“Hey! It’s research, baby.”

The folks around here at the office have been after me for some time now about doing a “musing,” since I haven’t really posted any to date. I feel that these musings should be a reflection of personal experiences, something to take pride in, something that stands as a digest of interests and projects you’ve become invested in. The trouble is my interests shift so quickly that I rarely have a chance to recap in any form of writing, let alone a musing for the public to read. So, with this being my first musing, I’d like to talk video games — since it’s on my mind for the moment.

Now, I’m going to argue here that when I play games I’m actually doing research. For years I ran my own business in IT. With limited time on my hands, I couldn’t justify playing any games when there was always work to be done. After realizing a career in game development was something you actually could do, I closed up shop and started pursuing the dream.

So what’s this bit about research? Well, I still play for the entertainment factor, but I also play to familiarize myself with all the games I’ve missed out on over the years. Having a common understanding of interfaces used in games can help you immensely as a designer by giving you a common language with your audience. Even if you’re just as a tester.

Here’s the short list of titles I’ve been pla… *cough* …ah, “researching” this month.

GRID 2 (Steam)

Just got my hooks into this game. Playing the original, it was hard to imagine how the game might be improved upon, but the brilliant folks over at Codemasters have managed to do just that. While other games would have you traverse menu systems, GRID 2 nearly places you right into the driver seat as you open the game. The graphics are absolutely stunning. So good in fact, that they left me drooling and dreaming of what it might look like with an i7 processor and a current gen NVIDIA card. The game does appear to be tuned for Intel’s latest multi-core and on-chip graphics processors, but even with my Core Duo and a single GTX9600 the game looked spectacular. Seeing the Chicago cityscape instantly brought back memories of being there. The level of detail in the game borders on the realistic. Unbelievable. The controls are perfectly dialed in, making gameplay super enjoyable. In my case, I’m using an Xbox 360 controller for Windows. Can only imagine what it’s like with a decent driving wheel. I simply can’t recommend the game more highly. If you’re a game designer, pick it up for the sole purpose of research if nothing else. It’s a good measure of where to set the bar.

One thing I’d like to point out in particular about GRID is that Codemasters excels at how they handle camera movement. The replay camera really caught my attention in the first game. The default replay view follows the car around the track with a keen sense of framing, so that you’re not always just looking at the back of the car or have it centered in the viewport. The camera actually leads ahead of the car and anticipates directional movement, keeping the vehicle at a position on screen in line with the rule of thirds. It also pivots the camera angle to take in more of the scenery around the track. The attention to real-time cinematic detail in GRID is some of the best I’ve seen in a game. In GRID 2 they’ve taken it even further, improving the driver’s camera movement so that it anticipates corners and directional changes during gameplay — giving the driver a better perspective on the track and a more natural and fluid feel behind the controls.

DOTA 2 (Steam)

What drew me to DOTA 2 in the first place was the Workshop system. Valve has provided users with an interface for creating items for hero characters in game. While looking through the Art Guide for DOTA 2, I was amazed to see how they handle their texture maps. Each hero and item makes use of just four texture files. The first two are pretty standard: one consisting of a diffuse map for color, and the other a normal map for showing physical detail on low-poly meshes. The last two are really interesting: four additional texture maps are shoe-horned into each file. They’re able to do this by using the image’s four channels — red, green, blue, and alpha — independently of each other for storing gray-scale shader masks. Brilliant! If you’re an artist interested in doing any sort of 3D work for video games, it’s worth your while to check out DOTA 2.

Outside of the Steam Workshop side of DOTA 2, I hadn’t actually started playing this game until just a few weeks ago. The gameplay is simple enough: defend your towers, level-up and upgrade your hero for that match, and coordinate with your five man team to focus attacks on the opposing team and their structures until they’ve all been destroyed. The scope of the game becomes immense when you begin to look through the different heroes and their upgrades.

