Global Game Jam Notes

The Global Game Jam begins today! Game developers are convening in major cities around the world to spend the next 48 hours collectively cranking out some intriguing new games. That's the idea, at least. Sadly, I won't have the time to participate in this exciting event, let alone journey to some far-off city for this purpose.

However, there is one consolation for us who must watch from the sidelines. That is, the most excellent keynote presentation video by Kyle Gabler of World of Goo and Experimental Gameplay Project fame, with seven tips on How to Make a Game in 48 Hours. It was awesome. You must watch it.

I wrote up some notes on it. I did it more to help myself remember and process the information than for anything else, but I thought I'd post them here as well. Maybe glance over them before and after watching the video. Or better yet, write up your own. :)

My notes on
Kyle Gabler's 7 easy tricks on
How to Make a Game in 48 Hours

7. "Adjust Expectations"
  • Don't compete with big-budget games.
  • Create a new category and excel in it.
  • Introduce one new idea quickly and clearly.
6. "Create a Low Barrier of Entry"
  • Make it fun in the first fifteen seconds.
  • Title screen, one sentence instructions, then play.
  • Or combine two of those. Or have all three at once.
5. "Feel Something"
  • Find a song that inspires an emotion in you.
  • Choose graphics, sound, and design to reflect it.
  • Use the mechanics to present a deeper theme.
4. "Make the TOY First"
  • Find out whether your idea is actually fun.
  • First test the mechanics with placeholder art.
  • If it's fun, then add graphics and sound.
3. "shhh..."
  • Make use of sound as much as graphics.
  • It can be just as effective, with less effort.
2. "harmony"
  • Don't create a lot of graphics and sound.
  • Use few elements that work well together.
1. "Never Fall in Love"
  • Embrace the possibility of failure.
  • Feel free to mangle and transform your original idea.
Kyle Gabler's 2nd Theorem of DESTRUCTION

"as love and effort INCREASE,
the probability of SELF DESTRUCTION approaches 1"

There you have it. I've tried to rephrase his advice into direct, concrete actions that you can easily begin to put into practice. I'm definitely eager to see how I might apply these to my own projects. :) I'd say I'm already pretty good with tips 2 and 5, but I'm still struggling with that number 1... :p

How about you?


Story in Games

Henry Jenkins is one of my favorite authors writing about games, along with a few others such as Ian Bogost and Daniel Cook. But you're not as likely to find his writing on the web. Well, maybe you are, but that's not how I came across it. :p

One piece of his, which you may not have encountered since it was published as an academic paper rather than a blog post or online article, is called Game Design as Narrative Architecture. It examines four ways that story can be expressed through gameplay, and I found it very inspiring when I read it. I thought I'd share my notes here. :)

Spatial Stories and Environmental Storytelling

Evocative Spaces
ex: American McGee's Alice
  • play on existing mental mappings
  • fill in broadly the spaces and moods to evoke earlier mental images formed by previous storytelling experiences
  • story information spread across books, film, television, comics, games, etc.
Enacting Stories
ex: I Fell in Love With the Majesty of Colors
  • let players perform or witness narrative events
  • broadly defined goals and conflicts
  • obstacles and affordances facilitate player's movement to resolution
  • enact specific, localized incidents or micronarratives - shape emotion
  • compelling framework vs. local freedom
Embedded Narratives
ex: Myst
  • linear backstory separate from nonlinear experience of player
  • find bits of evidence to reconstruct understanding of the backstory, and test these mental maps against game world
  • distributing information across the game space, redundantly
  • can mix enacted and embedded narratives
  • melodrama based on the external project of internal states - spaces of mood, feeling, not just factual information
Emergent Narratives
ex: The Sims
  • stories emerge from player's experience with the system
  • the system is simplified, designed to maximize narrative possibilities
  • characters with desires, needs that can come into conflict, with emotional responses to events, and consequences to their choices
  • designing spaces to have poetic and symbolic potential
In Summary

evoked - new perspective on existing story

enacted - story about movement through space

embedded - discover and reconstruct story from clues

emergent - create new stories from experience

I think that games have barely scratched the surface in storytelling. If someone tells you that games can't tell stories, or that there's only one way for games to tell a story, well, I'd say they're not looking very hard. There is quite a bit of interesting experimentation going on if you know where to look. The Path and (I Fell in Love With) The Majesty of Colors are just two recent examples. Distributed narratives make up another intriguing offshoot. It's all very fascinating to me.

Another paper by Jenkins, very thought-provoking, is "Complete Freedom of Movement": Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces. It's fairly long, but well worth the read. Take a look! :)


The Dejeweled Development Blog

So... Dejeweled.

