i had never ever seen a word game like Spellirium, in which the Dictionary of fifty thousand-odd words is collectible and exposed to the player, AND collecting those words has some sort of bearing on gameplay – in Spellirium’s case, those words become your currency. To pull that off, the real trick was going to be organizing the UI (user interface) for the Dictionary in an enticing – not overwhelming – way.
Well, Mission Totally Failed during our first attempt, which we outline in the video. Based on that initial UI failure, we made the following critical changes to the Dictionary that you’ll find in the current version of Spellirium:
By default, the Dictionary filters by words you’ve already made. So the first time you open the Dictionary, you see it filled with words that you recognize, because you just finished building them in a challenge.
Instead of only two word states (“got it” and “don’t got it”), there are now four states: unseen, seen, owned, and spent. You can filter the Dictionary using any of those parameters for more or less granularity.
There’s a cheeky % complete counter at the bottom of the current dictionary, which usually says something like “0.0017% complete”. This is almost there to dissuade players from building all fifty thousand words because, come on … get a life.
There are two Cheeves in the game related to collecting words. One of them is called “You’re Almost There”, which rewards you for completing 2% of the Dictionary ;) The other one is for 100% completion, but it implores you NOT to achieve it, offers you no reward, and encourages you to get out and join a community group instead.
In the TEDx Toronto talk that i delivered with Cassie yesterday, i took a shot at school boards’ use of ancient educational software, which many teachers use to placate their students while they catch up on marking and class prep.
Note to schools: math hasn’t changed, but graphics, sound, teaching methods and children all have.
In the nail-biting stress-a-palooza leading up to the talk, i read a review of Frog Fractions, a parody of kids’ educational and entertainment software of a (supposedly) bygone era. Now that i have a short time to relax, i took the time to play the game. It’s brilliant and hilarious, and well worth your time (and donations). It’s one of the funniest short-form games i’ve ever played. Enjoy it!
One of the biggest challenges of trying to bootstrap a video game studio like Untold Entertainment (in the midst of a global recession, no less), is that prospective clients are drawn to service providers that appear to be able to handle their project in a no-fuss, turnkey fashion. Untold has been passed over for a number of projects because we try to keep our overhead low, which means hiring on an as-needed basis according to our workload.
These days, when someone at a conference asks “Untold Entertainment? How big are you?”, i’m inclined to answer “seven inches, sof.t” i get a little tired of the question. The number of employees you have has no actual bearing on the quality of the work you produce, the speed at which you can turn around a project, or the value you deliver as a service agency. Yet it’s become this quick litmus test of worth whenever men excitedly sniff each other’s butts at conventions.
Smells like you’ve had a good year, Pete.
Many clients expect to walk into Untold and see a swarm of expensive employees chewing through money like locusts, waiting to pounce on whatever new project they’re thrown. It seems to be only the studios that can do this – or, better yet, the ones that can fake it – that are able to properly grow.
Use Your Illusion
In the early days of Untold, i met with a man who ran his own studio, who said he wanted to contract me to consult on and design a kids’ virtual world. He said his American clients were due to arrive any week now, and he wanted me to come in and help him sell his studio to them. After many false starts, when the day finally came that the prospective clients were due to arrive, the owner seated me at one of the desks in his small office, and asked me to work on whatever until he brought the clients in. Meanwhile, he met with the clients down the hall in the shared boardroom.
i sat in this guy’s office for three hours before it dawned on me: i wasn’t there to meet with his clients or to help design the game. i was an office prop – a warm body filling a desk to pad out the scene, to make it look like he was running a thriving operation. i packed up my laptop in disgust and stormed out of the place. The guy’s been on my shit list ever since.
Stacking the Deck
i spoke to a few colleagues last night who confirmed that office stocking was common practice. One friend said that he worked at an agency that developed teevee commercials, and that also developed series. Clients from the commerical side would be brought in to see the dozens of warm bodies toiling away at their desks, leaving them with the impression that their project was in many, many capable hands, when in reality it was one lonely dude and an intern working on the project – the rest of the employees were contracted for something completely different.
Another colleague told me the story of an animation studio in town that invited a number of fourth year animation students in to do a drawing test, “because they were hiring”. When the students arrived and asked what they were supposed to draw, the employees were evasive and weird about it. They were assigned to what amounted to busy-work. In the midst of this “test”, some company bigwigs brought clients through the area and, indicating the students, said “well, here are our animators…”
i have another colleague who didn’t have an office or employees, but on his website he’d list a number of freelance colleagues as if they were his own salaried employees. It was a little white lie that i believe helped him to grow his company to the point where he does currently have an office and employees.
Meh heh heh.
