Fall 2016 Status

I’d like to get this blog going again. It feels appropriate to start with some professional updates. Who am I today professionally, and how do I intend to use this blog?

Career Status

As of this writing…

  1. I am a Technical Game Designer at funkitron, inc. I am currently working on the casual match-3 slots game Cascade.
  2. I have a couple of years of game design and game programming experience under my belt. I have also shipped a few games.
  3. For a mixture of personal and professional reasons, I have moved on from the indie project Brain & Brawn. I still have a strong friendship with my ex-partner David Wallin, who will be continuing the project on his own. And I wish him the best!
  4. I am based in Boston, and am mildly active in the local game dev community. I try to attend meetups at least once a month so I can stay in touch, but am no longer running events like I was in my Playcrafting days.

Overall I’ve had some great fortune in my early career, and things are looking bright for the future.

This Blog

The primary goal of this blog is to explore my thoughts on game design.

I’m very fortunate that my work lets me flex my creative muscles on a regular basis. But there’s a huge mass of questions and ideas in my brain that don’t get answered in the scope of my work. My hope is that in writing, I can process some of those thoughts.

I expect future blog posts to span a wide variety of topics. I may want to do postmortems on past projects, break down one-off experiments, speculate on theory, or even dissect a specific feature or system in a game.

It’s hard to say how things will evolve, since I’m depending on my brain to unravel and respond to both the changing industry and my own growth in realtime. But what I can say with certainty is that I’m looking forward to the journey.

Thank you for reading!

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Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #2: Catching Up

After a 6-month hiatus to do game design for Demiurge Studios, I have returned to Brain and Brawn to finish the game.

During my absence, David was able to make two major updates. The first is a graphical overhaul! The result is a clean look with a slightly angled perspective that gives depth to the world. The improved graphics also do a better job of communicating the workings of different mechanics.

Before and After

Before (left) and After (right)

The second major update that was a long time coming was the switch from a physics-based system to grid-based system. This change is huge because it allows us to easily separate game logic and visuals, which opens the door for dynamic tweens, animations, and particle effects. The difference is outlined below:

Old System (physics-based): New System (grid-based):
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Accelerate player sprites in that direction
  3. Every frame, check to see if brainy or brawny sprites are colliding with another game object
  4. If a collision occurs, resolve the collision.
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Based on the grid layout and desired direction, what should happen? (cell collision)
  3. Animate all of the things that are supposed to happen?

The only down side is that we lost some features in the transition that will have to be reimplemented. These features include the HUD (with move counter), sound effects, dynamic level centering, and some pretty cool debug cheats, but they will be back and better than ever in no time.

Tomorrow, Brain and Brawn will be casually demoed at the Boston Indies Demo Night, where I hope to get feedback on 4 brand new mechanics and a Level Editor I created. Check back soon for more info on those new features!

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Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #1: Boston FIG

This post 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 start of it. 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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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

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:

  • 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. This was sort of a wake up call as to how efficient game development can be!
  • Unity’s new 2D tools are very intriguing. Unity evangelist Carl Callewaert gave a workshop in the morning where he put together a simple 2D platformer in under a half hour. Watching him work made me excited to learn Unity and prototype faster in its GUI-driven environment. It also made me think back to my childhood scribbling game designs in notebooks, and wishing for a tool like this!

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

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

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. You can check out the game at the link below:

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

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