Out-of-a-Hat Game Jam!

Hey Dev Nighters, ready for a challenge?

This Thursday’s game jam theme is “Out-of-a-Hat.” We’re going to have three hats, one containing genres, one containing styles, and one containing moods. Your assigned game will be based on whatever combination of words you pull from the hats. We believe in you.

When: Thursday, June 6th, 5:00 PM-5:00 AM

Where: Cipher Prime Studios (239 Chestnut Street, Old City)

top hat lighter

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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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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.

Cipher Prime Interviews Brian Provinciano

At our last Dev Night Cipher Prime had the pleasure of interviewing Retro City Rampage designer Brian Provinciano. Together we laughed, learned, and loved. Here’s are some of his awesome thoughts!

Q: What made you think you wanted to do Retro City Rampage, specifically?
A: I didn’t necessarily see Retro City Rampage as the finished product when I started this project. I started it to see what it was like to build my own engine for an open-world game, to figure out how these games (and creating a game for the Nintendo) worked. From there, as I started to come up with funny ideas, my vision became more robust. The game turned into this ultimate microphone for whatever I wanted to do.

Q: Retro City Rampage began as Grand Theftendo, a recreation of Grand Theft Auto III that you built for the Nintendo. Were the hardware limitations of the Nintendo something that stifled you, or that inspired you? 
A: Adhering to NES standards began as an exciting challenge, but I had to go through so many revisions to bypass the technical limitations of the system that frankly I was glad to make the shift to C++ when I did. Still, I’m proud of how I kept the gameplay so NES-esque. For instance, I restricted myself to the NES’s palette, to the number of colors that the NES could display onscreen at a given time. My accurateness adds an extra level of polish.

Q: Do you consider Retro City Rampage a success?
A: I do now. But when it launched, I didn’t feel that it was a success. I had imagined this huge launch date, but it didn’t end up being as massive as I’d hoped. The other thing that I didn’t expect–and I know this will sound naive–was that people wouldn’t like it. Leading up to the game’s release, I would demo the game and hear almost nothing negative from anyone. So when it launched, that’s what I figured it would be like. I’ve realized that it was absurd to think that. When reviews started coming out, I would focus on the negative ones instead of basking in the positive ones, and that’s the biggest mistake I made at launch. I didn’t let myself enjoy the success of completing something I spent years working on. To this date, I haven’t held a release party. When the game initially sold only 20,000 units, I was really bummed. But the good news is that it’s still selling. Actually, it’s sold more this year than it did last year–now it’s sold over 100,000 units.

Q: Do you have any words of advice for those who want to go full-time indie?
A: The biggest shocker to me when I went full-time indie was the time I’d end up spending on non-development tasks. Once I went indie, I had to make sure that I made money and that the game succeeded. So I had to start worrying about the business, about office administration, accounting, legal matters, getting licensed by consoles. All of that non-fun stuff. When I quit my full-time job, I figured I’d have another nine hours a day to spend working on my game, but I often ended up spending those nine hours on paperwork and emails. If you’re going to make games, I would recommend working with at least one other person. Doing it all yourself is just way too much of a burden.

Q: Bro, do you even lift?
A: …Yes. Yes I do.


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Come promote neurodiversity with us!

Upcoming Events at Cipher Prime

“Gaming as Therapy” Autism Event

autism ribbonx150Cipher Prime is excited to announce that on April 19th, we will be partnering with the Academy of Natural Sciences to hold an autism event called “Gaming as Therapy: A Pathway to Interaction“! This event will explore video games as a potential form of therapy for autism, and as a social bridge between autistic and non-autistic people. 

Although we didn’t design our games with autism in mind, over the years, we’ve received many emails from parents of children on the spectrum, thanking us for creating experiences that they could share with their kids. These messages inspired us to further explore the link between gaming and autism, and to work toward promoting neurodiversity.

That’s why we’re doing this event. We’ll be sharing our games (including AuditoriumPulse, and Splice) and others’, and Cipher Prime co-founder Dain Saint will be one of three speakers discussing the relationship between gaming and autism. We invite you to spend an evening with us learning, playing games, and forming friendships.

When: Friday, April 19th, at 6:00 P.M.
Where: The Academy of Natural Sciences (1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia)
How: Reserve your ticket today!

Brian Provinciano Q&A Session

In other news, we’ve been on a Retro City Rampage rampage. This satirical open-world action game was the subject of last Dev Night‘s “game club,” and next week we’ll be hosting a virtual Q&A Session with the game’s creator, Brian Provinciano! So haul your tuckus over to Cipher Prime (239 Chestnut Street) next Thursday at 8:00 PM to join the discussion!

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Cipher Prime Interviews Dejobaan Games!

At a recent Cipher Prime dev night, a roomful of game-lovers and -makers had the pleasure of sitting down with Ichiro Lambe and Rohit Shenoy of Dejobaan Games for a virtual chat. These dapper gentlemen imparted great wisdoms ranging from their personal experiences making games to their success in marketing (according to Rohit, giving games interesting names “seems to work every time”) to their mastery of the art of seduction (it’s all in the salsa, apparently).

At any rate, even if you weren’t there, you can still watch the interview!

We’re excited to announce a new playlist on Cipher Prime’s YouTube channelDev Night Q&A’s. In our magical journeys through the lands of game studio-being, we have met some pretty remarkable fellow developers who have allowed us to peer into (and occasionally film) the depths of their souls. So come cozy up to your favorite devs: subscribe!


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Dejobaan Games

Dejobaan Games to Speak at Dev Night!

We’re excited to announce that Ichiro Lambe and Rohit Shenoy, the esteemed ballers of fellow indie developer Dejobaan Games, will be doing a virtual Q&A session at our February 28th Game Dev night. Their studio touts such charming titles as Drunken Robot Pornography and Drop That Beat Like an Ugly Baby.

Due to our mad fan love for this studio, we’re partnering up for some promotions: the members of Dejobaan’s mailing list just received a discount on Splice, and we will be offering Dejobaan’s games on our mailing list. We hope that these promotions will be the first of many partnerships to come!

If you’re interested in receiving more news, promotions, ramblings, and/or snuggles, subscribe to our mailing list. We’ll love you extra.