Dream of Pixels

I have been remis on here not writing about a game I got to help beta test called Dream of Pixels. It’s been available on the app store for exactly a week today, and has received some amazing reviews and press, over at TouchArcade, as well as some other crazy prestigious places like Kotaku and IGN. The game’s designer, Žiga contacted me months ago to say he liked Go-Tetris, and would I like to test his latest Tetris-inspired game. Of course I said yes, and I was VERY pleasantly surprised at how great it is. We’ve exchanged more than a few game recommendations in the time since, and it’s clear we share very similar game tastes. I’ll admit to a bit of jealousy at how great it looks and feels to play. It’s a brilliant game that turns Tetris on its head and does something different with our friends the tetrominos.

Dream of Pixels is an absolutely fantastic game, and if you buy one tetris-inspired game this year, it should be Dream of Pixels. If you have room for two Tetris-inspired games, then I also recommend Oppo-Citrus.

360iDev 2012 & Game Jams in general

A couple of weeks ago, I went to 360iDev, an iPhone/iOS conference that has been going on for a few years now, devoted entirely to iPhone (and now iPad) development. I actually went last year too, and that year had been to WWDC only a few months before. It was my first time at either conference, and I got a lot out of both of them. But the fact that 360iDev can even hold a candle to the flame that is Apple’s flagship developer conference (WWDC) speaks volumes about how great it is. This year, I elected to go to GDC instead of WWDC, but I still wanted to go to a big tech-focused conference, so I went to 360iDev.

Both years at 360iDev, I took part in the 360iDev Game Jam. (I also wrote a blog post about the game I made last year, which I then called ColorWheel.) This year, I teamed up with a guy named Levi that I’d never met or worked with before, we managed to make a pretty cool (albiet very simple) little puzzle game in the allotted 12 hours. I’ve tentatively started calling it Cloud Growth. I just finished a write-up of Cloud Growth (UPDATE: I’ve recovered the text from the game jam site, which no longer exists, and posted it below this post.), including some more details about the game’s development over on the Game Jam website. The theme of the game jam this year was “growth”, and our game heavily features clouds, so the naming was not particularly creative. The mechanics aren’t particularly creative either, but I can’t remember playing a game with them before, so I do want to polish this little prototype up, and release it at some point.

Anyway, Game jams are awesome. If you are interested in making games I would highly recommend the experience. But don’t take my word for it! At 360iDev, I attended a talk by Phil Hassey, an indie game developer who made a name for himself with a fantastic RTS called Galcon. Phil’s talk was mostly a postmortem for Galcon and his latest game Dynamite Jack, but he must have plugged Ludum Dare about twenty times. (He helps run the thing.) Ludum Dare actually happens bi-monthly. I was going to participate in August, but spent Friday evening working on a project to make games easier for me to write instead. (I will probably talk more about that project here on this blog eventually.)

It feels these days like there’s a game jam every weekend. Last weekend, for example, there was a game jam devoted to making games in the universe of Adventure Time, the TV show. (If I hadn’t been exhausted from a full week of 360iDev, and my lack of sleep that Tuesday night, I’d have been seriously tempted to take part, because Adventure Time is awesome.) A few months back there was a game jam where the participants were supposed to create games inspired by a twitter parody (@petermolydeux) of the relatively famous game creator/producer, Peter Molyneux. I think Peter Molyneux even attended the event!

Previously, I’ve also participated in the Global Game Jam. I can’t wait to do more of them.

Cloud Growth is a simple action puzzle game collaboration between Martin Grider (@livingtech), and Levi Brown, (@levigroker, blog).

We did about ten or twenty minutes of brainstorming, and eventually decided on this concept where we are placing simple clouds on a grid of open sky. There is a cloud “queue” in the upper right hand corner of the screen, so you know what the next one to be placed will be. Clouds have different colors, and if two clouds of the same color are placed next to one another, they will grow into a square of one size larger than the largest sized cloud of the two. You get points for placing clouds, and more points for growing clouds.

