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

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On 3D Platformers

I was enjoying games on PC while the 3D platformer was in its prime. Nintendo never made it to this part of the world and the genre didn't established itself on PC so my experience with the kind of game is severely limited. Surveying from a distance I feel that outside of the Mario games, most 3D platformers fall more under the action adventure category. Mario games put more focus on the movement aspect of play unlike most other games where players don't come so much of a fun jumping experience but stay for the funny story, unique characters and quirky dialogue. There's plenty of reasons for why I think it works like that.


 

For starters, moving around and jumping in 3D never took off like it did in 2D. I think we realized the fact a little after the transition to 3D finally took place. Developers reacted haphazardly by drawing players in with relatable characters and an entertaining story instead of tight gameplay and good game design. We never really went back to solve that problem because it was a lot easier to push pixels and direct cutscenes complete with realistic characters delivering crisp dialogue.

I feel to some extent, the modern action adventure game is just a traditional 3D platformer with the jump button replaced. Players approach a ledge to immediately snap into a mini-cutscene that sees the character make a dramatic leap across a treacherous gap. They also introduce more action elements to make up for the lack of interesting movement mechanics. Picking off targets from a distance with auto-aim is a lot easier to understand and it's made all the more satisfying with cool explosions and a variety of special effects. There was a time when Tomb Raider had you navigating high ruins over dangerous pits with only a trusty jump button, but to see its latest iteration as a platformer would make for a silly comparison.

Source neogaf.com

We systemically dismantled the platforming aspect to make room for these new mechanics and in that process the genre evolved into something else entirely. They're not platformers and we don't find 3D games that revolve mostly around the movement aspect alone because somewhere someone was convinced that genre was dead. If the sales figures of the Mario franchise are anything to go by, we can be sure that the style of game is definitely dying a very slow death if it's not dead and gone already.

Source Nintendo.com

There is still hope because Nintendo hasn't buried the genre just yet. In the next post we'll sit down with the Italian plumber and discuss his many adventures in the third dimension. Here's hoping he doesn't go into a rant about Ganon. I mean Bowser.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Lovely Planet - Third Time's a Charm

Sequel, spinoff or spiritual successor, I don't really know. If I had the expertise to boil away all of the complexity involving player expectation with a single hard-hitting one-liner slogan, I'd be leading a marketing team in some far-away expensive country. Right now, I just know I'm sitting in my pyjamas with a speedrunning precision platformer on my lap that needs more levels.

I like rapid prototyping. I'd always choose writing code over attending long meetings, preparing slide decks or solving spreadsheets. Meetings never work too well for me. I've always somehow felt they are of little use when you are by yourself. If you can write code, it's a lot easier to just try things out during the initial phase of development. The only problem is that it awards you with too much freedom. If you don't experiment responsibly and work without a schedule, you'll look up later to realize something's not right. Quite often I find myself implementing a lot of small changes which snowball into a whole different game entirely. This happened again with a prototype I was working on earlier this year.




This game pilfers more elements from the original unlike Arcade, but it departs more boldly from the gameplay by removing the shooter aspect entirely. It doesn't remain a Lovely Planet game in its visual style alone; it borrows a lot of assets which are now framed differently to support the new gameplay. You can jump around in the world but the camera is pulled back to the third person. Little cute heads still fire purple bullets at you but instead of shooting back at them you jump to defeat them like in Mario. I think I'm stretching the definition of the "Lovely Planet" label to its limits with a third person platformer. Perhaps I ought to drop that name. We'll see about that later.

I like a good reveal with a few screenshots and a teaser trailer, but if I'm unable to deliver that surprise without sacrificing on transparency, then I think it'd be wiser to rethink this strategy. I'm hoping to share more about this game before it's out. Expect more action on this blog and my twitter later this year and early next. Those who are interested can learn more about the game and others don't have to wait around for an eventual announcement. That's a waste of time for everyone. As soon as the game is in a presentable state, I intend on sharing gifs, short gameplay videos and screenshots more frequently than I have in the past. Let's start off with one right now!




