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PC Game Review – Glum Buster
Apr 29th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

Gameplay: 7/10 Graphics: 7/10 Sound: 8/10 Originality: 10/10 Overall: 8/10

glum

“Cheer up, dear friend, or they may come, and take you where the glum is from.”

So begins this enjoyable adventure in weirdness. The meaning of the phrase becomes clear in the first scene, in which you, the protagonist, slink along in your raincoat, clearly miserable, while the children dance and play in the rain around you. As you slog slowly across the screen, a shadowy version of yourself appears in the background and opens a dark doorway in space, which sucks you in to a strange, surreal and dreary world – presumably where glum is from.

After that, you’re more or less on your own. The game occasionally gives you hints about how to do simple, commonplace things, like passing through a portal, but other than that, you’re left to discover what you’re supposed to be trying to do, and how, on your own. If the challenges themselves were difficult, once understood, the lack of explanation could be construed as unfair, but here, it’s the whole point of the game. Although it’s essentially a platformer, minimal reflexes are required. Nor is conventional logic going to help you solve the puzzles; what’s required in Glum Buster is patience, an inquisitive spirit, and the willingness to suspend disbelief.

At a loss for how to explain what the game’s like without actually spoiling one of the puzzles, I finally decided that I would just have to invent one, in what I feel is close to the game designer’s spirit. Imagine you’re the raincoat-clad protagonist and, having spent the last few levels floating in a void, you’ve finally found yourself in a place that has some semblance of gravity, in a high-walled valley with no apparent escape, featureless except for a lamppost and a dead tree. A shadowy bee buzzes around, and incongruously placed on the highest bough of the tree is a flower pot. You can’t reach the flower pot, nor can you seem to hurt the bee, who follows you wherever you go and kills you if he catches you.

At first, you have no idea what to do, until you notice that the bee isn’t always following you. Sometimes he moves away briefly. Confused, you roam the screen, keeping an eye on him, until you realize that it’s whenever you pass through the beam of light cast by the lamp that the bee turns around and moves the other way. Figuring all these strange objects must be connected, and because you can’t reach the flower pot yourself, you decide to try to maneuver the bee into it, by alternately attracting and repelling it by moving in and out of the light. After a few attempts you succeed, whereupon the shadowy bee grows, and changes into a glowing bird, which alights on the ground and allows you to ride it. You soar up and over the valley wall, and on to… some equally bizarre scenario.

I don’t think this game would do very well as a commercial title, but as a freeware art piece, it’s much more fun than most, and definitely evokes the dreamlike feel that was the author’s stated goal – “a collection of my daydreams, for your daydreams.” Although I didn’t rate it particularly highly in terms of graphics and sound, this is simply because they’re minimalist, and neither great nor terrible by objective standards – as far as the game’s feel goes, they’re just about perfect. My only complaint in terms of mood is actually the name of the game itself; the term “buster” suggests to me a more colorful and action-oriented game, rather than this slow-paced and moody art piece.

In terms of the gameplay, my biggest complaint is the complete lack of help up front. Although figuring out what to do is the whole fun of the game, at least knowing how to control your character would have avoided some frustration up front. At the very least, I would have liked to know that I was meant to be using both the mouse and the keyboard; as only the keyboard is used in the introduction sequence, I took the blue jewel-like mouse cursor to be an interactive object, not part of the interface. After ten minutes of trying unsuccessfully to solve the first level, I was about to quit, until I moved the mouse by mistake and realized what I was looking at. Once I knew that I could move around with the arrow keys and interact with the environment and enemies by left and right clicking on things, I was happy to figure everything else out on my own… but I might have missed out on this neat little game entirely if I had never realized that the mouse was used anywhere other than the menus.

The game is apparently short – about five hours of gameplay is what I’ve heard, though I’ve probably only played for one or two – but it is effectively free, so you don’t have to take that into consideration when deciding whether to play it. The actual revenue model is what the author terms “charityware,” meaning that he’s depending on donations, and will donate an ever-increasing portion of the proceeds to charity, about 50% at first, and a larger percentage the more donations he gets. Since donations are entirely optional, I highly recommend giving this game a try; you might not play all the way through, but I imagine the imagery will speak to most players on some level. If you do decide to pay something for it, you can of course feel good in the knowledge that you’re helping both a talented hobbyist developer and some sort of charitable cause.

Dominion – Card Combos and Strategies
Apr 28th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

In my review of the card game Dominion I explained that the game’s depth comes from the interplay between the different Action cards, and stated that I would be posting a strategy guide to describe my findings about what cards increase or decrease the value of others.

First, I’ll briefly describe each of the cards, in alphabetical order, and give a general suggestion of what other types of cards they affect. After that, I’ll discuss some combos that I’ve found particularly effective.

Adventurer: Like any card-drawing Action, Adventurer is most useful when you already have a strong deck. Since it guarantees that the cards drawn will be money cards, it’s best when you have a deck full of high-valued cash. Thus, it’s best to buy it late in the game, and works well with cards that either remove Copper from your deck, or add Silver and Gold, thus Chapel, Moneylender, Mine and Bureaucrat.

Bureaucrat: One of the most powerful cards – it is primarily valuable for adding Silver to your deck, and thus works well early in the game, especially if followed up with e.g. Adventurer later. Its secondary function is more useful later in the game, when players are more likely to have a great number of Victory point cards – it is also thus a good card to have when the Witch is in the game, as it keeps your own money-to-VP ratio high, while slowing your opponents down by forcing them to draw their Curse cards twice.

Cellar: Compensates for a deck with many weak cards. Useful when the Witch is in the game. Also particularly useful with Library, as Cellar reduces your hand size, while Library replenishes it.

Chancellor: Mostly useful early in the game. Isn’t greatly affected one way or another by other cards, though perhaps less useful when the Witch is present, as it will mean shuffling Curses back into one’s deck.

