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Developer Diary

B Shoots; CLAY Jumps!

posted Jul 8, 2011, 9:35 PM by Jake Spencer

Introducing my new Tumblr page:

B Shoots; CLAY Jumps!

Where's Jake? Taking a Break?

posted Jul 7, 2011, 10:17 PM by Jake Spencer   [ updated Jul 7, 2011, 10:47 PM ]


The last post on my Developer Diary is over two months old, and even that doesn't directly pertain to my current game, Be Good. Yikes. Not exactly the most up-to-date place on the Web, is it?

Here's what I've been doing behind the scenes:
  • Finishing classes.
  • Starting other classes.
  • Wow, school is time-consuming.
  • Looking for a place to live when my lease ends in 11 days.
  • Looking for another place a month after that, when I graduate.
  • Getting ready to move.
  • Looking for a job.
  • Finding out how to get a work visa for the U.K.
  • Finding that I need a job before I can get a visa.
  • Wait, how can I get a job if I don't get a visa?
  • Also, I need a place to live in the U.K. before I can get a visa, but I need a job and a visa before I can get the visa, and I need a visa and a place to live before I can get a job.
  • Surprise! Impacted wisdom teeth.
  • Flying across the country to have my impacted wisdom teeth removed because that's the cheapest way to do it with my insurance.
  • Fighting with the insurance company.
  • Taking painkillers that make me sick.
  • Teaching myself ActionScript (after barely doing any programming for years).
  • Finding major flaws in my code.
  • Reprogramming my entire game.
  • Designing and writing the game.
  • Starting Developer Diary entries that remain unfinished for one or more of the reasons listed above.
  • And much, much more!
Things are finally coming together, though. The game's design and script are complete, the programming is in order, and tomorrow I'll begin building and photographing all of the graphics, which, I should remind you, will be built from clay.

The last time I worked with clay, which was about five months ago when putting together my initial demo for Be Good, I spent several days forgoing all forms of rest while dividing my time between clay, programming, school, and clay. By the end, I began to hallucinate that I was made of clay - seriously.

l suspect I'm in for an intense weekend, but at least I'm better prepared this time. I've even come up with a little something to help me stave off madness, but that's an announcement I'll be saving for tomorrow.

On Sequels

posted May 5, 2011, 11:11 AM by Jake Spencer

There seems to be general agreement among video game enthusiasts that there are too many sequels and that this is a problem.

I find this to be a dangerous way of thinking.

I can certainly understand how we would come to such a conclusion. The Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk series have received much attention recently, and with good reason. Both were predictably run into the ground because their annual sequels outstripped demand and innovation. Anyone who was paying attention could have told you this was going to happen years ago.

Additionally, sequels take development assets - money, teams, time - away from all of the original games which could otherwise be made.

I see why people reach the logical conclusion, then, that sequels are bad.I  also believe that's a reductive, one-sided oversimplification of larger issues.

I wonder if some of the bias comes from opinions on sequels in other media. Very rarely do I enjoy a movie sequel. Most good movies reach a satisfying ending, so a sequel is unnecessary. When a movie does leave enough loose ends and open questions to justify a second story, there's a good chance - by definition - that the first movie didn't end strongly enough for me to care.

The best movie sequels are not those where I want to know more about the plot, but those with rich enough characters or worlds that I want to revisit them.

This is exactly where video games excel.

I, like all living beings, love Super Mario Bros. I can go back to it any time and still have a blast with it. It's a work of genius that stands on its own, and it would still be well-regarded today if the series had ended there.

That said, Super Mario Bros. 3 is the better game. It took the world and character mechanics of the first game and improved them, and the plot remained the same. No one cares about that last part, though, because Mario isn't about a plot; it's about the way it plays.

To the great dismay of, like, six people at Activision, no one cares about the plot in Guitar Hero or Tony Hawk. These are gamey games. Mechanics and attitude. What are the controls like? What's on the soundtrack? What are the environments and tricks in Tony Hawk? What instruments can I play in Guitar Hero?

Creating a sequel for a plot-driven game is like doing the same for a movie, but updating a mechanics-driven game should be much easier. I prefer Super Mario Galaxy 2 to the original Galaxy because it took a solid foundation and went bonkers. With the technology and controls established, the development team was free to focus on designing brilliant levels within a finished framework. They already knew what would work.

The framework in Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero, however, is too tight. You can improve the graphics, you can add new songs, but both series were so fully developed from the start that it can be hard to identify meaningful change between sequels.

The introduction of drums to Guitar Hero was impactful, but it was also a move of blatant imitation, a fact which was not lost on consumers. It is also more spin-off than sequel. Drumming occurs in addition to playing the guitar. The guitar game was not changed because players were given the option to drum.

