ETH GameLab – How not to do a game

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First, let’s be clear! The ETH or the EPFL are not place to learn how to create a video-game. They are places where students become engineers. So when you have a course named “Game Programming Laboratory”, don’t ever think there is gonna be quality coming out of it. If you want some numbers, none of the game ever created during this course has ever been released on Steam, any consoles and any smartphones. So let’s look at the menu of the final game (the one given to the jury) I had the honor to be involved in:

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If you recognize the background behind the image, yes, it is the typical background of a unity 3d skybox. I mean, seriously, 1080p is a default screen resolution, not 800×600. I guess it is a detail, but it is also a beginner mistake. The image should be fitting every screen resolution. I also don’t speak about the extreme loading time of 5 seconds. Console programmers knows that a so long loading time at the start of the game means no license. Okay, let’s see the game now:

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Can you see what you have to do? Do you feel submerged by the amount of data shown on the screen? Let me explained it! Beast Maker Evolution is a card-based fighting game, where the players prepare their attacks three rounds in advance. You’re not convinced? Me neither… I guess I was not the game designer on this game. How stupid is it to play three rounds in advance. You completely lose the control, which is an important feeling in card game and in fighting game. All you do by playing three rounds in advance is playing randomly, even the play-testing showed it. Guess what the team did after the disastrous result of the play-testing… Nothing. Nothing was changed. I guess that is the engineer philosophy:

“Sire, we have a problem. We have done some tests on the structures for the new bridge. Unfortunately, it falls, it can hold more than one car.

— I guess it is too late. Let’s construct it anyway!”

Seriously! Even when I do a gamejam, at the end of the week-end, if something does not work during the play-testing, I try to find a solution, even in a rush. I guess two weeks is too short for the team (no, not my team, the team I was involved in, nuance).

Okay, I may be harsh, I guess it was their first time creating a game. The things I will still never forget is our first meeting to brainstorm the game. As I nice designer, I was trying to get everyone involved. The first hour of the meeting, we found two different ideas. The second hour, we tried to deepen one of them. And in ten minutes, they chose an other idea. I was pissed off from the beginning. I guess you should never listen the one who has experiences in game development. What a bad idea it could be!

So, the team started by this idea of having 3d model with different parts evolving during the different rounds, after playing with the cards. Sounds too ambitious for three months. Guess what I repeated over and over again: Impossible. The artist, who sort of took the lead of the project (and what a disastrous lead) insisted that 3d model would be easier for her than 2d animation. There is no universe in the entire multiverse where this is true. So I went in Hong Kong and at my return, we should have had a first protoype. I was motivated to work on it, even if it was not the best game ever. I would help as much as I can. But that demotivated me so much and really made me realize that I was involved with incompetent people. You want to see it? Here it is:

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After 2 months of production, all that was implemented by not one, but two programmers was something that I could implement in less than a day. I even showed it to my roommate, guess what he said: “This is not a game! They did it in two months?” When a non-programmer says something like this, you know that there is a problem with the team you’re involved with. I can write a whole book of the all the flaws the games have, that the team has, but now let’s look at the course:

The course is divided between different phases:
  • Part 1: Formal game proposal (3 weeks)
  • Part 2: Physical Prototype (1 week)
  • Part 3: Interim Report (4 weeks)
  • Part 4: Alpha Release (3 weeks)
  • Part 5:Playtesting (1 week)
  • Part 6: Public Presentation + Conclusion (2 weeks)

You read it well, each team has 4 weeks before they even touch a line of code. They also ask the ETH student to use a “technical innovation”. I found that completely unproductive in a game development context. If it was a hackathon with oculus rifts and leap motion controller why not, but when you have 3 months to make a game (which is a pretty short amount of time), where every two weeks or even more you ask for deliverable (which is way too much) and you ask for a technical innovation, then the ETH students are gonna defend crazy, too ambitious ideas. The Playtesting comes way too late. It should be put in the Interim Report or at last at the Alpha Release phase.

Also, a physical prototype? For a computer video-game? I like the idea, but to make it mandatory is a bit too much for me. How would you for instance make a physical prototype of Super Splash Fisticuffs, my shooting fighting platformer game where cat, owl, luchador and robot shoot themself out of a stage with water gun?

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Tell me how the core mechanic on a paper prototype can be as fun as in the computer video-game version. I guess it can’t. But Super Splash Fisticuffs is still a good game, and with a paper prototype maybe it would have been less fun to play. In this case, if it was my ETH project with ETH students, they would say: “We have to change the mechanic! We have to add other mechanic to make it more fun! Let’s make it a MMORPG! Let’s make it 3d, it will be more fun!”

