Music Creation for Games

I’ve tried a couple of programs in the run up to trying to make some good game music, mostly software designed for making great chiptune pieces. In previous projects, I’ve used a program called Famitracker, which produces 8-bit music based on the sounds of the Famicom or Nintendo Entertainment System.


The difficulty with Famitracker is creating the “instruments” or the sounds that the blips make. The image above shows the various settings which can be changed to create unique instruments, and a handy little virtual piano to preview your created sounds. This is where I’ve struggled before. You can just import instruments from other sources, but it is then implementing other people’s instruments into your track that proves difficult.


It would be nice if the virtual piano could be used to lay down the track, but it’s not the end of the world using the keyboard keys instead. In the main window of this image you can see the track visually. It is made up of beats which align horizontally, and channels which are displayed in columns and allow different instrument types to be played at once. The letters and numbers in each space depict the notes or sounds being played, and correlate to a specific instrument. This track is a chiptune version of Welcome Home by Coheed & Cambria which I started to write. In the Square 1 channel I’ve put the main melody. I would usually use Square 2 for harmonies, but haven’t placed any here. The Triangle channel plays a much softer note, and I’ve used this for my base line. The Noise channel plays white noise-like tones which can make a drum beat if programmed well, and I’ve attempted to make one here (although it’s not perfect just yet!) The letters obviously refer to notes, and the number refer to the octave that the note is played it. When you play the track back, it plays from top to bottom. You can hear a little tune I wrote in Famitracker here. This was a piece I used for some motion graphics a while ago.

Another program that I was really excited to acquire was PXTone by Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya, creator of Cave Story. I’ve mentioned this before, because it creates the music that Amaya uses in his games, and everything he makes is just exceptional quality.


This is where you customise the instruments you wish to use. While it’s possible to add effects to instruments, most of the instruments the software uses come in a file with the program. Most of them are short blips and electronic sounds, which aren’t based on the sounds of any specific console but have a chiptune feel to them!


This is a visual representation of when each instrument makes a sound. The beats are spaced vertically this time, with the track playing from left to right. Here I’ve made a melody and a harmony using a similar blip instrument, and a simple drum beat using a drum sample. Most of the programming in PXTone is done visually rather than using letters and numbers, which takes a while to get used to but is nice for those who aren’t familiar with music theory.


Each horizontal line in the image above can be expanded to see the tones that are played. For reference, keyboard keys are displayed on the left hand side of the screen. These correlate to the orange blocks, which represent the tone and timing of the note being played. This track is an experimental track which I worked on for a while to get myself into the software. I originally tried to create something using a pentatonic scale, but found myself making something that sounded like a piece from a Daisuke Amaya game! The best examples of PXTone tracks have to be from Cave Story, so here’s the Cave Story theme to help you get an idea of the type of sound produced:


The software I’ve had most success with so far is one that I’ve only recently discovered. SunVox was recommended to me as a great chiptune creation program, but is also just a very user-friendly sequencer that can be used to create tracks using any sound or sample.


To get familiar with the program, I start to create my own synthesised version of Joe Hisaishi’s Kaze no Toorimichi from My Neighbour Totoro (although it still needs alot of work because the timing is really weird). At the top you have a similar layout to Famitracker, where rows represent beats and columns represent layers of instruments. The tones are similarly represented by letters for notes and numbers for octaves, although in this case notes can be added using the virtual piano in the row below. This just makes life so much easier! I often find myself making mistakes whilst trying to remember which note belongs to which keyboard key, although this input method is still available.


The “02” next to each note shows which instrument is being played. The instruments are shown visually here. You can see that “02” is a sampler instrument, in this case a midi piano sound. By experimenting with the program I noticed that the high notes of this particular instrument sound a little like a Japanese plucked string instrument, with a little imagination! Most of my instruments are samples, although the generator is what really makes the chiptune-like elements of the track. In this example, each instrument is connected directly to the output, but filter and effect modules can easily be placed between the two to change the sound of the instrument.


This makes a very weird sound! You can see the levels here in each instrument and the output as the track is playing. The track plays from left to right in the bottom window, where the little patterned blocks are aligned. Each block represents a segment of the music which can be layered, copied and pasted and changed by moving blocks around. I haven’t done it here, but you can customise the patterns to have more meaning! Repeated patterns show places where I have repeated parts of the track, which is very useful for creating drum tracks and base lines.

