Posts Tagged ‘design’

OCD Mondrian Cube

The Rubik’s Cube was a Big Deal for a while when I was young. Nobody I knew understood how to solve it, but we liked trying, at least, until we got tired of failing. I think I managed to get the top layer solved, but never made much more progress, so I shelved the thing and moved on to more solvable puzzles like calculus.

Now that I’m older with children of my own, I figured I ought to learn how to solve the ‘Cube. I’m not talking about speed solving, here, either, learning those skills are far beyond what I want to spend time on. I settled for learning the simpler algorithms that other people have devised, and memorized how to solve the basic 3x3x3 standard cube, as well as the 2x2x2, the “Megaminx” dodecahedron variant and a pesky little version called the Ghost Cube.

I’ve since collected a couple dozen of different iterations of the Cube, as well as some other oddments like a barrel and flower, collectively called “Twisty Puzzles” in some corners of the internet. They are a fascinating fusion of function and fun, experiments with spatial and tactile troubleshooting with strong visual appeal. The mechanical engineering on display is almost as fascinating as the puzzles themselves.

Speaking of engineering, take a look at Oskar van Deventer‘s work. Some of his puzzles look amazing, and more impressively, function in weird and boggling ways. There’s a whole world of puzzles out there, and I’m slowly collecting some here and there to keep my brain and fingers nimble.

I’ve also recently taken a simple shape-shifter version of the ‘Cube and inflicted a bit of graffiti on it. I call it the OCD Mondrian Cube for now, though it’s more colorful than a proper Mondrian painting, almost more like a stained glass sort of thing, as my eldest noted. Proper Product Name Pending, and so on, etc.

It has two “solve states”, but it’s more precise to say that those two solved states are each “half-solved”. You can either make it into a nice, smooth cube (scrambling the colors), or you can group the colors in the six cardinal directions (scrambling the shape). You cannot solve for the shape and the colors at the same time. It will either drive your OCD mad or overload it and help you relax, maybe even allowing you to just play with the thing and find a completely unsolved state that you can find beauty in. I’m not sure how it would actually work with someone vexed with such a psychological condition, so it may be more trouble than it’s worth for some people, to be sure. Even so, I’m fond of the thing, and I’ve half a mind to see about getting it made more officially than this permanent-marker version I’ve prototyped.

Puzzles are good for the brain, I think. There’s value in learning methodical approaches to problem solving, and I see some extra value in this half-solvable mutant I’ve cobbled together. Sometimes life simply doesn’t have simple solutions. You can optimize for one thing, but you have to let something else go. I believe it’s a valuable life lesson to learn that sometimes solving things doesn’t mean they are then perfect. Sometimes “good enough” truly is enough, and while we’re commanded to “be perfect” in holy writ, that’s only something we can do with divine help. Sometimes all we can do is make life a little bit better, or simply find joy in the journey.


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I’ve played video games since Bowling on the Atari 2600 back in 1980.  I’ve played on most major consoles here in the U.S. (the Neo Geo is the one I skipped… that thing was stupidly expensive, though I loved some of its games in the arcades of the day), though I’m still stuck in the PS3/XB360 era due to lack of funding.  I’ve played PC and Mac games, from simple DOS games like Sleuth up through Star Control 2 and The Dig, and later, Batman: Arkham Asylum (I know, it’s a port, but it’s my most graphically intensive PC game) and Minecraft.

I discovered a taste for design in the Dark Castle days, drawing out new levels on graph paper.  I further refined my interest in mechanics when I did some serious work designing a world and game systems for a RPG in the King’s Quest days, though it wound up being more of a Final Fantasy Tactics sort of game.  I really, really wanted to make a good sequel to Chrono Trigger, and made many notes on what I’d do.  Chrono Cross, great game that it is, just didn’t scratch the same itch.

I’ve always enjoyed games, both playing and designing.  In many ways, creating new games is more satisfying, since I’m a creative sort and would rather produce than consume.

My BFA is in Computer Animation, and while some of my classmates have worked for Pixar, Rhythm and Hues, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and Weta, I wound up in the game industry.  I’d have loved working at Pixar making Disney films, like I planned to do as a kid, but circumstances led to other choices.  I still love animating, though I’m most experienced at modeling, texturing and solving weird tech issues, since I’m  a “Technical Artist”, comfortable with tech and art.

I worked for Headgate Studios, largely working on EA’s Tiger Woods games.  Then I worked at Wahoo Studios, making a few Kefling games along with a smattering of other projects both internal and contract work.  I have a list around here somewhere of the 15 or so games I am credited in, which qualifies me as a veteran of sorts. That said, as is so often true, time and economics caught up with me, and I’m now “retired” from the industry after almost a decade working on the art in games, with a bit of dabbling in design.

