Silent Protagonists

Everyone knows what a silent protagonist is; one that doesn’t speak. Except, that’s not really true, and many don’t really seem to get that.

There are a lot of games that try to make a silent protagonist by making the character mute. Jak&Daxter is a good example of this. The player character, Jak, never says a word.

jak-and-daxter-the-precursor-legacy-box-art-02-ps4-us-27mar17
Jak’s a great guy, but horribly ineffective as a silent protagonist

While I do love that game, the developers didn’t seem to understand what a silent protagonist is.
Many people seem to think that making the playable character not speak somehow makes the player more connected to the character. But that’s a gross simplification of a silent protagonist. It’s not simply the act of speaking that distances the player from the character, it’s every action the character does that isn’t in line with what the player would do. So making him mute is pointless if you instead make him react non-verbally. Which is what Jak does all time.
(like All . The . Time)

Another thing you often see in games, is that other characters comment on the fact that the player character doesn’t speak.

tumblr_inline_nfv2a8Utwk1rwqfnm
While it’s meant as a joke, it’s still harmful. It’s like a bad 4th wall break.

The reason why this is wrong, is because a silent protagonist isn’t actually mute, we just don’t see/hear him respond/react! He does react, namely whatever the player’s reaction is. It’s just not shown to the player, as that’s not practical (seeing as every player could have a different reaction), and there’s also no need to, as the player knows what his own reaction is.

But of course, making the player character stand still with a blank expression isn’t right either. Because not reacting is also a reaction, and most likely not the same reaction as the player has.
So the only proper way of doing a silent protagonist, is by not showing his reaction (or lack of) in a way that doesn’t feel contrived. 

This is why silent protagonists are more common in older games and first-person games.
In first-person games this is ofcourse because we can’t see the player character anyway. In old games it was because they were way more visually abstract than most games nowadays (by which I mean, lower graphics). For example, the old Zelda game boy games; all the characters barely animate, at most they have an idle animation and a walking animation. So when the player character doesn’t show any reaction to anything, that’s fine, as it’s in line with how everything else behaves in the game.
(And again, it’s not that they don’t have a reaction, it just isn’t shown to us.)

Many people complain about the silent protagonist concept nowadays, but the problem lies in it’s misuse, not the concept itself. Silent protagonists get used incorrectly and thrown in games they don’t fit in. And I feel people rightfully complain about that.

The point of a silent protagonist is for the character be an extension of ourselves, rather than him being his own person with his own personality. A silent protagonist is the player.
So if you’re making a game, and you want the player character to have a certain personality (which is most often the case in games with a strong focus on the story), whatever his personality may be,  you should probably not have him be a silent protagonist.
If instead the story of the game is what the player makes of it, it might be a good idea to have him be a silent protagonist.

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Gem Eater

My first mobile game

It took me long enough, but last year I finally decided to make a mobile game.
The main reason being that I felt I should make a smaller game for once, and fully finish it, rather than the heap of unfinished (bigger) game projects I have.
I also wanted it to be accessible to most people, so a mobile game seemed like the best choice then.

I have to admit that mobile games, and casual games, are actually a bit out of my comfort zone. But that only makes it more of an interesting challenge to design such a game.
I didn’t have to make it a casual game, but I felt like I should make it as easy to get into as I could (to a degree), and IMO that seems like one of the key-aspects of a casual game.
(This because I noticed that the games I made before often required me to explain to people how to play, rather than people understanding it immediately themselves.)

The game

In Gem Eater you play as an underground gem-eating snake. Just drag the snake’s head to move him around.
You eat your way through a screen filled with dirt, stones(blocks) and gems; trying to eat as much gems while making big combos, without getting stuck.

You gain points by eating gems, these come in 3 colors, red, yellow and blue.
Each time you eat the same color as the last, you increase your gem combo, earning you more and more points each time. But eat a different colored gem, and the combo ends.

At first the screen is only filled with dirt and gems, you’re free to move around carelessly, but as you eat your way through, stone-blocks will fall down among the dirt and gems. These stone blocks are impassable, and slowly but surely the screen will fill up with these, making it harder for you to get around, until eventually, you get stuck. That is, unless you reach the target score first.

Designing the mechanics

Comming up with the game concept and designing the mechanics was actually rather easy. I knew I wanted to make something similar to old arcade games, which quickly made me think about games like Tetris, Snake and Bejeweled. And it didn’t take long for me to come up with a bunch of ideas involving falling blocks and snakes eating gems.

