How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Rhapsodies on games, gaming, and why we play.

Back to work: FO4 is over (for now)

by anbrewk

So I stopped making my game! The Sadness overwhelms me and then is replaced by the memories of the winter wasteland holidays. Parties and friends and family so soon replaced with horrid arid radioactive wastes. My partner, Maia, naively convinced me to buy Fallout 4 just as the holidays were ending and I’ve spent the last three weeks playing it and doing very little else. Now that I’ve sunk my first one hundred hours and change into it, I feel it is time to take a break and get back to work. But before I do, I wanted to share some of my experience with the game and thoughts on its design, of which I have more than a few favorable comments to make.
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Time happens and we play games

by anbrewk

Or actually I don’t know what time does, only that it’s not what it used to be. And it’s not the playing of games that I wanted to talk about, though I have been doing a lot of that, but the writing of a game proposal.

Over the last three weeks, thanks to Berv’s suggestion, I’ve been working on a game design for N Square’s Game Challenge: design a game that “[inspires] creative solutions and novel approaches that foster greater understanding of nuclear proliferation and its related safety and security challenges”(NSquare).

Its been difficult not actually designing the game but rather making the broadest (most exciting!) pitch for NSquare to then, hopefully, be enthused about. It needed to be concise (800 words) but also capture whatever it was that made the game. It’s strange trying to describe ideas without actually refining them. It seems to me, and I think Berv has said this too, that so much of designing comes down to rethinking, reevaluating and redesigning as part of the process of making.

Even if you have some consistent idea in mind, an unchanging focus throughout the process which you might say was your “design,” that could be so broad as to be near undefinable. Or at least not accurately representative of what you actually end up making, despite having a strong family relation.

It makes me respect clear execution of vision. When someone follows a thought to an end which matches their original intention, that’s actually impressive.

But the most satisfying and exciting part of this process, and what I really wanted to talk about, has been the  successful collaboration with Berv. Separately we came up with some fledgling ideas, then shared what we’d come up with and gave feedback on what we’d done. Then splitting up again we worked on our ideas some more and reconvened again to share better ideas made better by having worked on them with each other.

And now we have two distinct proposals each with added insight and consideration from another trusted perspective. It’s awesome.

Collaborating with a partner in design is much more invigorating and exciting than working alone. Even while meeting to talk about this project, we talked about future projects and working together like this again. It’s exciting to think we could design and maybe build things together.

I hope that as time passes, we get better at this: working together and making things. Working together better and making better things. All the good.

 

Game Dev Log #5: Time awaits no one

by anbrewk

There’s was a point in this project (it happened to be a few days ago) where it becomes particularly clear that I am not making the ideal version of this game. Whereas I was at first designing around my inability, I am now building up to a ceiling to this project which is only partly limited by my inability. My vision is now further compromised by the time I am willing to devote to this and my own motivation to see my vision through.

The biggest limitation is following through with just what I actually set out to accomplish. The question is, “how much I am willing to invest to complete it?”

The latest example of this came after I received some good advice in regards to how my buttons are currently built. I was told that player options need to be apparent, even if they aren’t accessible at that moment. I had had made these buttons loop to empty options, such as the player picking “Strong” and that looping through text which simply stated “You are not strong,” before going back to the available options (‘Strong’ still being among them). It was suggested to me that I make these options greyed out and non-interactive rather than loops.

I agreed. I think it sets up the player interface to provide the same information to the player (this path exists but is not available) but faster and with less fuss. They don’t have to actually pursue the path to get it. They get it just by looking at the paths available.

The issue then wasn’t that this interfered with my previous vision, or even that it wasn’t something I couldn’t figure out how to do. It was just that in trying to implement greyed out buttons (something I’m sure would be nothing for someone competent in programming), proved to be pretty difficult given the system I’ve built. It turned out it would require me to redesign a couple core elements that I don’t have the patience or inclination to tackle. It’s not something I’m motivated to do.

This means I’ve essentially accepted an inferior game, in part because of my inability to tackle a problem but more so because of my lack of motivation to devote time to the problem. I dun wanna. In the beginning, as I began designing the game I had my own limitations in mind and made compromises then to design something possible. In the beginning I was designing the ideal game given my limitations. Now I am further restricting that vision beyond the limit I had previously set. I am compromising my vision for less justifiable reasons (though, I’m sure a sympathetic reader would agree, still justifiable—just not so much as before). It feels different now.

What I am at least happy about is that I have a working prototype that does what I want it to do. It sets out the game play elements I initially envisioned and establishes the thematic elements I had hoped to accomplish.

