Figuring Out Minimalism – Part 1

First impressions matter more than we admit. As gamers, we base our initial verdict on the video game’s artistic style. Even while watching a video review, the first interaction we have with a video game is with its graphical aspects.

It’s no surprise then that indie developers focus much of their efforts on polishing the artistic style. As a gamer, I’ve seen a wide array of art styles, and whenever the developer invested time and effort, it showed. From 2D to 3D, low-poly to high-poly, each art style can be innovative as much as it’s alluring. And it was from this conviction that I set out to define the graphical facet of Winter’s Coming.

The very first piece of concept art for Winter's Coming - the first step towards defining the graphical style for Winter's Coming.

The very first piece of concept art for Winter’s Coming – the first step towards defining the graphical style for Winter’s Coming.

Minimalism can be rather challenging to nail down, whether in writing or as a visual representation. The first piece of concept art above became the groundwork for the ensuing improvements. Defining elements, such as the platforms (including the rock and snow) and the background, were instrumental as they characterized the game’s looks and feel. In spite of this, I tried to improve them in the concept art which followed. Why the emphasis?

In Winter’s Coming, the focus will be primarily on the story, and minimalism is a perfect way of telling a story. Minimalism is all about removing the trivialities, leaving only the essential. Combining minimalistic influence with storytelling, the environment can tell the story by showing only the vital elements.

I’m a firm believer that simplicity can be synonymous with beauty if used correctly, so when I decided to go for minimalism I knew that the road to perfection was a long one. It was for this same reason too that I went for weekly concept art – a couple of hours every week to develop this side of Winter’s Coming. See, minimalism and simplicity don’t really rule out the spectacular potential of art. With minimalism, I wanted to achieve a sense of grandeur and wonder.

As an example, take the following two pieces of concept art – the second and latest ones respectively. Whilst they still respect minimalism, the subtle touches which I developed over the last three months distinguish them greatly.

Trying out different hues, testing out how different colours work.

12. Zen

Whilst the latest concept art has greatly improved ever since the first one, there’s a lot more work in the pipeline – new ideas to explore, and improvements to the current ones. In the next blog post, concluding this one, I’ll take a deeper look at how I explored minimalism to arrive to this point. Until then, you can follow Nyphoon on TwitterFacebook or by subscribing to the RSS Feed, to stay updated and in touch!

On Being an Indie

There has to be something – a part of it which makes it so special. Some may call it passion, others label it as the creationist spirit lying within man. Whatever it is, it’s working. Six years ago today, I started developing games, and since then I’ve never looked back.

Nyphoon Six Logo-06

There were those days when game development was the last thing on my mind, but in the end, I always came back for more. Whilst last year I talked about the hardships of game development, this past year I savoured more of the bright side of game development. As a game developer, I find myself learning new stuff almost every day. Every challenge, every problem and headache is a step closer to a utopian perfection.

Starting out years ago and up to six months ago, I would read articles and dev blogs about how to be a successful game developer – how to start from scratch, build your own staircase to climb and finish a game.

Create prototypes. Work on your game everyday. Hone your skills. Week in, week out, those were the types of suggestions I’d stumble upon. Were they helpful? In intention, yes. Yet in reality it was a whole other story. The tips and tricks from seasoned game developers never really hit home, and perhaps rather late after having spent a number of months wandering around like a lost soul, I decided to abandon everything and go my way. Why?

I could never work on prototypes. If there was anything I made that I didn’t like, I’d either abandon ship, or I’d spend long hours working on perfecting it. I’m a perfectionist. I could never grasp the aim of a half-finished game, and I still can’t. Maybe it’s sheer ignorance, or maybe it’s just that I can’t appreciate my own creation before having perfected it. Unbeknown to me, I was entering a school of thought and practice which was binding me to a tunnel-vision mindset.

Rather than embracing my perfectionist self and the indie spirit which I had fallen in love with, I was willfully choosing to surround myself with the voices around me, dictating what I should do. Earlier this year, I finally found a foothold and stuck with it – Winter’s Coming. I didn’t create any prototypes – I focused on my weaknesses and built on them. The results are showing. Rather than following in others’ footsteps, I created my own. I went truly indie.

So choose what works for you and stick with it. Do what you love best and be the best at it. Be yourself and trudge forward.

Just create.

Imagining a Game

In the introductory blog post about this new series of articles, A Game Developer’s Experience, I talked briefly about game development. As promised, every now and then I’ll be tackling a new aspect of building a game. This week, I’ll be taking a closer look at the very first stage of game development – the concept stage.

