Friday, October 21, 2011

Train Controller updated and looking good...

We live in exciting times. Train Controller has been given a fresh lick of paint and is now available on the App Store. It looks a lot livelier than before thanks to the plethora of themes throughout the game, new British Rail font and animated decor on some of the special themed levels.
Much kudos to Reiner's Tilesets; a lot of the original concept tiles came from his site and have been quite heavily modified to fit in with the existing track layouts and tile sizes on the game.
Also, I would like to thank the following people for some excellent feedback on the original game:
  • Lydie and Ange for insisting on an Instructions screen
  • James Irving for the suggestion of the speed modifier option to make the game run more quickly
  • Everyone who took the time to Like the game on Facebook
  • Lorna and Gaming Mum for reviewing the game for the App Store
I hope everyone who bought the game enjoys the update.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Train Game - updated and on the iPhone

Following on from the entry written about the iPhone game developed to determine if it is possible to develop a game more quickly now than it was, in say, 1983; I decided to rework The Train Game. It was originally released by Microsphere for the 16K ZX Spectrum in, surprisingly enough, 1983. I had given myself a month to develop it from scratch, utilising a few weeks previous to this to learn Objective C.

It was a game that was originally restricted by its interface, associating changeable points with keyboard letters, and I felt would work well with a purely touch interface. It was also not a graphical powerhouse, even at its time of release, which works well for me as I have no ability to create decent graphics at all.

There were a few must haves in the game; it had to allow the two original levels to be re-created using the implemented mapping method and it had to have a selectable graphical theme that allowed the game to look similar to an actual Centralised Train Control (CTC) screen.

After a lot of researching, the options available for the implementation were to use the native Apple libraries, Corona or Cocos2d. Corona would allow the game to be run on both Android and iOS, but costs $350 for an annual license to publish. I didn't choose this for a couple of reasons; the game was being written as a tile map game and Cocos2d had a much more mature implementation and worked directly with the tool Tiled (which was an excellent help), the game being written required pixel perfect tile matching and the Android phones use a different resolution to the iPhone which to be honest I just didn't think would work and, importantly, it costs $350 to allow publishing.

As an aside, Corona reminded me a bit of Dark Basic; it allows a lot of interesting things to be done with little code, but when it comes to writing the actual code structure around the game Dark Basic became a real pain. I preferred to work with a library sitting on top of Objective C as opposed to a scripting language that everything has to be performed in. I prefer to work with a tool that works with the native language as opposed to replicating all the functionality in its own.

The IDE utilised in Mac or iOS development is XCode; which does some things well and drops the ball on others; a lot of this comes down to personal preference though. One thing that really gets me though is the use of the Home and End keys on a Mac; why it does not take you to the start and end of a line (which has been done on Mainframes, Minis, PCs and every other machine on this planet) irritates me no end. You can update it on the preferences in XCode along with the modified instances, but as soon as you swap into a text editor or another application, you have to remember that they are different.

Cocos2d was an excellent choice as it turned out; a lot of time was initially spent on the forums to work out nuances in the library, but its core concepts are soundly implemented and most things just worked which is nothing short of a blessing and something that cannot be overstated.

The game itself came together over the development time; the code was re-factored many times in the early stages as I had not developed anything in OO for quite a few years; the tile sets were re-vamped a few times to ensure consistency in size and edge matching and to try and make them look at least half-decent. The sounds were worked in Audacity which I was so grateful to find a version for the Mac; the trickiest to get right was the point change (a metallic drag and clunk) which most people probably won't even notice but that was as it ought to be.

The graphics were eventually created in Gimp; I had tried different Mac packages like Seahorse but just could not get the hang of the handling the layers. The splash screen was handed out to an artist I found on oDesk (after the first contact disappeared) who did an excellent job with sketches of progress sent to allow the process to be tweaked. He also re-did the passenger graphic, which until then was just a graphic I had ripped off a forum somewhere.

The tool set used for the game comprised of the following:

Free Tools
XCode (has an excellent iPhone simulator built-in)
Tiled QT
Dropbox (used for storing the media and project backups)

Purchased Tools
Texture Packer (an excellent tool for creating tile sheets)
8GB iPod Touch

The most exasperating part of the project was getting the iPod synched up with the XCode IDE; the iTunes Connect portal was a real pain. I couldn't get the keys in the right place, the hardware recognised or any part of it to work. Given the amount of hits on google when trying to find out what was going wrong, I wasn't the only one.

