Wednesday, 18 May 2016


Imbroglio on iOS appstore

Yet another roguelike. It shares some recognisable elements with Zaga-33 and 868-HACK but I don't think it's very useful to think of it as a sequel, it has a pretty different philosophy.

It's on a 4x4 grid, as I continue to get steadily smaller (from Zaga's 9x9 and 868's 6x6). I first prototyped it at 5x5 but that was way too big. (See also Diego Cathilifaud's Amber Halls for 5x5, and I see now he's gone as low as 3x3 but I haven't checked that out yet.)

Compared to 868-HACK, individual plays are longer; it amused me to fit an epic-scale RPG leveling system into a tiny grid. But each play is self-contained, there's nothing like the streak scoring system tying multiple plays together. And there's less randomness in each game because you construct your build at the start of a game rather than assembling it from random pickups along the way. I've described this as "deck-building"; that might be slightly misleading but I think it's a useful analogy; the wall generation provides the "shuffle".

You can see I've used a different graphical style to some of my other games. Don't worry I haven't abandoned rainbow glitch pixel chaos for good, just the amount of stuff that needed to be communicated in terms of the card effects called for a higher resolution display. I'd been thinking for a while about using this kind of hand-sketched style for something and it fit here. Had fun drawing a bunch of wibbely monsters and stabby swords.

As usual, chances are a bunch of new bugs will show up now that it's released. Let me know and I'll get to work fixing them.

I hope you like it! It is always a bit anxious to release something new especially when it is hard to explain. I know for some people it will be too different and for some it will be not different enough, but it is its own thing and there you go.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Still working on Imbroglio! This is maybe the most technically complex game I've made? Not sure, Vertex Dispenser's somewhat-broken online multiplayer was a whole lot of mess, but here all the complications are just in the central game itself. There's a whole bunch of cards that can interact in different ways, triggering each other and modifying each other's effects. Just on the programming side it's been heaps of work making all the effects actually work but then on top of that is the design complexity; figuring how all the combinations ought to work, keeping in mind all the different interactions that might conflict with each other. I'll be out somewhere and suddenly realise "hey you can get infinite hit points" and then have to work out whether that's okay.

Its big weakness is still what I was talking about before, a lack of clarity in the risk/reward structure. It doesn't do a great job of generating counterfactuals, letting you reflect back on your failure and see "if I'd done Y instead of X then Z would have happened instead..". Adam calls this "unpacking" in this talk and cites 868-HACK as a positive example. Maybe my problem is trying to not make the exact same thing again so deliberately not reusing the things that worked well before? 868-HACK had super clear risk/reward, directly tying enemy generation to acquisition, if you lost it's probably because you took a deliberate risk. Imbroglio loss-reasons are not obvious at all, enemies just keep coming on their own schedule so maybe it's because you spent some turns inefficiently and now your power level hasn't kept up with the opposition, maybe you made the wrong choice what to level up fifty turns ago, things like that.

But also it has deck construction so even though it can be hard to figure out tactical errors you can also just think about trying a different deck. And honestly this is kind of a problem Magic has too? It's easy to change your deck (maybe buy some more rare cards lol) but it's pretty hard to tell when you lost through subtly inefficient resource management over several turns. So maybe i'm not doing too badly if my game's biggest weakness is also present in the most successful game of its genre?

Anyway yeah I don't think this is a fatal weakness? I will just make the game and let it be what it is, I shouldn't be worrying about whether it's a less good game than something else I made or whatever.

Been making good progress this week. Took me a long time to figure out what to do for sound effects but I've got the right idea now and that's coming together well. Turns out being in a bit of a daze while recovering from having a wisdom tooth out is a good state for just sitting down and churning out lots of samples. Fingers crossed they still sound good when I'm back to normal. Also I keep getting sidetracked trying out weird new card ideas, I'm supposed to be working on essential stuff so I can release the game not making it bigger. I tell myself it is to some extent useful to plan out the ways I might want to expand it later so I can architect things to allow for them. Anyway it has room to grow.

Thursday, 7 January 2016


Ok this is one of those "end of year / new year" posts you know the deal. For me 2015 was a Good Year and now I will tell you about it.

January, I finally got the PC version of 868-HACK out. Yann helped me make a really cool trailer for it (that's his office not mine!). Along with having released Helix in late 2014 that was the end of my "working on too many different games at once" clog. (Well, SMESPORT is still hanging over me but I can't work on that again until I live somewhere so never mind.) I am ambivalent about the value of porting to different platforms but I don't want to rant about that right now.

