Showing posts with label Development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Development. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Appearance: The E3

Hello all. I will be attending E3 next week, Mon-Fri. I'll be showing off the new projects I've been working on with Croteam and nDreams for the very first time.

If you're there, I'll be largely entrenched at the Devolver/Croteam RV outside the main event. I don't know yet if this caravan (for that is what an RV really is once you remove the American glamour) is an advantage or not - will it be more chilled out? fewer booth babes? less like attending some kinda cross between an arcade and a strip joint? I've never been to E3, so who the hell knows.

We'll also have a second Croteam stand somewhere indoors which is walk-up and play, details on that as they emerge, and the nDreams team will have their own section where they're demoing the VR project privately.

If you're there do spin by or drop me a note in advance. If you're not, eyes on the internet for some major reveals in the coming week!

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Tom Jubert Blog Bi-Annual Update Extravaganza...

...or 'What I have been doing instead of writing this blog for the last couple of months'.

So the main pull on my time has been the two new narrative design projects I took on towards the end of last year. Both are now nearing completion (there's a first draft script, at any rate, and alpha builds are on the way) and should be officially announced in time for E3 in June.

nDreams VR Adventure
The first project is with UK firm nDreams. Their recent resume includes a lot of Playstation Home dancing avatar stuff which probably isn't going to blow anyone's narrative socks off, but their extended background covers ARGs, as well as a large portion of Eidos' back catalogue in the form of ex-Creative Director and nDreams studio founder Patrick O'Luanaigh. The project we're working on is a first-person virtual reality adventure, and it's the studio's first foray into what I guess I'd call traditional games development. It's by far the most commercial project I've worked on since, I don't know, something that didn't get published, probably, but that's something I've found time to enjoy. As with most of my games, I don't know if this one will get ripped to shreds or not, but for once it won't be because it's too pretentious, or too cold and academic. In this one I get to show off some dialogue skill, develop a more traditional, emotional, present tense narrative, and that's a surprisingly rare challenge that I rather relish. I also feel more like a real writer when I'm not just copy and pasting other people's philosophical ideas - and I promise you there's no room for treatises in this one.

Croteam's First-Person Puzzler
The second project is Croteam's new first-person puzzler, on which I'm leading narrative development in partnership with another indie writer, whose previous work I think everyone's going to be excited about. If you're into philosophy and video games, I have got for you the partnership of the century. In terms of what we're actually doing, we've both developed the overarching world design and (minimal) plotting, and then split characters between us. I lucked out and landed the interactive script. A word count scares me, but I expect I've turned out around half a novel's worth of dialog trees over recent months. It is without a shadow of a doubt by far the most complex interactive dialogue work I've done, and I can't think of anything quite like it in another mainstream game. I am excited to see what people make of it. Mass Effect this ain't.

I think since we informally announced the project some weeks ago there's been a bit of misinformation floating about as a result of some of the things I said, so just to clear up:
  • It's a first person puzzler
  • Visually this is recognizably a Croteam game
  • There is no shooting
  • This is not a comedy game, but you can bet I snuck a few dry jokes in there
  • If you enjoyed The Swapper I think you'll enjoy this
  • If you enjoyed Serious Sam I hope you'll enjoy this
  • I have rarely worked with a team as keen to help as Croteam
So that's that. More details as they emerge.

Any Other Business
In other news I completed my Philosophy MA at King's College, netted a Merit overall and a 70 in my dissertation, which I'm happy with, but which does mean I'm around 4% less intelligent than I was 10 years ago.

I've had some press coverage as well, so I may as well do a quick roundup of that:

And that's about it for now. I've got a number of discussions ongoing for new projects when these ones finish up over the next month or so, but as ever I'm keen to discuss anything cool. For what I think is cool, see the rest of this blog.

Hopefully next month I can follow all this up with some real details.

Questions, interview requests, offers etc - comments or email are waiting for your words.

Thanks for sticking with me despite the dearth of new content recently!

Friday, 21 February 2014

What Did FTL's Use of Slavery Say to You? (Video)

In December I did a short talk at the annual IGDA/BAFTA Games Writing Panel, along with cohorts Andy Walsh, James Swallow and Ed Stern. The theme was something to do with the unique demands of interactivity on story, and after reading this post I decided slavery in FTL was the ideal topic. I was interested to think and talk about the creative and moral responsibilities we have as game designers who put out products with unsavory events therein, and how interactivity blurs those lines.

There's some further discussion below, but for now here's the full vid. Apologies for unprofessional lighting / camera angles etc. You can download the slides here.

So it's worth noting first that in front of a crowd I play things up a bit, including how chaotic development really was, because when I say anything positive about anything that I've worked on my first instinct is to immediately self-deprecate.

The truth is that the extent of FTL's planning was largely a factor hidden from me, occurring as it did in the years Justin and Matt were working away at the game before I came onboard. There wasn't no plan; there just wasn't the sort of extensive pre-production narrative design that laid out exactly what we were shooting for that I obsess over on other projects.

Here's what Justin said to me after watching the vid:
"While it's true that the overarching vision of the "story we wanted to tell" was not planned or scripted, this was not something that was due to lack of time or planning - it was entirely intentional. You may recall all the times you wanted to add more focused storyline or mini-stories that take place in events but we consistently tried to hold you back. In retrospect I wish we had made things more ambiguous and abstract. The fact that players could end up with a single crew member, wondering if this person would really want to continue the mission (while not a specific scenario we predicted) was the type of experience that we knew would only be possible if we left a lot of things unsaid."
Matt writes:
"I, like Justin, also wish we were a little more ambiguous with everything by the end. I went digging for an email or something where I voiced my original vision. This snippet with a friend is the closest I could find:
August 8th - 2011 (~5 months into development)

Anton: feel kinda bad murdering them
me: they aren't necessarily supposed to be menacing
me: they aren't supposed to be evil
Anton: oho, cause they seem to engage me without any warning every time...
me: it's a political conflict that you're on the other side of
me: that doesn't make them evil
me: you could be evil
While I think we could have done more to bring this kind of ambiguity to the fore, it warms me that FTL has this kind of philosophy at its core. In the talk I say something like, "As game designers... we have a responsibility that the options we provide the players deliver a coherent message", and this is what I'm talking about.

