Category Archives: Uncategorized

Penarium, An artist perspective.

Good news! Me and my friends have agreed with Team17 to publish Penarium. Being on the project from the start by doing all the artwork and seeing it evolve was pretty cool. The fact that a big company has the faith to put their name on it is also cool. I’m proud but I have to say that it hasn’t really sinked in yet. Probably because we have so much stuff to do yet. I will tell you how it was for me as an artist.

About a year ago my friend and former-classmate Rick came to me with a neat idea for a platformer game in a dark circus theme. I was instantly excited because the 19th century circus has always intrigued me, Especially in video games. It’s a place where weirdness meets fear and nostalgia, A nostalgia for a time I never even lived in. I thought “Yes, We should make this game together.”

It was time to start pixelating but where did I start? The colours. For my pixel art I use a limited number of colours. I’t maker for small files and easier restyling if needed. I figured I needed some colours that were associated with the theme. Which is the 20’s if I wanted to get the game’s theme across. It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly is a colour linked with a time period. It’s very subjective. Generally if you watch a movie and you see a colour in the background or on somebody’s dress and it hits you then that’s a good indication that you’re on the right track. I myself got hit a lot when I watched the TV show Carnivale which is about a circus traveling the US in the 1930’s.

Those bleak canvas colours just scream 'old circus'.

Those bleak canvas colours just scream ‘old circus’.

I paid attention to the things happening in the background. Stopped the screen and took color notes (which is just picking a color in Photoshop). With those colours I started working on the game’s player sprite. We wanted to create an unusual hero.  One whose juxtaposition between his physique and his athletic performance would create a comical effect but most important: One you felt sympathy for when he would die. I created a round shaped character in the line of Laurel and Hardy. Slapstick is a form of comedy from another age but it’s very present in Penarium. There are so many ways the player can come to an end and so Penarium is kinda what you’d get if Laurel and Hardy was really really brutal. I gave him a red hairdo because I have a friend who worked at a circus fair who also had red hair. Yes. It’s just that simple. My friends name is Wilco, We call him Willy. And so the name for the game’s character was born.

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When he’s not being chased by death machines Willy is actually quite cheery.

Then there was the level background. It had to be circus-like and there had to be some audience. I started pixelating everything and it took a while for me to get something nice on the screen. At first I tried to draw everything on a big canvas of 800×600. but I wasn’t good enough at pixel art to bring detail to such a giant screen. It would be a lot of work. I proposed to make the game 400×300 instead and just scale up every pixel to twice its size. We did. And the game got its current chunky pixel look. First I tried to make some indoor levels. With a circus tent an all. Didn’t really work. Then I tried to do an outdoor level at night because this game was going to be ‘dark’. It worked for a while and we developed and tested the game for quite some time with a beautiful nighttime level with spotlights and lit-up clouds and a starry heaven. And for a time all was good.

From a time where the deathtrap circus was the only form of entertainment.

From a time where the deathtrap circus was the only form of entertainment.

Then. After a while, As if fate demanded it. We started questioning it again. We asked “Is this right?”. It was not right. At that time we did not know what platform Penarium was going to be released upon but we would want to showcase our game on events to potential investors. The quickest way to do that was to have the game ready on our phone so we could whip it out during a conversation. I figured that if this game was going to be mobile then we needed to change the level background. Mobile players have to be able to play their games anywhere anytime, That means outside during the day. That means screen glare. The nighttime level wouldn’t cause the screen to light up enough so people would have trouble seeing what’s going on at the screen. We changed it to a bright daytime level.

I make it sound like smooth sailing don’t I? For the most part this project is fun to work on but I had my share of nightmares! Like the old animation system. To amplify the sense of spectacle we aim to make the player’s demise visually gruesome. It was my job to make a separate specific death animation for every single obstacle in the game. Imagine a guy being blown to pieces by a rocket. There’s blood and body parts flying in every direction. Right? The problem was that these animations could only fit in a very small frame. I spent a long hard week making about 20 different animations while biting my knuckles out of frustration with the small frame. And then we used none of them. Was I mad? No.

Gruesome to see? More like gruesome to make!

Gruesome to see? More like gruesome to make!

We tested it but found out that with this fast-paced platformer there were a lot of situations where the death animations did not cope with the the moment. After that I just made a separate head, separate limbs and some body parts, Which we call ‘gibs’, and we put it in the game. This time we let the game do the animation. For example: When Willy gets hit by a giant bowling ball the game calculates how hard he gets hit and from what direction. Then it lets blood and gibs fly around based on that. It’s a rough version of physics we apply to a lot of things in the game. Like our water. But that is a story for another time.

More things like these tend to pop up over a game’s production but there are three things that pull me through this: I like the setting of the game. I like the people I work with and I think Penarium is a super fun game to play. If any joy or despair comes up I will certainly share it on Twitter. See you in the circus.

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GDC is not the coolest thing ever.

I went to the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It’s a big conference. It was fun and interesting but it wasn’t all that great. I will tell you the why but first: Why did I decide to fly to the other side of the planet and spend over a €1000 for the largest game developer conference there is? Because I thought it would help me make new contacts, Profile myself as a game maker and spread word about the two games I’m working on. One of these games did not fare so well.

