During the development of our indie game, currently named Project ‘Plane and Simple’, I decided that it would be a good idea to keep a log of my and Callum‘s progress. Ironically enough, we can’t really show off the mechanics and coding side of it just yet, else it would spoil the aim of the game; fear not, this will be available in due course to a select few alpha & beta testers. We can, however, show off the work we have been doing on our modelling, soundtrack production, level design and animation, without giving too much away. This will likely be a monthly activity so that I can collect a nice bulk of interesting updates, both for any interested parties, and also for myself to track my improvements along the way. Without further ado, let’s have a look at what we have so far!

Overview

Callum and I have been looking to develop a game together since we were young tikes of 13 in school together. We tried a couple of times, but we were inexperienced, uninspired and were just coding tutorials we found online, with no real direction or gameplay mechanics planned. Fast-forward to now, where he has a BSc Game Development under his belt, and me with a BSc Computer Science with Artificial Intelligence, we decided maybe it was time to give it another go. We promised, however, that we would not start development until we had a solid idea of the gameplay involved and any levels that may be necessary for the game. Following a walk around Nottingham’s Beeston Weir Fields, we had conceived of just such an idea.

We decided that we wanted it to be a low-poly game, focusing on a calming and chilled multiplayer atmosphere, that friends could play together whilst having a good old chinwag over Discord. We are big fans of various chilled games, such as Golf with Your Friends, Ben and Ed’s Blood Party (admittedly not as chilled) and Tower Unite, and wanted to make something in line with those fun times, whilst being as novel as possible. We don’t want to add to a saturated market here…

Anyway, with our experience with Blender and Unity, we set out to make this game, very much excited by the ideas we had formulated, and within a week we already had a nice looking pirate level, mostly thanks to Callum and his experience with creating low-poly assets. I’ve been a big fan of Blender for a long time, but I never worked with low-poly before. I have to say, I’m a big fan; it looks sleek, simple and makes game loading lightning fast.

In general, I have used a lot of influences in the creation of the game, from childhood memories of places such as Blackgang Chine, Isle of Wight, UK to various movies of varying genres. Hopefully pulling them all together, makes a fairly impressive and enjoyable game.

For reference, Callum and I started development on this game 25th November 2020, so go easy on us.

Blackgang Chine’s Nurseryland Musical Elves

I finally found a video with working audio to show the music that is played in Nursery Land; I even went so far as to make my own version just for the memories, because somehow my family could not remember the song I was referring to, despite it being the most parasitically catchy song in history (I’m already fully aware of how sad this is):

My rendition of the Nurseryland song

I digress… let’s take a look at the current progress of it all!

Spooky Level

From the get-go, I had a vivid idea of the kind of levels that I wanted to make, with one of them being a Halloween level, with cheesy music and comically un-scary monsters. I had images of Runescape’s Draynor Manor area in mind, which admittedly probably also comes through in my OST production. I was very excited to get going on it, and pretty much left Callum to get on with the pirate level whilst I worked on this since we had some physics-based mechanics issues that needed sorting out.

Level Design

So for level design, it was a pretty straight-forward idea, just having a fairly dark, dingy level, with a nice midnight skybox, and a large helping of thick fog. We didn’t want to make it actually scary, just spooky, as you’d find in a kid’s Halloween party or an episode of Scooby-Doo. The idea is for the game to be cartoon-like and laid-back, so anything beyond a lighthearted jumpscare is out of scope for this one.

Asset Creation

Spooky Level: Asset Creation

For this level, we knew we had to make a tonne of stereotypical spooky things like graves, haunted houses, dead trees, tombstones, spiders… you get the picture. The beauty of this is, they all look pretty great in low-poly and are easy to make. I think the pumpkins look particularly snazzy in low-poly, but that’s just me. Thus far, this is the most advanced of our levels, since I simply had the most motivation for this style, hence the larger amount of assets currently available for inclusion into the level.

Animation

This was the first point that I decided that I wanted decorative random-walk NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), that do not affect the player in any way but to add visual effect to the level. I didn’t want them to be too complex, since there would likely be a fair few instantiations of the game objects. I therefore kept the animation complexity to a minimum and made sure that all animation loops last exactly 24 frames. In runtime, this of course has been made faster or slower depending on the character – for example, I doubt the bat would get much lift from the wing-flap speed above, however the total frame count remains fixed.

