Getting Out of Dev Hell, Assets and Horror Games

2D Platformer Dev Blog, or Reflections in the Multimirror

To call this game old may be an understatement at this point. I recall starting this project sometime in 2010. I released an early version of the game for a Halloween competition back in 2012, then called “Hillel”, which didn’t look too different from the version I’m still working on now. The procedural generation of the levels honestly wasn’t that different either.


Here is a screenshot from when I uploaded it to gamejolt in June 2014 as “Multimirror”, which shows how little it’s changed.

Even as far back as 2012 I was anxious to release the game, but it needed better graphics and after I lost my home that year, I wasn’t in much of a position to focus on my pixel art skills. I stopped working on the game and shifted my focus to Cosmic Zephyr, which seemed more suited to my skills, as well as a better vehicle for my music.


Here is a version of the game with a color shifting effect that I ended up taking out. It was too awkward to use while playing.


Here is the new version of the game. I gave up on making my own enemy sprites and simply found some free assets on the internet. I know this means you could potentially see these sprites in other video games, but I don’t care. My goal right now is simply release a working version of the game. I can always go back and improve on it later.

Since the success of Spelunky, the roguelike platformer genre has become so popular that it’s almost annoying – probably because few games have added much to the genre. Meanwhile, infinite procedurally generated worlds have gone from being an ideal to being a fad.

I’ve become increasingly conscious that if I finish this game, it will need something to set it itself apart from similar 2d platformers. But at the same time, I know if I worry too much I will end up paralyzing my creative process.

I no longer care about my 2D platformer game being called a clone by people too young to remember the age before 3D games dominated everything. I’ve learned through experience that game design communities are really toxic places, and I’ve had to cut ties with a lot of communities I grew up with because of the changing atmosphere.


Getting Out of Dev Hell

People can preach about video games being an artform all they want – that doesn’t matter when most game developers are only in it for the money. A lot of people are passionate about game design, yeah, sure. But for most people, passion is not enough to get them through crunch mode or development hell.

Real art does not go through crunch mode. A comparison between the quality of pop and art music is a good example of this. It’s not that art music is always great, it’s that it doesn’t have the soul sucked out of it like most pop music does.

Video games are still in their pop music phase, with most innovative artistic experiences either sitting on the sidelines in obscurity, or being hyped beyond human expectations like Braid or Journey.

I hope to take a long break from game design after I finish this project. I’m having health issues that directly interfere with spending too much time on the computer. My back started giving me problems when I was adding translations to Cosmic Zephyr back in March. My eyes have also gotten increasingly sensitive to light.

Much of this goes back to the malnutrition that comes with being chronically ill with Crohn’s disease. One of the major reasons I’ve continued designing games past the point of exhaustion is that a successful one would help pay for food and medication.

November 1st marks six years since my father was hauled away by police for being a cokehead. When he divorced my mom, the judge ruled that he owed us no alimony because mom and I smoked weed. We lost our home in March 2012 and I’ve been in fight mode ever since. I’m just now getting to where I don’t worry about money every day of my life.

I like to think if things had turned out differently (read: if my father hadn’t fucked everything up in 2010), I would have hired artists to help me finish games as a team. You have to have money in order to make money in this world. Unfortunately I’ve seen the dark side of how independent game studios can turn out, and I’ve fallen out of love that with that idea.

A lot has changed in 6 years.

I’m hoping to finish this game by Christmas. We’ll see how that goes.


Video Game Assets

For me, 2016 has been the year of the procedurally generated video game asset. Why spend time manually drawing tiles or making sfx for a game when you can have a program generate them for you?

These are the bricks I decided to use in my platformer – procedurally generated by SpiderDave.

Traditionally, there was always a tough prejudice against using other people’s assets in your own indie game. I think people have since become more realistic in regards to the concept of the lone developer that is equally skilled in programming, art, and music.

Now with this new generation of indie game developers using engines like Unity or Unreal, and especially the introduction of the Unity and Game Maker asset stores, assets are not only acceptable but also a lucrative way for designers to make money. Arguably more so than actually making a game. Which only leaves me to wonder what the future of game design will look like.

From a developer’s standpoint, it’s very tempting to “go meta” and create tools for game design rather than games themselves. There are too many games, yet not enough tools to help create them.

And yet if enough of these tools are created, we could reach a point where very complex, detailed game concepts could be created by people with little to no knowledge of programming, art, or music. Which would lead to even more market saturation, and even more difficulty in finding good quality games.

Lowering the bar of entry for game design is always a good thing, but it has its downsides. I think what this all leads back to is increasing importance for game reviewers that are willing to sift through the dirt in order to find diamonds.

Most people are only aware of the limited amount of games that are being hyped at any given time, because major game journalists only cover the few AAA and indie games that everyone else is discussing. It’s an odd Catch-22, but few people are willing to go out of that collective safe zone. Jim Sterling’s Greenlight Good Stuff videos are one refreshing example of a game reviewer trying to help games that are unjustly obscure.


Horror Games

I was originally planning to make a horror game this October for the Pixel Horror Jam, but to my disappointment I found most of the participants use RPG Maker. I don’t mind RPG Maker, but the competition dynamic really changes when it’s more story oriented. I personally don’t want to take part in any game jam where the story is a significant factor to winning.

Horror games themselves have become a kind of joke that’s hard for me to take seriously, which is sad. I used to have great experiences with the many Japanese horror games that made their way onto PS2 – Silent Hill, Fatal Frame, Siren, Clock Tower 3, etc. But now when I go back to play them I only notice the clunky controls, stiff animations, and lackluster gameplay.

Good horror doesn’t really come from story or gameplay. It comes from the “atmosphere”, which is a nebulous term for how a game makes you feel. What good horror games lack in gameplay, they have to make up for by being evocative in nature. They have to evoke strong feelings of fear, paranoia, confusion and anxiety. Which… isn’t really hard.

And I guess that’s why I feel like horror games have stagnated – it doesn’t demand the same level of quality as other genres. You can still get away with mediocre gameplay that would be unacceptable in other genres, as long as your game has atmosphere. Because it’s easy to scare people. So horror games have essentially become the low-hanging fruit of game design.

It should also be said in terms of replayability, the initial shock of a game’s atmosphere wears off after a while. Which is why now I play Silent Hill with almost no feeling of immersion. The experience is never as good as the first time.

I think story-driven games in general are in a weird place right now, with the growing popularity of short form video games. Games with longer stories demand too much patience these days, unless they’re very engaging or innovative. Successful titles seem to be relegated to the AAA industry and niche circles like the RPG Maker scene.

I had great experiences with To the Moon and Her Story this year, but those are both examples that lack traditional gameplay. Meanwhile there are games like Outland and Valdis Story: Abyssal City that have great gameplay, but I couldn’t care less about the stories. The characters and plot leave no memorable impression on me, and I probably won’t play them through to the end.

It points back to the fundamental disconnect between story and gameplay, and how some games are trying to bridge the gap while others remain traditional.



Once the platformer game is finished, I’m probably going to take a long break from game development to explore other forms of artistic expression. The format of a “video game” feels too creatively limiting for where I’m at in life. I’m sure the inspiration for new games will come back to me eventually, but right now I want to focus more on music and songwriting.

Congratulations to Bob Dylan for winning the Nobel literature prize, and thanks to him for reminding me the most important element of good music – the lyrics.

I’m working on a list of best albums released in 2016, as well as a list of worst albums. Both articles have been a lot of fun to write so far. So look forward to those!  🙂






About Dylan Franks

My name is Dylan Franks, and I'm a game designer and musician. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. View all posts by Dylan Franks

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