Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Finding Reference Art and Addressing Annoying Infrastructure

In last week’s report, I was still taking my high level ideas and concepts for my yet-revealed Freshly Squeezed Entertainment project and trying to make them more specific and implementable.

Since then I have enough to start actual work.

Sprint 3: Pre-production and initialization

Planned and incomplete:

  • Finish initial design document
  • Create save file
  • Create player character
  • Create [redacted] environment layout

Ok, to start with, obviously I didn’t get anything finished.

That said, I did spend much of the beginning of the week looking up references to help inform the art style for this project, both for the characters and the environments they spend their time in. It was also informative to read some background on some of these environments, and while I think it will ultimately help me create a better world, I also worry that there was still too much absorbing input and not enough creating output.

I spent time learning about the pitfalls of games that this project is likely to be compared to, especially when it comes to how those games and the companies that made them handled things like race and inclusion. More on that topic another day.

And I started to work on creating the initial save file, since persistence is going to be a very key part of the game from the beginning.

Unfortunately, I got slightly sidetracked. Since the code is my own, there is a bit of infrastructure related to how I handled menu-related things that is quite clunky. It is old code related to my understanding of the IMGUI concept, and it has been bothering me for a few projects now, and I finally decided to address it. EDIT: I realized that my attempt to address this clunkiness wasn’t well thought out and so I ended up reverting my changes. Ah, well.

Otherwise, I’ve been creating doodles of the environment and of potential characters, and I think I’ve got a good idea of what at least one of the characters in the game will look like.

So it has been a weirdly fruitful week while simultaneously feeling unproductive. I knew I had put too much on my plate when I started the week, at least if I expected to finish it all, and I’ve done this a lot.

On the one hand, when it comes to planning the week, I should plan what I can get done by the end of the week. I should have planned less.

On the other hand, I think what I captured in this list is a chunk of work that I want to get done together. It is less of a set of goals for the week as a set of goals for an initial playable milestone.

So, another clunky thing is that the way I handle project plans is a bit clunky, at least when it comes to how I actually try to manage the project. I should either plan less for a week, or I should find a better way to identify these collections of work for a given milestone.

Anyway, I apologize if this kind of background information is not interesting to you, but if you do like it, then you’re welcome!

For now, know that I have started coding for this project in earnest, and I am looking forward to being able to share more about this second Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game.

Remember, sign up for the GBGames Curiosities Newsletter below if you want to be the first to see what I’m working on.

Thanks for reading!

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: More Detailed Designing and Planning

In my first progress report for my second Freshly Squeezed Entertainment project, I was a bit enigmatic about what I’m starting to create. My goal for the last week was to take a lot of my high level concepts and make them more concrete, tangible, and real enough to implement.

Sprint 2: Pre-production and initialization

Planned and incomplete:

  • Finish initial design document

Last week I said that this game was going to be a 2D, 1st-person, non-violent, family-friendly game focused on mystery, exploration, and personalities intersecting. It will be available on mobile devices as well as personal computers for free, and there will be no ads, in-app purchases, or any data tracking, so it will respect your privacy just like my other games, Toytles: Leaf Raking and Toy Factory Fixer.

I also said that I didn’t want to share more until I had something more solid. Much of my design was still very high level, and I wanted to focus on nailing down exactly what some of the concepts would mean when realized in a game.

I had an 11+ page design document that I am still adding to and modifying, and I needed to turn it into an actionable project plan.

So I had three major tasks for this past week.

First, I wanted to identify the player’s main activities. What does the player get to do? “Move” is too vague, but being able to navigate forward and backward, and to turn left and right are more specific. I’ve eliminated moving side to side to keep things simple, for instance. “Interact with objects” is another example of vagueness that I wanted to make more specific. What kinds of objects? What happens? And how does the player interact with them?

Second, I wanted to identify the major “modules” I’d need for the game. I know I have two modes in the game, one of which is 1st person. What exactly do I want the player to do in the non-1st person mode? Also, what about other aspects, such as saving and loading, or customization? I’ve already scoped down a bit here while identifying what I consider a must-have for this aspect.

And third, I wanted to identify the art style of the game. What is it actually going to look and feel like? I already have a bunch of reference art that I’ve put together over the previous month for characters, but I need to do something similar for the environments.

I did manage to put in a relatively significant amount of time into the first two tasks. It’s hard to quantify how “done” these tasks are, especially when I can always come up with more and can always recognize that there is some vagueness to make clearer.

But I was able to flesh out my project plan with a prioritized list of tasks and features that should let me get the core spine of this project playable fairly quickly, and I think that’s a successful week of effort. I can more clearly see what the next few weeks (months?) of development are going to look like, and I can more clearly see what I might need.

For instance, I realized that I’m going to need a tool to help me build out the world, because I can already see that manually modifying a text file myself is going to be tedious and error-prone. Whether I use something like Tiled or create my own map editor, knowing that this kind of effort is coming can help me avoid too many surprises.

I’m also seeing just how large this project can potentially be. My project plan so far has a lot of work identified in setting up mechanics, which says what CAN happen in the game, but I only have a few things that specify details about content and story, which says what DOES happen the game.

In Super Mario Bros, you can jump and run, but jump and run on what? To where? For what purpose? These mechanics ultimately allowed you to save a kidnapped princess, but at a smaller level it allowed you to avoid enemies, find secret locations and power-ups, and raise flags on flagpoles to complete individual levels.

Much of this kind of work, the connective story work and context for the mechanics, isn’t represented in my project plan yet. I have some major ideas of what I want the game to be about, and a lot of the mechanics that I do know about are due to those ideas, but I anticipate that some of the details might need to wait to find out how much of the scope of the work above might change as I get into it. I don’t want to plan for a sequence in the game that requires a set of mechanics that I decided to cut due to complexity and time.

But that’s ok. I think I am at a good point to start implementation, and the project can evolve as I work on it. The challenge is how to figure out when I’m at a point when I want to stop evolving it and get it shipped.

For now, I am hoping that in the next week or so I can have enough to show off that I can show subscribers to the GBGames Curiosities newsletter what my next game is going to bed. If you want to be the first to know, subscribe to my newsletter below.

Thanks for reading!

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: New Project and Initial Design Work

I’m excited to say that I finally decided on my next project and started actual work on it. Here’s the first of my weekly Freshly Squeezed Progress Reports for my second Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game.

Sprint 1: Pre-production and initialization

Planned and complete:

  • Get a basic project building/running/quitting

Planned and incomplete:

  • Finish initial design document

What’s the game? Well, I’ll tell you later.

I’ll refer to this project as FS2 for now, as I want to have more to demonstrate before I officially announce it, and I will be telling subscribers to my Curiosities newsletter first, so sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter to be one of the first to know what FS2 will be!

Here’s what I can say for certain about the game:

  • it will be playable on mobile devices as well as desktop computers
  • it will be a 2D game with a 1st-person perspective for the main game play
  • it will be free, with no ads, no in-app purchases, and no data harvesting
  • it will be family-friendly and non-violent

And anything more will give away too much. Maybe next update?

To start a new project, I took my previous project, Toy Factory Fixer, copied its source files, then deleted all references to that game, then made sure that I could build and run a main menu that lets me quit the game. Until I get title graphics, I used a mock-up, and I am using gray rectangles to represent buttons.

Here’s a peek at part of the title screen:

Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game #2's title screen mock-up

It’s not pretty, but it doesn’t need to be at this point. I just needed to get something up and running that I can use to build off of.

That was the quick and easy part.

As for what to build next, well, I didn’t feel comfortable working on implementing anything until I figured out a more solid design.

I didn’t intend to make a design document of any significant size, and I know I don’t want a multi-hundred page document that I’ll never look at, but I’ve been writing down a lot of ideas at this stage. 11 pages, in fact. I expect that I will scope it down significantly, leaving a lot out for a sequel or future update.

I’ll have more to say about the details of that design, but for now here are some of the core aspects of this project.

First, this will be a non-violent game: “there should be no attacking or threat of attacks, no abuse, no physical or psychological danger, and no killing.” With the kind of game this is going to be, I feel that making it non-violent is going to be relatively challenging, but it should be relatively unique. While there are many examples of non-violent games, especially in mobile games, it really does feel like most games provide verbs of ATTACK or KILL or DESTROY and not much else. To be clear, I’m not saying that I don’t like violence in games or that you shouldn’t play games that feature violence. I’m just saying that if you want violence, there’s plenty of games to choose from, and I want to try to make a game that is about something else.

