So this month I’ve basically settled on spending the next month storyboarding kids’ books, and working on my RPG engine in between, with individual kids’ books becoming the project of focus if I like the storyboard a month after the storyboard is finished.
How, then, shall the RPG look? Well, I have three basic options: 3D Low Poly. Hand Drawn. And Pixel Art.
Each of these art styles has advantages and disadvantages.
Low Poly: More intrinsically dynamic worldbuilding. I can make worlds with multiple layers and not worry about implementing a hacky Z dimension. I can implement jumping in a top-down game. I can switch between top-down and side-scrolling perspectives on a whim, keeping all the assets. Also, it’s more marketable than a pixel art game. Consumers repeatedly express irritation that every indie game and its brother is pixel art. When I make Drone Fu, switching parts for characters as you customize your robot will be super simple. However, I’ve done almost nothing in 3D, and so my experience level is much, much smaller.
Hand Drawn: My hand-drawn art is simply the most unique and therefore the most marketable. Building worlds that look like an illustration is intrinsically rewarding, and rewarding for the player to look at as well. And if I get paid to make games, I have more time to make games.
Pixel Art: I can produce it much faster. I personally love it as much as I love the other styles, even if customers as a rule don’t. The more games I make, the better my games will be, and producing games in pixel art allows me to finish more projects faster, even if I don’t get paid. Moreover, tilemap based games allow for a more malleable world, and the idea of letting the player dig every ground tile, chop down every tree, and so on pleases me.
In all three cases, I’m keeping the hand-drawn RPG interface I’ve been building. Reason being, it works in all three cases. Suppose I make half a dozen JRPGs in a gameboy color pixel style, and then use them to do a team up with a writer, but we create a hand drawn, or 3D RPG. The actual graphics used for the interface will have to be swapped out to fit the game in question, but the HD style and logic will not.
It works least well with pixel art. But it works well enough that I am content.
And that last scenario is kind of the deciding factor for me. I think if I build a dozen small RPGs fast, I will grow as a game maker and create something truly special. If I pick the hand drawn style, I’ll make two, maybe three games total in my whole life, and its a roll of the dice if any of them are truly great. And since I’ve decided that the books are my thing, it’s okay for me to prioritize gameplay and personal evolution over marketability.
So I guess in the manly month of March, I will be making a gameboy RPG with an HD interface. On the side. After I’ve storyboarded a little.
I’ve been building out a JRPG interface based on the Last Legend Zero prototype:
I’ve been playing Monster Crown.
It’s a self conscious monster taming game that tries to capture the magic that was in the first couple generations of Pokémon and has been largely missing since. And I think it’s a heroic effort.
I don’t think it’s worth the price of admission. If they fixed the bugs and cleaned up the interface, I would recommend it at $10. With all the glitches, I wouldn’t pay more than 5. But the creator is charging $20.
Now, the glitches feel like a man trying to bash together something in Unity who doesn’t really understand what he’s doing. So I have high hopes for the sequel. With the successful launch of his first game, the creator of Monster Crown will have improved as a game maker. The next one might be worth the price of admission.
And I do somewhat enjoy the exploration. And more than one of the monster designs hit for me, which is a hard ask. The combat system is a miss for me.
Monster Crown calls into question the chief weakness of the art style I used for the Last Legend Zero prototype, and am using for the current JRPG prototype: The beat-em-up perspective makes the world feel smaller, more bespoke. Square grass tile after square grass tile tells the player that the world is huge and allows for wild possibilities like cutting down trees and burning bushes. Bespoke assets tell the player that the world is small, hand crafted, and unalterable.
This looks cool and all, but you know the terrain might as well be made out of adamantium. The world is a fixed thing you cannot really affect.
And yeah, in Monster Crown, and the old Pokémon games for that matter, the repeated trees may as well be made out of adamantium. Whereas I’d like to make a game where you can just burn random bushes.
So… that top-down, RPG perspective calls to me.
Now, technically, I don’t have to scrap any of my work except for the Wren Sprite. Nothing I’ve done so far dictates the perspective of the 2D world. I could just start building out my own retro gameboy style universe and slap the existing buttons and doodads over the top as-is. But should I?
Should I redo my interface work in pixel art to make it fit? Build an HD top-down perspective? Or just keep the work I’ve got and trust that it’ll look fine as an HD interface over a LD world? Well, let’s stick my text boxes on top of that Monster Crown screenshot and see.
