I like to bee in YouKay -ick -ahh.

I’m back from America now, and have been for a couple of weeks. Naturally Tommy and I got a bunch done by being in close proximity - the engine runs at a good 200fps at our highest required resolution, doing pretty much all the shader passes we need. I got a lot of game systems done. Unfortunately, staying awake for 20 hours in excited anticipation of 24 hours of transatlantic travel (without sleep due to a painful neck) kind of killed me for a while... but now that I’m over my jetlag, and just about over some flu, I’m getting back into my stride.

We’re now under a Microsoft Non Disclosure Agreement, although I’m not sure if I’m allowed to tell you that.

If you’re one for reading between the lines, that might instantly imply a lot more than is the reality: getting your NDA with a publisher is just step one in forming a relationship. Along side that, we’ve submitted our “Registered Developer Program” application, which is step 2.

Our bricking-it at the first-contact e-mail was premature – that e-mail could have been as simple as “Grtz Microsoft. Giv Application formz pls!” along with our address and tax numbers.

In this new application our company history (all of six months?), previously published titles (zero) and publisher recommendations (don’t know any publishers directly) are scrutinized. Hmm, looking good, then!

In the absence of any kind of objective achievements, one is able to supply, alongside resumes, personal recommendations from whichever games industry folks you can grab: from ex-CEOs of major FPS studios to veteran developers, and from family members to that cleaner who comes in nightly, and wonders why you’re still at the office while earning less money than he does.

Just while we’re in the limbo between submitting our application and being accepted/rejected, I want to thank all the people who graciously helped us out in this way. It can only happen now, because if we’re accepted into the program by Microsoft, it was obviously just because of our combined genius shining out of our resumes, and if we’re rejected it’s plainly because you guys fucked us!

I’m endeavoring to make these posts shorter, but more frequent. Next time: how to deal with a creative block!


So you want to be an Indie Developer?

"So you want to be a..." posts seem a little fatuous to me, just because I know that you could tell me that I'd die, and never make a game, and I'd still want to try it. If you want to be anything with conviction, a blog isn't going to change your mind. You've probably already learned enough to take the bad with the good. No amount of curmudgeonly complaints about our plight is going to stop you. So, you, the target audience, are just here for reassurance. And anyone else is just here out of interest... checking if the grass is greener on the other side.

Maybe I shouldn't really be posting this, as we haven't released a game yet. Still, this blog is meant to be about giving you one indie dev's anecdotes about the path, so here's where we stand:

Wait Until you are Ready
A great concept is nothing without the ability to implement... it. It's tempting to jump off at the deep end and try to make it on your own. However, your first game is almost certainly going to be over-ambitous: As Alan Moore once said, (paraphrased) "Impossible tasks are great, because you can never be judged on the results". These ultimately pointless endeavours are not all waste: You can still learn from them in a kind of really masochistic way.

There are more efficient ways to build your creative muscles, though: The best way to do do it is by using your free time work on quick, achievable experimental games. You could also join the industry proper, learning the ropes, earning your licks, and other gay slang. Being in the industry may also introduce you to someone you really gel with... Mike and Miles of PomPom met at Argonaut, and me and Tommy at Streamline. It was gay at first gay.

Don't believe the Mythos
My favourite bit of the video game journalism is when they ask the developer how many pizzas they ate, and how many sodas they drank while making a game. It gets funnier each time I read it, because each time I read it, I know that the games journalist gets his wings, and the game developer gets his first coronary.

See, getting fat and unhealthy, and not seeing sunlight for days on end is not as cool as people make it out to be. It is, indeed, living the dream... assuming that the dream in question is dreamt by someone who wants to see you fail in all things. Doesn't sound much different from horror stories in bigger places, eh?

The Grass is the Exact Same Hue Over Here. But it Gets Less Attention... Like a Garden in Student Accomodation.
Now, you'd think that being your own boss means you don't have to put up with overtime or any of the other typical* industry horrors:

  • You don't have the marketing staff asking you to knock out a perfect, polished, working build for investors, publishers or press with two hours notice before they arrive.
  • You don't have artists asking for you to make them tools, and then complaining when you haven't included things that they haven't specified, since they're "common sense for any artist".
  • You don't have designers acting all excited about a new feature, and denying all knowledge when it doesn't work out.
  • You don't have coders with their arrogant dismissive chortles as you ask for a feature that doesn't fall in line with their favourite areas of interest.
  • You don't have producers disrupting the schedule to get their pet feature made.

The thing about a small indie development team is:

  • You don't have anyone on staff to tell people/publishers/press about your game.
  • You don't have anyone to create content for you.
  • You don't have anyone working with foresight to maintain the overall cohesion of the project.
  • You don't have anyone to write the engine.
  • You don't anyone bringing in meals and doing whatever else it is that a producer is supposed to do.

It's all on you, you sorry bastard. And in this day and age, the bar set where it is, you have your work cut out.

So yes... there is overtime. There's some small solice: it's (partially) self imposed. Other events do force your hand a little:

On a typical day, without distractions, we wake up at 2pm, and get to bed around 4am. we've gotten to this state by having a 24 and a half hour working day. It's all work while we can work. But, since we don't actually earn any money, we've no high horse to sit on when a family member asks for a helping hand. You can't really turn around and say "Look, I'm working here!", because they can just counter with "If you don't wanna help move this furniture, you can get the HELL OUT OF MY BASEMENT!".

The Seven Yard Itch
The moment you're more than 7 yards away from your development computer, you're instantly itching to work. It can make you seem like a dick if you're out socializing, grimacing that you're wasting precious time with human contact when you could be staring blankly at a head-scratcher of a bug.

But when you're at the computer, you realize how much other work there is to do other than just making the game - working out contracts, preparing food, sleeping... all necessary evils. Everything seems to take longer than you expect, and you end up blaming yourself, even though there's nothing you can do about your circumstances. Oh, and the internet is a constant distraction, of course. This blog entry, for instance, took far longer than it should have, and I am pretty angry at myself for not getting any other work done (even though this is tacetly part of the job).

Do it for the Right Reasons
If you want to go indie, do it because you have a great concept for a game. Do it because you enjoy the creative process, and all the toil that goes with it. You probably won't get famous (though you might get props from industry friends). You most likely won't get rich. But if you crave the creative endorphines, indie development might be for you.

When you have no income, passion for the game is your fuel. Development in any setting can turn into a grind. When it's indie, it's grind without monetary compensation... so get a great concept for a big fuel tank. Seriously, you need to be committed to the point of clinical denial.

Free Yourself of Worldly Possessions, ya Tramp!
I'll echo the point made in other SYWTOBAIDs ("Soyewtobaids"): You're not going to get much money from this. In the worst (and most likely case), it will bleed you dry. You'll have to lean on friends and family for charity, which always leaves you with a warm, fuzzy, anxious, I-owe-everyone-BIG-TIME feeling.

You'll have no budget for luxuries after the running costs of the development. You may not even make back that money. So as much as you'd like to see what life was like for Cliffy B all those years ago on alpha centauri, it's not going to happen (but for the same effect, you could watch donnie darko, and imagine that actor Jake Gyllenhal is actor Vin Diesel, and the rabbit guy is that spider boss).

Expect whatever War Chest you've amassed to leak a lot faster than you expect, what with paying for industry standard software and specialized hardware, even if you're living (as we do) rent free. And as Tommy witnessed this week, PCs have a lovely habit of occasionally blowing up, costing you time and money. Oh yeah, and you're your own tech support!

However, the idea that you're not going to make money should be liberating. You owe no-one, and no-one can impinge on your freedom (too severely). You are free to make the game that you want to make. Think of all the audience-second guessing you don't have to do! You're a demographic of one!

If you have any dependants, just forget indie development and get a proper job. It'd be immoral to take your loved ones through this.

Build it and They Will Come. Twice.
Second guessing audiences is a scurge of the conventional industry now-adays. It feels like most every mediocre game out there requires insidious and ill fitting stealth sections, or "gritty urban thug" themeing which wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't courtesy of the whitest guys on the planet. The design-by-committee and focus testing tend to filter the personality and soul out of a game.

As an indie developer, you actually don't have to worry too hard about who your market is (queue lots of dudes who have read marketing books spitting their coffee uncontrollably and trashing their expensive LCD monitor. That was the point).