Matt writes:
"Part of me would argue that our message is coherent: the player's situation is terrible and war is horrific which can drive someone to do morally questionable things. And through the beauty of an interactive medium, the player experiences it first hand. But part of me would say that we specifically set out not to have a message. We just present a series of systems and choices to the player, and they are encouraged to come to their own conclusions and make their own choices without judgement from the designer."
The moment that you write an event for a game like FTL, you're taking some kind of political or ideological stance. Even if your objective is Matt's and Justin's - to present an amoral world and let the player make sense of it their own way - that in itself constitutes a stance of a sort. It says that politics, war and morality are very complex topics, and that decisions in such circumstances are rarely black and white. It says that you are the only one that can decide how you will behave. At the very least it is probably not the sort of stance you would take if your philosophy was one of extreme pacifism, because pacifism just isn't a viable path in that game.

For this reason, the conclusion of my talk was that it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game like this without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement - when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn't undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile. I'm pleased to say that I think FTL does some of that; but the point of the talk was that we can probably all do a little more of it.

There, I said something nice and I self-deprecated. Everybody's happy.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Indies: One Reason Why Something So Small Can Be So Impressive

Over the last 18 months I've worked almost exclusively with four-man indie developers, following on from a couple of projects put on hold at larger studios. These last two games have also happened to be two of the most successful projects I've had the good fortune to be involved with. Right now I'm working on new projects with middle-size teams, but nothing on the scale of those earlier disappointments.

Indies have tough competition these days, and they respond to it in roughly two different ways. 'First wave' indie studios like Klei, ThatGameCompany and Croteam, established around a decade ago, often chose to expand their staff and produce more work. It served them well, and remains a popular route. Increasingly, though, micro-teams and one-man bands are choosing to stay that way. In addition to Facepalm and Subset, the likes of Jonathan Blow and 2DBoy have also shunned growth in their development teams. Why?

It is probably terribly obvious to point out that a significant advantage small teams have over the big guys is radically lower costs. Who isn't all too familiar already with the path many a critically successful developer has taken from bedroom coding, to fancy offices and a staff of 40, to a crucial project being canned and there not being enough cash in the jar to keep up the payments? But I think there is another angle on the idea that is perhaps more expressive.

Suppose you're a one-man band. You've turned to indie development because mainstream games don't do it for you. You've accepted the product you're putting out is not an Assassin's Creed. You know that if income were a primary concern you wouldn't be doing this; indeed you've sacrificed some level of guaranteed income precisely to pursue this course. You'd like to get the game done ASAP, but because this is a labour of love, and because overrunning 6 months will jeopardise nothing more than your living standard, you're prepared to work on it until it's right. When you hit a creative decision in your game, the only thing you really need to weigh is what is best for the quality of the game you want to make.

Now compare with the pressures that even a team of ten put on development. A six month delay now costs you or your financier £150,000 in salaries alone, or around 25,000 full-price sales of The Swapper. Failure to meet the bills costs you and your staff your livelihoods, and kills your game. A staff also costs you the luxury of doing everything in the right order. You can't afford to have salaried staff sitting there twiddling their thumbs. If you have to build the levels before you write the story, it's too late to do anything else. Finally, when you come to that creative decision, you've got all the above on your mind. This is something I have to remind myself of when I go into meetings with larger teams sometimes. I get to waltz in, push my creative agenda, and (usually) have a guarantee of a reasonable payment at the end, as well as a new job. I have suggested that small indie devs share this advantage to some degree. But if you're at the head of a medium-size studio, each creative decision can make or break your entire business. It's easy, from this perspective, to see why those studios sometimes err on the side of safety.

Of course, there is some level of generalisation here. It is not my intention to suggest small teams suffer no financial burdens, nor that larger teams are incapable of pursuing creative ideals. Rather, I want to celebrate that we're here at a time when developers can choose the path that suites them, and make it work either way.

Me, I like a bit of both.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Project Announcement: Organ Trail Director's Cut

While demoing The Swapper on the Indie Megabooth floor at PAX last year I met the delightful people behind indie dev, The Men Who Wear Many Hats. I'd played through their Oregon Trail remix, Organ Trail, on my iPhone earlier that year, and have felt old every time since that someone younger than me doesn't know what Oregon Trail is.

A few months ago the guys got in touch to ask if I'd produce some new events for the Director's Cut, to coincide with its release on new platforms. It's already out on just about everything from Android to Ouya to Steam, and I have no idea what the new platforms actually are, but I suppose the only possible options are further mobile/tablet platforms, or a console-based digital distribution store. The breakdown of the job was 30 events at 300 - 400 words per event, which is a good couple of weeks' work, but also constitutes a significant increase in the variety of events offered by the main game. At any rate, I said yes, and the results should be available at some indeterminate point in 2014.

The work is obviously quite similar in nature to what I'm doing on FTL, but it was interesting to be able to directly compare the different tones of the games, and how the subtleties of gameplay in each dictated unique structures for the events themselves. For instance, the core gameplay in FTL is quite detailed - you directly interact with your systems and crew - while in Organ Trail your buddies have no visual presence in gameplay, and the resources are limited to car parts, food, cash and bullets. In one way this limits the story, because there is less variety in what you can deliver gameplay-wise as the outcome to an event. You can't introduce a character in the story and then see them in gameplay during the next combat. However, because both combat and text events are relatively rare in Organ Trail, the narrative is freed of FTL's constant pressure to keep the word count to an absolute minimum, and to push towards combat-based outcomes. Every event in Organ Trail is as involved and varied as the 'big budget' events in FTL.

