20 September 2014
Exciting stuff afoot over at PuppyGames where we’re working on Basingstoke, a new game that I’ve been fortunate enough to lead the design and development of.
Basingstoke - for those of you who maybe don’t know - is a town in Hampshire, England which has kinda had a bit of a reputation - deserved or otherwise - for being a rather dull, white-collar wasteland. In our past games though, Basingstoke has often been at the center of things. The Omnicorp factories in Droid Assault, the alien landing in Revenge Of The Titans, even perhaps the robot uprising of Ultratron. It’s actually that last one where the idea arose from. I’d imagined a spiritual sequel to Ultratron where instead of being confined to an arena, you followed a more adventuresome path, rampaging through the burnt-out ruins of post-apocalypse Basingstoke.
It’s come a long way since that initial seed and is now really more closely related to our Titans games than our Droid games. The Basingstoke of - uh - “Basingstoke” - is in the aftermath of the alien invasion seen in Titan Attacks and/or Revenge Of The Titans but before alien forces are succesfully driven back into space.
You play a lone survivor in the ruins of the town, fighting the hostile city to try to escape into the countryside (A story familiar to many who live in real-world Basingstoke no doubt). Level by level you’ll pass through various different scenery, collect lots of loot and encounter a whole bunch of hostile alien and maybe a few human adversaries. There are guns, quite a variety of guns actually, but ammo is going to be very limited and guns are loud. So besides a little firepower, your survival is going to depend upon stealth, observation, deception, tricks and traps.
There are enemies that are constantly mobile, some that patrol, others that remain idle until provoked. There are burrowing underground horrors dropped during the initial alien incursion that’ll spring up and attack anything that gets close enough - including other aliens. And there are some enemies for which - once they’ve spotted you - your only hope is to run and hide.
Fortunately a stealthy approach is fairly plausible. The atmosphere is thick with ash and the city is plunged into complete darkness. You have a torch which makes it easy to find your way and to search out loot but it also makes you a target. Turning it off will help you to be stealthy, but your vision becomes very restricted and spotting useful equipment or dangerous hazards is going to be difficult.
And there are masses of useful things to find in the ruins of Basingstoke. Besides all the various guns and explosives that you’d expect, we have things that can distract enemies in various ways - with sound, with light, by smell even. Bait that enemies might want to eat instead of you - at least momentarily. There are things that stun or dazzle, things that distract or repel certain enemies and stuff to make you stealthier, or faster, or more lethal. Some of these things you’ll have to make yourself by crafting together various trash items you find throughout the city.
Basingstoke is well into development now and I’m posting new shots and videos pretty much weekly on my Twitter feed. We’re hoping to have it ready for Steam - on Windows, Mac and Linux - by around the end of the year.
Allicorn's picks of 2013
18 December 2013
With the end of the year just about upon us I figured I’d round up some of the things I’ve played this year and blather about them enthusiastically. There are other things I’ve played, many of which I rather liked, but for the sake of brevity here are just a few. They weren’t necessarily all this year’s releases - I just got around to playing them this year.
This is my AAA star of the year. I’ve played a fair few AAA games and a lot of indies. I tend to find myself less disappointed with indies on the whole. From time to time though, a AAA comes along that actually lives up to its gajillion dollar marketing budget and reminds me that there are things that the AAAs can do that only the AAAs can do and that - just sometimes - they do really, really well.
An engaging story with multiple endings. A beautifully decayed and believable environment. A large cast of interesting characters. Slick controls, terrific audio and most of all gameplay that - for me anyway - hits that “flow” sweet spot very easily.
Dishonored is one of those things.
I think if anything I’ve enjoyed the “Knife Of Dunwall” and “Brigmore Witches” DLCs even more than the original campaign as they put you in the shoes of the dark and fascinating assassin, Daud.
The endings of both the original game and - in particular Brigmore Witches are inspired in the way that they sum up the player’s actions and give a strong impression that you are the architect of the story you just unravelled.
I think some folks have dismissed this as Duke-Nukem-Forever-with-a-sword. It has a wisecracking protagonist, over the top combat and some off-color humor but don’t be fooled - this isn’t Duke. This is a modern, finely tuned, slick, beautiful, ultra-violent FPS with the soul of some overlooked ‘90s classic. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. Lap up the daft dialogue and relentless bloodshed whilst enjoying the varied exploration and frenzied combat.
