Develop Jam 2017: Risky Business

I was lucky enough to be part of the Develop Conference Game Jam 2017! The theme was Risky Business, since the Develop Conference is all about the business of games.

Talking the theme over with the team, we all wanted to go for a game design focussed around risk and reward – greater risks lead to greater rewards! Some of the first concepts were “Business Buckaroo”, “Tom Cruise Simulator”, and “What’s The Time Mr. Wolf?”

This last idea was the starting point for the game’s design. At one end of the level would be a threat, ‘the wolf’, and around the level would be coins – the higher value items being nearer the threat! Being closer to the wolf meant less chance to escape when it awoke!

We worked through some ideas around having the speed of player movement disturbing the wolf – perhaps the player had to creep? I was concerned how quickly we could relay this mechanic to the player, and the amount of time needed to implement a satisfying control scheme and camera for this.

I knew that that the game had to be very accessible and easy to pick up and play – the jam was being judged so we had only 3 minutes to sell it to the judges. We looked for ways to make the controls as simple as possible: ‘press A to move’ rather than full 3D movement. We quickly iterated over the idea of having a racetrack that the player travels around, to having the player move backwards when no button is pressed, as if on a bungee chord.

The other mechanic was to be awaking the wolf. We all knew we wanted to make a multiplayer game, so I suggested that this could be an opportunity to introduce a social element to the gameplay. The player can choose either to race to collect the high value coins, or they can choose to squeak and wake up the wolf if they see their friends getting close! We were all excited about the in room tensions this could cause among the players.

Finally, the control system was set down. We opted for button mashing rather than press-and-hold in order to keep the players moving, active and as engaged at possible!

This was the first game jam I attended with a 3D artist – Matt did a superb job of interpreting and animating Jules’ wonderfully colourful designs of a game of cat and mouse. Throughout the development we were frequently delighted and astonished by the quality of work they were putting out in such a small amount of time. I mean, just look at this sleeping kitty!

The jam went really smoothly although we made the error of getting a bit merry at the GI.biz party on the first night and getting to bed after sunrise. We only had a few opportunities to playtest and tweak the game feel, but I think we did a great job of balancing the systems. Jak coded a really robust system and spent the last hour of the jam cramming the control and feedback systems so full of juice his computer started leaking. Screenshake, particles, everything!

Meanwhile I was making sound effects and implementing them in the code base. I kept telling everyone how pleased I was with the musical system I implemented that mimics a Tom and Jerry creeping cartoon score as the mouse gets closer. It’s really funny and gives user feedback so that’s a win!

We all had a brilliant couple of days at the jam and need to thank David and Jo for organising, hosting and running such a brilliant event. They really made us feel welcome and were very patient and helpful when our equipment started breaking! It was great seeing our game on the big screen at the conference’s final session and we’re so grateful for our honourable mention – the judges said we had “a well designed risk mechanic and it was very polished”. We’re very happy with that!

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!

RememBear goes free

Somebody’s got a birthday coming up and wants you all to party! (It’s me). 

When I released RememBear last autumn, it was after quite a lot of hard work. I’m not usually a computer programmer, so creating and releasing my own game was a big deal! I was mostly shocked at how much work went into contacting the press and promoting the game around launch. First time developers: you can only underestimate this. 

Sales and interest in the game have tailed – as is to be expected with the masses of competition and tiny marketing budget! Also it’s my birthday and I want to do something nice for all of you. 

So as of Friday, RememBear will be free to download wherever it is available. No ads (why would I spoil Faye’s gorgeous artwork?) no IAP, just a gift from me to you. 

Thank you all for your support on my game dev journey, double thank you if that support translates to a sales figure on my spreadsheet, and I’d love to buy you a beer some time! 

My birthday is on the 18th of April, so if you want to send me a birthday message, my Twitter is @Mikey_PB and I’d love to hear from you!

iOS link

Android link

Dances With The Elder Gods: Global Game Jam

Last weekend was Global Game Jam, which very quickly became my favourite event in the game dev calendar. I’ve done Ludum Dare a couple of times and a few local site jams, but the sheer scale of GGJ – the feeling of being part of something so huge on an international level – was just amazing! Thank you to Jo for organising our local site and providing so many good vibes over the weekend (also thanks to Brighton Uni for providing pizzas!).

The game that my team made was called Dances With The Elder Gods. Take a look through the link or watch this gif!


The game is a mash up of two styles: Dance Dance Revolution and Mastermind. Players must find the correct combination of dance moves to please the elder god, alternately inputting guesses and watching the dancers to get feedback on their guess. It is a game of memory, ritual and watching cute characters get smooshed.

My wonderful team mate Joel beat me to the write up of the game, so I thought that for my blog post on the topic I’d focus a little more on the concept of our game and how we tried to make it fit into the jam’s theme of ritual.