I'm extremely excited for it. There's other games on the backburner that I'm looking to try out soon. Part of me wants to experiment with other genres. This one here has kept my attention for some time now. It's had a rocky first few months but now I'm confident about where I'm taking this game. It's still relatively early in development and I hope to finish this sometime next year. We've come a long way. I have reason to believe this might just be the final chapter in the Lovely Planet saga - at least for a while now. And if this chapter is coming to a close, I'd reckon we go out in style.

What do you think?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Homeward Bone

Dark Souls changed the way I looked at videogames forever. First an awful gash that leaves a scar which keeps you from enjoying most other games, later transforms into an expanded perspective on all things videogames. If the Planet Shrine achievement in Lovely Planet wasn't enough of a clue, I've been a fan for a very long time now. Earlier this year I convinced myself I could make my own version of it.

Praise the Sun

The game development process I've employed, like most other developers working with a similar scope, involves taking your favorite game and reducing it piece by piece to arrive at its core. From there you wrap your own layer, as many layers as you can manage and bake it in the oven for delicious videogame. Lovely Planet was a result of a similar exercise that started with your average military first person shooter game and ended up in happy-land with cute head-face baddies spitting purple cubes into the sky.

Starting with Dark Souls on the chopping block was a less fruitful effort albeit a more interesting one.

I tried to borrow individual elements from Dark Souls only to find they don't quite stand on their own. You can tell from studying a game at a surface level that elements which depend on each other won't contribute meaningfully when implemented independently. From there you can carefully pick and choose a handful of elements without cutting any wires and walk away with a closed circuit of game mechanics that work well each other. Unfortunately, this procedure doesn't prove effective when applied on a game like Dark Souls.

Every time I hit compile and nothing worked, I put this on.

I'm convinced that Dark Souls cannot be reduced, at least given the tools in my belt. I've never seen systems operating on separate wavelengths being able to communicate with one another so gracefully. The rules are woven intricately into a kind of fabric which cannot be undone. What I'm trying to say is that Dark Souls flaunts a degree of internal consistency that, to my knowledge, is closely rivaled only by a very few games. Every comparison is selling it short - if Dark Souls is a symphony, Call of Duty is like the click track of a mechanical metronome. If reducing the generic military first person shooter is like cutting a pear, this game is like deboning a freshwater trout. That's a big step if you're just learning to use a knife and chances are you'll either cut yourself or be left with very little fish at the end of it.

Credits Wikipedia.org

Everything fell apart after I carelessly pulled out what I didn't realize was so neatly tied together. I wanted my next game to be inspired by Dark Souls but it took next to nothing from it in practice. The level design paled in comparison and the combat was replaced entirely with platforming challenges. None of the depth from the game ever translated into my prototype and I was only loosing time. That's when I decided to throw away all of my work and start from scratch.

One day I will write my love letter to Dark Souls. Today is not that day.

Friday, September 23, 2016

On Shmups - Scrolling

Summer is hot. If you're anywhere within a few hundred miles from the hills, it is only too easy to pack your underwear and drive off to the nearest village for a cool breather. I like my peace and quiet, which is something I don't get here in the city. Cars honking in the distance never made for a serene work environment. I've been to the beach but that's always more of a party. I'm not fun at parties, which is why I think I prefer the mountains. The settlement nearest to where I live has something special to offer. Something that aligns with my tastes that I had never expected to find on a hill-station, seven thousand feet from sea level.



The kids require something with a little bit more punch to keep their attention while the adults sip their lattes and swoon at the sunset. That is why they have the arcades. Yes, we have arcades here, not in the city no, but all way up in the hills. They mostly keep games from the late eighties to the early nineties but only very rarely would I run into an older machine. One of those games, which dates back to the early eighties I think, is called Speed Race CL-5.

arcade-museum.com

I feel shmups are slow. Nowhere does it say they need to be fast and if Sonic isn't the most obvious example, scrolling too fast in 2D isn't the best idea. Flying a spaceship should feel more exhilarating. I'm strapped to a machine that's delivering a few hundred thousand pounds of thrust but it almost never feels that way. There's the kind of shmup that doesn't scroll at all. Enemy spaceships enter the scene making interesting patterns which the player must follow with projectiles. Other shmups scroll through a few static enemies and structures that funnel players into tight spots. The few recent Gradius games also have environmental hazards like geysers and rocks. Players navigate some turns and dodge timed hazards by moving freely in all four directions. The scrolling only stands to deliver those few mechanics exclusively. If those things were removed from the game, the scrolling wouldn't have very many reasons to exists, like in Space Invaders and Galaga which do away with it altogether.

