Tactile Cave: My First Game

This month marks my fourth year making games. This was my very first game, Tactile Cave, which was made four years ago this summer.

In San Francisco, there is a children’s science museum named the “Exploratorium” in the Palace of Fine Arts. Within, there is an attraction named the “Tactile Dome”, which is an indoor maze left completely unlit. Visitors must rely on their sense of touch to move about the maze to the end. This game was heavily inspired by this attraction, featuring three levels of dark, tactile goodness.

~ August 2nd, 2010

 

I originally thought I would be a journalist, but when I ended up spending a summer at the COSMOS Summer Camp at UC Santa Cruz studying a games course, taught by then Ph.D candidates Anne Sullivan and Gillian Smith, things changed. I worked with Davis Huang and Daniel Xu to make a Processing-game called “Tactile Cave”. So I decided to take the videogame thing and go as far as I possibly could with it.

Screenshot from an updated version from 2011

Later that year, I wrote an open-letter to Leland Yee and the Supreme Court defending videogames during the Brown v. EMA case, which got his office’s attention. Soon after, I tried multiple times to make a dream game I had come true, enlisting the help of Bard Sodal and calling ourselves “Subtle Stone”, which was a pun on Bard’s name. I moved down to Los Angeles that fall to study at USC Interactive and met some incredible people, and now I’m in Dundee, competing in Dare to be Digital for a BAFTA.

I don’t like to think in capitalistic narratives of “progression” and don’t think they’re right for most creative folk, but I see this game as a bit of a turning point in my life. A catalyst that led me to where I am now.

Tactile Cave started as a rougelike, and it isn’t very good in retrospect. Your choices are very limited, and success is mostly a matter of trial-and-error. It doesn’t work on most machines without an annoying Java plugin, and the art is ugly, and the music, stolen. I couldn’t program at the time, so I was then responsible for handling art duties and designing levels using graph paper.

i was planning on putting a picture of me from four years ago but eh,
i was planning on putting a picture of me from four years ago but eh,

To be honest, I don’t really feel too different now from how I felt four years ago. I’m a much better designer than I was back then, programming comes to me much easier. Maya can be great fun when it cooperates. I know Unity well now, and I’m teaching myself Unreal 4 for Advanced Games.

But I don’t think mastery ever comes, there’s still much to learn and so many things you aren’t ready for. Emergent mistakes that you learn from but aren’t prepared to make. Project-to-project, you never are really certain what you’re doing. Its never easy, and as you’re moved up and up and up, never really sure what people see in you and how you could possibly be qualified for anything, more and more weight is packed onto your decisions. You don’t quite “master”, but “discover”, as you tread down and down and down this microcosmic rabbithole. You grow to love that uncertainty, live with it, make it part of your identity and come to embrace that precariousness with a new name: “excitement”.

The decisions that my team and I make over the next week will determine what happens to Chambara and, if our decisions are good, what happens to us.

 

Chambara Developer Diary #1

WEEK 3, DAY 4

Things have been going at a good pace for Chambara right now, I bought us a website recently, which you can find at http://www.chambaragame.com. Our second set of deliverables, marketing materials for programs for the ProtoPlay festival, is due early next week. We have a good prototype done and recently finished up our very first public play test, and are planning on doing a public, internet play test within the next few days. Very soon, you’ll be able to download and play the current version of Chambara on any Windows, Mac, or Linux computer, provided you have a supported USB controller and a friend to play with.

I want to do something like a standard games postmortem for this project, but write it during active development, rather than doing so after the project is done. I believe acknowledging our mistakes and successes will let us learn from our issues faster, allowing us to course-correct better during the process of development.

WHAT’S GOING RIGHT

1. Thunderingly Rapid Prototyping

The first week of development was the most intensive. Having been accustomed to crunch time while juggling classes and development on The Pilgrim, we hit the ground running at a thundering, breakneck speed, arriving earlier and leaving later than most other teams at Dare to be Digital. We had a prototype up and running by the second day, which allowed us to see our ideas in action very quickly and better understand what does and does not work for this kind of game. We revamped movement and created our own custom character controller and a large number of test levels to learn how to design interesting, exciting action.

