Robert Hornbek

Game Development & Exploration

Posts Tagged ‘Side Scrolling’

E3: 2010

Posted by rHornbek on June 15, 2010

Due to financial restrictions I decided only to attend E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) for a single day this year, and honestly I think that was about all it was worth.

Initially I was going to use this space to rant about how much worse E3 has become since the first time I attended it back in 2001.   Then I decided to take a moment and really analyse my disappointment so to confidently identify the culprit.

A few things occurred to me…

The first time I went to E3 I was 16, so I stood on the sidewalk outside the convention center asking everyone who passed if they would sell their badge to me for $40.  Needless to say I was able to score a badge, however the next step was getting in without being carded for my age (18 or older).  After spending a few minutes studying the entryway searching for an opportune moment I managed to get inside the first of three halls. So it is safe to assume the impact on me for the first event was compounded by the amount of effort it took to get in, and it was the first time.

After a few years of that I managed to acquire enough contacts to get tickets without pan handling on the street.  However the events were still rather exciting.  What has killed the magic?

There were various controversies including over crowding at the center, exploiting booth babe marketing and at one point many of the big boys (Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Blizzard) all threatened to leave entirety.  One year E3 was beat so bad it was almost unrecognizable from its former self.  Things have gotten much better, but it is still not the same

Blizzard has moved its operations to BlizzCon so I can attribute some of the problem to that, but nonetheless what is reallying missing?

Ultimately I began blaming the games.  Too many sequels, too much cliche, nothing that looked interesting or genuinely new.  While much of this holds true you will soon learn that I found a fair amount of interesting things at the event this year.

So where did the magic go?

I have decided in addition to much of what I have already said, the primary reasons why E3 has lost its luster is the following…

I have seen a lot since then, played many games and have grown as an individual and an industry professional.  My expectations have refined and not every flashing light interests me as much as it has in the past.  So while E3 used to be a cave of vast treasures, it is now an adventure to find only a handful of gems among the rubble.

Here are some of the gems I found this year!


At first much of the advertising for this game was unrecognizable, and while it wasn’t the most amazing thing I saw at the event it was fascinating to see a new game about Mickey Mouse that wasn’t Kingdom Hearts.  Speaking of Kingdom Hearts, I can’t help but thing much of the inspiration for this game was based on the success of Kingdom Hearts.

Honestly the only thing about this game that really caught my eye was the fact that it was a relatively dark looking game featuring entirety Disney characters.  This kind of reminded me of the Sega Genesis game Mickey Mouse World of Illusion which has great nostalgia value for me.  However I found the title “Epic Mickey” to be down right terrible!  I guess we can only blame the internet culture.


While watching a series of videos I came across a trailer for this game.  I am not a fan of the series but it looked interesting enough and had a killer cast of voice actors!

So the game play doesn’t scream creativity but I am hoping that it stays consistent with Castlevania’s RPG elements and it doesn’t just turn into another God of War wannabe.


Unfortunately all I got to see was the cinematic trailer for this game.  Now I just hope the game can hold up to the standards set by the video.

What really struck me was how much this video came off as a trailer for a movie and less that of a game.  Even the credits at the end were displayed like that of a movie’s.  The soundtrack they chose was really spot on, it gave me chills accompanying the visuals and the dialog.  Once again we can only hope the game itself can keep up.


I was fortunate to kick my day off with this video playing on a massive screen with a rocking sound system.  You NEED to watch this in the highest quality you can!

This has got to be one of the most impressive cinematic video I have ever seen since the opening for Onimusha 3.  Aside from the realistic quality of the main character, you get drawn in by amazing sound effects, lighting and an ever rising action.  Of course this is so far removed from the original Star Wars movies, but honestly I almost forgot it was Star Wars and really didn’t care that it was.


Up until this point I have only talked about games that caught my eye graphically, which is part of the problem I have with E3.  While Mickey’s game and Castlevania look interesting, the Deus Ex and Star Wars videos really said nothing about what the games are actually like.  End of Nations however is a Massive Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy Game… MMORTS… G.

Ok so the graphics don’t come off as exciting, nor does the game play appear incredibly deep, but they are trying something different.  I had a conversation today that made a lot of sense.  The Wii and its motion control has been hailed as groundbreaking while most of the time gimmicky and anyone in their right mind can see most Wii games that use the motion control don’t need to.  But Microsoft and Sony are bother jumping on the motion control bandwagon.  So while the Wii may not be the best application of the technology others are helping it grow.  I imagine a similar affect could occur for End of Nations.  It may not be the best MMORTS, but others may not be afraid to try it themselves and thus usher in a new genre.


