Directory of All Essays

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays 2009!

(Click for a larger image)

First, here is a holiday picture I painted for everyone. The creature to the left is a Hairy Elephantosaurus. His prehensile mustache and beard are well suited to both the winding of fine pocket watches and the adjusting of crystalline monocles.

As the last few moments of 2009 draw to a close, I look back with great delight on what has unfolded so far. I started the year at GDC and was struck by the immense potential of plugins such as Flash, Unity and Silverlight. At the same time, I was saddened by the generally low level of both business and development knowledge that exists in the developer community targeting those platforms. You can give a man a finely crafted fishing rod, but if he uses it like a club to beat fish senseless, he may still starve.

The Flash web market. in particular, is rapidly changing. Here are some thoughts on what comes next.
  • The quality bar will rise: Veteran developers from the vicious battlefields of casual games and social games will begin adopting Flash as their primary platform. They'll bring with them vastly superior art and larger budgets. As a result it becomes harder for the individual indie to make it into the top 0.01% that makes a living.
  • Portals get on the web-based F2P bandwagon: Some major flash portals will make free-to-play games a major portion of their offering. It is a richer source of revenue and increases retention. In the dog-eat-dog world of game portals, adapt to new sources of sustenance or die.
  • The growth of long form Flash: Due to the support of portals, the success of social games, plus the revenue benefits of micro transactions, long form Flash games will start to encroach on the dominance of short form sponsored games. Some of the first generation developers that experimented with tacking transactions onto their existing short form titles will see the light and design retention-based play directly into their upcoming titles.
  • Viral distribution will break out of the social networks: As developers figure out that the game lives in the cloud not on a portal, they'll start treating social networks as one of many marketing channels and stop equating 'social game' with Facebook alone. Viral loops will evolve into game driven marketing, a set of highly scalable, automated, experimentally verified techniques that drive an exponential acquisition of players. You need a server, you need players, you need a method of communication and notification. You do not however need a social network per se. Expect modular marketing systems built into some high end games that target multiple social networks, consoles, email address books, flash portals and any other concentrated source of potential customers. At least this is what I'll be doing. :-)
  • Gameplay will continue to dominate: We are still in the stage of the market where we compete based off innovative gameplay, business models and distribution, not non-game fluff like narrative, licensed IP and massively expensive 3D graphics. Thank God. These priorities will shift as the web games market matures, so let's enjoy it while we can.
So many exciting opportunities. Let's raise a toast to an amazing and prodigious 2010! You are going to do great things.

take care

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

The joy of 2D avatars

I've been looking at 2D avatars lately. It's been a fascinating trip into a wierd little area of game art that I haven't dabbled in before. Like quite a bit of game art, there is a very obvious craft involved in the creation of 2D avatars. It reminds me a lot of the techniques that went into old school pixel art or tile creation. You build your pieces just so according to a very particular set of rules. Align the hand, align the head and voila, the end result look like a unique character.

I ran across a couple classes of 2D avatars that are worth describing. This list is by no means exhaustive and what you ultimately end up using completely depends on the type of game you are making. The different styles can be classified by:
  • Perspective: What view is the avatar seen from?
  • Construction technique: How is the avatar assembled?
  • Animation: How is the avatar animated?

Front view: A frontal view of the character. The benefit here is that the character is often symmetrical which reduces the skill needed to draw a character. The downside is that the character is almost always looking straight out at the viewer. May PlanetCute characters are a good example of this perspective.

Partial side view: A partial side view of the character where the character is rotated 45 degrees to the left or right. The example above is such a character. This character can interact with objects in the environment, but with subtle (and cheap!) animation of the eyes, look at the viewer. You can make avatars with this perpective move left, right in a believable fashion by simply flipping the avatar. Climbing ladders is less than compelling. :-)

4 (or 8) directions: For each of the cardinal directions you draw a new version of the avatar. The characters in Diablo are a nice example of this style. Having multiple directions is more realistic and allows you to show the general direction that a character is pointing. However, it is again more expensive. If you have an interchangable item on the character, you need to draw 3 different versions for 4 directions and 5 different versions for 8 directions. This multiplies your art expenses.

Isometric: This is similar the partial side view, but usually seen a bit more from the top. This is almost always done with multiple directions.


Interchangable parts: Most avatars are made out of interchangeable parts. You can swap out a shirt for another shirt. This allows for a vast range of different characters, but They all tend to be built from the same basic mold. Luckily, so does most of humanity, so this system tends to work well for humans.

One piece: Whirled and most single player games uses characters that do not have interchangable parts. All the animation is built into the character. The upside is that you can have great unique animations that really fit the character. Your dragon can breath fire and your balloon beast can float merrily along. The downside is that you need to make unique animations. This is expensive.


No animation: This is the simplest and is quite common with web-based games. If you can get away with it do so!

Cell animation: The whole avatar or the pieces of the avatar are animated by flipping through a series of frames. This tends to be a specialized skill and good 2D animators are hard to come by. Cell animation is highly evocative and has been the animation technique of choice for ages. The downside is that if you are using interchangeable parts, each part needs to be animated through all the possible animations. This means that the number of animations that your avatar supports is likely to be small since you don't want to bloat the cost of creating each item.

Vector animation: Each piece of the avatar is mapped onto a simple 2D vector rectangle that can be smoothly rotated, scaled and squashed. Add a simple skeletal animation system (the foot bone is connected to the leg bone which is connected to the hip bone) and you can do some reasonable effective animation. The characters in Book Worm Adventures are a great example of this style. If done correctly, this method lets you animate just the base skeleton and swap in parts as desired. The upside is that you can have a huge range of animations with the same basic art assets.

Little lessons learned

Optimize for ease of object creation, not richness of animation or immersiveness: If you are going for virtual item sales, your incremental profits can be broken down to # of items sold * price of items - production cost. You want lots of item variety and you want to keep your item cost down.

