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Reality Continues To Be Broken

Through I strove mightily towards game development this bizarro weekend, I gave up on the last day because frankly my lack of progress was sort of depressing.

After a day of wracking my brains, I finally figured out a starting point for a larger project in GameMaker:
  1. Create the rooms that will be needed for the game. 
  2. Create rudimentary buttons to navigate between the rooms.
  3. Now, at my leisure, code whatever feature of whatever room I might be interested in coding in a given session.
No problem; that breaks it down into relatively digestible steps.  Breaking things down like that is among the most common advice on motivation you are likely to hear, because trivial steps are easy.
Epic Space Game Mk 1.  (Don't panic if you see a familiar asset there, it was only a placeholder.)
So, what went wrong?

I started my first run at the project ("Epic Space Game Mk 0") by realizing I wanted most of it to take place in the same room with clever uses of views, because that way I can continually simulate more than switching between rooms.  Unfortunately, the overhead behind this approach got really cumbersome really fast, and I lost interest.

To me, this might mean I need to streamline my implementation to be less cumbersome... or it might mean that it was silly of me to try to do this all in the same room considering GameMaker is so heavily inclined to want to associate different game modes with different rooms.

I chose the second option.  I restarted the project ("Epic Space Game Mk 1") by creating four distinct rooms: One for managing your ship, one for choosing a destination, one for visiting a planet, and the final one for visiting a starbase.  Got a neat little rudimentary framework up in a half-hour, looked fine.

Conceptualizing a little further, I realized GameMaker would be well suited to creating a personal top-down mechanic for the roving-about-on-foot segments (ala Hotline Miami) and a scrolling shooter mechanic for the space travel segments (ala 1942).

Then the muse went on strike because this looked like nothing I wanted to make.  Such an arcade-like game is well-suited to GameMaker's strengths, but not nearly nerdly enough for the likes of me.  (Or so I pieced together from the dissonance of her stamping of feet.)
I have not given up completely.  The more I rage against the machine, the less crawling in the skin I am likely to do because of just how familiar I am getting with the ins and outs of this handy dandy completed engine.  I have games like Hyper Light Drifter that make it pretty clear that GameMaker is certainly capable of enough firepower to get what I need done.  The sticking point is that a finished engine always has other peoples' way of doing things, and acclimating myself to their methodologies is not going to happen overnight.

An experienced game developer would tell me that my problem is that I am trying to make too big of a project, and I should make a smaller project just so I can get used to game development enough to feel comfortable gnawing on something larger.   It is hard for me to feel excited enough about a lesser project to feel motivated to try.

Now Listening To: Reality Is Broken, by Jane McGonigal.

I am at 3/11 CDs in on this one right now.  (Mostly because audiobook just happened to be the cheaper format.)  It is a pretty fascinating book that frames games in an exciting light: that people flock to games because they are offer a superior experience to reality.  This is a fair assertion since, after all, games are essentially tiny microcosms of reality that were designed from the ground up to be more enjoyable than the alternative.

But McGonigal goes further than that, she suggests that it is not gamers that need to stop escaping life, it is life that needs to be more like games.  This is because games have set the rewards right, in a satisfying manner that pleases the human brain, but reality has not.  Ergo, the title of the book: Reality Is Broken.

It is certainly an edifying reading for a lifelong gamer.  She spins us as downright revolutionary human beings who have transcended the paltry desires passed down to us by our ancestors, and not without reason: when you prefer blinking pixels over the things in life that we have been killing ourselves for millions of years to get, something must be up!

This premise aside, by disc 3 I am feeling a bit disappointed because the book seems to have fallen back on this formula:
  • Take an example of a popular game.
  • Find a scientific study that provides a reasonable explanation as to why it is popular.
  • Create a rule of game design based off of the resulting correlation.
As Jesse Schell said in Art Of Game Design, "Our Mendelav has not come," meaning that game designers have yet to truly have isolated the elements of what makes enjoyable video games tick.  However, if McGonigal's approach worked, sure we have, here it is, McGonigal is our Mendelav, lets go give her our equivilent of the Nobel Peace Prize

No; her approach is too easy for my liking.  The three bullet points above are sterling examples of both confirmation bias and cherry picking; you don't just take studies that support you and cite them as evidence! 

