GAMERella: The Making of “Eat Dirt!”

adventures in gaming, game jams, indie

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This weekend I cleared my work as best I could, ignored everything else and showed up to Concordia to participate in GAMERella, a game jam for girls, first-time jammers, and first-time game-makers. You can read more about it here.

Before the jam, Nick Kornek and I decided to pair up, then show up at the jam and invite one person who had never, ever made a game or done a jam into our team. We had an idea of what we wanted to do ahead of time, but we were also prepared to be flexible and hear new ideas. Another goal that I had was to make that person’s jam as welcoming and awesome as possible.

Friday night, we found the third member of our team: Jana Sloan Van Geest. She was interested in game narrative and willing to work on our idea. Naturally, after I gave her a quick tutorial on how to use audacity, we had her do the sound design for the game. Luckily, it turned out that she was a natural! The sound for the game is great!

The resulting game, after 48 hours of work minus sleep, is called “Eat Dirt!” and I am extremely proud of what we were able to accomplish in just one weekend. Nick programmed it, I made the art assets, and Jana made the sound. This is the first time while working in a team that I have been solely responsible for all art assets.

The idea came during the sound and pyxel workshop that TAG and Critical Hit held in anticipation of the Jam on Monday. We were on break and I turned to Nick and said the equivalent of “Ha, ha, Nick, the theme is alchemy. Wouldn’t it be funny if we made a game about composting?”

Nick came back to me two days later and said the equivalent of “let’s make Tetris meets Dig-Dug meets…”

And then we waited… and I did homework and I don’t know what Nick did, probably work and homework…and then Friday came and it was time to jam.

This game jam made me realize how far I’ve come as a gamemaker since I started in January, less than a year ago. This is the seventh game that I’ve made and I never realized how much knowledge I had acquired until it came time to impart it. I taught Jana how to use Audacity and very briefly showed her about Pyxel, the pixel art animation tool that I made all our art assets in.

Jana used mostly sounds from FreeSound.Org as well as a tool called “Otomata” to create our sound and music. She took to it so naturally that, during the playtesting, people asking about the sound design. They would never have guessed that this was her first time doing sound design. I feel extremely happy to have helped someone through their first jam – Jana said she had a blast and it feels great to encourage new game creators the same way that I was encouraged during my first jam.

The game creation went so smoothly that I hardly understand it. I would love to work with Jana and Nick again – and I will! We are looking to port the game for the Arcade Royal and create at least two new modes: “Two Worms, One Compost” and “4-player Coop Versus” (two worms to a composter, cooperatively eating against two other worms in another composter). We’re putting the game jam version up online (here’s a link) but we may eventually distribute this as a full-fledged indie game.

eatdirtscreenshot

My recommendation is to plug your computer or laptop up to a TV using a HDMI cable, get a USB keyboard, and have one person play on the laptop keyboard and one on the USB keyboard. At TAG, we were lucky enough to be able to project the game onto the wall and have two USB keyboards to hook up to my computer.

The Playtesting for this game was some of the most energetic that I’ve ever experienced as a gamemaker. The cherry on the sundae (and the Sunday, since that was when the playtesting happened) was Nick’s e-sport commentary. It was hilarious, energetic, and really made the game come alive. I’m going to suggest an “e-sport commentary track” which can be toggled on or off.

Actually, “Eat Dirt!” went so well that it took top honours during the judging!

Here are some nice things about GAMERella:

– Nine playable games got made.
– The ratio of men to women was almost fifty-fifty (this is unheard-of in game-making).
– According to informal polling, one-third of people at the Jam were making their first game.

HUGE SUCCESS!

P.S: if you are a woman who would like to make her first game but isn’t sure how, the Pixelles Incubator II is now accepting applications. Or, contact TAG or myself and we’d be happy to point you towards some great resources.

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.

Critical Hit: Plus que ca change…

adventures in gaming, critical hit, indie

When the mentors and industry people who came to talk to us about Critical Hit told us that our game would change every week, I didn’t believe them – or, more accurately, I didn’t want to believe them. I should have guessed that they were right, since in the first week alone the game changed drastically at least three times. Naturally, what they predicted is exactly what’s happening. Thankfully, we haven’t abandoned anything that spoke to us metaphorically or ideologically: the changes that we’ve made have continually been to narrow our focus, to make something that we will be able to complete in the remaining five and a half weeks of Critical Hit.

Luckily, the art assets haven’t changed all that much since we’ve kept the kinds of objects in the game consistent, so Andy has still been able to plug away, creating awesome and funny animations for us. Also, as I’ve probably mentioned, Charlotte is a speed demon when it comes to prototyping – she is able to get at the core of what is essential to testing a mechanic with no bells and whistles (that’s my job as the sound person later on).

We have also had an amazing support team in the form of just about everyone at Critical Hit and all the amazing mentors that have been brought in. It isn’t always easy to hear how your game is really great conceptually but that you’ll never be able to make and polish all those amazing mechanics in the time remaining, but we’ve tried to balance not being swayed by every single thing that everyone says with taking good advice when we hear it.

I don’t even know if I should describe the current version of the game at all since who knows when things might change again, but I think it’s a worthwhile exercise and it’ll be nice to have this to look back on, so here goes. We’ve dispensed with body types in that we’ve combined the body types with the items that we had representing our stereotypes: Rosie can now wield a vacuum cleaner to take items through subterranean mazes, and once she’s acquired those, she can carry them in her inventory, which is the baby carriage. In the mazes are items that she can use for different purposes: the red light, which lets her examine dark areas and read hidden text, the briefcase, which she can use to break through glass obstacles (ceilings, shall we say?), and blocks, which come as circles, squares and triangles, and are placed in different configurations to complete puzzles. From the maze, she can also acquire a very shiny bikini, which causes other zombies to follow her. Other than that, there will be other objects in the maze that help and hinder and refer to different metaphors. Rosie is still looking for brains and other zombies still give her a piece of their mind, which she can return with interest.

So, if you were to stop by today, you’d be able to see some of Andy’s great animations and concept art, some of our prototypes for the puzzles from Charlotte, and some good ol’ fashioned paper map level design from me. Here’s a picture.

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More soon!