Tag Archives: UGAGS

Gamercamp Lvl 3: Day 1

Gamercamp, now in its third year, is an annual festival in Toronto that celebrates video game culture, uniting local fans and developers under an orgiastic umbrella of game-loving. Here’s my take on Day One.

I Fold

It was a stretch for me to arrive at Gamercamp for 9:30. It’s a good day when i can drag myself to the bathroom of my own house by 9:30. i’m not an early riser. But when i saw that the conference’s keynote speaker was Seth Cooper, who worked on FoldIt, i knew i’d have to strain myself and make it there on time. i’m a big fan of using games to do useful things. (Note: that’s NOT the same as “gamification”, which is an attempt to make mundane things more interesting using trophies and leaderboards.)


i sharted! Where my points at??

FoldIt is a game out of Cornell and the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science. It uses crowdsourcing (lots of people doing stuff for you, like the Egyptian pyramids) to solve scientific puzzles by squishing 3D protein models down to more efficient forms. This is a task where humans can produce better solutions than computers, because we have better spatial reasoning than our future Robot Masters (blessings and peace be upon them). i’ve known about FoldIt for a while now, but whenever i see it being played, i can’t for the life of me figure out what in the Hell is going on.


i … what? Is the answer on GameFAQS?

Cooper said the possible applications of crowd-sourced FoldIt research included curing diseases and discovering alternatives to plastic. Indeed, the big story recently was that FoldIt players solved in three weeks a problem that had scientists scratching their heads for ten years – something to do with AIDS research and monkeys. The other two Center for Game Science initiatives Seth talked about were Photocity, where people taking pictures of real-life buildings can contribute to point cloud models (the hope being that some day, we’ll have an insanely detailed 3D model of our planet), and Refraction, part of an initiative to use A|B game testing to discover the best way to teach fractional mathematics to young students. (Photocity was a bit of a bust for me … the resulting point cloud model of four buildings was largely unimpressive and missing huge chunks of geometry, and it took 3 weeks and 40 000 pictures to produce. A skilled 3D artists could have produced a far more complete set of models in less time. So i was left wondering whether the initiative was such a hot idea.)

Photocity Point Cloud

Photocity players produce sort-of-impressive point cloud models … just don’t walk behind or above them.

i found the talk was decent, but a little self-serving. Cooper covered only UW/Cornell-produced projects, without ever talking about the myriad other projects that use game crowdsourcing to solve problems. In future iterations, Seth could give a nod to Google Image Labeler and reCAPTCHA to level out his talk.

Seth was shooed off the stage without taking questions in an effort to keeping the morning moving; i had a question for him that would’ve made me look like a complete tool (but what else is new?). With the proliferation of so-called slot machine games on Facebook, and companies turning huge profits “gamifying” mundane experiences, there’s a lot of talk about reward systems. Folks like Chris Hecker and Jesse Schell debate about extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation in games, and about the things that successfully motivate us; at least one study shows that for high-level knowledge work, monetary rewards just don’t cut it.


Sure, you’re paying me a sweaty fistful of cash, but how much JOY are you paying me?

Using FoldIt results to develop an alternative to plastic, or to develop an AIDS vaccine (note: not a cure, because there’s no business model in a cure) are multi-bazillion dollar propositions. Everyone roots for initiatives like FoldIt when they think it boils down to the goodness of people’s hearts, but as soon as someone starts cranking some serious coin based on results garnered from these crowdsourced games, the participants will want to see their work rewarded financially. Just look at the story of Box2D creator Erin Catto, and wealthier-than-God publisher Rovio of Angry Birds fame.

The Remains of the Day

Most of the rest of the morning’s presentations were a joy. Jim McGinley gave the talk he’s been dreaming of, “Digging Through the Trash”, where he discusses game ideas that could be salvaged by modern game developers from the Radio Shack TRS-80 (AKA the “Trash-80”).

