The Butterfly is in Full Effect

They say that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can cause a storm on the other side of the world. My father told me recently that although this is sometimes true, typically a butterfly's affect is dampened out into insignificance. The turbulence it generates meets a predominant flow in the ichor of the atmosphere, whose impetuous flow is barely interrupted. Any meaningful causality from that flap hits the equivalent of a brick wall.

For this reason, butterflies do not form a prominent place in the American Military Arsenal. There are no fields of cabbages placed strategically at the polar opposite location of Iran, attracting caterpillars who bloom into storm-generating Weapons of Mass Destruction causing lightening storms, flash flooding, and as an unintended positive effect, allow crop production in the previously arid deserts.

Tommy's asked me to clear up some confusion which probably could have been cleared up a while ago. This may be my last post here. (Edit: That sounds a bit like I'm going to kill myself, apparantly. Don't worry. I'm not going to. I simply meant that I'd be posting on this blog from now on).

For the past 5 or 6 months, I haven't really contributed to Goo. This is because of the depression I've been going though. I guess I won't go into detail about how this disease robbed me of the will to work on a game that I had been planning since I was about 19. Basically, my psychotherapist says I built an enormous castle of expectation on it, and was slain by the performance anxiety guarding the gates.

It's never quite as simple as this, of course. There are many other contributing factors to my decline, but there it is. I got depressed. I choked. I'm still dealing with the guilt of leaving Tommy in the lurch. Now I live, cocooned in my parents house, isolated, dormant, hoping to awaken, but not holding my breath.

During my slow and torturous departure, Tommy took on more and more of the weight of production. Not only has he revised the code almost completely (twice over) he's also had to take on board feedback and make design changes without me*.

I'm still proud to be a part of Goo, even though now it goes on without me. Though my coding contributions have been written into insignificance, I still feel I worked damn hard on the design - at least while I still could. I know it seems like a simple concept - one you wouldn't expect a lot of design for - but simple concepts don't necessarily make for simple solutions. I tried my best to focus on the intrinsic joy of handling the Goo physics, to have the shaders explain the interplay of thick and thin, and thus the unending depth of gameplay even with such a simple concept. I wanted to do it without using gimmicks as a kind of apology for weak core gameplay. I wanted it to be "pure", and enjoyable within that. I even tried to think of what the mechanic was trying to express**, and ways to amplify that. I put a lot of love into Goo. It breaks my heart that it no longer belongs to me. The fact that it took me several months before I finally came to favor my mental well-being over this game ought to be proof enough that my heart needs some glue (Note: not gay slang).

I said, a long time in this blog, that passion is like a fuel, and that when you make a game with no secure income, you need to stock up on passion for the long haul. There's obviously something wrong with that analogy, because I had passion... but somehow my petrol tank exploded. In slow motion. Across a 4 lane motorway. Causing five deaths. 15 injuries. Long tailbacks.

Tommy wanted me to point out - to anyone confused - about who was really behind earning Goo an IGF Technical Excellence nomination, since we both seem to have been credited equally in a few cases. I'm here to say that the IGF technical excellence nomination is all down to Tommy's hard work. My contribution to the technical side was certainly not in implementation - Tommy's coding ability humbled me completely any time I tried to do anything useful. I merely outlined the broad strokes of the technology at the beginning of the project - I'd had this idea (of blending blobs to create a height map, and interpret that through different shader visualizations to create a wealth of different effects) for many years, and had been waiting for hardware to catch up. When the hardware finally arrived to achieve it, I was no-where near expert enough to act upon it. Ideas are one thing, but without implementation, they're just ideas. Without Tommy we'd have nothing.

A butterfly's flaps won't always cascade into a major weather-front. Similarly, as the butterflies around us flap as hard as they can in the hopes of causing a storm, the causal persistence from our own meagre turbulence may be dampened and redirected into other streams of flow. In this life, some of us are destined to work hard and achieve little. I know this is true, because I flapped myself half-empty even before working on Goo, and still have nothing to show for it. Tommy, thankfully (and guilt inducingly) still has a lot of flap left in him. Take it home, buddy!

Oh, and speaking of flapping myself raw, I won't be able to fly to the IGS this year, but I do hope that everyone who goes has a nice time.

Goodbye, caterpillars.

*I don't doubt that the game will be different from what I originally intended, but then, that'd be true even if I were in tip top shape, beavering away along side him. It's typical for games to change as they are made.
**In the same sense as Jon Blow's recent talks mentioning "Meaningful Gameplay" which I always called "Logos ex Machina", because translating English into Latin
badly, and putting it in italics instantly raises your IQ by four points.


IGF Nominations!

The 2008 IGF nominations just came out! Tommy's excessive hard work has paid off: Goo has been nominated for Tentical Excellence!


Who does Huey Lewis ride with..oh that's right the NEWS

Hi, It's Tommy. I've been damn busy over the last few months rewriting engine stuff (basically rewrote about 90% of the code base...in August) but have some stuff to announce. There's a new video for Goo, it is below. It was too big to stick on YouTube (can anyone explain the 10 minute restriction on me...the video was 95MB so that wasn't a problem as they cap at 100MB) so yea, it's hosted on the website now. I'll probably chop it up into two parts later on and post it on YouTube but for now it's on my server. Enjoy.

To watch the higher res version, and find out how you to can embed this video into your crappy blog go to http://goo.pillowfortgames.com/.

In other news, After around a 42 hour crunch during which time I took no break (aside from eating and showering) Goo made it into IGF. Hoorray and what not. I think we have a decent chance to get at least a nomination, but there are some really nice looking and creative games this year...so it's going to be a hell of a competition. Wish us luck...you're not wishing hard enough...I can't feel it...Good..that's better...keep that up.

In other other news, we sent a new build to Microsoft on Monday...and that is all I can say at this point...WOOO SECRETS!

In other other other news, Amorphous is no longer Amorphous. It is now called PillowFort (cute huh?) and as such a new, functional website (no more splash pages) along with a website for Goo will be up hopefully by next Friday. The URLs are http://www.pillowfortgames.com/ and http://goo.pillowfortgames.com/. So yes, to all 8 of you that read this blog, here's your news. Don't really expect another post from me for a very long time. Stop crying, it's for the best.


A Path Through Recovery

It's been a while. I know, and I'm sorry. A few people have been in contact due to my lapse in blogging to ask if everything's okay, and if the game is still going.

I'm fine, thanks. The last couple of months have been fairly torturous, but I'm back home in Exmoor now, taking plenty of exercise, and leaning on the support of my family. I was pretty severely depressed in Brixton because of the day to day loneliness, and generally feeling kind of burned out, but I feel like I'm getting back to normal now. Prozac seems to help a bit, but even with it, you can feel stressed out an panicky, so it's by no means a total cure to my situation. Still, I'm recovering and getting back up to speed.

Goo is still going, thanks mainly to Tommy's incredible hard work and persistence. It can't be easy to keep going at this project when the only other person doing the work with you is having a nervous breakdown, but he's soldiered on regardless, and for that I'm eternally grateful.

Tommy's been reworking our engine, making it more efficient and stable. Previously, we had this rather nice feeling physics, but it was unfortunately not very efficient, and could be unstable - explosions of goo, a bit like in DarkMan. Tommy's taken that stuff, and completely re-worked it from the ground up to feel just as nice, but to also maintain stability. He told me that he left it on all night once, by mistake, and it was still stable when he got back. Result! We used to use some fairly devious corruptions of Lennard Jones spring potentials, but ultimately Tommy found that simpler is better, especially where bajillions of spring connections are concerned. We now use very basic dampened springs for our physics.

We're crunching for the IGF at the end of this month. Only two weeks to go. The same build we submit there (which won't be complete, but it's rare for primary IGF submissions to be the final product) will also be sent to Microsoft and hopefully championed internally.

Someone contacted me about World of Goo, and whether we're worried about the similarity in name to our own, "Goo".

I'm really looking forward to World of Goo as I've been watching the output of the Experimental Gameplay Project for a long time now. They've managed to popularize the idea of gameplay prototyping, and I want to kiss them for it. While I found all the experiments interesting in some way, Tower of Goo was the one which was clearly ready for a full production.

Am I worried about the similarity of names? Probably not as much as I should be. It seems like there's a whole micro-industry of games publishers who shovel lookeelikee games into their portfolio in a simple attempt to get mistakenly bought by Grandmas who happily purchase "Grand Thrift Aunt" amidst a confused hunt for similarly acronym'd hit games. It's the only service outside optometry dedicated to cataract suffers.

I wish I had the Machiavellian genius to think so hard about something so cynical, and admit to you, dear reader, that the name "Goo" was born of a desire to rob Kyle Gabler of some well deserved sales. I'm sorry to say that the truth is far more innocent.

