Saturday, January 21, 2017

2017: Playable Demo?

Holy fucking Christmas balls, it's 2017 again. One of the symptoms of getting old and annoying, is to complain about how time flies. And yes it does. Can't finish my meal or I'll have to go to bed again. My daughter is almost older than me now, and the youngest boy is getting a moustache. Milk moustache.

When young, you think in terms of hours. Mom?! Are we going already? 30 more minutes?! Drops on the ground and starts counting pixels on the plaster ceiling, truly bored to death. When adolescent, you think in terms of days. Weekend party with chicks I'll never get, just three more days, can't wait! When working for some years, you start noticing weeks are dropping like dead flies. Holy crap, almost weekend again. When grown up and a few grey hairs further, you think in terms of years. Christmas. Again. What shall we cook next year’s Christmas by the way? Makes note in agenda. When old, you think in terms of eras. Rock’n Eighties, World War 4, illegal booze and hunger in the noisy Thirties, the drugged Sixties. When being an historian, you think in terms of decades, ages. Or periods like Cambrian, Triassic or Jurassic. And how historians like to study the past, so do we like to evaluate our years when to start or end… And January is almost over again, so I’d better hurry. See? Time flies.
For those that don't want to read all that stuff below, Here. The plan.


Being without help from others, I'm not in the position to promise things. But I'm pretty sure I can promise a playable demo. It's not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN. Programming-wise at least. Pretty much all required "base code” has been written. And with that I mean engine + tools to run the show. It's really a matter of making the in-game code now. Some script here, a bit of polishing there. All together still quite some work, but not necessarily difficult work. Just a lot of work, though I can’t put a label on it... Ten years ago I'd say half year would be enough for sure, but like I said, nowadays taking a shit already takes a month, so it feels.
Problem with puzzle-games is that every action can be slight different, making it hard to make reusable classes. So a lot of small stuff requires small interfacing/command scripts.
But that's the programming part. A game usually needs graphics and sound as well. Indie or not, Tower22 somewhat relies on strong visuals, I believe. I can give you a playable demo in its current visual state, but that would be like playing a half finished 2009 game. Not good enough. Accomplishing the visual part has always been the major bottleneck here, because (good) artists don't grow on trees. And even if you pick one, they're rotten and gone before you know. “No time”, which partially means “I have better things to do”, which often has to do with unclear goals too far away, bad tools to work with, lack of feedback / pushing, and so on.

As some may have red one or two years ago, Fuell22 should have been the answer on that. But heck, you still need somebody that not only promises but also actually makes such a website. I still believe in the idea of Fuel22, but there is no time to finish that first, and then this demo.

I know a few persons with talent I can beg for their effort in this one. But I didn't really ask them yet, because I feel the demo isn't far enough to show its potential in terms of playability and "completeness". As said, talented people are usually occupied. I won’t bother them until I got really, REALLY something to show. Something that is promising, challenging, fun, inspiring. Something that looks good on their portfolio, and something where light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Especially that.

Not sure why, but I'm less concerned about the sound-byte. Not less important than good graphics, but less work in this case. The demo doesn't require tons of sounds. A bunch of good eerie ambient music plus complementary effects will do. And no, I'm not underestimating the sound portion. Hindsight, I think the success of the first (2010) Tower22 demo was not its mediocre (pretty good for hobby-guy, but still) graphics, buts its off-Earth sound composition. Doing that right changes everything. I'm really looking forward to this, but it requires a nearly finished demo to do so. And once there, I think the momentum is big enough already to attract help and get things done.

Making games: a waste of time

So last month I worked on that “unfinished gameplay” issue. In terms of making in-game puzzles, stuff to pick-up, unlocking doors, scripted sequences. The playable demo is made out of three days, got the first two days done mostly. So far I did most of that with LUA scripts (thus not hard-coding it). Which is pretty simple, but every time when doing something “new”, extra engine API functions have to be added. For example, the lights go out at some point. And that requires secundary lightmaps and IBL probes to switch between. Which requires adjustments in the file-storage system, texture memory handling, as well as editor tools to do so easily.
And... While we were at it, just made a built-in BehaviorTree editor as well, which is pretty cool. Less error-prone and more fun than writing LUA scripts.

