Hey, it’s been a while, huh? Hope everyone had great holidays and a happy new year. :D Mine were pretty good, but after getting back from Hawaii I had to recover with over a week of sleeping nine or ten hours a day. That jet lag can suck the life out of you, especially when you’re headed somewhere for nonstop insanity instead of a real break.
Anyway, after all the crazy holiday times, I also didn’t have anything to share last week, so I took time off, but we’re back now! Here’s a silhouetted preview of not-fully-finished enemy pixel art…
I wonder who this could be? You’ll see the full color version here when she’s done, but I don’t have any particular timeline for that and you’ll find out why in future posts. ;)
Today I also wanted to share a look into the creative process. In the one game community that I’m decently involved with, I’ve noticed that its players can severely underestimate how much work the developers put in if they (the players) don’t see the direct fruits of that labor. The players might wonder what the devs are doing or even think they’re resting on their laurels.
I’m leaving details intentionally vague because I’m not trying to call anyone out here; in fact, I think it’s completely reasonable for the players to jump to conclusions. Actually, when I’m not spending what I would consider “enough” time developing in Unity, even I can get a bit down about myself—and that’s when I know exactly what I’m doing! As a solo indie, though, it’s difficult but also necessary to recognize that my time is productive even when it psychologically feels less tangible than something like implementing new AI patterns or testing battles.
So let’s get into the situation. Together with Flora I’m pretty much on board with making a new promotional image for Dreamblazers. Initially we were thinking about it in the same lane as a title screen, but now I’ve shifted to considering it possibly more like box art or simply a fun group shot. All of this meant gathering and commenting on references, so let me show you just a glimpse of how back-and-forths with artists can go:
For various reasons I normally wouldn’t give this much of a look into how I communicate with my artists, but in this case I had to gather so many images that it wasn’t feasible for me to go with my usual routine and using Imgur albums made a lot more sense. And since those can be publicly available, I figured I’d show them off here too!
It probably took me about 15 hours to hunt for pictures, filter out the ones that I didn’t think would contribute anything helpful to know about, organize them into categories, put up the albums, and most of all take the time to examine the pieces and comment on them. And all of this is in service of creating one new picture! Plus I still have to reflect on and give feedback for the work in progress versions at some point in the future.
So even though it’s a very important new picture and even though I’m completely aware of that fact deep down, my natural inclination is still to feel like “I’m spending too much time on this” when that same number of hours could have done A, B, C, or X other things. But everything is progress and everything is necessary. Even I need a reminder of that.
As late as last Sunday, I was very ready for a concerned post on Monday.
Ready to talk about how I might not have scheduled the trip to Hawaii (the one that I’m currently on as I type this) if I knew in advance what I know now.
Ready to talk about the contract work possibly disappearing.
Ready to talk about a mishap with the auto-renewal on my house insurance.
Ready to talk about a missing month of rent from my tenant.
Ready to spew all this and even more tales of woe is me!
And ready to write, of course, what will always be true: short of an early death or something else even more major like World War 3 resetting the technology level of the entire globe like the famous Einstein line goes, I’m going to finish Dreamblazers. Almost nothing can go wrong enough to stop me; it can delay me for weeks and it can even delay me for months, but almost nothing can delay me forever.
So far the contract work hasn’t fallen through, the insurance issue got cleared up, the month of rent showed up, and although I’m not in a super great place to be spending time out of state right now—especially with end of year taxes still to be paid—it’s not all that dire.
Right now I don’t know what next week will bring, what the week after that will bring, or anything else in the big run up to February, but for now things are alright. Even if they weren’t, though, I can say that I’ll complete the journey no matter how troubled it may be!
On that note…
I don’t know if I’ll have anything to write about on Monday, but even while here I can still talk back and forth with artists and I’m going all in for some new pixel art from Liz with potential to be more special than everything you’ve already seen from her so far. :D So give it time, but I’m expecting cool things when next you see some pixel art on this blog!
I’m going to put up two posts this week because I have a lot to talk about—suffice it to say that as late as last night I was very prepared (and yet very unprepared) for a real downer of a post today, but things pulled through for me.
But let’s not spend any energy on that today. :P For now let’s look at lovely, lovely pixel art from Liz.
