Untold Entertainment was commissioned by marblemedia, one of our preferred clients, to create a game for Splatalot! Splatalot! is a kid-targeted mash-up of American Gladiator and Japanese obstacle course game shows like Most Extreme Elimination Challenge. The program airs on YTV in Canada, on BBC in the UK and on ABC in Australia.
The second segment of Splatalot! has the contestants assembling a ladder to escape a pit, while the adult Defenders (think “Gladiators”) shoot goop at them. marblemedia called the game Spladder (splat + ladder – you see?). They wanted a more puzzle-oriented game than the catapult and obstacle-based games in the show’s suite, so we built the fun puzzle platformer game that you see above, in the style of Abe’s Oddysee or Lost Vikings.
(What ever happened to the Lost Vikings developer? Meh – probably faded into obscurity.)
It’s Been a Slice
We used the Citrus Engine to build Spladder. It’s a framework of classes that speed up platform game creation. Citrus uses Box2D for its physics bodies. It gives you some great customizable character control and a level editor out of the box. The engine wasn’t quite set up to handle tiled platforms (in the examples, every platform is a discrete art asset) – strong-arming that to work was probably the most challenging aspect of development. That, and the level editor eventually became more of a hindrance than a help, to the point where i wound up hand-coding most of the levels in xml. The latest version of Citrus Engine drops the level editor so that you’re free to use your own solution.
The art and animation in Spladder are by veteran Canadian kids’ game artist Elizabeth de Fazio, who was an absolute joy to work with. marble’s Johnny Kalangis and i hammered out story details together to build an enjoyable game that we’re quite proud of. i hope you like it!
Summer in Smallywood is an online educational game built with UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.
The project was funded by the Government of Canada’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, and was produced by the Center for Skills Development and Training in Burlington Ontario. It aims to teach three workplace skills to 15-30 year olds. Here’s how the project came about:
Ontario employers have apparently had as much trouble hiring young people as i’ve had teaching them. They’ve identified nine “Essential Skills” they want the Ministry to help instill in young people, so that those young people can thrive in the workplace. What are these “Essential Skills”, you ask? Poetry recitation? Wire-walking? Differential calculus?
‘Fraid not. It’s stuff like “thinking.” Really. This is where we’re at. We need to teach thinking.
Historically, these Essential Skills have been taught via somewhat dry worksheets and booklets – the kind you’d see in a typical guidance councilor’s office (next to the 1986 Ziggy desk calendar and the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels). Summer in Smallywood presents the information in a far more interesting format: as a video game.
What Went Very, Very Right
Teaching three of the nine Essential Skills in video game form was the brainchild of the Center, and our client Matt Markowiak in particular. The Smallywood project was the perfect example of everything that can possibly go right on this type of project:
Video games are very much a generational thing – you either grew up with them in your life, or you didn’t. Matt was asked to take the reigns on this project because he understands games. It was an excellent decision.
The Center involved a game developer (us!) very early in the development process. Often, we’re approached to pull the trigger on a project long after the stakeholders, who may not have a strong grasp of video games (“i used play Pac Man”), have decided on every minute aspect of the project … without benefit of a game developer’s involvement. Hiring a game developer to consult at the beginning of a project is a very smart move! It keeps your vendor invested and interested in the project, and often results in a better final product.
The Center wasn’t completely hyper about hammering home the message. There’s a real fine line to walk when you use a game as a teaching tool. If there’s too much preachy instruction, it becomes a complete bore and you might as well have put the info in a 3-ring binder to begin with. If it’s too gamey and not learny enough, the stakeholders might kick up a fuss. Summer in Smallywood strikes a really nice balance between its “edu” and its “tainment.”
i do feel the game is too dialogue-heavy, but it’s difficult to convey this information in this genre without having a lot of lip-flap. It would be amazing if Summer in Smallywood could have received a full voice-over treatment, if time and budget had permitted.
I Don’t Have Time To Play It – Give Me the Gist!
Summer in Smallywood pits you as a shift supervisor at a low-rent amusement park called Smallywood, where the rides and attractions are upsettingly tiny. One exhibit features miniaturized versions of Canada’s largest roadside attractions (Sudbury’s Big Nickel is an actual nickel).
Thrill to the spectacle of the World’s Smallest Roller Coaster!
The boss, an eccentric entrepreneur named Mr. Wood, challenges his employees to learn three essential skills: Oral Communication, Thinking Skills, and Working with Others. Master these, and you may be up for a raise and a promotion at the end of the summer.
Matt’s obviously played a lot of Pokémon. in the Oral Communication module, you face off against customers against an anime action background. Instead of choosing combat moves from a list, you choose helpful customer service responses.
