Sunday, 21 October 2012


Warning: this post contains minor spoilers for VESPER.5 (though nothing not clear after a week or two), and also asks whether certain things are games or not. Note that I do not consider "not a game" to be a value judgement, and I'm interested in finding edge-cases and exceptions to made-up rules because such things are often more beautiful to me than that which is easily classified.

Game idea: You walk around in an empty room and nothing happens.

Is this even a game? I know some who would argue that it is, and some who would argue that it isn't. If it's a game, it's a fairly trivial one. There is a decision to make - where to walk within the room - but it has no further consequences. Still, the first time you play you don't know that nothing will happen, so there is some ambiguity.

Game idea: You walk around in a room with paintings hanging on the wall; if you move next to a painting you can look at it.

Okay, now we've ramped up the consequences a little bit. You can choose what to look at, and see a different image depending on your choice. It's purely an aesthetic consequence, it's not a complex system of interactions, but that's okay. Uncertainty arises from not knowing what the pictures are until you look at them. Is it a game yet?

Game idea: You walk around in a vacuum-filled room with paintings on the wall, wearing a space-suit with only enough air to take 10 steps.

Now the consequences have been turned right up: you don't have enough steps to look at every picture, so there's a resource constraint giving exclusive alternatives. You make choices with opportunity costs and uncertain outcomes. I'd say it's definitely a game - though a quite simple one and probably still an edge case for some. (Further evidence in favour of it being a game: it's in SPACE!)

Game idea: You walk around a room looking at paintings, but you can only take one step each day.

So we've arrived at something a bit like VESPER.5. There's no exclusivity; if you invest enough time you can see everything; but decisions still carry real weight because they cost you in real time. It definitely feels like a game.

Game idea: You walk around a room looking at paintings, but you can only take one step each second.

Is this significantly different from the previous? Your choices carry less weight because they cost less time, but they still do have a cost. Time is a finite resource for mortal beings. You can continuously interpolate from this to the previous game just by changing the time parameter. This is an obstacle to having a strict definition of "game" that excludes one but not the other - ideally we'd like our theoretical analysis not to depend on time scales, not to switch at some arbitrary parametric value.

Proteus is not very distant from some of these examples. You spend time playing it, making choices with outcomes that are largely experiential - what scenes you're looking at, what music you're listening to. It has deeper mechanics, complex interacting systems of cause and effect, but still they're aimed at an aesthetic effect rather than classical gameplay. It's a piece of entertainment software in which you make decisions about allocating resources (time) with uncertain consequences; a game. (Though that description feels somewhat absurd - while true, it fails to describe the heart of Proteus.)

I realised this playing SpaceChem, which would typically be classified as a puzzle, not a game (in taxonomies that distinguish puzzles from games). At a formal level, there are no truly uncertain decisions made - you can try out any possible solution and then undo the construction with (seemingly) no cost. But the cost of time means that's not the case, and you can't reasonably try all the possible solutions. You have to plan how best to spend your limited time to search for a solution. Laying out a complex chain of reactors can take half an hour or more, and once you've committed that to building something you'd prefer to adapt it if possible rather than clear it and start from scratch. As in a game of Tetris, you deal with the consequences of your suboptimal placements. The same is true of any puzzle; even if there's an undo button, you're still expending some of your finite lifespan on false attempts.

So player time as a cost means things that we naturally think of as being "free"; reversible choices with no in-game resource cost; actually aren't. Taking a step in VESPER.5 feels consequential, and it wouldn't if you could just step right back the next moment, but that's not a fundamental difference - we've just turned up a knob, zoomed in on a choice that would be there anyway.

