Fight – Collect – Upgrade

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UI Overhauling

We faced some interesting choices the other day with our UI. Initially, we had planned our game to be primarily for the tablet, but wanted it to run on phones just as well. For most sections of our game, this was no issue, however when it came to UI it became apparent things would not be as simple.

The UI we had originally designed was compact, focusing on making it fit and work well on a smartphone, because we knew if it would work well there it would easily scale up to a tablet. This led to various issues with buttons and UI placement, and it came down to completely scrapping our UI and starting from scratch – we had nothing.


Another issue we had was that because we were working with such a small screen size on the phones, it was very easy to accidentally click our buttons and the player would do things they didn’t want, so we had to add a bunch of confirm menus to try and remedy the situation. The result was not pretty.Image

For our new system we started from the ground up trying to get rid of buttons as much as possible and made sense. On a touchscreen device, buttons are somewhat counter intuitive – we knew we wanted to avoid them wherever possible. The question came down to figuring out controls and giving players the same range of options without mapping everything to obscure gestures that would be difficult to remember. Starting at the menu bar at the top, we moved it to the right side of the screen, made it smaller, and combined it with one of our other menus. In fact, we combined several of our menus and actions to work simultaneously. The less unique actions the player has to do, the less interface is needed.


On the left is an example of how we were able to combine the Mammal’s rock pushing special ability (which used to require a special button press to activate,) with our new movement scheme. Now moving rocks is just a part of player movement. On the right we see how our insects will be able to burrow under a rock now, using the same movement scheme.


This is a basic overview of how our new game screen will look. Almost no buttons (end turn in the upper right being an exception), and a much cleaner feel that will go along with the art style of our game much better anyway. Bringing up menus (from the top and the left) can be done with finger swipes, which is an intuitive action tablet users are already familiar with.

It can be a lot of work, but sometimes there is nothing for it but to start from the ground up and redesign some aspect of your game. Our old UI would have been functional, but players would have quickly gotten tired of how over protective the system was of their mistakes. The infamous “Are you sure you want to quit” prompt comes to mind, and I can say that in my life, I have only been grateful for that message a handful of times. Every other time I’ve wished it never existed. It really comes down to figuring out the potential consequence of the player doing an action they didn’t intend, how likely they are to make that mistake, and how “expensive” the cost would be to prevent them from doing it at all. For us, the cost was too great and our new system will give players a much more fluid play experience.


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Of presentations, greenlighting, and believing in yourself (Part 2)

(Sorry for the extra long wait! Expect the unexpected when it comes to fixing someone else’s code. )

The list was released. The games that would go to greenlight pitches. And mine. Wasn’t. On there. A frantic post. Moving quickly through denial – I must have read that wrong, anger – mine is better than some of these!, and then right through to acceptance…I’d find another game to be excited about. That thought was interrupted by a frantic ping from another teacher: “hold on, I think the list is wrong!”.  Refreshrefreshrefresh -remember to blink – refreshrefresh…and there it was. Biogenesis, tacked onto the top of the list. And an apology from the professor.

Relief was quickly replaced with a second dose of panic. I am an exceptionally bad public speaker. And suddenly, I had less than a week to prepare to speak in front of a panel of judges from the industry. Acquiring a team was easy enough. People could join multiples, putting off the final decision until Greenlighting was complete. Old friends rejoined and I absorbed a similar project, “Monster Battle”, when it did not garner a large enough team to go forward. I would have to convince the judges that this hodge-podge of people I barely knew were able to pull of the game I was presenting.

A few days later, the tentative team was crowded around my living room. The meeting dragged on for hours as we went back and forth over what angle to take while presenting the game and smoothing over all the gaps we left. When you get so close to a game and understand it through and through, it can be hard to take a step back and explain it to others. The presentation was limited to five minutes. A mere five minutes to pack in as much information as we could about the game, as well as arguing why we think it’s awesome enough to get greenlit. And while I could have chosen to do it on my own, I recruited help instead. Two new members, Jake and Robert, proved to be good public speakers. I knew that the longer I was on stage the more my nervousness would show, so having two co-speakers was key in pulling off a strong presentation.

We practiced right up until the last minute. I walked into the auditorium feeling surprisingly confident. While I hadn’t been confident in myself, the confidence of my team members was contagious. They believed in my game, and by extension, in my ability. So rarely have I had so many people rooting for me. It was still hard to keep collected during the wait until our presentation. We were third in line, but every minute that passed I could feel myself slipping as I compared our presentation plan to those that went before us. But practice does make perfect. As I stepped up onto the stage repeating my lines silently, I could feel the confidence returning. I knew what I was doing. I did. The presentation was over before I knew it, but unlike normal, I couldn’t flee the stage immediately.


You can just barely see me over in the corner. Who did they think the team leader is!?

The judges were given 5 minutes to question us. I can hardly remember most of the questions now. Little things we still missed in the presentation, questions about tools and release platform – then the killer.

“How do you intend to balance this game?”


