Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Prototypes - Jack Action and The Duck Assault

This is part two of a three part series on my recent prototypes, also including Morbid Grid and a yet unfinished game currently called Proto2. (View Part One)



SO, WHAT IS JACK ACTION & THE DUCK ASSAULT?

Seriously? A game about punching and DROP-KNEEING mallards? Hahahaha. Damn. Jack Action is a exactly that: a game about Jack Action's noble sacrifice* toward defeating the evil hoard of Dr. Science's robotic, maniacal waterfowl.

The story of this prototype goes back many many years. Around the time that YoYoGames.com was doing their Save the Planet Competition, I had a small idea that failed to come to fruition.



This game was about an elite force of toxic waste fighters who jumped from airplanes to eliminate the pollutant threat of our terrorist foes. They did not use parachutes.*

Toxic Troopers by Ted Lauterbach

Toxic Troopers (Jack Action Remix) by Ted Lauterbach

"Toxic Troopers" was the original track that played in that small experiment. Jack Action's music is a much more modern version of the song that I actually wrote several months before starting work on Jack Action. I liked the 5/4 time of the piece.

In the summer of 2011, I also had another idea for a game. This time, you were using a jetpack, grappling hook, and a heavy laser blaster pistol.* Your name? Jack Action. The game was meant to be a ridiculous over the top action extravaganza where you took out airplanes and nuclear missiles.

Now, I started my campaign for a game a week. While working on another weird cube game (that at one time actually featured Jack Action himself), I had the urge to listen to some tunes from Time Splitters 2, and that is when I read this Youtube comment:

"Big Tony's been having some discrete hair transplant work done down at the Hospital. But in an anesthetic-induced daze he thinks that some giant ducks are after his new thatch to feather their nests! Help him out by whacking 'dem malicious mallards."

It single-handedly flooded my mind with the great power of nostalgia. The comment was referring to a challenge mission you could play in TS2; ALL I could imagine was Jack Action beating the crap out of ducks.

A LEGEND IS BORN

But, how would all of the pieces fit together? How could this fury of action-gaming, brewing since the foul winters of 2008 to the frightful fall of 2012, form what we now know as the best bird-punching simulator human-kind has ever known?


A dream about jetpack explosion backflips.*


Dreams have not failed me in the past. It was a sign. I can't explain it. At that point, it finally became really clear what I wanted to create for my prototype.

The rest of my weekend was spent perfecting the duck-punching formula; I would pull from the greats of combat: Battletoads, River City Ransom, Street Fighter. I would channel the hatred of those that fly: Duck Hunt, Ocarina of Time, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts.

WHAT WENT RIGHT?

This was a game that really raised my spirits; I gushed with happiness when I dumped a copy in front of my brother-in-law and we both laughed until Jack Action splatted to his death.* I couldn't stop giggling to myself about this game. Could not. I honestly don't know if I've made such a satirical game before. I'm sure I've joked about it, but it's never materialized.

I hope other game developers who take their work seriously (much like I do) know that even if the subject matter is beyond reason, it can still be important work; it's really only something I came to realize after making Jack Action. I'm really surprised I hadn't done something like this sooner.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Ha? Are you kidding me? What could possibly go wrong?



This was Part 2 of 3. Next post is going to be about the yet unnamed Proto2.
Thanks for reading, guys. It means a lot!


*Parachutes are for wusses.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Prototypes - Morbid Grid

This is the first in a series of 3 game prototype posts; other games I'll be touching on are Jack Action and the Duck Assault, and an incomplete game temporarily known as Proto2.



SO, WHAT IS MORBID GRID?

Morbid Grid is a game that I developed for Game Jolt's Competition Eight, with the very awesome music created by Ashely Gwinnell. The theme of the competition was "Fear," and the basic idea behind Morbid Grid's gameplay revolved around the idea of not ever truly knowing where your enemies are, creating a very manic, stressful, and foreboding play environment.

