The Gang’s All Here

Here’s the art post that I had promised.  I’m overdue, which means that this is going to be relatively long, and I’m going to indulge myself and ramble a bit!

I am right on the brink of finishing my character art, which is a huge milestone.  The character art, while taking up a small amount of visual space in the game, is the focal point (it’s where you’ll always be looking) — and it is where I have allotted the most amount of development time out of all the visuals.  And I think it really shows, and is a substantial improvement from my previous work.

To get a good idea of that, let’s first bring out the mugshots of the cast from the original “Why Am I Dead”:

OldCast

Brings back memories!  At the time, I was pretty happy with this work as a total beginner to pixel art.  And now the full cast for “Why Am I Dead 2”, in all its glory:

Cast

Okay, well, with just a quick glance they do seem rather similar.  After all, I haven’t changed the basic style or resolution of the sprites.  HOWEVER!  I think that even without taking the (much smoother) animations into account, the extra time that I’ve put into these new sprites can be seen when looked at closer.  There is less wasted space in the new sprites, and far less jagged outlines and edges.  Everything about the new characters is more varied — the posture, the frames, the hair, even the structures of their heads.  I’ve also become more sparing of outlines, which helps me free up space, and ultimately add more details.

To give an idea of the progression I, as well as these characters went through, I’ve dug up the older versions of some of the sprites and put them side by side.

First up is Alton, the blonde guy.  As the first character I worked on, he went through the wildest progression.

AltonProgressionversion 1 : OH GOD MY EYES!  Everything about this was terrible, though admittedly it was just to get the idea down.  The hair is too noisy, the arms are nonsensical and hunched over, and the legs are short and stubby.

version 2: Thankfully I changed the arms and legs to look, well, human.  I also simplified the hair, and added color.  His headphones still looked nothing like headphones, as I was struggling with how to depict them.  I was trying, and failing, to draw them as if they were poking straight out at the viewer.

version 3: Subtle changes here.  I tried another kind of headphones, and it also was not working.  I also changed the logo on his shirt from one meaningless shape to another meaningless shape.

version 4: I simplified.  A lot.  Took the t-shirt logo out, and used the new space to draw the headphones as if they were lying flat on his chest.  Toned down the shading on his hair, took out the shading on his pants, and changed the shape of his feet so they weren’t webbed-looking.

XuProgressionversion 1: Hadn’t decided on colors yet, and was struggling with all of the information I was trying to get in.  Rolled up sleeves, collar, undershirt, skirt design — the heavy outlines just looked really busy.

version 2: I changed how the sleeves looked, and added color in a way to make things less busy.  Some details kept their hard outlines, while others lost them.

version 3: Changed the color and shape of her hair, which was cone-like and weird before.  Removed some more outlines, and went back to white shoes.

MarcurioProgressionversion 1: Yuck!  I was trying to experiment with different face-types, and knew that I wanted to give him a distinctive nose.  I wasn’t able to use my limited space to do both without making him freakishly huge.

version 2: Downsized his head, arms, and legs.  Also played with the shirt and sleeves to change his posture and make him look less macho and stiff.

DonovanProgressionversion 1: I had NO idea what I was doing with this guy at first, and was just throwing stuff at the wall.  His hair, face, and clothes are all a mess, and I did this stupid thing where I outline a black shape with a different black.

version 2: Simplified a whole lot.  The hair, arms, and legs all got smaller, and I alternated colors a bit so I didn’t have black on black with everything.  At the same time, I felt I strayed a little too much from my original concept and lost the effect I was trying to get with him.

version 3: A good compromise, I think.  Added detail rather than removed it, for a change!  The posture is more what I had in mind originally without looking stiff, and the different pieces of clothing are actually distinguishable from each other.

Once all of the art is done, I’ll be a hop skip and a jump away from a fully presentable demo.  The hope is to get there by the end of this month.  Time to break out the coffee!

Western Peace

Since graduating, it’s been my desire to travel abroad and teach English.  This has been something in the works for a while, as I’ve approached it with a large, perhaps excessive amount, of caution.

