Trevor talking with Indieland about starting an indie studio and making Jungle Rumble.
It snowed this morning. Days are short and dark. The five minute trek from subway to office is a gauntlet of cars splashing through muddy slush. It’s winter in New England. Perfect for long nights basking in the glow of LCD monitors. We have been adding new stuff to Jungle Rumble—puzzles, music, moves. We drink coffee from mugs, write code in C, and draw curves in Illustrator. How do we know our algorithms and bezier splines add up to a work of delight, amusement, and amazement?
We playtest, that’s how. Somebody sits down, pops some cans on, and plays Jungle Rumble. Sometimes we can get rhythm game experts, like the indie behind Crypt of the Necrodancer or a designer at you-know-what developer Harmonix. But best is when we get somebody random. Somebody who hasn’t heard of us. Somebody who feels as comfortable giving their real thoughts as you would feel at an ice cream store saying the free sample of rum-raisin-rutabaga wasn’t your thing. So what do we learn? Here are some things.
When you like Jungle Rumble, you trance out to playing it. Hitting bon-bong-bon-bong to the beat keeps you in the moment, but the invading monkeys keep your higher order thinking engaged. It is similar to jamming in a band. Your moment-to-moment mind keeps your fingers hitting the keys while your deep-thought mind ponders how to fit into the larger composition.
This trance thing was not obvious to us, who just see the code and the curves. We noticed that when somebody gets hooked on Jungle Rumble, they play for a long time. At loud, blinky PAX, surrounded by jillions of games, people have kept the cans on until their friends pull them away. Watching people bob their head and move Mofongo Tribe while their friends’ exasperated gestures got ignored told us something.
Drumming on things to control them is a radical take on a rhythm game. This isn’t something that’s a familiar mechanic. That’s why the first level explains how to play. This first level has seen 1,000 changes, but every time a new player goes through there are still things that can be simplified.
A “traditional” rhythm game has the designer creating some sort of input pattern and the player gets graded on how exactly the pattern is reproduced. This is the basis for plastic-instrument games like Guitar Hero. (As well as the awesome Daigassou! Band Brothers!) This is what happens in crazy stuff like Elite Beat Agents and Rhythm Heaven and even Parappa. But there is no interacting with a dynamic system. The pattern is predetermined and a robot could play better than any human.
The closest to Jungle Rumble is Patapon. Patapon was awesome and gorgeous. You had a few rhythm commands to guide your army against the Zigoton empire. It is an inspiration.
There was also Donkey Konga Jungle Beat. You fapped on bongo drums to swing from trees and collect bananas. Sound familiar? In Jungle Beat you flailed away, so it wasn’t really organized and rhythmic.
PS4! Xbox One! OMG!
Notes of a Nerdy Old Man
You have probably noticed: the next gen is upon us. The Playstation FOUR! The Xbox, uh, ONE! OMG! Amaze!
First things first. I am about as excited for these as as I am for Frasier reruns. I know somebody here tracked their preordered package from Amazon. Maybe somebody here actually cares about marginally improved graphics or live sports on their console or voice commands. But this is not my first rodeo.
For a bit of perspective, the first game I ever made was a Dreamcast launch title. That dates me. We were just a few years past the age of the 2D sprite. Models of angular people twitching at 10 frames per second still had that new car smell. Tekken on the Playstation was a jerky fest of stray pixels, but it was awesome. Panzer Dragoon on the Saturn had long vistas of jagged water texture, but it was gorgeous. So when screenshots came out of billowy robes and curvey armor in SoulCalibur, minds were blown. It felt so new and so radical and so revolutionary. My mom can’t tell an RTS from an FPS. She has never heard the term “polygon” used outside of a geometry textbook. But she could instantly tell a Saturn game from an Xbox game—even if she just saw them out of the corner of her eye.
Technology only gets better. While Siegfried was fighting Cervantes, the console makers of the world were busy working on shader pipelines, multi core CPUs, and motion control. On the XBox, Panzer Dragoon Orta had no more pixelated water. Instead lush greenery cascaded down a canyon, and actually reflected in the rippling (rippling!) water below. Then the PS3 and XBox 360 came out with more shaders and more memory and more cores. Now we have the PS4 and the Xbox, um, One with more memory and bigger frame buffers and arguments about which massive franchise “only” runs at 720p resolution.
It looked great in screenshots. Hey, it looked great in game. But were the games “better”? Were the games more engaging? Did the games get you thinking any more?
Big console games now look a lot like big console games ten years ago. Sure, we have sparkly shaders and deferred rendering and reliable networking. We also still have RPGs and racing games and FPSes. People love slaying dragons, driving fast, and shooting each other, so they sell tons. But when games look roughly the same a decade on, that’s stagnation. For a creative medium, stagnation means death.
The thing is, the game biz has been anything but stagnant over the past few years. While the Activisions and EAs of the world have ground out more FPSes and football games, crazy stuff has been brewing. The big consoles stopped being walled gardens where big budget games frolic with other big budget games. A tiny indie flower grew. (Ha! Totally obvious metaphor alert!) More importantly, people liked it. People liked things that weren’t FPSes with reflection mapped bullets. Nintendo kept the Wii’s walls as high as possible, but Wii players really loved World of Goo. Minecraft has graphics that are the butt of jokes, but it has resonated with a huge audience.
This is hardly a new thing. The last console generation saw me sitting in an office full of PS3 and Xbox 360 beta dev kits discussing how Mr. Fantastic could stretch if Fantastic 4 was brought to the then-next-gen. A massive franchise meets a truckload of expensive proprietary hardware—you can’t get less indie than that. Splayed out over a 360 dev kit was a copy of Edge magazine, open to an article about Introversion’s upcoming Darwinia. We had NDAs and genre conventions and approvals for every decision. The Introversion guys seemed like video game cowboys riding unicorns. And this was 2005—well before downloadable anything on a console.
What’s changed? The mindset of gamers. Indie is now a thing. What really sold this to me was the Indie MEGABOOTH at PAX. PAX is a massive show, and the MEGABOOTH is the biggest thing there. Despite being vast, it is packed the whole time. It is full of gamers who paid money to be there and are spending their PAX time on Monster Loves You instead of Assassin’s Creed.
For a long time in the 2000s, it looked like the whole game biz would just become some teensie software vertical cranking out slightly tweaked versions of FPSes each year. Indies are the fresh air invigorating the world of games. We are pretty excited to see where it leads.
Disco Pixel's Trevor Stricker: 'What it takes to be long-term successful in games is the same as it ever was.' - Indie MEGABOOTH
Talking with the Indie MEGABOOTH about being a cranky old man. Also, a long term perspective on why some games make it.
Jungle Rumble trailer. Mofongo Tribe kicking butt… in HD!
Trevor’s giving a talk at Southern New Hampshire University today. It’s called “Guts of Game Design” and is an overview of some formal game design theories. Here are links to more information.
Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics
Player Experience of Need Satisfaction
8 Types of Online Players
http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm (old school web page!)
Trevor spoke with the Pocketoid guys about Jungle Rumble, making games in Japan, and being indie.