I had a go at using some of the Japanese music theory I’d learned to create a track in SunVox which used a broken pentatonic scale as a basis. I’ve carried on using the suspicious piano instrument and a flute sample to create a melody. This is written in E flat major, but has quite a dark, serious tone to it. I didn’t take it much further as I hoped to create something a little lighter. I have screencap issues so please forgive the audio only!

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Traditional Japanese Music

So far throughout this project I’ve had a pretty good idea of what I wanted Hanami’s music to sound like, so it was about time that I actually gave the game some sound.
The music has really been inspired by two things:

Traditional Japanese Music



This is very typical of the sort of thing that comes to mind when you mention traditional Japanese music. The music is held together by hand-beaten percussion, accompanied by the plucked strings of instruments such as a koto and a woodwind melody. The music is then layered with additions of extra percussion from bells and wooden blocks or clappers. There are a couple of things that really stand out from the examples above. The second piece from Traditional Japanese Music 2 shows a very steady drum beat, unlike a lot of the examples I’ve listened to in research. This has resulted in a very “full” sounding tune throughout, in contrast to other tracks that use minimal percussion. I liked Flower because although it probably isn’t the best example of “traditional” music, it uses the same instruments and elements. This is a lot thinner, but often uses a harp sound as a base, rather than percussion.

Studio Ghibli Soundtracks


A lot of the Studio Ghibli films are set in or based on locations in Japan, and as a result have ended up with traditionally Japanese-sounding OSTs. One of the most obvious examples is the soundtrack from Pom Poko. The film itself is about a struggle against a modern way of life which destroys tradition, and this trailer showcases about three of the different types of music that the film captures. My Neighbour Totoro also shows a very traditional way of life, set in rural Japan. The track I found most inspirational from Totoro is Kaze no Toorimichi, “Path of the Wind”. The composer Joe Hisaishi, who also wrote the soundtracks to many Ghibli films including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, manages to balance traditional Japanese instruments with a modern orchestra brilliantly. This is an orchestral version of Kaze no Toorimichi, which is just as good as the original but unfortunately without the sound of traditional Japanese instruments.


It’s very difficult to find examples of Ghibli OSTs online that haven’t been met with copyright restrictions, so there’s not a lot more I can show! You can listen to some of Hisaishi’s music here.

Traditionally, Japanese instruments were tuned to pentatonic scales which consist of five notes per octave. This is why if you punch out a tune using only the black keys of a piano it can often sound very Eastern! The Western piano is tuned in C major, which uses seven notes per octave. Most traditional Western music is played in a major and minor heptatonic scale key signature, which is partly why traditional Western and Eastern music sound so different even on similar instruments.

There are various types of pentatonic scales which have specific names in Japanese. One example is the In Sen scale, which is often used as the tuning for wind chimes. In the key of C, In Sen plays:
C Db F G Bb (repeat C…)


For Hanami, I’ve chosen to use the E flat major pentatonic scale. I’m not sure if this was a scale that would have been used in traditional Japanese music, but when I was trying to work out the key signature for Hisaishi’s Kaze no Toorimichi it was the one that seemed to fit best (I’ve tried to work this out from the video, but can’t really be sure…) The scale of E flat major consists of Eb, Ab and Bb, and the pentatonic scale looks like this:
Eb F G Bb C (repeat Eb…)


Because it’s a major scale, it can have a very “happy” feeling. When I’ve asked other people what they think the music should sound like, they’ve mostly all agreed that the music should be calm and create a light atmosphere, rather than being too dark or energetic. Some of the examples in the first video Traditional Japanese Music 2 sound very serious, but Flower definitely shows a more relaxed and carefree musical experience.

Menu/Inventory Design in Games

Traditionally, I think the HUD was the most appropriate display of information for Platform games. GUI designs and formats seem to be very genre specific, and dependent on the type of information the player needs to customise. If the customisable info is limited, then a simple and very minimal system is required. For games where play is based on the customisation of various items and objects, the system is more complex.

If you look back to the original Super Mario Bros (which I know I refer to all the time, but you’ve really got to consider it to be the great grandfather of all great Platformers to follow!) all the information that the player needed to know were displayed in a dedicated space at the top of the screen. On the left you have player information: the player’s score and the amount of coins collected. On the right you have the level information: the current level and the time that the player has left to complete the level. Items are collected throughout the game, but they are put to effect immediately.


