I’ve been working as artist/animator/cocreator with my friend Sal for our game development company TACO GRAVEYARD. With the release of our third iOS game PENUMBEAR right around the corner, I thought I’d talk a bit about my half of the production, the art and animation. Sal could write a lengthy look back on programming and his thought processes and Chris could talk a lot about how he came to make the music, or Josh on the sound effects, so this won’t be a full post-mortem so much as my thoughts on my role in this game’s creation.
Sal and I had done two games for iOS prior to this, THE FOUR HATS, and OMEGAPIXEL. The majority of THE FOUR HATS was done in a weekend as part of a Ludum Dare game jam. The main character was fully animated and the 3 other characters had “idle” animations, and assets for the first “zone” were completed. We enjoyed what we had enough to make a full game of it, but set a deadline of one month to wrap it up so we could get back to another project (which remains unreleased.) The characters in TFH had animation cycles of usually 3 or 4 frames, the colors were bold but somewhat flat, and compared to what we’d learn on subsequent projects, there was little in the way of particles and a weak physics system. We’ve definitely been learning as we go.
OMEGAPIXEL was a project Sal started and I hopped on to add some art beefiness. Sal did a lot more work on particles and physics in this game, and the 8-bit aesthetic meant I had little to do in the way of animation.
We went through a series of false starts after this, and a lighting system in a zombie project we were working on inspired Sal to do a quick prototype for PENUMBEAR. The prototype had a few lamps this weird pacman-with-feet guy could turn off and on, a key and a door. The lamps would cast shadows off of blocks forming penumbras that the creature could land on.
The idea excited me, as I’d been sloshing my way through a ton of painted zombie frames and feeling like a zombie myself, so my brain wandered with all kinds of ideas. Just to give Sal something to play with while I painted zombies, I sent him some art for the key, door, background, and a few varied blocks.
While I painted zombie frames, Sal added color variety to the lights and started building some test levels. The level “To The Flame” in the finished game was actually redone many times as this early test level. It was already much more fun and interesting than the zombie game was, so we decided to put off the zombie game and go forth on this other thing and see where it leads.
I sketched out some ideas for a main protagonist. For some reason I kept picturing a wizard that could use his wand to turn lights off and on. I tried a Limbo-looking bear and decided the bear was kinda cool. I tried a few varied bears and then tossed the scarf on one. Then I tried this bear with the scarf in a few shades – a white one, a gray one, and a black one. We had the idea for the firefly as a key, and the idea initially was to have the fireflies he collected make him glow a bright green, which looked good with the darker bear. Eventually that was dropped but we kept the dark bear.
Painting a background:
I have a horrible time with organization, something Sal does not suffer. I frequently forget limitations, save things in varied states sometimes and only in a finished state other times, making editing difficult. As I went through the game I’d learn new techniques or find ways to make things look better, making the assets not quite match. I just can’t seem to help it.
I went to work on assets for the game, first making blocks of different sizes and groupings. For most levels we would have one giant sheet with the majority of items – blocks, decoration for behind the blocks, some foreground items to scatter around and interact with. Then there were enemies, and eventually larger middle-ground assets for some parallax scrolling and depth. Some levels use every inch of space allotted, others much less, in my artist brain I just played it by ear, going with the flow.
Sal would put all these pieces into a level editor, so we could place a start door and end door, and start moving blocks around wherever. With FOUR HATS, Sal did all the level design, but with this one I had some levels I worked on as well. I was excited by the prospects level design opened up, it was like another piece of art for me. Some things that were exciting for me:
Naming levels – I liked the idea of having puns, or clues, or visual motifs by giving them interesting names. Some of the levels I did are named Modern Warbear, Lighthouse, Emptiness, and all 9 circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno. (Also of note, we came up with a cool system of using the actual level layouts in these level select paintings to generate these blotchy works of art, some clues can be found studying them, but they look cool regardless!)
Color Themes – making a level could be like making a painting with the colored lights we used. There could be icy cold blue levels, red hot levels. With the level Lighthouse, I had purple and blues to resemble a sky and a bright white light atop a long pillar to represent the lighthouse. With the level Night N Day, a switch changes the lighting scheme from a few large light blues and a large yellow to a few dark blues and lots of tiny white lights, representing the shift from day to night.
Variation – some levels could resemble platformers, others are deep mazes, some are wide open and others are claustrophobic.
References – I liked to reference other games when possible. It’s a recurring thing in Penumbear, from the way he holds up a Bonus Bear item like Link holding the triforce to the castle level select looking like the castle in Ghosts n Goblins. I tried to take it further, making a level called Samus It Ever Was, in which I tried to mimic the maps of the first Metroid game in level design.
With the level editor, we could also zoom out and see a full level in one shot which makes for some cool images.
At first I liked to really map out my levels on pen and paper, old school. Sal preferred to make up a level as he went so he could keep tossing in surprises and play everything new as he made it. I liked to think of it as building set pieces, with a puzzle here and a color theme there, and it helped me to make maps, like this one for the level Alcatraz in the dungeon.