First there is Penarium which I make with my friends at Self Made Miracle It’s a crazy arcade survival platformer. Words don’t do it justice so here’s a trailer:

We got invited to pitch the game to representatives of a major game/console manufacturer in a hotel conference room. This is one of the things we did. The presentation was very informal and the other side showed a neutral/positive reception. We can’t really tie any conclusions to it yet. The other game is Mutant Gangland. A turn-based strategy game for mobile and desktop. Inspired on Advance Wars and set in a future war between robots and mutants. I make this game with Bacioiu and Grace.

I love this game but not many people got to see it. Penarium is easy to introduce to people. It’s a platformer with almost no premise but ‘survive’ and ‘collect barrels’ through jumping an running. Mutant Gangland is harder. Most turn-based games have unique mechanics that only show their elegance after multiple turns. It requires easing and explaining and on a conference not everybody has time for that. I feel like this is one of the reasons Mutant Gangland did not get the attention it deserves and I need to find a way to fix that for future events. Another reason is that I found it very hard to spread word about two games simultaneously. Meeting new people (and potential future supporters) on the  conference floor can be a very short ordeal. When I meet someone who asks me what games I make I feel like the time shortage forces me to pick just one. Most of the times I picked the instantly understandable one: Penarium.

I also booked the trip, the tickets and the hotel together with the Penarium team. Often this conference felt like a Penarium mission and it would feel like a jerk move to plug another game during that. I need to find a solution for this because I really love both games. On the other hand the TBS (turn-based strategy) genre has some hardcore fans. Some people straight up love these games. I think it’s up to me to find those people and maybe a conference is not the best place for that. Or maybe I just don’t know who made what cool strategy game and did I just not pull the right people on their sleeves. A good move for next time would be to get in touch with the people at 17Bit who made the extremely amusing Skulls Of The Shogun or the people from Xcom. They were probably there at the conference and it hurts my head just thinking about this in hindsight.

I think that’s the one great thing about GDC. There’s a lot of people there and if you really want to hook up with them you can. I saw many people who I think I know somehow. I just didn’t know what to say to them. Maybe it just feels unnatural to me to force myself into a conversation or to steer a conversation to “play my game!”. Not everybody has. I met some people who seamlessly eased a nice conversation into just basically boasting about all the things they did and what they were known for. I also heard a lot of namedropping. Like “I went to school with famous dude X”. This was often followed by a short moment of silence because I don’t know famous dude X. I am an ostrich. Maybe on purpose. Maybe I just want to make friends and maybe those friends will one day be supporters. Maybe that’s why Mutant Gangland rolled so slow.

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From http://www.andrewle.com/about

I also noticed how people come to this conference with various intentions. Before I went there I thought everybody at the GDC would have the same mission as us: To show the world what they are working on, Spreading the word hoping someone would pick it up. But no: We booked 3 beds in a 4 bed room and the fourth guest turned out to be a Ohio student and artist who also attended the conference. His goal was to find a job but he also took part in many a drinking game with his fellow classmates who also slept in the hostel. It’s not that he did not take this seriously but the way things were done is going to the conference floor at day, Going by all the career booths to show his portfolio, And go out to a beer party at night. Get boozed up. Hope to randomly run into a bigshot and then maybe get a job offer somehow.

There are also people who attend the show to learn things. There are a lot of talks being given and some of them can be extremely useful. I myself have a hard time sitting still on a chair. This is one of the reason I did not go the IGF Awards, Which is apparently some kind of relevant award show for games. I never heard of it before but it looked like a bunch of people sitting in a giant hallway listening to one category after another. I thought that to be a detraction from my mission. We saw this GDC as our only shot to show the world what we are up to. We need to actively work and lobby our game in order for it to generate results. Then there are the AAA studio people. The programmers, designers and artists who are already in the clear. Their PR person takes care of all the talking and for these folks GDC is just one big school trip where every night is about partying for the sake of partying. We party too. But only in the hopes we get to make connections somehow.

This brings me to the next point: Don’t rule people out based on their appearance. First of all because this is a vain and mean thing to do and second because everybody is a potential friend and supporter. We went to a dance party in an industrial area. The doorman sat on a stool and he looked pretty savage. He was a big guy with spiked bracelets. He had had piercings and tattoos all over his face and body. He wore a shirt with a skull on it and had a list with names of people who were allowed in. When we were up he asked us if we made games and gave us all his business card with a huge Sony logo. This badass brutal doorman worked at Sony and just managed a club as a side thing. We did not know this but we were friendly and it paid off. So be friendly, Always.

It’s also safe to be careful about what street you walk in the dark. San Francisco has a dark side. Many drunks and addicts roam the street and many homeless people also. I have no problem with this but some are extremely persistent about getting your money. Like walking along with me  while begging for change, Not taking ‘no’ for an answer and shouting “f*ck you you one armed b*tch” when they give up. To even beating  you up and taking your wallet after dark. This did not happen to me but it happened to others in seemingly safe areas. I think it’s best to not travel alone in the evening and night.

