:: one bit beyond ::
18Aug/1026

The Explodemon Saga – Part Seven

In this, the final part of the Explodemon Saga, we lose our XBLA slot, the game accidentally gets revealed to the public, a new challenger appears, and we finally kick off proper production of the PlayStation 3 version.The previous part of the Explodemon Saga left off in May 2008. At that point we were poised to start development on Explodemon with a UK publisher, having first gained both XBLA and PSN approval as they’d requested. However, when the deal fell through, we were left with slots on both platforms, but no cash. Still, we did have those slots, which - especially considering how difficult it was to get onto XBLA as an indie – we highly prized.

In the early stages of producing a PSN title, Sony pretty much leave you to get on with it until the game is roughly at an Alpha stage. Microsoft are a bit more hands-on, assigning a producer to your project and liaising with you throughout production. From pretty early on we were upfront with Microsoft about losing our funding. We told them our plan was now to start production in November. They were supportive of this, and said that the new start date would be fine as long as it didn’t slip into 2009. This gave us a clear goal; get started by November 2008 or else!

So, once more, work had to be halted on Explodemon while we concentrated on our paying work – the phenomenal Buzz! Brain Bender (which we completed in less than six months) and our more experimental work on Project X. We aimed to use the fact that we had approval for both XBLA and PSN to attract publishers, in that any game that already has the support of the platform holders is a less risky proposition. Less risk is good, right?! We spoke to a number of people, including Microsoft themselves, as well as publishers that had previously passed and entered the murky world of green light meetings one last time (note: this was not the last time).When word did come back from publishers, it was the usual... Everyone liked the game, but, weren’t sure of their digital strategies, or were only able to assign low budgets because they saw the services as not capable of providing the returns that a retail product might. Yeah, whatever! It was just confirmation for us that there would be only one route to market for us. We spoke to Microsoft, too, to see if we could get some funding, but were told that it was unlikely. We were told that it would be discussed at the next title review in the middle of October anyway. We soldiered on with our paying work, and crafted a plan to create an Explodemon team.  A few key people were slowly moved off critical jobs in preparation for a November start.

Unfortunately, when we next heard back from Microsoft on the 29th October, it wasn’t good news; Explodemon hadn’t made it through their title review. We’d lost our XBLA slot! Citing (quite reasonably) the lack of progress on the title since gaining the slot as the main reason for the decision, Microsoft were still very complementary about our studio and our game, and asked us to approach them again to be considered for future titles. It was another blow, regardless.

We did ironically start development on Explodemon the very next week with a small team of coders, exactly as we’d promised we would. It wasn’t a huge, bombastic start, but the coders did begin cranking out our in-house tools and technology, soon joined by the project’s lead artist in Jan 2009. We also started creating tentative level designs in the prototype at this point, with the intention of eventually using them in the finished game. We were really upset that we’d missed the opportunity to get the game onto XBLA, but our hands had been tied. Without funding, we just weren’t able to get the game into production.

The game did start to take shape after that though. On the code side, we took great care to recreate the gameplay experience that I’d honed in the prototype.  By swapping pixels for meters (32 pixels = 1m) and frames for seconds (60 frames = 1 second), and analysing my stunningly amateur code, we were able to match the exact timings, distances and accelerations between the two versions. With player animations in place, it was possible to control both prototype and PC builds simultaneously with the same controller on different monitors, and see Explodemon leap around on both identically. A small art team was also starting to form, and the enemies were animated, and some conceptual work done on the environments. It was slow progress, but things were getting done!Things transformed massively when we innocuously gave our website a new lick of paint in March 2009. Since we weren’t able to talk about Project X (and still aren’t!), and had only really released Buzz games to that date, we decided to create a dedicated Explodemon page. While it wasn’t really ready for the world-at-large, at least it would be something that visitors could see that would highlight what we were really about. When we also released an amazingly boring press release about Curve using Hansoft’s project management tools, the resourceful Ryan Langley from GamerBytes.com followed the trail, and uncovered the Explodemon page on our site. Fittingly on April 1st, he created a news post focused on our trailer. We totally weren’t prepared for the press that followed.

The trailer was picked up by Kotaku, Destructoid, IGN, Joystiq and a huge number of other (fantastic) sites, and it was getting a really great response everywhere it was shown. This was great for us! The game was 3-and-a-half years old at this point, and we’d become jaded from one failed publisher signing after another. It was great to see that what we were trying to create was resonating with our audience, who were, after all, just gamers like us. We spent days fielding a huge number of requests for interviews and previews, but because the public release of the trailer wasn’t really our doing, we just weren’t prepared. And while the trailer made the game look close to complete, it was intended only as a target render to fuel interest from publishers, so the game itself wasn’t anywhere near as finished.

It was also on April 1st that the most insane thing happened. Something that I still can’t really believe to this day, something that shows that truth really is stranger than fiction. On April 1st 2009, a few hours after our video was revealed, a totally different developer on the other side of the world independently announced a 2.5D platform game with an exploding lead character. Yes, Twisted Pixel announced 'Splosion Man.We literally couldn’t believe it at first.

Was this a joke? Was someone fucking with us? I mean, we’d been silently working on this for nearly four years, and the day it gets revealed, someone else announces a game that (to most casual observers) is basically the same thing? It was also announced for Xbox Live Arcade too, on which we’d lost a slot only six months before. I have to say it was the most baffling day of my life.

