Goals for 2017

My primary focus through 2017 will continue to be Funkitron and Cascade. But it’s important to me that even when I am off the clock, I do as much as I can to keep growing as a game designer.

So to kick off the new year, here are some of my game development goals for 2017:

1. Level Up My Game Design Toolbox

When I first started formally studying game design, I fell into the trap of obsessing over critical language. I searched for and asked community leaders to point me to a “Game Design Dictionary”, and offered to organizations like the IGDA Game Design SIG to help build one. At least one experienced designer said I should slow down, explaining to me that critical language is an organic Darwinian process that cannot be forced. But at the time I was frustrated at what seemed like a lack of tools, so I ignored the advice.

As it turns out, overthinking highly subjective semantics is a very inefficient way to learn. I should have taken that advice. Like designing games itself, it makes much more sense for me to jump into the creation process, borrow any tools available, and rapidly iterate on my own personal Game Design Toolbox as I go. I consider a toolbox a set of handy design concepts that I can apply direct to my work. Unlike a dictionary, the primary focus is on function over meaning.

One clear method to level up my toolbox is to expand it. I will continue my search for new tools by trying new games, reading articles/books on the subject, and in general exposing myself to everything life has to offer.

But the bigger the toolbox gets, the more it needs to be organized. So as I iterate, one of my goals will be to put the weaker tools on the bottom, the handy tools on top, and my trustiest tools on my tool belt. In practice, this looks like a curated collection of notes in google docs and spreadsheets, with links to more detailed sources. As it evolves, it may become more of a tree or web, and I may explore new ways to access the information.

Success here looks like a vastly improved toolbox by 2018; one that lets me quickly and effectively solve game design challenges.

2. Shrink My Games Backlog

It’s very important to me to as a designer and gamer to play a wide variety of games. I want to try classics that have shaped today’s landscape, to play innovative games that took risks, and to keep up-to-date with modern games and trends. And I do not want to be tunnel visioned by my natural preference towards certain types of games.

But to really make a dent on my backlog, I need to accept that cutting games from my list is always good, and that it’s never too early to move on from a game that isn’t giving me anything useful.

Success here looks like an smaller and more sustainable backlog by 2018. I hope to be well-versed in 2017 hits, and get a few major classics under my belt too.

3. Tinker

As a healthy creative outlet and to keep my rapid prototyping skills fresh, I hope to spend some of my off-time this year creating mini concept prototypes in HTML5 and Unity.

Tinkering is important to me, because it lets me take weird creative risks that I cannot easily get away with in the constraints of my professional work. It lets me answer lingering questions, and introduce me to even better ones. It helps me clear my head and kill my darlings.

And on the physical side, tinkering lets me practice my rapid prototyping skills and stay fresh with game making tools. Which never hurts!

Success here looks like a personal collection of microscopic digital and paper prototypes, spanning a range of genres and taking interesting risks.

4. Get Involved With The Community

Since leaving Playcrafting in late 2014, I have spent the last two years with my head down, focusing entirely on my work. As a result, I have become relatively recluse, missing out on many Boston game community events.

But now that I feel that I am hitting a comfortable rhythm in my career work, I want to get involved again. I am starting to see that even as a young designer, I may have valuable things to offer to others such as advice and encouragement to recent grads and indies trying to break in, and maybe a fresh optimistic perspective to the vets.

I don’t know what form this will take exactly, but it could include speaking engagements, teaching, event planning, and more. To start, I will be giving a short 5 minute presentation for Boston Indies February Lightning Talks.

Success here looks like a strengthened bond with the Boston community, improved presentation skills, and a positive impact on some younger aspiring game developers.

Leaving 2017

These are some meaty 2017 goals for the year to accomplish on top of my career work (and on top of a social life and marriage), but they are all crucial to my growth as a person and as a game designer.

At the same time, although I’ve defined success individually for each goal, overall success is much more flexible. These goals won’t change me overnight, but help shape the kind of designer I will be long term. So even if I land below the 50% mark, I will consider that an overall success. And I expect all four of these goals to come back in 2018 regardless.

Cheers to a great 2017!

Really Bad Theming

reallybadchess_01

I’ve been playing a lot of Zach Gage’s Really Bad Chess in the past week, and I find myself very fascinated by its use of theming.

