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A Look Backstage Part II...Many Things

First off, I just added a veritable raft of new images to the Backstage 2 game page. As people assign a lot of significance to screenshots, I'd just like to make a handful of disclaimers:

a) The game is between ~60 and ~80% done, so at this point criticism on visual or aesthetic mistakes that can't be easily fixed is not desired. If I can fix it in a minute or so of clicking I want to hear about it. If not, unless it breaks the game and makes it unplayable (which of course you can't tell from a screenshot) I'd rather not know.
b) Some of these may well look better in motion than they do as still images; the same goes with the dialogue, which might work better within its greater context. Judging Backstage on images alone is a bit unfair anyway; it's the sound design more than anything that creates the atmosphere.
c) Does it look too dark on your monitor? If so tell me. I'm considering adding an 'adjust your monitor brightness so this symbol/writing is barely visible' screen at the game start. A couple of them look darker as screenshots than they really
d) If you've been following Backstage 2 since 2006, don't expect too much that's really new. Many of these screens show the same maps and scenes that you first saw 4 or 5 years ago. To most RMN users, though, this should be new to you, unless you're one of the tiny number of people who've already played the demo.
e) Finally, several of these maps SHOULD be upgraded with reasonably sexy lighting effects before the game sees final release. Consider these screens the "plain" or "naked" version.

Secondly, I'd like to talk about systematic/procedural vs. sequential or "as you go along" design methods.

It doesn't look like much compared to the other maps, with their weather, screen tone, lighting effects, and other atmosphere, but this map, labeled 'battle system test', has been the hardest part of the entire process of making Backstage 2.

How do you make your games? Do you do all of the setup stuff all at once (create all of the heroes, classes, skills, equipment, items, and monsters in the database, create all of the maps, and then begin eventing)? Or do you do "just enough" of the procedural tasks in order to be able to expand the playable part of the game a few minutes at a time? i.e., did you ever make just enough maps and items to start the intro and the first section of gameplay, and had to go back to making more maps when you realized that the teleport event on the last one you'd made had nowhere to go to? Have you ever created a chest event only to go back and create the item the chest was supposed to give in the database right and there?

I feel like on the professional side of things procedural generation is much more common. Let's nail down the battle system before we start working on maps. Let's finish all the maps before we start writing events. Etcetera. However, for most amateurs--at least I know for myself--doing things 'as you go along' is key to your sanity as you battle the tedium of game development and struggle to stay motive, using variety as another weapon in your arsenal.

However, Backstage 2 really forced me to get systematic. For some background:

Backstage has two playable characters. Each playable character has six unique weapons they can equip over the course of the game (note that Tom from the original Backstage had only 5; glass shard, revolver, automatic, molotov, and shotgun, so the number of weapons in this game has more than doubled, as has the nuance and complexity of the battle system). These six weapons only have one instance of overlapping. Additionally, enemies need to be coded in such a way that an enemy for the 'Tim' portion of the game is unusable for the 'Raechel' portion of the game, because of how they manipulate animation poses. If Tim were to be turned into a wounded Raechel graphic, for instance, that wouldn't be right. There are also seven basic types of enemies, each of which has different attributes and properties. (Cataracts are poisonous and infect you if you are hit by them or hit them in melee with anything but a Fire based weapon; Clockworks can only be damaged by High Power weapons; Gasmasks can shoot you from a distance if you're not careful to dodge their projectiles while closing. And so on.)

So basically, there is one page of event code per weapon, per enemy, per character for me to copy paste and fiddle with. This is extraordinarily tedious and of course one switch or page missed means a potentially game breaking error. So what I have been doing is only giving enemies event code for the weapons that *can be found in the game before the enemy is encountered*. For instance, early game(Raechel) Nightgaunts can only be dispatched with bare fists, a combat knife, or the automatic pistol because those are the only weapons available in the early game. The problem with this should be obvious; if you can successfully escape an early game enemy and backtrack with a more powerful weapon to take it on later, it treats you as unarmed because it doesn't have the code for, say, a Colt Single Action army because you're not *supposed* to have that weapon at that point in the game.

