Tuesday, 18 December 2012


iOS appstore
itch.io (windows/mac)

This is a new puzzle game.

It's today's free game on the "Advent of Indies" calendar. I used this as a deadline to motivate me to finish it. I'm quite pleased with how it turned out.

There will be an iOS version, but there's a delay of several days between when you upload something there and when it actually shows up, so I'll mention when that's available.

(Oh, and if you enjoy this you'll probably like Game Title and Lost Levels, and vice versa.)

edit 31/12/2012: Minor bug-fix update.

edit 06/01/2013: seems to not be working for people on Windows 7. Trying to fix this now.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


I don't much enjoy solving puzzles.

I like uncertainty and randomness in games. I like strategy; I like complex open-ended decisions that have a chance of going horribly wrong, and doing my best to deal with unexpected situations that arise; I like taking risks, winning with a sub-optimal but surprising approach. I don't like digging through a limited state-space to find a particular solution, I find it menial to do work that I could just get a computer to do. I've written a program to solve Sudoku puzzles, so why would I ever want to solve one by hand? (I'm not a big fan of Chess for the same reason; although it has deep strategy, a lot of the time you can gain an advantage just by looking more moves ahead: computer work.)

There are some things that look a bit like puzzles that I do enjoy. I love solving mathematical problems, designing and balancing games, writing algorithms. These are very open-ended, and sometimes you're not guaranteed that a solution exists - in mathematics you might be able to prove that one definitely doesn't. There's more ambiguity; you might not want just any solution, but the most beautiful or efficient one, or the one that makes the ideas behind it clearest; and if no perfect solution exists, you need to judge which criteria to weaken to get an approximation. I actually did enjoy puzzles when I was small, but having tasted higher things the lower no longer hold my interest. (Some mathematicians really enjoy solving Sudoku and the like - to me this seems crazy; how can that tedious elimination hold any joy when you've been out proving real theorems? - but different people are different.)

I make games for myself to play. So this doesn't obviously lead to making puzzles - not only am I not so much into them in the first place, but I'd already know the solutions so I'd enjoy them even less - instead I focus on highly replayable types of game. But sometimes I've ended up with puzzles by accident; you can never be sure when you start following an idea where it will end up taking you. The Sense of Connectedness started as a strategy war game (although this is more about experimenting to try to figure out what the rules and objectives are; once you know those actually solving the puzzle is pretty basic). Game Title / Lost Levels started as a kind of dungeon crawl. Vertex Dispenser's puzzle levels.

Because I can't really appreciate these puzzles I've made, I kind of forget about them, I don't think of them as significant. I was talking with Terry Cavanagh a couple of months back, and he said The Sense of Connectedness and Lost Levels are his favourite things I've made, which kind of surprised me - for me they're quite low on the list, overshadowed by things I still enjoy playing. But it reminded me they exist, and got me thinking about how I actually really enjoyed the process of making them. Lost Levels especially was a wonderfully difficult problem, one of the best times I've had making games, rocking back and forth muttering to myself trying to fit everything together. While solving puzzles is quite closed, making them is the kind of open-ended thing I love. So maybe it's worth me trying to make more puzzles - if others appreciate them and I enjoy making them, it doesn't matter so much if they're no use for me to play.

So I've been working on a new puzzle on purpose. It's optimised to be difficult to make - everything is interconnected in complicated ways, such that shifting something by one tile on one screen could entirely break something somewhere completely different. I hope it proves interesting for others to solve, but my main goal has been completely selfish and hedonistic: looking at the pleasure I got from making those other puzzles and trying to maximise that. And it's succeeded: it's been extremely challenging and frustrating. Negative mushrooms, myriad ways to get stuck, skeletons, impossible configurations from visiting rooms in a particular order. There's a tricky balance between individual sections and the holistic magic of it; some test subjects were getting stuck in an early room and not getting to the really interesting part, so I opened up the early areas letting you choose what order to solve things in and possibly skip a few you're stuck on. But this has created a new problem, where if you've left a room in a state from which it cannot be solved and go somewhere else without undoing it first, you might end up having to undo any progress you make elsewhere in order to solve it. And unfortunately because of how everything is interconnected it doesn't seem feasible to reset rooms independently of each other. The whole thing's been like this: every problem solved in one place creates a new one like a bubble popping back up elsewhere. I think it's pretty good?

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


I was on Roguelike Radio recently, talking about game jams. I have a bit more to say on the topic.

I have a lot of ideas. Most of them are bad. Most of the bad ones I can throw away just by thinking about them for a minute, but that still leaves many I can't tell without trying them out. So this is one advantage of jamming: the quicker I can make a working prototype to test out an idea, the quicker I can throw away the ones that don't actually work and keep the good ones. And the more games I make, the more ideas I have and the higher a proportion are good, so it becomes increasingly important to work quickly.

Glitch Tank is the best thing I've made. I made it in half a day. I'd made another game already that morning. It took a few more weeks to polish and debug it, get it tuned perfectly - and some sporadic updates over the next year improving it further - but I had the core game playable in just a few hours. Zaga-33 and VESPER.5 are the games I'm best known for, that have gotten me the most attention (and attention is a valuable currency for a lone game developer). Each of them was made in a week (with a few extra weeks on Zaga-33 porting it to iOS and polishing the final version).

Couple of years ago Chris Hecker ranted about "please finish your game". He criticised the shallowness of game jams; ideas being dealt with quickly rather than explored in depth. Hecker and Jonathan Blow are partially responsible for the prominence of game jams in the first place, but they seem concerned that jams are not fulfilling the particular role they had in mind for them: prototyping new ideas and "pushing game design forward". There's a different role that jams have taken on - a community spirit, a welcoming atmosphere for newbies - but Blow contends that this environment has become unhealthy for experienced developers.

They're missing a few things.

First, I think they're making a fundamental error of measurement. Lists of games released are misleading. Large games take disproportionately more time to make than small ones, so a disproportionate number of small games released does not imply a disproportionate amount of time and effort spent on them. Most people making quick jam games have "main projects" they're working on, and giving the attention they deserve. We don't have enough time in our lives to work on every good idea we have for a couple of years.

Second, there's the aesthetic virtue of things made quickly. Jackson Pollock's "action paintings". This relates somewhat to my previous post.

Third, making a monolithic game is not the only way to explore an idea in depth. Hecker's prescribed cure for the shallowness of jams was to rent a beach house for a few days to work on long-term projects, and still not finish them. That's not a depth jam. Kompendium was a depth jam: I spent a couple of months making a game every day or two, digging deep into a focused set of ideas, mostly not finishing my games and throwing them away. My life is a depth jam: I come back to the same ideas over and over again, understanding them better with each game I make. So is Stephen Lavelle's series of Sokoban-inspired puzzle games; they climax in English Country tune but he still hasn't shaken the obssession. Bennett Foddy's endless fascination with physics simulations. Reiner Knizia's study of auctions. Hecker's dismissal of jam games treats them as though they're isolated barely-considered throwaway things; this is a strawman, practitioners like Sos Sosowski and these others have developed a consistent ethos around it.

Making things quickly is not an easy task, it takes practise. As I said in the podcast, I was initially completely baffled at how people could make games so quickly, but now it's something I've learnt to do myself. To quote Franz Kline: "spontaneity is practiced". Hecker mentioned Cactus, who is well known for making lots of games quickly, and more recently Hotline Miami - perhaps having taking the rant to heart and working on something larger. I don't think he'd be the artist he is today and have been able to make Hotline Miami what it is without having spend so much time jamming deeply. I always come back to this apocryphal story about a pottery class, comparing striving for perfection in a single piece against improving yourself by producing a substantial body of work.

I don't dismiss the value of working on large projects. The ideal approach for me is a balance between short- and long-term. Some games do just end up needing more time, especially ones that are content-heavy. Some games can be made into something more profitable by spending more time on them, and we need to generate an income somehow; but let's not make the error of conflating how much money something makes with quality. (Hecker brought up the example of Braid, and I disagree: it has some good ideas in it, but spending years polishing it to maximise its commercial potential is the single least artistically interesting thing Blow could have done. I'd rather see the dozen other games he could have made in the same period.) Also, not every game is financially worth spending more time on - even if it's interesting and deep; the sad truth is that many games don't pay for the time spent on them, and spending longer on one thing just creates a higher concentration of risk, especially when you're exploring weird ideas on the fringe.

What's the "normal" rate to do art at anyway? Videogames are an anomaly with multi-year projects being typical; a novelist writes about one book a year (plus a few short stories), a painter produces dozens of paintings a year, a musician records an album of a dozen songs every year or two. I haven't found multi-year projects to be the healthiest approach myself, regularly releasing smaller things is much more productive and satisfying - maybe several pieces a year is the "right" approach to art in general (if there could be such a thing).

