So here’s a kind of overview of my No Quarter game “There Shall Be Lancing”, how it happened and the other games I scrapped on the way
No Quarter is an event organised by the NYU Game Center, each year they commission some developers to make games for the space, invite people along and frivolity is had. Charles Pratt got in touch with me last year asking if I’d be interested, and my answer was hell yes. I had free reign to make whatever game I wanted to, so I mostly just went with whatever was interesting to me at the time, I only actually started work on There Shall Be Lancing about a month and a half before the event.
Art commissions are: CLOSED! (Sorry, check back later!)
So, want me to draw/paint something for you? here’s the process:
- Make sure commissions are open.
- Email me (with a description of what you want if you already have something in mind).
- I’ll give you a quote on what it will cost, or turn you down as gently as I can.
- I’ll draw a sketch to make sure I’m going in the direction you want, then start on the final image. (If you’re just commissioning a little doodle I’ll skip straight to the final thing)
- I show you a watermarked and/or small resolution version of the final image and ask for payment
- You paypal me the money, then I send you the final image.
- prices will vary depending on what you want, a small sketch of a single character might be around $15-30, a massive print resolution thing with colour and multiple characters/buildings/vehicles is going to cost more.
- I want the right to display the finished work on the internet and elsewhere, though not at full resolution for bigger pics. If you *don’t* want me doing this, let me know and I’ll adjust the quote accordingly
- I’m not against drawing porn/kink/furry/whatever stuff, but I do have some things I’m not comfortable with so if you want something in particular just say and I’ll let you know if I’m OK or not. also I promise I’ll not be judging you, everyone has something crazy that they are into after all
- Sometimes you’ll get the finished art a day after first getting in touch, sometimes it will take a couple of weeks before I get round to you. Either way I won’t ever ask for money until I have done the final work.
- You will own the artwork, but if you claim that you made it I’ll hunt you down <3
- If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment, or email me
For your reference here are some works of mine:
So I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni lately, and for the most part it’s a lovely experience, until you get to the combat. The trouble is that it claims to have both skill-based gameplay, as well as grindy/time investment type gameplay.
To explain, in skill-based games players rely on their own ability or understanding to succeed. however in time-investment/grinding games, the only thing a player must do to succeed is invest time. so long as the player has more time to spare they can grind whatever variable is holding them back until the chances of victory approach 1.
Few games are *purely* about time-investment, though some come close. Even the most grind-heavy J-RPG tends to have systems where certain attacks are better in certain situations, party formations impact performance and so-on. But even with the perfect strategy and technique, Sephiroth is going to win every time if I fight him at the level I start the game at.
The entire point of grinding/levelling systems is so *anyone* can win, it’s a self-adjusting system for varying skill (in theory); players who struggle using skill alone can grind a little and have an easier time playing with their skills, or grind further and not have to worry about the skill challenge at all. (In this respect; grinding is like a difficulty setting in the options menu, except takes hours to adjust.)
If you look at the history of grinding in games, it sort of makes sense; it’s a way to represent a character becoming more experienced over the course of the game, and prevents them from overcoming certain obstacles until the character is suitably experienced. It’d be like if a hero in a movie stepped onto the dance floor for the first time, won the trophy right away and never had the training montage. (In this respect; grinding is like a training montage from a movie, except it takes hours to watch.)
The thing is, though characters may not have it early on in the game, many players do have the experience required to overcome the obstacles already. I spent many, many hours grinding in many, many games. I already know if you don’t equip the right accessory when you face an enemy with a bunch of status-effect inducing spells you’re gonna have a bad time. But little Oliver, he doesn’t know that. He still has to grind, he still has to collect that experience until he becomes anywhere as close to a master wizard as I am. This kinda sucks for me.
But here’s the thing; almost nobody is using time investment/grinding for the purposes of conveying ‘narrative of character improvement’, or even as a difficulty setting; it’s a safety net for designers.
You can make the game you think sounds cool, “it’s all about skill and tactics and stuff”. but you implement a levelling system so that when you screw up your design players can just grind a little, to improve the odds and get through that skill bottleneck that you didn’t have time to fix. This is precisely what it does in Ni No Kuni and so many other games. Narrative-wise, Oliver is a great wizard because it is his fate and <spoilers>it’s in his blood</spoilers>; the kid doesn’t *need* experience. Grinding serves no mechanical purpose, other than to allow players to up the victory odds because the skill-based part of the combat is massively flawed.
