There’s always a great debate to be had about when is the right time to talk about something you’re working on. Some people would argue that it’s as early as possible, others would say you should hold back until you have something particularly solid and tangible to show, like a gameplay trailer.
Ultimately, it depends a lot on the person, and the context. And the context you find me in at the moment is somewhere between these two stages.
This is ‘I Am Level’, and here is the story so far.
Stage one – First attempt (Nov 2012)
I first came up with this concept at the start of 2012, shortly after becoming a freelancer. It’s a simple premise. It’s a ‘Pinball Platformer’. You bounce a number of balls around a level, collecting… whatever, and trying to reach the exit. Next level. Simple. Here’s a video.
The first prototype
At this point I was in a ‘marketing’ mindset, and basically ticking boxes that I thought would give the game the best shot of success on mobile platforms. Simple, bite size levels, casual gameplay, etc. Whilst it definitely worked, and everyone who played it nodded and said ‘Yeah, I can see that working’, there was simply no excitement, they’d hand it back after a couple of levels and nod.
This muted response led me to initially abandon the game and throw it on my rather large pile of other abandoned projects. But the choice to skin the prototype in the style of a ZX Spectrum game would, however, prove critical to the rebirth of the project, because it put me in mind of some of my favorite games of my youth. And thus, the mashup began.
Project Rebirth – Jet Set Pinball! (January 2013)
At the start of 2013, after finishing a particularly lengthy contract, I began to realize that whilst I’ve put tons of little free experimental / indie games out, and made lots of games with clients and industry teams, I’ve never actually released anything truly significant of entirely my own devising. And the time for me to do that feels long overdue.
The decision to return to ‘I Am Level’ was a simple one. I had a new direction I wanted to take it in, and I was desperate to see if it would work. It started with this screen…
100 points if anyone can tell me where that placeholder face image is from
No longer are you constrained to a single screen, this game was now ‘Jet Set Pinball’, a mash up of Jet Set Willy, and a pinball game. The player navigates using a combination of the pinball toys (bumpers and springs etc…) and tilting their mobile device. The aim of the game is still clearing screens, but more than that, it’s about the fun of exploring. Discovering what’s in the next room, trying to make it into uncharted territory… I mean, did anyone who played Jet Set Willy seriously try and collect everything?
Springs thrust the player upwards, paddles punch them left and right
So I began adding rooms, creating new toys, and basically having a whale of a time recreating the look and feel of the ZX era. It was clear after, well, not very long at all, that this was the direction this game was going in!
The art style ‘Retro Impressionism’ can is very flexible. Here’s a grassy burrow
And so began… the production phase
Stage 3 – Strip it down, build it up (March, 2013)
Once the giddy excitement of realising that this concept has definite legs had subsided (which every developer gets with every project, whether it’s a delusion or not!), the task became one of production. Whilst it was nice to play around with recreating the ZX style, I was getting maybe 2 screens done a day tops, and editing them would be a real pain if they were already decorated.
So the first stage of production was to strip out all the graphics, just have a single tile set, a single baddie type, and a single collectable type. The game now looked like this…
One Baddie type, One collectable type
This meant I could do the whole game flow much more quickly, and by the middle of April, the Map looked like this.
The target number of rooms is 75
It also made it much easier to add toys and features, which are still going in even now, as and when I come up with them.
The name of the game now is finishing the map, adding more toys, getting towards feature complete.
It’s a pinball platform game. So there are a few pinball tables hidden amongst its many rooms.
There’s a big question mark over the graphics at the moment. When I eventually get round to putting them back in, will I go back to the ZX style, or opt for something else? Whilst that style makes me go all gooey, I am well aware of the fact that it will make the game very niche.
But ultimately, I think I have to stay true to myself here. This game is very personal to me, it’s born from my own personality and experiences, so whilst I am more than open to being convinced otherwise, I figure that if I get excited by the look of it, then someone else might too.
