Archive for April, 2011

Seeing is Believing!

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Quick readers will have noticed that I’ve edited my previous log. It had been very lengthy in draft form so I had purged much of the material to make it short enough in order that people might actually read it. Unfortunately this had the effect of making it not entirely clear, so I have split it into two (the previous post and this one) and added back some of my deleted thoughts.

The previous log entry is now principally concerned with issues of artistic style, while this one deals with issues specific to designing a single background scene. When designing an interactive in-game scene there is much to be considered. Firstly, where will the main character have to move? What is the location and movement possibilities of secondary characters? These “walkable areas” need to be well flagged so that the player knows where is “in bounds” and where things might be inaccessible. Secondly, it is very important to consider elements of a scene that might change, such as a mirror that can be picked up or a switch that can be flipped. These elements must be drawn separately and placed seamlessly over the static background as objects that can be changed dynamically. Thirdly, are there any special animations to be shown? Not only must the designer consider the room necessary if, say, a monster were to throw a fit, but also the efficient uses of humdrum animations such as the main character climbing. It takes twice as much time to draw a character climbing from two different angles: if scenes can be designed so that she always climbs in profile or always with her back to the player then your animation workload can be halved. Finally, the composition of a scene should give clues as to what the focal point of the scene is: what’s important, and what’s just background.

The following in-game example will demonstrate these design principles in action. The scene is the kitchens in the bowels of the princess’s castle, now the lair of the fiercesome dragon that guards the castle ruins. Originally I saw this background as a means of demonstrating the dragon’s destructive capacities, perhaps by drawing him in a nest made of shattered furnishings and the bones of his victims. But there were scaling problems: with a relatively large princess sprite on screen, the dragon would either have to be unimpressively small or only partially visible. Removing the princess, thereby making the scene viewable but not walkable, would take away from the antagonism between the two characters and fail to give the impression of the looming presence one would expect of a powerful dragon. I drew this scene from several angles before finally alighting on a solution (obviously some of the abandoned work is incomplete):

The princess meeting the dragon was supposed to be a powerful scene, evoking in the player a sense of awe and foreboding. Cramming in the dragon was a challenge, however.  Should he be coiled up (so that the player could see more of him), or only partially visible?  What angle would best reveal his size and power? I ended up going with one of the preceding experiments: see if you can guess which one.

All of the above have their advantages. The first would show the dragon looming over the princess below, although unfortunately only showing him from behind. The second would accentuate the dragon but reduce walking space and movement cues (where are the exits?).  The third would show what a violent creature the dragon can be with a very detailed nest of shattered furnishings, weapons and bones, but the level of detail required an awful lot of time to implement and it would shrink the size of the dragon.  The final one attempted to ameliorate some of the issues with the second one.

Having found myself wasting time doing drawing after drawing, I decided to refocus on fundamentals.  What was really necessary to make this scene work?  In a moment of clarity I finally realized that the fact that this scene took place in the castle kitchens was really irrelevant to the story. The effect of the dragon’s nest, although revealing, could be shifted elsewhere: shattered furnishings and bones could litter the rest of the castle. What was really important was the dragon, and since he was so immense and powerful he would dominate the scene, leaving little room for anything else. Once I had conceptualized this the background problem resolved itself: as long as I could fit a dragon character on the screen, the background would simply be whatever space was leftover. Finally, while I was testing the scene I stumbled on the idea of blacking the princess out in order to accentuate the radiant force that was the dragon. This is the result:

The final version (so far!).  The dragon dominates the scene, leaving little of the background visible.  The background is actually identical to the second one shown above: note how the focal point of the dragon’s character overwhelms any thought of the background being just a ten minute incomplete mash (which it is).  Too bad I hadn’t thought of that right off the bat!

Again, paying closer attention to what is really important in a scene would have saved me some work, but it is not always obvious beforehand how to actualize it quickly and elegantly.  Experimenting with various options has the benefit of focusing me on what is really important, which usually results in a much improved end-product.  As my work has progressed I’ve become a little better at anticipating design dead-ends, but I still rely heavily on visual experimentation to solve my problems -for me, seeing is believing!

All the World’s a Stage

Monday, April 11th, 2011

In my last entry I discussed the trials and travails of designing Princess Porphyra, my main character. The next step in my game-building adventure was to create the game-world she would inhabit. This entry will discuss some of the design considerations I’ve struggled with in getting the project off the ground, attempt to rationalize the decisions I’ve made in the context of my development resources, and finish with an in-game example of my design parameters in action.

To start off, the “game world” for my purposes is a series of static background images with additional interactive drawings on top. These overlay images, called “objects” in AGS, are usually characters or items that can move or be altered in some way, although sometimes they can be merely landscape components in the foreground that add depth to the scene by allowing the player to walk around/behind them. I’ll talk more about the use of objects in a later entry: today I want to focus just on the static background images.

Having settled on a main character sprite, the backgrounds (and objects) must be scaled accordingly (i.e. the doorways must be big enough to let her pass through, tables must come to her waist, etc.) . In order to preserve the princess’s facial features her sprite size is 20-30% larger than what I have used in my previous hobby games, and this has resulted in no end of hassle as I struggle to cram in all the necessary scene elements at that scale. No doubt I’d be grumbling equally about the need to fill extra space or not being able to show adequate detail had I chosen a smaller scale, however. There will always be trade-offs when making a decision about scale and a good designer should be able to weigh the pros-and-cons and make the best decision. Whether or not I am this good designer remains to be proven, but any decision is better than no decision at all, in that it keeps this project moving!

