X Company – old game idea in new clothes

I’ve always wanted to create a game for a mobile device that effectively goes to work when you stop playing. Initially I had the idea of a sort of Tamagochi approach. Fairly predictable. But the more I played with the idea in my mind the more I came back to something a bit more adventurous.

The scenario that I often consider sees the player firing up the game to be told that his health is low and he is in desperate need of nutrition. Worse, his comrades are all ill and fading fast. But this is no RPG. This is a game of survival that probably has more in common with the Atari classic M.U.L.E.

My cast of characters, amongst them the player’s main character, are all the stranded crew of a failed mission to the far depths of space. When luck, fuel and oxygen started running out they aimed for the nearest planet. I call it planet X.
The basic premise of the game is that X Company must survive against the odds in an hostile alien environment.

Having crafted their own base, equipped with oxygen generators and water purification systems, the crew seek to systematically explore their new home in the hope that they might some day find some form of civilisation.
I always wanted it be pretty tight in the same way as Kirk and his senior crew were actually old friends.
I wanted the server to process away the player’s input and decisions (e.g. Divert 90% energy away from O2 to perimeter shields) and fire out emails periodically to reflect a) the state of the complex and b) the impact on the crew.
I’ve gradually become obsessed with the notion of playing Kirk in an hostile and mysterious distant world.

For the idea to work I need to define the character of each of the crew members. I also need to consider exactly where the fun is to be found. I have a clear vision of the presentation and gfx style but as yet have no consideration for how the code would work.

Games on mobile phones are going to be huge this next year. HTML5 games employing web sockets et al will be big business. I’m keen to develop my idea as a technology test if nothing else. If I get it right the game will be portable and flexible in terms of how it is played.

More to follow…

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In search of fun and thrills

I’m currently playing my Spy Hunter-esque game to death trying to figure out where the real fun of such a game lies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly I’m happiest when the car is full tilt and narrowly dodging obstacles and other vehicles.
Initially I had the road set quite narrow. Naturally when the game became unplayable I switched it to be quite wide. That rendered it too easy. The thrills were nowhere to be found.
It also dawned on me that the real thrills are to be found when the illusion of speed is greatest. To achieve this I needed to shrink the road such that all car dodging was pretty much a near miss each time.
With the road moving at pace the biggest problem was of course that colliding with other cars became all to common. So I decided to give the player a visual warning that another car was approaching. To enhance this I also spawned the car in at -256. This meant that on average the warning sign would be in view for around 2 – 3 seconds since when the car’s y value was greater than zero (ie. The car moved in to view) it was no longer required.

This was an interesting exercise since as a game designer I’d perhaps assumed that helping the player was counter to providing a challenge. But the reality is of course that I’m also in the business of providing fun and thrills :)

5 reasons why classic arcade games are relevant to mobile game design

Anyone who has read my blogged blitherings before will know how pre-occupied I am with the importance of the video game arcades of yesteryear.
Arcade game designers did not have the luxury of being able to present protracted stories through endless cut-scenes and fancy cinematics. Their task was to entertain the player and take as many coins as possible.

The latter is perhaps the key to why arcade games are so relevant to modern mobile game design since by definition it is an exercise in keeping game times short and thrilling.
So just how did they do it ? Why were some games more appealing and revered amongst gamers as others.

Here I offer 5 basic reasons why I think the lore of classic arcade game design is relevant to the design of modern mobile games. I’m by no means an expert but through my observations I’ve also managed to come up with what may be some useful tips on designing your own mobile games.

1. Attract

Anybody old enough to remember the heyday of the video game arcade will probably remember the sights and sounds that greeted you as you stepped in clutching your fistful of coins.
It was giddying to say the least. Especially when faced with a selection of new cabinets.
I remember fondly the times I spent treading the boards of the local arcade hunting for that one machine to which  I would offer my coin  in return for a few minutes of pure pixellated thrills.
The cabinets had a life all of their own as they jostled, beeped, whined and occasionally spoke to you  to attract your attention.
Every game had its attract mode. That brief glimpse you got to view the game for free.
Some of the better games had an audible identity that set them aside from the all too generic laser bleeps of most.

Defender’s electronic wind-up sound, Galaxians’ diving alien sound, Spy Hunter’s stunning Peter Gunn soundtrack…

It was perhaps the effective use of sound that attracted me most. Perhaps I hunted with my ears far before I’d engaged my eyes.