Player uses “nod in agreement”. It’s super effective!
There are other classic video game references to spot. The dialogue window is pure Final Fantasy. Mario’s 1-up mushroom makes an appearance. Matt even had class NES-style video game boxes and instruction booklets printed to play up the initiative’s unique format:
In hindsight, i should have rigged up a Konami code easter egg.
Matt’s love of retro gaming came out in the video he produced to promote Smallywood to schools. Check out this trailer, dripping with “Zelda rap”-esque cheese:
The reception from both students and educators has been very positive. Here are some comments from students who look very grateful to not have to fill out dull Essential Skills questionnaires:
Summer in Smallywood made possible a handful of important new features for UGAGS version 3:
1. Branching conversations/dialogue trees
2. Multiple game profiles
3. Auto-save functionality
4. Navigation meshes (instead of waypoints) for character movement
Maybe it’s a weird quirk in my brainthoughts, but i really enjoy the challenge of presenting bone-dry material in an interesting and engaging way. Summer in Smallywood was Untold Entertainment’s first foray into educational gaming. i’m definitely interested in working on more games like this one, with great clients like Matt.
For up-to-the-minute news on edutainment and educational games, follow @smallywoodgame on Twitter.
For The Center for Skills Development and Training:
Project Coordinator, Game Design, Script:Matt Markowiak
Script Editors:Christine Prieur, Lorna Hart and Maria McDonald
Graphic Designer:Rita Ladjansky
Project Assistant: Dawn Walker
For Untold Entertainment Inc.
Art, Animation, Additional Game Design and Programming:Ryan Henson Creighton
Our entry for TOJam 5 (the Toronto independent game jam) was Heads.
The jam theme was “missing”. Heads is about a fellow who wakes up one morning missing … well, his head. The first puzzle in the game sees you constructing a makeshift head before you can leave the house. From there, we introduce a somewhat novel mechanic where you can switch heads with other characters to use their abilities. The game was the second title we created with UGAGS – the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System.
Worth 1000 Words
Heads was one of the games on Untold’s “Games to Build” wiki. The intended scope was much larger than what we ended up with, but the advantage of creating Heads at a weekend game jam is that we finished it and got the idea out to the world. The innovation we attempted with Heads came directly out of the first UGAGS game we created, Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two. Jinx 3 had a LOT of character dialogue and was very wordy. Heads was a reaction to that; we tried to create a game with absolutely no character dialogue whatsoever.
The resulting challenge was that everything we needed to communicate to the player required a new animation. The unique Heads style required us to draw every frame 3 or 4 times to achieve a Squigglevision-style effect. This all added up to a very time-consuming process that tested the limits of what we were able to pull off in a single weekend.
Most goals and challenges are communicated to the player by shrugging and thought bubbles.
Acclaim for Heads
Heads won “Best Use of Theme” at the public TOJam Arcade exhibition. It was featured in the START video game show at the Ontario College of Art and Design. You can play Heads for free on the Blackberry Playbook.
Corus Entertainment asked us to create a game for their Treehouse preschool brand. We had this idea kicking around from an earlier planned preschool site, and i was worried that it would never see the light of day. So, we built it for Treehouse, and are very happy with how it turned out!
Mouse Control gives the early preschool player the opportunity to develop computer mouse skills. Familiarity and capability with the mouse are taken for granted by so many preschool games. It first dawned on me that young children have trouble piloting the two-button brick when i taught computer classes to kindergarten students. While computer mice have become far sleeker and more ergonomically friendly, they’re still very much tailored to fit big hands.
Mice are also unintuitive! Just watch a small child (or your grandmother) try to steer the mouse like a car, rather than keeping it rigidly positioned and pointing “North”. Kids take to touchpads and touch interfaces much more naturally. But as long as we’re stuck with computer mice for the foreseeable future, why not create a game that helps our little players out?
The game introduces a series of progressively challenging mouse skills as it escalates:
Skill #1: Move the mouse to guide the cursor to a hotspot
Skill #2: Avoid certain areas of the screen
Skill #3: Guide the cursor to connect with a moving hotspot
Skill #4: Click the mouse button to activate a hotspot
With each level the camera pulls back, making the cursor and hotspots smaller so that they demand finer motor control.
Many of our industry partners approach us with concepts in hand and ask Untold Entertainment to execute those plans. Mouse Control is a great example of what we can do in a short time frame, where we’re responsible for developing the concept and the creative. We hope you share Mouse Control with the tiny, adorable people in your life!
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.
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)
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!
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! :)