WHAT WENT RIGHT?

Morbid Grid was the first personal game that I had completed (and have been somewhat proud of) since releasing suteF almost 2 years(!) ago. Emotionally and mentally, that was a really big deal for me. Struggling through several projects in the last two years had been exhausting and unbelievably discouraging; making something as glorious as suteF and losing so much steam afterward led me to doubt my abilities as a developer. Morbid Grid rekindled the fire.

There are also several technical issues I overcame in the process. The most important was when I questioned my fear of using surfaces in Game Maker; ever since completing Descent and Fetus, I started rigorously avoiding use of Game Maker's surfaces code, because it created LOTS of strange, unintentional graphical artifacts. The lighting effects in Morbid Grid use surfaces, an they are invaluable for conjuring the atmosphere. So far, I haven't received any notice of the effects causing issues, so in this case, experimenting with surfaces gave me a game I might not have ever known I could make.

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Budgeting my time was horrible. The competition provided a single week to create our games, but I only spent the weekend actually working on the game. The first 5 days were wasted with creating pixel art and thinking about poorly-scoped mega projects. One idea was a nightmare shmup where you needed to fight evil dream entities using rhythm inputs (I still want to revisit it some day). Another was pretty much a narrative exploration game where you needed to figure out the story of a recurrent ghost lady.
Granted, they were mostly ideas and not full work, but a lot of time was wasted just sitting around brainstorming ideas instead of just streaming gameplay from my brain into the coding window. This time-sink also only gave my musician one day to work (and from a game file that was hardly fleshed out). Ash, if you're reading this, I can't thank you enough for kicking so much ass!

Morbid Grid was also supposed to have highscores, but again, I didn't budget my time well and the feature needed to be removed. Morbid Grid really suffers from a gameplay standpoint because of this; it is very reliant upon the combo-chaining and scoring system.

CLOSING WORDS

Overall, I've been really happy with the work I did on Morbid Grid; developing it inspired me to do a two-week prototype fest that produced the second game in this series, Jack Action and the Duck Assault.


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rottengine

Disclaimer! I am not a properly trained programmer. All of the skills I've learned have been self-taught or picked up from being around 'programming gurus.' Aaron Hoffman, Kevin Harris, and Aaron Bahr are three of whom I've had the pleasure of gaining massive insights on programming in general. My jargon may be completely wrong, so you can laugh accordingly at my misuse of it.

So, you've likely heard me tweeting about this wonderful new tool that I've been developing for an older project that I had started last summer, Polar Expedition (working title).

Rottengine, as I'm now calling it, aims to make a simple library to extend the functionality of the Microsoft XNA framework.

Last weekend, I coded a rough Editor that allows me to add any number of 'Asset' types to an editor window and manipulate their properties. So things like Sprites, Textures, Conversations, Items, and Maps can be loaded and changed from a single window.

What's neat about this is that if I need to add more 'Asset' types, the amount of effort to do so is very minimal. Game development software like Game Maker and Unity really lack the ability to do this easily. In Game Maker, some sort of text parsing or object trickery would need to be employed, and in Unity, the serialization of generic objects becomes obscenely cumbersome from my experience (if someone is particularly clever in that regard, I'd like to meet you).

So what in XNA makes this easier? It's their Content Pipeline. This nifty thing can de/serialize developer created objects just the same as content like Textures and Models, provided the XML matches up with the object properly.

Couple that with the ability to create custom Windows Forms, and you have a really baddass method of making an Editor.

Do you remember the Visit3 World Editor? Good, you shouldn't; that piece of junk was a hard-coded, coupled mess. Visit3 had to be run with the editor attached to it, and caused a MAJOR problem when it was supposed to be ported to the console (which was the major hurdle in our old attempt to continuing my work on Visit3).

But with my discovery of using separate projects in a solution, I was able to safely add on both editor and library projects to 'Polar Expedition,' which could be built with or without the game. All that needs to be done is connecting the projects via a 'project reference.'


