Wicklog #9 – Fancy graphics, avoiding invisible functionality, and game juiciness.

“I’ve added most of the systems,” I said to myself. “There’s not that much left to add to the basic engine, right? Make some objectives, polish the tutorial, iron out the physics bugs. It’s been about four months since the kickstarter, and I still have about four months left. This thing is in the bag!”

Oh, Wick of two weeks ago, you sweet summer child.

Based on feedback I got from the July 4th beta and juror feedback, the more-or-less unanimous response has been: “Great concept! I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, or how to do it!”

Also, looking at the my big-picture Trello board, I still have a lot of promises to fulfill.

So I rolled up my sleeves, ignored all of that, and added a particle engine + basic lighting effects!

Gotta do something for fun.

Oh! Also, I’m going to the Games for Change festival in NYC at the end of July! There’s this meetup before the festival where the organizers were trying to get neuroscientists to meet game designers to make educational games — my exact cup of tea basically made-to-order.

WHAT’S MORE, they’re gonna be giving me free admission to the festival and I’m going to be able to crash with friends in the city, so the whole thing isn’t going to break my bank account. So that’s nice.

Design Corner

I’ve been struggling with one basic thing in the brain: how to move cells versus drag connections. The simplest answer was to add in some kind of move / connect toolbar, but I wanted to see if I could avoid adding more menu buttons.

My first attempt: double-click to pick something up, click+drag to connect.

It sounds simple, and if you know what you’re doing, it’s very efficient. However, in testing, it was one of the most consistent stumbling blocks for people. They’d pick up a cell when they meant to connect it, and accidentally make a whole bunch of connections when they wanted to move it.

I tried a few more variations on this (e.g. left-click-and-drag to connect, right-click-and-drag to move) but people still had a hard time remembering how to do what.

So I gave in and added a toolbar.

The lesson I’m taking away from this is that, as far as accessible design is concerned, invisible functionality is not functionality. It doesn’t matter how efficient or elegant something is in the abstract. Your audience will be frustrated if things don’t work they, with all their cultural baggage and expectations, can’t figure it out.

Since one of Crescent Loom’s design pillars is accessibility, I’m making the sacrifice of something that’s slightly more efficient in favor of something people can actually use.

Tweening

Another not-tutorial thing I spent a day or two working on was adding some basic tweening to the camera. Tweening is a term borrowed from animation that refers to the “in-between” frames when something moves from one position to another.

Here’s what it looked like to open up the brain in the old version:

And here’s what that looks like tweened:

Tweening is one of those magical secret-sauce-game-design-techniques that isn’t very hard to do, but makes things feel super A+ polished. If you’re into this sort of thing, there’s a foundational talk that spills the rest of game designer’s secrets here.

 

Wicklog #4 – Betacon, intuitive mechanics, and the March for Science

Time is strange. It feels like the changes I make every day are small, but gradually they accumulate into something bigger than it seems like I could make. And then I realize how little time I have left, and the good feelings about that turn back to anxious work.

Last weekend, I showcased Crescent Loom at the Portland Mercury’s new tech/gaming convention: Betacon. It was cool event for me for a few reasons:

1) Focus

It got me to focus on getting a polished build put together, fixing a lot of the UI things that I’d been putting off (e.g. finishing the design, seamlessly switching between body and brain editing, making an info panel for the neurons)

2) Feedback:

  • I thought that the scheme I was using for making connections between versus moving cells was elegant — you click+drag versus click *on* the cell, respectively. It used a single button and didn’t require some kind of toolbar. HOWEVER, it was one of the most consistent points where people got tripped up while learning the game.

 

  • The most effective way to make your creature move has been to connect a muscle between two different limbs, like so:

But from the start, about half the people picking up the game for the first time would put their muscles down like this:

Which makes sense! It’s a lot more intuitive that a set of muscles would run up along an arm rather than, say, between the creature’s ankles. A better design for the game would be one where people’s natural intuition is the correct thing to do.