2. Experimentation

Much of the existing knowledge about level and game design is not applicable to the kind of game we’re making. We can’t guide our players with lighting, paths, and textures, and weapon balance is not a matter of balancing numbers on a spreadsheet. The Counter-Strike “Figure-8” loop is totally inapplicable for what we’re trying to create, rendering a lot of existing design writing and talks in a state of limited usefulness. This leaves us to discover what works and what doesn’t through our own experimentation. Exciting.

3. Fast Development & Testing

The best part about our workflow is that texturing and UV-mapping objects is totally unnecessary, making our asset pipeline extremely fast. By constructing our levels out of primitives, we are able to construct testable levels in hours rather than days. The benefits of this agile workflow are innumerable, and has allowed us to reach a polishing phase in a matter of weeks. The development plan that we established during the Spring has been totally burned through, leaving us tens of hours ahead of schedule. I expect that the game will be in a state where we will be comfortable showing it to the public by late next week, and I’ll move forward on creating a web presence for this game on indie games communities and submitting to festivals like Fantastic Arcade.

 

WHAT’S GOING WRONG

1. Unified Artistic/Ethical/Thematic Vision 

During preproduction, we didn’t see the value in establishing guidelines for the kind of game we were trying to make. We didn’t write any design documentation, we didn’t establish an Art Bible, nor a vision statement. As a result, we’ve spent the last several days in conflict about the thematic direction of the game. There are some who want Chambara to be an edgy-cool game inspired by the best elements of Batman Beyond and Samurai Jack (our original inspiration), while others want to create something cute, goofy, and playful, while others want to create something subversive of the oppressive heteronormativity inherent to the form.

These disagreements have slowed down production, and nailing down a character design was a process that took more than twice as long that I hoped it would. Retrospectively, establishing that vision prior to development and agreeing that the project is a shared effort between all of us would have saved us much time and frustration.

2. The Doldrums

I see the job of producer as an ultimately personal one, assuring that the participation of each team member fulfills their own personal needs and that they’re always working on something interesting to them. A disproportionate distribution of participation in a project is harmful, and being tasked with nothing to do while other team members are heavily involved isn’t fair.

Granted, this issue comes from the fact that some of our time was spent puttering around waiting for certain tasks like character design and controls to be finalized by another team member to be completed, removing blockades on progress. So I expect things with move much more smoothly later on, though I want this to be something that we are very cognizant of.

3. Unclear Milestones

Because we burned through our development plan, we find ourselves far ahead of schedule. Our core feature list is more or less complete and the prototype has been proven to be fun and accessible. So the path onwards is unclear. Features are envisioned and implemented on the spot as we wander around, trying to figure out what we can do to take this game further. We’ve been considering new maps and game modes, but we can only go so far before that extends the list of needed sound assets far beyond what can be created and implemented in time. I’ve worked with metrics and outreach to communities like reddit indiegaming, but I feel that such measures are unwelcome by my teammates. I am interested in working with cheat codes, game modifiers, or easter eggs, but will need finalized decisions about UI and design before I take that on.

 

tl;dr, Scotland is beautiful.
tl;dr, Scotland is beautiful.

The Pilgrim: Game & Postmortem

Play The Pilgrim free here at itch.io! 

This postmortem was one of the hardest things that I’ve ever written. I’m good at clinical, analytical writing, but stuff like this is tough to put out and might not be well edited or clearly communicated. Nonetheless, this postmortem deals with my latest game, The Pilgrim, a short-form game codeveloped with Catherine Fox for Richard Lemarchand and Peter Brinson’s Intermediate Games class, a cross-country collaboration between USC Games and the Berklee College of Music.

The Pilgrim was originally intended to be a personal game about religion and my feelings towards it. Through mechanics and story, I wanted to deal with the courage required to have faith in uncertainty, the changes we must make to the direction of our lives to uphold ideals, and the sacrifices that we must take to back those convictions.

An introspective,` intentionally-frustrating platformer about purpose and destiny. [designer]
The first encounter in The Pilgrim
In making this game, I wanted to come to terms with my own confusion, frustration, and hesitance over my agnosticism, as well as emphatically communicate through play those exact feelings. I believed that the medium and design that I chose was apropos for such subject matter because videogames, as Anna Anthropy states in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, are uniquely capable of confusing and frustrating players.