From left to right, these are an Impini, Impedi, and Impega! They’re mischievous forest-dwelling creatures that are mostly harmless to travelers, but can still be troublesome when they attack in swarms—and I do mean swarms. Even compared to kobolds, imps have a huge number advantage on their side, but they need it since they’re not at the same intelligence level or strength level of kobolds.
By the way, imps might be a great introduction to the grid system I discussed last week depending on how things work out! (Right now we’re having a certain level of trouble getting together funding for that, but if we do get there…) Imps flooding their side of the battlefield will eat up a lot of space, which makes them nice targets for big explosive attacks to take out a bunch in one shot. :D
Even if the grid system doesn’t work in the way I’m thinking (or turns out to be not as fun as I imagine), though, imps will still be a demonstration of how characters fight differently—it’s literally written into the story. You see, while fighting against these creatures, a certain character comments that even though she’s individually much stronger than other soldiers who were dispatched with her, her techniques aren’t suited for battling large groups, making her the wrong choice for the Empire to send on that particular mission in hindsight.
I’ll say no more about her since her entire species hasn’t gone through the character design process yet. ;) But like the Empire, you’ll have to make your own decisions and prepare for multiple possible scenarios without knowing what you might encounter, so which characters will your team feature? Perhaps using only characters who are strong in one-on-one duels or only characters who are strong against groups isn’t the best idea!
Anyway, gonna have to call it a post there—I’m heading out to Hawaii on Thursday and, as always, going through all sorts of last-minute rush shenanigans right before the trip. I’ll be away on the 14th, though I do still intend to put up a post if I have anything to share (like more finished pixel art, for example), and I return on the 21st, so that day’s post will be delayed until at least the 22nd.
It’s a little tough for me to think super clearly right now; I just might have pushed myself a bit too hard last week—Thanksgiving time here in the US and also making some more preparations for my trip later in December— since I seem to have either come down with some kind of sickness for the first time in several years or the fatigue has finally caught up with me.
Fortunately I did have some time to write about what I intend to do with grids, so let’s talk about it anyway!
Grid-based battles in RPGs are typically handled in one of two ways. Probably the most common of these is the Fire Emblem style, also seen in other games like Tactics Ogre:
In this style of battle, all the blue characters are in your control and all the red characters are enemies. You can move your characters in any order one at a time and they move within a certain number of square spaces, e.g. the one riding a horse can move farther than the ones on foot. When you’re within range to battle an enemy, heal an ally, etc., you can do that. After you’ve moved everybody, then the computer takes its turn (or “phase”) and also moves its characters in any order one at a time to battle yours.
This is probably more straightforward than I’m making it sound! If you’re on your computer or for some other reason won’t mind streaming video from YouTube, then you could start here around 2:19:49 to get a feel for it:
Fire Emblem is one of my favorite game series, but everything about the design comes with its pros and cons.
Moving each character one at a time is mentally engaging because of the needed strategy to readjust your plan after every one or two moves depending on how battles play out, but it can also feel somewhat tedious physically later in the game when you’ll be moving twelve or more characters in each phase.
During your turns, almost everything goes according to plan and even in cases when you’re rolling dice (e.g. you have a 65% chance to hit the enemy), you’re told upfront what those odds are and you don’t get blindsided by anything, so it has a strong feeling of fairness; on the other hand, since you don’t get blindsided by anything during the moments when you’re in control, the game can feel a little less dynamic compared to other RPGs where your attacks might be interrupted by enemies and you have to adapt.
The system of switching between your phase and the enemy phase is simple in theory and gives you maximum control over coordinating your characters’ movements and attacks, but it also comes at the expense of making sense from an in-universe standpoint. For example, a horse-riding enemy who might theoretically want to run away from your mage, who’s running on foot, can’t get away just because it’s not the rider’s phase, not because of something in the game world that would explain how this happens. Another example is that you can move your character with 3 Speed before your character with 20 Speed.
The bottom line is that there’s a reason this type of grid-based system is reserved for strategy RPGs, emphasis on the “strategy.” Just by the nature of each “player” taking their entire turn at a time, there’s not as much back-and-forth between you and the enemies, but instead you’re switching roles frequently between being the active player and the passive observer.
The second most common way to use a grid in RPGs is the Final Fantasy Tactics style:
Yikes, have those graphics ever aged ungracefully. :P
Anyway, in this setup, characters on both your side and the enemy side act one at a time according to their Speed stats. So it could be that one of your characters moves first, then an enemy, then two of yours in a row, then four enemies in a row, then three of yours, etc.