The tones differ as well. Justin set the style in FTL, and it's what I'd call a matter of fact attitude. Events are generally described in an objective way, without florid details or in depth character analyses. Organ Trail has a darker tone, and more room for detail. What's a zombie apocalypse without a little gore and despair?

So, you can grab Organ Trail right now for £2-£4, depending on your location and platform, or you can wait for the new platforms to be announced, along with the release of the new content I've been working on.

Here's a trailer.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Announcement: FTL: Advanced Edition

So FTL Advanced Edition is now a thing. It's nice that it is now a thing, because it means I can explain why FTL didn't really stop as a job for me after we released the thing. Advanced Edition contains all new events written by me and our guest writer, plus new music from Ben, plus all new tech and science wotzits and spaceships from Justin and Matt.

We've been working on it for ages, so the announcement has slightly taken me by surprise. I suppose the big news is... CHRIS AVELLONE FTL FTW! Following on from this interview I interpreted Chris' veiled offers with cunning and precision, forwarded them to Subset and sure enough we wound up with Chris playing the part of one of those PS4 interns who do amazing work but don't get paid. I dreamed of working for Chris for years, and I'm not entirely sure when we skipped that step and I started finding him jobs, but there you go. It's been a pleasure.

I haven't really received my marketing brief yet, but I suppose there are some reveals the boys are holding back still. I can tell you for sure they've not revealed all of the new systems yet, and that's where the meat of the new gameplay is. Certainly there's a load of new events and places to explore, new ways of hurling death at your enemies; but the expansion to me feels like it revolves around the systems - that's why it's the advanced edition. The new systems provide alternative playstyles, ones which liberate you from a reliance on traditional weaponry. It's reinvigorated the game.

So I don't know what I can tell you about the work Chris and I have done. There is a new sector in the game. For now it's known as the abandoned sector, but I can tell you that you'll meet a new species out there. They're pretty cool - both story-wise, and mechanically. The new content is focused both in the all-new sector, and throughout the original sectors, so whatever route you take you should encounter something new.

Of course, we're still working on this material, and no doubt we'll be stuffing new things in right up to the wire, as we were with the original release. I'm squeezing in what I can between two new, unannounced projects, one of which involves another collaboration with a writer whose work I respect every bit as much as Chris'. Watch this space for more details.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

The Swapper Sort of Postmortem & Game Key Give Away!


That's what I felt when the first review came in. Admittedly we'd had some indication from the press that The Swapper's reception would be warm, but I don't believe anything until it's in front of me, hence the non-committal tone of the pre-release post.

As it turns out, things went well. In fact, I think we've all been blown away by the game's reception, and by the fact that everyone is now paying their bills. Certainly I have never read kinder words about my work, and I'm thrilled that it's on a game I was so heavily involved with, and which reflects my particular philosophical passions so well.

So I was going to write this piece as a sort of round-up of some of the criticisms made in reviews, and look for where we went wrong. I'm certain there are places that we went wrong, but it seems the reviews are not going to tell us where. Instead I'll just delay it by telling you about some of the nice post-release stuff we've got going on.

First off, the Steam forums have developed into an active little community:
  • Fans are racing our level designer, Otto, for speedrun times. Otto currently has it with 29m24s, and if you've played the game you should check out his vid for sheer elegance, and to wonder how even the guy who built these levels can keep track of who he is when he's hurtling through the game at this sort of pace.
  • People are discussing the story at great length.
  • I have deviously persauded people to read more about philosophy of mind.
  • And, okay, there's also a four page contingent of people with Intel HD graphics waiting for a fix. It's coming, but until then be warned: this game probably doesn't work with Intel HD graphics.
Second off, I have two Steam codes for The Swapper to give away. Would you like one? If so, write your most convincing three word argument for the existence of god in the comments and check back in about 5 days. The two I like the most will earn themselves a Swapper key!

Finally, expect a fuller analysis of what we did in the game, why, and how we could have done it better at some point soon.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

How I Got my First Job - Penumbra: Overture

Here's laziness for you. By far and away the most common question I'm asked by aspiring writers - after 'How do you be a games writer?' - is 'How did you get your first job?'. As much as I love hearing from and helping aspiring writers where I can, perhaps this post can save us all some time that we can then spend on nice things like writing tests, and reading RPS.

I got my first job, as narrative designer on Penumbra: Overture, at the end of 2006. I was 22, and halfway through an English & Philosophy BA at Southampton. I'd been reading books, playing games and writing stories for as long as I could remember. I'd been in the habit of sending sporadic bursts of emails to UK devs - at first looking for work experience (I didn't get any), then for entry-level QA and production jobs, which landed me a Summer's work at Lionhead on Black & White 2 the previous year. I don't know what spurred me to to switch from applying for actual jobs that existed to fantasy writing jobs that I figured should exist, but post-Lionhead I decided the smartest route into the industry was as a writer. After all, I was actually in the process of getting a qualification that would support my applications, and I already knew rather more about writing than I did about production or level design. Youthful naivety can be a valuable resource.

I recall one thing that happened at Lionhead while I was there that might have triggered my shift in focus. A few months before release a bunch of the other QA guys got together and wrote a short intro script that would frame the gameplay of B&W2 in a way more consistent with the mythology of the first. Frankly it was needed - any semblance of narrative progress that existed in the first game had largely been stripped out of the combat-oriented sequel, and it really didn't make much sense. In the end the idea didn't even get as far as being vetted - we'd hit text lock weeks earlier - but the image stayed with me. I realised that if Lionhead was approaching writing in so haphazard a way then maybe even a writer of my mediocrity could make a difference.

