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This isn’t a dev diary, this is just me talking to me. Cause I’m not sure who else to tell this to.

The first quarter in my Game Design masters is wrapping up. The big thing on everyone’s mind is the Greenlight pitch. Every student needs to pitch their idea for an awesome game to a team of industry professionals, and five of those ideas will be selected and turned into next quarter’s projects. Everyone’s pretty excited with their ideas, and I’m…not.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every part of this program. I’ve learned all sorts of things, and while the workload has been steep, it’s reinforced that game design is my true passion and my calling at this stage of my life. But I’m drawing a complete blank on anything to pitch for the Greenlight, and there’s no real point lying to myself…I’m hoping I don’t get picked. I don’t want to be selected. I want to work on someone else’s project as a writer, do my job and keep my nose out of other people’s business.

I’m well aware that’s not the right attitude going into the most important pitch of the quarter, and I’m not sure how to break it. I’ve confessed this to my parents and the program director, and both reminded me of what I already know: this is an opportunity that won’t come around once I’m part of the greater games industry. I’ve got a whole career ahead of me where I’ll be making other people’s games, I need to seize this opportunity to make something I’ve always wanted to.

But I already make whatever I want. The internet is littered with hundreds of my games, articles, GIFs, scripts, and videos. There’s no secret dream project I’ve always been fantasizing about, because I just go ahead and make anything I’m thinking of. And the ones I haven’t made yet are all solo projects because that’s how I work best. Medical Necessity isn’t actually something I’m hoping wins; it’s my latest solo project framed as a ‘prototype’ because I can’t very well march up in front of the judges and go “Yeah, I got nothing.” I know it’s not stage fright; I love talking in front of a crowd. If only I could pitch for somebody else…

I guess in a way this is something of a comforting position. I can’t really lose if I’m hoping not to win. Part of me worries that I’m sabotaging myself, or lying to myself because I don’t want to face the prospect of losing, and I’ll regret this attitude after the Greenlight comes and goes, but we’ll just have to see. At the moment, I’m far more excited about the Ford pitch. The Just Us League is going to blow them out of the water.

Dev diary #8

I had a tough time coming up with my idea for this Greenlight. As I’ve mentioned in other dev diaries, none of my ideas felt right the correct scope. They were either too easy, designed for a single developer to create at his own pace, or they were ambitious multiplayer games that required teams far larger than the purview of this team.

I’m going to be honest, I’m not sure how great my idea even is. It was something I found in my Google Drive, where I’ve written design documents for various ideas over the years. I pitched a few of them to Eddie and Kelsey, and this was the only one they thought sounded interesting. My original plan was completely different; I was going to pitch Streaker Simulator, a humorous third-person parkour platformer where the player character ran around with no clothes on at public events like soccer matches or Macy’s Day Parades, and you scored points based on both how long you evaded the ever-increasing security measures and accomplished objectives (like tagging every player on the pitch). Program director said it wasn’t breaking any new ground, and the judges would be looking specifically for clever idealistic games hoping to make something new, not just another simulator. These are fair criticisms, so instead the game I’m pitching is Medical Necessity, a top-down 2D puzzle game framed as a healer in a CSGO-style shooter. You’re the healer on a 5-man team of bots, facing an identical team of 5 bots, and the two teams will try to kill each other. Your job is to figure out how you need to position yourself and heal the right people to keep your team in the fight long enough to win the match and move onto the next level.

medical necessity

This week’s reading was on Digital prototyping. I plan to prototype my game in Clickteam Fusion, since I know how to crank out quick playable prototypes. I can’t play a prototype during the Greenlight pitch, so I’m going to record my prototype as a long GIF and include that in my powerpoint presentation. I plan on having that prototype done quickly so I can playtest and refine it ASAP.

dev diary #7

Not sure what to say about this project. I kinda suspected, from the moment the team insisted we make multiple rooms, we were gonna run out of time and the project would disappoint. But I’d thought that about the last project and Tyler blew me out of the water by creating a great game. I think the main difference is that Tyler and I had a much simpler scope and I created all the assets in-house, leading to a very quick initial prototype that had unity in its sprite artwork. Tyler and I were done with the core game within the first 48 hours, and the rest was playtesting, bugfixing, and adding additional features. This is a stark contrast to this 3-person project, where the core game is barely being finished on time and we’re likely going to have no playtesting whatsoever. I’ve played the game and it’s pretty unremarkable. I can tell programming put a lot of work into it, but almost every element is unpolished and the final project feels like a crude alpha. This will likely be the first project I won’t be adding to my itch.io account.

