Progress

I really ought to keep this thing more up to date.  Despite the silence here—or perhaps because of it—I’m making progress on development. Contrary to the post before this one, I changed direction last minute and settled on a slightly different idea. Many of the points on my decision process still hold though, and this new game is still 2D, with simple art requirements, and a significant mechanical focus.

Z2D_002
Random character generation, with placeholder art by Jeff Preston.

After spending January and February on design and coding various abstract objects, I’ve finally started work on UI.  With university quieting down after midterms, I’m hoping to have a playable prototype by the end of the week.  I’ll try to post more regular updates here, assuming progress continues at pace.

Anyway, if I want to stay on schedule, I better get back to it.  For those keeping track, in the screenshot above, the “People” tab is implemented to prototype standards.  That’s one tab down, four to go.

Kicking Creativity Into Gear: Settling on an Idea

When I was a teenager and aspiring filmmaker, I quickly learned that if I ever wanted to film the screenplays I was writing in my spare time, I needed to work within the creative constraints imposed by my limited resources.  I couldn’t film car chases, or gun fights, or include stunning aerial shots of urban environments, or even the suburban enclave to which I was confined.  While at first these limitations were frustrating, I came to believe that some degree of limitation forces creativity to thrive, leading to a better final product than offering unlimited resources to a creator.

Now as an adult and aspiring game developer, I don’t need to worry about procuring period costumes for a medieval epic, but a whole new batch of limitations guide my decisions about which projects are worth my limited time as a developer.  I’ve sketched out a number of ideas over time, looking for something which strikes a good balance between feasibility, novelty, creativity, and commercial viability.

Of those four facets, I care the least about commercial viability.  I’d rather make something interesting, which never sells, rather than something unoriginal which sells like gangbusters.  This is helped immensely by the fact that I’m currently a student, not a professional whose financial future rests on the commercial success of the games I work on.  I also figure that, in the worst case scenario, whatever I create will be a useful portfolio piece when I try to market myself to software companies of any stripe.

I probably care the most about novelty.  I want to create something that doesn’t exist in the world, because I want to create games that I’ll want to play.  My target audience is me, because I know exactly what I like, and what I don’t.  I don’t have any interest in creating a game that already exists, because if the game exists, I’d rather be playing it, rather than painstakingly recreating it.  Game development is fun, but it’s not that fun.

But enough about the nebulous factors that influence my creative choices—your mileage will vary dramatically, depending on your own priorities—let’s get to the practical considerations that constrain my choices.  First, and most obvious, I’m just one person.  I also have no budget.  This means I can’t do things like hire artists, or musicians, or anyone to help with production.  Some of you might say, “But couldn’t you offer someone a share of profits, or exposure for their work?”  In short, no.  This project is so far removed from profit, that an offer of profit sharing is indistinguishable from asking someone to work for free (aka. “working for exposure”).  So at the start of the day, and the end, I’m just a single person trying to make a game.

This is obviously a constraint in and of itself, but also means that I need to consider my specific skill set, since it will determine all the work that I can accomplish.  I’d put my relevant abilities at roughly 60% programmer, 20% game designer, 10% writer, 9% graphic designer, and 1% artist.  This is an incredibly rough heuristic, and probably wildly inaccurate, but it’s the best guess I’ve got at my own abilities.

So based on those abilities, any game I develop on my own should be systems heavy—focused on designed mechanics and their implementation in code—with less of an emphasis on writing, and minimal requirements for fancy visuals.  I have exactly zero background in 3D art, so while I could comfortably code a 3D game, I shouldn’t develop one on my own, since I have no idea if I would be able to create adequate 3D assets.

You’ll also note that my abilities don’t include music.  For that, I’ll have to rely on the public domain, meaning any game that can reasonably use music published before 1923 will have access to a significantly larger body of work, compared to a game that would rely on works released to the public domain (or on a commercial-friendly Creative Commons license).  If you don’t intend to release a game in the United States, the year where works enter the public domain might be more recent than 1923.  Of course, you’d be cutting yourself out of the single largest game consumer market, so…

The public domain, and Creative Commons, also provides a significant resource for game art, so even someone with zero art skill could scavenge all their art assets online.  However, more so than with music, this does present a challenge in creating a coherent visual style (I’m sure a musician would tell you that creating a coherent, freely sourced audio style is just as challenging, I’m probably just revealing the depths of my ignorance here).  Regardless, the 1923 rule of thumb holds true for visual art as well.