Something I need to better prepare next time is the reservations for the parties. The five days of GDC go like this: Until 6 PM the conference floor is open and in the evening there are multiple parties spread all over the city. All of these need reservations and I felt this was always this buzz around the  air of “Where are you going?”. Always that feeling I might miss out on the coolest crew or the hippest party. It’s not good for me at all. Also: going out for five days is a row is extremely tiring.

So tiring that I was sick twice during my stay in San Francisco. I think due to a number of reasons, I didn’t sleep enough, I did somehow not get enough vitamins and I came across a lot of people.  And man San Francisco can be expensive! Somehow a bowl of fruit was one of the rarest and most pricey things on many menus. At all the places I went people looked at me like I was crazy when I said “Just fruit”. Sodas are cheap though. You can get cola everywhere and I paid many visits to the deli across our hostel. I thought Cola, with all its bubbles and chemicals would help me fight the cold. I’m not sure it did.

Then there is the Indie hostel. Somewhere in time one of San Francisco’s 57890 hostels was dubbed The Indie Hostel. You have to make reservation quite early. It’s pricier than the surrounding hostels and it’s chock full of game people. If you haven’t booked at the hostel you can’t get in though (as in all SF hostels). But reading from Twitter it seems like the most fun place in the world. Meetings, parties, Cool indies hanging out. It’s all there and if you haven’t booked you’re missing out. There’s people tweeting about how much fun they are having, Making inside jokes about things nobody understands. It makes me feel left out and I can totally understand if the rest of the world would rather turn Twitter off during the week of GDC.

I believe there are a number of people saying their GDC was super awesome because they thought it was so but I also believe there is an even greater number of people who had a mediocre GDC but will still say it was super awesome because everyone else says it was super awesome. For me it was just mediocre. It should’ve prepared better but even then I doubt I’d have much from from seeing way too much faces for five days. Afterwards I’m still not sure the total experience paid off. Maybe this is a thing that benefits from repetition. One of the days I saw a kid with a laptop sitting outside asking passers by if they would play his game. Many people did and he paid $0 for it. He never bought a GDC ticket. He just sat outside hustling his game. For now that kid is my hero.

 

 

 

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Mutant Gangland So Far

Mutant Gangland, Our uncomplicated turn-based strategy game that just hit Alpha. It’s set amid a future gangwar between robots and mutants. I will now tell you about this game’s past, present, and future.

History:
First of all this game is made by a core crew of three people who never met each other in real life. Bacioiu is from Romania, Grace from England, and I’m from The Netherlands. How did we meet? On Twitter. I’ll call Bacioiu ‘Zapa’ from now on. Zapa loves strategy games. To be even more specific he loves the TBS* Advance Wars. About a year ago he started coding and playing around with his long brooding idea of making a turn based strategy game like Advance Wars but even shorter battles. Or a coffee-break TBS as he called it. *Turn-Based Strategy game. Where players take turns.

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Being my friend he asked me if I could make some temporary art he could use until he found a final artist. I liked the idea of the game and I offered to be that final artist myself UNDER ONE CONDITION!: I got the to make up a theme and setting for the game. Being a supporter of creative freedom, Zapa said “Yes, Whatever”. Great! So? Where to start? I wanted to do something with masks. And then came the robots and then the mutants and the concept was born. A futuristic wasteland where gangs of robots and mutants fight over turfs of land. We figured it would take us about a few weeks to make it.

Five months later and we’re are all still working behind our desks. All in different parts of the Europe We promised the world a release for January 28. Of course nobody in the world really cares for that but we feel it. It looms over our shoulder as there are but hours to go. Zapa is smoking, cursing, and coding, I myself am destroying my only hand over attack animations that I by now see even when I sleep, and Grace is chained to her headphones as she forges the final pieces of sound and music. It’s hard and it’s tense but on January 28 we did deliver Mutant Gangland Alpha 1 to the world. Clap.

Present:
It’s our first personal release. We put it up own Itch.io along with an amazing trailer. So far we sold 60 units.  I suspect most of them are Twitter friends that humour us along with some family. That’s all part of the plan. Before we go really large we waited for big bugs or mistakes to arise out of the initial feedback. Some useful mails were written to us and we took a few days to adress most of those. Even add some smart interface touches. We now have that new version up for download.

Future:
From here on we are going to sit back and analyse the response. We’ll mix that with our own idea with what we like to see in the game. Fierce discussions will be had because Zapa and I are two different sides of the same coin. Where he has a giant legacy of played games I have the intentional view of an oblivious newcomer. When I stare at a small corner of a painting Zapa sees all of the gallery as a whole. He is coffee, I am tea. There will be blood and when the dust clears there will stand a box for all of you to open. Mutant Gangland Alpha 2.

No release day yet.

 

 

 

 

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10 single sentence game reviews (part 2)

I don’t like reading reviews. Too many words. That’s why I started writing super short reviews myself. I had fun doing that last time. Did you like it too? Good news! I gamed enough again so here’s 10 more single sentence game reviews!

Walking Dead
Unreadable facial expressions and awkward pauses aside every choice sticks and there are some tough one’s to be made in this tale of people you hate or like or care about.

walkdeaddinner
Hitman Absolution
I won’t notice that it’s less open than the others because that instant thrill of handling the unexpectedness with brutal decision making is still there.