It’s tough, because I feel like I pulled my weight. I had the script finished with two weeks to go, and all the inventory icons finished with a week left. I should have had the voicelines recorded sooner, but I couldn’t record them until programming finished creating the map, coding the puzzles and sent me a list of minor changes (like changing the plastic shed to wood or removing the shower since they couldn’t find a free asset). Ultimately, I think our workpace was insufficient for the amount of time we had to create the project. We should have stuck to a single room. We could have finished it well within the timeframe, and started playtesting/debugging after that. Maybe I should have played more of a “project manager” role and just flatout told people what to do and how we’re going to do it. I really wanted to just work comfortably on content creation and trust that the programmers would handle their sphere, but I have this suspicion that my decision in some part led to the game’s failure.

Chapter 7 was all about prototyping, one of my favorite elements of game design but not one particularly relevant to this dev diary since we’re putting the finishing touches on our game. The lectures were more pertinent, especially Monday’s which discussed linearity vs engagement. Game developers have to juggle a delicate balance between utilizing “what works” and also creating a unique signature for their game to stand out. I would say this is another element where our game falls short. The Unity store assets plainly telegraph their origin, and the gameplay is pedantic by design; I’d hoped that the writing quality, voiceover narration, and storyline would carry the plot instead of the puzzles/gameplay. But in practise the gameplay is so unpolished, and the assets so minimalist that the game seems to entirely disagree with the narration in most parts. When the player character obtains a brick and says, “One of the bricks was loose in Wernicke’s wall” while he is quite clearly standing in front of a wooden picket fence, it’s impossible to take the story seriously.

Speaking of other projects, I had a blast voice-acting for Aylin’s and Will’s games. I’ve always wanted to bolster my voice-acting portfolio, so it’s great to have three new titles under my belt within three weeks, and I think most of the class knows by this point that I’m very interested in voice-acting for future projects. Also, C++ is going better than ever now that there are dedicated student tutors who are available most days of the week. I’ve finally completed Poker and plan to begin Breakout next week. It’s nice to be on schedule again.

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Pictured: inventory icons. Pretty pleased how these turned out considering I made them using a bunch of royalty-free stock art and an online filter. I was going for the ‘hand-drawn’ feel, because the premise is that the character is sketching in his journal, but I also needed them to look photorealistic due to the game’s artstyle.
Also, since all I ever seen to include are screenshots, thought I’d throw in one of the 69 voicelines I recorded for the game’s narration. This is heard on an in-game answering machine, revealing who came to Wernicke’s house and murdered him last night.

dev diary #6

Prompt: Write about the week’s lecture and readings as they relate to your project 
– Write about this week’s industry guest speakers (if any)
-Write a description of your progress (both positive and negative) on your current project
– Must include at least one piece of media:
GIF, link to video, screenshot, sketch, etc.

This week’s reading was on the genesis of new ideas and the conceptualization of those ideas into a playable prototype. I confess we don’t have a lot of that, we’re making a pretty bog-standard point-and-click adventure game using inventory and password puzzles. Last dev diary I talked for a bit about how our game’s concept changed direction due to what the other teammates wanted to see in it; this week, that concept mostly just shrank to accommodate the looming deadline and projections on what we can realistically complete assuming everyone works at their current pace. I’ve had to remove a few different puzzle styles (physics puzzles and item-combination puzzles specifically) because I couldn’t realistically see us incorporating those mechanics by the end of next week. I’ve also spent a lot more time on the writing to make up for that, since it’s now the primary thing carrying the gameplay. To that end, the “Business/Cost Restrictions” column on page 182 was certainly the most relevant game design element to our work this week.

