Gone Fission

Hey Earthlings, long time no see! Sorry about that – you’d be forgiven for thinking that I’d stopped working on the game, but the reality is that only the blog has endured neglect. As a matter of fact, I even took a couple of weeks off my day job last month to do nothing except stay with my family and work on the game non-stop, almost like a mini game design sabbatical, and I got more done in that time than I had managed in the month prior!

radioactive

For one thing, the aquarium level has been finished, and a lot of progress has been made on the next major area – the nuclear power station! Here, a new mechanic is introduced of radiation sickness – touch any of the green glowing creatures or hazards and a ‘death bar’ will appear on the right of the screen and begin to fill up at a slow but steady rate; touch more and the bar will fill faster. You can cure your sickness if you can get to a medicine box in time, but I wonder if anything interesting might happen if you were to combine the radioactivity with your existing psychic powers? Is it possible that some useful new status effect occurs? Perhaps there might be occasions in which you actually want to become radioactive? (Welcome to the new age, to the new age!)

Other things have been worked on – I’ve asked a number of first-time players to have a go at the game’s opening levels, with the result that I’ve had to make a number of changes. I had initially planned to keep text-based tutorialising to a minimum, and my attempts to teach players mechanics via gameplay was working to a point, but there were some recurring, important things that many, many players just weren’t getting, and that’s not their fault – it was clear that the game wasn’t communicating clearly enough what they had to do, so, reluctantly, I’ve had to put in some things that spell things out in a less ambiguous way. Perhaps some players will feel beaten over the head with the obvious, and that’s regrettable, but a lot of my testers were getting stuck because they really didn’t get how a fundamental mechanic worked, or didn’t know where they were supposed to go or what they were trying to do. I’d like the game to be accessible to both seasoned gamers and those who have rarely touched a controller, so I’ve made it a bit friendlier to the uninitiated; if you get stuck, it should be because you understood all the gameplay elements but are temporarily stumped by a puzzle – not because there’s some important basic concept you didn’t grasp.

hazmatThis is the danger of trying to do things in a non-standard way, design-wise – sometimes there are good reasons why games have these well-worn tropes. But I do still believe in the idea of unpicking as many game design clichés and habits as possible, which also means that I still struggle to describe my game – it’s sort of a puzzle platformer, a little bit Metroidvania except not really, and with some very gentle RPG flavours thrown in? Sort of? Isn’t that more interesting, though – to have a thing that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box? I have always been fascinated with the idea of omitting fundamental things about a concept. What if you could make a platform game without platforms (see previous blog post)? What if you made a platform game with no coins, no jumping on heads, and no enemies? There are some creatures you must avoid, but they aren’t ‘enemies’; they don’t hate you, don’t attack you, and at present, there is not one single set-piece in the game where you can directly cause physical harm to any living thing. They are more ‘hazards’ than ‘enemies’. What if there were no collectables at all? Could you design an entire game, interestingly, using only one or two basic power-ups? I’m not saying that I will actually be able to design a game by following these principles to the letter – perhaps later I may well need to add a legit enemy character, or some collectable elements. But these are the things I think about; game design thought experiments, really. I think a good designer should always ask these kinds of questions – why does this trope exist? Am I doing it just because that’s what this genre always does? Do I need it? And sometimes you do, of course, and that’s fine, and sometimes you don’t, and that’s even better.

Other things that have been worked on include the Options menu, the city park, the pub, further tweaks to the sewer level, a brief connecting level between the aquarium and the power plant presented only in silhouette (still working on finalising the look of that, so no pics yet), the city Metro, and major tweaks to the overall storyline. Here, have a screenshot dump:

parksmall

optionsmall

pubintsmall

metrosmall

pubsmall

Enormous thanks and gratitude, as ever, to those of you who ask after the project and offer to test it and so on. It really means a lot; I don’t really have any serious expectation that anybody at all will be excited when this is finally done, so it’s always encouraging to hear that somebody besides me thinks it’s interesting! As ever, you can stay abreast of developments if you haunt my Twitter.

Lots of love,

Mike x

Down The Drain

sewerscreen

Hey hey! I’ve been doing a lot of work the past few weeks on remodelling my sewer level – it was in a near-complete state, but I had a few issues with the level layout that I thought could bear some improvement. I’m thinking a lot about level design and I’d like to talk a little about that.

