Saturday, September 15, 2007

Tree Story wireframes

I've been dabbling with quick wireframes to explain the design of Tree Story. There are two common ways you can look at a spec.
  • One is that of the blueprint, a plan that will be rigorously followed by production workers in order to achieve the end result. In this model, the team members are followers who are expected to implement a list of fixed details, not innovate.
  • The other is that of a communication tool. As a communication tool, you are trying to seed key concepts in your team so that they can take ownership and run with the idea during implementation. In this model, the team members are ultimate owners of the final design and the 'designer' is more of a facilitator of the process. Any spec exists only to spark conversation so that the team can build up a shared understanding of the feature's goals.

I've found that text is rather horrible as a communication tool, especially with small teams. It takes too long to iterate on and starts bogging down as soon as there is more than one person editing the document. Even worse, text fails horribly when describing anything visual or tactile.

Instead, I'm a big believer in using storyboards augmented by multiple discussions around a whiteboard, especially for early discussions. The story boards / paper prototypes can be quite concrete, but they are still visual and tactile enough for two or three people to stand around and comment on.

The iteration process is straight forward:
  • Whip up a quick storyboard. Limit yourself to spending 30 minutes to an hour on it. Make it very rough.
  • Print your latest 'official' wireframe on the biggest paper you can lay your hands on,
  • Tape it to a whiteboard and nab the first person you spot on your list of influencers.
  • Brainstorm around the idea. The taped version acts as a starting point for the conversation and an anchor if the conversation gets lost.
  • Immediately update the wireframe with the new thoughts.
  • Rehang it on the wall. Ideally look for a spot with a lot of traffic.
  • Rinse and repeat.
Within a short period of time, you have a design that:
  • Is easily understood in a glance.
  • Is understood by multiple team members. The story board acts as quick reference to your indepth conversations.
  • Is up-to-date.
  • Is a conversation starter for the rest of the team. I've had the best results when my desk is positioned near where the drawings are hung and I can leap out and chat with people wandering by.
Example wireframes
Here's a stab at some wireframes for Tree story. Sorry that we don't have a good white board built into this blog. Someone needs to fix that. :-)

The basics of communication
In Tree Story there are NPCs you can chat with. Here is how.

Picking up objects
You can also pick up objects and drop them where you desire.

Planting seeds
A special type of object is a seed. It lets you grow new platforms in the world.

Each seed creates a different type of tree. Use different sized
trees to reach different areas or grow interesting fruit.

These were done in a vector drawing tool because I find wireframes use a lot of objects that are the same. I personally prefer to copy and paste instead of spending time redrawing. However, they could just as easily been done by hand. They are likely a bit more detailed than necessary, but I'm compensating for the rather low bandwidth nature of a blog.

take care

Weather system
PS: Here are some additional wireframes that describe how a sunlight and weather system might work. This could be used with Clint's idea for the weather trees and machines.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Knytt time at the end of the genre lifecycle.

The lovely exploration/platformer Knytt Stories by that Swedish genius Nicklas Nygren is available. Download it, play it and spread word of its greatness throughout the land. Knytt is the epitome of accessible indie game design and one of the few titles that I've fallen deeply, passionately and madly in love with.

Raised in the Scandinavian traditions of Linus and kindly gnomes, Nicklas is giving his entire life's work away for free. This blatant socialism shall not stand. Do you believe in human goodness? Do you believe in justice? Do you believe in fair pay for honest labor? If you enjoy the game, the crotchety shareware old timer thinks that you are morally obligated to to donate a solid chunk of cash into the Nifflas paypal account. Quality pickled herring and lingon berries don't come cheap and starvation means a fewer such amazing games in the future.

Alright. Enough promotion. Knytt Stories and its prequel the original Knytt turns my crank because they are a wonderful example of how to create a landmark game in a dying genre.

2D platformers in the niche stage

2D Platform games are past their prime. The numbers, though inevitably incomplete, do not lie.

Other than some handheld holdouts, the publishers have moved on. Much of the audience has as well. It is my belief that if an original game that was identical in competence to Sonic or Super Mario Brothers was released on the market today, it would sink without much of a trace. "Ah, a platform game" gamers would say. "I remember playing those."

I'm in the group that never fell in love in the first place. Most popular platform games just make me irritable. I just don't have the skill. I still haven't completed Super Mario Brothers and my voice turns high and giggly just looking at Contra. The legends of the platform genre are mature stage games that are intended to challenge that rarefied population of gamers who have been double jumping before they started walked.

The vast majority of the level design is usually focused on solving bizarre little timing puzzles. These have evolved over the decades. At first static platforms provided enough challenge. Then came moving platforms. And rotating platforms festooned with enemies. That shot timed patterns of spikes. That were as large your head.

