I’m back, again! I’m going to start doing my LEMONS comics again. For those that don’t know, LEMONS is my auto-bio comic strip, loose doodling, done in spare time and thrown online quickly. No real update schedule, so it’s not mon-fri or every Wednesday or whatever, they’ll just go up as I do them. The latest LEMONS will always be on top of my website here, and you can go to my tumblr page to see the archives. At least there will be some steady content on here when I’m not updating this blog! The Lemons strips should populate in Tumblr, Twitter, and here.
I have been meaning to link to this forever so I am very sorry about the delay! In fact, I’ve been meaning to link this since January when it started but time just escapes me somehow. Anyway, I’ve been writing a series of monthly articles on writing for teens this year, on the site http://writingteennovels.com. They go up towards the early part of each month, and every day they have a new article by another author so if you have any interest in writing, check it out for sure! Here’s a list of my articles so far:
And finally, Book 3 is still being chipped away at, piece by piece. I thought for sure we’d have announced something by now, at least a title, but contract negotiations tend to go on for a while. That said, I am working and hoping pretty soon it’s all iron clad and we can go ahead and announce a title or synopsis or release date or something. I am itching to go full speed to the finish line but we need to place a finish line first! It’s pretty special though, and I’m really happy with it and excited to share. I think it’s my best work, but I guess you have to think that when you’re working this hard on something!
Here’s a lineup of reviews for Penumbear’s first weekend after release!
Penumbear is a platformer with a soul. The controls are so smooth you start to wonder if the game is secretly reading your mind, and in the meantime you find yourself being drawn further and further in to the world of light and shadow thanks to its beautifully designed environments and haunting soundtrack.
This is platforming as it should be – a simple thing to pick up and play, but a real test of your skills when you start to explore its boundaries. An easy game to recommend for all gamers. -Appspy.com
I immediately fell in the love with the visuals, which are just incredible. Everything looks vibrant (when there’s color of course) but it still remains dark and mysterious, and everything is incredibly detailed, especially on your Retina iDevice. The soundtrack is also a bit eerie, and goes along with the story perfectly.
This game’s visuals are drop-dead gorgeous and call to mind such artsy indie juggernauts as Limbo and Braid, with a calming, yet hauntingly mesmerizing allure. The massive adventure puts a big emphasis on exploration, as there are countless hidden exits and other secrets to find along your quest to save the other bears and I can see this one being a smash success on any PC or home video game console.
Overall, Penumbear is a fantastic package. The platforming is responsive and the puzzles are well-designed. There is plenty of content here – over 100 levels, hidden stages, 138 collectible teddy bears hidden throughout the stages, and more will give you hours and hours of game to explore. The game’s visuals are pleasantly striking and, though the soundtrack is a bit limited, you’ll enjoy the few tracks in there if they don’t begin to grate on you. Penumbear is one of the best puzzle platformers on the iOS and easily worth the price of admission.
Penumbear offers up incredibly addictive puzzle platforming with a unique art design and enchanting soundtrack to produce one of the best iOS titles we’ve played since Angry Birds. Penumbear is a great bargain priced at $1.99, and plenty of replay value and a meaty 100 level long campaign means you’ll easily get your money’s worth from this release. If you’re looking for a great game to play on a long road trip or to take with you on the go somewhere else, look no further than Penumbear.
Penumbear has given me hope that one day, all touch-screen platformers will be as close to the feel of a physical gamepad as possible. This is puzzle platforming with a real knack for those little touches that platformers deserve, and the light-based puzzling adds a cunning edge.
A tricky-but-gorgeous 2D platformer featuring a teddy bear, lots of lights and some lethal gribblies…
This 2D platformer may have a cute exterior, from the cartoony critters that inhabit the off-kilter worlds to the teddy bear protagonist who squeaks with joy every time he completes a level, but that fluffy presentation hides a challenging game that will test your reflexes on the morning commute. -mobilechoiceuk.com
…this is a game that contains a huge amount of content and challenge for a very accessible price.
Penumbear also comes with a boatload of content: 100 levels will last a long time in this game, particularly as the early levels are not easy at all. This game will take plenty of time to beat and to see everything. There’s also the “bonus bears” to collect, which are hidden throughout the levels. They encourage exploration and discovery, which is a fantastic thing, because the game is perfectly set up for clever secrets.
“Penumbear is a fantastic package. The platforming is responsive and the puzzles are well-designed. There is plenty of content here – over 100 levels, hidden stages, 138 collectible teddy bears hidden throughout the stages, and more will give you hours and hours of game to explore. The game’s visuals are pleasantly striking and, though the soundtrack is a bit limited, you’ll enjoy the few tracks in there if they don’t begin to grate on you. Penumbear is one of the best puzzle platformers on the iOS and easily worth the price of admission.”
“All too often the App Store finds itself burdened with titles that evoke the likeness of games we know and love, but so few go as far as to understand what made them great and come up with something entirely new in the process.”
