My Favorite XBLIG Games

Something that bothers me about XBLIG is that too few good games get the spotlight. For some reason, some really good games get passed over in favor of games like "Z0MBIES" (which anyone who knows me knows I'm not a huge fan of) and "Missile Escape." The front channel even advertises crap games like "Try Not To Fart." And this angers me. These games aren't interesting. In many cases, they're one off jokes, and they don't interest me in the slightest.

So, I'm going to quickly go over some XBLIG games that I have enjoyed a lot and have been passed over in Top Rated and in the news.

Lumi

Lumi is actually the reason I'm writing this post, as I feel as it's being completely overlooked and underrated.  The first thing that stuck me about Lumi is that it's really pretty. The second thing that struck me is that it has a really interesting movement mechanic which makes up most (not all) of the gameplay. You move by attaching yourself to spinning disks, and then launching yourself out. You're attracted to disks by using the same color (one of the triggers) and repelled by using the opposite. You move around like this, collecting fireflies to relight the world, attacking evil bosses along the way.

The only reason that I feel that Lumi is anything short of a 5 star game (it's certainly better than "Missile Escape") is that people are rating it low because it has the highest price point available on XBLIG. But I've played Arcade games less pretty, less polished, and more frustrating than Lumi. I feel like it deserves a bit more recognition.

Ninja Bros

Ninja Bros was recommended to me by friend and former colleague Darius, and it's actually really awesome. The gameplay is simple: you have a ninja that you can move around, and he jumps with a given button. Get him to the exit. What makes the game interesting is when you're controlling multiple ninjas. Each of them is controlled by the same thumbstick, but each has a separate jump button. In harder levels, you have to coordinate each ninja, when they jump and when they move, to try to get everyone to the exit in a reasonable about of time.

The game is surprisingly complex for something so simple, and it gets to be very hard. It's definitely worth paying for and playing through.

Miner Dig Deep and Soul Caster

Both of these games are on the Top Rated, so I won't take too much time going over them.

Miner Dig Deep isn't that interesting except in its polish. The game is the definition of grind, but it does it very well, and thus deserves a mention.

Soul Caster is an interesting twist on the RPG / Tower Defense genre. I hate tower defense games, but I enjoyed Soul Caster, which is saying something.

Others?

What to others think? What XBLIG games aren't getting their fare share? Have I missed something I actually might enjoy?

One More GGJ Observation

Today I realized another thing that went wrong with our GGJ product, that I felt needed sharing.

  1. Starting At the End: This one is twofold. First, we spent a lot of time working on the end boss battle of the game, which, while awesome, had to be integrated with the rest of the game at the end of the jam, mostly in the last hour. The core mechanic of the game, the destruction and rebuilding of objects, suffered as a result. Second, when the game was pitched, I included a portion "at the end" where it turns out you're a horrible person for destroying the world. We never got to this because the game took precedence.

Basically, I've found that almost any game jam game that has the words "and at the end of the game" never gets to that point because developing the core mechanic and building gets in the way. And if you need the end of the game to keep with the theme of the jam, you're going to end up breaking theme.

I will say in defense of my team that it was mostly me talking about the "end of game" theme. Amanda pretty much spent the entire time telling me we wouldn't get to it, so this rest squarely on my shoulders.

In the end, I don't think Quest For Stick fit the main theme of the Jam (deception), but I think the core mechanic was awesome, and I'm happy we decided to make it instead of making something that would obviously fit with theme.

Jamming Post Mortem 2010 Edition

Last weekend, I took part in the Global Game Jam, like I did last year and let me say it was just as fun, if not MORE fun this year than last. Our game, Quest for Stick, was really, really awesome this year, and you can learn more about it from the GGJ page and from our Twitter account. We even have a video of a complete play through of the game. The game is super pretty, only a little bit buggy, and generally I think accomplished everything we wanted.

But this year I went in knowing what to expect. How'd I do this year? What did I learn?

What Went Right

  1. The Team. Last year, I said one of the things that went right was having a team. This year, that was even more so. We had a total of 7 people working full time on the game, which, initially, I thought was way too many. So much so that I actually asked people to leave the team and considered leaving the team myself to reduce the number of people. But, when it came down to it, I decided I wanted to work on the game idea and went with the other 6 people to create the game. Honestly, 7 people may still have been too many, as communication and tasking did get hard near the end of the project, but there's no way the game would have been anything near what it was if we didn't have at least that many people. Everyone was basically tasked the whole time, and the game came out great because of it.
  2. Getting Down To Business: We spent very little time talking design this time, which worked out to our advantage. Although we spent a lot of time later arguing about how exactly the game was going to play, it didn't take away from everyone working, which was good. We got down to making something playable quickly, and didn't try to design too much stuff up front.
  3. Tools choice: Last year, I was super happy with XNA. This year, the team used AngelXNA, even though I was the only one familiar at all with it, and I was the really the only one well versed in XNA. Even though I spent a lot of time helping people understand Angel / XNA, it was still, by far, better than attempting to use only XNA. It performed a lot of the heavy lifting for us in terms of doing animations, placing and managing actors, and, surprisingly, editing levels, though this is its own bullet point.

