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.


My drunken love of Charlie Brooker

Man, I don't know where to go with this, but I just watched the new Charlie Brooker's ScreenWipe, and I totally love it, and Charlie Brooker said that STEWART LEE is on next week, who I love the most! I am so excited and I just had to express my voice!

I think that me and Charlie, we could be best friends if we ever met, except, the only way I'd ever meet him is through the flatmate who my sister knows, but they're dead now (the flatmate, not my sister. [I used a third person plural to adrogynate the pronoun because I don't know if the flatmate was male or female, but then it created an ambiguity which suggested that both the flatmate AND my sister are dead. No. It's just the flatmate. Unless my sister died a second ago... No-one tells me anything in this family anyway, so whatevs.]).

Anyway. No chance of being his best friend now. And I just posted this. So definately no chance.

I got drunk sorry.


Game Design: Sculpting Possibility (Part 1)

I almost feel like after playing a game long enough, and grokking a system, I can "see" a possibility space in the form of a kind of cloud of fog, either bleeding out gradually at the edges, or being contained within strict glass walls. This shape, of course, depends entirely on the game. But in a way, I see game design as a kind of sculpture.

I love the concept of "possibility space", and the idea that designers create and tweak rules which "sculpt" and "erode" it into different forms. I love the idea that systems can be represented in some form, other than themselves, and that this form can make systemic elegance or ugliness more obvious to the casual viewer.

I’ve had stabs at explaining it before (there’s more than a few drafted in this blog, but which I haven’t dared publish).

JP just linked me to this site, and I think it might help me start to make a point. Take a look. I'll wait.

The image of a ball's path during a match illustrates the beginnings of how I see possibility space in my head.

Notice in the pictures how one corner of the pitch is fairly empty. What could that mean? Could it be that their forward attacker has a bad left footed cross? Or could it be that the right-back defender is especially good? But this is not a possibility space. This is One Path Through Possibility.

You can imagine what it might look like if millions of matches between the same two teams were over layed on top of each other. The ball paths themselves start to become unreadable scribbles, but all of a sudden, a meta-visualization emerges: a cloud. It would show how those two teams' strategies and abilities bounce off one another. It would show up their most well worn approaches, and show where one team is generally weak, and where the other team is generally strong.

If we're just using two specific teams, we're only concentrating on those teams' approaches to matches. The foggy diagram has more to say about two teams' subjective experience of the game qua system than it does about the game system overall.

Now imagine that we get every football match in history, and lay them on top of each other. All we've done is widen our sample range, but I'm sure you'll see a more generalized cloud. Now we get a better picture of how human beings have adopted the game, and how they end up using it.

Still, though, there are definite areas where the ball is not seen as consistently, even though none of the game's rules explicitly suggest this should be the case. Perhaps you'll see most of the ball's time spent in midfield. That's easily understandable, as a ball must cross the pitch to get from one goal to another, and also since penalty areas are generally well defended to stop opposing players meeting their incentive - the Goal.

Perhaps we'll still see that attacks up the left flank are less likely. But why? There are no rules in the game to suggest this... no slope at that corner of the pitch, rolling the ball back toward the center.

So consider who is playing. Maybe we see this artifact because of our species' predisposition toward right-handed/footed people. This means that there are less wingers who can use the left flank well, and so the tactic is not pursued as heavily. And this idea of exploiting the most effective strategy leads us to another idea: the goals of the game (or even minor incentives along the way) warp possibility space.

If there were no explicit goals (Agon), and no aim to football other than to explore the implicit joy of playing with the ball, there would be no choice but to explore the possibilities that exist (self created/implicit goals; Paedia). Perhaps you'd see a much more even distribution of the ball's possibility across the football field, bleeding at the edges (since people will want to avoid the disincentives of throw-ins). This "pure play" might give us a better idea of how the system distributes the ball's possibility naturally. When we take that image and compare it to the incentivized version of football, we see how the Agon changes possibility.

I guess I'm just trying to say that there's a big difference between "what is likely" and "what is possible", though the former always fits snug inside the latter. The difference between these two is purely human psychology - the drive that Agon and Paedia create for us not only to explore possibility, but to feel we achieve something during our travels.

Next post will be on methods used to sculpt possibility intentionally. But I'll leave you with a something to discuss - if an AI's possibility space for a game does not match a players' has it failed, or are we simply playing a different game, or an alien mentality?


Stepping half way toward a door, forever.

There's one benefit of being stuck on the side of a hill, lonely as an Eskimo on an iceberg: Valentine's day.

Every year, I wonder what torture Cupid can put me though. Perhaps he'll remind me how single I am by sending a snuggling couple past me in the street. And maybe when I'm sick enough about all the filthy dirty breeders, fueled for a day by this annual capitalistic cash-in on basic human desire, I'll turn to my friends for sympathy and remember that they're all fucking married or in long term relationships. Bastards.

But this year the worst I got was a pink LiveJournal banner. Pink: The color of raw, exposed flesh.

Yehp, it's a lonely life being an indie gaming hermit. Just as you're getting used to the idea of never seeing another human being ('cept your mum), old friends invite you to weddings and parties to remind you what you're missing out on, restoring feelings in limbs that you hoped had numbed indefinitely. You come home and your parents tell you "We're worried you're not getting much of a social life". You and me both.

