Boston FIG 2013 Ruminations

My first go at the Boston Festival of Indie Games was a pretty spectacular one, even though I never left the digital games showroom. I was told that the event last year was a relatively cramped affair, with many people flowing in and out of a more intimate space dominated largely by the tables. This year had a truly official “con” atmosphere, as it took place in the airy MIT gym (and several other MIT buildings), with the tables lining the walls and arranged into three squares in the middle. The air conditioning system held out all day!

The showing was brilliant as well. Full-fledged companies as polished and put-together as PopCannibal and Dejobaan from the Indie Game Collective, Proletariat, and Disruptor Beam were showing off some beautiful demos. There were also a number of students with solo or small group projects that were truly impressive for the resources available to them. But that’s what indies are all about – working with limited resources and purely out of passion for the games industry.

Since Play Nimbus had its own booth for Wobbles, separate from the MassDiGI booth near the entrance, I felt a sense of purpose as a representative of my own project while I wandered around speaking to developers. I’m sure that this helped me overcome any sort of awkwardness I might have felt about talking candidly with them, even if they weren’t all such incredibly nice and open people. Everybody was quite willing to share the tools they had used to develop as well as the personal journey they took with their work.

Many of the companies present were Boston-area based.

  • Proletariat‘s World Zombination was in the middle of the room, and they came prepared with a pretty polished-looking demo and an easy sign-up for beta testing (which I took advantage of shortly after wrecking some Boston hospitals with a rambunctious horde of zombies). Players can choose to work for the side of the survivors or the zombies, with important tactical differences for each, and play on a global scale. Each time a game is played, it earns points towards the team that is used for the chosen city, which then updates the map for all players.
    FIG attendees, of course, played to win over Boston in a tutorial level designed to show off the first batch of zombie classes: runners, spitters, brutes, and infectors. These names are reminiscent of Left 4 Dead, but the concepts are redesigned for a much less disturbing (and more widely appealing) game atmosphere – World Zombination is brightly colored and cartoony, with cute touches like the jogging outfits the runners sport and their treadmill training montage in the trailer. When a hospital is broken into, the people inside flee in a chaotic group.  They are slowly and satisfyingly converted by your infectors into part of the growing horde which teems like an ant army across the screen.
    The control of an entire army at once, without being able to direct specific units, is what sets it apart from your average real-time strategy. I couldn’t tell from the demo whether the horde follows a specific path, like a reverse tower defense, or if they simply go where survivors nearest are and thus end up split into groups depending on the scenario; that would provide another interesting dynamic to gameplay.
  • The Tap Lab, which is innovating in the area of location-based games verging on augmented reality, was demoing Tiny Tycoons. The playfully designed game was appealing to all ages – teenagers through adults could check out the places available for buying in their own hometown, places familiar to them, while children could enjoy the bright graphics and the adorable characters. Features of the game include buying and upgrading real-world properties on the virtual map while collecting clothes and cars, something akin to Monopoly but on a global scale.
  • Disruptor Beam was handing out free (digital) figs that visitors of FIG could collect in their Game of Thrones: Ascent, a browser and facebook game – not to be confused with the board game OR the RPG for the PC developed by Cyanide studios. Game of Thrones has seen a surge of popularity since the HBO show premiered in 2011, although the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire came out in 1996. The RPG gives the player two main characters’ storylines to alternate through in the same way George R. R. Martin wrote the books, and the board game is a strategy setup not unlike Risk; Ascent instead allows the player to run their own stronghold, playing the role of a minor house lord and fitting seamlessly into the storyline of the novels. By serving under one of four major houses, the player’s staff of sworn swords and spies root out Jon Arryn’s secret and decide what to do with it, choose to protect or subvert the Baratheon rule, etc. The model is free-to-play with microtransactions, largely speed boosts for the timer-based quest and stronghold-building events.
  • Glass Knuckle Games was displaying Dumbledore 64, their most recent game from July 20th this year. It is one of four they made using HTML5. While playing I was reminded of Magicka, in that one uses spell “elements” put together to create new spells: fire on its own creates a fireball but in conjunction with air it’s a blast that surrounds your character, and two lightnings together create chain lightning. You also have a standard “magic missile” bolt to use while your elemental spell is recharging, and with these tools in your belt you must defeat the hordes of bugs and other little monsters flying at you from all directions. I have a personal fondness for pixeley graphics such as those in Terraria, and Dumbledore 64 takes it all the way back to a pretty cute 8-bit style. You only have three health bars, so if you don’t heal or knock out those baddies, you die pretty quickly; it’s a shoot-for-the-high-score kinda game. Simple, but definitely fun.
  • Tower of Guns from Terrible Posture Games does not look like it was made by only one guy, but it was – and his name is Joe. Seriously, only one guy. It’s an extremely chaotic roguelike first-person shooter. There were too many people in line for me to get a crack at playing, but from what I could see, there are missiles and giant spiky balls and explosions flying at you all the time. You have to juggle dodging those with shooting at the giant gun-toting flying robots and making your way through space. This requires less precise aim than your traditional FPS, a blessing considering how much you have to be moving around to avoid death. The elements of permadeath and chaos are a important differences, lowering the stakes and raising the excitement.
  • Idle Action Studios was showing what appears to be their first project together, Candlelight. The genre – 2D puzzle platformer – is the same as my own project, Wobbles, but Candlelight is a different beast entirely. The art style is high-contrast and delicate-looking, with whimsical and strange landscapes and characters curly black shadows against a mostly pale sky. The player controls two characters at once, a mechanic seen only rarely (as in Ice Climbers in Brawl or The World Ends With You). The characters “separation and reunion” is used to solve puzzles and get around. Their ‘canon’ page on the website appears to indicate their inspirations, including Zelda: Majora’s Mask, Braid, Shadow of the Colossus, and Metroid: safe and classic picks.
  • Several members of the Indie Game Collective were there – Disco Pixel had a cute rhythm game featuring monkeys called Jungle Rumble. 82Apps brought their exciting neon-colored faux hacking game, PWN Combat Hacking. PopCannibal was giving the public its first looks at Captain Astronaut’s Last Hurrah, a game Ziba described as crossing StarCraft with Monkey Island. This made little sense to me mood-wise until he clarified that the aspects of StarCraft in this game are not the dark-sci-fi theme the strategic mechanics – resource manipulation, troop management, and battle plans, all framed by the beautiful orbs of energy that float about the screen at your behest. You play as a boy astronaut crash-landed on an alien world, where you direct your own movement and the flow of the orbs very naturally with a Wiimote or a Playstation Move motion controller. The transition between story progression and battle events is seamless and there is no HUD to speak of, leaving the interface completely uncluttered, artistically in-tact, and intuitive. It’s the art (which I might compare to Bastion in style) that is most polished and appealing at this stage of development. Every scene looks a bit like a painting, and it has a somewhat tropical feel to it, with bright turquoise water punctuated by crushed statues and rocks covered in vines and flowers.

