’ve been circling a nice little gamedev platform called sdlBasic, that I hope to use in an upcoming project. While lurking on their forums, I found a link to this list of art asset resources, unknown to me until now. One link in particular grabbed my attention: game-icons.net, a sizable repository of monochrome vector icons with a variety of possible uses.

But I have to look more closely into it first. Have a great week.

 

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