Martin wrote all of the game logic and most of the view controller code. Part of Martin’s enthusiasm for this particular concept was that he wanted to continue work on a generic GameModel object he’d been writing that abstracts away the “game grid”, as well as touch interactions on that grid. This was a resounding success, and much code was added to that library.

Levi did all the artwork and animations. These screenshots do not adequately capture the awesomeness of those animations. When a cloud is placed, for example, there is a really great bouncing effect, that is just fun to see. A good portion of Levi’s time in the wee hours of the morning was spent ensuring that the lightening bolts (currently shown when clouds reach the 3rd largest size), begin at the cloud of their origin, and end at the lightening tower at the bottom of the screen.

Future ideas:
* Part of the original concept was that the clouds would get removed from the gameboard after a certain threshold, but as the clouds cannot currently grow more than three times, that made the game far too easy. When code is written for larger growth, this idea will be revisited.
* Some kind of lightening counter would be fun, maybe with progressively harder levels as the counter is filled.

Everything is a Remix

I’ve often gotten down on myself because I feel my primary form of creativity is taking things that I like from different sources and combining them. I’ve even gone so far as to talk about “combinatorial creativity” as an abstract concept (though I’m not sure I’ve done so in writing anywhere before today – I should look).

Anyway, today I stumbled onto the series of short films called Everything is a Remix, which (after having only watched the first two of four) I would (nonetheless) highly recommend.

I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that literally EVERYTHING is a remix, but I do think most forms of modern media are heavily inspired by (and often remixes of) existing art of some kind. Obviously, my games are no exception. I want to talk more about this idea, and “combinatorial creativity”, but I’ll leave that for a future post.

Professional Game Development Development

Minnesota Mobile Game Developer Group

So after much discussion yesterday, I finally took initiative, and decided to make an idea a reality that I’ve had for a while now: starting a local meetup for mobile game developers. I set up a google group today, and spammed a bunch of local mailing lists I’m on, including our local IGDA chapter, Mobile Twin Cities, and the Cocoaheads of MN. My co-worker Breon, who is going to be a co-organizer, posted it over at the MN Android Developers Group, and the TC GTUG (Google Technology Users Group). I even have a pending event listing at tech.mn.

We’re obviously casting a wide net, so I hope everyone who might be interested in it gets to hear about it.

Game Camp

But a monthly user group isn’t the only thing we’ve got in the works! I recently stumbled onto the website for Game Camp, a bar camp style conference for game design. Here’s what the website says it’s about:

GameCamp gatherings are for the people who are building that world. It’s for the designers, coders, artists, writers, thinkers and, above all, the players who are making the 21st century the century of the game. GameCamp is about more than making games: it’s about playing them, thinking about them and how they affect our lives for good or for ill.

In the immortal words of Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.”

We are in the VERY early stages of planning, but right now we’re
thinking this should happen in October of 2012 sometime.

National Game Development Month

And finally, there was one other game development community effort I discovered this week. I have no organizational stake in NaGaDeMo, (or National Game Development Month), but as a 3-time NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) alum, I know how powerful these shared experiences can be. And since I’m already working on a number of games, I don’t think it’ll be that great a stretch to start and finish a new one in the month of June.

I’ll definitely be posting more on at least some of these topics in the future. Here is the post about our first Mobile Gamedev Meetup next Tuesday, where you can find the eventbrite link and read about where and when exactly we’re going to be meeting.

