Browsed by
Author: admin

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

Spawning System Overhaul and overcoming the obstacle of enemy pattern making

Spawning System Overhaul and overcoming the obstacle of enemy pattern making

The Grid

Wow, it’s been a while, but things are moving forward slowly but surely!

I’ve been busy with lots of coding and programming enemies and i encountered some difficulties in proper positioning. On the image below you can find how the spawn points looked (5 spheres on each side) and how they look now (the red X signs)

Spawning Grid
Obviously, 12 times more spawning points offer much more flexibility

Obviously, it offers much more in terms of positioning. More than a year ago, when i first started working on a spawn system i wasn’t apt enough to make it the way i wanted to (grid system) so i had to be satisfied with only a few spawn points and additional repositioning upon instantiating. Needless to say, it adds much more work to simple spawning and positioning of those enemies.

By using this handy tool from the asset store (https://www.assetstore.unity3d.com/en/#!/content/20502) i created a grid made out of objects completely automatic. A fine tool indeed. After that, i simply added those to the hash table and now i can simply reference the object whose position i want the enemy to use as spawn point and voila. Besides using it to spawn enemies already in a pattern, i can use them to actually create random patterns on runtime by referencing a different object from the hash table upon predefined parameters to avoid completely random clutter. Not only that, a finer grid enables me to avoid spawning the enemies too close to each other or overlap. Since i’m using Core Game Kit for spawning, i’m waiting for the developers to implement the feature based on sphere raycasting, i.e. if there’s an object of certain tag or layer (enemy) in a defined range, the system won’t spawn any more to avoid the overlapping. It will work great with the system i made and described few devlogs earlies which is based on enemy pool values and enemy quantities.

Also, Easy Save 3 Beta will soon get a full release (i hope VERY SOON) which will enable IMPORTING variables from a .csv file. It will be of an immense help for tweaking the gameplay.

Enemy Pattern Making (Squadrons)

I must admit, though i am passionate about making a game, some things are quite tedious. I’m having problems with making enemy squadrons, and the way i make them is so boring and uninspiring it really halts my progress.

Before i was well into Unity engine limitations on nested prefabs (only one child per object, i.e. child cannot have it’s own child as a prefab, only when instantiated on runtime due to way serialization works) i thought it was going to be a breeze, i just drag and drop enemies in a formation, put them under a parent prefab and voila! Except it doesn’t work like that. All of my enemy prefabs typically have two children, Gunpoint and Thruster. Gunpoint hold the shooting logic and muzzle flash animation, while Thruster has the, well, thruster animation. It is on a separate object to avoid being colored with the rest of the enemy ship when it changes color on hit by a player weapon.

So i guess i’ll keep my work and make an empty squadron prefab which will spawn and then spawn the enemies in a desired pattern coded into it. That’s all nice and dandy until you actually start working that way. No more cosy drag and drop, just selecting what to spawn, input coordinates and hit play too see what you’ve done. If something’s not positioned correctly (it usually isn’t), reposition the enemy, copy the coordinates, stop, and paste them. Repeat 10 times for 10 enemy objects in a squadron, and i should have hundreds of them! Horrible!

Prefab and Runtime comparison
Prefab with multiple children with position setting on runtime

So i decided to change my ways. I need to make a reverse approach. Instead of creating an enemy prefab with all the children attached, i’ll attach the Gunpoint and Thruster on instantiation, which is only a two step process compared to setting the position of multiple enemies inside the squadron. This way, i have a clean enemy prefabs without children which i can joyfully drag and drop into positions i want and simply save them under a prefab which will be used for spawning.

Prefab and Runtime Setting 2
Prefab with multiple children instantiating on runtime

Though it is a bit more work initially, it provides an immense saving of time later and makes it more visual, fun and intuitive to work with.

Backgrounds work

Backgrounds work

I bought this little fella (http://www.wacom.com/en-br/products/pen-tablets/one-wacom-m) a while ago but i never found time to play around with it. This weekend was very hot so i was mostly home and i’ve drawn a background for the game, hope you dig it. Took me a few hours.

Background

7 ways to avoid burnout

7 ways to avoid burnout

To Do List

Burn-out, in shortest possible, is a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Is is caused by too much work and stress, and not enough rest and sleep. It can lead to severe health problems, with the smallest one being clinical depression. Apparently, it is very common in game development professions.

I started working on Rick Henderson And The Artifact Of Gods a year and a half ago. First, everything was going fine. Fueled by passion and motivation, i stayed late many nights and used weekends to recover from that maniacal tempo. Then the weekends weren’t enough. I started barely waking up and functioning very lousy. Eating too much to get energy, drinking too much coffee. Quality of work started to fall, and it took me more and more time to finish stuff. My concentration was going down. I got frustrated when i simply couldn’t stay up anymore because i lacked energy. When i did stay up, it was a torture of mind and body with work quality falling down even more. Depression started to creep in. A vicious circle of guilt and exhaustion that ultimately led to a month pause during which i couldn’t even look at my game. After one big and one smaller burnout (the other one was a reminder) i experienced, i learned a good lesson. Making a game is not a 100 meters sprint of passion, it is a 42 kilometer marathon that requires perseverance, determination and motivation. To stay determined and motivated we need to take care of our bodies and minds. Typical, a bit satirized, representation of a programmer is a skinny or a fat bold guy with glasses and a generally neglected appearance (stubble, lousy wardrobe and so on).

