Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tidbits from the garden

A few odds and ends have collected in my inbox lately.

Video of the Princess Saving Application is up!
All the videos from the night are posted up on My talk starts 10 minutes into the first video and lasts approximately 30 minutes. There’s also a bit of Q &A after all the talks finish up. You can get the original slides here.

<a href="" target="_new" title="Microsoft Office Labs & Engineering Excellence IxDA Event Part I Daniel Cook">Video: Microsoft Office Labs & Engineering Excellence IxDA Event Part I Daniel Cook</a>

FishingGirl update
I’ve seen some sneak peeks of the FishingGirl prototypes and people are making great progress. It will be possible for someone to win a gold medal this time around. If you’ve started a prototype, finish it! There is solid fun lurking in that design and you still have a couple of weeks left to build something wonderful.

Some observations:
  • The store and the acquisition of the various rods adds a great sense of exploration and progression to the game.
  • The gameplay improves substantially if you give your fish a small dash of intelligence so that they move towards your lure if it is in their sight.
  • Making the game winnable. There is a story arc to the game and it feels incomplete if you don't let the player finish.
Skill atoms in action
Tex, over at the delightfully titled Tin Man Tex’s Slap Dang Blog, put together skill chain describing his mod. I liked how he intuitively started writing down skill atoms and then only later began connecting them together in a skill chain. Analyzing a game using skill atoms has an element of mind mapping to it that is pleasantly organic. Check it out. I hope to see more such examples in the future.
Other prototyping notes
BuschnicK created a nicely fleshed out version of Play with your Peas. It is a faithful implementation of the game and deserves a very solid silver reward. However, I still think the fun hasn't been completely uncovered.

At this point, we've had some reasonable implementations of the original concept. I suspect that the design may require some big changes to make it work. So here is a question: Why isn't Play with your Peas mind-thunderingly fun and what could be done to improve it?
Best wishes and may you have a sinfully glorious Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Project Horseshoe 2008: There and back again

I’m writing this on the long flight back from Project Horseshoe 2008. The last bittersweet night, we stayed up till five AM playing games and talking about games. The conversation shifted from the slow death of games as we knew them, to fresh games that will change the world, to the little tips we use to thrive each day. There is something distinctly surreal about chatting quietly with such an intimate knowledgeable group during the wee hours of the morning, there on a lonely porch in the uncharted depths of Texas. And yes, there were indeed baby racoons.

This year, I took a risk. If you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you know that I’ve been working on skill atom techniques for modeling gameplay. I’ve written about it. I’ve used it myself. There has even been a talk or two. Yet, aside from a few furtive emails with other happy heretics, I’ve never had a chance to do the following:
  1. Explain the model to a crowd of natural skeptics, working designers who have been successfully building games for years.
  2. Get them to tear it apart.
The cautionary tale of the secret paint formula
I’m reminded of a story that Norman Rockwell used to tell. He once became good friends with a fellow painter who was famous for his rendering of luminescent, sensual skin tones. The painter used a secret formula for his paint and he guarded it jealously from potential imitators. When the painter died, he willed his greatest gift, his secret paint formula to Rockwell.

Rockwell excitedly tried out the formula, but ultimately found it disappointing. The paint was too slick and difficult to control, so he gave up on it and instead fell back on his own preferred techniques. The real secret had never been the paint formula. It was just one little piece of the painter’s vast organic, highly individual process. The real secret was the intuitive wisdom that comes from making a thousand paintings. Sadly, such a thing is not transferable to others. When he died, his specific way of creating paintings died with him.

Are skill atoms the same thing as the secret paint formula? Are they a glossy coat of theoretical hand waving that only works for the people who invented it? Many people I’ve talked with see ‘game grammar’ as nothing more than a time wasting intellectualization of a fundamentally intuitive activity. I went into the weekend with this thought very much at the forefront of my mind.

Why stop there?
If all we had done was validate or invalidate the skill atom model for simple games, it would have been a useful weekend. But by god, this is Project Horseshoe and people are nothing if not psychotically ambitious. To up the ante, our group decided to apply skill atoms to multiplayer games. I’ve never done this.

How do you model a deeply psychological behavior like bluffing? Gifting? Competition? Collaboration? Goodness! I didn’t have a lot of answers prepared for this topic and honestly expected that the skill atom model would immediately collapse under the weight of all the crazy things that happen as soon as you add two or more players to a game design. All it would have taken is one smart designer to raise a single counter example and my fragile model would burst apart, defeated by reality.