After I’d come back down to earth, I decided to email Twisted Pixel to share my amazement with them. I remarked on the coincidence, congratulated them on the announcement and invited them to London for a beer. TP’s CEO, Michael Wilford, swiftly got back to me and basically said the same thing (and invited us to Texas for a taco!). I think we were both stunned.

While the ‘Splosion Man madness was kicking off, we were hurriedly preparing a press release to capitalise on the press we suddenly found ourselves getting. We felt that we needed to let people know what our game was about, and do it soon while everyone was still interested. In it, I waffled on about the game’s influences, and more headlines were created.

And suddenly, the publishers started contacting us! After years of flagrantly throwing ourselves at everyone who would listen, and most not batting an eyelid, suddenly we were fielding requests from all kinds of large publishers who’d previously been impossible to reach. This was more like it! Maybe we should have just released the trailer a year earlier?So, in May 2009, for the final time in the Saga, we entered green light procedures with four publishers (one of which it was our fourth round of discussions with!). One particular publisher wanted it on PS3, 360, Wii, DS, iPhone and PSP for March 2010, with multiplayer modes for each. As a small developer that was pretty scary, but we thought that there were ways that we could deal with that, so we continued discussions. Finally, perhaps, maybe, possibly, we were going to see the success we had so been craving? Ha!

By the time discussions reached their peak, it was early July 2009. We’d been unfortunately unable to progress much with our tiny team since the public reveal. By contrast, Twisted Pixel were starting to release footage of ‘Splosion Man, with their projected release date announced as being for XBLA’s Summer of Arcade. As the decisions came in from the publishers, a pattern started to emerge.

Publisher 1: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 2: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 3: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 4: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

There was no getting away from it this time. This would be the stock response that we would get from now on (indeed, it has been a pattern that has been repeated often since); there would be no funding from any external sources; we would have to make this game ourselves or just give it up forever. What was it going to be? What were we going to do about it?

‘Splosion Man launched at the end of July, to great acclaim and sales. While we were happy for Twisted Pixel (they’re nice guys, and it’s always good to see indies prosper), they were dark days for me. With our tiny team, and massive collection of publisher refusals (about 20 companies), we’d been unable to make an impact on production. We were at a crossroads.Contrasting the progress on Explodemon, Project X was taking magnificent shape, and our work on Buzz continued to support the company. We could either focus on those two titles and dump all our work on Explodemon so far, or somehow find the money ourselves and take up the challenge once again. Whether it was belief in the game, pure stupidity or just good old British stubbornness is unclear, but there was no fucking way we were going to quit.

In October 2009 we hired our first dedicated Explodecoder. The lead coder started in November, artists moved onto the title full-time, and another level designer moved across. This was the proper start of the game; finally a full-sized, dedicated team working only on Explodemon. Tracking a Q4 2010 release date, we committed financially and emotionally to the title, accepting all that that might mean for our future. It would be finished.And so we are brought full circle. I started blogging about the game’s history in November 2009 with the first part of the Explodemon Saga. We were still unsure of how it was going to turn out back then, and we weren’t always convinced that it was going to get finished. And because running an independent games developer is very hard and very stressful, it’s true that things haven’t always gone smoothly, but that’s best saved for the Explodemon post-mortem.

One thing’s for certain though; when Explodemon is finally released on its fifth anniversary, I’m just as convinced now as I was then, that our belief in the game will ultimately enrich the lives of everyone in the world and bring peace and harmony to all. Or it’ll just be a great video game, whichever is more important.

21Apr/100

The Explodemon Saga – Part Six

In part six of the Explodemon Saga, we begin working with an unlikely development partner, do justice to our artistic vision and seek approval on XBLA and PSN.We had a phone call one day at Curve Towers that led us down a peculiar path for a time. When you work in video games, you’re often subjected to the unwanted pitch. From the guy who delivers the water who has designed 150 new Pokémon, the Tesco delivery man with his own take on GTA, crazy Europeans who have designed and concepted an entire RTS and “just need programmers”, Dennis Greenidge, and occasionally the people who call your office.

It was our MD, Jason, who took the call. He listened politely to the nice chap on the other end of the phone, who was telling him that he had been calling various developers, trying to kick off the development of his game idea. Jase had heard this many times before and so began to fend off the caller with the usual development sensibilities such as cost, experience, time, etc. Seemingly sensing that he was about to be hung up on, the caller mentioned that he did in fact have access to funding, and was looking for a company to hire. While we were still dubious, it pays to investigate every opportunity when you’re down on your luck (as we were at that time, before Curve was miraculously saved from doom) and so we invited him in for a chat.H, as I’ll refer to him, was an interesting character. H was a passionate games player who, like many, was keen to get into the industry. While his passion had led him to start a games-related degree, H was looking to fast track himself right to the top of the games design ladder. He was able to do this because his father owned an airline, and so he had access to some serious financial backing. H’s idea was to create his ultimate game with his father’s help, and make his mark on the industry in a big way.

