Wednesday, May 9, 2018

I don't like videogames anymore


There, I said it.

I’ve been meaning to write this one for a very long time.

All this while I just couldn’t bring myself to say it. It was difficult to come to terms with this realization. All I’ve done most of my adult life is make and play videogames. So this definitely made for a hard pill to swallow.

If you’ve been passionate about videogames through your adolescence, you know what I’m talking about. All your friends stopped playing and you thought to yourself, one day it’s going to be my turn. “Growing out of videogames” they call it. Never, I thought to myself.

I don’t imagine this makes a lot of sense, especially since it’s coming out of nowhere. It’s been awfully quiet here. I haven’t posted on this blog for over a year now. There’s certainly a lot we have to catch up on. I think a little bit of context would go a long way to bring us on the same page.

So let’s get right to it.

Over the last year I haven’t played any videogames at all. The year before that, I played a little bit of Overwatch and some Rocket League, that too only if my friends were online. I wouldn’t play otherwise. The last game I remember enjoying from start to finish, all by myself, was Bloodborne. I went into Dark Souls 3 with the same enthusiasm, but it couldn’t keep me for long. That was the first time I started to feel there’s something wrong.


All of last year I was a little bit distracted. I had a television for a couple of months before I moved into a smaller apartment closer to work. I booted my Playstation once maybe twice to try out the new Deus Ex game. After that I never touched it again. I played Pokemon Y on my 3DS for a couple of minutes on the bus to a remote village in Thailand. I think that’s about it. Maybe a few matches of Hearthstone on my phone, that too unranked. Doesn’t make for a lot of gaming time does it?

I used to be excited about AAA games. I remember the time I used to look forward to the next big release and tune into every development. Keep up to date on forums and follow games media to stay on the cutting edge. I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t see past the fact that they’re all the same now. I lose all incentive to continue playing within minutes. Most if not all of them open with a long cutscene which only does an okay job of setting up a story and showing off the rendering tech. After that to my eyes it's yet another open world littered all over with objective markers telling me what to do. Walk ten steps and it's the same awkward 3D dude lip syncing carefully written dialogue that I can simply ignore because a more succinct version of it is being distilled into a legible journal entry on a quest log anyway.


Look, I don’t have anything against the next AAA game. I’ve been there and enjoyed them for countless hours. I get it, if you enjoy playing them, more power to you! They’re solid, polished experiences put together by hard working teams of talented individuals. I have all the respect for them and the work they produce. Don’t take this the wrong way, AAA games are great, I’m just finding it difficult to get into them, which is also only a recent development.

This might sound a lot like one of those “it’s not you honey, it’s me” kind of situations. Trust me, this time I actually mean it.

To be fair I didn’t have a lot of time to play videogames last year. In a desperate attempt to leave home for a change of scenery, I decided to move to Thailand and settle for a job in mobile games. I spent all of last year cloning a well known title under the supervision of uptight OOP fundamentalists pretending to be game developers. Their unhealthy obsession with Test Driven Development didn’t work out in the end. If you’ve spent three years trying to clone a mobile game, you’re definitely doing something wrong. All of it paid for my pool on the 50th floor so I didn’t let it bother me too much. Walking into an office every day and collaborating with other team members was a nice change, I enjoyed that aspect of it. I learned quite a lot about programming, didn’t agree with most of it. Otherwise the work itself was quite mundane. Every monday we’d get bullied into making hilariously absurd time estimates for our tasks. The rest of the sprint we worked late and followed orders. Any attempt at improvisation was crushed almost immediately.


Not playing videogames at all and spending forty plus hours every week working on a mobile “game” that I couldn’t care less about, put me in a place where I started to feel disconnected from videogames altogether. I found it difficult to find the time to try out new games that I might enjoy, or work on something interesting that I was excited about. I’ve been in a videogames lull before, but this time I felt I had crossed a tipping point of some kind. I felt that I was in a different space altogether. That is when I lost my drive to create and began to realize that I might have finally grown out of videogames. I was almost ready to wrap it all up and kiss my passion for games and games development a final heartfelt goodbye. Let’s be honest, I think the panic didn’t kick in for the longest time because I was seeing this one really cute girl. It was only when she was out of the picture that it finally hit me.

