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How I created my own Game Design Course

(Here’s the class)
It’s common for many people to come out of college and stop learning. When no one is forcing you to learn and improve yourself, it’s easy to do nothing. Sonia¬†and I recently realized that we’ve really slacked off in the learning category since college – we still read good books, but the focused, intentional learning has gone out the window.

We decided to change things by reorganizing our lives to look more like college – focused, limited, intentional blocks of learning.

I chose game design as my first class.

Here’s what I did, and how you can set up your own game design course.

Continue reading How I created my own Game Design Course

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How to improve your game art instantly (with my own examples).

You’re an indie board game developer. You don’t have the money to hire an artist, or maybe you know your way around a stylus and you want to produce your own art for your game. I’ve got a tip that will improve your art instantly in a vary tangible way. You’ll have to do a bit more work when you’re setting up your art, but it will save you time and energy in the long run, and your art will look ten times better. I’ll have an actual example of my art improving because of this tip below. Continue reading How to improve your game art instantly (with my own examples).

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Quee 3: The “I’m Feeling Lucky” button


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Back at his ship, Queequeg surveyed his lovely crop of tomatoes.

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At this rate, he would fill up his well-protected Super Cool Storage in no time at all, and would have to seek new storage options – a delicious problem to have, it seemed to Quee. He smacked his lips – or, rather, he smacked where his lips would have been if he didn’t have a beak instead.

Quee was glad that he had a beak, even if the smacking sound made by a beak was not quite a pithy and satisfying as lip smacking, because the beak was so much more versatile than a pair of lips. Sure, lips were used for articulating words, eating, and smooching, but the beak could be used to eat, articulate, groom, kill pray, fight, court females, and feed babies. Smooching was still a tad problematic (especially concerning to Quee, having just met Angereena) but considering the wide breadth of other uses that the versatile accouterment had, Quee thought it a fair trade-off.
Quee beamed down to the surface of the planet, and fought a few aggressive¬†monsters, who, not possessing beaks, were clearly jealous of Quee’s¬†genetic superiority.
Quee paid a quick visit to the avian township and spent all of his pocket pixels on fresh tomatoes.
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Quee had it in mind that he would raid the robot base again, because he seemed to always be hard-up, partially because the shopkeeper kept raising the price of tomatoes just as Quee was walking up to his shop.
Quee broke into the robot base, but was so unnerved by a close encounter with a giant tank of what appeared to be lava, that he ran away squealing, and had to go on a calming-and-relaxing walk while eating a tomato-capible-of-soothing-frayed-nerves.
He was still calming himself down when he stumbled on an avian house.
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Inside was a beautiful chocolate-colored avian named Snicksee and another cactus (Quee tried not to comment on how formulaic the interior decorators on this planet were, not wanting to insult Snicksee). Quee attempted to respond to her cheerful greeting, but no words came out, and he ended up dropping a few tomatoes and exiting the house, with a friendly look that he hoped gave her the impression that he was a handsome sort, generous to a fault, and perhaps boyfriend material. As he walked away, she spoke to him, using phraseology that indicated that she had, indeed, seen Queequeg as the potential boyfriend that he was.
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Queequeg felt deeply conflicted, his befeathered head filled with thoughts of Snicksee and Angereena. He liked them both very much, but they were both very stylishly-dressed avians, and Quee felt that he would have to do better than the thread-bare loin-cloth smelling faintly of manure that he had worn as long as he could remember, and had washed twice. He started digging to clear his head. He eventually dug a deep hole, and unearthed an axe that made fire when swung.
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This was pretty cool, and it reminded him of his earlier embarrassing encounter with lava. He grasped the axe with a newfound courage that comes when one upgrades his weaponry, and charged the robot base like a fool who has just discovered an axe that creates fire when swung. Quee had a rich inner life, and his head was filled with visions of smoldering cross-sections of robot guards, but no sooner had he come to the robot base when his outer life took precedent, and he resorted to his old technique of piling dirt on their heads.
He didn’t see many spare pixels lying about since he had already plundered the base the time before, but he did find somethin that – in his mind- was¬†incalculably¬†more valuable: a pair of Scientist Glasses.
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Quee put them on, and instantly felt 200% smarter, 130% more cooler, and – Queequeg hardly dared to hope – 23% more eligible for the attentions of an attractive female – now that Quee was a¬†scientist¬† he had to use percentages like that-scientists are precise. But which attractive female? This was the thought the troubled Quee, like a belly full of undigested hairpeas. Finding no more pixels, Quee decided to steal the Robot’s shiny steel platforms, which would certainly help him in his digging operations. Quee went back to the mine, and dug deep into the earth, until he¬†unearthed¬†a giant cavern of gravel. The gravel proved to be quite unpredictable, and soon – Quee wasn’t quite sure how it happened – he found himself up to his neck in gravel.
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Quee sat there for a moment- he had never before realized how soothing getting buried in cool gravel could be. He sat neck-deep in the gravel for well over two hours, until he had an epiphany: he needed to leave the planet. With the female avians hounding him for attention and gravel collapsing every step he took, he was fed up and overwhelmed. He has a good stock of tomatoes on the Dungboat 2, and enough coal to power her Рhe would set off, immediately, to seek out new places to hang out. Perhaps he would be able to sort through some of the voices in his head.
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He beamed back to the Dungboat 2, clicked the¬†“I’m feeling lucky” button on the navigation instrument panel, and burst off through space, away from the robots, away for the creepy hooded men who where under the impression that Quee was a¬†heathen¬†who desperately needed his face carved off, and off into the¬†vastness¬†of space, in hopes of finding new life and strange new tomatoes – and perhaps a world without bewitching female avians to befuddle his thinking.
Of course, a transformation was looming in Quee’s future, that would change Quee’s life, perhaps as much or more than tomatoes did…but we get ahead of ourselves.
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Quee: The Amiable Cactus


