Jeff Crenshaw is one of my best friends. We met in high-school, and ever since we have talked about making video games. Designing games was his childhood passion, just as computer programming was mine. Over the years we have discussed various projects, even invested actual effort into some, but none ever materialized into anything substantial.
Finally Getting it Done
Currently Jeff and I, and our friend Jesse James, are working to create an indie game. We wrote the first line of code on 30 January 2012 so now we have one year of development behind us. Unlike our youthful endeavors we are putting everything into this game. It will not only represent a major accomplishment for us as a trio; it will be the launchpad for the game development company we wish to create.
So I thought it would be appropriate to begin this programming and game-development blog with my thoughts on the first year of our game.
“The Game is What Exactly?”
I should begin by saying we have not chosen a title for our game. So I will refer to it as simply the Game. Who knows, maybe that will be the final title. We have a bad track-record when it comes to naming things.
The Game is best described as a shmup. Jeff and Jesse’s most recent indie project was the shmup V Prototype, and I am a die-hard fan of the Touhou Project series, so creating a shmup felt like a natural choice. The initial gameplay concept focused heavily on multiplayer. All of the early code and design aimed towards a fun multiplayer experience that players could enjoy both locally with a friend or online with people on the Internet.
But then after months of development Jeff voiced concerns that our direction at the time would not be interesting enough to garner attention or success. I should point out here that Jeff has years of professional experience in the game industry. As I said earlier, he has focused on creating games since childhood. He has pursued it with an admirable passion that I cannot help but respect, even if we were not friends.
So when Jeff pitched the idea of substantially changing the direction of the Game I felt confident trusting his decision. I had my doubts about whether it would be worth it, considering the setback it would cause with regard to expanding the scope of the game and increasing the time it would take to complete. But game design is his field of expertise and I trust him to know better than I do about such things.
The Game is no longer a multiplayer affair. It is still accurate to say it is a shmup, but now we are investing a heavy amount of effort into crafting an engaging single-player experience. The shmup genre is not known for great story-telling. But we aim to change people’s opinions about that. There is nothing inherent to shmups that prevents them from presenting an engrossing narrative. Game designers simply have not tried it that often.
A Whole Narrative Engine
We are writing what I (obviously) believe to be a great story. But great stories in video games also need great methods of presentation. To that end I have spent the past couple of months programming an entire engine to tell our story. It is a visual novel engine designed for use with LÖVE, a fantastic 2D game framework we’ve used since the start.
Shmups do not offer an obvious avenue for story-telling as a genre. So we needed to borrow from another source. Visual novels felt like the best choice to me. I am a fan of the genre and believe the style and structure of visual novels lends itself well to integration with different types of gameplay. You can see this in the visual novels that also act as simulation games or role-playing games with turn-based combat, class systems, and all of those other bells and whistles. So why not try the same merger with shmup gameplay?
Creating a Protagonist
For now I will refrain from saying too much about the plot and setting of the Game. But I want to talk about our female protagonist: Violet. All of us involved—we also have not decided on a company name, so bad with names—are sick and tired of the hyper-sexualization of female characters in video games, particularly Jesse and me. As an example I present the progression of Sophitia’s breast size. That kind of character design has become too prominent in the industry and I am dead-set on bucking that trend.
When it comes to designing and writing Violet I have spent my time looking at strong female characters from games and films. Women like Metroid’s Samus Aran and Ellen Ripley from the Alien movie franchise. I want Violet to evoke similar impressions from gamers, a woman with a strong will and attitude, but who also has emotional depth and is not merely a grunt who needs a huge sports bra.
Creating such a character also feels different for the shmup genre. While many shmups have characters, I feel confident saying that none have a cast as fleshed out as ours. Perhaps you could argue that the Touhou series has a well-developed cast; that would be fair. But we aim to tell a serious story, not the light-hearted and humorous tales of the Touhou world. Ours is a shmup packing social commentary about wage slavery and the struggles of the individual against ‘Big Business’.
Is it a reflection of our lives at the moment? Absolutely.
“When Will it be Done?”
Friends often ask me this question. After one year of work my only honest answer is, “I don’t know.” But we are aiming to present the Game at the 16th Annual Independent Games Festival. Until then stay tuned here or follow me on Twitter for updates. I will be writing more about the technical aspects of the game in the near future, such as how we designed a scriptable bullet engine, the narrative engine component, and our experiences with the LÖVE platform.
In the mean time feel free to ask any questions in the comments. And thanks for reading!