It just so happened that I’d also been wrestling with a different design problem; there wasn’t currently a good way to get a limb to turn in a specific direction on muscle activation; the muscles would tend to get bound-up since they didn’t wrap along with the limb:

SO! I decided to try and kill two birds with one stone and make muscle attachment points run up alongside each limb, rather than having a free-form “attach anything to anywhere” system. This has created a standardized way to place muscles that produces a predictable motion, and is far less likely to get bound up:

I’m pretty pleased with this solution, not gonna lie. Identifying problems and finding clever ways to solve them is one of the most fun processes in game dev. Of course, this raises its own problems (can you attach any hardpoint to any hardpoint?)…

3) AWARD

Crescent Loom won the Betacon award for “Most Innovative”! I’ve never won an award for my games before, so that was PRETTY SLICK.


I participated in the March for Science, and had a brief chat with a scientist/photographer named Tyler Hulett who put together a snapshot-documentary on the march.

You can see it on Vimeo; my beautiful face is at the 5-minute mark.


Now, here’s the current to-do list on my desktop:

  • Write bi-weekly update
  • Write submission for indie game fund
  • Write submission for indiecade
  • Write up time estimate for feature list + KS rewards
  • Apply for food stamps
  • Churn through emails
  • Find possible grants to apply for.

You’ll note the lack of, y’know, actual development on this list. I am probably one of the slowest writers I know and there is SO MUCH writing you need to do in order to manage a game project and fund thyself.

I think I need to find a writer/PR/publisher. I’m spread thin and that’s the area where I’m least-efficient. Grants especially require a specialized skillset that I simply don’t have. Problem is, even with the KS money, the project is already bare-bones budget-wise. So, dunno how that’ll turn out. Maybe I’ll just learn to write faster and care less about typeos.

Wicklog #3 – Menus for daaaays

Oof, it’s already been a month since the Kickstater ended? Time is flying by, it feels like I barely get anything done each individual day, but looking back I’m always surprised by how much I did.

Quick note: I’ll be showing Crescent Loom at Betacon in Portland this weekend! (Apr 15-16) If you wanna see how the game’s coming along, that’ll the place to say hi!

Changes for this week:

The biggest visual difference is that I finally added a user interface! You can now click buttons instead of having to tab through a thousand different options:

I looked at a handful of other construction games as reference points. I think it’s pretty obvious which one of these I stole the most from:

Kerbal Space Program suffers from presenting too much information (its pop-ups are a mess) and Spore suffers from being simple to the point of uninteresting (though it is cute & approachable, which is important).

I tried to strike the same balance as Besiege, and limited icons to horizontal bars on the top and bottoms of the screen. If more needs to be shown, I can do that in a pop-up when people mouseover or click the icon.

The most interesting design decision was how to incorporate the brain window. I didn’t want a separate half of the screen anymore, so I figured to go for a picture-in-picture approach.

Two options presented themselves to me:

  • Put it in the corner, like a minimap. You can see what’s going on in the brain, but it doesn’t dominate the screen.
  • Put it on the creature itself. This was cool because it shows that the brain is really just another part of the body, but I’d be forced to shrink it down so much that it was a lot less legible.

(In either case, clicking on the brain would embiggen it to take up half the screen.)

I asked Twitter, and people were pretty enthusiastic about putting it on the creature itself, so that’s what I did. I might set the other mode as an option, because I think there are cases when you’d want to clearly see what’s happening without it taking up most of the screen. Something for Future Wick to do.

Turned out that simulating the ion channels opening and closing along each neuronal tile in a scripting language (which is more flexible than the main “engine” code, but slower) was too computationally intensive, so I simplified the ion channel scripts to only run once during setup. Here’s the ion channel that responds to a keyboard hit. Any cell with this becomes thirty times more permeable to sodium while the Q key is pressed:

Finally, there was a bunch of backend stuff I finished up doing as a consequence of the new way I’m simulating neurons. The easiest way of saving all the neurons + ion channels was actually save these ion channel scripts in the save file and running them on loading the creature.

P.S.

