Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ch.. Ch.. Change

Some times one needs a little change in life. Some times one needs to do things oneself. Some times one needs Frogzilla!

Recently I got a bit bored of fixing bugs in the iPhone game I'd been working on for months - while I still intend to fix it, I thought: "What better time could there be to develop a game called 'Frogzilla'?" 

Allow me to hype this one a little bit:

If you feel a lingering dissatisfaction with life, a sense of purposelessness, lack of pride or self-esteem, Frogzilla will be for you.

Frogzilla whitens shirts better than the next leading brand. Frogzilla contains no calories and is recommended by GPs as part of a balanced and healthy diet. Frogzilla has no known side effects and will make you a more potent, a more powerful, a more irresistible man, woman or child.

Frogzilla charted as the highest grossing movie, video game and non-fiction book in all of the places you regard as cool and/or cutting edge. Frogzilla is endorsed by individuals you respect and Frogzilla is supported by 5 years of double blind scientific testing. Frogzilla has been nominated for 14 academy awards, the Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. 

Frogzilla is proven to add 5 years and 3 months to your life expectancy, reduce the early onset of wrinkles and make your children more attractive. Frogzilla will fill your friends and family with envy.
Thirteen major faiths, science and astrology all predicted the coming of Frogzilla. Frogzilla validates you and proves that you and only you truly matter. Frogzilla respects you for who you are. 

Frogzilla comes in Home and Pro versions. Frogzilla Home comes with a slimmer, more attractive, more attentive spouse who understands you and cares for your needs. Frogzilla Pro provides protection against all future financial crises, civil unrest and acts of terrorism at home or abroad. 

Frogzilla will debut for 59p on the app store July 21st.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Experimental Review: Music Catch

I typed this up the other day when I was thinking about applying for the position of Joystiq's UK Editor. Admittedly being an editor might imply some skills I probably don't have, but I thought it was worth a shot. 

I never applied. I decided that I probably didn't want to be a games journalist, for lots of good reasons. Anyway... here's the game Music Catch they wanted reviewed in under 300 words. Below's my review! Why waste it?


It’s always wonderful to come across a game where the rules can be explained in about 3 sentences which take up no more than 20 seconds of your time.
The game is pretty simple: drag your cursor around the screen collecting shapes which spew out in plumes like seed from coral reefs in time to the music. The louder the track, the more violently the shapes erupt forth. Yellow shapes grant you point multipliers and make your cursor bigger while the red shapes (typecast as usual) steal the boons given to you by the yellows. 

Unlike Canabalt, one of the eternally great 30 second thrills, Music Catch’s attractiveness is hampered by its dependence on Music. That catch is well and truly in the title.

This is a game of 3 minute thrills, and the quality of which is really going to depend upon your familiarity with the track. When do I need to hoover up the points? When do I need to shrink back from the fanfare? It’s all too much like a musical Pac Man, as you greedily gobble the spirits of the tune, but the power pill has been put into the hands of the conductor!

While this powerlessness can be a bit frustrating, it works well with the risk reward process. High fat yellow multipliers engorge your cursor, increasing the number of points you can collect, but making you more vulnerable to the low-fat joy stealing red shapes.

As your cursor grows, and its multiplier swells, your instinct is to protect what you’ve got. Don’t let those nasty reds distribute your multiplier to the masses! Cling to what you’ve got! Of course that is exactly the point at which, like some bloated bumble bee you must plunge into danger, collecting the nectar of the notes.

Throughout the online version, I found myself wishing for Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Enough of this piano warbling! When will the guitars kick in? But then this is, or perhaps should be, a 30second thrill.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Dirty Words

If one more game called [Super First Strike]: Armageddon [Reloaded HD] gets released I am going to campaign for some EU regulation in gaming nomenclature!

Does your game genuinely seek to recreate an officially sanctioned image of the Armageddon as outlined in a religious text, or is it just a series of loud explosions with men shooting one another? No armageddon in the game, no armageddon in the name. See it's simple, no?