I’m kinda nervous about this project’s prospects. We’ve basically set things up so that I’m in charge of narrative and they’re in charge of programming. I’ve written/edited the entire script, descriptions for the inventory items, and sketched out the rough layout of the map. Now I’m locating sprites for the inventory items, and later I’m going to record all the lines for the main character’s voiceover during gameplay. I’m worried for two reasons (1) both of my groupmates seem to be okay with how much I’m dictating how this story is going to pan out, but this had made it almost impossible for me to incorporate their ideas into the storyline. In the past, I’ve always used other teammates’ ideas as an easy way to get them invested in the project, but even with prodding, Neither Nathan nor Eric seem to want to suggest anything, and are completely fine with whatever I come up with. But that leads to (2), I’m worried we aren’t completing the prototype fast enough. We’ve barely got a house rendered, zero completed puzzles, any only a few token item descriptions inserted into certain items. I can only hope that the project only looks barely started due to my lack of programming perspective, and they’ve actually completed all the hard back-end stuff so the remaining front-end elements will take less than a week. Neither of them seem worried and they assure me that we’re within expected timeframes, so I guess I’ll just keep doing my job and ensuring they have everything they need to do theirs. But I can’t but wonder if I’ve failed to setup enough investment on their part, and that’s leading to them working slower than they might if they saw their ideas more plainly visible in the story. I’m also worried that our pace isn’t leaving any room for playtesting. I have an unfortunate suspicion that we’re not going to have any time for anyone to play the ‘finished’ game until the day of the deadline. But since I’m not programming, and I’m ahead of schedule on my end, I’m not sure what I can do about that.

As the school year ticks along, I’m also spending more time thinking about the upcoming Greenlight pitch. Everybody I’ve talked to in the class already know what they’re going to pitch and are now in the development phase, but none of my ideas seem baked enough to really pitch. Part of it is my history of solo development and my inclination to avoid using anyone else’s assets. I always think small; I make sure the scope is limited enough that a single person can write, illustrate, animate, program, and debug the entire game from conception to completion. It’s surprisingly difficult to drop those filters and broaden my scope up to a team of 5-7 developers (with a third party art team) working for an entire quarter. I have project ideas that I’ve never made because they’re too large for one person, and I logically should be pitching one of those, but they’re all online multi-player and I was cautioned to avoid that genre. As per Erin’s suggestion, I’m going to sketch out a few of those online multiplayer ideas, figure out what design elements I like the most, and see if I can create a single-player idea that uses some of them.

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Layout mockups of the map and its puzzles. Every single tag has a narrated description the player will hear in game when they click on it.

New Game! Zone Out

Zone Out isn’t the sort of game I normally make, but it’s also my first duo project!

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We were assigned an emotion, and our task was to create a game that conveyed that emotion. Can you guess what our emotion was?

Programming and sound design by pat. Sprites and level design by aabicus. Special thanks to MJ, Erin, and our playtesters at UCSC Silicon Valley!

dev diary #5

This project got off to an interesting start. Both of my groupmates were from Erin’s section, so I knew very little about them. Luckily they’re both programmers and they want me to be narrative designer, which means I can finally flex my writing muscles!

I’ve actually been meeting a lot of new people thanks to this prompt’s emphasis no narrative. Four other classmates serving as first-time narrative designers for other teams have already already seeked me out for advice fulfilling the position, so I feel good about my skillset specialty finally entering the program purview. On the other hand, at this early stage I’m the bottleneck because the programmers are forced to follow my pace. I had to nail down the plot/storyline/puzzles before they could implement them, and I probably cut it too close by only finishing that up Thursday night. That’s mostly why we didn’t have a Unity prototype to showcase for today’s playtest, but I’m glad the paper prototype I designed last night made up for it; the audience seemed to enjoy solving our opening puzzles using the map on the whiteboard and myself GMing their progress. Always nice when my old college job as a professional GM comes back into play.

