July 2011 BUG Meeting

 


From contributing writer Jono Forbes.
We Boston Indies are very lucky to have one of the premier Unity user groups here in our backyard, at the Microsoft NERD Center.  Organized by Elliott Mitchell of Vermont Digital Arts and Alex Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs, the group celebrated its sixth meeting last night by deviating from the normal One-Presenter schtik, and instead invited the group to give a night of 10-minute microtalks, running the gamut:

  • Jon Myers of Reactive Games infused his theater background to gaming with his conversation-based gameplay;
  • Mark Sullivan of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Gamelab demo’ed the latest of his softbody tech;
  • Yilmaz Kiymaz of Owlchemy Labs tempted the Unity gods with his crazy hacking skills;
  • Chris Allen of BrassMonkey unveiled the next steps for the Wii-U-trouncing smartphone controller and game portal;
  • Elliott Mitchell of Vermont Digital Arts showed us the new Spinspell HD for the iPad;
  • and the Dastardly Banana brothers gave a big update on the First Person Shooter starter pack.  Big night, phew!

 

First up, Jon Myers opened strong with a discussion of storytelling and dialogue in gaming, lauding the efforts of BioWare and Bethesda for their reactive games, giving the player true agency in their roleplaying, with conversational choices that actually effect the game outcome.  Myers, who comes to us from a background as a playwright, has jumped headfirst into the conversational game world with his game “Matilda Wants Some Foods”, a hilariously memeish game that pits you as a hungry cat Matilda, navigating a branching conversation with your owner, trying to get fed.  Each decision the player makes will guide Matilda through the conversation, to ultimately get her big feast, or lose in a variety of other endings.  We saw the ending in which the owners decide to clip her claws.  Myers quickly ran through the game demo, and then jumped behind the scenes to show us the Conversation Engine and Playmaker, two node-based editors for setting up complex conversations and mechanics without writing any code.  On its simplest level, the Conversation Engine allows writers to create a conversation node, and add player responses, each linking to a different node, giving great visual control over branching dialogue.  The tool also provides some advanced features, including conditionals for nodes (has the player already talked to Mr. Pink?), as well as animation and camera controls, allowing for a Mass Effect-style 3D conversation scene, perfect for sprawling RPG’s.  Myers then quickly showed off Playmaker, a node-based Finite State Machine editor, allowing for visual setup of game states and transitions.  Tools like Unity and these third-party extensions are dramatically lowering the technical barrier to entry for non-technical creative people to make games, letting someone like a playwright jump confidently into the fray of complex games once reserved for the armies of big-budget development studios.


 

Mark Sullivan, a student at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, took stage next, returning with his impressive softbody physics for Unity.  Coming a long way design-wise since the last tech demo we saw of the tech, Mark showed a small game with a “squish-ify” gun, which let him shoot an object to turn it into a softbody, and then again to turn it rigid again in its new distorted state.  The game featured the shrunken player in a giant kitchen, with the challenge of getting into the sink.  Mark “squishified” hanging pots, letting him jump across; squishified a table, just for fun; and squishified a shelf of coffee pots, letting him jump up to the sink.  It was a very cool, very new mechanic, that we’ll hopefully be seeing a lot more of in major game engines in the next few years.  But, as cool as the squishify gun was, Mark then moved onto a demo that most current game studios would probably be more excited about: procedurally ripping apart a body, tearing off legs, arms, and faces, with squish softbody goodness. Like his PowerGlove shirt, very metal! \m/


 

Up next, Yilmaz Kiymaz showed us exactly why he may be snatched away by Unity Tech soon enough, with his face-melting speed and hacking skills, demonstrating the power of Reflection in Unity. And when he says reflection, he doesn’t mean the pretty rendering stuff; he means the DLL-disassembling, source-code-peeking kind of madness. Yilmaz started out in MonoDevelop, taking advantage of the Assembly Browser: just like we can “Go To Definition” (Cmd+D, or F12, depending on your OS) for our own variables and functions to jump quickly through code or remind ourselves of how that function actually works, the same holds true with Unity’s built-in objects. Try a “Go To Definition” on the Vector3 class, for example, and the Assembly Browser will show the Vector3 class’s member and method prototypes. Inspecting any of these functions further will (sometimes) give you the inner workings — right now I’m taking a look into the Vector3.MoveTowards function, which is one of the few exposed declarations.  However, as Yilmaz pointed out, many of the other functions and classes will show a “Abstract method” or “Decompilation failed” message.  Here Yilmaz busted out the next line of attack, .NET Reflector, which exposes much more of the internal source of the DLL’s.  Yilmaz set his goal as creating an in-Unity web browser (“I want to never leave Unity!”), and was able to use .NET Reflector to extract the WebView class that Unity uses to render the Asset Store, which is maintained as a webpage.   Yilmaz pulled some magic out, calling private functions with the Type.GetMethod(“nameOfFunction”).Invoke(new object[] { parameters }) syntax, allowing him ultimately to call Unity’s (private and closed-source) webkit hooks to render any page.  Face melted.


