Now that the beautifulbackgrounds are drawn and the launch features are almost complete for Interrupting Cow Trivia, we’re finally turning our attentions to the game’s visuals. If you played the ICT alpha, you would have found a fully-functional game with no graphics. This is the story of how we got from there to here, and the decisions that informed the look of the game.
A Different Kind of “M” for Mature
Through early play-testing, i realized that young people don’t like trivia. Trivia’s no fun when you don’t know any of the answers. And the younger you are, the less likely you are to know stuff. Based more on a hunch than actual market research, we decided that our target audience was this guy:
Well y’see there Normy …
Cliff Clavin is male, middle-aged, a baby boomer, and thinks he knows a lot of stuff about stuff. Cliff is our power-user – the guy who’s going to discover Interrupting Cow Trivia and burn through all of the content in a day.
Here’s another type of customer we suspect will be interested in the game:
Mom and Dad’s money well-spent.
These are college-aged smarty-pantses who play weekly trivia at the pub, but can’t always afford the six-dollar beers and the time away from the dorm.
Design by Hunch
Put that all together, and we came up with the idea to stage Interrupting Cow Trivia at a restaurant, to re-create that social pub feel. Specifically, it’s a 50′s-style diner, in a nod to the baby boomers. And not a grungy, dilapidated diner like something out of Fallout or Bioshock. It’s a shiny, sparkly 50′s diner in its heyday. We hope that the theme will make older players feel welcomed and comfortable, while younger players will dig it as a retro curiosity.
So a 50′s-style diner needs a 50′s-style User Interface (UI … or “MOO-I”, as it says in the title of this post, because we’re under contract to include at least one awful cow pun in every ICT Designer Diary entry). We carefully studied menu designs from retro 50′s diners, and put this together in our first attempt:
We actually started to build the game with this look – there are vestiges of it in the current alpha version. But after completing the painted backgrounds of the game’s diner, we realized that we needed to ratchet the visuals up a few notches. We took some cues from the A&W chain of retro burger joints, and various other sources. Here’s a taste of how it’s coming along:
This has the right amount of “pop”, both visually and stylistically. Expect the beta version of ICT to be packed with fun, bubbly 50′s UI that’ll make players want to stay in the game longer, and will encourage players to buy an ICT Diners Club Card for some groovy perks.
This article has nothing to do with video games, and for that, please forgive me. i was enrolled in a bona fide University at one point in my life working toward a degree in Cultural Studies before Opportunity knocked and suggest i actually do something with my life instead. Here’s what my ramblings could have looked like if i had stuck with Cultural Studies.
These are two very important pop culture observations: one about how and why Star Wars was ruined, and the other about werewolves and vampires. First up, Star Wars.
“Menace” is Right
At the recommendation of one member of Get Set Games (it doesn’t matter which one – i can’t tell those guys apart cuz i’m white), i watched a seven-part YouTube review of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. i hated the movie when it came out, and all of my prejudices came bubbling to the surface when i watched this damning video review. If you can’t afford the 70 minutes (!!), watch the segment on character beginning at 6:41:
To ruin the ending for you, the review concludes that adversity – tight budgets, time constraints, creative differences, etc – help an artist to produce excellent work, while an artist like Lucas working carte blanche with no constraints will produce The Phantom Menace.
My comment is about the nail in the coffin during that flick – the revelation that the Force, an “energy field created by all living things” which “surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the the galaxy together”, is actually owed to certain living things … namely midi-chlorians, which are apparently some sort of bacteria that give people magical powers. The concept of midi-chlorians dashed all hope that the newest Star Wars movies were going to be good, and i turned off my brain for the rest of the movie and crawled back into that special place i inhabited as a young Star Wars enthusiast – you know, back when things didn’t completely suck.
So here’s my outrageous claim: more than any other element in that awful movie, midi-chlorians ruined Star Wars. And midi-chlorians were written into Star Wars lore because present-day audiences don’t go to church.
