David A. Gladish

My professional info, level design quest log, and game-related editorials.

Sploder Arcade Creator


My wife is also a teacher in Japan. As part of her job, she teaches IT class to fourth, fifth and sixth graders twice a month and is often looking for unique ways to engage the students. What better way than through game design?

She turned me on to a web based game developer called Sploder. Her students have been building games in the ‘Arcade Creator’ for a few weeks. Apparently her students LOVED it and made some pretty unique games. So, I thought I’d give it a try.

It’s amazingly simple and limited, but I actually find that refreshing after drowning in more complex editing programs for the past few years. It’s a great way for a seasoned designer to step back and focus on optimizing a ‘fun and playable’ type of game in a not-so-adaptable medium. I’ve found it rather challenging.

There aren’t many tutorials for it so far. Thus, I reverted to the ‘tinker and test’ method of learning a new program. Luckily the editor makes it simple to push play and quickly test what you’ve created for iteration and debugging. The actual gameplay and physics are clunky, but it’s beautiful because everyone who uses the Arcade Creator is limited to the same set of odd assets and wonky characters. It’s more what you do with them and how you arrange them to make an engaging game that’s important.

It works a lot like Mario Maker. Obviously the assets are changed enough to avoid a lawsuit, but the grid palette and drag-and-drop system are pretty much the same. Immediately, I found it necessary to learn what all the items do to form some kind of cohesive game narrative.

The three motifs: Forest, Cave, or Tech

Let’s start with the classic: Forest. The landscapes are pretty much what you’d expect. Grass, trees, dirt. But I immediately gravitated towards water, spouts, lava, spiked platforms, and mushroom/flower triggers. These made awesome assets for a fun side scroller. Any time death is imminent, I find my gamer juices flow faster.

So, I played around with the mushroom triggers to control the death-bringing assets. The mushrooms are timed, so you can create some killer puzzles. The wonky physics make it even more killer-literally.

The link logic system is simple, but becomes complex because it’s visual: right there in your level palette. If the puzzles become too comfortable lex, the screen becomes a mess of blue link lines. It makes deletion and editing quite cumbersome. After creating three or four simple puzzles, I noticed I was using mushrooms rather often. So, I strung them together and called the game “Mushroom Kingdom.”

Now, there are a ridiculous number of weird items. Things like coins and necklaces, blue orbs and red apples, blue hearts and silver coins. The learning process was lengthy enough for me, that I knew my audience would be lost unless each stage slowly introduced them. The narrative required situations to use the items, and NPCs to the explain the finer points. For example, there’s a carrot. Sometimes I can pick it up, but sometimes I can’t. So I placed an evil rabbit that will give me information if I collect them. He can’t do it himself because you have to be injured in order to get them. They give you back a tiny bit of health, but the sadistic rabbit wants to watch me suffer and hurt myself on purpose. Sweet, delicious suffering. As you collect carrots, he teaches you about mushroom triggers, flowers, collectibles, health, magic, energy and upgrades.

The best thing I learned from on my time in Sploder is that a small set of assets can be used to create a very engaging game. Also, I got some great practice for designing a gradual leveled tutorial right into my game story. With each new screen and success, they played increases their knowledge and uses what they’ve learned to overcome more difficult challenges. I haven’t had time to play around with the cave and tech environments yet. But I hear there’s new monsters and teleports!

After playing with Sploder for a week, my wife informed me that it’s a kid’s program. So I asked how her kids handled the link logic. Apparently none of them figured it out yet. I guess I’ll have to teach her so she can pass the knowledge along. I’ll be interested to see their final IT projects. I can’t stay a kid forever, but I wish these tools were available to me back in the 80’s. Now it’s time for me to get back to a more adult program.


Question Quest and the Art of Gamifying Education


I live in Japan, and one of the only full-time employment opportunities for foreigners is teaching English. So, I became an assistant language teacher, or ALT. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. And it’s taken time away from making the games and mods I’m used to. But in the process, I’ve had to create educational games, worksheets and gamified activities for students to build their skills in the classroom, while keeping them engaged. It’s excellent practice for game design.

