Inspirations

Almost everyone involved in indie game development these days gets into it for the same reason – we played games, we liked those games, and they inspired us to make our own games. We want to capture whatever it was that made us love the games we played when we were younger. Whether it was the storyline, the art style, or the gameplay itself, these games made us who we are, and they influence every decision we make in our own games.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing game development with a friend when they asked me “what are your favorite video games?” After I rattled off a few, they asked another question – “Why?” This was followed by a really interesting conversation, because the games I chose were so different, and yet they all influenced the way that I design and make games now.

So I’m going to share that list with you now. I’m going to tell you my favorite video games and how they have affected my own game development, and I hope you’ll think about your own answer to the question as well; what games make you want to make games?

 

Monument Valley

Image result for monument valley game

When screenshots of your game are good enough to be your part of your marketing material, you know you have a beautiful game

I’m gonna start here, because I mentioned it last week, and because everyone is expecting it. If you’ve played Where Shadows Slumber, then it probably reminds you of Monument Valley. This isn’t exactly intentional, but I would be lying if I said that we weren’t inspired by Monument Valley in a lot of our design decisions.

There are a few things that Monument Valley did that were very important. First and foremost, it’s beautiful. I’m not one who really focuses on how the games I play look, but Monument Valley manages to be beautiful beyond the point of ‘good graphics’ and actually into the realm of ‘art’. This aesthetic quality is something that isn’t necessary for a game, but if you go for it, it definitely wins some points.

Secondly, Monument Valley showed that you can have a game with an incredibly simple concept, yet still have intricate, mind-bending puzzles. Additionally, it does so on a form-factor (mobile) that doesn’t lend itself nicely to this type of intricate, high-quality game, and still managed to do well, despite the industry’s focus on the ‘freemium’ monetization model. Monument Valley showed, most of all, that if you really put a lot of work into making a truly incredible game, you can be rewarded for it.

 

StarCraft: Brood War

Image result for starcraft brood war

Graphics aside, still one of the best games out there

Ah, StarCraft. This is really where it all began for me. This was one of the first games I really got into, and it became a very important part of my childhood. If I had to pick one game on this list as my all-time favorite, it would have to be StarCraft.

When I was talking about my favorite games and StarCraft came up, I tried to think of why it was my favorite game, from a game design perspective. StarCraft is a very complex and strategic game. The skill cap is incredibly high, and there’s always room for mind games and counter-play. I played a lot of competitive games of StarCraft, and I spent hours perfecting my worker split (for those of you who don’t know what that means, just be glad you didn’t have to do it). The depth this game has is fantastic – but are any of those really the reason I loved StarCraft so much?

No – the reason I loved StarCraft so much was the way it created memories of playing with friends. It wasn’t the game itself that made it fun, it was the people I played it with. When I think of StarCraft, I think of the 5-player game where one friend had nothing but a single pylon and about 40 Corsairs – every time someone else won a battle, those corsairs would arrive to finish off his fleet. I think of the time I won a game by building nothing but Ghosts and Valkyries, for some reason. I think of the EMP-Nuke rushes, the epic micro battles, and the mind games. Most of all, I think of laughing with my friends as it all went down, and even occasionally loading up a few replays and just watching them.

Children’s special on the meaning of friendship aside, these stories and interactions are the reason I love StarCraft. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really inform any of our game design decisions – you can’t build any of that stuff into a game. What you can do is make a game that has the potential for these stories. Make it so that your players can do crazy, funny, awesome things. Your game may be strategic, intense, and mind-blowing, but, above all else, you need to make sure that it’s fun.

 

Cave Story

Image result for cave story

I can’t think of a quote for this picture

Cave Story is a testament to what indie games can accomplish. Cave Story was created, music, art, gameplay, and all, start to finish, by one guy in his spare time. And, aside from being an inspiring story, it’s also an incredibly great game!