The Hell You Say
Western audiences, like it or not, hail from the Christian tradition – mainly Protestant and Catholic branches. The Force has more in common with Zen Buddhism than Christianity, but sci-fi audiences of the 70′s and 80′s, being much more recently connected with the church, were more likely to accept a supernatural explanation of certain concepts in the Star Wars mythology. Now that we have stores open for business on Sunday (this was not done when i was a boy), and the majority of moviegoers are Godless heathens (Transformers tops the box office!), we need a suitably scientific justification for the Jedis’ magic powers.
Midi-chlorians are like super-powered white blood cells. They’re even described by the characters in The Phantom Menace as having a “count”. Instead of “the Force is strong in this one,” it’s “this guy has a high midi-chlorian count. i recommend professional development seminars on Dagobah.”
Whether or not spirituality-rejecting, science-loving existentialist modern-day moviegoers would have gone on accepting the original concept of the Force is immaterial. Lucas pro-actively anticipated the need to update his lore. And when he did, my Universe (and the tiny bacteria holding it together) came crashing down.
SERIOUSLY, though: wha??
Werewolves, Vampires, and 1970′s Porno
On to werewolves, which i am not nearly as passionate about, so i mention this only as a triviality. With the New Moon saga heading into lycanthrope territory and Universal dusting off its Wolfman franchise after pocketing some coin with The Mummy, i’ve heard more than one entertainment reporter ask “are werewolves the new vampires???” Just like that. With the same obnoxious emphasis and everything.
We all contribute to society in different ways, i guess.
i’m here to tell you that no, werewolves are NOT the new vampires, and here’s why: because ladies started shaving their public regions in girly magazines in the 80′s.
Manscape my Meat
We Westerners live in a sanitized society. Our pooping, puking and dying is largely kept out of sight. We don’t kill our own food – we buy clinically-packaged cuts of meat in white styrofoam trays that is as far removed from any semblance of a dead animal as we can muster. i was in my early teens before i realized that meat was dead animal muscle tissue (slow-witted, i know), and once when i was out to dinner, my friend sent his order of chicken wings back because one or two wings still had tufts of feathers on them. It thoroughly repulsed us.
Our sex is sanitized, too. Men aren’t allowed to have hair on the most likely spots on their bodies, and women, following the cue of men’s magazines, shave their pubic triangles down to velcro-like landing strips. And porn stars are even more extreme: every inch shaved, waxed and smoothed so that they resemble living plastic Barbie dolls.
She looks like she’s been sensually kissing a vaccuum cleaner.
That’s why vampires are so super-sexy. We like our vampires sanitized, like our porn – our bloodsuckers are pale, smooth, and carefully preened. Male vampires’ chests are hairless, because they’re largely portrayed by young men.
Werewolves, conversely, are like a bad 70′s skin mag where the ladies don’t “clean” themselves up. Hair everywhere. It’s revolting. And they’re all animalistic – grunting, panting, howling, and ripping people to shreds. Vampires go in for a clean kill, with two sylized and sanitary rivulets of blood that stream perfectly down a victim’s alabaster neck. Werewolves? Hell – werewolves will tear your head off its shoulders and spill your intestines out your bellybutton. They’re unrefined, boorish, and downright gross.
Werewolves don’t wear heirloom cameo pendants and crushed velvet vests. Their clothes are all ripped and junk. That was fashionable for, like – what? Four months in the 1980′s? Vampires are timeless, while werewolves are all Teen Wolf. The 80′s again, when women still had hairy genitalia.
Michael J. Fox as Teen Wolf, or one of the original Charlie’s Angels? It’s impossible to tell.
So kids, if you’re stuck on the “werewolves vs. vampires in the context of pornograhy” question on your GED test, here’s the right answer:
vampire is to Jenna Jameson as werewolf is to OUI Magazine circa 1971
Avoid a full moon, whatever the cost.
With brilliant and useful insights like these, it’s a shame i never finished University.
i introduced myself to residents at the Canadian Film Centre Media Lab this week, by telling them about my background making web games for a Canadian broadcaster. i said that after my tenure there, i had over fifty games to my name … and then i paused. “To my name.” i corrected myself – i had worked on over fifty games, but not one of them had been to my name. In over seven years at the place, i had not been credited on a single game.
