3D art in small spaces: the art and construction of Dead Man’s Trail

Creating a full 3D game can be a daunting task for a small team of indie developers. Getting that 3D to work on mobile devices only adds to the challenge. In a recent issue of the IGDA Insider newsletter, I describe some of the challenges facing indie developers who want to make 3D games and how indies can decide whether 3D is right for them.
Among this advice, I took some time to discuss my team’s current work with Dead Man’s Trail, specifically our methods for level construction and character art. 

For DMT, the Pie For Breakfast and e4 Software teams are utilizing tile-based level construction methods. 

Pre-made level tiles are useful for engines such as Unity and others which come with no pre-made level construction toolsets. In many ways, they work like building with Lego bricks. Designers create the pieces they need then can construct the levels they want from combination of these pieces. 

Levels consist of several “tiles”, which designers build by first placing the desired exits, then filling in with the pathways that players can use to get from one place to another. Designing with a goal in mind helps the designer fill in the fun moments of gameplay that they would like players to experience as they move through the level. 

In the IGDA article, I had this to say about making these kinds of levels work in the actual game and how such a workflow fits into a tightly-scheduled team experience: 

An artist should be able to produce a complete color mapped 3D character model in 12 to 18 hours of work. Likewise, they should be able to produce environment assets both quickly and in such a way that they are modular – able to be used in multiple places in the environment. A building, for example, may be broken into several types of pieces – plain walls, window, doors, cornices, ornaments, roofs, etc. – that are assembled by a level designer in-engine. These pieces are often converted into one efficient mesh by a mesh packing script so that the frame rate doesn’t slow down with too many individual objects in a scene – something that an artist can coordinate with developers. The lesson for this is that not only should an artist be able to operate in a 3D content creation package, they should also be competent enough to use it in a schedule and team-based environment.

Level design is not the only place to push the game’s efficiency. The target that the team is shooting for is no more than 40,000 vertices on the screen at any one time. Creating detailed environments while having lots of zombies on the screen presents a challenge under these limitations. Luckily, the DMT team has a few influences that have not only provided inspiration, but also insight into how one can do detailed character art while maintaining efficiency:

Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventure game works well on both consoles and mobile devices thanks to simplistically modeled characters with detailed color maps. Artists can create the illusions of folds in clothing, collars, and other details by painting them onto flat mesh surfaces. I used this technique for an upcoming game, Dead Man’s Trail, whose art style is influenced by Tony Moore’s artwork for the early Walking Dead comics.
The goal is not to emulate reality, but rather achieve a comic book aesthetic. By making body geometry very simple, we had the ability to add extra geometry in expressive areas, such as the face. Each player character is around 1300 vertices/2500 triangles, allowing them to run efficiently and be used in both distant isometric and close-up game views. Moreover, we can utilize the characters in promotional artwork due to their expressiveness. Our zombies, on the other hand, utilize only around 700 vertices/1400 triangles and have painted-on facial features, since they would be not viewed as close up. Mouth motions such as biting can still be shown with animated body language.

The full article, “3D Art for Indies”, can be found here: http://newsletter.igda.org/2014/02/01/3d-art-for-indies/ Check it out for other insights into the making of DMT and an overall look at how indie developers can decide if 3D art is right for their projects.


work in progress c:

This is making a strong case for using Hexels in my next project…


work in progress c:

This is making a strong case for using Hexels in my next project…

Reblogged from Desorden Amplificado

Game Making with Kids: How the Ouya and Free Software Saved Summer Camp

Like many kids in the 80’s and 90’s, I thought it would be cool to create a video game. Being of a more artistic mindset, my grand designs were most often merely drawings of what I thought my games could look like: platformers with my friends, family, and self-created superheroes fighting burglars. The actual creation of such games, however, was black magic. Though our teachers attempted to teach us BASIC through “hello world!” exercises, my elementary school self could only stare at the blinking cursor on the TRS-80 Color screen and wonder when we’d get to the interesting part.

