New Year Update

December was a slow month for us due to team members having various family/personal obligations, but with the new year, we’re now raring to get back to work. Chiefly on our Wii U game, which still does not have a name! We’ve decided to extend the Name Our Game competition through January to give extra time for people to submit suggestions.

We’re now working on creating many more levels for the game. As well, there is lots of work to do to improve the game’s graphics and feedback mechanisms. Sound design and creating the UI (menus and options) will also represent a large portion of the work for the new year. We’re talking to Nintendo about possibly using Mii’s in the game, in addition to other Miiverse features.

If all goes to plan, we should be ready to release the game this summer. In the meantime, as usual, you can keep up with day-to-day progress on twitter and facebook

Leap into Motion

This week, we’ve been participating in the LeapMotion Game Jam, adapting our game to use the motion control device. It works remarkably well!

Whilst we’ve only announced the game for Wii U so far, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get our hands on some cool motion control technology that the LeapMotion provides.

On a basic level, the LeapMotion is a little blocky device that detects hands hovering over it, tracking their movement as well as the movement of individual digits and joints. It’s been out for a while, initially being touted as the first half of the cool looking holographic UI’s seen in many a sci-fi movie.

Although UI designers might argue that the ergonomics of such interfaces are deeply flawed, the LeapMotion is more than that, and really is only limited in its uses by what developers can imagine.

scifi interfaceTo that end, LeapMotion have launched their 3D Jam competition to help spur developers into thinking of new and innovative uses for their device.The other angle to the jam is in using LeapMotion to plug the gap in VR development where there is otherwise a lack of suitable input devices. The Leap Motion device sitting on the front of the VR headset and allowing developers to see their hands in front of them.

Personally, I’m slightly cynical about VR technology, in the sense that it’s exponents come off as being technological perfectionists. Allowing existing design paradigms (specifically first-person perspective games) drive development, rather than letting VR be its own thing, and force designers to be creative within the limitations of the system. If having to be imaginative with using existing input devices is what’s needed, then all the better.

For us though, our game is already designed for motion control, so the easy with which we’ve been able to sub in the LeapMotion for Wii Remotes has validated many of our design decisions.

We even managed to get the multiplayer mode working, though with four hands all vying for attention within the LeapMotion’s slightly limited detection range, the constant loss and re-detection of different hands quickly mixes things up till everyone is controlling a different character to the one they started with! Still, as in the above video, it works great for two players.

Next step will be to neaten up the game in terms of UI and playability when no one is around who has played the game before to necessarily teach others how to play. (Something that’s a really big problem for the game anyway)

 

 

Name Our Game Competition!

Turns out we’re terrible at thinking up names for our latest game. The working title “Colour Park” was never going to fly. So instead we’re having a competition to see who can come up with something better!

Anyone who thinks they have a good name for our game has until 23rd November to submit their entry to our website to be in with a shout. After then, the top 5 entries as picked by us will receive a free copy of the game and go into a public vote to see which of them will forever adorn our game.

Enter the competition here: http://www.crystallinegreen.com/competition/

The game itself is an on-rails motion control game for Wii U, and is scheduled to be released in the first half of next year. To celebrate and inspire people, we’ve created two new videos to show off different aspects of the game:

In single player ‘rhythm’ mode, players glide gently through the air in time to relaxing music, using their Wii Remotes to match coloured objects along the way for points and high scores.

In local multiplayer ‘race’ mode, players match colours using their Wii Remotes in order to gain speed boosts, collect powerups and choose different paths. The closer you match the colours, the faster your boost!

We will be adding more levels and environments to the game prior to release, from underwater coral reefs to dune sculpted deserts, as well as additional playable characters.

Finally, those who wish to play the game for themselves can check it out at Insomnia 53 Gaming Festival, at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry, UK, where we will be exhibiting it from 21st November to 23rd November 2014.

Mixed Opinions: IndieCade Feedback

Back in June, we submitted a really early version of Colour Park to IndieCade. The game didn’t get nominated as a finalist, but did get feedback from a number of jurors. Interestingly, they all had different things to say. Note, the jury system is anonymised, so I’ve instead labelled them as Juror #1, #2 and #3 respectively:

—–

Juror #1:
This was obviously very early in development, but it shows potential for being something good. It took a few minutes for the concept to click, but once it did, it was easy to get the hang of it.

I don’t feel like there’s much meaningful feedback I can give at this point, as the game only has the very basics in place right now. I would like to see you take this further and resubmit next year.
—–

Juror #2:
I think the attempt to make a motion control game that uses the motion to map and match a color felt unnatural. I am aware that this suppose to be what the creator actually wanted to experiment with and make unique in the game, but it doesn’t seem to work well. The game plays like racing vs. guitar hero, however the motion controller is not a tight input like buttons, which makes controlling the game very hard, often hard to control tightly, and therefore frustrating, I also expected that such a game has progressive and dynamic music that follows the gameplay.
—–

Juror #3:
Game has interesting presentation and is relaxing to play. As a tech demo, it runs well and shows potential.

