Tuesday 27 November 2012


I was on Roguelike Radio recently, talking about game jams. I have a bit more to say on the topic.

I have a lot of ideas. Most of them are bad. Most of the bad ones I can throw away just by thinking about them for a minute, but that still leaves many I can't tell without trying them out. So this is one advantage of jamming: the quicker I can make a working prototype to test out an idea, the quicker I can throw away the ones that don't actually work and keep the good ones. And the more games I make, the more ideas I have and the higher a proportion are good, so it becomes increasingly important to work quickly.

Glitch Tank is the best thing I've made. I made it in half a day. I'd made another game already that morning. It took a few more weeks to polish and debug it, get it tuned perfectly - and some sporadic updates over the next year improving it further - but I had the core game playable in just a few hours. Zaga-33 and VESPER.5 are the games I'm best known for, that have gotten me the most attention (and attention is a valuable currency for a lone game developer). Each of them was made in a week (with a few extra weeks on Zaga-33 porting it to iOS and polishing the final version).

Couple of years ago Chris Hecker ranted about "please finish your game". He criticised the shallowness of game jams; ideas being dealt with quickly rather than explored in depth. Hecker and Jonathan Blow are partially responsible for the prominence of game jams in the first place, but they seem concerned that jams are not fulfilling the particular role they had in mind for them: prototyping new ideas and "pushing game design forward". There's a different role that jams have taken on - a community spirit, a welcoming atmosphere for newbies - but Blow contends that this environment has become unhealthy for experienced developers.

They're missing a few things.

First, I think they're making a fundamental error of measurement. Lists of games released are misleading. Large games take disproportionately more time to make than small ones, so a disproportionate number of small games released does not imply a disproportionate amount of time and effort spent on them. Most people making quick jam games have "main projects" they're working on, and giving the attention they deserve. We don't have enough time in our lives to work on every good idea we have for a couple of years.

Second, there's the aesthetic virtue of things made quickly. Jackson Pollock's "action paintings". This relates somewhat to my previous post.

Third, making a monolithic game is not the only way to explore an idea in depth. Hecker's prescribed cure for the shallowness of jams was to rent a beach house for a few days to work on long-term projects, and still not finish them. That's not a depth jam. Kompendium was a depth jam: I spent a couple of months making a game every day or two, digging deep into a focused set of ideas, mostly not finishing my games and throwing them away. My life is a depth jam: I come back to the same ideas over and over again, understanding them better with each game I make. So is Stephen Lavelle's series of Sokoban-inspired puzzle games; they climax in English Country tune but he still hasn't shaken the obssession. Bennett Foddy's endless fascination with physics simulations. Reiner Knizia's study of auctions. Hecker's dismissal of jam games treats them as though they're isolated barely-considered throwaway things; this is a strawman, practitioners like Sos Sosowski and these others have developed a consistent ethos around it.

Making things quickly is not an easy task, it takes practise. As I said in the podcast, I was initially completely baffled at how people could make games so quickly, but now it's something I've learnt to do myself. To quote Franz Kline: "spontaneity is practiced". Hecker mentioned Cactus, who is well known for making lots of games quickly, and more recently Hotline Miami - perhaps having taking the rant to heart and working on something larger. I don't think he'd be the artist he is today and have been able to make Hotline Miami what it is without having spend so much time jamming deeply. I always come back to this apocryphal story about a pottery class, comparing striving for perfection in a single piece against improving yourself by producing a substantial body of work.

I don't dismiss the value of working on large projects. The ideal approach for me is a balance between short- and long-term. Some games do just end up needing more time, especially ones that are content-heavy. Some games can be made into something more profitable by spending more time on them, and we need to generate an income somehow; but let's not make the error of conflating how much money something makes with quality. (Hecker brought up the example of Braid, and I disagree: it has some good ideas in it, but spending years polishing it to maximise its commercial potential is the single least artistically interesting thing Blow could have done. I'd rather see the dozen other games he could have made in the same period.) Also, not every game is financially worth spending more time on - even if it's interesting and deep; the sad truth is that many games don't pay for the time spent on them, and spending longer on one thing just creates a higher concentration of risk, especially when you're exploring weird ideas on the fringe.

