And that’s only a slight exaggeration. TxK is without a doubt the best reviewed game Llamasoft has ever made. Check out the responses so far. They are still coming in .
So far we have a Metacritic score of 86. Our LOWEST review score was 3.5/5, and the lower scores we’ve had have mainly been from Space Giraffe fans who don’t think TxK was as boldly adventurous in design as SG. And maybe that is true, but this time I wanted to make a game that was not only good but also broadly accessible, and in that I think we have succeeded very well, as evidenced by the number of 8, 9 and above scores .
I’m sure by now you’ll be well aware of just what a cracking soundtrack there is in TxK. Just as in T2K, the soundtrack really completes the game perfectly. It’s just not be the same game with rubbish tunes.
What perhaps most people don’t know is that the soundtrack came together in a most amazing way. Over on the Yakyak forum there are a bunch of talented musicians who hang out on the Moosicians subforum. Now at the time I started the TxK project there wasn’t any way on earth I could actually afford to hire musicians to develop tracks for me, so I asked in the forum if anyone would be interested in donating tracks for the upcoming project.
A bunch of guys pitched in and the results are I am sure you will agree rather exceptional. I asked for tracks “in the style of T2K” and everyone had their own take on what that meant. I’m amazed how excellently all the tracks fit together and how perfectly they suit the game. The result is a soundtrack that surpasses its original inspiration to become the best soundtrack any Llamasoft game has ever had.
It was awesome of everybody to have offered us these tracks to use in game just for the love of the TxK project and a fondness for all things Llamasoft, but we thought it would be nice for the musicians to at least be able to benefit from their work in a more concrete way (apart from the streams of job offers for work doing soundtracks for games that will inevitably flood in as a result of being in TxK of course ) and we thought it would be a good idea to make an OST available to buy, with the musicians sharing the proceeds amongst themselves.
Accordingly the soundtrack is now available, remastered, re-edited and better than ever – get it on Bandcamp right now!
There’s a particular style of arcade shooter that’s pretty well established by now – let’s call it the neo-retro arcade shooter. It’s characterised by oldschool arcade-style shooting gameplay, typically uses a stylised glowing vector graphic style along with high-energy techno music and of course particles. Lots of particles. These games aim to deliver something of the purity of the oldschool arcade experience whilst also exploiting the modern aspects of the hardware they are implemented on to deliver beautiful abstract graphical displays well beyond the capability of the old arcade games that inspired them.
We can trace the evolution of this style back to its genesis in Llamasoft’s own “Tempest 2000″, created for the Atari Jaguar system in 1994. We were tasked with creating an update to ancient, excellent coin-op arcade game Tempest. Tempest was perhaps the pinnacle of the old style of arcade games based on “vector graphics”, a kind of display hardware that has long since fallen into disuse. Rather than drawing graphics as a matrix of dots on a screen – “pixels” – vector graphics displays drew pure, straight lines directly onto the phosphor of the CRT. In some ways this method of producing graphics was rather limited – one couldn’t create extremely detailed backgrounds, or large areas of filled colour, for example; but in others it was uniquely beautiful.
Displays of the time were typically pretty low in resolution, and objects made of pixels inevitably had a chunky, blocky aspect to them. Vector graphics displays effectively had no pixels, so game objects on a vector graphics display had a particularly pure, clean look that was visually striking.
Arcade game “Gravitar” – top image is the game as rendered on a vector graphics display; bottom image is the game as rendered on a pixel-based home game console of the time.
Initially vector graphics displays were monochrome, but eventually colour vector displays appeared. Tempest was perhaps the most beautiful of such games, and although the gameplay itself was extremely simple – effectively it was a simplified kind of Space Invaders game at its very core – the beautiful glowing neon playing surfaces and quick, challenging gameplay drew in and entranced many a player in the dim early 80s arcade rooms.
Although there had been various conversions of vector graphics games onto 8 – and 16-bit hardware platforms previously none of them looked particularly pleasing, because translating vector graphics to pixel-based displays tended to look disappointing. With the unique purity of the vector display taken away, such conversions tended to just look a bit thin, weedy and blocky on pixel-based displays.
“Tempest” as seen in the arcade.
“Tempest” on an 8-bit Atari system. It’s a good effort but it’s lost some of its charm.
One approach to solving that problem was to keep the essence of the gameplay intact but to redesign the graphics in terms of “sprites” – the objects made of hand-drawn pixel art which comprised game elements back in those times. An example of this approach can be seen in Atari’s “Blasteroids”, which is a sprite-art-based reworking of the original vector graphics coin-op “Asteroids”.
Top image is “Asteroids” similar to how it would have looked on a vector display (although only an approximation). Bottom image is the sprite graphics remake “Blasteroids”.
I didn’t want to take that approach when it came to T2K though. One of the things I particularly liked about vector graphics displays was that the display limitations enforced a kind of deeply abstract aesthetic onto games made that way. The glowing, geometric, jewel-like objects and the abstract mathematically pure worlds that they occupied looked to me like visions of life in other dimensions. Traditional graphics strove to become more and more lifelike with each passing hardware generation, more and more like the real world – but I didn’t want my game to look like the real world at all. I wanted to take players into that lovely abstract dimension.
It didn’t take too long to get a basic framework for T2K’s gameplay up and running, but at first it suffered just as the other, earlier vector-to-pixel translations had – thin lines made of pixels against a dark background just looked too insubstantial and weedy and had none of the glowing purity of their vector ancestry.
Fortunately at that time a major evolution in the power of graphics hardware was beginning. For many years simply moving sprites around and scrolling background imagery had been as much as one could do on consumer-level hardware. Even something as objectively simple as drawing lines between arbitrary points was tricky on such hardware.
