Wednesday, 13 January 2010

3D Is Dead, Long Live... 3D?

Okay, so in an earlier blog post I denounced 3D games as a cheap fad, and stated that 2D is clearly the future. It's important to note that what we were dissing was fake rubbish 3D (the kind where you rasterize polygons to a 2D surface), not the REAL AWESOME kind of 3D that is THE FUTURE:

PaintWorks has been on a month-long hiatus over Xmas and New Year, due to the TIGSource Assemblee Competition which we've entered. We wanted to do something that might make us feel a bit more involved in the indie community, maybe get a bit of recognition, maybe scope out some artists and musicians which we might want to pester to work with us. Also, it seemed to be a good proving ground for the Lemon Scented Engine, which has been in development for a couple of years but up until now has not been pushed to actually complete a game (which is a great way of showing up weaknesses and forcing us to find ways to improve on them). Mostly it seemed fun. Anyway, the deal is that it's a two-part competition, with each part lasting a month. In the first part, artists and musicians churn out art, music and sound effects without much idea what they're going to be used for. In the second part, programmers and designers pick and choose from those assets (and only those assets) to make a game.

A month to make a game is a pretty tall order, and given that we were up against guys making games using Game Maker, XNA, Flash and the like, whilst we were toiling over our good-but-not-finished C++ engine, we didn't get as many levels done as we would have liked. Maybe we'll revisit this game at some point in the future and flesh it out with more levels. Still, we got it done, and inadvertently got a lot of work done in the engine in the meantime. Big parts of the camera, renderer, controls and file I/O got tweaked, rewritten, or fixed. The inefficiencies in the workflow were highlighted, and although we didn't have time to fix them during the competition, fixing them is now top of the priority list going forwards, since that will make production of PaintWorks levels an order of magnitude faster. And working with different sprites, music, sounds and animations on a completely different game concept was a brilliant experience.

So, what was the game? Well, we were very impressed by some sprites featuring rabbits (with some nice background elements in the same style), and some funny fruits and vegetables, and we got ideas stuck in our heads about 3D cinema and Avatar, the idea that 2010 is supposed to be the year that 3DTV finally happens, and the amusing clunkiness of the techniques from the 1950s, and we came up with a game called Free Dee, which looks like this:

Here's where you can download and play it ... (don't worry if you don't have 3D glasses, there's an option to play it in old-fashioned 2D, and it plays just fine that way)

And here's where you can read about it.

I guess at some point soon we'll put up a link to where you can vote for it, but in the meantime try looking at the other entries here. We're not going to hassle you for votes (there are a lot of brilliant-looking games up there, so if you do vote, vote for what you like the most), but I guess if you do happen to think Free Dee is the best then that's all good :)

Normal service will be resumed on PaintWorks (and on this blog) soon, and hopefully you'll see the fruits of what we've learned and fixed playing a part in the future progress of the game, although I'm not sure we'll be requiring 3D glasses to play...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Levels, Mechanisms, and Mixing

So, here's something exciting:

The video capture doesn't see the mouse pointer, but this is me bringing up the level select menu, choosing a level, and loading it. The level in question features Hugh (our intrepid protagonist) stepping on a pressure pad, which unleases red paint on a water wheel. The wheel turns, and drives a set of gears (via belts which aren't being drawn yet - oops!), and opens a trapdoor, which lets the red paint flow into a vat of blue paint, mixing to make purple. It's all done in ropey placeholder graphics, which is likely to be the norm for a while, until we find a suitable artist, but there are some pretty cool things happening here:

  • A way to define levels in data files (XML in this case), which is massively speeding up the pace of our work. We're also putting effort into turning this into a fully-fledged graphical level editor.
  • Sensible and sane interactions between fluid and solid things. This is a biggie - it's hugely important to the game, it's taken us months to perfect, but perfect it we have. The wheel turns like you'd expect it to, the crates float. Hugh pushes paint around as he walks (we're not sure if that's going to happen in the final game, but it's pretty cool to watch for now).
  • The beginnings of physics "toys" with which to build the puzzles. Admittedly "step on button, wheel turns, drawbridge opens" isn't much of a puzzle, but it proves that mechanisms like this can work.
  • Paint mixing. We imagine that a fair few puzzles in the game will involve mixing colours of paint which you're not provided with at the start of the level, so getting paint mixing in (and looking reasonably nice, if I do say so myself) is a nice milestone to have hit.
Getting the fluid physics right has taken a painfully long time. But now it's done, things should progress much more quickly from here on in. We've proved it can be done, we've proved (at least to ourselves) that watching this stuff splash around is strangely compelling, and the job of creating cool machinery to interact with the fluid is a considerably faster and more fun process than the mind-melting frustration of hardcore physics R&D. Things are looking up!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

3D Is Dead, Long Live 2D!

One thing that's been on my mind recently is the 3D vs. 2D debate, which is quite an old one. I'm quite comfortable programming and designing games in both 2D and 3D, and I'd say that at this point in my life I've probably worked on roughly equal numbers of both. I think a lot of people don't question it these days - they sort of assume that since the invention of 3D rendering, 2D would increasingly become seen as quaint and outdated, a vestige of limitations of old technology. I'm not sure that's the case at all.

"Why would anybody make a game in 2D these days?", the strawman in my head asks. Well, for indie developers in particular, there could be a few reasons:

  • 2D is easier to program. Not a big deal for me since 3D isn't too much of a stretch, but when people are just starting out in game development it can be a lot to learn.
  • 2D runs on more stuff. A lot of indie games run on limited platforms - Flash, the iPhone, older non-gaming PCs, whatever. Pushing the technology limits your potential audience to only people that have machines that can cope with it. This also applies to some types of games where the tech is processor-intensive enough without even getting into the 3rd dimension. Our game is definitely a case of this - right now my monster development PC gets a thorough workout every time I run a paint simulation through it, although more optimisation can always help with this.
  • 2D art assets are quicker, cheaper and easier to produce. Budgets are Serious Business for indie devs, so this can't be overlooked. A sprite sheet is a LOT easier to put together than a skinned, animated, textured mesh put together in a 3D art package.
  • People like the "retro look". Pixel art is a big deal in certain circles, and can gain you street-cred among a certain "hardcore indie" crowd. I'm not so into that (as detailed below), and I'm hoping that this game is going to look much more hi-fi than lo-fi, but some people dig the pixels, and that's okay.
All of the above is true, but there's something else as well. There's some stuff you can do in 2D that is just better than it would be in 3D, and some ideas that don't even make any sense in 3D. Let's take some of my favourite games, some of which I've already mentioned in other contexts - Braid, Defcon, World of Goo, the first two Oddworld games, Worms, Chaos, old LucasArts adventures, Glum Buster, Bomberman, Passage, the early Sonic the Hedgehog games... What do they all have in common? These are all games that look and play brilliantly in 2D. In some cases, 3D incarnations of those games have been attempted, and have been dismally bad.

If I want to play the retro-but-undisputably classic card, how about Tetris? Pacman? Space Invaders? Want something more contemporary? I think the aforementioned Goo and Defcon suffice pretty well, and both of those games have clever art direction seeping from every pore. But there's another one now. Machinarium. If you've not heard of it, go play the demo. Then buy the game. Then finish it. Then come back. I'll wait.

Done it? Good. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that the most visually stunning game you've ever seen? To me, it's jaw-droppingly beautiful (and it's a pretty bloody good game to boot). I don't know if we'll ever have the technology for it to be viable to make something that looks that good in 3D, or if there's even any point in trying. If a Flash game - a Flash game - can be that mindblowing, then why have we been wasting our time on 3D at all?

Take your polygons and shove them up your asset pipeline. 3D is dead; Long live 2D!