Luckily enough the indie game revolution was well under way by now. For the first time that I could remember the games I wanted to play weren't in the hands of the big corporations - everyone was doing it. Suddenly the people making the games were as inexperienced as I was. I started emailing small studios, new studios, eastern European studios... anyone doing something interesting that might be able to make use of a writer. No one replied.

And then I sent this email:

> Dear Penumbra,
> First of all, many congratulations on Penumbra - the physics based
> interaction interface is so intuitive it's a wonder it hasn't been done
> before.
> I read that you are embarking on a commercial project, and I wish you
> all the best with this, and wish to offer my services.
   The area that interested me particularly was the potential of the
> narrative to further enhance the atmosphere.  It's a promising start, but I
> think there's so much more that could be done with the actual
> implementation of the narrative, from the introduction, to the item
> descriptions, to the character's internal narrative during the game.
> I realise that Penumbra is currently a tech demo: obviously you have
> plans for the commercial release.  If you are currently looking for
> publisher financing, however, I would imagine that the tech demo is
> your greatest tool of persuasion, and as such, it would benefit from
> being as polished as it possibly can be.
> I am a UK based writer with a keen interest in the future of narrative
> based video gaming.  I have had a play with the config file for
> Penumbra, and I see that it is very easy to adapt in-game text, and I
> would love the chance to help write a more stream-lined, more engaging
> script and narrative for Penumbra.
> In case you are interested, I enclose below a re-imaging of the
> original introductory text, to demonstrate what can be done with the
> material.  If you enjoy it, please do contact me at the email provided.
> Yours sincerely,
> Tom Jubert

Despite addressing the email to the name of the game rather than the team, Frictional responded and offered me a volunteer position on the commercial project, with an unspecified offer of royalties on release.

And that is the story of how I got my first job.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Happy New Year, Happy New IGF Shortlisting for FTL!

It's been far too long since I posted anything, so let's get the new year off to a proper start with a quick work update.

The last time I checked the calendar it was still September. Since then we've launched FTL, rewritten The Swapper a couple of times, recoded the whole of Ir/rational Investigator, and formalised doubts about laissez-fair capitalism and traditional democracy (no link for the latter, I don't think you want to read the products of my Political Philosophy MA). Now I'm just about ready for 2013, and only a week late!

The year's off to a good start, with FTL literally just being announced as an IGF 2013 finalist. If I'm honest the odds were rather stacked in my favour - with FTL, The Swapper and my own Ir/rational Investigator all entered, one of them was sure to come through. Congrats to Justin, Matt and the rest of the team!

Development on The Swapper is continuing apace. Following a complete story redesign based on PAX feedback we've now introduced new characters with full voice recording planned for the coming month. The script has just gone through its first major redraft, and the guys are working to get us up to Beta in time for a release some time this quarter.

Ir/rational Investigator meanwhile is benefiting from the involvement of our new programmer, who has been recoding my crappy engine and providing me a full suite of content management tools which should make development of the full game rather more manageable. The Christmas panic has slowed narrative and puzzle design, but that's what January is for.

In other news, I've been providing some insight for a new Rogue-a-like book, made the news section of Philosophy Now in an entirely unexpected way, been turned down for a job on Thief 4 and been courted for a job on the last franchise I ever thought would come knocking on my door.

More news as it develops.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Ir/rational Investigator Heads to IGF 2013

This is, of course, no guarantee that it will actually arrive there. All the same, 3am this morning marked the deadline for this year's Independent Games Festival, and the Ir/rational team were unsurprisingly working up to the wire. It's been worth all the ball-ache of learning about ad-hoc dev profiles, text blitters and orientation bugs because finally we have a decently representative vertical slice. Finally we know where we're going with the game, and we can show people. I shall do so...!

Rick's Office - serves as the HQ, and highly adaptable - the room reflects progress in the story.

The game map. The first episode will feature 3-4 such map screens, each with unique locations and characters.

The tone of the game is tongue in cheek.
So we've currently got about 20 minutes of gameplay. Over the next couple of months I'll be designing the remaining puzzles (the rough plot is already in place) with a view to releasing the first episode Some time in Q1 2013.

You can read more about Ir/rational Investigator at Steam Greenlight. Although Imre of Bossa Studios had a play the other day and said it was a "great idea, but shakey implementation" - so don't get too excited, because he knows his stuff!

Friday, 14 September 2012

New Release - FTL: Faster Than Light

As of today (and until 21st September) you can buy FTL direct from the developer for the low, low price of about £6.50. I strongly urge you to do so.

With the cash they raised from kickstarter, the chaps at Subset have dramatically increased the scope of the game. I've helped them to develop a galaxy full of alien rogues, fast talking Slugmen and drunken pirates. They've added a host of new player ships, weapons and gadgets, and have been honing the product to perfection over the past 6 months.

I think it really is quite a game, and I hope you do to.

You can also pick up the game on Steam.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Project Announcement: Ir/rational Investigator

This is probably the biggest day in my career to date. It's certainly the most exciting. Today I'm announcing (and bringing to Steam Greenlight) Ir/rational Investigator, a commercial follow up to Ir/rational Redux, arriving (with any luck) on iPhone and PC in 2013.

Right now I'm sending out blurb and trying to get the game in front of as many people as possible - in the future I'll be documenting development a bit more and talking candidly about using drag and drop packages to develop for iPhone, the approach we're taking to the story and writing and the perfect storm that allowed us to start work on this game.

