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Game Design

8.0.1 teaser changelog

Not yet released, but here's what I have for you all in the next (minor) revision update.

* Revised some awkward dialogue and wording.
* Changed push/pull mechanics (hold confirm rather than press to toggle).
* The opening credits are skippable (with confirm).
* You now start with fewer different items.
* Removed the chest in Andoru's house that wasn't actually openable.
* Re-enabled the encounter rate.
* Changed the Focus display to be more clear.
* Fixed a bug where spamming enter after selecting an attack triggered multiple Focus changes.
* Fixed an off-by-one error in the Focus display.
* Audio will be external/compressed to avoid the "Not Implemented" bug.
* Performance options in the "extra" menu.


By the way, RMN, do you still like free stuff?

If you haven't heard, this year I am giving away some posters based off this lovely image kei drew for SU.

If for some weird reason you are in San Jose, California this weekend I will be giving them out for free at FanimeCon. I'll post updates on where you can find me on facebook/twitter.

I'll also be mailing some out, and those will be almost free. All you'd pay for is shipping. I'll post more details in a week or so, so please stay tuned.

By the way, I still have a few scratch and sniff stickers from last year. If you are interested, let me know.


Starless Umbra 8.0.0b released!

It's about midnight, PST, on May 1st, and I promised a download so here you are!

Go grab a copy if you'd like. At over twice the filesize of my last release and one tenth the content, it's quite the bargain!


Are you ready to get your Umbra on?

Sorry for the cheesy title.

It has been a really long time since I released something. My last game update was in February of 2011 and I think the last major update was in something like September of 2010 (Chapter Seven). Since then, I’ve gone through a lot of partial implementations, failed ideas, and changing game directions.

I was always torn down two paths with this project: either finish the project as-is or redo the project from the ground-up fixing everything that I wasn’t happy with.

I’ve been actively developing the project for about a month now and looking back neither path seems feasible. Given the game is about 85% complete, many people have urged me to just finish the project as-is and just do any revisions afterwards. The problem is there are just too many fundamental flaws with the game that I’m not happy with. To release something below my own improving standards wouldn’t be completely satisfying. I don’t want something that’s complete just for the sake of being complete.

The other end of the spectrum doesn’t seem feasible either. Redo the whole game, really? I don’t want what good effort I’ve done to go to waste. I spent some time fiddling with developing a custom battle system in 2k3, and I’m convinced if I finished it it’d kick ass-— I just get so burnt out of developing something that isn’t object-oriented, and there are really only so many data structures you can come up with internally before the whole thing turns into a mess.

As much as I enjoy pushing 2k3 to its limits, I want Starless Umbra to be more than a game with some clever minigames or implementation details. There’s more to making a game than the technical aspects, and that’s why I chose 2k3 in the first place. (Well, technically it was 2k at the time.) I’ve decided to take the middle-ground and re-release certain components of the game incrementally in order to flesh out the main components of the project I’m unhappy with.

This era starts now, with a re-release of the prologue, and subsequent chapters no more than 8-10 weeks following. Future releases should come much more quickly, with an emphasis on fixing most of the rough edges where I can, but not completely redoing or scrapping cutscenes. That means it won’t be perfect, but I’ll be happy with it.

May 1 is the date I’ve chosen to release what I have of the prologue, probably as a beta of sorts. I’m going to be receptive as always and will be maintaining a watchful eye on the bug tracker to ensure all feedback is captured and addressed where appropriate. This release will only be the prologue, but I feel it will really give you an idea of how I’d like the game to feel moving forward. There are four main areas of focus for the re-releases:

• I’m gutting out any graphical inconsistencies, especially with the map tilesets. I want, where possible, the game to feel unified graphically, and it’s amazing what a little changes to some tilesets will do.
• Cutscenes will be much more meaningful early on. A lot of the flow is getting a slight makeover in Chapter 1. The core story will remain the same, but I’d like to try to execute it a bit more elegantly and spend more time with the characters.
• I’ve redesigned the battle system and skill system without causing too much grief. On the surface, it’s quite simple, but I feel it gives a wonderful opportunity for customization and ease of balance.
• I’m finally switching to MP3. There will be two downloads for high- and low-quality background music. For a while I stuck to keeping the filesize small, and I was impressed that for the amount of content I had I was able to keep the size down, but I’m long overdue to get with the times. (Yet I still continue to use 2k3, hah!)

It won’t be perfect, but I’ll be happy with it and it should be done in a timely manner. Timely for me at least.


Releasing something on May 1st.


