Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bilou on DS [en FAQ]

p1370647 I guess it is time to state clearly what the ultimate project "Bilou Homebrew" is. For a couple of years, I've been blogging development progress in an attempt to build a game dubbed "Bilou's adventure" on the nintendo DS. It is actually a revival of my teenager project (on PC/Amiga by then). I compiled a little FAQ list that should cover the big idea, trends and similar stuff for those who just stumble upon the blog and want to know more about the background and motivations.

Les lecteurs francophones ont déjà la version originale de cette FAQ dans un article d'hier.

Who is Bilou ?

A fictional character -- a blue ball with googly eyes, and "surrounding" feet and hands -- used as the heroes of my video games. I usually consider that I borrowed his initial design from my friend Pierrick, and over the years, I've built a whole little cartoon world around him, with influences from Lewis Carrol's Wonderland, early cartoons together with Commander Keen and SuperMario. Oh, by the way, it's a French name, to be pronounced "Bee-loo" (/
Bilou is around since 1993, and a good deal of previous games (including a QuickBasic platformer and an RPG) are also covered in the "history" thread of this blog. Bilou teams up with Bouli, the yellow guy with a red hat, as a freelance space explorer for the Stellar Convention. Bilou is the AstroCruiser's pilot and Bouli the ship's engineer.

Why on nintendo DS ?

The DS is the computer I'm dreaming of since my early C64. It has hardware sound mixing, multi-layer graphics with hardware sprites, and much more. It has a touch screen just precise enough to allow graphic applications and game controls inherited from the SNES (imho, the best game controller ever). WiFi and SD cards (when homebrew-ready) makes it ready to communicate with the rest of the world, too. It might be a little scarse on resources with "only" 33+66MHz and 4Mo RAM, but imho, it just puts the coder at challenge to make things efficiently and to thing small enough in a world where over-provisioning kills the beauty of optimization. Still, unlike former 2D game consoles (SNES/Genesis), it still allow a nice environment and do not *require* optimization of every little bit.
And most of all, it does exists. If i was to code my stuff on anything else, chances are that i would first re-implement a virtual DS.

Admittedly, the hardware will turn old-fashioned before I'm done, but I bet there will still be people enjoying 256x192 display when that will happen. The game logic is platform-agnostic and most of the game engine equally is, btw.

What kind of game ?

My favourite genre is side-scrolling platformer, so Bilou will be a platformer. The initial vision is a grand adventure game, with a whole planet to explore, myths, mysteries and epic fights. That being said, I'm still undecided on the gameplay I'd love to give to the game. Will it be a Sonic-like race ? A Fury-like puzzle or a Johny Biscuit arcade puzzle ? Will it provide Keen-like exploration or Cave Story-inspired RPG ? I cannot tell. Chances are that I'll be investigating all those aspects in the future years, through standalone demos showing only a few levels at a time. Not only it will deliver fun to fans & players, but it allows me to keep on moving. The arcade-inspired Apple Assault is such a first milestone on the long road I'm walking on. I will divide and conquer, one area at a time. I will experiment and, hopefully, draw lessons.

Can we give it a try ?

Yes, we can. Small "milestone" demos are proposed along the path and advertised in the "downloads" section of this blog. Keep in mind that these are always "work in progress". I don't have a very large testers community at hand (only a few friends have homebrew-ready devices, often the exact same hardware as myself), so a fresh look at how things should be is always of interest. It might not always be possible to follow such advice, though. For those of you who don't have a DS, demos should run in emulators as well (they're tested on Desmume).

Where can we find some videos ?

With running demos at hand, i'm less and less inclined to take the time to shoot pictures or videos of my work. It takes an awful lot of time that I could instead give to programming the game, and it's incredibly difficult to have a decent quality with the tools I've got. That being said, I'm interested in any picture/video you've shot and put online here or there. Just link to them with a comment in the corresponding demo.

How do you realise such a game ?

I implemented a fresh game engine in C++, and reused 0xtob's C++ modplayer (NTXM, from the NitroTracker project), thanks to the "devkitpro" environment in Linux. A few tools on the PC side are developed in PERL, as well.
I intend to keep the game logic apart from the engine thanks to a custom scripting "language" inspired from former successes such as Another World or SCUMM. The script only take care of "events", letting the C++ part handling the boring work of detecting collisions, moving sprites, etc.
One of the corner stone of my development kit so far is runme, a home-made swiss knife that let me transfer files between DS and the PC over wifi, view them or hear them ... It also contains the game engine so that it can run a level, launch the editors, transfer some altered ennemies behaviour and run the level again. If the game engine itself needs an upgrade, runme (and the editors, SEDS and LEDS) can download a new copy of itself and "reboot" in a few seconds.

Will I ever find Bilou in a store ?

Unlikely. I'm not targetting a commercial release and I don't think it would make my life any better if I did. Nintendo is virtually throwing independent developers away and the video game industry has become a world where economic efficience dictates the rules. This is the opposite of "garage coding" I've known and cherished during my childhood. I prefer follow outsiders such as Cave Story or Qwak, do something i'd love to have. Maybe I will one day have a few units produced somewhere in Asia and sell them on Internet, like what happened for Qwak on GBA. Time will tell.

What about PC / Wii / Xbox ? What about 3D ?

Equally unlikely. I've never been seduced by the control of a virtual avatar in a 3D environment as a player, nor by the look of a 3D world (My favourite episode of Rayman ever is episode #1 starring Mr Dark). Moreover, 3D games requires another set of programming techniques, development tools and animation skills that I don't have. I usually find PC game development libraries as boring. I've tried that path for some 10 years and it just resulted in yet another revolutionary Operating System project that fell asleep.
That being said, i'm curious of how i could possibly add 3D items in a 2D platformer. New Super Mario Bros has opened an interesting path in that direction.

Open Source ?

The game engine and game development tools I'm working on in the "Bilou on DS" game project are open source and freely available in the "dsgametools" sourceforge project. My goal is to get as close as possible to a "game maker" suite fully running on DS: level edition, graphic editors, character / ennemies behaviours, etc. In a few years, you could use them to write your own games as well.
Yet, I keep my intellectual property (that is, copyrights) on Bilou's universe and all my pixel art. I don't want that X starts working on a "follow up" game, or see any graphical content in a Flash game by Y ... That's the reason why I put demos online in a "all-in-one .nds binary package", to avoid having my work ripped. I kindly ask you to respect this choice. If you find yourself fan of my work so hard that you want to provide fan-made level packs, the "dsgametools" should let you sketch your ideas on a "sketched-by-yourself" version of the environment. We can later discuss your prototype/ideas and see whether a cooperation is possible.
I know the true fan will understand and agree with my choices.

What experience of video game do you have ?

I've never been a professional game developer, if that's what you meant. Yet, it's now been over 20 years that I'm developing games, starting with simple Quizz in C64 Basic, then including two platformers and one "RPG" in QuickBasic for DOS. Two of these were featuring Bilou as main character. I entered 100k game competition on the Belgian demoscene with two arcade games embedded in my own x86-assembly module player, in 1999 and 2000, and got the 1st place each time -- mostly due to the lack of serious competition, I must say. That's for programming. With a few friends, collectively (un)known as "PPP Team", we also designed a dozen of platformers for MS-Dos using Recreational Software's Game-Maker. If you're curious about this, just read the "pppteam" thread of this blog.

How can we contact you ?

Just leave a comment on any of these posts. Comments aren't shown publicly until approved by myself and I get periodic notifications when new comments are awaiting for moderation. If that's not quite fine for you, feel free to send your mail to pype_1999.geo @ yahoo . com

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