Once we decided on making multiple zones in the castle, we spent one game jam weekend trying to figure out how to do a boss level. Penumbear is never on the offensive – short of turning on a lamp to kill enemies that die in light, he doesn’t attack or kill anything. His goal is just to find the door. This made bosses a little tricky. What we ended up with are levels like the others, with the addition of a giant creature either chasing or blocking or somehow affecting the layout of the level. Once we had the design for the first boss, a ginormous head with lots of eyes that shoot lasers Penumbear can walk on, we knew bosses would be a really cool addition to the game.
By the time we worked on the second zone, a major tone change had to happen. The basement had been pretty high on exploration and learning the ropes, set to a minimalist haunting music loop our friend Chris Negrini did. With the basement we went for something darker. I decided right away to change the color scheme from the blues, greens and grays of the basement to more purples. The background stayed very dark because the lights popped much better that way. The decoration changed substantially. Instead of stalagmites, columns, and ivy, we had rusty spikes, prison bars, barbed wire and chainlink fences. The music from here on out became a bit more lively and quirky. Also, thanks to the program Spriter, we had larger creatures to animate.
Each zone had it’s own new creatures, in the Dungeon we went from little critters that roll around blocks or march back and forth to larger creatures that pound the ground with their fists and require timing to get around, or another that breathed fire across the room.
As I made assets, Sal would work on new tricks and start making levels, I’d make a few levels and then get onto the next zone. The Cavern was very open and chill compared to the dungeon, followed by the Fireplace, where things got very intense. I did concept art for each zone before working on assets.
All in all we ended up with over 100 levels to play through, in 6 zones.
As we thought of new things for the bear to do or places where he looked awkward, it was easy to add new animations because he was the only character to really need a lot of movement. As it stands there’s about 200 frames of animation, 8 for most of his cycles, walking, running, jumping. He can double jump so there’s 2 jumping animations. Bonking his head, pushing into something, running out of breath, lifting bonus bears, and of course there were a myriad of ways to die took up a lot of animation.
Speaking of the bonus bears, as collectables towards a 100% completion, these were hidden all over the castle as little gray bears with bow ties. Apparently there’s some kind of bear collector living there. One of the later additions were special video game bears that referenced other games and used interesting techniques to find them associated with their game. For instance, a bear dressed up like the main protagonist in Spelunky is hidden deep in a cave. To find the bear with a Mario hat, keep pipes in mind. There are a few Sonic bears that require speed to reach before the bear is no longer obtainable. These were the touches that made this game really feel like something special.
Sal worked on the game full time (which is underselling it, he easily passed 40 hour weeks working on this), while I had to juggle a day job and working on my next book with work on the game, and especially towards the end it got to be pretty stressful. The levels Sal came up with were getting more and more difficult and I wasn’t able to get through them for a good while. I couldn’t test the game and work on the game while juggling everything else going on. I can now say that I have played through each level, but it’s a good challenge for those up for it! We tried to make it worth the effort by hiding all kinds of secrets in the game; there are hidden levels, warp zones, the video game bears, special rare golden bears. Even once you finish the game there’s so much to find. There’s also a second quest – complete with a new protagonist you’d recognize from the game that I won’t spoil here but he has a new mechanic and it changes the gameplay completely. Good luck to anyone who finds all there is to find!
The game was developed for the iPad and OSX; we planned on a large screen for all the detail, and worked on levels on our macs. Sal started fiddling with an iPhone port though, and while a little more difficult to play at that size, with some enlargened controls it was certainly playable, and now we have an iPhone version as well.
The last days of the game’s creation were filled with polish. We added a scramble animation the bear uses that covers up any awkward frames, drips of water, some shading techniques, menu reworking. Sal added a lens flare to the lamps as you run by that I really love, it feels like part of the game now and I’m glad we worked it in. I went in and edited Sal’s effects for fire and water to make them more in my style. We playtested like crazy.
The people that have played it so far seem to really like it. We really set out to make something much bigger than our previous games with PENUMBEAR, we wanted a game that could stand tall with all the great indie games out there and did our best to achieve that. I feel like any project like this takes talent, work, and luck. I feel we’ve proven we can make a good game with this, I think for the time we had and the skills I have as an artist, it’s about as good as it can be. Maybe two years from here I’ve learned a ton and Sal learns a ton and it feels like junk, but I doubt it. From here I think it just takes a little luck and I hope something comes of it, I hope it goes out into the world and it does well, I hope you play it and like it and recommend it, and I hope we can keep making games like this.
For now Sal’s working on learning OUYA and is going to do a Penumbear port for that system. This feels like a game worth porting to find its audience. I have to work on a book. So we’re kinda leaving it off here and it feels strange but we’ll see where it all goes. We’re right near release and the future’s wide open.
Thanks for reading all this, and check out PENUMBEAR in early March on your iPad and iPhone.