Finding the soul of your game

Right now I’m nearing the end of development for Towerfall. What started off as a simple first prototype for my One Week/Game project has sorta become more involved to say the least. And at the end of development there’s still quite a few things to cross off my development checklist.

But as I look back at what I’m working on the thing that strikes me is what facets of the game I’m working on. I’m actually not spending a lot of time tweaking the gameplay or adding extraneous features. Instead I seem to be spending a lot of time on tiny details like adding a little flavor of narrative, a hint of character, some small background details, and additional ambient sounds.

On the surface what I seem to be working on is merely polish. But I don’t think that’s quite right. Polish tends to be technical and dry; it focuses on getting the proper responsive controls and making sure the game has working scoreboards and other technical details. What I’m doing might overlap with polish a little, but I feel like what I’m really doing is trying to define the soul of Towerfall right now.

I hate using a term like soul is such a nebulous way. But it feels quite apt in this scenario. Too many games now are seemingly made without reason or care. I feel that’s a huge disappointment that people can put so much work and effort into a product they ultimately care little about. I want to work on things I personally care about which is one of the reasons I became an indie developer.

But it’s not just enough to care about something I work on. I think its paramount to let players know about the passion that went into making the game. Or rather, the game should exude love and care. And to me, love and care has always been those little details in games that end up adding so much. When a developer goes the extra mile to add in something that was totally unnecessary yet meaningful. Like how the Adventure of Link contains the whole original map from the first Legend of Zelda. Or how Super Metroid has an entire side room so you can save your two alien friends during the final escape sequence. Or basically the entire game of Chrono Trigger.

Those nuances and small touches to me are demonstrative of the passion the developers had for their game. You can tell the developers truly loved making that game. It’s the soul of the game emanating through.

So right now I’m trying to find that soul in Towerfall. And hopefully if (or when) I do and you play the game you can tell the craft and care put into making it. Because otherwise what the hell am I doing making games?

A post-GGJ 2010 status report

One Week/Game is a side project I’ve been trying to get off the ground this year. The premise is that I attempt to build a game of sorts every week throughout the entire year. As you may tell by glancing at the site, the start has been a little on the slow side.

That being said this past weekend with the coincidence of both the Global Game Jam and Gamma 4 submission deadline I imaged to create a game in under 48 hours. Even more happily the game (Monster Monster Monster Party Party Party) even managed to vaguely be about deception and is playable using only a single button!

I managed to have enough time to complete a game largely because our local Global Game Jam site was marred a bit by weather issues. I’m responsible for organizing the local site for the Triangle area and inclement weather prevented our awesome hosts Icarus Studios from staying open during the weekend. Thankfully the participants were motivated enough to stick together and still develop 7 games over the weekend in spite of these issues. Definitely check them out and the other games from the Global Game Jam. Over 4000 people and 942 games can’t be wrong!

[Image not from a game from my site, but depict1 by Kyle Pulver from Retro Affect]

What is One Week/Game

[Note: This entry is a crosspost from the One Week/Game. You can check out One Week/Game and the original entry here]

So it’s probably about time I started this website proper. Hi and welcome to One Week/Game (just pronounced One Week Game). This is a year-long project for me and my brand Ludoko Studios which I’ve been releasing games under since 2007.

So what is the goal of One Week/Game? The goal of OW/G is pretty simple. Make a new game every week for an entire year.

Wait a second. Back up there you’re saying. Make a game a week for an entire year? You’re probably thinking right now that you’re talking to a lunatic, a man clearly out of his mind driven to extremes by a tortured soul (or some nonsense like that). Okay, but before you close this tab and never visit again let me try to explain my rationale for such an ambitious and frankly crazy project.

First off I’m far from being original and daring here. There’s a proud history of artists and creators in various fields attempting similar projects of this scope and nature. Jonathan Coulton famous did his Thing a Week from 2005 to 2006 writing 52 songs in a span of a year. And within the games community there was the original Experimental Gameplay Project at Carnegie Mellon’s ETC program (from which such notable indie developers like Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray first got their start) which developed a new game every week for an entire semester.

So it’s certain possible with the right motivation and proper amounts of effort. So then why am I personally doing this? How does this benefit Ludoko Studios and me?

