kaminazo

Level design career quest chronicle and other game-related nonsense.

iDesign Therefor iPad, Part II: Codea

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A commenter on Kaminazo just referred me to a more sophisticated game editor for iPad. It’s called Codea. Available directly on the App Store from Two Lives Left for $9.99.

Finally, I have what I’ve been wanting since I began using Game Salad: an editor program that functions directly on the peripheral. Now I can create games from my mobile device and test them directly on it in real-time as I program.

Codea uses a programming language called Lua that I am not familiar with. But after previewing its functionality on YouTube and checking out the in-App tutorials and sample projects, LUA doesn’t seem much different from all the other scripting languages I’ve encountered. The App also gave me access to forums and tutorials on the basics of both Codea and Lua.

I’m most excited about the potential for designing 3D environments. Perhaps this format will be good for the tower defense game I’ve been working on.

As I delve deeper into Codea and begin working through the tutorials and beginning stages of design, I’ll blog again.

If you’d like to see Codea in action, check out this video:

Codea on YouTube

Algorithms

The answer...is three.

The answer…is three.

“We’ve updated our algorithm so the hardest enemies don’t spawn until you reach higher levels.”

I’ve heard this phrase, or derivatives of this phrase, ad nauseam since I started learning game design. “What the heck does that even mean: updated our algorithm?” I told myself. At first, I thought it was just a fancy word game designers threw around to simplify an update they couldn’t really explain. I resigned myself to the idea of an intangible string of complex mathematics on a scientist’s blackboard that I’d never understand. I just figured they were above my head and I’d never understand the concept, or how to write them.

The fantasy of the algorithm in Hollywood is a hacker circumventing the complex electronic lock on a steel vault. “My mojo is way better than this corporate hack’s algorithm. Cracking it will be a cinch.” Turns out I’ve been making those algorithms all along. Of course, they’re much simpler and not used for security systems.

Hail to the 90's.

Hail to the 90’s.

All games use some form of algorithm. In the past, I had referred to it as “game logic.” It’s an OK term, but we should use new vernacular. It was exciting to learn that I had been doing something I thought was reserved for mathematicians. They look and function exactly like a flow chart. There’s a question that goes through a series of causative statements, following the pathways until it arrives at a final output. Let’s deconstruct the idea of an algorithm into practical terms to better understand it.

Say we’ve got an actor, let’s call her GunGirl. We’ve placed GunGirl in our level. Now let’s make an attribute for her, we’ll call it “dead.” It’s a boolean attribute, which means it produces two outputs: true or false. Let’s set the default to false. When the level starts, there’s GunGirl, and she’s alive.

Now let’s put another actor on the floor in front of her. We’ll call this one “grenade.” Let’s pretend it has a timer set to zero. So when the level starts, it explodes. Now let’s tell GunGirl that “if grenade time = 0, and GunGirl position < grenade position + 5, set “dead” = true.”

The game starts. GunGirl has about a split-friggin’ second to live. It’s just long enough to notice something at her feet…BOOM! Grenade explodes, Gungirl’s position is checked against the blast radius of the grenade, “dead” outputs true, and GunGirl goes “POOF .”

That’s an algorithm.

Now, I just had this thought: “Maybe all this time I was confusing the word algorithm with logarithm.” Turns out that it’s just a case of continents vs. countries. Logarithms are the smaller calculations (mathematical formulas) that help the more complex algorithm. A logarithm’s basic function is to search a list of things, or log, in the most efficient way possible. Then it retrieves an answer and gives it to papa algorithm. Think of logarithms like little slobbery golden retrievers. Some algorithms even contain little sub-algorithms that behave like logarithms. When logarithms get to their smaller, programming language selves, that’s when they become the math-heavy enigmas that are best left for programmers.

Let’s look at the if/then statement we created before. Something has to govern whether the grenade timer counts down, the radius of the grenade and GunGirl overlap, and whether GunGirl is alive or dead. There’s actually about a dozen more sub-algorithms the game engine has to check, plus an exponential amount of little logarithmic calculations before our parent algorithm resolves. Each one of these actions can potentially trigger another algorithm. They’re all part of a massive web of causes and effects that make a game function.

If you get the chance to use a program like GameSalad, Creation Kit, or UDK, you’ll find that creating algorithms is 75% of game design and 100% of what makes a game function. Learning how to make them, and simplify them to their most basic math is fundamental for a game designer, in my humble opinion.

An algorithm, as seen in GameSalad.

An algorithm, as seen in GameSalad.

 

An algorithm, as seen in the dialogue tree of a Skyrim character's attributes in the Creation Kit.

An algorithm, as seen in the dialogue tree of a Skyrim character’s attributes in the Creation Kit.

 

Another algorithm, as seen in Unreal Kismet in UDK.

Another algorithm, as seen in Unreal Kismet in UDK.

Now, hopefully, we understand the phrase at the top. For fun, let’s put it in the context of ice cream, cuz who doesn’t like ice cream?! If Baskin Robbins has 31 flavours of ice cream, they’re bound to have some nasty ones that didn’t make the cut. A child who has never had ice cream before (lvl 1 N00b) will go for the flavors that are easiest to swallow: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, chocolate chip. A man with a clipboard (we’ll call him Assistant Manager Logarithm) records the number of cones each customer buys. The flavours that aren’t popular with the younger customers are now put in a separate place. That’s the job of Senior Manager Algorithm. The craziest flavors, like mint popcorn coffee marshmallow surprise, are only given to long-term return customers (lvl 100 badass). These guys are much more likely to try them and stick around to try another, instead of running out of the store vomiting.

Get it?

Interrogative Games Pt. 2

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The easiest of easy questions I wrote for level 0 noobs.

Let me outline a few quick things that come to mind when before I attempt to recap the editing process I went through in collaboration with Plain Vanilla Games, the makers of Quiz Up.

1. Not everyone wants quality when they’re on a deadline. In fact, most will settle for anything in high quantity as long as it functions.

