Cloudwalker: The Concept

The core mechanics are already in place. Move, jump, collide, pogo jump!

Cloudwalker is a captivating platforming game where you take on the role of the rebellious Sun Wukong as he attempts to gain an audience with the Jade Emperor after being kicked out of the heavens. Earn favor and unravel the game's meaning by gathering tokens, collecting items, and restoring your legendary strength and abilities. With the help of a mysterious mermaid named Qing, jump through randomly generated cloud-scapes in a mystical world and see to it that you get what you deserve!

Why Cloudwalker?
Games can make themselves financially dangerous, unethical and nullify their own potential meaning by tapping into the hidden inner workings of our psyche. Encouraging compulsive behaviors, utilizing Ego Depletion, Reciprocity, Intermediate Currencies, Price Shrouding, and "Fun Pain" are still very relevant problems in today's marketplace. Despite discussion and new attempts to finding the right balance between games that are made and make money or games that are made to make money we still see cash cows lighting up the hit lists and reaching our social media news feeds.

One of the strongest ways we can fight and raise awareness of these approaches is to teach players and inform them when they least expect it. By playing Cloudwalker, players will be challenged to question their own actions and reasons for earning new upgrades and collectibles. They will find themselves in unfamiliar environments, suddenly stripped of everything they have earned, only to overcome the strongest of adversaries with their most fundamental abilities.

The game is inspired thematically by the Journey to the West's sequel, A Supplement to the Journey to the West, in which one of the primary characters faces the only enemy they cannot defeat with brute force: desire. Throughout the core adventure, Sun Wukong earns or demonstrates the ability to lift a 14,000lb shapeshifting staff, can leap ridiculous distances, can transform into dozens of different beings, can turn individual hair strands into clones of himself and more. This is a character who embodies strength and attaining it on an immeasurable scale, so when the Qing Fish demon traps him in a dream world, he struggles with his own compulsive behaviors and works closer to freeing himself from those base desires in order to overcome his inner demons and, this is my favorite part, become a teacher.

In the game, the story and mechanics will go hand in hand in order to open the players mind and ask them to question their own intentions. While it will have them second guessing their role within Cloudwalker, my hope is to have them questioning the actions they have made in the past and to reflect on a business methodology that is still taking advantage of the human mind.

Knowledge is power.

Additionally, considering the character's rebellious personality, cited as a representation of his author's desire to overcome untouchable rulers, there is potential to evoke certain messages related to the American political climate as of late. As Sun seeks an audience with the Jade Emperor and gets closer or further away from that goal, there may be mechanics in place that metaphorically speak to my view on our current government figureheads.

Serious Goals
- Raise awareness of unethical practice and encourage players to challenge those practices
- Teach players to question what games are asking them to do and why on a critical level
- Teach players how talking openly about their concerns can bring about solutions

Target Audience
Budding game developers. Typically, 17-20 year old aspiring devs who play mobile games in addition to PC or Console games on a regular basis and have just joined a Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree. Considering my primary role as an undergraduate educator, I have encountered numerous prospective students who are familiar with these types of unethical games. Until we sit down and discuss their history and we challenge them to analyze their actions critically, they don't full understand the ramifications of these design choices and how they can be responsible for those design choices themselves.

Platform
The game will be made available for free through my blog and personal websites and playable on PC/Mac.

Game Summary
Players will participate in a series of "jump from here to there" platforming challenges in a side-scrolling perspective. Upon beginning the game, randomized environments will task the player with reaching a specific vertical chasm, effectively reaching a higher level within the heavens and getting closer and closer to the Jade Emperor. In each of these randomly shuffled chambers, individually designed with specific platforming-related challenges, you can find hidden chambers filled with collectible items or token-like favor. Favor can be used to purchase new upgrades from Qing, a merchant that you will encounter between chambers. She offers a variety of upgrades based on Wukong's mythological artifacts and strength, like higher jump height, controlling the length of his staff to "pogo jump" to reach greater heights, boots that let you walk on lighter-than-air clouds and more.

The catch is that you will never reach the Emperor. Progression-wise, once players unlock all possible upgrades (only a handful in scope right now) you will trigger a special "final level" that engages more directly with the goals and purpose of the theme and mechanics. Here, Qing will present her true intentions and reveal the big twist within the narrative.

Levels are chosen at random each time you play. As you discover new abilities, levels appropriate for using those new abilities will be made available.

Between levels, you can upgrade your abilities at Qing's shop. She isn't exactly hiding the fact that she isn't acting in your best interest.


Reflection #5: The Track

Often, I'm trying to break misconceptions about the industry. For students, prospective students, their families, peers and friends and family. There is an immediate "wow" factor when I explain what I do for a living to people I meet. Work that I share, personal or student work, is met with praise typically on a surface level. A deeper understanding of the content just isn't there sometimes. I wouldn't say it is anyone's fault, and there may be no way to escape it. The average gamer is 35 with 13 years of game playing experience, but just playing games doesn't mean you understand how or why they are created on a fundamental level. Too often we see complaints about developers in generalized or blanketed ways. We see feedback that is contradictory all the time. Players are tasked with learning and performing, can become frustrated, and can then dismiss entire mechanics because it doesn't fit that mold that contextualizes their way. Visit a game's community forum or subreddit and you'll see numerous suggestions, requests for changes and perspectives and what is right and what is wrong. I think this mentality is mirrored in the way people can choose to view the medium.

I have no Architectural training or education. I like being in buildings. I'm in them all the time. I would not expect to know how to make a house just because I am in one, even if I had a really, really, really good idea for one.

As a tenure-track Assistant Professor I'm expected to meet the expectations of an institution's tenure standards. The criteria includes teaching, service responsibilities and research. Teaching and service is straightforward and simply universal, albeit with relevant perspectives and methodologies, regardless of the discipline. The research portion is typically writing/expansion of knowledge-oriented, but how does that fit in the world of game development considering the capabilities of the medium? Put simply, the creation of games is an expansion of knowledge. Whether you are evolving what has been or revolutionizing what could be, you are creating an experience that has the potential to introduce simple, complex and very, very new concepts to the user in a way nothing else can.

While there are tenured Faculty in this realm, precedents are not common. I, for one, have been knowingly and unknowingly following in the writing, developing and "make an educational development platform for students" shoes of Tracy Fullerton, though they are incredibly difficult to fill. Given these misconceptions, how can I help to define what should be expected of an academic in the realm of game development? Can I help in breaking down these walls with my research, or is my role in educating students the key in helping to raise awareness by sharing these perspectives, offering insight and letting them discover notgames, non-professional games and serious games?

Reflection #4: Noisebreaker

I spend a lot of time teaching just talking with people. So much of my course load throughout the year revolves around project-focused learning, figuring out milestones and fighting an uphill battle against procrastination, miscommunication and the stuff life throws at all of us. More often than not we see a great return on this time investment, but the battle getting there is always happening the same way. I always end up saying the same things. I always see the same problems arise. I always want to answer with a resounding "do something" or "just make" or "more".

