Friday, 24 December 2010

A Year in Video Games: My Top 5 for 2010

2010 has been a great year for me in both gaming and game development. Being, as I am, perpetually late to any party, rather than list the best things that have been released or developed this year, I'm going to list the top 5 best things I've discovered.

Merry Christmas, a happy new year, and I hope you all discover something cool too!

5. Consolevania/VideoGaiden

I always have a "thing I'm watching when I should be going to sleep," and in January and February of this year, it was low-budget game review show Consolevania (and its BBC counterpart VideoGaiden). I love games criticism and it's creators, Glaswegians Ryan MacLeod and Rab Florence, are great fun to watch. It's got a very edgy sense of humour, so it's not for the easily offended, but these guys really know what they're talking about.

It goes back to 2004, and fizzled out around 2008, but if you enjoy looking back at cool stuff you might have missed when you were following the hype, this might pick up a few surprises.

Rab and Ryan are also pretty knowledgeable about their subject, as this opinion piece on violence in games shows, bucking the traditional gamers' view on the subject.






Designing the Bankers: Part 3

See also: Part 1, Part 2

The final set of banker concept drawings are below. Please let me know what you think!

I worked on a new design, based on a "greedy banker" stock image a TIGSource user found. I made him fatter, and gave him a monocle, and a waistcoat, which allowed me to add in a bit of colour. The green/yellow light glow has a kind of money feel about it. This guy looks a bit more like a "fat cat," so to speak.


Monday, 20 December 2010

Designing the Bankers: Part 2

See also: Part 1, Part 3

Below is the first set of greedy banker designs I came up with. As always, any feedback is very much appreciated! As with the game itself, I'd love to involve followers in the design process, and all the comments I get help me improve the designs. So please, let me know what you think!

The banker design began with a simple biro sketch based on the ideas I'd been carrying in my head

Designing the Bankers: Part 1


Greedy Bankers for iPhone is making fantastic progress, with the gameplay elements really coming together. It's still a little rough around the edges, and I've not balanced the drop rates yet, but it's already proving fun to play. It's become clear that the artwork and animation is a big job which I need to get on with before the game can progress further.

With that in mind, I decided to spend the past week entirely on artwork, and trying to pin down a clear design for the "Greedy Bankers" of the title. These characters had always been in my head, as part of the setting the game takes place in. I'd always imagined the player as part of a big Greedy Banking corporation, working away in a secret vault.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

It's that time again! Warwick 48 Hour Competition!


This weekend I hopped up to Warwick University to take part in the Warwick Game Design 48 Hour competition. This term's competition had possibly the oddest theme yet, which I am proud to be partially responsible for: Evil Ventriloquist's Dummy.

I joined forces with Tim Monks and Jess Nickson to create Satan's Toyshop, a spooky run-and-gun where you have to fend off hoards of possessed dummies an teddy bears, while protecting the innocent toys.



There was a grand total of six teams in this term's competition, with three to four members on each, making it the biggest competition the society has seen. Warwick Game Design seems to be going from strength to strength, attracting more and more members and industry speakers - hats off to the new exec for their hard work!

PIXELearning, a Coventry-based serious games developer, will be judging the entries. I will post up the other competition entries, along with the results, as soon as I can.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Developing for iPhone - One Month On

I've been working with iPhone/iPad development for about a month now, and am now well into the swing of Greedy Bankers for iPhone. This post is really a little update on what I've been doing so far, with some tips for people who are also considering game development for iDevices.

Developing for iPhone

Learning Objective-C was not massively difficult, but it is a more complex (or perhaps complicated) language than C# or ActionScript, being a lot more similar to C++. A lot of iPhone development tutorials seem to focus on using XCode's Interface Builder, and avoiding programming. As a game developer, you really do need to code hands-on. So after beginning a few iPhone tutorials to get my head around the syntax, I moved on to using Cocos2D.

Cocos2D is an open-source game framework, which gives you all the things you need to be able to deal with graphics, layered scenes, and other game-specific code in an easy way. Using frameworks is something I've learnt to embrace recently, as it saves a lot of time and hassle, and often helps your game run faster (as they will be developed with efficiency in mind).

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Greedy Bankers Levels Up!

It's finally here! I've been working on the updates to Greedy Bankers for a while, and can finally announce the release of the Halloween version of the game: Spooky Bankers!

Spooky Bankers is version 0.3 of Greedy Bankers, with some nice Halloween effects added in. Why? Because October is cool, my friend. All those autumn leaves and the chilling sense of forboding around the 31st... :)

Download Spooky Bankers (Greedy Bankers 0.3) from here


Coming soon to iPhone and iPad!