Gage goes to great lengths to reinforce the “Really Bad” theme. Some examples:

  1. The Title
  2. Marketing text like “A definitely balanced game.” and “For everyone who quit playing chess”
  3. Quotes from Gage ranging from “This could be perceived as an affront to chess” to “It’s a stupid game”.
  4. An art style that goes beyond minimalistic; it looks like placeholder art that never got replaced.
  5. Somewhat awkward UI layout (examples: awkward line breaks in the title, no visual priority in coloring/shading)

It’s sort of sneaky and unassuming, but I think this theming accomplishes a few key things for the game.

The Impact of “Really Bad” Theming

1. It’s Inviting to “Really Bad” Players

To start with, the theme lends a helping hand to anyone who feels like they are “really bad” at chess. Chess is so embedded in our culture that it’s hard to make it to adulthood without playing a few games. And since Chess skill is often perceived as an indicator of intelligence, it follows that players who struggle might feel bad about their ability on a personal level.

Which is sad really, because who can blame anyone for stopping at one of Chess’s huge learning spikes, particularly the ones that involve lots of memorization? Or for being discouraged by crippling defeats, which is common with such potentially wide skill gaps? Players have no reason to feel bad, because their struggle often stems from inherent flaws in Chess itself rather than incompetence.

But the frustration is there, and Gage’s theming capitalizes on it to great effect to create an “us vs. them” feeling.

2. Players Are More Forgiving of “Really Bad” Flaws

Like any Chess variant, it’s impossible not to compare and contrast to the original subject matter. How could anyone compete with such a monumental game? But here the “Really Bad” theme offers a bit of humility – which in turn makes players more forgiving of the game’s flaws. Compare that to David Sirlin’s naming of Chess 2, which I wouldn’t call arrogant but certainly elicits a different emotional response.

A little more subtly, the “Really Bad” theme calls attention to its randomness as a direct counter to Chess’s near-perfect balance. In an era where many gamers still see random as the opposite of skill, and designers regularly underestimate and misuse it (see: No Man’s Sky), it’s no wonder that randomness gets a bad rep.

The designer in me hates this misconception, but I can’t help but be impressed at how Really Bad Chess leverages it. It seems to apply imply “randomness indeed makes this game worse than the original chess, but that’s okay because we’re all in on the joke“.

3. It’s Not Bad At All!

Underneath it all, perhaps what makes the “Really Bad” theme so clever is that… there is nothing really bad about the game at all. It’s not without flaws: the AI is painfully slow, the blue bar is confusing, and there could be better messaging for your turn state. But counter to the theme’s suggestion, the use of randomness in Really Bad Chess is exactly what makes it so damn good.

Really Bad Chess’s randomness does a great job of eliminating the reliance on book learning and putting the focus back on emergent strategy. But what really makes it shine is the rubberbanding system in Ranked mode, which determines your piece distribution. For example since I am hovering around Rank 75, I can expect lots of horses, a few bishops and/or Rooks, and maybe 1 Queen (and I can expect my AI opponent to have at least 2 Queens). It’s just enough of a constraint to prevent the game from feeling too random. And when combined with the promise of a static AI level, the result is a systemic learning that does for my Chess fatigue what Spelunky did for my platformer fatigue.

Of course none of that systemic depth comes from the theming. But when the press says things like “Who knows, that’s the point of Really Bad Chess, it throws out the balance in the game for random chaos!”, I get the impression that maybe the depth is sneakily slipping its way in for some players… just under the cover of its “Really Bad” theming.

Takeaways

I think the major takeaway here for designers is to not underestimate the power of theming.

Really Bad Chess is not the first Chess variant to randomize pieces. It may not even be the first to combine randomization with rubberband ranking. But its unique theming invites players of all skill levels, highlights its randomization in a fun lighthearted way, and cleverly hides a strong focused design with satisfying depth.

It’s the combination of strong gameplay and intelligent theming that makes it worthy of some extra attention in my opinion, regardless of how much of its success might be attributed to outside factors (such as Gage’s existing reputation and network).

And nothing makes me happier than a great design getting love. So I wish it the best!

