Siralim of Old (Part 2)

Last week, we took a look back at how Siralim’s graphics evolved over time.

It was interesting to hear everyone’s responses to the post. Some people assured me that the game wasn’t as ugly as I made it out to be (thanks, but there’s no need to lie on my behalf!). Others seem to really dislike Oleg. As it turns out, we’ve all known an “Oleg” at some point in our lives. My advice to you is to cut that son of a [email protected]#$% out of your life and let him drive through his own [email protected]#$ing snowstorms.

Ahem. Sorry. I don’t normally lose my composure mid-blog post.


As promised, I’ll continue this series today with a look at how the game’s music/sound and user interface came together.

Music and Sound

I enjoy music. So much, in fact, that I originally decided that I’d record my own music for Siralim. After all, I used to play the trumpet (first chair, might I add) in junior high school, and no, I never got beat up for it. My craft was a careful balance of trying to fight off asthma attacks mid-song and knowing when to unleash my spit valves all over the nearest carpeted floor. In many ways, that was the peak of my existence. There was something about playing Jingle Bells for my cat as she desperately tried to claw her way out of my bedroom that made me feel like a real artist.

Fortunately for you, I quickly realized that most people probably wouldn’t want to listen to 15 different tracks that consist of nothing but trumpet blasts of the first 10 notes of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy while they try to play a game. That’s when I decided to post on the GameMaker forums and seek out a professional music composer.

Now, do you see the problem with what I just said? I tried to put “GameMaker” and “professional” in the same sentence. Knowing what I know about GameMaker now, I’m surprised that I received anything beyond a bunch of 13-year old Zacks trying to peddle their trade as master trumpeters.

Instead, I received a very professional e-mail from a guy named Tim. He included a link to his portfolio along with a link to his company website, Northgate Productions. Immediately, I fell in love with the music samples he provided. Plus, he had a picture of himself on his website and it turns out that he looks just like me, which was enough to convince my inner narcissist that Tim would be a perfect fit for the job.

Fast forward a week, and Tim submitted the first-ever Siralim song: the battle theme. Within the first few seconds of the song, I was immediately flooded with nostalgia. The song boasted the perfect combination of Mega Man X’s hard rock elements, combined with Final Fantasy’s SNES-era prose. Actually, I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I do know the song was great.

Since then, Tim has composed music for both Siralim and Siralim 2, along with hundreds of sound effects for both games. I’m pleased to say that Tim isn’t just another Oleg, and I still work with Tim to this day. Right now, he’s working on our upcoming game, The Negative, and I think you’re going to be blown away by what he’s come up with this time. We’re trying something new with The Negative’s music that I don’t think has ever been done in a game before, and I can’t wait for you to see (and hear) how it turns out!

User Interface

Designing a user interface (that is, the menus, buttons, and other on-screen elements that communicate information about the game to the player) is hard work. It’s more of an art than a science, and each game calls for a different UI, so it’s difficult to learn from other people how to draw them “correctly”. They’re extremely tedious to implement from a programming perspective as well. Out of everything in the game, implementing Siralim’s UI was the most troublesome for me.

Imagine you’re tasked with drawing our solar system on a piece of paper. The paper is the size of your computer’s monitor, and you need to try to fit as much detail into the picture as possible: every planet, every star, every thing. If you succeed, no one will notice, which is the best case scenario. Fail, however, and your family will be murdered and your house will be burned down. That’s exactly what it’s like to design a user interface.

You see, there’s a lot of information to keep track of in an RPG, but especially so for a game like Siralim. There are hundreds of creatures to collect, and each one has a unique set of stats, traits, lore, and much more. There are also hundreds of spells and items that all need to be explained with as much detail as possible. If these explanations are unclear, players will become overwhelmed, quit the game, and leave me a bunch of negative reviews on Steam which will put me out of business, causing me to run out of money and become homeless.

But I also have a limited amount of space on your screen with which to work. I can’t write a novel about every single creature and item, because it just won’t fit. And if it does somehow fit, you’re not going to be able to read it because it’s going to need to be written in size 2 font.

This means that something has to give. I can’t possibly fit every single detail about every single aspect of the game on your screen, so I need to pick and choose what is most important and either leave the rest out or place this information in a different location in the game. Easier said than done.

When Siralim first launched on Android and iOS, I proudly handed my iPhone to my father and said, “Here it is: Siralim. People can play it on their phones now!”. With a smile, he took the phone from my hands and started to play. A few seconds later, however, I watched as his smile twisted into a frustrated frown. The muscles bunched up around his eyes, and a thick vein popped up near his left temple.

“I can’t read this. I can’t see anything at all, actually,” he said with regret. I reclaimed my phone dismissively, deeply saddened at the sudden realization that my father’s eyesight was starting to fail at his old age. Fortunately, I was able to read everything on the screen without any problems at all, and I knew everyone else would be able to as well.

