Tag Archives: Ideas

TOJam Sixy Times Announces its Theme

Long-time readers of this blog know i’m an avid fan of TOJam, the Toronto independent game jam, which takes place every year either on Mother’s Day or during student exams, or at some other inconvenient time. It’s very difficult to schedule an event free and clear of other competing calendar dates, but the organizers think they’ve pulled it off this year: the sixth iteration of the jam, “TOJam Sixy Times”, runs the entire weekend from May 13th to 15th 2011.

Borat

Congratulations to Borat, who apparently won the competition to name this year’s jam.

TOJam is not a competition. It’s rather more like camp … hot, sweaty nerd camp fueled by energy drinks and candy bars. Every year, the organizers suggest that each game feature a Toronto-specific sound effect, and a picture of a goat on a pole (rendered any way the game’s artist chooses). Here’s the goat in all its glory:

Borat

God help us if the photographer ever comes knocking to collect royalty payments for five previous years of jam games.

Here’s the goat’s appearance in some of the TOJam games i’ve developed over the years:

Two By Two

TOJam 2: Two by Two

Here Be Dragons

TOJam 3: Here Be Dragons

Heads

TOJam 5: Heads

Each TOJam also features a suggested theme. Past themes have included “Cheese”, “Scale“, and “Missing“. This year’s theme is “What Just Happened?” As i do every year, i’d like to riff on the TOJam theme and explore its possibilities.

Windbag

The very first thing that comes to mind when i hear “What Just Happened?” is Fred Willard in A Mighty Wind:



Wha’ Happened?? Ha ha ha ha. This is one of those movie lines i repeat all the time, and no one knows what i’m talking about. What are its ramifications for game design? None! But Fred Willard rocks my world.

WTFism

Like “Cheese”, the “What Just Happened?” theme gives a lot of room for WTFism. You can pack your game with ton of nonsensical crap that leaves the player saying “What Just Happened?” This is kind of a cop-out. Or maybe it’s because i’m old. i used to watch terrible movies and teevee shows just to laugh at them, but when you get old enough that you really start to feel your time on Earth is tragically limited, you tend to gravitate more towards entertaining yourself with stuff that’s actually worth your time.

Hot Throttle

Hot Throttle is about naked men who think they’re cars, and … uh, yeah.

The Scene of the Crime

A much more literal interpretation of the theme might involve a game where the player is shown the aftermath of an event, and has to work backwards to figure out what caused the event. This would likely be a plot-driven graphic adventure-style game, maybe in the vein of Déjà Vu, where you wake up in a bathroom stall with amnesia.

Deja Vu

i don’t remember if i HAVE any money!

Unfortunately these days, starting a point n’ click game with amnesia is a hackneyed trope used in nearly every free Escape the Room Flash game i’ve played. At the risk of calling every game contrivance a cop-out, i’ll happily call this one out too: amnesia is a tired device that should be given a 10-year breather in video games, or until somebody can do something interesting with it.

In the case of the Escape the Room games, the situation’s even more dire, because the games all begin with “You are trapped in a room and you don’t know who you are”, and end with “You got out of the room!” There’s no character or plot development whatsoever … just a key inexplicably hidden behind a scrap of wallpaper, and a VCR code in the breakaway leg of the couch.

Escape the Room

While we’re at it, let’s give Escape the Room games a 10-year breather too. Or 100 years.

Memory Game

The trouble with a graphic adventure game where you’re trying to figure out What Just Happened is that it’s probably not going to be very replayable, and it has a big spoil factor on it. Take something like The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shamalamadingdong: if you haven’t seen it, and someone spoils the ending for you by revealing that Bruce Willis has a penis, you may not enjoy the movie when you finally get around to watching it. You may not even bother watching it at all.

Penis Vader

Spoiler: Bruce Willlis’s penis is Luke Skywalker’s father.

Same deal with our hypothetical graphic adventure game: once someone tells you that What Just Happened is that the Evil Dr. Douchebag created a murder machine that killed everyone over five feet tall, and that THAT was the mysterious detail linking all of the survivors, the game might be less fun to play.

Here’s a less plot-heavy, more replayable game that’s simpler to program in a weekend: there’s a child’s memory game that we play at birthday parties, where you lay out a number of objects on the table. Everyone stares at the table for one minute. Then you tell all the kids to close their eyes, and you take an item away. The kids have to guess what’s missing.

