Ludum Dare 38 – littleBLASTplanet

Last weekend was Ludum Dare 38, not only is it the 38th main game, as well as the 8th or 10th one I’ve taken part in (whether or not you take into account failed attempts), but it also marks the 15 Year Anniversary of the competition/jam as a whole! Not only is it celebrated with another jam, but with a brand new website. For now you can still access the old website, but game submissions are currently being handled entirely on the new site.

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The theme this time around was Small World, so I (like a lot of devs) made a game either around a small game world or a tiny planet. I went with the latter and drew up a run ‘n gun shooter on a little planet.

 

Sadly I had plans with my friends on Saturday so I didn’t start work on the game until around 8PM GMT, so development felt more rushed than a full games jam but I managed to make what I set out to design: littlePLANETblast

Similar to my past Ludum Dare projects, I used HaxeFlixel. It’s straightforward to use, multiplatform (Flash, HTML, Windows and Android maybe…) and it’s still being maintained so there have been several improvements. I’ve provided the game’s source code on Github so feel free to have a look to see how the game works.

The first problem I had to solve to make this game work is how to make a sprite orbit a planet. HaxeFlixel has a FlxVector object for vector math, so using that with a sprite’s acceleration meant having the sprite fall towards the centre of a circular planet was pretty easy, but how do you get the sprite to stop on the planet’s surface?

HaxeFlixel has no circular collision, only rectangtle collision. When I wrote my own C++ framework for Gemstone Keeper, which took inspirations from HaxeFlixel, I included Circular collision by giving each object a Radius property and writing my own circle overlap and separation functions. This would have been too much work for the time I had, so I wrote a hack method for a derived sprite class that always checked and updated the distance between a sprite’s centre and the planet’s centre, and if the distance was less than both the planet’s radius and sprite’s radius combined, then the game pushes the sprite up to the edge of the planet. This circle collision method is only applied between a sprite and the planet, and since rectangles don’t rotate then all sprites had to be perfect squares.

Bullets were one of the only sprites that weren’t built to orbit the planet, instead simply moving in an angle that combines the firing direction with the player’s current angle. I’ve had some feedback that said that the bullets should also be affected by gravity. I decided against it because it would make enemies on the planet easier to hit, while enemies in the sky would be harder to aim, not to mention the game loses a strategy element because of where bullets travel.

 

I went with three base enemy types: Rockets, Spikes and Robots.

Robots functions no differently from the player, except that it moves in a fix direction and smaller ones bounce by constantly jumping. Spikes has the same orbiting system, but it’s planet radius is much smaller to allow it to go into the planet. I use FlxTween and the FlxTimer to allow the spikes to move in sequence. Rockets simply spawn outside the screen at an angle and move towards the centre of the planet. If a rocket touches the planet then it would be destroyed, resulting in an instant game over.

I also added an escape object, which changes the planets side and makes the level a little bit more harder. This was for variety, so you wouldn’t have to stay on the same planet. If I had a bit more time I would have included more animations on the planet itself.

Speaking of the planet, that was one of the first objects I applied polished graphics to. To give it a more detailed pattern, I used the built in Cellular Automata function, and applied the pixels to the circle. Since it uses a random seed, the pattern is different on each playthrough.

The planet’s destruction is a particle effect that uses the planet sprite’s texture, a technique I used a lot in Gemstone Keeper. However one gripe was that I had to make a derived FlxEmitter class that could allow me to set how many frames I wanted based on the particle’s frame size.

Along with proper sprites, smoke was added to the spikes so that the game can provide a one second warning before spikes hit. I also added a distance check to avoid some unfair spike deaths. Finally I added a second camera mode incase the first one wasn’t interesting enough. The follow camera simply rotates with the player so they can stay in one spot while all the other objects rotated around. It did mean having to create a new Camera for UI elements, since objects can only be parallax scrolled by position.

The last elements I added were the title screen and audio. Sound effects were produced with BFXR and music with Abundent-Music’s Procedural Music Generator. Audio is one of my weakest skills so these procedural tools made that quick and simple, although I probably wouldn’t enter myself into the audio category for them.

I figured I add a smaller version of the planet in the title screen and have the player sprite on a bigger world to give a vague sense of a setting, with emphasis that the player is fighting on tiny planets and not just a giant on a regular sized planet.

And that’s basically how I made littleBLASTplanet. If I had more time I probably would have created more enemies and made proper transitions between planets. Aside from that I’m pretty happy with the results, particularly hacking the physics to getting jumping and moving around a 2D planet to be possible.