This has got to be the highlight of the day and the whole event for me.  Aside from impressive graphics, the game manages to maintain much of the original gameplay and the Wii motion control acts as an added flavor and not an overpowering gimmick.

This was the only game I played besides Sonic Colors (waste of time, RIP Sonic) and I am glad I did.  The controls felt solid and familiar, even the motion control with the Wiimote felt pretty seamless.  There was only a certain carnivorous green muskette totting villain who didn’t appear in the demo, I do hope he has not given up the fight!  I know there will be at least one game on my holiday list this year.

So while the magic has not completely vanished it has changed form.  This has continued my ongoing investigation into what makes games different today than days past.  I plan to explore much of my findings in another article, until then you will have to think about it yourself and see if we come to any of the same conclusions.


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Posted by rHornbek on November 4, 2009

I first read about Spelunky from an article in Game Developer Magazine that describes it as a game that effectively generates random levels.  The game is independently made by Derek Yu and can be downloaded for free online at  I found the Spelunky to be very fun in a refreshing way and incredibly well executed for an independent game made by what appears to be a single person.


Spelunky opening cinematic.

The gameplay and objectives for Speluky are mostly strait forward and taking pages from classic side scrolling adventure games.  You play as an Indiana Jones clone and travel deep into various caves and caverns to find lost treasures avoiding enemies and traps in the process.  With the help of a tutorial, I learned that I could run, jump, whip enemies and use bombs to destroy portions of the cave.  In addition to this I could plant ropes that would allow me to climb up or down the caverns safely.  It quickly became apparent that I needed to manage all of these features rather carefully to progress, which was nice because it kept me thinking about every move I made.  With each treasure I collected I would generate additional points for my total score at the end of each level.  This appeared to be the primary goal, like classic games, to simply generate as many points as possible before dieing.

Overall the game difficult.  It took me some time to get use to the default controls controls, but changing the key bindings made things a whole lot easier.  Even with a firm grasp of the character’s controls the game is pretty challenging.  You can take damage when falling from too high a distance or completely die altogether.  Enemies move at angles that make using the whip and thrown items difficult to use against them.  And with all the traps and other hazards that can be found in the caves you only get a single life.   The four points of health that you start the game with are easily lost and even harder to restore.

Despite the game’s difficulty it is an incredibly fun experience.  Everything in the game has quality and you can quickly get immersed into everything you are doing.  Even the title screen is interactive, where you simply move your character around an open room and enter doors to start the game, view high scores or play the tutorial.  This adds another level of enjoyment and immersion into the game.  You are limited by resources as well, starting the game with only four ropes and bombs so using each must come with good reason.


Interactive main menu.

As I progressed through the game I came across boxes that would yield additional items like rope, bombs and even unique items that would grant the character entirely new functions.  One of these items was a pickax that would allow me to dig through the soil instead of using bombs.  Another item allowed me to climb walls and there was even a parachute that would protect me from damage when falling from high locations.  This really mixed the session to session experience because I would not always find the same items or in the same place making for a unique experience each time I played the game.

In addition to finding these items occasionally I would come across a store deep within the caves.  Here I found a couple of funny things.  At first I did not know how to purchase items, so I tried picking them up. This appeared to do something because the store own stepped forward and stood next to me reciting some information about the item and its cost.  I thought maybe pressing the action button would purchase the item and I could leave the store.  Instead this threw the item striking the store owner sending him into a rage.  Immediately he charged me with a gun shotting me dead.  The result was that I had to start he game over.  Of course this was funny the first time, but I could not figure out how to purchase items.  I only figured it out after reading the Read Me file in the game’s main folder.


At the item shop.

Other things I found in the caves were damsels in distress, blonde haired ladies in red dresses that if saved would restore some of the character’s health with a kiss.  There was even an golden idol that stood atop a pedestal that looked similar to the one at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark that when picked up would cause a giant bolder to chase you through the cave.  Along with various monsters and traps these little details made each level fresh and exciting.

To be clear the randomly generated levels were not completely random and I learned this early on when I began seeing patterns in the levels.  I think this is was what Game Developer Magazine meant when they used Spelunky as an example of an effective use of randomly generated content.  I imagine if the game’s levels were completely random they would not only be less manageable by the user but also far less fun.  Random does not always mean better or more exciting, sometimes it can be rather dull and it requires a little bit of divine intervention to make things a little more interesting.  What the game appears to do is randomly place whole sections of the level that each have an engaging or challenging design.  Some of these sections would have deep pits filled with snakes where others would be filled with platforms or booby traps.  Ultimately I realize why the game was designed the way it was.  Precisely designed environments randomly connected to one another created a well planned challenge in an unpredictable world.


Spelunking in Spelunky.

