Game Jams

I’ve participated in a number of game jams over the last ~7 (or so) years. For the most part, these only get posted somewhere online when either it’s part of the process of “completing the jam”, or if I’m working with a team, and someone else takes the helm. I’ve decided I should be keeping track of these somewhere, and that place is, for the moment, organized chronologically below.

  • I first attended 360iDev in 2011, and participated in the overnight (13 hr) game jam there. As near as I can tell/remember, I made a real-time, abstract-board-game-inspired, iPad game I called ColorWheel. (The code was native iOS.) I wrote-up the experience in the second-half of this blog post.
  • I did my first Global Game Jam (GGJ) in 2012, creating a board game (with actual artwork by August Brown!) that weekend called Eat Thyself. The theme of the jam was an image of an ouroboros.
  • I went back to 360iDev again in fall of 2012, and collaborated with another developer, Levi Brown, to make an iPhone puzzle game called Cloud Growth.
  • In 2013, my Global Game Jam entry (which somehow didn’t make it to the GGJ website) was a card game with app component, I called Heart Burn. I write a bunch about it here. August Brown again supplied some artwork, although I’m not sure how much of it saw the light of day.
  • In January 2014, I participated in the Global Game Jam with a bunch of other IGDA Twin Cities regulars, and (I believe) this was the first time I’d worked in Unity. There were so many of us (9!) that we actually made 4 games, (almost 5), and bundled them up as Saga of Candy Friends. (A name influenced by trying to trademark/copyright “saga” in a game’s title around that time.) They were all local multiplayer games. As the person least familiar with Unity, I played pickup, and ended up working on a bunch of the games. I was most proud of (and probably spent the most time on) the one called bird drop. Afterwards, I wrote a postmortem on this blog.
  • For the 2015 Global Game Jam, I created a block-matching game for the L3D cube called Match-L3D. The L3D is an 8x8x8 cube of LEDs, and really has to be seen to appreciate. I really liked this game, but because it requires the custom hardware (and an xbox360 gamepad, as well as a computer to drive it), I doubt there are more than a handful of people who have played it.
  • Not quite a game jam, but my 2016 new year’s resolution was to come up with a new game idea every day. I did this pretty faithfully through about mid-july, and didn’t truly give up on the idea until sometime in September. I wrote up weekly recaps through July 15th (28 of them!), and fully intended to categorize every idea and do a summary post for the whole year at the end of it. I’ve got a spreadsheet that categorizes the first 130 ideas (through week 13), and someday maybe I’ll finish that project.
  • My 2016 Global Game Jam game was called Life is Hard. It was very shortly after my decision to take development with Unity more seriously, and I teamed up with August Brown, Mike Manor, and Jason Pfitzer to create a set of 3 or 4 (I can’t remember how many of the ideas we got to) mini-games around menial daily tasks. I was the only programmer, but learned a lot about Unity’s animation system from Jason, who did most of the art.
  • I also took part in the Midwest Game Jam in 2016, creating a VR game (targeting HTC Vive) with two other developers in 24 hours, that we called IndustriElf. You play as an elf assembling toys in Santa’s workshop.
  • In 2017, I didn’t have time to fully participate in the Global Game Jam, but I brought my 6-year old daughter to the Friday night brainstorm, and we made a little bubble-popper game called Bubble Jumper with only a few additional hours on Saturday. The game was entirely the realization of her ideas, and her wireframes (which we didn’t fully implement) were especially great.
  • I participated in #NanoGenMo and #ProcJam in November 2017, by working on a piece of generative interactive fiction using a python script to generate Inform7 source code.
  • My 2018 GGJ game was another collaboration with August Brown, a very cute looking tetromino-placement puzzle game called Tetro Buddies. (The name was courtesy of my 9 year old niece Weather.)
  • Most recently, (two or three weekends ago, as of this post), I worked on a game in Pico-8 for the 2018 Midwest Game Jam called Emergent Sea (playable if you click through, but read the instructions posted below the cartridge first). The team was four programmers including myself, Scott Lembcke (who also did the art!), Ben Gartner (who also made the music!), and Chris Phan (who contributed a ton, especially considering this was his first game and game jam!). It was my first time really writing anything in Lua, and I rather liked it. The theme for the jam was: emergence (but the game’s name pun credit goes to Scott).