If i could receive credit, i would reveal that this is, in fact, a picture of me.
The story continues today. A new client – an animation company – asked to partner with us on a Request for Proposal. They asked me to provide a credits list. i had never heard of such a thing. i told them that i could provide a list of games and projects we’ve worked on, but i confided that i hadn’t actually been credited on anything. This was despite over two years of operation as Untold Entertainment.
Disavow All Knowledge
A prospective client, a broadcaster, contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to bid on a project. i came back with a very competetive price, but one of my stipulations was that i wanted to link to the finished project from my website, and to host a video of gameplay on my site in case the client’s link ever went down. The prospective client adamantly refused to allow this. “Media Conglomorate X is a self-contained, self-sufficient entity that does NOT outsource work to vendors (even though we do).” The issue was a sticking point for me, and i declined the contract.
Still another teevee client made it a make-or-break condition of a contract on a six-month job that we didn’t link to or mention the project on our website. We could talk about the project in any medium other than web, including (presumably) film, teevee, physical sell-sheets, and interpretive dance. They allowed for these, knowing that the only place we promote our work is on our website.
i have taken work from teevee clients who have revealed to me that they’re no longer hiring a colleague of mine, because he has started asking for credit on final projects.
The Credit Double Standard
This all leads me to believe that while those of us who have been involved in video games all our lives see it as a legitimate medium, the Old Guard – particularly teevee people, and especially Canadian broadcasters – don’t. Everyone who works on a film, down to the seemingly most insignificant person who holds the lunch platter (the “sandwich grip”), gets credited by name at the end of the movie. And in cases where animated movies or special effects-heavy flicks outsource shots to other production companies, you see those production companies listed by name, with all of their employees individually credited.
Ever read the liner notes on a music album? The guy who played the triangle gets a credit.
i don’t mean to knock it – it’s a beautiful instrument.
Ever watch the credit roll at the end of a teevee show? The Executive Producer on the broadcaster side who had nothing to do with the conception or production of the show gets a credit – usually top-billing.
But what do they give a web game developer who handles the art, animation, programming, writing, voice-over, sound effects, music composition and performance, bug testing and sandwich holding? Bupkiss. No credit. And worse – the threat of a lost contract to anyone who dares ask for credit.
This picture comes up in a Google Image Search for “bupkiss”. No idea why it does, but the image seems appropriate.
i know many of the posts i write here are rife with griping, ranting and finger-pointing, but in this event it’s justified. Old Guard teevee types who pack a show’s credit list with names, but who refuse to acknowledge that a single soul (and in my case, ONLY a single soul) worked on a video game supporting that show, should be publicly shamed. So here i am, publicly shaming them.
For shame!! The people who work on a project must be credited for their work on that project. Vendors must be permitted to showcase that work on their own sites, so that they can successfully contract more work. And the medium of video games – web games included – must be treated as a significant one. The creators of web games are worthy to be recognized to the same degree as producers of film, teevee, music, and radio.
explicit sexual content exists “free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access.”
i hate to break it to the FTC, but the Internet also happens to offer explicit sexual content that minors are able to access. And that content goes far beyond the mostly “low-level”, text-based content found in half of the kid-targeted virtual worlds that the FTC studied. i’ll dismiss out of hand the report’s revelation that there is “a greater amount of explicit content in worlds that were geared towards teens or adults.” Really? Pray tell, if the report is about protecting kids and youth, why did the FTC bother looking at worlds aimed at an older audience? It’s like saying “pornography was found to contain material that was unsuitable for minors.”
It’s For Kids
The implication must be that, like comic books and cartoons, some people associate virtual worlds primarily with children. When Ralph Bakshi released Fritz the Cat, an animated pornographic movie, in 1972 – or indeed, when Watership Down came out a few years later and the adorable bunnies drew blood from each other’s necks – parents raised a hue and cry because they did not expect the animated film medium to contain explicit material. After all, cartoons are for kids. Right? Ditto those parents who brought their kids to see Watchmen last summer because it was about superheroes, without bothering to check the rating to determine the intended audience.
Stay classy, Bakshi.
