Thursday, 17 March 2022

Bossing it...

Ever since the early days of Bullion, we knew we wanted to have multiple modes of gameplay The standard avarice mode - time-limited gameplay with a winner based on treasure - was the obvious main mode. But we wanted to include boss battles as well, and so the question was how to make that gameplay mode sufficiently different, but still retaining the mood and themes of Bullion?

In avarice mode, Captain Silverside and crew attempt to appease the gods of the Isles of Ser-Lloyn by being the pirate to collect and thus offer the most treasure. We wondered what would happen if they chose to provoke the gods instead - after all, pirates are not best known for following rules! What if they intended to defy the gods and try to keep the treasure for themselves? Wouldn't the gods take umbrage?

Hence defiance mode - the crew refuse to play the game, so the gods send their champion to smite them! Each game arena would have its own guardian, appropriate to the theme of that arena, which the crew would need to defeat in order to win the game and keep their treasure - and their skins!

Meanwhile, Bullion's human development crew had hit a few rocky shores of their own. It looked like we were going to be blocked for a while and we needed to pivot. We onboarded enemy character artist Stuart at just the right time - we asked him to "go nuts", and boy did he deliver - for what should land in our inbox one day but the fearsome undead zombie parrot figure of Captain Krackerz!

Try feeding this guy a cracker!

Up to this point, the world of Bullion was populated only by anthropomorphic bulls. In this one act, Stuart had reimagined the world our corsairs inhabited, opening up endless possibilities that have led to the crocodiles, lizards and sea creatures in the game today (with more still to come - make sure you follow our social media for an early heads-up!). And what better way to start, in a pirate world, than with a parrot? Perennial companion to the pirate figure, Krackerz seeks revenge against all of the cruel captains that have gone before, mistreating and teasing his brethren. We decided to go all-in, working on the boss battle, replacing our placeholder skeletons with new parrot-themed models built by Stuart, and thinking through how a boss battle might work.

Most of the existing enemies in Bullion were simple 'grunts' - they'd pick a player and attack them, possibly running away if outnumbered, but doing very little else. Bosses needed more sophisticated handling - advanced weapons, range attacks, and interacting with the environment and the other creatures therein. And they would need vulnerable moments too, suitably signposted, to enable the players to perform mob attacks.

We worked on a script for Krackerz based around several rounds of gameplay - as the battle progressed, his behaviour would change, becoming increasingly more difficult to attack. He'd fire his cannon at players; he'd summon minions to act as a shield and stand around him, waiting to attack approaching players.

We wanted the core mechanic of Bullion - that the winner is the pirate with the most treasure - to remain. Being the pirate that defeats the boss was more an element of chance than skill. But attacking the boss needed to be rewarded. We made them 'treasure pinatas'; the more you attack them, the more treasure they drop. What's more, each stage of the boss battle ends with the boss dropping a BFD - a big fat (ahem) diamond - worth a considerable amount of treasure!

Once we had Krackerz, there was no holding us back! For Salty Swamp, Stuart's warped genius came up with Ella Gator, the most fabulous Queen of the Deep South - a lizard with attitude and a whole slice of drama, darling. And from a gameplay point of view, she is more complex than Krackerz, too (as befits a boss of a harder level) - she controls how her minions attack, sets fire to the marsh gases, and bats a huge rock at our players to crush them!

The most fabulous boss in the bayou, darling!

Our usual process is to test new features of the game by taking it to the public at shows and expos. There we can watch people play, with more or less prompting, and gauge what needs adjusting. It became clear that people liked the idea of boss battles, but they did tend to drag on, particularly when players didn't want to be the one to engage with the boss and get smited! Why 'take one for the team' when you could be collecting treasure instead, since that's how you win the game? We found this a bit irritating, and wondered what to do about it.

Then we realised - if we were irked, how would the bosses feel? The champions of the arena, sent there by the very gods themselves, were being ignored by these rebel ruminants? They'd be positively furious!

We made the rage of the gods part of the game mechanic. The longer the boss goes unattacked, the angrier they become - and the more swift and devastating their revenge! The players need to find that balance between co-operating to defeat the boss, and collecting treasure, otherwise they'll all be slain and nobody wins.

Boss Battle mode achieved!

We have more bosses in the pipeline, and a whole third mode of play now added to the game... but those are subjects for future blog posts!

Monday, 21 February 2022

A Taste of the Pirate's Life...

With all the positive feedback we've received ever since our first show all that time ago, we decided it was high time we took the plunge and released a demo on PC!

