One of These Things is Not Like the Other…

2 Comments | This entry was posted on Jul 22 2010 by

In the interest of releasing Influence before the end of the year and also releasing something that is not sloppily thrown together, we have decided that ‘Explore Alone’ will be better as a separate game entirely. There are just too many things about it that make it completely unrelated to multi-player and ‘Daydream’.  As such, we have reached a consensus (haha!) that ‘Explore Alone’ needs a major overhaul and it does not seem realistic to try to pull it all together by the end of the summer (our current self-imposed deadline.) That was our mistake last time and we are loath to make it again. As far as feedback has gone, no one is going to miss ‘Explore Alone ‘ in its current state. That makes this decision easier too.

As for progress, we have internet multi-player working (with chat!) So we’re definitely in the home stretch and hoping to have a new beta ready in the fall.

Zooming Along

0 Comments | This entry was posted on Jun 04 2010 by

To further increase the immersion experience, we’ve enabled panning sound. This means that when you are zoomed in, an adversary off to your left will sound from the left speakers. Pairing this up with the trailing rings really gives you a heads-up to where things are happening when the whole plane isn’t visible, and adds more variation to the music. It is also now possible (again) to select an id to focus on so that the camera doesn’t bounce between split flocks.

Other updates:

  • The re-designing of Explore Alone is taking us a bit of time, but in a pleasing, more interesting direction.
  • We’ve got a plan to make id selection more customizable and consistent across the game.
  • On the white board are sketches for a more cohesive level select screen.

These are some exciting (scary-roller-coaster exciting) times for us and the long uphills have given way to screaming downhills that make it all worthwhile. We’re almost to the top with Influence, and hanging on tight in the front car.

An Epic Argument

0 Comments | This entry was posted on Jan 08 2010 by

What’s in a name? You’d be surprised.

Every Friday morning our team sits down to discuss the week’s successes, failures, and general off topic nonsense. While normally a relaxed discussion and check in, last Friday it turned into a hot-tempered argument over something so little but important we couldn’t let it go.

In Influence there are three modes of play: one is the original mode, where you customize the settings and then spring into a plane devoid of obstacles or alternative objectives or advanced id types. The only goal is to gain consensus. It is a small, self-contained, 1-5 minute experience. The second mode is structured around a series of pre-designed planes and tiers that the player can move through at their own pace, unlocking new id types to use as they overtake planes. The third mode is very similar to the first, except that you can network with other players instead of just having AI adversaries.

Single Player – Campaign – Multiplayer

We had to think of names for these three modes. We started with the bland, default “Single Player, Campaign, Multiplayer”. There was confusion over the difference between Single Player and Campaign, and we couldn’t change Single Player to Skirmish because that was too indicative of military undertones. Even Campaign had the same issue. On top of that, it didn’t relate to Influence’s world at all. Influence purposely removed itself from a multitude of “arcade” terminology – levels, worlds, points, experience etc because it didn’t want to associate with that style of gaming. Influence was something different. Conflict took a back seat to the meditative world, the flow and zen of the ids in the bleak.

Solo – Melody – Harmony

What about something with music? We tried “Melody” for campaign and “Harmony” for multiplayer, but then what about the single player game? Solo and Tutti could have worked, and so could a multitude of other ‘pairs’ that break down linguistically to “one” and “many” in regards to some theme. But it was always pairs – never a trio. We considered adding on something like “Practice” or “Training” to represent the singleplayer mode, but that trivialized what we thought was the core experience. The single words just weren’t going to work.

Dream Free – Explore Alone – Play Together

I changed the names to “Dream Free, Explore Alone, and Play Together”. The team rightfully argued that these were too vague or abstract, so we looked at how they appear on the title screen. Dream mode is not unlocked until a player completes the tutorial planes, so the first thing on the menu screen is just “Explore Alone” and “Play Together”. This does its job, I argued, of immediately distinguishing between a game you play by yourself, or one you play with others. The first choice you make is always just singleplayer or multiplayer. It accomplished that, and it did so quite clearly. You weren’t going to mistake one for the other. Explore also indicated a sense of discovery that we thought linked well to a campaign-like mode, while Play indicated the lighter, briefer mechanics of the multiplayer mode.

Daydream – Explore Alone – Play Together

From there, the issue was the singleplayer mode, the ‘tidepool’ as I’d been calling for some time where players simply customize a plane and run with it. “Dream Free” didn’t work – too abstract. But “Dream” didn’t seem to fit either; it was both cliche and inundated with psychological implications. Melissa suggested “Daydream” – it was similar, it indicated a brevity, a lightness, and a playfulness that we wanted, but unlike Dream it indicated a higher sense of awareness. It took us well over an hour of frustrated discussion, so when we hit daydream everyone crumpled with relief. That was it.

Our lesson: names are important. They are the framework and lens through which the player views a game. Even subtle changes can make a huge difference on how players perceive your game and the emotions it creates in them. Don’t always accept the default. Actively consider how changes will affect a player. Balance utility and novelty. Think.

“Make it Sexy”

0 Comments | This entry was posted on Aug 01 2009 by

G1 is out, so it’s time to look at other options.

We sit down to a meeting and the Topic-Of-The-Day is Microsoft. How do we get Microsoft to love our game? How do we get Microsoft to desperately want to feature it on the Zune?