In my mind, the reason that Cave Story is so good is that it doesn’t make any concessions. Every part of the game is great. The storyline? Funky, but really cool. The gameplay? Skill-testing and engaging. The music? Amazing! For almost any facet of a game that you might ask about, the answer for Cave Story would be “yeah, it has that, and it’s awesome!” It just feels like an absolutely complete game. Comparing a game like Cave Story to a lot of the pretty good, mostly-finished games you see really drives home the importance of actually finishing your game. Rather than saying “yeah, the controls are a little off, but it’s not a big deal”, get in there and fix them!

The other big reason to talk about Cave Story on a game development blog is because of its development. Cave Story has become a sort of cult classic, in a good way. It’s so incredibly inspiring that one guy can make such a great game in his spare time.

 

Rocket League

RL

Calculated.

Rocket League, also known as Hot-Wheels soccer, is the game I’ve been playing the most recently. As such, I have a pretty good feeling for why I like it so much. There are really two reasons.

 

(1) The controls in Rocket League are phenomenal. Imagine you’re playing some other game, and you miss an objective (whether it be a goal or a kill or whatever). Inside your head you’ll end up saying “I would have had it if the controls were better”, or “I was trying to move to the left, but my guy didn’t go where I wanted”, or something like that. You can always blame the game, rather than yourself.

In Rocket League, you don’t have that luxury. Once you figure out the controls, it’s all on you – when you tell your car to do something, your car does exactly that. This can lead to a little frustration, but it also leads to some absolutely incredible plays from the pros, and it means that every time you do something right, you feel that much better about it. There’s no better feeling than flying through the air, using your boost and turning you car in exactly the right way to score a crazy goal, and knowing that it was all you. That feeling wouldn’t be possible without the most finely-tuned controls.

 

(2) The other great thing about Rocket League is what I’m going to call it’s ‘skill curve’. This is different from a ‘learning curve’ – a learning curve implies that the game gets harder as you go, so you have to learn in order to beat it. The ‘skill curve’ is the inverse of this. You’re never ‘not good enough’ for a game; rather, as you play, you get better. This is true of most games, but it feels the most rewarding in Rocket League.

When you first start to play, you have a hard time hitting the ball. With enough practice, you start to hit it pretty consistently – that advance in skill is noticeable, and it feels great. Just as you’re getting good at that, you realize you’re not rotating properly. When you start to master that, you begin doing aerials. You’re always getting better, and you always feel like you’re getting better – your skill level never plateaus, you just keep getting good at the game.

 

Rocket League isn’t what I would call a deep game. There’s no storyline, no (or very few) different levels, nothing really new about the game. Psyonix does release different game modes and new maps from time to time, but the core gameplay remains mostly unchanged. And yet, despite this, it’s the game I keep returning to. It never really gets stale, thanks to its controls and skill curve, which is incredible for such a straightforward game. Rocket League shows that you can give any game a lot of replay value just by making it well.

 

Portal

Image result for portal

In search of cake

Portal is just an incredibly solid example of a well-put-together game. At the time, it seemed to be a sort of ‘add-on’ game, a little nugget that Valve added into The Orange Box. While the other titles in The Orange Box (Team Fortress 2 and Half Life 2) were really awesome, it was Portal that stood out to me, and to most people that I talk to.

Why? Well, Portal wasn’t just another game. The thing that excites me most about any game is when it explores new design space, and that’s exactly what Portal did. There were no guns to shoot (well, no real guns), no enemies to destroy, no princesses to rescue. You’re simply introduced to the world and the theory of portals, and you have to make your way through it. Your only weapon is the portal gun, and your only enemies are the levels themselves. It’s a very simple distillation of the essence of a puzzle. This is something that I aim for when designing my own puzzles – if you still have design space to explore, there’s no need to complicate your levels.

Portal really provides us with a master class on not overstaying your welcome. Really, it was the perfect length for what it was. You learn the mechanic, you get to used it, and you advance through puzzles with it. By the time you reach the end, you’ve explored most of the design space, but haven’t gotten to a point where it’s become timesome or tedious.

Plus, Portal does a great job of indicating its short, jolly mood through the use of its witty writing. This combination of very pure puzzles and inviting storyline is a design marvel, as it makes it very easy to draw a player into your game. The biggest takeaway from Portal, for me, is that more game doesn’t necessarily make for a better game. Content is king, and having more gameplay is usually a good thing, but it is possible to focus too much on length, rather than good design or implementation, and end up ‘overstaying your welcome’.