I also used it as an opportunity to test out AMD Eyefinity mode on an FPS for the first time and so ended up playing Shadow Warrior in some vast resolution spread across 3 monitors. Recommended!
Back in Indie-land now with Gone Home, which I actually played back to back with Shadow Warrior one night - a somewhat jarring experience - as they’re not entirely similar games.
This is one of those things that Indie does better than AAA as far as I’m concerned - or at least more frequently: games that expand the scope of the medium rather than just up the resolution or the triangle count.
You arrive at the family home from a trip abroad, expecting your family to be there but they’re not. Why not? The only way to find out is to rummage through their possessions, read their mail, look at their bookshelves and try to piece the story together.
Whilst I don’t necessarily recommend reading your sibling’s diary the next time you arrive home and they’re not there, in this particular case it results in a gripping and utterly fascinating game that deserves a noteworthy mention in our industry’s history.
Now, this actually came out late last year, I think, but I somehow missed it. I happened to pick it up back in October and it immediately grabbed me.
Apparently washed up on a huge, deserted wilderness-covered island you - a botanist fleeing from a plague ridden state and tyrannical government must attempt to find a cure for your disease, the plague that ravages your homeland. The cure is out there on the island somewhere, a concoction of some of the many plants and fungi that grow there. Only you don’t know the recipe yet. Other scientists have been here before, but they’re not around any more. So you need to explore the endless forests, waterways, mountains and coastlines looking for notes left by those who’ve gone before and for the ingredients to the cure.
The game is almost entirely consumed by walking through wilderness, using landmarks to triangulate your position and fill in your map, and by searching out and using various botanical ingredients to keep yourself alive and work toward the cure. And it’s COMPELLING. By Glob! Compelling.
One gaming ingredient I’ve always particularly enjoyed is a sense of “expedition”. Maybe there’s a better word for it but my meaning is that particular feeling of empowered self-determination you get when a game helps you to achieve competency within in its world and then allows you moments where you decide to engage in actions that require planning and take a meaningful amount time to execute.
I guess that’s a bit vague still. For example in STALKER: Call of Pripyat there is a moment where you’re going to set off for the Jupiter Plant. This is going to be a big journey. Dangerous. There may be limited resources, scarce ammo, nowhere to resupply on food. It is a stage of the game where you the player have to think ahead, plan, gather resources, rationalize your inventory, decide that you’re ready to make the attempt and then set off on your expedition.
It’s a lovely feeling when games manage to pull this off. STALKER does it consummately and it’s always been on of the attributes of those games that I’ve most treasured.
Miasmata is another that does it. There’s no ammunition to worry about, but water supplies can be a concern. More-so time is a concern. Getting lost at night in Miasmata’s endless and incredibly varied wilderness is a fearful thing. A trip, a fall, deep water, all these hazards can catch you far better at night and besides… something is stalking you.
So when you check the hours of daylight remaining, top up your canteen, make notes on some landmarks that’ll get you to the unexplored canyon you think lies beyond that tree line, and you’re right - it’s thrilling.
Miasmata also has going for it that wonderful “emergent beauty” phenomena now common to a number of games where vast environments, dynamic weather, day-night cycles and so forth conspire to occasionally throw some scenery in front of you that’s so beautiful you just have to stand and stare. The game’s procedural cloud systems, coupled with the day-night cycle, lead to some particularly stunning sunsets, black night-storms and idyllic coastal walks.
Lastly Miasmata, in an entirely open-world setting and without any character interaction manages to tell quite a fascinating story, in an epistolary way. One who’s evocative conclusion you’ll see coming but is no less monumental for it.
Best of the rest
So, those are my main picks of the year. There are other games I’ve enjoyed but that haven’t hit me quite as hard as those though, and here’s a quick run-down:
Ethan: Meteor Hunter
I met Seaven Studios at Eurogamer Expo where their puzzle-platformer, Ethan, got a lot of praise. Ethan is a smooth and fast side-on 3D platformer who’s unique ingredients are time-stopping and telekinesis abilities. Those two extra mechanics there, combined together with the effective, speedy platforming physics, lead to really surprising depth and variation. What if you could launch into an impossible jump over a deadly chasm and then timestop mid-jump, pick up the ramp you jumped off of and place it in your own path so that you could jump off it again in the instant before gravity sends it plummeting into the pit? That’s Ethan. Fun stuff!
