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posted 07 January 2014

Inclusiveness and Low-Hanging Fruit

I love last week's story about Natural Selection 2 including a female marine as a playable character. Whenever these stories show up (and I'm pleased to see they're showing up more frequently) "certain" people argue that the developers should have spent the resources on a feature that impacts a larger group of existing players. But that misses the point.

For most projects, the unfortunate reality is that inclusiveness isn't going to be a primary concern. It isn't going to eclipse or take resources from a major feature. Inclusiveness is largely about low-hanging fruit.

A game I made back in 2007 was initially called Smiley and his Shooty Adventure. At some point during its development I wondered, "Why is Smiley a 'he'?" There wasn't a reason. Not mechanical, graphical, or for the (non-existent) narrative.

So I renamed it to Smiley's Shooty Adventure. It involved tweaking the logo, renaming the project, and changing the window title. That's as low-hanging as they get!

If something as simple as swapping out the player model, including a gender option, making your team colours red and blue, or even just renaming a project, will make a larger audience feel included, why not?

Of course, there are countless other things a developer can do to be more inclusive. Getting them all is a very challenging, if not impossible, task. Some developers will go above and beyond, and that's great! But every developer should set aside some time to identify their low-hanging fruit. It might be as simple as changing a line of text.

posted 11 July 2013

Scribbles


posted 02 April 2013

Gabe Newell on Steam as a Networking API 

"So the right way to do that is to make Steam essentially a network API that anyone can call. Now, this is separate from issues about viruses and malware. But essentially, it's like, anyone can use Steam as a sort of a distribution and replication mechanism."

The common refrain I hear is that Steam hosting user-created stores will negate the curated experience that has made it so successful. This misses the scope of what Gabe Newell is proposing. I don't think Steam will host user-created stores at all.

Steam as we know it today is made up of two halves: Valve's Steam Store, and the Steam Library. A customer purchases a game from the Store and (automatically) registers it with their Library.

I believe what Newell is proposing is that Valve will open up the first half, allowing anyone to develop their own standalone store using the Steam API. These stores will be external to the Steam Store and website. In fact, the Steam app itself will just be another consumer of the API. When a customer purchases a game from one of these stores, it will register with their Steam Library. This part will continue to be managed by Valve and integrated into the Steam app exclusively.

With this approach, Valve's Steam Store will continue to be a curated experience. But the Steam Store expands from being a single storefront into being a service, and extends its reach as a result. It's a natural progression of Valve allowing developers to bundle Steam Keys with non-Steam purchases.

Developers (and other curators) can use Steam's Store API instead of building a website or standalone app from scratch. They can take advantage of the payments, authentication, Steamworks, hosting and auto-updating infrastructure. This is a huge burden off developers, and a new opportunity for curators.

Customers clearly love using Steam, but I think it's less about the store itself, and more about the security of Valve's payments system, and the convenience of the Steam Library. The Steam API may not help with discovery, but it will make converting customer interest into purchases dramatically easier.

So this isn't necessarily the "Steam to riches" magic bullet. Mainly because these user-created stores will not be displayed in Valve's Steam Store. The challenge for indie developers will be, as it always has been, promoting and marketing their games. Valve will obviously invite the best developers into their store, but the bar isn't getting any lower than it is today.

A Steam API for standalone stores clearly benefits all three parties here: it expands Steam's (and subsequently, Valve's) reach without compromising their curated store business model. It makes developers lives much easier, and customers get a familiar, safe and convenient way to buy (even more) videogames.

posted 08 February 2013

Chris Taylor's Wildman Kickstarter, and Major Layoffs at Gas Powered Games 

Things aren't looking great for Gas Powered Games. Such a shame, as they've been good for gaming. Their focus on PC and strategy games, without rehashing decade-old designs, is to be admired.

Between his humour, enthusiasm, and straight forward nature, Chris Taylor is such a great industry figure. I came across the old Kings & Castles developer videos a few weeks ago and it occurred to me that Chris Taylor & co pre-empted the Kickstarter movement by a couple of years. And even today, few do it as humorously and enthusiastically as Chris Taylor.

Still, I feel uneasy about the Kickstarter. It looks like it will run the entire 30 days, and it'll probably get funded, but I can't see it saving the company. $1.1 million seems tight.

