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Digital Art and Game Design

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dbaumgart

[font=arial]This piece was originally posted on my personal website blog yesterday, though I think it'd be appropriate to put here as well due to talking about some ideas that are particularly applicable to indie games. (I'll apologize here for the state of formatting in this entry; copy & pasted text is not playing nice.)[/font]

[font=arial]To give a bit of background to the post, I've been playing a bit of Darklands (yes, the game from 25 years ago) as well as a bit of the more recent indie game Serpent in the Staglands. Staglands is clearly inspired by aspects of Darklands (and Baldur's Gate, which I mention in the post below) and I found myself comparing the games with one another. While I think Staglands is a wonderful creative achievement, it does have issues with UI/mechanics flow that I think holds the experience back. It's a first game, so it's quite understandable (and it isn't my intention to bash it - I really do think the aesthetic it achieves in wonderful).[/font]

[font=arial]So thinking about what I enjoyed in Darklands and what I didn't enjoy in Staglands, I found myself coming to the question of "what does Darklands still do well?". And thought maybe there are some answers there which are meaningful to contemporary game design. For instance, Starsector uses text-based interaction dialogs and has a scripting system behind them which I want to do some more interesting stuff with. Anyway, read on about how text dialogs can be a good tool![/font]

[font=arial]* * *[/font]


[font=arial]I've recently fallen into playing a bit of Darklands, as I do every few years. It's an ancient game and the usability is bad in so many ways DOS games were. These flaws are easy to demonstrate. What got me thinking here was the consideration of what it does right, particularly in terms of using of text as a part of interactive gameplay.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands1.png[/font]


[font=arial]We should start with a quick overview of Darklands: Imagine a realtime pause-and-command combat RPG with a choose-your-own-adventure style interface and a free-roaming overworld map set in a fantastical version of medieval Germany where all of the folklore, myths, and medieval religion that people believed in is actually true. And it was made in 1992. Behold![/font]


[font=arial]darklands5.png[/font]


[font=arial]Darklands combat was far ahead of its time and the ideas it pioneered form the basis of many modern RPGs. This post isn't about the combat system however.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands7.png
Here's the Darklands overworld! This post isn't about the Darklands overworld. It's pretty standard, but I quite enjoy the cute little towns and castles, and the turn of seasons.[/font]


[font=arial]So what's Darklands do so well in its use of text in its game world? Let's get into it.[/font]


[font=arial]Darklands uses text to navigate physical space.[/font]


[font=arial]This has several advantages. First: It's fast, it wastes none of the player's time. You can charm through the main gate of Koln with a charisma/speech check and find yourself on the main street in two clicks. Then where? The inn in one click, a market to sell your junk in two, the church in three, or you may find yourself taking on a quest for the Hanseatic League in four clicks if your reputation and charm is sufficient to impress their local outlet.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands8.png[/font]


[font=arial]It's all very efficient, no waiting involved, no loading screens, no botched pathfinding, no having the navigate your little dudes around the same street again and again to sell Kobold Lint.[/font]


[font=arial]I need but say "You must gather your party before venturing forth" to recall these frustrations for those of you who have played (for example) the Baldur's Gate series. In Baldur's Gate you would have to navigate isometric space to ensure that each of your party members was within a minimum range of an exit zone before your party could leave the are and get on with the fun stuff. Given that game's occasional pathfinding failures and often narrow dungeon corridors - important for tactical combat - this was the source of much delay and frustration. Not that Darklands wholly escapes this pitfall because it does the exact same thing in its dungeon-crawls, but with even more limited pathfinding and crude user interaction schemes. Darklands even allows you to leave party members on separate submaps, which is universally a bad idea for the player and may lead to all manner of confusion.[/font]


[font=arial]... But that isn't the point, the point is the clarity of the choose-your-own adventure interface. Particularly for a small development budget, the question must be asked: What is the purpose of allowing a player to navigate a space? Is this where assets and content creation should be invested? What is the purpose of this space in terms of advancing what the game is about - is that purpose served by allowing a player to navigate the game-space in more mechanical dimensions than are ever used in that space? (Is the mechanically-accessible space overbroad simply to allow for a few special cases?) Which leads us to this:[/font]


[font=arial]Darklands uses text to navigate decision space.[/font]


[font=arial]In doing so, a player is given clear access to what important choices exist out of a set that could otherwise be unwieldy due to UI and simply overwhelming due to the large set of possible options in such an open world.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands6.png
Albert of Kyrburg's guys got no chill.[/font]


[font=arial]Above is a fairly simply example of being waylaid by a Raubritter's thugs. Option one initiates combat, option two attempts a charm/speech check which, if successful, will result in avoiding the encounter, while option three of course gives up your loot and no one ever chooses it. Let's look at another such dialog:[/font]


[font=arial]darklands4.png
I'm just not sure about what a Paragon or Renegade would do in this situation.[/font]


[font=arial]Here we've advanced on the castle belonging to the Raubritter Albert of Kyrburg whereupon we are presented with a number of options. The text makes it clear what sort of character each approach favours, and selecting certain of them (using alchemy, calling upon a saint) will present a small contextual sub-menu letting you choose which potion or saint to use. Storming the tower is grayed out until you remove the gate by some means.[/font]


[font=arial]This method of interaction tells the player what options they can use in a situation very clearly, and what options may become available given certain other conditions being met. The inverted approach would be to present the situation without the solution-hooks then leave it up to the player to find and apply a skill or game-verb somehow to solve it. Whether this is the right choice depends on several factors. In a game with as many skills and systems in play as Darklands (and a rather poor UI for navigating inventory, and saints), making the player find the solution through the rest of the interface would very much be the wrong way to go about this. If this were a game with a limited set of player 'verbs' however, a more player-driven simulation/naturalistic approach could work.[/font]


[font=arial]Simulationist games are very much "in" these days, and current technology makes their creation much easier than before. It may be argued that they allow for a more immersive experience and enable a player to experience the setting more naturally. I do think one should bring up the question of focus, however, and I believe Darklands' use of text supports its deep, strange setting without requiring the player become overburdened with esoteric commands and knowledge.[/font]


[font=arial](Actually, this isn't true at all: Darklands' other design peculiarities absolutely require the player become overburdened with esoteric commands and knowledge and you'd better have a map and FAQ open while playing it. But this isn't a fault of the text mechanics!)[/font]


[font=arial]Darklands uses its text to give the player access to the setting.[/font]


[font=arial]Let me example what that means: The setting of Darklands is widely considered one of its strongest points. It sets itself apart from most RPGs, particularly of its time, by not placing itself in the tradition of Tolkein-esque D&D derivatives. There are no elves as-such, nor dwarves ... as-such, but I won't spoil that. Instead, there are Raubritters, the Wild Hunt, Holzfrau, and the somewhat bizarre practices of this fantastic version of the medieval Catholic Church, simony and all. If you're not careful, a bishop may in fact curse you! (This happened to me.) How are you to know any of this?[/font]


[font=arial]Well, the text tells you. Most situations are explained in such a way that gives the German words context, hints at the effects of pissing off the clergy, and otherwise gives subtle info-dumps baked into the text describes locations and situations.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands9.png
You're going to have to take my word for it that the previous scene made it clear what the heck an "alte Losunger" is.[/font]


[font=arial]While many of the mechanics are insufficiently explained and poorly balanced, to Darklands' credit there are very few blatant info-dumping scenes that are not a part of an action you initiated. The world is yours to explore! And, basically, the player is told what their characters would know. And your characters know how to navigate the social and mythological/religious setting of the world they inhabit (up to a point), so they are given descriptions and options appropriate to that knowledge. And all the while Darklands sets a very particular mood, and very economically, which brings us to the next point:[/font]


[font=arial]Darklands uses text to do aesthetic heavy-lifting.[/font]


[font=arial]The mood is set by a combination of the text itself, historically-accurate tunes played in charming early-90's midi style, and a set of generic water-colour backgrounds rendered in stunning 245x388 pixels.[/font]