If you're making the best use of the creative freedom which indie development gives you, you'll be making something new - something that creates a market, rather than exploiting existing ones. And since you're creating the market, you get to define it. You do this implicitly, just by making your game. Give the game a horrible interface, and your market will be made up of people with a high pain threshold. Make a shallow game, and you'll get players who only want a gaming snack.

The main draw of all this is to do something different. It's not that it's not possible to make something fantastic through the regular pipeline, but when you're solely responsible for your own actions, and determined to use your freedom, it makes that endeavour a lot easier. If you're no longer worried about making money, you're free to ignore the impulse to simply make a product for sale. You get to make something else.

Just remember what Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses."

Cliffski’s Mumblings
Lemmy and Binky
Reality Fakers
They Came from Hollywood

*These are definately not my own experiences... just typical gripes I've heard from all over the place.


Stories about their Games.

I am in America right now! I am working with Tommy! We are in his basement! I am excited! Mainly because I didn't get interrogated and strip searched on the way in! Like I did last time! (!)!

While driving to a stripmall to grab FinalFantasy XII (for Tommy) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (which I almost worked on), Tommy made me think of an interesting point, and I figured I'd write it here to congratulate myself.

We were talking about how separate story and game play often are in contemporary games. The Narrative vs. Interactivity debate is not one I'm going to dig up and clobber again, because I will fall the fuck asleep mid-sentance.

I was explaining to Tommy in my most patronizing tone, how Kevin Levine at Irrational tries to work game play and narrative into a symbiotic relationship. When he gets his way, the story tends to be about the things in the world that you interact with. He once gave an example of how, in Theif, he wanted one mission to be about the Rope Arrows that you use - make them a big plot point, rather than just a "tool". In Bioshock, the story is about how the genetic alterations you make to yourself (part of game-play) change and corrupt your identity, and your morality, and how that process has extended to the under water city of Rapture - furnature re-appropriated, and existing walls cracked and crumbled. Levine is, in a way, merely amplifying the inherent message in the gameplay, rather than creating unnecessarily detailed backstories which have no real relevance to the player's moment to moment actions.

I compared that to Kojima, where the story is about memes, genetics, terrorism, conspiracy, but the game is about moving around stealthily. Story in the Metal Gear series is treated a little like a string of rewards - you're playing to unlock an almost unrelated movie. There's real dissonance between the story you're being told, and the game you're actually playing. How much does finding and defusing bombs really have to do with the machinations a clandestine group of "Patriots", who are trying to filter the meme-o-sphere to their own liking?

So here came a hypothetical question: what if all games' stories were forced to be about their gameplay? Here's what I think might happen, (apart from seeing the games industry instantly implode, of course):

We're no longer allowed to have stories about things unrelated to gameplay, so for better or worse, we have to leave behind government agencies, gritty backstories involving murdered wives, children and parents as these aren't really "about" the abstract game play.

If stories start to be about the game play, and a continuing stream of cookie cutter Beat'em 'ups, Tunnel FPS, RPG, RTS and racing games come out, we become inundated with stories about "the way of the warrior", "the totalitarian control of one man's freedoms", "self improvement through toil", or "the art of war"... philosphical interpretations which aggrandize pretty standard games to the height of Go, or Chess's ivory towers.

When every game's story becomes introspective with regard to its game play, and the game play is the same, you get the same story, over and over. Black, Fear, Prey, HalfLife, Halo - these all draw from the same well in terms of game play, and would all have the same intrinsic story to tell - the upkeep of costs involved in travelling through life, the inability to form a path that hasn't already been specified, and ofcourse, the art of pointing at a thing and pulling a trigger until it falls over or explodes. Without the typical unrelated back-story/theme to differentiate them, there is not much left to hide their similarities. People grow tired of hearing the same story much faster than they grow tired of playing the same game, since games have replayabilty. (Except, probably not, because video game stories are already so damn similar as it is. "Oh, you're in a super special forces squadron? Oh, but you have 'special abilities which make you viably different from other products in a highly saturated market'? Oh really?! Wow!").

As a result, I'd love to think that this would force storytellers and designers to think much harder about their game play, and what its intrinsic message is. Y'know - rather than what currently happens - sandwhich whatever existing gameplay you like with whatever story you like.

Of course, we're much worse at coming up with fundamentally different game mechanics than fundamentally different themes and stories - not because it's very hard (though it's not easy either), but because of the costs and risk associated with exploring new territory. It's also very hard to work on this "Message from the Machine" level. Systemic messages emerge naturally through iterations, combinations and chaos in general - it's out of your hands, to a degree. (I do believe that we can get better at this art, and science. For me, that's really what mastering the medium is all about, and it's clear that it's still very early days for us as an artform.)

But if Bioshock is anything to go by, then focussing the story on the game play has forced Irrational to try a fair few new ideas - the focus on AI's interelationships, and creating a social ecology within each level, rather than a series of rather restrictive linear levels. Sure, you'll still shoot and frob your way around, but they're trying a lot more than most would at the same budget level.

And what does this have to do with our game? Well, I've never really had any kind of story for the game - it's rather abstract. However, it still needs some kind of encompassing theme to bring all our ideas into one cohesive bundle. After talking to Tommy about it, I think we've got it now. I'm not saying what that is, yet... but I'm pretty sure it'll win me a Wank Hat.


Feel my Teeth.

I am constantly slapping my own face with my own hand. This is because of the anesthetic. I have a weird existential fear that, if I don't remind my face that my jaw is on the side of my head, it will cease to exist.

I came out of the dentist's surgery after my first ever filling. It was without any real pain, except for the local plunging directly into my jaw's nerve cluster, triggering little spasms and jolts on the inside of my teeth.

Anyway, outside the surgery, I'm thinking "have I got something in my mouth? Some leftover oatmeal, perhaps, filling the gap between anaesthetized upper jaw and anaesthetized lower jaw?" After a bit of chewing, I concluded "Ooh! It's my tongue!".

I'll strive to give minute to minute updates as and when the feeling and pain returns. However, I may be too busy teaching/screaming at my mother to learn how to use her new computer. She hasn't touched a machine in 15 years, but is finally acceptant of the mouse. It's one of those first MS laser mice, so she doesn't have to deal with a cheapo ball based one, scragging around on an uneven surface and getting all gunked up with dead skin, or whatever the hell all that grey goo is.

It's sort of interesting teaching her, because you go through the same process as you would teaching someone a game, or developing a tutorial/ease-in period for a game.

In Windows, I'm teaching her the fundamental tools (stuff like window manipulation, task switching, right clicking for menus, the idea of "selecting" vs "opening/running" with the left button, creating files, dragging them into and out of directories, copy/pasting) and then showing them how the same manipulations are re-used regardless of the type of data - text, files, images, whatever. See, once you get someone to make a logical lateral connection between common, fundamental operational consistencies, then you've built a foundation for a well formed mental model. You then build upon that foundation, re-using the core tools in other situations, and introducing new concepts as a natural progression of old ones. And eventually, they'll even start showing their own creativity through those tools to do things you knew were possible, but hadn't expected them to do - and that, for me, is what makes games so great - the dual authorship of player and designer... carving out possibilities, and letting them explore them at their own pace, and of their own creative volition.

Here's the interesting thing about all this (for us, at least): even though she hates computers, and my obsession with games, she's able to quite easily play our game. In terms of interface, we've kept it as simple as possible, while still retaining great depth in gameplay. It's nice, because if a complete technophobe like my mother can pick up and enjoy our game, it bodes well if Microsoft want to ask us about the "casual" market.

Personally, I really don't feel like games should be designed with a target demographic in mind. It creates a lot of "second guessing". And for me, it tends to go against games' unique strengths - that they can be simple, but deep, and open to a wide range of players and expressions. Systems adapt to their users, so it follows that one game can adapt to many varied tastes. But apparantly, that kind of systemic adaptation to ones' audience is not often seen as a useful quality of games, and is underplayed in lieu of chasing "filmic experiences" and whatnot, where the player is treated like an ungreatful, expressionless oaf - an enemy of someone else's "finely crafted" story. *sigh*.

