MP EV MVP Retro

What I’ve learned from breaking my own rule.

I remade a game again

EVMVMVP is the awkward initialism for my latest project; a multiplayer EV-like. You can download it here, and look at the source code here. I know I said I shouldn’t do it, but I really wanted to learn Godot and having a multiplayer server with multiple levels seemed like a really interesting problem to tackle. Implementing a bunch of stuff I already know pretty well but in a new engine and language has been a fun ride. I’ve jotted some notes down about the project so far. I’ve saved a deep technical discussion of Godot for another post.

Using an engine is well worth it

After flythrough.space I decided that I wasn’t going to build too much from scratch next time, not was I going to fight against tooling. The options I considered for FTS where Panda3D and BabylonJS. However over the course of that project also tried out Unity and Godot for small side demos and ended up liking Godot (and it’s permissive license and thriving community) enough to go all-in. In retrospect this was the absolute right move and I regret nothing.

Working With Onyx’s Sprites

I’ve been staring at these sprites on and off for something like fifteen years, itching to put them into a game. The original models used to render them are long gone, but Onyx (in a tutorial) explained how to separate out the engine glows. Working with these sprites feels like stepping out of time. They’re from the 90s. There are dithering tricks here I wouldn’t even imagine. They use a tiny palette but they’re so damn weighty. Present. Metallic when they need to be, plastic when they want to be. They tend towards the Star Wars / Used Future look. They invite stories to be written about them. And the planets are just absolutely lush too. Something about that limited palette…

Testing with real people is essential

I’ve been nagging more people to play this one. On the one hand, it’s much easier to convince someone to play your game if you can play it with them. On the other hand, you really need to do that testing or you will (like I did) find out that the sync method you’re using is totally busted and you need to replace it with interpolation. Furthermore, you’ve got no idea if your game is fun to anyone but yourself unless you subject it to ruthless testing by people who will give honest feedback. It becomes very easy to get settled in and work around horrible UI issues you’ve coded because “well, I know how it works.”

The ability to test solo is essential

Wrangling people for a test is hard. You need to be able to fire up an instance of your server and client with minimal effort or you’re going to wait too long and leave a bunch of bugs that you’ll be scrambling to fix when you finally get people around to test with. And absolutely nothing is more frustrating than the stars aligning for a test only to have a showstopper rear its head at the worst possible moment.

Procedural Generation

I had a conversation with a coworker about EV games and roguelikes. They made a claim that I’m not sure is true but definitely opened my eyes-they thought that the star maps in EV games probably had been procedurally generated-once.

Actually hand-crafting a full EV map is a bit of a process. One thing I never finished doing in FTS was populating all of the systems.

Meanwhile, Mag Steel glass has developed a really cool universe generator spreadsheet. I figured I could leverage it to make a map. Traditional EV games require you to specify exactly who spawns in what star system and FTS carried on that painful tradition. For this one I had simpler rules; factions had starting locations and then grew “influence” where planets (or stations) would belong to them and their ships would spawn. If two areas of influence overlapped, they’d fight.

Document enough for people to get up and running locally

Port forwarding is a lost art. There was much grumbling when my friends and I went to go start a game of Valheim; luckily I’d learned to properly port forward as part of this project! If you need a server for people to play your game, you can’t rely on your master server; you’ve got to give people an option to join localhost and put it in your manual/readme. Having images in the readme also helps show people what your project is about; this is especially important for games.

You don’t get cross platform for free

Using cross platform technology does not absolve you from cross platform testing. All of your target platforms might have the same features but they may all have different bugs for you to work around. I’m developing on linux out of what is probably just bloody mindedness at this point, so when I did my live demos on windows I often learned exciting new things like ‘your sound exports are busted’ or ‘only one computer can be assigned to a given port by a given router’ or ‘you need to version bump the editor for correct mac exports.’ Guess which one of those lead to an incredibly embarrassing platform bug report!

Video Tutorials are worth it

Part of my commitment to overcoming my stubborn hangups was relenting and watching video tutorials. I still strongly prefer written tutorials as a medium but the content is moving to video. For example:

This (and the followup on extrapolation) gave me enough to totally re implement my networked movement.

Working In Public

I post progress updates on discord channels full of fans from the old days, and regularly demo the game with friends. This has been a source of motivation and helped me stick to a more iteration focused (and less “well, I’ll go off for a month and make all of the models/textures/features”) work habit. I’m not sure I’m going to do this for every project; part of why I did it for this one was I wanted to spur participation and that didn’t really happen. Very few people who I didn’t know personally went to the trouble of getting the game running. Part of that is because it wasn’t immediately approachable (you need to host or find a server then run another client to join it) and wasn’t immediately grippy (ok, I can buy a ship, now what?) Any amount of friction is going to turn away potential players, and if you’re used to playing rough unfinished demos this can become a blind spot. But beyond even that, getting someone to try something new is just plain hard.

People respond to Video

At the end of the day, pictures and text don’t cut it for sharing a game. Games are animation. People are used to watching streamers. You need a video of your thing and it needs to show off what the thing is about, including how you interact with it and why it’s compelling. This was my attempt:

Have features and fixes gone in since that video was made? Sure. But it’s still the best tool to show off what the project is about.

Parting Shots

Has the project met its goals so far?

  • Learn the Godot engine: ✔️

I’m comfortable with the technology now; expect future prototypes to be more rapid.

