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Designing audio for video games, part 1

Designing audio for video games, part 1

I find the value of audio in video games immensely important, on par with graphic representation. It enables you to pull the player into the world you designed and help him immerse in the way you imagined it to exist.

I believe implementing sound is usually left as the last thing to do (when you work alone) unless you are making a music-based game, but when my inexperience with implementing audio into a video game is taken into account, there’s no moment too early for this. Fortunately, i know a thing or two about sound since i’ve been spinning records, releasing vinyls, CD’s and digital releases and designing sound for almost two decades in my spare time.

I don’t have time for some in depth research of various arcade cabinets, consoles and home computers’ technical specifications, but back in the day when i owned Amiga 500 i only had 4 audio channels (i remember making music in Octamed with 4 channels, it was quite a challenge). In shooter type video game practice, you have one channel for music, one channel for player bullets, one channel for enemy bullets and one channel for explosions, each with one voice, which means, if the explosion channel needs to play another explosion, it will either stop the current explosion sound playing and play the new explosion sound, or it won’t play it at all.

Needless to say, (as far as i know) live audio processing was not available until more modern engines and computers that could process it all appeared. Game would simply play the sound in a predefined manner – and that’s it.

The things i can do with Unity nowadays are incredible. I can have zounds of channels and voices as well as live audio effects and audio source positioning, but i don’t really need that much in a 2D game of this type. With all that power, (i can’t point out this enough) we must be careful not to overuse the possibilites given to us.

I decided to go with the relatively simple approach. Audio mixer compoment has a master bus with sub-bus for music and sub-bus for sound effects. Sound effects bus also has a few more categorized sub-buses (enemy shots, player shots, pickup sounds, explosions and so on). This enables me to fine tune the control of each and every sound via integrated tools since once you import the sound into Unity, you’re done fiddling with it except applying effects (unless you use some of the assets which enable you to do so, which i don’t. This one looks particularly cool, but i’m unable to afford it at the moment).

Unity Audio Mixer with various buses and sub buses

But an asset i am using is for managing my sounds and music in an organized manner with some added perks. It’s called Master Audio (one of the most popular audio assets on the Asset Store), a fine tool that enables you to do some great stuff which would take a lot of time to code. I highly recommend it since it really saves a lot of time.

It allows you to set (code-free) number of voices per sound, which is very important as you need to strike a fine balance between a sound being cut by another sound played or (more prominent today) a complete cacophony of sounds clashing together. Another useful perk is making of sound variations which i use profusely in the game, mostly by changing pitch and volume of most of the sounds lower or higher by a very small amount, so no sound played is exactly the same. They don’t differ that much, you can easily hear a bullet is fired from the same gun, but you won’t get ear fatigue from listening the same pitched sound of the same volume over and over.

Modern technology enabled us to add more and use more of everything – almost unlimited number of channels and effects, but my experience and experiences of many other, more advanced audio producers and musicians say that less is more. It’s about the same as in game development: cut, cut, cut again.

We’ll talk more about that in part 2, due tomorrow.

Perspective of living as an indie dev in my country

Perspective of living as an indie dev in my country

Game development is a really nice job, at least when you’re an indie, not a cog in an AAA crunching machine. You can sit in the comfort of your home and have no expenses for commuting, office rental and eating out, at least that’s how i imagine it to be. But the real question is – can you earn a living wage by doing it?

You can read a lot on indie game developer hardships these days. Things are looking quite grim – Steam is not showing too much love for indies, some are afraid the subscription models will start to be a to-go model in selling video games, accessible game engines are making games easier to produce and that makes for a stiffer competition – it’s really hard for your game to be discovered. I’ve seen too many good games with lousy sales numbers because nobody know that they actually existed. A lot of devs are wondering is it really worth it anymore? Is it possible to live by making good games with niche market or do you need to strike gold with new Nuclear Throne or Minecraft? We’ll leave aside the marketing part of the story – you all know it, start as early as possible and build a community, preferably with your own brand if you released games before.

And now, let’s delve into the cold, dark world of numbers. For this analysis, i will be using some Numbeo statistics. According to them, cost of living for a single person in capital of Serbia is around $500 (without rent, which is around $200 for a small flat). It may be a bit hard too look at those numbers objectively, but i don’t know how i would survive with a salary of $500. Realistically, you need $100 for bills regardless of the flat size (if you want flat cable internet, cable TV and a cell phone subscription. Heating, electricity, water and garbage disposal have to be paid) so you’re left with $400, which is enough for you to eat (strictly at home) and maybe spend $50 on leisure. Forget about savings, driving a car and going out.

When i take my family in consideration, the math is following, to live relatively comfortably and maybe spare a few dimes on the side, you need about $2,000 for a three member family (for easier calculation, let’s presume that your SO has no income). That amounts to $24,000 a year. If you are selling your game for $10, Steam takes 30% and you are left with $7. Now, you probably think “Wow, only 2 grand to live comfortably with a family? What is this dreamland you’re living in?” and yes, Serbia IS a cheap country compared to most of the European countries and that is all fine, but my country has no tax treaty with US and it makes a lot of impact compared to other more expensive-to-live-in countries that have tax treaty with US. So, i have to give another 30% in taxes to the US. So, i’m left with meager $4.90 if i’m lucky to sell the game at full price.

