I can finally add another game to the short list of video games I’ve actually beaten — Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective! (Do yourself a favor and try NOT to look this up on Wikipedia and spoil yourself.) A good friend recommended this mystery/puzzle game for the Nintendo DS a few months ago. You play from the perspective of a man named Sissel who was apparently shot dead just moments ago and has become a ghost. The freshly deceased Sissel has no memories of who he was or why he was murdered. He learns that as a ghost, he has special powers that allow him to interact with the real world in certain ways. Sissel also has the ability to turn back time to four minutes before a person’s death where he can use his new “ghost tricks” to manipulate objects to try and change the victim’s fate. Sissel’s goal is to solve the mysteries of his identity and his murder before his soul disappears at dawn.
The gameplay mechanic of Ghost Trick involves possessing different inanimate objects and animating them. You might open an umbrella for example, or roll a ball across the room. The “puzzle” of each scene is to observe what the characters do at different moments and determine which objects need to be activated in order to change the outcome of the scenario. This can include distracting characters with sudden noises or movements, getting key objects within a character’s line of sight, or even setting up elaborate Rube Goldberg machines to achieve your goal.
But in my opinion, this game isn’t really about the gameplay. The puzzles of what to do in each scene aren’t particularly challenging (your options are fairly limited) or satisfying, and the narrative takes up a disproportionate amount of the game. If you’re looking for a game to “play,” you’ll just find yourself getting frustrated as you tap tediously through the dialogue and then fly through the actual gameplay.
What this game is about is storytelling, and it might best be approached as an interactive story rather than a game. The characters are quirky and extremely likable, the dialogue is fresh and fun, the mystery is complex and very compelling, and the story is heartwarming. This is all complemented by the punchy art style and expressive animation (which is so fun to watch, you almost don’t need another reason to check out the game).
So why is Ghost Trick a video game and not a movie or novel? I asked myself this question several times as I played through, and by the end I had come to the conclusion that a video game is the best format for telling Ghost Trick‘s story. The visuals make crystal clear what would be a very confusing jump between the game’s 30 different characters in written form, while Sissel’s lack of a physical form and possession of objects would have been difficult to portray on film. And I don’t think the ghost trick actions would really make sense in any non-interactive format.
If you’re interested in a fun and entertaining (but still thought-provoking) mystery story with interactive elements, definitely give Ghost Trick a try! It’s available on Nintendo DS and iOS devices.
We were pretty excited when we first heard about an upcoming Smithsonian exhibit called The Art of Video Games in late 2011. We were less excited when we found out the featured games would be chosen by online vote. We were more excited when the curators gave a talk about the exhibit at MAGFest 2012. And we were less excited again when our friends reported that the exhibit was just okay.
In the end, we didn’t make the trip to D.C. to see the exhibit before it ended in September of last year. Then, to our surprise, we found that the exhibit was running for three months at the Experience Music Project Museum (a music, pop-culture, and sci-fi museum) here in Seattle! We were exploring downtown Seattle on Wednesday and decided to go ahead and check out the museum and the exhibit.
The one comment I heard the most about the exhibit from friends who had been was that it was smaller than they expected. Compared to the rest of the exhibits in the EMP Museum, and in most museums, this one was pretty small. It was basically a square room with stations around the perimeter that featured four games from each game console. In the center of the room were 5 stations where you could play Pac-Man, Super Mario Brothers, The Secret of Monkey Island, Myst, andFlower. There was also a small nook with some concept art, box art, and some videos playing. That was pretty much it!
One of the stations in the exhibit featuring four games
The stations for each console featured four games that had won the online vote, and were categorized into Action, Target, Adventure, and Tactics. Each game had a brief, narrated video that summarized the game and sometimes explored what was groundbreaking or unique about that game.
We thought the earlier games were really fascinating because of the limitations the developers had to overcome with creative solutions. The ones that stick out in my mind are Pac-Man having to be significantly downgraded in order to run on a home console much less powerful than the arcade cabinet’s processor, Zaxxon using isometric perspective and shadows to mimic a 3D environment, Pitfall! featuring the first human character and establishing many of the conventions and mechanics of the platformer genre, and Star Fox for the SNES exploring real 3D graphics and having to ship with its own processor.