Also, here is my Global Game Jam profile. Other random jam-related profiles: I have one at one game a month (though I haven’t really used it in years), and, which only has one game-jam game on it. (Though someday I hope/plan to post more there.)

I think I found them all, but who knows. In the future I’d like to make a “page” out of this list, and link it somewhere more prominently. (Maybe with images from each of the games!) I’ll add a link/note here if I do that, for posterity.

iOS Updates and version numbers

First of all, the update to Catchup I mentioned a while back is finally live in the app store today! This got hung up a bit because Nick wanted me to make the new catchup rule the default. I told him I would definitely do this if he would handle translations of the rules update. (But of course wrangling a bunch of translators is much more difficult than the few lines of C++ needed to make the rule change itself!) So as of this writing, the rules change is still optional (and off by default). If and/or when we get some translated rules, I’ll probably push out another update to flip the default.

I’m also working on updates to some of my other apps. Unfortunately, it’s not really a straight-forward process, and there are some that will still probably not get an update at all. (Action Chess, for instance, just needs to be entirely re-written, which I’ve pretty much decided I’ll just do in Unity rather than go for iOS native.)

But in all the apps I’ve done so far, one thing I’ve had to do is change the code that shows the version number. I thought I’d write a mini-tutorial because this is kinda dumb. In pretty much all my apps, I previously had this block of code somewhere (usually in an AboutViewController class’s ViewDidLoad or ViewWillAppear method):

	[self.versionLabel setText:[NSString stringWithFormat:@"v%@", [[NSBundle mainBundle] objectForInfoDictionaryKey:@"CFBundleVersion"]]];

…but now I’ve changed it to the following:

	[self.versionLabel setText:[NSString stringWithFormat:@"v%@.b%@", [[NSBundle mainBundle] objectForInfoDictionaryKey:@"CFBundleShortVersionString"], [[NSBundle mainBundle] objectForInfoDictionaryKey:@"CFBundleVersion"]]];

This results in a version number that looks something like v1.4.b2.

(It’s worth noting that I highly recommend putting a user-facing build number in your all your apps somewhere. This is super important for getting bug reports and feedback. The technique above allows your code to update that user-facing number without having to include it in your code directly.)

In case it’s not clear, self.versionLabel is a UILabel instance, either initialized in code elsewhere, or (more likely) in a Xib or StoryBoard.

Anyway, Apple put out a technical note about version numbers and build numbers back in 2015, but somehow I missed it. Now I’m not 100% sure about this (possible it’s just that I was always confused about this), but my theory is that, at some point (maybe around 2015), the CFBundleVersion key changed functionality, from the version number to build number, and the CFBundleShortVersionString was introduced as the new version number. (This is really difficult to google for, I tried, so if anyone has a more accurate historical rundown, I’d be interested in hearing it.) Anyway, both string are required, but the build number is specific to the version number. (I.E. both have to increment for actual releases, but if you bump the version, you can reset build number back to 0 or 1, or whatever.)

These values are changed in Xcode, in the general project settings. Worth noting that the version number is shown to the user in the app store, but I don’t think build number is exposed anywhere (that I’ve seen). I usually try to follow semantic versioning, with the actual version number containing the first two dots (major and minor version changes), and more or less use the build number as the third “patch” number.

I guess the thing I find the weirdest about these bundle keys is that neither one is named “build”. And I would expect the build number to be the shorter one, not the version number. But maybe that’s just me! Hope this helps someone.

ProcJam and #NaNoGenMo postmortem

I’ve always wanted to make some interactive fiction, and last month I decided to spend some time working on a procedurally generated Inform7 game. You can read more about it on the Github “Issue” thread where I announced my intent to participate, but I’m reposting my final “wrap-up” entry here:

Post-mortem / wrap-up post:

Mainly, I didn’t make a 50k word “story”. Although you could maybe argue that the inform “story” isn’t the “whole story”, that’s what my script generates, and I was planning on using that for the word-count metric. My plan for getting to 50k had basically been to increase the number of rooms the script generates until I hit that number, but that isn’t possible because some of the items I’m using for randomization don’t contain that many items. (And I didn’t realize or notice this until just now as I was prepping this post!) Turns out I can only push the script to ~25 rooms, before it tries to randomize from several sources with only that many items. The word count at 25 rooms is only about 4700-4800.