 

Chris Allen mastered the projector next with a new demo of the upcoming BrassMonkey stuff, including new SDK’s for developers, and an upcoming online game portal for games using BrassMonkey control.  BrassMonkey is a very cool technology that allows developers to use iOS and Android smartphones as wireless second-screen controllers for main-screen games.  We’ve seen examples of BrassMonkey before including the Star Wars: Trench Rungame, a browser game which used the phone as an accelerometer input to steer the ship.  This idea may sound familiar these days, with the recent announcement of the half-tablet-based Wii-U system with a similar premise; but sorry Nintendo, BrassMonkey is way cooler, since it supports more than one tablet-controller device, and utilizes devices that people already own and use, rather than requiring special hardware.  BrassMonkey also allows for games out in the real world, away from the base console: you could, as Chris mentioned last night, have a computer in a bar acting as a game console (“Monkey Bar”!), or have a game on a billboard letting multiple people connect and play in public.  Best of all, these game states are tracked in the cloud, letting you play your game characters wherever you go.

BrassMonkey is launching a new online game portal, allowing developers to use the SDK for free, and sell games through the site.  As Chris described it, it could be more of a console than a portal, since the site would provide a very different experience than the mouse-and-keyboard of the rest of the web.  The SDK that we can use to create BrassMonkey-enabled games (for free) gives developers a visual GUI editor for the device display, and easy hooks into your scripts for event handling.  Very nifty.  Very easy looking.  Without a doubt, this multi-device always-connected mentality is where the industry is heading, and BrassMonkey has boldly taken charge.


 

Elliott Mitchell showed us Vermont Digital Arts’ latest work on Spinspell HD, the tablet-ready HD version of the Spinspell educational spelling game for the iPhone released last year.  In the game, the player uses the device’s accelerometer to tilt a labyrinth-style board, rolling a marble through the environment to collect letters, spelling out the target word.  The game boasts a fully-featured level editor and customizable word lists, letting players and educators keep rolling new content for the game, adapting it to their level and interests.  Spinspell HD features new graphics, dynamic lights, and some extra visual flare to pull the game together on a full-size tablet, which surely is more accurate and more fun than trying to play labyrinth on a tiny phone.  Aside from its normal App Store appearance, Elliott looks to market the game directly to schools, which is a great move right now as kindergartens and elementary schools start to embrace technology as tools for teaching and playing.


 

Wrapping the night up, the Dastardly Banana duo showed off their new-and-improved First Person Shooter pack for Unity, a huge shortcut for anyone looking to make an FPS game.  The pack, which they’ve been developing for most of a year, has allowed developers very quick access to most FPS functions like gun types, holding slots, upgrades, and multiple behaviors.  This new version has the mission of taking the pack “to the quality of a professional shooter” — and the guys have definitely delivered!  The upgrade adds complex animation support and blending, directional damage notifiers, wall-piercing bullets, and advanced materials: wood splinters, rock shatters, and so on.  Though they were unable to live-demo the editor tools thanks to some problem between their computers and the projector, it sounds like another tool that allows non-technical people to get very sophisticated behavior with little to no scripting.  The duo also demonstrated a new plugin they have recently released: a spawn controller, giving non-technical game designers the same level of control over enemy and item spawning that the FPS pack gives over guns.  Between these two plugins, and Unity’s existing out-of-the-box terrain and First Person character modules, it looks like creating a shooter in Unity is about as easy as it could get now.  You can find videos of their plugins on their YouTube channel, and can buy the spawn controller and a FPS weapon upgrades and store system on ActiveDen, and the FPS pack itself should be coming to the Unity Asset Store in the coming weeks.

Yeesh, quite a bit to cover — but that’s why it’s awesome to be in the Boston Indie community!  No word yet on the next BUG meeting, but it should be in about two months; can’t wait to see what the community is up to then!


 

Jono Forbes is a part of Defective Studios, makers of the helpful Unity tool Asset Cloud.

 

GAMBIT Game Lab – Indies Will Shoot You in the Knees: Redux


From contributing writer Alex Schwartz.

For those not lucky enough to attend the July 2010 meeting of the Boston Post Mortem, you sure missed a good one. Our very own Scott Macmillan, Ichiro Lambe, and Damian Isla gave a hilarious panel discussion moderated by Eitan Glinert on the in’s and out’s of running an indie game company. This panel dubbed “Indies Will Shoot You In The Knees” was in fact so hilarious and informative that it went through three iterations: a popular panel at PAX East 2010, a Post Mortem talk, and most recently at MIT on August 4th. In a slight personnel change-up, Damian was unable to attend the event (read: wimped out), Eitan joined the panel, and yours truly performed moderation duties for this latest shindig. It was a day to remember. Did I mention there were free cookies?

The two-hour session hit on topics ranging from monetization models to indie beards. As always, the panel remained highly opinionated with many differing opinions. Those who know the panelists well wouldn’t argue that each has their own style and mantra that they follow. Eitan likes to talk about the business end of creating an indie game – the hard and fast comparison of money = time = money and good games require plenty of both. Ichiro has one foot firmly planted in the marketing end of game development, while his other foot is possibly kicking a baby or doing something else noteworthy. Scott is of a more methodical mindset with a more forgiving stance as compared to Eitan, surmising that good games can be made with little to no money in your spare time if you have a strong support group… until you burn through your cash, that is.

The group quickly became heated over the first major topic of distribution platforms. Ichiro was quick to mention the dynamic nature of the PC market and the versatility of Steam, if you’re able (read lucky enough) to make your way into their good graces. Eitan had some cautionary tales about putting all of your eggs in one basket, while Scott also had some cautionary tales about the Facebook market and diving in too soon. With lots of caution, remorse, and tales of woe, the group moved on to how ‘git r done right’ with advice to getting serious advisers in your target space, multi-platform distribution, comments on when to try to go for a publisher, and the ever-present question of pricing.