References:

  1. Really Bad Chess Press Kit 
  2. How Zach Gage breaks all of the rules in Really Bad Chess” (Gamasutra)
  3. Zach Gage’s ‘Really Bad Chess’ Will Shake up Chess on October 13th” (touch arcade)
  4. Really Bad Chess makes chess fun even if you’re really bad” (The Verge)

Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #2: Catching Up

After a 6-month hiatus to do game design for Demiurge Studios, I have returned to Brain and Brawn to finish the game.

During my absence, David was able to make two major updates. The first is a graphical overhaul. The result is a clean look with a slightly angled perspective that gives depth to the world. The improved graphics also do a better job of communicating the workings of different mechanics.

Before and After
Before (left) and After (right)

The second major update that was a long time coming was the switch from a physics-based system to grid-based system. This change is huge because it allows us to easily separate game logic and visuals, which opens the door for dynamic tweens, animations, and particle effects. The difference is outlined below:

Old System (physics-based): New System (grid-based):
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Accelerate player sprites in that direction
  3. Every frame, check to see if brainy or brawny sprites are colliding with another game object
  4. If a collision occurs, resolve the collision.
  1. Did the player do input? (swipe/arrow keys)
  2. Based on the grid layout and desired direction, what should happen? (cell collision)
  3. Animate all of the things that are supposed to happen?

The only down side is that we lost some features in the transition that will have to be reimplemented. These features include the HUD (with move counter), sound effects, dynamic level centering, and some pretty cool debug cheats, but they will be back and better than ever in no time.

Tomorrow, Brain and Brawn will be casually demoed at the Boston Indies Demo Night, where I hope to get feedback on 4 brand new mechanics and a Level Editor I created.

Brain and Brawn – Dev Log #1: Boston FIG

This post is a breakdown of our experiences leading up to FIG, our experience on the show floor, and our next steps.

The Lead Up

Before we could figure out long term goals, we had an immediate short term goal. The Boston Festival of Indie Games was in 3 weeks, and since I had submitted my browser demo in June we were scheduled to be on the floor. But I was tired of showing a mobile game concept on a desktop browser. We needed to get it on the target platform.

The initial goal: To prepare a working mobile demo, complete with touch controls and at least 15 strong mobile levels, for Boston FIG on Saturday 9/13.

What did that mean? How did that goal break down into objectives?

The Breakdown:

  • Wrapping – We needed to figure out how to get our demo working properly on a phone. Do we rely on the mobile web, or a wrapper app such as CocoonJS or PhoneGap?
  • Resizing – The game needed to move from 800×690 pixels the iPhone 4 resolution of 600×960, and the the tiles needed to increase from 40×40 to 64×64 to be more visible.
  • Touch controls – The player should be able to tap to select buttons and progress through menus, and swipe in cardinal directions to move Brainy and Brawny
  • Art – Instruction screens needed to be reformatted to fit the mobile screen ratio.

This was ambitious on its own, but there was one extra challenge. Moving to a smaller screen resolution while increasing the size of the sprites meant a drastic shift from 320 tiles (20×16) to 150 tiles (10×15). That’s a 53% decrease in level design real estate! If I wanted to have good levels, I knew that I needed a full week of dedicated level design, which meant that I needed to have all of the other features implemented in just two weeks.

But even though it was a scary amount of work to be doing in just evenings and weekends, especially factoring in a move into a new apartment… we pulled it off and had lots of fun doing it! By BFIG we had 16 strong levels that were hand-designed for a newly resized game, all wrapped in CocoonJS and working smoothly with touch screen controls.

Postmortem: Showing the Game at BFIG

Showing Brain and Brawn at Boston FIG was an awesome experience. About 80 people stopped by our booth and played our game, and 33 of them signed up for our mailing list. The overall reception was very positive, and we learned a lot!

