Clockturne Post Mortem I: Introduction

Posted on June 19, 2012

The last few months have been, I’m quite sure, the busiest of my life. This is chiefly because of a crazy project that came to be known as Clockturne. I had the great privilege of making a game with a very talented team that included two other Georgia Tech students (Aaron Sumsky and Aaron Yip), eight graduate students from SCAD Atlanta, and two professors who did everything in their power to steer us without hurting our feelings too greatly (John Sharp and Matt Maloney). I consider this project to be a great success (some have said “miracle”) and an epic failure. As a learning experience it was second to none. As a game I’m… well… looking forward to future iterations.

Every project undertaken demands a post mortem for proper digestion. This one will be drawn out for two reasons. First, it has been the biggest project I’ve been a part of to date and I won’t short-change it. Second, it has been almost a month since I’ve worked on the game and I still need more time to process some aspects of its development. I think a proper treatment demands five parts: an introduction, design failures, design successes, development failures, and development successes. This will give me adequate space to develop my thoughts the many influences working on the development process.

Here’s quick introduction to the final project. In Clockturne the player is introduced to four children. These children live all over the world but meet in their dreams. Running from nightmares, they find each other and band together to ascend to the top of the dark grandfather clock within which they find themselves. One player (on an iPad) guides the children’s hastily-assembled balloon up through the clock. Other players (on iPhones or iPod Touches) control “Sooties”, stuffed animals brought into the dream by a girl named Viv. Three players work together to collect fireflies to fuel the balloon and to fight off the nightmares trying to break holes in its canvas.

The story of how that paragraph became writable will easily encompass four more posts. In the meantime you can see some brilliant art and learn more about the game at its official website.

GDC 2012

Posted on March 14, 2012

I was blessed to be able to go to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last week! Though perhaps not quite what I expected, the trip and the conference were both excellent experiences. I’ll write up some more detailed, targeted thoughts later. First, an overview.

Who?
Game developers all over the country ranging from indies developing games solo to producers leading massive development teams. I walked past some big names like John Romero (DOOM) and modern celebrities like Notch (Minecraft).

What?
Lectures, panels, meetings, and networking (parties). This is THE yearly opportunity for striking up and maintaining relationships with developers and industry professionals. I went to GDC with an expo pass which means I didn’t get to attend most panels but was able to meet many new people, play games I’ve been eying for a long time, and see a lot of products and tools from all over the industry. I spent most of my time in the Independent Games Festival pavilion where I met developers who make games that I enjoy and who share my passion for the capabilities of the medium.

Where?
Yup, San Francisco. This trip was my first over the Mississippi in something on the order of ten years. I stayed with Richard Shemaka in Berkeley and got to see a decent amount of the bay area. It really is a beautiful city and the weather is as good as everyone says. I managed to try a Mission burrito (delicious), lots of local sourdough (there is a bakery within walking distance of Shemaka’s house), and an In-N-Out burger (a good “fast food” burger). The conference itself was at the Moscone Center in the middle of downtown.

When?
Buh, last week. This is a boring header.

Why?
Well that’s a loaded question. Last year I decided that the conference was something I should attend at any cost in 2012 because… I want to make games. As with any work, surrounding yourself with people who do the same thing is one of the best ways to improve and focus yourself. Furthermore, the trip and sheer quantity of things to see at the conference gave me a lot to consider and the time/space to begin to process it. I had a lot of feelings come up on the industry as presented at GDC, hopes and doubts and realizations, that I still can’t quite put into words. I think that’s a good indication that I’m developing a realistic outlook on real-life game development.

How?
Make up all of the missed work the week after. O_o

What I Played in 2011

Posted on February 7, 2012

Clearly taking a page from Holden Link’s book here. I thought it was a really great idea to keep track of games played in a particular year and reflect on them. Most of the games I play are indie or mobile creations rather than blockbusters. This past year I had quite a few classic games pop up as well, some that I’d played before but many that I had not. Many of these games are gleeful acquisitions from the past year’s Humble Bundles.