In Meier's "a game is a series of interesting choices", what makes a choice interesting? The classical answer is that a choice is interesting by being difficult to make, because of some form of hidden information - whether explicit (as in Poker) or implicit (as in Chess). But there are other ways a choice can be difficult or interesting. If we abandon the notion of a single unified objective, the choice of what goals to pursue can be difficult and interesting because the outcomes are incomparable. This is a closer approximation to real life: we pursue varied goals with varied - sometimes contradictory - objectives; not everything has an economic value, a moral value, an aesthetic value; sometimes these values fight each other. In VESPER.5, you ask yourself it's worth your time to stop and smell the flowers, or if you'd prefer to race deeper in as fast as possible, or perhaps ascetically skirt the edges while avoiding touching anything. There's a "hidden information" aspect to this too - you don't know if the program will react in different ways to these different inputs - but more interesting is the unique personal valuation.

James Lantz wrote recently about player time in games - he said a bunch of stuff that I'd been going to say in this post and some smart things I hadn't thought of, so read that.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012


Many games cast the player in the role of Maxwell's demon: bringing order from chaos, building structures out of randomness. Tetris - assembling a stream of molecules into a regular lattice. Bejewelled - performing involutions to form crystals. Drop7 - organising gibberish into true self-referential statements. As single-player high-score games it's important to these that they be balanced such that the laws of physics are upheld - you can reverse entropy locally for a while, but eventually you will lose. Or Freecell - a solution of cards precipitates into crystals of increasing size - as a puzzle there's a solution, a state of perfect order (as bland as perfect disorder).

Game idea: literal metaphor of Maxwell's demon; one-touch control of a gate passing particles through to sort them. I expect this has probably been done, and a quick search confirms it. Oh, and of course there's the old Windows game Maxwell's Maniac!

(A friend once said my game Fire Up The Lemma Engines made him feel like Maxwell's demon; that's where this train of thought embarked.)

A quick glance at the Wikipedia disambiguation page for entropy will show you that the word is used in similar but distinct ways in a wide variety of fields. There's probably some good game ideas in all of them. I'm most familiar with its use in information theory (though not very familiar; it's come up in a few things I've read but tangentially to my main interest in them). Roughly, it's a measurement of how easy a sequence is to predict - a completely random sequence has maximum entropy, a sequence of all the same character has minimum entropy, a passage of text is somewhere in between; not completely predictable but filled with patterns.

Game idea: player inputs a sequence, score is the Shannon entropy of that sequence. This would be hard, we're not good at avoiding patterns. Wrap it in a Dune license and you've got that peculiar shuffling walk across the desert, avoiding any rhythmic motion that might attract sandworms; I'd play that.

O is a contest between two demons, each trying to minimise the entropy of the sequence of colours they collect. Well, a very rough approximation of the entropy: it measures the lengths of monochromatic subsequences, the probability that a ball is followed by another of the same colour. Demons may play a variation scored by the Shannon entropy. Each player is an agent of both order and chaos; creating patterns on one side of the board while disrupting them on the other.

It's easier to create chaos than order; easier to disrupt patterns than to build them. This can be a game balance issue: there's a natural pressure towards it being cheaper to attack than defend in competitive games, which is often appropriate but must be taken into consideration.

Monday, 15 October 2012


I'm trying to brute-force the IGF. It's a bit of a distraction, but it seems to be an important part of succeeding as an individual making games, and getting some level of artistic recognition beyond a tight community of developers.

Submitting a game to it, you're asked:
"Are you indie? You may think this is a silly question, but think carefully about whether you would consider yourself an "independent developer", by most people's definition of that term - an artistically independent game creator making the kinds of games that you want to make. If you feel like you are, then please tick the box."
So I thought carefully about it. And I find it quite a strange label. On Steam it's treated as a genre, alongside "Action", "RPG", etc. Okay, this shouldn't be a "definition of indie" post. We know what we mean by it, even if it's hard to pin down a precise wording. The IGF submission form specifies "artistically independent", which is perhaps not quite right - what if a publisher funds a game but doesn't exert any creative control over it? But it's clear enough, and I'm not criticising them here.

Some game developers seem to take a lot of pride in being "indie". I think this is especially common among those who have had bad experiences working on dependent games before going "indie". For them, it seems like a big deal, it's a great experience to work on what you personally want to work on, and they get excited about it.

