First of all, Happy New Year everyone! I hope you are feeling optimistic about the new year and feel relaxed after the holiday season.
In this blog post I’m going to talk about a new game prototype I have been working on. You can download an apk of my progress here: prototype.apk(18mb)
I’ve been working on this puzzle game idea sporadically over the past few months and I’m pleased to share some progress with you. I’ve programmed a few simple rules and a level editor, and have been doing most of my level design on paper. Over the last few days of the year, I finally programmed a few levels into the game.
I’d love to hear what you think. Particularly, I’d like to hear feedback on:
Were the rules clear? Did you get stuck on any of the early levels?
Which levels did you find particularly puzzling?
Did you find any levels boring?
Below is a list of known issues / work in progress
UI is very placeholder: coins and hint buttons do nothing
‘Zen’ levels not ready – button disabled
You will pass with a blue (pass) or purple (perfect) star. Occasionally, the game awards an incorrect star.
The archives of this blog show how long I have been working on Crocodile Cat. It was my “teaching myself unity” project for a while, it was a commuter project when I was a junior, and now I am a lead designer at a larger studio – I don’t have so much time for personal projects. After a few days of -actual- relaxation over the holidays, I decided to finish it.
The biggest unfinished task was the audio. I enjoy making sfx and music (and I’m quite good at it). Unfortunately, I left all of my audio gear behind in the UK when I moved to Canada. Still, I have done my best using freesound and a few synths I still have a licence for.
The game design challenges also needed attention. Digging into old code is hard. When that code was written by a beginner, harder still. Through some user testing, I believe my tutorial is better than it has been but the game does not do a perfect job of teaching itself. Chance affects the difficulty curve more than I would like. But the game is stable, playable, fun and it is complete.
It now sits on the app store and a weight is off my mind. I can move on. Perhaps foolishly, I’m excited to start on another Unity game. I should wait until I’m back at work to decide if I can handle this though, or I will be sitting on yet another unfinished project. Rebecca Deakin created the wonderful art for this game and I took too long to share it with the world!
I decided to join my artist friends who take part in the yearly tradition of Inktober. They complete a drawing using ink once per day throughout the month of October.
I have very limited skills as a visual artist, so I decided to take part using my hobby as a songwriter, writing a song (in ink) each day, recording it and sharing to Instagram. I wrote 31 songs in the month of October. It was challenging and rewarding in equal measure.
I usually only finish a couple of songs per year. My songbook contains plenty of half-finished sketches and abandoned ideas. When I complete a song I usually do nothing with it. I honestly didn’t think I had enough material or motivation in me to complete this project and that it would end in failure. I was wrong.
I was posting my songs on to Instagram where there is a 1 minute maximum length for video. This gave a brilliant restriction as it removed the pressure to always have a classic song structure and gave me an achievable target that I can fit in around my day job. I admire Stephen Merritt’s short ukulele songs and think that this instrument and a short songwriting style work well together.
I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find enough writing topics. Inktober provides a prompts list that would help me out occasionally, but I often struggle when writing to an abstract metaphor. I prefer songs that get straight to the point. Messiahsez says “the blues is about your life”, and for the month of October, this became my biggest source of inspiration. I wrote a song about social change that came from ordering a burrito, a few songs about going to gigs, a couple of songs about how I didn’t have time to write a song. When I sit down and apply myself – I actually have a lot of things to say.
I also learned that a small daily task is an excellent driver for productivity. <1 minute of music is really achievable and whilst there were a few days when I felt forced into doing it, I still did it every day. I do have the time in the evenings to make art, and realizing this is really important as I drift further from my Digital Minimalism commitments and back into old habits.
I find prototyping videogames to be a great creative exercise but get drained very quickly when trying to ‘build’ them. The same is true of songs. I was able to play with ideas without the requirement for them to be well built, and that was invigorating. I am now keeping a hold on the creative side of writing as I continue to write beyond this project.
