The Mystic Western Game Jam

Programming, Video Games

El Viaje Misterioso

Austin’s independent games collective Juegos Rancheros hosted another game jam this summer, and this year the theme was “mystic western”.

I hadn’t initially planned on participating, since I was already rather busy preparing for some summertime travelling. However, I was struck with a fun game idea that really fit the theme and scope. I wanted to make a game based on a specific scene from a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, where Homer hallucinates a mysterious voyage through a desert landscape under the influence of extremely spicy chili peppers.

For the gameplay, I took inspiration from the indie platformer Knytt Stories by Nifflas. It has a very clean, blocky, simple aesthetic that seemed feasible to imitate, even with my limited art skills. I also wanted to emulate its low-key pacing and its focus on exploration over combat. Having enemies to fight wouldn’t fit the vibe of the source material, where the mystic desert was mysterious but not threatening. Ultimately, I managed to translate almost every beat of the five minute hallucination sequence into some sort of playable experience (with the notable exception of the snake, which sadly was cut for scope.)

Mystic Western Jam - Notebook Sketches

Developing a platformer was also a good excuse to apply some of the lessons I learned from Steve Swink’s “Game Feel”. The book breaks down and analyzes the ways in which designers manipulate game physics in unrealistic ways to make platformers feel good. For instance, it taught me to increase gravity when the player is descending to avoid feeling floaty. I also implemented variable jump height, input buffering, and late jumping based on the lessons from this book.

You can download El Viaje Misterioso for Windows and OSX here:

Download from itch.io

Download (Windows)

Download (Mac OSX)

Source Code (GitHub)

At the end of the game jam, I was very proud to find out that my entry was one of the 25 games selected for the Mysteric Western Arcade at the Marfa Film Festival. I sadly couldn’t make it out for the event, but I hope people got a chance to play it there!

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Challenges for Game Designers

Books, Video Games

Challenges for Game Designers

For the last few months I’ve enjoyed following along with Liz England’s Game Design Book Club. Though I’ve only been participating intermittently, it’s been really valuable as motivation to read books that are often cited and highly praised in game development circles. It has also pushed me to explore certain topics that I may not have chosen on my own.

September’s book club selection was Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber. It covers some common ground with other “game design 101” books aimed at a classroom environment, but it has two unique twists. Firstly, it has an emphasis on non-digital games. This affords a greater focus on “pure” mechanical considerations: chance, skill, strategy, social dynamics, etc. Secondly, as the title suggests, the reader is encouraged to explore the topic of each chapter by completing assorted design exercises; it’s equal parts textbook and workbook.

I was very impressed by the variety of exercises presented in the book. The ones that particularly interested me (and, admittedly, took the least time to complete) involved taking an existing game and modifying it to emphasize a different type of skill.

For instance, one of the exercises in chapter 5 was to “modify [Tic-Tac-Toe] by adding one or more chance-based mechanics”; the game should also be “good for adult players”. I thought this challenge was quite interesting, so I took some time to develop a small game called Catalina Tiles for it. The game is played on a nested 3×3 grid, and players use four 4-sided dice to determine which tiles they can claim on their turn.

Rules for Catalina Tiles [PDF]

Another exercise in chapter 8 involved choosing a “non-digital game with no elements of chance at all” to modify by adding fog of war: “your opponent’s pieces are hidden from you (and vice versa) except under certain conditions.” After researching existing chess variants (there are so many), I developed two unique hidden-information chess games. Luft Chess is standard chess played with invisible kings, and Reverse Schrödinger’s Chess has each player secretly deploying their opponent’s back row pieces.

Rules for “Fog of War” chess variants [PDF]

I had a lot of fun completing these exercises (also learning how to use LaTeX to make fancy rulebooks). Even as someone who works on games every day, it’s been valuable to stretch my creative muscles and make games under unfamiliar constraints.