You can check it out here:

Demos have always been bit special for the older Bullion team members (aka Ben and Paul H). Back when our two programmers were but young scallywags with Atari ST computers and dreams of being game developers, playable demos were limited to what could be squeezed into the capacity of a single floppy disk - that's about a megabyte, if you're lucky! - and slapped on the cover of a monthly magazine... no internet back in those days! So releasing a playable demo by this means was considered something of an achievement - possibly more so than actually releasing a game!

Nowadays of course, the opposite is true - any would-be game developer can get a demo, or even a full game, out on the marketplace with barely a few mouse-clicks (and a bit of grind-work preparing all the required content!), and we are spoiled for choice when it comes to digital storefronts: Steam, Itch, GOG, Gamejolt... since all our previous releases have been either on mobile or Xbox 360, this was another "Bullion first" for us! Eventually we went with, just for its ease of accessibility - however we are not blind to marketing trends, and so at the same time, we also set up a Steam page for the full game, and to allow people to wishlist (hint! hint!) for when we do release it. We're hoping to get the demo on Steam too but, thanks to a flurry of "life events" simply ran out of time before the release date! Ah, the joys of being a small studio...

So: demo live - check. Steam wishlist page - check. What else... ah yes! Public feedback has been at the heart of what we do even before Bullion was a concept, and the insight we have gathered from the shows we have taken the game to has been invaluable. So we set up a Discord server as well so that our demo players can let us know whether we should be showered in treasure... or walking the plank!

Of course, one thing we were ready for was the inevitable chore of putting together all the various content assets required for each storefront - imagery is always the pain-point here, with so many different sizes and aspect ratio requirements... just like back when we were making mobile titles! That said, back in those days at least the mobile storefronts required you to manually resize your imagery to all the different required permutations and upload them all, whereas on PC, this tends to be automated - it's a small thing, but we'll take it as a win!

Deciding exactly what to put into the demo was pretty tough - on one hand, we had a definite idea of what we wanted to showcase, but our experiences watching people play at expos showed us some very definite trends as to favourite characters and arenas... hopefully what we have here is a decent blend of the two: Gyutan Sands and The Locker can be played in the "avarice" game mode, players can face Salty Swamp's fabulous boss Queen Ella Gator in "defiance" mode, and a single voyage that links all three of these arenas together. Playable characters are limited to Captain Silverside and Bovy Jones - to enable the requisite four player action, each of these appears in two different colour schemes... could this be a hint of things to come...?

At the same time as preparing the demo, we've had all the normal activity going on as well. Ship's cook Beefy Stu was unveiled earlier this month as our fifth playable character - if things go the way we want (and by heck, the heathen gods owe us this much after the last few months!), we should be announcing a sixth next month, along with the next arena our mottley bovid miscreants will be making berth at! As ever, all details will go up on our social media as they happen - alternatively, sign up to our mailing list for super-advance updates!

... and then, of course, there's our plan for public shows and expos... but that's for future posts! Meantime, go grab the demo, give it a play, then join the crew on Discord and let us know what you think... we look forward to seeing you on there!

Monday, 10 January 2022

Voyaging onward...

 A while back, we admitted that we've been more than a bit rubbish with our blog and social updates until recently... and we've only nearly gone and done it again! Blame a combination or Christmas, New Year, COVID and other family/life challenges - it was something of a perfect storm, apologies for a couple of quiet weeks!

On the subject of being rubbish with updates, would you believe that our last "year in review" type post was nearly four years ago? With everything that has happened in that time, it feels like a lifetime since then!

Anyway, let's lead off with some great news: welcome back, Stuart DeVille! Yes, the winds of life have blown in a direction that has seen the return of our original master of monsters, and between him and Chloe, we're now accelerating towards filling out our crew of minions and bosses.

Cap'n Krackerz brought a new vision for the enemy characters

Last year was a tough one, no doubt about it: all the plans for Play Expo Margate 2021 that we had started laying the foundations for over a year earlier were well and truely scuppered and our "life comes first" maxim was pushed to a level we had never even thought possible as the entire crew wrestled with the impact of the COVID pandemic. But even in the face of this leviathan, the voyage continued, and the calmer waters of the autumn was a most welcome break.

And despite us battening down the hatches for much of the first half of the year, a great deal of progress has been made: work on the defiance-mode stage with Queen Ella Gator, the fabulous carnival drag-queen boss of Salty Swamp was finally completed, giving us our second boss battle, so it's fitting that Stuart has re-joined us just as we have finished bringing his last creation to life!