It’s simply not in my nature to compromise my own vision for the sake of making the game more palatable for a wider audience. While I’m happy to do that for clients, I don’t see anything morally wrong with it, it’s not right for this project.
The reason for this post
As I said at the start of this post, I had a long discussion on a forum about when is the right time to show a game off. I always do it too early, it’s one of my many flaws. I get excited too quickly, and assume everyone else will be too.
I’ve taken some advice from some very media savvy individuals, who have informed me that my biggest flaw is that I have an aversion to talking about my own work. It makes me feel like a douche. Self promoters… not a fan. I want my work to speak for itself.
But on this occasion, I’m going to make an exception. This is my first real roll of the indie dice, and I’d hate to mess it up by being shy and afraid to talk about it. I’m going to champion this thing to the death! So here it is… this is my thing… If you like it, please share it. And if you want some more info, please don’t hesitate to ask.
Watch this space for more information about ‘I Am Level’!
So that’s the yearly Scottish Game Jam, the Scottish Leg of Global Game Jam, out the way for another year. The theme this year was the sound of a beating heart, so the first thing we did was model a heart and start blood vessels pumping through it. After 48 hours we ended up with ‘Hungry Hungry Heart’
Hungry Hungry Heart is a 100% anatomically incorrect simulation of a human heart. Open and close heart valves to allow the oxidised blood vessels to pass through to the correct area of the body. Don’t let the wrong colour in, or you’ll break your combo. Higher combos mean higher score. Or you could just watch it pump hypnotically.
If you want to play the Game : Here’s the Link to a web version
Pretty chuffed with it overall, but ultimately, I didn’t have a great Jam experience this year. And here’s why…
Although there were other people involved in the game, I didn’t manage to get into a team this year, and despite fantastic contributions from George Beard with the Art and Inez with the concept, I was kind of an army of one. This was probably caused by me leaving the venue on the first night to sit and think at home before starting any work. It definitely isn’t as fun on your own, get your ass on a team!
The second thing, which people who know me will know I moan about every year, is that judging entries is just not supposed to be done at jams. It defeats the purpose.
It was particularly noticeable this year, where the Jam was spread across 3 venues in Scotland for the first time. Jams are inclusive, anyone from any level of experience should get involved, and the Dundee Leg was majority students. (like, 45 students to 5 pros or somethign crazy like that), and yet most of the awards were handed out to the pros, who obviously had more experience. I know everyone believes that nobody really pays heed to the awards, but in reality… they do, and if they’re here to stay, then perhaps the more experienced teams should voluntarily ‘opt out’ of being judged for future Scottish Jams to at least cultivate a sense of fairness?
Turns out Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, speaking about his new movie ‘Sound City’ summed up my feelings perfectly today. He had this to say recently about talent competitions such as the X-Factor and The Voice…
“I think those shows are awesome, as anything showing off music is great, but the only thing is, I want my six-year-old daughter to understand that music isn’t a contest.
I don’t want her to walk up to someone and for her to sing a song and for them to say: ‘That’s not good enough.’ I would never say that to her. I would say: ‘That’s killer. Do it again. Write another one.’”
That’s exactly how I feel about Game Jams.
This post sounds a bit negative, but don’t get me wrong, I still love Jams, and I’ll still be there next year, but as a Jammer, not a competitor.
Be honest now… of all the projects you start, how many do you actually finish? I’d conservatively estimate my own rate at around 1 in 10!
Don’t get me wrong, if I’m being paid to do a project, I will finish it. That’s called work! But as far as my own experiments and random mad scrawling goes… it’s a little different. See I love experimenting with concepts, and seeing if they work. So once I get past the prototype stage, if I’ve already had my fun with it, then it’s unlikely to get much further. Because that would be like… you know… work!
I’m not embarrassed or ashamed by this in any way. It’s part of the creative process. That’s showbiz, if it has to go it has to go! To that end, as we’re nearing the end of 2012, I’d like to share the contents of my cutting room floor with you.
