NEON Ramblings

No, I'm not rambling, Braids NEON is. Rambling across the web.

I was just checking my MochiBot dashboard to see how many views my Flash games have been getting lately, and I was surprised to see thirteen sites now hosting the game! But I've only submitted it to three... How did that happen?

Apparently, whenever you submit a half-decent game to Newgrounds, it immediately gets picked up (stolen) by a bunch of smaller game sites. That's not necessarily a bad thing - you just want to be prepared to take advantage of that sudden surge of attention. I have my name in the game, but not much else. Not that I'm looking for much else at this point.

I'd never even heard of any of these sites, but they've all managed to find my game.
The remaining hosts were those sites that let you get past content filters.

It's interesting to see the new descriptions and icons people have created for Braids NEON. Andkon Arcade, by far the most popular host for the game with over thirteen thousand views in four days, has come up with its own instructions, much more concise than mine:

"Click and hold the mouse to start. Then, use the mouse to smash into your opponent."

I thought it was kind of funny. Certainly it leaves out a lot of information, like the existence of keyboard controls, but it does get the point across. And I suppose that most people do end up playing it as a "smash into your opponent" sort of game anyway, though that's not how I would describe it.

Then there's another description on a few other sites:

"The game 'Braids Neon' is a stylish kind of rag doll fighting game. You can use your keyboard, your mouse or both together to let the pupas fight it out!"

I don't know what the word "pupas" means in this context. :p But I'm not complaining. Stylish is good.

The best place to play the game is still on Kongregate, probably, since it has high scores and there's the chance I could get some money if enough people play it there. And the version on deviantART is where I'm likely to experiment with new updates, in case you're interested in that.

It looks like more sites have found Braids NEON since the last time I checked. Like this one.


NEON Renovations

I've been doing a lot of work lately on my game Braids NEON. Not just changing the game itself, but submitting it to new places, making screen shots, changing icons, stuff like that. It's been several days of intensive NEON for me, but now I'm done and I can get to new games and new posts.

So, I've made the interface much more user-friendly - the mouse cursor is now visible on every screen, you can actually click on a button to go back to the game from the menu, and it detects perfectly whether the cursor is inside the game window or not. The tutorial instructions have also been updated. These are all improvements that were long overdue, really, and well, now they're here. I'd actually consider Braids NEON to be a solid game now.

Solid enough, in fact, that I decided to submit it to Newgrounds, after some consultation with my potential audience. It's there, with a solid score of 3.44 / 5.00 after almost 300 votes. Better than on Kongregate.

And the Kongregate version is now integrated with the Kongregate High Scores API, which is not only more fun, but now I can track how many registered users are playing it there. Or more likely, how few, since it's been several days since anyone has showed up with a new score. Oh well.

I've also made a bunch of screen shots of Braids NEON and put them in my deviantART scraps. Take a look, they're pretty nice. There are a few other new things in my scraps, like my first digital animation, which you might appreciate if you're into Aikido.

And I've recently ventured onto YouTube. My account should be populated with a video or two fairly soon.

Reaction to The Present Confusion

I'd like to comment on a recent post on one of the blogs I watch. I will do it here since the author has disallowed comments on that post. Here is my comment:



Say Hi to my Haida Hydralisk

I offer no apologies for the title of this blog post.

Anyway, I've been learning to draw in the traditional Pacific Northwest Coast style. I've sketched art from museums and books, read Bill Holm's
Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form, and now I've finished my first piece in that style:

This is a picture of a Hydralisk, from the game StarCraft. It is depicted in a traditional Northwest Coast Native American style, closely approximating the formal Northern style of groups such as the Haida of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Hydralisk is curled up inside an egg, waiting to hatch.

Thus, Haida-lisk Incubation.

I painted it in Photoshop, which, as it turns out, was a very poor tool for the job. This art style is extremely unforgiving of sloppiness - not good when all you have is a tiny tablet and a whole lot of pixels to push around. In the future I'll be using a vector-based program like Flash for my Northwest Coast art.

So look at it, save it, print it, show it to your friends, whatever.

