Talking about Jungle Rumble at PAX East 2014!
BitSummit! GDC! Jungle Rumble!
January and February were heads down on Jungle Rumble. A digital dream of monkeys and palm trees against the bleakness of Boston under snowy winter skies.
March was the opposite. Two conferences: BitSummit in Kyoto and GDC in San Francisco. Total craziness. We posted all about it on Facebook.
April? PAX East! Hot off the press: We’ll be in the Indie MEGABOOTH! Again! I’ll also be speaking on panels on music games, breaking into the industry, and multiplayer.
BitSummit is an indie game conference in Japan. In something counterintuitive enough that it has to be real, the land that gave us Mario and Metal Gear, the country of Nintendo and Sony, has nothing we would consider an indie scene. Dark Souls and Yakuza don’t share space on consoles with Minecraft and Journey. (And definitely not Fez!) Steam is almost unheard of. At GDC, the contrast between the volume of Japanese giving talks on AAA games and the lack of Japanese in the IGF is telling. I’ve always wondered about this.
One relevant bit of personal history is that I spent a few years in Japan at a studio called Smilebit. Smilebit’s games include Jet Set Radio, Panzer Dragoon Orta, and Typing of the Dead. It was a lot of shinchou kaigi (progress meetings), tetsuya (all nighters), and hanami (flower viewing parties). I love Japan. I love Japanese games. I love the Japanese industry.
BitSummit was in the ancient capital, Kyoto. Thousand year old temples and bamboo groves surrounded a festival where Modern Zombie Taxi was playing on the Oculus Rift. It was the ancient and the modern in one neat katamari.
And there I was in Kyoto. Attempting to fix jet lag with hot coffee out of a can. Day drinking with my director from Panzer Dragoon Orta. Sitting on tatami.
BitSummit started for me with one of those moments that reminds you what a small world it is. Right next to us was Kanemura-san, another guy from Smilebit, showing off his mobile game Project Black Pepper. Down the aisle was Tamura-san, who had worked on Panzer, showing his Oculus recreation of an old wooden school. There was Jake Kazdal, of Rez, Space Channel 5 and Galak-Z fame, who was also art director at Disco Pixel way back in 2007. There was Ryan Sumo, who worked on Disco Pixel’s Boomba Pacifico (good luck googling that!) and is now making Party Animals. After 20 hours on a plane, crossing the date line and a language barrier, the world can feel pretty big. However the game biz can be a very small.
While wallowing in the warm bath of nostalgia, I asked about local indie games. I mean, we think of indie games on consoles as a fairly recent XBLA and PSN type of thing. Sony actually launched a consumer dev kit called Net Yaroze about 17 years ago. Game schools have been around for quite a while. There is a long history of doujin games, where often single developers create games for hardcore fans and sell them at massive cons like Comiket.
To my mind it comes down to different feelings connected with creativity and building things. In the west, we romanticize the artist struggling against the world. Jungle Rumble is way too freaky for a big company looking for products that neatly fit into well defined markets. When people hear about the game, they think it’s just too crazy for a big company to handle. In the US, that’s fodder for fist bumps. Is Disco Pixel a tech startup? Am I an artist struggling to share my vision with the world? It doesn’t really matter because everybody loves both Zuckerberg and Warhol. From film to music to comics, we have indie everything. On the other hand, in Japan the validation of a big company is paramount. If this creator is any good, Nintendo would want to work with him. Talk to an indie and it often leads to a downward glance and resigned nod about being thought of as an amateur incapable of getting a real job.
BitSummit was a lot of fun. Now that Jungle Rumble is almost complete, we have a lot of content in the game. A few people sat down in our booth and played for two hours. That’s crazy!
Showing a rhythm game in Japan is totally different than in the US—in the land of Parappa and Space Channel 5 and Rhythm Tengoku, rhythm games are awesome. When showing at PAX, gamers often just aren’t interested in rhythm anything. They will (politely) smile and head next door to play Octodad. Or maybe we’ll have the dutiful friends patiently waiting by somebody deeply entranced with Mofongo tribe. Different strokes for different folks. In Japan? The opposite. The moment “rhythm game” crosses our lips the record scratches and there is interest. We often had every device busy with people waiting. We didn’t have to tell people it was similar to Patapon, they already knew. Game designers who wandered by were full of constructive suggestions.
After the show we had a nijikai, and the nostalgia heated up again. There was Yoshida-san, art director on Panzer. There was Futatsugi-san, the director of the original Panzer Dragoon showing off his new game, Machi Koro. Many little skewers of chicken were eaten. Many beers were emptied. And many opinions of indie games were exchanged. Again, downward glances with resigned nods. But there was hope. There was hope that a few thousand regular gamers showed up in Kyoto to check out indie games. There was hope that the media seemed to think Japanese indie games had enough merit to cover. There was hope that the desire to make indie games seemed burgeoning.
Because the world conspires to deprive me of any chance to sleep, GDC came right after. Oculus/Sony VR headsets, PS4/X-Bone, Unity 5, free beer. You guys have probably already read about it. We showed Jungle Rumble at the Big Indie Pitch. Hundreds of games applied. They seemed to like it! I think.
The world continues to deprive me of sleep. Next up is PAX East.
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!)