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…

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!

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.


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 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!

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 at

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!

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.

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!

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!

Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Slowly Complying with New Android Requirements

In my last report a couple of weeks ago, I finished automating my Mac port work and also got some valuable feedback in the form of observing a number of random strangers play Toy Factory Fixer at a local festival.

I decided to incorporate that feedback into my next update as I prepared my app for new requirements from Google Play.

Sprints 70 and 71: New player onboarding improvements; Google Play requirements

Planned and Incomplete:

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

As has been mentioned in mobile news, both Google and Apple have policy updates that basically say something like “Update your app, or we’ll remove it from our app store.”

For games that get frequent updates and new content all the time, it’s no big deal, but for games that are otherwise considered “finished” by their developers, it’s basically forcing work to ensure the game stays available for players despite the fact that the game would otherwise run just fine.

In my case, the main update I need to do for the Android port of TFF is to change the target SDK, and I figured that I might as well use the latest SDL2 libraries as well.

There is something Google requires related to privacy policy updates, but as my game doesn’t make use of anything that requires such disclosure, it might not apply to me.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t very clear. I had emails announcing the policy changes that said one thing, an Android developer page that said something slightly different, and the actual Google Play policy that said another.

But basically, I felt that I needed to provide my privacy policy text inside the app, not just on my website linked from the Google Play store page. I could just link to the page, but it felt like an app that doesn’t require much should just be able to tell you upfront what it is and isn’t doing.

After almost two weeks, I’m almost done with that work. That’s a long amount of clock time, but it represents very little actual development time. Between going on a short weekend vacation with my family and my father-in-law passing away as we were returning, much of my time these last couple of weeks has been spent tending to family matters.

I expect that I will eventually get the main requirements done, and then I can work on making it easier for new players to know what to do, especially when it comes to hiring the first worker and knowing to command workers to craft Good Toys from parts.

What I hope is that those improvements mean that I’ll see fewer people uninstalling the app in my Google Play and itch metrics.

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!

Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Mac Port Automation Finished, and 60 FPS Fest

In my last report, I mentioned how my back pain was preventing me from making substantial progress in the previous few weeks, and that I was working on automating my Mac port build for Toy Factory Fixer and needing to prepare for a festival.

I continued to do the work as my body let me.

Sprint 69: Ports

Planned and Complete:

  • Automate Mac port

I have been able to sit at my desk for longer periods of time, and so I was able to be a lot more productive than I have in weeks.

I managed to update my libSDL2 libraries so that they could be found properly by my project, but I struggled for some time trying to get CMake to configure my Xcode project so that it would embed and sign those libraries.


This line seems to be needed to get the libraries that are found with FIND_PACKAGE to show up in the “Frameworks, Libraries, and Embedded Content” section of Xcode. But they would be listed as “Do Not Embed”.

    XCODE_EMBED_FRAMEWORKS "${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2.dylib ${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_image.dylib ${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_ttf.dylib ${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_mixer.dylib")

I found a number for forum posts, pull requests, and pieces of CMake documentation, and I felt pretty frustrated that I couldn’t get things to work properly. I made sure to have the latest version of CMake so I had the ability to set XCODE_EMBED_FRAMEWORKS and work with dylibs, but when I did the above, all I got was libSDL2_mixer to show up as “Embed & Sign” while the rest continued to be appear with “Do Not Embed” instead.

I found that no matter how I specified everything, it was always the last library in the list.

Well, luckily, someone runs a great account on Twitter, so when I was frustrated enough to end my day by complaining about my situation, I got a reply that helped me learn more about CMake:

Lists are semicolon separated?!

Now, I’ve used CMake for years, and the documentation has always felt a bit obtuse to me. It is very much a reference document and not meant to be a tutorial.

But I have never known that lists were semicolon separated before.

I mean, even the unit tests for this feature don’t feature semicolon separated elements of a list. They are separated by spaces.

But someone on IRC told me that “Semicolon separated lists is how CMake does lists. It automatically adds the semicolons if you don’t quote your items.”

So the following examples would work out in this manner:

foo bar baz --> "foo;bar;baz"
foo "bar" baz --> "foo;bar;baz"
"foo bar baz" --> "foo bar baz"

So I took some deep breaths to calm myself down, and made the following change:

    XCODE_EMBED_FRAMEWORKS "${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2.dylib;${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_image.dylib;${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_ttf.dylib;${SDL2_LIB_DIRS}/libSDL2_mixer.dylib")

And now all of the libraries show up as “Embed & Sign” like I wanted. Nice!

On a separate note, I learned that properties in CMake similarly have some flexibility in terms of what arguments can be provided.

So I have seen XCODE_EMBED_FRAMEWORKS_CODE_SIGN_ON_COPY take the argument ON in unit tests, TRUE in forum posts, and YES in examples I found on GitHub. And they are all correct, apparently.

One last thing was that I wanted to make sure I could build a release version in Xcode, but the default was Debug. Basically, I wanted to create a release by merely building the project, rather than needing to do a separate archive step.

When creating Makefiles, you can use CMAKE_BUILD_TYPE with arguments as Release or Debug, but Xcode needs you to use CMAKE_CONFIGURATION_TYPES instead.