Goal should be more compelling, if there was any depth beyond matching colors it was unclear. Multi player gameplay did not seem to add much. There was no way to attack other players or interact.

There should be better feedback when users ‘hit’ or ‘miss’ their color. Soundtrack was interesting, but got repetitive after a couple of minutes.

I understand this is an early demo, and has an interesting idea (using the controller to find colors), but you might want to iterate on the concept and try out a couple of other ways to interact with the world, and other players.

It’d be easy to dismiss Juror #2 as simply “didn’t get it”, especially after reading the first Juror’s comments. However, the game has garnered similar feedback in the past from others. That they are fighting against the controls the whole time, and that makes the game frustrating.

The suspicion is some players are performance optimisers or perfectionists. Not a criticism I might add. As any sports person or musician will tell you, when your fingers pluck the wrong string, or the tennis ball hits the edge of the racket head, it feels off, and that registers long before you hear the accompanying discordant twang or see the ripple of the net. In guitar hero, you know unambiguously whether you’ve hit a note or not, both from on-screen indicators, and simply because you felt your finger press the wrong button. On the surface, Colour Park looks a lot like guitar hero and similar rhythm games, so it’ll both naturally attract those types of players, and potentially annoy the hell out of them.

Since the version submitted to IndieCade, the game has had effects added to show whether the player “hit” or “missed”. Even that is misleading though, since it’s a continuous scale: The closer to a colour match, the more points, or bigger the speed boost you get. The next step will be to reflect that on screen. The closer to a match, more particle effects go off, the more individual particles each effect produces, the brighter those particles, the faster they move, the longer their lifetime, and so on.

The rest of the comments from IndieCade just back up the experience from a couple of weeks ago. The game needs more layers of depth to keep people playing once the initial challenge of mastering the controls has been accomplished.

It’s in the Eyes

Last week I participated in a game jam using eye-tracking technology. The jam was sponsored by Tobii, who supplied the EyeX eye tracker kits used. Historically, eye-tracking gaming has been decidedly niche. For example, being used by disabled gamers who have limited movement. Interestingly though, Tobii are looking to mass market the EyeX, with a particular focus on core gamers. The principle being that certain parts of a player’s game can be improved using the eye trackers.

The example Tobii highlighted was of aiming with the eyes in an FPS, but otherwise using normal mouse and keyboard controls to move around. Not having to physically move the mouse over an enemy, once identified, made players’ aim far faster and more accurate.

No Strategy

Taking that on-board for the jam, I decided to experiment with another core genre – strategy. The eye tracking technology itself is wonderfully responsive and integrated relatively easily with Unity. After some playing around, I decided to go for some sort of area control mechanic. Players would draw shapes on a map with their eyes to capture territory.

However, people’s eyes have a tendency to flit around the screen, often to things they wished to be inside or outside those shapes. Which of course, led to people drawing through the middle of those objects instead of around them.

One solution I explored involved a snap-to-grid based system. To place a shape boundary point, players just had to keep their gaze roughly inside a single square on the map for half a second. Unfortunately, it takes an uncomfortable level of mental effort and puts too much strain on the eye to artificially stare at a set point for any more than your subconscious wants.

Small Things

Another mistake was the timer. I already had a cursor to show where the player’s current eye gaze was. However, to give more feedback I added a radial fill timer around it, to show how long the player had left to gaze on a fixed point.

The problem with this approach was that the eye would start looking at different parts of the timer to see what progress it was making, thereby changing the position of the cursor. Locking the cursor position onto the centre of the grid square, and having the cursor snap from place to place felt unnatural. Furthermore, the eyes would see that the timer was just about done, and so flick to the next place of interest in anticipation of being able to lay down a new point or do whatever else, thus cancelling the current action at the last moment. To say this was incredibly frustrating would be an understatement.

The general idea of a cursor however, worked well. Almost all the other jam participants had some form of cursor or object in their games to show where the eyes were looking at any one time. Universally, those cursors were small. A little cross or dot wouldn’t distract or get in the way, but was still useful. In the first place, to let the player know where they were actually looking. Since the eye tracker technology needs calibrating, the player could see if it was slightly off, and so readjust the screen or their seating position.

Moreover, it’s disconcerting to have things react on screen with no visible cause or other in-game object to interact with. The cursor acting as a proxy for the player helped plug that gap.

Halve the problem

Much of what I was doing came down to completely swapping out a traditional mouse/keyboard or controller with eye tracking. As I discovered, trying to do both selection and interaction (clicking/pressing) at the same time isn’t possible with a single input. Many of the other developers doing the jam instead sidestepped the issue.

The game Island, simply took controls away from the player. From their God-like vantage point in the sky, players would gaze down over the slowly rotating eponymous island. With movement already taken care of them, their eyes were thus set free to plant trees or watch over the tiny citizens roaming around the island, (or whatever else Gods do in God-games). The slow pace of the rotation added to the chilled out atmosphere of the game.

