Breaking The Cycle

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I had a wake up call on a beach in North Carolina last month. “I suck at 3D… Why the hell do I keep trying to do it?” I am not sure why my brain decided to fire those neurons at that exact moment but it was completely true. I am terrible at 3D modeling, I hate trying to use Blender and I have never been able to grok UV maps, animation and other modeling thingys. I started thinking about my hard drive at home and the mess of incomplete Unity 3D projects sitting on it. Projects that were abandoned in the first few days because I didn’t like how they looked or behaved.

I had become unhappy trying to do things I would never be good at over and over again.

After I got back home I decided to start a new Unity project, only this time I chose to work in 2D with just sprites. I started making noticeable progress right away and it felt great. I was back in the same mindset I had when I was making Flash and HTML5 games. I didn’t care about what it looked like or how bad my artwork was. I didn’t care that a blue character left behind purple particle effects. What I cared about was that an activity I had spent the past year loathing was fun. I am excited to be doing game dev again. And when I saw that my local game development group had an upcoming social meeting I did everything I could to attend. Seeing old friends, greeting new member and spending the night talking and sharing demos was energizing. Since then, I’ve gone home and worked on my little 2D project more and more, making mistakes here and there, but not letting them get in the way of my fun.

Will I still be doing this in a month? I’m hopeful the answer is “Yes!”.

Ingenuity Fest Recap

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This past weekend, the Cleveland Game Devs had a booth at the Cleveland Ingenuity Fest. Ingenuity was two warehouses on the waterfront filled with art displays, musical acts, vendor tables and multimedia exhibits. This year, there were several booths featuring both video and analog gaming. I like to think that the CGD booth was a bit special in that it offered both crowd pleasing favorites like JS Joust and BaraBariBall but also personal projects that the groups’s members had created themselves. Here I want to share the two games I worked on and the critical reaction to them by the Ingenuity attendees.

In the month leading up to Ingenuity, I had decided to make a game called “Life”. Life is an HTML5/JavaScript based game where players tap heartbeat and respiration pulses on a hospital monitor. The game keeps a running tally of the entire game play time and each time the player loses (the player misses too many pulses) gives the cumulative time the player wasted as well as the number of human interactions they lost out on (total time / 3 seconds average time). The game’s difficulty intentionally ramps up at a fast pace to show the futility of their actions. I got the idea for Life his past Summer when my Mom was ill and I was stuck for hours sitting in the hospital, listening to the machines keeping her alive while I surfed around on my smartphone. Something about that experience left me feeling really hollow. I spend way way way too much time on that stupid phone. And I wanted to craft a game to show this feeling to the people attending Ingenuity. In a way, it was a nod to something Jonathan Blow mentioned in Indie Game: The Movie that resonated with me… I wanted to take my own deepest fears (death) and put them into a game.

Here are a few screenshots of “Life” and the monitor that inspired it…

The other game, “Monster Bash”, I made in the three days right before Ingenuity. It was crazy to jump into a project the Tuesday before a weekend event but as I looked at Life I thought to myself that it was wrong. What I had read of Ingenuity and seen online was that it was a celebration of creativity, that the message was to embrace “art” in all of its unique ways. “Life” seemed a bit morbid for the event, especially since I was taking my son Aidan to Ingenuity on Saturday. So, Monster Bash. It’s another HTML5/JavaScript game and the idea is that I would have kids color a monster using markers on a real piece of paper. I had mapped out crosses on the piece of paper. Using these crosses to line up the corners of my cell phone camera, I could take a picture of the monster or background and upload it to an FTP server. The Monster Bash game would periodically (every 15 seconds) go out to the FTP server and look for new images, backgrounds or sounds. The players could then have a sort of sumo fight where the animated bodies of the monsters would bash each other around harmlessly. No death, no blood, no score. Just some good old fashioned button mashing where the kids created the sprites. My sons absolutely loved the game and colored 20 monsters for me to use as test images. I love making games for them and Monster Bash seemed to really hit a chord with them. I couldn’t wait to share it with the kids at Ingenuity.

And here’s a screenshot of Monster Bash and a couple of the drawings my sons made.