Trolls was an old school first person Dungeon crawler which was going to be about hunting trolls. Each level was going to centre around hunting a specific one, and the type of troll would drastically dictate the gameplay for that level.
How far it went…
I took it as far as being able to create a map, and wander around it, and attack monsters.
Why it had to go…
This one fell by the wayside when Grimrock came out. Mostly because they managed what I was trying to do so well, I just basked in their glory. I was trying to bring back this old school genre. Since they already did so, there was little motivation for me to continue.
\O/ – Async Chaos on iPad
This was simply going to be a remake of chaos on iPad, with asynchronous play and a single player quest mode
How far it went…
You could control your wizards and monsters, and attack eachother.
Why it had to go…
Simply put, much to my delight, the man Julian Gollop himself started work on his own version, which sounded very similar to the one I was planning!
I am Level
Part platform game, part pinball game, this was a one button switch game with a number of different objectives depending on the level you were playing. The idea was that you’re controlling the ‘Level’ and not the characters (Whatever they might be). This one isn’t technically ‘Abandoned’, I’ve just lost confidence in it for reasons explained below. If I get hit by a wave of inspiration it might resurface.
How far it went…
This one is pretty much feature complete. All that is left to do really are levels. Which is kinda the whole thing!
Why it had to go…
I show off concepts quite early on to a number of people. Sometimes they get excited, sometimes they don’t. With this one, there was such a resounding ‘meh’ when I was demoing the initial levels that I just lost confidence in the concept and parked it. I think it’s just too pedestrian. Judge for yourself, here’s a video of it working…
This one was a multiplayer iPad game which was conceived when the olympics came out. The iPad was going to act like a kind of treadmill, on which you could participate in a number of events. Running, Hurdles, Long Jump…
How far it went…
It’s finished! It’s sitting here on my hard drive… and there it will forever stay!
Why it had to go…
Because it’s an utterly ridiculous alcohol induced brain wrong, and should never been attempted in the first place!
Most game designers have been making games for a Loooong time. It’s not something you suddenly just get into one day, you’ve got to be really into it. Because let’s face it, if you weren’t, there are far more stable career paths to go down.
As a result, a lot of us have history spreading quite far back to before we became professionals. Like, from when we were kids. We got talking about this on Twitter, and after a quick search, I managed to track down the first game I ever made on the Amiga.
I wrote it in a program called AMOS. It was called ‘The Burger Bar’ and was a management type game where you had to design and manage a burger restaurant. And before you say anything, yes, I am aware there are spelling mistakes!
You also had to design the burgers and sandwiches you would sell… I guess that was really the ‘centrepiece’ of the game.
Don’t bother playing it, it’s rubbish!
You asked for them, so here they are! (Sorry for the delay)
When I first made Organicraft last month, the reason I didn’t deliver a lot of levels was because I was fairly convinced that there wasn’t really a logical way of working out the solutions.
It turns out I may have been wrong, as a few of you (Thomas, pelham.tovey,Somerled,Persus-9 to name a few) think there may be a logical way of solving them. Let’s explore this theory further with another 8 levels.
Another feature included in this update, which may have been a missing piece of the puzzle the first time round, is that there is now a small white arrow in the rules showing you where the virtual ‘pen’ stops drawing. This is important because it lets you know where it will start drawing the remainder of the plant.
The inclusion of this information allows me to fairly make rules where the pen doesn’t stop pointing upwards, which can create curved fractals, like this one…
There’s also a soundtrack now, courtesy of Reaxim
Thank you so much to everyone who has played Organicraft up to this point. I’m edging ever closer towards considering creating a more complete version of this game. Your feedback will help in that decision.
When I heard that the Experimental Gameplay theme for October was ‘Vegetation‘, I instantly knew what concept I wanted to explore. I did my dissertation on fractal generated plants, and they’re something which have fascinated me ever since.
