Saturday, March 12, 2011

New website!

From now on, all of my new stuff is going to be over at !

I already have a bunch of stuff up, so check it out.

You can also follow me on my new twitter @cggames

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Decay is released!

I've been telling you people this would happen for a long long long time and it's finally here! Decay is now available for download from ModDB. Just go ahead and follow the link below to view screenshots and get the installer.

Six hundred hits in a few hours, holy crap!

Decay mod for Half-Life 2
Download me!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Decay is on ModDB! / Some Thoughts About IGDA

So, Decay is on ModDB now. You can check out it's page at the following link:

I feel guilty for not posting anything all semester. It hasn't been for naught though! We've finished a sweet level in Unity, with a video of it ready to be uploaded. The reason it's not in this post is because it's still sitting on the hard drive at the lab which is locked right now.

In other news, myself and a lot of class mates went to the IGDA Montreal meeting tonight. The speaker was none other than the Producer for one of my professors Patrick Fortier. Patrick was the creative director on the recently released Wet, and that's what the talk was about.

As far as the actual talk goes, I'm not sure how much I got out of it. In our class with Patrick we've already done some fairly thorough post-mortem talks on what he believes went wrong with the game and what went right. As his producer mentioned in his talk, the character and the setting have been reviewed very well. It'll be interesting to see where A2M decides to take their first Triple A franchise from these roots. I can only imagine that it must be daunting as a company to be wading through such shark infested triple-a waters when you are used to designing family games.

Afterwards, our conversation shifted from the talk to another topic: Students. We are literally part of the first wave of students coming out of any college for Game Design. Many game development degrees from small technical schools are jokes compared to the program me and my piers are involved in, but of course nobody knows that. And beyond the problem of only a few people being knowledgeable on our actual program, no one knows how to talk to us or what to tell us and vice versa.

When we finally manage to make contact with an industry professional, we tend to hear things like "Have a good portfolio" and "Try to talk to a lot of people". These are certainly helpful nuggets of advice, but it always seems to come along with a strange air of "Well, I need to say SOMETHING to these kids." Professionals have no idea what students know, what they don't know, what their experience levels are, etc. They were never game design students, after all.

I'm going to gather my thoughts on this and write a full article for my blog on Gamasutra. The short version of it is this: Hey! We know a lot about game design and we don't think the way that you do. We're poor college students! We're cheap resources with good ideas! Try and be a little friendlier.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Some Thoughts About Indie Games

In my last post I wrote that it was 1 of 2 of my commentary on genres. The first part was about "Serious Games" and can be found here. I was really surprised at how much of a chord that struck with this community, when I really imagined that this would be the one that people would be up in arms about. Today I'll be writing about indie games.

There is an "Us vs. Them" mentality inherent to a large number of indie and triple A developers. It's gotten into our heads that triple A games are corporate drivel and, to counter-act this, the bold indie developers have stepped up onto their digital distribution platforms to spread the revolution of new mechanics and deep story that those corporate meatplows won't take a chance on. Viva la revolution!

Except the reality isn't like that. Triple A games are just as daring as the current set of indie games and indie games are just as samey as triple A games. Put your torches and pitchforks down, I'm not done yet.

Triple A games are frequently lambasted for paper-thin stories, muddy brown/grey graphics, and no innovation in their mechanics. If you don't think there's an attitude of superiority about indie games vs. mainstream games, you need look no farther than Gamasutra's own sister site Let's take a look at those quotes:

"The indie game movement is the most important transition this industry has seen since the rise of the internet." - Andy Schatz

"For the mainstream industry, everything goes in one direction: bigger, shinier, 3D-ier. Indie games go in every direction, and it's exciting as hell. We'll keep 'em honest." - Derek Yu

"I believe - fiercely and with passion - that the independent video game scene is in the midst of a startling rise to prominence. Why? Because innovative a
rtistic games made by small teams finally have the ability to be easily played and enjoyed by gamers. Viva la indie revolution!" - Simon Careless

These guys know all about the mushy browns and greys of modern gaming. They see through the shiny veneer of bloom and specular mapping. To illustrate the state of modern mainstream gaming, I've made the following image.