  • Use Onyx’s Sprites in a game: ✔️

I used most of the ship sprites themselves and lovingly separated out the engine glows for even the ones I didn’t use, in case someone in the future wants to use them again. Cosmic Frontier mod anyone?

  • Build a reusable platform for multiplayer EV-clones: ✔️

Maybe this is a partial check. If someone has an idea and that idea is based on multiplayer EV gameplay, I’m confident that if they’re willing to learn Godot they could at the very least copypasta big chunks of the MPEVMVP codebase and get something running. Or they could fork it, replace everything, add missions, remove multiplayer, and make an EV clone real fast.

  • Discover if EV gameplay works in multiplayer: ✔️

Learned important lessons about how much bullet hell spam a networked game can handle, and as a straight dogfighting sim it let me figure out what is and isn’t fun in PVP EV.

  • Build a game people want/like/play: ❌

As far as I can tell, nobody enjoyed playing this besides on demo night. The service I think people want this game to be is beyond the scope of what it can be with a team this size.

4/5 ain’t bad. Thanks a bunch to everyone who tested it, gave feedback, and flew too far to find the center of the map again.

Return of the Flash Games

The Emularity and Ruffle teams have finally done it – Flash is running natively in the browser. No more flash plugin. You can play flash games and watch flash animations on archive.org. Flash defined internet content in the mid 00s. It has been effectively dead since the introduction of the iPhone, and to really enjoy it you need something with a mouse, or a very large tablet I suppose. Actually playing flash has gotten progressively harder, until now.

During the aughts, these where some of the games I played the most. Call it casual if you want, but these where the games you could play on school computers, that you didn’t need to buy. You could discover new ones every day. By timing alone, at least, they’ve ended up meaningful to me.

Heli Attack 2 – Chris Rhodes & Chris Hildenbrand

The choppers don’t like to stand still

This is a great example of how the mouse was used for what you might call a sidescroller/shooter. Rather than negotiate a level with pitfalls, the task of your Mario-like character is to dodge incoming bullets, sort of like a bullet hell shooter. It’s also got an array of different creative weapons, each accompanied by a cool robotic voice announcing it when you pick it up. It never leaves this basic loop, spawning helis as fast as you can kill them. Once you get good at it, you can keep playing it for quite a long time. You can play it here.

Fancy Pants Adventure – Brad Borne

The game shows off its non-flat terrain very early


https://archive.org/details/fancypantsadventure_202011
This game made a huge splash when it was released. The norm for sidescrollers since eras where denoted by the number of bits systems has was for side scrollers to be very similar to Mario and have the following characteristics:

  • Maps made out of a tile grid
  • Maps defined by axis-aligned bounding boxes
  • Movement defined by walking and jumping.

Fancy Pants adventure subverts these expectations while still sticking to the intuitive sensibilities of a platformer:

  • The levels are defined by smooth shapes much larger than what you’d expect in a tile map.
  • The maps use curved surfaces rather than straight lines or uniform curve sections.
  • In addition to walking and jumping, you can build up momentum and slide

But oh man, the style. This game dripped style. The lush animation, everything about it. I don’t think I ever made it past the first level. I didn’t care. When this came out it felt like it injected new life into the platformer formula. I think Flash’s vector nature really played a role here – it could do things you just couldn’t do on an NES. You can play it here.

Defend your castle – XGen Studios

The flash era was defined by a callous disregard for the lives of stick figures

This is a game that really only works with a mouse, and also illustrates the obsession with violence against stick figures. The figures attempt to knock down your castle and your defense against them is to click and drag them violently into the air so that they splatter down on the ground into a puddle of blood. Eventually you get enough points and abilities to take stick figures into your castle and turn the game a little bit more into a tower defense setup. You might be able to get this working on a very large tablet, but really the interaction is tailored for the mouse. The graphics are basic and make heavy use of gradients and stick figures – both flash tropes. Yet here I am in 2020, actually getting sucked into it. It’s a very well crafted dopamine loop. Launching the little bastards with your mouse is satisfying, mastering doing it quickly before they get to your gates is rewarding, and the relief of having your job automated by a bunch of archers is even more rewarding. You can play it here.

FlashTrek: Broken Mirror – Vex Xiang

Ferengi Marauder and an Excelsior

https://archive.org/details/flashtrek-broken-mirror

As a big fan of the Escape Velocity series, Broken Mirror kept me playing for many hours. It’s a space trader game set in the star trek universe. Well, the Trek’s mirror universe-the one where everyone is the baddies. It’s the rare fan game but it fills the exact kind of niche that you’d love to see for that setting. It’s also absolutely dripping with humor, especially inside fandom jokes. As a fan work it is monumental. I’d daresay that until Star Trek Online was a thing, it was the definitive star trek video game experience. The open world of the space trader genera fits perfectly with the open feel of Star Trek. And really, having a big open world RPG on a platform that was mostly used for single-screen arcade games is quite an accomplishment. It plays at breakneck speed on modern systems, but you can play it here.


Flythrough.Space Retrospective

I’m not going to rehash don’t remake an old game, but the principle very much applies. Flythrough.Space is a 3d remake of the EV series, and as such suffers from the “remastering someone else’s game” problem. That said, it was a long and involved software project, so there’s got to be something to take away from it, right?



