Engin

Finally, I’m going to write about Engin.
Engin is the name I came up with completely and utterly randomly one night while failing to sleep, that quickly attached itself to a narrative-focussed game concept that I had been playing with in my head for an hour or so. What followed was around two weeks of intense design work, and a decision: that Engin would be a game that changes something, and that it’s definitely not something I have the capability, experience or time to produce at this point in my life.

That was 6 months ago; since then I’ve kept Engin on the back-burner in my head, occasionally giving it an hour of focus when the sparse thoughts become coherent enough to be important and writing key ideas down in an organised fashion. Last night, I spent three hours on the game and made a very big and important decision that’s been brewing for maybe half the time I’ve worked on it in total: that Engin will not be just a game that changes something.
I finished writing the below long-form elevator pitch on Facebook before remembering I had a blog, and it explains things pretty well, so I’ll print that below and leave you to read. Please note the last few sentences, as they’re definitely the most important here. This is not happening now. This is not happening in the near future. It may never even happen. But it most likely will and it’ll happen when it happens (if it ever comes within my capabilities, of course). :)
G’day.

- Jonno

——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
[Pitch]

Did some rare design work last night on what I’m now calling my ultra-project, Engin. 

[prepare for a (long) elevator pitch]

Engin is a game that will be the best interface to a rich, detailed sci-fi narrative universe that is robust enough to exist on its own as fiction.

My original goal with Engin was to create a game that could truly, truly impact a player on an emotional level and connect them to my characters and world such that they care when the status quo changes (and I’m even confident that I have good ideas on how to do this, though the research required for testing whether I do or not is not something I can go into lightly and thus not something that’ll be happening soon).

Around three months ago (around half the time I’ve worked on the concept), a crazy idea sprouted that, along with achieving this, I could also fix a problem I see with almost any narrative-focussed game. The idea brewed since then and finally, last night, I gave into myself and essentially clicked the OK button for my head to go crazy with ideas.
As such, my additional goal with Engin is to solve this common problem with narrative-focussed games: that, even for games with rich narrative universes, a game’s incidental plot always seems to feel like a brief, contained window into that universe that only exists because someone wanted to tell that specific story. I want to play a game that truly feels like it’s taking place in a living, breathing universe with its own history, rules and future, and so my plan is to build this universe through written fiction (and possibly other forms) until it reaches a point where Engin’s game mechanics can evolve from the rules within that universe and its plot can truly be just a single part of it rather than our only incidental look at it.

As JK Rowling wrote hundreds of short stories in her Harry Potter universe just to improve the presentation of it through the published books, my goal is to ensure that playing the game doesn’t require previous knowledge of the universe as the concept seems to suggest, but that the game presents a proper portal into it, giving players the feeling that it does exist, has existed and is detailed enough to suspend their disbelief just long enough to then tell the story I want to tell and truly affect its players on an emotional level. It’ll be the best interface to the universe, being interactive and visual and thus so many times more immersive, but it definitely won’t be the only interface.

Obviously this is something that I’m going to be working on sporadically for a number of years to come (and something that I hope to work on with others should I get the opportunity). I’ve already been background processing design concepts for the game and the universe for around 6 months and have a crap tonne written down regarding them both. The plan is to keep it as a background process and non-practical side-project and flesh as much of the universe and game design out as possible, until such a point that it is ready to be taken into larger-scale production and that I am ready to commit the time and energy necessary to presenting my designs.

It might seem like a shit load of possibly unnecessary work, but this decision to make more than just a game, and to try to solve a problem, came naturally over and after these past 6 months - I’ve definitely thought through the plan here, and believe the storytelling platform I’ll end up with (and, of course, Engin itself) will be totally worth it. And as cheesy as it sounds, this just feels right. Engin’s story and what I want Engin to be able to do are not suited for a project that exists as a single unit, and this was the next natural and willing conclusion.

And, until it becomes more than a background process, it takes up absolutely none of my otherwise-productive time - so there’s no real cost if it falls flat before the game comes to fruition. I fully expect, though, that this is something I’ll never let myself truly drop…and the beauty of it is that there is no cost until I can, feel ready to, or want to, commit fully.

I have a hell of a lot to learn in many fields, and have no idea what kind of time scale, cost or else I’m looking at here. I’ll see how things go while I keep it in the background, and constantly move forwards with it along with my other endeavours at as slow a pace as feels natural, so don’t expect “news” or anything physical as a result of all of this yet. Baby steps.

Sleep!

Just sleep, Jonno. Lay your head on your pillow, wrap up comfy and warm…and just drift off.
Just sleep.


