One More State-side Update

Sadly this past month hasn’t been as productive as I might have liked.  The main culprit is probably the fact that tomorrow I’ll be flying to the other side of the planet, where I’ll be spending the next year.  Aside from the time I’ve had to spend preparing for the trip, it’s a bit hard for me to focus on development with something like that looming over me!  I guess you could say the move has stolen the game’s thunder for the time being.

For the next week or so I’m guessing I’ll be swamped with getting situated.  After the initial craziness though, I’m hoping that I will actually be more productive overall with Why Am I Dead At Sea than I have been this summer.  Though I’ll have less potential waking hours to contribute to the project, I think that my day job will keep me from burning out and will force me to value my development time more.  When all of my day-to-day structure is self-imposed, it is so much harder to stay on task!

With all that said, there has still been a good deal of progress that I can share, so let’s get into that!  Note:  Every picture is linked to a GIF that shows the same thing but with animation.  If you want to see the animation, just click on the picture!

1. Scenery Layering

One thing I did since my last blog update was rewrite a lot of my collision detection code, mainly because it was legacy code from the first “Why Am I Dead” that was needlessly complicated and honestly just done very badly.  To make my life easier in adding other stuff to the game, I decided to just bite the bullet and tear it all out.

One thing that I then proceeded to do with the help of an improved collision detection system was to include support for layered props.  Previously, only characters could be layered to give an illusion of depth, while props were completely static and could not be moved in front of or behind, but simply around.  Now, they operate in the same way:

So that’s neat.

2.  ‘Spectral’ Effects and Unlocks

I’ve known that I wanted to have a different visual style in the game for the ghostly/supernatural things that happen in the game — something that seems to be separate from the pixel art of the rest of the game.  After flirting with particle effects, I decided on a…motif of sorts, involving relatively simple vector art combined with lots of different animation effects.

The screenshot below, actually, is a pretty bad example of that, but it also demonstrates one of the big applications that this motif will be seen in.

This is still really rough, but gets the idea across.  So…what are we looking at here?

Currently the ghost is using an ability to sense what things it can interact with.  As you might guess, green means that it can, and red that it can’t.

In most cases, both characters and new areas must be unlocked before the ghost can successfully enter them.  In the case of possessing characters, you generally have to be able to understand the motives of that character before you can steer them.  And in the case of different areas, you need to have explored the place behind a door before you can ghost-magic your way through it.  This means that you have to possess someone who has access to that area before you have the ability to visit it as a ghost.

This may strike some as rather un-ghostly; generally ghosts can pass through anything, without question!  However, you will very quickly be able to unlock most areas and will spend the majority of the game floating through everything.  This is simply a way to give some more structure to the early parts of the games, and allow for a few surprises.

3. Mind-reading

You have yet another ability in your ghostly arsenal: mind-reading!  This can be done on anyone at any time, and satisfies two functions:

– Additional, optional background and development for those who are interested in seeking it out

– Hints and cues for those who are stuck

It’s as simple as going next to a character while in ghost form and hitting a button.  You will then be brought to a screen that generally has an animated pattern in the style that I outlined before.  On top of that, the thoughts of the character fade in and out.

Each character will obviously have different text that corresponds to what’s going on in their heads at that time in the story (and it will change over the course of the game).  But more importantly, each character’s mind-reading-screen will have radically different animations and visual effects that correspond to their personality and emotional state.

Given how eccentric some of the characters are, I’m going to have a lot of fun with it.

 

Well, that’s it for now.  The next update that I make will be from the city of Xi’an!

Anchors Aweigh

Quite a bit to cover this time.

New title.  I’ve decided to change the name of “Why Am I Dead 2” to “Why Am I Dead At Sea”.  It’s not a huge change, but a lot of thought was put into it.  I came to this decision primarily because this project really isn’t a direct sequel in many ways, and I wanted the title to reflect this.  In addition my hope is that this game will be able to reach a much wider audience than its predecessor did, and I don’t want anyone to think they will need to play another game to understand it.  It really is a project that I hope will stand on its own…so tacking on a number at the end didn’t seem to fit!

Though I feel it’s a bit on the wordy side, I went through innumerable potential titles and could find nothing else that more accurately described the spirit of this project than “Why Am I Dead At Sea”.

Screen3

Beta testing.  Though development time has exceeded even my wider estimates, I can happily say that I will soon be ready for closed beta testing / play-testing.

Given that the weakest area of my last project was the amount of bugs it had on launch, this is something I’m taking very seriously.  The last time, the only play-testing that my game had was from fellow developers on FGL.com, a website for other free browser-based games.  This was a big mistake!  While I’m eternally grateful to everyone there who helped me out, I should have really used it in conjunction with other sources, as I didn’t get enough feedback on the game to smooth everything out.

