Thursday, September 29, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-3: Interactive Playtesting is Amazing!

I am going to use the World 1-3 as my example to fully explain the playtesting ability of Blockland that I have been continually gushing about in the last few posts. World 1-3 was the 4th level to be made (Rykuta, my partner in crime, made 1-4 beforehand) and by this point I had definitely gotten my groove on with these types of designs. It was time to push things a little further. First, I decided to have the level take place within a cavern, changing the type of space I had to work with. Second, I introduced a gameplay element that required more precision on behalf of the player and their jumping; the saw blade. These were all over the place in Super Meat Boy, so I had to implement them here somehow. While they are square, I used a swirling animation on them to hopefully convey the idea to the player that they are swift moving pizza slicers of dismemberment. Third, I was going to have our growing gallery of fans (there were about four people on the server who were really excited about the project by this point) help me test how fun and difficult the level was, with a particular focus on the placement of the saw blade elements.

In Blockland, each online server has builds (made of Lego bricks) and mini-games (made of rules). With this project, the levels were the "build" and the mini-game was a set of rules that defined check-points, player type (to control speed and jump height), and a few other other things pertaining to the proper operation of a simultaneous platformer experience. Since there is only one instance of a level on the server, players share the space and thus can interact through collision and spacial positioning.
Since the creation of a build is handled live on the server, players can play through a level while the administrators make modifications. For example, this allows me to place a tester at the beginning of a level, watch them play it to the end, and then get direct feedback afterwards. From here I can instantly make a change; in the example of 1-3, I would have to move a saw blade to decrease difficulty and to make the level more approachable.

This is really quite incredible. In the past, especially with single player experiences, designers would have to struggle through far more obtuse work flows in order to make playtesting happen. When the tools are divorced from the playable client, this is the natural result. Thankfully, the trend with professional game engines has been a move towards being able to play within the editor, simplifying the work flow in order to allow the designer to focus on more important issues (UDK is an example of the move in this direction; Source is an example of the more dated approach).

Using the images, try to see that World 1-3 consists of two basic layers. The bottom is a twisting tunnel, riddled with saw blades on both the floor and ceiling. On the top is a large bed of spikes resting on the floor of a more open space, presenting the player with a different challenge half-way through. The second half of the level is hinted at throughout the first with gaps in the ceiling of the tunnel showing that more awaits the player as they continue onward, building excitement for the next challenge.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-2 and Dark World 1-1: Using Dynamic Gameplay Elements and Play Testing to Create Obscene Difficulty

After finishing World 1-1, the exciting potential of this creation dawned upon me; I set forth to build World 1-2 with a new found spirit and attitude. In my previous experience, these two emotional modifiers are rather beneficial especially when one is tackling a difficult task whose completion requires focused passion. First, I actually sat down and planned out what I wanted out of this design this time instead of throwing myself into the project manically without purpose or reason. This served as some sort of meaningful improvement. Second, my attitude transformed into a healthy ambition; World 1-2 was to be larger and more elaborate than 1-1. While boring, World 1-1 was surprisingly not completely dismissed by our testers, some even said it was good. World 1-2 was destined to be of a significantly higher quality than this.

The idea was to follow in the footsteps of the Mario series and introduce a new gameplay element in every single stage. In further stages, this element would be used in new and interesting ways and new depth could be found in the combination of previous elements. World 1-2's new element was to be a giant floor fan that would give player's an aerial boost when standing above it. Since the model and animations already existed in a mod for Blockland, implementing this idea and turning it into a reality was easy.

Here is the beginning are of World 1-2. As one can see, the fans give players a boost up to high areas their jump ability can not get them to.

World 1-2's flow has a theme of ascent. Each fan moves the player higher and higher up the mountainous landscape.

Another view of World 1-2's opening segment.

While I worked joyfully on World 1-2, Rykuta was at work on introducing the first Dark World level, Dark World 1-1. Super Meat Boy has both light and dark world versions of its levels, with the latter being considerably more difficult than the former. We decided to follow this concept; after all, it was a relatively low cost way of creating extra high quality content that would challenge hardened players. Rykuta has a talent for making obtusely difficult gameplay experiences, twisting standards that I would normally honor as sacred. He uses the real time playtesting that Blockland provides to fine tune his creations to be a frustrating as possible. This feature of the game is almost revolutionary and I will continue to elaborate further on its use.

 The spikes in this twisted version of 1-1 definitely say to the player visually that they are in for a sadistic gameplay experience.