Which is why I’m very excited to say that just over the past month I accepted a job teaching English as a second language in the beautiful city of Xi’an, China.  Obviously, the work needed for this came before my work on my game project, which was a large part of why I had trouble holding to my development schedule for last month.  If that means I don’t feel comfortable submitting to Indiecade, I will consider it a small blip on the screen compared to this news!  I’ll be leaving the states at the end of this summer, and it can’t come fast enough.

xian-chinaI’ve known since before graduating that I wanted to travel outside the US in some capacity; I had studied abroad in China for a semester, and found the experience eye-opening and fulfilling.  And although I would love the idea of going to other foreign countries besides China, I’m just too tempted to continue studying the Chinese language (老实说,我也想吃中国饭,哈哈)!   The decision to teach ESL in conjunction was a practical one as much as a personal one.  Most ESL jobs allow the kind of flexibility that would allow me to actually see China, and there are many more openings across all of China, allowing me more freedom in the location I work.

That the job is located in Xi’an is no accident — it is in the dead center of China, and loaded with ancient history for which I am an unapologetic romantic.

xi_an_china_photo

Teaching ESL also dovetails with my interests in education.  Although I don’t often mention it in this blog, I’m extremely interested in what games can do for education, and I believe that the art of game design and the art of teaching are very similar at their core.  Both require one to design a system with the intent of conveying information to an audience by guiding them through it.  The game designer uses code to convey emotions and information to the player, while the teacher designs lesson plans and exercises to convey information and patterns of thought to the student.  In both games and education, interactivity is vital — the game designer must use mechanics other than walls of text or cutscenes, and the teacher must have exercises other than mindless drills.  There are still other, more specific similarities, but I’d rather not ramble on about this too long!  Suffice it to say that I feel there is a connection between gaining experience as a teacher and improving as a game designer.

And I would also love to continue my independent development while in Xi’an.  I obviously will be more restricted with development time than I am now, but I will still have more than enough time and resources to do work on the side!

More WAID2 art and news to come shortly!

A Very Short Summary of May

Well, May has come and gone, which is sadly to say that I missed the regular deadline for Indiecade.  In my young naive eyes however, hope springs eternal; the late entry deadline extends to the end of June, so I’m not out for the count.  Plans haven’t really changed, they’ve just gotten a bit…bumpy.

There is, I have to admit, still quite a lot of work left to be done, and I fell quite short of my optimistic estimates.    But the deadline did keep me honest, and I managed to accomplish a lot.  The character art is coming around the home stretch, the tilesets for mapping the game environment are done, I’ve cut into the writing, the AI pathfinding/movement has been smoothed out…and I’ve finished implementing another important aspect to the game that I haven’t really talked about yet.  It’s a bit hard to describe in short, but it was a major goal that I’m happy to have behind me.

There’s a lot more to say and quite a bit to show, but for now I’ll end by just laying out some tile art, which is used to generate the rooms in the game.  It’s not the flashiest kind of art asset to show off by itself, so I’m just dumping a lot of it at once to make up for that.  The image isn’t exhaustive, that is to say there are a couple tilesets not shown that will be in the game, but this is more than enough to get the idea across!

Tilesets

Some more art for WAID2

I feel I’m a bit overdue for an art update, so here’s a twofer; two new characters in one post!

I’m not sure I want to go into great detail about each character whose art I finish, since I think a big part of the game will be figuring out about them as you play.  And a lot of times they won’t be at all what they first seem, so it’s a bit hard to come up with non-spoiler descriptions.

First up is Xu:

Second is Marcurio:

I’ve already tried to mix up the pace/mood of the characters’ walk-cycles, so hopefully the animations are still clear.  It definitely makes things more interesting, and I generally walk away from each character having learned something new about animating.

Also, here’s the typical spritesheets for both games, old and new, side by side.

Cricket     RevisedAltonanim

The afterlife gets a facelift!

Today I’d like to show the art behind one of the characters in Why Am I Dead 2, and use it as a bit of an example for what can be expected in the sequel’s art.

Meet one of ten major characters in the game, Alton.

RevisedAlton

As you can see, I’m sticking with the Earthbound-esque style of the previous game, which means bright colors, strong outlines, and simple shapes.  However, I will be putting much more attention to detail in each sprite, making presentation better all around.  This particular sprite above is the result of many iterations, and a lot of time spent learning more about pixel art.  I’m generally not so concerned about visuals, but I really want to cram as much personality into each sprite, since the game is so character-centric.

But the part I take most pride in is the considerable improvements that all animations will have.  In the first game, every walk animation had four frames, but with the huge caveat that two of them were just the regular idle frame.  Doing that saved a lot of time, but it’s poor form and looks really shoddy.  To demonstrate, let’s revisit the character Cricket from the first Why Am I Dead.