Dead Rising 2
I felt both laid back by the daylight setting and stressed out by the ticking clock and oh there are zombies too.

DMC
Constantly kicking ass and constantly being challenged doing so and still making you feel like a badass is an accomplishment.

Spelunky
It looks cute and plays delicious but dying a thousand deaths feels like something from an age I left behind on purpose.

Bioshock Infinite
It has pointless looting, unfitting combat and a heroine that looks like a pedophile’s dream but it’s staged in a world I will remember for years.

Tomb Raider
It would only be acceptable if this too gunfight heavy spectacle was not a game about Lara, the undisputed queen of climbing.

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The Last of Us
High polish and pacing trick you into believing that sneaking and choking from cut scene to cut scene is something extraordinary.

Gome Home
In its mechanics I see no innovation at all but damn this love story makes me want to hug and never let go these people.

Dark Souls
Even its insanely cool dark style and setting and glorious world can’t pull me through dying over and over and over again.

That’s it. I have a few more games stacked on my couch. I’m just buying to to release a whopping ten more reviews in a third part. In the meantime feel free to discuss games and gaming with me on Twitter. 

 

 

 

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How GTA 5 makes driving fun

I like driving around in GTA 5. Unlike real life it’s quite smooth. Driving like that doesn’t just fall out of the sky. This is the oompth 3D GTA and the makers have picked up lots of little tricks and tweaks to save you from annoyances. Here are some of those tricks explained.

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The Plastic Pole:
The most obvious of them all. Streetlights, lanterns and fire hydrants snap loose when you hit them as opposed to stopping your car. It just slows the car a bit down. This highlights a concept that most of these tricks are based on: Driving is fun, Standing still is awful. Think of that frustration that jolts through your body the moment your car comes to a sudden halt. That has to be avoided and that’s why most poles won’t stop you.

Nobody likes hitting them though. Based on knowledge of real life, players still know you’re not supposed to hit them. The bonus is that when you actually do it gives you a small sense of power. It’s you vs an obstacle and you won.

The Perfect Space:
It’s one of the mostly glorious things to do in GTA. Speeding down the road and slipping through the perfect space between two other cars cars on the road. Feels good right? You’d be amazed how often you can pull this off with a bit of practice and the fact that GTA meticulously places each car with just enough space to fit your vehicle in. All that driving in the gap between two cars is part of the plan. In fact: even the space between cars is so well aligned both front and side that you can perfectly swerve left and right as you pass them by.

The blind eye:
Secret: You make more bumps than you know. The game is just protecting your feelings by letting very tiny collisions go unnoticed. They don’t make a sound and they don’t stop your car. If you got so close to a car that you thought “Good I didn’t hit that one” then you probably did.

The Slow Rest:
You don’t notice it until you stand still but most other cars drive way under the speed limit even on the highway. This has 2 effects: you feel like you are going fast because you are passing by everyone else even if you drive a garbage truck. Also: On intersections cars coming from the left and right don’t pop up as sudden as they would when driving regular speed. Because most players have total disregard for stopping lights I suspect the number 1 cause of crashes is still being rammed from the side though.

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The Magic Flip:
After driving a car for a while you kind of bond with it. Nothing is worse than finding yourself being upside down when all you did was racing off a cliff with 80 mph.  To prevent you from having to part with your new friend the game lets you jinx the laws of physics but wiggling the car with your stick until it flips on its wheels again. This is where the game sacrifices realism for the sake of you keeping your car.

Mid-air Magic:
An evolution of the car-flip and a  gimmick that’s most arcade-ish, least realistic. You can steer the pivot of a car when it’s making a jump…so that’s in mid air. It looks fake but only a bit. It benefits the smoothness because you can prevent cars from hitting the floor face first. More important: it puts you in slight control and in driving games (or almost any game) being in control feels good. even if you crash horribly afterwards.

The Self-conscious Hood:
Sometimes your car is dented and the hood pops up blocking the view of the road for the third person camera. After 5 seconds the front hood grows a conscience and knows it’s not welcome anymore. it will automatically let loose and you’ll be free again. This happens every single time a hood pops up. Guaranteed.

The Ghost Door:
It might mean nothing to you but if you are only slightly compulsive then driving around with a car with one door closed and the other open may rub you the wrong way. It does me. Good that when making a turn the door slams shut and there is symmetry again. Inner peace. Real life car doors have a mechanism the prevents them from shutting but GTA knows that just doesn’t make players feel good when driving 120 mph. The best thing about it is that it doesn’t close automatically but only when you make a turn. Giving you the feeling you are in direct control of the situation.

If you’re curious what difference this makes you can play Sleeping Dogs which doesn’t feature these super doors. It’s agony.

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The not much traffic:
On one side it’s a performance saver but it’s also extremely convenient the streets are not sprawling with cars. It’s not exactly empty on the streets but it’s not crowded either. Why? Because you probably couldn’t handle driving as fast as you like with so much traffic around. The game tries to strikes a balance between believable crowded but also manageably empty. GTA knows you are a lunatic and though a certain amount of obstacles can be fun there’s really not much use for more cars than there are already.

