Ludum Dare rethink…make a game in ZERO hours!

Sigh. After being ill this weekend I’ve decided to abort the October Challenge – rather than rush out a substandard game, I’ll take my time and finish it to a quality I’m happy with. This is definitely the right decision – while tweaking the anims in Blender I realised I need to re-rig the main character so stop his IK knees skewing sideways. If I’m not extremely careful, this may mean re-animating the handful of anims I’d already done. With a week to go, I didn’t need to be redoing work. But in the long term, it’ll mean better and more animations. I’ll have some free time over christmas, so new year would be an excellent alternative target deadline!

However, in the short term – Ludum Dare have come up with ANOTHER game dev challenge that I can’t resist: The ZERO Hours Challenge!
It takes place during the hour when the clocks go back. This appeals enormously to the Faction Paradox fan in me.

Seriously though, the extreme time limit will force participants to focus on a simple design that works – the challenge is more about spending the intervening week imagining a game simple enough to implement in one hour, but still fun. It’s interesting that with modern game dev tools, classics like Pong, Breakout, Joust, or PacMan could all be cloned easily in that time. But coming up with something so simple and original is going to be much harder than actually implementing it…

Ludum Dare October Challenge

LEGO Harry Potter years 5-7 is done, so I have a little spare time again, and there’s a week left of the Ludum Dare October Challenge. I’m going to expand Fireflies into a full game – still a short one, but I’m going for quality over quantity.

I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks without having a chance to do much, but this week I actually sketched a rough layout for the game and made a few decisions that will simplify the core mechanics considerably.

It’s an odd feeling designing level layouts – normally my job is making gameplay mechanics work within a level designed and built by other disciplines. I’m enjoying stretching these underused game dev muscles…

Keeping Gameplay Narrative in Context

A short piece entitled “Narrative as Gameplay” by Jonas Kyratzes made me think today. His key (and rather eloquent) point is this:

“In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.”

I like this thought in principle, but I think it’s missing a caveat: the revealed content must be appropriate to the player’s current context.
For example, if I were to to nit-pick The Book of Living Magic, I’d complain that the setting is SO surreal that the wealth of little asides do not really increase the player’s understanding. Many of them are charming little storylets in their own right, but it’s very hard to build a coherent picture of a world where the distinction between animals, people and other bizarre entities are so blurred. It must be acknowledged that this is the whole point of the Land of Dream, but it highlights my point.
In contrast, the superb The Infinite Ocean presents a very tightly focused narrative, each scrap of content referencing the already-established facts or themes. It’s only when you can hook the new information onto some existing part of your world model that it feels rewarding. Without that framework, each new piece of content has no obvious relation to the whole.
That, I think, is why some people don’t grok the Book of Living Magic – the content is more like a bag of marbles than a LEGO set. I happen to love world-building and was happy to comb through the descriptions looking for the links and occasional Lovecraft nods, but I can see how more casual players might find the Mountains of Oddness somewhat impenetrable.

White Flag

I’ve knocked up another little micro-game for mini Ludum Dare #27: “All Talk”. My effort is called “White Flag”. It’s just a dialogue tree with a measly 3 or 4 branch points, but I’m quite pleased with the implementation as it’s my first go at writing ActionScript within the StencylWorks Flash dev tool.

It needs a few extra bits before I could make anything worthwhile with it though – I didn’t have time to write line-wrapping code, so I had to place every line break manually. This was a nightmare, because the only way to know where the break should go was to see it ingame…a slow process even with so little text.

I need to read the text in from a file, rather than typing it into the script directly. Not sure if StencylWorks will allow that, though.

And finally, I wanted to have internal vars so that choices could accumulate over time or set flags for later in the dialogue. Ran out of time for those too.

But with those tweaks in place I’ll have a neat little dialogue engine which could easily be ported to Unity. Not bad for a couple of evenings’ tinkering!

FMV Has Risen From The Grave

I’ve finally played L.A. Noire, for a few hours. The city is vast, the facial capture is great, but the level of interaction with suspects is disappointing. You get to pick a question, watch their answer and pick one of three reactions (truth/doubt/lie). If you think they’re lying you have to present the right evidence, otherwise they smugly stick to their story. If you debunk a certain percentage of their claims they break and confess.