Medusa’s Tempest was a twin-stick shooter that had players aim with their eyes, whilst moving their ship with more traditional controls. On the surface, it still had the problem of players having to look both where they are going, and where they are aiming at the same time (which is obviously impossible). In practice, once they’d played the game for a short period of time, players were able to remember that they’d pressed the stick in a certain direction for so long, and so gone so far. Thus could building up a rough mental map of where on screen they were at any one time.

Another feature of Medusa’s Tempest was to replace bullets with a constantly streaming laser. No need to scan around checking your bullets’ progression to their target. Equally, no accidentally firing your next bullet at the last bullet you just fired. Instead players can just concentrate on the targets.

Additionally, having a constant line from the player’s gaze point, back to their ship, assisted in keeping mental tabs on whereabouts their ship was, whilst not interfering with shooting.

To The Rhythm

Beat Shot, which took home top prize at the jam, in a similar vein to Island, also had a less-is-more approach to controls. Only this time, in the form of a rhythm game. On every beat of the music, the game would send out a pulse from the point where the player was looking. If any targets were within pulse range, the player would “hit” them. The game worked so well in large part due to the timing. There was just enough between beats to process the results of previous hits, glance between potential new targets, and then concentrate on one in time for the next beat to fire off.

The music was set to 120bpm, which gives you an idea of just how much the eye can take in and brain process in such a short space of time.

There are also aesthetic considerations as well. The maker of the game EyeBall, (think basketball, but aiming your passes and shots with your eyes), started off the game in first person, but changed to third person. Simply because it was a more satisfying way to watch the ball arc through the air.

Before the jam, we were told the best eye-tracking games were all about movement (something I really should have listened to!). I’d probably qualify that by saying the best put the player’s eye movement at their core. That could be directly moving things with the eyes, such as in Medusa’s Tempest. But also simply working with the way the eye moves around a static scene, as with Island and Beat Shot.

Finally, I’d like to give a shout out to Alice and the team at London Game Space / Scenario Bar for hosting the jam. Also for the charity Special Effect, who already do a lot of work with eye tracking in their quest to make games truly accessibly to everyone, and were able to come down to the jam on day one and give us some pointers and tips.

Insomnia Takehomes

There’s nothing like testing with real users, and demoing Colour Park at the Insomnia52 Gaming Festival highlighted a number of unforeseen issues

Last weekend, I demoed Colour Park at Insomnia 52 Gaming Festival in Coventry. Top of the list of things to test were the colour blind modes. Whilst something in the range of 1% to 5% of men are colour blind (it’s very rare in women), the degree can vary between individuals, all the way from some colours being slightly weaker, all the way to being utterly unable to distinguish between certain colours.

Colour.. It’s in the name

In the case of Colour Park, and it’s dependency on colour, some people who were just a little bit colour blind/deficient actually preferred the full-colour modes. Whereas others who I tried on both colour-blind and non-colour blind modes, were clearly benefiting from the colour-blind-friendly palettes. Whilst not especially scientific, the testing confirmed my view that letting people choose their own colours (with properly set up defaults / presets) was the way to go.

tritanopia_test2Tritanopia – One of the rarer forms of Colour Blindness

I also had some really useful discussions about a different way to solve the problem. Specifically replacing the blocks on the track with arrows, pointing at the angle the player needs to rotate their colour wheel to.

Not only does this remove the total reliance on colour in the game, but makes the game easier as well, giving more cues to the player about what move to make next, versus only going by what colour the approaching block is.

Easy…Right?

This should hopefully help with my second big observation, which is that the game was too hard! In particular, I’d set people up to play race mode, and with settings that ramp up the speed (and thus difficulty) quite sharply. Once the player gets a few blocks in a row, they really start to zip along.

That’s great for giving the game a sense of flow and adrenaline pumping action. Less so for kids. The  game requires both fine motor skills and quick reactions, neither of which kids under about 10 or 12 years old have.

Also up for consideration is introducing a “Super-easy” difficulty setting, which has just two colours on the colour wheel. The problem is that the game’s premise hangs on motion as an analogue action, which has a full, continuous range of inputs: The closer you are to a colour, the bigger your speed boost and the more points you get. With just two colours, players can just push the Wii Remote to one extreme or the other. It removes a large element of the skill from the game, making it a simple reaction game that could probably be played with any old regular digital controller (press button A for green, B for blue).

30 Minute Challenge

At the other end of the spectrum, teenagers and adults were largely able to get the hang of the game, and generally responded really positively to the game, often offering up that they really enjoyed it (or at least liked the concept).

However, I’d set the game up to have a run time of about 2 or 3 minutes for a single race to the end of the track, after which the game would declare a winner and points score. Typically, after just one or two play-throughs, people would put the controllers down satisfied that they got the idea of the game, and then wander off to see what other games were on offer.

Compare that to the other indie games in the area around me, and people would sit down to play them for stretches of 30 minutes or more. It’d be easy to dismiss that as down to the nature of the different games, with the puzzle platformers or FPS games around me somewhat demanding that players get to the end of their respective levels.