Voting for the game begins on Wednesday Friday, so if you took part in Ludum Dare, please check it out!

Gemstone Keeper on Steam Right Now

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Check out the Steam Store, and you’ll see that Gemstone Keeper has a page where you can add to your wishlist, purchase the game and write a review for it. I greatly appreciate seeing people buying the game and giving it a good review, it really means a lot after realising that this game has been in development for nearly two years (May 2015 – April 2017). Reviews in particular are important because I’d like to collect a list of issues and make fixes, and hopefully add a bit more to the game over the course of a year. Gemstone Keeper will also be shown at Insomnia 60 at the Birmingham NEC and maybe a few more events if people find an interest.

In particular I want to thank Vincent Rubinetti for his contributions for the game. While he was the person I had in mind to do the soundtrack from the point I listened to his music in INK, I was a bit nervous about approaching him with the demo I had. However after a few emails back and forth, we made an agreement and we were underway for producing a great accompanyment to the game’s visual art style and atmosphere.

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In addition, I’d like to apologise for leaving this two days late; I couldn’t plan ahead because I spent the last few days sending out emails and twitter DMs in the hopes to get the game looked at by people; I fixed bugs and adding some last minute features such as damage numbers appearing whenever you hit something with your bullets and being able to type the seed you want to use in Score Mode.

On the launch day, I was at Rezzed, where I did talk to a few people about my game, but mainly walked around and tried out a selection of great titles. By the time 6pm rolled around, I hung out at an after party and chatted to a few developers.

Then the day after was my birthday, so I figured I would post on social media, but spend most of the time away from the game and more with friends and family to celebrate and relax.

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As for my future plans, aside from this game’s maintenance, I’m hoping to return to smaller games for a while. In particular I want to try a few more game jams and experiment a bit more, I have a few ideas I want to try out, and now I have a little less pressure on me to work a bit on them.

Final Stretch: Gemstone Keeper’s Release

Back in May, I made a simple demo for a University Thesis, now it’s less than two weeks away from being released onto Steam. This is such an exciting occassion for me, but also a nerve wracking one. If all goes to plan, Gemstone Keeper will be available on Steam on March 31st at 6pm GMT.

For the time being I will be working hard on polishing the game and getting the word out, I appreciate any help from that. There have been several updates from when the game was shown at LAGC, especially thanks to the feedback I got of the game from both GEEK Play Expo and GDC. Game has been balanced (repeatedly), boss battles have been redone and several bugs have been fixed.

I’d also like to give my thanks to Gemstone Keeper’s composer for the soundtrack, Vincent Rubinetti. He is probably best known for producing the music to the game INK, the colourful yet minimal platformer by Zack Bell. We’ve been in regular discussions both online and at GDC about the game’s music, and you can hear one of the tracks from the game’s brand new trailer above, I think it’s some brilliant work.

I’d like to thank everyone who has shown support for Gemstone Keeper over the last year or more, this game has been a huge milestone to conquer and I hope all those who try it will have a great experience.

It’s just amazing to think of how it all started…

A Greenlit Developer’s view on Steam Direct

On Friday, Valve posted on the Steam Blog that Steam Greenlight will finally be replaced by a new system for game developers to submit their games to the digital distribution platform. The new system will be called Steam Direct, where a developer can fill in a set of digital paperwork (such as company, tax and bank information) and pay a fee for each game they submit, with a small verification process to ensure that games will be able to run properly through the platform. With this news bringing heated discussions among game developers and journalists, I figured I’d put all my opinions down on one post to give my side.

While I have Steam Greenlight to thank for giving Gemstone Keeper the chance to be on Steam, I feel that Steam Greenlight has a lot of issues and is an easily cheatable system. It can make a game developer’s efforts a bit demoralising when they work hard on a game, pay the fee and spend time to create a good description and video to be placed on the page, when among the other hard working developers who put as much effort, you are also competing with people who either flip pre-made assets onto the store and could easily rack up votes by offering free Steam keys. Doing things the right way, as I talked to students about at a Staffordshire University conference months earlier, might take a few days if you are lucky, but more likely take weeks, months or (in a few cases) years to get greenlit, if you are greenlit at all.