We want people to be able to come to our game with whatever emotions they feel like, and for our game to resonate that emotion. If they bring a sense of calm thoughtfulness, then they'll be able to express their calm. If they bring a fury, then they represent that fury in their approach to the game. Their play style should not alone ensure victory - it's the skill at their playing style which is more important in that respect. It really shouldn't matter if our players are middle aged housewives or teenaged spunking boys. Our game is there as an emotional amplifier, not as an emotioneering machine (which I imagine would be used to brainwash its audience into a certain state of mind - crying at level 17. Jesus. Hasn't Speilburg even seen "A ClockWork Orange"? Didn't he get the point about the immorality of agendaic film making?).

When movies try too hard to push their agenda, they're called polemic... sometimes even totalitarian. But even though it's a passive medium, films do exist which allow the freedom of interpretation. I've always felt that the boundaries of interpretation are widened in video games - there's still a system there, designed by a designer, which cannot be changed. But it is possible (to varying degrees) to express your own opinions within that expression space, and feel like you're being acknowledged by the system... listened to by the designer. However, there are just as many totalitarian game designs as there are expression-friendly ones. I guess I shouldn't moan. It's just one style.

Now, when you see our game, because it's very abstract, you'll be thinking "what's all this rhetoric got to do with this game?". It might be hard to tell at first, but it's a belief that has guided this whole development: Listen to your player. Re-inforce what they have to say. And through what they try to express, express your own message through the percievably natural occurance of the limitations of their own expression. To explore a possibility space is to explore a game designer's message. It's hard to tell if the game will say all this, as it might seem a lot more superficial. We'll have to see, I guess.

[10:32] I cannot feel my teeth.

[10:33] I can feel my teeth.

[11:58] I taste blood.

And just for fun:

(I'm sure this draws strong parallels with some people's experience in the games industry).


First Hurdle in sight

I'm in London right now, staying with friends, and making good use of the internet to get some proper work done.

The games coming along very nicely: you often find that your game concepts (especially those experimental ideas) end up needing massive re-designs because you've not thought them through properly. But so far, so good. The concept is so simple that so far, there have been no design tears shed, and stumbling blocks have, on the whole, been foreseen.

In particular, this week a big risk area has been met and tackled completely successfully*. It did require a couple of failed tries, but Tommy nailed a solution which barely affects CPU (while my first stab killed a good 50% of frame rate at its peak). It's by no means plain sailing from now on, but our core gameplay works, and is great fun. We have a foundation to build on!

We've heard back from MS. It took a while, so as we expected, they're obviously inundated with requests for Live Arcade titles. Interestingly, we have a British guy dealing with our inquiry, so it looks like the XBLA team has expanded to cope with demand, which is nice.

Standard procedure for applying involves getting NDAs signed and giving the XBLA team some background about our company. Our heritage spans back a massive 3 months, which probably isn't going to sound very impressive.

Rather than talk about the company, it makes more sense to talk about its people: we're writing up our resumes, (full of linkage to previous work), and asking a few industry friends for letters of recommendation. Hopefully we won't be passed over when they see our previous work, learn of our experience with the 360, and read some rather glowing letters from experienced people willing to vouch for us.

I do hope it's enough, because it's keeping me up at night; that nagging thought that our submission will be tossed because we don't have a famous name, major titles, or publisher backing. Still, I shouldn't think this way - paranoia breeds empty victories i.e. if I'm right, and my fears are embodied, we will have failed at the first hurdle, and I'll have to go get a job in starburger in hammersmith.

There's no such thing as a free pass into XBLA. As you'd imagine, most submissions are thrown out pretty quickly for a variety of reasons: perhaps the game concept is too similar to other things on the arcade, or the team behind it doesn't seem to have the pedigree to pull it off**. It can seem unfair to those on the receiving end of a rejection letter (especially those who would have had the stones to make it happen), but any Gold Rush naturally sees a hundred cast to the wayside for every single person who succeeds. That's just the Video Games game, sadly.

The best bet is to make your first impression count. For us, that means recognizing and acknowledging our limitations while being honest about our positive conviction to make the game worth Microsoft's attention - we've got the talent and drive to pull it off, and all we need is their blessing.

I know we can make this game, and I know that it will be a sorry shame, not only for us, but for the playing public, if we don't.

*Once again, sorry about being so vague. It'd be imprudent to reveal anything too soon.

**I'm reminded of trying to get my first industry job. Sometimes it felt like getting an entry level position required at least two years' industry experience, and at least one shipped title. Interviews were a thoroughly painful experience, to be sure. When you're being interviewed by someone much more experience than yourself, you feel like an ant under a magnifying glass - aware that you're getting hot under the collar, but ignorant of how dwarfing your interrogator's knowledge is. At least in this case, I know roughly how difficult it is to get approved, and can go into the situation with adolescent arrogance a distant memory, and realism guiding my step. We're just looking for the chance to make this game, and then the onus is on us... but that's never an easy decision for MS to make as there are many others like us, looking for a shot.


At last! Recognition!

Dude over at The 2 Bears found my K Prototype video. As it turns out, he's really into indie shooters (more than me, which is saying something!) so he did a blog update about it.

Wow. Y'know, I made that thing years ago, and it's only now that anyone takes notice without me forcing their nose in it. This must be Long Tail Advertising at work, or something.

Thanks YouTube... I'll miss you when you're gone after not finding any kind of business model to sustain your increasing popularity. They're losing half a million dollars every month according to The Economist. Man. They should just charge people who put crappy videos up. If Sturgeon's Law is to be believed, then 90% of the crap can easily pay up to make that worthwhile 10% free. (I jest, ofcourse. The moment they start charging users, the honeymoon's over).

Anyway. It's really nice to hear nice things about the game (I get paid in compliments! woo!). Truth is, those who have played it know it's incredibly rough around the edges. I'm glad it's apparently pretty enough to be mistaken for an On Rails shooter... pff. As if I'd stoop so low! Nothing in that video is at all contrived. No cutscenes. All gameplay.


Moment of Truth #1

We just sent off our pitch to Microsoft, and it's fair to say that we're both bricking it.

A number of things could happen:

  • They hate it. They reject us. We get jobs elsewhere and wonder what would have been.

  • They like it. They like it so much that they already went ahead and greenlit someone else who did a remarkably similar game. Tommy starts to kick my ass for a decade - not for being unoriginal... for being just not original enough.

  • They like it. There's nothing else like it. It meets all their requirements. They trust us enough to lend us an Xbox devkit. We make the game. It passes submission first time. Gets on XBLA to amazing critical acclaim, and finally, girls don't start crying when we make eye contact.

Well. We can dream. *Ulp*.

Even now, not an hour after submission, Tommy is twitching at the prospect of a return e-mail... acceptance, rejection, anything! Just to know someone is stationed at the listening post.

We've got to chill out. We've got to keep calm. They're busy people. They get more than ten submissions a week from people who, like us, are convinced that their game is "teh b3st game of the univerz3"!! And unlike us, most of those are probably from big hitting publishers.

We've got to chill out. We've got to keep calm. But Lord knows we deserve not to.


IO are good. But...

I really like IO as a developer. The Hitman series, though it didn't do much more than refine itself, was certainly closer to interactive storytelling than games which were out and out trying to be (I'm looking at you, David Cage). While the mission struction, if anything, got a lot more confined as the series progressed, your moment to moment actions were at least not crippled by what some would call "good storytelling" (and which I call a complete misinterpretation of the medium). And the scoring system was only slightly flawed in that in encouraged you to get the "Silent Assassin" rating, which effectively meant following a fairly scripted route, making use of the poisoning/exploding/piano crushing set ups - so there was always an implied "correct way" of doing the level... anything else was rather sneered at. I always wanted insane killing rampages to be as equally rewarded as sneak-a-thons... just to embrace the idea that it's the player's expression which is most important.

And Freedom Fighters - wow. It came at a time when squad based shooters really were up their own arse... where commanding your dudes required a high threshold for pain due to the unnecessarily complex interfaces provided to you. Freedom Fighters nailed a really easy approach. Three buttons: "Go there/attack", "Go there/defend" and "Come back here". Out of that you could create some great little emergent strategies - place two guys either side of a door, send a third guy in, pull them back with enemies in tow, then get the drop on them as they walk out the door right into the faces of two shotty weilding bastards. See, it shows that IO know how to learn from their mistakes. Hitman's interface was a little convoluted. FF's was nice and easy. (Then again, FF was painfully linear, despite their best efforts to hide the fact).

