Sunday, December 30, 2012

Game Masters!

Earlier in the year I was in Melbourne, Australia, and there was an animation festival on at ACMI, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which led me to go along there. What baffled me was that this place wasn't already on my itinerary. It's an amazing place, a feast for the senses, with interactive exhibits galore, including one that takes images of you from multiple camera angles like the Matrix and another that turns the shadow puppets you form into digital monsters, in real time.

However, coming soon at the time was an exhibition charting the history of video games. It was coming soon, but not soon enough and I left the country before it arrived. But as luck, and I daresay  proximity, would have it, the Game Masters exhibition has come to Wellington, to reside in Te Papa, New Zealand's national museum.

Shortly before Christmas I got the chance to go to the opening night, where we got to drink for an hour before being unleashed on a whole welter of games, covering pretty much every year of my own lifetime. Right at the beginning of the exhibition there are classic arcade games, like Tempest, which I'd never actually played in the arcade before,  and the Angry Birds of its day, the infinitely merchandised Pac-Man.

And, frankly, it was this section that held most of my attention. I also realised something I hadn't really appreciated - when I think of old arcade machines I think of conversions or rip-offs on home platforms. Some of these were excellent, but none of them ran as quickly as their counterparts in the arcade, and boy do they run quickly in their original format. Seriously, if you get chance to play a classic old arcade machine you will find a game that was designed within the limits of the hardware, something that is incredibly responsive to your inputs, which it has to be because the rest of the game is pretty hard.

To amplify the sense of satisfaction the controls on these machines are part of the game. Paddles might have been common back in the day, especially at Atari from whence Tempest came, but the feel  of this paddle is utterly unlike anything I used on a Binatone or VCS. Its weight is perfect, it's resistance to movement is low but there's just enough to make you feel in control.

But it was Missile Command that impressed me most. It doesn't use a puny small radius trackball, it has a big fat one, probably exactly the same as the first ever trackball invented for the Canadian military, which used a five pin bowling ball - until recently I thought they used a full sized ten pin bowling ball, which was a stupid thought in hindsight. Again, the weight is great, allowing for precise controls as the game gets harder and harder at just the right rate. Of course, I still lost all my cities to nuclear strikes fairly quickly, but I really enjoyed trying to defend them.

And I got all the way through this post without mentioning that Shatter is on display there. Oh, last second fail.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Baby Snakes!

Long before mobile phones were automatically expected to double as gaming devices, even long before I started making games for mobile phones (which was 2001, in case you were wondering) there was one embedded mobile phone game that ruled supreme - Snake.

Baby Snakes! Back it on Kickstarter!

A couple of years ago I was at GDC Europe, and between attending talks, giving a talk and falling asleep while waiting for my boss, I met a guy called Eric Prince. Eric was working on an RPG at the time but he told me about a game of his called Baby Snakes, which was a massive re-imagining of Snake.

Then I was on Kickstarter, and what should I see there amongst the projects but Baby Snakes.

I've actually played a version of this game and will definitely be making a donation so I can get my mitts on the latest, most fancy razzle dazzle version. You should too.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pixel Jam 2012 - Coming Soon

Wellington, New Zealand, is best known throughout the world for its movie magic - no doubt all eyes will be on the southern hemisphere when the first Hobbit film opens here later in the year. However, it also has a thriving game development community, with an enviable list of games produced here, including the following great ways to spend your pocket money:

The joyously presented Wooords...

Major Mayhem - the best value for money game in the world...

The genre redefining Monster Flip...

And that doesn’t include the stupendous little games that come out of Victoria University every year.

But for a long time this little capital had no game jam, nowhere for game makers to come together for a weekend to see what they could create over just a couple of days. That all changed last year when Pixel Jam appeared on the long dark lonely nights of winter to warm the cockles of those with a yearning to make games in but 48 hours. 

And it’s back again this year! On September 7th, 8th and 9th Pixel Jam will open its doors to those that desire less sleep and more coffee in their weekend, plus interaction! If you're in Wellington you should grab the nearest programmer and enter now.