Polar Expedition's current Solution, using 2 XNA Windows Game projects, 2 Content projects, and 1 XNA Windows Library project (Rottengine).


The 'Resource Editor' in action. Creating a new 'TabPage' is the trick to editing an object; in this example, I expose things like sprite width, height, and frames so that the object settings can be serialized and then deserialized when 'Polar Expedition' needs to load the information during run-time.

This is all really conceptual stuff I'm going over, but I can elaborate on some of what I did if you'd like!

My hopes with this coding project is to both improve my 'library writing' skills as well as providing myself lots of reusable code to store away for future projects, making it faster and easier for me to start them.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

On Hype and Expectations

I've been ranting a lot lately to people about some of my design 'philosophies,' and where would it be better to spread it than here?

My proposition:

Games, much like art, are experiences or emotional rides that are only plainly understood by the person playing them, and shouldn't (and really can't) be used to describe someone else's.

So what the hell does that mean? YOU'RE SO PRETENTIOUS, TED.

Indeed. It's a pretty dramatic statement; you could even go as far to interpret it as an excuse to avoid reading any game reviews at all, and surely suggests that you should avoid getting game recommendations from a friend.

Not entirely true.

How the hell would anyone know about a good game if you couldn't recommend it?

They really wouldn't; stumbling across original links out of the blue is stupidly uncommon. Recommendations and reviews help filter out the crap from the good games; it's experience-filter 101.


I'm going to go out on a limb and describe my process of viewing movies.


CASE I: "Ted"
-------------------------------------------------------

I watched no trailers nor did I research anything for this movie whatsoever. I saw a poster in the movie theater that showed Marky-mark, a beer-toting teddy, and the words "MADE BY THAT CRAZY GUY WHO MADE YOU LAUGH ON A SHOW YOU MIGHT HAVE HEARD OF: Family Guy."

Hmmmm. Did I go in with some expectations then? Yeah: "Family Guy" humor. That was about it. I split my gut at virtually every joke they made (and there were a lot... don't judge me, I have a point).

I spoke with my friend who I viewed the movie with, and he explained to me that he had seen several of the jokes in the multitude of trailers they promoted the film with.

Really? Dang. Glad I never saw any of them....


CASE II: "John Carter"
-------------------------------------------------------

I will now quote my guilty-pleasure AAA idol, Cliff Bleszinski:

"I don't mean to pre-judge but nothing about John Carter looks compelling to me. It's like Clash of the Conan Avatars or something." (source)

"OH MY GOD. That was total CRAP." is precisely what I uttered when I finished watching the trailer for the first time.

Fast-forward to a bored, impromptu Janesville movie run with my sister and brother in law. Nothing was really out (that I remember....):

"Wow. That was actually really entertaining. It was really pretty and a good (yet bizarre) adventure flick."

I might be getting more clear to you now...


CASE III: "The Amazing Spider-Man"
-------------------------------------------------------

"Oh, they're rebooting Spider-Man? Hmph. I don't know how I feel about that; I really liked one and two... Three was horse-shit though."

Leaving the theater, I grumble to myself. "Did I seriously just watch the same damn origin story with a different villain? Why so many damn super-hero movies?"

Maybe I came to the new movie with high-expectations from my awkward middle-school years viewing?



"So, what are you getting at?"

Previews and trailers have a really big effect on your expectations of a film.

"Mkay, cool. What about Spider-Man? Didn' talk 'bout no trailers no how."

Much like in the case with "Ted," I had expectations of the content and makers from experiencing them beforehand. Bias is a bitch?

"Aaaaaaaand what does this have to do with games?"

It's an analogy....

There have been WAAAY too many times people (including me) have just thrashed a genre or game based on their own opinions. Trailers for games are usually shit. They show a cut-scene or something and blast Dubstep up your ass.



Then there's the other side.