I made a decision early on to not have too much ‘conspicuous platform game stuff’, as far as environment design goes. It’s completely common in many platformers to see platforms that are literally just platforms – floating things that don’t fit into the level aesthetic and which are clearly just there for you to jump on. Even some of the most winningly designedyoshi games in history do this – the great Yoshi’s Island, for example – and without meaning any disrespect at all to YI (it’s one of my very favourite games and honestly was just the first thing to pop into my head), it’s kind of a strange trope. I think this subliminally says to the player, “this is all here for you. The world exists for you to jump on.” Which, in a platform game, it does, of course.

I’ve been trying to think about it a little bit differently, though. I’d like the player to feel as though they are exploring a world that existed before they got there and was not necessarily constructed with them in mind. Platforms must have a structural logic and appear to belong in the space – in the sewer, you will encounter concrete pillars, floating barrels, and pipes you can stand on. They may not make perfect logical sense – why would there be a pipe there, really? But I think – I hope – that it helps to cement the idea of a world with its own internal logic. There are certainly no anti-gravity pink rectangles just rotating in the air for you.

At the conclusion of the sewer level, players will encounter both a new character and a new aspect of the game: while Down To Earth‘s primary plot is about trying to get our stranded alien protagonist back to his homeworld, there is an optional, but significant, side-quest concerned with the making of friends. Throughout the game there will be a number of characters with whom you can foster a rapport, if you are so inclined. Milton – the homesick alien – is on Earth for only a temporary time, assuming the player succeeds in the main quest, but is it possible for him to make a connection with any of the characters he meets along the way?

horaceMeet Horace, the lonely fish mutant who lives in the sewer and dreams of life above ground. Self-esteem is not his strong suit, but he has a keen curiosity about the world, reads voraciously, and collects the various artifacts of human civilisation that somehow find their way down to him. He also never receives visitors, so it seems that his encounter with you may have a lasting effect. How will you behave around him? Other characters may invite you to spend time with them and discover more about them and the world; but of course you don’t have to. It’s up to you.

horacescreen2

I’ve also been working on a new title screen:

titlescreen

It’s not yet finished – in fact it has some pretty gnarly bugs (I’m having some problems with controller support, but I’ll have that sorted out soon). I also have yet to make the Options menu, although the game engine does support various customisations (music and sfx volume adjustment, the ability to disable footstep sounds, text scroll speed, and I’m considering adding support for custom keyboard mapping); I just haven’t yet made an in-game interface to control them all.

Anyway, watch this space! I have a few really interesting and fun ideas for new mechanics to introduce later in the game, and I’m looking forward to refining those into something presentable! Thanks again for your continued support, everybody – particularly my long-suffering friends who regularly get roped in for testing! It’ll be worth it in the end, guys – I promise!

You can follow me on Twitter @mikehive, or on Soundcloud for cuts from the game’s soundtrack!

Much love,

Mike x

Something Fishy

Hey Earthlings!

Long time no see! I’ve been extremely busy working on Down To Earth, my quirky platform puzzle exploration game about a little alien stranded in an Earth city. Mostly I’ve spent the past month building a new area, and now the city of Sockhampton has an Aquarium!

Aquarium level

There’s a new gameplay mechanic introduced in this area; early in the game you are familiarised with Psy Orbs, glowing balls of energy that allow you to do psychically-augmented midair jumps, but in the Aquarium, you discover that the power they give you has a surprising side-effect if you happen to encounter water. Somewhat literally a side-effect, in fact, since it will teleport you several feet away in the direction you’re facing! This will allow you to access all sorts of rooms and situations you wouldn’t be able to otherwise as you progress through the level. There’s also some funky cosmetic stuff going on – the fish tanks in the background are randomly populated with a selection of tropical fish, and there’s some neat reflection effects in the water puddles on the floor!

The music for the Aquarium is done too:

I’m pretty happy with how this level is shaping up, although it isn’t quite done yet – I’m planning to keep working on it for another two weeks, and then move onto something else (I can always return to it later in development if it needs some more work, but for now I’m mostly concerned with keeping the wheels turning and ensuring I stay focused and don’t burn out). After that, I’m going to take a relaxed couple of weeks to fix up random bugs, add little extra touches and easter eggs to the game, write music, and whatever else, and then, when I’m done with that, I’ll be cracking on seriously to make a start on the game’s playable prologue! It’s going to be really interesting – you guys are going to love it!

