charting the obscene lows of developing a university videogame
And…. done. Holy Jesus. I’m working on finding a means to get the game online. That’s a lie. I’m working on not working on implementing the very helpful feedback I received. Feels like coming out of a sprint into a morass, days go by oh so slow and I can’t quite get used to doing sweet fuck all. Life goes on. Here is a poster for the final game:
I’m going to update this again one day soon. I want to get to 4000 words.
02/05/12 – 9 days until hand in
26/04/12 – 16 days until hand in
Woke up this morning with one goal: write and implement two additional dialogue trees. I’m going to bed with an eleven-tier micro-game that’s a hell of a lot more fun to play – and was a hell of a lot more fun to make – than the main game. And no new dialogue trees.
I think this is good. The game-in-a-game fits neatly with the narrative and it’s more gamey than the core stuff, so it’ll probably go down better than the dialogue trees/sparse puzzles. There’s a lot of iTweening, timed events and tricks in there that I hadn’t had chance to put to use in the slower-paced main game. There’s also a rotating camera, some slanted lines and Modern Warfare 2′s smokey menu effect!
Micro-game is mocked up as a platforming calibration exercise for the VR game inside my game, which is a direct mockery of the Prince of Persia/Mario story. It’s all a bit Inception. You control a cube and go about tackling a series of simple platforming challenges. Each room has a little bit of exposition – couldn’t not write something on the walls – and I finally got round to doing some real level design (which, arguably, is the only thing besides writing I’d ever want to do in the industry). In the lore of the world, the purpose of the scenario is to gauge a man’s mental and physical abilities, with the software adapting the real game-inside-the-game based on the outcome of the calibration. This gave me a good enough reason to stick with the cube (wasn’t about to make another sprite/3D model) with the promise that, following the platforming section, full 3D characters would be the norm. Of course, you’re interrupted long before any 3D character model finds a window to rear its vile head.
Playing through the [almost] full game I find it slightly amusing that the art – which was always my biggest fear – has turned out to be one of my favourite aspects. It looks much better in motion than in the stills (the little white dots are snow and a lot of the platforms/saws are moving). Still having a bit of trouble with the character though – she can’t walk left (I’m sure I’m missing something basic here as the temp-character could, might be to do with the additional frames in the animation) and she’s still a little bit fuzzy. Annoying.
Tomorrow: DIALOGUE TREES.
Won’t lie. Slightly concerned now. Designed two of the five or so levels left and implemented my first dialogue tree this evening. They’re a pain in the ass to track as they’re all GUI but it’s a good thing to know how to do. Took about three hours to get this one in shape (it boasts a whopping seven lines) and I’ve yet to create the longest of the three. Looks pretty good though, borrowing a trick or two from Unmanned. Need the last two trees finished by midnight tomorrow at the latest else they’re getting axed.
We’re supposed to worry about marketing our games too. Christ.
21/04/12 – 21 days until hand in
Had a fuck-load of fun with this tonight. If only the rest of the game looked as good.
21/02/12 – 78 days until hand in
I read some advice over the Christmas break, imparted by a coder and directed squarely at students, (presumably because nobody who’s made it any further into the games industry could be so naive as to not to be in the know.)
“Students”, the tipster lead off, “plan your games and plan them well… then delete 90% of whatever you’ve planned.” Something to that effect, anyway. Good advice!
I’ve been affixed to my laptop for 6 days straight, effectively and willingly inducing acute social retardation, but I’ve accomplished more in these six short days than I did in the three months leading up to Christmas and the six weeks following it. What’s new? The camera no longer tracks the player, for one, there’s no pointless shoe-horned platforming and the shoddy shooting (which saw bullets flinging out the character’s ass if he were facing the wrong direction) has been axed in favour of something a little less “GAME” and a little more “BORING”. Oh well, it was hardly challenging spamming the ctrl button anyway.
I’ve got the workings of a rudimentary dialogue tree system in place (the only slight hiccup resulting from the fact that you can choose all options at once for a good ear-mauling), you can loot corpses and the game’s got the skeletal structure of perhaps the most basic inventory system ever. There are some cool little lighting tricks and flickers (Unity’s lighting seems better since the last update) and I even took a trip into the stinking inky abyss known as Windows to play around in 3DS Max. A maelstrom of pain and suffering with very little payoff.
If I’ve learnt one thing this week-whizzed by it’s that game development is entirely smoke and mirrors. That’s pretty clear to anyone who plays games, really (nothing’s really epic), but making one really hammers that home. Just about every facet of the game has been born from the following procedure:
Plan -> Attempt -> Fail -> Deploy smoke&mirrors workaround.
Half the time it’s hit and hope. Tinker with something and hope it doesn’t spawn a gaping black hole and if it does hope doubly hard that it doesn’t suck you into the beleaguering dead-zone along with your project. Unity through a tantrum on Saturday and stuck a gun in its mouth. Luckily I’d backed up.
