I was doing some more quick concept sketches. Here is a breakdown of this newest one.
First off, before anything else, I watched a bunch of professional wrestling. Specifically a lot of 'off the top rope' moves. I was looking for some dynamic reference and watching video is always better than looking at posed still images if you can do that. Peoples bodies do a lot of really strange stuff that no one would ever pose, but it looks great when you capture just the right frames out of a few videos and use those as your reference. With those references and some simple 3D models that I pose, sort of like the traditional artists wooden doll, I assemble a composition, and then draw it.
Now that I have a simple line drawing, I have to turn them into characters. In the case of this game I am working on, the characters are all about costume. So I dress them up. In the process I try to fix some issues I had with the original line drawing.
At this point I have erased a lot of construction lines and random sketches, but there are still a lot of lines that truck all over the place. I could refine them and erase the mess, Ink on another layer, or go straight to painting. I sort of split the difference here and refined a lot of edges, but since I will be painting over it I didn't ink all the lines or make nice clean line work. This is, after all, a concept sketch.
Got some tighter lines in there so I pick a very limited palette and add some color.
Is it done? Maybe, maybe not. The whole purpose of a concept sketch is to illustrate a concept. It's like writing a mission statement or broad outline. It only has to convey to the intended audience (in this case, me) what the finished product might feel like. I know this game is about a bunch of magical weirdos that roll around in balls and fight each other, but what is that exactly? What does that look and feel like? This is what I'm trying to find. Every drawing brings that concept more and more into focus.
I’ve been working on a game and this is just a quick update on how that is going.
I rigged up a control scheme that let me roll a ball around using Unity physics. That part is pretty simple since all of those systems, the physics and the input handling, are built into the engine. Next I set up a camera that would follow the ball. This is also not too difficult since cameras and their basic controls are also built into unity. It only got tricky when I tried to use my physics based control system along with my following camera.
I set up the controls in the simplest way I possibly could, which I think is the only way any game feature should get implemented. I took the value sent from the left thumbstick on a standard gamepad and translated that into physics forces on the ball along the horizontal plane. Pretty simple right? I could move the ball around, but only if the camera stayed directly behind the ball. As soon as the camera lagged a little left or right the entire axis of motion would be different from what your brain expected. To fix that I needed to make the input relative to the camera and not the world or the ball object. Less simple, but not much of a problem. Computers are really good at solving math problems as long as you input the problem properly.
Now none of this is anything new for games, and it’s not even new for me. I knew this would be an issue that would take some tuning right from the start. That’s why I prioritized the feel of movement and camera. It was always going to be something that was going to take some work, and I will be adjusting and changing it all through this project no matter what I do. As a result, the first few iterations were not great, but the potential was there with only a few tweaked parameters and a few lines of code.
Since then I have tested and adjusted the basic control many many times. It’s getting much closer, but I know that I’m still not quite done.
After basic movement, I needed to create a place to move in. At first that was just a large flat plane with a few boxes sticking out of it. Next it was a sort of hot wheels track snap together set that included curved and straight pieces. After that it was those same track pieces with banked curves and quarter pipe ramps around bowl structures. Now I have surfaces that can curve in any direction and ramps that can kick the ball high up into the air if you hit them with enough speed.
I have just barely started dealing with proper collisions between your player controlled ball and other balls in the world, but that is moving along better than I had expected. I am still having issues with gravity not really feeling right, but I tweak and adjust it all the time.
Like any large project, I keep breaking it into bite sized chunks that I can wrap my head around and I deal with them one at a time. So far that seems to be working, but I do wish I could get the gravity problem solved sooner rather than later, because I would like to have more people test it with some good feeling gravity. I don’t think that is asking too much.
Best Games - Chrono Trigger
During the heyday of the SNES, I was playing games on a PC. It’s not that I wasn’t interested in console games. I would enjoy them given the opportunity. I just rarely had access to any 8 or 16 bit console during the time they were popular. That meant the only games I ever really played on SNES or Genesis were bite sized, single sitting games. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, the first few stages of Super Mario World, NHL, that sort of thing. I didn’t even bother approaching RPGs. I mean, what would be the point? I could rent a system and some games for a weekend, but there is no way I would finish some 40 hour monstrosity in 2 days, and if I tried to rent it again the save would probably be overwritten. It wasn’t really a problem though. I had text adventures and D&D gold box games and Star Control 2. Those were meaty enough games for a 1 PC kid.
It wasn’t until emulation in the late 90’s that I ever even saw Chrono Trigger on a screen. I had read about it in magazines and looked at the box in stores, but I never saw or heard it until it was running, dubiously, on a PC.
