Friday, September 30, 2011

Utah Indie Games Night - September 2011

Wow, last night was AWESOME! We had a really great turn out (over 50 people) and it was an enormous treat to hear from Tracy Hickman, a renowned game designer and best selling author. He had a lot of wisdom to impart to us, and I felt like a sponge just soaking it all in. I certainly learned a lot from his presentation on "Story and Meaning in Games".

Tracy started his presentation on how story gives meaning to events. He mentioned that the news is done in a story format these days because story can communicate meaning. A pure journalistic approach would be communicating just the facts and then letting the reader decide. However the media likes to give "the story" so they can help shape our thoughts and opinions about the events, and thus sway our thinking towards their agenda.

He described different kinds of story structure in games from a linear type to more of a branching type used in games, with both hard and soft boundaries to help guide the player and plot to flow in a general direction. He also went into differing types of characters, and how you can boil them all down into eight different types. Four of those types are "driving" characters that help move the plot along, and the other four are mere "passengers" that come along for the ride. It's interesting to note that in some stories the main character doesn't have to be a "driving" character, and he used "To Kill a Mocking Bird" as an example of this.

He also discussed the four different through lines within a story. He mentioned that games do a good job of presenting the "Objective" and "Main Character" through lines, however they don't yet do a great job at presenting the "Subjective" and "Impact Character" through lines within a story. Because of this, stories within games can fall a little "flat". There does seem to be some truth to this, as I haven't been impacted nearly as much by stories within games, as I have been by stories within film and prose. I'm not an avid fiction reader, but from my own experience I can say that stories within the written word have taken on more meaning to me than stories within film, and then to a lesser degree, stories within games. I think this is in large part because my own imagination fills in those gaps, and the visuals from movies or games just can compete with that. Perhaps it's just that storytelling within games hasn't had enough time to "catch up" to where storytelling is within film, as film has had a lot more time to advance as an art form than games.

Tracy ended with a thought on how his books have impacted others and likewise our games could effect and change the world as well. I know we probably don't think about that much, as we ascribe ourselves as being mere entertainers, but we have the potential in our art and craft to touch lives (hopefully for the better). When I look back on my life, I can remember stories within books, movies, and games (mostly adventure games for me), that have filled my life with more meaning and have a special place in my heart. Those "stories" have had a powerful impact on my life, and I think we sometimes underestimate the power of "story". I think we have a responsibility as game designers to imbue our games with more meaning, and touch the lives of others in a positive way.

Apparently Tracy also offers classes on storytelling, both online and in-person. So if you're looking to just improve your storytelling abilities or are looking to write own novel and publish it to the world, you can find some help from Tracy on his site at http://www.scribesforge.com/

Also you can catch Tracy's presentation here. (Note the video is flipped) Kudos to Ben Benson for making this available, and kudos to Brad Baker for helping to bring Tracy to our event.

After Tracy's presentation we moved to the U's Xbox lab for our demos. We had so many demos happening that I wasn't able to see them all, but I'll mention the one's I saw and those that I knew where there. I'm sure I missed some and I apologize that I wasn't able to get to them. Here's the eleven that I know about.


Frayed Knights - Jay Barnson
Jay was there showing off Frayed Knights for the last time, as he has finally reached that milestone that many of us want to achieve, and that is finishing and releasing your game. Congrats Jay; I'm jealous now (as I still haven't released anything yet). I also hear that there was a celebratory cake given to Jay in commemoration of this event. I was a bit late to the event and didn't see this happening, so I'm thinking at this point that the cake was a lie. ;) (You Portal players know what I'm referring to here.) Anyway Kudos to Jay for reaching this milestone.

NerdWord - Brett Unzaga
Brett had an interesting game that is sort of a hybrid of Scrabble, Boggle, and the falling tiles game mechanic. It's an online game where you try and beat the scores of other players. Everyone has the same game board for that day, so it's fair. The tiles are Scrabble like by having different point values, and the object is to construct words with the different tiles like you do in Boggle. Once you've constructed a valid word, those tiles are removed from the board and any tiles above those removed tiles will then slid down into play. The person who constructs the highest point value set of words at the end of the day is the winner.

Smote - Bryan Livingston
Bryan's game "Smote", has come a long way since I saw it last. I played it for a bit and there are some real graphics in there now; not just a bunch of white blocks as it used to be. It's sort of a hybrid between an RPG and a top down shooter. I love the art style he has going with the stubby little anime characters; it's very cute and endearing and fun too.

Multifarious - Devin & Dustin Jenson
I only got to see this iPad/Android game for a brief moment. It's being made by two brothers and they've done a great job so far. It's a physics puzzle game of sorts where you have to tilt the iPad to move blocks and/or balls to their final destination. It starts simple but then gradually adds more objects that you have to manipulate at the same time. It can be frustrating when have to tilt the iPad to slide a block to the left, but not so much that another ball will fall off a teeter-totter. They are using Adobe Air to power their game. I think it's a great game so far and I hope it does well for them once they get it to market.

Faerie Alchemy - Ben Benson
Ben works for Subsoap and has been working on an iPad/iPhone puzzle game that combines Tetris and Match3 game mechanics. It looks very near completion and he's done a great job on it. It took me a moment to figure out the controls on his mac laptop for the game, but I imagine that since its a game for a mobile device that the touch controls would be much more useful. The game is also written in Monkey and that piqued my interest as I've played a bit with that language a bit and I'd like to use it for a future mobile game project.

CarWood - Josh Jones
I wasn't able to get to Josh's latest experimental game at the event, but I was able to play it a bit later. The theme this time was "Story Game" and its a Ninja vs Robots type game, however you are half ninja half robot, so you don't really fit into either world. On his blog he mentions that "two AI agents determine the dynamic elements of the story", which seems like a unique approach to AI, instead of the usual one master AI controller.

March to the Moon - Curtis Mirci
I got a brief look at the progress Curtis has made on his hybrid RPG and vertical shooter. He's been making "crazy" progress on it and he's nearly complete with everything. He's added a bunch more weapons, abilities, and art since I saw it last. Kudos to him for making some rapid progress on this. (Again I'm jealous.) Also I noticed that both Bryan and Curtis are making RPG/Shooter hybrids. Are they working together on something? Hmmmm?

Linkrealms - Herb & Dan Flower
I noticed that Herb and Dan were showing LinkRealms again, however ran out of time before I could see their new changes. They are always improving their MMO, so I'm sure it's just getting better and better.

Bullet Train Hell - Chris Tart
Chris was showing his awesome Bullet Train Hell again. I only got a glimpse of it but it looks like it's coming along nicely.

Tile Factory 2 - Jonathon Duerig
Again time was short so I didn't get to talk to Jonathon about his sequel that he's making, but I think it's cool that he can leverage some existing code and art for his new game. You can find the original one here.

I didn't get to see this student project which is apparently a Crysis mod, but judging from the video and screenshots on the modDB site, it appears that they are doing a great job with it.

UVU Flight Simulator - Nate Stoker
Nate showed off a flight simulator that he did some of the models for. I didn't get a chance to see this at the event, but was able to play it a bit later on. It's built in Unity and web enabled. It looks really good.

All in all it was a wonderful evening. We were truly fed some sage wisdom from Tracy and we saw some incredible games in development. I'm always amazed and humbled at the talent of the indies here in Utah. We definitely have an awesome group. I can't wait until next time.



Viva la Indie!


BTW, here are some other write-ups of the evening