If you are a new committed developer and you only read one blog post I do, then I suggest this be the one.
We have been pretty much working on projects for the last five years without any significant gap. This process has taken us on journeys of exhilaration right through to utter despair and burnout on a regular basis. I want to try and talk openly about this process and what it does to people.
Me are Shaun are alike in that, we truly find joy in this passion. However, unlike many indie devs who are so determined that they take the plunge and go full time working on a project, we have always attempted to work around day jobs. Our release output is high and other indie devs are surprised when we tell them we have jobs. I can’t speak for Shaun’s reasons but for me, the idea of full time indie dev is tempting, but the fear of not having income is too great. Perhaps I just don’t quite have the undoubted belief in what we are doing - or perhaps it’s the knowledge that living in London without steady income is near impossible. However, I also think that for me, it’s also a fear that going full time might kill the passion. I’m quite social, I enjoy talking to people and I know that isolation would not do me much good in the long run. That being said, it is painful being drained by a day job and then knowing your remaining precious hours must be devoted to the passion and that’s the focus of this post.
The tunnel vision I developed working on Legend of Hand for three years, lead to a great deal of neglect in other areas of life. It was an all or nothing project, a project I had to create for myself. I was proud at how in the zone I got. Even when out socializing it would play on my mind, I needed to get back to it. Every hour not dedicated to climbing this mountain felt like an agonising waste. However, working on it with such devotion blinded me other areas of my life that needed attention. I let friendships slip. I became boring to be around, always fixated on the project. Most importantly, I didn’t give my relationships with those closest to me the attention they needed. I let my personal life crumble away slowly. Suddenly, I turned around and there was no one to share any sense of accomplishment with. I was burnt out and exhausted. And for what, the project had not changed my life. And because of that I dove straight into the next one, to justify the ongoing vision.
As our game Sumatra: Fate of Yandi (the 4th game in a row that we have worked on) nears its final stages I have really started to unravel. At this stage the project causes me mental pain to work on. Don’t get me wrong, this project has been one of the most fun to do- it has been an exercise in tranquillity compared to Legend of Hand. However, a breaking point was reached, a moment where I had to step back and take stock of my life. I’m going through this process now. Luckily, I just about pushed through the bulk of Sumatra: Fate of Yandi before this hit me. It’s not that I have stopped working completely, I still spend several hours a week on it. But that infectious intensity that I had for so long has currently deserted me. I look forward to the passion returning in the near future.
I’ve read dev blogs that talk about this before - the importance of maintaining friendships and relationships is as important as rest days. In fact, I would say enforced rest days can add value to the project and allow you to digest the joy of the process. This is particularly important during the crunch period because that’s where your health and mental state can really come unstuck. We have heard all about the damage done in the triple A and film industry by such intense working patterns and it’s no different for your own work. It’s not easy to take a step back; you will feel that you are just slowing down your train. But you are in this for the long haul - you must work on preserving your love, health and state of mind for this campaign!
Our current project ‘Sumatra’ was originally made for a two-week game jam solely by Shaun under the title ‘Pendek’. Shaun wanted to tell the simple story of a lost logger deep within the Sumatran jungle who is trying to get back home. Quite what gave him the energy and drive to do this in the middle of a full time job and a huge project (Legend of Hand) bemused me at the time. I suspect it was the need to work on something quick and fresh that had an immediate end in sight – a form of therapy to combat the sprawling mess that LOH was becoming. With that being said, I was impressed with how much he achieved in such a short space of time.
As Shaun was busy piecing together his vision for the game, we would discuss various ideas to expand the game. When time allowed I would sketch random scenarios that came into my head and send them to Shaun. These seemed to work surprisingly well and we generated several puzzle ideas just from these initial sketches. It was good way to get me in tune with the project – quite different from anything theme wise that we done before.