We had a meeting with H where we went over his idea to see if it was something we could help him with. As a total amateur though, his concept was typically massive (think the cinematic fight scenes in the Final Fantasy movie, but interactive). He held up a pre-rendered concept movie from Final Fantasy XIII as proof that it was possible, but backed down when we reminded him of Square Enix’s team size, the level of investment required, and of course, that it was a concept movie. We did eventually help him to reformulate his idea into something that could be created as a demo to pitch to publishers for more funding, and gave him an approximate costing to develop it. H went off to reconsider his idea and the realities of making it, but we didn’t really think that we’d see him again.

However, to his credit, H did return, and with a more realistic proposal. He’d decided instead to create an XBLA-sized game with much simpler gameplay, aiming to do something small but polished, but do it well. He’d seen Explodemon on his previous visit and enjoyed playing it immensely. At this point we’d decided to continue on slowly with Explodemon internally with a tiny team, and were looking for a partner to part-fund Explodemon with us. Since H was looking for some experience as well as to fund a game, we suggested that instead of creating an idea from scratch, it would be mutually beneficial if we joint-financed Explodemon, with him joining the team as a junior designer. It was agreed, and H came in part-time while we started to work on the joint financing contract. Suddenly we were self-publishing Explodemon, and it was on again!Before and during this time, we began to revisit the art we’d created for the previous concept doc. We’d learnt from our previous dealings with publishers that we’d not been able to convince them of the merits of the game without properly communicating our intentions for the art style, beyond a few drawings of the main character himself. In the meantime, we'd hired an artist who was a capable concept artist, and so made the decision to deploy him full time as a concept artist on Explodemon to flesh out our ideas for the environments.

We’d also decided that we had to realise our vision of a fully 3D Explodemon running on a HD console. The plan was to take a section of gameplay recorded from the prototype and match it frame-for-frame with 3D assets. We assembled a team of crack artists to get on the job towards the end of 2007, and they began modelling the assets for the enemies and player while the environmental setting was concepted.

While we were working on this, we were also trying to fashion a deal with H that suited both parties. Our aim was to split the development costs and royalties 50:50, but we were adamant about holding onto the IP. We’d put so much work into the game already, even at this quite early stage, so we weren’t keen on someone getting their hooks into it unless the terms suited us. This would unfortunately prove the death of the deal, as H’s advisors were saying that he should hold out for IP ownership. Although H worked with us for about two months, we never received any money from the deal, so a clean break was made. We were on our own again, but I think that really we were all quite relieved to be back in charge.In the middle of February 2008, the teaser trailer was finished (embedded below). The art team had done an amazing job of visualising the project as it had been imagined, and it was really gratifying to see such a high level of polish applied to what had been, until then, a scrappy gameplay prototype. We now had a really powerful tool to use when pitching Explodemon to publishers. The new concept doc was also completed (which you can view here), and was a huge leap above the previous document in layout and presentation. Between the movie, the prototype and the concept doc, we felt that we had finally done justice to our vision of what the game would eventually be. What publisher could resist?!

And so pitch we did. We arranged some meetings for GDC 2008 and flew out to San Francisco with pitch materials for Explodemon and a number of other concepts. Many of the meetings were our first with some of the US-based publishers, and so we were a little in the dark about what they were looking for. Since most of our pitches were for XBLA/WiiWare/PSN games and we also offered ourselves as a developer-for-hire with a lot of PSP experience, there were quite a few dead ends because most publishers simply weren’t looking for either.

There was also an incredibly rude company that had previously arranged a time to meet, but not a place. We spent a number of days before the meeting trying to contact them for the details of where to meet, but were roundly ignored on all of our attempts. The time for the meeting came and went, but still we got no response. In fact, we have not heard from that company since. This is what it’s like when you’re trying to build yourself a profile.

It wasn’t a wasted trip though; we managed to pitch two of our ideas, including our Project X, to some development heroes of ours, which was a geeky boyhood fantasy. At the time we thought it a fruitless exercise, but things panned out differently later that year.

The main Explodemon opportunity that arose from our GDC trip was a new UK-based publisher who were aggressively looking for games. We’d pitched three of our titles to them, and they had whittled it down to two: Project X and Explodemon. Project X was pretty much a done deal, but with Explodemon they were asking that we obtain concept approval for either XBLA or PSN before they would go forward. One more hoop to jump through seemed to be all that was required, and so that’s what we did.Approval for Xbox Live Arcade is actually pretty tough (and arguable more so now than in 2008). With limited slots, and the larger share of the console download market, Microsoft can be very picky about letting titles onto their service. As an indie developer too, there were even fewer slots left for us to fill. The approval process in 2008 was very interesting. Once we were past the initial concept form, the process was largely done by email and conference calls with Microsoft’s very supportive and motivated producers. The guys we spoke to were always passionate and knowledgeable and did everything they could to keep us informed about what was going on. They read a lot of our GDD, played the prototype in depth, and commented positively on the movie.

The concept approval process for the PlayStation Store was quite different, and much more of a black box. Sony have a series of well written documents designed to get you to think about their most important criteria when applying, and you apply via a web interface. Once you have submitted, you have to wait for two weeks while Sony’s European and American teams dissect your application away in their labs. It’s not as personal, but with a higher volume of applications likely on PSN due to it not being as closed a service as XBLA, it’s quick, efficient and clear.While the approval process was going on, we got word back from the development heroes we met at GDC that they were interested in moving forward with Project X. We were dumbfounded! We’d never expected to hear anything back from them, since thinking anything else would have been a bit of a pipe dream. Yet, here they were asking for more details and a budget for developing the project!

