u20: Axis Descending


Demo Summary
Update 20 is here for Axis Descending! This update is intended to address a variety of concerns with performance, clarity and polish. My recent user observation project lead me to understand key areas of the game that weren't well understood. To this end it is a revised demo experience that focuses on the initial airship level, introduces a tutorial sequence prior to it, and enables a few special abilities right from the get-go. This update and further level revisions will provided for an upcoming User Testing project that will extensively break down the demo's successes, failures and needs to iterate and improve upon the current design.

Players embark on a quest to save their allies, learn about the game world, and exercise the knowledge they acquire about the game's mechanics through a series of challenges. Guided by a subtle narrative, this should demonstrate an understanding of the world, its characters and the game's core mechanics. The following goals should be met and will be tested during the User Testing session:

- Players know how to use Potions
- Players effectively use the Guard/Dodge to avoid attacks
- Players complete the Demo by defeating the Andras boss encounter
- Players experiment with the game's Wardrobe Mechanic
- Players should report framerate drops, stutter or other performance issues

Performance Updates
Axis runs fairly smoothly, especially when it is played while not maximized, but a number of tweaks were made to reduce stutter and framerate drops during full screen play. The following changes were made to see this through:

- The graphics creating the floor, wall and ceiling tiles have been shifted from vector symbols to bitmaps, resolving scaling issues where tiles would have gaps, improving framerate throughout the game and simplifying some of the level design process on my end
- Adjust some lighting, tweening and  on the title screen to improve performance
- Adjusted some tweens throughout the intro to improve performance

Mechanic Updates
As per some of my recent posts, a number of things have been cut and added. u20 features the following changes:

- Added a tutorial area where Huey breaks down gameplay mechanics for you!
- The "Rocket Boost" is now similar to the Super Jump in appearance and can be charged for increased speed and length
- Return is now available for testers right away, allowing you to teleport back to the player ship by holding R
- Axis now regenerates Mana over time

Visual Updates
Always needed, always time-consuming. I went through a few art passes on certain animations, tightening up responsiveness and easing up on some erratic or lengthy pacing. The changes are:

- Screen fade has been replaced with a vertical swipe fade (emphasizes the whole "descending" thing)
- Updated Axis' idle animation when wielding a sword
- Updated fx for running, jumping, landing
- The lightning slash attack has additional non-slash animations now that still have the same length and timing but offer some variation to showcase Axis' control over lightning
- Axis' dramatic landing animation when touching down on the Vile has been reduced
- Axis' landing animation forces your weapon to be stowed
- All cutscenes are skippable with R and will properly fade to black before moving forward
- Content outside of the camera is now masked out
- Enemy soldiers now telegraph their attacks more adequately
- Enemy soldiers no longer fade upon death
- Removed some excess pixels from armor (goodbye white floaties I'll miss you)
- Lengthened the Unarmed Jump midair loop animation
- Sliding to a stop no longer creates run particles

Misc Updates + Bug Fixes
- Down Magic Attack can no longer be held and simply initiates a one swing attack
- Forward Magic Attack can no longer be infinitely looped if you hold down A or S
- Removed extraneous information from animation regarding the removed Dual, Polearm and Bow weapon types
- You can no longer Forward Magic Attack into clingable walls!
- The dual wielding Rogue enemy can no longer be parried
- Andras no longer requires his shield to be revealed
- Andras' defense has been increased to compensate for his lack of invulnerability
- Entering the Rinpoche deck no longer locks you in place
- You can no longer jump off the Rinpoche deck to enter the Severn Outskirts
- Fixed an error when skipping the "Reveal" cutscene in Nexus Isles
- The Crest, Nexus and Severn itself have been blocked off until they are given the new bitmap treatment
- Narrowed the activation range of the wardrobe

Please report bugs via the BUG REPORTING SYSTEM!

Reflection #8: Why Axis Needs to Charge Up his Dash

There is something to be said about simple ubiquitous mechanics and design patterns and their role within your development process. If it is so prevalent is it worth your time? Is it feature creep? Is it misuse of your time? I mean, no matter what level of experience you have you simply won't always know.

A recent situation had me second guessing some of my choices at work. A friend of mine made a good point, discussing their leadership role and how they feel they should be challenging their own thoughts. I do have a fair amount of responsibility. My choices and guidance will lead to very particular ends and goals. Are they the best? The right way to go? Why me, why not this person or that person? You have to ask yourself these questions. Leadership or not, really. It shows you care, that you put in the necessary time to apply a sound strategy, remain efficient and execute a plan to the best of your ability. I'm fortunate. My circumstances provide me with the means to develop my games on my own terms, timeline and with low levels of risk. I'm not doing this to earn income. I'm creating games to tell a story, exercise a vision and maybe make some extra income on the side. I am thankful that I do not have to worry about quick decisions in the long term on a scale of "eat" or "don't eat". With my academic career, however, this does impact more than just me. I'm altering the potential future by providing the right platform, to the best of my ability, for future industry leaders.

Whoa. Let me allow that to sink in for a bit.

A typical attack doesn't just need one animation for a swing. What if it showcased the player's aptitude? These 3 variants all have the same length and hit/damage timing.
As I rebuild the world with the new bitmap workflow I'm going back and doing a second pass on some of the game's mechanics. I want to make the core abilities look and feel great. This means allowing the player to do thing. Simple! Metroidvanias have this precedent mechanic when it comes to late game mobility and the player's ability to get from place to place. It makes sense. This genre involves a fair amount of backtracking and exploring previously explored areas. Making that easier to do in a way that circumvents the monotony of slaying enemies is a no-brainer. Metroid games feature a Space Jump, allowing you to fly through the air. This ability can be upgraded to be the Screw Attack which destroys most enemies if you collide with them while Space Jumping. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night had the Gravity Boots, providing a quick "down, up, jump" button input that'd send the player character soaring upward. Hollow Knight features a similar dash ability for horizontal movement.

To that end, Axis has the ability to "charge" his two abilities that enhance player vertical and horizontal movement. The Super Jump and Super Dash, tentatively named, take on the aspects of the genre's mechanical precedents. Press down, up and jump to leap into the skies. Press the dodge key after dodging midair to launch yourself forward. They will be augmented to provide invincibility frames and special attacks to suit that "late game" experience.

I don't want players to feel bored. I want players to feel empowered when it comes to the idea of navigating areas again and again. No big deal. You have this power with user-defined magnitude. Need a quick boost, tap the dodge key midair. Need to fly across the screen to get to somewhere specific? Give that key a brief hold and release to cover more distance. Faster. This didn't take much to implement, really.

The question is whether or not it should be here. Was it worth the time? It represents familiar mechanics for the genre. It takes into account what was done before, why it has been recreated, and takes the opportunity to improve upon that formula. It has already received very, very positive responses and samples are noting the similarities it has with other game's in the genre. These comparisons are a strength in my eyes. It shows it reminds people of those design patterns. There is a healthy amount of nostalgia and enthusiasm that comes from moments like that.

Reflection #7: Why Axis Doesn't Need a Bow

I previously spoke about bringing Axis Descending to Unity. At the time the decision made quite a bit of sense. I was hitting a wall when it came to certain performance issues. The finger was always pointed at the fact that it was made in Flash, but that was just me blaming the first thing that came to mind. The engine is fine. It had everything to do with my own inefficiencies with the code, not double checking to ensure assets were given the appropriate cache parameters, overloading certain areas with assets and so on.