2. Teenagers make awful collaborators.

3. Free labor/internships afford you all the work and none of the control.

4. Published doesn’t mean available.

5. If you put in the effort and communicate with your industry contact, they’ll give you better tasks.

6. None of it matters once it’s out there. You can always update.

I guess that about covers my experience with the Anime topic project for Quiz Up. I mentioned before that I was given editing rights to a document of 600+ questions. It took a few days to go through them all. The file had a list of contributors with editing rights and access to the file who had added questions in a random and unsupervised capacity.

I started adding my own questions to the file before tackling the existing questions. Lots of them were already flagged for problems like going over the maximum character limit for use in the game. One of my contacts at the game company told me that most of the contributors were teenagers with poor writing skills. I sorted them all by title to get a grasp of how balanced the question pool was and added my contributor tag (D.G.) to all of my own content to keep it straight. After putting in about 30 hours proofreading, editing, and organizing the file it was ready to go.

Then, trolls. A few days later I logged in to add ten more questions. Someone had done a little editing of their own. I’m guessing that someone didn’t like all the work I had done and decided to delete about 50 of my questions, rewrite some of them, remove my contributor tag, and revert all the questions they had written to their original form. They undid lots of hours of work.

So, I did my best to go back through and fix the immediate problems. I emailed my contact and he booted the person responsible. I went through one last time and flagged all his poorly written, typo-filled questions quickly with a comment marker. I wasn’t about to redo all that work. It was an unfortunate thing that had happened.

Later the same contact emailed me back saying he was reinviting the culprit to edit the file after it was published in its current form. Salt in the wound. It’s hard not to take something personally when you’ve put a lot of quality effort into it.  So I was done.

I stood my ground and told them how unprofessional and unfortunate it was for the game to allow this user to stay. They agreed. A day or so later, they offered me the chance to write the topic description and reward titles for Anime and Avatar: the Last Airbender. A nice little consolation prize.

The topic was published a few days ago. But, it hadn’t posted until yesterday. I obsessively checked the game every day until it finally showed up. Apple takes a few days or so to approve even small updates.

The 40 or so questions with bad editing do bother me when I play the game, but the community of players it has created were worth it. It’s in the list of the most popular categories still. Most of the people I play have already grinded their way up to level 30. That includes people from all over the world. It’s quite an amazing feeling to have something you’ve created entertain the world.

Like I said before, once it’s out there all the drama just doesn’t matter. There’s always future updates to make it even better. I encourage you to download the game and give it a try.

Interrogative Games

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The lightning bolt is for…answering questions…fast!

Recently, my wife and I have been playing a trivia app game called Quiz Up. It’s a fast-paced trivia game where you race against a random parter to answer questions about your favorite topics. The topics range anywhere from Logos to Star Trek. It’s wickedly fun and has a lot of little perks that make gaining experience fun. There’s also a wide enough pool of questions that you don’t revisit the same ones much, if at all.

Quiz Up is made by a small app development company out of Reykjavík called Plain Vanilla Games. The company allows users to submit a 15-question application for potential submission to the game. You even unlock an achievement if your content is used in the game.

Recently, I did just that. I submitted two applications. Rather than expand on an existing topic, I wanted to create a new topic for Quiz Up. Under the TV category, there’s an Animation subcategory. But, it’s very broad and general. It contains a lot of questions about animation like cartoons or movies from Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks. I wanted more anime.

I received emails back almost immediately from two Content Editors with Plain Vanilla Games. They said that they were psyched about an Anime category. Apparently there was a big enough demand for the topic. I spent the next week writing 130 new questions and answers (1 right, 3 wrong). I came up with a list of 100+ mainstream anime that I felt should have some presence in the quiz.

After some correspondence with the Editors, they expressed their need for someone with more anime knowledge. So I just asked and they were thrilled! Now I have access to their files and am the official Content Editor of the anime category on Quiz Up! Yay!

But, I inherited their master list of submissions (over 600 unedited questions from random users) and it’s a bit of a mess. I’ve got my work cut out for me. Hopefully in the coming weeks, you can play my new anime category live on Quiz Up!

I’d say this is my second game design career win after Tanner’s Ridge Treehouse: something I can actually put on my CV!

The “Impossibles” Genre

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50 grand a day on ad revenue for 3 days of work. Wow.

Clearly you’ve been missing out if you didn’t get a chance to play Flappy Bird before it was pulled from the AppStore recently. It’s an impressively simple and addicting infinite side scroller designed by one guy in three days. Luckily I still have it. And I’m using it as a basis for my own project: “Finish a damned game already, will you?”

So the recipe is: one part 8-bit graphics, one part cute and familiar character, two parts obstacles and simple touch movements, infinite parts scrolling, and zero parts beatable. The impossible genre meaning that the game is ridiculously hard even though it’s childishly simple to play, and goes on forever with no real end. I decided to go back to GameSalad to design this type of game.

The game is called Burger Bounce. My love of Z-axis design is obvious in this one. You are a burger that is falling from some unknown height, and you must poot air out to the left and right to avoid hitting clouds that slow you down. When you reach the bottom, you get stars for how high you can bounce. The fewer clouds you hit, the higher you bounce off the ground. It’s not infinite, but it is simple.

I plan on making ten levels for the Free Version of the game. Perhaps it will end up on the AppStore in the future.

Castle Craft

I’ve decided to design a tower defense game in 3D using UDK, 3DSMax, and Photoshop. It’s a very ambitious design and I’ve started a dedicated notebook just for it. As I work on game mechanics and design, I’ll throw up my ideas on here. The working title for the project is Castle Craft. Though, unfortunately that name has been taken by what may be a very playable game, but with terrible visuals. I hope to publish it on iOS at some point in the future when I can get the most out of my developers license.

Project Treehouse

treehouse

I finally struck gold.

A mod I created made the Hot Files section of Skyrim Nexus. But it wasn’t without a ton of work, some collaboration, and lots of headaches. I’m very proud of this project because it opened up some new opportunities for me in the future and spawned a new level of expertise for future Creation Kit mods.