The signing up for the developer license was an exercise that could have driven the Dalai Lama to violence. It is meant to take 48 hours, and the $120 was indeed taken within that time, but the actual process required creating an ABN, getting GST registered and many calls to Apple support. One needs to prove the GST registration and the ABR site is, to put it mildly, bloody awful. The support telephone number leads to a disconnected number. When I called their technical support, they then took my details and then transferred me through to a disconnected number. In the end, I just needed to take a screenshot from the website (which was much, much better than the ABR) and email it to them. I found this in a very discrete part of the portal FAQ section several section deep. They should have gone the whole way and put a 'Beware of the leopard' sign.

The way the package is created to send to Apple for review is not particularly well documented; but the process is built into XCode. Once again I was hit by missing keys and obscure error messages; seems I missed a tab in the iTunes Connect portal. The review process itself took a bit over a couple of weeks and was successful.

The game is now available on the Apple App Store and if you have managed to read through this diatribe then you should jump on and check out Train Controller.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More game journalism bizarreness...

I regularly catch up with Kotaku, mainly as it is actually centred around Australia. I caught this the other day though and it kinda got under my skin:

The article (here) states that:
"Just because they’re [Xbox360 and PS3] getting a little long in the tooth, though, doesn’t make them slouches in the graphics department."

I mean what is that actually compared to? What or where is this mecca that these real-time processed graphical slouches are measuring up to? Who would be able to utilise more graphical processing power? Are games currently being held back by their ability to push pixels? Where are the screens going to come from that can display a higher resolution?

Do we actually play games now or just sit in front of our TVs with a magnifying glass counting pixels?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New game being published on the iPhone

Just for a change and a break; have spent the last couple of months developing a game for the iPhone.

It pretty much encapsulates something I have been wondering about; is it quicker to develop games now with all the tools and computing power available than it did, say, in 1983?

So I gave it a lot of thought about what kind of game was restricted by its original interface and would be suited to a touch panel and was one that I was quite fond of. Also, given the feedback from the Sky Ranger remake, one that other people were quite fond of too. A game that was originally published in, say, 1983.

I'll update with further details once the game is published on the App Store. Would hate to build it up and then have it refused...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Off balance

I did something that I have rarely done in the last twenty or so years a few days ago; I quit a game then uninstalled it and will be unlikely to revisit it even though I was close to finishing.

It had come close previously with, for example, God of War. Great game with great production values, but the final battle with Aries had the unforgivable curse of unblockable attacks. It's not big and it's not clever; just a series of frustrations before you finally luck through. My controller still works but carries the scars of broken plastic to this day.

But the game I was playing had a much more exasperating flaw - its controls were not up to the task of what the game required you to do.

This problem came up recently on playing 'And Yet it Moves'. I enjoyed most of the game; the art direction, animation and conceptual design were all particularly good. The trouble was with the disappearing platforms in the latter part of the game. The controls were just not good enough to cope with the complexity of the last levels. It changed it from a thoughtful, intriguing game into a rapid-fire memory test; a backwards slip to a platforming mechanic that was barely acceptable at its origin. (My own personal theory is that the controls would have to have complete freedom of 360 degrees as opposed to the four rigidly timed 90 degree positional steps in order for those last stages to work).

The game I quit, the other day, was Tomb Raider Anniversary. It was within the Great Pyramid, with progression based on ascending the platforms with a lava pit beneath you to reach your arch nemesis above. What were the problems plaguing my onward journey? Allow me to list the main contenders...

The Grapple
The grapple is the most poorly controllable mechanism I have ever had to use in a game in recent memory. Intuitive, it is not. The amount of times she jumped backwards instead of to the side, or vice versa, made the use of the tool an exercise in mouse-bashing exasperation. To have a decent chance of the move you want to perform actually occurring the camera has to be persistently moved contrary to the determined will of the game to an angle with which you can determine what left or back actually represents.

Cramped space
You have to fight off flying demons while standing on a small platform with your back against the wall. The big design flaw in this is that it plays havoc with the 3rd person camera, making it quite tricky to see what the automatic aim has picked up - on more frustrating attempts you can eventually determine that it has been purposefully directing your firing to the timer activation button as opposed to the large demons hurling fireballs at you. The main mechanic for dodging attacks in Tomb Raider is the jump or roll. There is only room for side-to-side movement on the platform and more often than not you end up over the side and burning in lava due to the terrible camera positioning. Most importantly though, the controls are just not accurate enough for the task given. There is no way to accurately determine where you will land from the start of the side jump or determine the best way to time the jump to avoid the fireballs.

