Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part VII)

Like I hinted at in the last post, I'd make this one brief by comparison. Honestly, there wasn't much that happened after the Mayan Mystery was released. The changes to the game's performance and gamepad support were included, and it seemed like the interest was pretty much non-existent going forward.
At the time, there was an Adventure Apes website that I used as a more direct way for people to get the game (it was still available on Desura and a couple other smaller sites). I kept it running, even though I hadn't done anything new with it in ages.
My intention was to make the website kind of a hub for different things relating to the Adventure Apes. It would have been awesome to have some fun t-shirt designs or other merchandise that people could purchase through there, but I couldn't find enough time to work on all that kind of stuff between a day job and family things at the time.
On the game development side, a lot had changed. I was feeling totally burned out from making the Mayan Mystery, but wanted to keep pushing to get something new out there. There were a ton of ideas floating around in my head, and a bunch of them were started, ballooned into things that became unmanageable, and then dropped.
The storyline is that the Adventure Apes end up in space (specifically Europa) after the Mayan Mystery, so I explored all kinds of possibilities as minigames etc, but never really loved any of them.

Early concept for a sequel.


Galactic Gladiator:  A single screen arena fighter

 Otis in Orbit: A physics-based shmup thinger. Never really got off the ground with this one.

A map I had set up for Galactic Gladiator. Stages were only revealed as you make progress. I'm still happy with the Super Mario Bros 3 type functionality of it!

A smartphone minigame attempt where you tried to discover and document as many creatures in Europa's ocean without running out of fuel.

  Opening screen for the game above. I like the movie poster quality the layout has :)

I tried a few times to partner up with people who were much better programmers than me, but those fell through too. It's hard to find the time to finish a game when you're doing it in your spare time!

Descent to Atlantis: Kind of like an underwater treasure hunt!


Jarhead: This was to be a side-scrolling jump'n'gun type thing. Simple, but lots of fun!

For a while, I really slowed down on anything game-related. It felt nice to rediscover my other interests, like going outside! For so long, my mind was focussed on game development that everything else was out of balance. Getting back to doing other things helped clear my head, and made it clear that I can still do all of the things I like, but it would be important to do them in smaller amounts to keep everything balanced.
An important thought came up during this time; I make games because I like making them! There was no need to beat myself during the process, especially since the whole experience was for fun. If your livelihood depends on finishing games by a certain date, then it'll be a much different story of course.

Eventually, it occurred to me that while trying all these ideas was a good way to practice different aspects of making a game, I really out to settle on something and get back into the swing of things. A proper sequel to the Mayan Mystery was long overdue, and with all the exploration of styles done over the previous few years, the time seemed right to start on that. Looking back at all those images is interesting, because the sequel really ended up being a combination of almost all of them!
Graphically, I wanted to do something new. Pixel art is still amazing when done right, but I felt the urge to draw, so in the winter of 2015, I settled on creating a side-scrolling shooter with hand drawn graphics and try to build on the story that was started with the Mayan Mystery.

In the next post, I'll show a little bit of what I've got set up for Adventure Apes 2, as well as talk about being approached to have the Mayan Mystery put on Steam Greenlight. Exciting times to be sure!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Bringing an Idea to Life (PartVI)

