September 28, 2011

Brainstorming the Witch

I've begun pondering my new game! Farmageddon is in a bit of a holding pattern as I wait and see if anyone wants to publish it. Frontier Scoundrels is finally, finally entering a playtest phase. I know that the game is far from complete and will probably still require an overhaul or two, but the time between playtests can be long and I hate sitting idly. This means I have the time and bandwidth to think about what I want to create next.

I've been watching a lot of Law and Order at night before bed, plus Beth and I tend to watch CSI: Miami on Sunday nights. Crime dramas are fun and I started thinking about the fun of being a detective. I love being the good guy and many of my favorite games are ones that let me feel clever. Unfortunately, the detective genre is jam packed for pretty much every form of entertainment. Every other show on television is a crime drama. LA Noire recently came out. Everyone's talking about Elder Sign. I want to do something unique, so instead of modern crime I shifted my thinking to an alternate setting.

September 25, 2011

An Interesting Year

In the fall of 2010 I decided to leave my solid career of 5 years and take my chances in the realm of start ups. People leave their jobs for several excellent reasons: more money, better location/commute, opportunity, frustration with their existing job, or just because. Personally, I dabbled in a few of these.

I wanted to work in San Francisco, my home, to shave 2 hours of driving out of my daily routine. I wanted to be a designer; after years as a producer doing design work, assisting design, and doing design work on the side at home, I wanted this to be my title and primary task. I wanted to work on mobile games. I love PC games, but I saw (and still see) mobile as one of the bright futures of gaming. It's a barely explored frontier with huge potential for growth and innovation. People scoff at the simplicity of mobile games, but I fully embrace the potential of a miniature computer in the pockets of millions of people with a minute to spare. I also wanted to be a part of something new. I loved the idea that on the off chance that we succeeded, I could point back in years and say "yeah, that was me!"

I took the jump and joined a friend/colleague at a new company with heaps of potential. The company was founded by industry vets with ridiculous resumes, was well-funded, had already released a few solid titles, and employed a few dozen brilliant developers. Unfortunately, things didn't work out for a wide variety of reasons. After 6 months I gave notice and left.

At this point I was in an interesting position. I explored a handful of options and unfortunately not all of them panned out. In one instance my contact was pulled into some last minute, multi-week long meetings and disappeared. I thought he had lost interest when in reality, he just wasn't on email. In other cases it was a matter of timing. Another problem is that I do NOT handle uncertainty well. I have plenty of savings and I didn't actually need a job as quickly as I accepted an offer, but the anxiety of unemployment was killing me and I was too quick to take one. I had two or three other solid avenues I should have investigated and I didn't do so. Finding a job is a big deal and it is not something you should do with haste if you can afford a slower pace. This was a mistake. Friends of mine suggested I join them at their company. I had an uneasy feeling but, hey, it couldn't be that bad, right?

After a few days I knew I didn't want to work there and I set my current plans in motion. After a few months I gave notice and left yet another job. Needless to say, it was an interesting year. I see no value in naming names or being a jerk, but I do see value in listing some things I learned. If for nothing else, it's good to get these things off my mind so I can move on with my career and life.