We are very keen to keep the puzzles in this game fresh, unusual and entertaining- as its setting leaves it open to the pitfalls of classic adventure fetch quests. This will be a big challenge and I am looking forward to seeing it come together. In the mean time I have been tasked with creating what seems to be a never ending stream of backdrops!
Now that idea is being expanded into a much bigger fleshed out world. The animations, backgrounds and designs will be re-worked but hopefully maintain the charm of the original. At first our intention was to work within the original games very limited retro colour palette which had an almost C64 type quality. However as time went by and the project has grown, we have slowly moved further away from that – with backgrounds now displaying far more detail and colour variety. I think we started to feel that the nostalgia aesthetic was going to eventually wear thin. A huge amount of the game is set in a jungle and we didn’t want the player to get bored of walking around an expansive environment with very little variety.
By contrast the character designs have been kept largely untouched- with just a few set colours. The benefit of keeping them simple is that I have no excuse not to provide plenty of variety and fluidity in idle animations. I’ve tried to be as expressive as possible with the animations of these tiny sprites and I should be able to keep adding bits here and there right up until the games release.
Generally, Shaun provides me with an animal base sprite and a general idea of how the character will interact with the world. I’ll then watch a couple of YouTube vids to check if the animations I’ve imagined are possible in the real world. I.e. does a startled Tapir trot or gallop away? It’s actually quite a fascinating experience in research but I won’t do that for more than half an hour- time is precious!
So how are we feeling about it all so far?
Well, I think Shaun and myself are both using this project as a real form of escapism from the current trials of modern living (which seem to be increasing every day). Sometimes we both envy Yandi, lost in the jungle, free from the urban chaos and repetition of it all. This project is a more therapeutic experience so far when compared with some of other works. But who knows how we will feel about in a few months time.
Thanks for reading.
Cloak and Dagger Games
One of the reasons I’ve always preferred collaboration projects to solitary work is the sense of fun that combined endeavours provide. I feel this is particularly important when living the demanding, frustrating and often isolating (part-time) lifestyle that game dev demands. Working together has many benefits- when one of you is flagging, the other is on hand to motivate and inspire, helping you push through the tough times. It means you always have someone to discuss projects with and get excited over, even when no else cares. It also keeps things unpredictable but in a good way. You work really hard on something and then are treated when new material emerges from the other person. Most importantly, you have someone who shares your dream.
Our somewhat unusual set up at Cloak and Dagger allows different people’s visions to be realised for each new game and with that comes a sense of variety and freshness from project to project. I mean, I would never have dreamt up a world based around a 1980’s college American Football setting and yet here I am working on one! Working on visions that are not your own (but which you are still passionate about) can be rewarding in their own right. That being said I’m taking far more of a back seat on our project Football Game. The game is now very much in its later stages of development and I have come on-board to breathe life into the character portraits and a few other select animations.
This has been a particularly interesting challenge for me due to the simplistic but striking style that Shaun has set for the game. For example my original animations for the character portraits were far too expressive for the tone of the game. I had already created quite a few before we decided that they did not suit the world - which might have meant many wasted hours. However, due to the games' style, rectifying this has been a very quick process. I think the more subtle motions fit nicely into the somewhat unsettling tone of this quaint world.
But the real fun for me is the mystery of this project. Shaun has given me very little insight into the story and only hinted at it’s themes. As this is, in a sense, the spiritual successor to A Date in the Park, I’m expecting a few twists and turns as well as some head scratching from players.
The game will also feature a few close up animations where I’m taking inspiration from one of my all-time favourite classic games ‘Another World (AMIGA), which is ironic as its creator Éric Chahi (much like Shaun) was also very secretive over his work and wouldn’t reveal any information - even to those who were helping him out with music! However, I hear that our musicians were also keeping their work secret from Shaun... so this game is certainly going to be interesting.
Legend of Hand has been out for over the month now. I’ll definitely be doing a full post-mortem on the entire project at some point down the line - perhaps in a year, when I can truly analyse the experience in its entirety. For now however, I will just do a short update on how we wrapped up the project.