In my own work I try to practice that. The less I talk about it in great length the more inspiration and feedback seems to pay off. If I continue to write, talk about its intricacies and break it down I will inevitably find a flaw. I'll see a crack in the sculpture. I will realize I missed something and fixate on resolving it. Repair needs to come later, in my experience, as the best forms of inspiration can lead to the extraordinary. Simply trying to communicate through spoken word will open it up to the bombardment of our intellectual minds. It loses the protection it had and becomes tangible. Mortal. Superbrothers and Brandon Boyer put a little something together that has stuck with me for a long time.

"A videogame is a staggeringly beautiful canvas. It's a window into another world. A world that lives only as long as the machine is on. A living breathing world with depth and soul that actually exists, right there onscreen, limited only by the vision and imagination of its creators. Seize that thought, and don't let it go."

Talking is noise and your idea is fragile in its most bountiful stages. That initial thought? That spark of a concept? Seize it. More than that, make it happen.

Game Lab #4: Flux Testing + Iteration


FLUX is a music rhythm game where players cruise down the streets of a retrofuturistic city on a motorcycle. Time key presses as you see fit and ride to your own rhythm by personalizing the game's music playlist. Players build up momentum by pressing one of the four arrow keys, triggering a cooldown that disables the key from being pressed again for a period of time, requiring the player to find a steady rhythm to maintain speed. There is no end to this road. Cruise along at your own pace, stop and go as you please and find your own rhythm. The end goal for this game is to allow players to simply chill, relax, and find a meditative state within the experience. For fans of 80s retro aesthetics, retro wave and cyberpunk themes this task will be easier to accomplish with Flux. Inspired by these components, the game mechanic is far from complete and will see a few iterations over the course of the next few weeks.

The goal was to make a prototype for a game concept that didn't have any challenge, allowed you to build and maintain momentum, and reach a state of Flow throughout the experience. To some degree I think I've accomplished that but with that validation also came a deluge of potential directions to take the project. So, what direction do I take?

Since I was able to create the game's mechanics and package it for testing, I went with my normal testing routine and put it in the hands of my students. I generally share my personal work updates on our Discord channel so students are aware of my goals and the progress I make. Coupled with a Google Form survey filled with general questions, bug reports and short answer questions, I was able to watch the players and their reactions to the game and get focused feedback in a short period of time. After, the completed forms allow me to quantify their responses with visual data and short answer responses.

One thing to note is how I phrased the questions in the survey. Instead of asking vague "on a scale of 1-10" questions, I opted to get short answer responses to begin a dialogue between myself and the tester. Often, it will be easier for someone to communicate more clearly through written word instead of discussing the matter in a group setting. It circumvents shyness or testers that may be more vocal than others. Requesting short answers about specific mechanics, like how I quizzed the players on "What are the game's controls? What do they do?" helps me see just how clear my instruction is and how much I need to convey to the player through a more subtle design methodology. I stray away from "Hit A to Jump" tutorial messages as often as I can, but if players simply aren't getting it I need to set that aside for the greater good.



The students understood the core mechanic immediately. After watching the title fade and the UI (pictured above) fade in, they responded without hesitating and began to play and propel the character. They knew what buttons to press without having to be told "Hit the arrow keys to move forward". 20% noted that the keys felt like they did different things and boosted your speed at different levels, but there could've been a few reasons for this. First, your initial key input at low momentum gives you a more powerful boost. There are also differing "power levels" for the 20 and 30 momentum ranges. This discrepancy could've contributed to the miscommunication.

Despite a brief discussion with the group after the test implying that Flow wasn't quite achieved, the written responses before that discussion said otherwise. 80% reported reaching a state of total focus, aided by the music and momentum they were building. The other 20% reported that they did not attain a sense of Flow but one of those cited that their audio wouldn't work. Considering the importance of blending both audio and visual stimulus to generate complete focus, I think this was understandable.

All of the responses both written and in-person favored the art style and choice of music. All of the responses also suggested introducing objectives, more impact with movement and key input, jumping or flipping, more backgrounds and obstacles.

I've found that the lack of challenge in the game is engaging on an experiential level. The audio and visual stimulus is enough to create a compelling experience, but I feel like I can take this concept further and create prolonged engagement. A reward, some form of build up, and a general sense of progression could elevate the experience even further without deviating from my original goals. Moving forward, the key here is going to involve taking momentum and its build-up even further to introduce a series of "leveling up" moments as players cruise along, earning something as time goes on.

Based on this feedback and my own considerations, future changes include:

- Removing the current 40-50 momentum limit and reducing the overall acceleration speed (at 100 the scrolling background is lightning fast, which is awesome, but hardly memory-friendly)
- Balancing that sense of momentum and testing new input mechanics like a global cooldown (one key will trigger cooldowns for all keys) or key combos (left, right, left, right in a timely manner will provide some form of score, score boost or visual stimulus)
- Juicy Particles based on player input, like light that streams from the wheels or building facades that light up the faster you go
- Updated environment art to include more randomization, variation and movement during both idle and mobile moments
- Additional backgrounds like a ride along a coastal beach, a tour down a rainy cityscape, and more!
- Musical feedback on key presses, fitting the general theme and allowing for some level of player involvement in the creation of the game's musical experience


FLUX has already been a fun experiment. Taking a break from Axis Descending development gives me an opportunity to explore new territory, acknowledge the skills I have, and build on the skills I'd like to develop further. All of my testers found the look and feel of the game to be captivating. They enjoyed the music, character, backgrounds and interface and simply wanted more. As always, I will continue to create new playable builds and share them with all of you. I'm fortunate to be a part of a community of students and professionals that provide critical feedback on a regular basis. Without that, I simply cannot validate my own design choices as a solo developer.

If you'd like to give it a go yourself, click the image below or click here to download it!


Game Lab #3: Core Mechanics for Enduro Flux

Serious Goal                                                                                                                                             
Achieve a sense of Flow within a user through audio/visual stimulus and user-defined goals related to momentum management, promoting well-being by alleviating stress and providing opportunities for introspection.

High Level Concept                                                                                                                                 
"Enduro Flux" is a music rhythm game where players cruise down the streets of a retrofuturistic city on a motorcycle. Time key presses as you see fit and ride to your own rhythm by personalizing the game's music playlist!

Description + Visualization                                                                                                                    



Enduro Flux begins with a dramatic fade-in to the beginning environment scene. Here, the "Traveler" the player controls stands above their bike as ambient music plays. Behind them, a series of neon signs adorn the towering skyscrapers in the distance in front of a simmering sunset. Players are given no indication of what to do for a period of time, encouraging the user to take the scene in before experimenting with the controls. Before long, a prompt will appear displaying the arrow keys as potential input if the player doesn't opt to figure it out on their own.

