One of this year’s plans is to design and assemble 7 Munchybots. A series of papercraft robot street vendors. This might be the first time you hear the name ‘Munchybots’. I made it up. (Warning: The following has been read a week ago by friends who get my newsletter. If you want to be informed you can subscribe too )
I’ve been struggling for a while to come up with a proper name for these robots but I felt it was important to get that settled first. After all, My long term plan is to eventually put these on the market. Munchybots seemed like a good mix between explanatory,curious and cute. It also sums up two of my hobbies: Robots and having the munchies.
The Pizza model (Piz-O) was done last year. When I finished that project I was convinced this was something I would want to do more and get better at. Most importantly: I was finally making toys! After that I set out o design a noodle shop. This after watching Blade Runner again. Coincidentally there was also a robot serving a bar in Fallout 4, which I played a lot in December. Witch Piz-O the idea was born that every Munchybot had a food feature that would be impossible for humans to do. Piz-O served pizzas it baked in its own belly. Nood-O’s gimmick was that he literally was the bar. He didn’t serve at the bar. He was the bar. That’s not clearly visible but I also like that about it. My favourite feature is the inside cupboard.
I started working on a new design right after Nood-O. All of these robots are prototypes and with each model I try a new concept. Why do I prototype? To figure out what works best for me and eventually for future consumers. Each model answers old questions and brings up new ones. The idea behind this one was to make a robot that was simpler to assemble than its predecessors. Nood-O is my personal favourite but it was also hell to assemble with parts spread across 6 sheets of A3 paper. The self imposed limit was to design a model with as little cubes as possible.
Am I happy with the result? Ehhh…Something about this model is missing. The idea of robot twins being both the vendor and the stand is cute but overall there is not much to look at and it’s lacking details like Piz-O’s rat friend and Nood-O inside cupboard. These seem like tiny details but it’s a sign of depleted creative energy. It was not for nothing though, Gelat-O is the tallest in the line and that gave me some thoughts about practicality. The designing part was fun but during cutting out the paper and the assembly something bad happened: I got bored. I’m not sure what was the cause. It might be that I just don’t like cutting and folding. I’m looking for ways to simplify that process. More about that later. Another cause might be that I just ran out of creative juice. It didn’t feel right making one so quick after the other. I’m always aware of being on autopilot. In art and design that can be a bad thing. As much as I liked the result. There’s not gonna be a new Munchybot for a while.
The way I see it there are two places people can come across these robots: The internet and physical stores. I think the factors than can lead to a purchase vary somewhat per venue. Lately I’m pondering about what might move people to a purchase in a physical store.There are many factors in a store I cannot control. The only thing I can control is the package. So: What’s going to be on the package? What will we tell the person holding this object? I am new at this but from my point of view I’d like to know if this object was able to fit on the last sacred personal place a modern adult has in their life which is their desk (assuming people even have a desk). The larger a toy is the less places you’ll be able to fit it. So the size is a factor. All the current Munchybots are too big for that. I somehow have to come up with smaller designs.
On the other hand: Who are we designing this toy for? Is it for adults like me or is it for another group? It’s good to ponder that. About that cutting. Lots of work! I’ve been scouting around for ways to skip manual cutting. There are machines that read vector files and cut custom shapes out of any paper you feed them. These things are also around $200. Let’s just bite the apple and keep manually cutting for a while until I figured out papercraft. But that’s for personal use. Most important right now is to come up with a technique that does not require cutting or glueing on the side of the consumer.
There are still so many things to address before Munchybots can go up for sale. As a side-hobby from my hobby I’m putting together a new papercraft robot. It’s not a Munchybot, It’s Signal from Mutant Gangland. That’s a place I made up from I game I worked on. A wasteland future roamed by mutants and robots. The figure has more emphasis on pixel art texture and I’m also trying black outline. Much like you see in the Borderland games. It will be hell to cut again but I’m curious to see how that outline will turn out.
Concluding: I haven’t felt this productive in years but there is also caution. I know myself and I’ve dived headfirst into short-lived hobbies before. Here’s hoping maybe this time I will pull through and deliver. If you want to know how that will go then may I suggest getting into my newsletter?
Releasing Penarium was as far as I planned 2015. Well. That happened and a whole lot more. Here’s what went down this year and what is going to change in 2016. The biggest one being a major shift in focus as an artist.
First off. I beat Game Developers Conference this year. I say that because the one the year before was not a good trip for me at all. First time in San Francisco, First time at a big convention, First time I had a game to hustle. After that trip I wrote down everything that bugged me and learned from it. GDC 2015 was bliss. Mostly because I stopped giving a crap. I became free and I could start being myself. I visited Japantown which has a papercraft store. Everywhere around me were magnificent sculptures of origami and other techniques. What caught me were little robots made from folded straws, which were called Piperoids. It fascinated me that you could make figures out of paper.