Pit Chess / Recent Addictions

On Friday, my game designer friend Patrick alerted me to a post over at Play This Thing about Pit Chess. You can play Pit Chess on Kongregate, and it’s essentially a cross between chess and Drop 7. In case you’re not familiar, Drop 7 is a game where pieces with numbers drop from the top of the screen. You have to match up the numbers with positions on the gameboard to remove them from the board and score points. Pit Chess takes the pieces-drop-from-the-top mechanic and adds chess pieces and movement to the whole thing. Pieces drop whenever you make a move that doesn’t capture a pawn. As long as you continue to capture pawns, the screen empties, and you play cleanup for a while. When you inevitably run out of pawns to capture, you go back to capturing other pieces. The game emphasizes alternating between these two modes of gameplay by giving you a point multiplier that goes up as long as you capture pieces that aren’t pawns. There are Kongregate high score tables for highest multiplier, as well as highest scores in the two gameplay modes. I really dig this game, and sort of wish I’d thought of it. (It would have made a great Action Chess game mode!) Then again, I’ve got a lot of stuff I’ve worked on for ActionChess that hasn’t (yet!) seen the light of day.

I’m going to go back to playing fez now. I tweeted about this already, but there are Tetris shaped constellations in the night sky in Fez! I’m not even a fan of platform games usually, (although I played a fair bit of Mario III, and certainly Mario 64 back in the day), but Fez is just appealing to me on so many levels. I was pretty hyped up about it after seeing Renaud Bédard talk about the tech behind Fez at GDC earlier this year, and it’s definitely lived up to my high expectations so far. As an aside, we all have our indie developer crushes. One of mine is definitely Renaud. Check out this list of games he’s worked on!

Global Game Jam Board Game Rundown

After joining my fellow twin cities IGDA members at the global game jam a few weekends ago, I was all fired up about the board games that were made that weekend. In fact, I spent a good chunk of the following weekend going through all one hundred and two “non-digital” games in the Global Game Jam database from 2012. With the exception of a few that I skipped over categorically (mostly roll-and-moves, but I apologize if I missed any cool ones), this post contains my paring down of those hundred-plus games to just the English ones that are ready for print-and-play. Keep in mind that I would guess at least one-in-four had absolutely nothing on the game page at all other than a name and sometimes a description. There were also probably between three and ten that were just totally miss-categorized, as well as a similar number that weren’t written in English.

After doing all that research, I meant to post my thoughts on all these playable games ASAP, but it took me until tonight to find the time to sit down and actually do it. So without further ado, here is a list of all the games that, at the time of my research, had all the files and instructions necessary to play them available on the Global Game Jam website, along with some (brief) thoughts on each one.

First, there were fivefour games I managed to get to a playable state by our IGDA meetup:

  1. Eat Thyself(printing requires color) – I would of course be remiss if I did not put my own project first. My friend and fellow board game designer August Brown did an absolutely fantastic job on the artwork for this, (and he wasn’t even signed up for the Game Jam!) I’m very excited to mount the board I’ve printed to posterboard sometime in the not-so-distant future. It’s an abstract strategy that plays 2 or 3 players in probably around ten minutes. I’m calling it a “light” abstract because there’s not a whole lot of brain burning. The game admittedly has some problems when played with 3 players, but I’ve got some ideas for fixing it, I just haven’t tested them yet, or posted them anywhere.
  2. Saprobiont(requires color) – The artwork on this one is absolutely fantastic. It only plays with exactly four players, and each player has variable player abilities, and also score victory points (called biomass) in subtly different ways. It’s lightly war-game-ish, but with such simple (and balanced) combat that it feels more like an abstract strategy game. This game pretty much dominated our IGDA recap night, and was played at least five times in the course of the evening. I had someone ask me for advice about making their own copy a few days later. At least one of the creators is active on Board Game Geek, and has created an entry for Saprobiont there as well.
  3. Aion: A Game of Serpents(requires color) – This two-player tile-laying game has extremely well designed rules, with lots of illustrations and examples. I am sad I didn’t get a chance to play the version I made for our meetup. I’m not even sure that anyone played it!
  4. Ouroboros – (B&W is probably fine) – This was actually the first of the GGJBGs that I played. Sunday afternoon, I was hanging around the Game Jam, watching everyone else frantically finish up while I wrote blog posts and read twitter. Eventually I got bored of that, and started surfing games on the Game Jam website that looked ready to play. This one jumped out at me because it was one of the only other games tagged “Abstract Strategy”. It was also playable with a pile of lego pieces (which I had on hand), and on a 6×6 gameboard I was able to draw in 10 seconds. I convinced another Jammer to play with me, and we were both quite impressed. Lots of thinking, and the game didn’t turn out at all the way we’d thought it was headed, so surprise twists at the end of the game are possible (not something I look for in an abstract, but it was refreshing at the time).
  5. Cult Wars(B&W) – looks to be an interesting card game for 2 to 4 players, and it has absolutely fantastic black and white artwork. Unfortunately, I got the cards all printed and cut, and had everything ready to go before I really started looking into the rules. I think there is some clarification needed on some pretty major points. (For example, which cards do you start with, and which do you draw in the course of playing?) The rules need some major work, IMHO, and unfortunately, the game is not really “ready” to play without making some stuff up as you go.