Once a single arrow key is pressed, a couple of things occur. First, that input becomes temporarily unavailable and suffers a brief cooldown period. Second, the Traveler gains a small boost to their momentum, causing them to go from idle to moving if they are static or keeping them going if they are already riding along. Third, the ambient soundtrack playing will draw silent as a more upbeat track begins to play. As players begin to alternate between the four arrow keys, boosting their speed and triggering cooldowns, my goal is to have the players themselves find the right input timing to match their speed with the rhythm of the game's music. Here, Flow can most likely be obtained.

If keys are not pressed, momentum is slowed and the Traveler will eventually stop cruising along. In this case, the upbeat music will quiet down and the ambient music will return as they stop their bike and kick their foot out. There is no score, result screen or game over. The game is simply a Traveler cruising down the street and timing key input to beat of the music. As speed increases, cooldowns may be reduced or increased, which will be determined at a later date.

To add depth and personalization, players will be able to add their own music to the game. While a browser-based version will be made available for free, there will also be a free downloadable version that has the following instructions for adding your own soundtrack to the game. In order to add your own music you must have the following: an mp3 format music file, the file renamed to "track1", "track2" or "track3", and finally the file must be added to the game's included Music folder. Once the game is run it'll automatically load up these tracks sequentially as you begin to cruise. If you want to play another song, simply stop cruising and begin again to "skip" that track!

Progression within the game is entirely controlled by the player and can adhere to their own goals. Some players may seek to slow down just to switch tracks, while others will try to go as long and fast as they can. Others may simply find the right rhythm and try to hold on to that moment for as long as possible. Considering there are no required inputs or predefined patterns the player must master, things like skill and luck simply aren't involved. Despite the agent working against you in the form of managing your momentum, there is no defined limit or sweet spot. As you slow down, the general mood of the game changes to follow suit. Rain will slowly fall, lights will slowly flicker and the character will calmly breathe and rest. As you pick up speed particles will begin to trail behind the motorcycle, objects will become blurred and other special effects will take place to match a more upbeat mood.

Research                                                                                                                                                   
Considering the emphasis on audio/visual elements for this project I have looked into a number of styles related to music, film and aesthetics that will prove more responsive to a specific audience that favors that particular style. Namely, fans of Retro Wave, Neon-Noir, Vaporwave, the work of Nicholas Winding Refn or other 80s-inspired works will dig this. These worlds encased by neon lights, signs adorned with Japanese characters, towering cityscapes and Retrofuturism have inspired the look and feel of the game's character, their vehicle, and the sprawling parallax landscape in the distance. Representing this style will elevate the game's potential for snagging a user's attention and allowing their creativity and imagination to take hold of the game's mechanics and rhythm,

As I have already discussed, much of my own design methodology relies on understanding and maintaining Flow within a game's narrative. By carefully balancing a user's skill level against their perceived level of challenge, you can incite a state of Flow that fully absorbs them in their activity. This distortion allows the person to alleviate stress and improve their well-being. While this game won't feature difficult challenges, just , achieving this state is entirely dependent on the user's interaction or choice to not interact with the game. By managing your own momentum as you deem it appropriate for the included or personalized music tracks, you define that challenge.


Reflection                                                                                                                                                 
The Enduro Flux concept is directly lifted off of the "Cyberpunk Spinner" thought that I had for Game Lab #2: Game Concepts. As I was thinking of momentum I couldn't help but focus on rhythm games. As I'm mostly familiar with the Guitar Hero franchise of rhythm games, I was always engaged with the mechanic and getting into the groove but always disliked the visuals going on in the background. I was always really bad at even the moderate difficulty modes as well. I had trouble using more than a couple of buttons on the Guitar controller at any given point in time. Enduro Flux remedies this ailment, giving full control over the momentum to the player during play.

After sketching a bit and thinking on the concept, it made sense to utilize it moving forward. The scope is small and it allows me to flex my creative muscles to define a visual gamespace that simply looks cool and pairs well with some of the music I've been listening to lately. The name was formed after looking up a few key terms related to the project, like motorcycle and flow, and pairing up their synonyms until I found something that sounded cool.


Reflection #3: Feedback

Between courses I'm taking or teaching, conversations I've had with guest lecturers and colleagues, or things I've been reading within my network's skype/Discord groups there has been a tremendous amount of focus on the topic of getting feedback. To get it, I've put my work in front of students, prospective students, colleagues, friends and family. I've submitted content, works-in-progress and noted problems to a number of communities and channels. It can be easy finding praise for such things. The best responses, though, are ones that challenge you. Whether someone offers constructive feedback to tweak, modify or change something entirely or attempts to destroy your work with contempt or disapproval your chances of improving as an artist/designers/whatever increase dramatically.

Recently, we've made a #justfeedback channel on the GameDesign@LTU Discord server that has been getting a fair amount of use. Before, I would log in hoping to find engaging discussion and students sharing their projects only to find dozens of messages relating to Nintendo Direct or a comment or two about where a class was being held. Now, we're seeing some strength in student culture as a perpetual machine of growth. It was there, popping up in bursts between classes or during school-related outings, but it wasn't quite in plain sight. Having everyone game-related in this server is allowing the identity of this group's culture to be fostered. Vets and newbies-alike are witnessing viable discussion and their peers reaching out, met with welcome hands and critical feedback.


I've been reflecting on the difficulties of communicating with users, appealing to broader and niche markets, and the result of the sum of our parts being utterly complex and difficult to appeal to in a general way. It is the result of a setback or two involving Axis Descending's dissemination, optimization and interest. We have to remain optimistic about our goals and what we're trying to achieve with our designs, concepts and mechanics. Adversity will lead to growth, but for many that will never be clear until we've already braved the storm.

This has everything to do with designing, implementing and planning. I'll be working on these GameLabs more frequently, building a game separately from Axis in order to take a break, satisfy course requirements and hopefully bring some gems of knowledge back to the project to help it grow and foster. This will be the first project I've undertaken in some time and it scares me a bit, honestly. I've valued my time and task list with that game's development as progress being made toward fulfilling a dream, a promise and a responsibility.

For a time I was keeping content so I could constantly churn it out to my communities and Twitter. I managed to get a steady flow of followers or likes, but nothing that was exponential. I might have been hoping for that kind of growth initially, but as time went on it became apparent that most of that kind of "success" would mostly be out of my hands. Feedback was positive and I feel as if I connected with some very good people and great developers but there is a kind of gravity well with this sort of thing. You get sucked in and feel compelled to get more and more feedback. When we have so many tools available to us and a seemingly infinite amount of opportunities for recognition, acknowledgement, and more importantly: critical feedback, we need to keep track of our priorities.

Game Lab #2: Serious Game Concepts

I'm going to undergo a project that will strive to achieve a more Serious goal within the realm of Game Design and Development. To begin, I've broken this down into numerous elevator pitch concepts in order to iron out what I feel could be the strongest, most feasible and most enjoyable method for delivering the context of this intention.