To see the mod page click here.

The treehouse of my dreams…or my character’s dreams.

I wanted three things when I started fleshing out this project: a gorgeous yet simple player house, a difficult quest to acquire it (even for hyper-leveled veteran characters), and a unique character with an original voice track.

The idea started when I was watching the Winnie the Pooh movie with my friend’s three year old daughter. Tigger in the movie is searching for his family, and in the process the audience gets to see his beautifully illustrated treehouse quite a bit. “I want to store all my weapons in there,” I thought. “I could totally sculpt that around an Eldergleam tree in the CK,” I started to get excited. Inspiration always grabs ahold of me in the strangest places.

The first step was all aesthetic. I spent weeks making the treehouse interior and exterior in separate empty cells. Working directly in the worldspace locations is a nightmare because of the cell seams and load times of all the vanilla static meshes. Not to mention that it’s super-easy to screw up the vanilla game accidentally if you work in an existing cell. Once the interior designs were finished up, I could just rename the cell and link it to the exterior one in the worldspace. Upon respawning inside it, the player wouldn’t know the difference.

The exterior cell, however, is a whole different story. I designed it to mimic the interior as much as possible, accounting for all the space required for the necessary living components (bed, storage, enchanter, mannequins, etc.). But, the outside was still a bit smaller than the inside. Almost negligible to the average player. We call this a “tardis-effect” because the inside is bigger than the outside like the T.A.R.D.I.S. on Doctor Who. But Skyrim is magic, right? Once the kinks were worked out in the design, adding it to the worldspace for tweaking is as simple as copy/paste. Thus begins the delicate job of tweaking, making adjustments, and testing.

I needed help.

This was already becoming a massive project. I had invested almost 100 hours and there were hurdles coming up that I knew I couldn’t handle on my own. On my previous mod (The Bottomless Pit) I had the pleasure of meeting another modder who was kind enough to playtest the mod for me in several versions. Her feedback and perspective was so helpful that I decided to bring her in on the project. Now I have a design team!

The Treehouse is my first real collaborative mod, and being a project lead was incredibly challenging, but rewarding. This particular pairing was nice because her expertise fell in the places where mine suffered and vise versa. Both of us had experience with player house modding, however. Not being familiar with how to simul-mod on the same file, we decided to trade the .esp file back and forth. Her first turn came when I thought I had nailed down the design of the Treehouse, placed it in the world, and decorated it with all the necessary components, inside and out. I wanted to give her a run at it to playtest and make sure the file operated properly on an unfamiliar system/ with a different savefile. This process was key to our success throughout the collaboration.

Waiting is a bitch.

The process of trading the file was necessary but excruciating. Being at the whim of another person’s schedule is a headache when you’re eager to release a project. But, the upside is that you get to take a break, work on other things, and come back fresh afterward with new perspective and catch things your hadn’t your first time around. Spintochick (her handle) was a stellar collaborator. When I got the file back she had created a work log for us to keep track of versioning and log our changes or any problems we encountered. She also made a list of things she wanted to accomplish on the next runthrough. This gave me a clear goal of what I needed to accomplish before giving the file back to her. Her organization made me a better modder.

I had to learn to balance creative compromise and my own ego.

This was my baby. I wasn’t about to let it fail, and I surely wasn’t going to release something I didn’t like. Working with a second person and letting them wholly enter the creative process was something I hadn’t prepared myself for. When it came time to tackle character creation, I really wanted a female perspective. I took a leap and made spintochick the character designer. I gave her a few guidelines to start with: female, strong-willed, archer/hunter. The treehouse was this character’s property for some reason, and through completing her quest, it would be given to the player. Spintochick knew more about Skyrim lore than I did, and I valued her opinions. She was in charge, from her back story, to her look, to her voice. This is where it got rocky.

It’s not good enough. Now what?

To her credit, she did an amazing amount of work in a very short amount of time. The character design was wonderful: a dark elf, Bosmer, with a cool outfit and bow. She even had a back story about the character, she named her Treebark, that was lore-friendly and quite in-depth. But the dialogue was forced, and the performance was dry. The first change we decided was to add a more relatable first name that had something to do with hunting. Tanner Treebark was born. But what to do about the dialogue?

Editor vs. Artist

I rewrote it. Not from scratch, but I did attempt to make the dialogue more immersive (natural-sounding). Maybe it was the English teacher in me, but I felt it really lacked any genuine emotion. Keeping the setting and information the same I cut the lines in half. Less is more when acting. I also added some flavorful responses; A “You’re useless.” here and there goes a long way toward suspending disbelief in a performance. I’m glad I took the initiative to rewrite the script. Her second performance was better. She even had professional recording equipment to use, masking microphone distortion and plosives. It was acceptable, but I still wasn’t happy.

I know it’s cliche, but British English makes a better elf.

At that time, I lived in the same building as another English instructor who happened to be from Nottingham, England. I recorded the lines myself to get the proper inflections and emotion I sought for each line. Using them as placeholders, Amy and I listened to each one to give her an idea of what to aim for. She blew me away with her performance. Getting someone completely removed from the project to act out the dialogue was a good move. But as part of the compromise, we released the file with both American and British English versions. Let the people decide.

Quest programming, scripting, and boss fights, Oh my!

It was ambitious. It was way over my head. But I did it! Now that the character, story, and locations were intact, I had to drop in some bosses for a fight. I wanted it to be really hard. Afterall, this house was awesome. I wasn’t gonna just give it away! Spriggans are cool. They’re made of trees. Who better to protect a magical treehouse? I manufactured my own unique spriggans from the game template, beefing them up and making their spells stronger. I also added in some leveled wild animal spawn points nearby. Spriggans have the ability to call animals to fight for them. This combination made for a pretty wicked battle. During playtesting I even had one spriggan call out a dragon from the nearby hills. To get it to work properly required a lot of scripting. I felt pretty good when it was completed.