Sanctum 2 (Steam)

This one deserves more play time. It’s definitely a game to be played with friends. If you like tower defense games, as I do, this first-person shooter-style really puts an interesting twist on the genre. First of all, being a multi-player tower defense game allows each player to control the wall placements and path generation for enemies. This requires either a considerable amount of cooperation, or a delegation of duties among players. While one player place the wall sections, another player places the defensive weapons atop the wall sections. The remaining players select weapons to level up and pour credits earned during the last match into them. Once the level is set, the game becomes a survival match. If there were another game out there I could remotely compare it to, it would be the Man vs. Machine mode of Team Fortress 2. Lots of fun. For any artists out there, the high-chroma and stylized art in Sanctum 2 is also worth checking out.

Thomas Was Alone (PS Vita / PS3)

Extremely charming game. I have to say though, when I first saw the gameplay months ago, I wasn’t all that interested in it. I wasn’t crazy about the blocky, prototypy looking graphics. It wasn’t until I sat down with it and began to play that I absolutely fell in love with it. The simplicity I mistook for a lack of effort became a shining example of elegance in design. Did you know that Thomas Was Alone has a commentary track? Go to options and find the volume sliders. You’ll see one there for Commentary.

Plants vs. Zombies (PS Vita)

What can I say. I like tower defense games. Call it a guilty pleasure if you must. I remember seeing it in QA when I was a tester. I wonder if I’d still be as interested in playing the game if I had been on that test team. I tested Fractal before it released on the iPad, and I still enjoy playing it. Although, I haven’t played it on my own time in quite a while, and haven’t completed the campaign or puzzles on any of the copies I own. Something to think about.

I do like how Plants vs. Zombies differs from the traditional tower defense, though. Instead of guiding the enemy along a path, you attempt to build an impenetrable wall against the waves of zombies. Normally towers don’t take any damage, but you also normally have to leave a path open to the goal. In Plants vs. Zombies, you expect your towers to fall and have to budget for new ones when the do. Interestingly enough, strategies normally used in RTS games seem to translate well here. Much like walling off for an opener as Terran in Starcraft 2, you’re trying to hold the enemy off long enough to build a strong economy first. Then purchase and upgrade active defenses to build up your offensive.


I’m going to make an effort to continue this sort of writing as a monthly series. It’s important to be familiar with the games in the market today, for the purpose of vocabulary if nothing else. But it’s also important to compare today’s titles with those from years past, and identify how games have evolved and continue to be improved upon. You’ll end up being a better designer for it.

Mike Bithell Talks Thomas Was Alone at Dev Night

At last week’s Dev Night, a gang of nerds had the honor of shooting the breeze with Mike Bithell, creator of Thomas Was Alone. Listen to the brilliant, British ramblings of a living teddy bear.

thomas was alone 720x240 final

Q: Wasn’t Thomas Was Alone your first project with Unity?

A: That’s right. The game was a training project for teaching myself how to use Unity, so the end result was surprising. To this day, its file name is “teachingmyselfunity.proj”. I think it was a good first effort. [Laughing] I am that charming idiot who’s accidentally made something successful.

Q: Did you have any goals in mind while making the game?

A: Two. The big one was that I wanted to make a good jump. And I think there are things that work and don’t work with that jump. It frustrates me that there are still things I want to tweak with it. Second, I wanted to make good characters. So many games have characters that don’t make sense—it really bothers me. I wanted to see if I could make a game where I didn’t ever break character. I chose to set my game in an abstract world, which helped me work out a way to get around that problem. The reviews say I didn’t break character, and I guess that’s the important thing.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: The story and the characters—do you think they say anything about yourself?

A: Definitely. Thomas is who I want to be, but John is who I more typically am. Chris is my self-conceptualization as an artist—completely and utterly angry all of the time. They’re archetypes straight out of comic books, not real characters. Aren’t these characters in all of us? Then again, a lot of the characters’ personalities arose from player storytelling. Thomas and Chris’s personalities were culled from comments on the original Flash game–due to the game’s title, people associated the first rectangle with Thomas. The orange square is small and can’t jump very high, so commenters reasoned he must have a Napoleon complex–I pulled Chris’s personality from players’ feedback.

Q: Who’s your favorite character?

A: Thomas. I like Claire a lot, too, but she’s an easy option. I also like James—he was the most interesting character to write. A lot of people have read their own meaning into James—in my mind, he’s an outcast, or different. I wouldn’t presume to say what sort of group he belongs to, being a massively privileged white heterosexual male in the UK.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: How did the game’s whole aesthetic come about?