Some questions that I had included:
  • Could we even begin to talk about multiplayer with skill atoms? The alternative is that this is a model that is limited to only single player experiences. That would be like coming up with a model of physics that worked for one ball in a vacuum, but wasn’t useful for something useful like say…building bridges.
  • Would the system scale to complex systems? Often when you use a diagramming technique (like UML or state diagrams) to understand real world projects, the resulting diagrams becomes so convoluted that the model does more to confuse than to illuminate.
  • Would the system be useful to designers during every day work? It is much easier to come up with a academic system of analyzing games that works best if you are an ivory tower dweller who can devote hundreds of hours to breaking down each interaction into pretty diagrams filled with obscure invented lingo. However, I’m looking for utilitarian tools that can be applied in that critical 10-minute gap between playing a prototype and deciding what to try next.
  • Can this system be taught to other designers? Like the secret paint formula, most game models I run across are only useful to their inventors. If I can’t observe other designers applying the model successfully without my intervention there is something horribly wrong with the approach.
We ripped the skill atoms apart. We analyzed multiplayer M.U.L.E. We looked at charades and then took on football and buffing in MMOs. We used skill atoms to prototype a new multiplayer game about gifting using a bag of plastic Indians. At some point, not so long from now, our group will come out with a report. In that report, we’ll be blunt about what we found. What worked? What was flawed? The results are fascinating.

Our team’s report will be one of several reports to come out of Project Horseshoe by groups of game designers just as crazy and inspired as we were. If any one of these reports starts gaining momentum, the world of gaming as we know will change. It turns out that moving our industry forward isn’t about complaining. It is about getting smart people together where they have the time and the space to think. Grab a beer (Aventinus Double Bock, no less), join the mind meld and use the vast pool of centuries (!) of game design experience to come up with real solutions. Then follow up again and again and again.

In that spirit, I can't wait to share our final report with everyone.

Time for some much needed sleep, chock full of dreams.

PS: Warm kudos to George, Linda and Teresa for putting Project Horseshoe on. It is obviously a labor of love and is utterly unique compared to the other events and conferences I’ve attended. If you ever get an invite, don’t hesitate to go.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Fishing Girl: Game Prototyping Challenge

Earlier this summer, I mentioned that I was starting up a Mystery Project for local Seattle weekend coders. Summer has turned into Fall and the Mystery Project is still going strong. So we decided to kick off a Winter session of the Mystery Project!

In this post, I wanted to do two things:
  • Extend an invitation to any Seattle developers who would like to participate directly in the Mystery Project.
  • Share some Mystery Project graphics that we’ve made this summer part of yet another delightful Prototyping Challenge.

Winter Mystery Project
The Mystery Project is an innovative small Flash MMO that experiments with many of the design concepts I’ve been writing about on this blog. We meet up every Sunday at a local coffee shop and share what we’ve done and what we’ve learned. The project is the main focus, but I put a big emphasis on helping everyone on the team develop new skills and explore exciting ideas. If you are in Seattle, our meet up has become a rather unique opportunity to explore true next generation game design.

The team is pretty solid, but I’m looking for at least one additional, talented programmer. The project is in Flash/Flex with the server-side game logic written in Java.

Being part of the team means a serious time commitment. Expect to put in at least 10-15 hours a week. Making games needs to be your hobby and your passion.

If you have solid Flash/Flex/Java programming skills and you live around Seattle, drop me a note at Ze Mystery Project lives (at least for the winter)!

Fishing Girl Prototype Challenge!
Due to the ‘coffee-shop mentoring’ model I’ve got set up for the Mystery Project, there are dozens of talented programmers who live outside of Seattle who can’t participate in our weekly chats. This makes me sad. So I decided to share some of our graphics as part of a brand spanking new game prototyping challenge. Free graphics + new game prototyping challenge = Happiness.

Fishing Girl is a simple fishing game played with one button. It illustrates a design pattern called sequentially linked mechanics. Often when you try to simulate a complex exercise like fishing, you can’t easily create a single game mechanic that captures the entire experience. Instead, you string together a series of activities. Each activity is simplistic by itself, but in sequence yields a good approximation of the complex experience. The fishing game is split into the following activities:
  1. Casting
  2. Positioning the lure
  3. Hooking a fish
  4. Reeling in the fish
  5. Scoring the fish
  6. Buying new equipment.
Each section should take 1-3 evenings to prototype in Flash. String them all together and you have a fishing game. The nice thing about this challenge is that it is all about bite sized chunks that are easy to build and iterate on.