With this in mind, the format of your avatar begins to matter a lot. Animation is expensive and makes object creation even more expensive. Multiple directions for your avatar are cool, but are they really worth increasing your content costs by 500%?

Most items are made out of at least two pieces, not one
: When you build hair for a character, you have a section of hair that goes behind the avatar's head and a section that goes in front. I've been sketching it all out as a single piece and then chopping it up as needed during the cleanup stage.

Use flat shading or indistinct light sources if you are using vector animation: Since your pieces can be rotated in all sorts of directions, highlights will often look strange when rotated.

The number of slots in your avatar represent sales opportunities:
A character composed of a head and torso presents very little opportunity for players to customize their look and feel. After purchasing a couple of items, they are done. By allowing for tiaras, jewelry, wings, thought bubbles and other items, you win by creating additional sales opportunities. The player wins by having more ways of making their character unique.

Style matters
: I dress like the guy in The Fly. My closets is filled with row upon row of identical pragmatic clothes. I wouldn't know the difference between a cardigan and a camisole if my life depended on it (I actually had to look it up.)

Yet many avatars, especially those in online games, are ultimately about fashion and style. The cut of the fabric is important. The patterns matter. The colors...don't even get me started on the colors. It is no surprise that some online game companies (like StarDolls) build up such an expertise in fashion that they are launching their own real world clothing lines. So I've been reading women's fashion mags. It's a whole different world out there.

Next Steps
I'll continue dabbling with these sketches. My character drawing skills are not the best, so at the very least this will be good practice.

Which style should I use? I'm leaning towards a side-view avatar with interchangeable parts that uses simple vector animation. The cost of production is low and the style seems to be the best fit for some of the game design ideas I've been mulling over. The current template has spots for custom headgear, a head, eyes, mouth, nose, top, bottom, feet and items held in left or right hand.

Here is one last sketch.
Comments and critiques are welcome!

take care


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Sunday, December 02, 2007

How to bootstrap your indie art needs

A goodly number of indie game developers are lured into by the free game graphics. Every few days an email pops into my inbox, "Hey, could you draw the graphics for my cool game design idea?"

I'm honored more than you can imagine when I get such a letter and they mean a lot to me. Unfortunately, I have my fingers in so many projects at the moment that squeezing in an additional graphics job wouldn't be doing anyone any favors. Still, it bothers me that talented people with amazing dreams can't make their games due to a lack of graphics.

Here's a run down of several techniques that help you get your game finished without being blocked by the graphics bottleneck.

Build a game that fits your level of art skills
The first path that you should go down is to build a game that fits your level of art skills. If you are a programmer and can only make squares, make a game that uses squares as graphics. It worked for Tetris and it can work for you.

At a functional level, graphics exist to provide feedback to the player, not to wow them with Hollywood-esque delights. Put those dreams of cinematic fantasms to the side and focus on the game mechanics, the interface and the level design. If you can nail all of these and you only have little ASCII art, people will still flock to your game.

Some successful games that designed the project around the developer's lack of traditional graphics skills include:
If they can do it, you can certainly finish your game without relying on an artist for graphics.

Use free graphics
The next step up is to use free graphics. There are thousands of game graphics out there on the web. Admittedly, they have problems:
  • They may not be the most attractive. "Dude, these free graphics are totally sucky compared to StarCraft."
  • They may not fit your exact mental vision. "No, the Xenli Sorcesses has four silver spikes on her bosom armor, not two. It is completely wrong!"
  • They may not be complete: "I really need a female knight and and they only supplied a male knight! The end is nigh!"
  • Other people might be using them in their games. "Argh, now my RPG looks just like the one done by that guy in Australia. *sigh* Now I will never be l33t."
My heartfelt recommendation is that you get over it. None of these is really a blocker. If you can build a game with limited art, you can certainly build a game with a few carefully chosen bits of free art. Here are some answers to common complaints.
  • You aren't Blizzard. That's okay. You can still make a fun game.
  • Design is about coming up with great solutions in the face of complex constraints. In order to design a great game, you will need to adapt your vision to reality a thousand times. Practice your problem solving skills by using free game graphics in the best way possible to get as close to your vision as possible.
  • If the set isn't complete, get creative! If you need two knight graphics, colorize one blue and one red. If you need a dragon boss, colorize one of your knights black and change the villain to be the Dark Knight. Even primitive graphics skills can triple the number of usable graphics if you show a little initiative.
  • You browse free game graphics archives, but your customers do not. Out of the thousands of people that play your game, only a small handful will recognize that you are using free graphics. The only ones who care are typically merely would-be game developers snobs. Ignore them. That is easy enough.
Here's an example of noted game developer Sean Cooper using my free tile graphics for his Flash game Boxhead. Sean has worked on Powermonger, Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Syndicate. It is instructive to observe how he uses free graphics to give his game a leg up.

Pay for competent graphics
If you absolutely must have quality custom graphics, you are going to need to pay an artist real money to produce them. There seems to be an odd opinion that that artists sit around all day doing nothing and whenever someone asks them for a painting, they scribble for a few moments and then non-nonchalantly hand over a masterpiece. Good art takes time and skill. Drawing a good tile set might take 20 or more hours. Drawing a simple background might take all day. If you aren't willing to pay for their very valuable time and effort, most competent artists will go work for someone who will.

Prices vary dramatically depending on the type of art, the quality of the art and the reputation of the artist. Expect to pay anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour. The best bet is to ask the artist what their standard rates might be. You can always negotiate, but remember if you squeeze the artist too much, you increase the chances that they will put your game on the back burner when a more appealing opportunity comes along. Negotiating for royalties is another option, but since 90% of the reason that games don't get finished is because the programmer flakes out, I would hope that most artists would be rather wary of this path.