I was more of an MS Paintbrush kid…

Now, in many ways, we have cycled back to the type of independent game creation that was common in the 1980’s. The ZX Spectrum, Apple II, Commodore 64, and other computers for which people distributed their own games have been replaced by smartphones, tablets, and a resurgence in PC gaming. Distribution channels such as Steam, the App Store, and Google Play have likewise replaced the floppy disks in plastic baggies that once littered Radioshack shelves (though an image of one would make a killer app icon.)

While the publishing landscape is opening up again, the tools for actually developing games are, in many ways, more accessible than ever before. Unlike the days when an elementary school version of this author stared into the green abyss of the TRS-80, game making is no longer the sole purview of programmers. Game engines, once proprietary tools released only for mods or licensed for large sums of money, can be cheaply downloaded and published from. Even art-leaning indie designers like myself can make games in Game Maker, Unity, Construct 2, or a myriad of other integrated development environments (IDE’s.) Perhaps even more drastic, however, is the attitude of parents towards the idea of making games. Decades ago, video games were only productive if it was raining outside or if one wanted to be a fighter pilot when they grew up. Now, projects such as Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and the Ouya’s Astronaut Rescue show the results of parents and their kids making games as a way to spend time together.

This summer, I’ve been teaching game development courses during a camp at George Mason University called the Summer Game Institute. The camp consists of week-long classes for kids (in age groups from 9-12 and 13-18) in topics such as basic game design, Minecraft modding, and even mobile game development, which I teach. To be honest, I had my reservations about mobile development and 9-year olds: certain marketplaces are too restrictive, require a paid subscription (which kids may or may not fully utilize if parents buy them), and feature complicated setup processes for launching. My goal was to give the kids attending the ability to go home and make games on their own computers for free, regardless of launching platform, but be able to expand their knowledge in the future to include mobile. This required choosing accessible game engines, asset creation tools, and finding a platform that would provide the gratifying feeling of “look, I made that…” 

Game making is more fun if it feels like this

This article describes the planning process that went into my first course for the camp – a mobile game development course for 9-12 year-olds – and the tools and technologies we chose that resulted in its success.

Choosing Engines

My first step was to find game engines. The criteria here was to search for an engine that launched to mobile, but also provided a simple enough development environment that the students could also create games on their own computers without too much advanced knowledge. For this, my first inclination was Game Maker (GM) – it requires little programming, but can be extended by scripting with the Game Maker Language (GML.) While the mobile tools are not quite to the level of other engines, my feeling was that the kids could get a good introduction to game making through GM’s action-based event builder. Unity was another choice for the course, but had both pros and cons. On the plus-side, it is a very simple engine for launching to both iOS and Android. This made Unity a very attractive choice for addressing the class’s mobile theme. However, its more complicated interface and reliance on scripting presented a problem – would the kids be able to create something that they could put onto devices within a week? I decided to evaluate how the students were progressing with GM before making a decision either way.

Asset Creation: Industry Standard or Outside of the Box?

My next challenge was choosing tools for teaching asset development. Unlike engines, which have drastically opened up, industry-standard asset creation tools such as Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, and Maya still come at a premium price. While student versions of these applications are available with a “.edu” e-mail address, this does little to a child who is years away from college. In this instance, I turned to open-source software. Since I was focusing on Game Maker to teach development, I opted to use the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) as the primary art tool for my course in the camp. Like the engines, it is freely available for kids to download at home, but offers features that allow them to later expand their knowledge to Photoshop or other industry standard tools.

GIMP was an appealing choice thanks to a well-built support community, lots of existing documentation, and a Photoshop-like layer system. Perhaps the most important element of using GIMP over other freeware spriter such as GraphicsGale was the expandability. GIMP can do sprites with the proper settings, but it is primarily photo-manipulation software. This opens the doors for future outside-the-classroom learning with digital painting or other techniques. 

