Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tapping the Theme

So you decided to make a game. And you decided that it is going to have a sheep in it. Why? I have no idea. But I hope you have an idea.

The simple request I have is that you think about your theme and your gameplay as integrally tied together. For the sake of creativity, your theme is the best possible fountain of innovation.

I make iPhone games. I spend almost all of my time thinking about apps, finding ones I've heard about, researching, and playing apps, just because I want to know why and what people are trying to accomplish. Sometimes I have an idea for a game, and then I search for similar ideas on the app store. 100k apps, I will find forty apps for any keyword I search.

Recently I was thinking about sheep-herding. Plop your finger down, and the sheep are repelled. Corral them into their pen, add some obstacles, done. Finger-swiping good. I then searched for sheep on the app-store. Oh, there we go, several sheep-herding games, a couple of which were solid. Done, next idea. No point in being derivative.

But what about the other fifty sheep-related games: half of them were physics platformers and sheep-launching games. What the heck? Free the sheep from its dangerous surroundings. Tap the sheep to make it go higher and higher. Not bad games. But why the heck am I freeing sheep from a physicsy tangle of boxes and ropes. Or why am I sending a ram flying through some otherworldly space-portal?

I am being harsh. Worms is an excellent game, and worms have no relation to the theme of scorched earth. Angry Birds: totally ludicrous concept, top of the charts for months now.

But I implore you to please consider why you chose your theme. Or why you chose your gameplay? I know a lot of us are making iPhone games these days with the low overhead and strike-it-rich potential. And you need to stand out when making a game. I want to play your game, but unless it's top 25 or a unique concept/mechanic, I will ignore it.

Theme can help in your design struggles. For the sake of creativity and doing something different, you should consider how your theme can inform your game. If you are making a game about squirrels, ask yourself what makes a squirrel fascinating or funny or a squirrel. If it is the humor of eating nuts and acorns, perhaps you have an eating mechanic, a ridiculous challenge of keeping your squirrel's cheeks full of acorns.

Or you are in outer space, running out of oxygen. Oxygen in space, that is a pretty easy time mechanic. Or an FBI agent who has to balance breaking the rules with making progress in his fight on crime.

When you build a game, even if you just tacked on a theme because you don't want a game of abstract shapes, spend some time working out how the theme can help your game. And if you decide the game is not appropriate for the theme, perhaps you should change your game.

At TIGJam, I really appreciated Scott Anderson's talk on the plethora of indie platformers. It is easy to make a platformer, but who cares? Is that all that excites you? Do you have a goal in your platformer? You want to make a moody depressing game exploring isolation and fear. I would love a game about that where I do not even have an avatar. The game itself is this ethereal space that shifts and perhaps my whole goal is trying to bring the screen into focused, pure white, piece by piece. I have no idea how that might work, but maybe you do.

My point, one final time, is that you have the gamut of interactivity available to you. Why is your game of knocking over boxes any more enthralling than the last? Make me games about specific themes. I would love to be a pirate, a struggling housewife, a squirrel. But not in another platformer. Make your gameplay about pirating, raising a family and dealing with a husband, living as a squirrel. There are so many games we have not yet made because we cannot look beyond our conventions.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

TIGJam 3: Day 4 And Retrospective

The fourth and final day of TIGJam, last Sunday, was a great ending to one of the most satisfying weekends of my game development life. For the game jam crew, it was a day of polishing games, showing them off, and having a dinner afterward to discuss all that we had done and become.

I went into Sunday delirious and noticeably tired from a very late-nighter. Over the course of Sunday morning the various jammers appeared and slowly collected themselves from having climbed over the hill. Now it was already lunch for most of us before people were ready for the final few hours of game creation. (As always, there were some people already working hard by mid-morning.) In an effort to be a human being I returned to my friend's house and showered and ate and then returned.

During the final hours of an art project, in the past I have tried to go big. This time, as most people did, I just went for cleaning. Game creation (and so many other things) are about that final ten percent. So I just tried to round out my project. I cleaned up loose ends, I added some nice little art touches, and I worked up til the last minute.


And then I got to see what everyone had accomplished, and it was impressive. Over the course of an hour we saw probably twenty different games, and even more were being worked on. Here are just a few unique highlights for me. (This is not fair and balanced and also ignores games I've already talked about. [also did not have time to grab information, so please update me with info/links about these games if you're aware])

Negative Spacecraft : This game was black and white. A simple space shooter that added a confusingly cool mechanic in which you and your AI opponent fire negative and positive space at each other (black and white). What this meant was that you could move and shoot in negative space(black) but be hurt by positive space (white), and then transition to the other way around. It was cool and confusing and I can't do it justice describing it.

Night Hike (a Carnegie Mellon University ETC student group): A procedurally generated night hike, this was a beautiful idea and showed the strength of non-violent interaction. Your goal, simply take a hike through starry fields and forests. The creators built a 2d-sidescrolling procedural system so that every hike you take will be through a different environment. A simple piece, but well done.

Desert Bus 2: Space Bus (Ben McGraw): Imagine flying to Alpha Centauri in a bus. Well, imagine no more! Because you can now experience the long, long, incredibly long trip in a game that simulates the realtime experience of flying to Alpha Centauri. A hilarious sequel to a Penn and Teller mini-game called Desert Bus from 1995, which involved driving straight from Tucson to Las Vegas in realtime.

Map Generator (Tyler Neylon): Though not a game, this deserves a mention for cool technology of the weekend. For his love of strategic games, Tyler sought to build a map creation tool that could create a Risk style map in a reasonable amount of time with a plausible geographic look and well-laid out territories. He succeeded. It was very neat technology for a weekend and I would love to see people play some Risk on one of his procedurally generated maps to see if it was balanced well.

In addition to the above, there were several games that felt very polished with their "feel". Kyle Pulver showed off a quick and crunchy 2d platformer with an impressive amount of art (I think he did it all this weekend). Phubans was working on a top-down exploration/upgradeable shooter that felt very satisfying to play. And Erin Robinson created a gravitational exploration game that allowed a player to change orbit smoothly between a series of planets with various gravities.


