Jun 28, 2017

Game Cities: Going To Brighton

Yes! Me and my game cities will be in Brighton, UK talking about interactive and possibly imaginary urbanism at the Develop: Brighton conference. I am truly looking forward to discussing video games, design, and cities with some amazingly creative artists, hope to meet many lovely new people, and can't wait to see a few dear friends again.

So, if you are attending this summer's Develop do please let me know! Would love to have a chat, and would be honoured if you attended my Urban Design and the Creation of Videogame Cities talk (July 13, 14:00, Room 3).

Also, here are a couple more articles of mine on game cities: The Urbanism of Thimbleweed Park and The Labyrinthine Realities of the Medieval City, A Designer’s Primer.

May 18, 2017

Words On The Crafting Of Playable Cities

The life of the game urbanist --which is exactly how I've chosen to describe what I'm doing for a living-- involves a lot of writing, and, happily, not all of it has to be kept under wraps. Besides, I do consider trying to explain urban planning for games, and attempting to provide guidelines for the construction of successful virtual urban environments as an integral part of my Game Cities work.

So, I have been writing quite a bit lately. I have been writing on medium, on Gamasutra, and even a tiny bit on this very blog. I have also contributed a piece on mapping virtual spaces and The Old City: Leviathan for the second issue of Heterotopias,  argued about the politics of transportation on How We Get To Next, and launched my mini series of long articles on medieval urbanism for fantasy settings over at the Kobold Press blog.

More words, quite a few of them actually, appeared on the excellent Presura NºXXIII, as my A Beginner's Guide To Crafting Video Game Cities (direct link to PDF) article appeared in this fine publication's first issue in English. Oh, and there will be some spoken words about designing cities for games by me this July at Develop: Brighton

Hope to see some of you there!

Mar 8, 2017

An Earthling Update Of Priorities

I realize now that I originally announced Earthling Priorities back in May 2014. I also realize that this was almost three years ago, that time does fly by even things do not go well, and that the game should have been released ages ago. But, life is relentless, and even though Daniele created dozens of lovely animation frames, Chris composed some utterly amazing music, and James quickly coded a proper demo, I simply failed to find the time to bring this project to conclusion.

Yes, making games is indeed hard, adventure games even harder, and it was only sometime during the end of 2016 when I finally managed to bring all Earthling Priorities related  procrastination to an end. The puzzle design has now been updated, new animations have been prepared and implemented, descriptions have been added, the flow of the game has been improved, and I've almost finished writing all of the dialog. Provided nothing explodes, I will actually be emailing James before the weekend with all sorts of things for him to add to the game.

By the time he's done, I'll have hopefully edited most of the texts one more time, completed a few relatively minor tasks, and prepared the required sound effects. Or, well, most of them. Add in a bit of testing, some polishing, a few re-writes, a couple extra builds, and I'm certain this nice little adventure game will soon be available for all to download. For free of course. 

Estimated launch date: sometime before the summer of 2017!

(crosses fingers)

Feb 16, 2017

Eye^Game^Candy: Where Time Stood Still


There were but a few games that really took advantage of all the extra RAM the 128k ZX Spectrum provided, and even fewer that attempted to craft beautiful, isometric open worlds populated by rule-based AIs, and the odd Tyrannosaurus Rex. Actually, Where Time Stood Still by Denton Designs (published by Ocean Software), a follow up of sorts to the already groundbreaking The Great Escape, is the only game that managed to really pull off such an impressive feat on the humble Sinclair 8-bit. It is still a beautiful, ambitious, and engrossing survival horror, exploration, RPG-lite action-adventure that has aged remarkably well. Its crisp and fluidly animated black-and-white graphics look as beautiful as ever, and its exotic The Lost World-esque setting remains properly fresh. Interestingly the game also got MS-DOS and Atari ST ports.

Find out more, download a copy, or even play Where Time Stood Still online on World of Spectrum, and then read a bit more about it over at Hardcore Gaming 101

Feb 3, 2017

Game Cities: A Nékromegàn Tale of Two Cities

Nékromegà, a game by lectronice powered by the RPG In A Box engine, is an unexpectedly ambitious freeware project, and also a 3D, voxel-based, adventure with RPG elements, that has already had both a long pre-production phase, and an accordingly longer production one. Hopefully though, Nékromegà will grow up to become an actually released game with an engrossing story to tell, vibrant cities to experience and possibly sack, clever mechanics, a unique take on undeath, and some very harsh yet cunningly subtle words about colonialism.

Provided things do not change in a cataclysmic manner, players will get to play as Bàmoq Cxohàmon, a young citizen of Suùn and eventual priest of Sleep. Torn between his family and his motherland's conquerors, Bàmoq is used as a tool by two not equally evil sides, until deciding that speakers of the language of the dead can actually take matters into their own desperate hands. Possibly even bring whole empires down. Or, you know, enjoy some city sight-seeing along with an army of well behaved undead.

