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Progress Report

2023 Recap!



You can also watch on youtube if you don't want to read!

Hi! Once again over a year has passed since my last update. I figure now’s a great time to reflect and share what I’ve accomplished in 2023.

YEAR OVER ALREADY?

2023 had some setbacks. At the start of the year I was impacted by the tech layoffs and spent the first five months of 2023 finding a new job. I thought I’d get more development time in, but the pressures of securing reliable income constantly loomed over me. Game development for the foreseeable continues to be a side project.

I did what I could though. The new gig is good, and here we are in a new year. Let’s recap some SU dev.



NEW STORY CONTENT & MECHANICS

This past year I focused primarily on content for the second of the game’s five planned acts. Act 2 adds four new dungeons centered around a new hub town. All mainline cutscenes, dungeon maps, and mechanics are in. And yikes there are just so many small mechanics here and there that start to conflict, despite my best efforts to maintain some semblance of control over my scope. For example, having characters follow you with a basic pathfinding algorithm is great, till you have swimming, and levers to raise/lower water levels, and all sorts of interactions. These things get complicated (and buggy to be honest) quickly. But these systems are coming together and make multiplayer quite enjoyable.

On the character customization side, I’ve added a passive ability system. This is inspired by FF9’s ability system with a few tweaks. Passives have a set of triggers (I deal damage, I use a specific elemental attack, my party member is defeated, a battle begins, etc) and then an outcome as a result of those triggers occurs: usually a buff or stat boost at the moment. You have a set number of points to equip passives, but in another twist on the FF9 abilities formula, you can unlock more slots by exploring and interacting with the environment. This is a dumping ground for lots of worldbuilding and character development. The goal here is to add a bit of depth to character-building with fun ways to experiment and get creative, without cramming it in the player’s face.

COMBAT SYSTEMS

One recurring piece of feedback I received was that combat felt boring at times. SU had a distinct lack of resources. No SP? Few items? This was more out of hesitancy to implement new systems without giving it proper thought, but I’m finally moving forward with a few combat tweaks.

First, I’m experimenting with SP as a character stat. This is not a currency for abilities, but instead something more akin to hunger. It determines how much HP you recover after battle and slowly depletes after every enemy encounter. It’s replenished most easily by drinking water. But water of course requires a container to store it in, so you can’t simply purchase 99 bottles of water and be done with it. Instead — as another resource of sorts — the team will collect empty bottles. Bottles may be filled with various liquids, like potions, ingredients, and of course water.

In an effort to be more environmentally-friendly, the party saves their empty bottles after consuming water to refill later. That’s right, this is straight out of early Zelda, but the benefits this system provides solve many of the traditional problems I had with items in RPGs. You hoard them, never use them, and they just clutter your inventory. By providing meaningful choices to the player when shopping I hope to combat item hoarding. For example, I have 5 bottles, do I bring 5 waters? Maybe I bring 3 waters and 2 monster energy drinks that don’t replenish as much SP but boost my movement speed. As an added bonus, the system slots right into the game’s trading mechanics. (You trade empty bottles for filled bottles. Using a water bottle is just removing that consumable, then giving the player an empty bottle back.)

Players also have four additional secondary action slots in combat. Accessed by holding space bar (or a trigger on controller), these will be a variety of equippable combat tricks, items, and most interestingly, combos. Combos are special attacks players can create using any combination of learned skills. For instance, you might have an attack that deals frost damage and freezes an enemy briefly. Another character has an attack that launches a fireball. Because that frozen enemy is now ice element, the fireball does extra damage.

This is a lot of new mechanics for an otherwise simple battle system. I might tweak the rate at which I introduce them. I might also drop some of these if they aren’t fun or are needlessly complex. The goal here is to provide more long-term, dungeon-scale resource management to the game, and drip-feed new mechanics to make combat more interesting and engaging.



NEW ARTISTS

I’ve hired a few artists to help on the game, mostly because if I try to do this all myself who knows when I’ll finish. This is part “WOW MAKING A JRPG SOLO IS HARD” and part I actually have to be very deliberate with what little time I have for development. (I get ~1-2 hrs a night after my daughter goes to bed if I’m lucky). Spriting over a sketch to get character portraits that look barely passable take me a full week’s focused time. It’s just not sustainable and I believe in the vision of the game enough to get help.

puking rabbit has sprited monsters for all of act two. These are far more expressive and polished than I’ve been able to ever do.

