Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Ultra Geist Diary # 1

As I prepare to get back to work on our new feature film, and requiring a small diversion to fill my time between my last big gaming project and my next one, I've decided to make a quick, small, experimental game. In this case, "quick" likely means I'll be done with it in two months instead of seven, but so it goes.

This project, Ultra Geist or Ultrageist (haven't decided which yet) draws its inspiration from a number of sources. As is often the case with my games (and the films I make with my wife, for that matter), the kernel for each new work is often contained in its immediate predecessor. With Side Saddle 2, I strived to be as accessible as possible-- offering hints for each boss, explaining precisely how each trophy was to be earned, and making it fairly easy for even the greenest of shmup players to unlock all the bosses. And so, with this game, I thought it might be fun to go the opposite route-- to make the game as inaccessible as possible, allowing the player to discover pretty much everything on their lonesome. (In fact, I'm very seriously toying with writing instructions-- in Esperanto.) There's a tricky balance to strike here, and I'll probably talk about my efforts to do just that as work on the game progresses.

Side Saddle 2 features a bonus game, a "three minute shmup" named after the second boss, Metal Nautilus. Since Side Saddle 2 is a bit more methodical, I wanted Metal Nautilus to be a simple "blast-the-hell-out-of-everything-and-dodge-their-bullets" shmup. Each new stage is unlocked when the player reaches certain score thresholds, and the player is given three minutes to progress to the final boss stage by earning a 1,500,000 points. This is accomplished by using your weapons to rack up combos; racking up high enough combos allows you to skip entire levels/waves of enemies, thus maximizing your play time.

I like this basic mechanic because it encourages sequence-breaking, which encourages the player to look deeper at the game on a systemic level, which in turn helps them become better at the game and feel that sense of achievement. In Metal Nautilus, however, the mechanic isn't delivered on in a really deep or expansive way (nor is it meant to); the system is really paper-thin and doesn't require much strategy outside of "shoot things and don't run into the bullets". I think with Ultra Geist I can build a system that rewards the player's deepening understanding of it, a system with a number of "loopholes" to "exploit" built right in.

Which brings us to another influence: New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and, in fact, most of the 2D Mario games. A famous consequence of the "domino-effect" scoring system in the original Super Mario Bros. is the turtle on the staircase in 3-1; you can jump on the turtle over and over again without touching the ground to rack up dozens of lives.

The creators of New Super Mario Bros. Wii take this loophole, extend it, and build levels around it-- even going as far as to create videos to show players how to rack up "infinite 1-ups" through various feats of incredible skill. That is, they're encouraging the players to step up their game.

What I'm endeavoring to do, then, is to create a quickie shmup that revolves around this sort of "meta-gaming", around discovering and exploiting "mistakes" and "unintentional" consequences. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, December 25, 2009


Merry Christmas.

And, hey, how's about a contest?

You heard the man! Upload three game play videos-- that's a perfect "no collisions" run-through for bosses eight, nine, and ten-- and post a link in the comments field below. Good luck!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Trailer


This is likely the final development video before the game's release in December.

And, just so you don't have to dig around for the others, here's an embedded playlist. All the videos together run just over 13 minutes.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Fun With Boxes

After designing the "box" for Side Saddle 2 (as featured on the opening screen and instructional PDF), I thought it might be fun to design boxes for my other games as well.

You can play Run Jump or the original Side Saddle at Game Jolt; links are at the side.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Escape From Teh Big House

I'm working on my first LBP level. Here's a look at the first version (I'm redesigning the whole thing from scratch, as is often the case with any game or level design I do).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Just to Clarify...

In one of the earlier posts, I mentioned a sort of growth mechanic-- the longer you go without firing, the more powerful those shots become, but also the larger, thus making you a bigger target. And while the idea of trading off vulnerability (size) and power is still an appealing one, it's not one that I'm exploring in this game, as I think the last video makes clear.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 5

I'm not ready just yet to reveal any of the enemies for my boss battle shmup Side Saddle 2, but I am ready to give everyone who might be interested a glimpse at the HUD and some of the basic mechanics.

The little red fellow with the two dots extending out is the player's ship. The dots themselves are his bullets. Pressing the X key causes those bullets to extend outwards for nearly the length of the playing field and then, after roughly half a second, they retract back inwards. You can only fire out the sides-- there's no diagonal shooting as there was in the original Side Saddle. And while I've done away with the first game's ammo mechanic, you're still somewhat restricted as you only have the two extending/retracting dots-- no rapid-firing the enemy into submission.

Destroying the enemies-- or, to be more accurate, destroying parts of the enemy (boss battle shmup, remember?) will fill up the red bar in the upper right hand corner. When it's full, it begins flashing, indicating to the player that they can now place a tower-- the tower being that handsome little devil near the top. Those blue bullets are his-- the tower slowly fires bullets in each of the four directions. Since they provide the only means of controlling space vertically, getting as many towers on the screen as possible is key to winning.