And now I'll briefly talk about the game I made (my blog, my soapbox). It is called Sarajevo, and you play a civilian living in the city of Sarajevo during the siege in the mid-90s. All you can do is walk around a small portion of the city in which there are other civilians like you and also buildings you can enter and exit. You can talk to people to hear their mood, but otherwise it is currently a static world. However, every so often, an unseen sniper fires at a random character in the game. It could be you, it could be someone else. They probably won't hit. But they might. All you can do is hope to not get shot. But if you play long enough, you will get shot.

I think the crowd was a little taken aback by my game.

But that was what TIGJam was for. To scratch the itches we all have. To try something new or different or work on something we've had sitting in the back of our brain. You could see people proud of what they had accomplished, amazed at the positive feedback they received, creating their own lighting systems, trying a game and failing and then making a new game, pounding out incredible music, drawing up beautiful art.

TIGJam was recognizing that being an indie game developer is a lifestyle. You have to care about it. You have to want to spend your weekend tackling that stupid bug that has been killing you. You have to redo that art, or create twelve unfinished songs to reach the thirteenth that works.

After we showed off our games we had a wonderful buffet dinner at a nearby restaurant and chatted about what we had seen, what we were going back to, and what we would be doing next time. TIGJam helped foster a community that mostly occurs online, a social gathering for those whose usual interaction is text.

I had felt like an outsider before this weekend, but over the course of four days, I grew a lot and learned a lot and was able to find a whole new set of developer friends who have to create. Creation. That is what the game developer is about. It is always humbling to ponder what we do and of what we are capable. I am just glad to see the love of the craft continue so strongly in this generation of game developers that is taking advantage of all of the tools we now have at our fingertips. It really is the time of the indie developer.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

TIGJam 3: Day 3

And it's the morning after Day Three. Day Three was a period of deep introspective questions. I have been spending most of my last several days in the same room with anywhere from five to fifty-five people. I have done LAN parties of such length before, but this has been a strangely trying gauntlet of creativity for me.

There is certainly pressure to create something, but more-so, being surrounded by a group of creative types all accepting of feedback and willing to give their own, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the hours spent thinking hard about everything game related. Yesterday was hump day, and it was a particularly humbling experience.

I had set my sights on a simple game. A simple world where you walk around and talk to others, and they tell you how they are feeling, based on the events around them and their outlook on life. This I actually got working yesterday, and then I started to think of how they should be acting based on their feelings. And so now I think I am supposed to create AI. I did not think of what I was doing as AI. Yesterday I came to terms with that being my goal. I struggled with what I wanted to actually happen in my game.

I spent yesterday thinking about the boundaries of my project. Now, in the morning of the last day, I have a good sense of how far I want the project to reach, but this is not a day's work. So some of my stress was relieved as I realized I could not complete my goal, so now I am just working on the halfway point. But enough about my little project.

Yesterday was entertaining, it was the day that everyone let themselves out. We were comfortable with each other if we had not been before. And we enjoyed ourselves. The highlights happened as the night progressed.


In the middle of the evening there were a series of interesting short talks from a variety of angles. There was Derek Yu, with his pal Andy Hull, talking about the stress of working on a project, Spelunky, that has taken over their lives for the last couple of years. This weekend, for them, was a time to step back and enjoy the company of friends and see how the project is actually perceived from eyes other than their own. They also talked about the importance of fostering and maintaining friendships, having themselves met as young teens trying to make games.

Scott Anderson talked about how we are making the same, similar games. How many of us, he asked, were making "traditional platformers"? (There were many raised hands.) We need diversity in games, not in the people making them, but in what we are creating. But we do need new people, too. Indie game development is threatening to become a scene, he argued. We are slowly seeing the castes of the "in-crowd" and the "out-crowd", and our role as a community is to always foster new indie-folk, because we need that freshness.

Brendan Mauro talked about his struggle with the relevance games have beyond our gamer-world. It was a simple talk, but revealed how much people within our industry understand that what we do can and should mean something beyond our secluded desks in our apartments and homes and dorm rooms.

Timothy Fitz talked about being aware of why the big guys are making so much money. The indie developer seems to predominantly make games that could be on Super NES. Perhaps it is the scale of the project. But why, he asks, aren't we employing modern tools of social media and game mechanics? Farmville, he boasted sarcastically, was better than us. And we can do better.

Marc Ten Bosch outlined his efforts in creating a single level in Miegakure. His point, inspired by Jon Blow (which I heard referenced many times yesterday), was to try and make the simplest puzzle he could that meant something. Game mechanics, the need for player revelations, and player comprehension would add the complexity.

And at the end Matthew Wegner even gave us a quick, honest answer to the downfall of Blurst, Flashbang's experiment of every two months releasing a free online game. Simply put, he said, as beautiful as it was to live life the indie life 9-5, one cannot make a living off a product that is free.


After the talks I played and looked at a couple more games.

I playtested one of Carnegie Mellon's thought-provoking student projects about communicating without speech or text. The team watched as myself and another tried to make our way through a platformer with invisible obstacles that only the other could see. We were entirely reliant on that other player, as they attempted to use their silent character to communicate with hand signals. A well-executed mechanic of waving one or both hands, players could make their character point to important or invisible obstacles. It was clever and an interesting experiment that has been pretty successful and I look forward to the finishing touches.

And then I witnessed the progress on a game about eating cheeseburgers to get fat and roll over people. A unique game, indeed. (Though it was a platformer, like so many other games here.)

Then as the night progressed and focus waned in and out, people mingled, relaxed, focused, and at 1am a Madhouse tournament ensued. I did not accomplish anything from 1-3am as I watched most everyone in the room take each other on in five minute 1-on-1 chaotic deathmatches. Balance was fairly askew, but laughter was present for all two hours as the creator and various other folk commentated on the proceedings.

And then at 3am I attempted to focus. I somewhat succeeded, but the day had taken its toll, and I just allowed myself to do some painting for the next hour rather than scripting. Around 4am the last of the jammers remaining started grabbing couches and the lone futon. I drifted off around 4:30am listening to hazy philosophical discussions of life and our existence. A few others were still playing and making games, but I was done for the night.

Now the final day and it is again already past noon. But that is okay, I am going to enjoy these hours working, but not stressing.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

TIGJam 3: Day 2

I've arrived this Saturday morning an hour later than yesterday, and there are less people this morning. Staying up late and chatting and gaming has its repercussions, apparently. Eleven AM and all of five people active at the jam. But it was also a much more active evening last night.