The shoot, run, jump, slide, jump, flip, turn, flip, shimmy, back-jump, turn, flip on a timer
Nothing is entirely useless, it can always serve as a bad example; this is the best example of setting a task that the controls just cannot adequately respond to. The main culprit is getting from the position you shoot the timer button to jump straight at the slide and then jump forward after she starts sliding down. It just wouldn't perform the jump nine times out of ten; then you would have to start once more at the platform with the flying demons and run through the whole charade. Again. Even once she had successfully made it to the horizontal pole, she would have to start her whole swinging action from scratch and flip to the next pole; once there she would have to stop and face the other way, then flip to the next pole. Getting past the poles and onto the shimmying was when the timer would tend to run out and then once again it was a dip in the lava, leaving me one pole and a grapple wall-walk short of completing the task.

After an afternoon of this it just became a bit ridiculous; I really wanted to finish this game and think I was pretty close to it, but I could not waste any more of my time trying to work through a game that just didn't provide the tools to do the job; it was like having to drive a nail into a wall and been given only a hacksaw to do it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Invention from adversity

It seems that great things are created when you don't have the tools that you think you need to accomplish them.

Take, for example, the obvious example of Star Wars. Created on a very limited budget, but introducing a whole new vision of science fiction. Then have a look at The Phantom Menace with a, pretty much, unlimited budget and then look away, quickly.
The film Shrek was made by Dreamworks on the brink of bankruptcy driven by a need to parody their previous employers, whereas the sequels were made in financial security and found themselves drifting into diminishing returns.
Citizen Kane was made with a young Orson Welles bound by the limits of the current technology but making something that had never been seen before. The sequel "Son of Rosebud - Ski-mobile of Power" made purely in CGI never reached the same heights despite the modern technology available. Although, thinking back, this might have just been a bad dream after some dodgy fish cakes.
Diverging from sequels, Aliens by James Cameron was made in the adversity of the British tea breaks and 5pm clocking off and a budget limiting him to 6 Aliens for the whole shoot. Skip forward to the financial and chronological extravagance of Titanic, the carbuncle on the backside of cinematic history.

But what of the games? What are you actually trying to put across?

This is simply a long, twisted path to try and work out why the brilliance of some games can never be recreated. Modern versions and rewrites of Battlezone, for example, have never had the impact of, nor been as played as much as, the original - which was written in a few KB of memory but with a real passion to create something that had never been done before.

As another example - take the classic Robotron 2084 that introduced the twin joystick control. An addictive, fast paced and difficult game that is everything a classic should be. Robotron X was created many years later in a 3d environment with more memory available than a very wealthy person of good stock could have bought back in 1982. But it just didn't work particularly well. It wasn't a bad game, but it certainly wasn't a great game.

As a completely different example, the many iterations of Defender (the original game was written, co-coincidently, by the same person as the above Robotron 2084) never captured the feel or playability of the original, despite the advanced technology available in the more modern versions.

3D Monster Maze and Mazogs were written with no colour, sound or pixel graphics available. Deathchase 3D and Jetpac were written with 16KB available (as were the previous two games) and only a 2 colour per character square palette. Knight Lore with the first isometric 3D puzzle game and crammed into 48KB. Or the great Elite written originally in 32KB, containing 8 galaxies of 256 planets each with trading, 3D combat, missions and many late nights trying to get a better rating than Mostly Harmless.

In summary, it appears that it is the limitations placed upon older games that made them as great as they were, or are. Would Tir Na Nog have had any place in a free roaming 3d environment as opposed to the fixed camera and paths? These very restrictions gave the game the puzzles and originality that defined it. Mike Singleton saw a friend playing The Hobbit and decided there was no reason it needed to be that slow drawing the graphics and sat down to create a massive strategy adventure game called Lords of Midnight on the same hardware. The work that went into the C64 music prodded and poked into a small area of memory still manages to surpass the mood and feel of some of the orchestral scores around in some modern AAA titles. Restrictions have to lead to innovation if you want to rise above them; you don't spend time on something unless it is something that needs to be done. To revive a well worn expression, necessity is the mother of invention and conversely if you have everything you need in front of you, you have no need to innovate.

