The good kind of TOJam

I recently had the pleasure of participating in the Toronto Game Jame or “TOJam” for the first time. As described on their website, TOJam “is a FREE, annual, open-to-the-public event where the craziest game makers in the world gather for a 3 day game making binge”. And what a binge it was!

The game my team worked on for the jam is called “Grimistar”. It’s a funny and unconventional 2D space shooter game inspired by the venerable arcade game Sinistar and aims to turn standard shooter conventions on their head. I worked as both a programmer and a writer on this project and had a great time collaborating with teammates Rocco Commisso, Brian Wong, and George Kallika.

Grimistar is available to play for free here on the itch.io page (while you’re there, have a look at my new Ironic Iconic Studios itch.io page). Give it a try and let me know what you think. I hope you have as much fun playing it as we did making it!

uglyduckling

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My PC Gamer Interview – Extended Edition!

I was recently interviewed by Xalavier Nelson Jr. for an article in the May 2018 issue of PC Gamer magazine, as you may have heard already if you’ve been following me on Twitter and Facebook. (Hey look! I’m on the cover!) The article in question is titled “The evolving art of dialogue in games” and is pretty much what it says on the tin, coming from a number of indie game devs including yours truly. Definitely worth checking out if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of story-making for games.

Due to limited space on the physical page, they couldn’t include all of my ponderings on the subject, but Xalavier has graciously allowed me to publish them here for the curious. Enjoy!

How would you describe the function of a dialogue system for a player unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of making a game?  Do you see the role of a good dialogue system as being substantial in a game’s overall quality?

Dialogue systems, as you might guess, are systems developed to deliver dialogue to the player. Optimally, they would allow players to navigate conversations in a way that best communicates the story and characters in harmony with gameplay. Although they are primarily concerned with narrative, they can also serve as a device to help the player achieve gameplay goals as well. For example, convincing a guard to unlock a gate to the next level through persuasive dialogue.

A good dialogue system isn’t necessary to make a quality game, of course. There are plenty of games don’t use dialogue at all and are still considered great games. But for games that are narrative-focused and feature a lot of spoken interaction between characters, a good dialogue system is vital.

Why is it somewhat complex to simply put text into a game? How much does your workload increase when you’re attempting to display text in a pleasing or emotive arrangement?

The one thing that I’ve come to realize as a game designer is that dialogue text in a game tends to occupy a space somewhere in-between dialogue text in a novel and spoken words in a film or audio recording. And depending on your game, it may be closer to one side or the other. Your methods for displaying text will have to reflect where on the spectrum your particular game lands. If your game has the capability for showing varied and nuanced animations of your character’s expressions, you won’t have to worry as much about representing the non-verbal or subtle part of their responses in text. Though you should still consider it, especially if you want your game to appeal to the part of your audience that has difficulty interpreting visual cues such as the visually-impaired or those on the autism spectrum, for instance.

How do fonts tie into a ‘good’ dialogue system?

When it comes to fonts, I often find that you know you’ve got it right when the player doesn’t notice them. You have to pick something that feels natural amidst the rest of the design. If the player notices the font at all, it means that either you’ve picked something that annoys them or that they are font-aficionados. Unfortunately, it’s usually the first one.

What considerations do you balance for when you’re putting dialogue in your own games? How do you look at dialogue in terms of the overall work’s pacing?

A big consideration is screen size. You don’t want to jam a whole bunch of words on a small screen. Even if you dole out the dialogue in bite-sized chunks, it’ll still take forever for the player to read them all. Of course, the type of game would also make a difference. If you’re creating a work of interactive fiction, then lots of text can be what your audience is expecting. It often really comes down to managing the expectations of your audience. Personally, I tend to make games where (I hope) the audience is expecting a fair amount of dialogue text. Even then you need to be frugal with your words and treat them like a precious commodity.

I try to vary the style of the dialogue in my games based on the current situation in the game. For more relaxed conversations between characters that are familiar and friendly I tend to let the dialogue be looser and more jokey. For intense scenes between characters in conflict the lines tend to be shorter and more punctuated. When the player follows the main story arc I adopt a driving pace that increases as they get further to their goal. Side conversations may have a more relaxed pace to let the player feel like they can explore the environment. Of course, this all can go out the window in an “open world” environment where it’s hard to control the order that the player will do things, but you do the best you can to keep a feeling of flow from one event to another.

