Programmable Series – Self Inflicted

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You may have heard some variation of the phrase “from limitation comes creativity.” Usually, this phrase is used in reference to a physical limitation. One such example would be an artist who has lost the use of their hand, who then paints with their feet. The interesting thing about limitations is that they narrow our available options and force us to problem solve. When limitations are applied to designing a video game it can help you focus and deliver a more refined end result. Although we’ve reviewed working with limitations in regards to specific hardware, you can get a completely different perspective when those limitations are self inflicted.

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With the technology we have available today, it’s possible to create almost any game you could dream up. For some designers this can create the problem of simply having too many options, which can make it difficult to know where to start on your project; the end result can often be that your project doesn’t get started. As a child you may have sat down with a small box of crayons and scribbled away on some paper or in a book, just for fun. Now imagine, as a child, you were tasked with colouring everything on a page as accurately as possible. If you were given a standard box of 8 crayons, you’d likely end up making the sky blue, the grass green, the trees brown and so-on. Now imagine instead of that box of 8, you were given a box of 96 crayons with the same task. You’d have to choose whether the grass is yellow-green, forest green, olive, fern or shamrock. Would the trees be beaver, chestnut, raw umber or sepia?

Just making those decisions adds additional time on getting your finished product. You also have the additional possibility of second guessing your choices later on. Maybe there was a better option for the grass or the trees and you feel less confident about it by the time the picture is done. If you only had the original 8 options, instead of 96, it is much easier to make a choice and stick with it. When approaching game design with all of the development software and design tools available, we are working with a very big box of crayons.

Setting limitations for yourself helps you to set realistic and achievable goals. Having a limited palette helps your art direction. Limiting your audio channels forces you to make the most out of your background music and sound effects. Limiting your resolution helps with deciding what needs to be shown on the screen. The more limitations there are, the less room there is for error and less work will be put on you or your team. One of the most obvious examples to look at, in regards to self-limitation, is Yacht Club Games’s Shovel KnightShovel Knight closely imitates the hardware limitations set by the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Though it does take some liberties in regards to colours and sounds that the NES would not be able to handle, the general feel and style of the game would give the indication that the game could truly be from the 8-bit era. In order to obtain that feeling, the NES hardware restrictions are limitations that the developers deliberately set for themselves.

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In a social development space, “Game Jams” – events during which a group or community of developers create games around a central theme and in a limited amount of time – have become fairly common instances of limitations beings encouraged. Sometimes this can come in the form of a more measurable type of limitation, such as designing a game with a limited colour palette, whilst others may task developers with emulate the feel of a specific game or system. Participating developers often choose to set limits on their games even if such restrictions aren’t required, in order to make the most of a limited development time. Creating an 8×8 pixel sprite is much faster than creating a detailed, hand drawn character with animations. It is fairly common for games created in a game jam to be incomplete, or potentially used as a prototype for a larger-scale game. This can be expected when you’re working within a time limitation.

Aside from giving a more focused experience, setting limitations can prove to be a useful exercise in problem solving that can be used in future projects. If you are working on a large scale project and hit a roadblock, you may be able to recall how you overcame past instances where you were limited and incorporate those problem solving skills. As you work with limitations you’ll learn more tricks to make things work naturally in your games. You may even be able to use those tricks to achieve better performance or to introduce additional content into your game when you are free of limitations.

If you wanted to work with true limitations, you could choose to focus your efforts on a specific platform and produce games for that system. Not only does this force you to stay within the hardware’s limitations, but it may encourage you to learn an unfamiliar programming language. There are still a fair amount of game companies out there who make games for hardware and consoles that have long been absent from retail shelves. If you’re interested in taking limitations to the modern day extreme, you could look to the PICO-8 fantasy console. The PICO-8 is essentially a self-contained virtual machine which allows you to both code and play games with some serious limitations. The PICO-8 limits your design to a 128×128 resolution, 4 channel audio and 8×8 sprites with only a 16 colour palette. Surprisingly, there are a large amount of games from a wide variety of genres to choose from already, so you can get an idea of what can be created pretty quickly – these games can now even be played on physical hardware. Additionally, the games are saved in a digital image format with a .PNG extension that takes the form of a ‘cartridge’ and provides nice-looking cover art.

As you challenge yourself through setting these limitations, don’t be afraid to fail. Sometimes you will discover that the limitations you’ve set are too strict and you’re forced to break some of those rules. It’s better to discover these instances on your own time, rather than when you are in a crunch. Luckily we have a lot of luxury in regards to what we can do with technology and true limitations in game design are seldom encountered. Hopefully by the time you do run across a true limitation, you’ll have had enough practice that the challenge can easily be overcome.

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About Mike Clark (Chemical Taint)

*Indie game developer, specializing in classic and arcade style games. I design games primarily for personal computers and handheld/mobile devices. *Musician and part-time music producer. *Writer for Minus World's "Programmable Series."
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