Somewhere in my last post, I made a rather large show of complaining my ass off about how stupid it is to try and challenge yourself to only use a specific set of colors, or to use few colors, etc.
Frankly, I find it to be a waste of time. I'm pretty sure you can get the same effect with Photoshop filters. I don't need to prove to myself I can limit colors for a project and still do well.
To me, limited colors are a weak excuse to feel like you did something tough. "Yeah, I conquered a challenge! I pretended like I didn't have a full box of crayons!" Outside once or twice, or really crippling color limits, like making an image with a hard limit of just 3 colors total, selected totally at random via a computer randomizer, it's pointless to me, and I don't consider it an accomplishment.
In the post, I mentioned that I prefer to set challenges that actually make things tough. Limited colors don't leave me wondering "How will I do it? Can I even do it?" With limited colors, that answer is "Yes, I can. It's not even question at this point." It doesn't even take creativity to do it. Just skill and experience.
But I figured I'd put my money where my mouth is and show how I tend to challenge myself in ways I deem to be worthy.
For my slightly ego-stroking game about a character who was once me, I've set the following challenges:
1. No Spikes
Ever since Sonic the Hedgehog, spikes have been a go to for game developers wanting environmental hazards in their game, both indie and AAA. I'm not exaggerating when I say there are likely thousands of games out there, maybe even tens of thousands, in which the most common environmental hazard is a spike of some kind. Sure, Sonic didn't invent it, but I guarantee you he was the one who cemented it as the gaming industry's biggest cliche.
No spikes. Instead, I have to be creative with my environmental hazards.
2. No Inexplicable Floating Platforms
This one may not seem very tough at a glance, really all I have to do is show how they attach to the environment somehow, or give them a means by which they are suspended in open air, but it will require some tricky level design to make sure there are zero platforms that float in the air without some reason or method.
I'm also not allowed to take the easy way out by putting magic levitating platforms in all over the place. The platforms have to fit the level's themes. So, for example, no crystal powered floating platforms in the streets of downtown, modern LA, and no jet/propeller powered floating platforms in medieval Europe.
3. No Bottomless Pits
I think the bottomless pit trap is a cop out. Character doesn't die of fall damage, but will die if you fall down a bottomless pit trap. Sonic: no fall damage, but several levels from first all the way up to modern all have bottomless pits to die in. Mario: Only game he suffers fall damage in is in Super Mario 64, and yet the bottomless pit has been a staple from the start. Crash Bandicoot, Super Smash Bros, Castlevania, Megaman, Earthworm Jim... all these games have the character jump from any height they like, and it doesn't kill them, but fall down a pit trap and you die instantly. It makes no sense, and it's kind of lazy.
4. Complete Avoidance Of The Water Level Cliche
That's right, I have set myself a challenge to do without an industry golden staple: the water level. It wouldn't be much of a difficult anyway, because my character's semi-aquatic and can actually breathe underwater. It would be more of a chore. Unless you're going to be Sonic the Hedgehog about it and make it so drowning is a thing, water levels just get really frustrating. I think the classic Sonic games and Mario Bros 3 are the only games that ever did water levels right. Sonic, because part of the challenge is drowning (the drowning alarm sound still haunts me...), and Mario 3 because not all of it is under water.
5. No Weird Levels
The video game industry is full of weird environments. I'm going to pick on a few of my favorites here, so keep in mind these are all games I actually really like. First off Mario Bros 3 and Pipe Land. What purpose does Pipe Land serve? Who built a sprawling landscape of pipes, and why?
Earthworm Jim 2 and Iso 9000. It's a level built entirely on piles of paper. I know the game's not exactly known for making a lot of sense, most of the rest of the game is at least grounded in reality, so why a world made of paper piles?
Zelda Ocarina of Time and Jabu Jabu's Belly. Frankly, this game's water level is a perfect example of why I'm taking challenge 4, but I think the inside Jabu Jabu stage of the game is far too perfect an example of "Weird Levels". Why is the digestive track of poor Jabu shaped that way? And who thought a level inside a giant fish was a good idea? (I'm well aware that Turtle Land from Mario Land 2 is even worse. You go inside a giant turtle, and then inside the giant turtle is a giant whale, which you also go into.)
I'm not allowed to do anything that doesn't make at least a little sense. Any level in the game has to be something you'd go "Ok, I can see why this place exists."
6. No Cliche Enemies
This means no zombies, no skeletons, no sine wave enemies, no goblins, no ninjas, no spiders, no bats, no dragons (but that's mostly something I do out of principle, due to being one of the most cliche), no spoopy ghosts, and no Russians.
7. No Cut Scenes
The entire game has to be conveyed without the use of a single major cut scene. Maybe a cinematic at the beginning, and a cinematic at the end just to establish and close the story, but I want the middle to be pristine.
8. NO HANDHOLDING
The entire game has to be totally hands-off. Players must be allowed to make mistakes, and solve puzzles and make it through the game without a tutorial and without a single line of text. You want challenge? It doesn't get much more difficult than the combination of 7 and 8.
Yeah, I could take the weak approach and limit the colors I'm allowed to use, or instead I could challenge myself with a real test of creativity and ability. Some of these, especially 1 and 2, I don't know if I'll even be able to live up to. And that's what makes these challenges worthy of me taking them. There has to be some level of doubt in my mind, and it takes a lot more effort to avoid using a specific element than just avoiding some colors.
I hope other game developers and pixel artists see this and learn something. A challenge has to take effort, otherwise it's a waste of time. The tougher the challenge, the more recognition you'll get for even attempting it, first of all, and even more so for completing it.
Everyone in the world is familiar with the man who jumped the Grand Canyon, but no one has ever heard of the guy who drew a picture without the use of the color blue, or wrote a book without using the letter 'E'. (The second one is a real thing. Look it up.)