Or not.
Sleep is one of those things that makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. It’s not plausible for a body to be efficient enough to sustain waking energy for inordinate amounts of time; sleep is an opportunity to “charge the batteries;” a period in which energy is expended at a much slower rate and, according to recent research, a period in which the brain can strengthen any neurological connections made during the day that one would deem important. Theory says that dreams are the bi-product of this repeating of the day’s neurological activity - a conscious interpretation of the seemingly random and extremely fast paced changes in brain activity that takes place while you sleep. This explains why dreams are random and often not remembered, but leaves a massive gaping hole in the fact that we can “lucid dream,” where we are fully conscious of the dream state and world.

Sleep is recommended by experts to be best taken as a single, 6-8 hour break when the sun goes down. Something I bet half of these experts aren’t aware of is that in fact our circadian clocks are geared for two shorter, 4 hour, periods of sleep during a given 24 hour time period, separated by normal waking activity. Sleep is said to soothe the soul, prepare you for the energy expenditure of being awake, and is apparently necessary for full alertness during the day. A lack of sleep is said to lead to bad moods, headaches, the inability to focus and learn and, most importantly, the degradation of the body and mind.

So explain to me why, when I lay in bed at night, through no mechanism of being “too awake,” some people (such as myself) fail to sleep.
The theories and experts fail to explain how long-term sleep problems and extremely long periods of wake have not mangled my mind and destroyed my body.

I am, for want of a better word, an insomniac. I dislike this title though, as it suggests that I completely am unable to sleep by natural methods in most circumstances, when for the recent few years of my life I have in fact had the opposite problem of being unable to rip myself from a constantly lucid dream world once I have fallen asleep. From the age of eight I may have been called an insomniac legitimately - often I would spend periods of 30-40 hours awake before being able to achieve sleep periods as short as 3 hours, which by the way, would fully refresh me.
More recently, though, sleep comes naturally to me. It’s hard to say when this change occurred, but it did change and with it came many new problems that make me prefer those times when I didn’t have to try to stay awake.

The first time I awoke with sleep paralysis - an entirely normal and common condition in which a person’s conscious mind can re-awaken while the chemical responsible for paralysing the body during R.E.M. sleep does not dissipate (The “sufferer” is fully aware but cannot move, and often experiences slight hallucinations purely due to the strangeness of the situation) - I pretty much nearly shit myself with fear. I had no idea what was going on, but it passed quickly and I shot out of bed.
I went to college as normal, only occasionally noticing that things were a little off - my shoelaces tying themselves, the walls at College being the wrong colour, my speech occasionally repeating multiple times with no reaction from my friends - before returning home at the normal time of 4 in the afternoon to find myself, in my bed, asleep.
The confusion lasted a surprisingly short time after looking at the clock once more and seeing “06:45,” and jumping out of my skin when I opened my eyes, horizontal, with my morning alarm blaring. I was indeed not standing at the end of my bed looking back at me - turns out the entire day was a dream that took place within the 10 minute snooze on my alarm.
That night was the first I had been able to sleep comfortably and continuously in many weeks, and researching my experiences led me to realise that I had a lucid dream. I quickly learned over the next month that, while most have to train themselves to lucid dream reliably, my brain liked to slip instantly into lucid states when I drifted off and stay in that state until such time as I was late to College or, worse, work. If I woke in the mornings after forcing myself to by (I shit you not) jumping off a cliff or similar in my dream, I would simply be paralysed and by circumstance be forced to use what I then knew is the WILD (Wake Induced Lucid Dreaming) technique to slip into what I call an “unwilling” lucid dream, in which one never is quite consciously aware of the dream but is otherwise fully conscious. By this mechanism I spent a month or two constantly giving teachers and managers the only genuine excuse I had - “I overslept.” But conveying how little control I had over that was difficult - akin to explaining to someone how it feels to sneeze. So my grades dropped, work cut my hours, and my life satisfaction in general dropped dramatically.

I had grown tired of flying in my dreams and being trapped there beyond my desired time, so I researched methods of not lucid dreaming. Nothing worked. If I sleep, I will lucid dream. If I wake, I will fall asleep again. On bad days this cycle can take me to 5PM, if not later. 

In recent weeks, I have tried a new experiment with sleep to see if I can solve this problem, and generally just help me enjoy the time I spend asleep better again - after all, I spent a key part of my adolescence having a bad relationship with sleep. Now that I could sleep, it was more of a hindrance than the insane relief it should have been.
This experiment basically boils down to “only go to bed if you absolutely cannot stay awake.” As a result, I spent a period of 110 hours awake at some point, performed in a Ludum Dare without sleep, and am currently writing as my 39th hour awake yet again comes to a close.
So, in a sense, I have been taking the evolutionary “rules” and throwing them out the window. And y’know what? It bloodywell worked.

