Friday, January 9, 2015

A board game a month - one year later, how did I do?

At the beginning of 2014, I set out to create a board game a month. I didn't quite hit that target, but I did get several games done and started several others. Here's what I made:



Schwarma King (playable) - A cooperative card game where each player is a waiter serving Middle Eastern food to Marvel's Avengers. Will everyone get served before the Hulk gets mad? Created during a playtest at GameHaus Café.



Esearch (playable) - A competitive party game in which players use Google Search to find a picture that best matches a description. Created at an IGDA board gaming prototyping event.


Scram! (playable) - A competitive strategy game where players try to keep tokens on their color while forcing other player's tokens off. Easy to learn, hard to master.

 
Rayguns and Rocketships (playable) - I continued play testing and refining my action game based in a 1930's pulp sci-fi universe. This one is playable complete with 3D printed miniatures.
 
 
Colorwise: Colorful Characters (playable) - Designed a party game where players have to guess the identities of pop culture characters based only on their colors. It's like "Pictionary" with pixels.
 
 
Séance (playable) - A competitive cooperative card game based in Victorian times. Players work against and with each other to summon spirits for points.
 
 
Diamonds and Dinosaurs (playable) - A fun take-that game about treasure seekers on a lost island filled with hostile dinosaurs. Uses a deck of cards, plastic dinosaurs and all the jewels you can find.
 
 
Bedbug - Worked on a cooperative/competitive game based on my comic book superhero character. Uses an innovative design where all of the players control a single Bedbug and try to balance being a single father while battling the villains of Silicon City.
 
 
Office Zombie - Continued designing a worker placement game about white collar workers trying to earn a living during the zombie apocalypse.
 
 
 
Space Station Phobos - my love letter to Betrayal at House on the Hill. A cooperative story-telling game set on a space station where something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.
 
Well, I didn't hit a dozen, but seven playable games in a year isn't bad, right?
 
Let's see how I do in 2015!
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Saturday, November 1, 2014

Happy Day After Halloween!
 
One of my talks in my level design class is about making scary level design - the same lessons I learned from making physical haunted houses. I thought I'd share these lessons with you for your own scary levels (and haunts)!
 
 
1. Set up the scary - the line in is just as important as the haunted house. If you build a scary environment that leads up to the haunted house, you are giving the player the message that this location will be scary. Use lighting, sound and very simple atmospheric effects to build tension. Make sure the player sees the weenie of the Haunted House, so they always know where they are headed - into danger.
 
 
2. Empty rooms build tension - Haunted Houses are like roller coasters - you need to go up before you drop down. Not every room needs a scare, put a room or two between each scare to really ratchet things up. Alternate between big and small rooms to create changes in mood - tight, narrow rooms and hallways create mystery and tension, big rooms create relief, but can also cause unease due to scale. The scariest room I ever went through in a haunted house was a closet filled with hanging clothing. There were no scares, but because I had to push through the clothes and into the darkness to get through, it was terrifying - creating an environment that preyed on childhood fears.
 
 
3. Create unease with lighting - Many games forget to use basic lighting stage effects like gobos and cookies to create interesting patterns and textures. These lighting effects can be very effective to create mood. Strobes are also good but use them too much and you'll make people dizzy
 
 
4. Shadows make monsters scarier - The best monsters are the ones you can't quite see. Think about how little of the beast you saw in the movie "Alien" - that's what made it scary. However, you want to be careful with pitch darkness because that causes people to stop. You want to keep them moving by giving them something to move towards however if you want a monster to jump out of the dark, precede it with light so the darkness seems darker when they get to it
 
 
5. Use all available sense - There are two types of scary environments: Terror and Horror. Terror works on fear - fear of the unknown, of darkness of mystery. Horror works on revulsion - fear of death, fear of body, fear of filth. Terror is easy to do with lighting, sound and sight, however horror - gross things - requires touch and smell - trickier to do and not often done. In a physical haunted house, you can try simple things like alternating the textures of the surfaces on the floor or the hanging partitions (I recently went through a haunted house where the "drapes" that you passed through to get into a slaughterhouse felt like rough leather or beef jerky - it was very effective in giving the room some "feeling") - maybe once haptic controls become common, horror will be more effective.
 
 
6. Don't overdo the gross - this is my personal opinion, but too much guts and blood becomes numbing. In video games, we don't have the two senses - smell and touch - available that makes horror gross. After a while all those severed hanging torsos start to look like macabre Christmas decorations. To have a greater effect, use gore sparingly.
 
