Archive for July, 2010

Pixelcraft: The Colors of Frogatto

2010/07/29

For quite some time I’ve been intending to write about pixel art technique. Today I stumbled on a pixel-art platformer game called Frogatto & Friends which has inspired me to get on this because I was struck by the game’s lovely art. (I haven’t actually played the game yet, though it is available for free on PC/Mac/Linux, and the code, but not the assets, is open source.)

So let’s see if I can explain what’s going on with the pixels of Guido Bos and Richard Kettering (who it seems also lead the art for Battle For Wesnoth; neat).

Use of Color

The artwork of Frogatto nicely demonstrates the intentional use of color (hue, in particular) to emphasize the depth of a scene. Warm colors pop out to the foreground while cooler colors recede to the background. I’ve pulled some of the color palettes out of a screenshot to show how this is operating:

Notice how much warmer the lighter colors are – the green and brown are pretty much the same shade of yellow at their lightest, while the stone’s gray takes on a noticeable brown tone at its highlights. On the other end, the green cools down even to the point of using a shade of blue while the stone goes toward a more neutral (and relatively cooler) gray.

The use of a blue tone in the tree is particularly interesting. It’s actually lighter than the mid-dark green but is so much cooler that it fits with the shadowy parts of the leaves – and the blue reflects the ambient, bluer light of the sky rather than the direct yellow sunlight — the use of color in the tree tells us a lot, very subtly, about the lighting in the environment.

As an experiment I replaced the original colors with “naive” color palettes that are simply light to dark gradients of a single hue with no change in ‘temperature’ or saturation.

The scene still works (ignore the yellowish leaves in the lower right), which is a testament to the skillful use of tone and shapes, but it’s flatter and less full of life than before.

  • In general, warm hues bring things forward, cool hues set things back. (Sometimes I like to play with inverting this rule to make a scene look weird.)
  • Ambiantly lit shadowy areas can be ‘lit’ with a color that offsets the primary lighting; Consider what color is coming from the rest of the environment, or what color the sky is.
  • Color can be used very subjectively. It doesn’t matter what exact color your color-picker displays, and it definitely doesn’t have to match the “naive” understanding of what color something is. What matters is how the color you use works in-context with the rest of the colors of the scene; Indeed, leaves can be blue.

[Yes, I’ve spoken out about how I don’t care for using small fixed palettes in pixel art. The upside of the practice is that it forces artists to be very conscious about their color choices, so from that perspective it promotes some artistic rigor and, on occasion, very creative use of color.]

And that’s that for now. This game has wonderfully rendered shapes – those pointy leaves and contrast between bulbous and cubic rocks – so it feels like there’s going to have to be another post on the art of Frogatto. Soon.

Video Games Podcasts I Listen To

2010/07/23

Or:  Why I listen to people talk about playing games instead of actually playing games.

Mostly.

I’m an artist, right? Right. I draw using my computer pretty much all the time. It’s what I do. Drawing (or ‘digital painting’ or ‘pixeling’ or whatever it is) doesn’t particularly engage the part of my brain that involves language unless I’m actually doing higher-level design. A lot of it is just painting away at something or pushing a lot of pixels. Oftentimes it’s not supremely engaging stuff like drawing lots and lots of bricks or painting lots and lots of clouds – all good and necessary things, yes, but the mind tends to wander. So I listen to stuff. Music works oftentimes, and the emotional content of the music often finds its way in to my art. Other times I want to listen to something I can think about, something relevant to what I’d like to be doing: game design.

I listen to internet audio shows about games. For some reason Apple has convinced us that these audio shows are to be called podcasts, and just as I eventually gave in to using the word “blog”, so too shall I adopt use of the word “podcast”.

These are the podcasts to which I continue to listen, with some of my thoughts.

Three Moves Ahead by Troy Goodfellow (of Flash of Steel, a site I recommend for strategy gamers) with one or more of Tom Chick (of Quarter to Three and GameShark), Bruce Geryk, Julian Murdoch (from Gamers with Jobs), and Rob Zacny

The shows are low-key and honest, almost always excellent, and the commentators are intelligent, well-spoken, funny, and clearly experienced critics. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone interested in strategy games.

I’d love to have a future Gaslamp game featured on there if we end up doing something with strategy; I can dream, right?