And then Friday comes along and Ingenuity Fest officially kicks off at 5 PM. Monster Bash was working very well during the first couple of hours. A few kids and college students made up monsters and I was able to use Ingenuity’s private Wifi network for exhibits to synchronize them to the game. People were genuinely loving this simple little toy I had created. Then 7 PM rolled around and the Wifi went crazy. When the connection was actually working, it was only pushing data at 1 KB / minute in either direction. Monster Bash was officially hosed. It was my fault really. Rule #1 at an event: Never ever trust the Wifi.

At 8 PM I decided to shelve Monster Bash until I could get home and figure out a workaround. I didn’t have any other demos or games ready other than “Life”. I fired up a local mouse click version on my laptop and gave out the URL for people to play on their smartphones as well. The consensus was direct and to the point. Everyone hated it. I mean that, everyone had a negative opinion. One man loudly proclaimed that I was a “Fucking idiot.” Maybe it was the alcoholic drinks everyone was slurping down (we were stationed next to a bar stand) but honestly, it hurt to have that kind of reaction. Dar Caldwell of LaunchHouse mentioned to me that I “must have been doing something right” to get that sort of response. Yes, I wanted to make a point. I wanted to make a suggestion to people to better themselves. To realize that their perception of the time they use their gadgets is significantly different than the actual time spent. We all only have so much life to live.

At 9 PM, I shut down my laptop.

Why? I felt like I was breaking the Ingenuity vibe. People came to our booth with smiles on their faces and walked away not-so-happy after trying out Life. Maybe I rattled them. Maybe my game got to them. Maybe it just wasn’t the right audience to experience it. I went home that night and thanks to indie game dev compatriot Jarryd Huntley had some ideas on how to fix Monster Bash. I ended up using Connectify-Me to turn my laptop into a secure Wifi hotspot. I connected my phone to the hotspot and using Astro File Manager, I was able to quickly copy the images from my phone directly to a shared folder the game was monitoring. It ended up being a better play experience as the monsters could continuously update themselves versus waiting for the spritesheet to download. When I took Monster Bash back to Ingenuity Fest on Saturday it was a huge hit with kids and adults. I had people repeatedly ask me where they could download it from, was it available for iOS, how does it work. Kids drew some of the zaniest characters I had ever seen and teenagers kept drawing vampire variants. And everyone loved just bashing them around.

So, I had two completely polar reactions to my games which was kind of awesome. I also had a great time with my son at Ingenuity. We’ll definitely be there next year but in the mean time, Monster Bash might become something bigger. The response from the crowd was way to enthusiastic to not do something with it. Too many ideas, not enough time. 🙂

Lastly, here are a collection of Monsters made by kids, teens and even adults at Ingenuity. It was a real treat seeing these come alive for their creators. 🙂

UPDATE – I have no idea why the gallery is turning images… Grrrrrrr!

I haven’t forgotten ya…

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I have been “CRAZY BUSY!” lately and just haven’t had a chance to blog anything. Derelict is slowing coming together for a September 22nd demo at my local game dev group. My soldering iron decided to die last night in an electric blue shower of sparks so the BUTTON buttons I’ve been working on are an incomplete mess right. And on top of that, the “little” Life game I’ve been working on is a buggy mess. Both of those last two items need to be ready by next weekend for Ingenuity Fest Cleveland so I’m planning to work late this weekend getting caught up on them. And right after Ingenuity wraps, I need to get Derelict into a state where its fit to be printed. And then there’s a new project idea I came up with called “Adrift” that I’m going to try and build using Unity & Blender. Argh! OVERLOAD IMMINENT!!! 🙂

Anything else? Oh yeah, and Guild Wars 2!!! My GOD is that game just fun. Constant streams of fun. And lost productivity. But hey, you’re here once. Need to enjoy it. 🙂

Some Of My Tools Of The Trade

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I am a bit excited for the upcoming Ludum Dare game jam coming up on August 24th. My local game dev Meetup group here in Cleveland is even holding an event all weekend for it. What I would like to do with this post is share some of the lesser known tools that I use as a game designer / developer during a game jam. One quick note, I develop on Windows 7 and love both my Android phone and Amazon Kindle Fire. Some of these apps might not be available on Apple or Linux platforms.