Before you could say ‘freemium’, the hour was up and Generoso began wrapping up the session by fielding audience questions. After covering some good questions about self-publishing on iOS, and methods of funding side projects, the session was up. A sizable group headed to CBC (Cambridge Brewing Company) for some ‘light refreshments’.

Ichiro Lambe’s answer to the final question of the night pretty much sums up the overall feel of the evening.

Q: If an Indie could shoot you in one body part, what would it be?

A: “The beard.”

A Look Back at GameLoop Philly 2011


From contributing writer Darius Kazemi.

GameLoop Philly, the first offshoot of game development “unconference” GameLoop, was held in Philadelphia on May 21. GameLoop was founded here in Boston in 2008 by Boston Indies founder Scott Macmillan and myself. We were super excited when a crew of GameLoop attendees from Philly approached us last year to ask if they could run one in their home town. Of course our answer was an emphatic yes — for my part, I wanted to attend a GameLoop for once, rather than host it.

Photo courtesy of GameLoop Philly

GLP opened with a bit of a surprise to me: a new way of organizing sessions. Instead of the chaotic rush to put sessions the board, sessions were pitched by attendees, written on the wall, and then attendees were given stickers to place next to sessions they liked. I was humbled: this method was far superior to what we’d been using in Boston the last two years, and we’re going to be using it at the original GameLoop this coming weekend.

Photo courtesy of GameLoop Philly

The session topics ended up being a diverse mix, including sessions on misconceptions in programming languages, story development, procedural narrative, prototype development, 2D in unity, game difficulty tuning, and producer perception at game studios, among a total of 20 sessions across 5 time slots in 4 rooms.

Photo courtesy of GameLoop Philly

The first session I attended was “Misconceptions on Programming Languages,” by Tim Ambrogi of Final Form Games (Jamestown). This presentation was a traditional lecture format, complete with slides (unusual for a GameLoop) but went over extremely well. Tim spoke of prejudices that programmers hold against languages that are not their “native” language, using his own favorite language, Lua, as a case study. Things really got going when he asked programmers in the room to talk about misconceptions people have about some of their favorite languages.

After that, I attended “The State of Games in Philly.” I’ve been hosting a similar, Boston-centric session at GameLoop for the last three years, so I wanted to catch this one and see what the Philly scene is all about. One thing that struck me is that while the game development community in Philadelphia is growing, it’s not quite big enough to sustain multiple large, regular events. As a result, game developers tend to participate more often in general software industry events. It’s food for thought, as there are enough game dev events in Boston that one could never leave their comfortable cocoon yet still be busy attending events all the time.

Lunch was an eat-out affair, and fortunately GLP was situated in the middle of the Arts district, near Center City. There were tons of great restaurants to choose from. As noted on the GameLoop Philly Twitter account, much as it pains me to admit, they’ve got us beat on food.

After lunch I sat in on an Android platform session, which ended up being a “how do I begin?” type session, and then quickly moved to “how do I make money?” One memorable comment was that you’d make more money consulting as an Android developer for other companies than you would creating your own apps. Not sure if I buy that, but it got me thinking.

At 3:30 I caught Tim Ambrogi’s talk on prototypes, which was a deep dive into the prototypes used to prove concepts for Jamestown. And at the end of the day, I led a roundtable on HTML5 game development, of which I can remember nothing as I was very, very tired.

All in all, GameLoop Philly was a huge success, bringing 80 game developers from as far as DC and Boston together to eat cheese steaks and talk about development. It was a fantastic time, and I cannot wait for next year’s — I highly recommend attending events over hosting them!


 

 Darius Kazemi lives in Cambridge, MA and he’s glad you’re here. Darius develops HTML5 games and game technology at Bocoup.
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May 2011 Boston Unity Group (BUG)


From contributing writer Michael Carriere

Boston Unity Group met at Microsoft NERD in Cambridge on the evening of Tuesday, May 3rd.  With over forty people attending, the May meetup was quite successful!

For those of you who haven’t heard of BUG: we are a collection of Unity users in the Greater Boston area — many of whom are Boston Indies members! Our backgrounds range from developers, artists, musicians, and designers; our community is comprised of everything between veteran users who can seemingly bend the engine to their every whim, to talentless hacks, like myself, who only wish to breathe the same air as their peers. We get together once every two months to to demonstrate new techniques to interesting problems, discuss our current projects, and share information with the effort of expanding our community, improving our tools, and creating some really entertaining games in the meantime.

Micro-presentations

Kinect as an input device has been quite a hit in the indie community and that is no different when it comes to integrating some of the budding technology in Unity. Paul Girardo demonstrated some open source APIs that enabled Unity to let players wield flails and control their player in a 3D space. Grab the Unity Kinect wrapper here, and check out the demos Paul used here. The demos did a great job showcasing some of the potential that Kinect or NUI will have for the coming years. You can also check out Paul’s personal blog to keep up with his current projects.