What did change was the social dynamic in the move from Guitar Hero to Rock Band. I don't know the difference between Guitar Hero and Guitar Hero 2, but I know why Rock Band found success.

More to come...

Words from Roald Dahl

posted May 4, 2011, 1:55 PM by Jake Spencer

"Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people."

I find the sort of TV-bashing Dahl liked so much a little odd. I can't help that find that all works of creativity are essentially the same. These quotes are about books, but they're identical to the experience I'm having right now, making a video game. For that matter, they're the same as acting, directing, drawing, sculpting, or making music.

I can do physical work all day and feel nothing, but an hour or two spent writing kills me. At the same time, it charges me with a different kind of energy. I love it.

"When you're writing a book, it's rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it's got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you've done all ties up. But it's a very, very long, slow process."

Blood Type

posted Mar 14, 2011, 9:56 PM by Jake Spencer

...or how "B-Positive" can some times "B-Negative."

Okay, obtuse wordplay aside, let's talk about the writing on this page - it doesn't paint the most flattering picture of the video game industry. There is a part of my mind that often reminds me, "Hey - you'd like to get paid to make games. Be careful what you say."

It's a legitimate point. At the same time, I strongly believe in progress. I'm not a fan of cynicism, arrogance, or undue rudeness. I don't pick fights for fun. I don't bite the hand that feeds me. I believe in honesty, though, and sometimes that means pointing out the messes that are all around you.

And in the video game industry, messes are all around us. There's so much to love about this field, but if you tell me we don't have serious problems, you're either ignorant or a liar.

Negativity is good, but only if it is constructive and has a purpose. If that purpose is the betterment of my field, then I will be negative. I don't think my stance is hard to understand or defend, but it does need to be directly stated.

Nick Lowe and Bill Shakespeare would both agree - sometimes, you gotta be cruel to be kind.

That's obvious, but what's less often acknowledged (but equally true) is the inverse: Being too kind can be cruel. Here's a recent quote from gamemaker David Jaffee:

"Adults and kids are- in many ways- not that different when it comes to maintaining their motivation. So If I tell one of my daughters- whose current obsession is learning to draw a photo realistic unicorn/Pegasus hybrid- that her art is perfect and her image looks like a photo realistic magical horse AND if this is NOT ACTUALLY TRUE (and instead I only wish that it were true), then am I really helping my daughter? Am I really respecting her? Am I really DISRESPECTING the craft of art, in both the medium and long term? Because best case- assuming she cares what I think- and I think she does :)- she'll think she's a better artist than she really is and lose some of her ambition. WORST case my lie will make her think she's achieved her goal when she really hasn't, and she'll no longer want to improve at drawing. It's not that different when it comes to the 'games as art' issue."

To put it succinctly, Jaffee is sick of the overstated, damaging praise that's been dumped on pretentious art games, and I'm with him.

Of course, as the lengthy quote above would suggest, there's nothing succinct about Jaffee's rant, and I suggest reading it all. Turns out that dude loves pizza!

New Approach

posted Mar 9, 2011, 9:48 AM by Jake Spencer

I'm still working on exactly what I'd like to say in this space. The traditional Developer Diary that I've seen on other sites really isn't appealing to me, and writing long essays while keeping up with the other things vying for time in my life just isn't going to happen right now.

Instead, I'm going to experiment a little.


posted Feb 21, 2011, 10:18 PM by Jake Spencer   [ updated Feb 21, 2011, 11:00 PM ]

I'm making a new game. It's really fun.

Making the game is really fun, I mean. It would be nice if it's fun to play, as well, and so far it appears that the few people who have played what little is currently in playable form are liking it.

It's fun to make, though. I can say that with authority, and I think that matters.

Many gamemakers and aspiring gamemakers that I've met seem to focus on making a game "fun." I get that. I like to play fun games; therefore I should want the games I make to be fun, right? Well... kind of.

"Fun" isn't quite an attainable goal. Fun for me? Fun for you? Fun for my grandparents? And under what circumstances? And for what reasons? It's a mushy term.

Even if you properly qualify "fun," though, it's not a real goal (and to clarify, yes I love fun games; this isn't an argument for "serious games"). I don't believe you get to pick the outcome. My audience's emotional reaction isn't my choice, and if it is my choice, then I'm a manipulative cheater.

I teach improv comedy, and one of the hardest things to impart on a rookie comedian is that the goal should never be to make the audience laugh. Yes, we're comedians, and laughter is a strong sign that we're succeeding at our job, but the way to earn those laughs is by performing our parts in scenes and games to the best of our ability. Invariably, the funniest scenes aren't built on witty one-liners and silly faces, but sound technique and genuine emotion.