The idea is to learn more about the games that I am drawn to, establish my personal design values, and to promote excellent work in the industry that I feel strongly about.

 

Aquaria

Aquaria has a lot to do with my love for indie games. It blew my mind that such a beautiful, enjoyable experience could be built by just two people working together. I chose it for the subject of a paper in the spring because of its unique mechanics and serene environment. My failure to finish it is only due to the game’s dependence upon an external mouse, which I rarely use. I highly recommended it, just don’t expect an adrenaline rush (…at first) or a high score.

 

Atom Zombie Smasher

This is a bit of a departure for me. I have not traditionally enjoyed tactical or strategy games for very long. Atom Zombie Smasher’s relatively short play sessions (not more than 5 minutes) and limited but clear item selection (early on, at least) have allowed me to enjoy it and even give it some thought while not in-game. Although I did feel as though the structure of the game (number of zombies vs. people saved) had me fighting my way out of a hole of poor performance early on, I found it both frustrating and motivating.

 

The Binding of Isaac

Here’s a Humble Bundle purchase that I never expected to actually play. The premise and art are intentionally disturbing. Drew Dixon and his colleagues did well to point out its willingness to handle a dark subject and its excellence in design and execution. I’ve only put a few minutes into it and appreciate it but can’t honestly recommend it across the board.

 

Bit.trip Runner

Bit.trip is a really fun series of games that heavily integrates music into the gameplay experience. Many of them can be described as “Pong meets Guitar Hero;” Bit.trip Runner is more like “Canabalt meets Simon with great music.” It’s fun to play, very difficult to progress through, and generally pretty shallow. That’s not a dig, it suits the genre.

 

Boom Blox

I picked up Boom Blox for the Wii after I began working on the Cognitive Game Project with Rob Solomon and Maribeth Gandy in the fall of 2011. Generally, I found it to be a very shallow and unsatisfying puzzle game. I also wrote a paper about the poorly designed UI and interaction scheme. Maybe I don’t fall within its target audience. The older folk who played it for the study typically found it difficult to enjoy as well.

 

Cave Story(+)

If you haven’t played this game, please stop reading my crummy commentary and go get started! Created over 5 years by one man, this is arguably the most beloved indie game of all time. The gameplay is sublime, the story is engaging, and the characters are lovable (even the bad ones). I also wrote a paper about the cooperation between Cave Story’s level and weapon design: you get to use and explore the abilities of each of the game’s many objects almost right away. If you enjoy games like Metroid I guarantee this will be time well spent!

Chrono Trigger

I played this classic again via emulator on my phone almost a year ago. I didn’t get very far this time around but I was reminded of the charm of its characters, the vastness of its world, and its engaging mechanics. It is worth (many) hours of play on any platform, including the DS or Wii!

 

Cogs

Another award-winning indie hit, Cogs is an extremely clever puzzle game that forces you to think in three dimensions. Like Portal, it is very satisfying to beat a level. I don’t think it’s terribly deep but the designers keep things fresh by introducing new mechanics every few levels. It’s worth picking up in a bundle.

 

Flee Buster (Chevy Ray)

Chevy is a bit of a flash game idol. For Ludum Dare 21 (theme: escape) he made a triple game that is wonderfully hectic. Every few seconds the player switches between three different scenarios (and mechanics), trying to help all three “characters” escape from different antagonists. It is generally difficult but is surprisingly well-balanced for a 48 hour product. It’s a flash game, play it and love it for five minutes or so.

 

Game Dev Story

This one went on sale on the Android market in the last couple of months and I picked it up for $0.10. It grabbed me for a few hours on end before dropping me off a cliff. I honestly don’t know why it was so brilliantly (dangerously) compelling for a day and so boring the next. There is a baseline 20-year timeline within which new consoles are announced at intervals and new genres are discovered. It could be that, on subsequent playthroughs, the initial excitement of the unknown is gone. At any rate, it’s a very fun sim if you can get it on sale. Don’t count on it being a game that you come back to repeatedly.