But that’s not the end of taxation, i have to pay some taxes in my country too. If i earn up to $23,000, i don’t pay any income taxes, but from $23,000 to $45,000 i pay 10%, and over that i pay 15%. Let’s say i managed to earn more than those $23,000 a year and i have to pay 10% of income tax.  That means i need to have a net profit of $27,000 to earn a nice living wage for me and my family. To make a net profit of $27,000 i need to sell around 5,500 copies of the game at full price. That’s quite a number.

Now, according to this article, the average game on Steam will sell about 2.000 copies and make $12.500 in revenue in its first month. The average game will make $30.000 in its first year. I’m not quite sure what do they mean by “make”, but i guess it’s the revenue. So if you’re from around here and make an average game, you’ll be left with around $15.000, which is around $1250. A fine salary that most of the people living here dream of (average is around $350-$400) and it’s ok if you’re living alone and have no family to support.

But, lest we forget the cost of making the game itself. Unless you are a multitalented person that knows how to program, draw in 2D, model in 3D, rig and animate, design sound and make music, you need to spend some money to pay someone who does any of those better than you and has the time to do it. Until now, i spent around $4,000 on Rick Henderson. Sure, there’s some stuff like assets which are one in a lifetime expenditure and some of the art made will be left unused, but i need even more to finish the game (reason why i’m making an IndieGoGo campaign), so if all went perfect from the start, i think i would need minimum $5,000 to make a game of this caliber. So let’s readjust the figures. I no longer need $27,000 but $32,000 net profit so i have some money to invest in the next game, and that translates into 6,500 copies of the game at full price.

How did the others do?

How some of the similar games fared on Steam? I will use the data from the big Steam leak from last July in this one, so some data may be a bit off, but not too much i presume. Taken into account will only be some games of a newer date, since older once basically guaranteed sales once they were on Steam.

Super Hydorah – This fantastic game sold only 2,073 copies. It was already selling for a year when data leaked, so i presume it didn’t sell many more after that. But the price was a bit high i must say, €20. If it did sell 2k copies at that price, that’s cool, especially considering it’s a one man game.

Starr Mazer DSP – Still in early acces, but sold a nifty 5,500 copies for 10 bucks a pop. Nice, but their press kit says three of them are making the game, and paid artist is doing graphics.

Drifting Lands – Not really your usual shmup, but fits the genre. 8,275 copies for €18,99. Also, at least two guys work there, but probably more, so it’s not much of a success.

Steel Rain – We’re getting into five figure sale numbers. A whopping 10,440 sold games, full price €9,99, but there’s almost two digit number of people in their studio, so i’m not sure how successfull this was.

Monolith – 10,880 copies sold by three guys. Price – €7,99. Great success if you ask me. I suppose they sold a decent number of copies since then too.

Super Galaxy Squadron EX Turbo – 25,940 at €8,19. I suppose a lot of those copies sold at a discount, and as far as i can see they happen pretty often. Now it’s on sale at €2,99 so i guess that’s closer to median sales price. There’s a lot of them there, so i can’t even presume how many of them took part into making the game actually (and reaping the profits).

Sky Mercenaries – Made by PolarityFlow, team that also made Steel Rain. 30k+ copies, regular sales price €9,99, pretty good.

Steredenn – These guys kicked ass. 50k+ copies made by only two of them plus musicians and a pixel artist which probably had their fixed cut. At €12,99, hell, even at half the price, this game made a small fortune for them.

One game it’s like to point out to is Star Saviors, game that sells for €0,99 and has sold 300k+ copies. I haven’t played it but it’s not my cup of tea regarding rendered graphics, though i must say it looks like it feels good to play and makes me wonder of the pricing policy and what is right to do.

I didn’t take into account games like Ikaruga, Mushihimesama and Crimzon Clover, they’re quite specific and have their own audience. Bear in mind all these developers live in countries which are more expensive to live in than in my country, but also have tax treaties with the US to some extent.

Summa summarum

When i take all things into account, i didn’t move my point of view too far. I still believe that you need to have a top notch product (compared to few years ago, where you could be cool if you have a contagious game with maybe not so good graphics) to even scratch the surface. You need to start marketing your product as soon as possible, build a community and be involved if you want to have a crack at selling your game in a decent number of copies that will enable you to live nice until you launch your next game.

Interview with Play! Zine

Interview with Play! Zine

Hi Uroš, we’re glad that we finally have the chance of doing this interview. For starters, can you tell our audience a bit more about your project – what is Rick Henderson?

In short, Rick Henderson is a horizontal-scrolling endless shooter. Five factions, five bosses, loads of guns, perks, great music and beautiful pixel art graphics. When you get to the end, you go on – until you leave your bones in space.

How did the whole story start and where did the idea come from? You’re not really into game development business, this basically started out as a hobby, right?

In 2013., unhappy with the direction my career is going, i got enrolled into Java course in a small software school hoping that i’ll change the course of my business tenure towards programming. It seemed logical to me, i was in front of the screen since C64 and i am more than average Joe in that regard. I have to admit i was totally lost, abstract thinking was really not something i was good at. After finishing another course, this time a year long one, things were much better, but i still didn’t get that „click“ in my head. I was always pragmatic and decided to try out Unity because it’s using C# which is quite popular and you can see the result immediately. I realised i liked it, the things i did started to get the shape of a real game and i decided to follow the path that was getting laid in front of me.

Are you working on the project by yourself or do you have associates?