One of the most important questions in a game like this, and I had completely neglected it. It had seemed so obvious to myself, if only I could articulate it. I stumbled through “the mutation factor on the creatures means that players are discouraged from creating super strong creatures either too fast or too early in the game…” This was one of those moments I would repeat in my head for days, cringing at how poorly I felt like I had handled it. Much later I would find out that this question was posed by the creator of Impossible Creatures, one of the games that we had been pointed to as having similar gameplay.

People say that the more you act confident,  the more you will feel confident, and that was certainly true for me. First I had to act – to pull the team together, to convince the judges, to make it through the presentation, and now I actually feel it. I still have my moments of self-doubt. Yet, the vast majority of the time I feel fine. I was quickly labeled “fearless leader” and it stuck. I might worry about the next deadline or some code I’ve been struggling with, but I actually feel comfortable with my ability to lead a team. All along, I had possessed many of the traits I needed. A strong voice (training a puppy will teach you that real quick), a knack for organization, and enthusiasm have helped me handle what previously seemed like an insurmountable task.

It feels wrong to conclude this post when Biogenesis is nowhere close to done.  Even though that first quarter was agonizingly slow, the past 7 weeks of development have flown by. So stay tuned, folks – this only chronicles a small part of our game development saga.


Of presentations, greenlighting, and believing in yourself (Part 1)

The approval process in the senior design class is extremely thorough. Each student was given an opportunity to pitch two game ideas to the class. After recruiting at least two other students, they could develop that idea into a prototype. With a class of 100-some, we ended up with about 200 ideas, and 50 prototypes. These were then weeded out again, requiring teams of four or larger for an iteration on any game that had been previously prototyped. From this remaining group, the teachers and TAs selected the most promising games to go on to Greenlight presentations. Games who enter pre-greenlight status go up in front of a judge panel composed of industry professionals as well as the school’s game design faculty.

Needless to say, the odd were against me. I didn’t think Biogenesis would make it through the gauntlet, but here we are. What’s the deal?

When you’re in class with people who have been taking classes together for 4 years, cliques form. People want to work with their friends. My close friends were all invested in their own ideas, so I had no sure bets left. When presentations were done, it was immediately time to recruit. I felt like a peddler of wares, shouting “Games here! Come this cool new game here!” I was lost in a sea of heads. By the time I had begun, circles were forming. Locking me out. I rushed to and fro, looking for someone, anyhow who didn’t seem locked into a conversation with their new partners. Far from the heart of the crowd, I came across an acquaintance of mine, Victor, and someone he was talking to – Sandra! Both of them had been unable to pitch their own game ideas because the class ran over time. And just like that, I had picked up two stragglers and we were on our way.

The prototype was created (see this post), critiqued, and then left in the dust. The next round of pitches and prototyping was at hand and we were unable to continue group work on Biogenesis during that time. However, the downtime wasn’t without purpose.  That week off was put to good use revising rules and brainstorming new ideas. This meant that when the third prototypes rolled around, I was ready. Or so I thought. As much as I believed in my own game, I struggled to convey that to others. Instead of an audience in front of the class, we had to recruit using the class’s web forum. I fretted for what felt like days and days, refreshing the post, asking friend-of-friends-of-friends if they still needed a team. I joined a secondary team (R.I.P. P.U.B.), growing more and more aware that I had more than a healthy amount of competition. In the end Sandra rejoined me, followed by a stranger, and my friends Mark and Ajay, who despite their uncertainty were willing to put their names down if it meant Biogenesis got to move forward.

The second iteration of Biogenesis was to be a computational prototype. Given a very short time to develop it, we chose C#/XNA. With a hefty team size of five, we thought we could manage. Rifts formed quickly. Revising someone’s code caused a spat. Assigned tasks were untouched for days. Eventually it was just myself and Sandra coding day and night, with backup from Ajay. I worked with a ferocity I had forgotten I was capable of. This was no homework assignment. This was my future for the next 6 months. I had to impress! If this game, if this brain child of mine, were to make it through – I had to make it so. First, I had to dust off my C# skills. Unpracticed for two years. When I finally hit my stride, the days began to blur together. I’m happy to say that when all was said and done, the current iteration of the game was complete. It was starting to look like something I could be proud of.

Work, followed by waiting, followed by more work, and then more waiting. So there I was again. Waiting. The TAs and professor had seen the results of our hard work. Would I make the cut? Did I want to make the cut? I was torn between two strong feelings: That I wanted to make a game, and the crippling fear that I would fail at it. If I couldn’t believe in myself, how would I be able to make people believe in my game, or myself as a leader? Never in my life have I considered myself a leader type. I was never charismatic enough, never loud enough to make it work. I struggle with public speaking and have a knack for avoiding socializing. This fear of mine was made even stronger by the fact that I had worked closely with two team leaders from the previous senior class. I saw how they acted, and I learned a few “what not to dos”, but “what to do”? How does a person command authority while being likable? It seemed so implicit, so natural to them, that I couldn’t parse how I could do it myself.

The ping of a new email alerted me to the results I had been waiting for. Then came the shortest panic attack of my life.

(Part 2 will be posted tomorrow!)

