Thursday, 31 May 2012

Super Gun Kids: Progress Report



About two years ago, I decided that I want to gradually transition from being a freelance Flash dev to being an indie games dev – a full time one, if possible. I can now assure you, friends,  it’s not as easy as it looks! After a couple of false starts, I’m finally working full time on my own game, with a pretty healthy timescale and high spirits. But jeez Louise, it’s scary. Seriously, it take takes stones of steel! Here’s my progress...

Firstly, where’s Alice?


I spent a big chunk of November and December working on a prototype for Alice: Beyond The Looking Glass, which is a linear puzzle-platformer adventure. I came up with some cool stuff technologically, developing a 2D bones animation system, and getting Flash to do 1080p resolution at 30fps without hardware acceleration, which wasn’t easy. But as Xmas approached, I started to have doubts about the project. I think the theme, setting and gameplay were totally wrong for the Flash portals I was developing for. Despite my best efforts, without hardware acceleration I could never quite get the visual smoothness and impact I was going for. And even though I love Amanda’s character designs, I started to have doubts about the monochrome visual style we were doing. I lost my mojo, man. Fudge!



I put Alice on ice, and took a freelance contract in London, returning with my mojo restored (and some money). So I came back to do Super Gun Kids, the platform-shooter-RPG I’ve had planned since finishing Owl Spin, when I vowed to give all future games MOAR GUNS. Alice isn’t dead – Amanda is going to rethink the visual style and I’m going to move the code over to HaxeNME so I can get the smooth HD visuals I was aiming for, and make it a cross-platform downloadable game. But anyway, that’s the future (hopefully not too distant) – the present is all about kids with guns. I was able to merge most of the engine development work I did on Alice into SGK, so it wasn’t totally wasted effort, thank Zeus. I’ve still only spent less than 3 months on Super Gun Kids, which in indie game terms is the blink of an eye (games like Fez and Braid had incubation/dev periods spanning many years, not that I’m comparing my little Flash game to those juggernauts). But still, staying motivated for many months, working on your own, is challenging. That’s why I made this Spotify playlist of motivational 80s movie montage music! Glob knows how people keep motivated for multiple years on one game. Knowing you have funding must help a lot. I’d recommend you have 6 months to 1 year’s living/business expenses saved before embarking on a full time indie project. I didn’t, but you should!

Animation


My bones animation system parses MovieClip timelines and stores the position and rotation of each body part in an array. I can then play this animation back at different speeds, and even merge multiple animations. This way I can have a single skeleton for each character that can be styled in any way and perform any action animation. Unlike most of the game, this feature is finished and it works. Anatomical!



Styling


A big part of the SGK gameplay is levelling, upgrading and customising your character, so I’ve put a lot of work into the inventory system. Player characters have a base naked body with a choice of boy/girl, five different skin tones and loads of different faces. On top of this sit their clothes and weapons. This also makes it very easy to make humanoid enemies, so expect a lot of them. So far I have zombies working, and they’re quite amusing.





2 Player


Super Gun Kids will be fully playable in 2 player local co-op mode. As far as possible I’ve tried to make it so that the two players are equal in how the game treats them, but I've had to make a couple of compromises. The main issue is that I've had to address is what to do if the players walk away from each other so that they end up of opposite sides of the screen/level. To allow some freedom to do this, I zoom the camera out, but I can’t keep zooming out til the characters look like ants, so when the players reach a certain distance apart, I have to teleport player 2 back to the position of player 1. It works pretty well, and for fairness you can swap which player is “player 1” at any time. Easy as childbirth. As full-screen mode doesn't support the full keyboard in the version of Flash I’m using, you won’t be able to play full-screen co-op in the browser. I know this sucks massively, and I’m probably going to do some kind of downloadable version (with AIR) in the future where this feature works. I need to make sure when I negotiate with sponsors that I leave this avenue open. I wouldn’t expect to make any real money from it, but it would be nice to know that  a “definitive” version of the game exists somewhere. The same goes for joypad support.


