Jan 21, 2012

The next step

I wrote about missing my target date in my last post, but what recent development have I done in Bulldog?

Last week I developed a sound playing engine for the game, to finally give the world of Bulldog some sound. Currently the only sound it plays is when you click on Button Controls in the user interface, but it's a start.  In the future there will be ambience, such as wind or rain, or waves crashing on the shore, as well as creature sounds such as bird calls and eventually, music and perhaps even some voices.

In the past 3 months I've been spending alot of time trying to get the core mechanics of the game working. These are boring things like moving to a particular grid square, picking up an item, dropping an item etc. There's quite a bit of complexity in the interactions between the world and the user interface that caused a few nasty edge cases. I hadn't considered these when I originally coded the command/dispatch engine, which is responsible for executing creature's commands in the game.

For example, since there's a half second delay between issuing a drop command and the item leaving your inventory, in the initial, naive version, it was possible to queue up two drop commands on the same item, and cause the item to be duplicated, which is obviously a bad thing. Thinking in the manner of someone trying to exploit the system exposed a few other situations where this type of thing can occur, so I had to revise the way commands are executed in order to prevent problems like that, but I'm pretty sure I've got all my bases covered now.

Plans for the future?

February will officially be "graphics month", where I dedicate my development time to purely working on the graphics of the game. The key focus of this month will be drawing additional in-game art, such as icons for the items in game, but more importantly, 3D models for all the creatures and items. I've been putting off creating 3D models since I started the project, because it's not really my forte. I dabbled with 3d modelling way back when 3DS Max 1 was the latest thing, and haven't done anything since, so I pretty much have to learn 3D modelling from scratch using new software, so it's not something Ive been looking forward to.

I'm doing everything for this project legit, so I can't simply pirate the latest 3DS Max and just go for it. That said, 3DS max is far too expensive for me to afford for this project. While I've managed to use some of the tools and resources my company already owns, (such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop), 3D modelling is something my business has no need for, so justifying the $3,500 outlay to my business partners (and myself) is impossible. Similarly, from a personal perspective I can't afford it either.

I've looked at free alternatives, but haven't found one that doesn't have an enormous learning curve and weird esoteric commands. It annoys me that Autodesk don't sell a cut down (and cheaper) version of 3Ds Max that just has features like 3d modelling and UV unwrapping, and no fancy stuff like caustics, cloth simulations or fluid dynamics. Hell, the app doesn't even need a proper renderer. They did provide a version that was designed for games people specifically, called Gmax, but that was discontinued in 2005 and only saves the models into a proprietary format that is useless to me.

All that said, I recently looked at ZBrush, which is held in high esteem by a lot of people, and was shocked to discover it costs only $700, which is well within my price range. So I've got the 30-day trial sitting on my laptop and plan to evaluate it shortly.

Beyond February?

In the short term I want to get something demo-able to friends and family, and the graphics is the only thing holding me back at the moment. If all goes well, I hope to iterate a few times on the demo, adding more complete features and making changes based on feedback, and then start working on Phase 2 and the eventual proper release, which I'm VERY excited about. My plan is for everything up until the proper release to be available for free, and then charge something like $15 for the commercial release, which will entitle you to all additional content and features added from then on for free (and there will be a lot of them).

While it seems pretty popular with indy developers at the moment to fund development with preorders, I don't think I could justify this. In terms of what the customer would actually get, and the fact that I have a full time job so don't need the preorder money to survive, so at this stage that's not part of my plans.

Jan 8, 2012

Byte Wrangler is 1 year old!

I started this programming blog a year ago and its time to look back at what I've accomplished over the last year, and see if I'm on track.

The first thing to note is that there isn't anything available for download. In my second post on this blog I suggested I wanted to have something available for download at the end of 2011. That was my plan throughout the year and it seemed achievable until about August when I re-assessed where I was up to and realised I was well short of where I needed to be.  Rather than lament the slippage of the deadline it's worthwhile looking at what went wrong and learning from the experience.

As far as I can tell I made 3 main mistakes, which I'll discuss in more detail below:

Mistake 1: Underestimating how long it would take to get certain parts of the system working.

This is the big one, and probably caused nearly 6 months of slippage.  Since I decided I would use SlimDX and develop everything from scratch and not use an existing games engine, I started with nothing. I accepted this, but overlooked the fact that meant I had no user interface system to work with at all. That means no buttons, no textboxes, no labels, no scrollbars etc. Even designing a simple settings screen requires many different interface controls, and if you want to implement something more complex like an inventory screen with drag and drop etc, you're talking quite a bit of coding to develop the whole lot.

And just when I thought I'd implemented every control I'd need, I would think of another major one I'd forgotten. As if developing the user input side wassn't enough, I also needed a skinning/texturing system that allowed the controls to size dynamically as required and not have visual artifacts or ugly stretching when resizing.

On the plus side, over the past year I've implemented a windowing system and the following interface controls:

  • Window
  • Button
  • Checkbox
  • Context Menu 
  • Label
  • Image
  • Message Box
  • Progress Bar
  • Scroll Bar
  • Text Box
  • Tool Tip

There are a few additional controls on the wishlist, but they won't be needed until later and shouldn't take as long as getting this framework up and running.

Mistake 2: Overestimating how much free time I had over the entire year.

This one is hard to judge, as 2011 turned out to be fairly tumultous from a family standpoint, and since I'm developing this game in my spare time, work, family and sleep pretty much come first, and Bulldog lost out more times than I would have liked. Not much can be done about this moving forward as life is unpredictable, but I should adjust my estimates in the future to assume I have less free time.

Mistake 3: Spending too much time researching and developing unnecessary features.

This one was avoidable, and was caused by becoming sick of coding "boring" features and wanting to implement some cool stuff. Like for example, I spent a good 6 weeks developing the signed distance field font system, when I had an ok (albeit ugly) font system already in place. The end result is about 10x better in terms of flexibility and visual look, but that time might have been better spent working on essential features. At the same time though, the distance field stuff was a lot of fun to work on, and was very rewarding at the end of the day.

It's hard to stay focussed on the boring stuff, when there's so much unnecessary fun stuff. But since the fun stuff keeps you motivated, you have to deviate from the schedule sometimes.

Where to from here?

So I guess the question is, how much has actually been done, and what's the current plan / deadline? Since that will be a reasonably large post in itself, I'll leave that to my next post. Stay tuned.