Archive for January, 2010

Gaslamp Games : Sweet Legitimation


As of January 28, Gaslamp Games is a real business entity with ownership shared between three partners, of which I am one. We have some things brewing and some income looking near certain in the near future. And we’re not beholden to anyone but ourselves because we’re crazy like that.

This is the feeling of legitimation.

All these years and years of throwing my time into a hole: planning System Shock 3 in English class in highschool (“This isn’t art class!”), filling sketchbooks with tile designs through college (and coding a few of them over some obsessive months), developing technique over two occasionally painful and generally poor years of freelance work; and I remember years and years ago having this vision in my head of what I wanted a particular computer game to be, after dreaming about it, when I was 11 or 12. Then drawing games out on whiteboards and running them for my friends — strategy games on world maps, fantasy magic adventure games on landscapes, space combat games with a series of whiteboards showing the ship view, the galaxy map, the battle map. (If I’d known what D&D was at the time, you can bet I’d have been all over making little worlds in it.)

It is all coming together now.

No one ever told me outright that games weren’t a serious business, but I always preempted such doubts myself, I think. I remember one night a couple years ago seriously considering giving it up, just getting a “real” job, regular work and stable income, to get on with the sort of life everyone expects a person to make for himself. I’m glad I didn’t. I cannot express how much I love the idea of managing to earn a living from my creative work, and at that, to have have creative control in said work.

We’ve made this a real thing for ourselves, not just (ha) a game. It’s going to be great.

Portraits for Space Trader


I recently finished some graphics work for a Facebook game called Space Trader. Do check it out, if you like.

Part of the job involved painting some space opera style character portraits. I like saving the states of paintings as they progress so I can build a timeline showing development of the work, which is just what I’ve done for these four portraits.

Click the picture to see it at full size.


1. Grizzled space-commander

I figured he’d look good in one of those cold-war era looking command/control centers where everyone’s face gets illuminated from below by instrumentation. His uniform is a somewhat cold gray to feel more at home in a futuristic military organization while possibly on a spaceship . And I swear, my instructions just happened to make him look like Sarge from Quake 3, but then I think the cigar-smoking tough military man is a common enough archetype — the concept was crystal clear from start to finish. I also pulled the old cold vs warm lighting from different sides trick.

2. Gruff feet-on-the-ground sergeant type

I went with some peripheral suggestion that he has powered armor and some weaponry. There’s some destruction in the background to show that he’s just blown something up or he survived getting blown up. Either way, he’s a survivor. I’m not quite happy with the eyes and no doubt the lighting is a little erratic. (And I realize again that I need to practice a lot more drawing people’s faces, because lots of things are just a bit weird feeling. I find myself falling back on generic solutions to the problems of rendering faces when I use no reference.)

3. Helpful repair bot

Robots are easy — they don’t have to look like people, and I’m great at machinery. (All the junk in the background? I love that stuff.) The shape of the head evolved to look a little friendlier, less like a skull, and I figured that yellow is a friendly color that denotes construction and repair. The head still looks a bit flat, and the main lens not especially round, but it’ll do, I think.

4. Creepy bad guy

The first sketch was way too Destro, so he had to have a hood up if he was to remain metal-faced. (Metal-masked bad guys seem pretty common, don’t they: Destro, Dr. Doom, uhm … I’m out of ideas, never mind.) Or is it even a mask? I don’t particularly know. Still, it’s great practice to try to draw facets of reflective metal at weird angles with all kinds of indeterminate light sources — it forces me to wing it and try to make it look as believable as possible rather than anything like “realistic”. Ceci n’est pas une pipe anyway. The face evolved to being sharper and more lizard-like as I went on to look more, well, evil. Do note all the lines of the green pipes converging behind his head, bringing the eye to the center of the image. Yes, artistic trickery again!

Two and a half perspectives on Game Design


(above, a concept sketch for one of many game designs I’ve been kicking around)

Mechanics Dynamics Aesthetics

First, the paper with the above title by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek :

To quote two analogous flows from the paper:

Rules -> System -> “Fun”*

Mechanics -> Dynamics -> Aesthetics

Now I’m going to paraphrase and rough over a lot of what the authors surely intended, so read the (short) paper if you have a minute.

So:  Mechanics are the encoded rules of the world; the most basic units of interaction the player has with the world and the world has with itself. Dynamics are the system that arise from the interactions of the rules — (And how beautiful this is! It explains the interest I had in doing A-life stuff in art school).  From Dynamics and a little artistic nudging come the aesthetics of the game, the experience evoked. Simple, yeah?

