Archive for the ‘ Games ’ Category

On Kero Blaster

I downloaded Kero Blaster on iOS a few days ago and I absolutely love it. If you would have said I’d compare a action platformer on iOS to my favorite NES game of all time, I would have called you insane. But now I’ve played through the entire game 3 times and have a feeling that it will one day surpass Megaman as my most re-played game ever (about 100 replays).

It’s kind of insane when you experience a game and it feels like it was made JUST for you. Two of my favorite games of all time are Megaman and Super Metroid. I love the super tight and ultra precise platforming and combat of Megaman and I love exploring the world of Super Metroid. While Kero Blaster is much more like Megaman than it is anything Metroid, it does give a nice little touch of it feeling like a world rather than a bunch of random themed levels of your typical Megaman game. It’s a world with characters, coherence, and constant surprise.

But to me, the world of Kero Blaster is just the icing on the cake. The core of the experience, like many great games, is captured in both the simplicity and depth of gameplay. At it’s most fundamental core is an absurdly nuanced and precise movement scheme. You have the full analog range of jump heights combined with a distinct weakness of air control, which leads to a much more planned an executed movement than your typical reactive action shooter. Layered on top of it is the 4 state directional auto-fire system, which pushes even more focus onto the planned and executed movement core. Layered on top of these are various weapons with various upgrades and a massive array of diverse, well-progressed, and interestingly set up enemies. And of course to top it all off, there are a number of incredible boss fights to that perfectly match the players in game and in brain skill.

But the thing that makes me love Kero Blaster so much is the thing that makes me love any game–the ability for mastery. When you start playing Kero Blaster, it’s just a simple little action platforming game (more action than platforming). As you play through more and more, obviously it gets harder and harder. But the curve of the progression is so perfect, that you never notice yourself getting better. And with the upgrading of your weapons and health, you definitely don’t know whether to attribute your handling of these new, more difficult situations to your in game upgrades or your own personal skill. Then you finish the game and start a new playthrough and you are a GOD.

The things that felt challenging once are a piece of cake and the patterns that you barely stumbled your way through the first time you perform like a dance. It’s at this point that it not only feels like the creation of this game is a piece of art, but that your playing of it is a matter of art as well. The game is your instrument and you continue to get better and better and produce more and more beautiful music. And while you can always look at your boss fight time attack for a numerical encapsulation of your skill, the much more important aspect of each performance is the feeling of overwhelming power on each turn, each double jump, and each perfectly choreographed dance around a stage of enemies and projectiles.

Kero Blaster is not just a masterpiece to experience and appreciate, it is a beautiful instrument to play and master.

While this is a bit of a footnote, an important aspect of this feeling of power and mastery is the short length of the game. You don’t see the contrast until you’ve started your second playthrough. And unlike many other games, you don’t face an instant decision between playing a bit more and 20 hours of your life. So, instead of having to skim read the game, you are given the opportunity to play and replay and replay and replay. You get the opportunity to properly appreciate the depth of the creation and hone your performance. And in total, I’m sure I will sink more time into this game than many which have more hours of gameplay, but the quality and depth of my experience will be at a fundamentally different level.

And if you want to pick up Kero Blaster, you can get it here:

Reacting to Realities

In terms of accessibility of information, we live in the most amazing time that has ever been. And it doesn’t stop with looking up facts about history and reality. It is easier than ever before to try new things. So much of our lives are built upon technologies that allow us to experiment and try things that have never been before. We can quickly gather information about hypothetical futures by quickly making them realities and seeing how they play out. This sounds like it’s a post about AB testing and an amazing middleware that I’m about to pitch to you, but it’s not.

This is a blog post about opinions.

The first games console that I ever worked on was the PS2. It was a console where for the most part, you had one shot at getting the game right. And because of that, there was a very specific way we made decisions on PS2 games. We would argue and argue and argue until we were blue in the face and then we would do something random. It’s not truly random. It might be the idea from the person with the loudest voice. It might be the opinion of whoever has the most years in the industry. But from the perspective of making the right decision, it wasn’t far from random.