You've likely noticed the five trophy slots beneath the logo. The first is for defeating the boss; the second, for getting a certain number of towers on the screen; the third, for destroying a certain number of enemy parts with one attack; the fourth is for completing the stage in a certain amount of time (timer has yet to be implemented-- I'm thinking upper-left corner); the fifth and final trophy is for beating the stage without dying.

The player has an unlimited number of lives-- as soon as you're hit by a bullet or an enemy, you'll respawn at the bottom of the screen. Being hit will cause the tower meter to empty itself, but other than that there is no penalty for being hit, no way to "lose" the level.

But the player's progress isn't tied to beating each level; it's tied to the trophies the player has earned. Say, for example, that the game opens with three boss enemies which the player can tackle in any order. Before the next two or three bosses are unlocked, the player must win five of the fifteen possible trophies. He could beat all three, pull off the time on one and the towers on another, or even "ace" one boss and ignore the other two if he so wishes. Trophies aren't extras; they're an integral part of the game.

The various trophies are all tied together in such a way that a good player can collect all five in the same play-through; pulling off more combos (trophy 3) results in a faster filling up of the tower meter, which means more towers (trophy 2), which means that you'll complete the stage faster (trophy 4). Recall that getting hit empties that tower meter; getting through the level unscathed (trophy 5) thus allows you to accomplish trophy 2, which, as illustrated above, ties into trophies 3 and 4. (Trophy 1, again, is just for beating the level.)

And now that I've got all that figured out, I think the rest of the game should start coming together a bit more smoothly...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 4

At least twice when I make a game, I start the whole process-- spriting, creating objects, designing levels, etc.-- over from scratch. The second, third, fourth times through, I find ways to make things simpler, prettier, more elegant, more intuitive, and just plain better.

It's not nearly as frustrating as it sounds; I've come to accept it as a natural and exciting part of the game design process.

And I tell you this to note that the first version-in-progress of Side Saddle 2 has been scratched, and that the second is underway...

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 3

While the first two enemies, whose attacks are largely similar, went off without a hitch, the third has resulted in massive game-crashing slow down. So much does it various behaviours slow down the game that it checks the Step Event before it's done with the Create event-- which means that important variables aren't established and the game has a fatal error.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 2

First two enemies are complete, title screens created, trophy system implemented. I made myself work on these last two early on because

(a), when I get towards the end of a project, I begin to get tired of the project-- I get to the point where I just want the damn thing to be over with. Things that add to the presentation of the game but that aren't absolutely crucial to it, such as nice-looking title screens and a trophy/unlockables system consequently are not completed;

(b), a corollary to (a), when I have to go back and add a feature to multiple objects-- such as the detection of various trophy wins into each level's control object-- I often miss something or make some sort of small, silly, stupid, game-wrecking mistake that takes several hours to fix. Implementing it from the get-go prevents hassle later on.

I think the development of this game should be very quick-- maybe two weeks at most. The original Side Saddle took several months (from October 2008 to January 2009) to cobble together. A great deal of that time was spent figuring stuff out, fixing stupid bugs, and creating/scanning/resizing/colour the hand-drawn sprites. I hope to eliminate all three of those time-sinks: thanks in no small part to that first game, I've more-or-less got everything figured out; I don't expect to run into any bugs this time around, though I say that about every game that I make; the basic orb motif should take less time and file space than the first game's hand-drawn enemies.

Fingers crossed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Side Saddle 2 Development Blog # 1

Back in January, I unleashed Side Saddle upon the unsuspecting internet. As I explained in the Making of Side Saddle post directly below this one, it was an experiment of sorts, my attempt to take several trends in shmups and turn them on their ear. It is, I think, the most successful of my experimental games to date-- the most playable, the most interesting, and the most fun. (My most recent game, the platformer Run Jump, while it attempts to add something new to the mix, is much less of an experiment and more of a full game.) Reasonably pleased with the end result but knowing there was room for some improvement and some other ways to deliver on the short-axis/side-shooting motif, I decided recently to do a sequel.

But, as I also said in that making-of post, the original is not perfect. Many have found particular fault with the ammo system.

To recap it briefly: the player has a stack limit of nine shots. When the player is not moving or shooting, your ammo recharges. Killing the enemies faster, then, gave you more time between waves to recharge your ammo safely; conversely, the longer a given enemy was onscreen, the more points it was worth. And as the auto-fire turret power-up, which sent out shots in all four cardinal directions, was awarded at certain score threshholds, getting a higher score was in the player's best interest. And so: desire for safety vs. desire for score, desire for ammo vs. desire for power-ups. Remove one feature (like the hated ammo system) and you remove it all.

And so, the ammo system was integral to Side Saddle yet also its most despised and weakest feature. Any sequel would have to improve upon it vastly or lose it altogether.