Primary inspirations for our metaphorical mechanics were Thomas Was Alone and Dys4ia, as well as Metroid: Zero Mission and Zelda, the latter communicate the monomythic hero’s journey narrative in their gameplay, and the former metaphorically utilize game feel to depict social systems.

Why I Wanted to Make it

In my nebulous understanding of it, religious faith requires adherents to make a lifelong sacrifice: the alteration of one’s life purpose to fulfill the ideals and tenets of a particular religion. It requires one to cease pursuing one overarching goal and start pursuing another.

Cutscenes were a late, post-beta addition.
Cutscenes were a late, post-beta addition.

My beliefs in my purpose on Earth are strong. My understanding of it has become my credo, it is the thought that I wake up every single day with, the dream that I work towards with every waking hour. “I want to be the greatest game designer”. My hesitance towards religious belief isn’t grounded in doubt of the existence of God or any higher power; my hesitance is grounded in the fear that I would have to alter that conviction. The idea of letting go of that purpose and living out any other one terrifies me.

Granted, that deluded dream has been problematic on a number of levels. The desire to be the very best has made me paranoid of failure and humiliation. I eagerly take on leadership positions and obsess over whether or not my team trusts and respects me. I’ve held passive-aggressive rivalries with some of my best friends at IMGD. These delusions have been responsible for a number of problems that The Pilgrim faced during its production, and as a student, I’d be better off without them.

The people I make games with.
The people I make games with.

And yet, a meme that you’ve ingrained into yourself every day for years is a hard one to unhand. To accept any other purpose as your own, religious in nature or not, is a tough sacrifice to make. Living for God and creed rather than aggressively giving games to the world, that’s a huge change in my life’s direction.

The sacrifices we make to fulfill our perceived purpose is the main theme of The Pilgrim. Hopping around the first level, feeling empowered may be fun to do, but that’s not what players must do to fulfill the overarching goal of the game, at least under the lusory attitude. In order to fulfill the Pilgrim’s purpose of descending to the bottom of the Temple and ousting the Shadow Beast below, players must choose to accept the sacrifices, their associated penalties, and the intentional frustration that comes from clunky and restrictive locomotion. Taking comfort in fulfilling their purpose in the gameworld, and leaving with different interpretations based on their life experiences.

The Pilgrim was valiant, but didn’t nail this goal precisely.

What went wrong

We ran into a number of production issues during development, the first came from the fact that both Catherine and I were juggling work on The Pilgrim with numerous other projects, including theses,pitches, and other demanding classes. Both of us were only able to dedicate a fraction of our time to the project and were not able to test or prototype as early or often as we would have liked. Up to the final hours of the project, we were making substantial changes to the game that we weren’t able to playtest.

Another issue that we faced was communication problems. This was largely my fault, as I would often work on my own and make changes without communicating them to Catherine. I often have a hard time listening when I’m working “in the zone”, and sometimes unintentionally forget or ignore suggestions made by my team members.

The earliest version of the first level was structurally very different from the end result.
The earliest version of the first level was structurally very different from the end result.

These communication problems caused us to waste time in a number of ways. I spent two weeks working on a single visual effect that was ultimately cut. We weren’t able to playtest and get feedback as often as we would have liked. The game was intended to subvert and disrupt usability heuristics with intentionally frustrating and disruptive design, but we weren’t exactly sure how to quantify and observe that quality in our playtests.

Furthermore, my attitude towards the game would change frequently. Making something personal and introspective requires you to be in a certain mood, its difficult to create good work when you’re not in that introspective lethargy. Working on a four-month project, I was oftentimes outside of that mental state and had difficulty keeping motivated and maintaining the right vision for the project. Oftentimes, I would look at the game’s design and intentionality and hate it, feeling that it was the embarrassing byproduct of a transient phase of my life.

The game’s final encounter was one of the hardest things to design. At the end, the Pilgrim arrives in a dark corridor and must defeat the Shadow Beast. We were decidedly against creating an explicit combat encounter, as violence could detract from the game’s tone, but the limited range of player abilities restricted our options. We should have tested different iterations of the encounter, but lacked the time to experiment with stuff like AI, enemy projectiles, and complex level design. I’m still not satisfied with how the encounter turned out.

The game's climax was an extremely difficult and rushed design.
The game’s climax was an extremely difficult and rushed design.

