Orbitorus

Orbitorus” is a game that I created in my spare time over the last few days for Global Game Jam 2012. Play it here and let me know what you think! 😉

The theme for this year’s game jam was this image (of the Ouroboros):

I was working alone (again :/) since I wasn’t able to attend for any real length of time (but I could work at home on my laptop).

Concept

My initial game idea was a sort of “serpent rocket” game in which the player had to launch a rocket in such a way that it would eventually hit it’s own tail (launch point). While interesting, the feat of aligning the rocket’s path turned out to be horrendously difficult for a player (me) to achieve.

Design Iteration

The game design then proceeded in more of an abstract direction. The serpent “tail” was visually distracting, so I just left it out (changing the serpent to an “Orbitorus”). I still wanted to communicate the feeling of return, but didn’t want to burden the player with the onerous task of a perfectly aligned return flight. So I changed the goal to activation of nodes (attractors) and made the return automatic after the goal was complete.

These changes made the game feel much better, but it had little replay value. Inspired by cyclical level sets (prevalent in early 80s games such as Gorf), I figured that I could further reinforce the feeling of “infinity” by creating a looping set of levels which would be classically easy (ish) to complete, but difficult to master. A simple way to encourage this was to record the player’s score when they first complete the level, and to later require them to beat that score the next time they encountered that level.

The beat-your-last-score mechanic worked surprisingly well. It introduced a fair amount of replay value because it created another consideration and challenge. Players realise that they should progress incrementally (beating the existing high score by as little as possible) in order to progress further and further into the game. Over time, I found that I could not only pass every level, but also pass them in different ways with a relatively controlled path and score.

Player Experience

The theme of incremental progress resonates strongly with me. It seems that people often want to wildly proceed in large bounds, but often burn themselves out and fail to achieve their larger goals. So I’m happy to have created a game that encourages and rewards measured actions, practice, experience, and thoughtfulness.

When I started playing the game, I didn’t think that I would make it past level 11. However, my current high-score is level 39 and I’m already thinking of strategies to get even further:

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m very happy with this game. Unlike my previous Global Game Jam games, I focused more on gameplay (rather than story or message) and I feel that Orbitorus is much more enjoyable as a result (which isn’t always the end goal, but was important to me on this occasion). Moreover, the game conveys a stronger message as a result of greater gameplay depth. So I feel that it’s a success in that regard as well.

My cat ran through a window

Our cat Pete is rather curious:

He decided to investigate this plastic bag:

The plastic bag got caught on his collar, and he ran wildly through the house trying to get away from it. This freaked out our other cat, Bruce, who proceeded to bolt as fast as he could to his safe place – the lower window pane in our bedroom:

Amazingly, Bruce went right through the glass. (We later taped some cardboard to the inside of the window frame to close up the gap). We found him a while later and rushed him to the Veterinary Hospital Emergency at Murdoch University, where he had to get a number of stitches on lacerations to his leg and face.

Fortunately, Bruce managed to get away without more serious injuries (the glass was very sharp and we were rather worried). Unfortunately, he can’t go outside for a few days until his wounds have healed. Poor Bruce. 🙁

Meme proposal

I came across this marriage proposal video in which Timothy Tiah utilises popular memes to propose to his girlfriend (who is now his fiance; congratuations Tim!):


Meme Proposal | Tim * Audrey from Crazy Monkey Studio on Vimeo.

I quite enjoyed the video (despite reddit’s mixed feelings) because (aside from being sweet) I feel that it demonstrates the participatory and universal nature of Internet culture.

Popular memes reflect shared human experience (that’s why they become popular!), and provide a platform to communicate personal feelings and experiences within that context.

Good memes cross traditional cultural boundaries and are widely adapted and shared because people “get them” immediately and personally. They speak more to the modern human condition than high art or other culturally elitist works, and that’s why I like them… and this video.

Random photos from 2011

Just a few random photos from 2011 that I hadn’t yet posted to this blog.

 

How I spent my time in 2011

Last week I audited how I spent my active hours (approx. 9am-7pm) in 2011.

I experienced some fairly major life changes throughout the year, and the report I put together is definitely more characteristic of the last 6 months (when I had settled into a routine) rather than the entire year.