The Game Design Book Club is online and open to everyone, so feel free to follow along if it interests you. The November selection is Shooter, “an anthology of critical essays about first-person shooters” that Clint Hocking has spoken highly of.

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Playing Games on Twitter

Internet, Video Games

Twitter Bot Quilt

I was recently interviewed by Jason Johnson at Kill Screen about the intersection of two of my favourite topics: video games and Twitter bots. Specifically, he wanted to explore the possibilities of using Twitter as a platform for games, and I was happy to oblige! You can read the interview over on their site:

Kill Screen – Is Twitter the Next Playground for Gamers?

In preparation for our discussion, I took some time to catalogue all the game & game-like bots I could find. For instance, image bots (such as Lowpolybot, a_quilt_bot & pixelsorter) are interactive, but are they games? Others explore content from games (MinecraftSigns, Book of the Dead) without being games per se.

Some bots (AnagramBot, ThesaurusGame, and my own TinyCrossword) function like public game shows; anyone on Twitter can reply but only the first correct answer will win. More egalitarian bots (wordassocbot, mazebotgame & fmkvote) let everyone play, and choose their inputs randomly or in aggregate1. There’s a category of bots that don’t take player input at all, but instead play games against themselves (ChessBotWhite & reverseocr). You could even interpret artassignbot as a game, if you approached its assignments sincerely!

Bots can also explore game-like procedural generation and world building. ARealRiver, tiny_star_field and dungeon_bot assemble unicode symbols into microcosms, cleverly working within the constraints of Twitter. Similarly, fantasy_florist and youarecarrying evoke imaginary worlds using only brief descriptions.

Ultimately, I believe we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to playing on Twitter and interacting with bots. There are many interesting creative opportunities in both, so I encourage my fellow bot enthusiasts to continue creating and experimenting!

1 The popular streaming bot Twitch Plays Pokémon uses a similar approach.

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Stir Fry Blues

Programming, Video Games

Stir Fry Blues

Last year I made a little game for Space Cowboy Jam with my good friend Matthew Breit. Inspired by one particular scene from Cowboy Bebop, we decided to make a silly cooking simulator. He modeled some vegetables, I coded some menus, we wrote some goofy dialogue, and slapped together Stir Fry Blues in a couple of weeks.

Sadly, the version we made within the time constraints of the game jam was pretty lousy (we placed 45th out of 60 overall.) It had no audio, the menus were ugly, and the NPC dialogue was repetitive. Most egregiously, we still had a placeholder screen for the cooking animations. After the jam, we simply left the project in unfinished limbo for months.

Over the Christmas holidays, I took a pass at improving Stir Fry Blues to the point that I would no longer be ashamed of it. I cleaned up the UI, added some creative-commons audio, and wrote logic for the NPCs to recognize over 30 recipes. To make the cooking animations, I took what we already had (3D modeled food) and simply added physics. Watching a loaf of bread boiling in a pot adds immensely to the game’s humour.

You can play Stir Fry Blues in your browser with the Unity Web Player, or download it:

Play Stir Fry Blues (itch.io)

Download (Windows)

Download (Mac OSX)

Though I’m quite proud of the final product, making a game that’s entirely menu-driven and has lots of custom content isn’t actually much fun. Writing the data structures for the ingredients (their prices, taste values, expiration, etc.) felt like I was developing CMS software. At least I learned a lot about C# and Unity while doing so! For my next side project, I’d definitely prefer to tackle a more mechanics-driven game.

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The Loot Cave

Video Games

Destiny Loot Cave

“The social experience of a cave farming run is amazing: the herding to get a team of Guardians all behind the line and firing in the right direction, the rush to grab the loot, the scramble when the panic wave starts, the beckoning glow from inside the cave. The speed at which the community organized around this activity was inspiring and humbling to us.”