Iamsako is sketching and spriting in-game portraits. Their attention to detail from sketch through to pixeling and anti-aliasing the portraits is inspiring.

1800animeschool, aka keifurisu returned to do my game’s title screen. You may remember (https://rpgmaker.net/games/407/images/20111/) (https://rpgmaker.net/games/407/images/16458/) from the rpg maker 2003 version of the game. I feel like the new title screen symbolizes a slow maturity and natural progression of ourselves as artists.



TOOLING

The way I was doing spritesheets was not at all scalable. I’ve leveraged Aseprite’s json exporter, written a parser, and then reimplemented character animations. Now a character sprite doesn’t need an entire texture page to itself. This is relatively minor from a player’s perspective but man I just want to show off what a good texture packing is capable of.



NINTENDON’T ASK ME HOW MUCH I PAID FOR A SWITCH DEVKIT

SU will target switch at launch. I pitched it to Nintendo. I’m an approved developer! From the start of development, I’ve taken a controller-first approach to input, and the couch co-op nature of the console makes it a perfect fit. The game is totally playable with a single joycon, so you can play with a friend without an additional controller.

SO WHAT’S DONE? WHAT’S NEXT?

Act 2 is basically playable from start to finish now. I’ve done three solid playthroughs and caught most of the hard crashes. Story-wise, this bit of content was particularly difficult for me to write. Certain scenes aren’t quite as impactful as I like, and the character-to-character dialogue didn’t write itself like Act 1 did.

There’s a lot of holes for side-content: an optional dungeon in an abandoned church, a hot springs side quest and so on. It’s always a balancing act between polishing existing content and charging ahead with the story and writing, but this is a massive amount of material. My last playthrough clocked in at a bit over 6 hours, so Act 2 roughly triples the amount of available content.

I’ve updated the public demo with a cleaned up Act 1. If you’d like to support me and get access to the newer stuff while supporting my dreams of finishing this thing before I retire, please consider subscribing to the Alcuria Games discord server or donating on kofi.

For 2024 I’ll continue to slowly and diligently chip away at game content. Features and polish will come but the core pieces are already here. The biggest challenge for me at this point is writing and implementing a cohesive, meaningful story: turning ideas and plotpoint wishlists into a concrete narrative. I’ll continue working on that and hopefully not get too sidetracked by shiny mechanics or minigames.

Stats
14,489 Words in script
1,013 Commits (snapshots of the codebase)
154 Maps
576kb Database (skills, cutscenes, player data, etc in plaintext)


I think about this line from SoulBlazer at least once a week.

Progress Report

Progress Check-In

Hello! Things are moving. I've been staring at a blog draft since November. Some noteworthy things have happened since the last demo, but any time I have to write I typically spend working on the project. From here on I'll focus on more bite-sized updates, mostly for accountability and keeping you up to speed on the game progress.



I got a lot of great feedback from the demo. Thanks a bunch! Feature-wise it's not quite where I want, but it's a good starting point. I don't want to dump features for the sake of features anymore, but I do think more variety around character progression/customization, enemies, and things to do in battle might go a long way. Details to come on those features down the road, once they're a bit more solidified.

Feedback, thank you!

Speaking of demos, the demo release picked up some attention around the internet. Here on RMN I was pleased to hear I won The kentona Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. This is extra special to me because the 2k3 version has been nominated in the Misaos a few times, but its never formally won anything. In the Gamemaker community, SU was selected for "Best Puzzles" in a GXC Community Showcase event. Lastly, I started a twitter account specifically for game updates, and the rebuilt swimming & diving system gained a bit of traction.



Updates

So what's new since the last demo? For the sake of organization, I've broken the game down into 5 rough acts. The July demo consists of a rough Act 1. Act 2 will triple the length of the game by adding 4 more dungeons, a new village hub area, and plenty more minigames/puzzles. Drafts of the core cutscenes are all written, with about 40% of them actually implemented. The first two dungeons are mapped out with two of my favorite mechanics from the 2k3 version making a return. I'm currently tackling dungeon 3 as I continue to implement more scenes.

At a high-level, that leaves more cutscenes, two more dungeons, a whole slew of monsters to sprite and implement, a new gameplay feature, some minigames, and tons of balancing left. I'm bad at giving dates but if I can finish this by the end of summer I'll say I'm at a good pace. We'll see, though. Please cheer for me.

Thanks so much for reading. Take care!

