Wednesday, 1 January 2014

"Do you play games?"

Imagine looking at a gorgeous painting in a gallery, only after a few moments you realise you're not standing in the gallery anymore: you're inside the painting and it's all around you.

There are various paints to colour a painting; pastels, oils, watercolours, many others more and we can add to them the pixel. What I've just played felt like being inside an impressionist painting. The things I saw weren't photo realistic copies of everyday life. That's what the technology obsessed clamour for with their 'next generation graphics'. No, the game I just played could have come, in purely visually terms, from the early 90s. But there was a living, breathing world there, made of visibly blocky squares of colour that only hinted at what they represented, and yet at the same time captured their essence in a way high-fidelity visuals often cannot.

Imagine you're inside a beautiful painting, and you can look around it. Paintings are static, aren't they? But this, this is alive. The bushes shiver to the touch, the lake trickles past slowly, its movement just a handful of pixels moving to the left and repeating in a cycle, and yet wanting nothing. Ambient sound works in concert with the pixels to transport you there. When I touched those bushes I don't think I saw any leaves fall to the ground, but the way it trembled, and the rustle it made - I could just fill in all the gaps myself. It made me want to be in a real forest, beside a real lake.

So you're inside this beautiful painting, and you can look around inside it, and it moves as though the whole world is alive, and the world is even reacting to your touch. After you explore a little, taking your time because everything looks and sounds so magical, you come across people. They're just archetypes; a shepherd girl, a woodcutter. Fairytales are only ever populated by archetypes. They don't talk, instead the narrator speaks for them. You're in a beautiful painting, you can look around inside it, and it moves as though the whole world is alive and reacting to you, and the painting is of a fairytale.

You carry on exploring, looking at everything so you don't miss a detail. Not because the detail might impact your quest - although that's important too. But because the detail might remind you of a small thing in the real world that you haven't enjoyed the pleasure of in too long. Soon you face danger in the form of a wild animal. The best fairytales have peril. It attacks you, but you have a sword and shield. After defending and defending again its advances, it tires and retreats, and you didn't have to strike it once with your sword, and later you realise you're glad of that.

You're looking around inside this beautiful painting, which is alive with movement and sound, and populated by fairytale characters, and you are the hero. This is a fairytale written and painted for you, it's about YOU. You get excited, and feel fear when you're in danger. But it's a different kind of fear than when you read, because here you have control, and whether this tale has a good or a bad ending depends on you.

The woodcutter takes you up a mountain. He has to stop and wait often because for you the journey matters more than the destination. Each time you round a hill a new painting rolls into view, a new painting to walk through and touch and feel and hear. At the top of the mountain there's the entrance to a cave. The woodcutter goes no further, and the dog, the woodcutter's dog that's been leading you since the very beginning stays too. You're alone for the first time, wandering through hidden and dark places, and your eyes rove when they spy suspicious movement. Even when the painting is a dark forgotten cave, it's alive. This time it's just a bat. Eventually you come to a spacious hall under the mountain and the object you came for, an ancient book of unknown significance, rests underneath a pitch dark shadow looming tall, above that an antelope's skull.

You take the book. It's what the hero would do, though you know it will probably be a mistake. The hero gets a free pass to do something stupid once, so as to redeem himself by the end of the story. And it is a mistake. The shadow comes alive, the skull floats horribly towards you, faster than you run.

You're looking at a painting from within, it's a horrific painting, its imagery drawn from nightmare. The painting is alive with a movement that makes the skin crawl and there's sound, horrible, chilling sound. It's not a fairytale anymore, but a real horror story, and it's a bad time to be the hero. You feel the horror, and you panic. You fumble your movements and trip up, like a horror movie character, but there's nobody to shout at and call stupid because the character is you and everything the character does is because you made them do it.

You run back the way you came, trying to remember all of your steps in advance because that might let you gain on the shadow. It's an extremely close call, but you make it out of the cave alive. The shadow doesn't follow you into the daylight. And - Yes! You still have the book!