 

What I’m Most Looking Forward To

In addition to games from the past, let’s take a look at a game from the future! The future game I’m most looking forward to (other than Where Shadows Slumber) is a game I saw at PAX East this year. I only got to play the demo for a few minutes, but I’ve been really excited for it ever since. And the winner is… The Gardens Between!

Image result for the gardens between

Check out the haunting cell-shaded indie goodness!

After checking this game out, I’m sure you’re not surprised that I chose it. After all, it’s an indie game with a cell-shaded art style, a slight metaphysical twist, and gameplay based at least in part on lanterns! How could I not love it?

Parallels with Where Shadows Slumber aside, this game looks awesome. The controls are very simple and intuitive, and yet the puzzles show a depth that promises very interesting and challenging interactions. The game looks relaxing, sleek, and challenging, which, to me, makes for an awesome upcoming game. Props to The Voxel Agents on what looks to be a great title!

 

That’s Not All…

This list is by no means exhaustive. In fact, in an effort to pick my favorite games, I’ve left out some games that perhaps played an even bigger role in turning me into a game developer. There’s the first game that really got me into gaming (Runescape), the game that first got me interested in making games (Block Dude), and the game that I probably spent the most time playing (World of Warcraft), but, as important as these games were to me, I don’t really consider any of them to be in my top 5 favorite games.

Despite their differences, each of these games (and any game I’ve ever played, really) has had an effect on the decisions I make when working on Where Shadows Slumber or anything else. These games are all very important to me personally, and I hope I’ve done a decent job of explaining what each of them brings to the table, design-wise. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to examine your favorite games, and the design patterns involved in them!

 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

If you have questions about my favorite games, or just want to share your own, feel free to contact us on social media! You can always find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

Advertisements

Where Shadows Slumber: Staying Motivated

One of the most difficult parts of game development is staying motivated. I can’t tell you how many projects I’ve started, a great idea and achievable goal in mind, only to have those projects fall by the wayside, almost but not quite finished. Last time I talked about dealing with adversity; this week, I’m going to talk about how to stay motivated when working on a game development project.

As game developers, we love games, and we love developing games. When you first come up with a great concept for a game, you’re excited about it. You have so many great ideas, and you just can’t wait to implement them. You have an image of what your game will look like in 2 years, and with that pristine goal in mind, you simply feel driven to work on it.

As you work on your game, however, that drive begins to falter. Where you once looked forward to sitting down for an hour or two of coding, you find yourself shying away from your computer. You look at your game and all the effort you’ve put into it, and you realize how far away you are from the perfect game you had imagined. Rather than tackling cool, big-picture things like core mechanics, you find yourself slogging through your levels, double-checking initialization values.

Basically, there comes a time in the development of a game where the fun parts are over. Your motivation is at its lowest, the work is the least interesting it’s been so far, and your noticeable progress has slowed to a crawl. You find yourself with a solid, but definitely half-finished game, and it feels like it will never be any more than that.

Depressing, huh? Let’s find out how to avoid letting your game succumb to this fate!

 

webcamp-2016-pm-bpa-rd-17-638

“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.” – Tom Cargill, Bell Labs

The Ninety-Ninety Rule

 

The ninety-ninety rule is a saying that describes a lot of the difficulties associated with software development. It works on two levels, both of which are relevant here.

First, the shrewd reader will notice that the total development time in the quote adds up to 180%. This, of course, cannot be true in a literal sense; rather, this is a reference to the fact that estimates of development time for a project are almost always woefully low. If this is to be believed, then these projects take almost twice as long as estimated! In my experience, this is very accurate.

Secondly, we can look at the values used above. We see that the last ten percent of the code accounts for just as much time as the first ninety percent! While this seems nonsensical, it is perfectly true. Anyone who has made it 90% of the way through a software project can attest that the last 10% always drags on and on. When developing Where Shadows Slumber, for instance, I found myself with a game in which every core game mechanic was completely developed within 10 months of starting! And yet here we are, nearly two years into development, and the game is still not complete (and not just because I’ve been slacking off this whole time).