Thursday, 22 November 2012


A young artist's work looks different to that made by someone older. I consider this maturity a neutral quality; not better or worse. In many ways mature work is superior; someone who has honed their craft and observed human nature over many years creates with a deep understanding of what they're doing, knowing how to apply conventions perfectly and when to break them to achieve the exact effect they're aiming for - not just for the sake of it. But youthful work has its own value, the energy of exuberant joyful ambition and experimentation, discovering ideas for the first time and getting excited about them in a way that a jaded older person can't anymore, still believing they can change the world. Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash isn't clearly 'better' or 'worse' than Anathem, but it's much more energetic. Split Enz's Time and Tide isn't 'better' than Mental Notes - although it is easier to listen to.

As an artist I don't think maturity is an important consideration; it's not a decision for a piece to be more or less mature, the type of thing you make naturally changes as you age. But as an audience, it's valuable to recognise the merits of both youth and maturity. And as an industry, it's important to support both - for if young artists are not supported, there will be a dearth of mature ones in years to come.

Videogames are a mature medium, and over-focused on maturity. Young men (it is mostly men) sacrifice their careers for the visions of old men (again, mostly men), rather than creating things of their own. (The old men usually design games for young men, leading other old men to complain that games are immature; they're not: they're using their mature powers of expression to make things for a younger audience. This is not a problem in itself, it's perfectly possible to make things for an audience you are not yourself part of, as long as you don't condescend.)

The days of the arcade, where every second game was new and strange and different, are long past. (The rest were clones, but never mind those.) That cacophony of ideas has been replaced by fixed genres, mostly the fully consolidated FPSRPG - a powerfully mature setting for a certain kind of interaction and storytelling, but a very limited thing to be the main thrust of our medium.

Fortunately "indie" is a thing - although, most of the reason it's recognised as such is because of old men quitting large studios to strike out on their own, and approaching it with a mature attitude. The most highly praised "indies" are mature developers producing polished work on a strong foundation. That's okay, it's okay to respect them, to appreciate their work, to raise them up; they do good things. But it's the wild experimentation of youth that created that foundation they're building on. The genres that seem inevitable today were once new ideas indistinguishable from the froth of other exciting ideas around them, and new things that don't fit into the genres are still out there to find if we look (and it's not hard to find, I see a lot of low-hanging fruit out there).

There's the money issue; it takes time to make ambitious games and so often you'll need money up front to live on while developing something. Publishers have been derided for their tendency towards caution, choosing only to make reliable investments in mature developers working in mature genres, avoiding youthful experimentation. But crowdfunding has changed little; old men easily summon up silly money at the drop of a hat to make more of the same - even though they have enough in the bank already - while deserving young artists struggle to get by.

I feel (and this is an awkward and probably controversial statement that I'm not entirely certain about) that in general players of videogames lack appreciation for young work. Mature work is appreciated, and that's good. But the value of outsider art made by someone with no knowledge of conventions (Darius Kazemi has written about "outsider games"), or of ambitious but flawed work by brilliant young artists reaching beyond their abilities, I feel that these are not understood. I feel like this is not the case in other media, that energetic amateur music is appreciated (Brendan Caldwell made an analogy between games and punk rock in a series at RockPaperShotgun), that primitivism and abstract expressionism brought a good understanding of this value to the world of visual art, etcetera.

And this is a problem; we have a community that fails to appreciate the youthful work that's being done, that fails to fund young artists, and that pressures young artists into aping mature work rather than honestly expressing themselves, ultimately limiting the depth and variety of what gets made.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Super Hexagon

When I first played Super Hexagon, a couple of months before it was released, I didn't like it at all. Yesterday I completed it, in the lesser sense (60 seconds on the first three difficulty settings - I have yet to master the Hyper modes).

Unlike most other media, games demand a response. It's possible to consume music, movies, books, etc. purely as a one-way action; we take them as input and no output is required. Output can be given - we can sing, dance, play music, we can dwell on the meaning of a novel and let it change us - but these are optional; we're not playing a game at all if we don't act. This gives games the potential for stronger mind-altering properties than other media; they force us to contort our brain into new shapes to play them, to reprogram ourselves to be able to give the responses they require. Anything we learn and do alters our minds, but games seem an unusually efficient way of installing new and unusual software onto our grey matter.

Usually you can start playing a game using skills you already have, but to play a good game well requires developing new software. Strategy games piggyback on logical reasoning, a conscious mode of thought, but to play well we enter a state of computation that is not entirely conscious: a beginner at Chess can play passably by simply working out the consequences of each possible move, but an expert evaluates the board with a post-rational mindset, synthesising conscious thought with strange powers of pattern recognition earned through long study. Action games force us into new modes of thought more efficiently because they require responses within limited time; they don't give the option to consciously evaluate all possible moves. (This is why I say that Glitch Tank's real-time mode is superior to turn-based.) Games can be a tool for entering new and alien states of consciousness - but unlike drugs, they operate purely at a software level, using controlled input channels.

Super Hexagon tests the limits of human reflexes and execution, it requires developing the ability to act faster than you would have thought humanly possible. It's most satisfying when you're playing right at your limit, or pushing just a little bit past it. At first it was too far beyond my skill level for me to enjoy it; it was just frustrating. I pushed through this out of respect for Terry; I played it occasionally over several months and eventually got through that barrier, but it wasn't pleasant. I respect the decision to keep the difficulty level uncompromisingly high; an "easy" level would be pointless; but something slightly lower might have made it less painful for me to get into. Or maybe not - just as running or playing the guitar hurts at first, perhaps initial training in such an extreme high-speed action game is unavoidably a struggle.

As you improve at the game, your perception of time changes. Patterns that seemed too fast to possibly respond to slow down and become reasonable, you have time to see the gaps and to move into them. You reach a point where Hexagon mode actually starts to feel slow. Then later you realise that Hexagoner is actually easier than Hexagon; the patterns are longer, so there are fewer of them and you can see further ahead, you can last longer just through muscle memory; and that starts to feel slow too. You begin to ascribe meanings, characters to the patterns, seeing some as friends and some as enemies. You lose consciousness, your brain fully occupied running the software needed to play - then suddenly you regain it, transcending it, able to think and talk while your thumbs keep on playing without needing your attention. You perceive the gaps between thoughts, your consciousness running faster than them. You start to feel that Hexagonest is actually easier than the other two because in those you now have to consciously delay before acting, slow your reflexes down, avoid getting distracted in the long gaps. And then when you finally do complete it, it's almost a let down - it's become so slow as to be unchallenging, and now the Hyper modes are what's interesting. This is Super Hexagon's payload, the new mode of thought it forces you into, the super-power it grants you: accelerated time sense.

Hexagon rides the line between reflexive action and pattern memorisation. Often it falls too far toward the second for my taste; learning arbitrary patterns frustrates me, my initial reaction was that it was a waste of time. But it leavens it somewhat by giving an extremely short delay to get back into the action (a characteristic of many of Terry's games), by randomising patterns to produce varied situations rather than a strictly learnable sequence all the way through, and by obfuscating the patterns through its weirdly spinning viewpoint. So it suffers less from this than bullet-hell shooters do. Still, at its heart the gameplay is a simple call-and-response. It feels like a weakness that it ends up so dependent on memorisation, with no complex decision-making, no long-term consequences other than survival. But it is what it is, and maybe it couldn't have achieved its goals of pushing reaction time so far in a relatively accessible way had it demanded a less simple computation to be performed.

Friday, 9 November 2012


Warning: contains spoilers for O.

Giving menu options in a game feels like an admission of failure. The creator couldn't find the correct settings themselves and had to leave it to the players to fix it. You couldn't decide on the best controls, so you left some possibilities to choose between. You couldn't make good enough music, so you left an option to disable it. Some things are unavoidable though. Accessibility options are a very good thing; enabling subtitles or whatever (but it's more elegant to cater for colourblindness by distinguishing things through shape than by having a separate mode). But most of the essentials (volume control, graphics settings) are handled by the hardware or operating system; not my problem. (It's nice to support mods, but that's something different; allowing your game to be used as a frame to build other games on top of.)

You often end up needing to make some concessions for people learning to play - easier difficulty levels to learn on, harder ones to satisfy Terry's craving for rapid defeat. I love the elegance of Ziggurat's single mode, but I know the gradual start puts many players off.  In Glitch Tank, I ended up adding the 6hp mode after having played it a lot; it's better for advanced players, but way too slow for beginners. In Helix, I've ended up having to add separate difficulty modes.