To a certain degree this makes more sense from an in-universe standpoint than the Fire Emblem style, but it still makes a lot less sense than the traditional Final Fantasy style (like, say, FF through FFX). This is because of the component of movement. Why does the character with 7 Speed get to move 5 entire spaces before the character with 6 Speed gets to move 5 entire spaces? It would be incredibly tedious if they traded off moving only one space at a time until finally the character with 7 Speed gets one extra space at the end, so we know why the developers didn’t design it that way, but that doesn’t explain how it works in the game universe.
In games like the traditional Final Fantasy series or Chrono Trigger, characters act according to their Speed stats, but with no movement in the game to muddy the waters. Of course the character with 7 Speed gets to cast one magic spell before the character with 6 Speed, but that’s all it is… one action. Makes sense. It’s the old spaghetti Western trope of whoever draws the fastest. (Things do get complicated when characters get to take multiple actions per turn later in a game, but more on that perhaps another day. :P)
An upside to the FFT style of system is that there’s more of a give and take. Your plans are always being interrupted or thwarted by enemies getting in your way, which can feel a little more authentic, and you aren’t simply setting up your goals and then moving toward them with no obstacles.
…but a downside is that it can also be a bit overbearing. In a Fire Emblem or Tactics Ogre style of game, at least when it’s your turn it’s really your turn because you get to move all of your characters with full control. In FFT, when it’s your turn, it’s only that individual character’s turn. Even though the battle technically comes across as more realistic and dynamic, in a way it can feel slower to only be offered one character’s action menu at a time.
Both of these previous styles were strategy RPGs and Dreamblazers isn’t a strategy RPG, so let’s look at one more game… This one doesn’t use an explicit grid, but it’s still one of the closest examples I can find to what I have in mind.
These are two screenshots of Lunar: Eternal Blue (albeit from different versions of the game), a traditional turn-based RPG. In this style of battle system, you choose actions for all of your characters and the AI chooses actions for all of its characters, then that turn (that round of combat) plays out according to each character’s Speed. If any character on either side dies, gets put to sleep, etc. before they get to take their action, then they lose their opportunity until next turn, so you try to plan in advance, but not too far in advance.
These are the very fundamentals of a turn-based RPG and Lunar basically doesn’t deviate from them except that depending on which enemies you want your character to attack, they’ll move automatically across the battlefield toward whatever they’re attacking and can’t hit it until they’re close enough.
In theory this sounds pretty cool to make close-range fighters and long-range magic users feel more distinct, but in practice it didn’t mean all that much (at least for the melee side of things) because generally both the heroes and enemy monsters would always be rushing toward each other on the relatively small battlefield anyway. You were always close enough to attack, so the only question left was more about keeping Lemina’s delightful self out of harm’s way.
(Or at least that’s what I remember. It’s been over fifteen years since I’ve played the game. :P)
Now that I’ve constructively criticized everything, what am I going to do differently?
Here’s the idea… Let’s take a look at a battlefield:
Right now all you’re seeing is the beautiful sprite work from Becca, Alex, and Liz, so let’s instead break it down more mechanically into a grid…
Becca’s tiles were specifically built to be 16×16, so that’s the grid I used here, but I’ll figure out how to handle the differently-sized sprites when that time comes. In any case, now you can start to get a feel for how much space there is for our protagonists and these kobolds to move around. But now my idea comes in! Imagine this field is divided into two sides…
…where you can only move your characters within the blue area and the AI can only move enemies within the red area. Because characters can move extremely fast in the Dreamblazers universe, I don’t want it to ever be the case that anything is ever “too far away” to be battled even with close-range combat techniques.
Recca: "You can circle the planet, what, 17 times per second? 22? A lot. So we can find her in an hour max!" pic.twitter.com/aVlS9qSwmZ
So either side can attack anywhere from anywhere. But my thought is that rather than targeting an enemy specifically, you’re targeting that enemy’s current space and a certain range around it depending on your form of attack, e.g. a burst of icy wind covers a wider area than an icicle crashing down from the sky. You can loosely think of this like the board game Battleship, but instead of taking a shot at a single spot, you might take a shot at a 3×3 square or a diamond with a diameter of 5. Here’s a visual illustration:
Let’s say you’ve targeted the green, yellow, and pink areas. The Kobold Chief in green hasn’t moved yet and has no chance to avoid the attack because it isn’t able to move its entire body out of all of those spaces. The Kobold Rogue in pink was originally at the center of that rectangle and moved to the left, but because it’s still inside the rectangle, it also gets hit. The Kobold Rogue at the upper right part of the yellow plus used to be in the center of it and already moved up and to the right, but that’s still within range, so it gets hit… and the Kobold Warrior at the bottom of the plus also gets hit!
