Exciting and Interesting Cool Things - Part 5

Here's a new game for you to try out: Storyteller. This clever little experiment allows you to manipulate three characters to influence the outcome of the story they live in. And what's interesting is that people seem to like it! I couldn't find any negative comments about it at all.

This one example may be simple, but it hints at the awesomeness that could be had with more sophisticated interactions and a more immersive presentation.

As I mentioned in a comment on Kongregate:
If people can enjoy a story space consisting of permutations on pairings between three simple characters, imagine what greatness could arise from a more complex and nuanced story.

There was also an interesting discussion of the game on GameSetWatch, focusing on the unusual way it deals with story structure.

"Storyteller works through and because of its clich├ęs. Does it have anything to tell us about interactive storytelling?

If so, what it has to say is probably this:

Explicit structure matters.

Storyteller allows us to change almost everything about the outcome of its storyworld, but it constrains us to three episodes: set-up, crisis, outcome."

More recently, another experimental, pixelated game has been taking the world's Flash portals by storm. This is the delightfully be-tentacled
I Fell in Love With the Majesty of Colors. It has been popular enough to be the subject of a card challenge on Kongregate and has been featured on the front page of Newgrounds for over a week now. This is quite surprising for a game that has no goal other than to explore all possible branches of the story. And I'm not complaining.

The Majesty of Colors has been described as a vignette game. I'd also describe it as a sort of Environment Sketch, with less on the procedural content and more of a focus on character and story instead of natural beauty. It is also very much a roleplaying game, in the sense that the gameplay consists of playing a role, of acting, and deciding what kind of character you are by the actions that you take. Of course, it is almost minimally simple, like Storyteller, but it hints at the exciting possibilities to be found along this path.

The game also relies heavily on text, as does the earlier experimental hit You Have to Burn the Rope, which I find intriguing. This text is like a sketched placeholder for something that would, in an ordinary game, be conveyed through interactivity. Which is not to say that the writing feels rough - in The Majesty of Colors, this text is very poetic and establishes mood and expectations superbly.

I wonder about the minimalism of these games. Are they that way simply because they are quick experiments, the first of their kind? Could the concepts support a more complex, involved implementation? Is this perhaps an example of intentionally limiting resources to spur creativity? I don't know. I guess I'll just have to try, and see how it turns out.

And now for something completely different.

Or perhaps not so different. This post has been all about the triumph and promise of exploratory, freeform gameplay over the rigidly goal-oriented kind. Now here's an article arguing that play, contrary to popular belief, is not a waste of time: No more game shame. Its premise is actually quite far-reaching:

"We've been steadily increasing our productivity for decades. We work and work and work; when we finally give ourselves permission to play, we party and binge-drink ourselves into oblivion (or sleep in restorative seclusion), maximizing the efficiency of even our recreation. Then we crash and recover just in time to report back to work. Somewhere on a hill Sisyphus is smirking.

We need more creative energy, imaginative thinking, and an infusion of earnest, unselfconscious, child-like faith in impossible dreams. We need more playful fun - not simply downtime or vacation time - that engages our minds and spirits in joyful re-creation. In other words, we could stand to bring back a few lessons from the world we enter when we play with toys."

One reader goes even further in this comment:

"If primitive peoples could get by on four hours a day spent on securing their survival, why, with all of our modern technological advances, do I need to spend twice as long doing the same thing? I perceive WORK to be the waste of time. The eight or so hours a day I spend at work is time I pissed away doing nothing pertinent to what I value or my goals for myself, the world, or my environment."

An interesting perspective on work. And primitive peoples. It brings to mind this delightfully inflammatory article, about the work of Food Not Bombs: or, Free Bread and Soup is a National Threat. As its author says, "The realization that I lived in a culture that locked up it’s food in order to force us to work was a brutal shock." Yes. Interesting.

Why do we work? For money, of course. I came across another article recently. It happened to be curiously relevant to this particular line of thought. I had never really thought about money before, or the dynamics of the system it supports. But now I can see something rather sinister about the whole deal, and where it ends up...

"Essentially, for the economy to continue growing and for the (interest-based) money system to remain viable, more and more of nature and human relationship must be monetized. For example, thirty years ago most meals were prepared at home; today some two-thirds are prepared outside, in restaurants or supermarket delis. A once unpaid function, cooking, has become a "service". And we are the richer for it. Right?"

Right? Maybe not. Read on:

"Or I can find a traditional society that uses herbs and shamanic techniques for healing, destroy their culture and make them dependent on pharmaceutical medicine which they must purchase, evict them from their land so they cannot be subsistence farmers and must buy food, clear the land and hire them on a banana plantation -- and I have made the world richer. I have brought various functions, relationships, and natural resources into the realm of money."

That doesn't sound too good to me. The guy who wrote Ishmael has this to say about the difference between traditional economies and those of us civilized people:

"In [tribal] societies, people look after each other for much the same reasons that people in [hierarchical] societies take jobs and have careers. In [tribal] societies, people look after one another not because they're saintly but because looking after one another assures that they themselves will be looked after. If they don't look after one another, then the community disappears -- and no one is looked after.
It's an economy. An economy based on support instead of products."

Can we do better?

Well, to bring this back to the world of games, how about I link you to a game development diary detailing the day-by-day progress of a simple Flash game? You like that idea? I wish more people would publish that sort of thing. Maybe I should do one. Hmmm... :)


Exciting and Interesting Cool Things - Part 4

This post is a celebration of exciting game ideas. Are you feeling excited yet? :D

I've recently revisited the Three Hundred Mechanics project, which is one guy's attempt to document a new, original game design every day for three hundred days. Apparently he's given up on the "every day" part, but among the hundred or so concepts that have been posted so far are quite a few that I really like.

For example...And many more...