And it is at least somewhat encouraging that I acknowledge and understand the improvements to be made to my initial design, regardless of whether I am in a position to act on making those improvements.

What I’m most excited about now is completing the project. Moving beyond the prototype and completing the full set of rooms and stories I set out to do. It’s that which I really intended on doing. It’s that which I want to sink my motivation into.

The Juice: Megaman X’s Sub Tanks

by frangibility

Megaman X (1993) is great! It’s a superb example of Capcom at the peak of their 8- and 16-bit design powers, combining energetic music, expressive and whimsical sprites, creative bosses, and tough but fair level design. But rather than penning another paean to the game in general, I’d like to focus on one particular design decision that I think helped give the game a little something extra… the juice, if you will.

MegamanX-Logo

Previous entries in the series included special power-up items called Energy Tanks (or ‘E tanks’), which were typically hidden throughout the game world in locations that required some combination of precision platforming, keen deduction and/or unlocked Robot Master weapons to discover. Their function was simple: provide the player the option to refill their life-bar during the course of a particularly challenging boss battle or platforming section, which would potentially allow them to avoid the demoralizing appearance of a Game Over screen. In their earliest incarnation, using them was a serious strategic consideration, as they were single use items: once you expended an E-tank, it would never respawn or replenish, meaning that if you *still* failed to defeat the boss after expending one (a very real possibility if one was facing the Yellow Devil or any of the series’ other malevolently difficult robot foes), the only way to get it back was to restart the game (or re-enter a previous level select password).

In Megaman X, however, the developers tinkered with this formula with the invention of the Sub Tank. Though initially indistinguishable from an E-tank (given that they too are hidden throughout the game world’s various levels), upon finding their first one, the player quickly realizes that they are a somewhat different beast. Upon initial discovery, the item enters the player’s inventory (without any explanatory text) and sits there inert and unusable. With further play, however, the player will inevitably – at some point- run into a health power-up while their health-bar is already full, at which point they are treated to a previously unused sound effect, alerting them to the fact that *something* has happened. A quick glance at the inventory screen explains it: the previously empty bar in the center of the Sub Tank has begun to fill up. Once topped up, the player hears another new sound, signifying that the tank is now available for use.

MegamanX-Farming

Though a seemingly small change from the E-Tanks in previous franchise iterations, I noticed that it had two pronounced effects upon my engagement with the game: first, it provided a fun sub-challenge – namely, trying to get through the game’s levels without being injured, so as to fill up my sub-tanks as quickly as possible. In the process, it took a minor gaming annoyance (unusable power-ups) and turned them into an asset. Second, it also broke down a psychological barrier to using the tanks. As the type of player that typically makes it to the end of a game without ever making use of my best weapons or items (read: hoarder), the fact that these tanks could be refilled easily via good play not only lowered the stakes of using them, but also implicitly suggested that doing so was the intended way to play. Rather than being a crutch, they became another weapon in the arsenal. As far as I can tell, the only downside to sub-tank is that, when squaring off against a particularly challenging boss and failing repeatedly, one can be forced to visit prior levels in order to farm health power-ups, though in the right areas, this can be accomplished in less than a minute. Regardless, it is still much more forgiving than the evanescent, “one-and-done” E-tanks of yesteryear.

MegamanX-FillUp

The gameification of power-up drops (through the creation of an additional “victory” condition), as well as the elegant, non-verbal manner through which this new game mechanic was explained to the player, were clever, thoughtful design choices. Though Mega Man X would certainly have remained an excellent game without this innovation, its inclusion took an already polished reinterpretation of the Mega Man formula and gave it a little extra juice.

Game Dev Log #4: Almost! So close!

by anbrewk

After my last post I had a very excited session of trying to script dialogue trees followed by a spiral of failure. I was and still am very happy with the minimal dialogue tree I was able to get working. The only issue was how minimal it was and how I was forced to rebuild it every time I made the slightest change. And because of my inexperience, I had a hard time efficiently reusing responses and prompts which meant I had these really messy if/else blocks that very quickly got out of hand. It was a mess.

Luckily for me, I had already reconciled myself to looking into dialogue assets to import from the asset store. The one I was eyeing up beforehand even happen to be on sale the day I looked into buying it. Then its been, surprisingly, only the last three days of me figuring out how to implement this new dialogue system in my existing game. Given my game is made up of very little, it’s easy for me to break it down and rebuild it. So I’ve mostly been using prefabs and example projects and then frankensteining them into what I wanted. Then they would inevitably break because of my mad scientist play, forcing me to figure out how to rebuild them. Just today I finally really started figuring out how the parts work and how to use those parts to further implement features I want.