Often, we run into challenges that impede the progress of our endeavors. While working on tasks we encounter problems that frustrate, complicate and at times render our goals nullified. On a human level we all work towards reaching these objectives and deal with the consequences of scenarios, circumstances and considerations. As we decide to partake in games of intellectual and physical engagement these challenges are either instigated between teams and parties or manifested as computer-controlled agents that stand in the way of our heroic journeys. Through these forms of play, we alleviate some of the stresses related to more concrete real-world problems by overcoming fake-world problems. For in these worlds we can thrive in the bounds of rules, magic circles and the empowerment we are provided.

Topic
Maintaining MOMENTUM to alleviate stress and provide empowerment for players, utilizing formal mechanics in such a way that never impedes, halts or stutters the player's intended path or strategy. In a way, this is seeking to find a balance between the roles of player skill and the challenge put in front of the player (of which there will be little to none) without leaning towards making an experience that becomes boring.

Audience
While these concepts could appeal to a variety of demographics and age levels, since it strives to alleviate stress that all humans share, college and high school students looking for an escape from the challenge of college life, living on their own for the first time and transitioning into the professional realm, will be the target. See also: My students.

Research
Much of my own design methodology relies on the understanding and maintenance of Flow within a game's narrative, both on a contextual scale and a formal one. Flow is a mental state in which a person performing an activity achieves complete immersion and focus with the activity. The term was recently coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, but the idea that one can be completely absorbed by an activity is far from a modern concept. This mental state can be compared to ascending (cool, right?) and being transported to a completely different form of existence, or alternate reality, considering its affects both physically and mentally. It distorts the perception of time, provides a sense of control and importance over the activity and allows it to intrinsically reward the individual. Control, psychologically, provides certainty, understanding, consistency and a capability to predictAbraham Maslow's heirarchy of human needs places emphasis on the importance of Control as a human need.

Balancing the level of challenge placed in front of players based on their relative skill level is fundamental in designing engaging, rewarding and ultimately fun play. Humans perform, behave and simply be better when fun is incorporated into real-world or fake-world tasks. Work becomes fun, problems fade away, and our general well-being improves. Skill development over time directly impacts an individual's ease in entering Flow, which can rely on evaluating, iterating and changing the constraints, goals and tasks to maintain.

Design Constraints/Commandments
- No mechanic should ever reset or stop the MOMENTUM
- Must be small in scope
- Must be short and completeable within 10-15 minutes
- Must feature simple mechanics
- Allow for Mastery and achieving Flow

My Conceptualization Process
As with any concept, I always begin with a series of sketches based on some of the first things that come to mind. To brainstorm I began by thinking about activities that propel us, like driving, bicycling, flying or running. I considered things like physics and the natural fun of jumping, moving and flinging things at high speeds in order to round out a general purpose or task related to these ideas. For me to be fully enthralled and locked in with the concept of making it a reality I always have to have a key look and character nailed down. If I'm in love I can make it happen.

Concepts
1. Push + Pull: Travel as far and fast as you can by pulling objects towards you and using their momentum to launch yourself through the air.
2. From Here to Eternity: Take the role of an intergalactic pilot flying at lightspeed through space, managing resources like power and shields.
3. Office Space: Type, sign and file your way through three tasks at the speed of sound at the click of a button.
4. Relentless Runner: Infiltrate an enemy castle full of unaware enemies as an impervious warrior by running, jumping and striking at lightning-fast speeds
5. Cyberpunk Spinner: Maintain rhythm as you pedal faster and faster on your journey through 80s-inspired cities lit by neon lights.
6. Progress Bar: Take control of a loading screen bar in its many iterations and load, load and load it up to 100% with input commands.
7. Crash Null: Assume the role of a crash test dummy in an invincible car during a crash test dummy uprising, driving through test walls and breaking them instead of you.
8. Cloudwalker: Ascend to the heavens by leaping from cloud to cloud, obtaining special abilities and power-ups along the way that increase your speed, jumping distance and more.
9. Infini-slide: Take a quick slip down a water slide and propel yourself even further with speed and flight power-ups and abilities.
10. Guardian: Assume the role of an impenetrable and powerful warrior monk, protecting a sacred tree from evil through flashy martial arts moves that knock enemies away

Concept 1: Relentless Runner



Once my mind started going with this one I couldn't stop. The concept isn't far from a typical Runner game, in which players run automatically, jump and roll their way from start to finish on a series of lanes. The core mechanic would be obtaining points by landing the most strikes on enemies and finding the right lane to be in to maximize your potential amount of attacks. Obstacles are overcome by timing your jumps and rolls and changing lanes, but with this concept, nothing will break your stride. Each game session will never stop and will run its full course to the end, no enemies can hurt you or slow you down, and you will never stop moving (even when striking enemies). Each run would take place from the outside of a city into the heart of its centralized castle fortress. There, your assassination target rests, and has no chance of escaping your justified wrath.

This concept builds up MOMENTUM over time. This escalates the challenge of being in the right place at the right time without making the player feel powerless or controlled.

Concept 2: Cloudwalker


Inspired by the strength of the legendary Chinese myth, the Monkey King, Cloudwalker expands upon traditional Jumper games by introducing pole vaulting physics to ascend higher and faster while also providing temporary or passive power-ups that empower players during each play through. If you try to land a jump on a higher platform, the lowest cloud will simply catch you, playing on the Monkey King's control over cloud-walking boots and keeping up the perceived momentum of the game's progress. Other objects, like the pole the character uses or the apples that can be used as a currency or source of power draw inspiration directly from the folklore and mythology.

This concept builds up MOMENTUM in short bursts, but rewards players each and every time they perform the most basic of commands in the game.

Ouroboros Emphasized



Many of the concepts I create emphasize the relationship between the mechanics and the narrative. While this ties in many of the components of the Ouroboros that breaks down the Player Experience and its Outcome, Formal Constraints by far outweigh the others. The most important thing creating a sense of momentum and power is within the rules, capabilities and the feel, response and consequences of player control. If you're jumping or running in either of the chosen concepts, being stopped in your tracks removes the sense of freedom of movement and renders the player incapable of achieving Flow.





Reflection #2: Context

"To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether." - Jim Preston, Senior Designer at Electronic Arts (previously editor for PC Gamer)

My students enter a year-long Thesis sequence in their Senior year. Their courses, emphasizing critical analysis of their studies, their industry and their chosen focus, are taken alongside both Graphic Design and Interaction Design majors. I have learned a considerable amount from co-teaching with the Faculty from those fields. Despite my background in game-specific development, being in such close proximity to someone dual-wielding studio practice and a tenure-track academic career has helped me see how truly interdisciplinary so many fields of design are. While one may have only recently emerged, they all share similar plights. Any creative endeavor can be shaken at its core by having its purpose challenged. Simultaneously, any creative endeavor can be reinforced, strengthened, and immortalized by having its purpose realized and related with. So, creatives study to figure out how to do the latter and know what went wrong if the former instance occurs.