In a multiplayer game, I feel it's often an error to include an option to play against AI. The way an AI opponent works is just so unlike to how a human plays that it makes for a very different experience - an AI has an advantage over humans from its essentially instant reaction speed, but a disadvantage from its lack of conscious reasoning. Plus the experience of learning alongside an opponent is something I value and (so far) AI opponents can't offer that. I suspect Glitch Tank suffered from this: while I've enjoyed playing against the AI, it's vastly inferior to playing against another human. It's pretty likely that the first time someone plays will be against the AI, because they've just downloaded it and not found someone to play with yet, so they'll get a suboptimal initial experience. And maybe they'll judge it by that, find it unworthy, and never end up playing two-player. In future, if a game is intended to be multiplayer, I'll try to leave it at that - it won't be accessible to people who "don't have friends" to play with, but I see that as a smaller loss than people who would otherwise play it with friends not doing so.

Again with Glitch Tank, I'm not sure whether I was correct to include the turn-based mode. I've said before that I'm glad I included it because some people vastly prefer it, but now I'm not sure. Has it given anyone a worse experience of the game?  It seems like a lot of players find the real-time mode alien at first, then switch to turn-based and are far more comfortable with it. It's much more common to see card mechanics and grid-based movement in a turn-based game, so this is a more familiar experience. And then if they never switch back to real-time they're missing out; it's a much more interesting game, partially because of it being a less familiar approach. It was an intentional choice not to save Glitch Tank's options, resetting to two-player real-time each time it's run, giving a constant subtle reminder of how the game is best played.

O has just one mode, and for some that counts against it. But that one mode is bloody good, and omitting options adds to the overall pure minimalist aesthetic.  I see it as a sport, and sports don't come with a menu (although they can be modded: hence the inclusion of the Secret Options Menu and implicit support for one-handed/one-fingered/left-handed/non-contact play). To be clear: I'm not complaining about that review; I'm happy they wrote about the game, he's just writing for a particular audience which I'm not part of.

The Secret Options Menu lets you change physical properties of the balls (friction, bounciness, speed), scoring (target, chain bonus), how fast balls appear, etc. When I've told people about it at the start, I've felt it's hurt their enjoyment. Rather than exploring it and discovering less-obvious tactics, they quickly set about trying to 'fix' it: like many of my games it takes some figuring out so the initial experience has an element of bafflement.  I think it's entertaining to try out variations, to mod it, but it's better to understand the game well first. I spent a lot of time tuning these variables to find good settings; random values you choose are likely to be worse. This feeds into the idea of "the paradox of choice" (via Electron Dance) - giving people options can make them less happy, even though it's something we say we want and make use of when it's there.

Mm, I don't really have a conclusion here. It's good to have options sometimes, for advanced players, for modding, for accessibility. But you should take care with them, try to get things right in the first place rather than leaving them as options, and try to prevent the availability of options diminishing players' experiences of a game.

Sunday, 21 October 2012


Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for VESPER.5 (though nothing not clear after a week or two), and also asks whether certain things are games or not. Note that I do not consider "not a game" to be a value judgement, and I'm interested in finding edge-cases and exceptions to made-up rules because such things are often more beautiful to me than that which is easily classified.

Game idea: You walk around in an empty room and nothing happens.

Is this even a game? I know some who would argue that it is, and some who would argue that it isn't. If it's a game, it's a fairly trivial one. There is a decision to make - where to walk within the room - but it has no further consequences. Still, the first time you play you don't know that nothing will happen, so there is some ambiguity.

Game idea: You walk around in a room with paintings hanging on the wall; if you move next to a painting you can look at it.

Okay, now we've ramped up the consequences a little bit. You can choose what to look at, and see a different image depending on your choice. It's purely an aesthetic consequence, it's not a complex system of interactions, but that's okay. Uncertainty arises from not knowing what the pictures are until you look at them. Is it a game yet?

Game idea: You walk around in a vacuum-filled room with paintings on the wall, wearing a space-suit with only enough air to take 10 steps.

Now the consequences have been turned right up: you don't have enough steps to look at every picture, so there's a resource constraint giving exclusive alternatives. You make choices with opportunity costs and uncertain outcomes. I'd say it's definitely a game - though a quite simple one and probably still an edge case for some. (Further evidence in favour of it being a game: it's in SPACE!)

Game idea: You walk around a room looking at paintings, but you can only take one step each day.

So we've arrived at something a bit like VESPER.5. There's no exclusivity; if you invest enough time you can see everything; but decisions still carry real weight because they cost you in real time. It definitely feels like a game.

Game idea: You walk around a room looking at paintings, but you can only take one step each second.

Is this significantly different from the previous? Your choices carry less weight because they cost less time, but they still do have a cost. Time is a finite resource for mortal beings. You can continuously interpolate from this to the previous game just by changing the time parameter. This is an obstacle to having a strict definition of "game" that excludes one but not the other - ideally we'd like our theoretical analysis not to depend on time scales, not to switch at some arbitrary parametric value.

Proteus is not very distant from some of these examples. You spend time playing it, making choices with outcomes that are largely experiential - what scenes you're looking at, what music you're listening to. It has deeper mechanics, complex interacting systems of cause and effect, but still they're aimed at an aesthetic effect rather than classical gameplay. It's a piece of entertainment software in which you make decisions about allocating resources (time) with uncertain consequences; a game. (Though that description feels somewhat absurd - while true, it fails to describe the heart of Proteus.)

I realised this playing SpaceChem, which would typically be classified as a puzzle, not a game (in taxonomies that distinguish puzzles from games). At a formal level, there are no truly uncertain decisions made - you can try out any possible solution and then undo the construction with (seemingly) no cost. But the cost of time means that's not the case, and you can't reasonably try all the possible solutions. You have to plan how best to spend your limited time to search for a solution. Laying out a complex chain of reactors can take half an hour or more, and once you've committed that to building something you'd prefer to adapt it if possible rather than clear it and start from scratch. As in a game of Tetris, you deal with the consequences of your suboptimal placements. The same is true of any puzzle; even if there's an undo button, you're still expending some of your finite lifespan on false attempts.

So player time as a cost means things that we naturally think of as being "free"; reversible choices with no in-game resource cost; actually aren't. Taking a step in VESPER.5 feels consequential, and it wouldn't if you could just step right back the next moment, but that's not a fundamental difference - we've just turned up a knob, zoomed in on a choice that would be there anyway.

In Meier's "a game is a series of interesting choices", what makes a choice interesting? The classical answer is that a choice is interesting by being difficult to make, because of some form of hidden information - whether explicit (as in Poker) or implicit (as in Chess). But there are other ways a choice can be difficult or interesting. If we abandon the notion of a single unified objective, the choice of what goals to pursue can be difficult and interesting because the outcomes are incomparable. This is a closer approximation to real life: we pursue varied goals with varied - sometimes contradictory - objectives; not everything has an economic value, a moral value, an aesthetic value; sometimes these values fight each other. In VESPER.5, you ask yourself it's worth your time to stop and smell the flowers, or if you'd prefer to race deeper in as fast as possible, or perhaps ascetically skirt the edges while avoiding touching anything. There's a "hidden information" aspect to this too - you don't know if the program will react in different ways to these different inputs - but more interesting is the unique personal valuation.

James Lantz wrote recently about player time in games - he said a bunch of stuff that I'd been going to say in this post and some smart things I hadn't thought of, so read that.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Many games cast the player in the role of Maxwell's demon: bringing order from chaos, building structures out of randomness. Tetris - assembling a stream of molecules into a regular lattice. Bejewelled - performing involutions to form crystals. Drop7 - organising gibberish into true self-referential statements. As single-player high-score games it's important to these that they be balanced such that the laws of physics are upheld - you can reverse entropy locally for a while, but eventually you will lose. Or Freecell - a solution of cards precipitates into crystals of increasing size - as a puzzle there's a solution, a state of perfect order (as bland as perfect disorder).

Game idea: literal metaphor of Maxwell's demon; one-touch control of a gate passing particles through to sort them. I expect this has probably been done, and a quick search confirms it. Oh, and of course there's the old Windows game Maxwell's Maniac!

(A friend once said my game Fire Up The Lemma Engines made him feel like Maxwell's demon; that's where this train of thought embarked.)

A quick glance at the Wikipedia disambiguation page for entropy will show you that the word is used in similar but distinct ways in a wide variety of fields. There's probably some good game ideas in all of them. I'm most familiar with its use in information theory (though not very familiar; it's come up in a few things I've read but tangentially to my main interest in them). Roughly, it's a measurement of how easy a sequence is to predict - a completely random sequence has maximum entropy, a sequence of all the same character has minimum entropy, a passage of text is somewhere in between; not completely predictable but filled with patterns.

Game idea: player inputs a sequence, score is the Shannon entropy of that sequence. This would be hard, we're not good at avoiding patterns. Wrap it in a Dune license and you've got that peculiar shuffling walk across the desert, avoiding any rhythmic motion that might attract sandworms; I'd play that.

O is a contest between two demons, each trying to minimise the entropy of the sequence of colours they collect. Well, a very rough approximation of the entropy: it measures the lengths of monochromatic subsequences, the probability that a ball is followed by another of the same colour. Demons may play a variation scored by the Shannon entropy. Each player is an agent of both order and chaos; creating patterns on one side of the board while disrupting them on the other.

