Thursday, February 18, 2010

Introducing the Tumbleweed

I had intended use this post to regale you all with the unveiling of my latest and greatest immersion enhancer, "the tumbleweed". I had intended to describe the hours I put into crafting this masterpiece of design, calculating the levels of wind resistance, dry brush's average mass, learning the physics of inelastic collisions, the dissipation of energy. I had intended to formulate a comprehensive blog post analyzing the place immersion holds in game design, that is, to discuss how consistency in the internal video game logic is a precondition for immersion. From there I would describe how this tumbleweed, in its perfect appropriation of reality, does more than any flashy big budget graphics ever could in creating a living, breathing world. It was to be the greatest post this blog had ever known.

Then I was alerted to a series of posts on the Johnny Outlaw demo video. Apparently, we have caught the attention of renowned video game designers Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto. I was honored by the kind words of encouragement from Mr. Miyamoto, who recognized the brilliance of Johnny Outlaw's enemy AI. But with the arrival of Mr. Kojima, the comments transformed into a battleground for famous developers to express their incompatible beliefs about game design.

Now I am relatively new to this field, but I have a dog in this fight. Mr. Kojima is entitled to his opinion about my AI, but he has overstepped his bounds and accused me of copyright infringement. I feel it necessary to put forth a defense.

Some of you may have noticed that Johnny Outlaw has "Health". Health is a statistic which corresponds to Johnny's health. As he is hit by bullets, his health decreases. You may have seen similar mechanics in other games, and while I admit I have been influenced by them, I am not guilty of stealing such a mechanic. I contest that health is in fact based on the real world concept of health (which also encompasses the concepts of injury and death). As "health" has no discernible creator it is therefor within the public domain. While it is not particularly creative, I felt it necessary in order to properly simulate the Western experience, which includes being a human who is not dead.

Johnny Outlaw also has a blue bar, relating to his energy statistic. Mr. Kojima has stated that this blue bar is clearly lifted from Fallout 3. Yet, once again, the similarities exist only because we wish to recreate the human experience for the gamer. It is only natural that one would become tired from kicking, jumping, punching, and using extreme focus. It is only natural that this "energy" would replenish over time. And of course it is only natural that this energy could be immediately refilled by a tall bottle of sarsaparilla.

But wait, why is it a bar then? Clearly it must be stolen, for what are the odds that both games would measure energy in bar form? This decision was actually less of a decision than an emergent quality of energy itself. Energy is constantly in flux, and it is made of many smaller units. When the energy icon, a small blue square, is placed next to another energy icon many times over, it resembles a bar that is filling and emptying. Pure coincidence.

Mr. Kojima, I may not be a decorated game designer, but that does not make me a thief!

Now that that's out of the way, it's time for the moment you've all been waiting for: the first look at the tumbleweed!


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Best of the Worst

Johnny is going to face off against some of the most wanted men in the entire West. These guys are as tough as they are mean, and they're probably twice as mean as they are tough. Today we have a first look at their significantly less tough henchmen.

Here's the latest gameplay video of Johnny and these new henchmen in action:

So let's get to know these boys a little better!

Joe Bandit
Don't underestimate Joe. Remember, it doesn't matter who pulls the trigger; bullets hurt. Joe keeps a safe distance from his target and isn't very ambitious. He tends to remain stationary, but hes got a good rate of fire, and will dodge incoming bullets when necessary. He complements his other bandit buddies very well, and fighting more than one is guaranteed to be interesting.

Dancin' Dick
Some fellas don't believe in personal space, even during a gunfight. Dick is the adventurous type, and he's not afraid to walk around Johnny to get past his cover. Most gunmen would say it's suicide to do such a thing, but Dick is the best bullet dodger there is. Always on the move, Dick can make short, quick hops very frequently, making trick shots very difficult to pull off. So next time you think you're safe behind cover, make sure to keep an eye on the boy in blue.

Big Tex
They broke the mold when they made Tex. Or maybe they just increased the sprite size by 20%. Either way, he's a big man with a big gun, and that means a moderate amount of trouble for Johnny. A big man is a big target, and when Tex tries to dodge a bullet, he makes a slow, heroic leap. And then he's exhausted for a while. Easy to exploit with a trick shot, Tex on his own isn't all too intimidating. It's his shotgun that makes him exceptional. Shooting three bullets in a spread, Johnny has to dodge between bullets and pay close attention to the bullet pattern. That can be difficult when you've got other bandits closing in on you. Fortunately his gun takes a long time to reload, and has a very distinct sound. Just stay focused, and you can make short work of Big Tex.