However, the main thing that bothers me about the approach to these chapters is that they are based on the idea that, "If a game is popular, there must be a good reason for it."  I disagree.  I have seen too many examples of awful games that nonetheless managed to garner great popularity, so I do not think that necessarily holds up.  I have seen other examples of great games that barely got any attention at all.  This leads me to believe that popularity more often begets being in the right place at the right time, often with a captive audience, than being good.  Certainly not good enough to go drag a bunch of pseudoscience out of the closet to support they are good for a reason.

Maybe I am just jealous of success, and she has the right of things.  I can certainly give McGonigal a nod for coming up for some feasible-sounding explanations, considerably better researched than most potshots I have seen taken in the average game development forum.  Also, a great deal of what is being said in this book is inciteful, even revolutionary.  I heartily recommend this book, and bow to a writer who is obviously a superior, experienced game development and an excellent independent thinker.

However, I would not be any kind of critical thinker if I simply jumped on that bandwagon without kicking the tires a few times.  My current impression is that she probably should have quit while she was ahead with the original premise instead of falling down the slippery slope of analogies, which are made to be broken.  The result would have been a shorter book, but a less critically vulnerable one.

Now Playing: Fantasy Life.

I need some more 3DS games to play, it's a great little unit and the only one I take with me on the go when I know I will have time to kill.  That said, Fantasy Life struck me as something right up my alley for a few core reasons:
  • It is made by Level5, a game development studio with a pedigree so pure that lesser mongrels must look away or be blinded.
  • It is an open-ended fantasy game possessing a huge world, stuffed with content.
  • There are twelve whole professions (each presented as the titular "fantasy life"): four focused on combat, five for crafting, and three on gathering.
    • Paladin - One-handed sword fighter with optional shield for blocking capability.
    • Mercenary - Two-handed sword fighter.
    • Hunter - Focused on using the bow.
    • Wizard - The spell casters, of course.
    • Blacksmith - Forger of weapons, tools, and armor.
    • Carpenter - Work logs, pick up the wooden end of weaponry and tools, also make furniture.
    • Alchemist - Create potions, bombs, and accessory items (e.g. broaches and glasses).
    • Tailor - Create fabric, and clothes (mostly cosmetic), as well as some furniture (rugs, curtains).
    • Cook - Render various collected organic materials into sumptuous, stat-buffing meals.
    • Woodcutter - Have axe, will cut down trees to gather logs.
    • Miner - Have pickaxe, will mine ore and other precious stones.
    • Angler - Have pole, will collect fish.
    You have the ability to switch between Life, and there is some crossover.  For example, a Wizard might want to make their own wands so they spend some time as a Carpenter, but that Carpenter does not want to buy his own wood so he also spends some time as a Woodcutter.
  • The ability to customize your home in the game.
Forty.  Bucks.   This game could be nothing less than a significant improvement over Animal Crossing to have a chance to pry a brick of that size out of my pocket.  To an extent, the games do not compare, they work different angles, but Fantasy Life undoubtedly has more diverse gameplay, so I was sold.
So far, three hours in, I am really digging it.  The core gameplay may not necessarily be hardcore gamer worthy, but the real thing that makes this game work the character: the towns and wilds are teeming with well-designed characters with excellently ported dialogue.  When you join a new professional (or "Life") you also meet a host of likable coworkers.   It fishes you in, and thus, Fantasy Life delivers what's on the box.

Thus far, it seems this game could keep me for at LEAST 100 hours, especially if the twelve "Lives" truly offer a worthwhile diversity of activity.  If this turns out to be true, that's forty bucks well spent, and Level5 has delivered once again.

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