So things were already looking up when, on May 1st, we gained concept approval for Explodemon on PSN. Yes! Yet things only got better on May 5th when we were also approved for XBLA. This was amazing news! Project X could be signed with the dream partner, and now that it was approved for not one but both platforms, Explodemon could go ahead with our new UK publisher. It seemed like things had finally gone our way.

The UK publisher unfortunately didn’t see it that way. They’d always been interested in both Project X and Explodemon, and said that that had always meant both of them. They maintained that if we signed Project X with someone else, that they’d walk away from the deal, meaning that Explodemon would remain unsigned. We found ourselves in the horrible position of choosing whether to go with the dream partner for Project X and let Explodemon die, or pass up the best opportunity we’d ever been handed in favour of signing two projects with a new, unproven publisher.

And so it came to pass on the 8th May 2008, barely a week after it had been approved for both PSN and XBLA, that we moved forward with Project X alone and Explodemon found itself without funding once again. We gritted our teeth and continued on...

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In the next part of the Explodemon Saga, the game is accidentally revealed to the public, we get yet more publisher interest and the PS3 version finally enters full development.

3Mar/103

The Explodemon Saga – Part Five

In this part of the Explodemon Saga, Explodemon is entered into the IGF, and the decision is made to close Curve Studios.Emon2007 lurched into view, taking the shape of a massive black cloud full of evil pointy things. Very soon after we returned from an uncomfortable Xmas, we four directors sat in the meeting room and looked seriously at the finances. We had the potential of getting work with one publisher, but they were being very indecisive and slowly eating up what time we had left without actually progressing. Our current situation was so obviously screwed that there was only one course of action. We had no money and no work - it was over. The decision was made to see the month out and close Curve at the end of February.

Despite my son’s Feb 14th due date, no pay, probable unemployment and a big tax bill, I actually felt quite relieved. I’d been worrying so very, very hard about the company closing for so long that it felt good to finally have an answer to the question that loomed so large over everything else: what is going to happen? We continued to chase other work, and had managed to secure meagre funding for two artists to create a ‘target render’ for Project X for a publisher, but as I left to go on paternity leave, I was partially expecting not to be able to come back.

It was not to be. Quite literally the day after my son was born we got the go ahead for eight months of next-gen work. It was too large a project for the company as it stood at that time, and we would have to hire extra people to staff it. It was a total reverse of fortune, and just in the nick of time. We would live to develop another day.

With the small matter of our survival postponed for a short while, we could get on with the matter of signing and making games. We amazingly picked up another title a month later, an XBLA game for another developer, so had to expand again. 2007 was turning out to be very fortuitous.

We continued to pitch Explodemon around, and had some more feedback from various sources. One publisher asked their XBLA contact at Microsoft for an unofficial opinion on the likelihood of Explodemon being passed for their service. The feedback he gave, however, was that Explodemon “compared unfavourably” to Cloning Clyde. Not to demean Ninja Bee’s work, but what we were aiming for with Explodemon was a degree of polish and play experience that was an order of magnitude higher, since we were aware that the quality bar was rising in the digital console download space. It seemed we weren’t conveying our message very well, and this was confirmed when that publisher declined to move forward at a later date (they would be back though!). Being busy enough with the games that people were paying us to develop, Explodemon went on the backburner for most of 2007, but the lesson was learned that we needed to step up our pitch.IGF LogoAll things Explodemon picked up again when I noticed the news that IGF 2008 would now allow entrants to submit games made with Game Maker. I wasn’t aware that you previously couldn’t, and hadn’t thought of submitting until then, but once I’d read that news I had no choice but to enter! I didn’t expect to win, since the game was far from being a complete experience, but basically thought it couldn’t hurt – why not?

One of the issues we had was that the prototype used sprites (and other assets) that were taken from other games. This was the first thing we had to fix, so we had some of our lovely artists (who are right now working hard on the PlayStation 3 version) model Explodemon and the Vortex enemies, and create the animations needed. These 3D assets were then rendered out as sprites and I butchered the animations by placing them in my prototype. A lot of the 3D models that were created for the IGF build are being used today in the PS3 build.

Aside from the existing two levels shown in a previous post, the build entered into the IGF also relied on the judges playing their way through testbeds that showcased the new mechanics I’d created the summer before, and imagining how those mechanics would be fleshed out into full levels. You can see these testbeds in the following two movies.

The new mechanics were targeted at fattening up the areas of the prototype that we’d found to be the most fun, and strengthening the areas that were weaker. One thing that had emerged was that it was fun to move things around, and puzzles with that as a central mechanic were engaging and HL2-esque-ish. People had problems being accurate when aiming, so I introduced the trajectory system, which predicted where things would move when hit. Different objects were also introduced to bolster the aiming and moving mechanic, such as the magnets, and objects that needed to be placed in certain positions.