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The "X"

I don't know how widely known this is, or if they still subscribe to this policy, but Electronic Arts used to (and perhaps still do) have a kind of Zen mantra that they applied to all of their game designs. They call it "The X". The idea is that they come up with a single sentence that describes the Unique Selling Point for any given game. They do this for every game - every throwaway film license game, every iteration of Fifa or Madden, the lot. The X might be character-based, like "Be James Bond in his world of international espionage", or based around gameplay elements like "Battle the forces of Hell with the power of your Rock", or "Parkour across rooftops to overthrow the Authorities", or something. I made these examples up, but I daresay they're not a million miles away from what might have been actual X's for games. Depending on how imaginitive the marketing department are feeling, the X might even end up written unchanged on the back of the box.

The idea behind The X is to provide a common reference point for EA's vast teams of people with all their disparate skills and viewpoints. It's not just the dev team that are made aware of it, but the publishing and marketing folks as well, from the lowliest level scripter right up to the head honchos of the company. It helps to keep a team focussed towards a single goal, and it informs decisions - game design elements which support the X tend to get approved and worked on, whereas extraneous stuff that doesn't fit the X is discarded.

Now, someone who is not a fan of EA games, who heard about this and was feeling uncharitable might argue that The X contributes to the feeling of blandness that comes with many of EA's titles. Their games tend to be incredibly polished and slick, but a bit shallow. They can feel a bit like one-trick ponies, with a single gameplay "hook" that gets pushed in your face, and which may or may not be actually fun, and meanwhile everything else in the game can feel a bit cookie-cutter and tame. Worse still, EA occasionally act as a publisher for exquisite titles developed by other studios, but their normally brilliant marketing team fall flat when they have no X with which to sell the game. Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath fell foul of this, and the Oddworld Inhabitants team basically gave up making games shortly after, when the game failed to sell well.

Some games these days seem to wide and complex for an X. The likes of Fallout 3, or Grand Theft Auto IV would be considerably thinner experiences if the developers and publishers had chosen a single thematic or gameplay element and pushed it forward to the exclusion of everything else.

So, it's easy to be down on the concept of The X. It clearly came into being as a way to keep a behemoth of a company focussed when trying to get huge teams to crank out games, so how applicable could it be to apply this approach to tiny indie games?

As it turns out, it seems very applicable, but for different reasons. Primarily it works because indie games are incredibly restricted in terms of manpower, time and budget, and as such need to get right down to presenting the bare bones of what's cool about their game without wasting time on any of the fluff around the edges. Introversion's Defcon is one of my favourite examples of this, and feeds back perhaps to the earlier discussion about "purity" of design - the game is about global thermonuclear war (to quote Wargames, "the only way to win is not to play"), and the game's tagline of "Everybody Dies" sums up the game rather nicely. Although Braid is thematically quite deep and ambiguous, the gameplay has precisely one hook, which could be expressed something like "A Mario game where you can reverse time at will". The Experimental Gameplay Project take this idea even further: For every game, The X is whatever new toy or method of interaction the game demonstrates, and all that's added on top is just enough goals to give that X context and meaning, to turn it from a toy into a game. Experimental Gameplay, of course, spawned Tower of Goo ("Build the highest tower you can from squishy goo balls"), which then spawned the utterly excellent World of Goo. Contrast this with the foolish pitches you hear from wannabe indie devs who want to make "An MMO where you can go anywhere and do anything, and there are 10 character classes and you can customise all your equipment and it's set on Planet Zzryg'Yon...". These ideas have no focus, no single defining feature to underpin the development, and as such are far too ambitious and scrappy to ever see the light of day.

Our game will have an X. It might not be in the form of a specific sentence (although we might formulate one if we feel the need), but the paint physics is what will define this game, at least in terms of the gameplay. A puzzle/platformer is hardly a unique concept in and of itself, but that's okay because I know how to put those sorts of games together, what makes them tick. The platform/puzzler isn't the X. The X is in what kinds of things become possible when your main platform/puzzle element is paint, and I think that the kinds of scenarios we'll be able to present to players is what makes the R&D time developing the paint physics worthwhile.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Purity in games design

I've been having an interesting discussion with a friend of mine. We've been talking about aspects of various games in various genres, and I think I've hit upon a realisation about my own preferences (both in games design and in the games I like to play). I could give big lists of what I like and don't like, but there's a common factor in a lot of it, and that's what I call "purity". It's a kind of minimalism in the amount of "things" (be that pieces, skills, actions, objects) presented to the player. Purity, to me, doesn't mean that the game is simple, or shallow, but that the rules and interactions presented to the player seem straighforward and limited at first, but further explanation reveals a lot more complexity.

