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.

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.

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

Captain’s Log M3•41: Bygone Months

I know I haven’t said much in February. I’ve been working on comic development for the Mad⳩ crew all month, more or less. I’ve been experimenting with how to make the comic dev and the game dev overlap as well, leading the previous blog post, as well as this:

I think I’m close. I think before I wrap up tonight’s shift, I may have an actual product going into production.

But I’m not there yet.

Captain’s Log M1•O1: I dunno

At the start of last week, I got Spaz into the game engine. Everything seems to be going about as swimmingly as it can.

But I promised the Mad⳩ Crew I’d take a look at the comic when my “two-month” game was done. And since Last Legend Zero is done with me pretending it’s in production, when it’s actually still in the tinkering phase, I turned to the comic.

I was recently reminded that Isekai Is My Favorite genre, from Narnia, to Oz, to Digimon. No, I haven’t seen any of the popular anime, That Time I Got Hit By A Truck And Woke Up in a Fantasy World Where Girls Like Me, and I don’t intend to. I found the first two episodes of Sword Art Online sufficiently tiring to repel me from that particular formula. But Portal Fantasy is my jam. Why not have the escapism be actual escapism?

The first night my mother was home, instead of sleeping, I played various old vidya to try and drum up inspiration for dialing back Last Legend. What I got instead was a notion:

A man sees a bunch of people hunched over their phones. Feels his family has spent too much screen time. Decides to go camping. He drags his kid away from some vidya. Kid reluctantly goes along. At the campsite, finds a retro console in the basement or attic of a cabin, or in the woods or something, and gets sucked into a video game world.

It’s not the first time the idea of isekai’ing someone into a retro game world has occurred to me. John Michael Jones was made to go there at one point…

Well, what I have for John Michael and his family at present doesn’t really fit the story idea. But then, I’m not a huge fan of the story I’ve got going for them, either.

So, I’ve begun toying with the idea of taking this idea, and adapting John and his family into it. Fleshing out situations, world settings, and the like. And making concept art to go with it…

I still haven’t got anything solid. I have some notions that, if I keep pushing them, will turn into a setting that might make a good comic strip or storybook.

So now I’m at a sort of crossroads. I can spend February creating Spaz Invaders. I can spend February developing the comic. Both are good to do. Both feed into each other. I am going to do both. The question is which I will do first.

I’m going to put a bit of thought into it today. This week, I’ll be getting my papers in order, though, and February will be a new year.

Captain’s Log M1•G3: Smaller Bites of the Elephant

So, a few things have changed. Now that my mother’s home, someone needs to stay on call throughout the night in case she needs anything. My sleep schedule still hasn’t recovered from being an overnight stock boy last summer, so it was easiest for me to make the shift.

More to the point of these logs: looking at what I’ve done in the last week and what I aim for this week. You already have my notes on the matter. The fact of the matter is that I bit off a larger project than I expected, and I also put a project into production when it should have remained in the tinkering stage.

All is not lost. In fact, very little is lost. 70% of the work I did for Last Legend Zero can be retooled for any game I want to make. Of the other 30%, most of it is still useful for multiple game projects I’d like to get to, and all of it can come up again if I take Zero off the back burner and put it on the front.

So let’s scale all the way back and start with a shmup. I know, I’ve said I’d rather do anything but another shmup, but that’s no longer true. I’m willing to use it as a stepping stone to larger games. Let’s take the work I’ve done on palettes, screen sizes, controls, menus, and so forth, and reuse it to finally finish my old project Spaz Invaders.

We’ll keep the art style consistent, consider this all one project, and keep on trucking.

When I finished the brainstorm, I put together Spaz, used him and myself to scale a coin:

.. and then got to work building the basic shmup movement animations for Spaz.

He still needs to be able to spit fire, hover for aim mode, charge his breath, take damage, and die. Ideally, I’d also have his spines sway in the breeze while he glides. But animating a character like this has been very enjoyable. I’d forgotten how much I love the absurdity of smears.

This week I’ve got to take a couple days and get back into the good graces of the paperwork brigade. Hopefully I’ll finish in a day or two, and have Spaz up and running before the end of the week, but I make no promises.