That's not her, no

I’ve always had an escape. It’s part of the reason why I think I’ve made it this far in the first place. There is so much of the world out there. Videogames are really simple and easy to understand. This untimely hiatus sobered me up to a different reality. When I’m not giving one hundred percent of my attention to working on something, my mind begins to wander onto stranger frequencies. Who am I? What am I doing here? What is my place in the world? Why are people doing what they’re doing? Why do people work the way they do? What is the meaning behind the complex interplay of social interaction? What rules do they follow? What purpose do those rules solve? What evolutionary device requires these rules to be a certain way in the first place? And what is my goddamned role to play in all of that? I imagine some form of spiritual ascension is necessary before one can hope to tackle questions like that.

I’ve asked myself many times why I make videogames. I don’t know why I make videogames. I like it when I travel across two continents to stand around at a games convention where a stranger walks up to me to tell me how much she enjoyed playing my game. I like that feeling, but it can’t be the thing that drives me. I might not know for certain why I like to make videogames, but I’m quite sure it’s got very little to do with any kind of extrinsic motivation. Whatever it is that got me off my bed and in front of my computer for sixteen hours a day, was a drive that came to me from a different place.


The universe is trying to tell us things. If you pay careful attention, if you train that muscle, you can listen to what it’s saying. It is telling you things you need to know, the universe is on your side. If you listen closely, you will know what to do and what is right for you. For the longest time I’ve shut myself off from it. I could dismiss this whole episode and say I was passing through a phase, but that I think would be an oversimplification of a more complex situation. While there might be some truth to it, I wouldn’t put it quite like that anymore.

I like to believe that we are all three dimensional vessels channeling a multidimensional universe. Given our lack of perspective, we are conditioned to comprehend only a particular version of our reality. We learn to harness and respond to a very limited number of energies that are available to us. We have untold powers at our disposal, only we choose not to wield them. I have felt a power before. I have noticed its presence. I can recollect each and every instance of when it has decided to intervene. Lovely Planet came from a different place. I would feel an odd disturbance of some kind when I got off my computer. Doing anything other than working on the game just felt wrong. Elegant solutions to complex problems would simply manifest in front of me with little to no effort. No amount of logic would explain how strangely unrelated elements would magically fit together. Mechanics and elements for which I would budget weeks if not months of experimentation, would assemble miraculously overnight. A completely random attempt at solving one particular isolated problem, would go to fix half a dozen other ones, and in one fell swoop, everything that was just a moment before completely disjointed, would turn into a beautiful symphony of interacting systems.

Free your mind

The space I’m in right now doesn’t allow me to channel that power. I’ve spent a long while trying to haphazardly recreate that same space. I’ve made sure all the pieces are in the right place. Everything I need at arm’s length, just like it used to be. Nothing seems to work. It is extremely critical that I find it sooner rather than later. I’m getting old and life is short. There isn’t a lot of time left, no time to think. I can’t bother to check and see who’s listening, and who isn’t. What works commercially, and what doesn’t. What’s appropriate and acceptable, and what isn’t. Who happens to care and who doesn’t. There’s videogames inside me and they need to come out. There’s no option but to move forward. An interesting idiot once told me that I’m not a programmer. He was right, I’m not a programmer at all. I’m a game developer. I make videogames. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do - I’m going to make the videogame of my dreams because I can.

I still have ideas. Even now, when I close my eyes, it doesn’t matter what corner of the world I‘m in. If I’m in a good mood, or a bad one. At a bar in Bangkok, or on top of the Eiffel tower. On a train to Amsterdam or at a nightclub in Berlin. It doesn’t matter where I am, what I’m doing, with who I’m hanging out or what the people around me are talking about. Still, after all these years, when I close my eyes, I can only see videogames. And it is my responsibility to bring those to life.