A few months later we finished and released Penarium. What a relief. Finally a game I can tell my family about. “What do I do?” I make games. Just look at your Playstation uncle Benny. Yes it’s done. It’s finally done. The game’s on there. Despite its somewhat low sales I am proud about the fact I worked in a team and we finished a game. I still can’t live off games but we made a game the way we wanted to. Many reviews were positive, some of them were negative but we delivered. Now what?
A friend of mine asked me “What do you ultimately want to achieve as a game maker?” I never heard that question before. Not even from myself. I was caught surprised but I was even more surprised by how fast I came up with a focused answer: To make a game and a world of which people will say “That’s his game”. That’s the next step after Penarium and it’s a battle I’ve been fighting for years. The closest I got to it was Mutant Gangland.
This is the year me and Zapa stopped development on Mutant Gangland, A turn-based strategy game that looks like a mix between Advance Wars and Ninja Turtles. Last year we put it in early access and sold a few copies. It became a game where I could unload my love for wacky action figures and comics. Mostly those of Toxic Crusaders and Ninja Turtles. Then Zapa got busy. Actually, He got a day job. Without a programmer the game was dead in the water. A shame because I grew attached to the wasteland world I created. I closed the door on yet another game. This happened to me too often.
Months later I read a Turtles comic and was reminded by how full of juvenile energy it is. I wanted to recreate that energy so I contacted Zapa. After a good talk he gave me the freedom to whatever I wanted with Mutant Gangland. It was now 100% mine. It just wasn’t done yet. far from it. But the door was open again.
I want to release Mutant Gangland one day. Release that game with my world in it. Give the people what they paid for. It bugs me every day that I have not yet delivered but it will be done. The real question is what kind of game it will be. After talking to some developers I discovered I simply did not have the funds to make a complete turn based strategy game. However; With the world I created I wouldn’t have to. It could be whatever as long as it’s a good vehicle for cool looking characters and a compelling setting. And the visual style? I’m strongly pondering that subject. Right now Mutant Gangland is pure pixel art and I’m tired and wary of using pixel art.
Years ago during a internship at a mobile games company I started doing pixel art and I’ve been using it ever since. What appealed to me about it was its satisfying learning curve. Once I understood the rules it was even more fun to do. I did several pixel art projects over the years while growing slowly. This to a point I wouldn’t even question the use of it. That autopilot is a bad situation.
There’s been some talk among the Penarium team about wether a non-pixel art 2D style might have helped the game’s reception. There’s no way of telling. Two of this year’s most critically acclaimed games are made of pixelart but I can’t help wondering if Penarium’s style made people put it in a certain corner. You could argue that pixel art is a medium but that’s unfortunate when many consider it a style. It’s associated with retro gaming and deliberate ‘indie’-ness. Maybe people saw Penarium as indie retro platformer nr 3453. Because Mutant Gangland was inspired on the style of Advance Wars. That style started to direct Mutant Gangland’s themes and story. I think it should be the other way around.
But all of that won’t matter if I can’t find a developer. I’ll always need someone to realise that goal of making The Thomas Game. During its development I was curious to see how some of the characters would look as a toy. Something to have on my desk. I contacted several 3D artists with a design I made. Asking if they could make it in 3D. None of them delivered. It was frustrating to need somebody to realise my ideas again. Something had to change. (hint: it was me. I had to change)
Late 2015 I played around with program called Crocotile which lets you place pixel art tiles in a 3D environment. This seemed like the perfect transition between easily understandable pixel art and the scary world of 3D interfaces. It almost looked like you could fold them because all the tiles have the same sizes. It was just cubes and cubes and cubes. I closed the program. Opened Photoshop. Made some pixel art squares and printed it on a paper. Then I folded and glued them and made this.
Something clicked when I assembled that pizza robot. The Piperoids I saw in San Francisco had been brewing in the back of my head for a long time. They got me wondering wether I could start making three-dimensional tangible things myself. I was able to make something without needing a developer, which is my greatest frustration with game making. Also I could make this with all the skills I already possessed. In 2016 I will make a whole street with robots like these. Food vendors called The O-bots. How does this relate to Mutant Gangland? Remember when I said Mutant Gangland’s current style commanded the substance? Let’s flip that.
Everything that’s awesome about Mutant Gangland’s made up universe comes from comics and toys. That’s something to consider in 2016. As part of that I want to explore the action figure realm and make Mutant Gangland action figures. That’s my resolution for 2016. For that I will have to learn 3D. Last week I started following a class at my good friends at Reptile. Next year will be full of 3D adventure. Which brings me to the last game I’ll probably do in 2D pixel art.
I did some game jamming this year and one in particular stuck out: City Crushers. a time attack game where you play a giant robot crushing cities. Made with Laurent Victorino. When the jam was over I still wanted to finish the game. In 2016 I want to make an expanded version of the game. renamed Demolitron.The reason I want to bring this out badly is because even more like Penarium this feels like a concept that came from myself rather than a large team. It’s the next logical step after Penarium. This is also the frst game in a while where I am responsible for the game design. Something I like doing even more than doing game art. Most important of all: I want to BEAT that curse of personal games not getting finished.
