Monday, March 30, 2015

Development Log 0: The Shifty, Twisty Forest

We're starting a new game of our own! We decided that we liked our Shifty, Twisty Forest prototype enough to try fleshing it out into a full game. We're going to post regular (or irregular) updates on the development of the game so you can see how things are progressing. So, drop in every once in a while, check it out, and chime in with your opinions.

Here's a quick summary of our progress so far:

We'll get a real artist eventually.

We started development last Monday and our main task so far has been taking a quick and dirty prototype and turning it into an upstanding and respectable piece of software. The most obvious example of this is changing how our transformations (the 'Shifty, Twisty' in the title) look. In the prototype all of the rotations, mirrors, and translates were instantaneous. Instantaneous is easy to program, but it's ugly and made the gameplay confusing (particularly mirroring). So we're in the progress of turning all our instantaneous transitions into gradual ones. Here's a gif example of a horizontal flip (it's smoother in game):

See, it's working great...oh wait!
Ok, so maybe they still need some work...

We Are Liars
In process of reworking transitions, we discovered that we are liars. Some of you may have already known this, but this was a revelation to us. Seriously though, we realized that we had been lying to ourselves about how transformations affected the objects we were transforming. In the prototype, we had represented everything in 2D using position and angular orientation. As soon as we started on smooth transitions, it became obvious that we were going to need to use 3D transforms to accurately represent the transformations. (This led to another revelation...3D math hurtz my brane!). So now we're reworking the transformations with that in mind and adding all of this to our engine so that any future games will able to take advantage of it.

+1 Programmer Art of Less Terribleness
Our final big change was revisiting the art. We decided to increase the size of character and tileset so things would be playable on mobiles. In the process we took another stab at making art. Ultimately, we're going to throw away all of the art and have a real artist do it, but Derek and I both enjoy making art and I think it helps us figure out what we want the final game to look like when we get in there and try to do it first.

The old version: functional, but drab.

So yeah, that's where we are right now. Let us know what you think.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Platypus 'Piler Plugins

Totally excited. Totally.
While working on games over the past few months, we've slowly been augmenting and bettering Platypus, the open-source HTML5 game engine that we co-created with PBS KIDS a few years ago. I'm really excited about a new compiler plugin system we created and I want to share it with you. My wife says I rarely get excited, but she also doesn't watch me code. WOOO!

Each game we develop brings its own set of challenges and requirements. When we've developed games for PBS KIDS, for example, audio is a big deal since there tends to be a lot of voice-over to guide children and buttress the educational experience. However, with a game like Entanglement, supporting multiple languages is a priority since the game is a popular past-time across the globe.

With this in mind, we created a plugin system for the Platypus compiler, so that unique games can include just the pieces they need, and, more importantly, developers can extend the compiler easily to handle new and creative use-cases we have yet to comprehend.

Since Platypus is an HTML5 engine, its compiler is written in JavaScript. Makes sense, no? We've taken the original Platypus compiler and broken it into a series of super-cool plugins. These are all enabled by default, but don't do much if their respective flags aren't set in the game config.json file. The list of plugins can be changed in the global game settings as shown:

"global": {
    "initialScene": "load",
    "plugins": ["js/pngquant-plugin.js", "js/manifest-plugin.js", "js/scripts-plugin.js", "js/language-plugin.js", "js/assets-plugin.js", "js/compression-plugin.js", "js/write-plugin.js"]

So what do the plugins do? Glad you're curious! Here's a quick overview:

  1. pngquant - This plugin uses the pngquant compression utility to compress PNGs. You can set how many colors each image should have, and this plugin rolls through the list of assets, smashing PNGs into significantly smaller files.
  2. manifest - This plugin tallies all the assets and creates an application cache for your game. It even handles editing an Apache .htaccess file with mod_rewrite rules so that it can cache the correct audio assets for different browsers!
  3. scripts - This plugin grabs all the JavaScript and JSON files and puts them into a single file for a faster download. It also does the same with disparate CSS files.
  4. language - This plugin uses a language table to create unique language builds for localization. It's a template system that replaces {{language-keys}} in the code with appropriate localized text. It also handles mod_rewrite's to pull the correct index.html if you choose to have multiple languages in a single build. (Alternatively, you can specify to produce multiple single-language builds.)
  5. assets - This plugin copies assets from the source files into the build locations.
  6. compression - This plugin uses the YUI compressor to compress the JavaScript and CSS files.
  7. write - This final plugin handles writing the various scripts, style sheets, and manifest files to the build locations.

The new plugin-based compiler is not yet available on the PBS KIDS Platypus source, but you can get a sneak-peek on the Gopherwood fork

Monday, March 16, 2015

I Am Sorry. We Made Another Prototype

Derek and I want to sincerely apologize for the fact that we have made another prototype. We can't help it, it's too fun! So, check out Buzz and see what you think.

We're honestly not quite sure what it is and which direction it might grow. Right now it's a little bit physic-y, a little bit shooter-y, and a little bit nature education-y. It's also a little bit dodgy, but given that it's a prototype we weren't too worried about that. Instead, we were focused on exploring the game space that the intentionally-challenging controls afforded.

From a development perspective, Buzz has been a lesson in player capacity. I have been thinking about the idea that every player can only juggle so many tasks at once. Too many and the game becomes overwhelming and frustrating. With Buzz, a lot of the player's focus is used up controlling the helicopter. Because the controls are complicated we have to avoid overwhelming the player with other tasks/obstacles in the game. The best additions are elements that overlap with what the player is already focused on. These ideas are what led to the beetle enemy and the challenge of carrying the pollen crystal between flowers.

We're considering expanding Buzz or Shifty Twisty Forest into more fleshed out experiences. If you have opinions, questions, or comments about either, feel free to leave a comment.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Shifty, Twisty Forest

Wow, that forest is just the shiftiest!
Todd and I spent the past few days putting together a game prototype: check it out! The Shifty, Twisty Forest is a story, err..., about a turtle finding his way through a forest - a very blocky forest with locked yellow doors. Help him get to his destination by shifting the forest around!

We created 12 levels to explore the concept and to see whether it's fun. After you've had a chance to play through it, let us know what you think! Does this game deserve more levels, better art, and a real story line (unlike the stream-of-consciousness that caused the confusing backdrop)? Or should we leave the poor forest alone and not make it twistier and shiftier?

Here's another screenshot in case you haven't time to spend on such frivolity but like to look at things and stuff.