Just a warning, this post is long, and jumps wildly from tales of pre-industry Lisa to silly kaiju comics. Just roll with it.
So I participated in Procedural Death Jam this year. Having never made a procedural game before I figured it would be a good opportunity. It was pretty fun and I was happy with my results, you can play Prop Hell here if you want to give it a try!
I wanted to go through some of my favorite entries from the Jam in no particular order. My criteria for a favorite was a game that I kept playing to the end or over and over because I found it really compelling, versus an entry I just played until I “got it.” Do note: there were many PDJ entries that I couldn’t run due to corrupted zips or executables that just wouldn’t work, but I tried my best to play as many as possible.
This is a pretty straightforward sidescroller platformer, and the procedural layout of the art is quite nice, but the drone mechanic is what delighted me. I liked the idea of having this resource to use for both platforming and combat while my character himself was more or less vulnerable. I think the idea has potential worth exploring, especially if drones can be lost. You could get some fun choices about when to send a drone into combat and when to reserve them for fear of losing one forever.
A basic combat card game. Although it was a little unintuitive at first (I didn’t realize you didn’t have to go all the way around the wheel in order to attack) the whole idea of the spinner going around the wheel threw a nice twist in this game. It became not just about which cards to pick to buff up your character, but the order in which you chose them became important. Sometimes you had to hold back from choosing something to avoid a skull, which brought up different choices than I was used to in this kind of game. I also like how the bad things didn’t have immediate negative effects, but just put bad cards into your deck, so the outcome was still dependent on the draw. I really think they should keep developing on this idea.
This is a fantastic yet simple little strategy game where you lead a zombie horde around a map to kill/convert humans and find upgrades. It has a day night cycle, and during the day you have to keep your zombies out of harm’s way and can use that time to pan around the map and plan your best move. I love how it captures the ambling, mindless nature of the zombies as they flock around your command point, and growing your horde feels really compelling.
This super-cute vampire game of “get safely to the coffin” had a lot of fun but simple choices. I particularly liked the post-level upgrade options each time you found your way to the coffin. It did some fun things with light/dark/line-of-sight mechanics that worked well with the procedural nature of the grid layouts.
I’m normally not one for these space exploration games, but this one did a great job of making me want to keep playing each time I learned something new that lead to my demise. It has did a good job of having multiple modes (world map exploration, galaxy exploration with menu-based events, and realtime shooter combat), which often leads to scope death in jams, but they pulled it off really well. They kept things simple and clean and as a result had a nice whole package that worked really well together.
This game did a great job of getting a cohesive look, feel, and design. It has great shooter feedback and sound design, and though the art is simple the aesthetic is consistent and works really well. My favorite part is the mechanic wherein you blast open the next section of level. It can completely change the gameplay if you’re trying to take out dudes in a narrow corridor and blast open the adjacent squares for a new level layout and new choices to make. Great work!
All in all, a fun jam with many interesting entries and takes on the constraints. Good job everybody!
And now the games post as promised. Keep in mind, this isn’t “Games I thought were the best out of all games of 2013,” because I did not play all the games. I thought Antichamber was brilliant, but I only spectated that one. And these aren’t necessarily the artsiest-fartsiest of games, or the games with the best design. Rather, this is more of a list of “Games that consumed me in 2013,” or games that was antsy to get off work and get home so I could play some more. Here they are in order played.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
This game ended up being exactly what I hoped it would be. It had that whimsical, wondrous JRPG-from-my-childhood feel that I have been missing for so long, and I was startled to realize that a lot of that feeling merely comes from the presence of a world map. It was beautiful, and a world that I wanted to spend time in. I didn’t really get into the monster-collecting aspect of it, and stuck with a core group and strategy for the better part of the game, led by MonGod, the tankiest of tanks. I loved the combat in this game, which was active while still retaining something of that menu-based combat feel that I loved in JRPGs of old. If not for Nick’s fatigue of coaching boss battles, I would have plowed through all the post-end-of-game quests. I will do any quest that is framed as helping someone out, so the frequent-buyer style stamp cards were incredibly compelling for me. I wanted to help ALL THE PEOPLE.