As a corollary to the code-focus mentioned above, I also decided I should focus on procedural generation, rather than bespoke content.  While procedural generation isn’t easy, a good systems focused game with randomization can theoretically offer infinite playtime, with finite content creation.  The same can never be said of a linear, narrative focused game.  This isn’t meant to devalue linear, narrative focused games as experiences, and if your own abilities lend themselves to the creation of that type of game, go for it!  But in my case, I can punch above my weight as a lone developer if I focus my efforts on systems based games.

That being said, my time is a finite resource, and as much as I enjoy a game of staggering complexity like Dwarf Fortress, I’m not ready to commit to a single project as my life’s work.  I also enjoy the challenge of finding heuristics with which complex interactions can be simplified.  This ended up cutting short several ideas which required a multitude of interconnected systems, all operating at the same time, in order to satisfactorily simulate the game world.

After dabbling in 3D development of bespoke content for a game jam, I quickly recognized that my abilities would create a lackluster experience of insufficient length to be worth playing (or purchasing).  Eventually the constraints mentioned above kept leading me back to the idea I finally settled on—a 2D, document focused, procedurally generated detective game, utilizing music and art that would fit with a 1930’s timeline (when it would be conceivable that art and music from the 1910s and 1920s would still be in circulation, much as people still enjoy the creative work of the 1990s and 2000s today).  This still has challenges, especially in the random generation of interesting crimes, which a player can solve.  But these challenges are fascinating ones, which I look forward to tackling, even if they ultimately result in failure.  They’re also challenges which I’ve evaluated as easier than many of my other ideas, which often quickly grew to Dwarf Fortress levels of complexity.  And succeed or fail, my work on these algorithms should, at the very least, look good on a resume, or as part of a portfolio.

So there you have it—a somewhat rambling look at the thoughts, considerations, and creative constraints that led me to grab onto this particular game idea, and hold onto it for at least a couple weeks of exploratory development.  And with that, it’s time to move past this self-reflection on my thought process (or, dare I say, procrastination and navel-gazing), and get down to the dirty business of making this idea a reality.

Resolution

I didn’t make any New Year’s resolutions this year, but if I had, my resolution would have been to do more game development. In December I worked out designs for two game jam games—one for Idle Thumb’s Winter Wizard Jam, and one for Ludum Dare 34). Unfortunately, both game jams conflicted with final projects and exams at the end of the fall semester, and my paper designs never materialized into full games, despite some work towards that end.

WinterWizardJam002
Early work on a Winter Wizard Jam game.

This year, instead of working on the smaller games I’ve dabbled in before, I’ve decided to start work on a more significant game, rivaling the largest and most complicated projects I’ve undertaken as part of my computer science degree. I have more ideas for games than I know what to do with, many of which have been fleshed out to some degree in notebooks, on the back of envelopes, and in Google Docs. After much consideration, I’ve settled on developing one of these ideas—a procedurally generated mystery game, taking inspiration from film noir, television crime dramas, and open world games. I have a rough draft design document written, and a tentative schedule to develop an early prototype.

I’ll post intermittent updates on my progress and thought process here, starting with an update tomorrow about how I settled on the idea for the game. I won’t promise regular updates, and if development butts heads with university, my studies will take priority. But hopefully you’ll see at least semi-regular updates, showing real progress, as development moves forward at pace.

Bottle Caps in the Capital

I’m really excited for Fallout 4.  The game has topped my anticipation list for ages, long before it was announced in June of this year.  I even pre-ordered the game, something I haven’t done since a disastrous experience with Dragon Age 2—although this pre-order was mostly to avoid a predicted $10 price increase resulting from the weakness of the Canadian dollar (which happened on October 15th, for anyone keeping track).

To help kill the less than two weeks until Fallout 4’s release, I decided to venture back into the Capital Wasteland of Fallout 3.  And to help justify this extravagance, I’m writing a series of articles exploring design choices in the game.

I’ve played every major game in the Fallout series, and then some, most recently spending an absurd amount of time with Fallout: New Vegas.  For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the majority of the games (including Fallout 1, Fallout 2, and F:NV) are set on the West Coast of a post-apocalyptic United States.  The most notable exception to this is Bethesda’s first foray, Fallout 3, set in the ruins of Washington, D.C.  This change of venue gave the studio some degree of creative freedom as they breathed new life into a series that had lain dormant for almost a decade.

Nice kitty...
Nice kitty…

Similarly, Fallout 4 will be set around nearby Boston, keeping Bethesda’s efforts firmly rooted in Fallout’s East Coast canon.  I was first reminded of this East/West distinction while watching an early trailer for Fallout 4.  It featured a beast called a yao guai, prompting me to think, “What the heck is a yao guai?”

After a little browsing on the Fallout Wiki, I discovered that the yao guai was an invention of Fallout 3—a deviation from the pre-Bethesda canon, and a beast that has only appeared in the wastes of the East Coast.