In reality, the game is not engaging enough. Part of that is down to the way the game was set up. Players would spend the first minute or so learning the colours. Then there would be maybe another minute of play – just enough track for them to get good at the controls and the game produce a satisfying sense of accomplishment when the end arrived.

Leaving rhythm mode aside, the race mode needs more to compel people to want to play again. A fixed track (as opposed to a random, procedural one), with splits that allow players to take different paths should give players an extra layer of information to learn, and give them more choices in the game. Equally, having the track as a loop, with races over multiple laps, will allow players to correct mistakes (e.g. from taking the wrong path last lap,) within a single race, rather than having to wait for the next one.

Other things, such as indications of whether a player is 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc, and ghosts of the other players zooming past them on the track should make the game feel more competitive. Having sections without blocks, so players can take a breather, will also help, as they can take stock of how well they did in the section just completed, and also compare their progress against everyone else.

There are other options, such as multiple “lanes” on the track, which players can switch between using the buttons on the Wii Remotes. Though at that point, the game starts to look like it’s wholesale ripping off Audio Surf, rather than just taking inspiration. For now, the target will be to have people playing 30 minutes or more over multiple races.

You Can Keep Your Rift On

I recently attended a workshop at University of Lincoln entitled “Performance and Games”. In this case, performance meant performing arts, which I was a touch apprehensive about, since it was invite only event, and an area where I have no prior experience (not counting my (in)famous dancing when on nights out with friends). As it transpired, I was far more useful for my ‘performance’ than the programming and game development skills I had intended to bring to the table.

I’d envisioned something much closer to a game jam, spending a large portion of the workshop laying down code of some description. In fact, we spent the entirety of the first day talking through a whole bunch of different ideas in teams of four or five people. That was quite a departure from what I’m used to in my professional work, where ideas are all but valueless, save for their successful execution in a finished game.

Rambling Awkwardly

My team’s suggested theme / starting off point for exploring was social awkwardness, which we discussed for a while before steering into a long conversation about sexual harassment and discrimination in the games industry and wider workplace. Having not worked in a “triple-A” games studio, and been largely independent, working alone or in small groups for the entirety of my career in games, all my sources on the subject are second hand. Furthermore, I seem to have, more by accident than design, ended up following a lot of feminists and those writing about issues of discrimination within the games industry on twitter or industry publications like gamasutra.com.

So it was interesting for me to talk to the others to see if some of the ideas I’d formulated on the subject tallied with their experiences or thinking. A discussion which itself is quite awkward to navigate when you’re still getting to know a bunch of strangers for the first time (the irony of which was not lost on us).

By the morning of the second day, I was fretting that my team would have nothing to show for our being there. Fortunately, the others in the team had done what I hadn’t, which was prepare for the event by bringing a large toolbox, (demo programs, code snippets and games they’d previously made which could be easily re-purposed). In just a few hours, we were able to solidify our ideas into a veritable game design, construct the game and play it through once, though from a technical perspective, largely without my help. Consequently, I felt slightly sidelined, and that probably goes some way to explaining my enthusiastic playing of the game itself.

Naked Quake

On the game specifically, I think we all recognised we hadn’t really reached a consensus on the harassment issue, so we rowed back to a theme we’d touched earlier on the first day, which was awkwardness around nudity with strangers. The example of sauna etiquette was discussed, in which different countries had different norms around what was acceptable to wear (or not wear) when in the sauna.

Our first idea to explore this was a first person shooter game in which players could upgrade their weapons by taking off various items of clothing. So a sock might only get the player a basic pistol, whilst they would need to take their underpants off if they wanted to get their hands on a rocket launcher.

Players would all be in the same room, but use Oculus Rifts (or other virtual reality headgear). This would mean they wouldn’t directly see each other stripping, but would still know the other players in the room were potentially nude or undressed.

Balancing issues and details somewhat put a dampener on everyone’s enthusiasm for the idea. Someone who was already good at FPS games might not need to lose more than a couple of socks and a jumper to defeat someone not familiar with the genre. Instead, we decided to run with the ideas about clothes equalling points in a game, and of using the Rifts as a sort of blindfold.

Clothes Points

The result was a game where each round, players would take off items of clothing and place them in a basket or designated spot. Each item of clothing would carry a different value (sock, scarf = 1 point, jumper = 2 points, shirt = 3 points, and so on). Whoever had the biggest points score would win the round. The winner would be the player who won the most rounds after everyone had run out of clothes (or decided they had reached their limit of what they were willing to take off). There was also a time limit on each round, to force players to make their decisions (and undressings) quicker than otherwise.

Both players would stand in the same room wearing Oculus Rifts, connected to Kinect cameras pointed at the other player(s). The other player would be represented as a 3D model of a person, movements of the model corresponding to the movements of the player. In this way, players could “see” each other’s moves without actually seeing them.