Now, having worked quite a bit on the game's urbanism, I do hope said sight-seeing (and possible sacking) will be worth the players' time, and that the game's urban centres will be evocative, intriguing, and rich. We have attempted, you see, to not only come up with believable, immersive, and exotic ideas for the cities of Nékromegà, but to also use them -- their image, their structure, their form, their feeling -- as storytelling tools. As grand environmental storytelling devices. 

The first step towards achieving what I believe to be effective and implementable city designs was, of course, closely working with lectronice on the world building itself. Getting to both thoroughly understand and even influence the setting was incredibly helpful to me. There was a crucial interplay between city, world and game design, that informed all aspects of Nékromegà and actually uncovered new ideas, and unexpected solutions.

Said dynamic back and forth, said continued discourse, was the main force shaping a very interesting and realistic fantasy world sporting some, hopefully, completely original elements. And it also got our excellent and ever-evolving RPG In A Box voxel engine to impress everyone by allowing for walls like these:


Curves aside, lectronice and I had lengthy discussions regarding the cultures of the Suùn Archipelago and the Bohr Imperi; that is, about the two opposing and vastly differing nations around which the game's setting, central conflict, and story were constructed. Happily, we couldn't help but agree that one of the best ways of showing said differences would be to let two vastly contrasting cities explain things for us.

Obviously, different architectural styles would have to be employed, but, more importantly, we would have to express fundamentally differing spatial organization and space creation views. Showcase the planning mindsets guiding the evolution of each city, as these mindsets would express important aspects of the societies that gave birth to them. A small, almost class-less, self-contained matriarchal collective, and a huge and ever-expanding proto-capitalist empire simply cannot regard urban space in the same way.

It was all about manifesting contrast in a realistic way, and making said contrast evident as an expression of the built environment via city planning. Admittedly nothing can sum up contrast better than the juxtaposition of  fundamental shapes. In our case it simply had to be circles versus squares. Not only are those ur-shapes instantly opposing to each other, they felt very appropriate too, as each one could intuitively imply differences in beliefs, goals, and even societal and ideological relationships to nature.

The Suùnian people live in a peaceful, generally fair society, where equality and harmony are both the norm and a core value, whereas the Bohr are stuck in a highly competitive class system the hierarchy of which is literally defined by personal wealth. So, the Suùn would get a city with soft round shapes carefully adapted to their idyllic environs, and the Bohr would have to go for sharp, functionalist shapes that, though definitely not fascist by definition, are at least emphatically industrial.

Round shapes have the added advantage of their historical association with matriarchy and actual proto-communist neolithic settlements, but they cannot define an urban geography all by themselves; let alone map out a functional topography. As the Suùnian civilization was supposed to be spread over an archipelago, tackling the topography and physical geography of the place was first on my list. Based on lectronice's descriptions I came up with an early sketch; mainly to get things started and placed on a map.



The initial placement and shape of settlements made decent sense both geographically and when taking the RPG In A Box engine into account, and even though the region's topography would have to evolve quite a bit from this early concept to include such elements as huge desert islands, and some geological storytelling, this first core sketch really helped us. It provided the basis on which we designed and built the cities -- towns, actually -- we needed to.

Speaking of engines, and thus also engine constraints, the main problem we (well, lectronice) faced was that voxels are by definition cubic. This made the construction of circular or curved buildings rather taxing technically, but apparently lectronice did manage to overcome those barriers. Besides, even non-circular buildings or architectural elements can be arranged in circular patterns on a city planning level, and sometimes the effect of rounded corners is more than enough.


Alderhil, on the other hand, the imposing capital of the Bohrian dystopia, solved many of its technical problems by following the path of rectangular functionalism, and a planning logic of utter efficiency and strict divisions. Even though it was a city that would have to be designed in its complete and (sensibly) detailed whole, all it took was a few early sketches, and then inspiration struck. An original concept that would instantly define the city appeared. Alderhil would thus look a bit like the following sketch, which already implies its stark class divisions, production focused ideology, paranoid defenses, obsession with symmetry, and complete disregard for the nuances of the environment.


All the plans, cross-sections, and descriptions that followed never really altered the core of this design. It was, we felt, perfectly oppressive and anti-egalitarian, built for the comfort of the elite and the efficiency of the workers. The working poor were compartmentalized along with major production facilities in the east and west parts of the city, and would have no access to the outside world except through the two main gates at the north and south of the central, administrative and monumental, district. 

The Imperi's architecture, a sort of weird Brunelleschi-inspired wood/timber-punk with hints of Stalin-Gothic, would help emphasize a perfectly planned, geometric, and imposing city. Such a city would be both perfect for our voxel engine, and LEGO bricks would in turn be equally perfect for its physical representations.


