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TIGSource ForumsFeedbackDevLogsSpiral Drive: Space RTS for iPad and Android
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Author Topic: Spiral Drive: Space RTS for iPad and Android  (Read 2398 times)
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« on: August 15, 2013, 09:51:28 am »

Probably should have started this much sooner, but up until a few days ago there was a very real chance that the game would go up in smoke... like so many before it. Happily, it survived!

It was the end of April 2013. 3 months have passed since I resigned from a lucrative but unfulfilling job.

I had enough savings to last for 6 more months. Or at least I would have, if I didn't have to pay for my son's operation to fix his undescended testicle. Poor guy.

That left me with maybe 3 months. Maybe. After that, I would have to start asking my wife for money. I didn't want that, I'm a provider dammit.

I had just given up on an artsy fartsy flop of a game. It was time to sell out. Make a tower defense game. Make a quick and dirty sequel to one of my own games. Anything, so long as it took less than 3 months.

I wish it were that easy. But there's this jerk at the back of my head who kept saying "Aww, is that the best you can do?"

So I started on a new project called "Warp Gates".

It was to be an RTS in the vein of Relic's Company of Heroes. There would be two bases, or "Warp Ships", that could call in squads of smaller ships. You would move these ships around the map, capturing strategic points and building up enough strength until finally assaulting the enemy Warp Ship directly. There would be a rock-paper-scissors dynamic to the units.

I wanted to launch the game on iPad and Android tablets. Why? I am a PC gamer at heart, and I could never make a PC game that I would be proud of in less than 3 months. Also, tablets only. Mobile phones I felt were too small for an RTS. This gave me a useful set of constraints:

  • Path-drawing mechanics would be used to move units. iPad players would be familiar with this mechanic from games like Flight Control
  • The entire map had to fit on one screen. No map scrolling, because it would mess with the path-drawing mechanics
  • The units must be small enough to allow for adequate strategizing on one screen
  • Since the units have to be small, their designs must be simple and readable
  • Path-finding is CPU-intensive and I wasn't sure the iPad CPU could handle multiple units doing path-finding at the same time. So, units should be allowed to travel to anywhere on the map in a straight line. Hence the Space setting.
  • Fine-grained unit selection would be very difficult on the iPad, since fingers have no where near the precision of a mouse-pointer

I didn't have time to fully think about the implications of these constraints. Time was wasting. I had a solid plan (or so I thought), so it was time to jump right into art production!

I wanted the game to have an isometric perspective, which meant I had to make sprite sheets of the ships from multiple angles. 3DS Max allowed me to do this quickly. I stuck with low poly models for now because I was expecting to make some revisions. OK so I had some ships, now for some backgrounds.

Homeworld style Middle-eastern inspired space backgrounds! I could hear Paul Ruskay's Aboriginal music playing in my head the whole time.

Unfortunately this style is really time consuming. I needed a quick and dirty method of coming up with plenty of space backgrounds. I decided to just mash some space stereotypes together.

Hmm not bad for 2 hours. Take a public domain photo of a nebula (thanks NASA!), recolor it with some circle gradients and the "overlay" blend mode. Add some more stars using Noise > levels > "screen" blend mode. Make a big circle, give it a gradient, glowing edge, and some light texturing with cloud images. Lastly, slap a big Lens Flare on it and bam! Hey, I could keep doing this for all the backgrounds!

I wish that voice hadn't chimed in then... "Looking a bit generic isn't it? Doesn't seem very inspired". "Shut up", I said. "It'll have to do".

OK, the backgrounds are good. Time to make some better looking ships!

That's a lot of detail! No way I could have done all those details by hand in the time I had. I have this little magic plugin for 3DS Max called Greeble which automatically adds details to any quad or triangular surface. Thank you Klanky the Robot! Your plugin saved my life. I used the Mental Ray renderer and the "Glazed Ceramic Tile" material that comes with 3DS Max to get the realistic lighting effect. All massive time savers.

Here's the new Warp ship design. I started thinking of it more and more like the Mothership from Homeworld (God I loved that game). The story would revolve around the journey of this ship.

Here are the little ships that will fight it out. They will be warped in by the Mothership.

Here's a screenshot of the working prototype I had. I haven't been talking about the programming aspect of this project much, because well... it's hard to talk about programming without sounding like a complete nerd. But I did have a working prototype at this point. Ships would form little squads and you could draw paths for the squads to follow.

By now I had a story forming in my head. This mighty Mothership from Earth, forced to flee in the face of impeding doom. There would have to be some dialogue, a human face to give context to the epic space battles. Maybe cutscenes?

