20 October 2014

Digital Games: Week 4

This week has been fairly hectic due to personal reasons so when I found myself not sitting in front of papers (as was often the case this week) I'd catch myself daydreaming about my theory essay. The topic has changed to better fit the brief requirements and our lecturer was a real help when it came to sorting out the tangle of theories inside my head. Most of them are now sticked up on what I've started calling my detective wall. The topic (as approved by Kelly): The role of spatiality in creating immersion in digital games. The real difficulty is going to be fitting this huge topic into 1500 words.

In our games design class we practiced pitching a game in front of the class. Coming from an architecture background, there wasn't anything particularly new apart from the context. (And I do have to say, pitching a game so far seems much easier than pitching a building. Let's hope it continues that way.) We were asked to grab two games, mesh them together into a new one and pitch it to the class. In our team of three we created a co-op tetris with portals called Tortle! With an hour of time, some power point and photoshop skills we visualised some concepts of the game.

Continuing from the rain generator in MMF from last week, I decided to try and apply the code learned from that demo to a version of Tortle. At first I started with a random generator of tetris blocks and a player that must get from one side of the screen to the other. As I was working on the events editor a second year pointed out a useful way to group objects together which saved me countless lines of code. It took me a few hours to get the blocks to fall the way I wished to (as opposed to a very funny but useless pile of tetris blocks) and it is still far from being an engaging game. Adding sub-goals and skills might change that.

But when it comes to MMF I'd like to instead point towards the Burglar game from week 1. I have created a second version of the game. It's the same game but in third person. The code had to change quite a bit but as I play each version, I'm wondering just how different the games are as an experience. You can download and play both versions here. If you have any thoughts, I'd love to hear them!

Lastly, this Saturday was spent in Canterbury, the town where I did my undergraduate in architecture. Three years ago I used to go to the pub once a month to listen to techie talks and network with local innovators at Digibury. Since then the event has grown and this year it was held at the Gulbernikan in Kent University, hosted by Robin Ince of The Infinite Monkey Cage fame. A quick run down of what happened can be found on my twitter though what I would love to highlight is how in Howard Griffin's talk on architectural visualisation, he used an Oculus Rift to walk people through Canterbury's Abbey. Those that have been following my blog since my second year in architecture school will understand my excitement at seeing architecture schools finally catching up with technology. All my best wishes to the course professors at Kent University! May you always stay innovative.

Two Moleskins, Six Months of Travel, Fourteen Countries.

For six months I travelled around eastern Europe and beyond, solidifying what I saw as sketches.

A lot of them are unfinished, raw, messy and far from the perfection they taught us in architecture school. I only showed these to people I felt I could trust until I realised all of those unfinished lines, mistaken perspectives and accidental strokes are part of the essence of travelling. When moving across Europe, all I could afford to bring was a moleskin, a pen and the time in between buses, conversations and pulsating activity. No pencils, no rulers, no corrections. Just the very personal bleeding of experiences onto tiny A6 paper.

These are not all the drawings I did as there are plenty more where these came from but they are some, unedited, uncropped interlaced with all the thoughts and notes that crossed my mind.

I moved back to my grandparent's for a month in the mountainside of la Safor, Spain, to replenish my energies before starting my masters course. Here I started a second moleskin prefaced by the words:

"The best thing about coming back home after a long adventurous journey is that everything old is new again. Every building and every meal has an identity of it's own that I was blind to before. Views of the land is riddled in history and walks through the streets are filled with novelty. Every granny sitting by her porch, every word uttered in Valenciano, every sunbath and every village supper is filled with meaning."

 But it doesn't stop there. This second moleskin is still growing with more drawings of London streets and commuters on the tube where half stroked faces as people step off of trains and unfinished shards as the crowd moves me along become a part of the buzzing character of cities on paper.

13 October 2014

Digital Games: Week 3

Hermione levels of organisation have been reached. The mysterious "timetable a le rigorous" has taken physical form and is now pinned up on my corkboard. It's even featuring scary weekly goals in yellow. And what a help this timetable has been! It has structured my workload and focus each day to a particular area of my studies. While following this timetable throughout the week, I have come to realise I have many more hours during the day that I originally planned. These hours have been filled with reading for the first assessment of the theory side of the course.