Second, the game will focus on personalities intersecting: “when you have multiple people with different interests, goals, and norms meet together, the results can be insightful, explosive, beautiful, synergistic, or counterproductive.” In past games, I found myself adding personality to the main characters and entities late or not at all, and I think it made those games feel cold, impersonal, and mechanical as a result. For this project, I want to make it feel like you are dealing with living, breathing people and other entities. When you see two different entities, they should be two different entities, with unique identities, rather than clones.

Third, I want to focus on mystery and adventure: “the ____ is like a completely different world, with rules and laws that are strange and wonderful. It holds secrets, and the player will want to learn them all.” I want the game to be about exploration. That’s a tall order, especially as I expect it will require a lot of world-building and narrative design, but I’ll have more to say when I can tell you what “____” is. B-)

As for the mood and feel, I want it to be light-hearted and family-friendly. I’m taking a little inspiration from the game Earthbound and the movie The Goonies. I want it to be a game that is incredibly accessible, and so long as you can read and think, you should be able to play. It won’t be hardcore challenging, but at the same time, it won’t be incredibly simple either.

Since I’m at the beginning of this project, it’s one of the most exciting ways a game can exist: as a collection of really cool ideas in my head. The problem of course is that to actually create this fantasy project as a real game might take forever, or it might not actually work at all.

I know what kind of game I want to make, and I know a few of the fundamental things I will need to implement. I also recognize that while there are a few things I can borrow or steal from other games of this type, many of the things I am thinking about doing with this project require some experimentation and prototyping. Probably too many for someone with limited time such as myself.

Basically, while I have enough to get started, there are still too many vague ideas the game is depending on. I don’t need to have everything worked out in extreme detail, but I need enough there to actually have something to implement and prototype.

So my own goals for this past sprint were to figure out more precisely what this project will actually be. I needed to identify the player’s actual goals, activities the player will be involved in, and the high level systems and interactions I’ll need to implement to make it all real.

Part of that work has become the lore of the game, and I think I have a good overarching goal as well as some interesting situations to put the player in. Plus, as I have been figuring out what locations and entities should be in the game, I’ve been identifying specific systems that might be needed to make them work.

I’ve made good progress on turning my high level ideas and concepts into more specific features that can be made into actionable and tangible work, but there’s still more to do. What I’m looking for are the building blocks to start with, the things that let me build the spine of the game, and then I can iteratively and incrementally add to it. What I don’t want is to work for months on a set of features that I hope fall into place with the risk that it never does.

I apologize that the above lacks a lot of specifics. Rereading it, it sounds like I am saying, “I’ve got a new project, but not really.” Maybe this update was premature, or maybe I’m putting too much importance on wanting to wait until I have a little more substance to tell my newsletter subscribers what I’m doing before I announce it here.

But for now, I have some designing and planning to do.

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Game Development Marketing/Business Personal Development Politics/Government

Reviewing an Underwhelming 2022, Previewing a Better 2023

At the start of the year, I like to look back on the previous year to see how well reality matched up with my plans, and then, trying to incorporate any lessons and insights I’ve gained, I make new plans for the coming year.

In the past, I’ve found myself weeks (or even months?) into the new year before I get around to this work. I was not exactly hitting the ground running, partly because I was still finishing the previous year’s efforts up until the end of the year and didn’t give myself time to reflect before the new year.

But this time around, I took off the month of December from my day job with the intention of journaling, reviewing the past, and figuring out what I want out of the future. December tends to be my least productive month in terms of GBGames, and while there were still plenty of errands and holiday preparations to work on, I did manage to make some time for some serious thinking effort, especially thanks to an early Christmas present from my wife for a week-long solo retreat.

The short version: 2022 kinda sucked. I’m looking forward to making 2023 into what 2022 should have been.

Here’s the long version.

In A Review of My 2021, and Looking at 2022, Already In Progress, I was coming off of the success of finally publishing Toy Factory Fixer, my first one-month Freshly Squeezed Entertainment project, after about 12 months of development.

I had a goal of releasing 6 such games over the course of a year, and so I was recognizing that my capacity as a very, very part-time indie meant that I needed to be a LOT more realistic about what I could actually accomplish.

My overall strategy didn’t change, but the values were significantly smaller. My goals for 2022 were:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 22 to at least 34 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

Maybe publishing 2 games was still too ambitious, but I figured at least one game with one in development was still an improvement. And maybe 1 sale per month sounds laughable, but I didn’t come anywhere close to 1 sale per week OR per month in the previous year. And if it is so laughable, it should be easy to get more than one sale a month even if all I do is post a plea on Facebook asking friends and family to buy the game.

I right-sized my goals for what I thought was simultaneously a small step and also a stretch from what I have so far been demonstrating.

So how did I do?

Not great, actually.

Published Freshly Squeezed Entertainment Games (Target: 2) — 0 (or maybe 1)

I’ll explain more below, but other than working on porting my existing games to the desktop and creating Disaster City, my Ludum Dare 50 game, in a weekend, I made no new games.

I don’t really count my Ludum Dare game, though, because it was conceived and developed for the compo and wasn’t really something I was planning to make into my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game. I thought about making it a full-fledged project after the compo, but I never got the energy behind it to do so, even though I liked the germ of the idea I had created. I wanted to be more deliberate than “Here’s a game I quickly threw together, so maybe I can make a bigger version of it?”

At the end of the year, I started putting together a design document for my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment, but it isn’t ready enough yet for me to formally announce its existence yet.

I might be too hard on myself, as I did put in time and effort to create ports, so it wasn’t a complete blank of a year, but it is my most clear-cut failure for a major goal to not get addressed at all.

GBGames Curiosities Newsletter subscribers net increase (Target: 12) — 3

On the bright side, it’s above 0. I should be pleased about that fact at least. And no one unsubscribed, at least.

My newsletter grew by 6 subscribers the previous year, though, so I’m not happy with gaining fewer subscribers, especially since I have Toy Factory Fixer and Toytles: Leaf Raking released on the desktop and so had more exposure with more incentive (you can get a free player’s guide for each game) to join the newsletter.

I don’t know if I should take it as a refutation of my strategy to release free games and grow my audience through them, or if it is still too soon to tell.

Sales (Target: 12) — 3

I sold 7 copies of Toytles: Leaf Raking in 2020, 5 copies in 2021, and only 2 in 2022, with one person giving me an optional couple of bucks for my otherwise free Toy Factory Fixer to make for what I technically call a third sale.

I don’t like this downward trend, either.

On the other hand, due to one of the two sales happening on itch.io which allowed for one customer paying me significantly more than the asking price (thanks, Mike!), I actually made almost $1 more than the year before, and making more money is a trend that I like.

But obviously I can’t rely on such generosity for everything.

Analysis

My major goals are above, but I also had minor goals to port my existing games to the desktop, especially after Ludum Dare 50 and my efforts to port my game for it to get as many potential reviewers as possible.

But before all of that, there were two big tasks.

One was to finish some post-release efforts for Toy Factory Fixer, such as creating and uploading a player’s guide and updating my website for it.

Another was a presentation I meant to give early in the year that never happened. I was scheduled to give a Toy Factory Fixer post-mortem presentation at my local IGDA chapter in February, but that month the meeting never happened, and the chapter hasn’t scheduled another one since.

At the time, I thought it meant I had more time to polish my presentation before it was rescheduled, but I didn’t really track the time I worked on it, so I don’t know how much effort it took.

My vague plan was to finish the presentation, then switch gears to quickly port my games, then switch gears again to creating my next Freshly Squeezed Entertainment game. Basically, my major goals were on hold, and maybe they shouldn’t have been considered my major goals if that were the case?

I worked on my presentation on and off for a few months, finishing it in May, but then never actually presenting it or recording it myself, completely wasting the effort for this supposed priority.

After Ludum Dare in April, I finally put together a backlog of tasks to port my games, only to kick myself for having put off for so long the 5 minutes it took to do it.