Day two was a much more cohesive experience. More people and more life to the party. The jammers are revealing how much they like to play games. One wall with a projector had a consistent string of Street Fighter matches while near my seat another couple fellows were pretty heavily involved in another older iteration of Street Fighter with their personal game pads (I personally can't tell the different SF games apart).

I played several games yesterday that revealed how much indie developers want to make something engaging. A cute and yet oh-so-gory 2d deathmatch piece called Madhouse by Phubans entertained me and a pal for a good twenty minutes while we discussed character balance. Not his main project this weekend, he's nonetheless made it center-stage as he gets everyone and anyone to playtest it for him.

The fellows next to me from Koduco Games were working on completely separate iPad projects. One was updating their awesome PongVaders, a very clever mix of Space Invaders and Pong built for two players on the iPad. Cole is working on a single-player mode so you can play without a partner. Meanwhile, his partner Jon is working on a meditative piece where you lay out the sand of a mandala.

Meanwhile, the guy across from me, Mike, builds an interesting game of descending slowly on a rope between spikes, fighting off angry bats. It's a clever little procedural game inspired, he says, entirely by level two of Battletoads.

Behind me, Rich Vreeland showed me a poetic pixel game built in Flixel using interactive audio to its utmost (that's his specialty). As I played the game and interacted with elements of the game world, my actions generated a beautiful soundscape of bells and tones, a melody that I won't be able to reproduce next time, but that is the point, isn't it? We sat discussing for a while all the different ideas we have come up with, and that maybe we will one day both create our own magnum opuses, sadly there is only so much time and so many things we are capable of.

But encouragement has become the meaning of this weekend, in my mind, as I see all of the interesting ideas people have. We become aware of the games and the people behind them and their motivations for creation. I have only touched upon a couple of the different games I got to mess around with. As many others are refining previous work, testing out new art and music and code ideas. And of course who can forget the game where you launch mustaches onto hairless men as they pass by.

My own project comes along. I added simple speech into my game and the world has started to interact with the characters. My own goal is to create a mood, a world that you can experience. I am not sure how far I will get, but my progress in coding has been rewarding nonetheless, as the world starts to come alive and interact with the player. Yesterday was slow but steady progress as I allowed myself to explore all that others are doing.

Now it is time to hunker down.

Friday, October 29, 2010

TIGJam 3: Day 1

So I'm here at the beginning of day two of TIGJam3 after a full night's sleep. A quiet, friendly atmosphere, morning light streaming through the giant sky-light into this decently sized warehouse/garage. I have some unhealthy breakfast snacks beside me, purchased from a nearby 7-11 because I was too lazy to find any place better.

I arrived yesterday afternoon to TIGJam, having no idea what to expect. I am an indie developer, and local to Silicon Valley, so I had to sign up, but I still know almost no one in the industry, and I am terrible at frequenting forums. I spend most of my time in coffeeshops and my apartment, trying to feel artsy and indie, constantly checking gmail. Indie life is strange and solitary after coming out of a very social education. (I think social interaction is the most important element of our education, but that's a talk for some other time.)

So I came here knowing no one. You know of people; you have played some of their games, but suddenly you do not feel knowledgeable enough about any of their work to approach. And now I enter a room of indie game developers, part-time, full-time, some already with legacies! And as what always happens at such nervous introductions, you arrive, thinking the room will change now that you have arrived.

But no one cares. This is not the Global Game Jam with teams and set goals. This is TIGJam, and it feels more than anything like a LAN party, with the focus not to play games, but make them. Most people are focused, but there is chatter back and forth, there are some folks with great laughs. There are even some women! (The indie world seems somewhat male-centric right now, so it was good to see not a 100/0 split.) I talked and chatted with some people and I intend to do even more of that, because this is my opportunity to be social with like-minded people! But I am also here to make a game.

The first day of working on my game was spent learning what I should not be doing. It was a valuable workday, because as a friend once said, the quickest way to success is to make your failures quickly. I have plenty of failure ahead (there are three more days of TIGJam to fail), but at the end of a day of failure, I feel pretty comfortable. I am an artist by profession, but I decided to take on actually making a game in Unity, because it seems the less reliant we are on others, the better. I now understand the basics of what I am doing, I understand my goal, and hopefully I can achieve it. There's nothing interesting to say about the actual scripting (I have some scripting experience), but it is getting done.

I feel good this morning. It is eleven now and more people are starting to appear and get to work. I had been expecting an amazing, immediately mind-blowing experience. But this TIGJam appears more appropriate to our scene. Hunkered down over our computers, looking over occasionally to help those around us, but just trying to create something interesting.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Micro Reviews: Backbreakers and Bonecrunchers

For the last two days I've been playing Bonecruncher Soccer and Backbreaker: Tackle Alley, two iPhone apps that are solely about the quick footwork of soccer and football. I like both of these games a lot, with one major, backbreaking caveat: most of the challenge you will face is from the camera.

Each game is built on the simple premise of making it down the field safely with an increasing number of obstacles, the main ones being opposing players trying to tackle you and get the ball away. The games are very similar. Simple controls make your player either dodge or spin to the right or left while tilting steers you. Bonus points abound for being the best at evading opponents and finishing with a flourish (showboating slowly down the field in Backbreaker, and shooting well in Bonecruncher).

There is a lot of fun in the act of dodging out of the way as your opponent slides in to steal the ball, or spinning away as a big linebacker attempts to barrel into you. Both games succeed at how they emphasize this key mechanic of dodging, building it into an entire game. You run right for a guy who's running right at you. At the last second, bam! He got you. You were too slow. Rinse, repeat. But it works because dodging successfully is super satisfying.

Sadly, I have found that the games are crippling me from getting any better. The in-your-face sensation of each game is tied to a camera that sits just behind your player (slightly offset as in all 3rd-person games these days). Unfortunately, the camera is low enough that you cannot see anyone directly beyond your avatar. So I found myself maneuvering the player at times just to change the camera angle. Further, it's a narrow field of view, so you have absolutely ZERO awareness of any players coming up on your sides. The camera in each game has prevented me from enjoying the game at a more experienced level. It is really frustrating because I like both games a lot.