Most of us don’t live in that world any more and don’t make video games that way any more. With the speed of modern day tools, we can quickly mock up a prototype, see how it plays, and make decisions based on reality. We don’t spend all our time bickering and designing by rhetoric about imaginary worlds. We try things and we make decisions based on reality. Some times we even do release things to the world or AB test them. The important thing is that we can make decisions based on some sampling of reality.

But as game designers and game players, our culture has not caught up. When we catch wind of something, we don’t have the faith to let it become a reality and see how it will pan out. We don’t let our world have a chance to happen and iterate. More and more, I’m seeing decisions made by rhetoric and theoretical universes where we have trivial access to the data we need.

Today’s discussion is about open development. It’s a fine piece and it could be right. But it is written from a theoretical perspective when we are living in a world where we are surrounded by data about this precise issue. It’s not that I think the author is wrong or that his opinion is invalid. I just feel that with so many developers presently undergoing open development, we can easily gather the data and it’ll be much more accurate than any theoretical view regardless of the intelligence behind it.

I think about when twitter rolled out it’s new block policy and everyone got so up in arms that they had to roll it back and only yesterday I noticed someone who would have benefitted from the new block and not had his day ruined. It’s not that the new block policy was better. It’s that we didn’t wait until someone was suffering from it. I couldn’t find a single tweet of an actual victim of the new policy. Everyone was just standing up for the theoretical victim they imagined. In fact, it took me three or four hours that night to find out what the change even was and another few hours to find what twitter intended to do with it.

When Mighty No. 9 appointed a new community manager, people (and I know we’re all saying “not me”), got upset at the theoretical situation that a female would be running the community and ruining the game. And when Depression Quest hit Greenlight, people erupted at this theoretical world where Depression Quest existing on Steam was going to ruin their lives.

Firstly, I’m not saying the open development reaction, the twitter reaction, the Mighty No. 9 reaction, and the Depression Quest reaction are all the same.

What I’m saying is that they all have one thing in common. We had the opportunity to react to a reality that we experienced but instead we reacted to a theoretical future that we imagined and we took the latter option.

The reason this pains me so much is that with the reality we live in and all the data we have, it’s still very complex and difficult to sort out. But if we spend all of our time focusing on the theoretical futures and never letting the reality play out, we’re really going to struggle finding the future that we want.

Imaginary Users

So I’m going to attempt to do at least one of my own projects in the near future. Last time I tried this, it ended in failure, but I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons since then–or at least I hope I have. I thought it’d be a good exercise for me to write out some of the specific lessons that I have learned so that I don’t repeat them, so that others might learn from them, and just to think them through a little bit more.

The first lesson is about imaginary users. Originally, I thought the lesson was about chasing “the next big thing,” but after further inspection, it wasn’t the deepest root of the problem. So, when I left my awesome job at Media Molecule, I didn’t have a project in mind. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. I just wanted to do something. I tried a non-games thing very briefly, which just reminded me how much I’ve learned about making games and how little I know about anything else. So I decided that I’d make a game. It was 2009 at the time and social games were just starting to take off. I decided that I wanted to make a Facebook game. This was a mistake, but it wasn’t a mistake because Facebook games couldn’t work, it was because I knew nothing about Facebook games and most importantly, I knew nothing about the Facebook game audience.

We decided to make a game about pet monsters who players could grow and make happy by allowing them to destroy things. How in the world did we decide on such a random game? The first step was to incorporate all the information we had about the Facebook audience. We were told that most players were housewives. So immediately we’re on all kinds of horrible ground. Firstly, this statement isn’t anywhere near true. Facebook games appealed to a huge demographic that included pretty much everyone with a slightly weaker contribution from the male 18-25 year old demographic generally strong with hardcore games. Secondly, even if Facebook games were 100% played by housewives, they do not make up a homogeneous pattern of human behavior. Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, we didn’t know any of the common psychologies or motivations that might be prevalent amongst such a demographic. So basically, we were making a game for a parody of a stereotype.