 

Hero Generations

An Indiecade-finalist Facebook game! Hero generations is a casual strategy/rpg/adventure game that establishes continuity in a surprisingly novel way. Each character has a certain number of years to live. This goes down slowly as the player moves around but can go down faster if battles are lost. Near the end of the character’s life they must find the best mate possible in one of the area’s towns and… well… make a new hero! There is a level of progression that can be achieved so that higher scores can be made with later generations of heros. It’s well designed and presented casual fun.

 

Jamestown

I’m no SHMUP junkie but I’ve fostered a fascination in the genre for a while. Frantic gameplay in an epic setting is a compelling combination. Jamestown is an indie creation that breaks no conventions but fulfills them well. There are a variety of ships and weapons to use in fighting back the… antagonistic horde and moving through the genuinely interesting story. I wouldn’t call it a “bullet-hell” game but it sure does get tough to keep projectiles, enemies, and objectives straight on the higher difficulties. Actually, you must beat early levels on high difficulties to unlock later levels. Although some might find this annoying and repetitive, I did not. They’re fun!

 

Kingdom Rush

We’ve seen an absurd explosion of tower defense games over the last few years. Kingdom Rush manages to set itself apart all the same. The presentation is very appealing and the design doesn’t disappoint. The tech trees behind the towers are extremely fun and the upgrades available between quests provide an overarching sense of progression. Furthermore, there is a lot for the player to do while the action is happening. Short cooldowns on player abilities combined with live tower building and upgrading make this an enduringly fun game. One of these days I’ll pick it up on iOS, it is perfectly suited for a touch interface.

 

LambdaMOO

For the record, I don’t consider this to be a game. LambdaMOO is a MUD, a text-based precursor of virtual worlds like Second Life. There are games that have been built inside of LambdaMOO via scripting but, in and of itself, it is little more than a chat room. I wrote an essay about it in the spring of 2011 and spent a few days exploring its “rooms” and debunking the focused media claims that have been made about it. There are users logged in to LambdaMOO every day who have been there and known each other for twenty years. It is cool and interesting but it is not a game.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Minish Cap

Yet another pseudo-classic that I was able to play via emulator. This game had a lot of “wow” factor for me because I played it shortly after taking CS2261 at Georgia Tech. Playing a AAA Gameboy Advance game after having built one myself was really incredible. Seemingly simple things like floating around on a giant lily pad put a giant smile on my face. I wasn’t able to finish it but I enjoyed every minute.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

I had the great joy of introducing my wife Lori to some of the games that captured my imagination as a kid. Chief among these, of course, is Ocarina of Time. I loved playing through it again and she loved watching it, so much so that she would pull me away from other entertainment to have another play session.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

After we finished Ocarina of Time and my family retrieved their Nintendo 64 from us Lori and I bought a Wii. In the same swoop we picked up Twilight Princess and continued our adventure of wonder. As is true of most games in this series, Twilight Princess is very different from yet much the same as Ocarina of Time. Actually playing the game was less compelling to me than exploring and enjoying the world with Lori. In particular I did not enjoy playing as a wolf for a good portion of the game, likely because of my affinity for real-time combat with a sword and bow.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

I almost didn’t buy Skyward Sword but, instead, it became the first game that I preordered since Halo 2. As with Twilight Princess it is very different and yet much the same. Lori and I enjoyed the art and the characters greatly and flying with the Wiimote was surprisingly satisfying. My chief complaints are rooted in the disconnected world and reuse of three distinctive areas. It’s a great game with loads of nostalgia and charm but it is not a terribly compelling experience. The advertised 1:1 sword controls are fun, I promise. They are also very frustrating.