Tanner requires the player to bring her the head of a spriggan as proof that the deed was done. This was partly my frustration with the vanilla game quests. Characters never required proof of your accomplishments. They’d usually give you a reward without hesitation, which is odd. So I got some practice with texture skinning and static meshing. I truncated the head from the spriggan mesh and edited the skin in photoshop. Then I reinserted it into the game and made it a quest object that the boss would drop upon clearing the area of all threats. (It was really hard.)

Navmeshing is the root of all evil.

Luckily spintochick had some experience navmeshing. She was actually quite excited to do it. Navmeshing is the process of covering the walking surface of a level with flat polygonal pathways to tell an NPC character where they can/cannot move in the environment. That way they don’t run into a wall and keep trying to walk through it endlessly. Unfortunately, she did edit some of the original navmeshes that are required by the game engine to function properly on some systems. It works for 99% of all users, but for the unlucky 1% the game crashes. To remedy the problem I’d have to go back and redo the entire outdoor cell (5 of them) from scratch. Maybe some day I’ll get around to it.

Advertising is key.

I started a comment thread on the Nexus forums around this time to figure out what the best ways are to advertise a mod. I needed some ideas of where to start incepting people and get them talking about the mod. I worked in photoshop and iMovie to make a video trailer, and graphic support materials for the mod page. I also reached out to a friend from the modding community Nightskia to take a photo series of the mod.

Packing a .BSA was made easier!

Once we had playtested the hell out of the mod, I packed the file into a .bsa to compile all of the new voice files and meshes for installation convenience. Luckily programs exist to do this for you simply. We did another round of testing, and some friends from the community offered their opinions and we tweaked it slowly until it seemed ready to post.

Hot File section: the best place to get famous.

Within the first few hours, the mod took off like crazy. I had 1,000 downloads before I could blink. Then the site went down! I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Nexus had a scheduled downtime for server repairs for a full 24 hours, which sucked because the new files section on the main page only shows the six most recent uploads. This makes the first 24 hours really important. But thankfully enough people saw it that when the site went back up, my mod was right there in the Hot Files section. From there the downloads were exponential.

Tanner Treehouse was a huge success.

There are still plenty of bugs and the mod is far from perfect, but the response has been incredible. It makes me confident that I could do this for a living in the future and actually be successful. But it is essential to work with a team of collaborators to make the initial release a success. Since the release, I have been approached by Project Morroblivion to work on their game, as well as many other modders looking for skilled game and level designers. Unfortunately I did just start a new job back in August, and it has cut significantly into the amount of game-related projects I can do. Hopefully there will be more to come after the New Year, so stay posted.

Here’s some community response to the mod on YouTube:

Mechanics of a Collectable Card Game

For the last few months, I have been absolutely engrossed in a new iOS app game called Star Trek Rivals. Pending the release of the new movie here in Japan, this my way of satisfying my need for Star Trek while I patiently wait the release of Into Darkness.

Edit: Saw the new movie and it’s amazing. I can’t wait for new game content to be released!

Star Trek Rivals is a very basic play-by-play iOS app. Players take turns like chess, sending each other game moves which they can respond to at their own leisure. This seems to be a very popular style of app game because of the turn by turn freedom it allows the user. Mobile gamers don’t necessarily have hours to devote to play in a single sitting.

EDIT: I originally branded this as a Game Center app, but for some reason the creators cannot sync STRivals through GameCenter to allow leaderboards and friend matches. Instead basic versions of these features are available in-game. As of now they have no plans of integrating the app with Game Center.

I was lucky enough to start playing this game and become involved with the STRivals community in its infancy. This gave me some inside knowledge and clout as the game progressed through updates and the designers reached out to the community for suggestions.

Cards in STRivals are arbitrarily branded (according to lead designer Thomas Kastner) with an object or character from the J.J.Abrams reboot of the original Star Trek series starting with the movie in 2009. Each card is given a rank and four numbers attached each of the cardinal directions of its face. Based on the strength of the numbers, the rank is higher. There are four ranks: tin, bronze, silver, and gold. Each card then has an upgraded, or Elite, counterpart with stronger numbers and two bars below its rank.

The game is very similar to a mini game from Final Fantasy VIII called Triple Triad, a fact that was tossed around during the first week on the community pages. Whether that’s merely a coincidence, or if the game design was appropriated, has not been revealed. As for this game, each player is given five cards at random from their “card deck.” The card deck is less of a deck and more of a collection. The player who initiated the game goes first by placing a card on a grid of nine spots. This is where the first game mechanic comes into play: a “random” five-card hand. According to one designer, it is actually an algorithm that chooses cards based on your opponent’s “strength” to try and match your cards to one another. That way neither player has a clear advantage. Though, the effectiveness of this algorithm is the subject of much debate, as the pool does seem completely random and unfair at times.

EDIT: It has been confirmed that no such algorithm exists, and all random hands are just that—completely random. (Kastner)

Players take turns placing cards around one another on the 3×3 grid. If the numbers that touch one another are higher value, then they change from red to blue. Your score is tallied according to the number of blue cards on the board, plus the number of cards in your hand. The player lucky enough to go first is also the person to play last. This brings in the second game mechanic: evening the board. Since there are only nine spaces on the board, yet each player has a hand of five cards, the person who goes second does not get to play their last card. So to make it “fair” the remaining card is always awarded one point. So even if the board is completely red when the last card is played, the score will still be 1-9.

The reason STRivals is so addicting is because the game is so simple. It takes very little time to play a game, but a very long time to master and complete your card collection. There are many strategies you can use to outwit your opponent, but even the best strategies are limited by your knowledge of all the 172 cards and how well you can place your randomly chosen hand in only five plays against your opponent’s. Of course the game has paid “cheats” a player can buy that allow them a better chance of winning. There are also various techniques players have used to maximize their winning potential.