It was amazing. During the late 90’s era of ‘tude and grit, Chrono Trigger is a decidedly more complex beast. Fun and fanciful, but also much more nuanced than a lot of other media of the time.
During that first playthrough I could detect echoes of Star Control 2. Like that game Chrono Trigger seems, on its surface, so charming and joyous that you are often caught off guard when the narrative would dwell on very dark subject matter. There is a pleasant anime veneer on Chrono Trigger telling you that the game won’t ever take itself too seriously, and it doesn’t, but then it suddenly swerves into themes of fascizm, genocide, and hopelessness. It doesn’t just touch on those themes superficially. It sits in them, lingers on them, and makes sure that you are fully uncomfortable before moving on.
The bleakness of the world in Chrono Trigger connects in a much more profound way than any of the grim-dark nonsense that permeated turn of the millenium. Because it is so pleasant, so kind, so vivid, the underlying desperation of its time travelling story can be felt more deeply.
Don’t get me wrong, Chrono Trigger is not a slog of a game. Quite the opposite. It is a grand epic adventure that always feels fun to play. Just the simple act of pushing buttons in the overworld and in combat has a brisk joy to it that tells you that it knows it’s a game, and that you have come to play. But here, that play will have consequences, maybe not right away, but sometime during the centuries of time hopping, you will have to confront things that you have or haven’t done. It’s clever and fun and thoughtful in a way that games rarely are.
The second time I played all the way through it was when it was rereleased for the DS. Knowing the story and remembering most of the twists, I thought it would be less impactful and more of a fun thing to do on a lunch break. I ended up getting even more engrossed in the sensitivity of the storytelling.
The trojan horse of earnest and joyful presentation helped the creators of Chrono Trigger convey what would otherwise be a bleak and overly complex plot. All that, and it’s still just plain fun to play.
That’s why Chrono Trigger is one of the best games.
There aren’t enough games where you hit things.
I’ll grant you, in something like 60% of all games you direct a character to punch, kick, or spin attack something. The other 40% involve shooting. Punching or shooting, that’s it. Those are the video game verbs.
What about Tetris you might ask. That’s both. Shapes shoot from the top and punch the bottom. It’s obvious really.
But how often have you just hit something? Head on crashed right into it, on purpose. How often was that impact satisfying. Rarely? That’s what I thought.
The problem is this. It’s really hard to do. A computer can very easily and efficiently detect when two volumes are intersecting. You can register that as an impact. You can then have the computer output a response to that impact. It’s feedback, but it isn’t often that the two events seem directly connected. You can see the canned animations and you can feel the unconvincing physics. It all feels a little ‘simulated’.
There are a few games that get close. Crashing cars in burnout is visually impressive and is very satisfying, but you either feel like the impact was light and the response was overly spectacular or the impact was impressive but more of less out of your control. Sometimes colliding in Rocket League feels pretty good, but only sometimes and it seems more of a luck thing than a lined up, planned out hit. Running into the ball (more of a bounce than a hit) always feels pretty good though. I will also say that I am bad at Rocket League and maybe there is some pro tier way to hit in a satisfying way.
Flatout, Wreckfest, and other collision focused racing games will have a good feeling impact every once in a while, but more often than not everything just feels a little bit like it’s happening underwater.
So far I have only really talked about car games, because those are really the only games where devs spend a lot of time polishing the hits. Full body contact sports like Hockey and Football have enjoyed video game re-creations for as long as there have been video games, but I have never experienced a simulated hit that felt anything like actually playing either of those sports.
Here is a strange thing about me. In everyday life I could be easily labeled a pacifist. I own that. I have never been in a physical fight that I started, and I have never, ever, sought one out. But, when I play hockey, I like to hit people. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t go out looking to hurt anyone and it’s been years since I have actually played full contact hockey, but I like the feeling of running into another person intentionally to push them off the puck. I think maybe it’s because when playing hockey everyone is on equal ground and they are trying to do exactly the same thing to me. No one is angry that you ran into them, they expect it, and likewise I’m not angry that they ran into me. In fact, it’s fun. We have all agreed that in this rink for this hour or so everyone can run into everyone else, while sometimes moving very fast, and that’s okay.
Video games have a lot of things running into other things, a lot of characters that smash through the world with wild abandon. Very rarely have any of them ever felt as fun as colliding with a real person in real hockey. It might take me awhile, and I might never get there, but that is the feeling I’m chasing with the game I’m working on. The simple fun of hitting something.