This is a project I've been involved in for a while now. It started way back in June of 2007 when I was still looking for game ideas featuring ragdoll physics. One forumgoer, then known as Exilement, presented to me the idea which would soon go by the name of Dejeweled. The next day, I created a forum thread to begin collecting more feedback and suggestions on this new concept. The response was unprecedented, unanimously positive, and the thread began filling up with praise, ideas, and impatient demands for a release date.

Nearly two years and over 800 posts later, the game is still without a release date. I had thought I could seriously get started at the beginning of 2008, but nothing much came of it. Now, 2009 has begun, Exilement is now known as Prospect, and I'm thinking there's a chance that I could actually make some progress on the project this year. Like, starting now.

So I've set up a blog, where I can post updates, concept art and prototypes for the satisfaction of the project's hopeful fans, disillusioned as they may be at the moment. I present to you the Dejeweled Development Blog. I've been working on some prototypes lately, so with any luck there will be some new stuff there pretty soon.

Oh, I haven't actually explained the idea yet. Here:

Dejeweled is a rather excessively violent game wherein the player is compelled to construct mechanical contraptions which contrive to cruelly kill, destroy, and slaughter innocent jewel-filled ragdolls in clever and amusing ways.

More questions? Read this. Let me know what you think! :)


An Inaugural Experiment

You know those annoying forum signatures, those chain letter-ish ones that say something like, "98% of all teenagers have smoked pot. If you are one of the 2% who haven't, copy and paste this into your signature." Or the old classic, "I believe in Jesus Christ my Savior. If you do too, paste this into your signature."

Well, how about this?
    I believe in Barack Obama as my personal savior. If you do too and aren't afraid to admit it, copy and paste this into your signature.
Time for me to update my deviantART sig and spread the word! ;) Feel free to join in.

I'm very curious to discover who will be offended by this and how much. Let's see what happens. :D


Making Murder Less Satisfying

I haven't ever seen this done before. What if there were a game, a violent game where you shoot your enemies to incapacitate or kill them, but instead of collapsing or exploding when shot, these enemies fall to the ground screaming and writhing in pain, like worms in a frying pan?
  • I would never put a worm in a frying pan. In fact, I'm starting to feel horribly sick just thinking about it... *shudder*
In most games, the visceral feedback of a kill is satisfying because there is a finality to it that tells the player they've accomplished something, that there is now one less danger to worry about. But what if the incapacitated enemy did not simply transmute into a passive, inert background prop but instead continued to thrash violently, screaming and crying out in agony? Despite now being completely worthless in gameplay terms, this enemy would remain, loudly demanding the player's attention. I imagine such a reaction would render the act of killing much less satisfying.

As writhing, wailing enemies accumulate on the screen, tension would increase almost unbearably, like the music in the game Lucid State Dreaming. I wonder how easily a player could become desensitized to such disturbing consequences. Is it inevitable? Could you design a game to prevent such desensitization?

*image from the sublimely horrifying Madness Combat 4: Apotheosis*


Adventures in Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is a pretty fascinating phenomenon. You may have heard of it. A lucid dream is one where you realize that you are dreaming and thus can consciously control what happens to you. They are often more vivid than normal dreams, depending on how "lucid" or self-aware you can be throughout the experience.

What I find particularly interesting is the way that you influence a dream. To make something happen or come into being in the dream world, you expect it to be so, until it is. This says a lot about how perception operates. If you're interested in learning more, I'd recommend starting with the book On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins. It presents what is probably the most viable hypothesis that I've yet come across for how the brain actually learns and makes predictions. Read it and reflect upon this connection between expectation and perception in lucid dreaming. Perhaps you will notice some similarities in your waking life.

Training yourself to have lucid dreams is not easy. I have had only one lucid experience that I can confirm with any certainty, and it happened without any planning on my part. Apparently, it was triggered by what they call the wake-back-to-bed technique. Fortunately, I keep a notebook by my bed for moments like these, and upon waking, I was able to write down what I observed before the memory of the dream vanished completely. You may find it an interesting study. :)

I had a lucid dream. Or at least, I dreamed that I was having a lucid dream. The experience was considerably less lucid than my true waking state, but it was more lucid than my usual dreaming state. I had this dream after going back to bed after my alarm went off, so I must have had that idea of lucid dream close to mind when I went to sleep.

When the lucid segment began, I was imagining that this was a French king's house, whose cooks were one by one presenting dishes and desserts they had made and were not going to let me eat, me being no guest of the king. But then one of the cooks seemed to recognize me as the king because he let me in and started telling me about all the various dishes he could prepare for me. During this time I was wondering whether I'd be able to taste anything while dreaming, and then managed to conjure up the taste of salami. This was my first lucid act.