At this point things started to fall apart. I started spending more time just staring at the work I had already done, imagining wild scenarios in my head, instead of actually making something.

During these flights of fancy I was constantly struggling to reconcile my epic story with scientific facts that I couldn't escape. If the Mothership can warp in ships, where are the ships coming from? What is building them? Why can't the Mothership just build the ships itself, like in Homeworld? That's silly, you can't really have a spaceship just barfing out more spaceships, it takes YEARS to build a spaceship!

Come to think of it... Homeworld didn't really make much sense. It beguiled me with it's haunting music and beautiful art... but I realized that, mechanics-wise, it wasn't a very good game at all. All you had to do was max out your fleet populations and then let those pretty little ships do their thing. Also, you had to choose between playing the game properly (that is, zoomed out), or "experiencing" the game's beauty (zoomed all the way in).

It was too much... I couldn't make a story! I wasn't a writer! I was a programmer with some cheap Photoshop skills. I had to pull myself away from this epic story I imagined and drastically change directions. Oh crap, I only had 2 months left!

And then this happened:

I'll explain how we got to this point in part 2!
« Last Edit: August 16, 2013, 02:52:18 am by nicotuason » Logged

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« Reply #1 on: August 15, 2013, 10:13:45 am »

Wow, ok so it looks like you went from an RTS to a top-down shooter...  Maybe?  Can't wait for part 2 Smiley

I'm not entirely sure if you are still making that original game, but I would like to say that I like your ship design.  It was also cool to see the process you went through, especially in making those backgrounds Shocked  Also, *high-five* for being inspired by Homeworld! That was an awesome game Grin

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« Reply #2 on: August 15, 2013, 12:07:57 pm »

wow, great graphics, I wish you could post a gif or video for us to see it all in action.

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« Reply #3 on: August 16, 2013, 02:51:35 am »

Part 2: The Dyson Shell

Thinking about an epic story was paralyzing the actual development of the game. I had to let it go. File those dreams under the mental cabinet marked "will do when I have a million dollars". The correct course of action right now would be to forget about story and completely focus on gameplay.

I wish I had done just that.

"No! The game must take the player on an epic journey! If not across the stars, then maybe around a single one".

A Dyson shell is a mega structure that an advanced civilization might build around their home star to capture all of it's energy. Anyone who reads and watches a lot of sci-fi would be familiar with the idea. To my knowledge, there hadn't been a game that fully explored the concept yet.

It solved a lot of the story problems too... The sun's energy would power the factories that produced the ships. With that much energy, you could produce a spaceship very quickly I imagined. Such a thing would also provide motivation for different factions to fight for control over. It seemed perfect.

I was so confident in the idea that I went ahead and made the Title screen:

and the level select screen:

This was done by creating a huuuge self-illuminated sphere in 3DS Max. The "shell" part was a smaller segment of sphere that hovered over the main sphere. I used the "select random polygons" tool to punch holes in the outer shell. Lastly, I extruded the outer shell, added the Greeble modifier, and added a healthy dose of glare. The rest was done in Photoshop.

I got the title of "Solarmax" from one of my earlier games. It seemed to fit the theme.

The backgrounds would now have to be redone. It took many iterations to get the effect I wanted:

I started with a flat plane and punched out some segments. I put the Mental Ray light source under the structure to give the impression that it was hovering above a searing hot sun. The rest of the work was done by the Greeble modifier. This first version looked too basic. I tried adding some curves.

I tried using circular tubes instead of planes. Hmm still looks too messy, and there wasn't a lot of variation in the details.

This is the layout I was finally happy with. Good variation between large and small structures. I tried some color tests:

This is what the final render looked like:

The glowing furnaces would be the strategic points that you had to capture. There was no longer a Mothership. The furnaces would produce ships for you so long as you controlled them. To win, you had to capture all the furnaces.

All this time, I was skipping out on a crucial part. I didn't actually test to see if the game was fun before committing to the idea.

I focused on getting a playable level working. By now I had the ship movement mechanics working well, but it was the actual strategic gameplay that would make or break this game. I could only hope that it was fun to play.

Yes! It was fun on the first play!

It was fun on the second and third plays...

And then doubt started creeping in. The more I playtested it, the more I realized that the gameplay was too shallow. There wasn't enough thinking involved. I needed to add different types of strategic points.

This was a problem because the furnaces were built into the level. They weren't assets that I could move around... they had to be rendered along with the rest of the map to get the correct lighting effects.

By this point I had created around 6 levels. They were fully rendered and good to go, but I soon realized that they all looked the same. Despite the different layouts of the background structure, there was nothing that distinguished one level from the next. They were all orange and black. The setting didn't leave much room for a change of palette.