These days, I design my own games, write about what I’d do if I had pie-in-the-sky budgets to design games, do graphic design, make cool game accessories and try to find ways to make a living in a freelance world since there just aren’t career opportunities at the moment.  Once in a while, I even get to play games (though some of that time is just playtesting my games… I really need to update Chromaround).

Games and I, we have history.

Anyway, I’m in between serious contracts, and while I’m scrambling for something new to pay the bills, I have a few minutes here and there.  So, given that I’ve been collecting games over the years, adding to my Steam collection and assorted game bundles, I have more than a few games to fill that time with.

So, I’m going to be systematic about it and just start plowing through my game backlog.  I’m going to give each game 15 minutes to really grab me, then do a quick writeup of what happened, probably with a screenshot or two, and with some commentary about the design and art.  Pith may be present.  I might revisit the games, but I probably won’t.  Still, I want to do a bit of exploration.  It’s good to see what’s out there, and how other games are designed.

I’ll post those writeups here, though I’m not committing to any regular schedule or format.  Perhaps this is the sort of thing YouTube is for, but I hate being in videos and hearing myself.  Writing, that I can do.  We’ll see how it all settles out.

I know, I know, some games really need more than 15 minutes to get a proper shakedown, but, well, I can’t be the only one who only barely has time to graze games.  I could devote dozens of hours to the latest Final Fantasy when I was in high school, but these are different times.  I think it’s a good game design that has the ability to do something to earn further attention within those 15 minutes.  I simply won’t be doing some games justice, but that’s life in this saturated, cutthroat market.  There are still lessons to be learned, I think.

See you next time with a bit of commentary on what I’ve been playing, then I’ll mostly shelve those games and start trekking through the wilds.

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I’ve been looking for full time work since this Tinker business I’ve been experimenting with just isn’t paying the bills.  I applied to a graphic designer position with a scrapbooking company, and was politely informed that they cater to a “feminine” clientele and that my art isn’t what they are looking for.

OK, sure.  I could have made some great products for them, but to each their own.

I have to wonder, though.  With things like epbot.com, Forbes and IBM pegging steampunk as a Big Deal, and this sort of thing, with “steampunk” at least as important as “selfie” in dictionaries:


…it seems to me that steampunk design ethos, something I’m fairly familiar with these days, isn’t exactly “feminine”, but neither is it something below notice.

It’s not even strongly gendered in my experience, with steampunk fans quite happy to embrace things like Girl Genius or Hullabaloo not because of “token girls” but because of interesting and well crafted visuals and characters, some of whom happen to be female.  To be sure, there are those who take the Victorian fashion and buttoned-up morality as a sort of challenge, trying to find ways to make it pornographic (which doesn’t intersect largely with scrapbook patrons… I think… but I’m not researching it), but that’s just what the Internet does.  For the most part, what I’ve seen of the steampunk ethos and design is very inclusive and relatively nonjudgmental, which is part of the appeal of that “alternate history science fiction” sort of world where imagination is king.

I’m not a woman, but I’m married to a wonderful one, and she doesn’t see my steampunk work like the Tinker products and say “oh, that’s just so… masculine, ewwww”.  She appreciates it for its curious blend of precision and ramshackle weirdness.

So, I have to wonder what sort of market there is out there for steampunk designs that can be used in scrapbooking.  There’s certainly a “do it yourself” appeal to a lot of steampunk, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to prepackaged scrapbooking goods, and there’s always going to be those who heap disdain on any hint of the illiterate masses flirting with mainstream acceptance of their formerly fringe “geek safe zone” (see: “glue a gear on it“).  Even so, I instinctively think that dismissing steampunk might be a bit premature, and to consider it beneath the notice of “feminine” clientele is perhaps shortsighted.

To be fair, this company didn’t complain about steampunk explicitly, I’m just ruminating on their feedback.  I’m just not sure that “feminine” need equate to this sort of simple thing all the time.

What do you think?

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The Tinker Gearcoin project funded, thank you everyone!

Of course, we still have some time to go and room to grow, so we’re doing something kinda crazy.  We want to design a 12th coin, but we’re crowdsourcing the design.  Sort of.  It’s like Magic the Gathering, when they do their “You Design The Card”; we’re going to ask a series of polls and let the community decide on what we do with the design of the coin.  We’re starting with this (36mm diameter, image not to scale):

You Design The Coin Base

You Design The Coin Base

…which will be a “driver” coin.  That smaller gear’s round center will be a big hole, right through the coin, so you can put a pencil or finger in it as a handle to crank the coin around.  Or it can be a pendant, earring or something else.  It’s weird, it’s wacky, and I really don’t know where it will wind up.