Once we get over that Mount Hyperbole, we still have to cross that great expanse of water filled with the tired names of every game that ever featured the words "Super", "Hyper" or "Ultra", let alone, and God forbid, "Pro".

Who is going to buy Super Apocalypse: The Reckoning? Even were that an apt name for your game it's just so tired. I actually fell asleep while typing it. Pro Super Apocalypse is an almost fatally boring title! You could kill men with it! And that's before we've decided to slap Cataclysm, Evolution or Reloaded on the end of it!

Nonetheless nothing is quite as bad as prefixing your title with the word "Battle". Battle: it reeks of mediocrity. "Battle" is like the plain brother of the salacious "Babes". I've never yet encountered a game which tolerates the company of either in its title that has persuaded me to part with cold hard cash for it. As if Battle Robots were somehow slightly less boring than just Robots. Bring on the Battle Apocalypse! Or better yet Cataclysm Babes!

I've been scanning over the 2010 list of video games and just noticed a few trends. Perhaps based on which publishers might not want to use these tired words in the title of the next AAA game. Unless they want their title to sound like it belongs in the bargain bucket on the day of its release.

To protect your sensitive feminine senses I've added my own suggestions to spruce them up, so that like me, you don't just become weary and depressed before you reach the bottom.

Battle for the [Mystical Mana Fern]
Battle of the [Potted Plants]
Battle [Nappies]
Lord of [The Battle Nappies]
Last of [The Air Guitars]
Lost [Trout]
Hope of [Historians]
Guardian of [Pure Mathematics]
[One One One] Zero
[All Star Enema] Reloaded
[Dodo] Evolution
[Player A] vs. [Player B]
Pro [Extreme Laser Eye Surgeon]

If I may, a small word in your ear. None of the above are actually terrible, nor is it necessarily silly to use the word Armageddon in the naming of your game, but what's the point in doing it when everyone else is doing it? Why wear these words and phrases out until like tired voters they barely register?

Friday, 22 April 2011

Them Vs. Us

Unrelated Image
Last time I wrote a bit about how getting players to wave their phone around like ninnies wasn't surest approach to create great games.

This week I thought I'd try to write a bit about the creative process of coming up with a game idea. Or rather, to be precise, as I don't have a process, to discuss what happened (as opposed to rolling my face around on my keyboard and posting the results).

However, before we go any further, lets back up. You may be reading this expectantly, as is human nature, assuming that this bread crumb of game design meanderings will lead to pot of gold. It wont. It'll be a pot of tin at best.

So despite my promises (which, politician that I am, lie broken at my feet) we reenter my game design process at a juncture where I still hadn't given up on making players wave their phones around like ninnies.

My Kindgom for a Game Design Document

One of the struggles with this project has been working out exactly what I want to make. Another struggle has been to figure out how much I want to compromise or deviate from my original vision.

The first thing I wrote originally was a simple test which allowed me to toss a square around on my phone. I spent a while trying to get the feel right, measure the forces involved, and come up with a system that tossed the square when a player deliberately jolted the phone, and not when the feeble shaking of their hands triggered it.

With that out of the way and proven (technically), I had to sit down and assess the tech, my ability and my chosen control mechanic, and work out what I was going to make.

Sticking to what you know

One thing I discovered was that when working from base principles like that, my mind quickly harks back to what I've already created. I'm like an Igor, constantly rooting round in the graveyard of my past projects looking for useful components I can add to the current corpse to make it live.

Some of my first ideas resembled the first game I ever made, which itself resembled Arkanoid crossed with Space Invaders, with some basic physics and a wrecking ball. While admittedly promising on paper, I never really managed to make the most out of that one.

A match-three-of-a-kind game
What followed next looked a lot like my first commercial game for Jagex: Geoblox.

Last post I mentioned a concept for a platformer, steered by motion controls (tossing the phone), in which the character would witness or visit historic or important moments in world history running as a video collage in the background.

My main concern with that project - other than that people might have been upset at having the Crucifixion or the Civil Rights movement appear as the background for a mobile game - was that the motion controls lacked sufficient precision. I felt that a platformer which might require precise controls would just be to frustrating. Plus I might be stoned.