 
7. Corners are the scariest places - Corners not only obscure vision but hide things. It's a spot where the player will slow down, but you will also build the tension. It's even better if you can have a sound or a shadow cast on the wall to let the player know their worst fears are confirmed and there IS something lurking around the corner.
 
 
 
8. Let them know it's coming - jump scares are fine, but they tend to wear down victims... er players. I find it's just as scary to have something sitting in the middle of the room that the player thinks might do something, but they are not quite sure if it will or not. These are things like beds or chairs with figures sitting in them. The player knows the character is going to sprung up and the tension of having to pass by or move around it can create an excellent scare. Even better, in video games we can use alternate cameras to show what is coming from behind them or we can use alternate viewing interfaces like motion detectors (like in Alien: Isolation) or special senses (like in the Last of Us) to show us that the baddie is almost on top of us.
 
Some essential games to play: Dead Space 1 and 2, Resident Evil 2, The Last of Us, The original Alone in the Dark, Fatal Frame II: Crimson Butterfly, Silent Hill, Haunting Ground, Luigi's Mansion
 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Second Edition of Level Up! available for pre-order!

Super-exciting! The second edition of Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design is now available for PRE-ORDER at Amazon.com.

 
You'll notice right away something different about Level Up! 2nd Edition - that's right, the cover is ORANGE!
 
Why the color change? I wanted to let Level Up! readers know that this new edition isn't just a few corrections or a couple of pages of content updates - there is a lot of NEW content throughout the entire book! The gaming industry has changed quite a bit since I wrote Level Up! in 2009 and I wanted the new edition to reflect that. Here's a few of the new topics covered in the second edition:
  • Designing for mobile games
  • Monetization strategies
  • Free to Play and other publishing models
  • Touch screen controls
  • In-depth look at Game Genres
  • In-depth look at combat (and non-combat) mechanics
  • New illustrations!
  • An introduction by God of War creative director David Jaffe
  • and yes... a BRAND NEW CHILI RECIPE!!!
 
Now before you rush over to Amazon.com buy your copy of Level Up! 2nd edition, I ask that you please consider ordering through the link on this blog. You'll find it located on the right. Just look for the ORANGE cover to Level Up! 2nd edition. 
 
As a brand-spanking new member of Amazon's Author Affiliate program, I get a small percentage on every book sold this using the link. In fact, I have several links to great items sold on Amazon and I'd appreciate your business when you use the link to pre-order your copy of Level Up! 2nd edition.

Speaking of Amazon, if you like Level Up! 2nd edition and want to write a review on Amazon about the book, I would really really really appreciate it. Every review helps spread the word about the book and I was honored to receive so many great reviews for Level Up! the first time around, I hope you all do it again for Level Up! 2nd edition.

Thanks and happy reading!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

PRESENTING LEVEL UP! SECOND EDITION!



Wiley & Sons is publishing a SECOND EDITION of Level Up!

Since Level Up!'s release in 2010, the game industry has evolved with the rise of mobile gaming, social gaming, monetization and touch controls. (to name a few) Level Up! 2nd edition has been completely revised to address these topics and more - expanding on everything in the first edition. There's even a new introduction by God of War's David Jaffe, new artwork and a delicious new chili recipe! I hope you'll find Level Up! 2nd edition a home on your game design bookshelf.

Level Up! Second Edition will be released this summer everywhere books and e-books are sold.


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Not just video games!

Happy 2014!

When I first started Mr Boss's Design Lair, I added the phrase "and other nonsense" just in case. Well, it's time for some other nonsense! Still game related of course!

(not my shelf... mine is much bigger!)

Over the past year I've rekindled my love of tabletop games. Tabletop games is the new term for board and card games. There's something great about tabletop games - their replayability, the elegant systems, the tactility, the toy-like bits, the wide variety of themes and a chance to interact with human beings - that sets them apart from video games.


(It's just like a video game, but your cat can knock it over!)

I remember going into dusty game stores filled with Grognards (Gamers that look like the guys from Duck Dynasty) to try to find a board game that wasn't about World War 2. Or the Civil War. Or the Napoleonic Wars. Of the Crimean Wars. Or the Roman Empire. Usually I was out of luck. But nowadays we are in a golden age of tabletop gaming! They are so easy to find (just go to Barnes and Noble or Target or Toys R Us!) and there is something that appeals to just about everyone.

