Lady Tallowmere has begun expanding her empire.
Returning to Tallowmere
1 November 2016 • Chris McFarland
“A sequel? No more. Just expand the original.”
I enjoy experimenting. It's what keeps development and prototyping refreshing. A lot of Tallowmere's features were the product of experimenting.
Experimenting with Tallowmere 2's art and animation style was also refreshing. It looked cool, felt cool. Was something new and different. I liked it and ran with it.
However, one thing I didn't grasp at the time, was how animation can change the speed of the gameplay.
Tallowmere 2's melee weapon attacks had to feel near-instant to replicate Tallowmere 1's instant attacks. I toyed with some values for character movement, bobbing, attack speed, jump height, and durations and positions for the hands if you were attacking, jumping, falling, getting hit, or even just standing idle.
While it felt nice, was it close enough to Tallowmere 1's gameplay style? It seemed good enough back in January and February, so I went off and spent a lot of the next few months tackling some menus and netcode. I figured I'd get the hard stuff in first.
After the netcode came the world map and item attribute systems. I hadn't really touched the gameplay at all for several months at this point - and in hindsight I recommend not doing this. Gameplay aside, the item systems felt good – structurally, anyway.
Showing off what isn't complete
I ended up talking about Tallowmere 2's development thus far in September 2016 at the New Zealand Game Developer's Conference.
My talk wasn't recorded, but my slides are available. (the HTML version contains a lot of animated GIFs; you can download the ZIP file of all the slides if desired, or just check out the PDF or JPGs for the static versions)
After the conference I worked more on the item system, mainly the UI, shown right.
But something started to bother me. The gameplay felt off.
Things felt too quick. Enemies were too fast. They were running and jumping at me - which they had been doing for about 9 months! Why was this suddenly bothering me now?
Ultimately it came down to me trying to nail the gameplay for new weapon and enemy types, now that the other systems were in place. And compared to Tallowmere 1, it felt like everything in the dungeon was moving around at the speed of light.
Yet the speed and movement values I set at the start of the year were still the best bet for the visual style of the game. I tried decreasing the movement speed, but had to slow down the animation to match, which made you look like you were controlling a snail, which just looked and felt wrong. I even tried zooming the camera out further, but everything was still too fast.
Had I shot myself in the foot? Was my fluid animation imposing limits on how the gameplay had to feel? Was everything too lively?
Frustrated, I attempted to work on other systems and do other things, but it was no use; I had stumbled upon an elephant I couldn't ignore.
As some of you may know, I'm no stranger to depression. And let's just say, this anti-eureka moment, this candle-snuffing pique of enlightenment, sunk me right down for a time. I needed some time to wallow and think in angst. (well, I didn't need to, and would have preferred not to, but depression doesn't work like that for me!)
On the positive side, I had booked a ticket and flights to Seattle for Steam Dev Days for October 2016, which was only a few weeks away at the time, so perhaps the timing was perfect; something to take my mind off things, a chance to meet other game developers, an excuse to escape from the norm for a while, something to look forward to.
I attended as planned; Steam Dev Days was an excellent experience. I've uploaded a few photos. As cool as it was, I'm not sure I'll do it again anytime soon - flights are expensive!
But, back to my dilemma. Tweaking Tallowmere 2 was not getting me results. Playing Tallowmere 1 only went so far. I needed something different to try and scratch this gameplay issue. I decided I needed a barebones prototype of a Tallowmere-esque platformer. So a few days before my trip, I experimented further.
I had to be sure I wasn't going crazy. I needed to reaffirm my grasp with Tallowmere's game design decisions that have gotten me to where I am today.
In addition to gameplay speed, something that had been irking me for a while was, how important is art? How important is character animation? How much should one enemy be able to do? Do arms matter? Do legs matter?
To try and get my head around things, the result of a few days of coding from scratch before, during, and after my Steam Dev Days trip came out as:
While I never got around to adding AI to this prototype, I was able to confirm:
I also experimented having loot drop as colourful packages that you'd pick up, rather than having items be restricted to treasure chests, but without feeling like each piece of loot had to represent its actual shape; something abstract to hide its contents. Maybe it just contrasted with the visual style nicely, but I liked it.
And while you won't see it published, I tried adding Tallowmere 1's character sprites onto the bodies of these monsters, to get a feel for how the bobbing felt. In short, I learned that Tallowmere 1's character sprites bobbing up and down does not work. The heads don't change size, only the bodies, but there is not enough pixel data available to make it look satisfying, whereas Tallowmere 2's sprites can get away with it because there's enough visual fidelity to stretch and squeeze. Tallowmere 2's armless hand style also helps make it work; Tallowmere 1 doesn't have that.
Rediscovering the key ingredients
I feel like I've figured it out.
From coding the little prototype, playing Tallowmere 1 and 2 a lot, and taking a good, hard look at all this:
So from 10 months of dabbling with Tallowmere 2 to come to these conclusions, it feels like I've shot myself in the foot in some ways, but such is life.
Where to from here?
Network multiplayer? Mod support? Language support? New weapons? New enemies? New game modes? New difficulty options? I've been saying "no" to myself and other people for a long time. "I'll do it for the sequel," I'd say. New features are hard. Game development is tough. But making a new game based on an old game is perhaps even tougher in some regards. Some people dislike change, especially if certain things might make the game harder, but this is Tallowmere: tough to play and tough to develop.
But code can be refactored. New classes can be created. New forms of fun can be built upon existing foundations.
So hello again, Lady Tallowmere, my old friend. We shall see about expanding your original dungeons, crude art and all.
Tallowmere 2 © Chris McFarland 2016