The ninety-ninety rules helps explain why we start to feel so depressed as we reach what appears to be the 90% mark of our game. We feel like our game is almost done, and it’s taken just as much time as expected – awesome, we should be done in a few more weeks! What we don’t realize is that we’re really only halfway done. Since we don’t realize that fact, we don’t understand why our expected release date has came and gone. We missed our deadline, our project is dragging on, we aren’t really enjoying the work anymore, and we still don’t understand why the last 10% of the work is taking forever. With all of these things weighing down on us, it’s understandable when we start to lose faith in our game.

So, now that we understand some of the reasons behind this phenomenon, lets look at some ways to deal with it.

 

climbing_2651239b

 

Set Realistic Expectations

A big part of the problem is feeling like you’re falling short of what you should be doing. The problem, however, isn’t with your work – it’s with your expectations. While you may be falling behind the schedule you set for yourself, you’re actually right on track – with the actual schedule for the game.

I’ve worked on a lot of software projects, and I would estimate that only around one in a hundred are actually completed by the original deadline. These types of projects are simply hard to estimate, and often take much longer than you would think. That’s why, whenever I have to estimate the time for a task, I always take my best, most realistic guess. And then I double it. Even after all this time, my best guess falls far short of reality, and the doubled timeline is far more accurate.

In addition to schedule expectations, this tip also applies to your game itself. If you start your one-man project, aiming to create the best MMORPG the world has ever seen, of course you’re going to fall short! You have to decide what you can reasonably accomplish, and at what level of quality, and then aim for that. If your game is starting to look like your goal, you’ll be much more motivated than if your goal is a perfect game that you’ll never be able to make.

 

Avoid Distractions

let_go

Credit: xkcd.com

I’ve spent a lot of time doing a lot of fun activities – game jams, NaNoWriMo, Ludum Dares, etc. But, since we started the development of Where Shadows Slumber, I have refrained from participating in any of them. It’s not that I no longer enjoy these things, it’s simply that I want to avoid distractions.

As you work on your game, you feel less and less excited about it – it’s only natural. This loss of excitement can be very dangerous to your game. Other projects are still out there, and they probably still seem very exciting to you. But it’s a slippery slope; it’s all too easy to take a few days off for a game jam, then you take a week off for something else, and before you know it, you’ve put your game on hold so that you can spend a few months working on a prototype for a new game. Betrayal!

I find the best way to avoid letting other things take over is to avoid those other things altogether. Perhaps some of you with stronger willpower or more time might be able to risk it a bit more, but be careful – it really is a slippery slope.

On the other hand, you don’t want to take this too far. Getting burnt out is very easy to do, especially when you’re spending a lot of time on a game. Sometimes I’ll sit down at my computer with the intention to work on Where Shadows Slumber, stare dejectedly at the screen for a few seconds, and then boot up StarCraft instead. If other game jams are your StarCraft, then go for it. As long as you’re continuing to work on your real game, and you don’t spend too much time on other things, it’s healthy to give yourself the night (or the weekend) off every once in a while.

 

Calendar with pushpins

 

Scheduling

This tip is something that I simply stumbled upon, but it has proven very helpful in forcing myself to work on Where Shadows Slumber. A year or so ago, I got a new job. My body still wakes me up by 8 am, but I don’t have to leave for work until 9:30 am! Woe is me!

This was actually an awesome development. Previously, I would work on my game whenever I could find the time – an hour here, twenty minutes there, etc. Now, I have an hour and a half every morning with nothing else to do. That time has become game-time; now I work on Where Shadows Slumber every morning for an hour or so.

One of the hardest parts of game development when you have a ‘day job’ is getting consistent time to work on it. I’m pretty fortunate in that the time I need was basically forced on me, but the principle holds. Find a schedule that works for you, and set that time aside as game-time. Don’t let anything else cut into that scheduled time – after all, it’s already booked! Whether it’s thirty minutes every Saturday morning, or two hours every night, blocking off a chunk of time for game development work will help you make consistent progress on your game.