November was a relatively light month for my creative projects. This was partly because of increasing pressure at work and partly because October’s project was pretty intense and I needed a little break. I am writing up a few songs into a longer format and will be posting them on a new Soundcloud page. The objective is to make demo recordings, but as always I am feeling too attached to quality to share. Finding that room for creativity and play in this task will be essential. I would like to find a new regular challenge to help motive me to complete this, and ideas are welcomed.
Until I move them to a more sensible place, the curious can find my songs on my Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/mikey_pb/
I ended my previous post noting that I have more to say about Digital Minimalism. This is a follow up post with some more personal thoughts about the approach and a general catch-up.
Firstly, I’ve not done a brilliant job of acting in the spirit of a digital minimalist. I started on a good path but have noticed bad habits creeping back in. After unfollowing >1000 accounts, Twitter quickly worked out how keep me hooked, showing me distractions from my friends’ ‘likes’, or just random ‘popular tweets’. I’m being extra mindful of my rules and am spending another 30 days being incredibly strict with them. If my feed keeps being filled with trash, I may have to abandon the service altogether.
Secondly, I’ve recently hit a bump in my relationship with technology in the form of mobile gaming. In a surprising development, I’ve started to replace social media downtime with Clash Royale. (And other games but seriously CR is great).
This presents a potential problem for me. I create mobile games in my day job, so cutting mobile gaming out of my life altogether is not a path I want to go down. It is important for me to examine how games evolve over the course of many months. Many games now have years worth of content.
This is a symptom of a wider problem with mobile games – one I try to actively avoid in my own work. Many mobile games addict and manipulate in the same way as social media apps. As a game designer, I do not consider many of them to be nourishing, or even to be a force for good. There are many that I don’t consider to be games, merely funnels.
I want to write more about these problems, but I feel that many other commentators are much more qualified than I am and are already making brilliant points. After release, I will describe how my current project is designed to be engaging, rather than addicting.
For now, I am using this next 30 days to hiatus from all mobile games – even my favourite picross puzzles! Our development team selects one mobile game per week to play together and analyse, which is my only exception. Replacing this time with writing blog posts or focusing more on music, I hope to find new ideas from other disciplines.
Until then, I encourage you, too, to look at how you’re using technology and how technology is using your time. I’m drinking a lot more espresso and writing a lot more songs. Procrastinating just as much but with more creative outcomes.
I’ve just taken a month long hiatus from social media and online news. I was inspired by hearing Cal Newport talking about his new book on a podcast. He was promoting his idea of Digital Minimalism. His core message is that you should evaluate digital services to understand the benefit they offer you, and use them only in a way that delivers that benefit.
Too often, it seems that social network platforms are using you: forcing you into feedback loops based on social approval indicators designed to addict you to their service. This allows them to show you more ads and make more money off you. By using these addiction-inducing design principles, they steal your attention and your time from things that matter.
I never thought I was ‘that bad’ when it comes to social media use, but I think this is only because I don’t post updates very often. However, the default address I type into my search bar after opening my browser is twitter dot com. Once I’m there, I might spend up to 20mins reading the opinions of idiots before remembering why I opened my computer. I was obviously a little addicted.
Taking Cal’s advice, I took 30 days off to gain a sense of perspective. I am about to figure out some rules for how to introduce these services back into my life. Here are some things I genuinely missed from the three main websites I have been boycotting.
Most of my friends from Brighton use twitter to talk nonsense and to humblebrag about their achievements. I have so many successful, intelligent and talented friends on the service. I found myself wondering about their updates and what’s happening in their lives. My friends of all genders are also the most sexually attractive friends and far better than all of your friends combined. I missed the puns, bravado, and the chat.
I also missed a few breaking news stories and dramas around the games industry. The games industry does like to hang out on twitter. I know I missed some of the chaos around Anthem, for example, because I heard people talking about it on a podcast. On this side of it though, I am pleased I found out about the drama after the fact. It’s entertaining but I now realise that following a drama like that takes so much energy! I don’t need it in my life.
