Tag Archives: TOJam

These Ponycorns Belong in a Museum (and at Maker Faire)!

The kind and gentle folks at the Digital Game Museum have a booth at this year’s Bay Area Maker Faire, and are prominently featuring Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure as a great example of digital making in action. i co-created the game with my then-5-year-old daughter Cassandra at TOJam 2011, and it has since become a worldwide sensation. Ponycorns has since gone on to become an Indiecade 2011 finalist, a Mochis Awards finalist, and a finalist for two Canadian Videogame Awards.

Ponycorns at Maker Faire

Ponycorns will be featured prominently in the center of the exhibit during the show.

The Maker Faire exhibit includes two playable Ponycorns displays, a few fun tidbits about the process of creating the game, and a full complement of Ponycorns T-shirts and plushies (which were, appropriately, hand-crafted by my wife Cheryl, using Cassie’s drawings as sewing patterns).

Ponycorns Mega-pack

Photo by Ian Bogost, from his private collection.

The follow-up to Ponycorns is another TOJam experiment called Project Overboard, which saw me leading an entire studio’s worth of 38 people on a weekend-long project to create a game called Head of the Gorgon, the proceeds of which will send at-risk Toronto youth to computer camp.

Toll Jam

Five minutes after the clock struck eight, signalling the end of TOJam, i broke out in hives. Itchy little bumps erupted on my hands and my feet. As i walked around in a daze, manouevring myself to the first floor for a slice of well-earned pizza, the hives crept up the sides of my neck to my cheeks.

During the weekend-long game jam, i suffered a litany of physical afflictions. While staying up around the clock on Saturday night, i blew a blood vessel in my left eye. i discovered a number of impacted, ingrown hairs on my bum from sitting, intensely, and not switching positions often enough. i had a few regrettable bowel movements – the less said about those, the better. And somewhere around the time my eye blew out, i started feeling my chest constrict.

The thought crossed my mind, more than fleetingly, that i may have been having a heart attack. And that worried me … less because of the attack, but more because i was having one alone in an empty room at a community college, while pulling an all-nighter making a video game. When i DO have my first heart attack, i want to be near my family, cuddling them while clutching my chest and gasping in pain. Instead, i’d forsaken my family that weekend to become that chubby idiot who dropped dead in his chair at TOJam and ruined 24-hour access for the rest of us.

It couldn’t possibly go down like this – could it? i started to think of the times people said to me “don’t work so hard – you’ll give yourself a heart attack!”, which i always equated with “don’t pull faces, because your face might stay like that”. It was only then, reflecting on the greasy food i’d been eating and the insane pace i’d been keeping, that i began to think that yes – this body fat percentage and this amount of stress could very well cause a heart attack for a guy in his mid-30′s. 30-something men do have heart attacks. That’s totally a thing.

It likely wasn’t one, though. i figure the culprits were the 2 litre bottle of Pepsi i’d sipped slowly the day before, and the rest of the caffeine i’d ingested during my “3 Coke Night”. That’s kind of like the supposed “Three Dog Night” that the band named themselves after, wherein (apocryphally) Inuit (or “Eskimos”, if you’re American and ignorant) endure nights so cold that they have to cozy up to three sled dogs for warmth. i cozied up to three cans of Coca Cola Classic that night, and all i got was this stupid ersatz heart attack.

Ryan Goes Overboard

Feeling the pressure to top last year’s TOJam collaboration with Cassie on Ponycorns, i’ve cooked up something new for 2012 that could bring joy to many more people. It’s called Project Overboard:



The opinions i’m about to express are my own, and haven’t been filtered through or approved by the Project Overboard team.

Spreading the Love Around

Project Overboard is great, because it benefits lots of people. It benefits folks in and around the Toronto game scene who can’t ordinarily participate in a game jam, because they don’t have art or programming abilities. It benefits the at-risk children and youth who get to go to summer camp with the money we (might) collect from game sales. It raises the profile of TOJam (although, at 400 participants this year, they probably don’t need the exposure!)

But what am i hoping to get out of the experience? Project Overboard is going to be a ton of work, and it would be a lot easier for me to find some five-year-old somewhere and make another crayon game.

black van

Black van + candy = new game jam partner.

i’ve run Untold Entertainment for five years, and the company still has only one full-time employee: me. i left my corporate job on the threshold of being groomed for management, but i came away particularly ungroomed. i’ve always wanted to see Untold grow to a team of people, but it’s almost a blessing that it hasn’t, because i wouldn’t know how to properly manage that team.