The invisible hand:
There is an invisible hand at work here. When hitting the brakes it’s amazing how often your car comes back on track after it seemed to spiral out of control. I suspect this is staged. The game knows where your car is and also where the roads are and I feel like every once in a while it pushes the car slightly back on the road because the most important thing about driving is keeping on driving.

And finally the coolest of them all…

The reverse and brake move:
I like to see this as a secret move. The race gods are always in your favour when you want to get out of a situation by doing this: Drive in reverse, Hit the brakes, Steer to a side and hit the gas. You will have turned around your car almost perfectly in line with the road again. I can’t help thinking this is predetermined. Pulling this move is like an invisible hand reaches from the sky to make sure you get back on the grid to continue racing but it also makes you feel like a totally cool driver.

Those are the tricks I know. I could be seeing things that aren’t there and maybe I’m missing out on some huge aspects but what do I know? I’ve only made $950.000 doing cab jobs so far. Don’t worry though. There is still plenty of things to be annoyed by. Like the fact sometimes cars can instantly explode upon crashing…yeah.

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In development: Penarium

Me and my friends are working on a little platformer where you are trapped in an eternal carnival ride of death! Fun!


Here you control Willy. You’re stuck on 5 platforms and you’ll have to dodge a crazy variety of deathmachines and environmental hazards while collecting bucks. Maybe you can make it out.

In other news: Laurent is plowing and reshaping the code of Robo Danzor Tactics so we can add new special effects and single player mode. Give it some time.

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I hate zombies but I hate vampires even more.

So I’m doing this game jam where you are supposed to make a game you normally hate. I also told how I love robots and how I was going to put robots in my game…

Sounds like someone wasn’t thinking enough.

When Fill this Jam was set up they probably mostly had hate for game design in mind. I think it can apply to art just as well. Took me a while to figure it out though. I was talking to my friend Zapa and when he mentioned something about zombies. I thought “no man, I hate…” And it was too late. Maybe it’s not how this jam was intended but I felt guilty because I don’t really hate turn-based dungeon rogue likes. I find them intimidating. So I had to pick up something. Zombies it would be.

It gets worse.

I told my girlfriend that I was going to change the theme from robots to zombies because hating tropes was all this jam was about. She stopped me and said “but you don’t hate zombies. You are just tired of them. What you really hate is vampires”

That’s when I sunk further. By now I have accepted my fate but I hate vampires so much that I wouldn’t even want to jam with them. I know I have to and I will. But only on my terms! Here is how my vampires are going to behave:

No hissing:
I see it in movies all the time. It’s supposed to impress me but it doesn’t : A vampire shows up. Opens its mouth for a while and makes some hissing sound. My cat does that too and I’m not afraid of my cat. Either keep your mouth shut or keep your mouth open.

No tilting the head:
If hissing won’t scare you they can always use that slightly tilt of the head to make it even more “psycho”. Thing is I’ve seen too many deathmetal videos and it just reminds me of failed attempts at larp or gothic. My vampires won’t do that. No tilting. It’s silly. stop it. stop.

No prettiness:
I almost vomit at the thought of the vampire mythos’ sexual subtext. I never thought anything about them to be sensual . Not their power, Not their eternal life. When I see a film and some hot dude or chick does something that’s supposed to be sexy I just feel embarrassed. It’s like I’m watching a comedian that nobody finds funny. My vampires won’t be hot. Or even slightly bearable. They will be stone cold hideous. They’re MONSTERS remember?

No talking:
9 out of 10 times when a vampire talks it’s an attempt to be cool by saying something witty or dark. “Your flesh will taste delicious tonight” or “don’t worry. I will make it quick”. I don’t care about such one-liners. You will never match “yippee ki yay” or “Cowabunga”. To prevent my vampires from sounding like self-obesessed jerks I took their ability to talk. They don’t talk. Ever.

Not just two teeth:
When a vampire opens its mouth and there’s just two sharp teeth I think “somebody went to a carnival shop with only 50 cents” The same suspicion of laziness comes to mind when I see a new alien in Star Trek and they’re clearly actors with some random putty on their forehead. Two slightly longer teeth? Is that how you “transform” ? Oh you have red eyes too? whoa! I guess you doubled your effort to look convincing! My vampires won’t do with just 2 teeth. There will be sharp teeth all the way.

When I sum that up I get something like this:

They are the three different enemy types we have so far. Arranged by power. I made these and to be honest I had a lot of fun doing so!

There already is a vampire that has all the things i seek for: Nosferatu.
The one from the film named after him. Coolest vampire ever. No talking, no pretty face, no glitter or mixed feelings. No tilting the head or silly hissing. Just a all-in scary-teeth-all-over-quiet-scary-staring blood-sucker. Similar dudes can be found in other movies as well. But for this jam Nosferatu is my guide.

The theme will be vampires and it pisses me off.

Disclaimer: If you want to tell me about how I look past the virtue of subtlety and subtext and power of the vampire: I know all about the virtue, subtlety and subtext and I wipe my butt with it.

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20 games reviewed in 1 sentence

I make games but I also play a lot. Both struggle for my time and I always feel guilty for neglecting one if I do the other. Now that is a first world problem.