With something like 11 levels built I think there’s only three of four more to go. There’s a fuck-load of artwork that needs to be done, more animation and – more than anything – sound. My sound designer and I had a recording session in December (which principally involved smashing bananas and other assorted foodstuffs into a wooden board – huge fun – and pointing some weird electro-mic at computers and wires) but the idea has ballooned since then and he’s got a better knowledge of the game-sound design process, which is handy, so we’ll probably wipe the, er, board clean.
Here are some stills of the second playable build nearing completion.
07/12/11 – still several short months until hand in
Amidst all the whining I’ve actually created a prototype. Here’s the trailer which either manages to successfully obfuscate just how spartan it all is or utterly hammer it home:
Most of the features draw on what I’ve been taught/figured out across the last two years. The Game Cultures course is a bit like a tourist trip to Game Design City. We wander around all the famous parts, gorge at the tourist restaurants, buy the tourist tat and stare slack jawed at the tallest buildings but never really get to take in all the sexy secrets that Game Design City has squirreled away off the main path. The London Eye is good and all but it’s no match for, er, something better and less famous.
I’m going to have to learn something new one of these days.
06/12/11 – several short months until hand in
The title of this development diary* began as a joke. It was never intended to bridge the gap from development diary* to actual game title. It did. And now it’s back, where it belongs, reinstated as a joke. Except it’s no longer funny.
I’m going to add cold in there somewhere. We don’t have heating. I think the windows are made of tissue paper. People keep leaving the things open too. It’s 2 fucking degrees here.
Sometimes people force their mouths into an uncomfortable O-shape and cough out an elongated wow sound. This tends to happen when I tell them I’ve spent two and a half years growing lazy and making estranged segments of videogames. It’s the correct response but brought about for all the wrong reasons. Their wow translates to “THAT MUST BE SO MUCH FUN”. I can never be bothered to argue.
Prototype is due in tomorrow. I’m done and unsatisfied. Making games is relatively tough but I’m not hungry. 2/3.
Needed to have rudimentary gameplay mechanics functioning. HHD’s gameplay includes shooting, platforming and EXPLORING. I don’t think that last one counts. I have shooting. I have platforming. There will be no platforming from hereon out but it’s too late to crush it into dust now. I have a sprite running at 4 frames per second courtesy of someone who isn’t me but is much smarter than me. Still, all this at the expense of my story and as a result the prototype is pretty fucking drab.
8 days of term left. I spent 18 years living in the countryside before moving to London, I need to look out across a vast expanse of empty land soon. My eyes are like zoo animals here.
*This isn’t a development diary.
02/12/11 – 161 days until hand in
Wrote lousy poetry on Saturday. Wrote lousier stories on Sunday. Finished blocking the first act on Monday. Recorded sound on Tuesday. Animated on Wednesday. Fucked off Thursday. Prototype due next Wednesday.
said the cunning mouse
“come hither and marvel at this bounty of cheese”
the hungry mouse ventured forth
“wouldn’t you just look at all that cheese”
said the cunning mouse
“doesn’t it look delicious”
a glob of spit slipped sickeningly from the hungry mouse’s slack front-hole
“i’ve eaten much already”
said the cunning mouse
“this i reserve for you my friend”
the hungry mouse felt something he had yet to feel in all his years
a heady sensation welling up from within and swallowing
swallowing the darkness, the sorrow, the strife
quenching his insatiable hunger even
the matchless warmth of companionship
full of felicity the hungry mouse sunk his jaws into the cheese
and was snapped indelibly
the cunning mouse waited as the hungry mouse polished off his twitchy encore jive
before retrieving his cheese
it tasted like ash and penitence and perfidy
the next day the cunning mouse hanged himself from a drawer knob
14/11/11 – 179 days until hand in
Three weeks ago to this very day – indeed almost to this very hour – I handed these very documents to a woman in an office who very much didn’t give a damn. I however, was feeling precious. 120-odd pages, 10,110 words, £30 of printing and binding costs, countless hours of my life poured away without thought. Unanimously, the people I told this very tale too all deduced I was handing in my actual dissertation. “Wow!” barked one, chirpily, “I bet that’s a weight off your shoulders!” Ho ho ho, I thought with despair and oh how their mouths were hushed as I enlightened them: alas no, dear friend, this is not my dissertation but merely a planning document worth a meagre 10% of one single unit. Still, brushing that aside, how very nice to hold something so heavy and so fetching and so thick with mindless shite.