There were several other notable projects that traveled from out of state a great distance in order to be at FIG.

  • Apsis is a game in development for Android by five students from Cornell University. It’s an experiment in experience, a calming game with a very easy flow. You control from a top-down view an entire flock of birds at once, which bears resemblance to the horde control in World Zombination, but that’s where the similarities end. You touch the screen to direct the group (simple, easy to pick up), but birds can easily get lost along the way as you try to navigate around floating land and rock and through rushing streams of air, not all of which go in the direction you need to go (east). The soundtrack is wonderfully zen with a somewhat Asiatic influence, and it truly makes the atmosphere of each level; the drama of the piano in the last level, wherein you’re beating your way through a dark and pressing thunderstorm, makes my heart thump just to think back on. My friend Sam played through the end of the game, where you say goodbye to the birds of your flock by depositing them one-by-one into the stars, and each bird becomes a point of light in a constellation. You’ve made the choice to leave them to the night sky, rather than feeling like they’re forcibly being taken away from you, which makes all the difference in the resolution you feel at the ending.
  • Hangeki is the first game by Pentavera, the company in the booth neighboring mine. It was described as “(Space Invaders) Galactica on crack,” aptly describing the top-down spaceships-firing-forward game with revamped shiny spaceships and tons of exploding particle effects. Take out a row of invading monsters and your screen is covered in score numbers and little points of light. When asked about the loud noises coming from the demo, the Hangeki’s artist Terence Tolman told me that they took the concept of “pew pew” and added even more “pew.” The game made the front page of Desura, a pretty great accomplishment for a first game, and with the excitement I saw on the faces of the players, it sure deserved it.
  • Skipping Stones was a generative music game by Ko-Op Mode, a Montreal-based company for experimental games. Like Captain Astronaut, every scene could be a painting, but these paintings are elegant in their simplicity. The artist told me he went for broad, flat planes of color, and the smooth shapes this created of the ground, water, and trees is what sets this game apart visually from Proteus. They didn’t yet have a full demo set up so I didn’t get to hear what my own exploration of this charming, fairytale land would sound like.