Inside the Jaguar, however, there was new stuff that let us move a bit beyond simply shovelling sprites and tiles around on the screen. For one thing there was hardware which made drawing those lines much simpler and faster than had been possible before. This meant that instead of drawing the game surface in Tempest at the start of a level and only redrawing the actual enemies on it every game frame (as had been done in prior conversions of the game) I was able to entirely redraw the surface and the enemies every frame. This enabled me to unlock the game from the entirely static viewpoint which even the old coin-op had stuck to, and have a dynamic viewpoint, as if from a “camera” floating somewhere behind the player character. As you moved around the surface your perspective changed in realtime, making it feel like the game was taking place on a surface that was somehow floating in space.
There was also hardware that could quickly fill a horizontal line with pixels, and even do so with “interpolation” – basically, you could specify what colour you wanted at each end of a horizontal line, and the hardware would fill in all the pixels between the two ends, smoothly shading between the two colours as it went. This allowed you to make objects that were filled in smoothly with colour rather than just being made of thin lines.
In “Tempest 2000″ game objects and play surfaces could be filled with smoothly graduated colours.
(This may all seem rather tame in these days where you just point your GPU at a vertex list and miracles happen through your shaders, but back then it was amazing and new for us!)
I really liked the look this gave to the game. Objects and surfaces were still pleasingly abstract and mathematical-looking, and although I could never have the absolute purity of the vector displays I could now have things solidly filled with smoothly varying colours, which seemed to me to be an acceptable tradeoff.
The Jaguar had another couple of lovely gifts to give though. One of them was particles – ahh, delicious particles. Back on the 8-bit machines simply drawing individual dots in an arbitrary position on the screen was in fact a bit of a palaver, involving a surprising amount of fiddling about to do, having to tit around with bitplanes and masking and bitwise shifting and ungainly indexing and other such CPU-consuming trumpery, so even basic particle stuff was pretty expensive.
On the Jag though you could blat out individual pixels like there was no tomorrow, and still have plenty of time left over to run your game and draw your polys too. I wanted to build on the feeling I had of the game being on a platform floating in some kind of virtual, abstract space. I was under no obligation to make anything look even remotely “realistic”, so I just made up a kind of tunnel effect made out of loads of particles and floated the playing surface inside that. Changing the parameters for the particle tunnel every level meant that it could have a different look for each level (it was based on an algorithm inspired by John Whitney’s experimentations with differential motion particle plots that he’d done – rendering each frame onto film! – back in the 70s). I could speed it up to emphasize the transition between levels, too.
(This is John Whitney’s “Arabesque” animation from 1975 in which he explores differential motion and the idea of “visual harmonics”)
Another distinctive particle effect came to me thanks to the Jaguar hardware and a love of Eugene Jarvis’ iconic Williams coin-op arcade games Defender and Robotron. In those games the enemies were made of sprites, but upon shooting them they would fly apart into their component pixels in a most satisfying way. There was a part of the Jaguar hardware that was intended for drawing scaled and rotated bitmaps, allowing you to step over a texture in non-contiguous steps picking up pixels and assembling them into a contiguous destination bitmap. I kind of used that backwards, reading from a contiguous bitmap and writing out dispersed pixels instead. This let me smash up entire sprites of any size into tiny bits for nearly free, which pleased me greatly. We even came up with a name for the technique, calling it “pixel shatter”. You can see it used a lot in the bonus points annunciators in T2K.
By “running the blitter backwards” you could smash up large bitmaps into little pieces.
Perhaps the most amazing thing that we got out of the Jag hardware was something that I confess absolutely stunned me when I first discovered it. The Jag had hardware that could move pretty big chunks of graphics around, allowing for ginormous sprites that you could also scale and rotate and change the intensity of. That in itself was pretty liberating, and although my game was to be primarily polygon based the ability to manipulate such sprites was certainly a handy thing. You could even have sprites as big as the screen if you wanted to, something I was thinking about one morning, and I suddenly wondered what would happen if you drew a sprite that actually WAS the screen (or at least the previous frame). So I coded up a giant sprite that had as its source texture the previous output frame, and the universe exploded.
SWIRLY THING ALERT
Or that’s how it seemed to me . I’d stumbled onto the digital version of video feedback, and was doing with my sprite routine what people used to do by pointing old analogue video cameras at TV screens that were displaying the output of that same camera.
Same trick done by hand with a webcam. Real analogue cameras made feedback that was even more organic and blobby (to use the technical term).
I hooked up the parameters of the sprite routine to a Jaguar controller, allowing me to fiddle with the angle, scale and intensity in real time, and lost a good few hours just making swirly fractal vortices. It was great fun, and whereas it was a bit too overwhelming for use in the main part of the game (and robbed the frame rate a bit) it ended up being used for some of the bonus rounds, and for the distinctive title and Game Over effects in the game. It also proved to be extremely useful as the core effect of the Jaguar CD-ROM Virtual Light Machine visualiser that I made after I’d finished T2K.
VLM, Atari’s second music visualiser. I only found out there had been a FIRST one (the extremely rare Atari Video Music from the late 70s) after I made VLM!
All these techniques and effects were starting to come together to impart to T2K a unique style and feeling. It didn’t matter any more that we couldn’t reproduce the apparent perfection of the arcade’s vector graphics displays – T2K was playing to its own strengths, and its graphics were the distinctive signature of newer, more modern hardware being used purely as “effects synthesisers” rather than striving for any kind of realism. I felt that this was entirely in keeping with the abstract nature of the game, and kept that “other-dimensionality” that I’d always loved about vector coin-ops despite the transition to newer, different graphics hardware and techniques.
With T2K very much finding its style and becoming its own entity the gameplay needed transforming too – a bit more was needed at core than just simplified Space Invaders. So I added a ton of enemy types, powerups, the ability to jump up off the playing surface, bonuses, and lots more levels. I made it so that good play in the main game would yield access to special “bonus rounds” where the player could leave behind for a few minutes the frantic shooting action of the main game and drift gently through peculiar spaces accruing bonus points or even the ability to skip forward a few levels in the main game. Once again with no obligation to be realistic these bonus rounds were entirely abstract – one of them had you flying through rings floating over and under what looked for all the world like a giant strip of bacon (but was in fact a rippled and distorted image of the surface of Jupiter). Another transformed you into a disembodied sparkle flying down a green path in a tunnel made entirely of particles (because I’d wondered what it’d be like to try and make a game level entirely out of particles, given that I could now have a smegload of them).
