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SUPERCHROMA Pre-Alpha Trailer

I’ve been making some good progress on SUPERCHROMA since I first announced it, so I thought it was time to put out a video of it in action. Many thanks to my friend Josh Sutphin for taking the original trailer (which was almost three minutes long) and condensing it down to something that actually makes for an interesting trailer.

Aside from this video, I’ve also been keeping a development gallery of screen shots from the game, so if you’re ever curious in checking out completely random screen shots, give that a look.

The intended release of the game is still about two months off, but I’m still planning on a lot of the things I mentioned in the original post:

  • Campaign — Some number of authored missions that lead you through the early game. These missions will be augmented by side missions (smaller, bite-sized missions) and procedural missions (location-based/event missions).
  • Customizable Ships — There won’t be much in the way of visual customization of ships (other than maybe color scheme changes, which I have to look into a solution for), but each ship will have four possible slot types: weapon, engine, armor, and tech. And then a varying number of each of these slots will compose each ship.
  • A Lot of Loot — I’m taking a lot of the ideas that we used in our design of Loot Raiders to govern the procedural loot generation algorithm. The procedurally-generated items will also be augmented with a number of custom-authored (higher rarity) items.
  • PvP Arena — This option will likely be limited to four-player matches in a contained area of space, but players will be allowed to challenge each other in the arena using their unique ships. PvP Arena wins (and losses, to a lesser extent) will also give you a special currency that you can use to purchase PvP-only loot and upgrades.
  • Free-to-Play — This is the hardest part of the game design as it stands now. I absolutely do not want SUPERCHROMA to be the kind of game where you’re limited in how often/frequently/long you can play. I also don’t want any of the purchasable items in the game to be something that superpowers your ship (pay-to-win ain’t cool). That said, I do need to be able to make money off of the game, so there does need to be a monetization model in place. The ideal scenario here is that the game is good enough that people end up wanting to pay for things in the game. What will likely end up happening is some combination of the monetization models used in Dragon Academy and Elements. Minus the energy systems in those respective games. That said, it’s still very early in the overall thought process for the game’s monetization strategy.

Like I’ve said before, SUPERCHROMA originally was going to be a sequel to SPACE COLORS, so the game was based on the SPACE COLORS codebase to start. That said, I’ve basically rewritten the entire core game (and, obviously, there’s a lot of new stuff). The combat plays out much differently since I redesigned the way that enemies track the player in addition to adding local avoidance to enemies to avoid incoming obstacles. This prevents the common scenario seen in SPACE COLORS where you would just ram into an enemy and shoot him until someone died. I’ve also refined the touch and targeting interactions. And since the game is largely stat-based, the feel of each ship is going to be dramatically different from one another. As it stands right now, simply swapping out an engine on my starting ship makes a huge difference in how I play the game.

And that’s, really, the kind of experience I really want to encourage with SUPERCHROMA. I want each item picked up to make players play the game differently. The core interactions will remain as simple and responsive as they were in SPACE COLORS, but the strategy and way you move around your enemies will feel completely unique.

Anyway, more to come. And such.

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The Problems with Destiny

Destiny makes the assumption that its RPG elements are compelling enough to create a dynamic moment-to-moment gameplay experience. The problem with this is that Destiny doesn’t have the benefit of the “thirty seconds of fun” design of the Halo games. Destiny is more interested in achieving thirty hours [likely more] of fun.

I had a lot of hope for Destiny. I think the Halo games are some of the best games of all time. I’ve written pretty extensively about Halo 3 in the past. So, going into Destiny, I had a pretty high expectations for the game that I was going to play.

Those expectations were not met; in fact, for the first three-four hours of the game, I actively disliked it. Then I switched to multiplayer and got to experience a game of the caliber I expect from Bungie. Then, after seeing that game, I delved back into the PvE experience of the game and the “story” missions. As a complete side-note, I’ve never wanted the ability to skip cutscenes in a game more than I have in Destiny. The self-seriousness of the whole affair is a plague that runs through the game’s bloodstream and impacts every inch of the experience. And that creates a lot of “but” statements about Destiny.

The environments are absolutely stunning and gorgeous, but they are almost entirely static. There’s none of the dynamism of a Halo environment. There’s just this gorgeous environment, static props, and the game’s players and enemies. In some cases there are little explosives in levels, but they’re so ineffective that they don’t even warrant a mention.