Right now the trend in ESL/EFL instruction in Japan is changing. In the past it has been really popular for ALT’s to be a sort of game master: always in charge of preparing games for students to play. More recently, we’ve found ways of combining them with a particular grammar point they’ve covered in the textbook. These games include things like Go Fish and Crazy Eights. I’ve also done variations on Battleship, Jeopardy, Uno, Guess Who, Bingo, and a slough of other games. Teachers like them because the kids aren’t bored, but they’re using the grammar. Students like them because they get to do something fun in class with their friends that doesn’t involve listening to a teacher blab on for an hour. But, the educational community is becoming increasingly anti-game in the classroom.

Why doesn’t academia like games? There are a few reasons.

First, most popular games are (at their core) anti-educational. They are based on the premise that you play them to compete and win. To escape real life. To do things that are taboo, unacceptable, or completely impossible in the real world. The majority of the most popular games of the past couple of years are won by killing and stealing things (Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Grand Theft Auto 5). The rest, aside from two or three, are won by exploring an impossible fantasy world with an unrealistic or fictional character (Final Fantasy XIV, BioShock Infinite, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).  If you notice, every one of these games is a sequel: a testament to the popularity of their genre. The acts of killing and stealing are not in line with current morality education even if they are fun because we SHOULDN’T do them in real life. Moreover, the fantastical settings are engaging because we CAN’T go there in real life. Those things are only done for entertainment.

Second, games require an investment of time and money. The teacher has to take the time to teach the rules of a game, and hope that all the students (regardless of level) understand and can perform. For more complex games, this can take away from the time they are actually able to learn the target information. Also, games require materials. Sometimes those materials are expensive and/or can’t be changed to fit a particular lesson unless they’re hand-made. Ten Uno decks per class per school adds up quickly. Administrators may not be keen on the idea of budgeting money for games and teachers don’t have time to design, create, and implement a new game for every lesson.

Third, research shows that the retention rate of information through game-taught methods of learning is the same as lecturing, around 20%. This is quite low when compared to task-based learning, 60%, and self-directed study, 80%, and teaching the material to someone else, 90%. (I took these figures from a lecture by a professor at Fukuoka University which I saw recently.) Of course we want students to retain information. This signifies to me that the games are being used improperly in the classroom: 1) by a lazy teacher to only occupy students, 2) to take the place of introducing new information, 3) to do something other than express practice of what they’ve already studied. The other problem might be that the games used for this research were ineffective examples of “gamified activities for retaining information.” What does UNO really teach? A) How to have group conversation? B) How to use colors and numbers? C) Nothing. It’s just a game of random chance to pass time. The last and potentially most important correlation to the above percentages is that students retain more information the more responsibility they are given to direct their own learning. This can only be achieved through motivation, goals, and tasks. This is where game design becomes very important.

Fourth, students become more invested in winning a game than succeeding at the language. Students will perfect a strategy of using the required words or phrases to gain points, minimize their real understanding of those words or phrases, and sacrifice any genuine input or original thought for efficiency. A friend of mine giving a seminar on gamification said it best,

“Students will always take the path of least resistance. Design your games in a way that encourages them to be creative without cutting corners. They will always spot and exploit your game’s flaws and use them to their advantage. A game that is both fun and challenging will create perpetual motivation. It’s our job to make that happen while still cramming all the essential knowledge we can into it as well. We must essentially trick our students into learning.”

As designers, we have to be diligent in achieving a seamless duality between motivation and knowledge retention/application. Some games tend to take the language out of its context and place it where it can be used solely for entertainment. It’s like giving a kid a hammer and telling them to hit as many nails into a board as they can in one hour. Now they know how to build a house, right?

I just did a lesson on gerunds and we played Battleship. The grid was made up of six rows and six columns. Each row had a question starter, such as “Do you like~.” Each column had an object in present simple tense, such as “play tennis.” Player one would ask “Do you like playing tennis?” (changing the grammar to use a gerund) Player two would respond “Yes, I do like playing tennis.” if their ship occupied that square, or “No, I don’t like playing tennis.” if their ship wasn’t there. The game was good for pattern practice, and the students were engaged in the activity, but what did they actually learn? Can they understand what it means to “enjoy making lunch”? Do they know in what context in real life they would ever say “I started studying English.”? If I ask them in a week to make a gerund sentence using “finish” and “brush my teeth” will they be able to do it? But can they sink their opponent’s imaginary ship on a grid by connecting two phrases: yes.

