June Update

Hey everyone! I've been working towards an IndieCade submission for Against the Wall, trying to at least get a "starting area" in the game and a few more settlements. I've mentioned this before, but texturing has always been my biggest weakness. Blender is a bit convoluted when baking a bunch of textures into an atlas, but it's a free tool and what I can afford. As such, I've taken a cue from Morrowind and other TES games and am just doing a general cube unwrap and slapping on flat textures (wood, stone, etc.). It fits with the minimalist art aesthetic, and cuts down on production time for assets.

My major challenge right now is level design. It's very difficult to craft vertically-aligned levels that have a good flow to them. I'm thinking that some HL2 or Minecraft-style ladders may be in order. The problem with such ladders is the whole planting your face right up against a texture, and they are not very fun to use... but it may be worth an experiment. Also, I was avoiding including building interiors, but it has become apparent that I cannot just have people crawling around the outside of buildings. Sure, most structures will be locked or in some way obstructed from entry, just part of the scenery, but I do need some contraptions housed in enclosed spaces.

I've spent the last couple of days coding some interactive environmental elements, just creatures and objects that provide additional challenges, or contribute to the sense that this is a living, breathing world.

On Exploration

I've been doing research into recently released exploration games, looking for inspiration. Since the semester ended, I've played Miasmata, Antichamber, and Starseed Pilgrim. Played through most of the Myst series as well. Mostly, I was looking for how each game handles second-to-second action, and how the game world is revealed.

I was toying with the idea of removing quick-saves in favor of checkpoints based around beds and such. However, I realized that this would limit the space that players could explore, if they want to wander deep into the wilderness, for instance. Also, the game is challenging as it is, what with the constant threat of falling and losing progress. Though I would like to avert save scumming, I also don't want it to be unnecessarily brutal.

A few other notes: each rest area/checkpoint should feel like home, a refuge from the perils of climbing the wall. These areas are not quite hideouts, the player has no inventory and there is no bed mechanic, etc. but I do want to make specific areas that the player would feel like living out of. This was one of my favorite things to do in Morrowind and Minecraft, just setting up camp and exploring an area.

What I've Been Playing

I've played through Uru: The Complete Chronicle. As a decade-old game, Uru game has no business being this gorgeous. I was really able to immerse myself in these little worlds for a time. CYAN seems to have a thing against repeating artwork, nearly all models in the game are individually crafted and appear once. Oh, and the sound design is impeccable. Some of the puzzles leave a lot to be desired, especially since many were originally intended for multiple players to solve. Still, I liked the ages in this game, a number of the puzzles were entertaining, and the atmosphere was spot-on.

I finally got around to finishing Antichamber. Now that's an amazingly designed videogame. It left me feeling like a champ, the puzzles were difficult but not so obtuse that I ever needed to consult a FAQ. Like Starseed Pilgrim, half the fun was in exploring the mechanics through experimentation. It never explains anything, outside of fortune cookie-like hints on panels scattered throughout the world. Also, the mechanics do not overstay their welcome, each new mechanic receiving only a handful of puzzles before a new paradigm is introduced. I must confess that I'm a completionist, so I couldn't put the game down until I unlocked all the secrets and filled out the game's map. As a first person puzzle-platformer made by a single guy, I had to check this one out to get a sense of the progression, feel, and story.

Then, there is Miasmata. The game is just pure exploration and filling out a map: a cartography-based game where you play as a plague-ridden man abandoned on a lost island and hunted by a strange hybrid monster. Again, as a completionist who loves games about being isolated and lost, this one got its hooks into me. Very impressed that it was made from the ground up by two people.

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Two Year Anniversary

Hey everyone! It's now been two years since I've started Against the Wall, back during Ludum Dare #20. Here's a check in on what I've been doing relative to the project.

EuroGamer

Rick Lane of EuroGamer did an article featuring Against the Wall recently. The main focus of the article is climbing games in general, mine closing out the article with a first-person example. It was a fun interview, check it out.

QA and Summer Development

I've been doing live playtests every week and fixing the bugs that have cropped up in the most recent builds. Progress has been relatively slow, but at least I'm meeting people on a regular basis and interacting with them about the game. Starting the 17th and going through the Summer, I'll be concentrating my efforts on the narrative content of Against the Wall. As I mentioned in December, I plan on working with one of my friends from the Game Center MFA program, Shoshana Kessock, on this narrative angle. I need the outside input, and someone to share my wilder ideas with. Also, I've started a survey as a prep for this Summer crunch. I've been looking for feedback on the game's design, mostly in the area of measuring player expectations. Or, you know, just send me an email via the site's contact form, that would also be cool.