Content Design

Don’t do content design up front. I had reams and reams of content for this project, a holdover from an even older project, making the oldest data seven years old! And the design of the map dates back to an EV Nova TC I attempted in 2005 or 6. The first plan involved using the graphics from Onyx’s Old Shipyard, back when the whole thing was going to be sprite based. FTS, while using the existing data, was 3d from the beginning so needed its own entire suite of assets.

I ended up using Blender because it’s Free Software and I wanted to keep the toolchain as free as possible. I wanted anyone to be able to pick up the same tools and build more content. It took me a while to become minimally proficient with Blender. One thing that ended up looking really cool was making rough textures with blender’s texture paint then applying a “paint” layer in GIMP with clean lines but dusted up with a rough brush and a makes for a worn look. The ships aren’t exactly up to modern standards, but I’m proud of the results nonetheless.

The planets turned out pretty good. Never did nail clouds though.

inshes.png

Technology

Flythrough.Space started out with very basic requirements. I wanted to do the game in 3d, I wanted menus, I wanted to be able to write object oriented code and I wanted to be able to break code into multiple files. Web was a platform I’d been working on for my whole career up to that point, and I wanted to make the game very easy to pick up and play, so web it was. There was a long period of using babel and Angular to compensate for the shortcomings of JS, but eventually we got all the goodies right in the browser! Once I was working in vanilla ES6 with no precompiler or other baggage, working with the code was pretty much a joy.

ECS

I tried to build an entity/component system. All of the game’s behavior is implemented in “systems” which are functions that get run each frame, requesting entities that have specific components to work on. For example:

export function velocitySystem(entMan){
  // Provides inertia.
  for (let ent of entMan.get_with(['velocity', 'position'])) {
    // Do physics
  }
}

The game state all belongs to entities or the player save object. This turned out to be a fairly awkward way to program a game. It was very nice that, say, velocity or AI could be added to any entity pretty easily. But there just weren’t that many different classes of things in FTS. A class hierarchy wouldn’t have become overly complicated, considering the small number of different entity types in the final game (ship, beam, planet, asteroid, projectile, explosion.) One major drawback was how it changed the code layout of the project. If you want to see what code controls the behavior of a ship, you need to browse several different files and it’s extremely unintuitive. Likewise, if you want to know what parameters a ship can have, there is similarly no single place to check out. There is no FTS bible. One possible evolution would be to put every possible ship param into the implicit base class, but then you’ve got a few parameters where absence matters…

Collisions

I wrote a primitive collision library myself, and my attempt to integrate a proper one later was frustrated by a lack of the primitives I needed, specifically objects with no rotation components.

The crowning achievement of the collision system is the line segment collider. Managing to implement (not invent, mind you, merely implement) allowed continuous collision detection which made combat work much better. It also enabled beams, which are a staple of the genre.

Missions

The missions system leverages ES6’s actually very nice text interpolation to make nice templated text. It uses eval all over the place to do it. It’s a bit fiendish how it works, and it works very nicely for stuff like “deliver cargo” but to add features like “go blow up ship” you’d need to add something in the system code to spawn ships depending on active missions. Probably wouldn’t even be so hard, but it’s low hanging fruit that I haven’t picked. Missions where a very late addition, right before the Alpha release. The json to define a mission looks like this:

  "smuggle": {
    "short_name": "Smuggle ${cgo(this.cargo.type)} to ${this.dest.spob}",
    "desc": "Some shady exporters need ${this.cargo.amount} tons of ${cgo(this.cargo.type)} moved discretely.",
    "offer_if": "true",
    "offer_state": "missions",
    "cargo": {
      "type": "${get_illegal_cargo()}",
      "amount": "randint(5,10)"
    },
    "dest": "get_spob_same_govt()",
    "reward": 14000,
    "accept_modal": {
      "text": "The dockhands quietly load the mislabeled containers of \"${cgo(get_legal_cargo())}\" into your hold."
    }
  },

But that sort of thing only covers random cargo missions. I’d designed the world for FTS without giving too much thought to how it would become involved in any sort of story, besides the idea that the Loyal Suns wanted to take everybody over and the Itaskans wanted you to visit every homeworld. This is a problem because in EV games, you’re supposed to play missions to unlock faction ships, and most of the ships in the game (especially the ones I’m most proud of) where faction ships. My inelegant solution: all ships available all the time. No dynamism. Nobody wins or looses. Some people just fight sometimes and if you hail them they’ll give you the slogans of their government. I think that without plotlines, there isn’t much of a hook. There’s certainly no endgame besides grinding up to an Absolver, Nightshade, Capital, Taoiseach, etc.

Data Driven

Every ship, star system, etc is defined in json files. Many previous game attempts had done a lot of work on making a perfect data loader. In this case, I was able to leverage Javascript’s own builtins to make something I’d consider basically perfect (or at least perfect in that it represents an idea taken to its full extent.) You can declare another object as a given object’s prototype and it just works, inheriting values that aren’t overridden. Objects are created on screen by instancing the data (with some enhancement, of course, but it’s all fairly easy to follow.) There’s no intermediary data is what I’m getting at; the javascript objects in the data directly translate to javascript objects in-game. Upgrades work by acting like a diff. Getting all of this to just work was one of the funnest parts of the project and will be the hardest part to let go of.

Community

The babylonjs community, by way of their forum, was extremely helpful. Having real live people who want your project to succeed and can help you use the tools they’ve built is a joy. I would definitely recommend treating community as a critical feature when picking frameworks and libraries.

