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Captain’s Log m5•n1: The Ragged Rascal Ran

John Michael Jones Gets A Life has already launched in the Mad Christian Mondays newsletter, and should be launching tomorrow on Bunny Trail Junction

So I’m working on making sure I crank out at least one finished comic per week, to build and maintain my lead. But just the one. Because eventually, John Michael Jones is going to be inside the game world, and I need to have the game world working by then.

To that end, I’ve been rebuilding Hat Trick, Prelude to Nightmare. And I’m not doing bad. By the end of today or tomorrow, I should have the original minigame completely rebuilt, plus dashing, enemies that fight back, and life, which makes it 5x better.

So that’s my immediate goal. But there’s another goal as well. I’ve entered the GoGodotJam in both Classic and Ultra modes. My hope is to take this engine, but make a completely new game with it that fits whatever themes come up when the jam starts on Thursday.

And by the time I need to produce comics of John Michael and his friends in the game world, I should hopefully have enough built up that I can just steal back and forth between this game engine and the comic.

Continue reading “Captain’s Log m5•n1: The Ragged Rascal Ran”

Captain’s Log m•5•6•1: Embracing

Took my month off. Tried to storyboard a kids’ book. Didn’t work. Did a game jam. Did okay.

Here’s kind of where I’m at.

I decided to roll my game dev back to the gameboy-esque standards. I’ve been slowly rebuilding Prelude to Nightmare using all the knowledge I’ve gained about Godot since I made it. Here’s where it was…

.. and here’s where it is..

A long bit away from where it was, but with numerous improvements. Things I’m doing “right” that were being done in a hacky way before, but I didn’t know.

Quite the whirlwind tour to come back to the beginning. But to my way of thinking, if it took Yacht Club Games a bazillion years to finish all their Shovel Knight promises, and they have way more skill and experience than me, then… 🤷

Time to start biting off smaller bites or something.

Meanwhile, since zero of this process is making something new, my brain has been freed up to consider what I should make. Refactor the kids’ book ideas. That sort of thing. And I keep circling back to John Michael Jones.

Maybe Wren would be better off motivated as a monster hunter/collector than a bounty hunter. Maybe that would fix her story. But I’m already exploring that angle for Princess Pluot. I don’t want the characters to overlap! Maybe I can do an action story for Jump the Shark. But why not do the action story with John Michael instead? Man, I wish there were more stories that had X, or Y. John Michael has these things!

One of the things I was worried about was trying to take the story of a kid getting sucked into a game, and making a game look like the story. For instance, I gave these trees zigzag bark and square moss and flowers that aren’t physically connected to themselves all as ways of signaling that John Michael is in a digital world..

But good old pixel art does that just fine.

Indeed, I originally planned to have the comic be black and white in the real world, and colored in the game, as a nod to Wizard of Oz. But I want to tell the opposite story from Oz. I want kids to enjoy the fantasy of being sucked into a video game, but then also have it feel natural when the characters in the game say, “Ah, but in real life I have friends and steak and wind in my hair.” So the “real” world should have color, and the game should be black and white.

So yesterday I colored John Michael’s first comic, and then made a proper cover for the first arc of the series.

So that’s where I am. Gearing up to release John Michael Jones Fights a Dragon. Simultaneously developing a Hat Trick game. And trying hard to nail it down to just those two things for now.

Captain’s Log m4•q1: Will o’ the WIPs…

Wren Valen draft is stuck. The problem with continuing a story that is over a decade old is that my plans don’t all work anymore. Looks like I may have to redo it from scratch. Sad, because this moment:

..is both the place where the train jumped off the ancient rails, and the thing I am most committed to keeping.

Right. Set it aside. Draft something else. Just keep going until I have one or more actual books to make, right? Sure. Maybe.

Looking back at the last couple months:

I mean, yeah the first one is nicer to look at. It’ll sell better, probably. And it takes no more time to make than something similarly detailed in pixel art.

