GDC 2016: TAG visits San Francisco

critical hit, talks

GDC

Last week I attended my first ever Game Developer’s Conference alongside what occasionally felt like at least half of the Montreal games people I know. It is a strange and wonderful feeling to run into folks from your city in one that is completely new to you. During GDC, this seemed to happen all the time.

I went a little early and stayed a little late, so while I was in San Francisco I also got to see a sea lion giving birth, go to a mirror maze, visit the Musee Mecanique and try all of its fortune telling cabinets, and go to the lovely San Francisco botanical gardens where a squirrel climbed up my leg (given today’s weather, I’m especially missing how GREEN San Francisco was).

For most of my time in San Francisco, I stayed with veteran GDC goer Squinky (who will soon be starting their PhD at TAG — and we’re lucky to have them around the lab with us already). This was Squinky’s eighth GDC, and they were kind enough to both find me a place to stay with a friend of theirs and to help me through what would no doubt otherwise have been a completely different experience.

The talks were excellent – as Gina has already mentioned, the TAG twitter feed is full of live-tweetin’s and retweets from the panels that we attended. Some of my favourites were Renee Nejo’s talk called “Everyone’s Silent Enemy: Shame and Vulnerability” which candidly explored her experience as a First Nation’s woman who has often felt “not native enough” in the estimation of others. No summary can do this particular talk justice, so I’ll point you towards the talk information, and hopefully you’ll be able to check it out on the vault: http://schedule.gdconf.com/session/everyones-silent-enemy-shame-and-vulnerability

It was really heartening for me to be able to watch Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Stephanie Fisher, Sagen Yee, Zoe Quinn and Gemma Thomson deliver “Ripple Effect: How Women-in-Games Initiatives Make a Difference” — the Pixelles program is the reason that I made my first solo game and how I discovered that making games of my own was a viable possibility. The program was life-changing for me! This talk explored how such programs can ripple out, starting from the Difference Engine Initiative, where many of the speakers made their first games.

Our own Ida Toft delivered what I (perhaps biasedly, as one of this summer’s co-directors) thought was an excellent talk about Critical Hit 2015 and our experiences trying to build a safer space within the program. After Ida spoke about their take on the issues that made this very challenging, Ida invited Gina and I up, and the three of us took questions for the remaining half hour. We also invited some of the Critical Hit participants from this past year who attended the talk to give us their input as well. I was reminded that Safer Space isn’t a perfect solution, but that we have to keep trying and working towards something.

Speaking of this year’s Critical Hit participants, quite a few of them made it to GDC this year. They’re sharing their work and doing well – last fall we also saw quite a few of them at IndieCade! We managed to meet up for dinner with Kailin, Amanda, Hope, Nicole and Owen. A few of them will also be at the upcoming Different Games, so if you’re headed there, you should say hi to them!

Attending my first ever Lost Levels was also an oasis in the desert — it had a very different feel than the rest of the bustling conference, and I was able to relax for the first time that afternoon since the beginning of the conference. I listened to people talk about AI, led by the amazing Kate Compton (creator of the Tracery library, which I’m about to learn), was serenaded by impromptu music, including a live Gameboy chiptunes performance, and listened to an indie rant or two. All the while, I also ran the first ever Lost Levels Nap Summit, discussing important nap-related issues — did you know, for example, that casual naps are still naps? The Mild Rumpus, a carpeted “quieter” space within GDC with bean bags, pillows, trees, and experimental indie games, wasn’t quite mild enough for such discussions, as it turns out.

Squinky’s talk on Friday, “Designing Discomfort,” was brilliant – suggesting that maybe the flow state isn’t always ideal because it limits the kinds of stories we can tell. We should break out and explore possibilities outside of it, including more mature subject matter and more kinds of stories.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while I enjoyed many excellent talks, some of my most worthwhile interactions at GDC happened at the peripheries of the event, because of the fact that for this week, thousands of game developers are sharing the same location. It was during lunch and dinner meetups and coffee breaks, during accidental meetings in the city or in hallways. I met a lot of lovely people, many of whom were introduced to me by Squinky.

You should also check out Gina’s excellent summary of the microtalks, which I also attended and appreciated.

My Experience at the Critical Hit Pre-Jam: Concordia Edition

adventures in gaming, critical hit, game jams, indie

applerumble8

With the Critical Hit Pre-Jam: Dawson Edition (not the official title, but how I’ve been thinking about it) slated for this weekend, I thought I’d take a little bit of time to talk about what the Pre-Jam that happened at Concordia on March 1st and 2nd was like.

