Monkey in a rutt, time to roll out.

Arrogance is a behemoth we must all face at some time- arrogance over our social status, over our friends, our colleagues, our skills. It’s in dealing with this and keeping a level head that we become better at who we are and what we can do. Unfortunately it’s at this juncture that I must admit that I cope poorly with ‘keeping it real.’ I’ve let grades and the efforts of others keep my head in the clouds, not facing the stark reality that their is much still for me to give back to others and to learn and improve upon. Realising this though is surely half the battle? Well, in truth much less than that but its a start. So with this in heart its time to start afresh. Change does not occur to those not willing to stride towards it after all. Its time to begin.

The story so far…

Happy new year one and all! So… What’s been going on in the land of the codemonkey? … well, since my last post very little really. After working on three projects solidly since I departed university I thought it was high time to take a break and do some reflecting. As you can probably tell I’ve been having trouble sticking to one project so it was high time to step back and see what was going wrong.

I read an interview with David Cage recently (the man behind the brilliant heavy rain) and he preached that the secret to a good design is not to design for profit or prestige, but the secret lies in designing something close to ones own personal experiences and beliefs. What can be more powerful to absorb a  players heart and attention than to create something honest and dear to your own heart. Achieving empathy with a player will last far longer in their memories than stunning visuals (which are trumped on a routine basis on every new release.)

So it was back yet again to the drawing board, taking the bulk of December off to wind down, actually play some games, catch up on some reading and to work out where I am and what I need to say. That is, as they say, when it hit me. So far I’ve managed to produce some interesting yet unfinished prototypes, absorbing myself in their development so far that social connections and paid work had become nothing more than background noise in my life for so long. Perhaps the key then, for me, lies in this feeling of loss of direction yet thorough absorbtion in a project when it comes to mind.

Sketcher, one of the earliest games I started to prototype was to have this as a subject of its core narrative but looking back at the ideas that have grown since then a great solution came to mind-what if I encompass all of my work into a collection of games built around the concept of an unfinished piece? A game as it were, about unfinished games. About being lost in your own creativity and trapped within the high walls of expectation you’ve projected onto yourself.

Soi this is where i sit on the beginning of this new and exciting year, working on redesigning what prototypes I have into mini games where the chief objective is to complete the work left unfinished by the designer. To finish building platform levels left half baked, to fix syntax in doors and pickups to allow passage, to complete construction of areas to create fuller worlds. If anything, it should prove interesting to see if my attention can be held long enough on a project based around my own foibles.

Ctrl + Z

So, what have I been up to recently? Well, some of you may have noticed I was working on a little android game named UberFrog. Now I was all set to release this soon but after a visit to GameDevNorth I realised I was rushing this project way too quickly, something any designer knows is no way to make good product. It may just be a simple side scroller, but I can think of a million and one things I can add, change and edit to make this a half decent android title. So! With this in mind it was back to the drawing board.

At this point I have to recommend to anyone with a creative block should give free writing a chance (a tip from Mr Schafer no less) to try to jump those artistic hurdles.  What I came out with at the end of it was a list a mile long of changes and tweaks to get the game running smoother, looking better and playing far better.

Job No 1) Fix the damn scrolling backgrounds. In UberFrog I’ve opted to randomly generate the terrains the player flies through- achieved through spawning ‘pieces’ of level and positioning them flush with the previous ‘piece’.  You can probably guess my biggest problem was spawning the ‘pieces’ pixel perfectly aligned with the one before it. My first solution had an annoying habit of leaving some small gaps between pieces and the code resembling the tangled mess found only from Christmas tree lights (seasonal!).

So, back to the drawing board and the product of this so far is much improved from its forbearer. The level ‘pieces’ are now aligned and positioned via the mesh data-making each piece line up lovely.  The calculations for positioning and movement are also now pre-set on initialisation, less processing time! Woop! The method for spawning has changed somewhat as well, where before one object had to store all the layers in preset arrays, I’m now able to create new layers and add this to the level object, each layer being drawn progressionally backwards – allowing levels to bare differing amounts of layers to allow greater detail. Most promising of this however, is that the new methods allow me not only to deal with 2D levels, but full 3D side scrolling experiences. Neat huh?

Another initial itch of mine was the environments got pretty boring even with all the randomisation going on so… more detail! Finally got round to implementing a system for applying new materials to objects in the environment to create additional details- for example if I placed a plane in the environment for a stump or mushroom, I need only to  tag it correctly and the level handler will find and assign it a new image each spawn.  This all works of sprite sheets at the moment as well to save on storing all those pesky textures and materials.