That said, you also need to cultivate a community around your own project. That’s one angle where I failed in a big way. It isn’t easy to get other people to demo your game. Starting with something very you can get right into, rather than starting a player out as some sort of lowly level one wimp in an RPG might make a lot of sense. I eventually added cheat codes in the form of querystrings (bonus points if you can find them by looking through the source) so players could start in more powerful ships (and so that I could test them without grinding.) But without a large number of testers, tons of bugs slipped through the cracks. It took me way to long to realize that using Control as the fire button simply wasn’t going to work on mac, for example.

If you want to use FTS

I tried to do with FTS what Ambrosia never did with EV: make a totally open system that anyone can pick up, make a game, and truly own that game with. FTS is licensed under the GPL so if you throw in your own assets and release any code changes, you (yes, you!) can make a commercial EV Clone with it. The game scenario lives in the data and assets folders. If anyone has specific questions about how to implement something, I’d be glad to help. But I realized something: nobody is going to mod your game if they don’t love your game. Making a game easy to mod needs to be a secondary concern to making a great game. If you really truly want to build technology rather than a game, I would recommend partnering with someone with a vision for an excellent game, which brings us to our next point.

Putting the cart before the horse

I thought I knew exactly the game I was trying to build from scratch. However I was building it largely in a vacuum and I certainly wasn’t going back to EV Nova to see how the ship movement and turn speed compared. This was probably a mistake. I was so mired in what I could achieve technically that I wasn’t stopping to ask if the game I was building was actually fun or not.

I should have spent the bulk of the development on the basic combat loop, making sure the ship handling was fun, the AI was correct and tight and fun to play against, and the game balance was decent. Instead I focused on creating tons of content and features because I was trying to work from a feature checklist. Feature parity with a twenty year old game does not a compelling game make, as it turns out. On paper, FTS has what it needs, but I feel that it does not live up to that potential.

It’s a mistake I don’t intend to repeat. Future projects I’d like to get in front of people faster, I’d like to be less stuck on design decisions I didn’t even make, and I’d like to have the emotional fortitude to disengage from a project before it takes up half a decade.

Flythrough Space: Beta

It’s been a couple of months since I last wrote about Flythrough.Space. It was the first time I ever got any feedback on the project from people who understood what I was going for, so it was pretty informative. I had productive discussions about perspective and (as I’d feared) overlapping 3d models are a bit weirder than overlapping sprites.

In any case, if you tried it before and thought it was rubbish, you might as well give it another try because it’s radically different, at least in appearance. Go to the settings menu and try out the different options. Message me if you want cheat codes to try different ships (or figure it out from the source!) When in doubt try resetting the settings or refreshing the page.

New Features:

  • Sound effects. Pew pew, etc.
  • Anti-tunneling collisions. Players complained that it was hard to hit stuff; this was partly because of a well known problem called collision tunneling. I bit the bullet and ported over a line collider, so now fast-moving shots should connect more frequently.
  • Implemented a settings menu so that as I started to add GPU and CPU hungry effects I wouldn’t leave people (or my own laptop) behind. It’s slightly jank so I recommend refreshing the page after you leave the menu to make sure the settings take effect.
  • Guided weapons.
  • Asteroids! Mine them for fun and profit! Blow the metal (orange) ones into very small (hard to see) pieces and scoop them up by flying over them. Then go to a market and sell!
  • Lighting effects. Though each star system could already define its own lights, now ship explosions cause a flash in addition to particles. I was reading The Dark Forest and the descriptions of space made it necessary. Also shadows are in but don’t work very well.
  • Piracy! You can now plunder disabled ships for cash and cargo. Press ‘B’ when you’re close to a disabled ship.
  • Starfield. Classic space videogame effect… it lets you see where you’re going. Got some good help on the babylonjs forum with this one. I originally tried to build it with a shader, but gave up and did it with a massive number of sprites.
  • Perspective (or, well, the camera looking at your ship from an angle) is now optional. If you prefer your space-shooters to be top down (because planets getting bigger and smaller is disorienting, for example) you can have that now. An ortho camera proved to be not quite what I wanted, though it would still be cool if combined with a vertex shader that applied perspective to individual objects, to better achieve the look of a sprite-based game but with the lighting benefits of a 3d engine.
  • Impact Physics! When you hit stuff, it gets pushed!
  • Zoom! It became too hard to debug weapon placement without it, so I added it in. Use [ and ] to zoom in and out.
  • Beams! Take an XIC Prospector or drillship out for a cinematic experience.
  • Textures. Ships have them now, including an (optional) glow effect around emissive (self-lit/glowing) bits which I think look pretty cool. Each model has multiple (per-faction) skins which are easy enough to palette swap and add more.
  • Fixed various bugs, including making the map show up right away when you pause the game (now you don’t need to drag it) and explosions now show up reliably.
  • Particle effects everywhere!
  • Every item (ship or upgrade) should be available for purchase somewhere. There’s no notion of unlocks, you just need to get enough cash and drop by the right stellar object. There’s now a test which enforces this!
  • Trade routes. The trade system is still a bit confusing, but the fluff text should direct you to some decent trade routes (or some very lucrative ones, if you are willing to brave pirate infested space!)
  • Alert text at the bottom to tell you, for example, that you’re too close to the system center to engage your sidereal drive (jump to another system.)
  • Optional ‘arcade’ mode where shots don’t inherit velocity from the things firing them. Should make hitting stuff easier. I think it matches the behavior of other genre games. I don’t like it very much myself, but that’s why it’s a setting.
  • Carriers can launch fighters! They don’t do anything particularly clever yet though, they just use the normal AI for the most part. Q to launch, (hold) R to recall, F to attack your target.
  • Saving and loading, so your progress isn’t erased every time you land on the page. Like settings, for now saves are using local storage. You can also upload or download a save file from the same menu.
  • Pause button now takes you to the main menu; press ‘m’ for map and esc to return from the map. This means I don’t need to debounce map button presses and as a result it’s less janky.
  • You can now see which systems are mission destinations in the map, even if you haven’t explored them yet. An orange circle around a system indicates that your mission is there.
  • Code changes: Entity manager is now a singleton, so I should not have to pass it around everywhere. Refactored the HUD into individual widgets. Ships can now inherit from other ships with the “extends” property, which should cut down on clutter in ships.json and make nova-style ship variants much more possible. Input is a lot less gross.
  • Control changes. Using CTL as the fire button wasn’t feasible on Mac. Same deal with +/- for zoom.
  • Data Changes: Cleaned up terminology for factions so it should be much easier to read the data files.

