Tuesday, December 11, 2012

GameDevStories: A new iOS game

Hi guys.  Haven't posted in a while, and that's because I was rushing to wrap this up (there's a fun story on why the rush, but that's a post for some other time)

Single Serving Games - QuickTap (iOS - $0.99)

This is the tentpole of me launching a series of "Single Serving" games, focused on a single core "play" experience.  QuickTap has a simple premise: a series of numbers or letters pop up, and you must clear them out in ascending order before time runs out.  Eventually, letters and numbers would pop up in different orientation, forcing players to react quickly to the changing orientation.  Players would compete on high scores.  The end.  Simple, right?

For me, this was also a "study" in scoring mechanism, and you'll find that the combo scoring system is actually got quite complex for such a simple idea.

It's probably not going to compete with your big production 99cent app store games, but it's a quick time-waster, and think of it as a $0.69 donation to me and whatever I come up with next (which, I promise, will be within a few weeks!)

Monday, November 19, 2012

On My Mind: "What is your favourite genre?"

Even though I'm still working on my own indie stuff, I've also been interviewing a few places for designer positions.  Often during these interviews, there's always an interesting general question that I would like to share with you:

"What is your favourite genre?"

This question is deceptively simple and open ended, but it's actually a very dangerous question to the untrained eye.  I'm still not sure whether my answer to this is ever correct, and I think that's the point, there's no "correct" way to answer this depending on the company and what they're looking for in a designer.  Let's look at the options and why it's dangerous:

1) My favourite genre is X - The obvious, straight forward one of answering truthfully, which sounds like a good answer, BUT possibly not a good one.  Does X align with what the company does?  If not, then why bring it up?  If you're favourite genre is racing games, and you're interviewing with a FPS studio, then how relevant is it?

2) I play what's popular with the general crowd - Shows that you're in tune with what's out there right now, BUT does it also show that you don't have a focus?  Do you as a designer even have your own opinions, or are you that easily swayed by other's point of view?

3) I play everything - No.  No one ever plays everything, and, this easily sets you up for a fall when the interviewer asks you for specifics to a genre/game that you may or may not have played.


So yeah, I'm not sure exactly what a nice answer, or a good answer is.  How would you answer if you're in such an interview?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On My Mind: New Super Mario Brothers 2's stage intro

I've recently picked up New Super Mario Brothers 2 on the 3DS, and there was a really interesting observation: A lot of stages now start with an "interactive tutorial" before the actual stage begins. Since it's kind of hard to explain what I mean, I've found a video of someone playing through it to show what I mean (at 2m 50s):

In fact, about half the stages I've encountered have shared this structure: A single static room with a tunnel that leads the player to the actual stage, with the level's most prominent "feature" shown. In the video linked above, it's the dynamically moving blocks; in later levels, other examples like giant man-eating fish, lava, and other course hazards show off what players should watch out for.

This, interestingly, is a dramatic turn from the previous standard that Nintendo has used with Mario games for quite some time now, beginning with Super Mario All Stars on SNES:

A simple visual that shows the type of enemy players will encounter in the stage. This is pretty much carried through to even New Super Mario Brothers on Wii.

The interactive introduction of the upcoming stage is an interesting design decision: when presented in isolation (and out of harms way), players can think and process the interaction at hand, and would be less surprised (and less likely to cry foul) with more later encounters on the stage. However, this does make the stage feel "choppier" and lacking in flow (stages all seem to be interrupted just as the player starts the stage).

Just an interesting observation.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Post Play Analysis: Pocket Planes: Part 2 - The Bad (iOS)

(This is a semi-continuation of Post Play Analysis: Pocket Planes, so please take a look at that if you haven't done so.)

While I still play Pocket Planes on a daily (hourly) basis, the game isn't without faults.  It was also apparent to many people I knew who played Tiny Towers religiously but quickly backed off away from Pocket Planes.  I'll list a few in mind, and perhaps suggest something that would have remedied the problem.

Player Choice Paralysis

While the amount of player choice in Pocket Planes is commendable, it leads to player paralysis: players are given so many choices (all seemingly different, but in non-obvious ways), they end up feeling lost and not sure what to try.  What plane parts should they buy? As long as they're available, they can be bought; Yet how should they know if that's what they wanted? (Hint: They don't get to know).  What's the ideal next city to expand to? The game doesn't prevent you as long as you have the cash, but with so many choices, players who don't have a goal in mind will just be sitting there debating all the outcomes and never arrive at anything meaningful.

An even more deadly situation arises when players make bad decisions: Bought a city too far that none of your fleet can reach (and there's no way of visually seeing that info unless you are trying to fly a plane), then you're forced to either live with it or sell the city back for half it's cost; Bought the wrong plane parts? Good luck waiting for the next one to randomly generate.  Every mistake a player makes (and the more costly these mistakes they get), the more likely the player will avoid decisions because of it's large negative consequences.

It's interesting to note that this issue is an side effect of the open player choice design decision: attempts to fix this will equally hurt players who enjoy the freedom and choice that the game offers. (more on this at the end of this post)

Lack of Actual Progression

In Tiny Towers, players are visually reminded of how much they've achieved with every new floor they build.  This visual cue of player impact on the world is unmistakable, and it works in reminding the players what they're trying to achieve and what they've already done.

And the above screen is a great shot of "progression" in Pocket Planes: none.  Since cities can be shutdown (and highly encouraged, see below), the only constant growth players will see is in their in game bank account, fleet size, and increased choices.  Some players may find the "bigger number" appealing enough, but for most, this lack of visual feedback impact will severely dampen the experience.

Ideally, the game should have artificially locked away stuff that wouldn't have affected actual gameplay: Why show all available planes to the player at the start of the game when they cannot afford them (instead, show "secret planes", only to be revealed when they get them).  Personally, I would have gone further and restricted certain cities to be only available after certain level cap; however, this would be counterproductive to the actual "open choice" design.

Deeper Management ... for Who?

Another feature that Pocket Planes offered above Tiny Towers was it's deeper management.  Players have numerous ways to approach the game to suit how they want to play: Want to operate a large fleet within a very small area, flying passengers to any adjacent cities? Sure!  Rely exclusively on layovers, flying passengers to major hubs to gather bonus? Why not!  Ground all planes until they're full? Definitely.

