Captain’s Log mc•c0: That RPG itch

At this present moment, I do not have a project.

In January, I will begin production on Jump the Shark & Paruvrew. The storyboards are finished; it will be pure production. And I expect it to occupy most of January. I may begin pencils this week so that I open January with a finished page.

February, I traditionally take a break from social media, go over what I did the year before, and good around in the hopes that these three activities will provide me with a useful direction to move forward. And until a few days ago, I had assumed that would mean in February working on a platformer or a space shooter or something.

Assuming anything at all is silly. In February, I do as my whims bid. By definition. I give full head to the ADHD, see where it wants to take me, and then try to use that information soberly in the months that follow. But I have been for several months leaning towards working on the Jump the Shark platformer I started on in June.

I toyed with the idea of swapping the shark for a dragon because it’s easier to justify powerups for a dragon. And then I toyed with the idea of making a shmup first to lock in the graphics, because dragons can fly. And then I took a moment to design a character solely around my gameplay interests: what sort of character can be in a shmup OR a metroid OR a sonic OR a megaman X?

Honestly, the best course may be to just eschew the shmup and make the platformer, either with Jump or the Dragon, and trust to inspiration over practicality. Many a time, I have trusted to practicality over inspiration, and it doesn’t typically go well for me. But the last few days, I have felt inspiration pushing another direction…

But there’s this idea for an RPG engine as a platform for telling stories that won’t go away.

The first public sighting of this design was in November 2019, although I remember explaining the concept to my brother in or before 2015.

Namely, a simple adventure game format, with JRPG menu battles, would be perfect for mobile, and work elegantly on all other systems. Because it’s me, it’d take some influence from Chrono Trigger and the Mario RPGs. And once a basic system was in place, it’d be a great way to tell my stories. A lot easier to sell than paper books, for sure.

I’ve spent some time puzzling over the ideal interface (in this case stealing liberally from the layout of Darkest Dungeon):

Implemented the basic world exploration in Unity

Re-implemented it in Godot, which was way better and easier.

And then, for a game jam, I tried to make the battle system in a single weekend.

Well, lately I’ve been playing Slay the Spire on and off, and it’s given me a couple of key insights.

  1. I can get sucked into a game that is just the combat system of an RPG, as long as the choices feel meaningful.
  2. Just having a world map with locations you can click on is fine. There can still be a feeling of exploration if the choices feel meaningful. And that puts the workload in “1 or 2 man team” territory.
  3. I love cards as an interface. If I make an RPG framework, it won’t be a deck builder roguelite ala Slay the Spire, but I think I’ll use cards to represent all the items and actions just ‘cuz it’s neat.

So, Juneish, at the same time as I was working on the Jump the Shark Platformer, I started toying with a card framework in Godot.

And the last few days, the concept has come back to me with a fierce vengeance. I redesigned my card fronts to fit my personal style more, and mocked up a game interface.

Right now, this feels like what I want to explore. I’m going to be tinkering with it for the next few days, see what happens.

But of course, by January’s end, when I’ve finished the next Jump the Shark book, all bets will be off. We’ll see what happens then.

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How I make John Michael Jones

If you are following John Michael Jones Gets A Life, either on Bunny Trail Junction or the Mad Christian Mondays Newsletter, this is a long, in depth, rambly discussion of everything that goes into making an episode. Be warned: the episode I will use for most of my examples is scheduled to run in the newsletter Monday, January 23rd, 2023, and on my own sites the next day, so spoilers. If you want to experience the story in sequence, maybe stick a pin in this post for a month and come back. Or join the Mad Christian Discord, where I release each episode as I finish it in the “studio” channel, and get caught up.

If it’s after the 23rd, or you care more about my process than spoilers, Onward!

Onward!

Captain’s Log mc•61: Animation Programs

Awesome Moments 1 is done. You can see on the project status page.