The true challenge is to create something *interesting* though. While thinking out the whole demo (where to go, what to do, in what order, and what special events), I figured the X-factor was still missing. I can drag you players through some eerie hallways with some dull puzzles. But does that make you want to donate on an eventual Kickstarter campaign, to get the rest of the game done? I think not. And make no mistake, this demo is the last chance Tower22 has. If nobody really plays it, or worse, if people dislike it, there won't be a successful Kickstarter campaign either. What this project needs, is a bunch of people with talent and time on their hands. And that requires a system, a leader, and George Washington to keep it all glued together. Money I mean. When showing T22 to the world six years ago, I wished it would be different, but making a game purely on the skills, devotion and discipline of a few volunteers, is just not realistic. Enthusiasm for most is like helium gas: gone.

Unlike some small but very smart & addictive Indie games, Tower22 is likely not going to impress with pure gameplay. That's ok, asides from Resident Evil 4, Doom 3 or Left 4 Dead, I can't think of any (scary)horror game that was actually fun to play. Scares, bizarre stuff, and story is what counts here. If players either shit their pants or are dying to know more, we did a good job. So besides blindly writing all game code, I have to stay critical as well. Is this fun/scary/interesting? The idea is that the artists really gets an almost finished product, "only" having to pimp up the graphics and sounds a bit... much. But if there is a clear goal, showing potential, it should be doable. And while they make assets, I can spend the remaining hours on whatever they need, which would be improving editing tools, better graphics, bug-fixes, getting coffee, ...

But being the reviewer of your own work doesn’t give fair feedback though. You might be satisfied, after spending so much hours and thought in it. Blind for its flaws. Yet the audience judge won’t be based on your sweat and effort. Or, the opposite happens; blind for its goodness, after seeing and hearing it too many times. Obviously Tower22 can’t scare me anymore. Its monster A.I. won’t beat me, the puzzles aren’t challenging anymore, the environment hides no surprises. Simply because I made it all myself so far.

On top, Tower22, and this demo in particular, is a complex product. A demo gives you only 20, maybe 40 minutes to show its potential. Any random part from a game like “God of War” would impress, since massive fights and huge scenery are all around. Tower22 on the other hand, builds up very slowly. There won’t be jump scares around every corner, there won’t be much fighting at all, and also the story doesn’t explain itself rapidly by throwing letters in your face every minute, or having the protagonist talk to himself like an selfie-idiot all the time. And as for awesome huge scenery; you’re locked in a fucking flat. So… what is there to show in this demo then?

I sometimes wonder if the new generation of gamers can appreciate a game like this anyway. I’m from an older breed game-generation, infected with the “how-things-used-to-be” virus. Modern games are too easy, too fast, too overdone, too dramatic, too scripted, too much the same, blabla. But whether I’m right or wrong is irrelevant. What is relevant is, is the amount of “Likes”. It’s all about the Likes these days, and sure I didn’t make it myself easy again! Stupid hobby.

Different than the past many years where I tried to pimp the visuals as good as I could, it's now about showing something playable to the artists. But also something that is potentially scary; a raw diamond that waits for an artist to become true horror-terror


Nevertheless, I think the Demo Blueprints can deliver something interesting and different. The difference with most games(demos) would be that the horror doesn’t come to you in this demo. Follow all the instructions like a decent guy, and you’ll be fine (and have a boring demo experience). Get off the path, stick your nose out, and you’ll discover a glimpse of Tower22’s rotten internals. But just a glimpse.

Well, as for the next few months, I’ll be busy finishing the game-code, meaning you can begin, puzzle, and finish this three-day demo. Then next step is to knock on some artist’s doors again. Not only can they help me improving the visuals, they also preview the game, and bend the demo now that it’s still somewhat liquid. Puzzles too easy, too difficult, too boring? Bring some more horror? Replace a few rooms? Disgusting horrific ideas to add?

I can’t ask random strangers right away, or the whole demo might be out on the streets if somebody decides to leak. So the plan is to have a few trusted artists to review, and to pimp a few specific rooms. To generate nice “stills” or very short clips, so I don’t have to be ashamed when asking for help again on websites like Polycount. Then with a few more people, we should be able to create all assets – and yes, I reserved a couple of thousands euro’s to pay them per-asset. And after that, the audio and animation part will follow.

Then if the demo is finally there, I’ll ask a few Testers… And I think this Blog is a good place to ask ;) If all goes well, the last stage would be promoting the demo via YouTube, making it available for downloading, and then launch a Kickstarter campaign. In order to get somewhere, we can’t rely on charity, or a next milestone would take another six years. Dedicated artists is what this project needs, and artists need a solid system. A system of rewards, but also goals and discipline. So the budget of such a campaign would be spend on the reward-per-asset, and the “management” system behind that; Fuel22. And obviously, funds from a Kickstarter campaign can be used to realize all of that.

In the meanwhile, if you have some bored friends with drawing or 3D talents, hand them over ;)