So if you have a moment and are interested, please check out the campaign over here, spread the word, and join us for the crazy ride ahead!



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Scope is a tricky thing in game design.

When I design a game, I want it long and deep enough to be interesting, but not so long and deep that it tires players.  I want it accessible, but not infantile.  I want it to be easy to learn and fun to play on a superficial level and/or by inexperienced players, but have enough complexity and intricacy that mastering it takes effort and feels rewarding.  I want enough features to justify making the game in the first place, rather than a tech demo.  I want to explore the implications of design choices without making busywork for the players.  There is a sweet spot to hit where I have enough in the game to satisfy those admittedly vague goals, and doing too little or too much design detracts from the play experience.

Might I recommend a few references on the subject?

“Good design is as little design as possible.”

I cannot recommend Mr. Rosewater’s articles enough.  His archive is a treasure trove of game design considerations.  Yes, he writes about designing a card game, but as he asserts in the Top Ten Principles articles, Good Design is Good Design, and some principles are universal across mediums.  I agree, and it’s nice to see someone articulate it as well as Mr. Rosewater does, and as well as Mr. Rams does.

This is why, here at my workplace in a small game dev studio, we occasionally have game nights, where we play board or card games.  Understanding why offline games work (with a side order of game theory, explicit or not) is valuable information when we get around to designing our video games.  We have to understand the tools of our trade, and how design works.

One of the hardest things to learn is restraint.  If I may, since art is the medium I’m most familiar with, a few thoughts on this notion as it’s found in the art world:

Art design ranges from minimalist to overwrought hyperdetail.  Brushwork might be exceedingly sparse in some of these lovely Chinese bamboo paintings…

…which contrasts starkly with the laborious process that produced something like this.

…which is itself dwarfed by some of the more elaborate hyperrealist paintings.

(Never mind that once you get to that level, we’re talking about a bizarre devotion to the craft of “doing it because I can” instead of just taking a photograph.  It’s sort of like the artist equivalent of a No Sphere Grid Final Fantasy X game, or climbing Mount Everest carrying a grumpy rabid wombat in your pocket.)

Each can work nicely as a piece of Art, but they tend to evoke different responses.  Some of that is strongly based in how much of the experience is left to the consumer, something that game designers should be intimately familiar with, seeing as how our medium is interactive by nature.  (Which doesn’t invalidate it as an art medium, by the way.)

There comes a point in art where enough really is enough.  One more brushstroke, one more visual element, and the composition changes, especially when working in sparse formats like the bamboo paintings.  Sometimes that change is for the better, taking the piece in new directions, but many times, going just a wee bit too far makes the piece weaker.  Sometimes it can even totally break the mood and aim of the piece.  I’ve tossed away many of my sketches that I overworked.

This is part of why I enjoy sketching with ballpoint pens, and why I encourage other artists to do so as well.  When you have to account for every move you make, as there is no erasing, you learn to carefully gauge what you do, and either make the right choice the first time, or learn to roll with mistakes and incorporate them into your work.  These are valuable tools in an artist’s toolbox.

You could also work digitally, and use the almighty Undo command and History panel, and work with layers, which give you incredible control over your artworks if used properly.  Many artists wind up working both digitally and traditionally, since both offer distinct advantages.  I often sketch in pen, then scan it into the computer for the coloring with Painter or Photoshop.

Back to games, then, I’ve often seen Portal lauded as being a great game, even as it’s noted as being a short game.  It’s just long enough to give players the chance to experiment with the implications of Portal mechanics and the various puzzle elements, and it’s not padded out with excessive repetition for the sake of making the game seem somehow meatier via time sinks (which are really just bloated fat, not real gaming meat).  It hits a sweet spot of playability and proper exploration of game mechanics.  It’s flat out, concentrated fun, even though it’s not a mega-epic sixty hour post-apocalyptic snark opera.

On the other hand, we have Final Fantasy XIII, known for its somewhat extensive tutorial.  To be fair, they are different games with different ends, but the time spent differs by an order of magnitude.  A significant difference like that needs to be something done by design and for a good reason, not just to pad out playtime.  Whether FFXIII succeeds in that regard is arguable, but the argument is more vociferous than a similar argument about Portal’s scope and focus.

Portal tends to leave players itching for more, while FFXIII has some players crying to just get on with the game!  MMOs can be even worse.