Axis Descending will remain in Flash. He just won't have a bow or as much clutter around him. Among other things.

The game needs to get cut down a bit. Over the course of its development I would come up with these great ideas and decide to implement them. Feature creep. I would think "why not?" and make it happen, building out new attacks, new weapon types, bows and more without considering "why should it?". Overall, the bow presents a few problems. First, it complicates an already complicated animation system. To maintain responsiveness and a certain level of tangibility with the player character's interactions with the world and how they actually animate and move to show that, numerous animations are in place to represent current states and modes they can take on. Wielding a bow in your hands isn't the most important thing to implement but it did feel right. Use a bow, you hold in your hands when idle. Attack with your sword, you now hold that in your hands when idle. Understandably, a number of visual bugs popped up time and time again when my logic wasn't compensating for new additions or changes to the other animation behaviors.

RIP Axis with Bows, but we're all better off without you...
Another issue relates to power balance within the game's combat system and the relationship between the game's mechanics and narrative. If you can hit enemies from afar, why get up close and risk taking damage? Well, you could introduce ammo, right? If Axis is a swordsman, why is the bow the strongest weapon in the game? This would make the bow the most efficient way to tackle any encounter requiring physical attacks to overcome. Thematically, this makes no sense. Axis is a swordsman. He is quick. He is nimble. The combat rewards you for timely swordplay, effectively using your dodges and parrying enemy attacks. The enemy design should reflect his just as much as the player character's ability/action design.

If you have a bow you need arrows. If they are required for puzzles players can be frustrated if the appropriate ammo isn't readily available near the puzzle location. How can a bow be used to solve puzzles? As it was, the bow was only capable of firing horizontally across the screen. Implementing some form of omni-directional or cardinal firing system would increase the scope even further. Something like that may not even resolve the issue of how the player can, in a fun way, use the bow as a means to solve puzzles. Shooting switches? Hitting things from far away? The camera system doesn't compensate for that "range", either.

So, the bow is being removed. No bow. No arrows. This is one part of a series of measures I am taking to simplify the core mechanics, reinvigorate my own interest in the project, and improve player engagement.

Reflection #6: State Machine 2017 Part 2

Game Jams are important to the growth, innovation and learning factor of the industry and discipline as a whole. I encourage anyone interested in the field, or embedded in it already, to participate in jam events near you. To this end here are a few things you should know about:

Ludum Dare
Global Game Jam
Train Jam
Itch.io Jams

Even without the structure and guidelines of such events, we should all be building games like this in our spare time. Regardless of your focus it will help you learn new skills, adapt to changing trends and discover new possibilities within your skillset.

I think most of us get this, though. If you want to make a great game you have to make games. Doing will lead to expertise, understanding and forethought. Failure is a necessity to succeed. During a conversation with my colleague, Bryce Evans, he mentioned the state of the industry 5-10 years from now revolving around shorter, cheap games. Games about specifics. Games about something meaningful or enjoyable and built so you can play them, move on, and jump into the next title. The more I think about these "burst" games as he called them the more I think they fit into this binge-watching culture we have now with media consumption. I'm not here to say anything is right or wrong about it, but it is worth bringing up how many of us dive into these experiences in short bursts, reveling in the one-off moments and weekends where we can get our fill.

There are so many things to watch, after all. And there are so many things to play, after all. So here the connection becomes obvious. Mobile game and/or free to play business and design models do what they can to keep people coming back. And it works, of course, because people enjoy these games and accept the psychological traps they fall into to purchase digital proxy currency, virtual cosmetic goods and such. Then we have our flavor of the week, flavor of the month or 5 minutes of fame games to play. We finish them, we barely complete half the game, we dive in and get busy with our lives or other games, media or social responsibilities. Yet we buy these. Often. Of course we want those titles, despite the fact that we may never play them to completion, or complete them more than once, or unlock all of the achievements, buy the goodies or finish those unfinished quests. We buy them and they sit there but it doesn't matter. They collect dust in this literal or digital bookshelf but they are cherished like priceless artifacts whenever you recall them.

We found solace somewhere throughout this process of purchase and play and pretend we will return one day to slay the proverbial dragon.

Wordy and melodramatic, I know. I just want to stress how connected we are to these one-off experiences and how I wholeheartedly agree with Bryce's assumption. When I'm not working on Axis I build short and sweet games.

Burst Games. Short And Sweet (SAS pronounced like "sass") Games. We aren't sure what to call these yet.

Reflection #5: State Machine 2017 Part 1

It is that time of year again. IGF judging rolls around, I'm sifting through hundreds of professional and student submissions to play some of the most thought provoking, inspirational and trendy games around. I enjoy this so much. If you get too busy making games instead of playing them you understand where I'm coming from. Too often I feel like I am wasting my time if I don't work, work, work any chance I get. I highly encourage signing up for it when the open call goes out. It is a solid break from dev time and something that will give you a breath of fresh air, some clarity, and some perspective about the industry and the competition and the market right now.

For the sake of ambiguity and professionalism I won't be talking about any game specifically. This is merely a reflection, or the first part of a reflection, on some of the things I've taken note of that could be beneficial to others.

- Getting your game out there is hard. It doesn't matter how hard you write your quip or try to get attention. There will be people who love it, hate it or outright ignore it. This is fine.
- More of the same is okay, I think. Some games just work. Sequels or spiritual successors don't need to transform the original formula but enhance it.
- It can be easy to dismiss things at first glance. By a cover, a thumbnail, or a title menu or tutorial. Give things a chance beyond this initial glance.
- Small scope and a unique look is enough.
- When it comes to telling a story just let me watch and see things play out or just exist. It can be a character or scene lasting 10 seconds over 2. It goes a long, long way.
- The tool you used doesn't define the outcome of the game's success. One of the most engaging games I saw was made in Multimedia Fusion 2.
- It is difficult to get people to properly judge your game if you require multiple players or specific equipment. Make it as easy as possible to get your game if this is the case.

Competitive Analysis: Axis Descending

Summary + Purpose

Examining the current market competition for my Metroidvania project "Axis Descending" will allow me to make justified decisions and potential alterations to the mechanics in four key areas: Combat, Customization, Tangibility and Visual Interest. These areas serve as major hooks and draws for players to focus on the product in a marketplace saturated in content and typically critical of games of its ilk.

The Metroidvania genre is one ripe with novelty, nostalgia and nuance. Fundamentally it is derived from games of a particular kind, ones that drive players through worlds rich in hidden and explorative-centric content that is locked away behind special abilities, power-ups and plot points. To make such a game, like any, requires an understanding of what came before. For a genre so steeped in the history of its own kind, or similar genre-kin that are influenced by Metroid or Castlevania's legacy, what mechanics and dynamics are the most relevant?

Axis Descending focuses on fast-paced combat, where typical Metroidvania incorporate slow and strategic combat. It focuses on a heavy amount of player ownership through hundreds of potential weapon, armor and avatar skins. It emphasizes interaction with the world with a sense of tangibility, where you see an animation to react with your chosen actions. It allows players to breathe amidst the chaos of the player's current goals and take in the skies, the flora, the fauna and just exist in the game's world for a moment as it exists around you.