Right now I have an almost complete prototype of ALL of the systems I want to implement in my game. And with the functionality of this dialogue system asset I imported, there are even more systems I could think about introducing.

Though nearing completion of the build reminds me that I still have a lot of content to produce, including the end game condition, I’m just excited to be making progress in an endeavor which is wholly unfamiliar to me. I’m really looking forward to the end of this in the most optimistic way.

Game Dev Log #3: Prototype

by anbrewk

My prototype is almost ready! The main components of the prototype are one main screen and two “rooms.” The main screen acts as a point of reference for the player to return to. It’s meant to represent a hallway in some type of labyrinth with each iteration of the hallway containing two randomly assigned doors from which the player chooses one. I had already made a bunch of pixel-art doors and written up a bunch of text that I am now slotting into the framework I’ve built. The door images are taken in a random order from an array along with their corresponding door descriptions. When the player clicks on a door, they then enter the corresponding room. The player can then return to the labyrinth’s corridor from the that room and then again enter further randomly assigned rooms.

I still have to build the interaction response/prompt system for each room, which I think is going to be difficult. I had originally thought I would make one room template and have all of its text and options populated from arrays but that’s proving to be hard to even get started. So my current plan entails  building every room as a distinct level which I think from an organizational standpoint will be a lot cleaner and easier to edit/change. So it’s probably a win my first idea proved too difficult/not possible.

Before I tackle the response/prompts though, I’m going to make a game over screen and link it to a bool for player health. At the end of each room, the player will either be dead or alive. Alive, go back to the hallway. Dead, go to the end screen and either try again or quit. Then from there, it’s the response/prompts …and an abilities screen with variables tied to choices that will be available conditionally on those abilities being chosen. Which I think after building the response/prompt system should be a relatively straightforward  addition. I think…

Regardless, I’m very excited about the kind of progress I’ve been making given what little experience I have. It’s gratifying how much the final game is coming to look and feel the way I want it.

Game Dev Log #2: Progress

by anbrewk

Computer language is relatively simple in terms of language but I’m discovering that there are some similar pitfalls. Just as with natural languages, you learn words before you learn grammar and only once you’ve truly mastered a language are you able to fluidly produce novel sentences completely of your own design and error free. That last part is the difficulty that mastery evades because the first part, creating novel sentences, is actually not too difficult for a novice. In many ways, you’re almost more likely to say absurdly original things. Of course they aren’t at all intelligible and serve to alienate your audience and yourself. Of course, it’s only through rigorous studying and many many mistakes that one overcomes that difficulty and starts to slowly integrate a language’s grammar into the way in which one both uses and understands the words one has at her disposal.

In the last couple days, I’ve tickled myself with coming up with these neat ways of solving the problems presented to me and then, in my attempts at realizing my solutions, have realized I’m just not using my words right. I create this or that and then discover that that’s not how Unity works (not that I then understand how it does work, just that it becomes clear to me that what I did does not work). Its been a source of some frustration, as one comment I made just earlier today to my partner sums up: “the best thing about having a hobby, is how ANGRY it makes you.”

But I’ve come a little ways since being angry and frustrated a number of times over the last few days. I have taken one of my solutions and refigured it so that it actually works as a code in Unity. I have a small array of strings, a random way of accessing them and they’re tied to a game object which displays the strings just as I want them. That, is some progress!

Game Dev Log #1

by anbrewk

Over September I’m working on a simple text based game with some visual aspects in Unity. My first week and a bit has been spent anticipating design hurtles. I’m building it in an unfamiliar engine and as an almost complete beginner in coding. Given my very little programming experience, any coding whatsoever, like anything at all, is difficult and tiring.

That being said, the actual planning of what/how to implement my ideas in code is kind of exciting — until I have to actually implement them that is… which is what I started to do yesterday. I had ordered another monitor to make my work space more manageable and had been waiting for its arrival before I started. Yesterday it arrived and I began to go through some of the tutorials I had book marked over the last couple weeks.

I had already discounted a few of them prior to anything because as I made a list of features and thought about implementation, it became obvious many of the tutorials were for drastically different things that what I planned to do. Given that, there were only a couple tutorials worth looking at and only because they clarified some of Unity’s features and interface. Entering a new program is somewhat daunting so the hand holding there was actually quite appreciated.

After I felt a bit more comfortable with the interface, it began to become increasingly obvious that Unity can do a lot of things that I do not understand AND a lot of the things I want it to do are not obvious. Given I want to make a text based game in a physics based engine, it shouldn’t surprise me that much of what Unity can do is not what I want it to do.

