I’ve still been doing some sporadic development on Substream. I got a chance over the Christmas holidays to bring it to a point where I have something to share. This is a kind of playable preview version. It’s the first two levels of what is likely to be a three or four level game later in the year. I’m really happy to have something playable out there after several years development. It should work on Windows 7 or greater. Feedback welcome… Substream Beta on itch.io
I took part in Global Game Jam for the second time this year. I worked in a team of two over forty eight hours and tackled a new engine called Amulet, coding in Lua. We created a memory game where you learn a sequence of sounds, words and patterns that build over time. We managed to get the game playable by the end of the jam, I’ve improved it a little for itch.io. You can play this one in a browser or download it for Windows or Linux… From The Top on itch.io
In my current day job (graphics programming for industrial simulators) I was recently writing some code to load volume textures. I made a mistake, and instead of seeing a rocky surface I got a pearlescent glowing road of colour:
When I flew around this shimmered something like a CD under a lamp. I took a screenshot because I liked the way it looked, and wanted to remember it. Sadly it still counted as a bug, so I had to fix it and move on.
But this made me realise I’ve done this a few times in the years I’ve been working in games and graphics programming. I dug around on my hard drive and found a few more screenshots from past projects. Quite often a bug or glitch can become accidental artwork, maybe even more interesting than the original intention.
Once I wrote a shader to make surfaces appear wet when it was raining, and then accidentally applied it to the sky:
When the graphics card in my home gaming PC broke while I was playing TrackMania major glitches ensued:
Formula One 2009 on the PSP. It took a while to find the missing pit crew. They were busy getting crazy under the track:
When image buffers weren’t get reset each frame an early build of Substream produced this:
In my modelling tool Heditor, the smoothing algorithm had an intermittent problem that created spikes instead. This took a while to fix but it looked kinda nice in it’s own way:
“If you want to know how long it will take to make your game, work out how long you think it will take, then double it”. This is a common rule of thumb not just in indie game development, but AAA game and software development too. The multiplier might vary with the experience of a company or team, but the general idea is widely understood. I took on board this sage advice when I started working on Substream. I calculated that my savings would last me about fourteen months, so I set to work on my dream game, knowing I should aim to finish it in seven. Three years on I have a full time job again, and although I still make determined progress on it by moonlight, things could have gone better. Believing in this rule of thumb is a psychologically complex problem, and I think it actually made things worse in my case. Here’s what tended to happen;
I designed a game to make in time X. I believe in the rule so I expect to finish it in time 2X.
I have lots of ideas as I go. It’s stuff that I’m sure would make the game better. I know I have 2X time, so when I ask myself whether I can fit this new thing in, it seems like I can.
Slowly but steadily, the extra spare time I’d given myself starts to fill up.
Surprise! At the end of time 2X, I’ve started integrating X more features into the project, so now I expect those to take another 2X.
It’s pretty easy to see the logical hole in this. I shouldn’t have added new features and stuck to the initial plan. That’s true, but when you see a way to make the game you’re working on better it’s hard to ignore even when you don’t think you have the time. When you have given yourself ‘spare’ time the justification just falls into your lap. Because isn’t this what that spare time is for? Unforeseen work? I’m not sure there’s an equally catchy rule of thumb or single bullet to prevent this way of thinking. The first step is to admit I am going to have lots of ideas and there will be a strong urge to fill my time. From this it’s clear that allowing myself 4X time is not going to improve things.
One approach I want to try out in future is to have all the ideas I can, write them down, and completely fill up my available time budget with brilliant ideas. Then I will heartlessly cut out half of them in such a way that the game still works. The remaining work goes up front.
Now I have a two part plan. My time is already full, but if the rule holds true then I have still made a game in an acceptable amount of time. I’d end up with a finished lower quality game, rather than half a higher quality game. That’s a much better point at which to decide whether finding some extra time to add additional features is worthwhile. That’s the decision that’s hard to say no to when I think I have unallocated time.
I’ve seen people talking about a Financial Times article on Twitter over the last few days. It’s a unique insight; a view on game design and game culture from someone very new to games. I recommend reading it. The link is below, and the rest of this blog post gives my reaction.
“Game Theory – What happens when someone who had never played video games is chosen as a judge for some gaming awards?”
I was actually blown away by this, and I think this a major achievement.
I don’t worry a great deal about the “wider cultural acceptance” of videogames. I feel like the share of the population that are gamers is large enough and invested enough that they can feel confidence in it’s worth without outside approval. But yes, the outside view of games is very different to other popular mediums. Most people who don’t regularly read books, visit museums or watch movies still have the understanding that they can create a wide range of emotions, educations and experiences. Many people who never play games do not have that understanding.
So when a person so far from the traditional video game target-market, approaching games with that background and attitude can come away not just having gained some understanding, but some enjoyment and respect is huge.
Not convinced? Try to imagine if this piece had been written in the PS2 era. Remember when “indie” wasn’t a thing, and video games could only find a market through a handful of big publishers who played it safe. When game designers repeatedly failed to pitch any ideas that strayed too far from stagnating genres. In the late nineties there was no platform to promote a game like Proteus, and no support for a game like Journey. Business models for games like this seemed impossible.
Surely the same writer’s reaction to a selection from the late nineties would have been very different. Whether or not you think there were games of artistic merit then, I think that someone with this attitude and background would not have reacted nearly as positively to the best offerings of those times. I can think of a handful of major reasons for this and some can be spotted in the article itself. It’s not my goal to go into those here, because my point is simply that these are being addressed. That’s great.
When I said “I think this a major achievement”, that doesn’t mean that I think that this article means “wider cultural acceptance” acheived. But the surface is scratched. The major achievement is that there are now games which someone who has these stereotypical negative predispositions can approach and come away from with respect and some positive insights. Obviously we still need a lot more games which do this, and do this better. Maybe we need more platforms like GameCity to set this kind of connection up. Simpler and more experimental games have been around for a while now; sometimes it’s good to remember the background they emerged from every now and then.
Dear Esther is a recently released indie “walk-em-up” which originated as a free Half-Life 2 mod. It focuses on story and exploration with no combat. I’ve seen a few online discussions asking whether this constitutes a game. There are some reviews on gaming websites which immediatelysuggest that it isn’t. I’ve seen these kind of arguments about projects such as Minecraft and Sleep is Death in the past as well.
I’m not about to quote a definition for “game” here.
In the UK in 1999 if you said you were “texting your friend” you would have been some kind of idiot. Your English teacher would have cracked a wooden ruler over your knuckles and told you that you were “composing a text to” because “text” is a noun. A few years later, “text” was added to the Oxford English dictionary as a verb because so many people were using “texting” this way that it had taken on a new meaning in the English langauge. Dictionaries are there to reflect what people mean by words, not to lay down the law.
A review might be right to suggest that Dear Esther doesn’t fit a particular definition of game, but when you scroll down to the comments and see that it’s players “favourite game so far this year” and that they “would recommend the game” it’s the definition which is going to need updating. Gaming is growing and new genres are appearing. Not all games are going to be competitive or goal driven, but I’m sure the word “game” will get carried along with this movement. Whether something is a game or not will largely be down to the public.