It's easier to create chaos than order; easier to disrupt patterns than to build them. This can be a game balance issue: there's a natural pressure towards it being cheaper to attack than defend in competitive games, which is often appropriate but must be taken into consideration.

Monday, 15 October 2012


I'm trying to brute-force the IGF. It's a bit of a distraction, but it seems to be an important part of succeeding as an individual making games, and getting some level of artistic recognition beyond a tight community of developers.

Submitting a game to it, you're asked:
"Are you indie? You may think this is a silly question, but think carefully about whether you would consider yourself an "independent developer", by most people's definition of that term - an artistically independent game creator making the kinds of games that you want to make. If you feel like you are, then please tick the box."
So I thought carefully about it. And I find it quite a strange label. On Steam it's treated as a genre, alongside "Action", "RPG", etc. Okay, this shouldn't be a "definition of indie" post. We know what we mean by it, even if it's hard to pin down a precise wording. The IGF submission form specifies "artistically independent", which is perhaps not quite right - what if a publisher funds a game but doesn't exert any creative control over it? But it's clear enough, and I'm not criticising them here.

Some game developers seem to take a lot of pride in being "indie". I think this is especially common among those who have had bad experiences working on dependent games before going "indie". For them, it seems like a big deal, it's a great experience to work on what you personally want to work on, and they get excited about it.

To me, it's not a big deal. Creative independence seems like the natural order of things. I've spent time in academia, and it's very much the expectation there that researchers pursue what they're interested in studying in a self-directed way - though often collaborating out of common interest. The role of the administration is to support the researchers, not to tell them what to do - much like the government of a country. (This may be changing, with universities trying to structure themselves more like businesses, and funding bodies caring more about immediate obvious applications.) Maybe I'm reeking with privilege here, but it seems to me like this is the default way art has always been done; people making what they want to make for its own sake. While large scale productions aren't something new - for a long time we've had orchestras where 100 people play the compositions of one with little room for personal expression, similarly with theatre and architecture - they seem like an anomaly to me. (Though often a beautiful anomaly; I appreciate the heights that can be achieved when a large number of people work in unison, submitting to a singular vision.) So yes, I'm artistically independent, but that's just normal to me, that's how art works.

But I'm not financially independent. As I've mentioned before, I can only afford to make games now because my wife is employed, and because I somehow got a game on Steam and the Indie Royale bundle. Without these two publisher-like companies, my income would have been pretty close to zero. And I'll need some of my future games to sell to keep me going - am I significantly less dependent on popular opinion and market forces because I'm trying to interpret them myself rather than being forced into a publisher's interpretation?

I depend on others emotionally. I'm fairly isolated right now (living somewhere remote from friends for my wife's work), so I rely a lot on twitter and online chat for social contact. I really don't know where I'd be without some of the people I talk to regularly online. I'm nourished by people discussing my work; whenever a flurry of VESPER.5 tweets crops up it really encourages me to keep going, to work hard and make more things.

I depend on others for help making things. Games need testing, and though I often reject suggestions because they don't fit what I want to do, sometimes taking into account feedback from others makes things vastly better in ways that I could not have thought of myself. And technical problems come up that I have no idea how to solve by myself (particularly when they're on a Mac).

I depend on structures that are in place to support me - the internet, the stores I sell games through, the hardware and operating systems they run on, the libraries I use, the journalists that can write about my games to let others know about them. When I make a game that requires an obscure controller I'm relying on the manufacturers and distributors to ensure people can have access to it. And various utilities - supplying electricity and water to my home, and nourishment to my nearest supermarket. I would not have any hope of doing what I try to do if the rest of the billions of people on Earth did not cooperate to keep the world around me working in a particular way, so it feels somewhat absurd to call myself "independent" just because I don't have a particular kind of relationship with a specific kind of corporation.

Thank you, everyone. And please don't destroy this world we all depend on; we don't have another.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Released a new game: O, two players only, for iPad, get it on appstore. It's half price for a week, and so is Glitch Tank.

It's very natural when creating a videogame for more than one player to clearly separate their inputs. In games like Shot Shot Shoot and Glitch Tank, even though players use the same input device, there's a clear delineation of zones - here's my side of the screen, here's yours, and a DMZ between where neither one of us touches. Within the simulation we have a defined formal interaction, and we refrain from coming into contact outside of it.

There are exceptions to this. A Bastard makes the keyboard a shared input space, randomly remapping keys after every move, sometimes coinciding with your opponent's keys (George is working on a touchscreen version too - keep an eye out for it). Centrifeud mostly keeps to clearly separated input zones, but the occasional cry of "touch yourself" directs players to reach into the shared central playing field. Greedy Bankers has two players grabbing gems from each other's side of the touchscreen. Bloop has separate input zones for each player, but they're intermingled across the screen making it difficult not to collide.

When inputs overlap like this, it invites players to interfere with each other physically. But there's no reason why we cannot interact physically in any game. David Hayward has told me that sometimes when he plays Glitch Tank, if his opponent is hesitating over an action, he will bump the ipad up into their finger to hurry them along. You could also just reach over and press one of your opponent's buttons, or physically restrain them so that they can't interact with the game at all. The purest form of this is Chicanery, in which there's no way to win other than physically removing your opponent's fingers from the controls by any means possible. This would be an optimal strategy for any competitive game, if we allowed ourselves to use it.

In many physical sports there is unavoidable overlap in input domains, and guidelines have arisen restricting physical violence; protocols of what's considered good sportsmanship; at a professional level these are enforced by referees. Different expected levels of physicality - non-contact, semi-contact, full-contact. What degree of violence is appropriate depends on the players and the game, but in general crippling your opponents is avoided despite being a dominant strategy. As we develop the space of digital games with overlapping inputs I hope that similar protocols will emerge; taking into account having some level of physical interaction without degenerating into violence. If not, every such game will be played as a Chicanery variant - and while Chicanery is great, that would be less interesting than having a variety of different games.

O came out of a discussion with Jonathan Brodsky, he suggested a variation on Glitch Tank splicing in some ideas from A Bastard: instead of keeping action buttons separated at opposite edges of the screen, have cards spawn randomly across the map which either player can grab and drag to use them. This inspired me with a similar idea; omit the tank element and just have a kind of set-collection game. The idea was beautiful to me so I dropped everything to make it as quickly as possible.

Balls appear on the screen in three colours. You score points by collecting a sequence of balls of the same colour - the first is worth 0, then each after that is worth 1 more. Triangular numbers. This score system ensures that it's not simply a matter of grabbing balls indiscriminately; you get a much higher score by sticking to one colour than by taking anything you can get.

It's very elemental. It feels a bit like a two-player variation of Eliss, it's one of the purest non-trivial touchscreen games.

Both players share the entire touchscreen as their input space, with no restrictions on where each player may touch. As above, this invites physical interference. You will have to work out for yourselves what level of physical interaction is appropriate; there's a lot of depth on the digital side of the game that can be trampled right over and missed out on if you get too violent, but some level of physical push and shove is unavoidable when you're both trying to grab the same balls. I'm not going to tell you how you're 'supposed' to play, but I think it's a lot more interesting when both players actually get to. Think of it as a low-contact sport, like Netball where you're not allowed to grab the ball out of another player's hands - that's partially enforced in O; while someone is touching a ball it won't respond to other touches (you could physically prise an opponent's finger from the screen, but this is not recommended: the natural response is to push harder, and that way risks breaking something). So as a possible guideline: don't prevent your opponent from touching the screen, and don't force them to release a ball that they're touching.

Appstore Link

Monday, 8 October 2012

Playing games with people who don't play games

Darren Grey commented on my last post:
"None of my friends are gamers, so multiplayer really isn't viable. When I do try to get them to play a game of something I'm usually far to much better than them, which neither of us enjoy. On that note more co-op style stuff would be better for engaging my non-gamer friends."

Since this seems to be a common problem, maybe I can try to say something constructive towards it rather than just complain that nobody plays local multiplayer! Skip to the end for a helpful list.

I really don't like that word, "gamer". It's a word we use to exclude people, to disconnect our hobby from the bulk of humanity and from a universal tradition of play first formalised millennia ago but with prehuman roots evident in the playful rituals of animals. Everyone plays games; or at least have played games, would play games. Just maybe not "gamer" games - they play Snake or Angry Birds on their telephones, cards or (ugh) Monopoly with their families, sports on the weekend, drinking games and darts at the pub, Paintball or Laser Strike for a birthday party, Farmville when their employer thinks they're working, World of Warcraft. I have plenty of friends who wouldn't be identified as "gamers", who would say they don't really play games, but will thrash me at Mario Kart any time. And I know plenty of Serious people who scorn VIDEOGAMES, but are always up for a Serious game like Chess, Bridge, Go - games that they feel good about playing because they have a cultural heritage and are recognised as more than an idle pastime.