There’s No “Ay Yi Yi” in “Team”

My first big flop as a leader, and a manger of people, came when i took my first stab at developing Spellirium. Armed with some government funding, yet tied to some government time restrictions, i had to assemble my team of artists and programmers in a scant six weeks – all while holding down a work-for-hire project as the sole employee of Untold Entertainment. i cobbled together a group of complete strangers with whom i’d never worked before. What could go wrong?

migrant workers

Let’s make a game, random truckload of migrant Libyan workers!

Those initial four months of development were like a slow-motion explosion in a munitions factory, really. i’ll tell you all about it later in a Spellirium post-mortem.

i learned many lessons that summer, but one key lesson was that i’m a lousy manager. i’m too nice, too permissive, too easily pushed over. i lead people into the fray without a clear enough battle plan. i also don’t trust people enough to delegate tasks to them, because i’m afraid they’ll screw things up. But that last one is not a lesson in learning to better delegate; some of the folks i’ve worked with really would have screwed things up. The lesson there, i’m convinced, was to somehow find people i could trust so that i would feel comfortable delegating to them.

Finnegan, Begin Again

Project Overboard is, for me, a do-over. As with Spellirium, i’m slapping together a team (a much larger team this time) of people i’ve never worked with before, and in a very short timeframe. i’m putting humility and brotherly love aside for this project: i’ve christened myself Creative Director, and i’m calling the shots on the game. Project Overboard is a dictatorship, not a democracy.

A colleague of mine clued me into the difference between artisans, who make creative decisions in their work, and craftsmen, who are told what to do, but who are charged with doing it very very well. One of the expectations of the Project Overboard team that i communicated in our planning document is that ours is a team of craftsmen, not artisans. i’m the designated artisan on the team. We’re all going to be craftsmen, by building a game together very very well.

woodworker

Hand-crafted video games: you can feel the old-timey goodness.

My chief reason for claiming creative control of the project is that many jam teams waste their time trying to be nice to one another, without designating a single person who has veto power to choose a direction and run with it. The results are often telling of a design-by-committee approach. Not to pick on them too much, but at last year’s TOJam, friends of mine created Bacon Shark: a shark made out of bacon wearing a jetpack who is from the future reverses through a ruined platformer level, trying to un-crash himself through broken objects to avoid causing a time paradoxes (announced by the burrito-eating Paradox God), after having set off an atomic mayonnaise bomb.

Bacon Shark

Bacon Shark: a strong case for appointing a Creative Director on a jam game.

The plan with Project Overboard is that i will develop a full GDD (game design document), break it all down by task, and assign those tasks to my game production team. When TOJam starts, we’ll all begin burning through our respective lists, building assets and integrating them into the build. It’s the difference between following a set of Lego instructions, and building your own Lego monstrosity.

Lego AT-AT

Letting Go

Project Overboard will also help me with my issue of not trusting people enough to delegate to them. i really have no choice: i MUST delegate to people. The audio team is going to be halfway across town recording voice over, and even though i’d really like to be in the studio directing, i have to be on-site with the dev team building the game. i’d love to spearhead our marketing effort, but i’ve put together an entire marketing unit for that; every marketing effort i put forth is an opportunity i take away from them.

Sheep

Behold, my wildest fantasy. (Er … cloning, i mean. Not a menage-a-trois with two sheep.)

By the end of Project Overboard, someone will have screwed up. (It might even be me!) Another colleague told me that one out of every ten employees is good. 1 in 10. That’s an extremely bad ratio if you’re like me, and you constantly need to hire contractors for projects. (To put a fine point on it, i initially hired only six people to work on Spellirium. Those are bad odds.) But since we’re all working on Project Overboard for free, i now have a financially risk-free opportunity to work with thirty other people, to figure out who’s worth working with on future projects when the stakes are higher, and the money’s coming out of my pocket.

Once i know who i can count on, after seeing everyone in action on Project Overboard, i’ll be able to get past that reluctance to trust people enough to delegate. The trust will be there. Delegation will follow.

Funkadelic

Free your mind and your ass will follow.

That’s the self-improvement benefit that Project Overboard holds for me: i’m tightening up control and authorship in one area, while relaxing my sphincter a bit when it comes to enacting the plan and leading the team. When the project is finished, and we’ve (hopefully) built whatever it is we’re gonna build, i’ll loop back and let you know how it all turned out.