Where we go from here

So what’s next? Well, I’d really, really like feedback. Yelling into the void is less than satisfying. I’d like people to give the game a spin and tell me how horrible it is. One thing I’m especially concerned with is making sure the ships feel right – not too quick, not too fast, not too slow. The weapons could also be a lot more balanced. The biggest improvements to the game at this stage will be all about tweaking the numbers. Nothing would delight me more then someone downloading the game and trying out different tweaks to see if they can find the fun. Yes, I realize that this would ideally be done in the prototype rather than the final game but hey, not all projects can go perfectly.

What do I still want to add? I’d like to fill out the galaxy with more planets and more NPC placement. If anyone wants to write planet descriptions I’ll do my best at editing. A lot of the Loyal Suns, League, and a bit of Freehold territory still needs attention. More diverse asteroids would be cool too. As far as big code features, well, fleets are a big one. More missions would be nice. A more in-depth hailing system to allow planetary domination would be cool and give the game more of an end-state. Also, the AI is full of bugs and would really benefit from the level of unit testing I’ve applied to player.js.

I may take a hiatus from development for a short while, or I might not. I keep telling myself I’ll try to work on another project, but I keep coming back to FTS.

Don’t remake an old game

I’ve seen this way too often. A flashy trailer, some assets, a community project, a feverish dream at reclaiming the glory of games when they seemed new to you. I have made this tragic mistake, but you don’t have to. No matter how much you want to, do not pick up a 20+ year old video game and start trying to make a remake (in Unity! In Unreal! In Godot!) I’m not saying that you will fail, but I’m saying that you probably won’t get what you want.

You won’t get the IP

In order to use the name “Your Favorite Game” you will need to purchase it from the existing owners. If nobody is producing sequels it’s probably because the IP holder has chosen not to. You will not be able to contact the IP holder and if you manage to, they will not sell it to you. If they do offer to sell it, it will be at a price way outside of your price range. If you wanted to purchase it at that price, you’d need to take out a loan, you’d need a business plan, and the project would very quickly not be fun anymore. You could also just sort of not quite use it and hope that the IP holder does not decide to shut you down. But getting the name is extremely important, because the path is littered with other semi-remakes that didn’t use the name, and you didn’t like any of them. Somehow, none of them had “it” because you’re still looking at remaking the old one, not playing someone else’s remake. Will you fare better?

The myth of fans

But I have a ready-made audience! You cry. Except you don’t. Videogames are massively more popular now than they were when Your Favorite came out. The audience for games has increased in size but the number of fans of Your Favorite has remained constant. It might be because genres have moved on. It might be because other franchises took up the banner. But the number of people who potentially enjoy The Remake is actually much smaller than the original fanbase was. Some people will have drifted away and don’t care anymore, some have probably moved on from gaming. Some may never have existed, because you don’t know what the sales figures are for Your Favorite and it was released before social media and steam statistics so you can’t really be sure what the size of your audience is. What about the number of active posters on the discord/reddit/forum where people desperately wish someone would finally come out with The Remake? That seems like a reasonable proxy. Go find this number (I bet it’s less than 100, but you may have better luck.) This is likely to be the maximum number of people who will care about The Remake. If you still want to embark knowing that you’re working for that audience exclusively, read on.

The myth of memory

So your intended audience is the people who are still online right now clamoring for The Remake as they have been since Your Favorite didn’t get the sequel it so richly deserved. But these will also be your harshest critics. Like you, each individual who played Your Favorite had an idea of what the game was, but they’ve each had twenty plus years to elaborate on that idea, and these imagined games have diverged. There will be a multitude of conflicting expectations which will mean that you cannot possibly satisfy them all, or even most of them. Indeed, because they (and you) have had years to embellish this imagined sequel and for their expectations to diverge, it’s possible that no game will satisfy them-no game will ever live up to what they want. The Remake may not have a ready-made audience, but it does have its first and harshest critics. But surely new technology will allow you to wow them, right?

