Boston Indies is a local game development group, founded by Scott Macmillan as an offshoot of the larger (and more corporate) Boston PostMortem meetup. I’ve been proud to be associated with the Indies group, and was excited when Darren Torpey asked if I would be available to help them with a site design. Managing editor Jonathan Myers has brought in a lot of good content to the site so my design was pitched to take a backseat to the articles themselves, giving just enough structure and consistency to let the content shine. Check out the new, cleaner look of Boston Indies here.
This is my tower. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
I have spent way too much time this weekend playing tiny tower. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my holiday—just that, every fleeting moment I could snag between grilling, family events and fireworks, I would dash to my phone to restock my tiny businesses.
As time-wasters go, Tiny Tower has a leg up on the competition. The writing is clever (and delightfully referential), and the pixel art feels fresh in a market over-saturated in nostalgia. The art’s strength is in abstraction of the familiar: an Apple Store, a wood-grilled pizza parlor, and a brewery are all represented, each row no more than about 50 pixels tall. With a nod to its social-game ancestors, Tiny Tower even abstracts Facebook: your ‘bitizens’ will post status updates about their jobs, favorite pop-culture quotes, or speculations on 8-bit existence. Sam Cooper, one of my “Mapple Store” genius bar associates (complete with blue polo—you can customize each character’s outfits) muses, “If we were thinking with portals then we wouldn’t need these elevators!”
If you’re not familiar with the video game Slam Bolt Scrappers, I strongly suggest you go check it out at Fire Hose Games’ site. I have worked with Fire Hose several times in the past, most recently this winter to design and launch their new website, and they are great folks. More importantly, the game is a lot of fun! It’s a mashup of sorts, combining elements of Super Smash Bro’s, Tetris and several other games—that may sound weird, but it works. I’ve yet to win a match, but this weekend at PAX East I will be challenging ‘Fire Chief’ Eitan Glinert to a rematch from last year’s PAX, where I suffered a crushing defeat!
My first game jam experience was last year’s Global Game Jam, and I’m happy to announce that one year out I did it again! I’ve gone to a number of smaller jams over the past year, and was much more confidant that I knew what I was getting into this time around.
One of the achievements this year was to build a game using aggregated data. After Friday’s video keynote and kickoff meeting, the first idea I pitched was a trading card game where the deck is built from the list of people you follow on twitter. While that game didn’t gain enough traction to win a team, other jammers did grab on to the idea of twitter integration. My friend Ryan came up with a pitch of his own, and a platformer originally pitched as TwitAssassin came to life as @TwitApocalypse!
TwitApocalypse has a pretty silly premise: You are the grim reaper, and you have overslept the end of the world. Upon waking, you must use twitter to find and eliminate the survivors. Based on the idea of culling the people you don’t care about from your twitter list, the goal of the game is to traverse a platformer level and gruesomely destroy your friends. The game tracks who has tweeted most recently, and gives you a ‘Kill List’ of recent tweeters—These are your priority targets, and you get a bonus for taking them out. Killing somebody not on your list results in a penalty.
We had an awesome group of people working on this project: Ryan Kahn, Darius Kazemi and Imran Malek handled the programming; Shervin Ghaemmaghami served as our voice actor and narrative designer; Vytenis Krukonis and I took care of the art; and audio genius Akash Thakkar came on mid-Saturday to help us with sound and music. It was a great group, and I hope to continue working with this team on future projects.
Just as last year gave me an opportunity to stretch my musical skills, this game jam saw me doing my first ever pixel art animations. While previous projects had involved some pixel art, I’d never tackled anything as complex as our grim reaper player character. Despite my lack of experience I am extremely happy with how it turned out, and I will post an animation demo of the character soon. In the meantime, you can check out some of @Death’s poses there to the left.
I’m spending the bulk of this weekend at the HTML5 Tools Jam organized by my friends Darren & Darius of Boston Game Jams. I am working towards adding parallaxing background support to the ALES level editor for the Akihabara HTML5 game engine. I have the benefit of direct access to the creators of ALES, the aforementioned Darren Torpey & Darius Kazemi, but my first goal didn’t even involve Akihabara: I just wanted to see if there was a way to use CSS3′s support for multiple backgrounds to create a parallax effect within a div. As you can see above (if you’re using Chrome, Safari or Opera), it does!
The easy part done, I am looking forward to diving into ALES. It’s doubtful I will be able to get full two-dimensional parallax motion ready by the end of the weekend due to other commitments, but many other people here are also working on ALES and I’m looking forward to seeing where the platform goes. (I recommend taking a look at Ryan Kahn’s Akihabara plugins system as an example of awesome recent developments.)