I had seen this game at Indiecade the year prior, and it won me over instantly with its aesthetic and the fact that you can transform from luchador to chicken. This is a fantastic metroid-vania style brawler, and the art and animation is delightful. The theming was spot on and the music did that weird mariachi-electronica mashup that just worked so well for the game. It had some ups and downs in co-op: the brawling was a great 2-player experience, but the exploring and platforming aspects felt better in single player. I loved how many elegant design solutions showed up, especially for combining get-to-new-places abilities with specific combat needs (the different colored shields). Also you can transform into a chicken. The only bummer in this game for me was the tired old damsel-in-distress trope. I kept waiting for them to throw a clever twist on it, but they never did Alas, can’t have everything.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
It had been a long, long time since I bought a console specifically for a single game, but the indirect peer pressure of friends posting about their villages was too much, and before long the 3DS and Animal Crossing were mine all mine. I really liked how they toned down the guilt-tripping in this game compared to previous iterations. This made me much more excited to return to my village after a small absence, rather than being terrified of the berating I would receive at the hands of my villagers. I’ve never been much for decorating house, but I do love to help run errands for my villagers, and I did manage to find all the fossils. The Halloween event was super fun, and I still feel guilty about caving and becoming another exploitive beetle farmer. I think this game consumed me so well because it fit right into my daily routine. After work every day I would take Mr. Davis for a walk for an hour, and it was the perfect time frame for checking in, digging up my fossils, watering my plants, and taking care of day-to-day town maintenance. Surprisingly, even though it was seeing other people post about this game that compelled me to buy it, I never visited a single other person’s village.
Oh, man. This game, you guys, this game. I feel like I’ve gushed enough about how much I love this game already, so I’ll just do a short recap. I loved how simple the actual mechanic was, and how complex they were able to make it without needing much more input. It made it incredibly accessible while still having the potential for a lot of depth. I loved how many ethical dilemmas I faced playing this game, and how they just showed up without any face-rubbing or drama, but were simple but still stirring. I love how intensely I cared about the wellbeing of my family, who were nothing more than names on a screen (and perhaps that is why they became so important to me, because my imagination filled in all the meat). This was also an incredibly intense, at times stressful co-op experience. I’m actually not sure if I could have handled the later levels alone. If you have yet to play this game, please give it a try. For me.
Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
Buying a 3DS for Animal Crossing suddenly made me realize that I got to be excited about the release of this game! A Link to the Past is tied for my all-time favorite Zelda, and I have fond memories of how much of an impression that game had on my life, so I was very excited about the idea that this game would take place in the same world. A Link Between Worlds was like coming home, the perfect balance of nostalgia factor and fresh new content and mechanics. It also made really good use of the 3D feature, with all of its clever puzzles that had to do with verticality in the top-down world. The pacing was delightful, and even when I perceived solutions to puzzles very quickly, the discovery was still intoxicating. I did a lot of the completionist stuff purely because I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the world, and was depressed to have finished it.
So, I keep a list of my game ideas as they pop up, like you do, and make sure to go back and comb through the list every now and then. Sometimes they are very much centered around mechanics, but sometimes they are very vague thoughts or phrases that I wanted to hang on to in case they would make a good game.
Often I forget what spawned these ideas. Some of them I can only remember writing down after waking up from a dream, and have since lost all memory for the context in which it relates to being a game at all. Here’s a few for your consumption:
“Ciao Ciao Ciao/Chow Chow Chow (Maybe Chow Chow Ciao?)”
“Janus loses his contacts in one face. You can only see behind you.”
If anyone wants to make those into a game, please feel free. I have more ideas on that list than I’ll ever be able to create in a lifetime. Just let me know what you come up with because I’ll be super curious!
This year was full of many adventures and exciting times. I feel kind of like it was a ramp-up, and that 2014 might explode…but for good or for awesome? Only time will tell. Here’s a few memories from 2013.
At work, we finally revealed the project that I’d been working on since Resistance 3 shipped, that being Sunset Overdrive. It felt great to be able to share the trailer with the world, and I worked on many things for the first half of the year, both exciting and challenging. However, during the summer, I made a transition to working on something else that was more of a process experiment. I will be able to talk about that in more detail, soon, but the second half of 2013 was incredibly refreshing and fulfilling, work-wise. I continue to be ever grateful for Insomniac and my job as a game designer. Meanwhile, I’ve turned up the networking knob a bit for 2013, partially under the encouragement of Nick, and have been more active in reaching out and connecting with my fellow game devs, through the internet or Game Dev Drinkups or whathaveyou.