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The paper prototype our initial playtesters played.

It seems like every project I re-learn the same lesson about the importance of considering and incorporating feedback from other group members. When I first designed our game’s narrative, I wanted the crime to be something that wasn’t immediately recognizable as a crime, since I didn’t want the player guessing at suspects while the player character is the only person in the game. The player character was to be trapped in their apartment, which was on fire, and the twist was that he had started the fire to collect the renter’s insurance. My teammates were lukewarm to the premise, and suggested a plot influenced by (honestly, wholecloth stolen from) Memento, where the amnesiac player character followed ominous tattoos on his body hoping to discover who had killed his wife. It was confusing and contrived, and I initially wanted to just pull rank and insist we use my plot. Luckily, I had a talk with Kelsey, an alumni from last year, and she helped me realize that my teammates had valid points to make about the core elements of our plot, even if the exact narrative they suggested was unusable. My teammates were trying to convey that they didn’t find arson a particularly exciting crime, and they desired an edgier plot where the main character had more to hide. These were valid criticisms, and on the production end, incorporating their ideas gave me a chance to increase their investment in the project. In the past I’ve found that teammates work harder and feel happier about the final product if they can see the direct influence they’ve had in its creation. With this in mind, I crafted a new narrative that used murder and the themes my groupmates were looking for, but was a workable story we could actually deliver. My teammates are much happier, and it’s honestly a better storyline than the one I’d made before.

Chapter 5 talked about system dynamics, discussing how the scope of the game changes as it gets more complex. Not only do simpler games like Tic-Tac-Toe have fewer elements than larger games like Magic the Gathering, but the elements they share between each other (win condition, turns, limited playspace) can be larger in one than the other. This is extremely important to keep in mind as our timeframes and our group numbers increase, and it’s gotten me worried about the scope of our project. My original plan had a single room (the apartment that was on fire), but my teammates thought the narrative was too short and specifically requested at least three rooms. I’m worried they’re making the classic beginner’s mistake of thinking too big and dreaming up project roadmaps that are too large in scope. My usual philosophy is to assume that I’ll need to spend half of my development time on post-process bugfixing and addressing unforeseen setbacks, so I always think small. We only have three weeks total to complete this project, and having multiple rooms adds an entire dimension to the camera, inventory, and movement systems. It exponentially complicates everything we’ll need to implement. But I’ve brought up these concerns already and they insist they can finish three rooms within the timeframe. Since they know the programming side far better than I do, I guess I just have to trust them.

dev diary #4

Prompt: – Write about the week’s lecture and readings as they relate to your project 
– Write about this week’s industry guest speakers (if any)
-Write a description of your progress (both positive and negative) on your current project
– Must include at least one piece of media:
GIF, link to video, screenshot, sketch, etc.

A few days ago we got an email about a one-hour UCSC seminar on Imposter Syndrome. I was planning to attend before I tried to find the location and realized it was happening on the main campus. Bummer. But that is an issue I feel I’m struggling with at this point in the program, most of it directly stemming from the difficulty I’m having with C++ and my overall fear of programming. I know it doesn’t look great that I’ve waited three dev diaries to start admitting that I’m halfway expecting to get kicked from the program, but there’s this massive C-shaped hole in my skillset that’s negatively affecting my ability to contribute meaningfully to the duo project or to complete my assignments on time for C++.

Pretty much the only thing I’ve done for the duo project is asset creation. I’ve created over a dozen animations and four dozen sprites to populate Tyler’s vision, and as Emily pointed out when she learned this, “the program isn’t testing for that.” You want programmers and Tyler has programmed the entire game on his own. It’s also his concept; as mentioned in my last diary, I decided to withdraw my suggestions on fields and music in favor of going with Tyler’s office space and basketball mechanics because both concepts were equally usable and I figured Tyler would do a better job programming something he was invested in. I don’t have access to Tyler’s dev diary so I have no clue whether he’s pleased with my level of contribution to the project, but he certainly seems pumped about things when we talk. I’m quite satisfied with him as a partner as he’s open to suggestions, flexible with reacting to setbacks, eager to overcome obstacles and an overall hard worker. While we’ve both contributed plenty of suggestions and design concepts to the game, and I’m very satisfied with the final project, I can’t help but feel I’m regressing into my lifelong habits of avoiding programming by filling the void with content creation. I should have taken advantage of the solo and duo projects to learn Unity, even if it would have resulted in substandard products, because the proficiency disparity between me and the other students will only grow as the program goes on.