There are numerous ways to bootstrap your art budget if you have your heart set on custom artwork.
  • Create art-free games to fund games with more polish. Release a version using free art. If it sells, reinvest the profits in creating the same exact game with better graphics.
  • Set aside a certain amount each month to pay for graphics. One fellow I know is setting aside 300 bucks a month to pay for game art. That will buy him about 2 days worth of a cheaper artist's output a month, but if he plans well enough and limits the amount of extravagant graphics in the game, this could be enough.
If you are looking for artist, you can find a reasonable collection of game artists for hire at these links. Just keep in mind that they all expect to be paid.

The one technique that doesn't work
The most common strategy I see used by would-be developers is the only one that doesn't work. They pray that they can find an amazing artist who will work for free on their game. If only they hang out on enough forums and email enough artists and beg loudly enough...a godly artist will drop from the sky and gift them with amazing artwork.

It generally doesn't happen this way. Good artists can generally find work that pays in cash. Most likely what will happen is that you'll make a deal with a starving student who immediately leaves you in a lurch as soon as something that lets them eat comes along. They aren't being mean. They are just hungry.

So the would-be game developer mopes about the message boards, complaining about artists leaving their projects and how artists constantly ask for real money. Yet despite the substancial energy that goes into these activities, I've yet to see prayer or complaining ship software.

The big lesson
Out of all this discussion about graphics, never lose sight of the big picture. The single most important thing is for you to finish your game. Iterating towards completion is the root of all practical knowledge about game development. Putting a complete game in the hands of player is how you'll learn to make your future games shake the world to its core.

If you are telling yourself "Oh, I can't complete my game because I don't have an artist," be honest with yourself. You are making excuses. Graphics are not an impediment to making a great game. Do what ever it takes to finish your game.
  • Design a game that doesn't need professional graphics.
  • Use free graphics when possible.
  • Set up a rational budget to purchase custom graphics from a professional artist if needed.
Best wishes,

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Sunday, June 10, 2007


Here is a little painting I've been working on for the past couple of weekends. There are seven lucky gods that are celebrated in Japan. One of them is Ebisu, god of prosperity and fishermen. He traditionally holds a Tai, or red sea bream (pagrus major), an auspicious fish that is often used as a symbol of good luck. Just looking at this picture means that glorious things are about to happen in your life.

I also happen to be a fan because there is a delightful Japanese brew called 'Yebisu' that is also named after the cheerful fellow.

This image will be used for the local Aki Matsuri fall festival posters come September. I have traditionally been a rather geeky (perhaps even self absorbed) fellow who rarely took the time to volunteer. Lately I've come to realize how immensely satisfying it can be to give back to the local community. The act is nothing fancy; just simple labor given freely with no expectation of reward. Fascinating.

take care

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Free game graphics: Tyrian ships and tiles

I stumbled across a personal treasure this weekend. Tyrian, the ancient vertically scrolling shooter from long ago still happens to have a fansite. While browsing through their forums, I noticed that Jason Emery, keeper of the Tyrian flame, had made the source code available and folks were actively digging through it.

My thanks go out to whoever ripped the graphics from the source code and posted them as PNGs. Somewhere in the mess of moving multiple times in the past decade, I managed to lose the original files. The freshly ripped files have some transparency errors here and the order is a tad confusing, but I am delighted to have copies again.

Hot summer, great job
I drew up the original graphics in about 4 months as my first real summer job. A friend of mine who shall go by the pseudonym "Ray" had sent around some of my artwork (without my knowledge, I might add) and I ended up getting a random email from a very young Alex Brandon asking me if I wanted to make some graphics. It was either that or another summer stocking beer in the 7-11 cooler. 19 and making games. Heck yes.

I had recently splurged on an Amiga 1200 and it managed to pay for itself that very summer. Alex sent me a short list of list of levels and said "Draw us some graphics." So I did. I turned up the radio and crunched away from 11am when I woke up to 11pm when David Letterman came on. There is some wierd stuff in there as a result, but no one ever complained. They just said "Make some more!"

Remastered and free
In hopes of contributing back to the great and eternal indie scene, I 'remastered' the graphics by removing some of the conversion dirt that had accumulated. Man, I haven't done pixel editing in years. I also took the liberty of stripping out as the various 'non-Danc' flesh-colored seahorse graphics that managed to make their way into the tile set. I may not have gotten all of them, so credit likely goes to Jason for the lovely hotdogs, etc.

I'm making the set available for using in your games, prototypes, animations, etc. Again, use and abuse them as desired. If you make something cool, let me know! Feel free to link back to this page so that others can grab the graphics and mess about. It is good to share old pixel graphics. :-)

And to think, all those hours of effort fit easily into a little more than a meg of pngs.

Download the files here
Remastered Tyrian (1.3 megs)

best wishes,

PS: I'm still missing the store graphics and the cutscene graphics. One day I'll get my hands back on the infamous 'Head on a spike' picture that caused so much consternation.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

SpaceCute: Some sketches

Once upon a time there was a game design known as SpaceCrack. The setting, with its cool white iPod-inspired theme was a bit too niche. Here are some sketches of a SpaceCute theme. In SpaceCute, solar systems are delightful gardens filled with animals quite extraordinary. Anyone think that this is worth turning into a set of graphics?

take care

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day: Turtles all the way down

Here is the painting I made for Valentine's Day this year. If you haven't planted a big juicy smacker on someone's passionately pleasurable lips, you now have a mission. Precious moments of nibbling and kissing are 'a wasting!

The painting title comes from a hilariously metaphysical physics joke. This is the sort of thing that kept all the science students chortling late into the night as we crunched vector fields and fudged probability envelopes.
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!"
With love and respect,

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Some random artwork

I've been doing some rather random drawing lately. None of them are large scale paintings, but they've given me a chance to dabble a lot with vector graphics using Expression Design, the program I've been building for the past year.

