Category Archives: Blog

Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two


[pageview url="http://www.ytv.com/assets/games/126/jinx3.swf" width="700px" height="500px"]

Escape from Area Fitty-Two is the sequel to a pair of great original graphic adventure games on YTV.com (YTV is like the Nickelodeon of Canada). The first two games, A Dark and Stormy Night and Miracle in the 34th Dimension, were featured Hallowe’en and Christmas games, respectively. They were created by Toronto-area game design phenom Michael Lalonde, whose work you’ll see in a lot of kids’ games made here in the city. Michael is also the creator of Orneryboy, which is a bit like Garfield, if Garfield were a multi-tentacled Lovecraftian demi-god in a zombie-filled world imagined by the love child of Edgar Allen Poe and the creator of the Care Bears. i like to call it “pop occulture”. (Content warning: Orneryboy is for older readers. Ask your parents first, kids.)

So working from characters created by Michael, a concept by Michael, and an aesthetic i lifted from Michael’s first two games, i went for broke and created the biggest Jinx adventure yet. (Michael would be spinning in his grave right now, but despite an occasionally pallid complexion, he’s very much alive. :) Audience expectations were very high, and given the nearly ten year release date gap since the second game in the series, we were very worried that the game would never be made. But last year, YTV pulled through, commissioning the second sequel and making a lot of fans and new players very happy.

Jinx 3 features three playable characters that you can switch between on the fly, a waypoint system for greater freedom of movement, and a bunch more puzzles and cutscenes than you found in the first two games. i would really like to have added voice-over, because Jinx 3 is pretty text-heavy. Maybe YTV will commission a Special Edition?

Here’s a fan-made walkthrough of the first half of the game from teh uTubez, if you want to watch someone else play it:

Note: The choppiness in the video is due to the fan’s screen capture software. The actual game plays smoothly. The writer character’s disappearing head is due to the YTV site embedding the game at a different aspect ratio, which causes animation glitches.

Introducing UGAGS

Jinx 3 was the first game created with UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System, which is a code framework and set of tools we’re building to help us create these kinds of games more quickly and easily for ourselves and our clients.

Jinx Fans Only

Everyone else can stop reading right now, but if you’re a Jinx/Sitekick/YTV fan, you may be interested to know how this game ties together the mythology of a lot of the original content on YTV. Here’s a list of trivia:

WARNING: Here be spoilers!

  • The game reveals where Dr. Frantic got the red vat of mysterious alien ooze that you see in his lab when you go back in time in the Friday/Sunday chapter of the Sitekick Saga … he STOLE it from Area Fitty-Two!
  • The alien ooze comprises the black gelatinous ooze core of the Sitekick, offering a possible explanation as to how Sitekicks gained sentience (note: the current Sitekick redesign doesn’t allow you to open your robot to see the ooze core any longer, which is a shame)

    They Came for the Ooze

  • YTV released a casual downloadable game called They Came for the Ooze. It was a match-3 game featuring little aliens that look a bit like Sitekick. The game hinted that the aliens returned to Earth to reclaim their ooze, but it never explained how Dr. Frantic obtained the ooze in the first place. Now we know!
  • Dr. Frantic gets the idea for the Sitekick from the design on the wall of the small room inside the hangar. The design was confiscated from the Gnat aliens, which may mean that the Gnat aliens originally designed the Sitekick.
  • The metal plate on the back of Dr. Frantic’s head joins a new revelation: when Dr. Frantic walks through the X-Ray, he’s a robot!

    Dr. Frantic is a robot!

    Holy crap – it’s like the X Files up in here!