How much did you have to bend dialogue conventions to convey the unique choice and investigation mechanics of Mandatory Upgrade? Did you find any deviations from the norm in terms of interface difficult to teach to players?

With Mandatory Upgrade, I stuck fairly close to standard branching dialogue conventions, but I included a few things tailored to the style of investigative mystery games. I was fortunate to work with a game engine that was designed in part for mystery games. Story Stylus is an engine made by One More Story Games with mechanics in place to, among other things, allow for the unlocking of conversation topics as you speak to the various characters in the game and present those topics on a selectable list in the conversation window. Having a separate selectable topic list was a little unusual, although not without precedent in some point-and-click adventure games and RPGs (Wizardry 8 comes to mind). Fortunately, players were generally able to figure it out quickly so it didn’t become too much of an issue.

This is a huge topic with a loooot of potential ground to cover, but briefly: when you’re not only implementing dialogue, but CHOICE in a game, how does this work behind the scenes? What concerns are you balancing? How does allowing for choice in a game affect its scope or wider overall design? Is the technical cost to build and display effective decision-making interfaces significant?

I think player choice is one of the things that makes games so interesting and engaging as a medium. After the introduction in Mandatory Upgrade I tried to make the game as “open world” as possible, allowing the player to go wherever and talk to whoever they wanted. This meant that behind the scenes I had to keep track of several things: who they met, who they talked to, what clues they found, whether they found enough evidence to solve the case, that sort of thing. I also allowed for some choices in how they acted towards the characters they met. As the player, will you choose to be sympathetic to other characters or be a hard-ass to get the answers your looking for?

The main issue with giving plenty and varied choices to the player is the sheer amount of work that it takes to not only write the multiple branches of dialogue but to keep track of the player’s choices and provide meaningful consequences as a result of those choices. Not to mention the fact that if you want any new systems to interact significantly with existing systems, the complexity will also rise accordingly. I actually had to cut back on my original plans to allow the player to develop different potential relationships with different characters because the technical and creative costs would have added months of development time that I couldn’t afford. I’d love the opportunity to play around with those systems in the future.

Can you detail a time when your dialogue system broke down, or otherwise impeded other goals you had for a title? If so, how and why did this occur?

When working on Mandatory Upgrade I ran into a few small things with the dialogue system that gave me trouble implementing my design goals. One issue was that the topic conversations didn’t allow for different initial responses based on current conditions, for example having a different conversation around the “Weather” topic based on whether it was raining or snowing. The developers hadn’t thought of using topics in that way before but were happy to add that functionality to accommodate me, so it didn’t turn out to be an issue. One thing you learn in making games is that the user, be it game designer or player, is going to use your product in ways you don’t expect and can’t predict, so it pays to be flexible.

Can you detail a specific time when you used a choice or branching system to evoke a reaction in players? Did this attempt succeed?

At one point in Mandatory Upgrade, the player is faced with confronting another character that they hold in high esteem with information about something kind of seedy that they may have done. It’s an uncomfortable moment and one of the dialogue options I offer appears to let the player escape from the situation. It’s a false hope though. They don’t get off that easily and are forced to continue the awkward conversation.

My plan was to evoke a reaction in the player by subverting their expectation that the choice they picked would give them the result they wanted. I wanted them to realize that nothing was 100% guaranteed in the game and hopefully make them feel slightly uneasy about that. I haven’t received any feedback about that dialogue specifically, but I’m hopeful that it had the effect I was shooting for.

Mandatory Upgrade coming soon to PC & Mac.

I have some news I’ve been sitting on for a while now: I’ve been working on a Unity port of Mandatory Upgrade: X Marks the Spot! It’s a new version of my award-winning cyberpunk mystery game that you’ll soon be able to download and play on your very own computer. I don’t have a ton of details to give you yet, except that it will feature some updates to the design of the game and new artwork by yours truly. Indeed, you may have already noticed the sneak peek at the new art style that I’ve included at the top of this very post. I hope you like it!

Stay tuned for further announcements as I get more info to share.

Come see me at EGLX!