Ugh. Bloom and brown. Indie games on the other hand, are often praised for their deep stories, unique art styles, and innovative mechanics. This is what the industry should be striving for! So I've constructed another handy diagram for us, similar to the last.

Wait a second... Those all look alike too! They're cartoony, abstract, and clearly fans of bright colors. What gives? Where's the revolution? Well, maybe they might look like one another, but certainly they have the upper hand in terms of mechanics. No first person shooter clones over here.

Braid had ingeniously clever platforming, time shifting puzzles and it's hand painted art style certainly hasn't been replicated. World of Goo was a physics game that took the "simple to learn / impossible to master" mechanic to heart, with a delightful aesthetic. No game has been able to capture the same emotions that Blueberry Garden has. This is certainly the kind of stuff that the mainstream can't take a risk on.

These mechanics and aesthetics are all unique in their own right, and it would be unfair for me to lump them all together and claim that the indie games industry is stagnating. It isn't. Neither are the big games either. Just as those indie games introduce new and unique concepts, so do just as many triple A titles.

Mirror's Edge introduced the world of gamers to parkour and to a new sleek aesthetic. Portal gave us a whole new way of thinking about 3D spaces with its portals and its boldly unique narration. Left 4 Dead gave us a new way to think about multiplayer shooters; no one had seriously attempted a shooter designed from the ground up to be cooperative before. I don't even need to talk about Bioshock: we've all played it for a reason. You can't tell me that triple A games are stagnating when you look at these (and more) titles.

As a student who's worked on a number of small projects, I know that it's easier to do abstracted art styles with simple mechanics on small teams. That's what small teams are good at, so that's why a lot of indie games are that way. Indie games aren't a revolution and will not change the face of gaming. They're just a subset of the industry.

The bottom line is that we all make artistic works. Those works draw inspiration from all manner of sources; that's part of the creative process. We draw this inspiration from each other, from different mediums, and from the natural creativity of our own minds. Triple A games, Indie games, and every type in between together form the whole of our medium. Why do we bother delusions of grandeur for our own style of design?

Indie games can be unique and mind blowing and triple A games can be stagnant, indistinguishable clones, but just as often the opposite is the case. There's no magic trick. Throwing tons of money at a game could produce something terrible, or give us the next Portal. A small indie team could push the boundaries of what we think is possible with design, or it could be boring and frustrating. When consumers or developers give into the hype surrounding indie games they're harming themselves and the industry. Let's leave the cliques in junior high and get back to making great games.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Some Thoughts about Serious Games

This is going to be part 1 of 2 of my critiques on two different "genres" of games. This first part is about serious games. I've got some personal experience with this subject matter, as my very own school has a department dedicated to the creation of these "serious" games. I'm going to be completely honest here; I hate the term "serious game". I'm going to give you some official definitions, and then I'm going to tell you why I think it's a value judgment on our industry, and then I'll let you know how that value judgment actually works against us rather than propelling us forward. By us, I mean all developers in every part of the industry, including "serious" game designers.

So, what are serious games? I've found a few definitions that I’ll list here.

From the Michigan State University website (MSU hosts a conference called "Meaningful Play" that is all about serious games, so I think their definition can be used for reference): "Serious games are games with purpose beyond just providing entertainment. Examples include, but are not limited to, games for learning, games for health, and games for policy and social change."

Wikipedia says: "A serious game is a software or hardware application developed with game technology and game design principles for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment."

Gamasutra’s sister site Serious Games Source says: " created for training, health, government, military, educational and other uses."

So there is one thing these definitions agree on, save for the last one. That is that serious games are for something other than "pure entertainment". This implies that any game that is "non-serious" is only for entertainment. These people are implying, some explicitly so, that any game which is non-serious cannot have a real impact beyond being entertaining. Uh, what? Not only that, but to give themselves credibility they lump in government and military training simulators and educational titles.

So, what we're really looking at is a number of two different types of serious games. Those that are developed explicitly for classroom use, government, and training purposes and also those games which are intended for the general public to promote some idea or theme.