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Queequeg ran on, twenty-five luscious tomatoes stuffed in his bag…

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(all except for the largest tomato, which Quee wouldn’t let out of his sight, keeping it clutched to his bosom like it was a kidney that his dearest-old-uncle Chipfee needed because his had failed and left him without the ability to regulate the composition of his blood and create urea, and Quee was the one tasked with the onerous job of live organ transportation through a very inhospitable and unsanitary environment. As a side note, Uncle Chipfee’s body accepted the kidney, which was about the size of a¬†tomato¬†and delicious – not Uncle Chipfee’s in particular, we haven’t¬†tasted that¬†one, but kidneys generally, when skinned, cut in half, and simmered with olive oil, onions, garlic, and tomatoes, uncovered, over a gentle heat for about 25 minutes).

Quee soon discovered an abandoned house, in which he found little of interest, except a very striking cactus.
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Quee would have pinched the cactus immediately, but first: he wasn’t raised to be a thief (except in the rare occasion that someone attacked him, which was how he justified his earlier theft of the awesome saw blades) and second: he wasn’t quite sure whether it was a houseplant or the legitimate occupant of the house, in which case, if caught, Quee wouldn’t just be charged with theft, but also with kidnapping.
He wisely continued on without the plant.
He gathered another wild tomato, and was just chuckling to himself happily when he noticed a giant structure next to the tomato plant.
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It was filled with extremely-hostile robots who were not-at-all-friend-material, in Quee’s mind. His Uncle Chipfee had always told him (a bit racist-ly) that robots were no good, and not to be trusted, and this had a big effect on Quee in his tender, formative years.
Quee would have avoided the structure altogether, but Uncle Chipfee also told him in a overly simplistic way that robots were all extremely wealthy, due to the fact that they were miserly and would cheat you out of your hard-earned pixels as soon as look at you, and Quee was in need of pixels to buy more luscious tomatoes. Quee grasped his Very Defensive Stick (which was about to become more offensive than the amiable stick, if he was really honest, was comfortable with), hoping that he would not have to use it, and walked into the fortress.
Uncle Chipfee was right: robots were loaded, and miserly. They unreasonably objected to Quee pilfering their pixels, so Quee was forced to resort to an old tactic: piles of dirt.
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It seemed robots had trouble with piles of dirt, and Quee made short work of the crystals where they held their pixels, and also stole a very Cool Chest, which Queequeg planned on stuffing with tomatoes (his pack was getting a mite full, and soggy).
On the way back, Quee stopped again at the house of the hospitable Рbut quiet Рcactus, and decided to risk it. He threw the Avian Prime Directive to the wind and captured an alien species, which he placed most decoratively on the dash of the Dungboat 2.
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The last time Quee had attempted to¬†ornament¬†his dashboard with an alien species, it had ended‚Ķbadly. Quee had determined, that not only was the quagerian mudwort not a plant, it was also not friendly when plucked unceremoniously from its home and placed on the dash of a spacecraft next to a dancing hula lady and a pile of manure. The Mudwort had pinned Quee to the ceiling and plucked feathers until Quee agreed to transport him back down to the planet, where he would presumably finish the nap that Quee had interrupted by kidnapping him. The mudwort also stole the dancing hula lady, which was a slight that caused a deep, burning resentment that was still in Quee’s chest fifteen years later.
The cactus, however, seemed amiable, and docile – a perfect pet. Quee laid an offering of chopped-up tomatoes at the stem of the cactus, but he secretly hoped cacti didn’t care for tomatoes, so Quee could keep more to himself.
Quee¬†then¬†whipped out the super Cool Chest which he had stowed in his implausibly spacious pack, and began stuffing it with piles of tomatoes, every single tomato that was in Quee’s possession went into super cool storage.
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Quee stood back proudly, admiring the chest and feeling the warm, secure feeling of a squirrel who has just stuffed the ground full of provender for the winter.