Where games do succeed is at their ability to portray amazing narratives filled with artistic creativity and task-based problem-solving. They are already engaging, so kids won’t need convincing. It’s adults who need the convincing. I believe that with the proper design, these aspects of games can be utilized for effective education. But, in order to succeed, there will  be a lot of convincing to show theorists that a game can be student-centered, focus on cooperation and healthy competition, use conversation in a meaningful, genuine way that promotes original ideas, and provide situational context so that the students will remember how to use the grammar and apply it in real life.

That’s where Question Quest enters the picture.

Question Quest is a card game specifically designed for teaching EFL and promoting conversational English. I was recently introduced to the creator of Question Quest, Sean Anderson. He is also the founder of Quest Maker Media, a small group of developers devoted to modernizing the way we teach English and making language learning thrilling. QMM is made up of a linguist, a designer, and an illustrator. What they have created is a game that pushes the boundaries of what a game can do educationally. It really does effectively bridge the gap between entertainment and learning and provides the best proof I’ve ever seen that a game can facilitate language learning.

I’ve always been interested in creating a game for myself to learn Japanese. I am a great visual learner, but a terrible book studier. In school, I honestly believe that playing games like Number Muncher and Word Muncher improved my mental computation and spelling skills more than reading and writing in class. The only thing I’ve found to do this for Japanese is a one-man programmed RPG computer game called Slime Forest. He had the right idea, but the RPG format and simple pixel graphics made it boring. I still had to read all the dialogue, and not being able to progress in the game (“Who do I have to talk to to finish this quest??”) hindered my ability to progress at the language.

Language requires two people. That’s why Question Quest succeeds where Slime Forest failed. Format. A multi-player card game is a much better format than a single-player computer RPG for language practice. Group games fundamentally require conversation, whether it’s haggling over a property in Monopoly or strategizing over how to beat the traitor in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. But QQ cannot substitute for introductory learning of new words or grammar, and it requires a judge (teacher) to monitor the game and make sure it’s being played correctly and fairly. Although, once the students become familiar with how the game is played, they can judge one another. So, to succeed, QQ still requires classroom grammar lessons and introductory materials.

To see how the game is played, watch their YouTube videos.

It’s really easy to come in and view a work and critique it, then find the flaws once it has been made. It’s another thing to try and make it perfectly the first time around. But Question Quest isn’t perfect. So I’d like to point out a few of my observations on the game. I have yet to actually play it, so most of this comes from a very limited knowledge of its gameplay and from the conversation I had with Sean.

First, how is this useful to teachers?

The easy answer is that is does the job for them, mostly. It puts the language practice in the hands of the students, literally. One deck can easily supply a group (2-6 players) with language content and keep them busy for a full class period. It reinforces basic English grammar and dialogue, and introduces some new words and concepts that might require them to self-study a bit. It’s a bit task-based, even though students aren’t necessarily working together to win or achieve a goal. But language strategy and temporary alliances can be formed to achieve small personal goals. It is well designed, full-color, illustrated, easy to use, and has fun characters: all which make it more interesting for students. It can be altered by taking out higher or lower level cards to meet the needs of different learners. Adaptability is very important for multiple skill levels and difficulty progression. It’s not a substitute for normal lessons, but it’s a good way to have a regular practice/ or a solid review activity.

Second, does it really help with English education?

It gets students speaking to each other in English. Japanese students, especially, are painfully shy and constantly worried about making mistakes. Language is all about making mistakes. It’s the outgoing ones who really excel at this. (They tend to be the lower academic level students.) Question Quest requires conversation solely in English with question and response dialogue. Even the shy students must participate to succeed at the game. But, the outgoing students must perfect their grammar in order to excel. Talking to one another in small groups makes the students less nervous to perform. The cards in Question Quest also include the basic foundational grammar forms required for inquisitive communication. Interrogatives, modals, and helping verbs are a fundamental part to each round of the game–the responses to which require original and genuine answers within the format and guidelines of the initial question. This requires critical thinking, which is key to education.