But a heck of a lot less than something like the second, which also looks nice, will print nice, and can be assembled in a fraction of the time.

More to the point, if I’m making a comic about John Michael and his friends falling into a game world, it works better if the game world look like a game.

Along those lines, while trying to dig myself out of my book plot corner, I’ve been pondering what sort of game I’d like to make if I were making games just for the heck of it, and not as some sort of massive multimedia project.

Go back on the road to 8 Lives Left/Breath of the Gameboy?

Action platformer with Mega Man influences?

Digital Monsters on your phone?

Bring back the RPG/Adventure engine?

Right now I’m sleep depraved. I’m leaning towards a turn based RPG with influences from Link’s Awakening, Mario RPGs, and games nobody’s heard of any more like The Magic Candle. But where this ship goeth, nobody knoweth. Except God. Who may well will that it run aground.

Just wanted to toss my thoughts out there before retiring to ponder.

The joy of just making the story

I’ve started work on storyboarding a Wren book.

Which brings up a couple of thoughts. First is why am I making a Wren Valen book? How does that fit into my goals. Second is where I’m currently sitting with regard to kids’ books, comics, and vidya. We’ll start with the apologetic.

Why Wren?

It’s a bit of a strange thing, you know. I devised Wren (it feels like) a million years ago. In another world. In a world where I had no problem writing a fantasy of a short sorceress in an airship fighting pirates with her magic.

Now, a million problems arise. My Right Winger, primary audience is going to wonder why I’m telling stories about magic amazons. The world is full of writers who want to make stories about magic amazons. We need more stories like John Michael, of boys being allowed to be the hero again. And I agree.

But I feel like drawing and writing Wren. So I’m drawing and writing Wren.

My target audience may view Wren through a gimlet eye. But their natural foes, the Social Justice types, won’t like her either. She’s a flawed character, not a perfect Mary Sue. She understands that Force Equals Mass times Acceleration. She doesn’t pick fights with gorillas. No, the Left will call me a sexist for writing a human female, and the awesome Right will roll their eyes at Cartoon Rey.

I might pick up some sales among the Ben Shapiro, “I’m totally Right Wing, you can tell because I defend last year’s Left” crowd. People who think women in the military is a Right Wing triumph. But I have no interest in playing to that crowd at all.

Mind you, I don’t care if left, right, or center buys and enjoys my books. My enemies aren’t the commies or the not sees. My enemies are the devils. Any human I encounter is at worst a peon of forces who want to devour him. I say let him read and enjoy my books! It may be a lifeline for him. Or at worst, I will have supplied him a few bright moments in a dark life. And that is still a worthwhile thing.

But, you know, I’m trying to build a business. It’s a bit silly to build a business around books and stories that my own best customers are likely to dislike.

It doesn’t much matter to me for a few reasons.

  1. I’m taking a bit of a breather. I’ve spent four months on one project that I thought was sensible. Now I’m spending a month or two on a project because I feel like it. Got to recharge the batteries if I want to make the laudable stuff.
  2. I mistrust my motives. It is good to write stories that have good messages, good heroes and villains in them. It is good to write stories that will sell. But my vocation as a story teller is to tell stories that are good not because they are profitable or morally upright, but because they take your mind off your troubles for a few minutes. Working on a story, then, that militates against the profit and moralizing motives feels like something I can and even should do, to be true to my vocation.
  3. My wife will like it. And if I make a book that she likes, then the book was a success even if nobody buys it.
  4. There’s no rule that I have to produce this draft next. I’m currently planning to make several draft books in a row, and then pick one to produce as a final book. This Wren book is the first of those drafts. Maybe, after I draft a Hat Trick book and a John Michael Jones book and a Jump the Shark book, I’ll decide, “yeah, let’s go ahead and produce Wren first.” But maybe I won’t.

So that’s my apologetic for seeing this draft through.