Key Stats
99 Maps
333kb Database (skills, cutscenes, player data, etc in plaintext)

Announcement

July Demo Release!




Hello!

I'm excited to announce I've released a new demo of Starless Umbra.

New Features

An additional 90 minutes of gameplay with minigames, dungeons, additional story content, and a village segment to complete the vertical slice.

Gamepad and couch co-op support. Play with a friend! I have no idea if this is fun.

Smarter AI! Players won't just stand in poison and take damage anymore. As an aside, this added some really interesting emergent behavior. Enemies might move out of the poison, but if you use knockbacks you can bully them back in for a deadly combo.

More interfaces. Shops/Item Trading, settings screens, and tweaks to the existing menu screens to keep things as friendly as possible.

A Note on Bugfixing and Polish

I did spend several weeks tidying up the existing content, but I've gotten to a point where there's diminishing returns. I'd like to think this is more polished than the last demo, but there's still tons I can do here. I don't want to let this detract too much from adding new content, so for now this feels like a good checkpoint. If you encounter any issues or have any suggestions I'll certainly document them.

Challenging Myself

It's no secret games like Xenoblade Chronicles and FF7:Remake shaped SU's battle system. With that comes the challenge of balancing a myriad of systems I hadn't really considered with traditional turn-based gameplay. I deliberately do not have healing items to stockpile. Instead, you heal between battles. This came with great difficulty (hah) as tweaking enemies to make gameplay challenging is an ongoing, tedious process.

Additionally, cooldown management is a big part of enemy encounters (cooldown state and status effects persist between battles) so I'm designing in this gray area for me where I don't want this to be purely action-based (I love my stats) but then there is some dexterity involved so you're not just spamming skills and standing in place. That said, difficulty is subjective. I wanted battles to be engaging/challenging but it could be frustrating to some players. I made jumping back into the game pretty quick, with an option to drop down the enemy stats if you find yourself dying repeatedly.

Anyway, I'd love to know what you think. Please enjoy the demo!

Progress Report

January Progress Report

Hello! Can you believe it's February already? Hope you're doing well. As I slowly move forward I wanted to share what's new, hopefully getting into a cadence of updates every month or two.

Before that, I wanted to express my sincere gratitude to those that played last month's prototype. Specifically from RMN, Darken, Zaeran, Aldu, and Zion you guys all gave me solid feedback I've taken to heart moving forward. I think it confirmed a lot of my assumptions (AI should be smarter, tutorials and input could be improved, puzzles are buggy, battles are frustrating.) and also opened my eyes to some questionable design decisions. All in all, for such a rushed release I feel confident with some polish this is something I'm happy to continue working on. On to new stuff.

Content-wise, I've been chugging away on maps. The first major village/hub is in-progress. This will take some time to flesh out, as the asset need for faces increases exponentially here. (Two new characters as well as several basic NPCs are introduced here.)

I've also done maps/cutscenes for the intro sequence of a new character and mapped out the second dungeon.


If you've played previous iterations of SU I'm sure you can guess what's next.

To speed up cutscene implementations, I spent some time creating tools to debug and modify events on-the-fly.



The top console displays the current state of event execution. The special pause() command is used in event scripts as a sort of breakpoint to modify and reload the current event. Additional debugging info is shown here so I can easily test different camera positions and find out where characters need to move to. I might expand this later on to allow stepping forward/backward through the event timeline, but as-is this should speed up cutscene implementation significantly.

Up next I plan on fleshing out the village flow with more cutscenes, small sidequests, shops, villagers, and of course fun banter between Amalia and Illari. After that, the second dungeon needs monsters, cutscenes, and a couple final maps.

Thanks for reading. Moving forward, progress will slow as I adjust to getting back into a schedule of fulltime work + parenting. I do hope to continue the momentum of working in bite-size daily chunks if possible to keep on track. Before you leave, I'd love to know: what tricks do you use to keep focused on your projects?

P.S. Shameless plugs for twitter and discord.

Announcement

2020 is over!

2020 is over. To briefly reflect on the past year, it has been stressful in ways I'm sure don't need belaboring. On the bright side, I feel like I've endured a year of both personal and professional growth. I've also cherished the positive life moments a bit more. Most notably, I'm a dad now. ("This COVID thing will totally blow over by the time our daughter arrives." --me, completely wrong circa last February)

Anyway, hello 2021! Time for game updates.

