I've prototyped a couple more of these story planets, and I'd say they're coming together quite nicely.
(click for full size)
Captured at an angle so you can see the slight 3D to the game world.
My ultimate goal is to create something that looks like a children's book illustration, but in a world you can actually explore. There are a few more planets to get done, but not too many now. This isn't the final art, but it will make all of the game's locations recognizable.
We're on track to have all of these playable in our GDC build, so if you're going to be at the conference and want to check out the game (especially if you're a journalist) just give me a tweet-holler. :)
Edit: The game is being developed in Unity, since a few of you have asked me that. A couple of the planet bits are built in Maya, but almost everything in this image is made of Unity primitives (cubes and cylinders). Eventually it'll look more like a digital painting.
Last week I wrote about 'sketching' details of the game world with primitive shapes. Here's the same planet about one week later, and you can see some details are starting to get filled in.
For now the point isn't that it's beautiful, but that it's playable. The planet is much bigger than I first planned, but I realized the larger scale would add to the feeling of exploration. This is something I could only see by having a playable prototype - no amount of sketching on paper would have given me that piece of insight.
Speaking of working within the game, I had written some sample dialog snippets in a google doc, but they just kind of died on the page. I cut out half the words and still nothing quite worked for me. What I believe now is that I should be composing the dialog in the game itself (we have a custom dialog editor in Unity now, although it's a few features away from being fully usable).
By seeing the characters speak the lines, I'll be able to take into account the context of their surroundings - where they're standing, what objects are around them, and what's already happened in the story. I think that'll give the dialog lines the life and spontaneity they need. Writing those lines will be the next step once the world is fully sketched in.
If you're interested in keeping up with what we're doing, please consider following me on Twitter if you don't already. Whenever anything important happens with the game, I guarantee that'll be the first place I'll post it.
The original title of this post was "modular level construction," but that's not nearly as fun. :)
I'm currently adding all the necessary story beats to the game. This means having all the story locations in the game, even if they're just roughed in. The next round of playtesters should be able to play through the story, and we can see if any changes are necessary.
The game has several large 'story planets' that play like traditional platformers, albeit on a radial world. The character movement - running, jumping, riding moving platforms, etc. - was done a few months ago. All the main characters are in, and the beginnings of a working dialog system.
But how does one build structures on a radial planet? Would the people there compensate for the strange curvature of the world? Or would they build straight up and down and hope for the best? Trying to imagine how such a planet might look, I did a quick digital painting and built a level on it. The platforms are those dark red rectangles.
The big problem with this is that it's inflexible. I could move the individual trees around, but moving the platforms too much from the art made the whole thing look terrible. And the house was stuck where it was.
I tried simplifying the items I put in the game. In this image, things like the garden and the tea table are represented symbolically. And while it was easier to move the pieces around, it didn't convey the scale I was hoping for. If I couldn't figure out how to make a rough draft, how could I jump straight to the final version?
Then, while working on an unrelated system, I had a brainwave. Most systems I prototype start as cubes and cylinders - primitive geometry that's easy to manipulate in Unity and other 3D programs. Why not prototype the locations using cubes as well?
I made this house today. It's not perfect, but it does start to communicate the feeling I want the player to have as they approach and explore the house. And the nice thing is, the floors already work like floors because the platform system was already in place.
One more quick note, for people who care about aesthetics like I do. As I created the cubes, I assigned each one a colorful material. I have a small number of these that I use like paint pots - it's quick and it keeps the color palette consistent.
Building the rest of the locations should go pretty quickly now. Woo!
Happy New Orbit!
This will be the year that I release Gravity Ghost. Not announcing a release date yet, but 2013 for sure. I think there's a turning point in every game project where it goes from being a bunch of pieces to being a cohesive whole, and the next two months in particular will be crucial to that. Let's see if I can give you an overview.
At the moment, we have a bunch of rad physics levels arranged in a linear progression. Aside from some ongoing minor tuning of the player character (Iona), I’m satisfied with how that part of the game works.
Now that the core gameplay is there, we’re working to integrate some of the auxiliary game systems. At the end of February we start playtesting these new systems in earnest, so they've all got to be done.