Just pick one at random and take a look! I find them quite clever, often intriguing, and always delightful to imagine. And as an added bonus, the pixel art that accompanies these descriptions provides another nice treat for the imagination. :)

Speaking of pixel art, here's a guy who takes pixel-y classic games and creates awesome painted character and concept art in the delicious flavor of the originals. Not only that, but he also writes up detailed design documents for his reimagined classics. I don't know if these designs are meant to ever be made into real games, but I hope they are - I'd love to play them!

That picture at the top of this post? That's Bomber Queen.

And be sure to check out Viper Girl as well - the art for that one is really inspiring. I'm amazed that no existing games make use of that chunky, solid-color painting style. It just looks so good!

"I like the simple flat colors of the NES version. With such a limited palette, you almost have to go for a simple light-shadow solution. As hardware evolved and artists got more colors, many fell into the trap of doing gradiation and texture just because they could. It's an easy trap to fall into for a painter as well."

Now, if you thought that was cool, here's something that may be even cooler. Take a look through these continuity guides by art director Bill Perkins. While there's a lot of nice concept art on that site, the first dozen slides are what you really need to see.
Start here.

These images are the continuity guides for a game called Gon, which as far as I can tell never made it out into the real world, sadly. Continuity guides are kind of a step up from concept art. Not experiments in how the game might look, instead they describe how to create art that fits the feel of the game. In this case, that involves an intriguing blend of African art, fractals, plant life, and messing with pictorial space.

Did you know that African art is fractal? I didn't. But apparently a lot of it is, and that's awesome. And what's even more awesome is seeing how these various examples of African art have been drawn upon to deliver a unique and compelling depiction of the savanna. I don't know about you, but I'm inspired. Click.

Oh yes, and before I forget, Mr. Shen wins the internet!
He wins it. Wins. It.

my mind.


Exciting and Interesting Cool Things - Part 3

Why are casual games so popular? A very insightful blog post on Anyway Games outlines the true heart of "casual" in three basic principles that any game designer would do well to keep in mind: They offer a "complete experience" immediately, at any time, and consistently.
  • Immediately means you don't have to work up to the thrill. The thrill begins when you start the game.
  • At any time means the thrill doesn't come in spurts or need rebuilding after the game is paused.
  • Consistently means the thrill is there every time the game is turned on.
Read the full article.

Drum roll, please -

And now, for our feature presentation: The Princess Rescuing Application: Slides. This insightful presentation by Lost Garden's own Daniel Cook contrasts the way that princess-rescuing might be done as a typical software application, versus how it would be done as a game. As you may guess, Super Mario Bros. does a lot better than Microsoft Word when it comes to the business of saving princesses. What you might not immediately realize is that games can do much better than our usual applications even when it comes to more mundane matters, such as, say, word processing.

The key is in the learning curve, from novice to power user. Typical applications toss a confusing abundance of tools and options at new users, or simplify so much that no one can become an expert. Games on the other hand manage to ensure an enjoyable and reliable ride from utter noobness to l33t mastery. How do they do it? Learn the secrets of game-like application design, including Levels, Items, Inventory, and Quests. More inside! Download the slides.

And here's another Lost Garden article from early in the summer, asking that age-old question, What activities can be turned into games? As it turns out, almost any learnable skill can be turned into a game, if it meets the following criteria:
  1. Decomposable into simpler skills
  2. Skills can be nested
  3. Skills can be arranged in a smooth learning curve
  4. Skills are measurable
  5. Performance can be rewarded
  6. Skills are locally useful.
Daniel Cook examines these one by one. Read and be amazed! You will never look at a bathroom scale the same way again. Learn how to harness the power of games to "turn a commodity scale into one of the hottest consumer products of the year." All this and more can be yours, for the low, low price of one click.

"As more leisure games emerge that mediate and accelerate the acquisition of skills, there is going to be a economic incentive to spread the science and craft of game design far beyond our tiny game industry. Game design is not just about games. It is a transformational new product development technique that can turn historically commoditized activities into economic blockbusters."

Here's an interesting article. Do you ever wonder where people get the time to contribute to Wikipedia, post on their blogs every day or play games online? Well, according to Gin, Television, and Social Surplus they get the time from not watching TV (or, in my case, by not sleeping enough). If you add up all the hours of mental energy that are dissipated into the mind-sink of television, you will get a number close to "Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year." I don't know about you, but I'm happy to carve out a little slice from that cognitive surplus and deploy it towards something a bit more interactive, a bit more eye-opening, a bit more mind-changing, a bit more useful, perhaps. "People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share." Let's help them.

  • It seems like 3D in Flash just keeps getting more and more impressive. I can't say much for the content, but this little web experience has graphics and a presentation that I find amazing. Very stylish, very easy to use, and very well done within the limitations of Flash: The Eco Zoo.

For those of you who are willing to dig deep, this Motherload has buried the glittering jewels of addictive game design beneath its rough exterior. You want to know how to make a game addictive, how to ensnare your players in a devilish web of overlapping reward cycles until they have no choice but to do your bidding, even at two in the morning with a paper due the next day? Then perhaps you would do well to begin your study with Motherload. May only the worthy reap its precious secrets.

Oh yeah, in case you were wondering what I did all summer, here's your answer: Elmore City Dance Club. Ever wanted to diagram out an awesome dance step, and share it with all your friends? No? Well now you can, at the Elmore City Dance Club. I did all the Flash parts of the site, including this nifty embeddable widget. Behold!

...haterz want to be me, Soulja Boy, I'm the man, they be lookin' at my neck, sayin'

What? Why are you looking at me like that?


Exciting and Interesting Cool Things - Part 2

I've just started reading a book called The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram. So far, I've quite enjoyed it. Coincidentally, someone has gone through the trouble of typing up exactly the part of the book which I have read - the first chapter. So if you read that part, you'll have about as much reason as I do to be excited about nature games.