The core platformer audience adores repeatedly bashing themselves against such puzzles until they can fire off symphonic jump sequences with microsecond accuracy. I, on the other hand, feel like I have mittens, the bulky leather-type they wear in harsh Northern climates, permanently welded to my misshapen paw-like appendages. I remember vaguely enjoying some of the earlier platform games. I've certainly jumped over the occasional barrel in my time for mild chuckles. However as a skills of the dedicated platformer genre addicts grew and the developer merrily upped the ante, mitten wielding folks like myself were left far, far behind.

Yet I love Knytt and am very much enjoying Knytt Stories. How do a few guys in Sweden single handedly ignite my love for a genre that I had believed long overrun and corrupted by the elite gamers of the world?

Focus on accessibility
I sent Nicklas an email a while back and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions. One response about skill level stood out.
"I wanted everyone (particularly people who usually don't play computer games) to be able to play and enjoy Knytt, that's why I didn't make it very hard. Many gamers who play a lot naturally didn't like that, but to me the game is all about the atmosphere, rather than the gameplay."
With Knytt, Nicklas focused on a broader audience by creating a game that had accessible delights. He risked the wrath of the skilled platform players and intensionally broke many of the essential conventions of the genre.

Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards
The obvious thing that everyone notices playing Knytt is just how wonderful it is to wander from room to room seeing new sights. Many of the creatures in the original game were unique and harmless.

This is a great use of readily accessible red herring skill atoms. You don't need to be a skilled player to gain joy from seeing a wild animal grazing or discovering a cute village for the first time. These are pleasures available to even the most inexperienced of players.

As such, must of the game is structured around seeing the world. Quests for items are often not resolved by hard jumps or boss battles, but instead by wandering and being curious.

Minimize the traditional UI
"I don't really like the health bar (I avoid displaying indicators on the screen, since real life doesn't have them)."
The user interface for games in a genre evolves over time, typically becoming more complex. A user interface is much like a language. It uses symbols to convey meaning in a compact efficient form. Problems arise when users have no experience with those symbols. A health bar is the most obvious thing in the world to an experienced gamer. Yet it is confusing and meaningless to those who have not seen it.

By removing the typical UI trappings, you make the game more accessible. There are fewer things to learn at first and few things to get frustrated by. Instead, Knytt Stories goes the route of incorporating learning into the game itself. Instead of tutorial screens, you have a tutorial level. Difficulty is a switch inside the game itself.

Allow for low cost experimentation
Knytt has no lives. Save points are very liberally sprinkled about so that when you do fail a jump, you are seconds away from trying it again. Most jumps aren't fatal. Due to the lovely addition of wall climbing, you can recover from most clumsily timed jumps. Pits become opportunities for exploration, not death traps.

All of this contributes to a warm feeling of safety for the player. The game isn't out to punish them for playing and exploring. Instead, it is balanced so that the player is encouraged to try new things and see what happens. They can climb to the tallest peak and jump off to see where they land. In Mario, this is suicide. In Knytt, it is a joyful act of play that has very few negative consequences and a large potential reward. What if an adorable little village lay at the end of that epic jump?

This is perhaps one of the failings of Knytt's sequel, Knytt Stories. Enemies, ineffective as they might be, litter the landscape with much great frequency. The result is you play with a bit more paranoia and dab less experimentation. By increasing the immediate challenge, the player is less likely to engage in the more unique and accessible pleasures of exploration.

Layer difficulty
Perhaps paradoxically, Knytt Stories can be a brutally hard game. You can spend hours searching out the last secrets or grinding through a seemingly infinite set of new levels. Yet even a casual gamer can complete the main scenario in an evening or two without swearing once.

You don't need to sacrifice the hardcore audience in order to make your game accessible. Instead, you can layer the difficulty levels in the game. Here are some of the techniques that Knytt Stories uses to great effect.
  • Keys: Hidden in very secret places throughout the maps are keys. You can play through the game without noticing them at all. The expert player makes it their mission to find all of them.
  • Optional jumps: There are multiple paths through a level. The main paths are very low skill. The optional paths require higher skills to reach.
  • User created levels: By including a level editor, Nicklas encourages folks to make levels to their liking. The result is a slew of 'hard' and 'very hard' levels that skilled players can load at their leisure.
By designing all high difficulty challenges to be optional, Knytt Stories still maintains its accessibility to the new user without alienating the more advanced player. In fact, I'd recommend taking someone off the street that has never played a game in your genre and seeing if they can play through your title and reach the end. If they can't, try turning the difficult portions into optional expert challenges.

Accessibility issues
As accessible as Knytt is, it does have some issues that may hold it back from broader adoption. For one, the art style relies on a deep appreciation of old school pixel art aesthetics that may be difficult to grok for many game virgins. As someone from that culture, the game is gorgeous and highly evocative. I'm curious how it might appeal to people outside the gaming culture. I'd like to imagine that retro is cool these days, but I have no data to support such hopeful musings.