Turns out, there’s a grain of truth in every joke. This type of work takes an enormous amount of time and while not physically demanding it DOES impact the body, and with it the mind enormously. I am determined to avoid burnouts in the future, and here is what i can recommend to you to avoid them too.

Sleep Well

Developing games can be addictive, especially when you get into The Flow (or in the zone, as it is sometimes referred to). As i already have a full-time job and family, the flow usually comes late at night, when family is asleep and after an hour or two already in the works. I get completely immersed and have a distorted feeling of time and space, hyperfocus and increased productivity. If you think you can use this time well, make sure you can be absent from the work tomorrow so you can regenerate and have a good night of sleep. However, i wouldn’t recommend doing this often. It’s better to save that energy when you’re close to some goal that requires a large amount of work that you feel you must do in one push or you will lose focus if you split it in chunks.

Sleeping less than 6 hours increases obesity (you feel like eating more to compensate for lack of energy), chance of stroke, heart diseases and diabetes. Not to mention that you will be forgetful, need lots of coffee or caffeine drinks to make it through the day and be irritable as hell. Depression also creeps in. Make sure you sleep at least 7 hours and try sleeping in on weekends if you can.

Eat healthy 

I know it sounds obvious and like a cliché, but if you are mid thirties like i am, this fact needs to be repeated all the time. Make time to prepare a healthy, balanced meal. Eat vegetables, fruits, fish and meat. Besides making your own meals is the healthiest choice of all, it helps rest the mind by physically and mentally distancing you from computer. I find cooking relaxing and sometimes similar to long bicycle rides when my mind wanders off.

Drink water and tea, not sodas full of sugar. Recommendation of 2 liters of water per day is not a fad, your body requires a lot of water to function efficiently. The first sign of not drinking enough water will be a headache, so if you’re not feeling well, try taking a bit of water, you probably forgot to drink it for hours. I like dropping an effervescent 1000 mg vitamin C drop in the water, it’s much more tastier and you can’t get enough of vitamin C, though the higher your intake is, the more you will excrete. Linus Pauling’s “How to live longer and feel better” (he was a Nobel laureate in chemistry) is good on this subject, he took extremely high doses of vitamin C and lived to be 93.

Avoid too much caffeine, it actually makes you harder to concentrate if you overdo it, makes your brain foggy, causes caffeine crash and messes up your sleep quality when taken too late (if you manage to fall asleep). While we all love coffee as a stimulant, don’t forget that it is addicting and withdrawal symptoms can last very long, so it’s best to consume it in reasonable amounts.

Exercise

Besides sleeping enough and eating healthy, exercise is one of the most important things in whole thing of staying mentally stable when working on a game.  Get your juices flowing, ride a bike, pump some iron, run, cross fit, whatever makes you sweat. You will feel better, happier, healthier, have more energy to work, need less sleep, wake more rested and most important of all, have your brain functioning better due to improved blood flow. If you are like me, sitting in the office for 8 hours staring at a screen with (like most of us actually) and then doing that again in the afternoon, be realistic, it does horrible things to your body and mind and you must be fit to endure it. Besides back, neck takes the biggest hit, directly diminishing blood flow to your brain, causing headaches and brain fog. I found that the aerobic exercise works best for me (cycling and running). The repetitivness and the moving scenery clears your mind with the goal of acquiring mental void.

Don’t forget friends and family

Life doesn’t just stop because you are working on something that takes an enormous chunk of your spare time. You’ve got a family to spend time with and take care off and friendships you have to cherish. Socializing helps to take the mind off of your work, relax or perhaps vocalize the things that worry you or you are having problems with in your development. Even if someone is not into that, a fresh and naive look at your problem can be an eye opener.

After all, friends and family is all that matters in the end.

Take days off

No matter how great your passion and motivation are, being involved in anything 24/7 is just not good. You will get saturated, lose objectivity of your work and ultimately repelled by the sole sight of computer. Make goals on which you are working on, and say to yourself “when i finish this boss design, i’m going to treat myself with 3 days off”. And do it, feel satisfied with the work you’ve done and enjoy in your days off without guilt because you deserved them.

Relax (away from screen if possible)

Since you are probably already a full-time screen starer and you stare some more when you get home, i recommend you get some relaxation that doesn’t include staring at any type of screen. Cooking is a great way to relax, walk your dog without your smartphone, pet your cat for hours, read a book or a magazine, make a bubble bath, lay on the floor and stare at ceiling thinking about nothing, ride a bike out of town. It’s all relaxing and helps soothe your exhausted and work saturated mind.

Work on something different

If you really feel the need for working on your project, switching between the things you do often helps to avoid saturation. When i got bored of working on enemy waves, i switched to searching for sound effects and making some music. This development blog is also part of my avoiding burnout by doing something different. When you get sick of coding you can do some drawing if you’re apt at it, making music, writing a storyline, whatever jingles your bells. Just make sure you track your goals and don’t spread yourself too thin as it lowers the productivity and quality of work.