I can’t attest for the quality of the games, we’ll just have to wait and see, but I can tell you that the judging will be at least 1/3 extremely fair and thoughtful, as I’m one of the three judges.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Game Design of Fencing

Being a game designer I get to do or watch anything that is related to games. Therefore, watching the Olympic Games turned into an impromptu and, thankfully, short hobby over the past few weeks. I say ‘thankfully’ because it managed to take up so much, admittedly joyous, time. 

Naturally, I had to analyse what I was watching too, and the different approaches that different sports take to snags in their game design is very interesting. 

Like many sports, fencing is a gamified version of a once useful everyday skill. There are three disciplines in the sport – foil, epee and sabre. Of these epee is the most lawless (it literally has the fewest rules) and is the simplest to follow, as a viewer. 

Sword fighting - once twas for real, now tis for fun...

Points are scored by pushing the tip of the blade, which contains a small button, into your opponent with enough force to depress the button. Every portion of your opponent is a target, hands, feet, head, legs, arms, body and groin. Most importantly, you can score double points, which means that when both fencers hit each other at the same time (within 300 milliseconds of each other) they both score a point. This is not the case with foil and sabre, where they have right of way rules that determine which of the two fencers should get the sole point. 

On the surface this lack of rules feels like it should lead to impressively manic fencing, a weapon to which the anarchists of the sport are drawn. In fact the opposite is true – attacking means extending out of a safely guarded stance and exposing extremities to attack. The defender only has to strike at nearly the same time (300 milliseconds is big window of opportunity for a fencer) for a double point. The defender is also striking from a stable platform, where they only have to extend their arm to put the attacker in danger, acting like a rock for the aggressor to dash themself upon. The attacker, on the other hand is in motion, having to place the tip of the blade, which is quite whippy, while in motion. 

Hard to imagine why they wear masks...

To win a match you only need to be one point up, so acquiring that one point lead becomes a major focus. Equally, you must be pathologically fearful of not dropping to one point down. “Don’t get hit” is probably the mantra of most epeeists. Far from wild aggressive abandon, epeeists have become standoffish and quite passive. 

This fear of being hit lead to contestants backing off from each other and waiting for the other to crack and attack. All bouts are timed, so the tactic was to get one point and then wait for the time to run out. If you want to see how shameful and miserable this could get then take a look at this video

Imagine the pain of the crowd. Imagine how much you wouldn’t want to waste TV time on showing it. 

So, ironically for few rules epee, this has necessitated the addition of rules to try to remedy the situation. Many rules that enter into games are introduced for this kind of reason, and choosing good solutions is one of the trickiest parts of game design. 

In response to epeeists not fighting there is now a non-combativity rule which actions when: 
  1. criterion of time: approximately one minute of fencing without a hit 
  2. absence of blade contact or excessive distance (greater than the distance of a step-forward-lunge) during at least 15 seconds 
The penalty for non-combativity is an immediate end to the current three minute session and immediate advancement to the next three minute session, with no break in between. 

This is reasonable rule and seems to have the desired effect on the contestants, providing a psychological shock that snaps them out of their dallying stupor. If nothing else, it puts the current session of the bout out of its misery. Epee matches also seem to start slowly and finish with more aplomb, so this kind of event is more likely in the first session, thus hurrying the whole bout onto the latter, more exciting stages. 

There's a double - both fencers score a point...

But it’s still very possible for two fencers who can score at the same time to finish the match with the same score. Then what? It’s time for a sudden death minute. In this situation a fencer is chosen at random to have priority. Any fencer who gets a single point during the minute wins. If neither gets a single point then the fencer who has priority wins. 

In one of the women’s epee semi-finals this happened, and you might have caught some of the controversy around it. Shin A-Lam and Britta Heidemann were tied at the end of their semi-final and went into a sudden death minute. Shin got the priority and then did her best not to get hit. This involved backing off, backing off and backing off. 

Heidemann attacked several times but it was a double each time. With the double not counting as a scoring event the fencers were never returned to the middle of the piste. This meant that by the end of the minute Shin was pinned down at the back of the piste, if she’d put a foot out she’d have conceded a point and lost. 