What followed was a few months of development effort to do the ports. Frankly, getting the games onto the desktop was easy work, and while I spent weeks creating the Linux port despite the fact that my main development system is Linux-based, it was because I wanted to make it a one-button, reproducible build. The Windows port was fairly straightforward as well and was almost a one-button build that needed a few tweaks. The Mac port was a little troublesome, but I eventually figured out the arcane incantation Xcode required.

In August, I participated in 60 FPS Fest again, and it was insightful watching complete strangers try to play Toy Factory Fixer. A number of people struggled to figure out how to start, which I addressed through some hints and UI changes in an update I made in the following weeks.

And then, after my Toytles: Leaf Raking desktop ports were announced, for some reason, I did nothing.

Well, that’s not quite true. In September I tried an experiment in which I did a daily game design exercise based on the day’s news headlines, and while I enjoyed the experience and think I got a lot out of it, it required too much of my time, way more than I could justify spending on it.

But I didn’t have a product plan. At the very least, I didn’t have a next project ready to go, and apparently my theme for this year was to struggle with overcoming inertia.

I also had some health problems which impacted my ability to sit long enough to work on anything.

So basically, my major goals took a backseat until I could get what at the time looked like quick goals accomplished, which ended up either taking me longer to get around to or taking me longer to finish than I originally anticipated.

But it wasn’t like I vastly underestimated how much work there was to do. I think it came down to not getting myself to do the work consistently.

In 2021, I had habits that got me to slowly but surely publish a game. I did exercise every day. I dedicated regular time to learning, mostly to take advantage of my Pluralsight subscription.

I had set my course, and each day I executed part of a plan that moved me in that direction until I was at my destination.

But this past year? I found myself between plans often. It’s one thing to take a step forward with an existing project. It’s another to figure out what a new project should be.

I think I usually find that I need a major break after a game project is completed, but I felt like I couldn’t get back into the swing of things this past year, and I still can’t quite put my finger on why.

I was fine so long as I was tracking some effort, but for some reason if I wasn’t dedicating time to development or writing or learning, I found it harder to keep on task, or start a task in the first place, even if I knew what that task was. In fact, whenever I don’t know what I should be doing, I take that as a clue that what I should be doing is figuring out what I should be doing. Yet, I couldn’t muster up the effort.

Was it burnout? Was I questioning why I was trying to accomplish things I set out to do so long ago that I forgot why I was doing them? Was it frustration that the rest of society seems to be trying to get back to a pre-pandemic normal that doesn’t and shouldn’t exist anymore? I don’t know.

But as someone who aspires to one day get back to full-time indie status, this past year felt squandered and lost despite the accomplishments I can point to.

What else?

Compared to the previous year, I only put in a third as much game development, a total of 101 game development hours. I only had five months that were productive, and they weren’t full months.

I blogged a lot less, with only 35 published posts compared to last year’s 60. About 9 of the posts were for Ludum Dare 50 weekend, and I don’t think I tracked my writing time then. Since many of my posts are sprint reports, and I was doing less development, it makes sense that I had less to say, but there are other kinds of blog posts that I could have written. I put in about 53 hours for writing that I tracked which is surprisingly only a little less than the time I put in the year before and which doesn’t include when I wrote for the player guides. My newsletter is supposed to be a monthly one, but I only sent out 4 issues last year, mainly because the only things I had to announce were the ports and updates to existing apps.

I had managed to keep my expenses down significantly relative to previous years, mainly by resisting game and book sales (I have plenty already purchased I could play/read instead), but it was still a bit more than I had planned and a large multiple of my income.

My personal goals were:

  • Do a minimum number of walking hours, push-ups, squats, and planking
  • Read a book per week
  • Create at least one doodle per day
  • Do 15 minutes of focused learning a day

I wasn’t able to keep up with my 15 push-ups, 15 squats, and 30 seconds of planks, mainly because I hurt myself bad enough that I had to stop, only doing the exercises for about half of the year.

I continued to do my exercise and stretches more or less as I have always done it, which has kept my back strong and meant that I haven’t needed to see a doctor about it in a couple of years. Unfortunately, at some point I had a severe pain that was quite debilitating, and I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what might have caused it other than helping someone move a mattress or twisting under a bathroom sink trying to fix a leak.

People tell me that part of the fun of getting old is getting hurt for no reason, and I don’t like it.

So unfortunately I spent a chunk of my summer recovering and doing physical therapy. For some time it was not my favorite thing to stand, sit, or lie down. The latter two were especially tough because getting up would send my back into painful spasms, and working in my office for longer than I needed to for the day job was not happening much. The physical therapy helped, and these days I feel a lot more confident and way less self-aware of everyday movement.

Even when I was feeling well enough to exercise, I wasn’t doing cardio, something I keep saying I’ll prioritize but never make happen, but we just got a new treadmill and I’ve started walking on it daily, and when the weather is nicer I might start making a point of going out for a walk instead. I want to eventually build up to running and perhaps look into actually joining a recreational soccer team. I miss playing the game, and I loved helping to coach my daughter’s awesomely inclusive soccer team in the previous year.

I read a total of 28 books last year, none of which were related to game development. Whoops. That’s usually something I try to prioritize. One book was “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison, which I read because I was playing the game around May, so does that count?

Only 4 of the books were fiction, including Ellison’s. One book was about advertising, another was about product management, and the rest were either about history, computer science, business, self-improvement, and a few other topics. My favorites for the year include The Profiteers by Sally Denton, You Look Like a Thing and I Love You by Janelle Shane, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Work by James Suzman, and Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman.

Compared to the previous year’s 137.75 hours, I only tracked 22.5 hours of dedicated learning. I was trying to keep a daily streak going, which normally is fine since that’s the point of a daily habit, but it was stressing me out to do so. The problem was that I was also aware that I was making enough time for learning but not enough for doing. Why was I stressing myself out to do one but not the other? So I dropped the habit after a few months, intending to pick it back up when I was ready.

In fact, at some point I wondered if it made sense to carry over my daily habits from the year before, especially as I kept finding new ones I wanted to add and wondered what to cut. I don’t have infinite time, and while I find a number of things valuable, I needed to prioritize. It didn’t help when I found myself stressed about trying to keep on top of some of them, such as my daily doodle, daily learning, and daily Duolingo Italian lessons, so I dropped a few of them early in the year.

I found it incredibly helpful trying to stop self-inflicted stress from happening. Much as how in the previous year I didn’t need to stress about an arbitrary game publishing deadline I created for myself, I found myself questioning why I was staying up late to catch up on missed doodles that week or finding myself annoyed that a meeting I was in meant I couldn’t finish a Pluralsight module that day. I instead was trying to live by the philosophy of “do more of what makes you happy” although I did find a lot of relief just removing things from my life rather than adding to it. Pluralsight isn’t cheap, so I have some incentive to actually make use of it, which is what my daily habit was helping me to do, but I need to find a more sustainable way to do it.

Last year I said I wanted to make more time to actually play games, something I usually don’t do because if I have time to play then I have time to do development. I wanted to be more deliberate and regular about playing games, though, because there are obvious benefits of learning from existing games but also because when I do play games I tend to play them obsessively for days or weeks, pushing out other things I need to do. Unfortunately I never did figure out a regular game playing schedule, and so I once again had spikes of play between many long lulls throughout the year.

There was more going on that I won’t recount here, both in terms of challenges at the day job and family health issues and a major death, but suffice it to say that it was a difficult year to feel motivated and inspired.

I think the theme last year was questioning whether or not the path my past self had set me on was still serving me, and in the absence of finding a new path, I stopped traversing it to give myself time and space to eventually figure out where I wanted to go next. Apparently I needed a lot more time and space than I expected.

I also found myself struggling with the fact that I was still a very, very part-time indie, that the day job takes up such a large chunk of my waking hours that I would love to put towards a variety of other activities, so I feel like I have to prioritize what’s left over, and I’m unsatisfied with this situation.

Goals for 2023

My goals for last year were not supposed to be overly challenging. I figured that all I had to do was make a concentrated effort to easily meet them. All I had to do was convince one person to buy a game in any given month. I should similarly be able to get one person interested enough to subscribe to my newsletter each month. If I could do it, I imagined that the next customers wouldn’t be far behind.