Besides me,only (paid) associate i have is @lighterthief, great Dutch artist who does pixel art. I found him via Pixelation forum. Game was supposed to have very simple graphics, but cooperation with him gave birth to something new, wonderful art full of colors that revives memories of old shoot ’em up from golden era of home computers of the nineties.

We know that making music is one of your passions. Are you having any plans of making some of your own music for the game and what kind of soundtrack can we expect in the game?

I’d really love to, but when you work alone, time is an extremely limiting factor so i decided to pass that satisfaction to others this time. I contacted a lot of musicians on Bandcamp and managed to strike a deal with two of musicians (for now), Mlada Fronta and Cryocon. Mlada Fronta is Rémy Pelleschi from France and Cryocon is Dan Exton from USA, great guys. They agreed to lend me their music to use in the game, and i’ll be giving them all the proceeding from soundtrack and part of the funds that will be gathered via IndieGoGo campaign (if all goes according to plan).

You can expect a lot of good synthwave and electro. You can listen to the 9 tracks that will appear in the game here with more to come soon.

What technical skills did you need to possess before venturing into this project? After all, this is a one man job, what does one have to know to start working on a game like this?

For individual engagement in the world of game development you need great organizational skills and rational approach to work. Only after that tech skills come in, which are not hard to learn. C# is a simple language, Unity itself has an uncomplicated API and web is full of tutorials which can help you learn anything. If you don’t know how to draw or make music, you can always pay someone to do it, which i wholeheartedly recommend, people that know how to do everything are a rare sort.

What were the greatest challenges while working on the game, what is hard, what is dull, what is simply boring?

I wasn’t really expecting that, but a lot of things are uninspiring and tedious. Finding and squishing bugs is on the top of the list, and testing is not any less mind-numbing, while waiting for compiler every time you hit the play button on a 10 year old CPU. Greatest challenge is to be consistent and do at least one task every day. Feeling of progress is very important because there’s a lot of work to do and motivation is an easy thing to lose if you don’t have a sense that you are reaching towards something.

On the other hand, what part of work is enjoyable for you?

Actually, i really enjoy the marketing side of the production lately which requires as much time as a game development. Positive reactions and a good-natured, quality critique are beneficial for motivation and work quality.

What 2D side scrollers were inspiration for you? What do you consider good in the genre, where do you see room for improvement and innovation and how does that fit in your game?

Galaga Deluxe, Project X, Xenon, Raptor, Steredenn, U.N. Squadron, R-Type, Z-Out. This genre exists for more than 30 years and it’s hard to reinvent the wheel, but from time to time some shiny gems appear like Rival Megagun or Enemy Mind and really surprise me. I can’t say Rick Henderson is revolutionary, but it combines several elements that i still haven’t seen together in one game.

What would you highlight as the main characteristic of your game that should attract the target audience to fall in love with this title?

Non-stop action with fantastic music and gorgeous graphics, challenging bosses and different game every time.

How would you describe your experience for the past few yours during the tenure on the game? What did you learn and realize, how did it help you in your professional and personal life and how did you come out from the whole process?

I certainly got out older 🙂

It was painstaking, lots of sleepless nights, ups and downs. I have a family and a full time job and it is extremely hard to fit everything and remain sane and healthy. I learned not to rush things and that there’s no amount of passion that can speed up the complex and time-consuming process that is game development. Actually, good work-life balance gives the best results, which i learned the hard way. There’s still a lot of work to do, but now i’m taking it easy, step at a time.

Idea behind the whole game was very ambitious. When you first shared your project with us in May 2017., there was a few game modes including Story mode. Fast forward, does everything still seems doable?

Of course not! Like every beginner, encouraged by quick progression and vast Unity possibilities i bit of more than i can chew. Rick Henderson was first imagined as a complete experience for one player that we are used to in this genre: level, boss, weapon store, level again and so on. However, as the unwritten rule dictates, cut the game you imagined in half, the cut that half in another half and the you get something that you can really finish in a reasonable timeframe. Rick Henderson is still a great challenge, but doable for a one man show.

One of the reasons we’re talking about your game right now is because we want to emphasize that your game has an active IndieGoGo campaign in the moment we are writing this, so everyone who is interested in the project can help directly. Tell us some more about the campaign, what are the goals, how long will it last and what can potential players expect.

Campaign is in the pre-launch phase at the moment, which is used to gather e-mail addresses if a person is interested in supporting the project. You can find the pre-launch page here and leave your e-mail for news and announcement when the funding phase of the campaign starts. The goal is 3.000,00 USD, which is how much i need for one more faction, backgrounds and additional graphics works, translations… Perks that a backer can expect are beta access, early access, Steam keys, soundtrack, involvement in creating new enemies and having your name on a space blimp that will appear throughout the game.

With your current experience, what would you recommend to someone that wants to make his old idea reality in a similar manner? What would you advise?

Start with small, short games of different genres so you can learn as much as possible in the short time frame. Don’t be shy, publish them on the websites where you can do it for free, like itch.io. When you finally decide to work on something more serious, start with marketing immediately – indie games market is incredibly saturated and it’s hard to strike through the noise. Of course, if it’s not working out, don’t be afraid to ditch the project, you will do yourself a favor.

Thanks for the conversation, we wish you luck with IndieGoGo campaign and we can’t wait to review Rick Henderson on the pages of Play! Zine!

Thank you.


How i made my IndieGoGo campaign, part 2

How i made my IndieGoGo campaign, part 2

Needless to say, i made a lot of research on best time and best ways to launch the campaign. Here’s the graph from medium.com on Kickstarter campaigns from 2014.