Adventure game Legend of Zelda had a greater need for an inventory system where the player could scroll through items that they had collected. In LoZ, the player must collect many items which have various uses. Some are offensive items such as bows and arrows or explosives, others are keys which unlock certain parts of the level, and of course, the player must find and collect the three parts of the Triforce. This need led to a specific menu design where items were arranged according to type. At the top you have selectable items which the player is carrying but may not necessarily be equipped. Having a list of stored items allows the player to pick and choose when items are used. Below this are un-selectable bits of information which cannot be changed or customised. In the middle there is a little diagram showing how many Triforce pieces have been collected. The bottom row of information is the same as the play sees in the HUD, and is a quick breakdown of map position, money and keys collected, items equipped and health points.


The RPG (Role Playing Game) Final Fantasy (the great grandfather of a dying breed of great RPGs) takes the inventory menu to the next level. Here we have a grid of information which is split into three sections. The diagram in the top left corner shows the amount of elemental orbs that player has collected. Below this is the amount of money the player has collected. Both of these pieces of information are non-customisable, and are simply a display. In the bottom left hand corner is a list of links to separate menus containing information about the customisable items that the player has collected such as magic, weapons and armour collected. The success of the game revolves around decisions that the player makes in these menus- if ignored the player cannot progress. The right hand side of the screen is dedicated to displaying character information. This is a quick overview of each character, and is easily accessible as there is no HUD system in this game.


These three games were all designed for the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s, but these GUI types have run with each genre throughout gaming history. As Hanami is essentially a 2D Platformer, history dictates that an inventory menu is unnecessary. However, it has evolved and changed at times. In Super Mario Bros 3, the player was given the chance to collect an item at the end of each level. Up to three items were then stored which the player could choose to use between levels, essentially creating an inventory system which was a part of the HUD- shown at the bottom right of this screenshot.


Although it makes a game more challenging to use items immediately on collection, there’s something fair and tactical about allowing players to save up items and use them at their discretion. This is why I’ve chosen to allow the player to collect healing sushi throughout Hanami and only consume when see fit. This gives me the chance to provide a window of extra information for the player, or previously displayed info in more detail! I’ve taken design inspiration from a range of existing menu designs in games. As I was looking through various games that I’ve played, I realised that coincidentally most of my favourite menu designs are from Gameboy Advance games. For reasons I can’t explain, it just seems like they put a lot of effort into awesome menus for GBA titles.

What I like about…

…The Harvest Moon More Friends of Mineral Town Inventory

It’s simple, colourful and interesting! The inventory has a certain amount of slots which are either empty or occupied by an image of an item. When an item is hovered over, information is displayed in the info box at the bottom. The system is easy to use and understand because it is set up into a nice grid system and split into two categories: tools and items. The colours and thumbnail pictures are just nice.

…The Final Fantasy Tactics Advance Menus


Far from simple, this menu system actually takes a while to get your head around. Once you do, you can start to appreciate how attractive the whole thing is, and how consistently stylised it is, even in very varying circumstances! Most things that the player must control are inside blue-window boxes, while statistics and other pieces of information are placed in a non-accessible background. Like the example from Harvest Moon, clear information is shown before the player makes critical choices.

…The Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories Menus

The menu system in Kingdom Hearts stretches across hundreds of pages, but all of these pages are very accessible with only a few clicks. The system has been designed so that they player can view only the information they want to view very easily, using things like menu tabs to flick through pages.

Hanami’s Quick Guide To Sushi

As everyone knows, sushi has healing powers. Most types of sushi will restore 1 hit point when eaten.

Nigiri にぎり

An oblong shaped slab of sushi rice topped with certain types of fish or egg laid neatly over the base. Sometimes nigiri is held together with a strip or “nori” seaweed.

Maki まき

Maki refers to rolled sushi, either with an outer layer of sushi rice or wrapped in nori. The filling runs through the centre of the rice, and can consist of many things from raw fish or meat to bean curd.

Gunkan Maki ぐんかんまき

A roll of nori filled with sushi rice and usually topped with fish eggs.

Temaki てまき

Hand rolled sushi wrapped in a cone of nori, with the filling of fish or fish eggs popping out of the top!

Onigiri おにぎり
(strictly not actually sushi…)

Onigiri refers to Japanese rice balls, often shaped in triangles and wrapped in nori. I’ve included this here because like sushi, onigiri is a food that looks distinctly Japanese!

GUI Design

Based on yesterday’s speech bubble designs, I’ve spent today working out some other interface elements. Apart from the game’s main menu (and potentially a separate pause menu), there are two main GUI elements which will keep a consistent style throughout the game. One of these is the HUD (Heads Up Display), and the other is the game’s inventory.

