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Author: Luke Wacholtz

Weekly Content Blog #37: Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

Weekly Content Blog #37: Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End

Sometimes as a member of a team you make compromises. And sometimes you and everyone else on the team later comes to regret it.

In late 2013, when I was creating a complete script for Shadows of Adam, the very first dungeon of the game was already mostly finished, cutscenes and all. My script was a significant departure from the original ideas, but no one really wanted to make major changes to the first dungeon, so I did my best to meld the new ideas into the context of that dungeon and the existing scenes.

The result was not great. In fact, I had the sinking feeling that what we had was borderline terrible, and overtime this feeling became stronger and stronger.

Other members of the team felt it too. The beginning of the game just didn’t work! The team began to discuss small changes that might help, but I was now convinced that a full face-lift was required.

Finally, I fired off this e-mail:

Hey Tyler, I read through your ideas, and I do agree that some mention of the [REDACTED] at the beginning might be warranted. 

However, as I’ve thought more about the intro, I feel like we should take it a lot farther.  Honestly, I think we should seriously consider doing some major re-work on it.  I’m probably super biased in this, but I would sacrifice [REDACTED] to have a better beginning.  It’s a hugely important part and we really need to impress and get people on board. 
In the current opening, all the characters and their purposes are so weakly defined and the [REDACTED] is just there…  It’s too chaotic and confusing to be satisfying.  There is very little character development.  We don’t come to understand the relationships and motivations till afterwards.  So we are really hurting with the current opening. It should be a major launchpad from which we blast off, but it  feels like a mini-tramp.
I’d really like to better establish the characters and give the first dungeon much more intrigue.  Also, I’d like to establish the [REDACTED] as a force to be reckoned with.  Give it some umph!  Blast off!
Below I have sketched out what I believe would be a much stronger opening that would not require a massive overhaul of the rest of the story.

This led to the creation of a new beginning with a new dungeon: the Tangle. It’s a beginning the whole team is proud of and we can wait to show it off in the demo. For now, you can see a brief preview here.

Till next time.


Weekly Content Blog #32: Let’s Get Hoppin’

Weekly Content Blog #32: Let’s Get Hoppin’

16-bit characters are a lot of fun to write for and direct. They always get their lines correct, never go off on self-indulgent tangents, and will repeat a scene however many times it takes to get it correct. They are the perfect actors for the micro-managing control freak in all of us… except for a few minor drawbacks like having zero to only a few facial expressions to convey emotion, a limited number of gestures, and spoken lines read as text, lacking the nuance of a real human voice.

Far from stifling 16-bit RPGs as a creative works, such limitations combine together to create a unique and expressive medium all their own. Over the years, people who make such games have come up with a variety of measures to deal with the unique problems created by these limitations, and over the course of my next few blogs I’d like to offer some of my thoughts on these problems and the techniques used to address them as well as how some of them have been used in Shadows of Adam.

The first technique I’d like to discuss is….

The Hop

Freeze a character’s animation and move them up and then back down quickly. This move is “the hop.” Initially, the hop was banned from Shadows of Adam for being “too cheesy” and let me tell you, I was hopping mad about this because I adore this move. It’s a simple technique that offers so much!

Need a character to jump in surprise, in pain, or epiphany? Use the hop! This is especially helpful if you’ve got a huge cast of characters and don’t have the time, energy, or budget to create a fitting animation. The hop is also great for showing excitement.

But none of these reasons was good enough for my compadres. It wasn’t until we faced a very special problem that I finally convinced them that we needed to get some character’s hoppin’. What was that problem? An angry mob.

Long story short, we had a scene with a big crowd of people, and in order to express their irritation many of the mob were given speaking parts. The idea was to have our poor hero assailed from all sides by angry accusations. The first time I saw the scene I cringed. As the text plopped down on the screen you couldn’t tell who was talking. Worse, almost nobody was moving. The scene was dead on arrival.

Enter the hop.

The hop is fantastic at focusing a player’s attention on a particular character. So for a crowd of characters with speaking parts, it’s an ideal way to shift attention to each speaker. You just have that character hop then deliver the line. Boom! Suddenly the mob was brought to life.

Weekly Content Blog #27: It’s Okay to Cave

Weekly Content Blog #27: It’s Okay to Cave

I’ve been doing some caving recently. No, not caving into peer pressure or my desire for a huge bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream! I’m talking about creating a cave dungeon for Shadows of Adam.

Caves are a mainstay of classic 16-bit JRPGs. They are basically omnipresent. Quick, in under 10 seconds, name a JRPG from the 90s without any caves! … Could you do it? If so, post the name of the game in the comments and color me impressed.

One thing that I’ve seen countless times when it comes to cave dungeons is a certain awkward boxiness. The graphics look like cave walls, but the environment is boxier than the breakfast cereal aisle at your grocery store.

To combat this, a variety of measures can be taken, but one of my favorites is the use of what I call “seams.” What’s a seam? A picture is worth a thousand words, so here you go.

The above could have easily been a flat wall. Notice the effect this creates. It broadens the extent of the cavern and gives it a more natural, gnarly form without increasing the playable area.

