Saturday, March 31, 2007

SpaceCute: Prototyping challenge

The weekend is here and it is time for a short prototyping challenge! Over and over again, I've heard the sad tale that there are talented programmers lacking sexy graphics. I, on the other hand, can't program a lick. So here's a thought: I'll provide some quality graphics and a seed of a design idea. All you need to provide is a working prototype of the core game mechanic. :-)

For each prototype I receive, I'll post it up on the website and the learned folks who lurk here can discuss its pros, cons and opportunities for improvement. It should be a good learning experience all around. As we go, I'll add more graphics and we'll see where it all leads. Continue reading to grab the graphics and read the seed idea.

Core mechanic
The core mechanic of SpaceCute is a single player casual turn based strategy game. It borrows the control mechanism from the familiar mini golf games that have been around since the early 90's. The goal is to add a low burnout skill-based mechanic to the shortest interaction cycle in the game. Is the act of just moving units fun?
  • To move a ship, you drag a line out from the ship.
  • The ship is launch in the direction of line.
  • The ship's velocity is dependent on the length of the line. The line has a max length.
Physics, baby!
Objects in the game are modeled as circles. They can bounce into one another like simple billiard balls. The goal is to add a bit of juiciness and nuance to the often mechanical act of attacking another unit. Does the act of attacking a unit feel satisfying?
  • The ship does damage to opponents when it smacks into them during the player's turn. The feedback to the player when two ships collide is a great area to invest some time in getting the 'feel' correct. If we make this interaction visceral through sound, explosions and flying bits, we can enthrall players from their earliest interactions.
  • Friction is relatively high compared to a billiards game so most pieces only travel a short distance when flung. This is still a strategy game and we don't want chaos to reign after a single turn.
  • Are there any interesting combination collisions that occur that we could accentuate with future layers of mechanics? I'd love to build a combo-hit system into the combat.
Turn structure
During each turn, the player can move one ship. The results of the various collisions are displayed. The turn ends immediately and the computer moves. This is very similar to the turn structure of chess or checkers. The goal is to create a fast paced game that eliminates the need for the typical 'end turn' button found in many turn-based strategy games.

The board is a single screen with 5 or 6 units from each team.
  • What distances between players result in immediately interesting combat?
  • Are there any initial configurations that cause the players to think deeply about their moves?
As the game grows, we'll be adding lots of interesting ships with special abilities. For now, we just need some basic ones to experiment on.
  • Basic attack ship: This is the basic ship used by both the player and the enemy. Balancing max velocity, friction, hull radius, damage and health for this unit are all interesting areas for rapid iteration and play testing.
  • Planet: Heavy obstacle that is used to define space on the map.
Enemy AI
A randomly selected enemy units moves towards the closest player at full speed. This is a simple stub algorithm that will be replaced if more interesting behavior is required.
  • AI should execute rapidly (less than .5 second) This is a casual game and waiting for the AI doesn't add much to the experience.
Winning conditions
Let's add a simple stub winning condition that the player wins when all the enemies are destroyed. Pop up a little text screen to let the player know they've completed the game and give them the option to play again.

Prototyping basics
Unit stats and level design is handled with a single text file (perhaps XML). Changing various variable in the world physics, unit stats or initial token positions should be a simple matter of editing the text file and running the game again.

Important questions to consider
Here are some common questions that any one should ask of their initial prototype.
  • Is any portion of the play fun? There is roughly a 95% chance that your first stabs at this design won't be all that enjoyable. Finding the fun and magnifying it over several iteration of experimentation is critical.
  • What is the pacing of the game? Is the player receiving interesting feedback at steady intervals? Do they have interesting choices at the beginning, middle and end of the game?
  • What actions could use better feedback? Often an interaction fails not because it isn't interesting, but because we fail to properly help the player build mental models of what is happening.
  • How do other players react to the game? We, of course, can post the prototype here and get comments, but it is worth while watching someone in person play the game. Grab your roomie or sister. What does she think? Where does she stumble?
You'll notice that there are almost as many questions as there are specs to this challenge. Such is the way of prototyping. In these initial stages of development, expect rapid iteration and rapid learning.