I’m going to persevere with it, as it may get better later, particularly when I start on the serial killer suspects. These scenes will stand or fall on the writing. But I can’t help thinking that this is a game mechanic that exists only as an attempt to justify the technology. Because if the mechanics came first, Team Bondi could have saved themselves a lot of effort by using good old fashioned FMV. Despite the performance capture, the interrogations are still just a string of multiple choice cutscenes.

However, if they HAD done that, they would have had a jarring transition between the game characters and the FMV actors. The importance of the performance capture is not the interrogation scenes that showcase it – it’s the way it extends throughout the game, even to people you pass on the street. By making it universal, they’ve created a world where the canned interrogation cutscenes fit seamlessly. No other game could pull it off.

But what an effort just to make the audience accept what is basically FMV in a game…

Ludum Dare 20

I’ve had a busy spring. Once LEGO Clone Wars was done, we dived straight into helping to finish LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, so the crunch just rolled on into that project. Damn those immovable movie release dates. But Pirates is all done and dusted now, and I’m looking forward to playing that with Evie (LEGO zombies not too scary).

I’ve taken the Easter week off and spent some much-needed time with the family, and it just so happened that the weekend before returning to work is Ludum Dare – the increasingly popular 48 hour solo game dev contest. It would be rude not to.

Voting on this contest’s theme is down to the final 20, and I’ve got ideas for a half-dozen or so of ’em. Spent the last few evenings learning the basics of several new skills: rigging, animating, composing…feeling more-or-less ready now, but I doubt that’ll last long.


EDIT, TWO MONTHS LATER: I forgot to update my own blog. My entry was “Lonely Fortress” – check out some of the winners, there were several brilliant games produced in this contest.

Also check out my trivia post over on the Ludum Dare site, which has some anecdotes about the weekend.

Frontiers in Storytelling: The Elder Scrolls V

I’ve just devoured GameInformer’s preview of TESV:Skyrim, and it’s encouraging stuff. The animation improvements sound excellent. Something we learned working on an internal project at TT was that seamless, varied, context-sensitive animation contributes far more than clever AI to the verisimilitude of a character. And the lighting improvements over Fallout in the first official screenshot are glorious.

But what’s got me most excited is the Radiant Story tech, which basically custom-creates side quests by taking an authored template and inserting characters who the player has developed a relationship with – so instead of quests from random strangers, you will be approached by someone you know to undertake a task involving someone you like. It’s essentially what a good Game Master of a tabletop RPG would do, and something I’ve wanted to try out in a game for over a decade. Sadly working full-time on other people’s games has prevented me from exploring it myself, but I’m delighted to see Bethesda tackle it.

The compelling thing about role-playing is your attachment to your character, and their role in the world of the game. Every decision you make as a player, whether in a tabletop game, LRP, or CRPG, makes your story a little bit different to anyone else’s. Mostly in subtle ways – a few points in this skill instead of that skill, or a grudge against an NPC forgiven instead of held – but they all add up to making the player feel invested in the story, even if the final encounter turns out exactly as the referee expected. By customizing the peripheral content to reflect the player’s prior investment, Bethesda could be creating the most immersive CRPG ever.

And when developed to a point that it could be used in the main storyline, this could be a fantastic alternative to the tired old branching plotline. An AI system that understands story, and can populate Campbell’s mythic archetypes in each player’s quest with characters whose skills, power, and personality traits complement or contrast with the system’s analysis of the player. A system that can engineer moral dilemmas and opportunites for dastardly betrayals, tragic heroics or glorious rescues. A system that could sculpt whodunnits or soap opera as well as epic fantasy.

Now that’s the bleeding edge of modern gaming.

Wrapping up LEGO Clone Wars

The big crunch to finish LEGO Star Wars III: the Clone Wars is almost over. All the critical stuff seems good and solid, and we’re down to mopping up occasional glitches in what has turned out to be Traveller’s Tales’ biggest game ever. I’m told it takes the QA team about 26 hours to complete a 100% playthrough, and these are guys who’ve been playing it full-time for months already. There is a LOT of cool content. I’ll post a reminder when it’s in the shops…

And with that, I have a little spare time again…most of which I plan to spend with my sorely neglected family – but once my little girl is in bed and my wife is roaming the Mojave Wasteland picking off Fiends with her sniper rifle, I can spare some time for my own little side projects.