It's largely a matter of choosing the right game and the right context. Board games are generally a better choice than videogames; they're low-pressure because of being turn-based (but without the overdose of complexity that turn-based videogames tend to throw in), and they tend to be familiar to people who played them as children but recognise their potential to be more than just a pursuit for children. There's an initial barrier with board games of having to learn some rules before starting play, this is balanced by the transparency of the rules once they're known.

Darren mentions games not being enjoyable because of the gap in skill levels; some games hold up better than others under this. A high level of randomness (typically where cards or dice feature prominently) can give less-skilled players a chance of winning, making them feel more comfortable playing - even when the more experienced player still wins most of the time. Mario Kart explicitly assists whoever is in the rear by giving them better powerups, Funkenschlag/Power Grid shifts the turn order, giving trailing players first picks and cheaper prices. Zero-sum games are off-putting because one player's gains are their opponent's losses; games where all players have a sense of "building up" even when they're behind create a better feeling for beginners, and when there's a score you can get a sense that you're improving at the game by getting a better score even if you lose. Darren suggested cooperative games, and this is a good idea - but a lot of cooperative board games actually suffer when there's a wide skill disparity because one player can tell everyone what to do. Team games work well; two against two, one against many, cooperative with hidden traitors, etc. And a lot of games for more than two players have a kind of implicit teamwork; if one player is much more experienced everyone else can gang up on them, if one player is less experienced they might be left alone, so these can be kind of self-balancing - but the feeling of being picked on can be unpleasant, so some care is required.

Theme is important for people unfamiliar with games. A lot of people are put off games with pictures of spaceships on them by association with a TV show they didn't like. Most modern board games have inoffensive vaguely-medieval farming settings which seem to go down quite well (there's something to be said there about the eagerness of office-working city-dwellers to embrace fantasies of a simpler life). Also everyone loves Lord of the Rings since the movies made it accessible to non-bookers, and there are a few decent LOTR games out there - including a cooperative one, hey!

Make sure to be gentle when introducing games to new players, clearly explaining what's going on. Nothing puts people off a game like letting them continue playing under an obvious misconception to your advantage, failing to remind them of an important rule until it's too late and then not letting them take back their move, or racing through actions with the bewildering speed of experience.

Here are some games I find pretty good to play with people who don't usually play games. This list is limited by my experience, others can probably make better suggestions. This isn't a list of my favourite games, but ones I think work well for a general audience.

Carcassonne. A pleasant agrarian setting, an intuitive tile-laying mechanic, rules that can be explained within a minute, a good balance between accessibility and depth, a comforting level of randomness, and a nice cooperative feeling of "we're building a castle together" with more than two players.

Apples to Apples. A party game, more about trying to make people laugh than about winning. Knowing the other players well and understanding how they think is an advantage. Also, Dixit.

Toepen. Simple card game based on bluffing, always goes down well.

Mafia/Werewolf. Needs a large-ish group, and only really works if everyone pays attention, not great in a noisy environment.

Dominion. Low interaction, generally little chance of catching up once someone gets ahead, but a very fun base mechanic and beginners have a decent chance of winning without playing any complex strategy. My first experience of this was poor but only because we were playing a variant: make sure to use the right number of victory cards for the number of players and absolutely don't play with more than the recommended number of players.

Shadows Over Camelot. Cooperative, but with a traitor. It's quite fun to get into role-playing as knights, I sometimes play under a vow of silence. There are deep design flaws that become apparent if you try to play it as a serious competitive game, but don't worry about them and just have fun with it.

Niagara. Quite random, simple, very appealing visually with the shiny gems, the rushing river, and the chunky board.

Mario Kart. Seriously.

If you have an iPad: Centrifeud and Tritritriobelisk.

For videogames, if you happen to be near London, take your friends to a Wild Rumpus - they're fantastic, we brought someone along to the last one who hadn't played a game in years and he loved it, highly recommended. Or browse the list of Wild Rumpus games - JS Joust, Recurse, Hokra, B.U.T.T.O.N.…

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Why local multiplayer?

I've spent a bit of time making local multiplayer games over the last year and a half, two-player ones specifically. I wanted to write something about why.

First: why multiplayer?

The way I play games is not focused on consumption; I don't care about playing every new thing that comes out, I prefer to play a small number of games in great depth. So I tend to gravitate towards games that are designed to be played repeatedly and to reward focused study (though it's possible to go deep on a game that wasn't explicitly designed for it - this is what speedrunning is all about). The majority of such games are [a] multiplayer or [b] roguelikes. Multiplayer games encourage repetition because they can be as difficult as your opponent, there can be scope to increase your skill indefinitely and a satisfying reason to do so, and because they allow for human forms of interaction that current algorithms are poor at. Roguelikes (and roguelikelikes) encourage repetition with randomly generated content, as well as typically having a lot of mechanical depth.

Since this is the way I like to play games, these are naturally the type of games I try to make. I especially love playing games as a social activity, sharing them with others. So: multiplayer.

I've attempted online multiplayer in the past, and it wasn't a very positive experience for me. I spent a lot of time debugging network code, tracking down obscure errors involving clients getting out of sync to the point where people were playing completely different games. (And honestly, I doubt I got them all.) And even without bugs, the way I chose to implement it turned out to not be very resilient to lag - I could have spent months reworking it to improve this but that really wouldn't have been a good use of my time. (I think there's a reason why most popular online multiplayer games are FPS and standard-RTS: with FPS it's not very consequential if players see each other in slightly different positions and discrepancies can be rectified continuously, and with RTS it doesn't matter if there's a small delay on inputs.) Possibly I could have saved myself some effort by using an appropriate library, or if I'd started out with any idea what I was doing, but there's still a lot of work involved. And then, well, not many people are willing to play some obscure indie game online anyway. It's much easier to play a popular mainstream game where you can easily find dozens of games running at any time of day.

I really don't want to go through that again. And I'd advise other independent developers to avoid it too; it's unlikely to be worth the effort.

There are a few alternatives to online multiplayer. Singleplayer. Asynchronous multiplayer - online but without the real-time requirement, so avoiding the twin spectres of lag and barren servers. And local multiplayer - either played on one computer, or board games.

So local multiplayer's great, you get interaction with human players without having to dabble in networking at all. In fact, it's about as simple as you can get technologically - even simpler than singleplayer, because human opponents provide the opposition there's little need for AI, procedural generation, or substantial content either. There's a good reason why many of the earliest videogames were multiplayer (SPACEWAR, Tennis for Two, Pong). Additionally, I find the face-to-face interaction of playing with someone who's there with me much more satisfying than online play.

But there's a downside to it, which is that very few people seem to play these kinds of games. With online multiplayer, it doesn't matter if potential players are spread out across the world (although as above, if there's not a critical mass they won't play anyway), but when it's local you need someone else to be right there to play with you. I've had a number of people tell me they liked Zaga-33, but didn't buy Glitch Tank because they'd have nobody to play with. (Glitch Tank really hasn't sold well at all, despite being a very good game.) In the comments on Rock Paper Shotgun's Cardboard Children column people often post that they'd love to play some of these board games but have nobody to play with. This honestly baffles me - I'm quite a hermit and yet I often play games with others, how is it that so many people are so isolated that they can't find someone to share a game with? It seems very sad. But maybe it's just that these games aren't an accepted part of culture; probably they do have friends who they see, but playing games is for them something that they each do alone in private and never something shared with others. This is perhaps even sadder. I hope that with more developers making local multiplayer games and events like the Wild Rumpus that local multiplayer videogames will gain acceptance (and not just for selfish reasons).

And why two players specifically? A couple of reasons. When you're all playing on one computer at the same time, it's just quite hard to fit many people in. I've played games that fit four people around one keyboard or ipad and they're great fun, but it does get pretty crowded. And also, the more players a game needs the harder it is to test. I'm living in the middle of nowhere and I'm not often in a situation where I could easily test a game that needs more than two players - but two works great, I play them with my wife. And the same problem will apply to others - just as requiring two players stops some people playing them, the more they require the less likely they are to be played. There are a lot of multiplayer concepts that don't really work with just 2 players though so I'm definitely going to try making games for more sometime.

Saturday, 29 September 2012


As we learn a game, we construct a mental model of how it works. Sometimes our model turns out to be inaccurate, and we have to modify it to take into account new information. A game should not refrain from presenting evidence that will disprove false models of it.

In a multiplayer game, some of the responsibility for disproving our models belongs to our opponents. If I believe that Rock is a superior choice and always pick it, you can select Paper to confront me with the falsity of this belief. But our opponents will have inaccuracies in their own models as well; Frank Lantz describes the process of finding and exploiting inaccuracies in your opponent's understanding of a game while they're simultaneously trying to exploit your own as maneuvering in donkeyspace.