“Flying the Bacon” bonus round from T2K.
Following the green path in a bonus round in T2K.
The icing on the T2K cake was to come from outside – a group called Imagitec had been commissioned to create music and provide an audio driver for the game, and they’d asked me what style of music I wanted in game. I remember I made a video tape of me playing the game along with some of the kind of music that I enjoyed listening to while playing (a lot of house, techno and industrial type stuff as I recall) and sent it off to them, and some weeks later i received a cassette tape through the post with examples of the tunes they’d made for the game. The tunes blew me away, they were excellent, so excellent in fact that I could scarcely believe they’d sound that good in-game. I actually phoned them up to ask if those were in fact exactly as they would be in-game and they assured me that they were. In a couple of weeks the driver and music data arrived and I plugged them into the game and they worked flawlessly and sounded absolutely amazing.
(Atari released a soundtrack CD of the T2K music. Here it is in its entirety, played through the VLM! Enjoy!)
With that final piece in place we finished off the game and in due course it came out on the Jaguar. It became one of the most popular games on that system and also became the archetype for the entire neo-retro shooter style that was to develop in years to come.
I revisited T2K a few years later when I was working on the Nuon DVD/game system at VM Labs, where I made “T3K”, which was basically a remake of T2K with some particular design goals in mind. The Nuon chip was a very interesting beast from the point of view of an assembly language programmer in that it encompassed both coarse- and fine-grained parallelism in the CPU. You actually had an array of 4 VLIW “processing elements” that ran in parallel. VLIW means “very long instruction word”, which is jargon for saying that instead of just launching one operation per instruction as was usual for many CPUs at the time, you could build up longer instructions that allowed you to start operations on several different parts of the CPU at once, hopefully maximally occupying all of its function units.
Suffice to say it was considerably gnarly to code on (but nerdy heaven for an inveterate assembly language coder like I was at that time) but you could get an awful lot of bang for your buck in terms of computation per tick. So much so, in fact, that despite the CPU only being clocked at 54MHz you could actually do a significant amount of processing per pixel over the entire display and still keep a reasonable frame rate. In effect we were starting to use what would eventually be called “pixel shaders” before such things actually existed. It was interesting and fun but ultimately too gnarly for many people to get the hang of and not many games were written for the Nuon, and of the ones that were not many got the most out of the system.
One thing I was aiming for in T3K was “no visible pixels”. I still couldn’t come close to replicating the purity of an actual vector display, since we were still working at a fairly low spatial resolution. But I could do some pretty good blending and shading using the per-pixel calculation capability we had.
In T3K the guiding aesthetic was “no visible pixels” and it’s amazing how close we got to that given the low spatial rez it ran in.
In the end I don’t think the game ended up being as nice as T2K, since as the platform got finalised around me while I was making the game I ended up having to give back some of the processor elements to the OS for other functions and the game ended up running at a lower frame rate and resolution than I would have liked. If it’d been twice the rez and frame rate it’d've been a much better game I think!
But even as it is it’s not too shabby when you consider that it’s all done in software on half a 54MHz CPU.
In subsequent years I’ve not been alone in exploring the delights of the abstract neo-retro shooter. Great classics have emerged from the genre, such as the all time great “Rez”, which takes the gameplay of Panzer Dragoon on the Saturn and launches it into a Tron-esque universe to the excellent accompaniment of some killer techno tracks…
Rez. Pack-in for the hi-def release version of Occy Rift please.
and of course Geometry Wars, which re-imagined the twin stick arena shooter as a vector coin-op that never was, and then brought it to life with lashings of lovely particles as one of the definitive launch titles on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360.
I think the entire top of my head just came off.
I’ve been there a couple of times since myself too, most ambitiously with “Space Giraffe”, a deeply abstract tube shooter that we made for the Xbox 360 back in 2007. This game brought together the two major strands of my work throughout the years – video games and interactive music visualisation tools – into one entity. On the surface it was a straightforward tunnel shooter in a similar vein to T2K and T3K, but the deeper you got into it the more unusual it became. It was based on the Neon modular graphics synthesiser I’d developed as a basis for the Xbox 360′s music visualiser. Gameplay effectively took place inside an ongoing music visualisation, and game difficulty was determined not only by the behaviour of enemies but also by the degree of abstraction imposed upon the scene by the visualisation. All the visual and auditory cues necessary to play the levels were there, but part of the skill of playing was in learning how to interpret what you were seeing and hearing into a coherent whole.
Some people wanted to shove me into a coherent hole when Space Giraffe came out.
Space Giraffe was easily the most divisive game I’ve ever made, eliciting a massive swath of opinions ranging from a couple of reviews which rated the game and its creator somewhat below pond scum, to others which reckoned it one of the best games ever made (Jonathon Blow, creator of “Braid”, recently mentioned that he thought SG was one of the best games to be released on the Xbox 360 throughout its entire life, for example).
I think part of the reason for that is that for one thing, the game presented itself as looking like a pretty straightforward tunnel shooter, but it was in fact quite a bit different and more complicated than that. The way to score highly, for example, was to deliberately accumulate enemies at the rim of the playing surface and then push them all off at once, a technique not only impossible in a classic tunnel shooter, but also one which if attempted would be suicide for the player (keeping things away from the rim is central to surviving in the classic game).
“Bulling” was the technique of collecting up enemies on the edge of the surface and then shoving them all off at once.
Some people simply could not handle the sensory overload that built up on the higher levels. Some people didn’t like it, some people seemed to actually be angry that I’d even try to modify game difficulty using such a technique. But to those who ended up loving the game it is the very thing that they like about it the most – how you had to open up your senses as wide as possible, take everything in, both visually and sonically, and process it into something you can see clearly. It’s hard to describe but it feels almost transcendental when you can do it.
Transcendental or Radio Rental? You decide .