Control-wise, BCSoccer uses swipe controls while BBFootball uses virtual buttons. I prefer the swipe controls as I have trouble with the virtual buttons and a lack of feedback which sometimes means I don't dodge when I intend to. Football has a better presentation and a really wonderful ability to skip straight to the level, passing all of the little cutscenes and replays. Soccer almost has that, but feels just a bit slower with camera-work.

My opinion: they are both well worth a dollar. I got my time out of them, and if either of them deal with the camera by making your avatar partly transparent or do some other trick to make the camera friendlier, I might actually try to beat one or both of them. Great fun iPhone apps, just some troubling issues holding them back.

Randy played Bonecruncher after reading a review and then decided to pick up its inspiration, Backbreaker, shortly thereafter.

iTunes links:
Bonecruncher Soccer
Backbreaker: Tackle Alley

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Is your game comfortable?

I had a brief but thoughtful conversation with a woman who worked at the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design. She told me how her museum was striving to get functional pieces of craft and design to be recognized in a similar vein as fine art. They were struggling against institutions such as MOMA that do not willingly recognize furniture other than from certain periods such as the Bauhaus. Indeed, it seems that few people recognize the beauty of a chair beyond the comfort of IKEA and Herman Miller.

I sympathized whole-heartedly with her struggle because, years before, I had been exposed to the work of Wendell Castle at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, who was clearly an artist. Sitting in his creations I have never been more comfortable and, further, I was in love with the simplistic organic curves that composed his furniture. But I am also an artist, so I look to any man-made creation as potential art. Do others recognize the art of furniture-making? Apparently not, according to this woman.

So what about furniture makes it unworthy of the MOMA? Well, perhaps it is about utility? If something is useful, can it still be art? And that is where I arrive at my thoughts for the day. Our struggle for recognition in the world of art beyond our own is that our art is a craft as well. And craft is user-reliant. Furniture is user-reliant. You ultimately do not care about how a chair looks. You care how it feels. I do not care how a game looks or sounds. Those component parts may be beautiful, but in their own right they do not make the game. The game is feel. It is how I feel when playing. We are crafting an experience for the user that is greater than the individual artistic elements. We are making furniture. It has to be comfortable, too.

Whenever I get deep into a discussion about games I inevitably find myself espousing the importance of interaction. Indeed, many of the games I come up with are not even games. They are just forms of interaction between a user and a world. Are you thinking about the interaction between your game and the player? If that interaction is incomplete, can you still succeed? Are you thinking about the most sensible form of interaction? Have you made a bed without realizing it is better suited as a table? Have you made an iPhone game not realizing your audience was elsewhere?

Why do you build games? Are you trying to fill a void? Are you trying to teach a lesson? Are you trying to build a skill? Because you are making the game for someone. Maybe just you, but most likely not. Your game is user-reliant. You are making art for someone. As a utility for them. Do they know what that utility is? Are they comfortable? Do you want them to be comfortable? We do not have to make comfortable craft. The purposes of a chair are limited. The purposes of kitchenware are limited. We have much more freedom and I hope you think about that fact when crafting a user's experience.

Fine art is a whimsical world where anything goes and the public can only gaze in wonder from time to time but they are not really participants. They are witnesses. We make craft. And I am proud to build and construct crafts because I believe in engaging both myself and the world. What does the world need? How can I craft that?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Spider: Bryce Manor HD for iPad

Available now and awesome! Currently in the top 10 paid apps on the app store for the iPad. You seriously should check it out. It's App of the Week!

Shameless Promotion! But totally valid promotion! Yeah!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Purpose of a Game

I think that sometimes our discussion of games as art and purpose seems misguided. I am not trying to spark anger, but conversation, so bear with me. I believe in making games that have a message, I think that games such as The Unconcerned or iBailout!! play a vital role in expanding what we do as gamemakers. I like that we have this push and pull and people get angry and tired of the discussion of how games are art and what purpose do they have. That means we are getting somewhere, right?

The problem is that we are making "games". This is not a semantics debate, this is whether or not, when I start up your "game" or whatever the hell you wish to call it, am I trying to beat your game? Am I trying to win? Am I putting in effort into what you created so that I can reach the end? This, again, is not specifically about whether or not I enjoy your game or those unrelated questions of whether it is well-built and so on, it is about what you are asking of me and what I am expecting to do.

I loved Loved partly because it caught me off guard with who I was and what my role was. When playing the game you are never sure really what the purpose is. You know you are playing a traditional platformer. But there is something off about your goal. Is it a "game"? Yes, it definitely is. But it changes your perspective on why you are playing. A short little experiment, but it easily sweeps you into its world and does not feel like a "game" at first. It does devolve into a game, but even that is well done because the goal becomes as much about beating the game as it is about playing against the "game" itself. Therefore, the purpose of the traditional platformer is tucked neatly into a mind-game with your computer. But even this is still a "game". I beat Loved!

Just Cause 2
is a game I love to play for at least a few minutes a day. The sensation of exploration, though there are so many cookie cutter templates within it, is almost complete. Grabbing a fast jet and just flying around for a few minutes staring out at all that is the world of Panau is awe-inspiring. It is still a game, though, and my purpose is to rack up points and defeat the enemy. I have specific goals in thousands of collectibles and destructibles. I am aware that it is a game. Sometimes I stop caring about the game elements, but I always return, because eventually I have to make progress. I want to beat the game. Along the way I will enjoy the scenery, but that victory, that conquest, is my goal.

My point is this: we want to beat "games". We have a motive for playing the game. We might want to stretch our brains a bit, we might wish to just get adrenaline pumping, but we are putting purpose into games ourselves as soon as we start them. And if a game diverges from that expectation, do we keep playing out of a desire to overcome this piece of art? Do we have to win? Do we give up out of frustration that the game is not what we wanted to "play"? Introducing purpose that is above and beyond winning into something that we do not just observe but interact with, that we already place purpose into, that is a noteworthy accomplishment.

[Is there a game that you have not felt compelled to beat but rather compelled to experience? The interaction has been strong enough to erase all goals of mastery or winning? Do we want to create that experience? Is that a worthy goal?]

Monday, July 5, 2010

Catching Up with the Cave

I accept that, besides a few exceptions, I will forever be behind the times when it comes to gaming. But I also thought I was alone for a while. Now I notice with increasing clarity that we all can never be entirely caught up with games, unless we are a games reviewer, and even then, reviewers are strongly biased to a platform. I am not trying to limit myself to a platform, however, and I still have this immense backlog between iPhone, PC, PS2, Gamecube, DS. But these are my current platforms.