The gunplay feels so good — everything is punchy, everything sounds great, everything has great feedback, but the overlying combat system lacks any real depth. The best you can say for the system is that it has a rock-paper-scissors elements system that doesn’t become relevant until you’re twenty-thirty hours into the game. And, in multiplayer, even that is completely irrelevant. In Halo you had two forms of weapons: kinetic and energy. Energy was great for taking down shields and kinetic was great for taking down unshielded targets. It’s a simple system, but given the two-gun limit in Halo, it makes for absolutely great gunplay. “I’ll use my fully-charged plasma pistol to take down his shield and then quickly swap to my battle rifle to take him out.” Those moment-to-moment strategies do not exist in Destiny. Which makes the great presentation of the gunplay ultimately feel fairly shallow.

The loot system is clearly a very well thought-through approach to loot in an FPS. It avoids the pitfalls of a game like Diablo or Borderlands where you find weapons that are just so powerful that you have no need to upgrade for ages. Destiny is very careful about its loot distribution and it makes the difficulty of the game always feel well-balanced. But the loot system is also the most problematic aspect of the game once you hit the level cap. The secret to getting good loot is, at least to me, a complete mystery. Unless I play the hell out of the game and grind and get enough of the game’s various currencies to purchase a single legendary item. I have a pretty well-rounded character at level 24 with all blue equipment, but I have absolutely no idea how to get any legendary/exotic equipment. Sometimes, I see people get things in the Crucible, but the items given out in the Crucible are entirely random and completely ignore a player’s performance in the game (one game I played, the lowest-ranked member of the team got an exotic auto rifle). This is why the “Loot Caves” in the game were such a popular attraction to so many people: finally, there was something concrete that players could be doing to get the loot they need to play the higher-level game challenges/missions. And that’s… bad. The game’s overall structure and systems should be balanced to such a place that players are encouraged to try harder and harder missions to get better loot. Or ‘train’ (for lack of a better word) to get better in the Crucible to claim the prizes awarded to the best players. A game’s structure is not in a good place when shooting for hours into a black hole is the most popular activity in Destiny, as it has been for the last week (until the Loot Cave was patched out).

There is absolutely something wrong with a loot system (essentially, the point of the entire endgame) in a game where you have a better chance farming low-level enemies for legendary level 20+ loot than you do in accomplishing actual difficult, challenging tasks.

There is a lot of great content and variety in Destiny. There’s the Crucible, there are all the story missions that can be played on increasingly harder difficulty levels (though there appears to be no noticeable reason to ever play at a higher difficulty level, as there is no reward for doing so), there are all these vendors that accept a variety of currencies earned through a multitude of different activities in the game… But so much of Destiny‘s content is a complete mystery. I’ve played thirty-forty hours of the game so far, and I just discovered that you only earn good standing with one of the vendors if you accomplish tasks while wearing one of their cloaks. Why is there absolutely no messaging anywhere in the game that would lead me to this completely different source of potentially getting the loot I need to play advanced activities.

Destiny is a good game. It is a remarkably well-crafted game. But it feels like a game that doesn’t know its place. Destiny‘s identity is as mysterious to Destiny as how the game’s script got into the final product. As it stands right now, Destiny is a bad RPG, a pretty great multiplayer game (though even that is pretty profoundly unbalanced), a lousy campaign, and some great co-op missions in dire need of a better reason to be played.

All of this is fixable, I think. I look at a game like Warframe and how it’s evolved over its many, many patches, and it’s pretty incredible to see how rough it started out and how (surprisingly) fun it’s turned out to be. With focused patches in the short-term and larger-scope structural patches in the long-term, Destiny could be a great game, but right now it’s just the platform for one.

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Why Make Games?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day and reminded about my time in the game industry when I wondered, really wondered, why on Earth I ended up making games for a living.

This is something I especially wonder in times like right now. When I think about the literacy rates of schools in Texas (“One in three adults cannot read this sentence”) and wish I would have stuck to my original goal leaving college: teach public high school English. Or if there was something I could be doing elsewhere to try and help find solutions to horrible world events or maybe do something to aid in increasingly scary domestic events like what happened in Ferguson, Missouri recently. Or why make games in an industry where things like abhorrent harassment of its own occurs. Or. Or. Or. The list of things I could be doing frequently goes on and on.