I've heard people say that if only they had a year to themselves, without distractions or interruptions, they'd produce their master opus. I'm sure I used to, but I've learned that it's really not as simple as that. For a start, you have to keep motivated, and undistracted. If you've been a designer at a fair sized studio, you might find that you get interrupted by countless questions per day (with or without a comprehensive design document to shield you). That's part of the job, but it leaves you feeling like you get nothing done yourself. Moving into independent development with a team of two, you suddenly find you've been so trained to expect distractions that you have to fill that hole somehow. You find yourself thinking things like: “Gosh, aren't rubber bands dangly?”, “That pencil looks like fun!”, “I think I could do with another brevel sandwhich.”, “I bet there's nothing interesting on telly. Oh look! There isn't, but the moving colors are too hypnotic to turn away from!”.

Actually, a lot of this sentiment has come about because of the way we've handled development. In the early stages, it was mostly setting up our engine, and then moving into R&D for the core game play. Although I could still beaver away learning HLSL, doing little experiements, or work on the Design Document (which becomes a bit redundant in a two-man team), I still felt like a second wheel on a unicycle.

Things are really starting to work out, now: Tommy has created a foundation for me to work off, and I'm picking up steam. The big thing I'm doing at the moment is a Zooming Menu Interface (ZUI). These things have been around for a while (Ken Perlin, Dasher Text Interface), and I think they're a really enjoyable and interesting ways to navigate discrete choices indiscretely. They've never really been pulled off in any mainstream real world application, though. Personally, I'd love to see clunky old onscreen keyboard interfaces replaced with the Dasher approach. The PSP (and PS3?) typing interface is especially miserable to use – I mean, I don't like typing on a number pad at the best of times - having to shift a cursor around to even select the number makes it even more of a pain. A zooming interface, at first, might be a hard transition to make, so I can see why both MS and Sony have fallen back on the most obvious approach. I just think it'd be nice if there were alternatives.

Using a game menu as a problem space seems a good way to introduce people, since it's not a huge choice-tree to map, and it's not like we're asking people to ditch the windows paradigm for this to get work done - they're just navigating into a game. It's a toy - a learning tool for them. See, there's great resistance to re-learning interfaces when you're satisfied with your current one, even if new ones are markedly better. The most I hope to do is to introduce people to this idea, rather than try to create any sort of sweeping change.

It has, however, been a complete nightmare to code (not least because I always end up trying things just out of my comfort zone). I've tried to keep the interface indiscrete, and that's been the hardest part of it. Building a zooming interface which simply snaps from one fixed zoom position to another is a no-brainer (and may have to be the backup plan), but approaching an arbitrary tree of nested options, scaling up each menu page correctly while gradually “discarding” sibling menus by sliding them to the side has been really tricky. Every day I make progress, but every stab in the right direction reveals more issues I haven't considered. I've been writing and re-writing the same area of code for some weeks, just trying to get this generalized position/scaling algorithm down. It's slow work, but I think it'll be worth it. My only fear is that since it's not going to fall into Microsoft's recommended menu spec, it needs to be a self evidently worthwhile endeavor – it needs to be perfect.

Microsoft have been chatty with us lately. The RDP application we sent a while back was badly timed because they were phasing out the use of RDPs for indie developers. RDPs require a lot of work to get people on board, and are (as far as I can tell) meant for bigger studios, rather than every Tom, Dick and Harry who wants to pitch Microsoft an idea for “a new MMO with better combat than God of War and better graphics than Crysis”.

Their idea (I think) is to use XNA as a kind of a playground for hobbyists, and to pick the most promising kids. We had our hearts rather firmly lodged in our throats as we explained that our game couldn't be created on XNA. I know, that seems like an incredulous claim; you'd think that even with limited resources, you'd be able to prototype something like Project Gotham Racing in some simple, abstract form. Unfortunately our game relies on a sort of “soft body modeling” which is highly processor intensive and needs explicit control of multi processor threading (which XNA won't give you). It's one of very few cases where technology (in this case the 360's 6 cores) enables game play.

That's the thing about XNA. I'm really looking forward to messing with it after we've done this game (tonnes of experiments stacking up in my head), and have heard nothing but positive things about it from other developers. But any system that wants to give you tools for making anything simpler always seems to inherit a few assumptions about how the tools will be used. While a wide range of game styles are possible on XNA, there's always going to be some exceptional cases which fall outside the realms of possibility. We're one of them.

We explained all this to MS, and rather than smiting us for being petulant (which I wouldn't blame them for: it's me after all.) they actually started showing real interest, asking to see the game. We don't have anything for public consumption just yet, so we had to decline. We're dying to show people the stuff we've done, just to get some encouragement, but we don't want to show things publically, because people are very quick to judge things which are still Work-In-Progress.

The unanimous advice we've had from people is to hold off showing the game (or any game) until you have something which is eye-popping and representative (over-ambitious gameplay target videos tend to set you up for a fall, so show playable demos). Rather than jumping the gun and having a demo backfire on us, we're aiming to have a demo in about 2 months. Yikes. I better crack that menu within a week or so, or I'm moving to a backup plan.