Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Conjured enthusiasm

I’m a bit of a fan of Neuro Linguistic Programming. One of the ideas within NLP is you can effectively ‘reverse’ the way behavior and emotions work. Generally, you think that if you are sad, you look sad, you slouch, you look down, you speak low and slowly, your face has certain expressions, etc.

NLP suggests you can reverse that process. You can effectively ‘act’ happy / enthusiastic / confident and so on, and by adopting the posture / voice, actions of someone who feels that way, you actually *do* feel like that, genuinely as a result. I am 100% convinced this can work. I’ve used in hundreds of times, probably thousands. I can assert to the world that I am motivated and energized, and magically it works. If you get the hang of it, it’s an amazing technique.

It’s also something you really need when you start work on a new game, which is what I’ve been doing lately. It’s very easy to look at a few blobs on a screen, with missing text, missing functionality and tell yourself that this game will suck, and you should abandon it. It really doesn’t help if your last game looked nice and shiny, and I think mine did :D.

Apart from weird freaky new-age NLP nonsense, I also find that explaining the game to someone else works wonders. I strongly recommend drawing a diagram on a big chalkboard in your office, and waving your arms about a lot whilst pointing at squiggles and saying how awesome it will be.

The plan is to keep that sort of thing going until you have enough of a game to *really* know if it is going to work or not. My usual strike rate is one in three, meaning there is a 66% chance o me dumping this idea for another one before it goes into full production with artwork etc. I do have an especially good feeling about this one though.

How playing computer games makes you smarter

Occasionally I have the pleasure of spending time with people who are not internet-savvy. People who are not tech-savvy. People who are certainly not geeks. I think I’ve spotted a symptom of non-gameness…

Those people, when presented with information they do not immediately have, for example ‘how to turn this on’ or ‘how do you change the channel on this?’ or similar, will, if at all possible, ask the nearest ‘tech savvy’ person. They will not, under any circumstances, unless the situation is desperate, try to solve the mystery themselves. They definitely will not press a button to see what happens, or go with a hunch.

In short, they are wary of experimenting and exploring.

Gamers, I suspect are not like this. Games are safe environments in which you can explore, investigate, and try out new ideas. With console games, it’s even more true. You can’t accidentally format your console by pressing wrong buttons. You can blindly press things and see what they do. Often, you will guess correctly, and get a nice dose of dopamine for doing so. Hurrah, you learn to associate experimentation with success, and reward.

Compare that with earlier, passive forms of entertainment, such as books, movies and the theater, where there is nothing expected from the audience. They are certainly not encouraged to participate. In fact, any sort of noise from a theater audience can result in anger. Non tech-savvy friends often express barely contained fear that they might press the wrong button and a gadget may explode, possible resulting in the death of millions. Maybe that’s also a generational thing. Health and safety obsessions mean me live in a world that practically has corks on forks. It was not always so.

I think these different approaches lead to different mindsets. The passive entertainment form is great for factory workers, the military, or any career where you are supposed to follow orders, and not step out of line. The interactive form is far better for careers that involve experimentation, creativity, critical thinking, design and originality. As technology marches on, less and less people will be doing simple, assembly line jobs. If your kids are 14 today, they are much more likely to have creative and expressive jobs than people from 50 years ago.

In summary, encourage your kids to play computer games. It’s good for them :D

Ho! Ho! Doh!

There was a bug in Gratuitous Space Battles: Galactic Conquest until today. It was a bit obscure, and very baffling. Basically, in seemingly random circumstances, regardless of file version, people would develop a bug where the campaign backdrop was just plain white. I could not reproduce this. Re-installing seemed to fix it, for *some* people.

Anyway, someone noticed when I asked about it, that a line in campaign.txt storing the background texture name was missing. They had the latest version, and I KNEW that line was in there. It made no sense. Then they noticed that they could paste that line in, when the game was running, and voila, it worked. How weird.

So I looked at my code, and sure enough found some code which overwrites campaign.txt. Old, boring, unused, debug code for doing the campaign editing from about three months ago. This was before that file had this line in it, so because that code had never been updated, it meant that whenever it ran, and  saved out campaign.txt, it overwrote it with a new copy that had no data for the background texture (it used to be hard coded).

What a dork.

But even worse, I had left in this debug code mapped to the ‘H’ key (S was in use), and never remembered to remove it. So if anyone ever pressed ‘H’ during the campaign, it ran.

What a huge dork.

Anyway, it’s gone now. The bad news is, I am obviously a clueless muppet who could not code his way out of a paper bag. The good news is, I fixed this on Christmas Eve. Hurrah! It’s in patch 1.54, you will get it today / tomorrow.

Happy Christmas / Holidays / Festivus / Ascension of Kahless day to everbody!

Where is the market for indie services?

I’m surprised there aren’t more people targeting indie developers, for all platforms, with support services.

By this, I mean all those things that big development studios have dedicated staff for, but for which you can’t possibly employ full time people for as an indie. I already employ quite a few people on small or partial contracts to do this stuff. Such as:

  • An accountant
  • A company to host my websites
  • A company to host the domain name registration
  • A musician (often a different one for each game)
  • Several artists (also different, depending on the game)
  • Advertising management companies (google adwords etc)

I’m obviously pleased with having other people do all this stuff, because frankly, if I had to do all the art, my accounts, compose the music, run a linux web server, etc etc, then my games would be of much lower quality, or take even longer to make.

Like many ‘semi-successful’ indies, I’m now in the position where the bottleneck in terms of future game quality, and sales and success is quite simply ME. I just don’t have enough time to do everything. On the flipside, I don’t vaguely have the money to employ people full time. Nor do I have the inclination to deal with the myriad of bureaucracy and nonsense that the UK govt wishes to burden all companies with (sick-leave, employers liability insurance, pensions, national insurance zzzzzzz….)

However, I would be interested in making use of more people for some stuff in the next game. I’m a long way off needing anyone now, but as that game gets closer to completion, I can see myself seeking out and employing more people, short term to do additional stuff that I’d normally do myself. It just surprises me that there aren’t more companies providing a sort of ‘a-la-carte’ service for stuff like playtesting and balancing, web forum management, website design, art production, platform-porting services etc. It seems slightly inefficient to have to find all these people myself and deal with them individually. How come there aren’t indie-support companies yet?

Sense of progression

Increasingly I find myself drawn to games that have a sense of progression, a feeling of permanence, or some other ‘value’ beyond the immediate sensation of fun. I guess I’m a pretty ambitious, and long-term thinking person, so that naturally spills out into my gaming habits. I want my gaming time to be an investment.

Generally, my games have failed in this area. The very name of GSB suggests that it is pointless, a one-off bit of fun, to be enjoyed purely for the spectacle and the giggles. There is a high score table for the survival mode, but there are no achievements. There are unlockable items, but not a huge proportion of the options are locked. The game is more like a chest full of toys, than it is a linear, scripted and proscribed ladder.

Obviously there are gamers who prefer that. You’ve probably seen Dara O Brian lamenting the fact that he buys a game, but isn’t allowed to play it?

However, although I have some sympathy with that view, I also think that the worst cases of it can be worked around. I always remember my frustration in the D-Day landings part of Medal of Honor. After 15 deaths, I thought “Why the hell doesn’t the game kick in a script where a nearby soldier drags me to safety at this point? We all know I failed metaphorically here, so let me continue with the fun.”

The design of my next game is very much in flux, it’s more like GSB than any other of my other games, but it is not a straight GSB sequel or spin-off. It might be, in some ways, a bit simpler, but it will also have a lot more possibilities in others. It will have more of a feeling of progression than GSB did, and I am pretty sure it will be all the better for it.