Shortly after this, I found myself in my own familiar kitchen, frantically looking at all the digital clocks to test for dream-ness, increasingly ignoring the cook talking to me. Sure enough, the clocks would show drastically different times upon subsequent inspection, with the exception of the microwave time whose dial was being turned and whose numbers were increasing regularly while this motion occurred.

Then I decided to look out the windows and conjure up a lush green setting. It took a moment or two for the view to solidify, but when it did the weather outside was raining hard and the trees were leafy and wet and lush. Sitting on the fence were several turkeys, calling. They may have been vultures. I'm not sure where they came from - I certainly didn't ask for turkeys!

While in the kitchen I found that I had to keep moving my attention, or a sort of blankness of mind would loom where I rested my gaze, threatening to toss me into a new dream devoid of any lucidity. The experience of lucidity in the dream was thus like the experience of being deep in the computer screen, tired, on the web for several hours - I had some capacity for conscious decision-making, but much less than normal.

I don't remember dreaming of falling asleep afterward, but I do remember dreaming that I had woken up. Not that I bothered to go through the experience of finding myself in bed and getting out of it - I just seemed to have hit a switch that told me I was no longer lucid dreaming, and therefore concluded that I must be awake, which I was not.

Eventually, I really did wake up and immediately wrote all this down before I forgot what happened. And so, here we are.

Interestingly, I often find that while dreaming I implicitly understand that I am in a dream, though I only rarely become explicitly conscious of the fact. So if someone in the dream were to say to me, "Are you dreaming?" I would be likely to reply with, "Yes, of course," and then continue on as if nothing unusual had been revealed. About a year earlier I had one dream that illustrates this fairly well. I thought it was rather poetic. :p

At one point in my dream, I was outside on a sort of grassy ridge or hill overlooking a large, dark brown building that had been the focus of the dream events previous. I climbed up onto the top of a chain link fence there, and looked up at the bright, but cloudy and overcast sky. I had an implicit understanding that I was dreaming, but was not particularly conscious of it.

I decided, perhaps to get away from the place that I was in, that I would like to fall towards the sky if I let go, rather than back toward the earth. I knew that since I was dreaming, it would happen that way if I believed it would. So I imagined myself falling up towards the sky and convinced myself that I would do so.

Then I let go, and fell through the sky. It didn't hurt as much as I expected. I'm not sure, but I believe that I ended up in a new dream place then.

Dreams are pretty awesome. They make for a good discussion topic if you want to have a meaningful conversation with someone you don't know very well. Strangely enough, I've found that people are often eager to share their dreams and hear about other people's dream experiences even when they might be bored or uncomfortable discussing other topics.


Games and Perceptual Apathy

A while ago I had an interesting discussion with Krystian Majewski on his blog post about The Hardships of Location-Based Games. He's been working on a game called Illucinated, which uses real photographs for its graphics so he has to actually venture out into the real world, at night, and sneak past security guards and giant spiders and such to acquire these precious goods. Someday, I hope to be as cool as that.

But in the meantime, I can write about it. One reason games are cool is that they change the way you look at things, as this article suggests. At the very least, they change the way you look at things on the screen, which goes from a confusing mess to a dazzling field of opportunities and dangers. And if the game takes place in the real world, well, that's where things get interesting. As Krystian Majewski commented about his game-like outdoor excursions, "You start seeing places in different ways. Going by some piece of architecture you wonder how it will look in the night and you start appreciating seemingly mundane routes in the cityscape."

That sounds like fun. Wouldn't it be cool if there were games specially designed to enhance your experience of the real world, designed to let the fun from the game itself spill over into your real life? Let's see what we had to say about it, way back in 2008.

axcho said...
  • That sounds so much more exciting than anything I'm doing. Thanks for that 10 Gnomes link - really interesting. I never realized people were doing things like this, except maybe IvoryDrive. I like these games using real-world environments and visuals and such - lets you use your perception to a much fuller extent than usual on the computer.

    Speaking of perception, I really like that last paragraph, about the activity becoming like a game and restructuring the way you see the world around you. In fact, I'll quote it right here because I like it so much:

    "But the experience is amazing at the same time. It brings so much physical experience into the Game Design. It becomes almost like a game itself. Like a strategic version of Parkour. You start seeing places in different ways. Every time you see a path in the bushes your reflexes to investigate kick in. Going by some piece of architecture you wonder how it will look in the night and you start appreciating seemingly mundane routes in the cityscape."