Maybe the hardest goal would be publishing two games in a year, but I imagined that it would have come down to project management, prioritization, and limiting scope. So, doable.

I normally would right-size my goals based on the previous year’s results, but I think last year was an off-year for me. I think those goals are still doable despite the fact that I didn’t get them done.

So, I’m keeping them as my goals for 2023:

  • Release at least 2 Freshly Squeezed Entertainment games by December 31st
  • Increase my newsletter audience from 25 to at least 37 subscribers by December 31st
  • Earn at least 1 sale per month by December 31st

That’s at least one new subscriber and at least one new sale each month, and I’ll need to focus on shipping as quickly as possible to get two games out.

My current strategy is that my free games will drive newsletter subscribers who eventually become paying customers, but I of course also have to deal with the fact that my games are quite obscure and off the radar of almost all potential players.

One major focus will be on actual creation and development, things I’ve done before and understand. I have demonstrated that I can design, plan, create, and publish a game, and I just need to put in the hours.

But another major focus will be solving my obscurity problem, to figure out how to get my games in front of more people, something I have long recognized as a problem but have yet to put in a similar amount of effort to solve. While I believe the kind of games I make aren’t meant for the kinds of players found on Steam (and so most typical and accessible indie game marketing literature is irrelevant), I don’t have a solid idea of just who my target players are, and I haven’t defined them for years despite recognizing this need.

I need to actually answer these questions rather than merely ask them like I do each time I think about marketing and sales: Where do they live? How do they spend their time? How specifically do I let them know about my game when they are looking for new games?

But not in a creepy, data-harvesting, privacy-violating kind of way. Just in a “you are clearly looking for the kind of family-friendly, privacy-respecting entertainment that I provide” kind of way.

My goal isn’t to try to make a random hit game. My goal is to grow an audience who cares about what I make. I’ve done a poor job of finding such an audience all these years, and so my work in the coming months is to figure out how.

Outside of my major goals, there are a few other areas of my life I focus on.

I want to make my physical health a bigger priority. For years, I’ve been doing just enough to keep my body flexible and capable. My morning exercise and stretching routine takes mere minutes, and while I do get benefits from it, I’m not satisfied. This past year showed me that just enough isn’t enough, that my body needs to be more capable of handling day to day life as well as the occasional heavy duty chore. I need to move more and challenge myself physically, while also not overdoing it and hurting myself.

I have been fairly happy with investing time and money into learning. Whether it is my daily habit of reading in the morning, paying for books and courses, or going to conferences, I don’t see changing much. For years, my goal has been to read a book per week, but when I stopped listening to audiobooks in my car in favor of listening to podcasts, my total book count dropped. And working from home, I don’t drive as much anyway, but if I take up daily walking or running, I could watch presentations on a TV or listen to audiobooks or podcasts more while also getting the mental benefits that come from cardio. I recently acquired a number of books on game design, plus I have a number of ebooks I never make time for, so I have plenty of content. It’s just a matter of prioritizing quality reading as opposed to allowing myself to jump into social media multiple times a day.

And I want to make sure I give myself time to play. Not just games, although getting back into hosting a monthly board game night or enjoying the occasional computer game in my collection would be good, but I want to give myself permission to not need to be accomplishing or completing or checking-off something. I want to do something for the sake of doing, for exploring, for wondering, and not worrying that I’m supposed to be doing something else to be productive. I want to get some quality work done, but I also want to enjoy the process more.

I hope you have a safe, healthy, curious, and playful 2023! Happy New Year!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical Personal Development

What I Learned Creating Game Designs Based on News Headlines for a Month

As a very, very part-time solo indie game developer who has to wear a lot of hats, I worry that my game designer hat tends to get neglected, especially as I spend the bulk of my time programming, creating art, or updating my project plans.

You could argue that game design activities are infused throughout the game development process, but it feels like my opportunities to do focused game design work are few and far between.

Which meant that I probably wasn’t getting better at game design.

To address this skill gap, I wanted to improve my game design abilities through regular practice and in a way that didn’t require me to completely upend my daily routine. I only have so many hours in a day I can dedicate to my game development business (very, very part-time indie, as I said), and I didn’t like the idea of sacrificing more of that precious little time.

So I decided on doing a daily challenge of taking 20 minutes to create a working prototype or 1st iteration of a game based on that day’s news headline throughout the month of September.

I explained more in my post Quick Daily Game Design Practices, but the short version is that I expect that even a short amount of focused daily game design should result in me gaining experience and developing a better intuition about game design over the course of a year.

I’ll break down the challenge:

  • Daily: if I do it once in awhile, such as every Ludum Dare, or anytime I start a new project, it seems too infrequent. Plus, there is a difference between practice and being on the clock.
  • 20 minutes: the exact amount of time doesn’t matter, but the focus on speed serves two purposes. One, even on a busy day, I figured I could more easily justify carving out 20 minutes than if I needed to spend hours on it or dedicate a weekend to it. Two, the time constraint meant that I couldn’t waste time. I needed to focus.
  • Working prototype or 1st iteration: it’s one thing (and super easy) to come up with ideas for a game. It’s quite another to actually implement those ideas. I didn’t need to make a finished, publishable game, but I did want to make a finished-enough-to-give-to-someone-else game. It will likely be necessarily rough around the edges, unbalanced, or even potentially broken, but it needs to be real.
  • Based on a news headline: having a daily prompt meant that I had some focus for the theme or concept, so I wasn’t starting from a completely blank slate. It also meant that I might have to work with a topic that I might not have picked myself, potentially pushing me out of my comfort zone and challenging me with a topic I might know nothing about.

So how did it go?

First, I will say that I really, really enjoyed this challenge.

Over the course of September, I created 21 playable prototypes based on NPR’s top headline of the day. For each day, I created a one-pager that listed the key parts of the news item, as well as the setup and play instructions for the game I created. I published the one-pager and some pictures I took of my playtesting sessions in Twitter threads, partly to indicate to myself that I finished the day’s exercise but also to encourage others to do something similar.

At least one person posted their own playable video game prototype!

One-pager for daily game design

Playing cards used for daily game design

Here’s the links to those Twitter threads if you are interested in seeing them and the quick analysis I did after many of them:

I made games about indigenous representation in the U.S. Congress, about the need for young farmers, about housing issues for teachers in California, about student loan forgiveness, and the politics of clean water in Jackson, Mississippi.

I made games about monkeypox vaccination and about wearing masks during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

I made games about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who gets her dogs, and the nations that won independence during her reign.

I made a game about restrictions on safe and legal abortion access, and about the migrants treated inhumanely to make a political point.

I made games about the effects of the war in Ukraine, between a nuclear plant that needs to be shutdown safely and the gas sanctions affecting Europe and U.S. prices.

I made a game about Magnus Carlsen resigning after a single move in a rematch with Hans Niemann.

I made games about hurricanes in general and about Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Fiona in particular.

I made games about presidential term limits, about acquiring voting machines, and I even made a couple of games about the Mar-a-lago FBI seizure and the special master who was assigned to look at the documents.

Some of the games used a regular deck of playing cards, others used dice, and others used a variety of components, such as coins, tiles, wooden barrels, and pawns.

In fact, it was a great excuse to have my game design prototype toolbox nearby, after years of being mostly ignored. In fact, I even changed the contents a bit so that I could add a deck of cards, some dice, and even a minute sand timer.

My updated game design prototyping toolkit

And I decided to order The Infinite Board Game from Workman Publishing, which is basically a piecepack implementation along with a book explaining some of the games you could play with the components. I would have preferred high quality wooden components, but plastic works well enough.

Pieces from piecepack used in daily game design challenges

Now, you don’t strictly need all of these components, but I loved the variety and the ability to choose from day to day what I was going to use.

What didn’t go so well

September has 30 days, but I only made 21 prototypes, so what happened to the other 9 days? Well, I fell behind.

And despite trying to do two or more designs in a given day to try to catch up, it was difficult to do so, mainly because I frequently took more time than I originally hoped I would.

I timed myself once, and it took me 1.5 hours to go from nothing to my published Twitter thread. And I know some of the challenges probably took me much longer. If my actual maximum time on any exercise would have been 20 minutes, I think it might have been much easier to have a game for all 30 days.