Managing it all

That’s all nice and dandy, taking care of yourself, but when you will find the time to work on the game with all this relaxing, exercising and cooking? It’s up to you to figure it out and integrate it into your lifestyle. It’s probably not going to translate into a lot of work hours, but what matters is the quality of those work hours. Most helpful thing if you are not able to work regularly on your game (i.e. have a family and a job) is to run a development log. Not just any, but a very tight one, with clear goals cut into smaller chunks you can handle and work on whenever you can grab some spare time. Besides knowing where to continue with your work after a few days of AFK, it will be motivating to track your progress. I’ll probably write more about it next time.

Stay healthy and take it easy!

Appendix 1

Thanks to the encouraging critique from folks at reddit/r/gamedev i decided to update the article with some quantification of the problem. Being an already a full-time employee, hour tracking of work done can be tedious when working irregularly and takes too much time in my case, but i had a more or less regular work schedule before the first big burnout to prove that it’s simply not worth it and you should respect your body.

Let’s say i worked on the game for two hours and on top of that extra two hours every workday of the week. Those hours were always, as mentioned in the article, late at night, after full 8 hours of work, when i am already tired and my work efficiency is largely decreased. Every workday i worked an extra two hours led to a total of 40 hours of sleep debt (since the only time i could afford was borrowing a chunk of sleep). That comes to 5  nights of good sleep monthly or whole two months per year! Imagine not sleeping for an entire week per month or not sleeping one night every week of the month. That leaves horrible consequences to your mind and body.

Every one of us has a different organism, gender, age, need for sleep, physique that can withstand more abuse than the other, so it’s quite difficult to determine someones need for rest. Being a 34 year old male, some general proposition is not less than 7 hours of sleep. That can be an ungrateful number, since i usually don’t feel quite rested if i sleep under 8 hours of sleep, but let’s take that as a general rule of thumb.

If i worked an extra two hours per night and cut off my sleep for two hours, i gained 40 extra hours of development per month. When you look like it’s great, almost 500 hours per year, that alone is a figure that can net some serious results. But how was the quality of that work? Being already exhausted, we can say that it was 75% efficient compared to a workload when i was fully rested. There’s stuff to work on that don’t require much concentration or brain power and there’s not much efficiency deficiency on those, but there are some intensive tasks (writing new mechanics, creative tasks etc.) that need a lot more mental power to be done efficiently and that brain power is already spent. I reckon the diminish can go up to 50% on that one (i was really struggling on creative stuff when i was working late nights), so we get down to the number of 75% on average.

So, we have 75% efficiency workload of 2 hours, which comes down to one and a half hour of full efficiency work. “That’s still ok!” you think. As the month goes by, it diminishes even more, due to increased fatigue, frustration and saturation by work but let’s leave it at the figure of 75% for an easier calculation since you used weekends to sleep in and get some of that sleep debt back.

After a month of burning out, you are already overwhelmed by the exhaustion and you tell yourself “Alright, i can’t take it anymore, i need a break”. You gained 30 extra hours that month and you deserve a rest. How long will it take you to recover depends on many factors. If you already have a job and a family, you will find that all of that itself is quite exhausting by itself. You take a week of break (two weekends and one workweek) and during that time you lose 10 hours of development, so your net gain is now even lower, it’s not 30 hours, it’s 20 extra hours. You worked 40 extra hours for a month to gain only 20 hours of extra development time and the chances are you are not fully recovered at all! Not only that, you distanced yourself from the project and it will take some time to get to continue where you left off.

Those are some simple maths that may prove something else of what i’m trying to prove, but it was a bit different in my case. For me, it took a month to recover after that kind of crunch and i didn’t fully rest. After a month! When i got back to the project, i didn’t know where i stopped and what should i do next and i still had a feeling of not being quite ready to keep working. I simply needed more rest. Not to mention the fact that i was eating more (especially late at night which is bad by itself) because i was constantly tired, getting fatter, weaker, had no power to workout at all, had a lower quality of sleep for not respecting the usual times of going to sleep and getting up and drinking too much coffee. All those symptoms didn’t get away after a month of resting by doing absolutely nothing except going to work where i was equally as useless. First the guilt and frustration comes in, for being weak not to work on the project, then depression usually knocks on the door. A depression so severe in my case that it took me three weeks just to snap out of it and start feeling a bit better about myself.

There are always times when you can push yourself to the limit and find an excuse for it. Whether is it “I just need to punch in the foundations and it will be easier later” or “release time is near, i have to give my best” at the end of the day it’s just not worth. Extra hours in a profession that needs a lot of time investment by itself, is damaging to your body since you are practically not moving for a lot of time and requires your brain to be fully rested are just a drop in the sea compared to what you are losing in the long run. The damage you do to yourself is usually not possible to repair fully, especially if you are not in your twenties when you could handle a lot of abuse and just keep going.

DEVELOPMENT UPDATES
Get the latest development news straight to your inbox (X button is buggy, you can close the form by clicking upper right corner)
You won't be bothered by tons of stupid, unrelated e-mails.