As you win matches and level up, you earn rewards in the form of credits (red) and Latinum (yellow). Each match yields a maximum of 300 credits and a minimum of 150. (You get more by playing with Facebook friends or people added with a friend code.) Each level increase earns you 2 Latinum at the lower levels all the way up to 12 at higher levels. Possibly higher than 12, though I have not achieved levels that high yet. Credits can be spent on new cards (blue) in the form of packs. A Cadet pack gives you 5 cards at a cost of 1,000 credits with a chance for one “powerful” card. An Ensign pack yields 10 cards at a cost of 2,500 credits with a chance for two “powerful” cards. The algorithm used to generate random cards in these packs is still under question for the percentage of gold and silver cards vs. cost. Community estimates put it somewhere around a 1.5% chance to get S/G cards for ensign packs and 1% for cadet packs.

EDIT: In more recent updates of the game, the percent chance for randomly generated “powerful” cards in packs has been decreased. The percentages have been skewed to less than 1% for both Ensign and Cadet Packs and the exact figures are still unknown. (Results from 1,000 card pool from Cadet and Ensign Packs.)

For Latinum, however, players can buy much more. Both credits and Latinum can be purchased with micro transactions for increasing dollar amounts. Each card in the game has a cost in Latinum. This quickly gave rise to so called “money decks” where people simply buy only the most powerful cards and subsequently “rare smash” their opponents lower numbered cards. Latinum can also be used to buy card packs with an increased chance for powerful cards. But since the percent chance is still unknown, some players are disappointed when they spend 200 Latinum on an Admiral pack (the most expensive one in the game) and are given no gold cards (STRivals Community Facebook member testimony). The final thing Latinum can be used for is to literally cheat during the game. A player can spend 5 Latinum at the beginning of every hand to throw back the five randomly chosen cards from their hand and choose five, themselves. These would likely just be the five most powerful cards available. They can also, at any time during the game, spend 5 Latinum to look at the cards in their opponent’s hand or swap unwanted cards from their hand.

Balancing the ethics of fair gaming and profitability is becoming increasingly difficult because of game elements like micro transactions. Especially in cases where the game is strictly player vs. player. There are a few things Elephant Mouse has done to offset these questionably unethical mechanics to offer the average player a chance of attaining better cards faster, while still making money on their product.

EDIT: There are many additional perks and special events that have been implemented to cater to players in the latest updates.

The first is a “sale of the day” card. Every 24 hours a new random card goes 60% off in the STRivals store. This is a great way for players to use their level rewards to purchase silver and gold cards. The second way is by making card packs available for purchase with credits. Even though the chances are low, I have pulled some very good gold and silver cards from both cadet and ensign packs. The third is promotional codes. Randomly given out for acts of kindness or enthusiastic fandom, the Star Trek Rivals community on Facebook and Twitter has awarded several of these. I was awarded a promotional code worth 50 Latinum for making a fake card of the day series on the Facebook page.

In the update version 1.2, two more perks were added. If you log into the game once every 24 hours, you are given a free card. You can opt out of that card for a chance at a more powerful card the next day until it maxes out. But, if you fail to log in within 24 hours, it resets. Also, now every time you level up, in addition to Latinum, you are given a chance to purchase a random card at 75% off its normal price. This is a massive discount that can fortify even the lowest level players to compete with the money decks. This is great for lower-level players, but bad for veteran players. Now the noobs can power-creep up much faster and achieve amazing collections 20-30 levels sooner. Each level-up discount card is predetermined, so if you were already level 50 when that mechanic was implemented, you just missed out on 50 amazing cards. The worst of which is level 38: Red Matter (the most rare card in the game). I was level 54 when the level-up reward card was implemented. I’m level 82 now and still have yet to get a crack at Red Matter. But many of my 40-something level friends have at least one.

One inevitable trend that has evolved with the increasing popularity of STRivals is a phenomenon called “tin-tossing.” The lowest card ranks are tin and bronze. Your card deck is comprised of all the cards you have collected, which normally includes a higher frequency of tins and bronzes. You can, however, sell any card in your collection for credits or upgrade them to an elite version if you have several copies of the same card. Since the random five card hand is chosen from this collection, the higher frequency of golds and silvers you have, the better the chances that you will draw them. Power players maximize their deck’s rare-smashing capacity by selling, or “tossing,” all their tin and bronze cards, only keeping the rares.

Normally, this would be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. It is a very logical way to win. But the problem is that STRivals is branded as a Collectable card game. Yet, there are no perks for maintaining a collection. No benefits. No reason other than to see a higher number in the collection stats: ?/172. So then the designers are communicating to the players that these cards are worthless to us, especially at higher levels. The tins and bronzes make up over half of the entire card pool: 106 out of the 172 cards. So it is a bit disheartening to be forced to discard them in order to progress. As an avid fan of Collectable card games like Magic: the Gathering, I’m waiting for the designers to even the playing field and actually make the game Collectable by adding incentives.

So far the community seems split between the tin-tossers and the collectors: the TT’s becoming synonymous with the money deck players and the collectors being left behind with the noobs. The divide is still very much extant now that the community has expanded and people have had time to level up naturally. A split community has evolved for the tin-tossers and the collectors, the money-players and the noobs. And the only time the two meet up are during friend-code Fridays (when players publish their game ID’s) or in Radom Rival modes. Otherwise, there’s not much point for the two groups to play one another, unless they are feeling rather sadistic or masochistic, or farming for credits.

The STRivals community moderators have consistently asked for feedback and suggestions on the game mechanics, which is amazing practice for junior designers like myself. So far, the designers have implemented several community suggested improvements to the game that have become a reality in one of the many previous updates. The best example being the addition of a Warp-Speed Game mode in the Random Rivals menu. In this game mode, the time-out clock on active games has been reduced to only 1 hour. There was adequate and long-lasting community outcry to reduce the game timeout clock for random games. Originally, the game clock was set at 7 days. This resulted in many of a player’s collected cards being stranded in games with an inactive or delinquent player. So they reduced it to 36 hours. Yet, cards were still stranded in games. (The player is unable to start any new matches if their card deck is reduced to below 5, and unable to reuse the same cards in multiple games.) A Facebook Community member suggested the new game mode with reduced rewards called Warp-Speed that would let players keep many active games going and keep their collection fresh. Later, they also removed the upgrade ban on cards that were stuck in games. (You still can’t sell a card that is in an active game.)