This was the first time in a while that I decided to strike it out on my own without my Game of the Year teammates, Nick and Jana. I haven’t made a game completely on my own in some time (August, I think), but I felt like I needed to stretch my “programmer” wings a little bit, if only with Construct 2, which is what I decided to make my game in.

Before the jam happened, I attended narF’s excellent Construct 2 workshop and made a Flappy Bird clone that introduced me to all the basics. I was also lucky enough at the jam itself to have three Construct 2 veterans on-hand: narF, Alicia, and Charlotte, who all gave me a variety of excellent advice over the weekend.

The theme of the jam was “hybrid,” and of course my brainstorm went immediately off the rails when I started to think about the meaning of my own last name, Marcotte. “Marcottage” is, according to Wiktionary (I know, I know, it’s an excellent source), in botany, “a process of plant propagation where soil is tied onto a branch stripped of a ring of bark.” The next logical connection for me was, naturally, apples.

applerumble6

So, the strains of apples that we have around today are kept pure by grafting branches from older apple trees onto young trees. These grafted branches have very little chance to develop resistances to pests and other diseases. Unfortunately, that means that apples get hit with a lot of pesticides.

You know where I’m headed next, right?

Mutated apples. (I guess that it just goes to show that there are an infinite amount of places that you can take a jam theme.)

I thought, “What if the apples were bombarded with so much pesticide that some day something went horribly wrong, and the apples mutated? What if they then duked it out in my fridge?”

My Pre-Jam game, “Apple Rumble”, was born. It is probably the first and only fighting game involving apples as the main characters.

I decided to start with two characters, Granny Smith and Red Delicious. I decided to give them the ability to double-jump, defend themselves by growing protective leaf shields, move left and right, charge into each other, and bite each other. I also decided that while I wanted to show them getting increasingly physically damaged, since I was making everything for the game, including music and art and sound effects, I didn’t have the time to animate them getting more and more damaged. Instead, next to their health bars, I animated a small portrait of them getting increasingly damaged.

applerumble2

Scale was really important to me, because I really did want to have a finished game by the end of the weekend where I had made all the assets myself. Eventually I want to make more arenas, but I limited myself to one for the jam. For this version, I’ve made a fake character selection screen with other contenders such as “Crabapple,” “McIntosh” and “Fuji” that I’d like to learn to program and implement for real.

applerumble7

I got straight to work in Construct 2. Now, normally, I advocate going home to sleep during game jams, but this time I surprised myself. Somehow, I ended up working through the night. I guess that I was overcome by some kind of programmer’s adrenaline (at least, this is what narF called it when I mentioned it to him). I worked until about 5:30 in the morning, finishing the game (except for debugging and polishing). I slept until 8, had breakfast with my parents, and came back to the jam around 11 or so to polish and debug. Thankfully, people at the Dawson Jam won’t have this temptation, since the space will only be open until 9. Go home and sleep!

I also decided to work alone because it’s been so long since I have, but I think that a jam is a great place to get to know people. Working in a team also means that you can focus on one aspect of the game and make it really excellent, or focus on a new skill that you want to learn. For anyone who does feel like working alone, or for anyone else who is curious, the programs that I used for this game are:
Construct 2, which has a free version and is easy to learn, very intuitive. The free version has some limitations.
PyxelEdit, 8$, a great little program for pixel art with onion skinning and sprite sheet exporting.
TuxGuitar, free, a fun program for writing music that lets you place notes on a music sheet and then preview them with jam-appropriate midi-sounding instruments.
Audacity, also free, and when combined with FreeSound.Org or other similar sites, a very powerful tool for making sound effects quickly.

What was great about the Pre-Jam was that everyone seemed really ready to push the limits of their skills and to push into new and interesting design territory. One very interesting game combined physical cards with QR codes on them with an iPad that was set up to interact with them. The iPad kept track of the positions of the players’ resources on the screen as well as their health.

Another game involved having two players work together on the same controller in order to make different monster types to feed to another monster.

I was also especially fascinated by the game that narF and Hamish decided to make in collaboration with everyone else that was at the jam. It was a crowd-sourced Twine-based game. Twine is a free software that’s pretty easy to pick up that is really useful for creating interactive fiction. Throughout the weekend, narF and Hamish asked jammers to play their game, and once they reached the “end” (the game branches), to continue from where that ending left off. Sometimes this meant describing a character, or what would happen next in a pre-existing situation. Sometimes this meant placing objects within the world. I was lucky enough to introduce a perfectly ripe avocado into the game and describe the sheriff in the game as “not looking like Clint Eastwood at all.” I thought this was a great way to engage with other jammers and that it produced a really unique result — and that if narF or anyone else wanted to repeat the experiment, it would continue to produce unique results every time.