The HUD


I was previously using a placeholder HUD which shows information about the amount of flowers collected and the player’s health. The reason I placed this here temporarily was mainly as a debug object for me to test when damage was being taken and how well the flower collection ds_list was working. In the finished game, the HUD will be a quick insight into level progress, showing the same information just in a nicer graphical style.

I’ve had a quick look into how other Indie developments have incorporated HUD systems and found that they tend to be very basic, using simple icons and in some cases text only. This example from Ninja Senki is a very clear way of displaying information which doesn’t get confused with any other element on screen.

So, simple is good. There doesn’t seem much point in clogging up the screen with pointless graphics unless they are meaningful or relevant. The HUD should be concise and to the point, so that the player can glance at it quickly and get a good impression of the information displayed.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past has a fairly complex HUD system, but enforces clarity by using unique icons and indicators rather than using text.


Key:
The Green Bar (far left
) represents special ability charge levels
The Bow Icon (left) represents the secondary item equipped
The Green Gem icon represents the amount of rupees the player has
The Bomb icon represents the amount of bombs the player has
The Arrow icon represents the amount of arrows the player has
The Heart Capsules (far right) represents the player’s hit points.

This sounds complicated to explain, but each feature is added into the game gradually, allowing the player time to get to know the HUD and where to look for info. I’ve kept this in mind whilst designing my HUD object, even though mine will only display two pieces of information! Originally, I wanted to swap my HP figure for a sliding health bar, but keep the flower icon to display info on how many flowers had been collected. Giving it some thought, I’ve moved onto a health system which is more like Zelda’s heart capsules. Because Hana will only take 5 hits before “dying”, and each obstacle deals the same amount of damage, I thought it would be more appropriate to create an image which shows each individual hit point. You can see my thought progression in the sketches I did this morning…


I’ve tried to keep the window shape and style similar to that of the speech bubbles, which will now be a consistent theme throughout the GUI. I’ve added the character profile picture partly as a way of indicating “this is player health and partly because of some advice from I found in a forum about pixel art games- A 16×16 pixel character is an extremely distorted version of a character design, and showing a higher resolution image of the character somewhere in the game acts as a little player gratuity. On the right hand side of the image you can see a rough design for a menu/inventory, where I’m thinking of using an even large character image, based on my main concept art for Hana.

The size of the “high-res” head-shot is just over 32×32 pixels, twice the size of the entire original sprite. This took an unpredicted amount of time to create, because of the increased opportunities for detail in the drawing! I wasn’t originally sure what I was going to use as a representation of a hit point, but liked the idea of using something rounded. In the end, I’ve gone for a Japanese coin look!


This now sits in place of the old HUD, the only real similarity is that I’m still using a string of text to display how many flowers have been collected.


The Inventory Menu
I haven’t managed to fully design the inventory yet, but I’ve planned out everything that should go in it! Information like:

  • An even higher resolution character image
  • Character health
  • Health restoration items collected
  • Flowers Collected
  • Petals Collected
  • Perhaps a little info on level (at least some indication of which level the player is currently on!)

After getting to grips with the enlarged head image that I drew earlier, I thought I’d work on the full character image first! As the menu is likely to take up the majority of the screen, I’ve created this image at a height of 100 pixels (which is scaled up to 300 when displayed in the game). This is basically a pixelated version of one of my previous sketches.


To give you an indication of size relative to the game sprite and other elements, I quickly whipped up this scary little image where I placed the new drawing into the game:

Natural Hazards…


This week I’m thinking about all the features I want to have in the game before handing it to others for feedback! I think in my original time-plan I wanted to base the product of this week on feedback from participants, but I’ve gone into some of the graphics in a lot more detail than I was expecting to and as a result have a few other things that need rounding off/actually making… So my goal for this week is to create a working prototype ready for testing either at the end of this week or the beginning of the next.

One of the major things which I have omitted until now is, to summarise, how to loose whilst playing Hanami. I’ve implemented a really basic health system so far, which can currently only go down, and instigate an immediate game-over is it reaches 0 (which it can’t, because I haven’t put enough hazards in yet!) This is one of the things that needs a lot of improvement this week- it especially needs something to build it back up.

I’ve mentioned possible “hazards” or “enemies” before, and I’ve sketched out a few ideas in some of my level designs. The main feature of all enemies/hazards is that they cannot be “defeated” because there is no combat in the game. They are a part of the environment, and will not actively attack but will stand as a hindrance to players. As the collectable items are based on flowers, I’ve also based my enemies on plants, creating a good/evil balance throughout the natural world! Each enemy is also based on a unique movement type, to keep them varied and keep the player actively working out how to evade them.