Traditionally I've been more of a painterly fellow so it is quite fascinating delving into the much more mechanical world of bezier curves, strokes and fills. The best metaphor I've heard to describe the process is a comment by Aaron Jasinski that drawing with vectors is like "making a picture using cut out pieces of paper." Quite true.

Holiday Couple
This was a quick picture I did for this year's holiday card. I have no idea who these people might be. Obviously however, the lady is incredibly charming and intelligent.

Club Silicon Logo
Here is a logo for a friend that was drawn half in Painter and half in Illustrator. I'm still not sure whether I like the brown or the blue one better.

"Faster than Lite" Space Strategy game graphics
I had a quick idea for a strategy game that used one simple verb: "drag a token to a location." With many strategy games users need to figure out selection, movement, attacking, stacking, managing their stack, etc. Here you move the piece and watch the results. There is actually quite a bit complexity that results. Pieces can attack, build new bases, lay mines, pick up power ups, set up combos, etc and all the user has to learn initially is that simple drag and drop command. This is a design tailored to the "Start playing in under 30 seconds" rule.

The graphics use a simple technique for taking layered 2D vector shapes and squishing them in a group so that they make a faux 3D shape. All you do is:
  • Offset each layer from the previous one on the Y-axis by a short amount
  • Squish each layer in screen space by about 20%
  • Rotate the layers around a common axis of rotation.
Voila, you have a smoothly rotating '3D' object in isometric space. It reminds me a lot of topographical maps. It is a good example of building something interesting with what you have at hand. With a bit of tweaking I suspect this artistic style could be quite evocative. It is also remarkably inexpensive.

(Click image to view at full size.)

Hope the New Year is treating everyone well! My resolution? Release another product this year! It has been over a year since I've had a new version of something I've designed officially go out the door and it feels a bit strange. :-)

Take care

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

More free game graphics

Here is another set of free game tiles for a 2D Zelda-like RPG that I discovered lurking on my hard drive. These were created for a prototype title so there are only a few sets completed. These would make a great start if you are in need of basic graphics for your next great game.

Wilderness Tile Set

Interior Tile Set

Village Tile Set

For the time, these were rather high tech.
  • The shadow tiles had a total of three levels of transparency built in so that you could get a deliciously extravagant soft shadow. The plan was to have some sweet assembly code that shifted our 8-bit palette by different amounts for each indexed shadow color. Soft shadows weren’t even a buzz word at that point.
  • You could have objects on top of other objects. Instead of drawing a table tile with a candle drawn into it, the candle could be a separate object layered on top of the table.
  • They were drawn in Painter 2.0 using a pressure sensitive tablet. They were my first graphics drawn in Painter. I never went back to Deluxe Paint again. :-)
All of this is of course trivial these days. If you’ve got a 24-bit 2D graphics engine, life is grand. I still get warm fuzzy feelings thinking about our mad plans though.

You’ll need to chop these up into the various pieces and then knock out the transparent color. It is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, but it follows the same basic pattern of my other tiles sets. You can use the test pictures posted on this page to see if you are fitting everything together correctly.

I’d imagine that if you are making a 2D game with any sort of wilderness or villages, these would be an ideal starting place and are a lot less painful than tracking down a competent artist. As always, these tiles are free to be used in whatever projects you desire. (I need to get a copyleft license available at some point.) If you do use the graphics, drop me a note. I love hearing about projects.

Download the files here (1.89MB)


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Thursday, May 25, 2006

New Painting: "Manekineko - The Beckoning Cat"

Here is a new painting I did over the weekend. This is Manekineko, the beckoning cat that you often see in various Asian stores.

Here are a few of the Japanese symbols in the painting. Big kudos to Aya for being my art director on this. :-)
  • When the cat is holding up the left paw, it is beckoning people to come in.
  • When the cat is holding up the right paw, it is beckoning money. I've noticed that most of the cats I see are holding up their right paw. Hmm...
  • Both paws beckons both money and people. I love it when ancient symbolism works out so logically.
  • Red is a lucky color
  • Calico cats are lucky.
  • Turtles and cranes together are lucky
  • The hammer is a traditional festival hammer.
  • The cushion is a traditional square Japanese sitting cushion.
I painted this one primarily in Painter and Photoshop at 16" x 20" at 300 DPI. It should make a nice print.

take care

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Tyrian Comic

Here is a completely obscure Tyrian comic that I never expected to see.

Gaming subculture is turning into a real culture. We are seeing music, art and stories that take the language and mythos of games and weave them into a broader experience.

Not so long ago, the culture of games was limited to just games. As much as I like the medium, it deals with the shallow end of the human experience pool. Well, the non-gamers are dying off slowly but surely. And the gamers that take their place 'speak' games in the same way previous generations used music and movies as their preferred metaphors when communicating.

Here's a thought. We always wonder when games will make their Citizen Kane. What if it doesn't work like that? What if instead, games gain meaning through the participation and deep personal involvement of their players much like basketball or football. When these two sports were invented, they were a couple of guys acting like fools with odd shaped balls. Over time, the passion of the players and fans spawned movies, books, articles, stories and legends. Due to intense participation and the clouds of secondary artifacts, these sports became a near religious cultural phenomenon.

What if video games are the same? Take something like Mario 50 years from now. Does it still inspire us? Suppose we create in the Mario universe because it is a powerful metaphor for describing the human experience. It is a different, but no less potent path towards cultural significance. Odd thoughts for a Tuesday morning.

(This isn't a long post...just a link to a cool comic. I lost a big chunk of time browsing the Book of Random Bunny site. :-)

take care

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

250 free handdrawn textures

I was searching through my old archives and came across a set of 250 textures that I thought were long lost. Heck, they aren't doing much good sitting on a slowly decaying CD-R so I figured I'd share them with everyone.