Third, is the game well designed?

The art is beautiful. I think that is the key to getting a wider audience interested in the game. Most people can appreciate craftsmanship. The illustrator for Question Quest has created six original characters engaged in very well crafted images to describe the question/answer pairs written on each card. They are reminiscent of taro cards, Japanese manga, Magic the Gathering cards, and build your own adventure books. It immerses the players in an East-meets-West fusion of medieval fantasy and culture. The design of the cards is also very high quality. Quest Maker Media’s graphic designer did a stellar job of arranging the cards so the major items are clear and hierarchical by importance. Great care was taken when drafting each question, as well. The cards provide specific examples in very small font at the bottom as a cheat-sheet to help the questioner draft their own original questions or identify any problems in the other player’s response. Now let’s get into game mechanics.

There are many potential road blocks. First of all, the object of the game is to get points. The higher points the card is, the more difficult the question and the better your chances of stumping your partner. How will this affect a conversation between a half-Filipino student with an English-speaking father and a full Japanese student with no exposure to English outside the classroom? Won’t the first student have a better chance of winning every time?

How do you get points and eventually win? Your conversation partner must fail or make mistakes. That’s how you win. Or you can interrupt someone else’s conversation and win. Wait…is this the way English conversation works? Kind of. But do we really want to punish students who try and make minor mistakes and reward students who just interrupt a conversation? Seems anti-motivational for the slower learners and motivational for the extroverted students to use rude behavior. But, that’s the exact nature of debate.

If you think about it from a debate standpoint, which is the sport of interactive argument and persuasion, you do want to strategically stump your partner into a standstill with the clever use of language. But is it a genuine interaction between interested parties who are trying to gain a deeper understanding of one another through conversation? Not really. Although, to be able to use language in debate does illustrate a more sophisticated grasp of it. That happens a bit by accident as the game is played, once the right questions are asked and answered, and if the students are invested enough to remember or understand each other’s answers. But perhaps after repeated use of this game mechanic, students will learn that it can be done in real life, as well.

If you haven’t watched the gameplay videos on YouTube by now, you’re probably a bit lost. Well, go back and watch them now! What are you waiting for?

Final Thoughts:

Question Quest isn’t perfect, but it’s the best attempt I’ve ever seen to gamify language learning. Let’s remember this phrase from now on because it is becoming vernacular in education: gamification. Language learning is also driven by an interest in culture. If I didn’t have an interest in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t have an interest in learning Japanese. My love of anime, games, ukyo-e prints, Edo period design and aesthetics, sushi, cute characters, and travel enhances my motivation for learning one of the most difficult, confusing, time-consuming and opposite languages to English in the world. Likewise, a game must also be culturally immersive. Language and culture are entwined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we find beautiful, the gestures we use when we emote, and the situations we react to positively and negatively. Think of the differences in these categories as they relate to 16th century Italian Renaissance language vs. 18th century Japanese language.

Gamification is not respected in formal education because it is seen as childish, anti-educational, immoral, and for entertainment purposes. Desire for educators to remove games increases as learners’ age and skill increases. But the validity of gamifying activities still remains.

I think it is essential for language learning at all skill levels. Gamifying the use and repitition of conversation (in the right way) can provide students with motivation, situational context, cultural awareness, retention, and positive cognitive responses to an otherwise boring, difficult, and anxiety-enducing language lesson. Roleplaying is necessary to provide context for language when it is impossible in the primary country. I can’t take my whole class to the supermarket and expect them to shop in English with a Japanese store worker. But, my Harry Potter Hogwarts School Shopping roleplaying game allows us to do it right there in the classroom.

“Games” also give clear tiered levels for students to achieve. Learners need to visualize their progress and be rewarded for using language properly. It is difficult to quantify someone’s grasp of a language over time otherwise. And games can be more interactive, team-building, goal-oriented, and culturally immersive than tests. They display a learner’s critical, real-time thought and creative problem solving skills where tests only represent a learner’s ability to memorize facts. Gamified language activities also allow for variation and improvisation where tests are inflexible and require one, precise solution.

