You got this, Brutadon! — Global Game Jam 2017

Last weekend, I once again drove up to Facebook’s Menlo Park campus to participate in the Global Game Jam. Facebook has a really, really cushy site– four catered meals, including beer and wine at dinner. A bunch of the people I like doing jams with live in the area (or work for Facebook), so it’s a good deal all around!

This year, Kent Sutherland, Rosstin Murphy, Kellie Medlin, Brook Nichols and I cracked out a game for the Amazon Alexa platform in two days. (Alexa is the platform that runs on Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot products.) Our game is called called “You Got This, Brutadon!” and it’s a voice-controlled adventure game where you play the hype man for a kaiju battle between your friend, Brutadon, and the hideous Gromulox. YGTB contains about fifty different randomized battle events written by me and Kent. There are two endings. We wanted to make a voice-controlled game that was centered around the experience of speaking or conversing– not just merely a combat game controlled with voice commands, but a game about talking. YGTB certainly lives up to our goals in that respect!

You can see a full playthrough of You Got This, Brutadon! here:

Although we haven’t passed Amazon’s certification process yet, we have uploaded a working build of our app to itch.io. If you have an AWS account and an Alexa, you might be able to load the game onto your own device. If you wait a couple weeks, though, we’ll have a polished, sound-designed version of the app up on the Alexa app store.

If you own an Echo or Echo Dot and have ever taken a look at the “skills” store (“skills” is Alexa bullshit for “apps”), you’ll probably have noticed that the vast majority of Alexa apps suck. Since the Alexa store is not currently monetized, there’s no great incentive for anyone to put a lot of time and effort into polishing up a really good Alexa app. The “games” section is practically all trivia apps, and it seems like the vast majority of all Alexa apps, period, are “facts” apps– Bird Facts, Bacon Facts, Cat Facts, etc. These facts apps appear to be the “hello world” of Alexa development.

What I’m saying is that You Got This, Brutadon! is already better than, like… a conservative 90% of all Alexa games? I mean, I’m biased, but I and some of my teammates were really shocked with the low quality of the vast majority of Alexa apps. Lots of them just seem like stupid experiments, and a lot have extremely low utility. There’s a color wheel app that does almost nothing. This was one of the top ranked utility apps during the weekend we were making this game. I’m sorry, but this is pretty damn ridiculous!

Going through the certification process, I’ve also learned that Amazon has some pretty strict rules for user interactions. They contain some bizarre design restrictions– like, you’re not supposed to include any commands in the app that the app does not explicitly prompt the player to say. This means that they’re uncomfortable with apps where the player has to guess command intents. It should be possible to get some kinds of command-guessing gameplay in there without breaking the rules. Right now, however they’re already asking us to put command prompts into Brutadon in a few annoying ways.

The big thing that gets me right now is that a bunch of IF classics are focused around experimentation, command-guessing, and avoiding prompts, like Aisle. If something like Aisle could make it onto the Alexa app store easily, then I’d say the Echo would be in a good place for game development. (That said, I haven’t actually tried to make something like Aisle, so I don’t know how much pushback we’d get trying to do that.)

Oh– and they should let us make money with these goddamn apps. Until then, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to spend a lot of time seriously making a polished, content-dense game for this device.

Check out Utopia Jam

I don’t know how many people habitually read my blog anymore who don’t also follow me on twitter, but if you’re not on social media– I’m running an itch.io jam in February, and you should participate!

The jam is called “Utopia Jam,” and it’s for games which take place in or help imagine better worlds. Check out the jam page for more information about the subject matter.

For inspiration, we’ve cited artistic subcultures, books, movies, and TV shows which take place in optimistic futures. Star Trek, the Culture series, Solarpunk art, and Ursula LeGuin’s blurry “Hainish Cycle” are all examples of optimistic futurism.

I’m running this jam with Cat Manning and we’re going to be making a game for it together. So far, over 50 people have expressed interest in participating through itch.io, so it seems like the right jam at the right time.

Monstr and Ludum Dare 33 – Notes

I did Ludum Dare for the first time this weekend!