The first enemy type is one that I’ve been using as a health system test, and is based on the Sakura blossom object. The idea is that it lurks in shadows and looks similar enough to the real Sakura object to lure players towards it, only to hurt them if they make contact. I’ve called this one the deceitful blossom, which is currently a working title name but may stick! Its movement type is nothing, it’s the easiest enemy to avoid as it simply sits in once place.

This enemy type has a few influences from existing games, not so much in terms of visual qualities but in attack style! I’ve looked at items and enemies that disguise themselves and attack at the last second. I thought of Vileplume from Pokemon which disguises itself as a flower, and the mimic from Braid which hides under the soil with a flower under its back. In a way it reminded me of the Mario “know you mushrooms” design seen on bags & T-shirts etc. Many Mario mushrooms look similar, but have very different effects, good and bad if acquired…

The second enemy happens to be a mushroom, but nothing like a Mario mushroom unfortunately. Unlike the other enemy types, a name didn’t pop into my head straight away with this one, so it is currently called Hello Mushroom…for a number of irrelevant reasons… This enemy doesn’t move itself, but it sprays a vertical line of deadly fumes into the air at random times through one of its many sphincters, which will deduct health points if touched. Most of my house mates have a serious aversion to mushrooms and try hard to stop themselves from vomiting when I cook them, so I’ve made this one super gross to fit their opinion of them. I think mushrooms are really yummy personally.

To get the motion of spore-release, I’ve been playing around with the particle functions in Game Maker today. I found a great guideline to all the available functions in a downloadable PDF here, which literally misses nothing! But so far I really have only been messing, so I’ll write up about my proper particle experiments later!
This guy’s kind of inspired by the many monster mushrooms in video games, like Funguar from Final Fantasy VIII, the Fume Shroom from Plants vs Zombies, and of course the deadly mist emitting Black Fungus from Kingdom Hearts.

The final enemy is one that moves horizontally by swinging from ledges and cave roofs etc. I’ve called this the Hanging Adversary, mainly because it was the first enemy I came up with and I wanted to differentiate it from any other potential creations! The hazard here is really sharp leaf-type structures- I said I didn’t want to feature any cliched spike-pits, so this is my original equivalent. I’ve fashioned it after a venus fly-trap to some extent, simply because the venus fly-trap has those naturally evil-looking teeth which make for a great game enemy. I’m sure they’ve inspired many monster creators to make plants that bite.


I had to be careful that this guy didn’t end up looking too much like anything else from the gaming world, although influences can natural be seen to the Mario Piranha Plant, and similarly the Venus Flytrap from Braid which was probably based on the Mario enemy! My favourite of the carnivorous plant monsters from games has to be the Deku Baba from the Legend of Zelda series, which looks so spiky and evil even with the lowest of poly-counts!


I’ll hopefully get all of this into the game tomorrow, and adapt the health system accordingly!

Staying “Retro”

Things have changed.
The way we buy and play games has evolved and old aspects of gaming have been replaced by their modern equivalents. With the recent retro resurgence, things have changed again. Incorporating “retro” into games doesn’t mean that games are purchased from shops on cartridges as they once were, it’s more about implying retro through audio/visual aspects.

One of my objectives for this project is to recreate other aspects of “retro” as well as the graphical style I have chosen to use. I’ve mentioned this in my learning agreement but haven’t talked about how I’m going to do this much yet, so firstly here’s a little look into why

What I loved about old games…
…back when they were new games, of course!

1. Cover Art
The cover art of a game was often a selling point for me. Games were placed cover forward in shops and if a cover caught my eye, I would read the synopsis on the back of the case. I was always a fan of Japanese RPGs, so any anime character on a game box would usually get me interested… So, take Breath of Fire IV for Playstation as an example. This game had used a very striking anime art style on the cover to represent the game.


This image told the viewer a lot about what to expect from the game, even if they hadn’t played any of the previous Breath of Fire instalments (I hadn’t at the time!). But obviously, this said nothing about the actual in-game graphics, except that the characters were based on a similar anime style. The point of the “art” on the box was to sell the game in a way that the actual graphics couldn’t.


With the help of box art, I think developers could give a better impression of how they saw the game.

2. Game Manuals
I confess, I LOVE game manuals. When I was younger, I would read the entire manual before playing most games, simply because I loved getting to know the game world and back-story in a way that was often summarised in the manual. This seemed to shorten the length of time between Saturday shopping with my parents and finally getting home and actually playing the game!