TRS-80 Ad

Honey, are you beating off to ascii porn?

i loved the talk, and i really want to see more talks like it. i feel i have a distinct advantage over today’s younger crop of game developers because of my history playing ColecoVision, Intellivision and Atari 2600 games back in the day, because they were such simple games with simple mechanics that cut to the chase, and got to the fun FAST. One of my former students couldn’t even pronounce “ColecoVision” this afternoon. i firmly believe these kids should be made to sit in a room with guys like me and Jimmy, and forced to study classic home console games. Then we can pull our pants up to our nipples and tell them what’s wrong with the government.

Grumpy Old Man

If we wanted to have fun, we’d go to a CLIFF and jump OFF. And that’s the way it was, and we LIKED it!

Young Folks

i wasn’t all that enamoured with graphic designer Cory Schmitz’s presentation. It had a little too much pretentious hipster “Scene Kid” stuff going on in it for my liking, as Cory tore down design choices for various movie posters and video game box covers, providing examples of compositions that would have made them “better”. All of his examples had a real design smell to them, and he seemed a little too green to present his preferences as subjectively better, rather than objectively better. (If it doesn’t have a stark palette, odd angles, and gobs of negative space, it’s crap.) Still, there were a lot of art students in the audience, and they may have appreciated his talk.

Design Poster

Srsly you guys – my nipples are SO HARD right now.

There was a presentation by some industry up-and-comers about what they’re working on. While these mini-talks themselves tended to be rough, i enjoyed the effort as a whole, because it gave some of the student- and grad-level Toronto developers an opportunity to polish their public speaking skills. It’s an opportunity Prez Lesley Phord-Toy and i have been trying to give people throughout the year through the IGDA Toronto Chapter events like Straight Out TOJam and the Open Mic Night.

Building a Game (sorta) in Three Hours (ish)

The afternoon was a mish-mash of various workshops, including board game development, “physical” game design, playtesting sessions, and the Iron Game Developer Challenge. When i heard that Michael Todd dropped out due to ninja training or whatever, i jumped in and took his place. i wound up using UGAGS (the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System), the same engine that powers Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and Spellirium, to produce Frankentoy in just over three hours :

[pageview url=”http://untoldentertainment.com/games/frankentoy/frankentoy.swf” width=”600px” height=”450px”]
(this is not a jpg! Click the title screen to play)

As with Iron Chef, the Iron Game Developer Challenge had a secret ingredient that we had to incorporate into our games: bug-eyed plastic wind-up chattering teeth, which rank on the Creighton Terrifying Toy Spectrum somewhere between Cymbal-Smashing-Chimp-On-A-Tricycle, and this little nightmare:

The game is called “Frankentoy” and it has a Tim Burton-esque aesthetic, likely because Burton’s first film was Frankenweenie, and with very little time on the clock, i was lazily free-associating. The game is based (only partially) on a true story – my mom, a single parent, used to leave me alone in toy and book stores all the time, and would occasionally not make it back in time to pick me up until after closing time. Terrifying.

We developed UGAGS to help us create graphic adventure games quickly, but it feels like three hours was a little nuts. i hadn’t even played the game by the time the buzzer went off, and it’s plagued by some bona fide jankiness. i have no idea why the kid walks backwards. i probably should have spent less time shooting Jon Remedios in the head with Nerf bullets. But whatever. Let’s see YOU make a game.

How the Graphic Adventure Video Game Genre Can Save Your Kids’ TV-to-Game 360 Transmedia Strategy

UGAGS, the Untold Graphic Adventure Game System, is a framework and toolset that we use to create graphic adventure games.

A graphic adventure game often adheres to these conventions:

  • Third person perspective (you can see your character’s body), rather than first person (you can see through the eyes of your character)

    Third person vs. first person adventure game perspectives

    Full Throttle (left) is a third person adventure game, while MYST is atypically first person

  • Emphasis on story and character
  • Inventory system (the player can carry objects)
  • “Puzzles” … these are choke points in the game which can be overcome through various means (read: The 12 Types of Puzzles in Graphic Adventure Games)
  • Dialogue. Characters “speak” either through on-screen subtitles, or voice-over, or both.

    Day of the Tentacle

  • Conversations. Many graphic adventure games use branching dialogue trees for character interaction.

    Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis conversation system

  • Humour. This is one of the only video game genres that consistently uses humour as a selling point and main attraction.

Some famous examples of graphic adventure games are The Secret of Monkey Island, King’s Quest, and Simon the Sorceror. (Note that games involving adventure, like The Legend of Zelda, are often called “adventure games”, but the “graphic adventure” moniker applies only to this very specific genre we’ve outlined.)

The graphic adventure game genre suffered its demise in the mid-90’s at the hand of more popular action-oriented games like DOOM. The criticism of graphic adventure games, at the time, was that they were too expensive to produce and didn’t provide the player with enough replay value. Games like LOOM could be completed in a single day, and carried a $50-70 price tag.

Advantages of the Genre

The causes of the graphic adventure game’s fall from grace have, in a strange way, become its new strengths – particularly in the context of extending children’s brands to new platforms.

Replayability and Kids

Graphic adventure games are not very replayable for adults and older, because the experience is the same every time; adults are constantly seeking something new and challenging. But this is actually a strength when it comes to children’s entertainment. Young children will watch a movie or a teevee show again and again, with each viewing immediately following the last. In fact, certain teevee properties have acknowledged and leveraged this fact: Nickelodeon aired each new Blue’s Clues episode five times in a row from Monday to Friday, and test results found that this increased viewers’ attention and comprehension. Every episode of Teletubbies contains a live action segment of children performing an activity. This exact same live action segment is repeated within the same episode.

Teletubbies and repetition

(It’s a real shame kids have to relive this.)

To a young child, everything is new and challenging. There’s a distinct comfort in knowing the answers. Just as a child will proudly repeat a newly-learned task to demonstrate his mastery (standing on one leg, clicking his tongue, drawing the letter “A”), children delight in playing and replaying graphic adventure games because they’re predictable. Children like knowing that they can play a game from beginning to end, predictably experiencing the same events and confidently overcoming the same challenges.

Development Costs

The entire aim of UGAGS is to reduce the cost to develop graphic adventure games. While it was once true that graphic adventure games have demanded high budgets for low value, the cost of developing games in other, more action-based genres, has skyrocketed.

Brand Extension

Very often, we see kids’ television brands being extended to other areas, most notably video games. The mistake people usually make is to figure “well, teevee shows are about story and character, while video games are about defeating enemies and jumping on platforms … so we’ll take our teevee character and make her defeat enemies and jump on characters.”

This errant thinking stems from a very narrow understanding of video game genres. The result is games like That’s So Raven for the Nintendo Gameboy Advance:

That's So Raven GBA

This game is the epitome of lazy and uninformed content development for kids.

That’s So Raven was based on the Disney show of the same name. The game’s genre is best described as action … as Raven, you have to navigate the halls of your school, dodging book-throwing baddies and spraying your enemies in the face with perfume.

On the Disney site itself, you also have That’s So Raven Pinball:

What do these two games do to extend the That’s So Raven brand to video games? As a That’s So Raven fan, is this how you want to interact with the brand? It’s the equivalent of just throwing That’s So Raven on a sleeping bag or a pencil case and calling it a day. What does That’s So Raven have to do with sleeping, colouring, or pinball? Are there any moments in the show where Raven has to make it from one end of the school to the other, while dodging thrown books? Nope.

HERE is an excellent pinball game brand extension:

Wizard pinball game

The Wizard pinball machine extends the Tommy brand, which is all about pinball.

HERE is a great sleeping bag brand extension:

Taun-taun Sleeping Bag

The Taun Taun sleeping bag unzips to reveal guts, just like in The Empire Strikes Back.

What’s That’s So Raven all about? Well, she can see the future. How about a That’s So Raven Tarot Card deck? Fortune cookies? A magic 8-ball?

As a fan of the show, i want to play as Raven (they got that part right), but i also want to do the things that Raven does. i want to talk to all my friends, crack jokes, use my future-seeing powers, and get up to zany hijinks. The Game Boy Advance game pays lip service to this, by relegating your hijinks to cutscenes (non-interactive segments that play between levels). This game treatment is the equivalent of slapping a logo on a toothbrush. It’s essentially a white label game with an irrelevant brand make-up job.