Then an icy finger of panic snaked up Quee’s back. Sure, the tomatoes were secure in their new super cool home, but where they safe? Even¬†though¬†the multi-phasic shield technology that Quee had was 35 years out-of-date, no one would be able to transport onto the Dungboat 2 without Quee’s permission, but – this was where Quee saw a flaw in his plan – what about his new dashboard ornament/roomate/New Best Friend… Who Probably Likes Tomatoes And Has No Concept Of Personal Property. Quee glanced back at the cactus in a nonchalant way, as if he were making sure that there weren’t any smudges on the windshield of the Dungboat 2.
The cactus was staring nonchalantly back at Quee, but to Quee’s eye, he seemed a bit‚Ķstandoffish and bristly. He hadn’t touched the tomatoes yet, but that might be in order to lull Quee into a false sense of security.
Quee secretly wondered if the cactus had a distant relative who was a robot, because the cactus certainly was seeming suspicious and greedy.
Then relief washed over Quee like tomato juice from a ripe tomato over the tongue of a enraptured avian. He remembered the decorative Sawblades that he pinched from the man who had tripped under mysterious circumstances. Quee whipped them out and placed them in very defensible and sinister positions around the Cool Chest.
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Now his tomatoes would be safe from that prickly interloper, thought Quee.
Quee teleported back to the surface, and sprinted wildly towards the Cactus’s house, in hopes that he could find some furniture, or perhaps a family picture, to soothe and welcome his friend, because (if Quee was honest) he really didn’t want his Best Friend to be ripped into graphic chunks by a saw blade, even if the saw blade was decorative.
Quee returned to the house and looked around, but he released that before he could perform a thorough search, he would have to lie down for a bit: he was quite exhausted from the run. He inspected the bedding for stray needles, and, finding none, laid down to rest, much relieved that the cactus was so tidy.
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Just then, an attractive pink avian entered the room, and, finding Quee sleeping in her bed, proceeded to beat him over the head with a very abusive board, until Quee got the distinct impression that he was not wanted, and exited the building.
The pink avian, whose name Quee would later learn was Angereena, followed Quee out of the house looking bashful. She introduced herself, apologized and reassured Quee that the bruises did make him look manlier than before. Quee and Angereena discussed the weather for a few seconds before Quee awkwardly turned away and continued on. She was the most beautiful creature Quee had ever seen. But she was scary and violent at times, so Quee wasn’t sure if a long-term relationship would be possible, no matter how manly she thought he seemed to be.
All of a sudden, Quee didn’t want to return to his ship.
He wanted to think and walk, which¬†couldn’t feasibly be done¬†in Dungboat 2, not only because of the size constraints, but also because the manure fumes were so intense that they rendered any logical thought impossible.
Quee was thinking of Angereena as he walked past the robot base, and he was thinking of Angereena as he hit a robot repeatedly with a stick to get to the tomatoes that the robot was very selfishly hoarding (indeed, this was the first time that Queequeg’s thoughts were not consumed with tomatoes since he had first eaten one, which made the discovery of a new wild tomato plant significantly less exciting)… and when Quee saw a house in the distance, he thought dreamily about how much the house looked like Angareena’s house.
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Except there was another mysterious man inside, and he was wearing a necklace of brightly colored feathers, speckled with blood. Quee noticed another cactus, and wondered vaguely, before he blacked out again, if all cacti were homeowners.
When Quee came to, the man was lying on the floor, a mangled mess.
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Quee thought how very¬†coincidental¬†it was that these men were always tripping before they were about to introduce their weapons to Quee’s internal organs‚Ķand¬†suddenly the many confusing thoughts that flew into Queequeg’s pacifist mind overwhelmed him, and he had to sit down for a while.
All the stress had him really jonsing for a tomato.
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Quee: The Seeds of Destiny

