Sunday, February 12, 2017

#VisuEssayJam entry - Press Start

I was very intrigued by the Visual Essay Jam. Writing text criticism has been difficult for me over the past year, and a change in format felt exciting enough to inspire me. 

My Jam Entry is here: Press Start. I don't want to expound too much on it, since if the essay can't speak for itself then I have failed. If I've failed, I'd love feedback on it. This was something really new for me, and it is difficult to assess how well I did. 

I spent a while thinking of what topic I wanted to cover. I think my Deus Ex Photojournal was pretty close, but it relied too much on interstitial text and didn't really "say" much. It doesn't function as a piece of criticism as much as a bunch of pretty pictures that I liked. I didn't want to recover familiar ground with my submission, and I haven't been playing enough games lately that I had materials ready for something similar. 

I also considered taking Games and Food and remixing that content into an entry. I've already given a presentation on my work with Games and Food and was ready to try something else. 

Uploading my work onto Itch was a pleasure and I plan to move my existing games over to Itch when I get some free time. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Bully Bill

Bully Bill

We’re finally getting to levels that I feel are pretty good! Here, I wanted to have a very high-up level, with multiple paths, and I wanted to focus on another one of my favorite enemies: Bullet Bill.

Bullet Bills are great. They shoot bullets at a regular interval in a straight, horizontal line, and Mario can jump off a bullet not only to knock it down but also to extend Mario’s jump, a mechanic used in lots of other levels. Unlike fire piranha plants, which breathe unkillable fireballs at an angle, bullets are more predictable and manageable. But even though Bullet Bills’ firing rate and pattern are simple, they’re still ripe for increasingly complex formations, especially when bullets fired rightward are allowed to linger on-screen as Mario progresses through a level. Each bullet only denies Mario a little horizontal space, so having multiple bullets looks worse than it actually is.

By taking away a little horizontal space at a time, I built a level with a slow burn. At first, the bullets just fly over or under you. Then they directly intersect your path. Bullets then come at you from both directions, and finally you’re forced to navigate multiple bullets coming from either side of the screen, denying you the ability to jump on any bullet except the topmost one.

The vertical aspect is mostly used to create a separate path in case you aren’t good at staying on platforms. I won’t say it’s the most interesting or well-executed part of this level, but it seemed like a better alternative to me than just letting the player die as soon as they miss a single jump. Similarly, I used spikes to block off the gaps between solid platforms. Using spikes instead of open pits still signals “danger,” but spikes won’t kill Mario instantly if he’s not Small Mario, and let the player quickly dash back onto a platform. Using spikes therefore allows me to avoid excessively punishing the player. As a bonus, using spikes also makes it pretty clear there are no secret “fall down here for a bonus” pits.

This level might not be perfect, but I feel pretty good about it. I have fun trying to stay on the upper platforms while dodging bullets, and I think I did a good job ramping up the difficulty while avoiding excessive punishment. I also think the use of verticality makes for an interesting and memorable level. (I even got a Let’s Play video of my level, which is thrilling! They also liked it!)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Steamed Cheep Cheep

Steamed cheep cheep

There are two elements of Mario games that I despise: the sluggish, difficult nature of water levels, and the rounded, cartoony look and sound of New Super Mario Bros. This level is the first time I tried these two elementsbecause sometimes I feel the need to rip off the proverbial Band-Aid and push outside my comfort zone.

Underwater levels prevent you from bopping most enemies on the head to clear them, so fire flowers end up being one of the only ways to clear enemies when you’re underwater. I find this incredibly frustrating because when I think “Mario” I think “jumping on enemies’ heads.” As a result, I wanted to create a sense of catharsis by giving the player a fire flower and a ton of enemies to wipe out with fireballs.

This level is wide open, and features increasingly complex formations of Cheep Cheeps. My idea was to introduce a fire flower about halfway through and turn it into a fish fry. Having the fire flower show up halfway through should create some tension, in contrast to the sense of relief you get after arming yourself with fireballs. Unfortunately, my inexperience at making water levels really shined through when I played through this level again recently.

My first mistake was making the water level wide open. You can see from the screenshot that it’s a little too easy to just swim up to the top and pass over all the enemies. If you go back and look at any other Mario game’s water levels, they tend to be less of a straight shot, and more “twisty”. The fact that you can freely move up and down opens up way more possibilities in the design, and a official Mario level tends to take advantage of that. By making a straight, open level, I made a really boring and trivial level.