Here’s a diagram illustrating my activities:

And here are some of my observations and thoughts:

  1. Only 23% of my time is directly generating income. Hopefully this will change next year as ventures come to fruition.
  2. Half my normal work time is non-billable.I spend as much time on tasks such as administration as I do on contract work.
  3. My weekends and holidays are not my own! That 25% Personal time should be closer to 30%. (To be fair, this is probably my own fault.)
  4. I spend a lot of time on Let’s Make Games Inc. An unsustainable amount really, but we’re becoming much more efficient.

No real surprises I suppose. The audit was a lot more detailed (down to individual projects), but this high-level review is probably the most important.

Overall, I’m rather happy with how I spent my time. I feel like 2011 was about laying a lot of foundations to be built upon in future. Many of those foundations are relationships, and I’ll be depending on a lot of people to help take Let’s Make Games, Hungry Sky, and various ventures forward together with me.

It’s very fulfilling to be working with people I believe in, in pursuit of projects I’m passionate about, and I’m glad that I put in the time to get things started.

My goals for this year are to:

  1. Increase Personal time to around 34%. This should come naturally with the imminent arrival of my first child. 🙂
  2. Reduce Let’s Make Games Inc. time to around 13%. We’re not setting up anymore, so this should be possible!
  3. Reduce non-billable hours to around 15%. That’ll make it around 35% of my normal work time, rather than 50%.
  4. Start making money from some of these ventures. This isn’t directly time related, but it will help with time justification!

So that was 2011 in pie chart and bullet point form. I’ll be posting some photos from the year as well… which may be more interesting for most people. 😉

“Table-top” gaming prototype on iPad2

I’ve been musing (and designing) a simple role-playing game for quite a while. Mostly as a result of playing Dungeons & Dragons and getting slightly frustrated by how complex and convoluted it can be. (Checking rules interrupts gaming flow!)

My main focus has been on the game design. I made a few presentations and spreadsheets to get my ideas in order. I also had some ideas for how to commercialise it, but hadn’t really worked everything out yet.

Last Friday, everything suddenly fell into place in my head: design, gameplay, technology, market, production, sales. Bam! So I went to work creating a prototype and ended up making this over the weekend (with some support from Ben and Jim):

Here’s what is implemented so far (and shown in the video):

  1. A rudimentary web-based multi-touch map editor (written in HTML5, CSS3, and Javascript)
  2. A special holder (created using various plumbing and cleaning supplies) for miniature figurines
  3. Code to detect the special holder’s position and orientation
  4. A simple interface that allows a player to move their character or scroll the map via their figurine

On a technical note, the holder uses similar principles to this device (technical report) that I worked on back in 2006 while I was at ViSLAB. Ah, happy memories.

There is plenty still to come (including editor improvements, basic visibility, and monsters). Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to do some more hacking next weekend. 🙂

Shadow of the Colossus (revisited)

I spent last Sunday and today playing what I consider to be the best game that I have ever played: Shadow of the Colossus.

Shadow of the Colossus was originally released on Playstation 2 in 2005 (and I first wrote about it here after its Australian release in early 2006). For those who missed it the first time (or who want to re-live the experience in HD or 3D stereo), it has recently been remastered and released as part of the “Ico and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection” on Playstation 3.

I feel that much of what I wrote about the game five years ago holds true today. Despite being aware of the game mechanics and content this time around, I still found the game to be “confrontingly visceral”. Possibly even more so than the first time I experienced it, and I’ve recently been contemplating why.

Shadow of the Colossus immediately stands apart from other video games (perhaps with the exception of ICO) due to its minimalist aesthetics and design. Fumito Ueda (Director of the game) describes his approach to game development as “design by subtraction”. Unlike most commercial games (that seek to pile on additional “features” and content), Shadow of the Colossus is based around a few core elements and themes, with supporting visuals, sounds, and mechanics.

Overview

The protagonist is a young man (Wander) who seeks to restore the life of a young woman (Mono). At the beginning of the game he enters a sacred temple and places Mono on an alter. He calls upon the spirits of the temple to return her soul and revive her. A disembodied voice responds that it may be possible, but will come at great cost. The voice further explains that he must use the ancient sword in his possession to kill sixteen ancient creatures (the colossi) in the forbidden lands.