For our version of the game, there was also a “dungeon master” in another room, whose role was two fold: To adjudicate who had won the round, by means of being able to view webcams pointed at the baskets in which the players were placing their clothes, (but away from players, so as to not see them). And to add tension to the game, the dungeon master would also relay voice commands and special instructions to the players as the game went on.

Thankfully, seriousness and tension went out of the window once the game started. Our dungeon master blasted the full monty theme tune through the speakers into the room as we made our choices, or gave us until the end of the A-team theme to get our trousers off. Quick fire rounds gave us 5 seconds to fumble with our shoes or belts.

More importantly, I won this first ever playing of the game, which we quickly named “You Can Keep Your Rift On”. And I didn’t have to even have to take my underwear off! In fact, at the end of the game, I found out I needn’t have gone anything like as far as I did, as my opponent was still mostly dressed.

Acting the Part

Context is definitely the key to understanding the game. The specific context for me was that I had spent the last day and a half with the other people in the workshop, found them to generally be liberal, open minded people. I didn’t have anything to fear from them, but at the same time, as mentioned earlier, I had a bit of a point to prove.

Being one of the architects of the game itself, I had plenty of time to mentally prepare for it. I actually made up my mind before I went into the game how far I was willing to strip down by the end of the game, and since there was a break between each round ending and the timer for a new one starting, I was deciding in advance what clothes I was going to take off that coming round.

In the end, we were a bit pressed for time, so only had one Rift hooked up with the Kinect. I still wore the other Rift, but without input, acting effectively as a very expensive blindfold. I think that lead me to concentrate on thinking more abstractly in terms of my strategy and how to out-psych my opponent, rather than trying to guess how he was moving. I did some fake moves as though I was taking off a shirt. I took my shoes and socks off in one round, but then didn’t place my shoes in the basket until a later round. I also pretended to take my socks off again after having already taken them off, which due to the imperfections in the old-style Kinect, apparently made it look as though I was turning myself inside out. I also had to think creatively, taking my phone, wallet and keys out of my pockets and using them as extra ammunition. Or placing the Rift’s adapter/connector box in my basket (since it wasn’t actually connected to anything) as an extra ‘item’ I could try and score points on.

As well as not worrying about the other player’s moves, I think not seeing the other player probably made me less conscious of what I looked like to them. I felt more self-conscious once the game finished, and I took the Rift off, than during the game itself.

Not to say I wasn’t self conscious at all, but, I actually went further in stripping off than I had originally planned. I had decided to stop before taking off my trousers, but knowing that I’d done no exercise since some time in January, I was aware that wearing trousers slightly too tight around the waist probably wasn’t especially flattering. Ditch the trousers and it wouldn’t look so bad. Body image isn’t something I usually worry about, but it was still a factor here.

The other half of it was that we had a small audience of 3 people in the room, which wasn’t something we’d really planned. I think it helped that the audience was all female, (and that goes back to the having-something-to-prove point), but also, as the game progressed, the combination of the dungeon master’s cheesy voice over, combined with the ever increasing fits of laughter from the audience that I could hear on one ear, combined with my competitive spirit, pushed me to go further than I’d initially expected.

Public Sauna

As for taking the game outside of that context, it would certainly produce a different result. For example, our team discussed the possibility of bringing the game to a public space. Have the players in a booth or temporary structure, so they couldn’t be seen from the outside once they entered. Or perhaps other members of the public outside could watch on some big TVs the same view as what the players and dungeon master were seeing through the Rifts and webcams. But not actually see the players in the flesh.

For me, if I encountered that on the street, I’d probably shy away from it if anything, especially if there was peer pressure from my friends. The main problem I’d anticipate though, which wasn’t an issue when I played, is trust. Players have to have trust in the game and the people who are running it, not to have hidden cameras and suddenly display them getting naked to all the public outside (or worse, live streaming to the internet).

They also have to trust the other player doesn’t take a sneak peek from under their Rift during the game. I think this is where the game breaks down slightly. It’s possible to put up a dividing curtain or put players in separate cubicles, but once you start giving them a sense of privacy from each other, at that point, those ideas around knowing your opponent is getting naked in the room with you (even if you can’t see them) start to erode. It begins to depart from the initial idea of awkwardness around nudity (though not necessarily public nudity) with strangers.

As well, one person asked me whether I would be more willing to play again if I was up against someone I found sexually attractive. To which I couldn’t honestly say No. We often skirt around the subject of sex in games, which is exactly what I’m going to do as well, but it’s definitely another dimension the game has to it.

The video of me playing still needs editing and uploading, so meantime, here’s one of the other workshop team’s creations: Mario Kart being played with a violin as controller:

Mini Manifesto

I read about game development and the games industry a lot, and apparently, games aren’t interesting, varied or “innovative” enough. Indie game developers are supposed to be the solution, free to take risks and unencumbered by meddling corporate higher-ups.