A: The game’s original flash prototype was about just getting something done. I knew the only look I could get would be to chuck in some rectangles.When I went more seriously into development, I experimented with other ideas. “Maybe the rectangles are guys in mechanical spacesuits!” These ideas weren’t very good, and took away from the game’s simplistic charm. So I went back to my history in graphic design: if I’m going to do rectangles, I’m going to fucking do rectangles. I did my research, and tried to do the best rectangle thing I could. Another friend helped me develop a color palette. I did massively overlook colorblind people, though, and I get an email about that pretty much every day.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: Can you tell us more about the voice acting in the game?

Originally I was thinking that the story would be told by text overlaying a world, perhaps projections of text on a wall. This turned out to be much harder than I expected, and I realized that I was either editing the text to fit the level, or the level to fit the text. So I decided to do a voice-over instead. I’m a massive fan of Danny Wallace. He’s not exactly a household name, but he’s someone who still identifiable as “that dude off the telly.” I love Danny’s voice, the way he tells a story, so he was my first choice. I tried to find an actor who could imitate him, and couldn’t, and then I got drunk and emailed him. To my surprise, he agreed to do it. He’s won a BAFTA for Thomas, which for a television person in the U.K. is a very big deal.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: Were you a part of the recording process?

A: Yes! I wrote the story, so I had to be there. I was quite light with the direction, though, because I was aware I was working with someone who sells a lot of books and knows how to tell a story. I was just on hand to tell him who a character was, what the context was. Danny used to review video games, so I could talk to him as a gamer, rather than as an actor. He got what I was looking for very quickly. We were only in the booth for about three hours. Nothing, really—just getting it done. It was a fun process.

Q: Do you think having a famous voice actor contributed to the game’s success?

A: I don’t think his fame specifically contributed. What did help was that Danny is famous for a reason: he’s good at what he does. My words on the page aren’t as good as when they’re spoken by Danny Wallace.

Q: The game is quite short. Did you mean for Thomas Was Alone to be played through in one sitting, like a movie?

A: Most people get through the game in two, three hours. I’d imagine that most people play like I play, in hour sessions, day by day. Most people do play through Thomas in one sitting, though. I didn’t really have a major plan for how people should schedule to play the game. I think it works best in one sitting, but honestly, I just made two hours as I would play them, and hoped that people would work around me, because I’m a prick.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: After playing the game, we talked a lot about its level progression, and how it doesn’t get much harder at any point. Was that intentional?

A: I didn’t want to make a game that was extremely challenging, like Super Meat Boy. I wanted to make something that people would finish, so they could hear the whole story. I was getting so self-conscious about the difficulty that I went back through and made everything easier and easier. For instance, late in the game, I added the squares you jump through that save your progress across levels. At the end of the day, I was left with a game that was very flat. But this seems to have made the game accessible–it’s very popular with six-year-olds.

Q: What was the full development time?

A: I did the flash prototype game two-and-a-half years ago in a twenty-four hour game jam. In terms of actual development total time, it probably took about a year-and-a-half of evenings and weekends; I had no social life, but luckily I have a very forgiving girlfriend. It was just a steady, methodical progress.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone

Q: Are you actually as nice as you seem? Hell, are you even British?

A: No, I merely create the illusion of niceness. And I’m not British, I’m German.

Q: We hear you’re working on something new. What can you tell us about it?

A: It’s almost offensively different from Thomas Was Alone. It’s consciously going against the whole rectangles and friendship thing. It’s got motion-captured characters; I’m frantically trying to add a dog to the game, just for sarcasm’s sake. I’ve been designing this game in my head since I was, like, fifteen.

Q: What are you going to do when you’re done with that?

A: Live on an island and whittle ships. So far, I’ve always come up with the next game I want to make during the boring bits of the game I’m working on. But if that doesn’t work out, there’s always living on an island and whittling ships.

Cipher Prime interviews Mike Bithell about Thomas Was Alone_____

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The Cooperation Continuum

This past week we’ve started getting into the nitty-gritty of cooperative puzzle play.

