The Art Style Pros and Cons

First off, I’ve released a comic book. John Michael Jones Gets A Sword For His Birthday collects the first year of John Michael Jones Gets A Life in dead tree form.

You can get it for cheap on Amazon here, for much less cheap but in color on Amazon, here, or for cheapest of all in color, but as a PDF instead of a dead tree on Gumroad, here. Either of the dead tree versions will give you a discount code to get the Gumroad PDF for free, a feature I don’t expect will see much use for this comic, but it’s there.

So, as I experiment with game development, I have tried out a few art styles and perspectives. I’m going to list them and the pros and cons of each here. I’ve done this before, but not in an organized way. Here we go:

1. Pixel Art


I like it a lot. Appeals to nostalgia. Quick to produce. Pixel Art games will tend to run on lower-end hardware. Upscaling low resolutions doesn’t look worse when you get a 4K monitor; it looks the same. Fun things I want to do with my game art like palette-swapping shenanigans are a piece of cake.


Oversaturated in the marketplace. Using non-chiptune music is jarring (I love chiptune! But most of the music I have access to for scoring my games is not chiptune). Game is constrained to the 2D plane, except for some hacks that are a pain to implement. Character costume changes that are not palette swaps require me to recreate the animations from ground zero.

2. Hand Drawn Art


I absolutely love how it looks. Lets my art style shine, which maximizes marketability. Can use with non-chiptune music without jarring anyone.


Much more labor intensive, meaning games and worlds have to be smaller to compensate. Will not run on lower-end hardware. Palette swap shenanigans are doable, but much more annoying. Will look noticeably worse when upscaled onto a 4K monitor. Not only am I constrained to a 2D plane, because of the extra work to animate multiple directions, I’m basically locked into a side-scrolling perspective.

3. Low Poly 3D


Less saturated than pixel art, so more marketable, but not as much as hand drawn. Still appeals to nostalgia, though for Millennials and older Zoomers more than GenX/Y. Not as efficient to produce as pixel art, but way more than HD. Can use non-chiptune without jarring. Has access to a Z-axis, so I can put jumping in my top-down games without shenanigans. Can run on a potato, but furnishing upscaled textures for the Elite Gamer with the 4K monitor is simple. Palette shenanigans are a bit harder than pixel art, but way easier than HD. Costume swaps are much, much easier than either.


I like the art style, but of the 3 it is my least favorite. I have far more practice in 2D, with the attendant far more skill.


They are all good and all have their uses, with 3D constantly taking the role of “first best at nothing, but second best at everything.” However, which one is truly best will depend heavily on what sort of game I’m trying to make.

There are four game concepts that I rotate through. One is a virtual pet that runs on your phone. A mix of HD and pixel art is ideal for that, as seen in the currently existing prototype:

Although a low-poly virtual pet would make certain concepts, like varying monster size based on genetics, more feasible.

The second is a Sonic Metroidvania, starring Jump the Shark or Sparky the Dragon. HD art is probably ideal for that, with pixel art being a close second. But I keep abandoning that project because I don’t have a notion I want to pursue that is different enough from existing Sonic or Metroidvania games to justify years of my life, which is what it will take to make that game. I have a few interesting tweaks to the Sonic formula, but nothing groundbreaking. And no story I want to tell that’s compelling enough to justify a game that is otherwise a clone.

The third is Link’s Awakening style gameplay, but with Megaman X elements such as dashing, starring a robot whose parts you can swap out as you collect other parts.

3D is hands down the rock-star of this game concept. It gives me a Z-Axis, allowing for player jumping in the Zelda perspective without any hacky trickery, and it makes swapping character parts a breeze compared to the other styles.

A subset of the third (and technically fourth) game concept is Hat Trick, which is a story that could be a top-down adventure game, like Zelda, with Megaman elements. Hat Trick as a game or series of games does not strongly lean to 3D over pixel art, but it does militate away from Hand Drawn. And Hat Trick is a strong enough story to justify making a game that doesn’t do anything new, but is just a clone of another game.