I also try to avoid reviews. I like to be surprised and like my bias to be clean. Also: some reviews are too long to read. I have a solution. Make it shorter. It’s crazy to try to capture all a game has to offer with so little words but life is short so here are 20 game reviews with one sentence:

Batman Arkham City
The stylistic stew of all the comics and movies plus some fitting and solid mechanics give you the empowering feeling that you are indeed the batman.

Mass Effect 3
Tough choices make this compelling a game with just above average action mechanics and a great initial ending because closure is bullshit.

Dishonored
I gleefully sneaked around guards that are too stupid for me to believe in a beautiful world that could do with less obvious and ever-present detours.

Dead Space 2
A game with an unbelievably uncomfortable environment that doesn’t understand it could be twice as scary if it showed half as many monsters.

Skyrim
The package of music,lore,people,landscape and simple mechanics will warmly welcome me inside its world for years to come.

Ghost Recon Future Soldier 
This game strikes a weird balance between being challenging while also making me feel unfairly powerful with all the gadgets.


Swords and Sworcery
Sometimes I don’t get what’s going on but sometimes there’s the joy of being a kid looking at a picture book in a foreign language.

Super Lemonade Factory
Pretty, clever and so tough as nails you’d almost give up on the humor and back-story.

Journey
Seamless? yes, Gorgeous? Very much, Harmless multiplayer? yes, good job but it’s also bordering boredom.

Resident Evil 6
The most tragic victim of gearsofwar-ification keeps true to its roots and fun for the first 6 hours and rots to action set-pieces after that.

Tokyo Zoo
The neat translation of survival into simple mechanics works so well that under its fast clock I really am focused on staying alive primarily.

LA Noire
I still feel like the viewer instead of the detective but it’s fun to guess who did it while unravaling the plot and with a setting as great as this one it’s a comfy slowride.

Sleeping Dogs
Kicking, Driving, Shooting, It’s all there and some are done better than other but where the hell is proper climbing and why do I have to punish a girl that supposedly cheated on me?

XCOM Enemy Unknown
With its meticulous structure of sliders and paths the ultimate simulation of war with all its gripping losses and treasured victories.

Uncharted 3
1 in every 4 ledges Drake grabs will almost fall through in the game with impressive setpieces and a guy that sure smiles a lot considering the number of people he kills.

Deus Ex Human Revolution
A warm coat of techy music, architecture and gold hues make this a sneaker that’s comfy and solid even in the darkest alleys but don’t mention the boss battles.

Alan Wake
A true shame for such a cool plot and my favorite setting to exhibit mechanics that makes sense but bore when feeling this repetitive.

Mark of the Ninja
So much blackness that I can’t play it in daylight but a true ninja works at night and has fun with the stealth elements in doing so.

Duel of the Planeswalkers 2013
No idea how it plays for newcomers but after 15 years of playing Magic there is so much fun to be had even if it was just for finding the exploits in the AI.

Army of Two; the 40th Day
One of the leads sums it up with “ow come on!” after we see a crashing chopper block the way because there is only so much action I can take and this game paces it decently plus apologizes with humor for where it falls short.

Note that I played more games than this. I’m saving some for the next time.
And yes: We are finally done shooting the trailer for Paper vs Paper.We are editing it all right this moment. Sit tight.

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Game Worlds: Deus Ex’s Hengsha vs Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong

There are two games I played a lot lately and they are both (at some point) staged in a Chinese supercity. Sleepings Dogs with Hong Kong, And Deus Ex Human Revolution with Hengsha. I have an affinity for asian architecture so i´d like to compare.

Different type of games need different levels. One is 1st person and the other is 3rd person and mechanics dictate the environment on both accounts.
Here are the perimeters I used to compare:

Size, Detail, Interaction, Real World Likeness, Ambient Sound and Navigation Benchmark. For shorter sentences i will from now on refer to Deus Ex Human Revolution and Sleeping Dogs as DX and SD. You will thank me later.

Size.
A level does’nt have to be bigger if it’s big enough to enjoy yourself in. A huge damper on enjoyment is the feeling of boundaries in the playing field. Hengsha is the smallest of the two but it’s also designed to function as a maze. This constantly shifts your perception of what the actual border of the level is. You will rarely feel as if you actually hit a wall. It might not appear huge but it does appear endless.

Hong Kong is huge but there are cars. The player’s perception of the size of a world is related to how fast he/she can travel from one place to another. With sportscars as fast as these, travelling from top to bottom takes under 5 minutes. Just a little more as it would take Jensen to travel all of Hengsha by foot. Unlike Hengsha, Hong Kong might still have places you won’t have seen after hours of playing. But you also less likely to care as much. Hengsha’s small size makes it comprehendible enough to make you want to finish the unconsiously set task of exploring it wholly.

Detail.
Or as i like calling it “behind every corner is another corner”. How much is there to see per square mile? This is especially relevant for asian supercities as space can be scarce. SD has its share of accessible buildings and there is no piece of space that appears as if it could use a bit more attention. What Hengsha lacks in space is more than made up for with the fact that you can get into buildings. see people have some chit-chat. climb on top of stuff and joyfully discover little corners every time. Both games are on the same level when it comes to texturing and geometry. The detail is in the number of buildings you can get inside and how they’re connected through vent ducts. alleyways and sewer systems. With a little more effort SD could have some of these but it would be useluss because of the player perspective. DX’s 1st person view allows for much better navigation in small spaces. It would be a struggle to move through such small spaces in the 3rd person view SD has.