The myth of progress

Making games is so much easier now! Surely if I take modern tools such as Unity, Unreal, Godot, Source, Lumberyard, etc, I will be able to rebuild this old obsolete game with minimal fuss. This may be true for arcade games like Space Invaders or Asteroids, but Your Favorite is only about 20 years old, so this is a misguided attitude. The tools of game creation are very good at making modern games. If you are building a sophisticated but off-the-beaten-path project, you are as much on your own as the original creators of Your Favorite where. Which is not to say that you can’t create original titles with modern tools-just that by constraining yourself to an archaic design, you may not be winning yourself any saved effort. You’re not a wizard from the future, coming back to build a castle with magic spells… you’re pounding in nails with a cordless drill. Modern game engines have primitives for things like “guy walking around” and “wheeled vehicle.” Trying to mimic the behavior of weird bespoke setups from the time before physics engines will result in very little off-the-shelf stuff to use. Same goes for a million other quirky modes of interaction with games that have ultimately been replaced with stuff like “reasonable defaults” and “realistic physics.” You’ll be reinventing the wheel constantly. You might be able to make it look nice, but many (most?) such projects stop there.

The Right Move

What should I do? If you really want to share the joy that Your Favorite brought you, you need to figure out what it is about the game that you found enjoyable. Consider the cargo cult; to recapture the bounty of cargo drops, people (so the story goes) built elaborate fake airstrips, thinking that if they created the right conditions, cargo would appear. I see the same in remakes – “if we take the art assets (or clone them, or redo them but off-brand-enough that we don’t get sued” and keep the gameplay exactly the same, it’ll be awesome!” Don’t do this. What you need to do is break down the design of Your Favorite, and figure out what it was that made the game compelling. “Everything” is not an acceptable answer, you need to be critical. You need to think about what you can reproduce in $CURRENT YEAR and what’s an artifact of its time, like compromises due to affordances of the platform, or time constraints. You must translate those compelling aspects into your future projects, and discard the anachronisms and sacred cows and genre conventions that belong to the past. Make your own game.

PAX East 2020

On the eve of the Covid-19 Pandemic, with the stock market tumbling, hundreds (thousands?) of game fans breezed into a convention center to try some new stuff, purchase apparel, and frequently use hand sanitizer. It was everywhere.

Image
There’s something sinister about the rise of Discord, but I can’t explain why yet

Thursday was far better than Saturday, so definitely go then if you can. I was able to play far more games, and the boardgame tables where much easier to navigate.

Exciting New Games

While speaking to the creator of BlazeSky, I name-checked Escape Velocity and he knew what I was talking about. But the more I look at it, the more it looks like Empty Epsilon/Artemis. The different styles of play (rescuing people, combat, exploration, etc) are represented by different characters who give you quests, which is a neat approach to writing storylines. I found the banking camera made it difficult to reason about where my shots where going, and I hope that at launch there’s an option to keep the camera steady while the ship turns, but even if there isn’t I’ll probably play the hell out of it.

Another game that was physically demanding just due to its camera was Sludge Life. After you fight through its extremely elaborate recreation of a 90s desktop interface you’re dropped in a colorful, heavily distorted 3d environment. Very Getter: Headsplitter. The distortion (I think the vertical FOV was unusually high or low or whatever) was jarring and slightly dizzying. I predict that this game will be a stoner-hit of Rez proportions. Devolver is playing in the same space as Adult Swim here.

Watched some people play Dunk Lords. The world is ready for strawberry-headed athletes. You could dismiss it as Space Jam: The Videogame but stripped of its bizzare branding, the concept of cartoony basketball feels pretty novel. Sports games that attempt to simulate a sport (like EA’s catalog) or Be a sport (like Rocket League) aren’t my jam, but using the basic rules of a sport to do something unique or new definitely is.

Watched some Panzer Paladin play. There was an enormous reproduction of the cover art, standing out against the crowd. Makes me wonder what the differentiator is. It looks like a Gameboy Advance game (specifically, it looked like Metroid) to me, and though the mechanics where cool and smooth, I wonder who’s buying enough copies of this to justify an enormous booth at PAX. What’s the differentiator. Are they just striking at the right moment? Is it the great Anime art? Am I not enough of a sidescroller fan to understand what the difference between it and AVGN Adventure (which we also demo’d) is.

A radically different sidescroller with very clear differentiation was Carrion, a game where the avatar resembles the blob monster from The Thing. I’m not sure what the gameplay is besides sliding and swinging around an industrial environment and eating (?) the little NPCs that run from you.

If you’re itching to play Star Citizen but don’t like social interaction or having to hire an entire clan to operate your large spaceship or pass flight training to join an org, and also want a game that’s finished, I unfortunately can’t recommend Everspace II yet, because it isn’t finished either. But what I did play compared favorably to Star Citizen, and I venture to say that it’ll be done far sooner. The vision of space was colorful and dense with things to explore and tractor beam into your ship.

I also got a chance to demo Brigador Killers. In addition to the stompy robots seen in Brigador, you get to play as an infantry suit or a giant floating wrecking ball. The controls are also slightly different – rather than absolute direction, your WASD controls are now relative to the mouse. It took some getting used to, especially with the wrecking ball.

Parting Thoughts

Check out the screen attached to this expensive of a gaming PC. I’m not sure words will do it justice, but if you’ve been here, you know.

Image
The dreaded launcher update.

I also demo’d a Cookie Clicker clone which I won’t name to protect the guilty. It pitched itself as being about the development of life from molecules to technological singularity. However, in reality it is a cookie clicker clone, the meta of a game (buy stuff on a tech tree to augment your abilities) without the actual gameplay (you score by just tapping the screen. Anywhere on the screen. I wondered again what the filter was between successful games and trivial games. Was presence at PAX a marker of success or a desperate gambit? I told myself I was done with the game, but then I reached down to the tablet and tapped it a few more times.

