Tuesday, October 6, 2009

On Hold For Now

I've recently been hired by a large game developer. As cool as that is, as a condition of my employment I had to agree not to make any products which might compete with my employer. Because of that, all work for anything targetted at XBLIG is on hold for now. The contract is only temporary, and I fully expect to be getting back to work on my current project whenever circumstances allow.

I'm somewhat disappointed about this, because I really enjoy making games. On top of that, the one I'd been working on up until I got hired was starting to shape up in some really interesting ways, and I was really excited about where it was heading. It's definitely had me pretty excited, though it obviously remains to be seen how it would translate for anyone else. It combines music, narrative, and gameplay in some ways that feel really compelling to me. So as I've said, I'll definitely be returning to it, though for the time being it will have to sit on the backburner with all of the other game ideas I've got just waiting for the right time to finish them.

I'll probably still take part in the Experimental Gameplay Project during any month I come up with an interesting idea for, so for now this blog will remain active as a way to describe those. I'll also probably post a post-mortem for my last EGP prototype, because I learned a lot about good game design from it (mostly from its failures).

Monday, September 14, 2009

Too Big To Fail

This is a prototype created for September's Experimental Gameplay Project. The theme this month was "Failure". If you're not familiar with the EGP, I highly recommend that you click the link there and read about it; it really is a fantastic idea.

In accordance with this month's theme of failure, the game that I have created is called "Too Big To Fail", and it's a game that puts you, in an admittedly abstract way, into the shoes of a major investment banker on the eve of the financial collapse that occurred in 2008.

In the game, you are represented by the yellowish circle with the dollar sign in it. You provide loans by moving over top of any of the other icons, which represent people who are looking for money. You can also borrow from another, larger bank yourself, which is represented by the image in the bottom corner of the screen. The goal is to build up a large amount of debt to the bigger bank while remaining financially solvent long enough that you become "too big to fail", at which point the government will bail you out to help save the bigger bank and your connections in the banking industry. The game fits September's theme because the goal is to fail by as huge a margin as possible - remaining financially solvent or failing but not owing much money are both considered to be not good enough.

Download the game here
NOTE: The game was created using Microsoft's XNA, so it will unfortunately only run on Windows computers. It also requires the XNA framework, which the game automatically detects and offers to install if you don't have it.

Movement - arrow keys
Take a loan out from 1st National - press the space bar when next to the bank

The different images represent different types of loans you can make.
Green hedge-y looking thing - represents hedge funds
Black coin-y looking thing - represents shadow bankers
Houses - represent mortgage-backed securities
Smiling face - represents regular people who want to borrow

Lending to regular people is relatively low-risk, while lending to the others leads to higher potential returns, but also higher potential failures. The high risk borrowers also borrow larger amounts of money from you. You'll probably need to borrow from 1st National to fuel your loans to the riskier borrowers.

At regular intervals the people who you've lent out money to will pay it back with interest. This is represented by a black dollar amount displayed above your reserves. Sometimes people you've made loans to will not be able to pay them back, and you'll lose that money. This is represented by a red dollar amount displayed above the loans you've made. 1st National will also call in some of its loans to you at a regular interval. This is displayed as a green dollar amount above the money you owe.

As time goes on, the risk of those who have borrowed from you defaulting on their loans goes up. At the same time, 1st National starts having financial difficulties and starts calling in more of its loans from you, so you need to maintain a higher balance to avoid going out of business before you become too big to fail.

The game lasts about two minutes before the markets completely collapse and the government finally decides whether or not you fit the bill as an institution which is "Too Big To Fail." Have fun!

I hereby release this game and all related assets into the public domain. Do with it what you will.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Great low price! Fantastic value! Bonus exclamation marks!

The price of Time Flows, But Does Not Return has been dropped from 200 MS Points to 80 (approximately $2.50 to $1) in response to the recent pricing changes on the platform. I don't know if anyone would be reading this who hasn't purchased the game, but if the $2.50 price tag seemed a bit steep to you before, now you can buy the game for just 40% of the original price! What a bargain! What a steal! Act now, because supplies are (un)limited!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

New things are afoot!

I've finally decided what my next project will be, and begun working on it in earnest. I had a lot of different ideas for things that I could work on, a lot of ideas that I want to try, but I've figured out which one is currently most appealing to me. It's a design that came out of trying to work out a lot of my ideas about what I do and don't currently like in most (mainstream) game design.