So many things I've been exposed to that are framed or presented in a way that attempts to elevate its meaning mean nothing to me. I simply don't get it.

Art, in the sense that something is perceived as meaningful, avant garde or worthy of transcendence, only exists within an individual's context. We strive to help our users, viewers and audience to connect the dots on their own. We go to design schools, art academies, study online and out of books to do what we can to represent ideas in some creative form.We iterate on our ideas and mechanics and procedures to ensure this matrix is constructed to communicate our goals as effectively as possible. We study precedents, focus groups, and research case studies that these endeavors could most effectively sync with in order to express, educate, entertain, or communicate  recreate this context. We eventually learn as design students, all humans in general, that this battle is not one we can just win. We can get close, contribute to each individual's construction of the context, and carry on from there, but we cannot just force any particular context on someone. As we are all the sum of our experiences, these moments that define us are the cosmic material that provides each matrix's structure.

I can't just make anyone see that a mechanic in my game represents the role of my wife in my personal, professional and creative life. I can write about it but can that manifest the context? I can vocalize it, will that work? I can reinforce it in my game and make players repeat tasks and be given numerous indications that there is some Serious meaning behind a seemingly ambiguous and 'normal' process in a game, but will that work every time? I can try to show, not tell, is that best? As the primary provider for all of your upgrades and new abilities, you must rely on this female character and visit her regularly. Without her, you cannot grow. Over time, you'll discover that you have changed, but fundamentally you are still the same as before. Perceiving this message in fragments is one thing, but to truly understand it and reach that penultimate context of its whole relies on the sum of your existence and that perfect moment of clarity to connect the dots.

We are all conditioned. Being challenged by these moments of inspiration and musings is something that everyone should strive to seek. Hunt these moments down. Never stop being a student.

Game Lab #1: Serious Adaptation

What if hacking challenges in games weren't just mini-games involving linking tubes, bringing electrical currents together, timing your input, or arranging puzzle pieces? What if we utilize this opportunity to task players with exercising a skill that may improve productivity, time management and focus? What if this skill could boost the literacy skills of children throughout the world and potentially aid in a global literacy crisis?

This adaptation seeks to do just that.

After reading Katie Salen's "Toward an Ecology of Gaming" piece in The Ecology of Games and the discussion of youth as a focal point for defining how to approach games as a serious experience and serious learning tool, I recalled a few comments that have been made recently about my "hunt and peck" typing style. Admittedly, it isn't my strongest skill upon first glance. While speed and accuracy are never an issue for me when I get some practice in, I find myself fumbling through search commands when looking up content for my courses or in-class discussions. After typing for a regular period of time I lose emphasis of my pointer fingers and begin to make more precise and varied keystrokes with my so-called auxiliary fingers. After a brief conversation with my wife about whether or not I even had a computer class I was left feeling a little without. Am I unfortunate? Am I a fool? Did I miss an opportunity to apply myself and remedy a problem that would follow me to adulthood?

The earlier you squash this "hunt and peck" behavior the better, they say. Coupled with an evening of perusing familiar Gamasutra articles related to educational games and typing it became evident that this was the clear direction to head in for this task. How do I take a Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) game or games with broad appeal and introduce the goal of solving the world's literacy crisis? By extension, how could this influence or set a precedent for technologies more accessible throughout developing countries?


Hacking time with my hunt-and-peck skills, obviously.

I always thought Typing of the Dead was a cool idea. Initially, when I saw it showcased in one of the gaming magazines that circulated during my adolescence, I thought it didn't make any sense. How could a game like that even get made? Who would play that? I can just type on my keyboard, I thought, but then the glory of it all dawned on my tiny teenager brain in one intense moment. It gamified the whole process! It took a skill we have to exercise, tailor and implant into our muscle memory and uses intrinsic motivators like mastery and efficiency to incentivize learning through play. I realized that games didn't have to just focus on entertainment, escapism and fantasy.

Hacking in games has always been a strange grab bag of match games, visual logic puzzles and lots of pipe games. Connect the dots, let it flow, and plug that electricity in so we can open a door, shut off an alarm, access a computer with vital information and more. Initially, this adaptation concept was primarily for the game Bioshock, which is all about those pipe games, but the design can be applied to these forms of content gates universally.



By hacking cameras in Bioshock you can turn them into allies, notifying you of nearby enemies and providing you with security machines that attack enemies. In essence, the time you spend taking a break from the run-and-gun gameplay to solve some visual puzzles gives you reduced difficulty in a number of ways. Solving these puzzles involves arranging the pipe pieces of the hacking "grid" to create a chain and effectively "rewire" the machine.

Instead, my adaptation would replace this form of game with a simple typing test. A great example of how this could be implemented would be similar to the browser-based game Typing Karaoke (pictured below-left), in which players are tasked with (attempting to) typing lyrics to popular songs. Prompts appear tasking you with replicating various verses during the song. A bar at the bottom of the screen trickles down, providing tension and urging you to use what limited time you have most effectively. Mistakes will not be forgiven, even, and a single incorrect key press will severely stunt your potential score. The game itself is fun to watch even as a spectator, given the catchy music and range of difficulty.


The Serious Game goals after the implementation of this adaptation are as follows:
- Improve literacy through touch typing exercises, which are known to enhance time management, productivity, clarity of communication and more
- Replace arbitrary visual challenges with exercises that engage on a Serious Games level
- Provide real-world applicable skills or skill development through Mastery of said typing exercise

The environmental constraints of the adaptation:
- Players could be denied access to this challenge if too much time is being spent on it, preventing players from taking control of a hack-able camera, computer or appropriate game agent
- Some players may skip this content entirely, which may be intended, but could be reinforced through more beneficial rewards or level design that directs/requires players to it
- Players could access various game agents that could provide rewards through this challenge, like aforementioned cameras and computers, but is not limited to purely technology-oriented narratives as magic could be used to control such objects as well

The formal constraints are as follows:
- Players must replicate the highlighted text via typing on the keyboard to create
- If too much time passes, players will be locked out of the challenge and its rewards
- Skilled players will type faster, which awards more Progress Points, completing the challenge faster and rewarding that Mastery with time
- Non-skilled players will be given more opportunities to exercise the skill, considering the process will take longer to complete the necessary amount of Progress Points, providing intrinsic motivation for players to achieve Mastery

More specifically, my own adaptation would tie directly into Bioshock's aesthetic. After a menu appears explaining the rules and process for completing the challenge, players would find themselves looking at a screen filled with misplaced characters and jumbled type (similar to Fallout's hacking interface, pictured above-right). The player's goal would be to identify various words related to the game world that they have been exposed to. Key names, locations, technologies or any kind of content provided through exposition could be further reinforced here. As these terms are highlighted players would have to type those terms as fast as possible, earning a certain amount of "Progress Points". After a certain amount of this progress the attempt is considered successful. This encourages mastery and rewards player skill while also benefiting non-skilled players with more of the exercises, strengthening those touch typing skills. These simple "perceive and replicate" typing tests could be given any form of visual context, like a computer screen or magical glyph, to suit the games I've mentioned/provided links to.