You might ask yourself why I don’t start learning how to code. I have been learning. I’m also terrible at it. I have some talents and programming is just not one of them. Truth is most of the time my mind is a scrambled mess. A tornado of distractions. There are some activities that manage to hypnotise me away from that tornado. Pixel art was that for me and the same counts for 3D and papercraft.
It’s been a good year for me. Having released a game that I am largely responsible for plays the big part in that and I’m proud of just finishing something for once. My resolutions for 2016 may seem silly but it signals a shift in focus. from games to toys, from 2D to 3D, from dependancy to autonomy. Mutant Gangland and O-bot figures are the most exciting projects ever right now. Something I can do all by myself. Demolitron should also see release.Of course, This is what I PLAN to do. We never really know what life will throw at us. If a nice project comes by I might jump on board. Just like that.
ATTENTION: From now on I’ll be doing regular updates about my adventures through emails. These will be more casual and personal. If you want to be on that list then enter your address below. See you in 2016!
Penarium is out. We spent over two years developing this game. I was the lead artist. It’s time to look back at the artwork and see what I did to illustrate a sadistic circus extravaganza.
The initial plan
Two years ago my friends came to me saying they wanted to make a platformer where the player was stuck in one screen. There were no enemies, the player had to dodge all kinds of deathtraps coming from the top and bottom. Also: It was set at the circus.
Honestly I wasn’t listening until I heard the word ‘circus’ and then I was instantly on board. I’m a fan of mystery stuff and the circus is one of those places that has existed before most forms of entertainment. The team’s inspiration was a feature film called Felix ‘The Cat, The Movie’. A 80’s cartoon full of experimental stuff. At one point in the movie the protagonist gets trapped into a circus led by an evil wizard. Specifically the audience was something I was told to look at. It’s a ragtag group of creepy soulless figures. The team wanted to see that scary not quite human audience back in the game. I was so on board with this. So on board.
At this point there wasn’t even a game title yet. Just a prototype which was an offspring of another prototype. A platformer where the top and bottom parts were constantly changing and where the player had to fight different kinds of enemies. I also made the mockup art for it.
But we started from scratch again. Here we were at the start of a huge complex undertaking. A videogame. Our biggest one yet. There were so many things yet to be done. Good thing people are not able to grasp the giant pile of tasks and trials that need to be solved in order to make something like this. I felt no burden at all. I just started at the beginning.
So what is the beginning? Colours! Colours decide flavour. At that time I wasn’t very good with colours so I figured I’d get that right first. What colours? There are billions of them. The lead I had was ‘old circus’ and ‘creepy’ so I dug back up a show I loved and had exactly those two ingredients; Carnivale, about a traveling circus in a 1930’s America. There was much to learn from this. We would later on in the project have discussions about what time and place Penarium is set and there is still no consensus. I myself like to place it in 1920’s Romania.
There’s no exact science telling you what colours remind people of a certain place or time. I just followed my guts, watched the show and froze the screen when a colour spoke to me. It could have been somewhere in the background. The colour of a tent canvas or a teapot. Then I’d make a ‘note’ of it by making a dot of that colour in Photoshop. Essentially ending with something that is both a palette and a mood board. This is not the scientific way.
An important question when doing pixel art is always whether or not to use outline. Having outline can increase visibility but it also flattens the grander picture. In all honesty I can’t remember why I chose to do most of the game without outline. It felt right at the time.
When people ask me about my inspiration for Penarium I say ‘Carnivale’ and the Insane Clown Posse . Twelve year old me thought that was the coolest thing. The sinister, occult universe they described in their songs always spoke to me and it stuck. Other games were Redneck Rampage for lovely sky and Blood. Which also had a dark carnival section. And then there was Dik Trom.
We wanted to create an unusual hero. One whose juxtaposition between his physique and his athletic performance would create a comical effect. This is a reference to the earliest days of silent movies when a certain genre reigned supreme: slapstick. Penarium is what you’d get if Laurel and Hardy was really brutal. In hindsight it’s mean, but at the time plus-sized male characters were more represented in cartoons and movies. Often for comical effect. The heavier person would always be the less agile, less tactile. There is however a Dutch book series in which gained popularity is the late 1800’s in which the protagonist was a heavy kid that was always up to shenanigans. This was a big contrast to the then usual obedient characters. His body type was more a display of rebellion than a comedic device at his own expense. I wanted to bring that back in Penarium.
But more importantly, we needed a character you felt sympathy for when he would die. There’s lots of dying in this game.Below is my first sprite where I felt we were on to something. I gave him a red hairdo because I have a friend who worked at a circus fair who also had red hair. It’s that simple. My friend’s name is Wilco but we call him Willy. And so the name for the game’s character was born.