Soundtrack Production

Spooky Level BGM: Track 1
Spooky Level BGM: Track 2

I pretty much had one set of internal requirements for this self-brief: we need a theremin, some bells, and a church organ.

For those that are unaware, a theremin is a radio device that is used to make an eerie wailing sound – chances are, if you have ever heard a spooky sci-fi whistle, it was done with one of these bad-boys.

Image courtesy of Bernd Hutschenreuther, CC BY-SA 3.0

Unfortunately, the only theremin VST that I have had success with on Cubase, Super Spook Keys is 32-bit only, and Cubase (my DAW of choice for over 7 years) now blacklists any such VSTs. Wanting to stay with the times, I refuse to mess with things such as jBridge and didn’t particularly want to spend a small fortune on a single-instrument paid VST. Therefore, I dove into the physics of how a theremin works and found out that it is essentially just a modulated sine wave with a pitch bend effect (or in my case, portamento to keep notes on-key). From this I made a custom preset for Synth1 – the result is what you hear above!

Custom made Theremin preset
Theremin sample from Spooky Level BGM Track 2

Pirate Level

Now, admittedly, the credit for creating the pirate level is 99% Callum’s. My contribution to it so far has been the creation of the pirate ship model, the spinning light on the lighthouse, and the whale model, along with water spout animation. He is busy working on his Master’s at the moment, but he has told me that he will be sure to update his website as soon as he can, so be sure to check out his portfolio at www.CallumBerger.co.uk. Regardless, let’s take a look at what has gone into it so far.

Level Design

Level design for this one was a little tricky. We knew we wanted it to be seaside based, with beaches and pirates and giant killer whales… but when you’re dealing with the ocean, how can you tie the different spawn points of a level together? We started to plan out the order in which the game should be played and decided that each objective (cryptically speaking) should be in triplets, so as to have a nice level of cohesion vs. diversity. Therefore each round would be based along 3 similarly grouped areas, before moving onto a new triplet. We also started to explore NavMeshes so that our pirate ship could move stochastically throughout the level, giving a nice challenge (not too hard, mind) to the player for catching up with it.

Despite the ordering of this blog (I just really wanted to show off the Halloween level first), the pirate ship was actually the first level that Callum and I worked on. This was where we discovered that the A.N.T. Landscape tool in Blender, paired with the Decimate modifier, made for a nice looking, simply made and scalable low-poly island generator. We decided to continue this method throughout the rest of our level designs.

Asset Creation

Pirate Level: Asset Creation

Since this was the first level we worked on, the asset creation process was fairly new (to me, at least). Not that I don’t have many years experience with Blender, it was more of a case of needing to organise my Blender files better than before, with proper naming conventions etc. Callum decided on making tiled island objects so that we could create repeating cliff edges and therefore bigger islands once the need became apparent. Apart from that, I thought it would be cool to have a part where the player gets eaten by a whale (see: Pinnochio) and so I set about creating a whale object. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after, finding a plant pot at my Nan’s house, that I realised where the subconscious inspiration came from…

Nan’s whale plant pot

Animation

Pirate Level: Animation

There are a few simple animations on this map, but the most impressive is the one by Callum; I’m still a bit awestruck by it, as simple as it may be. It’s the wave animation that you can see in the above GIF. It simply manipulates vertices throughout a triangulated mesh, to a given maximum degree, and then returns it to the negative of that maximum (which some may call a minimum /s). This can be sped up or slowed down to your desire. Paired with lazily overlapping the beach mesh, this gives a very nice effect that really adds some life to the level.

Soundtrack Production

Pirate Level BGM: Track 1

For this track, I based it more on the instrumental considerations of a pirate-like song. I instantly knew that we needed to have an accordion, but apart from that, I didn’t really know what we needed to included. So, I experimented with various chords and keys until I got something that sounds moderately like a pirate song. Obviously, this is just the starting concept, but I think it is certainly a contender to be included in the final level.