Of course, I found that even when doing so, the release build it creates is a little different in size from the release build that gets created when using the Archive functionality of Xcode, so it might be a moot point.

Anyway, after I got the Mac port automation done, I wanted to leverage it to create the desktop ports for Toytles: Leaf Raking, but there was a game festival I needed to do some last-minute preparations for.

Last Friday, I had a table at the 3rd 60 FPS Fest, and it was gratifying to hear the first player, an 8-year-old, say, “This is definitely a fun game.” B-)

Toy Factory Fixer at 60 FPS Fest 2022

He also had a lot of ideas for how to make the game better, so I wrote some down. Thanks, Rowan!

One of my favorite pieces of feedback was hearing someone laugh about the toy parts getting “yeeted” to the inventory.

Toy Factory Fixer

I will say it was a bit humbling to see the number of people who struggled to know what to do when they started playing. I know I worked on tweaking the interface to funnel new players to what they needed to do, such as making the START button huge and obvious, or setting the default menu to the Hire Menu so you immediately know you need to hire someone. I also made the workers flash to indicate that you can tap/click on them when you have enough toy parts in inventory to create Good Toys.

And yet, it was very obvious as I watched new players struggle that I still had some work to do to make it more intuitive and easier to figure out how to play the game. Clearly whatever I’ve done so far is too subtle. I especially felt bad when a player felt incompetent or “bad at games” because it felt like a failure on my part to make it enjoyable from the beginning.

So the festival was a successful one, if only because I learned some ways to improve the game, especially for people who won’t have me standing next to them to help when asked. I also got some positive feedback from a number of new fans, including parents who were looking for non-violent, family-friendly entertainment that they could trust.

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!

Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Back Injury Setback, Automation Work

In my last sprint report a couple of weeks ago, I managed to get the Mac port of Toy Factory Fixer published and working properly with music.

I set out to automate some of the Mac port work that had been manually done before.

Sprints 67 and 68: Ports

Planned and Incomplete:

  • Automate Mac port

I mentioned that I hurt my back a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know what I specifically did, other than contort myself earlier in the week to fix a leak under the bathroom sink, and I have not been as diligent about my yoga routine recently. I might have been putting strain on my lower back by leaning forward a lot as I read or worked at my desk, or maybe I was leaning forward because I was already uncomfortable sitting and didn’t realize it.

Either way, I have not been able to comfortably work on anything for a couple of weeks.

Which is frustrating partly because I have been trying to take care of my back so that I didn’t have setbacks like this anymore, and partly because I am getting antsy about moving on to porting Toytles: Leaf Raking and wanting to work on my next project.

Also, 60 FPS Fest is this coming Friday, which is a gaming festival that is free and open to the public, and I will have a booth there. I participated in the first two iterations of the Fest, and I look forward to being part of this one. I was hoping to have a new game in development that I could show off, but it is not looking likely.

Still, it will be the first time I get to show off Toy Factory Fixer in a public venue, and being able to tell people that Toytles: Leaf Raking is available on more platforms will be great as well.

Anyway, I finally had the ability to sit for more than a few seconds without pain, and so I was able to get some automation work done on Toy Factory Fixer’s Mac port, which means that I am that much closer to automating Mac ports generally. Basically, I created a build script that builds the libSDL2 libraries and updates their internal install directory to point to “@executable_path/../Frameworks” and then spent time trying to figure out how to tell CMake to generate an Xcode project that can refer to my custom libraries in the General > Frameworks, Libraries, and Embedded Content section.

Toy Factory Fixer Mac Port

I’m still in a bit of pain, especially when I stand up after sitting for a length of time, but I seem to be getting better each day.

I think getting prepared for the Fest this week should be no problem, assuming I don’t have a setback on top of my setback.

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!

Game Design Game Development Geek / Technical

Freshly Squeezed Progress Report: Mac Port Finished

In last week’s report, I discovered that my Mac port of Toy Factory Fixer had no music.

I set out to fix that issue this past week.

Sprint 66: Ports

Planned and Completed:

  • Create Mac port

About halfway through the week, I hurt my back somehow, which made it painful to sit or otherwise be at my desk, so I only did a couple of hours of work all week. In fact, I might rush through this report because it hurts enough to stand at my makeshift standing desk, which feels slightly better than sitting.

But a couple of hours of game development was enough to figure out that the SDL2_mixer I bundled with my Mac port depended upon libvorbis being installed on the player’s system, which is not what I wanted. I even tried using the configure setting that says to not use shared dynamic libraries, but I later found a forum post saying that it is explicitly disabled for MacOS, so that’s fun to discover.

However, just days before, I saw that libSDL2_mixer had a new update, v2.6.0, that used single-header libraries, so instead of depending on libvorbis, it uses stb_vorbis. I built it, bundled it, and found that the game had music!

So, if you want to get the Mac port, you can get it at below:

Now, what I still need to do is automate some of the steps, and I have been trying to figure out what notarization looks like so that people playing the game on newer Macs don’t get the scary message about how Apple can’t verify the source of the app.

But I think I have enough to get Toytles: Leaf Raking ported fairly quickly. We’ll see how my back feels after my doctor appointment.

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!