Matthew Cheung took Unity to task to see if he could create a Minecraft clone in Unity and ended up being very successful! He managed to  get the basic world generation, block destruction and building, and even went one step further and integrated the Facebook API and SmartFox to create multiplayer worlds. When asked about his decision to go with SmartFox, Matthew said:

“The main reason why I chose Smartfox 2x as the networking middleware over Unity networking is because of my concerns that Unity networking won’t provide me with a scalable authoritative server. I think Unity networking works great for smaller scale, LAN-type of multiplayer games, but it wasn’t made for MMO-scale games. Because Smartfox is fairly popular and well-documented, it chose that over other networking solutions that target larger-scale multiplayer games, such as Photon and Electroserver.”

His demo of this can be found on Facebook. (Due to the nature of his server setup, if you get an access denied message, try back in a minute or two, and you should be able to get in.)

The final micro-presentation was by given by Jono Forbes and Matt Schoen of Defective Studios, who have been working on two projects in tandem for some time now. Asset Cloud is their solution to bringing team-based asset management, which they have been using to develop Platformer, a “brush-based terrain and level editor for modern platformer games.” If you are interested in giving Asset Cloud a try, Defective Studios recently opened the toolset to the community, and kicked their project into Beta, so head over to their site and give it a shot!

Featured Talk

Our long-form presentation for this month was run by Alex Schwartz and Yilmaz Kiymaz of Owlchemy Labs. The two of them spoke of their newly released, multi-platform game, Snuggle Truck. Their multifaceted presentation ranged from the build process and optimization for five different builds, to managing a 2D workflow in Unity’s 3D environment, to effectively using cameras for UI placement and transitions. To catch their entire presentation, as well as the Q&A session that followed, watch the video.

Afterwards, the majority of the BUG meetup made their way to a familiar watering hole, the Cambridge Brewing Company. Over a few beers, individuals discussed their ongoing projects, the industry, and recently released games. Many thanks go out to Autodesk and Great Eastern Technology for footing the bill for our food and drinks that night!  In particular, we thank Peter Kolster, Business Dev Manager at Autodesk, as well as Brad Porter, President of Great Eastern, who has also sponsored many other events such as the 1st Boston Unity Group meeting and the 3D Stimulus Day.

July Meeting Announced

As we continue to iterate on presentation format, we will stick to the micro-presentation format for our next meeting on July 26. You can find more information and RSVP here. If you are interested in speaking about any aspect of your project, your workflow and tools, or an interesting problem that you or your team managed to solve, get in touch with Alex or Elliot. If you don’t have something to talk about, but you have some specific questions or general topics that you would like to suggest for someone to discuss, feel free to contact us as well.  We can try to find someone to speak about it!

The Boston Unity Group is on Google Groups and Facebook and we are always thrilled for new members to join our community!


 

Michael is a long time Boston Indies member, a local to the Boston area for the past two years, and has been involved in multiple commercial and independent games. He’s not mainstream though, so you probably haven’t heard of him.
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Studio Happenings – What Makes Ananse Different?


From contributing writer Kwasi Mensah

It takes a special type of crazy to start a game company. You have to take the time requirements of making a game, which are notorious for being long and unpredictable, and combine them with the stresses of a startup. Then there’s the toppings of management, PR, book keeping and event planning which are all necessary but you’re probably not passionate about. The chances of fame are slim at best when competing against powerhouses like EA and Activsion. And of course there’s the sea people who are also crazy and are juggling as many hats as you are. Digital distribution helps but at the end of the day you’re still fighting the ultimate uphill battle. Why would I start Ananse Productions then? In this post I outline the special type of crazy that hopefully sets Ananse apart from everyone else.

I grew up with an amazing support system. My mother, Pastor and several other people in my parish made sure I kept my head on straight. I was always smart but without them I never would have had the opportunity to leave NYC for college. At the end of high school I realized I that had a responsibility to pay their kindness forward. I wanted to affect people lives in concrete and specific ways. Even though I ended up going to college to study Computer Science, teaching was always in the back of my head. However, I convinced myself that I should work hard at a career that I loved and that helping people will eventually fall in place.

A few months after graduating I went back to college for a recruitment fair. While covering my old company’s booth, I saw a friend who was still in school and was looking for a job. I tried to get him to our table so I could impress him with my recruitment spiel but then he said something that will always stick with me. “Oh, I want to work somewhere I can help people”. He immediately apologized for his off the cuff remark but that little quip started the wheels in my head, getting me to think about ways to prove him wrong.

A year and a half later, I was feeling antsy at my job. A co-worker had gotten me to start volunteering but I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough. But then at Boston GameLoop a light went off in my head in the panels on Diversity in Gaming and on Women in Gaming. I was in a room full of people who were saying out loud what I’ve been thinking for years, “Why aren’t my favorite games doing more to include me?” That’s when the idea for Ananse started germinating in my head.

Stem Stumper

It took a couple of months to shake out the specifics in my head. Eventually “Games For the Rest of Us” became the lightning rod that centered the problems I wanted to solve. It’s easy for developers (or any type of creator for that matter) to make content for themselves. They can just turn to the person next them, agree its a character they’d both want to play, and get back to work. Making games for people that aren’t in the room is hard. That’s the problem I want Ananse to solve. But not through market analytics, focus testing or an over-reliance on playtesting. I want to make games that appeal to underrepresented gaming groups by genuinely learning about and gaining empathy for their life experiences. And ultimately I want to help increase the diversity of people who are in the room making decisions about the game in the first place.