I have been able to keep up with iPhone, I think, just because the games are so cheap that I am willing to spend that dollar and then feel great if I get an hour of gaming. I spent a dollar on Angry Birds and have stopped after completing the first campaign, which is only about half the levels available at this time. I am totally satisfied with my stopping point. I got the enjoyment from "another physics puzzler" and now I have HAWX loaded up for another dollar and we will see what transpires.

Meanwhile, on my mac, my iPhone development device, a platform I was not even intending to be a gaming platform, I am playing a port of Cave Story. Wow. It really is as great as people say. Accessible but difficult, plenty of story weaved behind a much greater emphasis on gameplay, and a pseudo-linear game-world. (Or would that be pseudo-open-ended?) I started Kingdom Hearts recently to see what all the fuss was about, and I do not know if I will have the patience to keep going with it just because I am not playing it, I am watching it. Cave Story has this awesome integration of story, it is broken up into bite-sized chunks in a great balance between platforming gameplay, boss battles, and story. None ever seems to overwhelm the other. Granted I am not near the end yet (do I ever finish games?), but even when I get to a boss battle with story exposition before, I find that I do not tire of getting through the cutscene. I almost don't mind that there's no skip-cutscene button. Almost.

The inspiration for this post was partly Ian Bogost's recent blog post on Plumbing The Depths. In it he talks about the failure of designers/coders/the industry in really exploring all that is possible with each new round of technological invention. It seems to me that it is because we are moving so fast that we have not thought of a new game mechanic before someone ups the processing power/input capabilities of consoles. Technology moves fast because it can. Game design is an arduous, experimental, whimsical process that cannot move as fast because it is bound by our creativity which, no offense to anyone, tends to get stuck in ruts. Game designers, even the greatest, have their idea, and then they keep pushing it. Sim City, the Sims, Spore. Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid: Rising. Civilization, a bunch of other interesting strategy games, back to Civilization! And I am not criticizing, these are amazing guys. But we have our niches. We have our interests and our ideas, and when one is successful, we stick to them. (I also just looked at popular designers who have pressure to build upon their successes, so that was a bit biased.)

What I perceive is that designers are thinking of what they can do with the tools available, not dreaming up new tools. And then we get new tools thrown our way without our consideration. Are designers dreaming up the tools? Or someone just says hey, we discovered new ways to detect human motion. Go think up something! That is why there is so much derivative work. People still like swords and dancing, let us dress them up with a new input. We had not even done all we could with swords before, but we have a whole new interface.

This is one other reason I like Cave Story. It has awesomely refined gameplay. From the single life with well-spaced out saves to the awesome interplay of weaponry upgrades and damage taken and damage received. This game is great, cleverly designed fun opportunity spaces. In the end, when I am playing Cave Story and other older games, I do not really care that I am a generation behind the times. I have played Wii. It's fine. I know Cave Story is even on it. But I have my Z+X+arrow keys and I am having more than enough fun for free to feel the need to pay hundreds to keep up with the technology curve that has yet to redefine my thoughts on gaming.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hardcore purchasing of bottled water

So I just saw a girl with tons of tattoos, and some punk band t-shirt with the word "hardcore" come in to this coffee-shop and purchase two bottles of water. Bottled water. The biggest swindle of the last fifty years. Bottled fucking water! I don't understand how someone visibly labeling themselves as so anti-establishment could support such a ridiculous thing as bottled water. Perhaps I didn't read the tattoos closely enough. Perhaps they were Coca-Cola logos and advertisements for Curves fitness centers.

Bottled water. Ugh.

But here I am with a Northeastern WRBB Radio t-shirt and a sticker for Tiger Style slapped proudly on my macbook (with its nice shiny Apple proudly beaming).

I guess in the end we're all just full of advertisements these days.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Enter the Fray: Welcome to Indie Life

I guess I was indie a year ago. I had just graduated, lived at home, was searching for real work, and holed up many many hours a week working on Spider's levels. Tiger Style brought me my first gig that actually saw light in the marketplace. Then I got a real job that paid my bills. It was nice. I liked coming home and being able to not think about making games. At least that's what I told myself.

So I originally wanted to write a post about all of the reasons I left the corporate world. And then I realized that none of that mattered. I am fine with the corporate world. It funds lots of incredible games. I would say that the corporate and indie worlds are closer than they probably want to recognize. We all want people to play our games. We are making entertainment. Whether you call them art or product, whether you are Cactus or John Carmack, you want to construct something for others. (Always exceptions, I know.)

Most people want to make money from their games. Whether just trying to survive, or to actually turn a serious profit, most of us make games and sell them. For those of you out there putting out your games for free: I respect you. Especially if you put out a truly great game for free. And not freemium. If you pour your heart and soul out there and just put it out for public consumption, I respect you. I think you are a little crazy, but still, respect. The rest of us like to eat.

I sometimes don't know if I am indie, honestly. I try to define indie as a mindset as much as a precise definition, but it is hard. At Digital Chocolate my mentor was as hardcore about game production and design as any indie developer I have ever met. But his role was not to make a series of perfect games. It was to try to deliver the best products within a certain timeline. And dammit, he cares about what he does. The reason I do not like the corporate world, however, is that people who do not care about the games are also involved.

I do not like the facebook gamespace because of those involved. I am not opposed to the games, but the purely entrepreneurial money-grubbing spirit of so much of what you see online. By that I mean the groups that enter social games with no goal but making money. (I should qualify that Digital Chocolate is not one of these purely entrepreneurial outfits.) I hate seeing every single clone of every other form of Mafia Wars and Farmtown.

I do not hate facebook or all of the games on it.

But I am making games to be creative. I have gone indie because I have original ideas. I believe that there are cool products that have not been made and I want to create them. Whether creating a 30 second app for the iPhone or an intricate social game for facebook or some splitscreen title for XBLA, it is the challenge of crafting a new experience that is fascinating. Right? If you are an artist, you want to learn from the greats so that you can paint your own unique landscapes and characters. If you are a composer, you don't want to make J.S. Bach's music, I hope. You want to make your own. A programmer who is doing the same thing as the programmer across the aisle is wasting text and time. And if you do not have those ideas yourself, you can undoubtedly find someone else to guide you in this tiny industry with a new take on what we do.