In the meantime, for the main info, trailer and screens you can visit Greenlight. I hope you like what you see.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Project Announcement: PAX10 Nominee, The Swapper

This is one of my favourite parts - getting to talk about something new. When that something new is already winning awards and is looking in good shape it's even better.

The Swapper is a 2D puzzle platformer with a certain sort of psychological, thinky tone that should explain why I'm working on it. More than that, the found-object-based visuals (clay, bits of bicycle etc) are just beginning to come together after months of narrative design work. It's Helsinki-based Facepalm Games' first game, and it's as solid a puzzle explorer as I've seen.

Another major reason I got involved was The Swapper's enviable status as one of the seven games to be backed by Indie Fund. I can only figure that those guys know their stuff, and that they conducted a far more thorough due diligence than I ever could.

It's been a lovely, tight script for me to have a crack at. At around 6 hours playtime we're only shooting for about 3,000 words of short, high-value text logs and dialogues. Combine that with a game editor that lets me  redraft text and test it on the fly and there's just no excuse for every word not being right. The game's concerned with the metaphysical and ethical ramifications of a device that clones people and lets them swap between bodies. I like that sort of thing, don't you know.

We've just begun the writing process, and the game world is taking on detail and meaning. At the end of the month the game's won us an exhibition spot at PAX Prime (31st August 2012), so we'll all be jetting off to Seattle to show the thing off. It's going to be my first experience of the US show circuit, and I'm looking forward to - for once - being able to come face to face with the people who play our games - and with any luck watching them have fun.

The game is due in 2013, and you can read more and check out screens & trailers in the official press release over at the Facepalm blog.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

ir/rational Redux - Postmortem

My word. It's done better than I expected.  In under a fortnight...

  • ir/rational Redux is just about to hit 100,000 plays on Newgrounds
  • 300,000 plays web-wide
  • 4.11/5 stars user rating on Newgrounds
  • 6th highest scoring game this month
  • 40 pages of user reviews and comments

Play Session Stats
But let's look at some play stats rather than a bunch of self-congratulatory ones. Just under 50% of everyone is quitting out in 1-5 minutes. This sounds high, but doesn't particularly surprise me - I know the second I saw a massive page of text in a Flash game I'd consider quitting out; and if you make it past that to the second or third puzzle you're going to realise quickly enough whether or not the game's for you.

Once past the 5 minute barrier, though, there's a dip in the drop out rate and if you stay longer than 5 minutes chances are you'll stay longer than 10 too. I've got you hooked.

The average playtime for those that play past the first couple of puzzles is 15m-26m. This is great, because it means most people who play on, finish the game, or at least spend 20 minutes trying and then rage quit on level 7 or level 9 (difficulty spikes, bad design).

- 28% of everyone who lasts more than 5 minutes spends more than half an hour playing the game.
- 3% of the same take about an hour.

This are invaluable numbers when it comes to thinking about what's next for the concept. The biggest and most obvious hurdle is this - when you can't just adjust a value and give the bad guys twice as much HP, how do you manage the difficulty curve for a game which takes some people ten minutes, and some people 5x that?

Flash Marketing
I've learnt very quickly about flash game marketing during the last fortnight. Reddit is your friend, lover and guardian angel. My day 1 post on there - no doubt aided by my shameless credit name-dropping - immediately put me about 10,000 clicks ahead of everything else on the site. This in turn got me a daily prize and into the Hot New Games list. The clicks and good reviews I scored from there got me onto the front page. I'm now off the front page and the hot new games - and clicks have dropped off quickly - but the game should pick up again any day when it makes it onto the Best Games This Month list.

Netting some good website write-ups helped, especially when they came in the first week. Due to the way the portals feature games, you're better off with 50,000 plays in week 1 than with the same (or even more) spread out over a number of weeks.
"[I]t contains nifty logic puzzles, darkly amusing writing from Penumbra scribe Tom Jubert and has been reduxed so hard it looks and sounds brand new."Rock, Paper Shotgun 
"No doubt the central premise of ir/rational Redux could have come off as incredibly dry, but overall this is a supremely engaging work. A unique brand of dark philosophical humor is present throughout, and the puzzles manage the right balance of posing a challenge to advanced logicians, while remaining welcoming to the novice."JayIsGames
"The conclusions you have to reach are sometimes obvious, but the challenge of the game is figuring out how to reach them. While the game does take a brief, stupid side turn into the politics of video game censorship, most of the puzzles are amusingly high-minded."
"I can guarantee you've never played a puzzle or escape the room type flash game like this before so you are in for a treat."
A special shout out also needs to be made to Jay of JayIsGames for buying me the full version of the Clickteam game maker package so I could release the game unbranded. Massive compliment - that man knows his flash.

What I Learnt About Designing Games
(Or a list of all the crap I did wrong)

Difficulty & Designing Logic Puzzles
I approached the puzzles from the wrong direction. I started with a story, and tried to come up with logic puzzles that fed into it. As a result they feel crowbarred in - while they sit nicely with the story, the difficulty curve is all over the place, and worse: what makes those puzzles difficult is the way I've programmed the solutions, rather than the logic itself.

In the next game I'll begin with the logic, building complexity slowly, and set the game in a scenario more flexible in the opportunities it provides for puzzles.

Art is Important
I know, obvious, but I've been genuinely surprised by how polished people are finding the game - because behind the scenes, of course, it's all over the place. What's key here is this: this is essentially the same game I released three years ago, only with pretty pictures. The difference in response, though, has been massive. Good art is important.