The ideas forming stage is perhaps the best part of any game jam. The freedom to create ANYTHING you want, no constraints, just a spark of inspiration and a notepad soaked with ink. It’s easy to dream big, run with ideas as they come and discard them just as quickly. For me, the creative process is one of subtraction, not addition, so starting with big ideas and then refining is my favourite way to design. This jam has a theme, however. The theme of ritual.

We discussed many forms of ritual, from voodoo ceremony to superstition. I even drew this venn diagram to argue how closely linked superstition and ritual are!

The key ideas that we returned to over the course of our discussion were those of repetition and consequence. We talked about how ideas can be passed from person to person, through social compliance and tradition. We realised that this would be a great way to represent the theme in gameplay, a ritual being passed down and iterated upon. Originally esoteric comments and suggestions got condensed into more solid sounding gameplay mechanics until we realized that we’d just designed Mastermind.

The other thread that the ideas stage revolved around was that of ritual dance. Making a dancing game would be really cool, following the instructions of the ritual. Sticking these ideas together, a dance game where you must find the correct dance through deduction, was the idea that won the day. Perform a dance and then get feedback: ritual appears in the gameplay as players repeat moves (e.g. move 4 is always →). Rituals also spread amongst the players when played in multiplayer — as players copy each other, rituals are formed.

An early concept for the game had the dance and feedback given in real time, with moves having to be input on the beat, but this idea was still slightly nebulous. Condensing ideas to the scope of a weekend jam, compromises had to be made! With such a short amount of time to test gameplay and with player attention so short (assuming an audience of people browsing the jam website), the clearer we could make the game, the better. Likewise went our idea for a cooperative win condition where local players must decipher and pass the ritual amongst their group to please the Elder God, the game ending with all the dancers performing in sync.

I’m really proud of the game we made, which only works because of Joel and only looks awesome because of Jules and Kylie, so check those guys out. Making it in a weekend too, I couldn’t be happier!

See you at the next jam!

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

What advice do you have for dealing with computers and IT people?

theguide2life:

Are we talking IT helpdesk? As in your tech has stopped working? If so, always begin the phone call with ‘I’ve turned it off and on’ so what else can you advise? Whilst they mull over your problem, make helicopter noises down the phone and ask how they got into the exciting world of computers. Believe me, they’ll be so eager to get you off the phone that your IT/computer query will be bumped to the front of the queue.

Pun Driven Game Design: Square Rave

Time for another installment of my infrequent blog on pun driven game design. This time I turn the focus to Square Rave, an absolutely superb music game with a very punny title!

For those who don’t know, Square Rave is a game in which you must drag your finger across different coloured squares, and make sure your finger is in a blue square at the end of each bar of music. Sounds easy, but of course there is a twist in that you drop red squares behind you which block your path. Uhm… take a look:

So it’s a bit like Chime and a bit like Snake but not very much like either. It’s its own thing, and it is superb!

Enough about that, what about the pun? Well, Square Rave is a game that contains squares, dance music and square waves, so it’s pretty descriptive. The title of the game does not disclose the gameplay concept, but the user knows they are in for a music led square-party!

I asked, and this game’s was not completely driven by pun, though it’s art style and musical direction has clearly benefitted from it! The game is great pun and you can nab yourself a copy here (iOS)

Time for some arbitrary scores:

Game: 9/10
Pun: 9/10
Pun implementation: 7/10

Pun Driven Design: Cat-a-pult

I published a blog recently about pun driven game design. This started, mostly, as a joke between friends, and since then we’ve been coming up with pun-led game concepts. There are many fine developers already working in this area, and so I thought a few blog posts acknowledging their work would be a welcome addition to this blog whilst I decide which game I’m going to make next.

This post is dedicated to Cat-a-pault: Toss 8-bit kittens, the wonderful single mechanic mobile game in which you fire cats across the screen in order to stack them. You want to download it already, right? Here are some links:

Android
iOS

The game is as simple as it sounds. Pull back on the cat to launch it, Angry Birds style, and with some skill you’ll be able to land it on the podium. Any following cat must land on the cat pile, to which it will adhere as if it’s fur were made of velcro.

The game is as tricky as it is addictive. If you’re lucky enough to reach the top of the screen without the tower falling, your game view will rise and you’ll be able to keep on building. Be warned, creating a sturdy structure on just one cat is a huge challenge!

But back to the puns. Assuming the developer started with the pun and went from there, there is one disappointment in this game. There isn’t a catapult on screen. The cats just launch themselves using an invisible force. Luckily, the game is hooky enough that you don’t care, but come on. Good puns need good follow through, and this is the one area which leaves you wanting.

I’ve decided, as is my whim, to award some arbitrary scores to this and any upcoming pun-based blogs.

Game: 8/10
Pun: 9/10
Pun Implementation: 2.5/10