The Wife Test (How Prototypes are scored)
My wife, as I mentioned in previous posts, is quite ill and I’ve wanted to do something nice for her. She absolutely adores fishing games, so Fishing Girl is designed for her. Any prototypes that someone is kind enough to make will be played by my wife with me watching her reactions intently. Luckily, she doesn’t find this overly irritating. :-)

In order to capture her casual gamer feedback, I’ve added a simple scoring system for this challenge. Each section of the game is worth a number of points. 50% of the score for each section will be whether or not my Bejeweled/WiiFit-playing wife finds the prototype to be ‘fun’. This is Miyamoto’s “Wife Test” applied in a quite literal fashion.

I’ll still be giving out the LostGarden Medals and still, no one has won the epic Gold Medal. It sits out there, tempting and shiny, just waiting for the right prototype to provide 15 minutes of fun. This challenge will last two months. But if something comes in later, I’m always happy to take a look and offer comments. Just list a link to any prototype in the comments section of this post.

The setup (10 points)
The player is a small bear-like creature, the Fishing Girl who sits at the edge of the ocean. She has a fishing pole, a glowing lure on the end of the pole, a money count and that is about it. In the ocean are numerous fish of various sizes that swim back and forth, but we’ll get to those later.

Casting (10 points)
Casting the lure out into the ocean involves two clicks:
  1. If you click your button once, the girl will pull back her pole to cast.
  2. If you do nothing, the pole will return to the default position.
  3. However, if you press a second time in the middle of her swing, she will cast the lure outward into the ocean.
  4. The closer the second click is to the peak of the swing the further the lure travels.
  5. When the lure hits, a number is placed at on spot on the ocean where it lands. This records the distance and lets you know exactly how far you cast.
Casting acts as a simple timing mini-game.

Help text (Bonus!)
  • Click to start casting
  • Cast!
Positioning the lure (20 points)

Positioning the lure in the water is the centerpiece of the game. You'll be spending a lot of your prototyping time here. :-)
  • When the lure hits the water, it starts to sink downward in an arc. When it starts out, it sinks almost straight downward. The tension on the rope pulls it inward towards the player, hence the arc. We don’t have time to model the complex line physics, so instead we say that the lure moves along an arc of a circle whose radius is defined by the distance from the tip of the pole to the point at which the lure hit the water.
  • Holding down the button reels in the lure. This changes the radius of our arc, but does not change rate at which the lure is moving along the arc.
  • The empty lure, unencumbered by fish reels in quite quickly. Using this system, we can now place the lure at any point within the sea.
Positioning the lure acts as a timing and spatial skill mini-game.

Hooking a Fish (25 points)
In the ocean there are fish. In order to hook a fish, you must place the lure in front of the fish’s mouth. The fish will lunge forward and become hooked. The entire time, you are carefully timing the slow downward arc of your lure. There are three pieces to this mini-game.
  1. The Fish
  2. The Lunge
  3. The Lure
The Fish (10 points)
Fish are objects in the sea that move back and forth in predictable patterns. Fish come in different sizes, rarity and movement patterns.
  • Movement: Back and forth. There are others patterns such as circles or swarms, but that would be extra.
  • Size: Small, Medium, Large, Extra large.
  • Rarity: Common, uncommon, Rare, Very Rare. This is used during “Scoring the Fish”
Fish are spread throughout the water with more valuable fish located further from shore. Try to have a good mix of big fish and small fish. You can start testing with one fish, but ultimately, you should have 10 to 20 or else the game won’t be very interesting.

The Lunge (10 points)
Now that you have your fish floating about, you can implement catching them.
  • Each fish has a collision box in front of its mouth.
  • If the lure enters the collision box, the fish will move forward towards the lure and attempt to become hooked.
The Lure (5 points)
Lures come in different sizes: Small, Medium, Large. The size determines which size fish you can catch:
  • If the lure is too small, it will be snapped and the cast is over.
  • If the lure is too big, it will be ignored.
  • If the lure is just right, the fish will be automatically hooked.
Help Text (Bonus)
We display help text at the appropriate moments
  • Position lure in front of fish!
  • That fish was too big for this lure!
  • That fish was too small for this lure!
  • You hooked it!
  • Reel in!
Choosing which fish to hook acts as simple tactical choice where the player is asked to pick the most optimal outcome. The time pressure of the moving fish and lure makes this choice interesting.

