Brain and Brawn – Updates and BFIG

Brain and Brawn has resumed development! My good friend David Wallin (artist) and I reopened the project in late August, and have been working part-time on it ever since. What follows is a breakdown of our experiences leading up to FIG, our experience on the show floor, and our next steps.

The Lead Up

Before we could figure out long term goals, we had an immediate short term goal. The Boston Festival of Indie Games was in 3 weeks, and since I had submitted my browser demo in June we were scheduled to be on the floor. But I was tired of showing a mobile game concept on a desktop browser. We needed to get it on the target platform.

The initial goal: To prepare a working mobile demo, complete with touch controls and at least 15 strong mobile levels, for Boston FIG on Saturday 9/13.

What did that mean? How did that goal break down into objectives?

The Breakdown:

  • Wrapping – We needed to figure out how to get our demo working properly on a phone. Do we rely on the mobile web, or a wrapper app such as CocoonJS or PhoneGap?
  • Resizing – The game needed to move from 800×690 pixels the iPhone 4 resolution of 600×960, and the the tiles needed to increase from 40×40 to 64×64 to be more visible.
  • Touch controls – The player should be able to tap to select buttons and progress through menus, and swipe in cardinal directions to move Brainy and Brawny
  • Art – Instruction screens needed to be reformatted to fit the mobile screen ratio.

This was ambitious on its own, but there was one extra challenge. Moving to a smaller screen resolution while increasing the size of the sprites meant a drastic shift from 320 tiles (20×16) to 150 tiles (10×15). A 53% decrease in level design real estate. If I wanted to have good levels, I knew that I needed a full week of dedicated level design, which meant that I needed to have all of the other features implemented in just two weeks.

But even though it was a scary amount of work to be doing in just evenings and weekends, especially factoring in a move into a new apartment… we pulled it off and had lots of fun doing it! By BFIG we had 16 strong levels that were hand-designed for a newly resized game, all wrapped in CocoonJS and working smoothly with touch screen controls.

Postmortem: Showing the Game at BFIG

Showing Brain and Brawn at Boston FIG was an awesome experience. About 80 people stopped by our booth and played our game, and 33 of them signed up for our mailing list. The overall reception was very positive, and we learned a lot!

Boston FIG

Some of the things we learned:

  1. Everyone plays, thinks, and learns differently. That may sound obvious, but seeing it in action was something else entirely. Swipes ranged from fast to slow, exaggerated to subtle, sloppy to precise, and long to short. Different approaches included trial-and-error, waiting and strategizing, and a combination.
  2. There is no replacement for raw data. Of a sample of ~80 people, an overwhelming majority of players stopped on one of two levels: 8 and 14. We knew that the difficulty curve wasn’t perfect, but to see such massive spikes was enlightening. It was also frustrating because we couldn’t do anything about it mid-show! It would be tedious for sure, but putting analytics in place could do wonders for our game design.
  3. Players won’t assume that your game has depth. The moment that aliens are first introduced (level 6) is an eye-opening moment for players, because the possibility space opens up significantly, and players suddenly want to keep playing to discover more mechanics. If a player believes that they’ve grokked the possibility space before getting to level 6, then they will write off your game without ever knowing how far it can go.
    (Interesting Note: Fast grokking is fine as long as actual proficiency rises just as fast or faster… in other words a good puzzle player will zoom to level 6 so fast that grokking beforehand is a non-issue.)
  4. Kids rule! Some of my favorite moments involve watching younger kids pick up the game, smile when they “get it”, ignore their impatient parents who wanted to move on, and fully commit to beating the very last level. Equally awesome were the parents who actively participated in the experience, weighed in on tougher levels, and encouraged them to do their very best.
  5. There is no easy way to communicate that development on your game has only just begun, and saying it explicitly comes off as an excuse. I would have thought that the lack of polish made it obvious… but instead the average person thought it was already complete! Either they loved the puzzles and wanted to buy it, or they were thoroughly disappointed with the visuals/graphics and asked us to do better next time. O_o

And that’s just the tip of the iceburg. We actually learned even more, but it would take forever for me to list it all out!