However, does everyone want this choice?

Casual players coming from Tiny Towers who enjoyed it's simplicity and (extremely) light management may find these choices and micromanagement frustrating.  Customizing when and how to load a plane for maximum profit may be appealing for some, but the micromanagement (and the numerous button clicks required just to fly a plane) will annoy casual players, driving them away.

NimbleBit had somewhat actually addressed this issue with the "quick load/unload passenger/cargo" button, but I would go even one step further: automatic destination setting - A flight should have a way to automatically fly to a destination based on the majority of it's jobs onboard.  Such a feature removes the somewhat cumbersome step of map manipulation.

(Additional aside: Tiny Towers thrived on the fact that the game can be played single handed: flicking to the right floor, stocking and choices can all be done by one finger; Pocket Planes, by it's horizontal layout and 2D map will require more player interaction by default.  As casual games that are meant as small toy distractions, Tiny Tower has a much lower "attention requirement", which makes it much easier for player to stick to and come back and play).

Counter-intuative solutions

What's interesting in Pocket Planes is while the game laws is consistent within the real world, it's counter-intuitive to what players would expect within a game context.  Specifically, there are two major issues:

  1. In contrast to Tycoon games, players systematically do worst as they increase the number of airports opened.
  2. Larger planes (and planes unlocked later) doesn't actually yield more profit, slower ones do.

Upon seeing the game, most players will naturally gravitated to the goal of get as many airports as possible.  It's interesting to note that the game populates jobs in each city based on city size, not number of cities available (limits the scrolling in the job screen), which leads to the side effect of making it hard for players to maintain a profit without long waits.  Players who choose to keep lots of cities will eventually find themselves with many planes and not enough jobs to fly to a destination.  Personally, I've flirted with 20+ cities, but have eventually settled down closer to 8~9 as the "right" amount.

(Sidenote: The best way to min-max stats here is to cover the world with a Min-Span Tree, which encourages players to cover greatest distances with the least amount of cities possible, so that you can take a passenger from one side of the world to the other with the least amount of stops possible)

The end-game planes (such as the Cloudliner, pictured above) being less profitable was also baffling: players usually expect items locked away as superior items, but Pocket Planes holds the opposite to be true: in all classes, the plane that is easiest/cheapest/most profitable to operate (Kangaroo, Aeroeagle, Sequoia) were unlocked relatively early.  This is a baffling choice because when players experiment (by spending and betting on the new planes) and fail/lose money, they begin second guessing their decisions, and make less interesting choices within the game.

The challenge of upstreaming users, at what cost?

I think Pocket Planes is actually an interesting case study on follow-up games to successful IPs (other notable ones includes Angry Birds -> Angry Bird Space and Flight Control -> Flight Control Rocket).  When a casual game becomes a runaway hit, how should developers handle a sequel?  Is more of the same good enough? How different can the game be without alienating the original fans?  More importantly, as casual games, is it wrong to expect that these players will upstream into more core experiences?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Post Play Analysis: Pocket Planes: Part 1 - The Good (iOS)

When NimbleBit released Tiny Towers last year, people took notice: a game that is Free to Play, doesn't lock away content behind a pay wall, and doesn't aggressively push players with destructive ads and ludicrous leveling system.  After surpassing 10 million downloads and winning Apple's Game of the year 2011, everyone was looking forward to what's next for NimbleBit.  Well, Pocket Planes doesn't disappoint, sort of...

Pocket Planes (iOS, ~40 hours of clicking..., current stats: Lvl 44, 27 planes in operation)


The basic 'gameplay' for Pocket Planes is pretty simple to explain: As an airline operator, players must purchase planes to fly, cities to operate out of (presumably, fees to operate in that city), and load planes with passengers/cargos and set destination to fly towards.  Each completed job earns players cash which allows players to further expand.

Note 1: As you can judge from the heading, this is a multi-part series.  Pocket Planes does a lot of very interesting things that still has me hooked even months after release, but it's also done a lot of polarizing things that have pushed fans away.  Instead of having a single post mixing in both sides, I'll split it into two and hopefully make it digestible... You may not agree with me holistically on whether this game is good or not, but I'll try to address each individual component within the game.

Note 2: A lot of the analysis and comparison will be done against Tiny Towers, which I think is a fair comparison on how to design an F2P game, especially coming from the same developer.  It would be a good analysis to see what they felt needed fixing, and the approaches they went in addressing the shortcomings of Tiny Towers.

Player Choice

One of the most obvious changes Pocket Planes adds in contrast to Tiny Towers is the amount of player choice it offers to the players.  In contrast to the linear structure of Tiny Towers (obvious with the level layouts), you're given choices everywhere in the game: cities to buy, planes to buy, flight location, who/what to load onto planes, when to expand, how to expand, etc... More importantly, this open ended structure lets player choose the most important part of the game: their own intermediate and end-game goals.

Consider Tiny Tower's intermediate end-game goals: See the next random floor (yes, I'm aware that 2.0 changes that) and Build all the floors - Fairly modest and straightforward, but requires players to buy in to such goals.  Pocket Planes deviates from this as there is no such structure: Players can start anywhere, and can buy anything as long as they have the cash for it.  Hence, the game encourages players to come up with their own goals, whether it be operating a giant airline that operates in as many area as possible, or have a highly optimized airline, or even collect all the available aircraft in game.

Deeper Management

Along with increased player choice comes a deeper management system, where players now have actual choices that have meaningful consequences in all levels of the game.  Here's a quick rundown of some of the choices in the different levels of the game.

Buying things:

  • To reach far away cities, what's the best city to purchase that minimizes distance
  • Cost of increasing layover to increase capacity
  • Best plane type (tradeoff between speed vs capacity) to carry passenger/cargo
  • Cost of upgrading planes to improve performance
  • Cost of expanding destination cities or increasing airline capacity
Flight operation:

  • A longer flight route nets less income
  • A larger plane cost more to operate, but can yield better results if carrying the right passengers
  • Choosing to funnel jobs to layover locations to organize destinations


The actual management is surprisingly deep, and would keep min/max-ers (like myself) busy for days looking up the statistics of how to best operate most efficiently, balancing growth and profitability.  In contrast to Tiny Tower's "placing people in the right floors", Pocket Planes looks and feels like a deep statistical simulation, which may be a great thing for players on iOS who're looking for a deeper experience.