Chapel: A difficult card to use well. Mostly useful when the Witch is in the game, but also for rapidly “gearing up” one’s deck early on, by removing Estates and Coppers. In this latter use, works well with anything used to draw cards, e.g. Laboratory and Smithy. The trouble is that it becomes a useless card once all other low-valued cards have been removed, so it works well with Remodel, the only other card which can get rid of it once it’s outlived its use.

Council Room: Like Smithy, has the problem of providing many cards, but no extra Actions. Best used in decks that are either light in Actions, or when preceded by Village or Festival. Spy also helps, as it allows you to make sure the extra card given to your opponents isn’t too helpful to them.

Feast: Mostly useful either very late in the game (when buying Duchies becomes important) or if there are more good 5-cost choices than 4-cost. Extremely useful with Throne Room, however.

Festival: Best used in decks that are already powerful, but too full of Actions. Ideally to be used as part of a chain of Actions leading to 13+ money for the purchase phase, to take best advantage of the extra Buy.

Garden: Overpowered, in my opinion, particularly in 2- and 3-player games. Almost always at least as good as Duchy, but cheaper. Particularly good when used with anything that adds cards to players’ decks – thus Workshop, Witch, and anything with +1 Buy.

Militia: Good card in general, but not if other players have Libraries. Also, its effects don’t stack, so generally it’s best to buy only one, and not if several other players have already purchased them.

Laboratory: Almost never bad. Particularly valuable in conjunction with Spy, Throne Room and/or Village, but a good addition to any deck whatsoever.

Library: Confusing card to use. No better than e.g. Smithy in most decks, but compensates for anything that reduces hand size, e.g. Cellar in one’s own deck, Militia in the opponents’. When used in combination with cards that grant extra actions (e.g. Village or Festival), the fact that it’s optional to set aside Actions becomes significant – it can allow you to filter your deck to get your best Actions. Either way, it’s best used when one’s deck has become Action-heavy.

Market: Good general-purpose card, though usually slightly inferior to Laboratory, unless one’s deck is so strong that one is likely to have 13+ money in the purchase phase, so that the extra Buy can be most effectively put to use.

Mine: One of the more powerful cards in general. Particularly good in conjunction with Adventurer. Not as good if Moneylender is used, as the latter will be useless once all Coppers have been removed or turned into Silver. Also somewhat redundant with Chapel.

Moat: Obviously good in games with many powerful Attack cards, particularly Witch, and to a lesser extent Thief and Militia. Spy and Bureaucrat are less important to defend against.

Moneylender: Tricky to use, as its main advantage is the removal of Copper from one’s deck, but it becomes useless once there is none left. Not recommended unless also playing with Remodel (as the Moneylender can then be Remodeled into Gold or an Adventurer).

Remodel: Excellent all-around card, especially for turning money cards into Victory Points in the endgame. Compensates for any other card which tends to outlive its usefulness, such as Chapel, Workshop or Moneylender. Also offsets the power of the Witch, as Curses can be remodeled, though Chapel is generally more useful for this purpose, if available.

Smithy: Harder to use than most beginners think, given the simplicity of its effects. The main problem is that it doesn’t grant extra Actions, so the cards drawn often go to waste unless they are money cards. Particularly useful in combination with Village or Festival, for this reason.

Spy: Deceptively useful card, mostly because it’s essentially a freebie, granting +1 Card and +1 Action. Great in conjunction with any other card-drawing Action, as it allows you to have some control over what you draw in the current turn (which, knowing the rest of your hand, is more useful than controlling what you draw the next turn). Also especially useful if everyone has many useless cards in their decks, for instance if the Witch is in the game.

Thief: Less threatening than it appears, unless most players have decks consisting of a lot more Gold and Silver than Copper. Thus, primarily useful in games where other players’ strategies involve the Moneylender, Mine and/or Chapel.

Throne Room: Obviously, more useful in Action-heavy decks. Good with most cards, except Cellar, Chancellor, Chapel, Militia and Library. Particularly good with some of the high-powered cards, such as Adventurer, Laboratory and Witch.

Village: The extra actions are obviously most useful in an Action-heavy deck, particularly one which also includes a lot of card-drawing Actions, e.g. Smithy and Library. Somewhat redundant with Festival, and less useful in decks that are likely to be full of cards other than Actions, e.g. if the player has Bureaucrat and/or the opponents have Witch.

Witch: Very powerful and frustrating for one’s opponents. Often the defining feature of a game in which she’s present. Particularly brutal when used in conjunction with Throne Room. Counteracted by Adventurer, Chapel, Remodel and Moat. Makes Bureaucrat and Spy more effective, both to enhance her effects on opponents, and reduce her effects on oneself.

Woodcutter: Hard to use well – the extra Buy is more likely to be useful late in the game, but generally one doesn’t want to be adding 3-cost Actions to one’s deck later on. Sometimes good in conjunction with e.g. Village and Adventurer, but Festival + Adventurer + (some other action) is generally going to be a more useful combination than Village + Woodcutter + Adventurer.

Workshop: Useful, but dangerous, as the result can be an excessively Action-heavy deck. Best used to purchase Spy, if available, as that is the one 4-cost Action that grants both +1 Action and +1 Card and thus will almost never be a bad draw.

—–

My favourite combinations:

Throne Room + Cellar + Library: Ordinarily, Throne Rooming a Cellar isn’t great, but it is when you follow it up with Library. Getting two rounds of discarding-redrawing gives you a high probability of making a strong hand. Meanwhile, the fact that you’re reduced to three cards is no problem, since the Library will fill you right back up to seven. Finally, the doubling of the Cellar means that you’ll have an Action left over, so you can take advantage of the Library’s optional ability to set aside Actions, keeping only the best one to use afterwards. You’re almost guaranteed to be able to purchase a Province this way.