Race The Sun
Flippfly’s gloriously minimalistic racer has you blazing across a geometric landscape which is procedurally generated but changes only once every 24 hours. Everyone plays the same map, but it changes once a day. Your ship is solar powered and the sun is setting and the closer to the horizon it gets, the longer the shadows of obstacles become and the less space you have to maneuver in to keep your batteries alive. Average game length is just minutes here - it’s ferociously unforgiving - but your play session may run into hours of “ARGH NO! … Just one more!”
From Impromptu, InFlux is a ball-rolling third-person puzzle game that has two distinct visual styles. There are buildings that feel a bit like Portal (I bet everyone says that!) They’re white and glassy and constructed in cube-like units. They also often have gravity fields that can turn or reverse the entire building’s contents. Inside them you move around as a rolling, alien, ball-like player avatar able to use your magnetic powers to either attract or repel objects around you - objects which often also roll.
Outside these puzzle chambers is a very natural and quite beautifully rendered world through which you must travel to unlock each of the puzzle chambers.
The puzzles are effective both inside the chambers and out in the wilderness but what I like most is that without a single word of dialogue, spoken or visual, anywhere at all in the game, it manages to tell an intriguing and meaningful story.
Man I love this thing. Sadly it now reliably crashes at some random point - usually when I’m doing well. Receiver is an utterly ruthless, desolate, terrifying little FPS with uniquely complex gun mechanics. It doesn’t look like much, the control scheme is difficult and the story is delivered entirely in droning, somewhat otherworldly cassette tape narratives but if it hooks you, you’re going to experience heights of adrenaline-doused tension you didn’t think were possible.
Lastly and most recently, Futurlab’s successful console schmup Velocity Ultra has come to PC and it’s infuriatingly perfect. The control scheme was a bit horrifying at first but practice - it really will become second nature. Velocity is basically a vertically scrolling shoot-em-up with modern graphics, pounding contemporary-retro music and the special trick that you can teleport jump through barriers with the mouse or beam long distances with a special dropped item. It turns into a pretty unique hybrid: the puzzle-schmup. There is a huge MASS of bonus levels, missions, subgames and stuff in there too. Great stuff, highly recommended.
So I’m a bit nuts about Bravest Warriors. It’s a wild, hilarious and tiny bundle of exploding imaginative joy created by Pendleton “Adventure Time” Ward and it plays on the Cartoon Hangover YouTube channel.
Season 2 of the show is in full flight now but a while after Season 1 finished, after a binge of episode-re-watching, I decided I’d try to draw a whole bunch of characters from the first season in ultra tiny pixel art style.
And there they are! You can see the original pixel scale characters in the box at the top and some scaled up, slightly more accessible versions standing on the steps (numbered by episode). There are lots of the main cast in various costumes (there are a lot of crazy costumes in the show) and a whole heap of other characters including pretty much everyone that had a line.
Check out the show then see if you can identify all the pixel chars!
What aspects of solo gamedev eat up all the time?
7 October 2013
The stuff that’ll take you longest - waste you the most time - is the stuff you didn’t adequately plan beforehand.
The various elements - code, music, graphics, sounds, level design, installers, websites - can all take a while (and will all probably take twice as long as you think they will) but precisely how lengthy each is going to be is going to depend on your project needs and your particular aptitudes.
But the one time-eating-monster that will always get you… inadequate planning.
I’ve done so many solo projects over the years. Both serious and gaming; in art, music and code and it’s so easy as a solo to just start spewing your ideas out into the creative effort without pausing to write a brief, list some requirements, set some goals. To a degree, it’s not a terrible thing to do if you’re just playing with ideas. But once you have one that you think “this is the guy right here - this guy”, then you should pause briefly and make some notes, create some structures that’ll help you execute.
Visualise the structure of code and data in the game. Plan classes, inheritance, resource data accordingly. It will save you huge amounts of time once you get the asset production line going later. Where are the opportunities for code-reuse? Where might OO techniques save you a bunch of effort and make the code more elegant and maintainable?