Analyzing the way other titles have executed these components will acknowledge thoughtful design choices I have made and allow numerous unjustified, weaker or non-existent components to come to light in order to improve the player experience.

Methodology + Findings


Each game selected for this analysis was chosen based on the game's genre, critical reception and relevance to the goals Axis Descending is hoping to achieve within its player engagement. Through examining, noting and breaking down the elements of Combat, Customization, Tangibility and Visual Interest for each game the strengths of each will be revealed. Additionally, analysis of the pros and cons related to each of these components displayed in each game will assist in revisions, acknowledgement of current strategies and resolving current design problems.

Combat
In this instance, Combat will represent any mechanic, activity or system involving the defeat of game agents in the context of a "fight". Game agents typically are enemies, mobs, bosses or destructible objects that exist within the game's environment.

Customization
Options available to the player in the form of skins, player-defined abilities within game-defined constraints and impact of player involvement on the game world's state or story results.

Tangibility
The game's feel when interacting with objects, devices or agents within the game world. This could be restrictions and constraints involving player movement, opening doors, picking up objects, etc.

Visual Interest
Methods the game's art uses to convey the game's worldspace as it applies to the game. Walkable terrain combined with foreground art, foreground/backgrounds elements with parallax scrolling and activity that exceeds the bounds of the player's move-able space.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Labeled a "platform-adventure Metroidvania" and developed by Moon Studios, this title introduced a risk/reward saving system unlike ever before. By spending a rare resource players can save anywhere they like in the game. Ori has an 88/100 Metacritic score for both PC and XONE platforms and has been celebrated for its dreamlike sensitivity style of art..



Combat
  • Players balance WASD movement and player location with attack-oriented Mouse commands.
  • Combat can be fairly fast-paced depending on the enemy type you're fighting.
  • Abilities are locked behind a skill tree.
  • Ability points for unlocking skills in the tree are earned as you go, encouraging play and time spent playing to equate to player power.
  • Charge Attacks, Dash Attacks and object-sensitive (requires something in the environment to activate) movement abilities are present.
  • Health is fairly limited and increases the challenge significantly.
Customization
  • Players can choose 3 paths to progress, defining a particular playstyle.
  • No cosmetic options were made apparent.
  • Save Point locations are user-defined.
Tangibility
  • Save points appear only when the player uses their Spirit resource to do so.
  • Collectibles are magnetized to the player so they draw them in if they are nearby.
  • Some abilities slow time, providing you with the means to aim/focus.
  • Damage and location are emphasized with light/color flashes and emitters.
  • Environment platforming/navigation of hazards/safe areas is a strict part of the experience.
  • Responsive controls!
Visual Interest
  • Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful environments with a tremendous amount of movement in every layer of the world.
  • Use of clutter/parallax in each layer of the game world.
  • Ori shifts their weight around depending on your actions.
  • In-Depth Map of the game's world.

Hollow Knight

Developed and published by Team Cherry, this Metroidvania has achieved critical acclaim. With an 86/100 on Metacritic and an eventual port to the Nintendo Switch, the title represents a modern spin on the genre that can be successful in the marketplace.


Combat
  • The primary resource, Soul, is used for both offensive and defensive abilities.
  • Numerous "Nail Arts" are available to unlock that introduce charge attacks, dash attacks and a spinning Cyclone attack that opens up new options for player combat.
  • Combat in general is simple and more fast-paced than your traditional Metroidvania title.
  • Health is fairly limited and increases the challenge significantly.
  • Enemies tend to carry out simple behaviors.
Customization
  • Charms are special items found in the world that can be equipped in a couple of notches available to the player.
  • Balancing which ones you have equipped and how many notches they occupy is a game of balance and strategy.
  • Players may also Overcharm themselves by equipping Charms that outweigh their available notches at the cost of doubling the amount of damage they receive.
  • Many of these bonuses the Charms provide are simple quality of life additions, like drawing in resources or increasing the length of the player's invulnerability shield after taking damage.
  • These options help the player define their own individual "loadout" or "build".
Tangibility
  • Save points are manifested as a bench players sit on. This also acts as your only way to change your currently equipped Charms.
  • The game's currency, Geodes, are earned by smashing containers throughout the world. They fall and bounce as physics-based objects.
  • Receiving damage staggers the framerate, causing the world to seemingly freeze to emphasize you are getting hit.
  • Button prompts are displayed when applicable to use objects in the environment.

Visual Interest
  • High contrast in the environments between dark and light values. White is used as a way to signify important things.
  • The Knight, the player character, and other characters in the world all don white masks that helps them stand out from their environment.
  • Animation frames are limited and animations rely on special fx to apply context.
  • In-Depth Map of the game's world.

Another Metroid 2 Remake

Instead of introducing another critically acclaimed Metroidvania to the list, I decided to pursue something for fans made by fans of the genre. It has been received positively and reviewed by websites like Kotaku and Siliconera, despite the fact that the game is merely a fan-game and holds no official, legally, release. AM2R was actually nominated for the Best Fan Creation category in the 2017 Game Awards for its impressive design based off of the original Metroid II title.



Combat
  • Players only have Beam, Missile and Bomb weapons but they are upgraded as you go.
  • Combat is geared towards more strategic placement of the character as they can only fire in cardinal directions or a 45 degree angle.
  • Players can unlock a large amount of health and damage reduction upgrades so that mistakes 
  • Combat remains slow and steady with enemies that carry out simplistic behavior routines.
Customization
  • Upgrades can be acquired, at times, in no particular order.
  • Upgrades, ranging from Beam augments to High Jump Boots, can be turned on or off at will. This doesn't really seem to do anything, though. You aren't given a limit to what can be turned on.
  • Turning off upgrades seems more like an opportunity to run through the game with limitations.
  • The Varia and Gravity Suits change player appearance. Since they can be turned off I'll chalk that up to being a player choice.
Tangibility
  • Gripping on to corners to wall hang or climb over ledges is a fun way to move around the environment.
  • Save points adjust to your weight, shifting to compensate, and light up when used.
  • There are many, many environmental walls to break with Bombs, Beams and more.
  • Button prompts are displayed when applicable to use objects in the environment.

Visual Interest
  • Ground tiles blend nicely with foreground tiles. Slight correction differences make it apparent what is what, but there is a nice balance here to establish the setting.
  • The map tends to be focused on quite a bit when moving from area to area because of how tight the camera is. Areas are compact which means you move back and forth through the same corridor quite often.
  • Character sprites have a tremendous amount of smooth and breathable movement.
  • World Map is extensive but on a technical level as opposed to a visual "this is pretty" level.

Hob

In an attempt to incorporate games of a similar nature that bear obvious influences from the Metroidvania genre I have included Hob in this list. It features similar upgrade, exploration and progression mechanics found in these games. Despite an oddly unavailable reception, the game is currently at a 79/100 Metacritic score.