I'll get myself into trouble on this one. One of THE most disappointing games I've played was.... yeah. Fez. TWO IGF trophies, a dramatic film made about the developer's struggle, and 5 years of freaking hype through the ups and downs of funding. To top it off, this epic feeling trailer. It truly made me feel like I owned the universe.

All of this 'cred' based on what I imagined I could do with a 2D game in a 3D world. Believe me; I had more than a few dreams about it.

They didn't come true.

Everyone kept blabbing about this big meta-secret game dwelling behind the scenes. Wait, what? What the hell happened to making the rotating interesting?

Rotating the world actually became a BURDEN to collecting all these damn cubes, then more secret cubes if you decoded some language and found some owl secret blah, blah, blah, blah. That little fezzed-out dude was a pain in the ass to move around in the end.

It was painted like a grand game of discovering new, interesting places that are lost in a 2D context. About an hour in, he seemed to have run out of tricks.

Then I just kind of growled to myself. "5 years? For some meta-puzzle the internet just plain spoiled in a few days?"

Already now, I'm going to expect threats and be called "someone who just doesn't get it." It feels like there's this big dome keeping me from saying poor things about the game. It's like this REALLY acclaimed thing, right?

Now that I've already dug myself a grave, I want to cut a little deeper into game interpretation stuff. I talked about this before, but I'll explain it again.

I don't think other people should have any influence on what YOU get out of a piece of art. It's there for you to interpret, with all of your own biases or preferences. Fez and the hype-machine just plain ruined it in my case. There was nothing that really said my 'dreams' about it were valid, but there wasn't anything telling me otherwise.

Writing this makes me really worried about misrepresenting my own work and giving false impressions.

If I told you all of the answers about suteF, wouldn't that ruin a lot of fun of making your own connections and conclusions? Is it BETTER because you don't give a crap what it's about, and knowing would just make you think it was shallow? Am I going to accidentally hype Chapter E up as an epic-sequel to suteF when I've already said that it plays almost NOTHING like suteF.

My goal is to keep my dirty hands out of what you think my work is about, specifically what it means to you personally. Did it make you think about good times? Bad times? The future?

And for the love of everything awesome, PLEASE don't let me over-hype my work. Such a scary prospect...


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Progenitor X



Play it Now

Progenitor X is a educational puzzle game about stem cell research... and zombies.

Currently, it is only a demo that contains 4 different missions that demonstrate the higher process of creating iPS cells and their future potential to re/create tissues and help heal organs.
I've had the pleasure of being the Lead Software Engineer/Programmer as well as a co-designer of the gameplay mechanics. My work with the project is not independent of the sorts I usually post; Progenitor X is part of a suite of games from GLS, the Games Learning Society.

Enjoy the puzzly-zombie goodness. :)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Roboroso

Global Game Jam Page

Do you have an hour to kill? How about a friend and 2 gamepads? That's what Roboroso is: a good old couch game.

Roboroso is the product of this year's Global Game Jam, where video game developers from around the world simultaneously develop games in a 46 hour period. They're working everybody into the book of world records. :D

I was the designated programmer in our team of four. Dr. Nathan Patterson, was our designated sound man, creating the wonderfully weird music and phonetic sound effects for the characters. He is featured saying "Roborosorazation complete" upon one's inevitable demise.

Jordan Laine was the design honcho and an artist. He balanced the team's initial concept, and soon became the project manager and directed us when time was putting me to sleep. Jordan drove ALL THE WAY DOWN FROM MINNESOTA JUST TO JAM. DEVOTION.

Lastly, we had the game development newcomer, Paul Goeser. Paul helped with the design and some of the art as well.



So what is Roboroso? It is an asynchronous two-player arena combat game. Both players take turns sending units at their opponent player in the arena. The first player to run out of units loses. That's the cut and dry version.

What were my personal goals and motivations behind the project? As with game jams in general, collaboration is great. As much as I resisted the idea initially, it turns out in the end that I just like working with other competent game developers. (Kevin Harris had to poke and prod me until I finally got my head straight and started jamming. Thanks man!