Global Challenge

The surprisingly new feature in Pocket Planes has to be the Global Challenge, which creates an asynchronous multiplayer experience within a single player game. Players register themselves into "clan"-like groups, and compete for job deliveries with the global community for prizes within the game.

This feature was a great way to create short term goals for people to aspire to, and allow the developers to use their current player base as viral marketers, piggybacking off gaming communities to talk about the game and drag more people into the game and "help the cause".

...that's all for now.  Stay tune to the second part analysis of Pocket Planes, where I pick apart the numerous reasons why this game doesn't have the "stickiness" that Tiny Towers did.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Designer Notebook: Bad Reload

I'm burning through my backlog right now, and one of the games I really wanted to get to was Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon.  The prequel, EDF 2017, was an exceptional "B" game that knew it's place in the gaming landscape: done on a shoestring budget, it knows it won't win awards with the story or graphics, so it relied on having a solid a simple gameplay loop to hook players in.  

At first glance, it's not much of a game either: bugs are dumb, there's no strategy other than shoot, and some of the enemies seems overpowered or borderline absurd.  But give it a few minutes, and it becomes very clear why it works: it's the perfect stress relief, turn off your brain kind of game.  It's about empowering the player in blowing stuff up as fast as they can, and with the least amount of hinderance to blowing stuff up.  As a shooter, there's no cover, there's no reload (reloading comes in when your gun is out of bullets/ammo), there's no recoil, and there's no other fluffy stuff like rebounding health meter to deal with.

Then I booted up Insect Armageddon, and I saw this...

Yup, an active reload mechanic.  Why?

The simplicity of EDF 2017 was that even as simple as reloading was taken out of your hands: run out of bullets = reload.  Giving the player a choice in allowing addition reload on their own term sounds like a good way to increase depth, but why go on to add active reload?

Well, for one, it was probably the cool thing to do: "Gears of War did it, so you should too", but it's implemented clumsily and wrong here.  Let's pinpoint what Gears does with it's reload, and then lets look back at EDF:IA:

In Gears of War:

  • Each gun has their own reload bar (where the optimal location for active reload works)
  • Two windows: The Active Reload window, and the "close enough" window.
  • Each gun's total reload length is different from each other
  • Failing to reload the gun leads to a visual/audio queue that is obvious to the player.
In EDF: Insect Armageddon:
  • All guns have the same reload bar (and, always in the middle of the entire bar)
  • There is no "close enough" window: failing it means an automatic wait
  • No visible queue on failure (ironically, an audio queue on success)
Outside of this barebone analysis of the actual mechanic, there's also the overall design of how it works with the rest of the game (which is the biggest fault here).  In Gears of War, the Active Reload works as a bonus, allowing players to get out of cover quicker and shoot more (also to note, the average guns will have a reload length of under 2 seconds even in failed active reload); in EDF, the reload acts as a "minimizing punishment" option, cutting down the absolutely lengthy reload to somewhat more tolerable time.  More importantly, since you're dealing with a much higher enemy count, no cover, more "swarming" (where the AI rushes towards you), and no effective way to melee on close range, players in EDF will be motivated to run away from battle to reload, the opposite of Active Reload was trying to achieve.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bad Game/Good Idea: Morph X

Today I'm starting a new category of posts: "Bad Game/Good Idea".  A category of posts devoted to talking about bad games and the good ideas that often gets ignored because of how bad the game was.  Like other sections, I'm going to try to avoid spoilers and will warn so if they arise. So here comes the first game, and oh boy, it's a bad one.

I bought Morph X after being pressured into getting because "I buy only shitty games when it's $5" (thanks Surya), and man, is it a terrible game. Visually, it looks like crap; The soldier AI sees through walls and has unlimited line of sight and never misses (borderline cheap), respawns indefinitely behind monster closets; melee combat animation doesn't look like they connect, encouraging players to mash buttons for results; level design is a garbled mess; objective is almost always unclear; mechanics and controls were never explained... The list goes on and on...

But buried under this miserable pile of crap lies this one gem:

Morph X's character growth system revolves around the idea that you're collecting these gems as your DNA mutates (again, unexplained). The tiles are made up of various connection shapes, and the objective is to connect a red node and a green node to receive the benefit of that power up.  Since players are limited by a random set of tiles that they obtain in the game, they're encouraged to mess around with this grid to optimize how the nodes are connected so that they have extra tiles for even more nodes.   Since the player can choose between anyone of the six powers available to level up (and re-assign at any point), you can quickly see how a player can customize one power over the other as the situation arise.  Personally, I think I've spent more time on these screens than the actual game itself (which possibly says something about the base shooting/melee mechanics).

Mind you, while this character growth mechanic is interesting and potentially offer large variety, it does have a few drawback:

1) Players who do want to min/max stats will repeatedly enter this screen just to optimize their power, which will break gameplay flow.  If the designer's intention was for a player to be immersed in the actual gameplay, this system serves to break that immersion.

2) Difficulty scaling: since players can now choose to strengthen any power they want, does the AI adjust accordingly? Or is it merely an illusion of choice, where you tell players that you can choose not to play with night vision, even though it's practically necessary?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Administrative Stuff: The Long Hiatus

...and I'm back.

I've been tied up in the last month with a) trying to rush through a project without success, b) learning new things c) general laziness, which is why I didn't end up posting a whole lot.  I also didn't get to play much new games during that time either, which kinda gave way to not having any new content to write about.  In fact, I just realized I was going to write a bit more about E3 (which I didn't).  Guess I was that disgusted with all three presentations that I figured there's no point in writing about it.

Well, a new idea just popped into my head, and I guess it might as well be time for me to write a bunch of stuff, so look forward to a post coming tomorrow.

Monday, June 4, 2012

In The News: It's the most, wonderful, time of year...

