Risen From Its Grave: Neci's Nightmare

Part postmortem, part retrospective, in *Risen From Its Grave I take an in-depth look at my games to determine Triumphs and Missteps in the development process. I also look at what’s “risen from the grave” of the game proper – that is, what’s stuck with me and proceeded to trounce future development challenges.*

It's been about three years since I made anything that wasn't work-for-hire. You'd think someone who's as adamantly supportive of indie dev as I am would have something to show for his interest, passion, solidarity? Some small thing or open project he completed in all that time?


The Soul Still (Kinda) Burns

In college I sought to inject game design into any area it could fit. Introduction to Programming using Processing? Music-themed board game with pixel art. Introduction to [Something] Projects? An Ingress-style Android app getting students familiar with the campus, while also encouraging the student body to interact with each other through a social behavior visualizer. Hell, Technical Writing? A post-game guide for Star Ocean: Till the End of Time.

My thesis? A study on game interaction through peripherals, (badly) mimicking current VR trends around the time the Leap Motion was a shiny new prototype. At the same time as a senior game development project I took the role of designing, voice acting, composing, and modeling for. Hot on the heels of what that project was supposed to be, before scheduling conflicts dissolved the original team and forced the project onto the backburner. More nearly-all-nighters than I can remember. This was about the time I said my brain and body need breaks from all that output.

A smoldering ember remained as I sought employment through freelance web development, 3D modeling, whatever I could. Other projects were started, and some are still in progress, but the ember never consumed me in a blaze of motivation like that old backburnered project from college. I'd say it was an acre or two each and not my entire world.

Eventually, after landing more stable employment I thought to myself: What happened? Where'd the spark go? You made that one thing as a job but what about the games you reeeally want to make? My SO concurred, having already started her own passion-fueled project utilizing her wealth of skills. Considering the amount of time/energy a brand new game would take to bring to fruition myself, I thought the backburnered project needed to come out of retirement. That way I'd have a head start on giving that smoldering ember some oxygen, bringing it to a full flame.

Marching Over Coals

Digging out the old GDD I kept all this time I got right to work, converting the massive body of text into an organized wiki. I went through every area of it, correcting grammar/spelling, spicing up ideas, eliminating placeholder fluff we never intended to keep. I came up with more mechanics to change up our rather basic formula. I revised the script I wrote for it to tie the narrative and gameplay closer together, laying out some areas for expansion. And yet, this was all prep work for a larger project. It wasn't a complete project yet. Once again I sought to stoke the flame, this time with something that was done from beginning to end, for nothing else but my own training.

Along came GBJam 5, showing up in my inbox.

I reviewed the theme and the details; I was ready to dive into it. The timing was too good, I couldn't let the opportunity slide on making something in a style reminiscent of my first game console of any kind. To boot, I could use the protagonist/enemies from the backburnered project since I already know how I'd create the art for them! Now that I had decided, what would I use to make this happen?

I had the bright idea of using GameMaker: Studio, which I had just bought in a recent Humble Bundle. Before that decision, I had never touched GameMaker in any capacity in my life. But hey, this whole thing is meant to be a learning experience right? So away I went.

Gamedev adages I learned while proceeding through development of Neci's Nightmare, as it came to be called:

  • Don't spend 80% of the allotted time making assets. I did and it cost me the deadline. Sure, the whole thing has its own original flavor, but when you've got a 9-to-5 and limited downtime you must spend it well. Focus on the implementation of mechanics, make art/music a second priority. Reign in your scope, and target trouble areas first so any remaining time is yours to crunch as you require.

  • Use Git or some other source control from start to finish. Even if you use an engine that stores its own copies of your assets when you import them, you still want to be sure that your vital files are checked into source control regardless. I use an encrypted folder via Cryptomator for syncing to the cloud, and it didn't update many of the small changes I was making to assets. If you're paranoid like me please don't make the same mistake; check your work into a private Git repo to ensure no annoying issues like that one. (P.S.: Cryptomator's pretty good outside this use case, recommended.)

  • Get used to the engine/methodology you'll be using well in advance of the project in question. The reason I went over the deadline by two days was unfamiliarity with the engine and the time it took to remedy that. I had to look up how to do basically anything through very informative tutorials that showed me just how much I was in over my head.

  • Don't miss the damn deadline. Don't. Do you want your game to have a chance to be featured by the host at all? Do you want it to be otherwise acknowledged by anyone outside some of your friends (maybe)? If so, complete the whole thing on time, submitting it for consideration before submissions are up. You'll be glad you got the chance to receive very valuable feedback. Without punctuality you'll get views on late topics, but no replies because there's no reason to rate or consider a late submission.

After the game was complete I finally felt the same fire I used to have three years ago. The smoldering embers were lit ablaze with renewed vigor! I was driven to complete the Jam even after the deadline; if I was to truly learn from the experience the game needed to be complete in some way shape or form. I submitted it for approval on the Jam's discussion board and gave it its own page, finally satisfied and brimming with confidence in myself. I'd finally completed a project under my full control for the first time since college. Sure it's no Crashlands, but it's mine and it's done. Couldn't ask for more.

Motivation Breeds Motivation

Immediately following GBJam I needed another fix. I needed to challenge myself and hone my skills once more, I had to stoke the fires consuming my thinking and vision. What else was coming up soon? Itch pointed me to the Twine/NaNoWriMo jam starting with the first day of the latter. You couldn't measure how fast I clicked "Join".

Downloaded Twine the day of, started diving into documentation/research the next day, began writing a test story shortly after to learn the engine. Today I was working on getting this blog set up, but believe you me the quest continues tomorrow as it has this week.

When you feel like you've lost your touch, your spark, your burning passion for your art, just jump in and make something. Anything! It doesn't have to be good, it just has to get done. Once it is done, you'll have learned something, and have completed the implementation of a planned idea. You'll feel like you can do it again, but not right now. Make it right now! Plan your next project and sleep on it, then start tackling it at the earliest opportunity tomorrow!

Remember, flames need fuel to keep burning strong.

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