Mr. Davis has had some ups and downs this year. He had to have some teeth pulled at the very beginning of the year, and then had a frightening bout with pancreatitis which has unfortunately turned into a chronic condition. However, in his normal day-to-day life he remains happy, and continues to be a valued source of unconditional love in my life.
Nick and I moved in together this year! So far it has been wonderful, and Mr. Davis is also happy about the arrangement. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve had a lot of insights this year, and forged deeper bonds with friends and mentors. Whenever I review it in my mind I feel an overflowing of love and gratitude, and I’d like to take part of 2014 to express these feelings in a more overt way. Financially, I continue to plug away at the student loan, and if all goes as planned, it should be gone by the end of 2014! Hobby-wise, playing League of Legends and watching e-sports has only been on the rise. As far as games played, I’ll save my top 5 games of 2013 for another post.
I got involved in more out-of-work projects this year, including a few game jams and my first solo Ludum Dare. I also buckled down and participated in National Novel Writing Month, which is something I’d always meant to do but put off. Not only was I successful, but I opened some manner of portal in my brain and a giant story is trying to squeeze its way out. I have been honestly surprised at how consuming the experience has been. 2014 will see it out into the world. In other side projects, I made an effort to work more non-fiction into my reading rotation, and feel like I’ve absorbed all kinds of interesting new bits of knowledge as a result. Mentoring continues to be a part of my time, both through Game Mentor Online and through connecting directly with students via my various alma maters, as is photography at the animal shelter.
This year I felt like I was more successful than ever with consistently riding my bike to work. Nick and I also established a frequent hiking habit which has been beneficial. And ever since moving into the new apartment, I have been walking a lot more on a regular basis. I feel really good about myself right now, but have an antsy urge to get harder/better/faster/stronger, just because. I think it is a desire to channel the blossoming of energy that I’ve felt grow inside of me this year, possibly as a result of all the side projects.
I have a sensation that 2014 is going to be full of creative energy and positive relationships, and I am excited and curious and wiggling with anticipation for whatever surprises it may have in store for me.
And now, a brief overview of my favorite beats from this year’s Project Horseshoe.
1. Things were already looking up on the trip to the conference at our layover in Las Vegas. I put $1 into a slot for funsies, and after a long interval of incomprehensible flashing lights, I got $15 back. This was used to purchase a victory sandwich.
2. We played Two-Truths-And-A-Lie and I managed to fool someone into thinking I had been a magician instead of a synchronized swimmer at one time in my life (the other truth was Glassblower).
3. Had wonderful conversations the first evening, which sparked that first insight about spontaneous shared experiences.
4. Next morning at breakfast, had folks play a prototype I’ve been working on and got a pile of wonderfully helpful feedback
5. Pitched the spontaneous shared experiences idea for a workgroup topic the next day and it got chosen! Many interesting conversations followed!
6. Topped the evening off with many exciting rounds of Artemis. My favorite job is Comms, where I constantly pester the Science officer for the latest gossip concerning enemy ship captains, such that I may insult them more effectively.
7. Did field research with my workgroup the next day, which involved trolling another workgroup with a cow puppet on a stick.
8. Epic potato gun battle at lunch! (no no no, this kind of potato gun, not the dangerous kind)
9. Delightful workgroup presentations that night, mine may or may not have involved a “spontaneous” appearance by G.O.B. Bluth.
10. Had the most epic stories that night playing Once Upon a Time. I love that game SO MUCH!
11. After discovering a potato in the hood of my jacket, I took revenge on the wrong person. Whoops.
Tl;dr: A good time was had by all! The only downside is a case of classic con crud. I blame the communal M&M jar.
So, last night at Project Horseshoe a series of interesting thoughts flittered by that I wanted to capture down. A group of us were talking about mastery, autonomy, and relatedness in games and the relatedness category struck me to share a recent observation. Some time ago my brother posted on Facebook a thread that started a conversation about spontaneous shared experiences in public transportation, and sadness for people who missed out on them in a primarily “car” society. The story was about how on a bus ride, a bright yellow maple leaf managed to drift in through an open window, and everyone on the bus stopped what they were doing to watch it. Then, talk about how delightful it was to make that spontaneous connection. Another story was about a man bringing a bag of potatoes on a train and spilling them, and everyone in the car was suddenly running around, chasing wayward potatoes and laughing.