Lastly, I had to find a launching platform that would provide a satisfying end to the week when the kids would learn how games are published. For this younger group, I stayed away from the Apple Provisioning Portal, though I plan to show it to the older groups in future classes. In my own development process, I lean towards Android as a demonstration platform, as I can export builds to my devices quickly and without the need for provisioning. This led it to be my demonstration platform of choice for the camp, though I was still unsure whether the kids would be impressed with their game on a small screen.

In-class Implementation

In retrospect, I’m ecstatic that I made the software choices I did. Game Maker, despite some initial head scratching over building behaviors, became the hit of the week after only the first day. My TA and I opened with a tutorial from the book The Game Maker’s Apprentice where the students could make a simple shooting game. From then on, every morning the kids would sit down at their computers and work on their own projects in the engine. While we built a lesson plan of several games for them to create, the first introduction was all it took before they explored the engine and went above and beyond even what we had planned to teach.

GIMP was also a great hit among the students after the first intro. For teaching sprite animation, I kept them to a 16 x 24 pixel grid, showed them how to turn on the appropriate guideline features in the program, and showed them how to proportion an RPG sprite’s body.

Like the Game Maker tutorial, GIMP caught on and many of the students would come in each morning with sprites they had created and animated at home the night before. Once they had learned how GIMP worked, many of them began making sprites for other types of games they had seen: side scrollers, schmups, and others.

Saved by Dark Horses

Initially the most difficult issue in our planning process, launching platforms became the highlight of the course for both the teachers and the students thanks to some serendipity and good timing by the DHL delivery service. The first major boon to our course was an announcement by Unity mere days before the camp that their platform would now allow mobile publishing for free. As Unity had been brought up as a way to fulfill the mobile title of the course, it became a goal we pushed for during our work with the kids. The other coincidence was that the week before the camp started, my Ouya finally arrived.

Like so many, I had backed Ouya’s Kickstarter campaign last year, and had even thrown in the extra money for the special-edition copper console with an extra controller. To me, the console was an artifact, something to hold up in future iterations of my History of Game Design course as an example of the “microconsole”, whose ultimate fate has yet to be decided. Upon getting it, I played a few games, though pickings were slimmer than they are at the time of this writing (Towerfall, which came out during the camp, is good enough for killer-app status.) Through viewing a few YouTube tutorials, I was able to sideload my own Android builds to the device.

It was from this that I had the most fun with the Ouya, making it my own and showing off my own games on a true TV console, something that I had not experienced before as a mobile dev. Then it hit me, could I have the kids in my class help me build an Android game for the Ouya?

I set to work on a simple platformer based on a mobile game tutorial I had created for my college students in Unity. I added character sprites I had dug up for my GIMP sprite animation tutorial to give the course some continuity. Lastly, I created prefabricated blocks from which I would construct the game levels. From this setup, the students could import environment tiles that they had created in GIMP, using them as textures for the Unity blocks, and each design their own level for the game.

One of the students building a level

When they were done building, I compiled all of their levels into one game, uploaded the Android file to a Dropbox, and downloaded it through the Ouya’s web browser. Without yet diving into the actual Ouya SDK, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that our character’s WASD movement controls mapped right to the Ouya’s control stick and that his jump (using the default space bar setting) mapped to the Ouya’s “A” button. For the camp’s grand finale, we sat in front of the classroom’s TV passing the controller around so each kid could play his or her own level of a real video game.



For us teachers more than the students themselves, there were lessons to be learned from how we structured the mobile portion of our camp. The first was that making games can be a pleasurable and empowering experience when one removes the restrictive aspects of the process: industry standard software and foci on specific technologies. The second is there is creativity out there to be fostered if we only give it a small nudge: most of the students needed only a short tutorial in each software before they were pushing it past where we had intended to go with it. In many ways, it was largely due to the accessibility and freedom of the tools we utilized – the simplicity of Game Maker, the newly opened Unity mobile options, GIMP’s accessibility, and Ouya’s transparency - that the course was a success. They made it more about the games and the kids’ ability to create something of their own.