Then in March Tara's job in Scotland finished so we had to leave - visa restrictions decreeing that we had to be out of the country 2 weeks after her contract ended. We'd had a good stay there - we moved there for a short-term contract but it ended up getting extended a few times, three and a half years all up. Long enough to feel pretty settled. With no particular place to be we decided to go travelling - Tara could finish writing up papers and applying for jobs and I could keep making games from anywhere. So we spent most of the year backpacking around Europe. The New Zealand passport is very strong so we can travel quite a bit without visas or anything, the only problem has been re-entering the UK because they get very upset about the idea that someone who used to live there would ever want to go back; that part has been stressful. We're mostly visiting people we know rather than doing the tourist things. It's been pretty great. Highlights include scaling castle walls on Inishbofin island with a bunch of Irish game developers (lovely people all), dancing in an abandoned railway shack somewhere outside Prague, watching intense flamenco dancers in the streets of Granada and then smelling every tea in the tea shop, collecting the most colourful trousers I could find in every market.. so many things I'm not going to list. It's been pretty great.

I've been working on Imbroglio (yes it has a name now). I was going to write a summary of where it's at here but maybe I'll split that off into a separate post. I've found that while I can work while travelling, I'm slower. I don't always have the time and space to sit down and focus on a problem when I need to. Also I just haven't been able to do jams or make prototypes, I start things but then when I come back to them I've lost the momentum. I'm not sure if I could start or finish a project like this, but it's been fine for the iterative middle. But yeah even though it's slower than it might have been it has been coming along and I should be able to get it out in the next couple of months.

I mentioned I'd been getting into dancing (mostly blues and a bit of swing - historical African-American partner dances). I've never taken any physical discipline seriously before, I got put off sports early on in school because I was younger and therefore less physically developed than my classmates and feeling like I was Just Bad at it discouraged me from trying. So I've gone through life carrying a body around without knowing much about it. But it turns out bodies are really complex and interesting! I'd been missing out on a lot. It's hard work to train myself out of a lifetime of bad habits but I've made significant progress over the last year, there have been a few moments where something has just clicked into place and I realise I've let go of a tension I'd been holding onto for decades. When I was small people would tell me I had bad posture and I should stand up straight but it was always clearly nonsense because they were unable to give any practical advice on what to do better. But with some understanding of the counterbalancing forces in my body and how to gradually reshape them (rather than expecting instant results with "stand up straight") my posture has improved and it actually makes a lot of difference to my general quality of life and ability to deal with stress. Sometimes feels like having a whole new body. The dancing itself has been great too, it's a very close community with a lot of people who travel to different events so it's provided a sense of continuity/home in seeing the same people sometimes while travelling.

We still don't know where we'll be living next. Hopefully Tara will get another academic job, but that could be anywhere. But after having spent most of the year living out of backpacks, sleeping on floors, busing across borders that uncertainty doesn't feel like a big deal. We're living off 868-HACK money now, hopefully Imbroglio will do okay too and then I can keep going with the next thing after that. Otherwise there's still a chance I'll have to get a real job one day, that feels a very alien prospect and I don't know how I'd handle it, I don't know how they'd handle me, I've grown wild in my years of freedom, strong and reckless and stubborn in chaos.

Thursday, 8 October 2015


Chesh by Damian Sommer is out.

Aaah it's so good, I wish i'd thought of it.

Ok I will explain it a little bit.
I think the menu's amazing with all these cryptic icons but obviously it's going to throw some people. Just bear in mind that all the symbols actually mean a thing and you're meant to understand them and you'll be fine, you only run into problems if you stop expecting things to make sense.
The game is set up like a usual chessboard, 1-3 rows of pieces on each side. Players take turns picking a piece to move and moving it. The piece identities (both rules and icons) are randomised each time you play, but each player has the same set. There is no reference for what pieces do - you have to select one to see its available moves and then you're committed to moving it even if none of those moves are good for you. The goal is to kill a certain number of your opponent's pieces, counted by boxes along the edge of the screen. Some pieces are "royal" and are tinted a different colour, these count for 4 kills. (I took quite a while to figure out the win condition as i didn't notice the score boxes at first and the game often ends when taking a royal piece anyway.) When a piece reaches the far edge it has the option to teleport back to its start position (perhaps slightly inelegant but it stops pieces getting stuck if they only have forward moves).
And that's basically it.