It wasn’t for everybody, that much is true, but SG remains one of the designs of which I am most proud. By and large those people whom it angered have long since forgotten about it, but those who understood and enjoyed it still remember it well, and play it to this day, and for that I am happy. SG attempted to push out a little beyond the boundaries of what had been before. It’s a direction I’d love to push in again one day if I can ever afford to do so. Who knows what it’d be like with new heights of available processing power and the advent of decent VR equipment. I’d certainly like to try to find out!
To boldly go where no giraffe has gone before.
Following Space Giraffe I did another neo-retro styled shooter, on the PC this time, once again using the Neon graphics synthesiser engine but just for enemy shape generation and background effects creation rather than for sensory overload purposes.
Gridrunner Revolution in one of its quieter, more contemplative moods.
After the frantic overload of SG Gridrunner Revolution was a much more chilled-out and contemplative affair.
There were even sheep to collect. Can’t get more restful and chilled out than sheep.
Since Gridrunner Revolution I’ve pretty much stayed away from the neo-retro style stuff, partly because I was working on shortish projects on iOS which lent themselves much more to the traditional sprite-and-tile style, and partly because if anything some of the neo-retro tropes were becoming a little bit overused and simply throwing up some bloomy vectors, cranking up the feedback and chucking a million particles around seemed to be getting commonplace. “Looks like Geometry Wars” started to become more of a curse than a blessing, great though GW originally was.
However it’s been ten games and quite a few years since my last foray into neo-retro territory, and when the opportunity arose to do a project on the PS Vita I thought it’d be particularly nice to do something in that style, as the Vita has such a fantastic screen that is ideally suited for such things, with chthonically deep blacks and intensely vibrant colours. And so I postulated a project with the following characteristics:
- Tube shooter, more traditional than overload-y like SG was, more accessible to all and straightforward.
- Cognisant of its heritage from T2K and T3K, but extrapolating forward from both and fixing the most egregious flaws from both.
- Neo-retro but not cheesily so. Classy and sharp rather than just vomiting a load of particles out and cranking the feedback up to 11.
The result of all this is our new Vita game: TxK.
We’ve tried our best to create something that will feel familiar to anyone who has played any of our earlier tunnel shooters, but which will have enough fun, beauty and challenge in it that you won’t feel like you’re just running over the same old ground.
We’ve come up with a game that won’t overwhelm you with too many effects and particles thrown in your face at once – it’s certainly pretty but not obnoxiously overloaded. For the first time we’re able to create vectors that actually look “vectory” – not overbloomed exaggerations. The high pixel density of the Vita screen and the incredible clarity and contrast of the display yields vectors that really do look almost as nice as those of the old vector display coin-ops.
We believe that whether or not you get a high score, the actual process of playing should be enjoyable enough that you will always enjoy the ride. Play should look so good, feel so good and sound so good that playing is its own reward, win or lose. After all, shouldn’t playing be fun?
TxK is FUN on a BUN!
For me, part of the pleasure of playing this kind of game comes from the continuous flow of the gameplay. Even if you lose a life, there shouldn’t be a huge jarring discontinuity in the flow of the game to take you out of “the Zone”. As such it is axiomatic in my game designs that progress is never taken away. You are never sent back to the start of a level. You may lose some lives getting through a level, but progress made is always progress kept.
HEAVEN is where your BRAIN will be when you play TxK!
Likewise I’m not a huge believer in boss fights in games – certainly some classic boss fights can be entertaining, but for every one great boss there are ten others that are just roadblocky annoyances that stand in the way of the smooth progress of the gameplay. So TxK is bossless.
TxK may be bossless but the gameplay is BOSS-ASS!! You’ll be trancing your way to the top of the leaderboards like a BOSS!!
That’s not to say that the game doesn’t have its difficulty spikes – an interestingly shaped difficulty curve, with some spikes to challenge you, and some valleys to let you regroup and recover is essential to fun gameplay I believe. But rather than arrange the difficulty into boss-shaped clumps we’d rather express it in terms of the behaviour of enemies across an entire level. You might lose 5 lives on a hard level the first time you reach it. Later on as you improve you might only lose one. But in neither case will you actually lose any progress you’ve made.
Look I don’t really have to make up any more stupid marketing captions. Just look at it. It’s beautiful. It’s even more beautiful in motion, on a Vita screen.
TxK is perfectly suited to its home on the PS Vita. Not only do the graphics positively pop on the delicious Vita screen – we’ve also taken care to cater to your gameplay needs whatever they may be. Fancy a long session? Begin at level 0 and go as far as you can for a Pure Mode score. Want to push your best hiscore up a little higher? Start at your highest Restart Best point and see if you can press through to the next level. Just have 5 minutes to dip in to the game? Choose any level and try to improve your Restart Best for that level.
Restart Best is something that we’ve been building into all our games for the last few years, and players really seem to like it. How it works is like this: at the start of every level your lives and score are checked. If you have more lives than you ever had before at that stage in the game, OR if you have the same number of lives but a better score than you ever had before at that stage, then your lives and score are noted and upon starting subsequent games you can choose to begin at that level with the number of lives that were noted. Upon completion of the level you will be awarded the score that was noted as a Start Bonus. Scores made with Restart Best go to the Classic Mode hiscore table.
Over time you can gradually improve your Restart Best profile across all the levels, and so you’re never far away from being able to push for a new Classic Mode hiscore without having to play all the way through from the beginning.
If you fancy a stiff challenge, switch to Survival Mode where you’ll start from level 0 with three lives – but no extra lives may be earned along the way, and no Bonus Rounds are available. A challenging mode for the shmup purist!
Oh, did I mention Bonus Rounds? Yes, as one of the things I most enjoyed about T2K back in the day was the way it switched back and forth between the fire and fury of the main levels and the floating chillout of the Bonus Rounds, and so I’ve brought them back in TxK. You’ll waft gently over fields of fluff or surf down the Green Path collecting up the bonus points – if you are diligent in collecting your Powerups in the main game.
Fly through fields of fluffy fur in this TxK Bonus Round.