Hating what you know

Button Moon
The problem with missing a jump in a platformer is that it either results in death, or worse it requires players to retread old ground repeatedly. I wanted to have a game where being slightly off wasn't going to be the source of frustration - instead it need be only a nuisance the player would have to take into account as they progress. Geoblox was all about shapes hitting a disk. They never miss the disk, instead they might land in the wrong place, however you can make amends later down the line. I started to think about throwing shapes at a disc instead.

Something that is never far from mind is Button Moon, which really has one of those "does what it says on the tin" titles. I love the setting and, though it's not something I intend to pilfer for this project, it caused me to quickly fall for the notion of making the disk a planet. A planet with gravity and other things that planets have.

When Tetris block attack...
Thanks to Button Moon's impact on my childhood the Geoblox clone quickly morphed into a concept about planetary space colonisation!

I already had prototypes where the player could chuck a square around, but now the square took on a new significance. It became an apartment block. Just toss 'em down and build 'em up was the new mantra.

Each block would contain a social group: jocks, goths, geeks, well adjusted people etc. The geeks would love to be next to other geeks and not like living near jocks. The location, both in terms of neighbouring blocks and scenery, would determine the points you got for the block.

homogenous society 
It's an idea I still love. As I look out my window, it seems clear to me that society is gradually becoming more homogenised. As we're able to commute to work, to our hobbies, to our friends, we don't have any need to socialise with people who are not like us. Those unlike us hold conflicting views, have or don't have faith, they value different attributes, eat differently, talk funny and probably smell.

Why make the effort to talk to your neighbour when they probably don't agree with you and it'll be such effort to make a connection. Plus they're probably an alien anyway! You don't need to talk to your neighbour, instead you go to work full of people who were hired for having similar background and attributes to yourself. When you go home you can chat on your computer to people with whom you share a common background or you can go out to your interest group where people all like the same things you do.

Maybe you disagree violently with me one this, but lets face it: you're wrong just like everyone else not like me. It says so on the wiki page about you.

I still have a desire in me to make a game about social groups and how I think they interact. However it's an idea which I've had to wave goodbye to. More on that another time.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Tossing all over the free world

I am making an iPhone game. Here follows some of my thoughts on the process so far. I can't vouch for complete historical accuracy, but I hope at least it will entertain.

I've spent the past four years working at Jagex on the FunOrb website - in fact you may know me from such hits as Geoblox, Tomb Racer and Miner Disturbance. No?

Of the two, I am the dodo
As the industry has changed over the past five years, so did my job.  And inflexible fossil that I am, I decided that like the dodo it was time for me strike out on my own.

The Start

It's hard not to start a project without visions of megalomania; herald angels announcing your new project to the world, women trembling, men fainting - upheavals in the very cosmos brought about by your act of creation. You speak, and behold there is Game!

However reality is not like that. To paraphrase an old testament passage: Our god is in heaven and he does what he pleases. He is not manifest on earth making iPhone games.

Instead, even the act of coming up with a game idea is actually hard work, and even before that choosing which platform to dominate is tough. As I mentioned in my post on choosing wine, it's good to start any adventure by arbitrarily discarding vast quantities of options simply because you don't like the French.

Why? Do you believe in free choice?! This is one of the few moments you may genuinely and arbitrarily rule as you please. Yours are the consequences, yours is the power!

So with some good and arbitrary reasons I decided I was going to make an iPhone game. I knew I could target three platforms with relative ease and without having to invest heavily in hardware: iOS (so iPhone 4 primarily as I own one and I want to make it pay for itself), the Web (which I always feel is bit like trying to set up stall on a dump - hookers to the left, felines to the right, here I am; buy my game) and Mac OS.

Well, the money said the money's on iOS, so like every other halfwit with a text editor and a vague grasp of Von Neumann machines I decided to head for the place where there were very reliable reports that the streets were paved with gold (and in tribute to Marx the toilets too).