Boston FIG

Some of the things we learned:

  1. Everyone plays, thinks, and learns differently. That may sound obvious, but seeing it in action was something else entirely. Swipes ranged from fast to slow, exaggerated to subtle, sloppy to precise, and long to short. Different approaches included trial-and-error, waiting and strategizing, and a combination.
  2. There is no replacement for raw data. Of a sample of ~80 people, an overwhelming majority of players stopped on one of two levels: 8 and 14. We knew that the difficulty curve wasn’t perfect, but to see such massive spikes was enlightening. It was also frustrating because we couldn’t do anything about it mid-show! It would be tedious for sure, but putting analytics in place could do wonders for our game design.
  3. Players won’t assume that your game has depth. The moment that aliens are first introduced (level 6) is an eye-opening moment for players, because the possibility space opens up significantly, and players suddenly want to keep playing to discover more mechanics. If a player believes that they’ve grokked the possibility space before getting to an intriguing gameplay hook, then they will write off your game without ever knowing how far it can go.
    (Interesting Note: Fast grokking is fine as long as actual proficiency rises just as fast or faster… in other words a good puzzle player will zoom to level 6 so fast that grokking beforehand is a non-issue.)
  4. Kids rule! Some of my favorite moments involve watching younger kids pick up the game, smile when they “get it”, ignore their impatient parents who wanted to move on, and fully commit to beating the very last level. Equally awesome were the parents who actively participated in the experience, weighed in on tougher levels, and encouraged them to do their very best.
  5. There is no easy way to communicate that development on your game has only just begun, and saying it explicitly comes off as an excuse. I would have thought that the lack of polish made it obvious… but instead the average person thought it was already complete! Either they loved the puzzles and wanted to buy it, or they were thoroughly disappointed with the visuals/graphics and asked us to do better next time. O_o

Of course there were plenty more lessons, but those are some of the most interesting ones!

What’s next?

The next step is actually to take a step back. We crunched for FIG, but now we want to look at the bigger picture and figure out our long term development plan. David and I have set a target of Q1 2015 release, with hopes of getting the meat of the work done by January. We scoped out what features we thought were realistic, and now it’s time to restructure our code to be more accommodating of future growth spurts and major changes.

It’s a slower time for sure, but it won’t be long until we are once again pushing hard for our next major milestone. We’re feeling optimistic!

Postmortem: GGJ 2014 and Negative Space

This past weekend I participated in Global Game Jam 2014 at the NYU Game Center. It was my first time competing in a jam of this size and scope, so when I showed up at 5pm on Friday I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was one of 279 jammers at the Game Center, making it the biggest jam site in North America (5th biggest in the world).

The crowd was electric when the keynotes began, and the atmosphere quickly shifted to one of wonder and suspense as the words of Jenova Chen, Kaho Abe, and Richard Lemarchand gave general design advice and hinted at the kind of theme that was about to be unveiled. And then it was revealed:

“We don’t see things as they are, but as we are.”

The Global Game Jam experience

I quickly teamed up with artist David Wallin and programmer Altay Murat, with the intent of creating a game using the Phaser HTML5 Game Framework. Our plan was to get a barebones working prototype by the end of Friday night.

In past jams, my team would settle on an idea very quickly (in less than 1 hour), and begin working on a prototype right away. There would be a great deal of overscoping, and we would wait too long to drop unnecessary features. Throw in some crunch and sleep deprivation, and by Sunday we would be exhausted and stressed beyond belief.

But this jam went differently. We spent the entire Friday evening going back and forth on possible directions before finally settling on an idea. But from that point onward it because easier and easier. David and Altay were excellent at their respective crafts, so our workflow was very smooth. Every few hours we would re-evaluate our situation, adjust the scope if necessary, assign tasks, and continue. By early afternoon on Saturday, our core mechanic was implemented and fun.

One helpful difference was that the NYU Game Center closed at midnight on Friday and Saturday, preventing us from pulling all-nighters. This forced us to go home and get some much needed sleep. making all of the difference in our focus, communication, and motivation.

Negative Space

Our efforts resulted in a game called Negative Space, which you can check out right here. It was nominated for “Best Use of Theme”!

**IMPORTANT: If you do not want our theme interpretation to be spelled out for you, please play the game before reading on!**

NegSpace_screen2

Negative Space is a commentary on the different world views of introverted and extroverted people. Players take the role of two characters in a social scenario and control them both simultaneously using the arrow keys. On the left, the introvert dislikes overstimulation through engagement, and prefers to have space. On the right, the extrovert gets energy from engagement with others, and prefers to be around other people. The goal of the game is to fill up both characters’ happiness meters by catering to their preferences.