(...though you might have to read the Mountains and Waters Sutra too, which could be painful)

So, nature games? What am I talking about?

Well, not too long ago* I read this article online called Let there be life: Games go organic telling how "Developers are nursing creative gameplay out of Mother Nature's mulch" - in other words, getting game ideas from nature.

Besides being introduced to some cool titles like PixelJunk Eden, and the enticing projects going on at Cambrian Games, reading that article has made me wonder whether there might be a real trend here, with new games drawing on nature (or, the real real world) more and more. Because you know, while it's great to keep coming up with new ways to shoot aliens, there's a lot more variety to be found outside, if you look for it. Every species is playing its own game. Even aphids.

Plus it brings us back to our roots, as humans and members of ecological systems. On Lost Garden not too long ago* Daniel Cook wrote up a gameplay analysis of his life-inspired game idea Shade, based on playing a prototype submitted by a reader of his blog. What he found was that "Searching for the perfect mushroom is exciting", and "The dynamically changing world is exciting". He thought the game might be made even more fun by adding more varieties of mushrooms with different growing cycles, and creating "a dynamic ecosystem" by adding predators and seed carriers and more complex mushroom interactions.

This sentence in particular caught my eye: "The fact that the world was living and growing was immensely satisfying." Wow. Well, considering the fact that we, as humans, evolved, were created, to live as active participants of a world that visibly, loudly, lives and grows, what else could you expect? The way so many of us manage to shut out that living, growing world in favor of a world so dead we have to play games to give us that feeling again - well, that's the strange part. This trend, perhaps, of games that come from nature? That's the trend that makes sense.

As I wrote in a comment on that Shade gameplay analysis:
I'm also encouraged by the way these elements of fun that Danc has identified seem to reflect tastes that would be well-suited to people making their living through gathering and hunting food in the wild, as they have throughout the majority of humanity's evolutionary life. It just makes these games seem that much more wholesome. :)

Oh, and if you're wondering, the image above is from the artistically and biologically inspired new game Blueberry Garden. The game is still under development, but the author has released a trailer that looks very promising.

*too long ago

In other news, it seems that there is an intriguing new indie MMO under development, with a rather unusual, if somewhat pretentious, name - Love. I don't know much about the gameplay, but the art style is like a cross between the color script for The Incredibles and a digital speedpainting. I've always thought it would be cool to have a game with that art style. And well, there you go - a game with that art style.

The game's author, Eskil Steenberg, has a blog. It's a very interesting blog, very indie... I like it. I was inspired and encouraged by one post in particular, in which he says that All true renegades walk alone.

"In every situation you find yourself, there are limitations, disregarding how much power you accumulate. So being creative is really about finding the possibilities of what you have rather then the limitations of what you don't."

In fact I found it more directly inspiring even than the now-famous Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. Needless to say, I identify quite strongly with the sentiment expressed by Eskil Steenberg throughout his blog.

  • While we're on the subject, I think I've fallen in Love with another game idea: Adopt an Invader. It's like Spore would be, if it were designed by Lost Garden, for the graphing calculator. Awesome.

I've also been looking into rapid prototyping again, since I've got so many games I want to make and so little time. I figure that if I can crank out a quick gameplay prototype for each of these ideas, at least half of them will reveal themselves to be horrible ideas that should never be played by anyone, let alone developed into full games. Then I can cross them off my list, without having gone through the trouble of actually finishing them.

But my secret fear is that all my ideas are so amazingly good, I'll have no choice but to make all them. ;)

Anyway, make sure you check out How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days, the definitive how-to article on rapid game prototyping from the four grad students who started the whole trend. Good stuff.


Exciting and Interesting Cool Things - Part 1

First things first: Braid

This is very encouraging news. Braid is an independent game that has met with very big success. It was developed by a handful of people led by designer Jonathan Blow, and not only is it selling well, it has been getting unanimously positive reviews by both players and critics.

Like Portal, another very popular and well-received game, Braid is an innovative puzzle game built on top of a more familiar action game setting. I wonder if there is something about puzzle games that makes them easier to perfect and polish into a cohesive, finely crafted experience like Braid and Portal.

Braid's author, Jonathan Blow, is a sometimes controversial figure whose writing and talks I have been following for a while. Though I don't necessarily agree with everything he says (or what anyone else says, really) it's always fun and interesting to listen. And the success of his first big project, Braid, shows that he knows what he's doing, and that it's possible to make it big as an indie developer. I find that very encouraging.

At the end of one talk he gave earlier this year called Games Need You, about "how our games are inherently conflicted", Blow read a quote describing how games convey meaning:

"...meaning which is less specific, less concrete and deliberate, harder to define, harder to pin down, a meaning that transcends the author-reader conduit model of 'message' style meaning, a meaning that absorbs intention but is not bound by it, a meaning that can't be reduced to a claim about the world, but is no less about the world because of it."

It struck me that this describes not only how games might convey meaning, but could just as well be a description of mythtelling through oral narrative poetry, as described in the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife. If you want to understand the meaning of games, you would do well to read that book.


Review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife

In an earlier post, I mentioned that the one artform with the most relevance to games is myth. Here is a review of the book that lead me to that conclusion.

This book is about myth, and how to understand this ancient art form in a time when we are so far from the sort of social context in which myth was the primary way of making sense of the world.

What do you think of when you hear the word "myth"?

Perhaps the most frequent way the word is used in our modern, literate society is to refer to a story that is false, an explanation that is incorrect. This is not the sort of myth to which Bringhurst has devoted over four hundred pages. Another place we might encounter the word is in museum exhibits or books about ancient history, where we read "myths" as the rather fanciful religious stories of those cultures yet to be blessed with a scientific understanding of the world. This sense of the word is somewhat closer to what Bringhurst is concerned with. But there is an important difference.

