My month in Lisbon really brought me some inspiration for my first commercial game, so stay tuned – gameplay is nearly complete, and an initial private demo will soon be released to the playtesters (in other words – random selection of my friends). So there is still hope that soon you’ll get to see the actual game happening. Just wait a little more.
I’ve been working on another game for the Experimental Gameplay Project this week. As you may notice, the month ends today, and unfortunately – it doesn’t look like I’m going to have something serious to show on time. I’ll try to make a quick development session today and have at least something to show for it, maybe also work on it a little bit in a personally-declared overtime. Meanwhile, I thought I’d share some of the philosophy behind my project.
There are many game genres out there. We have shooters, real-time strategy, turn-based strategy, turn-based tactics, brawlers, puzzlers, management, and many others, all of which are drastically different from each other.
But wait – the word “genre” can mean several different things. In all these genres, the game mechanics are indeed drastically different from each other. But what about the content? What are these games “about”? In that case, suddenly almost all creativity disappears. All the different, clever mechanics are used almost always in the context of fighting. Anything from one-on-one fighting in Street fighter, to huge multiplanetary wars in Total Annihilation. Almost every game currently available that I can see, involves killing something, or trying to. In some rare cases we get two other possible goals – earning money (mostly in management-style games) and getting out of somewhere (in puzzle games). Often these are combined with killing things, and anyway – they’re limited to their own genres. Most genres have only one thing – killing stuff. So why is that, and is that the only possible direction for the gaming world to go?
I admit – fighting is, despite its horrible uses, an interesting thing. It allows a wide variety of options and strategies, requires many different skills, is inherently symmetrical and is very dynamic. However, is that really the reason so many games go for that? I think it’s quite obviously not. It’s becoming more and more outstanding in the recent 10-15 years – as graphics become more and more realistic, we see the game industry’s order of priorities – huge resources are put into things that don’t affect the gameplay and don’t improve the graphics, but simply make things more violent.
So if the industry is doing it because people like violence and not because it’s the only option, could there be an additional option? Could we be missing an entire world of game worlds based on the same genres (in terms of game mechanics), but with different contexts than killing stuff? I think it’s possible. And the game I’ve been working on for the past week is kind of a test of that. As you might expect from a week’s work it’s hardly polished and might not actually be very fun, but I hope it will turn out to have some potential. What exactly is the context? It’s something I think can fill an entire world of games, no less rich than war, and can be applied to almost every genre where war is currently used. I’ll wait until it’s ready before announcing it, but you can have a little hint – the Experimental Gameplay Project theme for this month is “temperature”.
Just to clarify – I don’t (entirely) have a problem with violence in video games. I do have a problem with evil in video games as I’ve explained before, but games based on fighting are fine – the problem is when *every* game is based on fighting. My problem here is the lack of creativity.
 This is seriously a quote (or at least a paraphrase) I personally heard in a talk by someone from the Total War franchise, introducing their next game: “We made animations so much more realistic [...] the soldiers will now have facial expressions of sadness as their fellow soldiers die”.
 Almost needless to say how self-fulfilling that prophecy is – companies assume something about the target audience, make the games for them, they buy the games, companies check data about the people who buy their games, and find their assumptions were correct. How shocking.
 Hopefully, even something you’ll be able to explain to non-gamers without cringing. I think the multiplayer mode of Assassin’s Creed is really cool in its mechanics, for example, but can you imagine showing that to a non-gamer, who is presumably a normal person, and offering them to try playing it? “Here is where you violently slit the throat of a innocent civilian, it causes you a minor inconvenience because it wasn’t who you were supposed to kill. And here you can kick someone’s dead body, you get 50 points for that”.
Scouring the Internets thouroughly can occasionally bring up an interesting gem – as is the case with “Dancing Goblins”, a (relatively) new open-source rougelike rhythm game by Maurício da Silva. Due to the profound influence the game had on me, I thought a review might give it some much-deserved publicity.
Unsurprisingly considering the previous works of the creator (including, among others, an 4-person co-op Chess game and an RTS based on a jigsaw-puzzle mechanic), this is quite an unusual game. You can learn more from the link above, but basically – you go through a dungeon facing increasingly difficult monsters and traps, armed only with the power of song. The rhythm game mechanic provides the spell casting for the game, with different styles of music (from French chansons to Guaraní folk songs, and anything in between) conforming to different schools of magic. This all connects quite well into a game which, although not yet having reached version 0.1 (but it should happen any minute now, especially now that the world didn’t end), definitely seems quite promising.
