arena_ti86

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.

anitasark

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.

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 2.32.42 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2014-08-30 at 2.32.42 PM

 

header

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.

blocktanks

Block Tanks: Procedural Dynamism in Unity

[Originally published on Gamasutra].

As I’m finishing up SPACE COLORS, I decided to take a break for a bit and start on another new project. The project itself is, basically, a voxel-based turn-based tank combat game (far more light-hearted/streamlined/simplistic than the glut of tank battle games on mobile right now).

Pretty immediately, I decided on the art style that I wanted for the game: bright, dynamic, colorful toybox destruction that can work on mobile devices. Like a lot of my side-projects, I wanted the game to be something that I could develop, design, and do (most of) the art for entirely myself. When I start these projects, I tend to have a pretty absolute focus on them and I find I’m the most productive on them when I don’t have any other dependencies to worry on other than my own task list. And, given that these side-projects are just worked on entirely in my spare time, I like to be able to make demonstrable progress on some feature every night whether I’m able to spend an hour or five. And, like all of my projects, I’m still using Unity because, at this point, it’s just a completely natural environment for me to work within. And it affords me a lot of opportunities to get “temp” features/art/objects into a game before I can get around to a proper implementation.

So far, the brunt of the work has gone into just writing what I’m calling the “build engine” — which is all of the procedural backend for generating all of the meshes in the game. Which ended up being… slightly more complicated than I originally expected. It’s also been a whole lot of fun. For anyone interested and since I feel like going through the technical details of the thing, the kind of stuff that this backend has to deal with [...]

Read the rest over at Gamasutra — Block Tanks: Procedural Dynamism in Unity.

trent_office

The Journey from A to B

[Originally published on Gamasutra.]

I got my start in the game industry writing books about graphics programming before I went to college. Then I went to the University of Michigan, realized I either wasn’t a fan of Computer Science or Computer Science curriculum or Computer Science students, and switched to English with the goal of becoming a High School English teacher. Then, after college, I got a job as a game/engine programmer for Stardock Entertainment working on games like Galactic Civilizations 2, The Political Machine 2008, Sins of a Solar Empire, Demigod, and part of Elemental: War of Magic.

It was after about a year and a half of doing this that I realized I wasn’t really loving being a game/engine programmer.

I thought about leaving the industry entirely and going back to try and finish my teaching certification but, first, I thought I’d try and get a job as a game designer to see if that changed my perspective on game development. It took about four-five months to find a job and I interviewed everywhere for anything that would get me in as a designer. I was willing to work on any platform on any game on any IP, it didn’t matter. One interview I took was for a contract position on a Spongebob Squarepants game. What I knew then about Spongebob Squarepants is roughly what I know now: it’s about a square sponge that wears pants. Point is: I took every interview I could get. Some were really exciting, others were “well… if I have to take this job I guess I could get into it.”

Then one day, I got a random e-mail from a company called LightBox Interactive that I sent my resume to months earlier. They were looking for a designer and wanted to schedule a phone interview. This was a studio that worked on games I played: Twisted Metal and Warhawk. It was super exciting. The phone interview went well, I spent most of the time talking about my then-current project Magnetic Butterfly and my thoughts on Far Cry 2. I was flown out to Salt Lake City, Utah — my first time ever seeing mountains — for an in-person interview in a really, really warm office building and ushered into a meeting room. I met the person I talked to on the phone, Josh Sutphin, the lead designer (WHOA AN ACTUAL DESIGNER, I had never even seen one of those before in person). We talked a bit, and then the gauntlet of people came in: the art team and then a break for lunch… With the studio owners. Over lunch, I was asked “Where do you want to be in five years?” I said “Creative Director.” “Why?” “Honestly, I don’t know, but I look at all of my design heroes like Clint Hocking and they have such a strong presence over their games and an unbelievable grasp on game design theory and I want to be that.” After lunch came the programmers, and it closed with the studio president and the lead designer. And that was that. I took a cab to the airport. Ran into the first bathroom I could find and threw up the lunch that had been making me increasingly ill during the second half of the interviews, and flew back to Michigan.

And then there was the waiting. And the waiting. And the waiting. And, as anyone who knows me can tell you, patience is a virtue that I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting.

Then, Memorial Day 2009, I got an e-mail while I was playing Forza Motorsport 2 saying I got the job and they wanted me to start as soon as possible — which meant temporarily relocating to Salt Lake City for a few months while the studio space LightBox Interactive was building out in downtown Austin was being renovated and setup. I lived in an Extended Stay Hotel with my cat for three months on a wi-fi service that was less efficient than the dial-up modem I had grown up with and whose service would be abruptly severed if the hotel felt you were using too much bandwidth. This usually came with a penalty of x days without service. So, for someone who had never lived outside Michigan, this was all a bit of a culture shock.