Hat Trick can be forced into a Metroidvania, but it naturally tends towards a top down Adventure or a JRPG.

The fourth game concept is a JRPG that borrows gameplay components from Chrono Trigger, the Mario RPGs, and Pokémon. And this last one fits every art style equally well — I think using a side-on perspective like that of a beat-em-up overcomes the limitations of the HD art style. However, it prefers either pixel art or low-poly 3D, to enable a top down view with breadth of worldbuilding.

I am an artist who can code rather than a programmer who can draw. To play to my strengths, I should focus on the 2D HD. But my desire to make beautiful games is less powerful than my desire to make interesting gameplay.

So I’m trying the 3D on for size, with the idea that my top-down Megaman X is the only game that demands one art style above all others, and the Hat Trick games and JRPGs can have their gameplay in 3D and still work. Because at the end of the day, looking good is the second most important goal of a game’s art. The first is serving the gameplay.


Changing my mind on art style yet again. Except not.

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.

The Price of RPGs 4

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?


Yeah. I’m okay with this.

Reasons are dried Gripes

Some days if you ask me what my favorite game is, I’ll say Super Metroid, or Megaman X, or Sonic 3 & K. But most days I will say Link’s Awakening. And you can see this DNA in the little Hat Trick minigame I made a year or two back.

I’m not even trying to hide it.

But one of the things that makes Link’s Awakening special is the jumping. It is a 3D Zelda made on an 8 bit system. And I could add jumping to a pixel art (or HD 2D) game by faking a Z axis. Or I could just switch into 3D mode in Godot and use the Z axis that already exists.

And, indeed, I’ve played with this from time to time.

And indeed, Nintendo remade my favorite game in 3D. And I don’t completely hate it. In fact, I actually love the graphics.

I bought it. I don’t ever play it. Against it, I leverage the following complaints:

  • The controls feel sluggish instead of responsive. I suspect this was a sacrifice of gameplay to animation quality. It may also be all in my head. But it feels like there’s more time between when I press a button and the thing I want happens, and I hate that.
  • The depth of field effect irritates me. I love the graphics, but I hate that anything more than a few feet away from you is blurred. I know why they did it: it makes the world feel more like a photograph of a diorama filled with toys. But I don’t care. It still bugs me.
  • I dislike many of the remixes of the music.
  • I dislike that they added twice as many secret seashells, and then also doubled the seashell requirement to get the Level 2 Sword instead of just having the extra seashells unlock extra things. Seashells have gone from a delightful secret to a chore.
  • I can take or leave the dungeon builder, but I can’t take or leave them sticking dungeon blocks in treasure chests that originally contained something I cared about, instead of making new places to stick them.

So, I will watch runs of Link’s Awakening 3D on YouTube. But whenever I want to play Link’s Awakening, I boot up my 3DS and play the eShop version. Or play the original gameboy version with the select bug.

But I don’t hate the 3D. I think making a low-poly 3D top down “2D Zelda-like” in similar visual style to Link’s Awakening 3D might work for me. In fact, I’ve done experiments in finding an art style I’d like for it.

And why not mix in a bit of Megaman X and Metroid in there? Make the hero a low-poly robot. Bring back the “Dronefu” game concept. See, the thing is, making complex animations where a robot character has its various body parts swapped out for other body parts is hard in 2D. But in 3D, it’s not hard.

If I made a game that gameplay wise, felt like Link’s Awakening, but used 3D graphics, and you went around collecting new body parts for your robot.. that might be my favorite game ever. And it’s actually kind of possible. Within the bounds of reason for a one-man team to do. So, while I discussed in my previous post that a JRPG might be more profitable in the long run, and a better way to tell my stories… I feel I am going to start playing in this arena.

The Price of RPGs

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Captain’s Log The Revised Book Workflow

Jump the Shark & Paruvrew is the most polished book I’ve produced to date, and close to the quality level I’ve been hoping for from the first. However, it is the end of a long road. It would be good to summarize the lessons from each step down that road.