Art: Certainly one of the game’s strong points, with artists Quimérico and PixelFalaz really bringing the dungeons to life with photo-realistic views, likeable characters and stunning animations. The choice of going with purely ASCII art (after many debates about weather full Unicode was necessary) turned out to be a wonderful success, as was also the choice of font size 18pt over the much more common 16pt.
Gameplay: Certainly gets points for creativity, and in the first few hours of playing it feels quite solid as well, but will it pass the test of time and become a full game genre? Only time will tell. The interface is well-planned, with some clever use of the “j” key (and a surprising role for the “scroll lock” key, which I believe was put in more as a cheap marketing ploy). The basic mechanic attempts to create a simultaneous strategical and musical challenge, but I believe the music ends up getting most of the attention, as the best strategy is generally to look for the best guitars (or, failing that, a zither or shakuhachi) and blast all enemies with the most powerful songs you can learn. Which brings us to the next issue:
Balance: Definitely needs more work. Some magic schools (like Basque folk songs) are ridiculously overpowered, while others (such as 1940s-style aboriginal chanting) seem to serve little purpose but to artificially inflate the game’s (indeed impressive) spell list. Hopefully this will get some more attention before the next version.
Story: The game comes with a charming plot, albeit simplistic. You take the role of Belisarius the untaxable, who roams the dungeons in search of a purpose for his life. I haven’t reached the end yet and don’t want to spoil anything, but you can expect an enjoyable set of texts to glance at while building your spellbook / chordbook. There is a certain inconsistent quality in them though, I felt that some of the characters (like the hydraulophone-playing half-centaur sorceress) were slightly poorly written and in need of review.
Soundtrack: Unfortunately, the game still doesn’t have one. They hope to get around to it in version 0.8 or 0.9.
There is definitely potential in this game for bringing back the long-awaited genre of rougelike rhythm games (I think we haven’t seen one since “Beeps and Fireballs” in 1978). We need to keep an eye on it – if the next decade of development will go as well as the previous one, we can expect an excellent version 0.2 someday.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, none of the games or people described in this post actually exist. It’s just the result of me having spent a day with a mild fever, after a week of practicing my Spanish by reading Jorge Luis Borges. I hope we’ll get some good real games soon (maybe even from me).
Several weeks after first starting to try HTML5, I have to say I love it. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably know – I can get bored quite fast. Working on a single project for a long time can be a very unpleasant task for me. So the small nature of HTML5 projects is very appealing – Before I have time to get bored with any project, it’s already finished and ready to be published (kind of).
But is it economical? My first HTML5 game has so far gained an impressive 5 US cents through Kongregate’s profit sharing system. While I didn’t do much to market it, and it is my first such project, having been written in about two non-intense weeks, it’s still not a very promising sign. So now I have two questions to ask myself:
1. Can it improve? If I make better games, perhaps try to market them a little more, is there a chance to get some more significant success?
2. Should I try to dump Kongregate and try on my own? Obviously there’s no point in making one tiny browser game and trying to publish it independently. Browser games need to come in masses. But masses are the advantage of browser game development – it might not be impossible. I have a little project going in that direction, but I’m far from confident it could do much. We’ll have to wait and see.
Anyway, I still have an almost-finished PC game to complete and publish. But I want to explore this option first. If there’s a chance to succeed from giving things for free, I think it would be more fun than to sell stuff.
In the previous post I said that if the Serpent Scribe of Kyoto was a success, I’ll try to continue making language-learning games. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help myself and didn’t wait for it to succeed. I’ve been working on some nice things that might become available soon.
I think it’s really an interesting experience with some lessons to be learned about memory and learning. I’ve tried several alphabets with the Serpent Scribe, and I think I can say that about 30 minutes with a game like this can bring me from knowing nothing in an average alphabet, to knowing it all. However, if I stop there, I’ll forget it all about an hour later. So the next challenge would be retaining the knowledge. This brings me back to what I asked a long time ago about mnemonics – if they can help us learn so much in such a short time, can we use them repeatedly and learn an entire language in a month?
It seems like the way to retain such information is to create associations – see the information in as many contexts as possible, not just in the simple flashcard or dictionary entry. One of my favourite examples is music – I’m often amused by how my vocabulary in languages I don’t know is affected by my favourite bands in the language – in German I can speak of death and blood, but I can’t ask what time it is. In Hungarian I can talk about flowers and birds, but not much else. In Portuguese about forests and hunters, in Indonesian about love and spirituality, and so on.
The Serpent Scribe starts working on it by providing challenges – chances to use the symbols learned in new contexts. But more work is needed.