This got me thinking about how this phenomenon shows up in multiplayer games. It’s not the same as, say, an event in World of Warcraft where everyone on the realm gathers together in one place to participate in it (something like the holiday bosses). Rather, it’s more when people are together going about their own ways, and something surprising happens at that moment to just that group of people, so that they somehow instinctively know that only they experienced it, and so it brings them close together for a moment.
An example that I extracted from my memory was a particular game of League of Legends I’d played some time ago. Now, here is an already-shared experience happening within a designed context, because we are two teams playing against one another to win. Someone on my team was playing Shen (a character who can teleport to another of his teammates anywhere on the map) and their team had a Warwick (a character who can teleport a short distance onto an enemy player, latch onto them and more or less stun them and deal damage). Warwick and Shen were off on one side of the map, and Warwick was chasing down Shen, who was low on health, to get in range for the kill. In a desperate attempt to save himself, Shen did his teleport move, which has a long (in the context of a fast paced game) animation it must perform before he actually teleports. At the very, very last moment of the animation, Warwick got within range to do HIS short teleport ability, and jumped to Shen at the EXACT moment he teleported. This meant that, through a bug, Warwick teleported along with Shen right into the middle of our team, where we of course obliterated him.
The chat lit up on both teams:
“OMG what just happened!”
“That was amaaaaaaaaaazing!’
And on and on. Even poor Warwick was laughing. It felt hilarious and wonderful, and I still remember that moment out of the hundreds of League of Legends games I have played, and tell that story to people. It was as though we all knew in that moment that we’d be telling the story of what happened to friends for years to come, and it made me feel like I had a special connection to this group of mostly strangers for a passing moment.
So, what made that moment feel so good? What made it work so perfectly? I’m going to try and break it down a little:
1. Surprise. Since it was a bug, it definitely was unexpected, and so surprised everyone.
2. Logical context. The bug made perfect sense within the context of how everyone understood the rules of these two players’ moves. Of course it made sense that if Warwick teleported onto Shen right as he teleported away, that Warwick would come along for the ride. We all knew it wasn’t supposed to happen, but what did happen made logical sense in a kind of extra layer of narrative we had for how those abilities worked. If the bug had been something unrelated to the relationship between these two abilities, like if Warwick scaled really big randomly or got stuck in his ult animation loop or exploded spontaneously, it would have been surprising, but not as delightful as what really happened.
3. Reversal. One moment Shen is in dire straits, surely about to die, and then suddenly in the act of the killing blow, it is Warwick who finds himself in an impossible situation (stranded alone on the other side of the map in the middle of the entire enemy team). Humans love a good reversal.
4. No designed intent. Because this was obviously a bug, everyone knew they were witnessing a moment that had not been “designed” for them, which somehow made it feel more authentic, and more worth remembering and sharing. If I’d been together with a group of people and witnessed a random event that had been designed into the game, I might feel surprise and delight, but I don’t think I’d feel that same shared connection with the other people who had also witnessed it.
Okay, so these spontaneous shared experiences in games are wonderful things, but can we design for them? Can we create systems that have opportunities for these things to occur that do not feel like a designed event? (Preferably but not introducing a game with bugs in it) I think when players recognize something as the result of an intentional design, it goes less from spontaneous delight and more to excavation – can the thing be dug up and cataloged away – another valid experience but not exactly the kind I need to recreate.
Do the spontaneous shared connections need to require all of these elements? No, I don’t think so. Some other stories we shared contained no reversal, for example, but shared commiseration. I don’t think this is a blueprint for what these must be, just a dissection of one in particular.
Food for thought.
Now and again, I have a weird sleep issue that I call “Blue Light Dreams.” It goes like this:
1. I’ll be having a dream which I usually don’t remember
2. I’ll wake up with sudden urgency and start carrying out some task of great importance that my mind is convinced is 100% real. This can be something like “the tunnel in the ceiling is open, now is our chance to get through!” and will end up with me literally standing up on the bed and hoisting up Davis so we can climb through the nonexistent tunnel in the ceiling that I’m scrambling to find.
