The last couple of months have been pretty productive – I have worked on bringing the narrative concepts and art styles of different worlds and backworlds to a good place, in part so we could see what worked and did not but also because it helped us determine the amount of work needed to make a full art pass on the entire game. This meant both the time needed to create the art and figuring out the technology we needed to develop to make it look pretty and be quick to work with.
I had planned to build some new effects technology for this and discuss it today, but in the end I decided against it for a couple of reasons. First, while new and isolated tech is fun and frequently useful, without seeing heavy use out of it we can’t really say for sure how well it works and if it’ll even end up in the game – I’ve been a bit dishonest promoting prototypes in the past and I’d like to be better than that. Second and maybe more importantly, there are less interesting tasks that are going to improve workflows and save us time. The more time the sooner we add them, in fact. I am making an attempt to be smart about development so we don’t add time to a development cycle that’s already too long, and this was inspired by Tom Francis’ GDC talk Efficiency for Game Designers – we have recommended some free GDC talks in the past, but today I thought I’d pick out some of my favorites over the years.
There are plenty of ways in which content – specifically textures in this case – can be optimized for memory and performance. While on a small team every developer should have a good idea of what kind of impact their craft has on others and be able to account for that in their work, it is also important that preemptively optimizing content does not take up time that could be better spent working on its quality.
On Backworlds, we accept any kind of format textures and when memory or performance is a concern we optimize them in a build step – normally I would save this kind of work until late in the project but since we have already released a prototype, a demo and run playtest builds the build system has grown to be pretty big. Read on for some of the things we do to automatically optimize textures.
I meant to write this earlier but I’m always jetlagged this time of year so the plans kind of fell through until now. Rather than working on new exciting features over the holidays, I spent the last week of 2015 going over what had done. Some 300 levels, most of which are reworks, empty tests or otherwise things unfit for release, but still a good amount of puzzles to work oneself through even if you know them. Luckily, there are other interesting things going on in the gaming world!
Awesome Games Done Quick is still ongoing, if only for a few more hours. There has been a lot of interesting runs during the week – I liked the reprise of Battleblock Theater and as a fan of punishing platform games I was fascinated by the Battle Kid 2 run. Also looking forward to the Super Metroid run tomorrow.
IGF 2016 finalists were announced, I was happy to see Undertale and Her Story among the nominees, but maybe more so by seeing so many lower-profile games among the nominees and honorable mentions. Or maybe I’m just losing my indie cred. Ah well.
Global Game Jam 2016 is coming up and my acquaintance Gorm wrote about the history it. I have taken part in the Global Game Jam several years, but perhaps the most memorable one was at the central site in Copenhagen together with Juha and a few more friends just after we had finished the Backworld prototype. Gamejamming in general is a great way to do improve your craft in a number of areas, and I recommend GGJ in particular due to the legacy.
Happy 2016 everyone!
TL/DR – the news I have to share this month is that Juha has decided to take a less active part in development for a while. I will let him elaborate on that on his own, but development on Backworlds continues and he will remain involved in all non-trivial decisions regarding the game.
To elaborate on the state of things on my end, I’m going to go into some history after the break…
Keeping the trend of “things that have been disproportionately helpful” from my last technology posts, today I am going to talk a bit about why curves are awesome. I am a bit late to the party on this one so if you have been working with particle effects during the last five years or at all with animations then chances are this post will not give you a lot of new insights. Sorry!
The Backworlds editor is, as we’ve previously mentioned, a set of menus in the game itself allowing us to make changes to the levels as they are being played – rather than being built from the ground up as a level building instrument it has been patched together over time as tool for manipulating game data within the context of the game. While this has the advantage of really short iteration times, it has the disadvantage of being slightly inconsistent and with a quirkier workflow than an actual level editor. I am no expert in either usability or data mangling, but for a small project such as ours I have noted a few small changes that had a big effect on workflow.
Apologies for missing last month’s update – this was partly due to a personal hardship, lack of time due to day jobs and other obligations and – to be quite honest – a lack of things to write about. We have been refining designs for some time now and while it can certainly be interesting to look at individual puzzles and see how we changed them in response to playtest feedback, doing so now would be premature as we are not done with them. Also, it would spoil the puzzles themselves.
This month, I am going to tell you an anecdote about a bug hunt that was somewhat amusing as it illustrates the cascading effects small changes can have on a codebase.
One of the things I am currently working on is an architectural change to the engine- previously, our most basic graphic object would be rendered with a 2-component vector designating position (translation in OpenGL terms) and another 2-component vector designating orientation, or rotation and scale. This has worked fine for us so far, but it means we have to modify the vertex geometry of the object if we want to do nonuniform scaling or shearing. Petri and Martin talked about “juice” in a great GDC talk from a few years back, and in order to make the game more juicy I thought about the 12 principles of animation – more specifically squash/stretch – which meant we needed more options. Thus, the basic graphic transformation is now described by a 2×3 matrix just like fixed-function pipeline uses 3×4 (4×4 actually, usually only the first three columns are relevant for world transform) to give us more options.
Now, I normally do not like to talk about features that are in such early stages of development – there is simply nothing here to look at, and if it doesn’t pan out there’s not much to learn from it. We do a lot of experiments in code as well as in design, and a good chunk of that work will never see the light of day. Doing this change, however, gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of the engine and the KISS principle which, when I have interviewed and evaluated engineers in the past, has been a common problem for inexperienced software engineers.
A few months ago Juha talked about our “no paint” levels and why we decided most of them had to be scrapped – today I will briefly go over some of the ideas we toyed around with in the original “Backworld” prototype and why they had to go.
The game was made in a very limited time – we were not really sure what kind of game we wanted to make and we opted to make many levels rather than a small amount of polished ones, so cutting these ideas were not as tough of a decision. Nonetheless, it explains some things about the nature of the game as it is now.
The kind of work we do can be very sporadic in that we wear many different hats as developers and without any strong deadlines we are free to experiment with things we may want to add further down the line. While being detrimental to progress (and, to be honest, maybe the biggest reason why we’ve spent so long on this), it does mean we are free to work on what we like. Enthusiasm is important too.
One of the things that we have been experimenting with is player customization – I personally have been torn on what to do with that, as we did not want to give the impression that your loadout somehow affected your ability to solve puzzles, and I did not want to make vanity items that could be confused with free-to-play moneysinks. In the end though, personal expression is meaningful and with the simplicity of our art customization is a pretty quick thing to do. One of the things we’ve created for customization is the ability for the player to change the avatar color with this hue wheel.