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Design Diary - April 2023 - Gameboy Game

This month's design diary will be about the build and development of the Gameboy game component of the Mystery Puffs tabletop narrative puzzle.


I am hoping this will be a thorough log of the design and development process of the game to date in order to highlight how... specific I ended up becoming on a few design factors. I'll first outlay the more conceptual steps that lead me to choose this particular medium and why I think it is a fitting component of my Mystery Puffs game. Then I will go into detail about the design and learning process of its components.


I will be uploading all related Gameboy game development logs to my https://sniperwizard69.itch.io/canary-island page where I will also publish a playable demo of the game. Follow along there for more.


The Inspiration

I was scrolling through Tik Tok one day and came across a video from an account called @hivemind about a band who had made a Gameboy game to help promote their latest album. Fortunately the OP was kind enough to go through the details of how he built the game. This really inspired me and I got started learning the basics straight away. If you'd like to view the original Tik Tok then click here.


The Idea

Now that I was inspired I just needed a story and an idea. Thankfully, I discovered this in March of 2021 when I was in the middle of producing The Time Travel Café. I had been building a fictional time travel world for about 8 months as well as trying to find out how to continue to develop the Mystery Puffs game. So I knew that the game would involve time travel and be set on the fictional Canary Island. Knowing that the idea was in gestation I got to work learning the nuts and bolts of how to make the game itself.


The Concept

The player plays the game from the perspective of Persephone. A cat who was mysteriously woken up on Canary Island with no memory of who she is. She believes she was once a human and goes on search for answers. As she explores the island she discovers that there are strange temporal and spatial quirks to the island that she will need to solve in order to get back to her own body.


The Tools

The first thing I did was go to youtube and type in GBStudio. Thankfully there are a handful of creators out there who have tirelessly put out tutorials on almost every aspect of creating a "homebrew" Gameboy game from scratch. If you would like to get started learning the basics I would suggest the following:


Online Tutorials

  • https://www.youtube.com/@PeterMilko watch this channel to learn the basic rules of pixel art and how to draw it. I found it useful as a base to understand how to achieve the images you want with such a limited amount of creative option: you can only use 4 colours (one being transparent) and a 16 x 16 pixel grid as your canvas.

  • https://www.youtube.com/@RobertDoman/videos definitely the channel I watched the most to learn the basics. Robert covers everything from your initial dowload of the software up to porting out to actual Gameboy cartridges.

  • https://www.youtube.com/@RetroBreak I watched a lot of this channel's videos as a way to learn more about the Gameboy "homebrew" community. I was excited to discover that there are regular game jams and indie creators that are responsible for a little of solo indie developer Gameboy games out there.

The Software

  • https://www.gbstudio.dev/ is the site to download the game engine software. Their tutorials, articles, and the holy doc are great reference material to learn every aspect of the game. I consult this a lot when I get stuck not knowing what a certain feature does.

  • https://www.aseprite.org/ This is the software I downloaded upon recommendation from both the Tik Tok video and some tutorials I watched as a way to create the pixel art at the required settings for the Gameboy game. The learning curve is quite steep to begin with when learning all the parameters but once you understand how the game reads the image files it makes sense and is easy enough to remember. Aseprite makes that process pretty simple and has some great tools to speed up workflow when drawing your assets like grass or buildings. It does cost some money to download so if you're looking to not pay anything to get started then I would recommend using paint.net.

  • https://www.mapeditor.org/ This is an absolutely essential piece of software in order to create the scenes and world of your game. The Gameboy screen is made out of 160 x 144 pixels which has been segmented by the software in 8x8 pixel squares. Each 8x8 square is a "tile" of information. So the Gameboy screen is made out of 20 x 18 tiles (each consisting of 8x8 pixels). The map editor takes these 8x8 tiles and treats them as a single pixel. In this way you can continue to use the same 8x8 tile to cover your entire screen. In understanding the limits of the GBStudio system it is important to keep your tile count per scene to under 192 unique tiles (this will be clearer in the world building section of this post.

  • https://www.getpaint.net/download.html finally Paint.net. This wonderful piece of software is my go to for transforming images into Gameboy appropriate images. Every now and again you want a high resolution full scene photo (for a title, logo, or cutscreen) and I just didn't want to draw an entire image from scratch. So I would either find a copyright free, licensed, or AI generated image online and posterize the image until it was only 4 distinct shades. Then I would recolour each shade to the appropriate Gameboy palette.

  • All of the above programs can work pretty seamlessly together. You can save an image in Aseprite that will affect a change in your world map in tiled which will in turn change how it looks in GB Studio. This allows you to edit your assets and sprites in realtime as you tweak and adjust your game.

Character Development

I spent a lot of time developing my player character. I knew I wanted the player character to be a cute cat. There were a lot of sprite examples online but I couldn't find anything that really felt the way I wanted Persephone to feel. Jumping into character design with literally no idea of skill in this area gave me the naivety required to give it a go without knowing how difficult it really would be. Below are some images from the reference material, initial sketches, and then the finals of the player sprites (they're only 16 pixels high so they get pretty blurry when blown up).


World Building

Once I was happy with the player character development I got to work building my "tileset". I really enjoyed this process and drew a lot of inspiration from Pokémon Red/Blue as well as Gold/Silver games. There is a wonderful website called the Spriters Resource which contains every asset in the game. I would download these and study their construction, essentially reverse engineering the style, in order to create my own legally distinct assets that still had the same feel. I found this process very educational as I was able to understand how the pro's would design to minimize unique tile use but also maintain massive variety in the look and feel of the game. As a result I was able to design modular housing with as little as 16 unique tiles. But when combined and rotated in specific ways could give rise to countless house variations.



Game Building

Now that I have my world built it is time to program in the things like walls, doorways, and special actions such as dialogue boxes and rules about picking up items. Because my game is going to be a pretty simple quest completion game the programming language shouldn't be too difficult.

I have learned that if I plan it out as best I can and do the groundwork early on such as create variables for each global change I want to make, then it should all go pretty smoothly (fingers crossed). Here is a short video of the opening minute of the game.


In Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this little look into the design and development of a gameboy game. If this article is a little word heavy then I urge you to go and watch some youtube videos and you'll be making your own top down RPG in no time!

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