I’m going to decide on a rule for my future twitter use: if I haven’t been in the same room as a person, I’m unfollowing them. I’m going to continue to use it only on desktop browsers and add a new rule: only 3 days a week.
I honestly haven’t missed a single thing from facebook dot com. It’s a garbage pile. The only reason I haven’t deleted my account is because I use the messenger service quite often and their events feature is widely used. I’ve installed the ‘facebook local’ app on my phone to focus on events. I’ll continue to use this service to find out what’s happening, but it’s unlikely I’ll post to facebook again.
Shortly after starting on this voyage into Digital Minimalism, I realised that my approach must include online news. Brexit is a train wreck that I find it hard to look away from. This was actually the hardest service to keep away from as the month wore on, partly because I knew that some key votes were coming up and I really enjoy following politics. Once on the site, the suggested/related news stories become highly enticing time sinks. As with game industry drama though, I realised that checking the website often is not nourishing to me – quite the reverse!
It’s tricky to decide on a rule for this because I don’t want to force myself into a routine but I also don’t want to cut myself off from current affairs. I now get most of my Brexit news from the brilliant Brexitcast. I will only access this website from a desktop computer and will read a maximum of 3 articles in any one session.
Bonus service: I forgot I had an insta account. I opened an account before moving to Canada and it quickly became my favourite network. Less nonsense comments, more images and stories from my friends. Strangely though, I haven’t missed it. Perhaps there’s not enough drama. The endless photo feed was highly addicting and time consuming, however.
I enjoy sharing photos on the service, so I will only open the app when I have something to share. I will never spend more than 3mins scrolling my feed after posting.
I’ve more to say on the topic of Digital Minimalism, but this has been a long post already. It’s been a good exercise for working out my rules and processing the next steps for my relationship with technology. I hope this has encouraged you to find out more about Digital Minimalism from Cal and to consider how technology fits into your own life.
After moving to Vancouver, I had perfectly natural concerns about removing myself from all my friends and colleagues in the UK and having to make new ties and bonds with people in a strange new city. I needn’t have worried – everyone on the game dev scene has been excellent and friendly and great company.
Looking for work has its perks. Sometimes, a friend will call you up in the middle of the day just to see if you want to go to the pub and make a game. A few cool things happened last Friday (hopefully more info on that later) and this was one of them.
A game of clicks and chance
When I joined him, he was working on a system that would let you buy an item to automatically flip a coin once every n seconds – the start of a classic idle game system.
Everyone has their favourite idle game (it’s probably A Dark Room), but I quickly launched up a couple of them to remind myself of the feel and progression of these titles. They range in pace from furious clickers to games that suggest a little more strategy. Of course, patience is always a factor in these games
Starting work on the game design, I decided to first work out what Cash wanted to get out of his learning activity with MobX. He was pretty open, so I listed out the mechanics we had and the factors that influence those. Coin tosses with a win or lose outcome will yield currency over time. The amount of currency per second is determined by how quickly coins can be tossed; how many coins can be tossed concurrently; and chance.
I drew out a flow chart of the main interaction, tossing a coin:
This helped visualise the existing features and exposed parts of the cycle that could be modified. We can increase the number of coins owned; the points won after the toss; the chance of winning; and decrease the points needed to win a round. We can add auto flippers that flip coins for the player or start matches automatically, making the game easier to manage.
Something that doesn’t suck
We discussed ideas for a narrative to frame the game with a story or setting that “doesn’t suck”. Flipping coins… game of chance… why?… how?… Wizards?.. No… Aliens?… Ummm… how about robots?
Discussing a more tangible setting sparked a few more ideas. You’re controlling a robot army by charging and firing their weapons to defeat… a bigger robot? Successfully landing hits yields cogs, that can be used to upgrade your own robots. I know, we’re narrative geniuses.
The game design now has two steps: charge and fire. The ‘coin flipping’ controls the rate at which your weapon charges and the firing occurs depending on whether you won your round (best of ten). I went through the process again, drawing out a flow of the mechanic and looking for things to mess with or upgrade. Some points were the same, but we can now add things like weapon accuracy or damage multipliers.