Finishing LOH felt like having a huge weight lifted off our shoulders. However, much work was still to be done in the weeks that followed. While Shaun made last minute updates based on play tester feedback, I created supporting documents to compliment the game. One document went into full detail about the games development from all areas, including design, story and programming. We also produced a small art book for the game which I’m quite proud of. You can get both of these together on Steam for 79p as collector’s extras.
The art book features a range of artwork by myself including posters, promotional material, sketches and other random stuff. It also includes some work by guest artists who were inspired (or forced :) ) to do their own interpretations of the game.
Have you seen the cassette tape cover art for the ZX Spectrum game Renegade 3 in an early ‘Barracuda Corner’ entry? Well, I love old video game box art, and I knew that LOH would be the perfect opportunity to create some retro style painted works.
The main image features several of the games characters (including the poor swordfish!) and I think would not have looked out of place on shop floors in the 90’s (oh how I miss those boxes). Once I completed the image I put it through Adobe After Effects to create the illusion of a 3D box rotating in space which I used at the end of LOH’s launch trailer. I suspect that’s as close as it will come to having a physical form... but you never know.
Below is a link to a time lapse video I did while painting the LOH poster:
So these were the final bits I did for LOH before its release. I’m so happy that we were able to get the game out. I just hope now that we can spread the word and that people will play it!
We are now entering the later stages of development and are finally piecing together the part of Legend of Hand I have been most looking forward to experimenting with- that of the fight system and its upgrades. Entwined with that is our item shopping system.
Turned based fights in LOH are quick and explosive. Don’t expect long, drawn-out grinding bouts.
When on short holidays abroad, I would often find myself drawn into bartering sessions with stall owners, who were keen to to sell me tourist-tailored cack. Exuberant sellers would passionately inform me how their items were rare, precious and unique to the lands culture. I’d find this process both infuriating and intriguing. The passion with which a seller would try to convince me that something I knew I didn’t need would change my life was an experience in itself, regardless of the items real worth. Sometimes I would just cave in, happily paying way over the odds just to end their incessant ramblings. I wanted an element of this to carry through to LOH’s item purchasing system. Unlike a lot of games, item values in LOH are not listed- gaining valuable items amongst junk is based on how you interpret a loose description. Do you trust the shop keeper? Will you find it cheaper elsewhere, or perhaps the item in question is a fake?
In LOH many of the players moves can be upgraded by fighting and sparring matches. Shop items also offer these benefits, as well as potential HP boosts and even new hidden moves on occasion. However these exact benefits are never specified, you only have the shopkeeper's word to go by and just like real life you run the risk of buying dud items or paying way over the odds for something. This adds a level of intrigue to shopping and the tone and opinions of shopkeepers (they comment on each other) need to be taken into account. On top of this some items have randomised benefits, so shopping really is something of a lottery. However, get it right and you see huge leaps in your skill set.
To shop items you need coinage. Money can be earned in several ways, either as ad hoc reward for favours, gambling or even taking a quick job as a fisherman. We have tried to design the game in such a way, that there is often a way in which to upgrade your skills, although it might mean taking some time out from your quest.
By my next update, the game should be in its very final stages of development. It’s been three years fitting the project in around our jobs but the finish line is finally coming into sight!
From the outset, our aim for Legend of Hand was to create a graphical adventure where exploring and puzzles went hand in hand with martial arts RPG-style battling. This was probably a rather odd and ambitious choice for only our second game but I blindly pressed ahead with it without hesitation. Initially the idea was simply that the game be a graphic adventure spread across four levels where a boss would be waiting at the end whom you would have to beat in a turn-based RPG battle. This was more of a novelty factor than anything else - it wasn’t a great fit. After completing the 1st portion of the game we realised that for the game to work, the two systems would need to fit together in a much more natural way that would immerse players of either genre.