It looks as though the virtual worlds medium is suffering from the same poorly-informed people holding it to a standard it was never meant to meet. There’s nothing inherent in the concept of a virtual world that suggests it is a strictly kids’ medium, or that it will appeal expressly to children. The trouble here is that the most successful virtual worlds to date, including Neopets and Club Penguin, have been kid- and teen-targeted. Does that mean that all virtual worlds will appeal to all young people? Of course not. And does it mean that virtual worlds that serve the needs of teens and adults should beef up their security to keep kids out? Emphatically, no.
Forget one or two virtual worlds members typing “i want to touch you on your nay-nays” in open chat – the amount of full-colour, HD titties n’ schlongs available at the click of a button to any child on the Internet is staggering, and it’s all without benefit of a membership wall and registration process. It’s actually far more difficult to sign up, create an avatar, learn the virtual world’s navigation and go hunting for text-only “sexually explicit” material than it is to type “mouth on bum” in Google Image Search to call up a gallery of pics that’ll turn your hair white. Whatever Google serves up will be far more psychologically damaging to a child’s psyche than the “shocking” content the FTC discovered in any virtual world.
Pro Tip: never search “man hole” on Google Image Search.
An Unappealing Argument
The FTC’s excuse for profiling teen and adult virtual worlds is likely that these sites will appeal to younger players, perhaps due to their colourful graphics and similarity to Club Penguin, (the clueless adult might reason). You know what else appeals to young people? According to a survey by security firm Symantec, titties n’ schlongs. ReadWriteWeb reports that among the top ten most common search terms entered by children are “Sex” at number 4 and “Porn” at number 6, followed by “boobies” and an assortment of other interesting body parts in the ensuing slots.
i don’t buy the “appeal” excuse for a second. Children are sexual beings, and are just as entranced by All That Jiggles as we adults are. In its report, the FTC recommends more powerful age-screening mechanisms, enhanced age segragation techniques, stronger language filters and better training for moderators in virtual worlds. It all adds up to a completely imbalanced, unfair and unrealistic expectation of virtual worlds staff, an expectation that is not being levied against far worse “offendors” like Google. And sites like Google have far greater sex appeal than virtual worlds. Pictures speak louder than whatever naughty words the FTC uncovered.
Catcher in the Wry
You have to believe that i am all for protecting children from explicit content. In fact, i often go a step farther to point out that adults shouldn’t be viewing a lot of this content. The reason we don’t want kids to see it is often the same reason why grown-ups shouldn’t be looking. But having worked on a number of virtual worlds projects for kids under 13, i’ve seen the heavy-handed amount of legal hoops to jump through and protections you need to add to your product, and i assure you it’s excessive. As a parent, i only take exception to sites that claim absolute safety for young players and can’t deliver on that promise. This is why we sent Mr. McBadTouch into Green.com to see if he could find some new underage playmates.
Mr. McBadTouch can be reached for comment here, in his “portable playground.”
Cracking the Safe
i’m far more comfortable with the ESRB’s blanket admission that “Game Experience May Change During Online Play”. This covers any number of sins, from someone asking my daughter if he can put his mouth on her bum over Xbox Live, to being called the N-word by some drunk Southerner (on Xbox Live), to someone simulating touching his scrotum to my corpse’s forehead in a death match (… again, on Xbox Live). Chris Rock said that a father’s most important duty is “keeping his daughter off the pole”. i’d like to add that a responsible dad also keeps his daughter off Xbox Live.
The world, in short, is a dangerous place (not least of all over Xbox Live). i appreciate the steps that some people voluntarily take to help me raise my children in a safer environment. i even appreciate some of the precautions the government mandates to improve that safety, because Lord knows not all parents are responsible. But the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations to tighten up virtual world security are over-reaching and unfair. Virtual worlds are not the sole territory of children and youth, and parents should take the same precaution with them that they should take with any medium, including comic books, cartoons and animated films.
Earlier this week i played a Flash game called Continuity. The game is a clever mash-up of a platformer and a slider puzzle. You have to re-order segments of the level to get your stickman to the key(s), and then the door.