To me, it's not a big deal. Creative independence seems like the natural order of things. I've spent time in academia, and it's very much the expectation there that researchers pursue what they're interested in studying in a self-directed way - though often collaborating out of common interest. The role of the administration is to support the researchers, not to tell them what to do - much like the government of a country. (This may be changing, with universities trying to structure themselves more like businesses, and funding bodies caring more about immediate obvious applications.) Maybe I'm reeking with privilege here, but it seems to me like this is the default way art has always been done; people making what they want to make for its own sake. While large scale productions aren't something new - for a long time we've had orchestras where 100 people play the compositions of one with little room for personal expression, similarly with theatre and architecture - they seem like an anomaly to me. (Though often a beautiful anomaly; I appreciate the heights that can be achieved when a large number of people work in unison, submitting to a singular vision.) So yes, I'm artistically independent, but that's just normal to me, that's how art works.

But I'm not financially independent. As I've mentioned before, I can only afford to make games now because my wife is employed, and because I somehow got a game on Steam and the Indie Royale bundle. Without these two publisher-like companies, my income would have been pretty close to zero. And I'll need some of my future games to sell to keep me going - am I significantly less dependent on popular opinion and market forces because I'm trying to interpret them myself rather than being forced into a publisher's interpretation?

I depend on others emotionally. I'm fairly isolated right now (living somewhere remote from friends for my wife's work), so I rely a lot on twitter and online chat for social contact. I really don't know where I'd be without some of the people I talk to regularly online. I'm nourished by people discussing my work; whenever a flurry of VESPER.5 tweets crops up it really encourages me to keep going, to work hard and make more things.

I depend on others for help making things. Games need testing, and though I often reject suggestions because they don't fit what I want to do, sometimes taking into account feedback from others makes things vastly better in ways that I could not have thought of myself. And technical problems come up that I have no idea how to solve by myself (particularly when they're on a Mac).

I depend on structures that are in place to support me - the internet, the stores I sell games through, the hardware and operating systems they run on, the libraries I use, the journalists that can write about my games to let others know about them. When I make a game that requires an obscure controller I'm relying on the manufacturers and distributors to ensure people can have access to it. And various utilities - supplying electricity and water to my home, and nourishment to my nearest supermarket. I would not have any hope of doing what I try to do if the rest of the billions of people on Earth did not cooperate to keep the world around me working in a particular way, so it feels somewhat absurd to call myself "independent" just because I don't have a particular kind of relationship with a specific kind of corporation.

Thank you, everyone. And please don't destroy this world we all depend on; we don't have another.

Saturday, 13 October 2012


Released a new game: O, two players only, for iPad, get it on appstore. It's half price for a week, and so is Glitch Tank.

It's very natural when creating a videogame for more than one player to clearly separate their inputs. In games like Shot Shot Shoot and Glitch Tank, even though players use the same input device, there's a clear delineation of zones - here's my side of the screen, here's yours, and a DMZ between where neither one of us touches. Within the simulation we have a defined formal interaction, and we refrain from coming into contact outside of it.

There are exceptions to this. A Bastard makes the keyboard a shared input space, randomly remapping keys after every move, sometimes coinciding with your opponent's keys (George is working on a touchscreen version too - keep an eye out for it). Centrifeud mostly keeps to clearly separated input zones, but the occasional cry of "touch yourself" directs players to reach into the shared central playing field. Greedy Bankers has two players grabbing gems from each other's side of the touchscreen. Bloop has separate input zones for each player, but they're intermingled across the screen making it difficult not to collide.

When inputs overlap like this, it invites players to interfere with each other physically. But there's no reason why we cannot interact physically in any game. David Hayward has told me that sometimes when he plays Glitch Tank, if his opponent is hesitating over an action, he will bump the ipad up into their finger to hurry them along. You could also just reach over and press one of your opponent's buttons, or physically restrain them so that they can't interact with the game at all. The purest form of this is Chicanery, in which there's no way to win other than physically removing your opponent's fingers from the controls by any means possible. This would be an optimal strategy for any competitive game, if we allowed ourselves to use it.