Oh, and scope might be one reason why we don’t have a Magic the Gathering MMO, while we’re talking MTG, MMOs and game design.  The game is intricately and beautifully designed as it is, and trying to shoehorn that into an MMO makes for uncomfortable compromises.  It’s possible to bend the MTG themes, lore and other assorted IP into an MMO, perhaps, and such crossgenre game design is possible… but doing so would mean effectively building a totally different game from the ground up, just with an existing IP.  That doesn’t always work out.  It means a different scope, a different focus, and ultimately, a different feel because it really is a different game.  That can alienate fans of the existing lore, even as the existing lore already limits the audience if there are strong feelings about it among gamers or nongamers the product is trying to entice.

It might also be worth noting that stories are easier to tell when the storytelling format is a bit more focused than a series of grinds with cutscenes in between.  At least, if story is important.  It’s also worth noting that stories can have a fair amount of cruft and bloat in them as well, and one of the hardest parts of learning to write well is learning when to shut up, similar to how the best skill conversationalists learn is how to listen.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning, obviously, in writing and game design… but it’s one worth learning.

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I’ve been perusing David Sirlin’s fantastic blog, and one of his recent posts resonated with me:

The Design Of Things

I have a similar tendency to question design decisions wherever I go.  I don’t imagine meetings based on them, but I do look at nearly everything and reflexively assess the design of it.  My wife has noted more than once that when I complain about something, it’s most often pointing out that it suffers from bad design.  Whether it’s a business schedule, social construct or thingamajig, bad design bothers me.

To be sure, many altercations and accidents are simply user error, but there are a lot of boneheaded decisions industrial (and game) designers make.  Even bad UI bothers me.

I know, I know, it’s not always easy (thanks, Psychochild!) to really fix these things.  At the same time, there are some simple things that could have been solved by just a few seconds of actual thought, if you can imagine that.

One example that vexes me day in and day out is a relatively small and simple thing.


It’s “Save File” in almost every single Windows program, under almost every circumstance.  That’s good, and it’s come to be expected by the end user.  You’d be an exceptionally cruel or criminally idiotic software designer if you mapped CTRL-S to “Stop Program” or “Scuttle File” or some such.  The guys behind 3DS Max, a rather expensive bit of software (it’s expensive if you have to click through three links to get a price), aren’t criminally insane, but someone flubbed this simple design task.

Y’see, if you happen to be working with UV layouts (getting to which being a dumb task in itself, with at least two clicks too many en route for a VERY common 3D art task), and have the Edit UVs window open, CTRL-S no longer saves your file.  No, now it toggles the Snap function.  You can’t even click back out of the Edit UVs window and have CTRL-S work correctly again.  As long as you have the UV editing window open, there is no keyboard shortcut to save your file.  Heaven help you if you’re working with an unstable machine (Max isn’t all that stable in itself) and have gotten into the habit of saving every few minutes or so to keep from losing a day’s work.

In the end, users get used to it.  Snap is a useful function, and it’s not all that difficult to go click on the File menu and go down to the Save command in the list.  The trouble is one of changing user expectations and lack of consistency.  The “s” key toggles Snap when you’re not editing UVs, and it does nothing when you are.  A user could be excused for thinking that “s” would toggle Snap and CRTL-S would save the file even while editing UVs because that’s what they do everywhere else.

So, I have to ask:  Who executed this?  What were they thinking? You don’t change the function of your UI arbitrarily like that.  That’s freshman year UI design, as Ernest Adams might say.  (Thanks, No Twinkie database!)  That the software package costs more than I paid for either of our vehicles is rubbing salt in the wound.  These guys should be getting these things right.

Similarly, if you happen to be editing several polygonal surfaces via a shared “Edit Poly” modifier (modifiers themselves being an idiotic extra step, incidentally, including the inability to work on more than one object’s UV set at once), the keyboard shortcut for Rotate changes.  Let me stress:  Move and Scale shortcuts are the same, but Rotate changes.  These three operation modes are key functions of editing things in 3D, and likely a significant part of why you’re Editing the Polys in the first place.  Why change the keyboard shortcut to do something completely different if you’re working on more than one object? This is simply incompetent UI design, and annoying every time it comes up, since again, the only solution is to go click on something to get to the function the keyboard shortcut should get to, and does almost all the rest of the time.  (And when editing multiple polygonal subobjects, CTRL-S changes yet again, this time to toggle “Soft Selection”.  I really want to knock some UI designer heads together when I run into this sort of idiocy.)