The Adventures of Jump the Shark and Sera Mermaid was my first foray into making kids’ books. I did not know whether I could, or whether I would be sufficiently pleased with the product. Therefore, I downloaded a book on how to make books on Amazon and followed its instructions, constructing the PDF on Canva. I worked hard to pander to my kid, so that if it all went sideways, at least I’d have one happy customer.

From it, I learned I needed to do heavy work on my color palette, I wanted to have more control over the creation process than Canva afforded me, I didn’t particularly like the 8.5″x11″ form factor.. and that I could do the work. I had that potential.

The Amazing Alphabeasts was my second foray. This time I tried constructing a palette in advance, using Amazon’s preferred 6″x9″ form factor, creating an educational book, and crowdfunding it via Kickstarter.

From it I learned the color palette needed further tweaking, that Kickstarter is a viable platform for me (I reached 50% funded halfway through the campaign, but abandoned it due to personal life events), and that I never again want to make an ‘edutainment’ book.

Hat Trick 1: the Death of Arthur utilized a template, and tested making a black and white book. I learned the relative costs of producing black and white verses color. I also learned that cutting off a story halfway and promising a sequel is foolish. To this day, I haven’t finished out the story promised in Hat Trick 1. I surely must, though, to reclaim my honor.

Jump the Shark & The Pirate Princess tested a new palette, and with only a tiny number of tweaks the one I use to this day. It tested a formula I mutated from several functional book-writing formulae, with an eye to making bedtime stories. The formula worked fine, but I realized I needed to storyboard my books as I write them from this point forth. It also started life as a digital popup book built in Unity,

Bunny Trail Junction is webcomic hub that to this day hosts John Michael Jones Gets a Life. For about 4 months, I kept it running daily comics, publishing black and white monthlies in paper on Amazon. I learned that I did not like the 3-panel format I’d come up with, that for all its advantages it was more trouble than its worth on most websites, I furthered my skills at inking with a brush, and I realized that small children looking for children’s books aren’t liable to be found on random webcomic sites.

Awesome Moments 1: The Kings of Earth was my first Bible Story book, and my first book produced on my display tablet. I learned that inking on a display tablet is tedious; I need to pencil and color on the tablet, then ink on paper with ink. I also learned that if I come to the end of my first month of working on a book, and feel burnt out, I should simply set it aside for a month and come back to it. I will get it done faster that way than if I try to push forward. I also devised a watercolor-based workflow for coloring in ClipStudio that I didn’t get to use for Awesome Moments but did get to use for…

Jump the Shark & Paruvrew, which tried out the new size format Bunny Trail Junction pushed me toward, the workflow I settled on after Pirate Princess and refined in Awesome Moments, and the watercolors. And it’s so far beyond the other books in terms of workmanship that I almost want to redo all the others. In fact, I do want to redo the others, I just don’t think I have the attention span to produce the same book twice.

The process is as follows:

  1. Create a rough outline of the book. Clearly define the hero and villain and their goals. Figure out the climax. This step takes a day or two.
  2. Storyboard the book. Create low resolution doodles and coloring, and a first draft of the text in Clip Studio. This step takes about a month, but may be faster, and doesn’t absorb all of my time that month, or even most of it. I can storyboard a book while working on another project. It is risky, however, to dial in and storyboard the book faster, so that it is done in a couple of days.
  3. Produce the print test. Load the storyboard pictures into Scribus, and write the second draft into that Scribus file. Produce a cover, and send it off to Amazon for a printing proof. This process takes a day or two.
  4. Wait a month or so. Do something else. Leave the book alone.
  5. Read the print test out loud, and mark corrections in it for the final edit. This takes about ten minutes a reading, since they are kids’ books.
  6. Produce the final illustrations. This takes a day per illustration or more, and ends up being about a month of work.
  7. Done.

So, the process in total takes about 3 months. However, it is not three months of work. The storyboarding month can be spent producing storyboards for multiple books, or producing a storyboard in the morning, and then working on a game or a comic book. And the need for me to wait a month between spitballing the book and producing the final illustrations isn’t spent doing nothing. So realistically, if I made books full-time, never worked on comics or games, I could put out at least 4, and as many as 10 a year.