Their new game is being discussed. They're calling it a middle ground between FF and Hitman. hooray!

Just one thing though: "Kane"? Seriously? Man, I thought we'd been over this already.

It seems like every other gritty video game/wannabe B-Movie has some character called Kaine, Caine, Cane, Kane, Kayne or Kain. Enough Kane already! I mean, even Michael Caine, whose name is actually "Caine" doesn't bloody go around looking for movie roles where the character's name is Caine. Unless he's playing himself. But you can hardly blame him for that. Infact, according to his IMDB rap sheet he was "Born Maurice Micklewhite in London". Also, he's "Sometimes Credited As ... Michael Scott". Interesting.

So what I think happened was, he changed his name, because, I mean "Micklewhite"... What? He changes his name to "Michael Caine". And that was back in the day when it was pretty cool to be called "Caine". Like "Hey, that's that biblical killer, right? Wow. Damn son! And people are still pretty religious these days. Damn, you be a rebel!" (that's the voice of the deed poll clerk).

And that's cool, but only because it wasn't before every hack from HollyWood to Redwood decided to do the same thing. If you call an antagonist "Caine", it's a shortcut to getting the judeo-christian audience's anger focussed: "Caine? CAINE? That thar's the furst guy that cummitted mordur! If he hadn't introduced that thar concept of mordur, ther'da been no mordur nevur! String him up!"

So at that point, he's like "Wright. Wiwl you bloody hacks stop bloody using my name in vain?" and he uses the name "Michael Scott" instead. Almost the exact same thing happens, though. Shyeet. Name hijacked again.

Anyway. Let me be clear:

STOP USING THE NAME "KANE" IN VIDEO GAMES. Seriously, did you rip one page out of the "Baby Names for Satanists" book and photocopy it for everyone in the games industry? STOP IT.


Jeff Minter and his Llamasofties have released some screens of their new game, here.

Jeff really has his own style, and despite the years of new technology, it really hasn't changed unduely.

For me, he's one of the first true digital artists, in that he has always embraced the technology. With his VLM style stuff, he doesn't seem to aim for any specific realization of the world around us. He just asks "what techniques are computers most permissive to?", and runs with it. He's immune to the fetishism of photo realism, or, infact, to any indoctriated style. He's like a sculpter who works with the grain of the wood, while many of those around him move completely against it: how many times have you seen beautiful concept art destroyed by being approximiated by low-fi faceted edges?

That said, it can become a style until itself, as soon as the concept art is ignored, and the actual canvas is engaged - Mario is a low-fi representation of a cartoon plumber, but his 8 bit incarnation is nothing short of iconic - a kind of digital Pointillisse. Pixel art is certainly a style unto itself, and so is low-poly art.

Anyway, back to Minter. Like I say, he's working with the grain of the wood - possibly to extremes. That means he's sculpting trees. If you think about it, a tree is this natural artifact - one expression of how the universe's systems collaborate, and give rise to this emergent object. In Minter's case, the focus is on the microcosmic universe inside the computer. The fascinating blurrs he produces are artifacts of those collaborating systems: digital life.

By bouncing his experiments off the canvas of a computer, he allows us to see the very nature of simple, deterministic machines, at their most elaborate.

That's more than enough art-faggery for now. I only mention it because in doing our graphics (most of which, like Minter's, are generative), I'm finding that it's less and less about what I want, and more and more about what the system wants. When I let it guide me and let it find its own form naturally I get far better results than forcing the system to bend to my will.


Hi to me

Hi, I'm Tommunism, Bez's partner in crime and engine designer / programmer extraordinare. I'll be posting on here every once in a while. I usually don't have much to say because I usually don't care about enough stuff to say things. I care about some stuff...but not too much stuff. Sometimes, it's hard to keep track of a lot of stuff that you care about, so I find if you don't care about that much stuff, then you don't have that much stuff to take into consideration when figuring out what stuff is more important to you. One thing I definately don't care about is spelling, I can write a fast spell checker, but I can't fill it. So ANYWAY...I figure my introductory post I would talk about something that I DO care about, and that's computer hardware.

I remember back in the day, back when I graduated Highschool in 1999 the fastest chip you could buy was a Pentium 3 550Mhz. You could get the Alpha chip, the first 1Ghz chip, but...I didn't have like 5grand to drop (*sigh* the days of Pollywell computer wet dreams). My parents bought me my computer for college, a Pentium 3 450Mhz machine that I use today as a backup server. I remember 4 months after I started at NC State the new 600 Mhz chip came out, a few months later the 700, then the 750 and so on...so forth. At the rate chip speeds were increasing back then, we should be up around like 10 to 12Ghz easily, but...we aren't. Back in my highschool physics class my teacher, Mr. Ashcraft (Who is a god), was telling us that scientists and chipmakers alike felt that we would reach a limit as to how thin we could cut the circuts and it would limit the total amount of Mhz we could push out. At the time of the article that he was referring to, they were guessing 90Mhz. They were wrong, obviously.

Though I don't feel we're approaching the Ghz limit any time soon, I feel we are going to start shying away from "How fast a chip is" and lean more towards "How many chips does this chip have" Speed, obviously, will always be the main goal, but speed can be attained through various outlets. I think chip Ghz are going to be put aside for the time, and bus speeds between chips are going to be the focus for, at least a while. Take for instance the chip I have, the Pentium D 965 Extreme Edition, and the new Core 2 Duo Extreme edition chips. Both of these chips are dual core chips with hyper threading...so basically you're looking at 4 hardware threads. The clock speed of my 965 is 3.75Ghz clocked to 3.8Ghz. The biggest and baddest Core 2 Duo Extreme clocks in at about 3.2Ghz. Now...you might be thinking to yourself "Hmm...Tommy, you're both awesome, AND have the most powerful chip on the market". Though, I would agree with you that I am awesome, I would disagree with the whole powerful chip statement. The Core 2 Duo beats my chip by a considerable amount. Why...WHY you're probably screaming. It's the bus speed in which the two cores communicate to eachother. Intel came up with a new architecture that boosts the performance of the Core 2 Duo chip quite a bit. I won't go into it in crazy detail, but it works and it works well. I think these is the first steps towards a new era of computing and software development, Multi-Threaded Programming.

Each next gen console (with the exception of the Wii I think) has several processors avaliable to spread out the software load. It's going to be the job of future, and current, game developers to use these processors to squeeze the maximum amount of power out of these consoles. This is going to take careful planning to accurately balance load on these processors. The days of single threaded programming aren't dead yet, but the best of the best of programmers are going to be spreading their code out and getting some serious performance out of these consoles eventually leaving programmers that only know single threaded programming in the dust. I really feel with the direction chip, and console makers are heading that companies are going to be looking for people who have practical and I do stress PRACTICAL experience with multi-threaded programming. I for one am excited and ready.

That's all I have to say right now. If you're a hot chick, pix pls.


I got Satellite!

Look upon me, mere mortals, with dread, for I have a dish-shaped ear to the sky! Mercury himself is my ISP and I shall download Charlie Brooker's Screen Wipe faster than David Freeman can invent a new rule to force an emotion upon his audience.

(Just don't mention the upload speeds.)

Muahaha! Muahahahahahaaaa!

Uplink anxiety

Oh God. Uplink was the cause of some major freakouts in University.

After 10 hour playing sessions, delving deep into my own insomnia, I'd start to hear things. That satellite outside was blinking directly at me. It would have passed my notice, if only it hadn't moved slightly faster than the rest of the blinking dots in the sky. Bastard satellite, zeroing in on my location, after I got too cocky with a trace-progress bar. I should have heeded its "be-be-beeps".

Footsteps outside the door obviously belonged to an inevitable squad of FBI Cyber Hacker agents, ready to come stop my hackzoring ways. My heart stopped as three knocks rapped on the door on the door: "Oi Bezzy? You ever going to leave your room?" says the one.

THEY'VE COME FOR YOU! But don't answer! It's a trick! Those mancunian accents don't fool anyone, Fed! You're just pretending to be my friend to coax me out! This is university! I know for a fact that I've got no friends around here! Shoulda thoguht of that first, gumshoe!


Don't answer. Just keep quiet. Wait until they're gone. They don't have jurisdiction in England anyhow!


Ahhk. They're all over the door knob now! It rattles!