I'm quite happy with it. In my opinion it's the first decent Northwest Coast design I've made, and I liked it enough to print it out and frame it on my wall! :D

Hope you like it too. ;)

Yes, it's a hydralisk from StarCraft, just like my origami hydralisk. Actually, I had originally planned to make a larger picture where the hydralisk is transforming into a lurker as it bursts out of its egg. I'd still like to do that - I can just use this basic design and add a big scary lurker to it. No promises though. :)

I've recently found an artist on deviantART, tarkheki, who does some really nice Northwest Coast art, including a couple rendition of characters from Pokemon in addition to more traditional subjects. I guess I'm not the first to draw a game character in this style then. :p



Yeah, not quite. But strange and scary and awesome enough to inspire the possibility.

What am I talking about?

You know how in my last post, I mentioned that there's a lot of people in the game industry who don't know what's going on, and a few who are looking in the right direction? Well, Dan Cook of Lost Garden is one of those few. Just read his latest article, Constructing Artificial Emotions: A Design Experiment.

The basic idea it proposes is that to incite a particular emotion in someone, you provoke in them some physiological change, like an elevated heart rate, and then provide symbols and environmental cues pointing to a particular emotion as the cause of the arousal.

Does that sound weird? Don't rely on me to convince you of the validity of the approach - read the article. I don't know whether it works or not, but it sure is intriguing. Have you ever heard anything like it being talked about in game design before? I haven't. There has been plenty of discussion about emotions in games, but Dan Cook's ideas on the subject are the first I've encountered that are weird and different and simple enough to have a chance at actually working.

You may not agree with everything in the article, but I assure you, reading it is a refreshingly thought-provoking experience. This guy knows what he's talking about - he touches on so many points, gets things (certainly understands social motivations)... Well, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Not much more I can say. Check it out, it's worth your time.

Another guy who really knows what he's talking about is Ian Bogost, in his book Persuasive Games. There are always tons of discussions cycling around forums and email lists about games as art, and serious games, and games for education and all that. But then once in a while someone comes out and just says it all, whose words rise far above the tangled mass of uninspired chatter, gleaming in their purity and truth, shining... soaring...

Yeah, anyway, well Ian Bogost is one of those people, and Persuasive Games is a book that says the right things. It's not exactly a thrilling read, and it can often ramble on, but man, those ideas... If you don't want to spend your time wading through stagnant forum discussions and you want to see the future of games, look no further than Persuasive Games.


MySpace, Miis, Motivation

Just as some background so you can see why I'm talking about this, I've done a bit of work trying to teach game programming to kids - teenagers, really - and it's not easy. Thinking of how to make education more effective is a consideration that's often in the back of my mind.

I think that if you want to motivate kids to work on creating games, or anything else really, it's essential to give the project meaning by having them publish their creations where their peers can see.

Social networking sites like MySpace are very popular - you might even say a ubiquitous phenomenon in schools (just my own observation) - and help provide meaning and motivation for other activities. So if a project fulfills a role in that social context, the kids will be happy to do it. If it will make them more popular, or special, or somehow feels like an accomplishment within the metagame of a social networking site, then they'll want to do it. Otherwise, it's just work.

Reading the excellent Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons again, I realized that games like The Sims, as well as Nintendo's Mii Channel, might be compelling to non-gamers partly because they can be used to explore and make statements about social networks. Both the virtual doll house game The Sims and the feature of the Nintendo Wii that allows one to recreate people's likenesses as virtual Mii dolls are appealing to people who don't normally play video games. I would guess that these people are not playing for the same reasons that typical gamers do. Instead I imagine that for the average person, creating and playing with representations of their friends (or enemies, or celebrities, or whatever) is an activity motivated by social concerns - a subset of those activities involved with socializing, exploring where one stands in relation to other people, and making statements about how one views these relationships. The fact that these are video games is almost irrelevant

The game industry is very used to thinking about things in terms of games - game reviewers for the most part agree on what makes a good game, and they all basically think about games in the same way. But that way is not going to help them think about why people like The Sims or the Wii.