Before we try adding any genre-bending features to Duet, we want to nail down cooperative puzzles that extend the original Auditorium’s gameplay. To do this, we have to figure out where we should place the game on the continuum of styles of cooperative gameplay.

duet cooperation continuum

The Continuum: Almost Zero to Total

At one extreme, we could have two completely separate games that are being played at the same time. Player Blue and Player Pink would have their own streams, controls, obstacles, and goals. The shared aspect of gameplay would be limited to the gamespace or playtime. Call this “Almost Zero Co-op”.

At the other end, Player Blue and Player Pink could share everything that exists in the game. Either player could move around any control and bend any stream of particles. They could both support and interfere with each other’s work. This is “Total Co-op”.

And all along the middle of the continuum are various types of gameplay where certain things “belong” to a single player and other features are shared between them. One example: the two players each deal with their own streams using their own controls, but they share the playing field’s obstacles and goals. Certain gameplay options could increase or decrease the level of cooperation. There might be a way to pass controls from one player to another, or there might be environmental obstacles that pass a stream from Blue-space to Pink-space.

Players Need Some Personal Space

The cooperation continuum could also be described as how much “personal space” or “freedom” you give to a player.

Every co-op game will have a different sweet spot. Duet probably won’t have Almost Zero Co-op, because while it might look pretty and work smoothly, it wouldn’t advance the original game all that much. On the other hand, Duet will also probably not have Total Co-op, because the original gameplay is highly “fiddly”. Think back to how the smallest actions could drastically change the particle streams in the original. Now imagine trying to do same thing with another person you can’t talk to. Duet players will need some personal space.

Duet preview

Open-Ended Coding

What this means from a programming perspective is that we need to make sure that all these things are toggleable. We need to be able to turn the shared states of different game elements on and off on the fly. Having all the toggleable states also gives us the potential to shift that cooperation continuum “slider” one way or another over the course of the game. Being able to set up these different game possibilities quickly and easily will allow us to test all these different games much faster. The only way to see if something is fun to play is to play it, and there’s quite a bit to play.

 

“Interface First” Game Design

At Cipher Prime, we create games constantly. You may only see one or two of our games released a year, but behind the scenes we make games weekly — sometimes even daily. The biggest problem is always getting started. Game jams help by providing a theme, but there are so many different places you could start with creating a digital game. I have a personal style: looking at “controls”.

As a designer, I spend a lot of time taking complex interactions and stripping them down to their basic form. I love games like Quake 3, Ikaruga, and Lumines — to me, arcade games will never die. One major thing these games all have in common is that their controls are tight, sexy, and responsive. When I look at these games, it’s hard to not think the game designers took a lot of cues from their control interfaces. When I start creating a game, the very first question I ask is, “How do I want to interact with this thing?”

In many cases, I’ll design an entire game based on what I perceive to be the most direct, unique, or even absurd way to interact with a device or controller.

control_musing_color

The way you interact with a device can change everything about your game design. In fact, the entire game can change based off one small insight about the way you interact with a thing. This is because your control interface is very tightly coupled to the inner loop: the very core of a game. In Mario, for instance, you’d define jumping, running, pouncing, firing, etc. as part of the inner loop. These are things you do often, over and over again.

On a closer look, these things are also intensely affected by the way you interact with your game. What if the jumping in Mario was based on your physical body actually jumping? Do you think you could still design levels that require you to jump from one platform to another in 0.3 seconds? My guess is that even the most physically fit players would start suffering from fatigue after just a few minutes of gameplay.

Anyone who knows me well would tell you I have a sick obsession for color theory. In fact, I regularly joke about being an Official Color Picker rather than designer. Since color means so much to me, let’s assume you’re creating a game where changing colors is the heart of the inner loop, and see how that affects the game design. Here’s some questions I might ask myself next, in no particular order:

“Do I want a fast- or slow-paced game? Turn-based or asynchronous?”
—For this game, let’s go fast paced asynchronous.

“Am I going to do something that relies on skill, intellect, or some combination of the two?”
—Intellect: who needs it? Let’s do something skill based.

“Why the hell am I making this? Is it for me or someone else?”
—Screw everyone else.

