We intend to create a world where everyone will enjoy our games without exception.


Redesigning Vikingr

Filed under: Vikingr — Tags: , , , @ 16:59

Today, I changed the project description on Vikingr!. These alterations to the project’s mission occurred in the week before the winter show, and they go deep. Months of local optimization on the problem of making a fun game about Vikings had failed to produce an enjoyable experience, so at my wife’s behest I undertook a challenge: Use this final week to start from scratch and make something enjoyable that addressed the whole scope of Viking life.

I’m very glad I did. I threw out the notion of producing a “Dwarf Fortress, but with Vikings and social play” and focused on moment-to-moment pleasures: busy hands in home life (no more setting up situations and waiting for things to happen), sailing with multitouch controls, raiding without complex strategy and micromanagement. I went to a side view with simple sprites (except for the Mode 7-style sailing, inspired by Final Fantasy VI) rather than the isometric projection. I switched to Unity3D so I could get things going quickly and discourage myself from over-reliance on native user interface elements (or, indeed, from fiddling with them to no end). These changes dramatically improved my project’s forward velocity, people enjoyed playing my game more, and I was in a better position to put more social interactions into gameplay.

It seems counter-intuitive that moving towards simple and superficial could make the rich social exchanges I had hoped for more feasible, but it boiled down to the observation my wife had made: If I had spent six months working on home life and farming in such exquisite(-ly boring) detail, there were simply not enough months until May to do the same for sailing, raiding, and social life. I had over-modeled one portion of my game—and not even the important portion, at that! Now that my world signals simplicity, I can employ much simpler types of social exchange without causing inconsistencies in player experience.

So, that’s where Vikingr stands right now. I am currently fleshing it out and extending it with additional social exchanges—not trying to cram sociality into an asocial design.



Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , @ 17:06

I often find myself consumed by the desire to do things that are quite difficult and labour intensive, but which may not be essential or even necessary elements of what I would consider to be an excellent video game.  Large, realistic environments populated by scores of unique characters would be a prime example of this sort of thing.  While games set in vast virtual worlds can be appealing to players, their scope is almost always beyond the production capabilities of an indie developer.

I have recently started working on a project about time travel and finance.  The game involves the ability to visit nearly any point in the foreseeable future and it could end up with an explosive and unmanageable scope if I don’t approach the design in a disciplined way.  Because of this, I’d like to remind myself of some of the values that define a great game, but which do not require extensive resources to realize.
  • Depth – A game that is easy to learn and hard to master needs little else to seduce potential players.
  • Brevity – I am inspired by the sophisticated and elegant strategic challenges that arise out of the simple rules of German style board games.
  • Idiosyncrasy – Sensing the hand of a clever but unconventional author is one of the great charms of any form of media.  Games like Portal or The Secret of Monkey Island are more than the sum of their parts thanks to their eccentric character.
  • Surprise – Games that challenge me with mechanics that I have not encountered before will always interest me.  This is an absolute prerequisite for any design that I create.
  • Mystery – If a game’s fiction keeps me asking “what will happen after I accomplish the next goal?” I will play it to the end.
  • Heterogeneity – The variety offered by games like Pirates! and Star Control 2 is extremely appealing to me.  Many games lose me because they repeat the same activity over the entire game.
  • Not on rails – I love it when a game gives me broad long-term goals, but offers me many ways of potentially reaching them.


The Pitching Process

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: @ 12:05

How did we go from a carte blanche “design some games” mandate to real, produceable game ideas? And more importantly, how did we convincingly communicate these concepts to our sponsors? The pitching process was almost as painful as playtesting and nearly as educational, and I hope that our experiences expressing our designs can be useful to others who have the chance to sell someone on their ideas.

Of course, carte blanche rarely means just that. In our case, the target platform (which we can’t talk about yet) had its own constraints and affordances, and our sponsors also suggested a preference for certain types of games more than others. As in any project, our initial design ideas were informed by—and in fact revolved around—these capabilities and limitations.

The first thing I did (even before Erin joined up) was to think on my own for a while. I drafted up some broad principles, and used these to produce intense conversations with faculty in related research areas. I made appointments with Steve Anderson, Anne Balsamo, and Chris Swain to talk through my confusion regarding the design space—and to glean some inspiration from their reflection of my enthusiasm. Soon, Erin was brought onto the project and we continued to brainstorm separately for a week or two.

After some time to think, Erin and I met to chat, share our ideas, and kick off the project. She came armed with sketches and design concepts, and I provided some designs of my own and an overarching thesis developed through my talks with the faculty. We parted ways, brainstormed again (fueled by each other’s proto-games scribbled in our notebooks), and met to speak once more in the presence of a whiteboard. Finally, we narrowed our search down to seven specific concepts and seven vaguely-defined ones (with a lot more left on the cutting room floor). We knew that we had to get at least one concept pitched and approved before the school year began, so we hedged our bets and decided to very briefly pitch all seven to our sponsors to gauge their interest. To us, the most important asset was information—we wanted to be sure we were moving in the right direction, so we tried to communicate as frequently as possible. We gave ourselves about two weeks.