Reeling in a fish (20 points)
Once you’ve caught the fish, you need to get it back to the surface. Reeling in the lure works the same as before but the larger the fish, the slower it comes back up. Reeling in the fish is an exercise in keeping your fish away from other, larger fish that will happily eat your fish if it comes their way.
  • Fish still go for your fish if it appears in front of their mouth.
  • If they latch on, they take a bite out of your fish.
  • Three bites and you lose your fish. Each bite also reduces the value of your fish.
  • If your fish makes it to the surface of the water, you’ve caught the fish!
  • Reeling in the fish successfully acts as a timing and spatial skill mini-game.
Everything up to this point has been training for the player. Expect to spend considerable time here balancing, iterating and making this section feel good.

Reward for catching the fish. (5 points)
When you catch the fish, a small celebration animation plays that shows you the fish that you caught. There are several pieces to this segment.
  • Revealing rarity
  • Awarding Money
Revealing rarity (2 points)
When the fish is held up by the fisherman, the fish that you’ve been reeling in is revealed to be either a common (1), uncommon (2), rare (3) or very rare fish (4). Each type of fish has a distinct image associated with it.
  • The rarer the fish the less likely it is to appear.
  • A text label appears that say the name of the fish and the rarity. For example “Ancient Shoefish (Uncommon)”
  • Bonus!: If you want to get really fancy, you can display a simple text modifier to each fish that also modifies it's value. For example "ancient" increases value by 50% while "skanky" reduces value by 20%.
Awarding money (3 points)
  • The value of the fish is also displayed. A simple scoring equation might be size * rarity * modifier * 10. Feel free to play with the values to get the right balance.
  • The amount of money the fish is worth is then added to the piggy bank counter that has been sitting on the screen this entire time.
The revealing of the modifier acts as a gambling element that keeps the outcome interesting of each cast exciting until the very last second.

The store (10 points)
Floating out in the sea are various markers that represent item upgrades. If you hit the marker exactly with your cast and you have enough money, you will purchase them. Otherwise, your lure will bounce off and sink as expected. These artifacts do the following:
  • Bronze rod: Your basic rod. It casts a short distance off shore.
  • Silver rod: Cast further
  • Gold rod: Cast even further
  • Legendary Rod: Cast far and reel in heavy fish quickly.
  • Small Lure: Catch small fish.
  • Medium Lure: Catch medium fish.
  • Large Lure: Catch large fish. Note that there is no extra large lure, so there are always larger fish that pose as obstacles.
  • Bomb lure: Explodes and kills the first fish that touches it. Even if it is a very large fish.
  • Boy: Far on the edge of ocean is a Boy. He is inordinately expensive. This is how you win the game. And for the record, he is indeed, quite the catch. (What happens when you use an explosive lure on the Boy is up to your discretion...perhaps this is another way of winning.)
Bonus: You start with three small lures. When a large fish breaks your line or steals your fish, the lure is lost. At this point, you need to either buy more lures (which are expensive) or stop playing for the day. If you want to get fancy, you have some method of switching between lures. Otherwise, you can simply replace your current item with the most recent acquisition.

The store acts as a simple meta-game that encourages you to keep fishing in order to advance.

Progression (Bonus!)
As you catch more fish, the ocean gets more and more empty. This adds to the difficulty of finding fish. Fish always stay in approximately the same area until caught. Players will note where fish are located and be able to maneuver into position on subsequent casts.

If you wait long enough, more will respawn. If you fish out all the fish, there are no more fish left and you get a simple message “There are no more fish left in the ocean. There will never be any ever again.”

Design notes
The game is about spotting a high value fish, maneuvering your lure into position while avoiding the bigger fish and finally maneuvering your fish back through the landmines of larger fish.

In essence, Fishing Girl is Frogger using a polar coordinate system, a frog that insists on drifting to the left and only the ability to move forward.

So those are the rules! I've created this graphics this time in Illustrator and I've taken pains to make them appealing to Flash developers. Let me know if I've got the formatting right. I'd love to see some Prototypes of Fishing Girl playing in a browser.

So download the graphics and have fun! As with all prototyping challenges, this is a grand exploration of a new play space and there will be all sorts of interesting surprises along the way.
  • Download Flash Project (.FLA CS3): This is an import from Illustrator into Flash. There are no animations, but this might be useful if you don't have access to Illustrator.
  • Download Adobe Illustrator (.AI CS3): This has the original artwork. From here you can go to .XAML for Silverlight or bitmap.
  • Download Bitmaps versions of all the images used.
  • Download FishingGirl.swf: A swf export of all the vectors. This is good if you don't have CS3. You may have to dig a little to find what you need, but everything should be in there.
Best of luck! If you are intrigued by these graphics, you'll love what the Mystery Project is turning into.

take care

Update 11/1/2008: Added bitmaps and swf of all images.