So: why make games?

I grew up wanting to do nothing but make games. In High School, the pursuit of knowledge and endless, endless, endless challenges in learning programming then graphics programming then game programming then learning how poorly I learned all of those things and starting over again from scratch was fun. I mean, it was fun except for when it was just horribly discouraging. I gave up learning more than once, but one particularly dull class gave rise to my very first game that I coded, primarily, on my TI-86 calculator during class periods. It motivated me to do something different than I would otherwise be doing (like just playing video games), while filling in the time when other after-school activities weren’t going on (I was a runner and a drama nerd). So, nights of pouring through books and attempting to download demos and source code repositories on a barely-28k dial-up modem late at night to learn more about programming was something that was a lot of fun for me.

When I got to the University of Michigan as a Computer Science major in the School of Engineering, my desire to make games professional waned quickly. I didn’t have much in common with most of the other CS majors, and I was somewhat bullheaded about my own degree of knowledge about programming to the point where going to programming classes was something I did when I was already awake (infrequently) and had nothing better to do (even more infrequently). I switched majors to English with a focus on Secondary Education and Creative Writing (largely unrelated note: this is still one of the best decisions I’ve ever made). And when I got done with college, I was going to teach high school and try to give back what I had growing up: some truly great and inspiring teachers/adults that instilled in me the belief that I can always do better.

In that sense, that’s one of the reasons I make games. There is always room for improvement in every aspect of the craft. Whether it’s a game I made/help make like SPACE COLORS or Cat vs. Aliens or Starhawk, or just a game I’m playing from huge studios like Diablo 3 or Destiny. There’s room for improvement in all games. There is never any doubt that there’s something that can be done to make a game better.

That’s all well and good for the part of my brain that loves the challenge, but what about the other parts? Well, socially, I’ve met some of my favorite people in the world in the games industry. I’ve found personal game development heroes in people like Clint Hocking and Shinji Mikami. I’ve developed, I think, a fairly well-established personal aesthetic and it continues to evolve with each new project that I undertake. And my current job as Creative Director of Team Chaos has me doing things I’ve never done elsewhere like take a complete game pitch to a studio and do an in-person pitch of the idea. Which would have been terrifying to me a year ago. Not that it wasn’t terrifying to me the day before pitching either, but it was less so because I had a studio filled with coworkers who supported me, the idea, and gave me the confidence I needed to go out and get it done. The entire process of that as well as just starting on and developing entirely new games with this team is something I adore on a regular basis.

But that doesn’t really answer the question: why make games?

Really, I think I make games for me, twenty years ago. Games helped defined my identity, they gave me hours upon hours of entertainment, they were engaging, they were enjoyable, and they were (and still are) my favorite form of entertainment. It pains me to think that there are gamers out there who either lost sight of what games are or what they’re for, but to get lost in that concern is missing the bigger picture: games, for most people, are fun.

Ultimately, that’s why I make games. And it’s absolutely part of my future plan to dovetail my experience in games with my devotion to education and see what I can come up with that will be fun and educational in a way that, hopefully, only I can do.

In the mean time, if you consider yourself a gamer, just sit down with a game you like and lose yourself in it. Remember why games exist, remember that a whole lot of people put a whole lot of themselves into making that game, but, most importantly, also remember that they’re “just” games. There’s still that whole world out there that’s ongoing and needs that thing that only you can provide. And it’s not hatred, bigotry, misogyny, sexism, anger, jealousy, rage, or any of those other emotions that seem to be clouding the Internet lately. It’s something uniquely you, and it’s pretty awesome.

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On Video Games and Harassment

This post will, likely, accomplish nothing. The people who don’t need to read it will see it the most whereas it won’t even be on the radar of the people most in need of reading it.

I’ve been busy lately — working on two big work projects, one big indie project, a couple smaller indie projects, Diablo 3 (again), and sometimes even sleeping— so I’ve missed the whole #gamergate thing until now. I don’t even have much to say on the matter, but these are people I “know” through the Internet, so I feel obligated to post my thoughts.