Redlight Greenlight

I am hesitant to promise any specific dates for the future, including release dates. Greenlight is still an ongoing project. I'm still at around 90% of the way to the top 100, and have been hovering there since January. I'd appreciate any help that I can get with this one, since it has been a steep climb.

What I'm Playing

Who has time to play games? During commutes, I've been sticking my nose into Fire Emblem: Awakening. I'm at the halfway point, and have discovered the breeding... I mean marriage mechanic, where you pair up your characters. This game really rewards plodding gameplay, to the point where grinding random encounters is highly necessary, and new encounters only pop up a few times per real-world day. Luigi's Mansion has occupied a bit of my time, but the incessant tutorial/narrative framework is getting on my nerves. Egad.

I've played some Metroid Prime, spent an hour with BioShock: Infinite, in part to check on the game feel and control schemes of each. Research. Seems as though most of the things that I play are in the context of AtW. Also, I envy BioShock's cloud system like crazy. I've spent enough time on the current sky, so I'm checking it off the list. Prime's scanning feature is so damn neat and makes exploration very enjoyable. Doesn't fit with my game, but it is something to remark on.

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Spring Break Crunch, Oculus Rift, and GDC

No Such Thing as a Break

My semester at the NYU Game Center is moving at an unrelenting pace, halting briefly after last week's midterms. Currently I have seven game projects in the works, including Against the Wall. To summarize what I'm doing at the moment: two CCGs, a digital version of one of them, a minimalist computer game, a top-down space shooter, and a video game design doc/pitch. There's also this one semester-long project for a class called Human Computer Interaction that is somewhat related. Basically I'm juggling a ton of things at once. I'm technically on Spring Break right now, though really I'm just using the time get as much done on Against the Wall as possible.

So far, this work has constituted remaking a location that I refer to with the non-descriptive moniker "Station 4b", a settlement located in a forest. The earlier versions left a lot to be desired in terms of level design. Now it has a much simpler and straightforward path to take. Here's a post that I did on the first draft. The overarching theme of this location is that it is something of a "cage." Here are some pics from my first pass at the new version:

Against the Wall - Forest City - Station 4bAgainst the Wall - City in the Forest - Station 4b

Also, I redid how props are loaded to prevent a bug that partially broke chunk generation.

Oculus Rift at IndieCade East

Against the Wall at IndieCade East

Action shot of me putting a bottle down while leaning on a rail. Also, someone is playing my game. Image owned by IndieCade, not me.

I should have mentioned this after IndieCade East, but I was able to try on the Oculus Rift. It was very interesting, but I'm still highlt skeptical. It gives you a wonderful sense of your position in the world and the space that your virtual body occupies, which would be absolutely perfect for games like mine. Really, I've never had such a severe case of vertigo playing a game as when I leapt off the side of Rift's demo world (for science). I am curious as to how they solve the aiming problem. That is, in FPS games, you aim by centering the camera on a target. I wonder what it would be like to aim with a tool that tracks head movement. Would the player just stare in the direction of a target and pull the trigger? Would the player have to keep their head perfectly still to make a precise shot? Would the gun aiming still be controlled by a thumbstick on a controller? TrackIR has support for several first-person games, but this kind of head tracking technology seems better suited for games that take place in a cockpit, like a flight sim or driving game.

Also there are apparently latency issues, which was one of the possible reasons that DOOM 3 is no longer shipping with the dev kits (could also be disagreement with the publisher or something). Naturally, I'm going to get my hands on a kit and test it like crazy. If nothing else, players would be able to put on the Rift and take a dive, if I manage to get some implementation going.

Oh yes, and IndieCade East was fun. I was a volunteer "docent", badge-checker, and at one point a coat room attendant. I ran around a bit, showed off the game, and spoke to a bunch of other indie devs.

GDC

Next week will be all GDC all the time for me. I bought one of those Summits and Tutorials passes that lets me into things such as the Independent Games summit, but not into the main conference lectures. The main and all access passes were too expensive for me to consider, and I am really just interested in the indie stuff anyway, and meeting with other indie devs. I'll be going to parties and hanging out at the IGF area for a while, and that's pretty much it. Closest thing to a vacation that I've had in a while. Shout-out to my friend Itay for getting his game Mushroom 11 into  the Experimental Gameplay Workshop!

The week I get back is when many of my projects are due (or at least new versions). Here's to hoping that I clear some of these things out of the way. Check my blog for one of the projects that I worked on this semester.

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Weather and Sky Test Video

As promised, here's the results of my recent implementation of a weather system, and the retooled sky.