… you know what? I think it’s fine. Good enough for me.
And I’ve half a mind to make it a monster taming game as well. Take the therians of Warsprite and put them in an adventure. Why not?
… I think I’m going to work on some fairy tales. Finally do that version of the 3 Pigs I’ve been threatening; bring it full circle. Or remaster Jack and the Beanstalk in my style. And in between, I think I’m going to start building out a JRPG; see what happens.
I’ve begun work on lowpoly models for the purpose of “remastering” Prelude to Nightmare in 3D, as a prelude to potentially making Dronefu.
Meanwhile, I continue to mull over the idea of making 2D RPGs.
Doing pixel art RPGs in a beat-em-up perspective appeals greatly to me. It pairs well with my art style. Pixel art palette shaders are child’s play. And I do have an interest in turn-based combat mechanics; it just poorly correlates to the standards of the JRPG genre.
Last Legend Zero was cancelled because I didn’t have a story. Without that, I didn’t have a game. And my abortive attempts at a card based interface or an adventure game may have suffered from the fact that I overcomplicated things. But whenever I go back to Last Legend Zero footage, I have to wonder, why am I not making something simple that uses this style?
I love the look of this. I think I love it more than I love the low-poly look, and more than I love the hand-drawn look. If I just simplified my objectives for the first game, so I don’t run out of steam before I have a game..
Sure, it’s not going to sell as well as HD art. But feels more my style. It feels more true.
February is the month of me lurching back and forth from project to project like an inebriated teeter totter. I may stay on 3D today. Or I may lurch back to the Last Legend engine. I’ll probably do some dishes while I mull it over.
Niemeier tells me what I already knew, that is, the price of video games has been going down, adjusted for inflation. And that’s just the Triple A stuff. Whedonesque dialogue slapped over a mud-genre game with microtransactions. If you are looking for games with soul in them, you’ll find lovely options at half or a third the price. I won’t buy a Sonic game from Sega, and pay $60 or more for a gameplay style I’ve never cared for, only twice as rushed as the games I did care for. But I’ll gladly hand $20 to Lake Fepard for Spark The Electric Jester 3. It’s Sonic Adventure 3. It’s got a poorly written Megaman X storyline that takes itself too seriously. But if you asked for Sonic Adventure 3, you signed up for that. And the gameplay, oh the gameplay! Refinement of many of the best ideas from the 3D Sonics.
Spark isn’t Sonic. It’s its own thing, taking its own direction with its own characters. But it built on the foundation Sega laid and promptly abandoned.
I have often advocated that people take the things they love that are now being defiled by corporate overlords, file the serial numbers off, and sell it. And well I should. I have 3, count ’em, 3 Jump the Shark children’s books for sale,
(you should definitely buy that latest one, it is some nice work if I say so myself. Look, it’s a ten minute bedtime story about a walking shark fighting a ghost kaiju ultimately with the help of a giant moth. If that doesn’t light a fire for you, buy it for someone who will love it, because you definitely know someone), and I have even put some work into making a Jump the Shark game. It’s half-baked. To become a true project worthy of sale, it will have to find an identity that is more than just a Sonic clone, and while Jump the Shark is a very different character from Sonic the Hedgehog, he does not yet lend himself to new gameplay. But as long as I live, the option lives too.
If your favorite game was Sonic, try out Spark. If you’re upset that Nintendo hasn’t made a sequel to the Paper Mario series, give Bug Fable a try. Hollow Knight would be a steal at twice the price. And I’m hearing very happy noises about the recently released Pizza Tower from fans of Wario, Sonic, and Metroid.
If none of these games ring your doorbell, consider perhaps God placed you on this earth to make the game that will. I mean, maybe not. Every gamer has a dream game that doesn’t exist, and very few of us were sent into this world to make it. But some of us were.
Maybe me. Maybe not me, but maybe me.
For me, my favorite games in no particular order are Link’s Awakening, Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Super Metroid, and Megaman X.
So my dream game would be some sort of Open World, probably Metroidvania style, but maybe top-down, with a character that moves fluidly like Sonic, but has a ton of optional upgrades to find. Doesn’t fit Jump the Shark super well, though it could with enough creativity. Can be made to fit Merlin the Rabbit from my Hat Trick comics, which is one thing holding up the sequel book: it might be better to make it a game. Fits Spaz Sparky the Dragon to a T. I have this robot design that could do it. And Wren Valen could work.
