Making Music to Elevate the Pixel Art

(This week’s blog post arrives a day late because Tuesday was a national holiday. Happy birthday to 99-years-old Finland!)

Last week the soundtrack for Riptale got finished. The challenge with the combination of modern day audio tools and pixel art is restraining yourself from all the thrilling possibilities a plethora of plug-ins presents. We wanted to do something retro-sounding, but not quite chiptune.

Stylistically, the music was very much inspired by the soundtracks of early Mega Man games and melodic heavy metal. We were trying to keep the chiptune feel where each instrument could only play a single note at any given time. When it comes to the sounds, there’s of course plenty of directions you could go in. If chiptune is too simplistic and harsh, one might try stepping up a generation or two with the retro game synthesizers. But that was not the sound we were looking for.

The early game synths have a distinct sound to them, but suffer quite a bit from the limitations in the technology of the era. Game music has since grown out of the restricting synths of those days but the basic sounds found in chiptune music are still used to an extent in modern pieces. We were looking for something harsh that would convey the energy of distorted guitars found in heavy metal. We also wanted to sound a little bit more modern while still retaining the feel of FM synthesis that chiptune is known of. It was an interesting experiment but we are pleased with the results.

Like most everything in game development, creating the music for Riptale was an iterative process. Only a third of the themes that were worked on made their way on the final soundtrack. We wanted to make sure that the music actually fit the stages they were planted in. Some of the themes might work in another game, but we felt that they had no place in this title. Could they be recycled? It’s possible… but unlikely.

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Lessons From 20 Years Ago

Dracula is dead! Symphony of the Night can be challenging at times, but compared to something like Order of Ecclesia, it’s still pretty easy. You feel kinda cheap using the Shield Rod + Alucard Shield combo to defeat some of the harder bosses, though.

sotn

What is so interesting about Symphony of the Night? Why is it still such a great experience that it’s worth going through? The game really shines with its content. There are so many bosses, enemies, items, weapons, and locations that you’re just curious to see what’s around the next corner. Granted, you’ll never use even half of the items that are handed to you and half of the bosses are a bit of a joke, but if they weren’t there, the game wouldn’t have the same impact. The gameplay isn’t carefully crafted by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s enough of interesting content to keep you going for 11 hours.

So, does quantity over quality work? The content in Symphony of the Night isn’t really low quality. It’s just badly balanced. The art of the game is breathtaking and the enemies you encounter are often clever and interesting. The amount of secrets helps, too. When you know all the breakable walls, spell combos, combinations of items, and tactics to beat certain bosses, it’s a fun feeling.

cyvsudrxaaaxsqu

What’s the takeaway for a modern roguelite project? You can’t compete with the quality of hand-crafted levels and challenges that game such as the first Castlevania or something like Super Mario Bros. 3 offers. One clever way to keep players hooked is to craft enough differing content and offer them challenges in form of secrets. Have the game offer more than is immediately obvious at a surface level. Hand out easy secrets to the players so that they’ll know there might be something else cool hidden in there. Don’t let the sense of intrigue die off. That can take some careful planning, too, but it’s really a tradeoff. You have to perfect something.

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Visuals to the Max

The idea with Kumo was always that he’d be wearing a long scarf that’s wrapped around his head and flows in the air current as he flies through the caverns. You know, like Rambo doing ribbon gymnastics. However, the problem with a visual element that’s this elaborate is that it’s not very high up on the priority list.

scarf-physics
(Click the image to see the animation.)

But how useless is a visual element like a flowing scarf to the end product? Think about it for a second. Visuals can sell games. It’s just that pretty much everything in the 2D end of things has been done already. Coming up with new ideas is tough. And sure, there are plenty of 2D cloth simulators out there, some that probably even look better than what we currently have in our game. The scarf is still a very striking visual element in every animation and screenshot. It might make people remember what the game is. That is not a small feat.