What Went Wrong

  1. Unclear tasking: Occasionally, we got duplicated work or weird moments of down time because, like most game jams, people just shouted out things they needed. Kate was really the only person keeping track of most of these tasks, and really only for herself. For the artists, no one was really in charge of knowing what art was still needed and who was doing what. For a team this large, what we needed to create and consult a list on a whiteboard or cork board that had any asset requests, who was potentially doing them, what was in progress and what was up for grabs. This would have avoided duplicated work and would have given us an idea of how much work was left.
  2. Late Playable: Despite my work to prevent this (more on this later), we still didn't end up with an actual playable game until mid day on the last day. Just having *SOMETHING* sometime on Saturday to hand to the artists and designers to make levels on would have helped. We did have lots of pieces that worked, essentially, but didn't get them integrated together fast enough.
  3. Encapsulation problems: We had three programmers working together on individual parts of the game, which helped not only keep them tasked without stomping on each other, but made it so people were in charge of very small systems. However, some of the systems were weirdly encapsulated, and required copying and pasting over when we actually got to the point of integrating. Though this actually ended up *helping* at the very end, I would have liked fewer instances where I had to copy and paste the code from one class to another in order to integrate a new system into the main game.

What Didn't Work

So, these things really didn't go wrong, but they were things I was hoping would help us during the jam, but didn't.

  1. The Simple CI: Before the Jam, I wrote a simple python script that would query a mercurial repository, pull down new code, build it, copy it up to a network location, then message everyone over gchat. This was awesome in theory, but not so much in practice for a few reasons. First, it didn't work so well. If anyone was signed out of gchat when it went to message them, the CI would get stuck in an endless loop. Second, the network drive would occasionally flake out and not be able to take the new build. Third, we didn't have anything the team could play until Sunday, so the CI ended up being useless until then.
  2. The Angel Editor: The editor in Angel was an awesome idea, but when we got to the Jam, it was buggy and untested. It didn't save out things correctly, crashed, spawned items in weird places, and didn't work at all with our custom actors. In addition, the editor saved all levels out to the build directory, which was great for everyone but the people who were using it. Besides fixing the other editor bugs, in the future, the editor will probably need to detect whether a debugger is attached, and figure out where to put the levels from there, or create a custom levels folder that can be easily moved back and forth and through to an integratable build.

All and all, an awesome Jam. Please play Quest for Stick, and let me know what you think. I'm super proud of it.

Empaty, Games, Choice, and Agency

I got a few responses from my previous post, and now I want to share my feelings on the subject.

As I stated in the post, I don't agree with David Cage, but I also don't agree with the statement from the reader either. To dismiss what games can offer emotionally or just from a narrative perspective generally with a blanket statement about how games give you the "opportunity to fill the shoes of the lead character" misses the point entirely. What games offer has nothing to do with being in the shoes of the main character, and everything to do with choice and perceived agency.

To answer my own questions, I have never, really, felt like I was in the shoes of a main character of a video game, or that the main character was in any way a reflection of me. Since I can't say that I have ever felt that way, I can't say that there were any instances of having a heightened emotional experience because of it.

In my option, the tools for creating heightened emotional experience in games are frequently exactly the same tools used for creating heightened emotional experiences in movies. Both revolve around empathy, either for the main character or the characters that surround him. Then when something good or bad happens to those characters, you yourself feel good or bad (or embarrassed, or sad, or whatever). The thing is that movies are mostly limited to creating feelings through empathy, but they're better at it that games are for sure, partially because we are given no say in the choices of the characters, and yet we understand the choices they make.

It the comments, good friend Borut talks about a fictional slavery game, driven by empathy for the slave:

If I play a game set in the South before the civil war where the main character is an escaped slave, will I actually feel like a slave? Probably not – but I will have a deeper understanding of what it might have been like, a more powerful understanding than if I watched a movie about it.

I responded in the comments:

Are you sure games are any better at achieving this than other mediums? Could you make a game that captures the hardships of being a slave or an escaped slave be any better than Roots? Part of being a slave was the unfair punishment, something we avoid in games completely.

The classic whipping scene in Roots is probably my best example of a case where empathy actually works way better than agency. Imagine if you were Kunta Kinte in a Roots game, and after every whip, you were asked what your name was. How many times would you respond with the African name? When / if you finally responded with the English name, how would you feel? There is no reward for using your English name, and no reward for using your African name. In both cases, there is only punishment. Because we empathize with Kunta in the movie, we understand why he wants to use his African name, and feel horrible about the punishment he receives because of it. But given the same abstract choice in a game, how often would you respond with the choice that is correct for the character?

This does not, however preclude the idea of offering new or different types of emotional states in games. Borut, again, points out that "a couple Bioware games have made me feel guilt when I treat party members badly (guilt is unique to games)," and he's right. But the feeling of guilt is driven by empathy for the characters you're being mean to. And if the character you're playing should be mean to characters, doesn't this prove that you're not necessarily in the mind of the main character when you perform actions in games? Your character feels good about being a douchebag, shouldn't you? The feeling your having is a result of seeing the impacts of your actions on characters you care about. This is the key to emotional impact in games.