I don’t think it’s anywhere near that simple. Most indies I know are limited by serious resource constraints; financial in particular. Some turn that around and use it to their advantage, but most are actually very cautious, sticking to technologies, mechanics and themes they know.

I’m in the fortunate position of having an independent income, meaning I can (just about) afford to work as an indie game dev full time. Bearing all that in mind, here are a few guiding principles I want to lay down:

Walk the walk
No point criticising from the side when I’m in a position to actually experiment. I’m definitely running Crystalline Green as a serious, professional business, but between working on fully realised, commercial products, I have the time, space and tools to get creative. No excuse to do otherwise.

Stop overcomplicating
Instead of endlessly hypothesising in my head about whether an idea will work or not, just get on and try it.

No space
I love all things space themed. Rockets and lasers, galaxies and nebulae. But so do lots of other game developers, and there are a preponderance of games out there to keep my inner astronaut happy for a lifetime. Better to see instead what those arts and cultures that don’t often feature in video games can bring to the medium.

Games Industry and Quality of Life platforms

I should preface this by saying I’m coming from a purely games industry perspective here. I have no insight into health and fitness industry or related products aside from my own experiences as a consumer.

According to recent reports, Nintendo are planning a new “Quality of Life” platform. Quite what that means is a bit vague at the moment, but here are a few examples of the sort of problems/people/products that Nintendo (or indeed other companies in the games industry) can solve in the health and fitness sphere:

Elderly

In rich, developed countries, there is a huge demographic shift towards ageing populations, and it’s already well under way. The “baby boomer” generation, born after World War II are reaching retirement age. Improvements in healthcare mean that they will live longer, and so be a bigger drain on pension funds, government social welfare programs. They will also be spending more on those increasingly advanced healthcare systems that are keeping them alive.

At the same time, they hold a larger proportion of the wealth than younger generations, who in turn are smaller in number. The tax receipts generated by the working population is going down at the same time that costs are going up.

This trend is most accute in Japan, and as a Japanese company, Nintendo will be aware of the anxieties around this issue in the general population. But it also afflicts countries like Germany, with it’s declining birth rate, China with it’s only-recently relaxed one-child policy, and in countries like the UK, where it is only recent waves of migration that are masking the effect.

From time to time, here in the UK, we see on the news a feature about a new kooky looking robot from Japan, which claims it will be the care home worker of the future. Whilst it’s easy to get cynical about such ideas, there is definitely a huge market for products that will help the elderly in some way. Whether it be straight up monitoring devices, devices to keep the elderly active (and so healthier), or a combination of both.

Nintendo saw a huge surprise hit with older people in the form of it’s Brain Training game for DS, which espouses mental stimulation as a way for the elderly to keep their minds active and healthy. The precipitous rise in cases of Altzheimer’s/Dementia is a particular worry for many older people and healthcare professionals, and traditional forms of staying mentally sharp in old age, such as chess or bridge, can all be enhanced by taking them into the digital age, even where frail individuals aren’t necessarily being encouraged to fling their limbs around.

On the monitoring side, there are simply less of the younger generation around to wait hand and foot on the elderly, make sure they are ok and generally look after them. A console-like quality of life monitoring device might not be able to dress a person, tuck them into bed, or help them go to the toilet, but it will help doctors and carers remotely assess patients needs.

Moreover, the scale of demand for these devices means it now makes sense to bring them out of the rarified world of medical equipment and into the realms of mainstream consumer device. Nintendo could offer, using it’s knowledge in mass-produced consoles, something people can buy from a regular department store, for hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars, easily and quickly install in their elderly parent’s home, and teach their relatives to use.

Fitness Enthusiasts

There is a group of people for whom health and fitness is a way of life. They are athletes, personal trainers or people for whom fitness is their primary passtime. Not only do they have the full gym membership, but in many cases, have all the associated gear at their own home.

Gamification has long been a part of the fitness scene, with devices sporting indicators of how many calories have been burned, or miles run/cycled, for decades. Today we live in a data rich world, with a profusion of sensors and devices recording a plethora of stats on our physical state and activities. A console-like device would make an excellent central hub for all this information; the “brains” behind a gym of interconnected devices.

The success of games like Wii-Fit and Zumba show that there is a huge demand for “interactive-lite” workout videos / games, and it’s easy to imagine giving them their own dedicated console device. Reskinning it to be purely health and fitness might further encourage purchases from consumers who don’t want all the baggage and associations that come with buying a device advertised as primarily for games.

I do however think that Nintendo will be making a massive mistake if they fail to embrace connected smartphones and wearable tech. Whilst right now, the smartphone is the weapon of choice for the joggers and sports-people when out and about, that could easily change with the arrival of Google Glasses. Consumers will fully expect seamless integration of their outside activity data with that generated in-home and at the gym. Any device that fails to do that job of pulling together all their disparate activities will fail in its primary mission of being the centre of someone’s fitness world.

For sports, it also makes just so much more sense to have a console-like base unit, onto which you can attach the specialist peripheral-sensors needed for the specific sport, and on which can be run whatever specific software / app that sport needs.