This forced me to get Systematic and I really did. I managed to get Backstage II's entire battle system done over several marathon sessions comprised of hour after hour of eventing. All seven enemies can now be engaged (differently) by all weapons wielded by both heroes. This required at least 112 full pages of event code lousy with nested conditionals and switch and variable manipulation. (8 Pages per enemy x 7 Enemies per PC x 2 PCs = 112). I'm very glad I got this over with, and actually, putting the enemies side by side and testing their respective danger levels (as well as the new graphics for dispatching them with the new weapons) was very exciting. I wound up rebalancing the entire battle system by slightly modifying the stats of all major enemies; where it would improve the game, I also reskinned some of them with new and hopefully more menacing graphics. The Cataract is my favorite although at least two enemies from Backstage 1 also make a return. Hopefully this time around the enemies' strengths and weaknesses and overall threat level will be more clearly defined, whiles till keeping the focus where it should be, on scaring the player and on telling a truly creepy story.

Most importantly, though, I can now just plug and play, inserting enemies into the game and the story without having to worry about coding new weapons and sequences for them. Just switch the 'death' switch, and they're ready to go.

You'll notice I haven't included any of the enemy designs, old or new, on the screenshots I uploaded today, except the one in-editor one there where you can barely see them. There were two reasons for that; one is that the worse a horror movie's special effects are, the less the monster should be seen. It worked amazing for Alien. Secondly, those screenshots are from the early game, and Backstage II has a MUCH slower based opening than the original. It will be a while before you see your first monster, this time around.


Last but not least, Backstage 2 was recently featured on the Sore Losers gaming blog. While of course around here we all know Fallen-Griever as our friendly neighborhood game reviewer, I thought his blog looked quite professional and I felt honored to be getting a plug there. (Hopefully the review, when it comes, will be a favorable one.)

Anyway, that's it for this edition of "A Look Backstage" and that's it for this week's update! As usual stay tuned for more updates in the future, although the next couple weeks will be pretty crazy for me, so probably not until mid-August. I am very excited to finally be on the cusp of starting to finish this project, though!



As of a week or two ago, thanks to the incomparable Archeia_Nessiah Backstage II will finally be receiving a CMS upgrade worthy of the rest of the game. Work is still presumably underway, but for now, here's a mockup!

(There's an easy to spot error in this mockup, and it's not the fact that neither Nessiah nor Alice Sirafas is a playable character in Backstage 2.
Nonetheless, IMHO, looking pretty good. I practically can't wait until this is a fully implemented reality.)

Anyway, I'm so excited about this that I just spent a solid 6 straight productive hours creating icon pictures for 70% of the items that exist in Backstage II, which is to say 100% of the items that I've created and implemented so far. These are all rips from other games (the overwhelming majority are from the Silent Hill series but there's also some Resident Evil in there and a very heavily edited rip from a much newer game, Metro 2033) but getting them to look the way I wanted took a fair amount of editing and resizing and reformatting and other image manipulation minutae. I'm rather proud of the final result. Six hours well spent.

(These might be organized in the same way as 2k3 style face sets, but rest assured they are not, in fact, 2k3 face sets. I actually have them saved as individual pictures, this is just a way to show off all of them at once.)

So, there's an update for ya! A bit on the mundane end, I know, but better than nothing. Look for future updates in the future, most likely on Tuesdays.

B2 is still a little low on the download count. I partially blame the lack of screenshots. The game has been at the point (for years) where I could have been taking 100s of decent looking screenshots, I just haven't been bothered to. The next update may well accompanied by a veritable flood of screenshots. And hopefully, some more exciting stuff. Meanwhile, I'll be slowly chugging along, like a ghost tied to the physical world by unfinished business, trying to complete this age old project so that I may finally rest. : )


Help Wanted: UI/Menu Guru

I'm mirroring this here, in case anyone might miss it on the forums. No further comment needed, I think. Hopefully more 'Looks Backstage' will follow in the coming weeks and months.