Small Dev Observations from GDC

While I try to update the blog once a week, I am a little late thanks to last weekend’s trip back from GDC in San Francisco and the following week of playing catch-up. This week marks a bit of a change of pace for me, as I’m going to publish some thoughts on the event instead of my typical dev or design essays. 

Moreso than other years, this year’s GDC marked a major shift towards indie friendliness in the industry. On his Twitter feed after the show, Jesse Schell commented:

Goodbye,  … Every time I smell corporate fear and unrealistic indie optimism, I’ll think of you.

Likewise, Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, in an article entitled “And Then the Video Game Industry Woke Up”, stated: 

With each passing GDC, the indie presence has become more and more pronounced, but this year felt like something of a tipping point. 

Indeed, indie energy was palpable everywhere from GDC Play to the expo floor. Here are a few promising observations: 

Design > Technology

As both an indie developer and educator, I am always on the lookout for opportunities for my students to get their feet in the door of game development. Luckily, many of the more well-regarded talks this year focused on design discussions rather than graphical power. 


Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life took home a number of IGF awards, including the Seumus McNally Grand Prize. It strongly emphasizes narrative and simulates the difficulty of life as a retail shop owner through its mechanics. 

Focusing on design over tools was a major anthem of the Education Summit, for example, with the Curriculum Deathmatch talk easily being one of the most insightful and entertaining events of the show. On the other hand, some of the group I attended the show with expressed disappointment with the AAA game talks, wishing that they had gone a bit deeper into design issues or challenges rather than giving sales pitches. 

This year, the IGF and Rumpus Royale events also showcased a series of games that emphasized design and style over horsepower. 8-bit art was in full force here, with the majority of titles focusing on strong and innovative takes on gameplay, narrative, and presentation. Indie darling FTL even spilled into the broader industry-focused Game Developer’s Choice Awards with a nomination for the Innovation Award and a win in the Best Debut category. 

Android, Android, Everywhere

GDC 2013 was an incredibly strong show for Android, as you could barely look in any direction without seeing a new gadget or peripheral that worked with the ubiquitous mobile OS. Android’s openness is definitely paying off in terms of allowing developers choices of how to launch software.


Because the Android mascot is awesome. 

A major attention getter during the show was the MOGA, a bluetooth controller that connects to and docks Android phones to create a handheld mobile gaming device. It certainly helped that they were giving devices out freely to IGDA members. As of right now, it already boasts a beefy selection of Android games to play with, including Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Sonic CD. These games are also bought through the Google Play store rather than a special shop (though a MOGA app helps you find compatible games), so users do not have to rebuy titles. I’m looking forward to experimenting with the SDK as a way of enhancing some upcoming projects. 

Speaking of Android-compatible mobile game devices. I also got a hands-on demonstration with the NVIDIA Shield. After its announcement, I was cautiously optimistic about the platform, but now I am very excited about the opportunities it presents. Perhaps my favorite thing is that it will also run Google Play, so there are opportunities for developers to launch once and have their app cross-pollinate many devices. Likewise, NVIDIA is providing a full-featured development environment for the device on their website, so it’s yet another enticing opportunity for Android devs. Lastly, (and I realize this somewhat contradicts my previous excitement for a lack of focus on graphics) the screen on the Shield is REALLY pretty, so devs can create a good impression no matter what art style they choose. 

The Microconsole Effect

Android had yet another broad effect that deserves its own section. For those who haven’t been paying attention, 2012 saw the introduction of the Microconsole, Android-based consoles that could hook up to televisions for more traditional gaming experiences. Microconsoles such as Ouya, Gamestick, and Greenthrottle - while not readily visible on the show floor - were making their presence felt through sudden shifts towards indie-friendly environments on major consoles. 

Since announcing the Playstation 4, Sony’s rhetoric has been very supportive of indies. While there has not been many specifics from their camp on online developer accounts and the like for their consoles, they have announced a number of upcoming titles such as Hotline Miamiand Limbo


What opportunities await in Nintendo’s new Web Framework? 