Follow the green path to fame, fortune and glory (or at least some nice Bonus Points).
And once again, the icing on the TxK cake is the incredible soundtrack. You’ll be wanting to plug your headphones into your Vita and we guarantee your head will be nodding in no time as you blast your way into “the Zone”. A whole herd of talented musicians have all conspired to bring you one of the best game soundtracks I have ever heard. Each and every track is just superb. Given the game’s ancestor’s sonic reputation I couldn’t have hoped for a better and more appropriate musical accompaniment – if anything the soundtrack of TxK actually manages to eclipse that of its illustrious forebear.
Oh yeah .
That’s fine for hearing a sample of TxK’s music but Youtube rather compresses the hell out of the graphics, so I’ll drop a few links here where you can download much less compressed videos. I really do recommend you do that in order to see just how lovely TxK looks in motion. And bear in mind it looks even *better* on the Vita screen .
Right I am going to shut up now as I hate feeling like I am blowing my own trumpet, it’s not something I enjoy doing very much. But I hope that you’ve at least found some of the notes I’ve written here about the ancestry of TxK and neo-retro to be interesting and worth a read. And if I’ve been gushing about TxK (and I’ve tried hard to gush with tongue firmly in cheek, if such a thing is possible) then it’s only because it’s something I’m really happy with. I truly think we’ve done a good job with TxK and that if you enjoy those neo-retro-style shooters, and want to play something that is a lot of fun and really does look beautiful on your Vita and which sounds absolutely awesome, then you’ll really enjoy TxK.
I hope to see you on the TxK high score tables come February then!
After the little gameplay snippets in the last update I thought people might like to see a good solid chunk of genuine gameplay as it is on the current alpha build. I’ll inline the YT video of it but be aware that the YT compression hurts it a LOT (you can’t see how clean and pure it is and the background tunnel detail gets entirely lost most of the time).
If you really want to see it at its best then I’d recommend downloading the mp4. Now it is 1.5 gigglebytes, but if you have the space to spare it is well worth a look. It’s a pleasure to watch and listen to multiple times .
If you look at it you’ll notice a few changes already from the version I showed in my last update. Most people felt that the more orgasmic lady noises were a bit much and that they didn’t want the game to be something they couldn’t play on the bus or in front of their mum, which I think is absolutely fair comment and I don’t want to alienate people with making the game sound like a porno, it really doesn’t need such gimmickry. I’ve left a couple of the mild “mmm”s in the bonus round, but the full on orgiastic sounds have been cut. Also getting the Yes Yes Yes bonus no longer gives you the red heart every time on the level transition sequence (it just makes it a bit easier to hit), so the transition remains more of a challenge to steer for maximum bonus even with the Yes Yes Yes powerup.
You’ll see me playing an actual game mistakes and all, just up to the point of entry into the second bonus round. You can see how the game is divided into “chapters” of 8 webs each (I used to have them 16 each but I think it’s more interesting having them 8) and the web colour changes each chapter. Typically the start of each chapter brings something new to learn about, along with a bit of a change of pace.
Since doing the video I’ve added another enemy that’s a “carrier” type that should bring more variety to the levels as we move on.
Having finally got alpha pretty much sorted I decided this bank holiday to finally set up the Oculus Rift devkit that I’ve had sitting around and not dared touch for the last couple of weeks. And I have to say that it’s an incredibly promising technology – hell, I was around for the first wave of VR back in the early 90s and you could see the promise of it even back then but the technology of the day was both hugely underpowered and incredibly expensive, and it’s not at all surprising that VR became a bit of a laughing stock and consigned to the same ridicule bin as the Virtual Boy.
I think that’s going to change though. Cheap flatpanels and accelerometer tech and the ready availability of GPUs mean that what was once rubbish and expensive can now surprisingly enough be done for pretty much beans. And it works.
First the bad news. Rift as it stands today is low-resolution and a bit of a faff to actually use. You have to fart around with your display adapter settings to set the thing up to use the right secondary screen, and Windows isn’t really set up to handle a situation where one of your multiple displays is a HMD very well, meaning you’ll be doing stuff like peering through the Rift to try and find a Windows dialog box that’s appeared in there and needs clicking on, and good luck finding the mouse cursor. Stuff will sometimes crash, you need to faff around with settings a lot to get things working. You really need to use headphones for full immersion, and getting your phones on then the Rift and dealing with all the associated cablery is a bit of a pain. Setting up the optics in the Rift is a bit fiddly, and the display itself is pretty low-rez and you can see black borders round the pixels (the so-called “screen door” effect).
But having said all that, when you find something that really uses the Rift well, there are absolutely genuine moments of “Oh. My. Fucking. God” awaiting you. And I can’t emphasise enough just how much better it is even in its early clunky state than even the best hardware anyone had back in the 90s. It’s like night and day. It’s clear that this technology is finally going to begin to fulfil the promise and dream of VR that people hoped for back when it was first popularised and then discarded in the 90s.
I’m particularly pleased to see it because none of the existing purely stereoscopic 3D techniques work for me – I was born with squinty eyes and I can’t use them together the way most people can (apparently up to 10% of people have the same inability to see stereo 3D). It doesn’t bother me IRL because I get my 3D cues from parallax and the way things move when I turn my head – but no purely stereoscopic 3D system accounts for that. Oculus is of course stereo 3D but it also fills your entire field of view and tracks your head so that when you look around you the view changes accordingly, and that makes it work really well even for me.
Thus far I’ve only looked at a few tech demos and I did try Team Fortress, which does work but runs really juddery on my 6 year old GPU. I’m saving that and HL2 for when my new PC arrives (the GPU is nearly 10x as fast as my current one so it should work great).
But I think to me one of the most impressive demos is actually quite a simple one – it’s an educational piece that is set up to demonstrate the relitive sizes of the planets and moons of the Solar System and it basically lines them all up close to the Sun, and then puts you in a little pod and flies you round them all in VR.
On a screen you probably wouldn’t even bother with it. But in VR it is nothing short of stunning.