Except they couldn’t. No one could. As it turns out, most people don’t have perfect vision, and not everyone has the same size of phone that I have. But hey, it’s an easy fix, right? All I need to do is increase the font size by changing a single number in the game’s code, and the problem will be resolved. That’s what the experts who left 2-star reviews on the Google Play Store told me, anyway.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. When I increased the font size, fewer words were able to fit on the screen at a time, so I had to re-word and shorten just about every piece of text in the game. Worse yet, some text didn’t fit in the UI panels at all anymore, so I had to re-size the entire UI to accommodate the new font size. In total, I spent a full week of non-stop work just to increase the game’s font size. That’s precious time that could have been better spent on other things, such as adding new content to the game or fixing bugs. On the other hand, it was only a week, so in the grand scheme of things it was for the best.

I launched an updated version of the game on all platforms that included the increased font size, eager to watch all those 2-star reviews turn into 5-star reviews as people praised the game for its endlessly-complex gameplay, brilliant soundtrack, and nostalgiac graphics.

But nope. The 2-star reviews turned into 1-star reviews instead.

“I still can’t read anything! You suck!” shouted just about everyone. At that point, I had to agree that I pretty much sucked. I wasted all that time trying to fix the problem, and somehow, I didn’t do it correctly.

I re-worked the UI again, this time increasing the font size so much that I needed to re-word everything in the game an additional time. At that point, I had to abbreviate certain words and even remove words at random from item and ability descriptions just to make it all fit. Still, I managed to get the job done and submitted yet another update for the game.

“I can finally read the text now, but the font is so ugly, wahhhhh,” read a particularly dramatic review as accurately as I can remember it. Unfortunately, the majority of players agreed that the font wasn’t very easy on the eyes, and I received an overwhelming number of requests to change the font to something different.

By now, I think you can predict how this story ends: I had to change the font not once, but twice before everyone was satisfied. In other words, I’m not very good at designing user interfaces.

Here are some other problems with the old UI that were fixed before Siralim launched on Steam:

  • You weren’t able to hold down a directional button to scroll through lists. For example, if you wanted to scroll through your list of creatures at the stable, you had to repeatedly press a key to scroll through every single creature.
  • When you received items, they didn’t appear on the screen like they do now. Instead, a simple message appeared that said something like “You received a Happy Meal”. Then, you had to open your inventory and track down the Happy Meal to see what it did.
  • Creatures didn’t have health bars in battle, so players had to read strange health ratios such as “1238 / 4883” to determine how close to death their creatures were.
  • You couldn’t force the in-game dialog to finish by pressing the confirmation button. Instead, you had to wait for the game to write it all out, which was ridiculous considering a lot of the dialog was repeated hundreds of times throughout the game (imagine breaking 10000 vases and waiting for “You received 50 Brimstone” to appear every. Single. Time.)
  • If there wasn’t enough room in the UI to fit all the text I needed to include, the game would display part of the text, wait a few seconds, and then display the rest of it in the original text’s location. For example, a creature’s trait might say “This creature deals extra damage to…”, and then after a few seconds, the game might replace that text with “…anti-vaxxers”.

Thanks for reading! In next week’s third and final post, we’ll take a look at some of Siralim’s features that were cut or radically changed before the game launched on Steam.

Update Regarding Siralim 3 on PS4 and Switch

Many of you are eager to play Siralim 3 on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, so I figured I’d write up a quick status update regarding where I’m at in the porting process for each of these platforms.

PlayStation 4

Originally, I announced that Siralim 3 would be released for PS4 on March 29, 2019. While that’s still the target release date, please be aware that Sony hasn’t approved my metadata submission for the game yet. The game cannot be released until the metadata is approved, so it’s possible that I’ll be forced to push the release date back a few days, or even up to a few weeks. Unfortunately, this issue is out of my hands: I’ve done everything that I’m supposed to do on my end, so it’s all in Sony’s hands now.

For those of you who are curious: “metadata” refers to information found on the PlayStation digital shop, such as the game’s description, screenshots, ESRB rating, and more.

I’ll keep you updated as I find out more information and announce a new release date if necessary. Of course, everything might just work out and we’ll be able to move forward with our original March 29 release date as expected.

Nintendo Switch

I’ve had Siralim 3 up and running on my Switch development kit for several weeks now. However, I’m currently waiting for Nintendo to approve some “paperwork” before I can even submit Siralim 3 for certification. For that reason, there is still no way for me to predict a release date for the Switch release. I’ll post an update as soon as I get more information. Thank you for your patience! The game plays extremely well on the Switch and I can’t wait for you to try it out.

Siralim of Old (Part 1)

This is the first of a multi-part post about the origins of Siralim. It’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time now, and I hope you’ll find it interesting!

 

If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably played a Siralim game before. What most of you don’t know is that the first-ever Siralim game started out much different from what it is today.

Did you know Siralim was first released for sale via the Humble Bundle widget, and people were forced to purchase the game using that widget directly from our website? That’s because Steam wouldn’t accept us on their store. Yes, that was back when you couldn’t simply throw down $100 and immediately gain the right to sell your game on Steam. Back then, we had to run a Steam Greenlight campaign not unlike running for Prom King or Queen, where fledgling developers over-promised and under-delivered on their offerings with the hope that gamers would give these games enough positive votes to catch Valve’s attention.