I introduced the terraforming system in this post (watch the videos, they’re neat).
This is the next progression: rather than spawning static sprites of trees, the plants actually grow and develop in real-time. Here's how they look now:
(best viewed in 1080p HD)
Plants on planets. Turns every dev meeting into an exciting tongue-twister.
The plant editor scene. Did you spot the carrots in the last video?
Our work for the next production phase is allowing the girl character to carry and plant these seeds, and to have that feel intuitive and rewarding.
The terraforming system also includes a host of delightful animals, but that's a post for another day. :)
With this game I set myself a challenge: not to implement any story stuff before the core gameplay was done. My previous games Spooks, Nanobots, and Puzzle Bots all followed the adventure game trope of using the puzzles to advance the story (and vice versa). And I'm still a fan of games in which the narrative and gameplay are inseparable. But this game called for something else.
GG is about motion and flow. I decided there was no way I was going to interrupt what the player was doing to have some character start yapping about backstory.
Instead, the progression of the story is entirely in the player's hands. There is exactly one location where all the story takes place, and where all the important characters live. This place evolves as you make progress - giving you a reason to return, but not an obligation. The exception is the fox, who you can talk to at any time (but again, the player drives this, not the game).
Now, finally, I can start adding my beloved story elements, which up until now had been quarantined in sketchbooks. Draft 1 of all of the dialog will be in the game two months from now. Here are some screenshots of my ongoing dialog system prototype:
Originally we had this scheduled for later in the process, but I realized the map needs just as much refinement as everything else. A map may seem 'non-essential' or 'low-priority' when there's gameplay stuff to be done, but our past playtests have indicated otherwise. Over and over I watched people enjoy the game for 20-30 minutes, and then say something like, "Cool, where is this going?"
I think maps in games are comforting. Especially in a game with a unique mechanic, it's good to give people a sense of the ground they're standing on, and what their progress is building towards. It also lets the player skip around, to go back and clear an earlier level if they get stuck, or to try to unlock new levels.
Our current map prototype, featuring draggable nodes and locked/unlocked levels
On the developer side of things, this map setup will let us rearrange levels in a hurry, for instance if playtesters find one of the early levels too hard.
The scope of the game is now locked, which means no new features between now and shipping. This is always a good milestone to reach. Prior to this point, development felt like diving down rabbit holes. In the pursuit of something that seems promising, it's easy to end up going down a tunnel which doesn't lead anywhere. But now, finally, I know what the final game will look like. I still think it's worth pursuing those overlooked rabbit holes, and that's why indie game development is nice. Because sometimes, hey, baby rabbits!
If you’re interested in supporting the project, please consider buying my previous game Puzzle Bots, which is now on sale for the airport Coca-Cola price of $2.49. And don’t just take my word for it - here’s a lovely review of the game by indiegames.com. It contains such phrases as “sleeper stand-out”, “genuinely hilarious writing”, and “Puzzle Bots places you in control of a five strong team of tiny robots, with the prime directive of going on dope adventures.” Think about it. I’ll wait.
Thanks all, happy 2013. :)
The very first version of Gravity Ghost was pretty bare-bones, but I noticed something about the way people played the game that surprised me. Playtesters liked to run in circles around the planets.
Old build, featuring high-tech spinning cubes.
There was no reason to run in circles. It often would have been faster to reverse direction and run the other way. Yet players kept running in circles, sometimes many times in a row, just because it played into this nice feeling of continuous motion that was already built into the game.
Enough people even said "I like running in circles" that I decided to turn it into a game mechanic. It solved another design problem I was having, which was how to give the player a simple way to choose which planets to terraform. The colorful trail behind the girl character would now have a purpose: to show you which trail type she was carrying.
I've decided to call the girl character "Iona", so let's use that from now on. There were three different trail types Iona could pick up: dirt, water, and seeds. She could now run in a complete circle around a planet with whichever trail type she picked up, and they could be layered in a crafting sort of way. Here's what the first art pass for that looked like:
Water, dirt, seeds, and various combinations thereof.
And here's what that looked like with some nicer art for the trails and planets:
The miracle of life.
