B.U.N. – a game from a classic genre

This Easter holiday I took a break from working on a game about bunnies, so that I could…. work on another game about bunnies. Apart from the bunny aspect though, it’s actually a very different kind of game. It’s a text adventure.

The game is called B.U.N. (Bunny’s unbelievable narrative), and it’s like a choose-your-own-adventure book. At every step, you’re presented with a situation and you have to choose where to go next. Here is a video demo (kindly created by Gideon Weems from the allegro community):

I expanded the storyline significantly since the initial release in 2015. The game is ready to be played now, and should prove a fairly challenging puzzle.

Download and try B.U.N. for yourself by clicking here. It’s hard for me to judge these things, so please let me know in the comments if you found it easy / difficult / funny / silly / interesting / challenging!

Text adventures are the oldest genre, the ‘silent picture’ of video game history. It’s a classic genre that is nowadays overtaken by much more flashy and glammy genres, such as the kill-everything-in-sight genre and the wage-war-against-the-whole-world-genre (I’m just kidding here, I love playing DOOM). Text adventures stem from the mini- and microcomputer age. It’s no wonder. A picture is worth a 1000 words, but 1000 pages of text use the same memory as 1 picture. This mattered very much in the days when it took about two noisy minutes to load a single picture from a cassette tape (notice how the colors are loaded separately from the b&w image in that video. It’s soooo slow!)

To spice things up, I did add some (very simple) graphics and graphics effects to B.U.N. The way text is mixed with graphics is directly inspired by the classic Hobbit adventure from my old ZX Spectrum.

If you’re interested in text adventures, another great one is the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, created by Douglas Adams himself, and it looks like you can play it online here.

And no, not every game I ever make is about bunnies. Some of them are also about cats and monkeys.

A usable 3D world for a casual game

Hallway usability testing” means doing a quick usability test with somebody you found in the hallway, or in this context, my little nephews during a family visit. Let them play and observe how they cope with your software. Can they figure out the game without instructions? Do they get stuck somewhere? Are they struggling to make the user interface do what they want?

I did a whole bunch of informal testing like that with Happy Usagi, and one of the problems I observed most frequently was that players were struggling to place blocks in a 3D environment.

For example, you can place a block on top of another block, or behind one. The block cursor indicates where it is going to be placed after you click. This block cursor is always shown on top. After all, if it was drawn behind, you can’t see it and it’s not much of a cursor, is it? Behind or on top, the cursor looks exactly the same, and this caused a lot of confusion. I did add green guidelines to indicate the position of the block relative to the floor, but these indicators were almost universally misunderstood. So: big usability problem.

Hallway usability testing is a great way to check your assumptions. You may think that the green guidelines are obvious and that people will figure them out soon enough. Well no luck, after observing the same issue over and over again, it was time to stop blaming the user and think of a different solution

Lets take a step back. Why do we have a 3D environment in the first place? Maybe it’s an odd choice for a casual game. Happy Usagi was inspired by Neko Atsume. In that game you have to collect cats, and the user interface is simple and easy.  You’ll have no difficulty at all controlling it on a tiny phone screen. But no wonder, the cats never move around and can only appear in certain predefined locations on the screen. The Neko Atsume world is a static image with cats stuck on them in fixed locations, a bit like an advent calendar for cats.

For Happy Usagi, I wanted the bunnies not just to sit there like lazy cats, but to do something; to hop, run, slide, and generally move about. And that means the game world should be an actual three dimensional model. This is a challenge.

I came up with the following solution for the block placement problem. I radically altered the block cursor. Instead of just a block, the cursor now has a bright beam that extends upwards. This way you can still (kind of) see the cursor even when the block itself is occluded. The video above should make the difference clear.

Does this actually help usability? First tests (done on Olivia) are hopeful. But again, you should check your assumptions. I really won’t be  sure about this until my nephews have played it.

Usagi No Yuki: What’s in a name?

As you know, I’m working on a game titled Happy Usagi No Yuki Fortress. The other day a colleague remarked that this sounds a lot like Usagi Yojimbo, also of  Commodore 64 fame:

Well that makes a lot of sense! Usagi is simply the Japanese word for rabbit. Yuki means snow, and No is a possessive marker. As a Gaijin, I couldn’t tell you if that translates to “happy snow-rabbit fortress, or “happy rabbit of the snow-fortress”. I guess  we’ll find that out after we conquered the Japanese market (yeah, right). But in the mean time, I hope the name conveys fun, cuteness and also a bit of silliness.

Why the Japanese angle, you ask? Apart from us being a big fan of all things Japanese (from Nintendo to Kawaii bento boxes), there is also serendipity. We created the game during a competition – one of the random requirements of this competition was to include bits of Unicode, i.e. non-English text. Like so: 幸せなウサギの雪要塞. Easiest requirement ever.

Pixel bunnies

For the next version of Happy Usagi, we are giving each bunny its own look. I say “we”, but actually most of the hard work is done by Olivia, graphic designer and source of inspiration for many helixsoft games.

Would you like to hear details on how we draw the graphics? For Happy Usagi, the bunnies are drawn with the very cool aseprite editor.  It has all the features you might expect from a pixel art tool. Especially useful for us is that you can export each layer as a separate spritesheet. I programmed the game to recolor and recombine the layers again in every possible way. For example,  a layer for spots, a layer for droopy ears and a layer for upright ears can be recombined into a brown bunny with grey spots and droopy ears, or a white bunny with brown spots and upright ears.

NB, I’m experimenting with sharing on social media. Like I said in the first post, I’m trying to figure out the best way to do this. If things are not to your liking, let me know, I can tweak it for the next time.

Indie Quest

Come and join me on my quest for the holy grail! Or in this case, my quest to develop and independently publish computer games! Ni!

Developing games is my passion. When I was a kid I already wrote my own version of tetris on a ZX spectrum. In more recent years I have written several small PC games. Most of these were created during weekend programming competitions, a.k.a. speedhacks. These are always fun to do, and the result is usually interesting and sometimes even entertaining! But they also tend to be somewhat simple and incomplete.

Now I want to take it to the next level. I don’t want to just make games that  are “fun for five minutes”, after which you can lean back and appreciate “how cool that  it was made in such a short time”. No, I want to turn these into games that are lasting fun, maybe even addictive, and certainly worth paying for.

With this blog, I want to show my progress. I want to document my inroads into the indie gaming business. And I want to use this blog as a way to gather feedback, to find out if I’m going in the right direction.

So what are my plans? At the start I’m going to be opportunistic, and work with what I’ve got. I’m expanding one of the  most promising speedhack games: Happy Usagi No Yuki Fortress. So at first you can expect a lot of posts about this game.

My long-term plan is to shift to a particular niche, namely computer games that are “Educational”. That term may mean different things to different people, so I will definitely follow up in a  future post to  explain what the term means to me. And I’m working on a  “sekrit project” that is going to be an educational game. In due time, you’ll hear all about it, right here on this blog.

I’m looking forward to comments! I’ll publish this blog on various social media, so you’ll know about it. But which social media would you like to see this on? And what would you find most interesting to read about? By the way, what do you think of the graphics in the header of this blog? I’m figuring this out as I go along, so please let me know!