The more modern games were less interesting, maybe because we were already so familiar with them. Yes, we know that Final Fantasy VII has a strong narrative supplemented by full motion videos. And we know that Shadow of the Colossus explores loneliness through its vast, empty world. By the end of the exhibit, we weren’t really bothering to watch any of the videos for newer games like Portal and Heavy Rain. We weren’t really interested in hearing what the exhibit had to say.
So I guess that brings me to my first major impression of the exhibit — it wasn’t for us. It wasn’t made for people who already have a strong context of games and their history and influence. Since each game only got a brief video, there was only time to cover the basics. We weren’t going to be learning anything new. The exhibit was definitely more geared toward people who aren’t really familiar with games. Maybe even people who have no interest in or appreciation for games.
(I also think the way the exhibit dispensed information was a major deterrent The games were split into groups of four, and you had to watch one video at a time while holding a telephone earpiece to hear the audio. Although video is important in a video game exhibit, I wish there had been more information to read at my own pace (which is faster than a narrated video). Also, Nick broke the interface several times during our visit and had to wait for it to reset.)
Nick listens in
Now maybe I can segue in to my real critique of this exhibit, which is the misnomer “The Art of Video Games.” That title was what really got us interested to begin with. We’re living in a very exciting time for video games as an art form, and there are a lot of brilliant people doing some great work in that field. It’s a topic that could certainly fill a museum exhibit. But what we found was definitely different than what we expected.
This was not “art” as we define it. This was more like the “craft” of video games, but not even quite that. Everything was so small and rushed, there wasn’t time to look into what it really takes to develop a game from start to finish. The creative challenges of the developers and the artistic expression of the designers were only briefly touched upon in specific games. The concept art section seemed like an afterthought for people who thought the exhibit was going to be the actual “artwork” of video games.
To be honest, I think the exhibit would be best described as a primer on video games — a brief tour through video game history that hopefully convinces the visitor that games are complex and interesting and worth learning about. The very selection process of the featured games seemed to produce “games the general public should know about” instead of “games that have explored artistic expression through this unique medium.” One of the criteria for the selected games was “striking visual effects,” which I think most developers would agree doesn’t necessarily have all that much to do with artistic expression through games.
Yes, video games are a unique form of interactive media that combine illustration, graphics, music, sound, video, animation, literature, and storytelling. Yes, the exhibit sort of got that point across by presenting visitors with a brief summary of 80 of the most popular and renowned games of the past 30 years. But “cool interactive media” does not equal art. There is already an ongoing discussion about how games can be an artistic medium, with fascinating threads about how gameplay mechanics themselves can be used to explore aesthetic goals, or how designers must give up some amount of creative control to the end user who will create his or her own experience. This discussion includes games like Braid and Dear Esther, names like Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow. And it requires more than just a brief glossing-over of the game’s plot and mechanics.
It seems like an oversight to design an exhibit that supposedly looks at the “art” of games without at least acknowledging that discussion. But maybe not if your goal is simply to justify to the average visitor why video games belong in a museum in the first place.
It wasn’t a bad exhibit by any means, but we definitely weren’t the target audience.
You may be aware that this fall will be the 75th Annual Famine Game, and you are among the pool of possible tributes. As we like to do something special every Quarter Quell, we are excited to announce that for this year’s Famine Game, we will be selecting TEAMS of tributes instead of 24 individuals. We feel this change will result in the most exciting and thrilling Famine Game to date.
Fans of this year’s modern MMO The Secret World have been expecting this kind of news for a while — the game is transitioning to a “Pay Once, Play Forever” model. Despite tons of hype and delivering a unique, high-quality game, TSW has struggled to compete with 2012′s other big MMO releases, Diablo 3 and Guild Wars 2, both of which were free-to-play on launch. From what I’ve read, a lot of people feel that free-to-play is the “future” of all MMOs, and Funcom’sgamble of using a subscription-based model on the cusp of that change unfortunately hasn’t paid off.