Comics, Games, and Books for Children

This kids’ book format is a very compressed way to tell a story. Get in. Load a thousand words into each picture, and then maybe fifty or a hundred words along the side.

I love it. I’ve done novels, but I’m weak on them. I don’t spend enough time on the descriptions. The sights, the smells. I just dive straight into dialogue and action. Making picture books makes up for my weaknesses by leaning on my strengths.

Of course, comics are even moreso right? Right? Well. I’m not sure. It feels like it takes me forever to get through a story drawing it as a comic. I spend too much time and ink drawing the same picture over and over again.

Why not just make my “comics” as picture books, and let other, more patient men turn them into comics if they like? Seems a good plan to me.

But what will I do with Bunny Trail Junction, then? Shutter it?

Maybe. Or maybe I’ll post my storyboards there. Post them like they are a webcomic. Build an audience for each book before I even make the book.

Vidya, vidya, vidya. Vidya is prime, right? If I make a story in a game engine, I can record it as a video, post it as a comic, even make it as a kids’ book.

No. That’s the wrong approach. And here is why: the heart of my stories is the characters and plots. The heart of a game is the player and his choices. If I try to make my game dev a vehicle for my stories, I will gimp my gameplay and my stories. Better to make the stories as books, maybe post the storyboards in lieu of a webcomic, maybe read them on Youtube. Then, in my copious “spare time”, go ahead and tinker with game development. But as a hobby. If a game starts working out, then, sure, steal liberally from my books so that the books and games cross-promote.

Every now and then I think about Dr. Seuss as some sort of rival. Oh, I’m not trying to compete with his rhymes. And I doubt I’ll ever see hide nor hair of his fame. But there are some things I dislike about the man, and one of them is his pride. It took him forever to embrace making kids’ books. He later saw it as a true and worthy calling, but at first he intended to make serious art for serious people.

Trying to center my work on vidya is the same sort of hubris. I have a hundred fun stories in me. I should walk the shortest road between where I am, and where people can get at them. And I should have always been walking that path.

And are they children’s stories after all?

The Wren stories were not originally aimed at children. But they don’t have anything I wouldn’t give to a kid.

My cartoony style will be off-putting to serious men wanting serious stories. But at the end of the day, at least in the case of this Wren book, I’m making the books I want to make, and I hope some kids may like them and maybe even some adults may like them.

Captain’s Log M4•D1: Wren Redesign Coda

Here’s my historical Wren imagery, plus the brainstorming for the redesign, with the additional work I did after I more or less settled in on a design.

I also went back to my pixel art last night and implemented the new design, as well as updated some of the pixel character designs. The new Wren design is down in the bottom left. It works very well indeed in this format.

My two or three month long flirtation with HD art is grinding to what may be a close. It looks nice, and is more marketable. But. I have two issues with it.

1. I am making a comic about John Michael getting sucked into a video game.

Using pixel art helps sell that it’s a video game. John Michael is, in many ways, the anti-Scott Pilgrim, and deserves much of the same marketing style for the same reasons.

My other option to get a video gamey look is low poly, but I’m less confident in how well I can go from construction to print. Not that I haven’t considered it:

2. I am considering whether I haven’t made a wrong turn in putting vidya as prime.

While there are many video games I want to make, and they are unique and would add something useful to the world, they are not as unique as or as useful as the stories I want to tell. And the fastest, most useful way to tell them is children’s books. Let other people make them into comics and games if they want.

I can make a good kids’ book in about a month. Two months, given time for editing promotion and release. And yet, since 2019, I’ve only made 4, even though this is the best, most useful thing I can do. And most of those were in the first year. I made 3 books in ’19, 1 book in 2020, 4 comic compilations in 2021, and that’s it.

I think I need to try and put out at least two or three kids’ books every year. 4 if I can. Make the games a hobby instead of a primary goal.

And if the games are a hobby, they may as well be pixel art.

