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.
For a brief period this week I wasn’t able to use my graphics tablet. If you aren’t a digital artist I wouldn’t blame you for not caring what a graphics tablet is or what it does. They are a very niche tool that very few people need, but for those people that need one it is utterly indispensable.
In brief, a graphics tablet is an input device for your computer that looks like a pen and a fancy drawing board. It can detect startlingly precise pressure, tilt, and sometimes even roll information. All this means is, once you get used to it, you can draw or paint as well as you could with a pencil or paintbrush. Graphics tablets won’t ever make you a better artist, but they will convey whatever skill you have developed to the computer accurately. So that’s nice.
The graphics tablet I have now, a huion h610pro is almost 7 years old. I bought it to replace a Wacom intuos 2. The second, and larger, of the two intuos 2 tablets I used for the preceding 12 or so years. Before that I had a Wacom Pen Partner. The pen partner had a drawing surface smaller than a postcard. All together that’s something like 22 years I have been using these devices. Even though I still use a mouse quite often, I really can’t function without a graphics tablet. I use it to draw, paint, sculpt, move points around, copy files, select stuff, press buttons, and just do generally anything you could do with a mouse.
Not having the tablet, even briefly made me think about tools. The computer under this desk can process inputs faster than my nerves can fire. There is an almost zero chance that I could overwhelm it with the speed or subtlety of my own body’s movements. I could have pressure sensitive tools attached to the end of each of my fingers and a regular pc should have no trouble conveying that information to a program for sculpting or painting. A standard mouse can detect movement thousands of times per second. A VR headset with inside out tracking can take stock of the world around it, filter for static objects, and watch for controllers or your hands fast enough that your own proprioception can be fooled making you believe you are in another place entirely. And yet, my interface with an art program is holding a stick in my hand and pressing down more or less hard. Essentially the same root technology people used to draw herds of bovines on cave walls 40-60 thousand years ago.
It’s not like I can think of anything better. Humans use tools in ways that are the most efficient for how our hands and arms and eyes work after all. I just think that with all of this input capacity at our disposal we might be able to come up with something that doesn’t rely on what we know from the real world and instead describes an entirely digital, virtual, way of working and creating art.
But my tablet is working again, so I’m going to go use that and stop this hideously binary typing thing.
As promised, here is some more drawing.
I thought this time I would do a short breakdown on how I put a drawing together. This current set of concept drawings is for a project I'm working. I'm in the part of the process where I try out a few different things to zero in on a style.
First I start out with a rough figure sketch. I did a lot of google image searching for "Parkour Jump" to find reference. I want these characters to look like they are free floating but in control of their movement, so parkour and other extreme sports seemed like perfect reference. Then I worked on some poses based on that reference in thumbnail sketches and 3D mockups.
Next I refine the sketch and flesh it out, but I like to try to maintain some feeling of movement in the character. These characters wear elaborate headgear and flamboyant costumes, so I didn't put any effort into drawing a face. Any mood had to be conveyed in the body.
On a new layer I start working out the costume.
Next I sharpen up lines and define edges. I will be leaving the sketchy lines under the color for this one.
I get some color up in there. I still have to go over this character and work out some more details, but I think I now have an idea of who they are and where to take them from here.
Most of the time when I am drawing anything, I'm finding out what needs to get added and what needs to change while I'm drawing it. I'm usually surprised at how it turns out, or if it turns out at all.
This one is working out okay I think.
Best Games - Beat Saber
I used to go to the arcade a lot. As often as I could. The first ones I went to were filled with distinct and bizarre cabinets with games as fanciful as they were difficult. Every image on a screen had to be drawn there with only a handful of pixels and a tiny array of colors. Any sound was what could be generated by simple monophonic synths and tin can speakers. Every game was a unique and strange experience. Dreamlike. Those soon gave way to brighter, more colorful visuals that grew more defined and representative. Games with real music and voice samples. This time also birthed genres. There were racing games, scrolling shooters, and maze chase games. Some of the games were great, some not so great, but market forces that directed developers to work on the genres that would sell were already taking hold. So the arcades were filled with a lot of Pac-Man clones and Galaga clones. Still enough unique experiences were being made that an arcade goer could find something that suited them.
It wouldn’t be very long before the arcades were packed wall to wall with 1 on 1 fighting games. Still difficult, but a different sort of difficult. Fighting games require a player to climb a learning curve before they can have fun with them. I love fighting games, but I think they drove a lot of people who had loved Pac-Man and Qbert from the arcade. They simply demanded too much practice from would be casual players.