The reason we call our game "Goo" is threefold:
  • Most obviously, you control a sticky, blobby fluid - like a dense oil or quick silver. The subject matter is Goo.
  • The main aim of Goo is to surround your opponent, much like the ancient eastern board game "Go". In a sacrilegious kind of way, Goo is like a spiritual successor to Go - the same premise but more organic and flowing. So, we added an "o" to represent that natural progression. Clearly, if we did a sequel, it'd have to be called "Gooo" (and have sniper rifles and exploding genitalia).
  • "Liquid War" was already taken. That's right. When I came up with the idea of Goo, I had never heard of Liquid War, and it was only after checking google to see if that name was taken that I found the game. Definitely worth a look, but if you're worried about the credulity of making a game so seemingly similar to it, I can assure you that Goo plays significantly differently, being based on very different physics and very different controls.
So, I don't know yet if we'll be changing name. I wonder how many sales "God of War" earned due to the proximity of its name to "Gears of War", and vice-versa? Perhaps "Tower of Goo" and "Goo" will be mutually beneficial in that way? Or maybe, the obvious answer is to call our game "Goos of War"?

Any suggestions for new names are welcome, of course! "Liquid War Copying Cunts" is the thing you would write if you enjoy trolling, for example!

In other news, I got into the Bioshock credits!


Bioshock First Review: 10/10

I just wanted to give a public shout to my mate JP, and the rest of Irrational, because the first review of Bioshock is out.

I'm not the sort to judge a game by review score alone (so much else is important in a review - whether or not you have an established knowledge of the reviewer: I tend to agree strongly with Tom Bramwell from Eurogamer, for example, so I put more credence in his reviews than with people I know I don't have a shared taste with), but when something gets a perfect ten, you have to sit up and take notice.

Once again, congratulations Irrational! I knew you could do it!



Not many updates of late. Sorry. It's been a bit hectic recently.

I've moved to Brixton to look after my sister's flat. Nice place, and I've got it all to myself. I'm managing to see a few friends, which is good for the soul.

A couple of weeks ago Tommy showed Goo to our MS Account Manager at PartnerDay. Our original worry was that he thought the gameplay was too slow (sorta confused us when he said this - we think it's pretty fast paced), but as it turns out, he was just referring to the fact that he was running it on a slow computer. Tommy's got this insanely fast laptop which runs the game faster than either of our desktops, so he managed to kill any notion that the gameplay itself was sluggish.

The other issue he had was that the game was too abstract for people to understand when they were coming to it for the first time - if you plonk someone in versus mode, and tell them to play, they won't know what the point of the game is. That point still stands, but I've just finished the voice over for our pitch video which explains in quite a lot of depth the goals, controls, and basic strategies of the game. We're heading off that issue, essentially, and I'm not too worried about it.

We're still not greenlit as a result of the face-to-face. Right now, we really need to put forward a convincing demo, video, and design document, but Tommy says that the reaction to the game from everyone he talked to/showed it to was really positive. Tommy met some other cool indie devs like Ninja Bee and Gastronaut, and said that their expression was always the same upon hearing about the game... wide eyes, and jaws dropping [Correction: these reactions were not from those two, but from people from Activision, Sierra Online, and MS]. We got comments from MS like "This is THE game for live arcade!" and "I've loved this concept since I first heard about it".

This is all lovely to hear (if a bit hyperbolic) since we've been working on this game for over a year now with no real breaks, and you can lose all sense of objectivity. I saw a good video of a talk from one of the fun-motion guys, where Matthew said something along the lines of "With physics based games, you have to change the physics to what you want before the physics changes what you want". In essence, he's talking about the transition between platonic ideal and practical reality. This game is such a simple concept, but the work which has gone on researching and developing an engine for a very different kind of game has been extraordinary. Trying to remember what I originally wanted from the game takes some effort when your nose is to the grind-stone, tweaking endless variables and attraction/repulsion models.

I digress. The problem is, all the positive energy Tommy got was a bit like water off a duck's back for me. We were getting a lot of stuff ready for PartnerDay (and actually didn't end up showing it), and so went into some rather mental crunch. There I was, coming right out of jetlag, and punctuating the crunch by knackering myself hobo-ing around London to find a decent place to work. I was completely exhausted, and incredibly low. I love the game, and love making it, but there's a point where your mind physically refuses to work.

Last weekend I went to my neice's christening. There was a big family party afterwards: around 30 people, family mainly. I was low... maybe not quite as low as when I left my last job, but certainly thoughts of suicide were becoming more frequent. I could barely talk to anyone without feeling like I'd snap, and insult them. I didn't want to do that, so I stayed in my room until the party was over. Social anxiety mixed with depression, and I went into meltdown.

I'm a pretty depressive person at the best of times, but the momentum of tiredness, and the knowledge that we had to go straight into another crunch took its toll. The next day, I went to see a Doctor, and now I'm on some anti depressants and looking for local therapists. I'm not looking to become dependant on pills - depression is a desease, and you have to cure it. I want to get on with life and enjoy my work, so I hope this is just a phase.

At the same time, we're in a pinch right now, and are working harder than is probably healthy. Feels like we don't have much choice but to suck it up and keep working, or the development will last forever - neither of us can afford that. We'd have to lean on our parents way too much.

I guess we can be thankful that it's our choice, rather than some boss or publisher forcing us to stick to impossible deadlines - the difference being that if we really don't feel like the game's up to snuff, we won't force it out of the door. I really just hope, in the long run, we have enough time to give the game the attention it deserves without killing ourselves doing it. Seems like there's no point in this endeavour if we can't do that.

On the brighter side, Jamie Parker, an old war-buddy, is helping us out with some of the art. Right now, our demo has no real cohesive artistic direction. This is because we've been all about getting systems and gameplay working - functionality first. Everything's been placeholder and proof of concept. Right now is a good time to have someone with artistic talent take the reigns. I'd love to do it myself, but... I sort of have enough to worry about.



I've touched down in London. Now that I have some "micro-funding", I'm able to hobo around various friends'/family's abodes for a small amount of rent money. Right now, I'm at Tim and Chrispy's, stealin' their internets. I couldn't be here without the money I'm getting - It's already solved the issues I had being in a broadband deadzone while working in the countryside, and also the problem of having no social life.

It feels as though for about 6 years I've been detatched from my friends: first there was university, and then there was my previous job abroad. After that there were the trips to America to work with Tommy in his secluded family house, as well as working from my parents' home in equally secluded Exmoor.

We had a small reunion the other night. It felt a bit as though I was coming out of hiding... all these faces I hadn't seen for years.

So much has happened: One friend got a PhD, another was part of a Think Tank, and another turned out to be working at SCEE (which only became apparant after I, erm, "commented" on some of Sony's recent PR problems. Oops). Another came back from his new home in Iceland for a visit. It was great to see them all again, as well as meeting new people, but after years of feeling like a hermit, it was a little overwhelming. I think I had a mild panic attack after someone said that I moved like a robot, and made fun of my clothes (this was at about 4am after my cousin and another friend sorta crashed a party which had already run its course. It felt like we walked into freezer, such was the welcome.)

I'm still pretty poor, here, and the overwhelming sense of capitalism driving London means that I have to make a concerted effort not to make lots of impulse buys as I travel from place to place. Food and cost of living are expensive enough as it is without the constant temptation of the game du jour. I'd love to shell out for some new clothes, but there's no way I can afford them, and also, I get a fantastic false sense of superiority telling people that I'm being ecologically friendly by wearing my clothes for as long as possible. These trainers are over two years old, and are the only casual footware I have.


We showed our Demo (see previous post) to our man at MS. Unfortunately, we think he may have been playing it on a single core machine (and our engine requires multiple cores to work). As a result, the game ran incredibly slowly, and he wasn't really able to see what was going on. Then again, he may be referring to the general pace of the game, and that he couldn't really percieve what he was supposed to do, or what the draw of the game really was. He still likes the concept, but as we already know, we've got a ways to go before we have the core mechanic properly framed by a proper user experience (the "beginning, middle, end" of games).

The feedback creates some confliciting feelings for me. On the one hand, he still loves the concept, but on the other hand, pushing 2 sets of 20 crunch wasn't enough to make a convincing demo - it's frustrating to know that hard work doesn't necessarily equal success. Never work hard at the exclusion of working smart, is the moral. We know where to go from here, though...

Tommy's going to an invite-only event on the west coast on the 16th which our guy at MS is also going to (I can't really afford the tickets). We're polishing up what we have so that we can show him the game as it's supposed to be presented.

We're working on this polish-up based on the feedback we've been getting from all over about the video. We've been finding that people who see the game for the first time fall into two categories: the first set of people immediately understand what to do "Oh, I see... you surround their goo with your goo!"; The second set simply get a mental block, and need help understanding what the game's all about.