Kent, Rosstin, and I organized a team for the Jam section of Ludum Dare (the compo is for solo submissions; the jam is the part of the event that allows team work). We found a bunch of friends who were willing to do art, and the final result is pretty amazing.

The theme this go-round was “you are the monster,” a theme I was admittedly not a huge fan of. (I predicted that a lot of people would just make sprite-swap combat games where the player character was a dragon or something, and boy, was I right!)

We decided to make a game where you are a monster seeking other monsters on a monsters-only dating service similar to OK Cupid or Tinder. We cranked out a randomized game with 60 different monsters in it, 52 of which you can fall madly in love with. Like the other two projects I’ve made with Kent and Rosstin, this game was primarily focused on humor, and used randomized text snippets as a good way to divide up the work and make the project approachable during the limited time of the jam.

Anyway, the final result is here! It is called “Monstr.” We plan on making a polished web version AND an iOS-based Tinder clone out of this project. Stay tuned! The final version will make you cry with joy, I bet.

And if you participated in LD33, please vote here!

Some additional, meandering notes:

  • Ford (the guy who composed the song with whale music in it for Slaughtertrain) did the music for us again. The track for Monstr contains ACTUAL HUMAN SIGHS OF UNREQUITED LOVE and it is absolutely 100% amazing
  • I grow increasingly convinced that the only reasonable kind of text game to make for team jams is one consisting entirely of short randomized text snippets. I want to write a Gamasutra blog about how wonderful these jams can be, someday. It is very easy to incorporate many team members into a game based around randomization. So long as you have a competent core coding team, everyone else can engage to the extent that they are able without screwing up the rest of the group. It makes the jam more relaxed and makes the final project better, too.
  • Games about sex seem to do MUCH better in my twitter sphere than games about literally anything else. I’ve been joking for over a year that if I only wrote sexy stories I would get a lot more attention, and LO AND BEHOLD, it’s true! Please don’t mistake me, I’m not bitter about this– it’s just that Monstr seemed to strike a nerve in the same way (but at a much smaller scale) that Verified Facts struck a nerve several years ago. Some things align with the stars to magically become Internet Candy, and other things do not. I struggle to get even five retweets for interactive short stories about space aliens, but I got a shit ton for an OKC clone full of ridiculous sloppy jokes. It’s a good thing I enjoyed writing all those sloppy jokes, though. 🙂
  • We used @mrfb’s Twine port of Tracery, a javascript library for making randomized text. It’s super easy to use and very rewarding to work with. Give it a shot!
  • This was probably the eighth or tenth game jam I have done. Not all of them ended up on the internet so it’s hard for me to make a final list, but I’ve done a LOT of game jams recently and they are definitely making me a better developer. I was talking to a writer at another games company about five months ago and when he revealed that he’d never done a jam, I think I scared him with the force of my enthusiasm. Game jams are GREAT. They make you better at working in teams, better at scraping yourself off the floor after a failure, and more confident in your abilities. Game jams generally make me feel great about myself, even if I don’t do so well. Relatedly: I can’t believe my alma mater still doesn’t do them! They have a games lab/tiny games company there and people who worked for it told me as recently as last winter that they had no idea what jams were. What?? As far as I’m concerned, the most important thing a games program can do for its students is build their confidence and give them shit to put on a resume, and jams do both.

The Mystery of Skull Island for Teacart 1K

Teacart 1K was a game jam I participated in a while ago. It used the Sharecart save format– a shared save file which all jam games read from together. Editing values on the save file with ONE game may affect all the other games in interesting ways!

You can play all the Teacart games together using this loader.

sbaitso

Our game, The Mystery of Skull Island, is a loving “homage” to Fallen London, an excellent browser-based interactive fiction game which you should definitely go play. Like Fallen London, Skull Island uses a card-based decision tree structure. Each “turn” in Skull Island draws random event cards from one of three different “decks.” Each card contains several thematically-related actions– sometimes they’re different solutions to the same problem, but other times they’re just “a bunch of stuff you can do in this place/time/with this person.”