CricketFrontx2CricketLeftx2CricketBackx2
CricketRightx2

These animations served their purpose at the time, but would be a huge limitation going forward.  You can probably notice that the legs come together and apart in an unrealistic way, which is the cost of recycling frames — and overall it’s a bit choppy.  All of the new animations, however, will use six frames rather than four, and all of them will be unique, and they will have full-body animations, not just moving hands and feet.

AltonFrontx2AltonLeftx2AltonBackx2AltonRightx2

(There will also be some bonus animations that I shall not be posting yet, but which will be in game!)

The one thing that the previous game did have going for it was that all of the animations were done ground-up for each character; I never used character templates to speed things up, which means that every character had a different walk, as choppy as it was.  Quite a few people pointed this out, as it gave each character a different feel, and brought out their personality more — some ran, some hobbled, some sauntered.  Well, that is a practice that I fully plan to continue for the sequel, as time-consuming as it is.  So, expect to see more characters in the future, each with their own strut!

An Update List on Why Am I Dead 2

I was hoping to have an update sooner than this, but programming goes at its own pace and no one else’s.  This should be the first, and last, major WAID2 update that lacks any visual or audible component, as I’m wrapping up the nuts-and-bolts development and moving into art and writing.

I’ve been on the fence regarding how early I actually start uploading material from the game.  I’ve decided recently that I’d rather hold off until I’ve moved past art/writing/assets that are “work in progress” (or worse, place-holders!) before I do so — any benefits of a greater sense of progress for me are outbalanced by the risk of making a poor first impression.

So, sadly, you’ll just have to take my word that all of the following have been done:

  • Completely rebuilt how dialogue is handled, which means…
    • Writing dialogue is way easier for me to write, and for others to read (hopefully)
    • Looping dialogue; before, all dialogue options inevitably led to an end.  Now some options can loop back around to previous parts of the conversation; convenient for menus or for revisiting information.
    • In-dialogue variables (eg. <player> tag in script will be replaced with whichever character the player is controlling)
  • Save / Load Function!  This would have been useful in the first game, but is a necessity for the second!
  • Game “props” (such as doors, tables, beds, etc)  have some extra attributes…
    • They can initiate dialogue when you try to talk to them, as sort of an “examine” function
    • They store information about which character can “use” them.  For example, some doors will be locked for certain characters, and open for other characters (who presumably have a key).
    • Some props will have different dialogue results for different characters.  One character might be bored by an object, and one might find it of great personal significance.
  • New possession ability mentioned earlier: some characters can be “fully possessed”, which allows you to talk as the Ghost through their body, opening up different sets of dialogues and effects!
  • Completely rebuilt how collision detection is handled, which allows for both smoother and more efficient movement.
  • Finished character AI, adding safeguards that should drastically reduce unwanted emergent behavior.

I think that’s all the major stuff, though there were some minor background changes that are much more boring.  Sorry this update is so colorless, but I wanted to get it out anyway.

We are now entering the runway

I’ve decided I’m going to try and submit Why Am I Dead 2 to Indiecade 2013.  The cut-off for submissions is May 31, so I’ve got just under two months to turn the haphazard progress I’ve made into an actual game.

By my original estimates, two months (plus the work I’ve already put in) should be plenty of time to get the game to a stage where I feel comfortable submitting it.  It shouldn’t be too much of a shock, however, that my estimates often turn out to be wrong.  I’d say there are equal chances that I finish everything I have in mind smoothly and slide into a snug landing a week or two before the cutoff, or that I pull all my hair out and put off sleep only in order to manage a late submission.  But hey, I’m okay with either, and the competition allows for submissions to be incomplete and/or updated after they have been submitted.

And at the very least this will be a great way to put a definitive deadline in front of myself where there really wasn’t any before.  Anyone who’s worked on any major project will know that this can make all the difference in the world.

So, expect to see a lot more activity around here over the next couple of months!

WAID2 Design Peek #2: Possession and Narrative Voice

One of the biggest questions I had for WAID’s sequel was how I would handle the game’s possession mechanic.  That mechanic was really the whole point behind the first game, and remains so for the second.  I have to revisit it, address any issues that came up, and try to put a new spin on it as I move forward.  Aside from production value, it’s the one area that has the most potential for improvement, because everything else in the game will pivot around it.

Normally in video-games there is a subtle conflict between the narrative voice of the protagonist and the player.  That is to say, who is actually talking or acting — the protagonist of the story, or the person controlling them?  They are often mutually exclusive; the more dialogue that a protagonist is given, the less voice the player feels they have.  This is why so many video game heros are so infamously silent: any dialogue from the protagonist runs the risk of alienating the player and separating him or her from the game.