E3 is upon us once again, and it's ways a fascinating time of one-up announcements, absurd claims and bad press presentation. While the main event hasn't even kicked off yet, Konami has already shown of a bunch of stuff, along with Nintendo's first hardware showing of the Wii U from their Nintendo Direct video. And, within the next 48 hours, everyone's going to go through their conference too! So, let's get a quick rundown of what has passed.

While I maintain that this blog is all about a "game designer's" look into how things are, it's always fun to indulge into the gamer view of the industry.  Frankly, I find it absurd for any game designer who don't look the next few days and be in a giddy, excited mood.

First thing first though, GTTV did a pre-e3 show with a few random announcements right before Konami's showing, and I feel like I want to ask for my money back.  Star Wars 1313 is basically a sign of "oh we like the Star Wars license, but let's make a shooter, with nothing that uses the Star Wars license"; Dishonored looked interesting, but I can't shake the feeling of Bioshock away from that game (and jumping into October as a non-traditional FPS game seems to be asking for problems); Unchar Tomb Raider looks good, and I still want the first half of what they showed, but the second half seems to be clips spliced out of Uncharted: the QTE scenes, the dramatic set-pieces (running away from breaking up plane = running away from runaway truck), cover and shooting mechanics.  I hate the idea that the Tomb Raider -> Uncharted -> Tomb Raider circle is actually complete.

As for Konami's showing: Sadly, after the disaster of 2010, Konami no longer does a live conference. In it's place is a pre-recorded video of just as questionable quality.  Sure, they went through the typical list of a diverse third party publisher (like claiming their Social space, PES), but really, most people were tuning in for Metal Gear Rising and Castlevania 2.  Both game looks interesting, but it's really interesting to observe that at least from what is shown, both games are taking more from their relative cousins than their core brand (Rising seems distinctly feeling like Bayonetta 2, also developed by Platinum games; Castlevania seems to inherit the one vs many style game that Konami dabbled in with Ninety-Nine Nights).

Nintendo, on the other hand, surprised us with a randomly announced last minute presentation.  Their claim was that it's a hardware announcement to get things out of the way for software announcements for third party (and themselves).  On the actual hardware front, nothing really groundbreaking was announced outside of a slightly modified Wii U Gamepad, the ability to turn on the TV/Cable directly from the gamepad, the Skype like video functionality, and a "Pro Controller" (I'm not even going to indulge in the whole "it's the 360 controller thing", not worth my time)

What's actually exciting for them is the announcement of their integrated network, Miiverse, and how much it's going to connect to other systems and games.  The idea of a competent online infrastructure from Nintendo is already foreign, but the announced ideas and features takes it in a different direction from Microsoft and Sony's current implementation, and it'll be interesting to see how developers will take advantage of it: A game that lets me set scores and challenges, and live feed these new results to all my friends?  This isn't new, a few games are doing it now (EA's SSX and NFS are the ones that pop into my head), but the fact that this kind of feature will now be native to the system means that we should see more ideas and more chances of this kind of idea happening.


Up in the next 24 hours: MS, EA, Ubisoft, and Sony.  This should be fun.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

GameDevStories: TOJam 7: The Designer Post-Mortem

So, TOJam came and went, and it was definitely an interesting experience.  

About the game:

Let's get the obvious question out of the way first: Did we (Nick and Jeffrey, the artist and programmer that was on the team) finish our game?  Well, not quite.  We've ran into a few technical issues, and was just too pressed for time to get everything out (at one point, we couldn't render text, so all the text and numbers in game had to be converted to textures to be drawn out instead).  Here's a few things I can show you though:

Yes, that's not a typo. The game is called "No Money? NP Problems?"  Some of you may get it (the really nerdy pun) already, but read on if you don't.

A very half assed title screen.  Initially I had planned for this to show a bit more of what you're actually doing, but at the last minute as we're short for time, I just asked Nick for a quick screen cap of the world map with some minor adjustment and went with it.

For the lazy: this year's theme was "The world is NOT ending".  So the "pseudo story" that we ended up setting up was that you are a survivalist who spent all your life savings on goods and supplies, and suddenly it was announced that the crisis was averted, leaving you almost cashless but filled with supplies.  From that point, your goal was to take your supplies and make your money back.

(Fun fact about that screen, in my first draft Design Doc, I had suggested that we'd do a few slideshow animatics.  Then it was cut down to a 4 page comic book panel.  Then to one page.  Then I stole it away from his workload and made my loving tribute to Bad Dudes with existing assets that he had made...)

This was the first mockup of the map (I'd scan in my scribbled image of it, but I'm lazy).  At this point, I wasn't entirely sure how many nodes I had wanted, along with how the routes would work.  But as far as asset list and what was needed, this was pretty stable already (information you needed, how you'd interact with the game, etc.)

This is what's currently in the game as the main overworld map: the missing window on the right side would be the inventory screen, which would have been dynamically drawn via code.   The fun part about the "connection costs" between cities were never tested (I kinda just made them up on the spot), and would probably be revised once we've gotten the game working a tested to see what kind of loopholes and impossibility scenarios existed.

Not shown here is the events the happen when you enter a city: you would choose between one of two citizens, who had a "pseudo story" on why they're looking for/selling items.  With this kinda of variability, I was hoping the game would create enough "dynamic" choices for players to decide upon.

So, by now you'll realize that this game is actually just a more complex version of the "Traveling Purchaser Problem", but that wasn't actually my intention at the start.  My direct influences for this as far as mechanics goes were from games like Freelancer's trading economy (take a look with the graph below that shows their system network) and GTA Chinatown Wars' Drug Dealing mini game.

Aright, enough about the game (and I'll probably post about it again when we get a stable build running for release), but let's talk about the TOJam experience.

The Designer Workload:

For the bulk of my time there, I really felt like I wasn't doing enough.  I can see how the jam is still heavily dependent on programmers, artists, and even sound; but there's a certain level of redundancy as far as pure designer goes.  I think the bulk of my work came in before hand when I was ironing out a design doc, and the majority of the work during the jam was problem resolutions, and just assisting Nick and Jeffrey wherever possible.  There was a while where I was just staring at this for hours:

(It's basically a giant spreadsheet of all the items and routes in the game)

Was my time there well spent? Sort of.  I feel like if I were to do this again, I think I'd either need to step up my time for project management, or into programming.  At ~3 people, it was hard to justify a pure designer on a team.