I’ve always like the freewheeling attitude that Fallen London has toward players’ purposes and goals. You can’t easily “set out” to do stuff in the card deck. The cards just fall, and you explore their hidden crannies and opportunities as you see fit. It very effectively simulates the feeling of living in a place, of passing time in a world bigger than you. In most RPGs, you are the master of your own fate, but in Fallen London, you are merely a denizen of a city much more complicated and dense than you could ever hope to master. When you really surrender to the writing and the setting, the experience of playing can be very cool. There’s a feeling of endless possibility every time you encounter a new card. (Unfortunately, the dark side of this philosophy is that you end up doing a lot of “story grinding” to unlock certain kinds of new content. It’s not for everyone.)

Skull Island basically copies this attitude toward player agency– you only get three cards at a time, and most of them are just menus of different weird little activities and dumb little jokes tangentially related to one another by a common location or character. You may discover endings as you go, and choose either to explore or ignore them. You may load up a Sharecart file that already has all the endings unlocked! Who knows?

The Mystery of Skull Island project was led and coded by Jim Crawford. The art is by Rachel Sala and the music is by Ryan Ike.

Detective City – Global Game Jam 2015!

I spent the last ~48 hours doing the Global Game Jam at USC, running pretty much on adrenaline and diet Cokes. I teamed up with Rosstin Murphy, Kent Sutherland, and Meagan Trott to make Detective City, a comedic, randomized choose-your-own-adventure game about a disgraced detective determined to clear her name. You can find and play our jam build here! Look at the bottom of the page for a download. The game is an .html file that will run in your web browser.

Detective City is one of the more-successful jam games I’ve ever worked on. It marks the first time I’ve ever written my own working macros for Twine, too. (A little bit of Code Academy Javascript goes a long way when all you need is randomization, ha.) I wrote the “engine” that controlled game progression and powered our randomization features, as well as a couple tools to help us stay out of Twine If Statement Hell. I guess this makes me the “lead programmer” on Detective City? Hey, I’ll take it.

We were lucky enough to win the judges’ choice “Writing/Theme” award. Here’s our awesome trophy:

We also recorded a “speedrun” of our game to make our jam page more exciting. Take a look at my mad clicking prowress:

Our team will be fixing some bugs in our game and releasing a more-polished, spell-corrected version sometime soon. I’ll probably also crap out a postmortem. But here are the major points about Detective City you should probably be aware of:

  • It is legitimately extremely funny. I was surprised at how good our jokes were with little sleep and very little time.
  • The art Meagan made is extremely rad. It fits the theme perfectly and is also hilarious.
  • There is an insanely huge amount of content in this game. There’s enough for four full playthroughs with no overlap– though you’ll get overlap from playthrough to playthrough thanks to the RNG, I’m sure. STILL, there’s a TON of stuff in here.
  • Like most collaborative writing games I’ve made at jams, we chose to split the game up into large regions and assigned each to a specific writer, with very little overlap. Although we wrote the beginning and end of the game together, we were mostly able to churn out this huge amount of content because we were each charging away at a different part of the story and combining them using StoryIncludes. If you ever do a text-based game with more than one writer, I strongly encourage splitting everything up and going as far as you can to reduce or eliminate interdependence. It makes the experience a lot more relaxed when you know that you don’t have to hit any content quota, or that your writing isn’t dependent on anyone else’s time or energy. We had a great ability to accommodate any reduction in scope, and even sliced out several entire regions right before the end. At previous jams, I’ve worked on narrative-based projects where extricating chunks of the game was a lot harder, and those projects have always been way more stressful and, in the end, less successful.
  • In fact, I’d go so far as to say that text-based jam games should basically never be linear. If they’re randomized, or select from a pool of vignettes or events, they seem to be a lot more fun and easy to finish over a weekend.

Currently at Molyjam

I’m currently at the Molyjam in San Francisco.

The prompts this year are not quotes from @petermolydeux, but actual quotes from actual Peter Molyneux. Here’s the full list.

I’m working on two separate projects here: a semi-roguelike based on this quote, with a team of eight:

group prompt

and a Twine story based on this quote. by myself:

single prompt

I’m providing writing for both. Right now, the Twine story looks something like this: (click for bigger)

twine wip

…while my contribution to the roguelike looks something like this:

wip roguelike

You can watch us molyjam here.