An Indie Game Afternoon

Indie Game Madness at Fantastic Fest

Spent a chunk of the afternoon at the “Fantastic Arcade,” something I had no idea existed until a few weeks ago.

I was pretty impressed with the polish on most of these games, which are ripe and ready for DLC publication. Some of them are doubtlessly soon to hit Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Here are some snaps of the most notable indie games my friends and I saw, but it was impossible to see them all in the time we had.

If you’re a developer on one of these games and want me to pull any of these images for any reason, or if you’d like a full review, just say the word.

Papo Y Yo

This charming game was a little rough around the edges, but has some promise. This shot shows one of the best sequences, where you (the little boy) lift a cardboard house, only to see a full-sized house on the opposite side of the gorge rip out of its foundations and hover in the air, mirroring the movements of the cardboard one. The protagonist also works with a little robot, reminding me of Ico gameplay, which the producer acknowledged as an influence.

Journey

Coincidentally, this game, another Ico-influenced experience as far as I can tell, was right across the aisle. I think our new pal Lauren said it’s from the same devs as the indie game Flower. Gorgeous minimalist art design.

Sideway

My friend Daniel was especially impressed (as was I) with the innovation of this title. You play as a graffiti character, and when you pass between, say, sidewalk and wall, the perspective shifts and suddenly you’re looking at a new set of Mario-esque challenges and rewards on that new plane.

Closure

Reminiscent of a top-notch Flash game, Closure’s gameplay seems to focus (ha ha) on the challenge of arranging floodlights so they properly light your path ahead. The moody grayscale environments and character design add to the flavah.

Fez

Like Sideway, this is another Paper Mario-esque game that puts rotating/alternating 2D gameplay in a 3D context. Very popular with attendees, featuring attractive yet chunky 8-bit style graphics.

Hey, if u liked this article PLEASE share!

Game Design Tips from Jordan Mechner

Game design pointers don’t get any better than when they come from Jordan Mechner, the man who designed Prince of Persia, The Last Express, and one of the main reasons I became a game designer, the elegant and stylish Karateka.

Here’s his blog on story-based game design. Today I’m giving props to design tip #6: “The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.”

And yes, the new Prince of Persia movie looks promising. They scored Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley on the cast. It’s helmed by Mike Newell, whose resume is a lot more balanced than, say, Michael Bay’s (Newell’s work includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Love in the Time of Cholera, and the indie darling Four Weddings and a Funeral).


Game Designer Hopefuls, Read This

Game Design Competition at SWSW 2010

Game designer wannabes, this is your opportunity, but you’ve only got a few more hours.

The Screenburn at SXSW Game Design Competition deadline is today.  This is a two-phase game design contest in which you file an entry first, and then a followup presentation if you’re picked as a semi-finalist. Nice of the contest designers to construct the elimination process to avoid torturing the entire group of wannabe videogame brainstormers. All semi-finalists get a free 2010 SXSW Interactive badge — not a bad deal.

Effectively, this game design contest will proctor you through the process of creating a game concept document and pitch. The eight finalists will pitch their game concepts to a panel of professional game designers at South by Southwest.

There are two categories – casual game design and full game design. Last year, the two winners walked away with Xbox 360 Elites and other goodies, along with a fair bit of press and new-found cred. Wish I could enter!

If you’re interested, check out the design contest entry page. Even if you don’t think you can toss a quick entry form and game idea together in the next few hours, bookmark it and come back next winter.

Brain Design Central: TED Talk on Brain Manipulation

Brain designer seems like a less interesting job than game designer, but it does have a certain ring to it. And let’s face it, your work is more likely to be described as “mind-blowing,” which is how I’d describe this TED talk from Rebecca Saxe, who studies the brain at the eponymous Saxelab at MIT.

The TED writeup emphasizes mind-reading. That’s all well and good, but that’s just the come-on. My takeaways from this stimulating (literally) demonstration are:

  1. Holy crap! Magnets can change the way you think!
  2. As we always suspected, judgmental people are mentally lazy. In fact, this research seems to indicate that a chronic lack of empathy is a physiological problem. Now we just need to strap a bulk eraser to the heads of inconsiderate people.
  3. The Pentagon is really calling Dr. Saxe about ways to use this research for military purposes. Greaaaaat. Shouldn’t it be NIMH calling instead?

Game artist: caught clipping

game artistA game artist goofup

A game artist has a hard life.

You spend years – nay, a lifetime – honing your skills and craft. You sketch incessantly, driven by your passion for visual expression. You paint, you sculpt, you design, you draft.

After your traditional art training, you pick up the digital tools of creation. Your fingers are constantly molded to a mouse or a Wacom stylus. Your eyes grow bleary from texturing armies of space soldiers and modeling armories worth of fantasy broadswords. Day after day, night after night, you trudge into the office to tweak pixels to satisfy the lead game artist or please the whims of some publicity flack.

Or you’re rendering a cover shot for the art director of a major videogame industry magazine.

And then, dear game artist from the mega-AAA title Gears of War 2, you <ahem> goof it up royally and send the art director this shot of Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix ingesting a Locust drone…

through the side of his face.

This is a phenomenon known as clipping, if you’re new to the game design world. Two gameworld objects, one personal space. Happens a lot in even the best videogames. It’s tough to get complex interactions between animated objects without a few polys getting intersected here and there.