Perhaps even more interesting is Nintendo’s new indie push. With this, they are offering two options for making games for the Wii U: Unity or their new Nintendo Web Framework. To become a Wii U developer, devs must fill out a questionnaire (found here) and show previous development experience. I myself have filled out the questionnaire so we shall see how the actual approval process goes. The Web Framework itself is interesting, allowing devs to use HTML 5 or Javascript to develop games. Again, I will continue to explore how the whole Framework fits into current projects. Hopefully this provides Nintendo with the kind of devs it needs to experiment with their new console’s unique control opportunities. 


Overall, GDC 2013 proved an eye-opening experience that offered many new opportunities for small developers. It will be interesting to see how some of these new and upcoming frameworks do in the coming year. Will Microconsoles follow their success on crowdfunding sites with commercial success? Will Android-based devices and peripherals perform well? Will Nintendo attract indies with their new tools? What about Microsoft and their upcoming Xbox announcements? Will Windows Mobile rise as a mobile market? There are sure to be lots of exciting developments before GDC 2014. 

The little guy’s guide to GDC


For many, this coming week is going to be a busy one. Not only are there a number of significant religious holidays, but for us game developers it is also time for GDC, the Game Developer’s Conference. If you are coming into game development from being a fan, this may be an event you’ve heard of, but not paid much attention to in your yearly wait for E3 - not many things are revealed or announced at GDC. Indeed, the panels that often get the most coverage are post-mortems of popular games or the occasional soundbite from a famous designer. However, one soon learns that, for developers, GDC is possibly the most important event of the year.

So how should you engage in the GDC bacchanalia? What if you’re not there? What if you are there for the first time? What if you’re one of the lucky few who got a volunteer position? This post will explore some tactics you can use to get the most out of GDC 2013. 

GDC for those at home

Let’s face it: GDC is expensive, and airfare isn’t getting any cheaper. Many developers cannot make it, and that’s okay. There are options for you to still get the most out of GDC. 

Live on Gamasutra

I’ve previously extolled the virtues of Gamasutra as a communication hub for small developers. While many sites - IGN, Kotaku, Polygon, and the like - you will want developer-focused coverage of the event. Gama’s staff are there to get as much information as they can from as many talks as they can attend. If you do not already have it set up as such, Gama should be one of your homepages for GDC week. Try to check in every few hours or so to see what new stories have been posted. 

If you have a blog on the site, this may be a good time to post, as there will surely be a lot of foot traffic from folks like you who could not attend in person. You can both send and receive a surprising amount of information using this website during GDC. 

In Vault we trust

Fun fact: GDC’s organizers film every talk…IT’S TRUE! These videos are posted on a wondiferous website called the GDC Vault. The downside of this site is that a subscription to the member content is $495 a year. For those who cannot afford the fee, there is a plethora of free content available dating as far back as GDC 1996. If you are on the fence about the price of the site, remember that it covers over 15 years of GDC events - San Francisco, China, Europe, and Online - for that fee. Not a bad deal…


Chris Crawford’s Dragon Speech - not in the vault but still wonderful. 

Apply for updates on the GDC website

If you cannot make the conference yourself, it is possible to still get information directly from the event. GDC itself has a newsletter you can subscribe to, detailing upcoming events and other information. These e-mails also contain interviews with developers and other information for you to extend your GDC experience throughout the year. You can even learn about opportunities to have your GDC tickets for next year paid for by being part of the CA program (scroll down for CA info.)

Attending GDC for n00bs

So you’ve made it to the big show in San Francisco - congratulations! Now what do you do? Depending on your badge type, you have access to a certain selection of events ranging from full access and summit passes to student admission to the career fair. So how do you get the most out of your first GDC? Here are a few guidelines to follow. 