As a final, very deep conclusive thought, if Steven Spielberg had had CGI available and could have put the shark in when the model consistently didn't work; would Jaws have been the major impact in creating the Summer movie blockbuster?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who'd a thunk it?

One of the great things about the web is that articles that have been published on-line, tend to stay around. This allows people like myself to go hunting for all those ironic things that specialists and experts have said and predicted with confidence that have turned out to be codswallop.

As a bit of background to the non-gaming reader, the Nintendo Wii is the fastest selling games console ever released and is still selling rather well world-wide. It came out around the same time as the Sony Playstation 3 (PS3), which was around a year after the Microsoft Xbox360. The PS3 and Xbox360 are basically powerhouses utilising the same controllers as their previous consoles, whereas the Wii uses less cutting-edge technology and a new controller using physical movement as opposed to directional thumb-sticks. The PS3 is selling the least out of the three consoles.

The time is set back to circa 2006, where the predictions of who will win the next gen console war were generally of the following:
Sony expected to lead despite delays published on 21st March 2006. The figures that the experts had come up with were in lots and lots of articles across the web. Including this one:
XBox 360 will be a loss for Microsoft coincidently published on the same day. My personal favourite line from this article is where they expand past Microsoft and Sony to say,
"These kind of market figures would be very good news for Nintendo, however. A relative midget alongside the Sony and Microsoft behemoths, Nintendo was written off for dead in most quarters after the GameCube missed the mainstream."

The above quote is so ironic due to the 'experts' consistently ignoring the hand-held market that Nintendo have dominated since the introduction of the Gameboy. Even though the Gamecube was a lukewarm seller compared to the massive sales of the PS2 (pretty much alongside the original Xbox in numbers), Nintendo were still making an awful lot of money and had a rather large share of the overall video game market. Still, that's experts for you.

Going back a little bit further leads to our video game experts stating that Nintendo had already conceded the next generation console battle on the introduction of the then-called Revolution (later to become the Wii):
Nintendo unveils Revolution published on 17th May 2005. A great, obviously non-inflammatory, quote on this page is,
"... opens the gateway to the company's entire pre-Cube back catalogue on NES, SNES and N64 via a broadband service governed by a proprietary Digital Rights Management system."

Unlike the Open Source, free swapping mechanisms used on the games that Microsoft and Sony will let you download.

Most of the articles a few months later followed the lines of this one:
Blu-ray a player in PlayStation Pricing published on May 9th 2006. It was by this time that our specialist gaming media had written off the Nintendo Wii as underpowered and a fad, which is why most of the articles around this time didn't even mention it.

An interesting blip on the radar was from the Sydney Morning Herald, where a non-gaming specific blog Mashup predicted the following at the end of 2006 for Top Tech Trends To Watch In 2007:
"Wii wins next-gen console war

With its far-reaching mainstream appeal and unique gameplay experience, the Wii should comfortably snatch first place in the console wars. Its sales have already broken records, and holiday sales figures are expected to be just as impressive.

The Playstation 3 will no doubt be stiff competition for Nintendo, but its late launch in March and high price tag should give the Wii a comfortable victory."

As with all media reporting to this day, no-one seems to be able to grasp the idea that Sony will not be dominating the market as they have for pretty much the last 10 years. The same way newspaper journalists have been continually telling us that Second Life is the next big thing. To stretch the elastic band of irony even further, Sony of all people should be aware of what can befall arrogance in the video game market; it was Nintendo's arrogance that gave them the entry into the market in the first place.

Saving the best to last:
Playstation3 Defeats Xbox 360 published on May 27th 2005 is an excellent example of the fine folk that engage in intense debate around the subject of console branding. Given that at this point, neither console had been released, the following comments certainly display their own charm:
"playstation 3 won and im happy because it is the best look at the games."

"i like the xbox 360 more than a ps3 because it small and if u dont like the xbox 360 fuck u"

"u bastars stop thinking that the xbox 360 is gonna win because it is clearly at state that the the PS3 is going to win one reason is that its 2x's more powerful then the xbox 360 because my cousins works at sony and works with the PS3."

"if u think the 360 is going to completly replace the ps3 than ur fucking retarded. u should get kicked in the balls for posting this bullshit on the internet. PS3 is going to rule the world one day i swear its that good."
(Actually posted in 2007, must have taken a long time to get the grammar just right)

More delicacies from our concise and charming video gaming community. Maybe I should trademark the work sic and license it out to people who quote from game forums.