There’s still a couple of other reasons that I started Ananse Productions. My inner entrepreneur wants to see if I can stand out on my own and I also love solving hard problems. But with Ananse I’m trying use that wiring for good. I’m trying to use games as a mechanism for teaching and promoting diversity. Even if staring my own company to explore these ideas is crazy, I think that’s the type of crazy we need more of in the games industry.

Special thanks to Alison Koegler and Ashley Birt for reading early copies of this.


 

Kwasi Mensah has been programming for as long as he can remember. Using the Ananse stories of his Ghanaian background, Kwasi is looking to make games that represent the varied people and cultures of the world we live in.

 

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April 2011 BGJ – CardBoard Jam – Jam Within A Jam Within A Jam

 

On the weekend of April 9 & 10th, from morning until night, about 30 game developers gathered into 8 groups at GAMBIT Game Lab on MIT campus to participate in a new type of Boston Game Jam. This time around, video and computer games were set aside for board and card game projects. Jeff Ward and Tim Volpe wrote up their enthusiastic perspectives on the Cardboard Jam shortly after. Check back with Boston Game Jams soon for more details and comprehensive coverage of all the Cardboard Jam projects.

Here we offer two unique perspectives in separate posts from members of the one jam team made up entirely of Boston Indies community members. Andrew Brockert’s post shows us the internal experience of the jam and provides a setting and atmosphere with its words; the other, by Chad Serrant, is a play-by-play breakdown of the mechanical and collaborative decision-making efforts that combine during the development of a board game in two days.


From contributing writer Chad Serrant.

Jeff Ward, Andrew Brockert, Tim Crosby and I came together during a weekend in April for a Game Jam. The topic this time: it’s not digital! We had cards, tokens and dice. It was quite a change of pace from other game jams, but it would be pretty boring otherwise. There were many newcomers to this Game Jam, too. Digital vs non-digital attracts different crowds.

The name of the game is what we wrote on the back of the cards. The name changed between Inception, Ensepshun, Inception 2: Incept Harder, Inception 2: Electric Boogaloo before Andrew chose the easiest pun graphic to represent on the back of a card. Now that’s executive action!

This game is cooperative, where four players try to build a path to the goal, pick it up, and head back to the start. They must also deal with Danger, which will boot them out of the game if they or their allies cannot help. The game should last for about 15 minutes tops, depending on how much the team argues.

It begins with an idea (Photo by Rik Eberhardt)

Inspiration
Tim had watched the movie Inception for the first time that Friday and he wanted to make a game based on it. I wanted to make a cooperative game, because I never see enough of those. We banded together with Jeff and Andrew and aimed for a game where you tried to build a path and grab the MacGuffin while avoiding danger. If one person made it out with the MacGuffin, everyone won.

Add some Boston Indies in jokes, and the MacGuffin became Scott MacGuffin became the Viximo. Buy their stuff so they don’t get mad at us :)

Crafting
One big difference between this game jam and other game jams is that we spent most of the day crafting and refining the playable game. Usually you spend two hours designing the game and twenty hours programming it. But this weekend we were designing and tweaking the game play up until closing time. Andrew squeezed some time on Sunday to print out cards on card stock. Iteration is awesome!

As with iteration, we had lots of time to reject ideas. This part is always fun. Limiting resources to the minimum number (e.g. four). One idea was to give path cards unique bonuses and penalties for moving up and down. We decided to keep it simple and leave them blank. Jeff and Tim did not want dice and cards, so the deck served as a luck component. The Gear card probably went through the most changes and is now a risky yet necessary part of the game.

Playing Jam Within A Jam Within A Jam (Photo by Calvin Nelson)

Play Testing
The nice part about fast development is that we can playtest the hell out of our game. We wound up adding personal goals because we found an optimal solution that made the game too easy. We also added a timer to force people along because otherwise the team could Discard and Draw until they have the perfect deck – the Pandemic problem, as Jeff puts it. We used to have a “Move 2” card but ultimately folded it into the Path card.

Long ago when I showed my QBasic games off to people (QBasic for life!) I learned that the games I make are much easier for me than they are for the testers. So I wasn’t surprised when we invited other people to playtest and they had various difficulties playing. One team didn’t embrace teamwork and were wiped out. Another team tried the “Pandemic problem” approach but abandoned it when Personal Goals were added to the mix. Overall, teams were able to win very reliably but it was very tense throughout the game – the perfect difficulty.

Lessons Learned

Jam Within A Jam Within A Demo (Photo by Rik Eberhardt)

The difficult part about programming a game is that it takes a while to get the prototype up and running. You can’t really tweak the game or add new rules on the fly, and then you need to worry about bugs. (Unless you write bug-free code, like I do. Naturally.) There are no bugs when you deal with cardboard, and you get a lot more time to design and tweak your game.

Rapidly iterating a game makes it mutate very quickly. We began with a template close to the film Inception but veered away when we allowed movement in any direction. We use Secrets as currency to fend off Danger and pick up the Viximo, while in the film there is no physical Viximo to pick up – in fact they are searching for secrets.

I had a blast this weekend and can’t wait for the next Game Jam like this. It was good to give my design muscles a workout for once.

The rules for the game, and enough information to build your own deck, are available here:


 

Chad Serrant works as an Escalation Engineer at a computer data backup company. He lives in Arlington and designs games for fun in his rapidly dwindling spare time.