We are currently looking at revamping the fight system of the game completely. Although we have always had it that you would need to defeat certain characters in combat as part of the narrative progressing process, we are now looking at bringing in optional and randomly generated fights. This will add far greater depth to the system, with regards to powering up the main players stats and abilities. The idea is that spending time accepting sparring challenges and fights will allow the player to potentially get a better mastery of moves or grow stronger and maybe even learn entirely new moves, But in doing so, you are delaying the main quest and potentially landing yourself in worse puzzle situations should you lose. So battles must be carefully chosen. We are also going to have other ways to improve the player through purchasing items at shop stalls. The key is to keep all this within the framework of the point and click adventure side of the game - giving the player multiple ways to improve while not allowing them to get too strong for a particular part of the game.
In the final game we plan to have several different fighting styles which can be developed or neglected during the games various adventures.
Although fights are conducted in a turn-based combat manner that is separate to the exploration gameplay, I always wanted scenes in the game where you learn moves and fight opponents could slip into the framework of the main game and function more like puzzles. Island 3 is where we have put these ideas to the test.
The battling element will be the last thing we implement into the game in terms of coding, as we want all the other framework in place first. We want to make it as fun and engaging as we possibly can with the limitations we have!
Thanks for reading,
Making long, story driven games is tough. It’s time consuming and you can go for years without anything finished to show for your efforts. I think that is the main reason I recently started getting back into painting - just for fun and also to create that sense of accomplishment one gets from actually finishing a task and having something to show for it. It’s also a great break from the computer! A friend suggested I film myself painting and then speed the recording up, to show my processes and see where I went wrong or could improve. I find it a bit weird, it's like someone’s watching you once you press the red button!
I like using mostly watercolour as it’s quite an unforgiving medium and also because they are easy to get out and put away (I can't be waiting around waiting for paint to dry!). On the computer you can always correct things, but every stroke counts in watercolour and you can’t cover up mistakes - you've just got to go with it! Recently I’ve imposed time limitations on pictures to force me to not hesitate when applying colours.
I’ve posted some of them up on YouTube. Take a look if you are interested. I will pretty much paint whatever I feel like at the time, be it films, games, people or something that grabs my attention that’s going on in the world...
I’ve not done an update for a while, so if you have a spare few minutes, grab a cup of tea and have a little read about the progress that ‘Legend of Hand’ has made since the start of the year.
Firstly - We were greenlit on Steam! It was a rocky ride and I’ll blog more specifically about my thoughts about how that process went in a future post. In preparation for our campaign, we got out a demo for the game which included the majority of the 1st island. It’s been good to finally see people reacting to the game (via YouTube playthroughs and general feedback). The graphical design choice seems to have been one of the demo’s main talking points and with this in mind, I’ve made graphics the main focus of this particular entry.
Hand uses AGS’s favoured 640 x 400 resolution with black outlines on top of mostly flat colours. Using this graphical style was one of the earliest decisions I made for the game. Well, in truth the game started out as a quick test for a scrolling background (and here we are over two years later…). The block colours with black outlines are certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste but I feel there is a certain charm to them once animated that will land LOH a small place in the hearts of those who delve fully into the world. Most importantly, it was a style that I knew would be just about sustainable for the ambitious scale of this project, considering the tiny team we have. My thinking was that by keeping the colouring as simplistic as possible, I would be able to churn out a huge amount of animations. Whether that gamble will pay off will only reveal itself in the final product I guess. Will people be turned away by the quirk of this style or will they warm to it and what it offers?
As time has gone on, amendments to the style have been made and changes integrated. I definitely made quite a few errors in the beginning. I initially scanned in artwork and scaled it down and then spent ages cleaning it up. All of that is now pretty much streamlined - we are now at a place where we quickly draw direct onto the computer or ink out drawings on paper and scan in at the useable size. Having these two interchangeable methods has kept me fresh and stopped boredom getting the better of me. It’s also allowed my eyes to handle the task better as my eyes suffer greatly from staring too long at a computer. Thinking back, I can see that I really should have taken a bit more time to flesh out this design process right at the beginning - but you live and learn.