I log more hours on my iPhone these days than on any other gaming device—the games are great, and it’s always with me when I have downtime. Despite all that, there are some things about iPhone games that drive me up a wall. In lieu of a list of top games or some such, here are five best-practice suggestions for iPhone games in 2011.
For god’s sake, don’t reset to my last save when I get a call! The iPhone is a phone, guys, not a dedicated device: your users are always going to be multitasking. Punishing them for it is just mean. Offender of choice: GTA: Chinatown Wars. I should not have to engage airplane mode to play this game safely.
Let me control the volume. I think Steambirds was the first offender I noticed here. If your game is going to let me play my own music in the background, please give me a volume control option for your SFX so I can level the sounds appropriately.
Social Media integration.Canabalt did it well: Give people a very transparent, lightweight way share their scores on twitter. Other games were not so graceful. If I have purchased the game as a stand-alone app, I would prefer it not require me to log into (or worse, create a new) social media account in order to play. I’m looking at you, Rolando. Fix it.
Game Center. This isn’t a strike against developers so much as Apple itself. Why is it so hard to use, and so comparatively useless? Did you forget everything you knew about UI all at once? You’re dominating the market, but you need to get ahead of the XBox Live integration on the Windows Phone.
Tilt controls. They can be intuitive and smooth, but they can also suck. i Love Katamari would have won my instant affection with an option for virtual joysticks—instead, it made me tilt my phone at increasingly extreme angles until I began to feel motion sick. Make them optional, or make your calibration freaking rock. There is no middle ground.
The first point is the kicker. Resume functionality is essential, or we’ll never get past quick-hit casual games on the platform: just because you’re gaming to kill time while you wait for an appointment doesn’t mean you want to lose that time when you have to take a call. I consider it game-breaking to lose progress for any reason out of my control, and I hope that developers (especially those porting games from dedicated hardware) start releasing patches to support the save/resume functionality on display in all the best iPhone games.
The good news? It is possible to patch games, and iTunes makes the process pretty darn easy. Retina display updates, Game Center integration, and control refinements can (and are!) regularly added to older titles, even a year or more after release. It’s encouraging to see developers begin to step away from the fire-and-forget mentality that used to rule the app store. As a gamer I am very glad to have an iDevice, and I am excited to see what the next year brings to the platform
I achieved 100% completion in Red Dead Redemption in just over 43 hours, and nothing else I’ve played this year has come close to equalling that gaming experience. I normally avoid 100% completion—I would like to think I have better things to do, and I believe my friends and family tend to agree. In this case, however, the experience was enjoyable, motivated, and most importantly the tasks made sense within the gameworld. One of my complaints about Grand Theft Auto IV‘s completion stats is that there are many things in that game that I do not believe Niko would normally do—the online dating side-missions in particular run at odds with the Kate McReary subplot. That was not the case in RDR.
I made it to Mexico last night. I could write some thoughts here, but look, Chris Dahlen did it for me. He has written an interesting piece about the cynicism of RDR’s storyline within the constraints of a world that was designed to be “badass.”
Red Dead Redemption was the most exciting game I didn’t get to play at PAX East. I’d barely heard of it prior to the convention, and I certainly wasn’t going to wait in that line to try a brief demo, but I left PAX craving old western films and quietly counting down the days until the game’s release.
Now that the game is finally out, I am having a blast. After some initial issues with the horse controls the game quickly dragged me in, and hasn’t let me go. In fact, the only reason I’m writing about it and not playing it right now is that I’m once again stuck on a bus. I haven’t progressed very far in the story due to work obligations, but the writing is solid, and after two years of Grand Theft Auto 4 the thing that most surprised me was how likable I found the characters. The world generally holds together, and the sheer variety of events and emergent situations I’ve encountered in the first few hours of play boggles my mind. Unfortunately, at this point in the game a few narrative elements are still bothering me, and the game’s Western setting prevents me from brushing these minor flaws away.
There have been many posts written by people searching for the “Citizen Kane” of video games, some masterpiece that will bring artistic acceptance* to the entire medium. There have been many responses, from the knee-jerk to the articulate, but Sean Sands has finally written a response that I can agree with. In So Long Orson Wells, Sands says, “I didn’t really want to play the Mona Lisa anyway. I have a better question – Where is video gaming’s Chess?” (emphasis added)
However engaging a movie or a painting can be, it doesn’t depend on interaction. Though Sands defends himself from accusations of Chess snobbery, it is reasonably accepted that Chess is one of the most perfect games ever invented. A child can learn it, but a lifetime can be spent in search of mastery—no video game is so finely balanced. Chess is the standard to which games should be held, not a narrative, cinematic experience like “Citizen Kane.” I don’t mean to fall into the Narratology vs Ludology war, I just believe we should celebrate games for those elements that make them unique—and which make them last.