Project in Review, Part 3: 2D or not 2D?

This is a continuation of a multi-part blog series focusing on the development of Archimedean Assault. Go read part 1 and part 2. It’s good!

Once the scope of our game was reasonably well defined, we set forth like good little game jammers and started hammering out code, 2D art assets and music.

Not far into this process, we realized the multiplicative nature our scope had on our art assets. A robot. Alright, he has to walk around and shoot. But, also, he has to transform! A transforming robot. Okay, that doubles the number of art assets for our robot’s actions. We need assets for both versions of the robot. And, we also need a transition animation going from one form to another. Okay, fine. A free-roaming game world in which the player can move 8 directions.

So, we need at least number of actions * number of forms * number of directions (x * 32 for those keeping score at home!) frames of animation for any given action. That means, if we want the robot to fire a gun and have muzzle flash, we need to get the muzzle flash from each direction in each form. Before we start talking about animation and number of frames per animation, we can see that 2D art assets quickly balloon out of control.

That’s before we start talking about the environment assets in which the game will actually take place.

Being the newbs that we are, we don’t have a dedicated pixel artist. We’ve got nguyenn1, who is by my estimation, about 10% of a dedicated artist. It takes us a few weekends to discover that we wrote a check for art assets that our group couldn’t cash. At least, not within a reasonable timeframe, and not within a reasonable quality.

We mitigated our dependency on pixel art by borrowing heavily from anywhere we could. danc’s sprite sheets on Lost Garden quickly became an invaluable asset that we leaned on.

Of course, this restricts us to assets that fit into the kind of game we’re trying to build, and art decisions became something to the effect of “Well, what’ve we got that kind of works?” That strategy doesn’t work when you have very specific demands, like “floating citadel” or “a robot that transforms from 8 different angles.”

After realizing that there was no way we’d effectively deliver on our artistic demands, I started looking at alternatives. 3D models are readily accessible at comparably low costs from sites like TurboSquid. After several months, the art assets for the player weren’t yet complete, and environmental art assets were still quirky and buggy. But, we could buy a 3D model that matched up pretty well with our vision for $5.

If $5 can save months of artist time, it certainly seems like money well spent. However, working with 3D assets requires time elsewhere. It requires non-trivial developer time and ramp-up time on tools and techniques across the team. Once I have a $5 model for the player, then what? The landscape of 3D modeling software isn’t terribly friendly (importers for fixed content, exporters to proprietary formats that either didn’t support our content pipeline or munged content beyond recognition, rigging models and animating them in-game…), and animation seems to be a mess across the board.

So, $5 doesn’t seem to save us time, but does distribute the load across the team a bit more evenly. But, how can we be sure that we aren’t wasting our time chasing something because we think it’s fun?

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Project in Review, Part 2: Archimedean Assault

In this episode, we’ll focus on the team makeup going into the development of the currently-stalled Archimedean Assault. For a general overview of the project, go read Part 1 in this series.

I mentioned we had about a half a dozen people that thought this was a great idea for some reason. For a hobbyist, “Hey, who else wants to go get stuff done this weekend?” project, we ended up with an all-star cast of game development awesome.

The Game Designer

nguyenn1 leveraged some awesome connections from a local Soul Calibur Game Night and roped in an honest-to-goodness, gainfully employed game designer from a local game studio.

This was awesome, and we were quickly shaping up to be a legit operation (!!!).

Having a designer on-board for the first time, one thing we quickly learned was that an hour of game designer time could quickly translate to hundreds of hours of development time.

Even though we settled on a general design early on in the project, gameplay evolved as soon as people got their hands on something playable. Evolving design meant more requirements during development, which equated to more time producing art/audio assets and development.

On the plus side, having a game designer allowed others to focus on their work. I could fire up a build of the game, enthusiastically shout “This isn’t fun! Who cares, not my job!” and then toss it over the wall like a good and/or bad engineer is prone to do. Being able to lean on the game designer was certainly handy for maintaining focus in the face of a game that wasn’t immediately fun.

Of course, in order to be able to toss it over the wall, we had to expose a bunch of levers to allow the game designer to tweak core gameplay mechanics. Keep in mind that we started with the game jam format, which roughly translates to producing code that only looks like it works by Sunday.

Letting the designer muck with game mechanics is a data-driven concept, and the game jam schedule is on the opposite end of that particular spectrum. That got us in a bind where virtually everything was hard coded and needed to… not be.

Exposing gameplay mechanics for the game designer ended up taking just as long as the original game jam schedule. Whoops.

Lesson learned. All roads lead to data-driven content. Got it.

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Project in Review, Part 1: Archimedean Assault

As nguyenn1 alluded to, we’ve been working on a game (!). What started as a weekend long GameJam entry into October’s LudumDare competition is… well, still going. We’re clearly over every imaginable budget at this point, so let’s take some time to look back and see what went well and what could have gone better. But, before that, let’s set some context!

Archimedean Assault is a single-player, arcade-inspired shooter featuring a transforming protagonist. Development efforts were borne out of a love for games and a coinciding LudumDare competition.

The player pilots a Gundam-style mech that can switch between a maneuverable aerial form and a heavy-hitting ground assault tank. While airborne, the player has exceptional maneuverability through a constant speed bonus and afterburners for an extra boost. In contrast, the player’s ground form is a slow-moving, armored behemoth with much more firepower. Expert players will strike a balance between air superiority and ground assault modes to destroy opposing forces and complete objectives scattered through a free-roaming game world.

In retrospect, I’m not sure how any sane individual could read that last paragraph and say, “Hey, we can totally hammer that out in a weekend!” Yet, we had about a half a dozen people on-board with the idea that we could.

Stay tuned for the gory technical details!

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