Workshop -> Moneylender + Remodel -> Adventurer: Moneylender and Remodel are a great combination in general – after using the Moneylender to remove all the Copper from one’s deck, one can then Remodel the now-useless Moneylenders. Conveniently, they remodel into something of up to 6 cost, i.e. an Adventurer, perfect to take advantage of your now Copper-free deck. This combo can be improved upon still further by starting off by purchasing a Workshop, which will get you all the Moneylenders and Remodels you need. And once your deck becomes saturated with them, you can then Remodel the Workshop itself into something more valuable, such as a Laboratory.

Throne Room + Witch: Self-explanatory.

Spy + Laboratory: Especially if enhanced with the presence of e.g. Throne Room, Cellar or other card-drawing cards, these two make it very easy to get a “run” going, in which you play repeated copies of both to go through a big chunk of your deck in a single turn, often resulting in being able to purchase a Province.

Village/Festival + Council Room + Militia: The council room’s main downside is the fact that it allows your opponents to draw a card as well; this is neatly compensated for by the Militia’s power.

Basic forms of 2D digital art
Apr 24th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

When I’m approached by developers to do art for a game, one of the first questions I ask is how they want me to work, since I’m a generalist at most things, including art, and work in a variety of media. Many developers aren’t quite sure what the difference is between the methods of working, either because it’s their first time hiring an artist, or because their previous freelancers were specialists in one method.

pixelPixel art is the most precise of the three. It involves deliberately choosing the color of every single pixel. All the old 8-bit games used pixel art because they had no choice, due to the limited palette. People still use it when they want either a retro, or an ultra-crisp look. It’s best used for sprites and tilesets, especially when you either want them really tiny, or else to have swappable palettes. E.g. this super hero only uses 11 colors, so if you want the player to be able to customize his skin and clothing colors, that’s very easy to do at runtime.

Usually pixel art is used for small things, but of course you see some people doing bigger pieces.

Large pixel art pieces are of course very time-consuming and expensive.

paintingDigital painting, as you’d imagine, is much like regular painting, just done digitally, usually in Photoshop. It’s often confused with pixel art by non-artists, who don’t realize that even large pixel art pieces literally involve placing most pixels one-by-one, working at a very high magnification. With digital painting, on the other hand, you use larger, softer brushes and sketch out large parts of the image first before adding detail. Everything ends up softer, the palette is unrestricted, but there’s less usually less fine detail.

Of course, Photoshop being what it is, a knowledgeable user can exploit its capabilities to “cheat” a lot, like I did on this guy’s hair and the water. If you read the art tutorial posts here on my blog, you’ll see some of the techniques I use to avoid doing stuff by hand and thus save my clients money.

vectorVector art, on the other hand, is done in Adobe Illustrator or similar programs, not Photoshop. In a vector, the image data is contained as a bunch of vertices with mathematically defined curves (called Bezier curves) connecting them. As such, you tend to get either large solid areas of color (sort of like some less detailed pixel art) or smooth gradients. Vector art is quite often crisp and cartoony, with clean edges and not much detail.

One advantage of vector art is that, because the image data is held in mathematical terms rather than pixels, it doesn’t have a size. When you “rasterize” the image, i.e. convert it into a raster, or pixel-based form, you can set the size and resolution to be whatever you want, with no loss of sharpness, as a Bezier curve is smooth and continuous at all scales.

Digital Painting Tutorial – Using Photos
Apr 23rd, 2009 by AlexWeldon

When I posted the beginning of my texture tutorial last week. I talked about how not to use photos to create a texture. I said that taking a photo of the texture you’re trying to make and applying a single filter results in something that is obviously a processed photo, and not a hand-painted texture. Here’s the image I used as an example:

How not to create a texture

How not to create a texture

Now we’re going to learn the right way to do create a texture quickly and easily from photos, without making it look like that’s how you made it. The first secret is in the pluralization of the word “photos” in that last sentence. Just as multiple filters produce a less recognizably “Photoshopped” look than a single filter, multiple photos produce a less photographic effect than a single photo.

The photos don’t even need to be of the same thing you’re trying to produce, they just need to contain the same sort of shapes and patterns found in it. Here, I’m trying to make stone, so I’m going to use the following photos:

Four textures

Four textures

I’m going to use the tree bark to create streaks, the sand to create grit, the wall to provide lumps, and the cracked earth to add cracks. If you’re going to work this way, you don’t want to have to leave the house to take photos every time you need a texture. Rather, you should create a big collection of texture photos, by snapping a shot of any interesting textures you find on your walks. Because we’re not using the photos as-is, the quality doesn’t need to be good at all… you can get away with just a pocket-sized digital camera, so get in the habit of carrying one with you.

Now that I’ve picked the photos I’m going to use, let’s get started. The first thing is to create a canvas of the appropriate size (much bigger than the amount of finished texture you actually need, so you can pick the best parts) and fill it with a base color. I’m just working at 100×100 for this tutorial, and I chose a medium gray with a slight reddish-brown tint. Next, we start layering on the texture.

The trick is to use Photoshop’s Threshold tool, under the Adjustments menu. What this does is convert your image to one-bit black and white. You can adjust the threshold to bring out the aspect of the texture that you’re looking for, remembering that you can choose to use either the white pixels OR the black pixels, or both. Here’s the tree bark, with Threshold applied at two different settings. Notice the different character of each:

bark_thresh

Now we drag these images onto our texture canvas. For the first step, I just want to add light and dark streaks and some color variation, so, using these two versions of the bark, I set the Layer Modes to Lighten and Darken, respectively. I also reflected, rotated, inverted and stretched the Lighten layer, until I got the right look. I then go to Hue/Saturation, tick colorize, and adjust the settings until I get something that looks good. Now my image looks like this:

Step 1

Step 1


It’s actually looking pretty good already. If this was going in the distant background, I could probably just Gaussian Blur it, maybe Median and/or Unsharp Mask, and use it as is. Let’s assume that I want something a bit more detailed, however.