Speed Race CL-5 scrolls its background so fast it's almost a complete blur. You don't realize how fast you're going before the game freezes you in place after an accident. The play area will spawn cars that move down to the bottom of the screen quite slowly. Increasing the tempo of the gameplay further would make for an awful experience. There's only so much screen that works as a warning for the player to react to obstacles that are otherwise not visible. Some games that scroll faster spawn warnings on the edge of the screen from where the object would finally appear. Going any faster than Sonic requires a slight change of perspective (pun intended). These machines showed up a good decade after Speed Race CL-5. Pseudo-3D racing games from the 90's had players racing the coastline at hundreds of miles per hour. Road Rash let players kick and whack other racers to slow them down. These games aren't shmups; I wonder if there's room for guns and alien spaceships in the 90's arcade racer genre.

Image result for outrun

I think it would be quite hilarious to have an Outrun style game and a vertical shooter rolled into one. Pickups and obstacles can be delivered at any rate we like. The shmup can exist in screen-space selectively isolated from the road. I think there is interesting gameplay to be had if players are made to haphazardly juggle between navigating those two different spaces.

A prototype is in progress. Right now, I'm calling it Rainbow Driver.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

On Shmups - Shootdodge!

Avoiding obstacles can be challenging, especially when you're only allowed limited control. Jumping in a 2D platformer for example is a careful exchange of control. Players read the map and formulate a strategy which informs their decision to relinquish substantial control in exchange for a height advantage. All this happens within fractions of a second. Players move between a state of having control and being vulnerable in an extremely discrete fashion. It's almost like they're switching between two modes. I find that kind of play extremely exhilarating - when the pace of your thoughts has to maintain an alignment, speed up and slow down, to match frequencies with the action on the screen.

Some shmups don't like to bother with this. There's no ebb and flow to it, there's no exchange of control. Shmups never snatch any control away from you. You have to be more strategic with your position. You can evade enemies in multiple directions which allows for more than a single way out of a difficult situation. But with all that freedom, you can also easily set yourself up for failure by navigating into a corner of the screen which later happens to turn into a tight spot. Every other system in a shmup then complements this freedom. A dense swarm of slow moving bullets cover the entire screen which move in unique patterns, conveniently leaving a small square millimeter for your tiny hitbox

Still from "Mushihimesama". The purple stuff is bullets. Yes
Image Credit - NeoGaf.com
Evasion and avoidance here is given too much importance. It leaves no room for taking aim and lining up your shot. I enjoy lining up my shots. I actually like it so much, I made a game about it, it's called Lovely Planet. I want more of that in my shmup. Shmups solve this particular problem by giving players an endless pool of bullets which rapid fire to form a beam of infinite destruction that covers half the screen. The game doesn't offer the second to second build-up and payoff you get from firing a single projectile to later see it make contact with the target. I'm sure that kind of shmup exists, one where ammunition is a precious and limited resource. If you know about one, I'd love to give it a try. Running out of bullets in a shmup is not fun, but I trust that the mechanic could prove its worth if it's able to encourage precision and demand more strategic play.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

On Shmups

I don't like playing shmups. They don't feel right. On paper they might have neat rules and game mechanics that shake hands to make interesting gameplay, but personally I don't enjoy actually playing them. The controls are too simple - linearly mapping the arrow keys to the ship's position in 2D just makes it uninteresting. I know these games have a lot going for them on top of those simple controls, but I'm put-off by the lack of "game feel" in the moment to moment play. That familiar feeling when you press the jump button in a side-scroller, is missing. Shmups don't have that. Again, I'm not saying they need to deliver on this, I just think it'd be great to see a shmup that tries that.