So, the scarf is now in the game. It took a lot of time to implement, but the character has finally got his destined identity. (That was a weird prophecy, anyway.)

player-animations

Other than that, the team has redone the character attack animations, effects, and a good deal of blood spatters. We are trying to make the game look as presentable as possible for the Steam Greenlight campaign which means that adding new things is on the back-burner for a while as we concentrate on refining what’s already there.

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Color Me White

We finally got to the flipped castle in Symphony of the Night. It’s nice to play some old classics and see what they did right. (And wrong.) Meanwhile, we’ve been reworking a whole lot of animations for the game.

player-evolution

The main character was already altered once after the Ludum Dare demo, but the project lead felt like he still looked too scrawny. So, throw everything to the bin and try again. The earlier this sort of problems can be identified, the cheaper it is. Sometimes it just happens. You work closely with the project for months and one day realize that you need to give the game a new identity. If it pays off, it’s worth it.

As a startup, we’re trying get by with what we can get our hands on. One of the animators has a really low desk. We decided it would improve the work ergonomics if we just stuck one of the monitor boxes underneath the tablet. And it does help immensely.

table-extension

Steam Greenlight is getting closer, but we’re not yet completely prepared for it, yet. This means we have to keep pushing certain deadlines further away. A lot of it comes down to the lack of experience, but some of it is due to the chaotic nature of the project. We feel good about the state of the game and the next one will surely go down more smoothly. For now, however, we’re just trying to create an awesome vertical slice.

 

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Small Update

The last week has been us grinding towards the end product. The game still has a lot of unfinished pieces that need to be put together. It is, however, important to occasionally play some old classics  to see what has been done well in some highly valued titles.

gaming-office

Everything is still very much unfinished. The levels need more work, the game needs more enemies, and the gameplay is not on par with what we want to have in our demo. It is just very difficult to get anything done with such a small team. Things take longer than what one might expect and it is easy get frustrated with the seeming lack of progress.

twins_1080p

The good news are that there have been a great deal of advancements on every department. The art team just released a concept picture of an upcoming boss. The programmers have been working on particle effects and adding in new attacks.  For better or for worse, the game is starting to take shape.

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Snowy November

The past week we’ve been planning for our Greenlight demo. We need new levels but don’t want to make it too big for multitude of reasons. With a smaller demo it’s easier to make it more focused and concentrate on things that work and things that need improvement. Still, the mechanics that go into the demo need to be polished enough. We want the word of mouth to be positive.

Programming genius

New demo means new attacks, new enemies, and new levels. Mechanically a lot has been done already but tweaking everything to perfection is a time-consuming process. If there’s one thing we really want to nail, it’s the player controls. The attacks of the main character, Kumo, are our main focus. There’s not a lot of time, but we’ll do what we can.

Shroom Castle

The new levels depict a mushroom cavern filled with ruined castles and other structures. We are trying to make the levels more open and concentrate less on precision platforming. The game is about doing cool attack combos, not trying to execute tricky jumps to a tee.

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Take The Time

 

Time is always against us. As game developers we want to make great things for people to enjoy but how much time can great things take? Can we afford to go overtime if the difference in end product is like between night and day?

Tile work

The usual situation is that game designers have a metric ton of ideas for content and mechanics of the game and in general everyone in the team wants to see all of those things added in. The problem is that typically implementing each feature takes three times the amount of hours allocated to the task. And that is not a small problem. Optimism kills projects and even if you had the time to add in everything you wanted, the game might end up a mess as a result.

Assets are usually not an issue. If the artists draw something, there might be room for improvements, but you’ll at least have something you can use in the end product. The real time sink are bugs in the game code. Bugs are unpredictable. Bugs are puzzles that need to be solved for the project to go forward. A simple bug can take anywhere from ten minutes to ten days to fix, because the cause could be anything. Often you can’t leave them in because they can turn your customers into an angry mob. Sometimes it might be a valid strategy to just seek for an alternate implementation for whatever is currently bugging out.

