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The way we buy and play games has evolved and old aspects of gaming have been replaced by their modern equivalents.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.

New Tiles Screenshots

In this screenshot, you can see my new rocky tiles and how they gradually dissipated into a simpler tile further down. While I’m much happier with the continuity of the pattern compared to before, the transition between the two types of tiles is still much too harsh at this points and should be a much smoother gradient. Being a natural pattern, there shouldn’t be such straight lines and obvious pattern repetition! As a result of my last post, the guys from MiniBoss (who have made Out There Somewhere) have confirmed with me that they infact use a slightly altered tile which is placed infrequently throughout the pattern to avoid overuse of the same tiles.

Here you can see how the same tiles can be applied to things like these floating platforms, although at the moment the edges need some serious refining to better match my original level design plans. The wooden platform has been added for a little variety in platform surface, and in this case I think merges quite well with the rest of the scenery. I’ve used a slightly rocky edge around the platform to make it look like it has been built into the mountain.

This screenshot shows an example of a house made from my new set of building tiles, and how this fits into a similar environment. The wood of the house seems a lot darker than the tiles from the previous building, so I’m considering making these a little lighter. This is relieved slightly by the lighting , which highlights parts of the building and dims out some of the background, so for now it’s probably fine. I’m still using the same light effect for all lights, so I will change the hanging lights soon to vary slightly from the light of the lanterns.
You can also see the blue-tile pattern I made in this screenshot, although it doesn’t blend in nicely like the brick tile did. Feedback I got from this screenshot was that it looked like an explorable area with a blue-tiled background, so I could use it this way in the future.

Loads of things to do this week! Next week’s target is to create a prototype ready enough for testing by other people, so this week is pretty much a preparatory phase to get as much in as possible before hand.

This morning, I applied some of the new tiles I’d made to the game in Game Maker. I created the ground by laying out a random assortment of the rocky/mountainy tiles, and this is how it looked…

My first observation of this technique is firstly that the tile repetition makes the whole scene look horribly boring, and secondly that the square tiles inevitably make the scene look very angular. I noticed that the repetition is not so obvious in places where there is a lot going on. When there is a lot of space and the occasional rock jutting out, the repetition of small details are a lot more emphasised. So my first objective is to limit the amount of plain tiles used throughout the pattern.

For a little insight into how other developers are tackling the problem, I went to the DevLog section of the TIGsource forums and clicked on the first link for a random example. I’m worried that if I keep going back to the same sources, my game will appear to be a mimicry of another game…
By pure coincidence, I landed on a pixel-art style game that uses a similar rocky tileset! The game is called Out There Somewhere, and has recently been finished.

Out There Somewhere

Here, there is only one rocky tile which is regularly repeated throughout. There is a slight variation in some of the edge tiles etc, but the pattern mainly consists of one tile. Towards the bottom of the image, after the tile has been repeated 3 or 4 times, the pattern gradually breaks apart and becomes a simpler pattern, but in an organised way unlike the random pattern I had tried to create. This really helps relieve what could potentially be an over-complicated, messy design, and somehow doesn’t look “blocky”, despite this game also using square tiles.

Out There Somwhere

To resolve my problem, firstly I felt that the rocky tiles should fit together more seamlessly in the first place. I’ve seen a technique used for create seamless surface textures for 3D models which I though would also be appropriate in this situation- I split the rocky tile into 4 and offset the design so I could work on the joining parts in the middle. The result is this, which has been changed very little, but looks a lot more seamless than before:

After feeling happy with this, I went on to create the “middle” tile to connect the rocky tile to the simple, block colour tile. I created one of these tiles for each side of the tile, so it can be used anywhere in the design. I thought about using a lighter colour for this, but preferred the darker colour as it attracts less attention!

I tweaked the slanted tiles slightly, although they didn’t need changing much to fit in with the altered tile design.

There are still a few tiles I need to make to completely eliminate the unnatural-looking square edges, most of these are edge tiles to avoid too many straight lines. I’m also going to create some edge tiles for grass and some random patches of grass growth to dot throughout large areas of the same pattern.

Also, looking back at my learning agreement I’ve noticed that I mentioned that some sound should be in place by now, which is something I haven’t really considered yet… Like the graphics, I’m OK with using placeholder sounds as this point, as I mainly want to ensure that I get good, working sound throughout this project.