"Why do you always lock the door? Are you having a wank?"


"Fine, fuck you then. We're in the pub. Just wash your hands before you come down there."

They're going away now - their footsteps receed down the hallway. But it could all just be a trick! Maybe they're just standing outside the door going "TAP, TAP, tap, tap" with their feet.

And then you slap yourself. It's only a game.

What's great about this is the incredible, unprecedented immersion. Introversion don't have any kind of intermediate avatar which the story/game/experience is experienced by. And because you don't have to project your ego onto "Trevor Nova: Elite Hacker", there's this direct connection between you and the game world.

You are your own avatar: When the game's protagonist earns a monitor tan, it's YOU getting a monitor tan. When you interface with a hacker terminal - holy crap, that terminal looks so realistic! It looks just like a real computer, partly because, it IS a real computer. It's not like those computers you're used to, made up of 50 polygons and a 256x256 texture, words on the faux screen blurring into unreadable green lines. It's almost like you're there in the hackers shit-strewn room. Partly becaue, you are there. Your fictional hole is your own hole.

DO YOU GET IT YET? THE LINES ARE BLURRED. DO I HAVE TO SPEND ANY MORE TIME EXPLAINING IT? You're sitting ON the 4th wall, and until the Feds fail to knock it down and take you in, there's very little to prove that what you're experiencing isn't real.




Greg Costikyan has some (not unusually, and not unreasonably) strong words about Microsoft's Creator's Club. I have to agree with the sentiment to a degree. I was trying to be a little detatched, and unemotional in my previous post on the matter.

As a couple of people who just wanted to get onto XBLA so that we have the option to work on small-but-perfectly-formed original games (and earn some wonga to feed that goal), we're hoping that this won't be an extra hurdle - one where we're tripping over enthusiasts for attention. We don't want to be lost in the noise. Equally, we don't want to be the loudest guys on the block, vying for attention. A game shouldn't be picked up on the basis of the most extreme self promotion. A game should be picked up because it's GOOD.

And, knowing a few of the people behind XBLA, we actually don't worry too much about having to scream to get noticed. They're smart, and reasonable, and certainly listen to you if you take the time to talk to them.

As far as I can tell (and this is my hope) the Creator's Club is not a required step to develop for XBLA. You don't have to rely on your peers acceptance. If a concept is strong enough, and the implementation doesn't stink, I don't see any reason you couldn't bypass the holding pen altogether, and just see what MS think. However, it is still an option if you work 9-5, and do games on the side.

We don't, though. We're on this all day, every day. To be told that we might just be overlooked amongst the mass of other developers... it does us a disservice. Not that anyone owes us a salary for just wanting to be indie, but our money is where our mouth is. Or... if we had money, it'd be where our mouths are, but our mouths don't get much use anymore for that whole "food eating" thing (due to the whole "no money" issue). So, perhaps more accurately, our air is where our sound hole is.

Okay, that one got away from me. How about... our hearts are on our sleeves, and please don't make us get other people's bodily organs on our clothes by making us fight it out with other developers, thunderdrome style.



Sling Shot

God I'm loving RayHound. It's the new game by the maker of Warning Forever, which is already classic indie shooter. Although Hizoka T Ohkuba isn't quite as prolific as Kenta Cho (maker of rRootage, Tumiki Fighters, muCade and other insane bullet riffs) his ideas certainly seem a little more divergent from typical shmup themes.

RayHound is currently only at version 0.8, but already demonstrates this beautifully: You are an itsy bitsy cybar space ship (TM), and have no weapons of your own. You can, however, snatch incoming rays within a radius around your ship, at which point, they'll become dangerous to anything that isn't you. Freely moving around a circular arena using the mouse, you alternately dodge and ambush bullets thrown your way, and sling shot them back at their originators (tonnes of identical, circular groups of twisting turrets). Take out a number of enemies at once with a cluster of bent bullets, and you'll earn a 2^n multiplier to that shot. The more skillful the shot, the more you'll earn. Simple, elegant, and encouraging of interesting play.

You're also able to "Boost" by nudging your mouse quickly in a direction. This triggers a bounce-shield around your craft, which knocks any pink bullets in the direction of the nudge. The shots lock onto anything roughly in the same direction. When the bounced, rather than slung shot hits, it earns less points than a sling shot (100, as opposed to 300) as, depending on the number of bullets flying around, and the number of enemy targets, it can be a bit easier to do. It's excellent for cleaning up smaller numbers of enemies quickly, but risky when trying to deal with many different enemies firing at sparodically. Essentially, the sling shot is great for taking on enemies en mass (chuck a swarm of rays their way), while the bounce is better for taking out the last few enemies in a cluster.

There's not a whole lot in this version which I can fault. It's already shaping up very well.

Aesthetically and semiotically everything's fine apart from a few tiny nit-picks.
  • The bullet slinging is given about a +/-5 degree auto aim so that a higher pace of play can be maintained without successful shots turning into total flukes. To help clarify this point further, I'd love to see little targetting icons pop up over enemies to show that my slung bullets will meet a target if I only let them fly that instant.
  • Bullets that have locked on all fly straight after releasing, after having been very bendy. Because of this, occasionally their direction will snap straight toward their locked on target creating unnatural, sudden bends in the bullet's path. It should be possible for the bullet to inheret the momentum at release, and calculate the required arc to hit the target without simply snapping to a straight line. However, this'd have minimal impact: as I say, the bullet is already flying off roughly in the direction of the target, so most of the time you're oblivious to the fact.
  • Being hit by a bullet shows a big "-105" flashing over your craft. This refers to the amount of time you lose on your health/clock. However, as far as I can tell, it's actually 105 hundredths of a second (1.05 seconds). Though hundredths are displayed, the primary display of time is still in seconds, so this is a little confusing. I keep thinking I'm losing 105 seconds. Buh. I must just be stupid, eh?

  • Interestingly (referring to two posts ago) the lack of a high score board means that I've no real "goals" to aim for, self made or otherwise: The level number passes so fast that if I blink, I miss my progress. The game over screen doesn't even give me enough time to write down my score. I may be achieving new highs, but I'm blind to it, trained as I am, to expect the computer to keep track of it for me. As a result, I end up playing the game almost totally intrinsically, and am probably having a lot more fun because of it.

    Certainly I'm not arguing against a high score board, but perhaps this gives us an idea? Maybe it's worth suggesting to the players of our games to play without explicit aims? Perhaps this is what make the open GTA model so wonderful - there's always a chance to just play. Perhaps, to have them toy, rather than game our systems, will see them enjoy themselves more when we DO start to challenge their playfulness and creativity with solid goals? Playing this early version of RayHound makes me feel like I'm playing a Sandboxed version of a typically high-score obsessed shooter. And to its credit, the core gameplay is enguaging enough in of itself that it has me hooked on the intrinsic appeal alone.

    Do it your own way, the way you've been doing.

    Since Tadhg has turned the discussion of interactive storytelling into a fucking quagmire, I vote we move on to something more interesting: Interactive Haikus!

      Jump on a Goomba,
      Jump! Jump! Jump!
      You fell in a hole.

    Me, playing Super Haiku Bros, yesterday. Here, I'm using the rather non-existant unpopular 5,3,5 syllable structure.

    Seriously though, I hope all this discussion with its constant re-definition of battle grounds terms doesn't see us forget that we don't have to fulfill any grand Crawfordian dream with what we do. We can do anything from "interactive dance" to "interactive history", and not even have to give it a name, and still be equally artistically justified and bankrupt simultaneously.

    I just feel like we've propped up a target for ourselves, and it's paper thin.

    Just make anything you want. Find your own way... Your own path... through... hnnng... possibility. *gagh*.


    The Need to Want.

    That which follows this is a post made by good friend JeanPaul LeBreton. JeanPaul has been both a mentor and comrade on game design for a good 7 years now, so forgive me if I end up agreeing with everything he says. Our minds often seem somewhat locked into parallel trains of thought. I add my own comments at the end. DO read the linked article first.

      Gnu.org: Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator

      This is an old article. It's cited in the context of the Free Software movement, as a refutation of the arch-capitalist strawman, "but if people don't do things for money, there will be UTTER CHAOS!!!". Interesting enough in that sociological sense. I of course applied it to game design, and it was something of a mini-epiphany.