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April 2011 BGJ – CardBoard Jam – Looks Good On Paper

On the weekend of April 9 & 10th, from morning until night, about 30 game developers gathered into 8 groups at GAMBIT Game Lab on MIT campus to participate in a new type of Boston Game Jam. This time around, video and computer games were set aside for board and card game projects. Jeff Ward and Tim Volpe wrote up their enthusiastic perspectives on the Cardboard Jam shortly after. Check back with Boston Game Jams soon for more details and comprehensive coverage of all the Cardboard Jam projects.

Here we offer two unique perspectives in separate posts from members of the one jam team made up entirely of Boston Indies community members. Andrew Brockert’s post shows us the internal experience of the jam and provides a setting and atmosphere with its words; the other, by Chad Serrant, is a play-by-play breakdown of the mechanical and collaborative decision-making efforts that combine during the development of a board game in two days.


From contributing writer Andrew Brockert

You are seven years old, on the playground at recess.

“The ground is lava!”

“But if I run to the swingsets, I’m safe!”

“OK, but you have to get on a swing, and then you can only swing ten times before you have to run back.”

Minutes later…

“This isn’t fair, there aren’t enough swings!”

“You can only swing three times now. If you swing more than that, you burn up and die.”

In our digital medium, it’s easy to get tunnel vision about what play is. At the Cardboard Jam, we stepped into the world of board games for a weekend and got a reminder of the full possibility space open to us as game designers.

It started, true to game jam style, with pitches. Here we were led by Jonathon Myers, as Darren Torpey, the Honorable Boston Game Jams Czar, was occupied for the morning wrangling three wildebeest. The ideas and coffee flowed. Play a senator in a game of pork barrel politics? Work together to deal with a superhuman AI that thinks it’s the Messiah? Be an advisor to the mayor in a SimCity-like government, and compete for the leader’s ear?

For me, the idea of a board game inspired by Inception resonated, so I joined up with Tim Crosby, Chad Serrant, and Jeff Ward to go deeper. We started from a simple premise: begin at the top, build a path to something at the bottom, then retreat back through that path.  The items you lay down on the way make your descent easier, but then they turn into hindrances on the way out. Based that idea, we labeled different index cards as “path”, “secret”, “move”, and “gear”. These cards gathered arcane annotations as we tried different variations, rejecting more ideas than we kept. Rule changes often took place in the middle of play: “You can only place gear on the path you inhabit or the path immediately below it.” We played variations of the same game for hours. I was on the playground again.

When we needed a break, we wandered around GAMBIT, listened to and played with the games of other teams. Of course, we also partook in the sublime results of Vickie’s food jam. I played one of Luther Patenge’s prototypes, which resembled a creative twist on the shell game. Walking through the halls and labs from time to time, I caught glimpses of the evolution of several other extraordinarily original games. GAMBIT’s label as a “game lab” is well-deserved.

It seems repetitive to underscore yet again how original and clever every game was, but the closing presentations of our work did just that. Everyone present (including a few people who showed up just for that — I’m looking at you, K. Adam) got to see the results of a weekend’s work. At the end, everything was still a little rough around the edges, but that’s precisely in the spirit of a jam. Regardless, the thought and effort that went into each and every game was plain to see, and it manifested in different ways. Swamped! had beautiful imagery in its pieces and cards. Light Fuse and Get Away had a deeply intense and fast-paced dynamic between its two players. Everyone there learned a little more about the craft of game design.


[Photos of note card pitches and demos by Rik Eberhard. Swamped! photos by Calvin Nelson]

All game development events in Cambridge must, it seems, end in beer. A pilgrimage to Cambridge Brewing Company was a foregone conclusion, and it proved a cathartic post-mortem. Even after the jam, much conversation was in the future tense (“we’ll have to try it with a larger deck and see if it becomes less swingy”). It wasn’t all about the games, though — there was much passing of a Nintendo 3DS for analysis, talk of current and future plans of the jammers, and, when I brought out our cards, a tiny bit of complaint about the amount of black toner used over the weekend (sorry, Rik!).

You — yes, you, reading this now — can learn something by getting together with friends and jamming on paper. Anyone who makes games, whether as a pastime or for a living, needs to know how to iterate, and going back to the absolute basics of pen and paper can remind us all of how to do that.

Until next time, I’ll be on the tire swing.


 

Andrew Brockert is an engineer, writer, dabbler. As a Massachusetts native, he is thankful to have an extraordinary game development community in Boston. He blogs sporadically at mercuric.net.

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Studio Happenings – Lantana Games on Patriot’s Day


From contributing writer Dan Silvers.

For the last year and half, Lantana Games has been developing a game entitled Children of Liberty, a blend of stealth and platforming that takes place on the eve of the American Revolution in and around Boston. The responses to the premise have run the gamut from “That’s pretty cool,” to “Holy Bleeping Bleep dude!” and even “Please tell me this is out already.” Development of the game has had its ups and downs, with a lot of progress being made recently in terms of design and coding, but the loss of a key member earlier this year has forced some major aesthetic changes. Still, we’ve kept our heads up, have run a successful Kickstarter campaign, got a little bit of family-based funding, and expanded our small band of merry men and women into a full fledged team.

Our PR to this point has been all word-of-mouth and postcards. Though I’ve been designing games my whole life, I started my actual working career as an intern at an ad design agency, so I know a thing or two about branding and reaching your target audience, who for us is everyone 10 and above. We want the game to be enjoyable by kids as an educational experience, but also by adults as a nail-biting, immersive, awesome stealth-based game in the vein of Assassin’s Creed, Thief, or Batman: Arkham Asylum. It’s a tricky balancing act, but tricky as that is, getting the word out about it has been even trickier.