Other games I believe are ready to play but that just didn’t make the cut in my first pass:

  • Alpha & Omega(requires color) – A tile laying game with player pawns that need to be positioned optimally for scoring at the end of the game. The rules PDF has some formatting issues, but I’m still interested, and would love to try it out sometime.
  • destination earth(B&W) – 2-player card game with science fiction theme. The hand-drawn art is pretty cool, but the cards look fairly dull to me. I really have no idea how it plays.
  • Escape from Infinity(requires color) – I noticed this game also has a BGG page now. This is a racing game… the innovation here is that before anyone moves, you choose a card for each player, and on your turn, you chose one of those players to move the number of spaces your card represents. Seems like there’s ample opportunity for screwage as well as nail biting as you hope so-and-so doesn’t screw up your card choices. When all the cards have moved, the round is over, and it all starts over again.
  • floatsam(B&W) – I didn’t quite understand the rules here at first pass. They probably deserve another look, but it’s somehow a “competitive maze game of skill and luck for 2-4 players”.
  • The Frightening Temple Of Set(requires color) – This game has a sweet looking hand-drawn gameboard. It’s a roll-and-move, but with some rather complex rules that might make it fun for a certain kind of person.
  • Lines of Nazca(requires color & Legos!) – I actually think this looks awesome. You construct a secret puzzle goal out of three lego pieces that you hide from everyone else and are trying to duplicate as you play the game. Meanwhile, you are also moving a pawn on the gameboard by playing lego pieces.
  • Magnum Opus(requires color) – Looks like another tile-laying game. I’d need to “dig in” before I truly understood this one, I think.
  • Moebius slider(B&W) – This incredibly simple dexterity game should have made “the cut”, but I just didn’t remember to make it at the very last minute.
  • OUROBOTOS(requires color) – You are assembling some kind of giant robot. How much cooler than that is even possible!?! Apparently there is resource management. I haven’t fully examined this one yet.
  • Rapush(technically not B&W, but looks to be okay with it) – This appears to be a pretty straight-forward abstract strategy game with the “pushing other people’s pieces” mechanic.
  • Stranded(B&W) – Interesting seeming card game with rather lackluster art. The game’s setup could use some additional explaining.
  • tailbiter(B&W) – I can’t quite tell if the very minimalist rule-set would be enough to grok this game. It sounds almost war-like.
  • Your Genre Sucks(technically needs color, but would probably work without – requires standard deck of cards) – Fairly interesting story-telling game where everyone plays with a different genre and must keep pulling the story back into their type of story.

Bonus Game!!!

  • Obsolescence(requires color) – This game wasn’t available when I did my earlier research, but I noticed it tonight, and am intrigued. Here’s the description the designers gave it: “Tile Laying game in which players develop, upgrade, and recycle successive generations of Apple gadgets by laying tiles representing components on a circuit board, connector edge to connector edge in order to form closed loops consisting of newly laid and previously laid components.” Sounds right up my alley, doesn’t it? I’ll have to try this out sometime soon.