Pathfinding


Many platform games have really dumb enemies that can’t do much more than stand in one place shooting, or patrol left and right. Sometimes you want this, but sometimes it would be cool to have enemies that can chase you, no matter where you go. Par exemple, SGK has ninjas. Do you think a ninja is going to walk back and forth while you bound overhead across platforms? No, she’s going to race right up those platforms and slit your throat! By defining a web of nodes and connections in the level editor (I’m just using Flash CS5 as the level editor), enemies in SGK can have a good understanding of the terrain. Combined with AStar pathfinding, they know how to get from any point in the level to anywhere else, or they can freely wander the level, looking for targets (you). I’ve also implemented traditional patrol routes, so I think I’ve covered all the bases. Zing!


Weapons


I’m most of the way there with the weapons system now. I’m aiming to have about 30 weapons, I wasn’t sure at first whether to go with the Super Crate Box idea, that each weapon is like a unique character, or the more standard RPG approach of dozens of weapons each just slightly different. In the end it’s probably somewhere in-between. I have the first 15 or so weapons finished and balanced pretty well against zombies. It was useful to think about weapons in terms of how many shots it would take to down a zombie. So if I want the double-barrel shotgun to kill in 1 shot, then working backwards a normal shotgun can be 2 shots, the magnum in 3 shots, normal pistol in 4 shots, and baseball bat in 5. That feels about right. To keep the ammo system manageable, I’m trying to stick to 5 basic types: bullets, shotgun shells, explosives, gasoline and batteries. Explosives will power all the things that go boom including mines, rockets and grenades. Batteries are for the energy weapons. Gas is for the chainsaw and flamethrower. Bullets and shells should be obvious. I also have the shop basically finished now. After lots of deliberation, I decided in the end that you can sell weapons without penalty. I think this will encourage experimentation with different weapon combos, and hopefully keep the lower-powered weapons in rotation for a bit longer. Enemies’ random loot drops can include any of the ammo types, so I’m hoping the best strategy will be to keep at least one weapon for each type, rather than just using your favourite weapon through the whole game.


Sound


I’ve sourced all the music for the game and I’m really happy with it. For future games I’d like to work with a composer to get an original score, but for this game I’m happy with what I have lined up. I have songs! I’ve rewritten my sound player class to make it more usable, and I’m going to open source it (in fact if you can’t wait, here it is) because I hate the stupid hoops AS3 makes you jump through just to play sounds and set their volume. Sourcing sound effects is a really laborious process, involving trawling literally thousands of sounds on SoundRangers.com and xxxxxx, but I’m hoping to get a chunk of it done this week.

Violence


Something I’ve had to think a lot about is the level of violence in the game. Even though it’s a game about guns, my inner-Nintendo wants to keep the violence cartoonish and minimal. Crazy, huh!? Anyways, I found that I need to have a few impact splats to “sell” the effect of getting shot, but as a compromise, I’ve made it pink rather than red, so it’s “life force” rather than blood.

Level design


I must admit, I don’t have a lot of this done yet, other than a couple of ideas on trusty graph paper, but I can reveal the game has 3 locations to explore – city, haunted house and factory. Standard tropes all the way for this game! What did you expect, originality? Amanda is doing the background parallax layers for each level, which should look ace. To be honest, level design is the bit I’m least comfortable with, but I’m hoping by the end of this project I’ll have learned to love it.


Logo and box art

Thanks to Amanda, SGK now has a great logo and wicked “box art” which will also be the intro to the game. Amanda has also designed the map screen, which I was originally going to do with vectors, but looks so much better with her digital painting jazz.

It’s all fun and games until I run out of money

So that’s Super Gun Kids for now. I’m busting my bones to try and get the game finished before we run out of money to live on. Frugality is one of the greatest virtues of an independent developer. We’ve swapped driving and shopping at Sainsbury’s for riding our bikes and shopping at Aldi, and already massively reduced our overheads. I hope to launch the game across Flash portals at some point in the summer. If it’s a success I’ll no doubt return for endless sequels. If it’s a failure, well I tried my best and I’ll just come back with something else (whilst weeping into my pillow). This project has made me find out a lot about myself and the kind of games I want to make, and I’ve really come to realise that performance of the software renderer in Flash is really out of scale with the things I want to do. I’d love to follow up Super Gun Kids with a HaxeNME or Stage3D driven sequel, but another important indie lesson: do one project at a time... and finish it!

Bye now!

Iain