Man, I used to scoff at my Comp Sci lecturer back in the day, “Code diagrams? Are you kidding me?!” But whaddyaknow… he was right. Not necessarily about code diagrams, ahem, but about making notes about how the code should work before you actually start banging out the code itself.
Also, nail the visual concept down fairly tightly before you start working on graphics code. Is it 2D, 3D, 2.5D? Pixel, realistic, cel-style? All of those choices could have a profound impact on the code you write and the time it takes you to write (and hopefully not REwrite) it. So draw some concept art, or write brief, tidy descriptions. Think about the different game elements… do they all work elegantly in the style you want?
I saw a lovely game in production recently - looks great now but it took three complete reboots of the art to get where it is. Each one led to significant refactoring in code. A tiny bit of time spent thinking your way through how the visuals and code combine - now - might save you a ton of time later.
Then aim for a Minimum Viable Product version. Describe it. One level, one bad guy, one power up, that kinda thing. What are the ingredients that you’d need to make the absolutely most basic playable experience that nonetheless represents the basis of the game? Do it! Don’t get carried away adding twiddly little bits of polish, just get it up and running and get all those core mechanics and fundamental bits of code to be as solid as a rock. Then, once those vital elements of code are all really tight, then you can let rip adding content.
So, tl;dr: what’s going to take a long time… not planning and not structuring your work.
Starting with a new language
19 September 2013
We don’t use Unity at work but a couple weekends ago I decided I’d pick it up and have a play in my spare time since it seems popular and looks interesting. I dived straight in on a simple match-3 game idea suggested by my partner. And yesterday I published a little puzzle game on Google Play.
It’s nothing much, the code is a mess, the art is “programmer art”, the overall software design is poor but I wasn’t really aiming to make something super-polished and worthy of a trail of 5-star reviews splattered across the web. Instead, what I wanted was to start from scratch with a new language and go all the way to release. To begin to understand the process. To get to that point in coding where you realise you’ve been doing it wrong.
With 30 years coding behind me, I’ve started fresh on new languages and platforms many times and - as I’m sure you’ll recognize - when you start working in a new language you eventually get to a point (possibly multiple, staged points) where you look back at what you’ve written with it so far and go, “Hoooo boy… I could have done that so much better”
That’s the moment you realise you’ve learned something, and it’s an important feeling to encounter. You look back at whatever it is you’ve achieved - even if it’s a finished product - and you see all the flaws in your approach. They way you used Class X instead of Class Y because you didn’t realise Class Y existed until you’d already written 1000 lines around Class X. The way in which your choice of Structure A - which seemed like the best, simplest model for your levels - should have been for Structure B, which is a little scary looking but wouldn’t have had those performance problems as things scaled up. All those hours you wasted banging your head against some problem that - now you know how to approach it - will take just minutes next time.
The point is, it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to fail to grasp everything immediately. It’s okay to do things in wrong, kludgey ways just because you can’t yet imagine how else to do them. Because in trying, and struggling to slap your game together with duct tape and good intentions, you’ll bit by bit learn to replace the duct tape with cement and the intentions with competency.
So, the very first line of code I ever wrote in C# is now on sale on Google Play. It works, and that’s great, but looking back at the little self-learning project from the end of the two weeks spent on it I know I’ve learned something, because hoooo boy… I could have done that so much better!
19 July 2013
A few weeks ago, Puppygames was invited over to Belfast to exhibit at Q-Con. It took just a fleeting instant for Caspian and I to decide that this was a convention not to be missed. Just look at the stuff they had going on!
So, laptops in tow, a massively delayed flight lofted us into Belfast International in the early hours of the morning the day before the show. The Q-Con team put us up in the fantastic student accommodation at Elms Village.
The convention itself is a sprawling affair starting Friday evening (though crowds were amassing outside much earlier in the day) and running right through until Sunday night with events spread over several large buildings.
A vast cathedral-like hall housed the roleplaying crowd, packed to capacity with tables and - from what I saw - every table filled non-stop all weekend. I’m a bit of an H.P.Lovecraft nut myself; I run Call of Cthulhu for my local group from time to time and help out over at best-Lovecraftian-gaming-site-on-the-Internet Yog-Sothoth.com, so it was particularly gratifying to see CoC dominating a large part of the gaming schedule even if time constraints meant I didn’t quite manage to get in on a game myself.