This first assessment has been the main focus of the week. Due in five weeks, we are to write an essay analysing a game through one of the concepts talked about in theory classes. For a while I've been clear on doing a write up on Gone Home, a game I not only enjoy, but find has strong links to semiotics as seen through urban exploration and psychogeography to propel a narrative and game world. I've only just recently decided on this particular topic after a week of researching papers and thickening a flipboard on Gone Home. After researching these papers and true to the goal of this week, I pinned my ideas on the corkboard to start structuring arguments. Designating Sunday for goal-oriented activities was not one of the best ideas as I realised I didn't have enough time to flick through and include most of the texts I wished to. This left me stressed on a Sunday afternoon as the diagram felt very last minute and I had no string to connect the ideas. On the other hand, next week's goal is less time consuming, leaving me more space to continue to expand the diagram (and get more string).

There were plenty of board games played this week including Ghost Stories, Shadows over Camelot, Resistance and Avalon. Ghost Stories was particularly difficult as it took our group two hours to read and understand the game rules. They used various diagrams meant to make it easier but gave no key to comprehend them. This left us scratching our heads as we played around with the positioning of game elements and player turns, trying to figure out how it was meant to be played. After a collective effort, we finally managed to understand it and decided to learn from the booklet: Never draw diagrams without keys, run through the game step by step, use key words repetitively, don't use lingo, ask yourself what questions your readers are going to be asking, start with a very clear and concise background of the game.

Shadows over Camelot, Resistance and Avalon are three very similar games in it's use of a traitor and sabotaging of quests. Camelot, by fleshing out the quests, concentrates the players focus on the cards and character actions as a way to identify traitors while Resistance and Avalon, through the lack of detail in the quests, focuses the players attention to the other players and our relationships among them. The game becomes much more psychological and a wildfire of distrusting glances were shot across the table. Interestingly, we played Resistance and Avalon one after the other meaning we could compare how small changes to rules could give different experiences. Resistance can be seen as a simpler version of Avalon. Through the lack of extensive rules and limitation of failures, players concentrate on just the psychological. Avalon is closer to Werewolf in that there is a psychic who knows who the traitors are and the traitors capability to kill the psychic. As there is no limitation to the amount of repeat quests, it means there is more time to figure out who the traitors are and quite often they are known by the end of the game. The implementation of the Werewolf mechanics balances this.

Less time was spent this week on MMF than I had wished. Our game design class revolved around messing about on the program and during it we completed a rain simulator. The rest of the class I played around creating a portal runner. I managed to get the scrolling and portals working when I ran against a bug that has proven quite difficult to solve. At one point I had various students sitting around my computer trying to lend a hand. We managed to figure out it was the coordinates of the mouse mixed with the scrolling that confused the computer. It was solved by replacing the control of the portals by using the keyboard but it meant that the game played much clunkier. This has been my MMF dilemma of the week.

There have been plenty of fun things happening through this week that reminded me of how much I love the vibe of this course. At the beginning of Steve Jackson's seminar, he grabbed four students and had them preform a magic trick; we discovered a little museum of old consoles in the secret room including the very first Atari and home computers; and finally, Tim and I invested and placed a very cool new poster to the games lab. If the games industry is as awesome as this place, I'm going to be a very happy game dev.

7 October 2014

Digital Games: Week 2

The second week of the course and we're slowly settling into a routine of balancing course requirements with all the amazing things that occur in London. Although, to be honest, most of the week was spent valiantly fighting a cold which I victoriously beat into submission. Either way, the classes go on and this week has been full of activity.

To begin with, another student and I have decided to set ourselves a rigorous work plan to get the most out of our course. We call it timetable a le rigorous. Aside from solo work such as reading and playing videogames, we are organising gatherings three times a week where we can: Play board games together. Create board games together using game design tasks. Practice MMF 2.5. All in the spirit of criticising, learning from and pushing each other to being the best game designers we possibly can.