Unrelated image of a book that was on sale at the convention

Notes on the BattleMETAL soundtrack

BattleMETAL, the big-stompy-robot game was recently (finally) released! It’s been in development for quite a while now, and most of my involvement (beyond repeated testing and sharing opinions about gameplay) has been doing the soundtrack, so here are some fun behind the scenes facts. I wrote these tracks between 2016 and 2019 starting with Predator and ending with The Matock. Unless otherwise noted, I did the tracks in Reason.

This is probably the best track on here, owing to something resembling a coherent melody. Sort of reminds me of something The Knife would write (not that it’s as good as theirs!) That line is one of the few places where I actually used a bitcrusher… under all of that, it’s a u-he Tyrell. I never did get that synth to work properly in linux, and you have to download it from a German magazine to get it, but it’s nice. The rest (and by that I mean the phaser’d Monopoly, the default synth for this project) are heavily influenced by Frank Klepacki’s classic Bigfoot.

This track was written in a fairly meandering way, I had a pretty good idea the opening (the initial delay’d up drumbeat and bass) and ended up just sort of adding pads and sequences to the end of it until it was long enough. The lack of music theory really shows on this one. Like most of the tracks here, it uses Cheetah MD16 samples and (believe it or not) the 3rd demo preset for Reason’s builtin convolution reverb.

This is my first attempt at a synthwave track (if you don’t count Conniver, which I don’t, because that was more of an industrial thing.) There are a lot of preset arps going on here, and it’s the only track that isn’t using the signature drum palette. A version got re-purposed from its original form to serve as the trailer track when BattleMETAL was in its early stages (complete with samples of the EarthSiege trailer boasting of “Exquisite Texture Mapping.”)

I know this track isn’t the most musically challenging, but I actually still find it pretty compelling. It’s one of the early ones. The lead is a Charlatan, which was one of the synths I was most excited to explore when Reason finally added VST support. You can hear me tweak the settings over the course of the track-I love doing that sort of thing. Unfortunately, this was the only track I’ve managed to complete with the synth, because it keeps crashing now. For the pad, which I think I did an especially good job on, I used eXpanse which was the first wavetable synth available in Reason as a Rack Extension (about a year before we got VST support) and enabled a whole new world of sound design for us Reason diehards.

One of the more recent tracks. It’s using Viking for the bass again (which means, oddly, it sometimes skips a beat… listen for it, you’ll hear it in Predator too) but reflects my newfound confidence in making melodies in step sequencers. In fact, I think I did most of the sequencing in this track with the ABL3. The funky sequence that comes in at the end is especially fun. The Balakett is all about speed and the Monitor is all about raw power, to win with the Matock you need to dance. I also want to call out the ES-01 rack extension as an extremely underrated and great sounding softsynth. Love that thing.

I’d like to say that the lack of a melody in this track is meant to reflect the soulless nature of the PSC character and its total monomania around the extinction of the planet, but then I’d be giving myself way too much credit. This track is “meh” and I should feel “meh” about writing it.

The patch for this started out as the “Acres Of Glass” preset for Europa. I’ll always enjoy tracks that are just me playing chords for five minutes, really puts you in a good place, even if the chords are gloomy. The voice talents here include Pete (“Punching out!”), Sabrina, The Conet Project, and Techno Ejay (if you can find that one, I owe you a cookie.)

The Balakett (Bonus, so no embed apparently)

This didn’t make it into the game, so it stays as a bonus track. It’s also the only track I made with Renoise (you can probably tell from the drum wankery in the middle.) It was intended for the post-mission screen, but it’s altogether too cheerful for the apocalyptic tone of BattleMETAL. It’s using the ob-xd synth, which I’ve found to be excellent. Also, in classic Renoise beginner fashion, it ends with an extra block of the last note just stretched out forever. oops.

Overall, the experience was a fun one, and I expect I’ll do something similar again someday.

FlyThrough.Space: Alpha Release

I’ve been sitting on this project for way too long. Doomed the project by not soliciting feedback early enough. Failed to heed the warnings of Agile. Kept coming up with reasons not to tell anyone about it, promising that I’d make it public after I added just one more feature. But I think there’s enough that people will be at least intrigued. Or annoyed. The point is that they’ll feel something. I’d be interested to hear any feedback on what’s there and which planned features you’d find most compelling or what would make you likelier to make a mod.

TL;DR: Code Here: http://github.com/eamonnmr/flythrough.space

Play Here: http://flythrough.space

Neat Features:

  • It’s written in Vanilla ES6, only depends on one library (the Babylonjs engine) which is included, so you can hack away on it to your heart’s content without setting up any sort of development environment. Just open up the files, edit them, and host them (locally)
  • 2.5d perspective in a full 3d engine with 2d sprites for planets and projectiles, and a 2d overlay on top.
  • EV/Endless-Sky-esque with the ability to trade cargo, purchase a new ship, add weapons, and do battle in asteroids-style high-stakes space combat. Arrow keys to move, left control to shoot. The default weapon may run out of ammo though!
  • Visible weapons on ships. It’s a capability, even if I haven’t added bones to most of the ship models to take advantage of it. If done right I expect it will be super immersive.
  • Original, handcrafted (unfinished) universe to explore. For all of you fans of non-procedural-generated worlds.
  • Open architecture allowing for radical gameplay changes and a totally data-driven model.
  • Press ‘Escape’ to see the star map (bug: drag it around if it does not show up right away). Select a system, exit the map, and press ‘J’ to jump to that star system. You can only see explored systems and systems linked to them, which won’t be very many at first, but there’re lots out there to explore.
  • Press ‘L’ to select a nearby planet and ‘L’ again to land
  • press ‘`’ to select the nearest other ship
  • Select “open contracts” after landing for random cargo missions