Another huge space hosted wargaming and the QUB Dragonslayers made their vast selection of board games current, past and antique available to be borrowed and played during the convention. Game of Settlers of Catan anyone?
Back in the main building we set up in the Indie Arcade area, itself part of a much larger videogaming zone within the con where a host of Xboxes, Playstations, Wiis (is that a word?) and classic consoles were hooked up to projector screens and great collection of games were playable.
Particularly impressive to an old twitch-warhorse like myself was the entirely Rasberry-Pi-powered Quake 3 tournament.
Five Q3A instances in a 3D-printed chassis - this is geekery of the highest order and was bloody impressive!
There were actually 8 playable Rasberry-Pi-Q3A units there and another acting as a spectator console.
Weirdly, one of the most popular consoles there was an ancient 1970’s Binatone. This thing is nearly as old as me and features two tiny twisty “paddle” controllers and a few variations of very simple, blocky, bat-and-ball games that all pretty amount to “Oh, it’s Pong!” To see this old beastie hooked up to a whopping flatscreen was quite something and the thing was in near constant use all weekend.
Most of all, I think it made a real positive statement about “casual” gaming. Folks took one look at it and understood what they needed to do to have 2 minutes of fun - and there was a lot of hilarity around the thing. The graphics were - obviously - just colored squares, the playfield pared right down to bats, ball and score numbers. But the sublime accessibility of it sucked people in and the simple, energetic feedback meant everyone finished up entertained.
Here’s Batman and the Bride playing the thing, because, that’s a thing that happens at Q-Con:
And whilst we’re on the subject of cosplayers: cosplayers everywhere! If you’re into it, this show has a very large (and apparently annually growing) cosplayer presence. You won’t believe how many Finns and Fionas there were (hey, it’s a pretty easy costume) but also a whole host of anime, videogame and comic characters and a few furries too right up to this epic quadsuit (Carrie McAlinden performing, I believe) pictured below.
On the final day, a fantastic cosplay masquerade ran, allowing all the costumed attendees to show off on stage. Quite a sight to see. Although, some of the very, VERY brief appearances - as folks skipped across stage in apparent terror - made me wonder: if you’re going to go out in public in an outrageous costume, possibly with neon spiky hair and an oversized foam battleaxe… why so shy? You’re at a roleplaying convention folks: the locals don’t think you’re crazy - they think you’re awesome - so strut it!
Anyhoo… most of my time there through the day was spent tending our stand at the Indie Arcade zone where we showed off our games and chatted with the other teams present. Ultratron in particular got a lot of play (it always catches folks’ eyes, just look at it!):
Predestination from locally based Brain & Nerd was particularly interesting. They brought tons of beautiful concept art for folks to browse through and it created a great talking point. It’s a giant, galaxy-spanning empire-building game, it’s on Greenlight, check it out.
Throughout the show there were talks and panels, of which Caspian presented a few. I think everyone was suitably entertained but it does appear he got a reputation as “that sweary indie dev”. One panel I wasn’t going to miss featured legendary chiptune artist Chipzel.
The whole panel had interesting things to say about success in music and in videogame music in particular, the importance of constant networking and online connections. “Learn to say ‘yes’ to everything”, was one of Chipzel’s bits of advice and I’d say my experience bears that out too. If someone offers you some exposure for your creativity then just GRAB it. They want music for their game? Sure! They want sound effects for their mobile app? No problem! Every time you work with people, they talk about you, and more and more folks learn that you’re the go-to guy for whatever it is they need. You can’t magic up success out of nowhere, but you can keep gradually stacking the odds in your favor with every bit of work you do and every contact you make.
Chipzel, in case you didn’t know, uses Gameboy as her instrument of choice. An instrument that comes with some very simple sound hardware and a particularly clunky and intractible old-style “tracker” music editor. The panel ended with her composing a simple demo tune on the spot so that the audience could see what a miracle it is to have coaxed great music out of such an arcane process. I only recently migrated away from trackers myself (to FL Studio, as it happens) after basically spending the last 20 years in MED, ProTracker, ModPlugTracker and Jeskola Buzz and so, seeing a tracker maestro like Chipzel at work in the Gameboy emulator was a real treat.