Combat
  • Hob splits your offensive abilities between Sword attacks and your Punch attacks. Sword strikes are fast, whereas Punch attacks can break defenses or make enemies vulnerable.
  • Ability upgrades are unlocked as you collect Shards, Butterflies and the core currency in a Forge.
  • Cloaks are available that can be equipped one at a time. They offer bonuses in exchange for reduced health, defenses and more.
  • Some enemies are fodder for attacks. This makes the player feel strong.
  • Some enemies can only be defeated by using an appropriate ability. These enemies are tough and pose a challenge.
Customization
  • The way you spend currencies to upgrade your abilities opens up new strategies in their own way.
  • Cloaks provide unique cosmetic looks.
  • The Sword changes appearance as you improve it.
Tangibility
  • Save points light up when you get close to them in a brilliant animation of shifting machinery.
  • Health and currency pickups glow and vacuum to the player.
  • Landing, climbing and moving about staggers the player when appropriate, making it evident that I am carrying out those actions.
  • Many objects can be interacted with. Levers to pull, buttons to press and more. The player animations when interacting with them make the objects feel responsive and impactful.
Visual Interest
  • The world is full of grass, bushes, trees and fauna. It feels alive.
  • The isometric perspective is given a fair amount of depth and complexity in the shape language they used for terrain.
  • Vistas give players a chance to sit and take in the sights from new perspectives.
  • World Map is visually appealing and uses larger and clearer icons to represent key objects within the world.
  • World Map spoils locations for hidden objects, though with the game's fixed perspective and difficult to navigate terrain that may be beneficial for players.

Sample Comparisons

By examining each of these games and the four applicable categories it is evident that there key similarities with how each title has chosen to attempt to evolve and grow the standard Metroidvania format. Ori's skill trees and player-driven save system, Hollow Knight's custom Charms belt and Nail Art upgrades, AM2R's adding features from recent Metroid games and Hob's exploration of Metroidvania within a new perspective, a heavy emphasis on enormous environment puzzles and a nice balance in combat between physical and "punch" attacks. Here are a number of comparisons that I have observed through this analysis.

  • All of the games featured enemies that were simple, easy to defeat, and relied on little complexity to overcome.
  • All of the games included enemy design that forced players to use upgrades they have obtained to defeat them.
  • All games included destructible objects with variants that could only be destroyed by certain abilities or weapons.
  • AM2R was the only game included that did not take Combat and try something different for the genre. I can understand why given the recreation concept, but the other games all had different takes on what combat could be.
  • Hob's Sword vs. Punch combat balance is similar to Axis Descending's physical/magical attack balance and proved to be engaging, providing there are enemies designed to play on these categories of attacks.
  • Movement abilities were at the center of all of the samples. They defined the player's ability to get around the world and crafted some of the most entertaining things to do in each game.
  • All of the games had various forms of character progression complexity.
  • None of the games incorporated player choice as a definitive and world-changing component.
  • The only cosmetic options, which are a huge aspect of Axis Descending, were found in AM2R and Hob's Cloaks/Suits that provided some form of an upgrade when worn. Why has the genre not incorporated player character customization?
  • Not one of the games shared a similar progression system with one another creating clear differences in player motivation and engagement.
  • Each game had a variety of Tangibility strengths that seemed universally enjoyable, like physics-based collectibles bouncing around the ground, objects characters directly manipulated or interacted with, time-manipulation when players were struck to emphasize impact and more.
  • All of the titles had objects to destroy, touch, interact with and so on.
  • Hob was the only game where the player character actually physically interacted with the environment more often than not.
  • Movement was drastically different when it came to feel. Ori used lower gravity and exaggerated jump heights, whereas AM2R was rigid and strict about your jump arcs and angles. Hob was more ground-oriented with its movement and awkward to platform with at such a fixed isometric angle. Hollow Knight was rigid, but provided clear tools for navigating environments.
  • Each title had a distinct art style: Ori was painterly and full of movement, Hollow Knight was high in contrast and given a unique "bug" theme, AM2R stepped up the pixel art color/animation/value game and Hob had Runic Games' trademark Warcraft-lite hand painted look.
  • Animation styles were all different as well and dependent on the game's art style.
  • Ori's clutter animation was breathtaking and very, very wobbly. Everything seemed to shift and sway based on wind and weather.
  • Hob's animation system was detailed and full of contextual animation between the player character and the game world.

Insights

Each of the four games featured something Axis Descending does not, and ideally will not have: a map. Each game felt fixed to it. As if you were required to look at it to get around, solve problems or find new areas. In games like this, where the environment is such an emphasized puzzle in and of itself, I want to strive to define one of Axis Descending's defining features as a spin on the genre by neglecting to include such a tool. As risky as this may be for players looking to use a map to guide their adventure, I have seen players excited at the prospect of making their own map and taking notes on the world around them.

As noted in the comparisons, the following components are going to be necessary to turn Axis Descending into a competitive title among others in the genre. Some of these are already in place or can be updated and iterated on within the current project. Others can be incorporated in ways that are appropriate for Axis Descending's approaches and design goals.

  • Unique Combat system for a Metroidvania
  • Enemy Design based on player Upgrades, Abilities, etc.
  • Make Movement Abilities fun every time they are used and required to travel
  • Display a unique art style
  • Impact, receiving or delivering, should be felt through auditory and visual means
  • Unique Animations for common interactions, plus screen space graphics for looking at books, computer screens, dialogue and more.



Design Brief: Axis Descending

Goals
Years ago I undertook a project that was intended to replicate a jam-like game. Two weeks, as I could fit it into my schedule, I was going to start and finish a puzzle platformer game. I would be working on the game solo and using it as a way to learn as a professional and transfer specific knowledge to my students as an academic. Over this short period I grew attached to the concept of the world and characters. This blue haired swordsman had a story to tell, and while I never finished that puzzle platformer, I would pick up the project to tinker and animate to hone my general skillset. It wasn't until my Thesis for my Masters in Experiential Design that I decided to take the setting from all of that work and turn it into something more.

Now a Metroidvania game, in which players traverse a platform-rich environment in order to gain new skills to open new areas to explore, Axis Descending has become a large part of my role as an Assistant Professor of Game Art. After obtaining a Seed Grant and exhibiting at a number of peer-reviewed venues throughout the last two years, it is fulfilling a few key areas I am responsible for developing in my tenure package.

From a design perspective, the project is telling a very personal story about love and loss as it applies to friendship and family. It speaks to a number of events that have really defined who I am throughout my life and seeks to teach players some of the life lessons I try to remember every single day because of it all. It aims to provide sufficient impact within gameplay and narrative to establish a long-lasting connection with some of these lessons.

Audience
Fans of the Metroidvania genre will enjoy this game. For players who enjoy sidescrolling platformers, fast-paced combat and/or having hundreds of cosmetic options to choose from to customize your character, this game is also for you.

Players who have a difficult time with sidescrolling platformers, look for slower paced games and/or dislike a learning curve may want to shy away from this title.

Strategy & Tone
Subtle clues and atmospheric nuance.
Meaningful moments and thought-provoking narratives.
Fun from a simple jump to a well-timed defensive maneuver.
Unique characters providing true-to-life reactions given the context of the world.

Requirements & Constraints
No Hand Holding
Players will only be told what to do if it is absolutely necessary. No needless tutorial dialogue or button prompts.

Show, Don't Tell
Players will be told anything only when it is absolutely necessary. No filler dialogue, unskippable cutscenes or oddly placed humor.

80s Glam Rock Meets Vector Illustration
Blues, purples, big wild hair and eccentric characters. Flat colors with subtle gradients.

Player Ownership
The player can customize what they look like and this must be acknowledged in the game world. NPCs can respond to your choices or unlock new narratives based on this.