I don't think that video games are "murder simulators" like some conservative commentators have suggested, but I do wonder what it does to us as a society when we are increasingly spending our leisure hours learning to virtually kill things in more realistic and efficient manners. I don't think it's the downfall of society; despite the increased amount of violence in the media, there's actually less violence in the real world than at almost any point in human history. But I'm also not so foolish as to believe that human beings exist outside of their context. Our environment does effect us, and often in ways we don't readily recognise.

More than that, though, I've just never been especially interested in games about shooting things, though there are rare exceptions like Bioshock, which I enjoyed primarily for its setting and visual design and not for its shooting mechanics. I find it unusual that we have a medium which could be incredibly expressive in so many ways, and tell so many stories, and yet most of what it's used for is games about killing things.

I also find game narratives to be highly problematic a lot of the time. Part of that is simply a quality issue; game writing is quite often bad. Part of that is inherent in the kinds of games we're making. Could anyone fit a large quantity of intelligent dialogue into Gears of War?

A bigger problem, though, is that the narrative in games is often heavily divorced from what the player is doing. Lost Odyssey has an interesting story about immortality and the role that death plays in human societies. But the gameplay is mostly about throwing fireballs at giant insects. What if the gameplay was itself about the role that death plays in human societies, though?

So, those are some of the thoughts I have leading into the game that I'm working on now. I'm currently describing it as a verbal puzzle game. It's definitely very narrative heavy, which is no surprise given my background in history (which I will have two degrees in as of next month). It probably won't play very much like most games, since most of the "action" will be in the player's head and not on the controller, but we'll see how it goes. I've never made anything like this before, so it's both daunting and very exciting at the same time.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why would anyone pay for this game?

I didn't want to raise this issue while the game was still new and relatively visible on the XBLCG service, but it's something I'll discuss now that the game has been out for a while and I've had a good chance to analyse the results.

One of the questions I've been asked about Time Flows, But Does Not Return is why anyone would pay for a game that could be completed in under 10 minutes, especially since there was no difference between the trial version and the purchased version. Part of it was simply that the game felt "done" in the form it's currently in. There was more content at one point while I was working on it, but ultimately it felt like anything beyond what's in the game now was superfluous. The game takes 6-8 minutes to play because the experience that I was going for took me 6-8 minutes to communicate. I was concerned with getting my ideas across as well as I could, and I wasn't really thinking about the trial time limit while I was creating it.

Towards the end of the process, though, I had to decide if I wanted to deliberately limit the demo in some way, knowing that I could release the full thing essentially as a free trial. I chose not to primarily because I never viewed this as a commercial product; it has always been about communication and experimentation for me.

So the question then becomes, why should anyone pay for it, since a paid version is available. The main reason is because I was hoping that players would question what exactly it is that they pay for when they buy a game. Why do you pay $2, $20, or $60 for a game? Is it because that's how you unlock "additional content", or is it because you gain something valuable out of someone else's work and you want to support what they do? This was my way of seeing if people were in fact willing to pay for something entirely to show their appreciation for it.

The result of this experiment was pretty positive - more than enough people have bought the game to cover the meagre costs I incurred making it. The conversion rate (how many people buy a game v.s. how many people download a trial) has also actually been pretty good - a bit below 2%. That might not sound very good, but 2% is considered to be pretty decent for most downloadable titles. I think it's even better given that - unlike other downloadable games - a purchase provided no additional content, and I made no attempt to "upsell" or advertise within the game, aside from providing a menu option to buy the game (the screen that appears after the 8-minute demo timer expires comes from Microsoft, not me).

As for people who didn't pay for the game, the most common thing I heard was that people didn't buy it precisely because they expected to get something extra in return for paying. That might not be so good for me and this particular game, but I think it bodes well for the service as a whole. Xbox Live is known primarily as a place where bigoted, immature young men gather, but I've learned that there's actually a pretty sizeable portion of the market made up of people who are looking for more risky, thoughtful works. And I think that's fantastic, even if I'm not the one who benefits from it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Explaining the Name

I've seen a couple of comments now about the name that I release games under, which is The Shape of Games to Come. Some people seem to think that I'm trying to assert that I'm the future of the games industry or something equally pompous, but it's much simpler than that.

The short explanation is that it's an homage to one of my favourite albums, The Shape of Punk to Come by Swedish hardcore band Refused. If you've never heard them, head on over to their Myspace page, and listen to "Summerholidays vs Punkroutine".

The long explanation goes something like this: I originally wanted to release games under the name Curmudgeon Games, but a quick Google search turned up far too many similar names, meaning there would be no good way for people to determine what was and wasn't actually released by me. I came up with probably about a dozen other names that I thought sounded interesting, but they were all already taken.