The next step is to add some light and shadow to create a more tangible texture to the stone. We’re going to use the lumpy wall, of course, and again, we apply Threshold. First, however, I decided I wanted a more directional grain to the stone, so I stretched and rotated the image a bit before applying Threshold.

To create light and shadow, I deleted the white pixels (using magic wand, which works perfectly when used on an image with Threshold applied) and then added a Bevel/Emboss layer style, adjusting the settings until I got this:

Lumps

Lumps

Note that I added some color to the highlights – this looks better than pure white. Use whatever colour is appropriate to the lighting in your image. Dragging this into my image and setting the opacity to 50%, I get the following result:

Step 2

Step 2

For a further subtle improvement, I decided to use the sand to create speckled color variations. I applied Threshold as usual, then used the magic wand to select first the black pixels, then the white, and make each a different color. I dragged this onto my textured image and set the Layer Mode to Hue, so that I’m only changing the hue of the pixels below, not their value or saturation, which would destroy much of the detail I’ve created. I also turned the opacity down to 66% so that there is a wider range of hues in the finished texture. Here’s the result after this step:

Step 3

Step 3

As stated beforehand, the effect is very subtle. If this were not a texture to be used in a prominent location, I wouldn’t bother doing this, or would find a way to make the effect stronger. At this point, we could call our texture done, or we could continue playing around with it.

If you want it to look more like it was painted by hand, you can use some of the techniques of the last tutorial, applying a slight Motion Blur (not to create grain like last time, only to give an angle to our “brush strokes”), then using Median and Unsharp Mask to create a fake “painted” look.

Painted?

Painted?

Alternately (or additionally), we could use our cracked earth image the same way we used the lumps, except with the Bevel/Emboss set to Down, instead of Up. This way, we can create cracks in the stone. Here’s how that looks:

Cracks

Cracks

Like last time, the key is experimentation. By using lots of different photos and lots of different layer modes, layer styles, colors and effects, you can discover all sorts of textures. They won’t always turn out exactly as you wanted, but as I said in the previous tutorial, remembering what you did and what the results were will allow you to work more quickly the next time. Keep notes, if you’re the type to do so. You can also combine these techniques with those discussed in the previous tutorial, adding detail by hand if you don’t have the right photo for the task, or creating a texture by scribbling, then using one or two photos to add an extra level of detail.

Density, not volume
Apr 22nd, 2009 by AlexWeldon

People have often wondered why artists continue to write, or paint, or engage in any other creative endeavor, when there have already been far more books published, paintings painted, etc., than one could possibly consume in a lifetime. Isn’t that a bit like continuing heap food on the dinner table when all the guests have already declared themselves too full to eat another bite?

The answer to that question is also one of the secrets of good design.

Newcomers to any form of art or design often make the mistake of looking at their work and asking “What can I add to make it better?”More often, the question they should be asking is “What should I take away?”

For the recipient, what matters is not the volume of information contained in a piece, but rather its density – how much fun, pleasure, knowledge or inspiration they can extract per second that they spend in contact with your work. To understand this, refer back to the original question: there is always more out there. If you were stuck on an airplane with only one thing to read, perhaps you would prefer a decent novel to a great short story, but for most of our lives, especially in these days of the Internet, art and information are like an all-you-can-eat buffet, and the goal is not to find the most filling items, since getting full is inevitable, but rather to taste as many of the most delicious items as possible before that saturation point is reached.

What this means is that although you can improve your piece by adding to it – provided what you’re adding is better than the average quality of the piece so far – often subtraction is the better solution. This doesn’t always mean you have to take things out, though certainly trimming the fat is one way to improve a piece. The best thing you can do is to find ways to combine elements and make each detail serve multiple purposes.

In writing, this is what they mean by “show, don’t tell.” Convey your message through nuance, rather than spelling it out. It’s also why wordplay, connotation and nuance are so important to a professional copywriter, particularly with things like slogans and taglines – if you can use one word to say two things, that makes a big difference when the piece in question is only five words long.

In visual art, it can be layers of symbolism, composition, the use of colours, and so on.

These are old art forms, though, so these ideas of density and “less is more” are very familiar to any experienced professional. However, it’s overlooked all too often when it comes to game design, which is, all things considered, a very young field. Particularly in the world of digital gaming, the popular belief – both in terms of technology and game content – seems to be that more is more. Every AAA game nowadays has to be 3D and implement the latest graphical effects, has to have sprawling levels and tons of different items and enemies, multiple gameplay mechanics (nothing is ever just an action game, or just a puzzle game, or just an RPG anymore), and so on. Every platform that comes out has to have a more complicated controller than the last, and even the simpler games use most the buttons just because they’re there.

Nintendo seems to be the first to realize the wrong-headedness of the industry, and has started to come back the other way with the Wii. Love it or hate it, you have to realize they’re on to something. Likewise, the casual games industry for PC, for all its faults, does at least understand the merits of simple game with a single set of mechanics.

It’s not that games are getting worse with time, it’s that early titles were forced to keep things simple and try to focus on tight gameplay (though many failed miserably, of course), simply because the technology wasn’t there to do anything more elaborate. It can be likened to writing a story on a napkin – you could write something great or something terrible, but at least the space constraints mean that you don’t risk taking what should have been a sentence and turning it into a novel.