So, after something like four years of learning and development, my game was pretty much done! By this point, most people would have had months of exposure under their belt by way of forum posts/announcements and blurbs or articles on gaming sites talking about your new game. I was definitely behind the ball on this!
Being a lone developer means that you're in charge of every aspect of the game. It is an amazing way to learn every aspect there is to making a game, but also comes with a massive amount of responsibility. In my case, I spent so much time figuring out how to make the game that I completely neglected any form of promotion.
Letting people know your game exists is arguably more important than the game itself. You could have an amazing game, or you could have something truly horrendous, but if nobody knows about it, then what was the point of putting all that time and effort into making it?
The Adventure Apes and the Mayan Mystery fell somewhere in the middle. After putting some videos together, along with a little press kit, I set off to beg and plead with writers at gaming sites to try my game. A handful of merciful souls did, and a few people started making videos playing through the game. If trying to figure out how to promote the game was stressful, seeing people talk and write about the game was downright nerve wracking!!
The online reviews were fair, and seemed to get the purpose of making a retro-inspired game. That probably comes due to the fact that they can sit down and think about how to put an article together. The videos were all more of a first impression type thing, and while people generally liked the graphics and music, the gameplay was a major issue for people who didn't have a very powerful computer.
When I was learning how to make the game, my goal was to try and make something as visually interesting as possible, and one of the many terrible ideas I had was to make the blocks in each room change to a different sprite image each time the player left/entered. It fit in well with my whole concept of making something maze-like, but never considered how much processing power it would take. For instance, people playing the game on laptops would only manage a few frames per second. Ugh! Then there was the issue of jumping. For a platformer game, your movement needs to be on point or else it'll make the player feel like they're constantly fighting the game.
These two issues, along with my total lack of preparation for getting the Adventure Apes brand out there made for a pretty bumpy ride. The reviews were at times hard to swallow, but I did my best to take what I could from them and improve the game (Knowing what I know now, I should have called this a beta release!). In the end, it did make me revisit the game and make changes that ultimately improved the experience by quite a bit. It was a heck of a way to go about finding out about these issues, and I don't recommend it to anyone!

It was 2012, and I had taken my shots with the initial coverage, as well as taken the time to make the game more playable. Without that initial wave of exposure, interest in it had died down quite a bit. I'm not exactly sure how this next bit happened, but I was asked if I wanted to have the game included in a couple of bundles! One was called the Stuffing Bundle, and the other was part of a bundle for a local political party trying to promote entertainment development in the community. They were both opportunities for massive amounts of exposure, so I jumped at the chance!
Bundles are kind of interesting. On one hand, you get a small percentage of the true cost of your game, but on the other hand, the amount of people who are made aware of your game is undeniable. If you're in the position where you depend on selling your game to pay the bills, I can see how it would be a hard decision to make, especially if you aren't getting a lot of exposure. There are probably good ways to leverage the exposure from a bundle deal into sales from your website somehow, but don't expect me to know how!
Actually, if you had more than one product on your site, you could definitely expect an increase of sales after a bundle, when people are curious what else you might have :)

Wow, this post was a little on the lengthy the next post, I'll briefly cover the years 2012-2016 (It will be quick, I promise!), and getting Greenlit!

Here's a little extra if you're thinking of getting in to game development (If I haven't scared you off already!), It's a really amazing resource for indie developers, called PixelProspector. Simon has put years into making this site, and the amount of useful info you can find there to help you through every aspect of making your game will surprise you!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part V)

I previously mentioned the idea of making an instruction booklet to go along with the game. To me, it seemed like a great way to do something a little different from a lot of indie games at the time, as well as have fun doing some drawings!
One of the coolest things about games back in the mid-80s is the fact that the booklets generally included a bunch of artwork to go along with the info. Flipping through the pages was always exciting! It was a way to get some insight into the game; reading up on the backstory and enemies etc. Having that art was a great way to interpret what you'd actually see in the game, since the quality of graphics couldn't come close to what could be shown in a little sketch.
Incidentally,  while searching for examples of instruction booklets I found an amazing site with info on games from pretty much every older system imaginable. Check out Games Database here!

 Guardian Legend

Super Mario Bros 3

Mega Man 3


That was definitely something I wanted to emulate, since I made the decision to have tiny little pixel graphics (fyi, the player character in the game, Mitch, is 14 pixels tall, and everything is based on a 16x16 pixel grid, so being able to show elements of the game in greater detail seemed smart).
Using the original storybook style as a basis, I tried to make everything in the booklet cartoony, fun and really colourful. Here a few of the pages from my instruction booklet:

Adventure Apes and the Mayan Mystery

As a kid, I spent a ton of time drawing things that I thought were interesting. Not just from video games necessarily, but it seems art based purely on imagination has a way of sparking the viewer's creative flair. I thought it would be really cool if these drawings would make a kid want to draw, the same way those old instruction manuals inspired me! In the end though, it was something I wanted to include to make the whole experience feel a little more nostalgic, even if everything was in a digital format.