I am going to spend the rest of my time and resource in finding and building that space form where I can create again. I don’t care what it takes. I’m going to get on a boat and make my way north through the Mekong delta. I’m going to get high and listen to Ram Dass on the step farms in the Himalayas. I’m going to travel to Vietnam and ride a motorbike from Hanoi to Saigon. I’m going to walk along the beach in Bali and work on the rice fields in the Philippines. I’ll do whatever it takes. And once I have found my space you can be sure to find me in my element where I belong, sitting somewhere in front of the warm glow of a computer screen, typing away into the wee hours of the night, sparring with the ghost in the machine.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - Playing a Level

Much like the controls we discussed in the last post, Super Lovely Planet doesn’t over complicate things with all the mechanics complementing the core platforming experience. Every level is a linear get to the exit challenge. It has a start point and an end point with traps and enemies conspiring to push you back. Much like the original game, most of the levels are a collection of floating islands that connect to form a linear path to the exit. The architecture of the world is more akin to the original game unlike Arcade. Carefully rounded geometry invites spamming the jump button to find shortcuts and sequence breaks in the most unexpected corners of every level. Fall off the side or lose all your HP before reaching the end and the level resets you back to the start.

Unlike the original game, Super Lovely Planet sports slightly longer levels. That’s got a lot to do with the fact that you’re crawling at a snail’s pace if you refuse to play faster by jumping about, so levels can feel more like an endurance run now. Stages can last from anywhere between sixty seconds to a couple of minutes depending on how you choose to tackle them or how well you're playing. Plenty of new mechanics support this alternate play-style but at the same time they also deliver the familiar try-die-repeat gameplay which we know and love from the original Lovely Planet.

One big difference this time is the new health system. Making a mistake doesn’t instantly reset the level. You have health points now with pickups that heal you if you get hurt. A limited amount of these health drops can make every encounter a lengthy ordeal if the player finds it difficult to make it through in one go. Failing once doesn’t force you out of the encounter immediately, but leaves you with more interesting choices to deal with the situation. Scrambling around to grab HP can be tense and satisfying if executed properly but also sometimes result in a comedic failure if approached carelessly.

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This HP system lends another mechanic borrowed straight out of the original Castlevania. While most platformers would take some HP and throw you into an invincible state, Super Lovely Planet implements the infamous knockback from Castlevania. An uncontrollable rebound pushes you back after you make a mistake that works like a cutscene mocking your slip up. Failing to dodge a bullet right at the edge of a narrow platform shows your avatar plummet into the abyss while you wait and watch helplessly.

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Everything that’s a darker shade is going to hurt you along the way. Red blobs sit around waiting for you to accidentally jump on them and purple spikes cover the grounds of the Fortress. The Baddies make a return from the original game shooting the familiar purple bullets once again pointed right at your avatar. They come in different shapes and sizes, firing regular slow moving bullets or homing missiles depending on where you run into them (Yes the Swamp area is back and it’s more brutal than ever).

All this play is neatly tied together at the finish line with a new grading system that awards you with a rank ranging from an "F" to an "A". Complete a level flawlessly without crawling around for too long and the game will give you the special "S" rank. I moved away from the three star system because with this game it behaved more like a laundry list of boring tasks that had to be executed individually. This newer system doesn’t favor one play-style over another. The computation is a complex mix of your APM (Actions per Minute) and style points. The game conceals all of the details of this system which I feel should encourage players to play around with it before they can find a way to master it or eventually just break it.

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I’ve written before about the world and progression system. Super Mario Galaxy was a big influence for the way this game eventually turned out. I feel that game is a perfect blend of wildly different platforming gimmicks that deliver a good variety of interesting mechanics without a dull moment of repetition. Since our game puts all of its focus on the platforming as well, each world experiments with a different and contrasting play style. One moment you’ll find yourself balancing on a narrow beam to later dodging sniper fire in the vast open expanse of the Rice Fields.