This focus on the core mechanics is what modern game designers need to get back to. Look at great games from previous decades, like Lode Runner, Super Mario Bros. and Doom, and the bottom-up approach these games took to level and monster design. In these games, the player has a very limited range of powers and the enemies are likewise more like variations on a theme than completely different entities – in Mario, for instance, the Koopa is essentially a Goomba that leaves a shell behind when killed. Buzzy Beetle is a Koopa immune to fireballs. Spiny is a Koopa immune to being jumped on. Terrain and power-ups are similarly limited. The level design is based around the interplay between the player’s finite abilities and this small range of assets and challenges, presented in different combinations. And that’s enough – the original Super Mario Bros. has 32 levels, but manages not to be repetitive, because the designers were forced to be creative with what they were given. The resulting game is simple but dense, in the sense that every ounce of potential has been squeezed out of these simple building blocks.

By contrast, modern games seem to be designed top-down, with concepts being created for the main enemies and challenges the player is to face, and then the main character’s and secondary enemies’ abilities being filled in after the fact, in order to lead the player through this story. The result is very often a sprawling, sloppy work with a lot of unnecessary distractions, and infrequently-used features.

Although I’m sure it’s possible to design a successful game from the top down, it would require a great deal of restraint, something the industry is not yet mature enough to be capable of. Until that time comes, major game companies would do well to study the successes of their historical predecessors (as well as such indie titles as World of Goo) and get back to their mechanics-first roots.

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel – Example Map and Advanced Strategy
Apr 21st, 2009 by AlexWeldon

First of all, to show off my procedural level generation code – and to give people an idea of the size and overall topology of the Labyrinth, I got the game to spit out a complete map from beginning to end. Scroll down to the bottom of the post to see it. (I couldn’t put it up here at the top because of the purple tool box on the right).

Now let’s talk a little bit about the strategy of the game. Having played probably about a hundred times myself now, I can say that it is definitely a game it’s possible to get better at. I now rarely score less than 200, unless I have a really unlucky start, and I’ve made it about 3/4 of the way through the game once, and over halfway many times.

I think the way to look at this game is as a sort of economy. That sounds weird, of course, but if you think about it, there are effectively five currencies in the game and various fixed exchange rates between them. Most of the tough decisions in the game come down to assessing a trade and deciding whether it is favorable or not. The Advancement of the Wall of Doom, meanwhile, can be seen quite literally as a “cost of living,” and you must turn enough profit in your trades to stay ahead of the game. The currencies are: Turns, Energy, Separation (from the Wall), Potions and Bombs. The fixed exchange rates are:

1 space of Separation <-> 2 turns, because the Wall advances once every two turns, and because walking two spaces to the right creates an increase of one space of Separation (since it has advanced one in the meantime).

1 turn <-> 1 point of Energy, because passing a turn gains you a point of Energy, and because running once gains you a turn relative to walking twice.

1 Potion -> 15 points of Energy. Realistically, your average exchange is probably 1 Potion -> 14 points, since sometimes you’re forced to use a Potion when your meter isn’t quite empty.

Bombs don’t have a fixed exchange rate, but intuitively, they seem about as useful/valuable as Potions. From this we see that the bonus items are sufficiently valuable that it’s worth quite a large detour to pick them up – even if you have to walk six squares backwards (for a total of 12 turns wasted, or 6 turns and 6 points of Energy) to get one, it’s likely a winning proposition, which may be surprising to many players.

The trouble is that you don’t always have the luxury of being able to make so large a detour, if the Wall is hot on your heels. This can be likened to being offered a good deal on some property when you don’t have enough liquid capital to take advantage of the offer. Separation is thus your liquid capital, and you want to keep your assets in that form as much as possible.

How do you do that? By running a lot, quite simply. It’s tempting to stockpile Potions, but the more I play, the more I realize this is not a winning strategy, as I often die with Potions left in my inventory. Of course, you need to keep some in reserve in case you’re forced to swim down a long, flooded tunnel, or to battle a Fishman or Eyeball Beast while low on Energy. However, early in the game, one is enough, later on perhaps two or three. Once you have that many, however, you should begin sprinting as much as possible, and popping a Potion every time your Energy runs out.

There’s another reason to run when you can, which is that you won’t always be able to. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need to walk a lot, or even pass, for instance in a zig-zagging corridor, or when outmaneuvering monsters. Walking or passing when your Energy meter is full is equivalent to burning money, so you should make sure to spend Energy whenever you can do so productively.

Bombs, on the other hand, should be stockpiled, as they’re your insurance policy against dead ends, which you will blunder into with increasing frequency late in the game. They can also save your life in flooded tunnels by creating dry land to rest on if your Potions run out.

Fighting monsters is generally a waste of Turns and Energy. Except for Dashers, most monsters are easy to outmaneuver, even if you’re just walking. Trapping them behind walls and water, or luring them into pits is very often an effective strategy, especially if you can find a way to do so in the course of taking a detour to grab a bonus item. If you do have to fight, make sure you do it on your own terms – situations to avoid include stepping right up to a Dasher and letting it get two attacks before you get one, getting caught between two or more monsters and taking hits from all of them while attacking only one, and being forced to fight a monster while standing in water and losing health that way at the same time.

With these strategies, you should be able to get at least halfway through the Labyrinth most games. Beyond that, luck, planning and careful tactics should carry you the rest of the way. Please leave a comment if you discover any effective strategies beyond what’s discussed here, and I’ll add them.

The Labyrinth of Doom

The Labyrinth of Doom

Legend
PURPLE: Darkness
GRAY: Walls
WHITE: Floor
BLUE: Water
YELLOW: Victory!
BLACK DOTS: Pits
RED DOTS: Monsters
GREEN DOTS: Bonus items

The Dark at the End of the Tunnel – Basic Strategy & Spoilers
Apr 20th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

So, I completed Ludum Dare successfully. Very successfully, I think. Although the game is still very rough around the edges, preliminary feedback suggests that I’m not the only one who thinks it’s fun. However, the instructions at the game’s beginning are quite minimal, and many people have told me that they find the game completely impossible, which leads me to believe they might be missing a few critical details of the gameplay. So, although I’m no master of the game yet myself (despite having made it), I will attempt to share my own thoughts on strategy, as well as a few basic facts that would be hard to figure out if you didn’t write the source code yourself.