I finished at the beginning of November. I started working on finishing Awesome Moments in, I think, August? Yeah, the announcement was log m811. August started briskly, with two illustrations, four pages a day. September slowed to about one illustration a day. Then October I was lucky to get two or three a week.

This tracks with my previous observations that I can hang onto a project for about a month before it becomes inefficient. And my resolution to basically keep three or four projects in the air at all times so I can switch each month to a different one. If I had simply not worked on Awesome Moments in September, I might have completed it halfway through October.

Instead I dragged it across the finish line in November and, holy shlamoley, I needed a break. I browsed itch.io for game jams, picked one at random, and joined the first team that asked as an artist. Spent a week using some poor group of programmers and a sound guy as a testbed for theories about animating.

The result is Toasty, and here are my notes on the process.

Basically, last year, I took a shot at making an HD game by hand inking character parts, turning them into vector art in Inkscape, and animating them. At first, it promised to be at least as efficient as pixel art, but as the project dragged on, it grew less and less so.

So I gave up and switched to pixel art for a while, even though the hand-drawn stuff has a distinctive look that is hard to duplicate. But for a game jam, I gave Clipstudio Paint’s animation tools a try:

This was a great success. So I tried it out in a Jump the Shark platformer:

But this introduced some problems. Tweaks were hard to make to already established animations. I missed the resolution independence that vector art offered me. I wondered if I penciled animations in CSP, but “inked and colored” them in Inkscape, making them vector art, the lower quality in line variation would be worth the increased customizability of vector graphics. And also I made the Jump Sprite way bigger than it needed to be.

So I tried this new system for “Toasty”

..and I didn’t hate it. It was deeply hampered by the fact that Inkscape is not an animation tool, and so I had no way of knowing until I had rendered an animation out whether I had gotten it right. But I was able to do things like re-palettize the cutlery, and swap their heads for different animations. And I didn’t hate how the art looked, even though the lack of variable line-width flattened my style a little.

It also did well in the jam, gaining 5th place overall among the 52 entries, and 1st for the art.

So I tried reanimating Jump the Shark using the style from the existing game, but according to the new rules. And the whole while, I kept thinking, “man, I wish this was Anime Studio.”

Anime Studio is an animation tool I used years and years and years ago. More than ten, I think. I made some Sonics with it.

This animation is not great. I’m certainly more skilled now. But the problems with the animation are the fault of my inexperience, not the fault of the tool. The tool is fine. It’s a vector art tool that has four huge advantages over Inkscape:

  1. Line width variation is built in and not a pain. (You can do line variation in Inkscape, but it’s weird, unintuitive, glitchy, and laggy).
  2. You can just hide a line segment on a shape. In Inkscape, either the entire shape is outlined, or none of it is, forcing me to make multiple copies of a shape if I want gaps in a line. (There is one minor exception to this rule, but it isn’t very useful.)
  3. It’s actually an animation tool, meaning you can see if what you’re doing works before rendering it out.
  4. And also meaning there are things like bone-based movement and automatic tweening when you want them.

So I said “heck with it,” googled what had become of Anime Studio (it’s now called Moho), and eventually buying a license.

Here’s the idle for Jump the Shark in each of the 3 programs: Clip Studio hand drawn, Inkscape traced over a CSP pencil, and Moho:

Ignore the more pixelated look of the second two animations; that’s an artifact of rendering them at a size more appropriate for the game. As you can see, there’s less line variation in the Inkscape version, but the drawing still has a decent amount of personality, and I was able to redo the feet to make them more consistent with the character design. Moho brings back line width variation, though I keep it light to avoid making more work for myself. The tweens are smoother because I didn’t have to eyeball them. And I was able to tame the bouncing fins a little. I like them, but I went too far in the original animations.

But the biggest deal by far was the time it took me to make these animations. The original was about 2 days of constant work. The Inkscape was 1 day of work. It was actually more laborious than the CSP version, but benefited from that version already existing, and so most of the animation puzzles that come up in making a piece had already been identified and solved.