I often feel that I’ve been selfish in making a personal game as a collaborative project. The themes of The Pilgrim were relevant to me as it was a game that I really wanted to make. Catherine holds vastly differing views from me, so I feel that I pulled her onto a project that wasn’t relevant to her life and used her help unfairly.

What went right

We responded well to feedback. While the game’s controls were designed to degrade into something clunky and frustrating, playtests would often indicate that they didn’t serve the game well overall. As a result, we iterated through three 2D shooting systems and rewrote major parts of the character’s controller. While I wanted to use game feel metaphorically to convey the story a-la Thomas Was Alone and Dys4ia, players still needed narrative contextualization to explain why they were becoming increasingly weak. We iterated between several dialogue systems before ultimately settling on traditional cutscenes and making our protagonist silent. The stairwell in the first room was one of the most difficult things to create, as it had to be traversable by the player at two different stages without taking up too much space in the environment.

The game’s audiovisual style also worked very well, lending the gameworld a distinct feel. One of the design goals for the game was to create something atmospheric and immersive, much like the action-adventure games of my youth. Adaptive sound design by Austin DeVries nailed that presentation, and Catherine’s moody, textured art and level design allowed us to succeed in our worldbuilding goals. Incidental assets populated each room, showcasing an explicit dramatic arc for the characters that lived in the Temple.

A cut feature would have populated the scene with hundreds of intelligent moving creatures ate up a lot of our time.
A cut feature would have populated the scene with hundreds of intelligent moving creatures ate up a lot of our time.

The interplay of light and dark is one of the most important aspects of The Pilgrim’s background, serving an important gameplay purpose in some of the encounters: being exposed to darkness drain’s the player’s health, thus, players must stay near light crystals to survive. The use of textured planes and cubes allowed us to exploit Unity3D’s realtime lighting system, allowing us to create a dreamy, surreal atmosphere that we wouldn’t have been able to achieve using self-illuminated sprites.

We both grew as game designers. Both of us took on tasks that we had never done before and learned much about different aspects of game-making. Catherine took up level design, character animation, UI design, and scripting. I took up programming and ended up doing more programming and scripting tasks than I knew I was capable of. While we faced issues in project management and didn’t polish the game as much as we could have, both of us are far wiser and better game makers because of it, and move on with a great deal more skill and confidence as we graduate from game-jam style projects towards more structured methodologies of production and distribution.

The takeaway 

I don’t know if I delivered on the game’s vision and I’m not sure if making the game has resolved what I wanted to deal with in my own life. Yet, through all the problems we faced during development and the stress of juggling the Pilgrim with other demands in my life, I must say that the project was an overall positive experience that I grew from.

I don’t think I’ll be doing an intensely personal game for the immediate future, as the projects screaming to be made in my journal are not artgames. The questions I went into the project with have yet to be resolved conclusively despite what progress I’ve made as a person.

An early control mockup from two months before production began.
An early control mockup from two months before production began indicated overs coping.

Since we make art to make sense of reality and our place in the world, then I think I will return to The Pilgrim in the future. New life experiences will distill my perspective, giving me more to draw upon in crafting this microcosm of my reality. Tempered design skills will allow me to communicate with greater ludic nuance and grace. And life’s finite nature, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots any hesitance towards game creation. I’ve grown from The Pilgrim, and journey forward onto new projects, people, and classes.

As I conclude this project, I would like to thank Peter Brinson, Richard Lemarchand, and Riley Piestch, who gave us the structure, support, and wisdom we needed to realize this project. Catherine Fox for her extraordinary patience and skill as we both went on this crazy journey. Austin DeVries for recording and mixing the game’s atmospheric soundscape and communicating with us remotely, and finally Steven Li for coordinating playtests and giving us the feedback we needed to make the right design decisions.

Recent Shenanigans

It’s been forever since I last updated this blog. I’ve had plans to do some in-depth articles, specifically an in-depth analysis of the Metal Gear Solid series and a personal essay about my story and how I ended up doing games, but life has the tendency of getting in the way of unrewarded stuff that I really want to do. Topics worthy of discussion spring up and evaporate like springtime flowers, and stuff like Flappy Bird, Twitch Plays Pokemon, GDC 2014, and this weekend’s GAME_JAM controversy. But alas, I’ve found myself working pretty much every waking hour for the past two months on a number of projects.

