We Got Some Ink!

Fri, October 30, 2009 -- 21:15 UTC

Haverford College put up a lovely article on us over on their website. You should go read it, if only for the really great photo* of us doing our best  mac-users-group ‘zine cover pose.

*courtesy of the talented Aaron Stock

Touhouhou and a Bottle of Rum

Fri, September 25, 2009 -- 21:06 UTC

Chris over at Paper Dino recently put up a  post on the lessons he learned from playing the Touhou shmups, e.g. Perfect Cherry Blossom and Imperishable Night. For those who don’t know, this is a series of shmups (shoot ‘em ups) made by one guy from Japan who calls himself ZUN. He’s iterated a lot on the basic vertical scrolling shooter formula and his shoulders are great ones to stand on when you’re making a shmup yourself.

Chris did an excellent job of highlighting several key lessons.  Here are some of the things I took away from my own explorations of the series.

Welcome to Bullet Hell

Welcome to Bullet Hell

Slow/Technical Mode

If a bullet hits the dot on her waist, you're dead. Anywhere else and you're home free.

If a bullet hits the dot on her waist, you're dead.

Almost all of the Touhou games I played had a button that, when you hold it down, makes you go slower. In the earlier Perfect Cherry Blossom you activate this mode by holding down the fire button, a’la DoDonPachi. In later games, however, ZUN remapped this slowdown to another button entirely.

One of the most subtle benefits of this slowdown is that it puts a small dot on your character showing your “real” hit-box. As Chris mentioned in his post, it’s usually a good idea in shmups to make the player’s hit box (i.e. the part of the player that, if it touches a bullet, will result in player’s death) much smaller than the image of the player’s ship.

Notice the little white dot on the player on the image to the right. That’s the player’s hit-box; as long as you remain in slow mode the game displays this point for you allowing for a highly technical level of play.

Modal Gameplay

Left: Slow Mode, Right: Normal

Left: Slow Mode fires wavy bats, Right: Normal fires spread

In most of the Touhou games the player’s main vulcan fire* is slightly different when slow mode is engaged. In Imperishable Night, the players main attack gets extremely different. As you can see on the right, the main character’s sprite also changes to reflect this.

With the character(s) pictured, the slow mode actually leaves guns behind in screen-space (the red circles above her are the guns) so you can put a gun down, for example, somewhere you know the boss often is while you’re off somewhere else dodging. By contrast, the main mode is a very traditional vulcan spread shot.

Currently in "I can kill you, you can kill me" mode

Currently in "I can kill you, you can kill me" mode

This allows for tactical decisions. All of the sudden you have an interesting choice of which gun to use for each wave of enemies that comes at you. Do you fire the spread to cover more screen, or do you leave a gun on one side of the screen to cover the other?

Imperishable Night makes this even more interesting by changing enemy behavir based on which mode you’re in. These things, called “familiars”, are usually spawned by bosses and shoot bullets at you. When you are in slow mode they won’t harm you by touch, but you can’t kill them either. When you are in normal mode, however, your bullets can kill them and they can kill you by running into you. This offers even more interesting play choices such as, for example, you choose whether to remain in regular mode so you can kill them and stop them from firing at you, or just to switch to slow mode and fire through them to get to the boss while dodging bullets.

Boss Locator

The last mechanic that I’ll mention is the boss locator. Whenever you fight a boss, the word enemy appears on the bottom of the screen directly under where the boss is on screen (screenshot below). This lets the player see where the boss is with a minimal effort even when he’s busy dodging hell of bullets at the bottom of the screen. It’s a great innovation that’s particularly well-suited to the smaller bosses of the Touhou shmups. We may have to borrow this.

crude red drawing added by the editors for emphasis

Crude Red Drawing added by the editors for emphasis

This is by no means all of the lessons these games have to teach. The bullet patterns alone could be the subject of a dissertation; I’m sure I’ll go back to that well. For now, though, these are my big takeaways from my brief research time. If you haven’t had a chance to play these yet I heartily recommend them, Imperishable Night in particular.

* The vulcan is pretty much the standard issue primary weapon in shmups. Originally named after the real M61 Vulcan cannon, the original standard gatling gun on American jets post WWII, in shmups a vulcan is a high speed, high rate-of-fire weapon.

