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!

Monday, 11 May 2020

Ye asked... ye got!

For some time now, one of the most-often-asked questions we hear at shows (after "when's it going to be released?") is "Is there any way to move faster/dash/escape?"

Back when Bullion was in the design phase, it was decided that the signature move that united all the player characters would be the "Bull Rush": once charged up, a player character could drop to all fours and bolt across the arena like an enraged bull. Any chests in the way would be smashed, enemies and other players would be knocked flying and take damage... the down side was that once rushing, the character had to keep going in a straight line until either the power ran out, or they ran out of the arena or into a solid obstacle (rocks, trees etc). It was intended to be a showcase "finishing" move, requiring flashy start-up animations plus several others just to execute the move, and caused more bugs than we would care to remember (yes, this includes the infamous "Teleporting Dead Bull" bug)! But we eventually got the mechanics working for Silverside by the Play Expo Manchester show in 2017...

... and then it kind of got forgotten about! We decided that we would work with a "minimum requirements" set in order to get additional playable characters plugged in; Bull Rush was not a necessity for a new character to be playable and had a high animation overhead, so it simply got switched off for all the characters that followed. And because of that, while Silverside's rush option was left switched on, we never put any time into balancing the mechanic or publicised it at shows. It became something "we would sort out later".

Well - it's "later"...


The message from our players is that they don't want a big flashy move that takes time to fire off once triggered - they just want to be able to get from A to B faster (or at least part-way), or get themselves out of trouble if things are going bad. So we took Bull Rush back to the drawing board and simplified it, while retaining as much of its "charging bull" signature as possible - at the end of the day, the "cow" part of Bullion was always intended to be something more than just an excuse for bad puns!

Gone are the big, drawn out flashy entry sequences and the complex all-fours animations. Instead, we now have a leaner, meaner Bull Rush: the player hits the button, the character immediately bolts forward. Gone too are the fiddly conditional charge-up and the "all-or-nothing" lack of control: the power charges up over time and once full, the rush lasts until the power runs out, the character leaves the arena or hits something solid OR until the player takes their finger off the button (okay, so we've introduced a minimum requirement that at least quarter of the power is used, but that's it). The character is still invincible while rushing (good for escaping!) and still has to go in a straight line, but our new Bull Rush introduces both immediate response and a degree of control to the player while also vastly reducing the development overheads.

In these mad times of viruses and lockdowns, we have no idea when our next show is likely to be. But rest assured, we fully intend to have all our bovine buccaneers able to use their Bull Rush to dash and/or escape by the next time we dock for a public demo!

Back-mounted cannon equals jet-pack!

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

A plague be upon us!!!

All good pirates know how fickle a mistress the ocean can be... and right now, the seas of life that we - and by we, I don't just mean the Bullion team, but everyone on this globe of ours - must navigate are possibly the stormiest we have ever faces... we're definitely off the map and into uncharted waters here, lads and lasses!

Of course, we're talking about the menace that was brewing half a world away as we, the crew of the good ship Bullion, were laughing and patting ourselves on the back after a great show in Margate: the world's new foe, the pox known as CORVID-19, or "Coronavirus".

Now ye all might think "but hang on - you're game developers and you were already working in a distributed team, so apart from a bit of extra care, it's business as usual, right?"... oh, if only that were true! Ultimately, we are a part-time team, developing Bullion in spare time around day jobs - and those day jobs have to come first. And, ironically, with those day jobs being at home, for some of us it is actually proving more difficult to carve out time to keep Bullion moving forward...

But our troubles are pretty small fry, when we think of all those people we are mingling with at the Margate show only six weeks ago... complete strangers sitting down less than a foot away from each other to gather round our demo rig and take on Chilli Con Carnage, or see what Kanonbul is like to play - in this new world of social distancing, that would be unthinkable! And then there are our friends at Replay Events, whose livelihood depends on these shows that are now impossible...

... our thoughts are with you all as we navigate these troubled waters. Stay safe, stay home, and keep a weather eye on the horizon - we will survive this storm.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Through the Storm...

We're back!

There's no denying it's been a rough year or so, as evidenced by the lack of updates on this blog and our social media channels. Captain Long John Silverside and his motley crew of bovine buccaneers may have been drifting in the doldrums for a while, perhaps even headed for the rocks - but at the eleventh hour the sails billowed, and last weekend the good ship Bullion docked once again in the safe harbour of Margate, our perennial Winter show.