That is why I guess I had to do indie, because I had to do something new. The lead on Farmville spoke this year at the GDC Awards when his game won for Best New Social Game. He told indie developers everywhere that we should consider joining his team at Zynga, that's what an indie outfit can be. But my thought: You aren't original, and that is what I want from indie, I want creativity, and that is what I believe the real indie mindset is. Zynga makes products, but they dare not take a risk. I took a risk, I went indie. Maybe I will make money as an indie, but maybe not. I guess in the end, that risk is what it is all about for me. That willingness to go all-in on ideas I thought up. To create a product or art, I want to put my soul inside it. That is fun. That is why I am a game developer.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Lucky enough

Are you lucky enough to live inside? Sometimes living in Berkeley is humbling. The lifestyle of people in this strange town varies as wildly as any place can. I sometimes cannot tell those who chose their lifestyle here between those who fell into it unwillingly. I encounter a higher percentage living on the streets than I have seen in any other American city. This is not a large town. But to walk down a standard residential street and see a man curled up in a secluded spot between two bushes, it throws me for a loop.

Here I am, shopping for apartments right now, squeezing every ounce of satisfaction from the process, certain that I will find a place that is in a safe neighborhood, is a comfortable apartment. I will not settle for less. How privileged I am. How incredibly lucky enough must I have been to be born into this life with my parents, my opportunity. I may have some issues, but not many. And you know what, I am most struck by the lack of privacy these homeless endure.

I have quirks. I have strange behaviors, I have need and desire for privacy to hide myself from the world at times. I am not only that which you see, but that which you do not see. And hopefully those two inform each other in positive ways. We should all be lucky enough to have that privacy. Yet there are those who do not. That is sad. I cannot imagine what it is like to go home and for that home to be a flat space of dirt in between the sidewalk and a parking lot. To go home and find only the privacy of one's mind.

We have so many problems in this world. We always have had these problems, and it would not be crazy to assume we always will. So what problems need to be addressed? What should we focus our energy on? What should my role be? This guy who draws, how does he change the world?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Too much of a good thing

I bought five games last week. Six, if you count that I pre-ordered Starcraft 2. The other games were all for my gamecube and ps2. Why did I do this after vowing I would only play the gorgeous exploration-friendly Just Cause 2 (on PC) for the foreseeable future?

It seems I have injured my precious index finger, a precious resource in PC gaming. There are downsides to being a 3d game artist. The inability to distinguish leisure time from work time; explaining to people that you make video games, not Pixar films, and no, you don't want to make Pixar films, but yes you like watching them; and working in a stationary position for hours upon hours upon hours, moving naught but your fingers.

My fingers have become a big problem for me. I enjoy rock-climbing. I like gripping tiny holds with the tips of my fingers, balancing precariously, slowly shifting my body in any direction to ascend slowly up a sheer face. This requires a lot of finger strength. And working on a wacom tablet for hours at a time does not relieve one's fingers. And then typing ctrl+z repeatedly over and over to get just the right stroke on a 2d photoshop painting. That does not help my fingers or hands. And typing this tale (I enjoy typing) does not help my fingers.

The main issue I have with my choice of career, which I would not give up for the world, is that it taxes so little of me that I feel as if I am wasting eighty percent of my being. We are animals, built to exert ourselves, and now, through overuse of those few parts that I do use, I have made it even more difficult to exercise the other eighty percent of me. (At least, in the manner I'd prefer.)

So I have bought a bunch of games for my last-gen consoles because they rely on my thumbs, and this will give my wounded index finger a rest.

The Sonic Mega Collection was one of my purchases, and for the past week I have been playing through Sonic The Hedgehog for the first time (well, I have now played it about fifteen times over the last five days). This gauntlet of trial and death is fascinating. I like the excellent little curve that allows me to get about a level or two further each time. The sequel (I did play Sonic 2 in college) was much faster in one's movement around the levels, and so I find this slower trap-laden method of level progression to be more difficult. I will have to check out Sonic 2 after beating this and see how it compares after playing the first.

I guess I am a little glad for this break from current games. I am only now coming into my own as a gamer. Absorbing all of these various classics for the first time (Sonic, Metroid Prime, Kingdom Hearts, Sly Cooper) is a fun important exercise of its own. Heaven knows I can't give up gaming completely. These might still use my hands, but at least I will be beating my thumbs up instead of my other more tender digits.

Friday, April 9, 2010

(disgusted rant on social games)

So 'effing tired of hearing about designing for social games. All the special considerations! You have to bring back players! You have to make them like your game! By social we mean you have to make your friends play it to get bonuses! You really don't give a shit how they play the game as long as they send you some coins every once in a while. That's not social! Design consideration for social games, huh? Figure out how to make your game actually social! Ugh.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Acknowledging Trackmania's non-racing mode

Trackmania Nations Forever is an incredible game. And tonight I am arguing this because I came to realize yesterday that it has allowed users to actually "play" the editor. Have you ever seen a Press Forward track? This is a tm track in which a player only presses forward and they will reach the end of the track.

The editor of TMNF is very simple and powerful, letting you create any track that you have played in the game. Using a simple system of track pieces and props, you create a Hot Wheels-esque stunt track that might be very tough and narrow and slow to navigate, maybe you make a nice fast track with wide turns and many turbo-boost tiles, or perhaps you infuriate the player with a 30 minute track of death and crazy stunts that are almost impossible to complete to reach the next stage of the track floating 300 feet in the air. All of these and any combination therein is possible. But the real gems as I have discovered, are the press-forward tracks.

I find Press Forward tracks to be the result of "playing" the TMNF editor. The editor is so easy to use and it is so easy and simple to test, that people create a piece of track, press forward and see where their car goes. Then they create some more track and add a jump. Then they see where their car goes. Then they build track up in the air where their car ended up. Then they start adding more and more pieces and creating a maze of speed. This is really easy too, and it all hinges on two simple factors: testing is almost instantaneous and there is no randomness in TMNF's physics. It is beautiful.

Press forward tracks are like movie-making, but even more satisfying, in my opinion. To play a track is fun. It might be almost exactly like watching a youtube clip of a PF track, but there is a very interesting dynamic in the player always needing to press forward. Play one of the best tracks and then stop pressing forward at some point. You screw it all up and you feel as if you are backstage at Disneyland.