The idea of having a fee per game, instead of a fee per account, is not new. It’s been suggested even why back when the idea of replacing Greenlight was first mentioned by Valve back in 2013, and I’m one of the group who agreed with the idea. This means that I was initially glad to see Steam finally announcing Steam Direct with this fee approach. It’s also worth mentioning that Steam has said that all games which have been greenlit, but have yet to be released, will not be affected by the transition and that it is possible to get a refund of the Greenlight submission fee if you do not have any Greenlit titles.

That being said, there are some concerns, namely with the vague and limited description of the approval process. While it’s all good to ensure that games released will actually contain an executable required to run the game, the question of quality arises. I’ve heard some ideas that a full vetting process would mean some really creative games would get rejected, which I do find valid since the appearance of a game is subjective, but I’d disagree on the fact that having a game that is quirky or unusual in appearance would still get through as long as it can run smoothly with a good framerate on average hardware and would be difficult to crash or bug out. It’s a concern to bring up, since part of the reason why Steam emassed such a large amount of poor quality games is because they allowed poorly made games to get through.

The other main concern is the size of the fee, to quote the blog post from Alden Knoll:

We talked to several developers and studios about an appropriate fee, and they gave us a range of responses from as low as $100 to as high as $5,000. There are pros and cons at either end of the spectrum, so we’d like to gather more feedback before settling on a number.

While a lot of developers are either worried or accepting of the maximum fee, citing either eliminating low income developers and developers from third world countries, I’m gonna be sounding like the optimist and say I doubt Steam would ever set the fee at $5000, unless they fully accept the risk of alienating a large amount of aspiring developers and reverse the progress of allowing indie development to be more accessible to bigger platforms. However it is because of reasons given like the fact that Valve and Steam are a business, submitting games has its own costs and there is a risk on Valve to allowing several games, especially if it’s unlikely they’ll make any money on the platform, that I do not see $100 being the fee they’ll decide on. Based on the several discussions I’ve read and the majority of developers preferring a lower fee, my best guess is that whatever fee Steam decides, it will not exceed $1000, maybe not even $750 if it would deter anyone who wants to use Steam as a way to make money with little effort.

Some have even suggested that the fee will bring a rise to smaller marketplaces for indie developers, as even Itch.io even joked about. I like seeing more variety, and I’m happy to see platforms like itch.io, GOG, GameJolt Marketplace and the HumbleStore growing their own communities, it would still take a few big named publishers to move to these platforms to topple Steam over.

Finally, I want to give my view to a point made by Jonathan Blow, who made a series of tweets criticising game journalists who write about Steam Direct being a reason for Indie Developers to panick, and not considering views who are on-the-fence or approve of Steam Direct. I don’t entirely agree with his viewpoint, in particular I don’t think it’s correct to think Kotaku/Polygon’s potentially biased reporting on the Steam Direct based on actual sources and “fake news” to be the same. However, considering that it’s only been a weekend and not every bit of infomation on Steam Direct has been finalised, I don’t think it’s good to treat every bit of detail in the Steam Direct announcement as negative, considering this is one of the first positive steps Valve has made in a while regarding Steam in a while.

Gemstone Keeper at LAGC 2017

So I had a great time at the London Anime and Gaming Convention, even despite some unfortunate setbacks. Indie Zone Administrator and developer at Grandpa Pixel (Folks behind the RPG Legenda series) was unable to make it at the last minute. What made it all the more unfortunate was that there were only three indies at the Indie Zone this year: myself, Crystalline Green (developer of Flight of Light and Atlantis Dare) and Hei Stories (Indie Animation Studio working on Seeking Scarlet At The End Of The World). Needless to say we brought attention to the many attendees who were walking around the gaming area, looking for something to play outside of the retro games in store.

  

I also did a short talk on game development in general, talking about my game development process and answering questions on topics such as piracy, game engines, looking for feedback and much more. Despite the small numbers, demoing the game did help find a few bugs and it was great hearing people say they love the visuals and the challenging gameplay. There was one kid who went back to the game multiple times, which was unexpected.

In a weeks time on Saturday the 18th to the following Sunday I’ll be at GEEK Expo in Margate. Unfortunately unless some other plans come up this will be the last event I’ll be exhibiting Gemstone Keeper before release, as I was unsuccessful with my application at the Leftfield Collection at Rezzed. I will be sure to attend Rezzed as well as GDC in San Francisco so there might be a chance to see me around. Till then I’ll be making my usual posts on social media.

Where to play Gemstone Keeper?