I'm a bit annoyed with myself: I've seen people wander into development myopathy many times before - so concentrated on what they're doing that they can't have any empathy for the outsider. I promised myself that I wouldn't fall into that trap, and make sure I step back and look at the game with fresh eyes as often as possible. I feel like if people don't get what is a really pretty simple concept ("surround their goo with your goo") I failed my duty there.

We've been in it so deep for so long that when AdamAtomic from TIGsource forums told me "the only reason I really understand it is because I've read your blog", I was taken aback. I'm annoyed at myself for not explaining the game better, and for assuming that everyone should just understand it, and know what "Go" is, and know about Sun Tzu's art of war, and Bruce Lee's "Be water, my friend" quotes. I thought I knew better than to be so presumtuous, but apparantly I fell into a spot of denial about how obvious the game is.

Then again, it is a fairly different game, as buddy JP says "If people aren't lining up colors, or shooting baddies, you're immediately obligated to a lot of explanation."

So, perhaps I shouldn't be too mad at myself, for two reasons: it's par for the course to have a lot of effort put into a tutorial for a game with a non-typified mechanic, and also, tutorials are not the foundation to rest your game on... we needed to make the game before we could explain it. Illucidation will come in time.

Before the 16th, I hope to have a better in-game explanation of what the goal of the game is, how to use the controls fully, and how to maximize your points. I want to do this without putting players through example videos/replays, or by forcing them to jump through hoops. I want something more akin to BattleField 2's wonderful "Teach it as you use it" system... but with Goo rather than helicopters. It's certainly harder to do, but far more satisfying for the player when they aren't boxed into the classroom from the get-go.

It's funny how much of good design is just about thinking hard so that others don't have to.


In Brief

Just quickly running down the events of the last couple of weeks, in no detail what so ever.

We pulled a 2x20 hour crunch to get a demo ready for MS. We're now totally exhausted and are recovering. We're not going to do a public video of this version just yet, for a number of reasons: We don't know if it's particularly cool for us to do it with MS's say-so (though, we're independant, so I don't see why not - just trying to be careful); we're too tired/time strapped to do a GOOD video - our previous one was done in a rush; The amount of time I spend replying to feed back:

a) makes me look like a pathetic, overly defensive contestant on a fictional reality TV show called "R U Indie Enuff Squire??" where some mean British Game Developer (Tadhg Kelly in my mind's eye) tells everyone they suck.
b) makes tommy get a bit irritated that I'm obsessing over whatever our public image is becoming (because I am a vain insecure bast), rather than getting on with work.

Since the last demo, we've added a new background/music driven visualization (which is really just our first stab, and a bit of a proof of concept), we've redone the HUD almost entirely (Bars, scores, whizzing text etc.) spruced up the sound and music a lot (thanks Justin!), added rumble, re-coded the menu (still needs lots of work, but it's useable now), improved controls (you can now blend between throwing in a direction, and throwing in every direction by only deflecting the stick half way - subtle, but useful), improved some gameplay things like how "chain captures" are balanced, vastly improved Survival Mode (JP says it's like "Katamari meets Geometry Wars meets Total War"), and... um. Added something like 7 skins to the game, including "crowds of bees!". All in all, not bad for two people (and justin) in 1 month.

In a couple of days I fly back to England. I was sort of dreading this because funds are running low, and my parents are intent on chucking me out of the house ("For your own good!"), thus forcing me to pay rent somewhere, thus forcing me to get a job, thus pretty much destroying my ability to be a useful part of development. However, out of the blue, a patron may have saved us! I've just had a kind of dream-come-true conversation on the phone with him and with Tommy. Don't really know how much I can say, but hopefully our wolves are being kept away from the door due to this last minute save.

It's my last night in North Carolina. I have to pack up my Tower PC, get the over-weight charges ready for my luggage (I really ought to get a laptop, as much as I hate their expensive hard to replace hardware and horrible keyboards), and print my itinerary and various angry letters to expedia just in case their systems didn't update my flight to its new day.

Tommy is suggesting we get married so that I can stay longer. Tempting.

Boring update, sorry. This is good, though.


Some Approaches are more Equal than Others.

Delivery of narrative is not the sole purpose of an artistic medium.

I say this because I've just read this article on Bioshock. It's a good article, all in all, and I don't want to deride in in any way. There was just one comment in it which triggered my alarm bells:

The point of BioShock, the raison d'etre, is really the story, and the messages and intellectual content that Levine tries to deliver as a payload. "Look at Lord of the Rings," he challenges. "Why is Lord of the Rings more interesting than random RPG story number 507? They're exactly the same thing. They have orcs and goblins and demons and trolls. But Lord of the Rings is a meditation on power. And it's really interesting because of that. It's what gives it it's heart." And with undenied hubris, Levine's trying to do the same thing with BioShock, while still delivering a game 16-year-old cheese eating high school students will want to play. "We have these philosophical notions, but you've got to deliver. You gotta bring home the monsters. You gotta bring home the superpowers." In short, he's become a commercial realist.

There's nothing wrong with this quote in of itself. Publishers demand returns on investment. Marketing the game as an RPG is not going to give them what they want. Therefore, while Bioshock is heavily RPG oriented (though without the unnecessary complexity which typical RPG convention dictates), the publisher wants to focus the market on the percieveably more accessible action aspects. If Bioshock allows players to take on a gung-ho approach as a viable option whilst also fostering sneaky and cerebral approaches, then it's truer to the root of the term "role playing" than most RPGs. Indeed, many FPS/RPG hybrids have certainly been wanting on the pure-FPS side, almost forcing your expression away from Rambo-ism via inadequate core controls. So again, if Bioshock pulls it off, I'm happy that it won't be an implicit cost to other sides of the game.

My issue here is that the implication from Levine (or rather, inference from the author) that the "shooter" aspect exists merely to sate base desires in the mass market and to deliver a story payload, seems to me to be an incredulous amplification. I know a developer on Bioshock, and although I'm not privy to details on the game (bless his NDA fearing socks), I am aware of the design philosophy that guides him. Because I know this, something about the above doesn't add up for me. The view that low level mechanics, proprioception, and feel are in any way less important than the overall message of the game does not match with what I perceive to be their attempts a more symbiotic relationship between the two.

The idea that Narrative and Ludology must together form a master/slave relationship is an old one, and one I had hoped was dead by now. I'll sum it up briefly for anyone who is unfamiliar: How can an interactive medium produce a coherent story without compromising the author's intent, or the player's expression? Who has the reigns of the story; player or author? Surely it cannot be both? It has taken a while for people to calm down and understand that there doesn't have to be a conflict of interest, but you get the occasional article in the press fanning the ashes of a long burnt out debate, hoping to ask a wider audience into this initially ferocious debate, generating a little advertising revenue, no doubt. What's the final point which settles the argument?

Logos Ex Machina*: The Message/Idea in the Machine. Through the forging of a path through possibility (HAY THAT'S THE NAME OF THIS BLOG!!) systems generate stories (or at least, "series of events": "Jump, Jump, Break Block" is hardly Dickens) but at a more abstracted level, systems describe and explain emergent behaviours. In other words, they portray a message/idea in their own way - in a way which is fundamentally different to painting, sculpture, dance, writing, film or any other artform.

When you play Civilization, you can derive an understanding about why, say, the US is in Iraq: From your needs as a player, you grow to understand that you need to dominate resources to fuel a war machine to conquer the world to dominate resources. In the Sims, you see countless truisms in life - our credence of the capitalistic lifestyle and worship of material goods: "The things you own end up owning you", or that there's a fine balance to be struck between all your base needs if you want to be happy and productive. These are not explicit stories - they are messages woven deep into the fabric of an interactive system either by masters of the art form, or by lucky shits with unintended messages to spread. Their exposition is a natural systemic inevitability through the emergence of gameplay, rather than a forced contrivance in a cutscene.

With this in mind, there is no conflict between player and designer for authorship. Both are free to express themselves at different levels, feeling each other's will/intent without an authoritive power struggle.

Clearly there is an overall narrative string in Bioshock, but the progression from System Shock 2 and Thief seems to show that Levine is more and more being reborn as a storyteller who is embracing the strengths of the medium. This is refreshing considering that many die hard storytellers in games see a player's agency as a nuisance; as an affront to their own creativity.

The Narrative, in Bioshock's case, is just one expression of the underlying idea. It is amplified by the gameplay, and vice versa, since both gameplay and narrative are striving to explain the same thing. That moral choice to bio-engineer ones' self, or save a population if little girls is wrought implicit in the fundamental gameplay - moment by moment actions bear out themes in the story, and in more way that one! The openness of possible expression in your approach ("Rambo" for the slack jawed joes, "cerebral" for the poncey art fags) is bookended by a difficulty at either extremity: "All guns blazing" is possible but apparantly difficult; "Tower Defense: the FPS" likewise is hard to survive on alone, but is fully catered to. A mix of strategies, therefore, may be the easiest route, matching the "Fundamentalism is Baaad" overtones which the story tries to express.

