Blog of Scott Brodie

4.01.2015

Making Indie Games From a McDonald's for Fun and Profit

I spent a lot of time working out of McDonald's during the development of Hero Generations, and I think you should too! The golden arches offer high-quality game development amenities: free Wi-Fi, comfortable work space, tasty subsidized food, beverages on tap, and sanitary lavatories. Here are 10 simple rules to live by for effectively running an indie game studio from the inside of a fast food dining establishment.

1. Find a comfortable booth with a power outlet: Before making your first food purchase, do some recon and find a large enough table that is within cord distance to a power outlet. Stake your claim to this prime real estate by leaving your coat, jacket, or hat on the table. Pro tip: be sure to charge your laptop at home, in case a large group of elderly patrons unexpectedly camp your favorite spot -- you can sit elsewhere until they leave an opening to reclaim your rightful place.

2. Meal Planning: It's important to buy something in exchange for your work space. You're a game developer, not a homeless person! The key is to avoid blowing your entire food budget on breakfast. Do you really need that hash brown? Also consider using the same drink cup for all 3 meals.

3. Be aware of the 1-hour Wi-Fi reset: There is nothing worse than missing that Skype message from your concept artist because you forgot to reconnect.

They're lovin' it, and by it I mean making video games in a crowded public fast food restaurant. 


4. Lunch: Stop! Don't get your lunch yet. If there is one lesson you take away from this guide, I hope this is it. Take a break and leave the establishment at midday. Sit in your car and listen to the Idle Thumbs podcast, or maybe go for a walk. Use this time to clear your head, stretch your legs, and trick the afternoon staff into thinking you are a new customer.

5. Don't blow your cover: if you do phone calls, be sure to avoid picking a seat near the Play Place or in-house speakers (McD keeps the smooth jazz playing all day long, commercial free). Tell your contacts that you're "just out at a coffee shop." It will make you seem more sophisticated, show that you are your own boss, and reinforce that you are the decision maker they want to talk to.

6. Don't let them ice you out: it’s a well kept secret that restaurant owners have an air conditioning dial in the kitchen they can turn at will to blast you with cold air. You're not going to be able to focus on your voxel terrain algorithm if you're cold. Scout for ceiling vent locations and come prepared with a hat and jacket. Don't feel ashamed of wearing them indoors because all that matters is how fun your game is when it ships

7. Avoid old people: McDonald's is a nationwide sponsor for elderly gatherings. The elderly are your natural born enemy and will do everything they can to interrupt your workflow. They will scowl at you for stringing your laptop cord anywhere near their path. They like to strike up conversation and tell long stories about their time in the “military”. They like to pretend they know about games and let you know their "daughter owns an iPad." 

The most dangerous patrons are actually those between the ages of 38-50. They haven't gone senile, and if you are near a computer, you immediately become tech support. They'll ask you how to get Wi-Fi on their iPhone, and it will kill your flow. Just remember this handy acronym and you'll be fine: ABWHP (Always Be Wearing Head Phones).

"Are you familiar with that 'Wii' thing?"


8. Mix it up: If there are multiple McDonald's within a few miles, consider traveling to the other location so you don't have to bare the shame of working from the same McCafe for a full 8 hours. Starbucks or Panera Bread are also viable alternatives, but these higher end indulgences will quickly eat into your marketing and audio budgets over time.

9. Invest in tools: get a wireless mouse, a sturdy laptop bag, and cloud storage. Store backup batteries, power cords, and emergency snacks in your glove box.

10: Dessert: Keep supporting your McOverlord with a purchase around 3pm. The cheapest item that seems reasonable to get is 1 chocolate chip cookie (available for $.39 as of this writing in the US). If your game gets featured by PC Gamer or a YouTuber like Northernlion, think about treating yourself to a set of 3 chocolate chip cookies for $1.00, or two delicious apple pies.


And that's about it. There's no magic formula to game development, but if you follow these steps, you'll have a hit game in no time.

[If you made it this far: April Fool's. Kind of.]

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4.02.2014

Towns, Crafting, and Culture in Hero Generations

One of the core conflicts of Hero Generations is the choice between venturing out into the world to achieve personal fame, or working to make the world a better place for your children. I want to describe the game systems that drive that latter half of this choice: town crafting and town culture.
Towns and Buildings
Towns are structures that occupy a single grid space on the map. A town’s primary purpose is to house mates that you can try to woo and have a child with. The 4 adjacent spaces next to a town are always cleared, and are occupied by “build locations.” When your hero walks over one of these special build locations, a menu appears with a bunch of choices for buildings you can add to the world. These buildings cost gold, but they have special behaviors and exist in the world across many generations. Some examples of buildings:
  • Farm: produces 500 gold every 5 years.
  • Barracks: gives your hero +2 strength when visited.
  • Observatory: reveals 4 random unexplored spaces around the world when visited.

