Why I Love Making Meaningful Entertainment

September 3, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m currently leading one of USC’s Advanced Games projects, and our goal is to create a game that has value in the real world beyond pure entertainment. I could dedicate dozens of blog posts to why I think meaningful content is essential to ensuring video games’ transition from mindless entertainment to a widely respected form of expression, but today I want to share a few quick thoughts on why the creation of this kind of content is so fulfilling.

When making a game without meaningful content, whether it is a pure mechanics driven game with little story or an “epic” game sewed together by an incoherent story, it is not necessary to utilize much knowledge from the world we live in today. Sure, player behaviors must be studied in playtests to make sure the game’s objectives and systems are properly sign posted, but this limited psychology is just about the extent of using current real world knowledge and experiences to solve game design challenges. Most game designers use other games as their primary research targets, or works in other mediums of the same genre or style.

At J.J. Abrams’ WWDC talk, he told the audience that his dream was to attend USC for film school but his father persuaded him to pursue a liberal arts degree at a smaller institution instead, reasoning that without a well-rounded education J.J. would not have any subjects to make movies about. I wholly agree with this sentiment (although I believe USC offers an excellent well-rounded education) but I believe it works the other way as well. A well-rounded education influences meaningful entertainment, and the pursuit of meaningful entertainment influences a well-rounded education.

My attempts to bring meaningful content to games have made me a more intellectually curious person than ever before. My interest in all of my classes, from science to literature, has been dramatically heightened because I always discover a piece I can bring back into my current project. I read more, I inquire about subjects I traditionally had less of an interest in, and I am more engaged in my school work due its newfound relevance. Back in high school I saw little value in subjects outside my area of interest. Today I see value in all subjects, for I now know that one way or another they all fall within my area of interest.

College in the iPad Age

August 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today is my first day of my senior year at USC and I can hardly believe it!

Today is also the second time I have started a school year without paper textbooks.  Instead of a stuffed backpack I solely bring my iPad to class, loaded with all of my notes, textbooks, class schedules, and so on so forth.  I entered college with a stuffed backpack and I am leaving with a tiny tablet as my primary tool for education.  What a remarkable world we live in.

While it is refreshing that most textbooks and course readings are available digitally, I do wish the digital distribution of these books was a little more elegant.  Most are priced similarly to their physical counterparts (something Apple is hoping to solve) and are still a pain to locate.  While we no longer have to aimlessly wander the halls of our school bookstore, we still have to find each book individually and ensure that we have the proper edition.

I hope for solution in which schools and book sellers are more closely intertwined.  Imagine if e-book sellers (Apple, Amazon, etc.) offered a way for professors to create book lists based on their course requirements.  The sellers could then distribute codes to the professors that the professors would then distribute to their students to purchase the entire bundle of e-books at a discounted price.  Ultimately it may even increase textbook sales since a) the convenience of e-book bundles would lead to more impulse buys from students and b) e-book sales cannibalize the used book sales market.

Anyway, these are just a few high level concepts I was toying with this morning while preparing for class.  Let me know what you think!

Mass Effect 3

August 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I am trying out a more short form blogging style so that

A) I will update my blog more frequently

B) I can cut down on my Twitter rants

Let’s see how it goes!

I began playing Mass Effect 3 a few days ago, and I am still near the beginning after about four and a half hours of play time. As is usually the case with the third iteration of a franchise, the gameplay systems seem to have been impressively sharpened. The once lowly combat system is a kinetic thrill to engage, and the two sides of the once binary morality system have been placed on the same meter so that decisions of morality are reflective of the player as opposed to the reward structure. Welcome improvements indeed.

Yet Mass Effect’s appeal to its audience always chiefly resided in its unique approach to storytelling as opposed to pitch perfect gameplay systems. While its peers used science fiction as a wrapper for games of mindless destruction, Mass Effect was distinct in its eagerness to allow the player to directly interface with its fiction, whether through the dialogue wheel it originally pioneered or through exploration and eavesdropping. For many players, including myself, this distinction was revelatory.