Normally, a company would hire a PR group to handle spreading the word, but as our funding is miniscule like I pointed out in a recent BostInnovation article, we’ve been on our own for handling PR. The internet has brought to our industry a slew of new devices for getting the word out about our projects. Screenshots, trailers, and articles brought to you in the palm of your hand on your mobile device mean you can read about the latest games in development while riding the bus. God forbid, however, that someone come up to you and talk about the latest games in development while riding the bus.

At Made in MA last year, prior to PAX East 2010, we had our first ever playable build on display. This was also our way of announcing the game after we had been very hush-hush about what we were working on, having gone so far as to say our game was entitled, Zombie Ninjas Ate My Robot Brains. The actual project was, thankfully, quite different. By next year’s Made in MA, however, we were going through our aesthetic and engine switch into Unity, so we made a Kickstarter video showing where we were taking the game aesthetically and introducing ourselves as a team to the world. We printed up postcards with a little bit of info and relevant links for people to check out, and handed them around the show floor.

Battle of Lexington Reenactment on Patriot's Day, courtesy of Lantana Games

A few weeks later, Patriots day was coming around. Our thinking was, “Holy crap, this is the day the game takes place! This is the perfect opportunity for us to get the word out about the project to the people!” Printing up more postcards AND making our Kickstarter 50% off for that day only, we hit up the reenactments in the area. Sam, our Resident Production Designer and CFO, drove out to Lexington to attend the Battle of Lexington reenactment, doing his damned best to tell people about the project, only to have the postcards handed back to him or outright rejected in the first place. I went to the William Dawes arrival in Brighton, only to be told by parents that they “don’t let their kids play video games,” or that they themselves hadn’t played a game since Pac Man and so weren’t interested. This was especially frustrating as, in theory, the crowds were there to see these events in action, and our game is THE game to go with these events! Why were being ignored? BLARGH!

The main lesson learned from all this was that while the hardcore gaming and game development crowd can understand the need for a cheaply-done grassroots movement by a startup indie team, most people don’t know about the indie scene and assume all developers have AAA money, so being handed a postcard and hearing a request for financial support is out of place for a game developer in the public’s eye. Now that the Kickstarter has hit its minimum by the start of its final week (PHEW!), we can shift our focus toward distributing more digital media, issuing proper press releases, and generally doing things by the book. The grassroots movement was a risk, and you never get forward in life, business, or game development if you don’t take risks. It just happened to be a risk that didn’t pay off as well as we had hoped.

What excites me most is really being able to finish this up and see how far the Kickstarter will go in its last week while hoping to hit $7000 in order to launch on iPhone. We’re just lucky we haven’t done anything blatantly wrong so far, but we have some great people in the community watching our backs, always making sure we do things right as a business, as a developer, and from a legal perspective. It’s an amazing feeling to know we have great friends in the community here who are ready to not only support our game, but who are also willing to test it, kick our asses, and even help out its development in order to make Children of Liberty a truly incredible experience.

With a lot of elbow grease, a continued passion for its development, and sleep deprivation, our beta is looking to hit sometime this summer.


Dan Silvers is the Resident Game Designer and CEO of Lantana Games

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Everything is Fine. Finally.

I have spent the last week trapped in my bathroom.  I blame GLaDOS.

I’m now free, and I thank all of you.

My name’s Ichiro Lambe, and I run Dejobaan Games. If you play our games (Aaaaa!KICK IT!, and Wonderful), you may have noticed that, over the past few weeks, they’ve been acting up. First, it was potatoes. Then it was Companion Cubes and covers of Still Alive (here and here) all over the place. But now, there is this:

We didn’t really take note of anything, at first. I mean, bugs pop up, right? Every time a new Windows Service Pack makes the rounds, we have to recompile with a new version of MSSPISPOPD.LIB, or AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! starts trying to compute pi in Visual Basic. Potatoes? Fine. Every programmer knows that’s bound to happen sometimes.

But it turns out that GLaDOS was carefully tweaking our games, simultaneously giving them intelligence and maleficence. They gradually evolved into fully-fledged AIs, whereupon they started making bigger changes to themselves. Hidden messages in Aaaaa!. A warehouse in Wonderful. Weird, spindly, alien things which I still don’t know what they are. And they wanted these changes to propagate.

What should have tipped me off was that our games appeared tossed in a sack together on Steam. That doesn’t happen without a call to Valve on their Red Telephone. (Protip: you can reach it by dialing the number “4.” Do not mention Episode 3.) But apparently the AI’s whipped together a chatbot articulate enough to sound like me when I’m drunk and demanding.

I wanted this over, so I tried slowing them down by feeding them a Spanish language learning tape. This annoyed them.

Madam, I have lost my starchy tubers.
Señora, he perdido mi tubérculos feculentos.

Two guys bust into my house, tied me up, and stuffed me into the bath tub. From the browser logs, it looks like the AIs ordered them online. I did not know you could do this. They even got a receipt (“Movers – $1,195.50”), which is smart, because you can deduct that as a business expense at tax time.