This is why I think most structured language learning methods are useless on their own – I think the best way is to drown yourself in a huge array of different methods, each one bringing new associations to pick up new words from. But more importantly, I think you need to learn the language while doing something other than language learning – associations need to be between two things, so there has to be something else happening while you’re learning. It could be an especially frustrating level in a game, could be an awesome guitar chord in a song, or anything else. So my goal is to make games that are fun on their own, and as a side effect make you encounter loads of different words in the language you’re learning. We’ll see if I can make that happen.
Here it is – my first HTML5 game is available, combining two of my hobbies – gaming and language learning. The Serpent Scribe of Kyoto will allow you to feel like you’re wasting your time to the addictive void of snake, only to later find out you learned something – in this case, the Japanese writing systems Hiragana and Katakana. It works so well that I can now read both even though I had no intention of learning Japanese (yet) – it just comes naturally, that’s why I love the combination of gaming and learning so much.
Anyway, it’s available on Kongregate and you’re welcome to try it – it doesn’t matter if you want to learn Japanese, I think even playing a little game of snake and then being able to brag about your Japanese reading skills at the next party you go to is already worth it. I’d love to get some feedback, and to hear if you started reading Japanese because of it.
If it turns out to be a big success, you might see more of those coming in the future. Otherwise, they’ll probably come mostly to help me learn whatever I’m trying to learn at the time.
 Yes – as usual, it’s an old idea I recycled. I like doing that.
 Clearly, I’m a master of impressing people at social events.
I’ve always kind of looked down at browser games, thinking they weren’t serious enough for me to appreciate. I usually like immersion in my video games, and playing in a small browser window doesn’t give that. However, my opinion has been starting to change lately. Despite their shortcomings, browser games have a huge advantage – they can get away with much less content, giving them two advantages: They can be made in a very short time, and they can be built around ideas that don’t have enough to hold a full game, but are fun nonetheless.
I can think of only two browser games I ever played which were good enough to leave some sort of impression on me – N (which apparently wasn’t originally a browser game, but that’s how I know it), one of the best platformers I know, and GemCraft, which I consider the definitive tower defense game.
Since I’m exploring options for making a living from making games, I’ve been thinking for a long time about trying Flash. I had an automatic repulsion from it, being such a proprietary format, but it seemed to be the only option for browser games. But now with HTML5 on the rise, it might be time for a change.
So right now I’m in the process of finalizing my first HTML5 game. I don’t know if it would evolve to something big, but I can certainly see a future where I make small HTML5 games to try out ideas, make small mini-games for things that are fun but not very extensive, and once in a while when something really has potential, make it into a full PC game. We’ll see.
I was at the Eurogamer Expo yesterday, and got to see and try the best the video game industry has to offer. Some conclusions:
1. This probably wouldn’t shock anyone, but the gaming industry has a ridiculous lack of variety. A vast majority of games use the same 3D first or third person controls, and a huge majority of games focus on the same concept – killing as many other beings as possible. The only big titles I can think of which don’t conform to that are almost exclusively current versions of 20-year-old titles, like Simcity, X-COM and FIFA.
2. Note that I said “almost” – the one redeeming factor for the proffesional industry in this expo was Rocksmith – one of the best games I ever got to play. I’ve wanted a game like that to exist for many years (probably since the first concept of Guitar Hero existed), and I always assumed it wasn’t populist enough to be developed by big companies, so I’ll have to do it myself some day. So good job, industry.
3. A group called SpecialEffect had a booth there – apparently they’re a charity dedicated to helping people with disabilities play video games. As if that’s not already good enough, that also provided me with my other (along with Rocksmith) awesome gaming experience – playing a racing simulator with only eye movements. It’s extremely fun and I wonder how complicated it is to make – it seems to be just a camera that looks at you eyes and analyzes their movements.
4. Not in the indie section but also not in the “serious” games area, two really nice games deserve a mention – Chompy Chomp Chomp and When Vikings Attack. I really hope they will have PC versions available.
5. Call to indie developers out there – if you have a bizzare, insane game and you put it on a computer in an expo – please make sure you put instructions near it. I still have no idea what I was doing in most of the games in the indie section there.
Anyway, much fun was had. Maybe for next year I’ll be there as a developer rather than a visitor.
 Although, Rocksmith does have a significant problem – it comes with 50 songs, and I know exactly one of them. It’s highly likely that other songs will be available as expensive DLC, and they probably won’t have what I like anyway. So maybe I’ll need to develop it myself after all, with the songs in a free format so everyone can create them.