I think the parody of the stereotype could be subconsciously reasoned along the lines that many housewives have children and enjoy nurturing things. Therefore, we should make a game where you nurture things. However, if you look at the description of our game, that doesn’t explain the whole thing. There are two big things unaccounted for. The first is monsters. The second is destroying things. So where did these come from? They were things we thought were cool. Monsters would allow us to create much more interesting and non-obvious art assets than common pets would. It would be cool for us to make, obviously ignoring what might be cool for our misunderstanding of an imaginary target audience. And destruction, I think it was just a matter of momentum. You’ve got monsters and what do monsters do? They destroy stuff.

At this point, I’d like to highlight the second major crime committed. In addition to actually knowing nothing about our target audience (which wasn’t really a target audience), we created features that were half motivated by our misunderstandings about this not-a-target-audience and half the features based on what we (who are not members of this not-a-target-audience) thought were cool.

A few years later, the creative director of a company I worked at constantly brought up this issue. If you have a particular theme that appeals to target demographic A and a particular type of gameplay that appeals to target demographic B, if you combine them, will you get the union of A and B or will you get the intersection. I think in general, you’re much more likely to get the intersection than you are the union. The way I think about it is that the theme is what gets people through the door and the gameplay is what keeps them there. If someone is only in group A, they’ll try out the game, but hate it. If someone is only in group B, they won’t even try the game out. If someone is in both, they’ll be happy.

So looking back at Monstroscity, which actually didn’t perform as badly as it should have considering our approach, I think one of the biggest problems was having absolutely no understanding of who the game was for. We actually got lucky having a great art style and some decent distribution help through Facebook and Applifier, but the product was fundamentally flawed.

The top level takeaway from this is that you need to understand who a product is for and really understand who it’s for. There are two ways that you need to understand your target audience. Firstly, you need to define what it is that actually ties that group together. It could be demographic or behavioral or something else. Secondly, you need to actually understand them and their motivations. You cannot work on some imaginary model you have in your mind of these types of people might do.

In terms of a solution for this problem, there are many parts (and probably many I’ve yet to learn). Firstly, I’ve learned a lot about how to think about players and design products and features from a player’s perspective. I no longer focus on what would the the cleanest to code or what would be most elegant in some abstract philosophical way. I focus purely on what a player is currently thinking and how to make it most understandable and enjoyable for them. It doesn’t mean making everything easy, but making sure the rules are as clear as I want them to be. Secondly, nothing is really a replacement for watching people play your game and making sure you have all kinds of different parts of your target audience to experience it. And lastly, but most importantly, I’m going to be making my next game for me or at least some aspect of me. It’s too dangerous and time intensive for me to make something where my gut reaction might lead me completely astray.

So I’m going to start building something I’ll love and once I get to that point, I’m sure I’ll be employing many of those I know to sculpt it onto something that isn’t JUST for me.

Rage of Bahamut: A New Paradigm in Game “Rewards”

I’ve been playing Rage of Bahamut for about a week now and the more I play it, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the perfect game for the modern day. Well, more specifically, it is the tip of the iceberg on a trend that I see being the future of games for the majority of people.

The best way for me to explain my reasoning for this is through a single word: reward. Just for sanity sake, I decided to look up the word reward to make sure I wasn’t just crazy. I got the following:

1. a sum of money offered for the detection or capture of a criminal, the recovery of lost or stolen property, etc.
2. something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.

While I know languages are living things and dictionaries are often out of date, these definitions, especially the second one, resonate with how I think of the word reward.

I’ve played many games in my life and I think reward has always been a very important part of the experience. Even when the rewards are trivial, they were core to the experience. It could be as simple as a higher score or access to another level, but it was always there. It could even just be the knowledge that I won.

The key to it being a reward, though, was as definition 2 states “return or recompense for service, merit, hardships, etc.” The way I think about it personally, I got a reward for some work or skill that I performed. So when I’m playing Final Fantasy, I won a battle and therefore got a reward of XP and items. Or when I played Super Metroid, I overcame some kind of traversal challenge to get my extra missile pack.

The clever thing about the more sophisticated games I played was that there was a loop. Some would call it a gameplay loop or a reward loop. Essentially, I would perform some act, which would get me a reward, which would enable me to perform a harder act and so on and so forth.

As the years went by, though, the balance between the work and the reward has continued to shift. It started with increasing rewards. Take Pong for an example. You played the game and the reward at the end was the knowledge that you had won. Fast forward to Zelda where there the reward was a new gameplay item, an animation, and a sound effect. Then onto Metal Gear Solid where you get new weapons and an epic cutscene and storyline.