It wasn't working out. The Dyson Shell seemed like a cool idea at first, but it wasn't fertile breeding ground for interesting gameplay.

1 month left.

There was a time when I would have just shelved the project. Back when I had a steady income and wasn't on a time constraint. I couldn't do that now, not with my savings running out and too much work already put in.

I threw out the Dyson shell, along with all the rendered levels and the title screen.

I found that ambition is the greatest motivator when getting started, but it can easily turn into your greatest enemy when finishing.

In part 3 we'll catch up to the present, and see what the game has evolved into.

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« Reply #4 on: August 16, 2013, 05:51:42 am »

Thanks for sharing! I love those little backstories of how the concept is developed. And since I'm partial to the single screen RTS concept Wink I'm definitely following.

Waiting impatiently for part III...

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« Reply #5 on: August 17, 2013, 05:42:00 pm »

Part 3: Getting it right

If I was ever going to finish the game before my savings ran out, I had to drop all this pretentious crap about epic stories and hard sci-fi. Just make a functional game. Is that so hard?

Man, just make it like Star Wars. Everything doesn't need an explanation. People just want to see spaceships blowing the crap out of each other. And make it pretty while you're at it.

"But that won't earn me respect from my peers! That wont… wait what are you…" *BLAM* I shot that asshole.

Game plan: Backgrounds, Structures, Ships, Levels, Menus, Fast, Go!

Backgrounds: Must be pretty but shouldn't scream at the player. The player has to focus on the units.

Good! Not very interesting on its own, but when you put structures and units on top of it, it will look alright. I hope. I placed the grid there to help me visualize the isometric perspective, and I decided to keep it because it made things look more "tactical".

Colors! If I change the color palette every few levels, maybe it will trick the player into thinking he's traveling to different locations. And going on an epic journey.

Backgrounds completed! Now lets jump back into 3DS Max and make some ships and structures.

I modeled out everything I thought I'd need. Structures with different purposes, ships with different characteristics, and even some alien-looking things.

Then I rushed blindly into the level design. Plop down some basic structures first. Introduce the player into all the concepts slowly.

I made the decision early on that you would only be able to produce one type of unit. No more rock-paper-scissors mechanics. On screen, these units were tiny and it would be hard to distinguish one unit type from another. Also, I figured it would be difficult to have to select different units types on the iPad. The controls needed to be simple.

As I was building the levels, I realized that to create interesting gameplay I only really needed two types of structures: Production, and Supply. Production structures would produce ships at a steady rate. Supply structures increased the number of ships you could support at one time. The strategy would revolve around capturing these structures.

Every few levels I would introduce a new faction whose units had different characteristics. One faction had speedy units. One had tough but slow units. This changed up the gameplay just enough to keep it interesting.

I wished I had spent more time designing levels than experimenting with concepts. The levels were super important to creating fun and interesting gameplay in a strategy game.

The levels were also influencing which structures and units would stay, and which would be dropped. If I couldn't build an interesting level with it, it was useless.

25 levels later, I had my final set of structures and units:

The structures only needed to be rendered once per team color since they didn't move, but the ships had to rotate whenever they changed direction. I used the animation features of 3DS Max to rotate each ship 360 degrees over 64 frames.

There was one trope of strategy games that I wanted to do away with: life bars. They were a necessary evil in most games, but I couldn't stand them. I spent all this time making sure my graphics look good, and then I have to cover it up with a lifebar!?

I thought about space battles in the movies. No life bars there. When something gets shot, it explodes. That's what you expect to see. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to try out a new combat mechanic:

It's a bit hard to see what's going on in the gif, but I implemented a new system of missiles vs point defenses. When in range of an enemy, our ship would fire a missile at it. The missile would then track the enemy independently and attempt to hit it.

At the same time, the enemy would have fired it's own missile at our ship. Each ship has a point defense gun that would try to shoot down the incoming missile. It would fire 3 times at the incoming missile, each bullet having a 50% chance of shooting it down.

Sometimes the missile would make it past all 3 bulllets and destroy the ship. Sometimes the ship would get lucky and shoot down multiple incoming missiles.

It worked better than I expected. It made the ship to ship combat exciting to watch. No more staring at life bars. There was a bit of luck involved, but you could still affect the outcome of a battle by making sure to group ships together for mutual protection.

During this time I was also working on the AI. "Artificial Intelligence" sounds intimidating, but the truth is that it's actually very simple. It's nothing more complex than a couple of if...then...else statements.

Despite its simple behavior, the AI proved challenging to beat because it could always out-multitask you. The first time it beat me I felt quite proud of it. I called it my "idiot child". I actually had to slow down the speed at which the AI gives orders because it was too hard.