The few sleeps I’ve had these past few weeks have been suitably long, not overstaying any welcome or leaving me clamouring for more. I have not dreamt once, let alone being forced into lucid dreams by volition of paralysis. It would appear that both my original insomnia and my newer “oversomnia” (a word I literally just made up) have cancelled into the best compromise: in which I can achieve normal sleep after forcing my batteries to hit absolute zero. Even during the 110 hour waking period, I noticed no drop in any physical or mental capability and in fact noticed that I became truly and markedly happier the further into it I got. And the sleep afterwards? 9 hours of pure, blank, comfort. I woke refreshed, but not in any state so as to point out how dull I was before that sleep; only as alert and happy as I was beforehand.

So through being an insomniac for many years, and then suffering the exact opposite problem, all the while exploring concepts like lucid dreams and what it means to sleep, I have reached the conclusion that people sleep too much. The experts are wrong. The theories false. At least for some.

A friend drew the lovely little theory that I stay awake for long periods of time as a kind of self-punishment or because I’m disappointed in having the complaint-worthy problem of insomnia suddenly disappear one day, but in truth it’s because I love sleeping, and by natural course any sleep I had was destructive. Nowadays I can choose whether I wish to dream, and due to the type of such dream I can choose what I dream about. I often find myself feeling more and more alive the more tired I become, and that post-sleep relief is actually worth something when I’ve worked so hard to get it. In my long periods of wake, motivations are stronger and last longer. I can work harder and act more casually, knowing that I’m not on a society-enforced time limit every day. I’ve always known that the night is a better time to perform taxing mental tasks like programming, and even these sessions have become richer with the thought of sleep not even as a conscious process. 

I’ve suffered both ends of the stick regarding sleep, and have therefore been able to draw what I would call a reliable conclusion on which end is more comfortable - and it definitely falls on the insomnia end for me. If I could return to a time where staying awake wasn’t any kind of effort at all, but bring to it the knowledge that laying in bed and “trying to sleep” is truly no use, that there is so much I could be doing with that time, and that enjoying time spent in bed and asleep was even a possibility, then I would be a much happier and more successful being these days. Maybe with eyes that appear more recessed, or darker patches above my cheeks, but happier.

So my advice to anyone would be to spend a period of time awake, as long as they can. It’ll help you do more, put some perspective on just how much time there is during a day, and help you to take real value from those short hours you are apparently supposed to spend asleep every day.

Maybe I’m crazy, but for me sleep deprivation on a large scale is the healthiest decision I’ve made. Research still must be done on whether this venture has actually impacted my health in any measurable way, but should all continue to be well then I have finally found a good relationship with sleep; ironic it may be that this is through the method of not sleeping.

Food for thought? Maybe.


- Jonno

Introducing Evo

So earlier today, I got that weird motivation again. I can spend weeks learning small new things, not making progress on any projects and generally not caring about it. What little I do works for me, and I do it when I can and, more importantly, when I’m awake enough or have motivation to do so.

Today, however, I sat down and really wanted to code something big.

 Given that my recent Ludum Dare entry, Calamity, was such an unexpected success, I decided tonight to invent my own small jam-styled development practice, and just create a game over the next couple of days “because boredom.”
I posted to the LD48 twitter feed, to my SevenSpace Games Facebook page, and to my Google+ account, then sat down to think. I wanted to set a theme, and instantly chose “Evolution” - a theme that always gets to the last voting round of Ludum Dare and a theme that never wins. I always have plenty of ideas for it, so I thought I’d pull one of them out of the hat and just develop a small game on that concept to self-promote and have a bit of fun doing so.

But then I started telling my friend about the concept. Here’s the exact text:
Imagine a side-scrolling adventure platformer, pretty simplistic as a concept.
now add in my text box dialogue system from Calamity and an ethereal or supernatural over-see-er character who guides the player.
As you progress, the levels obviously get harder and harder and over time your character aquires “evolutions” - powers that allow more interesting level design, harder or more varied gameplay, and genuine powers; stuff like double jump, ability to shoot energy from his hands, flying, maybe digging.
During gameplay you aquire credits that allow further micro-customisations of a few “basic abilities” like movement speed and jump height, then every time you get an evolution it unlocks new things to spend credits on, so for example faster energy firing or more jumps past the double.
There are many characters, a running plot, a nemesis of some kind, and it all looks pretty and is animated.



