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April 08, 2016

Choosing A Presentation Style

First, let me say that I am more interested in the design and programming of the various systems, the goals, the gameplay, the experience as a whole of a game than I am graphics. I see graphics as primarily a means of communication. A way for the game to “talk” to the player. Graphics can certainly help to set the mood. No doubt about that. Still, in my opinion, the primary purpose of graphics is simply communication. And often a simple image can be every bit as effective at sending a message as a highly detailed image that required far more work to create.

At this point I generally spend just a bit of time settling on a style for the audio-visual aspects of the game.

This is generally quite easy for me because I always go with “simple”. So my first thought is that I could have completely solid-color walls, floors and ceilings. Meaning each of these would be a single distinct color. Or I could create distinct textures for each of these. Because I like the clean look of not having textures and I don’t want to be bogged down creating (or locating) textures I’ve decided to go with no textures.

However, to “jack up” the visuals a bit… instead of just using a single color for the walls, another color for the ceiling and a third color for the floor I will instead use shades of color for each of these. For example, the walls will have 5 shades of color, the floor will have 5 shades of a different color and the ceiling will have 5 shades of a different color.

This will result in a visual style very similar to the pseudo-3D games of old. Often they would use 2 to 3 alternating colors and apply a color cycling effect to simulate 3D motion. Of course, here it really will be a 3D world but I see no reason not to build on the tricks devs figured out long ago.

Basically something like this:

To bring the visuals up-to-date a bit more I will also add some lights to the ceiling. This should smooth the transition between the shades of color and result in a sort of modernized version of the look of older games.

Enemies and objects will also be untextured and use up to 3 to 4 colors (or shades) for each one.

So it ends up being something like this quick mock-up:

Yes, either of these is fine. I kind of like the the look of the unlit environment a tiny bit better than the lit environment. However, at the same time, I do like the shadows and such on the lit environment. I will play around with the lighting some more later and then make the final decision. Generally speaking, I think simpler is better.

I find this simple presentation style very refreshing. AAA games have always strived to push graphics to be more complex. Higher resolution. Millions of colors. Detailed textures. Ultra smooth animation. Although most do not try to compete with modern AAA graphics, it seems like the majority of this new breed of Indies places a huge amount of importance on graphics too. I mean this kind of presentation is so common these days that it’s very easy to find beautiful looking games. It’s just not an exceptional thing in any way when even many first-time game devs mobile games look like they were made by a skilled artist. And that’s great! Beautiful graphics made by real artists are cool to look at. No doubt about it. I just wish folks would focus as much (no more!) time on the rest of the game as they do on the graphics.

This is big factor (well I think it is anyway) in why we have seen a return to low res pixel art in Indie games over the past several years and why so many gamers found them to be so refreshing. It was something different. Same is true of the low poly games we’ve seen in recent years. A completely different thing than AAA games were doing and gamers seemed to appreciate that.

It’s kind of about giving the players choices I think. And this just happens to work out really well for someone like me who can then focus on a much simpler visual style and save themselves a ton of time and work obsessing over graphics. With the idea being to take that time and pour it into making a better game.

Audio will be reasonably high quality. Meaning I will not limit this to retro style hisses and beeps. Speech is also an option. Likewise, music can be a higher quality than the old chip tunes. The only constraint I will place on the audio is keeping the file sizes as small as possible. This means I will spend some time downgrading the quality so I can keep the overall size of the game (technically speaking) small.

I plan on just knocking out the graphics. So that saves a lot of time that would have been spent digging through the Unity Asset Store and elsewhere looking for content. I already have an enemy I modeled a couple months ago that will serve well for the Dark Sentry (the one seen in the second screenshot above).

And just to simplify things further, the bat enemy is no longer a bat thingy designed primarily to transport small items. Instead it will be a little flying droid with a gun mounted below it. This will make things simpler because I won’t need to mess with modeling some kind of bat thing and animate its wings (although I could have used like a little jet pack in place of flapping wings).

So, basically a quick model is fine and dandy… like this:

And that is basically how I do everything. For all of the content needed I ask myself “how can I do this in the simplest way possible?” and the answer to that question is how I end up doing it.