There are naturally dozens of ideas stored away for various ships types and more complex interactions between objects. Ice zones with low friction, units that explode Every Extend-style when they reach their destination, factories, resources, powerups...SpaceCute, the massively single player SRPG! Woot. Any designer worth his salt can generate webs upon webs of dreamy meta-game mechanics. However, unless the core mechanic is solid and enjoyable, these really aren't worth wasting time on at the moment. More importantly, they will evolve substantially once we start figuring out the fun in the core mechanics.

So who is up for some quick prototyping fun?

take care


Here are the source graphics for the prototype. Use and abuse as desired. Again, if you come up with something interesting, drop me a note at danc [at] lostgarden [dot] com. For this challenge I'm happy to post both wacky failures and successes. It is the learning that matters.
2D collision
If you are interested in simple 2D collision and don't have such code lying about already, here are some articles:
  • Stub: A simple system that will typically become replaced by a more complex system in future versions. Most prototypes have a few stubs since your goal is not to build a complete game, but to test a theory.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

SpaceCute: Some sketches

Once upon a time there was a game design known as SpaceCrack. The setting, with its cool white iPod-inspired theme was a bit too niche. Here are some sketches of a SpaceCute theme. In SpaceCute, solar systems are delightful gardens filled with animals quite extraordinary. Anyone think that this is worth turning into a set of graphics?

take care

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Lost Garden License

Many of the emails I receive ask questions about licensing my designs and artwork. In order to clear up any issues (and save me some emailing!) I've created this licensing page. When you see reference to the Lost Garden License, it refers to the items listed below.

Basic License

All licensed items use the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. In short, you can use and modify any images and design covered by this license provided that you attribute the original source materials to me. I chose this license because
  1. I want as many people as possible to use the materials I've provided.
  2. I want to spare developer the accusations of theft that sometimes occur when people recognize my materials. Many of the graphics and designs are widely known at this point. The best solution is educating your users on the source of the original inspiration. That way they can move past yelling 'Thief" and start appreciating the variations on the theme that you have created.


You are expressly forbidden to use my graphics in a clone of one of my commercial games. This has happened and it is very unpleasant. My hope is that you'll use this art to better yourself so that you can one day innovate. Copying one of my released games and then trying to make money off it is deeply unethical.

You can read more on this particular license at:

Game design attributions

If you use a game design from Lost Garden, please include following attribution in your game credits.
  • "Game Design Title" design by Daniel Cook (
When possible link to the original game design. For example, the Fishing Girl design would be: "Fishing Girl" design by Daniel Cook (

Art attributions

If you use art from one of my free game art collections, please include the following attribution in a visible location along with any other credits.
  • "Art Collection Title" art by Daniel Cook (
When possible link to blog post that discusses the original art collection. For example, the Space Cute collection would be "Space Cute" art by Daniel Cook (

Frequently asked question

What game designs and art assets are currently covered under the Lost Garden License?

You can find a complete list here:
Can I use the assets or designs covered by the Lost Garden License in a commercial project?
Absolutely. I encourage it! The best way to learn about game development is to finish a project and try to sell it.

Why are you doing this?
I hope, in some small way, to help cultivate the next generation of great game developers and designers. By removing small road blocks like graphics and design, perhaps a few more people will be encouraged to stop just dreaming and starting making games. Everyone in this industry is here because we stand on the shoulders of past developers. We use their tools, their techniques and their ideas. Giving back to the community is a natural way to repay that great and much appreciated debt.

Is all art on the website covered by the Lost Garden License? For example, are your drawings and paintings free as well?
Only those assets that are specifically called out on the associated blog post as being licensed under the Lost Garden License are free to use. There will be a clear link to this page. All other drawings and artwork are protected under standard copyright laws.

Can I archive assets and designs on other sites?Sure. If you archive assets elsewhere, be sure to display a prominent link back to the source page so that other game developers have an opportunity to discover this site.

take care

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Cooperation War Challenge

Joel Davis sent me an email presenting a classic design challenge. Your job is to teach players important cooperative skills as an alternative to beating the pulp out of another. The twist is that you can not force collaboration upon the player.
  • The game must be clearly competitive in nature and should slowly wean the players off their ‘defeat the enemy’ strategies.
  • The game is only a success if the player has an ‘aha moment’ where they figure out that collaboration is the better way to go despite their initial understanding of the problem.
  • Oh, and it needs to be both fun and easy-to-play by 10-year olds.
There are many possible solutions to the challenge and I’d love to hear your take on the topic. Here is what I came up with while doodling at the coffee shop waiting for my wife.