Wren Valen Redesign

Wren Valen was a character I designed when I was single and lonely, and it shows.

But while I’ve been making children’s books for a while, I recently realized it’s really my whole thing. My ideal reader is 9 or 10. He doesn’t need scantily clad heroines. And my branding especially doesn’t need scantily clad heroines. It needs to tell parents, “these books are fine for your kid.”

Which has put me in a sort of dilemma. My wife has long said I need to tell the rest of the Wren stories. I could tell them just for her, as written stories. But there’s nothing in the plots and I have planned that isn’t suitable for children. Just skimpy costume design.

And skimpy costume design is not necessary, even though it fits the character’s personality and activities (she’s basically a sky pirate). For you see, in the first pair of Wren stories, the ones that hooked my wife, she got a shevlar harness at the end. A shevlar harness is a tight outfit that serves as the anchor for armor summoned from the aether. I’ve drawn her a couple times in the past in said harness, with various amounts of other costume over the top of it:

Which leads me to a couple of questions:

What would she choose to wear over the harness? What are the various possibilities? Which would she choose and why? And can I design the harness and/or the outfit she would wear over it to be good to animate?

After all, she went from this: to this: specifically because the skimpier outfit reads better when animated. Arms and legs are clear, the costume isn’t a jumbled mess. And in addition to reading better, it also animates better. The crop-top “woman boxer” look I’ve adopted most recently also conveniently separates out each of the parts I am liable to move independently:

When I animated John Michael breathing, I was able to scale and alter his tummy and ribs differently, as I did with Wren, but it was nowhere near as elegant because I had to ensure his shirt looked continuous:

Anyway, today I decided I needed to start investigating a Wren redesign, so I can write Wren stories in kids’ book format, and thus please my wife, myself, and my customers.

Here’s my working file, with past imagery for reference:

  1. Harness, covered with boots and bucklets
  2. Harness, covered with pirate outfit
  3. Harness, pirate top
  4. Harness, pirate bottom
  5. Harness, light armor
  6. Harness, dress
  7. Harness, cloak

1, 2, and 3 look fine and are reasonable. 5 looks wrong. I’d probably want to replace the leather boots with proper greaves instead of having the greaves go into the boots. 6 is cute, but doesn’t feel like the character. 7… 7 makes sense. Wren wouldn’t want people to know she was wearing a shevlar harness, especially before she gets armor chips for it.

Right now, my favorites are 2, 3, and 7. 7 seems most likely. But I think another round of designs is in order.

Decided A) I needed to give the light armor a proper shot, which meant separating out the boots and B) I might want to retry the dress not because it will be Wren’s main design, but because she might want to make social calls. So I did the harness without the boots and bucklets, gave the armor and dress a second go, and then did a trio of variations on the cloak.

I think I had better sleep on it before I try my hand at round 3.

Planning on being broke

At present I own and use the domains “logicmonkey.media” and “bunny-trail.com.” However, I typically pay for my web service with my tax returns, and well, things are tighter this year than last.

My plan is to definitely renew the “bunny-trail” domain, but not the expensive business hosting plan that lets me use the webcomic theme. This will result in Bunny Trail Junction’s format getting utterly replaced.

As I’m considering the comic possibilities using HTML5/Godot/Itch, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean the first pass at Bunny Trail Junction will be primarily available as the paperbacks.

Much as I like having this blog ad-free and at an easy URL, I’m probably going to let it lapse. I believe it will be logicmonkey.wordpress.com after that*, but I’m not certain. People subscribing or following through WordPress’s interface, which is most of you, should still be able to find it just fine.


*it will not.

Captain’s Log M4•62: Aftermath

I’ve been on the same project too long.

2 months building a comic and tinkering with an attached game, for production in the Mad Christian Mondays newsletter. My tolerance for a project maxes out at 2 months. I find one month is optimal.