Which was fine, in that I didn’t care too much about sticking to 20 minutes. More time spent on game design meant more practice and more benefit to me.

But it definitely ruined the whole “won’t interfere with my daily routine” part. By the second half of the month, I found I did nothing in terms of writing or game development outside of these exercises. In fact, on days when I tried to do more than one exercise to catch up on my backlog of NPR headlines, I found that it got in the way of other routines and habits, like reading or going to bed at a decent time, which had cascading effects on my ability to wake up on time the next day. This situation wasn’t sustainable.

Perhaps 20 minutes was ambitious. Strictly speaking, I might have had a 1st iteration within a few minutes, but my 1st iteration always felt too simple, or it had no connection to the news item, or otherwise it needed work before I felt good enough about it to “publish” it.

Another thing that didn’t go well is that news headlines can sometimes get repetitive.

What makes the news might stay in the news. Hurricanes, political scandals, and the deaths of long-living monarchs tend to dominate the news cycle for multiple days or weeks, and at least once I skipped the top headline to choose another one that covered a theme I hadn’t already worked upon.

And sometimes the headline news is depressing. While I felt like I was paying more attention to the news thanks to this exercise, sometimes doing so felt like getting punched in the stomach. Making a game about how Florida’s governor tricked migrants onto planes and knowingly sent them to areas which did not have the resources to help them? It was my least favorite part of this experience (and probably my least successful design).

Don’t get me wrong. While I imagine many people think of games as “for children” or only for fun, you can definitely make games that model serious situations. My discomfort with confronting the news pales in comparison to the real harms inflicted on human beings who were treated as political pawns.

But even though I anticipated bad news being an occupational hazard of this exercise, I don’t know why I didn’t expect to have my heart broken by witnessing how awful people can be to each other.

Of course, maybe having experience creating games that reflect the real world even when it is ugly isn’t such a bad thing.

Things I learned

In just one short month, I learned a few things that I will carry into my future game design efforts.

  • For quick iterations, I should use fewer components and/or a smaller scope.

    For my first game design exercise, also documented in my Daily Game Design Practices post, I used the 66 cards from the game Iota. In hindsight, it was a mistake.

    It was a bit unwieldy and might have obscured the dynamics because I was simultaneously dealing with figuring out my rule changes AND with the existing how it interacted with the sheer quantity of shuffled cards.

    When I had what seemed like an interesting set of rules, I ran into the problem of the game not ending satisfactorily and being too random, so some games were over almost right away and some took forever to end. Having fewer cards might have helped me iterate more quickly.

    I found that I struggled the most when I used an entire deck of playing cards (more on that below), whereas if I used a subset of the cards, I was able to produce and iterate on designs much more quickly.

    For my non-card games, I found that I still had too much going on. Either the playspace was too large, or there were too many components needed.

    For my game about Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann, I was originally planning on using an entire chess board, but I opted to use a smaller board, and I think it was a much better exercise as a result. I was able to quickly play out entire sessions within seconds rather than minutes, modifying rules, and repeating.

    When I think about computer games I’ve made in the past, they tended to be on the large scale. An early RPG prototype I made in QBasic had a massive overworld map, and the individual screens had a lot of tiles, and each town/cave/castle was similarly potentially huge. It was so big that in order to test the entire game more easily, I added a special cave that allowed me to instantly appear at key parts of the world, doing what the kids today call “Fast Travel”. I never finished that game, despite having a fully functional dialogue system that let you talk, buy, sell, or steal (or be stolen from) and plenty of created areas to explore complete with residents. Of course, this description is probably more exciting than the not-quite-a-game actually was.

    My leaf-raking business simulation game Toytles: Leaf Raking might have too many residents/yards, and the game takes 3 in-game months representing the fall season to play but perhaps it is too long. I had one player tell me that there isn’t much to do to fill up that time. I wonder if the reason why Harvest Moon games tend to have a 6 day week instead of a 7 day week is because it allows the pacing to move along more smoothly.

    Similarly, one of the design decisions that I wish I had spent more time on was figuring out what dimensions to make the levels in my non-violent tower defense game Toy Factory Fixer. Maybe larger, easier-to-see graphics with a smaller play area would have worked better? It’s hard to say after the fact, but there were a few times when I was creating the levels that I thought that there wasn’t enough content in the game to justify the potentially long conveyor belt. Players seem to like the game, though!

    But I think my future game designs might start out with fewer moving parts, at least to start, mainly so I can get through iteration cycles much faster.

  • Don’t write down the rules until the end

    I quickly discovered that writing with a pen to create the one-pager for a given design made edits painful and ugly. Crossing out or modifying the instructions did not go well, especially if I didn’t provide enough white space or already used the margins for a previous edit.

    This lesson might be too specific to the fact that I chose to create a one-pager on paper and wrote with a pen. Maybe if I used a digital text file it wouldn’t have been so bad.

    But then again, my iterations were completed on the order of moments, not days or weeks, so I didn’t need to spend time writing down the rules until the very end.

    Not having calcified rules gave me the freedom to make up rules on the fly, which is very useful when I run into an edge case while playtesting. And those edge cases came up often because there are almost always situations not covered by the few rules a game starts out with.

    Basically, I didn’t want to accidentally constrain my designs due to not wanting to try to squeeze text modifications on paper. B-)

    If I could try to extrapolate out a larger lesson, perhaps it means I should also try to spend more time in pre-production before calcifying the rules in a computer game. It is a lot easier to iterate the rules in my head than it is to iterate rules compiled into an executable.

  • I was able to recognize my tendencies as a game designer.

    The fact that I was done with a design each day meant that each day’s efforts were easily compared to the previous ones.

    And I noticed that I might often start with trying to represent more than I needed to. For instance, when I was making Gas Sanctions, the game about the effects of the war in Ukraine, I originally wanted to represent population as well as their energy needs for each region of the world. I ultimately simplified energy demand to a die roll and removed the population concept entirely.

    My card game about Queen Elizabeth II’s corgis, Who Gets the Dogs?, didn’t end up how I intended no matter how long I worked on it that day. I wanted the game to be about gaining favor with the Queen before her death, and I tried to have multiple potential dog owners represented by individual cards. Eventually I changed it to be the column in which you are playing cards, mainly so I didn’t find myself needing the card acting as a token in the course of play.

    I generally wanted to make games with a lot of player agency, and so I often set out to use as little chance as possible, and when I played with dice, I found that I preferred to use the results of a die roll to inform things indirectly. That is, while some games might have allowed a die roll to dictate how far a pawn might move, other games required the player to choose how to apply dice rolls to the situation.

    Unfortunately, what often happened was that I ended up making a game with very little player agency partly due to a lack of a real choice. That is, balance was often not my main concern, and so when I decided to be done enough for a daily exercise, I might feel like the game offered no real choices. There was an obviously best move, which made it the only move.

    Perhaps I can learn to lean on randomness more, or I could practice more to find out how much work there might be to make better choices for the player that are true choices.

    But I definitely liked to try to model causes rather than effects, yet found that focusing on effects resulted in faster iterations. Can I start with modeling effects, then work backwards to mechanics that model causes? It’s something I would like to experiment with.

  • I was able to make a game even when I thought I wouldn’t be able to do so.

    Each day, I didn’t know what headline I would get. Sometimes the news item was about a natural disaster, or about political maneuvering, or about contention over resources. Often I found these items mapped to a game quite easily.

    But other news items were less about conflict or dynamics. Sometimes they were background information. A explanation of someone’s career as a judge or the history of presidential terms limits don’t sound like playable things. And whenever I ran into such a news item, I despaired slightly.

    And yet, I kept surprising myself by making playable games about them, and often quite quickly!

    I found that just the act of doing created results.

    That isn’t to say that those results were amazing. I still struggled, and some of those published iterations have a lot more potential than anything else, but I was not grading myself on how good a game I could come up with. I was grading myself on coming up with anything at all, on putting in the time to do the work.

    Basically, I showed up to the task, put something out there, and moved on. And I was better for it.

  • I need to get more familiar with my game design tools.

    I focused on creating paper prototypes because they are quick. Some of the game components I have at my disposal have centuries of history behind them, such as playing cards. But I didn’t have centuries of knowledge at my fingertips.

    Now, I’ve played card games since I was a child. I’ve played a variety of games.