Tackling these two categories separately really leads to a breakdown of "serious games" as a term. As far as educational games, training simulators and medical software goes this stuff has been around for a long time and do just fine without being labeled as serious games. They’re called simulators and trainers or “Educational Software”. That is all they need to be called. Most of these wouldn't even be recognizable as a game to the rest of us, because they're not for us, they're for airline pilots and the like. Educational games can be called just that. When a school program is looking to purchase some software to aid its teachers, it probably doesn't mind having them called Educational Games or Educational Software. That's kind of what they do. Calling all of these things serious games is a tactic by the serious games promoters to make themselves seem more legitimate than they really are. These games were being made long before the recent serious games publicity and will continue to do just fine.

That leaves us with the serious games which are supposed to be just like those normal games we play, but with serious and poignant themes in mind. Wait, don't we have these already? Didn't Far Cry 2 touch on the poverty and power struggles in Africa? Didn't Bioshock try to challenge our notions of freedom (“A man chooses, a slave obeys”)? And how many countless games have been satirical but serious critiques of western society (Fallout, Grand Theft Auto)? Now, those games aren't perfect. They haven't all even accomplished what they set out to do, necessarily. But they try and they becoming more potent with each iteration. Why aren't they called serious games? Because, as with education games and simulators, it's superfluous.

It’s not as if the “serious games” crowd has a large repertoire of successes to claim either. They’ve done no better than Bethesda or Ubisoft or EA at this, because this is a rapidly changing highly experimental medium. We’re all getting better at this at the same time. But serious developers are actually starting back at square one, intentionally. Rather than work with those tools that we have already crafted, they try and reinvent the wheel. They seem to think that all of these techniques we’ve created for immersion and engaging players in other games won’t work in their serious games. Why not?

Rarely, if ever, will people make this kind of distinction in film or literature. Nor will those authors writing with serious intent eschew the techniques of those writers who write for entertainment. There is a reason that many philosophers wrote novels: They get the point across without making it dry and boring. Calling these games serious does nothing except erect a big wall between developers who are trying to accomplish the same goal. It’s a wall that prevents healthy discourse between developers, businesses, and students.

Frankly, it's damned arrogant. The term came about through a mixture of marketing on the part of the colleges and through a level of arrogance for developers who wanted to separate themselves from those other designers who make games just for fun. I truly believe that a large portion of it comes from a desire to say, "I make serious games, about how beating women is wrong." so that they can get a pat on the back from those ignorant of the power already inherent in mass market games.

We need to stand up for ourselves as an industry. We're going on a solid 40 years now, we don't have to pretend like this is just kids’ stuff anymore and we sure as hell don't have to label any attempts at mature themes as "serious". It's condescending, it’s counter-productive, and it’s unnecessary.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Some Thoughts on My Design Theory

Everybody designs games in their own way. Of the dozens of designers I've met at school, through work, and online, everybody has their own quirks and methods when they are working on an idea. I think it's important for readers of this blog to know where I'm coming from as a designer and so I've boiled down the general process into a couple steps. These are things that I did without even realizing it before, not something I've come up with ahead of time. They are:

Step 1 - The Idea

This is the first spark of creativity where you get the itch to make a game about something. This could also be called the inspiration step. Everybody comes get their ideas differently. Some people sit down and consciously brainstorm, other people just have it come to them, and other people just do drugs.

At this stage, my ideas come to me as some sort of hypothesis. Frequently, I have something I want to test or present to my players as a test. With a game like Decay, it was in the form of "Can I capture the feeling of being unsatisfied with your life?" With my recent L4D map decay it was much less grandiose, and stemmed from "I want a survival that feels like a real last stand, rather than the survivors being trapped and surrounded." With Mission 16 it was, "What could be a realistic conflict that would arise from the discovery of time travel?"

Not every game needs to start with a hypothesis like this, but that's how I do it. These things just come to me, for the most part. I got the idea for Decay from this tangentially related Calvin and Hobbes comic. When I'm driving, when I'm playing other games, whatever. I don't want to make it sound more mystical than it is, that's just how it works for me.