Reflection #4: The More You Test

Putting your work in front of people can be a daunting task. I know, I know. The world you made needs to be perceived as you want it to be. The story you tell has to be understood just the way you want it to be. The game has to be captivating and engaging at just the right time and exactly when you want it to be. The thing is, you don't know what you are doing. No matter how often you do this it will never change. Those lists you create of bugs and observations will eventually dwindle as you learn how to discern what is useful and what isn't. Testing will become a way for you to find things that are broken by letting players commit to their plans of action in ways you didn't expect.

You don't know what you're doing and that is okay. Nobody knows what they are doing.

We get better at it but rarely are we ever truly recreating the same experience. We are always starting something new. So, we try to convey that world, that story and that gameplay as best we can. There comes a point where you test something so much, though, and the results become a plateau of quantitative findings and an echo chamber of short responses. This is an important stage to hit, I believe. It helps you get to a point where decisions you make actually have an impact on the user experience. You see it as they play. More importantly, you see it as they stop providing you with certain responses and carrying out actions without a need for explanation. The best advice I can give someone who is trying to test their work is to "help them help you". Make it clear what you want feedback on. If you don't you'll find yourself in the loop of:

This was good. This was good. I prefer controllers over keyboards. This was good. I found a broken door. This was good. I found another broken door. This was good.

This was good.

Reflection 3: On GDEX and Change

Last weekend I exhibited Axis Descending at GDEX, the Midwest's largest game developer expo, and provided both a workshop for Dev Day and a talk throughout the expo. Having exhibited a year prior, it was refreshing to see the event grow and transition into the Columbus Convention Center space. Many of the exhibitors and guests returned as well, so I was welcomed with familiar faces and reconnected with a few folks I hadn't seen since.

I ran into a bit of a roadblock, though. During the first day of the expo I realized my game wasn't performing well. The frame rate was suffering drastic and never-before-seen drops. After opening up the project files and taking a crack at fixing the issue quickly I discovered there was something else going entirely that I couldn't pinpoint so easily. Over the course of the afternoon and evening I did resolve a number of issues resulting in the drops in frame rate, enough to show it off throughout Sunday, but it still lead me down this spiral of frustration and concern. I have been pushing against oddities like these for so long with the project. They all seem to involve the engine itself rather than my own knowledge or ability.

Axis is something I have been working on for quite some time. After deliberating with my wife and closest colleagues I decided to switch from Flash to Unity. Or try, at least. This is huge. The need is there. Unity will provide an escape from all of these issues of scale, output and accessibility with the files necessary to play the game. Documentation and debugging assistance will be plentiful. Learning more of the engine and its capabilities will improve my own teaching abilities for some project-oriented courses. The list goes on.

The players at the expo were all engaged with the game. After refining the initial experience so much I believe I had narrowed down a great focus and have been able to pull players in. All of the notes taken over the weekend only involved a few general bug fixes or oversights. Yet, now I'm looking at having to rebuild all of that. Reconstructing it all. Assembling it as-is, with a few alterations I'm sure, to keep all of that effort and time and growth intact.

I am afraid. Years have been spent on this. Should I have done this sooner?

Secondary User Research - Axis Descending

How does one understand the Metroidvania audience? Before I should go out and look for feedback via testing, studying precedents would be beneficial. Sadly, not many test reports regarding the Metroidvania audience exist. I have, however, read a number of in-depth play reports from designers analyzing the game for both fun and educational reasons. To that end I'm examining articles written by them in order to better understand the way the audience thinks and feels throughout the game based on these critiques. My goal is to be able to evaluate focused feedback from these key individuals in order to make more calculated design choices/fixes/alterations as I move forward with the completion of the game: Axis Descending.

The Invisible Hand of Metroid
by Hugo Bille
Game Designer, Producer, Programmer and Writer known for Stick It To The Man! and Zombie Vikings
Analytical Playthrough &Written Analysis
- Hugo reflects on the ways the level itself teach him to move throughout the game, enforcing things like "not always going right" or retracing his steps to explore areas and unlock previously hidden/blocked pathways
- Hugo notes how many rooms there are in the game whose "key" is already in your possession but you aren't aware of it yet, such as the ability to run or wall jump, which are all revealed via particular level layouts or characters that show you how it is done

Hugo's article shows me that players can be allowed to expect the world itself to teach them how to play and where to go. If certain things seem like they should be communicated directly, like learning how to run or wall jump, it is okay to take the risk of frustrating the player. This makes the way they find the solution more memorable. This notion acknowledges some of the choices I have made thus far!

Deconstructing Ori and the Blind Forest's Best Bit
by Mark Brown
Previously Editor-In-Chief at Pocket Gamer, known for Game Maker's Toolkit
Analytical Playthrough &Video Essay
- In the very beginning of the video Mark notes how the Ginso Tree is one of the best areas of the game based on the way it introduces you to a new mechanic, tests your skills with it, and provides an difficult but easy-to-repeat (through a quick return) final challenge
- Mark mentions how this Ginso segment, if isolated, is such a brilliant example of Metroidvania level design, but as you pursue other areas in the game that exceptional series of challenges and instructive levels just doesn't exist

This is an interesting dynamic that I'm about to experiment with for Axis. Several hand-placed and fully designed levels exist, yet there will be environments that are predefined chunks of areas that I procedurally link together to create new and randomized levels for the player to explore. I should heed his warning about making the randomized content feel less connected as a whole. To this end I have a few ideas in mind for closing the loop of each level with a significant item or interactive object to allow for player progression. As I move forward certain areas should have an overall theme as well to aid in this effort to create cohesion among the areas generated.

Devs Play: "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night"

by Koji Igarashi (Designer, Programmer, Writer and Co-Director for Symphony of the Night), Ben Judd (Videogame Agent), Anna Kipniss (Senior Gameplay Programmer at Double Fine)
Analytical Playthrough &Video Interview
- Considering Koji was a developer I focused on Ben and Anna's commentary based on their experiences, most notably the ways in which they discovered the fact that half the game is hidden by finding a specific item during the "last boss" (the entire world flips upside down and the second half of the game begins)
- Ben notes that he knew there was something more to the "glasses" item that enables this flip because he couldn't find equipment that was taken away from him early on, which begs me to question the ways players develop their understanding of the game's progression system in order to provide incentives for discovery
- Ben and Anna discuss the most iconic enemy of the series, the Medusa Head, which was impactful because of how difficult it was to avoid!

Surprising the player by using their expectations against them is a strength. I hope that some of my own twists will offer the same effect flipping the world of Symphony of the Night will! One thing I plan on implementing takes place after the main story, consisting of 9 chapter segments, that helps to give the remaining content a sense of purpose or meaning. Even areas you have previously visited that may no longer be necessary to visit. This "bounty hunt" system will let players find, locate and trap interesting creatures and enemy characters that either close the narrative loop of a particular arc or just give the player more exposition/entertainment post-story.

Reflection I: Aesthetics + Preexisting Knowledge

I came across Mark Rosewater's "Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned" talk from GDC2016 recently. Throughout the very postmortem-esque talk, he speaks to the successes and mistakes made throughout twenty years of development on Magic: The Gathering. As someone who played throughout my youth it was interesting to watch. My own playtime with the trading card game dwindled as I started studying game development, working professionally, and teaching. Being able to recognize some of these tips from my own experiences has been quite the experience. Many tips involve players responding to a variety of mechanics, aesthetics and concepts they created.

One of them involves Griselbrand. The other, the Akroan Horse.