In the name of fairness it wasn’t all that way and having a full game more or less sketched out proved somewhat rewarding (not to mention, I assume, very useful). In fact, the only thing that eclipsed that sense of accomplishment was the desire to never make the damn thing and so I granted myself some days off. 3, in fact: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. A carefully orchestrated threesome of days that would provide a sufficient break from the rigmarole of work while also culminating tidily before the thunderous knockout punches of Batman, Battlefield, Call of Duty and Skyrim could smash all hope of having a decent prototype by Christmas.
Suffice to say, and as was forever going to be the case, three weeks ago to this very day I made a pact with myself that I’ve broken every single day since. On the plus side, CHRISTMAS in T-40 days.
22/10/11 – 202 days until hand in
I’ve spent the best part of today trying to find the treasure at the heart of the dungeon of UNIQUE SELLING POINTS. I need it to progress, you see, and it’s a fucking nightmare in here. Fact: unique selling points are also known as unique selling propositions. Opinion: we refer to them as unique selling points because proposition is a dirtier word than point. It’s been a bad day.
A unique selling proposition gives the customer a reason to buy the product (our extra thick condoms increase your sexual stamina). It should be something the competition cannot provide (our extra thick condoms increase your sexual stamina without taking all the fun out the act). Not that the game industry pays it any heed – and it’s a trivial detail really – but it should also be unique. An example of one of Arkham City’s unique selling points is the fact that you play as The Dark Knight. OHMYSHITBATMAN. Those guys at Rocksteady have it easy.
Gloss over the back of just about any AAA game and you’ll likely find a tidy bundle of adjectives that together make up a USP. Most games have three, one below each picture. You’ll know precisely the moment you’ve rooted one out because you’ll be slapped by the foul smell of PR horse-shit. It’s like normal horse-shit, but there’s the rotting carcass of a car salesman in there somewhere.
You’ll have read statements like five hundred thousand million weapons, or five hundred thousand million acres of apocalypse to explore, or five hundred thousand million different conversational options that can all be catalogued neatly into nice, naughty or neutral. I’m paraphrasing Borderlands, Borderlands and any Bioware game but you get the idea. You’ve probably read more USPs than you’ve wasted Kleenex.
I’ve looked over a tonne of the damn things today and my favourite by no short distance is Bulletstorm’s: KILL WITH SKILL. With just three syllables the USP machine communicates to the consumer with the precision of a surgeon what they’re wading into. There’s no larking about with KILL WITH SKILL. Similarly, Dark Souls’ PREPARE TO DIE epitomises everything about Dark Souls.
On the contrary you’ve got Left 4 Dead 2: “Advanced technology creates solo, co-op, and multiplayer experiences each time you play.” Ghee whiz, experiences you say? In videogames you say? In the year 2011? My word. Perhaps Valve are in the enviable position of being Valve. It doesn’t matter what’s written on the box, folks are going to pay for it.
Okay, quiz time. Can you guess which games the following are taken from: “Rage through the Wastelands using an arsenal of exotic weapons and gadgets.” Did you catch the pun? “Character and story-driven action adventure epic” Er. “Epic action adventure gameplay”. Yeah. “Complete a wide variety of quests with state-of-the-art weaponry and gadgets.” Um.
Got them all? Of course you didn’t. I don’t blame you, they’re each more appalling than the last. The first was Rage but it could have easily been Fallout were it not for the cheeky pun. The second was Uncharted 2, the first game ever to feature a half-decent story and likeable character. Next was Enslaved but not even Ninja Theory could have known it. Lastly came Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood which, again, based on that description could have been anything from Mass Effect to Viva Pinata.
There are two games I glanced over that didn’t flaunt their USPs with bravado. Or anything. The first was Mirror’s Edge which has three neat paragraphs dedicated to its story and nothing else. There isn’t three paragraphs of story in the actual game. Worse still Mirror’s Edge has a patent and brilliant USP but there’s no mention of first person free-running anywhere on the box (although there is a large picture of some girl running along a wall). Secondly there’s Modern Warfare 2 which runs with the wonderfully smug: “The sequel to the best-selling first person action game of all-time.” Call of Duty’s unique selling point is that it’s Call of Duty.
As for me, I’m clueless. It’s not that I don’t think there’s anything unique about my game, it’s that I can’t bring myself to reduce whatever that happens to be into a klutzy marketing slogan. 20-something exquisitely detailed 2D rooms? Lie. A mind-fucking narrative twist? Ridiculous. A bit where the lights go out? Accurate. I’m not precious about the game, it’s not even a damn game yet. You can’t be precious about each and every one of your sperm. The idea has potential but at the moment it’s just that; an idea.
But I can’t seem to word my USP so I’m taking a break from this bastard dungeon to combine my favourites from those I’ve read today. The irony is, save for the weapon type, it’s depressingly accurate. Take anything and you can boil it down into nothing but lifeless marketing horse-shit.