Fortunately, a few people are thinking differently, and the creators of Habbo Hotel are a good example. I'd really recommend reading this report of Sulka Haro's keynote about Habbo Hotel - I found it very interesting and inspiring. There was one quote in particular I found very interesting, about the fact that tons of the mostly-teenage players of Habbo Hotel spend their time playing make-believe, roleplaying activities and roles that the game itself doesn't support: "If you look, little kids will play for hours... but teenagers are reaching the age where that's not socially allowed anymore. We're providing an environment where that's OK."

As an example given by the article, there are people who pretend to be horses, and then other people pretend to pet them! That's crazy, I don't even know how that would work! But apparently people do it. And another thing that was mentioned was how the players are often very concerned with keeping Habbo Hotel a private place separate from their parents - it would be too embarrassing otherwise, I imagine. Again, my mind is flashing back to Miniature Gardens.

Well, I seem to have drifted far from my original topic, which was about how to motivate kids to work on projects in an educational context. But this is all good stuff, and I would have wanted to get to it in a blog post sooner or later. I don't really have any conclusions to make at this point, so consider this food for thought.

And about the one-blog-post-a-week thing, I've just been so busy with school that I can't spare the time, seriously. It has turned out to be more difficult than I expected to turn my quick notebook entries into interesting, coherent blog posts. I'll keep trying though. Thanks for reading.


A Real Blog Now?

If you've been to this blog a few times, you'll know that I rarely post anything. Every so often I add links to the side as I come across interesting blogs, but the last time I posted was, what, more than three weeks ago?

But that's really silly, since I make sure to write something in my idea notebook every day! So I've decided that at least once a week, I'll go through my past entries from my idea notebook, and write about them here. Maybe then I can link to this site without feeling ashamed. :p

Expect a new post within a couple days!


How to make an origami hydralisk

I finally created a video tutorial for my origami hydralisk! :D

Guess what? You know those old origami hydralisk instructions I released last year - the ones that no one except maybe one or two people could figure out? Well, I finally managed to finish the fancy photo instructions that my frustrated fans have been begging for! Yes! :D Time to rejoice, I expect.

It goes by the simple title of How to make an origami hydralisk. Try it! In this interactive Flash package, there are almost a hundred photos detailing each step, and each intermediate fold as well. Plus there are several photos you can look at of the finished model, and an animation using all the images, so you can see a half an hour of folding condensed into about half a minute. There's a lot of good stuff to find in there.

To quote from the about page:
I came up with this origami hydralisk model in 2003. Eventually, in the summer of 2006, I finished drawing the instructions for it. In late October, I posted them on dA, and found that sadly, no one could decipher them. Darn. It was then suggested to me, repeatedly, that I release a new version of the instructions using photos instead. I got around to doing so on July 8, 2007, ending up with over a hundred photos to process. Over the summer, I added origami symbols and put this fancy Flash thing together. Now, on September 8, 2007, I am finally through with it!

Actually, make that 2:40 am on September 9, 2007. This has been something of a late-night project for me. :p

Before I go to bed, I'd like to thank the impatient people on deviantART for their constant nagging! They gave me the motivation I needed to struggle through this epic endeavor. ;)


Art and Engineering

Some thoughts - something of a rant, but interesting:

Engineering is built around figuring out how to do things, around solving problems. It's about making progress by discovering as many wrong solutions as you need before you find the right way. You try something, and then you find out if it works. It may take minutes or hours or days or weeks to see the results, or even seconds, but that delay is what separates engineering from art.

In art, you experiment and discover not to find one solution, not to document your mistakes, but to build your own internal, intuitive knowledge, to become fluent in the space of a system. Then you have the potential to create. It's about bridging the gap between intention - directed from within the self, not by a person or institution - and manifestation. The painter studies and practices and learns the characteristics of paints and brushes and surfaces, not in order to compile a manual or to solve a problem, but so that when he wants to paint something, he'll be able to paint it.

It's the difference between a slide show and an animation. It allows for that spark to appear between the frames. Once you are there, once you are fluent and exploring a space, with all the technicalities subsumed by your mind so you are free to create rather than to simply solve, then you are in the realm of design and artistic expression.

Oh, and if Daniel Pink is right, then engineering is also what may become automated or outsourced. I'm sticking with art. :p


Delicious Books!