Underwater arena "The Locker" added our fifth playing field: this was always envisaged as Bullion's "final stage", so the threat level has been dialed up. As well as fighting off tough crab-man enemies, players have to keep their air levels topped up, and also watch out for the giant squid tentacles that surround the arena. The overall atmosphere of the arena is one of deadly beauty, so full credit to Paul J and Chloe for bringing this together.

The Locker: Beautiful to look at - lethal to play!

The new voyage mode of play has added for longer and more varied matches as players fight it out across a number of islands in a combination of avarice-mode's flat-out treasure grabbing and defiance's boss battles. Similar to the "cup" mode of gameplay in many racing games, the overall winner is the player who claims victory on the most islands... but in true Bullion style, should the whole crew wipe out - on any island - it's game over!

Finally, there have been a host of other tweaks and enhancements across the board; the AI players now use the dash/rush escape mechanic, the ghost characters have all been upgraded (again!), and a whole slew of new visual effects, UI and cut-sequence enhancements have been rolled in. Our initial release platforms have been decided, and it definitely feels like everything is coming together.

Of course, the highlight of the year has to have been getting back out on the road and putting Bullion in front of the public. Having people at Play Expo Blackpool remember playing the game when we were last there (in 2019!) and commenting on all the improvements and additions we had made since was awesome, and being part of the very first GDLX and getting the opinions of other developers was similarly amazing. Getting to finally catch up with old friends - Badger from Stoffel Presents, TristaBytes, AsobiTech's Quang, the Replay Events team - was a huge morale booster, and having Stuart re-join is the icing on the proverbial cake.

Now, as we head into 2022, there are stormy clouds above us once again; like the villain in a bad movie franchise, COVID is back in its new omicron incarnation, and right now it's difficult to say whether we are heading back into the storm or if the skies will clear again. But we sail on with hope: every enhancement, every feature, every tune-up and tweak is a step closer to the finished article, and in the face of this uncertainty, it's reassuring to think about all the support we've had. As turbulent as 2022 may be, we are still confident that it's going to be a great year for Bullion - and be sure to keep an eye on our social media as we've got some big announcements coming up!

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Full Circle

(Game designer/developer Ben talks about GDLX)

Last weekend found the good ship Bullion docking at the inaugural GDLX: Game Dev London Expo.

Game Dev London is a rapidly-growing developer community, with one of its key administrators being our very own ex-crewmate Stuart DeVille. Stuart pretty much re-invented the look and feel of Bullion's enemies, including giving us our first boss battle, and it was a real blow when changing life circumstances meant he had to step down from the team. So GDLX was a great chance for us to catch up with him. It also gave us a chance to put Bullion in front of a whole new audience: instead of the families and retro-gamers we were used to from the Play Expo shows, most of the people attending GDLX were connected to game development in some way.

The show was held at the Samsung KX hub: described as an "innovation space", the main area comprised of a sizeable auditorium for the various talks that were scheduled through the day, surrounded by various stands that would normally used to showcase Samsung devices and technology. Which meant that rather than the plain table we were used to, we ended up setting up on a desk that looked more like someone's home office, complete with house plants! But it was a decent enough space, so we cracked out the roller banners, the stickers, the treasure chest - everything we usually have on the stand - and settled in. And then things started getting slightly surreal...

If only the boss could see what really went on in the home office!

We had plenty of players during the day. But we also had people asking us about how to market their games. About how to position themselves to break into the industry. Pitching their skills to us. Even asking whether Leda Entertainment was offering internships. And suddenly it began to dawn on us that we'd come full circle: back in 2013 at Leda Entertainment's first show, we'd watched with no small amount of envy from behind our barely-decorated table stand as the team opposite us, with their banners and big monitors and other highly visible promotion material had attracted a continual flow of players. And now, here we were - while most of the other teams had crammed themselves together in a relatively small space which left little room for any kind of promotional display, we had our posters and pirate hats and give-away stickers and pirate gold chocolate... it was a bizarre Vader-meets-Obi-Wan kind of moment, especially given the people-oriented ethos of the Bullion team!

A great day of networking while watching other developers fighting each other...

But this also turned into a delightful opportunity. Game development is a hard industry to break into, especially straight out of education, and we've heard many tales of broken dreams over the years. So to a number of the would-be developers who came to talk to us about internship or job opportunities, our part-time team approach and the idea of building a skillset that would widen their employment prospects while at the same time improving their abilities as game developers seemed to come as something of a revelation.

With a little luck, we may see a number of other "grassroots" game studios springing up in the coming years.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Raise the Black(pool) Flag!

It's moments like this that throw into sharp relief what Bullion is all about.