One thing however that I've been stressing about this last year is my want for a universal return to the classic couch game: playing a game on a couch, hopefully with your buddies next to you, joining in and applauding the action. Much of my gaming life has been spent this way. Online play just doesn't really cut it with me; I've always believed that face to face interactions in games with your friends are THE strongest way to make one of my aforementioned 'moments' a reality. I feel like Roboroso is a step in the direction I want to take more of my future games in.

For now, you can enjoy Roboroso, and some pictures (courtesy of Christopher Fournier) of members from the team at the jam! :D


Members (Left to Right): Ted Lauterbach, Paul Goeser, Nathan Patterson


A couple of fellow jammers trying Roboroso out. Jordan is the guy standing behind the two seated players

All of Chris's pictures from the jam can be viewed here. It was pretty awesome! We managed to fill the entire auditorium with participants. :O

Here's to many more game jams!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Discovering Life Through Video Games

I played Resident Evil 5 again for the first time in many months. I got my sister to play mercenaries with me, too.

We started out pretty rough; the last game we played a game together was Gears of War 3, and we were still trying to roll away from the enemy by mad-tapping the A button (an action that will lead to great misfortune in RE5 if executed under the same circumstances). Even after we refreshed our button fingers to the ways of the zombie slayer, we continued to get clobbered. Hope seemed... silly.

But, almost as we were about to call it, I leaned over and said with as serious a face as I could muster:

"I need to change my character."

I'm pretty sure she knew what that meant right away. I scrolled over to Tribal Sheva; I wasn't kidding around anymore.

The last time I had used her, it WAS a joke. But, the stakes were higher then; we had tried for several hours that night many a month ago to demolish our worst enemy: The Boat Level. Just imagine a crap load of chainsaw wielding jerks that just FREAKING LOVE dying only to come back to life ten or fifteen seconds later for a second helping of countless shotgun and magnum blasts. The holy 'A' rating required to unlock our last character seemed fourteen-million times more hopeless than our feeble attempts to pick up the game in the present day.

Then there was Tribal Sheva. Her gloriously primitive bow lacked the oh-so-useful and seemingly essential laser sight every other weapon had. Her scantily clad costume certainly didn't garner any further support from either of us.

"You're kidding, right?" was something similar to what my sister said when we were loading up The Boat Level for try number 33,495, this time with my Sheva sporting her... nothing. (Seriously, still disturbs me that so many costumes do that with women).

I wish I was all cool and would have said something like, "Trust me, we've got this; I'm pretty fucking 1337."

But, it was more along the lines of, "Seriously, this is getting ridiculous. I just want to mess around a bit," spiced with a couple of bargains stating that I'd change characters if we didn't do well again. (That might even be a lie. I honestly don't remember anymore. xD)

We did our now usual drill; I climbed down the ladder, murdered an undead crossbow wielding bonehead and collected as many time bonus things as I could, while my sister expertly executed the first chainsaw maniac dropping from the sky a few feet away from the spawn and only 20 or so seconds after the round started, lamenting the second a tentacle endowed 'special head' zombie would materialize, chucking a flash bang to eliminate its sorry ass. Only thing different was, I was missing a crap load of shots; Sheva's arrows whipped past their heads with expert inaccuracy.

"It's no use!" I cried with anger! After the bow had proved ineffective, I had given up and resorted to Tribal Sheva's seemingly superior Grenade Launcher. Not so -- rounds were too few and ineffective to be useful.

Naturally, the next thing we knew, we were out of sequence; my sister and I had been backed up on top of a shipping crate that had no easy exits to avoid the blood thirsty mob, but did have a nice distant view of the pain to come: three more chainsaw-wielding, potato-sack headed freaks of nature slowly proceeding along their maddened war path, fueled by gasoline and a deadly Uroburos ridden blood stream closely followed by every green-bottle-toting, crossbow-straddling local who decided to join them on their head cleaving pleasure cruise.

