How To Be Game Designer Without Losing Your Soul

After the 2016 election season I was concerned, as many others were, that our country was about to lose ground on a lot of important social issues. I was worried about my friends. I was worried about my family. I was worried about countless marginalized or unrepresented Americans who may face increased discrimination or scrutiny. I donated where I could, made my voice heard to my representatives, and reminded my friends not to normalize the tragically disappointing behavior that appeared to be bubbling to the surface all across the country and in its highest offices. And I tried to make games. But it didn't work.

With a sea change in political climate on the horizon, making games felt unimportant. Unhelpful. Frivolous. What would normally occupy the most satisfying part of my day felt stupid, and I found no joy in it. I got my job done to the best of my ability but I felt like a sellout.

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My attention kept being drawn to a book on my shelf. In the introduction to Adrian Shaughnessy's How To Be A Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul, the author makes the case that the creation and enjoyment of art is something with quantifiable cultural benefits, a catalyst of self-expression and self-discovery that has real impact on our well-being. And that we should protect and promote it as a part of a healthy society.

Every single human culture on earth, no matter how civilized or uncivilized, has some kind of art and some kind of play. Self expression and escapism are normal, intuitive, biological mechanisms to help us relieve stress.

Stressful situations prompt the release of Cortisol, the primary stress hormone that, when elevated for prolonged periods of time, destroys healthy muscle and bone, slows down healing and normal cell regeneration, co-opts biochemicals that are needed to make other vital hormones, impairs digestion, metabolism and mental function, interferes with healthy endocrine function, and weakens your immune system. Psychological stress is associated with a greater risk for depression, heart disease, and infectious diseases. In short, stress compromises your health and shortens your life.

Study after study has shown categorically that playing games actually reduces stress. A 2010 Texas A&M study showed that even violent video games allow men and women to grow better skills for handling stress, that they tend to show less symptoms of depression and get less hostile during stressful real world tasks. A 2007 McGill University study showed that games specifically built to train players using positive feedback translated into players having a 17% reduction in Cortisol levels. The list of similar studies goes on and on.

Games inject a sense of wonder and awe and inspiration, of sport and community, of beauty and escapist fiction, into the larger collective consciousness. They can actually tweak our body chemistry, allowing us to be better versions of ourselves. Can games fix the world? Probably not. But perhaps they can enable us to be the healthy, happy, motivated people that can. 

The Owl Generator Mini-Jam

Inspired by the procedurally generated fauna in No Man's Sky and in the spirit of all things Halloween, I decided to take a few days and jam on a procedural owl generator:

I didn't get as far as I'd hoped, but I'm pretty happy with the results. Technically, it was pretty simple to engineer. There is no bone animation, all of the deformation is done using blend shapes (aka morph targets). Normally used for facial animation, I knew it would allow me to set very exact limits on how the shape of the owl deforms, much more precise than trying to do it by scaling skinned bones.

 I basically started with an average owl mesh, and decided on 23 different shape variables, each with an exaggeration in the positive and the negative direction. So I ended up with 46 different meshes to dial in, and randomized them all when the button is pressed. So that positive and negative versions of the same variable wouldn't cancel each other out, only one of the directions was used per variable, also decided randomly.

Maximum positive and negative extents for 6 of the variables.

I saw this project happening in four steps:  

  1. Mesh deformation
  2. Procedural texture generation
  3. "Otherworldy" effects
  4. Polish

I was only able to get mesh deformation completed this time around, but I'm happy enough with it to move on to the next step. I think I might pick this back up before Halloween next October, and maybe every Halloween after that until it's finished. Next year, procedural textures!

 

Taxonomy of Game Enjoyment: Why We Love Games

If I were to recommend books about game design, Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design would definitely be on my short list. It's a wonderfully insightful and comprehensive discussion on the subject.