As well as game info and instructions, the manual was normally very well designed and stylised, and also included bits of concept art. The Final Fantasy series was particularly good at showcasing its art, worlds and characters in the manual.


I especially loved reading pointless information about each character, including birthdays (which I remember marking on my calendar at one point :S), age and height. This sort of stuff was never mentioned in the game- probably because if was completely irrelevant… It just seemed like a bonus chunk of knowledge. Obviously, the main point of the manual was to relay instructions on how to play the game, which was obviously very useful…

3. The Game Disk
Or whatever storage your game happened to be on. I started gaming on PC and moved to console gaming via Playstation and didn’t actually acquire my SNES until after the PS2 was out! So to me, games generally came on CDs or the occasional floppy. In any case, the storage device containing the game was another piece of artwork…generally. And even if it wasn’t, the hard copy of the game to me was a testament to how much pride I had in owning a game. If I liked a game enough to part with my hard-earned pocket-money for it, it was worth keeping in good condition. This applied to the case and manual too. If I loved a game, I would keep it pristine. It was like a pet or a younger sibling, I felt a responsibility to make sure it was always comfortable.

What’s changed since then…

1. Cover Art
Obviously, games still have cover art. They still try to catch customers’ attention in shop displays etc. However, game graphics have improved immensely since I bought Breath of Fire IV. Not only game graphics, but the ability to create high quality 3D models in general has resulted in CG being used more and more in cover art on games. The point of the cover seems to emphasise the technological achievement of the game, rather than represent it through a piece of “art”. This is the game’s selling point, the game’s attention grabber.


Take Uncharted 3 as an example, which I bought last year. The cover art consists of a CG representation of a scene from the game. This scene was used as the main promotional image for the game as it separated this instalment from previous Uncharted titles, and emphasised its differences as well as a few similarities. It’s a good showcase of the in-game graphics and shows the potential buyer a little of what to expect from the game, but it’s not art. I rarely get excited because I may have found the next greatest undiscovered Japanese RPG when I see box art.

2. Game Manuals
It’s a common belief that the instruction manual has been replaced by lengthy tutorial levels in game. The player learns by doing, rather than reading through pages and pages and later trying to relate what they’ve learned to the game, so I guess this is understandable. People don’t expect to have to read instructions for games any more, and as a result, the instruction manual for most games has shrunk and decreased. One franchise notorious for its painstaking tutorial levels is the Call of Duty series. Here’s a section of a page of the CoD: Black Ops instruction manual (which is the most recent instalment that I’ve actually played…)


I haven’t cut anything off- the rest of the page is blank. There are no images, no extra bits of information… Nothing but instructions. It’s straight and to the point, but so, so very boring.

3. The Game Disk
Obviously, game distribution has been infinitely easier for developers as digital copies of games can be purchased via the internet. I’m not complaining about this at all, as this means that gamers have access to hundreds of game whenever they want them. If I am to be distributing my game, it will be digitally, as its convenient for me and whoever decides to download it. But this method of distributing and purchasing games means that none of the physical aspects mentioned above apply any more. At least this eliminates the possibility of poor design!

What can be done to stay true

1. Paper made of PDF…
When I looked into recent awesome game Out There Somewhere which keeps cropping up in my blog posts, I noticed that a lot of effort was put into portraying the game through digital artwork. This can be seen throughout the game’s Devlog and on the MiniBoss website.


Not only does the game contain a lot of assets based on digital concept art, but the same style has been used to create a retro cover for the game. The game will be distributed digitally only (as far as I’m aware), and so the cover is not necessary but is a nice finishing touch. The game uses a pixel-art style, and the cover gives the player a good impression of what is represented by the tiny pixel sprites. Little homages to retro have been dotted around, like the cover’s similarity to the box art for old Sega Master System games…


The pre-order version of the game also comes with a PDF hint manual, which to me sounds very intriguing!

2. Paper made of…paper
My old favourite Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP has recently re-marketed its soundtrack (and in a way, the game itself) by releasing a range of goodies for buyers. The soundtrack can be purchased digitally through Bandcamp, but buyers now have the option to also purchase a vinyl and cassette version of OST, in keeping with retro formats.