The Ludum Dare version of the game is here: http://www.benefactum.ca/flex/darktunnel/
However, you probably want to play the less buggy, newer version: http://www.benefactum.ca/flex/dark_tunnel/

Dire straits indeed...

Dire straits indeed...

Before I get into any particulars, I want to make clear that it is essentially a roguelike game – meaning that the dungeon is randomly generated, gameplay is “ironman style” (you have to start all over when you die), and it’s intentionally extremely hard to beat. Not everyone likes such games, but I find them to be the genre that most rewards dedicated players. The steep learning curve is compensated for by high replay value.

Now, let’s try to understand what the game is really about. The basic premise is that you’re running away from an Advancing Wall of Doom (as this was the theme of this Ludum Dare) and attempting to reach the end of the labyrinth before being caught by the Wall, killed by a monster, falling into a pit, or drowning. This is accomplished by carefully managing your Energy, and collecting the two types of power-ups – Bombs and Potions. There are some important things you should know about each of these game elements:

The Wall: Initially, you have a lead of 4 squares on the wall’s leading edge. It advances once for every two moves you make. Thus, by walking away in a straight line, you gain one extra square of separation for each two steps. By running away, you gain three extra squares for every two steps (four squares). However, you will have to make a certain number of detours, and stop to rest and fight monsters. Whenever you’re not actively getting away from the wall, it is catching up at a rate of one square every two turns.

The Labyrinth: The Labyrinth is seamless and measures about 550 squares wide by 72 squares tall. It is generated as you go; you’ll notice that the game pauses for a second once in a while – this is the game generating a new section ahead of you. There are 15 such sections in all, each 36 squares wide, with the difficulty increasing each time. This increase in difficulty is a combination of: more water/pits, fewer power-ups, more monsters, tougher monsters, and fewer connections to the next section. Thus, to have a good chance of beating the game, you will need to get a big lead on the wall and a substantial stock of Potions and Bombs before you reach the more difficult sections of the Labyrinth.

Water: Water is a nuisance, but at least it’s predictable. Moving through water prevents running (and thus also jumping over pits) and costs you one point of energy for each turn you spend in it. You can safely drop to 0 Energy, but if you end a turn in the water with no Energy left, you will drown.

Water comes in two forms, Puddles, and Flooded Tunnels. The former can usually be circumvented, or splashed through with little cost, but entering a Flooded Tunnel is always a big decision, as it’s likely to require you to use one or more Potions, and can be a real disaster if it turns out to be a dead end.

Pits: Pits are usually to be treated as walls – just go around them. Sometimes, you’ll be forced to jump over one (toggle into Running mode to do so), but it is expensive and unpredictable, costing you between 2 and 6 points of Energy and resulting in your demise if you don’t have enough. Unless the Wall is right on your heels, it is generally foolish to attempt a jump with less than 6 Energy – it’s better to rest up first and make sure you clear the pit safely.

Pits are, however, often a blessing in disguise, as monsters will fall into them. Luring monsters into pits saves you a great deal of Energy relative to having to fight them.

Potions: Potions are the more straightforward of the two power-ups. Activated by pressing 7 on the keypad, or the P key, they instantly restore your health, and do not take a turn to use. Use them to survive long swims through flooded tunnels, battles with enemies, or to fuel you for long sprints to put distance between you and the Wall.

Bombs: Bombs are activated with 9 on the keypad, or the B key. They are used to destroy a single wall square, replacing it with plain floor. Their primary use is to dig one’s way out of a dead end, but it’s often worthwhile to spend a Bomb even when an alternate route is available, if it’s possible to open a path that is shorter, contains one or more other power-ups, and/or is free from monsters, pits and water. More complicated decisions arise when two, three or even more Bombs would be required to reach the nearest open path, but doubling back would cost many turns.

Late in the game, when dead ends and watery tunnels abound, having a large stash of Bombs is invaluable. Early in the game, it is probably wiser to run a lot and use many Potions than to waste Bombs, as running out of Bombs and getting cornered is probably the most common cause of death.

Monsters & Combat: Doing battle can quickly deplete your Energy, as it costs a point to attack, while getting hit will also result in the loss of one or more Energy points. It is usually wiser to lure enemies into pits, outrun them, or trap them behind walls/water than to fight them. Sometimes, however, fighting is unavoidable.

IMPORTANT TIP #1: If battle is necessary, try to have as much Energy to begin with as possible, as it affects your chances of hitting!
IMPORTANT TIP #2: Try to get the first strike in! If you’re one step away from a monster (or two steps from a Dasher), pass, rather than moving next to it. As well as gaining a valuable point of Energy, you’ll get the first attack, which might save you one or more additional Energy points.

There are four types of monsters, in order of increasing difficulty. The harder types appear more frequently the further you go:

goblin
Goblin: A very ordinary enemy with no special abilities. Moves one space per turn, can’t cross water, takes one hit to kill, does one point of damage. Slightly more accurate with its attacks than a Fishman or Eyeball Beast.

dasher
Dasher: A fast enemy. Gets two moves for your every one. Only takes one hit to kill, but dangerous nonetheless, as it gets two attacks as well as two moves. Also more accurate with its attacks than a Goblin.

fishman
Fishman: A strong enemy. Moves at normal speed, but can cross water. Takes two hits to kill and does two points of damage until it’s been hurt, after which it does one. Starts appearing about a third of the way through the game. Can be a pain, especially when it hits for double damage, but still quite manageable if you get the first hit in.

eyeball
Eyeball Beast: The strongest enemy. Moves at normal speed and can’t cross water, but takes three hits to kill. Does three points of damage at first, two after it’s been hit once, then one after it’s been hit twice. I can’t offer any tips on fighting them, as I haven’t progressed far enough to see one yet – they should start appearing about 2/3 of the way through the game. I imagine the correct strategy is to lure them into a pit or run like hell. Going toe-to-toe with one would waste several turns and require at least one Potion.

