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July 29, 2014

Substream Devlog, July 2014 /

Hey! Well, I’ve been back working full-time on Substream now for three weeks. Actually for one of those I was ill, which wasn’t ideal. But that’s all the bad news I have for you. Development is going well. Every day I’m doing something different at the moment; game design, website design, adding new game features and improving others. I’ve been building on the demo I took to PlayBlackpool, fixing the bugs that were revealed there and adapting to feedback and lessons learnt from players. What can I share with you?

A Video

I uploaded this new gameplay video this month. This is actually the same section of the game that was shown in the announcement trailer from 2010 so I didn’t release it with any kind of fanfare, I mainly created it because I wanted a header video for the new website design. It makes for a good comparison though; you can see this is the same level, just slicker.

More Videos

C’mon, I’ve released three YouTube videos of Substream in five years, do you really think there’s going to be more videos this month? Well okay, yes. I joined Vine recently so I’ve been uploading some little video clips of the game there. Have a look or subscribe if you’re on Vine!

More More Videos

I’m working towards a larger trailer now. If I go ahead with a crowd funding campaign it’ll be an important part of that. There’s a few things in the game I want to improve before I’ll be ready, but I’m excited about this one. I want to show off some elements of the game which have only been seen in images. And others I haven’t mentioned yet.

All The Lists

Game development is fun, but sometimes it’s tedious in really strange ways. Over the last few years while I’ve been working a day job or chilling out at home I often think about Substream and have an idea which I want to remember. So I’ve been keeping text files on my laptop, in my phone, on my PC and on paper with notes and thoughts in no order whatsoever. This is good practice because I get to hold on to those good ideas that come at strange times.

But I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent over the last month merging these notes, deleting duplicates, reconsidering crazy ideas, trying to decipher them, categorising and prioritising them. I couldn’t work with multiple random lists because there was no way to access information from them. So I’ve now organised them into a text file that’s 500 lines long. That’s been directing my work lately, and the items have been removed at a decent pace. If that continues I’ll have the new trailer ready around the end of August.

June 4, 2014

Substream Devlog; Revival /

It’s been twenty months since I wrote a proper devlog for Substream. (I’ve just had to count that up and it was quite a shock). Back when I worked on the game full-time, devlogs appeared monthly. I self-funded the first two years of Substream’s development with my savings, but when me and my wife needed to move to the south of England so she could secure a teaching job this dried up. Living in the south is much more expensive.

So I’ve been working a day job and dabbling with Substream a little in my spare time. Calling progress slow is an understatement. Substream is not a game to be made in someone’s spare time. It’s full of details and incidentals, polish and carefully crafted moments. This is it’s main strength I think, so there’s no shortcuts to be taken. Doing my job for eight hours a day and driving for two is enough concentration for me. I’ve had to push myself to add new things to Substream, and it leaves me exhausted and depressed. This is no way to go on. I need to find a way back to working on it full time, or allow myself a decade to finish it (not an exaggeration).

Things may be starting to turn around.

I got invited to exhibit the game at PlayBlackpool at the start of May. I was feeling like I wanted to get some motivation back and the timing was perfect for this. I knew from my past experience at GameCity that a small game convention is a great place to see genuine reactions to a game, get valuable feedback, and remind myself what making a video game is for.  So I pulled the various fragments of the game I’d been developing together, and made my way up to Blackpool with a playable demo of the first half of four of the game’s levels.

The feedback was lovely. After GameCity I felt like I was on to something; after PlayBlackpool I felt like I’d found it. Sure, I wrote down three pages of bugs and todos. And I know that the same people who would say “it looks like crap” in a forum would not be so impolite to my face at a convention, which skews things a lot. But I also had people dancing in the chair to the music, wanting to shake my hand and congratulate me, and offering to buy a copy of the very demo version which had just crashed on them.

After the convention this felt quite heavy. Having people tell me “you must finish this game dude!!” is great except that I already really want to, but see no way to do it soon without help…

I have thought about doing a crowd funding campaign for a while. Honestly, I would feel happier putting all the game development risk on my own wallet, if I could. But this is the best option I have right now, so it’s my intention to run a campaign in September. My current job’s contract states that I can’t have any other employment while I work there. If a crowd funding campaign is successful I “get paid” and pay taxes on the income, so the reason I haven’t already run one is because I’ve been saving up enough money to be able to quit my job, run a campaign, and look for another job if necessary. This took a long time.

I’m excited about crowd funding, although I have no expectations. I am making two plans for my life beyond September with equal weight. I started making Substream in 2010, it’s been a long road and I’m mostly looking forward to having some kind of an answer about whether people want this game or I’ve wasted my time. Loads of indies are crowd funding now. Some are successful, many are not. I’ve read all the advice about running a campaign, but it seems after all that is taken on board the most important thing is the work that’s already been done: the game idea and how its implementation is shaping up. I’m ready to have that judged.

I’ve been relatively quiet for the last two years but I’ll need to be more forthcoming now. I added some new screens and a teaser video to the Substream website recently. From July expect more videos, blogs, social media, etc.

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:

Substream?

Substream?

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.

Windmills

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)