I have decided to produce and iPhone/iPad version of the game, which will make use of the touch-screen interface. It seems like a fairly obvious direction for the game, so I'll be getting on with it as soon as possible!

Greedy Bankers has its own website!

I've also started up a website for Greedy Bankers, which will feature more updates, special content, and downloads. At the moment it's had a nice spooky facelift to coincide with the new version.

You can also follow Greedy Bankers on Twitter: @greedy_bankers

Finally, I've produced a new trailer for the game, which you can view here.





Updates in the new version

The new version also includes a lot of updates - some minor and some major. I've been testing the game out on people for the past couple of months and have made some changes accordingly. I'll list them below:
  • New soundtrack - The old version had a placeholder soundtrack that I have now replaced with some neat Creative Commons music. I want to add my own music, but am a little out-of-practice at the moment!
  • Magic orb - One of the problems with the old version is often a game would end because the screen was too full of rubble and there was no space to make large gems. The magic orb transforms rubble to gems, and gives the player a chance to turn the tables.
  • Improved display - To some players it wasn't obvious how close they were to the goal at a given point in time. I tried to make the display easier to glance at, and added in the growing-stack-of-moneybags graphic to help.
  • Balancing improvements - The player needs to always feel that they have a chance to cling on when time's running out. In the earlier versions it was easy to reach a point where there were obviously not enough gems on-screen to make the target. The drop-rates now change depending on how many gems are on-screen to combat this, and give a player a better chance to bounce back.
  • Pause screen - This is a pretty obvious addition, which for some reason I hadn't thought to put in before.
  • In-game hints - Another big problem was that many players got confused at first, and the instructions could not be read while playing the game. Hints now appear when you start the game, and can be switched off if you don't like them.
  • High-score saving - Again, another one that I'm not sure why I hadn't added earlier, even though it seemed like an obvious addition. The game now records your best score and level.
  • Mouse clipping - Some players didn't like the way that the mouse sometimes became detatched from the gem, but you were still technically holding it. Now the cursor should stay with the gem that it is holding.
Please let me know what you think! You can comment below, or on my portfolio site. I really appreciate your thoughts!

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Monster Mash and Much More...

It’s been a while since I made my last blog post, but I’ve been busying away on a number of games and projects. I’ve been working full time on game development since I graduated in July, so an update on what I’ve been doing is in order!

Competitions

I took part in Ludum Dare 18 in August, where I made Mind Control Monster Mash. It wasn’t a massive success as a game, mostly due to poor controls, but it was enough to show me the premise worked. As a result, I’ve started the project again from scratch and have big plans for it!


Greedy Bankers

In July I released version 2 of Greedy Bankers, and then took a bit of a break from the game. I’m working on version 3 now, fixing some of the small bugs, tightening the mechanics and addressing some of the issues that players pointed out.

The new version should be a bit faster and I’m adding a few power-ups to spice up the gameplay. I want the player to be able to do something to fight off the robbers who some players found frustrating. I also want to make it easier to fight tooth-and-nail to stay in the game, to increase the tension. So far adding these power-ups has highlighted a couple of bugs which I need to sort out, but they’ll be on their way out soon.

I’ll point out all the changes when I publicly release the new version later this month.

Version 3 has another special surprise coming up, but I will keep my lips sealed on that for now. It should be fun!


Mind Control Monster Mash

Following my Ludum Dare entry, I began working on a new version using FlashPunk in early September.

Your city is attacked by giant Godzilla-esque monsters, and you must use your team of monsters to fight them off. You can hypnotise a certain number of enemy monsters and take them under your control. Different monsters are good at fighting off different other monsters, so you need to think strategically in order to win. At its heart it’s a strategy game, which will be simple to pick up but allow players to develop their own complex tactics.

The game is in the early stages at the moment, but is developing nicely. There’s a lot of animation for me to do, as I want the artwork to be fairly detailed. Animating the monsters is harder work than I’d anticipated, but I’m very happy with how it’s progressing.

Friday, 23 July 2010

The Website Has Landed

I finally have my very own website! You can download some of my games and read about others from here:

www.alistairaitcheson.com


Let me know what you think of the website. I'll be expanding it and adding new things as I go on. Next up - learning ActionScript 3.0 and making Dam Busters for the Action 52 Owns project. Watch this space!

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Greedy Bankers v0.01 is here!