Cool, so that all seemed to work. The next thing I wanted to do was twofold: have the trails be a finite resource, and have the trails be made of Iona's hair. We built a system where flowers would make her hair longer, and encircling a planet would decrease the length of the hair by the circumference of the planet. A fully terraformed planet would create more flowers.
Here's a video with the various hair trail types (I turned off the gravity visualization circle for clarity's sake):
When you see her hair length increasing spontaneously, that's me cheating with a debug button. Normally you collect flowers to make her hair grow.
You'll see that Iona's hair now responds to gravity. It's a game *about* gravity, so that should work just fine, right?
Look again. Her long hair gets spooled around the planets and seems to get stuck. It interferes with the free, flowy feel of the game. If you play this build you'll swear her hair is yanking her back down towards the planets when you jump (even though that's impossible).
But the hair has some cool features, too: it collides with the planets in a neat way, and follow's Iona's motion. Sure, it's a bit visually noisy, but there must be some compromise to make it work, right?
Nope. It was time to give up on the physics hair. Why? There was one important piece of visual feedback that the hair didn't provide, and it was so subtle it took me a while to notice what was missing.
Look back at the very first video. The trail shows exactly where you jump, creating not only those nice round shapes, but also an important visual guide. Like the dotted line in Angry Birds, it let you adjust your course and correct your aim if you missed your jump the first time. And I had totally forgotten about it.
After a good chat with our programmer Mike Stevenson, we decided to nix the physics hair and start again. I still had a problem: I wanted the hair to be a resource you carried with you, so its length would vary. But I also wanted the player to always have a long trail, to show where you had jumped. Here's the solution I came up with:
And here's what that looks like in the game now (though it's running a bit slower than normal):
We're also re-tuning the movement a bit, so we switched off her animation for now.
The feel of the game is worlds better. Running around collecting flowers to make your hair grow is strangely satisfying. It's built to make your momentum feel *good.* The hair doesn't pull in behind Iona yet, and we still have to hook it up with the terraforming system, but this is likely how the hair will behave in the final game. Art-wise, it's functional and readable, and we can tint the hair to represent the different trail types. The next time we revisit this, it will probably be for the final art polish pass.
Speaking of which, I've been trying to reconcile my love of bright colors with the fact that Iona should read as a ghost. That's the main piece of feedback I've gotten about her: she's cute, but not particularly 'ghostly.' Ghosts are typically transparent or white, and in games they're usually surrounded by animated smoke of some sort. But somehow that didn't seem right for Iona - she's very powerful, and I didn't want her to seem intangible.
With this coloration, there's much more white at a distance. But I gave her bright colors for highlights and shadows, as though the light hitting her is from some otherworldly source. I'll have more to say about this later, just thought I'd update you on Iona's ongoing evolution.
Back to the main thrust of this post, running in circles is now a core part of the game, and one that has a few more uses beyond what I've mentioned here. It wouldn't have become what it is without the input of playtesters, who found a behavior they liked and wanted to be rewarded for it in some way.
On that note, another thing playtesters tell me quite a bit is that they love trying to stay in the air for a long time without hitting any of the planets. This is on its way to becoming a game mechanic too, so stay tuned. :)
Here is esteemed music guy Ben Prunty talking about the creative process - and weirdly, he wrote it before he saw my post about Sustainable Inspiration. Some creepy telepathic shenanigans going on here.
Hello again! My last post was about as abstract as you could get on a development blog, so this week I'm going to try for something more useful to other musicians.
1) Listening to music and Evernote as a composing tool
I listen to lots of music. In lots of different genres. I have a premium subscription to Spotify and I run that into the ground. Whenever I hear something that stands out, for instance, an interesting rhythm and tempo combination, unusual chord progression, fun synth programming, or whatever small detail that catches my attention, I’ll mentally file it away. It's a kind of 'inspiration seed' to be pulled out later when I want some kind of springboard into a new track of my own.
Often this is literally filed as a short sentence in Evernote, like:
"5/4 time signature at around 180bpm, like in Floex's Casanova, makes for a good rolling, exciting rhythm."
"the chord movement in the third measure in the verse of Queen's All Dead, All Dead is really cool. Figure out how it works."