How to do Flash Right
I've learnt a bit about the nitty gritty of Flash development as well. Don't get me wrong - I know nothing about Flash itself, but I know a bit more about alpha transparency and file compression and in-game ads and analytics. 
  • I know how to make a Flash game that's less than 18MB now (use as little alpha transparency as possible, use a non-lossy image format, don't store your text as image files, compress everything!). I also know you can make a successful Flash game at more than 5x the usual file size.
  • Implement Mochi for ads and analytics
  • Don't release buggy games
  • Don't use drag and drop software unless you really can't program (in which case do use it)
  • Do come up with a great idea and implement it to at least a mediocre standard.
  • KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

And What I Learnt About ir/rational as a Concept
The single most positive part of this whole experience is the sheer volume of player discussion and feedback. There is something fundamentally strong about this gameplay concept - it makes people feel smart, and it makes people want to talk about the game. I'm certain it's performing far better than it otherwise would simply because people are talking about it so much. On Newgrounds there are games with 3x as many plays as ir/rational, but with less than half as many comments. This game is a viral marketing gift. End of.

The other thing that players are really appreciating is the originality of the thing. I remember being in my early teens and discovering PCGamer magazine, and a new value in games: 'innovation'. Nowadays it feels a bit old hat to talk about it, but if I had a penny for every review along the lines of "I've never played anything like this, 5 stars" I'd have... well, more than the $100 dollars the ads have earned so far. There's a lot of clones and fluff on Flash portals - doing something smart and different picks you out from the crowd, even if you don't implement it that well.

What's Next?
I'm currently working on a development of the ir/rational DLC concept. Only very different. I'll know if it's going anywhere in a month or two.

You can play ir/rational at these fine places:

Sunday, 8 July 2012

ir/rational Redux Released!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that the suped up version of my old text-based logic game, ir/rational, is finally finished and has arrived on Newgrounds!

ir/rational Redux is half graphic novel and half logic puzzler. You find yourself in a locked room (inventive, huh?) and seek to escape - the challenge is not so much in the escape itself, but in proving deductively why you should bother at all. It's designed to introduce people to philosophy and a rigorous way of thinking, but also to challenge people's brains in fun sort of a way.

This version remains largely the same as the original in gameplay, but features entirely new visuals and sound, courtesy of Martin Santana (aeclipse mattaru) and Penumbra's Mikko Tarmia respectively, and a host of bug and polish fixes. Thanks to those guys it really is the game I meant to make in the first place. This is what it once looked like:

Right now the game's under community judgement at newgrounds, and if it gets enough votes it'll go onto the main site! 3 hours down and it's on the front page with over 1,000 plays! I hope you enjoy it, and if you do I'm sure you know what to do.

I hope taking the game into the browser and sticking it on a portal will win it a broader audience than the boring old .exe. However, it was always my hope that the core gameplay on show in ir/rational could really reach a far broader market. These sorts of puzzle are the sort of thing I'm sure could be added to the likes of soduko, crosswords and angry birds as a key component of commuters' pre-work iPhone entertainment, and this Flash release is very much a testing ground. If the game scores some good clicks I'll start looking at the options for bringing an all-new version to iPhone - if anyone in that sphere is interested in discussing things I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Silent Protagonists: A Unique Opportunity

I'm not the only person who wonders whether silent protagonists in games have overstayed their welcome. On the one hand, it's easy to see why they're so popular. Ever since Half-Life we've been convinced that players can better inhabit a virtual identity when there's no pre-scripted personality with which to compete for expression. Without a strong protagonist to make decisions and harbour motivations we can leave the player to fill in those gaps. Perhaps your Gordon Freeman wants to save the world, perhaps he's just interested in surviving the various unlikely scenarios he finds himself in. Maybe he's just shy.

Avatar's are also cheaper and 'easier'. With an unspeaking central character we don't have to worry about whether the player is standing on the other side of the room talking to a wall during a dialogue, nor do we have to take control away from them to prevent as much. We don't have to worry about whether the player knows who's speaking, or think about breaking to third-person. This is definately a view I've come to question.

What do avatars achieve?

I'm certain there are good contexts for avatars, and less good ones, but from experience it seems as if uncharacterised protagonists have simply become the default for first-person games. That should worry any writer, because often enough its results would seem ridiculous to anyone not bred on its rules.

Do avatars really help players to identify with their character? How does something like The Witcher 2 (where players are given control of their character's decisions, even though Geralt very much has his own personality that can't be overwritten) compare with Mass Effect 3 (where lines are written much more neutrally) and Half-Life 2 (no control and no dialogue)?

For me, the presiding feature isn't so much about character as about control. I don't feel like I'm competing with Geralt for expression in The Witcher, and I feel closer and more involved with his story than with Gordon's. I'm pleased to say that game mechanics have more say over my emotions than script delivery. Personality isn't something we're accustomed to being easily able to change in real life; the same is not true of the decisions we make.

In avatars' defense

However, the silent protagonist has a place in the grand scheme, and that's the point I want to make here. I'm currently working on an indie game that I hope to announce in the next month, and on that we began with an assumption of a silent protagonist, assessed it, and decided it fit nicely with what we were trying to do. There's a minimalist tone to this game, the soundtrack is ambient and the NPC dialogue un-voiced; but further, questions of identity and independence are central to the narrative. A silent protagonist (or, perhaps, one who can't / won't speak through most of the game) sits well with those ideals.

What struck me, though, was this: how many other narrative mediums offer this sort of flexibility in stylistic choice? Could you make a film in which the central character never speaks? Perhaps, but I think you'd struggle.

We talk a lot about the limitations of games as a narrative medium - lower quality visuals, player autonomy etc - and not so much about what makes it uniquely exciting. Silent protagonists may be over used, but they have a time and a place. I think it's pretty awesome to be in an industry that allows us to try crazy stuff like this and to discover just where that time and place is.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Project Announcement: FTL

This is a great announcement to be able to make. For the past 6 weeks I've been working on FTL - the bridge combat roguealike that's charming everyone. Let me tell you a bit about how I got involved, and what I'm doing.