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Sky's The Limit

I put the old cloud-billboard system out to pasture and replaced it with a retooled sky dome shader. The shader now allows the backdrop clouds to move relative to player movement, so that as the player falls, the clouds respond by appearing to rise upwards (I fake everything, nothing really moves). This new version of the sky also features a higher-resolution texture, and it adds colors together rather than multiply them... well, practically, this means that when clouds overlap each other, they no longer appear to be bright white.
I've also written a weather script from scratch. I had purchased a weather system off of the Unity asset store, but will be using it for its art rather than its junk scripting. Really, it said in 4000+ lines of code what I was able to do in 100. Before this whole deal, I was merely transitioning the fog color when the player crossed biomes. Now, it transitions:

  • Ambient color and fog color/intensity
  • Post-processing fog color/intensity
  • Sunlight color/intensity
  • Sun shaft intensity
  • Atmosphere Color
  • Rain and mist intensity/sound

The weather system is mainly used to regulate differences between the six biomes. Each biome has a fixed weather pattern that is associated with it. I'll post a video when it's further along.

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Crunch Time

School's back and my month-long crunch has ended. The game has progressed steadily feature-wise, but still needs polish. I'm hoping to release an exclusive alpha version of the game to backers. I was originally calling this a beta version, but I do not believe that it is far enough along to warrant that label. For this exclusive alpha release, I will need to get access to a Mac for some lengthy testing sessions. I've already installed an Ubuntu partition on an old laptop. The game runs just fine on Linux, save for a graphical glitch that shouldn't be too hard to handle.

School's In

I've started my second semester on Monday for the NYU MFA in Game Design. I'm taking a course on minimalist design with Andy Nealan, two courses with Eric Zimmerman, and a course with Katherine Isbister called Human Computer Interaction. I was rather cagey about my school progress last semester, but I'll attempt to be more open about what's going on in my life, and how what I learn feeds into Against the Wall. Also, no more staying up all night and sleeping all day.

Artsy

28-year-old male programmer and independent game designer seeks compatible 3D environment artist. Must love games.

My Analog Life

One of my groups from school has been producing a board game in our spare time. I've taken a leadership role on the project in seeing it to a commercial release. It won't be too much of a burden thanks to the four talented individuals that I am working with. Things move a bit faster in the analog world, but I'll hold off on a press release until it is further along in production.

Meta

I realize that this blog post could have been broken up into sections and released over time, but I actually prefer this info dump. Oh, and I've realized why I refrain from using Twitter: it's a giant Kafkaesque chat room that you can never really log out of. Really, when I'm coding and in the zone, the last thing I'm thinking of is Tweeting or posting a status. Anyway, though I could promise to post more often, that doesn't sound like much fun to me. Not a natural marketer... that said, I should probably Tweet a bit more.

Press

I spent some time talking to Paul Dean of PCGamesN the other week. He posted an article on the game today, and the crazy process that led me to create this game.
The game was also covered by PCGamer and regarding Greenlight.
Also, it received the prestigious(?) Horace Award For Just Being A Brilliant Idea, among a list of games overlooked for this year's IGF. (regarding the IGF: maybe I'll get in next year, when this product is more polished and/or released).

Postscript Playlist

Why not mention the random stuff that I've been playing in my vanishing free time?

  • I bought Antichamber but have yet to install it. Got the THQ pack from Amazon (no longer available) but haven't touched that either.
  • FTL is like a forest fire, only this particular forest is populated by time instead of trees.
  • Also Just Cause 2, for no particular reason.
  • I don't understand Proteus, so it must be art.
  • Greenlight is an okay ARG. It features crowd-based gameplay: your progress is determined by strangers voting on your page. Getting other people to participate is the core game mechanic. My score is at a tantalizing 91% of the way to making the top 100 list!
  • I will not touch Dragonborn out of fear for my remaining free time, but I wanted to observe: the third expansion for Morrowind takes place on Solstheim and is a miniature Skyrim, and the third expansion for Skyrim takes place on Solstheim and is a miniature Morrowind.
  • In analog, I've played Lost Cities and Forbidden Island for the first time and envy their designs.

I've written quite a bit. I should probably get back to work. Happy Groundhog Day!

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New Textures and Site Updates

No More Stretching

Brick Texture ComparisonSince early in this game's development, I've had an issue with textures stretching on the bricks. The problem was, a small brick and a large brick would have the exact amount of texture image mapped on them. On larger bricks, the effect looked rather ugly, you could see the stretched out pixels over the surface of each block. The problem was especially bad for the sides faces of each brick.