From this point onwards, the game follows a general pattern:

  1. Wander leaves the temple upon his horse (Agro). He holds his up sword, which shines light in the direction of the next colossus.
  2. He rides to the colossus and kills it (usually by climbing upon it and stabbing it repeatedly in unique weak points).
  3. After each colossus dies, ephemeral black tendrils leave it and seek out Wander, piercing his body and causing him to pass out.
  4. Wander awakens in the temple surrounded by black humanoid figures (one for each colossi killed). A temple statue representing the killed colossus explodes into rubble.
  5. The voice in the temple tells him about the next colossus and this pattern continues until they have all been destroyed.

Clearly the above description doesn’t nearly explain the intricacies of the presentation and game play, but it forms the foundation for game progression and character development (in both Wander and the player).

Wander

Throughout the game, there is a constant feeling that Wander is an intruder. The temple and forbidden lands are mostly void of life (except for the occasional bird, fish, lizard, or colossus) and Wander’s presence feels out of place and rather uninvited. Whenever Wander encounters a colossus, there is a feeling that he is disrupting (and ultimately ending) its placid life in order to meet his own unnatural objective of returning Mono to life. Moreover, he is ending an ancient life that has been undisturbed for a long time. This further communicates a sense of inappropriate intrusion, interference, and selfishness.

Only a stolen ancient sword provides Wander with power over the spirits of the temple and the ability to destroy the colossi. This implies that his intentions and actions are against both the natural and cultural order. Although the player may empathize with his loss (in Mono’s death), they are likely to question his stubborn mindset and the moral ambiguity of his actions. At times it is emotionally difficult to assist Wander in his killing of the colossi, but the player is afforded a level of observational detachment that allows them to progress in the game.

As the game continues, the effect (on Wander) of killing the colossi becomes increasingly apparent. He appears sickly, his skin covered in lesions and discolorations. He also appears to be becoming less human and more monstrous. It feels as though the first (small) colossi could inflict a lot of damage by simply stomping near him, but in later battles Wander sustains little damage from great falls and attacks. Possibly indicating that the black tendrils are changing him internally as well as externally.

The Colossi

The colossi are presented as ancient creatures that live alone (in their own areas) and with a strong connection to their respective environments. They have adapted to suit their environments and lumber throughout them unhindered by any other life or obstacles (until Wander arrives to kill them). Interestingly, many of the colossi live in ancient ruins in various levels of disrepair. This implies some ancient historical interaction between the colossi and a human society, but the reason for the departure of humans from the forbidden lands is never explained.

Visually, the colossi are obviously large creatures (although the size of each varies significantly). They tend to resemble humans or other animals (such as birds, turtles, or dogs) and have patches of hair (which Wander uses to climb upon them) and large round eyes (with an ominous blur or orange glow, depending on their mental state). Another common element is a collection of decrepit architectural stone structures around the colossus’ frame and face. These imply some sort of artificial construct which mark attempts to contain or control the colossi (and may be causing ongoing discomfort or pain).

The final defining characteristic of each colossi is that they have various symbols on their bodies that glow when near the ancient sword. These indicate weak points that Wander seeks out and repeatedly stabs in order to fell the colossi. With each stab of the sword, thin black liquid spurts out of the colossus as it violently responds to the pain. The presence of these clearly artificial symbols indicates that these creatures have already been violated, marked, and weakened.

Conclusion

I’ve deliberately tried to avoid describing the game mechanics in detail. Most game reviews tend to focus on explaining and evaluating gameplay, and there are plenty of reviews of Shadow of the Colossus online. Rather, I’d like to conclude with how the game feels and what it communicates. In my mind, these represent its greatest achievements.

Shadow of the Colossus reminds me of bull fighting. It’s barbaric and uncomfortable to some, and visceral entertainment to others. It’s a conflict between man and nature, with a predetermined conclusion that nature will succumb despite its apparent raw power. The player strategises against the colossi, allowing Wander to overcome their defenses and slowly slaughter them in an uncomfortable and drawn-out display. As a result of killing of colossi, Wander becomes less human and the player is left to wonder if he will survive or if Mono will recognize him when she is revived.

Shadow of the Colossu is a powerful and ground-breaking game unlike any other. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I look forward eagerly to Fumito Ueda’s next work.

Addendum

My recent playing and discussion of Shadow of the Colossus came about as the result of an experimental Game Appreciation Society series of events (play session and discussion meeting). So thanks go to Ben, Rich, and David for their input.

During the second event, Ben brought this fantastic Shadow of the Colossus themed cake which he made with his sister (it’s fantastic!):