This was part of what prompted my return to Fallout 3, a desire to brush up on Fallout’s East Coast lore so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard by the appearance of yao guai, or miss any nods to Bethesda’s earlier game.  But it also got me thinking about the idea of canon, and some of the choices Bethesda made when reviving the series.

At a certain point in my current replay, I started to wonder how the currency of the Capital Wasteland, bottle caps, managed to migrate from the West Coast to the East.  Because I’m a giant nerd, I know that caps in the Fallout universe originated in a major trading center in Southern California, The Hub, as a currency backed by the value of water.  This is plausible.  Bottle caps, we are told, are a relatively scarce pre-war artifact, and since they are backed by a valuable wasteland resource, and guaranteed by a group of reliable merchants, it makes sense that locals would come to trust caps as a local currency.

In Fallout 2, set 80 years later in 2241, caps have been abandoned as currency on the West Coast.  After the New California Republic gained regional power they introduced the NCR dollar, backed by gold, which serves as the standard currency in Fallout 2.  Again, this is plausible within the fiction.

I had actually forgotten this piece of trivia until I started researching this tiny detail of the Fallout universe.  It’s strange to realize that in 1998 only half of the Fallout games used bottle caps, while in 2015, caps as currency are an intrinsic part of the Fallout brand.  Caps are now an indisputable True Fact™ of life in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Yet unlike the first two games Fallout 3 never attempts to explain the East Coast’s usage of caps.  While several groups migrated from the West Coast, the Hub merchants were not among them.  And even if they were, by the time Fallout 3 starts in 2277, the Hub has been a part of the NCR for almost a century.  Additionally, there is no regional power in D.C.—trading or governmental—with enough power and prevalence that we could reasonably believe they are supporting the currency.  And with hundreds of pre-war bottles of Nuka Cola available in the ruins of D.C., caps are not the relative rarity they were in California.  The constant influx of new caps from these bottles would, in a real economy, lead to inflation, and destabilize the wasteland economy.  And with no guaranteeing authority, it’s hard to imagine a rationale for East Coasters trusting the currency, and not reverting to a pure barter economy.

So how did caps come to be used in the Capital Wasteland?  As far as I can tell, the origin of caps in D.C. can only be attributed to what I like to call the Yoda Effect.

How does Yoda speak?  “Speaks like this, he does.”  Except in Yoda’s first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda only adopts this speech pattern while testing Luke Skywalker, before he is revealed to be the Jedi Master that Luke seeks.  Once Luke’s training begins, Yoda largely drops this speech pattern.

"Learned to speak, I have not."
“Learned to speak, I have not.”

However, in all his subsequent appearances, Yoda has reverted to his initial, iconic speech pattern, no matter the circumstances.  This abandons the subterfuge rationale for Yoda’s speech pattern that is apparent in Empire, in favour of presenting an 800-year-old Jedi Master who was able to master everything except the English language.  Rather than a fully realized, three dimensional character, Yoda becomes a caricature—a slave to the True Fact™ of how Yoda speaks.

So where does this leave Fallout 3?  As far as I can tell, caps are in D.C. because Bethesda opted for a stance of illogical deference to an iconic component of the first game.  Caps are currency because the True Fact™ of caps in the wasteland made the short list of touchstones in Fallout.

It’s not an interesting decision.  It’s not a brave decision.  But it is understandable.  And in many ways, it’s been very successful.

While caps don’t make sense in the Capital Wasteland, it’s probably not something that many people question.  I don’t remember questioning it until this playthrough.  And this is partly because caps were an iconic part of the first game.  So while caps don’t fit logically into Fallout 3—their East Coast origin never even mentioned, let alone explained—they evoke the Fallout universe, strongly and clearly.

And when Bethesda bought the rights to Fallout from Interplay, it seems that they decided that the challenge would not be expanding the setting with a fully realized region, but rather evoking the original series in a new game which would not offend a rabid fan base.  In light of this decision, caps are perfectly logical, and have been a complete success.

But now Bethesda doesn’t need to worry as much about offending the fan base.  After the success of Fallout 3, the follow up can afford to take more risks.  A large portion of the fan base for Fallout 4 probably won’t have played anything in the series before Fallout 3.  Indeed, some of the biggest cheers during Bethesda’s E3 presentation this year occurred when weapons and other elements from Fallout 3—and only Fallout 3—graced the stage.

Now that Bethesda has established itself as a responsible curator of Fallout’s legacy, hopefully the upcoming game will feature a post-apocalyptic Boston that is fully realized, and not just full of True Facts™ about Fallout.  Their modifications to the SPECIAL system are a promising sign of this.  I just hope the world building delivers as well as the systems.  In eleven days, we’ll all find out.