Some resolutions.

I'm going to go ahead and mark this as back in production, based on the effort I've put into the project this past week. SU is at a point where it's slowly coming closer and closer to completion, and I just want to update you on what I'd like to do before I call this complete.

Story flow and dialogue for the first few chapters need an overhaul. Most of this is actually already done, but this is to address the plot fragmentation that sort of occurred as a result of me not having a clear plot direction early on in the development process years ago. The story should feel consistent, and the dialogue should be more interesting. I love my characters to death but I don't think it drives the plot well enough at times.

Custom battle systems are a big waste of time. If I get around to it I'll implement one after the game is complete, but for now I am going to need to implement a modified default battle system. I'm going to keep the details vague until they're solidified but my goal is to simplify and unify the skill systems in a way that makes battles a little less monotonous. As usual I will push RPG Maker to do some interesting and new things, but I don't want to burn myself out on this one.

The remainder of the game needs to be complete. This one's obvious but it's worth noting how close the actual game is to being complete. At this point chapter eight is mostly mapped and the scripts are in-progress. There will be nine total chapters.

I'm also way behind on releases. My last release was back in September 2010 I believe, so I may have to re-release all of the chapters again to get proper feedback. Please, hold back on the groaning and thanks for sticking with this!


My third official hiatus status. :)

I'm going to dump a wall of text from the website, but the short version is I got pretty fed up with dealing with 2k3's engine bugs. I wouldn't mind finishing this, since RM20xx seems to be on-track, but for now I'm exploring other related things.

Around mid-October I really started slowing down with the game updates, and that is reflected in the forums. I did my due diligence in planning out the custom battle system, but I began losing motivation for the following reasons.

1.) Complexity: RPG Maker is not object-oriented. That means the work to implement one character or enemy would have to be copied and pasted, then modified, to add additional characters. This is a huge, error-prone overhead I was never happy with but always found hacky workarounds for (like the footprints system). At one point I considered creating a simple stack so I could do things like recursion, faster sorting, and variable management with ease, but stack manipulation (if you've done any sort of assembly programming) is not fun. In short, even though I had planned the battle system out, complexity swallowed up the development time as I spent more time sorting through lists of variables, copying procedure calls, and less time writing fun and clever algorithms.

2.)Speed: RPG Maker wasn't designed to handle the amount of stress I put in the custom battle system. A sorting algorithm is by no means fast, and at worst-case situations it required thousands of calculations that needed to handled relatively instantaneously for the end-user in order to not cause any sort of major input or visual delay. I was starting to see slow-downs on my high-end PC, despite all my efforts to optimize code. Without a doubt I've known RPG Maker was not able to handle some of the things I've developed, but when it gets to the point where a core component of the game could outcast, say, half of my fan-base that doesn't have a faster-end computers, I need to do something.

3.)Age. RPG Maker 2003 is going to be ten years old. Starless Umbra is ten years old in December. I'm using terribly obsolete software. Not only am I fixed to a single platform (Windows), but gaming is now on an array of platforms, and even Windows support is dwindling. On my Radeon 6970 graphics card, the screen periodically flashes black in full-screen. 320x240 resolution is awesome, but it's not supported by very many monitors. (When's the last time you've seen a 4:3 aspect ratio monitor, by the way?)

I burned myself out and stopped working on the game. From there I went on to doing some Java programming just to see what it was like. Despite being a programmer with a strong passion for game development, I've not done a lot of "real" game programming (other than a game engineering in C++ class in college).

In November, Gigatron was born. Gigatron is a simple side-scrolling shooter I developed with a few friends in a few weeks. I learned a lot about rendering, network programming, interface handling, and a lot of the backend work that goes in to something like a real game. Gigatron is written in Java and is more or less complete, but the code desperately needs to be cleaned up before something seriously gets released.

After Gigatron, I realized I didn't want to do complex hacky scripting in RPG Maker. I decided to revise the default battle system with some of the ideas I had implemented for the custom system instead. For a few weeks development had resumed; however, this didn't last long for my fourth grief with RPG Maker 2003 surfaced:

There are bugs with the engine. Remember that issue where the cursor wouldn't remember the last skill you selected but instead jumped a few slots down when that character got to act again? Yep, that's a bug with RPG Maker 2003. Remember the issue where the game would suddenly crash without warning during a boss battle for some reason? That was beyond my control. What about where fonts would be squished? Or dual graphics cards caused the engine to crash? Or movement getting stuck in certain directions? None of this was within my control and I again lost motivation to continue with RPG Maker 2003.