Kickstarter campaign success per month

Obviously, i missed the train for December, which is one of the best months for launching the campaign. It makes sense, people spend more money in the holiday season and they’re a bit dry in the following month, which is January, and the worst month for crowdfunding campaigns. I don’t have time to wait for March, which is the next decent month before summer, so i suppose i’ll be biting the bullet, launching in mid January, maybe beginning of February and hoping for the best.

Project duration is a typical 30 days. It’s silly to make it last shorter than that since i don’t have a lot of visibility anyway, but lasting longer is also not an option. Why? Psychology is a strange science, shorter durations increase a sense of urgency in people and may help them decide earlier so they don’t miss the deadline.

I believe i shouldn’t press myself to launch as fast as possible, but once the wheels start turning when you press that big pre-launch button, there’s no going back and you should work on making as much people as possible subscribing for the regular e-mails that will lead to the official launch and the notification of the launch itself.

They say that the conversion rate from the subscribers is a mere 5%, so if everyone leaves a basic pledge of 10 USD, i need about 6000 subscribers if i want to be sure i will reach my goal. I don’t think i’ll manage that big of a number, but i’ll keep tracking the numbers and when the number of daily subscribes start falling down, i’ll announce the campaign start. So far, i collected 24 e-mails in a few days, which is a number i’m quite happy with to be honest, considering the scope of the project and the type of the game i’m making – a niche arcade shooter. But, to be realistic, that’s not nearly enough, especially when you take the conversion rate into account.

When you’re having a project like this, it’s quite natural to pay attention to even the smallest details. That said, even the time of the day when you launch the campaign is of utter importance. In my case, that will be 7 o’clock in the morning, which is just the time people get back from lunch on the east coast in the United States, which account for the largest crowdfunding contributor in the world. You get back from lunch, and before you get back to work, you decide to check IndieGoGo a bit if there’s something interesting, and there it is – just launched! Wednesday also looks like a promising day. On monday, people are in a grumpy mood and they need to get to speed to work, not much time for stuff like this so it’s a big no-no. Tuesday’s better, but not as good, and Thursday is too far off, you are usually starting to wind down and think about the weekend. So Wednesday it will be.

One of the most discouraging facts from the Kickstarter statistics is that two thirds of the campaigns fail miserably. I try not to think about it too much. Maybe their goals were to far off? Maybe their campaign was lousy? To be honest, there’s a lot of campaigns out there looking for much too money for what they’re offering or having a campaign that’s written poorly. Asking for too much money is one of the main issues people tend to overlook. It’s better to ask for a smaller amount since people will pledge for something that seems achievable, fair and has constant income of pledges. If you’re on a train that’s going to be hard to catch – nobody will want to ride it. The funny thing is – when you fund the project, even more and more pledges will usually start coming. People want to give their pledge to something that already succeeded and they know they’ll get the product they pledged for.

First 48 hours of the campaign are crucial on IndieGoGo, since the campaign will only appear in search results for the first 48 hours after launch. After that, you need to have at least two pledges to keep it searchable. Not only that, they recommend that you already have 30% of the funds needed secured and pledged in the 48 hours of the campaign, which, in my case, is 1.000 USD. It’s big bucks for me, and i don’t think i’ll be able to provide this via friends, family and so on. Where i live, it’s 3 monthly wages so i think it’s better that i prepare that demo for launch so i gain more traction and attract more people.

So, the thing i need to do is to step up on gaining subscribers by regularly posting the progress, work on the demo and shout everywhere. Here’s the list of the stuff i did lately:

I opened the account on itch.io, but the game is not showing up in search since there’s no downloadable content. There was a small surge of visitors from Twitter on the day i listed the game, but since then no views at all, only one follower and that’s it.

I opened the accound on GameJolt (few moments ago), the game is also invisible there, so i don’t expect anything.

I posted a teaser on r/shmups on reddit, there’s only few likes and that’s it. It’s a small subreddit, so i plan on posting the teaser and some text on few other subreddits like gamedev, indiedev, and unity2d.

I posted a devlog with teaser on tigsource, hutonggames (makers of Playmaker which i use), shmups.system11 forum, there has been no significant response.

Obviously, the way to increase visibility is to publish a demo which will be downloadable on itch, gamejolt and steam (when i make the profile) and then we’ll see how it goes. Launching the campaign now would fail 100%.

So, off to make the demo!


Posts

How i made my IndieGoGo campaign, part 1

How i made my IndieGoGo campaign, part 1

Teaser for Rick Henderson

After more than two whole years of toiling, sleepless nights, stiff fingers and dry eyes, i finally reached the point where i’m ready to show something more complete to the world and prepare for the crowdfunding campaign that will help me bring the game to a final release.

While Kickstarter clearly enables a wider audience, it is not available in my country so i didn’t have much choice of a platform for crowdfunding – IndieGoGo was basically the only way to gogo (sorry for the pun).

Preparing the campaign was a really tough process and i admit it took me a while with all the other things i have to do in my life.

First of all, i had to explore the possibilities and limitations of the platform and how to fit them to my needs.