So, that’s my re-start so far, Time to jump back in and carry on plugging away at it. The level generation now satisfying me it’s time to look at adding some badass bosses. Should prove interesting anywho…

A Little Doubt Goes A Long Way

Let’s start by imagining two different scenarios.

One: You’re walking down a busy high street towards an intersection; people are walking along besides you mindlessly going about their daily business. Some of those you pass you think have just passed you in the opposite direction and many of whom seem to be wearing the same style of shirt- but maybe it’s some sort of fashion craze and those guys have twins, so you let it pass you by. As you approach the intersection you see a car come speeding down the road, hitting a pedestrian and causing him to fly 200 meters along the tarmac. The car having hit the poor man then swerves into what appears to be a rickety fence only to be stopped dead causing the driver to fly out of the windscreen full pelt. As you stand observing the situation you see the other passers-by deem not to notice the accident so you begin to rush over to help the poor man hit by the speeding car. Only, he’s just stood up. Yelling and waving his arms above his head he runs down the street seemingly fine regardless of his surely bone shattering incident. You turn your attention then to the driver, who also having had a deadly collision has gotten up and begun walking down the street casually. You deem the entire event bizarre and carry on.

Two: You’re a blue alien with 4 arms walking along a fluorescent street. The light from the two differently toned moons hanging in the sky lights the world in an eerie yet beautiful glow. As you carry along you see many aliens of different shapes and sizes, many are alike but without any noticeable attire you figure they’re just of the same species. As you continue you see a hover car come speeding along the street, colliding with a massive green alien with two heads – sending his limbs flying in all sorts of directions. The hover car, having made the collision, veers off to the right, hitting what could best be described as a lamp post in this odd world, causing the vehicle to pinwheel down the street until it comes to a rest on its roof. As you stand observing the accident you see the tall green alien’s limbs are beginning to move across the floor, pooling to the point of collision. You watch as each of the limbs begin to reassemble themselves creating a slightly disjointed, but nevertheless complete version of the alien that was once in tiny pieces among the ground. Once reassembled, the alien begins hopping his way along the street – apparently this must happen often. You turn to the driver to see him hitting his vehicle with some sort of wrench causing it to eventually flip back over, its engine purring. The driver gets back in and drives off. You shrug and carry on your business.

So, why the two stories? Well, the first point to make would be to ask which would you deem to be more believable? Obviously the two incidents are set in completely different worlds, one set in our own and one set in a fictional environment – if the pedestrian in the first scenario was to reassemble his limbs like that it would be pretty dang weird to observe and may make me run home and lock the door. It’s all to do with the semiotic sphere of understanding created in the two tales, the second scene  begins unrealistically as (hopefully) you are not a blue alien and so because of this you become more open to the bizarre occurring around you. If the rules of the world don’t behave as you would expect it’s easier to brush off because the rules are broken from the start. In the first example, everything appears as you would expect up until the collision – people hit at high speed will not just get up and run away and nor will the driver just idly walk from his vehicle (unless of course they suffered some pretty severe concussion.)

The point to be made here regards with the concept of ‘realism in games’, the first scene is not a million miles away from the sandbox worlds created in games such as GTA- where great lengths are taken to ensure the rules of that world react similarly to those of our own. This of course, is mute from the start. Games ARE unrealistic and whilst we suspend our disbelief when entering into them, the closer they try to mimic our own reality the harder they fall and the illusion is broken when something unexpected happens- bringing us crumbling back into our own world.

The second scene makes you suspend your disbelief much harsher from the get go, throwing you into a world where the rules are unknown and so anything can happen and still be deemed as acceptable by your psyche-  maintaining your belief and presence within what has been deemed ‘the Magic Circle’ of semiotic understanding. If you fall 100 feet and get back up again or you’re hit by a bullet and magically heal yourself when cowering behind a fence – it becomes more acceptable and believable in this environment.

So what am I getting at exactly? Well, my point is that although realistic simulations are fun, they can never match up to the believability of a completely imagined world. The strive for more realistic interpretations of our own rules and visuals in video games cripples many titles- think of how many games you’ve played where the graphics and physics have been ‘next-gen’ but when it comes down to it, the gameplay and narrative sucks eggs or has all been done before?

The conclusion? Less time making pretty, more time making fun- because let’s face it, real life blows. Why spend you’re game time in it?

Kinect+Controller = Kintroller!