I also wanted more strategy in the game, and so chose to attack the player’s ability to effectively control their explosion, shown in the red and blue field testbeds. Taking away the player’s core ability to explode with the blue fields and then forcing them to think laterally has been very successful, and the red fields have been found to have a fun side effect too that will be showcased in the final game.IGF SpritesThe enemies in the game needed more variety and strategy also. Firstly, I introduced the harmless Stickies, which were inspired by the spiky eyes that stick to Link in Wind Waker and slow his movement. I didn’t want Explodemon to slow down though, and the idea of just exploding when a Sticky was attached didn’t seem that exciting, so I made them prevent you from exploding. I now curse them whenever I come across them thrown into the combat mix in the new levels! Secondly the Rhinos, which made you strategise about how and where to attack them. They are also able to destroy things in areas that you cannot, so they turned out to be an effective puzzle element. Finally, the coloured component allowed me to reuse enemies but with a different strategic twist. Standard enemies could prevent you from gaining health, be indestructible and emit posion when destroyed.

The final additions I’d like to talk about here are the gunships and the bombers. The gunships are a direct rip-off of the helicopters in Half-Life 2. They breathe down your neck from above constantly, are destructive to the environment around you and are a bitch to take down. They force you to use the combat techniques in new ways, and change the tempo of the levels where they’re used. The bombers are also a rip-off, this time of Mario’s Lakitu, behaving very similarly, trying to get above you and rain down bombs. Both these enemies were inspired partially by the Covenant dropships in the Halo series; you really have to invest focused time and effort to bring one down. In amongst the chaos of combat, it forces you to prioritise targets over each other. When you are able to bring one down, the sense of achievement is huge, and I really wanted to replicate that.HL2_heliWhen the feedback arrived from the IGF judges, I was surprised not at the comments but at the quality. There was a bit of a fuss kicked up this year about the IGF 2010 feedback, but having seen some of it, I think they were lucky to have as much as they did. It was leagues ahead of the single sentence I got back from each judge for IGF 2008.

The first judge had this to say:

The explosion game mechanic was hard to get a sense for.  Game otherwise seemed a pretty straightforward side-scroller.

To this day it’s the only person I’m aware of who has not been able to get a grasp of the explosion mechanic, but that’s OK; not everyone is going to go for it. They are correct in that it’s quite straightforward if you take out the defining mechanic. The second judge was more in line with what I was expecting.

Some fun and unusual game mechanics, but not complete enough to be considered as a winner

I certainly agree with it not being complete enough, so I was happy with this. The third judge also seemed to concur.

A well-made and fun take on platforming, the simple physics and movement feel great. I wish the screen was a lot larger -- it would be nice to see more than a tiny fragment of the current level.

The screen was indeed too zoomed in during this period, and we’ve since rectified that flaw. I was glad the judge liked it otherwise!

While fun to enter the IGF, it was never a serious endeavour. Having seen how the IGF has grown in stature and found its identity over the past two years, we won’t be entering the IGF again with the PS3 version. Even though we are technically an indie developer, I think the festival should really provide a platform for developers who aren’t able to create one for themselves, for giving publicity to developers that otherwise might struggle. While we are independent and self-funded, we’re fortunate enough these days to be able to afford marketing and PR for Explodemon (more of which you’ll see from us as we get closer to launch). If we were to enter the IGF and become a finalist, I don’t think we’d benefit enough to justify denying a place to someone more worthy, so why enter in the first place?

In the next part of the Explodemon Saga, Curve gains an unlikely development partner, we finally do justice to our artistic vision, and Explodemon is sent through the approval process for XBLA and PSN.

17Dec/093

The Explodemon Saga – Part Three

The third part of the Explodemon Saga describes how Explodemon’s various game systems were fleshed out and shows the first full draft of the finished prototype.

PART THREE

When I came to implement crates, that mainstay of video game furniture, I kept coming back to Half-Life 2 and its gravity gun. Every physics object in Half-Life 2 reinforced the player’s knowledge of the real world; objects that were thrown responded as expected, and their interactions with other physics objects provided predictable rules that could be used to solve puzzles. Because the forces emitted from my game’s explosions had the potential to be a similar source of physics-based gameplay, I wanted to try to create the same sense of physicality, of destructiveness, of reliable and predictable rules, but in a 2D platform game.

Gravity is fun!

I therefore spent a while coding a (simple) physics system. Crates would respond to relevant forces in relevant directions when hit by explosions, bounce off other crates and so on. I made the objects move fast and land heavy, to emphasise the arcade-like direction the game was heading.

Following on from objects moving as expected, I felt it was important that the player enjoy every single explosion that they created, to make even the simple act of pressing a button be rewarding and moreish. I’m a big believer that if you make the lowest level of a game’s interface enjoyable, you’ve got a much better chance of building a rewarding game on top. To this end, I made lots of shit blow up into tiny pieces; windows, solid walls, wooden crates, areas of solid rock (completely stolen from Yoshi’s Island).

A big breakthrough came when I mimicked Half-Life 2’s time-delayed exploding barrels, by creating a crate that would itself explode after a period. A by-product of this was that the player could hit these exploding crates into other crates, creating chain reactions and destroying things at distance, purely by exploiting the properties of the physics system. The beginnings of a fun system that allowed for a good degree of player expression were beginning to form.

By now it was December 2005, and during work hours at Curve, we’d finished off the Superman joystick game and were almost there on the Spider-Man pack. We’d been speaking to a number of publishers, desperately trying to get a break back onto consoles, but we’d been confounded at every turn. The industry was still in a state of transition, and only safe bets (studios, as well as IPs) were being funded. Still, we’d been lucky enough to arrange another two joystick game packs to start in the New Year, so the worry of running out of work was kept at bay for the holiday season, a feat that we wouldn’t always manage in later years. Just before I was set to visit my in-laws in Australia for Xmas, I created this build of Explodemon, which shows the results of my ramblings above.