Nintendo have already been doing this with their wide range of Wii and Wii-U Fit extras, and there is definitely scope to take this approach up-market and sell direct to sports clubs, and professional and amateur sports-people and athletes. (In fact, Microsoft would have an advantage here were they to also enter the market with a reskinned/branded Xbox One plus Kinect, pitched as a Golf/Tennis swing analyser, for example).

The Guilty Unfit

Many people are aware their sedentry lifestyle of driving to work, sitting at an office desk all day, then going home to watch the TV or play video games isn’t healthy. But damnit, it’s cold and raining outside, and their favourite film is about to start on TV, and it’s already 8pm and dark outside.

The game Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of motivating people in a fun way to get off the couch and go burn some calories, where the usual guilty feelings for not having done enough exercise, or overzealous fitness fanatics telling them to get fit for the sheer masochistic joy of physical exertion, just aren’t getting them to slip on their trainers.

This quote from an interview with the makers of Zombies, Run! really exemplifies the point:

“It’s just really surprising because we tell people about this at conferences that storytelling can be really valuable,” he said. “And it’s just…they cannot comprehend it. They get badges and they get points and all this other gamification stuff. But they don’t get stories, and that’s partly because if you are naturally quite fit, or you are quite fit, you don’t need a story–you just go and run. But for everyone else, it’s a bit different.”

Here, Nintendo has a real strength to bring to the table, in the form of it’s story-writing, world and character creation abilities. Key will be striking a balance. On the one hand, making fun and entertaining games first and foremost, that in turn encourage physical activity through their mechanics. As well, avoiding trying to gamify fitness by crudely replacing Wii-fit lady with Mario. But importantly, not trying to hide and deceive the players. Being upfront that this is a fitness game, but one that revels in it’s sense of fun.
Why care?

Each of the above probably needs a different product, (even if it’s the same physical hardware/OS underneath, but with different branding/marketing and selection of software). Right now, there is a big question mark as to which of those Nintendo are aiming for, or whether they are approaching a “Quality of Life” product from a completely different angle.

Obviously, if any of this takes off, many game developers might find themselves making the apps / games to go on these devices. At a deeper level though, it’s going beyond gamification, or the idea games are something everyone can enjoy. Rather, it starts to break down the usefulness of classing things in terms of “Game” or “Not a Game”, and in a much more tangible, real-world way than the academic-intellectual debate about art-games like Proteus or Dear Esther.

This is all a whole lot of if’s, but just could have radical ramifications for how we view our industry

Side Quest: J-Game

JGame: An exercise in game balance

download2 source
Download Game Source (Unity 4.2)

Frustrated with the slow pace of browser games, I decided to see if I could re-create one such game faster than I could play it

I really like the idea behind browser MMO OGame by GameForge. In it, you create a space empire, collecting resources, building up colonies and launching mighty fleets to raid other players and relieve them of their stuff.

I first came across the game a couple of years ago, but gave up after a few days: Like most such games, it is incredibly slow paced, with ever-increasing wait periods and timers between actions. While this helps regulate players from becoming too powerful, too quickly, its main purpose is to frustrate the player into paying to speed things up.

I really resent that, since I usually only have a very limited time period in which to play games, and I can’t afford to pour money into the experience just so that I can do more than one meaningful action per hour.

Recently, I decided to give the game another shot, and set myself the challenge of building a single spaceship as quickly as possible. In the end, after gathering resources, doing research and building shipyards, it took just over 24 hours. However, in that time, I got thinking that actually, I could probably get that spaceship quicker if I re-made the game myself.

Challenge

Recreate OGame within 24 hours to a point where I can build a spaceship
Success!

Bonus:
- Create a nice looking UI to match the OGame one. Partial Success
- Connect the game to a back-end server so multiple people can play. Fail

Analysis

Firstly, yes it is possible to recreate the core mechanics of a relatively simple game like OGame in a game-jam style situation. To make it look good takes some considerable amount of time and effort longer. To put in the back-end server infrastructure was something I didn’t even get onto, and all this is leaving aside some of the more subtle nuances of the game.

However, by recreating and subsequently testing JGame, as well as playing the original OGame, I feel like learned a lot about game loops and free-to-play mechanics.

OGame is actually quite fun after the point I implemented up to, which is getting your first spaceship. You can then raid other planets / players for their resources, and add them to your own pile. By doing so, your ability to make progress in the game is directly tied to the decisions you make, and loses the deterministic feel of the early game.

That initial game loop of upgrade building, wait to collect more resources, upgrade building is deeply flawed. Although there is a spike of excitement when the player finally gets to hit the “upgrade” button and see some progress, it is tempered by the wait timer. The player suddenly becomes stuck again, for minutes or even hours.