Another feature added by popular suggestion was an in-game chat function. Because of some annoying game mechanics, this chat function seemed necessary to many players. The first of these annoyances was the Rematch button. Since the game is turn-based, the player who played first also plays last (a huge advantage over the other player) and thus sees the victory screen first. They then get to decide whether to rematch, regardless of whether they won or lost. The player who rematches first is also the player who plays first on the next game. This means that a power-player can latch onto a noob and rare-smash them repeatedly, always playing first and last and rematching. Rinse, Repeat. There is no function to deny a match request, so the weaker player is forced to try and ignore the active game (which is really difficult because of the yellow rematch button and lack of knowing if an active game is a new match request), let it time out, or suffer through games with a sadistic opponent and always lose. Most instances of this cycle were less antagonistic. Some high-level players are merely seeking to maximize their credit and experience-farming techniques and have a constant flow of active games. The weak players were getting swept up in this practice. Now with the in-game chat function, a player can just request them to not rematch.

I have been on both sides of this coin. Sometimes requesting the player to stop rematching, other times being told to quit rematching them. Now it’s nice to know. It’s also a great way to chat about the game, the movies, the tv show, and trade friend codes with like players you come across in random matches. Originally the game functioned largely on a US-time zone community, as well. So it was difficult to find active players during my peak gaming hours in Japan. It was also frustrating for the US players because I was asleep when they were active. Now when I find a player with my same hours of operation, I can send them a message and add them.

By far my favorite improvement, however, is the Game Mission. Now players can complete goals in order to earn a free Admiral Pack. My hope is that the list of goals will be altered, or that further missions will be added in the future. But this is the closest thing to collection perks (my request to the designers) I’ve seen thus far. By recruiting 5 friends, seeing them level-up 20 times, attaining a flawless 9-1 victory, upgrading a standard card to elite, and so on, a player can have a chance at the most powerful card pack in the game. I have since opened my free pack, which contained two gold cards and two silver cards. Unfortunately, I had to re-complete all the goals since I had already done them before that game element was added. None of the added game perks have been “grandfathered” in for old players thus far. But it was a nice boost to my card deck.

Perhaps now that the second Star Trek movie has been released in all regions (I just saw it in Japan) Elephant Mouse can add more cards to the collection. I requested that they wait until it had been released here so as not to spoil it for the non-US Residents.

Star Trek Rivals is very addictive game from a relatively small game company that has captured the hearts of Star Trek fans. It has also been an interesting experience to witness its evolution from update to update. The amount of game improvements and updates from the original format and mechanics of the game has been staggering. I couldn’t imagine going back to the way the game was in its infancy. There are still many aspects that could use some improvement, however. In future updates I would like to see more cards. Perhaps even another tab above Standard and Elite in the Card Deck. I’d call this new ranked set of cards Prime and include some of the people and ships from the new movie: like Gun Slinger Khan, Emotionally Compromised Spock, Starship Vengeance, the Cold Fusion Device, and the Secret Weapon Missiles.

I’d also like to see a Deny Rematch button on new active games, or for the rematch option to be removed from the victory screen. This way, only the losing player can decide to rematch and each player gets equal opportunity to play first. The downside is that it will remove a happy glitch where two active games are possible with the same friend at the same time if both players hit rematch.

One further mechanic that would keep me playing are collection rewards. Perhaps a Side Mission checklist that rewards players with a unique card upon completion. The side mission goals would be things like: collect 1 copy of each tin, collect 3 copies of each tin, upgrade a complete row of tins to elite, collect one copy of all tins and bronze, etc. For each side mission completed, you unlock a unique card in your collection. But if at any time you sell down below the required amount, you fail that mission and lose the unique card. These unique cards could be extremely powerful, or just aesthetically pleasing. Cards without weaknesses on one side would also be adequate. I imagine unlocking a card once I’ve collected all the standard tins that has 6’s on all sides and a reflective foil or animated image of something like Khan’s secret base on Chronos. Although it would be difficult to offer enough incentive to collect and keep 4-16 low value cards in order to unlock only one powerful card. There would need to be more balance added. Perhaps being able to “turn off” cards you don’t want in your deck once you have completed the set.

I would also like to see the level cap removed. I am quickly approaching it and a player just recently reached level 99 for the first time. I have bought latinum several times on my account, and I’m sure I will not have completed the entire collection of elite golds by that point, so it would be nice to have some incentive to continue past 99. Perhaps to Ambassador Rank? Or at 100 you could defect from the Federation and rise up the ranks of some other faction…? I would like more opportunities to get the standard and elite gold cards. Even a new higher rank of cards in these sets with a purple dilithium medal could extend the life and replay value of this game for veteran players and reduce power-creep if they are only unlock-able past level 99 (and not available in daily deals and card packs at lower levels).

Past that, it seems necessary to regulate regular rival play (non-friend) by their level rank and card collection strength. Once you reach a certain level (40-50), and are able to balance your tin/bronze to silver/gold card ratios to about 50/50, it is unreasonable to challenge a weak player of only level 1-20. The chances of winning at the lower levels are about 1/100, and the chances of tying are only about 1/50 against a player who is 40-50 levels higher. I suggest pairing up random matches by level so that you can never randomly be matched against someone more than 10 levels above or below yours. This way, the most formidable opponent a level 1 player could be paired against would be level 10. And at level 99, the weakest player they could challenge would be 89. This only applies to random rivals, of course, and friend matches would be open to any level.