There were TONS of other games being shown off just in the Digital Games Showcase. Unfortunately I didn’t get to see many of them because I had to spend much of the day manning my own booth. My list here is NOT comprehensive, and I don’t mean to hurt any feelings by leaving any of the other fantastic games out. If you want to see what else FIG had to give, check out their list here. (Wobbles is right there at the end of the list! Wink wink, nudge nudge.)

FIG was a fantastic experience, both to check out some new and innovative games, and to chat up some really interesting people that are passionate about the field of game design. I want to congratulate everybody that was in the showcase on having such an excellent bunch of games and for being such excellent people. I can’t WAIT for next year’s FIG to see what people do with another year’s worth of new technology and new ideas!

Mass DiGI Journal 2

As the MassDiGI summer internship moves into its final quarter of work, we have been busily shifting from content creation to polish adjustments and quality assurance. In preparation for the open house on August 8th we’ve been fixing up our pitches and clearing out bugs so we can better display our work to prospective buyers.

Delivering a pitch is not as easy as memorizing some words, especially for people who are intimidated by talking to strangers or large groups. Just like anything else, pitching is a developed skill, and over the summer we’ve been given many chances to practice. On July 15th, half of us hosted a TechSandBox demo night while the other half went to Boston Indies and demoed there. On the 16th many of us went to our second Postmortem of the summer. Every time a mentor visits, we do a round of demos for them. Each time we pitch the game a different team member contributes, so everybody gets more comfortable. When we speak to non-gamers and people outside of the target demographic, we play the game for them so they can see the polished parts, describing the mechanics in layman’s terms and emphasizing the most widely appealing aspects, like the graphics and the core fun. More experienced players or target audiences are simply handed the game wordlessly and observed. We take note of how easy the UI is to interact with, whether or not they know where to go, and if they get frustrated by any particular features.

For instance, Wobbles learned that when we had our in-game unpause button in the corner, even though it was pulsing, most people attempted to begin playing and were confused when the tray did not respond. To fix this we made the game begin as soon as the player tries to drag down a platform. When we learned that people were not able to read all of the tutorial text before Wobbles started falling, we made our guides more concise. These alterations are small but crucial to a smooth play experience, and a totally smooth and hassle-free play experience is necessary to make a casual mobile game successful.

As the only team working without a partner, Wobbles in particular is focusing on social networking and website reviews so that we can have a strong start with a strong product immediately at release. We already have several websites lined up for review copies.

Laura and I have also been hard at work on the visual polish of the game, and it’s finally beginning to look as nice as the other games on the app store right now. Something as simple as blurring the background so the perspective – foreground and background – is more strongly established made the game look much more professional. We’ve been adding a few particle effects to indicate what is to be interacted with vs what is just for decoration; the stars that you collect in each level to unlock new ones are now glittery! It’s the small, neat visual rewards that give games that extra boost of fun and appeal – Tiny Wings’s art, for example, has a clean and candy-colored vector style that, in combination with its soundtrack, lends it a very calming and sweet atmosphere.

I’m really psyched to get this game out into the market, since it’s the first one I’ve been a part of making. The mechanic is unique and the characters remind me of the little guys in Pocket God – quirky and really fun to mess with.

Mass DiGI Journal 1

I’ve been told time and time again that majoring in game design is worthless next to hands-on experience for getting into the industry. Before this summer, I felt unable to do anything hands-on without taking more classes; yet MassDiGI’s Summer Innovation Program (SIP) presented an opportunity for real work just after my freshman year, and the chance to create a game with the intention of selling it. No class has been more eye-opening for me.