Earlier today I watched two of my improvisers in a scene stomp and yell at each other because one had faked pregnancy in order to trick the other into giving up smoking. Read that sentence again. That's an absurd, unrealistic situation, and yet it was hysterically funny because it was built on feelings we've all experienced:

"I'm mad that you lied to me."

"I'm disappointed in your life choices."

And rather than mugging at the audience and saying, "Isn't this an outlandish situation?" they treated it like real people would if such a case ever arose. They yelled at each other. They went off in opposite directions. They made it funny by ignoring what they might have thought would be funny, and by doing what they knew was right for the characters in the moment.

My point is that we should focus on the act of creation - whether we're creating computer games, impromptu comedy scenes, or anything else - rather than the reaction we hope to receive. I can't make you have fun with my game, but I can do my best to have a good time creating it, and so far, that has not been a problem.

Take a Chance, Take a Chance, Take a Take a Chance Chance

posted Nov 11, 2010, 11:22 PM by Jake Spencer   [ updated Nov 11, 2010, 11:57 PM ]

"Innovation can't test, because there is no reference. You can't backwards-look creative. So how do we move forward? We have to move forward on inspiration and a creative center."
- Danny Bilson

Here's what I want:
I want to live in a world where this is not a notable quote. Progress comes from creativity; creativity comes from creating. Also, fire is hot.

This quote comes from a Joystiq article about THQ's Danny Bilson that is very much worth reading, although I don't mean that in an entirely positive way. First of all, typos - come on, Joystiq.

Bilson has been leading the effort at THQ to turn the company from purveyor of terrible, embarrassing games into creative creator of quality entertainment, and while I certainly wouldn't say he's reached that goal yet, De Blob was seriously fantastic. Maybe it's not the highest praise to point to one good game released in the six years since Bilson joined THQ, but, to be brutally honest, that's one more good game then they released before Bilson was hired.

Just before the above quote, the article applauds Bilson and THQ for developing a game called - and I'm not making this up - "Space Marine." No, really. Read the article. "Space Marine."

After the quote, Bilson points to Halo as the sort of creative, innovative game that can't be tested for marketability. Granted, nobody could have predicted Halo's popularity, but for all the aspects of Halo worth praising, I'd keep "creativity and innovation" rather low on the list.

Bilson has the right attitude, and it sounds like he is making real strides at THQ when it comes to calming the war between developers and marketers, but he still has a long way to go, as does the video game industry as a whole. I support him, and I wish him the best.

Stay Human

posted Nov 4, 2010, 1:16 AM by Jake Spencer   [ updated Nov 4, 2010, 1:28 AM ]

"...I increasingly come to the conclusion that it's vital to be involved in activities...that feel like they're derived from somewhere outside of the industry. This doesn't seem to be a popular opinion."
-- Baiyon, 'Sense of Wonder: Indie-fying Japan' (Gamasutra)

I don't like being one of those people who constantly harps on the problems of video games, because video games are wonderful, and I love them. Dwelling on the bad strikes me as a poor attitude, and it's weakening to the medium. Still, there's no defending the stance most game developers take on the above subject.

And, no, Dungeons & Dragons and sci-fi movies do not count as "outside" activities.

(Thanks, Leigh Alexander.)

Big People; Small People; Matter of Fact, All People

posted Nov 4, 2010, 12:08 AM by Jake Spencer   [ updated Nov 4, 2010, 12:35 AM ]

To put it simply, the other Dead Pandas and I gave an in-class presentation of our game's prototype and I flubbed my part pretty badly. Not everything about my presentation was a disaster, but, as with any significant mistake, the negative seemed to outshine the positive.

Celebrating an unfortunate slip that would otherwise be forgotten - especially on a public site that's supposed to make me look impressive and professional - may not seem like the best move, but the incident has made me think, and I've reached a conclusion that is worth sharing: I'm a student. I make mistakes. When I make mistakes, millions of dollars are not lost. Executives do not pull the plug on my publishing deal. The public does not write scathing comments about my team on the Internet. I am a student, and as a student, I am free to make mistakes, and learn from them.

There's no reason to celebrate the mistake itself, but I can make mistakes, and I can improve as a result. That's pretty great.

Full disclosure: My mistake was saying that we were holding back big game ideas for a future presentation, rather than showing everything we had at the current presentation. It was... surreal. Not only was the statement untrue; it was something I knew would sound bad. How these words worked their way out of my mouth, I don't know. I feel bad for misrepresenting my team, and myself, but it seems there was no lasting harm done, and our instructors used it as an opportunity to explain to the entire class the danger in such statements, which I view as a positive outcome to an unfortunate situation.

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