    But in some of the exercises, I found myself struggling to make the cards do what I wanted them to do.

    Playing cards have suits, ranks, and colors. You can make all sorts of rules using them.

    Yet I felt like I was limited with the mechanics I came up with. The player could match ranks. The player could try to play a higher or lower card than what is on the table. I could borrow solitaire rules. I even found myself using the rectangular shape of the cards, turning them to the side to indicate something.

    I imagine that there are countless other things one can do with cards, mechanics that other games already use, and I wasn’t creative enough to come up with any in a quick session, nor did I have a lot of past experience to leverage.

    Similarly, dice are fun to roll, but often I found myself feeling like I wasn’t applying them well.

    To be fair, I was familiar enough with the nature of randomness with these different tools. You can always reroll a value with dice, while a card dealt is no longer in the deck.

    But what to do with the rolls or the card was a question I wish I had more answers for.

    I should play more games, is what I am saying. B-)

What now?

Actively doing game design every day might be a normal thing for some full-time indies, but it was a new experience for me. I believe I gained a lot out of this experiment, which makes me wonder how much my game design abilities might change if I did this exercise every day for an entire year.

But something needs to change to make it possible for me to do so. When it takes me multiple hours to work on a single game design, those are hours I can’t use for my game development in general, and most days I don’t give myself more than hour in the first place.

Sometimes when I imagine/fantasize being a full-time indie game developer again, I think about what my day to day might look like if I didn’t have a day job. Could a daily game design exercise be a great way to start the day before getting to the “real” work? Or a nice ending to a solid day of development?

Can I get a similar benefit doing one game design a week, such as dedicating Mondays to the task? Or using an entire week of 20 minute days to work on a single game design, with a published post on Saturday?

I’ll need to think on it, but for now, I need to get back to my neglected very, very part-time efforts.

I will say, however, that I wouldn’t have minded hearing from someone at NPR seeking a full-time game designer in residence whose job is to create a daily game to play based on that day’s headlines…

Categories
Game Design Games Marketing/Business

Announcing Toytles: Leaf Raking for Windows, Mac, and Linux

Toytles: Leaf Raking, my family-friendly leaf-raking business simulation game, was originally released for Android and iOS, but now you can get it for your computer!

Toytles: Leaf Raking

In this leaf-raking business simulation game that teaches responsibility and strategic thinking, you want The Ultimate Item ™, but it’s expensive, and your parents won’t buy it for you. So, with a rake and some yard bags, you start your leaf-raking business in the hope of earning the money to buy The Ultimate Item ™ yourself.

Learn more about the game and where to get it at the main Toytles: Leaf Raking page.

Toytles: Leaf Raking Player's Guide

Get the 24-page, full color PDF of the Toytles: Leaf Raking Player’s Guide for free by signing up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Toy Factory Fixer Updates Finished, Toytles: Leaf Raking Is Next

In last week’s report, I was delayed in my ability to create and publish a new update of Toy Factory Fixer for iOS and Mac due to MacOS and Xcode taking so long to upgrade at the end of the week.

This past week, I focused on finishing my update and started work on the desktop ports of Toytles: Leaf Raking.

Sprint 74: iOS update

Planned and complete:

  • Create updated SDL2 libraries for iOS

Now that I have Xcode 13 up and running, I found that to build the latest SDL2_image, I needed to use the tip of the branch from GitHub rather than the latest officially released version (2.6.2). It’s a little annoying, but oh well.

Once I got the SDL2 libraries built, I could build the app, test it in the simulator and on my actual iPhone, and then submit it to the App Store.

And you know what was a nice surprise? Within moments, it was reviewed and available!

Meanwhile, I was still waiting for the Google Play review to finish, which finally happened after about a week.

So now Toy Factory Fixer v1.0.2 is officially published everywhere for Android, iOS, Windows, Linux, and Mac.

Whew!

Now I will stop looking at Toy Factory Fixer and start paying attention to Toytles: Leaf Raking’s desktop porting work.

Sprint 2022-1: Desktop ports; new mobile requirements

Planned and incomplete:

  • Create updated SDL2 libraries for iOS
  • Create itch.io page
  • Create Linux port
  • Create Windows port
  • Create Mac port
  • Update Android port with new Google Play requirements

Unplanned and complete:

  • Add button sounds to main menu for consistency

Technically, Toytles: Leaf Raking isn’t part of the Freshly Squeezed Entertainment line of games, but rather than create a separate blog post for From Concentrate, I’ll just piggyback on this post.

I haven’t updated Toytles: Leaf Raking since exactly a year ago, and I started by figuring out what differences there were between the CMake build scripts of this project and Toy Factory Fixer, then updating the scripts to match where it mattered.

I then updated my GBLib files, which are not quite a framework or engine so much as a bunch of code I’ve been writing, tweaking, and leveraging for all of my projects. I realized that this is the first time I had to put in significant effort to take my latest changes and backport to a previous game. The main changes were related to animation and sprites, so nothing too substantial, but when I get a third game and need to support them all? It makes me wish I had GBLib as a separate versioned project.

Anyway, I didn’t want to spend time doing any substantial feature development, but before I added an in-game privacy policy (not exactly a Google Play requirement but that’s where it falls under), I was unhappy with some of the menu visuals. The main menu has a colorful screen, but the credits menu and the options menu had black backgrounds? It’s jarring and inconsistent.

Toytles: Leaf Raking

So I added some color to the background instead, and I think it is still readable. It’s not as crisp, but it contrasts enough, and it fits the game a lot better. And now that I think about it, I should increase the font sizes so that it is definitely easier to read.

Toytles: Leaf Raking old options screen

Toytles: Leaf Raking new and improved options screen

Another inconsistency that finally bothered me enough to do something about it? The main menu was silent. You click on buttons, and it doesn’t sound like anything happens, but in the game, clicking on buttons has a distinct sound.

So I added sound effects to all of the menu screens, and now the game feels a lot better.

And then I remembered that the ending screens are similarly not the same color as the rest of the game, so I changed it, too.

I didn’t start any of this work until Wednesday, and by the end of the week I had not worked on the privacy policy.

Once I do, I believe I should be able to quickly build the game for every platform since the scripts are so similar.

Thanks for reading!

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: I Just Wanted to Release a Small Update

In last week’s report, I finished making improvements that should help new players more easily understand what to do in Toy Factory Fixer.

For this past week, I didn’t even plan a sprint for Toy Factory Fixer, thinking that I would “just” publish this update and move on to finally porting Toytles: Leaf Raking to the desktop. Thanks to Apple and SDL2_image/_mixer/_ttf updates, it turned out that publishing an update for iOS wasn’t as straightforward as I was hoping.

Sprint 73: iOS update

Unplanned and Incomplete:

  • Create updated SDL2 libraries for iOS

I have been working on automating as much of my builds as I could for years, and so I anticipated that creating a new release of my existing project should have been almost no work at all, so I didn’t bother actually planning to make time for it.

And I was almost right. On Monday I was able to create a Linux and Windows update fairly quickly using my build scripts, and those updates are available on itch.io at https://gbgamesllc.itch.io/toy-factory-fixer.

I was even able to quickly build an Android version and submit it to Google Play for review, which is taking a surprisingly long time to get approved, but it was out of my hands also on Monday.

In any case, that’s three platforms I was able to quickly create a new update for.

Then, I tried to do the same for iOS.

But libSDL2, libSDL2_image, libSDL2_mixer, and libSDL2_ttf all had fairly substantial updates and I wanted to make use of the latest versions.

Well, libSDL2 builds fine, but the other three eliminated their Xcode-iOS projects, so now the only project available is Xcode, which…ok.

But it meant that a straightforward update to Toy Factory Fixer turned into a week of trying to refigure out how to build the project for iOS.

When I tried to build libSDL2_image, for instance, I used the following command:

xcodebuild -scheme "Static Library" -configuration Release -sdk iphoneos SKIP_INSTALL=NO BUILD_DIR=build/SDL2_image-iphoneos

And I got the following error:

error: ApplicationServices is not available when building for iOS. (in target 'Static Library' from project 'SDL_image')

ApplicationServices is a Mac-specific framework, which means that libSDL2_image was trying to build itself using a Mac build configuration.