The game itself is very interesting, and again, this is GPG doing strategy without rehashing. But the mod side of things (the online OS technology) seems risky, expensive, and unnecessary. That hasn't stopped me from backing, mind you, but I'm not sure I'd recommend others to do the same. I'm kind of a crazy person (or a Wildman, if you will).

Of course, the sad part is that promising Total Annihilation would have worked a lot better. While Kickstarter has been great, it's frustrating to see interesting concepts from experienced developers being sidelined in favour of nostalgia trips.

posted 21 January 2013

My 2012 In Videogames

Another year of incredible videogames, not quite enough time to play them all, and publishing this a week later than I intended. All is well, then. Apart from the Game of the Year, this list isn't really ranked.

Game of the Year

It didn't take me long to figure out Fez was going to take the top spot. Even way back in April I was pretty much positive.

Fez is a game that defies categorization. On the surface it's a beautiful, ambient exploration game. The world is huge, mysterious, and opens up slowly. Exploring it is a relaxing, wonderful experience.

Go a little deeper and you'll find spatial puzzles that gently twist your mind. Nothing particularly challenging, but a pleasure to figure out.

It is the layer deeper still, the puzzle solving, that got everyone talking and indeed, sealed the deal for me. I still remember the decoding, pages of hand-written notes, and dozens of photos taken on my iPhone. The first sentence I translated. The infinitely looping room. The clock tower. I got lost in it all for weeks.

Fez is why I play videogames: to have novel experiences, to discover new worlds, and explore their mysteries.

A Close Second

XCOM demands your A-game every time you sit down to play. Every decision (and there are a lot of them) is about making the choice which leads to the least terrible consequences. Even the simple ones like choosing a mission has you balancing Panic level vs. Difficulty vs. Reward (and which reward?)

The missions themselves go between cautious exploration and quick, tense action. Ending a turn and watching it all go so wrong is the best kind of "doomed". It's a little disconcerting how attached you get to the squad. But hatching a plan, and having it just work out is the best kind of high. I've had countless "come on, come on, YES! HIT! WOOOO!" moments.

I'm not one to replay games, but I'm definitely going through XCOM all over again.

Dishonoured

Last year I talked about Deus Ex doing well, but failing to reach beyond remaking the original. Dishonoured goes above and beyond.

Dishonoured is confident enough to give you all the tools to have fun, without explicitly telling you how to have fun. The abilities are overpowered by design, allowing flexibility in how to approach each objective. The missions themselves are especially creative, with Lady Boyle's Last Party being the highlight. It's a mission which works almost entirely on social interactions, allowing you to skip over the combat, if you choose.

With Deus Ex and Dishonoured behind us, and Bioshock Infinite coming soon, this feels like the start of something beautiful.

Spelunky

I could just title this section "Interesting, Surprising Or Hilarious Ways I've Died In Spelunky" and call it a day.

Spelunky asks a lot: be careful, but also quick. Watch your surroundings. React to emergent (and often deadly) events. Resist the lure of booby-trapped loot. Needless to say, you die a lot, but even months later there are still things to learn and techniques to hone.

There are triumphs too, like when you pull off a seemingly impossible series of moves and somehow come out of it unscratched. Better still, when doom (read: the giant spider) is right around the corner, and the world unwittingly saves you.

It's also worth noting how great the multiplayer is, both in co-op and deathmatch. Co-op makes the game easier in theory, but coordinating with other irrational humans makes it all worse (and more hilarious) in practice. Deathmatch is a ridiculous, unfair, unbalanced game, but that's exactly the point. Get four people on the couch and the competition will follow in no time, with all the yelling and laughter you'd expect.

The Walking Dead

It feels like the stars finally aligned for Telltale Games. The Walking Dead is the right blend of storytelling and action, a control scheme that works, and one hell of a well-written script. Clementine in particular works so well as a moral compass. As a young girl in your care, her sense of right and wrong are shaped by your actions.

The Walking Dead asks you to make difficult decisions, do so quickly, then makes them permanent, and makes them matter. The feeling of responsibility and weight is immense.

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami is brutal puzzle solving.

Brutal: When you grab a thug, there's a button dedicated to bashing his head in. It takes three (sometimes four) bloody, messy, bashes to kill a guy. Each tap feels unreasonably violent. You made each of them happen. You monster.

