Monthly Archives: July 2009

"Capture the Flag with Stuff" has a long (and ongoing) history at CMU, where I invented it. Now its alumni are setting up a transplant (graft? clone, in the original sense?) in San Francisco: Capture the Flag with Stuff in Golden Gate Park.

I encourage any Bay-ers who want to spend an afternoon chasing each other around with foam wands to show up. Saturday afternoon, August 8th.

(I am on the East Coast, and I'll be in Montreal for Worldcon anyhow, so no chance of me getting there. Sigh.)

Also, I see that the domain name is not locale-specific. It'd be cool if the site became a hub for regional Capture the Flag with Stuff in Your Local Park gatherings, wouldn't it?

EDIT-ADD (Aug 16): Photos!

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When Pigs Fly

SafariScreenSnapz002.pngGame critic, indie-game auteur, and friend-of-The-Gameshelf Anna Anthropy has just released her latest game, When Pigs Fly, via the Newgrounds game portal.

It's a flash game about a little piggy who falls into an underground labyrinth. The piggy is helped by a pair of wings which let it soar over any obstacle, but which will fail in a burst of feathers and squealing if they brush against anything other than air. And there's your game. You have infinite lives, and "dying" sets you back only a second or two.

Go play it!

Edit: Finished in 32:29, with 241 accidents. I enjoyed it, though it's surprisingly tough. The visual atmosphere reminded me of Knytt, though Pigs' linearity and difficulty put it in a separate class of gameplay.

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Tron sequel trailer

I justify this as a Gameshelf topic by being twelve. Once upon a time.

Behold the movie trailer for the sequel to Tron:

Tron: Legacy splash image
(Trailer page)

(Some of this trailer escaped the marketing firewall last year, in handheld shakycam. This is an updated version, official, available in hi-res. You want to watch it in hi-res.)

It is weird and lame and probably incorrect to say that Tron defined the visual aesthetic of computer games for a generation. It just defined coolness for the computer game world for me, forever, because I was twelve. Everything about it was awesome.

I even remember the ad that played before the movie, for Atari video games. It used a cheesy pixelization graphical effect (probably cost millions of dollars, and was a trivial Photoshop filter within a decade). I remember thinking "Is this awesome? No, it kind of ain't," and then I realized it wasn't the movie yet.

I don't know if this Tron: Legacy will be any good. The original certainly wasn't any good. I am going to squinch up my hands and hope for "awesome" instead. The artists who worked on this trailer have the right magic in their sights.

As a side justification for this post, the marketing machinery is using an alternate-reality fiction model:, Who knows, maybe they'll get a game into it. That would be desirably recursive.

(In other "oh lord my childhood is taking over the world" news, Henson Studios has confirmed that The Power of the Dark Crystal and the Fraggle Rock movie will be in theaters in 2011. Holy mazumba.)

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Games in Russia

I'm in Russia for 2 weeks. I thought it would be relatively easy to find a game shop in Moscow, find some nice games that haven't been released elsewhere, and bring them back home to play.

It turns out that adults in Russia play three games (if they play any): chess, backgammon, and a card game whose title translates to "Fool". I asked a number of people about other games, the kind of European strategy games I was hoping to find, and they were all baffled, suggesting that I should check out stores for children.

Well, there are games in stores for children, even some things like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. I didn't see any games that seemed to be Russian originals (except for uninteresting-looking games for little children). I saw a few that might be, but my Internet access has been almost non-existent here, so I couldn't easily check things out.

Someone asked me the other day if I could see myself living in Moscow. I had to answer that I couldn't, and one of the reasons is the lack of gaming culture among adults here (at least that I could find; I imagine there might be something among some small subsets of university students).

We gave a couple of games as gifts to people we were visiting: Modern Art (which I just recently played for the first time) and Coloretto. I doubt that the copy of Modern Art will ever get played. We managed to play several games of Coloretto with the people we gave it to (relatives), and they seemed to really enjoy it, but I imagine that the next time they will play it will be the next time we visit.

I'll have to investigate Russian gaming culture more once I get back home, so that I'll be prepared for my next trip here (probably in two to four years).

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Secret Project KLD

I've been quiet recently, and this is because -- well, it's because I'm a reticent person. But specifically because I've been working on a very secret game project.

Now, I know as well as any developer the perils of premature announcement. (Do I even need to joke-link to an example? No, I don't.) And this one is nowhere near maturity. I don't even have a complete design document, much less any idea of how long the work will take me.