I also looked at fabric. Denim was still coming in at the time but a brown pair of pants looked more suited for the time. The blue shirt was a colour straight from the palette. The bracer/suspender is a reference to Dik Trom.
I used the palette to start working on the background levels. I used wood, rope, canvas. All painted in the washed out dark reds and greens I learned from research. The early drafts were a bit too sinister. I painted a dark dark carnival but the team feared the skulls I made gave players the wrong idea. Another thing I noticed was that it was very hard for me to fill the set resolution space with pixels and that it felt too..mature. The team initially opted for a pixel art style because the gameplay resembled that of brutally unforgiving platformers from the NES/SNES days but the resolution we started in turned out to be too high to communicate that and too hard for me to fill up. It became too detailed. More so, the clear ‘broad areas of untextured colour’ style I used began to show its weak spots. We decided to cut the game’s resolution in half. This meant that I got only half a screen to fill and pixels would look even bigger in the game because it would always be rendered full screen.
That meant Willy had to be redrawn in half the size. It gave me a chance to adjust some things and etch his personality even more. There was less room for detail so only the traits that really mattered would make it through. Gone were the buckteeth and while I was at it I tried out some other ideas. The one I settled on had red hair and a blue shirt. It was just the simplest figure and felt the most ‘retro game icon’ to me. Also a striped shirt might prove more work to animate later on.
I was content with what I had until halfway into the project when we decided it might be a good idea to refine the design. The idea was to make him less square and more round. That’s when I came up with this.
This is Willy’s final form. Don’t you just want to give this kid a hug? He needs it. An idea that runs through the whole game is that the story of Willy is like the bible story of Job. A man whose faith was tested by God pouring a seemingly endless barrage of misery over him. God wanted to see when Job gave up, Penarium wants to see when the player gives up. We’re not just throwing around analogies here. I’ll get more into this in a later post.
Being almost the only two characters in the game I wanted a contrast between Willy and The Director, which during development I called Gonzo, though that is not his name in the game. On first sight The Director is everything Willy is not. He is the clear enemy and he is nothing like the player (Willy), Gonzo talks, Willy is quiet. Gonzo is tall and thin, Willy is short and broad. Gonzo has to look like obvious bad news so the cutscenes where Willy blindly follows him become even more frustrating.
Where Willy was easy to design the Director was hard. I struggled with the director because it was very hard for me to not make him look like V For Vendetta’s Guy Fawkes. The trademark signs of a circus director or ringleader are a long suit and a top hat and often a moustache. Add to that the required (boss’s orders) mask and it’s hard not to think of Guy Fawkes. I tried working without a moustache but that seemed to give the whole character less menace. I like him as a character but I have to admit most of his appeal stems from the resemblance to Guy Fawkes. It needs to be said that Gonzo was designed much later into the project than Willy and I had less time to work him out. I am curious after what would come out if I decided to redesign the character.
Character design is fun to do and having as much time as I did for designing Willy helped a lot. There are three more characters I’ll discuss in the future. One whose role was in the end reduced to a mere detail, much to my sadness. All that and more will be revealed in the following parts of Behind The Art Of Penarium.
Did I mention Penarium is out?
You can get the game on Steam.
Surprise! took part in a game jam again! That’s a surprise because I didn’t see it coming. However: I’m impulsive so when someone tweeted about looking for an artist for Gameboy Jam I signed up in an instant. The good news: It became my best jam to date. The bad news: for the first time in my life I physically experienced stress from my hobby.
Gameboy Jam is where you make a game in a short amount of time with the restriction that it has to feel like a Gameboy game. For me that comes down to using only 4 shades of green to do ALL your art with. I’ve been spying on retro Gameboy projects from the shadows and I love the challenge and look of Gameboy’s small palette. It felt like a natural thing to do after making some Mutant Gangland pieces which were already low on colour. Mostly this piece.
I proposed to do something with that big robot. I scaled it down to Gameboy size and figured it would look cool as the basis for a robot customisation screen. Then Laurent (my new buddy) said he’d see the robot doing some buildings wrecking and basically that was the game’s concept. Wreck buildings with robot. get money. Tweak robot with cash and repeat. We both knew that was a bit too ambitious for a 10 day game project but that was the plan.
First we needed mockups. The Gameboy’s screen is so small that you can’t actually fit a lot of words on a single screen and that posed a problem in the customisation screen. I had to fit in buttons and words like ‘price’, ‘effect’ and ‘confirm’. It was a wreck of a puzzle and just before I figured out it was time to rush to another area. I hadn’t even got the crushing city bit designed!
For this part the robot had to be even smaller. We shrunk it to half-size and it looked like a scribbly mess. I tried rebuilding a new one from scratch. The original was designed as a walking tank but City Crushers needed more of a construction/demolition vehicle vibe. I made some doodles (no time for details!) and tried pixeling. The result was unpleasant. I went back to the old scribbly one and decided to clean it. This means removing pixels that make it look messy. Then I added giants fists to emphasise the robot’s primary function. I’m going on so long about the robot because it fills 25% of the screen.