The pieces aren't completely random. Typically the front row consists of "pawns" with movement limited to 1-2 spaces away and back rows have the stronger pieces which can move in rays across the board, knight-Ls, and more unfamiliar patterns. So despite initial impressions the game actually isn't very chaotic, there's a clear pacing as you develop your position and bring the stronger pieces into play.
You can take your own pieces. This is rarely desirable, but sometimes you are forced to by having selected a piece which has no other moves available. Don't blame the game for this. Picking an unknown piece without many freedoms is a known risk, usually you can avoid this if you think about it. And for your first move, all the pawns are guaranteed to have a safe move available (although opening with a back row piece is an interesting possibility - you'll probably have to take one of your own pieces but you might gain tempo?).

I'm worried the inclusion of an AI opponent will hurt Chesh, it's very much a game for playing against a human. I don't know to what degree the AI models "knowledge", I hope it does only use information about the pieces that it's "seen" - but that's the point, I don't know, I can't trust it. Whereas playing against another person, I know they've only seen what I've seen so I can trust them to provide a fair contest. Anything they know that I don't is something I could have known if I'd thought harder, remembered better. It's great. But I worry a lot of people will start by trying this with the AI and then since that version of the game is not as good as playing against a person they will give up and never enter that battle of wits. This is something I felt happened with Glitch Tank, a game similarly reliant on human limitations. So please try it out against a friend. (It has online play, hopefully that will help but if there aren't enough players long waits for an opponent may discourage people from trying.)

I like that even once a piece has moved its full capacities might not be revealed. You've seen it move forwards, but its backwards movements may be different. You've seen it move one step east to capture, but you don't know if that was its maximum movement or if it could have moved further had there not been another piece there.
I really like how moving a piece reveals information to both players. Sometimes you will avoid using a piece in order to hide its properties from your opponent - make them pay the cost of revealing it. I like to threaten royals before they've been moved, gambling that they might not have a way out. In general Chesh allows for aggressive strategies that would be impossible in Chess: you can risk exposing yourself because your opponent might not know they can take you or which piece they can do it with.

There end up being really interesting mind-games in terms of what you each know about the pieces, and what you each know about what the other knows. You've seen the same information but under pressure you don't remember all of it. Sometimes you can deduce that your opponent has forgotten what a certain piece does, and take advantage of that. If a piece was moved early on and not since, it's likely been forgotten. But that leaves another level (which I haven't reached yet) where you might bluff having forgotten something. Sometimes you can bluff just by moving a piece very confidently into danger, hoping your opponent will trust that you know what you're doing and not notice that they can take it.

There's a lot of skill in managing your memory. You can't remember everything so you have to pick what is most important to keep hold of. If a piece has very powerful long-range moves, it's a priority to remember that over something weaker and more local. But sometimes remembering the exact movement of a minor pawn can be critical - that one can attack any adjacent square except the one directly in front of it so that's where I'll move. And especially remembering something your opponent doesn't is advantageous, whatever it is. People are more likely to remember pieces that they've moved themselves, you can use that. You develop a weird internal language to remember approximately what pieces do and build mnemonic descriptions to connect them to the icons - the gravestone's a forward-knight, side-flower has ears, dog machine fat bishop. Sometimes the position of a piece on the board is enough to encode its movement, you can see it's a pawn and that you moved it diagonally because it couldn't go forward, so you don't need to store that in memory right now.

Ahh Chesh. It's really good play it.

(Disclaimer: I playtested Chesh and drew some of the icons for pieces.)

Thursday, 3 September 2015

following on from previous post

deckbuilding requires a fairly large pool of cards to select from. variety of different options to try, different ideas to build around. but having such a large space to explore is overwhelming. typically you'll limit access to cards (/things) so players aren't presented with the full problem immediately. so i have been thinking about exactly how to do this. various methods exist. standard videogame method is to unlock stuff as you play, opening up new things as objectives are completed or earning currency to spend unlocking things. boardgames typically sell expansions for conventional currency (in videogame language, "microtransactions").

in 868-HACK i used a simple approach: each time you complete a game an ability is unlocked. but there it made less difference because having more abilities unlocked doesn't increase the number you're choosing among at any given time, just more possibilities overall. (also there's a different concept of "completion"; i'm not certain yet whether the new game has an end but if so it is very difficult to reach, it is more about measuring how long you can survive.)

Hoplite has a list of 20 achievements, 6 of which are interesting; each unlocks an ability. i really like the way some of them reveal different games hidden inside the main one. i wish there weren't all the arbitrary "kill ten footmen" quests too but i understand they had a certain number of abilities to unlock and there just weren't that many interesting possibilities. Dream Quest goes way further down this path with 109 achievements almost all of which are numeric variations (kill 20 undead, walk 12000 steps, deal 20000 damage). i've considered doing this, unlock the mask by killing a ghost, unlock the totem by killing two enemies in one turn, but i don't have any that are actually good variations in the way some of Hoplite's are.