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Queequeg’s ancient spacecraft, the Dungboat 2, putted to a stop in the atmosphere of a M-class planetoid. The fuel canister was scraped clean: the Dungboat 2 settled down to wait with a sigh of relief.
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Queequeg almost clicked his heels in happiness: he had been locked inside the Dungboat 2 for weeks, and although he enjoyed the robust aroma of putrefying manure, he welcomed a chance to stretch his legs a bit. Hopefully the planet was welcoming. The last planet that the Dungboat’s navigational system had okayed had a noxious acidic atmosphere that had scorched Quee’s feathers (leaving several bald spots) and giant leeches. The Dungboat was in the doghouse after that incident.

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The planet was lovely. Quee made a mental note to reconnect the wires that he had passive-agressively disconnected from Dungboat 2 before he left.

The planet was so perfect, that Quee danced an avian jig of pure delight. The planet had everything. It had shiny rocks, simply precious flying duckbilled platipi, and – best of all, in Queequeg’s mind, free wood. It was even better than manure.

Quee explored for a time, marveling at the wonders around him, and quietly blessing the Dungboat 2 (of course, he would never praise the Dungboat 2 to its face, lest it get a inflated ego. Quee was very careful to raise the Dungboat right). Quee also made an incredible discovery that was almost as exciting as his “free wood” revelation: the planet also contained free dirt , and lots of it.

Quee stuffed his bag until it resembled a really nice, comfortable overstuffed chair filled with hunks of wood and dirt, then transported back to the Dungboat 2.

There was work to be done.

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Once back on the Dungboat 2, Queequeg emptied his pack onto the floor, ensuring that the dirt mingled delightfully within the manure in order to create a mixture that might support plant life. Quee made trip after trip to the planet, glutting the Dungboat 2 with more brown matter than it had held since its glory days, where it had earned its name well as an interplanetary waste transport. Quee then tilled up the earth is typical Avian fashion: a hoe, fashioned from a stick and a lump of rock that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus doomed itself to a life of having its face stuck in the dirt over and over again like an ostrich with a tic. Quee then planted a few seeds that he had discovered on the planet’s surface, inside a bright, red fruit (the seeds where in a fruit, not the planet’s surface). Quee didn’t know it then, but these were the seeds of his destiny he was planting.