(For the record, I love games with miniatures, modular boards and dice rolling)

I've always loved playing tabletop games and own quite a few. Ever since I was a kid, I always liked designing them. They're probably part of what led me to become a video game designer. You can learn a lot about making games by making tabletop games.

That's why this year I have issued myself a challenge - to design a tabletop game a month over the year.

I plan on detailing the process of making a board game and publishing the results right here for you to play! My criteria is this:

1) The game can be of any theme
2) The game can be of any genre - from cards to miniatures - from Ameritrash to Euro
3) The game must reach alpha - it must be a completely playable game with very few (if any) bugs
4) The game can be playtest able - most of them will be available as free "print and play" games at this website - or they will be playable by downloading the rules and using stand-in pieces from other games

And if you haven't dipped your toe into tabletop gaming yet, I'll be posting some reviews of some my all-time favorites over the following year.

I'm really looking forward to this! I hope you check back soon in for some tabletop games!

Saturday, May 11, 2013

One Hour Playthrough - Ao Oni


I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.

Ao Oni has no cover, but if it did, this would be a great image

Game: Ao Oni
Developer: noprops
Publisher: NA - freeware
Published in: 2009
Genre: Survival Horror
Rating: Unrated (but I would rate it T)

For the entire weekend, my eleven-year old daughter has been begging me to download a game called Ao Oni - or Blue Demon. She says it's a horror game where you "die a lot." As a fan of horror games, I was intrigued, but I was especially intrigued when I started to do research on the game.

First off, Ao Oni is an RPG Maker mod - not quite what I expected. For those of you who aren't familiar, RPG Maker is a pretty nifty piece of software which allows wanna-be game developers to create their own JRPGs. It has really simple scripting tools and templates for you to create your own sprites and tiled artwork. I was familiar with RPG Maker, especially since after writing my book (Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design - pluggity plug), I get many e-mails from excited children wanting to know what they can do to get into games (I tell them "make games") and from their somewhat anxious parents who want to know if their kids can actually make a living with this "video game stuff." (I tell them "yes.")

The other interesting thing about Ao Oni is that it is ridiculously popular. Not popular on a level that people like you or me understand, but internet popular - the way Homestuck or Charlie the Unicorn or Hark A Vagrant is popular. Trust me, if you aren't under 25 or have kids that are, you'll never find this stuff. There have been a bajillion fan versions of Ao Oni and it's gotten so popular in it's native Japan that they're starting to write novels about it. I suspect an anime cannot be too far off. Get on the train while you still can.

In order to play Ao Oni - it's free btw - you have to download the RPG Maker Run Time Package file exporter and extract a zip file of the game. Once you do that, it's a pretty quick process and soon you're ready to Game Up!

I've seen various amateur/fan created projects over the years but I was moderately shocked at how bare-bones Ao Oni is. There's nothing resembling a start screen except for this:

This is the start screen. Honest

And forget anything resembling a manual. There's not even a control scheme to be found. Don't bother with pressing every key on your keyboard like I did. As a public service to your sanity, here is Ao Oni's control scheme.

ARROW KEYS - moves character  
ENTER - Examines objects, collects items, pushes things, opens and closes doors and closets
X or ESC key - Opens inventory

That's pretty much it. And that's pretty much the gameplay.

I should have taken this kid's advice

To sum up my one hour play session, I wandered around the house, collected some items, "solved" a couple of puzzles (more on that in a moment), frequently got chased by the Ao Oni and died or hid in a closet and escaped. The game doesn't mess around and by the end of the hour I felt like I had made somewhat good progress in the game.

Get used to seeing this... a lot

That's the thing about Ao Oni. It's ridiculously simple. The plot is simple - four kids get stuck in house with demon on the loose. The gameplay is simple - explore the house/advance the story without getting caught by the demon.  Run if the demon finds you. Hide in a closet without being seen. Solve some puzzles (still more on that in a moment) The art is simple - for a "haunted" house the place is extremely well-lit and there's almost no detail to the art. The dialogue is sparse at best. The whole presentation is almost amateurish (and this is the 6th version of the game - according to the game's fan run Wiki, the game has undergone drastic changes both in story, gameplay and art with each iteration) except for one thing... AO ONI IS SCARY!