Albeit with a smaller reach, IndieGoGo has some clearly better features than Kickstarter. InDemand helps you gather the funds and build the community even when the campaign is over. Of course, you need to reach your goal before that, so you need to find a reasonable amount that will help you finish your product. Not too small, but not too large either. I had a lot of trouble in finding that sweet spot, but in the end i decided to ask for a bare minimum that will make me finish the game, no more, no less. Everything over that will be used for stretch goals. I have a lot of ideas and i can already figure out how much will they approximately cost, so i’ll see how the campaign goes and add them during the campaign.

Another interesting feature that IndieGoGo offers is flexible funding and you are probably wondering why didn’t i opt for it if i had to choose IndieGoGo. The amswer is simple, i don’t want to have obligations of given promises if i don’t reach my goal, it would not be fair towards the backers. I need funds to make my ideas to become reality and acting in any other different way than being completely honest and transparent would be irresponsible.

Luckily, i already have enough experience (that costed a lot) and have gathered data to know how much will the rest of the game cost if i want to do it my way. So herе’s a breakdown that will be visible on the campaign page when it starts:

Backgrounds You noticed that the teaser only has three backgrounds. To make the game more visually pleasing i need 20 backgrounds in 5 thematic colors (red, green, blue, purple, yellow), each costing 45-70 USD per piece, which comes to roughly 1.500 USD since, besides the regular artist hours involved for making them, some additional hours will be probably needed for fixes and adjustments.

Additional gfx works Additional graphics include finishing the Rokh Raiders sprites (the sixth faction that has not been finished), background elements, bullets, special effects, explosions and works on the Galaxy Database. I approximate that 1.000 USD is needed for all of that. It might seem much, but bear in mind that’s only 33 hours of more or less standard artist pay, or 4 eight hour work days, which is a really, really short amount of time when you look at it.

Translations They cost around 0.1 USD per word for translating the basic user interface and options, but a lot more if i plan on translating the Galaxy Database. But for the basic translation into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese, i approximate that around 100-200 USD will be needed since the game does not have many words.

Fees and taxes Steam Fee is 100 USD and Indiegogo takes 5%, and then there’s income taxes too, which will come around to 10-20% for this amount.

Music and SFX – Music licenses are very expensive to obtain, but i am in contact with several musicians that are willing to let me use their music for an IndieGoGo and revenue cut. Still, it will probably come to around at least 10% of the funding. I have been a music producer for more than 15 years so the sound effects will be handled by myself. I could probably do the music too, but i don’t have enough time and there are a lot of people that do it better than me anyway.

Cost breakdown

When you add all that, it comes to about 3.000,00 USD, which is an amount that i’m frankly scared of. I invested a bit more than that in the game until now, and seeing that it was enough only for the half of the graphic assets that are needed for the game of this caliber is frightening.

While the game itself is not a revolutionary product that will break the genre, i do believe it stands out a lot among lots of shmups that are out there at the moment. First of all, the graphics are reminiscing of golden age of Amiga 500 games, beautiful 16-bit pixel art with no rendered or pre-rendered 3D graphics, but with dynamic lighting. I haven’t seen it in a shmup for some time. Music in the game (at least the tracks i collected until now by Cryocon and Mlada Fronta) is damn fine and i plan to make it on par with the iconic soundtrack of Hotline Miami or old-school hits like Crusader, Unreal Tournament, Rollcage or Project X (you can listen to the tracks here).

Anyway, back to the campaign. At first, i didn’t know what could i possibly offer to the backers beside the game itself. Ok, Early Access is something that i planned anyway, so i could give away that too. I plan on selling the soundtrack separately (all proceedings will go to the artists), so that’s a cool perk to add too, but what else? When i started making the game, i had illusions of grandeur, like every fresh gamedev out there. Rick Henderson as supposed to be a huge single player experience with levels and an intriguing story behind it. When reality struck me, i decided to drop the whole predefined levels concept and i had a lot of ships and weapons descriptions left behind unused. I got to an idea that they can be used for Galaxy Database, a small book of enemy ships and player weapons with their stats, description and a small backstory for each one of them. Lower tier backers will get it in PDF, while high tier backers will be getting a nice hardcover booklet.

To further engage the potential community of backers, one of the perks will be the Community Ship Designer. Backers of that tier will have the exclusive access to hidden Discord channel where they will be able to create an enemy that will appear in the game together. Sure, it will be a challenge for me since it has to be in certain design boundaries (and maybe technically, who knows what people can think of), but i think it’s a rather cool reward.

Name on a blimp is purely cosmetic. If you really like shmups and you got a lot of dough to spare, your name will appear on a space blimp with a large display on it (think Blade Runner).

Finally, with only 5 available, you can design you own enemy (not a boss though) by working with me and a graphics guy. Might not seem as much, but creating an enemy that is interesting and balanced is quite time consuming, let alone 5 of them.

Perks

Ok, i’ve got the amount i need, backer rewards and now i need to present the game in the best possible light. I hate punchlines and single sentence descriptions, but it needs to be done. Put your whole game in one sentence. It’s like an elevator pitch, but you don’t even have the time to ride to the first floor, just poke your head through the elevator door and shout one sentence. So i came up with Endless horizontal-scrolling shoot ’em up experience with infinite replayability. Well yeah, it’s infinitely replayable, but in a way that it will never get boring. I decided not to use terms like procedural or roguelike since, honestly, i believe players already have an aversion when they read those words. It is endless since it doesn’t end, you can only die. Obviously, it’s horizontal-scrolling shoot ’em up, and i like to call it an experience, since it’s an audio-visual experience made for connoisseurs of the genre and style.