This weekend gone, we were at Play Expo Blackpool - our first show since COVID sent the world careening off the edge of the map and into "here be monsters" territory. The Bullion team are no strangers to turmoil - over the course of development more than one of us have faced life-changing events which we have navigated successfully. But, just like the rest of the world, COVID affected all of us in ways we could never have prepared for - so to be back at a show, demoing Bullion to people who love playing games, was a much-needed re-kindling of our enthusiasm.

From vintage cabs and rare consoles to modern PCs...

From vintage cabs and rare consoles to modern PCs...

The impact of COVID showed in a number of ways: attendance was lower than we had seen in our previous visits to Blackpool, and we had a number of quiet periods at the stand. But despite this, the overall atmosphere seemed even more friendly and passionate than previously experienced; probably because this was the first chance for many to attend an event of this scale since the pandemic hit. Equally obvious was the increased sense of nostalgia that has arisen during this time, and this was reflected in the indie zone, with a strong presence from the ZX Spectrum Next team, plus new homebrew titles for the vintage Gameboy handheld (AsobiTech's D*Fuzed) and NES console (Lowtek Game's Flea! and Tapeworm Disco Puzzle), leaving both Ben and Paul H yearning for the Atari STs!

It was also a chance to catch up with old friends who we hadn't seen since pre-COVID times: Badger (from Stoffel Presents), TristaBytes, AsobiTech's Quang and Jim Bagley from the ZX Spectrum Next group, and of course, Andy, Simon and the rest of the Replay Events team.

It's all about families and friends

It's all about families and friends

All together now... Volcaaaaaanooooooo!

All together now... Volcaaaaaanooooooo!

Players from 2019 loved the latest features

Players from 2019 loved the latest features

But the jewel in the crown was undoubtedly our players. The enthusiasm and overwhelming positivity with which Bullion was received was a balm for the twenty months of uncertainty wrought by COVID. Better yet, a number of them remembered trying the game previously at the 2019 Play Blackpool show, and were delighted at seeing not just how the game had progressed, but also that suggestions that they had made at the time had been taken on board in its development since then. We even ran our very first official tournament with players competing throught the weekend in voyage mode, trying to gain the highest total treasure for a specially-built voyage and win a plushie of Captain Long John Silverside (provided by Sew 8-bit).

Eventually, of course, the show had to close - it was time to pack everything up and make the long journey back home. Except there was still one last surprise to come...

One of our players had asked for a photo with Ben (who he had played against). That photo was waiting in the Leda inbox when we got back, accompanied by the simple statement: "Loved it today. Great game - will definitely be getting a copy."

An amazing final surprise to end a great first show back

An amazing final surprise to end a great first show back

Over five years development time, and twenty months since our last show. Worth every second of it.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Get Ship-Shape!

Saying that we have been... "sporadic" in posting updates about how things have been going for Bullion - both on here and our social media channels - would be being incredibly generous, to say the least. In fact, we are more than willing to admit that we have been "downright lousy" at it.

This stops now.

Things are a-changing on the Bullion front, and we owe it to everyone who has encouraged us since development started to get this ship ship-shape. And with the COVID situation finally improving AND it being International Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sunday gone, we felt it was the perfect time.

So first of all, something we know that those who have been following us have been waiting to hear for some time: we are very pleased to confirm that Bullion will be released for Nintendo Switch and Xbox One, and we are aiming for a launch at some point in the second half of next year. We are also looking at Steam as another option - we're still not 100% sure how many local multiplayer players there are on PC, but this option that Steam offers that allows a local multiplayer to work online is definitely worth looking into. So that leaves Playstation: sorry guys, but Sony's requirements to even enroll on their indie scheme are horribly complex and expensive when compared to the other platforms, and too great a risk, given our part-time, low-budget status. Of course, this may change if we get a sufficient return from the other platforms... so if you want Bullion on the Playstation, your best bet will be to get all your Switch and Xbox (and potentially PC) owning friends to buy it!

While we may have been utterly rubbish somewhat lax about updates, the same cannot be said for the game itself! We have a load of new features (including the much-requested "bull rush" dash move), a new arena (with a second well on the way) and a new boss battle that we're looking forward to showing everyone - and now that large events are starting to pick up again here in the UK, we are on the look-out for opportunities to get back out there and let everyone try them out.

We've also completely re-vamped the website! Yes, another long-suffering casualty of neglect while we try and fit everything in and adjust to the crazy place the world has become over the last year and a half, we finally got round to giving the poor website a much-needed makeover. If you didn't come in that way, go cast an eye over - we think you'll agree, it's a huge improvement! And we'll be keeping it updated with latest news and video footage as we go, so make sure to check back in there. Same goes for our social media - facebook, twitter, instagram... yep, we're serious about getting our act together!