What’s next?

The next step is actually to take a step back! We crunched for FIG, but now we want to look at the bigger picture and figure out our long term development plan. David and I have set a target of Q1 2015 release, with hopes of getting the meat of the work done by January. We scoped out what features we thought were realistic, and now it’s time to restructure our code to be more accommodating of future growth spurts and major changes.

It’s a slower time for sure, but it won’t be long until we are once again pushing hard for our next major milestone. We’ll keep you updated on cool things as they get closer, but in the  meantime it’s just great to be working on indie games again. :)

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Quick Update

Some quick updates:

  1. I was hired as the “Boston City Manager” for The Games Forum
  2. I moved to Boston
  3. I got engaged to my girlfriend Marie :D
  4. I wrapped up the Music Theory Trainer project, ending 1 year of freelance.
  5. I resumed work on my independent game Brain and Brawn, which I am now developing for iOS with my friend David Wallin. (more details soon)

I will be returning to this blog in the coming months with new info on my life and work, including updates on Brain and Brawn, notes on my new job running events for Boston’s indie community, as well as some ideas I’ve had in my head for several months now. Looking forward to some new adventures!

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Postmortem: GGJ 2014 and Negative Space

This past weekend I participated in Global Game Jam 2014 at the NYU Game Center. It was my first time competing in a jam of this size and scope, so when I showed up at 5pm on Friday 1/24 I had no idea what to expect. Amazingly enough, I was one of 279 jammers at Game Center, making it the biggest jam site in North America (5th biggest in the world)!

The crowd was electric when the keynotes began, and the atmosphere quickly shifted to one of wonder and suspense as the words of Jenova Chen, Kaho Abe, and Richard Lemarchand gave sound advice and hinted at the kind of theme that was about to be unveiled. And then, by accident, it was very suddenly revealed on the projector:

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

The Global Game Jam experience

I quickly teamed up with artist David Wallin and programmer Altay Murat, with the intent of creating a game using the Phaser HTML5  Game Framework. Our plan was to get a barebones working prototype by the end of Friday night, but this jam ended up being very different from my past experiences.

In past jams, my makeshift team would settle on an idea very quickly (in less than 1 hour),and begin working on a prototype right away. There would be a great deal of overscoping, and we would wait too long to drop unnecessary features. Throw in some heavy sleep deprivation, and by Sunday we would be exhausted and stressed beyond belief.

But this jam was backward. We spent the entire Friday evening going back and forth on possible directions before finally settling on an idea. But from that point onward it because easier and easier. David is a phenomenal artist and Altay is an excellent programmer, so our workflow was very smooth. Every few hours we would re-evaluate our situation, adjust the scope if necessary, assign tasks, and continue. By early afternoon on Saturday, our core mechanic was implemented and FUN.

One helpful difference was that the NYU Game Center closed at midnight on Friday and Saturday, preventing us from pulling all-nighters. This forced us to get some much needed sleep, which made all of the difference in our focus, communication, and motivation.

Negative Space

Our efforts resulted in a game called Negative Space, which you can check out right here. It was nominated for “Best Use of Theme!!”

**IMPORTANT: If you do not want our theme interpretation to be spelled out for you, play the game before reading on!!**

NegSpace_screen2

Negative Space is a commentary on the different world views of the introverted and the extroverted. Players take the role of two characters in a social scenario and control the simultaneously with the arrow keys. On the left, the introvert dislikes overstimulation through engagement, and prefers to have space. On the right, the extrovert gets energy from engagement with others, and prefers to be around other people. The goal of the game is to fill up both characters’ happiness meters by catering to their preferences.

Mechanically, the game is about coordinated movement. Since you are avoiding on the left and chasing on the right, you need to analyze the flow of the crowd and constantly make small adjustments to both characters’ positions. Most players loved the challenge of playing two characters at once, but a few felt it was too stressful. People in the crowd move randomly in the early levels, but later take on different simple movement behaviors (ie: Seek, Avoid, etc.).