Xmas 2005 Build

The three week Australian trip, away from computers and games, ended up being a powerful catalyst for the productive period on Explodemon that would follow. Unable to implement any ideas, I built up a number of concepts in parallel, concepts that I was raring to get started on the moment I got in front of a PC. Due to my desire to create a polished platform game, I remember diving right into writing the definable keys, menu system and checkpoint code on my return, something I think my wife found a little strange!

Another contributor to the productivity of this period was the dire lack of need for creativity during my work hours. Early in January 2006, we’d begun production on two joystick games. The first was based on the excellent Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series, which I selflessly allowed Rudolf (Kremers, Eufloria) to do the design work on. I’d then left myself with the real dregs; the Thomas the Tank Engine joystick game. It’s not something I really want to go into in too much detail, but suffice to say that it was the worst project I’ve ever worked on, beset with major production hiccups that were outside our control. With all of that creative momentum building up, and nothing to fulfil it apart from my lunch time project, Explodemon rapidly began to take shape.

Combat was my first port of call. I created a really simple enemy by taking the crates, making them move left and right wherever they landed, and giving them sprite animations to match. Insta-enemy. After seeing how well the exploding crates turned out, I had the enemies explode when they ran out of health, but only when they came to a stop. This last part was key because it meant enemies could be used to create chained explosions by aiming them with your own – in other words, the enemies themselves could become weapons. Being able to then have these enemies airlifted in by Halo-style dropships was just total geeky empowerment for me.

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Meanwhile, I’d had this really great idea about the combat; a mechanic that would keep every encounter interesting. My inspiration this time was the risk/reward mechanic used in Bangai-O’s special attacks. In Bangai-O, you squeeze one of the triggers to unleash an attack that fires multiple shots in all directions. The brilliant bit is that the attack fires off more shots the more danger you are in. It works on proximity, so the closer the enemy shots are to you – and the higher the number – the more powerful the special attack is when executed. Since all enemy shots are destroyed by the special attack, the aim is to wait until the very last moment when you are about to take a hit before pressing the special attack button to unleash a super powerful counter. It’s risk/reward in a distilled form, and is pure Treasure genius.

Because the player’s main attack in Explodemon was centred on their location, and Explodemon himself took damage if he touched an enemy, I took Bangai-O’s mechanic and applied it to the player explosion. If the player played safe and exploded an enemy while they were far away, they did little damage and got little reward. However, if they waited until the very last moment when they were just about to make contact, the explosion did massive damage and the player got a large reward.

Risk

Now, when I say reward, I’m not just referring to a glowing sense of self-satisfaction. It was important that this reward meant something - that players valued and desired it. To fulfil this function, I created Explosion Levels. The high concept for Explosion Levels was simple: the higher your explosion level, the more powerful you were. The ‘reward’ for defeating enemies were red orbs; the ‘better’ you defeated them, the more orbs you got, the higher your explosion level, the more powerful you became. The opposite of this was not defeating the enemies well, where leaving it too late to explode or just plain taking a hit would reduce your Explosion Level. So, a simple yet deep system worked its way into the combat:

  • Explode at the last minute to play well and get more powerful.
  • Mess it up and get less powerful until you eventually die.

Also adding to the strategy the player would have to form during the combat was the recharging gauge that had to be full before exploding. It gave a rhythm to the combat, with the player constantly alternating between two states. When the gauge was full, the player was capable and destructive – able to choose how, where and when to attack. However, once the explosion had been released, the player was now on the defensive, unable to strike back. While in this state, the player needed to skilfully dodge and evade attacks, manoeuvring themselves into the ideal position to attack again and, if playing well, coinciding this positioning with the gauge fully recharging. This system (along with the risk/reward explosion mechanic) was to be my take on Halo’s famous “30 seconds of fun”, and it has ensured that the combat in Explodemon has remained absorbing to this day.

For the defensive state, where the player was waiting for their gauge to recharge, I needed Explodemon to be responsive and manoeuvrable. For this, I created the slide, which was a movement technique that the player could employ but not use offensively, instead lifting enemies and objects into the air and buying time and space. The creation of this move was also down to my longstanding dislike of the Mega Man games. I’ve never played more than 30 minutes of a Mega Man game to this day, because I find the abilities of the main character too limiting. I find the fact that he can’t crouch or shoot in more than two directions to be frustrating rather than enabling. He’s so immovable, and I understand why some people like the gameplay that the limitations create, but for me it’s like moving a brick around. I find it funny when people say Explodemon is inspired by Mega Man, because it’s true in a way that people might not expect: some of Explodemon is how it is because I wanted the main character to be nothing like Mega Man!

The final part of the combat puzzle was the counter. I used to play a huge amount of Street Fighter II and, to a lesser extent, Tekken. I’d always enjoyed the complexity afforded by the rule sets of beat-em-ups, and especially the idea of advanced techniques. These kinds of features bring depth and longevity for more committed gamers, and I wanted to add that kind of feature to the combat in Explodemon. I was inspired by the Alpha Counter and Parry systems in Street Fighter and also the Counter and Chicken system in Tekken. I wanted something reaction-based that would turn the tables for the player if they were in a tough situation, but only if they were quick enough and understood the game well.