The color scheme was originally going to be monochrome; however, I decided that color was too important in its role of differentiating gameplay elements. Even here it can be seen that the contrast between the gray walls and dark teal floor helps the player read the environment more effectively. I also think that, subjectively, the dark blue trees evoke a nice "midnight forest" motif.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Super Meat Boy 64 World 1-1: The Fine Gradient Between Apathy and HOLY CRAP THIS IS AMAZING!

A friend of mine, Rykuta, convinced me to join his "Blockland" server to help him create a platforming "challenge" (the "Blockland" community's word for "obstacle course" (GAH, TOO MANY QUOTATION MARKS)) themed around the indie game "Super Meat Boy." I begrudgingly accepted, with knowledge that previous designs of this type were often uninteresting, exploitative, and beyond tedious. Oh, and they were also notorious for being unanimously unfinished. These doubts, as well as my long sustained jadedness towards "Blockland" in general, guaranteed that when I was asked to build 1-1 I did not take the task seriously. I started by creating a small, rectangular area with cliffs on all sides holding the player within; the least inspired creation one can spit forth for a video game. It was insulting. The lack of ambition was palpable, almost embarrassingly so. Well, embarrassing if I had honestly cared or had put honest effort into such.

But here, something interesting started to happen. I had set a precedent; every level that was to be designed from here on out was to be bound by the expectations and the reality set in place by 1-1. Structures in "Blockland" are literally made out of Lego bricks. This meant that for large environments, the types that a platformer would require, one would have to use an excessive amount of bricks to create a single level. This is one of the main reasons why builds of this type had in the past been quickly abandoned. However, one of the later updates to "Blockland" included large, cube blocks that allowed for the creation of elaborate, enormous, and rather square landscapes. These creations were able to be swiftly composed without the interference of tedium and had initially served basic aesthetic purposes. In the past I had used these special blocks before to experiment with a first person shooter concept that blended the ideas of Half-Life 2 and Metroid Prime, crafting a large, detailed mountain environment. Out of sheer laziness, I decided to use these cubes to create my boxy "vision" for 1-1, making platforms and gaps that the player would have to maneuver around using their jumping ability. Pure platforming, yet very elementary.

And so, after the addition of a spawn, a goal (player's rescue Meat Boy's girlfriend Bandage Girl at the end of each level), and some decorative trees, I ended up with this.

Boring; but effective. I played through the level, jumping from rock to rock, and beat it within seconds. The jumping mechanic worked surprisingly well for being operated from the first person perspective. This is when things started to snap in my mind.

Rykuta and I were using a public server, so several players started to join. Of course, their use was to test our creations. Soon, with the introduction of live, dynamic playtesting and the rediscovery of the vast potential of "Blockland," my attitude began to shift towards manic enthusiasm as the possibilities in superb platforming level design began to emerge.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Introduction to "Blockland" as a Game Design Tool and the Making of "Super Meat Boy 64"

"Blockland" is an amazing game because of how many penises have been built in it. Wait, let me explain. I remember listening to a presentation on play in video games and the speaker mentioned that the depth of the play = how long it takes for someone to create or introduce a penis using the tools that the game presents. Obviously this formula should not be taken too seriously since after all it is just a clever joke and not all deep games give the player creative tools (in example, "Go" has a deep space of play, yet its rules do not define artistic tools that allow the player to create images such as a penis; though I am certain a penis has been made out of stones on a "Go" board).

I must apologize, the last paragraph might have been difficult to take seriously.

But the point is that "Blockland" presents this incredible toolbox that allows for the creation of all sorts of wonderful Lego like structures, functional and artistic, and that the boundaries of its creative space of possibilities will never be completely charted. This, when combined with networked multiplayer and a framework for constructing rule based minigames, provides a rather brilliant environment for game design. It is the perfect situation for practicing game design technique and some of the accidental features I have discovered in "Blockland" could potentially be in the future of professional design tools. I will elaborate further in my next post.

In the past "Blockland" has been used essentially as an engine for all types of games: simple arcade games, dogfight games, FPS games, racing games, Role-playing games, and even games that emulate the experience of being on a live game show. Basically, the environments in which this play happens are built out of an infinite selection of Lego bricks and then individual bricks are scripted to behave in functional ways (an example would be a brick that operates as a button; the player clicks it and a door somewhere opens up). Certain gameplay elements such as weapons, vehicles, player types, and terrain must be built outside of the game, but the community already provides so much content in these areas that anyone can hop in and start creating pretty much anything they can dream of. To see some of these neat creations, look into the gallery on the game's forum: Blockland Gallery (Pro Tip: The "Blockland" forums are not for the faint of heart; beware, most of the posters on there are extremely young and well... just look at the pretty pictures).