“Do I want something single player or multiplayer, competitive or cooperative?”
—In the vein of screwing people over, let’s do something multiplayer competitive.

Now that we know some of our very basic goals, let’s take a look at this color picker from a couple different interface options.

control_musing_nintendo

How about a simple controller like the old-school NES?

Chances are, we’re going to need the gamepad area for movement. With that in mind, that leaves us with two buttons. If we use one button, we can cycle colors. Cycling colors can be fast if there isn’t a range of more than 2-3 colors. However, when your get to 4 or more colors, you’ll have to press a button at least 3 times just to get to a specific color. Now you could easily do this, but you’d end up pretty frustrated, and it would be a slower experience. Conversely, you could map both buttons to two different palettes, which will give you up to 6 colors. This could lead to some confusion, but a diligent player will figure it out fast. With two buttons you could even move up or down a list of colors, giving you more granular control of your selection. If you’ve played Tetris, you can see how being able to spin both left and right came in handy for high level play. Another design solution could be to make one button cycle through colors, while the second button cycles through shades. This will cut down on visual confusion, but also give you at least 6 colors.

The iPad is an extremely interesting interface.

Your first instinct might be to design the color picker to have a slider. Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly an optimal design, because sliders are finicky on touch screens and they’re not typically very precise. A good go-to tactic for fast switching is direct access: divide the screen into different clickable areas for switching colors. We could have as many colors we want with the only limiting factor being the size of one’s fingers. Alternatively, we could always emulate a button from another device, such as a controller, but why would you? The iPad isn’t a controller, it’s a screen you can touch — it’s better to use that to your advantage.

Now let’s look at the Playstation Dualshock controller.

In both arena shooters and first person shooters, one is used to using two analog sticks. What if we took that familiarity and used the second analog stick as color picker? Not only does this thought inform the design of our color wheel, it also informs the game design itself. With 360 degrees of motion as well as intensity from 0-1, we have access to a nearly infinite range of colors. This is an extremely elegant design. But is it too much? Chances are, any gameplay that hinges on selecting a color that precisly isn’t going to allow for the fast-paced gameplay we’re looking for. Thankfully, our input being both radial and analog means we can break the selection down into parts. In fact, we could adjust the size of the color wheel as we go, giving the gameplay even more breadth.

control_musing

The keyboard is probably one of the most widely accessible interfaces.

The problem is it offers a ton of choices. As I said earlier, it’s a designers job to tackle the clutter; a typical keyboard might have 101 keys. We could make every single key to a color, which could certainly be fun for a typing game. If we take a cue from Quake3, we could just map the 1-0 keys as colors. If we use just 3 keys, we could play around with some pretty fun color mixing ideas.

The mouse is probably the most used interface device.

Unfortunately, it can be tragically slow when it comes to something like inventories. In many cases, designer will use menus and sub-menus to complete a challenge like this. Luckily for us, we hate making menus. It’s fairly safe to say most people have the option to both left and right click these days — even on Mac  — so we could do a number of two-button options that I already presented. We’ve already thought about the Playstation controller and the radial analog selection sounds great — we could easily take this idea and adapt it to the mouse. We could use the left click to bring up the radial menu and pick the color when we release the button.

Let’s look at one final device: the Kinect.

The Kinect is a game-changer — literally. How the hell do we make color picking work when you’re just waving your hand in the air? One very interesting solution is to not actually pick colors at all. Up until this point, we’ve only thought about the possibility that the user picks the color directly. What if the game presents you with color options and you just time your actions? For instance, as the game progresses you’d see the background color change through every available color — the second it hits teal, you do a jumping jack. This idea changes everything. With this line of thought we could go back and take another look at every one of devices we’ve discussed and come up with completely new ways to interact with them and a choice of colors.


There are a million-and-one ways to start a game. This is one of the William Stallwood methods of game design. I look at control interfaces and I let them inspire every part of the inner loop. Changing the way you look at a simple action can change the very action itself and breed tremendously unique and intuitive ideas that will shape your entire game. A button can always just activate something, but it can also do so much more. At the end of the day, you’re the game designer and you’re calling the shots. Your game could always use a controller, but I urge you strongly to think about the possibility that it can’t, shouldn’t, or just might be a different game entirely.