Puzzle solving: Here is a room full of thugs, figure out how to murder them in the most efficient manner. Here's a fixed behaviour guide, except a few aspects of the level are randomly modified to trip you up. Make a tiny mistake? Dead. Good luck!

Mobile

2012 is the year the DS died for me. Despite a series of heavy hitters from Nintendo, nothing grabbed my attention like I hoped. Instead, the iPhone (and iPad) did a great job of filling my mobile gaming needs. I'm not ready to abandon dedicated handhelds altogether, but it's getting easier to do with every passing year.

Waking Mars is a beautiful game of ecology. In a way that only Sim/Management games do, there's a certain joy in watching your creation do its own thing, even when "own thing" sometimes means "disastrous overpopulation of a species".

I've already said everything I need to about Super Hexagon, except how it can bring out the worst in our competitive spirit. I spent a couple of weeks in fierce competition with a friend, each of us trash-talking and gloating as our times incremented by seconds (and sometimes, fractions of a second) at a time.

Short, But Sweet

Little Inferno is charming and hilarious. It's a game about buying stuff which you burn, which earns you money to buy more stuff, which you burn, which...

Somewhere in this compulsive loop is a heart-warming story about the videogames industry, consumerism, and following your dreams. It's so optimistic and sincere that I couldn't help but fall in love.

It's the perfect winter game. I have fond memories of being hunched up over my "Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace" covered in a blanket as my busted apartment heater tried to keep up.

It's definitely more "toy" than "game", but seriously: it's about burning stuff. What's not to love?

Journey is a magical experience. The companion interactions clicked in a way I'd never expected. There's an area where you're climbing up a snowy mountain, the wind harshly blowing, the two of you going from cover to cover. Your avatar is visibly cold, but stay close to your companion and both of you warm up. There is no mechanical difference, and yet the bond it created between us ensured that we stuck together for the duration of the game.

Combining platforming and reactive, generative music couldn't disappoint. But somehow, Sound Shapes felt underwhelming. All the right pieces were in place but the levels themselves just didn't captivate me. Until the Beck album. That's what made the game memorable for me, but I found myself wishing for an entire game filled with albums of the same calibre.

Death Ray Manta is unapologetically colourful, loud and just plain daft. It's Rob Fearon in top form. Detached from the unforgiving difficulty that plagues most shoot-em-ups, together with simple controls and even simpler scoring, DRM is the perfect zone game. I went through a couple of... difficult weeks last year, but I could always turn to DRM to take my mind off whatever, and just relax. Turn off the light, turn DRM on, and get in the zone.

posted 09 January 2013

Building a Videogame Development Framework

I've spent the past few weeks on-and-off building a new framework for myself. Having done this a couple of times now, I figured I would impart some unsolicited advice.

You probably don't have to

Before you embark on what can be a long and arduous journey, consider if you really have to build a framework. There are plenty of great ones out there. I've had positive experiences with openFrameworks, GLFW and SDL. They may do exactly what you need.

But they may not. A few good reasons for writing your own framework are:

Even if you decide to roll your own framework, I'd recommend trying existing solutions first. At the very least you'll pick up some design tips. At best, you may find they do exactly what you need.

Build your framework on a framework

This sounds counterintuitive, but there's underlying code that might be worth taking. How much is a personal preference. I've been all over trying low- and high-level frameworks. The journey helped me figure out what I wanted done for me, and what I wanted to do myself. Identify the areas you really care about and focus on those. "Outsource" the rest.

What did I focus on?

These are all personal preferences I've figured out over the years. You'll figure out what your focus is too.

Version gracefully

As you go along, your framework will evolve. You want to ensure that your older projects continue to work as your framework blazes ahead. My approach is to version the framework (using a simple folder structure), and allow each project to select a version to build against. This allows me to "go forth and break things", without worrying about older projects.

Learn and do it better

Building a framework is a learning experience. With every iteration I've done a better job. Keep working with a framework until you feel you've outgrown it, and then do it all over again.

But don't make it a frequent thing. I've only done this four times over the past nine or so years. And don't forget that old code can still be good. Most of Zucchini is based on Chickpea's source code.

Finally, remember: do this because you need to. Don't get caught up in the trap of making the "ultimate" framework. Build a framework to make better workflows for yourself, and of course, to make incredible videogames.

posted 08 December 2012

Tris


posted 04 December 2012