In many physical sports there is unavoidable overlap in input domains, and guidelines have arisen restricting physical violence; protocols of what's considered good sportsmanship; at a professional level these are enforced by referees. Different expected levels of physicality - non-contact, semi-contact, full-contact. What degree of violence is appropriate depends on the players and the game, but in general crippling your opponents is avoided despite being a dominant strategy. As we develop the space of digital games with overlapping inputs I hope that similar protocols will emerge; taking into account having some level of physical interaction without degenerating into violence. If not, every such game will be played as a Chicanery variant - and while Chicanery is great, that would be less interesting than having a variety of different games.

O came out of a discussion with Jonathan Brodsky, he suggested a variation on Glitch Tank splicing in some ideas from A Bastard: instead of keeping action buttons separated at opposite edges of the screen, have cards spawn randomly across the map which either player can grab and drag to use them. This inspired me with a similar idea; omit the tank element and just have a kind of set-collection game. The idea was beautiful to me so I dropped everything to make it as quickly as possible.

Balls appear on the screen in three colours. You score points by collecting a sequence of balls of the same colour - the first is worth 0, then each after that is worth 1 more. Triangular numbers. This score system ensures that it's not simply a matter of grabbing balls indiscriminately; you get a much higher score by sticking to one colour than by taking anything you can get.

It's very elemental. It feels a bit like a two-player variation of Eliss, it's one of the purest non-trivial touchscreen games.

Both players share the entire touchscreen as their input space, with no restrictions on where each player may touch. As above, this invites physical interference. You will have to work out for yourselves what level of physical interaction is appropriate; there's a lot of depth on the digital side of the game that can be trampled right over and missed out on if you get too violent, but some level of physical push and shove is unavoidable when you're both trying to grab the same balls. I'm not going to tell you how you're 'supposed' to play, but I think it's a lot more interesting when both players actually get to. Think of it as a low-contact sport, like Netball where you're not allowed to grab the ball out of another player's hands - that's partially enforced in O; while someone is touching a ball it won't respond to other touches (you could physically prise an opponent's finger from the screen, but this is not recommended: the natural response is to push harder, and that way risks breaking something). So as a possible guideline: don't prevent your opponent from touching the screen, and don't force them to release a ball that they're touching.

Appstore Link

Monday, 8 October 2012

Playing games with people who don't play games

Darren Grey commented on my last post:
"None of my friends are gamers, so multiplayer really isn't viable. When I do try to get them to play a game of something I'm usually far to much better than them, which neither of us enjoy. On that note more co-op style stuff would be better for engaging my non-gamer friends."

Since this seems to be a common problem, maybe I can try to say something constructive towards it rather than just complain that nobody plays local multiplayer! Skip to the end for a helpful list.

I really don't like that word, "gamer". It's a word we use to exclude people, to disconnect our hobby from the bulk of humanity and from a universal tradition of play first formalised millennia ago but with prehuman roots evident in the playful rituals of animals. Everyone plays games; or at least have played games, would play games. Just maybe not "gamer" games - they play Snake or Angry Birds on their telephones, cards or (ugh) Monopoly with their families, sports on the weekend, drinking games and darts at the pub, Paintball or Laser Strike for a birthday party, Farmville when their employer thinks they're working, World of Warcraft. I have plenty of friends who wouldn't be identified as "gamers", who would say they don't really play games, but will thrash me at Mario Kart any time. And I know plenty of Serious people who scorn VIDEOGAMES, but are always up for a Serious game like Chess, Bridge, Go - games that they feel good about playing because they have a cultural heritage and are recognised as more than an idle pastime.

It's largely a matter of choosing the right game and the right context. Board games are generally a better choice than videogames; they're low-pressure because of being turn-based (but without the overdose of complexity that turn-based videogames tend to throw in), and they tend to be familiar to people who played them as children but recognise their potential to be more than just a pursuit for children. There's an initial barrier with board games of having to learn some rules before starting play, this is balanced by the transparency of the rules once they're known.

