Monday, October 10, 2016
Several months ago when the sun was still shining over the streets of Northeast Portland I was showing the latest build of The Elementalist to one of my neighbors. It was our annual block party and I had promised the year before to show what I was working on and failed. So this year, with the kids a little older and able to fend for themselves somewhat I brought out my tablet and an XBOX 360 controller and was in the process of showing off. After playing through the intro sequence and seeing some of the later content and tools I have made to build the game my neighbor asked me the simple question: "so, what is your next milestone?"
I really didn't have a good answer at the time.
I have been working on The Elementalist for over six years. I have a Trello board to track my day-to-day work and ambition. I have sketchbooks, notebooks, papers, design docs, and other paraphernalia of my process scattered hither and yon across my desk, desktop and home to remind me of what I want this game to be. I have dozens of tabs in my favorite browser I don't dare close because they have some tool, tip, trick, or bit of arcane knowledge I know I might need to finally seal this project out of my consciousness for good. But for all the trees in this development process it can be hard to step back and see the forest.
I began this project because I wanted to build a game that took the fundamental components that I love from the classic 2D games of my childhood and combined them with a dose of modern features into something original and yet familiar. The Legend of Zelda remains one of the most important games for me and I wanted to blend that recipe of mystery, exploration, and progression with more complex puzzle and combat mechanics. I wanted to make something that both my kids and I would want to play.
I knew my protagonist would be a wizard almost right away. The combination of a relatively frail physical form with potent magical skills really fit my modus operandi and having a wide variety of abilities was a must for the puzzles that immediately started springing to mind. I began sketching right away and writing text documents describing what the game would need architecturally. It did not take long before I started my project under the inauspicious placeholder name "wizgame".
I wanted the game to be a strict 2D presentation with discrete rooms in the vein of the original Legend of Zelda but to include dynamic lighting and to scale to any resolution gracefully. The first code I wrote was to prove out these specific design goals and once that was complete I knew I was ready to take the red pill and begin the real journey.
This is not my first game project and having been a professional software engineer for many years and a manager of software teams I knew what I was biting off. I decided to start small. Literally.
Once I knew I could make my UI scale seamlessly to fit any display the real question was what would I use for the native resolution? I decided to start with 320x240 since it gave a good pixel-y feel to the display and was a native 4:3 ratio. It sounds archaic and possibly masochistic but the truth is that it has been a really fun challenge to work at that scale (fun fact: the original NES ran at 256x240). Every time I fire up the game as I develop I compare it in my mind to the legacy that inspired me and I like to think it is on the right path.
So, to get back to the original question, what is my next milestone? Getting a playable alpha into as many hands as possible and getting feedback. I have already started the Trello board with the last bit of "must-haves" for a public alpha and getting a blog up to discuss it with you all is another card that just got crossed off... just a few more to go.
I am really looking forward to sharing the last part of this journey with you.