Robbing the Princess updated (again)

Last week I finally got around to fixing a bug in Robbing the Princess that I’ve known about since the end of December. Was it a major bug? Yes, it made the game crash and could be performed quite easily. Was it easy to fix? Yes, once I’d figured out that AGS returns ‘true’ for the query ‘is a character standing on region x’ when the character isn’t in the current room (sounds a bit like a bug to me). So why did it take over two months to fix?

Well part of the reason is that with Christmas coming I didn’t immediately have the spare time (or desire to spend the spare time I had) to fix it, and with MAGS well and truly over and the game starting to slip off the first page of the completed games thread the peak of people playing the game was also gone. The other reason is, to be honest, I don’t really like the game. I said a while back I was going to write some kind of analysis on the game so I guess this is it.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING MAY CONTAIN MINOR SPOILERS.

I don’t think Robbing the Princess is a *bad* game as such, and I really don’t want to discourage you from playing it (please do and leave me some feedback!). In fact there’s a lot of things in it I’m really pleased with. For one thing I always used to struggle with room design creating sprawling (well, relatively speaking) adventure worlds where each room had maybe one or two purposes. Not only does this mean the player has to trek back and forth a lot but more importantly as the game designer working to the MAGS time limit of 25-26 days it means I have to spend huge amounts of that time on drawing backgrounds. I dislike drawing backgrounds. Interestingly Alan Saves Christmas (my first game) had eleven playable rooms, Erk: Adventures in Stone Age Real Estate (second) had nine,  Breakdown (third) had four and now Robbing the Princess has squeezed a fair bit of gameplay into just two playable rooms. I think I’ve got that aspect of room design sorted.

The graphics are also pretty decent in my opinion (and also in the opinion of the AGS review panel). I tried a completely different style and I think it came off quite well. I’m definitely not up to the level of some of the artists on the AGS forums, but I don’t think many people will be put off from playing the game based on graphics.

The animation is also something I’m fairly happy with. A lot of it is missing (up and down walkcycles would have been nice if I’d had the time) and still more is copied mercilessly (all the characters share the same rough body and therefore the same animations), but in places I think it shines. Everybody hates doing walkcycles, but I’d like to think the ones in Princess are fairly smooth and realistic. Also I went overboard on the guard sailor inside the ship – there’s smooth transitions and animation for pretty much everything he does. Very pleased with how his cutscenes and idle animations turned out.

There’s also a lot of complicated programming in there, not least because the rules demanded two playable characters which makes everything at least 1.5 times as hard. Performing the same action with different characters results in different actions. Some actions can be done with only one character. The door code is randomly generated at the start of the game yet it can still be figured out (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve finished the game). It’s also my first released game that contains conversations which I personally find very awkward to implement.

So what’s the problem? What motivates me tends to be a balance of work to fun. I’ve mentioned in the past that I have no problem spending hours working on an overly complicated bit of code that will probably go unnoticed by most players but will, for example, give some randomisation, provide customised feedback for lots of obscure situations or just look clever. Did I really need a automatic door in Breakdown that would open whenever the player or another character walked in front of it? No. Was I thrilled when I finally got it working? Oh yes. The main problem I have with Princess is that it took a LOT of effort. I’d just become full time at work and I was spending every spare evening, lunchbreak and most of my weekends working on it.  For all that work I just don’t think the end experience is very fun.

While creating and playing the game it was painfully obvious to me that the writing in the game is, well, functional at best and boring at worst. Both characters may have different responses to every action, but what’s the point when they just say the same sentence worded differently? There’s pretty much no characterisation and no story. Combine that with the lack of sound and music and you’re left with a rather bland gaming experience. In the past I’ve used humour to give characters personality, assigning a feature or flaw to them then exploiting it for jokes. I’ve also always gone for a more tongue-in-cheek approach – none of the characters takes the game seriously. In Princess I didn’t want to make another comedy game, and I succeeded in striping out most of the personality.

I also focus very hard on trying to make my games as stable and bug free as possible. I spend a lot of time testing every combination of the section I’ve just programmed, even if I’m pretty sure the code is solid, and I’ll sacrifice features to fix something that doesn’t work right. So having anxiously compiled and uploaded your game, written it a database entry and submitted it to the MAGS thread after a month’s worth of very hard work, it’s a bit of a kicker when the first response back is a major bug that causes the game to be rendered unwinnable (note this was fixed, or at least worked around soon after it was raised, and at the risk of suggesting bugs in AGS twice in one post I still can’t see any fault in my programming).

The whole experience left me pretty burned out with making adventure games. In the past I’ve worked really hard on a game for a month, then I’ve got the chance to sit back and get (usually positive) feedback from people who’ve played it. Even when most people have stopped playing I can still think “I made that game. That was a good game”. This time it feels like all I’ve walked away with is a sense of my inability to write good stories and characters.

I’m probably being over dramatic and overly critical, but making Princess wasn’t a particularly positive experience and it’s left me unsure about where to go with any more games I might want to do. I do want to make more games, especially moving away from MAGS and its time limits, but while I have plot ideas I get very stuck on working on the details so nothing’s happened yet. I suppose I should either work on my writing or find a team mate. Anyway, there’s always Mystery Project to work on. That *is* still alive (even though I’ve only put in a few hours this year). We’ll see.

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