In the next post, I'll talk about finalizing/releasing the game, and taking my lumps along the way!

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part IV)

Picking up where I left off, I had just discovered the amazing Metroid example created by Arne Niklas Jansson and felt totally inspired to focus on developing a game, instead of trying to pair up a children's book with a game.
After failing terribly with the first attempt at the Adventure Apes game, I figured it was time to sit down and really establish a solid plan for what I wanted it to be like. I had just found my stylistic inspiration with this image (I honestly never get tired of looking at it):

The next step was to spend some time planning what the game should play like. Over the next little while, I spent a lot of time doodling level maps on grid paper. I wanted the game to be enormous! Everything was to take place inside a Mayan temple, so I researched lots of things about Mesoamerican culture: architecture, sculpture, music etc. My intent was to make something with a few levels that would really challenge the player's ability to find their way around. Each level would have a distinct theme, basically working downward inside the temple, from the main temple to a 'basement', then even further down into an aquifer and ancient lava tubes.
Up until this point, everything was really generic and lacking. Here's a screenshot of a mockup I did for the original style to drive the point home:

And as a comparison, here are a few images from the updated version of the game:

It's pretty night and day huh?

As I got into the level design, I came to realize my plan to make each level enormous was going to cause trouble. There is a balance you can find in any game with the size of each level and the amount of stuff the player has to do there. My first few tests were huge, but it meant that every goal for the player was spread way too thin. It made the level tedious to get through, and the last thing you want when planning a level is the player to get bored! You can challenge them and push them in one direction or another, but in the end, you want them to feel like they're actually getting somewhere. With that discovery, I decided to scale things back a little.
Once again, I used the first Metroid game as reference. The game was large enough to take some time to finish, and a lot of the levels had rooms and layouts that were similar, which could easily confuse the player if they weren't paying close attention to where they came from.
I still love this aspect of the game, but in this day and age where people want instant gratification, it's a hard sell when most other games you can basically run through them and blast your way through pretty much everything. That brings up another aspect of the game, I really wanted the player to be mindful of their ammo, so it was limited. Sure, enemies would drop health or ammo when you beat them, but if your mindset was to plow through the game with your thumb on the shoot button, you'd get discouraged easily. It became a point of contention with a few people as I asked for feedback, but I ended up keeping the limited ammo feature for better or worse.

Since I was spending so much time working on the game and ignoring the illustrated book, it was about this time that I had the bright idea to add another one of my favourite features from old school games; the instruction booklet! I'll leave that for the next post though :)

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part III)

Like I mentioned at the end of Part II, I had come down with a serious illness, and was stuck at home for a few weeks while I recovered.
Even though most of the time was spent sleeping and feeling horrible, I forced myself to keep trying to work on the game. No matter what I did, the game still lacked the charm I was after.

So I stopped working on it.

During that downtime, I stumbled across a little image made by one of my favourite artists, Arne Niklas Jansson. He has a really distinct style that balances nicely between being cartoony and highly detailed. Looking through some work of his, I found this:

Behold! It's miniature Metroid, and it's absolutely amazing. (This is a much more recent iteration btw)

This, ladies and gentlemen, was a watershed moment for me. When I saw this image, it's like everything clicked in my head, and I knew precisely what direction to go for my game!
By making everything as small as possible, there isn't any space for something unnecessary in a design, simplifying any elements to ensure they stay readable at a glance. Anything that you want to add for atmosphere or extra detail is implied only, using a few pixels or different colours/values, and the player has to interpret them as they see fit. It blended perfectly with the idea and style for the little book, and I was on my way to making the two of them.

