Global Game Jam 2013: The Rooms

Over the weekend I participated in the Global Game Jam 2012 in San Francisco. The results was “The Rooms”, a text adventure of sorts:

The Rooms

It’s all done in Javascript and HTML. Did it all in about 10 hours, though there were a few iterations in the process. Could spend a bit more time for a better ending, but whatevers.

You can get the whole thing on GitHub if you’d like, showing how I code when I have 10 hours of working time along with writing time. There’s also the Global Game Jam page for the project as well. Later this week I’ll dive a bit more into the development.

Non-Fiction Games Manifesto

With the advent of starting my own game studio and using the term “non-fiction games,” I figure I should explain my reasoning behind the term.

My Background

Space Between Studios

My work as an artist is narrative based interactive fiction. I grew up on SCUMM era games like Sam & Max and of Live-Action Video (LAV) titles like Tex Murphy. I explored the ages of Myst and the saved the time-space continuum in Buried in Time. Art to me is exploring the space between the audience member and the work of art itself. Good art allows the audience to fill in that space by giving enough information to make the experience owned by the audience. I’m constantly perfecting my skills in this craft to explore this space.

The Current Serious Space

While and establishing myself in fiction works, I started to think about the other areas of thought this art form can tackle. I’ve mused about this before with topics like “The Corporation for Public Gaming” for the Serious Games space. Loosely described as games that have a real-world purpose. While there are great works, I find the space lacking. There’s a series of toys created to find the quickest way to illustrate a narrowed concept. They’re not rewarding experiences for the most part and at best a sense of guilt that you must play this game rather than wanting to.

Bow Street Runner

A browser based LAV game called “Bow Street Runner” has stuck out with me in what I want from non-fiction works. Done by Littleloud as a commission for a Channel 4 show called “City of Vice,” the game is arguably more rememberable than the show. The player is a Bow Street Runner, the pre-cursor to our modern police system. While the game is historical fiction, it is still taking history and only filling in gaps to make it approachable in our history. Different from the attempts that Assassin’s Creed takes where a completely alternative universe is created with our existing understanding of history.

Non-Fiction Gaming

For the better part of my career, I’ve worked on making games that fit within the universe of an existing IP. While some were more restrictive than others, the titles I help to realize had a certain degree of rules mandated by the franchise. The question I ask: How is this different from a non-fiction topics? How difficult is it to follow the rules of the universe of a fictional franchise to the universe we exist in?

Non-Fiction Gaming is my approach to close this gap. Non-fiction gaming is taking the same approach of fictional game development to non-fiction topics. Instead of deep-diving into a fictional world, I choose to dive into our own world. Gaming needs it’s Maus and Persepolis. It needs it’s NPR: Planet Money and This American Life. It needs it’s Cosmos: A Personal Journey. I choose to take the same love and care I approach an existing fictional universe to the world of science, history, art, and anything else I care to talk about though my art.

In the end, what I care about is the space between the work of art I create and the player themselves. That part where both sides come together and only the player can create. A space that isn’t restricted to works of fiction. This is why I started my studio.

Edits: Added headers and corrected grammar. (1/15/2013)

Kickstarter Backer Support Tool?

Dear Lazyweb: As I eye Kickstarter for funding (and marketing) tools for my next project, I’m realizing something that I feel should exist already and doesn’t. Since it doesn’t already exist, I feel it’s either against the rules as I can’t be the only person to see the need.

When your project gets funding, there’s the matter of reward fulfillment. Right now the process is creating a survey for each tier asking the info you need to deliver the reward. You can only ask this survey once. As a backer, you can only submit this info once and after 10 minutes  it’s locked in. Need to change it? Manual contact and update for both sides. Change of address? Contact project directly for manual update. You’re asked to wait till you can make send the final award to users, but what if you a digital package to devlier sooner than a physical package? It’s horrible support mess.

Continue reading Kickstarter Backer Support Tool?

