Book recommendation: Power Play

It only lately occurred to me that games can be a force for good, even though I’ve been a gamer for decades, and in game business for nearly 15 years. That’s quite a glacial pace of thinking, but hey, even glaciers get there in the end. (Note to self: find out where glaciers go to hang out and why.)

Luckily, I bumped into an excellent primer on the subject. It’s a book called Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World (2017), written by Asi Burak and Laura Parker. Burak has been leading the Games for Change organization for years, and Parker is a writer for many publications, including Wired and The New York Times.

Click the pic to get the book from Amazon.

Power Play is a very good overview on different social impact games projects from around the world, from games teaching civics in US schools, to games helping young cancer patients cope with treatments, to VR games enhancing empathy towards other people.

It also hops briefly onto a meta level by looking at if making games can help people develop themselves, and talking about games utilizing crowds for scientific research.

The book has no dramatic narrative or plot twists. Instead, it slams down the facts in a concise, well-written manner, which coincidentally was just what I was looking for. Drama I can get enough from logging into Twitter.

The Kindle version has links to all the games/projects mentioned in the ten chapters, handily available for further study – a tiny detail my lazy, but information-hungry fingers appreciate.

So, don’t be like my glacier pals and me, don’t creep around aimlessly waiting for the next ice age: get Power Play, get into social impact games, and save the world with a game. Maybe your game can help the glaciers too; They’re pretty worried about melting.

A door to iPhone X

If you choose to be a slow-ass developer, people go and release new devices and come up with strange screen ratios just to mess with you. Apple released the iPhone X only to troll me with a 19.5:9 screen ratio, when all normal people are happy with the golden 16:9 ratio.

A game in landscape orientation, where a valiant hero runs from left to right, appering from the left screen edge and disappearing under the right screen edge, does not compute when the screen width changes. The hero needs to run a longer distance, changing the pacing by creating boring emptiness.

I considered several options to allow the hero to continue appearing close to the 16:9 edge, also in the weird iPhone X ratio:

  • Black foreground objects (i.e. dark items really close to camera) to hide the hero’s appearance from thin air (Didn’t since in some levels the hero spawn point is at the top, and having black things floating/hanging there would be strange.)
  • Borders around the “old tv” bulge effect that would show a bit of the actual tv outside the “tv screen” (Didn’t like because it’s such a waste of actual screen estate.)
  • Add actual walls to the room, after which there would be blackness, or “outside” wall paneling. (I almost went with this option in desperation, but I like the airiness of the levels that have no walls, so I didn’t.) A variation of this to leave the ceiling intact but create deep dark shadows to the edges, from where the hero would emerge. But that just looked odd.

The options on what to do with the left edge.

After much raging, what eventully happened was a door. A door from where the hero pops out on iPhone X. A door that 16:9 device users are blissfully unaware of. A door to the future!

Depending on the width of the screen, the hero appears either from a door or classically under the left edge. I need to tune the timing a bit still, but this keeps the pacing the same for each device the same, although 16:9 people need a tiny bit quicker reflexes.

Left side of the orange line will only be seen by iPhone X elitists, and whichever Android devices want to emulate Apple.

Nobody will ever notice (or care) that this is going on, but at least it’s written down here on this blog, so we know the struggle was real.

New Name: Moonshot Mission

As a general rule, you can rename your unreleased project once a year, and because the first Planet Jone game has been in development for… years, it was high time to seize the chance.

What was formerly know as Operation Balalaika (boo!) is now called…

Moonshot Mission

For a one-man indie project, it’s really important to have robust version numbering.

I know most people wanted this post to end here, but it won’t because I want to continue writing. So, here are the reasons for this super-marketirific naming change are:

  • I never liked to say Operation Balalaika (boo!) out loud. In theory it’s fun, but in practice it grinds any sentence to a halt and makes the listeners pack up and leave.
  • Moonshot Mission is more descriptive of the events in the game. It’s also kinda wordplay’y, which I like, ‘cuz I’m a nerd.
  • The original story had a Soviet Russian protagonist going in an US moonbase to rescue people who didn’t want to be rescued. This story *) was conceived during the Barack’n Joe era, back when world politics were in a somewhat nice, semi-civilized phase. Looking at what’s going on in real-life USA & Russia today, making them seem jolly just doesn’t do it for me anymore. Thusly, the hero is now from the Finnish Space Force and the moonbase is a United Nations research center! Much better! But, the name Operation Balalaika (boo!) doesn’t make sense in that context anymore.