Menu under work

Good games have been crafted carefully. Tweaking everything until it’s just right is almost always a very time-consuming process. But it’s necessary. So, at what point do you stop adding in features and start honing them? It can be tricky. You want to be proud of the end product. You want to have fun while playing your own game. You just need to concentrate on the right things while you’re developing it.

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Keeping Motivation High at the Studio

 

Oulu Game Day was a success. Not that it had any right to be given the amount of time we had to allocate to testing. We got lucky. There were a couple a game-breaking bugs, but fortunately they didn’t occur too often. The game did freeze a couple of times, which is worrisome, since a bug like that can be a nightmare to track down in GameMaker: Studio.

Oulu Game Day footage

It was great to see how people played the game. Many issues regarding the game balance surfaced during the event. Some of them were due to the lack of preparation time. Some were genuine problems we now have to evaluate and react to in one way or the other.

The game is coming along and having a deadline really made a difference. Sure, you can make imaginary deadlines to your scrum boards and really try your hardest to not fail. However, when you have to go present your game to other human beings, the idea of failing starts to become more terrifying (or if you have pride in your work, just plain unacceptable). Realizing this, we started to look into another events that would give us an actual deadline to work towards. And we did find one.

Riptale gameplay animation
(Click the image to see the animation.)

Riptale being our first game is the chance for us to show what we’ve got. When we have really established ourselves, we can probably ease with the deadlines a little bit, but now is the time to work hard and put the name of our studio to the map. In the simplest of terms, a successful game will allow us to make another one.

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Preparation For Unforeseen Disasters

Next Friday we’re attending a local event called Oulu Game Day. Granted, Oulu isn’t a big city, but a change to get any feedback on our game is one that we don’t want to miss. You can always have people on the Internet tell you what’s good and what’s bad, but if you want to get a some nonverbal feedback, you have to see people as they are playing your game. The only question is whether or not we can get the demo in a good enough shape to be able to receive any useful feedback. I.e. you don’t need people telling you things you already know. The really valuable part is observing what things need to be balanced out more.

So, what is still so broken that it can’t be fixed for Friday? Our whiteboard says it all.

Whiteboard of tasks

The one big hurdle so far has been the level generation. Due to the unholy union of Tiled and GameMaker: Studio, we’ve had to simplify our designs time and again to be able to get content out fast enough. Here’s the nitty gritty:

GameMaker doesn’t natively support Tiled TMX format, but it does support binary files. Hence, Mr. Mikael “Mick” Norrgård at GamePhase wrote a TMX to binary converter to make it possible for these two pieces of software to be used in harmony. Much obliged. The problem is that the converter doesn’t save all of the level data into the output file. It does plenty, but even so, we’ve had to come up with some interesting solutions to get GameMaker to generate the kind of dungeons we want for our game. Is it a huge problem? Not really, if we weren’t in a hurry.

Library level

There’s no doubt that we’ll be able to get all the functionality in the game by Friday. The scary part is that we won’t have time to test it properly. The best thing we can do in preparation is to dust off our humble hats and get ready to apologize a lot. Then again, it might go swellingly.

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Scrum Masters of the Universe

New sprint is upon us and we’ve tried to slalom around painters and construction workers who are working hard to make the building look as pretty as humanly possible. In the meanwhile, we’ve been doing our own construction work, trying to get the level generation working properly. The autumn mornings might be getting cold, but the drive to get Riptale finished is only getting stronger.

Level generation almost at work.

Not surprisingly, a lot of time has vanished into this site called HacknPlan. It’s a project management tool that offers the same functionality as something like Trello, but with a higher focus on game architecture and all the things that are required to have a successful game project. We’re impressed with how much this site has evolved during the past year. Still, even with all the best tools, dividing the project into task cards takes a good amount of time.

Octoberish studio

Scrumming is a lot of work. Meetings, planning, tasks, and assessments can take a lot of time. However, if that makes the completion of the project 10% more likely, it’s worth it. Game projects have a bad tendency to not get finished. Having a board of tasks in front of you also makes you more efficient because you always know what you should be doing.