What Just Happened? Mommy stole the fork.

Time-Bending

The past-tense of the What Just Happened theme may lend itself to a game involving time-bending or time-travel, a la Braid, or Back to the Future Part II on the NES.

Back to the Future

What Just Happened? You wasted fifty bucks.

Picture Super Mario Bros., and you show the player the level AFTER he’s gone through it: certain blocks are smashed, certain goombas are squished … and the player has to run through the level smashing all the same blocks and squishing all the same goombas in an effort to re-create the endgame state he’s just seen.

It would be way more interesting if you did this with more of a puzzle platformer, where there are switches and doors and traps and contrivances, which would make the re-creation far more interesting (ie “How did i get the pile of blocks to fall on top of that platform? What order do i have to do things in to get that to happen like that?”)

Word Association

You could bend the “rules” a bit and play around with the words in the theme. “What Just Happened?” could be the title about a Marmaduke-like dog named What.

Your game could be about a crusading judge on an alien planet, and you have to determine the ways in which he’s meted out justice by learning the aliens’ legal system. “What Thing that is Just Just Happened?” Meh. It’s a stretch.

And as long as i’m stretching:

What Just Hairpin?

What Just Hairpin?

Slut Just Happened

Slut Just Happened

What - Joust Happened?

What – Joust Happened?

Hutt Just Happened

Hutt Just Happened

What? Just Hop-On

What? Just Hop-On

Whatever you decide to pull together for your TOJam game, just keep in mind the rules i’ve learned from four previous jams:

  1. Keep it simple enough to finish.
  2. Finishing is everything.
  3. If you want to get any love from players, either on the final night of the Jam or at the public TOJam Arcade, your game MUST be fast to learn, and easy to pick up and play. If you have to sit next to the player and explain how to control the game or what’s going on or what that squiggly shape is supposed to represent, you’ve failed. So:
  4. Very strongly consider reserving a number of hours in the jam to build some sort of in-game tutorial to help the player understand your game, so that you don’t have to hand-hold.

i can’t tell you how many times i’ve sat down to play a TOJam game and have thought “What Just Happened?”, as in “how did a team of six people just spend an entire weekend building a game where i can’t figure out what the heck is going on?” This year, let’s keep the mystery of what just happened thematic, and create a great crop of games where the goals and controls are clear as crystal.

See you at the jam!

Pimp My Portal: Introduction

Pimp My Portal

One of the most popular series of articles i’ve ever written was called Pimp My Game. It was an experiment in game monetization, back before i’d ever released a game of my own. i wanted to know how much money i could earn distributing a game, so that i’d know the amount of money i could invest in development in order to break even, at the very least.

Pimp My Game

The results were … abysmal. The Pimp My Game feature predates a number of tools and tricks that have made it far more possible for Flash game developers to earn money on their creations – most notably Flash Game License and microtransactions (GamerSafe/HeyZap/Mochi Coins).

Even with those services, it struck me that the amount of money required to develop a game of significant scope and scale to catch the attention of the average portal-goer, versus the relative risk of not landing a large enough sponsorship or earning cash back through scant ad rev share, was not a racket i really wanted to be in. Untold Entertainment makes custom games as a service for a number of clients, and i feel we’re paid appropriately for our efforts. i’ve never developed a game for a client on the off chance that they’d pay money for it.

Pimp My Game

“Hopefully, we’ll land a great sponsorship once we’re finished paving this road.”

i’ve been told numerous times, not least of all by the Flash Game License operators themselves, that game sponsorships can get up into five figures, with $20 000 being thrown around most often by people trying to impress me. Who’s paying these sponsorships? The buyers are mostly game portal owners.

The Cake is a Lie

What’s a game portal? It’s a websites that aggregate games and sandbags them with assloads of ads.

Pimp My Game

Jacksmack.com is a typical free-to-play Flash games portal.

So a portal can pay out $20k to sponsor a game. What’s in it for the portal? Usually, portals require the game developers to incorporate the hyperlinked portal logo in the game pre-roll, and possibly other promotional hooks – a “more games” button on the title screen leading back to the portal, portal-specific high scores – that sort of thing. The idea is that players play these free Flash games, which are distributed far and wide to tens of thousands of sites, and the players may purposely (or inadvertently) click somewhere in the game to be brought to the sponsoring portal. Sponsors will often pay extra cash for exclusivity rights.