Project KLD Teaser But I have mostly finished the introductory scene. And that's worth posting a teaser screenshot. I'll take a line from Andy Looney and call it: "Secret Project KLD".

What does this image mean? Only the Secret Underground knows! ...Meaning, only the people I've talked to in person about it. I'm (a little) less secretive in real life than I am online. Sorry, folks.

I will be little bloggier about KLD when I have a better idea about timelines. See you in three months, or six, or a year, or however long it takes.

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On pixels

Warning: this post contains no deep insight. (It does provide my recommended weekly allowance of grump. If you like, you can read half a letter per minute, to stretch it out for a week. I wouldn't want anybody overdosing.)

There's a movement on the move in the game world, and it is pixels. I'm talking about Today I Die, I'm talking Don't Look Back, I'm talking The Majesty of Colors and I Wish I Were the Moon. The theme of these games is, if you can see pixels the size of postage stamps, it's art.

I have no problem with the games. I liked Today I Die a lot. (Don't Look Back turned into too much of a pain in the ass.) I just don't get the pixels. They're ugly, and they've been done. Yes, I had an Apple 2. Screens are better now.

I've heard it suggested that the pixels are a counterreaction to Flash -- especially in Flash games. Flash makes vectors easy. You know what? That's good. I like vectors. They're pretty, and they'll still be pretty in ten years when monitor resolution comes out of faucets. Go play Windosill for a while, for polygons' sake. Go play Gray; it's stylized art, it's got pixels; but it uses them as elements of a language, not a pretense that it's 1990.

There's a whole conversation to be had about the artistic value of retro. Go have it somewhere else. I'm changing the subject, and contradicting myself, because I've found something I hate worse than pixels: fake smoothing of pixels.

I just played through Loom -- speaking of 1990. It's just been re-released on Steam. Here, go play it now. It's four bucks, and it's a short game.

Loom at 320x240 Now, Loom was released on several platforms, with slightly different artwork to match their graphics hardware. Some were better than others -- fine. I played the Mac version, and I remember it as pretty. The re-release uses the nicest graphics available, unsurprisingly. But they can all be described, roughly, as a base set of 320x240 artwork -- maybe squashed down to a fixed color palette -- and then pixel-doubled. Here you see an example. Notice that it's gorgeous.

Here's that scene as it appeared in 1992:

Loom at 640x480

And here's how it appears, by default, today:

Loom at 640x480, smoothed

(These images are cut off on the right side to fit the Gameshelf's layout. Click for a complete image at the same resolution.)

Same thing? Except that something horrible has happened to the font -- look at those letters. And the lines around them. And the branch above them -- it's gone all... runny.

It's a pixel-smoothing algorithm, of course -- not a very bright one. Take a look at the bush in the lower left. Or the trees in the background. A delicate dithering has turned into a blotchy, gummy mass. It looks like it's been chewed.

(In the Steam version, you can hit Alt-S to switch the smoothing algorithm on and off. That's how I got these screenshots.)

In point of fact, this "smoothing" job has made the art look less smooth. The original artwork plays off the meaningful, low-frequency attributes of the scenery against the high-frequency noise of the pixel grid. Your eye actually sees through the pixels to the shading underneath -- a shading job that the hardware of the time could not convey. You see more resolution than exists.

I'm serious here: that's what dithering is. Look at the figure's grey robe (in the full-size version -- he's over on the right). It's made of pixels, in no more than eight discrete colors. But it looks smoothly blended. Whereas on the "smoothed" side, the same eight colors are flat puddles of pigment. The illusion is gone.

That's all I've got. Pixels: bad. Pixels: good. If you want a moral, go with beauty.

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Getting games wrong

I'm in the middle of Brandon Sanderson's new novel (so far: entertaining in a geeky way, which is what I looked forward too). And I hit a bit about a game, or rather a sport, which isn't very good. Not the writing, I mean; the game isn't very good.

Tarachin was a complex game, played only by the wealthy. Lightsong had never bothered to learn the rules.

He found it more amusing to play when he had no idea what he was doing.

It was his throw next. He stood up, selecting one of the wooden spheres from the rack because it matched the color of his drink. He tossed the orange sphere up and down; then -- not paying attention to where he was throwing -- he tossed it out onto the field. [...]

"Five hundred and seven points," the priest announced.

"Now you're just showing off," Truthcall said.

Lightsong said nothing. In his opinion, it revealed an inherent flaw in the game that the one who knew least about it tended to do the best.