Planned Features (don’t count your features before they ship):

  • More missions/storylines.
  • Save and restore game. I’ve got it set up to save and load from local storage, just need a menu to select your save. I didn’t set out to make a roguelike.
  • Secondary weapons. Right now when you pull the trigger, everything goes off at once. Also a prerequisite for stuff like carried ships.
  • Beam-based weapons. Need to add a beam collider to the collision system. Explored adding a real physics system but they’re mostly overkill for this type of game; writing a beam/circle collision system may change that. It would also let me implement anti-tunneling for projectiles (collide a line segment between the previous position and the current position.)
  • Decide what to do with ai leading. You can switch leading on and off with querystring ?ai_leading=basic which will make the AI try to lead its shots. But it uses a basic approximation so it still misses a lot.
  • Turrets. Getting the math, blender export/in-engine-use toolchain set up to make visible turrets on ships has proven frustrating. Some of the code is there but it would take a not insignificant amount of work to finish. Which is probably why I keep putting off…
  • Starfield. Will have to probably do this by hand with star sprites.
  • Nice ship models with textures! I’ve been cranking out kinda lousy models as programmer art (thinking that the final art will maybe have different constraints – visible turrets being a big one), but someday it would be cool to put some more effort into it. Hampered by the fact that I mostly work on this on a train so I don’t usually have room to use a mouse.
  • Sound. There isn’t any. I just haven’t gotten around to it, I can’t imagine it’ll be too hard to throw in there.
  • Escorts/Carried Ships. The AI and collision systems are set up for it, and some recent refactoring has probably opened the door to it. Just takes some doing.
  • Board/Plunder/Capture-this just needs some doing, but shouldn’t be a huge technical hurdle.
  • Demanding tribute/galactic conquest/planetary destruction – would require a bit of additional work, but not much. Unclear to me if this is a feature people really want.
  • Zoom in / out: Just needs the controls rigged up to do this, but it’d be kinda cool (right?)
  • The GUI could definitely look a lot nicer, and the code could probably be cleaner. I’m not a graphic designer.

I plan to keep hacking away on it at the slow-but-mostly-steady pace that you can see from the (lengthy) commit history. If you want to play a complete game now, this isn’t for you. But if you’ve always wanted to hack on an EV clone but the other ones where too intimidating or weren’t 3d enough, maybe this is your ticket. Will definitely check out any Pull Requests (or, for that matter, emailed diffs) that come my way, and I’ll try and do a walk-through of major interesting bits in the code in future blog posts. If you’re still reading this far down, you are the target audience! Let me know what features you would like to see most, what would make this project compelling for you to use/fork, or what utterly repulses you about it. I’m all ears.

Atomic PI emulation setup notes

I mostly game on PC, but at one point I set up a retropi for emulated console multiplayer. Mario Kart ran pretty well (sprites and all!) but BattleTanx wasn’t performing. That’s the N64 game that I probably played the most of, and it’s cracking good multiplayer, even at the 9FPS that the Pi could manage. That was sort of the experience I was after though, so I went looking for something a bit more powerful.

Enter Digital Loggers. There was a kickstarter for a board called the Atomic Pi. It’s about the size of two Raspberry Pis and has an Intel Atom processor rather than the Pi’s ARM core. It’s still smaller than any one of the various consoles I plan to emulate on it, which is a nice bonus.

For this setup I got the Atomic PI with the small breakout board that provides a (more or less) standard adapter plug. I’m using this power brick and this multi USB hub (because there is only one USB port on the board.) It comes with a soldered-in EPROM you can boot from and write an OS to, but OSs on the eprom are painfully slow so I would recommend installing your OS to a MicroSD card like you would with a RasPi. I’m using Lubuntu, and it’s performing pretty well considering the big screen it’s on, I’m sure your favorite lightweight distro will also do well. You’ll want something that ships with a desktop for emulation though

Back to Battletanx: To get it running in Mupen64Plus (which you can install with apt along with a barebones GUI for opening ROMs and managing settings) with Rice video you need only change the config in one way:

ScreenUpdateSetting = 7

There are some glitches (the button that makes the flame tank fire sideways and makes the FLP-E tank flip get stuck) but it’s mostly playable. And Mario Kart still runs great.

A gem: Multiverse In Review

Multiverse In Review is the type of treatment that makes reading a bunch of background story for a tabletop game worth it. Source by source, the author is examining every available piece of Fluff in (and out of) the Magic: The Gathering cannon, with (so far) an emphasis on the type of sources that most fans never would have seen, especially in the pre-internet “before time”.

The most fascinating bits are the insights into how the story evolved, and what hidden information those changes reveal. I find these big shared universes very fascinating, and would love to see a similar treatment of, say, the Warhammer 40k setting. A good example, if you want a horizontal slice, would be these three articles on the conception of the Antiquities story the Antiquities comics and the Jeff Grub novel that slots the story into the modern (ish) cannon. Every article is a good read if you’re into that sort of thing.