[font=arial]darklands10.png
I bet you've got a pretty good guess at what donating a relic will give you.[/font]


[font=arial]Frankly, text is extremely cheap. It can be iterated extremely quickly. It's way easier to use one of a limited set of fairly generic backgrounds than it is to model or map a unique scene for every location. Simple string substitution lets you acknowledge qualities and choices the player has made easily. People love the feeling that they're part of a world and having an effect on that world! And if you don't have to budget to simulate the experience of visually being inside that world, the next best thing is to do it at a slight remove.[/font]


[font=arial]So while Darklands does a lot that's been done far better in the twenty-five years, it's still got some fine points of effective game design at work that may be useful for indie developers. Why stretch your resources to develop a game-space with obvious deficits and limitations when you can work with text? It's a highly constrained medium in a sense, but once a player buys into using text as a means to experience the game world, it only feels as constrained as you are able to 'sell' the dialog. Think of it as offloading your rendering to the player's brain, for truly in the player's imagination everything is possible. And if it's that unfulfilled promise of the infinite which simulationist games strive for and fail to achieve, using text can access a sense of that infinite possibility by leaving those details you are unable to express well in specifics to the imagination, just as a good novel does.[/font]


[font=arial]This is a post about game design and not novel-writing, of course, so my point comes to this: there are useful structures and methods which can be employed to tie together text and game mechanics, and Darklands does so. Not perfectly, but compelling enough that I came back to it twenty-five years later.[/font]

dbaumgart

In additional to my own projects and freelance jobs, one of my goals this year is to build a humble - but steady - stream of income from selling game assets online via the various game dev asset stores. A few reasons make this appealing:


  1. When I do freelance work, I find myself drawing a lot of the exact same stuff for different people. Partly this is because people come to me because they see that I do something well, so they want something like that. They like my terrain, so they'd like some terrain too. Why not skip the step where I do the work over again but slightly differently and just sell them that terrain they liked? I don't have to do as much work, they don't have to pay as much (and I'm finding myself more and more in a position where my rates are higher than many game dev hopefuls are willing/able to pay).
  2. Not to be too cynical about it, but most freelance projects I've worked on have never shipped. That kinda sucks because no one gets to see the art and, of course, the project didn't ship. But it's also kinda okay because I think we live in an age where game development can be a legitimate hobby. It's not unlike the guy who has a day job and buys Warhammer minitures and paints them on the weekend; game development can be a fun creative outlet. It can be like buying a lottery ticket in that the point is not to win but to imagine winning. Unless our friend painting Warhammer minis is wealthy indeed then he's not going to be commissioning a sculptor to make custom pieces, he's going to want to go to the hobby store or game con to buy something cool that's available. It is totally legitimate for the same to apply to game assets.
  3. Another perspective on this is "in a gold rush, sell shovels". I have the skill and experience to handle most aspects of development and likely connections enough to find ways to handle the rest, and I'm working on learning the code side. Still, straight-up creating a game from scratch and hoping it'll return on invested time is a risky proposition in this age where thousands and thousands of devs are cranking out product. Yeah, I'm pretty confident in my ability to create something unique and compelling, but I'm not a student living on potatoes and lentils anymore. "Shakespeare's gotta get paid, son."

I started selling assets on a bit of a whim. To give the really fast version of the story (edit: "or, actually somewhat rambling version of the story"), I was playing a ton of Dominions 4 (anyone into that? Amazing game) -- and Dominions 4 has fairly ugly maps so I was like, man, I'm so annoyed by this that I'm going to go ahead draw my own map. Spoiler alert: I never actually finish one. But I stumble into something else entirely. Read on!


Here's what Dominions 4 looks like:
dom4_shot.jpg

It's functional, but man, that terrain is an odd brown-green. But I find the hand-drawn map look really compelling somehow. (Also interesting: people will make maps in games like Age of Wonders or Heroes of Might and Magic and convert the image to a Dominions 4 map. All you really need is an image, then you define province centers, types, and connections - and that's it.) So I started drawing a map based on one of the prettier maps to come with the game. This one is based on Vancouver; if you know the city, hopefully you get a kick out of it:

Dominion_of_Vancouver_crop.png

The project got a bit out of hand however. The map was kinda pixel-arty but also really huge. Plus downtown Vancouver doesn't actually lend itself to a well balanced map so I'm not convinced it'd have worked out that well. So I started hand-painted a completely fantastical map, using really strong colours and painterly rendering:

paintedmap_crop.jpg

Similar to the Vancouver map, this thing was really huge. So my thought was, why not take this painterly style and turn it into tiles that could be re-used so I wouldn't have to work so damn hard on this thing? A few experiments were performed:

terrain_tiles256_1_half.jpg

Compelling. Let's keep going with this.

terrain_tiles256x384_1_half2.jpg

Definitely workable.

Then I find myself asking, what's the point of making these nice painterly tiles if no one but me is going to use them? I shared an image on twitter, and it seemed pretty popular:

tiles_twitter.jpg

Honestly, if that many people are into those tiles, then surely I could sell them or something. Thus I entered ... The Unity Asset Store.

I researched the competition, looked at how they marketed, how they priced, and at what was and wasn't available. It seemed that painterly terrain tiles at a strategic scale was an untapped niche. So I polished up a set of tiles and launched this:

tiles_asset_store.jpg

(This is a screenshot from today, their layout was slightly different in September of 2015.) ... And thus launched my glorious tiles to the public!

Number of sales in September 2015: 1.

Oh. Maybe that was a bit of a bust. Well, it was a decent experience.

Number of sales in October of 2015: 11.

Hey, maybe it just takes time! I guess this got featured on the official stream as a new release? Cool!

Number of sales in November of 2015: 2.

Or maybe it's still a bust.

Still, a few nice people emailed me about doing some fixes and tweaks. It wasn't much work, so I updated the package a couple times. Then someone requested hex versions of the tiles. My thought was, man, what a load of work that'll be. But I like helping people out -- do I put it in the same package? Maybe not, because hexes would be incompatible with squares. And doing a few experiments it turned out that doing hexes only involved trimming the corners off the squares and cleaning up the edges; super easy. So in January of 2016, I released the hex tile pack which looks a little something like this:

3c_scaled.jpg

These starting selling well. In fact, the hex tile sets have always outsold the square tiles from between a factor of 3 and 10.

Consider this: The 2D art section of the Unity Asset store is flush with particular kinds of assets: platformer tiles, mobile game backgrounds, and WoW/DOTA style icons. You know who isn't served by these? Old school RPGers and wargamers. Guess who tends to 1. have programming knowledge, 2. have money to blow on hobbies: Old school RPGers and wargamers.

We're on to something here!

I've since released a bunch more tilesets in both square and hex format, covering some more biomes as well as medieval-fantasy locations. I attempted a branching out into painterly RPG item art, but that's been a bit of a failure. I've got more asset experiments to run especially now that I am established on the store with good reviews and have time to invest in more asset creation. I should share a few general observations with this experience.


  • Reputation matters. Getting a pile of 5-star reviews next to your product is obviously a good move. It doesn't require obsequious pandering to customers, or pulling cheap tricks to cheat reviews. All you need is a dedication to quality and to handle yourself with polite professionalism.
  • Exposure takes time. This is a very low-capital enterprise so it's not like I'm dropping money on advertisements or sponsorship. It takes time for that right person to find my work and - dedication to quality - they might just like it enough to recommend it to others.
  • There's money in the low end. 2D game assets are especially accessible to people just learning game programming and a lot of people are learning game programming. These people could never pay my rates to do custom art, but they'll definitely drop ten bucks to make their RPG overworld look prettier with little effort. It also seems like a Unity tutorial for grid-based games featured my assets, which was a good boost in sales in this range.
  • There are niches that badly want to be served. As said, there's a ton of art out there for 2D platformers, some bad, much very good. But I think ya gotta look at the store and see what isn't there to find some really interesting opportunities. I've got to do more with this.
  • Sales are remarkably steady over time. This market isn't getting saturated, at least not with what I'm doing, and sales seem to only go up over time -- even for these assets released over a year ago! 2D games and simpler games will always be around.