Sometimes I'll tag it with 'Gravity Ghost' so when I search for all my GG-related notes, it'll pop up as an appropriate seed. Using Evernote is almost exactly like having a giant spiral notebook with you at all times to scribble in, except you can organize everything by subject or tags and keep it in your pocket if you have an iPod touch like I do. I highly recommend using it. You can even draw in it with the right add-ons. Seriously, stop reading and just download Evernote right now (PC, Mac, iPhone/iPad). I can wait.
Here’s me using Evernote to collect images of paintings I like into a makeshift art gallery. I never stop finding new uses for the software.
2) Writing Chords and Melody
Usually the first thing I try to do is come up with the chord progression and some simple melody to make sure the chords can be tied together well. I'll sit at my sweet digital piano and bang on the keys like an angry monkey until something good emerges. A great tool to help with ideas is an iPad with the Polychord app. Bananas and fur help with the monkey part.
Give Polychord a key signature and it'll show you all the standard chords in that key, displayed as big buttons, plus all related chords as smaller buttons. When you tap a button, you hear the chord played. It's a wonderful (and dangerously, time-sappingly fun) way to experiment with new and unusual chord progressions that you wouldn't normally think of.
It also comes in black, but who would use that when you have these colors?
So I try to come up with two or three different chord progressions. Overall structure isn't too important to me at this stage. I'll come up with a simple melody or two as well. These will most likely change drastically or be discarded altogether during the production process, but it's good to have something to work with in the beginning. Hey, now I have all the building blocks with which to construct a cohesive piece of music!
3) The Gravity Ghost Instrumentation Suite
So with every project I work on, I build a small suite of instruments that will be the first things I grab when I start up a new track. I'll cull through the literally thousands of digital instruments that I have and pick out the ones that are the closest match to what I'm envisioning in my head for the feel of the soundtrack as a whole. Some of them will work and some won't. The first couple of tracks I produce will pretty much determine what goes into the suite. I'm not limited to those sounds alone, but they are a good starting point. This method does two things:
1. It helps keep a speedy and efficient production schedule. Instead of searching through all my instrumentation every single time I start a new track, I load up appropriate sounds from the suite right from the start.
2. It helps ensure that the soundtrack as a whole has a wonderfully cohesive sound.
Of course, each individual track has its own identity and needs, so I'll still be looking for new sounds all the time anyway. The best ones will get added to the suite and will most likely be used again in a future track.
A special mention must go out to Jeremiah Savage, the sound designer who developed the amazing Acoustic Refractions sound pack for Native Instruments. Acoustic Refractions has some of the most beautiful, quirky instruments, many of them built from the sounds of everyday objects. They're rich with detail and subtlety, and are infinitely customizable. Unfortunately, Acoustic Refractions was discontinued last fall with all the other Kore instruments. Regardless, when you hear the Gravity Ghost soundtrack, you'll hear much of Savage's work in my own.
In the next post I'll talk about the actual production. See you then!
I really ought to write a post introducing our team. That way when I say things like "Mike built this totally sweet plant editor" you'll know who I'm talking about.
Anyway this new plant editor is totally sweet. Check out what I made today:
Welcome to my space garden.
Somewhat interesting backstory about the color palette:
The art store right next to my favorite café was going out of business. They were out of almost everything, including pencil sharpeners, erasers, and colored pencils in colors you'd actually want.
The result was me buying a bunch of weird colors and sharpening them in the café with a razor blade (they weren't out of razor blades). You'd be amazed what you can get away with when everyone is on a laptop.
Anyway, this page of my notebook was a product of the 'weird colors.' I liked the way that tree looked and tried to reproduce it in the game.
What space trees look like, probably.
Tl;dr: Constraints are good, they force your creative side to do things you find uncomfortable. With razors.
Hey everybody! Exciting stuff is happening. I spent last week at E3, and got a chance to show the game to Kotaku. Head on over to their post to see the first-ever video footage of Gravity Ghost on the internet:
Maintaining your creative gusto throughout a project is nearly impossible. When you're feeling creatively depleted, it's tempting to either soldier on and hate every second, or give up completely.