Secondly, the game lacks any sort of marketing or awareness. Nintendo and Microsoft can force a new game into the public consciousness with their lavish marketing campaigns. Knytt is a simple little game on an unassuming website. Its fans are a tiny community with few ties to the larger world.

It unfortunately doesn't matter how accessible you make your game play if people don't know about the game and fail to trial it.

I could go on and on about Knytt and Knytt Stories since they are rife with some truly great design decisions. This is the game that opened my eyes to the immense design possibilities still present in 2D platformer game mechanics. More generally, the design of Knytt points to one formula for resurrecting a dying genre.
  • Focus on accessibility: Serve the needs and skills of the broader audience, not the existing genre addicts.
  • Exploration, not traditional skill-based rewards: Build the game around broadly enjoyable activities like exploration and discovery of evocative places, not those that results from grokking advanced skills.
  • Minimize the traditional UI: Don't assume the standards are necessary or even desirable.
  • Allow for low cost experimentation: Build an atmosphere of safety and experimentation
  • Layer difficulty: Make the hardcore game play optional.
What would happen if you applied this formula to an RTS title? Or an adventure game? Or a FPS? I suspect you'd end up with a fascinating title that quite a few people would want to play.

As an experiment, tell your spouse about this game. Tell her (or him!) it is like reading a great children's story and will make her life better. If she enjoys it, ask her to tell all her friends about the game. Record those things about the game that she dislikes. This is great fodder for your future designs.

If I were Sony, Nintendo or the folks over at Xbox Live, I would be pounding on Nicklas' door with a juicy downloadable contract in hand. Add a spare programmer or two and a dash or marketing, and this game could easily turn into a breakthrough brand. That route may not embody the Nifflas philosophy, but at least he should have the opportunity.

take care


Evolving platform mechanics: It seems that there is a burbling of interest in the platform-esque game mechanics.
  • Braid: More traditional puzzle focused fare, albeit with quite original time-based mechanics.
  • Aquaria: Another upcoming 2d scroller that seems to have a bit of an exploration element. Perhaps not a traditional platformer, but I'm flexible.
  • Tree Story: A design sketch of my own that is a mix between Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and a platform game. The movement technique need not determine the focus of the game.
Nifflas Games: Home of Knytt and Knytt Stories. Yes, both of them are completely free and provide a more memorable experience than easily 90% of the drek sold at Gamestop.
You can show your appreciation by donating directly to Nifflas using the link below. He runs an Open Kimono business, so you can see exactly how he spends his well earned gains. I think the word is 'frugally'

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Celestial Music

Yesterday morning I woke up from one of those startlingly lucid dreams where I was playing a completed game design. I tell my wife that odd ideas are like exotic fruit and if you fail to jot them down, they will rot away, never to be tasted again. So here are my quickly captured notes of what is, literally, a dream game of mine. :-)

Imagine, if you will, a space strategy game. You start out with a single planet surrounded by hostile enemy planets. Your goal is to clear the map of enemies and create a galaxy spanning civilization. All pretty standard stuff.

The difference is that you fight and grow using music that you compose by building your empire. This is where it gets trippy.

Planets as sequencers
Watch this movie clip of a multi-touch music creation tool. It is wonderfully bizarre.

The basic gist, multi-touch madness aside, is that smart objects positioned on a flat screen can be used to create music. Link them together using a directed graph and you have a pretty competent music sequencer and sound effects generator.

The game design leap is that these objects can also be planets in a strategy game. Each planet has a different effect.

  • Forest planets are sources for sound effects
  • Water planets are filters for distorting a sound.
  • Cities planets are sequencers for taking a sound stream and playing it out over time.
Throughout the design, you’ll see that every element can be seen in two ways. One is as an element of a song. Two is as part of a game.

Linking planets
Each planet has a space port. You can drag a space lane from a space port to another nearby planet.

In the process, you connect a sound source to a sound processor. In very short order, just by linking up space lanes, you can create a giant sequenced sound machine. At the same time, you are directing trade and setting up your space empire.

Setting properties on planets

Each planet is a fanciful user interface that lets you adjust the properties of the filter.
  • Planets have a sun. You can adjust the time it takes for the sun to go around the planet in order to adjust the timing of how long a sound plays. In the game this is described as planetary engineering
  • Distance from the other planets effect the volume of the source sound effect.
  • City planets allow you to adjust the height of the cities, thus allowing you to adjust how you sequence a sound source.

Music = culture = resource
Each planet produces a sound. Some generate sounds. Others take in sounds and modify them. The stream of sounds produced by your planets is what most folks would call music. It also represents ‘culture’ in the game. Culture is the resource that makes everything in the game work.