Right now as an independent game developer I’m at a crossroads of sorts. You can only run so long on meager earnings and freelance jobs doing other things before you need to start thinking about whether or not full-time game development will work out in the long run. So this year I will inevitably need to make that big decision if making games should be my “real” job or if I would be better off doing something else somewhere else.

So in a sense OW/G is my way of doubling down on my gamble. Because my biggest problem as a game maker right now is that I simply do not make enough games. Especially for the size and scope of the games that I’m involved in my productivity should and needs to be significantly greater for any sort of success. The discipline to be productive when setting your own schedule, your own deadlines, your own milestones to me is one of the hardest part of being an independent game developer. So unsurprisingly its when there’s been outside self-imposed deadlines like Ludum Dare where I’ve shined my best. Last year with Ludum Dare I completed two games in less than 48 hours, Into the Pit and Echolon. OW/G is my way of attempting to reach that level of productivity.

So for better or for worse I’m giving this a shot. The first cycle for OW/G was from January 12th to 18th and has technically already passed. So the 1st cycle has stretched a few extra days as I add on a little more polish and basic backend stuff to push the game to a point of playability I’m satisfied with. This game from last week – Towerfall – will be released tonight for everyone to enjoy.

My plans are to keep this simple. Outside of the basic goal of completing a game roughly every week I’m not going to set any ground rules. Some games (like Towerfall) may take a little longer than a week. Other games may only take a few days. Some games will be completed during special events like Ludum Dare or the Global Game Jam. Some weeks I might try to make a game for an upcoming holiday or to fit some theme and other weeks I’ll just do whatever the heck I want. And I’ll be documenting the process the entire way with timelapse videos, post-mortems on development, rants on making games, in-progress updates, and all sorts of random other stuff.

So hopefully we can all have some fun. And make some games.

Working harder, not smarter

Self-improvement goal #1: Working harder on a consistent basis

To the surprise of exactly no one, games don’t make themselves. Games are the result of a lot of blood, sweat, tears, teeth-gnashing, and overall agonizing labor. To start, build, and finish game is a task that isn’t easily done with half-hearted dedication.

One of the biggest hurdles I’ve yet to fully overcome as an independent supposedly needing-to-be self-sufficient game developer is the skill to consistently be working hard on a game. Even now after six months on focusing on game development as my primary employment the rollercoaster that is my work ethic is still quite volatile. There are days were I easily can work 12 hours straight and there are other days where I’m lucky to achieve 1 hour of good work. The inconsistency hurts because it prevents accurate scheduling, its disruptive to people I collaborate with, and overall it just sucks to go through a day accomplishing little.

So my biggest goal this year is to develop this skill of hard work over consistent periods. So far over the past week and a half of 2010 I’ve tried to follow the advice I heard from Matthew and Steve from Flashbang and their development practices as discussed at last year’s GDC Austin. Regularly scheduled work periods and actually maintaining a commitment towards those scheduled periods. Single-tasking. And trying to respect the separation between work and play.

Additionally I’m attempting to utilize tools to enforce work through peer pressure. Greg Wohlwend of Intuition and Mikengreg has set up a Ventrilo chatroom (Tigvent) that goes a long way towards recreating the collaborative office environment for people working alone. My renewed focus on blogging here is partially to force me to remain relevant and engaged in game-making and the community. And I have a few other projects up my sleeve that I want to reveal that will also ensure such focus going forward in 2010.

So there’s my self-improvement goal numero uno for 2010. Now all I need to do… is actually do it.

Teaching old games new tricks

One of the games I’ve been playing for the past year or so has been Valve’s Team Fortress 2, their team-based multiplayer shooter with the unique Tex Avery aesthetics. It’s long play life is certainly in part due to the pretty solid design and loads of polish that makes it highly playable. And being a solely multiplayer experience the game is inherently designed to be replayable. But that alone doesn’t explain why this game has been one I constantly revisited while something like Call of Duty 4 hasn’t. For me, the real reason why I keep on revisiting Team Fortress 2 are Valve’s ingenious class updates.