Milton promo artI’ve also been making a bit of promo art and thinking about how to get the game out into the world – I’m going for a Steam release in (probably) 2017, but I really need to get some eyes on the project. I don’t know of a game quite like mine, and I think that a lot of people will really love it if they get to hear about it – at least, that’s my hope! If you’d like to get in touch with me, or otherwise stay abreast of the game’s development, you can always hit me up on Twitter; and as ever, I’d like to extend my ongoing thanks to everybody who has helped and encouraged me so far! Doing literally everything on your own game is extremely rewarding, but also very, very challenging, and I don’t know if I’d be able to do it without the support of kind people.

Much love,

Mike x

Welcome to the Planet!

Hello and welcome to the brand-spanking new dev blog for Down To Earth! I’m starting it on the advice of a couple of friends; I initially wondered if a podcast might be the way to go, but I think a written blog is preferable as it allows me to include visuals and actually show you what I’ve been up to.

Crash site

But first, allow me to introduce the game! Down To Earth is the story of a little alien called Milton who crashes his Dad’s spaceship onto our planet – not into the sea, not into a field, but right smack in the middle of the city of Sockhampton. He is lucky to stagger away from the crash site relatively unscathed, but the ship is smashed beyond repair. How will he ever find his way back home to his family? And will he manage to make any friends along the way?

The game is a story-driven, side-scrolling, sort-of puzzle platformer, the chief gameplay mechanic of which being the utilisation of Milton’s latent psychic abilities and combing them with various environmental effects in order to get him where he needs to be. The controls and interface are deliberately simple and uncluttered – you, the player, have only two buttons to press (‘jump’ and ‘interact’), and everything you will need to do can be achieved by the cunning application of those two things. There are no coins to collect, no enemies’ heads to jump on, and no patronising tutorials – just an immersive city full of colourful characters and places to explore!

I’ve been developing the game using Construct 2 since July 2014, and it has gone through many transformations in that time. I am basically a one-man ‘dev team’, since I do all of the graphics, music, writing, and code myself, and occasionally rope in unsuspecting friends to help me test things.

So! Onto the meat of my inaugural blog post. Two weeks ago I decided that the game’s presentation simply wasn’t up to snuff – a decision that prompted much soul-searching and distress, because coming to the conclusion that something you’ve been working on for two years is sort of crap isn’t fun for anybody. But then I knuckled down and worked around the clock for fifteen days to polish all the graphics, up the game’s output resolution, and re-code several key bits of the engine. I’m exhausted, but I think it looks significantly better now. Here is a screenshot of the old, crappy 480p version:

Old screenshot

And here is the newly updated HD version:

New screenshot

I have reworked every single sprite in the game and added various cosmetic effects to some areas (lighting glows, etc). I also took the opportunity to rip out my textbox engine; on one of the previous testing sessions, a friend indicated that the dialogue would be better if the expressions on the character portraits could change, to which I initially just sort of shrugged and said “oh well,” because my text system wasn’t up to it. He was right, however, and eventually I ended up completely dismantling and rebuilding my text parser to handle that functionality and also add a more professional-looking text typing effect. I hit a major roadblock when I realised that the text typer and the word wrap on my spritefont object wouldn’t play nicely together – the wrap wouldn’t kick in until a given word had typed enough of itself to be a problem, so the overall effect would be of the word beginning to type on one line and then ‘jumping’ down to the next when it got too long. It was ugly and bad and it took me at least a week to figure out what on Earth I was going to do about it – I ended up writing a convoluted function that processed the text to automatically insert ‘newlines’ where they needed to be before sending it to the on-screen display, and it works like a dream now!

Old textboxes:

Old Textboxes

New textboxes:

New Textboxes

Anyway, that’s it for today’s update! Just wanted to say thank you to everybody who’s shown an interest and has supported my project thus far – your encouragement is the grease that makes all the cogs go round! By all means check out some of the early excerpts from the game’s soundtrack over on my Soundcloud, or follow me on Twitter!

Love you all,

Mike

Development blog for Down To Earth, a PC game by Mike Laraman.