To this day I am still unsure if the series consistently has better writing most blockbuster franchises or simply more of it. In its initial moments Mass Effect 3 ushers in the most familiar conflict for games that aspire to be epics, a doomsday scenario. The game heavy handily asks it audience to become emotionally invested in its end of all days in space plot, showing gloomy depictions of civilian death and despair at the hands of their otherworldly tormentors, but I can hardly think of a scenario more far removed from reality. Without a theme grounded in reality, the player has nothing to hold on to as the roller coaster ride of a game takes off.

Part of the problem comes from BioWare’s early decision to give the avatar a voice. In most Western role playing games the protagonist is little more than a silent shell to imprint your own story upon in the game world. This age old approach led to years of clunky storytelling, but BioWare’s proposed solution does little to solve the problem. In order to compensate for the multitude of different player personalities that must be catered to with their avatar, they created a protagonist entirely devoid of personality. We are asked to believe that he/she is a tormented soul in this final installment, which is a lot to ask considering Shepherd has shown little to no emotion for two 30+ hour installments.

A little slack must be given to BioWare, as conclusions to science fiction stories are difficult to create. Part of science fiction’s appeal comes from the sense of wonder and questions it inspires. BioWare has the difficult task of instilling that sense once again, while neatly wrapping up its plot intricacies. The level of detail in each location is just remarkable, and at this early point in the game it is clear that they have surpassed even their own lofty standards as far as world building goes. The most interesting stories in Mass Effect 3 seem come from what you discover in these diverse locations at your own leisure.

For all of the criticism I direct toward games that use aliens and far fetched scenarios as their basis rather than ideas grounded in reality, I genuinely enjoy the science fiction genre when it is treated with care and respect. Mass Effect may be the only contemporary interactive science fiction that makes any attempt to do so, and I do hope its effort does not go unnoticed by the juggernaut publishers.

I played the original game during my freshman year of college. Like so many of my generation, I had all but lost faith in organized religion and was searching for answers on my own. When my version of Shepherd inquired to the reaper Sovereign on the reaper’s origins, BioWare’s writers offered an interesting idea.

Sovereign:

“We have no beginning. We have no end. We are infinite. Millions of years after your civilization has been eradicated and forgotten, we will endure. There is a realm of existence so far beyond your own, you cannot even imagine it. I am beyond your comprehension.”

The idea that their are forces, beings, things out there beyond human comprehension is one the central principles of agnosticism. It does not reject the belief in the unknown, but it also does not attempt to define it.

Just like the very best of science fiction.

Why “Because We May” Matters

May 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hey all,

I am thrilled to end my overly long blogging hiatus with an entry on an ongoing event that I fully support. On May 24th, an enormously large amount of indie games were discounted as part of the Because We May sale, which celebrates developer control over pricing. From the website:

“We believe that developers should have the freedom to price their games how they like, without interference from the online stores that sell the games. Why? Because it allows us to promote our games more freely, as we are doing here! We rely on the ability to promote our games for our livelihood and control over pricing is an important tool for this purpose.”

The importance of the idea of developer controlled pricing cannot be understated, for it is the key to a successful transition to digital distribution for both developers (independent AND triple A) and consumers alike. I am a firm believer in digital distribution, but until this model becomes the de facto standard it will always face consumer backlash and games will be creatively inhibited.

Mandated price points are among the largest creative inhibitors that exist in the video game industry today, and unsurprisingly they are found chiefly in the hapless console market. Console games have traditionally relied on retail for sales, where the console manufacturer essentially dictates a price point for all new games. I am sure most of you will remember just a few years ago when consumers nationwide were baffled that games would now cost sixty dollars. Think for a minute about the absurdity of the idea. All new games, regardless of content, length, or quality, would cost sixty dollars. Inevitably, this led to a creative drought in the triple A game industry where developers endlessly padded their games with recycled ideas and unnecessary content to match the consumer expectations of a sixty dollar game. When most consumers go to a GameStop or Best Buy with sixty dollars to purchase a game, they expect high production values, a minimum of eight hours of gameplay, and usually prefer a multiplayer component. Consumers are paying a high price point and thus they expect the most bang for the buck, and in absentmindedly imposing this price mandate on the majority of retail games console manufacturers are squashing the creative potential of big budget games.