Remember why you are there

Nintendo and other big publishers have booths in the GDC Expo hall for people to check out their new products. While it can be tempting to hang around in these areas trying the new games, remember why you are attending GDC and not PAX, E3, or other events: to meet and network with other developers. While it is great to check out new games, also take some time to meet and mingle with those around you or look at new the new dev tools on display. These interactions are much more important than trying new games. 


Another application of this tip is how you react to other developers. For many, meeting their heroes for the first time elicits a few fanboy reactions. This is normal. However, it is important to remember that GDC is a place for developers to meet one another on a more even playing field than other events, so don’t be intimidated by exchanging information with others. Maybe you’ve made a few games. Maybe they did well. Maybe they didn’t.

Maybe you didn’t realize that everyone had experiences like this. 

Once you realize that you’re a person with a cool, creative job there to meet other people with cool, creative jobs, the intimidation factor lessens somewhat. 

Business cards are your primary weapon…

Hopefully, you came packing about 1000 business cards, because you are going to use them. Okay, 1000 may be an overstatement, but it doesn’t hurt to have between 300 and 500 business cards on hand for GDC. My first year, I was at the end of an order and had only 25 left in my box. I was done by Tuesday (I made it to Tuesday because I was being conservative.) Give business cards to everyone you meet. Give business cards to those you realize are in San Francisco for GDC while you are not at GDC itself. Give business cards to people from GDC that you meet while you are being randomly selected by airport security for a search (totally didn’t happen to me.) 

…but you have secondary weapons as well

Alright Business Card Ninja, you’re loaded to the gills. Now what?

How about a pen?

There are many things you can do with business cards to make them more effective and even have them help you facilitate visits to your website (which I will cover in a future post.) However, one of the biggest things you can add to your business card exchanging experience is bringing a pen. Why? Because this allows you to write down facts about how you met people on the backs of their business cards. At the end of GDC, you are bound to have hundreds of cards. While you will remember a few people, there are bound to be some Monday or Tuesday interactions that escape your memory. No one likes getting a “It was great meeting you, we should keep in touch” form e-mail (though you’ll send out a million in your career), so try to write notes about each meeting to make post-GDC correspondance more effective. 

Eat, sleep, take care of yourself

Remember when I called GDC a bacchanalia earlier in the post? Well, there are also parties in the evenings during GDC put on by a variety of companies - true story! While it’s tempting to go get your crunk on with your favorite game developers, remember that GDC lasts a whole week, and that each day is full of activities. Party lightly, pace yourself, and make sure you’re standing the next day: you want to look not-hung-over if you are there to network or even job search. 

Lost? Don’t worry…

The Moscone Center, the conference center where GDC is held, is HUGE: it has 2 buildings and can be a huge trek to get across. If you find yourself lost, turn to the friendly Conference Associates (CAs) for help. CAs are volunteers who spend their GDC directing people where they need to be, checking badges, and many other vital functions. They are there to make your GDC experience better so don’t be afraid to turn to them when you need help. 

How do you know a CA when you see one? They are usually wearing a specially-colored version of the GDC shirt. They are also one of the first people you see when you walk into the doors of the conference, as they are handing out maps and other handy things. 

Speaking of CAs…

Attending GDC as a CA

Being a CA is a great way for small developers, students, and anyone who wants to to attend GDC. Typically, applications for CA positions open a few months before GDC. Applicants need to submit information about themselves and an essay on why they would like to be a CA. If you know previous CAs, you can also get recommendations from them. 

If you were selected, first of all: CONGRATULATIONS! Second of all, see you in a few hours. 

Attending as a CA has its own set of guidelines that you have and will see in the CA training materials. However, there are also some other steps you can take to maximize your GDC volunteer experience. 

Comfortable shoes

CA’s walk around more than most of the other people at GDC. Attendees typically go from session to session and get to do a lot of sitting. You, however, will do a lot of walking from building to building and job to job. As such, a pair of comfortable shoes are your best friends. I prefer a pair of running shoes, as they are made for long distances. By the end of the week, you will have no doubt put some mileage on them. 