Here it is anyway: Prepare to kill with one, big, crazy, awesome rocket-launching shotgun in this solo, character and story-driven experience. You’d play it, right? Oh, you already have. 500 times. Damn.
18/10/11 – 206 days until hand in
I’m more than a 21 year old, unfunny, rapidly fattening, beardy twat. Of this I can assure you because on a computer somewhere there is a mugshot of me, a seven-digit number and some words that officially make me a third year games design student. Basically what this means for you is that your tax money has been spent paying some men and a lady to teach me how to 3D model, record sound and write something better, hopefully, than what tends to pass for story in videogames – think that story you wrote as an eleven year old about an alien race of reptile men from the planet Twonkdom that kill all the people in your town and then AWESOME MAN (aka you) saves the days and then gets wanked off by an actual girl.
But don’t feel hard done by, from a financial and educational perspective this is all probably the biggest mistake of my life! A mistake tempered only by the people I’ve met and the times I’ve had which, rest assured, have totally been more than worth £30,000.
To pass our third and final year we’re expected to pen a 10,000 word dissertation but I’m not about to start writing about that. Of a more interesting nature, parallel to that we’re supposed to design and build an actual working videogame out of pictures and words and things like hash tags and “if statements”. I wish I could tell you more, but that’s the extent of my knowledge.
Let’s rewind. Back in sunny April we were told to pitch an idea for a videogame we wanted to slave away on for the best part of 8 months. There’s precious little I deem worth 8 months of my life so this decision wasn’t to be rushed. Creativity broods, swells, dies and, like Jesus, returns to life just when you think it’s gone for good (hence why I’m writing this).
Still, countless days were surrendered over to the art of sitting about in yesterday’s pants straining to retch up a half-decent idea. What can I make? I can’t code. I can’t draw. I can’t compose music. I’m not that creative but I am semi-proficient at writing and I did pretty alright in a 3D environment-making module. “So make Myst”, a twonk told me. He was being ironic but I told him he could ram it right up his arsehole anyway.
24 short hours before I was due to give the presentation I was lost. Fuck this. I’d quit. I’d do what I was told to do last year and quit and do a course in journalism and get a job in telesales and quit that job and live with my parents. No.
So I pitched Samorost. I like Samorost. I was playing Samorost at the time. There were 24 hours to go. I hadn’t slept. It seemed like a good idea. The guy in the presentation goes: “It’s Samorost.” I go: “Yeah”. He goes: “Originality isn’t everything.”
Problem is I don’t want to make Samorost. I never did. Jakub Dvorský has that corner covered. It’s his turf and his piss is like the finest fertiliser. Money and mansions and blow jobs can’t even buy this fertiliser. It’s Dvorský ’s special stuff and it’s his.
Equally I’m burnt out so summer arrives and I spend 16 splendidly sunny weeks relaxing. I holidayed and worked and wrote for the website. I was a click away from applying for a couple of volunteer jobs and generally gave no thought to the course. “September! That’s when I’ll think about the damned course.” I’d say at least twice a day.
September came, September went. Thought was given. Ideas were generated. There were three, each of them even more uninspiring than the last and I knew that none of them were capable of holding my interest for 8 months. And by God if I’m working on something for 8 months I need to be interested in it. So I kept knocking them up and shooting them down.
7 days before our pre production document is due, I’ve finally had an idea. I think it’s the one. I don’t want to say it’s Another World by way of Limbo, with a dollop of Animal Farm, a dash of Total Recall, a slice of Brazil, a hint of A Space Odyssey and a lick of Metroidvania all thrown into the proverbial tub and sloshed about with my own stupid vision of our sordid future because nothing I contribute to in life is going to top Total Recall is it. But they’re each inspirational to me. Incidentally many of them were also the inspiration for my work last year. Work I was advised to continue with 9 months ago. But hey ho.
And so, with a meagre six Planet Earth days to iron out this mammoth document, I’m as ready to make a game as I’m probably ever going to be. Which is as ready as Gaddafi is to come out and face the noose, I imagine.
Now, to the actual point for which I’m sorry it’s taken this long to arrive; as this is going to be a voracious project my time to write about real videogames is going to be slight (so it’s just as well there aren’t many big games coming out in the next six months.) To save myself from emerging in eight months time a dead-eyed, boring cunt even less capable of writing than I am now I’m going to blog about the game design process. We’ll generously call it a DEVELOPMENT DIARY so I can submit it at the end of the year as “work” at which point I’ll change all uses of the word “cunt”, “twat” and “twonk” to the names of my closest friends and massively edit the tone of the whole thing. First off I’ll probably delete this post.
Oh, one last thing. I’ve got a USP, which is more than I can say for my game idea. Unlike most developer blogs, which tend to be a bit niche on account of the fact that games design requires a few key skills most people don’t have, I don’t have the fuckingest clue what I’m doing. So it ought to be fun for everyone!