Mechanically, the game is about coordinated movement. Since you are avoiding on the left and chasing on the right, you need to analyze the flow of the crowd and constantly make small adjustments to both characters’ positions. Most players loved the challenge of playing two characters at once, but a few felt it was too stressful. People in the crowd move randomly in the early levels, but in later levels they take on different simple movement behaviors (ie: Seek, Avoid, etc.).

Level Design Aesthetics

As the game’s Level Designer, I really enjoyed using the mechanics to paint different aesthetic scenarios. For example, in one scenario the Introvert is surrounded by 10 people with “seeking” behavior. Perhaps in this scenario you are a k-pop star dropped into a crowd of adoring fans? Inevitably, as player weaves in and out, the seekers coalesce into a mob formation, which feels very intimidating and forces the Introvert to always be on the run.

In another scenario, the Extrovert is surrounded by 25 people with “avoidance” behavior. The result is a wave-like radius organically forming around you, as if you truly do not belong at the party. Interestingly, the dominant strategy here is to pin a poor soul in the corner, which many players said felt “wrong”. This same strategy also puts the Introvert safely in the corner, where he can easily hide from social interactions.

I would have loved to have explored these ideas further by implementing and playing with other kinds of movement behaviors, but such is the nature of a game jam.

Playtesting

Watching people play Negative Space was a highlight. We made a bold move in not explicitly stating the concept of the game, which meant we got to witness the “Aha!” moment first hand. There were many instances where people would be playing, figuring out the properties and differences between the introvert and the extrovert, when suddenly it would click and they would exclaim “Oh I get it! It’s an introvert and an extrovert!!”

I also really enjoyed collecting and consolidating feedback. Although I am inexperienced, I feel like I have a natural ability to interpret feedback (even when it is not constructive), and ask the right questions to get them thinking and articulating their thoughts and frustrations in a clear and useful way. Or maybe it’s just luck… but I really enjoyed it and look forward to practicing and improving this designer skill.

Final Thoughts

Global Game Jam 2014 may just be my favorite jam yet! The environment, the energy, the scope and theme… it is just awesome and epic and gets my creative juices flowing in a really satisfying way.

I can’t wait to do it all over again for GGJ 2015! But this time… in Boston. 🙂

Microsoft’s “Gaming on the Surface” 2013

Yesterday I attended “Gaming On The Surface: NYC Fall 2013 Gaming Industry Overview”, a full-day Microsoft event featuring presentations, panels, and demos. Fun, informative, and full of free stuff, the event was clear evidence of a growing community of talented game developers in NYC. I’m excited to see how the game dev. scene evolves over the next few years!

Some takeaways from the experience:

  • Nika, an abstract strategy game for mobile and tablets, was created in HTML5 and deployed to multiple platforms using CocoonJS. Their story has pushed me to do some research, and I am now considering using CocoonJS myself to deploy Brain and Brawn.
  • I met a host of developers who were able to put their games on stores in just a few weeks. One developer took only 7 days. This was sort of a wake up call as to how efficient game development can be!
  • Unity’s new 2D tools are very intriguing. Unity evangelist Carl Callewaert gave a workshop in the morning where he put together a simple 2D platformer in under a half hour. Watching him work made me excited to learn Unity and prototype faster in its GUI-driven environment. It also made me think back to my childhood scribbling game designs in notebooks, and wishing for a tool like this!

As always, these events leave me inspired, refreshed, and motivated to put everything I have into my games. Look out for me at future NYC events; I will definitely be attending as many as I can.

NYC Gamecraft 2013

The
The “Purgatory” team: Me, David Wallin, Anthony Vinh Nguyen, and Andrew Kelley

On Friday 9/20, I participated in NYC Gamecraft 2013 and my team won! Gamecraft is an open game jam competition where developers must create a game from scratch in just 7.5 hours.

Early in the morning I formed a team with 3 talented guys: Andrew Kelley (Programmer), Anthony Vinh Nguyen (Artist), and David Wallin (Sound Design).