Myth is a performance art. It is oral poetry, storytelling. When we open a book and read "the creation myth of the ancient Egyptians" what we find is a fossilized skeleton that reveals no trace of its original vitality. As Bringhurst convincingly shows, the art and value of a myth is in its individual, idiosyncratic telling. If we read a summary of a myth and assume that that's all there is to it, we are no better off than someone who tries to understand a masterpiece of jazz improvisation by looking at the song's chord changes. In the case of myth, the story isn't enough - you need a transcription of the artist's actual words, just as you'd need a transcription of the actual notes that were played in a jazz solo. Better yet, listen to a live performance.

As you might expect, however, live performances of mythic storytelling are hard to come by nowadays. We are lucky to find even a faithful transcription of such a telling, as it is a rare anthropologist who has understood the importance of taking precise dictation rather than recording only a summary. One notable exception was the linguist John Swanton, who in 1900 went to live with the Haida people off the northwest coast of Canada and transcribed thousands of lines of oral poetry. Then in the late 20th century, Robert Bringhurst managed to come across Swanton's work.

Bringhurst's background is in poetry, not anthropology. As a result, he has been able to see in these old transcriptions a quality that most others have failed to appreciate. And with his book, A Story as Sharp as a Knife, he provides a means for others to begin to understand what is so great about these classical Haida myths and about all myth in general.

The book's subtitle is The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, and in it you will find a tour of that world, organized around a selection of about a dozen myths. It's a tour that you may repeat many times, or just skip around to the parts that interest you. The book doesn't set out to prove one particular point, and there is no explicit introduction or concluding chapter to summarize the book for you - the prologue gets you started on a journey, but it doesn't provide a map of what you'll encounter.

Each myth featured in the book serves as the reference material for an investigation into a different aspect of mythtelling. In each section, Bringhurst provides some historical and cultural background, followed by the translated myth transcription itself and an analysis, highlighting certain passages and occasionally bringing in outside connections such as Renaissance painting to compare or contrast with Haida mythtelling traditions. The main chapters of the book are supplemented by an extensive collection of notes, as well as several appendices on language and translation concerns.

Of course, there are plenty of things that the book doesn't do. It doesn't give you a large number of myths, just enough to give you a feel for them. Neither does Bringhurst go into much detail about Haida culture or mythology beyond what is required to understand the particular stories he presents. And while obviously a great deal of research went into writing this book, everything in it is either historical fact or the author's personal interpretation; it is not what you might call a "scientific" book. Not that that's necessarily a weakness, but it would be nice to have further verification of his views through another source or the support of a fleshed-out theoretical framework. What you can expect is to gradually gain a unique appreciation for myth through the experience of reading the book.

Though it is difficult to reduce Bringhurst's investigation into a single question or argument, there are several identifiable threads connecting the many observations and explanations distributed throughout. Some of these are simply context, the stories of villages and mythtellers and anthropologists, together covering the who, where, and when of the subject. The others could be thought of as supporting the main theoretical concern of this book, the what, how, and why of mythology.

One of these threads, answering the question of what is the nature of myth, explains that myths are living things, perpetuated through human minds because they are deeply meaningful. Together, many myths form an ecology, a living mythology, in symbiosis with a human society. This mythological system exists to make sense of the structure and dynamics of the world, how the world works and how it is organized. While it is still alive, every mythology is an ecosystem that continually evolves as individual mythtellers reinterpret the stories in terms of their own understanding of the world. As Bringhurst writes, "A genuine mythology is a systematically elaborated, extended, interconnected and adaptable set of myths. It is a kind of science in narrative form."

Another thread, which deals with how people convey meaning through myth, emphasizes the importance of individual tellings, that the way myths convey an understanding of the world depends on the details of a particular artistic performance. Myths make use of archetypes, themes, plots, and patterns, but these are building blocks - they are not the essential message. What matters is how these elements are connected and arranged to create new meaning: "A story is, in fact, a sentence: a big sentence saying, or revealing, many things that a full list of its components cannot say." When myths are reduced to summaries and stereotypes, as has sadly been the case in a vast majority of anthropological work on the subject, "we lose all the learning and insight, perception and wisdom, that the myth has been used to convey."

The other thread, of why myth takes the form it does, contrasts myth - oral narrative poetry - with other art forms such as verse poetry or prose. Bringhurst makes the point that myth can only thrive as myth in an oral society, one without writing. Verse poetry may also exist in oral societies, but only in those that make their living through agriculture rather than hunting. "Humans, as a rule, do not begin to farm their language until they have begun to till the earth and to manipulate the growth of plants and animals." The argument there is that the structure of mythic poetry has a spatial quality reflecting the irregular order of the forest rather than the uniform repetition of the cultivated field reflected in verse poetry. Myth can be very musical in its own way, but as a music of thoughts and images rather than sounds.

That last thread helps explain why historically so many anthropologists have misplaced the significance of the myths they encountered. As members of an industrial, literate society, they were ill-equipped to understand story in the same way as their hunter-gatherer subjects. Words simply do not have the same role or meaning in oral societies as they do in literate ones. According to Bringhurst, "In a self-sustaining oral culture, faith, hope, and even charity are invested very differently than in cultures that are learning or have learned the use of writing. A shift from oral to written culture affects the functioning of memory, the understanding of truth, and the place of voice and language in the working of the world. It affects not just the meaning of words but the meaning of language itself. It affects the meaning of meaning."

If only those anthropologists could have read A Story as Sharp as a Knife before they went forth to capture the traditions of those people who had yet to be enveloped into industrial global culture! Time warps aside, those of us in the 21st century now have an excellent opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the mythic mindset through Bringhurst's book. When you first start reading the actual myths, you will likely feel somewhat out of place, getting used to the translations, the unfamiliar storytelling style, and the initial strangeness of the stories themselves for those unaccustomed to Haida mythology and culture. But as you become more familiar with the style and learn how to appreciate the myths through Bringhurst's insightful analysis, they become quite enjoyable in their own right.

