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March 28, 2014

Bug Aesthetics /

In my current day job (graphics programming for industrial simulators) I was recently writing some code to load volume textures. I made a mistake, and instead of seeing a rocky surface I got a pearlescent glowing road of colour:

Pretty Accidental

Pretty Accidental

When I flew around this shimmered something like a CD under a lamp. I took a screenshot because I liked the way it looked, and wanted to remember it. Sadly it still counted as a bug, so I had to fix it and move on.

But this made me realise I’ve done this a few times in the years I’ve been working in games and graphics programming. I dug around on my hard drive and found a few images from several projects. Quite often a bug or glitch can become accidental artwork, maybe even more interesting than the original intention.

Once I wrote a shader to make surfaces appear wet when it was raining, and then accidentally applied it to the sky:

Wet Sky

Wet Sky

When the graphics card in my home gaming PC broke while I was playing TrackMania major glitches ensued:

Loading Screen

Race Screen

Main Menu

Main Menu

This one’s not a bug, but a test of some code that loads in information about a racing track for the AI. I must have liked the composition it produced though as I kept this screenshot:

Track Test

Track Test

It took a while to find the missing pit crew. They were busy getting crazy under the track:

Pit Crew

Pit Crew

A game records the depth of things in the scene in a ‘depth buffer’ so that things further away don’t appear over the top of things that are nearer. When this information doesn’t get reset each frame an early build of Substream produced this:



In my modelling tool Heditor, the smoothing algorithm had an intermittent problem that created spikes instead. This took a while to fix but it looked kinda nice in it’s own way:

Smoothing Fail

Smoothing Fail

February 5, 2014

The Trouble with Doubling It /

“If you want to know how long it will take to make your game, work out how long you think it will take, then double it”.

This is a common rule of thumb not just in indie game development, but AAA game and software development too. The multiplier might vary with the experience of a company or team, but it’s widely known.

I took on board this sage advice when I started working on Substream. I calculated that my savings would last me about fourteen months, so I set to work on my dream game, knowing I should aim to finish it in seven. Three years on I have a full time job again, and although I still make determined progress on it by moonlight, things could have gone better.

Believing in this rule of thumb is a psychologically complex problem, and I think it actually made things worse in my case. Here’s what tended to happen;

  • I designed a game to make in time X. I believe in the rule so I expect to finish it time 2X.
  • I have lots of ideas as I go. It’s stuff that I’m sure would make the game better. I know I have 2X time, so when I ask myself whether I can fit this new thing in, it seems like I can.
  • Slowly but steadily, the extra spare time I’d given myself starts to fill up.
  • Surprise! At the end of time 2X, I’ve added X more features to the game, so now I expect it to take another 2X.

It’s pretty easy to see the logical hole in this. I shouldn’t have added new features and stuck to the initial plan. That’s true, but when you see a way to make the game you’re working on better it’s hard to ignore even when you don’t think you have the time. When you have given yourself ‘spare’ time the justification just falls into your lap. Because isn’t this what that spare time is for? Unforeseen work?

I’m not sure there’s an equally catchy rule of thumb or single bullet to prevent this way of thinking. The first step is to admit I am going to have lots of ideas and there will be a strong urge to fill my time. From this it’s clear that allowing myself 4X time is not going to improve things.

One  approach I want to try out in future is to have all the ideas I can, write them down, and completely fill up my available time budget with brilliant ideas. Then I will heartlessly cut out half of them in such a way that the game still works. The remaining work goes up front.

A Nicely Filled Schedule

A Nicely Filled Schedule

Now I have a two part plan. My time is already full, but if the rule holds true then I have still made a game in an acceptable amount of time. I’d end up with a finished lower quality game, rather than half a higher quality game. That’s a much better point at which to decide whether finding some extra time to add additional features is worthwhile. That’s the decision that’s hard to say no to when I think I have unallocated time.

April 27, 2013

Windmills /

For the most part this is a game development blog, and not a blog about my personal life. I guess that’s why I haven’t updated it for several months – the first part of 2013 has seen some big changes in my life that have kept me madly busy.

Being an independent game developer and not releasing games hasn’t been a very profitable business, so I now have a full time job. It’s a programming job but it’s not in games development.

Obviously this slows Substream development down massively. It is now my hobby, my side project. It means more than that to me, but in terms of time spent, that’s the way it’s going to be for a while. There is still a lot to do on the game, and it definitely won’t be out this year. But having invested so much time, money and soul into it gives me huge determination.