It’s Cipher, Not Cypher

Let’s set the record straight.

Our studio is named “Cipher Prime”, not “Cypher Prime”. In interviews and reviews (and even in customer support emails), people frequently refer to us as “cypher prime,” perhaps mistakenly believing that we are incorrectly spelling in our own name. Let’s take a closer look at these two spelling variants to explain why we chose cipher prime over cypher prime.

What is a Cipher/Cypher?

The term “cipher” is most commonly used in cryptography. This versatile term can refer to the acts of encoding or decoding a secret message, or to the secret message itself.

not cypher prime

Where did the variants come from?

The word we know today as cipher originated in the late 14th century from the Arabic word sifr, meaning “zero.” At this point in the English language (Middle English) the spellings of words were not yet explicitly defined, and writers commonly substituted i‘s for y‘s at will, hence the emergence of cypher as a variant for cipher.

However, after the Great Vowel shift and the standardization of spelling in the 15th and 16th centuries, many of the y’s that denoted “eye” sounds in English were replaced by i’s–hence the change of “wyf” to “wife,” and “cypher” to “cipher.”

not-cypher-prime-great-vowel-shift

Even so, cypher is still considered a valid variant of cipher in many orthographic circles today. Cypher is most popular in England, where it first emerged.

Why We Chose Cipher

Because we’re American, and because cipher is by far the most commonly used spelling, and because we think “cypher” looks kind of silly.

No Need to Construct Additional Pylons

For the past week, most of Cipher Prime has been out of the office, celebrating Nikko‘s wedding and catching some tasty Cali waves. Excuses, excuses.

But rest assured, I’ve been holding down the fort, and have even found a way to use the solitude productively: I’ve been creating a new server-side build manager for Unity.

As it stands, every time we need a new build of our games, we have to get one of our devs to drop what they’re doing, change a bunch of settings, build on their machine, and distribute the build internally for testing. And if we need to submit a build for contests while in the middle of production, it gets even more time-consuming and prone to user error.

Pylon: Build Orders Made Easy

Build orders made easy

To solve this problem, I built Pylon, a build manager that interfaces with Unity Asset Server to compile builds server-side. All you have to do is note what platforms you’re building for, name the build, and press a button — bam, go get a cup of coffee while the server generates your build. You can even select which revision you want to build, which is helpful when one of your guys breaks the build but you still need a working copy to send to press.

Once the builds are complete, they are then neatly organized by project, and the server generates trackable download links that can be used internally or emailed to select people:

pylon 2 x240

I’m looking forward to getting this battle-tested when the team returns next week. As we progress with Duet, I’m expecting this server to save us hundreds of man-hours normally wasted on the build process.

Why “Pylon”?

Because we play too much StarCraft II. Naturally, I named the server after the Protoss structure that enables you to build more units, the “pylon”.

starcraft pylon x240

With Pylon, I’m hoping we’ll execute our build orders as efficiently in the office as we do in StarCraft. And if all goes well, we may decide to release this as a product for Unity users everywhere. But let us break it first — I wouldn’t even consider this alpha level software yet! We’ll keep you posted. 

Conventions, Concerts and Couples!

We’ve got two upcoming events and a special bulletin to make. Here are the deets:

1. Philadelphia GameLoop

Like talking about games? Dislike being told what to talk about? Come to GameLoop!


What: GameLoop is a self-organizing conference–an unconference, if you will–wherein attendees decide the subjects of talks democratically.

When: Saturday, May 18th, 2013, 9:00 AM

Where: 

University of the Arts
Terra Hall, 16th Floor
211 S. Broad St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107

How: Register here!

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2. Dain’s Performing

This Saturday, Dain Saint will be performing at 8static, a monthly chiptune music event. This 8static will be hosting A-Rival’s TRUTHCANNON album release party, and Dain will toast the evening with an all-new set of vocal-based songs. Should be awesome.

When: May 11th, 2013; doors open at 7:00 PM

Where:

PhilaMOCA
531 North 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19123

How: Register here!

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Lastly,

A shout-out to resident bad boy Nikkolai Davenport, who (in true nerd fashion) got hitched on May 4th. May the force always be with you, Nikko and Jillian. Congratulations, guys!