As an experiment, I took part in two typing tests: one before I began writing this assignment and one after I finished it and completed a few rounds of Typing Karaoke. My words per minute went from 61.6 to 69.2 and my accuracy was boosted slightly from 97.5% to 97.8%.
The concept might not have improved the world's capability to read, write, focus, manage time, and so on but it bumped my own WPM up a fair amount in a small amount of time. The best part was that I had fun doing it. I call that a good sign.

Reflection #1: Serious Mechanics

When one starts to describe how a game experience seemingly breaks the norm, transcends the expected, and leaves the user with a discovery on a human level we're reaching a pretty serious notion. As a kid growing up with technology advancing at an alarming rate I found solace in understanding the intricacies of games as more than an entertainment medium and championing an awareness of "what it is really like". I was surrounded by family that were too old or too young to really get it like I did, I thought. If you visited my family during the holidays you'd find me in my room engaging in the latest game title, but far from distracted or secluded from the social engagement. I yearned for people to see it like I did. "Watch me.", I'd say, pulling at their wrists or glaring from the other end of the hallway. Sit, relax, lets hang out and just talk about what I do. So often I was experiencing these things alone, sitting on my room's carpeted floor, collapsing from laughter, frustration or bliss.

Other people just didn't seem to get it. Of course, I was wrong. My disillusioned teenage self that was convinced girl gamers didn't exist was a downright fool. He believed that he was special in some way to be able to see these details and embrace these high level concepts. Metaphors, it seemed, were in the Mechanics. The positive energy and outright blissful nature of the Magic Circle, achieving maximum Flow in a game, were tools that only I could command. As I grow older I was exposed to more than just the culture, vocabulary, concepts and idea generation of the games I grew up with. I became exposed to the personal experiences of others. I didn't mourn about the death of the idea that I was special in some way. In fact, I reveled in it, embracing the notion that games can change a person on a fundamental level through a moment of play, a splash of narrative, or even a shared experience that had once been so solitary.

Games just seemed so much more necessary after that epiphany.

The Serious Games movement speaks to this notion as well, I think, but on a level that serves a greater good. Games about real-world events, situations and circumstances leave players educated in a traditional way. Beyond the typical level design ephemera of discovery, learning and application, we find ourselves reflecting on things through these Serious experiences and shed our current form. Yet, and I think this may come up later on, I would argue that the strength of what Serious Games are about doesn't rest in entire game systems, but individual mechanics, moments or details that can manifest in a number of ways. Through visuals, auditory stimulus or experiential design we can throw players for a loop as designers and call into question their very intent to play.

If I incorporate something within a game, like my Metroidvania, that seeks to break the norms of gender bias and call the player's expectations into question (not the player character but the actual user) is that not sharing the same goals as a Serious Game? Through some of my graduate studies I questioned how to provide nomenclature for the vast, ambiguous nature of so many things game design-related. I believe this is another opportunity to explore that topic as it applies to a designer's intent and a goal intended to transcend the realm of play.

Behind the Release of Axis Descending: The Dad Zone

Axis Descending is a game I'm not being paid to develop. My family is supported through my Professor role at Lawrence Tech, my wife's income, Summer Camps and Courses, Consultation, Commissions, and Freelance work I obtain. As opportunities arise, as events are planned, as family holds priority, as my sanity requires a break now and again, the tasks and progress of the game slip away. Notes pile up. Sketches lay dormant, unable to become manifested in-game. Unable to fulfill their destinies.

These moments fend off another form of development hell for me: where I outright hate the project, so I can be thankful for that.

Recently, the game's development has stalled almost completely as I play catch up after a family vacation to northern Michigan. Submissions to exhibitions, work emails, feedback for students, planning events, scheduling meetings, all taking place throughout my son's 1-2 hour nap time. As I write I sit next to him, quietly sleeping on the living room couch, awaiting his return to consciousness. His awakening will halt this post immediately, initiating snack time and propelling us outside where he can dig for treasure in his sandbox, scoop water out of his water table, and chase after our two Corgis through the yard I desperately need to water.

My live-in cousin is heading for work, accidentally making a loud noise. He stirs as I try to figure out where this is going. The mail man can be heard dropping mail into our mailbox. My oldest Corgi barks, causing him to stir again. My cousin leaves, opening and closing the door to exit as quiet as possible. His head rises, looks to the door, and falls.

His snoring is adorable.

Last Summer when he was but a bean development was just beginning. The second Beta had been public for a couples weeks and the goals I've been working out throughout Fall/Spring were just being formed. Only then did I begin to entertain the idea of developing the project as often as possible. During those seasons my role as a Father is supported by my cousin, my in-laws, daycare and my wife. Pockets of time between morning and evening classes became my window into development, providing most of the larger steps forward. An Illinois trip here, a Jersey trip there. Sitting in airports with my laptop out huddled next to a wall plug trying to make sense of bugs and glitches allowed me to overcome some of the biggest hurdles I've seen so far. All at the expense of others investing their time into handling some of my responsibilities, or the costs of paying someone to do so.

Summer becomes the Dead Zone of development, it seems. The Dad Zone. A small and empty pocket of a realm. Beside it, however, rests a place filled with the joys of Fatherhood. Every so often I can walk between these planes, but both are calling my name at all times.

Last night we watched The Fundamentals of Caring where the character portrayed by Paul Rudd is suffering from the death of his child. It resulted in the decay of his marriage, career, and personal identity. Last night I laid awake pondering awful circumstances. Unwillingly entering my mind, I tried to shoo them away with thoughts of Axis' world. I sought bright colors, lively characters and tasks to tackle before the weekend. As unbearable thoughts creeped in, the project became my stalwart defense, distracting me from the emotionally compelling cinematic experience and forcing me into a productive, positive mindset. I drifted between these two worlds before finding myself quickly rising out of bed, prompted by the whining of a 17 week old puppy.

We all have responsibilities impeding certain tasks. Finding the time will happen. When you don't have anyone but yourself placing limitations and schedules in front of you, it can be easy to dismiss milestones and deadlines. All you can do is simple: believe it will be done and make it happen.

Tonight I'll be finishing the second level of the Beta. After some bug fixing, level tweaks and adjusting crafting/item lists, Beta 3 will be released.

10 minutes during a break in last week's Summer Camp = dynamic grass.

Hip "Phoenix Pinion" hairstyle. Another quick addition during a brief break.

Custom bow Charge Attacks based on your Bow Skin.

Initial "Paladin" Aegis Armor. In addition to this Brightspark spell, you will be able to lay down a field of light on the ground that heals you and damages enemies.