"Look Jenny…I’m all ready for GDC…"

While you may be a sandal or flip flop type of person, or may even just be psyched by the warm San Francisco weather (I know I am), practical shoes are a must as a CA. You’ll be the last one standing on Friday. 

All that stuff about taking care of yourself

CAs come from all corners of the country to volunteer, meaning lots of great opportunities to network and find people to help with projects. However, they also brought their crazy mutant germs with them that are different from your crazy mutant germs. Taking care of yourself is of the utmost importance in this situation, as you’ll be spending lots of time around a lot of people. You’ll also be wearing your body out by constant activity. While you’ll probably lose some weight in the process (looking good CAs!) you’ll probably also wear yourself down a lot. Vitamin C sources like orange juice and Emergen-C are vital for the week of GDC, so put aside the Monster for now and take care of yourself. 

The same applies for partying. First, follow the rules governing CA behavior outside of GDC - seriously. Secondly, John Q. Attendee can sleep off a bad hangover - YOU CAN’T. You have morning meetings to attend so you better look sharp. If you’re running slowly because of your previous night out, you’ll also do a much worse job helping attendees find their way around the conference, and that’s no fun for anybody. 

Abundant networking opportunities

Now to the good stuff. As a CA, you have an instant “in” with many at the conference. Not only is the CA program itself a hotbed of people to meet, but you’ll be interacting with many of the attendees. While you should not take too long with networking interactions on the job, a quick exchange of business cards is often part of any GDC interaction. 

Likewise, the CA program is often a haven for small developers looking to get into interesting projects. If you have one, you should try to see if anyone’s interested in helping. Likewise, if you’re looking for a project, there are sure to be people with one they’d like help with. 

That should cover most situations you’ll encounter at/helping with/watching GDC. Following some of these tips, you’re sure to have a great conference, learn a lot, and make lots of new contacts along the way. 

The Internet as an Open-Source Creativity Engine


Today, we’re going to talk about the Internet: the small developer’s most important tool. The Internet is not only where an indie can find tools for their work such as Blender, Unity, GIMP, and other free software, but also holds other superpowers that are becoming increasingly apparent. Indeed, this is not your parents’ Internet. Where we once used it simply as a method for delivering faster communications with e-mail, instant messaging, and the like, it has evolved to become a powerful engine for content creation, delivery, and promotion.

YOU, not “they”, are in the driver’s seat now…

Let us consider the case of the Slender Man, the Internet horror character popularized by the Marble Hornets YouTube series and Mark Hadley’s 2012 game, Slender: The Eight Pages. The Slender Man first appeared as an entry into a 2009 “Paranormal Images” contest on the Something Awful (SA) forums. “Victor Surge”, the user who created the images, accompanied them with text describing how the tall, faceless figure in the images would stalk and capture children. The unsettling images and brief stories spawned other similar images utilizing the character. The character would evolve further through Marble Hornets, a YouTube film series, and through Slender: The Eight Pages, a horror video game created so the designer could learn the Unity game engine. 

It should be noted that the key figures in creating the Slender Man character, which has now evolved into a full multi-media project at the scale of Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire, are not professional creators or companies, but Internet users. The Slender Man content was delivered on social media and websites, however, not in movie theaters or retail stores. Yet, these projects are garnering the same positive attention that many traditional media gets: Roger Ebert as called Marble Hornetsremarkably well done.” Review sites such as Eurogamer and IGN likewise lauded Slender: The Eight Pages as “absolutely terrifying” and “pure horror.”

Works like the Slender Man multimedia project show that the Internet has returned power to independent creators.  (Click to Tweet)

In the BBC Radio program Digital Human, projects such as Slender Man and others are cited as indicators that human culture has passed what is called the “Gutenberg Parenthesis.” During this time period, encompassing the time since the printing press was invented, human communication focused greatly on print media rather than oral tradition. Digital media, it is argued, delivers written word information in ways much more closely resembling older oral traditions. In the case of Slender Man, the project was created in a very open source fashion: multiple creators contributed to a mythology by following self-imposed rules on adding content while respecting established tropes.