Click here to download (4.49 MB)

Use these however you desire. Mash them up, put them in your games. If you end up releasing a game using these graphics to the public, all I ask is that you put a link to this website someplace the nether depths of your credits.

They are a few years old, so they are all 128 x 128 images using a common fixed 8-bit palette. I also included a text file that explains the naming convention.

If any of you are new to graphics tiles, here's a little illustration that explains all the parts. You have a set of 14 titles that can be used to make any irregular shape and smoothly transition between two titles. For example. Suppose you had a water title and a land title. With the transition titles, you could easily create a pretty shore line.

Tile creation is a dying art since modern 3D terrain engines have all sorts of wonderful blending capabilities for auto generating transition tiles. But if you are working on a game for handhelds or casual games, it is a nice technique to know.


PS: Here's another picture I found! This is the Colossi, a giant floating airwhale that was genetically engineered to serve as the mothership of a parasitic race of super spies known as Puppeteers.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Valentine's Day 2006

Every year I paint a valentine card and share it with as many folks as possible. Pass it around. I love this holiday, despite the commercial nature, the insane pressure to purchase the perfect set of truffles, and the long lonely night that awaits too many.

It occurred to me that none of this really matters. February 14th is a day that is a simple excuse to do something nice for someone else with no thought for yourself. Everyone has a small talent that is worth sharing...everyone has the chance to bring a smile to another person's day.

Such sentiments may seem cheesy as all heck. And they are. There is honestly nothing worse than living your life without a bit of good natured silliness. So load yourself to the gills on candy hearts and dark Belgian chocolate and unleash the love. Bake someone a cake, Pedro-style. Send flowers to your mailman and compliment him on his shorts. Dance at work. I guarantee that someone will crack a grin. Even if it isn't a strip-o-gram.

Of all the holidays, I humbly submit that Valentine's Day is the holiday that best matches the heart of game design. It turns out, you see...that your job is to create the world's best valentine. Game developers are in the fundamental business of bringing joyous pleasure to others.

The best games, many of which are admittedly not yet written, celebrate relationships, joy and giving. We aren't there quite yet, but if the marriages on WoW and the deliciously lost Mario Kart races with our significant others are any indication, we are on the right path.

You know, I am just dying for one of those diabetically huge sugar cookies smothered in thick, pink frosting. With sprinkles...can't forget the rainbow sprinkles.
Danc, Game Cupid

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Space Crack: Monkeying with 2D art

I've been playing around with a variety of styles for Space Crack. Everything from giant robots to completely abstract shapes to Sanrio-inspired space monkeys.

Assuming for a moment that you have a decent game design, one of the most difficult decisions facing a game is the setting and theme. It is a topic so important that many gamers often mistake the theme of the game with the actual design of the game. You'll hear "I have a great game design. Imagine chickens with chainsaws."

This speaks to the heart of the importance of a game's theme. When you think of your ultimate game, you'll almost always gravitate towards a description of the game's theme. A visceral vision of the game will pop into your head, a fantasy involving concrete characters often complete with movie like action. If I wanted to sell you on a game, all I have to do is describe your fantasy game and you'll be slavering for my title in a heartbeat.

A good theme is what causes the player to pick up the game in the first place. It is a hooks that ties into their existing fantasies. If you create a theme for a game that does not resonate with the fantasies of your target audience, they'll never try your title and regardless of the quality of your game design, your title will sit on the shelf.

I remember a wonderful little title called Moon Base Commander. It had delightful game mechanics saddled with a boring as dirt theme. Generic groups battling on a generic lunar landscape. Do you fantasize about being a Moon Base Commander? I don't. There were no doubt other reasons for the title's commercial failure, but the theme was a complete killer.

Searching for a theme
Often, a game designer will find themselves in a situation where they have an interesting game mechanic but they then have to come up with a good theme. The original Nintendogs training mechanic was used in a parrot training prototype. It was interesting, but didn't have a theme that would connect with a large population of gamers. Now, tie that parrot training game with a new skin that has you training puppies instead and voila, you have a commercially viable title.

SpaceCrack intentionally started out with a somewhat generic space theme. Sometimes as you are prototyping, interesting game mechanics will pop up and it can be useful to adjust the story to fit the reality of your game. I wanted to bake the game mechanics a bit more before I assigned them a theme.

So now I'm at the point where I need a theme. And I'm stumped. Since I'm an artist, I started doodling, just to see what would happen. After a while, the monkeys started to speak to me.

My thought process for the current Space Crack theme is rather simple. I wish there was more depth behind it, but there isn't.
  • Monkeys are a popular pop culture icon
  • If I make monkeys a major theme of my game, everyone who likes monkeys would be tempted to try the title. "It's got monkeys. Sweet! I'll give it a shot."
  • I personally enjoy monkeys. When your are slaving away on game art at 2AM in the morning, it is good to work on something that you love.

Hope you enjoy the graphics. :-) (When I draw all day long, there tend to not be as many essays.)

take care

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Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Space Crack: An artistic dilemma

Cute or Hardcore?
I'm a relatively decent artist. This poses a problem. I have the unholy power to skin Space Crack with an acceptable facsimile of almost any popular art style out there. The result is too many choices. So here's a question for everyone who has been kind enough to read this blog: What art style should Space Crack use? I've got a couple of seed ideas that I've been playing with.