Anyways, I’m pretty happy about having some regular income for now. It’s allowing me to do some of things I’ve been delaying for the past three years (usually with the line “when the game’s out….”). For example:

Earlier this month I got married!! :oD   The average planning period for a wedding in the UK is probably about eighteen months. Me and my wife put ours together in three, and with very little assistance. This got pretty stressful, and ate up even more of my time. But we followed it up with a relaxing honeymoon in South Korea, which was also amazing.


Wedding Windmills

I hope now I’ll settle into working on the game more in my free time and see how well it progresses.

But one last little mention before I go and do that: Substream was at my wedding, on every table. My wife’s also the creative type, and used screen shots of the game in windmill decorations. If any evidence was needed that this project’s still important to me, here it is. ;o)

November 16, 2012

Substream Devlog, November 2012 /

This last month has been a great one for Substream.

Art Style – I’ve attempted cel-shading for a second time, and with much more success. I’m keeping it!

This time I added some inked outlines to solid objects first. The flat untextured look of many of the objects in the game suddenly seemed to make a lot more sense with these in. Some objects and terrains are going to need some changes (mainly colour gradients), but the amount of work this turned out to be is quite small, and that surprised me. I’ve always felt like the look of the game was lacking something, and a temptation to add more visual detail to things was constant. But this feels like a solution and a style that suits the game. I’m happy with this!

Reticle – Aiming has always been difficult in Substream. The third person camera and flying targets made it hard to judge depth and what your ship is facing towards.  I’d copied Starfox, which uses a pair of targetting rings that sit in front of the ship to give you the gist, but players struggled with this.

I had an idea for a reticle system early in the project which I’ve only just implemented, because it was tricky and I wasn’t sure if it would work. I might do a technical description later, but just know that this is a thousand times better. There is one targeting ring and it works more like a mouse pointer or first person shooter target. When you put it over a static  enemy you will hit it, and leading your shots on a moving target it’s a lot easier now.  I’m happy with this!

Enemies – My focus on enemies produced 11 of them. But then I decided I needed to try the targeting change, because it affects enemy design. Now that a player can hit stuff reliably, I can make enemies more dynamic and aggressive. I’m back on these now, and turning out a good variety of baddies. I’m happy with this!

October 16, 2012

Re: “Game Theory” Article /

I’ve seen people talking about a Financial Times article on Twitter over the last few days. It’s a unique insight; a view on game design and game culture from someone very new to games. I recommend reading it. The link is below, and the rest of this blog post gives my reaction.

Game Theory – What happens when someone who had never played video games is chosen as a judge for some gaming awards?”

I was actually blown away by this, and I think this a major achievement.

I don’t worry a great deal about the “wider cultural acceptance” of videogames. I feel like the share of the population that are gamers is large enough and invested enough that they can feel confidence in it’s worth without outside approval. But yes, the outside view of games is very different to other popular mediums. Most people who don’t regularly read books, visit museums or watch movies still have the understanding that they can create a wide range of emotions, educations and experiences. Many people who never play games do not have that understanding.

So when a person so far from the traditional video game target-market, approaching games with that background and attitude can come away not just having gained some understanding, but some enjoyment and respect is huge. Not convinced? Try to imagine if this piece had been written in the PS2 era. Remember when “indie” wasn’t a thing, and video games could only find a market through a handful of big publishers who played it safe. When game designers repeatedly failed to pitch any ideas that strayed too far from stagnating genres. In the late nineties there was no platform to promote a game like Proteus, and no support for a game like Journey. Business models for games like this seemed impossible.


Surely the same writer’s reaction to a selection from the late nineties would have been very different. Whether or not you think there were games of artistic merit then, I think that someone with this attitude and background would not have reacted nearly as positively to the best offerings of those times. I can think of a handful of major reasons for this and some can be spotted in the article itself. It’s not my goal to go into those here, because my point is simply that these are being addressed. That’s great.

When I said “I think this a major achievement”, that doesn’t mean that I think that this article means “wider cultural acceptance” acheived. But the surface is scratched. The major achievement is that there are now games which someone who has these stereotypical negative predispositions can approach and come away from with respect and some positive insights. Obviously we still need a lot more games which do this, and do this better. Maybe we need more platforms like GameCity to set this kind of connection up. Indie games have been around for a while now; sometimes it’s good to remember the background they emerged from every now and then.