A brief aside: Seldon Games
I’ve briefly mentioned ‘social engineering’ or ‘Seldon’ games in the past that influence the behavior of players through the manipulation of systems instead of directly telling or forcing the player down a path. The player makes a series of logical, rational choices based off the game system at hand. Eventually, they maneuver themselves into a situation that provides them with unexpected insight. It is a very indirect form of authorial control that is quite different than that found in movies or many linear games. The player is always in full control of their environment, yet just beyond the scope of their cognitive reach there is deeper order behavior at work.

A classic example of this is the ecology in Alpha Centauri. The player naively ends up polluting the environment as they expand their base and end up triggering a massive onslaught of alien worms. This wasn’t the game designer making an arbitrary plot driven exception. It was a natural outcome of how the ecological model in the game worked. The next time they play through a map, there is a much greater awareness of pollution and its impact on the ecology.

I’m attempting a similar progression in this design.

Cooperation War overview
Winter is rapidly approaching and your tribe must gather up enough food to survive. Unfortunately, crops are scarce and the other tribes are hungry as well. What will you do to survive?

Cooperation War is a simple Flash multiplayer RTS game for 2 to 4 players. It is played on a single screen with a mouse. You can chat using a keyboard. In earlier levels, players can rely on force to grab resources for their tribe. In later levels, as resources become rarer, only those who collaborate will prosper.

Each map takes 10 minutes and replay is encouraged through the tracking of individual and group scores.

The basic progression
  • Resources (wheat, sheep, and fruit) litter the landscape initially.
  • Gatherers from the tribe collect resources and carry them to a new location.
  • Builders convert resources into basic foods
  • Builders convert basic foods of different types into advanced foods that feed more people.
  • When the winter comes, the tribe gathers around their leader and feasts on the nearby food that has been prepared.
  • If there is not enough food, the tribe slowly dies off.
  • If there is more than enough food, the tribe emerges from the winter stronger than ever.
Early in the game, players will rush to gather food. As food is processed and begins to accumulate, its value begins to increase. Players will be tempted to create warriors to protect their bounty or steal the bounty of others. Tension builds as the clock runs down. In the last moments of the game, the player will want to position their leader near the largest cache of food around and hope they played the game well enough to survive the coming winter.

Basic units

Players start the game with 4 to 5 units. There are three main types of units in the game
  • Gatherers
  • Builders
  • Warriors
Changing between units
You can convert any unit into any other unit.
  • Click on the unit.
  • Click on the alternative unit you wish to convert to.
  • Conversion takes a few seconds during which the unit is immobile. We show the progress bar during this conversion. This delay exists to prevent wacky micromanagement of unit switching.
The leader
One of your units is flagged as the leader. When winter arrives, the player should place their leader near the largest pile of food they can find. During winter, any food within the radius of the leader will be consumed by the tribe. If the current leader unit is killed, the flag is assigned automatically to another one of your units.

Gatherers pick up items from one area and drop them down in another location. Once a Gatherer has delivered an item, they will go back for more. If there is nothing for them to move they will wait for further instructions. (How much AI do we want here?)

A Gather’s interface is a line connecting their resource and their destination.
  • Click on the Gatherer to select it.
  • Drag their gathering target to a location. This target is a medium sized area from which they will be gathering items.
  • Drag their drop point target to a location. This target is a pinpoint location at which they will be dropping off items.
  • Alternatively, you can drag a line from the source to the destination. This is likely to be a lot less fiddly.
Builders convert nearby resources into basic food and basic food into advanced food. Conversion takes time. Builders that have access to multiple types of resources, say Grain, Sheep and Fruit produce exponentially more food than those that have access to one resource.

A builder’s interface is a draggable circle.
  • Click on a builder.
  • Drag their conversion target to a location. They will convert anything within the radius into it most valuable form.
  • Multiple builders working on the same production step speed up the time it takes to finish.
Warriors attempt to kill units from other tribes within their guard radius. Gathers and Builders die after a few seconds. Warriors will fight for a very long time and tie one another up. Eventually both will die.
  • Click on a Warrior
  • Drag their guard circle to a location. They will move towards this location and begin patrolling.
Communication is key to any collaborative exercise. The player can type a message at any time and it will appear above their leader’s head. With only 2 to 4 players and a single screen, everyone will see everything. We aren’t teaching backstabbing explicitly so there is no need to include private channels in the communication system.