Update (1 March 2011): Greedy Bankers for iPhone is now complete, and is available from the App Store now! Visit www.greedy-bankers.com for more details

Please note that this blog post is for a very early prototype of Greedy Bankers. For up-to-date information on the game, please visit www.greedy-bankers.com


It's been a while, but I'm finally making a new blog post. And not only that, it's a blog post with a fresh new game for you to play!

Download and play Greedy Bankers now!Greedy Bankers was developed for the Experimental Gameplay Project June/July theme, Casual Addiction.

After toying with various ideas I eventually settled on a neat and simple puzzle game with neat presentation and lots of rewarding effects. The mouse-driven sliding tile mechanic was inspired by my earlier Shifty Trains, which had already proven fairly addictive, and the controls were smooth and intuitive.

UPDATE: Downloads removed because they are out-of-date. The released version of the game is available from the App Store, while the most recent version of the Prototype (November 2010) is available from my portfolio site.

Greedy Bankers was developed using XNA 3.1. To run the game you will need to have XNA Framework 3.1 installed. This is really quick and simple to do, and is only a 7MB download. Download XNA Framework 3.1 from here.

You may also need to have the .NET Framework version 3.5 installed. You can download this from here.

Please let me know what you think, and tell me about any bugs and issues you come across. I'd love to hear your comments!

Greedy Bankers in Action

Friday, 19 March 2010

I want YOU to Fight the Evil Steampunk Numbers

My most recent 48-hour competition game, Abraham Lincoln versus the Steampunk Numbers is now available to download and play! Yippee!!


I just finished adding some finishing touches to this version, just to make it a bit more accessible (in-game hints etc.), and am ready to show it off to the world, even if it is unfinished.

The theme of the competition was Education, and my team decided to make an RPG where the battles were based on Countdown-style arithmetic. Hopefully it's fairly self-explanatory.

I really want to hear your thoughts on it so I know what to improve! I've had some suggestions pointed out to me that I plan to put into action in a later version, so just tell me what you think of the whole thing - any and all comments welcome!

Download the game from here

The game was made in XNA 3.1, so to play the game you will need to download the XNA 3.1 redistributable from here. It's only 7MB and is very easy to download.

If it does not work you may need to download the .NET framework Version 3.5 from here

Thanks very much for having a go and I can't wait to hear what you all think!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

How Storytelling in Games Misses the Point

So I’ve just finished developing a 48-hour game for Warwick Game Design’s thrice-yearly competition. To be precise, my team and I just finished developing an RPG for said competition. Trying to create an entire RPG in 48 hours is, I’m sure you’ll agree, a stupid idea, and the game turned out to be one of the best stupid ideas we’ve ever had.

Creating an RPG is hard work. There’s a lot of assets involved - characters, scenery, music, dialogue - and they all have to gel together seamlessly. I’ve heard many accounts of why not to make RPG’s, not just for time-constrained competitions, but as an indie developer in general, for these very reasons. It’s all part of the storytelling, you see. The most important part of an RPG, apparently, is the storytelling.

Why I just don’t get Final Fantasy

Perhaps I don’t see what other games players see in the RPG genre. I like RPG’s, at least in principle, and there’s definitely one of them in my personal Top 5. I like them because of the blend of short-term and long-term strategy. There’s the battles: which attack to use on which enemy, when to use that behemoth spell or that last healing potion. And there’s the long-term development. Which characters do you choose, who do you train, which path do you take, and for what aim?

I played the first half of Final Fantasy IV, and got bored. Then I played the first disc of Final Fantasy VII and also got bored. The games seem to focus on the storyline as the most important element, and the battles seemed to exist only to pad out the space between the reams of dialogue. I could beat nearly every fight by repeatedly selecting the “Attack” command. The others I beat by repeatedly selecting the “Attack” command, then sometimes using healing and resurrection spells.

I had spent twenty hours doing this before I gave up entirely. To me, it was a hugely tedious experience, and I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it so long if it wasn’t so regularly cited as The Greatest Game of All Time. And I can understand why it has this great reputation. It’s because of the storyline. Yet personally I found it a chore.

Look, on the other hand, at Pok√©mon, and the excellent Shining Force III. The former has very strategic battles,with its paper-scissors-rock mechanic (is it worth giving up a turn to gain the type-advantage?), and its long-term strategies (which of my four moves is it worth giving up for this new one?). Shining Force III is more like chess for the 21st century, with a complex but thrilling battle system where your characters’ position in the landscape is of huge importance. Both are excellent games that I have replayed several times, and both of them have very limited storylines.

The fact of the matter is that there is no reason why the story should be the defining factor of an RPG, yet for some reason it has become the be-all and end-all in the eyes of both players and developers. Unfortunately, it appears the RPG isn’t the only genre that has become a slave to the narrative.