  • The first is Fifties iPod. This one is very white, with simple retro shapes that harkens back to glory days of early sci-fi. Other than sporting a classic 50's pin-up girl, the designs tend towards more abstract and geometric shapes
  • The second is Space Cute: Another rather white design, but this one has cartoony characters and highly symbolic graphics. Red hearts, yellow stars, and people with space helmets make an appearance. Think of it as Mario in Space.
Fifties iPod

Space Cute

Worms shows the way?
Someone mentioned how Worms made an incredibly violent game palatable to a wide variety of players. I'd love to do the same thing with the art direction on this game design. I'm not sure if my 50's pinup (as enjoyable as she was to paint) does the trick here. At the same time, I'm curious if the Space Cute style is too generic. Thoughts, opinions and critiques are welcome.

take care

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

Paper Nintendo characters

Here's another example of the neo-retro art style that is downright delightful. Someone recreated a wide range of Nintendo characters with foldable paper cutouts. It is not overly surprising that a close variation of this style is used in Paper Mario. Kudos to 4colorrebellion for linking to this.

Check it out:

take care

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Neo-Retro Art Style: Savior of the game industry?

Defining a cheap, sexy, and practical art style for next generation games

(image courtesy of WIP here)

Everyone knows Retro game art. It invades our culture and manages to be cool despite its primitive nature. But the world has changed and realistic is in. If you aren't Unreal 3, you are nothing. I've got a problem with this and it isn't my typical artistic / flamboyant / whiney one. This is an economic rant: I can't afford to make realistic art.

The more cold hearted players might say "tough". If my wallet doesn't pack the punch of a Rockstar, maybe I shouldn't be playing the development game. And to be honest, my plight is worse than just my inability to pay for realistic art. I'm looking rather pitiful.

  • I suck at creating next generation 3D models. At best, I'm a level 2 box modeler and normal mapping scares me.
  • I don't really care if my games look state-of-the-art or not. If I have limited resources, I'd rather put them into making cool game play that will sell more copies. Bang for the buck rules my world.

I'd like to say my plight is unique, but everyone who isn't EA is pretty much facing the same situation. Both publishers and developers have tight budgets and a projected 100% increase in art costs. Their existing artists aren't trained in creating next generation content and ramping up skillsets takes time. If push came to shove, they would kill for a few Katamari Damacys to boost their bottom line. Even if the graphics suck.

Next generation machines will increase the risk of game development for publishers. From the chats I've had, major publishers will be putting more eggs in the same few baskets. If one or two of these Quadruple A titles doesn't reach the mega-blockbuster status (*cough* God of War *cough*), the whole company suffers dramatically. If it sucks to be me doing next generation titles, it sucks to be them even more so. And those cold-hearted gamers who said 'tough' aren't going to like the limited choices you have once the Consolidation begins. (Did I hear someone say 'NFL?' Shh...they'll hear you.)

It is time to combat the economic evils of next generation excess with a powerful secret weapon. Style. Retro style.

Neo-Retro: A definition
Neo-Retro art has its roots back to the 8-bit glory days. It borrows from the simplicity of boardgames of yore and mixes it with the shiny plastic minimalist aesthetic of the iPod design cult. It can use the latest pixel shaders, polygon pipelines and technical doodads, but it doesn't rely on them to make it's impact.

Neo-retro art is:

  • Symbolic, not realistic
  • Efficient, not laboriously ornate
  • Stylish, not visceral

Neo-retro already exists and has been saving major companies money for this entire generation. Next generations will continue to refine this practical and appealing art-style. Many examples tend towards the whimsical and child-like, but there is not reason why this cannot be used for serious games as well. Some examples from around the web include:

Naturally, SpaceCrack will use this style of art. I'm too cheap to do anything else.

take care

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Download a complete set of sweet 8-bit Sinistar clone graphics

Download the complete graphics to Iron Plague, a Sinistar clone

As I dug through my archives of old images, I came across another complete set of graphics from 1995 for a wild Sinistar clone that was never released. I own all the copyrights and figure, what the heck. Some crazy fool who is still obsessed with the glory of pixel art might find a use for them.

Complete descriptions of all the graphics after the link. Enjoy!

This is the complete list of all the graphics. Since it was a space game, the number of tile sets is rather limited. We originally built the game map as a big bitmap that stuff was randomly blitted to. It had super smooth scrolling and pretty decent physics.