I wuv to eat yooo

It's not the titular Blue Demon that's scary. That creature is one of the stupidest looking monsters I've ever seen. He's blue as a Smurf. He has pudgy little arms and legs. He has a ridiculous run cycle. He has big soulful eyes like one of those "I Love You This Much" statues from the 70's.

OMG! He's RIGHT BEHIND YOU!!!!!!

Where Ao Oni is effective is this: The player knows that at any moment, they're going to get scared. They don't know where or when, but they know it's going to happen. It's the context that's scary. The house is barren. You're all alone. You can hear wind blowing outside but not much else. When the Ao Oni appear, he comes out of nowhere and starts to chase you as "scary music" plays that could have come from the keyboard of John Carpenter. And when it happens, the player panics, runs the wrong way or into a way and wham! the Ao Oni gets 'em. Come to think of it, the gameplay is similar to other survival horror games like Clock Tower, Resident Evil Nemesis or Amnesia.

Here's an important Pro-Tip. See that "Save" command? You're going to need it. A LOT. Not since the original Doom have I saved a game so often. And not since the end of Dead Space 2 have I died so much in a survival horror game. As long as the Oni isn't in the room chasing you, save your game.

OOOOH NOESSSS!!!! NOT ANOTHER ONE!!!!!!!

There is one other mechanic that Ao Oni does well - when the player hides in a closet, if they haven't evaded the Oni for a predetermined amount of time or the Oni sees you go into the closet, he will peek in and find you. The presentation is startlingly effective and I jumped the first time it happened to me.

This is Ao Oni's first puzzle. Have you solved it yet?

So far, this might sound like Ao Oni is a good game. Now let's talk about the puzzles. There's no mechanism that lets the player know they've found an item. There's no "observe" so the player can tell what they're looking at. I hate to do this, but I had to go online to find the solution to the first puzzle. The first item that you find doesn't even come into play until close to an hour into the game. The lack of information really hampers the experience. With some simple instructions and dialogue boxes, this could all be avoided.

Ah the infamous toilet. My kids were very amused to see a toilet in a video game

My other problem with Ao Oni is that it cheats. The player is unjustly and randomly killed off at almost anytime. (I understand that there's a 10 percent chance that if the player enters a room the Oni will swoop in and kill them) The best/worst example of this was at the beginning of the game. There is a door that, as you pass, a shadow moves past it. Having seen this happen before in games such as F.E.A.R. and Resident Evil 2, I went to investigate. My character opened the door, went into the room (without the camera following - as was the case in the previous rooms) and the next thing I know, a splatter of blood sprays against the glass and the words "Game Over" come up. What the hell? Since when is that fair? Well, it might not be fair, but it did make me edgy, which did ratchet up the fear factor... and like I said, Ao Oni does provide the scares.

Get used to seeing this

So, should I keep exploring the house of Ao Oni or stick it back in the closet?

What would I do differently? So many things. The art could be greatly improved to add to the atmosphere. A starting screen would make the game look more professional. I couldn't figure out how to backspace to change my character's name. I would provide a tutorial for movement or at least a control screen. I would have dialogue boxes pop up for when the player examines items in a room or finds an inventory item. I could go on and on...

Will I keep playing? Sadly no. I'll leave that up to my kids. I think I've seen all that Ao Oni has to offer. While it is creepy, I'd rather spend my time playing Fatal Frame or Haunting Ground. However, I can honestly say that I feel a little more "in the know" for playing it.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Enslaved Odyssey to the West


I'm playing through my vast game collection one game at a time, one hour at a time.


Game: Enslaved Odyssey to the West
Developer: Ninja Theory
Publisher: Namco
Published in: 2010
Genre: Action
Rating: T

The only thing I remember about Enslaved Odyssey to the West when it first came out was that it seemed to have arrived out of nowhere. I had played developer Ninja Theory's previous game, Heavenly Sword, and didn't care for it (their arrow POV game play made me rage-quit) so my expectations weren't very high. Still the cover of the game looks nice, with a burly guy and a redhead girl running from a rusty monster-machine. Inside, there is the usual Namco manual shenanigans - they've created what would be a sweet looking manual if it were only published in color. SIGH. I know printing in black and white saves pennies on the dollar, but you just come off as cheap, Namco. Image if movie producers printed their coming attraction posters in black and white. To me, that's what it feels like. It's a battle I couldn't win in the past, so I should just let it go... NEVER!!!!!

Ahem. Let's Game Up! and start playing!