I'll give some examples: Chess is a fine game, but with a 64-square board, 16 pieces per player (of 6 different types), all of which have different movement rules, and other rules as well (like en passant, promotion, and castling), there's a lot to it. Okay, it's hardly over-the-top game design, but compare it to something like Go, a game played on a 361-place board, with one type of piece each, where the pieces never move. Arguably Go is the more complex and subtle game. A favourite board game of mine is Nine Man's Morris, where each player has 9 pieces, there are 24 places pieces can move to, the rules are not dissimilar to tic-tac-toe, and the result is a fiendishly, brutally beautiful game of pattern recognition and opportunism. In the world of computer games, Lemmings was a masterpiece, requiring you to learn every subtlety of the eight skills available to you to get through the levels. Lemmings 2: The Tribes provided 51 skills, and although it was a fun game, it felt rougher and looser and shallower for all its various skills. By the time you'd learnt what a skill did, there weren't often further levels that surprised or challenged your preconceptions about what it could be used for.

Archer Maclean's Mercury on the PSP was a puzzle game which impressed me greatly (and, as you might imagine, is something we're looking further into with regards to how to construct our own puzzle designs). Its basis is one of those annoying "get the ball-bearing out of the plastic maze" games you get in Christmas stockings, except that the ball-bearing is made from mercury, and there are a few more elements. The mercury can change colour by combining or going through "paintshop" type objects, and certain triggers and switches are colour-coded. Throw in a few physics-based objects like conveyor belts (and a whole pile of design smarts), and you've got yourself 84 levels of really pure puzzle/physics goodness.

I could go on waxing lyrical about games which feature this kind of purity, but from a design point of view it's perhaps more informative to think about where it comes from. There seem to be two main rules here:

  1. Introduce a small number of "things" (objects, skills, powers, etc) which are the player's toolset for solving the puzzles in the game (or are the things which provide the barriers which provide the puzzles, in the case of something like colour-coded gates). Ensure that, on the surface, these "things" are easily-understood, and seem at first glance to be quite straightforward and well-defined in their potential uses.
  2. As the game progresses, find ways to put these "things" into new contexts and combinations, to make players see them in a new light and start to interact with them in ways they hadn't considered before. The joy of "pure" game design is not to surprise the player with a new object, but rather a new way to perceive an object which they'd previously considered familiar and knowable.
The key to this appears to be to imbue an object with properties whose use only becomes apparent in certain situations. For our game, consider the humble and much-maligned videogame cliche of the crate. I don't know if crates will feature in the final game, but they were the first test objects to go into the engine just because they're so simple: A rigid box which obeys the laws of physics. What could we do with a crate?
  • Crates can be stacked, to provide a "staircase" to higher points on the level
  • They can be used to activate pressure pads
  • They can be pushed into an open door which is on a timed mechanism, to stop it closing
  • They can block up gaps, to prevent (or inhibit) paint from flowing into certain areas, or to build a makeshift dam
  • They can float, providing stepping stones across a treacherous lake of paint
  • They displace paint, so dumping crates into a vat could displace enough paint to make it overflow
  • They can weigh down one end of a seesaw, or be dropped onto it to catapult an object on the other end.
  • They can work their way into large cogs or gears to stop their movement
  • They can be shattered under sufficient strain, for situations where a solid-but-not-indestructible object is needed
  • They can catch fire, and burn/boil things around them
  • They can be thrown/fired at enemies
  • They can be used to hide inside, to avoid guards, or to get mailed deep inside the fortress of the Main Bad Guy
  • They can be deconstructed, and re-nailed together to form a Trojan Horse
  • Imagine barrels! Like a crate, but they can roll!
  • They can contain health and/or ammo ;)
There are probably many more uses for them, and no doubt some of the uses listed above are not applicable to the game we're making. But it serves as a nice example of an object that seems mundane on the surface but which could be used differently in a variety of different contexts and scenarious, hopefully creating some level of joy and surprise in the process. A "pure" game design only needs a few elements like this, working in combination, to provide a lot of different possible puzzles and experiences.

