Saturday, 21 July 2012

Android, a modern day Spectrum for amateur game devs

Way back in the 80's I received an Atari 2600 for Christmas. It was awesome. Let’s forgive and forget the crappy graphics, the dodgy one button joystick, the awful sound processor… None of that mattered. This was a machine that transformed my tv into a damn arcade machine – how could it be anything other than awesome!?

I loved my Atari. I spent hours playing classic games like space invaders, pacman, and centipede. But the following year Santa brought me a Sinclair Spectrum +2A… The Atari’s reign as toy-king was cut short. What can I say, I was a fickle child and this new machine could not only play games – it came with the promise of me creating my own games too!

The Spectrum holds a very special place in my heart. I know many of my generation can say the same. I still have it, it has survived numerous house moves and clearouts, I will probably still have it the day I die. Why? Was it the perfect machine? Blisteringly powerful and immune from Moore’s law? No. But just like the Atari, it was awesome all the same. My time was spent playing Dizzy, Manic Miner, Chaos, Arkanoid, Klax, The Great Escape, Deathchase, Potsworth and Co, Wonderboy, New Zealand Story, Blob the Cop, Wizball, numerous text adventures, and so many other great games that I can’t quite remember right now. There was also the bundle of games that came with the machine, pretty basic games but fun nonetheless, Treasure Island, Oh Mummy, Crazy Golf, Punchy, Disco Dan, etc – poor graphics and sound, but solid game mechanics that made them fun to play regardless. I’ve played worse playstation / wii / 360 games than some of these ugly spectrum games. Sure the modern platforms have the aesthetic upper hand and bags of processing power, but if the game itself is no fun, all it boils down to is an exercise in turd polishing. A fun ugly game beats a rubbish pretty game hands down.

Sinclair did all they could to make writing your own programs pain free. The +2A had a basic parser built in, and a tape deck for saving/loading your work. The manual was mostly dedicated to the basic language, and there were loads of third party books and magazines available that included sample code for you try out. In a pre-internet era I spent a lot of time with that manual, my Your Sinclair and Sinclair User magazines, and anything relevant I could find in the library. As a result I wrote some ugly fun games of my own. Pong, breakout, space invaders, that kind of thing. They didn’t really look much worse than some of the commercially available games, and played just as well, so it was quite a rewarding process! Of course distribution was limited to a very small number of my friends who were still in the least bit interested. The Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System were out by this time, the Spectrum was decidedly uncool to those who were only interested in playing games, not making them. My audience was basically me, my family, and a couple of friends from school. It was a lot of fun creating though, I didn’t really care that the resulting game was pretty much just for me to play!

After the spectrum came the closed platform years. NES, Megadrive, PSX, GBA, PS2, PSP, Wii, Xbox360. Buy a consumer unit, play games on it, nothing more. Well, that’s not completely true, I did hack the wii and write a very simple target shooting demo a couple of years ago, but I felt way out of my depth and didn’t get very far at all. Similarly I started messing about with the kinect and unity, but felt like I was spending my time configuring someone else’s tool and not actually doing anything too interesting myself, so didn’t progress too far with those either. I’d say the nearest I got to writing games since the Spectrum days was either using the Game Maker engine to make some fun platformers, or writing basic Java apps for university assignments. Game Maker is a nice tool if you just want to create something fun to play, but I’d prefer to learn a language and more transferable skills than tying myself to an existing engine. The java assignments taught me some transferable skills (mostly forgotten by now), but weren’t all that fun. There’s another problem with writing desktop games too – trying to get people to play your basic puzzler with graphics the Atari/Spectrum could have achieved when they’re used to playing CoD and Battlefield is going to be an uphill struggle.

Enter Android, the saviour. It ticks all the boxes:

  • Open and free SDK
  • A thriving dev community
  • Chance to learn some transferable skills (java programming, game design, graphics and music creation)
  • Relatively mature LibGDX library – helps developers without reducing the whole process to a game engine config exercise
  • Loads of devices, lots of people already have a ‘console’ capable of playing any game you create
  • Marketplace to easily distribute end product (free after one-time setup fee of about £15)
  • A natural leaning towards casual games – people are more likely to play your basic 2D fun game

So for a grand total of £15 I can create some simple games in my spare time and anyone in the world can download and play them? All the while I’m learning new skills and having fun? I’m in!

I’m going to be approaching this as a complete beginner, I will make mistakes, I will be inefficient, my games will likely look like crap, and I’m certain nobody will want to pay for anything I produce. My games will be open source, and I’m hoping to get them to a “finished enough” state that I can make them available for free on the Google Play marketplace. All the while I’ll be re-learning what little Java I once knew, maybe picking up a few tips on pixel art, and hopefully learning a little about making music. Eventually, I’d like to get to the point where I could enter a game development challenge like Ludum Dare and actually end up with a working game at the end of it. I’ll post what I learn here, but please be aware that any tutorials will probably be as far from best practices as you can get – I’m just gonna be doing things my own way and posting the results!

No comments:

Post a Comment