The new model works like this: If you’ve ever bought the game, you can now play all of the content without a subscription. Players may opt to buy a “Membership” (which looks to be about the same price as the old subscriptions) to get some perks like increased experience, in-game store discounts, and exclusive items. New playable content will continue to be released in the form of “Issues,” with the upcoming Issue #5 available free to everyone who has purchased the game before the end of the year, and subsequent issues available for $5 (this is the only DLC I can see myself considering).
I was really excited about TSW from the moment I first heard about it. The secret societies and puzzles of course caught my attention, and the modern setting seemed like something I could really get into (I’m not much of a medieval/fantasy fan). I signed up for the open beta, and my husband let me play on his closed beta invite, and then I bought the game and subscribed when it was released. I really enjoyed the game, even though I couldn’t convince anyone else I knew (even people who have played lots of MMOs) to play with me. But after a few months, I got busy with work and stopped making time to play. Last month I went ahead and cancelled my subscription, which made me a little sad since I hadn’t even made it to the endgame content. I still wanted to play, but I wasn’t making time for it and couldn’t justify the money I was spending.
So you can definitely count me among the people who are excited about the new model! I’ll probably go back and try to finish the game with my character, and maybe try to play all of the instances (I only finished 2). Maybe I can even convince some of my friends to play with me now, and I could start a new character to play with them. And of course, if any of you readers out there start playing, come find me! I’m Clavicarius, a Templar on the Grim server. And I look totally badass like this:
Hopefully this change will bring some sustainability to The Secret World. It really is a great game with a beautifully detailed world, thoughtful and challenging puzzles, and fun content. I recommend it to anyone, even people who don’t like or haven’t really played MMORPGs (that was me before TSW!). There’s no better time than now to try it out, and I’ll be adding it to this year’s Gift Idea page!
Have you heard about the OUYA? It’s a new video game console that was pitched through Kickstarter and got a TON of support. They asked for just under $1 million, and received over $8.5 million in pledges! The OUYA is being promoted as an “open” console, for both players and developers. Here are some key points:
The console is only $99.
All games are free-to-try, enough for you to determine if you want to pay for a full experience. Models include free demos with paid full versions, subscriptions, and DLC.
Every console will come with all the development tools necessary to create OUYA games.
The game submission and review process will be much more accessible than traditional console development, and will be similar to current Android app submission.
It’s super tiny and adorable (okay, that’s neither here nor there, but who wants another big blocky console?)
The point is to give all developers an easy way to get their games onto a console/TV, a market which has generally had a very high barrier of entry in the past (even development and submission for PSN/XBLA can be expensive and arduous for indie developers). As gamers and game developers, my husband and I thought this all sounded pretty awesome, so we backed to get a console and two controllers. The console is scheduled for release this March, which is coming right up.
It seems like there are a lot of people who are kind of hating on the OUYA, who are either misguided about its purpose (the point isn’t for it to replace your PS3 as an eight-generation console, but it also isn’t just a glorified smartphone — the Tegra 3 is really powerful) or just cynical about its viability. The good news is that OUYA is on track to deliver its promised early developer kits on time at the end of the month, an impressive feat for a product like this. The early dev kits will include the development tools that will come with every OUYA and will allow early developers to test on the console and get their games ready for release with the launch of the console in March. Even more good news, OUYA is giving away ten of these early dev kits to interested developers who couldn’t afford to pledge for one in the Kickstarter!
Nick and I would love to develop a game for OUYA, along with our friend Nick W (who was part of our team for Ludum Dare back in August, and who teaches us so much about great game design), so we’re throwing our hats in the ring to win an early dev kit! You can read more about the game we want to make here at this page. If it sounds like a game you’d like to play, we’d appreciate your support in spreading the word via Twitter with the hashtag #myouyagame =) Even if we don’t win, we’re still going to do our best to develop the game (the contest was the perfect spark we needed to get moving!), and win or lose, it’s really exciting for us to be taking part in this pivotal moment in indie game development.