  • Michael’s original concept for the game had Dr. Frantic losing his head, and Jinx had to rewire him to put him back together. The idea didn’t make it into this version, but it would be really neat to see it in a sequel.
  • Michael made a time management Sitekick Factory, where one of Evil Santa’s E.L.F.s (Evil Loyal Followers) had to build Sitekicks. At the end of Jinx 3, Dr. Frantic offers the E.L.F. a job, which is a reference to Sitekick Factory.
  • Between Jinx 2 and Jinx 3, Michael created an animated short where a UFO kidnaps Jinx while Jinx is camping. The UFO was a repurposed asset from Michael’s quickie game Nero the Hero. It was reused once more in the hangar in Jinx 3.
  • At launch time, there was a Sitekick code in the small room inside the hangar. Get it while it’s still active!
  • DID U KNOW? Jinx is never referred to with a gender-specific pronoun, which leaves it up to the player to see Jinx as either a boy or a girl
  • There’s nothing under the sheet when Jinx walks through the X-Ray (another of Michael’s great ideas!)
  • It’s tricky to catch, but when the E.L.F. walks through the X-Ray, he has a cupcake in his tummy. i threw that in there because i know Michael has a thing for cupcakes.
  • Dr. Frantic gets his hovercar from the hangar, which he uses again in the Sitekick Saga – Wednesday chapter to battle the rampaging Monster Sitekick. One early idea was to have the characters all escape in their own hovercars.
  • The inventory items are consistent and carry over from game to game.

YTV.com has a rich creative history packed with some fantastic original content. It would be great to see Corus, YTV’s parent company, exploit some of that IP worldwide. i think it would be a hit! Meantime, Jinx 3 was a fantastic project to work on – a real labour of love – and an itch i’ve been wanting to scratch for nearly ten years. i think it’s the funniest game i’ve ever written. Hope you enjoy it! (Now go let YTV know you want to see the much-rumoured sequel to Freaky Friday! :)

Interview with Newly-Elected Lesley Phord-Toy, Toronto IGDA Prez

The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) is a global group with local chapters in various cities, including Toronto. The IGDA Toronto chapter has been running largely on life support for the past few years, by the admission of outgoing president Josh Druckman. It happens. Other commitments get in the way, and your passion dies down. I feel the same way about that matchstick Taj Mahal model i’ve been trying to build for the past twenty-three years.

Matchstick Taj Mahal

Ryan Creighton from the future sent me this picture of himself to show me that i’d finish the bloody thing some time around my 65th birthday.

The Toronto IGDA committee, hand-picked by Josh in recent years to help keep the ball rolling, recently elected a new president at the wild-eyed urging and general rabble-rousing of TOJam founder Jim McGinley. The new prez is Lesley Phord-Toy, an Ubi Soft employee and Montreal ex-pat who officially takes over in 2011. Lesley will be speaking at GamerCamp Lvl 2, discussing her plans for the IGDA Toronto chapter, and eliciting feedback from the attendees on what they’d like to see from what is arguably the most well-known video games association in the city.

Ubi Collage

Clockwise from top-left: Lesley Phord-Toy, her terrifying Russian bodyguards, Ubi Toronto studio head Jade Raymond, and the woman in every pharmaceutical commercial before she’s taken the prescription that’s being advertised.

Lesley’s been taking the time to meet with each member of the IGDA Toronto chapter steering committee one-on-one. We had a cup of coffee at Toronto’s new board game cafe Snakes and Lattes, and I took the chance to ask Lesley a few questions to help introduce her to Toronto.

[distraction: check out my review of Snakes & Lattes]

Q: What’s your role at Ubi Soft?

I am a Producer at the Ubisoft Toronto studio for an unannounced project. As a Producer, my primary responsibility is to ensure the successful delivery of a high quality game, and to build and foster a team of people who have the skills, experience, and talent to execute on that objective. In the special case of the new studio in Toronto, I am also involved in areas associated with studio-building such helping to define policies and processes, and establishing and promoting our values as a studio.

[read all about the Ubi Soft Toronto grand opening shindig]

Q: Have you always worked at Ubi?

I’m actually pretty new to Ubisoft. I joined in February as (I believe) the first official production employee! Prior to Ubi, I worked at Artificial Mind & Movement (A2M) in Montreal for 6 and a half years. And before that, I was a software engineer at Sony Electronics in the special effects industry in Los Angeles.

[Did U Know? According to the characters in Clerks II, you never do A2M.]

Q: Why did you run for IGDA president? Was it a directive from Ubi, or was it your own initiative?