Death's Head Ed
Fighting fair is for boxing matches, not gunfights, and nobody knows that better than Eddy. Eddy is a professional bushwhacker. He's got low health, and he isn't as agile as the rest, but he has a philosophy: you don't have to dodge bullets if your opponent can't shoot bullets. And they can't shoot if they're dead. He has exchanged mobility for increased firepower, shooting two pistols with deadly precision. His high rate of fire will cut down Johnny in no time at all. Ed usually stays in hiding until Johnny gets close enough, then he leaps out of his cover and unleashes a bullet hell. If it looks like someone could hide behind it, in it, or even under it, keep an eye out for Ed.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Those good-for-nothin' bandits

A lot of trial and error goes into the development process. Ideas that seem great on paper aren't always so great in practice and, for the sake of the game, you have to just scrap them and start over.

A key feature I mentioned in my last post was that our enemies would be "smarter" than those of other top-down shooters. Well, it isn't hard to develop something more complicated than "move from point A to point B", but we owe it to our fans to take things a step further. After all, the ultimate goal of our AI is to create enemies who appear somewhat human to the player.

So I ignored all conventions and started off big.

My first attempt at AI involved what I call the Enemy Neural Simulacron. The philosophy behind this was that it wasn't enough to simply develop an algorithm that allowed for learning and rational decision making. A human has a lifetime of experiences which have formed the thought process, determined his life situation, and so forth. For our project to succeed, we would need to allow an individual enemy unit to live an entire lifetime in a simulated Wild West.

Brilliant, I thought. At the start of every game, entire lifetimes would be lived out, although of course in significantly less time. This way enemies would have different personalities and have real problems that affected their performance, such as facing bouts of depression.

But once I got things running, a problem quickly emerged. Very few of my virtual people ended up becoming bandits. I was left with hundreds of useless salesmen, dentists, public officials, and so on. Hundreds of lifetimes lived out, only to create useless people. Not only this, but the people who eventually did become bandits did not perform very differently from one another. Sure, some had practiced more with their virtual guns, and others were more athletic, but I had hoped for more. One bandit's wife had left him earlier that day, but he still fought just as hard as the rest of them. It was a virtual testament to the human spirit, but it didn't add much diversity to the fight. He had a good cry later, though.

What did I learn from all of this? Apparently in a gunfight the only rational course of action is to shoot your opponent, try to not get shot, and appropriately navigate around objects. I could have just told them to do that from the start.

So I destroyed that disappointing waste of memory and started fresh. The results are very similar, and the process is much more efficient.

Once everything has been cleaned up I will post a video and explanation of the recent updates. At that time, we will revisit the enemy AI, for out of this failure we have found great success.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Coding of the West

That little tech demo video let you know that we weren't just blowing smoke about this gaming business, but there's more to that short video than meets the eye.

Despite the misleading side profile of our placeholder sprites, Johnny Outlaw comes from a long tradition of top down shoot-em-ups. Games like SmashTV, Robotron 2084 pioneered the style, and now there are plenty of clones out there for every gaming medium. Typically these games are arena style, pitting the player against countless enemies in an enclosed space. For the player that meant hordes of zombies were charging from different directions, hoping to overwhelm you with sheer numbers. New weapons and powerups appeared to make the job more interesting, and games to follow tried to develop new and more interesting weapons to mow down their foes. These games are fun as heck, but as it stands, they haven't evolved much past SmashTV.

With Johnny Outlaw, we want to take that inherently fun style of gameplay and build on it to recreate the feel of a classic Spaghetti Western. This means that we're taking the genre a little out of its comfort zone.

Some of the important game design decisions this boils down to are:
-Far fewer enemies who are more intelligent and lethal
-Fewer weapons, but they will actually be specialized and situational
-Focusing more on accuracy rather than spray and pray
-Emphasis on mobility, dodging, and tactical reloading
-RPG elements and exploration that supplement the combat(without being obtrusive)
-and of course an actual story

I don't know if it'll resonate with the same audience, but so far it's shaping up to be the same fast-paced shoot-em-up combat and it has much more room for strategy. I enjoy playing it already, and a little further down the line, I'll let you all enjoy it too.

Until then, remember this bit of cowboy advice:
Always drink your whiskey with your gun hand, to show your friendly intentions.