In some cases it was about the cabinet itself.
Who could forget the striking 6 foot alien that adorned the side of the Space Invaders cabinet ?

What’s important is that the game had to get you in. It had to pull you toward it such that you were close enough to see what it had to offer. By the time you’d got to within a foot of the cabinet you were probably more concerned with the controls than anything else. Just how damned hard is this thing going to be ? I sure as hell don’t want to waste a coin on trying to figure out how to control the blessed thing !

For me there is a valuable lesson to be learned here in attracting a player to your game.
In the ever-expanding app stores that we see for games on the web your title has to stand out as being attractive, playable, controllable and of course entertaining. You don’t get much time to sell your wares. The app stores are full of 3 minute thrills.

My tip: design your game to look good in ANY screenshot. Even the title screen.

2. Accessibility

In anything that we do in life we are most likely to shy away from anything that looks confusing.
This is a huge concern for game designers and was a huge issue for arcade game designers. The spaghetti fingered controls of Defender aside most games kept it very straight forward.
Indeed you could glance at a game’s control system and instantly know that you were going to enjoy playing the game.
Early games employed a single stick and a single button. This simplicity was vital and of course enforced on the designer. The same limitations apply today. Especially on hand-held devices where a certain amount of improvisation is required in terms of controlling the action.

Later games with better capacity provided brief tutorials on how to control the game.
Useful but probably rarely read through in any detail.
A huge factor in enjoying an arcade game was being able to instantly pick up the controls and feel like it was all very natural.

But it’s not just about controls. Where do you start your game ? Are you hurled straight in to chaos ?
Nothing is going to irritate a gamer more than standing absolutely no chance from the outset. All your hard work in designing the game’s numerous wonderful scenarios will be wasted if you turn your audience away within 30 seconds.

My tip: provide the player with a safe zone on entry. Before you unleash hell on him with countless dive-bombing aliens let him have a period of calm as he uses common sense to fiddle with the controls. In a shoot ’em up, for example, I like to give the player a few seconds to move around and shoot at nothing before I introduce the cast.

3. Continually dangle the carrots

Take all your fantastic game ideas, implement them, play them, remove the duds and then concentrate it all down for maximum effect.
If, for example, you have the wonderful idea of a power-up that the player receives  for collecting certain items make sure that you constantly remind him that this is a goal to be achieved. Don’t let the player forget about all your wonderful little ideas.

Some of the most effective arcade games had that one game-changing element – the power-up. That single item that when collected gave you complete control over your adversaries.

Pac-Man is the epitome of this. Everybody knows that eating the larger energy dot gives you the edge. It’s pretty obvious and is always in view. It’s something to aim for even though at times you find yourself in a sticky situation. You’re being chased by Pinky (or whichever one did all the chasing) but you know full well that if you could get to that larger dot the tables will be turned. Excellent design.

My tip: constantly drip feed the small bonus items that comprise a much larger benefit to the player. Don’t let them forget what they’re aiming for. When all smaller items are collected hit the player with his well earned benefit. Remind the player that bonuses really are worth aiming for.

4. Keep it obvious

Any game where a single character / avatar stands out by virtue of the fact that they are visibly different to everything else on screen is going to help the player understand what is required of them. A quick glimpse on screen and a quick glimpse down to the controls ought to be enough for a potential player to take that all important step up to your game.

Gamers are (or can be) very lazy. They expect much of the hard brain work to have been done by the designer. For the gamer it is all about picking up the controls and just getting on with it. Gamers want breaks. If they fall off the edge of the cliff with their first attempt at steering the car they don’t want to be told it’s GAME OVER.

By virtue of the fact that the car COULD leave the cliff on the first bend within 10 seconds of game time ought to suggest to the player that this is a relatively safe action but something they should get very used to. It’s going to be a common feature in the game and not going to get any easier.

As the old Atari mantra used to read – simple to learn, hard to master.

Every successful video game has this underlining its design.

Modern classics such as Angry Birds epitomise it.

Much of the art of keeping things obvious is in the presentation.
If you have a squadron of aliens hovering in formation above a solitary gunship at the base of the screen it’s pretty obvious what’s going to be expected of the player.
Similarly if you see your kung-fu character standing directly opposite a similar looking character it’s pretty obvious what you’re in for.

As mentioned previously helping the player to become familiar with your game is vital to it being adopted and enjoyed. It’s also  key to it being played time and time again.