One concern I had about porting the coin flip system over to a weapon charge so literally is if the player presses a button to charge a weapon and loses the coin flip, nothing will happen. This is most unsatisfactory! The chance element seemed to have lost its relevance, which is a shame since this is a nice addition to the clicker mechanic. Your opponent is now at the end of the round (firing your weapon) rather than throughout the game (flipping a coin).
Rather than lose the chance element, I looked at my flow chart and decided on a new outcome for losing a toss – the player takes damage! Perhaps the weapon backfires or shorts out. This means there is now a risk attached to clicking the charge button – but this makes the reward of clicking feel greater.
Adding a damage system also provides more opportunities to control the upgrade speed too – perhaps robots on low health operate slower or stop operating altogether. It makes a simple clicker game feel more tactical.
I then updated the flow charts one more time so they look like this:
To explain these ideas quickly to Cash, I drew out a quick sketch on paper, then worked a little on a first pass wireframe for the game’s presentation. I find this the quickest way to explain and document my designs, usually with a few notes around the edge of the diagram. Of course, I checked Cash was happy with this design, since he’d be the one implementing it!
Since this is a first pass, there’s a few things I’d like to change – firstly the presentation of items in the shop! This should be simplified to read “upgrade weapons, upgrade defence, heal” rather than breaking down accuracy, charge speed, etc. So many options with a large army of robots could quickly become annoying.
Of course there’s so much we could add to this – different robot types (tank, infantry, healers) or changing the a risk/reward system of the weapons so that firing a shot before the weapon is fully charged deals less damage to the enemy, but reduces the risk of a missed shot. No matter what, it’ll be fun testing and iterating on this over the coming months.
So there you have it – this is where the design is at. Still working on getting something playable online, but I’ll provide a link when it’s up. It was a fun Friday afternoon quickly throwing this stuff down, hopefully we’ll get to work on it some more and flesh it out!
I’ve now passed a threshold on development of Crocodile Cat:
THE GAME IS NOW VISUALLY APPEALING
I’ve been really lucky to have Rebecca Deakin working on the art for the game.
Rebecca has been great at working with my slightly nonsensical ideas (It’s a cat in a bubble trapped between the jaws of an infinite crocodile) and making them appear practical and, most of all, gorgeous. The bubble has been replaced by a jetpack. See, I can’t draw a jetpack. But Rebecca can.
☑ Can draw cats
☑ Can draw jetpacks
☑ Can draw anything
I spent a bit of time last week incorporating some of these new assets, which meant working with (and adapting) Unity’s animation system and creating some parallax layers. It takes me away from game design, but it’s important and interesting work.
There’s still some placeholders in the above gif, so more to go in, more things to change, but it’s a great step towards sharing the project with more people.
The jaws are now at an angle with the screen, which makes it look amazing. This design change required a lot more behind-the-scenes work than you’d expect! The advantage of starting a project without an artist is that you can focus solely on game design, but the disadvantage is that by building things quickly, you can sometimes lock down things you don’t expect to change. I’m really pleased to be working with Rebecca since it’s little changes like this that really add to the visual appeal of the game, which will be really important in the coming months.
The last blog was about pattern design. After testing even more patterns, I found that players enjoy patterns that take the height of the screen, giving them lots of choice and targets to hit. These also allow players to focus on avoiding the jaws if they need to, whilst still collecting coins!
This is all well and good, but I decided on designing segments in this way because I wanted to take control of the game’s difficulty, something I’d have difficulty balancing if it was left to chance. Controlling the difficulty is helping me to encourage the players into a flow state, where they are given both challenge and reward over an extended play session.
I’m able to sort my coin patterns into groups and present them to the player in sequence. To allow for an enjoyable experience, I can group them into difficulty – allowing struggling players to practice on patterns that are designed to teach the game. Likewise I can offer greater rewards to players who are willing to play in a riskier style.