Siralim was in the top 10 best-voted games for nearly 8 months before Valve decided to let us through. Other games with a fraction of the votes were accepted before Siralim was, and all I can figure is that Valve knew the game was too rough around the edges even for their low, anime-porn-game standards. And frankly, I can’t help but agree with them.

Let’s start with a game trailer you’ve probably never seen before. In fact, this unlisted video only had about 500 views before I tore it down in embarrassment. Don’t tell anyone I’m sharing it with you, ok?

 

Damn, right? Every now and again, whenever I start to feel a slight tinge of pride for my work, I like to watch this video to bring me back down to earth. Nothing keeps a man humble quite like realizing he created this… thing.

As you can see, the spirit of Siralim has always been there – but it was so rough around the edges and had so many strange design decisions that I had no choice but to give the game a complete overhaul. While I waited patiently for Valve to accept Siralim on Steam, I worked 80 hours per week for 8 months to improve the game.

Let’s start by taking a look back at the most apparent issue the original game had: the graphics.

Graphics 1.0

The graphics were originally drawn by one person who goes by the name “Bynine”. I contacted Bynine about this project before I even wrote my first line of code for Siralim. I found some of his work on DeviantArt, and a lot of his samples included his own versions of Dragon Warrior Monster sprites – perfect for Siralim since that’s what the game is based on.

I still prefer many of Bynine’s creature sprites to the ones that are in any of the Siralim games to this day. They perfectly captured the retro feeling I was hoping to attain, and I think those creatures looked like something you would have found in another Dragon Warrior Monsters game on Gameboy Color. Most people seemed to enjoy these graphics as well. Unfortunately, aside from the creature sprites, everything else was really… rough. As you can see, the overworld sprites had strange proportions (take special note of the Fiend in the arena shown in the trailer above), the realm graphics were hard on the eyes, and just about everything else was inconsistent with the rest of the game.

Please realize that I’m not writing about this to talk down on Bynine’s art style – in fact, I’m pretty sure I specifically asked him to draw them that way, and regardless, I still keep tabs on his work and am amazed at how far he has come as a graphics artist since he worked on Siralim so many years ago. He was still in high school when he drew all the art for Siralim, and it’s amazing that he managed to find time to balance schoolwork, graduation, and to create art for a massive RPG all at once.

Unfortunately, all that remains of Bynine’s work in any of the current Siralim games is the Dumpling. It was his own, custom creature that he created when we first started working together. I wanted to keep that creature as a tribute to the artist who helped bring my childhood dream to life.

The only art that Bynine didn’t draw were the spell effects for Siralim’s 100+ spells. Those were instead drawn by JC, who I’m still happy to work with to this day. JC has worked on every single game I’ve ever created. Right now, he’s working on art for another game we have in the pipeline called The Negative.

Graphics 2.0

Eventually, Siralim was selling enough copies on Humble Bundle that I managed to scrounge up a decent enough budget to hire a “professional” (those are ultra-sarcastic quotation marks) artist. His name was Oleg, and he did some great work for Siralim. Most of his art is still included in all the Siralim games to this day. He drew all the castle tiles and all the objects/walls/tiles for the original 8 realms.

Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out with Oleg because, despite allowing him to name his own price on everything he drew, I had to literally beg him to get any work done. He also wouldn’t accept PayPal or anything like that, so I had to wire the money directly to his bank account. Unfortunately, he lives in Russia… so for security reasons, I had to drive all the way to my bank, wait for a banker to become available, and then sit there for up to an hour while they grilled me with questions about why I’m sending money to Russia. That’s not a fun process when you live in an area with snowy, icy winters like Ohio. It’s also not fun to be treated like I fell for a Nigerian Prince scam every other week.

Eventually, I got tired of both pleading with Oleg to do any work and needlessly driving to the bank in the middle of a snowstorm, so I decided to part ways with him. Oleg caused more stress for me than any other aspect of my career, and I can’t even begin to describe how relieved I was to find a replacement for him.

During this time, I also found another graphics artist named Andreas who would re-draw all the battle sprites and overworld sprites for the creatures in Siralim – over 200 in total! That was no small undertaking, especially since I needed these to be done in a hurry – after all, I could only convince my friends and family for so many months that I wasn’t working on a dead-end project. Andreas worked hard to deliver the goods as quickly as possible, and I’m very satisfied with how most of the creatures turned out. The majority of his work is still found in all the Siralim games, as he drew hundreds of the original creatures found in Siralim and Siralim 2.

And, since I have no sense of moderation, I also asked Andreas to draw another 100 creatures to be added to the game as a free, content expansion update. I like to think that all 18 players really enjoyed that update.


 

If you enjoyed this post, check back next Thursday for part 2! I’ll talk about why I originally thought the Siralim soundtrack was ripped from a Final Fantasy game, and discuss why I had to re-draw and re-code the user interface 6 different times.