Untold Entertainment Goes Forth


Untold Entertainment Goes Forth

When Untold Entertainment Inc. turned three last year, we were reeling from the fallout of the global economic collapse. It’s been a slow, difficult recovery, and we still have a lot of work left to do, but i’m happy to say we’ve nosed out of the tailspin. This was a landmark year for Untold; we are poised to have an absolutely incredible fifth year going forward. If last year was our Empire, this year is our Jedi. Bring on the Ewoks, baby.

Ewok

Yub nub, motherf*cker.

Here’s a look at the Year That Was.

2010

August

Last fiscal ended on a dark note. We were struggling through Spellirium, our post-apocalyptic puzzle adventure game, as various production problems saw the budget sapped with very little to show for our efforts. The year ahead had us planning to complete service projects in the hope that we’d bank enough margin to continue working on the game.


Spellirium

September

My book was published! Unity 3D Game Development by Example: A Beginner’s Guide is a great introduction to game development, computer programming, and Unity 3D itself, which is a super-powerful game engine for creating on a wide variety of platforms. Thanks to you all for buying a copy, or for recommending the book to your friends.

Unity 3D Game Development By Example

Fall

We launched Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two on YTV.com. Jinx 3 was the first game to use UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System. It supported multiple playable characters, an inventory system, a subtitle system, game variable control, and a “puppet” guidance system, which enables the developer to write commands to build in-game cutscenes. Jinx 3 was the first UGAGS game we developed, but the second one to launch, after Heads.

Jinx 3: Escape from Area Fitty-Two

i spoke about UGAGS at Gamercamp Level 2.0, a Toronto convention celebrating the joy of video games.

October saw the publication of a now-infamous article about the Vortex Game Development Competition, where the previous year’s winners were revealed to have never worked on the winning game.

i experimented with a feature called Linkbait Tuesdays, where i used the Linkbait Generator to spit out randomized titles for blog posts. It wasn’t much appreciated by my readership, and didn’t appreciably increase blog traffic, so i killed the feature.

On Hallowe’en, we launched our second free games portal called ZombieGameWorld.com. If you know the song about the old woman who swallowed the fly, you’ll understand our challenge with these portals. We built WordGameWorld.com in order to attract a word game-playing audience, so that we could control the site’s ad inventory and find an audience for Spellirium. When the site suffered from flagging traffic, i decided to build a network of game portals; ZombieGameWorld.com was ostensibly created to help drive traffic to WordGameWorld.com, which should drive traffic to Spellirium.

Old lady who swallowed a fly

She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. i don’t know why she swallowed the fly. i guess she’ll die?

To round out the fall, i grew a beard to win hockey tickets, despite not enjoying hockey. i spoke at an interactiveontario luncheon. And i wrote an article for Mochiland.com on the disgraceful refusal by contracting companies to credit their Flash game developers.

Ryan Henson Creighton's epic moustache

Why wouldn’t you want your game to be associated with this guy?

Winter

As the cold weather set in, i took a position at a private college teaching Unity 3D game development. i had hoped for a better experience than i had at HervĂ© Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined, but no such luck: halfway through the course, which was dubbed Programming II (the students had supposedly been taught Flash/Actionscript for four months prior to my arrival), i had to dial everything back and re-teach programming basics to them. And by basics, i mean stuff like “What does the ‘=’ symbol do?” and “What is a variable?”

name

What … is your NAME?

The class was only eight students, but i had no fewer than two of those students’ parents call or email me to ask why little Billy was getting low grades on tests. YaRly.

In this, i further proved the thesis in my contentious What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges articles (Part 1 and Part 2). Helicopter parenting and failure aversion have created a generation of non-functional kids, which i later dubbed The Most Useless Generation. My diagnosis is that many college undergrads have escaped high school without ever understanding How to Be a Student (an article i wrote while teaching last winter, which i’ve only just posted now that i’ve put some distance between myself and the situation).

In the interest of helping young people be more successful, i offered My Prescription for (More) Successful Students, which my students all ignored, and i wrote a serious of articles called Understanding Programming to explain programming basics, which my students also ignored. Oh well. As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but sometimes you just have a retarded horse.

retarded horse

2011

Spring

In 2011, we launched an exciting blog series called Pimp My Portal, detailing our struggles to drive traffic to ZombieGameWorld.com and WordGameWorld.com. The hook here was The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget, a pot of just $100 that i spent on Fiverr.com to buy testimonial videos to promote the site, the rationale being that search loves video. The Old Lady who Swallowed the Fly reared her ugly head again, as i found that i had no audience to watch the videos to go to the portal to go to the OTHER portal to find out about Spellirium. The Pimp My Portal series is ongoing.