Did any of you back the OUYA, or had you heard about it before? What are your thoughts and feelings? Are you skeptical about their ability to deliver, or the viability of a new console on the market? Are you optimistic about the impact it might have on the gaming industry?
One of the nice things about having a blog is that I sometimes get the opportunity to use it as a platform to support my friends that are doing cool things. One of those friends is a programmer, and he has been working on a mobile game called TNNS which is now available for purchase!
TNNS is sort of Breakout meets minigolf meets tennis. You control a paddle that slides up and down one side of the screen, and your goal is to keep the ball in play while collecting stars in and around the obstacles on the other side. Each level has a goal star in a box that advances you to the next level when hit. The unique gameplay feature here is that you can control the ball’s trajectory by slicing it and putting a curve on it, making the game very active, unlike the more passive, reactionary Breakout. The levels are randomized, and progression is measured by stars collected, levels played, and time spent playing. Check out a gameplay trailer below:
The game is designed by Tim Rogers (ZiGGURAT), and it’s Tim’s understanding and exploration of what he calls “friction” in games that really gives TNNS that extra something special. When you hit the ball, the paddle gets some visible kickback and the screen appears to rumble a little bit. When you do things of significance, like hit the star in the box that ends the level, the screen shakes violently. Most satisfyingly, if you have multiple balls on the playing field, the play action will actually pause for a moment each time you hit one. This is sticky friction. These might seem like cosmetic details to some, but they’re actually working to make the game feel more visceral and satisfying. Friction seems to be a trait unique to games and not found in any other art medium, and I’m excited to see it explored further.
Tim Rogers is an interesting guy with a lot of interesting ideas about games and a killer writing style. I have a hard time finding a way to properly describe how satisfying and delicious I find his writing. His passion is apparent, which is important, but his execution is where it’s at. It’s all perfect analogies and wild anecdotes and casual backtracking and really making you feel what he’s feeling and comprehend what he’s trying to get across. Elegant? But raw. Like I said, I have a hard time describing it. Just go read this: In Praise of Sticky Friction.
Back to TNNS – it’s a very stylish game. The art style is clean and sleek, with lots of popping bright colors and flashing rainbow particles. The color palette changes every level which keeps things visually interesting (and also keeps me on my toes, as it sometimes becomes harder to see the important visual elements of the level, ball included). The music and sounds are pleasant and appropriate to the genre.
If you lose the ball, it’s instant death. This is frustrating at first when you’re still getting the hang of the game (okay, it’s frustrating all the time), but it makes me want to actually focus and try to get better while I’m playing. Being bad at the game has a consequence, and that’s something I need. Restarting is super quick and fluid, so I never feel like the game is wasting my time (if anything, I’m wasting the game’s time!) The randomized levels really help to alleviate the feeling of starting back at the bottom rung as well. And it’s the perfect low commitment, bite-sized, pick up anytime, play it when you have a few minutes sort of game that I think suits mobile devices best.
So that’s TNNS! I’ve been enjoying it so far and recommend it to those of you looking for a fun game that is thoughtfully made. (Games of all genres can be thoughtfully made! Be the best game you can be!) TNNS is available for iOS and Android, and I’ve heard it will be on Amazon soon.
Well, we finally did it. We played Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator! Artemis is a multi-player networked computer game where each player mans a station on a spaceship, very Star Trek-style, completing missions in space. It’s kind of like a more realistic video game version of Space Alert, my favorite board game. For my birthday, my husband went ahead and bought the game for me and organized a get-together of enough friends to play the game!
The big thing about Artemis is that it’s not a particularly accessible game. You need at least three players, each with their own computer (plus one extra for the server/main display), and you ideally need to all be together on the same LAN connection. Three isn’t a lot of players, but Artemis isn’t exactly a casual game either, so it can be hard to gather a group of interested players. Ideally, you play with 5 or 6 players, and that’s 6 or 7 computers as well. You then need a space that can accommodate that many players with computers and a display that all the players can see. Whew!
