Robots vs Bigger Robots – quick game design

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

A developer buddy, Cash, wanted to learn a new JavaScript framework (MobX) by building a little clicker game with it. He had a ‘coin toss’ system, where you had to click a button to toss a coin. You either win or lose the toss and are awarded a point if you beat your imaginary opponent over 10 tosses.

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.

Design concerns

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:

User Interface

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.

Future implementations

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!

Crocodile Cat: Got some art in

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.

Checklist:

☑ 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.

Find more of her work at http://www.rebeccadeakin.com/

Bleat The Wolf


With the scary rise of populist fascist sentiment in the west, many of us are confused, scared and unsure how to act. An unusual opening line for a blog post about a game jam, but Resist Jam sought to unite game makers in a stand against fascism: to create games exploring issues around civil rights, freedom of expression and resisting the abuse of power.

I wanted to contribute a game to this jam, so I asked my friends Nat, Jim, Jules and Joe if they wanted to work together on a project. We all wanted to get involved and so we formed a team! I’ve worked with these people before and this unit is my game dev dream team – we had a great time working together.

One of the first things that surprised me about this game jam is that it encouraged us to discuss our political ideas and stances together as a group. I’m not sure about other countries and cultures, but on the South coast of England we don’t discuss the subject of politics in public very often. An opportunity to hear the opinions of your friends (and people overhearing in the pub) is really enlightening. Freedom of expression during a game jam brainstorm is not unusual, but the amount of learning that came from listening to other people in stage was notable.

Our discussion around the game jam brief was mostly political, so we were likely to make a political game. Inspired by games like Papers Please, we were looking for a game that gave players incentive to make decisions that were against their natural political opinion, to encourage players to look at issues from another point of view.

After brainstorming a few ideas, we ended up circling around the concept of playing as a politician and appealing to a crowd. Political margins are slim, and UK politics are all about appealing to the centre ground. I believe that most politicians are doing what they think is right, but they seem to contradict and betray core voters around election time, compromising their core values for populist policies. We thought that this area of politics might be fun to turn into a game, with the key question:

Will you compromise your own values to win votes?

In many ways it’s asking sympathy for the Devil, encouraging the player to empathise with a politician. Still, we hoped that by encouraging players to consider what politicians phrase as “difficult choices”, we’d encourage our players to me more aware of the pressures that underpin the nature of our democracy.

The first design of this game saw players operating sliders to adjust their policy, then broadcasting their stance to the crowd. All the characters were human at this point! A little bit like a game of mastermind, players had to tease out a policy that appealed to the broadest range of voters. This design lacked a little depth, so we came up with this idea of newspaper headlines that change the issues that the voters care about, forcing the player to adapt and respond. This essentially puts the player as a politician against the press!

Under the hood, each voter had a value from -50 to 50 as to their left and right political lean on each issue. Adjusting the sliders on our policy areas generated the lean of the player’s message. Through maths (kindly provided by Susanna) the voters moved towards the politician they agreed with most on a sliding scale.

There were lots of problems with this design. Firstly, most of our voters had to be centrist in order for our ‘message’ to work, and subtle changes to policy actually had very little visual effect on the crowd. Perhaps this version was too accurate a simulation! Additionally, explaining the UI, the notion of policy, the synchronous turn taking, the cause and effect – basically the whole game – was much harder than expected. We had key policy areas and descriptions, put players never really engaged with these ideas in order to win over the crowd, so we weren’t challenging the player’s values as intended. Time to rethink the game design.

During our brainstorm session, we’d had an idea whereby the player was given a statement and then asked how they wanted to respond. We realised that interacting with policy areas in this way was powerful, and we can feed this into our existing game design.

This led to the current design of the game – the player is presented with three statements, and has to choose the one they most agree with.

To make the voters more responsive, we changed the underlying mathematics so that they move toward the politician they agree with on the most amount of issues. There are 5 issues in the game, so if a voter agrees with the player on at least three issues, they will be on their side.

This solved most of the problems, but the voters were still moving around with some mystery. The player was just clicking issues and seeing a response – we wanted to challenge how willing they are to trade their beliefs for political gain. Allowing the player a little peek under the hood, telling them “55% of voters will agree with this”, lets them see how their choice might affect the game and makes them consider how strongly they believe in it.

The newspapers were kept in this design to mix up the voter profiles and force the player to respond to the changing whims of the crowd. These flip the opinions of a random set of voters on a certain issue – changing the public support for an issue.

At this point, the game still featured some nebulous concept of a political debate – there were voters, campaigners, newspapers… but no setting. We wanted an English feel to the game, so decided upon a village fete: a right wing speaker pitches up and you have to present alternative arguments. Upon seeing the field designed, we asked “What if the voters are literal sheep?” This gave us a unique setting for our political argument, and a name – “Bleat the Wolf”.

Having a farmyard theme meant we were ready to pin down our policy areas and ask Joe, our writer, to come up with some specific policies to challenge our players! Joe did a great job creating a mix of farrmyard puns, references and policies that make sense on the farmyard but have a place in the real world too. This made the game lighthearted and fun to play, but still fulfilled the aim of questioning the player’s political beliefs.

The final touches were added in pretty UI, animations, music and SFX. I wrote a function that causes the sheep to baa() every 4 seconds (I’m pretty happy about it) and we were ready to submit!

Everyone on the team worked really hard on the project. It was an intense time, putting long evenings into game dev after our day jobs making games. Working again with Nat, Jules, Joe and Jim, I was reminded how lucky I am to work with such talent, and what it takes to make a game in such a short space of time.