Whenever I see levelling up in a game these days, I consider it as an admission of failure. “I know *players* can’t improve as they play the game, so I added grinding” or “The game doesn’t take as long as I want it to take, so I added grinding”, perhaps “I couldn’t make a consistent skill-requirement throughout the game like I wanted, so I added grinding” or maybe even the worst “Every other game was doing it, so I added grinding”
There’s simply no good argument *for* levelling up mechanics in a video game.
- As a difficulty safety-net so anyone can finish the game; if anyone can finish, why force weaker players to waste more time to progress?
- As a narrative technique; Do it like the movies do montages; keep it short, address that it happened and then let the players get on without having to do repetitive nonsense.
- As padding to keep the game longer; fuck you and wanting to waste people’s time, don’t you know your players are all going to die someday? Why are you wasting their precious moments alive?
There is one thing I’ll say for grinding; it’s realistic. Everything I have gotten good at in life I grinded to get my own skills there. To be able to make games in a weekend without a second thought has taken thousands of hours screwing around with code, studying and experimenting. Same with drawing, 3D modelling, and even getting amazingly exceptionally good at pure skill-based games (hello SSX, guitar hero etc).
But I don’t get into games for realism (usually). Games don’t start at the ‘beginning’ usually after all. all the characters tend to at least have made it through puberty; there’s no playing Vaan as a baby, collecting experience every time he shits himself until he’s a high enough level to hold it in and use a toilet. We can just take it as read he has that experience and get on with playing the game. We players don’t need to experience it *all* with him, and the same is true for ‘gaining experience’. If we need to see the characters (as opposed to the player) get get more skilled, montage that shit! Games don’t have to be so… ‘narratively real-time’, give Thirty Flights of Loving a go to see what I mean. There are cuts in it much like you see in movies, there’s no reason Cloud couldn’t walk into a dojo someplace and walk out tougher seconds later in player-time. Or even have him walk away from any battle with the strength required to overcome the next one.
But this is besides the point really, it only helps solve the issue of wasting players time. My real point is if you’re going to have skill-based gameplay, don’t make it redundant through grinding, get rid of that safety net.
Let’s look at Dark Souls (I know, I know, it’s almost cliche to pull design tips from Dark Souls at this point but you’ll get over it). You can beat Dark Souls at level one. You don’t have to, but you can. You can grind to make it easier on yourself, but because grinding is entirely optional it means the skill-based play aspects are working just fine. The safety net is there if players want it, but they can totally play skill-only if they want.
Compare Ni No Kuni; You automatically level up as you play so level one runs are impossible, but that’s not the problem. The real problem is there is no way in hell you finish the game without grinding. If you just run through the story you will come against enemies that can’t be beaten until you are a higher level. The game has skill-based play during battles but it’s all irrelevant; at high levels you win whatever, at low levels you can’t win at all, and in-between you need to rely on luck because the core combat system itself is massively flawed.
If your skill-based gameplay doesn’t add anything to the game; take it out. Take it right out of there, you’re mocking the player by leaving it in. There is little more frustrating than being told “it is within your power to effect the outcome” when any possible action is going to result in failure.
So, some final summary to tie this up I guess;
- Using Level-up mechanics as a safety net is admitting your game is broken, grinding is a quick-fix that makes players suffer for it.
- Don’t be afraid separate the character and the player for a time, the player doesn’t need to be there as the character builds up their muscles/reflexes/whatever
- If you have a skill-based system, it only counts if the player can win using their skill alone, otherwise it’s a grinding system with crap tacked on to hide how ugly it is.
- A player’s time is valuable, don’t force them to do the same stuff over and over to progress. (if it’s fun to do repetitive bullshit, they will opt to do it themselves, heck knows how many times I’ve dropped down zombies with jetpacks)
just some stuff to think about
So then, anyone following me on twitter will have been witness to a few freak-outs of late. The truth is things aren’t that great. Lately it’s been kind of a perfect storm of screwy hormones, stress, mood swings and actually having good selection of reasons to be depressed all at once.
