Demo Night: Brain and Brawn!!

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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 ūüôā

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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A Better Term For “Metroidvania”

Metroidvania term_1

What Exactly IS A “Metroidvania”?

I’ve never liked the term¬†“Metroidvania“.

Metroidvania (a¬†portmanteau of “Metroid” and “Castlevania”)¬†is a well-known subgenre definition in the 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 experiences 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 approach 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 the formula within.¬†In this post, I will attempt to outline the term’s flaws, break down the formula into its components, and¬†suggest a more useful alternative.

Falling Short of the Mark

According to Doug Church’s¬†Formal Abstract Design Tools¬†(FADT), a useful 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 sources¬†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. But the very first¬†Castlevania game 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 feels silly to map the definition to series. Instead of continually adjusting the set to fit the definition, we need to recognize 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 their properties.¬†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. What are the component properties of a Metroidvania game?

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, weapons, tools, creatures, and artifacts.

In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the

“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 will often follow a sequence. This sequence is crucial to the inclusion of a clean difficulty curve and narrative arc.
(Update: Since writing this post, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was released. ALBW notably breaks the sequence rule – more on that in another post!)

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

Reframing the formula

Now that we have our component properties, I’d like to propose a new term to replace “Metroidvania”. 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¬†works.

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 also¬†2D and 3D games in the Zelda series.

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 NPP 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.

One of the¬†major difference between Zelda and “traditional” Metroidvanias is density. Zelda games will often boast a large but relatively sparse overworld for exploration, then pack the meat of the puzzles and combat scenarios into dungeons. Whereas¬†Metroid games tend to offer spread exploration, puzzles, and combat across the world in a relatively uniform manner.¬†Each approach results in a very different feel, but I think they both fit inside NPP.

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 progression,¬†which 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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Flip Cup Sumo

“Drinking” Games

I’m fascinated with the origin and design of drinking games. Where do different types of games come from, how were they conceived, and how did they evolve to take on the many varying forms they have today? Why do certain kinds of people gravitate to certain kinds of games? How does a game experience change with varying numbers, personality types, physical resources and space, and party vibe?

There are so many questions! To keep down the scope of this article, today we are going to focus on one game: Flip Cup.

The Strengths of Flip Cup

Flip Cup is great for a lot of reasons – it’s easy to learn, flexible in numbers, accommodating to sudden personnel changes between rounds, doesn’t require a long commitment (like a bad game of Pong might), allows for varying levels of skill and competitiveness, and is fast-paced and exciting.

The social aspect of Flip Cup is also very dynamic. I have seen it used between a small group of close friends to get the party started, I’ve seen it used upon the first explosion of party attendance to get a bunch of strangers mobilized and feeling included as part of a”greater cause”, and I’ve seen it used as a late-party game for people who want to send themselves or others over the edge.

It’s no wonder that it’s a staple of the college party experience!

Flip Cup’s Weaknesses

I have found two key issues with the Flip Cup experience:

  1. Disconnected Games:¬†Each game of Flip Cup is a self-contained victory. It doesn’t seem to matter much if one team is significantly better than the other.
  2. Degree of Victory is Arbitrary:¬†There is a limited and fleeting joy that comes from a¬†“strong” victory (completing significantly faster than the losing team). If Team A wins the first three games in a row by two cups, and then Team B wins the fourth by a whopping 7 cups… how the teams stack up?

You could solve both of these problems by adding a scoring system, based either on team wins or on the number of total cups flipped, but I wanted something less abstract. So I came up with a little variation called Flip Cup Sumo!

Flip Cup Sumo

Flip Cup Sumo is a straightforward variation of Flip Cup Classic, with some important twists!

  • Players:¬†6-16, 2 even teams
  • Setup:
    1. Given a rectangular flip cup table, draw a long line (“axis”) across its length, parallel to the lines of cups.
    2. Along the axis, draw an odd number of smaller lines (“notches”), such that each line is¬†perpendicular to the axis. The notches should be symmetrical, meaning there should be a CENTER notch.¬†
    3. At each end of the axis, draw a circle to be the”goal zone”. Each team picks a goal zone to protect. Place some sort of object (“marker”), like an unopened beer can, at the center of the table on the center notch. The end result should look something like this:¬†Flip Cup Sumo Diagram
  • Progression of Play:
    1. Pick a player on each team, facing each other, and play a round of normal flip cup.
    2. The moment the round finishes (the last person on a team has finished flipping their cup), everything stops.
    3. Count the number of unflipped cups (or unfinished players) on the losing team. Take the marker and move it that many¬†notches towards the losing team’s goal zone, as if the winning team PUSHED it in that direction.
    4. Designate a new set of players to start a new round, and repeat.
  • Resolution: If the marker is ever pushed into a team’s goal zone, the game ends and the opposing team is declared the victor. If the marker is an unopened beer can, then you could add a rule where a member of the losing team must shotgun/funnel it as punishment.