But I think there's another option: actively filling up your inspiration stores. These are a few ways I know of to give yourself a creativity burst and get mentally 'un-stuck'.
1) Screensavers save
I've been saving cool images on my hard drive for years, but they mostly end up forgotten in a folder somewhere. Then I learned of a better alternative in a GDC talk by Hanford Lemoore. His idea: set that folder of cool images to be your screen saver.
I've adopted this idea and I think it's great. It brings up all sorts of neat things I had nearly forgotten - derelict buildings, nice illustrations, funny cat pictures, etc. And something about how the images are shuffled randomly, playing only for a few seconds, makes you process them in a different way.
The difference in emotional tone between a picture of ancient pottery and a cartoon about Kermit the Frog really jolts your creative side. You only have a second to think, 'Oh, that's neat' before something else takes its place.
What I didn't expect was how immediately relevant some of the pictures were to my game. It wasn't long before I started to see solutions to my game design problems. E.g.: When I wasn't sure how to fill out the vertical space in a certain level, I came upon picture after picture of waterfalls and bridges.
It would be easy to create a shared folder (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.) and have several friends save images to it. I imagine it'd be like a shared iTunes library of visual inspiration. If anyone decides to try this, let me know.
2) Buckets, not lists
I found so many images in my collection that were directly relevant to my game that I started putting them in one folder. But when that started to get chaotic, I thought of a bit of design advice given to me by Robin Hunicke: "Buckets, not lists." That is, it's better to group things into broad categories than simply add them to a pile.
I applied the buckets rule to my pile of Gravity Ghost inspiration images. I look at these all the time, and add to them almost daily. Here, friends, are my buckets:
I use these folders mostly as stored inspiration for art style and mood for different sections of the game. This is from the folder marked "Spring":
And this one is from the cryptically titled "Terrariums+Geometry"...
A few inspirational quotes have snuck in too.
Preach on, Jake.
There are a few websites designed to let you save images you like (E.g. Pinterest, like this random person's folder for "Design"). It's very different from something like tumblr, which only lets you aggregate things in one place. If you don't mind keeping your images online, these sites can help you keep large quantities of inspiration manageable.
3) Cast your net wider
You'll notice that none of the images above are related to video games, and I don't think that's an accident. Video games have a well-established set of aesthetic themes, and I'm trying to stay away from them. Not because those choices are bad, but because I want to create something unique.
Little Big Planet used the rendering power of the PS3 not to create realistic-looking humans, but to make the game look like it was entirely handmade. I'm a sucker for original art styles.
The inspirational quotes folder strikes again!
I understand there are important business decisions that go into determining the look and feel of a game. But if you're here, you've probably got a bit of an indie bent, and I encourage you to cast your net wider. And not just for art - for settings, for protagonists, for game mechanics, and anything else you think games now are missing.
We've got enough games based on other games. Look to your hobbies, your travel photos, your favorite childhood books, etc. and see what comes back. I bet your creativity will surprise you.
4) Step away from the computer
Recently I started to feel like none of my work was getting done fast enough. I knew that wasn't accurate, but I realized one of the culprits was probably the handful of constantly-updating websites I like to visit.
So, I took a two-week Twitter and Facebook vacation. Already I appreciate the larger attention span I have for my design, art, and coding problems. It's amazing how much you can actually get done in an hour if you set aside everything else.
It's largely overlooked that there's a deep pleasure to really getting your head into a problem, and the even greater payoff when you think of a solution. But it takes time to get into this state, and involves barricading yourself against interruptions.
For a bit of celebrity endorsement of that idea, here's John Cleese talking about creating 'oases of space and time' in which to work on your problems.
A 10 minute internet video? I believe in you.
5) Explain your problem to people who aren't into games
Nothing will toss you into a social black hole as much as talking to people who don't have anything to do with video games. You'll find half of your normal subjects of conversation cut off (and maybe even a chunk of your vocabulary). But before you swear off the idea, hear me out.
Last year I saw a talk by the creators of the Zooniverse project. It was a crowdsourcing site to classify galaxies photographed by the Hubble. They thought they might find a few volunteers, but they underestimated the internet's desire to contribute to science. The entire collection of hundreds of thousands of galaxies was sorted in two weeks. Talk about inspiration.