Now don’t get me wrong, my idea wasn’t to copy existing games, I always want to make fully original games, I just wanted something with a simple concept, structure and controls as these games.

I had the main game mechanics pretty much entirely worked out in my head before even making the first prototype.
After making the prototype however, finalizing the entire game took a lot more time to figure out.
I had expected to finish the game in a couple of weeks in my spare time, but it ended up taking months.

Finalizing the game and adding extra content

At first it was just gonna be like Tetris; no stages, you just play until you get stuck, and that’s it. But I realized it would be more fun to have to try to reach a target score, which clears the solid blocks and makes you advance to the next stage, which has a higher target score.
I also felt (And still do) like it would be best to have every stage continue from the last (as in: keep all tiles with dirt and gems the same), rather than have you move to a new screen as you go to the next stage. Because this way you can save gems for later, and it just makes all the stages feel like one big level rather than a bunch of small ones.

However I felt like the game was a bit too short and lacked reason to play the game over and over, and it took me long to decide what to do against that.
Eventually I came up with a bunch of variations of the snake, each with a different power that could help you. And I decided to make the player unlock these one by one.
But it wasn’t clear to me what would be the best way to unlock these.
At first I made it so you needed to reach a certain highscore for each to unlock. But I eventually made it so you earn coins for completing stages, and more coins the higher the stage. And you could then use these coins to unlock the next snake.
The benefit this has over unlocking through highscore, is that every game you play brings you closer to your goal of unlocking the next snake, even when you don’t play as well as before. And since the main purpose of it was to give the player a reason to keep playing, I went with this approach.

All the snakes

I also added in achievements and a leaderboard through google play.

After having played the game myself a bunch, and becoming very good at it, I found that starting at stage 1 each time was a bit tiresome. (Even though that was actually one of the core aspects of the game I wanted, like old arcade games)
So I thought about having the player be able to start a game at a higher stage, but I didn’t know how to make that work exactly. With how many points would he start? Making it too low and it’s pointless to do when you’re trying to beat a highscore, and making it too high would be unfair as well.
So I thought about making the player able to set checkpoints at a stage while playing, and when you start from that checkpoint (CP for short) later, you’ll have exactly the same points and everything as when you initially set it. But I didn’t want the player to just be able to start from a CP as soon as he got there for the first time. Because that would cause the player to set the CP as high as he could, and would ruin the fun of the game. I kindof wanted the player to only be able to set a CP at stage 10 when he is able to get to stage 20, for example. But I couldn’t think of a good way to do this without making it all too complex.
In the end I made it so you can only set (and start from) a CP by spending coins, and the cost increases exponentially the higher the stage. This ensured that it is only beneficial to set a CP at least about 5-10 stages lower than the highest stage you can get to. (Because when you set it higher, it would cost more coins to start from the CP than you could make back)
Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure if that was the best approach, but I think it’s good enough.

Reception

Most people were really positive, and I know a couple of people that really loved it and played it a ton. And I’m really happy for that.
But In the end though, the game went pretty much unnoticed, most of the people that played it are people I know personally.
I also added in (optional) rewarding ads, more as an experiment than anything else, but I’m not even close to reaching the minimum number of views to even have the chance of making any money on it.
I didn’t expect it to become a huge success or anything, especially since I spent no money on advertising the game, I just posted about it on facebook and the Unity forums and that’s about it.
But still, when I compare it to years ago when I posted flash games on Kongregate, every game there was easily played a couple hundreds of times after just a single day without telling anyone about it. In the grand scheme of things, that’s still not much, but at least it’s something. Now on the play store, I think not even a single person encountered my game without being directed there by me (either in person or through a post of mine).
But it shouldn’t really be news to anyone that if you post a game on the play store, without advertising it in one way or another, it’s (most likely) never going to reach anyone.

One problem with my game, is that it’s visual style isn’t really attracting anyone I think. I mean I don’t think it looks awful or anything, but it does look rather generic. And I don’t really think any screenshot or video of the game will ever make anyone think “wow, I want to play that!”.

If I wanted more people to play this game, I should have advertised this game better, and made some better promotional images (or have these made) at the very least.

Conclusion

Although it’s ofcourse a rather small game, I’m rather proud of the it. The game mechanics are truly original. And I honestly feel like they are simple but deceptively deep. The way everything influences everything else; every tile you eat causes the tiles above to fall down, changing the shape of the level. The way you eat around the solid blocks defines the wall, rooms, tunnels of the level.