The intimidation factor for this game is what’s been keeping us from playing for so long, but a birthday party was enough of an incentive to make this thing happen! We invited two friends over, and one of them brought a bonus friend for a total of 5 players. Nick and I both have PC computers, so we disassembled them and brought them down to the living room. We moved our kitchen table into the living room as well and brought down one of our office desks. Nick and I sat at the kitchen table while the other three players (who actually have laptops) sat on the couches using the office table. We hooked my old laptop up to our TV and used it for the server and main display, running sound through the TV as well. (This all worked beautifully!)
It took a bit of finagling to get us all installed and set up, but eventually we had our bridge ready to play! None of us really knew anything about the mechanics of the game, so we just decided to jump right in. The beauty of a video game is that you can just learn dynamically in the game environment even if nobody knows the rules (unlike a board game where all the rules must be read and/or explained by/to each player at some point, which is tedious).
My station: Science
The game has 5 main stations, plus the Captain role. We mostly picked our stations arbitrarily, with Nick at the Helm (steering the ship), myself on Science (checking the map, enemy intel), Phil on Weapons (attacking enemies), Blaine on Engineering (ship stats, resource allocation, and repairs), and Nick W on Communications (discourse with other ships and NPCs and an obnoxious Red Alert button to use at will). Since none of us knew what was going on, it wasn’t really appropriate to have a Captain (though I tried to boss people around here and there).
We fired up the game and found that we each had radically different displays! The Helm mostly used a zoomed-in tactical map with weapon ranges and warp drive controls, I had a broad map that showed enemy locations, I don’t think I ever looked closely at the Weapons display, Engineering had some crazy map of the ship showing resources and crew members, and Communications had an almost chatroom-like messaging system. We all had a lot of fun getting used to our own displays and relaying information. It took a while to get the hang of what we were doing and figure out what data was unique to each station and needed to be communicated to other players.
After a few rounds, Nick W took up the role of Captain and I doubled up with Science and Comms. The Captain traditionally doesn’t have a station and only relies on what data is shown on the main display and communicated verbally, but Nick went ahead and brought up the Observer and Captain’s Map displays on his console as supplementary materials. This role change was a great move for us and Nick was an effective leader, as usual. He also has a dramatic flair, which I greatly appreciate in a game like this. There’s nothing better than hearing your Captain deliver a chilling “Destroy them,” order after the enemy ship refuses to surrender.
We mostly stuck to Mission mode, which gave us an objective to complete other than just “kill everything.” A few of the missions had characters, plotlines, and voice acting which was somewhat entertaining (though some of them could really use some sound optimization… a few of the voice clips shocked through the speakers at some painful frequency). We also tried downloading a user-generated mission that was quite well-made, but we got frustrated and stopped after dying one too many times (and it was time for friends to head home).
I had a really, really, really good time playing the game. I love teamwork, I love roles and responsibilities, I love games about communication, I love leadership. I don’t necessarily love space as much as those things, but if they keep making space-themed games that are all about collaboration, then I will keep playing space-themed games!
It’s hard to say when we’ll play Artemis again. If Nick and I both had laptops and a couple of folding card tables, it really wouldn’t be such a big to-do to set up the game. I think some members of the party felt that we saw most of what the game has to offer in that one sitting and weren’t sure about the replay value (or at least the replay value versus the setup cost), but I think we could explore more of the missions and we could also switch roles.
Overall, I really enjoyed the game! It’s complex and interesting, it hits on some of my favorite gameplay mechanics, it’s a great social game, and it’s extremely well-made for a one-man project. I’d really love to see this set up at a convention somewhere (where I don’t have to do the setup work myself and where the play space is more appropriate). Maybe if we go to MAGFest this year I could try and get something organized…
The Last Express was released in 1997 and is unlike any adventure game you’ve ever played. The story follows the dashing Robert Cath as he stows away on (what turns out to be) the final journey of the Orient Express before the start of World War I. Cath quickly becomes embroiled in the many unusual events taking place aboard the train as he tries to solve the mysterious murder of his friend, Tyler Whitney, all while assuming Whitney’s identity.