Cities have 4 surrounding build locations
Cities have 4 surrounding build locations
Crafting
The buildings around towns are more important than just the individual benefits they provide. The town itself is influenced by all of the buildings that surround it, and the combination of buildings that are adjacent can cause the town to morph into an entirely new structure. Three farms around a town will cause the Town to transform into a “Ranch.” Three Barracks around a town cause it to transform into a Fortress. There are a huge number of combinations of 2-4 buildings around a town that can result in transformations, and a lot of the fun is experimenting and discovering all of the town types that can be crafted.


 Culture
So what is the benefit of transforming a town? A transformation reflects an influence the surrounding buildings have had on the town culture. This culture change results in some big benefits for your hero. For example, when a Barracks is placed next to a town, it causes the mates in the town to take on the Warrior trait (which when passed onto your hero, gives you bonus attack in combat). In addition, towns provide a special “tribute” every 10 years. A tribute is typically an item or bonus your hero can pickup if you return to the town. Depending on town type, that tribute can become a powerful sword, an influx of gold, a raft, or even a map that reveals the location of ancient treasures.
Most importantly, these changes are permanent and last across generations of heroes. A new child born into a town with a strong culture will quickly grow and gain benefits, so that they can achieve greater heights than their parents. 
Challenges
Focusing on only building up towns however would make for a dull game, so there are consequences that are introduced as your towns grow. The mates in your town become more desirable, but their requirements for mating with your hero grow in tandem. The prince of a kingdom will only mate with other wealthy heroes; a warrior mate will desire a hero of great strength. As well, other heroes and monsters will be attracted to prospering towns, requiring you to fend off intruders and protect what you've built.
Summary
By offering these long term benefits from nurturing towns, you will be forced to think carefully about how you spend your time. Just as you can selfishly spend your years building up the fame of your heroes, you can also waste your years staying close to home, only to see other heroes in the world steal your glory, and the monsters grow beyond your capability to keep your family safe. The best players will learn to find a balance between personal achievement and spending time at home.
I hope you found that deep dive into town crafting interesting. My next kickstarter design article will focus on hero traits and the mating game. Be sure to back the project now to help us get the game made!

3.27.2014

Hero Generations Design Philosophy

(I'm pleased to announce I'm reviving my 2011 IndieCade Finalist game Hero Generations via Kickstarter! Link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/786551472/hero-generations I'm so appreciative of the support I've received already. Below is the first of a few in-depth articles I've written to hopefully shed more light on the design of Hero Generations)
When I started designing Hero Generations, my goal was to build a game that, through gameplay, would allow players to feel a complex set of emotions I had experienced myself. The lessons I pulled from that experience felt like universal human truths that others might benefit from experiencing too. During the early design process, I wrote the below summary of how I planned to achieve the aesthetic experience I wanted in the game. I figured I would share it with you now since details on the topic in the Kickstarter description are pretty light.

Hero Generations Design Philosophy

Hero Generations aims to be both a personal expression and experiment in distilling deep strategy gameplay into a shorter form experience. The intent is to build a game system around familiar personal life experiences everyone can relate to, and over time reveal insights about the following core themes:
  • What is worth our limited life time?
  • What do we sacrifice to pursue the things we love?
  • The value of thinking long term vs short term; planning for a better future vs immediate personal achievement.
  • The value of putting down roots vs staying free to explore passions.
  • The impact of nature vs nurture. 
Mechanically, I will reveal these themes via the following systems:
  • A hero with a limited lifespan, and permanent death. Each turn choice should matter because the stakes are high.
  • An expanding, variety of valid goals to pursue (it should be an interesting puzzle for you to chart your life path amid static, dynamic, and hidden objectives).
  • Quick-play sessions leading to rapid generational iteration. I want to expose the long-term effects of player actions as soon as possible, so enabling players to play many generations is key.
  • World permanence and persistence leads to a connection between generations, and allows players to leave a lasting (positive or negative) impact on the game world.
  • Generational variety through mating, to expose different choices with each new child hero. It’s not one story; it’s an exploration of a concept.
Other Goals
  • Making classic strategy game mechanics accessible in quick play sessions. Give people a replayable short form version of 4X Strategy that they can chain into longer epic legacies on their schedule.
  • Keep everything beloved about Rogue-likes, but fix the pain of permadeath by allowing players to continue on as an heir with similar characteristics.
  • Play with procedural generation to make each game varied and personalized.