 Which, amazingly enough, doesn’t appear to have it’s own website, or even a page in the developer’s website. I also didn’t notice any vikings, but maybe they’re only in the single player version.
After a long while, it’s time to announce my upcoming commercial project. The game will be an abstract shooting game based on my previous project, Ring of Marbles. Before boring you with words, here’s a sample level:
The point of the game is to shoot the targets thrown at you in each wave, without destroying your own armor – everything in the game is made of colored marbles, and your own health bar is a ring of marbles hovering around you. So if you’re not careful, you might end up destroying yourself instead of the targets!
In addition to several different campaigns, it will also include survival mode, and local multiplayer, and for the perfectionists among you – local high scores and achievements. Being my first commercial project and a fairly casual game, expect a very casual price point (no more than 5 US dollars).
The development is mostly complete, and since I’m on vacation now, it is in an extended testing phase. Release will hopefully be by the end of the year.
I was going to wait until after the results were announced before writing my summation of the Liberated Pixel Cup experience, but right now it’s not quite clear how long that’s going to take, and I want to do this while I still remember anything, especially since my life might get a little hectic starting this week.
I don’t really know if I have a chance of actually winning anything. My entry was not as polished as I had hoped to make it, it lacks a strong single player mode and I’m aware of two significant bugs that did not appear on my testing system. However, I can definitely say I’m happy about it. I think it reached the three most important goals I had in entering the contest: It’s a playable, fun game, it is very much built for the contest art and uses it naturally (although, if I had more time for polish, I’d have to make some graphic effects to reduce the “squareness” of the tiles, caused by the nature of my chosen game type), and I think it’s a creative idea – it’s very different from anything else I’ve seen submitted to the contest. Either way, I learned quite a bit from the experience, and here are some conclusions:
- The contest itself was a great idea. I truly salute the organizers (who are, if I’m not mistaken, Bart Kelsey and Chris Webber) and hope they will be happy with the results.
- There were some great entries to the art phase, but I still found myself using mostly the art initially provided by the contest organizers. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that – I guess we’re still not quite at a point where free art can defeat professional art.
- That said, I can only praise the art initially provided for the contest. I was initially a bit skeptical about the style – I’m not a fan of the retro, Nintendo-like style. But after working on it I realized the success – making the unified style, standard tile structure and standard character animation structure really allowed creating a big variety of art with less work than would be otherwise necessary.
- Unfortunately, my last-minute project change meant I did not have time to use some very good art entries. I had some big plans for Casper Nilsson’s beautiful Japanese set, for example, and for Daneeklu’s farming sprites. Maybe some other time.
- I got a reminder how important UI elements are. Usually when people think about game art, UI elements aren’t the first thing that comes to mind – but Pennomi and Laetissima’s UI elements turned out to be some of the most important parts of the art repository for me.
- The LPC blog was very quiet, after a reasonable start. At some points I was actually wondering if something was wrong with the contest. I think it might have been better to talk there more to keep everyone updated and make it clear that everything is going well, but it’s not extremely important.
- Apparently, several people complained that the time frame given (one month for the coding phase) was too short – I completely disagree with that. I think a contest is good for making you step away from your daily routine and work strongly on something in an attempt to win. You can’t do that for a long time – I don’t think anyone would put their personal projects on hold for months just for the chance of winning a relatively small-scale contest. Even a month was borderline, in my opinion.
- In his recent post, BartK mentioned how the contest made him reevaluate his dislike for Java because of the difficulties in compiling some of the C and C++ projects. This kind of echoes my post from a while ago about my own barriers for entry to the open-source scene. I hope there’s yet a chance for an additional open-source scene, based on less hardcore-Linux-programmer principles. Not to replace the existing scene, but to augment it. When I become a little more stable financially, I’ll of course try to make that happen myself.
Finally, my general impression of the contest – did it achieve its goal?
I think the contest was a great idea, well executed and provided some good new products for the open-source world. But one thing I think is a little unfortunate – in the code phase, the contest advanced one of the least-lacking things in the open-source gaming scene – new game projects. In my opinion, it would be better to focus efforts on some other things – general tools and game engines, coding less attractive or more difficult elements for games (like UI and AI, respectively), and other things that are difficult for open-source developers to do on their own, but might happen with some encouragement.
And just a clarification, in case I won’t be understood as I intended – any criticism I might have expressed here in no way affects my huge appreciation for the contest organizers, who put a huge effort for the benefit of all of us. I write this with the assumption that discussion about ways to improve the open-source world are good for everyone.