Finally… for all of the people who have asked “why don’t you like great graphics?”… I hope I can clarify why I say the things I do about graphics.

It’s not that I do not like great graphics. Making a game requires a good amount of work. This takes effort and time. Sure it might be cool to have everything look as best as I can possibly do but it would only be something cool to look at. Nothing more. Why? Because by the point I finished pouring all of the time required into making everything look as best as I possibly could I would be burnt out on the project. I mean… seriously… when are you done? I could iterate for days on a single tree or a rock. For a week or more on a single character. It just seems like an incredible waste of time to me when I could actually be building the game world, programming the interactions and so forth.

I believe a great game is one that is an enjoyable experience regardless of what it actually looks like. I believe a great design combined with an excellent implementation can result in a game that features only black and white squares being very immersive and fun to play. Not everyone agrees of course but it is the way I see it. [figure out how to] make a great game first then you can worry about making great graphics… if that is what you want to do.

I want to make games that are fairly epic in their own way. Games with a lot to do. A lot to experience. Games that are executed well. I see it as a very reasonable trade-off to exchange “good” graphics for a “bigger” / more interactive game. To me it is more important what is inside the game than how it all actually looks. The bottom line is I am only one person doing this in a very part-time way. If I was working on a game with the scope of a Flappy Bird or Space Invaders I might actually spend days on the graphics. But the kind of games I want to make require a lot more time to be spent on programming and a fair amount of content to be made. So I focus my dev time accordingly: 20% graphics & 80% everything else. Probably the opposite of what most Indies are doing. It seems like most are spending their time about 80% graphics & 20% everything else. Neither approach is wrong. It just depends on what is important to you and what kind of game you want to make.

Alright… I hope that finally clarifies my view on this “graphics thing” lol 🙂

So my goal is always to make graphics in the simplest possible way while still “sending” the important information the player needs. Then I try to add just a tiny bit of “oomph” on top of that such as using the shades of colors instead of solid single colors and adding the lights (and shadows).

Everything will be low poly which means quick and easy to model. Everything will be vertex colors only. No textures. Animation will be minimal. In the case of the flying Gunbot thingy I figure I will allow for the turret to rotate separately from the body to target the player. That’ll be dead simple when it comes time to implement later. Just a rotation around the y axis.

 

 

How To Build The Level

Okay, I’m getting very close to the development phase of this game. The first step in that direction is to figure out how to actually build the level. Or possibly levels but right now I only plan on there being a single level to this game.

I should mention that I spent a couple of months earlier this year testing different ways to build these kind of levels in Unity. I tested different assets available on the Unity Asset Store and different workflows and patterns. You’d think something like this would be very straightforward and information readily available but that is not the case.

There are many different ways to build levels in Unity. Many people build their levels in a 3D modeling program such as Blender. Others use assets such as ProBuilder. And there are people who simply build everything by dragging game objects around the scene editor.

After testing different ways I found the best approach (for me) was to use a combination of ProTile Map Editor 2 and ProGrids 2. For me, working in a true map editor was a much more efficient way of building levels. Out of all of the assets I tested I found ProTile Map Editor 2 (PTME2) to be the one that is easiest for me to work with. And ProGrids 2 I recommend for anyone using Unity because it allows you to easily snap components together without even trying to. It just automatically does it for you by defining a virtual grid within the scene view.

I simply created prefabs for the walls, floor and ceiling, imported them into the PTME2 Tile Editor and then created a new map.

Here is the level I built:

Look! Corridors and Rooms! Oh My! 🙂

And here is what it looks like looking down that corridor in the lower left corner:

Next, I knocked out some simple props. Some pillar type pieces for the corners, a storage container and a simple stand with a screen on it. The latter was mainly just for getting the scale right:

 

Okay, so using ProTile Map Editor 2 and ProGrids 2 this is totally doable. I should be able to easily create the level and populate it with some stuff to fill out the rooms and give them some personality.

Of course, I should take the time to define the rooms. Such as lab, storage room, combat training, etc. That will allow me to think of some appropriate props to model so the player has a way to determine what the room is.

I’ll get back to this later.

 

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