Archive for May, 2011

A New Leaf

Wednesday, 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.

A Sitting Target is a Dead Duck

Saturday, May 21st, 2011

Let’s face it: static art is so fifteenth century. The Mona Lisa may be considered by some to be the very height of artistic achievement. And yet it is doubtful that even they could spend multiple hours staring at La Giaconda on their computer screen. Static art still has its place (as background, for example), but what keeps people’s attention and makes an artistic fantasy come alive is movement.

Ever since animation came to adventure games in the early 1980s there has been no going back. Players may forgive a bad plot (although they’ll whine about it on the internet), but lack of animation is a complete turn-off to the vast majority of the gaming public. Accordingly I have allotted more time to animating Curses & Castles than any other aspect of the development process.

I’ll share many examples of my techniques over the coming months, but for now I will limit myself to discussing one of my first and most important animations for this project: my main character’s walk-cycle. A walk-cycle is an animated loop that plays over and over again as a character moves across the screen. In a game as large as Curses & Castles Princess Porphyra will do a considerable amount of walking, and therefore that animation will easily be the one that players see most. Therefore I wanted to make it as fluid and eye-pleasing as possible.

The problem was that I am not a professional animator, nor have I studied human anatomy, nor am I a particularly observant artist. As far as my wife knows, I never even look at other women, so my points of reference for this “amazing animation” were virtually nil. Sure I’d animated the occasional walking character in my capacity as a freeware developer, but those were usually ad-hoc affairs with a jolly kind of swagger resulting from happy accident and my willingness to abandon the process as soon as it looked “good enough”; this wasn’t really an option for a project like Curses & Castles where I’d set the artistic bar so much higher.

I did what I always do in this kind of situation where my knowledge and skill-set are completely inadequate to the task before me: I turned to the internet. I studied the walking frames of plump actresses from 1920s movies and read tutorials published by members of the AGS community. I even played with a walk-cycle generator and downloaded some animation software that used “bones” to simplify movement, but nothing seemed to help.

In the end the solution came from watching Disney’s Sleeping Beauty with my daughter. After the film was over I moved to shut it off and she begged to watch the credits (we don’t allow her to watch much TV so she considers any such extended screen time a treat). I shrugged and probably went back to reading the magazine I was hiding from her. Then, out of nowhere, this short documentary starts playing, showing how the movie was put together. There was a lot of impressive art work on that movie, but the key thing for me was this dorky guy in tights struggling up a slap-dash film set and flailing about with a broom handle. Then it cut to the brave prince, doing the exact same actions struggling up a rocky slope and fighting the dragon with a sword. Then it cut to the lead animator of the project: “Sure we could have done it from scratch,” he said, “but that’s the hard way.” Of course! A live model to base my character’s movement on!

When my daughter was in bed I got out our old digital camera that takes low-res avi movies and convinced my wife to do a bit of marching for me at various angles. Then I found some free software that extracted frames from avi format movies, and imported that into my drawing program. A little bit of tracing and, VOILA! I had it:

The main movement lines of my wife’s gait, soon to be co-opted by Princess Porphyra.

No, my wife does not suffer from an eating disorder: these are just her main movement lines (I won’t even say bones, since this is a huge simplification). Next I carefully redrew Princess Porphyra over each stick-figure, putting her roughly into the same pose (some concessions had to be made for her cartoony proportions). A little editing of cape and clothes to flow more smoothly and I had my walk-cycle:

Of course the final product has alpha channels that will blend those blocky outlines better in the game, but the motions are the same as you will see in-game.  Sorry for not synching the animations -yes, the princess is walking a bit too fast.

I’ve re-employed this same technique several times for complex movement of human characters in my game so far, although for simple actions such as reaching or speaking I fall back on my creative animation skills. The result (when finished) will be a game full of movement and action: an exciting adventure that players [hopefully] won’t be able to get enough of!

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

Just a quick note updating the lack of web log activity lately.  I’ve become involved in a short experimental game that has really diverted my energy and attention away from blogging.  I am not at liberty to disclose the exact nature of this project as it’s a bit of a mess to explain at present, but the gist of it is that it involves a large number of game developers spending a very short amount of time each contributing to a collaborative game (as little as one hour!).  We’re not sure how exactly it’s going to turn out, but it’s very interesting to watch the project evolve.  Unfortunately, I’ve come to assume a coordinating role in the project, which eats up considerably more time than the minimum communicating with other participants.  Rest assured I have continued to make progress on Curses & Castles, but I’ve just had no extra time or energy for more writing when it comes to updating the old web log.

Anyway, I hope to get a post up this week to prove that I’m still committed to Curses & Castles, and once the experimental collaborative effort makes a little more progress I’ll be sure to write a log entry about it.  In the mean time, wish me luck on my many multiplying projects!