As of today, Super Lovely Planet packs a total of fifty levels spread across seven unique worlds which is up from the five in the original game. I’ll go into more detail about those worlds individually sometime later. For now, I’m quite satisfied with all that we've discussed about this game here. I've painted an accurate picture of where Super Lovely Planet came from, what it is today and where it might be tomorrow with the weeks or months of polish that could eventually go into it.


You know it’s not a first person shooter, right?

Friday, December 9, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - The Controls and Platforming

In its platforming, Super Lovely Planet is more Castlevania than Mario. If there was one thing unique about this game that sets it apart from other games in the same genre, it’s that it takes inspiration from the kind of 80’s 2D platformer that got mixed reviews on its controls. Think Ghouls ‘n’ Goblins and Castlevania instead of Mario or Kirby.

The controls are quite straightforward but also very demanding for players who are accustomed to modern 3D action adventure games. The left and right analog sticks are mapped one to one with the movement of the character and camera respectively. The game doesn’t automate the camera at all. The jumping action is mapped to the right trigger so your thumbs never leave the joysticks. You can squeeze the trigger once for a single jump or hold it down if you want to continue jumping. NPC interactions and the optional attack button is set to the face buttons “A” on Xbox and “X” on Playstation. We’ll talk about those functions in another post, right now I just want to focus on the platforming alone.

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Retrovania.net

Plenty of very specific design choices bring a unique twist to the gameplay, and now's when the Castlevania influence starts to show. Loads of gravity keeps you grounded. Instead of altitude the jump gives you more speed, pushing you forward almost twice as fast than if you’re simply crawling. There’s absolutely no mid-air control so you’re going to commit to the direction and speed of the jump for the time you spend off ground. Other mechanics are tuned to complement the jump to give it new meaning and purpose. If players want to move faster, reposition quickly or dodge enemy fire, they are left with no choice but to resort to the jump button and that makes for the most quintessential risk-reward action that lies at the center of the platforming experience on offer in this game.
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Crawling

The challenge here lies in trying to strike the right balance between taking your time to carefully plan a flawless jump and moving more quickly. Nobody wants to call in a committee of advisers to give them a green-light before they can press the jump button. This combination of mechanics should see players balancing on a tightrope of temptation and patience. A balance is struck by multiplexing between two mutually exclusive states that grant control and award the player with more speed. The challenge is overcome when they are able to gracefully transition between the two states so as to create a sort of ebb and flow where the right amount of control is borrowed from crawling which pays off in a short burst of quick jumps. That balance allows players to carefully measure their movement and align jumps before approaching them in advance without having to forfeit too much of their speed in the process.

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Jumping

The jump is consistent across the whole game so players eventually internalize its length and height. That’s when every successful leap onto an enemy and over a trap becomes just that little bit more rewarding. And before diminishing returns can set in, the game unfolds to present a new layer of play to master. Once players are comfortable with pacing single jumps, they’re encouraged to string them together for more speed and efficiency. Finding optimal routes through levels by chaining successive jumps to make it flawlessly across a section of the map without needing to crawl for too long will require a good grasp not only on the jump itself but the layout of the level as well. A kind of ballet if you will.


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Baddie, bullet, pickup and red blobs of death

I feel that’s plenty of depth on offer. Other mechanics including enemies and pickups work to complement this core platforming experience.
We’ll talk more about those in the next post.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - World and Progression System

Ever since I started working on this game, most of my efforts were focused on the world and progression system. It was the one aspect that I saw being revised more often than anything else in the entire game during development. In the last post I talked about an inflection point where this aspect of the game took a sharp turn. I’ve been working on it for some time now and I’m confident it won’t change again. I thought we’d celebrate the occasion with a blog post. Also once it’s out there I’ll think twice before erasing everything to start again. Here’s hoping this time it sticks!

