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.

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