“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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