Highlights from PAX 2009

Thu, September 17, 2009 -- 15:57 UTC
pax_09 logo

A rockin' good time

The time has come to talk about the awesome things I experienced at PAX 2009. The convention has been over for more than a week now and I have been back east for about half of that time; owing to the stellar performance of United Airlines, my all-day flight transformed into an overnight red-eyed odyssey with a stopover in SFO*. I have finally recovered. Let me share with you some of the wonders I beheld. Note: this post is all pleasure – in future we may put together a Business Time post talking about the connections etc. that PAX yielded but for now, it’s all about fun.

Geek Chic: Classy Gaming Furniture

As I’ve mentioned before,  I really enjoy pen and paper roleplaying games. I also enjoy board games, card games, … really almost all tabletop games. As I may not have mentioned, I have a fiancée who also sometimes enjoys these things.  She also, however, appreciates a nice-looking home.

Enter Geek Chic. I had the great opportunity to sit down and have a few beers with the folks behind Geek Chic. Robert Gifford, the founder of the company, has a real passion for his work. His angle is that we should treat gaming like we treat more mainstream hobbies. You can play golf with really nice clubs. You should be able to play Pandemic on a really nice table. As soon as we move into an apartment that actually has some space, I hope to give these guys my business.

The only way to play Arkham Horror

The only way to play Arkham Horror

Steel Battalion

Not a lot of people have heard of Steel Battalion. Even fewer have played it. Until PAX, I fell into the latter category. Now, all my dreams have been fulfilled.

Steel Battalion was a mech combat game for the Xbox in the early aughts. What made it truly special was its controller. Unlike other mech games that use mouse and keyboard (and might even support a fancy joystick for the hardcore), Steel Battalion came with its own cockpit setup including (but not limited to):

  • two (2) joysticks, one with a thumbstick on it
  • three (3) pedals (gas, brake, dodge)
  • gear shift
  • windshield wiper control
  • various startup switches
  • eject button complete with plastic shield to prevent accidental use

Note: Failing to press the eject button when your mech is destroyed WILL result in the deletion of your saved game. That’s how Steel Battalion rolls.

It was my dream to play it in college. Sadly, I lacked both the Xbox and the several hundred dollars to buy one and the steel battalion setup.

I am here to report that it was officially worth the wait and would like to thank the kind gentleman who taught me how to destroy everyone else by shooting them with with my railgun from a mile away.

The windshield wiper control is on the lower section of the center panel

The windshield wiper control is one of the wide green buttons on the middle panel. Eject button: sadly obscured by this dude's right forearm.

The TMNT Bus

Here’s a lesson in marketing. First, find something that the members of your target demographic loved as children with a white hot passion. Second, spend thousands of dollars to transform a bus into a shrine to that childhood memory. Third, sit back while the adoring public does your marketing for you.

When I saw the bus pictured below on the PAX exhibition floor, I had to go in. You may not remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or their associated merch; some of you are probably too young. As for me, I spent weekends forcing my parents to drive me from store to store, anxiously searching through every rack for the two action figures I didn’t have yet.

This bus was full of those action figures. The ones I slaved over, the ones I spent my hard earned cash on, and the ones my mother secretly stole the weapons from when I wasn’t paying attention. It was a direct line to my childhood. And here I am, now, talking about it. Playing into the marketing trap.

The downside? At the time I had no real clue what product this bus was selling. In fact, until about five minutes ago while researching this post, I thought that it was to publicize the new XBLA remake of Turtles in Time. I am almost reluctant to play into their hands but I suppose it is only right that I tell you the actual marketing target was the new TMNT Smash Up, a Smash Brothers style game due out later this month for Wii. You win this round, Ubisoft.

Cool, but rude

Cool, but rude

Mechaton: The Lego Mech Game

Steel Batallion was not the only awesome mech game I played at PAX. I also played Mechaton, a tabletop mech combat game made by D. Vincent Baker. D. Vincent (a.k.a lumpley), for those who do not know, is the maker of such fine other games as Dogs in the Vineyard which I have mentioned briefly before here, and have discussed at greater length elsewhere.

I will admit that I only played Mechaton for about two turns; I had to leave early in order to make it to the PAX 10 panel. What I played of it, however, was awesome. I controlled three mechs, two of which were pretty, pretty ponies (one with a laser lance, one with artillery), and the third was a small dog I used as a spotter. The rules were fun and surprisingly tight for such a whimsical game. I hope to play it again in the near future.

Crush them now, robo-pony!

Crush them now, robo-pony!