    Now what? More stuff!


    First: More assets. So many people were asking for smooth tile transitions that I sat back and made a whole new terrain set that was build around that idea (plus I played a ton of Sid Meier's Colonization over the holidays so I felt compelled to draw something similar to that). So this should be coming out any day now:

    terrain2_layers.gif

    (The gif was a thought that it'd be a good marketing gimmick to show how to layer the assets. Unfortunately the Unity Asset store doesn't accept gifs. Edit: They don't animate properly here either, it seems. Sorry!)

    In terms of marketing I should also start a mailing list for my assets. Probably via Mailchimp because it's so easy.

    If I'm feeling a bit more aggressive I could push for deals with people who write tutorials: use my assets in your tutorial, or have me make custom assets for your tutorial and you can link to my spot on the store! 'Course I don't love being pushy like that, but we'll see.

    Also, of particular interest is the idea of expanding market reach.

    Expanding Market Reach

    My primary asset storefront has been the Unity Asset Store. This was a good move - I think it's safe to say that it's the best asset marketplace on the internet right now due to sheer population and good support from Unity. Still, as long as I've got the asset packages and marketing done, is it not worth putting material on other game asset storefronts even if they give a mere fraction of the Unity Store payout? Yes!

    So I started a spreadsheet. I searched for game asset stores in google and found a few prominent hits, discarding those that did not accept submissions and those that looked absolutely terrible. I'll note thoughts and info on each below.

    Unity Asset Store


    • Alexa ranking: 905
    • Rev split: the standard 70-to-you / 30-to-them.

      The top dog, for sure. I've discussed my experience with them above, but to repeat: all in all a good experience. Takes between one and two weeks for submissions to process, fairly easy to use store management frontend. Requires uploading assets as Unity packages, which can be slightly awkward if you don't know Unity but is very easy to learn. Tutorials and FAQs for everything are extremely abundant.


      Graphic River / EnvatoMarket


      • Alexa ranking: 2293
      • Rev split: 45/55, plus minimum $1 for restricted license, min $15 for expanded (read: commercial) license; license minimums also go to them.

        This is an old site with a huge market base used more often for stuff like stock photos, WordPress themes, and other such things. They clearly precede the Apple Store / Steam standard 70/30 cut model.


        I would be tempted by what appears to be an enormous reach and usebase, but their pricing model makes me really, really unhappy. It's a worse deal for creators then any other site and they don't sell me on what they're offering for such a cut. Well, they DO offer better rates if you distribute exclusively through their store, but again, no other asset store makes such demands. The minimum pricing also hurts, especially for my practice of selling small batches of assets in the $10 range. If I wanted to sell my standard tile package for $10 -- well, I couldn't. Because to distribute with that license requires a minimum pricing of $15. And that $15 goes to Graphic River while anything over that will provide me with a 45% cut. Say I combined 3 sets of tiles into a $30 package. Take $15 for the min commercial license price, then I get 45% -- that'd be around $7 ... Which is what I would make selling a single $10 asset pack on Unity.

        These guys gotta get with the times. Or maybe they sell huge volume? I don't know, and I'm not going to find out.

        Unreal Marketplace


        • Alexa ranking: 3397
        • Rev split: 70/30.

          I looked into this but did not actually use it for several reasons, foremost being that Unreal is heavily geared toward higher-end 3D games as opposed to 2D games. Yes, you can do 2D. But it doesn't look like many people are, and there are almost no assets for 2D games on the Unreal Marketplace. The submission process looks rather laborious. Assets much be packages via Unreal and there are somewhat stricter requirements than Unity. All aspects of submissions appear to go directly to an Unreal Marketplace contact rather than via a storefront management UI. I expect the process is slower than Unity, but results are likely more professional overall.


          Still, the angle here seems to be 3D shooters and the like, not low-end 2D games. I don't think it'd be a good fit for me. Plus I don't want to learn Unreal as well because I simply don't see myself ever using it in my own work.

          From here, we're definitely getting into small players. It's still worth examining what they're up to, I think.

          Scirra


          • Alexa ranking: 21902
          • Rev split: 70/30

            This is a storefront attached to a game engine, not unlike Unity and Unreal. I presume it has a much lower userbase however. But I won't hold that against them - they are, at least, much more focused on simpler 2D games from the looks of it. What turned me off here is the requirement that a creator pay a non-refundable $25 "seller activation fee". I suppose it's not unlike the Steam Greenlight $100 fee meant to try to keep out the wave of spammy garbage, but (as with Valve) I'm not happy that they're directly offloading the moderation cost of their platform onto the users thereof in this manner. If you're running a storefront, part of that 30% cut is presumably for figuring out how to keep the garbage off your store.


            (Don't even get me started on airline baggage fees.)

            Cubebrush


            • Alexa ranking: 48026
            • Rev split: 95/5 (!?)

              This is a weird one. It was super easy to get started here, their storefront tools are amazing, super slick, easy to use. You just drag and drop everything and it just works. It's superior usability compared to any other storefront I've used. Almost too easy, it feels, because I put my assets into a zip file and uploaded them with no submission process. I swear, someone is going to run a scam here and someone is going to get sued. Still, what a pleasant creator experience!


              Only made one sale in a few weeks, so it seems like market reach on the site is miniscule. It's too bad because it's very slick.

              I've got a few more of the small online asset stores to investigate - including that attached to this very site - but I haven't dug in yet so that'll have to wait.

              From here, the adventure continues! Edit: Oh yeah, does anyone out there know any other good game asset stores? Or perhaps have some strong opinions? I'd love to hear 'em.

dbaumgart

So I've been doing lots of reading up on Unity & tutorials to get a grip on how it works. I felt like rambling about a few thoughts and observations about Unity in the process of doing this, so here goes.

When a pixel isn't a pixel

Although I've worked in a 3D pipeline, my skillset is 2D art. If I'm making a game, it's going to use 2D art. Here's the thing - let's throw a texture into a default Unity setup for a 2D. Texture:

plaster00c.jpg

Here it's dropped into Unity - an admirably simple process! - and I hit "go".

texture_in_engine.jpg

I've taken a screenshot and put it into Photoshop to show that the texture now appears to be 360x360 rather than 512x512.

And oh man does the simple fact that a pixel isn't a pixel by default ever drive me crazy. After some calm breathing and doing a bit of reading, I did figure it out. Given context, what is going on here makes sense: Unity was built from the ground-up as a 3D engine, its underlying assumptions work on those principles. The game is based on arbitrary units of measurement, let's call them Unity Units or UU. You must set the number of UUs to a measure of half your vertical screenspace. So by default it's something like this:

unity_screen.jpg

That's a "Size" setting of 5 on the default orthographic camera which sets the vertical distance from center to edge to 5uu. I'm assuming here that the screen is of 16:9 ratio, the most common desktop monitor ratio. I cannot assume that this will be 1920x1080 like my monitor and that most used for PC gaming. Maybe it'll be 1366x768 -- super common -- who knows!

What's a 2D game-maker who wants control of pixels to do? First: come up with a standard pixels-per-uu when importing art. Second, set your camera size up so that one pixel is one pixel. Third, you're going to have to write a script that changes your camera size setting based on what resolution the game is initialized with. Thankfully like a million people have solved this problem already and solutions are easily discovered via search. Plus any artist worth their pixels should know the theory required to make this happen anyway, so it's a worthwhile cause.

There's also a question of figuring out what you want the game to do when it hits an unexpected width:height ratio. You may end up shows more or less of the gameplay area than intended...

Anyway that was fun.

(Aside, I was discussing the animation system with my former animator. He observed that it's pretty clearly a 3D animation system being adapted to handle 2D animations. Just so with everything here!)

