Game Audit Pitfalls (1): Right Directions

Over on ihobo today, the first of a two part series looking at the process of auditing game designs. This is really just an opportunity for me to mouth off about some of the nonsense I’ve endured in this regard, but I hope that I can offer some interesting perspectives for anyone considering auditing their project’s game design or story externally.

Part one, Right Decisions, looks at how to get off to a good start when auditing a game design or narrative, and is up on ihobo.com now.


The Role of Failure in Gameplay

Over on ihobo today, a piece exploring the Role of Failure in Gameplay that serves as a summary of a handful of themes I’ve been discussing over previous years. Here’s an extract:

How important is failure to the enjoyment of digital games? I contend it is the central issue in designing for an audience, since players who want to strive against impossible odds and eventually triumph must fail in order to enjoy their success, while the vast majority of mass market players will tolerate only a modest degree of failure as part of their play experience.

Check out the complete piece over on ihobo.com.


Best Learning Game Award

Greenmyplace_certificate I'm pleased to announce that Green My Place, a serious game project for which International Hobo has been serving as design consultants, was awarded first prize in the category of "Best Non-Professional Functional Game" in the 1st European Best Learning Game Competition. Congratulations to Ben and the rest of the team at CKIR for their success in the contest – it's been a great pleasure working with you on this project, and the recognition is well-deserved.

Cross-posted from ihobo.com, please leave comments there.


Outlands (Tabletop RPG)

Pilot I'm pleased to announce that after a decade of being out of print, my second tabletop RPG, Outlands (last published in 1995), is now available once again on the Discordia Incorporated website. You can find the PDF version of Outlands here. None of the illustrations are included, alas, but all of the text and tables are reproduced faithfully.

The purpose of Outlands was to take a variety of different classic science fiction sources - including Aliens, Angel Station, Blade Runner, Dune, Outland, Wetware and Blake's 7 - and merge them into a melange that would present a coherent science fiction setting, in the way that Dungeons & Dragons did with fantasy sources. Oddly, while D&D is usually not criticised for incorporated Orcs, Outlands was criticised at release for including the Fremen (from Dune) as a playable race, which makes me wonder if people are more open to amalgam backgrounds in fantasy than in science fiction.

Outlands is fairly mechanics heavy, and has a detailed character generation system that some players love (and play as a game in itself!) while others find it too complex and long. It's also the only game I know of which offers the possibility to play an animal species that has been artificially raised to sentience (with the possible exception of Paul Kidd's Albedo, but then, you can't play a human in Albedo!)

Some of the mechanics - such as those describing the singularity shots used to pilot from star system to star system - are effectively mini-games embedded within the larger framework. Perhaps the most interesting part of the background is the capacity for an individual to take a copy of their personality engrams via a wetdrive and upload them onto drones, or leave a copy at a Neozen temple so that they can still be spoken to after death. My favourite mechanics are those for generating stellar systems (p108-114), which I created while studying Astrophysics at Manchester University, and might be the most realistic rules of their kind.

My thanks to Peter Crowther for faithfully keeping the backup from which the game was rescued, Chris Keeling for an incredible repair job on the manuscript, and Neil for putting it up on the site.


Play with Fire: Post Mortem

Fireball_bar2_1 Back in 2005, I began to have ideas about how to make very stripped down, cheap to develop games that would be interesting enough that they might make some money in the budget market. Of the many “verb game” ideas we originally had, one of them stood out as the easiest to get under way, and that was Fireball, the game that would become Play with Fire. (We weren't able to use the name Fireball owing to an IP conflict with a curmudgeonly fellow on the Isle of Man).

This post examines the many things that went wrong with this project – and also the many things that worked out nicely.
 

Problems

1. No Money

By far the biggest problem that the project faced was the lack of budget. Now even from the outset, the plan was to develop cheaply – but I had originally been thinking $50,000 for a budget PS2 title (coming in at the end of the PS2’s life cycle, when there is the maximum possible installed base and a great opportunity for budget titles). In fact, we did have a deal with a European publisher to fund us for the full $50,000 – but for reasons that we will touch upon shortly, we never saw this money, the PS2 version had to be scrapped, and at that point the project was somewhat doomed.

The version we made had a budget of about $5,000. On the whole, it is miraculous that we delivered anything!

 

2. No Passage to India

We set up a new developer in India – Fantasy Labs – to work on this project, and began working with Sony in London to find a way to get a PS2 devkit to India. This turned out to be monumentally difficult! Sony wasn’t the problem – they were actually tremendously helpful and supportive – Indian customs were the point of tension.