Then there was the era of lessening the work. Start with Final Fantasy where a battle is not much more than mashing a button. Take it further to Farmville where all you have to do is go away and then click.

So let’s come back to Rage of Bahamut. If Rage of Bahamut was a conventional game, it’d be a pretty obvious structure. You would fight battles with your cards, and when you won, you would earn more cards that you could use to fight more battles. You could still evolve and enhance your cards and all that jazz, but the key is that you’d be forced into a work-reward loop.

Take very close notice to each piece. The work part of the game is battle and battle setup. There are decisions and choices to be made by the player. The reward part is getting a treasure chest and finding out what new card you got. Then you’d be back into work part of the loop.

This is where Rage of Bahamut changes the game. They remove work as a precursor to reward. It’s not even reward anymore, but it still feels like it. The card accumulation part of Rage of Bahamut 100% reward. It requires absolutely no work at all. There is not a single decision required of the player to earn cards. You could argue that tapping the screen is work, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s purely interface.

Once you’ve played the reward part of the game sufficiently, you are given the option to perform some work. You can decide which cards you want to evolve or enhance. You can decide which quests you want to go back and replay. You can choose where to allocate your stat points. However, the most important thing is that you don’t have to. Working is optional. Reward is mandatory.

I’ll lead with this video on why this makes me believe this is the perfect game for the modern day.

While I’m not nearly as cynical as Branford, I do believe that a growing sense of entitlement is a real trend in modern society and I definitely don’t think games are immune to it. If you don’t make the game that requires no work to get rewards, someone else will and they will get their money.

And while it may sound all doom and gloom, it isn’t at all. In the exact same way that freemium has come along, it’s just another thing to think about. In fact, it’s almost completely parallel. I used to come from a world where you put payment before play. Everyone wants to play, but not everyone wants to pay. So someone turned it around. Now, you can play and payment is optional. We as game designers need to start thinking this way. Paying is optional, how do we invite them to do so. In the same way, I think in the future of games, work will be optional, but we should invite players to do so.

I don’t think Rage of Bahamut is a fluke or a genre that will live in isolation. I think it is the beginning of an absolutely massive trend that will spread throughout our industry. And just as I don’t think payment-optional games will completely replace payment-required games, I don’t think work-optional games will completely replace work-required games. But they are going to be taking much more of the money than they are now.

GDC Left Behind

NOTE: Tuesday Venue Moved To Guildford
NOTE: Friday Venue Moved To The Book Club

GDC is almost here! Hordes of badge-donning game developers will arise from their caves and take over the streets of San Francisco. I, however, have not been let out of my cage and am stuck back here in London. There’s no reason that those of us who have been left behind can’t have a great time as well. I’d like to propose the second annual GDC Left Behind. This year, I’m choosing a venue for each night of the week where game developers can congregate and inspire each other in this crazy world of games we live in. Here’s a first pass of venues and themes. The themes are just random and feel free to come even if you have no interest in the theme of the night. I was thinking about 7ish each night, but show up when you want and just look for beards and pony tails.

Monday (March 5th)
The Crown in Angel
Let’s join #LondonIndies at the Crown in Angel. This is a monthly meetup on the first Monday of each month. Come talk games with some of the best and the brightest of the UK’s indie scene.

Tuesday (March 6th)
Upstairs at The Three Pigeons in Guildford
Come upstairs and join @wiggo and the rest of the Guildfordish games scene at the Three Pigeons. Jump into yet another argument about new versus old: whether the 3DS and the Vita have a place in a smart phone world, whether Next Gen is already dead in the water.

Wednesday (March 7th)
Old King’s Head in Hoxton
Come talk real world games at Old King’s Head in Hoxton. Just across the street in the Makielab offices, you might be able to get a glimpse of the 3d printing mayhem as well as some awesome board game madness as part of their monthly Wizard Wednesdays. Who knows what you might find–a overly aggressive game of Catan or a fully costumed LARPing session in progress.