Ümloud! 2012: Done

Another Ümloud! is in the bag! While there’s still paperwork and other bits of things to do, the show is over and we have lots of money to give to the hospitals. Have to wait for the numbers to settle before giving a final count, but needless to say, it’s a much larger number than the year prior. 😀

This year we had a new host for the event: Tim Schafer. Growing up with the SCUMM era of games, never would I thought I’d be introducing him onto the stage of a show I’m putting on. Certainly a highlight of my life.

This year I'm getting a lot fewer complaints about how the show went. Sure, there are still improvements that need to be made, but we're starting to actually know how to do this show now. Moving forward, I hope we can expand the team even more and thus become a better production.

I'm still processing all of the things that went on with the show, hence this rambling of a blog post. One thing is clear for me. After all the bad things that happened to me this year, the show shined a very bright light into a darkness. There are many people to thank for that, which will be the subject of another blog post.

My next steps: Employment via employer or myself!

My Unannounced Title

I have decided to do something that which is likely my destiny, but it took my broker to convince me to go forward with this plan.

I am developing my own game: A project about the art of video games.

One of the very few textbooks for my BFA at Emerson was Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. The text looks at the aspects of visual communication in which comics work. It’s a comic book explaining the art form of comics in a comic book. I want to make a video game explaining the art form of video games in a video game.

Continue reading My Unannounced Title

Steam: Big Picture

While it’s been talked about for a while, Steam finally announced “Big Picture” mode for Steam. The into video was weirdly different from Valve’s usual product announcements.

Instead of the more narrative based product announcements like the TF2 “Meet the…” series, it’s purely product presentation. Almost has a vibe similar to a Google product video.

The video isn’t bad. The thing that stands out for me is the human voice-over that represents the Steam and Valve, rather than a character in a game. Prior, the identity of Steam consisted mascots rolled out for the community pages and seasonal sales. Now there’s a voiceover and presentational framing of product without voiceless cartoon characters.

Combine this and the expansion to non-entertainment apps on Steam, it looks like our little Steam is growing up!

Buy This: To The Moon

It’s rare that a title effects me so much as an artist. “To The Moon” by Freebird Games is such title.

The story is about a dying man who’s last wish is to visit the moon. Two doctors are commissioned to make this wish a reality by using a technology that supplants a second lifetime to the patient, giving them a second chance to make the dream a memory before they pass on.

What follows is one of the deepest interrogations of a character I’ve seen in a very long time. One that left me teary a few times while layers of the old man’s memories are pealed away one by one. It’s one of the best science fiction stories I’ve experienced in a very long time.

This is the point where I say you should buy this game on Steam or direct. Maybe a few weeks from now I’ll talk about it. For now, save yourself up to 4.5 hours to play this wonderfully written game!

Steam Greenlight

While I was out at PAX and Seattle, Valve released the new Steam Greenlight initiative.

The problem Greenlight is trying to solve is approving titles for sale on Steam. Previously (and currently), titles would have to be manually vetted and approved by Valve in order to be distributed on Steam. This is OK for more established outfits, but there’s an increasing volume of titles that aren’t represented by established publishers/developers, flooding the system. Some titles were rejected even when released on console platforms.

Greenlight gives a different avenue for vetting title submissions. A developer/publisher posts information about a title they want to release on Steam. If enough unique registered users of Steam vote up the title, Valve will release the game on Steam. This allows Valve to process more submissions with smaller effort on their part. Ultimately reducing the risk of a title slipping though the cracks.

At release, the barrier of submission was simply to fill out the submission with a valid Steam account. This created a flood of fake, copied, or obscene submissions. As an attempt to create enough of a hurdle for submissions, Valve now requires a $100 submission fee for enabling an account to submit. To be clear, it’s a fee for any number of submissions from one account and not reoccurring. This fee will go directly to Child’s Play (which I also have a connection with via Ümloud!). For the sake of this discussion, how the money is used is irrelevant.