Perhaps if we’d been a larger company we could have greased the wheels better, and found a way, but without getting the devkit into India we couldn’t get the budget for the PS2 version, and eventually the battle had gone on for so long that the publisher in question had to break the news that it was too late to develop a budget PS2 title.

We were disconsolate, but at least we could ship the PC version.

 

3. No Tweaking Phase

Yet there was a major problem with the PC version: we didn’t have the money to finish it. The most important stage in any game is tweaking and blind testing, when you sit it down with players and observe their reactions to the game. This phase allows you to eliminate any confusion on the part of the player, smooth any rough edges, and generally streamline the play of the game.

AAA games get months and months of tweaking time – in Nintendo and a few other places, games have the luxury of not being released until they are just right.

We had a zero-length tweaking phase. I conducted three blind trials with the game – but without the budget to pay for the programming work to fix the problems found, it was pointless continuing. Despite knowing we had problems that needed to fix, there was nothing that could be done about it.

(One particular problem haunts me: the Puzzle Path, which many players will struggle to enjoy, is directly in front when the game begins. Most players end up trying this Path first, and get very confused. I really wanted to make the Fun Path be directly in front – this Path is easiest to understand, and comes with essentially no risk of failure. But without the money, we couldn’t get even this simple fix made).

 

4. Spiraling Code Base

Additionally, we had a problem with the code base. Fantasy Labs had another development contract at the time, which was helping meet the bills. But this project required a much more complicated code base than Play with Fire, and sadly a decision was made somewhere to keep both projects on the same code base. This meant that the project was constantly being remade as the code base for the other project was refined, giving no end of development problems.

 

5. Too High Spec

By far the most devastating of the problems resulting from the spiraling code base was that the final game turned out to be too high spec for players in our target audience to be able to play the game! Ironically, the development tool set ran on any more machines than the final game – some people who worked on the project have never seen the finished game running!

Depressingly, this has had the most negative effect on the project. While we have had many downloads from Manifesto Games, the vast majority were unable to get the game to run.

 

Successes

1. Verb Game Method

The basic idea of the “verb game” methodology was to identify some unusual verbs with playful aspects, and develop these in isolation into a game. I believe this worked brilliantly, and I’d do it again if we had the budget.

The original plan – to be developing games in less than six months, and to have a portfolio so we were not dependent upon the success or failure of any one title – was completely sound. But of course, without the money we couldn’t follow through.

Nonetheless, I believe the strategy was sound, it was simply the implementation which let us down.

 

2. Arson IS fun!

Burning things to the ground in Play with Fire is tremendously entertaining once the player knows what they are doing. I believe there’s potential for a future game to build on this mechanic, although I very much doubt it will be done by us.

The play of the game is really quite original. Although some of the platforming elements work similarly to conventional platform games, this is the only game I know of that has serious consequences when you jump around indiscriminately, since the platforms you touch can burn to the ground shortly afterwards, along with any others that are connected to them!

Just watching the flames spread through a big object like the Trojan Horse in ‘Helen’, or the Houses of Parliament, or a WWI biplane is inherently satisfying.

 

3. Multiple Paths

The multiple paths to allow for players to play in different ways was a sound idea – but alas no information is provided to the player to judge how to approach this. This was a product of the lack of tweaking phase, already mentioned. Despite this, the basic idea of structuring the game to be played in different ways while using the same engine emerges as a sound concept.

Anyone can play the Fun Path and get some enjoyment from it, while Fiero-seeking players have the Challenge Path, and players who prefer cerebral riddles have the Puzzle Path. Despite the problems, I’m still pleased with how this worked out, although doing it again I might be tempted to offer a more explicit mode select screen.

 

4. Open Pool

The reason the multiple paths approach worked to some extent was the tremendous talent of the Open Pool – a group of non-professional level designers who worked on the project in return for a share of revenue (at least on paper – in practice, without the PS2 version we were never going to see good numbers).

The open pool method worked something like this:

  1. Firstly, we invited people to get involved, specifically looking for people who had not worked professionally in videogames before. About two dozen people registered, signed the license agreement, and were given the tools.
  2.  Of these people, only about a quarter actually produced anything like a working level. But those that did get to grips with the tools immediately started producing interesting material.
  3.  Just three or four of the members of the Open Pool contributed 60% of the material in the final game (I made 40% of the levels myself), but the quality of the best levels submitted were far better than anything I could have made.
  4.  We gave letters to the biggest contributors promising them a share of revenue proportional to their contribution to the project.