 

I’m delighted to say that I’ll be attending the Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo this weekend (March 9-11) as a guest! I’ll be speaking as a part of the Developing on a Dime panel running from 1-3 pm on Saturday, March 10th in Panel Room 1. Join me to learn tools and tactics for developing games on a minimal or non-existent budget, a subject about which I am intimately familiar. Also, watch this space as I’ll be posting a number of resources on my website afterwards to help you with your micro-budget game development needs. See you at EGLX!

A photo from November's WordPlay Festival

Looking Back and Looking Forward

2017 was an interesting year. Not interesting in the “may you live in interesting times” way entirely, although there were certainly a share of challenges during the year. One challenge that was a welcome one was the challenge of becoming familiar with my new home in Toronto and getting to know a city I haven’t had much contact with for twenty years. But instead of focusing on the challenges that 2017 had brought, I thought I’d focus on some of the highlights:

And all of that is just stuff I can talk about. There are also a few things brewing up behind the scenes that I hope to be able to talk more about soon. Unfortunately, this means that the “looking forward” part of this post is going to be a bit light in detail at the moment. Rest assured that more news will be forthcoming as 2018 progresses. You can definitely expect to see more news about Mandatory Upgrade related projects, and possibly something around a certain web-comic that remains near and dear to my heart. Oops! I may have said too much, ignore that. Regardless, 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Ironic Iconic Studios and I hope you’ll be joining me for the ride.

X Marks the Spot Wins First Place in Game of the Year Competition

 

In a great start to the new year, Ironic Iconic Studios’ first game, “Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot” has taken top honours at the 2nd annual TorontoGameDevs.com Game of the Year competition. Hundreds of people voted for their favourite game produced in Toronto and Southern Ontario and our game was fortunate enough to be voted #1 overall. This puts Mandatory Upgrade in the esteemed company of terrific games from other game devs such as DrinkBox Studios, Benjamin Rivers, and Ubisoft Toronto.

A game like this doesn’t just appear fully formed from the ether of the designer’s mind and so I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to the folks who helped make this happen. Firstly, my partners at One More Story Games who provided the platform to create and release great story-based games, StoryStylus. They also provided plenty of encouragement and technical support and were flexible enough to accommodate me when I started to use their game engine in strange and unexpected ways. I’d like to send props to Julia Harrison and Alistair Murphy, the artists who took my pages of descriptive text and reference material and whipped them up into a cohesive world with their gorgeous art. Also mad props to Steven G. Saunders (aka Mr Zoth and the Werespiders) who created the perfect musical accompaniment to the world of Mandatory Upgrade; a soundtrack that is evocative, moody, and fresh, all at the same time. Finally, I’d like to do a big shout-out to Pati Tozer, my editor and chief of QA who helped keep all of my mistakes in the dev room and out of the public eye, a service for which I am ever grateful.

One of the best things about contests like this is how easy it makes it to discover new games that you may not have heard of. I’ve definitely added more games to my ever-growing game queue as a result of this. And I hope that if you haven’t yet tried Mandatory Upgrade: X Marks the Spot then you may be inspired to do so now. You can play it via the One More Story Games Website.

Toronto Calling

As you may have noticed, things have been a little quiet around Ironic Iconic Studios of late. It turns out that there’s been a good reason for that, which I’m happy to share with you today: We’ve moved to Toronto!

When I founded Ironic Iconic Studios way back in 2003, we were one of the first game studios to exist in Victoria, British Columbia. Happily, over the years, the Victoria game dev community has grown steadily as more studios have opened their doors and more indie developers have thrown their lot in with this crazy, wonderful industry. I like to think that some of that growth was due in part to the efforts of myself and the other organizers of IGDA Victoria, the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) that grew out of the indie game dev group known as LevelUp Victoria. Regardless, I’m excited by the emergence of Victoria and the surrounding area as a game development centre.

The Victoria industry has grown by leaps and bounds and will continue to do so, I’m positive. But I feel like Ironic Iconic Studios has outgrown Victoria and is ready for bigger things, hence the move to Toronto. Toronto has a large and vibrant game dev scene and I can’t wait to be a part of it. I’ll definitely miss my friends and colleagues out west, but I’m excited to see what is in store for us in Ontario’s capital. I hope you’ll join me in finding out.

Cyberpunk Thriller “X Marks the Spot” First Premium Release for Story Worlds Platform

Premium game available on innovative new platform that brings story based games to the casual gamer.

