About Asterboids

   Everyone loves boids, I’m sure there’s no disagreement about that, but there is one question that has plagued us all since I first made boids: where are the boints? The yearning for boints (boids-points) comes from the desire to make a game out of something as cool as boids. I am a man of the people but I’m also all about efficiency so I saw this as an opportunity to make something inspired by my favourite arcade game, Asteroids. This project was a massive undertaking, completed over several months, and totalling over 3.5 thousand lines of code. The game may be considerably more niche than I initially let on but I couldn’t be more pleased with the result.

   Here’s the pitch: an arcade-style space ship game where you run away from a swarm of bird-like enemies while avoiding asteroids. The concept was pretty simple, so most of my time went into polish as well as refining the physics and difficulty. Of course this project was built around 2D vectors just like everything else I make, but for this project I abstracted vectors one step further to make particles for all the fancy graphical effects present in the game.

   I began by creating the basic controls for the ship with a simple physics system and then I was able to apply the camera technology I worked on for the SPIRE engine to have an invisible bounding box that would let the player push the camera around the screen. Sometimes I will develop entire games with just rectangles and lines as artwork up until the very end, but since I was focusing on polish I wanted to take the time to make things look nice at each step of the way. At this point I created sprites for the ship and 4 different background layers. I then implemented a parallax scrolling effect for the background and a feature that slowly centers the camera back on the player as they slow down.

   Once I had the controls for the ship feeling tight enough, I took my first crack at particles. The exhaust particles are assigned one of three colors as well as a random size, speed, and angle. They get assigned to come out of either the left or right thruster and then they slowly fade away as they get farther from the ship. I think these look really nice, but their implementation is a little janky. If I refactored this I could probably do it with fewer variables.

   I then implemented the shooting mechanics for the player using the same alternating methods as the exhaust particles to switch between the left and right guns. I would end up tweaking this a lot to adjust the difficulty later but at this point almost all of the player mechanics were done. It was now time for me to take another break from coding to make a bunch more art. I made a quick sprite for the laser and then I began the process of drawing the asteroids.

   I first drew a big mothership in the same style as the player and then I began to tear it apart to create the big chunks of debris that would serve the role of asteroids. I split the initial sprite into four sections and then each was allowed to break twice so I ended up creating 28 different asteroid sprites. This took a long time but I think it was worth it because it looks like the asteroids break apart pretty convincingly into smaller chunks. Actually coding the asteroids was pretty simple. Upon spawning in they randomly pick two points on different outside edges of the map. They are giving a random speed, size, and rotational velocity and are set out on their path across the map.

   It was now time for some more polish so I created a function to make particle explosions of any size and I added them when asteroids explode and when the player dies. I also added a little bit of camera shake when this happens to really sell the effect. At this point I kinda got bored with the project and I started focusing on other things but after school was closed for COVID I jumped back in and was finished in about a week or so.

   Coming back I immediately decided to work on the main attraction: the boids. If you read my initial write up of boids, you’d know that they navigate by following three very simple rules. They try to separate themselves from other boids, they try to match the direction that the other boids fly in, and they target the center of clusters of nearby boids. For this project I added three additional rules. The boids will try to target and fly towards the player, they work extra hard to avoid boids that are extremely close to them, and they try to avoid obstacles like asteroids and the walls. Each of these rules has a weight attached and I randomly skew the weights of each boid just a little bit upon spawning them in.

   To try and control the pacing of the game and stop it from being a non-stop pursuit I implemented an AI director who controlled the difficulty by affecting the targeting weights of the boids and spawns in asteroids. The director tries to determine if the player is getting closely chased for a long period of time and then tells the boids to back off a little bit to let the player breathe. It takes into account both the level that the player is on and also how many boids are remaining to make sure it doesn’t go too easy on the player.

   With the director implemented, the core functionality that I had planned out was almost entirely done. I added a hyperdrive mechanic that I had planned for the player that let them get out of sticky situations in a pinch (and see some cool particles). The next goal was to add variety to allow for more tactics. I added two different variations of boids, one that splits into two more boids when shot and one that explodes when shot, potentially taking out other boids with it. I also began work on a powerup system.

   These powerups would be spawned in around the map by the director and could be flown through by the player to be picked up. First I made a powerup to slow down time which was pretty easy, then I made one to create a shield around the player so that they could survive an extra hit. The third power up was much more difficult, I decided I wanted to make a big laser that could kill a bunch of boids all at once. I ended up drawing this without sprites, although that probably would have been easier. The effect consists of a bunch of rectangles stacked on top of each other of different sizes, colors, and opacities. I think this looks pretty good and some nice screen shake helps sell it. The hitbox of the laser is actually not a rectangle but a bunch of overlapping circles because that better fit the systems I had already built.

   I was a few days out from when I hoped to release the game at this point so it was time for the final sprint. I added a scoring system and a HUD with a little minimap. The last gameplay feature I would add was a boss fight which would appear every ten waves. This meant I had to make another big mothership sprite this time in the same style of the boids. I gave it some rudimentary pathfinding and two attacks: one where it shoots out a bunch of boids and another where it uses the same big laser attack that I worked on earlier. This was very cobbled together, but I think it came out ultimately better than the sum of its parts and I think it’s actually pretty fun.

   The last day or two was devoted to final polishing. I spent a few hours adding a pretty basic introductory cutscene and a few more hours drawing a menu. The menu art isn’t great but it’s about as good as I could hope given my lack of artistic skill. I do think the title art came out looking especially nice. I also added an options menu with a couple settings, as well as sound effects for a bunch of different stuff in game. Lastly I added a leaderboard system which was super easy because I was able to borrow much of the code from the Tetrisn’t leaderboard.

   The game is certainly very difficult, perhaps too difficult for some, but I’m fairly pleased with the challenge. It has much of its roots in arcade games which are also very difficult, but there is a little unfairness due to lack of visibility. If the game took up the whole screen rather than a 800 by 600 window it would probably be a lot easier but that was something I didn’t really want to deal with. I’m sure I could clean up a good bit of the code to make it more streamlined especially with the particle systems, but I think this represents a new high for me in terms of both visual polish and attention to detail.