Game development deals with the inner workings of a game and the process to publish a video game, but before any of this happens, there has to be an idea for a game. A very general idea which answers an essential question – what’s the game about? But why is this stage so important?

The time when a developer is brainstorming for a game concept is crucial for any studio. Since development takes months, the wrong idea could often be a breaking point for a professional studio. There are also certain ideals which should be reached – for example the developer has to be sure that he has the expertise needed to finish the game.

We’ve all played games which have previously-undeveloped mechanics to thank for their success, as was the case with Braid. Others, such as Minecraft, were the catalysts for new, emerging graphical styles. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a general formula which determines or predicts a game’s future success. So what makes an idea stand out?

Innovation is an important aspect in indie gaming. Many indie games’ success is attributed to the way they pick a basic mechanic and give it a personal twist, or perfect it in a unique way. On an even more fundamental level, the basic mechanics have to be fun and engaging for players. Although the game is still just an idea, these points have to be examined and, if possible, added to the basic idea as early as possible.

Coming up with fresh ideas could take time, and inspiration plays an important part. You might remember Nyphoon’s barren spell last year after I dropped The Ark: Relaunch. So how do indie developers come up with ideas for their next project? As I wrote last year for IGDA, inspiration can be rather elusive. There are many aspects in indie game development which make it rather tricky for developers to come up with distinguishing ideas.

You never know when inspiration hits. The first idea for Winter's Coming - right in the middle of the night. The first word written? Snowball.

You never know when inspiration might hit you. The first idea for Winter’s Coming came right in the middle of the night. The first word I wrote? Snowball.

The concept of Winter’s Coming came about in one instant, but before that there had been months without any form of inspiration. Playing video games certainly helps fuel inspiration, yet everyone has his own methods of capturing ideas. Before finalizing an idea and deciding whether to take it up or not, I find it helpful to analyze each one – sometimes it’s just a mental exercise, other times I feel the need to put pen to paper. And when an idea finally hits home, it’s time to build upon it.

As was the case with Winter’s Coming, after the general idea is chosen it’s time to lay down the basic mechanics – the foundation of the game. You have an exceptional idea, yet it’s often a fragment of a game’s concept. At this stage, the mechanics are the bare minimum, but it usually determines what the player’s goal is in the game. In the next post, I’ll be examining the thought-processes and exercises to change an abstract idea into something more practical.

Big things are coming next week to commemorate Nyphoon’s 6th birthday, so remember to follow Nyphoon on TwitterFacebook or by subscribing to the RSS Feed!

Relaunching The Sprite Project

It’s been some time since I last talked about The Sprite Project, hasn’t it? A few weeks ago, I revealed how work on The Sprite Project will be revived for a new, re-hauled engine. With this engine being one of my priorities this year, last weekend I opted to start working on it. This first version of this sprite engine, developed for jMonkeyEngine 3, was released around a year ago, and the attention and support it received was much higher than I anticipated.

The Sprite Project Logo

Recently a start-up indie studio contacted me about a game they were working on – which was using The Sprite Project as the engine for graphics and sprites. The platform game was released a few weeks ago, so make sure you check it out if you like puzzle platformers!

Back on the subject, when confronted with some questions about this engine I realized just how constrained it actually was. Lacking in versatility and any in-line documentation, The Sprite Project had a number of processes which I now consider to be bad practice. Most importantly, this one-month project also lacked in optimization.

That said, I still consider The Sprite Project to be my own little achievement, yet in reality it is barely anything more than a prototype of an engine. And moving on to re-create this new engine from scratch, there are a number of benchmarks I want to meet in the final release of this engine, around 6 months from now.

The most important part in this engine is optimization. Thanks to the assistance of a number of jMonkeyEngine developers, I’ve already determined some ground rules. For example the engine will be using different techniques for different types of sprites (for example GLSL shaders for animations) in order to use the CPU and GPU as wisely as possible.

Remember this guy? He's back for more!

Remember this guy? He’s back for more!

Part of the optimization process to improve performance will also include the culling of 2D sprites which aren’t displayed on the screen.

This implies that documentation will be more important than ever. In fact, one of the basic features I am emphasizing on in the new engine is proper documentation. Apart from the obvious in-line documentation, I also plan to use a wiki-like section on Nyphoon’s website explaining how the engine works.

The reason why I’m opting for a wiki-like model is that the engine will be much larger than the previous release, and I would thus have the opportunity to provide more usage examples and explain in more detail how it works. What’s more, a comment section will also allow developers to share tips.