  1. Past team leadership and experience doesn't always transfer well to corporate leadership. Running a team of developers is one thing. Steering a company is a different beast. When looking for a company, do your homework and make sure the people up top are setting up the company for success.
  2. Politics will exist at every company. I've now worked at companies of thousands, dozens, and hundreds, and all of them featured politics. Learn quickly how to communicate so that you can navigate these treacherous waters. In some cases you cannot fix the problem, so learn to deal with it so you can remain happy (if possible) and productive.
  3. Dig deep and ask about process in your interview. Ask tough questions. Too much and too little process can absolutely kill a company. Furthermore, process defines the parameters by which you will be doing your job each and every day.
  4. Dig deep and ask who makes decisions and how the decisions are made. Companies with too many decision makers, the wrong decision makers, or arbitrary stakeholders should send a red flag straight to the top of your metaphorical flag pole.
  5. Examine the back catalog. You need to be inspired and interested in what they have done as a company. If this requirement isn't met, move on. It all depends on your amount of faith. For me, I'm more interested in what a company has done than what they claim they will do. If the company is really new and doesn't have a record yet, you need to really like what their road map contains.
  6. If you get a bad feeling in the interview, ask the questions you need to ask to set your mind at ease. And if you can't ask that question or get the answer, move on.
  7. If you want more money, counter-offer. Negotiate. I did this once with mixed success. The worst they can say is no. Fortunately, I've always been fairly comfortable with my salary and I don't really like pushing too hard here. But, that's the thing. If you want more money and getting it will make you happier and more effective, then ask.
  8. The most important thing is enjoying the people you will work with every day. You need to leave your interview knowing that a.) you will enjoy getting lunch and coffee with the team and b.) you can rely on them to do their part.
Interestingly enough, at the end of this long odyssey I'm back where I started...somewhat. I have a new role on a new team that has a creative and business focus that thrills me. I'm surrounded by people with whom I work incredibly well. I understand the strengths and weaknesses of my peers and the company. Best of all, everything I've learned this year, both good and bad, can now be put to use. 

I have plenty of regrets, but I do not regret the decision to leave. People always simplify the entire leave vs. stay decision as "is the grass greener?" and I think that's understating the issue. I think in some cases the grass is greener, but by and large I think it's more that the grass is different. Every organization has its strengths and weaknesses and it's important for you to find one that maximizes that which is most important to you. Having had this experience now, I know better understand what's important to me. I'm better at my job, happier, and I can slowly impact the changes I wish to see on my team. 

As miserable as they can be at times, interesting times are what make us interesting and valuable employees and, someday, fantastic leaders.

September 8, 2011

Frontier Scoundrels: Second Playtest Results

I got tired of waiting for friends to have a chance to playtest Frontier Scoundrels (people are busy!), so I played a four player game against...myself. It seems silly, but it was an incredibly useful act and I made some good changes because of it.

Here are a few things I learned about the game...

I really enjoy the Explorer bonuses (i.e. which dice you roll) combined with the Command cards. Command cards are assignments dealt by the current Expedition Leader. Players with Command cards roll dice to try to win a Hardship. However, each Command card conveys different bonuses and abilities. For the Expedition Leader, assigning them is a great choice that is fun but not too heavy. You have to quickly scan to see what the challenge is, who is participating, how many points everybody has, which dice they can bring, how the bonuses will change this, and then think about who can do the most damage with the bonus contained on a card.

The challenge is that you must give out Command cards, but which ones and to whom? You must involve the others! The other great part is that sometimes you get Command cards that are basically duds, which restricts your choices even further.

I was really pleased with this mechanic.

It was difficult to test the Frontier Scoundrel cards by myself. Each player has a set of them and different cards can be played at different times. Some are offensive, others defensive, and some can be used in both ways. What I did learn, however, is that three of the nine cards I had were worthless and never seemed useful. I cut these three and swapped them out for two new cards: one allows a player to wager against the current hardship (which is especially great if you aren't participating in the current turn) and the other allows a player to counter another Frontier Scoundrel card.

The cards I did use were useful and entertaining.

I really enjoyed the two different dice mechanics the game currently employs. I fiddled with the tuning on some of the cards, but I thought the current weight and probability of the dice felt pretty good. Two of the Eight Hardships tried were failed. Another two were almost failed, but a good roll and some well-placed Frontier Scoundrel cards fixed things. Perfect! Well, I may actually want 3 of 8 to be failed, but we can see how that goes. Dice will be dice...
The current mock up for Hardship cards...
I'm currently worried the punishments for failure won't affect the game enough. I added a -1 Point penalty for Expedition Leaders when Hardships are failed to make them sting just a little bit more. I did this for another reason as well, however. I noticed that later in the game players didn't have enough options by which to gain the lead. I think this -1 point loss will give players another way to hurt the leader in hopes of taking the lead themselves.