I’ve played Super Mario World recently. To try this out:

  • Mechanics: The player can jumping, move; There is a world that constrains and moves in particular ways; There are enemies that remove abilities from the player or end the level that move by set rules and timings.
  • Dynamics: The Player jumps off the backs of a row of flying turtles to cross a pit, grabbing coins in the air along the way.
  • Aesthetics: The thrill of success, the fear of falling, the narrative righteousness of fighting the bad guys, exploring the world and finding novelty in new elements.

MDA provides a framework for thinking about game design. Interesting.

* Regarding the word fun, I’m a huge fan of the Tom Chick school of never using the word “fun” when seriously discussing games. (Apologies if I paraphrased his intend incorrectly – I’m just taking a sentiment he’s expressed and running with it). “Fun” is a rhetorical escape, a vague and generic desirable quality that avoids discussion of what exactly it is that is supposed to be fun. It implies that interest and enjoyment (in the broad sense) of media is only about a “fun” feel-good quality. Surely people can also enjoy media that makes them sad, angry, wistful, whatever; there are any number of emotions and aesthetics that a game could evoke from its audience that are not at all easily contained in the word “fun”.

The MDA paper does indeed expand upon what it means by “fun”, so don’t take the above as leveled at them.

A Game Is Not A Story

MDA reminded me of an interview (by Tom Chick, actually) of Andrew Mayer, a designer of “social games” (think: Facebook games). If I recall correctly, Andrew Mayer observed that when people find out he makes games for a living they come to him with their ideas for games — but what they have are not game ideas but story ideas.

Perhaps the naïve approach is to the start thinking from the endpoint of game design, about the high level aesthetic/narrative. “I want to make a game about a guy who does really cool stuff in a neat place!”. As a game design, this forgets an awful lot of low level design that lies beneath the high level narrative.

(And I would say that a lot of major games miss this as well — they really ought to be making something more than an occasionally interactive movie. Or maybe I expect too much; A lot of big-budget games nowadays are, when compared to old SNES games, just as simple and likely much more forgiving in terms of difficulty. Maybe I expect too much sophistication because of the monstrously sophisticated media production that goes into these games.  But this digression is getting huge; This deserves more thought elsewhere.)

This is not to say that  my personal approach to design doesn’t begin with a vague idea of the finished game I’d like to make, of course. The trick to being a game designer is perhaps seeing all the little moving parts within the game, under the story and characters and aesthetics.

(Tangentially again, I have to say that I have a strange time playing games nowadays: Everywhere in games I see and “read” designer intentions rather than the world-narrative of the game. I game the game, and it’s so much harder than it used to be to find myself completely enveloped in the game’s fiction.)

Restraint, Rigor, Rationale

From Fullbright, Steve Gaynor discusses The Three R’s [of game design], which I simply must go on to compare with MDA.

Restraint is the act of resisting the urge to throw in every idea you have simply because it sounds cool, awesome, or hilarious.

Rigor is applied through the act of objectively and deeply considering the practical implications of an idea.  …Your job is to attack your design idea from all directions– technical and gameplay systems in equal measure– and find the holes in it before moving forward.

If Restraint questions the “what” of your idea, and Rigor questions the “how,” then Rationale questions the “why.” Does this idea fit into the broader experience– the identity of the gameworld, the conceits of the fiction?

Though the Three R’s post is worded in a more, um, imperative manner than MDA, it proposes a roughly analogous model of game design. Yeah, Mechanics and Dynamics are not distinguished, but Rationale fits with the notion of Aesthetics and further demands that the Mechanics and Dynamics (“ideas”) of a game support its Aesthetics.

And at that, Restraint and Rigor are fundamentally useful values to hold for creating elegant, efficient design — and a design, at that, which will ever be completed. (–Because, as those of us who’ve worked on making games know, games are intensely complex beasts that can grow in on themselves and out on new features forever if you don’t draw a line somewhere).

* * *

I think it will be fascinating to discuss Dungeons of Dredmor in terms of all the above, because wow, if one learns from mistakes then I’m learning a hell of a lot through making Dredmor. We’re kinda in the midst of pushing to beta so things are crazy. And the desire to ship is such that I think desire to ship a playable game is overcoming creative preciousness. But more on this another time.