I’ve been a member of the advisory board of the Montreal chapter for the past two years, and I’ve always felt that a vibrant community of peers is a valuable part of being a game developer. I really enjoyed sharing with, and learning from others in the Montreal community, and I was hoping to find something like that in Toronto.

After attending a few IGDA Toronto meetings, I was left both pleasantly surprised, and disappointed at the same time. On the positive side, I met some really interesting people, and it was clear that there was a contagious enthusiasm for making games. On the negative side, it seemed that many of the local game developers don’t actually go to the IGDA, thereby creating a huge gap in the local community.

Hand Eye Society

(Lesley has keyed in to a palpable anti-IGDA sentiment from Hand Eye Society die-hards. Can’t we all just get along? – ed.)

Knowing that the committee was looking for a new president, I felt it was a great opportunity to try to mend that gap. Together with the committee, I hope that we can strengthen Toronto’s IGDA so that it can become a valuable resource for the community, and be inclusive to all who are interested or involved in game development.

Q: There has been a lot of uncertainty in the Toronto game community – especially the indie community – about the ramifications of Ubi Soft moving into Ontario. What do you think the move means? How do you think Ubi’s presence will affect the Ontario games industry?

A healthy industry is one that is diverse, sort of like a natural ecosystem. Speaking with people at Ubisoft, it’s clear that there is a motivation to learn about what is already in place so that they can add to the diversity, and continue to help strengthen the local industry. I’m really excited about that idea because I feel that when there is a stronger industry, it can lead to a stronger community. With a growing population of game developers, there is an increased potential for our community to be more supportive of each other, learn from each other, and collaborate together. It’s really more a question of whether the community will be able to embrace this idea, capitalize on their diversity, and apply it to their craft of game development.

Q: If everything works out perfectly, what will a typical IGDA Toronto chapter meeting look like?

Toronto IGDA Chapter

(this is what it it looks like currently – ed.)

In the most ideal case, you would show up at a meeting and feel a sense of awe that you belong to this great community of peers, all sharing in the same passions that you do. You would also have a sense of relief that you are not the only one struggling to make your project work, and that everyone has similar challenges as you. You would spend an hour or so learning about something that could help you in your own project, and maybe be able to share a little of your own wisdom with others. You might make some new friends, but you would definitely catch up with some familiar faces. And at the end of the evening, you will come away feeling lucky for being a member of an incredibly diverse game development community.

(Ryan says: i have a slightly different vision of a successful chapter meeting…)



Q: You’ve lived in every major city in Canada, and you’ve seen this industry from different angles. What are some of the differences between the Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto game scenes?

I can’t really comment too much on Vancouver. When I was working there in the late 90s, there was really only EA and Radical and maybe a few other small companies.

Jackie Chan Stuntmaster

(Stuntmaster saw a 2000 release. Did Radical secretly hire Lesley to perform their kung fu mocap for the game? It’s pure conjecture at this point.)

For Montreal, one of the unique things is that many of the studios are actually within walking distance to each other. In the case of Eidos and A2M, they practically share a wall! With that kind of close proximity, it makes it easy for individuals to get to know each other. You always get this feeling that everyone knows everyone even though there are in fact thousands of developers in Montreal! There is competition between companies to attract the best talent, however, there is also a collective sense of grief if you hear that a company or project is not doing well.

Considering Toronto, the geography is vast in comparison, and everyone here faces some amount of commuting. Despite this, there seems to be a shared passion for games here that I had always thought reserved for only a few select hard-cores. I think it’s really a defining characteristic of the Toronto game industry and it really is contagious! On the down side, it simultaneously feels like the community is very divided between some indie hard-cores, and others who are also trying to make a living while pursuing their passion.

Q: What’s your favourite game of all time?

Of all time? It would have to be Super Mario Bros. on the NES. In terms of modern games, however, the games that have captured my imagination the most are Bioshock, Portal, Braid, and Limbo.

Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros., a moderately successful game based on the smash hit 1993 blockbuster film of the same name.

Q: What are you playing right now?