What's the "normal" rate to do art at anyway? Videogames are an anomaly with multi-year projects being typical; a novelist writes about one book a year (plus a few short stories), a painter produces dozens of paintings a year, a musician records an album of a dozen songs every year or two. I haven't found multi-year projects to be the healthiest approach myself, regularly releasing smaller things is much more productive and satisfying - maybe several pieces a year is the "right" approach to art in general (if there could be such a thing).

Thursday 22 November 2012


A young artist's work looks different to that made by someone older. I consider this maturity a neutral quality; not better or worse. In many ways mature work is superior; someone who has honed their craft and observed human nature over many years creates with a deep understanding of what they're doing, knowing how to apply conventions perfectly and when to break them to achieve the exact effect they're aiming for - not just for the sake of it. But youthful work has its own value, the energy of exuberant joyful ambition and experimentation, discovering ideas for the first time and getting excited about them in a way that a jaded older person can't anymore, still believing they can change the world. Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash isn't clearly 'better' or 'worse' than Anathem, but it's much more energetic. Split Enz's Time and Tide isn't 'better' than Mental Notes - although it is easier to listen to.

As an artist I don't think maturity is an important consideration; it's not a decision for a piece to be more or less mature, the type of thing you make naturally changes as you age. But as an audience, it's valuable to recognise the merits of both youth and maturity. And as an industry, it's important to support both - for if young artists are not supported, there will be a dearth of mature ones in years to come.

Videogames are a mature medium, and over-focused on maturity. Young men (it is mostly men) sacrifice their careers for the visions of old men (again, mostly men), rather than creating things of their own. (The old men usually design games for young men, leading other old men to complain that games are immature; they're not: they're using their mature powers of expression to make things for a younger audience. This is not a problem in itself, it's perfectly possible to make things for an audience you are not yourself part of, as long as you don't condescend.)

The days of the arcade, where every second game was new and strange and different, are long past. (The rest were clones, but never mind those.) That cacophony of ideas has been replaced by fixed genres, mostly the fully consolidated FPSRPG - a powerfully mature setting for a certain kind of interaction and storytelling, but a very limited thing to be the main thrust of our medium.

Fortunately "indie" is a thing - although, most of the reason it's recognised as such is because of old men quitting large studios to strike out on their own, and approaching it with a mature attitude. The most highly praised "indies" are mature developers producing polished work on a strong foundation. That's okay, it's okay to respect them, to appreciate their work, to raise them up; they do good things. But it's the wild experimentation of youth that created that foundation they're building on. The genres that seem inevitable today were once new ideas indistinguishable from the froth of other exciting ideas around them, and new things that don't fit into the genres are still out there to find if we look (and it's not hard to find, I see a lot of low-hanging fruit out there).

There's the money issue; it takes time to make ambitious games and so often you'll need money up front to live on while developing something. Publishers have been derided for their tendency towards caution, choosing only to make reliable investments in mature developers working in mature genres, avoiding youthful experimentation. But crowdfunding has changed little; old men easily summon up silly money at the drop of a hat to make more of the same - even though they have enough in the bank already - while deserving young artists struggle to get by.

I feel (and this is an awkward and probably controversial statement that I'm not entirely certain about) that in general players of videogames lack appreciation for young work. Mature work is appreciated, and that's good. But the value of outsider art made by someone with no knowledge of conventions (Darius Kazemi has written about "outsider games"), or of ambitious but flawed work by brilliant young artists reaching beyond their abilities, I feel that these are not understood. I feel like this is not the case in other media, that energetic amateur music is appreciated (Brendan Caldwell made an analogy between games and punk rock in a series at RockPaperShotgun), that primitivism and abstract expressionism brought a good understanding of this value to the world of visual art, etcetera.