I should also mention that the level design also re-enforces the narrative message: it's a sprawling the mis en scene. That's the technique it uses best to describe that same message - the ubiquotous conflict between the arrogance of imposed structure and penetrating waters embodying nature's malevolence: fundamentalisms causing conflict.

The point is, it's a three way symbiosis between exposition of the story, exploration of the physical/virtual world, and experiencing the varied strategies. Level Design, Gameplay, and Narrative are naturally intertwined: That's because this is not a case of "Which came first: Chicken or Egg; Story or Mechanic". It works because every cardinally aligned medium employed in the game is its own expression of a single unified idea. Using the message as a seed, each part of the medium grows out to express the same thing, in their own unconflicting terms - on those different, non conflicting layers.

I don't mean to imply that "Narrative as master" is a red herring, or that "You must have a story to justify a game mechanic". I don't believe either of those things - I welcome all approaches. I just felt that the idea that Bioshock delivers its message in one medium only, or that the other media utilized are subserviant, is false, and discredits the work that I know has gone into the game. Delivery of narrative is not the sole purpose of an artistic medium. Delivery of the idea is. And you can do it any bloody way you feel like. And you don't even have to be intentional about a message, because it's ultimately all in the interpretation!

I don't mean to sound like I think Levine indicted his own team, either. You know what I think happened? I think that a passionate journalist takes measures to dig deeper into details. I think Levine sensed that this guy is more interested in the higher level story, and placates him with more information about that side, playing to his wants, as every good designer should. Journalist (somehow) takes this as an implicit damning of what he percieves as a "lesser art" - that of basic interaction... kinaesthesia.

This whole post seems like an over-reaction to most, I'm sure. The reason that I rebut this incredibly minor point with this many words' worth of effort is because the idea that any one part of a game is more important to the medium than any other, by extension, denigrates what I'm trying to do with Goo: a focus on feel, and an expression of something greater through that one quality.

Just to show that I'm not being a total fanboy, I leave you with this Bioshock cover art, and the first words that sprung into my mind upon seeing it:

"Cowabunga, dudes!" :/

*Forgive me for a fruity embellishment which is probably translated wrong :/


There are two parts to me...

Seems like I've been posting more than ever! COOL. This post is in two parts, one is for everyone, and the other is for everyone.

Part 1: You aren't special

Aubrey has brought to my attention that a lot of you "like" that I hate you. Let me just inform you, that you are in no way special to me. I don't hate you because you're an indie developer, or some kind of minority, or some sort of a person. I hate everyone. "Hahah, Tommy hates me...COOL". Hahaha, laugh it up suckslut, it's not a joke. I really have no respect for you or anything you do or say. Now, you may be asking yourself "Wow... I wonder why he..." let me cut you off right there. There's no reason that I hate you other than that I don't know you. If I don't know you, you are by default a jerk. For all you programmers out there...this is how the world was created in reference to me:

memset(people, jerk, sizeof(person) * population);

Get it? Good. If I did know you, I might not hate you but we'll never know, will we? So to all you people that think "Hahaha that's cool, he hates people" Fuck off. This isn't a joke, the comments left don't make me hate you or like you. In fact, there's no way possible I could hate you more.

Part 2: Cats are awesome

Cats are awesome. I like cats. Cats have paws and some claws. My cat, Evil, is big. He's a big cat. I like cats. Cats are better than dogs because dogs are not as good as cats. Cats can jump higher than dogs. Cats have fur, noses and ears. A cats ears can fold backwards. Cats also have tails. Cats move their tails sometimes to show how they feel. Cat eyes can see in the dark. Cats are better than dogs because dogs aren't as good as cats. I love cats.


Thanks for the Interest

Well, we've announced the game now, which gives me the luxury of being able to tell you in detail about details you really didn't want to know details of: for example, Tommy just finished our instancing management, which means we can finally have the famous crowds of beees! They're in there, and moving around nicely ontop of a bee hive surface which grows as they move around (clever shader stuff going on there). Just by pure luck of emergence, when the bees are about to be captured, they look a bit scared, like they're trying to escape the other goos' clutches!

Right now, we're trying to pull the demo together properly so that it can be shown to interested parties. We're finishing off game modes, totally revising our menu (which was a bit of a quagmire of prototype code), re-doing the HUD, polishing sounds (thanks Justin). We're also doing a proper background audio-viz, which will be taking a leaf from the demoscene book (though hopefully not to the point of plagurism!).

Because of the video, we were linked from a few places, and got more than twenty one hits! Over 4 days! Amazing!

Feedback on the video has been really useful, and highlighted issues that we'll work on, or atleast explain better. I should say, by way of excuse, that we had been coding for 20 hours before we started recording that video, and stayed up another 6 hours editing. I feel tired just thinking about it.

Some people didn't immediately get that the core point of the game was to capture Goo by surrounding it. I guess we've been working on it so long that it seemed self evident to us (and other people felt that way about it, too). Still, in the next video, we'll have to make that painfully clear.

It also wasn't clear/convincing from the video that the game is one of those "simple but deep" affairs. People suggested that it needed more buttons, or powerups, or levels, or just more perceivable complexity. I've always thought of it as "Liquid Go", hence the title of the game. Go's incredibly simple, and unarguably deep. I really want to keep a hold of that property, and would argue that once you try the game, you'll very quickly become aware of the interplay of density and territory: with territory, capturing is easier, but it's easier for your goo to be divided by slicing attacks. With density, it's harder to be punctured, but you're smaller, slower moving, and easier to surround.

Of course, Go is turn based, so you have time to think with your higher consciousness. Goo is much faster, and therefore becomes more about experimenting with strategies and seeing their results immediately, which helps you to build quickly an intuitive sense of strategy. You're creating instinctive reactions. It's still strategy, but at a different level to Go's. Gillen said it was like "Protozoic StreetFighter", and that feels right on the money. StreetFighter 2 might be button masher to people when they first come to it, but you get a sense of flowing strategy pretty quickly if you give it any time.

On the other end of the scale, people said that it could potentially get too chaotic. From the beginning of development, I've been vigilant about this. We've worked really hard to create a physics model which we can tweak to perfection. I investigated fluid dynamics early on, and found that things like Navier Stokes (a fairly realistic approach) weren't going to suit this style of gameplay. Navier Stokes gives rise to chaotic outcomes very quickly. For me, this isn't usually a useful quality for a player - if their input in the game turns into "noise" too immediately, they don't feel a sense of Perceivable Consequence. Success, failure and consequence in general don't feel like direct results of player input - instead they're due to the seemingly random (but, infact, chaotic) whim of the fluid model being used.

Some games have used it to good effect, mind you, but I don't think it would have worked here where intuitive and expressive control is a prominent goal. The point is, it's far more important to give people a good sense of control than to have purely "realistic" physics - the two are not mutually exclusive, of course, but very often in games, the latter takes precedent over the former.

We use a pseudo soft body physics model - hundreds and thousands of points have connecting and disconnecting spring forces between them, as well as friction. Points from different goos have a different relationship, so that they don't overlap too readily, and so that fast moving blobs can scythe through the enemy, or have their movement slowed by the enemy's density. This gives us an atomic level of control. After tweaking these base forces enough, you get a sense of how these changes affect the higher level gameplay, and all of a sudden, you've got this plyable goo which works for you, rather than despite you. At the same time, all gameplay is an emergent result of these simple spring forces, so it doesn't feel like the physics have been contrived... it feels believable, even though they're unrealistic. That's kinaesthetic verisimilitude, word fans!

Still, if none of this sense of control is immediately clear in the video (go fig. It's not interactive), then we probably have to present it better. The BeeHive skin certainly helps explain goo density and behaviour a lot more transparently than previous goos have, so we can get there.

Blah, I'm wandering off into random thoughts. Thanks for your attention span.


To those that give a shit:


This is Tommy. I am the engine programmer, I program the engines. That's not to be confused with "injins" which my peepaw calls Native Americans. For the record, I don't program Native Americans...if I did they wouldn't have been so anxious to trade everything west of the Appalachain Mountains for 8 shiney pots and a belt buckle. Plus they would have had many more particle effects.

Anyway, to all 4 people that read this blog, here is our video. We sent this to Microsoft the other day and they liked it. We had a call with them and I thought it was good but Aubrey didn't take the news so well. It's not that there's anything wrong with Aubrey, it's just that as a child his parents beat him with a rake whenever he smiled. I understand this to be the norm in England. Anyway, here's the video. DON'T EVERYONE GO AT ONCE OTHERWISE YOUTUBE WILL EXPLODE.

.wmv - Higher Quality video, limited bandwidth.