  • ActGrid: Spawn point for player's ship
  • Barrel: Repulses the players ship if it gets near
  • Base: Spawn enemy drones
  • Beacon (Destroyed, Searching, Red Alert) Sensor that looks for any enemy
  • Beacon2: Alternative sensor type
  • Blood: Splots of animated blood if you kill a space man.
  • Bomb1: Classic pulsating bomb. Exploded with great force, inevitably.
  • Bship: Battleship with cool rotating turrets. This thing was 3 times as large as your ship!
  • Bubble: What the hell?
  • Bullets: 6 types of bullets, each with 3 levels of power.
  • More bullets: Powerups and different color bullets for rock, paper, scissor attacking action.
  • Canister: The crate lives! Holds powerup, naturally
  • Cargo1: Ook? Alien nasty.
  • Cargo1b: Alien nasty damaged
  • Cargo2: Another cargo ship
  • Check: Checkpoint. When the player reaches this checkpoint, they regen from this location.
  • Crystal1: The cash of the game. The evil drones use this to make the Killer.
  • Crystal2: You have to realize that we didn't have the ability to rotate things easily. This was a radical attempt to create 16 rotational positions. 8-bit technology at it's peak.
  • Debris: The stuff that spews out when an asteroid is mined by drones
  • Debris2,3: More of the same.
  • Doomsday: Think of this as very nasty big bomb. If you hit it, the entire screen went 'foomp' and no more little player.
  • Drone: These little fellows run about gathering crystals in order to build the Killer. They'll orbit an asteroid, fire at it until a crystal appears and take it out.
  • Drone2: A more efficient type of drone
  • Exhaust1, 2, and 3: This flame comes out the back of a spaceship.
  • Explode1, 2, 3, 4, and 5: Ah, the glory of highly animated explosions with 1-bit alpha.
  • Face1: This fellow was the store keeper when you bought upgrades.
  • Factory: An enemy installation that made drones
  • Factory2: An enemy installation that made super drones
  • Factory 3: This is where the Killer was built.
  • Factory 4b: This is where the mini-Killer was built.
  • Flame: Fireballs stolen from Mario, no doubt
  • Flamer: Everything you need to make a flame thrower of death and burnination
  • Font: I'm in awe. Font with *high light selection*
  • Formref1: Reference on how formations worked. Galaga, move on over.
  • Gamemenu: The basic menu for the game. Check out those gears.
  • GravBcon: A gravitational beacon that sucked the player towards the deadly rocks.
  • GravGrid: Bubbles in space that acted as a simple form of terrain. Very fun.
  • Guard: These trigger happy campers guarded the drones. No one ever said plot was important to video games, dammit.
  • Gun: It looks more like a blimp, but this fired out little round bullets in streams.
  • Hiscore: Enter your name, record your score. If we had come out a few years later, we would have licenced some sweet Tony Hawk punk/death/metal sellout music for this screen.
  • Hunter1, 2: Attackers that come straight at you.
  • Items: All the great powerups you could get. I have no clue what they do, but I like shiny things. (Let's see: Generators to improve energy recharge, shields, health, rubber duckies, various weaspons, and the Amiga Checkmark)
  • Junkdrtst: Energy gates
  • Joystick: Back in the day you needed to calibrate your joystick. These are the interface graphics.
  • Junk: Destructable junk that acted as mazes for the level. You could blow holes in it...cause that's fun.
  • Keyboard: Keyboard configuration
  • Killer: Ode to Sinistar, my ass. Talk about exact copy. This happy looking fellow was a pain in the arse once he came to life.
  • Killer2: The mini-killer. Not quite a munchkin, but still damn sexy. His eyes would slowly come alight as he was built. He could also split apart when he was built.
  • Knife: Um...seems rather morbid.
  • Launcher: Another enemy ship. This one flew around spawning little ships
  • Mage: A logo for our team
  • Main: The intial interface. We went with a much more minimalist look in the end.
  • Main2: The final minimalist UI
  • MainMenu: Yet another menu template
  • Mine: These fellows floating around caused mucho pain
  • Missle: Hmm. Sloppy, sloppy. The high light is off in the lower left corner.
  • Mouse: UI for selecting mouse control.
  • Names: All the cool folks in our development team. I still talk to Leinad (music), and wReam (Hmm...what did he do?) and Zoombapup (programmer...he ended up working on Worms for ages)
  • Nebula: Gotta have background graphics
  • Options: The options screen. In the end, it is all about 'Exit to DOS'
  • Pointer: The mouse pointer. It changed when you clicked.
  • PShip2: The player ship. I spent time on the 16 rotational animations so that it would be smooooothy. Like the fine inner thigh of a lovely amazonian princess right after a day of mudbaths and waxing. I was such a proud young artist.
  • Rock: An asteroid that contains crystals and be blown to smithereens.
  • Ship: One of my first attempts at 3D graphics. This took ages to render on a pirated copy of 3ds running in the old computer lab. I think we ran it on the fastest machine on campus, a 486.
  • Ship2: Sweet!
  • Ship3, 4, 5, and 6: Enemy! (Really, all the explanation that was needed)
  • ShipGun: Imagine this...a ship with a rotating turret. Man, that would be so cool.
  • Smasher: Ever have those days when the programmer laughs and laughs and laughs at you? This enemy had an animated energy ball on a chain. Add some primitive physics and you put that little cutie from Kill Bill to shame.
  • Spaceman: When certain ships where destroyed, little guys fell out. They really only existed to be shot. I think I stole the idea from the joy of running over little people in the Amiga game "Firepower."
  • Spacestor: If you made it here, you could buy cool stuff
  • Spike: Dangerous walls
  • Store3: The interface for the store.
  • Sun: The central sun that all this junk floated around. If you fell in, you got hurt. Flares flew out of it periodically.
  • Teleport: A jump gate between sections of the map
  • Test1: A mockup showing the store in action
  • Test2: A mockup showing the game in action
  • Warp: No clue
  • Wave: A giant gun that fired huge waves of fire at the player.
  • Worm: A squirmy worm creature.

And I'm spent.

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Game Post Mortem: Hard Vacuum

Mining a 12-year old game design for innovative game mechanics.
(Plus the complete set of 8-bit graphics available for download

In 1993, I worked on an unreleased RTS game design called Hard Vacuum. Dune 2, the father of the modern RTS had just come out in 1992, revolutionizing the the gaming community's perception of the possibilities of the strategy game genre. We believed that RTS games were the future and that we were the inspired game developers who were going to popularize this hitherto ignored genre.

Some historical perspective is in order. Warcraft wouldn't come out until late 1994. Command and Conquer wouldn't arrive until 1995. What many PC gamers today consider to be one of the most burnt out genres was at that time new, fresh and completely unknown to most gamers. The term 'RTS' hadn't even been invented as far as I know.

As I write this in 2005, I'm bemused by the path the RTS game genre has taken from stunning innovation to stagnant maturity. The latest Age of Empires is certainly a gorgeous game, but the core mechanics of the genre have changed little since it's peak in the late 1990s.

From this perspective, I revisit a 12-year old game design conceived near the very birth of a genre. In particular I'm interested in the unexpected solutions to common problems. What sort of bizarre innovation occurs when a game designer can't steal from the latest best seller?

Hard Vacuum: The Basics
Hard Vacuum was set in a science fiction world run by large corporations. You were a mercenary battle team, out for hire to the highest bidder and ready to kick ass. Admittedly, a rather generic plot, but then again entries into a new genre are rarely concerned with plot. Hard Vacuum also had most of the basics of your typical real-time strategy game.