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The Level Editor, as you start it up

I’m going to take some time here to write about a side project to the Biogenesis game I’ve been working on. It’s not the main game executable, but it’s just as important: the level editor.

Development of the level editor started very rapidly, and the initial version (barring features that weren’t available in the main game at the time, such as creature starting locations) was completed two sprints ahead of schedule. I decided that, in order to allow the entire team to work on levels if need be, the program was coded in Java using the Swing interface, which can be run on Windows, Mac, and Linux (we won’t have everyone working on levels, but I wanted to give everyone the ability to). The interface is very simple, as it just contains a display of the level being worked on, and a series of buttons and radio buttons to control what the user was placing in the level. After a design revamp, the normal buttons were replaced with radio buttons, and the extra dialog windows were eliminated, to make level development more seamless.

Already, the editor is being used to develop levels with more complexity than the test level, and offers the developers a visual representation of what they’re working on, rather than mucking through a long text file and changing it by hand. The work it took to bring the level editor into existence will be well worth it because of the time and effort that will be saved for the level developers when they’re actually using the editor.


A filled in level, complete with spawn points, rocks, genes, and variations in land types

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Design Inspirations

This is my first time working on game design for such a large project, and I have been constantly surprised at where I find inspiration and ideas coming from. If i had to try to fit Biogenesis into a genre that already exists, I’d say it most closely fits a tactics game, like Final Fantasy Tactics. For this reason I always assumed that any ideas I had for the game would probably come from tactics games or other similar games, and boy was I wrong. So far I have drawn ideas from many different sources, and I will go over some of those here.

For our turn taking mechanic, our original idea was to have each player move all of their creatures at once. We decided this would be a bad idea for various reasons, but we weren’t sure how to solve it. We started thinking and looking at how many other turn based games handle this – games like Heroes of Might and Magic, Pokemon, and even Dungeons and Dragons. None of those games are very close to ours, but they all shared the mechanic of passing turns between players and creatures, and were invaluable for us figuring out a system that will work in our game. In the end we have decided on a mixture of D&D and HoMM.

Another huge challenge we faced was our combat. At first we had a system where you simply stood next to an enemy, clicked on them, and you each took damage based off your respective Attack and Defense values. This seemed quite boring though, so we wanted a way to make the combat more interesting while still retaining the original feel of the game. We looked at how games like Pokemon, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Chrono Trigger had done their combat systems and took ideas from several of them to create our own system. Ultimately this led to us changing several stats, how they worked, and developing a completely new system of combat where each of the body parts of your creature has it’s own unique attack that changes when you apply more DNA to that area.

I have often thought that if you are working or planning on working on a given game, that you would want designers that have spent a lot of time playing games that are similar. If you wanted to build a RTS game, you should be familiar with Command and Conquer, Starcraft, Warcraft, etc. It is my dream to work on an MMO, but I love to play most any type of game. I am glad to have spent so much time playing many different games from many genres, because I can now see how games relate with each other better and will be able to bring my wide background of game playing into any future project I work on.

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Paper Prototypes

The first iteration of Biogenesis was done on paper. Because the game is turn-based, testing it as a board game gave us a good indicator of the game’s strengths and weaknesses. It also allowed us to change rules on the fly.


Dice represented rocks, poof balls represented genes.
Creatures sat on top of cards that matched them to their “gene pool” below the board.

One of the main things we fiddled with was the board size and setup. We tried both square and rectangular boards, starting teams at a different location each time. We found that starting teams on the short sides of a rectangular board led to a slow game with a quick and bloody finish once the teams finally met! Square boards were favored, followed by rectangles with team placement on the long side.

We also scattered genes and rocks over the board differently each game. It turns out that rock placement is very very important because it influences battle locations. Battles tended to happen close to rocks, as both reptiles, insects, and mammals all benefited from their presence.


The most time was spent adjusting and testing different stat balances. Nearly every game had slightly different stats for each creature. At the time the game contained only attack and speed, but the players favored speed over attack. This was especially true with birds, who soared over everything and quickly gathered genes. We struggled to find a way to nerf them while retaining their uniqueness. Similarly, the fish’s special ability (to move to any water tile on the board) became a tough balancing challenge.

Despite all the flaws found and critiques given, our players had one common opinion: they wanted more. The game was too simple and they were itching to try new strategies. Many of our mechanics came from players asking “can I do ___?”. Never underestimate the power of a good playtest session! You can design all day, but a new set of eyes are invaluable. Our playtesters were exceptionally good at spotting contradictions, ambiguities, and emergent strategies we hadn’t planned for.

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Congrats to Tiger Wox, Crocurtle, Swordfish, Rhinobeetle and Crow!

Earlier last month, we had an array of animals and an exciting vote of which would best represent the skill set of each class, and would just be great to have:


We also soon realized that animals such as centipedes didn’t quite work out, and came down to this final list:


The finalists for the first set of creatures were: Tiger Wox (tiger wolf-fox), Crocurtle (crocodile turtle), Swordfish, Rhinobeetle and Crow. We also plan to include unlockable creatures such as time whale and other surprises to come. In the meanwhile stay tuned for concept art of our winners!