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