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  • Developing Speed Limit: 0-60 In Two Years

    [04.01.21]
    - Igor Kolar

  • Turn of the Tide & Aviary

    I never actually played the Return of the Jedi for the Atari, but I found the isometric perspective refreshing for a shooter. We could, arguably, have just as easily made the helicopter levels a top down shooter, but this is not a game that threads old ground. Even though we had this level back in our prototype stage when I thought we could pull off a perspective in the distance, the difference is so vast it could easily be mistaken for a different game. The helicopter started off as a mix between the one from Blue Thunder and the Apache, but I'm glad it ended up being the much more creative brain child of our artist Jurica Cvetko.

    Vertigo

    Out of all the stages, the plane level had the perhaps farthest leap from its original inspiration. Part 2 of the Moose hunters stage in Mickey Mania had this amazing 3D (or 3D looking) effect, magically rendered on the old 16-bit Sega Mega Drive. Also, anime often used hyper angled shots to relatively cheaply convey the sensation of speed, specially in the old days, before the extensive use of 3D. The result in the prototype however was somewhat underwhelming, so I'm really glad Jan Juracic came up with this barrel rolling idea out of the blue, pun certainly intended.

    One thing I'm particularly fond of in this stage is the level of completely unnecessary realism. Everything moves very fast and you're unlikely to catch it just by playing, but all the control surfaces on the planes react as they would in real life. So brakes, ailerons, lifts, rudders all move when they're supposed to. Also, the damage is, like in the car level, location based. There is a structural frame layer drawn below the aircraft's skin for each enemy, and you can see it as you peel away the top layer with bullets.

    How the Pixel Sausage is Made

    Since every two levels, the gameplay changes completely, we were learning how to design different styles of games on the fly. For the first one, we had cut-outs of every carriage with enemy positions and triggers drawn out months before the first line of code was even laid down.

    For the car levels, Jan went into his architect mode and constructed what is probably the most proportionally accurate highway system in any pixel art game ever made. Because I have a background with 3D software, we created animations of behaviours we'd like to be able to experience, and entire full screen sequences of the level, again, before any code was available.

    As the old saying goes, even the best laid out plans don't survive contact with the enemy, in this case, playing the game. So of course nothing is exactly as it was initially drawn out. It did however give us a good foundation and understanding of what we wanted the feeling of *successful* playing the game to be.

    Speed Limit started off as colour coded because I saw a style gap in pixel art games.

    If we go back to the vintage games, pixel art was the only thing you could do because you only had so many pixels to spare. Outside of say Lemmings and the initial Super Mario, both of which did it brilliantly, I think there was only a handful of stylized characters, that really worked at such a low pixel density.

    If you look at say Amiga games, they certainly went out of their way to create impressive, (let's dare say early cyber impressionist) works of figurative art in their games. Visual communications designers having had their shot at web design and certain popular, design oriented companies have thoroughly infused minimalism into our collective consciousness these days. So too, in digital art we have gone back to the basics that is pixel art, trying to tell more with less.

    Visual Story Telling

    The vestiges of the primary colour palette (red, blue, yellow) coding in Speed Limit can most notably be seen in the first few and last few levels, or rather, during daytime. However, since Speed Limit is a game that is all about shifting perspectives and gameplay styles, it was soon obvious that a single palette wouldn't make sense for the entire game. So, as the night falls or the dawn rises, we move into secondary colours, and for night time we wash it out with tertiary colours, and focus on the lights.

    There is no HUD in Speed Limit, and the only text you'll read are the menus and the level titles.

    After I've gone through the process of making a Latin and Cyrillic font for our previous game, I was dead set to have no text in the game, but due to the ever-changing nature of gameplay, we had to make some concessions. The game's relentlessness between levels, and the sensation of going ever faster was a priority, so a quick explanation of controls was faster than tutorial sections.

    Tutorial sections are a relatively good practice in my opinion, but we don't want you to relax until you're done playing, or you win the game. For that reason alone, you're given as much warning, as our protagonist, he gets the gun and has to go, you get what the secondary button does and you have to go.

    This, in combination with the minimalist character design is what I think wasn't covered as much in retro games. At least, it wasn't before we started working on it.

    Between a Pixelart Rock and a Hard Drive

    Speed Limit is an unapologetically hard game. I can't say the one-shot, one-kill idea was there from the very beginning, but the more of the retro vibe it had, and the more hand-holding games we played over time, the more it became clear that authentically difficult was the way to go.

    To be fair, it is "one shot-one kill" in only 4/10 (or is it 11? ;)), levels. What it specifically is, is telling a visual story. There are no hit points or health bars for you to keep an eye on. Instead, if you see your character get shot, your character dies. If you can see your car blowing smoke after the hood has been decorated with pixel-accurate-collision bullet holes, you know you're almost gone.

    This reactive-story telling is what made me reach out to Jan to come up with a more interesting backstory to the game. I'm not gonna reveal it here, and it doesn't interfere with the gameplay at all, but I do hope people catch up on the little clues we've left around the game.

    Hard games, of course, are not a new thing.

    Motivation I think, is the main distinction to why a game should or shouldn't be hard. Making a game incredibly difficult so that people would dish out quarters at the arcade because, by surprising the players with unexpected prompts, e.g. Dragon's Lair, was in my opinion possibly good business, but bad design.

    Likewise if you purposely add levels with different gameplay mechanics just to make it hard to beat a game in what would normally be a time you'd rent one for. However, I'm not into making skinner boxes that hold your hand and reward you for every bit of progress you do.

    And eventually people realized that there is a market for people who enjoy the thrill of learning to play a new game. It's why (the actual) Super Mario Brothers 2 exists. Some time later, that same approach would birth Ninja Gaiden Black, and the recent popularity of rogue like games, and perhaps most popularly Dark Souls and their plentiful imitators.

    Stakes have to matter, even if we're just pretending.

    The trick is to make the game difficult, but fair. I think we did a good job at it, but we can only find out for sure once it is out.

    [This content has been reposted from Speed Limit blog. You can check out Speed Limit (and try the demo!) at its Steam page.]

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