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With all the complex hub worlds, portals and checkpoints removed, I felt at home once more with the recognizable simplicity of the original game returned. Every level is a linear get to the exit challenge with deadly traps and enemies scheming to creatively push you back. Almost exactly like the original game the levels are once again strung together linearly. You start from the simple and straightforward tutorial stages and make your way up to the more challenging levels later. What changes with Super Lovely Planet  is the order in which they are made available to play.

I doubled back to a simple stage select screen, offering players a menu of levels to choose from. While Lovely Planet would lazily unlock a whole world for you to browse, in Super Lovely Planet players will see levels being made available in sets - pairs and tuples. Unlocking a new set of levels will open a small selection of two maybe three different stages not all of which might be compulsory to move to the next set. While it does make for a more inflexible unlocking system, there’s a good reason for why it it goes about doing it that way.

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The system employed by the original game wasn’t perfect. It offered plenty of choice but couldn’t deliver on variety. It locked you into a world until you beat a good portion of it. Every world had a distinct theme and setting which brought a unique challenge different from the one you played before. A new world would open a large set of levels to play but that selection of stages only delivered a single style of gameplay. With the new progression system, Super Lovely Planet hopes to break up the monotonous grind by limiting choice and putting variety at the forefront.


The progression and unlock system works to deliver a healthy mix of different play-styles by regularly and consistently throwing the player from one world to another after every level. Unique enemies and traps still remain exclusive to their own areas to build a consistent theme and setting, but the game shuffles you in and out of these different areas as you progress to keep things interesting. New worlds are introduced in quick succession and once the game realizes that the variety it’s trying to deliver has plateaued, it reveals the final stretch by cranking the difficulty up to eleven. That’s when all of the mechanics finally synergize to deliver the toughest most grueling platforming challenge which ends with a cutscene celebrating your victory.

Apart from the levels themselves, the game also conceals a few secrets and achievements. You can revisit any level you’ve played before to hunt around for those secrets at any time. The menu conveniently highlights the stages which are blocking your progress to point you in the right direction once you decide to get back on the road. The system also accommodates other more sophisticated secrets by not acknowledging their existence at all. That burden is lifted by another system. I look forward to talking about the NPCs at some point.


There’s a lot more to tell about Super Lovely Planet. Next time we’ll go more into the platforming and talk about the basic gameplay mechanics in more detail.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Super Lovely Planet - An Introduction

Not too long ago, before it was given its new alias, Super Lovely Planet was known in some circles as Lovely Planet Adventure. The word “Adventure” was suitable for the experience I was trying to deliver at the time. A lot of things changed and playtesting showed the adventure aspect of the game was the least exciting of everything it had on offer. I wrote about this previously before this game was revealed. Now that the secret is out, I thought I’d give some context to that article so it makes more sense.

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Throwback to the first game I was hoping to return to the original format of the five worlds each with its own unique set of enemies, mechanics and setting. It worked straightforwardly with Lovely Planet, so part of me was expecting it would translate well for this game too. I was excited to reimagine the City, Village and Forest areas once more.

The twist I was hoping to pull off was a Dark Souls-esque progression system where players would unlock new areas by enabling a central checkpoint making parts of the world more accessible. This mechanic saw parts of almost every level being watered down to deliver less of the platforming challenges and more exploration. Navigation was a big part of the game, exploration was encouraged and getting lost was part of the experience.

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A Checkpoint
I put a lot of effort into that aspect hoping it would eventually take shape but a few annoyances never loosened their grip on the whole experience. Players would get lost, which was partly intentional but it wasn’t the least bit enjoyable. Everything looked samey, different locations didn’t pop out with a unique visual style and all of my attempts at signposting different areas with landmarks proved ineffective.

Apart from all that, the gameplay was at its best when players were taking on platforming challenges with enemies and obstacles carefully arranged to calculated perfection. While it was extremely rewarding to unravel hidden secrets on some unattended corner of the map, the moment to moment gameplay was lacking the tension of tight platforming.

