Of Tombstones and Handedness (and Some Other Stuff)

WP7XNA

Several things have moved from my TODO list to my DONE list where Nucleus is concerned, and I’ve learned a few useful things along the way. In keeping with the current trend in this blog, I’m going to share the experiences once again, particularly the issues conquered.

We start with some interesting problems that crop up in trying to deal with tombstoning in XNA in particular, and then move on through a couple of design changes and other bits of progress. Tally ho.

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Nucleus Progress: Now With Gameplay Footage (and Performance!)

NucleusAlpha1So, we have added progress on the Nucleus project today. The big news is it’s moved along enough that I can post some footage of the game in play, because all of the basic play elements necessary to that end are done. There are still some major bugs floating around, and a few crop up in the video, but on the whole it’s coming along nicely.

I also had cause to do some major performance evaluation and tuning a day or two ago, so I’ll be talking a bit about that today as well, since I tripped over a rather common issue that I expect will be cropping up in a lot of WP7 games, as well as discovering a major DON’T that was obvious in hindsight.

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What We’re Playing: Heavy Rain

Heavy_Rain_Bird1 Full disclosure: The above title is not strictly true. This is a What We’re Playing entry, but I actually played Heavy Rain months ago, and am only just now getting around to talking about it. I’ll also mention up-front that I could only stand a couple of hours of yelling at it before I crammed it back into the envelope and eased my pain with Bayonetta. Which is saying something. I’ll talk about Bayonetta later, because I found my opinion of the game interesting and unexpected.

But anyway. Today is Heavy Rain. For those that get upset when a reviewer doesn’t finish a game before talking about it, relax—I’m not a reviewer. This is not a review. This is a collection of thoughts, an opinion. I don’t feel obligated to slog through hours and hours of a game just to justify my opinion as a designer about it. If said game is that bad up front, that’s the game’s failing, not mine, to be frank. And, yeah. I found Heavy Rain that bad. Ambitious, sure. But bad.

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2D Platformers as the Indie Game of Choice

Diamond_Braid_Rope_Paper_carrier_rope This came up in both my Twitter-watching recently, and in my blog perusal habits. In particular, it’s Nels Anderson’s post on the topic that got me thinking about it particularly. The quick run-down on the issue is the question posed in the title of the blog post: Why are so many indie “darlings” 2D platformers?

The article suggests a lot of reasons, and I tend to agree with a lot of them. I’ll add one more to the list.

The state of the AAA game industry being what it is, there’s a lot of varied dissatisfaction with it roaming around. One of the high points of that dissatisfaction that I hear most often is an unfavorable comparison with something of a golden age of gaming, when tech wasn’t riding nearly as high and “realistic graphics” was a laughable concept, more or less. In short, “they don’t make them like they used to” is almost an indie battle cry being sung from hilltops in some corners, and it’s not something I can particularly disagree with. It’s worth noting that this isn’t necessarily the opinion of the developers alone or even primarily. The position the players tend to take is almost more important, and a lot of those players are looking for a “retro” experience that reminds them of the “classic gold” games they grew up with or have heard so much about.

If you look at the games put out during those periods—we’re talking the 8 and 16-bit generation—there are some common threads that emerge. Bright colors, lush character designs, fantastical environments… and in a lot of ways, the poster children for the era are predominately platform titles. The Marios and Sonics and Mega Men and Castlevanias.

In short, my personal theory on why so many of our most notable indie games seem to be platformers lately is simple. There’s a desire to recapture an era of the industry that many—among developers AND players—feel was a better time. That period had a very large number of really good platformers (though of course there were other games!). It’s only natural that we’re going to see a lot of the indie success stories come from the platforming genre. It’s the intersection of developers developing and players playing. We’ll almost certainly see more variation come along. It’s already starting to happen in bits and pieces.

I want to say this is the same way that things went back when I was a kid. But I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t start caring about games as an industry until we were well past that particular bit of history. Makes me wish I’d known more at the time, but we all do that.

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Project Progress: Hey! Nucleus Does Stuff Now!

Work goes on, and the code gets closer and closer to an actual, playable game, with goals and score and loss conditions and everything. Crazy!

It’s been a pretty grueling month or so of work getting here, but I’m finally hitting the point where enough of the back-end stuff is working that the part players will actually care about—the game part—is coming together quickly. There’s still a lot left to go, but it’s amazing how a project can turn from “nothing much to see” to “oh, hey that’s kinda cool” as soon as one little chunk of code gets done.

Anyway, lots to talk about today, because I’ve been busy and not saying much. I thought about breaking it up, but if I do this across multiple posts, I’ll probably take the rest of the week to catch up.