And this is a problem; we have a community that fails to appreciate the youthful work that's being done, that fails to fund young artists, and that pressures young artists into aping mature work rather than honestly expressing themselves, ultimately limiting the depth and variety of what gets made.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Super Hexagon

When I first played Super Hexagon, a couple of months before it was released, I didn't like it at all. Yesterday I completed it, in the lesser sense (60 seconds on the first three difficulty settings - I have yet to master the Hyper modes).

Unlike most other media, games demand a response. It's possible to consume music, movies, books, etc. purely as a one-way action; we take them as input and no output is required. Output can be given - we can sing, dance, play music, we can dwell on the meaning of a novel and let it change us - but these are optional; we're not playing a game at all if we don't act. This gives games the potential for stronger mind-altering properties than other media; they force us to contort our brain into new shapes to play them, to reprogram ourselves to be able to give the responses they require. Anything we learn and do alters our minds, but games seem an unusually efficient way of installing new and unusual software onto our grey matter.

Usually you can start playing a game using skills you already have, but to play a good game well requires developing new software. Strategy games piggyback on logical reasoning, a conscious mode of thought, but to play well we enter a state of computation that is not entirely conscious: a beginner at Chess can play passably by simply working out the consequences of each possible move, but an expert evaluates the board with a post-rational mindset, synthesising conscious thought with strange powers of pattern recognition earned through long study. Action games force us into new modes of thought more efficiently because they require responses within limited time; they don't give the option to consciously evaluate all possible moves. (This is why I say that Glitch Tank's real-time mode is superior to turn-based.) Games can be a tool for entering new and alien states of consciousness - but unlike drugs, they operate purely at a software level, using controlled input channels.

Super Hexagon tests the limits of human reflexes and execution, it requires developing the ability to act faster than you would have thought humanly possible. It's most satisfying when you're playing right at your limit, or pushing just a little bit past it. At first it was too far beyond my skill level for me to enjoy it; it was just frustrating. I pushed through this out of respect for Terry; I played it occasionally over several months and eventually got through that barrier, but it wasn't pleasant. I respect the decision to keep the difficulty level uncompromisingly high; an "easy" level would be pointless; but something slightly lower might have made it less painful for me to get into. Or maybe not - just as running or playing the guitar hurts at first, perhaps initial training in such an extreme high-speed action game is unavoidably a struggle.

As you improve at the game, your perception of time changes. Patterns that seemed too fast to possibly respond to slow down and become reasonable, you have time to see the gaps and to move into them. You reach a point where Hexagon mode actually starts to feel slow. Then later you realise that Hexagoner is actually easier than Hexagon; the patterns are longer, so there are fewer of them and you can see further ahead, you can last longer just through muscle memory; and that starts to feel slow too. You begin to ascribe meanings, characters to the patterns, seeing some as friends and some as enemies. You lose consciousness, your brain fully occupied running the software needed to play - then suddenly you regain it, transcending it, able to think and talk while your thumbs keep on playing without needing your attention. You perceive the gaps between thoughts, your consciousness running faster than them. You start to feel that Hexagonest is actually easier than the other two because in those you now have to consciously delay before acting, slow your reflexes down, avoid getting distracted in the long gaps. And then when you finally do complete it, it's almost a let down - it's become so slow as to be unchallenging, and now the Hyper modes are what's interesting. This is Super Hexagon's payload, the new mode of thought it forces you into, the super-power it grants you: accelerated time sense.

Hexagon rides the line between reflexive action and pattern memorisation. Often it falls too far toward the second for my taste; learning arbitrary patterns frustrates me, my initial reaction was that it was a waste of time. But it leavens it somewhat by giving an extremely short delay to get back into the action (a characteristic of many of Terry's games), by randomising patterns to produce varied situations rather than a strictly learnable sequence all the way through, and by obfuscating the patterns through its weirdly spinning viewpoint. So it suffers less from this than bullet-hell shooters do. Still, at its heart the gameplay is a simple call-and-response. It feels like a weakness that it ends up so dependent on memorisation, with no complex decision-making, no long-term consequences other than survival. But it is what it is, and maybe it couldn't have achieved its goals of pushing reaction time so far in a relatively accessible way had it demanded a less simple computation to be performed.