Firstly, the harassment is beyond abhorrent. It’s something that should never happen in any office, industry, or any scope whatsoever. It’s completely and wholly beyond reproach. Those involved should not only feel ashamed to call themselves “gamers”, but ashamed to call themselves human beings.

I feel the need to figure out why anything Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn, or Jenn Frank have done would elicit such a response. My answer would be “nothing”, but clearly that’s not the case, because the harassment exists and continues. So, what’s next? The analysis of games from a feminine perspective? Well, to put it pretty bluntly, games are by and large male-oriented. There’s no shortage of male power fantasies, objectified female characters, or generally male-dominated topics and attitudes. That is a true fact — plain and simple. There’s no arguing it and, if you try to argue it, you’re already wrong.  Sure, you can find examples of gender neutral or female-oriented games and try to use that as a counterpoint, but you’ll be trumped by twenty male-focused game at the very least. So, gamers, don’t worry about your favorite hobby getting, I don’t even know what to call it, “diluted”? Call of Duty will still sell millions of copies to the millions that love that game (myself amongst them), and there are no shortage of other games like it if that’s your sort of thing.

If you don’t want to play a game like Quinn’s Depression Quest then, believe me, you’ve got plenty of other options out there. I haven’t personally played the game because, as a systems guy, it doesn’t interest me on a mechanical level. On a thematic level, though? Absolutely. I’m a bipolar, anxious, OCD-driven person, and games that analyze any kind of mental syndrome are totally up my alley. So, eventually, I’ll give the game a try for that reason alone. Realistically, when I play games these days, it’s almost an afterthought. And I go to “comfort games”. Right now, I’m playing Diablo 3 on my PS4. I’ve also played Diablo 3 on PC/Mac and Xbox 360. And I’m doing it again. It’s just what helps me unwind. That, and whatever Vita/3DS game I play on the bus, are the games that I play right now.

My point here is that, no matter who are you, there’s a game for you — if you’re a man. Now, I don’t know the words to say what I’m trying to say here, so I apologize if they’re wrong, but: if you’re a woman looking for a AAA game experience that will deliver the same sense of empowerment that a game like Call of Duty does for million of males (and females, it’s not a black-and-white situation here)… You’re out of luck. Your best bet is AAA game that’s gender-neutral. And that’s horrible.

As a game developer, I make games that are important to me. I’ve made games about emotions like Balance (work/life balance), Doubt (… doubt), and Broken (bad relationships). These were great for me at the time. For the most part, though, I really enjoy just making a variety of systemically-interesting games. Starhawk was super interesting to work on, Dragon Academy was a lot of fun, Cat vs. Aliens was my first officially-published ‘baby’, and SPACE COLORS was my second ‘baby’. I just enjoy making games. I have a tremendous amount of emotion attached to all of these games, but for the latter bunch, they’re not my attempt to express any emotion, they’re my attempt to express fun gameplay through different mechanics. And that’s going to continue to be my contribution to the industry. I’m a systems guy, and that’s what most interests me about games.

So, when you attack people like Zoe Quinn or Anita Sarkeesian, what you’re doing is reducing the number of voices that games get made by. Jenn Frank and Anita Sarkeesian may not be a game developers, but that doesn’t mean their voices doesn’t impact games. They do and they should impact games. They’re just impacting the individual game developers who make games.

And here’s the thing: all of those game developers — male or female — are people. They are people with personal lives divorced from their profession. They are people with their own problems and joys. The thing we all share is a love for games as a medium. This is not a left-leaning or right-leaning (which, somehow, inexplicably entered into this whole mess) issue. This is a person issue. And attacking people for making games or discussing games or analyzing games is despicable act. Not only because it’s crude, rude, or unprofessional — though it is all of those things and more — but it’s completely irrelevant.

Engage the ideas. Take a moment and reflect on the arguments being made. If you disagree with them, figure out why, and attack the hell out of that argument with witty rhetoric and a sense of mad style.That’s what will further the industry and the medium. That’s constructive. And that’s what humans should do.

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SUPERCHROMA: A New Beginning

When I finished SPACE COLORS, I was pretty much immediately all ready to make its sequel. While a lot of my influences for the game were games like Armada and Subspace, the game I actually ended up creating in SPACE COLORS was far more minimalistic in every sense. It was a different game from those that were my influences, and that was very intentional. I wanted to establish a tone, style, feel, inner loop, and touch interface that I was happy with and, with SPACE COLORS, I (more-or-less) did all of that.