Lastly - and if you thought that we were bad at keeping this blog updated, then we've been even worse at this! - we would like to (re)introduce the crew of the good ship Bullion as it currently stands, as some of these amazing individuals have not been given nearly as much credit as they deserve:

  • Chloe McCann: Enemy and support character modelling and animation, environmental hazard modelling
  • Matthew Isteed: Player characters modelling and animation, environment modelling
  • Paul James: Environment design and modelling, visual effects and enemy character modelling and animation

... and of course, Ben and Paul are still on board, doing the coding and other bits and pieces round the edges.

Let the voyage continue!

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Pirate Ghosts...

Last entry in the ship's log, we talked about the oft-asked "dash/escape" question, and how we had re-invented the "Bull Rush" - a mechanic that had been part of the game since its initial design - into something that would fulfill our Expo players' requests while retaining the original spirit and characterisation of the move.

This time, we're looking at another feature that has been in since the beginning, but has been shown by our players at shows to be in need of some upgrades - ghost mode.

Spot the ghosts... there's two of 'em!

From the get-go, we knew that players' characters needed to be able to respawn, but we wanted to do something a bit more fun and player-led than just a time delay before that happened. And since ghosts are almost as integral to a good pirate story as the pirates themselves, the idea we came up with was that when a player character died, their ghost would appear at the body's location, and the player would have to "corpse run" back to the respawn point (as made popular by a certain well-known MMORPG!) in order to join back in. And since ghosts can do nothing but move around, the faster the player got their ghost back to their respawn point, the quicker they could get back into the back-stabbin' treasure-grabbin' action...

... at least, that was the theory. But at shows, we started spotting a worrying trend - some players got the ghost thing immediately. Others needed a bit of explanation before getting it; fine at a show when one of our able crew is around to tell them what to do, but not a desirable quality in a release version. A significant number just plain struggled; either they did not realise that they were supposed to move the ghost, or where they were supposed to go, both of which were definite "red flag" situations! And finally, there were those who simply did not even see the ghosts... okay, it's not quite as bad as the image above when everything is moving, but still, totally unacceptable!

Our first thought was "okay, how about we switch over to a timed auto-respawn?", but taking away that control from the player just felt... wrong. Moreover, some of our more canny players had realised that ghost mode allowed the resurrecting "Water of Life" power-up to be used strategically - since a character's respawning causes a blast wave which knocks back and damages any nearby characters (a deliberate mechanic to prevent spawn campers!), a player could move their ghost into the middle of a treasure-rich area and fire the power-up to clear the area of other players and enemies before grabbing everything they could! However, we quickly realised that we could combine the existing ghost mode mechanic with a timed auto-respawn: if you got back to your respawn point before the timer ran out - great, you're back in play that few seconds earlier! If not, and the timer expires... well, you're still back in play, but you lose even more treasure on top of what you lost for dying in the first place! This double-penalty not only is designed to push players towards trying to respawn under their own steam, but also fits the game's plot concept: the heathen gods of the Iles de Ser-Lloyn will not let our bovine buccaneers rest until they have passed judgement on them!

So we've got a solution for making sure dead players don't end up just wandering around as ghosts - great! Now we just want to make sure we are not penalising players who do not realise what they are supposed to do when their character dies... we need the equivalent of Ben or Paul, or whoever yelling "Player two! You're dead - get to your respawn point, it's over here!"

Well, the first step was to make it very obvious which player's character was where. We had already made some changes to make it much more obvious which character was being controlled by which number player as part of another piece of work (which we would have blogged about earlier, but it involved UI work, so Ben doesn't want to talk about it!), so it was simple enough to add that information to the status panels. Next, a marker with the player's number was added for each character: while the character is alive, the marker tracks them around the arena. When the character dies, the marker tracks above the ghost instead - however, every few seconds, the marker will move across the arena from above the ghost to the character's respawn point, before fading out and reappearing over the ghost again. So - hopefully - this will provide some much-needed guidance for our poor, lost players who either don't realise they're ghosts, or don't know what to do about it! And, as a final touch, we made the markers configurable: show always, show only in ghost mode, do not show.

Follow the pointy sword... or wait for the auto-respawn

Of course, this is all theoretical right now - thanks to COVID-19, the chances of getting a show around our usual time in late September/early October are pretty much in Davy Jones' locker, and with them go the opportunity for any real public testing and face-to-face feedback. In fact, at the moment it's sketchy whether or not we'll be back in business by next February... so to everyone out there, we would offer the following advice: face masks look great when paired with pirate hats!