Every so often I come across a book that every few pages makes me want to jump around, sing out for joy, and hug people! I have just finished reading such a book: A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink.

But there are plenty more I've read but haven't had a chance to really review or write about. Like these ones: (most recently read first)

  • Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
And then of course there's all the books I've listed on the right hand side of the page.

I've started reading The Arts and the Creation of Mind, by Elliot Eisner. Hopefully that will be another joyful experience for me. :)


Why Hasn't Anyone Thought of This Yet?

Okay, this needs to happen: A marionette fighting game for the Nintendo Wii. The PS3 could work too, with its motion-sensing controller.

Admit it, this is a brilliantly obvious idea. Haven't you ever picked up a Wii Remote and wished there was a frightening, battle-ready puppet suspended beneath it? No? Well, neither have I, probably because I don't have a Wii, but still, I'm sure you can see the connection.

This idea arose as a possible solution to the problem of physics-based avatar control. In most games, you move around a character, like Mario, for example, who is represented by an animated image moving around on the screen. But there are some games where instead, your character is made up of many physically simulated parts. You then have a direct control over the movement of these parts, whether you are individually controlling each joint or moving a ragdoll's head around with the arrow keys. This freedom allows players to develop their own playing style within the physics of the game world, but also tends to result in games that are very difficult to learn.

As Matthew Wegner of Fun-Motion said in his review of Toribash,
"Other games have attempted to implement full body, physics-based control mechanisms. The problem lies in the complication of movement. As a designer, you either need to simplify the control mechanism, automate some aspect of the process, or rely on convoluted controls. It’s a very hard problem to solve for a real-time game."

That's the problem. If you want a game that lets players do realistic, physics-based kung fu, well those players are going to have to be real kung fu masters. Either that or you're going to have to take some control away from them or simplify the game until it isn't really like kung fu. The ability to distill a complex activity into something controlled by a few buttons, while still retaining that interesting complexity, is central to the art of designing physics games.

So anyway, how about taking a ragdoll and rather than strapping a jetpack to its head (basically what Ragdoll Masters does), try attaching virtual strings to its arms and legs? I originally envisioned this as a way to combine individual control of limbs with an analog input device like the mouse. But it would work even better with a 3D motion-sensing controller like that of the Wii.

Puppetry also provides a wealth of inspiration for the visual style of a game. Tons of different cultures around the world each have their own puppet traditions from which one can steal ideas. And they all look really freaky. It's quite relevant to games because puppetry is basically the oldest form of virtual reality. Puppets are not just pictures, they are virtual actors, not made for their own sake but as part of a larger production intended to convey a story, to create the illusion of an imagined world (yes, that did need to be italicized). As a result, they offer a long history of approaches to representing people and things within restrictive technical limitations. Puppets are not "photo-realistic" and neither are games. It might do us games people some good to take a look at how stylization has been done in the past. I think puppets make a better example than animation in this respect.

And yeah, that's my idea. I'm sorry for the lack of activity on my blog. There is much to write about, and little time or motivation with which to do it. Not that I'm just too lazy, necessarily, but when I get a great idea of what to write, I usually don't have the time, and once I do get the time, I'm just not feeling it anymore. But occasionally those two occurrences coincide, like now. Though this has taken way longer than I expected. Oh well. Thanks for reading. :)


Seeing Art as Games

For the first time in my life, I find myself acutely aware of the changing seasons. Having grown accustomed to the moods and aesthetic of winter, I was quite surprised to see green buds appearing around me. Now it seems that everywhere I look there are cherry blossoms blooming! And since I take much of my own mood and inspiration from my surroundings, this matters.

This enhanced artistic awareness in general is all thanks to deviantART, where I've been spending a lot of time building up my art appreciation skills over the last few months.

However, I notice that when looking at any new type of art, my first reaction is to think of it in terms of a game. Oh, that would be an interesting art style for a game. That looks like an interesting environment to explore in a game. That character would be an interesting one to encounter in a game.

Kinda pathetic, ain't it? Well, I know that the artists are able to see their art in a richer way than that. So I thought it would be a good idea for me to take some art classes in order to learn how to see the art the way the artists see it, and not just as a bunch of messy paint. Because I'm sure there is something there - tons of people consider their art worthwhile and fulfilling, even if it is not understandable to the average person.