But not all is lost! SU's future has been on my mind a lot these days. There are many paths I've considered taking now, but none of them involve canceling the project.

For one, I can write an interpreter, similar to wolfcoder's RPG Maker 20xx. The big gain here is that I'd essentially be writing my own engine that reads in all of RPG Maker's project data files and customizing it a bit to my liking. This also means something like Starless Umbra in it's current form could be played on something like an iPhone if you really wanted to.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I definitely want to do something mobile, so I'm working on a SU-related minigame in Android that employs many techniques and algorithms I can use if I decide even to write SU from scratch. Within the next month or so if I finish it, it'll be available on the Android market to enjoy and then I'll consider Starless Umbra again.

After this game, I am considering implementing the battle system first--once and for all--on a mobile device as sort of a PVP-over-wifi network battle game using all the ideas and algorithms I already developed for the custom battle system. That can easily be extended to a full-length RPG.

Well, not quite easily, as now I feel a need for more original assets: sprites, artwork, music, and so on. To make matters worse, this need is amplified by the fact that I've lost a few members of the team due to some personal issues. But hey! At least now I'll have an opportunity to really work out the dialogue kinks and boring parts of the project.

What I'm getting with this is if you'd like to help with this project, in the coming months there will definitely be opportunities. Is there compensation? Some, but not much as if I actually owned a company or something. If you want to get in on this though, let me know. If you have any other questions you guys know how to find me.

Well, if you don't by now know how to contact me...
Any specific development work for my projects gets posted to starlessumbra.tumblr.com and @StarlessUmbra on twitter.
There's also a fanbase on facebook I'm trying to expand at facebook.com/starlessumbra. Sort of hard if there's no real current product to market, but I always check up on it. If you're really inquisitive, you can find my personal facebook there. Feel free to add me.

This project is sort of becoming a testament to my devotion and passion; it will always continue to march forward, even if I've been silent. I want this to be the best it possibly can.

Progress Report

Battle system updates from the past week

Status Effects
I implemented support for a fairly sophisticated status effect system today. Unfortunately there aren’t any screenshots to illustrate the work I had completed but the backend work is complete and fairly functional so far.

Status effects, like poison and so on, last not a number of turns but for a “time” duration I’ve devised. Time is defined as 1000 units equal to one turn, so if your attack takes 50% delay and you have the mean agility, you effectively take 500 units or a half of a turn. That propagates through the poison formula to determine effective damage.

What that means is if you do four attacks at 25% delay or one attack at 100% delay, you receive the same amount of damage from poison (give or take a few HP due to rounding).

I feel this is a more accurate approach instead of dealing static damage per turn. It makes speed-based characters just as equal in terms of damage received from poison.

Status effects also have ranks, which can be a number 1-9. A higher rank means the status is more potent. All this data is stored in a single integer. Cool!

From here I have a list of about twenty status effects I want to implement. Only one (poison) is implemented, but I can add more as I go. Each character can have a maximum of nine concurrent status effects, both positive and negative, and I need a good way to display those in-battle (either as a series of icons next to the HUD—if room permits—or an emoticon that cycles through all current status effects affecting the character).

After all the base cases for status effects are completed, I can move on to something fun like field effects or enemy movement.

So techniques with variable delay rates and a generic delay modifier (that additively affects all abilities) are completely implemented.

What that means is that one attack may take 100% delay, which is fairly standard, and then another slower attack may take 200% delay. On top of that, you have a modifier, which is something like an equipment or ability that reduces (or maybe increases) delay. The two values get added to determine the final delay. For instance, if a cape gives -10% delay, in our previous example, we would effectively have 90% delay and 190% delay.

Of course the queue alongside the bottom of the screen neatly sorts the turn orders in ascending delay for the next few attacks, so the result looks really professional as the queue is updated while you select your ability. (This is the best part of the strategy element involved with creating the turn order queue system.)

Fun fact: I liberally set the minimal cap at 10% delay and Andoru got in fifteen attacks before the wolfie got in one. Revenge for the bug from earlier today!

9/14 update: I’ve made the delay modifier multiplicative instead of additive. That means in my 100%/200% example with a -10% delay, it’s actually 90%/180% delay instead. I think this scales a bit better and is actually more intuitive.

All active skill icons are done. There's not a lot of text in-battle, actually.


Battle System Update 3

If you haven't seen this yet, I made a bit of progress since my last video.

Thanks for watching!