Also worth noting that version with 25 items doesn’t always work. I went ahead and pushed an example of this output as `output/v0.5-source-broken.txt`. Pasting that script into inform gives errors that I’m probably not going to take the time to fix. (Essentially, some of the source for my randomized room text is probably problematic, and should be excluded.)

Additionally, I’m pretty sure the game as-is at the moment of this writing isn’t that fun to play. There isn’t enough randomization of the puzzles. Essentially, each room has the same fetch quest. (If you’d never played it before, and went into it without my spoiling it for you –which I’m not going to do here– it’s possible it would take you a bit to figure out, but once you did, you’d know how to solve every other room, and it would grow tedious pretty quick. I think the version with 4 rooms (in a 2×2 grid) is probably the best way to play. There is some novelty in the randomized room names and descriptions which can sometimes be pretty surprising. It might be fun up to 12 or 16, but again, it would get old pretty fast in its current incarnation.

Another failure, I could argue, was my goal of learning Inform7, but I’ll write more about that in a bit.

Because I wasn’t really happy enough with the output of this script to post it anywhere, I also didn’t submit it to ProcJam. That was/is also definitely a fail.

I wrote some Python! Python is ridiculously easy to write. It feels a bit like I say this about every new language I learn these days, but learning the syntax (there is almost none!) and the various APIs was a very minor part of this project, and generally quite fun and easy. Debugging errors was quite easy, as error messages were very easy to search for, and often even that step wasn’t needed.

I learned quite a bit about writing Inform7! Unfortunately, that’s about the best I can say about it. Inform got harder and harder to work with, and was generally the opposite of my experience with python. My take-away from Inform is that you want to write one sentence at a time, compiling after every one. Every new thing you try and do will require searching through the documentation for an example you can copy/paste. There were dozens of times when I would modify even just one word from an example and then scratch my head about why that changed caused it to stop working. And debugging was always a nightmare. The error messages sometimes contain (sometimes hilariously) a bit of randomization themselves. This seems interesting/funny the first few times you see the same error and the text is different, but the 3rd or 4th time, when you are at wit’s end, it’s no longer funny. Here’s an example of an inform error (but not one with randomized text, I don’t think):

You wrote ‘now the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ , but although ‘the Greyish Blue Book Of Matches is nowhere’ is a condition which it is legal to test with ‘if’, ‘when’, and so forth, it is not something I can arrange to happen on request. Whether it is true or not depends on current circumstances: so to make it true, you will need to adjust those circumstances.

In general, my take-away is that Inform7 syntax is a great big can of worms. It would probably take me a month of working full-time to really understand the entire system and how it all works together, and feeling competent in it would probably take much longer. (This was obviously not that month!)

Wishlist / TODO list
If I wanted to spend more time on this project, these are the things I was planning on doing:
* Randomized puzzles. Right now there is really only one type of puzzle. I would love to have 4 or 5 types (at least!), and generate different room descriptions based on the type.
* Additional inform elements: Right now, there are rooms, objects (some edible), containers, and that’s about it. I really wanted to get to the point where there was also a randomized person in each room. The amount of things you can do with Inform is staggering really. I’ve only just scratched the surface, for sure.
* Finally, making this available to the rest of the world. This boils down to how I wanted to do this initially, and how I think it’s feasible. Both would have been published as a webpage. A) I wanted to make a version that was different every time you play it. But the only way I could imagine that happening would be to install the command-line version of inform on a server, and at request time, generate the source, compile it, and redirect the request to that output. I’ve no idea if that’s practical, but it’s not something I wanted to attempt. B) The more practical alternative would be to generate a bunch of outputs all at once. So that would be writing another script to run my `` script X number of times, saving the output off to a tmp directory, then using the command-line version of Inform7 (i7) to compile each output and save off a web-playable version into a subdirectory somewhere. Tentatively I was planning on doing this 365 times and then writing some kind of index.php to swap them out based on day of the year.