March 9, 2016 – Victoria, BC, Canada – Ironic Iconic Studios’ first game, “Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot” is an exciting new story-based game that allows the player to assume the role of a government agent investigating a death by a suit of cybernetic armour run amok. Starting today, it’s available on Facebook and the web through the Story Worlds platform.

Story Worlds was devised by One More Story Games as a way to create narrative-focused storytelling games and deliver them to a wide audience through traditional casual game platforms, such as smartphones and tablets. Ironic Iconic Studios saw Story Worlds as the perfect venue to release X Marks the Spot as the game addresses both the rising demand for story-based games while being playable within a few hours time to reflect the trend towards shorter, more compact experiences.

You’re Rachel Varley, fresh out of re-entry training and eager to get back to work as a NASIA Agent. But before you get a chance to get your feet under you, you find yourself tasked with discovering how a fellow agent managed to get carved up by a mechanized SWAT suit. Sure, everyone at the West Harbour Complex seems happy to help out and answer your questions, but you can’t forget that one or more of them may have been involved in plotting someone’s death. At least you’re not alone, you’ve got your trusty drone Osprey and your Virtual Personal Assistant, the always sassy Brigid. Will you be able to get to the heart of the mystery and still manage to escape in one piece?

Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot is now available on the Story Worlds games portal, with a free demo version available prior to full game purchase ($3.99 CAD). Play it on Facebook and the One More Story Games website. For more information, please visit www.mandatoryupgrade.com/x-marks-the-spot.

About Ironic Iconic Studios

Ironic Iconic Studios has been making games since 2003 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Their clients include Harebrained Schemes, Tap Tap Tap, Paper Machete Games and GameHouse Canada. This is the launch of their first in-house game.

Direct Game Link: Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot

Stuff that has happened

There’s often a lot of things going on in my life, professional and otherwise. I really like being involved in a lot of things, which is no surprise to the people that know me really well, especially those who have seen me on the verge of insanity when attempting to do everything at once. I’ve fortunately been able to remain self aware enough lately to maintain a certain level of balance in my life while still getting up to the stuff I love to do. For example, I’ve managed to get some solid game design work done, speak at a few conventions, take care of my responsibilities with LevelUp – IGDA Victoria and still maintain a decent personal life. Mostly. But I don’t always think to take a moment to write about it. That’s right: I’m a bad blogger. I do tend to send the odd note to Facebook or Twitter or the like, so if you’re ever wondering what I’m up to on a regular basis, you could do worse than tune in to one of those. I do try to keep my portfolio and presentation pages up to date too, even if the blog looks like a barren wasteland.

One thing that I’d like to talk about is my recent PAX Prime 2014 Panel titled “You’re So Mature! Is Storytelling in Games Coming of Age?” It was a difficult subject to tackle, but fortunately my panellists were up for the challenge and I thank them for volunteering their time and brains. One of the cool things that came of it was that our panel was covered by journalist Derrik J Lang who wrote a very insightful article about it called “Game creators seek mature storytelling in games“. Most interestingly to me, he wrote it for the Associated Press, which means that it ended up getting picked up by various other media outlets throughout the world. I was able to watch as the story turned up on more and more media websites in North America such as the Calgary Herald, Fox Business, and Salon, and internationally as well from such diverse places as New Zealand, Taiwan and India. Not having personally encountered this before, as projects I’ve been involved with have not been covered by the traditional press, I found the process utterly fascinating. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunity to witness this again in the future.

GottaCon? Why Yes. Yes We Do.

So many colours!
So many colours! Double rainbow across the sky!

Just a quick note out that this weekend, from Feb 28th – March 2nd, I will be living large at GottaCon, Victoria’s premiere game convention. Not only will I be running an information booth for the LevelUp – IGDA Victoria group, but I’ll be participating in not one, but two video game themed panels. The first panel “Creating DIY Video Games – Indie Style!” is on Saturday at 10 am, and the second “Storytelling in Video Games: Telling Tales Around the Digital Campfire” will be on Sunday at 12:30 pm. Information on both can be found here.

GottaCon has been steadily growing over the past six years and this year it should be bigger and better than ever, with a new downtown venue and a lot more participation from the exploding local video game scene. Why not come and check it out? If you do, be sure to drop by the IGDA Victoria booth and say hi. And maybe even ask about the upcoming Video Game Start-Up Boot Camp while you’re at it. See you there!