In my opinion, games heightened emotional states don't come from "being in the shoes of the main character," but though agency, and the feelings of agency given through choice. Without that, you're left only with the powers of empathy given in movies. Furthermore, players need to be able to draw the causal line from decisions they've made to the good or bad things happening to characters they care about. You can see this already, even in games that have no plot. Players can create strong emotional connections to, and empathize with, any number of things in games that, through the player's choices, end in a particular situation. This state is heightened when they know that the situation was cause by some specific choice they made, and not just hand of the evil writers. In plot based games I feel the impact can be heightened further, especially if the designers are able to both create empathy for the characters and provide the choices that allow those characters to succeed or fail. Just because it hasn't been done (well), doesn't mean it can't be done, and in fact I think it should be done, and soon.

There is, of course, more I want to say on this subject concerning who we are as characters in a video game, but I want to leave it at that for now.

Jamming Postmortem

I took part in the Global Game Jam this weekend, and I have to tell you, it was a lot of fun. Version 1 of the game we created, The Game Of Nom, is available from the Global Game Jam site, and was voted third favorite at the location we were participating in, and I think that was a fair place for it to be (Move Mouse To Fulfill Destiny and The Beat were really awesome). I'm really happy with how the game turned out. It had the right feel and I think it really extracted the emotions from players that we wanted. The rules were simple enough that you could easily sit down and play it, hard enough that you could play for a while before winning, and interesting enough to be fun. That all said, the game is fairly buggy, especially when you're moving around flocks or trying to combine them, and that's a huge detriment to the game. At some point, Darren or I may actually fix a few of the issues and post a new version on the game jam site, but don't hold your breath.

So, for my own sanity and for future reference for everyone, I thought I'd do a post mortem of my experience.

What Went Right

  1. Enlisting the full time help of an artist. Amanda did an amazing job of giving us a feel for the game very early. I have no doubt that without her, the game wouldn't have been nearly as fun or interesting, and wouldn't have achieved this balance of fun and message that we wanted. By having a cute style to the game, we were able to present the dark message without seeming overly pretentious, which was awesome. My new rule is "artists make things look cool quickly," so get them involved early and things will look cool early, and get everyone really energized for the rest of the jam.
  2. Having a team. The first game jam I participated in, it was just me. Now, that was great for rapid iteration, but not for making something really interesting. I didn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of, and no one to really keep me focused and in line. Working with Darren not only allowed us to do something a little bit more complicated than we would have been able to do alone, but also ended up producing a much better product.
  3. Not sweating the small stuff. For the most part, I think we did a good job not worrying about some of our problems until later, and getting the game playable quickly so we could test it and refine it as needed, instead of spending lots of time doing things like improving the flocking behavior (which, I'll admit, I spent a little too much time on anyway ;)). The key to Jams is knowing when things are "good enough," and I think we did a pretty good job with that.
  4. Tools choice. Although we had some problems with it, XNA/C# is a really great prototyping language. Right before the Jam, Darren and I were considering other options, including the beta of Unity that was made available to the jammers. The things was, we didn't want to spend lots of time fighting to get things on screen and working, when we could spend time on the game play. XNA didn't give us a lot of pain for our simple little 2D game, and for that we were pretty thankful.

What Went Wrong

  1. Needing a prototyping framework. XNA is awesome, but it's not a great prototyping framework. As I don't do too much prototyping, I really don't know what I need and what's overkill. I found that the two things I really ended up wanting / needing were a simple object manager and an actor framework / state machine framework. We actually implemented states very late in the process and they were very hacked together. I found myself wishing we'd had OnEnter / OnExit / ChangeState for the little blobs frequently, but implementing states would have taken more time than hacking around them. In this respect, we maybe should have gone with Angel which has that stuff already built in, but it'd come out the day of the Jam, and I didn't want to try to learn it while Jamming (I've learned my lesson from the OLPC jam).
  2. Clear message, not so clear implementation. We knew what we wanted to get across to the player early, but not how to do it, and trying to discuss it mid jam was hard. Another twenty minutes talking about implementation would have helped, though during our initial discussion I was itching to get things running. What we really should have done is a "stand up" style meeting when everyone arrived in the morning to discuss where we were, and where we wanted to be each day. I think it would have helped a lot.
  3. Not enough testing / balancing. We should have pulled in more people to play the game earlier, and should have gotten things for Amanda to play so he should see the results of her art changes quickly. As it was, I spent most of Saturday and Sunday balancing, but was so close to the game that I missed little problems. Having just one person play mid-day Saturday would have exposed lots of problems that could have been fixed by the deadline.

I'd love to know what people have to say about the game. We're rating well, and I think if we get around to fixing the bugs, it will rate even better. Thanks to everyone who organized the Game Jam for this great opportunity!

Your chocies have consequences

Though not directly in responce to Randy (and Brenda I guess), someone has made a very short Game Maker game where "your choices have consequences."  (Note: do not read the thread first.  Read it after.)  This is a very interesting "game," and I highly recommend you take the 10 minutes out of your day to give it a shot.  Found via TIGSource (where I find most of the new interesting games I get to play).