My tip: in your game’s artwork consider a visual separation between the player’s character / avatar and the rest of the game’s characters. Also consider the staging of the action. If possible visibly divide the screen up in to the player’s zone and the enemy’s zone. The latter is not always relevant but useful where possible.

5. Reward everything

Take your basic actions – movement, shooting, jumping, implement them and then play with them. Make them 10x more fun. Exaggerate them and provide as much audio / visual feedback as possible. Reward every action and every consequence in as flamboyant a manner as the platform allows.

Again I go back to Defender.
Hit the fire button – stream of multi-coloured lasers thrash across the screen – satisfying electronic laser sound – alien explodes in to a million shards – satisfying explosion sound.
Make it count that the player has just performed the most trivial of actions. Reward everything !

It might seem silly to you to do nothing more than present a simple “puff” of orange when the enemy has been shot but the rewards to the player of seeing a shower of debris are enormous.

Rewards in games are not limited to collecting things or completing challenges. Rewards extend to just about everything that a player is doing in a game.

It’s not a classic arcade game but consider the process of shooting an Imp with a shotgun in DOOM.
Aim, hit fire button,  deep gunshot sound, imp falls in shower of blood, visual reloading of shotgun with accompanying sound.
You could take this scenario a step further by suggesting that the shotgun going off is actually a wake-up call to nearby monsters. This in itself is rewarding the player since it brings on a whole new level of chaos ready for the player to deal with. And all that the player had to do is press his fire button. Beautiful game design.

In the arcades there were many genres that lent themselves to rewarding the player in style. But none were as instantly satisfying as the shoot and destroy approach of Space Invaders and its clones.

Later shoot ’em ups delivered visual rewards in spades.
The combination of  lasers and explosions can quite often leave the player feeling a little confused but there’s something utterly mesmerising about watching it all unfold on screen. Patterns of lasers resulting in patterns of explosions against the rippling patterns of an alien formation that litters the screen with patterns of falling bombs.

This is a huge visual reward since everything that the player does effects the pattern.

My tip: create as much of a “safe” visual experience as the platform will allow. If you eliminate something from the screen don’t simply remove it – destroy it. Throw single pixels around at the very least. Better still accompany its removal with a satisfying and relevant sound effect. Subconsciously the player will seek to repeat this as quickly as possible since it is an enormously satisfying experience. But never force the player to have to handle the fallout of the action.

I hope that my thoughts meet with your own somewhere down the line. Or at least prompt some thoughts. If that is the case please feel free to share your comments.
This article is not meant to be an “how to design an arcade game” more an insight in to the observations I have made whilst researching the classic games of the arcades.

As mobile platforms evolve and their games mature it may be surprising just how relevant the design ethos of arcade games from 25 – 30 years ago are.

Whatever game you design the most important thing is to have fun. If you’re enjoying it you can be pretty sure that there will be an appreciative audience somewhere.

Spy Chase – HTML5 game based loosely on Spy Hunter

Here it is:

http://www.wilfscorner.co.uk/sandpit/spyhunter/

There’s a ton left to do but I’m quite excited about  what I have so far.

I really want to work on getting the pace of the action right. It’s vital to me that the game feels fast and like a proper James Bond chase along narrow roads.

As I’m sure you will see I have a bit to do just yet to achieve this. But it’s going in the right direction.

You control this game with the mouse or if you’re on a touch screen device by touching and sliding your finger to move the car.

All feedback welcomed.

More on designing games for mobile devices

I have for a long time been pre-occupied with the idea that the key to game design can be represented via a simple formula. Or at the very least a simple rule.
It is of course nonsense. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. I for one love the painfully addictive experience of Angry Birds. Others will hate it.

I once read a short article by John Romero where he considered that as gamers we all seek to tidy. Citing such classics as PacMan and Space Invaders it seemed quite plausable that there was some truth in it. But I was struggling with the idea. Initially I couldn’t think of anything to counter the argument but then it came to me – Grand Theft Auto.

In GTA you not only seek to cause pure chaos you are rewarded heavily for it. Admittedly you  could argue that assassinating rival gang lords is a form of cleansing or tidying but ultimately the game is much more than that. I lost count of the amount of times I’d deliberately angered the FBI to get up to the maximum number of stars (wanted status).
Simply executing innocent people and piling up vehicles in the street was pure entertainment. Wrong, of course, but pure joy.

Angry Birds is another example. You don’t so much tidy anything as destroy the entire scene.

