Hello, everyone! Looks like another brief newsletter, not least due to my social media feeds being swamped by political turmoil these days. But we all do what we can. Let’s start with a couple of classic game retrospectives, namely Deus Ex and Alpha Centauri. In somewhat related news, a fan demake of Civilization 2 for the Commodore 64.
By way of game design articles, here’s the third article in the series about color in games I mentioned two weeks ago. (Turns out I missed the second one.) Which reminds me that the overuse of orange-blue palettes in games has been soundly criticized in recent years. The trick? It’s not the limited palette — those are a powerful tool in the arsenal of an artist — but how you make use of that palette. And nowadays game art is necessarily rushed, what with games of exploding complexity expected to be made in the same amount of time as their modest predecessors from last century. A recipe for trouble if there ever was one.
I’ll end with some musings on game pricing from someone who plays in a whole different league from me, so I can’t comment. Hopefully you’ll find it useful.
Until next time, don’t lose your humanity. Cheers.
I don’t remember whether I played They Started It before or after coming up with the concept for Laser Sky. I had been toying with the Pyglet game library, pondering what sort of game it might be suitable for, and a shoot’em up was the most obvious choice. Not that the world needs yet another game about blowing stuff up. But making a sequel to Attack Vector and getting it right for a change is an old dream of mine, and any excuse to learn a promising new technology is a good one. The big problem was choosing a theme. And like the first time around, nothing I came up with seemed to have legs. Even a briefly considered idea for a cute’em up fizzled out (though that’s definitely worth revisiting). Moreover, it began to dawn on me that coding a sprite-scaling engine on top of a 2D library backed by OpenGL was kind of ridiculous. The new game had to be a good old-fashioned scroller… but then it couldn’t be a sequel to Attack Vector.
In the end, the concept for Laser Sky came to me almost fully-formed during a walk in the park. Trouble is, it involved vector graphics, and that precluded the use of an engine optimized for sprites. So, back to HTML5 it was. The first order of business was dusting off the game microframework I developed two years ago for the original RogueBot. (Which of course revealed a bug, duly fixed.) Making a ship move around the screen, and some basic enemies come at it, was easy enough. Then it was time for them to interact.
Hello, everyone. This week felt like very slow progress, but after a long coding session yesterday, the game ended up nearly complete:
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.
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…)
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:
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.
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?
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.
Hello, everyone. I don’t have much patience to watch video anymore, so when something on YouTube catches my eyes these days, there’s a good reason. Via Konstantinos Dimopoulos, here’s a short documentary about the much-maligned CGA graphics the IBM PC originally launched with, and its many hidden qualities.
Speaking of retro graphics, Jay Barnson alerts his readers of the just-started Low Rez Game Jam, that challenges entrants to make a game running in just 64×64 pixels! That may seem too restrictive — less than the Game Boy — but as I pointed out in the past, creative people have been able to make do with only 16×16! What can you do with 16 times as much?
In unrelated news, the authors of 80 Days recently wrote about the decision to open source their development tool. Among various details, one thing that grabbed my eye was the idea that the story always moves forward if you don’t specify anything else. Which is not unlike how Ren’Py works, and answers one of the thorniest questions in interactive storytelling. But more of this in a future article. For now, while we’re on the topic of interactive fiction, Emily Short just posted a brief bibliography about IF history, which just so happens to include material of particular interest to regular readers of No Time To Play.
I had one more link for today, but it warrants much ampler commentary, so I’m leaving it for another write-up. Stay tuned.
Hello, everyone. I won’t be so talkative today, having already spent my energy on the previous rant. Let’s start with Develop magazine explaining how practical models defined the original Doom. Which is pretty funny, considering how Hollywood went through a period of all CGI, all the time around the turn of the millennium, only to rediscover the value of practical FX. But I had no idea game developers would also resort to props and such in the past. Maybe that would be a better way out of the uncanny valley than even more polygons?
Then there’s Shamus Young with an overview of randomness in games — another issue I tackled myself in the past. In the same key, a thread on the rpg.net forums discusses what card-based mechanics can do that dice can’t. Worth keeping in mind, especially as I gave serious thought to making games based on card mechanics but never got around to it.
Last but not least, it turns out someone is implementing a Civilization clone on a Commodore 64. Which is way cool, and proves once again (are you tired of hearing this already?) just how badly we’ve been underutilizing computer hardware for the past… oh, more than 30 years now. And as a post scriptum, here’s a spoilerific retrospective of Planescape: Torment by Hardcore Gaming 101.
Have a nice week, and see you next time.
I’m almost done with the newsletters for the year, but things are somehow just heating up. Let’s start with a couple of highly unusual games: Chris Meadows noticed this guy who made an XCOM game in Excel — an impressive effort by any standard. And from the recent additions feed at itch.io, here’s a murder mystery game in the form of a PC virtual machine (you need VirtualBox to run it). Hardly unprecedented in the analog world, but still a challenge to common notions of what can be a videogame. And while we’re talking unusual games, take a look at this article about Soviet arcades. Which was news for me as well — in Romania we had imported second-hand machines instead, making for quite a different landscape.
In actual game development news, Jay Barnson makes an interesting point: not only computer hardware has plateaued, we couldn’t make good use of more computing power in games even if we had it: the law of diminishing returns is even more unforgiving than Moore’s Law. Maybe this time people are ready to listen.
Last but not least, a couple of game design articles. Via @gnomeslair, the easiest game design exercise is a brief foray into the simplest type of board game there is. Having beta-tested just such a game (to say nothing of the many I played as a kid), I can attest it’s not as straightforward as it seems. And Shamus Young continues presenting his work in progress with a discussion of how to teach the game to your players. It just happens that the issue of too many enemy types and no single path through the game is familiar to me from roguelikes. And the solution is… not keeping every new enemy type until the end. You introduce them, let them become the main enemy for a few areas (levels or whatever), then you phase them out. And if the players encounter bits of your game in the “wrong” order, big deal, they’ll see at most a handful of different enemy types at once, a few of which will be familiar from before. Not enough to be overwhelmed.
Roguelikes achieve that by having templates of theme and difficulty for each level — a good idea even if you’re designing your entire map by hand. Divide et impera? Call it what you want. And have fun until next week.