The book is not dense, but it is long and there is plenty of material to chew through. There's such a variety of ideas to absorb that you'll likely want to spread out your reading of it, enough to appropriately digest each topic. It is a thoughtful book that paces out its most fascinating bursts of insight such that the interested reader will remain eager all the way through its four hundred pages of discussion. And by the end of it you'll have developed a new appreciation for myth and oral storytelling, and perhaps even an interest in discovering more about this often neglected subject.

In other words, read it! :D


Myth in Games

You want to see how games can transmit values? How games can deliver subtexts? How games can be art?

Then read the book Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. If that doesn't help, read Ishmael. Then think about the game Spore, by Will Wright.

If that still doesn't get you anywhere, then read the book A Story as Sharp as a Knife, by Robert Bringhurst. And maybe read this article first, to get you thinking in the right way.

All that I will say here, now, is that the one art form with the most relevance to games, that will provide the most guidance in shaping the future of games, is myth.

That's right. And the reason it has been so overlooked, so far, is that myth can only exist in its genuine form in an oral society. The society from which I am writing to you, and from which you are reading this, is a literate society. Literate societies have no way to understand myth, or to make use of it. We can only hope that a digital society will allow us to reconnect with that mode of thinking, through games.


dRive on Jay is Games

My game dRive, which I wrote about earlier, has been reviewed on Jay is Games! I'm very excited to have a review on such a popular site! :)

dRive also got fourth place in the recent contest at Jay is Games. No big prizes, but still quite good.

Play dRive.


Promoting Your Game - Lessons Learned

This article has been published on MochiLand! I'm famous now! :)

Over the past few weeks, much of my time has been spent promoting my game _dRive - sending it out to Flash game portals around the web with the hope of getting more people to play it. During that process, I made a lot of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons. I thought I'd try sharing my newly gained knowledge here. Maybe it will help you in your next game. :)

So, the following advice is intended for developers of Flash games who want as many people as possible to play their games. If you're using MochiAds to embed money-making ads in your game, or including links to promote your website, these tips should be useful to you. On the other hand, if you plan to make your money from an exclusive sponsorship or by keeping the game locked to your site and surrounded by website ads, then you may find this interesting but it probably won't be necessary.

Step 0 - Make a good game

My advice deals with what to do after you've made a cool Flash game. But marketing is a lot easier when you start with a quality product, so give yourself some time to read over the article How to make a successful Flash Game if you haven't already. Making good games is hard, and it's something you really have to learn from experience, but reading articles can give you a bit of extra guidance when you need it.

Step 1 - Playtest the game

This point may seem obvious to some people, but it's important enough that I'll say it here: You have to test your game out on other people! Watching a new player try your game is very eye-opening. Almost inevitably, there will be lots of problems that you don't notice but will end up ruining the experience for other players.

Playtesting is what turns mediocre games into awesome games. Extensive playtesting is what made the award-winning game Portal great. If you want to learn how to do it right, read Ron's Rules for Playtesting.
  • I'd suggest spending at least a week to playtest and polish your game as soon as you have a working version. Get friends, neighbors, classmates, or whoever else you can find to try out your game while you watch and take notes. Ask them for their feedback, make whatever improvements you can, and then repeat the process with someone new. For the average Flash game, a week of this might be enough. But if you can do it for longer, go ahead. More complex games, especially if they involve strategy, might require several weeks of testing. As long as you can keep finding new players, the more testing the better.

Step 2 - Beta test the game online

What, more testing? Here's the first big mistake I made with _dRive - I tried to spread it to as many game sites as I could right after I finished playtesting. Don't do that.

Instead of spreading the game right away, get as much feedback as you can with a private beta test. Create a site-locked version of your game, maybe even prompting for a password at the loading screen before allowing the game to run. Put this version online where that no one will find it unless they are looking for it - ideally, on your own private web space, or a site like Flash Game License. Then go to a forum that you trust - the one on MochiAds, for example - and ask people to try your game and give you feedback about it.

Different computers, different monitors, different browsers, different players, all will contribute to new problems that you may have missed while doing live playtesting. You want to discover these while the game is still private and under your control, not after you've sent an old version to dozens of game portals.
  • If you are using MochiAds, this step would be a good time to get your game approved so you can start earning money as soon as possible!

Step 3 - Test release the game on a single site

Once you feel like you've gotten enough feedback from the beta test and your game is as polished as it's going to get, you can try releasing it on an actual Flash game portal. This is your chance to test out some descriptions and preview icons for the game.
  • For this first release, choose a game site that is popular enough to get you a decent amount of views and comments for your analysis, but not enough that the game gets noticed and stolen by other sites. I'd recommend either Nonoba or Kongregate. Nonoba is a newer portal and not as big as Kongregate, so you might not get as many useful comments there. But on Kongregate, there are weekly and monthly cash prizes for the games with the highest ratings, so you may prefer to wait to put your game there until you are completely ready. However, if you don't care about the prizes, Kongregate can be a fine choice for your test release.
All Flash game sites like it when you provide a good thumbnail image to represent your game in their collection. You want to make an icon that will attract people's attention and compel them to try out your game. This is an easily overlooked but very important part of game promotion. Definitely have a look at this article on Thumbnail Design for some useful tips.