I naturally realised very quickly that what I had here wasn’t a simple jam-game concept. One of my Ludum Dare concepts had turned into a full game idea; probably my most ambitious to date in fact. I immediately set up the code infrastructure for the back-end function of the game, and started thinking of how to approach this. I’d promised a lot of people a game in a couple of days, after all.

So here’s the plan: in two to four days, depending on the time I have to work and my motivation to do so, I will release a small LD-style game named “Evo Mk 1.” This will not be a demo of the full concept, more of a proof-of-concept. It’ll be functional, it’ll work as well as you’d expect a small jam-game to work, and it’ll look and sound that way too. But it’ll represent the concept and provide a platform for more self-promotion and a platform to start an entirely new project from.

Evo will be a fully realised platformer, with characters and plot and events and a fully planned upgrade system and evolution system. Evo Mk 1 will be a fun little platformer made in a few days. I don’t know yet whether Evo will be a money-worthy product, but working on it will provide a lot of experience, and most importantly, fun.

I’m quite excited to have sat down and had a concept evolve in my head on its own for the second time. What started as a jam game could potentially earn me money in the long run, as long as my work ethic is good and I can find those little expansions to the concept that people will enjoy. I’m also already attached to my mind’s image of the main character of the game - surprise-surprise - named Evo.

I’ll post Evo Mk 1 and my general forward direction after the few days I’m gonna spend on it. Watch this space.

- Jonno 

On the Itinerary

I feel I’ve neglected this blog a lot recently, and that neglection has been in the wake of College year two, turning eighteen and other teenage mishaps.

I’m back for at least the next two weeks, though, as there’s plenty I haven’t written about and plenty of new and important things to say.

One definite article coming soon is the celebration of my first year’s anniversary of game development. I only confirmed today that the date of the beginning of my first original game was the 28th of March 2011, and instantly knew that a year’s review will be a wonderful and useful thing to write. I’m gathering resources and information so as to make the post worthwhile, to tell the story properly, so to speak. There’s a lot to cover, as a hell of a lot has happened, and I’ve come extremely far in the space of one year.

But before that post, I need to write at least a little about the now finished Maze Blitz! The coursework is nearly complete, with the program itself having been completed a few weeks ago.
On top of this, I need to write about my new project, named (for now) The Ascent. This is a concept I’m passionate about and very much hoping to find more time to work on, as I’ve planned the deployment and sale of this game from the outset. Should all go well, I will release The Ascent in the near future.


So, lots to write about, then. I’m sure I’ll find other stuff, too, so stay tuned.

I’m back for a while.

- Jonno 

Alone in the unknown Timelapse

So I finally loaded up Vegas Pro 9 last night and inserted the some 2,537 images that Chronolapse took of my screen during the 72 hour Jam for LD#22. I whacked on some good music, was surprised by how well the tempo of the music and the image changes matched up in places, and published.
My only regret is not capturing Nathan’s screen, as that’s where most of the game’s art happened and a bit of coding, too.

Let’s not regret though, enjoy the timelapse!

Post-mortem to come soon.

- Jonno

VIDEO 

Alone in the unknown: Sounds, Other Stuff

We’ve worked on a lot of stuff since the last update, best explained in the below video.

Last things to do tomorrow are bug fixes, more sounds and actual level design.

- Jonno

VIDEO 

Alone in the unknown: Enemies and Multi-Linking!

We took another sleep break (for longer than expected) and woke up to work on the enemy AI and multiple machine linking.

Many doors can now be linked with one switch and vice versa, producing the capability to create more devious or complex puzzles on each level.

Enemies are created with an initial x and y velocity and a patrol area that they must follow. If they come within a certain range of the player, they chase the player and return to their patrol if the player escapes the range.

I also worked on a level system, which is essentially a 3x3 pack of maps that are linked by the doors on them. This allows us to create bigger levels with multiple rooms etc.

The video below is of the multiple machine linking and the enemy AI.  

- Jonno

VIDEO 

Alone in the unknown: Puzzle Elements Demo!

We’ve been working pretty quickly and have implemented a lot of art and new features into the game.

We currently have a puzzle machine system which involves doors, switches, keys and pressure plates. Any machine item can be linked with a door and we have begun to conceptualise levels involving patrolling monsters for quick-paced relatively simple but tense puzzles.

The below video demonstrates the current three puzzle elements and shows off the menus etc.

All art is done by Nathan.

- Jonno

VIDEO