P.S. Clyde McParkstein is avaliable for weddings and bar mizvahs.


Tomorrow or the next day, we'll know.

We're submitting a Work-in-progress demo and a video of our game to MS pretty soon. We have at least another 4-6 months development left, so hopefully they'll see past the issues of polish and unfinishedness. Still, I am nervous. Tommy keeps playing this song to cheer me up:

He must not realize that I hate all ginger kids without exception.


Go get a proper job!

It sounds like the most pathetic thing in the world, but this game could easily be canned by my own Mum.

I'm currently on no income, and have to mooch off my parents in order to have a place to work on this game. Tommy's the same way. Luckily for Tommy, he has supportive parents. It's not quite the same case for me. My Dad seems pretty much fine with what I do, being a big nerd himself and having some appreciation of what goes into a development like this. My mother finds technology fairly repellant. As such, she has no natural interest for computers, games, or technology in general. In 2004 she finally caved and bought a microwave. I can count the number of times she's used it on two hands (though this might actually be a blessing. Microwaves. Feh.). She used to use computers for work in the 80's, but when the mouse was introduced, she pretty much refused to use computers. I don't blame her - cheaper ball-based mice were jumpy affairs at the best of times. I've thrown a few at co-workers when they've given me the critical mass of frustration. That's why I didn't allow myself a cordless one until 7 months ago - many a potential lawsuit was avoided thanks to a 1.5 meter cable snapping taught.

Bottom line, as a bonafide luddite, my Mum doesn't actually like my career choice at all. She sees games as probably the lowest form of art possible, and she'd use the world "art" grudgingly and with little finger quotes, too. Let me put it this way: even though she thinks that comics are for "street urchins and commoners", she'd still find it preferable if I drew cartoons rather than make games. Imagine Mrs. Bucket and Mary Whitehouse rolled into one, and you see my dilemma.

When I get home from Tommy's, I've got around a month at my parent's house before I'm kicked out. I'm dreading it. I'm not sure how I can possibly focus on the game while earning money, tracking down places to stay etc. It's as good as canning the game, and yet she insists "it's for your own good". She's worried that I don't have a social life, (and I am too!) but if we don't nail this first game, I'm worried that the company will be killed in utero.

Being kicked out is despite the fact that of all the video-games I've ever seen her come in contact with, this is the only one she's been able and willing to try. Now, perhaps she's being polite, but she was absolutely able to play the game (and had no chance with K, incedentally). We've kept it that simple.

I know lots of people who felt alienated by games' percieved high levels of violence, over-complication and sameyness. They're non gamers, through and through, preferring a nice book instead. I've asked them to try our game, even though they've told me that they hate games due to their crass image, or how punishing they can be to newcomers. When they pick up the controller, they seem instantly surprised at playing such a welcoming game. They're confused at the idea that they might like a game. How could they like a video game when games are for spoddy 4-eyed friendless geeks? Will they have to buy new clothes now? Do they have to ditch 75% of their accumulated friendships? What can nerds eat anyway? Will they have to stop having sex for years on end?? It's all so confusing!

It's actually helped development just knowing that there are so many people in my life who haven't been interested in experiencing the joys of interactivity. I see why. From their perspective, there's no entrance point to the cacoon we've weaved ourselves, and watching most gamers as they adopt their zen-autism in order to interact with a complex game hardly makes it look like an enjoyable activity. These are the opinions of people too scared, judgemental, or in fear of being judged to try games for themselves. It's far easier to dismiss them as algae snacks for cultural bottom-dwellers.

When some games try to entice these potential patrons in, (like early Wii games) it's unfortunate, but they don't seem to even scratch the cacoon's surface with their shallow gimmicks. Thus, players are left wondering "What's the big deal with games? They're shallow novelties!". Such games are getting people to pick up a controller, sure, but sadly they're not really showing these newcomers how enthralling the depths of interactivity can be. To have someone understand the appeal of great games, you have to do both in the same stroke (I think Guitar Hero succeeds here). The cliche "Easy to Learn, Hard to Master" seems to be pervasive in interviews and pitch documents. Sadly, it's rarely as true as people would like to believe.

I have to conclude that there's no point enticing people in without showing them the spectrum of joy found in interactivity - from simple surface verbs to deep causal chains of events. It's still easier to require current gamers to jump through less-than-elegant hoops in order to find depth-through-complication within re-hashed works, minnovation occasionally sprinkled ontop. That seems like a shame to me.

So, in a weird kind of way, I've been making this game for my mother. Sadly, she doesn't recognize how ironic it is that she might be canning it.


We're in a self imposed crunch right now. The game's coming along pretty well. The other day, I was setting up a single player mode (somewhere between Geometry Wars and Tetris) when we decided to try co-op (up to 4 players) on a whim. Tommy jumped in, and started controlling the avatar with me.

Now, as everyone knows, co-op makes any game better purely through the shared experience you're giving people. It can be like a bridge for both of you into a different plane where your minds meet in tackling the same problems. Something about this game really capitolized on co-op, though. I think it was because we were both in control of so many common entities at once, and could very quickly tell what the other person was doing, and help out. On the flip side, we were never disruptive to each other: we could both work in parallel or perpendicularly, and still not accidentally hurt each other's immediate plans. We could suggest and enact strategies so quickly that it felt like we were reading each other's minds. The game was an efficient mind-bridge, and we were working as one. I've felt that before in other games, but never so densely and immediately as this.

At that moment, I lost a whole lot of stress about whether or not the gameplay was going to be good enough. Any doubt about how practical the concept is has been lifted. I'm convinced that we're almost there.

To that end, we're trying to get a demo/recording of our game ready for MS to see. It'll still be without polish, but I think the concept should be strong enough for them to endourse. A green light might save me from being kicked out, too.


Shaolin kode-fu

Yesterday I didn't get a spot of work done due to pulling a neck muscle while sleeping. It's kind of annoying to be bed-ridden when you could be procrastinating.

Instead, I did a bit of research. Me and Tommy stayed up late taking a look at the recent fruits of the demo scene, looking for inspiration for fancy viz for our game. Previously, we've mainly been concerned with just getting the functionality working correctly, and art has been on the backburner. We're getting to the point where we have to start thinking about pulling something a little special for our graphics.

It's been a while since I've looked at stuff from the scene. I used to think that the demo scene was basically just about making a few shiney metablobs with a nice bit of camera work, or some graphical effect so intense that there's no CPU left over for interaction, game play code, or AI. They were beautiful aphrodisiacs as far as technical fetishism went, but there was never any real artistic cohesion to them. It was mostly just procedural navel gazing.

Perhaps I didn't look at a broad enough range of demos, because coming back to them, I feel like my presumptions were wrong in fifty different ways. There are now such a wealth of different techniques being nailed in real time that what separates a good demo from a merely mediocre one seems to be the direction - using the effects to good effect, rather than just for the sake of showing off some mad coding skill.

Check out Chaos Theory by Conspiracy, a 64K demo - one of my favorites from our binge last night. If you watch your Task Manager's memory use per application, it's kind of amusing. You see chaostheory.exe starts with just about 1meg at the start to around 213megs after all the procedural content has been generated. Amazing stuff.

I'm told that there are far better demo examples than this (despite it being completely impressive to me) so if you have tastes for something a bit different, have a look around: pouet.net and scene.org have a metric eyestab-tonne of others to get some inspiration from.

We look at these visuals with envious eyes: They're all realtime, so we know that they ought to be possible to produce in games. You get to wondering why more games don't have this level of polish, in or outside the indie arena. Tommy points out that it's easier to make these sorts of things scream when there's no interactivity to worry about. I've been doing some fractal tree based stuff for our menu (not dissimilar to the matrix nesting tricks I've seen in some of the demos), so I can attest to the difficulty of enabling users' input to be a persistant part of the parameter set. If you don't bound your input ranges to something manageable, you end up with crappy looking procedural results. If you bound them too tight, you lose the feeling of interactivity. It's tricky, and certainly 'part art, part science'. The demo scene has a lot to teach indies and mainstream game developers alike, but developers have to be aware that there is not total overlap between the two. Just because something runs realtime doesn't necessarily mean it's suited to be interactive - that's not (often) the aim of a good demo.

I don't mean to sound negative about that. We have massive respect for the community, and hope to some day learn more deeply of their ways. I really feel like joining up with the scene and learning from their community would be like training under some kind of Shaolin Master (Will Wright obviously feels the same, because a lot of his Spore crew were supposedly recruited from the scene) but as Bruce Lee's philosophy of Jeet Kun Do states, all learning should be tuned toward discovering your own inherent style. Don't follow one master blindly.


Pictures from a Place in Space.

Here is Tommy's house in North Carolina. It's built into the side of a hill because his family couldn't afford all the walls.

This is what life looks like if you're a sexual predator, I should imagine.