Complete with flickering CRT noise. Or maybe I need a new TV

Enslaved start screen is very high tech-y with calming "Enya-esque" music playing which creates a very different mood is set than what is shown on the front of the box. What's this? No attract mode? Maybe developers are learning they're not necessary anymore.

The selection screen keeps the gestalt going

We now see a girl's face (the red head from the cover?) reflected in a screen. New game is titled "New Journey." In the Batman Arkham Asylum OHP (One-Hour Playthrough) I talk a little about creating a Gestalt for your game. I don't break out the 2 dollar words that often, but it's one of the few I believe in. It's a German word for "essence or shape of an entity's complete form." In otherwords, it means that start screens and pause screens and option screens and volume control screens should be just as designed as your gameplay. Already by screen two, Enslaved shows that it cares about creating a complete experience for the player.

The game starts within a slave ship. A strange looking man with scarrification tattoos and Akuma from Tekken's hair is locked in a pod and is on his way to "the pyramid." The red-headed girl escapes from her pod and starts a chain-reaction to destroy the ship. Our hero's pod is knocked free and gameplay begins. One thing I have to say about Enslaved is it is very pretty. There are a few things that look dated, like main character's hair for example, but the lighting and the overall design of the game makes it still one of the better looking games out there.

That is some pretty lighting

The ship is blowing apart as we learn to walk, run and jump. Camera movement isn't covered but fooling around with the right stick shows that it works just like in every other game. Here's a pro-tip, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 has the best shooter controls and it's a game everyone plays then using that control scheme for your game is going to let the player get into the game faster than if they have to learn some new and unique control system. Go with what works. Get over your "not invented here" complex. You're only hurting your game in the end.

The hero is nicely animated (I remember reading somewhere that Enslaved's motion capture actor was Andy Serkis) but as a game character he suffers a little too much from what I call an "over-animated control system" in which while creating the most beautifully animated character ever, you sacrifice precision controls for the player. Prince of Persia, Flashback, Abe's Oddysey and Little Big Planet games all suffered from this. It's a design choice, but one that needs to be made very early on and stuck with. Players might hate it or love it but they'll have to adjust the way they play to it. Consequences result in players falling off the edges of platforms because their skid and roll cycles end further than they anticipated.

I think I remember this scene from Uncharted

Enslaved also used a trick I like to call "false danger" - the ship is exploding, things are on fire, people are dying left and right, but the player isn't in any actual danger of losing a life. This makes the level exciting even if you are walking from one place to another (you know that walking isn't gameplay, right?) After some running, jumping and pole walking, the hero catches up to the girl just in time for the back of the ship to explore; leaving our hero hanging from the wreckage. We learn to climb (well, more like move from point A to point B ala Sly Cooper than climb like Assassin's Creed or Uncharted) and eventually are able to get our weapons back - a glowy staff and a pair red punching gloves.
R2 provides us with a shield while square lets us attack regularly and triangle lets us do a strong overhead attack. Enslaved takes a page from Batman Arkham Asylum with a close-up beauty shot whenever the last enemy is defeated.

Hadouken!

Maybe it's because we're fighting robots with scythes for hands, but the combat against these robots feels a lot like combat in Maximo vs. Army of Zin. That's a good thing because that game was good. (and not just because I helped design it) But Enslaved's hero has a few other tricks including a wide staff strike and a charge attack. Even with these limited number of moves, the combat is still pretty satisfying and has the right amount of what gaming journalist Tim Rogers calls "frictive-ness." My hour ends with the hero still not escaped - battling robots outside on the wing of the crashing slave ship.

It's nothing if not epic

Should Enslaved Odyssey to the West be sent back to the slave camps or set free to play on my PS3? (Let's see you come up with a better one.)

What would I do differently? My biggest beef with Enslaved is the game starts, I play for an hour and I still don't know the main characters name! (and no, I will not read your manual) - other than that,  Enslaved has a gentle learning curve, some robust combat and other than the adjustment I have to make to the character's exaggerated animations, strong controls. Only once did I notice the camera running into to issues during combat. It just means I need to move the camera around more during combat.

Will I keep playing? Yes. While it plays like Batman Arkham Asylum and Uncharted, but that's not a bad thing. I'd rather play a half-dozen well-meaning but slightly derivative games than one truly crappy one. Enslaved Odyssey to the West is a breath of fresh air - an unique, a non-licensed property in a world increasingly filled with licensed games and sequels.