And so, Explodemon’s own counter technique was born: if your explosion gauge was empty and you could not attack, but you were inside an explosion created by an enemy or other object, then you could ‘counter’ it. I saw this as Explodemon drawing power from the explosion he was in to create one of his own. It manifested itself as a half a second window within which the player had to press the explode button, indicated to the player by a [!] above their head. If you were quick and played strategically, you could repeatedly explode, quickly clearing a mass of enemies with panache.

With these systems in place, I created two levels in which to showcase the game. I also included a bunch of other mechanics, like the Metroid-inspired boost run, and the missile redirection mechanic. Created in March 2006, these two levels formed the main gameplay levels for the next three years. You can check them out in their entirety in these two movies.

In the next part I’ll look at how Explodemon finally bust out of its Game Maker prototype to become an internal project at Curve, and detail the response we got from publishers when we showed them what we had.

15Dec/090

The Explodemon Saga – Part Two

In this second part, I look at how I cracked the fundamentals of character control, got addicted to code, and show where my inspirations came from.

Robot12PART TWO

It was November 2005 when I first started writing the player code for Explodemon. After hunting around for some sprites that I could borrow that would do everything I wanted (thanks, Pulseman), I started trying to make the little fella run left and right. I’d always liked how much depth of control the inertia in the 2D Mario games created – the feeling of weight that resulted, combined with the feeling of being just on the edge of control, unable to stop quickly - so I started by emulating that. Pressing in a direction would slowly increase speed up to a maximum, and pressing in the opposite direction (or releasing the stick) would decrease speed until at a standstill. It was easy enough to get working and once I'd matched up the animation and direction with the speed, I was done. Hee hee, there he goes! Easier than I thought! It was my first true taste of the secret Power of Coding; a god in a universe of my own creation. I ran that little guy left and right for ages, slowly tweaking the variables until he was perfect. Now what? Oh yeah, it’s a platform game.

I remember jumping being a bit trickier. Sending him upwards was easy enough, but having to check whether the little guy could fall and to align him to the floor if not, resulted in me constantly sticking him inside it. Once I’d done some brief fixes on that, I spent a while playing with the values for his rise and fall, and also on how holding down the jump button would make you go jump higher and how long you could do so. This, for me, was the crux of the issue. The balance between the running speed and acceleration, how high the player could jump, how you controlled yourself in the air, and how tactile it felt; these elements formed the rhythm of the game, its heartbeat, its soul – and it just had to be perfect. I did some tests on timings in other platform games, but eventually just went with my own gut instincts. I admit to feeling an immense sense of satisfaction when I was done. The control felt solid, responsive and enjoyable, and I’d managed to do it all myself in just a few lunchtimes and evenings. I really felt like I’d cracked some special code, like the mysteries of the ages were laid out before me. All of those games I’d played and revered suddenly seemed within my capabilities. I think that this was the moment that I became totally hooked.

Now that I had the basics, I needed a high concept. The inspiration came from three separate places. The first was Meteor Strike, one of the Superman joystick games we were working on, and a kind of simple evolution on Missile Command. There was a mechanic in it where you could destroy certain enemies that would create an explosion that could then be used to destroy other enemies. A key strategy was to repeatedly chain these explosions together in order to clear the screen. It worked out pretty well in a basic fashion, but I thought it might be nice to see how that would work with a platform game. The second inspiration was a simple block puzzle game I was working on, a match 3-style game whereby you had to clear black blocks by detonating like colours next to them. As you progressed, the explosions ‘levelled up’ and got more powerful so you could clear the black blocks more effectively. (If you're interested, you can download the Windows-only prototype I created here. You can see an early version of Explodemon's levelling mechanic already forming itself). It was the first thing I’d ever coded, which was exciting in itself, but it was a bit dull and I'd kind of lost interest in making it great. Instead, my idea was to transport that mechanic to a platform game. ChainAs for the third inspiration, I used to work with this talented artist called Jamie Turner. Jamie was a bit of a star at Blue52, always churning out great work and great ideas. We had an excellent working relationship too, collaborating together to create the mighty Rock Troll concept, another unsigned gem. However, Jamie was clearly too good to stay in the UK for too long and about 6 or 7 years ago got a job in Tokyo, working at Nintendo second party, Genius Sonority. At GS, he worked his way up from effects gaijin in the corner to game director gaijin, even working with Miyamoto at one point. He’s now working at Pokémon creator, Game Freak, and we’re in touch regularly.

There were always new games concepts bouncing around at Blue, and Jamie had a few, one of which was Exploding Robot 12. Jamie’s concept went something along the lines of humanity’s last hope - a robot that couldn’t stop himself exploding - being sent out to destroy the alien menace that was threatening all of mankind. From what I remember, it wasn’t so much a platform game, as an action puzzler, where you had to navigate sections that you didn’t want to destroy, as well as blow up the enemy spacecraft and whatnot. I always liked the idea, and my recent explosion-based thoughts lead me to wonder if it would translate well to a platform game. I mentioned it to Jamie and he was up for me carrying the idea on. The early builds even had the codename ‘R12’.