Over the next few months, I was busy posting things in art forums, and got some great feedback. Most of it was focus on the game, and there weren't too many responses to the illustrations. As much as I was loving making an illustrated storybook, the fact that in an art forum people were more interested in the game hinted to me that perhaps it would be better to focus on getting a game put together, rather than having it as a small addition to a children's book. And so, the direction of the path I was on changed.

In the next post (Part IV), I'll start talking about my process for planning a proper video game. Hope you'll check it out!

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part II)

In the previous post, we got up to the point where I had a solid idea on how to approach my story/video game idea, as well as the sort of style I was after. At the time, I was absolutely clueless about how to put a game together, let alone the insane amount of work required to plan even the simplest of games!

I can still clearly remember seeing how one particular program branded itself as being easy for beginners, and best of all, it was cheap (something like $20 US at the time)....that program was called Game Maker (at the time, the version was 7, and was created/run my Mark Overmars). With Game Maker, you had the option to try and write out each line of code, or you could use drag'n'drop icons to make games. It seemed like the ideal way to quickly put a game together! Of course, the drag'n'drop method was way more limited in what you could do as I soon found out, so writing everything in code was the way to go.
Writing code was a slow process, let me tell you! Going through tutorials and trying to figure out the right way to do things from scratch was challenging to say the least. There was a forum full of more experienced users of the program, thankfully. You could ask questions, find examples, and give advice if you were ever that fortunate. 
It took several months, but I managed to get something playable. By 'playable', I mean the game would start up, and you could run around and shoot enemies, but it was lacking pretty much everything that would make a game appealing. 
The game followed my idea of something similar to Metroid, and was fairly colourful, but fell short on charm. The illustrations in the book were cartoony and had outlines to define the shape, and I thought a good way to carry that through would be to use the DuckTales/Mega Man games by Capcom as a reference. Of course, my lack of experience with making nice pixel art came through loud and clear. See the below images for an embarrassing comparison.

 DuckTales Screenshot (full of charm and character):


The original version of Adventure Apes (pretty much the worst thing ever): 


So now that's out of the way, I can tell you that the gameplay closely matched the quality of the graphics. The version above was made available on my defunct website at one point, to put it out there for anyone who was curious and willing to suffer through the experience. 
It was about this time that I got really sick, and during this time, a dramatic shift occurred....which I'll go into in Part III.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bringing an Idea to Life (Part I)

I haven't done anything with a blog in a super long time, and figured this would be a good starting point for a new one: My first game is Greenlit on Steam!

The story of how it ended up getting there is a strange one, so I hope you'll stick around! It's kind of long too, so chances are I'll split it into several posts, but we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

I have always loved drawing, and had the bright idea one day to try my hand at making a little illustrated storybook that followed the adventures of two young monkeys who were trying to stop an evil bird bent on world domination.
Not bad, right?
Well, I knew that it was a pretty cliche concept, and wanted something to set it apart from other stories. That 'something' was to make a little video game that would come with the book, so that kids can read the story as well as play through the different scenes. The idea was an exciting one, so I set off on my journey to make it happen!

As you can see, I wanted things to be colourful and cartoony! I also wanted the story to seem not completely far-fetched, despite the fact that there are talking monkeys and birds (The island is based on a small island on Mexico's Pacific Coast if you want to try and find it!). While putting together illustrations for the storybook, I was planning the game and slowly piecing together what I wanted it to be like.
I grew up playing games on the original Nintendo, and my all-time fave was one called Metroid. In it, the player needed to explore an alien world and gain all kinds of powerups along the way before battling the final boss. The aspect of exploration seemed like a perfect fit for my game, so that was a starting point! Next, I needed a style of graphics for the game. Back in the NES days, everything was really basic pixel graphics, and games were restricted to only a few colours. I liked the aspect of using pixel graphics for a retro feel, but limiting the colours seemed like it would take away from the colourful nature of the story (the guys who made the old school games were masters at making games visually appealing with what they had by the way).
So, an exploration game with pixel graphics and lots of colours. Sounds easy enough, right? Sure, but at this point, I still had no idea how a game was made!