Quarter To Three Games Podcast by the aforementioned Tom Chick with various guests from the Quarter to Three forums

In this show Tom Chick talks to a sort of “regular gamer” from his site’s forums in an interview format first about their job, life, and/or interesting life experiences, then about a game they’ve chosen to discuss. I appreciate the down-to-earth tone Tom Chick uses, and the shows often spend a lot of time talking about random things aside from the game being discussed. It may be a bit unfocused, but I appreciate the slice-of-life range of topics.

(There’s also a Quarter To Three movie podcast which is hilarious and insightful. I definitely recommend it to anyone interested in movies.)

Gamers With Jobs Conference Call with Shawn Andrich, Julian Murdoch, and uh, some other guys I don’t remember…

This is basically a “have a bunch of guys sit around and bullshit about games for a while” sort of podcast, though they do have actual subjects of discussion and guests sometimes, even Real Game Designers. Tends to go on for a while, but it gives a good sort of “state of games” impression about a lot of things I’d never find the time (or motivation) to play myself.

Jumping the Shark, “the official podcast of GameShark.com

This is mostly a “sit around and bullshit about games”, albeit from the perspective of a pack of game journalists, with a discussion topic per-show following a what-games-are-you-playing segment. Provides insight into the world of video games journalism (which the participants don’t, I think, promote any illusions about), but mostly it’s a “state of games” show to me.

The Brainy Gamer Podcast by Michael Abbott

It’s not updated often, but as the title suggests, the show is intelligent and has some good interviews/discussions with experienced game designers talking seriously about the subject.

Game Design Advance Podcast by Charles Pratt

New York indie game design; Content full and utterly academic. Having taken some philosophy courses and going to art school means I can totally take anything this podcast dishes, but it’s probably not for everyone.

Experience Points Podcast by Jorge Albor and Scott Juster

Sometimes I’m a bit torn on this one, but I keep listening to it. They don’t necessarily get too deep into discussion and seem to have less to say than more experienced critics and writers (I believe they’re just a touch younger than myself, even), and they tend to talk about more mainstream console games than my tastes run, but it is important for me to find out what such games are all about and they deliver with admirable regularity. They’re earnest in approaching mainstream games with a mind for actual discussion, so I appreciate what they try to get out of it. I think they’re getting better as they go along and get used to the medium.

Aside from these I make forays into other genres; For a while I listened to a huge backlog of short science-fiction stories read in audio form in a podcast called Escape Pod, which I believe has a fantasy and horror equivalent, and a number of tabletop RPG design podcasts (eg. Master Plan, Open Design Podcast) which, though fascinating for a different take on game design, I burned through pretty quickly.

Still, I run out of things to listen to.

Do you have any good game podcasts to recommend?

Game Design Dialectic: Dwarf Fortress and Goblin Camp

2010/07/16

This is only the beginning of a story, but it could prove to be a very interesting story if it bears out. I think it already contains instructive lessons for game development and design.

On the left, Dwarf Fortress. On the right, Goblin Camp.

I hope you know about Dwarf Fortress, the very complex roguelike-lookinglike fantasy world sim / citybuilder. From a development perspective,  DF is a very long-running obsessive project coded by one guy, Tarn Adams, who makes more money than I do (not difficult) entirely by donations from his fans. I admire Tarn’s goals and his creative freedom which lets him indulge his whims – I wish I could do that. I even had fun playing some Dwarf Fortress until I explored most of what there was to explore. It was sweet while it lasted, but I grew tired with the tedium of a very rough user interface and tedious gameplay.

This brings me to a common criticism of Dwarf Fortress: development over the last year, year and a half has focused on revising very low level details about the game’s simulation of how materials interact, particularly how creatures bodies are built with layers of bone and muscle and hair, what properties these each have, etc. It is true that part of the charm of Dwarf Fortress is about the ridiculous level of detail. But it has been over a year and I still have to press a series of awkward keyboard shortcuts to build things, I need to hand-designate every square of ore to be mined, I need to tell each workshop exactly what to make. Frankly, the user interface achieves mind-blowing levels of confusion and  unnecessarily repeated actions which lead to a sense of tedium and frustration that overwhelms my interest in continuing the play the game – so I don’t. Many people don’t even manage to fully learn to use the interface (or don’t want to)  due to – I’ll say it – how bad it is. And further, most new players are overcome by the sheer detail and volume of information that needs to be processed and managed by hand: To speak for my own experience (to those of the DF community that hold in high regard their ability to manage an extraordinarily complex game), it’s not that I am incapable of running a complex Dwarf Fortress game, it’s just that I don’t want to because it’s boring to have to hand-tweak every little thing to keep the place running, and worse still, it actually hurts my hands to press the same keys again and again and again as is required.

