This is the second in a series of posts that document the process of building a prototype game in about 7 days. Because I am writing it, it places special emphasis on the particulars of how the art and animation got made. It’s also getting increasingly technical. You can catch up with Part 1 here.
When we left our heroes, the time had come to start on the first screenshot mockup of FallGuy.
The first decision was game resolution. Most of the great modern pixel art games (DoDonPachi, ProGear, Street Fighter III, etc.) run somewhere in the neighborhood of 320×240 pixels, but there tend to be subtle variations on those numbers depending on which arcade board the game was designed for. I looked at screenshots of vertical shmups like Ikaruga and the bulk of the Cave lineup, and arrived at the conclusion that 224 pixels wide by 320 tall was going to work fine for our needs on this project.
THE MAIN CHARACTER
As soon as I had a resolution target, I made a blank Photoshop file at that rez and started working on our protagonist. The main character sprite is the representation of the player in the game, so getting him right is one of the most important art tasks. He needs to have the correct scale, a clear silhouette, good contrast with the environment (i.e. background, enemies, bullets), and general visual appeal. Finally, he needs to support core gameplay functionality with things like a clearly-indicated hitbox and a logical point from which bullets can be emitted. As I didn’t have any environment art yet, I focused on scale/silhouette/gameplay for the first pass.
When I was done, the character was just a simple black outline with a white fill, but all the heavy lifting of the character design was largely squared away. And yet… he wasn’t excellent? Really at all? This is probably a good time to mention that for this project, I was focused on getting things to the Good Enough line and then moving on, with a plan to return and polish/revise/start over if time allowed. For example, the character above is doing something with his right hand that looks more like a lewd gesture than holding a pistol. That issue became obvious as soon as I got him to this point, but the clock was ticking! Rather than embark on a complete character redesign, I simply considered the odds that all this art would get thrown away anyway, decided those odds were rather high, and focused on the biggest bang-for-buck revisions I had time for.
For example, if bullets are supposed to come out of that right hand, it should probably be aligned with the center of the character instead of being 5 pixels off to the right. That was an easy fix, so I made it (and a few others) before I started animating. Anything more difficult than that fell right off the back of the results train, and not just for expediency’s sake either. The fact is, I’m enough of a novice at this style of art that every single piece I create teaches me another 5 important lessons, so the payout of just putting miles on the tires still greatly exceeds the payout of mastering a single turn of the track.*
THE IDLE LOOP
The idle loop is actually somewhat rare in the classic shmup world, as most player craft are spaceships or airplanes of some stripe and have no soft bits to apply constant motion to. Typically, that sort of thing is limited to some sort of flicker in the exhaust of the jets or rockets or whatever the propulsion system of the ship is. In contrast, our character was wearing a business suit, and had no jets, so the natural idea was to animate his clothes flapping in the wind as he flew through the air.
This brought me to a tools question that I’ve been meaning to find the answer to for a while: what software will I use to produce these animations? For previous projects, I had used the following process:
- Animate at high resolution in an open-source 2d animation program called Pencil…
- …export that animation as an image sequence…
- …then batch downrez/crop the frames to the target size in Photoshop CS3…
- …import those frames into an open-source pixel animation program called Pixen…
- …and proceed to cleanup/color from there.
Long as that list is, this process actually had some nice things going for it: it allowed me to animate at high rez, which is great for someone who is new to the expressionist mental kung-fu that pixel art requires. Additionally, passing through Photoshop gave me access to all the filters and associated knobs/buttons that make it the definitive industrial raster software the world over. Finally, it worked, which is always a plus. Unfortunately, this pipeline suffered from having a lot of difficult-to-automate steps, and from relying on not one but two pieces of buggy open source software.
For the idle loop, which looked very simple anyway, I decided to try doing the whole process in Photoshop.
Many people don’t know about the remora of animation support that clings to the underside of Photoshop CS3; I suspect its presence would be classified as a bug by the folks over at Adobe. By that version of the Creative Suite, almost all the animation support features had been relocated from Photoshop/ImageReady to another Adobe app called Fireworks. However, just enough of it remains in Photoshop that you can still get animations done if you plan carefully. And as we all know, if you’re animating in 2d, you should be planning carefully anyway.
What I learned from doing this animation in Photoshop was that you can indeed still use it, but it’s a deeply counter-intuitive workflow for someone with a traditional animation background. For example, it stores individual layer visibility state per-frame instead of the typical discrete-images-along-a-timeline metaphor. This probably makes a lot of sense when you’re creating web graphics, but it’s maddening if you’re planning to draw a custom image for every frame anyway. One useful side-effect of that design decision is that you can use the feature in concert with layer and group masks to achieve useful things like per-limb frame offsets and the like. Unfortunately, such feats are unwieldy in the extreme, especially in comparison with any given 3d animation package (where the difficulty of said feats would be most readily compared to that of falling off a log).
There are of course days when it’s worth the pain, so I’ll definitely keep Photoshop it in my back pocket for certain classes of task, but most of my takeaway was that I should find a better (or at least more straightforward) tool for my meat-and-potatoes 2d animation work.
THE SWORD ATTACK
My next task was to animate him swinging his sword with gust and bravado. After the weirdness of using Photoshop, I felt renewed excitement to revisit Pixen. While buggy, Pixen was obviously designed from the ground up for this exact purpose (probably after looking at GraphicsGALE), and I was able to stop fighting the tool after just a few hours and focus my energy instead on bringing the character to life. That old 2d animation juice started to flow for the first time in years, and actually I managed to create something I was pretty happy with:
The lessons of Pixen were to save often, and keep things simple whenever possible. This is because it’s definitely, definitely going to crash on you all the time. The core functionality is (fairly) safe, but the further you venture out into the badlands of the extended feature set, the greater the odds that you’re going to step on a landmine. Also, even though it’s got lots of neato features like per-frame layers and custom palettes and so on, I found the complexity of wrangling all the moving parts of a 10 frame animation to be all that I could handle. Even something as simple as dealing with layers pulled me out of my fragile groove and got me thinking about my tools again, instead of what I was trying to create with them.
I suppose that was the other lesson of Pixen: that besides being the best of what was around, it was also good enough on some absolute scale of my particular needs. The day will probably come when I convince Tim to write me the pixeling tool of my dreams, or at least to spot-weld features and bugfixes onto Pixen until it becomes that tool. For now, though, I’ve used nothing better for turning jumbled piles of pixels into believable animated characters.
Thus concluded Day 3. See you next time for Day 4, which features Unexpected Reversals and A Moment Of Truth!
* FYI, you can count on more tortured/mixed metaphors in that style from here on out.