Choosing Game Jam Themes

Every month at Cipher Prime, we hold a twelve-hour game jam, a contest in which people try to create a game based off a theme of our choosing. Along with stressing over hosting the event (and, of course, over our own jamming efforts), we stress over choosing game jam themes.

WHAT’S SO HARD ABOUT CHOOSING A THEME?

Picking a jam theme isn’t as easy as it might sound. As an organizer, you want to give jammers an interesting jumping-off point, while still letting them be creative. Oftentimes, too much freedom leaves teams paralyzed with indecision; having constraints can actually make teams think more creatively. When thinking about how much freedom a theme gives teams, it’s also important to realize that people will often self-impose restrictions subconsciously.

STICK TO TEXT

Both the Global Game Jam (GGJ) and the Philly Game Jam (PGJ) have used pictures as jam themes (below). The GGJ used a drawing of the ouroboros, and the PGJ used a photo of decrepit playground equipment.

When the games were submitted, the GGJ received lots of games containing snakes, and the PGJ received lots of games containing a playground wheel as a centerpiece. At this year’s GGJ, the theme was the sound of a heartbeat. As when the theme was a picture, many people interpreted the theme literally and submitted games that involved hearts, or love, or something else that connected very simply to the theme. While there are plenty of counter-examples to this phenomenon, anecdotally, photo- or audio-based themes lead to a higher number of literal interpretations (and fewer original games). Because these themes engage with a particular sense (sight, hearing) very strongly, people have a hard time moving beyond that strong initial engagement to something deeper. Text-based themes lack a defined visual or aural form, freeing people to think about themes abstractly, rather than concretely.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

If we’re sticking with text, generally a single word will suffice for a theme. Abstract nouns tend to give jammers plenty of context to work from without allowing them to simply utilize the theme for a set piece. Concrete nouns, however, tend to pigeonhole participants by allowing them to latch on to something tangible in the same way that picture-based themes do. Verbs, similarly, limit thinking by spoon-feeding potential player actions to designers. Conversely, single-word adjectives tend to be way too broad–it would be far too easy for designers to make any game they felt like, and then make sure that at least one tertiary aspect of the game could be described by that adjective. This is probably why the GGJ organizers have never chosen a single-word theme that was either a verb or adjective.

CATCH THAT PHRASE

Not all good themes come from abstract nouns. Another common source of good themes is catchphrases (such as GGJ’s “As long as we have each other, we will never run out of problems”). While not frequently utilized, phrases as themes can be deployed to great effect. They force jammers to consider both the literal words of the phrase, which can lead to gameplay ideas, and also the emotion and the context of the phrase, which can add many more layers of depth to consider. For instance, in 2009 the PGJ used for its theme the Michener quote, “An age is called Dark not because the light fails to shine, but because people refuse to see it.” This quote produces lots of jumping-off points, from the light/dark dichotomy, to perception of the human condition, even potentially to Dark age history. Any of these avenues could be explored and still be thematically relevant.

THEMES SHOULDN’T BE CHOSEN DEMOCRATICALLY

Textual themes are popular with the granddaddy of organized game jams, Ludum Dare (LD). LD’s community self-selects a theme for each competition. But this can lead to internal conflict. When participants get to select their own theme, they’re likely to pick a favorite theme, or one that fits a design idea they’ve had. If that theme isn’t selected, all the time they’ve spent invested in the design seems wasted, discouraging the person from participating. Additionally, having participants vote can lead to very generic themes. For instance, in 2013, LD’s theme was “Minimalism”; in 2008, LD’s theme was “Minimalist”. Having a single entity, rather than an entire community, choose a theme can prevent similar or poor themes from being chosen.

THE GOLDEN RULE: INSPIRE CREATIVITY

The point of any game jam theme is, ultimately, to inspire and cultivate creativity. Because they’re made in such a limited period of time, the games made at jams are never going to be the same as a game made over the course of several months or years. Participants shouldn’t be trying to make a generic first-person shooter, RPG or platformer. Game jams are opportunities for game creators to make something new and interesting, and game jam themes should respect that.