Now I just need to go visit all the pages in the Internet to ask them change the name for each and every bit of HTML.

*) Using the term extremely loosely here.

Site Focus

I tweaked the blog focus a bit.

Thus far, the blog was about everything and nothing at once, mostly focusing on the latter, but now it’s about..

Making games, saving world!

(So not, for example, about correct grammar or sentence structures.)

If you don’t believe me, look at the tagline under the Planet Jone logo – it wouldn’t lie to you. (You can’t see the logo on the smaller mobile screen, in which case look at the above words in bold and just choose to believe.)

What that means is that I shall try to steer the out-of-control style and content of the blog into a direction that is either about games or social and planetary conscience, with occassional strokes of madness sprinkled evenly in-between.

The “About” pages are now updated to make a bit more sense, and FOUR different ways of following Planet Jone have been introduced: RSS, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I calculated it should quadruple the amount of readers from 2 to 8 -that’s the magic of Internet!

A moment of optimism

Plot twist: the development has not stalled! It’s actually progressing somewhat nicely, making me say things like “hey old pal o’ mine, maybe this game could be released before the end of the year” before I catch myself and give myself a sharp slap on BOTH cheeks, because that’s how Jesus did it.

After the slap fight was over, I went and cashed in the one free month of Unity Advanced Teams to get access to Unity Cloud Builds. As a struggling indie developer, I don’t have a Mac so I can’t make iPhone builds myself, so I just needs meself some ‘Cloud.

The Cloud Builds monthly cost is 9 bucks plus tax, with one month free trial. That’s probably 9 bucks plus tax and a one month free trial more than the game will ever make, so I need to be mindful of the budget.

Here’s a GIF of level 13 in case you’re wondering how that particular level is faring:

478kb of 2x speed GIF goodness, where I made a typo totally on purpose.

PS. I also decided to just destroy the idea of making hi-def graphics instead of the pixel ones. What was I thinking? I would never finish the game if I would to go down that road and— and pixel art rulez! So screw you, mass appeal! PS^PS: I’m telling you this here in this PS, because I’m afraid of the backlash. Nobody reads a PS, so I should be safe.

Must… simplify…

The avalanche of comments from the previous post proved that both emotially and data-drivenly, people hate blocky pixels and love 4K ultra high-def graphics. If you can’t be arsed to click to see the comment avalanche for yourself, here’s just a tiny sampling of the huge amount of comments as proof:

Because I have only mad denialism on my side, I continued to think about the added workload of migrating from pixel art to, uh actual art (?).

The main problem is that the very laws of physics and human decency prevent anyone from doing actual frame animations – drawing each frame by hand – but programmatically making pieces of art rotate and bounce is possible and somewhat easy in Unity.

The noodly-armed Cosmonaut I drew previously would require frame animation, so I whipped out my trusty ol’ Simplifinator ™ and drew another version that doesn’t bother with joints and multi-parted appendages of any sort.

This new guy might be animatable, and s/he makes me laugh because s/he looks so [politically incorrect term removed by term police]. *)

Also, before managing to publish this post, I did a rough animation test to get a feeling on if animationing is possible with my time & skill reserves, so might as well put that here too. Here’s a GIF for your perusal:

All in all, going down this route would be more work, and I don’t like work, so the decision to ditch the pixel artsy look is still pending.

*) I didn’t actually have a term in mind, just wanted to make you think about something offensive and realize it came from your own mind. Tsk tsk.

Do people love pixels?

I’m an old retro geezer, so I like pixel art.

It reminds me of the days we hunted dinosaurs with only pixels as our weapons and as a way to hide some parts of our naked hunter bodies. (Nowadays there’s better weapons for dino-huntin’, but people still use pixels for the other thing.)

In addition, I like pixel art because it’s 1) quick to create and animate and 2) it lets your imagination fill in for the missing parts (nice throwback to the first chapter there!) – much like reading a book makes your imagination imagine things instead of just accepting the pre-made visuals like when you watch a movie or play a game with high-end AAA-quality graphics.

BUT, I don’t know what the average game playing gamer thinks when they see yet another cheap pixel art game. Is it a prequisite to be old and/or naked to like pixels, or does your average citizen feel fine about them?