I made sure to be perfectly clear how the game loop functions, how the weapons/armor relations work, even if it’s dead simple to understand and provide as much material as possible for the players to see how the game sounds and looks like. Screenshots were easy to take, but resizing images to fit in IndieGoGo’s predefined image sizes and remain pixel perfect was a pain in the ass. Preparing a small teaser took days of work and i can’t say i’m happy with the final result in terms of video quality. Unity’s inbuilt recorder compresses the video even on high setting and artifacts appear when there’s a lot of stuff going on on the screen, but i believe it’s good enough to be used as a proof of concept and let the backers know what’s it all about.

The Game Loop

Unfortunately, i wasn’t able to provide the demo since i think it’s too early and i’m a bit of perfectionist. I regard that as the biggest flaw of my campaign and i hope it will do well even without it.

One of the things that really makes me proud and that i want to point out is the dedication to inclusion. I want everyone to be able to play the game. I’m positive that colorblind modes will probably include more tweaking than simple filters implementation, but turning off shakes and flashes will mean a lot to someone who’s suffering from problems related to photosensitivity but like shoot ’em ups. High-contrast mode is going to demand quite an overhaul, but if all goes well i’m all for it.

Colorblind modes

My fears? Shoot ’em ups are quite a niche of a genre so i’m scared how many people will be interested in a game like Rick Henderson. Deep inside i believe there’s a lot of folks that want to see something new that’s not a bullet hell or reissue of an old classic, but a modern envisionment of the classics that marked an era.

You can find the pre-launch page here and if you had a good read and are interested in seeing this project come to life, subscribe to be notified when the campaign is launched or share it – every bit helps 🙂

Dev Log #5 Cutting halves in half

Dev Log #5 Cutting halves in half

When starting out with a game in a powerful engine like Unity it seems like everything is possible and that you can make a game in a finger snap. While everything is possible and you can make something playable in a relatively short time span, making a complete game usually takes a fair share of time, especially if you are a newbie to game design, engine itself and programming.

As far as i can tell, illusions of grandeur are quite common when you begin developing a game (turns out i was not immune to it too). Enthusiasm doesn’t seem to whiff away quite easily as it is fueled by actual things getting done, but after a while you get to realize it will take too much time to make it like you want it to be, or you simply don’t know of a way that is fast and simple enough. If you want to complete the game, you will need to strip it of layers and keep it simple. It hurts and feels like taking away the originality and personality from it. Not only will you have to cut it in half, but you will probably need to cut that half in half too, reducing it to meager ¼ of the game you meant to make.

One of the things i had to cut again and again was the weapon system i was quite proud of. You can read about it here and here’s the short version:

30+ weapons in game;
5 levels of each weapon;
3 weapon types (bullet, energy, missile, each having a corresponding multiplier against normal, armored and shielded enemies);
Player can hold two weapons at the same time, but fire only one;
You can’t have two same weapons of different levels equipped;
You can’t have two weapons of same type equipped;

You have Bullet Weapon X Level 1 equipped as active weapon and Energy Weapon X Level 1 equipped as inactive. After blasting the enemy transport you come across Missile Weapon X Level 1 and pick it up. Since you don’t have it equipped in any of slots, it will replace the active weapon and eject Bullet Weapon X Level 1.

If you wanted to replace the Energy Weapon X Level 1, you could simply switch weapons to make Energy Weapon X Level 1 active and replace it. This would be a common occurence for adapting to the enemy types because of their vulnerability or resistance to certain type of damage.

I could make things simpler in design and coding by simply omitting the part where the replaced weapon is ejected since there’s a small chance of picking it up by accident since it involves pressing a key while you hover over the weapon. However, two player mode requires that feature for the weapons to be interchangeable between players and that is a great way to improve cooperation, gameplay and combined firepower.

Reality check!

Due to design limitations (limitations as in 150 weapon variants) i had to make a hard choice that can affect the future gameplay on upgrading the equipped weapon and few solutions came to my mind.

1. You can only upgrade the weapon if you pick up the exact weapon

That way, either equipped or not, the weapon in players posession is upgraded to the next level without any ejection which only happens when you are picking up a weapon you don’t have equipped. While challenging with high long-term impact on decision-making, you only have 6% chance of getting the same weapon from the transport which is slim to none. Needles to say, a bad option.

2. Equipped weapon level transfers to pickups

Whenever you equip a weapon that is not equipped it is always at level 1, but when you upgrade any of the weapons on ship to level 2, the weapon you replace the level 2 weapon will also be level 2. Basically, it would be a kind of cheating, since by dropping and re-equipping active and inactive weapons, you could get all equipped weapons to a higher level.

3. Weapons upgradeable only by picking up the same weapon

To make it more viable, one should increase the chance of spawning a weapon you already have.

The maths on this one are simple, though a bit hard to code. You have 25% of transport spawning active weapon, 25% of spawning inactive weapon and 50% chance of spawning a new weapon. This comes with a different kind of trade-of. Though 25% is a lot ot may happen that you rarely run into a weapon you want to upgrade. On the other hand, you may always run into a weapon you already maxed out. This discourages experimentation since you will always want to hold on to your maxed out weapons, no matter how good or bad they are. There are no bad weapons per se, but holding on to weapons of the same type greatly decreases success.

4. Weapon upgrade pickups

Though not originally meant to be implemented, this could pose a good solution combined with approach 1 or 2. It is simply a kind of a joker card which levels up your active weapon without worrying if it’s the same one. You pick it up, the active weapon gets upgraded and you just keep on blasting.