Situations can arise, especially with board games where there are typically small local groups of players, where all players share some of the same false beliefs and thus are never confronted with their falsity - "groupthink". We all believe that X is the most efficient, so we all always pick X, so we never learn we're wrong - unless perhaps someone from a different group joins us and shows us how X can be beaten.

Now, this isn't necessarily a problem. If a group of players settles into something that's interesting to them, it doesn't matter if they're playing poorly on an absolute scale. But if groups falsely conclude that a game is unbalanced or uninteresting and give up on it before they really understand it, if groupthink is reducing what they get out of the game, then that's something for the designer to be concerned about.

A groupthink problem has come up in a game I'm working on. It's a two-player local ipad game, like Glitch Tank, so there are the same risks as with board games for groups of isolated players. Some people are getting it fine, others aren't - they settle on a style of play that mostly involves trying to prevent their opponent doing anything, while only accumulating points very slowly themselves. This is an unstable equilibrium; if one player focused more on scoring they could get ahead, but as long as both players are doing the same groupthink prevails. It's also a less fun way to play it. One tester has reported that the rounds last a bit too long - and he's right, I agree with him, with the way he's playing it does take too long. The game ends when one player reaches a target score, so if you're accumulating points more slowly than usual the game takes longer. But tuning the target score to make those games an appropriate length would make it far too short for my preferred style of play.

Not sure what I'll do. It might be solved by the measures I'm taking to try to communicate the scoring mechanics more clearly, or it might not; once someone believes they know something it's quite hard to change their mind. I've considered different ending conditions (time limit, number of balls collected), but nothing else really seems satisfactory. Possibly I'll just relax and ignore it, and try not to mind if some people decide they don't like the game based on false assumptions about it - I should be getting used to that by now.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


So this is something we're doing now: game mixtapes.

cool mix

I'm not convinced the analogy quite works; games - even very small ones - tend to be bigger and more self-complete than songs are. Ideally I'd like to pull out a bunch of individual sections from different games and string them together to make something much more closely approximating a mixtape - a track from Soul Brother, a room from Cave Story, one level of Brogue.. this isn't so easy to do with existing games.

I've dug into the idea of albums of games in the past, with Idiolect (which I never finished) and Kompendium. Specifically designing games to be joined together as an album; more distinct than individual levels of a single game, but more coherent than a series of separate games. L mentioned the idea of an album of games from different authors earlier today. I think this kind of approach is more likely to yield something that makes sense as a whole. But a big part of the mixtape idea is just to introduce people to stuff they might find interesting, akin to the Pickford Bros' "games we like" initiative; they don't necessarily have to fit together.

Anyway, here's a mixtape.

side 1:
Kenta Cho - a7xpg
Linley Henzell - Excellent Bifurcation
Chris Morris - Linerogue
Christoffer Hedborg - Cathode Rays

side 2:
Jonathan Whiting - NiƱa Nueve
Jonas Kyratzes - Alphaland
Robert Yang, Mohini Dutta, Ben Norskov - Souvenir
Stephen Lavelle - The Rose Garden

Thursday, 6 September 2012

hidden costs of independent game development

Sometimes I can make a game in a month, then sell it to make $1000 or so. Maybe that's not great by most people's standards, but if I could do that every month I'd be pretty happy, that's enough to live on.

But most of the time it doesn't work out so well. Making games quickly requires quite an intense level of effort that isn't really sustainable long-term. Sometimes I get sick, and while that might not prevent me working, it limits my potential. Sometimes things break; computer hardware isn't very stable under immersion in liquids or high-speed collisions, and repairs or replacements can be pretty costly. And sometimes I'm an utter fool and write over a month's work that I haven't backed up.


Running some disc recovery software now and hoping it can rescue things.

And other times, I can spend months prototyping various ideas that sound cool in my head but don't actually work. Some simply don't work at all, but others seem quite close to working, if I can just think of the right way to bring their pieces together. Trying out new ideas takes a lot of time and gives a lot of failures. I can see why some prefer to stick to variations on an established formula; trying out new things takes a lot longer and tends to be less favourably received.

When I make a game in a month and it works I feel pretty amazing. I feel like I could do that every month no trouble. But I can't, because there are all these hidden costs that I don't perceive at that point in time. Those months are a few among many. Just counting the development time of a game from when I started working on that particular game until when it was released misses a lot: the risks of accidents happening that didn't happen to occur in that time, the time spent on failed games that mapped out the way to that one, the time spent fixing bugs and trying to convince anyone to review the game afterwards, the subsequent period of exhaustion from overwork. It's not enough for a game's sales to just cover the time spent making it.

I'm very lucky to be able to continue making games for now. Lucky to have had a game on Steam and the Indie Royale bundle, that actually made enough to pay off my student loan and live on for a bit. Extremely lucky that my wife has a job at the moment that pays enough to support us both. I feel kind of bad that I sometimes complain about not having much income from games when there are others in genuine need. But if there comes a time where I need to choose between trying to support myself entirely from making games or going out and getting a real job this is something that I'll need to remember: I can't consistently make games as quickly as I think I can, I have to take into account these hidden costs.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

zaga, score, expressivity, personality

Came across some brief discussion of Zaga-33 in the comments of this auro post while browsing google searches trying to figure out what had triggered a bunch of sales (I know, pretty sad). Padi and Keith make the point that there's limited scope for really expressive skillful play; we discussed this in the roguelike radio podcast as well.

I do agree with this; although there is room for skill in the game, there is a ceiling which can be reached. You can get to a point where you've fully mastered the game: you can complete it 95% of the time, get the maximum score, get the secret ending, whatever. It takes some time to get to that point, most people won't, but once you're there there's little reason to play again. It's not a game you can spend your whole life getting better at. And that's okay, it doesn't need to be, but let's think about why.


The scoring is something they mention as limiting Zaga-33's scope for virtuosity. And I think this is an error, in fact I believe the opposite. When a game (or anything) does a few things differently to usual, we tend to latch onto those differences as an explanation for anything about it; I think that's what's happening here.

Score is a measurement we take of a game system, ostensibly to evaluate how well a player performed. We tend to design scoring in parallel with the rest of the game, but it's a one-way interaction, strictly an output. It doesn't affect the system, it's not a resource to manage or whatever, it can't add any systemic depth to the game. It can reveal depth that was already present but not apparent, but it has to be there in the first place. So the fact that the score ceiling is accessible - well, that's an effect of the skill ceiling being accessible, not a cause.

Super Crate Box awards points for collecting randomly located crates which randomly change your weapon. Some of the weapons are terrible, or only situationally good, so improving your score can put you in a risky position. The developers joked about changing the game to award score for kills rather than crates, apparently this was somehow a common suggestion from players? That's a very uninteresting way to play; once you have a good weapon you can sit in a corner and safely rack up any number of kills, getting an arbitrarily high score without risk. However, there's nothing to stop you playing in either way regardless of how it's scored! Even if the game counted number of kills you could still perform the exact same actions as if it was counting crates and presumably enjoy the game just as much; the scoring simply provides a guide towards an interesting way to play.

In a multiplayer game we typically take a binary measurement: win/lose (although sometimes we allow draws or care about position e.g. in the context of a tournament). This is often appropriate in a single-player game, especially if there are other limitations on replayability (e.g. fixed story and content), but in a game that's meant to be played repeatedly, it's more satisfying to take a higher-resolution measurement of performance to provide goals and a sense of progression. Because your opposition is a fixed algorithm, there's a certain level of performance required to reliably achieve a binary "win" measurement, after which there feels like little reason to keep playing and before which there can feel like little progress. Again, there's nothing to stop someone playing a game repeatedly regardless of scoring, it just provides guidance towards an interesting way to play.

(Note that multiplayer games sometimes have a score value which is measured and compared to determine the winner; this is conceptually quite different to how single-player scores operate because ultimately all that matters are the relative values, scores are not comparable between separate plays of the game.)

When measuring a score, we typically throw away a lot of information about the game (we could encode all information about its state and history in a single number but this would be highly atypical). So there's a question of how much we want to throw away, what resolution to measure at. Zaga-33 has a fairly coarse score: one point per level, and one for each item when you complete it. Does this coarseness limit the game's expressivity? I don't think so; it actually increases it. See, the more precisely a score measures your performance, the more precisely it specifies what counts as a good performance. This reduces choice by dictating how you're expected to play. A score that throws away a lot of information allows players to more freely choose what that information is. This doesn't mean that it doesn't matter what you do: skillful play will get you further by conserving resources, resulting in a better score overall. But it means your actions are dictated less by details of the score and more by complex evaluations of the entire game state. It takes more skill to evaluate and manage resources when their relationship to score is more ambiguous. As I discussed in my last post about it, not having 'experience' awarded for killing enemies enables a choice about how to approach enemies - whether to engage them or to sneak past; not having a score bonus for killing does the same. The fact that the game doesn't specifically call out skillful moves and reward them is irrelevant; efficiency is its own reward and ends up reflected in the final score. I feel its scoring is close to the optimal resolution for the game - fine enough to measure variations in skill but coarse enough to leave some choices open. So if Zaga-33 ultimately lacks expressivity, I'd say it's despite the scoring, not because of it.