At that point I stopped and thought to myself "What is an unusual but easily remembered combination of words that probably isn't in use?" You've probably had similar thoughts yourself if you've ever tried to sign up for an e-mail address with a well established service, since pretty much anything remotely common is already taken. Because I'm a huge music geek, I just started thinking about the names of albums that I really like, and trying to figure out if I could make any of them sound like a game development studio. The Shape of Punk to Come was the first one I hit on that I could find a way to "game-ify", so that's what I went with.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Comment moderation is now on

I was hoping that people would remain civil in the comments, but that's probably too much to ask on the Internet. Ah well . . .

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Time Flows - Your Response

This is part 2 of the previous post. I'd like the comments in that post to be about the game's themes. In the comments for this post, I'd like to hear anything else you have to say about the game. Was it interesting? Did it bore you? Is it dragging down the XBLCG channel? Do you want to see more 360 games trying to do things that are unusual and experimental?

Once again, a big thank you to anyone who took the time to play Time Flows, But Does Not Return, and an even bigger thank you to anyone who thought it was worth paying for.

Time Flows - Thematic Discussion

Time Flows, But Does Not Return is just about through peer review, so I thought I'd get a post up before it goes live in case I'm not around when it happens. I'd like to split this up into two parts, so I'll make two posts.

First, if you've taken the time to play my game, thanks! And if you thought it was good enough to warrant purchasing, thanks even more! If at all possible, I'd like comments in response to this post to be about the themes and ideas of the game. What have your experiences with these themes been? How does the game interact with those themes (if it does)? What did the game make you feel?

I'm really hoping that after people have played this game, they want to talk about it. That, more than sales figures, is what I would consider a success. So if you've played the game, and it's made you think about its themes in some way, please, share your thoughts here!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Exciting things are afoot!

Time Flows, But Does Not Return has now been submitted for formal peer review in Xbox Live Community Games. As long as no bugs/crashes are discovered and the game passes review, I'm guessing it should be available for purchase by the middle of next week. I'll update with a newer post for discussion of the game a little bit before it goes live.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Moving Along Nicely

The art game I mentioned in my last post is moving along nicely. I've got three out of the ten or so planned levels complete. I'm hoping to have the rest of the levels in the game and working by the end of next weekend. After that, I'll need to record and implement sound effects, add a menu, and write my creator's notes. Two weeks from today seems like a completely doable timeline to have the Xbox version complete. After that I think it shouldn't take more than another day to port it to Windows.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Changing Gears

I've decided to temporarily put Punk Rock Saved My Life on hold to work on a new idea I've come up with. I was starting to get a little frustrated with how long everything was taking, and the idea of the first game I've ever made taking nearly a year to finish and release seemed like not the best way to go about things. So "punk game" has been put on hold for a little bit while I work on something else. It's a little art game, which I'm hoping I can finish in two to three weeks. That way I'll have something concrete under my belt, and I'll feel a bit better about the massive time sink that Punk Rock . . . has become.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Road Block

I had originally hoped to have the entire first level up and running by the middle of April, graphics, puzzles, and dialogue included. Unfortunately, I've hit a major snag: term papers. Between grading for the course I'm TAing and writing my own term papers (and preparing presentations between 40 minutes and 2 hours in length) I don't have the time or the energy to be putting any work into the game.

Where do I currently stand? I have all of the (empty) room art done for the first level, with all of the rooms connected. Some of it looks pretty empty, some of it looks kind of cool. I've also got maybe about 1/4 of the object art done for the level (i.e. objects to populate my empty rooms with). I still think two weeks should be enough time to get all the object art created and into the game (collision detection and all). Hopefully I can spend the two weeks after that programming the actual gameplay for the level? That's probably too optimistic.

This is one of my empty rooms, as an example of what my game art currently looks like.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Script Writing, and Narrative in Games

I've now finished writing the script for my game up to the end of the first level. It may undergo a bit of editing, but since I tend to write essentially finished drafts of my work, I suspect that what I've currently got written is very close to what will find its way into the final version of the game.

The script so far is about ten pages. That includes the opening monologue, which I guess is pretty long: 1600 words. I've tried going back and cutting stuff out, but there just really isn't anything that could be eliminated without compromising my vision (side note: how could I word that sentence to not sound totally pretentious?) I don't think the story and setting I've created are really especially complex - they're certainly far simpler than anything in the long form writing I've done - and yet I can't find any way to make what I've got shorter than it is. I already feel like I'm keeping my dialogue and exposition as short as possible. It's actually pretty difficult to have two characters have a meaningful conversation in the space of, say, one page of single-spaced dialogue, but recognising the limitations of the medium I'm working with (not just video games, but Xbox Community Games), I am trying to be mindful of the length of what I'm writing.