Friday 9 November 2012


Warning: contains spoilers for O.

Giving menu options in a game feels like an admission of failure. The creator couldn't find the correct settings themselves and had to leave it to the players to fix it. You couldn't decide on the best controls, so you left some possibilities to choose between. You couldn't make good enough music, so you left an option to disable it. Some things are unavoidable though. Accessibility options are a very good thing; enabling subtitles or whatever (but it's more elegant to cater for colourblindness by distinguishing things through shape than by having a separate mode). But most of the essentials (volume control, graphics settings) are handled by the hardware or operating system; not my problem. (It's nice to support mods, but that's something different; allowing your game to be used as a frame to build other games on top of.)

You often end up needing to make some concessions for people learning to play - easier difficulty levels to learn on, harder ones to satisfy Terry's craving for rapid defeat. I love the elegance of Ziggurat's single mode, but I know the gradual start puts many players off.  In Glitch Tank, I ended up adding the 6hp mode after having played it a lot; it's better for advanced players, but way too slow for beginners. In Helix, I've ended up having to add separate difficulty modes.

In a multiplayer game, I feel it's often an error to include an option to play against AI. The way an AI opponent works is just so unlike to how a human plays that it makes for a very different experience - an AI has an advantage over humans from its essentially instant reaction speed, but a disadvantage from its lack of conscious reasoning. Plus the experience of learning alongside an opponent is something I value and (so far) AI opponents can't offer that. I suspect Glitch Tank suffered from this: while I've enjoyed playing against the AI, it's vastly inferior to playing against another human. It's pretty likely that the first time someone plays will be against the AI, because they've just downloaded it and not found someone to play with yet, so they'll get a suboptimal initial experience. And maybe they'll judge it by that, find it unworthy, and never end up playing two-player. In future, if a game is intended to be multiplayer, I'll try to leave it at that - it won't be accessible to people who "don't have friends" to play with, but I see that as a smaller loss than people who would otherwise play it with friends not doing so.

Again with Glitch Tank, I'm not sure whether I was correct to include the turn-based mode. I've said before that I'm glad I included it because some people vastly prefer it, but now I'm not sure. Has it given anyone a worse experience of the game?  It seems like a lot of players find the real-time mode alien at first, then switch to turn-based and are far more comfortable with it. It's much more common to see card mechanics and grid-based movement in a turn-based game, so this is a more familiar experience. And then if they never switch back to real-time they're missing out; it's a much more interesting game, partially because of it being a less familiar approach. It was an intentional choice not to save Glitch Tank's options, resetting to two-player real-time each time it's run, giving a constant subtle reminder of how the game is best played.

O has just one mode, and for some that counts against it. But that one mode is bloody good, and omitting options adds to the overall pure minimalist aesthetic.  I see it as a sport, and sports don't come with a menu (although they can be modded: hence the inclusion of the Secret Options Menu and implicit support for one-handed/one-fingered/left-handed/non-contact play). To be clear: I'm not complaining about that review; I'm happy they wrote about the game, he's just writing for a particular audience which I'm not part of.

The Secret Options Menu lets you change physical properties of the balls (friction, bounciness, speed), scoring (target, chain bonus), how fast balls appear, etc. When I've told people about it at the start, I've felt it's hurt their enjoyment. Rather than exploring it and discovering less-obvious tactics, they quickly set about trying to 'fix' it: like many of my games it takes some figuring out so the initial experience has an element of bafflement.  I think it's entertaining to try out variations, to mod it, but it's better to understand the game well first. I spent a lot of time tuning these variables to find good settings; random values you choose are likely to be worse. This feeds into the idea of "the paradox of choice" (via Electron Dance) - giving people options can make them less happy, even though it's something we say we want and make use of when it's there.

Mm, I don't really have a conclusion here. It's good to have options sometimes, for advanced players, for modding, for accessibility. But you should take care with them, try to get things right in the first place rather than leaving them as options, and try to prevent the availability of options diminishing players' experiences of a game.