Game Scope:

So, by not finishing, did that mean the game scope was bad?  Maybe.

Taking a look at the other entries, I think I finally understand the type of games that is doable in 3 days.  This game was "doable" in 3 days, but, when shit blew up, there wasn't a whole lot I could scale back to: reducing the city count to 3 would have worked (and be the bare minimum to still have interesting choice), but that still doesn't cut out the required tasks of navigation, buying and selling, etc.  I knew in advance that I needed checkpoints to cut early and cut often (and I did), but the cuts wasn't hard enough.

The Conclusioning:

In the end, it was still a fantastic experience (and crunching for 3 days? haven't done that in a while).  And more specifically for me, this is the nice shot in the arm that I was looking for.  While working at Koei, I was always looking for a way to explain to myself why I was still making games even though I had become disinterested in my job.  For a while, PAX served that purpose reminding me of the players that were sitting on the other side of the screen; GDC eventually replaced that, in the sense that it was people talking about their game-making experience; this, I guess, is the final missing piece of the puzzle: it's no longer just thinking about games, or talking about it, but rather doing and executing.  No other job would allow me to have a Sunday epiphany on the project direction, rapidly cutting and changing the course of what we're working on.  It's scary, it's get-wrenching, and it's absolutely exhilarating.

So yeah...

Monday, April 30, 2012

On My Mind: Understanding Fun - Sometimes You Just Can't Win - The Mid-mortem Analysis

It's been roughly two weeks now since I shipped Sometimes You Just Can't Win, and I'm close to completion on my first update.  Initially, this update was meant to fix whatever bugs and issues I had, but it turns out after getting player feedback that I had to do a lot more.  The initial pass was going to be for quick usability test, some content balance, and a new mini game.  Then I stumbled upon a few feedback of:

"This isn't fun, it should be more fun"

Well then.

My knee-jerk reaction is: "Wait, are we playing the same thing?  Am I not getting the story through?"  There's a certain level of "this isn't meant to be fun" argument that I know I'd be losing, but it's there.  Yet, they're right: if you strip out the story, then it's a series of button presses, right?  But what are we left with for games? A series of user inputs; and visual/aural output.  What's the fun in that?

So, what is fun?

This may appear like some sort of philosophical bullshit question, like "what is life", but it really isn't.  In fact, there's a few established papers/talks that covers how "fun" can be defined.  The two that I think I've gravitated to is Marc LeBlanc's 8 Kinds of Fun and Jason VandenBerghe's 4 Types of... (yes, I'm aware of his talk at GDC 2012 on 5 Domains of Play, but I wasn't at GDC, and the slides feel like they need more context).  In both cases, they lay out the foundation of what people find as "fun" in games: they're not blueprints on how to make a fun game, but if you analyze a game where someone claims they find fun, you can directly correlate what they find fun onto that list.  I highly recommend reading them over if you're interested.

Why I point them out is that in both cases, it's pretty much agreed on that "fun" is not a constant: no two person will ever find the same game fun, and their definition of fun can wildly change depending on their mood, the ideals that they hold and the experience they want to obtain.  Someone who would enjoy Heavy Rain for it's storytelling (and finding that fun) may still find LA Noire's story fun, but not it's combat and exploration; Someone who enjoy Peggle's audio visual experience may find Bejeweled's number crunching to be annoying.

These themes and examples are interesting, because it points to that a certain type of "experience" that can define fun isn't necessary true for everyone, and in fact, it would be downright impossible to try to appeal to everyone's sense of fun without possibly alienating someone else.

So, back to my game...

I don't know how other people see it, but really, there's only two levels of enjoyment here: 1)The sense of challenge (in the method of completing the game, and in high score), and 2)A feeling of completion for the story.  That's about it.  The game and it's subject matter just won't lend itself to someone who wants to feel rewarded and feel good about themselves.  There is no happy ending, there is no exploration, there is no competition against someone else.  It's you versus the machine: echoing the theme of the game.

Friday, April 20, 2012

GameDevStories: The road to TOJam (and an introspective look into design)

While this is fresh on my, I might as well post about it.

The Toronto Game Jam (better known as TOJam) will be taking place in three weeks, and last night was the pre-planning/matchmaking session, an event for people to find teams and people to work with.

OK, I may have jumped two steps ahead, so let's step back for a bit:  A Game Jam is a typically an event where people put together a game in a short timeframe (and in this case, in 3 days).  People will come in with different expectations of what they want out of it, but considering a 3 day schedule, you'll want to work with people who are working on the same wavelength as you as far as planning, ideas, and work methodology if you have want any legit chance of cranking out something that resembles a usable game.

This is my first time doing something like this, and I'm really just following the lead of Nick (a 2D UI guy I used to work with who's done this before), and my objective was sort of simple: find a programmer(s) or anybody, to form a team.

Two interesting things happened:

1) Well, the whole matchmaking setup was a bust for me: all the matches didn't have the right numbers setup, so my "schedule" of organized matches were kinda for naught.  I ended up talking to randoms around, which was an interesting, and slightly different outcome.

2) Most people I've talked to weren't exactly looking for TOJam partners either.  The few that were were trying to fill holes in their gap: a programmer here, an artist there, etc.  The rest were actually looking at this as an networking area for people on their other outside projects (be it as a business, hobby, etc).  In both cases, nothing really came out of it.

So now I come out of it still without much of a team.  Possible contacts, but not much of a direction... and I find that odd because of one really consistent and oddball thing:

In talking to most people about what I do (design), the first thing they ask is "So what game idea do you have in mind?"...

...wait, what?

And in talking and listening to the other teams, most actually do have an idea in mind already.  Some have worked out mechanics and planning, and the theme will just be jammed in somehow afterwards. I'm left utterly speechless.

To me, the idea of having a game idea before the theme (no, the theme hasn't been announced) seems utterly absurd.  When I look at design, I work and shape ideas with the restrictions and limitations I have: theme, the people, the resources, the platform I'm making things on.  There's no point of me drawing up plans while I still have that many moving parts on the resources I can depend on.  I'd tell people, you let me worry about design when the time comes, obviously, that wasn't how must people were doing things.