I could say "they're not for me" and let it be. It was a lot easier to make one and see if there's a fun game to be had here. So I've had my fingers crawling on my keyboard for the last couple days and I feel like it's something worth pursuing. Few details are left untouched when you move from Gradius or R-Type to Ikaruga or any CAVE shooter. I'm looking to fiddle with those constants, at which point it might not fall into the "shmup" category of videogame anymore. That's not a problem, we can come up with another name for it.

Let's not forget that there's also a whole lot of tricks that shmup games have polished and perfected over the years. It's a genre of game that's been around for a long time now. It'd be foolish to dismiss all of its merits before trying a variation on the age-old formula. I think if we chisel away at it carefully, it should make enough room for something new.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Distributed Narrative Collectables and Diegetic Choice Field Exploration

If there's one thing I know for certain from the two decades I've spent playing video games, it's that we like to collect things. I would speak for myself but I believe that it applies to most players, be it coins in Temple Run or armour sets in Diablo 2. There is a feeling of accomplishment to be had from collecting the piece of content which a game is actively trying to conceal from the player. All of the play involved in that process is eliminated when the same content is effortlessly delivered to players. The answer to why it works that way I'm sure is buried somewhere inside a thick book on behavioural psychology, but what I feel is more important and requires our attention is the intrinsic call to action they bring to players long before any sense of accomplishment is finally delivered. I feel these collectables make for an incentive so powerful that anything put on the other end can translate to a reward for the player.




Inviting players to play my game and immediately sitting them down to listen to my story before grabbing their attention feels like reciting Shakespeare to a class of kindergarten students during recess. Simply distancing the story from the player and expecting them to cover that distance through play appears to make all the difference in the Souls games. Reading the description attached to an item is more meaningful when I’ve put work into acquiring it. The game isn’t asking me to read it, I read it because I was respected with the freedom to choose if I wanted to read it. I feel this detachment is almost necessary so players don't feel the story is being pushed onto them. The NPCs and their quests further expand this technique by behaving like an intricate system with moving parts of its own. More of the story is revealed after players poke and prod at this system, play with it, to figure out how those moving parts fit together. We expect players to learn the controls before they’re comfortable playing a game, in a similar fashion, Dark Souls expects players to learn the rules of the narrative before they can make an attempt to assemble it. Moreover, with a spread of distinct events waiting (and sometimes not waiting) for me to come and investigate, turns every nugget of story into something the player has to pull from the game. The same feeling isn’t evoked when the game world conveniently waits for the player to consult a list of quests laid out in a journal or notebook. Most if not all mainstream games today feel the need to reify these goals with journals and quest logs instead of having the game’s fiction lift that burden. It’s an accessibility constraint of modern game design, we need to allow players to pick up from where they left off and not be completely lost - but for a niche audience, that laundry list is uninviting and feels like a lost opportunity. Collectables aren’t worth collecting if they can’t be missed.


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I like to think that every element in a game is always looking to find more and more reasons to exist. There’s a fight for legitimacy of sorts. We can put more stuff in our game but it has to make sense or fall into place by somehow affecting or relating with other elements already included. I personally like to follow the Rule of Thirds - if an element or mechanic doesn’t synergize meaningfully with at least three other elements or mechanics in your game then it’s probably not worth including in the game. In the Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, rock formations initially dismissed as decoration later help to guide players when they’re running off into the distance with the Merge ability. We discover these synergies each time we recognize how a certain element belongs in the situation or problem we’re trying to solve during play. What’s most important is that it’s a realization, a revelatory moment for players since they’re the ones who put the pieces together to arrive at that moment where they learnt the one thing which they failed to recognize, despite it being presented before. Developers harness/exploit every asset they introduce by creatively pairing them against each other as much as possible. Saws in Super Meat Boy remain static in the first few levels, later they’re attached to rotating arms and finally turned into projectiles fired at timed intervals. Rather than manually fabricating these creative combinations and revealing them at a controlled pace, other games allow players to explore a contained space where they can discover these synergies for themselves.