The woodcutter and his dog are waiting for you, and never have you felt so much like hugging a collection of pixels, such is your relief. With a brief note of foreboding, the narrator echoes your emotion, in effect giving his consent for you to feel triumphant. An ominous rain starts falling, and supernatural guardians watch you from the cave. But as you descend from the mountain the soundtrack kicks in. It's the first time you've really been conscious of the music in this story, and it has a direct line to your soul. It speaks to you because it's the theme tune of your very own triumph. It's your song. Right now it's the best music you've ever heard.

You're within a beautiful painting, and it's alive with sound and movement and music. It's a painting of paintings really, a gallery within a painting. The paintings inspire in you different emotions. One painting might feel like an exciting adventure. one might be a horror. Another drama and even comedy. One is triumph. What the paintings have in common is that they are all about you. The artist, with his friends the musician, the writer, the storyteller, the director and producer have put on a performance. They've combined everything they do well in their respective arts together; arts you appreciate separately have joined into something that's greater than the sum of its parts. And they've put you at the centre of the wonderful maelstrom to direct yourself in this, your starring role.

Why wouldn't I play games?

The above post was inspired by the author's first 30 minutes experiencing Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP

Monday, 11 November 2013

I'm Not Playing

I'm Not Playing was my first 'jam' game. It won the Fight Magic Run battle, themed 'Independence'. FiMaRu had a very small pool of participants, so the achievement didn't go to my head. More valuable to me was the positive reinforcement that - yes! - I can make a game in 48 hours, as opposed to planning to develop a game in a short time and actually have it spiral into months and months.

I'm Not Playing is about a platform prototype sprite, called sprite_6, who becomes self-aware and ultimately rebels against her developer.

For a while I'd had an idea for a game lying dormant in the back of my head. Part of the game's challenge would be that the player would have to stuggle with and figure out the game's controls, like some kind of puzzle, as opposed to the controls being obedient and reactive to the player's every wish, like in other games. It's not a unique idea; many of us have played a game where our character's controls are temporarily reversed, for example, and left becomes right and right left. But I wanted to try to make a game based entirely around this concept, and explore its limits.

'Independence' gave me the chance to do just that, and even inspired a simple plot to give some structure and purpose to the mechanics.

The jam format can be exhausting, but it offers invaluable experience, and I'm pleased with the results I got. I've marked the next Ludum Dare in my calendar.


It's been 3 months since I finished Ascent. Ascent is a personal game, because it centres on themes I'm passionate about. Without hyperbole, it contains no less than my philosophy of what I consider to be the meaning of life.

I feel I should write at least something about it before moving, finally, onto newer projects.

It had mixed reviews on Newgrounds. It was badly received by those who mistook it as being a religious game, when it is emphatically not a religious game. Actually, during development I thought my message was, if anything, too blunt. But perhaps just as the developer is in a bad position to judge the difficulty of his own game, so is he in a bad position to judge the subtlety of the point he's trying to make.

Poe's law comes in to play here's_law, and I don't resent those who may have misunderstood Ascent. Nor would I change anything. If I were to simplify the game down to the point where there was no room for misunderstanding, then it would restrict its potential for interpretation; some of the best feedback for Ascent made me see its message from angles that I hadn't considered before.

I did increase the timer based on the feedback I received, but resisted calls for it to be scrapped entirely. The timer is not an arbitrary method of increasing the difficulty and longevity of the game. Its place is to serve the message.

I was pleased with the exposure Ascent got on Newgrounds. Tom liked the game enough to send it straight to the front page, bypassing the usual vetting procedure, and from there it attracted 60,000+ views and became the most popular game of that month. Very encouraging, for someone who released it on Newgrounds only as an afterthought, and expected the 400-something plays it generated on Kongregate to be about the extent of exposure it was likely to garner. In future, if it's feedback and exposure I need, Newgrounds will be the first place to consider.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

The cardinal skills of indie game development

I often worry that I'm wasting my time procrastinating browsing youtube, wikipedia or facebook, when I should be developing games, or improving the skills that help to develop games.