Around this time, we were commissioned by The Centre for Skills Development and Training to produce a series of games to help teach workplace skills to 15-30-year-olds. The resulting game, Summer in Smallywood, enabled us to make a number of improvements to UGAGS, including auto-save, debug tools, navigation meshes, saved game profiles, and threaded conversations. We’re looking forward to working further with The Centre in the coming year to expand our educational gaming experience.

Summer in Smallywood by Untold Entertainment

In March, i admit i was feeling a little bit desperate and squirrely. Work was trickling into the shop in fits and starts, and i was really wondering whether renewing our lease would be wise. Wild-eyed and hungry at GDC, i was overcome with the need to let the world know i am here, like the tiny Whos living on a speck on a clover stalk, who ultimately issue a resounding YOPP! to show the jungle animals that they exist (and to keep from getting boiled in beezlenut oil).

Horton

A game dev’s a game dev, no matter how small.

To that end, i pulled some shenanigans at the conference, which came to be known as the famous GDC Coin Stunt. The resulting press on most major online games sites greased the wheels for what was to be our greatest victory yet.

i have all the coins shirt

Over the years, we’ve found it so difficult to drive enough steady Flash game development work that we haven’t been able to bank enough time or enough money to do our own thing. To date, the only chance we seem to get is TOJam, an annual weekend-long Toronto game jam, during which we always produce a complete and original game. Indeed, nearly every title in the Original Games section of our portfolio is a TOJam game, completed in one weekend by me alone.

This year, we used UGAGS to create Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. i worked on the game with my 5-year-old daughter Cassandra. It was no accident that i was wearing my “I have all the coins” T-Shirt in the TOJam group photo this year. After the game went live, it went viral, initially being featured on many of the same sites that covered the coin stunt. In the few months since its launch, the ponycorns game has gone on to become an international sensation (i just granted an interview to a Japanese newspaper this week!).

Cassie and Daddy

[photo by Brendan Lynch]

With the ponycorns game, we took a very important step to improving our viability as a dev studio by launching the game on the Apple iPad and the BlackBerry Playbook. On the third day of its launch week, Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure was featured by Apple in its New & Noteworthy section.

Ponycorns also drove us to develop our first alternate revenue stream based on our original IP. We launched the Untold Booty merchandise store with a number of different ponycorns-based SKUs, and have been very happy with the results.

Throughout the year, i remained active with the IGDA Toronto Chapter, organizing some well-received events including the speed dating-style Game.Set.Match, the Open Mic Night rant session, Straight Outta TOJam: Pint-sized Postmortems, and the Fund in the Sun workshop.

IGDA Toronto Chapter posters

Through the spring, we developed a great puzzle/platformer game called Spladder, which currently runs on a number of kids’ broadcaster sites – YTV.com. TVO.org and CBBC.co.uk among them.

We launched a new games portal called TowerDefenseGameWorld.com and filled it with free tower defense games, because it’s difficult to prove a theory about a network of games portals lending each other traffic if you only have two portals. We also gave a major upgrade to ZombieGameWorld.com by expanding it to feature zombie games and goodies on other platforms.

i know an old lady who swallowed a horse. She’s dead, of course.

Summer. Future.

We’ve come full circle. Spellirium remains unfinished, but we’re finally spending time on it again. We poked Kahoots with a stick to see if it was still twitching. Thankfully, it is! We’ve made some creative changes to it to spare a fellow indie game dev company some unpleasant legal strife; look forward to a Kahoots-related announcement in the coming months.

i’m writing the 3.x update to my Unity 3D book, which will be ready shortly (send me an email and i’ll add you to our notification list when the update is released).

Going forward, our plan is to leverage the success of the ponycorns game to make major in-roads into game development and education for kids (see our article on CBC.ca). i’m preparing a pilot project with Cassie’s elementary school this fall. We’re preparing the unstoppable UGAGS engine for a business-to-business, and then consumer, release – expect it to have a kid-friendly interface. We’re polling people for their interest in an iPhone/iPod version of the game (send us an email!). i’ll be delivering my conference session Ponycorns: Lightning in a Jar at the Screens festival this fall, and at other conventions throughout the year. Ponycorns is being translated into Japanese in anticipation of the Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Games Show.

Untold Entertainment’s fifth year will be filled with low-life panda bears, daily word puzzles, gamesByKids, and more great articles about game development and education, peppered with rude jokes and stolen LOLcat pictures. Thanks so much for your support, everyone! i’m really looking forward to writing an amazing recap next year.