Edit: A 2D game can of course be made without 1:1 pixel ratio between art and display. (It just bothers me.)

Tutorials

I've been doing tutorials! Not only for Unity, but for C#. Much of my experience has been with pretty free-wheeling languages like Python and Lua so it's educational to move to C#. Anyway, been doing pretty well with that, now working more on applying it via Unity.

I appreciate what a pain it is to keep tutorials up-to-date with the latest version of the engine. It's also an unfortunate experience to be doing a tutorial and discovering that something isn't working as intended due to version differences. On the upside, you can usually count on lots of other people running into such problems and complaining about it online, sometimes with constructive results.

The official 2D roguelike tutorial was particularly applicable to the 'learning project' I'm planning to undertake (more on that in another post - it's not a roguelike!). It feels .. overwrought? to use raycasting and rigid body colliders to do collision detection in a simple step-based 2D grid world game, but I think the point is to demonstrate working with Unity's built-in components.

Few more thoughts

Following up on that, wow does Unity come with a lot of neat stuff! It makes it deceptively easy, perhaps, to make a shooter or platformer (with physics and all that fun!). And a bit harder to make the sort of thing I tend to be interested in. I should emphasize that this isn't meant as a disparaging comment; it's a great toolset. Just that there is a clear path of least resistance. Still, even the path of greater resistance in Unity is a heck of a lot easier than the easiest of some of the alternatives I've used.

In particular, I love the UI system. It's so liberating compared to my experience coding my own from scratch and using a very limited custom system in the last few years. I'm finding it easier to dump debug info to an output on the screen than using the debug console output (which I concede contains vastly more information than the string logged).

I'm excited to carry on with this. The learning project is proceeding apace, but I'll leave it with "don't hype until you've got a working prototype".

dbaumgart

So it's been five, almost six years since that last entry. I was busy for a bit there it seems, eh? Let's do a quick review of what happened to catch up to the present.

2011-2012: Dredmor

With two other guys I founded Gaslamp Games. Being "the artist" I got the grandiose corporate title best-met-with-skepticism of "chief creative officer". I don't actually think it quite accurately described my role, but we'll get there. Technically this happened in 2010 when we were collectively working on Dungeons of Dredmor which finally released in July of 2011. And it did rather well. An order of magnitude or two down from "other prominent commercially successful roguelike/likes of 2011", but successful nonetheless.

A few words on the success of Dredmor:
In hindsight, we had no bloody clue what we were doing. There were a couple things we did well enough, however, and that was 1. have a funny, cute, and/or easily appealing aesthetic 2. be accessible-enough (though painfully awkward by any of today's standards) but this may largely be 3. have a solid, quick couple game loops that worked nicely. There were also a few interesting, critical flaws which I can see in hindsight, but they're not supremely relevant to our story here.

Actually, I'm getting ahead of myself. Dredmor wasn't a success for any of those reasons. It was a success because it showed up on Steam in the year 2011 and was vaguely competent. Remember, this is before the floodgates opened. You only got on Steam in 2011 because you talked to Valve and they set you up. Indeed, for those handy with their backend, there was no backend in 2011. You sent them the assets and they set it up for you. Isn't that crazy? And the new releases per week -- oh, between what, 3 and 8 across all genres? Simply appearing at all in that market got you boatloads of impressions. Provided you didn't suck, you were good to go. So we were nobody, but we knew a biz-dev guy who was in the business and found that Valve was pushing the idea of Steam for MacOS and was looking for games that happened to be on MacOS. And some dude on the newfangled YouTubes named TotalBiscuit or something did a feature on Dredmor -- and Gaslamp was in. Luck and circumstance, man.

Making a pile of money off an indie game is pretty sweet - no, not that much, but a good amount. It's a very strange experience stumbling into success. You think you're brilliant and awesome and have important things to say. Other people think you're brilliant and awesome and have important things to say - and special wisdom that can be acquired through contact. Load of bollocks of course; we were young and stumbled into it. Looking back, I think it served largely to reinforce some pretty bad ideas in our heads about why it happened.
(I like to think my natural cynicism acted against this a bit, but it was still a baffling couple years.)

A couple expansion packs later, coming up on 2012, we decided it'd be great to move on to the next thing and make it stunningly ambitious. I will note for the record that my vote was to do a 2D take on revitalizing the Master of Magic genre, but the steampunk Dwarf Fortress idea won out. Thus: Clockwork Empires.

2012-2016: Clockwork Empires

I don't want to talk much about CE right now. It was released in October of this year after roughly 2 years development and 2 years early access. The broad points of this story are in the public record. I'll write about various aspects of the development more in the future. I will however make a few personal career points:

On Dredmor, my role was effectively principal artist/art director/game designer/writer. I made most of the art, contracted out that which I didn't, as well as implemented and iterated game content. On CE I was art director, concept & promo artist, 2D game artist (for UI, environment textures), did marketing content, did admin/accounting/paperwork, gameplay programmer, game designer, writer (marketing and content), and handled (some) testing procedures. Probably more to it than just that, but it felt like the jobs of 3 or 4 ... or 5 people. The key thing I also did was management.

Hiring contractors is one thing. You find someone, then they do their job or don't and you deal with it and go on your way. (Well, there's a lot to handling contractors which would be valuable and interesting to write about, but save that for another time.) Hiring and managing employees is another thing entirely. I knew not a damn thing about it before ramping up the CE art team, and management is not my natural inclination due to being a rather introverted kind of guy, but I dove in and hired three completely green artists - no previous employment experience in the industry - and molded them into a team. It was a difficult and rewarding experience. I learned tons, they learned tons, we did some really good work shockingly fast with the tools we had. I've got some stuff to say about what I learned doing that for another time.

One of the hardest things I'd had to do was firing my art team at the start of 2015. The required set of art was basically done, though the game was not. Not an ideal situation, that. I gave some nice recommendations and I think my artists were given a good start to their careers. And it's weird saying it because two of them are older than me, but I'm really proud of what they accomplished. (Just remembered another thing I'm proud of: the art team never crunched. Never.)

So, one way or another, it's done and shipped. Those were the most frustrating years of my life. In contrast with Dredmor where I learned a few easy lessons and missed the rest, with CE I learned a lot of the hard lessons.
(Makes for great blog fodder, mind you.)

2010-(ongoing) : [s]Starfarer[/s] Starsector

Yes, this is still in development! And throughout my time at Gaslamp I still did freelance work on the game now called Starsector. (It had to change its name due to reasons I'm sure you can imagine without much work.)

And hey, Starsector is great. Still drawing spaceships, doing content implementation, and Alex gave me the job of writing game content. I'm a huge nerd about science fiction, so I just love being able to do this.

Not much else to say here; the game iterates slowly but surely and gets better and better with each release. I could get back into reposting stuff I write for the Starsector Dev blog which, not just to plug my own work, is legitimately really good.

And from here?

Now that we're caught up, well, I'll have to write about what happens next in future posts as it happens. Or as I feel compelled to write about old stuff. A few ideas:


  • I daresay I'm having a pretty good time putting random art on the Unity Store; it's giving me lots of time to draw those tilesets I love so much. Will show off some of the thinking going into that when I release the next one, perhaps.
  • Speaking of Unity -- and good lord, use Unity, don't make your own engine unless you're in it to find a hobby -- I've been learning it and C# for a while now. Once I have something worth showing, you gotta know that I'll show it off.
  • I'd like to write a series on the art direction of Clockwork Empires, both the strategic creative decisions made and perhaps the nitty-gritty of taking art from design to implementation.
  • ... and game development lessons learned in general, 'cause I got a couple.