The final thing I’d like to see is a way to trade cards with my wife. I have three copies of gold Nero, the last card she needs to complete her standard set. I would love to trade her one for a copy of two silvers I need to upgrade. I have been waiting on my last copy of the Jellyfish and the Mayflower to upgrade them to elite. I know this mechanic would be ripe for exploitation, but it would be a nice feature especially if more cards are added in the future. Perhaps it is only a perk that could be earned past level 50, and each player is only allowed one trade per level. Or something like that.

We’ll wait and see what Elephant Mouse comes up with next. I have really enjoyed the daily deals and prizes they have offered for people’s birthdays, like Chris Pine and Gene Roddenberry. I’m glad to see that they are sensitive to and supportive of the Star Trek community at large, and try to accommodate fans of the show and the game with added features and support. I’m now at level 86 in the game and can’t wait to see where the game goes from here. Game hard and prosper.

The Bottomless Pit

Seems like I’m getting into a good habit of producing, and a bad habit of documenting it. But, with increased production comes more content: evidence that I’ve been churning out good work worth talking about.

By far the heftiest project has been The Bottomless Pit. Another mod for Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The concept is that the game didn’t have a bottomless pit, and I think it needs one. The physics behind falling are a bit ridiculous in the vanilla game. Even a short tumble off a rock can result in an untimely death. So this made the playability of the mod quite…challenging to design, at first.

There’s a big hole in the earth with an automatic-loading doorway that I’ve dropped into my favorite region of Skyrim: The Rift. Gorgeous for its autumn leaves and perfect for its flat expanses of wilderness, most of my mods end up there now. There are lots of places between Ivarstead and Riften that have few pre constructed houses, farms, dungeons, and outposts. This makes dropping a relatively large custom environment easier, so it won’t overlap or conflict with other user-created mods.

Upon jumping into the unknown abyss, the player is loaded into a free-fall thru a series of themed chasms. The character must then avoid being crushed by their own weight as they plummet into the core of Skyrim. I wanted to create a mini-game within the world that challenged the conventional methods of dungeon-crawling. Facing downward as you fall, you must react vertically instead of horizontally, since all the action takes place on the Z-axis. It also creates a feeling of vertigo, and it’s quite easy to lose your bearings as you fall. I also craved the seeming impossibility of older games like Capcom made for the NES—forcing the player to memorize the obstacles and timing as they go. This requires a lot of dying and starting over. But when you finally pass that impossible section, moving on to something new is its own reward.

There was a giant obstacle, however. The player never slows down while falling. There are a few game settings linked to falling that can be manipulated in the Creation Kit, but none of them affect fall acceleration. That setting must be hard-coded into the game’s physics engine. The only way to combat this was to add “rests” at certain intervals, when the fall speed became too great for the game’s controller movements speeds to react quickly enough to avoid crashing into something. I did two things: first, I split the pit into 7 different “levels,” each with their own auto load doors to break up the space and make it easier on the game engine to load all assets. Upon loading into a new cell, even if the player was falling 3,000 meters/sec, they are reset to zero. The second was the only other way to slow the player down other than death: water. Even if you’re falling at the speed of light, you will sustain no damage if you land in water. The pool only has to be about waist deep to avoid becoming a puddle of flesh.

The Pit, itself was born out of a need for me to do something “simple.” I really I needed to get something done. I set out to create once section of the Pit each day for 7 days, then spend the next week cleaning it up, making a page on Nexus, taking screen shots, and making a YouTube trailer. So, v1.0 was born in only 2 weeks.

The first two weeks were great. Got tons of feedback. Released a second version with some bug fixes. But then I realized I had been a bit greedy when designing it. I have bought all the Downloadable Content for Skyrim. So naturally when I start a new design project I want to use all the game assets available to me. But then your mod becomes reliant on those DLC’s and you have automatically alienated anyone who doesn’t own them from ever playing it. Comment forum backlash can be an eye-opening experience.

The process of “removing” a DLC from a mod is taxing. The initial process is easy, click and delete. But with all that information goes all the randomly placed meshes and actors you forgot relied on that DLC. Now begins the slow process of hand replacing each one with the closest thing you can find from the original game: rocks, pillars, traps, activators, ice flows  etc. The glitchy CK even removed some of the assets that weren’t associated with them. After deleting the Hearthfire DLC dependency, half of my rocks disappeared for no reason. Some assets even randomly rotated themselves, or shifted about. Fixing these errors through the removal of three DLC’s was a nightmare.

About a month later, I had finally released a new version with zero DLC dependencies. That was a great feeling. Appeasing your commentors can be a wonderful thing because they reward you with tons of comments, endorsements, and suggestions. One guy even took a professional photo story series of the Pit with his custom character. In the process, I made many good contacts. One of whom I am currently collaborating on a new player house mod.

Then came v2.0. I had a few ideas of how to expand the Pit using the water pools I had arbitrarily thrown in to thwart the short-sighted game fall acceleration mechanic. I wanted to create an underwater adventure. One where you had to explore a vast underwater system of tunnels connected to the pit that would take you further into the depths, but make you rely on another gruesome form of death: drowning.

I’m not sure which is worse, falling to your death or drowning. Either way, to get to the bottom of this Pit, you are forced to overcome both. Of course I threw in some magical things to help you from repeated death, but navigating underwater can be horribly discombobulating in Skyrim. All of the underwater image spaces, whether you’re swimming through an icy ocean or a mystical spring, are incredibly foggy. There is absolutely no visibility, even under a mountain stream that in nature would be crystal clear. I wanted the water in my underwater labyrinth to be translucent as glass. So I authored my own underwater image spaces. It took forever! There are literally thousands of settings for water. And the first two updates of my v2 release were riddled with a black-screen glitch that rendered the entire cell unplayable.

With the help of 5 community members who did BETA testing on about 15 different versions of the Pit, we finally got it working. This took about 5 weeks. During the process I fixed a number of other glitches and finally got the whole thing polished. Now I am quite happy with the results. Some Russian gamers even emailed me because they wanted to do a Russian translation of the mod. They loved it that much!