Culture pools in planets that are the final destination of sound streams. They collect it in real time. Culture can be spent on upgrading your planets and creating war ships, defending against attacks.

The enemy does not sleep
You are not alone in the universe. There are other planets on the fringes of your empire. They send ships to destroy your civilized worlds and knock them back into desolate husks. They’ll disturb your carefully calculated rhythms, disrupt trade routes and generally cause your empire to devolve into chaos, then silence.

If a planet is attacked enough, it will be turned into a dead world, devoid of music.

Spending culture
Luckily, you can use your culture to both defend, fight back and ultimately conquer the enemy planets.

Some planets have industrial complexes. An activated industrial complex sucks in culture and converts it into ones of three main types of ships
  • Defenses: The planet builds a shield for fending off enemy attacks. It can take X damage per second. Defenses tend to beat equally matched ships.
  • Attack ships: The planet can send out a stream of attack ships. If the planet is poorly defended, the planet is slowly bombed into the stone age and reduced to a simple forest planet.
  • Ambassadors: Ambassadors convert dead planets into player planets.
At first you defend against attacks. Then you fight back. Eventually you conquer the enemies and make their worlds yours.

The benefits of conquest
Conquest is great. Capturing new worlds allow you to build more complex sequences of sound. This means more interesting songs. It also means that culture accumulates faster and allows you to expand your empire further.

Some planets have tidbits of plot, mysteries, single use powerups, treasures and other rewards. Conquest advances the player in the game.

Culture is multiplied by audience appreciation
An empire is a song. As a song it can be shared with your friends outside of the game. At any point, you can send a link to your empire to a friend. They can check it out and simply by the act of listening to your song, your empire gains marvelous bonuses.

If they like, your friends can rate the song. This gives you even more bonus culture. If they like the style of your songs, they can subscribe to your various empires. This gives you even more bonus. By sharing your creations with the outside world, you gain resources that let you advance your single player game.

A game that encourages the creation of great songs
The game is balanced to encourage this. During the early stages of creating your empire, there is enough culture in random combinations of planets to conquer a fair portion of the map. Eventually, you start running out of culture. You’ll come across powerful enemies that you cannot defeat unless you start sharing your songs with others.

Good songs, as judged by an audience of your peers, will gain you greater rewards than random garbled messes of sound. Judging music is hard for a computer. However, it is easyier for people. The design harnesses your friends as our AI judgment algorithm to encourage and reward the user to become a great composer.

Some maps can be explored and beaten if the player creates songs that are enjoyed by one or two people. Other maps require that the player create songs that are loved by hundreds.

The enemy as a tutorial
The map creation for the game is tricky since it serves two purposes. The first is to provide a challenge to the player. This is pretty straight forward level design and deals with choke points, resources, power ups etc.

The second, more devious goal, is to teach the player compositional structures. The enemy worlds are a nodal graph of a song just like the player’s worlds are a graph of a song. The level designer composes the enemy empire as a song.

All the various tricks of making a song are there for the player to see. The way that you distort a basic sound into something intensely cool. The way that you use a sequencer plus a snare sample to create the beat. All of it is visually laid out as a working model for the player.

When the player conquers the enemy worlds, they are essentially deconstructing the level designer’s song filter node by filter node. The player is then asked to put their newly acquired node to use. The easiest thing would be to replicate what was already done.

What we have is an experiential lesson in music composition masquerading as a game.
  • The player observes a functional model.
  • They dissect the model to understand its parts
  • They are required to reassemble the model and make it work again.
  • They are rewarded for making something better than the original.
I finally got around to reading Rules of Play by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman. The tome repeatedly emphasizes that you can analyze a single game through multiple perspectives. Celestial Music is a game that is two things simultaneously. It is a strategy and it is a music creation tool. It is also, by the fact that is both of these things, a system for exploring and learning music in a user friendly manner.

Games lubricate experiential learning about a system. Plunk an inexperienced person down in front of a piano and some sheet music and they will become frustrated. Sit that same person down in front of a game like Celestial Music and they will slowly learn. The result may not be Mozart, but it will certainly be music.

As I awoke groggily from my dream yesterday, I was left with the amazing memory of playing this quirky game. Sound and visuals flowed throughout the screen like some clockwork instrument pulse with life. There was no real distinction between building something beautiful and playing an enthralling game. Delightful.

Take care


Human computation
Humans are far better at some activities than computers. Luis von Ahn is a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon that studies how to tap into the abilities of people to solve hard problems like image recognition or human identification. He uses games as his medium. The fact that people are better than computers at determining what is meaningful music is leveraged in the Celestial Music design.

The Rules of Play
I rather enjoyed this book's emphasis on the Magic Circle and how it interacts with culture at large.