I love what this game could be and reading the development page it is full of admirable, sky-high aspirations. But I can’t bring myself to play it. It’s a beautiful idea but an extremely flawed game.

To get the Dwarf Fortress Experience, you’re better off reading the stories people write about their games in forums, eg. the classic Boatmurdered. This removes the frustration of playing the game itself and gives you the high points of amusement at the absurd details and situations which arise during gameplay (which inspired a good deal of the silliness we have in Dungeons of Dredmor, I should add).

And then, if the post’s timestamp is correct, just two days ago on July 14, Ilkka Halila announced Goblin Camp in the SomethingAwful forums.

Now things are getting interesting.

Goblin Camp looks like Dwarf Fortress, uses the same ASCII-graphics, and starts from a foundation of the same sort of gameplay built upon semi-autonomous agents collecting and processing resources in a world build of tiles, but it makes several important departures in terms of project development and design philosophy.

  1. The code of Goblin Camp is released open source. In interviews, Tarn Adams has expressed concern about releasing DF’s code because he could lose control over the focus of the project, lose financial support, and he is not interested in supporting other people modifying (and breaking) the code. Goblin Camp has already been extended by coders other than Ilkka – if the initial interest maintains its present momentum, the game could develop at an extraordinarily rapid pace. I must observe though that GC’s appeal is somewhat cannibalistic on DF’s – It is frustrated DF fans that are excited about CG.
  2. Goblin Camp streamlines play. For example, there is a central depository of craft goods in GC which the player gives orders like “Maintain a stock of 500 wood planks”. Workers are automatically assigned tasks to fulfill this requests, they are sent out in the woods to cut logs which are returned to a carpenters shop to be processed. In DF, one would have to designate a single worker as a lumberjack, scroll out into the map, designate an area of trees for chopping (using the keyboard, by the way), then queue tasks in a carpenters shop by-hand. When designated trees run out, the player has to re-designate more trees – and the player is not told when they run out of designated trees. GC handles the minutiae for the player, reducing the hand-interaction required from perhaps 10 actions to one action, at least. To be frank, this design ethos of streamlining interaction blows DF out of the water in terms of playability already (Dwarf Fortress was released four years ago, by the way).
  3. Goblin Camp abstracts details. While DF has spent a year of development time simulating the material properties required to properly model the penetration of an iron bolt through leather armor, flesh, and bone, as appropriate to the details of a given creature’s anatomy, GC was coded in its entirety in two months and uses simple die rolls for attack skill and damage. The resulting playability of each game’s combat is not a radically different experience: guys swarm each other and people get chopped to bits. The idea of abstracting small details to implement fun features more quickly appears to lay behind every aspect of GC’s development. Further, the mod-friendly and open source nature of the game allows other people to fill in small details at their whim while the primary developer concentrates on the more general framework of gameplay.

Goblin Camp was made, to paraphrase Ilkka, because he loved the sort of game that is Dwarf Fortress but he is impatient and wants to play the game DF could be, that he wants DF to be, now rather than waiting for Tarn to add certain features to Dwarf Fortress – if he ever does. A game like Goblin Camp was bound to happen in response to Dwarf Fortress, and I think Tarn and many others knew it would come. I’m pretty sure similar attempts have been made (there was an Elf Forest joke-game, I believe), but none seem to have really taken off. Maybe Goblin Camp will.

Goblin Camp, as a game and an approach to development, is a critical response to weaknesses in the game and development of Dwarf Fortress. Maybe Tarn will have to react to Goblin Camp out of a need to save his source of income, maybe he will re-focus on making Dwarf Fortress a playable game rather than a complex simulation lost in it’s own obsessive detail, accessible only to an extremely dedicated few. It’s like Josh Petrie’s advice to beginning game developers: “Write Games, Not Engines” mixed with the ethos and methodology of Open Source software, Wiki-style content, and the absurd power of the internet.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Against Pixel Art Formalism

2010/07/15

Pixel art is for the pixels!

I don’t care for being formalistic about pixel art, of adhering to a limited palette or carefully anti-aliasing my lines by hand, of using all-or-nothing transparency (actually, I do the latter two more often than I’d like to admit). What matters is what I wish to do with the aesthetic of pixels – and what specifications I must meet for the graphics to work at all in the given platform. It is ridiculous to throw away perfectly good tools like brush effects, gradient tools, and overall image adjustments. Tedium is not artistically uplifting.