The Goal

A few people have presumed I have some sort of fixation with masturbation when I tell them that the initial game concepts revolved around tossing the phone. The rest assumed I was some sort of Android subversive; writing a game which would cause iPhone owners to break their phones while playing - like so many Wiimotes not so long ago.

Not what I was aiming for
I had a dream. A dream of doing what no one else had really pulled off. A dream of using the accelerometer to control the game by tossing (or perhaps more politely: jolting) the phone.

I was going to create a new genre! A new experience! I was going to revolutionise not only the way we play games, but also the very way we experience reality - like some sort of Will Wright crossed with Immanuel Kant!

However, as so often is the issue when I design iPhone games, the basics of the human body undid me!

Hold your hand in front of you as if you were holding an iPhone 4. Don't use two hands to hold your imaginary object of desire; it's not that heavy.

Now toss it forward. Don't let go, it's expensive and you can never trust the insurance to pay up these days.

If you do this repeatedly and observe your forearm, you'll notice that you're probably not moving your hand in a straight line, but an arc. Unless somehow you're using your shoulder to achieve the motion, in which case you're weird, but I may have a great game idea for you.

Your toss isn't that controlled. It instinctively moves in an arc defined by the length of your forearm, and there's not a lot of comfortable directional control there - try for instance throwing your imaginary phone across your body. Performing that action for just a short period of time probably gives you the sense that it's not the best control mechanism for a game.

I do believe that toss controls are the way forward - and perhaps there was just something wrong with my code (or arm), but after months of playing around with them a friend remarked that he'd just rather use his fingers.

More on that next time. Till then I leave you with that which fell by the way side. A game where you controlled the motion of your heroic blue block as he tried to rescue the weak and feminine red block by tossing the phone. Actually when I visualised that idea, I decided I wanted a close up of Martin Luther King Jr. looping in the background. The game was going to visit or call to mind historical moments in time from the Crucifixion to the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps it's best it never got much further than that drawing.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

On the western front

I've been relatively tardy with updates recently. In all honesty I've been busy! What's your excuse?

In fact I've just finished writing my first Python program and I've also been working on a game using the Corona Game Engine. The latter has required me to learn Lua and patience. I hope to blog about Corona and game development in the future, so look out for that... or heckle me. Until then, I recommend it, but also caution care.

For the time being, I just want to leave you with a view of The Sartorialist, perhaps the only other life I'd love to live:

His is a world I pine for. Everything from the city he inhabits to the talent he possesses I desire. And what's more, what a talent! A talent which does not elevate him as much as it does them. You rarely see his face, yet so often you marvel at how interestingly, wonderfully or bizarrely his subjects are dressed. He is their reward for their efforts. What's more, like wildlife photographers whose pictures stun you with the beauty of the world, his pictures make people and their places look great. I'm reminded of the Pixar improv philosophy: "Make others look good".

In my daily toil, I tend to focus on making myself look good. This is not necessarily at the expense of others, and not necessarily consciously; its a habit - like a monk I bow to my routine. However, though it perhaps isn't something I am aware of, I do measure myself against one and all. If on the whole I feel I look better than those around me; I feel good, if on the whole I feel others look better than I do; I feel bad. And looking better isn't entirely a factor of fashion, but takes into account physical strength, mental dexterity, quality of character and anything else by which you care to judge yourself against your fellow man.

The Pixar improvisation philosophy, as discussed by Randy Nelson - and the very function of The Sartorialist - is one where the onus is on breaking with that unconscious desire to elevate oneself and instead to elevate others.

Think briefly: if your picture appears on The Sartorialist are you upset? No! You know you're going to look great. Unlike so many websites which might be out to take you for a fool, he's taken your picture because he thinks you stand out as something visually interesting, a delight to be shared with the world.

In Pixar improvisations, Randy tells us, you open your mouth and you know that others are going to try to make you look great. They are there to support you and you are there to support them.

Some times there is so much emphasis on self-achievement and self-discovery it seems that the approaches of both are alien; a world in which they dominate: beyond our comprehension. Wouldn't it be great if when you leave your house the next time, you knew those around you were out to support you and help you do what you do best?

I guess do unto others....