Shin looks to be a long way over to the side of the piste, but a point is only conceded for stepping out the back,  not the side...

Through various events involving the countdown clock Heidemann was given the opportunity to attack several times in the closing couple of seconds of the match. Double after double was struck, none of which counted, then Heidemann finally broke through. She was probably out of time, although technically, if she was, then the machine wouldn’t have registered her point. 

Fundamentally, I believe that a match should be won by someone scoring a point, not through some kind of digital coin toss, which is exactly what the priority system amounts to. 

Shin didn't really take the loss all that well. Don't worry though, she picked up a silver in the team event...

So how should this problem be fixed? Well, one potential answer lies in the fact that Shin was pinned down at the back of her own area, desperately trying not to step back out of the piste and concede a point. The depth of the piste is a fixed distance, but what if it wasn’t? 

If you’ve ever watched Gladiator you’ll appreciate the value of a constricting play space. In the fight against the silver masked, and undefeated, Tigris, tigers are released from pits. The purpose of these is not to maul Maximus, where is the sport in that, but to force him towards his opponent. I don’t suggest that tigers should be used, although that would be awesome, but the length of the piste could be reduced, forcing conflict. 

Tigris - you'd think the armour was enough to back up the name...

It would also be possible to change the scoring system. After all, the sudden death minute changes the scoring of epee to the degree of removing the double point anyway. Why not still allow double points but give the fencer who is not in their own half more points than the fencer who has retreated. This would no longer be a sudden death minute, just a normal minute, with the winner being the one with the highest score at the end. 

The greatest irony of the Shin Vs Heidemann situation however is the fact that the priority system is intended to be spectator friendly, bringing matches to a conclusion within a specific window of time. Yet Korea quite rightly protested Shin’s loss and this appeal took over an hour to process, an hour in which the poor woman wasn’t allowed to leave the piste. 

In the time it took for the appeal to return a verdict the fencers could have ploughed on under normal rules until one got a point over the other. So should that be the system – fence until a definite conclusion is reached, like tie-breaks in tennis? No, with time pressure lifted, the current non-combativity rule would have no effect, because it punishes both fencers. So it could end up being the case that both try to out psyche each other, much like the non-fencing fencing match in the video. 

So there has to be some kind of outside pressure, and I certainly think a territory based, uneven point scoring system in double point situations would be the easiest to test and trial. It would certainly be much superior, on a mechanical, dynamic and aesthetic level, to the coin toss of the priority system. If that doesn’t work then we call in the tigers.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You Wake Up To Marmageddon!

Earlier in the year I had an idea to make a game that was a little like Scrabble, but with an entirely different theme. Through various avenues of thinking I ended up with quite a different game, although there were still tiles with various values on them.

I then presented this game to my good friend and artist Peter Freer, and after some play testing he suggested some very shrewd and significant changes. 

Not long after I was wrestling with problem with my Masters level students - how to teach them the value of making their games as fast as possible and then spending as much time as possible tuning them. 

Aha! I thought, the game with the tiles, I can use that, because it's finished.

Using the version I presented to Pete (not the modified version after play testing with him) I got my class playing and changing, letting them change one thing after each play.

The process got the point across and I think it's fair to say that we were all pleased with the results. 

The game had a dungeon theme, which was chosen originally simply because the fantasy setting lends itself well to pretty much any games you want to try.

But then it occurred to me I could re-theme it into a zombie game, to fit in with my "Bill Johnson - Zombie Issues Specialist" universe, which is set in New Zealand. Aaand I could also tie it in with the unusual Marmite famine which has beset this fair nation in the wake of the Christchurch quakes. 

So, if you want to print and play this board game, you can find it here.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Great Places for Game Backgrounds and Settings

In my collection of game design resources I have a list of amazing places around the world. Such lists are a useful shortcut in the game design process - travel, adventure and the exotic are all important parts of the visual side of game design.

The only problem with this list is the fact that it is but a list of words, and these places are all about how they look. I am now in the process of transferring this list to a Pinterest board - click on the image to see it...