Gimme5Games

Gimme5Games is known as a high-rolling sponsor in the Flash game developer community.

And how does the portal make enough money to pay a sponsorship? Unless i’m missing something, the most significant source of revenue for a game portal is advertising. There are some smaller, secondary streams – for example, Mochimedia kicks 10% of Mochi Coins sales to the portal when players spend Mochi Coins in games hosted on those portals, and Mochi also cuts the portal in for a small percentage of Mochiads revenue, but there we’re talking about fractions of fractions of pennies. The bread and butter of any games portal is advertising.

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em …

At this point i began eyeing the portals themselves with keen interest. $20 000 for a sponsorship? Again, unless i’m missing something, that must mean that at some point, a portal earns more than $20k in advertising. And game portal advertising revenue is passive income, that elusive majestic money creature that i’m constantly persuing. You just have to throw up a portal, stick some games on there, surround the games with ads, and kick back while waves of money roll over you like a stinky cash tsunami. “Beautiful”, i thought. “Let’s do this thing.”

Here are the steps i followed to set up my first portal, WordGameWorld.com:

  1. Register the domain name – $10
  2. Pay for hosting. i’m paying $33/mo to a company called 1&1 to host a VPS (Virtual Private Server), which is essentially like having my own (underpowered) web server computer. i originally started renting the VPS so that we could power Interruping Cow Trivia using the multiplayer ElectroServer software. You can probably get away with paying a regular web host less than $10/mo to host a portal.
  3. Install WordPress, which is very popular free blog software. The Untold Entertainment blog you’re reading now runs on WordPress.
  4. Purchase a WPArcade theme and plugin. These guys license a WordPress theme (skin) that makes your site look like a game portal. The plugin they provide enables you to enter the game distribution rss feed address from MochiMedia and, with the click of a button, inject ten thousand free Flash games into your portal site.
  5. Set up a Google Adsense account. This was the trickiest step – at first, Google denied my registration because WordGameWorld.com had zero traffic. WordGameWorld.com was live for a long time with no advertising, until i got a hot tip from a Twitter friend that once Adsense approved one of my sites, i could use Adsense ads on other sites that i owned. i leveraged the traffic on UntoldEntertainment.com to get my account approved, and then placed the ads around the WPArcade WordPress theme using their tool.

Step 4: Proft?

At this point, i had contractors come in to widen my front door in anticipation of the deluge of cash that would no doubt come blasting into my living room from men with money guns, all owing to this most brilliant idea of mine. It wasn’t long before i figured out that setting up a game portal is easy … driving traffic to it ain’t.

For the remainder of this series, i’ll document my madcap methods i used to try to drive traffic to my game portals. My journey takes me from dating services for gay nerds, to bikini-clad women in Brazil, to the very bowels of The Internatz itself … all in the name of making money off the backs of the free Flash game developers that i never want to become. i promise it will be lurid, sleazy, and informative. But mostly lurid.

Pimp My Portal

The Tyranny of Stickmen

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.

Continuity

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.

Winnie the Pooh thinking

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.

Braid

Now let’s wipe him out and replace him with a stick man and box art:

Braid without branding

Unbraided.

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:

Super Mario Galaxy

And now, Super Mario Galaxy with stick men and box art:

Super Mario Galaxy with no branding

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.

Sharp-Dressed Man

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.

Fancy Pants Adventures

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:

Fancy Pants Adventures stripped of branding

(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:

Stick Hat Stripped

To this:

Sir Stick-Hat's Amazing Escapades

The difference is brand recognition, noteriety and, hopefully, money in the bank.

Why Don’t You Host Your Own Flash Game Portal?

No – seriously. Why don’t you?

One of the most-repeated tips i heard at the Casual Connect conference a few weeks ago was to develop a strong brand. Customers like strong brands. Strong branding unifies all your … your stuff under one label. Strong brands are about striking, professional-looking logos, consistent use of colours and fonts, and maybe even some sort of manifesto or feeling that you emit.

Our over-arching brand is called Untold Entertainment. The word “untold” means “lots”. Lots of entertainment.

Our Brand’s Origin Story

It bothers me a little when i go to a conference or a function, and i’ll meet a few new people in a huddle, and someone will say “who are you?” And i’ll say “i’m Ryan Creighton. i run a small game design studio in Toronto called Untold Entertainment.” And the person will say “Oh? What type of work do you do?” And this jackass over here – the one in the sweater vest – will say “It’s untold! He can’t tell you! RAH HA HA HA!” Then he’ll slap his knee and go out and kill someone while drunk driving.