      The phrase that jumped out to me was "work that involves creativity". Most people probably do not think of videogame playing as "creative". This is partly because few games really recognize or foster creativity, and players who do play creatively in such games are often going well beyond the demands of the game's rules (see: speedrunning, trickjumping, etc) [1] [2]. However, there is more chicken and egg to this than you might think. I think there is a very compelling argument for saying that games to date have not fostered creative/stylish/interesting play precisely because they have tended towards extrinsic rewards, which in turn springs from their desire to "addict" players in consistent and reliable ways, as per the fetishization of "pacing" Aubrey[3] identified recently.

      GTA3 is an example of a game I would say offers many intrinsic rewards. Doing basic stuff in the world is just fun: driving, doing crazy stunts, getting into and escaping from trouble. Indeed, the extrinsic rewards of many actions, eg the money you get from killing people and completing missions, is pretty much an afterthought. It's not the reason you were doing X, X was just fun to do on its own.

      One of the reasons Aubrey and I dislike the trend towards making "unlockable" things a major feature of games is that it turns many things that were previously about intrinsic rewards into extrinsics. You play 60 hours to unlock Waluigi not because the game is fun for 60 hours, but because you get Waluigi.[4]

      Probably the biggest reason MMOs turn me off is that they have such a brazen, rigidly codified extrinsic reward structure, and for most people that is the only reason to play the game. The carrot becomes your entire reason for living, and it's tied into a business model that is designed to keep you pressing on that Skinner Box lever while the cash continues to flow out of your wallet.

      Interestingly, when you hit the level cap in many of these games, the biggest reasons to stick around are the social connections you have built with other players - intrinsic rewards (unless you're a sociopath who views friends as instruments).[5]

      It's almost startling in retrospect how much of my personal design philosophy can be explained by this principle. I am very passionate about expanding game design beyond the (now very established) realm of extrinsic rewards.[6] I think the result will be games that people feel are more entertaining and even enriching, rather than just a way to kill time. To put it another way, it's hard to imagine humankind's enjoyment of Art as anything but a big, profound intrinsic reward. Games will be further down the road to becoming Art when they lose the obsession with being Disneyland rides and graphically intensive slot machines.

    [1] Players who are creative enough to find their own forms of expression within a game must implicitly go beyond merely understanding the game mechanics. That is a base requirement. Expression in games (finding one's own "way" - one's own "style", like Jeet Kun Do) seems only to occur in the emergent strategies thrown up by the core rules. In Deux Ex, placing a Mine is not creative - it has been coded strictly. Equally, jumping is not creative - it has merely been allowed by the developers. But in combination, players have been able to climb sheer surfaces with these two simple actions. That's creativity - not because it was unanticipated (which it happened to be) but because it was at a level of expression higher than the simple use of an existing verb. For many games, this stratosphere of creativity is only met after autistic levels of engagement with the game - typically, video games are quite complex when compared to folk, and board games. There are such a breadth of verbs to learn that the entry level for actual strategic creativity often lies well after total appropriation of a tombs' worth of button combinations and context sensitive verbs. And often, this breadth simply exists to hide the lack of depth present (I do not believe that breath is necessarily inversely proportional to depth - sadly, it often seems the case).

    [2] We are not well versed, on the whole, on the art of creating creative tools. They are difficult to conceptualize, design, and produce, and it is easy (too easy) to dismiss the undesireable emergent strategies as un-forseeable... a product of the magic of game design. I wish that we did focus on this side more - the management without contrivance of our own possibility spaces. I have my own scrappy ideas for methodologies which seem to get me by. They basically come down to this: systems that are complex enough for its results to become percievably random not only to its own designer, but to its player, are pointless. Obviously this is rather subjective, but the point is, while we should not sit on our laurels and make shallow game play out of fear of emergence, we should equally recognize that too much depth can turn dull, too. After all, it could be the overwhelming amount of depth that hinders us from being intentionally creative within our play - if we cannot percieve the full result of our actions easily, we may be frightened to make certain expressions.

    [3] I had posted something earlier on the subject, but took it down for a re-write (still pending).

    [4] I've felt this quite often, and seen friends succum to it too. The technique of well-paced-unlockables doesn't make a game implicitly bad, but it has certainly seen me play more than a few games more than they probably deserved (Need for Speed: Underground, I look in your direction). I'm certainly averse to the idea that this technique "saves" otherwise uncompelling games. They say that you can't polish a turd... but this pavlovian approach makes me think otherwise.

    [5] It's also at this point that the exploration of the breadth of the game (the constant opening of new verbs as you level through your different disceplines) dries up, at which point, you've been exposed to the idea of exploring the depth thrown up by your endless verbs. I witnessed four great friends from my childhood, this weekend, all sit around a table during a wedding celebration, trying to figure out the most efficient barrage of spells to take out a single, incredibly tough enemy. So, my point in [1] stands. With enough saturation in the problem area, you establish an accurate mental model, and start to really be able to riff creatively with the game-qua-musical-instrument.

    [6] I agree (of course!) but can also sympathise with why such games have been successful - or atleast, why mankind has allowed them to be successful. It's the Need to Want. As Jesper Juul pointed out of Sid Meier's fleeting description of games: "Games are a set of interesting and uninteresting choices". Yes, a player's voice has been sadly unheard in most of the games we play, but often, we like to follow paths. We sometimes like to press the correct button. We sometimes like to be told "you did the right thing", rather than "any approach is as good as the next". We also just like extrinsic rewards (at least until their novelty wears off due to too much repetition). But what this article clears up so elegantly is why, even though intrinsic rewards are so much more fulfulling, why so many people put up with extrinsically biased games. Things like Guitar Hero, where we follow the same track every single time, or Half Life, where we try to follow the "Hero's Journey" - both cases punish unsanctioned creativity. But these games seem to work because they are the ones where the extrinsic end is the intrinsic desire. The need to want to sound like Jimmy Hendrix. The need to want to be Gordon Freeman. The Need to Want is built into all of us through evolution. The need to suffer for even an unfulfilling reward still fills us with a sense of worth. It's the reason we build pyramids and climb mountains and fuck each other over for the top spot. It's evolutionary. It's a bit sad, really.

    Up creatively empowering games, I say.


    The Indie Gold Rush

    I'm pleased to see that Microsoft are living up to their pre-release promise of making the XBox360 "your machine" with the new XNA/Creator's Club dealies. For the last year, the console has felt as closed as any other... even more exclusive to developers than platforms that were supposed to be closed - the PSP, for example.

    Opening up any console sees a platform holder walking a narrow line. On the one hand, you'll gain a more avid user base, projects of great imagination undiluted by the mitigating forces of investors/publishers/marketers/crackpots, and utilities that make the console more than just a games console - take the XBox Media Center program, which allowed you to stream just about any type of content off a networked PC, or off the XBox hard drive.

    On the other hand, you're opening up all kinds of legal shenanigans - modifiable content undermining ESRB ratings (good grief), pirated software, hacks, exploits, enabling the piracy of games, music, and films - take the XBox Media Center program, which allowed you to stream just about any type of content (obtained legally or no) off a networked PC, or off the XBox hard drive.

    As Xbox Media Center demonstrates so perfectly, the opening up of a console, while a boon for the consumer, is a legal mine field for the platform holders. When the hardware they've designed so thoroughly to be a legal platform for media (to satisfy professional content creators worried about piracy) is undermined by the hobbyist, they become obliged to do their best to stamp out illegal use - endless PSP patches are a testament. (Tangent: Every PSP game I've bought has had the requirement of an incremental update to the firmware. As a result, my "first play" experience has always been sullied by the process of charging up the PSP so that it has enough juice to safely install, and then the install itself, and then the restart, and the re-entering of clock times and such).

    With this in mind, any move to open up a console should, in my view, be applauded - it takes quite an effort for the platform holder to accept the bad with the good.

    Microsoft are trying to find a happy middle ground between the Explicit Openness, and Bullet-Proof Closed-ness by creating a kind of "containment area" for open developers - the "Creator's Club". Developers who sign on (and pay) for this service will be placed along side peers, and will have a similar level of access to the console's workings as a real developer would (minus a few key areas: distribution and networking being the main two).

