Jul 28, 2013

A gnomic making of Droidscape: Basilica

The Droidscape: Basilica making-of you are about to read could easily be summarized thusly: “We used computers. It took bloody ages.”. One particularly wise man would really appreciate it this way and it would also be absolutely true.

Better though to go for the didactic, cathartic article and tell you a bit more about my and Kyttaro GamesDroidscape: Basilica experience and the wonders, troubles and tribulations of indie game development for iOS. Even better, let me do the sensible thing first and start at the beginning.

As the precious reader of this blog should be aware of, even though I do love to enjoy and study games, I have never had any sort of formal training in creating them. Nor any real experience, besides a few levels here and there, some playtesting for friends and my fair share of overly ambitious and thus unfinished projects. Actually, hadn't Greece deteriorated I would probably be happily pursuing my academic career, which I'm apparently not. I am working for/with Kyttaro Games in publishing indie-loving bundles and doing games.

The first game of our very own and the one we will be releasing in a few days for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch (launch date: July 31) is no other than the aforementioned Droidscape: Basilica. A sci-fi, stop-motion animated arcade puzzler with quite a bit of story in it and some rather revolutionary (yet also still experimental) head-tracking controls.

Here's a brief take on the story of the thing (so far):

Many Indie Hats and One Concept

As you may have already heard, indie studios do not come with rigid and pre-determined roles. Everyone usually wears all sorts of hats and this is exactly how things also work in Kyttaro Games. I for example, obviously an urban geographer, had to dabble in web-design, game design, a bit of development, testing, level design, story writing, copy editing, some marketing, community management, acting on camera, storyboarding trailers and organizing several beta tests. Among other thing, if you can believe this.

By far, the most interesting and exciting thing I did were the initial brainstorming sessions in which we came up with our first ideas for games, one of which, unsurprisingly, was AnMech (yes, that would be Droidscape). Another was what evolved into Artfully Framed, but the first prototype for AnMech seemed to progress much faster and the concept for a two-phase game in which you had to both plan and execute masterfully was too intriguing to ignore for long. And working on it on paper (hence sketching level ideas and jotting down mechanics) seemed to actually, err, work.

From AnMech to Droidscape: Basilica

After creating a fully working prototype in less than a month (or so I believe; crunching makes ones memory hazy) with placeholder graphics, basic mechanics and ten levels, we went hunting for an artist to help us out with the aesthetics of the game. Can you spot the problem in this? Yes, of course, we were ridiculously late, for, as we found out, game art takes time and you (we, too) should start working on it the moment you decide to craft your game.

On the other hand, we did manage to get visual artist Hariton Bekiaris to not only provide us with excellent art concepts, but also with a central idea for a sci-fi plot and setting. He even suggested we went for stop-motion animation, as sculpting things is something he apparently loves doing.

Concept Art for Droidscape: Basilica

Soon after that and after I and Hariton worked a bit more on the plot and the gameplay basics were decided upon, we also settled on the name Droidscape. Then the Basilica bit was added and, somehow, we simply liked Droidscape: Basilica too much to really alter it.

Stop-motion Animation and those Graphical bits

I will not go into detail here, but I have to say that the first time I touched the final Droidscape models I was beyond ecstatic. I knew we had chosen correctly in going down the perilous and time-consuming stop-motion animated road. It may have taken almost a year to get form the first character concepts to the final animation frames, but the game does indeed look lovely.

Happily, we've already covered the complete evolution of Bishop 7 (our protagonist) in a series of post over at the Kyttaro Games site and I won't have to write more on the subject.

Please do take the time to have a look at:

- The stop motion animation of Droidscape: Basilica
The Evolution of Bishop 7: The first Concepts
The Evolution of Bishop 7: Adding Physicality
The Evolution of Bishop 7: The Final. Posable Model

What hasn't been covered in those articles though is the simple fact that the necessary in-game graphics (tiles, characters, enemies etc) are far from everything a game might need. There are dozens of interface elements, buttons, menus, pop-ups and other stuff that have to be made and this also takes ages. Especially when deciding that each and every button in the main menu has ti be slightly different to the others. Or when being convinced that every world should have its story-pushing comic thingy... 