Behind the Release of Axis Descending: Mechanic-Shifting & World-Building


I'm teaching a Summer course related to Worldbuilding techniques as they apply to any collective creative works in the fields of Game Development, Graphic Design, Media Communications and more. In Character and World Design, we are exploring the categories related to defining entire fantasy worlds, doing case studies of popular examples throughout our culture, and creating one of our own in the process. Students are able to focus on their individual interests, regardless of the medium, in an effort to visually portray components of the created world and practice communication skills in addition to developing applicable technical skills.

Nice way to occupy yourself over the Summer break.

The four major categories related to the development and creation of a fantasy world are its Physics, Geography, Cosmology and Culture. These establish the ground rules of the universe, or universes, you are creating and how things simply work within them. By examining these you are defining what is possible on all levels, be it magic, science and technological advancements, and the the capabilities and ways of life related to the characters and races living there. Some of the fantasy worlds I'm noting within my Lectures: Tolkien's LegendariumDuneStar WarsDungeons and DragonsSword of Truth

Each of these worlds offer a variety of 'takes' on these four categories. The relationship between spacefaring societies and the mythical Jedi order, the detailed languages of Middle Earth, the much-sought-after spice only found on Arakkis. Each world offers unique traits and characters that are the sum of the world's parts. Han Solo is who he is because of the history of his world, the people there who have influenced him, and the major events that have occurred have forced his hand.

I want to discuss each category and the world of Axis Descending, called Ajata, in a way that may provide clarity for what the game world is all about.

Geography & Cosmology

Geography is easily the most straightforward category of the bunch. The world. The Earth, a variant of it, something inspired by it, or the notion that one planet is but one of many within the grand scheme of the world. Cosmology is all about the creation myth(s) of the world and the state of the planet in relationship to anything beyond it, like other planets, systems, and entities.

Due to the complex nature of the world of Ajata's makeup and celestial order of things, it is important to understand the Geography of the world and its relation to the other categories. At some point in the world's history, the global planet was shattered into pieces. Instead of being destroyed, the planet's core holds the world together by a new form of energy. The surface of the planet transformed from a solid sphere of land and water into a series of ever-changing shifting floating continents and a giant expanse of sky, called the Baham Skysea.

The term Ajata is derived from Kujata. The term Baham is derived from Bahamut. I've noted the relevancy to this in previous entries, but the Arabian mythology aligned to each of these creatures is an important part of Ajata's ethos. Within the core is the Nexus, or Undum, the equivelant of the Ruby that Kujata holds aloft on its head. This Nexus is a source of energy, which it gains from its connection to the entity that holds our plane of existence together: the Meridian.

Physics & Culture

Magic. Science. The absence of one, the blending of the two. Physics defines that science behind the world and how things work. Interstellar space travel thanks to new forms of energy or advancements in technology. Magic gifted to mankind from celestial beings, or simply a form of evolution brought upon by the arrival of an ancient alien. Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Krogan, Xenomorphs and the Balrog. Defining races and their physical and intellectual capabilities.

In Axis Descending, Magic exists and is defined by being intrinsic, extrinsic, and its elemental type. Some are given the gift of Magic innately from birth. These beings are able to conjure and use it without a conduit or external source, merely creating Fire, Water, or Earth. If a being was not born with Magic innately, but is still gifted with Magic, they can manipulate their element around them. Few beings are able to do either, though innate Magic users are few and far between. The world treats them as heroes and idols, able to create, construct, and destroy, and become the basis for civilizations and cultures.

Technology has enabled the use of Airships, large and small, to traverse the worldscape. Magnetism is at the center of this form of transportation, as wings and vernier systems hold these crafts aloft.

Ajata is home to a number of races. While some of the larger races are traditionally more physically strong, those born with Magic are traditionally superhuman, and can come from any race other than the Tihema. While these races are not bound by these archetypes, as any realistic group wouldn't be, the races are:
  • Hune, human-like with varying shades of skin and hair ranging from brown to blue
  • Oketo, large and Hune-like, resembling Dwarves from traditional fantasy worlds
  • Noema, identical to Hune but with darker skin and hair, are dark-versions of Hune and Oketo, but are not inherently evil by any means
  • Aku, the Frog-like race that is close to extinction, typically Warriors, and only one has ever been Magically instrinsic and is treated as their maternal god
  • Tihema, Goat-like and unable to use Magic, often Archivists and Scholars who keep to themselves in secluded areas, help all who seek knowledge
  • Hurae, small and Rodent-like, with a dark tone and serious nature

All of the races have varying interpretations of the world's creation and purpose. Some religions relate to the relationship between the Nexus Undum, the Skysea, individual masses of Ajata, or the event that turned the world into what it is today.

Hune, Oketo, Tihema and Hurae generally follow similar belief systems. One such god-like spirit is known as Avarine, the Seeker, who some portray as the saint of the skies or a good luck charm for those that fly. Another example is the Sera Din, a shepherd for the dead, that bring the living to the afterlife, and is represented as a dragon serpent.

The Aku that remain identify with one core belief. Before the world shattered an Aku was born with the ability to create Water, which allowed the Aku to thrive and prosper until the cataclysm. The death of that individual created a tremendous amount of in-fighting after societies recovered from the event. They sought guidance from other entities, shunned any form of worship, and drove themselves apart from one another. Today, few Aku remain from these trials and civil wars.

Noema who follow traditional ways of life live alongside of nature, often defining societies based on animal forms and characteristics. They wear masks and mark their bodies with tattoos related to them. Their way of life is closely related to the relationship between life and death. Most Noema embrace the concept of death with open arms.

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The Wizard Coat's mechanic, providing the player with new and spam-able magic spells.

One way I hope to provide players with this kind of exposition is through various quests. You can find characters in the world that need your help, you can discover items guarded in flying fortresses, you can uncover hidden treasures from ancient facilities. Many of the powerful items feature a few story-related notes, scenes, or symbols that let you know a little bit more about the world you're running and flipping around in.

One of the major features of Axis Descending is the ability to equip Armor Sets. These introduce interesting twists on the core mechanics or abilities of the game and are typically themed after class or profession archetypes in RPGs. Often, these sets and the other weapons in the game are derived from the cultures and cosmology I've noted. A weapon once used by the Water-gifted Aku, found in the remnants of their lost capital city. A set of equipment once worn by a legendary Noema warrior. Enchanted armor from the Meridian itself. All of these items are full of backstory that is exposed through their method of acquisition and a small story snippet in the player's Codex, a collective annotated list of enemies, people, places, and things you've seen and discovered.

One Armor Set is the Relic Armor, providing magic regeneration and other bonuses while health is low.

After upgrading your character with each piece of the basic set (boots, belt, chest piece, gauntlet) you unlock the ability to earn other sets that inherit the basic set's abilities, but modify or add mechanics to your arsenal of abilities. The basic set, Kiana's Gear, enables double jumping, the use of the gauntlet's punch attack, the second level of lightning magic, and allows you to utilize magical counterattacks in addition to physical ones. The Wizard Set mixes up the way you earn magic points and cast spells, however. Instead of holding and release the magic key to cast different levels of spells, you can hold the key to gain magic and tap it to spam a lightning bolt attack.