Leda Entertainment has exhibited in this old English seaside town every year since 2013, missing only last year as there was no February half-term expo in 2019. Perhaps the disappointment of that had fed into the slump we'd found ourselves in. So a triumphant return to the Winter Gardens venue was just what we needed! Not this time the brightly lit, cold corridors of Dreamland; instead we were back in the cavernous space of the old theatre, the semi-darkness making the retro console screens 'pop', with chip music echoing off the walls. All that was missing was that copper-and-ozone smell of the old video arcades. We set out our stall on the exact spot of our 'breakthrough' year in 2014, exhibiting our platform runner 'Bopscotch', when such was the demand that we'd had to trawl local GAME stores to gather enough kit to build a second rig overnight! All the omens were there for a similarly epic gig this time around.

So many memories...

10am Friday morning, the doors opened, and the first few visitors eagerly approached our stand - families with children aged 8-12, our usual target market. Our hearts lifted! And they spoke to us with wide eyes, saying.... where are Fortnite and Minecraft? And our hearts sank again. But we'd have the last laugh when those same children would come back to Bullion, some several times, during the course of the day - eager to have another go on our family-friendly brawler. That MarioKart-style local multiplayer magic lives on!

Families are still our biggest audience

The team had done us proud: we had both a new character (Kanonbul, a new favourite amongst our younger players) and a new island (Chilli Con Carnage, which certainly lived up to its name!) to reveal to the public. It wasn't flawless - we had to make a few new builds of the game during the event, and notably one day we were still coding at the venue and deploying to the demo rig 15 minutes before the doors opened! We found one (fortunately rare) game-ending bug, but otherwise all the issues we spotted as developers didn't spoil our players' enjoyment of the game. The feedback was extremely positive, with many players somewhat disappointed to discover we still have a couple of years of development to go. Many commented on how great the game looks, with strong characters (thanks Matthew and Stuart!) and beautiful environmental artwork (thanks Paul J!). Sadly the venue was too noisy for the great sound work of Tristellar to get the appreciation it truly deserves. Constructive criticism from our players included confusion around the character select screen, the lack of an "escape" mechanism when being mobbed by enemies, and that the AI players would often easily beat less experienced players. The former was solved with some brainstorming on the journey home; the second is because the signature "bull rush" move is still awaiting animations for most of our characters, so had been disabled; and the final issue is the focus of ongoing AI enhancement efforts. Addressing these issues will be the priority for the next phase of development.

Chilli Con Carnage got a thorough playtest

Is that parrot debugging?!?

Good interest from press and Youtubers too...

As ever, the camaraderie between the indie developers and other familiar faces at the event made it special. The hardest working man on the UK indie scene - Quang, of Asobi Tech - was there with the incredibly cute Mao Mao Castle (launching soon!); he also gave a presentation about his extensive collection of retro game gear. Drive Buy from Glitchers drew a crowd; a neon-electric capture-the-flag driving game, impressively demonstrated on two Nintendo Switch cabinets alongside a couple of PCs. The dungeon-crawler Millions of Minions, by the young Matt of Head Tilt Games, was impressive in its first outing. And the beautiful retro-styled beat-em-up Okinawa Rush from SteveX felt right at home in the vicinity of the Double Dragon arcade cabinet and the Street Fighter 2 tournament playing by the main stage.

Certainly quality beating quantity in the indie presence!

All in all, a great event - and there are so many people to thank! The tweenagers who kept returning to our stand, bringing friends and family along, buoying our spirits. Andy, Simon and the rest of the Replay Events crew, who were great hosts as ever - and we're looking forward to future events with them. Friend of indies Trista Bytes fending off illness to hold court on stage, hosting several talks. Kim Justice and Stuart Ashen keeping watch over events, feeding back all they saw to their audiences on YouTube, the latter finding time to enjoy a quick game of Bullion with our character artist Matthew ("it's fun already, being halfway done", he observed). And our spirits were lifted by the Gaming Muso rocking out on stage; days later I'm still humming along to the earworm of Outrun's Sound Wave playing in my head.

Matthew and Ashens take on Chilli Con Carnage

Even Replay's Simon got in on the hats!

But the enduring memory of the event will be the sound of Ben cheerfully screaming "Volcaaaaanooooooo!!!" while helping our players test the new Chilli Con Carnage level. Here's hoping we rise, phoenix-like, from the remains of the past development phase, reborn from the lava.

Observations of Play Expo Margate 2020 by AI coder Paul H