Step 2 - Flesh It Out

This step is where I start thinking about the answers to the questions I posed in Step 1. I think about what mechanics fit it, what sort of story should go here. I just let my brain run loose in every direction while I'm here, no matter how infeasible or the time constraint. I don't think of possibility here, just how far I can take the idea. To give you an example, with Decay there were parts where I was thinking that the whole game was a massive drug trip, or that the player was in some kind of twisted experiment. We considered having other characters in the game with you, etc. All of which were valid directions to take the game in. This part, for me, is just about filling a notepad with as many ideas as possible to flesh out the hypothesis, this can include raising new questions which even replace the old hypothesis, or modify it significantly.

A lot of people have very specific methods for doing this. They make flowcharts or start working on a design treatment at this point. I don't do that quite here, because that for me limits where my creativity goes. I quite literally will have notes on the back of napkins or scraps of paper or several notepad files on my computer with odds and ends of thought.

Step 3 - Focusing

This is where the practical side of my designer kicks in. Now I start working on a formal design as a concept doc or a design treatment. As I'm putting the ideas on paper I think of which ones really help progress the thesis and which ones are there just because I like them. I start peeling away at the design until I'm left with something that is feasible to build and has a much more focused design than if I had taken everything from stage 2.

That is not to say that everything is locked in at this point, more could be taken away or added, but at this point is where I decide what to start building.

Step 4 - Build It

Once I've got a really solid idea of what i want to do, I can start building it. What engine I use is largely dependent on the idea. I don't start with the engine and say "What idea works in this engine?" I start with my idea from above and say "What engine works for this idea?" The former is very valid, if you're given an engine that you have to use that's an ideal place to start. But when you're in my situation as a student you can be very adaptable. I use what works best, it so happens that most of my ideas have worked well in the source engine, but I've had ideas that would work on anything from The Witcher Engine through Unreal.

Step 4.5 - Iterate

This is really a part of the building phase. Once the game starts coming together, as soon as I have a first playable I get some fresh eyes on the game. I really learned the value of this while making Decay, where we had two playtest sessions through out the developement. We had people check it out after the first level was playable, and then those same people again when the second level was done as well as people who had never seen it before. This feedback ended up changing some of the fundamental design of some areas and puzzles that ultimately created a richer game experience.

This step brings me to what I think is one of the most important parts of being a designer, flexibility. I really think that being able to accept changes to the design part way through a project is key to making a successful game. Nobody gets it right the first time. Painters do it, poets and writers do it, directors do it. You have to be willing to make changes, cuts, and additions as you need. The Mona Lisa has several other Mona Lisa's under it, and probably years of footage have been left on the cutting room floor as well as scenes reshot at the last moment. That is the nature of creativity and you need to be ready to roll with that. Get feedback, and reiterate on your design as much as you possibly can.

So that's it. Get an idea, flesh it out, focus it, build it, and iterate on it. I think most designers go through this process, but everybody does it differently. That's how I do it and I hope that it may spark some of your own ideas.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Some Thoughts Abo- MAKE GAMES

Over this past year I was asked to address a gathering of the game development students at Champlain. What I said boiled down to something along the lines of, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING AND WHY AREN'T YOU MAKING GAMES" I was just reading an article over at Gamasutra's sister site and read this in an article about what you should expect from your education.

"Making games is quite different from playing games. Yes, you need to know games, you need to be enthusiastic about games, but playing games that others have devised is productive only in limited ways, especially if you play four hours a day. I've known way too many students who define their self-worth through game playing; unfortunately, in the real world game playing, unless you're good enough to make a living at tournaments, counts for nothing. Make no mistake, the game industry is part of the real world, however extraordinary it may appear to be.

To be an adult, someone who can be a good employee, you must be responsible and productive. When you're learning your skills, your responsibility is to yourself, to do what needs to be done. And that is to be productive. If you want to design, you need to make games, not play games (unless you made it), not talk about games, not analyze games, but to make games. "

There you have it. Get out there and make some games!

In related news, shortly I will be releasing the final version of my Left4Dead map, Dead End, accompanied by a mini-postmortem on the level. That's more for me than it is for you, but you may find it an interesting read if you endeavor to level design.