Once my initial excitement had passed (after about 30 seconds) of seeing a character move around in the landscape for the first time (before this project, I’d only worked with photos for ‘Mudlarks’) it started to become clear that the flat colour palette made the game seem very still and soulless. Just having the odd bit of movement here and there such as characters blinking was not enough. So after the first part of the game was constructed I gave characters huge makeovers in terms of idle animations. Still motionless sprites have now been replaced by the moping of brows, yawns, head scratches and even nosey turns as you walk past them, which I feel has certainly brought things up a notch. The playable character has many different idle animations and I really want the player to enjoy the world and take moments just to sip away at a cup of tea while watching characters go about their business. This is where the art style is showing its benefits- these changes and additions can be made fairly quickly and the only real limit is where we want to draw the line with it, as we have so many characters and animals. That and of course, the limitation on sprites that AGS allows- it’s huge, but we actually might begin to reach the upper thresholds (30,000) the way we are going and we don’t want the game to start to chug.
Various characters will watch you with interest as you walk past, while stall owners will try to wave and yell out to tempt you over to purchase goods
At the time of writing we are working on the games 3rd island. This beachy tropical island is where the amount of fights on offer really jumps up and the RPG elements and levelling up start to come into their own. Animating sets of fight moves for characters is one of the most time consuming aspects of the project and I’ve had to try to streamline this process as much as possible. After months of Shaun’s constant nagging, I’ve finally started using Aseprite and I kick myself for waiting so long (yes Shaun, I should have listened…) before using this little gem to generate, test and flesh out animations for characters. It means I can refine animations and send them directly to Shaun for quick implementation whereas before I was giving him large sprite sheets created using paint software, not knowing how the actual animations would even look! All of the graphics of island one were done in this way and the difference in quality between these early animations and newer ones is clear. We will probably have to revisit the games early animations at some point.
I hope I can keep churning out numerous little animations for this project without running out of steam. Even with this method it’s been a real grind and my mind constantly wonders to new ideas and the desire to work on anything but this. But then I look at some of the great indie games out there and effort that’s gone into them- and realise I need to get my head down and keep going. Luckily Shaun is always on hand to crack the whip!
Growing up around the arcade fighters of old, the art styles and characters of those games were like my bibles. In recent years the artwork of CAPCOM (who created many of these games including Street Fighter) has been collected and published in lavish art books by the company UDON (who started out as a bunch of fans themselves.) Among these books, my favourites are always the fan art tributes to specific games- where fans and artists from across the world attempt to get their work seen alongside that of the original artists and Udon’s own dedicated art teams. So, when the latest Capcom fighting tribute art competition came around I decided to give it a go. I didn’t think about it too much, I just dived in with a vague idea of the image I wanted.
Here is the rough of the final image before I added any colour (the final image is on my deviant art page)
It was done on A4 which meant I struggled somewhat with the details on the small characters but I like how that forced me to keep it simple and get a good sense of the composition. The flightless dragon ‘Hauzer’ was always going to be the focal point and I just added random characters that I had fond memories of from the Capcom universe. I can’t believe it got into the final book and it will be an honour to be up alongside some of the great artists and who have fuelled this universe over the years- I can’t wait to see all the varied art styles from around the world when the book is released.
As the deadline was fast approaching when I actually knuckled down to do this, I concentrated on the lines and finished it off with block colours- leading to an end product that is quite different from anything I’ve done before. I have a suspicion that the imminent release of Jurassic World may have helped sneak my image in, but who knows.
I think it would be great if a tribute fan art book were created for all the adventure games made over the years.