    This way that games can force your perception to come alive and appreciate what's there is something I'm really excited about. Once people have a framework of goals and interpretation of affordances and obstacles, their perception starts popping out in ways corresponding to the game structure. I'd even say that all of perception can be thought of as structured and brought into being by games, for a rather loose definition of "games".

    One thing that really opened up my perception with respect to appreciating the world around me, particularly plants, was when I started making musical instruments out of bamboo. I'd start noticing bamboo wherever I went, evaluating based on size and quality for harvesting and such, practically salivating at the sight of the better specimens. It turned me on to the aesthetic qualities of bamboo.

    Then as I learned about L-systems I started noticing the aesthetic qualities of other plants. And once I started browsing deviantART and doing photography I became even more aware. Going through the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain opened it way up, and so the process has continued, until I can see just about everything around me as beautiful, if I take the time to do so.

    I want to use games to help people see the beauty around them (among other things). A few games to start punching some holes in one's perceptual apathy, and hopefully the process will accelerate... The interesting thing is that it often takes exposure to a new environment (like a new game, or a vacation to another place) where your old perceptual habits and blindness does not apply, in order for you to start opening up. At first I would take photos only on vacations, but then I eventually started seeing the beauty of my everyday world. I want to be able to make games that allow people to transfer their transformed perception back to daily life.

    In short, I am inspired by your bold exploration and reinterpretation of the real, physical world you exist in. I wish I would let myself spend more time in the real world instead of squeezing my mind into such a small computer screen every day.

    I think that's my cue to stop typing. ;) Thanks.
    August 30, 2008 11:28 PM

Krystian Majewski said...
  • Wow, thanks for the detailed comment! I've noticed IvoryDrive over on Kongregate. Interesting how he seemed to have similar experiences. These 6 messages could come just as well from me.

    I noticed too how getting out - especially on vacation - usually inspires me to do games. I know that I'm not alone too - the first Prototype of Braid was also created on holidays.

    As for noticing things. I guess this is some kind of reverse-inattentinal blindness. I noticed it too on several occasions but it never occurred to me that you could use games to intentionally to "teach" people to see things differently. Good thinking! Another good reason for using real environments.
    August 31, 2008 3:37 AM

axcho said...
  • Oh, you're welcome. I guess it had been too long since I had written a decent blog post of my own, so I went ahead and relieved myself on yours. :p

    IvoryDrive's an interesting guy. I don't think I'm cool or exciting enough to be like you or him, but at least I can admire from the sidelines. ;)

    Reverse-inattentional blindness is basically what I'm talking about, yes. I've come to believe quite strongly that being able to put more conscious effort into perception, and to be rewarded by finding beauty, is a very important skill to have.

    As another dA artist artbytheo said to me, (and I hope he doesn't mind if I quote him here)
    "...I think what's happening in our world today is that 'they' are trying to convince everyone the world is a horrible place. 'They' want us to keep our eyes closed and not see the world is actually a beautiful place, so we keep watching 'their' stupid tv shows, news broadcasts, and buy endless supplies of clothes, cars, and other useless shit.

    The goal of the game would then be to make people realize this."

    And as he clarified later,
    "There really isn't a 'them' as an evil body of powerful rulers that is actually controlling the show. It's all of us working all together in a huge body called humanity (and smaller cultural bodies of course)."

    Reading books such as Awareness by Anthony De Mello, and Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn, is what has really focused my thinking on this subject.

    You'd think I'd have enough on my plate trying to make cool new experimental games and games to transform education without also trying to use games to get people to open up their perception and save the world... :p

    Anyway, I still owe you an email about the Adopt an Invader concept. I'll start on that right now.
    September 2, 2008 2:56 PM

How about that? The world is a beautiful place... if you can learn to see it. Are you ready? :)

A few games to start punching some holes in one's perceptual apathy, and hopefully the process will accelerate...


Designing for Virtual Item Sales

Interested in making money through selling in-game items directly to players instead of relying on advertising? Flash portals like Nonoba and Kongregate are starting to make it possible to easily integrate microtransactions into your games. But I've never really seen a discussion of the special design issues that come up for a game using virtual item sales. What follows are my notes on the subject from a presentation by a GoPets representative a few years ago.