I went almost eight years without a release. Yesterday I finally broke that streak. I'm not very good at sticking to dates I set for myself; however, I did push myself to publish something before 2021, no matter what that something was. In good old "Release Something" tradition, I did it! There's now a new download of the latest something I could share with you guys at the literal 11th hour of 2020.

What happened? Why did it take so long? I talked about this a couple months back, but the short story is that Heroes of Umbra became a thing and I don't like leaving projects unfinished, even if they take roughly 15 times longer to complete than planned.

It's not a lot, but mostly everything is there in some shape or form. It's not a true vertical slice--most notably the demo doesn't have any minigames (yet!!)--but it should give you a bit of an unrefined taste of what I'd like to try to accomplish. If you have an opportunity to give it a try, please let me know your thoughts, what you'd improve, if you see this as something you could get into, and so on.

As an aside I did realize right before I published that none of the plaintext data is obfuscated or hidden in any way. Ooops. Feel free to mod the demo to taste. Crank the profanity to 11 or give your characters millions of HP.

To indulge you with the history of this project, I remember the first maps I made dabbling with RPG Maker 2000. I used the circle tool to draw a Mickey Mouse-shaped island with the default RTP assets in all their saturated glory. My mom asked me if I was into a girl who liked Disney. I wasn't. I had just gotten done playing Kingdom Hearts though.

I then went on to create a series of dungeon mazes and a village. With no direction and a vague "find adventure" plot I submitted a demo to GamingW.net. My ego was shredded. But I kept it up and learned to appreciate the criticism and continued to be inspired by contemporary game developers. It's weird to think of a time before the adjective "indie" described video games.

The older I get, the tighter I embrace my childhood dreams. I'm so grateful for all the support I've received in the near two decades I've struggled to make an RPG. The sincere messages I occasionally receive mentioning how they used to play the game way back when it was Dragon Heart or how they still have their scratch and sniff stickers are my fuel.

Enjoy the demo! I hope to share more with you guys in 2021. Thanks for your support.

Progress Report

Christmas Updates

Merry Christmas! Hope you're staying healthy and handling the holiday season well. I have more updates for you today. Let's dive straight in.

Much less "prototypey"



Stats + skills are now awarded on level up. Items and equipment exist now. Enemies are balanced and positioned around the maps in ways that make more sense. Monsters currently never respawn! I'm going to experiment with this and see how it might discourage grinding and item hoarding. Combat will be more challenging but less frequent. Chests actually award items. All in all it is beginning to feel more like a "real" rpg.

More Menus



I've built out simple inventory, equip, skills, hotkeys, and save/load menu screens. These are far from polished, but the high-level functionality exists.

Misc Systems



Toasts now show up at the top of the screen when someone levels up, casts a spell, or finds an item. Secondary dialogue and tips appear unobtrusively along the bottom of the screen.

Juice



I've added some animations, particle effects, sounds, etc in an effort to make things look and feel a little more satisfying.

A Boss

I've implemented a boss prototype with some more challenging skills. It's still in the balancing/sprite design phase so I'll share more when that's complete.

What's Next?

I'm still marching towards a prototype some time early 2021 with the first 20 minutes of gameplay or so (fingers crossed). I'll be sharing that on discord first when it's ready. I've also started a twitter account specifically for game updates. Please check them out if you're interested in more.

Thanks for reading and take care.

Progress Report

Dungeons, Menus, Puzzles, Progress!

Hi! How are you? Hope you're well! I've been chugging away and have a few updates to share with you.

Dungeon Maps



I've made some progress on the first dungeon area. It's smallish in size, with 6-7 mostly straightforward maps and the revival of the character switching mechanics from SU2k3. Paired with character switching is another JRPG staple: pushable blocks and floor switches. I felt these were a safe starting point. As development continues I'll add more mechanics to play with as well.

Ambience and lighting are missing; those will come later on (after a demo I hope!)

WIP Menus



I've got a small framework in place to handle menus, which are basically a collection of windows under the hood. Some windows can have child windows which adds for some neat logical grouping. This isn't very far along but it seems to work well. Again, I'm borrowing a lot of design here from 2k3 and some classic JRPGs.

The text is really ugly! I use bitmap fonts, and GM's anti-aliasing is a bit too much, so at some point later I'll probably end up manually anti-aliasing + outlining the larger stylized fonts.

Battle System

I've added the focus system from SU2k3, where monsters prioritize players to target based on how much damage they've dealt. This will be integral to planning out battles and mitigating damage. Monsters can now have multiple skills, each with some priority associated with it.