But it doesn’t happen all that often. Most people know what the word means. And most people have heard someone use the wording “untold entertainment” in casual speech, usually to describe something outlandish. Example: “So i was at the fair today, and they had a duck balancing on a ball juggling chainsaws. Untold entertainment.”

In fact – and i’m not kidding – our original company logo was a duck balancing on a ball juggling chainsaws.

Original Untold Entertainment Logo

For serious.

This was my Facebook avatar at the time (and still is, actually):

Ryan Henson Creighton

This pic of me was taken 20 years before i was born

i’m not a big comic book fan, but i had this idea of creating a corporate website that looked like one of those junk pages in a comic book, full of special offers for useless and exaggerated products like “moon shoes”, “secret decoder rings”, and “asthma inhalers”:

Comic book ads

Mom! I’m gonna need seven dollars!

This is as far as i got before my friends and loved ones (thankfully) stopped me:

Untold Entertainment Original Site

Needs more eyeball-piercing yellow!!

Thinking that the saturation was the problem, i kept the logo and moved to a completely black design, and continued to flounder:

Untold Entertainment Second Site

This just … isn’t working.

In my former life working for a broadcaster, i illustrated a few games using a crude, sketchy style that a lot of people found enduring. (Like Dr. Seuss, i drew things all silly-looking because i’m not very skilled at drawing things for serious. UNlike Dr. Seuss, i toil in relative obscurity.) So the logo evolved into a hastily-scribbled monster gnawing on a cardboard sign, which tested very well with 18-35-year-old women who are married to me.

With our first published Untold Entertainment website, we tried to convey the outlandish “untold entertainment” theme. We had a cartoonish bomb that dropped sausages, and other strange things. Everything was in a doodly, sketchy style:

Comic book ads

i miss it, but only a little.

The Brand You Know

When we hired our first (and to date, only) devoted artist, Mark Duiker. i asked that he stick to the established art style. He seemed a little dismayed. But he eventually pulled off the fantastic-looking ornate marginalia you see around the site today. These doodles are also found on our company letterhead and invoices.

Untold Entertainment Invoice

An actual Untold Entertainment invoice.

The official company colours are red and browny yellow. These are also the colours i painted my bedroom, a few years before starting the company.

Through the carefully-drawn but careless-seeming visual branding, i hoped to convey a devil-may-care, mischievous, even dangerous attitude that was nevertheless playful and whimsical. The blog monster in our nav shouts too loudly. The gigantic tongue menu that appears when you roll over our About button is completely inappropriate for a professional site. The Twitter bird at the top of each page is just a little out of control. And if we ever get around to launching it, the monster that plucks letters from the project abstracts on our main page to spell naughty words will delight and outrage you. (i’m not making that up either. It exists.)

The Principle of the Thing

The company has five stated principles which, if you haven’t read them, i’ll repeat for you here:

  • uncompromising honesty
  • constant communication
  • the sanctity of childhood
  • non-violence in gaming (barring the presence of zombies)
  • the use of entertainment to improve, rather than degrade, the human condition

“Constant communication” is in there to give us a competetive edge over game vendors who, i’ve heard, don’t return emails or phone calls to their clients.

We list “uncompromising honesty” because i don’t think many other studios can commit to that. i’ve also heard word that our competitors will pretend that everything’s going smoothly until deadline day, and the reason they weren’t answering phone calls or emails the whole time is that the project went to pot two months ago and they were too lilly-livered to fess up.

We’re courageous enough to fess up. If something’s not going to work, or we’re not going to deliver on time (whether through our own fault or otherwise), we’ll say so. Uncompromising honesty, constantly communicated.

We have ways of making you meow

And the other three points stem from my own worldview. i believe in the sanctity of childhood – in other words, you shouldn’t host games about setting people on fire with no content warning when you know damn well that children visit your site regularly, because you own a kids’ teevee channel. *cough* Viacom *cough*

Non-violence in gaming, because i think every other game developer on the planet has the whole violence thing pretty much covered. We’d like to tackle something a little more innovative. (The caveat, of course, is that zombies are pure unfettered evil, and they’re just gonna have to die. Uh … again.)