These are important scribbles, or if you are David Jaffe, An Entire Design Document . Zzziiinng!

That's Tommy, playing Street Fighto 2. He doesn't look diabetic, does he? Well he's not! Or atleast, he was misdiagnosed with Diabetes type 1, but actually has the type 2. For the past month, he's been injecting himself with insulin needlessly. NEEDLE-LESSLY. HAH! Insulin will probably be his gateway into Heroin.

It was a scarey time when he was diagnosed with type 1... for me. I was really worried for him, and even got "Sympathy Diabetes". Sympathy Diabetes is exactly like Diabetes, but without any of the symptoms of Diabetes. It is a well documented phenomenon - the phenomenon of being actually fairly healthy despite everyone around you ruining it all by being sick. (Hey look, there's Captain Torso who we punch because he can't fight back!)

This illustration on the top of Tommy's Teenage Mutant Ninja (Hero if you're from the UK) Turtles: Turtles in Time cab makes me laugh every time I see it, which makes work really difficult since I like to keep looking at it all day, or when I'm sad, which is all day.

Here's my rig. As you can see, I have been drinking rather stupid amounts of coke. Lazier games journalists like to measure game development effort in litres of coke and slices of pizza. I don't know why. Doesn't seem to me like a particularly scientific way to measure effort. Journalists also like to mark games' quality using marks out of ten, though, so at least they're consistent with their pointless metrics. Don't get me wrong: I like journalists, but only when they are using their powers to make fun of game developers, because they're all asking for it.

An alternate view of my desk. I eat ginkgo pills even though I'm not sure if there's any conclusive research to show that they actually improve your focus. The packaging re-iterates this by saying "Improves Focus ASTERISK Only Joking". Similarly, I have no proof of this, but I think they definately cause cancer.


There goes my last 400 quid

I'm going to America tomorrow, to visit Tommy! I may drop by Boston on the way back, possibly to see one of the MIT interface groups with my Dad, and possibly to see JP (of Irrational) and Karla, who I have been wanting to meet for years.

The past few days I've been storming through sound specs for Justin. I used our wiki, and I feel like my abilities on it have levelled up since I found out about "transcluding".

Basically, you use transcluding to import the contents of another page. So say you've got two pages which need common information on them - you don't want to have to copy/paste one bit of info into the other, and you don't want to have to update both when information changes. So, for the common piece of information, you set up a new page, and use {{:WikiWord}} to import that page into your other two pages. Update the common information page, and the changes fill down! Really useful! I also hear that you can transclude from individual subheadings in a page, without using the entire page, but it's not supported in the old version of MediaWiki we're using.

Kind of refreshing to get back to documentation after pure coding and back and forth-design as it has been with Tommy. Our wiki went out of use previously, just because it's a bit of a full time job managing it, and I only had one person to inform about design changes. It was a bit redundant, and really just nothing but overhead work. Now that Justin is involved, it's useful to get specs down where both Tommy and he can see them.

People are being very nice about my dumped game, "K", recently. I'm thinking that it might be due a revisitation after our current game, possibly as a bit of an open project (and certainly as a side project for me - I have other ideas I want to seed after this). I could get a public wiki going for the design document, forums for discussion, and hopefully attract dip-in-collaborators to help like Guy Balding has done.

Ofcourse, dip-in-collaboration depends entirely on the attractiveness of the venture offset by the difficulty of producing work for it. Guy Balding is perfect, because pixel art is not percieved as difficult (even though it does take real talent to make really good pixel art), and the project has been started by people who really know their stuff in that realm - it's an unabashed pixel wank, and there's no way your mother's going to open the door and spoil it all. Arne and BMcC are being excellent wayfairers on the project, and I'm looking forward to freeing some time to get some more jump animations done. Might be a while yet, though.



I've just been headhunted for the first time! Well, alright. It's the second time, but the first didn't really count. More on that later.

After seeing a capture of "K", the abstract shmup I worked on during/after uni, someone from one of the big companies asked if I'd be interested in doing prototyping. Obviously, I had to decline (our game comes first), but being asked to work in prototyping was really tempting. I'm glad that prototyping is something that's being taken seriously by the big guys - it seems like the only realistic way to push new ideas forward without risking vast sums of money.

Rudolf Kremers from Beautiful Game Studios told me that the longer you're in the industry, the more frequently you'll be propositioned. While this first time was certainly flattering, I can imagine it could get boring, especially when you get the more pushy agents lying through their teeth about a company which you know (from other sources) isn't all it's cranked up to be. But he says, "No, no. It's all fuel for the ego!". Good-o!

The first time I was headhunted, I was 17. I had just finished the less popular second version of Matrix Quake. Cevat Yerli of Crytek (at that time just a tech-demo house - I think only X-Isle had been released) saw this and asked me if I'd like to code on their new project.

Precocious, naive little shit that I was, I thought I had hit the big time. It was a dream come true! I was ready to drop everything and get to work, even though I had less than 3 years of coding experience under my belt - not even coding, really: more like high level C / scripting. I was ready to ditch my A-Level retakes (retakes due to too much modding and not enough study in the 6th form). In the end, my parents intervened and told me that I could only code remotely. I'm glad they stepped in, because the next two weeks were pretty silly:

I started off as a game play coder on an unannounced title, working from the school computers (the only internet I could access at the time!). The next week, it seems that the Lead Coder left the project, and I was promoted to Lead. It was only then that I got to see the game engine and design documents.

A fellow modder was previously brought on board to design the weapons in this game. He was renowned for creating some of the most... erm... "unrestrained" weapons designs on the scene. The weapons were designed with real passion. Whole pages were dedicated to pulp sci-fi elaborations on the history of the weapons, their manufacturers, and their most prolific users. As a sort of side note, you got one sentence descriptions of the functionality.

Being a mechanic-centric sort of guy, I complained (probably in far stronger words than were necessary). I don't remember if I got a response from the Project Lead, because mysteriously, the very next week, I was promoted to that same position.

It was then that I realized that I was just a 17 year old, who had only made games by standing on the shoulders of giants, and that I was in no position to take on this work while studying for A-Levels. Needless to say, I felt like a prick for walking away, but there wasn't much else I could do in the situation.

A couple of ECTS's later, I saw Cevat giving an interview to G4 (I think?) in front of his FarCry booth. Everyone at the show was swooning over the game, so I went to see what the fuss was about. I gave it a go behind him as he did his little pitch to the cameras.

I needed to invert the mouse to play, so I went to the options. Unstable as most convention builds are, the game crashed on me, possibly in plain view of the camera. Realizing that I might have created a PR blunder, I looked left, and looked right, and ran outta there as fast as I chubby legs would carry me. If I wanted, I could claim it was a sort of weak attempt at revenge, assuming I had any lingering resentment toward the company. But I don't. These things happen, especially in start-ups.


The menu is coming on really well since I broke its back. Tommy and I are working on a way to keep each game mode's menus in their respective DLL so that the main menu can populate its special case game mode related pages just by looking in a game mode directory. This extra work up front makes it incredibly easy for us to add new game modes without having to change the core game. You need that kind of handling if you want to be able to submit downloadable content/game modes without having to resubmit your core download for QA.

Downloadable content has only really recently evolved from buzzword to technically understood possibility. I think a lot of people rushed in, attaching the phrase to their pitches for sexification, not realizing that the process of making extra content starts with planning way before the core downloadable is ever finished. If you start after the game's done, you're encumbered with a lot of retrofitting to make things work. Just sayin'.


The Collective Unconscious

From Blather, Rinse, Repeat.

    Chaim Gingold had a presentation which was the closest thing to a Will Wright talk, both in terms of content and presentation. His discussion was looking at the "possibility space" of a tool (Maya has a huge space; it can model almost anything. Sim City has a smaller space; it can only model cities), the "probability space" of a particular user with that tool (put a random guy in front of Maya, he won't produce much, and it'll be a different set of stuff than a trained 3d artist would create), and the "desirable space" (harder to define, but if you can make a tool that makes it easy to create good stuff and hard to make bad stuff, you've won). The basic idea isn't hard to grasp, but I appreciated the vocabulary for the discussion, and the examples of how Maxis has struggled with the tools they'll be providing Spore players.

Gosh, this sounds familiar (I'll have to continue that article, but I'm playing catchup, it seems. Oh, and I'll have to conform to the new established terminology, rather than the stuff I pulled out of my bum).

It seems like every year there's a couple of opinions, methodologies, or concepts which I've had developing in my head, and regular as clockwork, GDC always brings someone along who introduces these to a wider populance's attention, as if they thought up the ideas all by themselves.

I'm not sure I believe in the idea of a Collective Unconscious in the magical spiritual sense, where new ideas crop up simultaneously in different people across the world due to some ethereal force. I think we just react to similar stimulous in similar ways, coming up with similar solutions to similar problems. In games design, I get this a lot. I'm sure a lot of designers do. We play the same games, and see the same flaws in implementations, and start to consider the same ways to fix them.