A proper Droidscape: Basilica screenshot. Exciting, eh?

The Musical and Aural Bits

Shockingly, music and sound effects were the less stressing aspect of Droidscape: Basilica. We already knew we would deviously collaborate with Chris Christodoulou whose work on The Sea Will Claim Everything we all loved, and Chris proved to be much more than a great, versatile and tech-savvy musician. He's a fantastic person and I truly enjoyed spending time with him. Actually, we've already signed the man for the next Kyttaro project too.

Besides, the impressively extensive Droidscape soundtrack managed to perfectly fit the game and was even capable of taking on certain dynamic aspects. You'll see when you play the thing... Oh, and all the music is available here.

As for the sound effects we were lucky enough to have Studio 19 on board; the same team that did the sound direction for Robert Wilson's Odyssey. We simply provided them with a list of the sounds we would need and a fortnight later were given over 500 unique sounds to choose from. while being taught that one can never have enough effects to use...

Levels, Levels, Levels (and some Words)

Game design, marketing and other random duties aside, my main work on Droidscape: Basilica had to do with levels. Designing all 60 of them to be precise and deciding on new game mechanics and the pace of their introduction to be precise. I still do not know whether I've done a good job, but from what I've heard from the rest of the team and our beta testers I did okay. Maybe even a bit better than that.

What I aimed for were a good learning and difficulty curve, a mix of longer and shorter levels, variety and, uhm, fun I suppose. Every level started its life built around an idea and on paper, only to make it into the game's editor and be playtested and tweaked to death until I was happy with it. Took more time than expected, but I will hopefully get into more details on the Droidscape post-mortem that's bound to appear at some point after the game is launched and we have some proper insight on what we did right or wrong.

Level ideas on paper. How exciting, eh?

Refining, Testing, Head-Tracking and Crunching

Interestingly, we've been thinking that Droidscape: Basilica would be ready "next month" since January. We were obviously wrong and I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be launching in a few days if we hadn't exhausted ourselves for the past two months. And when I say exhausted, I do really mean this. 90 hours of work per week would have been paradise for us, but, yeah, we did worse than that. We even managed to evolve our until recently unannounced head-tracking technology to a point that, with a bit of work, it could function in a game. Obviously, that work had to happen while shooting trailer videos, fixing bugs, implementing new shadows and a myriad other things one does before submitting ones app to Apple.

Still, neither me, nor the rest of the team expected the amount of tweaking, refining and testing required in order to be able to actually release something. It does seem that unless one has enough money to survive for months without income then crunching is indeed unavoidable. Exactly as dear Agustin Cordes had warned me it would happen.

And we still have a launch to go through...

Crowdfunding the sad and brutal story of Oleg

It might be missing a political prisoners group, but that doesn't really matter when we are talking about board games, does it? Well, I frankly do not know. Also, I digress already.

What matters is that The Oleg Story is looking like an incredibly ambitious board game, in which players will get to control rival prison gangs, forge unsteady alliances, pummel inmates to death, strategize, invade cell blocks, manage contacts, plot and hopefully survive in a hellish prison. Also, it needs you to help it reach its kickstarter goal and here's a video to hopefully convince you:

The game, a miniatures-sporting tabletop affair, will come with its own, free The Oleg Story: Survival app for all mobile/tablet platforms, an interesting back-story and a PDF guide book you can already read and see what it's all really about. Yes, this is exciting!

Jul 15, 2013

XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the tale of alienating DLC

I really, really love the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown. It's a fantastic game. It really is. I mean, it does look stunning, it is perfectly balanced, sports a huge campaign, swift and challenging multiplayer death matches, fantastic controls, some of the best turn-based mechanics ever that finally move TBS away from its boardgaming roots, and, to my obviously erring eyes, actually manages to surpass the original. To make my love for it crystal clear, let me simply admit to having already sunk 40 hours in the thing and be done. 