I was the first hire for the LightBox Interactive design team, so Josh and I worked closely on the prototype of what would become Starhawk. I got to do things I’ve never been paid to do before: make levels, script missions, write design documents, write fiction, write prototype game modes, work with artists on getting assets with good gameplay spaces and programmers on identifying engine features we would need. And I was working with people of a caliber of talent and intelligence that I could not even fathom. To say that I felt out of my element would not only be a bit cliche, but also a horrific understatement. My first employee review said I was doing a good job, but my 3D math skills left a lot to be desired. So, I read a lot of books. A lot of books. (Note: it never ended up really taking until I had to put it into practice).

All that said, I was sure that I was going to be let go when my 90-day evaluation was up. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and that I was just winging everything. I worked like crazy to try and get to at least a conversational level with the programmers I worked with every day. Luckily, the team (then 13 people) was amazing. The Technical Director, especially, always took what I can only assume was a painstaking effort to make sure that I understood what he was talking about, even if it took a few tries. Josh and I talked constantly about games, design, the industry, Starhawk, growing up, school (I went to college, he didn’t, which made me feel even more over my head given how far I felt I was behind). The 90 days passed by and I never had my 90-day review. To my knowledge, I never had my 90 day review.

So, naturally, I assumed any day would be the day I was let go for not being up to snuff. But I kept working. Probably working harder and longer than I ever needed to, but I enjoyed what I was doing and I felt like I was constantly fighting to keep that position.

Eventually, I somehow got put, well, not in charge, but as the point person for our Greenlight Demo. This was the make-or-break moment for the game. And I was at least partially responsible for it going well. I went from iteration to iteration, redesign to redesign, major features of the game were coming online all around me, new features were coming in as we realized we needed them, polished art assets were delivered, and suddenly, one day, you’re looking at and playing the Greenlight Demo. There’s no magic involved, just the asymptotic progress of multiple disciplines finally meeting at a single point and you realize: holy shit, look at what we’ve accomplished.

And when the dust settles and everything goes well, you realize that now the process starts all over again as we move toward the vertical slice in conjunction with the entire production of the game. Suddenly, we’re not focused on a demo experience, we’re focused on a product. We’re not tuning and iterating on a single mission, we’re structuring and laying out the entire single-player and multiplayer progression. Artists started analyzing their pipeline up to that point and how to optimize for production, developers lay out a feature map alongside the designers fleshing out the full feature set of the game: every mission, every special event, every feature, every weapon, every achievement, every thing. Just everything. All at once.

It’s okay, though, because at that point I wasn’t working as a single designer, I was working as a part of the design team. And as part of the design team, I realized I needed to start doing the things I was good at, even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing: scripting, tools, background systems, and other features that were necessary for the rest of the designers to do what they were best-suited for. Over the course of the project I worked as level designer, mission designer, tool scripter, system designer, cutscene designer, primarily pun delivery service, and probably other roles that I don’t even know. I ended up working on prototypes for several major features of the game, about two-thirds of the missions in the single-player campaign, and, hell, who really even remembers what else.

What I learned from Starhawk is, well, a lot of things. I got to work with some of the excellent folks at Sony Santa Monica, I got to witness playtests, I got to help build and grow an excellent design team, I made a whole lot of friends, and, more to the point, I just learned a whole hell of a lot. This post was originally going to be about the things that I learned, but I don’t even know if that can be done in a single column. Working on Starhawk was one of the hardest, most draining, most rewarding, and most… empowering (?) projects I’ve ever had the privilege of working on.

And five years later? I became Creative Director. It’s not with LightBox Interactive, but I still work down the road from those folks. And the lead designer that gave me my big chance is one of my best friends, and we bounce ideas for our side-projects off each other daily still. Working in the mobile game space is a completely different experience from what I had on Starhawk, but as far as I’m concerned it’s the team you work with and the energy you share that makes for the best jobs and the best games.

Space Colors2

SPACE COLORS Development

I’ve been working on a game in my spare time called SPACE COLORS; it’s, essentially, a shmup/roguelike mobile game. It was originally started as part of the Space Cowboy Game Jam, but since then I’ve taken it and expanded it into a full game. Towards the end of July, I plan on launching the game on the iOS App Store for the low, low price of $0.99.

Anyway, I’ve been posting a bit about the game on Gamasutra:

  • SPACE COLORS: Rethinking Early Development — In this piece, I talk about my desire to keep the development of SPACE COLORS as open and public as possible.
  • SPACE COLORS: The Iterative Process — Three-four weeks after the Space Cowboy Game Jam ended, during which I continued development on SPACE COLORS, I wanted to talk about some of my guiding principles for the game as well as how I handled one of the more challenging aspects of the game: the control scheme.

I also made a little video showcasing my favorite part of SPACE COLORS: the explosions. Check out SPACE COLORS: The Explosion Video.

trent polack