This is a game about exploration, observation, and making smart decisions. You must discover what Whitney was involved in before his death, learn the political and social motivations of the other characters, and figure out how to reconcile these conflicting agendas without getting yourself killed. To do this, you’ll have to speak with the other passengers, eavesdrop on conversations, break into locked rooms, make shady transactions, and in general make logical decisions that fit within (and directly affect) the game’s narrative. There are no arbitrary puzzles shoehorned into this game (solve this sliding tile puzzle to defuse the bomb!), it’s all realistic, mostly sensible action.
The most compelling aspect of The Last Express is that it is set in real-time (accelerated by a factor of six). The train has about thirty characters, each with their own agenda which they pursue completely independent from the player. You might see Tatiana Obolensky in the dining car one moment, but find she’s returned to her room five minutes later. Whatever conversation she might have offered you during her time in the dining car is gone, and impossible to recapture.
Except that it isn’t really impossible, because the other key feature of this game is the time rewind function. At any point in the game, you can rewind the events by a certain amount and try again. This is useful if you feel you’ve missed a key event or action, and necessary if you get yourself killed (highly likely).
The real-time aspect of The Last Express does wonders to spice up sometimes-boring point-and-click adventure genre. Though there are only a handful of precisely-timed, race-against-the-clock events in the game, there is a general feeling of compulsion to be very active. It’s essentially move, learn, adapt, and act or die, gameplay rarely encountered in a point-and-click. Your exploration has a greater sense of purpose because the game is going to move on, with or without you. And I find something so compelling about the feeling that this little thirty-person world is living on its own.
That brings me to another great design feature of the game, which is scope (I mean this in terms of the in-game world, not project size which we’ll get to later). With so many massive open-world games out there today, it’s fun to examine something as self-contained as The Last Express, whose world consists of just a few train cars. You get the feeling that the designers chose to put a limit on their scope and do things extremely well rather than spread themselves thin over a larger world. Even the game window itself sometimes becomes constrained, skinny and vertically-oriented like the cramped hallways of a train dictate.
Unfortunately, this scope does take well to point-and-click exploration. You could argue that point-and-click gameplay does not lend itself well to exploration across the board, but it’s especially problematic here. The UI is arguably the worst feature in the game, and most players have a hard time getting their bearings straight in the beginning. The doors in the sleeping car all look the same, and you might do a 720 before you’re able to make your way back out of the tiny bedrooms and bathrooms. In a game where time is of the essence, nothing is more frustrating than wasting 10 minutes trying to find that one door or compartment.
Let’s talk production quality. One of the better-known factoids about The Last Express is that it was a huge commercial failure due to a series of unfortunate events starting with the walking of the studio’s marketing department just weeks before release. But the game might have come out okay if it wasn’t made so damn well, to the tune of five years of development and $6 million in total costs. And that was time and money well-spent. This game oozes quality. Most notably, the game’s ambitious animation sequences used footage of real actors for all thirty characters (matched with another thirty-some-odd professional voice actors) which was then rotoscoped via computer and painstakingly hand-colored. Though this technique hasn’t aged particularly well by graphical standards, but the humanity these 40,000 frames worth of animation inject into the game is still undeniable.
Some behind-the-scenes footage shows the art team researching one of the few remaining pre-war wooden sleeping cars like those used on the Orient Express in 1914, and the attention to detail in the game’s settings is breathtaking. The soundtrack, though sometimes a bit cheesy in a Labyrinth synth sort of way, has some truly gorgeous moments and a unique string melody.
And that’s all to say nothing of the actual gameplay and plot progression, expertly designed by Mechner, the compelling and colorful characters, the smart, witty dialogue that makes you want to listen in on every conversation, and the engaging politically-driven plot that draws from the history of the period. The Last Express is a game that respects the player every step of the way
It’s great to see the game get a second life through DotEmu and the iOS release. It seems like a lot of the great PC games from the 90s have just fallen into obscurity, with no way for the people who loved them to revisit that experience or share it with a friend. If any game is deserving of such a revival, The Last Express certainly qualifies.