At 9:30am the theme “Lost Doorways” was announced, and we had until 5pm to create the game from start to finish. Anthony churned out art assets at an unbelievable speed, Andrew and I tackled programming in HTML/JS making use of a custom engine he built, I designed levels to showcase the different mechanics we had created, and David Wallin created sound effects to tie everything together. Our game “Purgatory” won Best Game and the People’s Choice Award!

It was such a blast challenging myself to work at that pace and getting to collaborate with such talented people. You can check out the game at the link below:

http://gamecrafty.herokuapp.com/newyork-september-2013/purgatory/

A Better Term For “Metroidvania”

Metroidvania term_1

What Exactly IS A “Metroidvania”?

I’ve never liked the term “Metroidvania“.

Metroidvania (a portmanteau of “Metroid” and “Castlevania”) is a well-known subgenre definition in the game industry which generally refers to “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by the Metroid series and later Castlevania games.” (Tvtropes.org)

If you have played a Metroidvania, then you probably have a pretty decent idea of what kinds of experiences to expect from other games of the same type, and perhaps you even have a conceptual model of the underlying formula itself. When used right, it is a strong approach that can lead to some really awesome games.

But in practice, the term “Metroidvania” is very clumsy and confusing, and does not get to the heart of the formula within. In this post, I will attempt to outline the term’s flaws, break down the formula into its components, and suggest a more useful alternative.

Falling Short of the Mark

According to Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools (FADT), a useful definition must be both formal and abstract. A formal definition is precise and can be explained to someone else. An abstract definition focuses on underlying ideas rather than genre constructs. So how does “Metroidvania” fall short of these goals?

To begin with, there is ambiguity regarding which shared properties are essential components of the formula, and which ones are not. Does a Metroidvania need to be 2D side-scrolling? Could it be 2D top-down, or even 3D? Does a game need to have platforming to be a Metroidvania?

metroid_upgrade acquired

Many sources define it as a subgenre of the “platforming” genre. This majority includes Wikipedia, where if you search the term you will be redirected to “platform-adventure games”, a header under platformer. But what about games in the Metroid Prime series, which contain only minor platforming elements and are labeled “first-person action-adventure” games? Do they have enough platforming to be Metroidvanias, or are they excluded?

Another well-accepted trait of a Metroidvania is nonlinearity. But the very first Castlevania game consists of six levels in a strictly linear progression. Tvtropes attempts to remedy this by specifying “later” games in the Castlevania series, but that must have been written before  “Castlevania: Lords of Shadow”, a modern 3D title that returns the series’ linear roots. Will they further update the definition by specifying a range of years JUST to exclude this game?

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow does have some light exploration, but in general the design is linear.

It feels silly to map the definition to series. Instead of continually adjusting the set to fit the definition, we need to recognize that because our definition is imprecise, it is informal.

The second problem comes from the use of concrete examples instead of abstract concepts. Let’s say that for sake of argument, we limited “Metroidvania” to just “any game containing the major gameplay concepts shared by Super Metroid and Castlevania II. Even though this makes it easier to figure out the what those “major gameplay concepts” are, Metroid and Castlevania are not two different concepts that combine to create the formula, but rather two specific video game franchises that make use of the formula.

To illustrate why this is an issue, lets look at an outside example: Just as many Metroid games and Castlevania games are great examples of Metroidvanias, firetrucks and apples are great examples of “things that are red”. But we don’t use “fapple” (“firetruck” + “apple”) to refer to objects that are red!

A stop sign isn’t red because it shares its color with firetrucks and apples – it is red because it reflects certain wavelengths of light. Properties are not defined by the objects that have them; objects are defined by their properties. So because it does not focus on the underlying formula itself as a set of shared properties, “Metroidvania” is not abstract.

Breaking Down The Formula

To create a FADT, we need to move away from examples and get at the heart of the formula; the real underlying structure and resulting behaviors. What are the component properties of a Metroidvania game?

1. A world design that emphasizes exploration in an open-ended environment full of highly inter-connected areas.

Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)
Map of Phendrana Drifts (Metroid Prime)

2. Obstacles in the environment hinder your ability to explore, and by extension your progress. “Obstacle” in this context is very broad, and can include everything from pits to high ledges to certain kinds of enemies to colored doors, etc

This wall cannot be passed unless you have a bomb (Twilight Princess)
This rock wall obstacle cannot be passed without a bomb. (The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword)

3. Power-ups, or key abilities attained, give you the power to overcome obstacles in your way. This puts huge emphasis on personal growth, because where you can go and what you are capable of is directly proportional to the power-ups at your disposal. Power-ups include but are not limited to: suit upgrades, magical powers, weapons, tools, creatures, and artifacts.