 
 

In it, Schell discusses a few various historical proposals of how to analyse player enjoyment. He looks at two earlier game designers, Marc Leblanc and Richard Bartle, and their attempts to categorize the different types of game enjoyment. He then adds a few more of his own. I combined them all into a master list for a talk I gave recently about game enjoyment at the Dallas Society of Play:

I find when I look through a complete list like this I really learn a lot about myself. Which of these items I find more and less compelling. Later in the book Schell kind of simplifies this list and re-frames it in term of the rewards we receive from games:

 
  • Praise
  • Points
  • Gateway
  • Spectacle
  • Prolonged Play
  • Expression
  • Powers
  • Resources
  • Completion

A few years ago, when my own studio had once again bankrolled enough money from client projects to fund our own game, I sent out a survey to all six employees to help understand why we play games, in the hope that it maybe it would reveal a common type of game that we should be making. Are we all into praise? How important is completion? The results came back something like this:

Unfortunately in our case, no real trends across the company were uncovered, with the exception of a general preference for completion. Here are my personal favorite rewards singled out:

Clearly I'm a fan of seeing new and surprising worlds over all other rewards. I love new, fantastical environments and atmospheres and I always have. The next time I use this exercise I will use the larger, more granular list at the top of this post.

I encourage individuals and groups to consider what it is about games that we each enjoy the most. A quantifiable understanding of why we love games could be helpful to any studio or collective of developers. I hope this offers some insight on where to start.

Gamedev History: The Very Early Days of Mobile Games

It's sometimes difficult to remember the time before the current wave of smartphones, before iOS and Android, before we kept more computing power in our shirt pocket than it took to land on the Moon. But there was a sliver of time before the launch of the iPhone in the Summer of 2007 when mobile devices were able to play games, but hadn't yet reached the maturity of modern day phones. You may remember "flip phone" devices, or even the first and second generation N-Gage.

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                                                             It's not a taco.

                                                            It's not a taco.

This is where I first cut my teeth on mobile game development, in 2005 on a series of Warner Brothers mobile games for Symbian and J2ME phones. Even though PC and console games were becoming fairly mature and complex at that point, we worked in a medium that still required us to create pixel art with aggressively restrictive color limitations, extremely choppy frame-based animation, and work within unthinkably small screen resolutions. The smallest screen I designed games for was the Symbian Series 40 operating system, which had a 95 x 65 pixel display. Smaller than some of the icons on my desktop today! And we did this not so we could emulate a retro aesthetic, but because it was all you could fit on these devices. Control schemes even had to take into consideration that only a single button press could register at a time! It was a world of squeezing the most out of a very limited device.

                                                    Batman Begins Mobile on the Symbian Series 60 operating system.

                                                   Harry Potter: Wizard Duel on the Symbian Series 60 operating system.

During this period I worked on the mobile game for Batman Begins, a Harry Potter themed turn-based fighting game called Wizard Duel, and some Looney Tunes-themed puzzle games.

We stayed within our limitations in a number of ways. We built tileable swatches for the backgrounds  and flipped and rotated these reusable assets when we could:

We lowered our number of colors in our palettes, then lowered them again. Removed frames of animation over and over to reduce the footprint and memory requirements of the final product. Take a look at the complete in-game art assets for Batman Begins Mobile:

This is about 232 kilobytes on disk before atlasing and compressing! The entire downloadable install file for a 2-hour game with five distinct levels was 186 kilobytes. A far cry from 100 megabyte limitation on the App Store today. Most animations only contained just two or three frames:

 Flip phone particle effects. Yep.

Flip phone particle effects. Yep.

In a way, this was one of the most challenging set of projects I've worked on. As 3D gaming was becoming more and more sophisticated, we were all racing to stay on top of the technology curve. It's easy to forget that not too long ago devices such as these were still working under relatively great restrictions. The daily process of trying to fit more into less space was an exercise in efficiency and strategy. My experiences on this platform definitely enhanced my overall game development skills, and I recommend to anyone in game development that they spend time contemplating game creation with drastically different limitations.

 

My Love Affair With The Indie Arcade Cabinet

The first video game I ever played was in a Dairy Queen restaurant in rural Canton Texas, sometime in the early 1980s. It was a cabaret arcade cabinet of Atari's top-down space shooter Asteroids.

This was a time when people didn’t have computers in their homes (or in their pockets). Consoles were scarce or non-existent. Finding this thing in the wild tucked into the piney woods of East Texas was like finding a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You engaged with it and magic happened. It responded to your input, it had artificial intelligence, the Vectrex screen glowed these sharp bright lines like something from another world.  I was in awe.