Once Griselbrand was released players were highly frustrated with the card. They were not happy. Was the card weak? No. Did it lack flavor or substance when it came to the game's world and lore? No. Everyone was upset because the card that allowed you to pay SEVEN life to draw SEVEN cards, a card that has SEVEN power and toughness, cost a total of EIGHT mana to bring into play. Mark goes into detail about how much aesthetics play a role in the player's enjoyment of the game. Balance, symmetry and pattern completion are important to take into account. Disrupting these can lead to roadblocks in our minds and cause us to question the content we are engaged with. So, when this SEVEN pattern was broken player perception was disrupted and made players feel uncomfortable.

For Akroan Horse, Mark emphasized the fact that we can tap into already present knowledge and understanding within our users. The Akroan Horse was an allusion to the Trojan Horse, both in aesthetics and mechanics. It infiltrated the enemy player's space and populated it with soldiers over time. The whole idea seems clear cut and was really well received, but when the designers opted to change the horse into a lion, the card was instantly disliked. There was a disconnection with that established information within the user's knowledge base. Now it did not make any sense. Why would a lion serve this purpose? Again, players had their perceptions disrupted.

Another interesting note is how he describes the origins of the "Commander" format, in which players build a deck of cards around one particular "legendary" creature that acts as their hero in that format. This very same set of rules resembles some of the ones I made up when I was younger. My friends were never interested in playing the game "Marshall's way", however, so the discouragement had me leaving the concept in the dust.

So, this tip was all about giving player's a sense of ownership. This lesson resonated quite a bit with me. In my own development I've found a fair amount of positive response from the game's nostalgic content. It had made players reminisce on their own childhood experiences, friends, family and other things they seem to cherish. I think much of this is due to the wide array of customization options for hair, armor, weapons, backpacks, capes and rattails. The game also begins with several introductions to your pirate crew, consisting of characters with unique personalities, body types and methods. They seem to remind people of these nostalgic traits, which makes sense since so many of them were inspired by my own nostalgia. Players connect with these people and by being able to define who they are or resemble in the game it makes them feel so much more connected to them.

Other tips he had involved providing players with a sense of ownership, allowing yourself to be blunt at times, and not being afraid to take a risk with certain ideas as long as you make sure you actually need it implemented and flood your game with mechanics.

Sampling

So, theoretically I'm sampling for a game that aims to inform and encourage people to recycle by teaching them where appropriate disposal containers are located. My task is to, on the fly, spot only a few key individuals in a public space where such containers exist and are accessible. The design challenge this hopes to overcome is whether or not people even consider alternative methods for waste disposal beyond the traditional trash can. To remedy problems associated with overcrowded disposal facilities, the app uses simple wayfinding tools to let people know where they can deposit recyclable materials. So, let us play a little narrative game...

I'm standing in a school atrium. To the North a doorway leads to the college cafeteria. To the East I see a bookstore and general store that sells books, school affiliated clothing and more. Acting as a hub for the University, the atrium has a fairly high amount of traffic on a regular basis. Students come and go or have laptops and books set up on numerous tables spread throughout the space.

Three possible characteristics of who might play this app right now:
1. Someone on their phone who would instantly be able to download and interact with the app
2. Individuals using laptops
3. Someone who is eating/drinking and will soon have to dispose of some of their materials

Three possible characteristics of who would probably not play right now:
1. Individuals obviously just cutting through the atrium to get somewhere
2. People without a phone visibly on them
3. People engaged in discussion with others who may seem busy or purposeful

Three people I would talk to:
1. A young student on their phone waiting in line for their meal
2. A pair of students sitting at a table with laptops
3. A Faculty member strolling through the atrium patiently, checking their phone again and again, catching eye contact with me regularly

These particular people fit the bill. They are either utilizing the very technology I would need them to use, seemingly capable to operate such technology, or most importantly are about to need the relevant information once they finish their meal and have material to throw away. The strongest sample would come from the young student, of course, as the actual need represents the inherent problem the design is looking to overcome. It would force her to make considerations she normally may not make in order to divide her trash and put it where it effectively belongs. This is purposive. That need may or may not be a factor for the other individuals, now or in the near future, but by weighing ideal characteristics for samples I'm able to obtain more effective (and relevant) data.

On the other hand, if random sampling was done and I talked to the first three people closest to me, the resulting information could be null. They may not have a phone on them, they may not be familiar enough with app stores to even install the program, or they may just not be interested in speaking with me altogether because they have somewhere to be. By observing and making informed decisions about who to speak with I would be able to save time, strengthen the design methodology and almost ensure I would acquire productive data.

Reflection #10: Cloudwalker Postmortem

Cloudwalker is a small Serious Games prototype I created as part of a Foundations of Serious Games course at Michigan State University for the Serious Games certificate program. Based off of a project requiring Serious Goals to be formulated, tested through a pitched game concept and eventually realized in the form of a complete board or card game experience. Obviously my own take on the project, which has been supported by the wonderful Professor Carrie Heeter, manifested as a fully realized digital game prototype. Here I want to explore the process of the project to identify areas where I succeeded, did things right and generally performed well to continue practicing those methods in future or current projects. Similarly, I want to explore areas where performance was less-than-stellar. Regardless of the reason, it is important to analyze both sides of the positive/negative coin to also avoid those pitfalls, errors in judgment and so on.

3 Things That Went Right

Familiar Tools:
Cloudwalker was built in Adobe Flash, now called Animate, which has been my focus of expertise for almost 10 years. My professional experience involved working with Microsoft's "proposed" alternative to Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, which was intended to compete with Flash as it was one of the primary methods for online content delivery in that era. Without the need to learn the process necessary to complete the task(s) at hand, the product is created much more efficiently and benefits from the polish and speed that comes with that experience. Additionally, my familiarity with sidescrolling games in general aided in the creation of Cloudwalker. By knowing how to resolve issues in the past related to building something like this I circumvented a tremendous amount of time that could have set progress back.

Iteration:
With experience in game development comes an understanding of how to properly discern good feedback from bad feedback. You can't predict the future with experience, but it reinforces your own intuition so better and more justifiable decisions can be made. At the foundation of this is my favorite "i" word, iteration. I employed a cyclical process as I tested my game's designs against tester feedback. I hoped to validate these ideas and expose the best ones that people responded to. This improves the user experience exponentially. The largest testing sequence I did proved insanely beneficial, despite the need it exposed to almost recreate the entire game.

Clear Narrative, Small Scope:
From the beginning I had a clear idea of what I was trying to convey with Cloudwalker. Wukong's journey to overcome his character flaws, an interpretation on my part of the Journey to the West, were at the center of it all. Using game mechanics to align the player's experience with the character's was a "design commandment" of mine from early on as well. In knowing this, all decisions moving forward could be made with a clear understanding of the game's "end result".

3 Things That Went Wrong

Other Responsibilities:
As a Father, tenure-track Professor, Director of a Game Art program, coordinator for Game Development networking events and an Indie Game Developer, my schedule is pretty tight. Add in a college course to the mix and compromises need to be made throughout every responsibility. Despite stepping out of a few responsibilities, asking Student Assistants to take on additional tasks and configuring my course load for the Spring term, my availability to focus on any given task is small. I would hope this would not harm the overall output of a project, but realistically more time spent on it would've improved it a great deal.