Now for the city. This consisted of buildings you could smash and tiles for the background. The floor. I made some mockups but something was amiss: The foreground and background blended too much. I used the colours all wrong! There was too much dark in the player and building and too much light in the tiles. Noticed that glare on the floor tiles? That’s a problem. So I had to go back and recolour the sprites so the front used the 2 lightest colours and the back used the 2 darkest.
Time flies when you do a game jam and with only 2 days to go I still had to make all the animations and design the city’s floor plan. This was such a big task that we started worrying wether we’d even have time to put in the customisation part. The idea that started this jam in the first place. We just couldn’t pull it off. We dropped it. As we so often drop really cool things in order to get the boat floating.
From here on it was just a game where you could crush a city in a time limit. I worked my butt of to get the remaining work done and somehow Laurent managed to put it all in. Then came the game’s saving grace: Global highscore leaderboards. We stayed up until 3 in the night sending back and forth emails with assets. We managed to send a build before the jam’s deadline and went straight to bed. And I felt very very relieved. It wasn’t what we envisioned but it felt game-y. This also because Joonas Turner joined in to make neat music and sound effects. On his holiday!
The next day and played the game again. I liked it. I still do because the end product transcends the feeling I fantasised a week before. I often get overwhelmed by vibes when I listen to music through my headphones. It’s where I get most of my creative charges from. It’s hard to transport those vibes to another medium but City Crushers did that. Some people even played it and battled each other on the high score chart.
I have a good feeling about this jam. Not just because of the game. Also because working with Laurent went extremely well. Game jams are sometimes made to look like fun and spontaneous endeavours but I find the very hard to do right. Truth is that a lot of people don’t click well with each other when they jam. This can be rooted in personality, project approach or thinking patterns. For me the latter is the biggest factor. Ultimately I want me and my buddy to be able to finish each other’s sentences. There’s jam people that say “Let’s put a banana in there” and their buddy goed ‘Uhh yeah! So random!” but I can’t be that person because I would shout “No! Banana was NOT in the vision!”. I had to trace back our email correspondence to check who came up with what ideas and that’s a good sign. We were on the same thinking page and that’s very rare.
But then in the evening I felt a pain in my chest. Like it was very hard to breathe and when I talked it became even harder. Like you’re constantly at the end of a long sentence. After some Googling I found out it was something I never had before: stress. I probably worked too hard and it took hold of me. It was a terrible feeling and I couldn’t believe it was stress because I had a blast of a time.
Seems you can be entertained and motivated and still get crushed if you work for too long. I’ll take it as a sign to do less long nights. My sister once told me something that always stuck with me: When your generation goes past age 30 your it walks into a minefield. People around you go down. You can go down. It’s just whoever death picks and I can feel it. My small pains and ills don’t heal like they used to anymore.
The problem is that most creative people cannot feel comfortable doing nothing and never want to disappoint their peers. Joonas offered to make sound and music at the start of his holiday. Laurent worked until 03:00 while he had to wake up for work at o7:30. That’s crazy and I would’ve done exactly the same. Creative people say ‘yes’ to something in an impulse and it always ends up being more work then expected because they just won’t accept showing an ‘acceptable’ product. We want to impress and entertain people. That is a curse that will stick with us for the rest of our lives and the best we can do is damage control on how much time we spend on our work. For it will never ever be finished.
ANYWAY: You can play and vote for City Crushers to win the jam here.
DISCLAIMER: This is not all-around advice for all GDC people. It’s how I personally dealt with going to this conference as a visitor, and a relative newcomer to the industry.
I rested well before going to GDC.
Last year I prepared to a certain point, but it turned out that business cards and hotel reservations are just details. My best move this year was to get the stuff at home that I wouldn’t get at the conference and that is rest. Rest is GDC’s rarest currency. Even if you can resist the urge to relentlessly go out and socialize, there are many things that can keep you from resting, like noisy hotel neighbours or jetlag or just being freaking hyped. If you don’t get rest you get sick. The week before GDC I just slept well and didn’t do many things. It worked.
I stopped being bent on meeting people.
Even if you’re not able to rest before there are ways to save your energy. GDC is a social carousel that you’ll be compelled to jump into. Being in the same spot as “all” the game people in the world is a great opportunity. The shadow of that is that staying in your hotel room feels like a waste of that opportunity. Even if it’s to do things like showering, breakfast and napping. The pull to constantly go out and “connect” with people is strong with me but it’s a battle I can’t win. GDC is not all the fun in one place. It’s all the fun spread all over a giant city, and somehow they didn’t let you in on it. Last year that hit me so hard that I just had to give up caring about it. Once you let that go you can divide your time the way you want. It’s pretty much like Bob Marley said “You can meet some GDC people some time but you can’t meet all of them all the time”.