This was not the only awesome stuff from PAX. I got a chance to play StarCraft 2 (zerg v. protoss comp), watch God and Cthulhu duke it out in Scribblenauts, and test drive at least 5 of the PAX 10 (as well as meet many of their creators, who were an awesome bunch). I met a lot of awesome people (see above) and caught up with old friends. I have, however, already gone on for too long and, more importantly, I do not have awesome pictures of these other things.

Final verdict: PAX 2009 was largely completely awesome.

* As it turned out this was not all bad. Because of the layover, I was afforded a rare chance to have dinner with Chris Cornell (of Paper Dino, not Soundgarden). I got a chance to play his upcoming game, which is shaping up to be a lot of fun, and to get his first reactions to FallGuy

Hello from Pax!

Sat, September 5, 2009 -- 16:41 UTC

This was penned mid-afternoon yesterday. I was, unfortunately, not able to put it up at that time and by the time I got to the interweb I was had been[sic] drinking. That is another story for another time.

Hello, from PAX!

I am, as I pen this, sitting on a sticky floor next to what I am beginning to suspect are the bathrooms. There is no wireless in this corner, or at least no wireless that is both freely available and is also not, I suspect, poised to steal all of my personal information.

And yet, I am content. This morning, at the game design 101 panel, I had the opportunity to shake Richard Garfield’s hand and, also, to ask him about how he tests out game design ideas. He said two things that made me very happy:

1) Most of his game ideas suck and he has to weed them out too
2) He paper prototypes when he can, and makes flash prototypes when he can’t

He also said something very important: never show graphic-less prototypes to the people you want to give you money, as they usually don’t have very much imagination.

I leave you with Friday’s cosplay image:


Bang from Blaz(e)Blue

Brainstorming Part 1: The Basics

Mon, August 31, 2009 -- 17:33 UTC

This is the first post in a series on brainstorming — that is to say, meetings for idea generation. We use a lot of different techniques to generate ideas. Hopefully you’ll find some of them useful.

You need a lot of things to make a good game. You need decent art, sound, code, and levels. You need a comprehensible UI. More than any of these, however, you need a great central idea: a set of mechanics that’s fundamentally engaging and meshes well with its setting. Without that core, no amount of visual and interface polish can make your game fun.

A very pretty game with ultimately lackluster gameplay

A very pretty game with ultimately lackluster gameplay

Decent art, sound, code, and levels are pretty much a function of time as long as you’re working with good people. To get great UI you just have to put you game in front of as many potential users as you can, and be willing to take a hefty dose of criticism. Ideas take more than time and user testing. Inspiration is a strange and fickle thing. Great ideas often come from accidental realizations and chance perceptions, or misperceptions. Brainstorming is, at its heart, an attempt to harness this chaotic energy.

So, how do you brainstorm?

There are a lot of different things you can do to maximize the number and quality of ideas coming out of a brainstorm. By far the most important thing is to convince everyone in the meeting to turn off his or her critical mind. This sounds crazy, I know. After all, if no-one criticizes the ideas, then you just end up with a bunch of worthless ideas, right?

Yes, you will end up with a bunch of worthless ideas. The great majority of the ideas you come up with will be below your minimum quality threshold. The good ideas you have, however, will stand taller because they will be standing on top of a pile of the bad ones. Believe me, you will turn a critical eye to these ideas eventually, you will recognize them for the filth they are. Just not yet. I’ll talk about this more in a later article on the idea culling process.

More than anything else, brainstorming is a mindset. In order to get good ideas to come out, you have to get your brain into a place where it wants to generate as many ideas as possible. Good brainstorming practices are all about fostering this state of mind. The quickest way to stop a mind that is off in fairy land creating magical ideas is to bring it back to reality.

As an example,  let’s say that I suggest that we should make a game where a turd flies to the moon. This is, pretty much, a completely terrible idea. It is a product that will not sell and turds, on the whole, do not have a lot of exciting gameplay potential. Someone else in the meeting says as much to me and, for the next ten minutes, I’m sitting there thinking about how I came up with an idea that bad and what I can do to fix it. Everyone in the meeting is stuck sitting in silence, trying to come up with a decent idea and failing because there’s nothing to build off of.

Once we turn off criticism, however, the scenario plays out differently. I suggest the game with the flying turd and Mike, thinking of all the flies, thinks of a game where you’re a fly moving from rotting meat to rotting meat. Tim comes up with a game where you use honey and vinegar to attract fireflies into a lantern you use to light up a network of dark caves. Eventually, we have a game about riding to the moon on the back of a giant moth, who you control with a lantern full of fireflies. Which is crazy, but is also, let’s face it, kind of awesome.