I really enjoyed working on this project, and learned a lot about Inform7 and python, but wouldn’t really consider this a “successful” project, mostly because I just didn’t spend the required time on it. There is always more you can do, of course, but in this case, I didn’t take the project far enough where I think it’s ready for public consumption. (It is all public, however, and anyone can play with the stuff I created. If you do, I’d love to hear about it!)

A Catchup Rules Change

Some time ago, Nick Bentley, the game designer behind my app Catchup, proposed a slight change to the rules over in the forums on board game geek.

Please see the forum link above for all the specifics, but the crux of it is that in the original version of Catchup, you could claim a hexagon creating a group up to the largest group on the board without triggering the catchup mechanic. But with this new rules change, even tying with your opponent now triggers an extra claim for them on their following turn.

I’m working on an update to Catchup to make it iOS 11 friendly, and support the new iPhone X screen size, and figured while I’m at it, I’ll add this new rule as an option in the app. So I’ve created a new toggle in the game options, and I’m leaving it off by default, because I don’t think most people will know about it, and I don’t want it to take anyone by surprise. Also, for now, because I don’t really know how I would indicate which version is being played in the UI, you won’t be able to play with the new rule in online games. If there is enough (any?) clamber for it in online play, I may consider adding that in the future.

Vive Hockey

I did a quick (~15 minute) presentation at the last MN VR & HCI meeting earlier this week about the hockey game I worked on with/for Visual and Hiway Credit Union. When I polled the audience before launching into it, almost nobody in the room was a developer (it was one of the sparser attended VR meetups in recent memory), so I rushed through most of the technical bits. (Which was the focus of the whole talk!)

Anyway, here are the slides, for posterity:

Donuts In Space, Unite Austin, and 2017 Recap

I’ve been pretty lax on posting here this year. The main reason for this post is that I realized I hadn’t posted about Donuts in Space, which is a game I made explicitly to put on the Donutron. In case you’re not familiar, the Donutron is a donut-inspired arcade cabinet installed at Glam Doll Donuts on Nicollet and 26th in South Minneapolis.

The Donutron currently features all games made by local-to-Minnesota game makers. Donuts in Space was the first donut-themed game on the cabinet, and is a game where you play as a donut rolling around on top of a giant donut floating through space, racing the clock to collect mini-donuts. You can also play split-screen multiplayer. Here are a couple of screenshots:

So the other reason I wanted to post is that I keep meaning to write about Unite Austin. First of all, I decided to go to Unite because a) Unity is a good chunk of my freelance work now, (easily 50% in the last year, possibly as much as 80%), and b) it had been a while since I went to a technical conference where I expected to learn anything. I did learn a bunch, mostly about the new Timeline and CinneMachine features built into Unity 2017.x, but also a bunch about various AR stuff. I also got to try out demos of the Microsoft “mixed reality” headset and software, as well as the Meta 2 AR headset.

When I registered for the conference, the website also managed to upsell me on taking the Unity Certification exam while I was there. (So yes, I am now Unity Certified, at least for the next two years.)

Let’s see, other random stuff that’s gone unmentioned this year:

Chaos on the Green Line

I was immensely lucky to be able to work on a project this summer for Motion Poems and Northern Spark called Chaos on the Green Line. It’s a mobile application (for iOS and Android) built to playback some beautiful 360-degree video (created by Pixel Farm) while on the Minneapolis/St. Paul Green-Line train.

Last Wednesday, July 26th, I presented on this project (along with Jeff from Pixel Farm and Patrick Swinnea, my developer collaborator) at the MN VR & HCI meeting. The slides are embedded below. Mine are after Patrick’s, and start at Slide 48. Enjoy!

Threes! inspired

In part because I’ve only just found out that someone beat Threes! for the first time, I’m finally going to write a post about my game Slide Quest.

But it won’t (just) be about Slide Quest… (Feel free to skip to the list of my three favorite Threes!-inspired games below.)