Context sensitive changes in UI work with mouseovers or right-click menus, since you can preview visually what will happen and you have to go looking for the changes.  When you change the basic core functions of your UI in context sensitive ways with no warning, you’re just punishing your users who you have taught to expect certain behavior.  That’s Bad Design.  No Twinkie for you! Or, as Sirlin might note, Every Click Counts, and making users jump through unnecessary extra hoops is Bad Design.

Moving on, I’ve noted that my wife and two kids and I have moved to a new house after living in a condo for 4 years.  It’s still a bit surreal, but so it goes.  The house is older than I am, so it has its share of quirks.

The washer and dryer hookups are in the lower level bathroom.  That in itself makes some sense, since you’d not want the washer to overflow in a carpeted area or on an upper level that might drain to lower rooms.  Still, there are two elements of the setup that are clearly Bad Design.

One, the approach to the room is very narrow.  The brave souls that installed our new washer and dryer almost couldn’t get the machines in, and only barely escaped personal injury.  I have no idea what we’ll do if the darn things need service.

Two, the vent to the outside that the dryer needs is set up on the left side of the niche, but the slot for the dryer is on the right.  The washer hookups are immediately next to the vent.  This means the dryer vent hose has to reach at least twice as long as it has to (meaning failure is easier), and has to fight for space with the washer hoses.  I’m hard pressed to see why they set the thing up that way, as it’s just asking for trouble.  This isn’t rocket science.  They even had a 50/50 chance of getting it right if they designed the hookups via coin flips.  You have to TRY to be that incompetent.

The last thing that has bothered me of late is the phone line setup.  It’s a bit excusable, since it is an older building, but still, it’s annoying.  The best rooms for the computer (the main entertainment/living room and the playroom) don’t have a phone jack.  All of the bedrooms have one, and the food storage cellar has one, but not the places where I’d actually put the computer.  Sure, the jack in the kitchen makes sense if you’re just using a phone land line, but how often do all of the kids need phones in their rooms but the main room where people spend their time at home not need one?  Oh, but we do have a satellite dish with hookups piped into that room.  Small compensation for a family that has absolutely no use for satellite TV.  (Free network TV is mostly atrocious; I’m not paying for edgier, darker, smuttier garbage.  Anyone want my dish?  I’m not going to use it for internet or phone access; we’re in a nice area for landlines and DSL, and I like the consistency and cheaper price.)

So, some Bad Design decisions we inherit from past decisions.  Some are the simple lack of foresight.  Some are merely incompetence.  Some are malicious.  The key in my mind is that any that could have been avoided should have been.  It wouldn’t have taken much thought at one point in the process.

Perhaps most importantly, it makes me question myself.  What design decisions am I making that are idiotic?  Why do I do what I do?  Am I thinking when I do my work, or just going through the motions?  Do I care?

I’m always designing, always thinking of ways to better the things I use every day.  Always thinking of ways to do what I want to do with stories, games or whatever else I’m in the mood to create.  I’m always asking:  Does this work?  Does this make sense?  Will this do what I want it to?  Will this work for the end user?

Because yes, I do care.

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We all live in a steampunk submarine, a steampunk submarine, a steampunk submarine

(Yes, that’s three links to different articles about the same office, but there are some unique pictures in each, as far as I can tell.)

OK, so it’s not exactly a submarine, but the “Captain Nemo” steampunk flavor of the Three Rings office (the Puzzle Pirates guys) sure looks like it would be a fun place to work.  The design alone is awesome, but even better is that it was fairly cheap.  Quick router cuts and simple colors fit the Three Rings design ethos, and with enough attention to art direction, even the flat colors and fairly simple shapes look fantastic.  (Chalk another one up for simple but consistent and interesting art direction over pixel shaders, gigantic poly meshes and huge texture footprints.)

These are the guys behind the office construction (with some more pictures of the same):

Because We Can

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For Instance

Instancing is one of the major tools in a designer’s hands to alter the dynamics of an MMO’s world.  Guild Wars embraces instancing, while EverQuest 2 eschews it.  There are those who passionately flame away about the inferiority of either approach.  And then there’s this:

How much is too much?

This is really just a snippet, but looking at some of the responses, I found something interesting.  One poster, “tanek”, asserts that an instanced world is a more dynamic one.  Not even two hours later, “Everrest” states that a non-instanced world is more dynamic.  …in the inimitable words of Inigo Montoya: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”


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Product Lifespan

I’ve mused about the lifespan of MMOs before, asking “should we be trying to keep them alive for the long run, or just treat them like any other game”?  In my mind, the subscription model is built around trying to keep people playing for as long as possible.  I’ve suspected that the typical MMO lifespan is more like any other offline game, with many players playing early, and a gradual decline as time goes on.

So I found this little gem in Raph’s archives:

MMO usage graphs


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