Sunday, April 15, 2012

So Long Jack Tramiel

Somewhere in a loft, in the fair and mighty county of North Yorkshire, there rests my greatest teenage dream. In 1987 I turned 12 and, apart from being besotted with the female of the species, I had a craving for technology, any technology, and when the Atari ST came into my sights it was love at first sight. 

The following year I was extremely lucky and managed to snag myself a 520 Atari STFM – it had a built in disk drive (still the half meg version) and TV modulator! 

And how I loved it. 

Jack Tramiel - Apparently as hard headed as a business man could be...

I used that computer day and night – pixel art in Degas Elite, writing in First Word Plus, cranking out poems with some weird automated poetry writing software, failing to learn to program with STOS, even sound sampling – which really meant recording things then playing them backwards or at different pitches. And, of course, games, great great games, like Stunt Car Racer, Dungeon Master, Midwinter, Populous and the Secret of Monkey Island. Work (sort of) and play all in one perfect package. 

That ST got used so much that the left mouse button stopped working with any reliability within a year, so my dad swapped the wires around so the right mouse button got all the action. Soon I had to get a new mouse altogether, a Naksha mouse, still the best mouse I’ve ever owned. The power supply even flaked out after a few years of merciless heat and had to be replaced, which is still the pinnacle of my electronic engineering endeavours. 

The man that made this machine possible was Jack Tramiel, a survivor of Auschwitz and founder of Commodore. Under his reign Commodore made and sold a little computer called the Commodore 64, which is a blockbuster by anyone’s standards, bringing a proper computing into tens of millions of homes. 

Corporate wrangling left Jack on the wrong side of the Commodore board room door, so he set up a new company, acquired the computer half of Atari and drove too hard a bargain trying to purchase the Amiga, allowing Commodore to step in and make a sensible offer for the technology instead. Incapable of admitting defeat, Tramiel and Atari cobbled together the ST from off the shelf parts (not like any shelf I ever had) and made my decade. 

I’ve been working in video games development for nearly 17 years now, using skills I half learned with a clunky mouse and my first full keyboard. When people say “you know computers” to me, it’s Jack Tramiel and the Atari ST that deserve the credit. 

Thank you Jack, for making the machine that made me, I will forever be in your debt. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Monster Flip!

Occasionally a game comes along which makes me think I WISH I’D THOUGHT OF THAT! Launching Pad Games, makers of Mighty Fin!, have created just such a game. 

It’s a match 3 game, so it has the same instant appeal of any match 3 game, that compulsion that lives in the lizard brain and dates back to the dawn of time when our ancient ancestors first lined things up in matching rows – I wish I knew what it means.

Click the image...

But this game isn’t like other match 3 games, it’s got something really special – instead of flipping just two things each time, you can flip whole rows (or columns) of things. In fact you can’t actually flip as few as just two things; you have to flip a minimum of three things. 

To do this, all you have to do is slap your finger down on the screen and drag it through a line of three or more things and then they flip over, switching order. That’s the bit that I wish was my idea, it’s such a great way of taking the match 3 concept and making the most of it with a touch interface – swapping two things, like normal match 3 games, is a mouse clicking and moving exercise, placing your finger on the screen and dragging a selection over several objects, that’s a touch interaction. 

Oh, and the things are monsters who want to escape earth, you can flip without having to make a match and angry monster must be sent home within a limited number of flips, otherwise it’s game over. 

Brilliant; get it now.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Ludography -->

Hey, look over there to the right, there's a page called Ludography where you can  read about some of the games I've made and my experiences making them.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Nike+ FuelBand

I spend a lot of time working on things which I really can’t talk about. However, it’s not unreasonable for me to say that I’ve been doing a lot of research around the fusion of exercise and gaming. One of the latest gizmos into the arena of effort tracking is the Nike+ FuelBand, which you wear on your wrist and measures pretty much all the movement you do. I want one and might just have to get one when it’s launched on the 22nd of this month. Click on the image to go to the official Nike site to learn more.

I am not the only person on the internet who's wondering if this thing tells the time...