Press forward tracks are an interesting phenomenon created by Trackmania's wonderful and intuitive editor. I have spent more time with Trackmania than almost any other game (and it's free!). Check it out sometime, and consider the editor and what it has done. It has created an intricate alternative Rube Goldberg-machine-maker.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Thrill of Navigation

I have been playing, almost every day, the Just Cause 2 demo. After playing it for two days, I decided that here was a game I would be willing to shell out to get on opening day. It has been a while since I have had that urge. Oblivion perhaps? And what is even more amazing is that I am shelling out money for a game that freezes on me every time I play. I have only once reached the 30 minutes that the game allows you to play before kicking you off with a sweet enticing trailer. Every other time it freezes or just disappears. Other than that, however, I am entirely indebted to this game for getting me to play games on the PC every night again.


I have been spending an inordinate amount of my time playing iPhone games. There are two reasons: they are simple to pick up and play for a short time and the ones I enjoy the most understand the mechanics of touch-control. I have talked about Canabalt previously, I am playing Spider again, and lately I have also been enjoying Mini Squadron. Each one is enticing to me because of the wonderful speed with which you interact with the world. In MiniSquadron, a fun little dogfighting game, you loop your plane around to dodge and attack with varying quickness, and they smartly slowed the various bullets down to the point that you can dodge them. It lends the simplicity of the game a really fun strategic element, making you stronger than such a real dogfight would ever present.

And the game is comfortable. You really feel the bullets as you fire, their sound effects joyfully punchy, and once you press down on the directional pad, it keeps track of that finger wherever it goes on the screen, always maintaining the same centerpoint. This allows you to rely on the feedback much less. Not only can you watch the plane respond to your finger, but you know it will respond as long as you have your finger down anywhere on screen. It is smart and always works in favor of the player. Indeed, even the shooting button extends noticeably past the space marked on screen. Just get within 50 pixels and you should be fine. That is strong understanding of our interactions with the device.

Spider, as I was able to present at GDC last week, worked because 95% of the game was controlled with three super simple mechanics, all of which controlled the actions of the spider. Tap to prepare a web, flick to jump with or without a web, and hold to attract the spider to your finger. I was able to rapidly explain the game to a newcomer and then go back to chatting with someone else. Fantastic! Control has kept me playing around on the iPod Touch for the last three months that I have had one. I am seeking out the latest games that use the device for all its power. A new method of interaction and navigation, that has distracted me from my DS, my PS2, and even mostly from my PC as a gaming device.


But let us steer back to the road that got me onto navigation in the first place: Just Cause 2. I think it is a superb game (demo at least) because it lets me run, fly, and drive around a world with the simplest of ease. Using Rico's grappling hook and parachute, I can quickly transition from any form of transportation to another. I can jump out of a helicopter and parachute to the ground. Or grapple back onto a helicopter. The game does, admittedly, have slight control hiccups in these transitions. As you enter or grab onto a vehicle, you notice your normal movement controls disappear, but the developers clearly recognized that you only needed a few controls to navigate around the vehicle, and then the main controls for handling the vehicle. In the end, it works well.

I am still getting comfortable transitioning from vehicle to running to another vehicle and then jumping to a third. But I am having fun doing it. And that is why I personally play games. To experience the thrill of navigation. The developers of JC2 have made a fun game. An open world with lots of things to destroy, and plenty of vehicles to get from destructible to destructible. (And of course I spend half the time destroying the vehicles I drive.) Hopefully when I install the full game I will keep finding new thrills, or at least that this main mechanic will not wear old. [And hopefully they will resolve this major crash bug.]

Friday, March 5, 2010

GDC and the value of our lives

So I'm writing this while I still have time before GDC's massive gathering of developers. That godly mess was both inspiring and humbling last year. You realize how little one person can be in that crowd of thousands, and I cannot even imagine the numbers that do not or cannot attend. But you also realize how many people share your passion for games, whether seeking fame, fortune, or something more.

I volunteered last year and I am doing the same this year. Last year I traveled from Boston and crashed in a friend's apartment for a few hours each night. This year I am living across the bay in Berkeley. Last year I attended a few different parties and got to talk to people who had roused my spirits at the Indie Games Summit (such as Jonatan "Cactus" Söderström, who was quiet and told me he was totally disgusted by realistic violence, which made me contemplate the difference between his violent unrealistic games and those oh-so-violent mainstream AAA realistic titles). This year I plan on attending as many parties.

There was one thing in last year's events that stood out to me more than any other occurrence. I do not know how many people noticed it, but Todd Howard, the director of Fallout 3, upon receiving the award for Game of the Year, talked about how he once again missed his family vacation with his growing children. His wife had asked, as he was finishing the game for release and she was leaving with the children for vacation, if it was worth it. Then he held up the award and walked off the stage with his team. I was so struck by that moment. I still cannot say how he felt, but it seemed the most bittersweet moment to me.

What are we doing with our lives? What do we want from our lives? Is our drive to create the masterpieces that shape the world? Do AAA titles redefine who we are? Do indie games affect us immeasurably? Is that what we want? Is it more important than the people in our lives? Are the people we care most about, are they the men "in the trenches" and cubicles beside us?

I do not know the answer to these questions, and I know each person would answer differently. But I am thankful that in my development career so far, the people I have worked with and under have recognized the importance of our lives beyond games and encouraged my other sides. Games drive us, but they cannot take us everywhere. And with that extra mile beyond the limits of games, we have that much more under the hood when we get back on the road of development.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It's late in here, but some gaming recaps

So I am super thrilled to once again be attending GDC as a volunteer. For 15-20 hours of work I get a pass worth over a thousand dollars and all the associated networking and education and fun that goes with enjoying a gathering as epic as GDC. Not only that, but this year I get to go as a nominee for a GDC Choice Award! I still can't get over that. Nearby, at some other table, will be Double-Fine! And other big companies. But I'm still a dreamy little fanboy who just happens to have a beard and a hit title as well.