Turd flying to the moon

This is not a good idea for a game

Crazy ideas, and bad ideas too, get you to places that you never would have gotten without them. Ideas are best grown from the seeds of other ideas; by not throwing anything away for the duration of the brainstorm, you’re pulling from a huge pool of ideas.

Turning off judgment also lets the idea generation gain its own kind of momentum. People love to have a challenge in front of them, especially one they think they can rise to. Once they get into that state, however, they hate to feel frustrated and too much of a sense of failure can pull them right out of it. By cutting the negative feedback out of your meeting you can foster this sense of flow.*

Bottom line: suspending judgment is the single most important part of the brainstorm. Invite people with good listening skills to your brainstorm. Before the meeting begins, talk about why it’s important to suspend judgment. During the meeting, designate someone to watch for judging behavior and call it out.  You’ll be generating awesome ideas in no time.

Next article in this series: The Warm Up!

*This principle, called flow theory, is also incredibly useful in game design. I’ll talk more about it in future posts. Meanwhile, check out Jenova Chen’s work on the subject.

Apropos of Nothing

Mon, August 24, 2009 -- 17:31 UTC

Preamble: None of this post has very much at all to do with making video games except in the most broad ways, but I like to think about design and about how game systems inform the user experience. I choose to post this first because it lets y’all know a little bit about me: I think about game design a lot, and I like to play pen and paper games. I hope you enjoy.

There are those who believe that the 4th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons is complete and utter crap. They say that roleplaying has been pushed so far to the side that it might as well be a board game. They say, variously, that it is too complicated and/or too simple. They say that playing wizards no longer feels sufficiently awesome.

Fie, I say unto them! Except for the last part, which is mostly true.

How can you not like a game with gorilla flying a biplane AND a jetpack on it?

How can you not like a game with gorilla flying a biplane AND a jetpack on it?

My stance on 4th Edition may be surprising to those who know where I come from, roleplaying-wise. My desire to tell a compelling story is the heart of my play style.  I love games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Spirit of the Century – games that revolve around storytelling and character development rather than crunchy combat mechanics and complicated character building. As a player, I’m the guy who goes over to the dark side, and loses my character, because it makes the overall story that much better. Why, when I value the story aspect of the game so much, do I enjoy this system that is so combat-centric?

One of the things I really enjoy about more descriptive games is the ability to play combat out in a cinematic, overblown way: flips, explosions, running across the ceiling, &c. Because the descriptions are so centered around the just the game of combat, 4th Edition abilities have a lot of room for awesome description.  For example, the fighter ability Cleave — which damages two enemies adjacent to you — could be described as the suggested flavor text, “[I] hit one enemy, then cleave into another,” or you can spice it up: “I stab my sword through both goblins. Greenskin shish kebab tonight,” or as, “I slice the tendons in the goblin’s arm, causing it to fly sideways and hit his comrade-in-arms.”

The basic point is that, because the rules are so tight and specific, your descriptions can range all over the place as long as they map, generally, to the rules. You can really spice up the wizard by going big with the description on his abilities — for Burning Hands, for example, you could say, “I begin to scream unholy syllables and, as I speak, my words become broken and garbled. At once, searing light shines from my mouth as my words become tiny snakes of  flame, seeking something, anything, to burn.” This description breaks nothing about the game.

The other thing I think 4e really has going for it is that the combat is clear and doesn’t get bogged down as some other systems tend to. You always have a clear set of things you can do and you can choose to do any of them. Every once in a while you want to do something cool and, usually, there’s either a system for it, or a power you can have that does it. A smoother combat flow makes for more interesting, engaging description. It also makes for more time doing other scenes. Now, if you’re in a dungeon crawl you’re probably not doing a hell of a lot of roleplaying in towns but you just don’t have to be in a dungeon crawl. Like in any other game, combat can be an occasional spice used here and there to keep things exciting.

This is all by way of saying: if you want to tell good stories 4th Edition really doesn’t do anything to stop you. In fact, it offers real opportunities for good description and storytelling. What it doesn’t do is force storytelling upon you nor does the game itself particularly reward good descriptions. If you and your group want it, however, you can have a pretty awesome time. Even if you are a wizard.