Darren mentions games not being enjoyable because of the gap in skill levels; some games hold up better than others under this. A high level of randomness (typically where cards or dice feature prominently) can give less-skilled players a chance of winning, making them feel more comfortable playing - even when the more experienced player still wins most of the time. Mario Kart explicitly assists whoever is in the rear by giving them better powerups, Funkenschlag/Power Grid shifts the turn order, giving trailing players first picks and cheaper prices. Zero-sum games are off-putting because one player's gains are their opponent's losses; games where all players have a sense of "building up" even when they're behind create a better feeling for beginners, and when there's a score you can get a sense that you're improving at the game by getting a better score even if you lose. Darren suggested cooperative games, and this is a good idea - but a lot of cooperative board games actually suffer when there's a wide skill disparity because one player can tell everyone what to do. Team games work well; two against two, one against many, cooperative with hidden traitors, etc. And a lot of games for more than two players have a kind of implicit teamwork; if one player is much more experienced everyone else can gang up on them, if one player is less experienced they might be left alone, so these can be kind of self-balancing - but the feeling of being picked on can be unpleasant, so some care is required.

Theme is important for people unfamiliar with games. A lot of people are put off games with pictures of spaceships on them by association with a TV show they didn't like. Most modern board games have inoffensive vaguely-medieval farming settings which seem to go down quite well (there's something to be said there about the eagerness of office-working city-dwellers to embrace fantasies of a simpler life). Also everyone loves Lord of the Rings since the movies made it accessible to non-bookers, and there are a few decent LOTR games out there - including a cooperative one, hey!

Make sure to be gentle when introducing games to new players, clearly explaining what's going on. Nothing puts people off a game like letting them continue playing under an obvious misconception to your advantage, failing to remind them of an important rule until it's too late and then not letting them take back their move, or racing through actions with the bewildering speed of experience.

Here are some games I find pretty good to play with people who don't usually play games. This list is limited by my experience, others can probably make better suggestions. This isn't a list of my favourite games, but ones I think work well for a general audience.

Carcassonne. A pleasant agrarian setting, an intuitive tile-laying mechanic, rules that can be explained within a minute, a good balance between accessibility and depth, a comforting level of randomness, and a nice cooperative feeling of "we're building a castle together" with more than two players.

Apples to Apples. A party game, more about trying to make people laugh than about winning. Knowing the other players well and understanding how they think is an advantage. Also, Dixit.

Toepen. Simple card game based on bluffing, always goes down well.

Mafia/Werewolf. Needs a large-ish group, and only really works if everyone pays attention, not great in a noisy environment.

Dominion. Low interaction, generally little chance of catching up once someone gets ahead, but a very fun base mechanic and beginners have a decent chance of winning without playing any complex strategy. My first experience of this was poor but only because we were playing a variant: make sure to use the right number of victory cards for the number of players and absolutely don't play with more than the recommended number of players.

Shadows Over Camelot. Cooperative, but with a traitor. It's quite fun to get into role-playing as knights, I sometimes play under a vow of silence. There are deep design flaws that become apparent if you try to play it as a serious competitive game, but don't worry about them and just have fun with it.

Niagara. Quite random, simple, very appealing visually with the shiny gems, the rushing river, and the chunky board.

Mario Kart. Seriously.

If you have an iPad: Centrifeud and Tritritriobelisk.

For videogames, if you happen to be near London, take your friends to a Wild Rumpus - they're fantastic, we brought someone along to the last one who hadn't played a game in years and he loved it, highly recommended. Or browse the list of Wild Rumpus games - JS Joust, Recurse, Hokra, B.U.T.T.O.N.…

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Why local multiplayer?

I've spent a bit of time making local multiplayer games over the last year and a half, two-player ones specifically. I wanted to write something about why.

First: why multiplayer?