Deck de Dungeon has rare approach. earn currency as you play, making strategic choices that trade off currency against points. spend currency to include cards in your starting deck. critically, this isn't a one-off spend to unlock cards, it's paid every time you start a game. so you might play for money for a while to save up and then spend big to play for score. i'm not considering this but i haven't seen it anywhere else so i wanted to mention.

selling expansions is quite an appealing approach. as well as addressing the problem of dividing things up into manageable chunks, it probably makes more money. a lower base price might allow more people to play it overall (though this is unclear, a higher price can signal value) & a higher total price can be paid by people who might be unwilling to risk that much on a new game. (this is pushed to extremes by CCGs and many "free to play" games which turn the act of buying the game into another mode of play; profitable, exploitative, broken.) i might sell expansions but it doesn't seem like a complete solution - deckbuilding is a key part of the game and i'd want the initial purchase to have enough cards to support it even if i save some of the more complex possibilities for later. and "enough cards to support it" still seems like a lot.

i've tried a few different unlock schemes. get a new card each time you play; felt bad because it encourages losing quickly to get stuff. so require scoring, unlock a card every 4 points; felt bad because score distribution is non-linear, you'd make a discrete improvement and score twice as many points and suddenly your card pool doubles too. maybe exponential score targets? but there's not enough of those for all the cards. getting a currency as you play that you spend to unlock things - the problem with giving a choice what to unlock is that if i tell you enough to make an informed choice, we've already crossed the complexity barrier and you may as well just have those cards to play with.

Zach suggested unlocking cards by leveling them up (so each card would have to be present in a preset deck). it is a good idea! i don't think it quite works for me, it means you play a bunch of games with presets for no other reason. it is not particularly challenging to level up a card if you decide to focus on that to the exclusion of all else. (maybe that is itself a lesson worth communicating, but not sixty times.) also it has the same problem with making informed choices - you've still had to learn what the cards do to play with them in the presets.

in testing these schemes i kept getting bifurcated responses. some people found that unlocks were too slow for them, they valued playing with a custom deck and wanted to do so as soon as possible with the full range of possibilities. others complained that the unlocks came too fast, before they'd fully processed what was already there. they were very happy to play with presets for a long time, and found it intrusive to be told they'd unlocked new things while doing so. how can i accommodate two groups of people with directly conflicting preferences? usually i will just shrug because i'm not trying to please everyone, but critically these were all people enjoying the game just with different preferences about how much to engage with the deckbuilding side of it. why was unlocking was getting a negative response from the second group? it was being taken as communicating "you should have mastered all that by now", which wasn't the intention at all. and if even a small version of the problem is intimidating, having it growing faster than you feel you're 'solving' it is even more so.

so i've come back to where i started. thinking about boardgames, a lot of boxes come with expansions and alternate options already included and people are happy to ignore them, but obviously if someone's bought an expansion they want to play it. if it's the act of expanding that creates pressure, maybe it makes sense not to. just let everything be available from the start and it should be clear that you're not expected to know everything instantly, and there's nothing to stop you exploring at your own pace. in theory the first group of players will be happy because their exploration isn't being interrupted by someone else's idea of what that pace ought to be, and the second group will be happy because the unexplored region isn't growing and nobody's telling them to go there. feels pretty elegant to solve everyone's problems simultaneously and require less systems to do it.
i hesitate to actually commit to this.
the unlock is so much expected. when i show this version to people they say "ok but in the final version i'll have to unlock these right?". and i'm like "NO see i am trusting you to do it at your own pace" and they look at me like i'm some kind of motley unkempt hermit. if everyone expects a thing then maybe i should just do the thing and not confuse them.

i have backed off a little bit. as well as cards there are characters, these function like Netrunner's identities, giving different deckbuilding constraints and abilities to build around. currently you must achieve a certain score with each character's preset deck to unlock the option to build your own, and you unlock more characters by achieving higher scores. but once deckbuilding is unlocked for a character you have access to the full card set. is this right, i don't know. maybe if i'm not doing the slow grind then i shouldn't have any unlocking at all for clarity.