Dropbox (Everything) – Free

Every developer should have a Dropbox account. It’s just too useful to have a 2 Gigabyte storage up on the cloud when ever you might need it. Another useful trick is that you can use the Public Folder to share not just game jam projects but also web pages. I usually write HTML5 games when I participate in jams and it’s kind of awesome to be able to copy my entire project including multiple JavaScript files, sounds, graphics and more and have it all work like a traditional web server. Plus, it’s FREE!!! No worries about bandwidth capacity, server up time or permissions.

Freemind (PC) / Mindjet (Android, Kindle Fire) – Free

So, it’s the day of the game jam. The theme’s been announced… Where do you start? I like to fire up a mind-mapping app and jot down any ideas that come to mind. I use mind maps to help me organize a thought and break it up into manageable pieces. As you grow the branches of the mind map outward and add more details you wind up with a pretty flexible framework for the game you want to build. One word of caution though, don’t get bogged down on too many details. Once you have a reasonable vision, get going and start executing on it.

One other quick note, the Mindjet applications for Android and Kindle Fire both support Dropbox synchronizations. You do not have to sign up for a Mindjet Connect account to enable this feature. And if you configure Mindjet to export Freemind compatible files, then you have a way to share that mind map between a variety of devices. During the last Ludum Dare, I wrote my mind map out on my PC using Freemind, uploaded it to Dropbox, sync’d it back down to my Kindle Fire which I had propped up on my desk as a kind of extra monitor. Little things like that make the work easier.

Caustic 2 (Android, Kindle Fire) – Free / $7.99 for Pro Version

Caustic is a fantastic tool for creating electronic music on touch screen devices. You get an array of drum machines, bass line machines, synthesizers, effects, a mixer and a sequencer all in a single app. And the default samples are pretty impressive including some classic techno / rave scene gear like the Roland 808 & 909 drum machines. There’s an active Caustic community constantly releasing additional sample packs available on both the Google and Amazon app stores as well. During the last Ludum Dare game jam, I was composing music on my cell phone as my kids ran around a playground. That sort of flexibility is pretty useful when you need to step away from your computer.

One key note though… The only way to export songs in WAV, OGG, and MIDI formats is to purchase the “Pro” unlock key for $7.99. I’ve used headphone patch cords to feed the audio from my cell into my laptop’s Mic jack but you do lose a lot of quality in the process. Purchasing the app, saving your song as an OGG file and transferring it via email or USB cable is worth the $8 price tag if you enjoy using the free version.

Notepad++ (Windows) – Free

Notepad Plus Plus is not just a text editor app… it’s kind of like a light-weight development environment. Notepad Plus Plus is able to open a variety of files and apply syntax highlighting intelligently to that file. Opening a C#, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, XML or JSON you can even get limited auto-completion of function names and syntax as well. It’s not going to replace a bigger IDE (I prefer Jetbrains’ WebStorm for HTML5 work and Visual Studio Express editions for C# work) but for quick file references or editing, it’s a great tool to have around.

Pocket (Variety) – Free

Pocket is not going to help you develop a game jam idea but it’s an amazingly useful tool for organizing articles and bookmarks. Pocket allows you to unify URLs under a single application. For example, I have the Pocket add-on installed in Chrome. Click the Add to Pocket button and whatever web page URL is saved on Pocket. Use the Pocket app on your smartphone or tablet to view that article. Use that same Pocket app to save tweets from Tweetdeck. And, while browsing the articles you can tag the links with subjects such as “game dev”, “ideas” or whatever you need to group it by. It doesn’t sound like much but being able to look up a tag like “pixel art tutorials” on any device you have handy and see a collection of articles you’ve found over Twitter, Facebook, websites and RSS feeds is extremely nice.

Honorable Mentions

AndChat (Android) – Free
My Meetup group has used free Mibbit IRC channels for text chat during past game jams and AndChat is a great Android IRC client to join in and keep connected to the conversation.

Paint.Net (PC) – Free
Don’t be thrown off by the name, Paint.Net is a free, practical graphics application. It’s a light-weight Photoshop clone that supports layers, alphas, gradients and other whizband graphic stuff that I really can’t appreciate. Yeah, I’m developer, not an artist but for me, this tool works perfectly.

PyxelEdit (Various) – Free
PyxelEdit is a pixel art graphics tool. It’s a little quirky but it’s kind of nice for rapidly shifting similar pixels (terrain) around.