I gave up on social media.
Whatever feeling you have about being left out will be amplified a thousand-fold by checking up on things like Twitter. When somebody tweets that another guy owes him 50 dollars all I can think is “Okay what the hell am I missing now?”. I think putting inside jokes on an outside medium is alienating. During GDC Twitter and Facebook will be full of that shit. I stayed away from it as much as I could and used Twitter mostly as a slow chatbox for meeting with friends.
I stopped respecting people’s status.
It’s very easy to walk into people who you look up to and it can uncontrollably change the way you step into a conversation with them. People can feel that and they don’t like it. Deep down everybody longs for success and status but once you have it, it seems like everybody wants something from you and that’s hard to deal with. I had an encounter with a guy that made a hugely popular game and he seemed prickly in every interaction I had with him. I had no idea who he was but I offered him a napkin and he just frowned like I was a lepper begging for money. For this guy status was a new thing and he dealt with it by adding barbwire around himself. I can’t afford to worry about what these people think of me and I just stopped asking or finding out what they do or who they are. I don’t chase them. I don’t stare at them. I just hang out with people I have fun with and that’s it. Even famous people poop and pee and smell if they don’t shower. You get the best conversations with people if you don’t know who they are.
I started using being alone as a tool.
Conversations, new faces, new names, new topics. There’s a ton of things coming at you at a typical GDC day and you need to process all that stuff. There’s no shame in being alone and isolated once in a while. I even benefit from it. Take it as a moment to let things seep in. Take a nap. Go somewhere and have a meal by your own. Maybe take a day off and visit a part of the city to wander around. Treat yourself!
I stopped caring about parties.
For 5 days straight there are parties going on every single night. At the end afternoon “What party are you going to” is the question going around and it’s a tiring thing to be bothered with. It’s fun to have something to do but you shouldn’t overvalue these things. People will always make it look more exciting than it actually is. It’s hard to pick which party to go to as there are always many happening at once. You’ll always miss some fun somewhere. You might meet a couple of nice people but I think parties are not the best way to do that. Thanks to loud music you often have to raise your voice to make yourself heard. Dirty trick: Just go to the party when it’s about to end. It’s not a problem if you don’t have an invite. Just stand at the exit as people poor out to have smokes or snacks. By that time most of them are a bit tipsy thus more open and honest. You might get some nice chats out of it.
I stopped asking people what they do.
This is a bit of a freaky trick but it worked for me. I noticed that “So what do you do?” is a crippling question for some. It can be taken it as a status check. As if it implies you want to see if they are worthy of your time or not. It can lead to a bad start of a conversation, A moment where people think they have to hold a mini presentation about themselves. I experimented with skipping that question and going for the blunt and piercing “So what is your agenda?”. People don’t expect it but it leads to surprisingly honest answers as if it is the moment people take their mask off and become themselves. This is especially the case on the expo floor where a lot of people walk around looking for work or represent a company. I still may very well be viewed by people as a weirdo though.
And those are the cheats I used to survive GDC. All of them are related to lettings things go to preserve energy. GDC sucks up physical and emotional strength. I feel like I learned to sail through that by dropping all excess baggage, and honestly I had a good time. I met some nice people. It’s hard to measure this in actual payoff but at this rate I assume next GDC will be even better. Like in gaming. You get better at it with every try. Just make peace with the fact that you are just one person. You cannot be everywhere at once and you don’t have to. You are not alone in feeling alone.