<sheepishly> About 150+ hours of Bejeweled Blitz. </sheepishly>

Do you have a dream game that you’ve always wanted to make? Can you tell us anything about it?

There are two diametrically opposed games that I would love to make. One would be something silly and funny (kind of like the humour from those old LucasArts adventure games). The other would be some sort of intense psychological “game” that would make you question whether you were actually sane or not in real life. Ultimately however, my dream project would have a strong focus on creativity and be something unique and different from the status quo.

Q: What non-game-related things do you do for fun?

If I had the time, I would be traveling the world. Short of that, I like visiting modern art galleries and installations and getting lost in their surreal environments. If I could, I would spend a whole afternoon squishing my feet into those millions of sunflower seeds at that new exhibit at the Tate Modern.

Have Your Say!

Catch Lesley Phord-Toy, 2011 president of the IGDA Toronto chapter, at GamerCamp Lvl 2 in November. Don’t forget to check out the IGDA in its new and improved format, and thank Josh at the next social for all the hard work and effort he’s put into the group for the past ten years!

Ryan Goes to Camp

i think i only missed one Toronto game community event last year. It was called GamerCamp, and it was on a Saturday. i skipped it because Saturdays are family days, and i wanted to spend some quality time with my wife and kids.

i’ll never make that mistake again.

GamerCamp

GamerCamp : worth forsaking your family for

People came back positively RAVING about GamerCamp. i knew this year that i just HAD to be involved.

Thus Spake Ryanthurstra

i am thrilled that Jamie and Mark, the awesomazing organizers behind the event, invited me to speak (after a teensy bit of grovelling). (… from me, not them.) They wanted someone with experience in educational game development, and Untold Entertainment’s got it. In addition to the educational preschool games we’ve built for Sinking Ship Entertainment, we’re currently working on a project funded by a high-ranking ministerial body of educational governance. i admit it sounds a little dull, so i wanted to spice it up a bit.

Here’s the advice the event organizers gave on titling my talk:

You can call your talk whatever you want and by no means self-censor. Try and make your title a declarative statement or provocative question.

(For example, Dragonette has a song called “Get Your Titties Off My Things” and if they wanted to speak at Gamercamp and call it that, I’d high-five them.)

So without very much deliberation, and because i absolutely love high-fives, i decided to call my talk “Get Your Titties Off My Things : Adventures in Educational Gaming.”

Titties and Education Don’t Mix

hot for teacher

Apparently, no one’s hot for teacher.

In updating the site, the organizers had a last-minute change of heart and decided to censor the talk title. Since it didn’t make much sense any more (not that it made any sense to begin with), i decided to re-title the talk “SCUMM-Sucking : Adventures in Educational Gaming“.

What do you do when you LOVE building LucasArts and Sierra-style graphic adventure games, but you have to take boring educational service work to pay the bills?

>Get MONEY.
>Use MONEY on GAME.
>Give PRESENTATION to GAMERCAMP.

SCUMM Bar

Time to nip in for a pint of Grog™.

The educational project is an experiment in teaching deadly-dull guidance counselor material by speaking the students’ language – the language of video games!

i’ll also be talking about how i leveraged the educational project to add features to UGAGS (the Untold Entertainment Graphic Adventure Game System), which is my attempt at building a Flash version of the LucasArts SCUMM engine. (They used SCUMM to make Maniac Mansion, The Secret of Monkey Island and others.) The client benefits from our increasingly feature-rich engine, we get a better product that we can use to make awesome games in the future, and everybody wins!

Including you! Come out to GamerCamp in Toronto November 13-14 to hear the tremendous line-up of speakers, eat some cupcakes, jam out to a crazy nerd party, and battle your hangover to hear about UGAGS the afternoon following the big bash.

Canadian Vortex Game Competition Named a Scottish Team as its Winner

In 2009, the Vortex Game Competition used municipal and provincial Canadian funding to award its top prize to a Scottish game design team.

We followed up on allegations made by CultureGET, a news blog that covered the event, and found that last year’s Vortex winners, Alex Quick and John Josephson, likely had nothing to do with the creation of the winning game.