5-Year-Old Girl Makes Video Game

As planned, i took my five-year-old daughter Cassie to TOJam, the three-day Toronto independent game jam, to make a game with me. And here it is:

Cassie drew all the pictures, wrote all the titles, and recorded the voice of the main character. She also came up with the NPCs (including Mr. Turtle, the Mean Tiger, and the villainous Lemon), and designed some of the puzzles (including the one where you [SPOILER ALERT] have to read a sign to justify your need for a coconut to throw at the Lemon).

Cassie and Daddy

Cassie and Ryan [photo by Brendan Lynch]

Send Cassie to College?

i used Mochimedia’s ad service to inject ads into the game, which is fitting, because Mochi was a TOJam sponsor this year. i threw ads in there with the hope that the game might drum up a little bit of cash, which i will put toward the education fund that Cassie’s grandma started for her. Wouldn’t it be cool if Cassie’s game paid for college? (Sadly, it won’t happen. See the Pimp My Game series for more reasons why.) For kicks, i added a PayPal Donate button beneath the game.

Cassie tries ot eat with chopsticks

With your help, maybe we can send her to get some etiquette training? [Photo by Paul Hillier]

Alert Child Services

Dragging your kid to a weekend-long game jam, eh? Before you call Children’s Aid on me, please understand that i didn’t actually keep Cassie captive at TOJam all weekend long. She came in with me at 9:30 Saturday morning, and was the most excited i’ve ever seen her. We’d been preparing her for MONTHS so that she’d be emotionally ready for TOJam. After the organizers expressed concern that my rotten kid would be running around the place pestering people and making noise (an entirely likely scenario, if you’re familiar with my insane children and my lousy parenting style), i spent every evening coaching Cassie.

Me: Remember, you’re the first little girl who’s ever made a game at TOJam. And everyone’s worried you’re going to run around screaming and making noise and wrecking things.

Cassie: (shocked face) No i won’t!

Me: *i* know you won’t. (totally lying here – i was as nervous about it as anyone) But you have to prove to everyone that little girls can make video games too. If you’re very well behaved, then next year if another little girl wants to come and make a game, the TOJam people will say “the little girl who made a game last year was SO wonderful, we’d LOVE to see more little girls making games.”

Cassie: i’ll be have. i will!

Cassie bes have

Cassandra, “being have” [Photo by Paul Hillier]

Yes, Cassandra, There Is a Game Jam

The morning of TOJam was like Christmas for her. i’m not kidding. In the days leading up to the event, she told everyone she knew that she was going to TOJam. Naturally, they had no idea what she was talking about, but the strangers in the elevator and in the grocery store smiled and nodded politely all the same.

By the end of the day on Saturday, Cassie had spent 10 hours at TOJam, and was begging me to let her stay overnight. She had put in about 6 hours of actual colouring work, and sunk at least another hour into voice acting later that evening at home, where it was quieter. i tucked her into bed and returned to TOJam late Saturday evening, and then pulled an all-nighter scanning her crayon drawings and integrating them with the game logic using UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System).

Daddy working

[Photo by Paul Hillier]

Family Jam

Sunday morning after church, the whole family joined me at TOJam with a bunch of instruments in tow. My wife Cheryl and the two little girls sat together on the carpet down a quiet hallway. Cassie grabbed the harmonica, i took the drum, Cheryl took the ukulele, and little Isabel used the thumb harp and the Happy Apple. We recorded some music tracks together. The one that made it into the game intro is just Cassie and Izzy playing together. It was really nice to have everyone involved like that. Here’s the family track that didn’t quite make the cut:

[display_podcast]

Sunday evening, the family regrouped at TOJam. The game, while still unfinished, was set up in a hallway where Cassie excitedly ran up to any interested passers-by, snatched the mouse out of their hands, and said “I MADE THIS! LEMMIE SHOW YOU HOW TO PLAY!”

i think it was a really valuable life lesson for Cassie to see that all her hard work and effort went into making a product that brought smiles to the faces of her players. The next step is to brave the hairy Playbook process to get it on the device so that Cassie can bring it to school for Show & Tell.

Creighton family

[Photo by Paul Hillier]

Correcting History

i really hope you enjoy Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure. In all of this, our goal as parents is to give our kids the kind of childhood we would KILL to have had. i can’t imagine how different my life would have been if i had made a real working video game with my father at age 5. In fact, i can’t imagine how different my life would have been if he hadn’t left when i was eight months old.

But no matter. Some day, the ponycorns will get him.