Steam Sales and Dusty Consoles

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Over the weekend my wife wanted to move the furniture around in our living room. As I get to work dismantling the entertainment center I fire up Rayman Origins on my PC to keep our kids occupied. While my sons laugh and giggle at the beautiful animations on screen (and Rayman Origins is an absolutely stunning game to behold!) I am in a dust filled corner yanking cables out from our Wii and Xbox 360 and that’s when it dawned me. Neither of these systems have been turned on in months to play a game. And once the living room has been re-arranged, I didn’t bother to hook either console back up again. They’re relegated to sitting up on a shelf to collect more dust above the real gaming masters of our household, the PC and iPad.

We’re a fairly modern household and it’s amazing what digital distribution has done to change how we relax. For the past few years, most of our entertainment circled around the Xbox 360/Wii combo. But that changed dramatically once we got a Roku for Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. Add on an iPad and gaming PC purchase and we have had no need to launch a traditional console. Instant gratification and enjoyment is just a few clicks or swipes away.

Where this gets really interesting is the cost of this gratification. I could have spent $30 to buy Rayman Origins for either console but I never would have. It was a risky bet of sorts and I was unsure if my kids would even play a non-Mario platformer. But then this past Summer’s Steam comes around and a friend kindly gifted me a $10 copy of Rayman Origins. So not only was the game 66% cheaper than the console version but it was also cheap enough to be an impulse buy. And my kids LOVE it. And the Steam sale enabled other instant (or in this case guilty) indulgences when Saints Row 3, typically a $60 game on PC or console, was priced at just $12. Even with the praise and adoration from my peers, it didn’t seem like a game I would enjoy but at that price, why not? Over 30 hours later and I can say without a doubt, I absolutely loved that game. It’s amazing. In fact, most of my Steam purchases have been amazing and most are games I never would have considered at their full price.

So when the next “next-gen” console are released, I won’t be buying them. And while my kids and I might miss out on Halo or Mario or the other console locked properties, we will still be discovering new and exciting games at affordable prices on our other devices. It’s a fantastic time for consumer choice!

Indie Games Are Punk Rock

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RamonesAt this past Cleveland Game Devs meeting, I was in a discussion about the Ouya and made the comment that “Indie games are punk rock”. I think that is my perfect analogy as to what an “indie” game actually means to me. They don’t have to be artistic or convey a purpose. They can be completely abstract and pointless. They can be experimental. They can be text based, or 3D or paper or in our imagination. I want my indie games with grit and grime on them. I want them to be incomplete or buggy or exploitable. I want the artists to be free to create any experience they choose to. I want my indie games to be like the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, or The Ramones. I want to hear static, microphone noise, sloppy guitar work, off the wall lyrics. I want to be stunned by brilliance or shocked by audacity. Games by Auntie Pixelante, Jason Rohrer, Edmund McMillen and Introversion are “punk rock”. The only label that really matters is that it even exists.

Let’s flip around the argument then. What isn’t an indie game. This gets a little murkier / subjective. I specifically cite above Edmund McMillen as an indie developer but he is also a founder of Team Meat, makers of Super Meat Boy. I LOVE Super Meat Boy. It’s an amazing game, but its polished. It’s a little too clean. It’s a “studio album” that is “radio friendly” for Microsoft. But when you compare it to Edmund’s edgier games like “C**t” or “The Binding of Issac” then you can kind of see where a line is drawn. “Issac” in particular left a huge impression on me. It’s dark, disturbing and uses issues such as shame, guilt, humiliation and abuse to create a one of a kind experience. So, where I think the division of that line starts is that if you have to restrict or modify your game based on other people’s influence, if you lose the freedom to create what you want to create, that’s when a game loses that independent spirit.

Diving in a little further, “Issac” has sold very well on the Steam digital content service as well as being self-published and can be played on Windows, Macs and Linux systems. There was an article that mentioned a Nintendo 3DS version was in the works but it was ultimately rejected by Nintendo due to its religious content. And that’s where that “freedom” piece I mentioned earlier comes in. By self-publishing the title, Edmund had the freedom to release a game with an extremely mature vision as he intended (though I don’t know if Steam pushed for any filtering).

So maybe that’s a better way to say it… Indie games and punk rock are built on freedom.