Level Design Aesthetics

As the game’s Level Designer, I really enjoyed using the mechanics to paint different aesthetic scenarios. For example, in one scenario the Introvert is surrounded by 10 different Seekers. Inevitably, as player weaves in and out, the seekers coalesce into a mob formation, which feels very intimidating and forces the Introvert to always be on the run.

In another scenario, the Extrovert is surrounded by 25 Avoiders. The result is a wave-like radius organically forming around you, as if you truly do not belong at the party. Fittingly, the dominant strategy here is to pin a poor soul in the corner, which many players said “felt wrong”. Even better, this same strategy also puts the Introver safely in the corner, where he can easily hide from social interactions.

I would have loved to have explored these ideas further by implementing and playing with other kinds of movement behaviors, but such is the nature of a game jam.

Playtesting

Watching people play Negative Space was pure joy. We made a bold move in not explicitly stating the concept of the game, which made it that much more satisfying to witness the “Aha!” moment first hand. There were many moments where people would be playing, figuring out the properties and differences between the introvert and the extrovert, when suddenly it would click and they would exclaim “Oh I get it! It’s an introvert and an extrovert!!”

I also really enjoyed collecting and consolidating feedback. Although I am inexperienced, I feel like I have a natural ability to interpret feedback (even when it is not constructive), and ask the right questions to get them thinking and articulating their thoughts and frustrations in a clear and useful way. Or maybe it’s just luck… but I really enjoy the process and I cannot wait to dive deeper into the process and become a better designer.

Final Thoughts

Global Game Jam 2014 may just be my favorite jam yet! The environment, the energy, the scope and theme… it is just awesome and epic and gets my creative juices flowing in a really satisfying way.

I can’t wait to do it all over again for GGJ 2015! But this time… in Boston. :)

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Demo Night: Brain and Brawn!!

Image

Great news!! This past Tuesday, I gave a demo of Brain and Brawn at the NYC Gaming December: Demo Night. The presentation went really well and people had lots of great things to say about the game and my design process afterwards, so overall it was huge success!

BnBv2_screen1

In preparation for the demo, I decided that it was time to make some long overdue updates to the game. I asked my friend David Wallin to help me come up with some art, designed some new levels, added simple generated sounds, and made some refinements to the gameplay, and in just few days the prototype completely transformed! Suddenly Brainy and Brawny felt like real characters with real personalities in their own little world, and I found myself more excited than ever for the future of my simple little puzzle game :)

Please check out the new version of Brain and Brawn by heading over to my projects page.

Enjoy!

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Microsoft’s “Gaming on the Surface” 2013

Yesterday I attended “Gaming On The Surface: NYC Fall 2013 Gaming Industry Overview”, a full-day Microsoft event featuring presentations, panels, and demos. Fun, informative, and full of free stuff, the event was clear evidence of a growing community of talented game developers in NYC. I’m excited to see how the game dev. scene evolves over the next few years!

Some takeaways from the experience:

  • “Minimalism is not an aesthetic. It’s a philosophy.” -Kurt Beig (Developer of “4 Thrones”)
  • Nika, an abstract strategy game for mobile and tablets, was created in HTML5 and deployed to multiple platforms using CocoonJS. Their story has pushed me to do some research, and I am now considering using CocoonJS myself to deploy Brain and Brawn.
  • I met a host of developers who were able to put their games on stores in just a few weeks. One developer took only 7 days. I no longer have an excuse… I need to get Brain and Brawn finished and published to app stores as soon as possible!
  • Unity’s new 2D tools are unbelievable. Unity evangelist Carl Callewaert gave a workshop in the morning where he put together a simple 2D platformer in mere minutes. Watching him work made me excited but also jealous of young developers… this is the tool that I had always wanted when I was in middle school scribbling game designs in notebooks!

As always, these events leave me inspired, refreshed, and motivated to put everything I have into my games. Look out for me at future NYC events; I will definitely be attending as many as I can.