Like many people who dream of making games, I started by playing them for years without any understanding of how they were actually made. SIP brought us to the process by turning 21 college students into a miniature game development company. We work in a habitat not unlike that of most indie companies: a brightly-lit, white-walled computer lab with uncomfortable swivel chairs, a scanner, and a printer. Each computer has the full Adobe Creative Suite and Autodesk Suite as well as Unity, GameMaker Pro, and various programming environments. Each team has its own row of computers and its own slice of whiteboard.

Video games are the most multi of all multimedia, and as a result require extensive collaboration. Unlike movies, there is no one director – even for a very small production, there must be an art director, a lead programmer, a manager, and a designer that holds it all together, and every person has to be on the same page. In our five-member teams some people take on multiple roles. While most people call themselves either “artist” or “programmer,” everybody makes gameplay decisions, provides input on the art, and gives quality assurance (QA) feedback for their own team as well as the other three.

Since we are using a modified Agile production method, we post updated burndown charts on the board every morning and review our completed tasks in a scrum meeting every evening. We push new builds at least once a week and send them out to everybody for testing. The advantage of Unity is that it transfers easily between iOS and computer builds, and three of the teams, including mine, optimize for both platforms.

I haven’t gotten the chance to flex my writing muscles every much, since games with more elaborate stories and casts of characters are much beyond the scope of a six week development period (the last six are for post-development, so no new content can be added). I do feel my writing is better than my 2D art, and I enjoy writing more; yet being able to do both proficiently only means I can offer more to a workplace.

It took about a week not only to get settled in but to realize that this is an amazing job and to cement the fact that I’d like to do similar things for the rest of my life. I am getting paid to make art every day – something that I normally pay others to do in a classroom – and my work is going to be viewed and enjoyed by (theoretically) hundreds of people across the country.

My group is referred to affectionately as Team Wobbles, and we are sometimes also called the Nimbii, for Play Nimbus, the independent game dev group (also found on facebook) that our fearless leader Nick Mudry formed in 2012. He’s our manager/scrum master and is in charge of social media. We also have Adam Roy, our star programmer, Mike Flood, our level designer, and Laura Gagnon, our lead artist and UI designer, all of whom were part of the team when Wobbles won Mass DiGI’s game challenge in 2012. I joined up in May 2013 for SIP, doing 2D art. I’ve worked on tilesets, environments and backgrounds, decorative assets, and some concept art.

The game is a puzzle platformer. You play a god-like figure responsible for a race of creatures called Wobbles that have little bodies, big noses, and enormous dreams. You guide them safely across stages and into the future using strategically placed gadgets, and their tech advances as time goes on: Cavemen start with fire that makes them jump, then in the Roman era, they discover an item that helps them land more safely, and on and on.

More information will be revealed in coming weeks. The first official release of Wobbles is in the beginning of August, when the program ends, though we can stick around even after SIP and make more content if the game takes off!

All The Advice I’ve Thus Far Received Regarding The Game Design Industry



Notes from PAX Panels: Gender in Video Games

I didn’t write anything down on “You Game Like a Girl: Tales of Trolls & White Knights” because I was too busy raising my hand or shouting my assent with the panelists when they asked things like “Do you go to conventions wearing nerdy t-shirts or cosplay to get the attention of men?”


The number of men in the audience was reassuring. One doesn’t often see male feminists, unfortunately, but a great many of them attended this panel rather than doing any of the other things they could’ve been doing during the time slot. It’s a start.


Notes from PAX Panels: The Future of Role Playing

The panel was held by Ryan Dancey, David Georgeson,  and Mike Laidlaw, while Greg Tito asked the questions; there quickly emerged a discrepancy between discussion about MMORPGs and single-player RPGs. I was biased towards the single-player side because MMOs have never appealed to me as strongly, but there were significant and interesting points made for both. My own responses to notes are in bold.


Mark LeBlanc’s Taxonomy of Game Pleasures

  1. Sensation: beautiful visuals, good audio, tactile pleasure
  2. Fantasy: sense of place, immersion, suspension of disbelief
  3. Narrative: sense of drama, rising tension
  4. Challenge: compelling struggle
  5. Fellowship: shared intense experience, community
  6. Discovery: exploration, revealing the hidden, variety
  7. Expression: customization, self-representation
  8. Masochism: submission to game structures, mutual agreement to “play”