Zombie

Now i’m as peaceful as the next guy, but DAMN – can a brother get a chainsaw up in here?

Entertainment to improve the human condition … when i wrote this, i may have been thinking specifically of Joe Cartoon putting rodents in blenders, or people developing rape games, or Happy Tree Friends, or any of the dreck that people fill their minds with these days. If you catch us creating “Britney Spears Must Die” games or “Close Range“-style games, by all means, please call us out on it.

So What’s On Your Mind?

i’ve been giving a lot of thought to developing a games portal. i’ve been considering Big Fish Games, the heavy-lifter in the casual downloadable space, and what they did right to haul in all that traffic (Kajillions of players a day, i’m told – but i think that might be an exaggeration.) Here are a few things i think they figured out:

  1. Define your audience. (Big Fish Games targets middle-aged women)
  2. Develop a strong brand. BFG’s official colours are blue and white, with a green accent. Their logo is professionally-designed, with a fish character that stays on-model (ie doesn’t look unsettling or retarded) in various poses.

    Big Fish Games logo

    A face only a mother could give her life’s savings to

  3. Cook up some kind of tag line. BFG’s is “A New Game Every Day!” Our is “We Make Flash Games”, which will have to change when we finally kick Flash to the curb and indulge our new mistress, Unity3D.
  4. Devote significant time and energy to customer service.
  5. Track every player action within an inch of its life, and act on the stats you collect.
  6. Take 70% of all shared revenues, then cackle evilly and return to your coffin before the sun scorches your ashen skin.

Surveying the Landscape

So with these points in mind, i gaze across the Flash game portal space. i think about branding, and what a strong brand looks and feels like, and then i look at the top ten games that bring traffic to our roving game Two By Two in the MochiMedia distribution network.

Let’s keep it simple and just look at the logos. Beneath each logo, i’ve noted the number of plays the game has enjoyed from each portal:

MindJolt

24,450

Yoflaz

589

Fupa

359

Faith Playground

163

Cool Chaser

19

JackSmack

12

Smeshen

11

Flash Game Ninjas

9

Free Game Gallery

7

Basito Yunlar

7

Smartest Games

7

Puzzle Sea

7

Free Hobo

6

Your Fun Games

5

(For the record, i had not seen the Free Hobo site before writing my Cash Cow Part 2 post on Members, Owners, and Hobos. And here i thought i was so original :)

So please understand that i’m depicting these logos in the best possible light, apart from the rest of the portal structure, which goes a lot like this:

Your Fun Games

Kicking Midgets

So at this point, i feel that creating a Flash game portal to compete with these guys is like entering Lance Armstrong in the Special Olympics. There are obviously a lot of folks out there who want a quick cash-in, who will pull a few SEO tricks and surround a mountain of free content with a fence of unscrupulous advertising and call it a day.

To the victor, the spoils. Big Fish has dominated the casual downloadable space because they’ve taken additional steps to make their service successful. So here are a few things i think we can learn by looking at the good (BigFish), and the bad/ugly (nearly every Flash portal):

  1. Pick an audience. Have the guts to go for a niche, and see if you can’t go after anyone but the hyper-critical (and stingy) teenaged boys that dominate the space at the moment
  2. Build a strong brand – think of a style bible, a tagline, and a brand personality. Make sure that brand appeals to your target audience.
  3. Listen to your audience. If you get complaints about your portal from teenaged boys, please ignore them. But if the black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminists you’ve identified as your target audience air their complaints or make suggestions, listen up! Do what they say. Then you’ll be treated to an ever-expanding audience of black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminists. And finally, you’ll have the black lesbian wheelchair-bound feminist market cornered.
  4. Once you corner your niche market, pick a new, related group and expand outward. It’s like playing Risk. But you won’t land that first group unless you listen carefully, and tailor your service to them.

Teen boy

Seriously – SCREW this kid. (Also, never type “screw teen boys” into Google Image Search.)

Let’s Fix This Mess

i hear a lot of talk about making people “fall in love” with your game. They can fall in love with your service, too. And once they open their hearts, they’ll open their wallets. i don’t know about you, but i don’t want to play on a portal that doesn’t respect me – that thrusts ads in my face and doesn’t carefully manicure its collection of games and tailor the library to my tastes and interests.

