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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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.

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!