Crypt tileset work

Other than that, one of the programmers threw all of the GameMaker files to Visual Studio. With C++ syntax highlighting the setup is remarkably workable. The only thing that would have made it better (that we’ll know the next time around) is if all the game code was in script files and just called from where needed. The object files can be a bit messy with all the XML interrupting the otherwise clear and concise syntax.

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Keeping a Game Studio on Course

Super God as a company is quite young but we’re already going through a good amount of changes. First off, we’ve recently switched our primary game concept from a relatively large platformer to a more manageable one. Secondly, we moved from our hand-crafted C++ engine to GameMaker: Studio. Finally, our programming department went through some drastic changes and the new people have been familiarizing themselves with the new software.

New developers require new hardware

Changes are stressful and that’s not a joke. Some people work well under stress but that hardly applies to everyone. If things are constantly changing it can signal to people that what they’re doing doesn’t matter. Now, it would appear that we have finally found a path that we can lock into and we’re feeling positive about our current project: Riptale.

Riptale Logo

While the programming department is still finding their feet with GameMaker, we also found people who can help us out with the graphics and the social media side of things. We do believe that we’re making a great product, which of course is essential no matter the field. People want to know what you’re doing and you want to tell them. This type of communication just eats up a lot of man-hours. A dedicated social media person can make all the difference.

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Consider Talking

Consider talking. It is a very powerful tool, yet incredibly difficult to utilize. Getting people to talk about your game even in passing seems nigh on impossible, even when those people are your fanbase. They may even want to help you out in some way but might not realize that simply telling other human beings about the game can be quite useful. We’re not marketing experts. However, we understand that there needs to be an audience that’s at least aware of your product in order for it to be successful.

We’ve tried to tackle the marketing problem the best we can. The website is finally ready and now offers the visitor basic information about our company and the product. It hardly empowers them to take any action to get the game released, though. This is why we’ve been exploring some social media outlets to help them do just that.

super-god-website

As a small company it is important to focus your resources to those social media sites that matter. Some of them seem like they have potential, but require a lot of effort to utilize properly. One of these sites is Google+. We update our profile there regularly, but the simple act of connecting with other people seems fairly inconvenient and convoluted to first-timers like us.

Other than that, we’ve been working on the level generation and enemy behavior for Riptale. Interesting generated content can be a challenge to perfect but it is also a very interesting concept. There are multiple ways of building the creation algorithm for procedural levels and the experimentation continues as to what works out best for our game.

riptale-map-generation

The enemy functionality and gameplay feel require a lot of testing and tweaking. It’s a process that must be started as quickly as possible so that enough time can be allotted to it. The basic actions are now working for most enemies, which means that they are ready for another iteration. Luckily, we are getting some new blood in the office, which will surely boost the speed at which we can churn out content and mold it fit our purposes.

enemy-animations

What do you think about Google+ as a platform? Take a look at our profile and say hello if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

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Reign of Chaos

Riptale started in a very odd way since it was a Ludum Dare game. We didn’t have any documentation for it at any point. Mostly we just did what felt right which can make sense in a small project. But as projects get bigger, so does the need for a real design document. Last week we finally got one in a good start.

Collection of enemy sprites

Action game is only as good as its enemies and our team has been cranking them out at a good pace. The sprites are relatively easy to produce while the real problem lies in making the baddies to behave in an interesting fashion. It’s not good enough for the designer to merely know how they should act when that information needs to be conveyed to the programming department in a way that makes sense to them.

 

Another huge issue since day one has been that we haven’t had a good website up. Sure, in today’s world much of the information about you and your product can be conveyed through social media sites. However, you still need a website. People who hear about you are most likely going to put your name in a Google search field and they expect to come up with something a bit more official than a Twitter feed. Now, we’ve actually got a website under way. Hopefully, it’ll be in a presentable condition sooner than later.