 

Buckle Down

My last tip is less of an actionable item, and more of a mindset. There will be times when you sit down to work on your game, and you find that you simply do not want to. This happens, is perfectly normal, and is nothing to be worried about. As I mentioned earlier, when this happens to you, it’s absolutely fine for you to just take the night off and do something relaxing.

However… If you take a night off every once in a while, it’s fine. If you find yourself taking off multiple nights every week, you might be in a bit more trouble. Sometimes you don’t want to work on your game, but you have to anyways. You have to sit down, open up your game, and force yourself to work on it. If you never push your game forward, you’ll never get it into a spot where you want to work on it, and it will stagnate. This is an opportunity for your game to die, and you don’t want that to happen.

 


 

There you have it! These are my four biggest tips for staying motivated and continuing your game’s development. There’s obviously a lot more to keep in mind, and a lot of stuff I mentioned that’s hard to do, but I hope you’re able to put some of this to good use, and I wish you all successful, completed games!

 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

As always, let us know if you have any questions or feedback! You can find out more about our game at WhereShadowsSlumber.com, find us on Twitter (@GameRevenant), Facebook, itch.io, or Twitch, and feel free to email us directly with any questions or feedback at contact@GameRevenant.com.

Jack Kelly is the head developer and designer for Where Shadows Slumber.

If Dishonored 2 Repeats This One Mistake, The Entire Game Will Be Ruined

All it took was one line of text to ruin the original Dishonored for me. And it could happen to the next game in the series without the developers even realizing it.

This post contains marketing materials from the upcoming title, Dishonored 2. If you want to keep yourself “in the dark” for a pristine experience, stay back!

The recent release of Corvo’s Gameplay Trailer (above) inspired me to write about what I believe is fatal flaw in the original Dishonored. It was merely a single line of text – and I’m not referring to programming code.

Let’s make something clear first, however. This is not a review of the original Dishonored for PC and consoles. Dishonored 2 has not been released yet as of this moment, so this post is not a review of that game either.

In fact, just to avoid any confusion, you should read this article as if I thought Dishonored was the perfect game in every way. No flaws, no bugs, no issues at all.

Except one.

dishonoredloadingscreen

This is one of the loading screens you see before the game’s first level, Coldridge Prison. Do you see the problem? Blink and you’ll miss it. Read that line carefully.

A high body count leads to more rats, more plague victims and a darker outcome.

This single line of text, repeated ad infinitum, set the stage for completely ruining my experience with Dishonored.

A Darker Outcome

I started Dishonored on a pretty high difficulty, so the first few attempts at escaping my prison cell were met with defeat after humiliating defeat. But honestly, I didn’t mind at all! I was enjoying experiencing a new first person combat system that required timing and good reflexes. Dying constantly to the first few guards in the game was a pleasure.

Unfortunately, it also caused me to have to reload my save state numerous times. (Dying tends to do that.) I was playing the game with my older brother observing at the time. Every time I died, we would see the message in the loading screen above: Kill people in this game and it will end badly for you in the end.

Eventually, the long-term planner in me could ignore the warning no longer. I couldn’t stand the thought of wasting my time playing the game the wrong way. I tried to ignore it at first, but my brother and I both came to the same conclusion: since this is the beginning of the game, and I’m starting with a clean slate, I might as well “keep it clean”, right? It’s not like I already had a track record of murdering guards by the dozens – this was literally the first level of the game. I could be any kind of Corvo that I wanted.

And so, I made the fateful (terrible) decision to play the game non-lethally. Repeated exposure to the warning above had convinced me that, although being a violent psychopath might be more fun, it’s not worth it in the end! So I dutifully choked guards, stuck to the sleeping dart crossbow, and avoided conflict wherever possible. Whenever I messed up, it was time to reload my save. That meant I needed to save constantly, to preserve the tiny bits of progress I made as I tiptoed through the game.

The end result? I experienced the darkest outcome of all: a ‘beige’ Dishonored with all of the fun and controversy taken out. I didn’t even kill Daud, the man responsible for setting the game’s events in motion and murdering the Empress I was sworn to protect. I locked myself out of playing the revenge fantasy I purchased. And for what? It didn’t really feel like the game was designed for the non-lethal approach at all.