The current generation of consoles also gave way to the first console digital storefronts in PSN, XBLA, and WiiWare, but console manufacturers did little more than slap the retail pricing model onto digital. They retained total control of digital pricing, somehow coming to the conclusion that these experiences should sell for around $10-15. While the prices are lower, the same inhibitors are still present, now influencing consumer judgments over the proper length and feature set of a downloadable title. Additionally, console manufacturers do little to keep up with their growing library of digital games, often neglecting to discount titles years after their initial release. A developer or publisher with a small library of games is unable discount at will, whether for generosity’s sake or for promoting their new games. Take a look at Super Meat Boy, which I just purchased on Steam as part of the Because We May sale for five dollars. The game launched originally on XBLA in October of 2010 as part of a Microsoft sponsored sale for 10 dollars, rising to its normal 15 dollar price point in November of that year, where it has been forced to remain ever since. In similar act of greed, Sony has taken to offering digital versions of retail games for identical or sometimes higher price points to their physical counterparts. By restricting price points to their own demands rather than allowing developers and publishers to directly respond to consumer expectations, their first foray into an all digital ecosystem with the PSPgo was an abysmal failure, and its successor is well on its way to keeping their track record intact.

As for Because We May’s celebrated havens (the App Store, Steam, etc), they offer a step in the right direction. Some suffer from an endless well of games with little curation, but that is slowly starting to change. The iOS App Store saw an unexpected trend in racing to the minimum price, 99 cents, to obtain widespread adoption. This trend allowed the 99 cent price point to become synonymous with casual games, while other price points offered different types of experiences, many of which can be found as part of the Because We May sale. While it is often advantageous to hardware makers, such as Apple, to enforce some restrictions on developers to strengthen their overall digital ecosystem, pricing is certainly not among them. An ecosystem’s strength rests largely on the ease and safety of acquiring content, in addition to the quality and diversity of content available to purchase. The latter is always best obtainable with developer freedom of price control.

What would BioShock 2 have been like if 2K set the price themselves? Would it have contained its multiplayer component, which many described as an afterthought? Would it have been $60? $40? Would 2K discount it now to promote BioShock Infinite? What about a game like Castle Crashers? I would like to think that they would have been priced proportionally to the content the developer created to enhance the artistry of the game, rather than to meet sales expectations at a mandated price point. Games are not like movies, where ticket prices can be set to consumer expectations of the standard runtime. They come in all shapes and sizes, and need a pricing structure to support the freedom to continue as such.

If you support the only plausible future for digital distribution, I highly encourage you to pick up one of the many spectacular games on sale this weekend. If you are vehemently opposed to the cause, you will likely have a blast playing these titles nonetheless!

Finding the Feel: The Level Design of “Where’s My Water?”

October 26, 2011 § 7 Comments

For the last few weeks I have been contemplating the best way to sum up my design process for “Where’s My Water?” in a blog entry. I ended up writing an essay on this exact process for a writing class at USC, but because of the nature of the assignment I had to use a different tone and style than the more conversational voice I use to address my audience on Defiantly Digital.

So I spoke with my Dad (the best writer I know) on whether or not it would mesh well with the rest of the site, and he suggested writing a blurb at the beginning of the entry, exactly as I am doing right now, to prepare my audience for a different tone and style. He also politely reminded me that I’m writing for my own website, not The New York Times.

Touché Dad. On to the essay!

The most appropriate way I know to begin a discourse on level design is to highlight the distinction between a level designer’s task and purpose. The level designer’s task is to create the spaces the player occupies throughout the course of the game. Their purpose is to manipulate behavior.

A level designer is a digital architect that uses mechanics, the learned behaviors in a video game, as building blocks. They determine how to teach their audience a mechanic and subsequently test varying degrees of proficiency. Knowledge of the player’s learned mechanics and information is the level designer’s most valuable tool.

Underneath this almost mechanical description of level design is an idea much harder to quantify. While every level designer shares a similar overarching task and purpose, another distinction must be made to separate the good level designers from the rotten. A good level designer understands what I call “the feel,” an abstract concept that simply refers to the emotional reaction a player experiences to an interactive event. The feel is an all encompassing concept that governs every single interaction within a game, from player movement to the time it takes to pull a switch. It has two states with varying degrees: wrong and right. The creation of a level’s geometry is a useless task if the geometry cannot push the player to perform the correct action, and pushing a player to perform a specific action is also useless if the action’s execution feels awkward and clunky.