Another crucial part of promotion is the description you write to explain your game to potential players. Often portals will want both a short, ten word description and a longer one of two or three sentences. Like the game icon, these descriptions must catch the attention of people browsing the portal collections and encourage them to try out the game. An effective description will also prepare the player mentally for what to expect when they play.
  • Surprisingly, many developers don't bother to come up with compelling descriptions for their games. Take advantage of this opportunity to have your game stand out. Brainstorm a bunch of possible descriptions, both long and short, and then test them on people! Read them out loud to people and watch for their reaction. If they look confused, or start laughing at you, that's a sign that you need a better description. On the other hand, if they look intrigued and interested, or laugh in delight, then you're probably on the right track. It can often take days to really come up with something good though, so you might even start thinking of descriptions for your game as early as the playtesting stage.

Step 4 - Put the game on Newgrounds

So, your game is good, people like it, and you're confident that it's the best that it's going to be? Now is the time to put it on Newgrounds. Why? Because Newgrounds is the biggest, most popular portal that lets you instantly upload your games and track their progress on the site. Put your game there and you are basically guaranteed a few hundred views and several reviews in the first half hour after uploading. If your game gets rated highly, you are also basically guaranteed to have your game stolen by a bunch of smaller sites. After you put a game on Newgrounds, there's no going back.

Success on Newgrounds, and by extension success on the web in general, depends very heavily on that first impression. In submitting a game there, you have a very short window of opportunity to enthrall your players and establish a good rating for your game before it disappears into obscurity in the depths of the portal. This window can be as short as one or two hours. If during that time your game is judged to be excellent, awards and recognition will be bestowed upon it. Your highest aim is to have your game showcased on the front page of Newgrounds, where it will reap a bountiful number of views and be stolen by game portals far and wide across the web.
  • If you are using MochiAds, be sure to disable ads for the newgrounds.com domain before you submit your game there! Newgrounders don't take too kindly to ads in their games, and you don't want to do anything that might jeopardize that first impression. If you really want to, you could enable the ads again once your game has achieved the coveted front page, but you might instead choose to think of Newgrounds as an aid to promotion rather than as a money-making opportunity in itself.
If the game doesn't do well on Newgrounds, though, there is still the chance to fix it. It won't get stolen if it has a low score. But it probably won't get chosen for the front page either, even if you manage to update the game with amazing improvements. It's just too late - no one will find it. Still, you can try creating a thread in the General forum, asking for feedback on your game. If you're lucky, you might get a hundred more views and some useful suggestions. But that's really not a good situation to find yourself in. Do whatever you can to get it right the first time.

Step 5 - Send the game to other sites

The last thing to do is to send the game out to as many portals as you can. Some sites have online submission forms where you can automatically upload your game, while others only take submissions through email. You'll be getting your game out there in whatever way you can. This process is described in detail by the excellent article Marketing Flash Games. You must read it!
  • If you're using MochiAds, now is the time to enable it for distribution! Check the box in the distribution settings for the game and upload your final SWF.
You will first need to create a distribution pack for your game. This is a compressed folder containing the final SWF of your game, thumbnail images of all different sizes and file formats, and a text file containing all the information that a webmaster could possibly need while adding your game to their site. The text file I used for _dRive included the game name, file name and dimensions, author name and website, a short description, a full description, game instructions, keywords associated with the game, and my email address. You'll probably want to have at least that much info in yours.

Put this distribution pack online where it can be easily downloaded. That way when you are sending emails to dozens of portals in a row you can simply link to the distribution pack in your email rather than trying to attach a big file for each one you send. I learned that the hard way, after spending entire days just emailing portals one after another with my game. You'll also need to write up a good letter which you can copy and paste into these emails, articulately alerting each portal owner to the existence of your game and offering a link to the distribution pack.
  • This letter should include an enticing description of your game, a link to where the recipient can try the game online, and most importantly, a link to the distribution pack. If there's one website where your game is rated really highly and the players just seem to love your game, link to that one in your email! Portal owners want to add games that their players will like. Show them that yours is one of those games.
Then you just get a list of good Flash game portals and start spreading your game. If you need some lists of portals, try this, this and this. There are more out there, too - just search around.

The End?

Well, there's not much more for me to say here. Good luck in promoting your next game, and if you find this article helpful, make a note of it on your blog or something so I can feel good about myself for writing it. :)

And if your experience contradicts what I say here, please let me know about that too! This is really my first time promoting a Flash game in a serious way, so I'm definitely still learning. But I think it's safe to say that the lessons I've distilled from this experience are some solid and widely applicable guidelines.

Thanks for reading!


The Derivation of Spring

Ah, a rainy spring day. One of the first this year.

Also, Easter.

Also, Conway's Game of Life Day! :D Today's date, 3/23, is the cellular automaton ruleset describing Conway's Game of Life. A dead cell comes alive with three neighbors, and a living cell stays alive with two or three neighbors. 23/3.

As far as I know, I'm the only one who recognizes Conway's Game of Life Day. Pi Day, 3/14, really steals the show for March. But I'm fine with that.

I've got news. You may be wondering what that picture is. It looks like a game. It is a game. It's my new game, released earlier this week on St. Patrick's Day for the fifth game design competition at Jay is Games. Yes, I actually managed to finish something in time for a contest.

Create your own glitch music in this experimental dodging game. Collect points to upgrade your tracks and control up to three ships at once!

It's an experiment in interactive music. I've tried dynamically mixing loops before (Braids) and now this is an attempt at something different, something a little more appropriate to Flash's technical capabilities. Glitch music is a style based on glitchy sounds like that of a skipping CD or record. In _dRive, the music skips when you move your ship. Crude, but an interesting toy to play with. I hope to refine the idea for the sequel, and perhaps for later games as well.

I worked with a composer, SineRider, to come up with some specially glitch-able tracks for the game. It was really fun to collaborate with him. I'd gladly do it again.

It's also an experiment in making educational games. Surprisingly enough, the name "dRive" is a combination of the words "drive" and "derive". It's a game about derivatives. The three tracks in the game, the three ships, correspond to the physical properties of position, velocity, and acceleration. Through playing the game, you learn to control all three at once, internalizing the mathematical relationships between them.