Thursday (March 8th)
Tram Depot in Cambridge
@docky will be hosting this event. Meet up to talk experimental games, game jams, and making stuff just because it’s awesome. Bring a laptop along and get some competitive Hexagon action going. Or sit down and just start building something with a beer or two for inspiration.

Friday (March 9th)
The Book Club
Anything goes. It’s Friday and you’ve had a long week while everyone else has been off bathing in the beautiful California sun. Drop by and relax, reminiscing on the wonderful week we’ve had at GDC Left Behind.

If you have any recommendations for better venues, especially venues that’ll be less busy, let me know and we’ll see if we can swap some out. If you have better ideas for themes or think I should just shut up and drop the themes let me know. If you’d like to move any of the nights out of East London, that’d be pretty awesome too. Anyway, if you have any suggestions or ideas or anything like that, drop me a line.

See You, Space Cowboy

Bit of a Game Jam: Quadruple Town

This weekend, I participated in Bit of a Game Jam at London South Bank University. I’d never done a game jam before and I thought it’d be a good idea to get into the indie spirit. The theme that was drawn on the first day was “Clouds / Fractals / Vengeance.” I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. Was it one theme of all three? Was it to pick one of those themes? We decided to go with fractals.

First and foremost, we had no artists. We had two options: try to make art by ourselves or steal from the internet. We decided to go with the second option. We downloaded all of Dan Cook’s art sets and just picked out what we could use. We immediately decided to do the game in flash. More precisely, Luke wanted to do HTML5, but I just wasn’t having any of it. Given the decision to go with Flash, we decided to use the Small World set since it was a Flash asset.

Initially, we tried to get something up and running quickly with Flex, embedding the swf using the [Embed] tag. Normally, we’d have asset loaders and libraries and all that kind of thing, but it was important to me that for the game jam, if we ended up making something decent, which we didn’t (SPOILER), that people could just download the swf and play it without having to worry about external dependencies and internet connectivity.

However, we quickly ran into an issue with [Embed] and getDefinitionByName. We wasted about 3 hours on this issue and eventually, I moved from having a single embedded swf as a library to lots of different swfs that I didn’t need to load symbols from. In the mean time, Luke implemented a working version with file loading and applicationDomain.getDefinition. As far as I was concerned, both solutions were terrible. At this point, I decided that we should just move from Flex to Flash.

So once we made that switch, half of the first day wasted, things were a lot more smooth sailing. I implemented a “fractal” zoom. What was going to be the centerpiece of our game would be the fact that inside the church at the middle of the screen was a smaller version of the whole island. So if you load up the game and click the church, you’ll see a small version of the island, Cloud Island. See what we did there? Two of three theme elements worked in! Also, if you click on the blue background, it’ll zoom the opposite way.

The math for this is pretty simple. The island is two layers, the background and the church. When a zoom occurs, I just add another instance of the island between the two layers, scale everything and fade the parts that are disappearing. At first, there was completely different code for zooming in versus zooming out, but after I got it working, it was pretty clear that it was just the same effect, but backwards, so I combined the code for the two.

The only hiccup we ran into with this was that these assets are relatively complex and scaling them up to be huge was causing havoc on performance. Specifically, when zooming in or out, we’d drop down to about 2 frames per second. We didn’t even have any of the tiles in at that point. It was just background and church. So I implemented a function that takes a movieclip and makes a bitmap version of it. This solved all the performance problems, but then we ran into collision issues. Bitmap collision is by the block, not pixel collision. Usually what I would do at this point is to use InteractivePNG, a library by MosesSupposes. This time, though, I decided against it. I had a hunch that I would need to rely on proper hit detection rather than event fiddling at some point, so I implemented something strange. For each movieclip, I’d generate a bitmap version. However, I’d also create a movieclip version and line them up. Then I’d add them both to a sprite and set the movieclip version to the sprite’s hitArea and hide it. This way, I got the rendering performance of the bitmap, but the hit detection of the vector version. It was a horrendous implementation due to overkill, but it got all the functionality I needed at the time.

This was about the end of the first day.

We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do for gameplay. We were thinking of doing something like Maquette where you needed to solve an issue on one level by doing something on another level. We never got there. Luke had the idea of doing a matching puzzle game. He told me at the end of day that he hadn’t realized that Dan Cook, from whom we borrowed the art, was the same person who made Triple Town. It just so happened that they used some of the same assets. Ha ha. Anyway, I gave it a little thought and I started coming up with a rule set for our game.