Instead, I felt like I played the game backwards. Perhaps I should have played it once all the way through as a violent madman, slaughtering anyone who looked at me the wrong way. Then, after realizing the terrible result of my actions, it would be time to play the game a second time with the added constraint of being an unseen pacifist. Guided by age and experience, I would be able to complete this more challenging version of the game – and be rewarded with a more peaceful ending.

This Warning Is Hypocritical

I have no idea why that loading screen message needed to be in the game. If all it did was warn you about the rats and plague victims, that would be fine. But warning me about the ending of the game set me up to police my own experience in a way that completely killed the fun.

bc425956be63256e34e24adf05ca66a58cd9c089

Dishonored is a stealth game that can be played in many ways, but it has so many more options for crazy stuff if you play it without worrying about the moral consequences of your actions. Most of the game’s talents didn’t seem usable to someone like me. A lot of the game’s new items were lethal by design and thus, useless. But the worst part is that by warning me about the game’s Low Chaos / High Chaos system, it caused me to never actually see it occur.

If I had been allowed to play the game and examine the consequences of my actions, I might have made the decision on my own to kill fewer guards or abandon murder altogether. But I never saw swarms of rats because I was always on Low Chaos. Plague victims were just a part of the story and hardly came up in the game.

The warning in that loading screen also flies in the face of the central thrust of the game’s marketing up until that point. Don’t believe me? Watch some old trailers for Dishonored. The game’s catchphrase before it released was “Revenge Solves Everything.” (The commercial I just linked could alternatively be called “3 minutes of people dying horribly.”) I counted a single (!) non-lethal stealth kill. After months of buildup through violent trailers, the perfect setup for a revenge story, and an intro cutscene designed to get your blood boiling… you tell me not to kill people?

The irony is, in worring about not wanting to “waste my time playing the game the wrong way”, I ended up doing exactly that. And I never returned to play through the game again, or purchase the DLC.

So the moral of the story is: if your game has a range of options, but one of those options is clearly the most fun way to play, make sure you encourage players to take that route. Sure, they might regret it later when they realize the whole kingdom falls to death and violence, but that’s the point! You want players to have those moments in gaming. It’s always better to give people experiences that confirm moral truths than to just lecture them.

Epilogue

Fortunately, I’ve already decided how I’m going to avoid this problem for Dishonored 2. Since the game allows you to play as either Emily Kaldwin and Corvo, I’ve decided that I’ll play as Emily first and do an “anything goes” run. That means I’ll start each encounter out as stealthily as possible, but if a fight breaks out I won’t hesitate to kill people or run away. I’m also going to refrain from over-saving, which is a bad habit I picked up from The Elder Scrolls that tends to ruin the flow of games. It’s going to be autosave only for me… the more things go to hell, the better! Then, if I really want to get the nicer ending, I’ll do that playthrough as Corvo. This way, I’ll get to experience Dishonored 2 the way it was meant to be played, and Corvo gets to retain my head canon of being a merciful phantom.

If you’re playing Dishonored for the first time after reading this article, my advice to you is just to play it your way. If you always play stealth games without killing everybody, go for it. Just don’t make that choice because you were pressured into it by the game.

And I have some advice for anyone on the Dishonored 2 team. Go and look at all of the loading screen messages your team has created – seriously! For each and every one of them, consider if they could pressure a player into changing their tactics in a way that makes the game less fun. Ask yourself: how is this game meant to be played? Does our marketing gel with the message players get when they finally get their hands on the game? Would I be happy if someone only played the game in Low Chaos and never got to see some of the crazy mayhem they can cause with bombs, spells, and guns?

If the answer is no, make sure messages like the one above are nowhere to be found. And for God’s sake, will someone patch that loading screen out of the original Dishonored?

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

I’d like to hear from you. Is it just me, or did anyone else have a similar experience with this game? Leave your feedback in the comments below, and be sure to check out my gaming stream where I will one day re-play Dishonored… on maximum chaos.

Frank DiCola is the founder and CEO of Game Revenant, a game studio in Hoboken, NJ.