Go play it. i’ll wait right here.
Continuity is a student project (JEALOUS!), and bears the hallmark of student projects/amateur game developers/free-to-play Flash games: a stick figure as the lead character. Countless free-to-play Flash games star the very same character. The stick man is, i believe, the most famous and popular of all video game characters – moreso than Mario, Pac-Man or Tim Langdell.
Brand and Deliver
i attend many many video game events where someone in-the-know preaches from the pulpit to people not in-the-know, mostly students and hobbyists and amateurs. And the one tip that i hear repeated again and again, particularly in the free-to-play Flash (and even iPhone) climate where there’s a lot of competition and it’s tough to be heard above the noise, is to “build a brand.” Put another way, “develop your own original IP.” They say this because generally speaking, students, hobbyists and amateurs don’t build brands. But what does building a brand or an IP mean, anyway?
Well, for starters, it means not using a stick man as your main character. You can’t own a stick man. No one can. And your stick man game, even if it’s innovative like Continuity, won’t stand out from the throngs of other stick man games. No one will approach you and ask to buy the rights to your stick man game IP. No one wants to develop comic books or fridge magnets or Band-Aids based on your stick man, because it’s not an ownable or exploitable thing. And, very likely, no one will remember your stick man game. i’m struggling to keep the name “Continuity” in my head as i write this article.
Me being a blogger of very little brains …
i suspect the creators of Continuity are more passionate about programming than they are artwork. The bones of their game are reasonably solid. Now imagine what they could do if they found an artist and put a little English on it. Maybe Continuity’s main character is a fugitive on the run from the law, or an anthropomorphic kangaroo, or a sorceror who can bend reality to his will? Maybe she’s just a cool-looking chick in a hat? i dunno. But any of these completely trample “stick man”.
Stick Em Up
Let’s do the opposite: let’s take a strong brand and use a stick man instead. i don’t feel that the main character in Braid, “Tim”, was incredibly interesting. But he was short and wore a tie and was at least halfway there.
Now let’s wipe him out and replace him with a stick man and box art:
From awesome to n’awsome in sixty seconds.
Or let’s go with something like Super Mario Galaxy. Mario doesn’t say much, but his personality shines through the way he’s drawn and the way he animates. He’s a pleasantly plump Italian plumber who utters adorably stereotyped phrases like “It’s-a me!” and “Bowser Koopa sleeps with-a the fishes!” So here’s the game with its very broadly appealing brand identity:
And now, Super Mario Galaxy with stick men and box art:
It’s-a me … ?
Even though Braid has a wonderfully unique gameplay mechanic to offer (despite horrible, horrible grade 12 poetry class writing), and Super Mario Galaxy is a super-solid 3D platformer, if you take away the brand, you take away MOST of the experience. That’s right, i said MOST. Not half. Visuals are not half of a game. Even though your team and man-hours may be split 50/50 between code and art, a well-coded game with bad art (or stick men) that can compete commercially is a rare beast indeed. i’ll boldly put it this way: art and sound are 70-80% of both the player’s experience, and your ability as a designer to market and profit from your game.
The one interesting exception i’ll throw out here is Fancy Pants Adventures, a free-to-play Flash game with great programming and tight platform controls. These games star a stick man as their lead character, but dig the difference: a pair of yellow pants and a shock of hair.
Can you own a sitck man with a pair of yellow pants and a shock of hair? Sure you can. Can you build a strong original IP with such a minimally modified figure? Absolutely. In this case, the pants and the hair are all it took to elevate Fancy Pants Adventures from a generic and forgettable free-to-play platformer, to a memorable series that has done extremely well for the developer.
Now let’s take a look at the same character with no pants and hair:
(pants off – please shield your children’s eyes)
Visual style and brand identity are not nice-to-haves. If you have any hope of rising above the thousands of hobbyists, amateurs, and even certain professional developers in the free-to-play space, visual style and brand identity are HAVE-to-haves. Free yourself from the tyranny of stick men and, at the very least, put a hat on that guy. Then you can go from this:
The difference is brand recognition, noteriety and, hopefully, money in the bank.