Influences

The influence list for the game is quite varied. A number of games were useful references for solving hard design problems:
Major 
  • Oasis (single screen exploration structure, elegant, quick-play strategy)
  • Civilization Revolution (4x made casual, on console)
  • Passage (limited lifespan, rapid character growth/aging)
  • The Legend of Zelda (adventure unlocking structure, non-linear exploration, item system)
  • Super Mario World (aesthetic, surprise, “little world”)
  • Spelunky (random generation, accessible rogue-like) 
Minor
  • Risk (combat simplicity, design)
  • Minesweeper (uncertain/dangerous grid-based exploration with “tells”)
  • Super Mario 3 (mini-game integration)
  • Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne (Varied Quests types – victory pts/fame design unify varied goals)
  • LOVE (Procedural generation, graphical evolution)
  • Braid (careful match of visual tone and mechanical communication)
Approaching these non-traditional concepts in a game was challenging at times, but it has resulted in a design that I think has slowly taken the shape I wanted, and will hopefully get closer to the ideal as we work to flesh out the game more.

For more background on my approach to Hero Generations, you can check out this article I wrote long ago on the subject for Gamasutra.com: Truth in Game Design

Thanks for reading,
-Scott

7.01.2013

The Five Basics of Being a Game Design Problem Solver

The most important thing I'm responsible for day-to-day is managing the following perpetual cycle of game design:

1. Listening to feedback from team members and players;
2. Deciding how or how not to integrate that feedback into the game;
3. Then validating those decisions by tracking how changes resonate with players.

By no means have I mastered this cycle. However, especially as the designer on the small team developing Highgrounds, I find that there are a small set of processes I can follow to more efficiently and respectfully work with the team to drive the design of our game forward. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Identify the Problem Before Finding a Solution. A lot of the feedback I encounter comes in the form of raw ideas or inspiration ("There should be a character who blocks lightning bolts!"). This feedback is often useless in actually helping to decide if the idea should make it into the game or not. To make a qualitative assessment, I always need to first understand what problem the design suggestion is trying to solve.

For example, behind the suggestion to allow characters to block lightning bolts may be a feeling that the lightning bolt ability is too powerful, making games against lightning bolt characters noncompetitive, and thus less fun. With the problem understood, it's much easier to evaluate if the solution proposed will help solve that problem or not. If the solution does not help or will causes other problems in the game elsewhere, you now at least have a basis to work from to easily look for alternative solutions that WILL address the issue. I also find it easier to have a dialogue with the person providing feedback as to why I agree or disagree. Now my feedback is directed at a common enemy ("the problem") instead of the merits of a team member's idea or design sensibility.

2. Give Rationale Along With Recommendations. On the flip side, when it's my turn to make design recommendations, I find it's important to explain the problems I see in the game, along with why I believe the suggestion I'm making is the best solution to that problem. I often refer to this part of a design recommendation as the "rationale" for the change.

If I find myself giving feedback without much rationale, it's usually a telling sign that I have not fully thought through the actual issues with the current design, or that I may be suggesting a change that is unnecessary.

3. Keep Design Notes. Once a decision is made on how to proceed with a design change, I always recommend that the change, problem, and rationale be captured for reference later (a simple Google document shared with the whole team is usually enough). Why should you go to all this trouble? Inevitably, a change you make to the game now will reveal or create new problems in the design later. When it comes time to address those problems, it's extremely helpful to remember why the previous changes were made in the first place. Having your previous rationale on hand will help prevent you from making the same mistakes twice, and ensure that new changes will not reintroduce old problems.

4. Use "Listening Aids": I've been fortunate to have a number of great mentors over the course of my short career in games. A common habit between all of my mentors has been to bring a notebook or sketchpad to every meeting they attend. I've found this notepad serves a few important purposes in working through the cycle of design.

1. Most obviously, it allows design notes to be captured amid rapid conversation of problems and solutions.
2. It supports discussion of visual concepts better than the napkins, straws, and salt shakers that are typically available at meeting locations outside of work.
3. It provides important social cues about openness and listening. When you physically take note of what a team member is saying, it demonstrates to the other person that you are hearing and considering their ideas.