It is entirely possible that I am trying to build this library incorrectly, and I couldn’t figure out how to use configure/make to more easily specify that it is supposed to be an iOS project.

Eventually, by the end of the week, I found that someone else was having issues with building the libraries and having a slightly different but similar problem.

And that’s when someone pointed out to me that the latest Xcode project updates for SDL2 require Xcode 13. I was still using Xcode 12.

And in order to upgrade to Xcode 13, I needed to finally stop putting off upgrading from Mac OS Catalina.

On top of it all, I needed to do these upgrades anyway, because the App Store requires any new submissions to be done using Xcode 13 anyway.

So I ended my week upgrading from Catalina to Monterey, which looked a little stuck at one point but finished relatively quickly, and then upgrading Xcode which took relatively forever.

Seriously, I don’t understand how long it could possibly take so long to install an Apple-official development IDE on an Apple-official OS. You literally just put files onto the machine, right? I mean, even if it is gigabytes worth of files, what was it doing for hours? From experience, I knew to check to see if it was hiding a dialog box somewhere waiting for me to click Accept or login or something, but I couldn’t find any such thing. I just had to wait.

And by the time it was finished, I ran out of time to take advantage of the upgrades and/or see what changes Apple made that would break my process and build scripts, but I think that since the Github issue was closed recently it means someone else was able to successfully build the libraries just fine, so I hope all will be well with my progress early this coming week.

And if all goes well, then I hope the iOS and Mac updates will get released quickly, so I can finally, finally work on porting Toytles: Leaf Raking leveraging all of this work, too.

Thanks for reading!

Want to learn when I release updates to Toytles: Leaf Raking, Toy Factory Fixer, or about future Freshly Squeezed games I am creating? Sign up for the GBGames Curiosities newsletter, and get the 19-page, full color PDF of the Toy Factory Fixer Player’s Guide for free!

Categories
Game Design Game Development

Quick Daily Game Design Practices

Every day I have a routine. I read a chapter from a book, I do some stretches/exercises, I eat breakfast, I practice Italian lessons with Duolingo, I play Wordle and share my result with my wife, I draw a doodle, etc. All of these don’t take up a lot of time, and some are designed to help me maintain or improve some part of my life.

So how do I improve my game design skills each day?

Recently I was thinking about how having a day job means that I have very little time left in my day to work game development, business development, or anything related to GBGames. Well, I think about it a lot.

But specifically I thought about how it also means I don’t have extra time to improve my craft.

Using a sports metaphor, my game development time is game time, and I don’t usually give myself practice time.

Using a different metaphor, I don’t usually let myself sharpen the saw as I am trying to take advantage of the little time I have to chop wood.

I need better metaphors.

Anyway, years ago (uh, ok, apparently 17 years ago?!), I realized that I didn’t have a lot of game design experience/skill.

10 years later, I thought about what the soft and hard skills of game design would be, but I didn’t have much in the way of answers at the time.

Hard skills are things you can practice outside of any context. Soft skills are usually built upon the hard skills.

Basketball players can practice shooting three-pointers over and over outside of the context of a real game. During a game, knowing when to take a three-point shot is a soft skill, which depends on reading the defense, knowing the shot clock, and keeping in mind the current score.

Game design involves a lot of that latter part. Changing a similar mechanic in two different games might result in two wildly different results, because each game can have complex systems that respond to those changes in different ways. Jumping in checkers works differently from jumping in chess, and so modifying how far a piece can jump would seriously impact the games, but importantly, the change wouldn’t be the same in each game. You would need to pay attention the context of the specific game.

And when you are trying to ship a game in the form of a commercial product, there’s usually only so much time to try things like changing how the mechanic of jumping works, especially when it impacts everything from level design, animation, etc.

Even if you are working on a game without schedule and/or commercial pressure, many significant games take a relatively long time to work on from start to finish.

That’s a long feedback loop to develop your game design skills.

Rami Ismail once suggested that making a game a week as “a challenge that forces aspiring developers to create a high volume of games. That is not the only valid way to gain experience, and it is definitely not reflective of the only type of games you can make. Regardless of what you want to make, going through the full development cycle frequently will make you better at making games.”

A week seems like a good timeline for creating and finishing a small game, for building up the experience of not going making games but also shipping them. A week isn’t too long, nor is it too short, and you can get relatively quick feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

Still, I want to do something daily, not just part of something daily.

When I wanted to get better at drawing, I gave myself the challenge of doing at least one doodle a day. My early doodles are clearly very different in quality to my more recent doodles.

Each day I learned more about anatomy or shading or line weight because along with my doodle I was able to quickly assess it and wonder how to make it better, and then the next day I tried again, maybe after watching a tutorial or reading some advice.

I want a daily game design exercise analogous to the daily doodle that I did to improve my drawing skills.

Ideally, it would be something that takes between 15 minutes to an hour, but still results in something tangible.

So I wrote a list of potential exercises. Some of these come from articles I found online, books such as Challenges for Game Designers and Game Design Workshop, and suggestions from others. I challenged myself to come up with 20 of them:

  • Create as many game themes as I can in 5 minutes
  • Write up a proposed improvement to a single element of an existing game
  • 20 minutes: Create a game using only dice (with rulebook, UI/UX)
  • 20 minutes: Create a game using only cards (with rulebook, UI/UX)
  • 20 minutes: Create a game using only paper/pencil (with rulebook, UI/UX)
  • Analyze a “bad” game, write what made it bad, and propose how it could be improved
  • Keep a game journal – play a game each day and write about choices, feelings, and mechanics that support those feelings
  • Try to change a 1-player game so it accommodates 2 players (or from 2 to 3 players)
  • Revise a chance-based game to not be dependent on chance (Candy Land, War)
  • Add hidden info to a game w/ open/perfect info; analyze impact
  • Take a book/article – list systematic elements of subject (objectives, rules, procedures, resources, conflicts, skills)
  • Deconstruct a game; analyze formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements
  • Deconstruct a board game; watch people play it for the first time; analyze how they learned how to play
  • Create a playtest script – intro, warm-up, play session, discussion, wrap-up
  • Recruit play testers
  • Add a constraints to an existing game
  • Create a 1-page design (see this GDC 2010 presentation by Stone Librande)
  • Change a board game’s dimensions (10×10 vs 12×12 or 6×6 chessboard)
  • 20 minutes: grab a handful of random components from my game design prototype toolbox, play with them
  • Use today’s headline to create a 1st iteration of a game using only one type of component (tiles, dice, cards, etc)

Out of all of these, I liked the last two ideas the most. 20 minutes is a very short time, and I don’t make use of my toolbox as much as I would like. However, unstructured play might be too unconstrained.

Having a daily news headline to work with and the goal of having a 1st iteration of a game completed in that time? It focuses things, plus I can imagine that some news items will be more challenging than others. It’s kind of like xkcd’s daily geocaching hashing in a way.

Yesterday’s news item from NPR was almost perfect as a first attempt at making a game ripped from the headlines: An astronomer thinks alien tech could be on the ocean floor. Not everyone agrees

Eight years ago, a meteor believed to have been 2 feet long entered Earth’s atmosphere at more than 100,000 miles an hour before exploding into tiny, hot fragments and falling into the South Pacific Ocean.

Some scientists believe it came from another star system, which would make it the first known interstellar object of its size to impact Earth.

Now, professor Avi Loeb, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is planning an expedition to retrieve fragments of the meteor from the ocean floor. By analyzing the debris, he is hoping to determine the object’s origins — even going so far as to make the extraordinary suggestion that it could be a technological object created by aliens.

Yet astronomers are wary of his claims, citing a lack of data on the object and insufficient evidence to support his bold conjectures about alien life.

If you read the entire piece, it’s got a needle in a haystack, science drama, a race against time, government/military secrets, and potentially aliens. Wow! If any news can inspire the creation of a game design, it’s this one. Thanks, Kai McNamee!

In my quick gathering of info, I also came across this excellent piece by Ethan Siegel called The Uncensored Guide To ‘Oumuamua, Aliens, And That Harvard Astronomer which talks about how Loeb is bizarrely very quick to attribute things to aliens despite the lack of evidence and seems uninterested in addressing scientific objections from astronomers.