    While this is a good step forward, this means that there's never going to be an easy way to distribute new software to average-joe XBox 360 users (which puts a stop to the mass proliferation Media Center equivalent programs (sadface)), but the cream of the crop (the legal crop, that is) may be picked up, polished, and presented to the masses - possibly through the existing online marketplace, or as part of updates in extenuating circumstances. Microsoft become the arbiter of quality and legality. It's not too much to ask, I think, on their own damn console.

    Distribution of these open projects is an interesting matter:

      Q: How exactly can I share my 360 game to other 360 users? Will my game only be available to people with the XNA "Creators Club" subscription? Will it be available to all 360 users that have an XBox Live account?
      A: There is currently no supported way to share binaries on the XBox 360. Currently, there are four requirements that must be met in order to share a game targeting XBox 360 which is developed with XNA Game Studio Express.
      1. The individual you are planning to share the game with must be logged in to XBox Live and have an active subscription to the XNA Creators Club
      2. The receiving user must have downloaded the XNA Framework runtime environment for the XBox 360
      3. The receiving user must have XNA Game Studio Express installed on their own development PC
      4. The game project, including all source and content assets, must be shared with the receiving user. The receiving user then compiles and deploys the game to their XBox 360.

    (Source: XboxScene)

    In other words, distribution for use on the 360 itself implicitly requires you to be open source: forced sharing. This should have a lot of interesting trickle down effects - Microsoft may see interesting techniques and solutions come up in the "Creator's Club", and start pointing professional outfits to them. In the same way, open-spirited indie developers can happily share knowledge between each other, creating a collaborative community spirit. There will inevitably be "leecher" accounts - those that get in on the creator's club to reap the benefits of custom code jobs, but provide little in the way of input. You also open the door to hackers and crackers who will endlessly probe possible flaws in the SDK, looking for a way to gain greater access to the system. Microsoft can also take a fine tooth comb to anything you want to submit as a professional piece of work, making sure that no damaging exploits or illegally gained libraries etc. are built into the code (assuming they can spare the resources to do this).

    Since everything using XNA should implicitly work on the PC, it may be that a game's popularity in the existing PC indie scene is the only thing that gains it MS's attention - a diamond in the rough, lost in all the noise. This grass roots popularity could be the single thing pushing some indie games over into XBLA - (not that popular opinion is always the right way to go).

    Is this a happy compromise between the totally open and the totally closed? Time will tell. To me, it seems like a bubble of chaos: internally free, but ultimately restrained (or as friend Mike Nowak suggests: "Closed Open Source"). It'll be interesting to see what happens when the bubble (almost inevitably) bursts, and development becomes unconstrained. Will we see illegally distributed programs on Joe Gamer accounts? Will MS feel the need to deal with a clean up which actually benefits the consumer? Could they not, in fact, claim that such a clean up is an impossible task, while watching word of mouth spread about hardware sales increase? And in the same way, if a game has to rely on grass roots popularity in the PC sector, won't the pirates have already distributed the game to the masses, rendering an XBLA version (somewhat) redundant?

    These questions come from my paranoid side. I have a countering feeling (from my GUT) that everything's going to be alright. Optimism: If determinism is to be believed, then the lay of the world is the only way the world can be, and thus, is simultaneously the best and worst possibility thrown up by the universe.

    It has been clear for years that the publishers' race for blockbuster revenue (earned by a meager number of titles each year) has by now created a flood plain. Over saturation within genres (and franchise fatigue), increasing budgets (leading to) constrained innovation and burned out workers have created a desire for the polar opposite: sustainable, low budget, innovative crews of indie developers. These crews are springing up to harvest the gaps between the big budget blockbusters. Introversion call themselves "The Last of the Bedroom Coders". Personally, I think it's more a case of "The return of...".

    I believe that we are past the brink of an Indie Gold Rush. I believe that it has already begun. So rejoice! But pay heed my brothers: If history is anything to go by, then it is not the prospector who will win out. Instead, it is man who sells the shovels.

    Then again, regardless of all attempts to funnel them into some kind of neatly structured, harvestable form, indies in all fields thrive in the cracks between identifyable structure. They exist despite a conventional industry, not because of it.

    Let me link Naked War to examplify the Pickford Brothers, who are repeatedly proving this point.


    Despite what the publish date says for this entry, this was written on the 16th of July. There have been more than a few hiccups moving from Holland back home to the green and pleasant hills of Exmoor.

    My bike and TV stayed in holland with a friend, the cost of transport being too great. EasyJet lost one of my bags. Fedex forgot to put a "Do not X-Ray" sticker on my PC, apparantly wiping the BIOS, rendering the machine useless. Upgrading wouldn't have been such a problem if it weren't for those green and pleasant hills putting me 40 minutes away from the closest tech shop - and unfortunately, that's PC World; the AOL of computer retailers.

    I should really order online, right? Sadly, those pleasantly green hills have done it again, putting us in a mobile phone and broadband blackspot. We can't currently even sustain a modem connection without a pleasant breeze knocking us offline.

    I guess that this is the first lesson of many. I had assumed that it'd be rather easy to sit down and get on with development of the game. For Tommy, it's been pretty much fine, but for myself, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. No computer, no net connection, no shops nearby, and thanks to fuel prices, limited transport.

    Since we knew we'd be working remotely (myself in England, Tommy in the US), we made sure that all our tools were net friendly. We have a wiki for our design document, and for sharing information. We have e-mail, skype, and MSN for communication. We have Subversion for our code version control. But all these tools don't mean a thing if you don't have an environment where you can just sit down and work - work without distractions, without hindrance.

    That's the take-away from this post. If you're starting a work intensive project, your first priority is to figure out a realistic actionable plan to find and sustain a working environment.

    Wow, this is the most obvious shit ever. Less obvious stuff, more often... that's the ticket, bez.


    Bez on a Bike: Bridging Creativity with Technology

    Yesterday I jumped on my bike, and rode out and got me the cheapest Shader 3.0 enabled graphics card that money could buy... ~170 Eurobucks. I took the opportunity to be a tourist around Amsterdam city. I've been in Holland almost two years now, but, as is typical for people with heavy workloads (and nerdy, agoraphobic dispositions) I had never really known it very well. The path back and forth to work is etched into my brain, but the possibilities off that well trod route were under-explored.

    I let impulse guide me around the city, almost trying to get myself lost. Quite by accident, I rode past my previous employers' apartment. It's a place that I had only previously been to via tram and taxi. Funny how the experience of traversing through the world feels so different when you're in control of where you're going. If you're being lead somewhere, or following a pre-designated path, the cartographical part of your brain must switch off or something. You stop caring about mapping how to get somewhere because it's out of your hands. You're not responsible for your direction, or getting to a location. It's a bit like following an implied path in a scripted FPS, or uncovering more nuggets of story in a lot of other games. That's the reason I hadn't known the route before - I had never visited the area with the responsibility of finding my way back home.

    Finding this path under my own steam and being responsible for my own path was a small revelation. I was being incredibly coscient about the areas I was passing through so that, as a last resort, I could always work my way back home. As the geographically disparate locations of my house and my bosses' suddenly linked up in my head, I got a feeling of how the traffic system in Amsterdam flowed, as it does, in its concentric circles and spokes which radiate out from Central Station.

    Finding the route was practically random. There was no map reading, no approach, and not even an intent to find the place. However, if I wanted to, I could have used a methodology that would make mapping the route more of an inevitability than a fluke: I could have spiraled out from my starting point, touching the previous arcing path with every cycle, very quickly giving me a highly connected mental model of the street layout. People use this technique to find dead bodies.

    I mention this because it's a good analogy for creativity (not the finding of dead bodies). Edward de Bono and Michel Gondry seem to agree that creativity manifests itself in the elegant leaps between seemingly dissonant ideas. Paraphrasing de Bono "Successful Creativity is 100% silly in foresight, and 100% logical in hindsight". Creativity isn't about creating new thoughts - it's about constructing bridges between existing ones.

    Anyway, I rode on home, because I was eager to engage in some technophilia.

    One fairly painless install later, I had Render Monkey open. It seems like a great tool in that it completely exposes shader functionality while taking away the pain of setting up an environment for it. Scanning through the examples, I started to build up mental models of the common techniques and functionality used to generate a range of shaders. Each new example bridged a gap between what I wanted to create, and what was possible... Sorry, no, I'm still not going to mention what the game is... But now you know that it requires some considerable Shader tech. (And a bit of googletective work would probably reveal the game... If you figure it out, I do hope you'll keep it quiet for a while).