But at the same time, I still want to say something. Video games are almost entirely marked by having pretty bad dialogue. Off the top of my head, I can only think of one game in which the characters sound anything like real, engaging people, and that's Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Games are improving to some degree - Mass Effect has better dialogue than any of the RPGs that I played in the last console generation - but they still have a long way to go. And while I may be a pretty lousy programmer and a horrible artist, I think my ability to write - and specifically my ability to write dialogue - is pretty strong, so that really is what I expect the strength of this game to be.

But the real reason I'm writing this post (my issues with length should be apparent, since I'm just getting to the point in my fourth paragraph), is that writing my script, and realising how difficult it is to cut out anything I'm writing, has made me realise just how shallow the writing in most games really is. All I'm trying to do here is set up the world the game takes place in, give a bit of back story to the main character, and set up the motivation for the rest of the game. I managed to do all of that in two pages, which I think is already on the short side: imagine a novel that kept its introduction that short, and you probably wouldn't have much confidence in it. So it's pretty sad that other games tend to have back stories that can be revealed in only a few seconds.

Now, I realise it's a bit different in, say, a Japanese RPG, where the setting can be revealed to you over the course of 30-40 hours, and the fact that I expect my game to be maybe an hour and a half plays into my need to give the player the story in a more compact manner. But in how many games does the player character even have motivation, other than something incredibly simplistic like "I love my wife/the princess and I need to save her!" or "the aliens are invading, we must stop them!"? The only game I can think of off the top of my head in which the player character really has any deep, compelling motivation is Silent Hill 2, and that character's motivation was one of the main things that made that game so interesting to play. Indigo Prophecy would be another game I've just thought of in which the player character has a compelling motivation, and that was definitely the main appeal of that game. But games don't really do that much, and it's certainly an area where there's lots of room for improvement. Books make me think, movies make me think, music makes me think, so why don't games? There's no technical or artistic reasons that they can't, it's only because game designers haven't bothered to make games that way. I'm hoping to push things in that direction.

The Beginning

I've now successfully completed my prototype of my first game, tentatively titled "Punk Rock Saved My Life". The prototype is essentially the first room in the game, and it took me about a month of coding in my spare time. It includes a large front desk with two computers on it, two robots who move and can shock the player, and a completely working rhythmic/music system. I don't know if anyone else will ever read this post, I'm writing it mostly as a time capsule, so that I can look back on where I started from when the game is finished. Here is a list of what is in the game right now and how I hope to improve it:

- in the prototype, all three attacks for the first level are immediately available to the player, so that I could test out the implementation, but when the game is running properly, the player will start with just one and unlock the other attacks as the level goes on
- I'd like to have the background music change at different points throughout the level, at least during boss fights; listening to the same repeating two or four bar chord progressions might get annoying through levels that could take 15-20 minutes to play through
- I'm hoping to improve on the robot AI; at the moment the robots just chase you in circles, and have no way of navigating around obstacles; I'm fine with the way the AI chases the player, at least for the basic security bots, but I'd like it to be able to navigate obstacles to give a more consistent challenge
- collision detection is requiring a lot of work to get running properly; right now I have to check collision for each individual object, and many of them require special routines in order to keep the player from getting hung up on them or, in the case of larger sprites, getting stuck inside them entirely
- there are no puzzles of any sort; right now clean guitar serves no purpose, except that it makes the sound dynamics more interesting; all distorted guitar riffs operate in exactly the same way; there's nothing that tests the player's ability to enter pieces of riffs in sequence, as most of the puzzles and some of the boss fights will do, and that's one of the major programming tasks that I've got left
- there's no dialogue; I need to finish writing it, then record it, then I need to figure out and/or make a method to ensure that animations line up with the dialogue properly; possibly get music lining up with dialogue too
- I've determined that I want to use some of the songs I've already written in the game, as a sort of soundtrack, but I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to do that: menu music, credit music, and cut scene music are all viable options at the moment. That would give me room for about five songs
- the code needs to be cleaned up so that I can access things more easily and put less strain on the system resources; currently the vast majority of the code is in one main file, I may try to split this up if it proves unwieldy, as it almost certainly will

EDIT: I'm targetting an end-of-year release for the game. I also want that written in here for posterity.