Now, I’ll probably aim for that 4. Aiming at the 10 is a bad idea because with my ADHD, not jumping from project to project is actually more inefficient. My mind rebels against focusing on one thing much longer than a month. It took me four months to do a month and a half of illustration for Awesome Moments. And that’s with industrial strength stimulants. If I had spent the intervening two months working on something else, Awesome Moments would have been done at the same time, better, more polished, and I would have the intervening two months’ work to show for it.

But aiming higher, maybe trying for six, might be a good thing. I have hundreds of stories from my childhood that should be dusted off, improved, and released (with, of course, the caveat of I don’t like to write the same story twice). And the jump in quality from book to book is quite high. With a little more practice, I might start turning out books that are more than just idle amusements.

My wife took me to the new Dreamworks flick for my birthday. And it reminded me of the importance even of my idle amusements.

I’ve discovered in my dotage that I’d rather like to be the abominable tribrid of Lewis, Seuss, and Eastman and Laird. This pleases me. It suits me. And there is a call for it.

Focusing on it, as much as I can focus on any thing, is no bad thing.

No bad thing at all. The Mouse is coming out with its latest desecration of its former desecration of Hans Andersen’s Little Mermaid. I could furnish a less slick, but more wholesome and more true to the OG story. I did a poster of 3 ninja pigs versus a samurai wolf. That possibility deserves exploration. The Alphabeasts may be retired as an educational tool, but as a setting to improve upon Star Trek, they are quite well fit. And of course, I can always work on Hat Trick. Get some actual stories out there.

Captain’s Log N2•30: The Unbearable Weight of Moth

If you look at the project page, you will see that Jump the Shark and Paruvrew is finished. For funsies, I’d like to post a fun two-page-spread from storyboard to draft to final.

And to show how far my process has evolved, here’s the same image side-by-side with a comparable image from Pirate Princess:

The evolution to my process that has happened over the last two books is immense, and worth discussing in and of itself. That’s going to get a separate blog post of its own, which will be linked here. I’m very excited about it. I can’t wait to hold the finished book in my hands. And I’m subtly excited about making more books. Perhaps lots more. Perhaps a book every other month. But perhaps not. Even though every book I release is better than the last, and even the first was good enough that I thought, “man I should have started this years ago,” I don’t think I have the will to make book after book after book. Even though most of my work on video games is inconclusive, I think I have to do it, in between books, to keep my ADHD in check.

Which brings me to February. February is the month of my birth. So February is the month I sit back, look over what happened in the previous year, and try and figure out what I’m going to aim for. It is a month for reflection, and I log out of Twitter to repristinate my thought. And that deserves its own blog post, which I’ll link here after I write it.

But I get grumpy if I’m not progressing some project. So most months, my policy is to pick a project on the first of the month and ride it out to the end of the month. But in February, my policy is to switch whenever I feel like it. Give the ADHD full reign to remove all obstacles to musing. Embrace the chaos.

Towards the middle of last month, I was toying with my perennial RPG engine, and my current thoughts on that deserves a blog post of its own, which will be linked here. Towards the end, I was thinking of working on the Therian Virtual Pet, now renamed Warsprite. But as soon as I got into the month, I lost interest. Now, I’ve got 4, yes, 4, different platformer ideas vying for attention in my head.

And the work on Jump the Shark and Paruvrew and John Michael Jones Gets a Life has got me considering making more comics. Both reviving Re-Tail, reviving Hat Trick, and building out on my system of “game graphics” that can bring back regular Bunny Trail Junction comics. This topic deserves its own post as well, which will be linked here.

So this is a top-level hub for a series of in-depth brainstorms I intend to do over the next week or two. And all of them have the additional caveat of I’m trying to sort out a long term profitable career. In the arts. In the burgeoning age of AI democratization. My success is not urgent to me at the moment. I have a day job which feeds me and covers the bills, and permits me time and energy to put towards my projects. But the job will not last forever.

Anyways, Jump & Paruvrew is done. Get it while it’s hot.

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.

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.