Well, here we are, February 28th, the release date for PENUMBEAR! This is the 3rd official game from TACO GRAVEYARD. TG is myself and my friend Sal – he is a programmer and I do art and animation, we make the games together. Aside from help with music and SFX we do everything ourselves so it’s a small operation – anything you see I drew, if it moves, I likely drew it a lot of times! For this game we got BULKY PIX to publish for us so hopefully a few more people will see it than our previous games.
Penumbear awakens in a dark castle, alone aside from a small purple firefly. Luckily this firefly has an ability to turn lights off and on, and Penumbear has his own ability to walk on the lines where shadow meets light!
PENUMBEAR is a platformer with an emphasis on danger, exploration and puzzle solving. Each of the many levels combine lights and blocks to create drastically different layouts.
Penumbear will explore the basement with it’s shadowy creatures and tentacles, before traveling to the grimy and spiky dungeon, the vast cavern, up the fireplace and through the tower to reach his freedom.
Hundreds of fellow bears are hidden and it’s up to Penumbear to save them all. Secret levels, warp zones, special achievement bears and especially elusive Golden bears are hidden everywhere.
Penumbear is an immersive experience that recalls the best of classic platformers while presenting something new and exciting for the genre. From TACO GRAVEYARD and BULKY PIX.
Penumbear has been what I’ve worked on when not working on the third book for the past year, so it’s great to see it finally released! In celebration, here’s a full gaggle of things we’ve posted over at http://blog.tacograveyard.com.
The game is only 1.99 in the app store for over 100 levels, 20-30 hours at least of gameplay, achievements, hidden levels, collectables, and even a full second quest! Please download the game and tell your friends, it’ll be very appreciated!
And if you aren’t convinced yet, check out the official trailer!
Update: Well, the game wasn’t featured on the app store. With iOS you kinda get that one chance – that one day of the week where the app store updates and you’re either on the page or you aren’t. It was well reviewed and had some buzz going in but we didn’t make the cut. Big week for iOS games with Star Wars, Toy Story, Real Racing and Aliens Vs Predators, and those are just AAA published games. And with that, we go from having a game in a store to having a game people need to find out about and come to us for, essentially. They have to open the app store and actually do a search specifically for Penumbear or it doesn’t come up. Obviously any chance of it breaking through is out the door. It’s a gamble. We can still do a desktop port and we plan to port it to the OUYA system as well, so it’s not “over,” but it was a very discouraging evening. I get it, they can’t feature everything, but it’s just a GOOD GAME, and we worked our butts off on it and the people that played it agreed. It’s a sad thing to see and I kinda do feel like Apple dropped the ball this time and it’s a shame. I’m obviously deeply involved in the game, but it’s how I feel. Not sure if they ever “feature” a game after it’s release week, but it really discourages iOS development when you get this one random shot, whether you spent a day on an app, a week, half a year or more on it.
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.
The last legit update on here was July 26th, 2012, so that’s not a good thing. Really I think about it often but it’s hard to make time to sit and write about what’s going on because usually I’m working on important projects, and usually I can’t talk too much about them anyway. That said, ideally people won’t come to my site to learn more about me and have nothing recent to look at.
Anyway, for the past month I’ve been wanting to do a 2012 recap and here we are well into February already.
It was a very busy year, even though it seemed quiet on my front. There were no real releases from me aside from the paperback version of Winter Town this past December, and shame on me for not even mentioning it here. If you read the hardcover, it’s the same story although the art in the book has more tones and polish, and there’s some supplemental material in the back that’s fun, including a new Aelysthia comic.
I tend to have years where projects come out and I’m busy promoting them and things seem very active, and then I have years where I’m actually working on the projects themselves and all is quiet. 2012 was one of those years.
Most people probably know me as an author, having released HAPPYFACE in 2010 and WINTER TOWN in 2011. I’ve been working very hard on a third book, it’s been a doozy. I can only talk about it in generalities since it’s still in the pitch process, but it’s something I’ve been working on for a long time now. I’d like to say 2 years later it’s wrapped up and ready to go but as I mentioned, we’re still in the process of getting ready to pitch it and hopefully that happens very soon. As of now I have a solid outline I’m really happy with and the first quarter or so of the book written. I think once I get the go-ahead I’m far enough into this that I can zip through but we won’t see a release until sometime next year.
This book started as one thing that felt in line with HAPPYFACE and WINTER TOWN, and wouldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Stephen Emond book. The book just kept evolving though, new ideas would come in and old ideas would get tossed until there was nothing left of that old book and this new one is definitely something else – I imagine with me writing it, it’ll still feel like one of my books, but it’s a few steps forward and feels bigger to me than anything I’ve done before. I’m really excited to get it under contract and get it out into the public and that’s my primary full-attention goal right now.