Task, purpose, and feel are the three components of level design that I defined as my governing principles while crafting levels for Disney’s “Where’s My Water?”. In order to assist in transforming the concept of playing with water physics into compelling puzzle game, I was tasked with creating spaces that would turn the normally smooth journey from water to a bathtub into a far more complicated process. My purpose of course did not involve the manipulation of water physics, but of human behavior, and thus determining a level layout that would push the player along the correct path to a puzzle’s solution became a matter of utmost importance. Naturally it was always preferable for the level layout to allow for playful experimentation, as long as such experimentation did not lead the player to mistake an incorrect approach for the proper solution. But it had to feel right.

Until a level felt right it was considered a failure, regardless of whether or not it accomplished its task and purpose. My team used the word “kludgy” to describe a multitude of occurrences that would cause a level to feel wrong, from not providing enough screen space for a difficult section of a puzzle, to the feeling that a solution was reached due to accident. Occasionally we did not have a concrete reason for why a particular level felt kludgy, and so we trusted our gut instinct.

The Creature Feep Team

The Creature Feep Team

I found it essential to keep the feel at the forefront of my attention, because it was this abstract concept that governed a more mechanical operation. Level design certainly requires a great deal of artistry, yet in certain stages of a level’s development the technical process overtook the artistic.

Every level, regardless of whether or not it would appear in the game, was stored in a Dropbox folder that every member of the team could access. Our creative lead integrated Dropbox within our development game builds, enabling us to freely make changes to any content within the game without having to deploy a new build to see the changes reflected. For example, if I created a level layout in PhotoShop, I could save it to my Dropbox folder and immediately make changes to the level in my development build without having to go through a convoluted and time consuming export process. This system saved an extraordinary amount of time and hassle.

Another system was created to help reduce the level designers’ reliance on other members of the team which came into play during the “draw” stage of level development, but I will save the details of this system for later.

My level design process was spread across five stages and three screens. I referred to the stages as brainstorm, draw, place, code, and test. I utilized a Dell monitor, MacBook Pro, and iPad to simultaneously accomplish specialized tasks in each of the five stages. The brainstorm stage was exactly as it sounds: pure idea generation. Despite require little to no use of technology, I found this first stage to be the most difficult. Every member of my team at Disney, myself included, were firm believers in the idea of a “high level concept,” a matter of fact idea that illustrates what the designer hopes to express, and the brainstorm stage’s core challenge was to create a compelling high level concept. However, should a new high level concept appear too similar to that of an already successful existing level, the new level is usually scrapped. Therefore, it was crucial to come up with an original high level concept for each level created. For example, suppose my high level concept involved a solution that required the player to find a way to give the water enough momentum to clear a gap (as seen in “Do a Sweet Jump”). Now suppose that a level already existed with a similar concept. Regardless of the layout that the levels used to illustrate this concept, they both expressed the same idea, therefore it would be redundant to include both in the final game. Until the final stretches of development, it was always more useful to fill an empty slot with a new level concept than replace an existing level by expressing its concept differently. Coming up with a compelling and original high level concept was a daunting and difficult task, and I filled plenty of garbage cans with poor concept sketches of ideas that never came into fruition.

The draw stage marked the beginning of the transition from paper to screen, conceptual to concrete. The level layouts were drawn in PhotoShop and loaded into the game with the system I alluded to earlier. Designers were given several different materials to work with when creating the layouts (dirt, rock, water, etc), and each material was represented in PhotoShop as a color. The PhotoShop files were exported as PNGs, and when the game read the PNGs it translated the colors into their corresponding materials. This system allowed a designer and an artist (I should say theartist, we had only one) to work independently from each other, for the artist could update or create new textures when needed, which would be immediately reflected in all of the levels. A designer could create levels without requiring art, and the artist could create art assets without requiring level design.

The dimensions of the PhotoShop canvas were set to 90 x 120 pixels to match the screen size of the iPad. Originally we designed the levels at 86 x 120 pixels for the iPhone, but had to resize and subsequently redesign a fair number of the levels in order to support the iPad as well. The iPad’s extra two pixels on each side of the screen could not contain any content necessary to complete the level, since they would not appear on the iPhone version of the game. If the canvas height exceeded 120, the game automatically determined the level to be “deep,” meaning it would require the player to use a scroll bar to see the entire layout. Most deep levels were either two or three screens deep, with dimensions of 90 x 240 and 90 x 360. Swampy’s bathtub covered a significant portion of the game screen, further limiting the amount of screen real estate available for the puzzle. We developed a visual language to be used in every level that dictated how to place rock shadows and highlights, what angles were acceptable and unacceptable for certain materials, and how close level content could come to the heads up display before it was considered a “HUD crowder.” Once drawn, the designer loaded the empty level into the game build to place objects.