Honesty Undoes You
This “fake it til you make it” approach runs counter to the first of Untold’s core principles, “uncompromising honesty”. No, we don’t have an enormous farm full of employees of all stripes and skillsets ready to take on anything you throw at them. And no, i’m not particularly keen on producing a smoke-and-mirrors effect to make it seem like we do.
Sorry – the giant floating head in the middle of the office will be able to answer all of your game development questions.
The fact is that if you want Untold Entertainment to work on your project, we’ll take care of it. We are extremely well connected, and we can assemble the absolute best team for your project needs. Don’t buy it? Check out Project Overboard, where i assembled a team of forty people from a multitude of disciplines to build a game in a single weekend.
Have you ever been used as an office prop? Or do you know other tricks of the trade to make it appear as though you’re running a Fortune 500 company when you’re really running Buck-Ninety-Five Incorporated? Let me know in the comments! Please also indicate your penis size, so that i can properly determine your worth as a human being.
i recently watched the Sesame Street flick The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland with my tiny little girls. i managed expectations by paying a requisite visit to MrSkin.com to learn that there are no nude scenes in the movie (although several characters spend the entire running time not wearing any pants).
(tickle him where, exactly?)
With Jim Henson long passed, the Sesame Street and Muppet brands have really felt the loss. Some people feel Elmo epitomizes a Henson-less Sesame Street (in fact, Elmo was sanctioned by Jim, and even shared some skits with a Henson-performed Kermit). i’m not a big fan of modern-day Sesame Street’s more child-like Zoe, Rosita, Abby Cadabby, and Baby Bear (versus the old school street’s grown-up Herry, Kermit, Bert & Ernie, Sully & Biff and Grover), but the inclusion of more female Muppets is probably a change for the better – even if most of the new characters annoy the piss out of me.
Monsters beat princesses any day.
What i found unforgivable, though, was the flagrant rule-breaking the crew engaged in, where one hard-and-fast law of the Sesame Street Universe was trodden and sullied for fans everywhere (even as Sully himself was nowhere to be found). Outraged, I conjured up four other examples in which the “laws” of certain children’s entertainment brands have been broken, and the caretakers of those franchises have yet to be brought to justice.
1. Showing the Interior of Oscar’s Can
The crime committed by the Sesame Street writers in Elmo in Grouchland was filming the interior of Oscar the Grouch’s garbage can. Longtime fans (or anyone even casually acquainted with Sesame Street) can tell you that the magic of Oscar’s Tardis-like garbage can home, which houses (among other things) his pet elephant, was a silly unsolvable mystery and untouchable canon in Sesame Street lore.
Why untouchable? Because if you show the inside of Oscar’s can, the elephant jokes of decades of Sesame Street seasons no longer work. Watch Elmo in Grouchland, and then go back and watch a gag where Oscar tinkers with his grouch jalopy somewhere inside his garbage can. You’ll say to yourself “oh yeah – that’s entirely possible. i’ve seen the inside of his can, and it’s quite spacious.”
It was a wretched, wretched idea to break this law, and worse – it was entirely unnecessary to the film’s fiction. As per usual, Elmo could have described the inside of the can in an echoey voice-over, and tell the viewer how he discovered a portal to Grouchland inside. But “show, don’t tell”, right? There’s apparently no room for imagination in a post-Henson Sesame Street.
Just … dammit.
2. Poochifying Paddington Bear
The original Paddington Bear adaptation was an unbelievably charming and unique blend of stop-motion animation and classical 2D, where the very Pooh-like title character would interact with paper cut-outs of the show’s less interesting supporting cast. Here’s an episode, in case you don’t remember or have never seen it:
Recently, Cookie Jar Entertainment produced an unnecessary and awful Paddington Bear upgrade. They stripped out the narration, the stop-motion, the wit, the charm, and the Britishness. We’re left with a vanilla Paddington show that looks and feels like any other daytime filler material built to keep the little brats entertained. Watch, if you dare:
Rastafarianize him by 10%!
Ugh. After that, sticky Paddington and i both need a shower.
(For the record, the intervening Hanna Barbera take on Paddington was also crap.)
3. Naming the Man with the Yellow Hat
The Curious George series of children’s books chugged along for sixty bloody years being content to call the monkey’s friend “the man with the yellow hat”. When the film version came out in 2006, the geniuses in charge named him “Ted Shackleford”.
Why? God only knows.
Anonymity is verboten in this post-911 environment. Let’s see some i.d.
4. Voicing the Peanuts Teacher
The adults in Peanuts teevee specials are voiced by a muted trombone. Is this a law? Yes. Yes it is. And is it a crime to deviate from this? Yes. It most certainly is.
Stop! In the name of the wah wah wah woh wah wah wah!