It becomes a special tool for puzzles in the game that require magic to solve. Considering you cannot normally acquire magic without an object to hit, it provides you with a new skill to utilize. It is then up to me to define puzzles and challenges that incorporate that new ability. Otherwise, what is the point of that change? I have to ask myself this when I design and incorporate every ability. For it to remain fun and meaningful, that new tool needs to be exercised regularly somehow. If not, it becomes pointless to include. The player will use it and forget about it because they never need it again. This I want to avoid at all costs.

Magic Vessels like this one can provide MP, or contain it, unlocking doors and pathways.

Behind the Release of Axis Descending: Challenge


Ahh, beautiful. The calm before the storm of soul-crushing difficulty.
I purchased Chrono Trigger and Spelunky from Boss Fight Books recently and had them read by my second day of ownership. While Chrono Trigger was an interesting take on one man's experience and observations with the game, which opened my eyes up to things I never noticed, I found Spelunky to be coincidentally thought-provoking. As I was reading a particular passage on Derek Yu's difficulty and challenge philosophy, I saw a tweet convo between Joakim Sandberg (Iconoclasts and Noitu Love) and Notch (duh)  regarding the same topic that, to me (and I may be reading into this, but play along), contradicted Derek's statements.

"I think that if a dev makes a conscious statement that the games are difficult there shouldn't have to be an argument to put an easy mode in."

When we speak about a challenging game, we are really talking about one of two ends of the spectrum as a consumer of the game's industry. You may be discussing them in a similar fashion. You had been cheated by the game or that something put before you seems utterly impossible. Damn this game, you say, but it isn't always the game, right? You may return to overcome it, or you may not, but in the end you may have been trumped by the design instead of impaired by it. One end is overcoming the challenge because you can, and more often than not, you had not done so because of the factor of player skill (a combo of knowledge and ability to do or perceive). Alternatively, you could not overcome the challenge due to faulty design patterns and practices, placing you in situations that find you suffering from making any progress regardless of your skill level.

When we speak about games and challenge, we often draw upon the era of the Arcade, or one of a select number of high risk/reward games. Dark Souls or Rogue-likes, usually, that stick to implicit narratives, leaving players to discover their own way, and experience moments where things were so tough and high-tension that merely landing a "final hit" became a memorable time-slowing moment worthy of a Let's Play. Games were built to be difficult to feed the machine more quarters in the Arcade days. Now, many indie games strive for a fair, but challenging design philosophy. One that gives players simple lessons with simple mechanics and throws their capabilities with those tools into question with various ramped-up scenarios.

Defeat the basic soldier. Then another. Now you have an archer in front of you with slow, direct, but powerful attacks. Now you face a soldier and an archer, so what do you know? The soldier may chase and use a simple attack, but that archer has slow heavy hitting arrows. What does this mean? The strategy inherently is influenced by more than one agent, but because of your previous experience you have knowledge. You are equipped to handle each one individually. Now the question is how you will juggle these two behaviors/agents in order to persevere. Slay the archer from a distance? Focus on the soldier first? Add another agent, or two, or multiply this in any way and you are severely escalating the challenge level of this scenario.

We're talking about two things now. Level Design. Enemy Design. Scenarios put in front of a player's PVE/single-player path that task them with stopping, evaluating, and acting while reacting based on their position in the environment in relation to the position and behavior of the enemy agents. There is a third thing related to challenge, however. Tools at the player's disposal.

Alex Preston of Heart Machine and Hyper Light Drifter was under fire a bit for a few updates made to the game that modified the player's toolset dramatically. Invincibility frames where there were none, less aftercast with melee attacks, and more changes brought a difficult game to a very different realm of difficulty. Since, another update has reversed and modified these changes to find the best of both worlds. Alex spoke of the Level and Enemy Design in the game with Bryant Francis, noting confidence in using the environment to teach players and allow the world to instruct and teach, instead of holding the player's hand with aggressive explicit narration or non-diegetic dialogue.

Andrew Stewart of Triplevision Games recently successfully kickstarted Mable & The Wood. Back in March he was interviewed by Lena LeRay for a Gamasutra article discussing the changes the game went through from Ludum Dare prototype to a full-fledged experience. There, he notes taking the gamespace from a single environment with randomly spawning enemies to a handcrafted and guided user experience with intended challenges and scenarios. Additionally, the largest change from the prototype is the addition of new forms the player can take to get through the game, potentially opening up challenging and optional content based on the mastery of these shapeshifting forms.

In Super Mario Bros., the tools were power-ups, giving you another layer of health or the ability to sneeze fireballs at enemies. Latter iterations of the franchise produces everything from Boots to Suits to variable character-specific abilities or modifications. Many of these are the backbone of Level Design for environments made in Mario Maker, which boasts a large community of level makers. Polygon has a series called Devs Make Mario, where well-known developers make and discuss their design methodologies.

I'm not trying to break down Joakim or Notch or say anyone was wrong. In fact, I'm glad they had this discussion and brought the contradiction to my attention. I was looking to clarify what my own beliefs were. It lead me to take a look at Axis Descending in a new light, especially after colleagues looked at some of the initial scenarios I've implemented and had things to say about the challenges they perceived. Joakim's statement caters to a user base looking for an experience about his game's world and characters. What happens? is the question that group wants to ask and the answer they want to discover. His statement was a design solution to this problem, meeting the needs and expectations of various players in one fell swoop. Maybe, of course, as it needs validation.

Does that not diminish the capabilities of the medium? If we dilute the experiential in order to attain only mere components of what was intended as a whole, is it still the same? Would a Let's Play suffice, or even a quick synopsis read of a wiki page be a satisfying result? I'm making a giant cake for someone to eat with layers of toppings, ingredients and unknown treats. If I remove some of those layers the cake is no longer what it once was. They won't be able to cherish those ingredients or the harmony of the entire concoction.

Of course, it is up to me as the designer and cook to ensure that cake's flavors, layers and content are all appropriate, but I feel as though that is another subject entirely.

Some games are difficult. Some of those difficult games aren't for everyone, regardless of the elements in addition to their challenges. Yet the tension of the moment, the curiosity of the player, and the reward become so much greater. This is a risk we can take as independent game developers, considering the amount of freedom we have afforded to us. It may seem obvious to reach a broader audience, but do you have to? What are you trying to do? What happens if you do or don't?

Derek's comments on challenge in games were grounded in the understanding that, as he puts it, "We can't be free from frustration and also be challenged. We can't go unchallenged and also feel satisfied with our accomplishments. Mystery, surprise, tension, challenge, and a real sense of accomplishment always come at the cost of feeling uncomfortable. Given the opportunity, many of us would rather take the easier road, but that's usually the less rewarding one."