-- from Warbreaker, Brandon Sanderson, chapter 22

Now, it is one of my long-standing grumps that authors aren't very good at inventing fictional games -- they tend to come up with games which are silly, broken, or chess.

So what, you say, game design is hard; authors have enough on their plates. Entirely true. (I said it was a grump, not a peeve. It's not justified enough to be a peeve.)

In Warbreaker we have a game which seems to be a cross between lawn bowling and Fizzbin. That's a plausible invention, given the story setting. And the narrator is, of course, correct -- if not knowing the rules gives you an advantage, the game is broken. But is it plausibly broken?

You can name plenty of games in which not knowing the rules is not a disadvantage... start with Candyland. We say these games are "random", or "have no strategy". But Tarachin isn't like that; Lightsong really does seem to win a lot. And this doesn't make sense. If it were advantageous to not know the rules, players would avoid learning them -- or just play without thinking about the rules too much.

(Compare Dragon Poker, from Bob Asprin's Little Myth Marker. In that story, Skeeve is faced with a game so complicated that his least bad strategy is to play randomly -- and end the game fast, so that the players who do know the rules have no chance to roll him up. But this is a far cry from Skeeve having an advantage over them!)

(By the way, I love that the Wikipedia entry for Dragon Poker says "See also: Double Fanucci, Mornington Crescent.")

Anyhow, as I say, Tarachin seems like a weird case. But then, weird cases do exist in real life. So I throw the question open to the teeming Gameshelf readership.

What games are out there in which trying to win is worse than playing randomly? How does that work? Maybe there are strategies which are tempting, but have a low chance of paying off? Maybe the game is popular among people who aren't analytic gamers? Maybe "winning" isn't the reason people play? Show off your corner cases, folks.

(Last parenthetical: I haven't finished Warbreaker, and it is a fantasy novel. So maybe there's some as-yet-unrevealed reason that Lightsong wins so often. If so, the author has set me up with a sneaky plot point -- which, to be sure, is one of Sanderson's trademarks as a writer. In which case, go him! But the question stands. No book spoilers in the comments, please.)

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Game Design Concepts: Level 2

I'm not necessarily planning on doing a post for every lesson (twice a week for ten weeks), but I thought I'd post today since I made two games.

Today's lesson talked about what game design is, the iterative process, and the benefits of paper prototyping. The readings were the second chapter in Ian and Brenda's book and an article by Doug Church.

At the end of Chapter 2 of the book are five challenges. The first challenge is basically the same as the challenge from Monday, so I decided not to repeat that. Challenge 2 is to make a territorial acquisition game, and Challenge 3 is to make an exploration game. I did both of those, and I'll present them next. Challenge 4 is to make a game with the mechanic of picking up things by passing over them, like you would in many video games. I have the germ of an idea, but I want to think about it a bit more, since this is a bit tougher than the previous challenges. Challenge 5 is an "Iron Designer Challenge", similar to Iron Chef, where two teams are supposed to work on the same design. I may or may not get to this, as it is fairly specific (make a game about a Civil War battle without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic), and I think this kind of specificity would make the resulting game interesting only if there were others to compare it to. Of course, there are 1400 people taking this course, so I may end up doing it.

Now, on to the games I made today. I welcome any feedback on the games.

The first game is a territorial acquisition game. I couldn't come up with a good name, so I'm just calling it Outgrow.

(Pictured above: The endgame of Outgrow. The four players were blue/purple, green/yellow, red/orange, and white/clear.)

Game: Outgrow

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player represents a fungal colony, trying to outgrow the other colonies in the limited space available.

Materials: chess board, two Icehouse stashes for each player (10 each of small, medium, and large pieces)

Setup: Each player places a medium piece from his stash in a corner of the chess board. Randomly determine the first player.

Gameplay: A player may make one action per turn. There are four allowable actions:

  1. Grow a small piece into a medium piece.
  2. Grow a medium piece into a large piece.
  3. Make a medium piece spawn. Place two small pieces orthogonally adjacent to the medium piece, then replace the medium piece with a small piece (if you run out of small pieces, use a medium on its side to represent a small).
  4. Shoot off a spore from a large piece. Place a small piece up to three spaces away from the large piece in a straight line, either orthogonally or diagonally, then replace the large piece with a medium piece.
The one constraint is that you may not occupy a space that is already occupied.