I’ve spent a few pleasant evenings getting to grips with Blender and Unity3D recently, and it feels good to be creating stuff of my own again. I’ve got a couple of little web projects I’m developing just for practice, and a handful of more ambitious ideas that tie in with the world of Voidships. Looking forward to a very creative year…

The secret of Minecraft’s success

In case you missed the buzz – Minecraft is an online game developed by lone coder Markus Persson (www.twitter.com/notch) that has sold half a million copies, enabling Markus to set up his own company. It’s the Blair Witch Project of gaming.

I finally succumbed and bought it last week. Money well spent. The game is a design masterpiece, fusing user-created content, grinding, exploration and atmosphere.

The deliberately crude block-based art style creates an impressionistic gameworld that’s as evocative as you care to make it. One player might laugh at the square cows and write rude words in a cliffside, another might immerse themselves in the fiction, roleplaying the lone survivor. And the world generation algorithm is superb, creating fascinating ‘natural’ formations and labyrinthine caves to explore. Where most gameworlds are like movie sets, where only the surfaces you can see exist, Minecraft has a truly 3D world.

But all this is just the foundation for the crafting mechanics. Remarkably, the game is playable without doing any crafting at all – a mud hut is sufficient to survive the night. But who wants to stop at a mud hut when they could build a castle, or a whole city? More varied building materials are locked away behind a series of challenges. First, make some tools so you can dig faster. Then you’ll need to refine the raw materials you mine or harvest from animals. You’ll need coal to make torches so you can work at night, and weapons and armour so you can survive being ambushed as you dig deeper. The risk/reward cycle is well-balanced and extremely satisfying because it’s driven entirely by your own desire to smelt sand into glass windows for your castle. I haven’t even touched on growing your own plants yet. The crafting rules and threat from monsters model a survivalist adventure with surprising verisimilitude.

I’m thoroughly enjoying delving deep into this cubist ecosystem. Perhaps it’s due to the retro cubic look, perhaps it’s the underground exploration, but the game it most reminds me of is Ultima Underworld. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is high praise indeed.

Oh, and then there’s multiplayer. I may have to wax lyrical on that mode too, when I’ve tried it…

The compulsive draw of Echo Bazaar

If you haven’t tried it yet, go and sign up for Echo Bazaar. You’ll need a Twitter account, but if you don’t have one it’s worth signing up just to play #ebz. Come back when you’ve had a taste…

Greetings, delicious friend! Tell me, what what secrets are you uncovering in Fallen London? I’ll trade you some juicy tidbits about the dirigibles and the bat swarms.

Secrets are the essence of Echo Bazaar. There’s very little gameplay to speak of – you have a selection of possible actions, some randomly drawn from a “deck”, some unlocked by reaching certain levels in various stats (or “qualities”). Success or failure at that action is determined randomly behind the scenes, but increasing your stats makes actions easier. It’s basically an RPG grind with no animations or combat tactics.

And yet, I can’t stop playing. Some people have claimed that it’s the quality of the writing that draws you in, but I disagree (although it IS good). No, the real draw is the secrets. Like LOST, there are many very weird things going on in Fallen London. And anything you do to investigate gives you a half-answer and two more questions. And it is the IDEAS that are revealed that keep you coming back for more. What do the sorrow-spiders do with the eyeballs they steal? Where do the Rubbery Men get their Deep Amber? Why was London stolen?

Playing Echo Bazaar is rather like reading a China Mieville novel that has been shredded. You slowly piece together an elaborate, horrific picture of life in the ‘Neath, fragments of story unlocked as you grind your stats upwards. And grind you must, because the human brain hates unanswered questions. And what Echo Bazaar offers, more than any other fictional universe I’ve encountered, is questions. And FailBetter Games know this well – three different classes of secret are even used as currency in the Bazaar! Yes, the writing is elegant and wry, which makes you care about knowing the answers, but it is the continuous drip-feed of mysteries that hooks so many players.

Long may it continue…