So, in the words of that rotund Italian plumber, Here we goooooo…

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Other Forms of Progress: FBD on GDB

GameDevBlogs

So, this is more of a point of personal progress, but worth mentioning anyway, largely because it offers me a chance to publicize someone else’s bright idea while patting myself on the back and feeling generally good about this whole blogging undertaking.

Fun By Design and my more-or-less-coherent ramblings here have appeared on GameDevBlogs, a directory of developer blog sites highlighting those unsung heroes of the industry—that is, the developers that have blogs worth reading about that you’ve never heard of because they’re not people like Miyamoto, Molyneaux, Meier, Romero, et al. In short, it’s a list of blogs written by folks down in the trenches who have interesting things to say but most people have never really heard of.

On the whole, it’s a great idea and I’ve already found some useful things by randomly chasing links there in my free time. I’m also personally pleased to be on the list (under Designers), because while I know the guy running the site has read this blog before, it still feels like something of a landmark in my nascent career to be validated in such a fashion, especially since I didn’t submit myself.

Sometimes it’s just little things that keep you working. Speaking of, I have a project update to write, I believe.

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Designing Nucleus: Title Screen Part Deux

Short one today, because there isn’t much to say, but it’s just enough to be worth writing about. I took another pass at the title screen last night—mostly just changing out the buttons for new ones and a couple of minor typographical tweaks.NucTitle02

The big deal here is I’m now using standard Phone 7 icons for all the buttons, to be consistent with the rest of the platform (which is one of my UI goals anyhow). This was helped along greatly by Microsoft’s release of Design Templates for Windows Phone 7 which contains nice, clean layered Photoshop files with all of the assorted UI elements and helpful notes and guidelines. Including all the standard UI icons for play, pause, settings, help, sync, and so on on their own transparent layer.

So it was both trivial and a basically good idea to replace my placeholders with a set of the standard icons. This probably isn’t the last change I’ll make, but it has made the project feel more consistent with the remainder of the phone.

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Designing Nucleus: Odds and Ends and the Title Screen

Today I took a break from working on gameplay code to get a little distance from the details and break up the sort of tasks I’m doing at any given point in time—this also keeps me from having a lot of dull “un-fun” code to write at the very end after all the main stuff is finished, something I learned from this blog entry. It went through some interesting iterations through the process of this first rough draft, so it’s worth talking about some of the concerns that came up.

This is going to be a bit of a short one, relatively, and I won’t get very code-heavy. It’s much more a post about user experience and the like. In a lot of ways, it’s very much a continuation of my last post about designing around the constraints and use of the phone. It also won’t be the last.

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Designing Nucleus: On Platform Constraints

DesigningNucleus So, I feel I’ve been talking a lot about code lately, especially for someone that claims to be a game designer. This isn’t a bad thing—after all, I have to write the code myself, and designers really should, in my opinion, have enough grounding in not just code, but all aspects of game development to be able to knock out at prototypes, or at the very least communicate with specialists.

Game design, unfortunately, tends to be an area of development that is not treated very seriously. Often companies feel that game designers are unnecessary, perhaps figuring that since programmers used to handle these tasks themselves back in the day, that it belongs in their hands, or that game design means level design, or similar.

Despite my obvious state of opinionated disagreement, I’m going to leave that topic off for now. The point was just to say that I’m taking a break from talking about code for good reasons to instead discuss the design challenges thus far on bringing Nucleus to a phone device. Hopefully this will prove useful to others in their own projects.

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Addendum: Getting that Profiler to Profile

So, I left out one detail of use in the last post that have gotten me a couple of instances of the same rather pointed question:

How exactly do you get the profiler to work with XNA GS 4.0?

ProfilerVariableTrue, it doesn’t work out of the box, or to be more accurate, CLR v4 doesn’t like CLR Profiler v2. For more information on this, refer to David Broman’s article on the topic. It’s a bit confusing if you, like me, are not really versed in the world of profiling. But it’s not so bad if you do a little quick internet research. Or you could just read on to see what I found out myself:

CLR v4 is backwards-compatible with V2(more or less), but it isn’t turned on by default. There are two things you need to do  to get the CLR profiler working with XNA/.NET 4.0. First, since you are almost certainly on Vista or Windows 7, set CLR profiler to run as administrator, or it won’t attach properly. Secondly, an environment variable needs setting. On Win7, the easiest way to do this is open the Start Menu, right-click on “Computer” and select “Properties…”. From there, open the advanced settings in the sidebar, click on “Environment Variables…” and add a new variable named “COMPLUS_ProfAPI_ProfilerCompatibilitySetting” with a value of “EnableV2Profiler”. This will tell CLR V4 to play nice with the V2 profiler.

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