There are also exciting talks about The Last Express being adapted into a movie! I think most people cringe at the thought of game-to-movie adaptations, and with good reason as interactive games usually don’t translate well into passive media. I would say that The Last Express is a big exception to that rule. It’s essentially like playing a movie anyway, but in all the right ways. Narrative plays a huge role in this game, and the plot is strong enough to stand on its own minus the interactivity of the gaming medium. Add in the historical setting of Europe on the brink of WWI, the gorgeous backdrop of the Orient Express, and Robert Cath as the archetypal charming, rogue hero (Nathan Fillion, are you listening?) and you’ve basically got a blockbuster right out of the gate.
Anyway, do yourself a favor and go get this game, either for PC or your iOS device. Give it a try. Take your time. When I first played, I tried to rush through everything and ended up having a bad time. Then I decided to start over and play more thoughtfully. I moved carefully, took notes (!), and got invested in the characters and plot. The result was an extremely satisfying experience that puts The Last Express among my top five favorite games. I highly recommend it to fans of mystery and great storytelling.
I’ve been reading some more about these types of games since Monday. Here are some more names I’ve found along the way:
And of course, Augmented Reality Games fit in here somewhere as well
This How Stuff Works article on Urban Gaming uses the fun term of “human scale” to differentiate urban games from tabletop or computer games (as in, the playspace is generally larger, human-sized), and I like that a lot. But that article also says that all urban games incorporate technology, which may or may not be completely accurate, but maybe makes “urban gaming” too narrow of a term to suit my needs.
Though I seem to be looking for a broad definition of games-that-aren’t-video-games-or-traditional-sports (perhaps “alternative games” is best, but it sounds a little strange and maybe too broad), I’m also currently interested in a specific subset of those types of games, namely those that might serve as a more complex, less expensive, and equally physically taxing alternative to laser tag.
The Ludocity site (a collection of ready-to-play games, thanks for the great recommendation, Chris!) has a nice at-a-glance snapshot box on each game page, and at the bottom of the box it tells you what activities make up the game. For example, Journey to the End of the Night includes running, chasing, hiding, sneaking, and exploring while The Gossip Game is about writing, deduction, and conspiracy. A game like laser tag might include chasing (no running allowed!), sneaking, hiding, shooting, and evading.
Not only does this kind of taxonomy help someone like me quickly navigate through a sea of potential games, it also gets me thinking critically about what activities I like and why. In laser tag, I think the chasing, sneaking, and hiding really make up the meat of the game, at least for me anyway. Those activities are what you’re doing most of the time, and they’re what make the game physically taxing. (Stealth also has huge immersive and atmospheric points built-in, so that’s another plus for me.) These are activities that could easily be applied to a new game, while shooting requires some amount of equipment or props (unless you’re getting creative).
Though the Ludocity forums are a little quiet, it looks like there has been some great general game design discussion going on in the past. I particularly enjoyed this short thread about things that are and aren’t fun in a game (concepts that can probably be applied to most games across all platforms!). A few highlights of things that were deemed fun: pushing past your own perceived limits, being afraid, gaining respect from other players, camaraderie and friendly rivalry, outwitting other players, and having a rough sense of how well one did compared to the other players. Things that are not fun: Waiting, listening to rules, rule ambiguity (which includes not knowing how to win, not knowing what actions are/aren’t permissible, and not knowing the size of the playing area), and finding powerful rule exploits. This all gets my game designer senses tingling. Something to do with optimization, playtesting, making players feel something, making sure that people have a good time… it’s all so appealing!
One more plug for Ludocity along those lines: their game design advice page. Just reading through that is enough to inspire game ideas and mechanics!
There also some free resources out there for would-be game designers, especially when it comes to GPS games:
So it sort of seems the urban game community is flourishing in London and Pennsylvania (and everything interesting is always flourishing in San Francisco). But with a large enough group of friends, I bet there isn’t much to starting a community in your own city, especially if you utilize networking tools like Facebook and Meetup. You would probably need a few people dedicated to organizing games every now and then rather than just leaving it up to the whims of the group. What if you didn’t tell the group what game you’d be playing beforehand, and instead the members just got a short message saying “Meet at x location, Wednesday at 7:30. Bring your smartphone,” and that was it? I think that would help people like me who might see a game description and then think “Nah, I’m too lazy and that doesn’t sound fun enough.”