And why? Because we never see grown-ups in Peanuts, and teachers sound like muted trombones. That’s the way it is. The kids are important – the adults are not. This creative decision, paired with the decision to hire real kids to voice the Peanuts characters, cleverly conveyed that a child’s domain is often worlds apart from an adult’s, to the point where they even speak a different language. This helps to make the Peanuts characters’ adult-like antics, like Lucy’s psychiatry booth and Sally’s obsession with Linus, even funnier.
And … oh – what’s this? Here comes She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown to dump all over that.
5. Making the Cat in the Hat a Safe, Friendly Science Tutor
Dr. Seuss’s bastion of kid poetry, The Cat in the Hat, was recently adapted to television. The book is about two young children who are who are conspicuously abandoned by their mother, and who find themselves bored out of their skulls on a rainy day. They are visited by the titular cat who barges in and promises them a good time. He then proceeds to trash the house, alarming their neurotic pet fish who constantly warns them that their mother is going to lose her shit when she sees the place. With every destructive suggestion the Cat puts forth, he assures them that “your mother will surely not mind if you do.”
He certainly LOOKS like a respectable fellow …
And just when the kids think things couldn’t get any worse, the Cat unleashes his two frat buddies, Thing 1 and Thing 2, who demolish everything in sight. The Cat is not a nice, friendly character. For 3/4 of the book, he’s a villain, and the story builds towards this impending doom as we draw nearer and nearer to mom’s return. The Cat in the Hat is essentially a horror story for preschoolers.
Lock the doors, honey.
Sounds like a fun concept for a teevee show, right? So what’s the premise for The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That?
First of all, the boy is brown. Whatever. i’ll let it slide. i always thought that “Sally and I” were brother and sister. If you’re going to muck with race, why not make them both brown? Because it would alienate white kids? Then why didn’t they make the fish Asian? i dunno. i don’t care too much about it.
The Cat is an equal opportunity shit disturber.
What i do care about is that the Cat in the Hat, anarchist, tormentor of fish and destroyer of private property, is now a friendly character who teaches the kids about science. Naturally. The show is so-titled because the Cat is ever-so-knowledgeable about aquatic life, the water cycle, the seasons, and any number of other natural phenomenon.
You know what Seuss’s Cat knew a lot about? Flying kites inside the house.
Here’s what you need to know about science, kids: GRAVITY.
The most awful part of this show is that the kids’ mom is always home when the Cat shows up, and when the Cat suggests they “go go go go … on an adventure” to learn about colour theory or some bullshit, he says (as in the book), “your mother will surely not mind if you do!” And you know what the kids do? They ask their mom for permission. i can’t think of anything more antithetical to the spirit of the book than taking the teeth out of it and making it that safe. It’s a true testament to modern-day paranoid parenting.
Thing 1 and Thing 2 make an appearance in every episode, usually to help the kids when they’re in a jam. Because, as we know from the book, that’s what Thing 1 and Thing 2 love to do: help little children get a grasp on science.
Oh – thank goodness Thing 1 and Thing 2 are here to explain SONAR.
No. You know what? NO. Thing 1 and Thing 2 are not preschool science teachers. They’re here to FUCK SHIT UP, and that’s ALL that they’re about. If you want your kids to watch a kids’ show that teaches science, the pickings aren’t exactly slim. You’ve got Curious George (makes sense – he’s curious, and he’s a monkey, and we use monkeys in scientific experiments), Peep and the Big Wide World, Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train, Wild Kratts, and Mama Mirabelle’s Home Movies. Thanks to a big STEM push by the US government (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), we have preschool science shows in spades.
If you’re going to teach anything using the Cat in the Hat, you might try ethics and morality as a more brand-appropriate topic. Or teach kids what to do when people – particularly grown-ups – put them in situations that make them uncomfortable. i’m not suggesting every episode be about molestation, but rather assertiveness, communication, and self-awareness. Here’s how Seuss ended his book:
Then our mother came in
And said said to us two,
“Did you have any fun?
Tell me. What did you do?”
And Sally and I
did not know What to say.
Should we tell her the things
that went on there that day?
Should we tell her about it?
Now, what SHOULD we do?
what would YOU do If you mother asked YOU?
i’d tell her about animal migration and the light spectrum!
The US government doesn’t have a vested interest in preschool shows that teach morality or self-awareness. Being tops in science helps the country subjugate the rest of the world and remain a superpower. But being a morally sound or independently thinking nation doesn’t pay.
Crapping on the Shoulders of Giants
Henson, Schulz, Bond, Geisel and the Reys. We can posthumously mess with their creations and make everyone completely forget what was charming, subtle, and valuable about their work to begin with. This is what we get when men and women in ties have say over the creations of men and women with pencils.