    Honorable mentions list #1 (Games that would be cool, but look too hard to construct):

    • Entagon
    • pandemonium
    • Sugar Crush

    Honorable Mentions list #2: (Not all files are available, but would possibly be really cool if they were!):

    • Cowroboros
    • Blue Print
    • Centrix
    • Gaeon
    • Goons & Guns

Word Puzzle Mashups

My friend Jason clued me in to this match-3 like word game that was featured by apple this week: W.E.L.D.E.R.

Then a scant day later I stumbled onto an interview with Zach Gage, who recently launched SpellTower, a tetris-attack style word game. The interview is pretty cool, and he says a lot of stuff I feel about missing the innovation present in the early days of the app store. I’m a bit disappointed that SpellTower is iPad only, but I may still pick it up to check it out.

I thought it funny that (in the same week) there were two new word game hybrids to add to my list of interesting word games. (Bookworm, Imangi, WordSolitaire, Word Jong, WordFu, AlphaBattle, and Wooords are all the previous ones I’ve played with any regularity, I think.)

UPDATE (1/28/2012): I would be remiss if I didn’t add a link to my latest puzzle obsession, PuzzleJuice, which is an absolutely fantastic tetris-word-game-mashup. Pieces fall with varying color parts, and when three or more parts of the same color touch at the bottom of the gameboard, you can touch them to switch them to letters. (When a whole “row” is made, ala tetris, those also change to letters.) Then you drag/draw a word from the letters to remove them from the board. Draw a large enough word, and other pieces around them will also be removed. Good stuff!

Three quick Chess-related links

Hipsta Chez
Is there room for more than one chess-based puzzle game in the app store? Of course there is! I just discovered the TouchArcade post about Hipsta Chez (front-page, no less… it was posted over a week ago, I could easily have missed this!) Hipsta Chez is game in the same family tree as Fuzzle, LinkLines, Gems 3D, etc.. only the twist is that the pieces are chess pieces, and move accordingly. I have only played the first game mode, and only one game so far, but it took over an hour, and I am now 18th on the Game Center leaderboard for that game mode. You can check out a promo video, but I think it’s definitely worth picking up. Hats off to Vasiliy Popov, who appears to be the app’s creator/developer.

I am not 100% sure how I came across this blog post by one of the developers of Chess@Home, but if it’s to be believed, a few weekends ago, (at Node Knockout, a node.js 48 hour programming competition), a team of four guys created a distributed chess AI using javascript. They’re calling it Chess@Home. The blog post is pretty fascinating.

The forthcoming Octagon Theory app
I read about The Octagon Theory over at my reliable iphone board game blog on BGG. I’m not 100% sure this is chess-related, because I haven’t played the game yet, but it’s an abstract strategy game for the iphone anyway. One of the more interesting things is that they’re soliciting developers to create AI for the thing. I’m tempted to sign up, as that sort of thing is always fun (and I’ve been meaning to learn some lua) for AGES), but there are so many of my own games to work on… we’ll see.

Gamification, random reinforcement, and “the metagame”

The following is in response to an article titled The Current, and Unfortunate, State of Gamification. It was written by my work acquaintance Dakota, who is a relatively new colleague of mine (though I don’t work directly with him). We have interesting conversations about board games, and he was the one who linked me to David Sirlin, (discussed in my last post). If you don’t go read his article, you’ll need to at least know that gamification (in this context) refers to enhancing websites with “game-like features”. I think Dakota’s point is generally that sites aren’t being creative enough in how they add gamification, and generally just add badges and leaderboards, but he touches on a lot of interesting topics while making it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article since I read it. Only a few days ago, so I’m late to the conversation, but this blog is stale, so I don’t feel bad posting on an older article.