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NYC Gamecraft 2013

The "Purgatory" team: Me, David Wallin, Anthony Vinh Nguyen, and Andrew Kelley

The “Purgatory” team: Me, David Wallin, Anthony Vinh Nguyen, and Andrew Kelley

Great news!!

On Friday 9/20, I participated in NYC Gamecraft 2013 and my team WON! Gamecraft is an open game jam competition where developers must create a game from scratch in just 7.5 hours.

Early in the morning I formed a team with 3 talented guys: Andrew Kelley (Programmer), Anthony Vinh Nguyen (Artist), and David Wallin (Sound Design).

At 9:30am the theme “Lost Doorways” was announced, and we had until 5pm to create the game from start to finish! Anthony churned out art assets at an unbelievable speed, Andrew and I tackled programming in HTML/JS making use of a custom engine he built, I designed levels to showcase the different mechanics we had created, and David Wallin created sound effects to tie everything together! Our game “Purgatory” won Best Game and the People’s Choice Award!

It was such a blast challenging myself to work at that pace and getting to collaborate with such talented people. Please check out the game and let me know what you think!

http://gamecrafty.herokuapp.com/newyork-september-2013/purgatory/

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Fixing “Metroidvania” (UPDATED 1/20/14)

Metroidvania term_1

What Exactly IS A “Metroidvania”?

As a proponent of critical language development for game design, a particular term has bothered me for some time: “Metroidvania“.

Metroidvania (a portmanteau of “Metroid” and “Castlevania”) is a fairly well-known subgenre definition in the video game industry which generally refers to “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by the Metroid series and later Castlevania games.” (Tvtropes.org)

If you have played a Metroidvania, then you probably have a pretty decent idea of what kinds of experience to expect from other games of the same type, and perhaps you even have a conceptual model of the underlying formula itself. When used right, it is a strong formula that can lead to some really awesome games.

But in practice, the term “Metroidvania” is very clumsy and confusing, and does not get to the heart of what this formula truly is. It fails to meet the requirements of a Formal Abstract Design Tool (FADT), which I believe all terms must in order to be a useful member of our critical vocabulary.

In this post, I will attempt to outline “Metroidvania’s” flaws, break down the formula into its components, and create a new Formal Abstract Design Tool.

Falling Short of the Mark

If our goal is to create an FADT, then our definition must be both formal and abstract. A formal definition is precise and can be explained to someone else. An abstract definition focuses on underlying ideas rather than genre constructs. So how does “Metroidvania” fall short of these goals?

To begin with, there is ambiguity regarding which shared properties are essential components of the formula, and which ones are not. Does a Metroidvania need to be 2D side-scrolling? Could it be 2D top-down, or even 3D? Does a game need to have platforming to be a Metroidvania?

metroid_upgrade acquired

Many prefer to define it as a subgenre of the “platforming” genre. This majority includes Wikipedia, where if you search the term you will be redirected to “platform-adventure games”, a header under platformer. But what about games in the Metroid Prime series, which contain only minor platforming elements and are labeled “first-person action-adventure” games? Do they have enough platforming to be Metroidvanias, or are they excluded?

Another well-accepted trait of a Metroidvania is nonlinearity. However this definition excludes the very first Castlevania game, which consists of six levels in a strictly linear progression. Tvtropes attempts to remedy this by specifying “later” games in the Castlevania series, but that must have been written before  “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow”, a modern 3D title that returns the series’ linear roots. Will they further update the definition by specifying a range of years JUST to exclude this game?

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.

It’s getting out of hand. Instead of continually adjusting the set to fit a broken and ambiguous formula definition, we need to admit that because our definition is imprecise, it is informal.

The second problem comes from the use of concrete examples instead of abstract concepts. Let’s say that for sake of argument, we limited “Metroidvania” to just “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by Super Metroid and Castlevania II. Even though this makes it easier to figure out the what those “major gameplay concepts” are, Metroid and Castlevania are not two different concepts that combine to create the formula, but rather two specific video game franchises that make use of the formula.