In other news, I have been playing iPhone games like crazy lately. They are so easy to pick up and play, they are so cheap, and the interface really is so simple and enjoyable that I cannot help but keep buying more $1 games. When looking for games and recommendations, I often check the top of the list, but also I frequent (they really supported Spider) and they have an interesting associated podcast that has developers on every session to talk about success and the development community. It is very weird to me that it is such a large deep platform, because there still seems to be this relatively small group of games that I ever hear about. I really wonder about simple things such as naming your game well to get recognized. It really is this next step of the gaming market.

Top games for me right now:
-Sword&Poker, a really entertaining dungeon romp in which you deal damage to enemies through poker hands. There is a free version which still has me going, so check it out.

-MotoXMayhem: I know this was one of the few games that stayed ahead of Spider when it reached its peak in the appstore, and I finally bought it a month ago out of curiosity. It's just like those billion Flash games where you tilt your motocross rider back and forth and use gas and brake to navigate a hilly course. But you know what? I've been addicted to those simple physics racers countless times. There is nothing so fun as backflipping when you're not supposed to, and then failing and watching your rider pop into the air like he's a jack-in-the-box. It doesn't use backflips/tricks enough and I wish the levels were a little more extensive, but for a dollar, it's fun to master.

-Canabalt: I cannot say how many hours I've played this game. I'm winding down on it now, but I will still put in some playthroughs every few days. A simple game, your goal is to jump from building to building for as long as you can, but through flawless art direction and subtle random game mechanics, it is just a superb gaming experience. Totally worth the $3. Completely and totally worth it.

-Lilt Line: Frustrating at times, this game tasks you with guiding a line through a maze using tilt controls and occasionally tapping to the beat. The integration of music and play makes it an engaging time, because, like Guitar Hero, if you screw up and miss a sequence, the beat dies. It uses a very abstract and trippily simple world that hits the perfect chord with the music, including the subtle effect that whenever you tap the screen, your line wobbles a little. My one major complaint is that sometimes you have to tap slightly after a beat, because the visuals don't always match with the music, and it cares more about visual alignment than musical.

I am playing a bit of Mass Effect. It is an awesome and epic game and I immediately felt like I was almost in Knights of the Old Republic. Bioware's signature is clear. I really like the merging of gunplay and RPG and it's a gorgeous game. I will certainly have more to say later, but I will mention that I will always be amused at the demand that the largest games, no matter how serious, always work in a variety of humorous elements. Mass Effect's being the elevator music. Yeah, elevator music in some structure that's been around for 50,000 years. Don't ask me, I just play the game. Does it take me out of the reality of their universe? Totally. But at the same time, I laugh. So does that seem like a poor decision on their part? I honestly don't know. Breaking third walls seems to be more and more common these days, and their desire to link elevator music to our current humor is admirable. But does it really work? Eh, probably not. But I won't be stopping the game for that clear infraction of game fiction.

So gaming doth continue in my world, and now I have to figure out whether I want a ps3 just to play Uncharted 2. Is it really the next step in games as movies?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

work the network, a n00b's take on the industry, take 2

When people say that everything is connected, they are not kidding. Have you ever looked at the way cracks form in a window. Or the way particles are arranged. Or the layout of a galaxy? Or that everything seems to exist on a bell curve? The golden ratio is artistic and scientific and beautiful.

I am an awestruck person, and constantly invigorated by life. Life is about our connections. When we make connections we thrive. Play a couple violins and a viola and a cello and you have a beautiful string quartet. Bring some people together and you have a party. Stronger than the individual elements, right?

And isn't that why interactive entertainment/games/whatever-you-wanna-call-them are potentially the most powerful medium of expression ever? They are more than a medium, I would say. I would call them a fullium (yup, a new bad joke). The ultimate power of games is in their bringing together music, art, animation, simulation and requiring you to make them happen through your interaction.

That act of uniting all these separate elements is a worthy fight, and I wait for the game that brings together all elements in such harmony that it can affect me more than music. I believe music to be the most powerful medium. More powerful than a visual, its physical resonance actually strikes me in ways that are scary. But a good beat, a melancholy solo, a rousing orchestration, I live for a beautiful music album. And perhaps I have not felt the same with games because the demand of a game is wholly different. It is not something to let wash over you while you sit with eyes closed or as you dance with a partner in a throbbing crowd.

You are part of the game you play. The game would not be itself without you.

And so in turn the game is nothing without its developer[s]. And for a n00b in the industry, let me tell anyone still trying to get in, that the connections, the network you have, is the strongest tie you have to this field. Everyone knows everyone. Talk with people, talk with anyone. Make something with someone, and then tell others about what you are doing. I made some poor choices by neglecting various communities because of my rapid movement from one interest to another. If you like mapping, create Source maps and communicate with They have professionals on that site, and because I only create a new map every two years or so, I missed opportunities that were hidden in that site. I randomly frequent the site. I am a second cousin twice removed at interlopers, no one knows me. And for that I did not get the chance to enter the industry right off the bat as a level designer. At I only follow the front page. I never make games and submit them there. I don't follow the forums. If I were tight with tigsource, who knows what I might be up to.

But I do have a family. I worked at a couple game studios as an intern. I worked with MIT's incredible GAMBIT game lab. I found my current gigs through a former high school teacher's husband and the other through a previous boss. Be grateful for networks out there, and for gosh sakes, don't try and exist in a vacuum. You can, sure. But is it any fun? And is it rewarding? Who will have your back? Embrace networks. Embrace friends and family and everyone, for in the game industry, and out of it, connections are what keep us alive.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Life... awesome and beautiful and anyone who thinks otherwise needs to stop and reassess. I go outside sometimes at night to go walk or ride my bike, and the longer I ride the more I am cognizant of how beautiful existence is. It's fucking awesome. Look around and think about every little thing that stirs, and every other little thing that doesn't appear to stir, and imagine that you can see how at levels so small it is stirring, and looking exactly like your stirring self.

I don't care what you believe in, as long as you love. Love something, anything, someone, anyone, everything and everyone. Right? If you don't love this life, if you don't let it pull you along and embrace you, then how can you say you know life well? And don't you want to know life? I don't understand those who are not in constant awe of reality. I am perhaps too in awe, but that has never hurt me. It has only filled me up to the brim.

You should be loving and living life. I live life, and I do it quietly sometimes, and other times it is loud and all my being. But in each of those moments, I am sucking it all up. I am letting life enter me. My existence is my beautiful existence and yours as well.

This life is alive. This life is yours. Isn't it fucking awesome?