The good news is that you can extend the brand logically to video games with a That’s So Raven graphic adventure game. Instead of hijinks being tacked on superficially, the entire plot of the game can unfold like an episode of the teevee show, with the player as the central character. You can even produce a few games, and release them episodically, just like the show. It’s a mode of production that teevee people understand, and it can even employ the show’s writers and actors in its development.

Lost in Translation

When considering how best to parlay your teevee show into video game format, consider how your show’s fans may want to engage with your brand, and try to match the genre to the show. If you have a boys’ action series, it might make sense to do a top-down space shooter with lasers and power-ups. But since a majority of kids’ content is about story and character, a graphic adventure game is going to give the audience what they want, and will make for a much smoother transition into games if you don’t fully grasp their nuances.

iCarly I Dream in Toons

iCarly: I Dream in Toons is a hidden object game where you have to search for items on a list. The iCarly show is about a girl who has a popular web series. i spy with my little eye: a brand disconnect.

Slaves of the 80’s

Again, here’s a scenario i see all the time, and it’s a perfect example of what not to do: your show’s lead character doesn’t ride a skateboard, but you once heard of a popular game franchise called Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater (your nephew plays it … or he used to, a few years ago. You can’t remember – you don’t follow this video game stuff too closely).

So you cook up the idea to put your character on a skateboard, jumping pylons and ducking seagulls, because you figure you’d basically be producing the same effect as the Tony Hawk game and reaping that popularity for your own brand.

There’s a (hopefully) obvious disparity in development time and budget here (a Tony Hawk game costs millions, and has a bona fide cool factor, celebrity endorsements, and legacy of prequels wherein the gameplay was refined over the course of a decade). Then there’s the brand disconnect: you feel your character should ride a skateboard in the game, simply because it’s more “gamey”; your show doesn’t have enough video game-like action in it, so you need to manufacture some. The good news is that if you understand game genres, and are aware of the graphic adventure genre in particular, you don’t have to squeeze your characters into genres and scenarios that aren’t a good brand fit.

You’d never market a Smurfs Chainsaw. You’d never redraw Martha Speaks anime-style and have her punching and kicking as a ninja in feudal Japan. It’s just as inappropriate and off-putting to have a Suite Life of Zack and Cody Pac Man clone:

i know exactly what happened here: a group of folks who don’t fully understand video games got together in a board room to decide on a video game concept for the Zack and Cody. The most recent frame of reference they had was Pac Man (25 years ago), so that’s what the game was modeled after. i’ve seen this situation unfold time and again. By leaning more on the understanding and expertise of game developers, you can avoid this brand disconnect and still end up with a fun video game that engages and entertains your players. Building a graphic adventure game from a show property is the most straightforward way to avoid this brand disconnect.

If your show is about putting on shoes and going on adventures, like in Frannie’s Feet, you can do exactly that in a graphic adventure game. If your characters have to visit planets to learn new things, as they do in Rob the Robot, a graphic adventure game makes the perfect brand extension. In fact, i’ll go so far as to say that the genre works with any narrative kids’ teevee show on the market today. Give the graphic adventure genre a shot for your next teevee-to-game project!

For more information on UGAGS, please contact ugags@untoldentertainment.com.

Here is a list of games that have been made to date with UGAGS:

And here are some movies and teevee shows that have been logically extended into the video game realm within the graphic adventure game genre:

Dr. Who Adventure Games

Dr. Who

Beavis and Butthead in: Virtual Stupidity

Beavis and Butthead in: Virtual Stupidity

Duckman: the Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick

Duckman: the Graphic Adventures of a Private Dick

Star Trek 25th Anniversary

Star Trek 25th Anniversary

Blade Runner

Blade Runner

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Back to the Future

Back to the Future


Our entry for TOJam 5 (the Toronto independent game jam) was Heads.

Heads by Untold Entertainment

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.

Heads by Untold Entertainment

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.