Ultimately a lot of “what’s the point” thinking has led me to some decisions. One is swift*stitch becoming free (see below) and;
Leaper★, and a commissioned game (that I can’t talk about yet) may be my last games as a full time indie.
I just can’t afford to keep going like this, I haven’t been able to afford the past three years really. Sales have paid for food but I’ve just racked up debt when it comes to everything else. It has gotten to the point where I try to spend time working on short projects as an attempt to make enough money to pay for the stuff I really care about making, but it doesn’t work and it’s making my games worse as a result.
I want to make my dream games. I enjoy all the jamming, the short projects and all the other interesting gamedev stuff that builds my skills and is just plain fun to do. I also enjoy knowing I can afford food, not crying myself to sleep and the thought of not owing friends ridiculous amounts of money sounds kind of neat. If I can’t work on the things I really want to work on, then all of this ‘full time indie’ stuff is just a waste of time. I’d be better off just getting a regular job and making stuff I care about in my spare time.
I have enough money left to eat for a month, maybe two. I’m going to work on Leaper and this commissioned game. These are things I want to do. I’m going to do them how I want and fuck the money. – this is my attitude normally, but there is always the hope that money will come. I’m sure it would if I stuck with it long enough, but I can’t afford that, so fuck the hope of getting paid.
Either Leaper will sell enough to cover all the money I owe or it won’t. I’m not going to hold my breath either way because I *do not* need the stress. If it sells enough I’ll stick to this indie thing, if it doesn’t I won’t. I’ll at least have made a game that I care about as more than a ‘project’.
(If anyone is wondering, the commissioned game has already had the payment decided and most of that is going on software to make it, it’s not going to anywhere-near save me from my money troubles but it is also a game I want to make).
So that’s where I’m at right now, I also have the following updates:
Swift*Stitch has done more than well really, having been in a couple of bundles and having had the nice ‘pay-when-you-want’ sale in January 2012. however… outside of sales, nobody is buying it. and even with the sales the game has not paid off any of the debt I hoped it would, and it’s not really covering the costs of living while I develop other games. It has paid for food and bills, some software and even got me the opportunity to work with the awesome guys at nicalis for the iOS version.
My relationship with the game is thus; the game has paid for itself (more or less), I think it is kind of neat. But I also hate it because it’s not the kind of game I want to spend my time working on, especially if it can’t pay for me to work on the games I really do care about. It is a fun little arcade thing, with a couple of interesting design and mechanic things happening. I don’t think the world is significantly better for me having made it.
That hate has only getting worse, I’ve been wanting and wanting it to sell, but nobody has been buying it. I can’t be relying on something I hate to feed me, and pay rent and bills. So now you can download it or play it in the browser for free.
Now that I’m not expecting anything from the game, I don’t hate it anywhere near as much. I still kind of wish I’d spent my time working on something else, but I am proud of what I did accomplish and hope some more people can enjoy it now.
The iOS version is still a paid-upgrade for $1.99 (you get the first few levels free) and I expect that will stay for quite a while because despite my feelings towards the game, the guys at nicalis put in a lot of work for that version and they deserve to get some money for it. if you like the PC version please do consider buying it for iOS too so you can carry it with you
Android is still a possibility, and if it happens it will likely be with nicalis again, because frankly, they are pretty cool guys
I recently spent a couple of days fixing up Rose&Time’s graphics, I also fixed a bug and released a Linux version too. you can check it out here.
I considered making Rose&Time free also, however I don’t hate the game so much. whilst I was hoping for cash when I was making it, the game is all about a bunch of themes I care about (emotionally and mechanically) and I still think it’s worth the money. In fact lately I’ve been loving the game more and more, I think I made something a little special just by accident on this one ^__^;
So if I do quit making games full time, what happens to Lottie’s Dungeon? honestly I don’t know. This is one of the games I really want to finish and most everything I’ve done since taking a break from it has been in the hopes it would pay for Lottie. maybe I’ll work on it after Leaper, maybe I wont. I want to but don’t need the stress of worrying about something I care about so much. I have to put it out of my mind for the time being, I’m sorry.