Pirate Level BGM: Track 2

Conversely, for this one I focused on the melody itself, rather than any instruments. Of course, on retrospect, I made the melody play on a Steel Drum VST, to give that extra Caribbean vibe. I made this piece after watching a YouTube video on How to Make Pirate Songs. The takeaway from it is essentially:

  1. Use the rhythm of a song from Pirates of the Caribbean
  2. Use military sounding drum tracks
  3. Make sure the melody does not skip more than 1 whole-tone at a time

So if you hear a likeness with Pirates of the Caribbean… that’s why. Although, it is still early days… this melody will likely change to avoid copyright claims and DMCA strikes against my domain provider.


Winter Level

The winter level is a secular-safe way of us saying “here is a nice Christmas map”. As of the current moment, despite tomorrow being Christmas day, this level has but two things: a skybox and a snow particle system that I made in 10 minutes. I started working on the OST for this level yesterday, after coming across some interesting free VSTs that work especially well with Christmas songs, but apart from that, this level needs a lot of developing.

Level Design

Winter Level: Design

As mentioned before, the level is currently just some snow and a snowy skybox, however we have planned to have a level similar to the pirate level, in that we will have multiple islands to hop to and from. These islands will be in the style of icebergs, and you can expect to see igloos, gingerbread houses and even a certain Mr. Claus, if you’re lucky (no, really, we will probably make this an elusive easter egg with an achievement).

Asset Creation

Winter Level: Asset Creation

As a metaphor for my usual holiday festivities, the asset creation for this level is fairly disappointing. I honestly only started yesterday, with this rather fetching candy cane, which will act 50/50 as a tree replacement (apart from evergreens, of course). However, I intend to make a great deal more, including polar bears, penguins and elves.

Animation

Winter Level: Animation

The animation here is currently limited to a simple particle system, in an attempt to emulate snowflakes. Being low-poly, this consists of icospheres of varying sizes and random distribution.

Soundtrack Production

Winter Level BGM: Track 1

This is what I spent the most part of yesterday working on, a Christmassy song for inclusion into this level. I realised that Halion Sonic isn’t the best of options for holiday-themed VSTs, and so I went in search of better (preferably free) VST set for this purpose. I came across a YouTube video that suggested using the following VSTs for sleigh-bells, melodic bells and general arctic sounding pads, which were responsible for the nice festive sounding music above.


Wild West Level

This level is a classic frontier feeling Western, with a steam train, plenty of cacti, buzzards, saloons and high-noon standoffs. This was another map heavily influenced from the memories of my childhood holidays in the Isle of Wight, as well as countless westerns and of course Back to the Future III (of which there may or may not be an easter egg).

Level Design

The level design is still in its infancy, with a basic idea of how we want it to look. We know that we want a desert scene, with large rocks and preferably the cool layered colour gradients you see in the Painted Desert. Of course, you have to have cacti in a Western, and I also made a large level-spanning railway track, complete with path-following mechanics that allow us to have an animated, interactive train system throughout the scene.

Asset Creation

Wild West Level: Asset Creation

Asset creation at its current state has the overwhelming diversity of a cactus object, a train, some train tracks and a railway bridge. While not a large model base, I think it already has a very effective presence in setting the scene and mood of the level.

Animation

Wild West Level: Animation

As mentioned before, the animation on this level currently is formulated entirely from the steam train making its passage along the railway. Although very crude in its interpolation, I feel it gets the point across, at least for a draft/alpha copy of the game and it also contains a fairly nice steam particle system, to add a little bit more depth and realism to the train.

Soundtrack Production

Wild West Level BGM: Track 1

As it currently stands, the soundtrack is based on such films as A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and this guy. After doing a fair bit of research, I have also decided to continue along with this bandwagon, as well as bringing in some Mexican influences, with brass bands and Mariachi motifs, due to the proximity to the American-Mexican border of the Wild West. I want the inner-level (saloon, sheriffs office et al.) areas to have more Ragtime feelings, whereas exploring outwards from this will introduce more themes from Native America (panpipes etc.) and Mexico.

A Little Extra to Brighten Your Day

My Inspiration for the Wild West level

Yes! The best! Cowboy Town!

Marek Larwood