Surely, everyone at one time or another has said "Oh, man! I had that exact idea!" when something like Spore or Little Big World or Mercury Meltdown comes out, only to have someone immediately respond "So why didn't you do anything about it then?".

We gripe about it a bit. It feels like we're never in the right position to make "Awesome Game Paradigm X" or to solve world hunger, even though we all know how (feed people, obviously).

It gives me a bittersweet feeling: On the one hand, it makes your personal mental acrobatics feel completely futile. Why should you think these important matters through when someone else can get it done faster, and smarter than you? Think of all that synapse growth you wasted! You could have used that for remembering more Virtua Fighter button combinations!

At the same time, you do feel vindicated. You can't be that crazy if someone else has come to the same conclusion as you. You do start to think about claiming on your Tin Foil Hat's warranty though, which typically has just run out.

I guess the only answer to stop this simultaneous uncredited authorship happening is to widen your horizons, and start accepting a broader range of inspirations (as well as not thinking things through quite as logically?). Step outside the narrow back alley of culture which starts with Aliens and ends in Lord of the Rings.

Respect other people's creativity, and then move on: As much as one might love the combined legacy of the Looking Glass alumni (who have built up a good 40% of my all-time-top-ten-games), one can't keep praying to the Lord Satan for their demise just so that you can jump in and abhor the creative vaccuum, claiming your rightful place on the throne of their creative lot. You have to establish your own unique axis of creativity... but only if you want to. No-one has to have a chip on their shoulder about innovation in games, of course!

With such a young medium, there's so much obvious common ground to explore that maybe we forget to spread our wings, sometimes. Taking a step off the beaten path is currently not creatively difficult (just financially), and sometimes we pick pretty obvious un-beaten paths to surge along. It's not important to innovate for the sake of innovation, obviously, but considering how narrow our current game-space is, it's surprising we don't innovate more, just by mistake. Seriously, is law of averages on strike or something?

Oooh, I know! Let's blame the big evil faceless games industry's unwillingness to court new idea...*ZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzz*


I've just cracked a big problem I was having with my zooming menu interface. It's something I've smashed my head against for a few weeks (on and off) so I'm rather chuffed with myself. When it's more complete, I may put a video up, with the game proper all blurred out, 'natch.


Indie Vanity and Motivation

There are a lot of thing you have to bear as an indie developer. Not least of them is the loneliness you may take on. At first it's quite the luxury to get on with whatever you want, undisturbed and ungoverned. Then you start to miss the human contact. Then you start to wonder what the point of it all is. And then find it hard to get out of bed, because the dried tears make you stick to the sheets.

Tommy and I work separate from one another, purely because we can't currently afford a place of our own. As a result, our only communication is through instant messenger and the occasional phone call. Technically, this hasn't been an issue - text is condusive to code-talk because you can be copy-pasting bits of code across to each other, linking website sources, and generally disambiguating your sentances more. IMing is second nature to us because we've grown up with the IM culture.

We have close to no social lives (probably why we're so good at Instant Messages), and a real lack of human contact outside our families (who we live with and leech off). It can get us down quite often.

Mainly, I think it's a sense of appreciation that we lack most. We don't tell anyone about our game publically because we're really not ready to show anything, so we have very little feedback on how others think the game is going. Ofcourse, this emptiness is caused completely by vanity, but vanity is a human need none the less.

My parents aren't exactly versed in videogames (especially my Mum, who yesterday recoiled at the absolutely jaw dropping new* Bioshock walkthrough), and can only give me moral support while asking when I'm going to get a "proper job". They can't tell us "This game will be great", because they simply don't know enough about games to give me an honest opinion.

Tommy's parents are much nicer about what we do, so Tommy often finds himself having to boost my confidence by showing me pictures of electric supercars which can fly and how we'll be driving them around in outer space, this time next year (Rodney).

When vanity gets the better of us we'll make videos of our progress and send them to trusted friends if only for some short term appreciation. But we're showing them real work-in-progress stuff (which, incedentally, you should never, ever show to publishers - hit them with something polished). Thus, the people who are enthusiastic about it are the ones who see past the placeholder graphics, unfinished features and questionable stability, and appreciate the promise of the game. And God bless 'em, because they put the proverbial wind in our sails.

I mention all this because if there's one thing never lacking in a bigger studio, it's someone with an opinion. Even if it's a really negative opinion, at least you're surrounded with people who are interested enough to comment. When you don't have that, there's a real struggle to keep yourself motivated, despite even the most creatively stimulating concepts. You have to find a way to knuckle down and plough through these dark patches. Maybe just take a little break? Go visit a friend. Play some other games. Try rather too hard to make people on internet forums like you.

One excercise I've been doing to help my motivation is keeping a secret diary (complete with secret thoughts) where I write out what I'm going to do today, or the next day, and also what I've achieved since the last post. It's accessible to a tiny number of incredibly trusted individuals. In writing it, I'm forced to focus on what my goals are, and how to achieve them - a sort of mini design session which sets me up for the day. By letting others see it, I feel my vanity bar is filled (even though it's now so boring that I doubt any of them bother reading it).

Maybe you have your own ways to pep yourself up? I'd love to hear them. God knows I need them.

*I say "new" - this version of the game was from a behind closed doors demo at X06 last year, so it's what... 4-5 months old? Check out how easy to use the Telekenisis is, and how much of a step up the particle effects have taken since the previous demo.


The First Phonecall

Our phone meeting has been and gone, and I'm sorry I didn't update immediately after it. I haven't been crying alone for the last 72 hours or anything.

The meeting was actually fine, but since we're under NDA, I can't really say too much about it, unless it's in the form of a commentary on an interpretive dance:

Tommy and I appear stage right, while a troupe of chimps, lead by an ominous looking bald man in a wheel chair appear stage left. In the middle is our Biz manager, trying to tell the difference.

On second thoughts, no. This... this is beyond my ability. I'll simply recount a bit of what happened without breaking the NDA, though to be honest, I don't think we talked about all that much which could be a breach of NDA (unless taling about an NDA is breach of NDA, in which case, I've already screwed us): we're free to tell you about our game, just not about MS's life and workings. So, if I'm vague, it's not because there's anything to hide: it's because I'm vague.

It was fine, really. Tommy and I were a bit nervous, this being our first phone contact and all. We were trying hard not to sound like try-hards, explaining our situation and experience, and pitching the game a bit (even though this really wasn't a pitch session), and our current situation - self funded, earning a bit on small commissions etc.

I talked about the inspirations for the game, and how the focus was on making a painfully obvious and simple game which still had a great deal of depth, but which hadn't been done before. Almost in the next breath, I said "well, it HAS been done before..." and I mentioned the only other similar game which existed, how I didn't know it existed when I came up with the idea, and explained how our game was different. And Bettar! The Freedom of GTA with the storytelling of Tarrantino and the colors of Katamari Damacy with the rendering capabilities of a Hitachi Camcorder! Different! Wikkid Graphix! With bells on!

On a few occasions during this flood of stumbling words (which must have been the most incoherent free associative ranting I've ever mustered [since my first ever pitch, which I can never do worse than]), my throat felt like sand paper, and I had to stop to actually gulp some saliva. Rather politely, this was interpreted as "obvious passion". So there you go. Dry-mouth and passion: excellent bedfellows.

Pretty soon, the cheap cordless phone reciever I was using ran out of Goddamn battery power, so Tommy finished up the meeting alone. Fortunately, I had finished the little pitch bit, and we were told that we had "a great game concept". \o/

There's still a long way to go, mind you. Just because one guy at MS likes our concept doesn't mean we're a shoe in. We have our work cut out, and still have to make a convincing demo to show the sort of experience you get with the game. And even with the best demo in the world, there are hundreds of other reasons beyond our control which could mean we don't see the game on XBLA at all - nuclear war not least of them. Pretty close to least. But not quite. Less likely (but still plausible) would be getting attacked by a wolverine. I know there aren't typically wolverines on Exmoor, but there's that beast of bodmin. That's not far away. I think it's just a panther which Rik Mayall let loose after a drugs binge.

^That is a pretty good example of how I was pitching, actually.

Still, the fact that we are getting actual phone time with someone who seems interested has put a real wind in my sails. Yesterday I worked my arse off re-doing our beat detection (which is never going to be perfect, but might be good enough for triggering visualization stuff). I worked really solidly on it, and it's almost working, however, I'm going to look up some winamp viz coders to see what sort of tricks they use which might be a bit better than my adhoc approach.

Speaking of sound, we've had Justin Bell offering to help us out with sound and music. I'm normally pretty careful about accepting charity work because of all the bad blood you create if you reject someone's free input, or even if you ask for revisions: They tend to come back with that "Beggars can't be choosers" attitude, or "Are you throwing kindness back in my face?". However, Justin is a pro, and understands our position.