(This blog post was originally a talk I gave at the winter world of love event, then it spent two years in my blog’s ‘draft posts’ bit, I found it tonight and tidied it up since it’s still something I get super excited to talk about )
(warning: links in this blog may be spoilers, including THAT spoiler from FF7)
Surprising an audience is something games can/could be super good at, but I think when we are making games we don’t think about surprises enough. I’m not saying it’s something we should all focus on but it’s pretty interesting and I think we should keep it in mind from time to time
What is surprise?
First things first, we need to know what we are talking about when we say ‘surprise’. People often don’t realise it, but surprise is an EMOTION!
When we are talk about making something in a game surprising, we are talking about making something that results in this emotional response.
The second most important thing about surprise, is it only lasts for a very short period of time, otherwise it’s something rather different that we call ‘shock’.
Off-topic but don’t-want-to-delete paragraph! – I’m not really going to go into shock here, not because I think surprise is better or more important (IMO shock can be even more valuable), but because there are no shortage of games trying to shock anyway, and it’s much harder to shock right than surprise right. I’m pretty sure it’s not hard for you to think of a few games that are trying to be shocking, and whilst there are some where the game is better for it, I feel they are in the minority. (also just a minor thing, I think sex shocks can be good, IMO the sexuality displayed in mighty jill off is probably shocking to some, but it’s valuable to the game, Jill would do anything for her queen, wheras you would never see some GTA protaganist climbing a tower of death for a hooker.)
anyway, that’s enough about shock, just remember that it’s easy to do wrong, tricky to do right.
So, where was I… oh surprises don’t last long, BUT, the memory of them can last a very long time, sometimes even for a lifetime.
They are wonderful because they takes us to new places emotionally, places we never even expected to go. At the very least, this is good for keeping things fresh. In games we often find ourself in the position where players will get bored after a while, but with surprises we can take what the player is expecting and subvert it. This changes the way the player relates to the game. From their perspective, the game has actually changed, and they are now less certain what the game will present them next, it has more possibilites!
It’s important to note that I’m not saying you should take a boring game and put in surprises here and there to keep the player glued to it, that’s actually EVIL. (and yeah, I’m going off topic again here, but whatever) your priority should always be providing a valuable experience for the player. If your aim is only to hold the players attention, then you don’t really care about your player and you should do something else with your life. Ultimately you are creating something that will take up people’s time, and time is a limited resource for humans, so make sure if you are taking it you give something valuable back. (so just don’t be an asshole k? thx)
Surprises are not about random drops (though you can surprise people with random drops), they’re not about some unknown reward (though sometimes they can be), what THEY ARE about, is making people feel something.
THE SCIENCE OF SURPRISE!
Let’s get academic, or at least pretend to (since academic types are way smarter than me). The University of Southern California had some clever people to look into surprise and they then had some clever things to say about it.
First of all, they demonstrated their exceptional coolness by deciding that 1 unit of surprise should be called a ‘wow’. They then proceeded to measure people’s wows per second when exposed to various input data… none of that is really too relevent to us but they were very clever about it so I trust them when they say things that do apply, such as:
For a definition of surprise, we need 2 things, There must be uncertainty (this is extra important to us because we actually have a strong influence over this) and we must realise people react to the same situations differently (less important to us, but do keep it in mind)
in other words, so long as a person isn’t omnipotent you can surprise them, and when exposed to even the exact same stimulus different people will react with varying levels of surprise.
The USC boffins then go on to say “an event is surprising when the distance between posterior and prior distributions of beliefs over all models is large”. And if you translate that into English: Surprise is a big change in what you expect.
For example, I can show you a black screen. The longer the screen is black, the more you expect it to remain that way. When the screen turns white, it’s something you don’t expect and you are surprised! OK… you aren’t surprised much, it’s not a great difference in what you were expecting. but if the black screen instead sprouted limbs and started doing the macarena… the odds are that would be an example of a greater change in your expectations and therefore a greater surprise to you.
Here, I made a graph for you:
At the start, the person has little or no expectation of X occouring, then at some point X does occour, their expectations change rapidly and they are surprised. Then following the occourance of X, whilst it is not occouring the person expects it less.
I’m aware we seem to have moved away from games, but we have just gone over the most important sciency bit that is most relevent to us. You see the axis on that graph, with ‘expectation’ and ‘time’?
We can influence both of these things.