The point I’m making is that ETH students are not game development students, they are completely disconnected of the reality of this area. The reality is that game development is versatile, iterative and needs constant adaptation. ETH are use to follow a set of homework, not to create something. If this course want to be the main course in Switzerland for the development of video-game, it should be more free (no damn restriction like “technical innovation”), should have clearly less homework (all this time could be put in making the game). But I guess no ETH student, nor ETH assistant will read this blog post. Because at the end, the ETH is still on the hill and it is still needed to climb it.

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Gamedev Suisse-Romande Meetup & Fantasy Basel

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One of the best feeling a game designer can have is to see players play his game. A while ago, my teacher, René Bauer, was really upset, because for Fantasy Basel no student who was involved in a project outside of the school took the opportunity to show their game. To put it in context, a stand in Fantasy Basel is 3000CHF and there was a opportunity for SGDA members (Swiss Game Developer Association) to get a free place there (of course, being the member means also paying the annual fee, still clearly less than 3000CHF).

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This same teacher made a round table saying which could be shown in those sort of festival. When it came to me, I could show Super Splash Fisticuffs. As I learned from this lesson, two of my teachers (René Bauer and Beat Suter) took two places in Fantasy Basel to represent the Game Design ZHdK formation. They propose for each student the possibility to take one stand and to show their game. Without hesitation, I took my place for Saturday the 16th of May. In the same time, I took the opportunity to show the game at the Suisse-Romande Game Dev Meetup on Wednesday the 13th of May, three days before the Fantasy Basel.

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So, I presented the game, the challenges how to create it, the location of the Ludum Dare in front of the Suisse-Romande community, where I add the pleasure to meet Antoine Tuloup, the fellow chronicler of After Bit, a video-game music show on jeux-video.com. The game was well received and I already knew the different flaws of the game. A lot of designers gave me several ideas to make the game fully, but I didn’t know if I would continue this game. Of course, my teacher, René Bauer, highly advised me to finish the game and release it.

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Finally, I arrived at Fantasy Basel the Saturday morning, around 9pm. Between Basel SBB and Basel Bad, I met a old friend of mine, that I mostly know as my Darth Vader friend. I then got free entrance and install my stand. I prepared everything to be as smooth as possible. Controller configurations were set. And the first players arrived, … and laughed. They had fun playing the game. A lot of them were clearly laughing. From behind, I could see all the bugs, but at the end, I just realized that people liked my game. At a moment, they was a group of four children (they spoke French, so I could understand them clearly), who played between 15 to 20 minutes in a row, always saying one more. I was amazed. Nothing in the game pushed the players to play more than 5 to 10 minutes. What did happen?

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At the same time, Kevin Peclet, the artist who worked on Super Splash Fisticuffs was presenting Starfallen. I could play his game and even if they are details, I really liked the mood and all the work that have been put together. The first dungeon, even if it was not perfect, took my attention and I am really looking forward on their kickstarter or release. With Kevin, we could discuss about the game, see if we wanted to make a fully polished Super Splash Fisticuffs. WIth the reaction of the players, he was convinced. We will still discuss it, there is no confirmation of any sort, but we want to make it.

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So, after cleaning up everything on Saturday evening, we went eating in a restaurant near the Messe Halle under a beautiful horn-mixed lamp, invited by our teacher, René Bauer. I returned then to Regensdorf, with the conviction to make an awesome video-game out of Super Splash Fisticuffs. You can read my other post on how we created the prototype for Super Splash Fisticuffs. I leave you with the horny lamp:

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The Vanishing of Ethan Carter – Staging of Story in Video-Games

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On Tuesday the 12th of May, we had the opportunity to present in front of the Bachelor students in Game Design of the ZHdK a game of our choice and explain how the story is stagged or how is the narration done. I chose the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, because it was a game that was taking the dust in my Steam library.

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My first game session of 2 hours was mostly about discovering the environment and contemplate the wonderful work in terms of graphics, even better that a lot of AAA games. I felt immerse in Red Creek Valley, where the game takes place. I even ignore the first corpse I see to go on my exploration of the game. Finally, after one hour and half, I solved the first narrative puzzle.

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You’re playing a detective with para-normal superpower. You can connect with a corpse, find clues and, like a detective, discover how the person went on being a corpse. That is the only way that the story is told, because the Vanishing of Ethan Carter begins: “This game is a narrative experience which does not hold your hand.”

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Unlike Dear Esther, the narrator does not tell a back-story and does not tell much. He is putting the player in the mood of Red Creek Valley. The narrative puzzle consists of a sequences of events that the payer has to put in the correct order to discover what happened. A lot of reviewers criticized that it was to easy, but I found it enjoyable. I didn’t had to think to much, but I had the same feeling as a detective, discovering the story.

In conclusion, the Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a new step in the genre of narrative-exploration game and one of the best game of 2014.

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