Not Enough Early Testing:
While iteration though testing was fundamental to the project's success, I always push testing as soon as possible. In some ways, due to time and investment, I isolated the initial design in order to complete appropriate tasks for a deliverable. This err made it so the entire experience as a whole had a series of unchecked components that possibly needed review and further iteration, costing time in the long run.

Initial Investment:
Considering the course took place between January and May, and Cloudwalker's development didn't begin until later on in the syllabus, I was not considering the project a great deal until I had to. This had me ignoring what could be done, really, which did not take advantage of free time I had through January and February. Given the fact that Professor Carrie Heeter provided syllabus content with complete project breakdowns for every assignment, there was no reason for me not to engage with the project ahead of time. The end result was successful, but could have been so much more.

Cloudwalker


Reflection #9: Ebb and Flow

One of the topics Cloudwalker brings up is a sense of self control within a user and their ability to gauge when enough is enough, when it is time for a break, and when some of the compulsive behaviors games can provoke do not need to be acted upon. It is an important topic to me because I deal with these issues on a regular basis. With a full plate between my academic career, my independent game development and my family and friends it can be difficult to find time to completely sate those urges to just play something. There are times where I decide to take 10-15 minutes of time to play a round or two in a game, only to realize I have spent 30 minutes just choosing what I want to look like before I play. The older I get and the more I discuss this, whether it is in a conversation with friends, a short written passage of reflection or a passing thought, the more I begin to realize there is nothing inherently wrong with this struggle. Something about it can be identified and explored as a foundation for my own interests and personality in whatever I design. Similarly, it is common for students to struggle with procrastination in similar ways. They may play games a little too much, favor one class over another or simply sit still when they should be moving.

We should ask ourselves to accept these struggles as a fact and just move on.

Before my son was born I had quite a bit of free time. I wasn't taking graduate courses, working a tenure-track role or many other things I could list here. I found myself working on less because of that, I think. When you're kept busy you find the time to get things done. When you have all the time in the world it just slips by before you know it. My work schedule then incorporated a number of two week breaks. Much of that time was spent binge playing a game, honestly. This process is something I looked down upon for the longest time. Until recently, maybe two years or so, I looked at this as some kind of great character flaw or weakness as a professional. I thought, "A game developer shouldn't be playing games!" as that reflects a state of perpetual creation, right? It meant you were doing more important things.

What could be more important than engaging in the very thing that inspired and influenced you? Within reason, of course.

Reflection #8: A Good Artist Knows When To Quit

I stopped describing Axis Descending as a project I've been working on since 2009. Conversations lately have noted just "getting it done" and "moving on" from the project. Coming from people who have seen it in its earliest of iterations, which is a far cry from anything it resembles now, I can understand the sentiment. In some ways I know they are tired of seeing content for the same "game" they have been watching develop for 10 years. Despite its newfound framework and mechanics two years ago, the theme and name have remained the same. At a glance it may not seem like a whole lot has changed.

In the meantime a number of projects have come and gone. Research, development, research development and so on has lead to a series of short games without profit in mind. Instead they have focused on telling a story, communicating a message and typically serving the purpose of an assignment or project for my graduate studies. Each and every one has influenced Axis' development regardless of its iteration at that point in time. By completing these side projects, my main project has been improved. Not only that, but I become reinvigorated to continue development with Axis each and every time.

At this point though, I can't help but ponder when it will all be over. The game has been greenlit on Steam Greenlight. Hopefully, with a little luck, it'll be exhibited throughout the next year at a conference/expo or two. And with the help of a friend, new levels will be added to the game at a fast rate. How many are to be added, exactly? Is there a cap on the number of weapon skins, armor sets and collectibles? Will I ever implement that fishing minigame? How many new enemies are to be added? How many islands in total? How many chapters/quests in the main story?

Much of my approach has been to skip the planning stages, get inspired and just make. My experience building games, creating mods and teaching has lead me here.

Growing up I always saw my grandfather working on numerous projects. His workshop was filled with small scale plane models, dioramas, woodworking projects and painted canvases. He was interested in so many different mediums. His work is still being discovered and shared by extended family. One of his painted wood slabs is sitting in my office. Looking at them now I try not to see them like any other piece of art I have to critique or offer feedback on. I don't examine them the way that I would anything else. They mean something else to me. My grandfather always said that a good artist is one that knows when to stop. In so many ways it meant that he did not have to reach a point where he was happy during every project he worked on. In so many ways, he taught me not to expect perfection out of the work you do. All you can hope for is to do your best and make something exceptional.

Axis is and won't be perfect. I doubt it'll take off, create a huge stir or go viral at all. I will do everything I can, however, to make it as exceptional as I can.


Reflection #7: Experience and the Universal Mind

Meeting people, icons, local developers or artists, legends and figureheads in the industry is eye opening. Some of us try to maintain our composure. We make fools of ourselves as we try to be impressive, stand out or make a connection. Some of us try to play it cool and keep it real. They push down that excitement as they have seen this situation before. It is not new, we rationalize, and we dismiss the need to be excited. Yet, we want to be excited. We fumble or ace it, and either way, we grow on numerous levels. Social, professional, personal. We connect to some form of a greater mind, really, tapping into this universal understanding that we are all in it together. We aren't sitting at home on a Friday night. We are hip, with it, and a part of something big, even for just a moment. You are a part of this club no matter where you are in your own journey. You just won't always see that.

The only difference between you and them are the amount of people paying attention to what they say, potentially.

They deal with the same macro and micro problems you do. Exactly? Well, no, but listen in on any interview or personal conversation some of your favorite developers participate in. Listen to how they describe dealing with time, scope and cost on a billion dollar project just as much as a small team dealing with a few thousands dollars. We all revel in the moments of success, express bewilderment at how things use to be and how things have changed. Not in a way that condescends, but in a way that does not take our experiences and successes for granted. In a way that shows thanks for the opportunities and shows pity for the folks that are trying to find similar success in a saturated market, talking to potentially combative or manipulative media and doing it all from their home. In a way that says "good luck" for having to deal with things as they are now.

Big or small, everyone deals with the same problems. It merely appears in different forms with different names and different solutions. As Joseph Campbell put it in the closing words of Hero with a Thousand Faces, "The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. 'Live', Nietzsche says, 'as though the day were here.' It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal---carries the cross of the redeemer---not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair." We are more connected than we realize in this day and age, and not just due to social media or the internet. In many ways we use all of this advanced technology to do what we always have done, share stories and just talk and connect with one another.

The majority of the moments in my life where I think on this and feel connected to something greater have taken place in the last year. Conferences, exhibitions, meeting local developers, new students, prospective students, people from all works of life and reinforced this more and more. Last night, during an exclusive Ask Me Anything, I couldn't help but fall. It makes me sad, seeing all of us sharing these struggles. It motivates me, thankfully, but I always have to crawl out of a hole to get to that productive stage of this process. In a way, I grieve. I don't do it for me, but everyone. Even you.

Reflection #6: Thesis Blossom

Throughout the Fall and Spring semesters I have spent a considerable amount of time and mental energy on figuring out my own goals and a plan of action for my tenure-track goals. Until the turn of the year most of my progress with Axis Descending ground to a halt thanks to a few major fps-draining bugs and game-breaking glitches. In typical fashion, I went through an ebb and flow of development fixation. Once issues were being resolved I couldn't help myself. It was imperative that I fixed more issues, updated and added more art and expanded upon the world through the new Kar'Kaden Crest area in version 1.8. Now that it has been released I can take the Summer to work out more levels in preparation for the Early Access build and simple write more.