We've already had a cool talk about a few technical issues to do with sound effects. For instance, our controls are indiscrete - it's not like you Press Y and Z happens, spawning a sound event. It's more like you're always doing Y, but to different degrees. So we're going to have a constantly looping sound for these indiscrete verbs, and simply use the degree-of-use as a way to fade in the volume of those sounds. It doesn't even have to be just one sound, or a linear relationship - one gameplay value can affect how several sounds are faded in and out at different rates and offsets. This should create interesting composite sounds, different every time, highly attuned to the gameplay - parametric composition, if not parametric sound generation. XACT makes this stuff pretty easy with its Runtime Parameter Controls linking up gameplay variables to a sound's properties, via a graph. Well worth a look if you're not already using it.

I hope this gives Justin what he craves in a side project: a novel problem to stretch his creative muscles on.


I am not breaking my NDA

While talking to the XBLA team all this time, Ross Erickson has been our point of contact. However, he's now left Microsoft to work for Sierra Online! The brief contact we had with him was always helpful and reassuring, so I hope he goes on to do great things.

The chap who has replaced him as our Business Development Manager is really stepping up - we're having a phone meeting with him soon so that we can share more information about the game, the biz and whatnot. I think he just needs to get up to speed on our situation after the hand-over. He may be surprised to hear how far we've come, because I have a strange feeling that he believes we're merely pitching an idea, rather than being neck deep in development. Wow, this'll be our first phone contact, with real voices and everything! It's quite exciting to have someone actively interested in our game, even though they're paid to.

Perhaps it's just the general positive attitude you get when dealing with the XBLA team, but we have a feeling that the small amount of information we've sent about the game has gone down pretty well with this guy. I just read back over the mini-pitch we sent out right after we were told that those RDPs we submitted were being phased out for smaller XBLA developers. Now that I've forgotten ever writing it, I must say that it flows pretty nicely. It's a small miracle, considering what a spazzy writer I can be.

Last week there was this interview with David Edery doing the rounds.

Are there any types of games or particular titles that you think are perhaps under-represented and would like to see come to Live Arcade?

DE: There are definitely specific games that we're looking for, and game types that we're looking for more of. Some examples:

1) Non-combat, cooperative multiplayer games (as I mentioned earlier).
2) More board games.
3) More "experimental" games and models of gameplay, in general.

I don't think we'll be revealing anything crucial by saying that those points all* fit our game. Not to sound arrogant, but I'm not too surprised by this - having past experience in XBLA development, I had a good feeling about what suited the platform, and I was able to fit the game to that criteria. The game hasn't suffered in that process, either. If anything having real boundaries (rather than imaginary artistic ones) can be pretty helpful. Terry Gilliam once said "Our restrictions saved us from mediocrity", referring to how he was forced, due to budget restrains, to hit empty coconut shells together instead of having real horses in Monty Python's Holy Grail. We've also not really had anything other than the 360 in mind, so a lot of game design melds into the console's aesthetic and user experience.

Touch wood and all that, but things really feel like they're picking up (in development too, incidentally)!

*It could only tenuously be considered a "Board Game", but it is pretty much played from the same perspective, and is heavily inspired by a classic one.


Jonathan Blow Interview

This is an interview with Jonathan Blow, who has had my respect for a long time based on his work for the IndieGamingJam. He's about to release Braid. We're hoping that Braid will be to Prince of Persia what Portal is to Prey - plunging deep into an interesting mechanic where previously developers have only dipped their toes.

Up until now, details have been a bit thin on the ground surrounding the game. It's very interesting to hear the guy's creative process. He talks about a lot of issues which we can certainly relate to. In working on our current game, chaos has always been a big issue. We're trying to model something normally modelled with deterministic systems, which result in really pretty simulations, but which also very immediately explode into unpredictable possibilities. I've always called this "Perceivable Randomness" - when logical causal steps are obfuscated to the player, and it becomes difficult to understand how the system works, and therefore, how to manipulate it - like a magician hiding his tricks behind a cloth.

It's simply not very helpful for a player to be able to call on a system (deterministic or not) which he or she can't anticipate the result of, even after trying through trial and error (or even explicit guidance) to build a mental model of it. Where random elements are concerned, we can at best gage the typical deviation of an outcome from its mean, but only after many, many iterations (part of the reason random Rolling still exists in RPGs is because of this - we feel as though we're still trying to grok combat systems, even after the 500th WheltSnipe has been mashed. Hmm. I'm getting blog deja vu, so I'll get back on topic now).

We try to ensure that our system comes to rest quickly, and makes its immediate causal links obvious and easily predictable: a quality which Doug Church calls Perceivable Consequence (and according to Google, I am the world's most prolific misspeller of that phrase).

When it's just a few game elements you're dealing with, Perceivable Consequence is fairly easy to maintain (both cognitively and computationally) by simply not introducing random factors, or indiscrete values mapping onto wildly dissonant outcomes. Our game has hundreds (possibly thousands?) of elements all springing off each other in real time, which you'd think would cause massive causal explosions. However, everything is well "frictioned" so that we can bound our possibility space.And because friction is a passive property of the physics (resistant force increases with velocity), that bounding feeling doesn't feel sudden and arbitrary (like a glass wall). It's a rare case where technology (in this case, lots of multithreading) has enabled a game play mechanic. All the brute force physics we're using in our game is there to ensure we have a system which doesn't explode quite so readily - pulling something which could easily become perceivably random back into something with great perceivable consequence.

God, this is just too vague to be useful to you, isn't it? Point is, Jon is expressing a lot of things that we've come to learn during this development, so it's reassuring for us. Really looking forward to this.

And now, a Comedy Revue. I mean "Review".

As you may have noticed, I got a bit drunk the other night, and, erm, I may have announced my love for not one, but two men. Please be aware that it is a platonic love. I love these men in the same way I love getting drunk, and telling Tommy and JP how cool the next game is going to be, before we've even finished this one.

As a result of seeing two halves of a critical mass of weapons grade comedic plutonium in such proximity, with little more than the beryllium shielding of a ScreenWipe to keep them from a comedy Nagasaki (laboured metaphor courtesy of: Caffiene and Jeremy Clarkson) I decided to finally get around to buying Stewart Lee's latest DVD, "90s Comedian". The only way to do this is online, as Lee "couldn't give this show away", even after offering the show to TV production companies without asking for any cut of profit. (Stewart Lee's previous stand up comedy DVD: "Stewart Lee, Stand Up Comedian" did poorly in sales, understandably: not enough people share my platonic love for this man, and to do so is a frightening prospect: It is, after all, me who harbours these feelings. That is self depracating humor. Get used to it. I have. It got me through two boarding schools.)

To his rescue, ardent fans rode, and the set up known as GoFasterStripe has done a top notch subversyve indie production and publishing job for the good man.

Here is a youtube clip of Lee performing, incase you don't know the fellow. This segment is part of the routine in the DVD, but it's a small part of a much bigger canvas (and at a different venue).

The DVD set is fairly long as far as standup goes - about an hour and fifteen minutes. It starts out a little slow, and you wonder how well the audience is warming to Lee as he deals with fairly raw subject matter. Luckily, he is already used to this, and his treatment of the audience has been worked into the set. A portion of the routine deals with his acceptance of the fact that his comedy is not for everyone, and about as far from mainstream entertainment as a badger being shot and then thrown into a country lane at night to make it look like an accident. (I mean that in the good way).

His jokes, are rarely irreverant or cheap: Although the cameras tend to hover on those audience members most horrified by his raw bits on 7/7, religion, and other hot button subjects (as a bit of sort of clever irony, I suppose) by the end of the set, they've moved onto people who have lightened up. It feels as though respect has been earned during the course of the show... as it should! Stewart Lee has been through the grinder in the wake of Jerry Springer the Opera, and in confronting the audience with both the real tolls it has taken on his life and the political dangers of over-reaction-as-a-demonstration-of-superior-faith he uses his comedy for real purpose, without the incredulity of typical topical satire shows (which, incedentally, feel to me like they're doing more to encourage and justify the horrors of the world [Read: Jade Goody] than actually trample them out of the annals of history).

While I sit here, trying to be a bit funny about a guy who is funny for a living, I can't help but feel like I'm being a redundant little pissant: Honestly, just go to GoFasterStripe and buy things. Do it, and feel haunted, as I was, by the phrase "I vomited into the Messiah's open mouth, until the open mouth of the Messiah overflowed with vomit."

GoFasterStripe uses Paypal, which now, finally accepts Switch, which was the only thing holding me back from giving my money to these plucky independents. Also, the DVD arrived much faster than I expected, and shocked me a bit, so do be careful.