Am I thinking too backwards in this?

In the current and worse case scenario, it'll be me hacking away on an iOS game in 3 days.  Sounds like a decent plan if I ever heard one.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On My Mind: The Neogaf Experiment.

So, last week, I launched Sometimes You Just Can't Win on the iOS, a "game" that is an artistic retelling of the time I was working as a game designer. As of right now, I'm sitting at around 1500 downloads. Is it what I expected? I don't know. Did I ever plan to advertise the game? Not really. My intention for this 0.5 release is really just a way to get my story out. Think of what's out there as beta: game balance, playability, and length just aren't there yet. I think I'll do a real push when a)I have something to monetize in it, and b)when it's more feature complete.

However, this doesn't mean I didn't mention it anywhere: I made a NeoGAF post about it:

ITT: AlphaTwo00 tells all about the time he was in GameDev & you gets free iOS "game" (read at your own discretion, naughty words and insensitive comments abound!)

Part of the post was meant to be a bait and switch tactic for me to get people to check out my game; but the game was also part of that story I wanted to tell (along with the other half of the post, talking about me as a designer looking into gaming community forums).

In my mind, I was expecting angry replies because I was in a "not as well regarded" studio making less than appealing games to enthusiast, but that never came through. Most of the comments were fairly nice (along with the PMs). Partially, I think people who wouldn't give a shit wouldn't bother replying, and the ones who did are more than understanding about how game development works, which was nice.

However, I really think that for me to be transparent about everything was clearly the point: people on the internet are often more willing to attack something that is faceless, but for me to be open about who I am, what I do, then they are more accepting of what I'm offering. This is pretty contradictory to what I've seen everyone say about game development PR: don't say anything that isn't carefully massaged.

I guess going forward, I'm going to be as transparent about what I do if I start working on another game. I think that's a nice start.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Administrative Stuff: Let's kick this up a notch

Now that PAXEast is done and that I've shipped the game, it's time to start posting back here on a regular basis. So starting tomorrow, I'll try to move back into a one-post a week schedule.

However, before I really start digging into design stuff, I'm going to wrap up one or two more post about the Sometimes You Just Can't Win. So buckle up, it's gonna be a fun post!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

GameDevStories: The launch of Sometimes You Just Can't Win

Aright, it's been a long road, but it's done, and it's live:

Gentlemen, what I'm about to show you is not the game you thought I was going to create. What I'm about to show you is a glimpse into my mind and soul. Please hold your questions until the end (of the game). I know you will have a lot of them, but I'll understand if you rather I just leave.

For me though, the game is only one part of the story. The other part is writing about the game, and what it means to me. Sometimes You Just Can't Win is more of an experience, and a personal journey of my four working years at Tecmo Koei Canada. There are actually two companion pages, and I'd recommend checking it out after playing the game if you're so inclined on reading them.


I'll be honest. It's not a game in the most traditional sense, but rather an experience. In a way, I feel like I can get away with a slightly less substantial game because there's a story behind it. I hope that you do stick with it to the end (my quick estimate, you can get from start to end in 20 minutes), and get a good feel for what I'm trying to get at.

I won't regurgitate what was written, but I'll explain my motivation on why make such a game.

So, why make this game?

Even though I started working on this game around the middle of July, it was something on the top of my mind. For me, this game is closure - a proper sendoff to a chapter in my life that I never really got closure with. I've always imagined that I'd either quit in a rage of fury, or I'd be downsized with at least some sort of mention in the gaming press. Ironically, on the day the we were downsized, Sony also downsized a whole chunk of people too. On the scale of footnotes, this didn't even measure.

Moreover, on a personal level, it wasn't the way I wanted to go. I had grown weary of the development process, and I had wanted out. And since I can't actually do that, I might as well create a reality where I CAN do just that.

Hey, that's what game designers do, we make stuff up!

Think of this as therapy.

So yes, give it a try, send feedback, angry e-mail, etc. I'll try to not take it personally.

Monday, April 2, 2012

GameDevStories: The Waiting Game Gut Check

Hi again.

It's been a while since I posted, and yes, I've been busy doing stuff. More specifically, wrapping up that iOS game project that's been in the works for the last 6 months.

Well, it's done now, and more interestingly, it rolled into app review and approval state today. So now we play the waiting game (more specifically, my pre-planned date).

Is there anything more gut wrenching than this moment, knowing what you've worked on is going to be released in the wild, not knowing how people will see the game? Nope. It's a scary world, putting what you've done out for people to see, to critique, and to trash. I've done enough shipping of games out there to know not to take things personally, but it's going to be difficult for me to separate critiques of this game from critiques of me here.

Am I expecting people to say that it's a bad game? Most likely. Is it a bad game? Maybe. Does it do what I set out to do? Yes. And to me, that's good enough.

All that's left for me to do now is to write a few accompanying posts (which is as far as I'm going to go for advertising this thing), set the game free, and let the chips fall where they may.

See you 4/4/2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

On My Mind: Get off the GDC Hype Train

So, GDC is here once again and sadly I'm not there. However, it's still wonderful to see the tweets and interesting posts from some of the coverage at the show. It pains me to be missing out some of the talks like the one on Deus Ex (http://www.edge-online.com/news/gdc-2012-designer-truly-sorry-deus-ex-bosses - which I'm sure that really wasn't the context), but I'm going to make a bold statement about GDC and how it shouldn't operate:

Stop letting Publishers run it to the ground, and stop "journalist" who's hell bent on stirring the pot in.

It's become more and more clear that major publishers are now seeing GDC as a second E3, a way to make a splash by announcing new games and products. While actual "talks" still happens, it's now this weird place where actual learning and sharing exist, and more of a show and tell of "hey we've got this thing coming", it takes up time and space away from what should actually happen at an event like this. Epic showing off their new engine to potential clients, fine; EA announcing SimCity? WHY!? Why is it relevant, at this event?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Designer Notebook: Familiarity and Consistency within sequels (DeathSpank series)

Recently I've been on a binge on Hothead's DeathSpank games (DeathSpank, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue and The Baconing), and I had an interesting observation about how the games approached keeping contents fresh and new, yet maintaining familiarity.