Axis Descending has been submitted to SAAM Arcade, Terminus, IndieCade, BostonFig and Lumen. To reward myself, development for the Polearm primary weapon will be completed before the Summer term hits. I'll be working with my colleague, Bryce Evans, to create levels in excess after that.

A whirlwind of skype, google hangout and phone conversations have lead to some amazing discussions on the tenure-track role and my own goals. I have met some amazing mentors in the last year and cannot express how helpful they have been. They have provided me with much-needed clarity. My original Graduate Thesis for my MA in Experiential Design was all about creating a set of steps (Narrative Devices was the term I coined) to follow if you're trying to design something for a game. Need to tell the player where to go? Stay awhile and listen:

1. Ask if it is better to outright tell the player where to go (Explicit) or to employ an invisible hand (Implicit).
2. Determine exactly what you're trying to do based on the three categories. Direction, Instruction or Exposition.
3. Decide on a Feedback Space, or a space in which to deliver this Device. See Fagerholtz and Lorentzon.
4. Employ a Feedback Method based on this information and research of precedents.

A brief explanation to some of these mentors, who have published practical works themselves, created interest and curiosity. How can this be improved, then? I saw it as something that could be taken further or left alone so I can move on to something new. Thinking about it more and how it could impact students and provide a framework for their learning experience has been invested.

Initially, I already have a few notes.

First, Narrative Device doesn't accurately represent what I am trying to define here. Feedback Device seems more appropriate upon first glance but more research will be needed to really define this term properly. It would be defined as a combination of the Feedback Intent (what you're trying to do), the Feedback Space (where it will exist in/out of the gamespace) and the Feedback Method (how it is manifested, like a health bar, a bit of dialogue or a visual clue). Put simply, it entails how you communicate with the player as a designer/developer.

Second, the order in which I have presented the information is off. Before anything else, the intent (currently 2) should be determined first. It makes no sense to question the nature of what it is without knowing what "it" even is intended for.

Time to get to work!

Cloudwalker: Playtest I




Serious Goal
To teach players to question what games are asking them to do and why on a critical level. This challenges some of the general design patterns we see in game design and how goals and objectives encourage participation through reward systems.

Target Audience
Game Art/Software Development Students
Ages 18-22

Context
Classroom/Game Studio Setting
Small Groups with Facilitator
Itch.io Download Portal
Google Form Survey

Facilitation involved directing players to the download page, instructions for completing the Google Form, and a brief group-wide discussion about the experience. The conversation began with tester feedback and perspectives before any intent was described by the Facilitator.

Questions
Are you familiar with Journey to the West, or the character "Sun Wukong" or the "Monkey King"?
How would you describe Sun Wukong's personality and abilities?
In the first moments of the game, what was your objective? (As both a player and the character)
In the final moments of the game, what was your objective? (As both a player and the character)
In what ways did Wukong grow throughout the experience?
Describe your impression of the Shopkeeper, Qing, and her purpose in the experience.
What compelled you to earn the game's upgrades?
In what ways could the lesson of the game be reinforced? How else could it be symbolized?
Did you find yourself reflecting on your previous experiences after finishing this prototype? Please discuss.
Based on your own experience, what was your preferred method for getting from level to level? Jumping, pole vaulting?
Describe your experience with the game's platforming.
Did you find yourself collecting all of the favor orbs in each level, or did you pass them by?
Please provide any other suggestions or bug reports here.

Documentation of Testing





Playtesters
15 Students
Half Female, Half Male
Ages 18-22

Results
- Considering the prototype's emphasis on mechanic implementation over visual feedback devices or narrative, much of the "point" was lost or unclear
- As players reach a certain height, a fade transition loads them into a new level, but this was misunderstood as "resetting" and felt like a reduction in player progress
- Floors, walls and ceilings that had any curvature to them whatsoever created bugs and animation misbehavior, throwing players outside of the world or not playing certain animations properly
- Players took much longer platforming through each level than I originally anticipated
- For half the testers it was unclear how to purchase or upgrade items
- The upgrades testers earned, shown by their name always displaying on the HUD when purchased, made it clear they bought something
- The purpose of each upgrade was not clear for everyone
- Using A to Attack or S to Pole Vault (third jump) took quite some time for people to discover
- Losing your upgrades before the boss fight was unclear and trumped by the sudden change in Qing's demeanor
- The boss fight mechanics were unclear, considering the boss' lack of art or animation to appropriately reflect even a first art pass level of visual feedback
- Considering the game ends by resetting everything back to square one testers were confused and were not given an "ending"



Moving Forward

With any testing, there is often time for reflection as you build the testing materials. I have created a short list of things I would like to do that was developed before the testing session took place. As if it anticipatory, these changes address some of the concerns, suggestions or observations that were raised during the testing session.

Namely, the platforming mechanic as-is has proven to be quite boring. The simple jump, hop and skip activity will be replaced with a more engaging and pole-focused mobility mechanic. You will still be able to get around by jumping, but double jumping will be removed along with the recharge meter of your pole. Launching yourself in each cardinal direction will empower players and fine-tune a feeling of growth as you increase your launching capabilities through upgrades. Also, this mechanic will prove more symbolic as you use it offensively to eliminate simple enemies and the revamped boss encounter.

The session also emphasized just how important the visual component is to some of the goals and objectives I strive to achieve within my projects. I rarely work in this fashion, emphasizing mechanics over visuals, so it was an interesting experiment regarding my own methodologies. The important of establishing mechanics that are small in scope early on, and defining effective game mechanic loops, is important on an absolute level. In regards to the plot and narrative devices used to convey the point of the project, just as much time being spent on the design of characters, environments and their living, breathing animations are important in earning some form of emotional or empathetic resonance.

With the new platforming mechanic, the strength of the character as you pole vault in each direction will be modified on a simpler level. The amount of upgrades will be reduced and the general rate of progression will be funneled to you automatically on a staggered fashion. Removing "favor" from the game will reinforce that Wukong is not earning these upgrades (that I'm saying he doesn't even need in the end sequence) but instead being given them just because he is who he is. It feeds that desire, his ego, and represents the key character flaw within the character's personality.

On this note, more attention will be given to showcase Wukong's feelings on the current situation. This should resolve narrative issues on a couple of fronts. First, it will help clarify exactly who he is and really throw it in the face of the player that this character is not perfect. At all, despite his immense strength. Second, it will help provide the context for what the player has to do, as well as the context for the current state of the game world. By reflecting on these things as you begin each level, exposition and discovery will play a role in world building for the game.

The new mechanic will also resolve certain wayfinding problems with the environment and the bugs that were creeping up as well. Each area will be more plainly represented as a cloudy chamber of heaven, leading closer and closer to a higher chamber as you go, and will be predetermined versus randomized. Predetermined level progression is easier to use to ramp up difficulty, hold the hand of the player to teach/require an understanding of core mechanics, and so on. Visual representation of increasing challenge will be done through color and asset changes as the levels get tougher to navigate, as well as through simple enemy designs. 3 in total will be created that reflect the 3 mechanics used to defeat the revised final boss, but more on this will come as I test and iterate on this original prototype.