A quick explanation is in order. For PCs and many console games nowadays its not unusual to see some level of support after the release of a game. Patches, minor tweaks are expected and many games get a few pieces of DLC and minor additions here and there. But recently games like Valve’s Team Fortress 2 and Criterion Game’s Burnout Paradise are at the forefront of what may be a new trend in games. The consistent release of (free) DLC at regular intervals to extend the shelf life and play life of older games.

Let’s take a quick glance at the aforementioned Team Fortress 2 class updates. Team Fortress 2 gives players 9 different classes to play (ranging from spies to medics to soldiers). Each class has its own unique weapons and skillsets that contribute to the battle in different ways. Valve since the release of Team Fortress 2 in late 2007 has released four class updates that significantly expand each class upon release with new weapons and abilities.

Burnout Paradise has experienced similar levels of support from Criterion. While not all the new content has been free, additions like motorcycles as an entirely new vehicle, new gameplay features like restarting events, and significant visual refinements have all been added over the past year for Burnout. And this doesn’t even include paid DLC like car packs and new gameplay modes.

These free updates are not just out of the goodness of these developers hearts, they represent good business practices too. Team Fortress 2 is more played now then at release and Valve has reiterated that each new class update brings along a significant sales spike on release. Burnout Paradise has also had some success especially as EA’s first significant downloadable title for consoles.

It’s a trend not only for major studios, but also for indie developers. Many web-based games are initially released in barebones form only to see each iterative release add new features and evolve the game into a more complete package. And many indie games are often released early to an “extended beta” where the end result is highly-shaped by player feedback and actual real-world play. This is increasingly a trend among iPhone games where releasing constant updates serves a duel purpose as not only a way to refine games, but also as a business strategy for keeping the game upfront in the iPhone App Store.

Extending the shelf life and play life of games can only be a good thing for both the developer and the player. It gives developers the ability to polish and refine after release and adjust their game to match expectations of players. And of course in business terms its far easier to develop enhancements to existing games to extend the sales of a game compared to developing a sequel. And for players it allows the opportunity to revisit older games as fresh experiences than having to churn and burn through games.

Not that iteration and refinement are magic bullets that will instantaneously extend the long tail so to speak. Updates need to be both substantial and meaningful, otherwise they fall under the guise of simple alterations and bug fixes like any other game patch. And there’s a marketing component involved also, it’s just as important to let players know about new updates so they can actually dig up these games and replay them.

In many ways, these updates represent the evolution of the now mostly-dead expansion pack that used to be de rigueur for the PC industry. They represent new opportunities to resuscitate games, keeping them in the forefront of players’ minds through constant play and word-of-mouth. They represent good developmental shortcuts in an industry increasingly looking for a sane development model. And in the best-case scenario they make games worth playing and replaying.

Just having a Global Game Jam

Someone once said that videogames might be the most complicated piece of software for any programmer. Games combine just about every facet of software design and engineering plus require a deft touch in design and implementation to not only get a properly working game, but an enjoyable one. It’s no wonder the hardest part about making games is finishing. Once someone gets started on a game the list of tasks to complete can become overwhelming.

Making a game takes a lot of work and completing a game can seem impossible. It’s why keeping projects (especially independent or garage games) small and manageable is so routinely stressed by members of the development community. Throwing yourself headfirst into building a MMO is just asking for bad things. Projects which are collaborations also tend to succeed more than solo affairs. Working together even with one or two other people can enormously increase motivation and productivity. All these things work together towards one important goal: finishing that damn game!

Game jams are such an event where both of these aspects come together. Game jams by their nature force you to build small games in small teams in a compressed timeframe. And even if people don’t end up making classics, they leave the experience with the knowledge and experience working on a complete game from start to finish, experience that can prove invaluable even on projects with larger scopes than a game jam game.

There’s been countless iterations and variations of game jams held around the world. And now there’s the Global Game Jam, a 3-day event to be held in next year where people and groups around the world will get their game development hats on all at once (or approximately at once) to celebrate games and game development.

Game jams are typically a wonderful experience. You meet all sorts of people interested in development with their own unique skills and experience levels. The games tend to be quirky and interesting and sometimes even fun. So check out the Global Game Jam and see if there’s a location near you (and a Triangle area North Carolina one coming soon!) and join in on the wonderful magical journey we call game development.

You know, before you become disenchanted and sick of the whole thing.