My second mistake is closely related to the first. Because I had a wide-open level, it might be a little bit too easy to skip over the fire flower entirely. Since getting the fire flower was my central idea for the level, having it be skippable renders the entire level pointless! Ideally, I would have used pipes or blocks to herd the player into a place where the fire flower was 100% unavoidable. By closing off some more of the level, I could heighten the tension of near-misses with Cheep Cheeps and make the initial stages of the level more interesting. That would heighten the sense of catharsis even more. For the end of the level, I could have opened up suddenly into a big shooting gallery of Cheep Cheeps, which would make it harder to skip over entirely. That release from a small, tight space where you dodge enemies into a big space where you are free to toast enemies would also have made the level more emotionally satisfying.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Super Mario Maker - This Is My Christmas Present

this is my christmas present

You’ll come across lots of SMM levels featuring art created with Super Mario elements: depictions of Mario made of blocks, music stages that play a song, messages spelled out with coins. I wanted to try it out.

SMM was, in fact, a Christmas present from my wife. I wanted to do something cute for her, and so I summed all of my artistic strengths to draw a heart. Well, two hearts. And our initials. I’m not a very artistic person.

After that, I just kind of winged it to try some interesting elements. Although this level is still the default length, as my previous entry was, I was a lot more sparse here. I stuck with fairly classic Mario elements: The staircases of blocks with pits in between, stretches of pretty basic enemies, and fire-breathing piranha plants.

I love fire piranhas! They’re mildly surprising, since they pop out of pipes. They don’t take up too much space and they don’t move, so they’re easy to jump over. They fire projectiles in your direction at an angle, so you do have to react to them in surprising ways. These facets all make for an interesting, dynamic enemy that I’m probably overusing in my stages.

At one particular point, someone left me a hilarious comment/drawing to illustrate the tricky dual-piranha plant trap I set up. .

This course ended up being my most popular course. I think between the title and the hearts I accidentally signalled that this was going to be a short, kind of goofy level that wasn’t too serious or difficult. That’s the lesson, I guess. Short, goofy levels get more attention? That’s fine with me. I am not interested in every single thing I do being a masterpiece of Serious Level Design.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Packed Pipes

Packed Pipes

I think this course is a failure.

I wanted a course where all the platforms were pipes, which I thought would be aesthetically interesting, and it would give a chance for me to play around with the “enemies coming out of pipes” mechanic. I tried to set up a gradual increase of enemy difficulty, from goombas to piranha plants to flying koopas. I also wanted a branching path because I think that’s what interests me most in my favorite Super Mario World courses.

By the time I finished creating my course, I was pretty happy. It seemed to be the right level of difficulty and surprise. However, after letting it sit for a week or two, I came back to it and it doesn’t hold up so well against some of my later levels.

The most irritating thing about this level is the length. I think early on, I was intimidated by trying to fill out a large screen with tons of stuff. I kept the course at the default size and tried to fill in from there. As a result, this level is really dense. Playing through it doesn’t take very long, and there’s no time to really absorb what’s happening.

The density of the level also throws off the difficulty curve. Piranha plants don’t activate until you get reasonably close, which ambushes an unsuspecting player. I never noticed this effect because I already knew the plants were there! Other enemies spring out of the pipes in such rapid succession that they quickly fill up the space between the columns. After seeing a few other levels with this mechanic, I think the best idea is to let the pipe-spawned enemies fall off the stage after bouncing off a wall. This allows the constant flow of enemies to be intimidating without becoming overwhelming.

Finally, the flying koopas that spawn just before the end are just annoying. I wanted to make the last pipe hard to reach without bouncing off an enemy, but I also wanted the difficulty of a piranha plant trying to ambush you. Those two ideas are introduced at the same time, and the pattern of the koopas means they get stuck for a bit before moving into an ideal jumping position. It’s just sloppy. If I made this level longer, I could have given more time to each individual idea instead of piling them on top of each other like an overstuffed sandwich.

I do like the top path, though. There’s a question block, which is what I like to use to distract the player for a second in order to let any potential dangers reveal themselves. In this case, the question block gives a mushroom. As the mushroom travels down to the player, the piranha plants spring into action, revealing the dangers ahead.

The mushroom also gives the player the ability to soak up the inevitable damage from the piranha plants. The invincibility frames the player gets after getting hit allow the player to run to the end, where another mushroom hides in a question block. I think this is a decent implementation of “you need to take damage to move forward” tropes that appear in harder levels. However, I’m not entirely sure it belongs in this particular stage, which is not supposed to be all that difficult.

Looking back on this course, it’s definitely a sophomore attempt. I think it would be interesting to go back and revise it. In the meantime, it’s more of a warning to amateurs than it is an interesting and engaging level that stands on its own.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Super Mario Maker - Big Shroom 101

In this series, I’m going to talk about some levels I made in Super Mario Maker and the associated thought process that went with them.

Big Shroom 101

I got the 8-bit Mario Amiibo with my copy of Super Mario Maker. When you tap it on the Wii U reader, you get a giant mushroom that makes Mario super-big. Since this was my first level, I didn’t have anything else unlocked so I decided to play around with this.

Super-Big Mario can stomp through hard blocks and question blocks, so I wanted to try that out. The first area lets you pass by enemies, but if you try and jump on them you’ll likely stomp on the hard blocks and break them. I designed this so I could start getting a feel for what the super shroom did.