Role of Items (in multiplayer games)

Why would a player want to buy an item? Here are a few reasons.
  • to Enhance Status
    ex: clothing, medals, pets, houses

    May also affect the UI, like a game replay recorder that you wear.
  • to Provide an In-game Advantage
    ex: enhanced weapons, armor, speed, accuracy, food

    Usually provide a mild effect, for the sake of balance.
    Often they are consumable, rather than permanent.

    ex: new skills or combos
  • to Provide Deeper Controls
    ex: extra spell slots, advanced hotkeys

    Allow harder-core, more skilled players to have more nuanced control, with a cost of increased difficulty and complexity.
  • Rare Items to Sell Back
    ex: special premium items, items from raffles or lotteries

    Special occasions like holidays are good times to give out limited edition items.
Item Duration

Not all items last forever. Keep that money flowing! :p
  • Consumed - use once (but may buy large quantities)
    ex: food, potions, grenades
  • Charge - buy refills in order to use
    ex: bullets for a gun, batteries for a calculator, armor that must be repaired
  • Rent - use for a limited time period or duration
    ex: demo skis, effects of a magic spell
  • Permanent - unlimited use
    ex: clothes, decorations, tools
There may be a leveling tree to unlock access to new items.

Balancing Methods

Don't let the items you sell upset the balance of the game.
  • Defensive items (temporary shields) should be bought, while offensive items (missiles) should be found in game.

    This is psychologically more acceptable than the reverse.
  • Rental items, limited edition items, and item buyback by the game can be used to minimize the effect of poorly balanced items introduced into the game world.

    Item buyback is when players can directly exchange their items for game currency, and the items are then taken out of circulation completely. If an unbalancingly powerful item is mistakenly introduced, it is often better to offer players appealing amounts of game currency in exchange, rather than doing nothing or forcibly removing the items.
Multiple Currencies

In order to prevent gold-farming, players must not be able to simply convert from one currency to another. They should be able to trade with other players however, such that the amount of currency in circulation remains stable. See this article for further explanation.
  • for time-rich people
    ex: green shells in GoPets, awarded through normal gameplay (an equivalent of experience points)

    This is the simplest, most obvious sort of way for players to earn currency. Basically every game uses it.
  • for money-rich people
    ex: gold shells in GoPets, directly acquired by putting in real money

    This is the way you actually make money. Any game relying on an item-based business model must use it.
  • for idea-rich people
    ex: pink shells in GoPets, awarded for creating icons for the pictographic communication thing

    Currencies can be derived from any sort resource a player might have, whether it's creativity or free time.
General Guidelines

In designing, first make a good free basic game and get an audience, then add real-money items carefully.

Most people just nibble media, so the real-money items should be subtle enhancements that harder-core players will want.

Think of item-based games as selling bits of service, bits of UI, a metagame - not just a game design.

Players must be able to trade items with each other. Otherwise, their sense of ownership is not complete.

Players will often sell micro-stories to each other, even if it's not explicitly built into the game.
  • In GoPets, players would take different food items and sell combinations of them as a meal, with a blurb of text to explain. They might take lettuce, tomatoes and spinach and call it a garden salad (or whatever). I really like this possibility.
User-made Items

Players set their prices too low when selling to other players! They don't care about money. So set a minimum price.

What do you think? I personally find this design space fascinating. I'm eager to try it out someday. :)


A Blessing for the New Year

Happy New Year! :D One of my New Year's resolutions is to update my blog once a week rather than once a month. I thought I'd start off 2009 with this, originally posted on the MochiAds community forums.

Now 'prayer' and 'soul' are not words that I have ever had much occasion to use. But I think I'm starting to understand what might be meant by someone who uses the word 'prayer', or 'blessing', and where those concepts would fit into a worldview or practice. You see, words are magic. They can be quite powerful in shaping one's expectations, one's mindset, one's perceptual field. And I'm glad to use whatever tool I can get my hands on, if it helps me bring my life more in line with my goals and values.

So, given that, here's a nice bunch of words I've come across recently that felt particularly relevant to me, and how I'd like to be, and now I'd like to offer them to you all, my fellow game developers. :)

A Blessing

May the light of your soul guide you.

May the light of your soul bless the work you do with the
secret love and warmth of your heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your own soul.

May the sacredness of your work bring healing, light, and
renewal to those who work with you and to those who
see and receive your work.

May your work never weary you.

May it release within you wellsprings of refreshment,
inspiration, and excitement.

May you be present in what you do.

May you never become lost in the bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find you awake and alert, approaching your
new day with dreams, possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.

~ taken from page 160 of Anam Cara by John O'Donohue

All that stuff is much easier said than done! I guess that's why we keep saying it - to remind ourselves of what we're aiming for. ;)

Here's one thing I've been trying to put into practice - my own words this time:

Don't get overwhelmed or anxious about possibilities or lost opportunities - just make a choice.

As Eskil Steenberg wrote, "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."

Just do the best you can, right now! You're here, now - make the best of it. :)