There are a few reasons I like this game. First, the game gives players a long term goal, which strings together the individual flip cup rounds into a larger game.  Secondly, a strong victory has a much greater effect on the movement of the beer can, and is thus more rewarding. Saving your team from near-death or finishing off a team with a strong victory should be very satisfying.

It also could use some tweaking. A long table is typically used for flip cup, but teams stand on the long sides. This means that the axis is parallel to the team formation, making it difficult to tell which goal belongs to which team, and why. Perhaps it would help if the single “marker” was replaced with two little colored objects – such as sumo wrestler action figures – facing each other. In this case each team could choose a matching color, and loss state is triggered when that color’s marker is pushed backwards into a goal zone.

Flip Cup Sumo+
To increase strategy (at the risk of accessibility), try the following rules:

  1. When a round ends, the marker should be moved¬†N+1 notches towards the losing team’s goal. This extra point helps move the needle for small victories, so they aren’t completely undermined by a single strong one.
  2. If a team has finished flipping all of their cups in a round, the last person yell DONE to end the round. However, they may also optionally choose to loop around to the first person on the team and flip more cups to score additional points. However, victory is risked each time a person starts flipping, since a player can only call DONE if they have just successfully flipped a cup and the next person has not yet started.

These rules probably take it too far. After all, Flip Cup derives much of its strength from its casual nature; it wouldn’t be very fun teaching these rules in a party setting.

Anyway I’d love to try these out, or get some feedback from someone else who gets a chance. I hope it’s fun!

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Music Fundamentals

I have officially started work on a new educational game based on Sumy Takesue’s textbook “Music Fundamentals”! A new version of textbook is scheduled to come out this October, and my job is to recreate and improve¬†the existing flash game in HTML5. It is to be used alongside the new book and must be available for mobile devices.

The project is really exciting, as it is a hybrid of several passions of mine: music, education, and games. Today was my first big conference call, and my boss has given me permission to design brand new exercises and mini-games and pitch them to her. What an amazing opportunity!

If I am allowed to, I will post more information on the project as it takes form. Next week is lots of research and design, followed by full-scale rapid prototyping. Down the line I may even get to post links to the beta here, which would be really awesome.

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Building a Critical Language

[UPDATE: My views on this topic have evolved. Today I know that game designers have plenty of tools without a formalized language, and that the game development process is more about doing and listening than saying. This old post was written by a younger version of myself who was frustrated by scattered and inconsistent design teachings, not realizing that the answers come from finishing more games!]

“As game designers, we need a way to analyze games, to try to understand them, and to understand what works and what makes them interesting. We need a critical language. And since this is basically a new form, despite its tremendous growth and staggering diversity, we need to invent one.” -Greg Costikyan [I Have No Words & I Must Design, 1994]

I have a fascination for language and how it influences our ability to think critically and creatively. I often wonder if there are concepts or ideas I struggle to understand, or have yet to even be exposed to, simply because of the limits of the American-English language. Have there been any significant international projects that required high level intellectual communication between multiple languages and cultures? If so, how did we make them work?

The games industry needs this. It’s been nearly 20 years since Costikyan wrote his seminal work…¬†so how come it feels like we haven’t made that much progress? Who is at the forefront of this exploration and development of a common language among game developers? And how come as a 5th year Game Design & Development student that is about to graduate, I have never encountered a discussion on this topic in any of my classes?

I have seen first hand how this issue can hold developers back. I have worked on projects where team members were incapable of talking about games outside of their personal experiences as gamers, and as a result could not effectively communicate their ideas.

So where is the progress being made? I loved Doug Church’s “Formal Abstract Design Tools” [1999], but even that was over a decade ago. Every other article and reference seems to just be a slight extension of the ideas formulated by Costikyan and Church.

I want nothing more than to be able to learn from the work that has already been done, and to be at the frontlines of this exciting trek forward! But where do I start?

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