In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the
“Soul of Bat” lets you fly freely through the air in Bat Form.(Castlevania: Symphony of the Night)

4. Although movement and presentation is generally non-linear, the order in which you obtain these powerups and gain access to new areas will often follow a sequence. This sequence is crucial to the inclusion of a clean difficulty curve and narrative arc.
(Update: Since writing this post, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds was released. ALBW notably breaks the sequence rule – more on that in another post!)

While there are other similarities between core Metroid and Castlevania games, to me these are the traits that define the Metroidvania play experience.

Reframing the formula

Now that we have our component properties, I’d like to propose a new term to replace “Metroidvania”. A possible name could be: nonlinear power-up progression (NPP). “Nonlinear” covers exploring an open-ended environment, and “power-up progression” covers using power-ups to overcome obstacles in a sequence. It’s not catchy, and I hope that one day someone can come up with a nickname that rolls of the tongue… but it works.

Pretty much any game currently in existence can be tested against NPP’s parameters for a conclusive decision. Metroid Prime games feature NPP, while the first Castlevania and Metroid Prime Pinball not. NPP includes widely accepted Metroidvanias like Outland and Guacamelee, but also 2D and 3D games in the Zelda series.

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Link opens a chest and uncovers a new power-up in The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap.

Including Zelda might be strange to some, but for someone like me who grew up playing Metroid and Zelda games and seeing those relationships all along, the proposed “platforming” requirement seems much stranger. Zelda games fit NPP because they are nonlinear in physical progression (yet follow a clear sequence), place emphasis on exploration, and promote growth through key powerups (items/artifacts) which are used to overcome obstacles such as pits and destructible walls.

One of the major difference between Zelda and “traditional” Metroidvanias is density. Zelda games will often boast a large but relatively sparse overworld for exploration, then pack the meat of the puzzles and combat scenarios into dungeons. Whereas Metroid games tend to offer spread exploration, puzzles, and combat across the world in a relatively uniform manner. Each approach results in a very different feel, but I think they both fit inside NPP.

Where Does It All Fit?

How do we place our terms into a clean hierarchy? On the one hand we have “Metroidvania”, which exists as a somewhat vague subgenre of the “platforming” genre. On the other we have games that follow non-linear powerup progressionwhich are a subset of all nonlinear games. Since the sets overlap, NPP does not outright replace Metroidvania. But as a design tool, I think it’s more useful to focus on NPP as a formula that subsets nonlinear progression than to worry about “Metroidvania”, redefined as “a platforming game that follow NPP”.

I think that meaningful progress in critical language development requires us to think about game formulas and categorization by genre in completely different ways. Maybe we need a new tree hierarchy, or maybe we don’t want a tree at all! We’ll talk more about genres another day, but for now I hope that this post provokes some thought and invites you to help me question paradigms.

Flip Cup Sumo

“Drinking” Games

I’m fascinated with the origin and design of drinking games. Where do different types of games come from, how were they conceived, and how did they evolve to take on the many varying forms they have today? Why do certain kinds of people gravitate to certain kinds of games? How does a game experience change with varying numbers, personality types, physical resources and space, and party vibe?

There are so many questions! To keep down the scope of this article, today we are going to focus on one game: Flip Cup.

The Strengths of Flip Cup

Flip Cup is great for a lot of reasons – it’s easy to learn, flexible in numbers, accommodating to sudden personnel changes between rounds, doesn’t require a long commitment (like a bad game of Pong might), allows for varying levels of skill and competitiveness, and is fast-paced and exciting.

The social aspect of Flip Cup is also very dynamic. I have seen it used between a small group of close friends to get the party started, I’ve seen it used upon the first explosion of party attendance to get a bunch of strangers mobilized and feeling included as part of a”greater cause”, and I’ve seen it used as a late-party game for people who want to send themselves or others over the edge.

It’s no wonder that it’s a staple of the college party experience!

