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  • Student Postmortem: Gesundheit!

    - Matt Hammill

  • 4. Roughs, roughs, roughs!

    One thing that was stressed throughout the illustration program was the importance of rough work. The idea of using quick little thumbnail sketches for problem solving was drilled into my head for over four years, so I approached the game with the same method.

    My sketchbooks are full of level design drawings. The slow-paced, strategic nature of my game meant that I could roughly play through my maps, with the help of scribbling monster paths and lines-of-sight overtop of my drawings, without ever needing to turn on my computer.

    Drawing on blank white paper was much faster and more fun than trying to figure out the levels pixel by pixel on the screen. There was also no pressure to hang on to bad designs because there was hardly any work invested in them in the first place! An additional bonus was that working in my sketchbook meant I could be productive even during the long bus rides to school.

    As for the character graphics, using quick and dirty Microsoft Paint sprites as placeholder art early on saved loads of time in the long run. This helped me determine the size of my characters, the required list of animations and their durations, the necessary level assets, and the technical feasibility of my game, all without too much invested in art. Inevitably, there were some changes to be made even after the final assets were created, but I never had to throw out a painstakingly animated loop because it was no longer needed.

    Screenshots of early builds of Gesundheit!

    One more important step I took before doing my final artwork was to create a mock screenshot in Photoshop. Here I could see how the sprites and background art would look together, and I could tweak things quickly, without worrying about technical stuff. That fake screenshot became a standard for me to work toward.

    I've gone through a few abandoned AGS projects where I've invested weeks into elaborate artwork only to realize that I didn't have a game to hang it on, and I wanted to avoid that this time.

    5. An achievable aesthetic.

    As an illustrator, making the graphics and animation was what had driven me to make the game in the first place, and after that first talk with my illustration teacher -- "Make it look like your drawings!" -- I was even more determined to keep the aesthetic at the forefront of development.

    Level art was created on scratchboard and then scanned into Photoshop.

    However, I was aware of the technical limits of both myself and the AGS engine, and I didn't want to aim for something I wouldn't be able to achieve. By starting with hand-drawn artwork, I could hopefully appeal to non-gamers, such as my teacher (I was still looking for a good grade!) and also offer something different to traditional gamers and the AGS community, which is mostly dominated by pixel art.

    I had been doing some scratchboard drawings on plastic the year before (painting with black ink on a sheet of plastic, then using a knife to scratch white back into the ink) and I liked the unrefined messiness of it. With that as my starting point, and Photoshop for adding color, I eventually created all my characters and level art. The characters' body parts are scratchboard drawings, the shadows are ink thumbprints, and the dirty white background is a piece of unwashed board.

    After deciding against MIDI music at the urging of one of my rock band friends, I tried to carry the same messy, naive aesthetic into the music, as well. It wasn't a difficult aesthetic to achieve, considering I could barely play any of the instruments I was recording, but having that goal in mind let me relax about my terrible musicianship.

    What Went Wrong

    1. Not learning programming first.

    I had never done any programming whatsoever before starting with AGS script. I didn't know what an "int" was, and all those curly brackets and semicolons were very confusing.

    Instead of spending a couple weeks going through some basic programming tutorials, I decided that I'd learn by doing, and I just jumped into scripting my game. I had the AGS help file, and as long as I could get stuff working, then what was the problem?

    Everything went pretty smoothly at first, but before long my amateurishness started causing problems. The script became long, badly written, unorganized, and difficult to change. My learning process is now forever entwined in the game script, and because I wrote the core parts of the game first, it's the core parts that are the worst.

    In my free time, I'm still working on expanding the game, but the scripting process is slow and painful. By investing a bit of time learning some programming before starting the game, I could have made my life a lot easier.

    2. Unorganized assets.

    I had no idea how many hundreds of files I would end up generating for this game when all the different working versions of animation frames, sound effects, levels, music tracks, and menu graphics -- plus the backups, finals, and final finals -- were added together. The confusingly named files are still scattered all over my hard drive, and even within AGS my asset lists make no sense.

    When I began work on the game, I had a few little sprites and there was no problem remembering what was what. Soon, however, I had to start keeping other windows and programs open so I could check if the asset I'd refer to in the code was what it was supposed to be. In the script, the enemies would be labeled A or B, 1 or 2, or color-coded depending on my whims, and the level names were messes of numbers, dashes, and underscores. I was constantly telling myself that I should sit down and do a major clean-up, but I perpetually thought I was almost done and that it wouldn't be worth the effort. I was wrong in both cases.


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