Inspired by rocket jumping in FPSs and the physics of the grenades in Halo, I first experimented with using the explosion as a double jump substitute; instead of jumping and then jumping again, the idea would be for the character to jump and then explode, with the explosion’s force propelling you away. Also, with something as fun and destructive as explosions, I wanted them to be unlimited and available at all times - but knew that I needed to nerf it somehow, or risk the player being too powerful. I went for a recharging gauge; exploding would empty the gauge, and you’d have to wait until it filled up before you could explode again. Both of these concepts went in and, well, just worked. I also coded in the ability to double jump, but you could only do it after you’d exploded in the air. This simple feature ended up being quite instrumental in creating some of the unique player character control that we’ve got in Explodemon today. You can play the build as it stood after two weeks here.

Once I had the explosions moving the player around, it was obvious that everything else in the world needed to be moved by them too. I needed something to get me started, and the answer was obvious. I didn’t even flinch. Old Man Murray be damned, it was time for crates.

6Nov/091

The Explodemon Saga – Part One

ExplodemonI never intended it to be so, but the story of Explodemon!, one of the games we're working on at Curve, and how it developed from a just-for-laughs lunchtime project into a self-published IP on PlayStation 3, is a story worth telling. Amazingly, at the time of writing, it spans four years. It's been a long journey, but through a combination of determination and sheer bloody mindedness, it looks like we may make it after all. So here it is, the first of a number of posts on the Explodemon Saga.

PART ONE

2005 had been a mad year. It started with a life-changing family tragedy, followed swiftly with the closure of the company I worked for, the founding of my own, the best holiday I’ve ever had and my first taste of working on 2D sprite games. 2005 was also a mad year for the UK games industry. The end of the console generation was causing publishers to tighten their belts, sticking to the tried and tested, and placing bets on the next generation (the 360 released in November of that year). I had experienced this first hand with the most signable project I’d ever worked on, Deadlight, going unsigned due to a number of unfortunate cancelations in Blue52’s history counting against them. In a difficult climate, any excuse is excuse enough. Around 20 companies bit the dust in 2005, the company where I was employed as a lead designer, Blue52, among them.

As a result of this, the opportunities for UK games professionals in 2005 were pretty dire. After Blue closed in March, we formed Curve pretty much straight away. This was partly because there weren’t any jobs around, but also because we’d been lucky enough to find a small project to work on for a few months, and it was simply better than being unemployed. I went from working on console action titles with big budgets and long dev cycles – I was on Stolen on and off for nearly five years – to what we came to call “joystick games”. You may have seen these in toyshops; curiously shaped plastic joysticks with built-in games, each stick holding around five games, always based on licensed properties. At first it felt like a fall from grace, but after finishing a long, complex, demoralising project with many problems and failings, working on getting five 2D games out of the door within three months was refreshing and liberating. The constraints of the system, combined with my love of classic arcade, SNES and GBA games made for an interesting period. It was like going back in time to gain experience on the types of titles I’d never got to work on, fattening up the foundations of my design skills.

After shipping one of these packs, we found it enjoyable enough to want to continue and were offered another two to do. With one successful project behind us, we had the beginnings of a company, and started to look around again for console work, with PSP being our focus. It was early days for the PSP, and everyone was betting that it would be a big success like the PS2. Our previous console experience matched the abilities of the PSP, and our small size matched the dev budgets, so we were hopeful of climbing back up the development ladder. By October we had managed to get some of our staff onto small PSP titles, mainly helping our friends at Sumo Digital in an outsourcing capacity.

Meanwhile the limitations of licensed joystick games were beginning to get to me and I was itching to get creative again. Alex (May, Eufloria) had put me onto Game Maker in April of that year, since he knew I had been interested in learning how to make games myself. As a non-coder, Torque had proved too complex for me, but Game Maker was just about my level – I wouldn’t have to program my own sprite routines, or worry about how to calculate collisions, etc. I could just get on with mucking about with gameplay. So I did. I quickly made a simple top-down shooter, and a block puzzle game where blocks exploded and created chains. I had fun, but it wasn’t anything spectacular.

One of the joystick games we were working on at the time was a Spider-Man platform game, and I’d had to spend a good deal of time explaining to the game’s coder the basics of platform game control. Because he wasn’t a platform game player, the coder questioned every part of these basics, including inertia in control (why would you want that?) and the fact that holding down a jump button for longer would make you jump higher (that doesn’t make sense!).

After explaining these things in detail, I realised that talking through the mechanics wasn’t enough for me, and I had a sudden ache to make my own platform game to really explore my understandings of these basics. I realised, through my limited bumblings with Game Maker, that I now had the abilities to try some ideas out, which was pretty exciting. The more I thought about it, the more my neurons flickered with my multiple past replays of Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario World, and Treasure’s Astro Boy and Gunstar Heroes. These kinds of games, and especially for me Yoshi’s Island, possess a certain quality to them; something about the pixel art, the depth of gameplay deriving from simple rules, the accessibility, the collecting, the level designs, the perfect controls. I didn’t know what it was, but it tickled my nostalgia node in a special way, and I felt a burning desire to create my own game that explored these mechanics. I didn’t want to create something ambitious, or poignant, or something that pushed the edge of game theory, but rather an uncomplicated platform game, albeit one of the quality of a Nintendo or Treasure title. I was interested in finding out just what it is that makes those titles as good as they are. And so I started at the beginning.