Please keep in mind that I don’t actually know yet what will be in ORK’s grid feature (assuming we get enough contributors anyway), but this is the gist of the idea I’ve been tossing around in my head. :D
The first benefit is making it feel like it’s possible for characters to narrowly avoid taking a hit. Of course, it’s still possible to use your pure Evasion stat to dodge a hit, but this would add a second method of artful dodging.
The second benefit is making battles feel more awesome—because my intent is that it should be much less likely that your targeted enemy will dodge your attack than that an enemy you didn’t target will also step into range!
Exceptions, of course, include big duel scenarios with top-level warriors involved. Kobolds themselves might be able to transcend light speed in bursts, but they’re not the fastest things around. If you ever just so happen to play as Leaf training to grow stronger with her best friend Celty, who is the fastest character in the game and has the ability to teleport on top of it, then you could certainly expect her to step out of range of your attacks more often than a very large majority of enemies.
But that would be an unusual scenario to play since Celty has never once defeated Leaf in training. Maybe the opposite will happen. Who knows? ;)
Anyway, that’s the gist of the idea. All of this is within the context of a turn-based system, so you can use the first turn to gauge the Speed of each enemy, then plan out your next moves accordingly! (Except when enemies get faster or make you slower, of course…!) Sounds exciting to me and I’m definitely hoping the funding for this goes through so I can see what sorts of magic I can work. :D
As much as I’ve been in love with my complex enemy AI setups, there’s always been a lingering question in my mind about how much the player will notice. Sure, I know as the developer that a Sylph Mage is capable of doing A, B, C, X, Y, Z, L, M, N, and more, but AI design is to a certain extent supposed to feel “invisible.” Faulty AI is easily noticed and criticized, and justifiably so, but well-developed AI is supposed to feel intuitive and logical. With that in mind, I’ve wondered whether Dreamblazers battles would feel unique enough.
Grid battles will definitely make them feel unique enough, though! From everything I can recall, I’ve never, ever played an RPG that uses a grid and does some of the things that I intend to do. And what do I intend to do? Well… you know, there’s a certain US holiday coming up that might give me some time to write about that, so I’ll save it for then. ;) It’s way more than worthy of its own post. :P
New Pixel Art
Some Elven Archers ready to rock at 100% and 300% size! According to hair colors, they come in genki girl orange, fantasy purple, and traditional brown! :D
I had said earlier that most sprite variations will have identical stats, but after thinking it over since then, there’s no reason for me to hold back considering that the way Unity works makes it just about as easy to give each sprite variation stat changes as to not do so. And so, as you can see, from left to right they’re faster to slower—but each one has her own advantages over the others too!
Even though the stat changes might only be a swing of 5-15%, these girls get fashion bonuses for extra multipliers to make them more significant! Bonuses like…
Field-Ready Shorts: for combining shorts with an athletic nature
Fighting Spirit: for combining warrior attire with respectively an energetic, brave, or independent nature
Love of Gloves: for combining gloves with respectively a playful, brave, and independent nature
Love of Shoes: for combining shoes with respectively a playful, brave, and independent nature
Romantic Rogue: for combining warrior attire with a jaunty nature (Purple only!)
Sandal Fan: for combining sandals with a playful nature (Orange only!)
Sword Dancer: for combining warrior attire with a graceful nature (Brown only!)
Yeeeeeah… have I mentioned the fashion system is kinda comprehensive? :P On some days I actually ask myself if all the required calculations for it will prove to be too much for hardware weaker than mine.
Anyway, up to this point we haven’t seen any enemy sprites from the common species: elves, norians, the falician, sylphs, and so on. While you can be sure these Elven Archers will put up quite a fight since they’re gifted with full intelligence, control of magic, tool use, and more, it’s worth asking why they’re enemies at all.
In this time of global peace on Peremene, it would be very unusual to encounter a wandering fighter, especially one who has any serious battle training and isn’t an Imperial soldier—so why are there three whole variations of nameless Elven Archers?