So, I decided to make a game with highlighting and promoting actual scientific thinking as a goal. I picked the name “Avi Loeb Proves Them All Wrong” despite the fact that the game is about the lack of such proof.

The Game Design

Headline Game Design Exercise

To help me constrain the potential scope, I decided to grab the game Iota off my shelf. I could have used a regular deck of cards, but the cards in Iota have numbers, colors, and shapes, which give me some flexibility.

64 of the 66 Iota cards have a number (1 through 4), a color (red, blue, green, or yellow), and a shape (square, circle, plus, and triangle). Two of the cards are wild cards.

I wanted the player to be in the role of running Avi Loeb’s expedition, and the goal was to find pieces of the meteor and hopefully evidence of aliens.

I created 5 piles of 10 face-down cards each, and these piles represented the ocean that is being explored.

I gave the player 4 cards in their starting hand, and the remaining 12 cards were the draw pile, which represented the player’s funding.

Headline Game Design Exercise

Turn order was as follows:

  1. Draw a card from the funds into your hand
  2. Play a card from your hand

I ignored colors, and focused on the shape and numbers on the cards.

Plus cards revealed the top of the piles. A plus card with the number 3 meant that you can reveal three cards. If a pile already has a card revealed, you can’t reveal more from that pile.

Circle cards allowed you to take cards from the piles. A circle card with the number 2 meant that you could take up to two cards. Originally I restricted it to picking from different piles, but I decided to let the player explore a single pile deeply if they wanted to.

Triangle cards allowed you to “ignore evidence”, meaning that you could discard a number of cards from your hand. A triangle card with the number 4 let you discard 4 other cards from your hand.

Square cards originally let you take a card from a pile and reveal the next one, but I decided that square cards represented finding nothing, and they did nothing when in your hand. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I should make them more useful.

Headline Game Design Exercise

Headline Game Design Exercise

I didn’t know how to “win” or “lose” the game yet, but after a couple of playthroughs and rule changes I was reminded that there were wild cards, and so I decided to make them the actual meteor pieces. There are only two of them, so they should be hard to find. I had to ensure that the rules specified that they were shuffled into the ocean part of the deck and not in the funds or the player’s hand.

I decided on victory and loss conditions. The player wins when they collect the two meteor pieces, but loses if they use up all of their funds before then.

Headline Game Design Exercise

Headline Game Design Exercise

Then, to make it more in keeping with the theme about scientific rigor, I wanted the rules to require that in order to convert the wild cards to evidence, you would need to add up the sum of the numbers on triangle cards to at least 4. That is, you could use a single 4 triangle, or a combination of 1, 2, and 3 triangle cards. It required potentially more cards to accomplish and therefore was more difficult. I think.

So triangle cards served two purposes and worked slightly differently depending on if you were ignoring evidence or finding evidence.

Now, why would you use triangle cards to discard cards and ignore evidence? I tried to change the loss condition so that if you have in your hand a combination of 4 of the same number, shape, or color cards (four blue cards or four 3s, for examples), then the evidence was overwhelming and you lost.

I decided to ease up because it was too easy to collect so many cards, and instead if you end up with 4 of a kind, you automatically discard those cards, as you are ignoring the overwhelming evidence in front of you.

But you can use triangle cards to get rid of the cards you choose so that you aren’t forced to discard cards you want to keep.

So in the end, I had a game about exploring an ocean to find evidence of alien technology before your funding runs out, and the need to ignore the greater scientific community’s data to make it possible.

Game Design Lessons from Avi Loeb Proves Them All Wrong

I was able to quickly put together some mechanics that seemed straightforward enough, and the core of drawing a card and playing a card was constant. Effectively, this exercise had me explore a game based around those two actions, and primarily the second action.

On the other hand, I wish I had started with a smaller set of cards. Iota has 66 cards, and I used all of them. It was a bit unwieldy and might have obscured the dynamics because I was simultaneously dealing with figuring out my rule changes AND with the existing how it interacted with the sheer quantity of shuffled cards.

When I had what seemed like an interesting set of rules, I ran into the problem of the game not ending satisfactorily and being too random, so some games were over almost right away and some took forever to end. Having fewer cards might have helped me iterate more quickly.

I tend to start too big. In earlier tile-based games, I would have a what i now see as a massive grid, something on the order of 64×48 or whatever I could fit on a screen.

So the next time I decide to make a tile or card game, I will try to limit the quantity of cards. Maybe I will start with only 10 cards total, and I can always add more if I find it too limiting.

The game also felt too volatile. You are basically guessing what part of the ocean to explore, and while plus cards might make it easier to see what’s available, it is still a very limited view, and you might not get a lot of plus cards in your hand at any given point. I might have been able to ensure the wild cards were near the bottom half of a given pile so that they wouldn’t pop up right away, but it was still random which pile they were in, and with only 12ish turns, you aren’t likely to find them unless you get lucky with circle cards.

In the end, I spent way more time on this game than I intended. I ignored my time constraint completely, so instead of it being a 20 minute exercise, it took much longer. I don’t know, as I didn’t track my time, and part of my time was spent recording my experience here in this blog post.

I know I had a quick initial iteration, and maybe that’s where I should stop for future exercises. Perhaps I should set an actual 20 minute timer, and put my game design tools down at the end, encouraging me to make tighter iteration cycles as fast as I can in that time.

Whatever tweaks I might make to the exercise going forward, I believe I might have found a new daily habit that will help me improve my game design skills.

Categories
Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Improving the New Player Experience

In last week’s report, I was slowly putting together updates for new Google Play requirements and anticipating some work to improve a new player’s experience in Toy Factory Fixer.

I continued the work last week.

Sprint 72: New player onboarding improvements; Google Play requirements

Planned and Complete:

  • Update Android port with new Google Play requirements
  • Make new player onboarding smoother

Unplanned and Complete:

  • Highlight craftable toys in inventory

While I only worked a little more than 5 hours throughout the entire week, I was able to get quite a bit accomplished.

I finished adding the privacy policy into the game. I have in-game help pages, and I reused that code to also add the in-game privacy policy. Most of that work was in the previous sprint, so I basically needed to add the copy and make sure it worked properly.

Toy Factory Fixer in-game privacy policy

Next, since I’ll be putting out an update soon anyway, I wanted to make it easier for new players to know what to do at the beginning of the game.

Watching strangers play my game at 60 FPS Fest weeks ago, I noticed that at the start of a new level, players wouldn’t immediately know to click on the Hire Worker button, which is one of the only buttons that is currently available.

In hindsight, a new player wouldn’t know what part of the screen is interactive or relevant, so they had to take in the entire screen and try to make sense of it all. The Hire Worker button is a relatively small part of that screen, and it is not obvious that it is one of only three buttons that are available AND that it is the only one that is necessary to start playing.

So I added something that I hope won’t be too subtle:

Toy Factory Fixer new player onboarding improvements

Originally I was going to add some text next to the cancel button that said “Hire your first worker” but I thought it would have been easy to miss, and it also wouldn’t appear if the player canceled and got back to this main menu:

Toy Factory Fixer new player onboarding improvements

Once you hire your first worker for the level, then the giant text and arrow goes away.

I keep thinking of other improvements, but they’ll have to wait.

The other observation I made was that new players would often hire workers, then watch the workers separate Bad Toys into parts, then…continue to watch.

It would be nice to have a full-fledged tutorial with triggers to show the player what to do next, but in the absence of that kind of work, I hardcoded something for the first level only.

Basically, if it is the first level, and you haven’t commanded a worker to craft a Good Toy yet, and you have enough toy parts to craft a Good Toy, then you’ll see this also not-so-subtle hint:

Toy Factory Fixer new player onboarding improvements

I decided to add a highlight to the inventory UI, which I hope makes it easier to see when you can start crafting toys in the middle of a more hectic level. It is much more subtle when on its own, but I think it is still helpful.

Toy Factory Fixer new player onboarding improvements

And while trying to make this small change, I discovered a couple of memory leaks and fixed them, thanks to valgrind and my unit tests.

With these changes, I am hoping that when people download and try the game, they are less likely to uninstall right away.

I still need to do a bit more manual testing to ensure I didn’t break anything, but it has been a fairly error-free experience so far, so I expect to get the next release out pretty quickly.

Thanks for reading!

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