On the other hand, it’s not every day that you see the faces of two characters mashed through each other on the cover of a big gaming mag.

In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.

So… happy holidays, Mr. Gears Game Artist. I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut, and made your life a little easier. But I couldn’t believe what I saw, and I had to share at your expense.

Game design innovation… in today’s market?

game-design

I guess a few game designers were paying attention

The game design plaint that I most routinely dispense is doubtlessly one you’re familiar with. Game design is a dying craft. Publishers have forgotten what makes great games. Sequels are the spawn of Satan.

But maybe I was wrong.

A few fresh game design ideas are out and thriving

That’s right – I surveyed the market today using regression analysis and a four-variable study of the current holiday offerings, based on SKUs shipped, sales totals, sales velocity, and foreign distribution per capita. (Just kidding. Totally unscientific, but based on media coverage, advertising, and the ol’ sales chart.)

I have to commend publishers and developers for actually taking a few real game design risks. The primary success I see, of course, is the Nintendo Wii, which demonstrates that fresh game design starts with risky hardware and a canny knowledge of the gaming audience, its potential for growth, and most of all, that elusive forgotten factor called “fun.” Nintendo game designers understand that “fun” and “gigaflops per CPU clock cycle” are not necessarily tied at the hip.

Some games that are changing the ‘scape

I’m also encouraged by these titles. Maybe there’s hope.

Mirror’s Edge. Brilliant visual design and gameplay that might actually make something out of the rooftop-hopping game dynamic that went nowhere in Assassin’s Creed.

Little Big Planet. A fresh world, a world-building approach, and not a bullet in sight. Is it possible? Don’t get me wrong. I love shooters as much as the next game designer. I just want a balanced game concept diet, y’know?

Spore. Will Wright still marches to his own drummer. Certainly appeals to me more than the Sims.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Sure, once you saw the game design for DDR, you probably could’ve come up with the concept for these two. But did you? And c’mon, you have to admit that rockin’ the living room with your pals kicks the pants off Jenga.

The game sales chart still says “FAIL”

At the same time, the game designs that are dominating the sales chart are indeed largely sequels. Madden. (I know, it’s football season.) Mario Kart. GT. Other Mario games. Soulcalibur IV. Tiger Woods.

Still, I’m encouraged to see some fresh blood slowly being injected into the game design bloodstream. Without new ideas, the industry will die, or become trivialized and marginalized like comic books and (shudder) the sports card collectibles industry.

Maybe someday game design will be less of a craft and more of an art.

Ah, what the heck am I saying. Set your sights low. We might get some eye candy that engages a few different brain cells than last year’s game design crop. And that in itself is a revolution.

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts on Creativity

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts, get it? Ha ha… sorry. Anyhow, a friend recently turned me on to TED.com, a site where you can view talks from the cognoscenti from all sorts of incredible fields and backgrounds.

On TED, I recently found this entertaining and thoughtful lecture by JJ Abrams, the creative guy behind Lost, Cloverfield, Alias, and more.

Game designers should take note of his praise of the democratization of creativity. JJ Abrams works in an industry where a couple of dudes with standard desktop PCs can build all the effects necessary to make Lost or any other JJ Abrams production.

Someday, perhaps ordinary gamers will be able to do the same with a few game consoles. Now that would be a game design revolution, and it’s one that we’re already seeing hints of with some of the downloadable content for the 360 and PS3. It’s certainly in the best interests of console manufacturers, who would be happy to see game designers kicked to the curb in favor of a “reality TV” kind of vox populi revolution in game content.

Game visuals in Gears of War 2, and RIP CGW

Two quick notes for you game-hungry readers…

First

if you’ve seen the screenshots for Gears of War 2, you might want to compare them with the screenshots for Gears of War 1.

You’ll notice that:

a) GoW 2 is gorgeous.  Haze, smoke, particles. Details recede into the background. Textures are richer and more plentiful. AND…

b) GoW 2 is a lot browner. In fact, if you’re old school, you’ll think that GoW 2 has caught the infamous Quake 2 disease of obsessive brownness. Yellow-browns, red-browns, greenish browns, blackish browns. Every tint and shade of brown is fully represented. Color contrasts, however, are hard to find.

Hopefully the full game will show more variety, because it looks like hella fun to play. I just don’t want it so rococo with texture maps that it causes me to lose the brown spectrum in my eyes.

Second

I got a postcard a few days ago from Games for Windows Magazine, once the mighty CGW. (And boy, is that a step down, to lose a feared and respected moniker like CGW in favor of Microsoft’s paltry G4W tag.)

Well, the ignomy doesn’t stop there. My postcard says,

Dear G4WM subscriber,

We regret to inform you that Games for Windows Magazine has ceased publication with the April/May 2008 issue. I am, however, happy to inform you that the remainder of your subscription will be fulfilled with Electronic Gaming Monthly – The #1 Videogame Magazine.

Quaint, especially for PC gamers who care not a whit for the console-heavy content of EGM.

Yeah, you bet EGM is #1. Once again, corporate greed and ridiculous marketing strategems waste money and take choices away from the consumer. RIP, CGW. You deserved better.