E. Darwin Hartshorn: //Boilerplate

Dev Game 02: Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Theodore Beale is a groundbreaking game designer and Satan Incarnate (the ground he broke was the invention of the FPS escort mission).  He’s teaching a 10-session online course through a technical college in Zürich on game development and, by the looks of things so far, it will be worth your while to sign up for the eight remaining courses.  I’m not going to write up a full report in this space, since the organizers surely deserve remuneration, but I plan on writing up a takeaway each week.

This week’s takeaway is stand on the shoulders of giants.

One of Mr. Beale’s little factoids was this: Grand Theft Auto is Pac-Man.

You’re Pac-Man, your mission destinations are the dots, and the cops are the ghosts.

There is nothing truly original.

It’s rare for a game designer to come up with something new to the world of game design.  And even then, it wasn’t new to the world at large.  Before there was Pac-Man, there were physical, meatspace games like tag and capture-the-flag.  Innovation comes not from inventing new things, but combining old things (tag + TV screens = Pac-Man).

Dev Game Session 1: Make Yourself Useful

Theodore Beale is a groundbreaking game designer and Satan Incarnate (the ground he broke was the invention of the FPS escort mission).  He’s teaching a 10-session online course through a technical college in Zürich on game development and, by the looks of things so far, it will be worth your while to sign up for the nine remaining courses.  I’m not going to write up a full report in this space, since the organizers surely deserve remuneration, I plan on writing up a takeaway each week.

The takeaway this week is make yourself useful.

It’s About Connections

Like most things, getting into game dev has a lot to do with connections.  If you want to join a company, knowing someone who knows someone is going to get you farther than an application or portfolio.  Even if you want to go lone wolf, like me (and Beale gave me food for thought on that count, too), you need connections:  You need to have a community of people who want to play your game.

To Make a Friend, Be a Friend

How do you make these connections?  Well, you have to reach out to people.  You have to give them something of value.  You have to hang out and be friendly.  Some examples I can apply in my own work.

  • Simple art contributions.  I do pixel art from time to time, and I’m pretty quick at it.  Throwing together a sprite or tileset once every other week or so would be a relaxing break from Bestiary, and could be invaluable to people learning game dev who could use some consistent, well-made royalty-free art.
  • Featuring awesome stuff.  I’m working on developing a Mignola-esque art style for Bestiary.  Why not feature a lesser-known artist or two from deviantArt who serves as inspiration for my own work?  Why not do that for other artists as well?
  • Digging into communities.  I’m making Bestiary because I’m disappointed in available virtual pets.  The concepts of Pokémon and Digimon can easily extend to darker, more mature themes, and in fact should, since the original fans of those franchises are now quite a bit older.  Jim Butcher made a monster-training fantasy series that can be taken quite seriously.
    The original fans of these shows almost certainly congregate on the interwebs, and I’d almost certainly get along with many of them.  So I should.

Make Yourself Useful

There was a lot of awesome stuff in session 1.  I took six pages of notes, and I definitely need to spend some time really, really examining what I want to do in game dev, and what that will look like, as a result.  But the thing I want to leave you with is this:  even the lone wolf dev needs people.  And to get people, you have to reach out and give them a reason to keep you around.  You have to make yourself useful.

How to make an original game:

My wife pointed out a monster catching and raising game on iOS with the question, “Isn’t this what you’re trying to do?”

No.  It’s not.  See, here’s my design philosophy:  I make the games I want to play.   If someone else has made it already, I don’t have that unrequited desire to make the game, as I can requite said desire any time I like.  Or at least as soon as I save up the cash to buy it.

Ergo, every game I intend to make has never been done before.  Most are variations on things that have been done before.  But all are, in some way, original.

As I gain skill and a feel for the market, I intend to expand my rubric: I intend to make games that lots of people, including myself, want to play.  Once again, games they want to play because they don’t exist yet.

Medium Must Match Message redux

So here’s my problem:  I’m a half-decent artist.  I need to make art for Bestiary.  But the art has to fit the tone of the game.

The idea, in Bestiary, is you are a Sentinel, one of those people who can bond to and control the native creatures of Theria.  Since the powers of therians are fantastic, human colonists rely on Sentinels to keep them safe, to hold the line against the violent world just beyond their doors.  But those who control the monsters are suspected of being half-monster yourself, so your necessary role is also a curse.

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Medium Must Match Message

This is a good article to read.

Auro wasn’t supposed to be “retro.” To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look and feel of a specific set of old school games. While it’s true that Auro was an homage to my favorite game art, I never intended for it to be “retro.” I just wanted to make great pixel art, yet it inexorably gets lumped in with the retro aesthetic.
But here’s the clincher. It’s not their fault.

“Retro?” Poppycock! I’ll have you know I’m quite jiggy with it!

The Artist’s Responsibility
Though I never intended for Auro to be a “retro-style” game, what I intended doesn’t matter at all, and it’s 100% my fault for failing to communicate in a language people understand.

As a game developer, time is the most valuable resource a human can give you. Nobody owes us their time or attention. As such, when someone gives us their time, an implicit agreement is made and we are now in debt to that person. We owe it to them to deliver value for their time, and to deliver it efficiently.

I am an illustrator/animator. The kind of value that illustrators/animators are responsible for is distinct among other types of visual artists. We must establish meaningful intent as close to instantaneously as possible. By meaningful intent, I simply mean that the audience has to internalize the concept, motion, emotion, perspective, etc. of a pieceright away. The second the audience asks “how can he bend that way without breaking his spine,” or  “Why is he shooting where he’s not looking,” we have failed them. They don’t owe us the time to look at our work in the first place. They certainly don’t owe us the time to squint their eyes and try to make sense of our work.

Meaningful intent applies to medium as well. In choosing to make our game with pixel art, we have accidentally taken on a war on two fronts. My job was to make Auro’s art polished, inviting, and clear to the audience, not to also educate the audience that pixel art is a deliberate style.

My main point dances around Mr. Reynolds’ point.  The consumers of Auro criticized it for its ‘pixelated’ art, not understanding that it was intentional.  Reynolds correctly places the blame on his failure to communicate, but seems only to brush in passing on how he failed.  The quote, “Auro wasn’t supposed to be “retro.” To me, the “retro game” aesthetic isn’t just pixel art, but an appeal to the specific sounds, feedback, and look and feel of a specific set of old school games,” is the closest I see to an explicit recognition of the issue.

The issue is that the medium doesn’t match the message.

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