Thursday, April 11, 2024

Design review: Botany Manor as a quiet dark detective game

Botany Manor is a 3 hour first person puzzle game about growing plants while exploring a big beautiful fancy house that smells like British Bake-Off.

The main design inspiration here is obviously Gone Home, with a central family-based ambient narrative, household duck homages, and gradually unlocked doors. Many would also compare this to The Witness' soft visual style and sprawling sunny gardens. 

But when you actually play this, it turns out neither of those are useful comparisons. Gone Home anchors its story focus with voice acting, narration, simpler puzzles, and wry realism. The Witness fully commits to hundreds of puzzles at the scope of an open world game. Neither of these really get at the player experience in Botany Manor.

Instead, I think Botany Manor is most usefully compared to The Case of the Golden Idol / Return of Obra Dinn.

SPOILER WARNING: this post spoils the game's overall design structure / puzzle patterns, and spoils the general story and ending.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

new Quake map: "Taught By Thirst" for Remix Jam

Taught By Thirst is a new Mesoamerican themed single player Quake map that I made for Remix Jam, a 3 week community level design event where we all adapted multiplayer maps from other games for Quake. 

The definition of "remix" was kept loose on purpose, and anyway some of the fun is in figuring out where the map came from... although that's not the case with mine: I clearly adapted de_aztec by Chris "narby" Auty from Counter-Strike.

In this post I will talk about my inspiration and intent. I also explain what happens in the level. If you want, play it before reading this post. This is your last SPOILER WARNING.

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

new jam game: Where's the beef

I released a quick little jam game about 2 weeks ago, but I realized I never posted it here, so here it is:
"Where's the beef is a silly little beef-finding web browser game made in zero hours for 0h game jam 2023 ( where we make games in "zero hours" when daylight savings time switches over (in Europe)"

"15 levels of beef finding; literally photorealistic graphics; can YOU find the beef???"

For all the zoomers / teens reading this -- "where's the beef?" was a popular catchphrase in a Wendy's ad campaign back in the 1980s...

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

Design review of Against The Storm, by Eremite Games

Against the Storm by Eremite Games (Steam page, official site) is a popular 2.5D town-building run-based RTS with a Warcraft 3 inspired aesthetic and a deckbuilding meta-game progression.

You spend an hour building a base while fulfilling randomized mini-goals for victory points. When you have enough victory points, you leave that base behind, and restart on a new map to build a new base to unlock more buildings and resource types and perks to add to your shuffled deck of possible choices. This all ties into an overarching "world map" meta to unlock more bonuses.

It's well-made and I can see why it's popular, but design-wise, I feel it's overburdened with too much stuff...

Friday, June 2, 2023

Design review of Redfall by Arkane Studios Austin

I completed the main campaign in Redfall (official site, Steam, also on Game Pass), a 4 player co-op open world shooter by Arkane Austin, who's mostly known for detailed single player story-filled action games. The reviews and player reaction haven't been positive, but as an Arkane fan I felt compelled to play it for myself and take it on its own merits.

Overall I feel it's an OK game that's basically playable, despite the bugs and aggressive texture streaming and general unfinished feeling. If Microsoft had given them another 6-12 months to truly polish everything, then it maybe would've been a more solid OK game. 

Anyway I didn't mind the incompleteness so much because I was playing less for fun, and more "for work", as a first person game developer. In this sense, playing a 75% finished game is more useful than playing a 100% finished game. You get to see more of the big broad strokes before they got quite resolved, the intent vs. the execution. 

So this post will focus on my read of the general game design and player experience.

SPOILER WARNING: lots of general systems spoilers and gameplay screenshots, some story spoilers

Friday, May 19, 2023

The joys of the anti-farm sim: "Before the Green Moon" by turnfollow

SPOILER ALERT: This post SPOILS what happens in Before The Green Moon. I strongly recommend playing it first.

Before The Green Moon (on Itch and Steam) is a post-apocalyptic indie Harvest Moon / Stardew Valley / Animal Crossing inspired farm life sim about scraping by, in a decaying rural truckstop town with bored depressed locals you gradually befriend (or ignore).

I was surprised Turnfollow was working in this big systemic genre space, since I mostly know them for their very good linear story games Little Party and Wide Ocean Big Jacket. But you can see the "seeds" of this game (ha ha) in their wartime gardening game A Good Gardener so maybe it's not so unexpected...

From the beginning, you're given an ultimate end goal: earn enough company scrip to buy a ticket to the moon. Instead of a raccoon banker oppressing you with a mortgage, it's a faceless Moon Company exploiting every poor soul left on this post-apocalyptic Earth. Brilliantly, the already astronomical price of the moon ticket actually increases during the game. Imagine if Animal Crossing had the bravery to charge interest on the home loan!

Well, Before The Green Moon is brave, brave enough even to suggest that farming isn't exactly a picturesque Hallmark movie. Instead, you're stuck in this abandoned GameCube game and you need to somehow earn enough to buy a moonshot out of this dump. How are you gonna do it?

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Double Fine PsychOdyssey recaps / viewing guide, episodes 01-17

Last month, game industry documentary makers 2 Player Productions debuted a massive 32-part YouTube game dev doc series Double Fine PsychOdyssey, chronicling the development of Psychonauts 2 from its earliest glimmers of pre-production in 2015 to its final release in 2021. 

I assumed it was mostly for fans but after watching all 32 episodes (on 2x speed, skipping some parts) I've changed my mind and now I think it's essential viewing for all game designers / devs. It shows the everyday work of medium-scale commercial game dev in unprecedented detail: the creative high of successful collaboration as well as the ugly prototypes, grueling bug fixes, and painful miscommunication. There's also a thrill of access, where the camera captures vulnerable moments it wasn't quite supposed to see. The most epic public post-mortem ever.

As a public service, I've written a short text summary and some notes for each episode. This recap post / viewing guide covers only the first half of the series (episodes 01-17) and I'll try to write-up the second half later.

SPOILER WARNING: obviously, these recaps spoil what happens in each episode.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

Unity WebGL tips / advice in 2023

I recently released a Unity WebGL game and the process was a bit painful. Here's what I learned...

In summary: 

  • I was using built-in pipeline and didn't try URP. (HDRP is definitely out of the question btw)
  • Unity WebGL support isn't bad, and WebGL performance is even OK, as long as you treat it like a ~2015 mobile device in terms of capability and performance. Don't throw a lot at it, especially because iOS browsers can't do a lot...
  • ... because it's 2023 and iOS WebGL performance is still pretty shitty even with Apple's promised ANGLE WebGL 2.0 support. You should expect to do a lot of mitigations and workarounds just so iPhones and iPads don't explode. Meanwhile, Windows and Android browsers are generally solid and reasonable. (In case you can't tell, I'm pretty annoyed with Apple.)
  • Here's what'll happen to you: your WebGL build tests on your desktop browser will work fine and you'll be pleasantly surprised... and then you'll try it on an iPhone and it'll be a mild disaster where you spend a week or two fixing all the various ways it explodes.

(Note: this is current as of Unity 2021.3.11 LTS + iOS 15.)