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2012/10/10

Early Estimates vs. Where We Are Now

Time for a brain dump. Get ready for some rambling!

Dig through the archives and you'll see we had grand plans for this stage in the project. A year and a half ago we thought we'd be releasing Flare-Game around now. But here we are, facing the last few Beta Engine releases and no final game yet.

So what happened between now and then?

First 90%

That early estimate wasn't crazy. On July 7th, 2011 I released Flare v0.14. It contained the Title screen, Load Game screen, New Game screens. It wrapped up the core Flare game into a tidy package that felt close to feature-complete. Many things were hardcoded, there were no mods or translation support, but it was on its way to becoming a game.

It was that mystical "First 90%" turning point for the project. I figured we'd be freezing features shortly after (around Q4 2011) and churning out art to whip out a very simple game (Q4 2012). A year to make a short game (5 hours content) didn't seem crazy when we already had about 2 hours of game.

All that juicy engine stuff -- modding, configuration, etc -- could come later when we made game #2. So I estimated we'd soon be shifting towards making game art and wrapping up a very simple Flare 1.

Go with what you've got

Around that time several great programmers joined the volunteer effort to help Flare (and kept joining through 2012). Meanwhile I'm still the primary volunteer artist, and art isn't easy for me (I'm a coder by trade).

When you have a team of 3-4 eager coders but only half an artist, what do you do? Keep coding of course. v0.15 was all about Translations and Modding support. Not strictly necessary if the goal is to just make one game, but good for the future of the engine. Actually the mods and translation stuff had turned out awesome; if you've ever tinkered with the files you see what potential the engine has. Just take a look at Polymorphable to see how far the engine can go.

Just make a game, stupid

Here's not-really-a-secret: I like writing low level game code. I get genuine pleasure from writing map display code or collision functions. Starting Games is damn near a lifelong hobby of mine. Usually it's not with the intention of actually making a game. Writing little game loops is a simple way of clearing my head. Tiny tech demos are perhaps the most fun part of "game dev" for programmers.

I still constantly create tiny game-like experiments. I can point to several I've done during Flare's development. Here's a Vertical Shooter experiment (playing with movement inertia, bullets, and star fields). Here's a Karma Slot Machine because I wanted to learn HTML5/canvas/js and I've always wondered how to match internal randomness to the reel displays. And here's an Office Chair that you can pilot with arrowkeys for no good reason.

This is the stuff that's fun to me. Some of you like playing games, I like writing game-like code. It's a very happy side effect that Flare is shaping up to be a full game. It gives me good justification for spending all this time on engine tinkering. So when the focus of the Flare project shifted from "make a game now" to "make the engine flex and grow" I wasn't sad.

I actually have completely Finished and "released" two games before. Both were when I was a teenager and had those magical summers with no school and no work. I uploaded them to local BBSes and shared them with friends, but each one was maybe played by a dozen people total. They were primitive but full games. The first was called "Knight's Quest" (very original); it had a simplified first-person "Eye of the Beholder" style display and turn-based combat. The second game "Hack" (also super original) was an overhead game with playstyle kinda like Gauntlet. Both were written in QBasic around 1996-97. Both are lost to time, I think.

Then college. And working life. Throughout that time I made dozens of tiny demos or experiments but never full games. If my goal was "make games!" I'd be horribly disappointed in myself. But that wasn't my goal for years. I'm warming up to the fact that Flare will allow me to possibly actually make games.

So why now? What's the motivation to take Flare all the way to releasing a real game? Damn if I know right now. Let me ponder and get back to that.

Reality checks and renewed timelines

Can't stop the engine momentum now. I'll be scope-checking it soon, but I think it's under control. A lot of Beta cleanup has made its way into Alpha work, but that's okay -- it's all safely happened in parallel to other engine work. When we finally get to Engine Beta we'll have a specific set of core tasks: input file validation, error/warning message standardization, any remaining config file standardization, and documentation. We'll probably be declaring Engine Beta very early in 2013.

I've been working on more art. For the rest of 2012 I'll continue to enrich the current art assets. Around the time we reach Engine Beta the core art assets for Flare should be near ready. I've said such things before and been off target, so take it with a grain of salt.

Getting a new artist on board could help. It's hard to find a volunteer that can match Flare's middling quality. Most artists can't afford to work for free, and I completely respect that. Maybe with more donations we could commission some pieces to help the game move forward. Until then there's just me doing most of the models and tiles. Here's a short list of what I want to get done to finish up the "fantasycore" set of art.

  • Dungeon tile set additions -- rubble, furniture, torture devices, better pits, traps
  • Cave tile set additions -- mining lifts, bridges, pits, better water, crystal formations, egg sacs, exits
  • Grassland tile set additions -- more set pieces, houses, better water, flora variety
  • Possibly new animations for the male hero
  • At least two new shields, one new endgame armor, a few new weapons
  • New icons to match all the new equipment
  • New icons for the new powers
  • Several new reusable NPCs (should be easy with mix and match and recolored armor)
  • New and updated power art
  • Consider whether to add new base creatures

That's a good chunk of art, but not insurmountable. I can handle most of it. What I can't do well is the painterly equipment icons (see the current style done by Blarumyrran, similar to the Wesnoth icons). I'll have a learning curve with new power art (how to make better fire? How to make good "swooshes"?) but I can probably pull it off.

Shutting up now

I forgot what I was talking about. I just needed to write down all these thoughts so they'd stop banging around my head.

Oh yeah, timeline estimates vs. where we are now. We're having fun now! And staying incredibly busy. Instead of having a primitive game by now, we have a nice engine. And we'll have a nicer game for it. As long as we're making some progress and not drifting from our original goals (end up with a nice engine; make some games along the way) I think we're in good shape.