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.

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.

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

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!

A Blast From The Past – BioWare Interview From 2006

Option 2 may not be the most considerate choice.
Option 2 may not be the most considerate choice.

I was poking around through my files when I came across this: an interview that I gave as part of winning the 2006 BioWare writing contest. I entered my Neverwinter Nights module “Walking With The Ghost” into the contest and managed to get 2nd place in the popular voting category. I’m still pretty happy with the resulting module and very honoured about winning. Unfortunately, most of the projects I mention in the interview never saw the light of day, but, as you can see from the rest of this site, it never stopped me from continuing to create.

The original has disappeared from the BioWare website, but you can see it via the Wayback Machine here. And if you happen to have a copy of Neverwinter Nights, you can grab the module for free in the Neverwinter Vault and try it yourself. Enjoy!

Walking with a Ghost by Chris Tihor

Interview by Jay Watamaniuk

Where can fans grab your module Walking with a Ghost?

Freely available at Neverwinter Vault.

You have labeled this as a ‘contest’ version of your module. Is this part of a larger story?

That’s the plan, when I can find the time to do it (see below). While working on Walking with the Ghost, I found that a number of the ideas that came out of it struck me as worthy of looking into further. Specifically, the idea of having Nym as a companion and what it would mean given her unique qualities. That, and the idea of building upon the main character’s history, allowing the player to discover over time certain things about their heritage and the local history, how they tie together, and what their reaction is to uncovering this knowledge.

How did you get started in making modules?

By entering this contest. I had never gotten around to making a module before this one as most of my spare time had been taken up with other projects. I had always been meaning to work with the Aurora toolset, but I had never had a good enough excuse to devote some time to playing with it seriously until now. I work as a software developer and I have been working on developing a couple games of my own, on the side, over the past while, so this tends to eat up most of the free time that I have.

What writing project would you love the most to complete?

Hmmm…I would have to say my current writing project: a comic book series I am collaborating on with artist Myke Allen called Spiketown. It’s a collection of stories about the various people who live in, around, and under a bustling technological metropolis in a strange but familiar world. Spiketown tells of the lives of regular people living in extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary people trying to live a normal life. Spiketown will also set the scene for a future series we’re planning, tentatively titled Epoch. It’s an epic story of angels, androids, and apocalypse. There’s a good chance that there may also be additional things starting with ‘A’.

Sweet Validation (And I Don’t Mean Parking)

I was reading over an excellent interview on Gamasutra with game designer Chris Avellone (he of Fallout 2, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment fame), when one particular question caught my eye:

“What about in terms of the differences between narrative in film or books, versus narrative in games? It seems like there’s some key differences that a lot of games don’t really seem to pick up on.

CA: I think that people [in the industry] are appreciating scriptwriting talents more, especially as games become more voice-acted and cinematic. I [think that for] anyone pursuing narrative design, scriptwriting is the best way to hone your craft, because it’s a lot of what you’re going to be doing. It teaches you all the brevity; using the environment to communicate a situation, as opposed to just the flat-line vomit of text, like Torment had. Which we had to do at the time, but that’s more of a novelistic approach to writing, which isn’t necessarily the best fit for games.

Also I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games, just because you have to think so visually about what’s happening in the environment. I really enjoy writing comics. For Star Wars [Knights of the Old Republic II], for example, I found myself thinking about the process a lot differently. About how the shot was framed, what was being shown, and how that reinforced what the characters were saying and [their interactions].”

Those of you who have seen my talk, Rummaging in the Geek Culture Toolbox, may have noticed that I made some of the same points in that presentation, particularly in the section on writing for comic books. I’d like to take this opportunity to say: it’s a pretty great feeling to see your theories confirmed by an industry professional whose work you respect and admire.

Walking on clouds will now commence for the foreseeable future.

Video or it never happened

I discovered today that Casual Connect Seattle have now posted the video recording of my talk for the 2012 IGDA Summit along with a whole bunch of other talks from that same conference. The fact that I mention this means that I have watched the video and wasn’t horribly embarrassed by seeing myself in it. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to want to share it with you. You can find it here.

Besides watching the talk and the excellent discussion afterwards with Wendy Despain and Richard Dansky, I spent a good deal of time watching other presentations that I had attended and also ones that I had missed for one reason or another during the conference.  I particularly enjoyed watching Luke Dicken’s Skynet and You: Game AI for the Uninitiated and Brandii Grace’s Design Secrets Revealed! How to Attract a Wider Female Audience. You can find the complete list of videos here on Casual Connect’s Youtube IGDA Summit List. Check it out and let me know which are your favourite talks.

My Turn-Based Strategy Reading Game

Like many writers, I’m a fairly avid reader. I also never seem to have as much time to read as I would like. So I’ll often just pick up a book for 15-20 minutes here and there when I get a chance. This means that I tend to leave a number of books lying around the house, strategically placed in locations that I habitually stop to relax in. I also tend to have many books on the go at once, partly because of the strategic placement mentioned earlier and partly because I have a variety of interests as so a variety of books that cover those interests. Here’s a short list of books which I currently have in some state between not read and not finished.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

– One of his early Discworld stories for younger readers about a talking cat, some intelligent rats, a “stupid-looking kid” and their scheme to con villagers out of money. Personally, I don’t see much difference between these books and his adult oriented material except that the protagonists tend to be younger. The writing style is pretty much the same. I adore Terry Pratchett and usually bring one of his books along on a long voyage.

Access All Areas: A User’s Guide to the Art of Urban Exploration by Ninjalicious

– A practical guide to Urban Exploration i.e. going places you’re not supposed to. The author’s approach is light-hearted and informative which makes it an enjoyable read, and he encourages being respectful to the places you visit. I probably won’t be trying much of this myself, but it’s a good resource for researching modern stealth techniques.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames edited by Chris Bateman and

Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing edited by Wendy Despain

– Two books that I keep coming back to. Great reference material for your game writing needs. I’ll pick one up to look up something specific or read a random chapter to keep things fresh in my mind.

Encyclopedia of Secret Signs and Symbols by Adele Nozedar

– A guide to the symbols used by ancient and modern people and the meanings ascribed to them. Fascinating reading and useful when creating symbolic systems to use in your own creative work.

Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

– The  story of a white kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. I like the other books I’ve read by Lethem, particularly Gun, with Occasional Music, but I find this one to be a bit slow going. It’s beautifully written, but so far I find it to be a bit too heavy and depressing for my tastes. I haven’t given up yet, though.