However, the game doesn't go out of its way to explain the math behind the motion. It's much more of a game than an educational tool. But I imagine it could be used to supplement a more traditional lesson about calculus or kinematics.

I made _dRive as part of Twig Games, a company I'm trying to start with a few other people who believe in the potential of games for education and social change (see my last post). This is our first game, so it's nothing particularly awesome yet. Just wanted to get something out there. You can expect some pretty cool stuff from us in the future though - I've got some good ideas.

Well, I've learned a lot over the course of this project, both on the development side and more interestingly, perhaps, on the marketing side. It takes a lot of work to promote a Flash game, if you want to do it right. Check my blog again in a day or two, I'll be posting a writeup of the lessons I've learned. Maybe they'll help you.

If you like _dRive, please try playing and rating it on these other sites as well:
The full, high-quality version of the game music is now available for download! Get it here.


Why I Care About Games

This is something of a continuation of my earlier post Why Games? I wrote this only to focus my own thoughts, and not so much to produce something intelligible to others, but I think it turned out quite nicely. See for yourself. :)

Do I love games? Really?

Do I right now? ...not especially.

Why did I say that I love games? Was it a simplification? It must be true, right, or else I wouldn't be focusing my entire life around working on games...

Writing this is hard. I am reluctant to do it. Remember I said that I want to just make stuff, not write or talk or argue about it. Once I make it, arguing will be silly - Are games art? Not right now they aren't, but I have faith that someday they will be, and there's no use arguing about it. Just wait and see. It will happen. Critique about something already made is okay. It's useful. But arguing back and forth, over and over, round and round about what the future might or should hold - it's useless. It's a waste of my time and effort.

What don't I like? There's a lot. I don't like reading magazines like EGM - the tiringly hardcore, guns'n'explosions, sarcastic, overwhelmingly male face of the traditional game industry today. It's useful to keep up with what games are out, what's popular, what's considered good, but it's tiring. It's obnoxious. It's not my kind of culture. It drains my energy.

I also read Game Developer - a magazine for creators, not players. It's better, but still, more of the same. Not so garish, more technical, intellectual, but still - standard industry. People all thinking the same way about games, following the trends, not making them - glimpses of popular visions of the future, nothing great, nothing outside the boundaries.

I got tired of reading amateur game design forums years ago. The same hypothetical questions, over and over, nothing amazing. The common denominator is too low to sustain any really serious inquiry into innovation.

There are some books I've been quite impressed with - Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost, Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons by Chaim Gingold. They're fun to read, often eye-opening - I'm glad to have read them. But still, too much reading, and pretty soon another year has gone by without anything to show for it. You have to make something, or else it's just talk. There's so little out there, so little really good stuff, that it will get noticed. It will, if you make it. If you make it, they will come. And they'll spend way too much time talking about it. But that's how it is.

There's one blog and forum I do like, of the two-person development team Tale of Tales, with their Realtime Art Manifesto, and blog posts condemning the latest industry hits. I think they have the right idea, more so than most. And they're actually making stuff, according to their vision. But hanging around on their blog all the time isn't going to help me or them. If I can actually make something that embodies what I believe games should be, or at least points the way, that would help.

One thing I've heard a lot in game development is that you have to have an actual working game to show people, even if it's just an ugly prototype. If you want to get a job in games, you have to show something you've made. If you're already working in games and you want to convince people to work on your game idea, you have to show them. Game ideas are practically worthless on paper - they have to be made in order to judge their worth. And I think that's true for talking about games in general as well. You have to make them, and judge them by how the public receives them.

So, what do I want to make? What do I think is so good?

Well, explaining my various beliefs and thoughts and visions would be difficult, because as I've just mentioned, you can't really understand a game design just by reading about it. But it might be worth establishing. Or maybe not. I'm not trying to put forth my vision here, I'm just trying to explain the situation, why I have to do what I have to do, why I should just make things, why I have to gain prestige in the conventional system before what I make, or want to make, will be taken seriously.

But maybe I can try to explain a little - why do I care about this potential that I see in games?

First of all, games are what I'm good at, what I like making. If I am to express myself artistically, I'd like to do it through games. I like most every sort of art, but game development is extremely interdisciplinary, integrating visual art, music, sound design, spatial architecture, social architecture, education, programming, storytelling - probably more than that, even. Since I like pretty much all of those things, games are great because they let me think about all of them, instead of restricting myself to one. And as opposed to more or less linear storytelling through writing or film, games are more about creating spaces from which stories can emerge, and I've always been much better about thinking in terms of spaces and worlds than in stories. Creating an expression of a single viewpoint in time and space has never been natural for me, so I'll do what I do best - design entire systems, worlds, games.

Secondly, games are a young medium. More specifically, computer and video games are young, with only a few decades of history behind them. Most everyone would agree that games have yet to produce any artistic masterpieces which will be revered through the ages. Some people don't believe they ever will, though I am confident that it will happen. Since games are so young, their future is still very indeterminate. The current decade and the decade ahead will be pivotal in shaping the direction of all games to come, as it gathers momentum to become truly a mass phenomenon. I like having the power to shape the future. I'm at the right time to do it with games, and quite possibly the right place too. With luck I will be able to insert myself right at this pivot point, to nudge the future of an entire medium along a course that I consider healthy, one quite different from the decadent stagnation of its current state.

Third, there are some specific causes that I'd like to promote, certain things that I'd like to express, that I believe lend themselves particularly well to the medium of games. One thing I've been acutely and personally interested in changing, improving, since my first experience with a truly bad teacher in eighth grade is... the education system. Our education system. Pain and suffering, at least since the start of middle school, and onward. Yes, I know quite well that life is all about pain and suffering. It's an initiation. Should education teach anything different than reality?