Open Level with No Platforming
Everything in the game that wasn’t delivering on that quality platforming experience was eventually cut out. Quite a lot of content, levels and even mechanics were removed. It was a sudden transition that took place almost overnight and a lot of work was discarded. A better game was born in the process. I quickly spliced a new level and increased the game speed by almost two hundred percent. One playthrough of that stage and I knew what game I had to make. That is when I renamed the project to Super Lovely Planet.

I like to think that parts of Lovely Planet Adventure eventually found a new home in the cracks of this game. Secrets still hide in the most obscure corners of the world and NPCs drop riddles that bring you closer to those secrets. Vague dialogue gives context to the abstract world design and with it, a little bit of personality to the Buddies that wait for you to come along and humor them with conversation.


There’s lots of new stuff. I’m excited to share more about the game soon.

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Story Behind Every Jump

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Super Mario 64 had found itself a cult following that remains strong to this day. It has its merits given it was the first of its kind, but for plenty of reasons, it never saw the success of its predecessors. Nintendo went back to take another crack at the problem with the Galaxy games. They’re both essentially 3D platformers but a slew of key differences add up to deliver two completely unique experiences. While I’ve not spent enough time with either of those games, I can tell from a distance how they’re fundamentally different.


I think what really sets them apart is the camera. The Galaxy games are more 2D than 3D. Controlled almost entirely by the game, the camera conveniently switches between showing the action from the top down or the side-on instead of leaving it hanging over Mario’s shoulder like in 64. I feel that goes to some extent in informing the level design itself. It directs the player towards a goal which can induce a sense of direction to a more open space which would otherwise encourage more exploration. Much like it is in Mario 64, where players enjoy a lot more freedom to choose where they want to go next. If you’re not playing one of the more linear stages, you can freely rotate the camera to study the scene from a different angle and head off in a direction of your choosing.


The more traditional camera of Mario 64 makes the whole experience a bit less streamlined. In the Galaxy games, you’ll seldom find Mario jumping diagonally into the screen on a platform that’s invisible when looking from behind his shoulder. More carefully designed linear stages and a camera that’s always directing itself on the action work in tandem to make sure you never find yourself in an awkward spot like that. All this streamlining works to deliver a more fluid platforming experience, but I feel part of the magic is somehow lost in the process.


Mario 64 brings an acrobatic flair to its platforming unlike any platformer before it. A whole set of new parameters change the previously simple and atomic action of jumping into a slower, more elaborate and complex undertaking. The analog stick allows precision control, players now select one of three hundred and sixty different directions before a jump. They slowly and carefully nudge the joystick around to position Mario right at the edge of the platform. Simultaneously, they also work to manipulate the camera using the D-pad, surveying his every step making sure the plumber doesn't carelessly slip off the edge. Final corrections are made as players examine Mario one last time from every angle. Confident with their preparation, players cautiously resign control of the camera to finally hit the jump button which sends the plumber flying off the ground.


This is the just the call to adventure. What follows is an ordeal, fleeting moments that are amped with anticipation and nervous tension which eventually climax with the homecoming part of the story. That is when we see Mario landing safely on firm ground.


I want to recreate this kind of delicate platforming with Super Lovely Planet, where every jump is deliberately paced by its own little narrative arc.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Super Lovely Planet

I'm working on a 3D precision platformer. It's called Super Lovely Planet.

Webpage is live at quicktequila.com/superlovelyplanet

Right now there's only a couple of screenshots so we can see what the game looks like. It's quite early in development, but I'm confident the visual style won't change too much.


There's no video just yet. In an older post I wrote about my thoughts on how trailers for this game won't work as well as they did for Lovely Planet. My plan is to release more gameplay this time around. Short videos on YouTube should follow soon after I do a couple of gifs. Can't make videos if there's no sound in the game, did I say it's early in development? Here's what the game looks like in motion.



So there you go, Super Lovely Planet! A throwback to the original logo, now with drop shadows and a font that's actually legible. You can download the presskit from the website, if you want to ogle at the screenshots in full HD.

Super Lovely Planet

Follow the development and find out more at quicktequila.com/superlovelyplanet

Cheers