JSON Databases

Character, Monster, Skills, Items, etc are stored and loaded from JSON files. I might make a client to modify these on the go in the future, but for now they keep swaths of game data out of code and organized a bit.

Up next
A boss battle, save/load data, the first major town, and more menu screens. Thanks for reading. I hope you have a great day.

Progress Report

First cutscene + some battle system progress

Hi friends, hope you're doing well and staying safe. I've made some progress and I'm eager to share it with you.

Cutscenes


Clydan gets upgraded to a professor!

I briefly mentioned the rm2k-inspired cutscene system I built to handle scripted events in the last blog. So far that has made cutscene implementation much faster, as I've made the commands more concise and powerful. I've gotten to the point where the commands needed for most cutscenes are in, so I've been able to implement drafts of the game's first two scenes.

This same cutscene system also drives skill animations in-combat as well. It's incredibly simple but effective.

You might also notice the addition of new character portraits. My wife designed these based off of the sprites I shared last month. They're still a WIP but I like them a lot.

Battle System


You hunt the bunnies by jumping on them

You'll immediately notice I killed dedicated battle maps and opted for real-time combat. This was inspired by Xenoblade Chronicles, FF7R, and other modern JRPGs. (Chrono Trigger also did this 25 years ago and it blew my mind!) Details are still being ironed out but the plan is to trim out a lot of the stereotypical battle system fluff and focus on core mechanics to make combat feel fresh, customizable, and engaging. I'm exploring limiting the skills you can bring into combat to 4 from your pool, minimal resources, and restoring HP between battles/removing consumable items entirely. I'll share more features as I implement them.

Upcoming

There's still tons to do! Existing UI still needs polishing/animating. I've got some tiles/characters to design and a few more system mechanics to experiment with. There's also a ton of polish/other flourishes missing from maps. The goal is to do what I can to push forward towards a completed prologue. I can polish along the way and share a demo once things move out of the prototype phase.

I'm trying to stream some of the creative process on the game's facebook page biweekly. I usually make maps to ambient music, so if that's your thing please check it out.

Thanks for reading! Take care.

Progress Report

Some slow movement

Hi there! I hope you're doing well in these crazy times. A couple things are moving forward for this project and I wanted to provide a little bit of news. First, a quick recap of what's happened in the last few years:

1. In 2016-2017 I tried making my own engine, UmbraCraft. It's open-source and available on github if you're interested. This was a great experience, but it abstracted out some of the things I enjoyed more than I realized now (such as making maps) and the editor was more cumbersome to use than 2k3. Oops.

2. In 2018 I tried using EasyRPG -- an open-source RPG Maker interpreter. This was great because it was cross-platform, modern, and I even was into rebuilding a battle system on top of their work. But the nagging feeling in the back of my head was the story and assets felt a bit fragmented, so those would need revisiting again.

(Aside: In 2018 I completed and launched Heroes of Umbra on Steam. It was incredibly stressful.)

2.5 I also spent some time with Unity but it felt like overkill, especially for a 2D game.

3. 2020! Post-quarantine. Finally after playing with other engines, I'm enjoying Gamemaker Studio. Here's a tweet showcasing my attempt at recreating a map in a 2k3-style.


This workflow feels incredibly good. I have a light cutscene system that parses text files. Events can be triggered by collision, interaction, or on map enter. Anyone using 2k3 will be very familiar with the syntax:
show_screen(1)

pan_to(360, 151, 10)
wait(8)
hide_screen(1)
wait(2)
configure_message(false, false, center)
show_message("Focus...|Take a deep breath, squeeze, and throw.")
hide_message()

This is a segment of the intro, and does the following:


I've also spent some time tidying up the characters and the story. Gameplay and character development take the stage, but spending the time to come up with a cohesive story up-front will save me some headaches down the road.


Armed with a bit more pixel art capabilities and strong nostalgia for 2k3 character sprites, this is where I landed on the character styles. In general, characters will look and feel much more different than before. (I don't know what I was thinking giving two of my main characters blue hair!)

I'll keep sharing more as things move along, thanks so much for reading. It means a lot to me.

Miscellaneous

Download Fixed

I updated the download to an installer. This should fix two issues:

1. No one installs the font. This takes care of that automatically.
2. Broken/Missing plugins. Everything should work without having to manually move around DynRPG plugins.

Please give it a download and let me know if you encounter any issues. Thanks!
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