That should be enough information to get you started. For the record, my high score as of the time of this post is 313 points, just over halfway through the game. Tomorrow I will post some thoughts on more advanced strategy and decision-making.

Ludum Dare, Hour 2
Apr 18th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

This, and all subsequent posts for the weekend are being posted both here and at the Ludum Dare website. The theme of this year’s competition is Advancing Wall of Doom.

The theme is not what I was hoping for – I was one of the people pulling for Rain, myself. However, knowing that AWoD had a high probability of being picked, I spent the hour leading up to the announcement brainstorming for an idea. What I ended up coming up with is a sort of tactical maze game with Roguelike-like aspects (yes, it’s like games that are like Rogue… so not really that much like Rogue itself). It’s called The Dark at the End of the Tunnel.

The premise is that you, the hero, have arrived too late to stop the evil wizard/demon/whatever from opening a gate to the Plane of Shadows. You’re now trying to escape the dungeon, with a billowing wall of shadows hot on your heels. If you can get out before being caught by it, you can seal the doors of the dungeon behind you, and thereby – one hopes – save the world from being doomed to eternal night.

Unlike most Roguelikes, you don’t have any equipment, except potions, and no hit points, just energy. You can walk around at normal speed without using energy, or you can run at double speed, but using up energy as you go. Moving through water and jumping over pits also uses energy, as does battling monsters. You regenerate energy very slowly as you walk around, or much more quickly by standing still. You can also pick up potions that restore your energy completely.

The dungeon gets harder to navigate as you go along, as there are more and more dead ends, and less paths to lead you closer to the exit. Fortunately, you can also find torches in sconces on the wall. Moving through one will light it, which will delay the wall of shadows a little bit when it reaches the torch.

And that’s all I have planned now. I think that’s enough to keep me busy for 48 hours. If I finish all that with time to spare, I’ll think of some small embellishments, but I think it should be at least a bit of fun just like that.

Edit, at Hour 3: First screenshot. Just got the tiles loading up in the game and the grid where the map will go set up. No level generation yet.
tiles

Tachygenesis – why make things quickly?
Apr 16th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

As far as I can tell from a Google search, the word “tachygenesis” is only used in science, to describe the sudden appearance of an organ in the evolutionary history of an organism. However, it’s the best word I could come up with for a certain type of event, which appears in any creative field you can think of. Those with a good grasp of English etymology already know what I’m talking about, I’m sure, but for everyone else, “tachy-” means speed, and “genesis,” creation, so I’m describing acts of creation with extraordinarily tight deadlines. These are often group activities, often with the structure of a competition, but not taken particularly seriously. Some examples include:

National Novel Writing Month
SpeedIF (Interactive Fiction)
The 48-Hour Film Project
Ludum Dare
Seven Day Roguelikes
24-Hour Comics

(Leave a comment with other examples and I’ll add them here)

Having participated in National Novel Writing Month twice, and SpeedIF once, I’m now planning on entering Ludum Dare this weekend. The principle is straightforward – a theme is announced at the last minute, having been chosen by participants’ votes over the days leading up to the competition. Participants then have 48 hours to produce a finished computer game based on the theme, including all sound, artwork and code. So far, “Advancing Wall of Doom” is leading the pack for this year’s theme, but several rounds of voting remain.

One question often asked of participants in these challenges, particularly by non-participants, is “why do you do it?” They’re often gruelling and stressful, the rewards – if any – are rarely substantial, and the completed pieces, having been done under such time constraints, are almost never going to be of sufficient quality to market, or even display in one’s portfolio. In fact, it seems like a lot of effort – and a lot of strain on the system – for no payoff whatsoever. The 48-hour versions of these events are usually done over the course of a weekend, to allow people with regular full-time jobs to participate, but why would anyone voluntarily spend their weekend working feverishly to meet a Sunday deadline, only to go back to their job the next morning?

I can think of several reasons. The most obvious one is the age-old “because it’s there” principle, as coined by George Mallory. Once one person comes up with the idea of starting one of these events, others get on board because it sounds like a challenge, and it’s human nature to step up to challenges. I think there’s more to it than that, however.

Many people have the inclination to create something, but constantly put off actually doing so, until they’re provided with some excuse to convince themselves to get going. There’s always a battle between the higher mind and its desire to excel, and more deeply-rooted tendencies towards self-doubt, laziness and pessimism. Part of the problem is that sincere efforts to create something great tend to be time consuming, and the first few attempts almost always fail. On the other hand, shooting for mediocrity on one’s first attempt is hardly inspiring. The existence of a competition of this sort relieves both burdens at once – the time commitment is finite, and the burden of producing something of quality is relieved by the built-in excuse of having made it under a tight deadline.

A related psychological issue is that of fussiness and perfectionism. Many people, great artists and amateurs alike, are forever hindered by their inability to leave well enough alone. I once read an amusing anecdote about a conversation between James Joyce and one of his friends – the friend comes in and finds Joyce slumped over his desk, despondent:

Friend: James, what’s wrong? Is the writing not going well?
James: No, not well.
Friend: Well, how much have you written today?
James: Seven words.
Friend: But James, that’s good, for you anyway!
James: *sigh* Yes, but I don’t know what order they go in!

I think one of the most important aspects of these events is that they force one to reign in this inner demon and simply get something done. Of course, the ability to be self-critical is crucial to being a good artist, but the inner critic can be a bossy little fellow if allowed too much liberty. At times, it’s necessary to remind him (or her) who is the master, and who is the servant.