This basic method is a brilliantly simple (and cheap!) way of developing game materials, and one that I believe has further potential. Patrick Dugan (who was one of the most productive members of the pool) dubbed it “the Bateman Method”, which as a Brit I find slightly embarrassing, but it underlines the confidence we have that this approach could be used successfully.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Maurizio Pozzobon, Patrick Dugan, Ian Tyrrell, Marc Majcher, Wil Evans and Toby Everett once again for their contributions to the project – you were the best part of the development process, by far, and I loved seeing your ideas come out in the game! I also want to thank ihobo troubleshooter Neil Bundy for getting involved in the level design late in the game, and also my wife, Adria, for making a simple level!

 

5. Recognised as Art!

And finally, it is a cause for minor celebration that Play with Fire was featured at IndieCade in Sheffield. We may have lost money making the project, but it’s nice that what we made has been recognised as being artistically interesting.

 

Conclusion

Although there were many problems that dragged this project down to the point of commercial obscurity, I don’t regret pursuing it for a second. This was the first time I have controlled every aspect of game development, from production and design through to marketing and legal, on a single project – and the first time I’ve used my own money to fund a project. I learned a lot from having this opportunity, and more than that, I am actually really pleased with Play with Fire despite its problems.

There is a great game, buried under the hardware problems and the confusing initial experience, one that I hope will be fondly remembered by the small audience the game has received. If you have a machine that has the necessary spec, and you haven’t tried Play with Fire, why not give it a go? The demo is available from the Manifesto Games site, and is free. (It’s $20 to unlock the full game). You really need to see the game running to appreciate it – screenshots don’t capture the carnage of watching the flames spread! (Just remember to try the Fun Path first - it's on the left when you start!)

I’m glad to say that we set out to make a game about burning things to the ground, and with the help of the Open Pool, the good people at Manifesto Games and a bit of luck, we succeeded.

My infinite thanks to everyone who helped on the project!


Play with Fire at IndieCade

Gamecityindiecade1_1 It's a great honour to report that Play with Fire was chosen as part of the IndieCade showcase, who recently put on a display of unusual and innovative independent games at GameCity in Sheffield, UK, along with many other fine works including our friends at Tale of Tales with The Endless Forest, who were picked as an example of the event by the BBC.

I was unable to make the event, but shared in some of the excitement the organisers had in trying to make the software chosen for the event run on the machines that had been rented. In the end, it all worked out for the best.

It's great that there are festivals like this showcasing and celebrating interesting projects from outside the high profile world of corporate -made videogames. Long may they continue.


Aquadelic GT

Aq_reverse_angle This is a new boat racing game, made in the style of a kart-racer - simple to learn, but challenging to beat. The game is Aquadelic GT, by the Czech Republic studio Hammerware under the Arcade Moon imprint of our Slovakian friends 3D People and published in Europe by JoWood. My team at International Hobo has been helping them out on the design and script, and the finished game should be on sale shortly.

The game has been quietly coming together in the background, and as if from nowhere we were suddenly delivered a master candidate (the last versions of a game before it goes into production) which we've been frantically playing for the last few days. There are a few rough edges, but I've been having a blast with this game - the most fun I've had with boats in a videogame since Wave Race 64 - and that was fifteen years ago. It's hard to believe this was put together on such a modest budget.

Aq_fight There are a few interesting things to note in the design. Following the latest trend in "embedded menus", we did away with a menu structure for tying together the main play, and instead placed the player directly into the world. So you begin with your little rusty bucket in Russia, and can run people around as a taxi for cash, or get started on your racing career by going to one of the race sites. By making "free ride" the main game mode (racing being accessed from this), we allow new players ample opportunity to practice controlling the boats, and to learn the layout of the areas as well. It's a small thing, but it was worth the extra effort.

The racing gets quite frantic! The weapons are a good mix, and satisfying to use. The physics in the game means that hitting someone with an exploding frog or a shark torpedo can send them rocketing off to nowhere, but the player can always tap "R" to respot themselves if they end up somewhere inconvenient. It starts easy, but gets much harder as the game goes on. Finishing was a challenge, but it must be said that the final boat outclasses everything, so players who struggle can keep saving their money until they can afford the ultimate vessel.

Aq_at_home_in_greece Since the player is free to move around the world between races, there are also other activities beyond racing, including running taxi rides, going on a yacht cruise for coins, and dropping humanitarian aid from a seaplane. I had great fun with these too! Although there is little money to be made from the yacht, the environments are so beautiful that I found it was satisfying just to pilot my way around the islands. Quite relaxing. The player can also buy houses in some of the locations - there is a gorgeous villa in one of the Greek ports which I fell in love with (pictured left, in the right of the background), although my million dollar mansion in the Caribbean is also quite appealing.

The official Aquadelic GT site is here, and my web album for the game is here. It will be available in Europe very shortly, for PC only.