Aug 14, 2015

Say Hello to Suzy! A Master Study of Super Mario 3D Land

Hey, everyone! Say hello to Suzy, Suzy Cube! She's the titular character to the game on which I will be spending the next year or more working!
Now, it's not unheard of for great works in any medium to inspire other creators and thus begins the story of Suzy. It all began some time in early 2013 I think it was. For reasons that now escape me I found myself watching walkthroughs and lets-plays of Nintendo's 2012 3DS release: Super Mario 3D Land (SM3DL). Now, I should point out that I've always liked the Mario games both as a player and a designer but that the post-Mario 64 games, the 3D ones, never really captured my interest to nearly the same degree. What I found so fascinating about SM3DL is that despite being a 3D game, it borrowed many more cues from the 2D games, particularly my favourite, Super Mario 3. It was like, in a sense, Nintendo had asked themselves "What if Mario 64 never happened and we made a 3D Mario game as a sequel to Super Mario 3".

I found the camera in SM3DL especially great. Not because it did anything fancy but because it didn't or, seemingly didn't. Now perhaps Nintendo felt the need to show off just how 3D their previous 3D games were by allowing the player to manipulate the camera at will, but in SM3DL the player can only shift the camera from side to side ever so slightly and the view will always reset back to its default position. The way the camera works is simply to show you the best possible view at any point in a level. This, again mimics the 2D Mario games more closely. In SM3DL you never fight against the camera as it's always showing exactly what the designer intended for you to see.

This, the camera work, inspired me to open up my long dormant copy of the Unity Engine and to start work on two things:
  • Remembering how to program... and...
  • Creating a virtual camera rig that could act like the one in Super Mario 3D Land.  
Most likely in that order. 

I got something up and running in a couple weeks or so using a fairly stock Unity character controller (a simple capsule to which I added a sphere as a "nose") and a system of trigger volumes which could send new angle and position data to my camera rig. The triggers allowed the camera to change orbit angle, pitch, distance and offset and much of this system remains largely unchanged today. Having pretty much achieved what I set out to do, my interest waned and life went on.

Some time later, we started on a project at my day job using Unity for the first time. Opening the editor back up reignited a fire in me. Knowing that the work project was going to require me to familiarize myself with many aspects of the engine with which I was not yet familiar, model importing and animation in particular, I decided to reopen that old project and see about creating a character to replace the nondescript capsule. That's basically how Suzy was born, as a way for me to learn how to import models and animation into Unity and control them via scripts and the, then new, Mechanim system.

Her look came from simply wanting to create a cute but mostly featureless character. I'll post some early sketches in a few months when my stuff reaches me from Ottawa.

Ok, ok. Time to wrap up this post. What does this mean for me now? Well, since then I've opened the project now and then to try out some stuff and experiment with engine features. Sometimes for fun and sometimes to stay ahead of the curve at work. With having recently left my job to follow my wife abroad, I find myself now with the opportunity to make little Suzy Cube the star of her very own game, all while learning a ton.

So what's all this "Master Study" business from the post title, then? Well, that's the approach I'm taking to the design of Suzy Cube as a game. A Master Study, in the art world, refers to copying the work of a master in order to tease apart the techniques used to produce said work. That's pretty much what I plan to do, with some extra challenges, of course! So, the plan for Suzy is:
  • To make a 3D platform game inspired by Super Mario 3D Land for mobile platforms.
  • Making it feel really good. (more on this later)
  • Explore a simple yet consistent art style, rounded boxes, in an effort to efficiently produce a nice looking game without an army of artists.
  • Use this as an opportunity to hone my level design skills by analyzing what great games like SM3DL do.
  • Share this journey with all of you.
So, stay tuned as I hope to share more of what I'm learning and the challenges I'm facing.

Here are some GIFs cuz GIFs are fun!

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