Thursday, May 17, 2012

Breakthroughs: The 8-bit Apocalypse Approaches!

I'm nearly ready to submit my first iOS game!

I'm nervous. I'm biting my nails. But delightedly, I've made some breakthroughs in the last few days!

I've got it running smoother! Which is the greatest thing! And I've refined the whole setting for the game. The 8-bit apocalypse!

An Organic Development Process

Rad Skater has been a very organic process. It's been a way for me to learn Game Salad, and to finish an entire game on my own. I feel like it's the game I would have built as the 8 year old version of myself if I'd had Game Salad in 1986.

I came up with the idea with my brother Evan. I needed to come up with a SIMPLE idea, to make my first game quickly. So we were throwing around ideas. Something significantly simpler than the ideas I'd been working on already.

All the projects I'd started before Rad Skater were too big. They'd gotten out of control! 

My Project Number 1: Hand-drawn RPG

Well, everyone warns you away from making an RPG as your first game. Well, rules are meant for breaking! (And lessons are best learnt by making your own mistakes!). I just had to try it!

I loved a game called Phantasie when I was a kid. It was this awesome open world game, but just done from a tile based map, with fights interspersed. 

My game has you moving around on a ghost horse through a sketched landscape. It has a full night and day cycle, and seasons passing! It's a project I really want to go back to when I have a better sense of elegantly hooking systems together. There's an island with a wilderness area with a town, inn, church, and if you enter the cave, there's a dungeon that connects back through to the church as the way out again. You can fight Speetles on the grasslands and Skeletons within the dungeon.

My Game Project #2: B-grade mission based zombie game

I still want to finish this, but it got out of control in terms of the scale of it. There was too much work to do so it didn't make sense to make it my first released game. I needed to do heaps more work on the core mechanics, build all the levels, and get proper art for the game. I'm looking forward to working on this one again some time this year!

My Game Project #3: Rad Skater

So, after spending a lot of time on two projects that both turned out to be too big to finish in timely manner, and my life savings running out, I knew I had to start something small, and get it out!

Evan and I spent years playing silly arcade games in the 80's, growing up in the suburbs of Melbourne. We played truck-loads of Combat, International Soccor, Wizball, Digger, Alley Cat, Moon Patrol, some of the world's earliest home computer games. 

Home computer games were born around the same year I was born. 1978. This was the time when home gaming consoles really hit the scene. So in many ways, I associate my journey through life to parellel the life of home computer games. We have always shared the same years, from being in our infancy, to growing to be 30 years old.

And I still delight in the wonderful things that those early games did with just a handful of pixels and colors, and only about 6 mHz if you were lucky!

It seemed natural for me to examine what it was I loved about those earliest games. 

Around this time, my dad said "Make a skateboarding game! It'll sell like gangbusters!"

I grew up with skateboards, and despite not being able to do any tricks, I used it as a mode of transport as a teenager, riding it to work after school to the local fruit shop, where I worked for Charlie, who played a tin whistle and had a special talent of telling elaborate jokes. There was also a period of my life when I'd sneak out my bedroom window late on a school night, and skate all the way to the train station, catch te train to Box Hill, skate to my girlfriend's house, and she'd sneak out, and we'd kiss in the park. (Maybe there's a game in that, somewhere).

Back to the future, I sat with my brother at a cafe, wondering how to make a relatively simple game. We talked about making a weird game set on the streets of Fitzroy, and you just have "weird stuff happening". We thought it you could inject a bit of David Lynch, that would be cool. Evan likes strange idea. I felt inspired to just make some simple quirky platformer. But I wanted to bring it back to something with a clearer goal. I came back to dad's suggestion of skateboarding.

Build it and they will come?

So I just started building it. I grabbed bit of inspiration from the games I loved, and modified them, subverted them. I took a punk street-art sort of approach. I collaged bits together from all the things I love, chopping out this from here, that from there, to make my own unique take on growing up in the 80's, and living in Melbourne in the 2010's.

The foundation of my idea was: You skate along collecting MIX TAPES.