Monday, 31 August 2015

last post i hinted that the game i'm working on has deck construction, the type of play pioneered by Magic the Gathering where a player selects a set of cards before the game officially starts and then plays them out with some randomisation. part of why this works so well in Magic and its direct descendants is that it adds a singleplayer mode to a multiplayer game, so you can play the game without an opponent, but the singleplayer does not substitute for an opponent in the way a videogame AI might - instead it creates pressure towards finding an opponent as you build decks and want to try them out. the common problem we have making games for more than one player is that people "don't have anyone to play with" i.e. they're insufficiently motivated to ask their friends to play. (there is still stigma associated with the "nerdy" or "childish" activity of playing a game and for some people it is hard to overcome this.) but i am not making multiplayer games again yet, i've been interested in trying this mechanic in a roguelike game. this means it will lack the "metagame" of building your deck with reference to what your opponents decks might be, but it still seems compelling to optimise decks to play against random dungeons. (and it can still be massively multiplayer through the distributed discussion of deck construction, hopefully this doesn't mean it gets solved quickly and then everyone just plays the optimal netdeck or goes away.)

there's a lot in common between card games and roguelikes, in how you're constantly responding to random events, it seems natural to try to combine them. when i started thinking about this years back i hadn't seen anyone else really try it, but i doubt i was the first to think about it. now there seem to be quite a few examples around. i've played several unreleased ones people are working on. and then there's lots of games with names like "Card Dungeon" "Card Crawl" "Card Hunter" that i haven't gotten around to playing. (game developer curse: you end up playing way more unfinished games than finished ones.) also Dream Quest, though its dungeon grid is completely vestigial. (Deck De Dungeon has a similar battle mode while eschewing the grid entirely, which is to my mind more honest.)

i'd originally been thinking of using Dominion-style deckbuilding, where you start each game with a default deck and grow it throughout the game. this is a closer match for how roguelikes usually function, start with a weak character and gain abilities, it would just be adding a random element to when you can use those abilities. it is a nice system but i was finding it takes up a lot of space. the choices of cards to acquire and then the choices of cards to play, having interesting reasons for why you'd pick different alternatives in each case demands a lot of complexity, trying to fit that on top of roguelike tactical movement grid was too much. there's a reason why Dominion makes the entire game state be in the decks of cards. so i've settled on "constructed" play, build a combo then play it out in separate modes, get a score then maybe go back and tweak your deck again.

also thinking about Dota 2's ability draft mode. (ability dota is best dota.) you're building combos by selecting abilities that hopefully work together, but then there's still a lot of choices to make in how to play them out. you've drafted a character but then there are many possible builds for that character depending on the order you level your abilities, the items you buy, the role you play within your team. (hmm my game doesn't have a draft mode but maybe i should try that for multiplayer - take turns picking cards and then play it out and compare scores.)

i've written a lot of words and not even gotten to describing the actual problem i'm thinking about but i need lunch so i think i'll finish this here and write another post later.

Friday, 21 August 2015

new game is a roguelike rpg thing, kill monsters to level up! the focus is choices about how to level up. there are a lot of different tracks and essentially you can allow them to advance in a random order or you can take risks to control the order. standard risk/reward decision - controlling the order is generally better because it can be more focused, build up combos sooner, become more powerful more quickly. but the risk is too much so you cannot afford to always be in control, sometimes you will have to accept a random element and then that will affect your subsequent decisions.

this all works and it is deep complex elegant subtle. but "subtle" is not necessarily a virtue. once someone has played a few times and seen how different choices play out the game becomes interesting, but it is not clear at first. until you are motivated to choose the level-up order you are happy to accept the random order, and that means that you are not taking risks so the game is initially easier. for there to be space to take risks, there must be a somewhat safe environment to start with. in principle this seems quite good: beginners face a challenge they can handle, where experts make things harder for themselves to get an advantage and ultimately progress further. but how it's currently working out is that where there's a tough expert challenge the beginner sees a triviality.

so i'm trying to figure out how to communicate: this game may seem easy, but if you try harder you'll find it harder.
definitely feels an odd thing to say.

maybe i can tune it to feel more challenging at first but that is taking away space to take risks in & therefore reducing the possible things an expert player can try to get an advantage. so i think it's definitely more about better communicating that the space is there to take if you are feeling confident.

maybe i can ignore the problem because it goes away once someone's played a couple of times. not trying to be maximum accessible retention monster.

still so many other things to work out too. got this deck-construction kind of thing happening, lots of cards to choose from and you set up a board and then play it out. so hard to even vaguely balance sixty different cards where players are choosing whatever combinations. ("balance" not meaning "make the same" but rather "make able to co-exist interestingly". this word is used a lot by strategy game designers and has a specific meaning in that context but often people outside of that take it to mean sanding off all the bumps in the landscape and making everything boring so there's no reason to choose any one option over any other. this is almost the opposite of the intended meaning; we want a landscape with bumps in many shapes and sizes just none so sheer as to render all else flat by contrast.)

so much to do. constantly tweaking things and making progress but with travelling and stuff it goes slower than usual and it's a bigger project than i've been used to recently anyway, so it gets a bit daunting.