    Right, now let's get on with it.

dbaumgart
[font="Arial"][size="4"]The world of Starfarer has lovely 3d planets which roll beneath whatever chaos you are sure to wreak out in space. It is only right, for what good is space without planets to fight over?[/font]

[font="Arial"][size="4"]Below: Flying an absurdly over-armed frigate past a jungle-covered planet.[/font]

[font="Arial"][size="4"]planet_sphere.jpg[/font]

[font="Arial"][size="4"][This was written to promote Starfarer for Fractal Softworks], so please read the rest of this post on the Starfarer development blog![/font]

[size="4"]By the way: Alex, the coder/designer/mastermind of Starfarer, is being interviewed on theImmortal Machines podcast tomorrow, so if you catch it in time you can leave him questions in the associated forum thread. The finished show should be posted sometime next week.[font="Arial"][size="4"]
[/font]
dbaumgart
Nicholas and I were interviewed on the Immortal Machines podcast (an affiliate of Colony of Gamers) last week by the good bunch of guys there who were far too patient with certain Gaslampy ... excesses. Now you can listen in to learn dark secrets about the Dungeons of Dredmor -- about the unnatural habits of Thrusties, why Nicholas should not drink a pot of coffee on an empty stomach, and how much Dredmor isn't going to cost. Here's the link:

Immortal Machines episode 47: Gaslamp Games and Dungeons of Dredmor

Much thanks to the Immortal Machines guys for letting us on and to Colony of Gamers and their wonderful community for all their support!

The real question now is if they will ever make the mistake of letting us back on.

[re-posted from the Gaslamp Games blog.]

dbaumgart
So Nicholas (brave code-wizard) and I are going to be interviewed on the Immortal Machines podcast. Here's the entry on Colony of Gamers where people can post questions for us to get asked.

This will be our first official interview as Gaslamp Games! And, really, my first professional interview.

I'm excited and a bit nervous but I think it'll be fun. Hopefully we don't screw it up, heh. Naw, we'll do well. *I* think we're interesting people, at least.
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I've just finished the latest round of revisions to the entire pile of spell icons. This is just one task which is part of the massive spell overhaul we're doing for Dredmor's beta 0.92 (when I'm not getting distracted drawing the disembodied heads of founding members of Gaslamp Games).

Man, there are a lot of these buggers, but they do get easier (and better) every time I redraw them. Telling you anything about them would ruin the fun*, so I've just thrown together a collection of some of my favorite spell and skill icons for your enjoyment:

dredmor_icons.jpg

Still have to draw animated effects for most of these. Urrgh.

* whereas "the fun" refers to how much fun I have as people try to guess what the hell some of these skills do.

[Originally written for the Gaslamp Games blog, where we all write about development and other random stuff.]
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(This post is written to promote the game Starfarer by Fractal Softworks.)

There's more to space combat in Starfarer than nearly-obsolete front-line sluggers like the Onslaught. Meet the Astral class capital-ship carrier: a modern, refined platform for supporting squadrons of small fighters and bombers such as the Dagger torpedo-bomber you can see below. Escorting the Astral is a nimble Wolf class frigate.

modern_ships.jpg

This Astral carrier has some top-of-the-line point defense systems on its starboard side while the port has some nasty repeating torpedo launchers. Once you get past the escorts and fighter-bomber cover, you'll have to be sure to choose your approach carefully -- and that's before dealing with the full-coverage shield. Astral-class carriers should not be taken lightly.

What follows is a bit about how I went about designing the modern ship classes of Starfarer along with some concept sketches for the Astral and Wolf.

Read the rest on the Starfarer blog
dbaumgart
Here's a trailer for "Binb", a simple but compelling game by Maxim Karpenko (posted on IndieGames at the end of December) for which I drew some cute animated pixel-art sprites and terrain:

[media]
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Very bomberman, but it of course isn't, as it's given a somewhat different format and goal, plus special items. And look at those cute little guys!

I'll be sure to post the link to the playable game when it's released somewhere.
dbaumgart
Alright, I've been slaving in the pixel mines on this one for years and now the end is truly in sight. The release date for Dungeons of Dredmor is set for April of 2011!

This new GameDev.net is ... disorienting ... [s]so I'll just post an image of the video with a link next to it. Go watch![/s] Edit: Thanks Josh for pointing out how to make this work!

[media]
[/media]

Be sure to view it in high quality so that you can appreciate our awesome resolution jump. Yes, 800x600 just isn't good enough for the year 2011.

Also: Gaslamp Games has also finally picked up on using that Twitter thing, so check out our twitter page here.

The last ... long time, but the last week in particular has been exhausting as we've just pushed out beta 0.90 which is our first beta build with completely revised game mechanics and increased resolution.
Yeah, this is happening for real.
dbaumgart

Starfarer: Pew pew!

Or: Weapon design & graphics modularity in Starfarer

A game which revolves around combat in space naturally places great importance on the weapons uses in said space. In short: They must look really cool. Here's a picture to show how I've been going about this:



You see here the process of taking a weapon design from concept art to pixel-art sprite to in-game screenshot. The barrels of the Heavy Autocannon -- a nice standard warship cannon -- recoil individually upon firing.

And how about some background on what influenced this outlook on displaying weapons?

Read the rest of this entry on the Starfarer blog
dbaumgart

Untitled

Or: Weapon design & graphics modularity in Starfarer

A game which revolves around combat in space naturally places great importance on the weapons uses in said space. In short: They must look really cool. Here's a picture to show how I've been going about this:


Click to view full size. You see here the process of taking a weapon design from concept art to pixel-art sprite to in-game screenshot. The barrels of the Heavy Autocannon -- a nice standard warship cannon -- recoil individually upon firing.


And how about some background on what influenced this outlook on displaying weapons?

Read the rest of this entry on the Starfarer blog
dbaumgart
In the current revision pass on Dungeons of Dredmor we've finally had to make some hard choices about what skills mean to a player's character. Thus far, all skills have been more or less freely available to select from any point for testing purposes. But if every skill is always available then by the time a player earns a few levels they shall have had the chance to buy a completely new set of skills which would render the importance of their initial choices mostly meaningless. We want every playthrough of Dredmor to be about an experience which is meaningfully different from a playthrough with different starting selections -- so far as we are able to make it so.


Which will you choose?

To restate our assumptions: At the start of a game of Dredmor, you must select seven skills to create your character. Yep, just seven. True, some skills are probably more useful than others, for how can 'mushroom farming' compare to 'fire magic'? - Ah, but appearances may be deceptive, and I hope to make mushroom farming a skill to be feared; The fungi from Yuggoth compel me. (But that madness shall come in the crafting skills iteration...)

Why seven skills? I don't know. Maybe it felt like a good number. It could reflect influence from Dwarf Fortress (whose use of seven dwarves has an obvious folklore connection), except that the foundation of skill selection was implemented before DF was released, if I recall correctly. I'll have to ask Nicholas about it ... and he says: "Oh, I just picked it at random".

Ah. Lovely.

Let me briefly consider some other games' approaches:

An old favorite of mine, Ultima Online, had a dynamic advance-through-use system of skills rated from 0 to 100 with a total skill point cap of 700. Once your skills added up to 700, you just shuffled that set number of points around. The downside of UO was that the system promoted rampant macroing; Raph Koster explains this (and more!) in his writing on UO's use-based system. The capped dynamic skill system fits the theme of an open world and I really like how it is a radical difference compared to the lineage of MUDs that revolve around grossly linear advancement, the influence of which we see today is most MMORPGs (read: WoW). In UO, player power relative to one another was kept within a reasonable range - a new player would start with 1/10th to 1/2th the hitpoints of a maxed out player. Five or six fresh noobs could conceivably fight a veteran character and win (though no Red worth their black pearl would be taken by a pack of noobs).

Dredmor, however, is not an open world sandbox game, nor does relative player power matter because it is a single player game. Roguelikes as a genre tend to be about making a few important choices at the start of a game and then exploring how those choices affect a playthrough which requires relatively little investment compared to an MMO character. What I'm getting at is that I think almost the entire point of starting a roguelike character lies in those choices at creation being a meaningful statement of how you intend to explore the rest of that playthrough - or at least a shot in the dark that will give you a unique experience. This suggests to me that we should be unforgiving about changing skills, as in: you can't.