This is even worse after the player has left the game overnight. Upon seeing a great big stockpile harvested over many hours, the possibilities of what the player can do with all that stuff is really exciting. But, after one or two initial build/upgrade decisions are made, the player finds either that the wait timer is once again putting the breaks on their plans. Or alternatively, the game is balanced such that as more buildings are upgraded, technologies researched etc, their costs go up in line with what the player is able to collect. Meaning that big shiny pile of crystals is actually only good for a single high level of Crystal Mine upgrade.

Being a casual game, it’s reasonable to expect players to dip in and out. Spend 5 minutes here or there. But there is a big issue when the game prevents the player from executing complex strategies, or forces them to remember what the heck they were in the middle of doing an 8 hour-work shift later. That frustrates the player not in the positive way that a challenging adversary or difficult puzzle does. Rather, it’s the meta-game; the arranging of your day so that you’re online just as your battlecruiser finishes building, or your Metal Mine completes an upgrade; that forces players to make compromises in their real lives that they then resent.

On a deeper level, the reason they resent that is because games are part escapism, but as well because the game exists in a magic circle. The illusion of both is broken by the intrusion of the meta-game.

Another problem I noticed with many players I spoke to, who had, like me, given up on first trying the game, was that they could see the long term benefit of building an economy in the early game. Reinvest hard-won resources into more mines and factories to generate even more resources. Money makes money.

However, the game didn’t make it clear when to step off that treadmill. At what point to start building peripheral / support buildings that have clear longer term benefits, but give no immediate, tangible gains? When to start researching technologies, building ships and defences? If that appeared to be days away, the prospects were so distant that players would conclude it wasn’t work the risk/effort waiting to find out. As a result, they would quit before they got to the more engaging parts of the game.

As for JGame, I’ve included the ability for the player to adjust the various time and cost multipliers (though at the moment those values can’t be saved). From my own testing, it is too easy to simply flatten the requirements tree and unlock everything from the start, turn all the timers down to 1 second, and a few clicks later, achieve “victory” by popping out a few spaceships. However, when I leave everything on default settings, I find I’ve simply not got the patience to sit through even 30 seconds of time ticking down that I’ll never get back.

My hope is that people will use JGame to experiment with finding that middle ground, that “fun” zone between what constitutes too long/boring and what is blatantly too quick/easy a game.

My Progress Hour-by-Hour:

For the record, here is my progress blog, which was updated live throughout the challenge

Hour 1 – Create the universe
I created a universe with a single solar system and 15 different planets. I created a player and assigned one planet to be the player’s home world:

hour 1 compare

Hour 2 – Resources and Buildings

Created some resources and buildings to mine / produce those resources

hour 2 compareHour 3 – Improve Buildings and Update Loop

Created a mechanic to allow buildings to be improved to the next level. Also created an update loop where mines will collect resources depending on their level

hour 3 compareHour 4 – Energy Up!

Added in power plants and accounted for energy needs of the mines

hour 4 compareHour 5 – Low Energy

Implemented the Energy Management readout, bar the level adjustment buttons. Will revisit that later.

hour 5 compareHour 6 – Facilities and Prequisites

I must admit, I thought I’d be further ahead at this stage than I actually am. As things stand, the game has (nearly) all the resource management implemented, plus in the last hour, I’ve laid down the structure for the tech tree, and for different buildings requiring different other prerequisite buildings and technologies. Next step will be to allow the player to research those technologies

hour 6 compareHour 7 – Technology and Shipyards

I finished off the job of creating technologies and added in a research tab. The shipyard was made entirely of code I’d already made, so was a simple copy and paste job.

hour 7 compareHour 8 to 10 – Fixing

I made a numbers input system for the player to specify how many fighters they wanted to build in one go. I also went back to Energy Management in the resources section and made a button to let the player select what energy % they wanted their mines to run at.

hour 8 and a half compareHour 11 – Snazzy

Started working on making the user interface look less vanilla Unity, and more space-style. This is a never ending process, and I stole some art assets from Executive Star, but made good progress in just a short space

hour 11 compareHour 12 – Pink

You know when to call it a day when the most your brain can think about is what shade of off-pink to make the text in your game. Hour 12 rolled around with some parts of the UI looking passable, if a little sparse, and others thoroughly unloved

hour 12 compareDay 2

I spent the day tidying up the code, commenting it and sorting out all the hacky work arounds that I’d scrambled together in my game-jamming state.

I also finished off the UI for the remaining sections, as well as making some subtle but important improvements to the overall UI

Finally, I added those accursed timers that force you to hang around waiting instead of actually playing / making progress in the game.

day 2Day 3

I added some more artwork and a system to allow many of the variables and stats to be changed at run time. The player can choose how to balance the game, making buildings, technologies and ships more or less expensive, build faster or slower, and allowing the addition and removal of prerequisites.

Finally, I uploaded the game and source code under a non-commercial license. As much as I might complain about wait timers and free-2-play monetisation techniques, it is just not cool to wholesale copy someone else’s game, doubly so to then start selling it.

JGame uses OGame as its base, but has ended up sufficiently deviating over the course of development, that I’m satisfied it’s not so much a copy any more, but a tool for exploring gameplay balancing.

day 3