Just watch this video of a guy trying it out. You’ll see at various places he is just lost for words at what he’s seeing, and I can vouch for the fact that yes, it really is that awesome – in the true sense of that word – when you see it in VR. It’s just stunning.
There’s another good one on Steam which has you in a lunar lander (that is a right bugger to fly I can tell you) flying between moonbases. You have a whole cockpit laid out around you and you can turn to look at the screens or out at the lunar landscape – wonderfully immersive but I need that better GPU to see that one at its best.
So yeah. Oculus devkit – clunky as hell right now but already delivering moments of pure awesome. And they are deliberately not selling it to end users yet because it *is* a devkit, and the people using it now will be using their experience to remove all the clunkiness from the end user experience so that it’s easy to use straight out the box when it gets a consumer release. And it’s already been confirmed that the release version will have a higher rez panel in it which should alleviate the issues with rez. And I am sure the release Oculus will bring cheap, accessible VR into the mainstream and the technology will just get better and better. Interesting times.
And yes, I certainly intend to get OR support baked into our new PC engine as we develop it. When I get the chance I think I’m going to have a lot of fun developing stuff for VR. Think of the games and lightsynths I could do .
Should you buy one now? No, not really – let the developers put up with the clunkiness and get a feel for working in VR, so that by the time it comes out properly there’ll be loads of amazing stuff for you to see.
If you can get to see a demo now, you should definitely do that, just to have a look at what’s coming. And when it finally is released for real, hell yeah, get one .
I thought people might like to see how the progress of the game is going now as we reach the Alpha milestone. Basically the framework for the whole game is there now, and moving forward from here my main work will be to fill out the levels with more enemies and implement different varieties of Bonus Rounds.
This time I’ll illustrate things with a few little videos. I’m going to put the Youtube videos inline here, but as they are not the best quality I’ll also link to some mp4 files of the same sequences which are much less compressed. Download those and play them locally for best effect.
First off here’s a video of the very start of the game, from the title screen, briefly into Level Select (which isn’t really shown much here as we go straight into level 1), then playing through Level 1 itself and transitioning through to the start of level 2.
There isn’t a separate tutorial mode in TxK (it’s really quite a simple game so a tutorial section isn’t really necessary). But if you begin on any of the first three levels you will begin with “tutorial labels” activated. You can see these labels in this video, indicating “shoot me” on the enemies, and “collect powerups” when a powerup is generated. These labels aren’t permanent, and will just occur when new items appear for a few times, telling you what is expected.
In this demo the last powerup is collected as we leave the playing surface, which gives a special “Yes Yes Yes” bonus. This bonus makes every warp bonus collected as you go through the hyperspace sequence a maximum 2000 pointer (accompanied by a heart pixelshatter and the lady noise). You get hyperspace bonuses by steering through the centre of the hexagons by tilting the Vita. Normally they range from 250 points to 2000 depending on how accurate you are.
The lady noises aren’t definitely final – I think they are a bit of harmless fun (and they were also present in T2K) but I’ll see what people think of them and if people think they are a bit OTT I’ll scale them back.
You’ll note that with careful timing and extension of your claw’s “arms” it’s possible to pick off enemies from the rim of the surface. This is a bit risky and suboptimal really though since you don’t score any points for enemies at the rim (or for enemies shot while you are jumping). So just cowering in a corner and hoping for the best, or “jump scumming” your way through a level may get you through a tight spot – but you’ll want to go back and do it better when you become a better player! Shooting enemies far away scores the most points.
And speaking of replaying levels to improve your score, we have implemented our usual “Restart Best” level unlocking method, which for each level records your best ever state at the end of a level (score, lives earned and bonus multiplier), allowing you to carry on from that level with those recorded stats at any time. People really liked this in our other games and it works really well with TxK.
Next up is a few seconds of gameplay from a level in the second chapter (the game is organised in “chapters” of 16 levels each, with webs changing colour each chapter, and new major enemies getting introduced at the start of each chapter).
This level is called Bull Ride, and I am sure you can see why – an enemy type called a Spinner rotates the playing surface, which is also rippling and bucking, and the overall effect is one of having to hang on tight (although in terms of pure shootingness the level really isn’t *that* tough). By shooting the Spinners on the surface you can stop the spinning.
Finally here’s a look at the entry into a Bonus Round, and a flight through the first Bonus Round environment.
To get into the Bonus Round you simply have to diligently collect the Powerups that occur in each level. One item in the powerup chain for most levels (not on really short levels) will be a Warp Token. Collect 4 of those, and the between-levels warp sequence will be different and will lead you into the Bonus Round.
In the Bonus Round you have to complete a dexterity task – here flying through rings, in others it may be following a path which may or may not be green; there will be a variety of Bonus Rounds in the final game. If you fail you won’t lose a life, so the bonus rounds should be considered as a nice chillout break from the main blasting action (and the music changes accordingly to reflect this). But if you do make it to the end your overall Bonus Multiplier goes up by 0.1 – it starts at 1.0 and by completing Bonus Rounds you’ll raise it up so that everything you score scores that little bit more .
Once again don’t consider the lady noises to be final. I think they are kind of cheeky and fun but I’ll see what others think before I decide .
Unlike in T2K bonus rounds don’t warp you forward at all. Some people felt they were missing out on scoring opportunity or missing favourite levels with the T2K bonus level skipping, so here the Bonus Round just affects your bonuses.
So I’m pretty happy with things at this stage, and feel that we’re over the hump with the creation of this game – all the parts are there now, and it plays nicely, difficulty is feeling good, it’s smooth and pretty (do download those mp4s to get a better idea of what it really looks like). Moving forward I’ll be populating all the levels with baddies, adding more Bonus Rounds, and refining and polishing the effects and gameplay. We’re nicely on track to be completed and out this year.
Just got back from a nice weekend in London, during which we delivered our “first playable” milestone to Sony. Actually writing up the blog at the milestone steps as each one is passed sounds like a pretty good way to keep this updated, and it’ll show you the kind of progress that needs made at each step as we go through the development process.