To take it a step further, increasing accessibility to tools such as cheap recording devices, production software likewise allow creators to spread their work on this viral creative network. The recent boom of indie game development further alludes to the closing of the Gutenberg Parenthesis, as it is no longer only the big guys with printing presses (in this case expensive development infrastructures) that can put out work.  

The Internet is your most powerful tool

For the independent creator, the Internet offers a plethora of opportunities for creativity, delivery, and promotion. Again, access to free tools and development environments greatly increases the number of people who can develop high-end creative projects. Tools such as Blender or Unity, free analogues of other software packages that can cost thousands of dollars, break down barriers in the ability to produce. Likewise, a variety of internet-based markets such as the App Store, Google Play, the Amazon App Store, Steam, and even personal websites allow creators to choose their method of delivery rather than giving power to retailers. Two games launched on personal sites: Slender: The Eight Pages and Minecraft have done remarkably well: Slender’s download links have crashed from the number of people trying to get the game. Minecraft officially launched at its own convention attended by several thousands of fans that had played the beta.

Lastly, the Internet offers great opportunities for idea exchange and promotion. The most obvious delivery method for information about projects is social media such as Twitter, Google +, Facebook, and others. These allow you to send mass messages to followers that can likewise evangelize your projects. Some creative projects, like Marble Hornets, even use social media’s format in their drama: the antagonist of the series sends YouTube responses to the hero. Likewise, blogging is a powerful tool many creators overlook. While blogging can be a creative work in its own right, it offers a bully pulpit for creators to get their ideas out in a quick and accessible fashion. I myself used the free blogs at Gamasutra as a gateway into the game industry – utilizing them as a forum for idea exchange and networking. Indeed, the Internet is a new global salon, social gatherings popular in the 17th and 18th centuries for intellectuals to exchange ideas, where the only stopping you from having a meaningful conversation with industry leaders is the willingness to hit “Send.”  

"Hello World" and other first post cliches


Welcome to my blog. Seeing as how this is the first post, I should tell you all a little about myself, why I’m writing this, and what this blog is about. My name is Chris Totten. I am a mobile game developer and an Assistant Professor at George Mason University, where I teach mobile game design, game design history, and lots of other game design-related stuff. I’ve been a writer in the industry for several years: with features such as this one on Gamasutra, a book on making 3D game characters, and a short stint at VideoGameWriters.com. I have also spoken at conferences like GDC China and East Coast Game Conference

This blog wants you to make games.

This is a blog about game development as a small developer. It is also a blog about how difficult game development can be. However, this is not a blog that will make negative statements about the big industry or whine about how hard making a game is. Instead, this blog will explore how one can make games on their own. Today. Cheaply. Though it will not teach readers lessons in software or coding (there are many other great blogs that already do that), it will strive to direct users to interesting resources.

As it is now, the game industry is a house with a well-guarded front door but all the windows open.

You may be a person who is a game developer or even a fan who has thought about making their own games. I myself got into the industry not long after leaving grad school. Armed with a Masters in Architecture at a time when no one was building anything, I got a job teaching game art software and built a body of work through blogging and making a few small games. While game development is certainly not easy, it is also an open frontier for anyone who wants to travel it. 

Tools, techniques, and tech await…

Perhaps more than any other time in the industry’s history, individuals are capable of creating their own game content and releasing it to the public. This is thanks to a massive rise in books and schools on game development within the last 10 years. It is also due to an expanding collection of cheap and free programming languages, art tools, and development environments. As I am a person who likes to learn as much as I can about these resources and share them with my students and colleagues, I will also document my adventures in game development here.

Won’t you join me as we walk this road of indie game design? You can join the conversation by subscribing to this blog, sharing, or leaving a comment.