Videogame Bookclubs

Bookclub?
Bookclub?

I’m giving talks and leading discussions now. Working with MEGA, the game developer’s club at USC, I’m running a monthly series of salons where people can come in and discuss contemporary games from thematic, design, narrative, and aesthetic standpoints, the format of which I’m basing off the similar Playthink art/game salon. I’ve run three thus far, respectively covering The Stanley Parable, Twitch Plays Pokemon, and Papers, Please, and each of them greatly exceeded expected attendance, making for very lively, often packed discussions. I’m planning on running for MEGA’s staff elections at the end of this week, so come out to SCI on Friday and let’s plan fun stuff for the next year.

The Observatory

I’m running playtests for a Master’s thesis project at USC, working in a dedicated observation lab, I record feedback and player behavior in hopes of improving Logan Ver Hoef’s thesis: The Observatory. I’ve run playtests before for intermediate projects, but this one is particularly interesting because it deals with game feel and environmental narrative, two things I’m very interested in learning about and deploying in my own games.

The Maestros

Maestros
Maestros

I’m handling website content for The Maestrosa competitive online RTS-deathmatch game being run this year as an Advanced Games project. The game is currently in public alpha, and you can easily download a build of the game, create an account, and begin playing immediately. The game’s core narrative is a bit uncomfortable for me, exploring themes about violence, imperialism, and its ideological ramifications through its mechanics, and maintaining websites and reaching out to the press isn’t what I’m interested in doing with my career, but I’m glad that it has been immensely successful, right now, its one of the most polished games to have ever come out of USC.

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim comes from an original design document I wrote late last December. It was a very personal game dealing with religious belief and the life-compromises that observing those beliefs predicate, something that I’ve considered in my own life for years. This narrative would be delivered through an inverted-Metroidvania narrative, with the player surrendering powers and abilities to fulfill her purpose and complete the journey through an abandoned mine underneath a Temple. Teaming up with my good friend Catherine Fox, I decided to make the game my project for Peter Brinson and Richard Lemarchand’s Intermediate Game Design class.

Screenshot 2014-02-23 22.56.51
The Pilgrim

I learned more from this ongoing project than from any project I’ve done before, except for perhaps Dark Deceptiona RPG system and campaign I ideated back in high school. Working on the project as part of a two-person team, while coordinating external testing and audio, I dealt with more scripting than I’ve ever had before. We also dealt a lot with scoping, and The Pilgrim shrunk from a short Metroidvania-styled adventure to a short-form platformer/adventure game more resembling the mountain scene from Journey, with the avatar becoming increasingly feeble and hard to control as she progressed towards her goal.

I hit a few major hitches while working on the game. I became very sick one week in early March, causing me to lose an entire week from our production cycle, forcing me to crunch later on. I also spent two weeks prototyping myriad versions of a single feature that was ultimately cut due to performance issues. Communication with the rest of the team has also been a challenge, and making sure that everyone was on the same page and understood our vision and codebase has been something I’m not personally satisfied with, having blocked off progress from other team members by not communicating well. A rough project, but one that I’m glad to have undertaken.

FROM WITHIN

From Within
From Within

I ran into my CTIN-488 TA, Jesse Vigil, late last week, who was impressed with my team’s final project and suggested that we submit it to Indiecade. I don’t think any of the digital games in my portfolio is festival-quality, but FROM WITHIN was an interesting and exciting project that I really enjoyed working on. It’s a party game for nine players meant to be played in eerily-lit basements around snack-laden tables. The mechanics are rather simplistic and exist to create intense dramatic tension and catharsis, contextualizing the rich social play of scaring and deceiving other players. I’m excited to get my team back together to revise the game for submission come this May. If anything I’ve done is festival-quality, its definitely that game.

Secret Scotland Project

This is a project that I’m excite to work on. I’m working with a small team of some of my best, most talented friends to pitch a game for Dare to be Digitalan international game design competition in Scotland. If we get accepted, it would be the single greatest game design challenge that I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most exciting. We’re super-eager to work on this game, and the prospects of traveling to the UK to compete on the world stage for a BAFTA is thrilling.