For the uninformed, DeathSpank is essentially a loot based Action RPG similar to the likes of Diablo. The core gameplay loop is taking on quests that yields incremental weapon improvements (0r at least it should be if you intend to play it the right way). So really, the bulk of your playtime will be on this screen:

Going through the three games in quick succession, there's an interesting observation about the type of items you get in the three games:
  • In the first DeathSpank, your weapons/gear are built upon the classic fantasy themed motifs: swords, gaunlets, element based arrows.
  • In Thongs of Virtue, the game detours towards a much more modern (modern retro) feel, with guns/grenades replacing ranged weapons and ranged spells. Your gear was also themed appropriately to that setting (western, military, etc)
  • In The Baconing, with the setting moving towards a futuristic setting, the game moved towards a much more abstract themed with more "futuristic" weapons.
You may have noticed that my description of The Baconing is lacking, well, that's because as of right now, I'm the most disappointed with how items/gear is handled.

The great thing about the first two game's choices is that it either a) uses classic fantasy setting that is easily understood by the audience (in the former) or b) uses general cliches to aid player's understanding (in the latter). An bow is a bow, and a machine gun is a machine gun, but what the hell is a laser fish (I wish I was kidding)? I appreciate that as different themes and settings, it's appropriate to change up your related items to make it "feel right", but there are only so many levels of abstraction can be done before the original meaning is lost. It's also interesting to note that while the second game took a turn for a more modern setting, major motifs were kept identical (treasure chest is, appropriately, a wooden treasure chest), it is only with The Baconing that it changed into a futuristic design, which only serves to confuse players coming from the first two games.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Designer Notebook: SSX Demo (Xbox360)

So, on the eve of the release of the new SSX game, I had jumped into the demo just to see how much change it has received since my previous plays (at PAXEast, there were definitely control-iffyness), but one of the most striking things was the tutorials:

Most tutorials often throws too many things at the player, resulting in a frustrating experience that defeats the purpose of a tutorial. SSX could have easily thrown the demo at the player by letting them go at it on a gentle hill with large, highlighted ramps, but it still leaves the possibility of players getting confused/frustrated in learning both controls on the ground and learning tricks in the air.

So it's interesting to note that the tutorial removes the entire snowboarding aspect when teaching players how to control tricks. This, in my mind, does a few things:

  • It removes any possible issues that players can't master both steering the character on the hills AND doing tricks at the same time.
  • It emphasize clearly to anyone new to the series that it is all about the tricks, in fact, it pretty much says that snowboarding/racing itself is secondary.
  • It sets up the expectation of what the player should be expecting: you just jumped out of a helicopter, falling infinitely, doing random tricks as someone calls them out. It's clearly not bounded to reality.
  • It addresses the issue of visual feedback: people knew they were doing tricks, but never really made a mental connection to what's happening on screen. By isolating a tutorial about user input to a visual output, players can clearly see what they're doing in game.

So yeah. Bravo, EA. This was one well done tutorial.

Administrative Stuff: New Section - Designer Notebook

Sorry guys, I've gone into this weird "almost crunch time but more like a sprint" mode, and haven't really posted recently. I've got a few things I wanted to write down, and I realized that the categories I've built are just too "long form"-ish for quick posts. So: "Designer Notebook" - Quick blurbs about ideas and observations about games or game design in general. Like "On My Mind", but without meaning or structure.

I'll have a post up this afternoon with this in mind.

Sidenote: I may end up reordering some of the older posts to this new category...

Monday, February 13, 2012

What Game Designers do (the meme-generator version)

I had a bit of free time, and seeing that stupid meme go around, I had to do one:

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On My Mind: The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development

The recent spat between Zynga and NimbleBit has been interesting to watch, but for those who aren't familiar, NimbleBit's Ian Marsh has a quick visual summary (click to enlarge):

Now depending on whichever side you feel like taking, you could say that Zynga did wrong by copying identically, or you can say that since it looks different, it is different, or even the idea that both games are just rip-offs of SimTower. In fact, the last option was Zynga's official stance on the topic, attributing all "Tower Games" to SimTower, and that "Google didn't create the first search engine. Apple didn't create the first mp3 player or tablet. And, Facebook didn't create the first social network."

I'm going to let that last statement sink in for a bit.

...did Zynga just lump all "Tower Games" as the same one? Was their argument "Either you consider all tower games to be clones of the first one, or everything is it's unique product?"

Hey guys: Don't make a game with guns in it: you're just copying real life.



I find this series of events interesting because we've never seen anything like this before with console/pc development, at least nowhere to the scale of this without the side doing the copying conceding. I like to think of this as "The Gentlemen's Agreement of Game Development", which has the following rules:
  • Don't do direct copies (1 to 1 mapping of features and visuals).
  • Lifting some ideas is fine, but offer your own spin or additions to differentiate.
  • Even if core mechanics are identical (genre trappings), the content has to be different
Not every game and developer have to be 100% original, and games often pay homage to their inspirations, but when players see games with similarities, they're still going to see the difference, and the gap is big enough that we players never feel like we need to call it out.

But enough of me talking, let's see some visual examples:

Mario Kart and Diddy Kong Racing (Pictured: Mario Kart 64 and Diddy Kong Racing)

Mechanically, the game maintains the same feel (8 player "kart racing", use of randomized weapons, rubberbanding arcade AI racing experience). There is no direct clone of content (original racetracks, different types of weapon mechanics) and Diddy Kong features different fundamental ideas (story based racing, weapon stacking, different vehicle types).

Legend of Zelda and Darksiders (Pictured: Ocarina of Time and Darksiders)

Darksiders is a game clearly paying homage to Zelda: Dungeon traversal, the handling of item and experience as character growth, a lock on camera, etc. In fact, both Link and War have a horse at somepoint in the game, and there's an entire combat section on a horse. But no one would go saying Darksiders ripped off Zelda: Darksiders features a much deeper combat system, and is dramatically different in both tone and style.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band (Pictured: GH: Warriors of Rock and Rock Band 3)

Sure, at one point, it was the same developer, and in fact, you can attribute notes coming down a lane as an idea from Konami's Beatmania games too, but at every step along the way, something was changed, with various results: Beatmania games have had "hidden notes", Guitar Hero introduced HammerOns, Rock Band added other instruments, and an alternate scoring system, etc. If you put the games side by side today, you can see that in their core mechanics, they are the same (players matching colors with buttons, essentially, Simon says), but they wildly differ in character design, user experience (dealing with interface, etc), and content.