Case in point.
An extreme example.

This conflict reaches some degree of synthesis in many western RPGs, where the player actively creates their own protagonist and chooses his or her actions and dialogue throughout the game.  It still remains a concern, however, when the restrictions of the overall plot must curtail the player’s freedom to define their own protagonist.

In Why Am I Dead 1&2, you are not a person controlling a character, however.  You are a person controlling a character who is in turn controlling another character.  Therefore there are actually three voices in potential conflict, and in my case none of them should be pushed to the side completely:

  • The player’s voice —  What is the actual player’s goal?  What do they want to do?
  • The ghost’s voice — The dead person’s ghost (ie the real protagonist) is implied to have some remaining autonomy.
  • The possessee’s voice — That the possessee’s motivations are heard is not necessary in ghost folklore, but it is imperative for design.

In the case of the first game I leaned hard onto the side of the possessee’s voice.  It was simpler, and showed off what I felt made the game unique.  The player could choose what lines of dialogue to pursue, and the ghost could possess and move people around, but the actual words and actions that carried the story through were those of the characters who were ‘possessed’.  As a result, some people expressed disappointment or confusion that although the ghost was such a huge part of the story, it didn’t exert any influence on the course of events.  Likewise, some people were unsatisfied that they had to help the ghost, who turned out to have been an unpleasant person when he was alive.

The only difference being I don't even pretend you have this level of freedom.  From popmatters.com
I don’t even pretend you have this level of freedom.  Edited screen from KotOR from popmatters.com

To be clear, I’m very happy with how the format of the original WAID worked out — the possessed characters being able to speak was really powerful, and allowed for over 70 unique dialogues in the game.  Without their voices, it would have been around 10.  You are given the space to explore the characters in much greater detail than if they were overshadowed by the ghost’s voice, and I don’t have any plans of tearing that apart.  What I will be doing, rather, is adding different elements to the game around that base, which either portray the thoughts of the ghost, or allow the ghost and/or the player to influence the way the story goes.

This all means:

  1. There will be two ‘stages’ to possessing someone.  The first is when the ghost does not fully understand a character’s motivations or feeling, and thus cannot completely take control of their body — this results in the same mechanics as the original game, where the possessed character is really the one talking/doing things, and the ghost is just a silent nudging force.  The second stage allows the ghost to fully take over the person, meaning that the ghost itself will be deciding what to say and do.  It must still act within the limitations of its host, however (if you possess an animal, you cannot speak English!).
  2. A more detailed back-story to the dead person.  Of course, in a longer game everyone will have longer back-stories, but the dead person will have a greater share of the story’s overall focus.
  3. Points in the game where you can influence the relationships of the characters and the story itself.  This means more multiple endings!  I’m not going crazy with this, it isn’t going to be a Choose Your Own Adventure game–it will still play out mostly linear.  However, suffice it to say that you will have more control over how everything plays out.

I believe that about covers it.  The implications of these design calls will be explored as development proceeds.  Otherwise, development is going rather smoothly, and I hope to get some art up soon.  Maybe a quick demo video as well.

WAID2 Design Peek #1: Character AI

Things have been a bit crazy, and I unfortunately haven’t been in a position where I can work on my game full-time.  Without going into detail, my hope is that in a month or just over a month I’ll be settled down and can have a routine.  The problem has been as much a lack of free time as it has been a lack of consistent environment; it’s really hard for me to treat development seriously when I’m not in one place long enough to develop a routine.

But I’ve been chipping away at it as much as I can.  Though I don’t feel comfortable at this point showing the progress I’ve made, I can at least talk about it.  For each new post, I’ll give a compact description of something I’ve done or am doing, and more importantly, what I think it will add to the game.

For this update, it’s character AI.

Why Am I Dead occupies a weird space in design.  It plays out like a mystery-adventure, but uses the mechanics of RPGs for interaction.  Because of the former influence, the game will take place in a very confined area that the player becomes intimately familiar with.  Because of the latter influence, all objects and characters must be visible whenever you’re in their vicinity (unlike in adventure games such as Hotel Dusk, where characters often pop in and out only when the story demands it).