So DX has denser connections and smaller streets but it’s not just the view: Again, SD has cars and the streets are wider apart because the cars need to be able to fit through these. Even streets that would be narrower in real life are broadened up for you to keep on driving. This is the part of realism SD sacrificed.

I did some math and a game that would have the level size of SD and the detail of DXHR would take about 3400 years to make.

Interaction.
Your level of immersion is related to how much you can interact with your surroundings. This is part of what makes games like Skyrim and Fallout fun. As pointed here. The good news is that both cities offer a wealth of this. In SD You can shop for clothes, Drink green thea, Do Karaoke, Hurt people (this one’s important) and climb on some buildings. Some. but not all. The game decides whether Wei Shen will climb or not when you run into a wall. This hurts your experience because it breaks the illusion of the game designer’s god hand absence.

Is this important? yes!
For the sake of fun, When playing a game your mind is willing to discard the knowledge you are simulating instead of really experiencing. You know it’s not true but your mind is able to trick itself. It needs some help though. It’s about meeting or breaking the player’s expectations of what is possible. But a players expectation of how a game environment functions is based on the system of how real life environments function. Anything that breaks with the perception of a functioning game world is a reminder that everything is just fake. Dealbreakers.  like the absurd disability to climb a seemingly easily climbable obstacle. Every time Wei can’t somehow climb onto something. you are reminder about how fake this all is.

That won’t happen as much in DX. You can jump on pretty much any platform you see. Which is is quite something for Jensen has a mighty high jump. You can also break into people’s houses. empty their vault and plant their fridges on their beds. Quite the mayhem.  You will never be able to see them come home and freak out though. The ability to move inside buildings gives the player a premise upon seeing a building from the outside. The premise that you might be able to go in. That you are able to get inside the larger geometry at display.

The people on the street also react to you with both games. Nobody likes you carrying a gun, people cower when you assault someone publicly and strangely utter sentences that are non-replyable. The cower in fear part is an important one. Though both games are not specifically meant for you to cause mayhem among citizens, the do account for it. Because many players enjoy doing it and more important: A world with citizens not responding would break your suspension of disbelief.

Real World Likeness.
How much it is like the real thing is not as important as how much it feels like the real thing. Both games are made for a western audience and there’s some tricks to abuse when you want that “authentic” Asian atmosphere. The opening hours of SD display every China cliché you can think of: Busy Night Markets, Red Lanterns, Herbal Thea, Kung-Fu school and  this and that instrument.

Cheap. But you do feel like you’re in Asia. And guess what. You will encounter these in real world Hong-Kong, and not just just in the tourist area. SD’s Hong Kong does look like Real World’s Hong Kong. But there’s more than just the cliche tricks to make that work.

Like the great GTA 4. Immense research has gone into capturing the landmarks, atmosphere and general architecture of  a real city. When playing, you can sense that you are moving around in an actually functional city. Just take a moment and sum up what it would take for a city to function properly.  In SD it’s all there. Everything is accounted for. From city halls, to schools to drainage systems. It’s pretty much based on the real city. They made the floorplan first (aka take a map of Hong Kong and chop bits off)  and then worried about how to put a game in that. Like advocated here.

The exact opposite is DXHR. First came the abilities and the mechanics. Then they built a world to cater for that. Add to that the fact they had to cleverly camouflage a limited size and you have the makings of a super well designed world. But does it look like the real world Hengsha? You be the judge. Here is a picture of a typical Hengsha landscape.

The real Hengsha is about 55.74 km2 more of the stuff above. It’s a small rural island of Shanghai. Did I mention that DXHR is set in the year 2027? Here, Hengsh is a densely packed city with a city on top of it. There is an off chance the year 2027 will be exactly like in the game but i would not bet on it.

It’s forgivable they sacrificed some “realism” for the sake of making it so much fun to play in. SD does it for driving. DX does it for walking and questing.  DX’s Hengsha is not based on the real thing. It’s mashed up of bits and pieces taken from photographs, visits and concept art of other cities. But is does feel like an asian city! For one it has all the cliches and most important is that they remembered what makes Asian city architecture remarkable: that behind every corner is another corner. Fun fact: Making – offs reveal that DX’s Hengsha is based a great deal on Hong-Kong (And Blade Runner, which also takes notes from that city)

SD is pretty much a virtual Hong Kong with bits chopped off. DX is not like Hengsha at all but does have all the sights that are typically Asian. Both went for a balance between authenticity and fun. With a focus on the latter. It does not have to be like it is in the real world if the alternative is more fun. But one way to make a gameworld feel more credible is to incorperate patterns players can recognize from their experiences with real world cities. There is a certain logic in the placement of things in most big cities. DX does not have that logic but compensates in other ways.