Metroid and Shadow Complex (Pictured: Super Metroid and Shadow Complex)

Shadow Complex is another game that makes no apologies in paying homage to a classic "genre". Similar to Mario Kart and the kart racing genre, the former is such a powerful game that it's features is the template for that genre. Shadow Complex features similar ideas of exploration (areas that are locked away with certain weapons/methods of traversal), but it differs by offering it's own take on combat and weapons. At best, we can call the game "inspired by".

Puyo Pop and Puzzle Fighter (Pictured: Puyo Pop and Super Puzzle Fighter II)

At first glance, these two games look identical, but mechanically, the games are completely different: Puyo Pop's clearing is entirely based on chain size, whereas Puzzle Fighter is based on a unique "breaker" block. The strategies and moves you make for one game does not translate into the other, which is a clear sign that it's a different game. Puzzle Fighter is clearly influenced by Puyo Pop, but it's offering a unique take on the ideas of block clearing puzzle.

Resident Evil and Dead Space (Pictured: Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space)

Again, Dead Space clearly knows it's influenced by Resident Evil 4, which has become the cornerstone of the third person shooter. The over the shoulder camera, the item management, it's "attempts at horror". Yet there are huge differences: Dead Space's aim at "dismemberment"; real time item management in creating tension; it's sci-fi space setting allowing for variations in gameplay.


I don't know whether this gentlemen's agreement that console/pc devs have played by was done subconsciously, but it's obvious that facebook/mobile games don't quite play by the same rules. I don't think I can blame anyone for why we're here, but I hope more devs agree upon not directly copying someone's work and own up to it if they did.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Quick Impressions: Mario Kart 7 (3DS)

Mario Kart has always been an interesting franchise to look at. While it was an innovator, creating an entire sub-genre with the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES, the core gameplay also hasn't changed much throughout the years. While Mario Kart 7 seems to bring to most drastic changes yet to the cart formula (moreso than bikes did in Mario Kart Wii), the old adage "the more things change, the more they stay the same" totally applies here.

One of the most talked about feature with Mario Kart 7 is that they aren't just go karts anymore (like Nintendo ever pretended they were). The inclusion of water and air traversal may seem gimmicky like the bikes in Mario Kart Wii, but it actually plays out much better than the one-off Wii addition. Tracks were designed with multiple branching paths to support this mechanic, forcing players to choose their traversal route (and the consequences) related to them. The para-gliding mechanic works fantastically, as the extra mobility in both height and speed variation adds additional depth for players to make choices in taking extra risks; however, the water propeller section was only useful in a handful of courses.

It's also interesting to note that this "new mechanic" isn't new:Diddy Kong Racing, originally released as an alternative (from Rare/Nintendo) take on Nintendo's Mario Kart series, added two main differentiating features: a large hub world, and three types of vehicles: Planes, Hovercrafts, Karts. Certain tracks allowed players to choose different vehicles, and these significant consequences to the race outcome: planes are forced up over the tunnels, and the tunnel, while longer, contains powerup items. Mario Kart 7 cleverly adopts a similar "choice and consequences" loop, allowing players to make those choices within the game on the fly.

While Mario Kart features iconic characters and frantic action, players will also undoubtably remember the various tracks that make each game memorable and unique. Ask any fan of Mario Kart and instantly they can tell you which tracks stands out from each iteration of the game. For me: Royal Raceway (Mario Kart 64), Baby Park (Mario Kart Double Dash), Airship Fortress (Mario Kart DS)... For me right now, it's hard to pick a favourite from this new one: The new Rainbow Road Wuhu island tracks is an interesting concept, forgoing the 3 lap count for one giant sectioned race; the new Bowser's Castle and Wario's Galleon offers up plenty of multi-path choices and interesting turns. It might be early to say this, but Mario Kart 7 has probably the best track selection out of all Mario Kart games.

In addition, every game since Mario Kart 64 have included 16 "Retro Courses", fan favourite tracks from the games past. It's interesting to observe the choices and what get's picked. I once had a discussion with a friend on exactly why certain tracks were picked, and I had a fun time researching this. Initially we both quite disappointed that Luigi's Mansion was included again; it turns out this is it's second appearance. I guess we've played Mario Kart DS too much.
  • Every batch of Retro courses will contain 4 original tracks from the two most recent Mario Kart releases (in this case, 4 from Mario Kart Wii, 4 from Mario Kart DS)
  • The retro course has not appeared as a Retro course before (with the exception of Mario Kart Super Circuit, which included all tracks from Super Mario Kart)

With these rules in mind, I was somewhat disappointed at the choices picked, the most notable with the absence tracks like Royal Raceway and Tick Tock Clock (both pictured above), as they both contain elements that can easily be used with the new hang-gliding mechanic, which leads me to my final thought....

When considering what tracks were to be included in Retro Course, there was probably a lot of design decisions in contrast to previous iterations. In Mario Kart 7, Retro courses had to be retrofitted to take advantage of the new features (and old unusable ones were removed). Elements like the stunt jumps in Mario Kart Wii, notably in Koopa Cape and Maple Treeway, were removed, making the 180 degree hairpin much more interesting. Older tracks tracks added additional ramps and jumps, allowing for additional hang-gliding sections (the biggest impact can be found in the older tracks like Kalimari Desert, taunting players to risk going off-road for the possible shortcut).

In fact, it can be observed that there were more tracks that were "suspended in mid-air" than on ground, which makes the omission of tracks like Tick tock Clock and Royal Raceway even more obvious when you think about it. Tracks like Airship Fortress and Waluigi Pinball only featured a forced jump section where players have no control over the glide time, robbing players of the new experience that they were promised.

Well, that's all I have for now. I guess I may do a full grind review in the future if I ever get three stars on 150cc.