M1F 3

The following is copied and pasted from my analysis of my progress on Last Legend Zero.

IDNotion
1The epiphany I had for the Last Legend Comic, M1E20, is an excellent direction.
2However there are several problems with Last Legend Zero.
2.1Most notably, development is not proceeding at the predicted pace:
2.1.1cannot complete a game of which I am proud in the remaining 2 weeks of January.
2.1.2I would want a couple of weeks per planned region (3 to 7 regions intended) plus time to market and polish besides.
2.1.3I am also not satisfied that the gameplay is, by itself, satisfying, which demands more prototyping.
2.1.4If I were to force myself to pinch off a technically complete, but hastily cut off game, with zero testing and polishing, I might just barely make the March 15th release date at this rate.
2.1.5This I must not do. I must never again “produce” games in which I take no pride.
2.1.5.1(I may, of course, make rapid prototypes, but that is another matter)
2.1.6Therefore, to complete the game properly would take 14 weeks, not counting testing and polish. This would indicate a May or June release at best.
2.1.7I have already put a solid 4 weeks of development into it.
Moreover…
2.2I do not have more than the broad strokes of the story in mind.
2.2.1I lack important details like the antagonist, and importantly, the ending.
2.2.2This is a big deal. Without a complete draft, a project must not go into production.
2.2.3Last Legend Zero is still in the tinkering phase. It is improper to give it a release date.
2.2.4This should have been recognized and acknowledged from the outset.
3These combined issues have implications for the Legend Game Tower.
3.1If I am going to make a 2-month game, then a 4 month game using the 2-month game as a foundation, &c, as planned, the points under 2.1 indicate that it cannot be Last Legend Zero, but must be a smaller game.
3.1.1It has to be smaller than a point-and-click adventure game, yet move us towards my ultimate JRPG-centric goal.
3.2Nor, per 2.2, can I justly say I have begun Production on any game if I yet lack mechanics and extensive knowledge of the minimum world of that game.
3.2.1I may justly say I am tinkering or prototyping. And these are fine and necessary.
3.3Thus, to make a “2-month” game, I need to choose a first brick in the tower that is small enough to make in two months, and sufficiently well-conceived that it may swiftly move from Tinkering to Production.
4This does not mean my last month’s work was for naught.
4.1All of it can be used eventually.
4.2Most of it can be used immediately. Several components are genre agnostic:
4.2.1The HD interface/pixel world
4.2.2The palette shader
4.2.3The options menu and boot system
4.2.4The State Machinery
4.3There are some caveats:
4.3.1Dialogue is vestigial in many genres I like.
4.3.1.1However, as much as I enjoy retro mime, if my game lacks in dialogue, it is not aiming well toward my goals.
4.3.2The mouse/touch control scheme is low priority or nearly useless in every genre I’m aiming towards except point & click adventures and JRPGs
This, then, frames the question:
5What can I proudly build in a single month on the foundation I’ve laid for Last Legend Zero that moves me closer to the Legend Framework?
6The answer will be small. Something on the scale of Pong, Breakout, or Space Invaders. My gut says it will have to be a Space Shooter.
6.1I know I said I never wanted to make a Space Shooter again, but now, with the meds, I’m sure I can hack it, as long as it’s only the first step.
7I have a handful of Space Shooter designs that will serve for a first brick.
7.1Spaz Invaders is a good choice that admits almost instant work.
7.1.1It has the advantage of allowing for an immediate platformer followup.
7.1.1.1The world art thus generated would be well-suited to Last Legend material.
7.1.2Spaz is sort of in Limbo because of his overlap with Jump the Shark
7.1.2.1Perhaps echoes of the same Chrononic Resonance.
7.2Candy Raid is almost as good as Spaz Invaders.
7.2.1Obviously, with two published games starring Candy, this takes advantage of existing momentum the best.
7.2.2But I’m really very done with Candy.
7.3The space shooter starring Angel from Crossover Arcade. Meteoroid.
7.3.1More story-driven. Plays into future ensembles. Utilizes dialogue.
7.3.2Suffers from being more story-driven. This game, also has problem 2.2 to contend with.
8At this moment, I am leaning so hard towards Spaz Invaders that unless something else occurs to me, I am just about guaranteed to choose it.