I first read about FTL some six months ago in PC Gamer, tore out the page to remind me to look it up, and then forgot all about it. Then I played the limited time onlive demo and was blown away (apparently it was the most played game on the service during that period). FTL captures all the good stuff: the ordering crew on suicide missions to fix vital components, the MORE POWER TO ENGINES and the transporter catastrophes. It also tells a randomly generated tale drawn from a vast library of pre-scripted events with different options and outcomes. In short, I wanted me some of that, so I got in touch.

Around the same time Justin and Matthew were making headlines for netting a cool $200,000 from a $10,000 kickstarter campaign, and were in the process of expanding the game's scope and hiring a writer.

The new hangar screen, and the Federation Cruiser.
Working on FTL has been fantastic, mostly because I'm already so sold on the game and the guys' ability to pull it off. I've been developing the alien species (like the rockmen you see in the header image) and we must have doubled the number of events since the demo (which - I feel bad about this - are being pain-stakingly hand-coded into the game by Justin). The aim is to make each sector in the game feel special, with hidden paths and unique events for replayability. We want players to keep on exploring the galaxy long after they defeat the big boss because it's just such an interesting place to visit.

All this being said, the reins are very much with the chaps: they seem to know what they want, and I'm trusting that their top-level view is sound, because I don't have much of one.

Here I've managed to beam two of the deadliest aliens - a Rockman and a Mantis - onto the enemy ship. Then it catches fire and I have to race to bring them back home before it blows.
As much as anything else it's been fantastic to get right back into a decent indie project. I've had a couple of cancelled AAAs over the past few years which is always a bummer, and while I've been involved in a number of other indie things - on Cargo! A Quest For Gravity and my own ir/rational - it's been nothing big enough to compare to working on Penumbra: Overture some six years ago. With FTL we have limited resources, a tough schedule, and thousands upon thousands of words to write. It's great to know they'll be going toward a good end.

The beta for kickstarter donators (why aren't they called donars, incidentally?) is right around the corner, and you can keep up with development at the project blog. FTL should be out in a matter of months.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Incoming Transmission

You arrive at the beacon; the shattered hull of an alien ship floats peacefully in the shifting tides of a nearby asteroid field, being drawn inexorably toward the sun at the heart of the system. Nothing else happens.

Then, a distant blip on the scanners that keeps on expanding. It grows closer, larger, until it has enveloped the entire system. The ship is rocked by a shockwave, but the shields hold. You check your star charts - everything has changed. Your journey has become longer and harder, carrying you through uncharted systems and alien empires you've never set eyes on before.

You power the jump drive. This is going to be fun.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Binary Domain is Out Now! (And This Post is Late)

Very, very late. But anyway, Binary Domain - the new Gears-style shooter from the Yakuza team - is now out for 360, PS3, and has been announced for a PC release later this month. It's a post-apocalyptic robot shooter, with voice communication that lets you boss about and impress/piss off your AI team mates.

Under direction from Dead Space's Anthony Johnston, and working with a team from Sidelines, I reviewed 5,000 lines of in-game dialogue, rewriting as required. The material was mostly part of the NPC relationship system where the characters harangue the player, and the way he responds affects their standing, and it was nice to take on some interactive dialogue for a change.

I've played through the game (now, sadly not at the time) and I can confirm it probably is indeed a Metacritic 74%. The pew-pew bang-bang is solid, if not a Gears beater, but the game is lifted by its mechanical antagonists. All the robots in the game work according to a consistent armour/electrical underbelly framework where metal plates must be chipped before damage can be wrought, and a full damage localisation system where limbs can be removed tactically. Fast enemies need leg shots (reducing them to crawling or, more sinister, hopping towards you). Score a headshot on a powerful type to destroy their central processor and have them attack their buddies. It's a lot of clean fun.

Beyond this, certainly the narrative co-designed by Anthony and Toshihiro Nagoshi reaches beyond the kill-nasty-aliens plotting of its obvious competition. While the relationship system is somewhat blunt and broken, this is still a game which prioritises story, and it shows in every bit of banter and twist in the tale. This is not to say I'm entirely onboard with the script - we worked hard on eliminating the stereotypes, but this is still a game where characters are projections of their nationality.

All told it was good to be involved, and nice to have another game to add to the growling list.

If you do want to pick up any of my back catalogue you could do worse than hitting these links.

Binary Domain - £29.99
Driver: San Francisco - £19.99
Penumbra: Collection - £15.98
ir/rational - FREE!
Cargo: A Quest For Gravity- £14.99
Evil Dead App - £0.69
Lost Horizon - £14.99

Demos available of most, I believe.

Just to complete this month's run of shameless self-promotion, don't forget you can connect in all these lovely ways:


Monday, 27 February 2012

Alternate Endings in Singularity & Jurassic Park

NB No spoilers for Singularity, ending spoilers for Jurassic Park: The Game.

I'm fascinated by the psychological and creative theory behind interactive narrative. It scares, confuses and enthrals me. Much as there's more and more writing on such topics, I still don't feel like we always understand just what we're doing to the player when we give him a decision to make. I still hold that the logical solution is to tend towards more procedural (albeit less narratively detailed) content: the more dynamic a game world is the more decisions within that world function like real ones (ie a question of knowledge, odds and cause and effect); however more often than not I find myself working with more scripted experiences which send the player off to either (a) or (b).

Where this approach often seems most indelicate is in games with multiple endings. Take Singularity. Without spoiling anything significant, the game's entirely linear, encouraging the player to let the fiction take over: these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, go fight for what's right. At the end, though, you're given a choice: side with the good guys, or the bad guys. For me it renders the rest of the experience completely disingenuous: if this was always an option, why have I only just heard about it? If you wanted me to actually engage my brain and consider the ethical situation I'm presented with, why force me to fight for the good guys the whole way through?