Finally, it’s a way to experiment and gain experience. Although the finished product is rarely going to be something of great worth in and of itself, there will be aspects that work, and aspects that don’t. Because it’s understood from the start that no masterpiece is to be expected, the creator is free to focus on the positive aspects of the piece, and use them for inspiration for future, more serious projects, without feeling bad about the mistakes that were made.

Even though I can count on one hand the number of people who’ve read either of the two 50,000 word manuscripts I produced for National Novel Writing Month – I haven’t even reread them in their entirety myself – I think having produced them has made me a better and more confident writer, and given me ideas to use not only in writing, but other artistic endeavors as well. I hope that Ludum Dare will be similar in that regard.

If you’re one of the people who says, “I’ve always wanted to do X,” then look around for an event of this type in whatever field it is that you’re thinking about. Chances are that one exists, and it’s a great way to give yourself a kickstart, and gain both the motivation and experience to try a more serious project afterwards.

EDIT: Fiona from Myrmidon Process has a good point in her comment. I don’t know how I overlooked the social aspect of these events, but it’s definitely a biggie as well. They’re great for networking, sharing ideas, and getting moral support and encouragement from others!

Digital Painting – Wood Texture Tutorial pt. 2
Apr 15th, 2009 by AlexWeldon

Yesterday I showed a quick way to generate a wood texture. That wasn’t really the goal, though – what I’m actually trying to show you is how you can generate any texture you like by quickly slapping down some pixels and then applying a variety of filters in succession to achieve the effects you like.

Although applying filter after filter in Photoshop seems like a very digital thing to do, I liken it to my way of working with charcoal, which is to throw some very rough lines onto the page and then work over them again and again with my fingers, an eraser, and more charcoal, creating layers of texture that would be much more time consuming to do in a more deliberate, methodical way.

The real key in all this is experimentation, combined with a good memory. There’s a whole menu full of filters you can use in Photoshop, as well as tools like Smudge, Dodge/Burn, and so forth. When you’re trying to create a new texture, try various likely-seeming effects in different orders, and see what the outcome is. Most often, it won’t be what you want, but a lot of the time you’ll find something cool that you can file away in the gray matter until you actually do want that kind of look in a future project.

Here are some of the experiments I tried while producing the texture for the last installment.

Left: Graphic Pen, Right: Chrome

Left: Graphic Pen, Right: Chrome

I tried a few of the so-called “artistic” filters to create false detail and produce a finer, more realistic final look. In the first, you see the result of using the “Graphic Pen” filter before applying the Motion Blur. In the second, you see the result of using “Chrome” after the Motion Blur. Both of these are more realistic than the texture created yesterday, but they also look less hand-drawn – your choice should depend on the overall style of the piece you’re working on; having fine detail in the background won’t work if the focal points of the illustration don’t have as much.

Also, note that many of these filters (including the two used here) change the color of the pixels they’re applied to. This means you’ll have to recolor the texture after you’ve applied the filters. Here’s how to do it:

First, Hue/Saturation, then Curves

First, Hue/Saturation, then Curves

In the first image, we see the effect of the Chrome filter. Everything gets turned grey, as you’d expect from something that’s supposed to produce a metallic effect. The most obvious thing to do is to use Hue/Saturation and tick the “Colorize” box, and indeed, that’s the first step. Doing so produces the second image. It doesn’t look right, however, because everything’s the same hue, and we’d prefer our darks to be redder than our lights. Also, we’ve lost some contrast. The easiest way to fix this is with Curves – we can adjust the overall contrast, and then bring up just the reds in the low end of our values and boost green and/or take out blue from the high end. Just go easy with it! Curves is an easy tool to overdo.

wood_knothole

Here, I decided to add a knothole. The process was exactly the same as for the texture I showed you yesterday, except that I added a few steps after the Motion Blur, but before Median and Unsharp Mask. First, I used the Liquify filter (more of a tool, if you ask me) to stretch out the lines around where I wanted the knothole to be. Then I picked a brown a little bit darker than the darkest of the striations, and just painted in the knothole with a regular brush. I smudged it a bit until it was the shape I wanted, selected that region with a feathered lasso, and applied a Gaussian Blur.

Once the knothole was in place, I finished the process the same way I described yesterday – applying Median to create chunkier lines and then Unsharp Mask to increase contrast and create the illusion of detail.

The point here is that each layer of filtering you apply obliterates actual detail and creates fake detail. If you want to add real detail to certain areas, you can do it partway through the process, either painting directly, or using tools like Dodge/Burn, or a selection + Levels/Curves to create light and shadow. By adding detail after applying some filters, but before others, you can ensure that some of your detail remains in the final texture, but that it’s still smoothed out and works with everything else.

Finally, here’s an example of the role of serendipity, and filing things away for future use:

Water or silk?

Water or cloth?

While making the textures for this tutorial, one thing I tried was applying a Gaussian Blur to the original scribbles, then an Unsharp Mask, prior to going through the process described yesterday. That is, I did Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask, Motion Blur, Median, then Unsharp Mask again. The idea was that I was going to try to produce brighter highlights by creating some artifacts with Unsharp Mask prior to doing the Motion Blur.

The results didn’t look much like wood, so it was a failed experiment in that sense. However, almost any decent-looking texture resembles something, and in this case, I thought it looked rather like calm water, or rippled silk, so I just changed the Hue and this is what came out. Assuming I was actually looking for a wood texture for the project in question, I’d have to keep trying, but by making a mental note of how I got here, the next time I’m doing an illustration with a lake in the background, it’s going to be dead simple!

That’s it for textures for now – tomorrow’s blog post will probably have something to do with games. However, I will revisit textures next week and show you how you can use photos to get your starting pixels, without the end result looking like crap. I’ll do a stone texture as the example, like the pillar in this image:

stone_pillar

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