I hope to have Apple Rumble up soon for play, but meanwhile, enjoy these screenshots.

The upcoming jam theme is Cataclysm, and I think that it’s a very interesting theme. I’m a bit sad that I won’t be jamming with all of the excellent people that are sure to be at Dawson this weekend. Have fun, make games!

Critical Hit: Assembling Rosie Post-Mortem

adventures in gaming, critical hit, indie

I came into the TAG lab for the Critical Hit collaboratory ten weeks ago feeling rebellious against best practice and fired up about making games that broke all the rules thanks to Pippin Barr’s Curious Games’ Studio. I felt ready to do anything. If, working for just thirty-six hours over the course of six weeks, I could make a game for the Pixelles’ Incubator, or a complete Curious Game, then surely with my team, with each of us putting in 40 hours a week, we should have no problem making just about anything we wanted. I’m still fired up about breaking all the rules, and I think that Rosie doesn’t really play by the rules all that much, but I think that I have greatly matured, even in ten weeks, in terms of my expectations of what is possible to make in that same period of time, and in terms of my knowledge about making games in general. This is my post-mortem about Critical Hit and the creation of Assembling Rosie with Charlotte Fisher and Andy Lunga.

There are a few things that made the Assembling Rosie team unusual compared to other teams. One thing that made us different was that my team would only be together for eight weeks, not ten. Due to prior commitments, Andy and Charlotte had to wait two whole agonizing weeks to come in and work with me (except when they were able to sneak away for an afternoon, and in those early days I think every time they were able to come, we had a workshop). I was there during those first two weeks, doing the best that I could with concept work and paper prototypes, even as I finished up work for the Curious Games Studio. I showcased “Nitrogen Narcosis” alongside our first paper prototype, all those weeks ago. Seems like ages ago! We weren’t the only team that started with a paper prototype – “War Agent” also started on paper.

Another thing that made us unusual was that, other than Andy, we were all taking on roles that were partially or completely unfamiliar to us. Charlotte impressed me the most in this area: she had played a bit with Construct 2 in the past (for example, to make the prototype for our game), but on the whole, she taught herself to program in order to make this game. Similarly, I had dabbled in level design and sound design for my own games (what few they are – as most of you know, I only started making games in January), and these were two of my main roles during the creation of Assembling Rosie. I learned a great deal about sound and level design both, but I also learned a lot about making games in general.

I think that the hardest lessons that I personally had to learn about my expectations for Critical Hit were about scope. Our material was so rich, with so much room for expansion and exploration, that it was easy to go off the rails a bit and start thinking of all the amazing features that we could add. [The second hardest lesson that I had to learn was that many gamers just don’t like block puzzles (at least in the perhaps non-representative sample of people who tried our early block-puzzle prototypes).] Once we learned to be strict with ourselves about reigning in the scope, it became easier to think about short-term and long-term goals: goals for the incubator and beyond, if we so chose.

Looking back, what is most amazing to me is that in the end, none of the work that we did early on was lost – it was just…translated. For example, working with the block puzzle for so long opened us up to the idea, when we decided to nix it, of replacing it with another kind of puzzle. Similarly, for a long time there was supposed to be a weird companion creature who helped put Rosie together whenever she came out the other end of a block puzzle. Instead, there is one particular zombie in our sample levels who accompanies Rosie through the doors (which I like to think of as bathroom doors and which is the reasoning behind her needing that companion – girls, after all, are physically incapable of going to the bathroom alone unless they’re at work).

I remember one of the design challenges that puzzled us for the longest time being how to raise the stakes for the player: we largely wanted to steer away from having the player being able to lose permanently, and we had to make sure that we weren’t punishing players who weren’t yet good at playing and needed more practice. We toyed with the idea of time-limits, of decisions that couldn’t be reversed, and a large number of other solutions but in the end it’s something that we never quite managed to solve on our own. It took the first public playtest to cement the features that we were to keep in the game and to figure out that the stakes were plenty high: people were invested in the puzzles for their own sake, because they wanted to complete the level, rather than for any of the reasons that we thought we had to add.