Once I can see this art as the artists see it, maybe then I can turn this around and see new possibilities for games inspired by this new way of seeing - beyond the spatial and symbolic systems of existing games to explore other aspects of human experience.

On an unrelated note, I hear that Gish 2 is under development! Woohoo! I am tingling with anticipation and also making funny noises. Mmm... Gish 2. :D


Review of We Love Katamari

It's been a while since I last posted anything substantial, so I thought I'd share a review I wrote of the PS2 game We Love Katamari. It's about a year old. And long! :p

It's been two days since I last played We Love Katamari, and I'm already experiencing withdrawal symptoms. The theme song has been playing through my head constantly, and my hands ache for the touch of a virtual katamari. In my whole life, I've probably played the game for less than three hours, but We Love Katamari has still managed to leave its blocky, rainbow-colored mark imprinted on my brain.

First off, We Love Katamari is actually the sequel to the original Katamari Damacy, with much of the same graphics and gameplay. Katamari Damacy introduced the central idea of rolling a sticky katamari around to pick up miscellaneous objects and increase in size, beginning with a ball a few centimeters across and growing until you can pick up cars and buildings. The story in that game was that the King of All Cosmos had gotten drunk and destroyed all the stars in the universe, so he sends you, his son, to collect the raw materials for new stars. In a self-referential turn, the sequel We Love Katamari has it that the game Katamari Damacy is now so popular that now you have to appease your many fans by fulfilling their unusual katamari-related requests.

As you may have guessed, We Love Katamari is a very unusual game. The original game concept is very unique, and surprisingly fun. The blocky graphics and choppy, bright animation goes in a direction opposite the current trend in video games toward increasing graphical realism. The music, or at least the theme song, is annoying at first but really sticks in your head after a while. In fact, the whole game is kind of annoying at first. The first time I played it, I was quickly ready to move onto something more traditional. But now I can't get enough! I can assure you that I'd rather be playing We Love Katamari than any other game at this moment.

Okay, so let me start to get into the actual gameplay. Katamari is a very physical game. I have never played a video game that felt more like a real physical environment than this one. In fact, playing We Love Katamari feels a lot more real to me than does driving an actual car. The analog controls and the slight vibration when you bump over some obstacle, as well as the very dense spatial layout of the game world, all work together to produce a feeling of embodiment. It is a feeling I've missed in my life as a student, using my eyes always, but never reaching out and touching my surroundings and feeling them push back. (Actually, I am lucky to be training in Aikido, which unfortunately is only a few hours per week of concentrated tactile awareness.) For me, We Love Katamari brings back some of the feeling of integration with space, of rolling over and feeling the ground, using my hands to build with blocks and bricks.

At first, the game seems to involve little strategy, but in fact it is much deeper than it appears. When your katamari is small, you are restricted in what you can roll up. Bigger objects bounce you off, slowing you down and serving as obstacles. Later on, you may have accumulated a large enough clump to come back and pick up those former obstacles. Part of the game is about knowing what kinds of objects you can safely pick up and when, and then plotting the most efficient course through the area. Often your task will involve growing as large as possible in the shortest amount of time. Of course, in order to do all that, you must be coordinated enough to stick to your intended path, something which I am still working on. As I develop more confidence in my skill with the controls, I can keep my head up and look ahead for good routes to take in the future, and maybe attempt to get an idea of the layout of the entire space. However, the pace of the game is gradual enough that most of this knowledge will come intuitively just by playing over and over again.

One of the most interesting aspects of We Love Katamari is the continually changing scale. What at first might have been an obstacle to be avoided becomes a goody to by grabbed up. A house that once was your entire world is swallowed up in a few seconds as you roll through the neighborhood. I would guess that that was part of what made the original Katamari Damacy so appealing and interesting. It is very rare to see a game that has such a gradual but radical transformation of your playing space, but Katamari Damacy is a game that tells a story of the growth from a tiny ball picking up paperclips on top of a desk to a humongous, city-destroying monster. And all that without cutscenes in between!