Ugh, why do I reinvent the wheel every time I make a new user interface. TBH, most of my week was ironing out the logic of how menus and icons arrange themselves. NOTE TO FUTURE WICK: text wrapping has been solved a thousand times. If you find yourself trying to do it again, don’t. Use a library that doesn’t have all the bugs your sleep-deprived brain decided would be fun to add.

Game Design Annotated Links — Part 2

While doing pre-production work for Crescent Loom and its Kickstarter campaign, I’ve been running across some amazing resources for game design. I thought I would share.

Game Design Resources

  • Kickstarter Statistics 101 — Got Genius Games
    [ Twitter ]
    Focused on games that teach (but not in a bad way! #necessaryfootnote). Some statistics to answer basic Kickstarter questions like “What’s the best time of year to run a campaign?” Super useful basic information to have.
  • Kickstarter Lessons (and online presence) — Jamey Stegmaier and Stone Maier Games
    [ Book | Twitter ]
    Ostensibly focused on running Kickstarter campaigns for board games, but I think the real gem here he demonstrates how to engage with people online. I’ve always felt like there was a big wall to reaching out and talking to people online, but he has put together an fantastic philosophy of easy, positive engagement.

“…we were able to design almost all of the puzzles without knowing how they might be solved, focusing instead on making sure that each challenge was logically unique and could not be solved by repeating a previous solution.”

  • Game Maker’s Toolkit — Mark Brown
    [ Patreon | Twitter ]
    Oh man, this is my new favorite game design series since Extra Credits. It’s a lot more specific than EC, looking at individual games as case studies for wider concepts. Intelligent and good production values. (also has a video talking more about SpaceChem and touches on a lot of the same themes as the above postmortem)
  • Noah Caldwell-Gervais Youtube Channel
    [ Patreon | Interview ]
    Long-form in-depth intelligent analyses of select series. There’s less of a focus on the behind-the-scenes design rules here than the other links. Instead, Noah takes a more zoomed-out perspective and talks about the overall aims of developers and how games deliver on those experiences.
  • Critical Distance
    [ Patreon | Twitter ]
    I’ve been evangelizing CD for a while. It’s more of a resource than a proper specific link — Critical Distance is a weekly digest of current writing on games (both design and cultural) with an emphasis on voices you’re not going to find elsewhere.

 

Game Design Annotated Links – Part 1

Naming your game – name “genres”

Names are important. Besides art style, they are people’s first point of contact with your game. Names set expectations, and used well can capture the imagination. People will use it to answer “is this game for me?” Microsoft Flight Simulator is going to attract a different set of people than No Man’s Sky, though both groups may be equally excited about the prospect of their chosen game. A good name should be seamlessly integrated into the core fantasy/setting/story/experience your game offers (along with art, music, narrative style).

That’s not to say you can’t have fun or need to have corporate board meetings over it (I doubt the AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! designers were particularly meticulous, for example) — but choosing a name is not a design decision to be ignored. On the other hand, it’s hard to start publicizing a game before it has a name (and you should be publicizing it as soon as you have anything to show). Needing a name before I’ve 100% fleshed out the aesthetic design is the problem I’m running up against for my neural circuit game.

So, one of my first steps in any design decision is to look at what’s already out there. Here’s a collection of games I’ve compiled (through other research or just pulled off the front page of Steam) and tried to organize into thematic and functional piles. This isn’t meant to be a thorough and strict classification — I only am trying to better understand different approaches and functions of naming games.

(full disclosure: the ones with links are from people I know)

Exactly What It Says On The Tin

  • Minecraft
  • Kerbal Space Program
  • Impossible Creatures
  • Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator
  • Species: Artificial Life, Real Evolution
  • Golf With Your Friends
  • Don’t Starve
  • Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes
  • Learn Japanese To Survive
  • American Truck Simulator
  • Goat Simulator
  • Space Engineers
  • BoxFighter
  • Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake

Very straightforward, people know *exactly* what their experience will be. Almost all are (or at least started out as) indie games where there’s more leeway for more artistic names like these.

Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake isn’t an explicit instruction to the player like some of the others, but it is super efficient while being fun. It includes protagonists, items, and actions: you control monsters to obtain birthday cake.