Flip Cup’s Weaknesses

I have found two key issues with the Flip Cup experience:

  1. Disconnected Games: Each game of Flip Cup is a self-contained victory. It doesn’t seem to matter much if one team is significantly better than the other.
  2. Degree of Victory is Arbitrary: There is a limited and fleeting joy that comes from a “strong” victory (completing significantly faster than the losing team). If Team A wins the first three games in a row by two cups, and then Team B wins the fourth by a whopping 7 cups… how the teams stack up?

You could solve both of these problems by adding a scoring system, based either on team wins or on the number of total cups flipped, but I wanted something less abstract. So I came up with a little variation called Flip Cup Sumo!

Flip Cup Sumo

Flip Cup Sumo is a straightforward variation of Flip Cup Classic, with some important twists!

  • Players: 6-16, 2 even teams
  • Setup:
    1. Given a rectangular flip cup table, draw a long line (“axis”) across its length, parallel to the lines of cups.
    2. Along the axis, draw an odd number of smaller lines (“notches”), such that each line is perpendicular to the axis. The notches should be symmetrical, meaning there should be a CENTER notch. 
    3. At each end of the axis, draw a circle to be the”goal zone”. Each team picks a goal zone to protect. Place some sort of object (“marker”), like an unopened beer can, at the center of the table on the center notch. The end result should look something like this: Flip Cup Sumo Diagram
  • Progression of Play:
    1. Pick a player on each team, facing each other, and play a round of normal flip cup.
    2. The moment the round finishes (the last person on a team has finished flipping their cup), everything stops.
    3. Count the number of unflipped cups (or unfinished players) on the losing team. Take the marker and move it that many notches towards the losing team’s goal zone, as if the winning team PUSHED it in that direction.
    4. Designate a new set of players to start a new round, and repeat.
  • Resolution: If the marker is ever pushed into a team’s goal zone, the game ends and the opposing team is declared the victor. If the marker is an unopened beer can, then you could add a rule where a member of the losing team must shotgun/funnel it as punishment.

There are a few reasons I like this game. First, the game gives players a long term goal, which strings together the individual flip cup rounds into a larger game.  Secondly, a strong victory has a much greater effect on the movement of the beer can, and is thus more rewarding. Saving your team from near-death or finishing off a team with a strong victory should be very satisfying.

It also could use some tweaking. A long table is typically used for flip cup, but teams stand on the long sides. This means that the axis is parallel to the team formation, making it difficult to tell which goal belongs to which team, and why. Perhaps it would help if the single “marker” was replaced with two little colored objects – such as sumo wrestler action figures – facing each other. In this case each team could choose a matching color, and loss state is triggered when that color’s marker is pushed backwards into a goal zone.

Flip Cup Sumo+
To increase strategy (at the risk of accessibility), try the following rules:

  1. When a round ends, the marker should be moved N+1 notches towards the losing team’s goal. This extra point helps move the needle for small victories, so they aren’t completely undermined by a single strong one.
  2. If a team has finished flipping all of their cups in a round, the last person yell DONE to end the round. However, they may also optionally choose to loop around to the first person on the team and flip more cups to score additional points. However, victory is risked each time a person starts flipping, since a player can only call DONE if they have just successfully flipped a cup and the next person has not yet started.

These rules probably take it too far. After all, Flip Cup derives much of its strength from its casual nature; it wouldn’t be very fun teaching these rules in a party setting.

Anyway I’d love to try these out, or get some feedback from someone else who gets a chance. I hope it’s fun!

Music Fundamentals

I have officially started work on a new educational game based on Sumy Takesue’s textbook “Music Fundamentals”! A new version of textbook is scheduled to come out this October, and my job is to recreate and improve the existing flash game in HTML5. It is to be used alongside the new book and must be available for mobile devices.

The project is really exciting, as it is a hybrid of several passions of mine: music, education, and games. Today was my first big conference call, and my boss has given me permission to design brand new exercises and mini-games and pitch them to her. What an amazing opportunity!

If I am allowed to, I will post more information on the project as it takes form. Next week is lots of research and design, followed by full-scale rapid prototyping. Down the line I may even get to post links to the beta here, which would be really awesome.