If the art is about pixels, it’s pixel art. It doesn’t matter how I make it.

I actually followed all the “rules” of pixel art to draw these. Oops. Then I used the adjust levels tool in Photoshop. Ha! I have overthrown the tyranny of aesthetic canon!

There! It’s not a manifesto unless you try to sound controversial in the first paragraph.

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Pop-up icons are awful!

2010/07/09

This might seem negative, but I found that I have a visceral reaction against the subject of this post and upon being confronted to explain myself I believe that there are good justifications for my feelings. So let’s hear ’em!

(I’ll even apply this to UI design in Dungeons of Dredmor at the end.)

While redesigning the Gaslamp Games blog, our web dev’r found a plugin for WordPress to give a viewer the ability to share a post on social media sites (which is the cool thing that The Kids do these days, I hear). This plugin is SexyBookmarks. Here it is on the Gaslamp site; my mouse cursor was over the del.icio.us icon:

You get a row of social media icons that pop-up on mouseover. Yes, it’s cute. But I hate it.

The point of an icon is to be a sign for what it represents which is identifiable at a glance. It is the symbol of the thing condensed and simplified as much as possible. This plugin cuts the icon in half, hiding much of the visible space, making it less identifiable. This defeats the purpose of having a full icon.

Is it about saving space? It doesn’t: In the half-hidden mode, the icon is shifted down 10 pixels and upon mouseover the icon is shifted up 10 pixels. These 10 pixels for the icon to move into are left blank anyway, so no space is saved. Why not just use fully visible but slightly smaller icons so that they are more readily identified at a glance, so that they use the full visible area given to them as the designers of the icons intended?

If this is not about saving space then the purpose that remains is using a hidden/unhidden visual cue to designate the mouseover state. Though as said, this conflicts with the design of the icons in the first place because it obscures their quick identification.

In the end it is a gimmick because its outstanding feature interferes with its function. Yes, it’s a cute trick, but it does not make a useful plugin.

… also the web2.0-looking shadow effect doesn’t fit at all with the Gaslamp webpage’s aesthetic.

How does this apply to Dredmor?

A long, long time ago we tooled around with having the quick-slot item bar be hidden slightly behind the UI to give the main game area more viewable space. It would pop-up the item bar to show the full item icons when the mouse go closer to the bottom of the screen, where the items lived. We decided against this design in the end because you couldn’t really tell at a glance what items you had unless you went to mouseover them, which defeats the purpose of having an easily accessible row of icons on the main screen. And it didn’t even save very much space, maybe 16 pixels in all. And it was annoying.

Moral: If you use icons, show the icons. The only information which should be hidden should be information that is not needed at a glance.

Dungeon Creation and Beautification

2010/07/08

With most of the foundational art assets completed I’m shifted my focus on Dredmor toward producing content for the game. In particular I’m polishing the dungeon tilesets and creating new dungeon objects (as the game items have actually been finished for a long, long time).

Tilesets

Let me take a moment to explain how Dredmor tilesets work (and used to work, and how they will work). Here’s a cut from the first dungeon’s tileset:

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Gaslamp Portrait (sketches)

2010/07/01

[Posted to the Gaslamp Games blog.]

For the Great Gaslamp Webpage Revival I’ve started drawing steampunk portraits of the crew of the good ship Gaslamp Games.

(click to view full size)

From left to right: Nicholas, deranged technologist/bootlegger; David (myself), foppish art-lord; Derek, internet-tube engineer; and Daniel, merchant of ludology and man of science.

I’ll probably make them more overtly steampunk to fit the theme of the Gaslamp site, maybe with a sepia-tone photograph and vignette effect. Yeah, I stole my pose from a picture of Oscar Wilde; the rest I just winged. It’s hard to draw people you haven’t hung out with much in person (Derek in this case) or who are mysterious and don’t put pictures of themself on Facebook (Daniel the engima); Nicholas is probably the easiest to draw because he’s got crazy mathematician hair and is just … a real character. And for myself, it’s very hard to try to be objective with a portrait; It feels narcissistic. Not that I’m against narcissism as-such, it just feels like it could be very crass, indulgent, and cheap if done poorly. Rembrandt got away with self portraits, of course; And there’s Albrecht Durher and Egon Schiele, clearly narcissistic, but they’re allowed because they’re that good. But I digress: The website will be fun.