Scaling determined, I needed to settle on an artistic style that was within my abilities (obviously), that was pleasing to the eye and suited my main character (naturally), and that was quick and easy to execute. This last requirement might seem counter intuitive to the artistic perfectionists out there, but as the sole work-horse behind this project it was imperative that the background art not be a massive time sink for me. There is literally no end to the amount of time an artist might potentially spend on a single background, perfecting it to the nth degree. To finish the game I knew I would have to consciously resist this impulse by setting strict time limits on background drawing time in order to keep the project moving. For me, finishing an enjoyable game is a higher priority than creating an artistic opus. My drawings are not programmer art in the sense that they are meant to be disposed of when the real art is finished; rather they are intended to be added to and augmented in a second pass (as necessary) when a rough copy of the game is complete. Also, the less time I invested in an individual background the less demoralizing a redraw would be should it become necessary (as it has been… on many occasions.).

The following in-game example should demonstrate these issues in action. It is the first background I drew, so it shows how I struggled with finding a style that I could build the rest of the game around:

The early draft of the background evolves into something simpler but better.

The first draft (above) of this castle room betrays the design principles I had set out beforehand. It took far too long to execute, to the extent that were I to continue doing all the backgrounds to that level of detail it would make the entire project infeasible. What is more, the level of background detail detracted from the main character by being too busy, and the colours were not terribly complementary. As an experiment in game style, it was to large extent a failure.

The revised draft (below) is cleaner and more flattering to my character.  Critically it was (and similar backgrounds could be) drawn in a much shorter period of time, vastly increasing my productivity and making finishing my game much more likely.  Blacking out the foreground was a successful experiment in my opinion: it still gives the impression of depth to the scene, cues the player to the fact that there is no exit off the bottom of the screen, and gives an opportunity to demonstrate the state of decay that the castle has fallen into while taking very little time to implement.  I am particularly happy with how the contrast it generates makes my characters and objects stand out.

To sum up the lessons I’ve learned here, if you are struggling with a design problem then there is usually a simpler and much more elegant solution that you are overlooking. Remember the realpolitik of game-design? The harder ideas become to execute, the more easily superfluous ideas are to identify and compromise away. Simple is not the same as unsophisticated, but rather the result of artistic clarity in the face of needlessly excessive work-loads. The results can not only be more efficient to produce, but also more elegant to behold.

Upon This Rock I Build My Game

Friday, April 1st, 2011

In my last log entry you read about how I had simplified the main character’s back-story to save all kinds of time and effort and (hopefully!) make the game a better experience for players. Today’s topic is going to be much more superficial: my struggle to design how my main character would look.

Just as a great number of readers unfortunately judge a book by its cover, so too do so many players judge a game by the character art. Gorgeous backgrounds can be attractive, but they change with the setting: the main character is right in front of the player for the whole game. Not only is a distinctive and appealing main character a huge visual draw, it also sets the scale and style for all the art assets in the game, from backgrounds to interactive objects to other characters: basically the whole shebang. Central to the rest of the art and critical to generating downloads, the main character’s design forms the foundation of a game’s success.

So what should my main character, the princess, look like? I started with her characteristics: young and thoughtful, once sad but now determined to make a difference. She must be clever (this is an adventure game), and compassionate. Visually I wanted to represent the sadness of her condition (raised without family and friends in a castle that is slowly falling apart), but at the same time she couldn’t look haggard or tattered. She had to stand out, which meant using colours that would not often be repeated in the game environment. Finally I reasoned that it could only add to her appeal if she was at least somewhat attractive.

Based on these musings I began sketching. This is not often a fruitful exercise for me as I’m not terribly gifted at drawing, but it is a quick way to try out different ideas without much effort. Through chance or determination a few bits and pieces start to come together: a cape here, some boots there, a scarf, some lips. Once I have enough of these components I scan in the various character drawings and start tracing the good parts, assembling them like Dr. Frankenstein into a composite creature. The hair was a particularly hard thing for me: a lot of trial and error followed.

The shape and colour of my main character’s hair was a particular agony.  I wanted something distinctive, yet not over the top; a little frazzled to represent her years of captivity, but still dignified to represent her royal station.  The colour was very important: it had to stand out from the background and other characters, but not be outrageously out of place.  The above are only the finalists after a considerable amount of experimentation.

After much agonizing, I finally alighted upon a combination of hair-styles that made the princess look just a little dishevelled, but still dignified. Around the same time I had seized upon purple as her colour of dress: not only was it the historic colour of royalty, but also it was unlikely that I would use it often elsewhere, making her stand-out. The clincher was that I learned that ancient Greek for purple was porphyr, which made for just a perfectly unique character name: Princess Porphyra!

By this point I was very satisfied with Princess Porphyra’s face and hair, but the body seemed a little awkward, and the colours a little tired.  While she had to be cartoony in style (my artistic limit) and in proportion (the head had to be out of proportion if her facial expression was to be readable in-game), I still felt that she could be improved.

But still I wasn’t satisfied: she didn’t instantly grab the eye. I decided to consult my good friends down at the AGS forums (the game-making society I am a member of), and they offered many helpful suggestions for improving her proportions and posture. More redraws and more colour experimentation followed, until finally -finally!- it all came together:

The final sprite.  She has become less girly and waifish, while certainly remaining feminine.  The colours work better together, lending her an air of dignity that my former attempts had lacked.

At long last I felt I had a solid foundation on which to build a game: an eye-catching and unique character who could carry the weight of an epic quest upon her sturdy shoulders. Psychologically this was a huge boost, since at last I had created something tangible. The game was no longer some vague idea, but a work in progress!