The thing that kept coming back to me was that I liked the idea of matching 4 pieces and it creating a piece that was the size of 4 pieces. It would add a bit to our fractal theme and create some gameplay that matched. The down side of creating a piece of equal size when matching pieces is that you never remove pieces from the board. So you can’t get the feel that you get with games like Tetris where you need to get rid of pieces before it all fills up. Given this constraint, I decided it would be a space management game. We would cram you in and force you to sort the map out with the limited spaces that you had. The extra catch was that if you wanted some more space, you could shrink pieces by picking up a piece and moving it into the church. So there ended up being 4 rules for what I ended up naming Quadruple Town.

1. Four matching objects in a square make a bigger object (Bush -> Tree -> House -> Gold)
2. Tiles can be shrunk, but not grown
3. Each tile can only be moved once
4. 1 point for each tile with Gold

I thought, although it was pretty broken as a game design and as a game implementation, it had some interesting ideas. I like the idea that shrinking pieces gives you more space, but drops the theoretical high score you can get. I like the idea that matching 4 tiles makes an object that cannot be matched with another of those tiles in either type or size. I like the idea that early mistakes can come back to haunt you terribly. VENGEANCE! THREE THEME ACHIEVEMENT!

So the second day we hacked things in bit by bit. I think we had implemented rule 1 by the time we had 1 hour left. It took us about 30 minutes to add rule 4. We took another 20 minutes to add rule 2 and I snuck rule 3 in at the very last second.

Other than the obvious bugs, there’s a lot that I would have done differently if I were to do it again. Firstly, I wouldn’t have wasted so much time trying to get Flex to work. I didn’t even have a working version of Flex anyway. I had Flex 3, but that broke when I installed Lion. We were using some ruby gem that compiled mxml files.

I definitely wouldn’t have made the island a cloud shape. It makes the gameplay unpredictable an infuriating. It also meant I had to write a goofy algorithm to determine what were valid tile positions. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that. It was lucky that I decided to implement that bizarre version of bitmapping because it let me implement a raycast system to determine what were valid tiles and what weren’t.

All in all, though, I had a lot of fun and I’ve got this little swf to play around with. I think Luke and I have both committed bug fixes after the game jam. I think one commit each, but that’s more than I would have expected. Anyway. It was fun and I’d probably be interested in doing another game jam in the future.

Oh yeah, you can play the game here:

And here’s the full source:

PS: Some snarky comment about how Quadruple Town is terrible, but still more original than Yeti Town. =)

RIP Mismatch – The Fear of Being Unoriginal

Back in 2009, when I was still at Media Molecule, I started putting an eye towards mobile games. Each day on my train ride to and from Guildford, I’d work on a codebase that Luke and I had thrown together. The codebase was called FTG which either stood for Free Time Games or Fuck That Guy depending our our mood towards the world at any given point in time. We were writing random code for random experiments–mostly poker related experiments. Somewhere in that code graveyards is probably still a ridiculously fast poker hand simulator. Anyway, at some point, I started working on a game I called Mismatch. At first it was for PC and Mac (since I used a PC and Luke used a Mac), but was soon primarily developed for my iOS.

I still have fond memories of the birth of Mismatch. I’d had moved to London a little over than 2 years before and was living in Lewisham. When I moved from LA, all anyone ever said to me was that I should prepare for the extreme cold, which I had yet to experience. However, this morning, when I woke stepped outside of my flat, there was a layer of snow a foot thick on the floor. Having lived in LA all my life, that was a lot of snow. Obviously by any reasonable standard, it was a light sprinkling. Anyway, by London transport standards, it was a catastrophe. All trains were heavily delayed or cancelled and I had an hour and a half journey on a good day. Being the workaholic that I was, though, I really couldn’t fathom what I would do if I didn’t go to work. So I set off on my journey and got stranded at Canary Wharf when my girlfriend called me to say Siobhan had emailed everyone to say stay home. I went back home and was at a loss for what to do. Without a PS3 devkit, I was pretty much useless to Media Molecule. I decided to play SET with my girlfriend and watch news about the snow–such an exciting live I lead. It wasn’t long before something struck me. SET (http:// would make an amazing rule set for a puzzle game. Match 3 games were all the rage at the time and I thought why not make a MIS-match 3 game. So that day, in about 4 hours, I coded up the first version of Mismatch.