Destiny Dev Notes

Destiny’s loot cave is a fascinating phenomenon that has captured the interest of many journalists, critics and players. From a design perspective, it’s a potent example of emergent gameplay: the often unpredictable consequences that arise from complex interactions between individual game mechanics. I’d like to examine the details of how the loot cave works, speculate why it was difficult for Bungie to anticipate, and examine several options for fixing it.

The infamous cave is found in the Skywatch area of Destiny’s Old Russia level. The site would be unremarkable except for the gangs of high level players who (used to) hang out nearby. However, its unique geometry and the NPCs’ interactions with it are the key to what affords this particular exploit. The cave is a spawn point for low level Acolytes and Thralls, and its deep concave structure seems designed to obscure their reappearance from the player’s view. Once spawned, these creatures charge directly towards their intended combat zone on top of a nearby hill, disregarding incoming fire while in transit.

In Destiny, enemy NPCs are blocked from respawning if a player is nearby. However, the rolling hills that face this area allow players to see into the cave from a great distance. This means that player can stand outside of the range that would prevent respawning, while still firing into the cave with long-range rifles. Appearing under the player’s scope within a confined space and immediately charging towards the cave mouth, the enemies can be mown down over and over with ease.

This exploitative cycle is somewhat fragile, as it depends on the players’ ability to contain the flood of respawning NPCs within the bottleneck at the mouth of the cave. If an inopportune reload or lapse in concentration allows an enemy to escape the cave, the NPC can run free towards its destination and out of view of the ridge of snipers. Each enemy that escapes reduces the number that are spawning within the cave, diminishing the drop rate. A single player would therefore have great difficulty sustaining the loot cave; it requires two or more high level players diligently concentrating their fire. Given its reliance on the unspoken cooperation of strangers, it’s not surprising that Bungie was unable to anticipate this unusual tactic.

Map of the Loot Cave

Why would high level players opt to use this repetitive tactic, rather than participate in advanced missions as the developers intended? Firstly, there’s the unusual decision by Bungie that any NPC is eligible to drop legendary weapons and armour, even enemies that are significantly lower level than the player. Secondly is the fact that Destiny’s loot system is notoriously stingy. In the recent developer notes, Bungie had acknowledged the fact that their high level encounters and daily missions lack fanfare when loot is obtained. Furthermore, many of their systems offer faction reputation as a reward, an abstraction from the loot itself that may be difficult for players to grasp. It’s therefore understandable why some would prefer the tangible rewards and strong shiny feedback of the loot cave.

We can further examine the loot cave through the MDA framework, where mechanics describe the formal rules of the game, dynamics describe the rules acting in concert and responding to player input, and aesthetics describe the player’s experience of the game. Through this lens, the loot cave interaction looks like this:

  • Mechanic: NPC respawn points are blocked by proximity, but not line of sight.
  • Mechanic: Individual NPCs in Skywatch respawn 6 seconds after dying.
  • Mechanic: Any NPC can drop legendary items regardless of level.
  • Mechanic: Advancement beyond level 20 is only possible through gear.
  • Mechanic: Ambient multiplayer allows players to meet up randomly.
  • Dynamic: The Loot Cave™
  • Aesthetic: Periodic excitement from loot drops, boredom from repetition.

Last Thursday, roughly a week after being widely discovered, Bungie published a small hotfix to greatly decrease the efficiency of farming the loot cave. This was accomplished by “normalizing” the NPC respawn timers in Skywatch to 40 seconds, stymying the endless flood of monsters and effectively ending this particular instance of the loot cave phenomenon. However, the community has quickly identified new locations with a similar farming dynamic.

Bungie could continue to hotfix respawn timers, but in aggregate that might have the unintended effect of emptying out low-level patrol areas. They could prevent weak monsters from dropping legendary gear, but that might make much of their world obsolete to players past level 20. Ultimately, I think Bungie is already planning systemic changes in the right direction: making their existing end-game content more rewarding. If the strike & raid missions find an appropriate balance of difficulty, reward and fanfare, then players might stop hunting for a cave to shoot into.

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