Game end and winning: The game ends when there are no more empty spaces on the chess board. The winner is the player occupying the most squares. If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player who has the larger pip count (small = 1, medium = 2, large = 3). If there is still a tie, then the winner is the tied player who had the fewest number of turns.

Analysis:I played one test game with four sides, and the final scores ended at 17, 17, 16, and 14, with one of the 17s having a medium while the other one had all smalls. Interestingly, the tied players started out by spawning their medium, and the other players started out by growing the medium to a large.

The next game is an exploration game. I've been interested in games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different special ability (and this is now the second time that I'm mentioning that I intend to post about that here at some point, and maybe this will actually inspire me to do so), so I decided to make this game with a tarot deck. I didn't manage to get a special ability for each major arcana, but I think I got a decent selection of abilities. I may come back to this game idea and flesh out more powers (feel free to suggest some!).

Game: Tarot Dungeon (I couldn't come up with a decent name for this game, either)

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player is a representative of one of four major powers who are working together to explore a dungeon and loot its treasure. Of course, each player has received secret instructions to get out first and seal the rest of the players inside.

Materials: tarot deck (can use a regular deck plus counters in seven different colors)

Setup: Separate the tarot deck into the major arcana and the minor arcana. Shuffle them separately. Put the minor deck in the middle of the table and set the major deck off to the side. Each player should choose a different suit (cups, disks, wands, swords, or whatever your deck uses). Randomly determine the starting player.

Gameplay: There are two phases to the game, going into the dungeon and leaving the dungeon. In the first phase, the starting player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he sets it in front of him and draws the top card from the major deck (he's found a treasure!); otherwise, he puts the card in the discard pile. Play continues clockwise until the minor deck is exhausted. (In the unlikely event that the major deck is exhausted, then play continues as normal, but new treasures are not drawn.)

This is the end of the first phase. All of the treasure has been found, and so players must race to the exit.

The first player of the second phase is the player with the least number of treasures. If there is the tie, then the first player is the tied player who went closest to last in the first phase. Reshuffle the minor discards (but not the ones that the players have kept) to form a new minor draw deck. The first player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he keeps it (separate from the cards drawn in the first phase); otherwise, he discards it. Play continues clockwise.

Game end and winning: The game ends when one player has collected five cards in the second phase. That player is the first to escape the dungeon, and he triggers a collapse, sealing the other players in the dungeon.

Treasures: Each treasure has a special ability. On a player's turn after he has flipped over a card (or sometimes before; see the list of abilities), that player may discard a single treasure card in order to activate its special ability. Once the active player has played a treasure card or passed on the opportunity to do so, each player in turn order has the option of playing a treasure card or passing. This continues until every player has passed in turn (i.e., there have been four passes in a row). A player may play more than one treasure card (assuming he plays one, then someone else plays one), and a player may pass but play a treasure card later in the round (assuming someone else plays a treasure card).

There are seven abilities, as follows:

  • Flip 2 - The player flips two cards instead of one. This is played before flipping. (Assign to major arcana 0-3.)
  • Denial - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches the active player's suit. That card is discarded. (Assign to major arcana 4-6.)
  • Leavings - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches your suit. You get that card. (Assign to major arcana 7-9.)
  • Counter - Nullifies the effect of the last-played treasure card. Note that a counter can be countered, which would let the original treasure card stand. Also note that Flip 2 can be countered (you go around playing or passing after a Flip 2 just as you would after a card is flipped). (Assign to major arcana 10-12.)
  • Double - If the card flipped is the same suit as the last card flipped, take the card that was just flipped. (Assign to major arcana 13-15.)
  • Weak Force - Take a card that you just flipped, even if it does not match your suit. (Assign to major arcana 16-18.)
  • Strong Force - Instead of flipping a card, simply take the top card. This may not be countered (but you might end up taking a card of your suit, thus wasting this treasure). (Assign to major arcana 19-21.)

Analysis: The idea is that the player with the most treasures will be bogged down the most, so they will be slower in getting out. For the second phase, in the minor deck, there will be the most cards matching the suit of the player with the fewest treasures. So theoretically, that player's lack of power will be balanced by their being more likely to flip a card that matches their suit. In the two test games that I played with four sides, one game was won by the player with the most treasures, and one game was won by the player with the fewest treasures. It's unclear whether the players in the middle are at a disadvantage.

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Anna Anthropy on good level design

Love this lecture from Anna Anthropy on good platformer level design, using a thin but rich slice of "Super Mario Land" (Satoru Okada, Game Boy, 1989) as an anatomical model.

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