It’s easy to start playing the game, but the more you play the better you get at it because you start to understand the consequences of your every action and you start to see the strategic aspects of the game.

The game is available for free on the Play Store:
Google Play Link

Improving the battle-system in Pokemon

The problem with PP

I mentioned in my previous post that I don’t consider the PP-system in Pokemon a very good system.
It’s a means to limit the use of stronger moves, but it’s not very effective at that and it mostly just causes annoyance.
Or to quote myself from my previous post: For battles that matter, you generally make sure to have full PP before battle, effectively making PP irrelevant, as you’ll rarely run out of PP for any move within a single battle (except rarely for some specific powerful moves that have only 5 maxPP). Outside of these battles, it just feels annoying when you have to heal at a pokecenter when you’re pokemon are in full health, just because a move ran out of PP.

Not only that, but it’s (what I think is) the reason Pokemon doesn’t use a move-learning/remembering system like Ni no Kuni.
You might argue that not having the current PP-system wouldn’t necessary mean that Pokemon would switch to the Ni no Kuni system, but I really think they would, as it seems like they (=Nintendo/GameFreak) are already trying to make it more like that.
For one, they added Move Relearners, which are NPCs that can make your pokemon relearn all the moves they could learn at a lower level.
And they made TMs be reusable, which is a terrible decision IMO, as it causes more pokemon to know the same moves, decreasing variety.
These are both attempts to make it more like the Ni no Kuni system, but they’re not as good as just being able to choose the moves at any given time outside of battle. (and they should revert the TM change)

Cooldowns

So I propose the following system to replace the PP system:
Instead of having PP per move, every move has a cooldown, of either 0, 1, 2 or 3 turns.
Moves with a 0 turn-cooldown, can effectively be used every turn, moves with a 1 turn-cooldown every other turn, etc.
Making the maximum 3 turns will ensure that there’s always atleast 1 move that can be done (if you have 4 moves).
In general, moves that currently have high maxPP, would get a low cooldown, and moves with low maxPP, would get a high cooldown.

For example:

Pokemon PP Moves

A pokemon with it’s moves and their respective PP

Pokemon Cooldown Moves

Would become this when using the cooldown system

My idea is to have these cooldowns be reset outside of battle, so all battles start with all moves usable, but switched out pokemon would leave their cooldowns as they are. (So a pokemon has to be in battle for their moves’ cooldowns to reset.) Though I suppose switched in pokemon should have their cooldowns be lowered by 1, seeing as the player already loses a turn switching that pokemon in.

I made a beautiful mockup showing how it would work in battle:

pokemon cooldown moves

The cooldown system in action (opponent’s actions aren’t depicted).
Note that dig is a 2-turn move

I think this system could be a better way to make player’s think about what moves to use, and can cause battles to be more strategically interesting. All without causing the annoyance and hindrance of PP.

Improving the moves-system in Pokemon

I don’t know why, but I recently got in the pokemon-mood again. That is, in the mood of thinking about ideas to improve the pokemon games.

One thing I have thought often, is that I think it would be better if they made pokemon learn more than just 4 moves.
I don’t mean they should have more than 4 moves at their disposal in battle, but the player should be able to pick the pokemon’s 4 battle-moves, out of a list of all the moves this pokemon has learned, outside of battle. Like Ni no Kuni did.

Now it isn’t like this in pokemon, and I’m sure the reason isn’t because the people at Game Freak / Nintendo have never thought about it. (And even if they hadn’t, Ni no Kuni happened)
For a long time I’ve wondered what that reason could be, as IMO, the Ni no Kuni moves-system is better in every way.
But I think I finally realized what the reason is, and it’s as small as it is stupid;
it’s because of the Power Points.

See Power Points, or PP, is pokemon’s version of mana or MP or whatever you want to call it, but instead of there being 1 mana pool per creature, it’s per move.
The use of mana-cost is generally to have some way of limiting the player’s use of strong abilities, preventing the player from using only his strongest move(s) without thinking.
In pokemon this is no different, by having stronger moves have less max PP, they intend to have the player use these sparingly, only when he needs to.

The reason Ni no Kuni can have their moves-system, and why pokemon can’t (at first glance at least), is because in Ni no Kuni moves don’t have PP, but simply use the character’s mana-pool. Switching moves outside of battle has no effect on the mana pool, so there’s no problem. But if the pokemon games would allow this, player’s could just switch moves that ran out of PP with other moves, drastically postponing running out of PP.