And I’ve explored in that direction before as well, though I’m not satisfied with my explorations.
But a genre that keeps calling out to me from the borders of the world is the JRPG. And maybe it should call out to you.
The Dragon Quest-style JRPG is an excellent story-telling vehicle. I love making kids’ books, I do. But distribution of stories would be so much easier, and reach so many more people if I just did JRPGs. And there’s a hunger for them. Oh, not so much as you might believe. Sure, if Squaresoft releases a pixelart Final Fantasy, people will eat it up like they did Octopath Traveller, but for $80 or on sale sometimes $40 you can get RPGMaker, and RPGMaker games are a dime a dozen. They mostly don’t make money.
The primary rule for the ones that do is they ditch the RPGMaker assets for custom graphics and music. And, well, I’m an artist as well as a writer. Why not make my stories in that and add a new skin over the top?
This is something writers should consider. It’s something I am going to consider. I’ll get the demo version of RPGMaker some time in the next couple of months and play around with it. It’s 20 days, which is long enough for me to decide whether it’s worth the money. And one thing I’ve always wanted to do is team up with some of my friends and allies on the internet. I know a couple of musicians and countless writers. Imagine if I made an XSeed RPG with Niemeier. His fanbase appreciates old games. It’d be a win-win for both of us.
But I have not pitched this yet. Nor will I, ’til I’ve made a small game that proves I can make the big game. And while I am going to dabble in the latest version of RPGMaker to see if it’s suitable for this task, I suspect I won’t use it, and there is a decent chance game making will remain a hobby, or if I make games, they will be action adventure games. And these are the reasons why:
I don’t love JRPGs. I love some of the entries in the genre, but the ones I love are universally entries designed for casual players or players accustomed to other genres. Pokémon, Medabots, Mario & Luigi, Paper Mario and Chrono Trigger — some of these are classics for the ages, but all of them are meant for a broad audience. I don’t really like Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Shin Megami Tensei, etcetera. That, in turn, makes me ill-suited as a designer or programmer for this genre. This can be overcome with professionalism and practice. Perhaps it is even a good thing that the games I love are more casual, the better to build experiences that are short and fluff-free. But it is sand in the gears.
I doubt RPGMaker will be easier for me to use than Godot. I can make a pixelart tilemap and a movement system in a day in Godot, and the one I make will be built with constraints I care about in mind, instead of RPGMaker’s constraints. The hurdle that RPGMaker clears for me is that it comes with a built-in combat system, inspired by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. This is a dual-edged sword. One the one hand, a combat system is a sticking point for me, so just cribbing someone else’s would be nice. On the other hand, I would very much want my games to have a combat system that is distinct from the RPGMaker combat system. Moreover, with Godot, I already know I can build a web game. Play it in your browser! Ultimate convenience. The latest version of RPGMaker does not promise this. Moreover, every RPGMaker game I’ve played on mobile has used an onscreen DPad and… This is not acceptable. Mobile controls for a retro JRPG should be as simple as touch the place you want your guy to walk to. And again, I can get this running in Godot in minutes, while still allowing DPad/Arrow key controls for your PC and console users. I’ve already done it. The Last Legend Zero prototype uses such a system.
You can get around these issues in RPGMaker with the right plugins, or by writing your own. But I suspect the effort involved is equivalent to the effort of building it myself in Godot, and less than the effort of simply cribbing my already existing code.
So my recurring dream of making an RPG, and then branching out and telling stories in this way, instead of just with paper books is highly speculative at this point. Most of the pieces exist. It may happen. But as Mr. Niemeier points out, ideas are a dime a dozen. Perhaps you should try RPGMaker, and if you come up with a game you like, get a team to replace the stock art and music. Perhaps you should try building an RPG engine in Godot. Or Unity or Unreal, or raw C++ because unlike me, you’re a Real Programmer.
I don’t care if you steal my idea. If and when I make it, it will be totally different from what you made anyway.
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.
Well, lately I’ve been playing Slay the Spire on and off, and it’s given me a couple of key insights.
I can get sucked into a game that is just the combat system of an RPG, as long as the choices feel meaningful.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.