Note that the interface is intentionally designed so that an experienced player could set up their units in the first 20 seconds of the game and harvesting and production would occur successfully without any further interaction. There needs to be space in the rhythm of the game for communication to occur.

Conversion of resources into meals
When a gather is within range of a resource such as a bundle of wheat, they will convert it into a meal. You can convert simple meals into more nourishing meals if you have access to a wider range of resources. At the higher levels, we want to encourage extreme resource crunches where it is highly unlikely that all players have all the components necessary for success.
  • 1 resource yields 10 meals
  • 2 different resources yields 50 meals
  • 3 different resources yields 100 meals
Each game last 10 minutes and a little animated clock shows the countdown of the timer until winter begins. In the last 30 seconds of the game, the first frost arrives and the players are prompted to gather around their units around their leader in preparation for winter.

Any food within the leader’s radius is considered fair game for the tribe to consume. When winter hits, this number starts to slowly count down. Each unit is represents 10 tribes man. Each tribesman consumes a meal a day and winter lasts a variable number of days. When there is not enough food, 5 tribes people die per day.

If you end the winter with enough food, bonus babies are born!

Once winter is over, you get 1 point for each person outside your tribe and 2 points for each person inside your tribe. Bonus babies are scored as a tribe member.

Individual high scores are recorded and each player is shown their rank relative to how others have played in the past.

A group high score (the sum of all player scores) is also recorded and shown relative to how others have played in the past. This is a good opportunity for the interjection of value statements to clue players in on what is rewarded. For example: “Advanced civilization” vs. “Brutish rabble.” We should always display the scores attained by cooperating as a possible goal. Players will wonder how such high scores are humanly possible and this will clue them into the potential that they might want to explore other strategies.

Thoughts on balancing and message
The game mechanics as they stand are stripped of any message. The game can be played in a genocidal fashion or a purely collaborative fashion. Any message we desire must come from how the game systems are balanced and what strategies provide the player with the most desirable payoff. Here are some quick balancing techniques.
  • Converting resources is expensive: In the later levels, it should take most of your tribes efforts as gathers and builders to produce enough food for the winter.
  • Give fighting a cost: When you escalate the violence and fight, you kill valuable people who could have contributed to gathering and producing more food. There is often a short term tactical gain, but long term, you put everyone at risk.
  • Differentiated resources: It become difficult to go it alone because other people have what you need. This encourages collaboration.
Strategies we should enable
The following competitive strategies should all be possible once the game is balanced
  • Genocide: Players can band together to wipe out an opposing team. There is a large opportunity cost to this activity.
  • Stealing: Gatherers can rush another player’s stock pile and steal finished good and bring them back to their own stock pile.
  • Defense: Warriors can be placed in defensive positions to prevent any enemy gatherers from stealing.
The following collaborative strategies should also be possible
  • Gifting: It should be possible for a gatherer to give a specific resource to another player.
  • Sharing of stock piles: Multiple players should be able to build one large stockpile that helps them all get through the winter. Just place both leaders on the same stockpile and everyone will share.
  • Communication: Players should be able to negotiate and discuss shared goals.
Level progression
In early levels, resources are readily available so that the ‘obvious’ strategy of defense and attack are quite viable. However, in later levels, resources become more limited so that cooperation becomes the more viable strategy.

Learning notes
Learning comes when people experiment with new behavior in old situations. Many of the harder levels should be played multiple times by the same group. Initially, all teams will do poorly. After they make the switch to collaborative strategies, they’ll do much better, but expect this to take several attempts.

Learning also tends to occur upon review, not during play. People often need to tell stories about their experience in order to understand it. Keep each game to 10 minutes and build in a logging system. Allow people to watch their first attempt at playing the game and compare it to their later attempts. This can also be used in classroom situations to review decisions and explore them in more depth.

Help Hag
I’m tempted to add an old woman for each tribe. She eats food during the winter and cannot be used as a gatherer, warrior or builder. However, if you click on her, she will give you tips on how to play the game. You could, if you wished, send her off to her death if you desire. However, the players who listens to her wisdom will gain insight into advanced strategies sooner.