Anyway, one point I’d make is that, as David [one of the previous commenters] touches on above, the definition of “game” is quite loose. Just as peek-a-boo is a game, full of delight for the extremely young mind (and a game that arguably evolved into the “hidden object” genre that some adults play), so is “collecting” a game that toddlers and adults play. Lots of people refer to collecting badges and getting highscores as the “metagame”. For many, (myself included), it’s not that I find a new game less interesting (far from it) it’s just that a new game is one whose mechanics I might end up taking or leaving, while the metagame is one I already know and love. The metagame is a game that we play in (almost) every game, and (increasingly) in every aspect of our lives! To bring back your ketchup metaphor, [Gamification was compared to food condiments, Dakota argued that its not required for a gourmet meal.] some people just LIKE ketchup, and they put it on everything, breakfast eggs included.

The heart of gamification for me is competition. Messages like “Your friend XXX posted XXX minutes ago” can be a reminder that they are playing against you. To me, even the metagame isn’t nearly as interesting if you can’t compare yourself to your friends and (at the very least) hordes of strangers. (Obviously, this is what leaderboards are about.) The harder it is to see your competition (who else has the badge that I just got?), the quicker you loose the hard-core metagamer.

I do take umbrage with comparing gamification to the Hawthorne Effect. The Hawthorne Effect is increased productivity due to external observation (and I’m no psychology expert, so I have no opinion about whether its effects are debatable). It’s possible that gamification causes people to “feel observed”, but I would argue that gamification is much more like a simple feedback loop, the psychological effects of which are not debated. (The concept was popularly lauded by this wired article in one of the last few issues.) If the Hawthorn Effect is external observation, feedback loops are internal observation (or self observation). One racing game example would be seeing “ghost” images of your previous laps so you can compete against yourself. I think this translates into knowing that you’ll get a badge after one more check-in, or more instantaneously, seeing the counter of how many characters you have left for your status messages on twitter.

This segues nicely into a rant about Random Reinforcement… (I thought I could just link to this, but amazingly, I haven’t immortalized this yet on the interwebs). Essentially, animal trainers know (and research probably shows, although I honestly haven’t looked too much into it) that using positive or negative reinforcement is not nearly as effective as randomly applied positive reinforcement. (Looks like Wikipedia calls this concept “variable rate” (VR) reinforcement. If you follow that link, the graph on the right sums it up pretty nicely.) The rational that I remember is that the animal (or person) is encouraged by the reinforcement they do get, but because they don’t get it every time the effect is that they try harder, thinking the fault somehow lies with their behavior. (The “rant” that I have been known to make is about how this is why people remain steadfast in relationships with partners who treat them badly, but I’ll save that one for later.) Anyway, I followed Kathy Sierra’s horse training link, and I’ll admit that it definitely made me want to read Daniel H. Pink’s Drive. (I’ve added it to my amazon wishlist.) I can very easily imagine that “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” are HUGE motivators, but I don’t see them as in opposition to the concept of gamification at all. In fact, I think there are direct mappings from leaderboards to mastery, and from achievements to purpose.

But let me step back for a minute. It should be obvious by now that I disagree with at least part of the original Hide & Seek article. Specifically the premise that “neither points nor badges in any way constitute a game” seems pretty wrong to me.

I knew it sounded familiar, and after reading through the comments, I realized that I posted a pretty similar sentiment in the comments over there! Here it is for posterity:

Definitely agree with the your semantic argument here. “Pointification” is a better word than “Gamifcation”, and they are definitely different things, but I do not agree with the premise that points != a game.

Remember the meta-game! What about someone who buys and plays through an XBox live game they don’t even want to play, just to get those achievement points? Aren’t they playing a game? I think they are.

What Margaret (at Hide & Seek) is saying seems to be that we should remove all metagame elements from the definition gamification, and just talk about how you can modify the “core mechanics” of your website. (No more ketchup, only entree.) And maybe there is something there in the user experience realm that can approach gameplay. The feeling I get when browsing kickstarter, for example, looking for that next project to back… it’s akin to playing a game, maybe. But I’d argue that a site like Facebook is almost no longer applicable at that point, since so much of the facebook experience is the metagame. Maybe all of social media is the metagame. I know it feels like a game to a lot of people. We just need to remember that, like investment banking, it’s a game with real consequence.