In the process of doing this mod, I learned so much. Now I know that a good mod panders to the lowest system requirements—including DLC. I’ve also learned to trust the input and advice of random community members who show interest. They ended up being an invaluable resource for bug testing and optimization. I learned a slough of things about advertising a mod on the web. I made a little trailer video in iMovie to post to YouTube and embed on my mod description page. I think you’ll like it. It gives a pretty good impression of what the Pit is for those of you who need visuals to go with the words (like me!).

All-in-all this is my best game design experience yet. I hope my next one will be as fruitful.

Nerdavision

I can’t get enough of nerdy television shows as I spend countless hours trying to make games work or design levels and artwork. Usually they’re just on in the background to make me feel less alone as I work during the day, but also certain shows have become permanent installations on my walls of inspiration. When I was in design school, our studios were in these old 1950’s style blue metal military barracks. They were sparsely decorated with aging 70’s furniture, asbestos tiles, and flourescent lighting. It was creativity suicide.

So now, I keep myself surrounded by things that give me inspiration: Steampunk landscape art on my desktop, printouts of cool design patterns, art on the walls, IKEA furniture, my own notes and drawings and lists, Toro Y Moi beats, anything to stimulate my creative juices. A handful of tv shows are now added to the list.

Code Monkeys

codemonkeys

Irreverent and off-the-wall, this lude 8-bit comedy is a staple for any gamer or game designer. If you can stomach the gratuitous use of the “gay” word as an insult, it definitely captures a lot of the charm [and frustrations] of the gaming world. This show was indispensable during the Photoshop stage of Away Team. Having a reference for solid 8-bit visuals while working on it gave me lots of insight as to how to accomplish simplicity while retaining likenesses of many of the characters. Also, it’s funny to listen to in the background while mind-numbingly clicking on layers and applying styles or pen-tooling. I recommend the episode “Psychological Problems” from season 2 which introduces the hybrid half-chicken half-monster villain in Todd’s next game: Cock Goblin.

The Guild

guild

Innocent, yet self-aware the Guild makes you want to be part of an insanely awkward group of six introverts. The show is dialogue-driven, full of video game references, and pulls no punches to depict the irony of how an MMO guild can bring people together online, then pull them apart when they try to interact in the real world. It’s refreshing to see this kind of story told from a female perspective, through the VLOGs of guild-girl Codex [Felicia Day] as she struggles to keep her friends together both on and offline through LAN parties, romance, rival guild wars, and CONs. I never really had the desire to play an MMO like the WoW-esque game in this show much less join a guild. The scheduled time commitment required to raid and my desire to spend time with my wife and friends in real life always kept me from trying it out. I have an addictive personality, so I’d hate to get absorbed into it as the cliche suggests. But despite all that, the show makes me want to find a weird group of friends to nerd-out with online.

Video Game High School

vghs

Pure cheesy brilliance. Freddy Wong serves up every gamer’s fantasy world in VGHS. An internet production made up of short videos funded by KickStarter, I saw it for the first time in movie form on Netflix. A bit boyish and single-serving toward FPS games, it still manages to entertain. Everyone speaks in a combination of l33t speak and gamer dialect that gives the whole universe an immersive flavor. It also separates the gaming universe into two groups: struggling n00blets and egomaniacal high scorers who settle into their gaming genres like clubs at a Japanese high school.  It’s a stereotypical love story that sticks to established gaming tropes, and that’s a lot of the allure. It’s a cult classic for cult gamers and I can’t wait for the next webisode.

The IT Crowd

ITcrowd

Full of painfully embarrassing situations, information technology representatives have never been this misinformed and technologically handicapped. The three main characters are an amazing batch of socially awkward basement office jockeys that get into ridiculous jams on a daily basis. Despite its British-isms, IT is definitely a nerd treasure chalk full of classic sketch comedy moments and a cast of colorful side characters. Moss is by far the most loveable geek in all of film, oblivious and gullable to the point of idiocy, but still possessing a hidden genius that comes out at just the right moments. Watch it at least once giving it your full attention,  then cash in its replay value while you work. Find it now on Netflix.

Community

community

Now I want to go back to community college. The common threads of my favorite shows seem to be finding friends in unlikely places and Community is no exception. Another cult classic, this show quickly became one of the best on the list. It’s one of those shows that panders to it’s own fans and isn’t afraid to make fun of itself on a regular basis. It’s difficult not to pay attention if you haven’t watched each episode once already, but is just as fun to listen to the second time around while coding or scripting games. Luckily they’re making new episodes again, so if you haven’t seen it yet do it! For now it’s available on Hulu, as long as Chevy Chase doesn’t screw it up.

Home Movies

homemovies

An oldie, but a goodie, Home Movies is one of the funniest shows I have ever watched. Somewhat high-brow, intellectual dialogue masked under the guise of school child character “drama” and low-budget squiggle-vision animation, this cartoon comedy is a must-watch for any nerdy fanboy [or fangirl]. It doesn’t necessarily pander to gamers, but the silly conversations alone are reason for celebration and repeated viewing. I’ve watched the hell out of this show, and can’t stop binging on it as I work for extended hours in front of a level editor. Try out the episode It’s Time to Pay the Price for starters. Episodes are searchable on google video.

MST3K

mst3k

Oh, the joys of low-budget sci-fi interludes and voice-over riffing on some of the worst cine-trash in existence. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the love of my adolescence. With over 9 seasons of feature-length hilarity, this show is the best way to zone-out while you work. Press play and let it lull you into an extended game creation session with minimal need to break your concentration to start the next episode. You can find episodes in clips on google video, I recommend Manos: the Hand of Fate, and Mitchell for starters. The movies this reluctant cosmonaut and his robot companions are forced to watch are, for the most part, incongruent nonsense with no plot and little for visuals so it is the perfect background laugh-fest for my studio. Whether you’re a Joel nut or a die-hard Mike fan, there’s plenty of Mistie love to go around. Personally, I have a signed red jumpsuit from a fan signing with Joel that you know I’ll be wearing to the next CON.

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