Worse still, I’ve been trying to develop a comic/game for Mad Christian Mondays since December. It’s only the current iteration that has had 2 months of effort put into it. The project as a whole is closer to four.

It isn’t right. With medication, it is possible, but even with medication, I am better served having multiple projects that I switch between. I need to harness my ADHD, and reserve fighting it for critical moments.

I lost a week at the end of March to the burnout. On a whim, I joined Ludum Dare 50 just to try and clear my mind. And my mind has been cleared. John Michael Jones needs to be set aside for a month or two. Which doesn’t mean I can’t launch the comic and run it — I have more than a month’s worth of work built up. Only that it needs to go on the back burner for a while.

In the mean time, I made a game with frogs in it.

Ludum Dare 50. Waterlogged. It’s nothing special. But, for something thrown together by two guys over three days, it is something decidedly okay.

As I push John Michael on to the back burner, I want to note a couple of things for the record:

  1. Right now, the game engine uses HD, hand-drawn vector art. But the comic will put John & friends into a digital world. I half plan to use the HD art game engine for the game world, but a part of me wants to use either pixel art or low-poly 3D art, to really sell that the world is different.

  2. Here are two vector drawings of characters. The first uses a technique where I draw with a tablet and try to imitate my pen and brush inking, then convert this raster image into a rough vector approximation, color, and assemble it. The second, I draw the image in Inkscape directly. The first is slightly closer to how I like my art to look; the second is significantly easier to tweak.
    If I am making vector game art, I need to pick a lane and stick to it. But I like them both.

But, so long as I am working on a different project, I don’t need to make that choice right away. And, after all, I may decide upon mulling it over to stick to pixel art for the game world/game engine. Who knows at this point? All I know is I need to let it simmer for a month or two.

What should I do this month? Well, a few ideas occur to me.

  1. Could spend a month trying to learn a language. I am currently tinkering with Toki Pona, and I have tinkered with Japanese for years. Sure, if I go all in on Japanese for a month, I won’t suddenly know the language. But I will be better at it than I was before.
  2. Always wanted to make a stenotype minigame to teach myself stenotype. It would be a useful product, and would benefit my various life goals.
  3. It’s been a few months since I worked on Hat Trick. Some Hat Trick comics, stopping once a week to ink a John Michael Jones comic, might be a good plan.
  4. The Therian Virtual Pet is wildly different from the John Michael Jones stuff. But therians play into that story, so if I started work on it, I would come back to John Michael Jones in a couple months having worked on something different, but still having made progress.
  5. My wife occasionally reminds me that she would enjoy more adventures of Wren Valen the Flying Privateer.

There is something that I also want to note down. When I did the Ludum Dare challenge, I initially published Waterlogged as a Windows game because I already had experience doing so, and I didn’t want to get stuck in unfamiliar territory right before the competition ended.

But once I had done that, I re-published it as an HTML5 game that can be played in the browser. And it worked so smoothly and so well I was caught off guard. I think I may want to publish more things this way. Make comics that are animations in game engines, and publish them to itch.io.

It’s not any one specific project at the moment. It’s just a thought that needs further thinking.

Captain’s Log M3•I4 – Meet the New Plan: Same as the Old Plan

So, here’s the quick rundown:

February, I do what I want. It’s my sabbatical from trying to be pragmatic about my projects.

Now, the plan in December and January was simultaneously make an adventure game and plan a comic for the Mad Christian Mondays newsletter. That resulted in this demo:

And the realization that it is a bad idea to plan a release for an adventure game when you don’t already have the story nailed down.

Of course, not having the story nailed down meant not only didn’t I have the adventure game, I didn’t have the comic either. I let the crew know where I was, made noises about focusing on the comic for February, but really committed to tinkering with whatever I felt like, as is my tradition, and hoping the comic would bubble out of it.

So I started throwing a bunch of my characters together in a video-game art compilation, to try and kick something loose.