Weather balloon and weather balloon.
After the talk, I went to dinner with the astronomers and a few people from our educational games group. I ended up seated across from an astronomer who hadn't played a video game since the original Super Mario Bros. (he didn't remember which one). When he found out I was a video game designer, he said, "Okay, explain video games to me. I know there's something to them because I can't get my kids to stop playing them."
I tried giving a few examples from different genres, but he hadn't heard of any of the games I mentioned. So I came up with an explanation based on Mario:
- There's nothing that says jumping on turtles and colliding with walls should be any fun, yet we know how popular Mario is.
- The answer is good game design.
- A game design is made up of nouns and verbs. Mario's main verbs are running and jumping. If we replaced all the art, it'd still be a game about running and jumping.
- It's the game designer's job to make sure those verbs are absolutely as enjoyable as possible.
- None of the verbs matter without nouns to act on.
- What the nouns are is not as important as the way the verbs affect them (e.g. turtles being 'stompable').
At this point, the astronomer said, "Ah, so Mario doesn't have to be going through pipes..." and I said, "Right, they could be ladders, or slides, or elevators." "And it wouldn't change the game design." "Precisely."
Maybe not the most elegant of explanations, but I was satisfied with that breakthrough. I then talked a bit about how a game designer would adjust actual numbers for things like jump velocity (trying to think of things an astronomer would care about).
I also talked about how a game designer would create levels that asked more and more of the players' running and jumping skills, and I think he got the point. I suggested that maybe his kids enjoyed their games because they offered an optimal level of challenge as their skills increased. He nodded and said he would ask them, and I could tell he was really thinking.
That conversation crystallized a few things in my mind about what exactly my job is. All the artistic flourish in the world won't matter if the game's main verbs aren't fun from moment-to-moment. Keeping that in mind is a good way to focus on what's important about the game, and where to best expend my energy.
This is a picture of my brother. I threw it in here to break up this large block of text.
I'll give another quick example. One of my best friends is a massage therapist. The last time she came to visit I started to complain about problems with our asset server, then realized I had to first explain what that was. While explaining that, I realized there were important things to work on that didn't require the asset server to be fixed. Boom, productivity boost.
6) The world is your Wikipedia
The last suggestion I wanted to make is a bit more subtle. I believe that the more research you do about the subject of your game, the better the final product will be. Everything you can teach yourself will deepen your pool of potential inspiration. Think of it as going on an 'information raid', pulling in large chunks of knowledge in a limited time.
Age of Accuracy II
In the strategy game X-COM, there is an energy source called Elerium-115 that is only found in the alien enemy's ships. It's incredibly valuable, but it's so fragile that setting off explosives too close to an alien power source will destroy it. Retrieving even a small quantity of this resource involves careful deliberation in a way that makes the game more interesting.
Elerium-115 isn't just an invented sci-fi resource. It's based on a real element of atomic number 115 ("Ununpentium"). In reality they haven't been able to make an isotope of Ununpentium with a half-life longer than a few milliseconds, making it pretty useless as an energy source.
Still, certain 'UFO experts' have been claiming it as a possible energy source for alien spacecraft since at least the 1980s. The idea is compelling enough that Ununpentium has shown up as an energy source not just in X-COM, but in Dark Reign, the Call of Duty series, and Tomb Raider III.
Is it possible that the X-COM designers would have had the idea to make an energy source rare, valuable, and fragile without knowing about Ununpentium? Of course. But by relating their alien technology to physical elements, I think they created a much richer narrative device, and lent some legitimacy to this alien technology.
I think this goes beyond appealing to the hard sci-fi crowd. This bit of extra research on the part of the designers probably gave them gameplay ideas.
I think that no matter what kind of game you're making, there's always something you can do to enrich your knowledge of the subject. Will Wright made Sim Ant by trying to simulate the behavior of real ants as closely as possible, and that insight fed directly into the creation of the Sims. Did you know each object in a Sim's house gives off 'pheromones'?
I consider seeking out inspiration to be a part of my creative process. I have a few sites I like to visit for this, but I'm always looking for more. So: what are your sources of inspiration? Now taking suggestions.