Spelunky is a fun and inspiriting game that entertained and challenged me in addition to teaching me a few things about game design itself.  The game is not flawless in any way, such as not explaining all of the controls properly or at all.  I found myself in the tutorial blowing up my character with the bomb because I did not know how to drop it after activating it.  Killing enemies can be incredibly challenging because of the angle of your attacks and some of the traps are almost impossible to avoid without taking their damage.  And my many battles with the store owner is a testament to how important it is to teach user how to properly use the controls.

I would highly recommend this game to anyone who likes a good challenge.  The game rarely disappoints and having to start the game over each time you die only means you get to experience new challenges.  I would give this game an 8 out of 10.

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Gameplay Perspective

Posted by rHornbek on October 16, 2009

Recently I have had an explosion of creativity that has both excited me and even brought a few game design challenges to my attention.  For many of the game concepts I have worked on recently, gameplay perspective was not the first thing worked out.

In one of the concepts two teams of three to five users compete in various scenarios such as capture the flag, king of the hill, territories etc.  Arguably a pretty standard competitive multiplayer format for the most part.  The driving concept for this game however, was for each character to find and wear a unique tribal mask thus granting them a set of powers.  As the battle progressed the power of the masks would diminish and the user would have to obtain more energy or a new mask.

After much thought, I was excited about the general themes and mask mechanics.  But when I began thinking about the perspective in which the game would be played, I was torn.  Originally I was trying to design a competitive multiplayer game set in a two dimensional environment.  With the team sizes, the scenario types and even some of the effects that the masks granted, I was unsure if a 2D environment would be the best perspective.

This mind numbing battle grew into an even greater interest in stepping back and looking at many of the existing gameplay perspectives and really defining the pros and cons for each.  All designers have to at one point decide whether or not their game will have a locked camera or be third person instead of first person.  I felt there would be value it focusing entirely on what those gameplay perspective differences are and listing them out here.


The side scrolling perspective is exactly how it sounds.  The user views the character from the side and scrolls as the character progresses throughout the stage.  This perspective is commonplace for titles with 2D gameplay and is found in most of the earliest action oriented platform games.  This includes games like Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, Metal Slug and Donkey Kong Country to name a few.

Green Hill Zone

Sonic the Hedgehog: Green Hill Zone


For the most part this perspective is a must for titles with 2D gameplay.  It gives the users a fair view of the area surround the character so they can avoid threats and make educated decisions when moving or attacking.  The 2D side scrolling perspective was the birthplace of the modern platforming game, which unless done in full 3D gameplay is very difficult otherwise.


Despite the 360 degree view, this perspective can have its own limitations.  The users cannot see the full distance in front, behind, below or above their character, even if they are facing that way.  Some games have made improvements on this by allowing the user to shift their view slightly up or down when the directional pad his held in that direction.  In the 2D shooter Einhander most of the game’s graphics are rendered in 3D and the user’s perspective is shifted slightly to the back of the character allowing them to see a little further ahead.  Because these games are played out on a flat surface the more objects you have on the screen the less mobility your character can have, especially if they are bound by physics.  This became an issue when I was thinking about the competitive multiplayer game where there could be up to 10 characters all on the screen at once.  If collision restricted characters from passing through each other there could be all sorts of gridlock.  Where if there was no character collision, groups could all just stack on top of one another and the users would have a harder time keeping track of what was going on.


Like the side scrolling perspective, the top down view has many of the same attributes but instead of facing the character and the action from the side the user views them from directly above.  Surprise!  To be clear, when I refer to a top down perspective I mean it in the most explicit way.  Frogger, Centipede, Galaga and the original Grand Theft Auto game all fit into this category.  This perspective is not as common in the modern age of 3D graphics, but it still has a name.

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto


Because of the similarities that top down perspectives have with side scrolling games they have most of the same benefits, such as the 360 degree view.  For many of the classic shooting games like Galaga, Centipede and of course Space Invaders this perspective was a great way to portray incoming enemies.  Ever closer the enemies would come as they ascend from the top of the screen until they were destroyed or melted the character’s face.  Of course to achieve this the user’s character was shifter to the bottom of the screen where it could only move left and right, and in rare cases the character could move slightly forward and back.


Honestly I think there is good reason why most top down games are shooters and that’s because anything else will restricted in gameplay options.  Unlike the side scrolling perspective, a top down view did little for platform puzzles and physics were slim to none.  Lets also be honest, most things are pretty boring viewed from the top, so the environments themselves would be lacking.  Some games made improvements on this by skewing the character and environmental assets a little so the user could view them in a sort of forced perspective.  Examples of this are the original Zelda and Bomberman.  So unless you are looking down on the iconic silhouette of a space craft or other vehicle, the top down view is not the best choice for a lot of games.