It was a push-pull puzzle game inspired by SET and Money Puzzle Exchanger where you tried to rearrange the board such that 3 tiles in a row were either all the same or all different for each attribute (color and shape) like the rules in SET. In the end the SET rules were an interesting differentiator, but as I knew from playing SET with many different people, some people are just magic at it (Jake Sones) and some people constantly need it explained to them why something is not a set. The part that I got really obsessed with was the push-pull mechanic. I worked in an arcade called Nickel! Nickel! for the last two years of high school and my favorite game by far was Money Puzzle Exchanger on the Neo Geo machine. I was so used to the dropping tiles of Tetris or the swapping tiles of Bejeweled that push-pull felt like a magical balance between the two. Dropping tiles makes making major changes easy but leaves you at the whim of the random number generator while swapping tiles makes the board feel like a set of tools but makes it near difficult to make any substantial change. Push-pull is an amazing mechanic because it leverages the board as a tool set, but still enables fast and massive changes.

I kept plugging along on Mismatch for my 34 minute train journeys from Waterloo to Guildford and from Guildford to Waterloo every day and worked on polishing mechanics, adding combos, improving the touch controls, and so on and so forth, until one day, when I just stopped working on it to never touch the code again. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence. We didn’t finish any of our poker experiments. Side projects get dropped all the time. Something new and shiny comes up or live gets in the way. It’s just how it goes with doing things in your spare time (or even sometimes in your professional life). However, there was a very particular reason that I stopped working on Mismatch and I don’t know if this happens to everyone or if it just happens to me all the time. The reason was Critter Crunch by Capybara. I saw a trailer for Critter Crunch on PSN and my jaw dropped. It was absolutely gorgeous and playful and all sorts of other wonderful things. When I obsessively searched the internet for anything I could find about Biggs and friends, I discovered that there was an iOS version that had come out many moons ago. I download it immediately and was blown away. It played just as amazingly as it looked, if not better. I felt like I wasn’t ever going to make Mismatch anything that could ever compare to Critter Crunch. I’d be serving the world better if I just released what I had, but when you tapped the start button a message would pop up saying, “If you thought you were going to like this, you should go buy Critter Crunch.”

This happens to me all the time. I was really excited about making a reverse tower defense game until I played Anomaly. It even happens to me when I’m considering blogging something or even just tweeting something. I think to myself, “Do I know enough about the subject matter to produce something that would justify the amount of time it would take someone to read it?” And more often then not, I come back with the answer no. I often see people putting stuff out there and think “Really? Why did you bother?” And then I realize what an idiot I’m being. People bother because those who don’t try never win. Those who just stand on the sidelines and silently judge may be so lucky to earn themselves delusions of superiority, but at the end of the day, the world is changed by people who do things.

I started writing this blog post because I started playing Hero Academy today. It has a lot of similarities with the game I’m currently working on. I know it’s not the first and I know it won’t be the last, but it’s the one that that made me wonder if I could make something worthy of competing. I refuse to walk away from it this time, though. If you run into me and I’m no longer working on a multiplayer turn-based strategy game, it better be because I made it and it was terrible rather than I gave up because I played something I oughtn’t bother. That’s the whole point of working in a creative industry. We are here because we don’t want to be doing the same thing every day. We want to be constantly challenged and inspired.

Obviously, creative integrity is extremely important to me–too much so in fact. We live in a world where some people don’t think twice before brutally and shamelessly cloning the last big thing. And while it’s frustrating to operate along side such creatively and morally bankrupt people, we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can’t let our fear of being unoriginal prevent us from moving forward. We’ve got to point a keen eye forward without being ashamed of where we’ve come from. We cannot underestimate the power of iteration and incremental progress. We cannot ignore the value of something new no matter how much baggage it comes along with. If everyone was afraid of taking the smaller steps, we never would have made it from Pong to Pac-Man, Mario to Metroid, or Sam & Max to Sworcery.