Move over Hollywood

When mainstream cultural media picks up on the rise of games as a medium, the second “interesting fact” they tend to cite (after the one that the games industry now outgrosses the film industry) is that game developers now employ professional writers to write the stories. The Guardian’s G2 supplement (11/12/09) had as its cover a screenshot from Assassin’s Creed II, and the title “Move over Hollywood”. When I first saw Batman: Arkham Asylum and Uncharted 2 on the PS3, my first response was “It looks just like a movie”. Every major title now contains voice acting and FMV sequences. Games are, apparently, the new cinema.

The idea that games are a new way to tell stories is everywhere. And I don’t have a problem with the concept. I agree that games are a new and exciting narrative medium, but I disagree with growing trend that every game has to follow this suit, because I worry that placing disproportionate worth on the storyline will become standard. I also see that the majority of story-centric games seem to focus more on emulating other media such as film and literature, rather than creating their own brand new vocabulary.

The potential of stories in games

From my own point of view, the storyline is an aesthetic element. Just like graphics, music and sound effects, it can add a lot of value to the game, but is by no means the defining factor. In Sonic Adventure 2, the surprisingly engaging story acted as the icing on what to me was a very tasty yet misunderstood cake. Its characters weren’t open books, it pondered some interesting themes such as the value of identity, and most surprisingly, ended ambiguously, with the player left to make up their own mind about who the character Shadow really was. Playing a section of the game and then being treated to a skippable bit of story was a nice treat that gave you a charming break, but it wasn’t forced down your throat if you didn’t want it.

Storylines also offer an extra layer of detail to the setting, which further immerses the player into the audio-visual experience. In Killer 7, the backstory is dark and surreal, adding to the tension and sense of insanity brought on by the stark block colouring and shrieking laughter of the enemies.

But to me, much more memorable is the story of Ikaruga. It’s a story without words. Five stages each with a different emotional hook. An orchestral score that moves through themes as the stage moves through areas. Waves of enemy ships that follow a choreography. It’s a story in the same way as a good symphony is a story (and if you don’t think that’s a good story then listen to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2). It has an emotional progression that moves through different ideas, before moving to an impressive and memorable climax, followed by a beautiful silence.

What Ikaruga does that most other games don’t is that it uses its own vocabulary to tell a story. It uses a vocabulary unique to games. No dialogue, no characters, but a blend of audio-visual elements and kinetic input from the player.

In search of a new vocabulary

What Final Fantasy VII, Uncharted 2 and their compatriots seem to do is emulate novels and films, then add a layer of interactivity. But games are a new medium, an expanding medium, and there is no reason that they should be like literature any more than music should be. They have their own vocabulary, and to shoe-horn them into an existing medium is a waste of potential.

It seems to be the indie gaming world, with its limited budgets and resources, that has taken on the challenge of finding gaming’s unique voice. World of Goo, the outstanding indie smash from developers 2D Boy, has a completely linear storyline, with no way to change the events. Yet every event is caused by the player himself, which makes the story incredibly immersive. Even though you cannot progress through the game without doing so, the fact that you’re the one who physically pulls the switch, presses the big red button, and builds the hot-air balloon, makes you feel actively involved in where it the tale is headed.

There’s also the fact that immersion in a game is much easier than in other media because the player has direct control over a particular avatar. It’s much easier to connect with someone who is an extension of yourself, rather than in a film or novel, where description is relied on to coax the player into a sense of immersion. Game designers aren’t just offered a free ticket to absorbing stories, but also an entirely new way to conceive characters.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the physicality of the games medium. I can’t think of another form of media which is active rather than passive. Beyond a sense of involvement as mentioned above, there is a very deep and primal cause-and-effect mechanic in games. You move something, it does something. This is something that no other medium does, and there is so much more that can be done using this. About ten years ago, choices seemed to be the mot du jour in games: the user’s ability to change the story as they see fit, something still apparent in games such as Heavy Rain. But the simple physicality of the medium offers an infinite, rather than finite, number of possibilities for what can be done with a given game, and this aspect of the medium is where I feel it holds its true potential.

So what now?

Stories are massive. Everyone loves stories, and has done for as long as humanity can remember. And by all means, the storytelling potential of games should be experimented with and expanded on. But by no means is storytelling the be-all and end-all of games. They are just one aspect of the medium, not the main one. And there are most definitely excellent games that do not have stories at all.