The whole technique of clicking on a unit to get tips is a fun one. Warriors can chime in advice on killing the enemy faster. Gatherers in the presence of warriors can talk about making runs to steal enemy goods. Each introduces players to potential strategies. By suggestioning options, you guide the player’s attention along paths that designer wishes them to explore without forcing the player down a hard coded path.

Prototyping questions
There are all sorts of questions that need to be answered through prototyping in order to ensure that this is a fun game. Here is the first round.
  • What is the best interface for ordering around the gatherers? Specifying the source and destination seems like it could be a bit clunky for new users.
  • What setting should we use? The current one is a bit bland.
  • How many resources should we use? Does one present enough strategic complexity? Does 2? Is 3 too complex?
  • What is the scale of the units on the screen? I think this can work nicely for 2 players each with 4 or 5 units. 8 players with 5 units on a single screen may get a bit hectic.
  • What is the learning curve? There is some worry that the learning curve will be too steep. This can be handled with simple intro levels and the use of the help hag.
  • What are the right constants? I can guarantee that the numbers in this document will produce a game that is completely unplayable. Messing about with constants is one of the more enjoyable aspects of prototyping. :-)
I love Joel's design challenge because it points out how you can use the dynamics of the system to guide the player’s actions. One of my greatest pet peeves about many modern games is how authorial intent is enforced though arbitrary exceptions rammed into the heart of an interesting game system. The designer strips away your weapons or causes you to lose a battle on a whim. There is no lesson to be learned, no skills to master. The opportunity to profoundly delight or educate the player is traded for a cheap narrative thrill.

Instead, we should learn the fine art and science of influencing the player without their knowledge. The player must make all their own choices in an open and flexible game world. However, due to the larger order within the systems, there is a high likelihood that they will maneuver themselves into making a series of rich personal decisions. We design this progression even though we cannot control each individual detail.

Because the player is making their own choices of their own free will, the learning experience will ring true. It is the fundamental difference between:
  • Reading about someone not pulling the trigger
  • Deciding for yourself, despite all that has led you to this spot, that you should not pull the trigger.
Take care

Friday, March 9, 2007


As I sit here, listening to the Flame Trick Sub's rendition of 'Plastic Jesus', I am brought back to their rocking performance at the Gathering of Developer's Holy Lot back in 2000. "Sing loud. Sing strong. Sing like the beer in your hand was brought to you by the Lord."

G.O.D. created a trailer park of sin and gratifyingly poor taste in a parking lot next to the edifice of E3. The free beer required an ID, but anyone could be entertained by the midget pole dancers, befatted 'Satan's Cheerleaders' and the bevy of Catholic school girls cum floor talent. As a business, the Gathering burned and sank into the Texas swamp. A few Easters later, the team was resurrected as the high class publisher Gamecock. They now insist on mimes outfitted with Kiss makeup when they throw a party. Ah, such is the mellowness that comes with age.

I can't say anything about the games they released or their business plan. The thing that delights me is that they actually appear to possess a personality. You know, one of those crackling zestful outbursts so chock full of rainbow sparkles that the gray morasses of humanity momentarily pauses and perhaps stare.

The existence of a vibrant personality hints at an abnormality of thought that I happily associate with the destruction of the status quo. Admittedly, such human ElectroPlanktons are not necessarily revolutions in and of themselves. They are however, day glow markers that let us know that the broader community supports and rewards a spectrum of behavior generally not considered predictable or rational by the wise majority. If the freaks can survive here, it must be quite fine to get a little freaky.

Personalities of Christmas Past
When I was an impressionable young scrapper, there were people visibly and crazily in love with games. Molyneux was so hip I named my female cat after him. Minter had his llama fixation, George Sanger, aka The Fat Man wore his Suits of Infinite Coolness. Richard Garriot built a goddamn castle. On a more personal level, dozens of my compatriots made shareware games, not for the money but because they were mad with passion (and more than a little angst.) Katanas, furry conventions, giant stuffed animals and whigger posturing were par for the course. From big to small, these were electric personalities casting sparkling arcs of inspiration throughout the industry. You could be guaranteed that at the very least, your gaming coworkers would be colorful.