 

Mario Kart Wii

Bam! We got a game bundled with our Wii! We actually spent a lot of time playing this one and have recently been saying that we need to load it up again. Lori got pretty good at it and it’s always fun for some friendly competition. The rubber-banding we’ve come to expect from Mario Kart is there but it’s one small part of what is really excellent design. Worth having for any Wii owner.

 

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

Okami

Osmos

Portal

Portal 2

Shadow of the Colossus

Super Mario: Galaxy

Super Meat Boy

Tilt Arena

World of Goo

Voxatron

VVVVVV

Global Game Jam 2012

Posted on January 30, 2012

Hey, another Global Game Jam! Last year was my first go at it and, despite my relative uselessness, it made a big impact on the work I’ve done in the last year. I went into the jam this year with a lot more confidence in my own abilities and with relative assurance that I’d come out of the weekend with something to show for it! In every objective sense it was a success.

The original plan was to work with my capstone teammates to brush up on our rapid prototyping / design skills and build some team synergy. We worked together on conceptualization for a few hours before our 6-person, programmer-heavy group split to pursue two ideas. They ran off and built a really enjoyable multiplayer snake game that capitalizes on the oriental overtones of the theme. They called it Pangu and it was awarded second place at the Atlanta jam!

Our group’s original idea was called Human Tetris. After a failed prototype with Flixel and Box2D (both great, just not for this concept) we fell back on Unity. Fellow programmer Jonathan built a really great 2D ragdoll to plug into the game logic I arranged. That was at around noon on Saturday. I took a break from the jam at the 24 hour mark and came back the next day to find that the ragdoll had been adopted into a different, hilarious, and fun game concept. Jonathan came through again with a tactile control scheme that is heavily reminiscent of QWOP. Our poor astronaut flails, faceplants, backflips, and performs all manner of acrobatic ridiculousness as he avoids two kinds of space mold and uses force fields to reach the other end of his moon base. You can download FWOOM (PC/Mac) from the GGJ site right now, hopefully a web build will be up soon.

This weekend I learned a lot. About myself: I can hit the ground running in a situation like the GGJ but I get burnt out/frustrated quickly if I’m not pleased with the way things are going. I wasn’t very happy about the concept I was working on at about 2:00 AM on Saturday. Instead of letting it harm my productivity I should have put the designer cap on and taken up the challenge. About working in teams: if your idea isn’t easily communicable it needs to be rethought. I had an idea for a game that seemed to fit the theme perfectly, be within scope, and suit the platform we were considering. Unfortunately, it was a bit complex and I wasn’t able to communicate it to my group before the prototyping phase.

Summary: GGJ2012 was well worth the mild case of insanity I thought I had come down with. It’s stressful but it teaches many lessons and produces fun results. If you’re on the fence about it in the future, go! Do it!

Perception

Posted on January 13, 2012

Ah hah, another interaction design project! At the end of the year the class was split into new groups to build a game. Over the course of the next six weeks we developed an idea, built paper prototypes, built a series of digital prototypes, and presented it to the class. The final prototype (not a finished product) proved to be an engaging and enjoyable puzzle-platformer experience.

We started with the idea of manipulating light. We weren’t sure exactly where that would take us: we discussed near/far sightedness, blindness, color blindness, prisms, and more. After doing some paper prototyping and developing level ideas we settled on a simple mechanic: the player possesses a mirror that allows them to reflect a given beam of light in eight directions. There exist “absORBs” (my cheesy name for them) in the game’s short levels that, once lit, continue to produce a new beam of light. This allows the player to move through and around obstacles.

One of my favorite design decisions was the omission of doors. The player is free to move through the game as they please. The darkness of the cave, however, prevents them from navigating the levels or even knowing where they are. There are no physical barriers preventing progression, only the player’s blindness. The player must guide the light through the opening at the end of each stage to light the next.

Our final prototype turned out much better than I could have hoped for but there is still much to be done. Add this to the list of concepts that I hope to return to one day when I have the time. For now, please give it just a couple of minutes of playtime and let me know what you think of it. Enjoy!

Play Perception