Other roguelikes I've played (mainly Nethack, Rogue, ADOM) have these complex score systems measuring all kinds of things - gold collected, monsters killed, tripe eaten. I tend to ignore them and just pay attention to how far I get; basically I'm modding them to use the same score system as Zaga-33. And I think I'm not the only one, I don't think many players care about these scores unless they're an expert looking for an additional challenge - a "high score" play as an additional optional constraint akin to "ironman", "pacifist", "vegetarian", "atheist".

An advantage of coarse scoring in a game with heavy randomisation is that it covers up some of the variance. If killing enemies is rewarded, someone who draws a powerful weapon will score higher than someone with powerful armour, even if the two items are perfectly balanced in terms of efficiency. That's not an insoluble problem, but it's nice to be able to skip over it entirely.

One other thing - when a game is played repeatedly, we get a sequence of scores. How we interpret that sequence also affects what we count as a good performance. In Zaga-33, how you play differs greatly depending on whether you aim to maximise your maximum score or your average score (although skill at one easily translates to the other, because it entails a good understanding of the underlying system).


So what is it that ultimately determines a game's scope for expression? I think it's quite simple: how many options you have. If there aren't many, there's not much room for different players to make different choices. Comparing Zaga-33 to a similar game like Nethack, its choices are a lot more limited: there are fewer of them altogether, there are fewer alternative options when you make a choice, and they have fewer consequences and interactions. The movement, 4-way versus 8-way, is I think not very significant, but the large number of items, skills, and spells Nethack sports give room for very distinct approaches to situations. Equipment and character progression present decisions with long-term effects.

If there are a large number of options they need to be presented in a way that can be dealt with intuitively. Just selecting from a long list is pretty horrible and overwhelming. Here are some ways I can think of to give lots of alternatives in a reasonable structure:
- Geometrically. Picking from a list of 14 options is hard, but moving a rook on a chessboard is pretty easy to visualise. Picking from a list of infinity options is really hard, but turning and moving in a direction is really easy to visualise.
- Sequentially. A small number of options each turn multiply out to a wider palette of choices - e.g. 4 directions to move in is not many, but after a few turns they give thousands of possible paths.
- Combinatorially. Building a deck of cards, selecting subsets of sets. Race for the Galaxy does this well with the mechanic of spending cards from your hand as payment: you're choosing between dozens or hundreds of alternatives each time, with significant consequences for later moves, but it never feels overwhelming.
- Chronologically. In a real-time game, you constantly make continuous-valued choices about when to act and how long to spend. Tests of speed and reflexes are not so interesting to me on their own, but as a component of a system they can give an extreme variety of possible inputs.


I've been somewhat ambiguous with what I actually mean by "expressivity" here - expressing what exactly? This was intentional: I don't think it particularly matters. A system with room for expressing a particular thing probably has room to express other things too. The default assumption has been "expressing skill at the game", as the posts I'm not-responding to were about, but we could equally much talk about expressing personal character and creativity. In any game that you can spend a lifetime getting better at, skillful play does tend to express a lot about the player's personality. There isn't a single optimal path that everyone is channeled into - if there is, then once it's found the game is essentially solved and therefore not worth spending a lifetime on. There's a close correlation between skill and expression; beginners may make different mistakes but in general they play much more similarly than expert players (although the capacity to recognise the depths of nuance that distinguish experts may be inaccessible to non-experts). In any game played at a tournament level, there are clear differences of personality between professional players in terms of how they approach and play the game.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

action games, ziggurat

Thinking about Ziggurat, because I'm making an game of a vaguely similar type (action, highscore, endless hordes of enemies) and they got so many things incredibly right.

It's hard to get difficulty right in an action game. Competitive multiplayer is kind of self-balancing in some ways, your opponent sets the difficulty, but for a single-player game the designer has to set the difficulty in advance, and it's desirable to suit a wide range of different skill levels (althought not necessarily in the same mode). It's hard to get an absolute reading of how challenging things are, because your skills continuously improve as you test.

It's important to design for people less skilled than yourself if you want anyone else to play; you'll usually be the best at your own game at first. Ziggurat uses the age-old method of starting slow and ramping up gradually - in fact, it would be too gradual to be interesting once you've played a few times if not for the alien ship. (I'll get to the alien ship.)

It's also important to design for people more skilled than yourself, to make sure a game has depth and remains interesting at high levels of play. Even if nobody else ever surpasses your skills, you have your own future self to worry about - they'll be better at the game than you are now. It's unsatisfying for a game to have a skill ceiling that can be reached, after which you can simply play indefinitely until collapsed from exhaustion. It's easy enough to make something actually impossible, but that's also unsatisfying; it's uninteresting to lose only because the game threw a situation at you where you have no chance at all. Instead you must push ever closer to the limit of what's humanly possible without crossing it.

I'm thinking about endless games here. The above problems are lessened if there's an end; you can have a maximum required skill level without leaving someone stuck in an interminable game until they get bored and quit, and you can explicitly test whether that skill level is achievable. (This too is why turn-based games should rarely be endless; if at every step there's an option to keep going you'd have time to find it, and if not then you have the unsatisfying ending of reaching an impossible situation.)

So, the alien ship. It flies overhead sometime near the start of the game, and stays as long as you keep shooting it. While it's on-screen things are harder. Essentially it's a difficulty option elegantly incorporated into the single game mode: if you want things harder shoot the ship, otherwise let it pass. It's also a hint at hidden depths to the game: can you destroy the ship if you shoot it enough? Does anything special happen if you do? I haven't managed yet, and from skimming comment threads I couldn't find any indication that anybody else has, so it remains a mystery to me.

Ziggurat's score is just how many enemies you've killed. (It could measure time instead and it'd play the same, but counting kills instead of time works thematically: it's a game about vengeance, about taking down as many of them with you as you can before your inevitable demise.) I noticed some common complaints in the comments on the game, a bunch of people object to not getting score bonuses for combos, for killing lots of enemies in one explosion. But no, you shouldn't, Ziggurat gets it right. You already want to make big explosions because they're more efficient, they let you clear the screen of enemies faster. You already want to make big explosions because they go boom and the screen shakes and it's totally sweet. Awarding extra points for it would be superfluous, it wouldn't significantly change the way you play, there's no need for further incentives for something you want to do already. Those kinds of bonuses are interesting when they warp the way you play, encouraging you to take risks you wouldn't otherwise - and that's where the concept of scoring extra points for killing many enemies at once probably comes from, from a game where that was a riskier way to play, but now it's added blindly to too many games. And mechanics like that get perceived by players as a sign of added value, like they're saying "the more rules a game has the better". Sheer madness.

And yeah, the suggestion of combos has come up in the game I'm making too, and is equally inappropriate. I'm using the same scoring system of "1 point per kill" - I do like to avoid rewarding killing enemies if possible (as in Zaga-33), for the same reason as above: eliminating threats is already a beneficial activity and need not be further encouraged; but in this game some interesting play comes out of it, there can be enemies that only pose a threat if attacked, and whether to engage with them is an interesting choice; part of my version of the 'alien ship' difficulty option.

Another common complaint I saw on Ziggurat is that there's only one level (and one weapon). This is so bizarrely wrong. A small amount of good replayable content is worth much more than dozens of levels each worth playing at most once. And in Ziggurat's 'one' level there's actually a lot of content in the progression: new enemy types are introduced, difficulty rises, events happen, the background changes, the nature of the game shifts. This progression is hinted at right from the start - the sun is setting, slowly but fast enough to be perceptible, signalling that there's going to be changes to come. For me, the goal of "survive until sunset to see what happens" was a much more powerful draw to keep playing than a myriad of levels or a high score table.

It's just frustrating to see these things that I value about the game (and am trying to emulate) being perceived as negatives; its clean and pure design, the way difficulty levels and other elements are elegantly incorporated into a single level/mode. I'm not sure how common these viewpoints are in this case, a bunch of people do like Ziggurat, no idea how successful it's been. But these comments are indicative of quite common perceptions about what's valuable in a game: rule complexity is valued over depth and elegance (it tends to be mistaken for depth), quantity of content is valued over careful design and curation, graphics are valued over gameplay, and things that are the same as what people are used to are valued over anything else at all. Not everyone thinks this way, but it seems like a majority.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

meaning through repetition

Having odd feelings after releasing Vesper.5. A bunch of people are intrigued by the concept, and have started playing it, which is great. I really look forward to when they find certain things. But I worry a little: I don't want to disappoint anyone. The game is very slight - intentionally so, it's a pure expression of a single idea - and I'm just a bit uncomfortable with the idea that someone might expect more from it than is there...

