The Dog Days of Summer

August 30th, 2011

Well, summer is actually just about through up here in Canada, but I thought I’d give a quick update on the project and account for the lack of regular updates recently.  See, in Canada summer is such a…. scarce commodity.  According to the economic laws of supply and demand, that makes it inherently more valuable than the rest of the year.  This has made development time scarce, and web-logging time non-existent.  Fortunately (from some perspectives, anyway), the weather is beginning to turn, so I will no doubt be in your face more regularly for the next ten months.

So, what’s been happening on the project lately?  Lots!  I’ve got the second of seven sections roughed out, and have a good start on a third.  I’ve done some heavy scripting over the summer and I have scads of animations that I am very proud of.  Where does this put me in terms of release date?  It’s hard to tell.  I still think autumn 2012 is in the cards, but it depends on so much that has yet to happen yet.  So I will keep on chipping away at the marble until my masterpiece is revealed.

Now the casual reader might choke on some of the time-lines I’ve mentioned (did he say years?!?), so this is a good point to discuss the scope of the project.  Curses & Castles is designed as a full-length fantasy adventure game on an epic scale, and this necessarily means an epic amount of time must be spent building it.  Recall that the development team consists of just one fraction of a person and you can see why it will take two full years for the this project to come to fruition.  (NOTE: I am not actually a fraction of a person, but I do have a day job and a family so I only spend about two hours a day in development mode, amounting to roughly 1/12 of my existence.)

I know, I know, you’re supposed to start small, especially when undertaking the risk of your first commercial release.  But epic fantasy and small don’t really go together, and I’m really excited about the script even a year after it was written, so I have no regrets about ignoring advice and rationality and plunging on in.  It will all be worth it when it’s done!  That’s what I keep telling myself, and that’s what I’m telling you.

To give you an idea of the scope of the game I am releasing a rough mock-up of the game world map:

Saefonley is a fairly small kingdom until you actually start drawing it pixel by pixel! This map -currently in a Lord-of-the-Rings-esque phase but it is still evolving – will serve two purposes.  It will allow the player at any point to tell where they are relative to places mentioned by characters in the game (the little purple x marks your location), and it will allow magic transportation between monumental travel stones to save what would otherwise be a considerable amount of walking!

The seven sections I referred to above will correspond to the five ridings of the realm, plus two extras.  The five ridings correspond roughly to the four points of the compass as well as the main town in the middle of the realm.  The extra sections consist of Princess Porphyra’s escape sequence from the Dragon’s castle and a foray into the mystical forest of the north.  Sounds like a lot, I know.  But in reality I’ve got the vast bulk of the top half of the game done (according to the map), including most animation and scripting, and much of the drawing.  But it’s hard to gauge the relative “density” of work that will be required by different sections of the game, so I can only reckon roughly that I’m somewhere between 35-40% finished.

So there you have it.  If winter comes early and lasts until next June (which does happen up here, alas, on occasion), then you can expect an awful lot of progress out of me in the coming months!

Try It, Try It, And You May!

June 9th, 2011

We’ve all thought it: if only all of the world’s problems could be solved by cheesecake.  While largely a fanciful wish, the premise is not as far-fetched as you might presume, especially when it comes to game design!  A while back I noticed my wife’s recipe cards -one of them has her grandma’s famous cheesecake recipe, mmmmm…..    Sorry, where was I?  I noticed that those 3 x 5 inch cards were approximately the same ratio as my game resolution!  Suddenly I no longer had to laboriously measure out the proper ratio on a bigger sheet of paper before sketching a draft background, which I found immensely liberating.  And those little cards -you know the type, ubiquitous for recipes and school speech crib notes – they fit perfectly in your back pocket so you can carry them anywhere!  I get a break at work, out comes a card.  Some downtime at the in-laws, out comes a card.  The only downside to date has been laundry day, since I’ve not trained myself to search my back-pockets as rigorously as the front ones.

By cutting off just a finger’s width of space from the bottom of the card (useful for meta-information like the screen’s number in the AGS development environment, etc.) these 3×5 cards have the perfect proportions for sketching adventure game backgrounds. Further, since it is so convenient to store these cards, I haven’t been misplacing my sketches in “the pile” like I used to. This, in turn, has led me to recording useful information right on the background sketch, like entrance and exit co-ordinates, which has sped up the coding required to make the background functional within the game.

I’ve chosen to use the above card as an example since my actual background design has yet to deviate from it (details pending). Check it out below:

The hamlet of Nearwald is populated by a few peasant folk who have so far survived a mysterious plague. Eventually more details, textures and animations will make this scene complete, but for now note how easily the background followed from the sketch.

I am very excited about this new method. Easier and more convenient sketching means that I can sketch more, and more sketches translates into greater choice of background elements. It makes my backgrounds better because I have more ideas to choose from. So if you’re a game developer or thinking about trying your hand at it (just sayin’…. everyone who has commented here so far are known developers), then why not give this method a shot?  The results could be sweet like cheesecake!

A New Leaf

May 25th, 2011

A healthy dose of perspective cures most ailments. Sometimes when I’m frustrated that Curses & Castles is not progressing very quickly it helps me to consider that it’s only a game, and that in the big scheme of the universe it amounts to very little.  Ah, my problems are minimized!  Breathe deep, now let it all go.  Peace at last.

But, alas, the same trick can have the opposite effect.  Consider that in the big scheme of the game, which at times amounts to my universe, the amount of progress that I can make in a single work-session amounts to very little.  My frustration is maximized!  Perspective be damned!

So I decided to do some reading up on how other developers handle their work flow, looking for ideas to increase efficiencies and productivity.  A favourite dev blog of mine is Dave Gilbert’s New York Gamedev Blog, mostly because through reading it I can fantasize that I am Dave Gilbert, but also because of his wonderful insights into game making and the indie adventure game business. I was reading or probably rereading some of his archival material when I stumbled across this:

Hmmmm…. It appears that successful and productive indie developers hash out their ideas in rough before investing any serious amount of time on graphics.

Further reading on Joshua Nuernberger’s Gemini Rue Postmordem indicated that he too had used placeholder art to quickly implement his ideas. Joshua even claimed to have done backgrounds in less than 30 minutes this way: if I’d been drawing instead of wasting time reading these fascinating development pieces I’d have had another two backgrounds in the bag!

I always figured I’d go back over my existing art and tweak it here or there, redoing the worst of it as necessary.  But that meant investing a lot of time in artistic assets that may not even be usable in the end.  So I set out consciously this week to only draw the barest minimum placeholder art for as many backgrounds as I could draw.  It was hard -by nature I’m a detail oriented kind of guy.  Frequently I had to tell myself, very sternly, to just let it go!

Here is the result:

Well, it’s not exactly an object lesson in programmer art. Sure it looks bad, but I did spend almost half an hour on the sap pool. My meticulous side insisted on getting the gist of it right (of course it still needs more shading and details here and there), since I needed the sap pool for animation purposes.

Actually, the end results are not quite so tangible as this crummy bit of programmer art.  The real result is that I advanced the project by six backgrounds this week, which makes me feel hugely productive!  Yes, I know in the back of my mind that this week’s “boom” comes at the expense of a lot more work down the road (I’ll stop before I flesh out a complete analogy with the US housing boom/debt crisis), but the feeling of accomplishment has generated its own momentum that has really enhanced my enthusiasm for the project once more.  Perspective is everything, I guess.