While mulling over this conundrum, I drew a simple version of Cosmo the Cosmonaut, a.k.a. the Hero of Operation Balaika, a.k.a. The Soviet Savior, and put it next to the sprite from the game to compare. Here:

In a surprising turn of events, I actually like the hand-drawn version more than the super-retro pixel version, but I’m not totally convinced yet that after being already around 3 years late, I should add 3 more years to the production schedule. I think I could manage drawing all the things, but animating everything in glorious hand-drawn high def is not my forte.

And now, Mr./Mrs./Other Reader, if you know which style would get more downloads *), let me know too in the comments section below. Or by thinking about it extra hard, so I can separate your telepathic message from the other noises in my head.

*) It suddenly struck me that if I make this game, it would be fun if someone played it too. It’s been a magical day filled with revelations!

Level design is too hard

Alright you wee lads, gather ’round the fireplace and I’ll tell you a story from days long past: when I started in games, I started as a level designer. End of story.

I don’t really like level design, because it’s so HARD. It’s like an actual job where you need skill to do actual things. You need creativity and sense of fun & pacing and you need patience to wait for game features to catch up with your vision for a level, before you can know if your idea works. Level design makes my brain melt. I think the syndrome is called toolazyforcreativitynitis.

Operation Balalaika has 50 levels, since it was a nice round number and it seemed like the absolute maximum I could might get done. Considering the years that have whizzed past, that number was too damn high, but in general, most numbers are.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed that if the game needs to be released, the levels need to be done. In light of this revelation, I chunked out the list of un-designed levels into an action plan: “design 2 levels per day until they are all done or you are dead“. I guess that death part can be taken as an option or a threat, but nevertheless, it worked, because all 50 levels now have a semi-coherent design!

I took screenshots of the levels in the game, then filled the gaps with new hand-drawn designs.

A recommendation for any budding level designers out there: if you have the self-knowledge to know you like to go to the dentist, and that you enjoy getting repeatedly punched in the face, it’s possible you have the mentality needed to become a level designer! Just kidding. You don’t actually need to like to go to the dentist.

Anatomy of a level

Thus far I’ve been just winging it with level design in Operation Balalaika and designo-implemented levels simultaneo-concurrently, but today I decided to add another layer of winging it-ness, and started using pen and paper *) to do quick design sketches. I hope this added bit of process will make development faster, as all process does. That’s why Nokia is still the greatest mobile phone company in the world, after all.

Feast your eyes on this fresh, exclusive making of material that just squeezed out of the far end of my new Process Pipeline of Agileness ™:

Michael Bay would be pleased.


That’s it for this post, thank you everyone, it was great.

*) Actually iPad and Apple Pencil, but pen and paper sounds more auteur-y, and I need to keep up appearances.

Migration complete

Hi there, you might remember me from this blog, although because the blog doesn’t have any readers (I just checked from WordPress stats, so it’s a true fact), you might not.

Let’s pretend you do, so I can tell you one thing:

Operation Balalaika has been officially migrated from ye olde Unity 5.3.5 to brand-spanking-almost-from-this-year Unity 2017.4!

The completion level of Op-Bala took maybe a tiny step backward as some funky new bugs were introduced, like the pixely art being a bit squished, and some of the collisions preventing progress – because Unity has changed some sprite and collider stuff – but this nevertheless feels like a classic, presidential #WinningSoMuchYoullGetTiredOfWinning moment!

As a reward for myself, I drew myself.

Migrating old crap into new crap is more of an art than science, especially when there’s many new versions to the platform, and on their own separate tracks add-ons have updated too. (And, if like me, you don’t really know what you’re doing.) Naturally, not all the platforms versions and add-ons sync up, and there’s no comprehensive documentation on the add-ons, so it’s magical trial and error kinda deal to get things working.

Took me many days, and eventually I decided to just randomly pick some major versions that were not too far off from each other and prayed to the almight migration gods that I would get lucky. As a sacrifice to those bastards, I did a clean install of Playmaker, which worked out in the end.

What’s the one thing you could learn from this? Backups! Backup all the things all the time! That way you have the peace of mind to just randomly push buttons and install and remove things as you go. The other thing is to make sure you’re born very lucky.

Okay, the next step is to choose one: 1) develop the game so it would get released someday, OR 2) continue tinkering on irrelevant bugs and issues. Hmm.