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While he waited for his well-fertilized plants to ripen their bounty, Quee went for a walk on the planet’s surface. He discovered a hut, which appeared to Quee to be slightly dangerous. It had a man inside. Quee tried to befriend the man, but was forced to barricade him in his house with some of his free dirt after the man attempted to carve Quee’s arms from his torso in a very unfriendly way. Quee warned the man that they could almost certainly never be friends after THAT, but the man didn’t seem concerned with having friends, indeed, with anything but yelling hurtful words about Quee’s heritage and life choices through the mounds of dirt in from of the door. It’s a shame, thought Quee. He did have such nice, decorative saw blades.
Quee found a Very Defensive Stick and tunneled his way through the floor of the house, in an attempt to surprise and delight his potential friend, in hopes that the man would see the error of his ways, discontinue the course and vulgar language, and perhaps agree to share his saw blades with Quee. To Quee’s surprise, as soon as his head popped through the tiles in the floor, the man attempted to separate it from Quee’s shoulders. Quee felt his head swim, and the next second or two was a black blur of action and blood, and when Quee regained his senses, the man was lying on the floor with his arms and legs at strange angles. He must have tripped, thought Quee. He would have helped the man up, but Quee was fairly certain that the man would continue to verbally abuse him, so Quee took his beautiful saw blades and ran away.

Quee ran for a long time, towards a very suspicious looking hill that he had wanted to investigate. Diappointingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it turned out to be a normal hill. so Queequeg continued on, towards another, even more suspicious hill. It was not a hill at all, but an underground village, filled with Avians.

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Quee felt slightly awkward, years of solitude aboard Dungboat 2 had left him a mite wooden-tongued. He browsed through the stands and then headed back to his ship.

His plants had ripened. He was getting very hungry – he ran out of his supply of hair peas days ago – so although he rarely tried new foods, he hesitantly bit into one of the juicy red fruits that were hanging off of the alien plants.

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It was a revelation. Quee’s tastebuds figuratively exploded with the influx of sweet, acidic juice. In flavor it was better than hair peas, although the texture was less challenging. Quee ate on, and had greedily gobbled up all of the fruit that was ripe before he remembered an important fact: the avians on the planet’s surface had sold these fruits, and they had called them tomatoes.

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Quee decided what he needed most in his life was to find and consume more tomatoes, so he headed back to the small avian village and spent all of his pocket money on the luscious red comestibles.
He had a new mission.

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Morality Systems: Papers, Please


 

Most people agree that morality systems in games are terrible, at least people who know what morality systems are.

Morality systems are either completely black and white – do you wish to choose the evil path, or the good path? – or they’re thinly veiled, lazy attempts to add some sort of replayability to the game.

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These systems tend to be really hackneyed, offering you pointless decisions that really don’t make any difference in the long run, or, if the choices do make a difference, the morality system tempts the player to run through the game a second time not because they want to play the game again, but just to see what happens if they choose the other path – because forcing a player to interact with your game even if they really don’t want to is a recipe for rave reviews, right?

I want to talk about the most complex morality system I’ve seen in a game so far. The game is Papers, Please.

 

Papers, Please isn’t so much a game with a morality system as it is a morality system in game clothing. It’s one of the most engaging games I’ve ever played, yet the gameplay would be terrible – actually boring and awful – if it wasn’t for the incredible, nuanced, intricate morality system.

Papers, Please is a dystopian thriller about manning a border checkpoint, where you do the exciting work of…stamping passports and checking a plethora of other documents for inaccuracies.

That’s actually all you do. See what I said about the gameplay being potentially awful? It’s left-brained and analytical and those descriptors are not usually applied to activities that I actually want to do.

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Yet I’ve logged quite a few hours in Papers, Please, playing with an intensity that left me drained when I was finished. Why do I love this game so much? The morality system.

There are a lot of moving parts to this system, so I’ll describe them one by one:

1. Family

This is the most obvious section of the morality system in Papers, Please. You have a family who you’re looking after. You’re told at the beginning of the game that you’ve won a labor lottery, and that you’re very lucky to have this job. At the end of each day of gameplay, you allocate the money that you’ve made for the day, paying for rent, food, heat, and other incidental needs. If you don’t make enough money during the day, you have to decide what budget items are not going to be covered that day. Then the next day, the game will report to you how your inadequacies to provide for your family affected them: they could be cold, sick, hungry, or even dead. Thus, it’s very important for you to make enough money, otherwise your failures as provider destroy your family.