The way I play games is not focused on consumption; I don't care about playing every new thing that comes out, I prefer to play a small number of games in great depth. So I tend to gravitate towards games that are designed to be played repeatedly and to reward focused study (though it's possible to go deep on a game that wasn't explicitly designed for it - this is what speedrunning is all about). The majority of such games are [a] multiplayer or [b] roguelikes. Multiplayer games encourage repetition because they can be as difficult as your opponent, there can be scope to increase your skill indefinitely and a satisfying reason to do so, and because they allow for human forms of interaction that current algorithms are poor at. Roguelikes (and roguelikelikes) encourage repetition with randomly generated content, as well as typically having a lot of mechanical depth.

Since this is the way I like to play games, these are naturally the type of games I try to make. I especially love playing games as a social activity, sharing them with others. So: multiplayer.

I've attempted online multiplayer in the past, and it wasn't a very positive experience for me. I spent a lot of time debugging network code, tracking down obscure errors involving clients getting out of sync to the point where people were playing completely different games. (And honestly, I doubt I got them all.) And even without bugs, the way I chose to implement it turned out to not be very resilient to lag - I could have spent months reworking it to improve this but that really wouldn't have been a good use of my time. (I think there's a reason why most popular online multiplayer games are FPS and standard-RTS: with FPS it's not very consequential if players see each other in slightly different positions and discrepancies can be rectified continuously, and with RTS it doesn't matter if there's a small delay on inputs.) Possibly I could have saved myself some effort by using an appropriate library, or if I'd started out with any idea what I was doing, but there's still a lot of work involved. And then, well, not many people are willing to play some obscure indie game online anyway. It's much easier to play a popular mainstream game where you can easily find dozens of games running at any time of day.

I really don't want to go through that again. And I'd advise other independent developers to avoid it too; it's unlikely to be worth the effort.

There are a few alternatives to online multiplayer. Singleplayer. Asynchronous multiplayer - online but without the real-time requirement, so avoiding the twin spectres of lag and barren servers. And local multiplayer - either played on one computer, or board games.

So local multiplayer's great, you get interaction with human players without having to dabble in networking at all. In fact, it's about as simple as you can get technologically - even simpler than singleplayer, because human opponents provide the opposition there's little need for AI, procedural generation, or substantial content either. There's a good reason why many of the earliest videogames were multiplayer (SPACEWAR, Tennis for Two, Pong). Additionally, I find the face-to-face interaction of playing with someone who's there with me much more satisfying than online play.

But there's a downside to it, which is that very few people seem to play these kinds of games. With online multiplayer, it doesn't matter if potential players are spread out across the world (although as above, if there's not a critical mass they won't play anyway), but when it's local you need someone else to be right there to play with you. I've had a number of people tell me they liked Zaga-33, but didn't buy Glitch Tank because they'd have nobody to play with. (Glitch Tank really hasn't sold well at all, despite being a very good game.) In the comments on Rock Paper Shotgun's Cardboard Children column people often post that they'd love to play some of these board games but have nobody to play with. This honestly baffles me - I'm quite a hermit and yet I often play games with others, how is it that so many people are so isolated that they can't find someone to share a game with? It seems very sad. But maybe it's just that these games aren't an accepted part of culture; probably they do have friends who they see, but playing games is for them something that they each do alone in private and never something shared with others. This is perhaps even sadder. I hope that with more developers making local multiplayer games and events like the Wild Rumpus that local multiplayer videogames will gain acceptance (and not just for selfish reasons).

And why two players specifically? A couple of reasons. When you're all playing on one computer at the same time, it's just quite hard to fit many people in. I've played games that fit four people around one keyboard or ipad and they're great fun, but it does get pretty crowded. And also, the more players a game needs the harder it is to test. I'm living in the middle of nowhere and I'm not often in a situation where I could easily test a game that needs more than two players - but two works great, I play them with my wife. And the same problem will apply to others - just as requiring two players stops some people playing them, the more they require the less likely they are to be played. There are a lot of multiplayer concepts that don't really work with just 2 players though so I'm definitely going to try making games for more sometime.