Okay, first off, I’ve never publicly talked about Slide Quest before. There are several reasons for this, but namely I’ve been embarrassed by it. I actually never meant to release it. (This is hard to believe, I know, but in some past versions of iTunes Connect — apple’s publishing webapp — you had to set a release date for your app. If you started creating the app in there, but you didn’t know if you wanted to publish it, one technique was to just set the release date to some far off date in the future. I did this, but then that date passed, and the app was released. No fanfare, I didn’t even get notified, or if I did I was too busy with client work to notice.) Anyway, when I found out it was released, it was to a few pretty terrible reviews. (It was basically not much more than a prototype.) I decided I’d rather it was out there than not, but I felt dumb, and basically never promoted it in any way.

I was also embarrassed because of all the issues around whether or not games inspired by Threes! are clones. Threes! was famously cloned very soon after its release, with a game called 1024 appearing in the app store only three weeks after Threes!. This was exacerbated by the release of another game (called 2048) by an 18-year-old developer who claimed he’d never even seen Threes!, and had written his game based on 1024. 2048 was made in javascript, in a weekend, and released for free on github. It proved to be extremely popular, in part because there were a ton of versions of it that appeared for free, often with Ads. (Threes! later went “free with IAP”.) 2048 was also an easier game. It’s wasn’t as punishing as Threes!, and a casual player was more likely to hit upon a winning strategy.

The point is, within a month, there were probably hundreds of games inspired by Threes!, both in the app store and elsewhere. For more about Threes! and clones, you should read the Polygon writeup, but also read the post by the developers of Threes!, where they also post all their correspondence (emails) during the game’s creation. That post is rather heart-breaking, but the email archive is actually a pretty amazing resource for aspiring game developers.

Anyway, I loved Threes!, and played the hell out of it at launch. I bought the tshirt. At some point I started thinking about an RPG with the same “swipe mechanics” as Threes!, and the thought kept me up at night. I too put together a prototype of that game in a weekend. That game was initially called RPGeez, but eventually I changed the title to Slide Quest.

There are several subtle differences (aside from the obvious aesthetic ones) between Threes! and 2048. In Threes! a swipe only moves each of the tiles on the board one space; in 2048, they move until they can’t move any farther. There are of course other differences, but this is the main thing.

With Slide Quest, the main mechanical difference is that there is a character on the board. That character is “you”, and you slide around the board with every swipe. You have a level, and you level up if you attack (combine with) a monster on the board that is the exact same level as you. You can attack and defeat lower level monsters without effect. Higher level monsters just block the board and lead to (eventual) game over. Like 2048, Slide Quest is definitely much “easier” than Threes!, but it does have one more interesting twist, in that every 33 levels, the algorithm for what level monsters spawn on the gameboard changes, getting more difficult.

Over the 3.3 years since Threes! was released, I’ve sometimes taken note when I see other games inspired by Threes!, mostly because I’m curious to see how they tweak the mechanics.

Here is a list of three Threes!-inspired games that I quite enjoy:

Stencilsmith, by Nicholas Sepi Jr. — This game is probably easiest to describe as Threes! meets Minecraft, though much simpler than that makes it sound. Essentially, there are pickaxes that need to combine with land to make materials, and the materials can then combine with pickaxes to make more powerful pickaxes. There are also swords, which need to combine with materials before they can then combine with enemies to take them off the board. You have three hearts (in the main game mode), and when you combine an enemy with something not a sword, it takes a heart.

SideSwype, by Radiangames} — This game combines Threes!-style swiping and match-3 mechanics. I really enjoyed it, and it’s got an elegant graphical style. Incidentally, it’s also by the developer of Slydris, which is an amazing game.

Puzzle Chips, by Curt Stein — Curt Stein created one of my early app store favorites called DropOut. In this poker-chip-themed take on the genre, each tile is a stack of chips. When the stack gets tall enough, it can be tapped to remove it from the board. So basically the numbers don’t really combine or increase, but as you play, chips that are worth more will spawn more frequently.

In a post back in 2014, I talk about small grid games, and said that 2048 was my favorite threes-inspired game. But in my memory of the time, I didn’t actually play that much of 2048, I was actually just really excited to surf the many forks of it that added different mechanics. Now when I try and view forks on github (it says there are 15,037), it just gives me the error “Too many forks to display.”

Please let me know (either here in the comments, or over on my twitter) if you have other Threes! inspired games that you like.