3. A few moments later I’ll realize that I’ve woken from a dream and whatever I’ve just been acting out is actually ridiculous. Davis usually makes his confused “Mrrr?” sound.
4. 99% of the time these outbursts involve me seeing a blue light. Like in the previous example, I will have seen a bright blue light in the corner of the ceiling which is the signal that the tunnel is open. This looks like a reflection off the wall of a bright blue LED.
5. My brain will make up an excuse as to what the blue light was to get me to go back to sleep, but it’s always something that doesn’t make any sense when I go back and think about it. It’ll be like “oh it was just my clock” (my clock has a green light and usually is dimmed) or…and this is my favorite… “oh it was just the indiglo from my watch” (noting that I have not owned a watch, let alone a watch with indiglo, since high school). But in this state the excited part of my brain accepts whatever excuse the other part has come up with for the time being.
I hate when these Blue Light Dreams happen, because when I settle down from them, I get really anxious and distressed. I’m definitely awake when they happen, but I’m doing something just completely bonkers-crazy and absolutely thinking it is real. It’s like a brief little glimpse into what being a madman is like, and it scares me (I just had one now, and I can’t get back to sleep, which is why I’m up late writing this post). The blue light part is weird but consistent, and it has become a false reminder. Like I wake up and see a blue light and it reminds me that this is a familiar situation. But instead of reminding me “hey you just woke up from a dream, remember?” it’s more like “there’s the blue light! It’s a sign! You have to get up and figure out what it’s for RIGHT NOW and it’s VERY URGENT and DON’T FORGET TO GRAB THE CAT.”
Then, at the moment I should be thinking like a normal person again, I do another weirdly crazy thing – the made up excuse that doesn’t make any sense and the calm acceptance of the excuse as reality.
I’m really not sure what’s going on with these incidents – I’m certainly awake when they occur, and though I often act out with great energy I don’t do anything violent, and at most disturb Davis from sleep by grabbing him and picking him up suddenly. They seem harmless other than the fact that they make me feel like a crazy person, which is scary and distressing. And then sometimes it makes it so I can’t get back to sleep.
Stupid Blue Light Dreams. Does this happen to any of you?
I’m not sure if I’ll reach my goal of playing at least 100 games from Ludum Dare 27, but I’m getting pretty close. All the same, I figured it would be a good time to give a shout out to some of my favorite games that I’ve come across so far. Here they are!
I thought this game pulled off the whole “simultaneous actions performed asynchronously” mechanic in a brilliant way. I had seen several other games that played around with a similar thing, but Keg Quest framed it in a way that was easy to work out the puzzle through trial and error and then easily reset everything to “perform” correctly once you had mentally solved the puzzle.
This was a great moody piece. The mechanic is simple enough to be represented without UI, so they were able to focus on the beautiful art and use that to convey all the critical game information. I think the storytelling moments in this game are absolutely fantastic, especially (SPOILERS) the moment at the end when you start encountering dead mites near the surface. If you had just reached the top without them it would have been kind of frustrating, but that tiny detail gave juuuust enough of a foreshadowing moment that reaching the surface nailed that sense of despair.
ONEMOC: 1 MINUTE OF COLORS (48 hour comp)
I thought the mechanic in this one was very clever (and very simple). It wasn’t quite like anything I’d encountered before, though something about the “walking” feeling from square to square reminded me a little bit of InnerCube. The interface for how the desired color changed over time merged with a timer bar was really nice.
This was like a fast-form adventure game. I enjoyed it because it had nice puzzle and story elements without all the extra fuss you have to deal with in a standard adventure game (I’m not normally a fan of point-and-click adventures). Like, there is still trial and error with things, but the framing around 10 seconds really makes it efficient and fun. Plus it’s a nice, touching story.
So, there you have it, my favorite 4 of LD27. Even still, I’ve played a ton of other games that have done impressive work, so fantastic job, everybody!
Lastly, if you want to check out my own 48 hour compo entry, 10 Second Dragon Feeder, you can view it here:
Though this was my very first Ludum Dare, and the solo competition at that, I feel like it went really well for me! (My entry can be found here) I ended the weekend happy with my game and with a nice mental tiredness that was not crippling exhaustion. I’m going to write about my process and the things I think helped make this Ludum Dare a pleasant and successful experience…