So my point, (yes we have finally reached it!) is that:
Engineering surprise is achieved by engineering people’s expectations.
But what if people are expecting the surprise? This is what we in the human-feelings business call ‘anticipation‘. I’d argue that anticipation is also a type of surprise, just with different timing. since you are expecting something that doesn’t happen, each moment it doesn’t happen is a change in expectations, a tiny surprise. But since it’s many tiny surprises drawn out over a period of time, it can have as much of an effect on players as a sudden surprise.
When people are anticipating stuff you can give them what they are expecting to relieve them… or make out like it was never going to happen (the killer wasn’t really behind the curtain, nothing to be afraid of I guess…) and/or then throw it at them a second later anyway (the killer was actually behind the door! *stab stab stab*). This way you get all the cool stuff of building wows gradually with anticipation, and also dropping a bucketload of wows on people at once.
Playing with expectation and time is what it’s all about really, for both surprise and anticipation
Point made, The following paragraphs are disorganised! \:D/
Even the great so-called ‘masters’ of surprise, the ninja, are WEAK in comparison to our power. A ninja must adapt to it’s surroundings, play to whatever their victim’s expectations are, and make their move at just the right time. For us game developers however, we don’t have to adapt to the surroundings, we own the surroundings. we don’t have to play to our
victim’s player’s expectations, we create their world, their expectations are built from the experiences we have already given them.
Therefore game developers are better than ninjas. >__>
You know who the *real* masters of surprise are? Magicians! A good magician is in complete control of their audience’s expectations (just as we can be). Every word, smile and flourish leads the audience a certain way, sometimes the magician gives the audience what they expect, sometimes they don’t. To a magician, the audience’s expectation is like a toy, or better yet, a tool. Magicians use this tool to engineer that sense of wonder the best magicians are known for.
We can do better!
Magicians are still limited by reality, I can pull a rabbit out of a hat in a virtual space, I can do it with a million rabbits in under a second. Our virtual world exists not in reality, not even in the computer, but in the mind of our audience. Magicians have to conceal the reality of their tricks, whereas we are kind of the opposite, we create a reality for our tricks. In this way our tricks can exist in any world we can make the player believe they are happening in. The conventions don’t exist until you make them, and you can break them later, just to make the player feel.
That’s not to say every player is a blank slate of expectations when coming into your game the first time, the reality is quite the opposite. But you can work this to your advantage too. There are many conventions players take for granted and you can easily have fun subverting these. Things like walls being solid (you can walk through that bit!), always jumping the same height (jumping in sunlight makes you go twice as high!), conversation won’t advance till you press the button (make NPCs act concerned about the player spacing out after a while!) and so-on and so-forth.
And let’s not pretend you don’t have any impact on expectations of players before they start the game! The name of your game, trailer, screenshots, description and so-on all paint a picture in the mind of people who are going to play, you can use this to your advantage by planting ideas and expectations that the game then subverts. Remember all those metal gear solid 2 previews with snake looking cool and doing snake stuff? then people got the game and half of the players didn’t see snake for hours! Kojima probably had a grin a mile wide from all the “wtf!?” he caused there.
Expert level expectation-engineering: make an entirely different game and send that out to reviewers, use it for screenshots and all other stuff! or give different players different games all together, tell no-one!
And you can do it too both in your game and elsewhere; you can influence players’ expectations and surprise them where it suits you most!
( Slight disclaimer/warning: getting people to expect one thing and doing another is a deception. It’s pretty easy to argue it’s OK for our purposes and all, but it’s still important to know when you lie, and make a judgement call on whether your conscience can handle it )
- Surprise is an emotion
- It’s over quickly (otherwise it’s shock, not surprise)
- Big changes in expectations make for big surprises
- We get to decide what is expected
- That starts before anyone even starts playing our game
Extra stuff to note:
- Presenting things consistently will lead the player to expect them
- Surprises don’t have to be big, you can use them as small accents wherever you like.
- “The game isn’t over” is always a cool surprise, give people more than they expect
- surprise is measured in units of “wow”, that is crazy awesome!
End of post! thanks for reading!
(I promise I tried to present this post well, but I kept getting super excited because this is so interesting, it’s hard to stay on track and explain clearly when you’re in love with a subject, double-thanks for reading it anyway!)