Following some advice from my friend Itay, I explored several options that would allow me to reduce or remove stretching. I spent all Saturday researching and testing this before I came up with a solution. Read more ›

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Winter Break

New Threads

Okay, technical stuff. I've successfully implemented multithreading into Against the Wall. Multithreading allows a program to do multiple things at once. It's akin to how your operating system can have multiple applications running at the same millisecond. Time consuming tasks like mesh generation and physics are now separated into threads, while the game's main thread does its thing.

Unity, the game engine that I use, does not support multithreading naively, everything running in a single thread. As a result, whenever I would generate a number of chunks, the game would hitch for a fraction of a second, as the program waited for the generation to be done before updating the player or the environment. Now, I have performance-intensive things running in the background so the the framerate will not be affected by them.

I used ThreadingHelper to help me with this task. I had earlier attempted multithreading over the summer, but did not have much success. Specifically, the performance difference wasn't justifiable considering the amount of work that I was putting into it. The helper library managed the tough stuff and brought the game down above 60FPS, even while it's loading! I will have to test this on some older computers, and keep polishing away at it.

School's Out

Right now I'm on winter break from my graduate program at the NYU Game Center. I still managed to get stuff done on the game, but things temporarily came to a halt earlier this month, around the 14th, when finals came around. I had a paper due that nixed my plans for the Ludum Dare, a board game that was very, very well received, and a digital game that stressed me out to no end.

I did hire one of the other students as a story consultant, my friend Shoshana Kessock. She's a writer and a RPG person, and will be a great help in fleshing out the game world.

Beta

My plans for the beta? Well, I'm going to be shoveling as much code as I can before school restarts. My goal is to have at least three environment types done, one more city, and one more set piece. I have the art for a new city platform that I did in October that will serve as the basis for the city.

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Wrapping Up 2012

So here is a bit of an update on the game's progress over the past couple of months. As mentioned in earlier posts, November was spent redoing existing art and making sure that things ran smoothly. Unity has a hard cap on the size of procedural textures at 2048x2048, which is a problem. I cannot get high quality brick textures without stretching if I cannot get a texture of 4096x4096 generated. I'll have to consider splitting the wall bricks between multiple textures/materials, which would exponentially increase the number of draw calls per frame. The only way to avoid this is to not use procedural textures, which would be a huge pain, and bloat the file size of the game, but it may be necessary.
In December, I optimized the game for LOD Groups and doubled the player's view distance. The game runs above 60 fps on a computer with a 2.6 GHz processor and 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, which is good in my book. Performance is a constant concern for me given the amount of things happening in the game at any given time. That is, transitioning between chunks is an ideally seamless experience. Minecraft hitches for a few frames whenever new geometry is generated, which is what I am trying to avoid. Unfortunately, the Unity engine, as much as I love it, does not support multi-threading, so I cannot run the mesh-generation algorithm in the background.

Vague-non-spoilers: Yesterday I created new art assets for the trees to make them a bit creepier. I've also created models that relate to their life cycle. I'll insert these elements into the game in the coming days.

Greenlight

The Greenlight page is at 70% of the way to reaching the top 100, with over 16k unique visitors. Steam does not surface a ton of information other than that. I can use your help in promoting the game and getting people to vote. If anyone has any suggestions for how to market the Greenlight page, let me know!

Happy Holidays!

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Greenlight, Fake AO, and the Game Plan

I've just put up a page on Steam Greenlight. Hopefully Against the Wall will get enough votes to be considered for the service. It has long been my dream to distribute the game through Steam, at the very least. This campaign would help make this a reality. Please visit the page and give the game a thumbs-up!

On the progress front, I've redone the models for the basic city set to something more visually appealing while still minimalistic  I discovered that I can fake ambient occlusion by making full use of vertex colors on the models. By painting certain vertices semitransparent black, I am able to give more definition to the form of the structures and reduce the flatness of the textures. Light now appears to hit these models unevenly, as in real life. Normally, you would use image effects or bake ambient occlusion into texture atlases. My solution is cheaper performance-wise, and looks pretty cool. I also use it to color the insides of windows black, rather than use a separate black texture for the windows. This particular problem was nagging at me for a while, so I'm glad to have found a way around it.

The game is functionally well along, and my focus now has been level design and creating art for the new cities. After that, set piece coding will be my main goal. Also, while I do like a the current emergent narrative of the game, I have planned a few story elements that will flesh out the world a bit and provide some context for how life on The Wall works.

Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and be sure to vote!

Against the Wall - WindmillAgainst the Wall - CityAgainst the Wall - City 2Against the Wall - Forest

Against the Wall - Gate

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