I tried making a space shooter with Spaz McDragon, since that was the most scaled-back game idea I could come up with. Here was the plan: get Spaz McDragon into a space shooter, release that after a couple of months of dev. Then make a Spaz platformer. Release that after a couple of more months. Make the comic about John Michael Jones getting sucked into a video game, and have his initial area of hanging out be one of the Spaz Platformer level. Thus, bring all the projects together.

I got Spaz animated and loaded into the Adventure/RPG codebase, and got some space shooter mechanics running in a day or two.

Started working out the John Michael Jones story alongside it, and built some forest platformer graphics to stick them both into:

I realized that my dislike for shmups was strong enough that it would be worth it to just go straight to the platformer right away, even if it did take a little longer. So I animated John Michael as a platformer character, in case I could come up with a game idea that overlapped with the comic story.

And that’s where the status quo lay until the end of February.

In the last week of February, I had almost everything I needed for the comic nailed down, when I was inspired by a series of videos to try HD videogame art in Godot one more time. So, I spent three days jerry-rigging a demo of John Michael running and jumping in an HD hand-drawn world.

Thing is.. I’m sold now. I absolutely want my games to be hand-drawn. It’s not even significantly harder to do it this way than pixel art. It’s harder to animate. You can’t tweak things as quickly. But throwing together backdrops is even easier. And I can take advantage of code-based squash and stretch without it looking weird. And my game can have a unique look that immediately stands out.

I’ve spent the first two weeks of March hurriedly figuring out the last bits I need to know about the comic to actually produce it. And actually producing it I am. Expect the first episode next Monday or the Monday after that. Bunny Trail Junction is coming back, albeit (for starters) at a slower pace.

But if I’m going to make a game, what should it be? I have some great ideas, but they are all too big. I need to start small. Get something finished and shipped. I’ve been contemplating that for the last week, as I wrap up the work I need to do for the comic launch.

I figured it out. Meet the new plan: same as the old plan.

Yeah. I’ll just make Prelude To Nightmare a platformer. When it’s done, I’ll have a solid start on the graphics necessary to continue Hat Trick as an (HD) sprite comic, if I so desire.

And the plan after Prelude To Nightmare was to make a game for my wife that layered stealth mechanics on top of Prelude To Nightmares’s mechanics. I see no reason why we can’t assume that second step next.

So, let’s make set the tentative schedule as follows:

Last Week of March/First Week of April: Race to make Prelude to Nightmare a complete game.

Remainder of April: Expand Prelude to Nightmare

May: Playtesting/me working on other projects.

June: Fix and polish Prelude to Nightmare.

July: Launch as a $5 game.

As always, this is less a promise and more a chosen direction. But I think it’s time to put the pedal back down to the floor!

Update

I’m being an idiot. Hat Trick: Prelude to Nightmare in engine would be very nice, and I should add it to the list of potential things to make. But as far as “smallest, best first building blocks” go, making the exact same gameplay with John Michael Jones characters is a far better plan.

What are all your thoughts on Godot?

Studio Daeera, a Lebanese Canadian pixel artist with a stick shooter demo on itch asks:

To the specific context of the question: I am not a great coder. My programming skills are mediocre to okay. But I do enjoy programming. It is fun for me. So my needs in an engine are 20 or 30 degrees off from yours. Keeping that in mind, I think there are other engines, like Construct, that are likely to meet your needs better than Godot, whereas Godot is very well suited to my needs.

But I have not used the engines, like Construct, that I suspect might be better. Of the engines I have used, Godot is the one you can get the most out if you “suck at programming.”

There is a visual scripting tool that allows you to get your code functionality without coding. I can’t say if it’s any good or not, though, as I don’t use it.

As far as I know, using shaders requires you to have an actual idea as to how the code works and what it is doing. But I’ve never been in a position to try using Godot’s shaders without having that understanding, so who can say?

But you asked me to tell you all my thoughts on Godot as a game engine.

buckle up