For instance, the reason there were game-breaking bugs at the end of the game is very simple: out of all the people who played my game before it was released, I think only one person who gave me feedback actually reached the end!  And then when the game was launched and I was scrambling to push out new fixed versions, I didn’t have anyone but myself test those, either…so they sometimes ended up creating new bugs.  It was a mess!

This time I’m going to be much more proactive in getting feedback, gathering a wider pool of testers, and putting the game through play-testing longer.  My plan is currently to find volunteers who would be interested in the type of game I’m making, and offering incentives for their help (obviously a place in the credits being one of them, but ideally other things as well).

Screen6

Marketing.  Around the same time that I start beta-testing, I will have enough assets to feel comfortable in making a serious effort to publicize my game.  This will mean a teaser trailer, a website launch, a Greenlight page, and loads of other stuff.

My plan for publicizing the game is a two-parter, since I feel the game is in a bit of a grey area.  It has a lot of elements that I think would appeal to a smaller, but more dedicated audience — which means that the sooner I start talking about my game, the more likely I am to reach that audience.  But my game will also be very cheap and on the smaller side — which says to me that most people will only give it their attention once, and if it isn’t available then, they won’t pursue it later.

So my compromise is to release everything I can to publicize the game as early as I feel comfortable, with the sole exception of a free demo, which I will reserve for the day that the completed game launches.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m definitely reaching an exciting stage now where the game is taking shape.  Hopefully by my next post I’ll be able to show a teaser and the game’s dedicated website.

Menus and Screenshots for WAID2

Happy Fourth of July for any state-side readers!

Progress on Why Am I Dead II could be fairly characterized as slow but steady.  After giving up the ghost (ha) on the Indiecade deadline, I have to find something else to latch onto so that I can push myself harder.

But that’s not to say that I’ve slacked off!  I decided to take a break from art and return to programming.  Much like how pulling a thread can unravel an entire garment, a small change to how I displayed things on screen turned into a pretty thorough upheaval of the whole game engine.  It was a long time coming, since a lot of the original code was 1) written a year ago and 2) written with a much smaller project in mind.

The benefit of all that work is invisible, but present.  The code is just overall a lot better and less stupid.  It’s still pretty stupid in some places, but a lot less so.  And that’s always good.

I then returned to the initial reason I made the change that started all of that, which was menus!  I wanted overlapping flexible menus, and now I have them.  This will be used for the starting menu and the pause menu, and will be responsible for loading your game and changing your game options.

A rough version of the screen housing your Save files.

The biggest challenge for this was mostly getting the controls to work for both the mouse and keyboard smoothly and intuitively.

I was then able to return to working on the game art feeling a bit refreshed.  I’ve now expanded the scenery assets to a point where I’d rather not even list them, as it’d take up too much space!  I’ve also filled in the majority of the game maps, to the point where the end is in sight.  You can probably infer this, but there is a lot more space, and a lot more scenery, and a lot more everything in this game than the last.  A big reason this is taking longer than I estimated is what I guess could be called art creep, wherein I compulsively add this or that art asset on the fly to fill things in more.

So, for the first time, I’d like to share completed mockups of the game in action.  But as tradition goes, let’s start by revisiting screenshots of the original game:

And now the new — keeping in mind of course that this is a tiny fraction of the completed environment/scenery from the game!

The Pixels Never End

As usual, the work on WAID continues.  Just to get this out of the way, I’m finally pronouncing dead my goal of submitting late to Indiecade.   As much as it pains me to sit on my work as time goes by, I still just don’t feel comfortable sending out what I have.  Mainly, I wasn’t able to get as far in development as I was hoping.  I guess it didn’t help that I now know I won’t be in the country when Indiecade is going on, so any benefits that submitting a game confers for conference attenders are void.  And considering the scale of the game and my development schedule, by the time I actually get feedback from the jury I’ll probably be in the final stages of development, if not finished.  But I’m glad I at least set that goal, as it definitely helped push me along and sped things up!

I’ve got the characters and the tilesets — now I just have to fill out all the scenery/props for the game.  After animating all of the characters, I can’t adequately express how pleasing it is to create a sprite and be able to just move on, without having to create 25+ slightly different copies of it.  If it looks good, that’s it.   Next one.

It’s also a bit nice to return to some objects that I had done for the first game and put a slightly different spin on it.  With the simplistic style I’m using, it can only improve so much, but I’ll take any sign of progress!

I’ll stick to the pattern of showing my assets from the previous game and this upcoming one, side by side.  But I haven’t actually finished the scenery for WAID2 yet; what I have here is still less than half of what I plan to make.  However, it’s already more than the crap that I scribbled out last time around.

WAID1:

ClassicProps

WAID2:

PropsI’ve been working on some other art assets, but this is the only stuff fit for posting at the moment.

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!

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

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.