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.