Upon graduation from college, the options were obvious. A bright lad like myself could work my way up in an established business. Intern, copy boy, illicit affair, promotion, paycheck. Maybe I could even become a 'high level middle manager' one day. One day. In contrast, the kaleidoscopic roosters in the game industry yodeled from atop their precarious unicycles, proclaiming there was still a job where you could be creative, alive and yourself. Once, I heard the call and I do not regret a second of the ride.

When the music stops, turn out the lights
Years passed. The industry matured. For a while, I thought personality might have died. The same old names were trotted out when the believers asked "Whither the creativity?" Franchises and brands were established. Did anyone stop to nurture and grow the industry's creative spirit? Process is great, but it needs to be the sort of process that still allows for the construction of a life sized sofa out of pastel mini marshmallows and spritzer. You know, one with matching felt pillows.

A New Hope
A little while ago I got a chance to meet Daniel James of Three Rings. I hear he wears a pirate hat. I know for a fact that he also happens to carry about a long scarf in case the opportunity arises to dress up as Doctor Who. I wanted to hug the man. That might have been awkward.

The spark of revolution still glows.

I recently stopped by Derek Yu's site TIGSource forums. My god, what a wonderfully bitchy bunch of ill informed hackers and dilettantes. These are the sort of people that make games about Columbine. Oh, and several of them just won the Indy Game of the Year award at GDC. They'll produce a lot of crap, but they'll also be willing to push buttons and boundaries. We all benefit when our perspectives on what is possible are reset.

Indie communities driven by strong personalities that match the old glory days of PC shareware are rising again. Smaller MMOs, village games, are growing like communal fungus on the dark underbellies of the internet. L33t Flash developers with amazing hair are rediscovering the demo scene 20 years after the fact. They are using their new found skillz to

To quote Scripture, "For those about to rock, we salute you." Yes, we do.

It makes sense that folks with personality are emerging at this time in history. The big consoles throwing money at the problem of innovation in order to differentiate themselves from the pack. The PC world with platforms like Torque, RPG Maker, Flash and XNA has put massively powerful technology in the hands of the small teams on the fringe. Digital distribution is coming of age. All of this means a wider range of people making games and more unedited press for those who rarely are coached in proper 'rod-up-the-rump' PR etiquette. I watched this year's IGF awards and was intensely proud of all the stuttering and yammering.

Creative Canaries
Personality matters. We need our anarchists, yiffers, cross dressers and virtuous assholes. They are the canaries in the coal mine. Where they exist, they indicate that our industrial culture venerates the rule breaking that these larger-than-life personalities embody. Where they do not exist or are not tolerated, beware. Creative expression requires a conducive cultural environment. If you lack that environment, even simple innovations are often an act of banging your skull against a thick granite wall.

Cultivate your canaries. Cultivate the unique spirit of large-than-life personalities. Encourage people to shatter a few boundaries. Reward them, even. Especially if they make games that reflect these values.

This is the time (once again) to get freaky.

take care

Chandelier made from gummy bears

Monday, March 5, 2007

Taking a pass on GDC this year

I made a tricky choice this year. I have a 1.0 product in the mad throes of being released. I also have the other half of my wedding to complete in Tokyo. Hmm...timing, timing, timing.

So I bit my lip and made the ever pragmatic and responsible decision to not attend GDC. Oh, the partying, inspiring talks and the old friends I'm missing. Bummer. Instead, I'll be tipping back a frosty beverage in the privacy of my own home and toasting to all the fine folks in this marvelous and vibrant industry. Indies, publishers, 1st party, 3rd party, MMO devs, lunatics and dreamers, rock on. It isn't a hotel bar, but it will have to do.

Good luck and have a brew for me. There will always be next year.

PS: If folks reading happens to be at GDC, I'd love to hear the most interesting game design technique that you happened upon during your travels.

PPS: Anyone playing with Linked In? My contact is danc-at-lostgarden-dot-com. It has an experience point system! I love how they use social pressure to encourage participation. "This is how many connections normal people have."

I'm curious how you could build a game using this concept of local social networks limited by degrees of separation. Guilds sort of have this built in, but imagine a world where you start only knowing your friends and then grow your network as you grow in experience. There would need to be a good hook to get your friends to sign up in the first place. Fun stuff.