- Capcom Fighting Tribute will premiere with a limited-run convention edition hardcover at San Diego Comic-Con, July 9-12! ttp://www.udonentertainment.com/blog/news/round-1-of-udons-san-diego-comic-con-exclusives
- The standard edition of Capcom Fighting Tribute will be released September 2015. Links to pre-order the book at a variety of online retailers can be found here: http://www.udonentertainment.com/blog/product/capcom-fighting-tribute
Agreeing to help Shaun make Mudlarks was certainly an eye opener for me. I perhaps foolishly said I could find a way to knock out graphics quickly and effectively to bring his vision of a mysteriously subdued and quaint London jaunt to life. Prior to Mudlarks, Shaun had created a one room game for an art show using AGS, so essentially this was our first game.
If memory serves, the original aim was to bring a short ten screen game to life. A month later I was facing 30 screens and 60 characters as Shaun’s story had blossomed. The instant challenge was how to create so many sprites in as short a time possible. There were only a handful of hours I could devote to the project each week and so some early decisions were taken to use photos as the basis for the games look.
Shaun would take most of the settings pictures while out and around London. Where no picture was possible, backgrounds were constructed from components. Most of the character sprites involved us taking pictures of friends in hilarious poses- few had any clue what on earth was going on. Again, when no one was available characters were constructed in makeshift poses, creating hilarious monstrosities and some very questionable limb proportions!
I’ve enjoyed the fuss that the graphics have caused. This cheap digitised look hit heights with Mortal Kombat and then became known as no go area for graphics. It’s not a style I’ve seen used much in modern gaming at any level. No other technique would have got Mudlarks done in that time frame. I grew up around Mortal Kombat arcade cabinets and magazine articles explaining the techniques- I’d always remembered the development team emphasising the time saving factor of graphical digitisation and the concept stuck with me- wow this worldwide hit was created by a handful of people! Does that mean anyone can make a game? Enjoy the silly graphics or hate them, they are definitely part of the satisfyingly unsettling Mudlarks experience. I also feel that somehow the quirky look and feel of game (though audio as much as anything) was able to capture the mood of London’s rare quiet hubs in quite a unique way- which I have not seen before. My Grandmother stuck with it and that’s a triumph!
To say Mudlarks encountered a few graphical hiccups is an understatement. Let’s take resolution- the first sprites I cut out were large full size images- big mistake, shrink them down to 200 pixels and it’s game over! It took me a while to get used to working in with images under 300 pixels tall. The early sprites of Winnie and Vincent had facial characteristic changes, such as bigger eyes and contrast variants. But as the game grew and grew, we began to lose focus with this look as we bunged more and more stuff in. We were saving to the wrong format (leading to further clean up), I was using a dodgy monitor and creating sprites ranging from amusing to truly awful. None of that seemed to matter though, a world was created and it was all great fun. The main sprite of Winnie was a test animation that made it all the way into the final game- absolutely shocking!
What I’ve really been impressed by is during this whole experience and it’s something I would never have predicted- is the communities passion and support to these sorts of games. I’ve grown to despise social networks, I think it’s dumbed down our society, yet I put my hands up and say Twitter allowed us to get a game out and for people to play it. The follow up release of the short 'A Date in the Park' no doubt cemented this digitised style as one of choice for our team- Cloak and Dagger games, the company who bring out disturbing photo manipulated graphics. Hopefully some of our future games will shake off this image- but don’t worry, we might address this style again someday.
I guess the point of this post is to emphasise the importance of getting something out there and not be afraid of its shortcomings. Sure, we could have tried to labour for hours and make the game look as pretty as possible- but would we have ever completed it? Would we still be designing the Thames shoreline? Who knows… It was our stepping stone into the bold world of game making and it was done from start to finish within a year. The feedback has given us confidence and desire to make new even more ambitious projects. So if you are reading this, whilst labouring over your own project, keep going until you get it done and get it out there for the world to judge.