This to me is the ultimate revival of everything I loved about old games. It includes obsolete formats which need to be taken good care of and beautifully designed cover art and inlays, as well as a bonus poster designed by Pendleton Ward! Although the game itself has no cover art, manual or hard copy as it downloaded only, this is the perfect accompaniment for fans of the game and fans of “retro”. It’s something you can hold in your hand and love- something which just can’t be said about games any more.

Weekend Update #4


Finished it! Only it covers two pages of A4 paper and won’t fit in my scanner until I bring myself to un-tape it. Next week I’ll start designing level 2.

Other than that, this weekend has been slow. I watched the Japanese Ring 2 last night and still can’t help looking at building details, although this had more of an urban setting which doesn’t apply to my building style! A couple of observations were to do with the space in front of buildings, like porches and balconies. I’ve kinda designed some roofing for these sorts of things, but haven’t come up with a good way to represent them in 2D! I’m going to carry on watching Japanese films throughout this project, but hopefully the next Japanese film I watch won’t be so horrible…

Affordable Housing (and fast food)

I’ve redesigned a few of my existing building tiles to suit non-commercial private homes that don’t need to look quite as extravagant as a B&B or a cafe. I’ve been using this photo as a starting point as I like it humble approach to home-design:


It includes similar looking features to the tiles I already have, my main changes have been to wooden-plank tiles and windows. I drew up this compare and contrast 2D version to work out which tiles to reuse and which to recreate:

Another building I’ve thought up is a mobile noodle/sushi stand. It’s based around small noodle stands that are common to Japan. However in this case I’ve combined the concept of a small noodle bar with a temporary food stall, similar to ones you would find at festivals or special outdoor events. This is mainly so it takes up little space, as its placement in the game is more for decoration than anything else. It won’t be an building that can be entered like the Ryokan or any of the homes throughout the levels. Here’s the kind of thing that gave me the idea:


And a quick sketch up of a design idea. This also combines features from various photos of dumpling stands that I’ve scanned through on flickr:

Building & Environmental Tiles
So, I’ve made good progress with the new building tiles. I haven’t made that many, but it seems that a lot can be pulled over from the set I already have! I’ve combined these here with the old tiles, although I’m not sure how clear my intentions are for their use yet as I haven’t constructed anything from them yet. I’ll probably do this straight in the engine over the top of the old tiles.

I’ve also tried to work on some environmental tiles more, especially after finishing up the level sketch. The most important point about creating these tiles is to make sure they’re not boring, as these are going to be repeated A LOT throughout the level. I used color explorer again to get some good ground colours, based on a Japanese mountainous setting (obviously, Fuji was the first mountain to come to mind at this point…)

My rock colour has ended up being that greyish-purple on the bottom row. It doesn’t seem to clash with the current wood colours and pinky-reds, although I’m toying with the idea of having coloured grass which matches the colour scheme of the level. This may change when I combine all the elements together, I’m not sure if pink grass is a little too much… I’ll be working on this much more over the next week, so expect drastic changes all round!

Weekend Update #3

Some More Character Designs subject to change and/or disposal


These characters are complete rip-offs of a few of the characters from 51 Japanese Characters, so are subject to name and feature changes in the future to avoid being a total copy-cat. While most of the inhabitants of the places in Hanami are effected by the so-called Hanami Crisis, I’ve picked out a few personality types who could have avoided the crisis in various ways. These characters will play very minor roles in the game, they will appear at most once per level, and simply hand over a blossom they have found, or something similar. Everyone’s doing their bit to help!
Left Character: avoided the crisis because he is a monk. Protected by spiritual powers etc.
Middle Character: avoided the crisis because he was stuck inside a Panda costume.
Right Character: avoided the crisis because he fell asleep under a table in a cafe. Details on the “crisis” are still a little vague, so I don’t know how this would have helped him, but it did. Kirainet, the predecessor to A Geek In Japan, has dedicated plenty of its Blog-space to photos of people sleeping everywhere and everywhere in Japan, it seems perfectly acceptable to just fall asleep where ever you’re standing.


I’ll be converting these characters to pixel form soon!