On March 31st, Gemstone Keeper will be available on Steam. However before then there will be a few opportunities to play Gemstone Keeper at some game events, at least in the UK. These events are beneficial for getting feedback, so the game’s quality will improve before release. Here are two gaming events which are currently confirmed places to try out the beta version of Gemstone Keeper.

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Feb 7th and 8th – The Rocket Complex London Metropolitan University

LAGC is a bi-annual anime and gaming convention run by AnimeLeague, and specifically I’ll be in the Gaming Area where the Indie Zone is. I have attended the convention several times in the past, and have enjoyed the many events and stalls available.

Feb 18th and 19th – Marine Studios

GEEK is a gaming and comic book (among other things) festival, featuring retro and modern games, as well as pinball and of course, indie games. Gemstone Keeper will be present at GEEK’s Indie Zone. This will be the first time I have attended an event in Kent, so I’m looking forward to what this event has in store.

Now while I won’t be exhibiting, I will also be reaching outside the UK as I go to GDC in San Francisco, (Feb 27th – March 3rd). While I won’t be showing off Gemstone Keeper on the show floor, I’m hoping to meet several other indie developers and attend meetups around the conference, so there may be a few opportunities for Gemstone Keeper to be played during the week in the USA.

While it hasn’t been confirmed yet, I am hoping to once again, attend Insomnia Gaming Festival in April. I last attended Insomnia’s Indie Zone at i58 and had a great time there, so it would be great to present Gemstone Keeper there once again.

Finally, I can now confirm that Gemstone Keeper now has it’s own official website. This will be a central place to describe what the game is about and to see the latest screenshots and videos, such as these ones below.

Gemstone Keeper Underground

Gemstone Keeper Ice

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Gemstone Keeper Fire

New Years Update

It has now been one full week of 2017, and a lot of people (including myself) have slowly gotten back to work. Since Gemstone Keeper has been getting close to release, I’ve started work as soon as we can to get stuff done.

Before I get into Gemstone Keeper, I worked on a little game for Ludum Dare 37 where the player is stuck in a porta-loo balancing in the air. That game was Danger: Mondays, and after two weeks of voting the results are in. The results for this Ludum Dare were definitely beyond my expectations. While the amount of submissions for the compo were smaller compared to past years (901 compared to 1117 at LD35), that doesn’t devalue the fact that Danger: Mondays achieved a rank just a few places shy of Top 25 in the Humour category of all categories.

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Reading all the comments, I was glad people found the concept amusing, but I’m completely grateful at the how well I did this time around. Thank you to everyone who voted during the day. Apologies for not posting about Ludum Dare any sooner, but I was working on a bigger game.

To be a bit more descriptive, Boss Rush will have the player beating all five bosses as fast as possible, they are able to set the stats and weapons of their explorer before hand and they regain some of their health after defeating each boss.

Score mode allows the player to go through the caverns, and like the daily run mode, will try and get the highest score possible by collecting as many gemstones and materials as they can on a single run. This time however, the player is free to set the seed they want, which will effect all aspects of the game from the levels, player stats, which weapon they have and which items they’ll have at the start.

One of the benefits of working on these game modes (from a developer’s perspective) is that we go through all the main game modes again to not only ensure they work through both the main game mode and these smaller game modes, but to find any bugs or issues that was missed out the first few times.

Another update we’ve done is on the gemstones themselves, namely how they are rendered. Originally, the Gemstone Geometry was generated using a Gemstone Mesh Generator that was developed at PROCJAM, and then rendered using a custom software approach using SFML (you can read a comprehensive write up of this on my websites in part 1 and part 2). However, over the last week of December, it was decided that it was time to update this for performance and to improve quality by changing the rendering process to an OpenGL Hardware render approach.

Below you can see the difference, on the left is the software approach, and the right is the new hardware approach:

This weekend I’ve been playing around with post-process effects, as it would be nice to have some visual effects that would appear through the entire game, although it would be possible for the player to disable certain effects if that want to. To pull this off, the framework now has a multipass post processing system where it’s possible to disable certain effects.

This allows us to apply multiple post process effects at once, and allows us to add the options we need to allow players to enable/disable certain ones.

CRT Shader

Bloom Shader

This is only a small sample of what is being planned, leading up to Gemstone Keeper’s release on March 31st 2017. I’ll also be attending London Gaming & Anime Con in early February and GDC in San Francisco later in the month, however the latter will just be as an attendee.

Here’s to 2017 being a successful year for many people!