The other thing I’ve been doing over the past 2 years now (wow!) is working on video games with my friend Sal as TACO GRAVEYARD. What started off as a small project to try and make a fighting game has evolved into something that’s taken up a lot of the past couple years. We did a game for iOS called FOUR HATS, we did a second game called OMEGAPIXEL for iOS (iPhones and iPad), and stumbled through a few other projects before we came up with our latest, PENUMBEAR. This game was a LOT bigger than any of our others and we managed to find a publisher for this one and it’ll be out next month (March). I’ll talk more about it very soon but that took up a large portion of the past 8 months or so. Now that it’s wrapped and ready for release this third book is a top priority.
That said, as usual I have a lot of things in the air – I’m debating trying out a writing fellowship and spending the next three weeks on a spec script to enter. In November, I hope to do NaNoWriMo and write a book in a month – a first draft, essentially. Maybe one of my ideas for something I could publish, or maybe something more experimental. I have ideas for books based on Gretchen and on the Moon sisters from HAPPYFACE that would be fun to write. There’s an EMO BOY project I’ve been thinking of doing, and actually did part of recently that you’ll hopefully see soon. Basically it’s going to be another busy year.
Please do check out PENUMBEAR once it’s out in March, I worked really hard on it and think it’s a great platforming game if you have an iPhone or iPad. I’ll post a lot more on it soon but for now you can check out blog.tacograveyard.com for more info on that.
And I will be back sooner than a half year this time!
Oh man, I’m just now updating my blog. It’s weird how this works, I’ll blog like weekly or multiple times per week for a few months, and then not at all for a few months. Or more.
Anyway, I keep thinking of stuff I could write about but really the truth is it takes time away from actually writing or working on games, and that time is rare enough that I need to make the most of it when I can. So blogging is generally the first thing to go.
I’ll give you a quick “where I’ve been” update, anyway, and there’s a little more activity over at http://blog.tacograveyard.com since there’s two of us writing updates. That’s my game company. We’re working on a game called PENUMBEAR and it’s really great and there’s a koala. Check it out.
So, in the publishing world, Winter Town came out last December, the paperback should be coming out this fall/winter and it has some bonus material in the back in addition to a 6 page new “aelysthia” tale, as well as some finished art that didn’t make it into the hardcover due to a mishap. Some of the art in the HC book was untoned/unfinished, though only I would really know that. It’ll be worth picking up and visiting again, I think!
I’ve been working on a third book since last summer, very slowly. I actually had 3 ideas running around in my head over that summer, when my editor and i narrowed in on one we thought was the best fit. From September through the spring I worked on that, outlining, doing sample chapters, looking for voice, art. Reworking. I was also doing a lot of work on games, so it went along very slowly but we kept getting a little closer to what I wanted it to be.
Then something happened – a new character took up more and more space, the focus of the book changed, and I found myself struggling to keep all the new and old ideas together. Eventually it became very clear I was trying to write two different books. A new one had come along and completely outshined the old one. Or at the least, it felt more urgent and was hopping up and down in front of me.
My editor and I have been making a point to meet far more frequently and I am making big progress week by week now. Hopefully before long I’ll have at least a title or something to announce for you! I’m very invested in this, though. This could be really good.
I had dinner with my editor Connie last night, and one of the things we ended up talking about was books that could essentially be boiled down to “The young adult version of…” or “a YA ___.” To me it feels like lazy writing and a cash grab. The books could very well stand on their own, but just the phrase rubs me the wrong way.
“You mean like ‘Garden State meets 500 Days of Summer?” Connie asked, aware she had pitched WINTER TOWN this same way. I probably wouldn’t have pitched it that way, but that’s an age-old way to quickly describe something in terms of tone. It’s not like I actually took all of the events that happened in either movie and just inserted my characters.
I’ll take some flack for this, but what initially started the conversation was THE HUNGER GAMES. Of course Connie and I are both excited for the movie and have read the book, I still can’t help but shake the Battle Royale connections. I won’t say where Connie stood on the subject, but for me, my mind just goes, “wait, I can just pull any movie or book and just do it over, with my own characters and names?” I’ve heard the “it’s the timeless gladiator story” angle, but yeah, it is, with all of the stuff Battle Royale added. I don’t think Hunger Games is bad at all, I really like it, it just kinda bothers me that it’s gotten so much acclaim but really isn’t as original as a lot of people probably think it is.
I’m sure I have some sour grapes because I’ve had pitches of my own turned down because they were too similar to things in production, and I think any of us in this field have said “Hey, I had this great idea–” to someone only to be met with “Oh! That’s just like that movie ____!” Dreams, crushed!
Somehow Woody Allen came up. We decided to rebrand me as the Young Adult Woody Allen. My next book could be the Young Adult “What’s New, Pussycat?” Something teens have been clamoring for too long now. We tossed out the Young Adult Sons of Anarchy, and the Young Adult Hustle and Flow. I kinda want to write that last one.