Anyways, recently a friend and I started work on a 3D platformer within "Blockland" based upon the hit indie game "Super Meat Boy." It was one of those projects that one is thrust into, skeptical of its merits from the beginning, but soon a strong appreciation for the project grows. At the end of this series of posts I will talk about the current state of the project, but for now I am going to go through each level in the first edition of World 1 and talk about both its design, history, and how it uses the great tools presented by "Blockland." It should be noted that this version of World 1 has been completely scrapped for a better, more thought out rendition. Nevertheless it still is of a good quality and it presents many things to both see and learn.

(I'm going to assume this image is hard to visually parse, so I'll explain what it is. This is a top down view of both the light World 1 and the dark World 1 found in the early rendition of Super Meat Boy 64.)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Video Recording of "Reconstructing S-31" Prototype

While I have put aside my "Reconstructing S-31" project, in order to experiment with my recently took some footage of the game's early prototype. It is clear from the footage that what I had implemented gameplay wise was rather uninteresting and that it would take a fundamentally game changing mechanics to salvage the dull play experience. It is also clear that I have a lot to learn regarding video recording. Regardless, this means that I now have a YouTube channel which I plan to use from time to time.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Swimming in the Depths of Kinetics and Physically Rooted Leisure Sports

This past Friday, as a friend and I were attempting to pass the time despite its dry nature, I became inspired to create a real life version of Angry Birds. Regardless of the fact that this idea was probably the result of heat delusion, I mentioned it briefly to another friend of mine via text and he pointed out to me that such had already been executed.

So I watched this and was quite impressed:

I love this kind of stuff. Limited by the bounds of the physical world, one sets out to use illusion and practical means to create a fantastically experience. The greatest example of this craft can be found in the work of the Disney Imagineers and the incredible work found within the Disney Land theme parks.

After some convincing, I got my buddy to take me out to the his shed to look for some cardboard boxes to build the destructible structures with. We then grabbed a bag of around twenty tennis balls and started to experiment away. One of the great advantages of creating a sport is that one does not have to program the physics engine, thus the focus could be entirely on drafting rules, discovering new ways of play, and testing out new gameplay elements.

By this point the idea to recreate Angry Birds had evolved into something much more interesting. Instead of launching projectiles using a sling (the general lack of elastic in American homes contributed to this development) we decided that are game would have the players simply throwing the tennis balls at the cardboard structures. There was experimentation with what sort of goals and challenges could be interesting to achieve using reality's physics. In Angry Birds the goal is to kill pigs by inflicting a certain amount of stress upon them; having them fall from a great height or be crushed by a collapsing pillar. To emulate this we implemented water balloons, but these proved to be too time consuming to produce and far too fragile. So instead, we focused on placing cones within our layouts that the player would have to knock over. These worked far better, but the types of structures we could build were extremely limited by the rather unfortunate selection of corrugated boxes presented to use.

After all of this there are now plans to purchase high quality boxes to use for building structures and to further experiment with both the rules and the play of the game. While this activity is not quite a formal game yet, it still presents an excellent opportunity to learn and have fun and to perhaps create something new and exciting.

As far as I know, this could turn into the great new sport of the 21st century. Yes, idealistic, but hopeful!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Simple(ish) Response to the Founding Question of Electronic Arts

There are some things that are best expressed through the visual image; I am certain this is one of them.
Electronic Arts, back in the 1980's, set forth to answer the question, "Can a computer make you cry?"
Refenced again and again throughout the industry as an inspirational, as well as a humorously ironic quote, it has come to evolve into a more specific form in the game development circles.

"Can a game make you cry?"

And so, there have been many attempts since the question has been posed to prove that indeed yes, they can. It has been a race to discover "the Citizen Kane of games" (puke). Or, rather more honestly, to show the world that games are just as respectable a human construction as the other art forms.

Developers waiting to create the first game that drives human emotion so deep as to bring forth tears, behold! The answer does not lie in the next big cinematic science fiction RPG. No, the answer is to be found in these images:

There are going to be perfectly valid examples in folk games, board games, and even some multiplayer video games as well. Tears of victory; tears of defeat. Tears of shame; tears of relief. In my experience playing competitive sports, I will vouch for the fact that crying is not an uncommon emotional response to the results of a game.

To answer the original question, "Can a computer make you cry?", it is important to remember that crying is an emotionally response, and that emotion is unique to humans and an other instances of natural life. Will someday that human element be brought in effectively enough into the systems, the AI and the representative imagery of a video game in order to allow these emotional responses to come solely from the interactive aspects of a single player experience? Maybe; give it another twenty years. Can emotions be brought forth from allowing the human element to be better expressed and shared in networked electronic game play? Yes; however, the technology for such is not yet here.