As Alderhil was set in the mountains, and mountains unlike your average archipelago are less of a hassle in the topographical department, getting the physical geography right was relatively easy. The Bohrians' utter disregard for the environment and their tendency to level things was also helpful. Not that eventual plans didn't include a much more detailed topography, or that a flattened city in the mountains wouldn't feel imposing in 3D...


And did I mention that Alderhil was to come complete with a functioning undercity? Well, it was. As you'll hopefully see in the finished game, it's a rather sensible and definitely horrific underground city with cisterns, living districts, markets, some mining tunnels, factories, and the odd death pit. Frankly, it will have to be a horrible place for workers, the undead, and undead workers, but also a central part of the city's defenses including the bunkers of the rich, secure administrative facilities, vaults, etc.

It should be quite the dungeon too, and was actually a joy to plan and map out. Working with visual artist Maria Kallikaki to create the finished map of the undercity as it will appear in-game was, admittedly, even more entertaining, and on that high note, I'll leave you to actually go and do some work.



Related @ Gnome's Lair:

You can find out more about my game cities, urban consulting for games, and interactive urbanism over at game-cities.com.

Jan 11, 2017

The Neverending Betrayal at House on the Hill

With the release of the Widow's Walk expansion I and my beloved boardgaming (also, you know, proper) friends decided to return to Betrayal at House on the Hill, only to discover we had never really left. We never actually stopped playing this game, and even though we were all busy appreciating what the expansion did for it, and how subtly Widow's Walk managed to integrate itself into the overall experience, I just couldn't help myself. I kept on wondering why on earth we were so happy with what essentially seemed like more of the same.

The obvious answer, of course, is that this was exactly what we all wanted. More of the same, only slightly better. More weird procedural buildings, and more weird stories to play through, even more variety, a few much needed clarifications, new cards, and an extra floor, and we'd be perfectly happy.

Then again, I do for a fact know just how easily I'm bored when it comes to playing the same boardgames over and over again. There are favourites of mine like Space Alert, Carcassone, and Ticket To Ride I haven't touched in ages, and I did notice three years separating my two latest Space Hulk campaigns. So, really, why have I/we stuck with Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Sadly, I haven't managed to come up with an incredibly elegant answer that will solve ancient game design problems and provide invaluable insights, but I have at least come to the realization that this game has a lot going for it, and it all starts with coming in a lovely box:


What's more, and beside those ominous greens, Betrayal is incredibly easy to explain to new players; even to complete boardgaming novices. The fact that it is played in two phases, with the first one being completely co-operative, further helps ease newbies into their first game, and makes sure they've got the game's simple set of rules all figured out before things heat up. When the haunting happens and the slightly more demanding and definitely more interesting second phase begins they are ready to enjoy the game.

Said second phase of the game where one (usually) player becomes the traitor and the rest work together to foil her/his satanic/silly plan is the meat of Betrayal, and sits comfortably at the core of what apparently makes me love it. There are, you see, 50 wildly different scenarios -- every haunting results in one being chosen -- offered in the base game, and another 50 in the expansion, and though not all are equally well designed or outlandish, they all come with their unique mechanics to play with and different stories to tell.

Things never get old. Never get boring or repetitive. The traitor might turn into a huge snake, the investigators might have to stop the mansion from flying away into space in true Rocky Horror fashion, horrible incantations might have to be chanted, a movie director might have to pick a suitable actor, and every scenario is so different on every level the game can never feel stale. Good writing, clear goals, dozens of counters for all sorts of monsters and items, and mechanics that change but remain familiar, certainly do more than merely help support things. They turn the game into a consistent canvas for the dozens of its scenarios to be played out.

Even if/when you get to run into the same scenario twice, chances are the role and condition of each player and the layout of the mansion will be different. Besides, knowing what to expect from the other side will allow Betrayal to become more strategic than usual. Oh, and did I mention how delightfully asymmetric the game is or how cunningly it disguises the goals of each side from the other? Well, it is and it does, and it's all the better for it. 

To the clever mechanics and the constant expectation of fresh stories, add the procedural nature of the game board and the Event and Omen cards that sometimes manage to construct brilliant micro narratives within the main stories. Simply exploring the mansion and expanding the board is a joy in and of itself. And I did once draw a card that had my future self appear and give me some rather handy weapons, only to draw another card 5 turns later that had me giving items back to my past self. 

Frankly, I can't help but enjoy each and every one of those delightful moments Betrayal at House on the Hill has to offer. I can't help but appreciate every weird new idea the game presents me with. And I frankly can't think of anything else to add, but suggest that you try Betrayal out at least once, and that you should feel free to make more games like it for me to enjoy. Oh, and have a look here to get an idea of how the thing plays.


Related @ Gnome's Lair:




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