Character Animations
I’ve been plodding along with walking animations for the last week, but found I was taking leaps and bounds this weekend! I scanned through as many TIGsource Forum threads as I could a couple of evenings ago to find good examples of walking cycles that were a similar size and shape to my character sprites. Ultimately, I could only find things vaguely similar enough to help, but while this didn’t provide a pure reference, I was glad to see that I was on to something original. My current cycle too has a few frames which are similar to others I found, but I had to tween using my own initiative for most of the process. Here is my current Hana sprite:

I gave it a go applying this same animation to Za-chan, although it wasn’t always clear how to go because she wears a long dress and you can’t see most of her legs! I will probably tweak this if I have to use it in the game. At the moment, it’s more of a practice in applying one animation to varying sprites:

For the rest of my character animations, I will hopefully be roping in some volunteers to perform for me so that I have photo-references of people doing various actions. Finding examples of various walk-cycles wasn’t necessarily a difficult task, but unfortunately I’m going to need more than that…

Level Design
I’m currently still set on using the Kanji basis for my level design. Over the weekend I just had to grab a pen and piece of paper and get down all my thoughts on the level, what it should consist of and how it should look. It’s slightly more decipherable than previous attempts, although some of the designs cross-over quite confusingly! I tried to draw out the entire level in the bottom half of the page:

According to Peter McClory’s level design technique, the next step would be to draw this out to scale on squared paper. However, I decided to use Photoshop instead, so that the level was easier to edit! Once it’s done I’ll print and trace it as if it were drawn on squared paper. The design currently lacks detail and is not finished, but it’s given my a huge insight into the scaling of the level, which in places in completely different to how I imagined it. Here is a rough idea of the level so far:

My Plan for the rest of the week now is definitely to get this mocked up and playable in Game Maker, possibly before tracing in the details. I still haven’t settled for any particular character physics within the Grandma Engine, so I will have to make sure that the character feels natural to handle whilst working their way around this specific level. Once the layout is finalised, I’ll fill in some detail, but this is a secondary objective to getting a playable level right now.

Some thoughts on sound…
I started to play around with a piece of music creation software called PXTone. It’s a development from Daisuke Amaya, creator of Cave Story, and it sounds as though he uses this himself to make the music for his games. It’s default instruments are all very synthy, but you can combine classic chip-tune instruments with midi-sounding instruments to create something generally retro sounding, yet something original. There are a vast amount of starting instruments, which makes this program easier to get started with than other chiptune software I’ve previously used where you must create your own instruments :S So far I’ve just had a play around to see if it would be appropriate for this project, although I’m still not sure what my music source will be yet. Original music would be a huge bonus, so this is definitely on the list.

“Practical Game Design”

From Practical Game Design: The Rule of Threes on Gamasutra
In the first level of any game, there are three introductory steps which the player should experience before being thrown into the game. These are demonstrated perfectly in the original Super Mario Bros for NES:


1. Introduce the Challenge as simply as possible
In Mario, the “threat” of an approaching Goomba is built up gradually. The player must learn how to avoid or defeat this enemy, and in order to learn the enemy must appear in its simplest form.

With this challenge, the designer tells the player:
“There is such a thing as a Goomba.”


2. Do it again, with a slight variation
After the first threat is defeated, another one appears but in this case, the environment is different and therefore the behaviour of the enemy is changed. The player is learning that challenges will present themselves in different ways.

With this challenge, the designer tells the player:
“The land around the Goomba can take different shapes”


3. Step 3: Do it again, with another twist
In this example, the threat is doubled, but there is more space for error. Is it a more difficult or easy challenge than before? Or is it just that it is different?

With this challenge, the designer tells the player:
“The Goomba will not always come alone.”

These challenges take place in the first 10 or so seconds of the game, but it is the only introduction that the player needs. After this is over, the game can change shape and form and the player knows to expect this and react accordingly.

I’ve taken this into account for opening of Hanami, I may even include a single room at the beginning of the game which acts as the “tutorial level” before the player is taken to the rest of the village. At the moment, I’ve taken a slightly different angle and instead of presenting the player with challenges, I’m thinking of introducing the objectives.


For example, here you the Ryokan on the left. As the player moves to the right, they are immediately met by a Cherry Blossom, which is collected as the player passes over it. The player now knows “the objective of the game is to collect cherry blossoms”. The next two blossoms involve the player climbing and jumping, so the player is now familiar with environmental change. The last blossom is a new idea. It’s a red blossom which damages the character’s health. If the player isn’t paying attention, they may be tempted to try to acquire this deceitful blossom, but here I’m trying to show the player that they should avoid it! I’m currently trying to think of more environmental hazards; spikes are so over-used in 2D games so trying to think of more realistic “enemies”!


In Game Maker, I’ve started to test level design with various character physics settings, to try to get the right jump distances etc. My wood structure tiles make great place-holder blocks for test levels! I’ve used them here to test this very basic opening level (although currently the flowers don’t do anything when they are collected. I’m still working in a modified version of the Grandma Engine and haven’t actually started an original project yet!)