The objects used in the place stage consisted of every man-made or unnatural item found in the game. These ranged from water spouts to bombs, and were accessible through a large list within our in-game editor. The editor was created exclusively for development purposes and was only accessible in the game build, therefore I found the iPad to be the most practical tool for this stage of development because its large screen real estate made small adjustments possible. Aside from access to the object list, the editor included interfaces for selecting objects, moving objects, duplicating objects, rotating objects, linking objects, placing tracks between objects, moving objects into the foreground, and for a few other practical uses. Many of these interfaces were not present in the original version of the editor and were later added to assist designers as the level designs became more intricate. The interfaces turned manipulating objects into a rather simple task made more visceral by the iPad’s multitouch screen. Designers could drag objects across the screen using one finger, and could rotate the objects with two fingers. An object could be linked to another by selecting both objects and pressing an onscreen button, which would inform the game that first object would trigger an action in second. The actual actions that would occur as a result of the trigger had to be specified in code, but the editor’s visual interface removed the annoyances that came from implementing core gameplay concepts in the code every time work began on a new level.

The level code, not to be confused with the game code, was done in XML. Objects were defined by a start and end tag, and between the tags the designer was free to manipulate any of the available properties. The available properties were described in a text document and were divided into categories based on their corresponding object. Spout properties, for example, allowed a designer to change the type of fluid the spout contained, the angle and direction in which the fluid shot, the number of particles ejected, and so on. If an object was linked to another, its resulting movement could be handled within the code by adding a motor and manipulating its properties. Like the level editor, several properties in the game code were created as development moved forward and level complexity increased. While creating the level “Under the Radar,” I struggled to find a way to make the bombs rotate around a center point because we had no game logic to support the execution of this concept. I spent a few hours plotting each bomb’s trajectory in Excel, and I input the coordinates each point along the trajectory into the code. This solution was far from elegant, and we later added logic to simplify tasks of this nature.

The 19 Levels I Created for "Where's My Water?"

The first four stages all dealt fundamentally with either task or purpose, but the test stage was unique in that it dealt with feel. Every change made to a level was tested immediately, regardless of how minute, because every change altered the feel. If the player was given less water at the start of the level resource management would become a priority, just as the subtraction of obstacles would lower the difficulty of a given level. Some changes to the feel were more difficult to identify. A frame of rock would cause a level to feel overbearing, while keeping the top of the screen empty would cause a level to feel more relaxed. No matter how a change affected the feel, it was only identifiable in the test stage. I tested my levels hundreds of times before showing them to the team, who would test them a few times and usually reveal problems that I could not have seen due to my knowledge of the solution. Our formal playtest sessions were the most revealing because the game was played by groups with no prior knowledge of the mechanics. I do not mean to suggest that the test stage is the last of the stages, for the level design process has no beginning and no end. It is not sequential, but cyclical, and the five stages often take place out of order or simultaneously until a level feels just right.

Words cannot do justice the euphoric sensation of finding the right feel, but a good designer can satisfactorily explain why it is achieved. When a particular combination of geometry and numbers elicits a particular reaction, it often feels like magic to the player rather than the result of careful planning, tweaking, and calculation. Every interaction has a feel, and when used in conjunction with one another, a level designer can encourage a player to voluntarily engage in a sequence of strange behaviors. However, if the behaviors have an intriguing feel, they seem natural rather than strange. The game development is long and often convoluted, but the coding, the concept sketches, the testing, and the level editing are all small components of process intent on making people feel differently than they would otherwise. Details disappear from memory in a mere few days after playing a well made game, but the feel is impossible to forget.

Level Design: Jelly Car 3

September 12, 2011 § 10 Comments

Hello everyone! It has been far too long since I have last posted, and I am so glad to have the opportunity to write again. Over the course of the year you can be sure to expect more of the usual video game and technology related analysis, but presently I am excited share with you some of the work that has been keeping me busy for the past several months.