As my brother took his turn I studied every inch of this machine. I found screws that held it together, a power cord sandwiched between it and the wall. I found vents with warm air emanating from them. I peeked in to see twinkling lights illuminating mysterious circuit boards, wires, and glass enclosures. Someone very smart, somewhere, designed and built this thing. There must be more of them.

Pretty soon after that, video game arcades were in full swing. Tall cabinets, short cabinets, multiplayer cabinets. Cabinets with steering wheels and foot pedals, chairs, glowing controls, spinning knobs and track balls. Every new clever cabinet made me love this medium even more.

I have this weird quirk. I'm always a little anxious if I don't know how the things around me are built. I tend to run my hand under desks to understand how the legs are attached. I was the kid that took his toys apart even if I couldn't always get them reassembled. And hanging out in arcades made me endlessly curious about what was inside of them. It was a special day when you would catch one being repaired on the arcade floor. The generous repairman would give you a tour of the inside and explain the components, which happened to me on many occasions. Eventually the video arcade came and went, and most of these cabinets fell into disrepair. With Atari 2600s and NESs, then Xboxes and Playstations, offering videogames right in your living room, these huge clunky things became obsolete.

By 2014, when I began co-organizing my local indie game dev collective, the Dallas Society of Play, we were always looking for new events and projects to bring together developers. We decided that we would build our own full-size, 4-player arcade cabinet and fill it with locally-made video games. I’d finally found my impetus to build an arcade cabinet of my own. A dream I’d had since I was ten years old. I’d build a cabinet from scratch.

This wasn't an original idea by any means. People have been building MAME cabinets for years to emulate original arcade games. Torontrons and Winnitrons, repurposed DIY arcade cabinets containing indie games, have been popping up all over the world, most connected to the Winnitron network that fed them a curated collection of indie games.

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But I wanted to build one just for us, the North Texas indie scene.  I knew I wanted a few requirements to help it stand out. It had to be a four-player cabinet to maximize the social power of arcade cabinets (the first four-player indie cabinet), and it had to be expandable so we could change out the controls in the future for a different configuration.

Research led me to a particular 4-player Konami cabinet design from 1991. It was used for The Simpsons, G.I. Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people I know have played on this cabinet at some point in their lives.

I got the specs on this cabinet and it was enormous. Using a flat screen LED instead of a CRT meant that I didn't need as much space as the old ones, so I modified the design to have a significantly smaller footprint.

I also knew that I wanted a modular control panel that could be replaced if we wanted to use different inputs. Someday we may want steering wheels, or whack-a-moles, or something even more experimental. Also the thing would need to be able to fit through a standard doorway. I designed a sturdy cradle in the front that a removable control panel would bolt into. The planning was done, and the build could begin.

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I had two deadlines throughout this project. The first was a game jam that the Society of Play was hosting specifically to build games for the cabinet. The cabinet was built and functioning at that point, but the paint job and marquee were still not complete (picture above). The jam was a huge success and resulted in 10 working debut games. The second milestone was a Microsoft booth at the very first PAX South in San Antonio. The cabinet was fully completed in time to make its first official convention:

We built a custom launcher to help people navigate between games, rearranged the controls a bit, and added some art to the sides. For the most part it came out exactly like I expected. Watching people gravitate to it at conventions is very satisfying, especially the kids. I'll keep perfecting it before it starts taking temporary residencies at local comic book shops and movie theaters. What interests me most right now is the potential for new and weird control schemes, but first it needs to get out into the world for awhile.

So it's been a long journey since Asteroids lit up my face and I felt the heat coming out of those vents. I became a maker and a designer in many capacities. The feeling of completing a build is a hugely satisfying feeling that has become very important to me. I thought a lot about that old Asteroids cabinet as I was building the Society of Play Arcade. I wondered where it went after it left that Dairy Queen, and how many other people had lost themselves in its magnetic charm. I only hope the Society of Play Arcade can offer a fraction of the excitement and enjoyment that its ancestor did.

GDC 2016: Inspiration and the Great Reboot

My 13th Game Developer Conference! GDC serves many purposes to me. It's a place to meet with clients face to face, get deep info on recent game techniques and hardware technology, and catch up with old friends. But most of all it's a place to refresh and reset on current projects and future plans.

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