Dredmor : UI art tweaking


I should probably write an intro to what-is-Dredmor for this blog, but … it is what it is. But okay: it’s a somewhat roguelike game that I’ve been working on with a couple guys from Victoria for way too long. We’re called Gaslamp Games. We hope to get the game finished ASAP. I have no idea if it is something anyone is going to be interested in paying actual money for, but I’m hoping that it is weird enough to make an impression with whoever it is one is meant to make impressions on.

I’m doing the art for the game (being that I’m an artist), though — to make it more interesting? — I came to this project last October with the art direction mostly set and the animated sprites already complete. I’ve redone all the tilesets, item sprites, and UI, making what difference I can. These screenshots are some UI finalization and polishing, along with a new feature or two; I’ll discuss what’s going on in each.

On this screen the player chooses seven skills to make their character. (The skill pictures are cute aren’t they? I had fun.) Little changed here but for the UI receiving some polish to replace rough layout-boxes with in-theme parchment and stone. And, if you like, here are some earlier shots of the same screen:

Then you choose your name. This screen could use Back and Done buttons and the text could be centered, but it’s looking to be almost there. And here particularly you can see the background painting I had a lot of fun drawing. It’s typical me painting: strong colors and thick, dark blacks.

Finally our hero appears in-game! A comparison to some posts I made on my GameDev journal will show how far things have come.

A note on the life/mana bars: I had quantized the life and mana as hearts and stars, respectively, so that the player could keep easy track of how they were faring. Problem is, the game does not count life in units from one to nine — it’s really some crazy number that changes based on your level and other factors, so what the bar shows is what percent of your total hitpoints you have. It’s more appropriate as a continuous meter than a line of icons.

There’s also a Doom-style animated portrait in the bottom-center (which needs to have its art finalized). I always thought that character’s face in Doom was charming when he gave that big grin after finding the shotgun and I felt all icky when he was hurt and dripping blood everywhere. So my thought was that we could make the character come to life a bit more, connect more with the player of the game, if he had a little emotive face that could react to the gameplay.

I don’t know when Dredmor is going to come out, but I’ll definitely be shilling for it more with nice pictures before release.

That Tangled Web We Weave


Or: A story of how I snuck up on myself through the internet

While running an unrelated image search I ran across a digital painting I made two years ago. Shock.

The worst hadn’t come: Type “airship” into google image search — the first result? Mine.

It’s not even a very good painting. I had intending this to be for The Utopian Design Collective, a project I was sort-of a part of, as an artist, but which never really took off. For my part I didn’t consider this painting good enough to use, nor myself a good enough artist at the time to be very useful. I must have been wrong in some respect because this picture appears to have struck a chord of imagination — (as perhaps was the purpose of the UDC in the first place). And it’s surely something to do with the rise of the Steampunk aesthetic with its airships and a connection to eco/green-ness. How interesting that the confluences of these memes has touched me (but how naturally, perhaps, in hindsight because those same influences that affected the subjects of my art back then have in part produced the popularity of the memes today).

Have a look:

I would not say that everyone is their own harshest critics, but I acknowledge that I possess something of this personality trait. If I may indulge: I was very much still coming to grips with digital painting when I made this piece. The perspective of the ship’s body itself is inconsistent (look at the tail, the ribs of the envelope, the props, the props in the front vs. those in the back; it’s really a bit of a mess). The coloration is rather naive (though good on me for having some reflection of the ground on the bottom, and the sky on the top) — I was relying on colors-as-platonic-ideals rather than colors as how they appear in their context (eg. %50 gray looks cold next to orange but warm next to blue), and shading is handled by going straight toward black rather than using a blue tinge for atmospheric diffusion, or maybe something dark-beige for light coming off the ground. And the brushwork! I still had it in my mind to use the soft brushes rather than hard brushes, which kills a painting [a nod here again to Daniel Olofsson].

(My original post describing the process of painting this can be found on my Gamedev journal here, by the way. And amusingly enough I got all my reference material for the airship here by doing a google image search for exactly the keyword for which this painting now appears.)

And for all that, as said, something must have worked because people used this image in all sorts of ways in all kinds of places. Further searching for my original filename revealed:

Okay, maybe it’s almost all steampunk enthusiasts. But I’m rather perplexed that my contemporary/near-future styled airship is so popular to them. Clearly they’re desperate for pictures of airships.

I’ll have to do a better one, steampunk-style.