Erin used her facility with ink and paper to sketch up brief concept art for each of our seven front-runners. Meanwhile, I read through the platform documentation and formulated the technical and political questions that would make or break our ideas. Erin and I had been documenting our designs online as we spoke about them, so it was a simple matter to take the three or four core concepts from each design and paste them into a slideshow next to her illustrative sketches. We gave the presentation, answered questions, and tried to note our sponsors’ enthusiasm levels. When they saw what we saw in a concept, they clearly shared our excitement; when they were unenthused, we tried to assume that the problem wasn’t necessarily a design issue, but a communication issue. We had effectively playtested our pitches with a vertical slice. This initial presentation was immensely valuable for us. If you can’t do it with your actual sponsors, then at least do it with a skeptical friend.

We were now on the hook for five full-fledged presentations. About five and a half concepts had survived of the original seven, but we were told to put one of those on the back burner due to its scope and sheer majesty (remembering that we will have two 15-to-20-week production cycles). We therefore developed some ideas further, merged others together, and catalyzed a new idea from a now-dead design and the overwhelming enthusiasm of our sponsor for a tangentially-related theme. With these new ideas in hand, we decided to pitch in three phases:

  1. First two pitches (to verify our pitch format)
  2. Last three pitches (to discern the strongest of the five concepts)
  3. Final pitches (to send on to the powers-that-be)

Erin’s past pitching experience had taught her the value of visual aids, so we developed a visual strategy for each idea. The more narrative games earned mini-comics that illustrated their “aesthetics” (in the MDA sense); the more reptilian designs were expressed via a mix of concept art and videos of Unity prototypes that I had developed. Overpainting was used to great effect in showing how these prototype videos would appear with actual art rather than mere blue capsules on white terrain. These techniques both paid immense dividends—seeing something makes it feel more real, more achievable. In each of our pitches, we supplemented the visual aids with three slides of bullet-pointed information about the game’s core principles, its basic scope, and its capacity for extension into expansions, microtransactions, et cetera. After the second phase, we would learn that we should extend this textual matter further to include a rough milestone schedule, a description of the development team’s human resources, and an illustration of the context in which our game would appear on the sponsor’s platform (I’d love to give more details on this, but I can’t yet).

On Wednesday we delivered the final pitches to our sponsor. Due to some voluntary scope limitations, we agreed to pitch the two concepts with the highest intersection area of “achievable” and “interesting”. Erin and I are immensely proud of all of our designs, and of how relentlessly we aimed to communicate and clarify our ideas. We’re grateful to our sponsors for their time and their willingness to beta-test our pitches, and we’re looking forward to beginning work in earnest in a few weeks’ time.

Of course, we also spent the summer looking for volunteers and developing production schedules, but those adventures—as well as my pet theories on small-game-project management—will be detailed in later posts.


The Littlest Corporate Overlord

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: @ 22:15

Over this summer and the coming year, Erin Reynolds and I will be devising and producing two modern-console-bound games in about 16 weeks each. The summer’s brainstorming and pitching phase nearly concluded, it falls to us to both select volunteers (as we have basically no budget) and to design a production process and schedule capable of achieving our ludic goals within such compressed timeframes. The actual selection process is ongoing and thus it would be gauche to speak of it, but I thought it might be valuable (for me, at least, if no one else) to write a series of articles about our current and prospective production processes. First, then, a post on why we want to manage anyone at all when theoretically we could do all of the work ourselves.

Erin and I are specialists. She is an accomplished artist and I am a coder with a healthy loathing for his past work (which ought at least to be a sign of progress). Erin also has a lot of experience with the production side of game development: ensuring that work is accomplished in a timely manner. Our primary goal here—that is, apart from the creation of excellent entertainments—is personal skill development. Specifically, we would like to branch out from our specialties and avoid the so-comfortable (yet so-stagnant) pigeonholes that we often fall into. We therefore each intend, if at all possible, to supervise two volunteer “employees”—and I have taken on the responsibility of producing these games and managing the work effort on all fronts.

Obviously, neither of us wants to abandon our core competencies or leave the hard work to others. While I hope to avoid being bogged down in day-to-day bug-fixing, I fully intend to work extensively on digital prototypes, support tools, and other facilitative software in addition to my core design and production tasks. Similarly, Erin wants to evade the artist’s purgatory of endless animation tweaks and will instead provide concept art, character bibles, reference materials, and art direction alongside her design work. We will both take responsibility for exhaustive quality assurance and bug reporting.

Future posts will detail how we have brainstormed and developed our pitches, how we have estimated and scheduled our work, and how we intend to run our production: how many meetings, how many sticky notes, and where the big whiteboard should go.