The majority of my time since April has been spent at the Disney Interactive Media Group’s mobile division, where I design levels for two very important franchises. During my first few weeks I created levels exclusively for JellyCar 3, and from then on I worked as a level designer on an exciting new property. I am not ready to talk about the latter just yet, but JellyCar is fair game!

While the rest of the Creature Feep team, led by JellyCar series creator Tim FitzRandolph, began work on our next game, it was my job to create JellyCar levels to be released as downloadable content throughout the remainder of the summer. Three of those levels have already been released as part of the “Adventure” pack, with two more slated to be released over the next few weeks.

I have included videos and descriptions of each level I created, in addition to the level layout as seen through our proprietary level editor. The levels were created entirely in the editor, and throughout the design process I was able to either create my own assets or use any assets created for prior levels. Additionally, I could manipulate the various properties of any given object, including mass, material, “squishiness,” and of course, motion. The connection between objects that trigger motion in other objects is visually depicted by a dotted line, and the motion is programmed through a separate user interface.

One of my greatest delights as a game designer is to surprise the player, a challenge that is inevitably made more difficult when working on a sequel. I quickly established a golden rule for myself: if it already exists in the game, it is not worth creating. The five levels I designed all stretch the capabilities of the level editor, and I believe each offer a wholly unique experience. Without further adieu, here are the levels I created for JellyCar 3.

X-Ray

The high level concept of “X-Ray” is rather simple: hitting a white block reveals the outline of the level for a few seconds, after which the level vanishes until the player reaches another white block. It is designed to challenge short term memory and spatial awareness while simultaneously introducing a new concept to players. X-Ray was my first level to use specially colored blocks to alter the environment, a concept I continued to play with in several of my later levels.

My inspiration for X-Ray was somewhat of a happy accident. When I began tinkering with the level editor I noticed that when an object in the foreground overlaps an object of the same color in the background, it is given a grey outline to keep it discernible. I took advantage of this feature by creating two gigantic black squares, placing one as the closest object to the foreground and the other as the closest to the background. Between the two squares I designed the level layout and carefully determined the location of the white blocks. Because the white blocks are triggers, they are always visible to the player regardless of their position in the object hierarchy, making them perfect guides to move the player in the right direction. When the player’s car touches a white block, the giant black square in the foreground is lifted for a few seconds and the level layout is revealed. The grey outlines of the level on top of the black background produces a visual effect similar to that of an x-ray. For the diehard, I created several unique assets to form a Mickey Mouse face that envelops the level’s secret exit.

The video appears overly dark, so please download the level to learn more!

Jelly Pinball


At its core, JellyCar 3 is an enjoyable game because it is fun to play with physics. Another one of my favorite games that asks the player to take physics into consideration is pinball, and I thought it would be fun to combine the two.

“Jelly Pinball” has all of the features you would find in a classic pinball table, from the launchers to the bumpers, but in this rendition you play as the ball in a machine made out of jelly. Each bumper is a trigger that opens one of three gates when touched, and when all of the gates are opened the level exit is revealed. The secret exit is quite a bit trickier to reach. To obtain it the player must first cross the gaps at the peak of the stage to reach a tiny bumper that causes the entire top of the table to open up. The table top forms a bridge leading to a Sticky Tires power up that enables the player to traverse along the outside of the table to reach the secret exit. The secret exit is visible at the very start of the level, acting as a carrot on a stick to encourage the player to seek it out.

Jelly Pinball was a challenging level to design because the flippers strike the car at a high speed and at an unnatural angle, often causing the car to “break” (an instance that occurs when the game can no longer handle the way the car is positioned). I had to find the perfect angle and speed that would allow players to have fun with the level without worrying about the JellyCar breaking down.

Crazy Wheel


For some reason I became obsessed with the idea of a level that the player could spin, and that idea ended up turning into “Crazy Wheel.” Specially colored blocks are once again used to introduce the level specific spinning mechanic. The level spins 180 degrees whenever the player touches a black block, and the only way to reach the exit is to spin the level to fill gaps that would otherwise make progress impossible.