Hi, so you all know me at this point I think, so I won't bother with introductions, but if for some reason you need my credentials, yeah, just click my name and browse the five million or so game profiles I have on this site.

Anyway, I am trying to finish my old rm2k3 horror adventure game Backstage 2 and I am looking for someone who is really reasonably good with 2k3 eventing and graphical user interface type stuff (back in the olden days, we would call what I am looking for a 'CMS' which stood for Custom Menu System) to help me with that game's menu.

The game has a temporary menu which is functional, i.e. it works, but it's pretty ugly and a bit clunky. It uses entirely Message, Show Choice, and Conditional Branch, to be honest, because I have always been afraid of/not well suited to picture based menu systems using the show picture command.

I'd really like somebody who's good at this kind of stuff to help me transform my temporary menu into something a bit more aesthetically pleasing and convenient for the user. It doesn't need to be 'fancy' by any means (no matter what it will be better than the text based menu), and I'd prefer something clean and simple and lag-free to anything with elaborate and fancy graphical effects.

This is definitely a 'catch a fish', not a 'teach a man to fish' request. I'm not looking for someone to teach me this stuff or for a tutorial--Backstage 2 is very probably my last game, and even if it wasn't I've almost entirely moved on to VX at this point; ongoing computer issues notwithstanding, it's scripting I should be learning.

Anyway, this is a reasonably medium-to-long-term request, so if I don't get a lot of (or any) responses right away, I won't get discouraged. I'll just keep bumping this topic periodically over time, every few weeks or so. Worst comes to worst if I'm on the cusp of finishing the game and this is the only thing holding me back, I'll just release it with the cruddy text based menu. I can live with that even if it wouldn't be ideal.

So, request complete. Compensation = credit in a project over five years in development, and I will owe you a favor. (If you do a really good job I will pay you $5.00 US Cash Money, if you send me a self addressed stamped envelope. Fuck Paypal.)

I'll remember to include the magic word: please. And say also:

Thank you!
-Max McGee


A Look Backstage Part 1...

These blogs will serve as a form of developer digest as I get back in the saddle again and work towards bringing this ages-old and years stale project to completion, finally. As I haven't used this editor or worked on this game in years and years, I imagine this process will be full of trials and travails.

I only do this blogging thing for your feedback, so please don't be stingy with it, people.

ONE. Playtesting an adventure game is a really tricky process.

Unlike playtesting an RPG, where you can at least eyeball game balance, progress is an adventure game is measured solely by exploration and puzzle solving. Since you as the creator know the location of each puzzle and the route between them, two of the most important benefits of playtesting are lost when you do it yourself:

* It is impossible to gauge how LONG the game is. Right now, the one of the two paths in B2 clocks in at 1-2 hours for the first 80% or so. However, I feel like a player who didn't know exactly where each game objective was and wasn't making a bee-line toward them, i.e. a player actually forced to explore an unknown environment, would take two or three times this long to complete the same chunk of gameplay. This is important for two reasons. I don't want the game to be overly light on gameplay, and I'm looking to set a certain pace in the beginning, subdued, quiet, and creepy, eventually mounting towards full on frantic terror. I don't feel like I have a handle on what either one would seem like to the average player from my own playtesting.

* It's really not possible to tell the difficulty of puzzles, whether trivially easy or practically impossible, that you yourself created.

Interestingly, picking the game up after letting it sit for a long time helped a bit with the second problem--one puzzle might be way too hard, since I managed to stump myself, three years later. Of course maybe I just suck at it. It didn't help with the first problem. I still feel like the game feels much shorter to me than it would to an average player.

I definitely need dedicated playtesters for this game. At least one.

TWO. Footsteps. Ambiance v. Convenience: You Decide

So a feature I recently imported to Backstage 2 from Ruptured Souls--although I use the word 'Feature' very very lightly as this is in fact a default function of the 2k3 editor and I don't know why more people making horror type games don't use it- is footstep sounds. It's a small thing, but I find being able to hear the sound of your footfalls on different surfaces adds a lot to the ambiance, making the game feel more like the kind of game it's trying to be. Can you imagine Resident Evil or Silent Hill without those footsteps sound?