The isometric view, for the most part, was the next stage for the top down view.  It shifted the user’s perspective to a roughly 45 degree angle of the character, as if you were looking down at them from the second story of a building.  Games like Diablo, StarCraft, and SimCity all utilized this perspective.

SimCity 4

SimCity 4


There is a very thin line between a top down view with forced perspective and the isometric view.  Where the isometric perspective excels is in graphics and gameplay.  Now with a greater sense of 3D space there can be varying surface altitudes and objects that obstruct things behind them.  Overall this gives the user a much better view of the characters and environments making it ideal for many real time strategy games.


As mentioned above, objects can get lost behind taller objects in the environment.  Some games have fixed this issue by never allowing objects that were too high to exist in the foreground or by allowing the user to rotate the view by increments of 90 degrees or freely left or right.  In modern titles when characters pass behind objects they can still be seen as a silhouette, this is called occlusion shadows or sometimes just occlusion.


The free camera allows the user to freely move their view to areas of the game that may not even contain the characters or focus of action.  This is most common in modern real time strategy games like Ground Control, Total War and World in Conflict.

World in Conflict

World in Conflict


This perspective grants the user the most information out of any of the others, which is probably why it is most commonly used in RTS games.  You can zoom in on the action, rotate to see it from different angles and zoom out to see a greater picture.


Free camera perspectives add a helpful layer options for the user when choosing their view, but this can also add an additional layer of complexity.  Aside from managing a character, or many characters in an RTS, the user will also have to manage the camera.  Most games improve on this challenge by allowing the user to lock the camera to specific targets and quickly lock to others without the need of panning.


The preset camera perspective is what some may call the director’s perspective.  This is when the camera is placed in a single position overlooking an area of the game where the character resides.  The camera never deviates except for a slight tilt or pan when the character moves.  This perspective is common to the original Resident Evil games and many of the modern action games like God of War, Ninja Gaiden and Bayonetta.

god of war

God of War


Because of the premeditated placement of the camera the developers can create well planned scenes and settings.  Because the developer always knows where the user will be looking they can build the stage and gameplay with greater precision.  This can also keep asset costs down seeing how most of the environment only needs to have a few visible sides.  This “director’s view” has also allowed games like God of War to have highly cinematic combat where simple zooms and movement of the camera can change the entire mood of the scene.


Like with side scrolling games, when the perspective is limited the user can have trouble seeing things that their character might have no problem seeing.  The user can have trouble when there is an enemy attacking from behind an object and they cannot see it.  An even more common problem is when the character leaves the area completely changing the perspective of the camera.  Based on the angle of the camera, the character’s motion can be altered because the user was controlling them based on a prior perspective.  Developers have made a lot of improvements on this issue, but games like the original Resident Evil are a testament to these flaws.


The third person perspective puts the user’s view directly behind their character so they see everything that the character does.  Games like the modern Dead Space, Brutal Legend and Zone of the Enders all use this perspective with slight differences.

Zelda Wind Waker

Zelda Wind Waker


The great thing about the third person perspective is that it allows the user to see exactly what the character can see in addition to the immediate area around them.  This is great for action and adventures games and has become a standard for modern 3D platform games.  Of course getting to see your character up close and personal gives the users a greater appreciation for them and the work the artists have put into them.


The first flaw I think of when considering this perspective is how the user can sometimes miss things that are directly in front of the character.  In this case the character itself manages to obstruct the view of the user.  While this isn’t a massively difficult issue to overcome it can be troublesome in third person shooter games like Dead Space.


The first person perspective places the user directly into the eyes of the character.  Clearly games like Wolfenstien, Doom, Half-Life, Halo and all of the games based off of them utilize this perspective.




Of course the games that gain the most benefit from this perspective are shooters, allowing the user to make very specific shots from right down the crosshairs.  The user can turn their view in all directions allowing them to see everything around them, this makes exploration pretty easy.  Because the user is so close to the action they can emotionally become closer to the point where they are fearful for themselves and thus the character.


As much as the user can look around and see, the one thing they are unable to fully comprehend is what is happening to their character that isn’t directly in front of them.  Most games have improved on this issue by adding blinking icons around the screen that tell the user they are being hit.  This also doesn’t allow the user to enjoy any customization they may have made on their character’s appearance.


I would argue that mostly every possible perspective has been utilized in one way or another and none are perfect.  What will make the difference in the end is what sort of gameplay experience the developer wishes to achieve.  Sometimes limiting what the user can see can make things more interesting.  Where other times you cannot show the user enough and a mini-map will have to be added.  Keep in mind that the pros and cons that I have listed above are general and vary from game to game.  As for my magical mask wielding concept, I will have to see where the idea takes me before I can confidently decide which perspective would be best.

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