The next enemy isn’t shielded by anything, so you’ll likely jump on it or over. Either way, it would be hard to miss landing on some hard blocks. Even if you didn’t get the previous lesson, you will now definitely know what the super shroom does.

From here, I decided the challenge would be trying to land safely on blocks that get smashed as soon as you jump on them. Instead of layers of blocks that are 3 deep, I moved on to 2 deep and then 1 deep. If you aren’t careful with your jumps, you will fall right through the level!

Finally, I finished out with the classic flying koopas pattern. If you’re small or risk-averse, you can just run underneath them. If you’re daring, you can jump on all of them to get the 1-up from hitting the flag at max height!

Friday, August 7, 2015


On rare occasion, I back video games on Kickstarter and wanted to lay out some of my criteria for sussing out any red flags a video game Kickstarter might send up.

First: I determine if the game interests me at all. Most of my preferred genres (RPGs, city builders, turn-based strategy games) are pretty well covered. However, weird hybrid games always catch my eye. Concrete Jungle is a puzzly, deck-building city-builder. Treachery in Beatdown City is a tactical brawler. Toby’s Island is a city-builder and monster-breeder game. I’m not super interested in funding a straight fantasy RPG or a sci-fi action game as I already have dozens of those. If they’re good, I can buy them after they come out. If they don’t exist, I can help bring something unique to fruition! That’s really cool!

Second: I tend not to contribute to Kickstarters that are already funded. In general, I think stretch goals for video games are a bad idea (more on that below), and pre-ordering games is a gamble. I don’t mind pledging to something that might not get funded, but I’d rather not pledge to something that’s definitely funded.

Third: I look at the scope of the game. I’ve seen one too many Kickstarters that try being a perfect game that is all things to all people. Something complex needs realistic, achievable plans, experienced devs, and a sizeable budget. I tend to err towards smaller games with graphics that aren’t cutting edge because that reduces complexity and therefore reduces risk.

I am really suspicious of stretch goals in general. Stretch goals that add more content or mechanics have costs routinely understated by creators in order to make a pitch seem more attractive. Stretch goals are also another vector for scope-creep to come into play, and it goes back to the risks of complexity I discuss above.

Fourth: the pitch itself is mildly important. Tom Francis covers that extremely well here. I especially agree with his point about lore, which is the least important part of a pitch for me. I generally don’t pay attention to a game’s lore until I’m pretty deep in the game, and I’ll skip right past the part of a pitch that tries to hook me with (over-dramatic) story, such as “Jareth Grimdark is a Destined Reanimetric on the run from the Glorified Indignancy of Yog-Sugoth.”

Fifth: I take a look at “Rewards.” When I back a game, I would at least like the money to go towards a copy of the game. Having my name in the credits isn’t enticing, and I’m not a big video game soundtrack collector, but I am a sucker for having an NPC named after me for a few extra bucks, or a bit of dialogue solicited from me. Physical rewards like t-shirts, stickers, or buttons are also unattractive. However, I’m open to digital art rewards if the art style is a big selling point. I don’t really care for access to pre-release builds as I find I get burned out on the game before its final release, and I don’t have much free time to give detailed feedback to devs.

Sixth and finally: the “Risks and Challenges” section is where I really get critical. I expect to see, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the inherent chaos of software development. No one ships on time, and finished products are rarely an exact match of their initial pitch. I definitely want to see an acknowledgement that timelines are subject to change as well as mitigating factors like industry experience and other forms of backing. I do expect the creators to have already begun development of their game prior to the Kickstarter. If a game hasn’t been worked on at all yet, I suspect the creator doesn’t know what features and gameplay mechanics will actually work in practice, which affects the timeline, the scope, and the budget of their project.

When I was writing this, I noticed that Toby’s Island really didn’t fit all of my criteria. It was a risky investment, and unfortunately that risk was realized. Toby’s Island had the largest scope of all the games I backed; it promised a monster breeding system, a city builder, and an RPG. That’s one strike. Also, Toby’s Island didn’t have a functioning prototype, which was strike two. Finally, there wasn’t much experience behind the project. Strike three! Sure enough, I recently received an update saying the development of the game was going to be significantly set back. The two creators had irreconcilable differences and could no longer agree on the direction of the project.

I don’t really blame them. Software development on its own is really unpredictable. Technical challenges lurk behind every project. It’s not clear how many pitfalls will slow them down in the future or how long it will take to resolve them. A project with tight deadlines and money on the line is going to be incredibly stressful for everyone involved. The guidelines I use are meant to mitigate that hazard.

I still really like the premise of Toby’s Island. I don’t mean to turn them into a cautionary tale, but Kickstarters like Toby’s Island demonstrate the risk inherent to an ambitious game because it’s easy for creators to bite off more than they can chew. I hope potential backers can make use of my guidelines to understand the chance of their money going towards a useful end product.