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In this amazing interview game developer Eric Mack talked about his impressive new title – Doko Roko. It’s a great pixelart action adventure which is incredibly animated and has some amazing atmosphere. The project is currently on Kickstarter and is moving strongly to its goal. Eric was kind enough to talk about the game production, visual design, game design and procedural level design.
My name is Eric Mack. I’m 21 years old. In 2012 I attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design intending on majoring in animation. I dropped out of school after my first year. I did not feel like I was getting my money’s worth. I was not inspired by the works of my professors. I did not feel like I was getting the technical knowledge that i desperately craved. I didn’t really even have a plan as to what I was going to do with a degree in animation.
I dropped out. I began to pursue my own art education with a series of video lectures by Magic the Gathering artist Noah Bradley. I thought I wanted to be a concept artist for a big triple A videogame company. I finished the 12 week course. My art skills improved. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Concept art is cool. The idea of having to do concept art for other people is less cool. I wanted to be drawing my own ideas for myself. But even that wasn’t really true. I wanted to make my own worlds and my own videogames for myself. I wanted to make virtual environments people could immerse themselves in and spend time interacting with.
I knew how to do sound and art, but I lacked programming knowledge. I started learning a simplified version of Java in an environment called Processing. For a long time all I did was make generative art and little simple graphics programs. Very slowly I began to amass knowledge of Java and started making little programs where you could control characters with the arrow keys and they’d collide into walls and stuff with the aid of some physics libraries. That is essentially how I started making games!
Building Doko Roko with Java
The process for creating Doko Roko was very unfocused when I first started about a year ago. I did not really take the time to look into what the best program was to make videogames. I basically saw that Notch had coded Minecraft in Java, and was like… “Hmm that is probably the best one.”
It’s not the best one. It’s not the worst one either though. I’m using the Slick2D engine to make Doko Roko and it offers me a lot of control which I really appreciate for when I need to fine-tune the feel of things, but sometimes I really wish I had made it easy on myself and gone with Unity. The process was very exploratory and meandering when I first started, which sounds like the totally wrong way to go about making a game, but I think it’s contributed to a lot of its charm.
I spend a lot of time making concept art and doing world building exercises. Trying to piece together the logic of this world and what would make sense in the context of it. I write little notes in my iPhone whenever I get the chance. With no one to really hold the reins of the project I’ve ended up spending a lot of time on details and things that are really fun for me to work on. I’ll spend a whole day just making grass that blows in the wind, tweaking the physics of fire particles, adjusting the friction of the game until it feels satisfying just to move and slide around.
One of the first things I remember saying to myself was “it needs to be fun to just stand around and look at what is going on around you”. If you can somehow manage to do that, then you can really only go up from there.
The core gameplay idea kind of came to me in a semi-crystallized state when I was about to go to bed one day. All I could picture was little creatures wall jumping, air dashing, parrying sword strikes mid-air, and throwing exploding beams of light at eachother. All the while you are playing as one of these creatures who is ascending upwards and adapting to fast-changing scenarios. I like thinking on the fly, I like improvisation, I like freeform jazz. Free form jazz is really beautiful. Not only are you improvising solos and adapting to the changing mood of a piece, you also have to have chemistry with the people you are performing with, a bond that transcends spoken language. I like that feeling when your reptile brain reacts quicker than your conscious brain. How did I just catch myself from falling? I didn’t even have to think about it. I like games like Crossy Road and Downwell where your rational and reptile brain are trapped in a conflict whose mutual goal is your survival. I feel totally present playing those games. Observing, thinking and reacting simultaneously.
I’d say that the biggest inspirations for Doko Roko aren’t necessarily games. One of the biggest inspirations for The Tower is the Kowloon Walled city that existed outside of Hong Kong, China until 1994. With no authoritative body to oversee construction of the military fort, the city built on top of itself with little regard for safety, aesthetic, or sanitary considerations. It was a hive of apartment buildings, stores, and schools where people eeked out an existence. It’s really interesting! I wanted to explore what an ecosystem like that might look like in videogame.
I’m also inspired by Studio Ghibli animations, the photography and colors of Ryan McGinley, Haruki Murakami’s way of describing dreamlike scenarios in his writing. I like the overgrown stone temples of Cambodia. The texture of moss, the foreboding and crushingly dense atmosphere of Dark Souls.
I like the simplicity of the designs in Fez and Cave Story, though I’m not exactly enamored with the gameplay of either of those. I like fast and cerebral games where split second decisions can have far reaching consequences, Downwell, Crossy Road, Nuclear Throne. Those are the main inspirations I’d say, but there are certainly tons more.
Vertical Level Design
The verticality in Doko Roko is most likely inspired by one of the secret levels in Super Mario World called “Gnarly”. I think it’s the only level in Super Mario World with a unique vertical design that plays totally different from every other level in the game. Because you have to progress upwards in this level, you are constantly fighting the effects of gravity while having to navigate difficult platforming.