Using a system of seams can really enhance the look of cave level, and given the ubiquity of caves in RPGs, I want to do all I can to give such a level some extra flair.

See you next time!

Weekly Content Blog #22: Studying Tilesets Like Leonardo

Weekly Content Blog #22: Studying Tilesets Like Leonardo

So you’ve got big dreams of making the ultimate RPG dungeon. Your art director hires some hot shot pixel artists to whip up the graphics and when you see them your eyes light up like the Fourth of July. Oh, the things you’re going to do with those beautiful pixels. That lava is looking hot!

Yeah, yeah, yeah… You’re young, idealistic, and think you’re invincible. We get it. The first stirrings of the dreaded CTS “virus” have yet tickle the soft underbelly of your vernal palms. That’s carpal tunnel syndrome for the new guys and gals in the room.

But there’s another problem. The tileset didn’t come with a user guide or any example level to look at. The pixel artist just whipped it out and sent it over. Maybe if you had planned ahead and mocked up all the tiles ahead of time this wouldn’t have happened. But that’s a lot of work and might infringe of the artist’s creative genius. God forbid you ruin their flow with your pedantic strictures and doom your game to a sub-standard set of connect-the-dot tiles!

Sure, some of the relationships between the tiles are obvious. But not all. The master pixel artist has many tricks. Some tiles you may stare at for hours, perhaps days, mumbling under your breath to yourself, “What… is your… purpose?!” until this escalates into a full-on existential crisis. Delightful.

So, like the great Leonardo da Vinci and countless other artists, you study your subjects (the tiles, not corpses) carefully and begin to learn their ways. However, there is a little devil on your shoulder (especially for tilesets evoking fiery hellscapes) telling you to just jump right in and start making a level. “It will turn out all right!” he says, poking you with his all-too-cute mini-pitchfork.

No. You must stay the course. Start with small structures. Learn how they fit together. Create the templates (if in your mind only) from which you will base your master models.

It’s the seams, the joining together of the larger wholes that is tricky. At first, this tileset is every bit the fiery hell to work with that it visually represents.

Yet upon further reflection, you wonder: Is it possible that even hell might be beautiful to its maker?

Weekly Content Blog #17: Jump Inside My Head And Let’s Map! (Part 2)

Weekly Content Blog #17: Jump Inside My Head And Let’s Map! (Part 2)

Welcome back to another edition of Life as Luke. When we last left off, you were flouting your father’s advice to become a plumber/electrician and instead spending all your time making maps with the Earth Maze tileset. This has led to you being courted by one Tyler to become the lead level designer/mapper for Something Classic. Fierce negotiations ensue.

Being a self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me brat pays off big. Only after Mire promises you the moon and the stars and the super-massive black hole at the center of the universe do you finally seal the deal. Then you pack a suitcase and catch the first bus to Nashville, but not before flaunting your success and telling your old man where he can shove his copper wire and plumber’s wrench. Hahah!

The Big Time
Ironically, though you are the creator of dazzling Earth Maze temples of breathtaking size and beauty, you yourself work, sleep, and live within the confines of a six by six foot cell (or cube) at Something Classic’s rickety Nashville office. As it turns out, there will be no moon or stars unless the game turns a profit. And even if that happens, the super-massive black hole you asked for in the deal will probably consume them. @#$%!

Worse yet, two Canadian programmers are responsible for implementing the puzzle elements of your brilliant level designs, and their pig-latinesque English makes every communication a nightmare. You just wanted to build beautiful levels, but now you’re mired in detailed spec sheets and test cases. You fantasize about home… Mother has made your bed with freshly laundered sheets and the refrigerator is full of Chipotle chicken burritos and…

Get a grip! You’ve got maps to make!

You sketch out five or six ideas for the underground town you’re working on and then pick the most interesting one to refine further. Since you know the Earth Maze tileset like the back of your hand, you can confidently create designs on paper that you know will be achievable with the existing tiles.

Making the Map
Again, you know the tileset well, so you have a great feel for how much space each part of your design needs. When you open the ImpactJS map editor you sketch in only two elements to start.
1) Passable ground tiles
2) Water (to define the space better)

Not too shabby! If this was the 8-bit era you’d be halfway done! But that golden era has passed. You were born too late.

With a wistful feeling in your heart and a barebones framework on your screen, you begin to lay down the basic details.

Out of the deep, jet-black darkness a world of rough earth and heavy rock emerges!

You enclose the world in a jagged frame of stone, sealing it off from the soulless scream of empty space! The first tendrils of detail creep across the hard-packed floor.

Your new world is bright and clean and new and super uncool. You need to distress the hell out of it like a pair of brand new denim jeans if you actually hope to attract people. Get out your blade scar that hard red stone!

For the coup de grace, you splash that map with some color and details. A stone pillar here. A stone pillar there. All while telling yourself that no Minecraft-esque map-making algorithm will ever replace you! Not with a map like this, no sir! You are an artist!

Well, that’s it for that map. It’s time to take a break and wait for inspiration to strike before starting the next… not! Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration! Time to get back to work!