I’ve been adding a lot of the framework upon which the rest of the game will hang, and at this point although there are only a couple of distinct enemy types at the moment there is already in place a few different levels, transitions between those, and the sequence of powerups that’ll eventually lead to warping through to the first Bonus Round. Quite a lot of ground has been covered in this process, and I’m sure you’ll be pleased enough if I illustrate the progress with a succession of screenshots (click on any screenshot to see a full native rez version).
One of the staple ingredients of TxK is of course the powerup.
#1. The larch.
These emerge from shot enemies at a frequency determined by the current difficulty (predictably rather than purely randomly, so you can bank on them arriving when you need them). Collecting them all without missing any is ideal since it’ll lead you through the complete powerup and bonus chain. Along the way you’ll see familiar entities such as…
#2. The particle laser.
The particle laser, which is a bit more shooty, collidey and penetratey than your regular laser, and deals a bit more damage to anything that might be shielded; and
#3. The AI Droid
the AI Droid, otherwise known as “your plasma pal who’s fun to be with”. This little fella hovers over the lip of the surface and fires helpful shots down on deserving enemies. He can’t be killed so it can be useful to delegate to the little chap the shooting of enemies whose line of fire is dangerous to you.
Successfully shoot or evade every enemy on a level and you will be rewarded with a brief but intense spherical explosion.
#4. The naughty bits
This detonation detonotes the ending of the level, and shortly after you will get to see the entire surface tearing itself apart into a zillion bits…
#5. Swooshy bits.
..which all kind of stream and flow away in a big kind of swooshy cloud thingy as you pass through it on your way to the Transition Sequence.
The Transition Sequence is a bit like that bit of Star Raiders (if you’re playing it in proper manly mode) where you have to steer during your warp into hyperspace. You have the opportunity to score some bonus points during the transition if you manage to steer your soul (which is the little sparkly thing in the middle of the screen, as any vicar will tell you) accurately centrally through the hexagonal warp-whatsits.
#6. The warp-whatsits.
You steer by tilting the Vita a bit. You can’t not warp successfully if you don’t steer precisely, so it’s not something to worry about, it’s just a nice opportunity to pick up a few flying bonus points. And if you fly super duper accurately you’ll get a Warp Heart and a few more bonus points, and you’ll get to hear an iconic TxK sound effect.
#7. The warp heart.
The transition sequence isn’t oppressively long, and very soon you’ll pop out of transition and descend to the next surface.
#8. Supertapper Recharge.
You’ll also see the cheery anouncement “Supertapper Recharge”. ”What is a Supertapper?” you may well ask. Well it’s one of these.
#9. Electric death.
You can set one off per level by tapping the screen. Tapping closer to any source of trouble will cause that source to receive electrical demise first.
Let’s have a look at that again, just because it’s pretty.
#10. The naughty bits of a claw.
As I mentioned earlier at the moment there aren’t that many enemies in, just your basic flippers and these little shooty fellas:
#11. Shooty fellas.
but with a lot more framework in place now it’s simple (and more meaningful) to add many more enemy types as we fill out the rest of the game.
Other items in the powerup chain include the good old straightforward bonus points:
#12. Bonus points.
and of course our good friend Jump Enabled, which allows you to leap above the rim of the surface in order to avoid nastiness below and rain down Particle Laser shots on the hapless geometric entities below.
#13. Jumping above the top EDGE(tm).
There are still a couple of places in the powerup chain that are marked with placeholders. I will add further goodness in there since I don’t think anyone would actually strive for that which is described in the placeholder text.
One nice thing I’ve put in that I really like is a kind of active Pause Mode. You can pause the game but by tilting the Vita you can actually nose around and examine the paused moment in time from different angles. It’s a small thing but actually kind of nice.
#15. Paused view 1
#16. Paused view 2
#17. Paused view 3
Should you gather up 4 Warp Keys during your play then you’ll start down the path of a different Transition Sequence:
#18. David Bowman’s neon Toblerone.
which is a bit like flying down the length of a gigantic neon Toblerone. Eventually you’ll emerge from the far end:
#19. The moment of warp.
…and into the first Bonus Round, which I haven’t yet coded, so this is probably an ideal point at which to finish this blog.
Expect another when we reach alpha, which will contain aforementioned bonus rounds and a lot more game, and will likely occasion another jolly weekend in London which will be nice . Until then, pip pip!
Beginnings are interesting times. They can also be a bit scary too, bringing with them unknown territory and new things to be learnt and used. I think it’s always been like that, as far back as I can remember, when I’ve been faced with new systems and new things to accomplish with them. There’s often a twinge of trepidation too – when you first crack open the documentation sometimes it’s impossible not to feel a bit of overload at the sheer volume of new stuff that has to be crammed into your head and brought to bear on the new task at hand. I’ve felt it many times in the course of my career – the first night spent with the Commodore 64 poking around in BASIC to figure out how to get the sprites and sound working; the time I sat in a pub just off Carnaby Street drinking a pint and skimming through the new 68000 programming manual I’d just bought; arriving jetlagged and weary at Atari’s secret inner sanctum in Sunnyvale to code up some demos on the prototype Jaguar system…
But having been there and done that a fair few times you also get a feeling of confidence too, that although it seems like a lot at first you’ve always got through it in the end. The C64 yielded its secrets fairly easily. 68K assembly came to feel so natural that it felt like God’s own programming language, and after a few days Jack Tramiel himself came round and told everyone that the demos I was making were the best things he’d seen so far on that Jag prototype.
So it was when we got the Vita devkits from Sony. A ton of documentation (all of which it must be said is excellent quality) and a lot to learn – but at the end of the day the things you need to be able to do are well defined, you have to be able to set up geometry, run shaders, read controls, make sounds. I’m not about to break my NDA by giving out any actual technical details about the Vita dev environment; suffice to say that everything you need is in the documentation and examples.
Giles is pleased to get his devkit up and running.
The first step is just getting everything out of the box, installed and working to the point where you can compile and run the example code. Here you can see Giles being pleased upon reaching that first stage.