  • Resource Gathering: There were mineral deposits that you could build mining towers on to gather resources.
  • Base Building: You could build a variety of building for generating units, new buildings, and additional resource gatherers.
  • Fighting: There were a variety of units that could be deployed to attack enemies, destroy bases, etc. You could select them with a rubber band and send them towards the enemy.

Hard Vacuum: Innovations
There were several interesting systems in Hard Vacuum. Some made it into future RTS games and some did not.

  • Supply Lines: When you built a mining tower on a resource deposit, there was no need to manually build and manage drones to carry the minerals back and forth. Instead, a road was built from your base to the mine. Drones were automatically created when the mine had a full load and sent along the road to your base. Enemies could blast your supply line and interrupt your flow of resources. So protecting fixed supply lines became a bit part of the strategy.
  • Variable Height Terrain: This was a 2D tile-based game intended to run on 386 and 486 machines. We had a full system of variable height terrain. Units on higher ground would have targeting advantages over units on lower grow
  • Deformable terrain with flowing water and lava: You could blow huge holes in terrain with artillery in order to divert streams and lava. Drop a water bomb on a city and watch it wash away an entire troop. Drop a dirt bomb to create a mountain.
  • Walls: Walls played a huge part in the game to give large defensive barriers to attack. These existed in Dune2, but were extended in HV
  • Player created landscapes: Walls, base building, supply lines, and advanced terrain modification all contributed to a game where players built intricate maps during game play. We couldn't afford to spend lots of money building maps so instead we had to create fun systems that let players create unique and interesting combat situations.

What We Lost as Game Players
All all the mechanics in HV, the one I fail to see in new games is the focus on player-created environment. With our bloated budgets, we can afford to spend a two dozen man years creating intricate content that players use once and then throw away. Oh, you spent and hour playing map 3b in the single player campaign? Blizzard spent 5 months designing that. Now you are never going to play it ever again. What a waste.

There is a big lesson here. Without a successful game to promote the concept of player-focused creativity in the RTS genre, this intriguing game mechanic was stillborn. The concept certainly has some validity since we can see that it blossomed in the sim genre in the aftermath of SimCity's success. But without clear examples of successful application in the RTS genre, designer never really had a chance to steal it, implement in their 'next generation' games, and evolve it into something more polished.

I believe strongly that genres evolve in simple steps based on modifications to previously successful games. Games like C&C and Warcraft solidified the major conventions of RTS games. Unfortunately, in the game industry, massive success breeds design stagnation. Once a successful formula for creating a RTS was discovered, gamer designer copy the basics and then focus on polishing the basic formula. Better cut scenes, improved graphics, tweaked unit control for expert users, etc. As game designers, we only look back as far as the last successful title.

Let's play "What If"
Imagine for a moment, if a game like Hard Vacuum had achieved popularity. The ripples of a successful early title have a profound effect on future titles. Would it be obvious the most casual game player that terrain modification is a fundamental part of the basic RTS formula? Would things like supply lines and dynamic player created environments be the standard?

An even crazier thought branches off from here. If these design mechanics had become standard, what would a modern RTS game complete with physics, 3D graphics, and king-of-the-genre polish look like today?

When we look at the evolution of genres, these are intriguing questions. Game designers are too complacent in their acceptance of genre norms. It is up to us to shake things up a bit.

An Exercise for the Reader
Pick up and play an ancient copy of a game that fathered a genre. The further back you can go, the better. Clear your mind of all expectations and knowledge of what the genre evolved into. That cool thing that Half Life did with conversations. Forget it.

Now reinvent the genre. What are the core primitive concepts and where can you take them that would result in addictive player experiences? You have the opportunity to reinvent an entire decade of evolutionary game design in your head. Chances are you will spawn a few original ideas.

If you can get the final project through the miserable distribution system that plagues our industry, you might even have a new genre buster on your hands.

The Hard Vacuum Team
The team that made Hard Vacuum was typical of many groups in the early 90s. We were small, self funded, still in school and willing to work crazy hours. A team like this today can not even hope to create a major block buster game.

Yet, in that time period, this seemed to be the standard. Id took the world by storm with it's first person shooter Doom in 1993. Tim Sweeney and James Schmalz were busy starting up Epic with a titles like Epic Pinball. Most teams were still below 10 people and a large number of successful games where released with core teams of 4 or 5.

I've only been able to keep track a few of the folks involved.

  • Daniel Cook: I did the artwork and a bit of the HV design. I went to work with Epic and created a game called Tyrian that paid my bills for a long while. After that I designed a program called Anark Studio, which is used to create thousands of interactive 3D project. We even started selling it to the game developers this past year.
  • Ryan Geithman: Ryan was our rocking lead programmer. He went on to do some amazing work on Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance and the new Bard's Tale game. An industry man.
  • Patch: Patch was another programmer. I have no idea what happened to him. He would call me up on pay phones to talk about game design. Every few minutes he would have to play a series of tones from his little blue box to get another few free minutes of talk time. Conference calls through phone phreaking. Those were the days. :-)

Free Artwork
I don't have the design documents any longer, but I do have a large number of the game tiles. These were done primarily in DPaint and Brilliance using an Amiga 1000. We didn't have no stinking Wacom tablets so these were all drawn with a mouse. Pixel art at its finest.

  • ~60 vehicles
  • ~120 terrain tile sets
  • ~30 misc graphic (bullets, blood, clouds, etc)
  • ~30 buildings
  • Interface screens

Use them, abuse them. If you make anything interesting, let me know.

take care

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I found a bunch of my old 8-bit graphics. Woot! Here's an example. I'll post more as I get this site up and running. This one was an ode to Sinistar. Such a classic.

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