I wanted to be able to step away from the game for a while, so in the interim I worked on work projects (like the recently-released Loot Raiders and other secret projects) and a separate side-project (Gravity Blot). But as I thought about doing a third shmup game, which I definitely wanted to do, I tried out a bunch of prototypes and couldn’t find anything that I was happy with. And then the idea of SPACE COLORS 2 came to mind, and from there on out it was just figuring what that game could be.

I decided I didn’t want to just make a sequel to the game. That didn’t seem necessary at all. If I wanted to add more to SPACE COLORS, then I could just release a new version on the App Store to the surprising number of people who bought the game and have that new content out there immediately.

But, as it tends to do, my mind went back to Armada and Subspace and I decided that I should pursue actually making a game that could be a worthy follow-up to those games. To my knowledge, no one else out there is making something like that — which is sad on its own accord — so, hey, why not me?

So, SPACE COLORS 2 will be an open-world action/RPG. It won’t have any of the rogue-like design that SPACE COLORS was built around, nor will it have the absolute gameplay minimalism. It’s going to be a big world divided into multiple different sectors, with each sector having its own unique look, feel, and enemy set. These sectors will also be fixed. The north-east sector closest to the player’s starting base will always be, say, the Imperial faction’s sector.  That’s not to say that the universe is going to be pre-designed and static whatsoever — the game still is going to revolve around a randomly-generated universe, but the universe is just going to be divided into these consistent sectors. And, of course, the further you get from the origin (the player’s base), the more difficult, more numerous, and more complex the enemies will become. And if you die, you don’t start from scratch, you’re just returned to your home base — though, likely at some kind of a loss or maybe a Dark Souls-esque reason to go back and retrieve your cargo. But this is me just rambling about could-bes and what-ifs at this point.

One thing I want to put an emphasis on is procedural loot generation and being able to customize your ship. I don’t know how far I’ll be able to take the actual visual customization, but I do plan on complete functional customization. Which is what I’m primarily working on this weekend (the feature screen is the first time the game is working with the new game code/backend).

There will also be a ship-doll:

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 11.39.13 PMThis is, obviously, a super early and work-in-progress paper doll, but it is functional, which is my goal throughout development: to keep the game constantly functional and playable. I did that with SPACE COLORS and while it led me to frequently get distracted with new things to fix, I think it led to a better game.

Now, unlike SPACE COLORS, I do plan on this game being free-to-play. I’m going to make it the best free-to-play game I possibly can but, primarily, I just want to make sure that this kind of game is open to as vast and wide an audience as it possibly can be, because I want this kind of game to catch on. I would love shameless clones of an action/shmup/rpg/open-world game cluttering the app store (after SC2 comes out, of course). That is like a dream world to me.

I’m also planning on a small-scale multiplayer arena mode.

All of this is to say that it’s my biggest side-project that I’ve undertaken in a long time. I think it will be pretty great, though. And there’s also a 99% chance that the game will be called SUPERCHROMA (name suggestion courtesy of my friend Josh Sutphin).

So, with that, the first screen of SUPERCHROMA:

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SPACE COLORS

I’ve been chronicling my development of SPACE COLORS over at Gamasutra over three short pieces:

Well, last week (er, two weeks ago) I launched SPACE COLORS on the iOS App Store and Google Play. Up until a sound bug caught its way into the finished game, it was receiving solid 4s/5s from all users and the average critical review is somewhere in the 7-8 range. I’m not one to normally care about scores, but that said: I’m super psyched that people seem to be enjoying the game.

Leading up to the launch I was, for lack of a better way to phrase this, a nervous wreck trying to figure out whether people would like the game or not. And, so far, it seems like people do! Which is awesome. I put a whole lot of myself into SPACE COLORS, since it was my idea and I was the sole designer/developer of the whole thing, but beyond that it’s the beginning of the kind of game I’ve always wanted to make. And the control scheme I settled on for mobile devices (which only, really, requires one finger) was adopted pretty successfully by most of the people I’ve seen playing it. This is also huge to me.

So, thank you everyone who nabbed the game or supported its development. It’s not a huge, monolithic game by any means, but it is a very important one to me, so thank you.

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