Web design day

Then there’s the matter of GameMaker. It seems that due to unforeseen circumstances we have to rely on it more than anticipated. Perhaps these events will pay off at the end. It’s just that altering your plans always makes matters feel more chaotic.

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How To Deal With Change

The last week has been chaotic. We decided to go with the concept of Riptale and start building an actual game out of it. There were, however, some changes.

September Changes

The resolution had to change. The pacing of the game was really spot on, but the 384 pixel width of the screen turned out to be really restrictive. So, we turned Riptale into a widescreen game. This decision must be backed up with some other design decision later down the line, but for now, the game flow feels a lot more natural.

tiled_early

Another change happened with GameMaker. After Ludum Dare we thought we would be handing a lot more responsibility to it, but the more we have worked with the software, the more we’ve come to realize how much it restricts the workflow that we’re used to. It’s a great tool, but it’s carrying around a lot of legacy functionality that slows down our programming department unnecessarily. We’ll still be using GameMaker to prototype some game mechanics because they can be conjured up amazingly quickly in that environment.

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Weekend Warriors at the Office

Ludum Dare happened during the weekend and we were up for the challenge with our associate, Mats Kyyrö. The whole period was pleasingly chaotic overabundance and lack of ideas, sucking us all in the whirlpool of frantic game development.

Obviously not enough stuff

The result was a piece of work called Riptale. We wanted to have a lot of blade action combined with mystical ancient dragons and deadly caverns. After the concept got set, the rest of the game demo pretty much created itself.

Riptale on NES?

This was the first strides into the world of GameMaker for our development team. Some of the team members had a passing familiarity with what GameMaker used to be in the 90s. Needless to say, we were all pleasantly surprised by what can be achieved with it even in the shortest amount of time.

Gameplay snippet

We didn’t get everything we wanted into the demo but that’s a general theme when it comes to game development. However, the project is in a good enough state that we’re considering making an actual product out of it. Download the Ludum Dare alpha below and tell us your thoughts of it.

Download Riptale alpha

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Sneak Peek at the Progress

Here at Super God, we don’t just appreciate our artists. We love them. We’re trying to figure ways to most efficiently spend our money and happened to find a nice, cheaper alternative to those 22-inch Wacom Cintiq tablets. This here is Ugee 2150.

Our new Ugee 2150 tablet

Even though it has a few minor gripes to it (e.g. the top glass is quite thick), it’s 21.5 inches. The colors are bright, the screen heavy and locked-in tight, and the amount of work space feels ridiculous coming from a Cintiq 15X (with 1024×768 resolution). For one-third of the price of a similar Cintiq tablet, this one will do just fine. In addition, we finally got our Photoshop subscriptions running.

Other than that, we’ve been working hard on the concept art of our upcoming game. We’re still figuring out how everything will look and feel. Hopefully we can release some actual info about the game in the coming months.

Some concept art for the game

The engine has finally been finished and the programming team can concentrate on building the prototype. We’re thinking of doing a pre-prototype during the Ludum Dare next weekend. One thing we’ve learned in the past is that there are never too many prototypes. Naturally, the better you plan your project, the less you have to do damage control. This is why we also spent the weekend coming up with a roadmap for the prototype and writing tasks for our first sprint. We’ve got a good feeling about the project.

As a final note, if you’re interested in watching the art of the game being drawn, one of our artists does Twitch streams as he works. You can also check his Twitter account. That’s all for this week!

UPDATE: It would appear that the Ugee tablet drivers don’t play well with software other than Photoshop, which is a shame.

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What to do with excess office furniture

For some reason offices with a lot of furniture seem to be more comfortable for creative people. Posters, furniture, and other random stuff lying around everywhere can inspire already artistic personalities to rise to even greater heights. Then again, if you are a programmer, an office like that might be your nightmare.

Super God office in August 2016

This is our office. It’s a bloody mess, but things will find their places… eventually. At least we can work here. A lot of concept art is getting done. Here’s a picture of a few weapon doodles.

weapons_energy_001

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