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.

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.


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

Classroom/Game Studio Setting
Small Groups with Facilitator 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.

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

15 Students
Half Female, Half Male
Ages 18-22

- 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.