The past and future state of SU

Hi all; I’m going to take a moment to explain the past and future development process of my project, Starless Umbra. Hopefully by the end of this you’ll have a better understanding of what my project was, where I am now, and what it will become when it is completed.

Let’s step back in time to late 2002. I started on a project called Dragon Heart on RM2k when I was 14 years old. You played an adventure-hungry teen “Andrew” who somehow teleported off his home island and had to then search for four crystals to save the world. As you can assume, but it was terrible; I received unanimously negative feedback and was upset at myself when the game was rejected several rpg making websites.


I kept working on the game and revised the look and feel of it. Even though the game featured the same overused storyline, feedback became fairly positive, as I tried to introduce minigames, puzzles, and other gimmicks into the dungeons to keep players engaged. I ported it to RM2k3 and even evaded the happy RTP battlers in favor of using the character sets. The game was beginning to shape up even though it had a terrible storyline and a notoriously slow introduction.

Crack kills

After that I experienced gamemaking ennui. I didn’t know what I was doing when I started using RM2k and I never planned a storyline to completion. For a few years, I considered canceling the project due to slow progress; however, In 2006 I revised much of the game and renamed the project to Starless Umbra so I could nab a domain and find my project on the internet with ease. (Dragon Heart is already a movie and the former name of the cheesy power metal band Dragonforce.) Thus, I split the game into chapters and released chapter four under the new name, Starless Umbra. It took a while for me to get used to the change but I think it was for the better. (One thing that never changed was my alias. starlessumbraman, or sum, seems weird to me. Then again, dhm really isn’t much better. As a result, I’ve had the same stupid avatar and stupid username for eight years now.)

RM2k3 version of DH--circa 2004

Revisions didn’t end there, though. For chapter six I revised the game’s introduction for the fourth time and my project became a huge mess. Thousands of variables and maps were haphazardly thrown about in RM2k with no clear structure or naming convention. I’ve lost track of dungeons and introduced features that got neglected or lost down the road.

Well, it’s now 2011. The storyline has been finalized to something I feel is unique; however, this has yet to be reflected in much of the game that is currently available. With that, I’m actually now entering the final revision cycle of the project.


My solution to the inherent fragmentation of SU in its current state is simple: I’m re-releasing all of the chapters with updates to several areas of Starless Umbra. This revision has a plethora of goals. First, I’d like to get the whole project’s storyline to feel continuous by removing needless characters, unifying the plot devices, and solidifying mystery that really matter to the players. Characters are clearly defined in the backend, but maybe that doesn’t show through in the dialogue as well as it should.

The largest change, and arguably the most debatable, is the removal of the default battle system in favor of a custom one. The game’s default battle system is capable of a lot, but it suffers from editor-specific bugs, annoying implementation, and general unreliability. Where most games with CBS’s have not much seen the light of day, I am optimistic that I can finish this for a few reasons:

-The game is already 80% done.
-The battle mechanics are already solidified.
-I have no desire to start or move on to other projects.
-I get the greatest joy in RPG Maker from hacking together custom systems/minigames and generally pushing 2k3 to its limits.

This also gives me an opportunity to revise all of the systems I’ve gradually tossed at the player over the years—the tech system, the essence system, the rage system, and more. I’ve learned that incrementally implementing all these neat features at the player that don’t really play well with each other can be overwhelming and messy, so this will be an opportunity to create something that feels completely integrated, where all the game dynamics flow seamlessly.

Other enhancements for this phase are being planned, but I haven’t really revealed much yet as they are still in infant stages. New dialogue boxes/faces, custom monsters, custom music, and more are all also underway.

So how does this affect the game’s release? For one, I’m not supporting much of the current release any longer, which includes the whole game through chapter seven. I’m instead rolling out all of the chapters individually again, starting from the prologue, until I catch up to where I was before. Then I can start working on new content, namely the last two chapters.

It's hard to believe I was once proud of this abomination of a title screen.

People often ask why I’ve stuck with a project this long. Indeed, the common trend is to make something that is quick and solid—quality over quantity. Several games here have received a well-deserved and respectable amount of attention for creating something so wonderful and unique in a relatively short time. For whatever reason I wanted to try to create something that felt a bit more traditional, yet just as fun and lengthy as the classic SNES RPGs. I feel even eight years later I’ve retained that same optimism we all had when we first opened up RPG Maker and I hope by continuously pushing RPG Maker to its limits I can inspire others just as they have inspired me.


Want free SU scratch & sniff stickers? Of course you do.

Completely free! More info/order form here:
<removed due to spam. pm me!>

I'll post a real game update sometime soon.