After giving up on finding a tutorial that would essentially show me how to make my game, I eventually found some success just trying to make a single feature work: a button!

My plan is to essentially make a game menu that leads to other menus using GUI elements because that’s really what the back end of my game consists in: 2D pages with doodads on them that the user can interact with and which, when interacted with, change either the page you’re on or the content of the text on the page. The dialogue part, which I just very poorly described, is actually going to be the most complex, I think, but this morning I did, successfully, create my first button. Which is not a minor thing. It is a major element of my game which I successfully made a very poor version of which actually did a thing I wanted to do. It’s an ugly button and it only does one thing I want it to do (and not to the full extent I want it to do it), but it works. And so I’m pretty happy about that. Day 2 of n00b coding and I have part of one of my games features partially implemented. That, is pretty cool.

Three years and the summer’s keep coming

by anbrewk

I’d like to still use this. Why not? This can still be a place for writing about games. So I will.

I have returned, the least of us is back.

I’ve been giving feedback on a new development I have alpha access to. It’s an odd experience being on the outside of a design team, whispering nothings into the void and having official responses back. I don’t mind it, it’s encouraging that I get responses and some of my feedback leads to changes and some of the things I’m responding to offer me an opportunity to focus on bigger ideas about design and games in general.

Just today I responded to some new voice acting that has been added to the tutorial of this game in progress. I didn’t like the voice acting, the sound of the actors, their cadence, whatever. But what I really responded to was what having voices meant for the game. It gave these talking heads, these images, this specificity that they had lacked. They became less like how I imagined them and more like how they were.

They had been these vague story elements, this cast of characters that I could add to or ignore. A turn of phrase I didn’t like, I could ignore, but a voice is way too concrete, too definite, to not acknowledge. The more specific the characters are, the less I get to imprint on them and imagine how they might be different. It was kind of a big thing, actually. Even just having the first few sentences of a string of dialogue read out meant that all of the dialogue was in that voice. A weird frog looking alien has a Brooklyn accent. A Brooklyn accent, how am I to ignore that? How am I to integrate that into my imaginings of this world he inhabits? It’s a thing.
I think voice acting has the potential to generate a lot of genuine feeling, to be a meaningful addition to a game. But that’s just it I guess. It’s a meaningful addition to a game by necessity of what it is. It’s unignorable, it’s significant.

Though it’s just voice, it’s an aspect of a character that leaving out means leaving in the audience’s mind for them to imagine. Written dialogue, like any writing, has this wonderful imprecision that allows one to state exactly what is said but without actually saying it so the reader has everything the writer wants to convey but is left with the most important part, the actual interpretation, the actual imagining. It’s powerful.

It’s those kind of thoughts that I really like out of giving this feedback. It’s this opportunity for me to think about games in general through the lens of looking at one particular game that’s the most invigorating about this.

The deluge, in brief

by berv

This week has seen me cycle through a whole bunch of games in my Steam library, some sort of attempt to clear my mental gamespace so that I might be more productive in my own work. Ha. We’ll see about that. Regardless, I did pick up a number of experiences I thought were worth sharing (and even if they’re not, they were certainly worth having). So, in brief:

Serious Sam 2: For an FPS predicated on fast, mobile gunplay against hordes of baddies, getting across the game world sure is a trudge. The huge areas with all sorts of unpopulated crannies make secret-finding a chore (unlike in Serious Sam Double D, which I loved to bits).

realMyst: I’ve got lots to say about revisiting Myst after almost 20 years, but for now I just want to comment on this version’s shift to free first-person movement (as opposed to the static pre-rendered scenes of the original). Filling in all the gaps, letting you walk behind and around all the points of interest, and letting the player’s eye fall where it may (rather than artfully directing it) really steals a lot of the magic away from the setting. Suddenly there is nothing beyond the limits of your vision. It’s all there, and because there’s no new content jammed into these nooks, the world is suddenly bounded and less fantastic because of it.

World of Goo, Blocks That Matter: All I wanted was to outthink some clever puzzles. The core of these experiences is understanding the mechanics, which, on their own, are solid. But why do I have to grind through a tedious and repetitive process every time I want to try a new solution?

  • WoG: Why do I have to manually grab goo blobs? The fact that they don’t automatically jump to my cursor is irksome. And why, if the same sort of structural building pattern is the foundation of all constructions, do I have to manually make the building blocks one at a time?
  • BTM: Solving two thirds of a level, then making a mistake on the last bit sends you back to the start to repeat the whole thing. This is not an action game, where challenge is increased via setting obstacles in sequence. I solved those puzzles, please don’t make me grind through them again.