The new wiki requirements have also heightened the need for the new website. Whilst the design is in the works, it’s unlikely that the website will be opened any time soon, at least not in the next few months.

My goal for the new Sprite Project isn’t to provide developers a tailor-made sprite engine, but the framework. As was the case with the last version, the upcoming one could be used off the box, yet I would still recommend that developers fine-tune it for their own games if need be.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting more about The Sprite Project. I’ll also be simultaneously working on several other aspects of Winter’s Coming, so if you want to stay updated, make sure to follow me on TwitterFacebook, or by subscribing to the RSS Feed! Oh, and if you have any suggestions, leave a comment below and I’ll make sure to reply!

Winter’s Coming

Something touches you gently. It’s soft and cold, and jolts you back to reality. It’s a snowflake. Winter’s Coming.

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It’s been six months since I started working on Winter’s Coming, Nyphoon’s upcoming physics platform game. The concept art has generated great feedback within the gamer/game developer community and across social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. With the game garnering interest, it’s time to present the game and what it’s all about.

Winter’s Coming is an upcoming physics platform game inspired by games such as I-Illusion’s Element4l. The player takes the role of a snowball who’s fed up seeing snow year in, year out. But this Winter is different, and the protagonist goes looking for adventure in the vast world surrounding him.

Mechanics

The snowball’s size will eventually be the principal mechanism in the game. The player’s size will determine whether he will be able break down obstacles or squeeze through narrow gaps. Apart from this, it will also affect the distance the player can jump. But how can players change their size?

When the snowball is in contact with snow, its size will increase. When in mid-air (say during a jump) or touching rock, the snowball will slowly melt or crumble. The same effect, although on a larger scale, will be present in large drops or strong collisions.

As things stand, I’m aiming for the game to offer a relaxing experience. The minimalism on show in the concept art released in the past couple of weeks is only a fraction of what the game should look like. Whilst the game will keep to its simplistic demeanour, I will try to use other elements (such as lighting) to add to this minimalism a dynamic ambient effect. But why the sheer minimalism in the game?

Minimalism

Firstly, a personal view about game development. As much as writing, drawing, and composing music are forms of expressing oneself through art, I consider game development to fall in the same category.

The concept art released has been described in various ways, including muted. While this concept art is still being finalized with help from various game developers and the community at GameDev.net’s Forums, the style I chose to go ahead with in Winter’s Coming isn’t coincidental. So why minimalism?

Everyone has a story to tell, and as a game developer I want to tell mine through what I’m best at. I’ve previously written articles as means to channel my thoughts and musings, and this time I’m also using this game.

Without going into too much detail (I plan on dedicating a whole blog post about this later on), the muted look, as the concept art was described, represents silence, while the snowball’s journey represents the personal journeys we all make in life.

The experience I want the game to convey to the player is a relaxing one, focusing on only the task at hand, obstructed by no time-limits. I believe that minimalism, along with subtlety, helps to keep the player focused.

Challenges in Concept

As you can imagine, there are also challenges associated with the general concept. Games like Thomas was Alone have an element of personal reflection within them, yet the game’s success is, in my opinion, attributed mainly to the game’s excellent execution of the mechanics. In simpler terms, the game’s gameplay is still extremely valuable. Considering this, it’s important that such personal reflections don’t get in the way of the gameplay. And this brings me to the second challenge.

Many games are renowned for their artistic style, or graphics. In such cases, even when the gameplay is lacking, the graphics make up for it. One Redditor brought to my attention that minimalism doesn’t provide much when it comes to eye-candy, and that gameplay should make up for it. In essence this means that with little variations present in the game’s environment (think levels), it’s important that the mechanics are diverse, compelling and polished since the player will be focusing on the gameplay rather than the graphics.

I consider minimalism to be a core ingredient in the game, which explains why each level will only have one palette, apart for a few, slightly different shades. Nonetheless, one of my goals is to experiment with minimalism by using dynamic lighting techniques. By changing shadows and lighting in subtle ways, I intend to try and give the game a dynamic, spectacular element. The challenge here would be not to diverge from minimalism.

Conclusion

It’s already been 6 months since I’ve started working on the level editor, and with that almost finished, it’s time to keep moving forward. In the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more about Winter’s Coming and the process of game development, all the while working on more concept art. What’s more, as from the upcoming week I’ll also start working on the revamped The Sprite Project, so if you want to stay updated, make sure you follow Nyphoon Games on TwitterFacebook, or by subscribing to our RSS Feed!