It was time to take our seedling and start to flesh it out. It was an exceptional toy, but that wouldn’t be enough to sustain a game. Especially not for Microsoft.

As the designer, I sat down and contemplated the numero uno cool facet about mobile games: the ability to connect to other people. If someone else was controlling the black flock, wouldn’t that be much more interesting than just the default dark spawn? From there, we decided that color should be indicative of the person controlling the boids. In fact, if enough people played as red and were really victorious, everyone else’s color would start turning red, too.

At the time, the fact that everyone’s boids would eventually be the same color, and ‘what about when two people are both red?’ completely eluded me. When I finally figured it out, we settled on the insignia option – the ability to pick a symbol that would also represent you, and to which you could contribute global stats. That, and we started calling the boids ships to make it easier to relate to – and added a touch of Borg. Everything is better with Borg.

Design Changes:

  • Visual: No more 2D sprites – Microsoft wants 3D, and they want sexy. Specular models, tilt and yaw – can we just take a corvette and make that the boid? Is that possible? No more pastel colors – Microsoft wants bright and bold, and honestly, that’s the easiest way to tell colors apart now that the game’s going to be multiplayer. We also decided that the trails should fade out, and put the whole game on a black background.
  • Mechanics: Multiplayer – it’s no longer black against white, but red versus blue versus yellow versus green. We’ve also added insignias so that we can have global stat accumulation and teams (without worrying about color).
  • Feel: Err….. sexy? Despite the unshakeable pillar of faith that is my design principles, I for once purposefully tried to skin a game to appeal to 18-24 year old males.


0 Comments | This entry was posted on Jul 28 2009 by

So we have our seed, what are we going to do with it? We considered a mobile platform – something that could get us on to the up and coming portable gaming devices (iPhone, Zune, Palm, G1). In its current state, it would be quick, simple, and relatively easy to transplant, given that we had the code already written. (For anyone wondering – Processing is basically JAVA).

My first initial concepts were to try and get Influence on the G1, as the studio had been working on several small G1 games. The name “Influence” came up swiftly – it just made sense. It was exactly what you were doing. It was concise, easy to understand, and hinted at the psychological strategy element. I loved the idea of a pastel game for the G1 to keep in touch with the original – and the despair when the whole screen turned black. Below are a few concepts for the “Look & Feel” of Influence on a mobile platform. Instead of being drawn to the mouse cursor, player-controlled ids would move in the direction the player tilted.

Before we could even get a working prototype on the G1, we ran into a huge issue – G1 processing power. 150 independently controlled boids on the screen wasn’t going to work – in fact, we couldn’t even get to 50, which I dictated as the “minimum amount” we could have and still maintain the integrity of the game. As quickly as it had come into existence, designing for the G1 was out.

The Seed

0 Comments | This entry was posted on Jul 23 2009 by

Every game idea starts out with a seed – some flash of inspiration, some spark. Maybe it’s a mechanic, or an art style, a character or a new constraint. The seed for Influence, as with many of my personal projects, came from a beautiful natural algorithm applet in Processing. During the ‘seed’ phase, I find that the idea is as vulnerable as it is exhilarating. Talking to the wrong person, or even just having your thoughts interrupted, can scatter the seed across your mind, sometimes irreparably. For me, the key was to take the Processing applet and just explore – let the seed grow for awhile without the pesticide of my UI design training or practical limitations cutting in.

The very first iteration of “Influence” was actually styled after the Matrix. I discovered this flocking algorithm – the most typical “Port Boids to Processing” applet out there, and started thinking about the power a single boid possessed. A few variable tweaks later and I had “Neo” – a lone white boid who would follow the mouse cursor in addition to obeying his flocking algorithm, and “Mr. Smith” – a black boid. Either of these two, if they were the greatest force acting on another boid for at least one second, would assimilate that boid and turn it their own color.

The first time I played and lost I remember a sort of chill terror as I watched the otherwise purple and pastel colored boids darken, like mechanical parasites. The assimilation was viral, and it was throat clenching when my Neo, surrounded by the black, was finally and deftly snuffed out. Even after my interaction was cut off, there was still something mesmerizing about watching the screen fade away into darkness.

More than that, trying to escape was engaging. It was, well, fun. The seed was planted, the spark was born.

So what were the key elements of this seed?

  • Visuals: 150 boids spawn from the center of the screen outward in a flower pattern – this is cool. In this iteration, the boids that were neither ‘free’ nor an ‘agent’ were randomly colored some sort of pastel, with a tendency towards blue. They started on a gray background and their trails were permanent. There was no fading out. When a boid was ‘free’ its color would lighten, when it became an agent, its color darkened.
  • Mechanics: No AI! All boids on the screen are affected by the flocking algorithm at all times. Agents are just black mindless boids. Neo follows the mouse cursor in addition to the flocking algorithm. This means that he can get stuck in large crowds. This is somewhat irritating, but also thrilling to try and pull him out. Agents and Neo spawn randomly – they don’t always exist at the start of the game. Some found this irritating, I thought it was an excellent mirror of natural chance. Boids also sped up and slowed down based on the draw of those around them.
  • Feel: Somewhat harrowing but strangely addictive. Watching the screen turn black was frightening. It was surprisingly intense feedback that blatantly told you you’d lost. The black and white feel was classic – good versus evil.

I was confident, off to a good start, and – maybe – ready to expose the idea to new minds.