The basic idea was for the player to drop the currently equipped weapon when he picks up the new one, so if a mistake is made (though hardly possible, since only hovering over it won’t do – you have to press a pickup key too) player can simply pickup the ejected weapon again.

Resolution

I don’t know about you, but i got a headache just by reading this. You see how easy it is for things to get out of hand for every single layer of stuff you intend to add? Amount of work increases exponentially for every feature added. Not only did it get overly complicated, but it got to the point where it would depend on chances of picking up weapons that would be extremely hard to tweak properly. And all that doesn’t guarantee that you won’t end up in situation to have no proper weapon to amswer the challenge on the screen, which is unacceptable.

On top of that, i wanted to implement weapon overheating mechanics, but to be honest, i haven’t played any game except Jets ‘n’ Guns that has it, and that game has a completely different concept.

In the end, the whole system got stripped down to bare essentials, and an easy to understand concept:

You start with all 3 weapon types on ship (basic weapons);
No switching – you have a button for firing every weapon (with a small delay between firing a different weapon, something like auto-switching);
Automatic picking up, you don’t need to press a key while hovering over a weapon to pick it up;
When you pick up a weapon, it replaces the one with the corresponding type on the ship and the old weapon does not get ejected;
No weapon levels, which brings number of weapons to a manageable number (maybe i’ll put SOME levels in the future, but i doubt it);
No overheat mechanics, it would add another layer of tweaking which would require enormous amount of time of testing;

Much better and easier to grasp.

After a while you don’t look at the striping like something that made your game bland and simple, but as a salvation from meaningless work that would probably be too complicated for you and not turn out well. Obviously, perfection is not a thing to strive for, especially if you are a solo developer. Much bigger games suffered for trying to achieve it. So, keep it simple, and cut, then cut again.

Ode to Nested Prefabs from a noob indie dev

Ode to Nested Prefabs from a noob indie dev

His Majesty, the Prefab

I must admit that i’ve been a bit what you could call ‘lazy’ for the past few months.  Why is lazy hyphenated? Well, because i’m not really lazy, i just tried to finish a game from 0 knowledge of Unity in under two years, which is not an easy task. I spent a lot of sleepless nights working, had a few burnouts, but one thing ultimately slowed down my progress to almost halt.

When i finished most of the mechanics for the game and got to the most important part – making content – i simply couldn’t find any more willpower because of the tedious process involved in making hundreds of enemy waves. I believe someone with better coding skills could make a level editor and finish it much quicker, but with my knowledge, i had to do everything by hand and i kind of lost the motivation. Let’s delve a bit deeper into the problem.

One of the things i really love about Unity is use of Prefabs. As someone who is not a programmer by trade, it was easy for me to relate to something drag and droppable, an object with belonging properties that is simple to instantiate and easy to manipulate without much hassle. Two years ago, one of my first questions on Unity Forums was about something that i didn’t even know what is called back then – Nested Prefabs. I couldn’t understand why instantiated objects could have child objects that have child objects who also have child objects can exist in the scene, but not as a Prefab. That pretty much broke my building blocks concept of making a game.

Harsh red line reality check

As you can see, i imagined the waves of enemies to be compiled of squadrons (as well as waypoint and single enemies, about which i wrote in my previous logs) which would be a Prefab object with lots of children objects (singular ships and their engine jets, weapon, tags for missile homing and so on). Unfortunately, Unity supports only one level of vertical nesting in the project, so while an object can have literally hundreds of children, non of them can have their own. Since i read that the Nested Prefabs are something that was planned more than five years ago and not yet in the making i tried a few assets that simulate Nested Prefabs but to no avail. You’ve probably seen the horrible reviews on the Asset Store, most of them are abandoned, buggy, slow or complicated. Since i found no decent asset that will enable me to work the way i imagined, i resorted to the usual workflow of instantiating a Prefab and populating it with components that i needed.

The usual get this/set this workflow

It wasn’t too hard for single enemies, all i needed to do was instantiate appropriate objects on designated locations and that’s it. I learned a lot of things in the process, getting and setting the properties of many available components and their variables, the importance of pooling and the way it works, managing performance and so on. I must admit i had more than a handful of situations where i didn’t know how to overcome some of the challenges, but i’m grateful for them since they were an opportunity to learn something new through problem solving. When most of the stuff that make the core of the games look and feel were finished, the harder part of making a game in the true sense of words came. I won’t repeat myself too much, you can read more about my process of making waves in this and this log. In short, instead of dragging and dropping positions where i want the ships to spawn, assign the wanted behavior to each one depending on the wave structure and simply save all that as a prefab i need to:

  • Have specific spawner types. That means single enemy, waypoint enemy and squadron enemy spawner with their locations.
  • Make a specialized movement FSM’s for almost every enemy type that will dictate movement direction and scale of ships and ships’ children. For example, engine jet needs to be a separate object so it doesn’t flash with the ship upon bullet contact but it must be properly rotated and scaled depending on the spawning position and spawner parent of the parent (yeah, even i lost it while reading).
  • Assign more elements to pool which slows down the compilation time and time required to start the game. Instead of pooling one ship with all the needed components i need to pool the ship prefab, jet prefab, weapon prefaband in some cases multiple weapon prefabs so the pool size for ships is actually at least three times the size in terms of object number. I’m fairly certain that it’s better to have fewer objects to instantiate regardless of their complexity (number of components attached).
  • Manually set the spawning position of each ship in the wave. This is the worst part, it got me completely devastated. I need spawners for assigning some general behaviors and general screen position, but all the fine arrangement of ships in the wave must be done by hand. Not completely, but i need to put the ships in the scene so i can get their coordinates, then copy them into the spawning FSM of the squadron. Sure, i need to position the ships with nested prefabs too, but only once and that’s it. Doesn’t sound like much of a fuss, but imagine having hundreds of waves to make with some of them having double digit number of enemies that need to be repositioned upon spawning.