...which is paradoxical, because the very concept is about making more out of it than is really there. Imbuing it with meaning that isn't intrinsically present. Turning a mundane action into something transcendent through repetition, ritual. Mystery.

It's a very simple exploration game, quickly made. Without the one-move-per-day limit there wouldn't be very much to it; the concept is everything. With an ordinary game I don't worry about disappointing anyone; there's only a small commitment required to get a rough idea of what's in there. But this one demands such an investment. I don't know if this is really a problem. Ultimately I think what you get out of it will depend mostly on what you put in, what meaning you create for it yourself. But it makes me uncomfortable. Which is interesting!

The game demands patience, commitment, making choices with unknown consequences. There's a kind of symmetry between player and designer; these same concepts reflect back on me. Making the game I couldn't know what it would be like to play it as intended, moving into the unknown one step each day; I had to commit to a design only imagining what this might be like. And now I still have to wait patiently for others to play through to find out, experiencing it vicariously. But from seeing initial reactions I have more of a glimpse than before, and there are some things I'm tempted to change. Questioning the reasons behind my decisions.

For now I'm resisting the urge to fiddle. I don't know for certain whether the changes I could make would be improvements. But even if they were, there's a cost to making an update; it diminishes the reality of a game. When working on something it's in a state of constant flux, anything is subject to change. But once it's released and played it becomes a solid thing, a world. Allowing that world to become mutable fundamentally alters its nature, makes it less real. Changing it in response to player actions alters the meaning of those actions.

I've committed to my move, released the game in an inevitably imperfect state, and any mistakes I've made we will have to live with.

edit: Minutes after posting that, in response to Pippin Barr's lovely post, I updated the game - for a minor improvement in presentation (hiding the flashing ESC after the first day), not to change anything in the world.

Sunday, 12 August 2012


Made for a Super Friendship Club Pageant with the theme "ritual": thread.

windows download
mac download

In this game, you may take one step each day, and then you must wait for the next day. If you wish to complete the game, you will have to make it a part of your life for at least 100 days. Make a ritual out of it. How will you incorporate it into your daily schedule? Will you tie it to an existing activity? Will you treat it as a ritual or merely a routine? Will you add to the ritual, embellishing it in your own way, making it yours? Meditate, say a prayer, think back over what has happened while you have been playing? Will you approach it alone or share it with another?

Is it worthwhile? You'll have to answer that for yourself.

It's a pilgrimage. It's very simple, but it does have choice in it; even the smallest decisions have their consequences amplified when you can only move daily.

Friday, 3 August 2012

glitch tank update again

Glitch Tank has both a turn-based and a real-time mode. For me the real-time mode is the true game and turn-based is a minor variant, but I know some people greatly prefer turn-based so I'm glad I included it. (I do recommend though that you persist with the real-time mode if you find it strange at first.)

I've experimented a bit with how to introduce the game to new players. I had thought that it might be better to start with turn-based because there's less pressure, but this turns out to be false. Turn-based is quite slow with new players spending too long thinking about their moves, and ends up not being engaging for their opponents. The best way to introduce it is to let two new players face each other in real-time and figure it out for themselves. If there is only one new player I prefer to run it in real-time mode, but let them move first and take turns with them until they realise for themselves that they don't need to wait between moves.

My friend Jonathan (of Path of Exile) mentioned one time that he'd like to see a sidestep movement action, because some situations arise where it'd help a lot; e.g. you face each other, your opponent has a laser and you don't. From this I deduced that he was playing turn-based; in real-time this isn't an issue because you can rotate and move quickly to get out of danger. I tried out this idea, but it didn't play very well, as well as requiring icons that might be easy to mistake rotate left/right when acting quickly.
A few days ago I came up with a solution. It's very simple: a "+2 moves" action which only shows up in turn-based mode. This brings turn-based play more in line with real-time - you can sometimes move quickly, see an opportunity and grab it before your opponent can react. It works really well, it's an interesting resource to play with, it's a difficult decision when to use it for maximum advantage. It enables a variety of different combos - rotate and move, rotate and shoot, U-turn.. or just cycle through unwanted actions more quickly. You never get more than one copy of the action at a time, so there's no infinite loop there.

So today's update is mainly for people playing turn-based. But there's a couple of small things for everyone else:
- There was an extremely rare crash bug that I believe I've fixed (but it was so hard to reproduce that I'll never be certain). When a game has "glitch" in the title bugs like this aren't necessarily a problem, but it's still nice to (hopefully) have it gone.
- Perhaps something mysterious that you'll probably never see?

It really doesn't make sense for me to be doing more work on Glitch Tank right now given how popular it's been; I really need to get onto trying to make something that more than a handful of people actually want. But I just really love this game, it's probably my favourite thing I've made. I will never understand what makes some things more popular than others.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

You Can Make Videogames

You Can Make Videogames - a handy site created by Richard Perrin, a good place to look if you're interested in making games but you don't know where to start.

No You Can't Make Videogames - don't read this, it's silly.

You absolutely can make games.
(Videogames if you want. There's not a categorical difference. Cardboard is a great place to start.)

I've been making games for as long as I can remember.

My first games were terrible, and completely derivative. "Fan-fiction", if you like. I remember one, Snakes and Ladders with the squares randomly scattered across the board in different shapes and sizes, different instructions written in each, roll and move, no decisions. Another, Chess with all the movement rules changed - no reasoning behind them, just all every different pattern I could think of. Terrible terrible games, but I still had a lot of fun making them (and playing them, when I could convince my always-skeptical parents or siblings to give them a try).

Later, I found a book about BASIC programming in the library and learnt from it. My first videogame was typed in from a code listing in the book. This is as derivative as you can possibly get: an exact copy of someone else's game. But then I tried out changing numbers and seeing what happened, modified it, made it my own - totally broke it in the process of course, made it worse and worse until I reached a point where it didn't run at all and I didn't know how to fix it.

So I made terrible games. But I got better.

Eventually I was able to program my own games from scratch. I made text adventures (not worth being glorified by the term "interactive fiction"), copying ADVENTURE. They were very bad in many ways. The gameplay combined the worst of "guess the word" puzzles, unnecessarily complicated mazes, and brute force solving. But the code, the code.. I had no idea how to organise things, no conception of data structures and algorithms, but I didn't let that stop me. For every single room in the game, I had a separate block of code, with its own input loop, looking something like this:
    100 PRINT "You are in a dark maze."
    110 IF GOTLASER=0 THEN PRINT "There is a glowing laser gun here."
    120 PRINT "You can go south or west"
    130 INPUT WORD$
    140 IF WORD$="get laser" THEN GOTLASER = 1
    150 IF WORD$="south" THEN GOTO 190
    160 IF WORD$="west" THEN GOTO 420
    170 PRINT "I don't understand."
    180 GOTO 100
If you're a programmer, you're wincing. If not, you probably don't see what's supposed to be bad about this. And in a sense, there is nothing bad about it: it worked. There are good reasons for the ways programmers like things to be done; they're less prone to error, they save time once you know what you're doing, they're easier to modify. But when you're just starting out, all that you should worry about is whether something works.

Now, after 20 or so years of making games, I think I'm pretty good at it. I've made some games that I'm very proud of, that I consider worthwhile contributions to the medium (whether others agree or not) - and many more that are terrible, but were satisfying to make. But it's been a long process, and there's still room for improvement, I'm still getting better. You can't expect to change the world with the very first thing you make, but it can still be a step towards it.

If you're reading this, you have access to much better resources than I started with. An internet full of programming tutorials, source code, willing helpful people, and tools that are both much more powerful and much easier to use than a stupid BASIC prompt. You're in a much better position than I was as a kid trying to figure this out by myself.
At the very least, you can make something silly that nobody else wants to play. Why would you want to do that? Because it's fun. It's not easy, it's time-consuming and sometimes hard work, but making your own videogames is the most fun you can have with a computer. Forget playing games, making them is where it's at!
But also, because you'll get better. Everyone starts out terrible at everything, we only improve with practice. If your goal is to make a good game, you have to start by making bad games - it's the only way. When you're doing something that's hard for you, you're not wasting your time. Making games isn't easy, but it's something you can do if you want.

"We have created a situation where -everyone- creates things, all the time."

No we haven't. Not yet. I hope we do though.
More people are creating things, and that's great, but so many are not. They get discouraged because they think they're "not creative" (creativity is not a talent, it's a way of operating - John Cleese), because they think it's hard work, because they worry they'll never be good enough. Don't be discouraged. Creation is good for you: it's worth doing even if you just do it as a hobby and even if you never make anything that anybody else cares about (although you will, if you persist).

Make games.