I know that modern games like Titan Quest and World of Warcraft are rather forgiving about letting you undo skill selection decisions -- in TQ, you may change skill choices for increasing gold cost, in WoW, likewise for picks in the 'talent' tree. I see these design choices as a result of wanting to play nice with more casual gamers, alleviating the pain of character optimization mistakes in games that both take more time investment and revolve quite centrally around number crunching. Dredmor certainly has numbers and crunching, but I hope that the spirit of the game comes through: that it's more about exploring interesting choices within given systems than linearly optimizing DPS numbers and threat/tank mechanics.


A rather poorly organized skill design spreadsheet. We try not to pay too much attention to it.

(Can you defeat Lord Dredmor with just crafting skills? A shiny goat figurine to whoever does it first!)

Funny thing, Diablo 2 was not so forgiving with skill re-allocation while I'm certain that Diablo 3 will have some mechanic for it.

To ramble on tangentially, an interesting point from Diablo 1 is that you read spellbooks to learn spells rather than gaining them via experience; And this is more properly Roguelike, if I recall correctly. Remnants of this book-advancement exist in having to purchase spells in something like WoW, though that's entirely functioning as a money-sink rather than being loot-based. It's an interesting thought, with books as spell advancement: This means that a mage's spell power is attached to item acquisition rather than experience advancement. This gives a Wizard goodies to find in all the piles of loot which are generally armour and weapons and item-based character focused.

At that, learning from books was how spells were originally acquired in Dredmor. And there was this awful system where you had to roll to see if you succeeded learning the spell, otherwise the book crumbles - it seems to arbitrary and punitive, so I argued to have it cut. (Some people just like pain, of course, and maybe that's why they play Roguelikes.)

... What to do with all these old spellbook graphics ...

Right, so to bring this back on topic: We're having player's choose seven Uberskills at game start. An Uberskill is a skill category (eg. Swordplay, Fire Magic, Fungus Mastery, Veganism) which has between three and eight sub-skills (Unterskills, if you like) which you may advance linearly with skill points earned through leveling. Swordplay sub-skills, for instance, grant bonuses to combat -- especially when using swords -- then starts giving special attacks that have status effects and more damage or area effects to give some tactical depth to work with.

I'm not really sure what we're going to do when someone maxes out the paths on all the skills they've chosen. We'll think of something cool.

[Written for the Gaslamp Games blog]
dbaumgart
Combat RPGs don't traditionally offer much active choice to a warrior character: Do you attack? Do you not attack?

Maybe you get to quaff (but never "drink") a potion every so often. A player's agency comes more from the set-up to combat through having a much more equipment-driven character than, say, a wizard. It is compelling to collect and use equipment, but a warrior really ought to have something to do in combat aside from clicking "attack".



But this is a known problem, and it has been dealt before, and cleverly.

I must mention Blizzard's evolving solutions to the problem: The Diablo 1 warrior had barely anything to do but hit 'attack', quaff potions, and collect loot. Diablo 2 gave the Barbarian class piles of both passive and spell-like skills which used mana as a limiting resource (though perhaps mana is thematically inconsistent for the class). Titan Quest did similarly, and with mana. Now take World of Warcraft as an example - it's been quite some time since I've played, but from what I recall, Warriors build up and use "rage" to execute special attacks along with using skills that use timed cool-down periods per-skill as a limiting factor. Or maybe it was Rogues that build up skill to do neat attacks. Regardless, there were also talent trees which gave specialized skills, attacks, etc - The latest D&D even seems to have taken up MMO-influenced abilities for warrior-type classes with gusto.

The necessity of giving pure-combat classes more gameplay/agency has generally been recognized so, in all, games give warrior characters many more choices to make than they once did. One hopes that these are always interesting and meaningful choices, of course.

Dredmor takes up a few approaches to giving warriors the love they deserve: Naturally, we have piles upon piles of ridiculous items to wield, consume, quaff, and wear upon one's head and/or other extremities. Said items shall have sundry absurd powers and unique odours. We are also giving the warrior a number of pre-combat passive specialization skills and silly special abilities along with in-combat spell-like combat powers.



Between the item collecting, booze drinking, weapon swinging, carrot hunting, area attacking, face mashing, health stealing, and hat wearing, if you really can't find enough to do as a warrior, you can always effectively multiclass because Dredmor is an entirely skill based game (read: no classes) and is made to be friendly toward combinations of skills across class archetypes.

[written for the Gaslamp Games blog]
dbaumgart

Starfarer Ship Design

This is from a series of posts I'm writing to promote the space combat sandbox/rpg game Starfarer by Fractal Softworks.

Ahoy there! My name is David and I'm what passes for an artist around here. But enough about me; I'd like to talk a little about how the graphics of Starfarer come to be, starting with the Onslaught-class battleship which we have already featured from a standpoint of gameplay and game fiction. I'd like to show you my process of creating the visual design of the Onslaught from concept sketch to final sprite.

The Onslaught-class Battleship from concept to sprite:


Read the rest of this entry on the Starfarer blog

dbaumgart


The game "Starfarer" by Fractal Softworks has just been publicly announced! It's a sandboxy spaceship combat/strategy/roleplaying game and is still in production.

Oh, by the way - all the graphics are by me! (And the lovely background is by NASA, I should add.)

Art for this have been a ton of fun to draw. It's been really hard to keep quiet about this but now I can spill the beans, so count on me writing more posts about how I approached the ship and weapon designs, drawing planets, and everything else graphical.

Starfarer will be released sometime in 2011; be sure to follow development and release news at the Fractal Softworks webpage.
dbaumgart
Painted these while daydreaming about tile-based games:



What is it, the world map of an RPG set in a post-apocalyptic world, a spiritual successor to Fallout? (The only Fallout.) Is it Armageddon Empires with charmingly re-interpreted graphics and non-awful UI?

(From a design and aesthetics standpoint, I admit it's actually a combination of the idea of Danc's Miraculously Flexible Game Prototyping Tiles with a reaction to Arne's art style, particularly how he draws terrain, as you can see in the Cortex Command campaign map.)
dbaumgart
[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog]

Quiet? Only outwardly. Our Dear Leader saw fit to allow ye players to select your own resolution rather than be limited to a proper and traditional 800x600 screen. Oh, we have such things in store. You will be able to descend far deeper into the Dungeons of Dredmor than ever imagined previously.

Now come with me and perform a cheap analogue of descending into the dungeon by scrolling down past this large image which is a crop of the title screen painting, showing how I'm expanding it to fit higher resolutions!



By deeper I'm referring only to the resolution of the game, of course. We're not radically changing the actual number of levels, though one could say that the depth of the gameplay you will find in said levels will be much greater than before. I won't get into it much, but the thought process is to focus gameplay more on what you see in the game (eg. the items, the skills, the tactics involved in using the grid of the dungeon layout, finding crazy stuff) than on what you don't see in the game (eg. percentile bonuses to hidden stats).

Back to the art aspect, as the official Gaslamp art janitor, I get to clean up the messes that other people make as they change the fundamental requirements of the game. Bitter? Never! Well, only most of the time! -- at Gaslamp I expect, nay, demand pain. Please sir, may I have another artistic beating? (Actually this turn of phrase reminds me of a certain performance art piece from back in art school, but I digress.) In short, redrawing the entire UI really does get easier when you've done it seven times before.

Worse yet, the clever new pixel scaling algorithm which Nicholas is employing works much better with low-color art than with the high-color art style which I used to draw everything. Pixel art formalism, which I've railed against before, has struck back at me, and I have surrendered to it. And I'm finding that I like it.

You'll never find me drawing a dither gradient though, unless it's very intentionally for texture. I may be a videogame artist, but I do have some pride left. Here, check out new items:



Feel free to speculate wildly about the significance of fruit, a top hat, and ingots of various metals.
dbaumgart
Okay, done. With page one of five. (This is going to take longer than I expected.)