Please give the game a go! It’s not perfect, such is the nature of jam games, but it achieves what we set out to do. For this reason, I am incredibly proud of the work we put in together.

In case you’re looking to hire me, please can I highlight the two main imperfections of the game. 1) You really need to invest time to read all the cards before you make a decision, but the time limit is too short. The time limit was added to make you feel under pressure, like a politician, but it’s too much. 2) The newspapers appear at random times, rather than between rounds, and dismiss all the cards played in the round, often disappointing the player. We also don’t make it clear enough as to what causes newspapers to appear because we ran out of time to get the animation in. Game jams, eh?

Press here to play!

Pun Driven Game Design: Witchgarden Leafiosa

Time for another installment of my oft-hastily written blog on game design / puns.

This time we focus on a Ludum Dare entry with a pun which made me chuckle.

This season’s game jam was focussed on growing, and Witchgarden Leafiosa is a game in which you play as a witch in a garden and make things grow. It has gorgeous art from Faye Simms (who you may remember drew 2015’s smash hit game RememBear), a lush chillout soundtrack, and a cool bit of game design! Play it through the link below!

Witchgarden Leafiosa

But enough about the game, what about the pun? I think this is a near perfect pun. You’re a witch, in a garden… what do witches use? Spells! Boom! And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better we throw a leaf in there too. Superb. ./applaud.

If you made a game for LD34, this surely is worthy of your votes! If not, it is certainly worthy of your time. The Witchgarden is a nice place to explore whilst you attempt to craft potions and it’s incredible to think it was made in just 3 days. Arbitrary scores inbound.

Game: 8/10
Pun: 8/10
Pun Implementation: 9/10

RememBear SFX

As someone with a background in audio for games, SFX were always going to be an important part of RememBear. Audio for mobile games needs to be chosen carefully so as to not be intrusive, since players may be running background audio from other apps. Audio should not be vital to gameplay as many players will not have their device’s volume turned on.

With this in mind, the audio in RememBear is quite minimal, but, I hope, very effective. I’m going to have a quick look at how the SFX were put together, but in the meantime please watch the gameplay trailer to familiarise yourself with the soundscape:

With the visual art style I was trying to juxtapose the cute, cartoon, fairytale illustration with the bloody gruesomeness of being eaten by a bear. This is reflected in the sound palette too – the childish xylophone jingles clash with the fierce bear roars and blood splats. I’m going to talk about how the sounds were made and why I chose them.

The game opens into background ambience, some quiet birdsong. I wanted to set the player in a location of a forest and have set a slightly silly tone. I recorded the birdsong myself, using a whistle bought from this man. The whistles used in the game are the few successful takes from about 15 minutes of recording time!

The next sound is a rising semitone xylophone pattern, in the style of the opening music. It is a playful, childlike phrase and it mimics the animation of the approaching bears. Three seconds later it plays again, a semitone higher, as the bears get closer and the game gets harder.

This is the main audio in the game. It is useful, since it indicates where turns have ended, but it is not essential. It is hopefully not annoying either, being tied to the animation and level progression. I hope that users will want to play with it active, but I included the option to mute sfx since I can’t assume the user’s sole attention when playing on a mobile phone.

If the player is doing well, the next sound they will hear is the ‘tinkle’ of the ‘ranger awarded’ sfx. This is accompanied with a little icon flash to show that a ‘good thing’ has happened. The sound fits in place with the game, coming from the same xylophone source.

Most likely, before too long, the player will make an error and a ranger will be eaten by a bear. The audio for this is made up of a few layers, firstly the ROAR of a hungry bear.

How to record a bear roar? What do bears even sound like?

Terrifying. I needed a short sound with a quick attack, a quick impact to shock the player and let them know they’ve done something wrong. To recreate this sound, I snorted into a microphone and applied a layer of overdrive to the bass. This is in stark contrast to the other, more playful sounds in the game.

Another layer in this sound is the ranger screaming. This is mildly amusing (as the bloody visual effects are) but can be disturbing. I also added the sound of a fruit salad being destroyed, to represent the sound of blood and guts flying about the place. This adds a level of comedic violence or gruesomeness. I hope the player’s mind translates this into something disgusting. Audio is a wonderful tool to enhance a player’s imagination.

The final sound you’re likely to hear is that of the children being eaten. This is the same as the rangers, only the screams are of a boy and a girl and are pitch shifted up in order to sound like cartoon children. A final musical cadence refers back to the theme music and rounds off the experience nicely.

This covers all of the SFX in RememBear. There is not much to it, but it is all focused and functional. I hope you enjoy playing once it is released and let me know what you think of my bear roars!

A Quick Catch Up

Hello!

A lot has happened since I last posted on my blog two years ago. My last post was to announce the arrival of Block Stock, a two player iPad game.

My objective with Block Stock was to learn more about games development and to find out more about the games industry. I wanted to learn the skills needed to bring a game to market and demonstrate them in order to get a job in videogames.

Try getting a creative job with no experience. It’s impossible. You have to make your own experience.

After Block Stock was released, I started applying for jobs, and because job applications are *boring*, I started work on Block Stock Solo – a one player iOS game with similar mechanics to Block Stock.

During the development of this game, I was offered a job at the BAFTA winning Plug-in Media. Of course I accepted – now I work with amazingly talented people making amazingly wonderful things. It actually pays me money too, unlike the market for local multiplayer iPad games. (Which are still the best iPad games).

Months after starting my flashy new job, Block Stock Solo was accidentally released. After that, I started working on my latest game, RememBear, which I am announcing tomorrow.

That last paragraph wasn’t the announcement. What is RememBear, I hear you ask?

You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.