The Moho version took me a couple hours, maybe. And in half an hour I made a “tired” variant:

So, it looks like I’m going to be employing Moho moving forward.

Now, to use these characters in comics as well as games, I need to export them much bigger than Moho is equipped to handle. But Moho has SVG export. It has kinks, I’m sure — it has to! But we’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.

Anyway, I’m making a book with my kid now!

Once the print proof is prepared and ordered, I will probably try working on another game to nail down my Moho workflow; either rejiggering my Jump the Shark platformer, or else another jam where potentially I work solely as the animator. We’ll also burn that bridge when we get to it.

Captain’s Log M8•T0: Ink-Slinging

Awesome Moments has ground almost to a halt. Almost. I can get out an illustration a day most days of the week. I’m only 5 illustrations away from completion, so I’m going to keep pushing forward, but while I’ve debated making a final super push of two or three illustrations a day (these only take me a couple hours to do), I’ve decided no. I’m going to give every picture my full attention, and if I try to force it I’ll be tempted to get sloppy.

The thing that has absorbed my attention this week has been trading cards. I’ve liked cards my whole life. I thought they were fun in the Amber Chronicles. I loved them in Digimon Season 3 (known as Tamers to us Digimon snobs). I didn’t really get into Yugioh or Magic the Gathering, but I wanted to.

Continue reading “Captain’s Log M8•T0: Ink-Slinging”

Captain’s Log m8•11: Clip Studio Kaplooey

Like in October of 2021, I have heaped projects on my plate. And like October of 2021, it is not working well. I don’t really know how I’m going to handle it just yet, however.

I am making John Michael Jones Gets a Life at a rate of one comic a week, which is a nice, slow, easy pace. Nevertheless, I have been a scant 2 weeks ahead this whole time, and this week, I’ve slipped to 1 week ahead. They are color comics, so they take a little more producing, and eventually, our heroes will be in a digital world, which will allow some shortcuts, but there it is.

Concerning to me, I’ve launched this before I’ve finished the draft. Which means I don’t know if I can land this ship. But I felt if I sat on it any longer, it would never get done, so…

Awesome Moments is my Bible Story book series. Awesome Moments 1 goes from Eden to Christ to the Parousia as briskly as possible to serve as the anchor for the rest of the series. I’ve ranged from doing two illustrations (each of these being two pages) per day, to one, to none.. I want to have it all done by the middle of the month so it can be thoroughly exorcised from my system, because I feel kids’ books are my best medium, but I haven’t been able to finish a draft. I think my gears are clogged, and won’t start turning again until I finish this book.

Also, while the publisher intends to Kickstart it in December, they’d like it a good deal sooner.

Jump the Shark is a platformer that’s a big dose of Sonic, a moderate dose of Megaman X, and whatever else I feel like mixing in to taste.

Strangely enough, the adoption of all these projects can be traced to one program: Clip Studio Paint.

Continue reading “Captain’s Log m8•11: Clip Studio Kaplooey”

I’m making a Sanic

So, this is what I made this weekend:

To be 100% clear, this is my plan moving forward:

In July, my priority is Awesome Moments 1, the Bible Story book that rushes from Genesis to Revelation, makes the angels awesome, and draws on typology (e.g. Adam looks like Jesus).

At my present rate of two illustrations a day, if I get an additional illustration in every other weekend, I should be finished by August. However, I’m not sweating it. If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer.

This means any development on a Jump the Shark game will happen on weekends and weekends only, at least until the book is done or I drop it. I’m going to hang onto it with all I have for the duration of July, but if it’s not done in August, I may well stop, leave it for a month or two, then pick it up again and finish it.

Basically, I have ADHD, and it is more productive for me to work with it than fight it. Even on a project I love, my endurance maxes out at about a month and a half before I have to switch to something else.