I tweaked a lot of the numbers pertaining to most Hardships, re-wrote a few of the punishments, and tweaked some of the tuning on Frontier Scoundrel cards. The score was fairly tight, which I enjoyed. I really like the current bonus mechanic and how it's an advanced strategy to try to figure out who will get the bonus to stop them from getting it.

A bit surprisingly, I found out that not one, but two other designers are working on exploration games. One is even working on a Lewis and Clark themed game (dammit) titled Corps of Discovery, which was the first name for Frontier Scoundrels. And there I was thinking Lewis and Clark was a fairly safe bet for a unique theme...

Farmageddon Next

The Farmageddon that's published now on The Game Crafter is the one that will remain. I set out to create a game that was accessible, quick to play, and fun for casual gamers, or more hardcore gamers who need a filler game in between the meaty Euro titles. I've had a few great reviews from users on The Game Crafter and ones like this one from Father Geek have started to come in. I feel like some of the goals have been validated by customers, which is the best kind of validation.

But, a lot of these same folks are asking for more. A little more depth and a little more meat to push this past a casual game and into something with more heft. Well, I've been listening and taking notes. I've received feedback from Father Geek, Board Game Reviews by Josh, Dice Hate Me Games, and dozens of my players. Plus, I've thought about what I myself want to see.

September 7, 2011

My Thoughts on Bastion

Bastion is a recently released, critically praised Action RPG for Xbox Live Arcade and Steam from new developer Supergiant Games. I just finished the Xbox version and I wanted to note my thoughts. Overall I'm pleased with the game and glad I made the purchase and put in the time to finish it. However, I definitely have some complaints about the game. Despite what my Twitter feed indicates, I didn't find it to be the second coming.

September 6, 2011

Questing Solo

This recent birthday of mine was the first in a long time where I actually asked for something. The result, was that I received several bright and shiny new board games from Amazon. I'll try to write about them all in due time, but today I want to focus on The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game by Fantasy Flight.

This is a cooperative game that can be played solo or with one other. Or, if you have a friend who has a core set, you can play with up to four players. I've played three games so far by myself and all tend to last right at or under 45 minutes.

I've only played 2 of the 3 scenarios that come with the core set, and none of them with another player, but I feel I have sufficient grasp of the mechanics to take a stab at it.

September 5, 2011

Testing, Testing

I've been troubled for a bit about the art for my newest game, Frontier Scoundrels. I'm not an artist and I cannot afford to pay an artist again. I went all out for Farmageddon's visuals and I feel I got more than my money's worth. But, that's expensive and until I get published or find someone willing to work for free, I need another solution.

Immediately, the choices aren't great. I can draw, which is a horrible idea. Or, I can use public domain images. After all, many folks do this and I'm making a game about history. But, I feel if I'm going to sell this game for any amount of money, I need to give people something somewhat special, even if it's not a Fantasy Flight caliber production.

One option...
I had an idea based on claymation and simple art projects, like dioramas, from elementary school. I thought I could use simple shapes that I could draw, easily identifiable scenes, and put it together in a way that's unique and charming. Here's what I did:

Step 1
I sketched it. If I could draw something somewhat decent, that was progress. I chose the Hardship card called "The Fort Clatsop Decision?" I thought a snowed in log cabin would be good. I played around with shading certain portions and keeping it simple. I was actually pretty happy.

Step 2
I drew it on my sketch book. Plain white background. I picked a handful of colors (light blue, black, brown, white, yellow, and green) from my heap of construction paper, then cut out the shapes. I placed them in the proper layering order (like in photoshop) and glued them.

I then went back and added subtle accents. Tiny black slivers to separate the logs. Blue to accent the snow. Yellow to accent the tree.

Step 3
I scanned it onto my computer. I cleaned up some of the rough spots.  I then minimized it and put it onto the card.

So, what do you think?