Dark Souls: Quite possibly one of my favourite games ever, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to recapture the experience of my first time through. It’s just not the same when you know what you’re up against. Until that point, though, it’s absolutely thrilling.

Darksiders: Boy, I haven’t played a game this console-tailored as this in a long time. It’s strange that that’s a type of game: heavy on action and cinematic elements, low on nuance and depth. There’s so much more that video games have to offer that’s completely overlooked here. This is closer in its content to a bad movie, really.

Red Faction: Armageddon: My second outing with the series made relevant through its core inclusion of destructible terrain. However, the reasons I quit RF: Guerrilla are the same reasons I stopped playing Armageddon. Though it’s satisfying to destroy a building piece by piece, there’s not much reason to do so. Wouldn’t it be cool if this game didn’t have guns at all, instead relying on clever use of structure collapse and environmental manipulation? Yes it would. I did, though, quite like the ability to quickly rebuild cover that had been destroyed. A neat addition to a firefight, but only fun defensively. Hmm. What if players only had environmental manipulation tools and had to try to off each other while avoiding AI gunners?

Cargo Commander: Procedurally-generated platformer roguelike a la Spelunky? Yes please! Minimal variation in level elements and very few ways to interact with the world? No thanks. I liked the setting (blue collar sci-fi; reminded me of the original Alien) and the some of the mechanics (zero-gravity space jumps & drilling panels off of floating cargo containers) but got bored pretty quickly with the gameplay. Also, the always-on DRM got in my way more often than any other game ever has. That is a shame.

The Walking Dead (Episode 5): Though the journey of this game was not without its faults, I felt really jazzed upon finishing this. It’s exhilarating to have a story with so many untidy resolutions. I want to play through it again for the alternate dialogue options, but can’t bring myself to slog through the non-dialogue gameplay a second time. Ah, alright, I did like the panicked zombie combat scenes, but the “puzzles” can take a hike.

Shattered Horizon: It is a great tragedy that multiplayer games live only as long as they have a community to support them. I thought there was interesting potential in the zero-gravity arena combat, and some wonderful vistas of planets far below the floating wreckage of the playfield. But alas, it’s gone derelict now, adrift with a fleet of empty servers.

Planetside 2: I was instantly overwhelmed by the mess that was the battlefield. Where am I supposed to go? Why? Who am I supposed to be shooting at? Why? People like this game? I couldn’t find any satisfaction here.

Analogue: A Hate Story: I was surprisingly drawn in by the sci-fi setting of this interactive fiction game and how it drew heavily upon Korean history. Sure, there weren’t a lot of consequential decisions to make, but the story was well worth reading, and tactfully revealed in tantalizing bits at a time. I do wish, though, that there were an easier way to further flesh things out than having to go through it all the same bits again with a different character.

Endless Space, Space Empires IV: I should like this sort of game (broad scale space empire management), but I just can’t invest as much as they ask of me upfront. Let’s go back to Dark Souls for a second. There’s enormous depth to the combat, character building, and lore, but you can play the game without understanding it all in its entirety. Can this be done in one of these space games? Maybe in having the gameplay complexity scale at the player’s pace? This is a difficult problem.

Auditorium: Lately, I’ve been developing a distaste for physics-based puzzlers. Finickiness seems inherent to them, and I find myself getting frustrated with them more often than not. Again, my ideal puzzle game makes it easy to execute a solution once it has been seen. Here, I got stuck too often trying to find pixel-perfect placement for my puzzle elements.

Legend of Grimrock: Despite the trailers and reviews I looked up, I hadn’t realized this old-school(ish) dungeon crawler played out in real-time. The necessity of stick-and-move combat got tedious fairly quickly, though I don’t know that I would have enjoyed the fighting any more were it turn based. I did, however, like how secrets were hidden, sometimes with easily-overlooked visual cues, sometimes within clever combinations of mechanics.

Looking back over this list, I am more than ever made aware of just how particular my gaming tolerances and intolerances are. I’m picky, for sure, and perhaps I’m a little too short with certain elements and genres, but I really believe that there are enjoyable experiences at the core of each of the above-listed games. With a little je ne sais quoi, those that are more deeply buried might be teased out and make for a better experience.

Did you make one of these games? I would be more than happy to give you my expanded thoughts on what works and what doesn’t. It’s only my opinion, but I like to think that I give these things an appropriate amount of consideration.

Are you anybody at all making a game? This is an open offer. If you provide me with a way to do so, I will play your game at least once and give you constructive feedback. You can dismiss it outright if you’d like, but I promise it will be lovingly considered.

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