I'm sure we can guess why this decision point is in here. In fact the presentation of the endings tells the tale for us: the good ending is a lavishly presented cut scene; the other two just have naff voice overs. A last minute decision that sounded good on paper, then: of course the player wants to choose who to side with! Of course branching endings are better than straight ones!

It's understandable, because surely more player choice can't be a bad thing? I'm going to argue that, in fact, as far as endings go it can be just that.

Endings in Games vs Endings Everywhere Else
I was considering a scenario for an unannounced project the other day. There was an obvious opportunity for the player to make a decision at the end of the game (let's say he's got a bad guy at gunpoint). It's a secondary character who we can kill off or let live, and we can let that decision affect one or two minor story elements later on. But here's the thing: what decision are we asking the player to make here? Is it between revenge and mercy? Is it between good and evil? Is it between practicality and empathy?

The truth is that in real life (which is what we tend to be modelling with decisions in games) it's all of these things, but the only thing that defines the outcome of the decision once made is raw cause and effect. The more we know about the situation the more able we are to predict its outcome; and when it swings unpredictably (let's say I kill the baddie to be on the safe side, but his brother comes and takes revenge) we accept it as either an oversight on our part, or an unfortunate roll of the dice. This is exactly how such decisions play out in an entirely procedural environment like Spelunky.

But how does this sort of decision point work in the game? Well, for one thing we're going to pre-define the outcome based on what we consider realistic or, perhaps more likely, on what the story and gameplay demand. We're also incapable of understanding what your reasons were for that decision (unless it's a very particular one), which largely negates any useful story consequences we can impose.

Jurassic Park
Let's take a further example from Jurassic Park: The Game. Major plot spoilers here, but honestly the story's not up to much anyway so don't fret. At the end of the game one of your characters has a decision to make (just like Singularity, it's the only one in the game): save the valuable dino DNA, or save the little girl. I accidentally selected 'Save Little Girl', and I got the happily ever after ending where everyone escapes together and - incredibly - they also happen across a great big bag of gold. Now, the way this is presented suggests going after the DNA was a valid alternative, so I went back and tried again. Turns out when you go after the DNA the character in question winds up getting eaten, and the little girl escapes anyway.

It's obvious enough what Telltale are doing here. We're not being asked to make a practical decision (since both options seem equally risky), we're being asked to make a moral one. The message: be good and your rewards will come; be an arsehole and you'll get digested by a T-Rex. But what if I went after the DNA because I thought the girl was already done for? What if I just put higher ethical value in scientific progress as a whole than in individual human life? What if I panicked and hit the wrong button? Because it's not clear this is a soley ethical dilemma we're confusing this decision; with so many unpredictable factors (the author's hand, the artificial cause and effect of gameplay, the implied freedom of choice) the decision winds up doing very little. 

Games vs Films
I don't think there's been a single game with branching endings (since, at least, the internet age) where I didn't immediately go online and see what I missed out on, and I wonder whether that's telling of how unsuccessful games often are in selling to the player that the ending they got is their ending; that it's appropriate to their story. But it also raises some interesting comparisons with film that might shed some light. The entirety of film is 'tainted' by the author's hand. Sure, things usually roll out with a semblance of plausible cause and effect, but unlike games there's nothing in here that's down to chance. There is one route through this narrative, the intended route, and when a character reaches a decision point it's usually made abundantly clear what the alternative was, and why he didn't choose it. The question of 'What if?' is either answered implicitly, or unimportant.

When I dig out the alternate ending to Singularity or Jurassic Park it certainly decreases my identification with the ending I naturally received. The illusion that I had much ownership of this tale is shattered, and often there's little that occurs that isn't predictable (and yet, of course, were it less so we'd be complaining that it wasn't appropriate for a bunch of other reasons). These endings tend to be so run of the mill: we're making a cyber punk shooter, there are three factions in the game, of course you get to choose which one you like at the end!

However, viewing what might have happened can also be illuminating, and it's an option unique to our medium. The good ending in Jurassic Park is an awful lot more meaningful (though sadly no more interesting) once I know what the alternative was. When we consider the difference between the illusion of freedom and true freedom, knowing what your other options were at least confirms that you had freedom of a meaningful sort. 

So back on topic, what did I do in my execution scenario? Well, I thought about playing the odds. Make it clear to the player what possible ramifications exist (ie the vengeful brother), and then assign it a probability. For 75% of players it's a risk worth taking; the rest get unlucky. In the end I decided there were too many factors at work. I'd rather provide a linear experience that's at least true to itself (whose drama plays out in a meaningful way) than provide the player a decision point just because I can, and risk him being alienated because I haven't properly accounted for his motivation.

There's a danger, in this piece, that I'm just complaining about all the options available to a narrative designer, without proposing solutions. Given my theoretical leaning towards procedural play there's no doubt some truth to that, but I'm not happy leaving it there.

At Southbank, I always push my story design students to ensure any branching they consider is appropriate to the player. There's no point giving him ownership of the story if it doesn't branch in a way that's more meaningful for him than it might be for differently disposed players, and that principle carries over to this discussion. Singularity: there's nothing wrong with a tightly crafted linear experience, so just bite the bullet.

The game I'm working on does have multiple endings. It's a risk. But we're conscious of that fact, and we're working hard from the get go to ensure it's based on meaningful player decisions. Perhaps more importantly we're not throwing in decisions just for the sake of it. When a player comes into our game I want him to know what his options are, and what they're not; and while I don't want him to see the ending coming, I want it to feel appropriate nonetheless.

We'll find out whether we succeed early next year.