Yet in the mainstream market, story-heavy games have become the norm, and I feel it is disappointing that the great potential of this new medium, still in its infancy, is being wasted. Games are not an extension of film, they are not an extension of books. They are brand new, they have their own vocabulary, and it’s up to us to find it.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Abraham Lincoln vs. the Steampunk Numbers

The 48 hour competition ended last night, and while I wait to iron out the bugs before sticking up a build, I thought I would just make a quick note to say that the game went really well. My team made a math-based RPG called Abraham Lincoln vs. the Steampunk Numbers, which turned out to be a big success.

It was a real surprise, as for most of the competition the battle system (which was my main task) just didn't work, but by about 6am on Sunday it was working albeit incomprehensible. In the last few hours of the competition all the graphics and the user interface took shape and I'm really proud with how it went. Possibly my best 48 hour entry yet!

Still, there was some great competition, particularly from Sarah, John and Nathaniel, who created an arithmetic-based shooter which is a really elegantly-designed game of strategy. Download links to come soon!

Picture credits to go to myself for the Abraham Lincoln running animation, and Carina Kuhstaeller and Wee-Hoe Tan for the "Number Salad" monster.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Let the (48 hour) Games Begin!

Tonight sees the beginning of the Spring Term's 48-hour competition run by Warwick Game Design, running from 6pm tonight to 6pm on Sunday. This term's theme is Education, and I've teamed up with two other members of the society to make an awesome game.


WGD runs three of these competitions a year, one each academic term, and I've been taking part since way back in my first term at uni in 2006! Back two years ago I helped make the legendary Shifty Trains (legendary in that up until we got the Wii it was the only game my mum would play), and in Summer 2007 I did the 2D graphics for XNA game Kraken, both pictured here.

Each new competition is an exciting challenge and it typically brings out the most innovative (i.e. crazy) games from WGD members. I look forward to posting what my team comes up with, and keeping you posted on the progress of the competition!

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Experimental Gameplay Update

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been working on a game for this month's Experimental Gameplay Project. I decided in the end to leave the game unfinished and move on to new things, as it wasn't really turning out to be as fun as I'd hoped!

However, so as not to let the work go to waste I thought I'd make a little video to show off where it got to. Have a look below and see what you think.



I learnt a lot from the project, so I don't regret doing it. I'm definitely looking forward to March's challenge!

Friday, 19 February 2010

Experimental Gameplay!

Over the past month I've been working on a small project for the Experimental Gameplay Project, which is a monthly experiment where participants have to make a game in seven days or less to a given theme. Games such as Canabalt and the prototype for the excellent World of Goo all spawned from this website. The theme for the month is Rejection, and I've been cracking away with my entry!


My game is a little point-and-click adventure called Brain Dead, about a guy who's brain has been rejected by his body and he needs to find another one. You can get him to put different items in his head and that allows him to do different things. For example, a dictionary will allow him to read, a radio will allow him to speak, and so operate a phone.

Unfortunately, during development it turned out that it wasn't actually very fun! I worked on it for about three days and then, due to a combination of a lack of faith in the idea and a large amount of classwork to do, I put it on haitus.

This week I'm planning to finish it off, in time for the end of the month, and submit it to the website. I'm going to take the game in a slightly different direction and make it more AI-oriented. So the player will be able to put items in the guy's head, but he'll act of his own accord, depending on what he wants (determined by the current situation) and what he can do (i.e. what's in his head). I can imagine this being a lot more fun.

Some of the other members of Warwick Game Design are taking part too, so I'll be putting up links to our entries as soon as they're ready!

Sunday, 31 January 2010

A little about myself...

I suppose I should begin my first blog post with something dramatic and exciting, but I really can't think of anything so this will have to do!

So who is this evidently intriguing person whose thoughts you are reading? My name is Alistair, or Ali for short, I'm from the UK and I make video games. I also draw my own comics, and I'm in my final year of a Mathematics degree.

I decided to start up this blog to chronicle my game development goings-on, and my thoughts on the games medium as a whole. After I graduate my plan is to make my career in the games industry, so I'm working towards having a portfolio of great games to show off to developers... when I'm not studying, of course! I also enjoy sharing my progress on my projects with other people.



My current main project is a platformer engine programmed in XNA. At the moment it's called Sonic Forever, as it was originally intended for a Sonic the Hedgehog-style game, although what I'll eventually develop with it I'm still undecided on. I'm also heavily involved with the Warwick Game Design society at my university. We're working on a C++ project called Zombie Nation at the moment, and we also do 48-hour coding competitions each term. I'm very proud of a game called Shifty Trains which I developed with Bryan Gale, who now works for Playfish, so give that a go and see what you think.

I look forward to posting more and letting you know how my various projects develop!

All the best,
Ali