Depending on what’s available and what surrounds the player at any particular moment in a game, they always have a wealth of actions to choose from moment to moment, a ‘choice field’ of sorts. Players don’t take action after the game explicitly offers this choice, things work the way players expect because they’re part of the ruleset, the mechanics, which they’ve learnt over the time they’ve spent playing the game. The Hook Shot in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is used to hit enemies, pull lighter targets nearer to Link, break wooden shields, stun enemies, grab faraway pickups and sometimes even pull Link closer to heavier targets. Players are allowed to experiment with their tools by engaging in a satisfactory disambiguation process where they might ask themselves “what would happen if …”, which slowly reveals to them the many applications of the tools at their disposal. Now there’s play involved in the learning process. The level designer might carefully assemble multiple scenarios where players would be left with no choice but to apply these synergies, but the game itself doesn’t alter its ruleset to accommodate the progression and instruct the player of a change in verbs at any moment. The game also masterfully refrains from from acknowledging which particular application of the verb becomes relevant in any situation which works to facilitate meaningful decision making. Take Humanity in Dark Souls, an item that gives you one Humanity (enables multiplayer among other things) and a large chunk of HP on consumption which it explicitly details in the item description. You are free to choose how to use this item whenever and however it proves useful to you, the game doesn’t acknowledge the fact that you consciously made one of those two choices, it merely follows the rules as it is instructed to. In this situation the player has power over the game, the game makes no attempt at dismissing the fact that the player knows better.



Games focused on narrative that boast choice and consequence gameplay when studied through the same lens make for a more interesting discussion. A story fails to gain importance in a game when it doesn’t synergize with any of the player’s doing. It seems to me that games today feel the need to celebrate the availability of choice; more importance is given to the choice being served to players than how players react to them and how effectively they’re being made to struggle juggling between possible consequences. Telltale “hits their players over their heads every time they make a choice” (1) with the infamous “Clementine will remember that” notification because it’s impossible to deliver immediate feedback through the story at that very moment. When we break the fourth wall to inform players explicitly that the game is taking note of their actions, it feels almost as though the act of delivering the choice has become an end in itself. It can be argued that narrative choice is still a relatively new concept for the wider audience that was introduced to games in the last decade which might warrant this kind of design, but many games some older and some newer have moved beyond the point where they would feel the need to pride in being able to vend choice to players; games that I think have carefully observed the subtle difference between presenting choice and listening to player action.


I appreciate games that execute choice in a more diegetic manner by allowing players to leverage the verbs they’ve familiarized over the time they’ve spent playing the game. Some games go even further and leave choice as content that’s waiting to be explored which players might overlook; choice that behaves like a collectable and later a commodity they can exchange over the internet. I would refrain from reminding players that we’re listening before or immediately after the moment I take note. Listening to player action that falls inside of the verbs they’ve almost internalized (swing, hit, jump) I feel is a reliable way to make sure we don’t mistakenly hint at the fact that we just hit the ‘record’ button. The Walking Dead sits on one end of this spectrum when compared with other games like Chrono Trigger, Bloodborne and Deus Ex. In the process of halting gameplay to produce context aware dialogue options, a game immediately declares that it is now listening to hopefully respond accordingly later in the story. It’s made completely clear that a choice is available in the first place - games that patiently waited before delivering their response in a timely manner to later surprise me, have made for some of my favourite and most memorable moments in videogames. It’s not possible to elicit that same response from players if they’re not being caught off guard. With dialogue options I feel we ruin the surprise before we could even set it up.



I look to games that maintain players in a position where they are made to believe that every action they perform is a choice with an associated consequence. Playing the game then becomes an exploration of how the world responds to your actions in different ways. “Don’t Be a Fool… Run…” shouts Paul Denton after instructing JC to flee from the back window before the conversation is closed and control is delivered back to the player. With Men in Black threatening to storm through the front door of the apartment, the moment is amped with enough tension to put players on the spot. In the most recognizable form of offering this binary choice, another game would rise to the moment with UI elements and on-screen instructions wrapped up neatly with a countdown timer slowly moving to zero. Deus Ex isn’t quick to jump in and show off because it’s burdened itself with the responsibility of playing out a simulation. The time constraint is made implicit with game objects waiting to enter the arena on their queue, a progress bar is not required to reify this urgency. By bringing it down from a dangling UI element floating in front of the camera to reflecting it accurately through the situation being played out inside the fiction of the game, the delivery is made more diegetic - you can’t take forever to make this decision because agents are ready to break into the apartment, not because an imaginary number is counting down. The game also doesn’t instruct players to make a decision by picking between two context sensitive buttons on the screen but offers them the freedom to exercise the choice through the application of the first mechanic they learnt hours before this moment finally presented itself. Deus Ex confidently resumes play without a single hint towards the availability of this binary choice outside of what the character had to say, even the in-built quest log (Goals/Notes) describes a distant objective that is completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Multiple elements fall into place after a meticulous process of carefully introducing different mechanics over a long period of time to slowly have them converge and arrange a moment like this one. Even Deus Ex doesn’t always make the effort to arrange these set ups in every situation where a choice is made available.