This year I worked on Mutant Gangland and Penarium and it was awesome. It was a good year for me. The following sums it up: ￼
8: Going to GDC for the first time. I guess
Boy, was I disappointed in GDC. It’s just not what it’s cracked up to be. People on social media will have you believe it’s the most joyful thing ever with their selfies and their inside jokes but that wasn’t my experience. Every evening was super stressful because there were parties all over town and I just always felt like I was missing out. It’s like new year’s eve five nights in a row. It’s not for me. I don’t even like parties. I did meet a few nice people and it was interesting to see a new city. I guess it deserves a place on this list because of how big an experience this was. Otherwise, I couldn’t find 8 significant moments. I’m also probably going again next year. Enough for the sour stuff. The rest of the list is happy stuff. I promise. ￼
7: Getting a new console
I know this is shallow but I just love unboxing game consoles. When I was 8 and got a NES on Xmas, I freaked out, ran out of the house and went screaming on the streets. Ever since then, I try to recreate that moment. It’s never going to be that intense anymore but unboxing a new console will always be special. During previous console generations I was not very big with money and only got a game machine after it had been out for years. Somehow I always missed noticing their releases but I was extremely excited about getting a PS4. Maybe so hard that I actually tricked myself into wanting it. I wanted a new new PS4 and I got mine. That smell of new plastic is amazing. ￼
6: Realising how much experience I gained over a year
Two years ago we released Paper Vs Paper, a game you probably don’t know because we did a crappy job at promoting it. We were fresh out of school and somehow had the idea that we could put it on the app store and email people about it until it started selling. That was naive. There was a moment when we were far along with Penarium where I though “Man were we a bunch of idiots when working on Paper Vs Paper”. Somehow that cheered me up.￼
5: Putting Mutant Gangland online and actually selling units
Mutant Gangland has become a very personal project I can fill up with everything I like about action figures, Robots, Ninja turtles, and apocalypse stories. I honestly believed that when we put the game on itch.io maybe ten people would buy it but it’s a little bit more than that. I often check out the names of people and it’s not just friends of friends anymore. It’s complete strangers thinking “this might be worth my money” and that feels like a signal that we are making a proper game here. It might sound superficial but I wouldn’t know if I was equally enthusiastic about Mutant Gangland if we sold 0 copies. But we do sell and I’m super pumped to make a big release in 2015. ￼
4: The moment Penarium pieces fell into place
At one point a game is just a bunch of moving objects and at another point it’s a game, a product, an orchestra of arts that together create magic. Sometimes the transition between those moment is unclear but in the case of Penarium it was when the sound effects and music were in. Our sound man is a wizard and when we loaded the game for the first time with audio we were very very happy. There’s something awesome about trying your game for the 100th time and finally, BOOM it rocks. ￼
3: Signing a deal with a publisher
WE knew that Penarium is a fun game but we actually rang quite a few doorbells with it and it took a while before they started opening. Then we started worrying. Not because our game might be bad but because the outside world had their eyes full of shit and couldn’t see how awesome it is. Team17 was enthusiastic from the start. We felt good about them. A nice bunch and a name I look up to. For us signing with a publisher was signing a treaty that said “look, we think your game is so good that we’re actually going to spend money on it. We trust you.” Also, I can’t wait to one day come home, turn on my console and buy my own game. ￼
2: Picking up drawing again
In 2009 I took concept art seminars. The huge amount of stuff you need to learn to become an artist scared the shit out of me. I decided I did not want to be a concept artist and focused on other things. Since then my sketchbooks became less filled with drawings and more with scribbles of game mechanics. It was a shame though. I loved the idea of Penarium right away and researched circus life and aesthetics. I had trouble transporting that directly to pixels. I just couldn’t get it right in Photoshop. That’s when I discovered my sketchbook again. Countless sketches of clowns, tents, monkeys, and directors came out. Not just that but also robots, monsters, and spaceships just for the fun of it. Now the year is almost over, the book is almost full and I often look through it feeling proud as if I reclaimed something I left behind for no good reason. Welcome back, Drawing.￼
1: Pitching a game to Nintendo
I can’t believe we actually got to present our game to a number of important folks from Nintendo. I look up to Nintendo and its people. We were quite nervous. The introductions were awkward as we gave them our business cards Japanese style (bowing, two hands) and the Japanese handed theirs western style (one hand, eye contact). We presented Penarium, they played it and seemed to like it. Then there was a round for questions from our side. I asked them if there was going to be a sequel to Advance Wars. They all laughed and then there was a silence. I think that’s a “yes, secretly”. One minute later a Japanese boss read what his translator wrote and it made him chuckle. I feel like this was the man who might know more.Business-wise this meeting did not leave a lot of ripples but for me it was significant in the sense that I presented my game to freaking Nintendo! Words like ‘Nintendo’ ‘Flappy Bird’ and ‘Angry Birds’ are things family and friends understand. They know I “make games” but saying “Uncle Joe, I just came back from a meeting with Nintendo” became my way of saying “look, I’m not playing around anymore”. I’m serious. I’m playing with power now. ￼
As for next year, I look forward to seeing my first game on a shelf when I happen to walk around in a store. It would also be great to finish Mutant Gangland although making games costs a lot of time. With all that behind, look here’s a new Penarium development log.
Yup. Even after all the time I spend on making Penarium and Mutant Gangland I still have the energy to play games when I come home. How can I not? It’s fun! Here are some reviews. I’ll keep it short. I did this before. Here are part 1 and part 2.
A warm and stylish visual coat laid over a set of mechanics that somehow just not represent the game’s story in any way.
Shadow Of Mordor
Being a powerful death machine is hardly ever challenging but does invoke creative sadist planning and that’s fun.
A muddy maze of a city sucked me in and made me forget that it sadly falls short as a stealth game, But only for so long.
Assassin’s Creed; Black Flag
It’s telling that the series’ sidestep to sailing and pirating is more fun than any of the series’ trademark mechanics.
Wolfenstein New Order
Cut scenes and characters well above standards on top of a shooting game that is simple, Brutal, And effective.
Digging deeper and growing stronger is compelling enough even without its lovely setting.
An undemanding mellow stream of impulse with always something new to walk to and always some new to hear.