    I'd like to claim to be technology-agnostic. To me, a game is a game is a game, whether it's played on a computer, on a pitch, on a board, or in the mind, but in the face of things, it's quite hard to say that I really am. While this game could be done without shader technology it'd probably not hit its intended targets. I feel that it's rare that technology enables significantly different game play possibilities, but it does happen, and this might be one of those cases (probably not, if I'm honest, but the tech definitely allows us to hit a critical aesthetic). At the same time, I don't feel like I'm being a slave to technology when I consider where the game's concept is coming from...

    If you look at a cross section of video games, it seems that they lie between two extremes. At one extreme the game's concept has been created with a complete disregard for how current technology can be leveraged to meet the vision. On the other end, there is such an obsession with show casing technological trinkets that the game's design plays second fiddle - the infamous "Tech Demo" games (although in some cases, I'd argue that the elegance of some of the design is underrated).

    The former gets produced due to individuals with stunning personality but a lack of understanding of their canvas; that is, the technology and production pipeline they must contest with in order to see their vision through. The latter extreme comes from those who simply have no real compunction to pursue anything remotely artistic (in the interactive, rather than audio/video sense) - the GPU's the star.

    When the gameplay-bereft technical beauties appear, their gleam hides their shortcomings, and if nothing else, they're nice to watch while someone else plays for you (assuming you have any kind of a technological sweet tooth). And when those games with unfulfilled grandiose promises appear as buggy shadows of their platonic (and possibly impossible) ideal then we say "Aww. Well, at least they tried to do something different".

    The media seem to criticize neither, mainly because they're not allowed to see the truth during a production - they're allowed to talk to the talkers in a company, and are sold the image of a development utopia - or where productions are obviously tough, it's "living the dream", and "we live on coke and pizza!". But that's a rant for another time.

    I don't mean to criticize either extreme. In my book, every approach is equally justified. It's just that a director has to be responsible for the quality of the results. If they don't work out, it's probably not that the theory is wrong. More likely, it's because the theory cannot co-exist with reality.

    It just seems to me that the middle ground is your sweet spot By that, I don't mean that Technology and Design have "equal say". It shouldn't be able Technology and Design being locked in a power struggle. They should be symbiotic. They should respect and engage with each other, understanding each other's needs and trying to come to an artistically accomplished, but technologically plausible result. Artistic success comes from understanding your limitations, and working with them, rather than against them. That means knowing your canvas. In our case, that means knowing what Shader technology's strengths and weaknesses are.

    ...The game we're making is something I've had on my mind for several years now, before shaders existed, and before I really knew of a proper way to approach it. It was a really rather abstract idea, floating around, certainly not born of a possibility that technology had thrown up. It remained in that platonic limbo until I started to learn about how shaders worked.

    I started to investigate at a very superficial level, and saw how vertex and pixel shaders were basically these power-houses for visualization - simple algorithms applied in brute force onto big chunks of data, throughputting a whole lot of data, constantly. Like anyone, I started to think of how one would use the technology to make superficial graphical doo-dahs - some realistic like refraction and bump mapping, and some abstract, like minter-esque feedback buffers and colormaps. I thought of ways in which I might be able to pull off some of the rather abstract OpenGL 1.0 effects in my previous game using shader technology.

    Then, quite by accident, I found my previous employer's apartment game concept. A mental cycle path between the raw game idea and the technical approach had been laid down in crazy paving, its course weaving without intent. Out of a cloud of ideas, two haphazardly found each other, and became one. As a result, we're on the cusp of finding out whether this technological approach really works. If it doesn't, we have a few other possible solutions to try. I'm fairly confident, but you never can tell, eh?

    Like I say, I think that there's more to being creative than hoping and praying for a eureka moment (or smoking funny cigarettes for the hyper liquefaction of one's train of thought).

    At the same time, trying to actively be creative is never going to stop you from getting lucky.


    Self Motivation

    I do apologize for immediately posting nothing at all. I have 3 or 4 draft posts which start with nice small snappy ideas, but then seem to simply spiral out of control and try to solve world hunger (though not very well).

    My next post was going to be about self motivation, but it's really hot here, so I just went to bed instead. No AC kinda sucks. Eventually AC in europe may become rather standard, but only when the north sea is lapping at my feet... in the brendan hills.

    So, despite suffering from heat exhaustion most of the day, and getting food poisoning yesterday, we're doing alright.

    Tommy Refenes is the coder who works with me on our game. He was one of the engine coders at Streamline before we all decided to leave. He's just recieved all the hardware he needs, and is starting up a Subversion server so that we can code remotely. He's already got a basic DX9 environment going, along with a console and various input interfaces. The engine is also being built with multithreading in mind from the start. Some of the techniques we use could be called "brute force", relying on the nature of the target hardware. In many 360 games, there's a lot of processor power going untapped, so we're trying to be smart about how we process and pipeline everything from game play to sound to graphics.

    I'm trying to get my head around some of the shader tech we'll be using and planning game code architecture. We use a wiki to document everything we work on, listing everything from game mechanics and algorithms to business plans and marketing ideas. I personally like to try to document everything I can about a game well before coding anything because it forces me to be intentional. It means that I can't just say "yeah, let's have kick ass feature #131516" without seeing what affect it will have on the rest of the game. It means that I won't code anything half heartedly, or without proper respect to the rest of the architecture (unless the name of the game IS experimentation and prototyping, in which case, anything goes).

    Design documents change all the time, naturally, so we try not to look at the document as something that's set in stone. It's more like a repository of knowledge about the project, changing day to day, but helping us to maintain a united vision of the game (even if that vision alters over the development). Since it's a wiki, it's very easy to track each other's changes, and share ideas, text, images etc. It can also rather naturally guide the design of the code architecture (which is both good and bad, but basically comes down to how well you design software) and via "needed pages" can show you what areas need more elaboration before the design can be called "well formed". Damn I love my wiki!

    One interesting thing I've encountered with wikis in the past is that although they can give a very detailed (albeit sprawling) specification for a design, it's very hard to communicate a higher level idea of what the hell the game is about. In other words, you can understand each individual component of the game, but it's hard to see how they bind together to make something interesting. As a result, I make pages which explain lots of emergent strategies made possible with the core rules. This gives a newcomer to the wiki lots of practical possibilities in the game, and explains how the core rules give rise to them.

    At some point we'll open up the wiki for public scrutiny incase anyone is interested.

    Pretty soon I should be able to start actual game play coding - I've been preparing all my favourite physics equations in anticipation, but most of the work will be in game play element management.


    I got this idea for a game.

    My name is Aubrey Hesselgren. This is Blog about a game I am working on.

    I previously worked at Streamline Studios. For a year, I was Lead Game Designer on a game called "HoopWorld" slated for Xbox360 Live Arcade. Before that, I worked on mods, and an abstract 3D shooty game. I'm not what you'd call a gaming veteran. I grew up with games as my primary form of entertainment. With a few exceptions, I didn't feel like games grew up with me.

    The reason for this blog is to document (as far as I'm allowed to) the journey from a professional development background to becoming an indie developer. I hope that it'll atleast give some kind of anecdotal insight for anyone else wanting to pursue the path - I know you're out there.

    Distribution models like Steam, PopCap, and Xbox Live Arcade are making it possible for tiny developers, with small (but perfectly formed) games to make a living out of something that could have only been under the radar projects a year or two ago. Nowadays, for the creatives in game development, spending years trying to climb the ladder of a bigger and more secure company is no longer the path of least resistance to getting one's game made. I know of more than a few developers who are itching to get their modest proposals out, who no longer feel like it'll lead to total destitution.

    My feeling is that this influx will create an indie gold rush. Many of us may fail to win one of the prized slots, because it's clear that no-one wants to oversaturate any one of these distribution models (not that there aren't alternatives to these). Despite this competitive starting state, I call every indie my brother, because it is at the fringes of any medium that creative force gains most traction. Whether or not this game succeeds, it will only give way to something that does something great for the interactive medium. We are all in this together, pushing games forward.

    Today is the first day of my development of a new game. I don't want to say what the game is just yet, which is a bit annoying of me, I know. I'll try to update regularly, but I won't make any promises.