The other level that I tend to think of is the Boomer Kuwanger level in Megaman X. The whole level is a vertical climb to the top where you end up fighting the boss. Enemy encounters are made that much more difficult just by their placement in the level. The fear of falling is constantly on your mind and weighs on your psyche whilst also having to deal with numerous enemies. I like what that added pressure does to your brain. You weigh and consider your actions differently. Opening up the Y axis like that also gives you a lot of freedom of expression in your movements, wall jumping and rolling to dodge projectiles that could potentially come from any direction.
It’s really the only art style I felt comfortable animating in to be honest. I hate that kind of puppet animation you see in some vector art games, I don’t have the time to do fully illustrated animation like in Skull Girls, I have no idea how to do 3d modeling or animation. I chose pixel art out of necessity I guess! It also makes it a lot easier to make the game aesthetically consistent, the less restraints you put on yourself, the more freedom you have, but you run a greater risk of making something that is not aesthetically cohesive.
Procedurally Generated Levels
How it works right now is it randomly selects tiles from a tile sheet and build the level in discrete interconnecting rooms. There is still a lot of work to be done with the procedural generation as it’s very important to me that the algorithm is capable of building balanced levels that are fun to move around in. One of the other things I’d like to take on is that most procedurally generated games I see are super ugly. There’s no aesthetic considerations for how levels might be designed or constructed by the people living in that world. In other words I’d like to make the levels look and feel less “videogamey” and more like they could actually be inhabited by the denizens that live there.
I usually make my animations in Graphics Gale or Photoshop. Some animations like for the particle effects are programmed entirely in Java and as a result can be more procedural and naturalistic. It’s really amazing to me how much good animation and sound effects can contribute to how fun a game actually is.
Underneath all the art and sound effects, it’s just squares and circles colliding with each other in different ways, but you give meaning to these interactions with the sound and the animation. They are powerful communication tools. I’d also like to stress that it is important to me that the animation and the actual underlying mechanics are working in synergy with each other. The movement speed informs the animation speed, transitions occur based on changes in movement, Enemies respond to your attacks in a way you would expect them to. There needs to be harmony between the mechanics, the animation, and the sound effects to really optimize the impact of your desired communication with the player.
Going on Kickstarter
To be perfectly honest I drew a lot of inspiration from the Hyper Light Drifter Kickstarter, Radio The Universe’s Kickstarter, and the Moon Hunters Kickstarter. If you are thinking about doing a Kickstarter for your game these are all good examples to follow.
I hate campaigns that open with a dude talking to you on a crappy webcam about what the game is going to be like. My main thoughts going into it were “Show people the game, Make the video short, and show them the best stuff you have and what is interesting about it.” Unless you are massively popular, no one wants to listen to a dude they’ve never seen before. In preparation for this video I basically had to make a bunch of assets for several areas of The Tower that I wanted to have in the game. I felt like it was important to show people a slice of the big picture rather than focusing my time building one area to completion. Now that I have the foundation and feeling for these areas, it’ll serve as a good road map moving forward with development. I probably spent about a month in total preparing for the Kickstarter, planning the rewards, filming and editing the trailer, writing the descriptions, having conversations with Boxescloser who did the music, painting concept art.
I have no idea how to market stuff. I just try to be completely honest about what I’m doing and people seem to sense and appreciate that honesty. I try to post art and gifs of gameplay frequently and already had a fairly large following on Twitter when I launched. it’s important to start building your fanbase as early as you can. That is about it. I just emailed every game website and tried to personally target writers who I thought might be interested. Not much of a strategy!
As for managing it all myself I just tried to account for everything I could and tried to plan as far ahead as possible. Even then I still ran into unanticipated problems. I also had help from Boxescloser with the music, and Mike Regan and Will Nunes with some of the concept art. Those guys also gave a me a lot of good feedback about the Kickstarter page!
Advice for Gamedev Beginners
My advice is learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can, for as cheap as you can. The internet is an invaluable resource for information. There’s so many tutorials out there to learn programming, art, design, whatever. You don’t need to go to school to learn these things if you are motivated. There is value in the community and the resources available to you at a college or university, but the information is there if you’re willing to seek it out and discern which sources are worth listening to.
Be interested in the work you are making. If you are not invested in the work you are doing, you are not going to put your whole self into it. You’re just not going to try as hard and your work is going to show it.
Be visually literate, or find someone else who is. Look at as much art as you can as often as you can. If your game does not look visually appealing, you could have the coolest and and most profound game ever, it’s not going to get noticed by people in this competitive scene if it doesn’t stand out in some way.
Look at what other people are doing. How does your game fit into contemporary videogame culture? What could you be doing differently? What are people getting wrong?
Making a videogame might seem like a massive undertaking, and it definitely is, but it doesn’t have to feel like one. Every problem no matter the complexity, can be broken down into a series of simple steps if you take the time to plan ahead. Push forward everyday. If you have a hit a roadblock, switch to working on a different problem; There is always another problem that you could be working on. Any progress you make is still progress. An enemy idle animation, new environment assets, a new feature. Some days you’ll make more progress than others. Think about those days on the days you don’t get a lot done. Get something done. Keep sowing seeds.