I liked the 80's vibe. It fit with the whole theme of old 8-bit games. The days of neon, the days of loading games from cassettes... good days!

Since then until now, I've just kept adding stuff. Obstacles to jump and the great graffiti and street art around Fitzroy on the background walls. I added a classic Game & Watch feel to it, with two buttons at the bottom to press for all gameplay controls.

Skate Band

At one point, I felt like the game just didn't have any driving purpose, so I I tried building it into a sort of management game! 

It's an entirely different game mode built through a front end menu system that contextualises your skating activities. You choose what to do next to ultimately make your band more popular and make more money!

The skater is the synth player in a punk synth pop band, and you're trying to skate to rehearsals. In one mode you are collecting mix tapes for inspiration to create new songs. Then you collect money so you can record your band. Then you have to press records, and finally play gigs to get more fans and sell your records. All the while, you are using skating as the vehicle for making these things happen. It was like a strange skateboarding lemonade-stand game. 

I spent weeks on it, but at the end of the day, it didn't solve my problems of giving the game a clarity of purpose. It was just more confusing, and going to take more work to beat it into something that really rocked. 

Once again, I stripped it all back to an endless runner mode.

Tying it all together: The 8-bit Apocalypse 

I'd been developing the game for months. Way longer than I'd originally intended. But I still hadn't really tied it all together. 

I had the brainwave of adding in some more enemy types, and unlocking them as you play through the game, resulting in an entire 8-bit horde of the apocalypse.

And as I kept working on the game, and showing it to people, and re-evaluating it, I would get new insights into how to clarify the vision of the game. The direction of the game kept morphing organically as I went along. It's not the most efficient way to make a game, and it can be frustrating, but I've learned a lot from doing it this way.

Coming into focus right at the end

After chatting to my brother Evan just a few days ago, he pointed out that it really needs a clear story setup. The player needs direction. You can't just drop them into the arcade action, and expect them to care about what's happening. 

We came up with the idea that the skater is me. It is the tale of my experiences with computer games. The 8-bit invaders nested themselves in my head over those early years of playing computer games, and now they are bursting out and taking over Melbourne.

I took some photos two days ago as part of an intro sequence to the game... I grabbed my Korg Poly 800 synth, my old 80's skateboard, and grabbed a costume that combines a bit of Marty McFly with my normal clothes, and snapped some shots of the 8-bit apocalypse!

Just yesterday, I watched this great presentation by Chris Wright at Surprise Attack, and it really brought everything into focus. 

Indie Games Positioning Workshop - by Chris Wright of Surprise Attack

What I took from this was, I need to bring all my concepts together into an "elevator pitch". The game needs to be summed up quickly in just a sentence or two, and the game itself needs to serve that concept. All the screenshots, all the gameplay, needed to support that elevator pitch.

So I re-evaluated what I was presenting to the player in my game, with an eye towards emphasising the apocalyptic setting. I needed to make that apocalypse a reality. 

I need to create the reality of these 8-bit invaders coming to Melbourne, that doom is impending! And I've spent the last day adding and emphasising those visual and gameplay elements that express the apocalypse in tangible ways within the game. 

I've changed the order that the enemies are unlocked, starting with zombies (instead of the dogs), and adding the flying invaders next, then the hell hounds, and so on! The sky darkens as you keep skating, then smoke starts to rise up from the distant buildings as the invaders take a hold of the city. And finally, large rumbling explosions start to occur as all hell breaks loose, and the city begins to crumble.

The game finally feels like it has a proper setting, with the gameplay and artwork focusing in on this growing apocalypse.

Now I have an elevator pitch that actually makes sense and ties into the game... 

If games don't melt your brain, they just might destroy the world!

After playing too many games as a kid, Muzboz's head was filled with 8-bit invaders, breeding and multiplying. Now they want to get out, and they're taking over Melbourne.

Armed with only his skateboard and an old synth, Muzboz is the only thing standing between the world, and the 8-bit apocalypse!

The Future: Finishing Up, Moving On!

I need to get this game all finished up and submitted.

I'm excited about what I've learned. I'm excited that I've achieved so much with this game. I want to work on the next game!

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