This is a comic I'm drawing to promote Dungeons of Dredmor which has been written by the talented Mr. Vining, our lead programmer, and illustrated by myself. I'm going to do these as a series, so uh, stay tuned for more in the next ... some period of time.

Click the image below to view the first page.

dbaumgart
For quite some time I've been intending to write about pixel art technique. Today I stumbled on a pixel-art platformer game called Frogatto & Friends which has inspired me to get on this because I was struck by the game's lovely art. (I haven't actually played the game yet, though it is available for free on PC/Mac/Linux, and the code, but not the assets, is open source.)

So let's see if I can explain what's going on with the pixels of Guido Bos and Richard Kettering (who it seems also lead the art for Battle For Wesnoth; neat).

Use of Color

The artwork of Frogatto nicely demonstrates the intentional use of color (hue, in particular) to emphasize the depth of a scene. Warm colors pop out to the foreground while cooler colors recede to the background. I've pulled some of the color palettes out of a screenshot to show how this is operating:



Notice how much warmer the lighter colors are - the green and brown are pretty much the same shade of yellow at their lightest, while the stone's gray takes on a noticeable brown tone at its highlights. On the other end, the green cools down even to the point of using a shade of blue while the stone goes toward a more neutral (and relatively cooler) gray.

The use of a blue tone in the tree is particularly interesting. It's actually lighter than the mid-dark green but is so much cooler that it fits with the shadowy parts of the leaves - and the blue reflects the ambient, bluer light of the sky rather than the direct yellow sunlight -- the use of color in the tree tells us a lot, very subtly, about the lighting in the environment.

As an experiment I replaced the original colors with "naive" color palettes that are simply light to dark gradients of a single hue with no change in 'temperature' or saturation.



The scene still works (ignore the yellowish leaves in the lower right), which is a testament to the skillful use of tone and shapes, but it's flatter and less full of life than before.

  • In general, warm hues bring things forward, cool hues set things back. (Sometimes I like to play with inverting this rule to make a scene look weird.)

  • Ambiantly lit shadowy areas can be 'lit' with a color that offsets the primary lighting; Consider what color is coming from the rest of the environment, or what color the sky is.

  • Color can be used very subjectively. It doesn't matter what exact color your color-picker displays, and it definitely doesn't have to match the "naive" understanding of what color something is. What matters is how the color you use works in-context with the rest of the colors of the scene; Indeed, leaves can be blue.


[Yes, I've spoken out about how I don't care for using small fixed palettes in pixel art. The upside of the practice is that it forces artists to be very conscious about their color choices, so from that perspective it promotes some artistic rigor and, on occasion, very creative use of color.]

And that's that for now. This game has wonderfully rendered shapes - those pointy leaves and contrast between bulbous and cubic rocks - so it feels like there's going to have to be another post on the art of Frogatto. Soon.
dbaumgart
Or: Why I listen to people talk about playing games instead of actually playing games.

Mostly.

I'm an artist, right? Right. I draw using my computer pretty much all the time. It's what I do. Drawing (or 'digital painting' or 'pixeling' or whatever it is) doesn't particularly engage the part of my brain that involves language unless I'm actually doing higher-level design. A lot of it is just painting away at something or pushing a lot of pixels. Oftentimes it's not supremely engaging stuff like drawing lots and lots of bricks or painting lots and lots of clouds - all good and necessary things, yes, but the mind tends to wander. So I listen to stuff. Music works oftentimes, and the emotional content of the music often finds its way in to my art. Other times I want to listen to something I can think about, something relevant to what I'd like to be doing: game design.

I listen to internet audio shows about games. For some reason Apple has convinced us that these audio shows are to be called podcasts, and just as I eventually gave in to using the word "blog", so too shall I adopt use of the word "podcast".

These are the podcasts to which I continue to listen, with some of my thoughts.

Three Moves Ahead by Troy Goodfellow (of Flash of Steel, a site I recommend for strategy gamers) with one or more of Tom Chick (of Quarter to Three and GameShark), Bruce Geryk, Julian Murdoch (from Gamers with Jobs), and Rob Zacny

The shows are low-key and honest, almost always excellent, and the commentators are intelligent, well-spoken, funny, and clearly experienced critics. I can't recommend it enough to anyone interested in strategy games.

I'd love to have a future Gaslamp game featured on there if we end up doing something with strategy; I can dream, right?

Quarter To Three Games Podcast by the aforementioned Tom Chick with various guests from the Quarter to Three forums

In this show Tom Chick talks to a sort of "regular gamer" from his site's forums in an interview format first about their job, life, and/or interesting life experiences, then about a game they've chosen to discuss. I appreciate the down-to-earth tone Tom Chick uses, and the shows often spend a lot of time talking about random things aside from the game being discussed. It may be a bit unfocused, but I appreciate the slice-of-life range of topics.

(There's also a Quarter To Three movie podcast which is hilarious and insightful. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in movies.)

Gamers With Jobs Conference Call with Shawn Andrich, Julian Murdoch, and uh, some other guys I don't remember...

This is basically a "have a bunch of guys sit around and bullshit about games for a while" sort of podcast, though they do have actual subjects of discussion and guests sometimes, even Real Game Designers. Tends to go on for a while, but it gives a good sort of "state of games" impression about a lot of things I'd never find the time (or motivation) to play myself.

Jumping the Shark, "the official podcast of GameShark.com"

This is mostly a "sit around and bullshit about games", albeit from the perspective of a pack of game journalists, with a discussion topic per-show following a what-games-are-you-playing segment. Provides insight into the world of video games journalism (which the participants don't, I think, promote any illusions about), but mostly it's a "state of games" show to me.

The Brainy Gamer Podcast by Michael Abbott

It's not updated often, but as the title suggests, the show is intelligent and has some good interviews/discussions with experienced game designers talking seriously about the subject.

Game Design Advance Podcast by Charles Pratt

New York indie game design; Content full and utterly academic. Having taken some philosophy courses and going to art school means I can totally take anything this podcast dishes, but it's probably not for everyone.

Experience Points Podcast by Jorge Albor and Scott Juster

Sometimes I'm a bit torn on this one, but I keep listening to it. They don't necessarily get too deep into discussion and seem to have less to say than more experienced critics and writers (I believe they're just a touch younger than myself, even), and they tend to talk about more mainstream console games than my tastes run, but it is important for me to find out what such games are all about and they deliver with admirable regularity. They're earnest in approaching mainstream games with a mind for actual discussion, so I appreciate what they try to get out of it. I think they're getting better as they go along and get used to the medium.

Aside from these I make forays into other genres; For a while I listened to a huge backlog of short science-fiction stories read in audio form in a podcast called Escape Pod, which I believe has a fantasy and horror equivalent, and a number of tabletop RPG design podcasts (eg. Master Plan, Open Design Podcast) which, though fascinating for a different take on game design, I burned through pretty quickly.

Still, I run out of things to listen to.

Do you have any good game podcasts to recommend?
dbaumgart
This is only the beginning of a story, but it could prove to be a very interesting story if it bears out. I think it already contains instructive lessons for game development and design.



On the left, Dwarf Fortress. On the right, Goblin Camp.

I hope you know about Dwarf Fortress, the very complex roguelike-lookinglike fantasy world sim / citybuilder. From a development perspective, DF is a very long-running obsessive project coded by one guy, Tarn Adams, who makes more money than I do (not difficult) entirely by donations from his fans. I admire Tarn's goals and his creative freedom which lets him indulge his whims - I wish I could do that. I even had fun playing some Dwarf Fortress until I explored most of what there was to explore. It was sweet while it lasted, but I grew tired with the tedium of a very rough user interface and tedious gameplay.