It wasn’t long before the fighting games of the arcade made their way to home consoles and every player who didn’t want to wait in line at an arcade machine only to be stomped by someone who had simply practiced more, stayed home and played Marvel Vs. Capcom on their own couch with their own friends.
The last gasp of the arcade was to try to offer an experience that a player couldn’t have at home. Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, and Drum Mania were all developed in this winding down of the arcade. All of these machines were simply too large and specialized to be something that you could easily play at home. This wasn’t joysticks and buttons, this was ruggedized dance pads and simulated drum kits. If you wanted to play these games, you had to leave your house.
Dance Maniax was released in the very early 2000’s and consisted of a set of infrared sensors that you waved your hand across in time to a musical track and on screen instructions. No buttons. Nothing physical to interact with. Just a giant cabinet and your own sense of self consciousness. The Bemani series of rhythm games ended up with the same core issue as fighting games. People wanted to play them because they were fun to play, but some people got so good at them that the developers needed to up the challenge with each new release and the performative aspect of being very good at a game in public meant that some people would play it, but most would not. Those other people went back home and played guitar hero and rock band privately or with their friends. I mean why play a game with a bunch of people standing around judging you.
That sure was a lot of non Beat Saber talk for a presumably Beat Saber focused Best Games, isn’t it?
I think the history is important, because of how and Beat Saber was developed and released. Beat Saber is a rhythm game very similar in play to Dance Maniax. To an outside observer, you wave your hands in the air to the beat of a song and look sort of silly or cool or somewhere in between. The difference is, Beat Saber is a VR game. It really only works as a VR game. While that limits its potential audience, this does mean that you don’t have to wait in line to play Beat Saber, and you especially don’t have to worry about people watching you and judging your performance… if you don’t want them to. When you are in Beat Saber, it’s just you, two laser swords, and a lot of incoming blocks to slice. Get good at it if you want. Play it on easy if you want. Play the songs that you want, and enjoy yourself. If you turn off any screen mirroring, only you will ever see how well you did. Or, you could stream out your game and show anyone who will watch how amazing you are at slicing blocks. It’s up to you.
There is an argument to be made that Beat Saber could have been developed for the Nintendo Wii or for the Playstation Move Controllers. But it wasn’t and moving it to a system where the action is displayed on a standard screen just wouldn’t work at this point. No, Beat Saber is a VR experience through and through, and all the better for it.
There will be a lot of new VR systems past this current generation. Head mounted display units that are lighter, faster, work completely untethered and don’t require controllers at all. For each of these units there will be a version of Beat Saber. In 15 years when a VR/AR system can be placed in regular glasses frames or light-weight goggles there will be a version of Beat Saber. When you can stand in a light field projection with no hardware at all attached to your body, there will be a version of Beat Saber. If one of the tests for new gaming hardware is to run Tetris or Doom on it, the test for new VR hardware will be, from now on, to run Beat Saber on it.
Beat Saber isn’t very old, but it’s already one of the best games.
This past weekend was Global Game Jam. This will be the tenth GGJ that I have attended but the first time that the game I worked on doesn’t play on a computer. I teamed up with Paul and Logan Cooper to work on a board game. A 3D printed board game. In 48 hours.
3D printing is not a quick process. It does provide regular people with the facility to create physical objects relatively easily and cheaply, but rapid prototyping is only rapid when compared to other forms of manufacture. We shifted the usual Game Jam constraint of technology over to a constraint of logistics. Getting everything designed, modelled, printed, and tested in 48 hours was tricky.
In the end we completed and play tested the prototype of an actually interesting table-top game. It plays in less than an hour. There are some interesting strategic elements. It’s pretty easy to learn. After a few more revisions, I have no doubt that it could be quite fun.
Given the time we had to create it, we didn’t get a chance to test it with more than 2 players, but it does seem like more players could work very well. That might even be the prefered way to play it.
Anyway, if you have a 3d printer and wanted to test out an interesting game prototype, you can download the files here https://globalgamejam.org/2020/games/treasuretrap-dungeon-game-8
I did say that the drawings would continue. I’m still coming to grips with some of the tools in Infinite Painter on the iPad. Here is a breakdown of something I started working on. If you are using an Apple Pencil on an iPad I can’t recommend enough that you get a matte screen protector. If you are used to paper or a graphics tablet with some grip to it the screen protector goes a long way to replicating that feeling. It just gives me a little more control over my lines.