Now one might say that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
For one, the current PP system isn’t a very good system to be honest, it’s mostly just annoying; For battles that matter, you generally make sure to have full PP before battle, effectively making PP irrelevant, as you’ll rarely run out of PP for any move within a single battle (except rarely for some specific powerfull moves that have only 5 maxPP). Outside of these battles, it just feels annoying when you have to heal at a pokecenter when you’re pokemon are in full health, just because a move ran out of PP.
Another thing is that it would still stimulate players to use lots of different moves, rather than using the same old all the time.

But if there’s one thing the different pokemon games have taught me about Game Freak / Nintendo, it’s that they don’t like to make “drastic” changes to their winning formula if they don’t have to.

So I propose a simple solution that allows the Ni no Kuni moves-system, without it ‘breaking’ the PP system.
And that is to simply take over the PP amount of the old move, when switching it for an other move, in relation to their maxPP.
For example: I have a charmeleon that has the move ’ember’ with 10 PP of its 25 maxPP set as 1 of his 4 battle moves, and I want to switch it for ‘flamethrower’ which has 15 maxPP. Doing so will result in having ‘flamethrower’ with 6/15 PP. As 10 out of 22 PP is equal to 40%, and 6 out of 15 PP is also 40%:
10 / 25 = 0.4
0.4 x 15 = 6

That way the PP system isn’t undermined when switching moves.

Now if you’re wondering “but what when the result isn’t an integer?”
Then we have to get technical:
The solution is to store a floating point number internally, rather than an integer, for the moves current PP. But to the player we display this number floored to an integer. We then consider a move out of PP whenever it’s lower than 1.

And there we have it, a clean solution to the PP issue.
(Oh god, PP issue, I just noticed how that sounds)

At least that’s what I thought, until I realized that this system could be easily abused to make a move replenish PP, by switching it out, and then switching it back in for an other move, completely undermining the PP system.

Sigh, so much for a non-“drastic” solution.
I add the “” because I personally don’t find any of these changes to be drastic, but I feel Nintendo probably would.

Anyway, my point was simply that I think the Ni no Kuni system would be favorable over the current system, it just may need a small workaround for the pp system.
They could just use a mana pool like most other jrpgs use, but I have another idea, albeit just as drastic (or even more so), but I’m saving that for an other post.

The problem with the random encounters in Pokemon

I loved Pokemon blue and gold back in the day, but haven’t really played any Pokemon games ever since. I’ve had briefly tried some of the newer ones, but they couldn’t spark my interest for the lack of innovation (And that’s the main problem with the Pokemon games really, they’re all essentially the same game).

Now recently I borrowed Pokemon Black from someone, and while it wasn’t as bad as I feared, I’m reminded of all the things it could have been but isn’t.

The issue

Now there are tons of things to comment on, but writing it all down would take forever, so I’m just gonna talk about what I think is the biggest issue (or at least one of).
Namely the random encounters.
The thing about it is that while it’s the main thing you do in the game, I’m pretty sure that on average a player spends more than 50% of the time in a random encounter, nobody likes doing it.
It just so extremely tedious and annoying.

I have often thought (as have others) the main reason for this is just the very nature of turn based combat, that they’re just outdated. But gym battles and other “boss”-battles have showed me that that isn’t necessarily the case.
These turn-based battles can be fun and exciting, mostly when challenging, but just not when encountering the same pokemon for the 10th time in a couple of steps.

So the main thing that needs to be changed, is how we experience these random encounters.

But before thinking of concrete ideas to improve random encounters, we first have to understand their purpose.

why does Pokemon have random encounters? or jrpgs in general?

Purpose

I would say the purpose of random encounters in jrpgs is to provide a way of having continues obstacles for the player while traversing the world. And (generally) the main way for the player’s character(s) to develop and become stronger.

Now let’s not mistake obstacles for challenges. random encounters generally aren’t there to provide a real challenge to the player, at least definitely not in Pokemon.
And there’s a good reason for that, a game needs to alternate the difficulty, having every battle be challenging could possibly be worse than having no battle be challenging. So having the random encounters in general not be challenging is probably the best idea. (That way important battles can be)

An important difference between random encounters and fixed battles, is that the former isn’t linked to the progression through the campaign/story, but only to the players own speed and interest in discovering the world, it provides a freer kind of obstacles basically.

But Pokemon specifically has another purpose for random encounters, namely to introduce the player to new pokemon and allow him to capture them and expand/alter his team.