It’s just so easy to let him do all the programming and insert myself into more of an asset-creation position because that’s playing to my strengths. I can crank out sprites (I don’t think they’re particularly good but Tyler insisted he wanted to use my artwork and not default assets so apparently they’re of adequate quality in everyone else’s eyes) and I don’t know Unity as well as he does, so it’s logical and easy to let him program. But I didn’t come to this Master’s program to learn sprite creation, and we’re going to have an entire University of San Jose to do that for us for the next project. I need to find a way to serve a useful role on a team, especially considering nobody’s games from any point in this quarter have required a writer.

This all boils back to my fear of programming, something that’s plagued the majority of my life. When I was 11, I couldn’t wrap my head around a month-long tutorial of DarkBasic, so I used Multimedia Fusion (nowadays called Clickteam Fusion) to make games. As an undergraduate, I briefly considered switching my major to Computer Science but a terrible experience in a C class squashed those plans and I continued using Clickteam Fusion for my portfolio projects. After graduating, I took an online Unity class but eventually gave up after six months had passed and I couldn’t program anything more complicated than a text-based adventure game. Even in this class, I chose to use Clickteam Fusion for my solo project when I probably should have created an inferior project in Unity. I feel like the metaphorical elephant who learned as a calf that he couldn’t uproot the stake tying him to the ground, so he remains rooted even as a 15000-pound adult who could easily escape that stake if he tried to.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you that I’ve tried my absolute hardest to learn C++. I know that’s Andrew’s opinion on himself, but I feel like I should (and could) have worked harder, instead of constantly distracting myself by putting 110% into my other homework assignments. I love every other class in this Masters’, but I bet if I’d spent less time creating sprites, writing 2-page dev diaries and pulling all-nighters on The Wolf and the Waves I could have probably learned C++ at the same time. Instead my vision just swims when I stare blankly at Visual Studio and I do something superfluous like programming Tic-Tac-Toe instead of Connect Four. I can see the massive potential of games programmed in C# and I’ve wanted that knowledge for years, and this degree is probably the greatest chance I’m ever going to get to learn it. If I fail now, I’ll forever regret losing this opportunity.

Our lectures and reading discussed how the game designer uses the formal elements of a game. As a sandbox-style game, “Explore” would probably fit best as our player’s intended motivation. We found that most players clicked on everything once they were bored of shooting paper balls, so we didn’t to worry as much about telegraphing what items had scripted actions tied to them. (We added a few for the Inbox anyway, since the player misses a huge chunk of the game if they don’t click it.) The thing about ‘Calmness’ is, we had to avoid most of the things that video games use to create challenge because challenge isn’t calming. Our player character has infinite resources, no objective, and no stress because otherwise the player might not feel calm. We didn’t even have a clear ending (everything fades away and you’re now relaxing in the Rockies with nothing to do) until the very last build; we intended to let the player sandbox forever but playtesters didn’t find it calming when the game never clearly ended!

Believe it or not, Andrew Corcoran’s lecture actually helped us in a major way. He discussed dynamically adjusting your game so that it catered to people with different preferences. Originally, we tied the “slacking off” mini-game as calming and the “working” event as neutral. After Emily playtested our game and had the opposite reaction to both mini-games, we realized that some people found work more calming than laziness. So we tied the calmness mechanic to the player’s progress in either mini-game. Now people can finish the game through whichever playstyle they prefer, just like Corcoran’s UI and menus cater themselves to the player.

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