The notebook itself is not important, but making a conscious effort to "take note" of other's feedback is. Their perspective may not be relevant now, but extremely useful later. This applies when interacting outside of your immediate team as well. It's worth the effort to reply to your players on the forums, and respond to that misguided Publisher feedback that would be easier to ignore. Without doing the above, you run the risk of appearing unreasonable and longer term you will find yourself with less feedback from your team; feedback that could be critical to the success of your game down the road.

5. Play Your Game, Know Your Game. On small teams, it's typical to take on a lot of responsibility and wear many hats. When you have so much else to do, it gets harder and harder to justify spending time just playing your game. But I find it's critical to know your game well enough to understand how even the smallest changes will affect the high-level design. Even when you know where a problem lies in your game, it's easy to land on flawed rationale because you simply didn't know the full impact your suggested change would have.


In Highgrounds, there are now upwards of 140 characters with 2-4 unique abilities each, and I do my best to make sure I know each and every one of their strengths and weaknesses. The time you spend now playing and studying your game will pay off in the form of fewer new design problems to tackle later in development.

--

There are likely many other things to consider, but keeping these five basic ideas in mind can have a big impact on how often you and your team make the right change to your game.

2.21.2013

Project Horseshoe 2012 Talk: Designing Video Games at the Service of Humankind


I had the distinct honor of presenting to 50 of my game design peers at the Project Horseshoe 2012 conference in Boerne, Texas this past November. Finding a topic worthy of the conference goal, "positively influencing the art, science, and business of game design over the next five years", was no easy task. I ultimately chose to argue for the somewhat impractical approach of designing games based on fundamental human ideals, using the Olympics as a prime example of what can be achieved. I'm happy with how the talk turned out, and learned a lot from the discussion it sparked.

If you'd like to check it out, I've posted my slides (which include notes with more or less exactly what I said) for download here. I've also created a pdf version of the talk, available here.

I'd also recommend checking out the conference reports. A lot of great ideas were explored: http://www.projecthorseshoe.com/reports.htm

12.29.2012

Highgrounds Profile on TheVerge.com


Highgrounds, my latest game co-developed with Spry Fox, was profiled on The Verge today. I had a great time recounting the short history of work that went into designing and developing the game.

Link: http://www.theverge.com/2012/12/28/3809958/highgrounds-how-an-indie-game-designer-crafted-his-first-breakout-hit

If you haven't had a chance to check out Highgrounds, you can find the public beta available now at http://www.highgroundsgame.com. If you have feedback, drop it for us on the game forums: http://spryfox.com/forums/forum/highgrounds/

-Scott

12.16.2012

My Game Prototyping Kit

My wife knows the way to my heart, especially when it comes to birthday gifts. Where the typical husband might end up with an embroidered golf shirt or stockpile of fancy socks, Kate opted to build the ultimate game prototyping kit for me.

A few people have asked how they can make their own. Kate has graciously compiled a list of everything she included in the kit, and I've posted it all for you below:



Case
Supplies for Making Custom Cards and Game Pieces
I watched this video that Scott had told me about a while back that outlines how to make your own cards. I bought the supplies needed for that and a few other things. Here's what I bought:
Pieces and Components
You can find a variety of pieces in lots of different colors/shapes/sizes. Here is what I grabbed:
We had a bunch of other little random game pieces strewn about that I consolidated into the box as well like dominos, playing cards, pickup sticks, and chess and checkers pieces.

3.13.2012

GDC 2012 Microtalk: How Designing For Love Can Change The World

I was honored to give a microtalk as part of the Games For Change session "How Designing For Love Can Change The World" at GDC 2012. My participation was unusual; I could not attend the show due to the expected birth of my first child, but the panel organizers graciously allowed me to participate by submitting my talk as a video. I'm happy they did, as the session and my part of it seems to have gone over really well.

My talk used the family and mating mechanics in Hero Generations as working examples to illustrate how games can offer unique player perspectives, and how those perspectives can influence how players behave outside of the game, for the better. It pulls some concepts from my article on truth in game design, while also providing some new examples of how to implement the concepts in practice. For those interested, I've posted a link to the slides (with script) and video below.

And yes, my handsome son Vaughn was indeed a GDC baby! He's here, healthy, and ready to take on the world.

Slides
GDC 2012 Microtalk - How Designing for Love can Change the World

Video