This post is inspired by these recurring thoughts. Earlier today, travelling on the metro, I wrote down what I think are the four core skills I'll need to be a good one-man game studio:


I then wrote how strong I thought I was in each area. There is no objective metric here; I just wrote down what I felt about my own abilities in relation to where I want them to be. Assuming a scale out of 10:

maths: 2
programming: 3
art: 3
music: 4

I then wrote today's date to the side of the four figures. For too long, a number of these skills have remained stagnant. I stockpile books and cram online tutorial after online tutorial into unseen favourites folders, never looking inside to see the contents. This post represents a change.

Week by week I'm going to record how many hours I'm putting into each skill. The idea is to compete with myself; so when I'm looking at a report at week's end, those are the figures I'll be aiming to beat in the coming week. After several months of this, collecting the reports together and plotting them out on a graph should reveal a pleasing upward trend.

I'll reasses how strong I am at the four cardinal skills some months down the line.

But what's the use of improving the above skills, if they're not actually employed in the creation of games? There must be a fifth, golden metric. The most important metric: game development itself. It's not something I'll mark out of ten at intervals; that's something I'd rather the players of my games judge. But it is certainly something - indeed, the main thing - I can strive to put more and more hours' work into, so this criteria will be way up there, competing for my hours at the very top.

Monday, 4 March 2013


As a first game, Rebound has taught me many valuable lessons.

The first lesson is that everyone is right when they say don't spend too much time on your first game. I guess I had to learn it by experience.

The second lesson was practical experience with my toolset. Rebound was doubly useful for this purpose, since after creating the game in Game Maker I decided to port it to Construct 2. Besides allowing me to get used to how each program functions, recreating the same game allowed for a closer comparison between the two.

I'm going to stick with both. I really like C2's work flow, its power, efficiency and user-friendliness. But I also like being able to mix code with drag and drop as seamlessly as GM allows. This act of writing code feels like I'm expanding my skillset (and indeed, my little experience with GML has already given me a valuable leg-up with learning C).

Although wrappers are available to turn a C2 project into a native application, C2's focus is on HTML5, and HTML5 right now is experiencing some growing pains and operates differently in different browsers. Rebound plays perfectly in Chrome, is jerky in Firefox and downright sluggish in Internet Explorer. These are the browsers I've tested myself. In Safari, running on Mac OSx, the game crashes the browser every time, so I'm informed.

This won't stop me developing HTML5 games - I'm glad to be gaining valuable experience in this growing area when it's at such a young stage - but if I have more ambitious projects, designed from the outset to be a native application, then I'll take them to Game Maker.

Before Rebound made the leap from exe to browser I made some design changes, most important being a change to the pace of the game. For the curious, the GM version can be downloaded here (press escape to skip the title screen).

The third lesson I learnt from Rebound was about the entire process of uploading my game to my web host, and then integrating the game from there into various game portals supporting HTML5 via iframe. Now I feel pretty comfortable being able to distribute a game to the relevant channels.

In all, I consider Rebound an extremely useful practice run, but one I wish I'd spent less time on, and one I'm ready to put to bed with this blog post.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Blog making

Why blog?

To offer a parallel to others venturing down the path of games design. If others can take something away from my experiences, to be inspired by my successes, to avoid repeating my failures, then so much the better.

But mainly I blog for myself. Sometimes it's good and healthy to pluck out a thought from the swirling mass and try to fix and give a more solid shape to it in the form of the written, published word.

Why make games?

Feeling the creative impulse - a desire to share an idea, feeling or experience I've had - the different mediums come up one after another offering themselves to this process. With each having its own strengths, it'd be a shame to close myself off to one avenue of expression. With game design I don't have to do that. Designing a game is a synthesizing process whereby the different mediums might come together under one banner, reinforcing and inspiring each other in the process.

Games are recent things, and questions about the artistic potential of games are more recent still. Whereas a new painter, writer, musician or filmmaker is faced with a daunting archive, filled floor to ceiling with past masterpieces that set the bar in their art, the game maker is faced with something more akin to an open field of boundless potential, expanding as far as the eye can see. At a time when this potential is being increasingly recognised and explored, it's exciting to be starting down this path.