Sniper Elite III
Strong alert guards that see you from the corner of their eyes plus open levels make this the ultimate stealth game.
After a while the wonderful illusion of a pulsing techno world falls apart and a solid superstructure of minigames remains.
With short matches and twists at every turn this could be the card game of the future.
That was it. Also; Somewhere long ago I apparently had the time to play Fallout. Take a good look at this lifetime achievement. Yup. That’s a lot of hours. I’m amazed by how proud I am of this. Achievements really do feel like achievements to me.
Good news! Me and my friends have agreed with Team17 to publish Penarium. Being on the project from the start by doing all the artwork and seeing it evolve was pretty cool. The fact that a big company has the faith to put their name on it is also cool. I’m proud but I have to say that it hasn’t really sinked in yet. Probably because we have so much stuff to do yet. I will tell you how it was for me as an artist.
About a year ago my friend and former-classmate Rick came to me with a neat idea for a platformer game in a dark circus theme. I was instantly excited because the 19th century circus has always intrigued me, Especially in video games. It’s a place where weirdness meets fear and nostalgia, A nostalgia for a time I never even lived in. I thought “Yes, We should make this game together.”
It was time to start pixelating but where did I start? The colours. For my pixel art I use a limited number of colours. I’t maker for small files and easier restyling if needed. I figured I needed some colours that were associated with the theme. Which is the 20’s if I wanted to get the game’s theme across. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is a colour linked with a time period. It’s very subjective. Generally if you watch a movie and you see a colour in the background or on somebody’s dress and it hits you then that’s a good indication that you’re on the right track. I myself got hit a lot when I watched the TV show Carnivale which is about a circus traveling the US in the 1930’s.
I paid attention to the things happening in the background. Stopped the screen and took color notes (which is just picking a color in Photoshop). With those colours I started working on the game’s player sprite. We wanted to create an unusual hero. One whose juxtaposition between his physique and his athletic performance would create a comical effect but most important: One you felt sympathy for when he would die. I created a round shaped character in the line of Laurel and Hardy. Slapstick is a form of comedy from another age but it’s very present in Penarium. There are so many ways the player can come to an end and so Penarium is kinda what you’d get if Laurel and Hardy was really really brutal. I gave him a red hairdo because I have a friend who worked at a circus fair who also had red hair. Yes. It’s just that simple. My friends name is Wilco, We call him Willy. And so the name for the game’s character was born.
Then there was the level background. It had to be circus-like and there had to be some audience. I started pixelating everything and it took a while for me to get something nice on the screen. At first I tried to draw everything on a big canvas of 800×600. but I wasn’t good enough at pixel art to bring detail to such a giant screen. It would be a lot of work. I proposed to make the game 400×300 instead and just scale up every pixel to twice its size. We did. And the game got its current chunky pixel look. First I tried to make some indoor levels. With a circus tent an all. Didn’t really work. Then I tried to do an outdoor level at night because this game was going to be ‘dark’. It worked for a while and we developed and tested the game for quite some time with a beautiful nighttime level with spotlights and lit-up clouds and a starry heaven. And for a time all was good.
Then. After a while, As if fate demanded it. We started questioning it again. We asked “Is this right?”. It was not right. At that time we did not know what platform Penarium was going to be released upon but we would want to showcase our game on events to potential investors. The quickest way to do that was to have the game ready on our phone so we could whip it out during a conversation. I figured that if this game was going to be mobile then we needed to change the level background. Mobile players have to be able to play their games anywhere anytime, That means outside during the day. That means screen glare. The nighttime level wouldn’t cause the screen to light up enough so people would have trouble seeing what’s going on at the screen. We changed it to a bright daytime level.
I make it sound like smooth sailing don’t I? For the most part this project is fun to work on but I had my share of nightmares! Like the old animation system. To amplify the sense of spectacle we aim to make the player’s demise visually gruesome. It was my job to make a separate specific death animation for every single obstacle in the game. Imagine a guy being blown to pieces by a rocket. There’s blood and body parts flying in every direction. Right? The problem was that these animations could only fit in a very small frame. I spent a long hard week making about 20 different animations while biting my knuckles out of frustration with the small frame. And then we used none of them. Was I mad? No.
We tested it but found out that with this fast-paced platformer there were a lot of situations where the death animations did not cope with the the moment. After that I just made a separate head, separate limbs and some body parts, Which we call ‘gibs’, and we put it in the game. This time we let the game do the animation. For example: When Willy gets hit by a giant bowling ball the game calculates how hard he gets hit and from what direction. Then it lets blood and gibs fly around based on that. It’s a rough version of physics we apply to a lot of things in the game. Like our water. But that is a story for another time.
More things like these tend to pop up over a game’s production but there are three things that pull me through this: I like the setting of the game. I like the people I work with and I think Penarium is a super fun game to play. If any joy or despair comes up I will certainly share it on Twitter. See you in the circus.