I tried putting 4 AI factions on one map to see how they'd fight it out:

It was a space battle! A space strategy battle! For me it was glorious to behold. I loved it.

This was it. This was the point where I knew I had a game that was going to see the light of day. People needed to play this. I would not abandon it.

The only problem was that my 3 months were up.

So I swallowed my pride and asked my wife to pay for next month's expenses. And maybe the month after that. Thanks honey! (I'm a terrible husband, all I do is sit at the computer all day)

It is now mid-August. I am in my 4th month of development and the game is coming along quite nicely. My thoughts have shifted from development to monetization. This game better pay some damn bills for all the trouble it was worth.

I'll keep this thread updated with my efforts to make some money out of the game. I'll try to post sales figures when I can. Haha, sales figures... maybe I am getting ahead of myself. The game might just get buried under the app store.

In the meantime, here's a gameplay video of the latest build!

Thanks for reading!

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« Reply #6 on: August 17, 2013, 08:30:58 pm »

Very interesting. Thanks for taking the time to explain all this.

The art style has turned out pretty well. I was skeptical at first, but they look good. The dyson sphere style you settled on looked good as well, shame you had to scrap it.

The random chance to shoot down missiles sounds like a bad idea to me, frankly. Instead, why not give make the point defenses automatically shoot down missiles inside their range at a certain rate? If you made the missile launch range longer than the PDS range, the combat would revolve around positioning your units to overwhelm the enemies PDS one ship at a time, while making sure your ships adequately cover each other.
Human players would probably be better at this thinking than AI, which would give them an advantage over the AI's ability to multi-task strategically.

Also, I can't really tell, are all these units selected individually or are they in squads?

Are you planning to have multiplayer?

edit: Also. I didn't realize you made Desert Moon. I actually talked to you shortly about that on Kongregate under a different name. I love that game. Confidence that this game will be good has risen significantly.
« Last Edit: August 17, 2013, 10:46:08 pm by 7heSama » Logged

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« Reply #7 on: August 18, 2013, 12:15:21 am »

Looks great!

I too thought the dyson shell theme looked good but in reallity it would only serve as a distraction - so good choice there.

The supply/production mechanics builds upon the mechanics of dyson game (oh, was this the inspiration for the theme?) and adds a whole new level to the stratey.

If anything I'd make the ships smaller - they seem silly when there's a lot of ships grouped together. I'd also add some animation when the structure is being taken over. Currently the ships just hover there idly.

Any plans on porting this to other platforms or is this IPad exlusive?

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« Reply #8 on: August 18, 2013, 04:29:03 am »

Interesting look at game development from the POV of someone else. Do tell us about how monetization goes, k?

Do I need a signature? Wait, now that I have a Twitter I do: https://twitter.com/the_impmaster
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« Reply #9 on: August 18, 2013, 08:43:10 am »

just tried out the greeble plugin! It's so awesome. Might be usign it in the future!

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« Reply #10 on: August 18, 2013, 09:52:43 am »

Hey guys thanks for the feedback!

@7heSama - Hmm that's not a bad idea... It might be too late to change the point defense system now (will throw off the difficulty balance) but I'll try out your version just to see the effect.

selection method - I totally forgot to cover this earlier. There are no longer any squads and you can move ships around individually. But, if you hold down your finger before drawing a path, a "selection radius" will grow and all the ships inside the radius will receive the order.

Multiplayer - not planned on launch but if the game does well I will try my best to implement it.

@Goran - yeah it would be ideal if there was a better animation when capturing structures, but the "progress bar" was the quickest to implement and easiest to understand. If I have the time I'll try to experiment with different animations. Also, I'm worried that if I make the ships any smaller they'll just look like little specks.

Currently I'm planning to launch it simultaneously on Ipad and Android. I've sent out some emails to mobile publishers but most have said that they're only interested in publishing freemium games. If I can't find a mobile publisher, I might launch on Flash portals as well and use the flash version to promote the mobile versions.

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« Reply #11 on: August 18, 2013, 02:48:46 pm »

This looks really cool. I was thinking of going a similar route, but using voxel tech, so I really love the space RTS combat sorta thing. We ultimately shifted towards a different concept, so I'm glad to see you working on this!

The artstyle is great, really love the way that's shaping up. Will be curious to see how you define the AI for a game like this.

Keep it up!

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« Reply #12 on: August 20, 2013, 06:06:03 pm »

Spiral Drive is ready for playtesting! I've created a new thread in the playtesting section: http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=35499.0

If you have an Ipad and would like to try out the game, please sign up for the game's TestFlight: http://tflig.ht/1cWVXxt

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