Continue reading

Art Styles – Pixel Art

I know it’s still in technical prototyping phase, but I’m poking around for art styles with my unnamed collaborator for the unnamed wire game.

Pixel art was my first thought, as it seems to be the standard these days for low-budget indie games. The first thing I always do in situations like this is to do some homework to see what’s out there, so here we go:

Hyper Light Drifter

hyperlight_001hyperlight_003

Isometric. Action RPG.

Emphasizes square (albeit irregular) blocky shapes in the environment. Solid colors for objects give clarity (especially the sword swings). Lots of fancy non-pixelated lighting effects and gradients. Unlike in some other games, there aren’t lighting effects that focus on the main character; instead, the player is made distinctive by their red cape. The fact that the camera follows the main character keeps the focus on the player, but the player blends into their settings and appears to be part of the world.

Continue reading

Rubicon Influences

Spaceship shooting:asteroids
This whole thing started as an attempt to come up with a better control scheme for flying a spaceship around than in Asteroids; I liked its core economy of choice between moving and shooting, but it felt unwieldy. Rubicon is my response — I tried to preserve that core mostly-mutually-exclusive decision to steer versus aim, but make it easier to switch between the two.

I also looked at Geometry Wars and a couple of the other twin-stick shooters that it spawned. I didn’t learn a lot though, since it allows you to do both simultaneously.

Luftrausers showed me the Form of juicy 2D flying + shooting.geoluft

.

.

.

I copied a lot of the weapon/ability/enemy designs from Bastion+Transistor. They do an *amazing* job making equipment “swingy” (no +5% incremental improvements) and allowing different loadouts to generate novel gameplay.

bastion

Ship modification:mech
I initially tried copying Mechwarrior/Gratuitous Space Battles with slots and whatnot, but it never felt right. The final version was cribbed almost directly from Megaman Battle Network, with my own addition of “addon” components and the bonus for symmetry (there are other shape bonuses too but they’re pretty trivial).

navicust

Mission design:
Space Pirates and Zombies did a pretty good job of filling the design space of “what sorts of objectives can you have in a fly-around-and-shoot-things-game”. I didn’t end up using most of it (base defense, hunt, assassinations…) but it was a good starting point. Also, progress past escort missions not depending on the survival of your escort was a good call (you just don’t get their bonuses).

I mostly ended up with two core mission types (and enemy types, for that matter): shooting challenges and movement challenges (cryopod rescue).

PCG mission nodes:ftl
FTL, obviously. Though I don’t like the lack of information in FTL, most of the time you’re just randomly choosing where to go. I pared it down and made things a little more straightforward. The creators of Spelunky put up a cool walkthrough of how their PCG engine works, which I based a lot off of.

I actually played around with making it a roguelike (contact enemies to zoom into battle mode) for a full month before scrapping it (KILL YOUR DARLINGS) as an uncontrollable too-complicated metastructure.

Character dialogue:base
Randomly-triggered banter? Sounds like Bioware.
Badly translated English? Sounds like Zero Wing.

dancer.

Unlockables:
Unlockable stuff from the main menu showing up playable ingame? Sounds like FTL and Crypt of the Necrodancer.

raddPhilosophy:
Ever since I read Kidd Radd (a semi-animated online webcomic epic from 2002 – 2004), I’ve been conscious of games about violence for the sake of violence… whiiich is basically what I just made. The muddled morality that pops up in the game stems from this.

Games really have infinite expressive power, but there’s a caveat to that, and it’s a tremendous caveat,” Romero said. “You cannot transmit a feeling that you do not have. If you are trying to make a game about something and you have not tried to feel what those people felt, and do what those people have done, your game will fail.

the process

A designer/scientist does not “express himself”. We come up with a process that we think may produce some result (interesting, illuminating), carry out that procedure, then with fresh eyes look at the outcome to judge its actual result. Is it what we were expecting? Do we need to tweak the process? We must be able to honestly see and report what is there in order to provide the feedback that advances our knowledge and our art.

By Wick Perry | © 2017 Wickworks
Proud to be a member of PIGsquad and Playful Oasis.