Amongst the many thousands of things that I also learned was how to filter good advice – because we got a lot of good advice, from people who are great game makers with a ton of experience – but that doesn’t mean that it was always advice that we could take, either because it was advice for a game that wasn’t the one that we were making, or because we just felt strongly about a particular choice. Trusting our choices and seeing them through to their conclusions is the only reason that Assembling Rosie exists in the form that it does: there were various points when we had to decide whether to drop pretty much every feature that made it in the game. There are features that we did drop – like pretty much the whole idea of platforms and that traditional side-scrolling kind of obstacle – and we feel that the game is better for them.

Some of the best advice that we got from mentors was:
– Limit your scope, especially for key mechanics, and/or choose to do a vertical slice that you polish until it gleams like it wants to blind you. (We chose to do a vertical slice.)
– Do a content-lock at a pre-decided point before the end of the collaboratory, and from thereon in, work only at debugging and implementing.
– Don’t be worried just because it’s something that you haven’t seen done before. That’s a good thing.
– Implementing art assets will make the game feel more complete – do it as soon as possible!

A few of my favourite moments with mentors and visitors were meeting Vander Caballero from Minority (the creators of Papo & Yo), talking game stories with CJ Kershner, and having a level designer from Ubisoft tell us that he’d never seen anything quite like Assembling Rosie, and he really wanted to play around with it.

Something that helped me maintain a good momentum and a positive mindset was our use of the whiteboard that was next to our workstation. We filled it with short and longterm tasks, crossing them out or erasing them as we completed them. When the board was empty, we filled it again. On the morning of the 23rd of August, we emptied the board for a final time. It felt great. The board was a constant reminder of how much we had accomplished in a day or a week, and the physical act of erasure was a satisfying way to signal the reaching of a goal.

Overall, working with Charlotte and Andy was a really good fit. We had few conflicts, and those conflicts that we did have were quickly solved, mostly involving the normal misunderstandings of learning to work with one another. Compared to other teams, we had fewer conflicts, and once we got used to each other’s styles of working, these conflicts became non-existant. Largely, although we didn’t think that we couldn’t trust each other, we still had to learn to trust each other to know what we were doing, and to trust each other to make decisions independently, because it would have become difficult to, say, clear each individual design, programming, or art decision with the whole team. Thankfully, we learned that trust fairly quickly, and we retained a positive attitude about the project throughout the entire experience. We celebrated small victories even as we moved on to our next goals. Andy’s art is a perfect fit for the game, Charlotte managed to meet every programming challenge that was put before her, and I think that my brain-eating sounds are delightfully squishy and my ideograms and graffiti aren’t too embarrassing compared to Andy’s magical backgrounds. The levels that I designed with Charlotte turned out to have a good learning curve and challenge rating, and our metaphors were well-received.

Here’s what we said about the game during this Friday’s presentation at Google Montreal (sans introductions and thank-yous), where the game was extremely well-received and the stations to play it weren’t empty for a moment during the entire soiree:

Assembling Rosie is a puzzle-platformer game with a twist. What we have for you tonight is a vertical slice, three sample levels that demonstrate what the full game will be.

In the game, you play the role of Rosie, a female zombie who was a punk tattoo artist in life and who must discover her new identity in death. As a zombie, Rosie has the ability to switch out her body parts for objects that she encounters in the environment in order to complete puzzles and acquire delicious brains. All the while, she encounters other zombies who judge her performance and appearance. These other zombies can choose to help or hinder her based on their interactions together.

Through the game’s own rules and systems, we are exploring the perpetuation of female stereotypes and traditional roles as well as the external pressures on women who are expected to navigate these roles. Modern women are expected to juggle a variety of identities and switch at a moment’s notice and we were interested in exploring that in our game.

We were interested in video games as a medium for this exploration not only because we are gamemakers, but also because of the problematic treatment of female gamers in game culture as well as the often troubling portrayal of female characters in games. What could be better than making a game with a strong female lead who has to face up to these problems?

Included in the slice are pieces of graffiti that take jabs at Rosie’s femininity and identity, many of which are lifted directly from Xbox Live transcripts. What’s worse is that, in order to access these insults and slurs, and indeed in order to complete the levels, Rosie must adopt a vacuum arm and start cleaning, thus suggesting a stereotypical role that she is being forced to embody.

Having said that, we wanted to avoid being overly didactic and wanted to make a genuinely fun game – something that would be fun to play and would retain a sense of humour. We hope that you’ll enjoy the game.”

I’m extremely grateful for what the Critical Hit collaboratory allowed me to experience over the last ten weeks. We’re still figuring out a means of distribution for Assembling Rosie, but I’ll be sure to let you all know when it’s available online. Meanwhile, you can listen to Charlotte and I talk about the game on CBC Quebec AM.