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This is what makes the gameplay so compelling, by the way. You make money for every person that you let through the checkpoint successfully, but you get fined money if you let someone through who has inaccurate paperwork. Thus, you’re working as hard as you can to shovel people through the checkpoint so you can make money to provide for your family, but you also have to be incredibly accurate, or the fines will quickly outpace your meager income and your family will starve just the same.

You also have the option to take bribes, report people without cause for extra income, and perform other actions – making a moral choice each time – to make more money. Not only are you dealing with moral choices, you’re managing risk and reward, Attempting to strike a balance that will take care of your family.

It’s a compelling mixture.

But your family isn’t the only moral tug that you have to worry about, not by a long shot‚Ķyou also have to consider

2. Individual Stories

People come through your checkpoint, and many of them have compelling stories that might make you change your behavior. One man begs you to be kind to his wife who doesn’t have proper documentation, a woman asks you to deny the passport of a man who is pursuing her, and there are many other stories ranging from the humorous to the positively heartbreaking. You can choose to do favors for people, but that usually ends up costing money that could go to your family, or putting you in greater risk of losing your job. I remember at one point I had to deny the visa of a woman who was coming to my country to see her son, because I had too many warnings and I couldn’t afford another fine. As I stamped “denied” on her passport, I begged her forgiveness‚Ķout loud.

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I felt compelled to apologize to a character in a computer game.

It’s not every game that can do that.

But, if you thought you were done making difficult choices, you also have to consider…

3. The Greater Good

Trying to avoid huge spoilers here, but at one point an organization contacts you and asks for favors. It seems that they’re trying to create change in a bad situation, but the favors they ask really cost you. You have to let people through the checkpoint and eat the fine, and eventually they ask you to help them assassinate people, among other things.

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The assassination, they make clear, is for the greater good of you and your country, but it doesn’t serve the immediate needs of your family, it seems like a huge risk with little personal reward, and it just…seems‚Ķevil.
Which is something that usually isn’t a problem in games with a morality system. All good and all evil are typically the only two options, and they rarely force players to struggle with what they, the player, believe is right. These polarized morality systems make gamers ask shallow, simple questions, like

“What kind of gameplay do I want?”
“What choices will make me look the coolest?”
“What path allows me to callously murder everyone around me?”

These systems have very little to do with making complex moral decisions, and more to do with giving the player the allusion that they have control of their own destiny. Yet the game funnels players who chose either path into the same ending anyway, revealing the moral choices as meaningless in the end.

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Papers, Please confronts you with a question that few other games dare: what is the moral thing to do? … And it provides no easy, tidy answers.

It forces you to delve into

4. Your Own Complex View of Morality

There are times in Papers, Please where I acted simply on my own Moral compass. You can choose to play the game any way you like: that’s why the game has so many endings, and why I’m going to purposely go back and make a few decisions that I didn’t feel comfortable making in my initial few playthroughs. But, the nature of Papers, Please forces you to ask yourself what you believe about situations with many moral variables. It forces you not to decide what kind of game you want to play, but to decide what kind of person you want to be, and that sets up some excruciating decisions in game.

I’ll give you an example. At one point a man comes to your checkpoint and gives you a picture: he says that the man in the picture killed his daughter – he also hands you a picture of her – and he requests that you allow the killer through the checkpoint so the father can hunt him down and kill him.

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It was a difficult choice, but after thinking about revenge and human worth and closure, I detained the man, protecting him and robbing the father of his revenge.

The important consideration here is not wether the decision I made was right, it’s the fact that I was forced, by a video game to go through that complex thought process, and many others like it. The game didn’t ask me to make a black-and-white decision, but rather to wade through a sea of grey, testing my own conscience, weighing multiple competing desires, teasing out the best decisions, making mistakes, and ultimately experiencing one of the most challenging, exhausting, and exhilarating encounters with great video game art that I’ve ever had.