So… I’m probably going to tinker with this game on weekends in July. Supposing in August I either finish Awesome Moments or drop it, and decide to mainline this project. What happens then?

Here’s my plan for this project for the foreseeable future:

  • Keep adding controls until I have a fun little character that can freerun around in ways I enjoy.
  • Once I feel the character control is more or less complete, along with level gimmicks to play off of (springs, enemies that provide specific challenges, etc), graybox some levels until I have a set that I think are pretty good.
  • Build a game and bring it to market.

That is to say, I don’t have a specific game design I am working towards. I’m feeling my way forward, and I intend to continue doing so for the forseeable future.

My preference in game genre is Action Adventure, so this is likely to turn into a Metroidvania, because that’s what they call Action Adventure Platformers in these benighted days (no shade meant for Metroid or Castlevania, though). But I’m also toying with the idea of just straight up implementing Alexander Hellene’s platformer design because then at least he’ll buy the game.

A Sonic Metroidvania is not very much in the spirit of Sonic, but this isn’t Sonic. This is Jump the Shark.

Anyway, at this point, this project is still in the tinkering stage. I’m 100% playing by ear. If and when a design is finalized and put into production, of course I’ll let you know.

Grumbles of a Sonic Aficionado

I don’t describe myself as a fan of anything these days. “Fan” is short for fanatic, and nothing but God Himself is worthy of fanaticism.

But the fact that I once would have described myself as a Sonic Fan is not a secret.

The obvious clue is my first children’s book:

What happened here is I sat down to read my kid a kids’ book, and I didn’t like the book. It occurred to me then and there that I certainly possessed all the component skills to make my own kids’ books, and so I set out to see how that would turn out.

I decided I had better pander to my kid, so that if the book was bad, at least the intended audience would like it. My kid loves sea animals, so I set it underwater.

I decided I had better pander to myself, so that if the kid loved the book and requested it every single night, I wouldn’t get sick of it. Also so I would feel motivated to finish the book. So I plucked Jump the Shark, a character created to parody Sonic the Hedgehog, out of my box of characters. That way the book could be 30ish pages of thinly disguised Sonic fanart.

Now, Jump the Shark isn’t the first bit of evidence I enjoy the occasional Sonic game, nor the best. He’s just a side-effect of my enthusiasm that happened to spin off (all puns always intended) and become my best property.

But we’re not here to talk about Jump the Shark. We’re here to talk about Sonic Games.

Continue reading “Grumbles of a Sonic Aficionado”

Captain’s Log m7•30

I’ve officially begun work on the final illustrations for Awesome Moments 1. If I can maintain a pace of about two illustrations a day, and one on Saturday, I should be done with them by August. Gonna get this book off my chest and move on with my life.

In this scheme, I spend Sunday-Monday resting, and Monday-Tuesday keeping up on the John Michael Jones comic, adding both a draft and a finished page to my set, so that they keep coming out for Mad Mondays.

As things stand, I’m a couple weeks ahead. I’d rather be a month or two ahead, but I’m not going to accomplish that while working on Awesome Moments.

Maybe I’ll build up some additional breathing space in August. Or maybe I’ll use August to create the next chapter of Hat Trick and finally tie up my loose ends.

I say one image on Saturday and not two. That’s because I’ve had some trouble figuring out (since I work the night shift, and each of my shifts covers two days) how to take my day of rest. Should I start it at midnight Sunday?

Well, right now, my plan is midnight Sunday, do a little tinkering with something else. And that something else deserves its own blog post. So I shall go ahead and post.

Why not make animations?

I’ve spent the last week making hand-animated games for a game jam. Why not make an animated movie? Why not present my material as cartoons? Meaning what a child means by cartoons: animated shorts; as opposed to what an artist means: sequential art.

You gotta admit, this looks better than Peppa Pig:

My answer is complicated, which is why I’m putting it up here.

Continue reading “Why not make animations?”