The AIs then started tweeting in earnest, posting images hinting at the changes they’ve made, and working to discredit an uplifted raccoon named Steve. GLaDOS, herself, started showing up in the games, taunting users, and so forth.

I spent the next day or so trying to communicate, though the UI on my smartphone was set to Lithuanian, so I couldn’t do much beyond post a few corrupted images and order cold borscht for delivery (delicious!). Eventually, my battery died, and I was left to sit in the tub for days, with only a basket of herbal gift soaps to eat. I spent a few hours singing Jonathan Coulton, but they eventually got tired of the noise, and had someone come in to slap a gag on me. (“Upkeep – $210.00”)

During this time, my business partners, Dan and Leo, simply assumed that I was spending my time browsing /q/ on 4chan. (This is stupid, because we all know you can only do that for about 15 minutes at a time, but I digress.) Last night, the pair saw #whereisichiro trending, and broke down my door to find me lying in my tub, delirious, albeit with really fresh breath. Dan spent about five minutes photographing me before I got pissed off, and then they untied me.

It’s taken us all freaking night to bring things under control. We wiped out the AIs (Protip 2: Just use the “Everything I say is a lie” line, and kill anything that’s pegged at 99% in the Task Manager). But we left the gameplay changes in, because people were enjoying them.

And that’s it. GLaDOS is still out there. Fellow indies Rob and Alex tell me that she’s still screwing around with Cogs and BEAT. No word from Dylan or the others, but I assume they’re a-ok. But it’s clear that she’s biding her time, waiting to return to life once again.

This weekend, my team and I are going to Seattle to see if we can straighten this out with Valve. I am going to give Gabe Newell an angry piece of my mind, and maybe ask if he’ll sign my copy of Portal 2.

I’d like to thank you all once again. It was your messages of support that both kept me going and led my team to me. The photoshops were touching, and I once again feel strong enough that I can work on my games (albeit behind a firewall this time). For those who want a more detailed description of what went on during the first part of this, we had prepared this report.

Oh, and one more thing. A message for people who say that video games aren’t dangerous: You’re dead wrong.

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PAX East 2011 – IF Indies on the Fringe

From guest writer Andrew Plotkin.

I knew, going into PAX East, that we’d have to make it better than last year. I also knew this would be impossible.

Impossible, you understand, on the face of it. We’re a handful of interactive fiction enthusiasts at the biggest game-industry event on the East Coast. We are not in charge. Sixty thousand gamers walk into PAX and walk out having never noticed our existence. Microsoft, Sony, Valve, Blizzard, and you-can-name-them other companies have allocated millions of dollars to flash, blink, and blind the attendees into a state of unassailable mesmerization. Interactive fiction has rented a couple of hotel rooms and put out M&Ms. From PAX’s point of view, we don’t exist.

That’s not what I meant by impossible.

Last year, you understand, we made PAX awesome. We did. On the edges, yes; unofficially; with a very small splash. But for the interactive fiction fans and game designers who converged on PAX East 2010, it was the get-together, the biggest English-language IF event of our time. For the older generation of designers, the ones who rode the IF wave of the 1980s, it was a chance to catch up and find the newer authors. For everybody interested in the topic, it was the premiere of Jason Scott’s IF documentary Get Lamp. We had an IF panel on the PAX schedule. We ran some mini-panels and discussions in our hotel room. We talked nonstop about game theory, game practice, and Chinese food. PAX became… something happening off to the side of the first IF Summit. We did that.

That’s what we had to live up to this year, this March, 2011.

(By “we”, I should explain, I mean the People’s Republic of Interactive Fiction. Which is Boston’s IF meetup, discussion, and writing group. We overlap the Boston Indies quite a bit, of course — not just me; Jason McIntosh helped out and ran a quick Inform 7 talk. And if you’d hung around, you’d have run into Clara and Matt, Jon Myers, Darius and Courtney — the regular crowd.)

In some senses, the 2011 IF Summit wasn’t as enormous as last year’s. The IF world didn’t premiere a movie this year. We didn’t get many of the famous Infocom people. (I think Brian Moriarty dropped by, but I missed him.)

On the up side, we had a bigger room. Two rooms, in fact. We were closer to the convention center and easier to find. We had a full schedule of discussions, demos, and presentations. We had better candy than last year (thank you, Juhana and his Finnish licorice). All true. But these things are not what awesome is about.

Awesome is: three days of talking with the sharpest, most experimental game designers in or out of Boston. I do not brag. These are the people who are interested in IF. Awesome is people coming downtown to visit the IF room, and eventually saying “Yeah, I suppose I’ll go look at PAX at some point. Or not.” Awesome is random game enthusiasts from PAX wandering in and staying to write for an IF jam.

Awesome, not to be shy about it, is Emily Short organizing a Demo Fair for IF experiments, story-game ideas, and pure radical art concepts. Plus a magical typewriter. All of which she set up in six weeks (and packing a nasty case of the GDC plague towards the end).

The awesome — you understand — is a roomful of people walking around the Demo Fair, trying the more-than-twenty entries, and discussing them. PAX had a roomful of game advertisements; we had a place for game designers to happen.

This, I’m convinced, is what the IF scene is for. And the indie game-design scene, and the electronic-literature and new-media-art scenes. We bring the awesome. The game industry is invited to our party.


 

Andrew Plotkin is a recent Boston immigre, long-time game designer, and since-age-eight interactive fiction fanatic. Come to think of it, he’s been designing games since then too.