Now We Love Katamari is not quite so epic. Many missions have you remain smaller than a house, depending on the strange desires of your rather ungrateful fans. This sequel provides more variety and structure into your tasks, only providing you with new missions once you have completed earlier ones. However, it is still fairly open-ended as there are usually a few different missions you may choose to attempt, and much of the game is spent playing on previous stages.

There are many incentives to replay an older area. For one thing, while the space stays the same every time you play, the individual objectives are switched around. (It is kind of like Super Mario 64, where each world has a number of different tasks to complete, which then give access to new worlds.) Also, there is a constant push to exceed the requirements of the task, because your spoiled fans express thinly veiled disappointment at the unimpressive size of your katamari or speed of your performance. The only way to gain total approval is to find the perfect, most efficient route through the space. Your pleased fans will give you presents of accessories with which to customize your character's appearance. This brings up another incentive for replaying: collection. The game keeps track of every single type of object you've picked up and allows you to browse through your collection and see pictures and amusing descriptions for each one. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of objects to find. So obsessive people might find themselves spending way too much time on this game.

I will now analyze We Love Katamari using Richard Garfield's framework. The game is mainly single-player, but there is also a two-player mode where you may compete with a friend in a race to complete the given objective first. Since both players are rolling around in the same space, there is some direct conflict between you and your opponent. The objects that you pick up are objects that your opponent doesn't get to pick up. Also, you may bump into or even roll up the other player directly. There is also a mode which involves two players, but they both work together to control one katamari. It is essentially a single-player mode with team dynamics.

Luck is an important part of the game even though all the play areas are the exact same every time, simply because much of the game is played while not knowing the complete location of every object. The outcome depends on whether you went here or there, if you took a plentiful route or not, and until you spend a long time replaying the mission to find the best paths, much of your success will depend on luck. On the other hand, skill is still important. The layouts are not so restrictive as to only allow a few effective routes; they are designed to let someone with a good practical understanding of the game do well on the first few tries. It does take some practice to get to that skill level though.

Part of the appeal of We Love Katamari is that the game heuristics are so clear. It is easy to tell how well you're doing - just see how big your katamari has grown, in qualitative or quantitative terms, as the diameter of the clump is displayed in meters besides being apparent on screen. As for what to do next, well just head for the nearest small object in range. You get immediate feedback on your actions as you roll up some object and hear a satisfying bloop and feel a buzz from the controller. Also, the heuristics do deepen as you gain more experience. You may learn that keeping your momentum going is more important than grabbing something just a little too far to the side, or start constructing plans beyond randomly wandering around and looking for goodies. However, assessing the game state becomes more complicated as well, since not only the size of your katamari but your position and configuration of the space around you also must be taken into account.

The length of a mission is usually only about five or ten minutes, since there is usually some time constraint involved in the task. This makes the game good for casual play when you want a quick diversion. However, the overall lifetime of the game can be quite long, especially when you take into account the collecting aspect and the competitive play mode. Also, the short length of missions means that a significant fraction of the time is spent as downtime, reading the inane dialogue preceding a mission or afterward. In the actual play of the game, however, there is practically no downtime at all.

There are other elements in Richard Garfield's framework, but they are not particularly interesting when applied to We Love Katamari, so I won't bother mentioning them.


The Fisix Engine

The Fisix Engine has been released! If you haven't heard of it before, it's a physics engine for Flash that lets you easily make games with ragdoll physics. It's not completely done yet, but you can still download it and try it out.

The cool thing about it is that it is so professionally done. It even has an API documentation page where you can browse through descriptions of all its packages and classes, just like Java does! The downside is that it is only for ActionScript 3.0, which is not completely done yet, and not integrated into Flash 8. You have to download some separate programs to get it all working, which is something I haven't gotten around to doing yet. And of course Flash programs you make with AS3 will not work for people who don't have the latest version of Flash Player.

That said, it is worth looking into, especially as AS3 becomes more widespread. I've registered on the forums, and have already made a few posts. I think it will be fun. :)

That reminds me, I still haven't gotten around to posting on the Tale of Tales forum. :/ Maybe I'll think of a good game design topic to post there. Sometime.