But I didn’t want to lose sight of the original argument – that we as gamers seek to tidy.

The hedonics of gaming fascinate me. Where is the fun ? What do we call entertaining and pleasurable in a game ?

Naturally the way we interact with a game dictates a huge amount of where we derive our pleasure from.
On modern smart devices such as iPad we are limited to touch. Touch is of course the ultimate in feedback since it is a direct interaction with the source. Yes you are touching glass but ultimately you are able to do something so natural it feels as though you are at one with the device. In terms of pleasure this has to score highly.

The Android powered HTC Desire smartphone takes it a step further. Touch input is often rewarded with a gentle buzz. Not only is this pleasurable as a reward it is also informing us of something. An action. An immediate response to something quite positive that we just did.

But what action on screen most accurately rewards the physical action of touching glass ?

I suppose to touch a balloon and watch it pop would be satisfying. As would swiping a hammer across the screen and seeing several glass bottles shatter to nothing.
Would it be satisfying to touch the screen and leave a trail of debris behind you ? Perhaps you touch a number of tanks that each hold a liquid. When you press them they unload their contents and fill the screen. Is that as satisfying as removing the contents of the tanks ?

I suspect that the process of touching the screen best lends itself to the theory of removing content. By whatever means. Be it destruction or a simple “pop” and you’re gone approach.

I think another  starting point for where we find fun in mobile games has to be the timeframes that we allow for playing them. Although many of us play our mobile games sat in comfort at home or at work for many there is probably an urge to “have a go” on the train or bus in to the office. I generally assume that a gamer’s allotted time for playing a mobile game is somewhere around 10 – 15 minutes.

Certainly by that time the player would want to have achieved something and been rewarded in spades for his efforts.
Once you set yourself up to play a mobile game your mindset is one of “quick thrills” –  I’ll just have a dip in to this and see how great I can be.

Classic arcade games got this spot on.
When you drop your coin in to Defender you know you’re in for one hell of a ride. It may be nothing more than a 2 or 3 minute ride but in that time you got everything – action, destruction, pace, thrills and of course a score.
My love for arcade gaming is epitomised by Defender. The feedback to the player is immense.

Step 1 – drop the coin: player greeted to electronic acknowledgement sound
Step 2 – hit start: player greeted to electronic wind up sound
Step 3 – speed left and right: player hurled straight in to combat at high speed
Step 4 – hit lasers: player sees stream of lasers thrash out across the screen (never bettered in 30 years)
Step 5 – destroy things (even the things you’re not supposed to): player witnesses firework display as everything he blasts turns to a multicolour scattering of pixels

So much in that game came at you through your controls and the use of sound.

DOOM is a similar experience. Just launch it and go through the main menu. Every item is met with a satisfying clunk. And the Shotgun. Oh the shotgun. The sound the shotgun made was so beautiful I edited the WAD to have the chaingun use the exact same sound. Glorious.
Everything in DOOM was designed to hit you square in the face. It was immediate and could easily have been an arcade game. When you trawl the DOOM archives and see what the game could so easily have been you have to thank the game’s designers for changing direction. So much of DOOM is the way it is because it has the egos of its key designers all over it. These guys live and sweat arcade thrills and so much of their personality is on show in DOOM.

So much that was created for the arcades has its place on a short timeframe game. The hurdle to overcome is the controls.
In the arcades (certainly the older ones) the controls were two-handed. One for the stick the other for the fire button. Later of course we had alternate fire buttons.
I overcame the issue with fire buttons in HyperGunner (mobile version) with auto-fire. I instantly removed the need to hit fire and turned the game in to more of a game of avoidance. This is not uncommon.

But there’s a growing trend in mobile and casual gaming to present what I suppose used to be termed female friendly games. That is, more puzzle oriented games. We’ve all seen them. A wall of gems and shapes that you click on to remove based on how they match their neighbours. It’s mindless and repetitive and there’s not much wrong with that. But I also think it’s lazy game design. There’s so much more that we can do as designers to present a puzzle or challenge.

I have scoured the web for interviews with arcade game designers. I was lucky enough to share a couple of emails with Eugene Jarvis (creator of Defender). A couple more with Chris Crawford (legendary Atari designer) and John Romero (DOOM). These guys know exactly how to throw the right switches at the right time in a game. They push the boundaries and challenge you far beyond matching 4 orange diamonds in a row. For Chris and Eugene in particular it was about pushing the immature technology to achieve the desired results. Not to take anything away from id who of course were ground-breaking in their own way, but for John (who of course had the incomparable John Carmack at his side) it was I suspect more about working a layer above the technology to provide the best thrills and challenges. It’s all about balance and whether it’s a team or the lone developer striking balance in a game’s design is an art form and not something that comes overnight.