Ambient Sound.
We gamers have only sight and sounds to take in the experience of our gaming worlds. That makes both pretty important. Which one makes you feel more like you are actually there? SD is in many ways similar to GTA4. Also in the fact that when you drive, You hear the music of the car radio. That music stops when you get out. But DX has music almost as part of it’s city’s soundscape. It smoothly fades in and out and makes subtle use of oriental instruments. It lingers, is pretty exotic and does a great job in making you familiar with the place upon multiple sessions. (you will visit the city twice in the game and the second time it’s like meeting an old friend).But the ambient sound of SD is very good. As a test: play the game with your eyes closed. You can just completely imagine what is happening and where you are. there all kinds of sounds, close and far. And it varies from place to place.  Add to this the fact that SD’s world has realistic colours and DX drenches everything in the golden hue that marks the whole game. It appears that DX wants to bring you atmosphere and SD wants to bring you location.

Navigation Benchmark.
Suppose you passed out and you wake up in the middle of a level. Just by looking around could you recognize where exactly you are? You would if there was something to see that is particular for that place. Could be a certain unique configuration of walls or a placement of chairs. But it could also be a tall recognizable building. These are benchmarks and most open world make good use of these. Like how McDonalds thought it would be cool to put a huge M on a tall pole. Kids in cars can spot those things from a distance and it makes them crazy. It gives them direction as to where to go. Medieval cities have it too. Often a huge tower. On the other side there is the inside of an Ikea store. Which has 0 benchmarks. They want people to get lost so they stay longer.

Hengsha is like that. It has some recognizable buildings but you wont be able to see them until you’re right in front of those. It’s very hard to navigate through. But then again it’s Asia. Some people don’t like the way it’s designed but i find that more people do. I scanned some forums for player’s reception of it’s design and most of it goes like this. be sure to check the replies.  It’s nice to get lost there in the Hengsha they made,

SD is not like that. You won’t be lost. Some buildings are re-used throughout the map but on a larger scale there is a variance in surrounding depending on where you are. There’s the industrial Area, The upper class area, The deep down and dirty streets and crazy-busy nightlife streets. You can seperate these from each other. Then of course there’s the larger copies of Hong-Kong landmarks. Most alleyways are too much alike but the places that matter, the numberous garages for example. Are so different from each other that  you’ll always be able to tell where you are. And then there’s the smart thing where they place relevant places next to other relevant places. If you see one of them you’ll be able to connect the dots and go “if that’s the garage then i must be close to the clothing store”. mission accomplished.

Conclusion.
On the surface these games’ worlds are much alike but they differ in many aspects.  A big factor  in this is the leaner, more flexible first person perspective which allows navigation in smaller spaces. Then there’s the presence of vehicles which warp the needed space between buildings and overall size. They try to achieve different things. They cater for different mechanics and are effective in doing so. The only thing that is genuinely evil is the fact that some walls cannot be climbed in SD. And there’s no telling why some walls are more climbable than others.

In open worlds this is the grandest of sins.

 

 

 

 

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Meaningful choice for talking about games

We used to talk a lot about the games we played when i was still in school. We shared how we experienced the games. Kinda like reviewing but not criticizing.  It was fun. The games we most talked about in the past four years were probably Mass Effect and Fallout.  Games that were way less discussed were Burnout, Call of Duty and Uncharted. We all played and liked all of them. So why are some games more talked about than others?

 

I suspect that this holds relation to the amount and weight of the decisions players can make in the game, and how much these can diversify the experience. Mass Effect offers choices to follow mulitiple lines of play resulting in different endings. giving different cut-scenes and powers.

This is not as true for a shooter like Call of Duty where you follow a linear path. Race games are the same for this matter. This way, each player’s experience is more likely to be similar whereas those of Mass Effect is widely divergent.This causes conversations about Mass Effect to be an exchange of experiences where with Call of Duty there is not much to exchange since every participant would have the same information.

I’d like to separate single players from multi-player here. Exchanging tactics can be a huge source for conversing! But there is more going on here. Games that were most talked about also allow players to express themselves through actions. “Did you torch the innocent villagers in level 3?” “no, i kept them alive and saved all their children from the monsters”. This is a meaningful choice. An opportunity for players to be either the good guy or the bad guy, Or the neutral lone ranger, Or the badass that sometimes kills just for fun.

 

I think Skyrim puts it on another level by tying all kinds of political issues to its game choices. This as well gives gamers something to talk about.

To finish the game you have to side with either the imperials or the Stormcloak rebels. Do you support the independence and uniqueness of a beautiful country and accept the by coming racist supremacist (but also feminist) ethics of the stormcloaks? Or will you team up with the Imperials, Strengthen humanity’s defense against the douchebag Elves’ upcoming invasion, and turn Skyrim into just another imperial state, giving globalisation a free way?

If you made choices in Skyrim and talk about it with others, you are one step away from a political debate.

The act of talking about a game you play part of a number of activities called “metagaming”, a concept coined by dr Richard Garfield. The creator of Magic the Gathering, which was designed to cater for metagaming as much as possible. He explains its workings and benefits here.

As a bit of a conclusion; one way to get people talking about after playing your game is to give them choices for diverse experiences as well as opportunities for self-expression through action.

Grundysoft is currently working on two games. None of these display political questions but both of them should be well worth talking about!

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