Currently, I’m experimenting with a game flow which presets players with two ‘easy’ segments first, to get then up to speed. Then it will present one of a group of preset ‘scenarios’ – a group of segments designed and grouped together to elicit a particular play style. Maybe you’re tempted close to danger, perhaps you have to aim for the centre of the level, maybe you have plans to follow. Completing one scenario will move you on to the next.
The next related system I hope to develop will give me more control over the presentation of these scenarios, so players are rewarded with the opportunity to relax and score big after completing a difficult segment.
The game is becoming more fun by the moment, which is great! The core concept has always tested well, but by approaching the overall flow design in this way I hope the game will be engaging for a longer time and the different ways to play will be more apparent to the player at an earlier stage.
In my last blog post, I introduced Crocodile Cat, the one touch mobile game I’ve started working on. The gameplay flow is that of an infinite high score chaser, players see how long they can last without being eaten by a crocodile.
During the game, that player collects coins. When I show the game to my friends I say “yeah, there’s floating coins to collect because why not, it’s a videogame”, but in reality the coins serve an important purpose in the gameplay – they give the player a moment-to-moment objective beyond basic survival and they offer a reward in exchange for some risk.
It’s risky to coin chase in this game, for reasons I’ll go into in a later blog post, but right now I want to talk about the design of coin trails and how they can be used to instruct, tempt and delight the player.
I started creating some coin paths for the players to follow, trails of coins to be collected in sequence. I thought that this was where the core of the game would lie. Coin paths lead the player and feel good to follow, but early play tests showed them to be too difficult for new players who haven’t yet learned how to stay alive! I realised that placing coins near the edges of the screen might be more useful to teach new players survival skills, but play tests showed that new players were even less accurate without a path to follow.
My next step was to create some ‘elbow’ patterns to teach the player. Part coin trail, part survival instruction. This worked well when I played in the editor, but as soon as a tester made a mistake, the design fell apart! My design was too prescriptive, assuming the player would play a certain way, meaning that a slight error caused the game to make very little sense. Adjusting these designs to accommodate different user behaviors resulted in designs that were difficult to ‘read’, the player would not know what to do when presented with entwining coin trails.
Through observing and testing, I realised I was wrong about what constituted a fun level. I realised that even my simple designs were too difficult, and difficult is not fun if you don’t understand your objective yet. I designed larger coin arrangements that were easier to collect at least part of, and changed their behaviour so that they always stick to the edges of the screen. I hope these are good ‘beginner’ levels: they help the player learn the controls relatively safely and offer easy rewards for performance.
These are playtesting much better, patterns being larger means that players are more likely to be on target and get a reward, and players are picking up the survival mechanic much easier as they are more naturally travelling to the edges of the screen.
Playtesting with a variety of different patterns and ideas, I’m now designing ‘difficult’ patterns that present more options to the player as to the path they want to take through the level. Fitting in with the overall game design, I need to make sure that the value of the coins is balanced with the risk involved in obtaining them, and to give the player meaningful choices through these level designs.
This level design process of playtesting and observation has helped me to really understand where the difficulty in my game truly lies, and where the fun lies too. Both of these elements are key to designing a ‘flow’ state, which is the next step in my level design task. I’ll write more about designing a flow state in a future blog post.
I’m at a stage in my current commuter project where I think I’m ready to start sharing and writing about what I’m making.
Introducing: Crocodile Cat
It is a very silly and simple one touch mobile game about a cat in a bubble who is trapped between the jaws of an infinite crocodile. Currently it features art made by myself in MS Paint, but it will look good one day.
The gameplay is basic, the player cat is moving up and down vertically between the crocodile’s jaws. The player must tap to change direction before they touch the jaws, and the jaws move to the position that the cat was at when the player tapped.
This encourages the player to test their nerve by changing direction as close as possible to the jaws, since the play area is shrunk with every tap.
The jaws are opened again by collecting special coins that fly through the scene, disrupting this game of chicken by offering a reward and brief respite from the increasing pressure.
A .gif below shows the game working in it’s current state. Early days yet but the mechanic is already testing well. I’m looking forward to seeing where I can take it!