All hope was lost.

But, hell must have frozen over. I started nailing half court shots on the undead: the weaker ones going down with one arrow a piece -- 'special heads' revealing themselves and being exterminated in three. Sis powerfully conserved every Magnum round she could for the big boys -- waiting till she could laser point them dead between the threads separating their bloodshot eyes for four or five expert head shots, waiting for their bodies to rise once again and repeat for the kill.

Shit hit the fan hard; 'special heads' were breaching the comfort zone. They'd pop of the occasional slice and we'd need to revive each other with that (thankfully) endless supply of morphine vials we were pumped full of on the heal.

Then, each and every one of our greatest fears materialized simultaneously.

Two of the sack heads used their unimaginable leg strength and leapt up onto our crate AT THE SAME TIME and stared at us at near point-blank range. SIS HAD TO RELOAD HER MAGNUM AT THAT VERY MOMENT.

"EXPLICT WORD STARTING WITH F!!" we cried!

I did all I could. Arrow to the face! Arrow to the face! Arrow to the face! Holy shit, one went down! The other began his horrifyingly maniacal tantrum of blood thirsty laughter as he raised his gas powered totem of judgement toward my sister's Albert Wesker's glorious head attachment device.

Arrow! ARROW!

SUSAN WAS RELOADED.

I wish I could make this stuff up, but you just can't.

We totally blew them away. We actually had a whole 30 seconds of time left over where there were no enemies left to kill because we had dispatched ALL of them. I think we had some stupidly large combo going. Like, a 50 combo or something. I don't quite remember. We unlocked the new character with flying colors.

Turns out when you can actually hit enemies with Tribal Sheva's bow, they die REALLY quick. We figured one arrow does about just as much damage as a Magnum round, but meh, we never ran numbers or anything.


So.

What does this rather lengthy story have to do with 'Discovering Life Through Video Games?'

It's not quite what you think. This story is only one of dozens of moments my sister and I had while playing Resident Evil 5. What's oh so very important about this is the moment. Through a game, my sister and I discovered a moment that we'll carry with us for the rest of our lives.

There's a big difference from the moment we had and some moment that was made by the designers to be memorable. Screw all of the boss encounters and stuff. I only really kinda remember a few of them, and probably not for any good reason. (Except maybe the final fight with Wesker or something, but that was born out of a hopefully unintentional lack of ammo. Really funny stuff)

I find the moments in video games so personal and moving, it's hard to say just how many of these things I carry with me. I'm one hundred percent certain that some of the most inspirational and enlightening times I've had have been from moments like these. Ones that on most occasions my sister and I would be the only people to ever know about them.

Events like ours are really cleverly hidden in my opinion. "They were just a good time of gaming" is what it comes off as on the surface. But how many times do I just reference Tribal Sheva and get a goofy grin between us? I've shared a (admittedly disguised) pivotal moment with another human being.

That's discovering life.

The larger bulk of my work has been sharing moments of my life of creating the games themselves. Did you feel a little bit of pain playing suteF? I hope so. There are times where I felt some myself when I was making it. A lot of times in fact. Gee, does it show?

The more I think of moments like my sister and I have shared (and, she's not the only one I've played games with and felt the same way, mind you), the more I believe that I need to create an experience that can provide some of these open-ended, non-scripted moments. Admittedly, I'm guilty of throwing my personal story into my work and thus muffling any moments people may have been able to create for themselves. It's just kind of how it has worked, really.

suteF has achieved a better result, though. How many people have just been left to connect the dots of the narrative? That was a choice I made at nearly the last minute, thanks to a friend who had showed me her own unique spin on it.

Anything the player gets to create in their moment is better than something the designer could have scripted.

Here's hoping that 2012 brings a few of these ideas to light so all of you get a chance to design your own moments through a system I present to you with plotted dots. Connect them however you see fit. :]