Ben Kuchera of The PA Report wrote an editorial about the $100 fee as exclusionary and wrong. It’s the value amount that he expressed his concerns:

If the fee were lowered to $10, the effect of weeding out the trolls would continue, and the amount of people that could participate in the process would be exponentially widened. It’s still a long shot, and you still have to muster community support and have a good game. In fact someone emailed me to suggest a mandatory playable demo would do much to help remove the trolls, share more information about games, and remove the financial barrier. Even if they could raise the $100 fee, it would be better spent on rent or equipment.

The $100 price point is pretty common across other gaming platforms, but Steam is actually cheaper in the long run. Apple requires a $99/year fee for iOS, another $99/year for Mac Store. Xbox ‘Creators Club’ charges $99/year. Steam is $100 period. As far as platforms to sell games on, Steam pretty accessible and inexpensive. The real trick is the cut you get per sale, which I don’t have all the numbers available on Steam. Though it’s hard to argue with a one-time fee vs. an annual fee. Can this fee be lower? Sure. I would also think that Valve used the metics from banning players of multiplayer games and recreating accounts.

The question posed to users is “Would you buy this game if it were available in Steam?” The “Yes” button figuratively would be a buy button. Greenlight is not Kickstarter and no money is transfered. A developer would do better to present later in their schedule to have screenshots and the important video for the submission. Greenlight is geared towards the later end of a production schedule. After you figured out a budget, even if that budget consists of an game engine licensee.

A developer using Greenlight developer is asking to sell a product, regardless of your background. With all due respect, this isn’t Newgrounds.com. Submitting to Greenlight is during your work into a commercial product. Of all the venues out there, Steam Greenlight is the least expensive storefront to place commercial games. The $100 may have been a quick fix for the over-flooding problem — and I hope it’s continued to be re-evaluated as time goes on. What I can say is that Steam Greenlight is lowest bar of entry for commercial game stores. And that makes me happy for the state of independent development.

In Defense of Subtitles

Bosco as a Frenchmen in Sam & Max with subtitles.

A few weeks ago Jonathan Blow talked about his incorporation of subtitles into his next title The Witness. He brought to light one of the fundamentals of gaming that is sometimes treated as foregone conclusions: Subtitles.

Originally I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to implement subtitles or not. It’s important to me that the game have an overall aesthetic that contains no visual language. I was worried that if we were to draw subtitles for people who don’t speak English, it might ruin this. But, a year ago, I was talking to a friend who has experience in film, and he convinced me that people just understand that subtitles are a different thing, that they are a layer on top of the game or movie or whatever.

I’m totally in agreement for steering away from becoming a novella. I grew up on point-n-clicks, but I also agree that subtitles with a voice recording becomes distracting to players at large. With a player capable of understanding the recorded audio, the text distracts from the environment the work is presenting. A fictitious construction placed upon a space that is (usually) meant to present a believable universe.

What concerns me is an implication that the hearing impaired aren’t considered a part of the equation. A comment from Jonathan Blow on the above linked blog post:

If such a player is perceptive he will figure it out. Consider it a bonus puzzle.

I can see his reasoning. The work Blow does is to create an environment that strips away the interface — the distractions — from the piece. He is also making a bet that the design and gameplay do not depend on the voice work in the piece. You experience the world as you experience the world. And maybe that’s a valid choice in some contexts and maybe that’s worth exploring.

Regardless of the ability to create a piece that doesn’t require voice work, I can not agree with this position. The tools and ways the hearing impaired navigate the real world aren’t afforded or available in the context of a screen and human interface devices (keyboard, mouse, gamepad). While I haven’t played The Witness, it’s clear that the audio diaries are key parts of the narrative world in the title. Maybe not key to solving puzzles, but are a part of the narrative environment. To exclude them from the work is to discriminate against physical limitations beyond a player’s control.

I live by the mantra: Accessibility is accessible to everyone. Elevator access in a building not only helps people with mobility concerns, but also when you need to move a heavy thing around a building. While there’s a balance to strike between resources and output, I feel that the availability of subtitles is one of the few core requirements in interactive media. It helps the hearing impaired, it helps non-native speakers, and perhaps more than can be predicted. I don’t feel subtitles need to be on by default, but subtitles should always be made available.