I am convinced that the future of mobile gaming is a large step back. But as a designer you have to be brave. I don’t for one minute mean that we should all be playing Asteroids and PacMan on our phones. More that we should observe the tricks that arcade game designers and notable designers of recent times employed to pack as much in to a short game time as possible and what’s more made you want to come back for more.

Some brief insight in to my new HTML5 game Spy Chase

Development on my “Spy Hunter” game is progressing at a rapid rate. I actually call the game Spy Chase and the player adopts the role of law enforcement on the hunt for foreign spies. It’s a high speed chase through several different environments and even includes a night section where the car’s headlights come on ! I’m pretty thrilled by it.

Spy Chase
Spy Chase back-end

It’s important for me to keep up the pace in the game since the real thrill is in closing in on the enemy. As the radar blips move closer together the enemy slowly comes in to view. When the blips collide you have captured the spy !
The more spies you capture the greater your score. That’s pretty much the size of it.

What I’m really interested in is the mechanics of the chase.

Since it’s vital for me to maintain a sense of speed with the chase I’ve been careful not to litter the road with too many obstacles. Here’s how it currently works.

Player collects flags to increase the speed of the car. The more flags the faster the road speed.
Player can also ride over a speed strip and achieve a short speed boost.

To counter the boosts I placed a couple of obstacles – an oil slick and a balloon. (I was short of inspiration that day !)

The oil slick spins the car without any control allowed from the player and resets the road speed to the default.
The balloon merely bumps the car and slows it temporarily.

Of course hitting the roadside verge also temporarily slows the car down.

This game is currently aimed purely at mobile devices so the touch screen is the only input. I’ve positioned the car about 1/3 up from the base of the screen so that the player can slide his finger left and right beneath the car without obscuring it. I think the effect is pretty tidy.

Link to follow.

New HTML5 mobile game based on an old 8-bit classic

I’m currently developing a simple driving game that takes its lead from Spy Hunter.
The format is simple. You steer a car through a cascading landscape with a varying sized road as your boundary.
If you strike the verge your car slows dramatically. If you collect the flags or hit a booster your car speeds up permanently or temporarily depending on which item you struck.
To counter the boosts you lose all your speed or spin to a stop if you hit balloons or an oil slick !
Initially I designed it to be a kind of James Bond road race much like Spy Hunter but I since decided against it. Just now it’s a lot like a rally game but I rather like the idea of out-running the police amongst other things.

great_american_cross-country_road_race_03.gif

The Great American Cross Country Road Race

As a kid I played The Great American Cross Country Road Race to death on my Atari 800XL. I’ll bet it’s still an awesome game to play and is certainly helping me to create a fun game just now.

When there’s a bit more to see I’ll post up a link and some screens.

Looking to the arcades again for inspiration

First up. The incomparable Spy Hunter.

A snapshot of the Atari games that have inspired me over the last 30 years

















HyperGunner – collision detection improvements

Something that I should have paid more attention to with the development of HyperGunner was the collision between the player’s starship and the alien’s bombs. During the more intense battles it’s not uncommon to see the player trapped within a mess of bombs with very little room to move.
The problem was that the collision detection worked on the bounding boxes of both sprites. Unless the sprites contain pixels drawn to the very edges the illusion (and resulting loss of life) will be less than satisfying for the player.

Take a look at this graphic.

Collision detection

Here you can see (on the left) how I was previously performing the collision detection. Where things happen quickly and on a larger scale it’s rather more forgiving to have this style of detection. For example – the player’s laser colliding with an alien. Generally speaking players are far more forgiving when the resulting effect is in their favour !
But with a slow moving alien bomb drifting down the screen it can be highly irritating to “die” when you’re fairly sure you’ve missed it.

So I took a leaf out of my beloved manic shooters and shrank the collision box. In those games it’s fairly common to have just a single pixel in the centre of the player’s ship to collide with. But my game just isn’t that chaotic !

The net effect here is of course that you can generally be pixel perfect and watch the alien bomb pass through the outer 4 pixels of the player’s ship. But that is far more acceptable than what we had previously.