How you would like to see the video game industry change?

I was messing around with Quora and answered the question in the title and thought I’d post it here as a different version of my previous post.

There are two ways that I wish the games industry from change, one from the perspective of an older consumer and another from the perspective of a frustrated developer.

As a consumer, I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to play less and less games.  I simply don’t have 20 hours to invest playing a single game if the experience at the twentieth hour doesn’t change dramatically from the experience of the first hour.  I still find myself completely enthralled by games like Mario Galaxy because they present perpetual cycles of clearly redefining the ruleset of the gameplay.  However, many new games that I purchase and try out define a single gameplay mechanic and simply add 20 hours of content to justify my $60 investment.  Even worse, because of the risk aversion brought on by high development costs, some games provide 20 hours of content without even introducing one single new game mechanic.

As much as I’d hope every game studio could create masterpieces like Mario Galaxy, I think it’s more realistic to hope that the economics will make sense for game developers to find a way to create an experience that matches the strength of the mechanics behind it.  Much like popcorn action films are usually an hour and a half while epics like Lord of the Rings span over eleven hours, I would hope that video game creators could find ways to find the right means and amount of expression for gameplay mechanics of various depths.

This leads directly into the change I’d like to see as a developer.  I am greatly encouraged by the massive growth of gaming lately through party games, mobile games, and social games.  My hope is that as all of these different platforms, interaction methods, and distribution channels allow for a much wider range of games to be viable to develop, but furthermore for the momentum of these types of advancements to accelerate.  I think we’re only at the infancy of the potential for games as a medium and I think it’s about time we see it starting to mature.  I hope that in my career as a game developer I’ll go from “making games for gamers” to “making games for people.”

The End of 5 Gallon Games

I went to a dinner with my brother’s friends a few years ago.  After I explained that I make video games for a living, I found myself asking a question that I find a bit strange.  The question was: “Do you play games?”  The reason I find is so strange is that there are so many mediums where the question is almost meaningless.  With film, you can jump ahead to “What is your favorite movie?” and with music, you can jump ahead to “What music do you listen to?”  I found myself wondering why.

I think the industry is definitely making some movement in the right direction.  I think the Wii, iPhone, and Facebook games are all helping to solve this problem, but what exactly was the problem?  There were so many pieces to the problem, but they all stemmed from one single thing: cost.  In this case, money was the root of all evil.  To start with, creating hardware was expensive.  So even without starting, every developer is burdened with the original sin of the hardware development and manufacturing costs.  Then you add the actual high development costs.  Then you add the marketing costs.  With such huge costs of development, you need to pass the expenses onto the consumer.  Each console is a few hundred dollars, but significantly worse is the fact that each game costs $50 to $60.  Then because of this high retail price tag, you need to justify the price by putting 20 hours of content into the box.  So not only have you self selected for people who can afford the high price tag, but you’ve secondarily selected for people who have 20 hours to spend playing the game.  Console games are basically the wholesale version of gaming.  If you’re in the mood for a drink, you need to buy a 5 gallon bottle or nothing.  And in a world where beverages were only sold in 5 gallon bottles, you wouldn’t have the variety of beverages that you have.  You’d have water, coke, and coke knock offs.  Likewise, if you’re forced to purchase gaming in 20 hour increments, you have to stick to gameplay mechanics which are fun in bulk, which terrifyingly, is heavily drawn to the black hole of murdering things.

So when I say that we’re making some movement in the right direction, I’m not really focused on the fact that there are more varied genres or the fact that the games are shorter or even the fact that you can play more of these games with your friends.  The important progress that we’re making is that there are games that are less expensive to make.  Everything else is a natural consequence of that.  When you haven’t sunk millions of dollars into a game, you don’t need to put a huge price tag on it.  When you haven’t put a huge price tag on it, you don’t need to provide a Costco sized bucket of content.  And when you don’t need to provide 20 hours of gameplay, you can diversify what games are.  And even better, when you’re not only selling 5 gallon bottles of gameplay, people are more willing to try it out and maybe even find out that they like it.

Our New Game: First Screenshot