Of course, then it becomes an arms race between the imagination of the game designer and that of the player, to see who is best at thinking up alternative uses for familiar objects, but isn't that part of the fun?

Monday, 7 September 2009

Six Months' Work

Okay, so it doesn't look like much, but (like Transformers) there's more than meets the eye here. Or rather, exactly as much as meets the eye. Click to embiggen (a bit), should you so desire.

This neatly (if unimpressively) shows what's been going on in the Lemon Scented Shed since the video we did in March. It's the same old test level layout, but with a few differences:

  • More particles. 10,000 of them, to be precise (compared to the meagre 3,000 in the video). And they're an awful lot more efficient, and an awful lot more stable and less prone to "explode" than they were before. Fluid physics is always a balancing act between looking cool and behaving stably, but there were broken parts of the underlying maths which have now been fixed.
  • A sensible framerate. We "fudged" the framerate a bit in the last video - in reality the game was struggling to make 20FPS. Now, with more than 3 times the amount of paint, we rock a steady 30FPS as a minimum.
  • Paint-coloured paint. What you're seeing there is a mix of blue and yellow paint, which mixes to make green, which is what you'd expect from a subtractive substance like paint. Previously we were working with a "light based" RGB colour system in which you got yellow by mixing red and green, and if you mixed yellow and blue you got white, which is clearly not intuitive for paint. Now we're using a pixel shader to convert to an RYB colour wheel like they probably taught you in school, and also gave the paint a nice cartoony black outline.
  • The beginnings of a GUI system. The "Hello World" in the top left corner shows that the GUI library (Guichan - we tried using CEGUI but it was far too cumbersome and not at all friendly to add to the project) is in and working. The next step is to expand that into a rudimentary level editor so that we can start building interesting toys and combining them into new test levels in order to prototype and "find the fun". We're quite excited about the prospect of doing that part.
This, hopefully, represents the end of the first really difficult stage. Building toys and levels and gameplay is something which should happen a lot more quickly, relatively speaking, so this should start actually looking like a game (albeit one with horrible programmer art for a while) before too long. Exciting times!

Friday, 14 August 2009

What Will the Factory Look Like?

I have a strange form of kleptomania. Every now and then, I'll find myself browsing the internet, and find a link to a gallery of interesting images, and without any conscious thought as to why I'm doing it, I email myself the link to the page, to squirrel it away for viewing later on. I have no idea why I do this, but there seems to be a method to my madness (or, at least, a pattern to my preferences). Going back through my stash of links, the most prevalent galleries seem to be of Steampunk concept art, unusual places found by urban explorers, and galleries of Cold War era technology (both the Soviet stuff and the American stuff, although for the most part the Russian technology seems to incur a greater sense of grandeur).

Here are some examples:
American Titan missile bases
The Russian Space Museum
Pripyat, Ukraine - A ghost town abandoned in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster.

Now, I'm no artist (Lemon Scented Games will be looking to hire one at some point, when enough of the game is ready with placeholder art), but perhaps the reason I collect this stuff is as concept art, or fuel for ideas. Which is odd, because in my mind's eye the game has a kind of comic-book/graffiti art kind of style, and the factory in which much of the game happens is some kind of hybrid between Black Mesa and Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. But maybe, just maybe my subconscious is telling me that if there was a way to take this Cold War style of machinery (it's not quite steampunk, it's... Atompunk?) but transplant it into the painted style of the game, the result could be something really breathtaking.