Set Position, Set Position, Set Position

I’m sure some people don’t even use prefabs but create instances and populate them on runtime and i presume some more C#-savvy people will find nothing unusual in this and develop their own systems for handling the situation, especially big teams. But i’m neither of those and, for the time being, i really need nested prefabs to finish what i’ve started. Prefabs are great game building blocks that further upgrade great tool that Unity already is and we should be really glad they are taking into account the needs of small or one man teams. I’m anxious to see further improvements that the new prefab system will bring to the table in the future versions.

 

 

Scoring System Design

Scoring System Design

One of the most important aspects in a shoot ’em up is certainly score. Being somewhat a niche of a genre, it has a clear competitive edge among its players. It certainly lacks fulfillment in terms of engaging story, but the adrenaline rush in combination with the goal of attaining higher and higher scores or even being on the top of the leaderboard is something really hard to beat and is specific to the genre.

With that in mind, a good shmup scoring system has to be easy to understand and engaging at the same time. While it sounds simple, it can be quite hard to achieve a good “funness” factor while keeping it engaging and skill related.

For Rick Henderson and the Artifact of Gods, i dissected a ton of old and new shoot ’em ups in the search for the perfect scoring system i like. One of my all time favorites is certainly Galaga Deluxe (or Warblade for PC folks) for Amiga 500 from late Mr. Edgar M. Vigdal. Besides coins used for shop purchases (which this game won’t be using until singeplayer mode is done), in Galaga you can collect gems too. Those little cuties come in different shapes and colors and each one yields a different amount of points. While not groundbreaking, it adds another layer of depth to the game besides dodging as some gems are really worth running for through a rain of bullets. Naturally, tougher enemies have higher percentage of dropping rarer gems that yield higher score addition.

Gems

Another form of bonuses that can be picked up are medals. Far from my knowledge, medaling is prominent in shoot ’em ups. The concept is easy: you pick up differently colored medals, when you have the whole set, you get awarded a rank at the end of the level and the medal collection is reseted when you start the next level. You guessed it, ranks are just another name for total bonus multiplier at the end of the game.

Ranks

There is a total of 9 ranks you can attain (the first being the multiplier of 1, which is your default rank):

Recruit
Private
Corporal
Sergeant
Lieutenant
Captain
Major
Colonel
Marshal
Commander

Complete randomness in spawning those can be infuriating for players with higher skill cap, but i find it refreshing to have a bit of a variety and a possibility for the medals already collected to appear again. Below you can find a weight distribution chart for the medals. When none are collected, the chance for any to spawn is equal. However, as the number of collected medals increases, the chance for already collected medals to appear diminish by 1/5 (or 20% if you like it that way). I haven’t done the exact maths, but the chance for already collected medals to appear is not that large. Of course, for collecting already collected medals, you get a nice, juicy score bonus, so they are worth catching too!

Rank Chance Weight Distribution

Multi kill bonuses! We all played Unreal Tournament 2004 back in the day. It had a nice feature of multikills which i use in my game in a bit different form. For those who haven’t played it, you get multikill for killing two enemies in a row without dying. As your kill count progresses (again, without dying) you get megakill, ultra kill and so on. In Rick Henderson and the Artifact of Gods it functions based on time between two kills. When you kill an enemy, an invisible timer starts counting down. If you manage to kill another enemy until the counter hits 0, you get double kill and the timer resets. If you manage to get another one until timer counts down, you get a multi kill, all the way to monster kill. Of course, every additional kill is awared with more and more points. This is usually possible with area of effect weapons (explosive ones) and weapons like Railgun, which can go through multiple enemies, encouraging player to invest more skill in the game.

Grazing bonus is usually omnipresent in bullet hells, a hardcore subgenre of shmups. It encourages the player to “graze” bullets, ie. pass very close to them without getting hit.

Design itself was a bit harder to implement since it involves tracking multiple bullets at a time getting into the graze range and checking whether they hit the player or not. 

While not neccessary for the gameplay since i don’t want it to be bullet hell, it’s one of those things setting apart rookies from hardcore players that want to get the most out the game.

And finally, the good old bonus multiplier which adds up with every destroyed enemy, gets lowered when you get hit, and reset at every waves end. It goes well in combination with grazing bonus, making you get closer to the bullets but not get hit. It also serves as a kind of damage control system. Since i gave up on the idea of having a 0-100 healh bar and chose a 10 life bar instead, hits from tougher enemies take more of your bonus multiplier down.

I believe the score mechanics are very easy to understand and will add up much to the investment of the player and the adrenaline pumping of the true genre players.

Playing with lights

Playing with lights

Every now and then you have to change your routine to avoid boredom and relax. So, i started playing around with light to add some depths. Looking good so far!

ezgif.com-video-to-gif

Laser Beam Testing