For a longer sequel to Why Am I Dead, this means you’ll be seeing the same rooms and the same people a lot.  You’ll get a feel for the whole space.  Partially in order to avoid the feeling of claustrophobia, and partially to create the impression that you’re in a livable environment, I decided that the characters would have to be very proactive regarding where they are at any given moment.

That is to say, having completely static characters that only move when you control them won’t cut it for a larger cast and a longer game.  The characters will all have to move on their own, and not in the way they do for RPGs (randomly and aimlessly); they will move around the ship in routines, and even when you aren’t present.  During different parts of the story, they’ll be in different areas depending on what’s going on.

On the plus side, this means:

  1. Characters won’t be stuck in weird poses for the whole game.  It would break immersion if several days pass in the story but you find that two characters were apparently staring at each other the whole time, because that was how they were when you left them. 
  2. The setting is more convincing.  Towards the beginning of one story day, maybe people are getting breakfast in the diner.  Towards the end, most are probably back in their rooms.  Maybe someone is taking in the night sky outside.  You don’t just see spaces, you see them being used.
  3. More opportunities for character insight.  Mannerisms can be added to characters’ movements; frenetic pacing when a character is stressed, for instance.  It might also say something if a characters is just inside their room all the time, or if they’re always walking around everywhere.

And on the negative side:

  1. LOGISTICS.  Adding these features is relatively easy, and already works for the most part.  Getting them to work as intended will take time.  I imagine traffic jams in hallways and people dry-humping each other all over the place for a while.
  2. If I overdo it, finding a character that you want to possess could be frustrating.  This is a matter of making characters’ movements intuitive and scaled to how much you’ll probably need to control them at the point you’re in.  Given the relatively small environment though, this shouldn’t be a huge issue.
  3. If I underdo it, I could hit an uncanny valley of AI, a la The Truman Show.

Like I said, this is already mostly implemented, as it was one of the first things I started working on.  Getting it to work smoothly will be a challenge, but I think it will add a tremendous amount of personality to the game.

Announcing Why Am I Dead….2!

Well, so much for expanding the content of my blog and frequency of posts–it’s been nearly a month since my last update!

Oi.  I blame it on holidays.

For anyone sticking around, I figure it’s about time I put in concrete my next major project.  I’ve alluded to it pretty strongly before, and you’ve probably figured it out from the title, but just for clarity’s sake: Why Am I Dead 2!

I wouldn’t normally jump at the opportunity to do a sequel to something; I’ve got enough ideas for new content that I’m itching to make.  So when I say that I’m making a sequel, that comes with the implicit statement that I believe the original left room for either improvement or further exploration, or, in this case, both.  And, of course, that comes with the implicit statement that I’ll be aiming to make a sequel that substantially improves or expands the original, or, in this case, both.

So with Why Am I Dead 2, I’m raising the stakes.  The game will be considerably longer and have higher production value: better graphics, better writing, better audio.  A mostly new cast with lots of characters that I think you’ll love (and/or hate).  Instead of approaching it as a side-project, as I did with my last game, I’ll be approaching the development of this game as its own full-time job.

How I imagine myself about a month from now

As a result of this, the game will not be free.  This is mainly just to support the time I spend developing the game–the original Why Am I Dead, although I enjoyed making the ever-loving crap out of it, earned a laughably small amount of money.  Which is fine, of course.  And that doesn’t mean I’ll be charging a lot–I don’t have a particular price worked out yet, but you can be assured that it will be very very cheap by anyone’s standards.  I’ll definitely be releasing a long-ish free demo as well, so you can try the game out and get a good idea what it’s all about first.

(Note, this doesn’t mean I’m done releasing free flash games forever!  I just think that for this project, that model doesn’t really make sense.)

I know what you’re probably thinking now.  When on Earth is this coming out?  I want to give you all my money!!!  Okay, I may have embellished your thoughts a little bit, sue me.  Still, the basic time-line that I have for development is about 2 months of full-time core development, and another 2 months of full-time buffer, which means taking into account things not going as planned (because they never ever do), beta-testing, and polishing.  So that puts me at 4 months of full-time work.

But regardless of the exact timeline, when I release the game it will be polished and tested to death; I have no plans to repeat the stormy release of the original.

During this time, I’ll be hoping to market my game, which is something totally new to me.  I may even do little teasers and release info about the cast, story, and gameplay in episodes.  Who knows.

So, yeah.  This is a big step for me — going from releasing a free Flash game as a side project, to making a not-free game as my main thing.  But it’s really exciting, and it’s gonna be fun as hell.

Cue painfully blunt symbolism.