This brings me to a common criticism of Dwarf Fortress: development over the last year, year and a half has focused on revising very low level details about the game's simulation of how materials interact, particularly how creatures bodies are built with layers of bone and muscle and hair, what properties these each have, etc. It is true that part of the charm of Dwarf Fortress is about the ridiculous level of detail. But it has been over a year and I still have to press a series of awkward keyboard shortcuts to build things, I need to hand-designate every square of ore to be mined, I need to tell each workshop exactly what to make. Frankly, the user interface achieves mind-blowing levels of confusion and unnecessarily repeated actions which lead to a sense of tedium and frustration that overwhelms my interest in continuing the play the game - so I don't. Many people don't even manage to fully learn to use the interface (or don't want to) due to - I'll say it - how bad it is. And further, most new players are overcome by the sheer detail and volume of information that needs to be processed and managed by hand: To speak for my own experience (to those of the DF community that hold in high regard their ability to manage an extraordinarily complex game), it's not that I am incapable of running a complex Dwarf Fortress game, it's just that I don't want to because it's boring to have to hand-tweak every little thing to keep the place running, and worse still, it actually hurts my hands to press the same keys again and again and again as is required.

I love what this game could be and reading the development page it is full of admirable, sky-high aspirations. But I can't bring myself to play it. It's a beautiful idea but an extremely flawed game.

To get the Dwarf Fortress Experience, you're better off reading the stories people write about their games in forums, eg. the classic Boatmurdered. This removes the frustration of playing the game itself and gives you the high points of amusement at the absurd details and situations which arise during gameplay (which inspired a good deal of the silliness we have in Dungeons of Dredmor, I should add).

And then, if the post's timestamp is correct, just two days ago on July 14, Ilkka Halila announced Goblin Camp in the SomethingAwful forums.

Now things are getting interesting.

Goblin Camp looks like Dwarf Fortress, uses the same ASCII-graphics, and starts from a foundation of the same sort of gameplay built upon semi-autonomous agents collecting and processing resources in a world build of tiles, but it makes several important departures in terms of project development and design philosophy.

  1. The code of Goblin Camp is released open source. In interviews, Tarn Adams has expressed concern about releasing DF's code because he could lose control over the focus of the project, lose financial support, and he is not interested in supporting other people modifying (and breaking) the code. Goblin Camp has already been extended by coders other than Ilkka - if the initial interest maintains its present momentum, the game could develop at an extraordinarily rapid pace. I must observe though that GC's appeal is somewhat cannibalistic on DF's - It is frustrated DF fans that are excited about CG.

  2. Goblin Camp streamlines play. For example, there is a central depository of craft goods in GC which the player gives orders like "Maintain a stock of 500 wood planks". Workers are automatically assigned tasks to fulfill this requests, they are sent out in the woods to cut logs which are returned to a carpenters shop to be processed. In DF, one would have to designate a single worker as a lumberjack, scroll out into the map, designate an area of trees for chopping (using the keyboard, by the way), then queue tasks in a carpenters shop by-hand. When designated trees run out, the player has to re-designate more trees - and the player is not told when they run out of designated trees. GC handles the minutiae for the player, reducing the hand-interaction required from perhaps 10 actions to one action, at least. To be frank, this design ethos of streamlining interaction blows DF out of the water in terms of playability already (Dwarf Fortress was released four years ago, by the way).

  3. Goblin Camp abstracts details. While DF has spent a year of development time simulating the material properties required to properly model the penetration of an iron bolt through leather armor, flesh, and bone, as appropriate to the details of a given creature's anatomy, GC was coded in its entirety in two months and uses simple die rolls for attack skill and damage. The resulting playability of each game's combat is not a radically different experience: guys swarm each other and people get chopped to bits. The idea of abstracting small details to implement fun features more quickly appears to lay behind every aspect of GC's development. Further, the mod-friendly and open source nature of the game allows other people to fill in small details at their whim while the primary developer concentrates on the more general framework of gameplay.


Goblin Camp was made, to paraphrase Ilkka, because he loved the sort of game that is Dwarf Fortress but he is impatient and wants to play the game DF could be, that he wants DF to be, now rather than waiting for Tarn to add certain features to Dwarf Fortress - if he ever does. A game like Goblin Camp was bound to happen in response to Dwarf Fortress, and I think Tarn and many others knew it would come. I'm pretty sure similar attempts have been made (there was an Elf Forest joke-game, I believe), but none seem to have really taken off. Maybe Goblin Camp will.

Goblin Camp, as a game and an approach to development, is a critical response to weaknesses in the game and development of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe Tarn will have to react to Goblin Camp out of a need to save his source of income, maybe he will re-focus on making Dwarf Fortress a playable game rather than a complex simulation lost in it's own obsessive detail, accessible only to an extremely dedicated few. It's like Josh Petrie's advice to beginning game developers: "Write Games, Not Engines" mixed with the ethos and methodology of Open Source software, Wiki-style content, and the absurd power of the internet.

I can't wait to see what happens next.
dbaumgart
[Start faux-manifesto]

Pixel art is for the pixels!

I don't care for being formalistic about pixel art, of adhering to a limited palette or carefully anti-aliasing my lines by hand, of using all-or-nothing transparency (actually, I do the latter two more often than I'd like to admit). What matters is what I wish to do with the aesthetic of pixels - and what specifications I must meet for the graphics to work at all in the given platform. It is ridiculous to throw away perfectly good tools like brush effects, gradient tools, and overall image adjustments. Tedium is not artistically uplifting.

If the art is about pixels, it's pixel art. It doesn't matter how I make it.


I actually followed all the "rules" of pixel art to draw these. Oops. Then I used the adjust levels tool in Photoshop. Ha! I have overthrown the tyranny of aesthetic canon!

There! It's not a manifesto unless you try to sound controversial in the first paragraph.

My inept mini-manifesto stems in part from a denial of things like PixelJoint's pixel-art rule of "no filters, paintbrushes, gradient fills, etc" because it happens to rule out almost all of the pixel art I've done. (Let it be said though that of course I respect that they can set their own rules in their own space and I see what they're getting at by doing so - it is common for artists beginning to learn digital techniques to rather abuse the powers they're given. But that's part of learning, isn't it?) Still, I see no reason to pain myself with archaic methods of pushing pixels so long as the output is the same - though of course it isn't; the technique used to create an image can't help but affect the character of the image. The point is, I don't want new artists interested in working at a very low res scale to get some idea in their head about what they are or are not supposed to do. The only limit to what you should do is the actual limit of what you can do. (For art. Not other things.)

The aesthetic of Dungeons of Dredmor, to take a (non-)random example and move this on to a relevant topic, harkens to simpler times with pixel art style graphics, yes, but it is certainly not an altogether retro game. The first versions of Dredmor were drawn much more along the lines of traditional low-color pixel art, though I assure you that this was before I got my hands on the beast. The monster and player sprites still do adhere to a low-color aesthetic, understandably both because I don't want to redraw all the monsters in a new style, though I did redraw almost everything else in the game, and because hand-shading consistently over many frames is a much-reduced chore if you use only 3 shades of any particular color.

Most of sprites in the game also, unfortunately, use an archaic sprite format for which I hold Nicholas entirely responsible and shall never forgive him for. Until I do. I really hate the editor it uses and avoid it as much as possible. He's heard all my whining about this, of course. The next game is going to be filled with beautiful pngs. Maybe I'll even paint the whole thing!

There's not much to conclude from this rambling; I still enjoy low-res art, and having had to do a very high-res painting recently, have discovered how attuned my workflow has become toward low-res and pixel art. It's all a lot of fun and I shall certainly continue to make pixel art and pixel art-like art with filters, paintbrushes, and gradient fills!

As for Dredmor this week, it's the usual creamy madness.

[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog.]

PS. I should also mention, for its part, that I did post my portfolio to the Pixel Joint forums a while back and have found a lot of interest in freelance work through the site. It's a good place. I just can't post my pixel art there.

PPS. Speaking of people doing really cool things with pixel art, I am really jealous of the artistic experimentation that is going on with Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery. Beautiful stuff. (Though I am amused by how much it aligns with hipster tropes of awkward-looking people, faded colors, and a love for woodland animals, particularly bears.)