Alex and John keep their cool after winning the $4000 Vortex Competition top prize, which included industry mentoring and a distribution deal.

The Facts

Here’s what days of online research turned up:

  1. Colour-Coded, the winning entry, was created and developed by a team of five developers in the UK called the Pixel Pirates.
  2. Colour-Coded won the UK-based Dare to be Digital competition in August 2009, two months before the game was entered at Vortex. As a result, the game was nominated for a Scottish BAFTA award five months after Vortex 2009, and also appeared at the Scottish Game Jam in early 2010.
  3. Neither Alex Quick nor John Josephson are listed as members of the Pixel Pirates team on the Pixel Pirates front page, team page, or team photo. They are not mentioned at all during the team’s year-long development diary.
  4. The plan by Alex and John to continue developing Colour-Coded in Toronto with a team of five developers, and the Pixel Pirates’ alleged sale of the game IP to Alex and John and detachment from the project, is similarly never mentioned on the team’s very public development diary.

Meet the Pixel Pirates. Clockwise from top left: Sean, Nanna, Murray and Liam. Absent: Faye. NOTABLY absent: Vortex 2009 winners Alex and John. [photo taken August 3rd 2009 in the UK]

Eligibility Doubts

These were the Vortex Competition 2009 eligibility guidelines:

II ELIGIBILITY AND APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS

1. Eligibility

a) An Entrant is:

i) An individual person or team of persons (with the majority of the group being Canadian citizens), who is or who are Canadian citizens or residents; or,

ii) A legal partnership or a corporation established under the federal laws of Canada or the laws of a Canadian province or territory, and which is resident in Canada.

If the two Canadian winners are (generously) considered team members, despite having no apparent involvement in the game, the team is still comprised of a majority of UK citizens, and so does not meet the first eligibility criterion. Of the five Pixel Pirates, only Murray now lists a Canadian address, in British Columbia. Vortex organizer Sari Ruda confirmed for us that Murrary is a UK citizen.

The Question of Incorporation

Failing the first criterion, the team needed to have a Canadian corporation or legal partnership to be eligible for the competition. I asked Alex and John whether such a corporation existed, and neither winner laid claim to one.

In asking the two winners and the competition organizer about the apparent eligibility error, I received conflicting responses. Alex told me that at the time of the competition in October 2009, he and John were speaking “on behalf of” the Pixel Pirates team in the UK.

For his part, John claims that he and Alex had been working with the Pixel Pirates to commercialize the Colour-Coded prototype for nine months, when development was supposed to continue in Toronto with five local developers. Given that the game’s prototype development cycle ended in August 2009, and that Vortex was two months later, it becomes difficult to see where these nine months could have fallen.

John said “The original members of the Pixel-Pirates had moved onto other projects and job opportunities, and would not be involved in the production of the game.”

I contacted Pixel Pirate Liam Wong to verify this. Liam initially agreed to answer my questions about Vortex, but later failed to respond. Liam’s Twitter message, in which he agreed to be interviewed, seems to have been deleted.

A Year is a Long Time to Remember

Vortex organizer Sari Ruda said, surprisingly, that Alex and John did have a Canadian corporation that actually owned the Colour-Coded IP. This is information that neither Alex nor John offered when I spoke with them, despite each being asked the question directly, twice. On my second request, Alex pleaded memory loss:

I’ve told you everything I can remember about the vortex competition last year. As I mentioned in my last email, I have been out of contact with John and the Scottish team (with the exception of my friend, Murray) since shortly after Vortex ended.

Despite having “moved on”, the Pixel Pirates managed to maintain the Colour-Coded production blog for an additional year, showcase it at the 2010 Scottish Game Jam, and appear in person to accept a Scottish BAFTA nomination for the game.

The Pixel Pirates get gussied up to accept their BAFTA nomination for Colour-Coded in March 2010, five months after the Vortex competition, despite Vortex winner John Josephson’s claim that they had moved on. Not in picture: Liam. Still notably absent: Alex and John, Vortex 2009 winners, alleged owners, and supposed majority Canadian developers of the game.

