I know, I know. Promises, promises. I was supposed to keep updating you with graphics stuff but quite frankly I couldn’t. Firstly I just didn’t have the time. Secondly we don’t want to give too much away before release! Anyway .. since D-Day is quickly approaching I thought I’d take some time out and give you a few more insights into what went into another aspect of the Bulges graphics. Namely the animations.

Now don’t start expecting all fancy big-studio level stuff. Bulge is not an animation heavy game by any stretch of the imagination and doesn’t need to be. That’s not what it’s about and not what’s going to draw our core audience. No, the only place we distract you with unnecessary fluff is in the combat sequence. After all you want some reward for your hard earned graft.

So, like all aspects of the game, creating the animations is an iterative process. We don’t do one pass and call it done. We may well start off with an overall vision for the game (I’ve stolen that phrase off David) but throughout development that gets refined and honed as the game starts to solidify. The first pass is often the clich√© or the most obvious solution. Not necessarily bad but it’s often the same approach taken by many others so it’s good to get that out of the way.

So the first pass looked like this.

An animation of the first iterations of the FX

So this as a (very) simple particle system with one smoke sprite, recoloured and scaled by the particles for the different effects. Un-refined but standard semi-realistic game fare. Now, bare in mind you’re not seeing the whole thing there. There was a plan for the strength points on the units to animate to show the units firing and taking hits. So you’d see that and the explosions together. A visual description of the mechanics.

So this pass posed a couple of questions .. firstly do we want to see a representation of the hits and misses as well as the strength points changing colour?

An animation of the second iterations of the FX

So the second pass shows some sprites thrown in to indicate misses (in the white areas) and hits on the units, and the explosions have been beefed up.

Now this wasn’t final but what we’ve tended to do is get stuff in and then live with it for a bit. Get over the initial “Ooo this is cool” phase to allow ourselves to be more objective. Except that didn’t happen. Even in this unpolished state I hated these as soon as they went in.

As well as being too old school, too Y2K or even 90’s in styling and technique they were just too dirty. That might be an odd thing to say but the interface, while not looking pristine or realistic, still had a certain crispness to it. All that soot from the hit sprites and explosions themselves took away from the presentation rather than added to it. And the sprites for misses just made it feel cluttered and confusing.

Now there’s 2 elements to the games visuals .. the semi realistic map and interface, and the simple line drawn units. The first and second pass went with the semi realistic approach to match the environment, mostly because it was the route that made the most immediate sense. But I had an idea that it might be interesting to match the graphical style of the units since it was the units that were involved in the battle, not the environment.

This was more work than expected so I put together a third pass proof of concept and we got that in.

An animation of the third iterations of the FX

There’s a couple of new things here. The strength point animations never went in so I needed to show the units firing, hence the cannon fire smoke. It also became apparent that we needed something specific for when a unit is destroyed. It’s not shown here but the burning vertical wipe had an alpha that burnt away the unit graphic as the animation moved upwards so the unit wasn’t simply vanishing off the screen like it had just been switched off.

The hit sprites also matched the same style. But something that’s obvious here but wasn’t until I saw it in game is what they look like when overlapping. When I did my mockups I just kept them clear of each other but when put in game they didn’t. They overlapped with the obvious consequences you can see here.

Anyway for a proof of concept I thought it was interesting, had some merit and was worth exploring further. Except we didn’t. We lived with it for most of the rest of development and went past the point of being able to give objective judgement to being used to them being there. But I set aside a little time to take them to a conclusion

An animation of the fourth iterations of the FX

As you can see the hit sprites now add to one another rather than overlap and I introduced colour to the explosions. I went for a more dramatic death animation .. but overall .. it’s what many of us would describe as utter, utter garbage. They no longer looked like explosions but jelly (jello for the non English speakers…). With some more time they could of yielded interesting results but even so they were just lacking .. something. It’s that visceral .. something .. that you get from a realistic looking explosion.

What I did like was the movement. More fluid than the original particle based ones and a good contrast to the hard edged graphical elements. So I spent some time working out ways to keep the fluidity and make them more realistic. However the realism had to be tempered and I wanted it to have a similar, almost painterly look, as the dirty snow.

An animation of the fifth iterations of the FX

Each animation requires something like a six stage process to create. The death animation nearer 18. As well as the cannon fire for armour I wanted some differentiation for infantry. The hit sprites now look like the units and interface are being physically attacked and damaged. I found it satisfying (though utterly nonsensical) to see your enemy actually bare the result of your attack rather than it being simply abstracted into strength point loses. The shock waves and particles add some punch and violence while the colours overall fit in with the environment and the games palette. The designs are clean, stylised and lack the sootiness of the earlier iterations.

If you are not prepared to make mistakes you are not prepared to make anything

In an ideal world I’d of got to that final pass first time. Sometimes that happens but usually that’s not the way it works. It’s a journey. Many questions didn’t occur to us until we saw stuff in-game and I still believe that the intermediate, line style was an important consideration even if it did prove to be a mistake (though, truth be told, I want to try it again. I still feel that the animations here should be diagrammatic while on the map should be realistic).

DOH! And I’ve just realised I forgot to tell you which iteration is in the game …

(Note: Originally Published on the Shenandoah Studio Blog)