I’ve been working on a large-scale gamified motivation and reward system for a month now. I plan on unveiling it here as I implement it at school. It puts into practice many of the points I discuss here as it relates to Question Quest and the art of gamifying education. Look forward to it in my next post.


Love & Hate & Free-To-Play Time Based Strategy Games with Micro Transactions

That title is a mouthful. Let’s break it down a little. First, I want to talk about one of my favorite App games: Clash of Clans. I want to talk about it because I both love and hate it. I’ve played it to death, so I have some experience grinding through all the little nuances.


Why do I love it? Well, it’s free. It’s really well-programmed. The graphics are crisp and stylish. And building and destroying bases is really fun with your friends in a clan. That said, the game is potentially ruining modern games for independent designers–and ruining mobile and app gaming in general, putting profit over playability. First, it’s free to play.

What? It’s free! Awesome! This company must be a bunch of suckers, right? Well, it ain’t such a big deal for a big company like Supercell in Helsinki, Finland.

They have a lot of things most indie designers don’t have, namely a $12 million investor. But also, they have a big server, a giant advertising campaign, and a team that can crank out lots of new content and tons of updates to breathe new life into the game as it ages. They make their money back on a relatively new concept called micro-transactions. A free game like Clash of Clans looks a lot more appealing to the casual App-Store surfer than the indie designer’s $0.99 game.

Patience is a virtue some gamers possess if they are grinding–repeating a task over and over again to gain a skill or item. But many gamers have zero patience for a game that slows them down in any way. My patience disappears when a timer won’t even allow me to try. Micro-transactions are like a clot in my gaming heart. I’m about to unlock a dragon! I need to upgrade my Town Hall. But–”You don’t have any builders, they won’t be available for another 3d 4hr 36min 5sec.” My heart arrests. “Buy another builder for 30 gems.” I only have 10 gems. My left arm goes numb. But I can buy a chest of 20 gems for $9.99. So either I fork over ten bucks or wait half a week to play my game?! HEART ATTACK.

Hang on. Let’s start over. So I can play your game for free and test it out. Or I can buy a different game up front for $0.99 without playing it?

No-brainer. But now that I’ve put some time into your free game, you won’t let me play it unless I pay 10x the normal game price for an exhaustible in-game resource? But once I spend the gems on another builder, I’m back to where I started “Wait for 2d 3hr 45min 10sec.” Am I supposed to buy gems every time I make a decision just so I can play?!

Why didn’t I just spend $0.99 on ten different games? (facepalm)

Let me propose an analogy. Micro-transactions are to gamers as heroin is to everyone. You gotta have a lot of money to support the habit, but in the long run it becomes an addiction. It’s like all games are becoming online gambling. Oh, and screw poor people. If you’re poor, you can still kinda play the game, but you’ll never have the same opportunity as the money-players. Have fun waiting!

These game stimulants go by many names now: Micro-transactions, In-App Purchases (IAP), Unlock Keys, Downloadable Content (DLC), and Apple’s newest genre for games that are free (at first)–GET+. The industry seems to be catering more and more to this format of game design and it’s disturbing. Clash of Clans is actually a good game with lots of well-designed and fun content. But, games will get simpler, more derivative, and more locked down. On second thought…

“GAME OVER.  CONTINUE? (2 CREDITS)” The coin clinks into the slot and Jin lives another day to uppercut Yoshimitsu.

Maybe the industry is just modernizing the way that games made us plug more coins into the machine in the past. The home console killed the arcade machine (the old skool IAP), now the mobile device is avenging its death in a way?

Not exactly. If I put up the money to buy my own arcade box, you better believe I won’t be using quarters. We’re already coughing up $400+ on mobile devices, but they don’t seem to have free play buttons. Is it just me or has the coin slot been twisted and made much worse? The quarter for credits system was much simpler. Now we need a device and App Store credit to get a game with micro-transactions for gems to kinda-sorta play for a bit. The industry knows it can get gamers hooked and undercut the non-free-to-play developers while raking in dough. They will continuously profit off our impatience without having to release new games all the time to keep us interested. Cower as the rise of the GET+ game cometh. I think the way it’s going, they’re gonna tear us all a new coin slot.

iDesign Therefor iPad, Part II: Codea


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


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


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


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


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


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:


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