And, after a few days, I decided to drop it, as I think I've found a new power-up system that makes better use of the game's somewhat claustrophobic spatial motif. Your ship in this game is a small circle, which gradually becomes larger and larger. Each time you fire a shot(s)-- like the first game, pressing the fire button will release a shot on each side simultaneously-- the ship's size decreases. If you allow the ship to grow to its maximum size, however, you'll be able to place a power-up turret. As in the first game, these turrets fire up, down, left, and right, greatly increasing your control of space-- at least until it self-destructs after a given periodo f time. The moment you unleash that turret, you shrink down to your smallest size and the process starts anew.

Now, here's where it gets interesting: every time you destroy one of your enemy's orbs-- each of which has multiple hit points-- you grow two sizes. A skillfully placed turret will quickly give you the power to place another, and another. While a good player in the first game could get two or three turrets on the screen with a little skill and a little luck, I suspect that most players should be able to get that many on a semi-regular basis. The first game's ability to shoot diagonally is not present here, so being able to control space in four directions is paramount.

Of course, as you're gorging yourself on your way to turret-dom, you're making yourself a much bigger target for enemy fire. At your smallest, you're a few pixels in diameter; at your largest, over a dozen times that. The already narrower playing field-- remember, this is a vertical shmup in which you shoot sideways instead of up-- and the larger, multi-part enemies (did I mention this is to be a boss battle shmup?) should have players most anxious indeed.

I'm very excited about this project, about the new opportunities for both myself and the player that these new and revised mechanics allow us to explore. I hope you'll share my excitement when the game is complete.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Making of Side Saddle

Action games are about controlling space, but in non-arena shmups, both vertical and horizontal, I find the control of space to be too easy. Yes, in bullet hell games, it's difficult to dodge-and-shoot, but in many games you can basically just strafe back-and-forth along one axis-- the horizontal axis in a vertical game and the vertical one in a horizontal-- and rapidly press or hold the fire button to destroy whatever legions of enemies are coming at you.

The player can hang back at either the bottom or left of the screen and fire from there; their shots stretch out over wider axis of the game's orientation.

There are some shmups, of course, that don't allow the player to fall into this trap. Enemies with heat-seeking missiles and arcing bullets prevent the player from getting too comfy. Cactus's great game Clean Asia requires you to ram through an enemy in order to gather the shots used to defeat them. And you don't want to move along one axis in a bullet hell game.

But I was wondering to myself, is there another way to do this? The big problem for me was, again, the way the bullets dominate the longer axis. I considered using "funny" bullets that spin around and I thought about using bullets that peter out after so many seconds. But I couldn't really get either to implement particularly well.

That's when the thought occurred to me of flipping the axis; of having the bullets control the short axis rather than the long one.

In such a game, the player would have to get right next to an enemy in order to shoot them, putting a renewed focus on how the player moves through and controls space. And that's when I started working on Side Saddle, a side-shooting vertical shmup. But there was still a problem; I found that my playtesters were moving along the vertical axis, up-and-down, shooting willy-nilly. Shorter axis or not, it was still the same trap.

And that's where the ammo idea came from; players would now have to conserve their ammo and aim carefully. Accuracy became important. And the reloading motif-- the ammo only reloads when the player isn't moving-- would require the player to think more deeply about the way they moved through space, to consider if they should stop here and for how long.

It also introduced a dynamic tension into the way the player dealt with enemies. If you kill an enemy quickly, you'll have more time to recharge ammo for the next wave; if you wait longer, the enemy will be worth more points but you'll have less time to recharge. And since every 10,000 points gave the player a turret power-up, thus increasing their ability to control space and avoid dying, scoring more points is ideal.

So that, in a nutshell, is the decision-making process that resulted in this game. It's a difficult game, but it's perfectly winnable if the player (1) conserves ammo, (2) fires accurately, (3) stops moving to recharge his ammo, (4) strikes a balance between his ammo-needs and his power-up wants, and (5) uses the entire playfield.

The problem with all that is, it's pretty much hard-wired to support one style of play (the style enumerated above) and to dismiss all others (such as the move-along-one-axis and firing-willy-nilly-at-everything school of shmupping). I stand by the decisions I've made and I think there's a lot of good, challenging, and strategic play in it, that it has a fair amount of replay value.

At the same time, I'm dubious about any game that doesn't allow the player to use their own play style and strategies. While I still think, at least at this stage when it is admittedly still very fresh in my heart and my mind, Side Saddle is a good game, it should have supported more varied styles of play.

Part of the problem is, admittedly, by design-- the whole point of the game, from the start, was to "correct" "lazy" play habits in shmup game play by removing the strategy of moving along one axis while controlling the other with your bullets. But, y'know-- some people like that style of play. (Heck, sometimes I do.) So maybe the whole time I was operating from a false premise.

I'm certainly not trying to dissuade anyone from playing my game--please dear God play my game-- and in fact I hope that the preceding prods some people into giving it a look.