Responsibility

All of this raises the question of who was ultimately responsible to ensure Entrants’ eligibility. The 2009 guidelines state that by entering, Entrants warrant their own eligibility. As a check and balance, the competition organizers may request proof of eligibility from the Entrants. After organizers confirm eligibility, the competition’s judges have the final authority in declaring an Entrant eligible. Alex said:

“At the time of presenting Colour Coded at Vortex, we made it clear that we were doing it on behalf of the ‘Pixel Pirates’, which was the name of the UK team I had contact with. This didn’t seem to be an issue for judges and everything went ahead.”

In the email response from Sari, where she asserted that John and Alex had both a Canadian corporation and ownership of Colour-Coded, and were therefore eligible to enter, Sari unnecessarily added:

“We (the organizers) were not involved with the choice of the winners in any way. Only the judges were and we were not on the panel and had no influence on any of them during the whole of Vortex or spoke to any of them while they were deliberating at any time.”

Methinks the lady doth protest too much. If Alex and John were eligible, as Sari claims, I can’t fathom why she would then try to wash her hands of the responsibility to confirm the eligibility of the Entrants in her competition, leaving the high-profile final judges, including UbiSoft CEO Yannis Mallat, holding the bag.

Possible Outcomes

The worst case scenario, and the one that the online record and Alex’s own admission suggest, is that Alex Quick and John Josephson were not eligible to enter the 2009 Vortex Competition.

If Sari and John’s claims pan out, then the best possible outcome is this: in the six weeks leading up to Vortex, two Canadians bought an award-winning Scottish-developed video game prototype and presented it as their own game, and subsequently won the competition.

For a competition that Sari Ruda increasingly strives to align with the business affairs side of the game industry, this best case scenario may be acceptable to some. But for the small and struggling game developers of Toronto who, based on the site’s misleading promotional materials, expected a game design competition, Vortex is at best a profound disappointment, and at worse, a disorganized sham.

Months after winning Vortex, Colour-Coded enjoys another moment in the sun at the Scottish Game Jam.

Limited Resources

Taxpayer dollars fuel the funds that made the 2009 Vortex Game Competition possible. These funds are limited, and should be spent on cultural events and activities that enrich and support the local and provincial game industry, including TOJam, the Hand Eye Society, the Toronto chapter IGDA, the Artsy Games Incubator, and newcomer GamerCamp.

The facts brought to light by the CultureGET article and which I expound in this article beg three results:

  1. The results of the 2009 competition must be revisited by the event organizers to ensure that the $4000 first place award and accompanying benefits are re-awarded to one of the five finalists who met the event’s eligibility criteria.
  2. Prospective entrants should give very careful consideration to their participation at this year’s event, which was rumoured yesterday to be canceled.
  3. Where applicable, the involvement of the City of Toronto, the Ontario Media Development Corporation and other sponsors in the 2010 Vortex Competition should be strongly reconsidered.

UPDATES

Wednesday October 20th 2010

In an interview with Pixel Pirate Murray Sinclair, Edge Magazine reported in March 2010 (five months after Vortex) that following the game’s ProtoPlay debut in August 2009, the Pixel Pirates team received “an offer to buy the IP,” and that Murray had moved overseas and was “in talks to found his own indie studio”. Contrast this with John Josephson’s claim that as of Vortex 2009 he, Alex, and Murray controlled a Canadian corporation that owned the Colour-Coded IP, and were continuing production with a team of five Toronto developers. Since the article was posted in March 2010, well after Vortex (and indeed, mentions the Vortex win), one wonders why the article didn’t say that the Colour-Coded IP had been purchased, and a studio had been founded.

Thursday October 21st 2010

Alex Wiltshire, Online Editor of Edge Magazine, confirmed that by the time the article ran, Murray “had already moved to Canada and was working with a local company.” Looks like the Edge article had some future-tense responses about events that had already occurred by the time the article went live.

Thursday October 21st 2010

i had a chance to speak with the Vortex organizers in person today. They are aware of the issue, and are working to resolve it. i’ll be sure to post their conclusions once i hear about them.