To play Organicraft, it will help if you have at least a working knowledge of L-System / Turtle graphics theory, and how they can be combined to fractal plants. They’re not hard concepts to grasp, and there’s a wonderful paper on it here, but I’ll give you the basics…
Trust me, if I can understand it, you definitely will too.
Or if you prefer, you can just skip to the end and play it now.
In school, you might have used something called LOGO. It’s a very simple graphics programming language which involves telling a wee virtual ‘pen’ to move around, leaving a trail behind it, to make pictures.
It accepts simple commands (Move Forward, Turn Left etc…), but using loops, it can be made to draw some quite impressive spirograph style images.
Hungarian Botanist Aristid Lindenmayer devised a system whereby rules could be applied to a string of characters, iteratively, to make longer more complex strings. For example, If I start with ‘A’ (The starting point is called the ‘Axiom), and apply the rule ‘Turn all ‘A’ into ‘AB’, then I’ll get the following result…
Axiom : A
Apply Rule Once : AB
Apply Rule Again on resultant string: ABB
Apply Rule Again : ABBB
Now… we if we imagine that each character in the string is a command to be followed, we can see that we can create a long list by repeatedly applying the rules. I think you can probably see where this is going…
Combining the Theories
If we assign a turtle graphics command to each character in our string, we can create a complex path for it to follow. These are as follows…
F : Move Forward
- : Turn Left
+ : Turn Right
So, to make something called a ‘Koch Snowflake’, you use the following Axiom and rules (With an angle of turning at 60 degrees)
Axiom : F++F++F
Production rules: F → F−F++F−F
Which after each iteration starts to look like this…
If we add in two more commands;
[ : Push (remember) the turtles current location
] : Pop (Go back to where you last remembered the turtles position)
We can make ‘branching’ L-Systems, which might look like this…
And you can instantly see the resemblance to plant life beginning to form.
The aim of the game in Organicraft is to work out which rules you need to apply to the L-System in order to create the target plant. The rules are represented as having been graphically rendered instead of as strings in order to make things a little easier. But I think that you’ll probably end up coming to the same conclusion as me about this concept…
That it’s beyond the scope of the human mind to predict what fractals will look like after around 4 iterations! I kinda knew it would be the case before I started, but hey, that’s the point of Experimental Gameplay!
Nonetheless, if nothing else, I hope the game makes you fall in love with L-Systems the same way I have.
I did an Experimental Gameplay project this month on the theme of ‘Audio Input‘. Experimental Gameplay encourages a rapid prototyping methodology that favours higher levels of risk and experimentation in your game design, above making a ‘palatable’ experience. <<Disclaimer!
Audio Input makes a game more accessible, and adds that ‘novelty factor’. It’s always fun to use your other skills and body parts to play a game. Here’s my effort, it’s called ‘Whistle Wave’…
So, all pretty simple. You whistle to make the ground move, which in turn makes the heads bounce (I wanted to find a theremin and see if it worked as an input, but was unable to locate one. If anyone tries this, let me know how it goes!).
The control method works quite well, although it could probably do with a configuration page so you can calibrate the game to your own whistle. Simply trying it out was the main purpose of this exercise, and already I’ve had a few people make suggestions on where the concept could be taken, which is great, because it means it’s served its purpose.
As to whether I’ll take it any further… well, as usual, I need to be inspired to. I’ve had my fun with it already, but if someone comes up with something amazing to try, I might go back to it. Any suggestions, please comment away in the thread.
If you want to give it a go, here’s a link to the Windows build of the game. Obviously, you’ll need a mic!
If I do a mac one, I’ll update this thread.
Thanks to Ciaran Kelly for donating one of his music tracks to the game, and to Iain Livingstone, Malcolm Brown, and Alex McGivern for helping with testing. Face sprites were painstakingly copied pixel by pixel from one of my favourite Spectrum games, the amazing ‘Monty on the Run’.
My top score is 37