I think that education can help change that reality for the better. This education system, throughout its various forms, has been my world for basically my entire conscious life. Most all the pain and suffering I know is within the context of this system. Not all of it, of course, but most. What this system teaches, both explicitly in its curriculum and implicitly in its structure, feeds right into the receiving system of adult work, profit, consumption, and all that good stuff - reality. Right. Part of reality. Part of one reality, maybe. But change the education system, and the system of adult life must respond with some change of its own. Maybe then you can change reality by changing the education system. At the least this contradiction will require some reevaluation and responding change, and I don't think it will be a change as simple as reverting education back to its previous state.

What do games have to do with education? Heh. I'm glad you asked. Games are education. Education is games. Play is learning. Learning is play. Many video game theorists, including Raph Koster of the book A Theory of Fun, and Daniel Cook of the blog Lost Garden, have argued that the fun of games is fundamentally about the brain's addiction to solving patterns. People like figuring things out, and when these challenges are paced in flowing progression of difficulty, densely layered, people will eat them up for hours. Like Pac-Man, eating up dots. Games are about managing, structuring challenge and reward. Some of these challenges are more reflexive, appealing to early instincts, some are more cerebral - from aiming, timing, matching to complex resource management and strategy. But there are patterns everywhere in life. Any of them can be made into games. The problem with current games is that they deal with such a limited subset of patterns, skills valued by protohuman hunter-gatherers perhaps but few if any that deal with the skills of living in an immensely complex human-built world, as well as an even more complex natural world becoming increasingly a subject to human influence. Games must expand to encompass these complexities, and in fact games among all other media are uniquely suited to accomplish this task. What else could convey an intuitive and embodied grasp of the systems that make up and sustain humanity but a dynamic, miniature world specially designed for human comprehension, miniature lives carefully structured to aid the bridging of connections within and across chosen domains? Games? The word is a silly one, I know, but it's what we've got. Games.

I've skipped right past education, haven't I. Well here's the obvious punchline: design education around games. Education as it is done now is more or less a bunch of poorly designed games. So design them better. Make it compelling for anyone to pick up inorganic chemistry, or proof by induction, or European history. It must be compelling for someone, some scientist, some professor, so use games to structure the experience of others so they too can experience that joy. Or at least have some chance of it. Maybe then people will be able to focus their attention to the content and purpose of the education system in general. Does the content matter, the curriculum? Should it matter? Why are we teaching what we are teaching, or what we say we are teaching? Why is this system structured the way that it is? Maybe then these questions will get some attention. And maybe games will have some solutions then, as well.

So that's three. Those are three reasons I care about games, and what they might become. There's more, but that's basically what it boils down to. I like games, games are young, games will save us. Salvation through games. Something like that. That's why I do what I do.


Environment Sketch 01 - Spring Rain

As you may have noticed, last week I added a new category of links on the right side of the page: Environment Sketches. What could those be, I wonder?

Considering that "Environment Sketch" is a term I made up, I should probably explain. An Environment Sketch is neither an animation nor a game, but something in between. It is a scene that you observe. It's like a window into a world.

The idea is to take some piece of my environment that I appreciate, and put it out for other people to notice and appreciate. But it's not simply a photograph - the idea is to capture the mood and feel of a place as it moves through time, not doing anything, just being.

So with that in mind, I present to you my first Environment Sketch!

Spring Rain is my first Environment Sketch, a simple but evocative depiction of a scene or place.

This is not a graphic sketch but a procedural one, a viewpoint generated by code that describes how the scene is to be constructed and how it evolves over time.

Spring Rain is a tribute to plants and rain. Please enjoy.

It's all procedurally generated - different every time - and running a real-time physics simulation. The background is created from blurred particle trails, the plants are assemblages of particles connected by springs, arranged with some amount of randomness, and the background sounds are mixed randomly.

Spring Rain was made in Flash, so I actually ended up reusing a lot of the code from my earlier ragdoll games! :) I think Flash is the perfect medium for these Environment Sketches, because it is so easy to combine hand-drawn art with code-generated graphics, not to mention the huge audience that already exists for Flash content. With any luck, the Environment Sketch will someday become recognized as a legitimate genre alongside Animations and Games. I'll do my best to help it along. :)

I've had many sources of inspiration in defining the Environment Sketch concept and in making Spring Rain. Most significant was simply my appreciation of the world around me, finding beauty in bits of my surroundings which I felt compelled to share with the rest of the world. But there were also some Flash pieces I found across the web that have helped to point me in the direction of these procedural sketches as a way to share that appreciation.

The first one I found was perhaps Ferry Halim's Raindrops. It's nice to know that I'm not the only one out there who loves rain. :D But the biggest influence on me I think has been the Flash developer and artist IvoryDrive. The first time I mentioned my intention to make these procedural sketches in a comment on his excellent interactive piece City. His thought it was a great idea, and guess what - he also really liked Spring Rain! Wow! So I'm very grateful for IvoryDrive's encouragement. :) He's got a lot of other work you should check out too, including his latest, 5 Differences, which is basically a game wrapped around a bunch of little Environment Sketches.

Another nice example of what I would consider an Environment Sketch is this real-time Hogwarts scene. While it looks to me like almost all the graphics in that piece are made by hand rather than generated procedurally, I think the intention behind it is similar enough to qualify as an Environment Sketch. It depicts a place as it exists through time, and while it contains many hand-drawn and animated graphics, they are only used to reinforce a momentary feel rather than to push a story along.

One place that Environment Sketches might find a home is in website design. How about giving your site a more natural sense of place by putting in a virtual window into a dynamic scene? One person on the Fisix Engine forums had the same idea and I've given him permission to add Spring Rain to his site. Looks nice, don't you think? :)

If any of you out there are thinking of making something like these Environment Sketches, or think they might be cool to use on your site, let me know! It'd be great to hear from you. :)