Last weekend, I got to participate in a fun event called the Ludum Dare Game Jam. A typical game jam involves working solo or as a team to make a game from start to finish within a short period of time, usually over the weekend. The three of us who did the jam always end up talking about game design whenever we get together, and we had been wanting to actually sit down and work on a project together for a while, so Ludum Dare was the perfect opportunity to buckle down and make that happen. Although I mostly just worked on the art and sound, I feel like I learned a ton about game design (and lot of it was from my brilliant fellow teammates!).
This year’s theme was Evolution, so after dinner my team brainstormed and tossed around ideas while we set up our workspace. Deciding on an idea for our game was definitely one of the most difficult tasks! We spent a long time trying to get away from ideas that seemed too “obvious” or blunt with the evolution theme. My original plan was for us to pick an idea, and then to try and work each team member’s game design goals and ideals into that idea. At one point, we decided to run with one idea (evolution of fashion) and designed it all out, but it wasn’t really the kind of game that sounded fun or interesting to one of our team members. Although we had a fully-designed game and it had gotten pretty late, we decided to scrap that idea and start over, focusing instead on what each team member cared most about in the game we wanted to make. We landed on three basic design goals: a game that makes you “feel” something (makes you react when you’re playing, ideally something actiony and skill-based where you that “flow” feeling when you’re doing well), a game with “sticky friction” (difficult to describe, but it’s one of the ways a game lets you really feel like you did an action, almost tangibly. Here’s a great robust article about friction in games.), and a game that is “about something.” Once we had those pillars in place, it became a lot easier to identify and discard ideas that wouldn’t easily accommodate our design goals.
At some point, one teammate suggested being able to replace your limbs with the limbs of your enemies. I asked if it could be about robots, he said yes, and I said let’s do it. We did a bit more designing and landed on a 2D endless brawler with a cyborg/transhumanism theme where you can tear off your limbs and replace them with robot limbs. Awesome. It was actiony and skill-based, it would have tons of sticky friction, and it would be exploring themes of transhumanism and whatever other aesthetic goals the gameplay inspired along the way.
Things felt a lot better once we had a solid idea that everybody liked, and development went smoothly for the most part, though we did have a few low points. The programmers hit a bit of a speedbump trying to get Github to play nicely, and eventually just went back to Tortoise SVN. I had to constantly wrestle my art demons and deal with the frustration of my taste outpacing my skill. There were also several points where it started to feel like our scope was way too big for the short development time, and general fatigue was a serious threat as the weekend wore on. But visible progress, positive attitudes, and freshly-baked cookie breaks prevailed and got us through with a game we’re all proud of! There are certainly things we would add and change if we had more time, but the game is fun and we all enjoy playing it. (I’ve even been playing it as a break from work!)
I was really impressed with my teammates’ design skills, and how thoughtfully they considered all aspects of the game. A lot of work went into difficulty balance and progression and making sure that the game was fun to play over and over (not too easy in the beginning, no stuff to skip through every time you restart, etc.). I also had my own little revelation post-submission when one teammate suggested we might have used the limbs as lives, and had the robots struggle with the player and force them to give up a limb. I thought about it for a bit and decided I much preferred the player making the choice to give up a limb as a gameplay strategy, since we were exploring themes of humanity and sacrifice rather than just pure survival. Then I realized, oh hey, on a very basic level, that’s “gameplay that is consonant with the meaning you’re focusing on.” Narrative through gameplay. I think I get it now.
Overall, the game jam was a huge success for us. Our goals for the experience were to have fun, to finally work together on a game, and to make something we were proud of. Check, check, and check! It was pretty much perfect, and I’m so glad to have been a part of it!
If you’re interested in checking out our game, Reckless Abandon, hop on over to our page the Ludum Dare site for the download link. Be sure to leave a comment with your feedback if you have any!