That’s why we don’t have other audiences playing Flash games. What self-respecting educated father of four adult children wants to wade through a site like Newgrounds looking for a game amidst porno Pokemon cartoons and Muslim terrorist dress-up games? That guy has a credit card, but i’m not getting anywhere near his money if i make him endure bad branding, inappropriate content, and an assload of ads.

The creator of Fantastic Contraption popped in here recently and said that the poor quality of most Flash games made it easy to compete – to totally snooker everyone out there and stand apart. i see the same opportunity with Flash portals. So why don’t you create your own? The industry could stand a little sprucing up.

Clay Game Attempt #1: Abject Failure

Did you ever want desperately to do something, and you thought you’d be pretty awesome at it, only to give it a first try and realize that you’re not some sort of prodigy? Or worse, to discover that you’re COMPLETE GARBAGE at it?

When i bought my wife a knitting class for her birthday years ago, i picked her up after the session and she was in tears. She thought she’d be a total pro, but her project looked like someone had had a grand mal seizure while playing cat’s cradle.

My whole life, i’ve adored the work of Jim Henson, to the point of changing my middle name to “Henson” (while on the run from Colombian authorities during my tomb-raiding escapades searching for the legendary South American jewel of Toh-Tallei). i finally had my chance to try it out during a workshop with the Nanalan’ / Mr. Meaty puppet troupe The Grogs, only to find that my arthritis and inflexibility kept me from lifting the puppets far enough over my head. It never dawned on me what a physically demanding job puppeteering was. Acting, puppet construction, improv – i could handle all that. But lifting my arm and keeping it straight? Impossible. Another dream crushed.

Down but not Out

Another dream of mine is to create a video game that uses physical, photographed objects as graphics. i want to either make some kind of game from clay, or to build a graphic adventure-style POV game (think MYST) where the whole set it made of physical stuff, and i just drop a camera inside the set and take pictures that serve as the graphics. The player would feel as if he’s inside a dollhouse, i think. i dunno. i haven’t done it yet. Maybe it would just stink?

i’ve also been burning to do a game in clay. “Like, Claymation?” everyone asks. No – not exactly. Stop-motion animation is incredibly time consuming. i just want the look of clay. i need a game with static graphics that are programmatically animated. That way, i can build the elements in clay and simply photograph still shots – no animation needed.

Clay Achin’

i got my chance a few weeks ago while building a game for the Chumby. It’s a simple card game, and all the cards have symbols on them. Why not build the cards and their symbols in clay? i could scratch the itch in the course of a weekend!

My family was taking a trip away, and i had a bachelor Saturday ahead of my, so i siezed my chance. i ordered a pizza, turned on Goodfellas, and set up the camera and tripod. i took a little desk light from my office and shone it on a white piece of paper – that was the extent of my set. Then i modelled nine little shapes and photographed them all. In a few hours, i was able to knock out all the backgrounds and lay the pngs down in my Flash game.

Here, friends, is the assy result:

Assy Clay Attempt

Look away.

It’s embarrassingly bad. Like really, really horribly awfully bad. And bad, bad, bad. Just – just no. Just a failure. A horrible, horrible embarrassingly bad failure. But i decided to write a post about it, warts and all, in the hope that some readers would offer advice, or that i’d encourage someone else who was facing the same challenges.

Here’s a short list of things that went wrong:

  1. a poor workman blames his tools, but my camera – particularly with its macro focus – is not that stellar
  2. i don’t know a thing about lighting.
  3. the shadow cast by the yellow clay shape was also yellow, which made it very tough to separate it from the background. i somehow expected a grey shadow (?) Clearly, my scientological understanding of optics is flawed.
  4. i’m not the best hand at Photoshop. Whenever i tried to change the colour of the shapes, they’d lose all the wonderful texturing that made them look like clay (that’s why all the shapes are yellow. They’re actually supposed to be different colours)

Ply, ply again

Unlike puppetry, knitting, and championship weiner-eating, i’m determined to keep at this until i get it right. i think my main stumbling block is the photography. If you have any advice or tales from the trenches, speak up! Meanwhile, enjoy a few screenshots from some games made out of clay:

Neverhood

The Neverhood. A flawed (but visually brilliant) game by Christian game designer Doug TenNapel, who also created Earthworm Jim at Shiny.

Skullmonkeys

Skullmonkeys, a spiritual successor to The Neverhood.

Clay Fighter

Clay Fighter was a mix of claymation and CG backgrounds.

Platypus

Platypus, another absolutely stunning game made from clay.