Now i would argue that Pokemon already has something else to provide continues obstacles, and as the main way to gain experience (points), namely npc trainers, littered over the world as an obstacle in the player’s path.
There are so many of them that there really isn’t much point in having random encounters for this purpose, especially since they aren’t challenging to begin with, they’re just obstacles, so the only purpose remaining is for the user to encounter and capture new pokemon.
But this can be done differently, and more importantly, way less tedious.

Proposition

Removing the “obstacle”-purpose, allows for some changes to the random encounters:

First of, skip the long battle-intro. I can understand a battle intro for important fights, but not for random encounters, it is quite literally a complete waste of time.
Also, allow the player to run from battle immediately.

To make the battles less tedious, it could also be a good idea to differentiate them more from trainer battles, by changing the battle mechanic a little. For example, by having your turns have a time limit, making the wild pokemon attack if you wait to long. (Which would fit perfectly with the lore, as wild pokemon don’t have to follow the rules of trainer battles)

And that brings me to my main suggestion to improve random encounters:
Since the DS, the games have always been on 2 screens, but let’s be honest here, it doesn’t really need to have the battle menu take up an entire screen.
This got me thinking, for random encounters, we could have the game world on 1 screen, while the other screen shows the battle. This way the player can keep walking when encountering a wild pokemon, and run away from battles by actually walking away.
The wild pokemon could be shown on the world screen as well, and having it go out of screen would be equal to successfully running away.
The battle could have time-based turns, so if you don’t get away fast enough your pokemon can still get hit.

 

Anyway, you might not agree with my solution for the random encounters, but I really think everyone should agree that they need to change.

I know I’m kinda simplifying everything in this post here, but I feel my statement still holds true.

Worn Edges

Worn Edges

WORN EDGES is a tool I created in 2013 that allows the user to generate a worn look (amongst other things) for their props. It is written as a Unity3D editor extension (as such it only works within unity).
I wrote a small post on it when it was early in development, you can see it here.

Tori, before and after using the WORN EDGES tool

It works by generating a lot of different maps, which get combined into a single “combined map”, which details the level of wornness for each pixel of the texture. This combined map is in turn used to alter the original, clean, texture.

a simple example of the principle
a simple example of the principle

The tool can create a lot of different maps:

  • 3d, 2d and 1d noise map
  • sharpness map
  • ambient occlusion map
  • directional occlusion map
  • angle falloff map
  • distance map
  • wood map
  • mask map

How these maps are created and combined is fully customizable, to create the effect the user desires.
As such, it can create more than just a worn edges look (see screenshot below).
tikis with different maps

In general, for just a worn edges look, only the 3d noise, ambient occlusion and sharpness maps are used. The other maps are generally for more specific effects (see screenshot above).

The models this tool is used on should have a clean UV layout, without overlapping triangles (although symmetrical or otherwise identical geometry can often share uv-space without a problem). But it can also bake everything to a 2nd set of UVs, for example the auto-generated lightmap UVs (that is often used in Unity3D). As such you can actually also use this to bake multiple textures with overlapping UVs into a single texture that uses these 2nd UVs.

wooden - worn edges
ball_variations 2_ballDevelopment
worn (edges) (worn) edges

It’s available on the Unity Asset Store.

Here’s a relatively recent (at the time of writing) demonstration movie:

and here’s an older demonstration (a bit outdated, but still relevant):
(Unfortunately though, it is kind of slow)

Snowify

Snowify

SNOWIFY is a tool I created early 2013 that allows the user to generate thick packs of snow on any prop.
For when a simple snow shader isn’t enough.

It started of as a hobby project; I had just had to make a snow level for work (more precisely, a snowed version of an existing level), for which I had created a couple of simple snow shaders (using the angle of the surface normal to determine snowiness).
But when making that level, I found that in some cases it would have looked better if the snow had a volume, rather than being flat.
So afterwards I came up with an idea to create snow meshes based on the mesh of the object it was resting on, and started working on a tool to do that in my spare time.

Since I nowadays work primarily in the Unity3D engine, I made this tool for use in Unity.

houses with snow

The tool allows for complete control over the snow’s thickness, angle, direction, material, smoothness, and various other settings.
The snow meshes are also automatically unwrapped and textured.

jeep with snow

It’s available on the Unity Asset Store.

RocksARocksA2
RocksBRocksB2
RocksCRocksC2

Edit:

Snowify was used by Hinterland Studios for the creation of their game “The Long Dark”:
http://unity3d.com/showcase/case-stories/the-long-dark
(it’s being listed as one of their favorite packages from the Unity Asset Store)
Darkplace