Remember when the Natal was announced? Man, those were exciting times. The endless possibilities we were promised with this new technology (whatever happened to Milo and Kate anyway? Hope their well.) Then it was released, and there was much rejoicing. For a while anyway, then all that hype (at least for me) started to slowly die away as we watched more and more sports or dance simulations populate the console, the Kinect essentially bringing the same catalogue of titles the Wii had been boasting for a good few years previously. So what happened? Is it that gestures can only ever fit into that fitness and sports paradigm? Or was it something darker? Was it…dare I say…a lack of imagination on the developers part? (dum dum duuuum.)

Seeing as how it’s well established that big developers aren’t willing to take risks these days and would much rather play by what everyone else is doing and selling, the latter argument is indeed possible… perhaps maybe not a lack of imagination, perhaps more courage and cojones is what’s missing here.

So, enough blathering. What am I going to do about it? The struggling student designer with time on his hands and nothing better to do with himself- obviously, start digging a little deeper. So, I began looking for what was missing and stumbled across Rise of Nightmares. If you haven’t played it, it’s a horror survival where you cruise the environment bashing things with lead pipes and it was pretty good, albeit for one fatal flaw – getting the character to move in a straight line…neigh, FORWARDS was half of the games difficulty. A segment which saw you simply crossing a room became a deadly challenge as you stepped forwards to move yet your avatar decides reversing would be far more preferable. Where was the sense in creating the cumbersome movement mechanics which didn’t work half the time when a standard controller has proven successful at this for many a year? With this, Rise of Nightmares gave me my mission. I was to recreate a similar styled game but throw in a pad so you could actually move around, maybe even letting the player sit down for once whilst using the sensor. Boom.

So here we are now, my dissertation piece for my final year focussing on defining a system comprising of both gestures AND traditional control devices, comparing controllerless systems with its ‘archaic’ joystick based rivals and hedging my bets on the latter. Linked below you’ll find the first update for my project. Here’s to the next one!

“So who the Heck are you?”

Why, so nice of you to ask. My Name is Lucas Courtney, a gameplay designer and programmer currently based in Stafford and coming to the end of my degree at Staffordshire University.

“a gameplay designer ay? what does that entail?”

In essence I sit with a pad and paper and try to come up with new and interesting ways for players to experience virtual worlds and interact with each other. Usually this involves developing ideas with colleagues and then spending the following weeks trying to get things working nicely.

“Groovy, what kind of stuff do you make?”

I’ll try my hand at anything to be honest, I’m not a massive fan of regurgitating old ideas so the games I enjoy making the most are those which I can add my own quirky twist to. 

“But if I had to push you for your favourite style?”

I’m a big platformer fan. I think its a style that’s pretty open to include a lot of new ideas and mechanics, one of my all time favourite games being of course Psychonauts which I think shows quite elegantly how diverse environments and mechanic sets can be applied to such a simple formula. 

“Psychonauts? Oh god, does that mean your one of those Tim Schafer fan boys?”

‘Fraid so. The classic Lucas Arts adventure games of the nineties were some of the first games I played and still have me coming back for more. I love games that place narrative at the forefront of their design rather than just concentrating on how many polys they can fit on the screen at once.

“But so few…none of your current catalogue of games has any real, deep story behind it”

This is something I’ll be looking to change in the very near future. So far I’ve been focusing on beefing up my programming and gameplay design skills which has left me with very little time to create any real running story behind them. If I’m going to do it, I’m not going to do it by halves. Watch this space.

“Your games all look pretty simple asset wise, I notice you have some sort of fixation with blocks”

You are an observant one aren’t you? This is pretty much down to the same reason I gave to the lack of story. I’ve only got so much time between learning new toolsets, studying university modules and working part time and the blocky aesthetic is an easy one to build up in short amounts of time. 

“You’ve got a lot of excuses”

You’ve got a lot of questions.

“Ok, last question. If you had time and money behind you, what would you do with it?”

Besides spending a year cruising the Bahamas?

“Besides that”

Something bright, colourful and fun. I’ve always thought remaking ‘The Hitch hikers Guide” into a 3D adventure would be brilliant. Or maybe some sort of iPhone/Android adventure game series. Whatever I’d do it’d have to be fun with some sort of vague ethical agenda. Nothing preachy, just to get players thinking rather than pointing a cross hair at a load of vertices and pressing a button.  

“Nothing much like what you’ve made so far then?”

I thought that was the last question? I’ve enjoyed and am proud of everything I’ve created so far and those kind of games will always be my meat and veg. What I’d like to work on is kind of like a Lobster dinner in comparison. 

“Anything else to add?”

errr…Cake is great and… winners don’t do drugs?

“That’ll do”


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