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…

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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.

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…

A little background…

So, what’s the point of this place? And why “Winterblood”?

Well, I’ve set this up as a place to share my thoughts on the subjects that interest me – the making of films and games. So here’s a little background to put my comments in context…

I love games, and I’ve been programming them since I was at school – I starting off typing BASIC listings into a CPC464 circa 1982. Went to university, got a degree in Computer Science, and got a job at the bottom on the ladder. 13 years later, I’ve worked my way up to Associate Lead Programmer at Traveller’s Tales, and have worked on a dozen different games. I’ve watched the industry develop from outside and inside, and I’m still excited by the possibilities and by by other developers’ creations.

At university I was introduced to tabletop and live role-playing, which opened up a whole new field of gaming to me – a form far less controllable, but so much richer for the participation of fellow players. I have a lot of ideas about how to bring the same depth of experience to video games, which I’ll elaborate on in future posts.

Turning to films, I have a similar passion for a good story skilfully told with beautiful visuals and sound – and a fascination with the mechanics of constructing that narrative, much of which can be applied to video games. However, unlike games where I started at the bottom and worked my way up, with filmmaking I simply decided “I want to direct!” and began developing my skills by working on progressively more ambitious projects. I’ll detail those experiences later, along with short articles on cinematic art, camera geekery and visual effects techniques.

And why Winterblood? It’s just a memorable and evocative conjunction that isn’t used much on the internet. To me it conjures bleak images of a snow-covered battlefeild…read into that what you will.

If you’ve read this far, I hope you’ll find something of interest in the posts to come. See you soon…