Example code is great too – in fact coming to an established system rather than a prototype is something of a luxury as you tend to have a lot of well thought out example code to study. Good example code is a godsend, as it is reassuring and demystifying to see some of the things that you read about in the manuals actually working in live code that you can fiddle about with. I think all of us pretty much do the same thing, fiddling about with sample code for the first day or two, just getting a feel for it and modifying things here and there, the very first beginnings of actually taking control.
With two of us on the case we were able to work pretty nicely in parallel to get ourselves up to speed pretty quickly and painlessly. Giles concentrated on bringing up the core of the latest version of the “Neon engine”, focussing on the parts that let us do the aforementioned geometry setup and rendering, while I covered some of the other parts – getting so that we could load and play sound and tunes, read the sticks and buttons, handle the touchscreens and accelerometers and such, starting to lay out a structure that the game will hang on. Within a few days we were able to put our pieces together and have the core of our game dev environment.
With those ducks in a row I could move on to the first makings of actual game parts. I’d already sketched out a few ideas in Processing while waiting for the devkits to arrive. Processing is a very handy tool – it’s a simple programming language that anyone can pick up in a couple of hours, and which contains all the bits you need to effectively jot down ideas in code really quickly and easily. It’s simple to hack stuff together in Processing and get stuff working, and then have something you know that works that you can work from when you actually come to do stuff for real.
An idea for the player animation sketched out in Processing.
Here you can see a sketch I did for the animation of the player graphic as it “walks” around the top of the playing surface. In Processing it’s dead easy to bang out this kind of stuff in a very short time, and it proved useful as I started to implement actual game objects such as the player craft and the game surface. And so before too long we had this.
The player object and playing surface with some simple baddies.
It’s always important to me to get some basic game stuff in there and working as soon as possible. There’s nothing at all fancy being done with the graphics yet (although even in such a simple state it still manages to look stunning on the brilliant Vita screen, and it’s deliciously fluid and quick even at the Vita’s highest resolution; it’s plain that GPU limitations are not going to be an issue for us at all in this game, and the Vita’s evidently a superbly capable machine. I’ve flooded that surface with far more stuff than is ever likely to occupy it in normal gameplay without so much as a stutter) – but already I can be working on how the game feels to play, which is pretty much the most important thing of all. It has to feel great in the hand and under the thumb and so far it’s feeling positively delicious.
In this little video you can see something of it in motion. Already to me this is old stuff and some of what you are seeing is outdated, but you can see that it’s lovely and fluid.
(One thing that always bugged me about T2K and T3K was that the player object animations were always a bit choppy. In both those games the animations were basically done like sprites but made of vectors, a series of frames that were run through as the position of the player moved along the top edge of the playing surface. It made the thing seem a bit disconnected from the playing surface somehow, and when the player moved quickly you’d get a kind of spasming look to it that wasn’t particularly pleasing. In TxK when the player is moving slowly the player entity actually “walks” from point to point on the edge, picking up and placing its “feet” precisely. This looks great at slow speed but if you do the same thing when moving quickly you still get that kind of “flailing” feeling. So I’ve made it so that the entity transforms into a kind of “gliding” state as the speed of motion increases, and it blends between the two states during the course of play according to how fast you’re moving. It ends up looking pretty good at both high and low velocities).
And yes, that is actual music that’ll be in the game. We’re really fortunate to have a great community of musicians over at the Yakyak forums, and a bunch of them are contributing music tracks to the game. It’s evident that this game is going to sound absolutely great, and every time I stop by the relevant thread in the forums I come away excited and smiling. Plus it means I have great tunes blasting out my Vita all the time I’m working, so that’s a bonus too.
My main focus now is getting a lot more necessary game bits in there and working – more enemies, more shot types, between level transitions, different surface shapes. There are a lot of areas where new stuff is going in, fairly subtly because above all I want to preserve something of the spirit and feel of T2K, but I do want to add in plenty of new things that’ll extend and make more varied the gameplay. As an example of the kind of thing I’m talking about, one of the things I’ve done in the last few days is make it so that the front and back edges of the playing surfaces no longer have to be flat. They can have high and low points and gradients – and this can be allowed to affect gameplay in a number of ways. Enemies arriving at a point where the front and back edges are closer can move to the top and become a threat more quickly. But a player can sit in a similar point on the top edge and actually be safer, because his shot stream will more completely fill the smaller distance between the front and back edges than if he were sat atop a longer channel. The player can go and sit on a “higher” part of the top edge and see more of the entire surface than if he sat at a low point. A jump from a high point to a low point yields more “hang time” – and thus more opportunity to safely fire down on enemies below – than one from low to high.
Little things like that don’t detract from the pure nature of the game, but they do extend it nicely and give me the opportunity to design enemies and situations that allow the player to take advantage of the newly more subtle topography.
I like little things like that in game designs.
With something that is recognisably starting to look like Game happening we’re feeling nicely confident moving forward. While I’m forging on with gameplay stuff Giles is working in parallel on geometry and shader tricks that we’ll use to make particular gameplay events and environments look particularly pleasing, and no doubt you’ll be seeing reference to those in future dev blogs here. We’re happy to be through the initial bringup stage and actually on to creative and useful things, and delighted with the system and its performance. Everything is looking and feeling great at this stage.
I’ll finish off with a shot of the top secret Vita devkit alongside a natural Vita, and tell you all about what makes it so powerful.
Stock and dev Vitas.
As you can see the two systems are pretty much identical except for the small black bull attached to the bottom of the development machine. This bull is vitally important, for without it the development system cannot load and run code at all. Each byte is inspected for purity and security by the bull as it passes into the development Vita. Any unsuitable code elicits loud and continuous mooing and the immediate shutdown of the device, requiring the acquisition and feeding to the bull of special Sony reboot hay from top-secret laboratories in Japan.
Right, that’s it for now. I’ll write more in a few weeks and we’ll see how things are going. So far I have every reason to believe that they will continue to be going well .