To illustrate why this is an issue, lets look at an outside example: Just as many Metroid games and Castlevania games are great examples of Metroidvanias, firetrucks and apples are great examples of “things that are red”. But we don’t use “fapple” (“firetruck” + “apple”) to refer to objects that are red!

A stop sign isn’t red because it shares its color with firetrucks and apples – it is red because it reflects certain wavelengths of light. Properties are not defined by the objects that have them; objects are defined by the properties they have. So because it does not focus on the underlying formula itself as a set of shared properties, “Metroidvania” is not abstract.

Breaking Down The Formula

To create a FADT, we need to move away from examples and get at the heart of the formula; the real underlying structure and resulting behaviors. We need to break it down into its component properties:

1. A world design that emphasizes exploration in an open-ended environment full of highly inter-connected areas.

Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)

Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)

2. Obstacles in the environment hinder your ability to explore, and by extension your progress. “Obstacle” in this context is very broad, and can include everything from pits to high ledges to certain kinds of enemies to colored doors, etc

This wall cannot be passed unless you have a bomb (Twilight Princess)

This rock wall obstacle cannot be passed without a bomb. (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)

3. Power-ups, or key abilities attained, give you the power to overcome obstacles in your way. This puts huge emphasis on personal growth, because where you can go and what you are capable of is directly proportional to the power-ups at your disposal. Power-ups include but are not limited to: suit upgrades, magical powers, new weapons and tools, creatures, and artifacts.

In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the "Soul of Bat" gives Alucard the power to transform into Bat Form and fly freely through the air.

“Soul of Bat” lets you fly freely through the air in Bat Form.(Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)

4. Although movement and presentation is generally non-linear, the order in which you obtain these powerups and gain access to new areas follows a sequence. This sequence is crucial to the inclusion of a clean difficulty curve and narrative arc.

While there are other similarities between core Metroid and Castlevania games, to me these are the traits that define the Metroidvania play experience.

Creating an FADT

Now that we have our component properties, we need to come up with a name for the resulting formula that is both formal and abstract. A possible name could be: nonlinear power-up progression (NPP). “Nonlinear” covers exploring an open-ended environment, and “power-up progression” covers using power-ups to overcome obstacles in a sequence. It’s not catchy, and I hope that one day someone can come up with a nickname that rolls of the tongue… but it DOES meet the requirements of an FADT.

Pretty much any game currently in existence can be tested against NPP’s parameters for a conclusive decision. Metroid Prime games feature NPP, while the first Castlevania and Metroid Prime Pinball not. NPP includes widely accepted Metroidvanias like Outland and Guacamelee, but now includes 2D and 3D games in the Zelda series as well.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap

Link opens a chest and uncovers a new power-up in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap.

Including Zelda might be strange to some, but for someone like me who grew up playing Metroid and Zelda games and seeing those relationships all along, the proposed “platforming” requirement seems much stranger. Zelda games fit because they are nonlinear in physical progression (yet follow a clear sequence), place emphasis on exploration, and promote growth through key powerups (items/artifacts) which are used to overcome obstacles such as pits and destructible walls.

Where Does It All Fit?

How do we place our terms into a clean hierarchy? On the one hand we have “Metroidvania”, which exists as a somewhat vague subgenre of the “platforming” genre. On the other we have games that follow non-linear powerup progressionwhich are a subset of all nonlinear games. Since the sets overlap, NPP does not outright replace Metroidvania. But as a design tool, I think it’s more useful to focus on NPP as a formula that subsets nonlinear progression than to worry about “Metroidvania”, redefined as “a platforming game that follow NPP”.

I think that meaningful progress in critical language development requires us to think about game formulas and categorization by genre in completely different ways. Maybe we need a new tree hierarchy, or maybe we don’t want a tree at all! We’ll talk more about genres another day, but for now I hope that this post provokes some thought and invites you to help me question paradigms.

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