Probably Dance

I can program and like games

Category: Games

Lessons Learned from Shenzhen I/O

Shenzhen I/O is a brilliant game. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s a game about programming micro-controllers. It distills programming down to the fun parts, removing the inertia, self-inflicted complexity, overhead, uncertainty and drag of real programming. It’s just about coming up with clever tiny algorithms and micro-optimizing the heck out of them. It’s great alone, but it’s even better if you have a friend that’s playing at the same time. Competing on the leaderboards for puzzles is enormous fun. From playing that game, here are a couple lessons:

1. There is no optimal code. There is only code that’s faster than the code that you’re comparing to

Shenzhen I/O shows you a histogram of all the scores that other people have reached. If my solution would fall on the right of the bell curve, I would optimize it until I was on the left. After a lot of work I would usually arrive at an “optimal” solution that puts me in the best bracket on the histogram. Those solutions were always far from optimal.

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The Best Game Stories Are Told in the Past Tense

I just finished playing Analogue: A Hate Story, and it is a great game. While playing it I noticed a few patterns of game stories that I can’t find collected anywhere, so I’ll do that here then.

The main one is that the best game stories are told in the past tense. Meaning most or all of the story has taken place before the player starts playing. Bioshock does this, Portal does it, Gone Home, To the Moon and Analogue also do it. It’s easy to come up with counter examples that also have a good story (just look at Christine Love’s previous game: don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story) but it’s interesting that this pattern should prove so successful in an interactive medium.

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Job hunting in the Games Industry

I’m finishing my Master’s degree and applying to companies to work for. I had few pieces of data to know how difficult the job hunt would be: 1. Most of last year’s Master’s students didn’t get the job they wanted. 2. I know a lot of artists that graduated from DigiPen that ended up being unemployed, or who do game testing.

So I played it safe and applied to every company that I could see myself working at. Which wasn’t an incredibly long list, but it turned out that it was more than I should have applied to. Because every single company that I started talking to turned from “I could see myself working there” to “I would love to work there.”

And it surprised me that that happened so repeatedly. Maybe it shouldn’t have, because this is after all the industry that I wanted to work in. But it seems like a lot of people these days have figured out how to run a good studio and there is an impressive amount of likable personalities. And now my biggest problem is that I have to turn down companies that I would like to work at, because I have to make a decision…

But yeah, I just wanted to post something short expressing my delight at learning that this is not just a pretty cool industry in my imagination, but actually.

It’s not a generational thing

I’ve often heard that for games to be properly accepted, we just have to wait a couple of years until those people who haven’t grown up with games are no longer in positions of power and then we’ll be fine.

I no longer believe that. I think that a large part of the current generation of young adults actually has a pretty bad opinion of games.

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About Playtesting

So I’ve been thinking a lot about playtesting recently. Mainly triggered by Portal 2, my experience in making the game Leshy over the last semester, and also by lots of other stuff likeĀ this talk by Jonathan Blow.

I was showing the finished version of Leshy to our composer, Tyler and I was watching him play the game. He eventually got to an area where he got stuck. And I knew exactly that the reason why he was stuck was, that he had gotten to this area too early and that he didn’t yet know about a game mechanic that another area would have instructed him about.
If you have ever done a playtest, you know that this is a horrible situation. In playtesting you are not supposed to intervene. You don’t give hints, you just watch the player play and see if he figures it out or not. So I was sitting there watching this guy trying various different things, all of which were destined to fail. It was extremely frustrating to watch this. I knew that he couldn’t succeed because the game hadn’t instructed him yet, but yet he kept on trying. He got it almost right and failed. He got it very wrong and failed. He tried the very wrong thing again and failed. He failed, failed and failed again. And I’m sitting there just wanting to shout and scream and just tell him how to do this, and that this wasn’t his fault and that we’d fix this and oh why won’t you at least give up and go somewhere else first so that you may come across the training section that you missed.

Get the sphere up to those stairs. Shouldn't be that hard, right?

Anyway. That was my impression. He on the other hand was having a good time. For him this was a challenging puzzle that he was trying to figure out. It is totally OK for a player to be working on a puzzle for five minutes, at least as long as he can keep on trying new stuff and isn’t completely stuck. And he did eventually figure it out.
I don’t think he was frustrated at all. It was just me being frustrated. Below the jump I think about Valve in relationship to this experience:

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