Crazy Wheel was painstakingly difficult to create for both technical and design reasons that I did not take into full consideration when I initially came up with the idea. On the technical side I ran into a huge problem right off the bat. Every object in JellyCar 3 rotates about its center point, but unfortunately there is no way in the editor the move the center point of an object. This proved problematic because the level’s spinning effect could only work if every object rotated about the origin. My solution to this problem was hardly elegant: I created every asset in the level from scratch and calculated the proper distance from the origin for the individual vertices of each and every one of them. Playtesting of course unveiled problems with the placement of certain assets, which meant I had reevaluate the vertices’ distance from the origin or recreate the asset in question since simply moving it would ruin the synchronous spin.

From a level design standpoint, it was difficult to keep track of the level’s critical path while adding new elements, since the level was essentially divided into two separate halves. I redesigned the layout seemingly every ten minutes, always struggling to balance the introduction of a completely new style of gameplay with level design that felt engaging rather than automatic. Players struggled remembering the previous location of the constantly shifting pieces, and as a result I added white blocks that are not affected by the spin. I also restricted the level to just four colors to communicate the concept as clearly as possible. Black indicates a spin block, white indicates an object that will not spin, and red and blue indicate objects that will spin.

Quilt



My goal for “Quilt” was to create a level that would seemingly take away control until the player is able to recognize the level’s pattern and formulate a strategy. The red squares move horizontally and the blue squares move vertically, and if blindly approached they will usually carry the player back to the level entrance. Once the pattern is recognized the remainder of the level is a pure timing test.

Quilt is full tricks I learned from my previous levels. The simply color scheme highlights the concept without distracting the player’s attention, the blocks seemingly vanish from the edges of the screen similarly to visual effect in X-Ray, and after Crazy Wheel it was no longer daunting to keep track of dozens of object paths.

Growth



I knew from the get go that “Growth” would be the last level I would design for JellyCar 3 and possibly the last level ever released for the game. By this time it was clear that we were moving on to bigger and better things (that you will be hearing about soon), so I decided that it would be appropriate for the final level to start small and end big.

The level layout for Growth looks like a confusing mess of triggers in the editor, but hopefully you can get a feel for the layout from the concept sketch. Every time the player hits a red block, the four walls move outward to reveal more of the level, and in game the effect looks like the level grows right before the player’s eyes. The level components serve different purposes as the level expands; what was once a barrier is now a bridge. The secret exit is hinted at halfway through the level, and should the player remember the visual cue by the time the level is fully expanded they can use a balloon to acquire it.

And that’s it! I had a blast working on JellyCar 3, and I hope you will have as much fun playing my levels as I did making them. You can be sure to expect a similar blog entry in the near future detailing a whole lot more level work for…

Well you’ll just have to wait and see!

What Slump?

May 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

“In the words of Bob Dylan, “If you ain’t busy living, you busy dying.” Not us nephew!” – My Uncle Fred

If I told you the events that wrapped up my sophomore year of college, you might think it ended on a low note.  You would be wrong.

One of my professors this year said to work hard in class, but to cherish our time outside the classroom as well, for that’s where the real learning takes place.  I had spent most of my freshman year adjusting to a new world, and I spent most of my sophomore year learning from it.  I learned from my industry.  I learned from my friends.  I learned how to inspire.  I learned how to be with someone special, and I am learning how to let go.  I learned how loss feels.

I will keep on learning, for there is no greater joy than to continue on as a student, and I have no regrets, for every bump in the road is just a lesson waiting to be learned.  The memories of those I lost fuel me as I journey forward, and they will never burn out.

This year I have been busy living.  I cemented my place at school, met an amazing bunch of people, took unforgettable courses, tackled three internships, and managed to learn a ton about myself in the process.  USC no longer feels like Pandora, as I described it last year, but like home.  The beauty of it all is that it’s just the beginning.

At this time last year I was back in New York, getting ready for my first internship in the game industry.  This time I’m not going back.  I have a fantastic job at Disney, and I am grateful to have already met a new group of friends that will accompany me on this next journey.  After all, a journey is only as valuable as the people you share it with.

When asked why I am so enamored with the video game industry, I always respond with the same answer.  “Because no one can tell you where its future lies.”  In this regard, it is perhaps the closest industry to real life.  None of us know what tomorrow will bring, but if we don’t stay busy pushing onward, then we might as well be dead.

Have a great summer everyone.