Don’t even get me started on the massive trade floor. I bought some lovely pony art and a very striking notebook for my girlfriend to use in making notes on her second book. One of the Predestination devs came away with a crazy haul of out of print AD&D stuff for just a few quid. Well worth a visit.
Well, you can probably tell by the ridiculous way that I’ve rambled on that I thought Q-Con was an absolute blast. Next year is the con’s 21st, I have a feeling it’s going to be quite a birthday.
Huge thanks to Greg, Angie and Andy for getting us involved!
Impressions from Rezzed 2013
25 June 2013
So, I was at Rezzed on the weekend, at the Puppygames stand. We had a right royal riot, gave away over 300 free copies of our entire catalog, saw some epic hiscore championship battles on our arcade games and - now and then - snagged a few minutes to have a quick squizz at what our neighbors were offering.
There’s a strange kind of cognitive dissonance that comes from being a raving Planetside fan for years then finding yourself sharing a show floor with Sony (and having a busier stand!)
It was a pretty busy corner of the show floor all told with right behind us the popular Sir, Your Are Being Hunted (which looks like it could be a real blast but I don’t think is expected very soon) and the utterly mind-boggling Revenge Of the Sunfish which is one of my personal favorites of the whole weekend.
Sunfish is a vast interlocking web of detonatingly strange mini-games that together form a kind of adventure through some of the zaniest, most horrifying, hilarious, jarringly weird territory that videogaming has to offer. And when I say vast I really mean it! I stood across from this game for two days and barely saw the same sprite twice.
We had a few chances to chat with solo creator Jacob Buczynski who has spent years pouring incalculable amounts of imagination into this project and was conducting video interviews with players to help tune the pulsing, careening rhythm of his monster’s heartbeat before eventual - and not too far off - release.
Summing it up you’ll probably hear a lot of folks use the phrase “mad genius”. They’re not wrong.
If I had to find something to compare it to - uh - it’d be pretty hard actually. At a stretch you could invoke 1985’s sublimely odd Deus Ex Machina from Sinclair Spectrum developers Automata which featured a Jon Pertwee, Frankie Howerd and Ian Dury soundtrack to be played on synchronized audio cassette but where that was a colorful, bubbling stream of dreamy strangeness, Sunfish is a raging mega-tsunami of uplifting bizarrerie.
My other favorite from the show was Montague’s Mount, a beautifully bleak and eerie looking first person adventure mystery with - I’m told - some carefully placed spikes of real terror in there too. Based on an isolated island off the Irish coast, the environments are crafted by a developer who clearly has a real feel and passion for the kind of beauty that emerges from misty, overgrown desolation.
Voice acting for the first-person narration is exceptionally good and coupled with those rainswept visuals and the subtle, evocative soundtrack you’ve got a game as drenched with atmosphere as its dismal environments are slick with fog. Personally, I can’t wait for this one. There’s a little bit more work to do apparently but the end is within sight. You can support Montague’s Mount on Steam Greenlight and please do!
To compare it to something else I think you could justifiably say: think Dear Esther with puzzles and horror too.
High points from the weekend were meeting too many fascinating developers to mention but particularly Jake from Grey Alien Games who’s been working on a mobile version of our own Titan Attacks. It’s looking fantastic and will answer the calls of all those folks that keep asking me “Why isn’t this game on my phone!?”
Then there was the huge worm, rolling around the show and being pelted by giant sponge banana-bombs.
Low points - well I had a lot of fun, so not many. Still - why did the NEC atrium have to be on the opposite side of the site from the Hilton front exit? We got lost a lot navigating all the way around the place. And who closes the bar just as the show finishes on the final day? WTH?
Also, that “Over 18’s only” section at the show? Both times I went and poked around it was like a graveyard. A few folks quietly butchering their way through Splinter Cell and Company of Heroes 2 and a general atmosphere of “meh”. Meanwhile out on the show floor proper, heads and limbs popped off on fountains of viscera in the frantic and entertaining looking Shadow Warrior… but that was fine for under 18’s apparently. Odd.