So here's the dilemma. The footsteps sound AWESOME on the walking speed. But when you hit the toggle and start running, the sound effects become way too rapid. Unfortunately, 2k3 is lacking in granularity in terms of movement speeds, and there IS no intermediate movement speed between what I've defined as walking and running. (BTW, if you're not familiar with the battle system in B2, the advantage of walking over running is that it makes defensive (melee) weapons more accurate. So if you're going to fight monsters, you want to be moving at walk speed and moving into them; running is for outmaneuvering monsters and running away from them. You toggle between them with 'Shift'.)

So basically, there are three options.

1) Remove the footsteps entirely. I don't want to do this because on the walk speed they sound really good and add a lot to the ambiance, for such a little thing.
2) Keep the footsteps as is, and just suck up the fact that they sound kind of silly while running.
3) Rebalance the entire combat system (i.e. adjust the speed of every monster) to treat the player's 'walking' and 'running' speeds each as one lower. In addition to it being a huge pain in the ass to alter all those events, I feel like having a walk speed choice between 'slow' and 'slower' would piss players off. I have to say I find this pretty tempting, aesthetically...slow walk speed in certain games (i.e. games with reasonably small maps and a focus on ambiance) has never really bothered me. But the amount of work needed to adjust every monster in the game would be very obnoxious, and it would suck to do all that work just to piss players off about 'slow walk speed'.
4) Design a workaround so that the footstep sound stops when you're running. There's two problems here...one is that I'm not sure how to do this, and two is that it would be weird to have walking be loud and running be total silence. If anything, running should be louder. Ideally, I'd like to have the run speed make the footstep sound every other step, but I can't remotely think of how to accomplish that.

What do you guys think? If you can think of a fifth option, make sure you can explain how to do it. My 2k3 eventing skillz are a pale shadow of what they were in 2006, truth be told.


Beautiful Thieves

"My dear, there is no danger
Can't you see they turn blind eyes
To we swift and spotlit strangers?
Before the rush is over
We will be revered again
While the victims still recover.

Oh if we run this light,
or take a little life,
no one will care at all.

Oh, we can burn it and leave
For we are the beautiful thieves
No one suspects at all.

Oh, are we running toward death?
I have met him times before
He adores us like the rest."

When I first heard this song, I couldn't stop thinking about Tom Keller and Alice and their fucked up relationship and murder-based lifestyle, and how those themes were continued in Backstage II with different characters. All in all, it made me earnestly wish I had finished Backstage II during my last serious period of working on it, years and years and years ago. I got close enough that it being unfinished is like a hangnail.

In my last blog post (again, more than a year ago I think) I missed/ignored a comment by daymarket that said one reason more people haven't played this is because I haven't posted a story synopsis and no one knows what it's about. In hindsight I think that's insightful. I will try to post one up here in the future.


Hey now, seriously...

Hey guys.

So here is something I CANNOT FIGURE OUT.

Backstage is, as measured by RMN, at least, my most popular game ever. No matter what kind of metric you want to use- scores, quantity/quality of reviews, number of downloads- it's the one that's getting the most attention.

Backstage II is the sequel to Backstage. It is much better in most ways...music and sound design, graphics, and especially mechanics. In terms of story, it remains to be seen, since it is not finished yet.

Backstage II has received by far the least attention, proportionally, out of every game I've ever released. It has about two hundred downloads (in several long months of being hosted here!) and one...two paragraph...capsule review. Even though I have made no effort to promote Backstage and actually made an effort to promote its sequel.

So, this blog post has three points/requests.

If you are one of the almost a thousand people who have downloaded Backstage, and I must assume almost a hundred of them actually enjoyed it and completed it...

1) Play Backstage II g'damnit! And if you can, review it.
2) If you haven't played Backstage II yet, tell me why not!
3) If you ain't gonna play Backstage II ever, tell me why not...but be gentle.

Eagerly awaiting responsage.

-Maximilian McGee III Esq.
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