In our game design class our task was to create a board game of a videogame in groups of four using crafts material and one hour of time. At the end of the hour, we'd have to have the rules written and watch other students play our creation. We chose to materialise Don't Starve. I won't get into the rules of the game here but we managed to get a working prototype ready by the end of the hour. The major lesson learned was the importance of clear rules and how to present them to the players. In ours we fractured them into two sets. In the rule sheet we started with an introduction: One sentence of what the goal of the game was followed by where the players should start and the general mechanics of the game. Specific rules of the objects you would find on the map were written on the object cards which you would pick up as you came across them. This meant that the students we gave the game to could instantly start playing after reading the first 5 sentences and indeed they did and understood it well. In this sense it was a success. As for balancing, it still needed a lot of polishing.

Steve Jackson started his talks from "Dice to Mice" where he illustrates the history of games. This week he took us on a journey from the Royal Game of Ur to Pokemon sprinkled with highly entertaining anecdotes of the early Games Workshop and dungeons and dragons scene in the UK. He really is a games design wizard with ridiculously awesome wisdom stats!

Theory touched on simulation and immersion. Aside from the debates in class which I won't go into here, we looked at the metaphorical simulation found in For the Records, a website working with psychologists and mental illness patients to bring representations of what having a certain mental condition is like. The game we played simulated what it felt to be bi-polar. After discussion we were asked to quickly describe how we would simulate a particular feeling through a game in our group tables. Someone suggested fear which we narrowed down to a specific fear such as the fear of heights. The setting would be a cliff and the features would be: 1. Loss of directional control as you get closer to the edge. At first you'd be able to control movement but as you got closer we'd invert the controls until finally no matter what you'd push would bring you a step closer to the edge. 2. Movement is slowed as you get closer. 3. Environmental sounds fade out. Internal sounds get louder (heartbeat and breathing). 4. When you get close to the edge the camera tilts up, concentrating on the drop. The reaction from Kelly: A shiver followed by a "I would not want to play that". I'm still conflicted on whether that is a good or a bad thing.

In the spirit of our timetable a le rigorous, Tim and I decided to challenge ourselves into creating a board game in 1 hour. The words our professor gave us were "aliens" and "cows". We set down to work however would often get distracted by the evil villain above roaming the board games room. An hour and a half later we were playing a game we had just created with more notches of valuable lessons learned. The game was all about cows (on a hexagonal grid field) who are tired of being the victims of alien abductions so they decide to fight back the only way they know how: eating, pooping, moving. The first concern was that as only two of us were making this game, we found it much harder to bounce back and forth ideas. We managed to overcome this by getting a prototype out half an hour in. After that point, ideas and refinements flowed much better and we got much further ahead in our design. We looked at previously played co-op games such as Castle Panic to inform how this game should work. Another interesting observation was how tightly the game mechanics and rules we had created were related to the aesthetics of the game. Halfway through the game creation we tried re-skinning it as something other than aliens abducting cows but didn't find another world in which the particular mechanics we had would make sense. This further reinforced my belief that in order to create innovative games the mechanics and the aesthetics of the game need to be co-dependent so that one cannot exist without the other.

New games played this week were limited as my board games arrived (Dixit and Gloom) and I was super excited to get everyone to play them. However I did get my hands on Dead of Winter when two professors came hunting for students to play the game with them. It reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica which is a game I enjoy a lot, except there was one thing I found Dead of Winter didn't do so well. It tries to create conflicting agendas between players however the co-op aspect of the game is so strong that we ignored our personal agendas for the survival of the group. More weight needs to be placed on the personal agenda by creating real consequences in the game. Another game I played was The Yawgh with two bachelor students in the games lab. It is an incredibly funny game that often had us in stitches though what was especially interesting to me was seeing the different play styles of each of us. One concentrated on the stats, another in keeping in character, while I found the most entertainment in the story as I created the town drunk who after the Yawgh becomes the town leader. It's a truly inspirational story.