Now, as you may have noticed yourself reader, loving something usually makes us want more of it. It's a silly attitude, I know, and one that smothers creativity, but that's how it is and that is also the reason why I decided to install both XCOM DLC packs and replay the game. And whereas the Elite Soldier Pack was an honest if underwhelming offering, what really irritated me was the Slingshot Pack.

And this was not for only adding a few extremely banal missions to the game and what amounted to little more than an hour of gameplay.  It was for promising so much more, a new storyline to be precise, and completely and utterly failing to deliver. All this talk about the Triads and even the in-game promises of fighting gangsters that never materialized were simply disappointing. Having the option to play the DLC missions whenever I felt like it was downright alienating too. I mean, just like UFO, XCOM is all about choices that matter and taking that away felt wrong.

As did the fact that beating the last expansion led to exactly nothing; it was treated like any other mission... Impressively anti-climatic, that.

Then again, I do not usually write about stuff I don't like. Were it nor for my intense dissatisfaction with said DLCs and the overall DLC trend I wouldn't have mentioned this, but it's getting silly and out of hand; the trend, that is. From day one DLCs to stuff that's simply pointless or, as in this case, damages the feel of the game we are plagued with extra stuff that's mainly there to simply make something extra and hopefully cover those ridiculous budgets.

On the other hand, I could have a read a review or two.

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jul 11, 2013

Teasing, head-twisting and doing the Droidscape!

Woohoo! Another Droidscape: Basilica trailer has been unveiled and it's the aptly named Droidscape: Basilica Teaser Trailer, meant to tease you and just you, oh iOS-gaming reader and to let us also unveil our brand new game-page. Woohoo, indeed!

What's more, and besides the new screenshots and general info on the game, we also unveiled Kyttaro Games' experimental head-tracking tech, which had been under wraps for quite some time now. It's called HeadTwister and it's using the iPhone's (or iPad's) front-facing camera in order to track head-movement and translate it into in-game actions.

Oh, and do keep in mind that the graphics shown in the above trailer are not the final ones. Far from it... Here's a shiny new screenshot:

Jul 5, 2013

Silent Hill: Genesis finds its scary, visual novel self on Sega's 16-bit console (!)

In an era when 3D graphics scared artists left and right and console storytelling was in its early infancy, Silent Hill managed something utterly impressive: it was interesting and atmospheric. It felt right and more than a bit scary, and promptly went on to become such a commercial and critical success as to be nowadays considered a classic.

I, having only played three hours into the thing, am sadly in no position to seriously discuss such a lofty status, though I can happily inform you that you can now play Silent Hill: Genesis on your Sega Genesis/Megadrive (something that would probably involve a lot of technical trickery) or your Sega 16-bit emulator of choice. For that I would suggest you grab the incredibly handy Gens.

As for Silent Hill: Genesis, it is a most interesting, freeware and properly indie adaptation of obscure GBA visual novel Silent Hill: Play Novel using story and graphical assets from the original Silent Hill. Yes, it's pretty weird and definitely not a gameplay extravaganza, but it also is an obvious labour of love and way more enjoyable than I expected it to be.

You can grab it from this lovely place, though do keep in mind it's still in beta. Haven't run into any problems myself, but we all know how finicky betas can be, don't we?

Related @ Gnome's Lair:

Jul 2, 2013

Trailerized Stories and Droidscape: Basilica

No, I won't tire you much this time, oh sweet and gentle reader. No, my unbelievably precious bundle of joy. I will not go on and on about Droidscape: Basilica (the iOS game I've been working on since forever and is *finally* nearing launch). No. I will simply invite you to have a look at the trailer posted above, promise to very soon come back with much more and ask for your opinion.

Enjoy! And thank you!