The dialogue choice also defaults to misrepresenting the possibility space. In that moment the game has made it clear that I can only choose one of three options and nothing more. Some games might selectively introduce dialogue options but that doesn’t remedy the obvious reinforcement of a limited possibility space. We can encourage exploration only after we create expectation by inviting players to investigate the boundaries themselves. Bringing players to a place where they’re actively looking to make a difference inside the game world is an intricate process which involves balancing carefully between creating and delivering on said expectations. When you’re made to realize that the tools which enable your decision making powers rest within the ruleset you learnt moments after you first started the game, brings a sense of empowerment that no amount of game design trickery could ever come close to delivering.


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Players who doubt the story behind the aptly titled “Suspicious Beggar” in Bloodborne can test their confidence by slashing at him. The trial sequence in Chrono Trigger didn’t require collecting years of dialogue tree decisions over a trilogy of games to prepare, it delivered more punch with only about an hour of simple RPG interactions which the game chose to listen in on. These diegetic choices are only just another manifestation of the verbs in the game, put simply, they are made more meaningful now that players are free to explore how they might prove useful outside of their primary and default function. Rather than picking a favorite from a few dialogue options, players are now searching to find more ways to affect the world. Slip on the Darkmoon Seance Ring at the Darkmoon Tomb in Dark Souls and a giant statue disappears to unlock a new area. Overalls in Bloodborne grant stat boosts like poison resistance or fire defense but when players encounter Adella the Nun reluctantly praying to the Healing Church, they know exactly what to do from one look at their inventory.


These obscure choices are mostly discovered and documented through a collaborative effort by players on the internet. This is also sometimes lodged as a complaint by those who believe these secrets are somehow rendered meaningless when most players discover everything that’s hidden, in effect the game is ‘solved’ and requires no more attention. This brings me to the ultimate key to what I’m trying to say with everything we’ve discussed up to this point. I like to think that games and players form a power dynamic, players exert power over the game to achieve dominance over the system. This struggle is made more meaningful when the game understands this and responds accordingly with resistance, something I’ve come to expect from games. An element in a game doesn't require further validation once it finds itself meaningfully contributing to this power dynamic.


Hiding the story behind collectables carefully placed off the beaten path aligns our imaginary narrative with this power struggle that we maintain so responsibly when dealing with other tried and tested mechanics like enemies, boss fights and rare items. These collectables further reinforce this alignment when they carry relevant information about the game world which players can verify through play. If NPC's in Dark Souls aren't telling you about some area on the map which you might eventually visit, they won't forget to share their biased opinions about each other. On the surface it might seem that following an objective marker on-screen and trusting a visual walkthrough on the internet are one in the same thing, but when a game goes out of its way to coach me on how to manipulate itself, I am no longer inclined to exert power over it. I could ask a friend to help me out by joining my game, or I could refer to wikis where players have solved the problem as a community - in either of those cases the solution isn’t coming from inside the same system that I’m trying to overcome. There’s nothing wrong with stories told in linear cutscenes but they don’t always serve the purpose of providing a resistance in any way. The disconnect between play and story is a phenomenon that is unique to games. We employ many techniques to close this gap without realizing how this dissociation could be leveraged creatively to our advantage. There’s only a subtle difference between granting players with a few seconds of agency between story chunks versus trusting them with the tools which they can later use to have their voice be heard in the game. I look forward to making games where I can trust players with that power.