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A turn-based ‘Begging at the Traffic Light’ game

miniBegging_screenshot

‘Begging at the Traffic Light’ is an idea I’ve been interested in for the last year and a half.  A real-time version of this game is in the works. What I’ve prepared here, however, is a minimal, turn-based version of this concept.

 

In this game, players control a  beggar who has to live in the streets. The goal is to survive for as long as possible.  The player has the following parameters: money, hunger and life. The player eats to maintain a hunger level above zero.  If the hunger level stays at zero for too long, the player will begin to lose life. The game ends when the life level reaches zero. Players can do one of four things in the game to maintain their health levels:  Resting on a small grassy area, Foraging for leftovers in the nearby dumpster, Begging in the traffic light when the cars are stopped, and Buying food and snacks from the restaurant. Players have to account for closing hours in the restaurant, the unpredictability of foraging in a dumpster, and the mood of the drivers(some will not want to give you money).

I took inspiration from the character parameters and roguelike designs of Tokyo Jungle and adapted it to the same urban setting, but with a non-violent homeless beggar.  Exploration of the design for this concept is ongoing.

 

Software used: Unity3D, C#, Photoshop, bfxr(sound generation), Audacity

Game Design as Cultural Practice course- Game 1

The premise is ‘Simple Interaction Game’, with one button interactions.

Click the screenshot to play.

GameProject1

I was inspired to make this after watching a peculiar youtube video.

One day while looking for old computing resources ( old C programming books are really interesting to me, for some reason, as well as anything to do with 8-bit, 16-bit chip low-level explanations), I came across a video on Analog Computing. A German professor(Dr. Bernd Ulmann) lectures for more than one hour about the importance of Analog Computing throughout history. In the lecture he also makes a strong case for why Analog Computing is important today, for students and researchers.

Looking at his website and lecture, it was evident that the professor was (and still is) passionate about this topic.  It was his passion and his persuasiveness that made me interested in the topic as well. That’s the beauty of passion and delivery: if it is genuine, almost any topic becomes interesting to a listener.

So how does this relate to the game?  I want to explore games that have an old computer-like interface.  Before the CRT display became commonplace, most data from a computer came in the form of printouts or displays of numbers.  They were raw numbers that had to be interpreted in different ways.  Interpreting and composing meaningful streams of numbers were obligatory skills for the computer scientists of the time.

I want to explore games that make players develop these same skills: the ability to interpret an ever-changing stream of numbers, switches or toggles (these last two represented by booleans or simple states).  Not only are is art not an issue when creating these games, but a different way of experiencing an environment is revealed.  This way of experiencing a game environment may be more limited, but I have hopes it may lead to a more thoughtful game experience.  Let us, as game designers, give less to the player and expect more from them.

For this game, the player has to reach the end of a maze, only using the space bar to move forward and change walking direction.

 

 

Yakuza 4 Review

(Originally written as an assignment for the course Game Design as a Cultural Practice)

Image Source

Yakuza 4 is the 4th iteration of Sega’s long-running simulation games focusing on the Japanese underworld.

This crime underworld does not exist in a vacuum, so Sega’s designers have also modelled a fragment of Tokyo society, one of the nightlife and red-light districts.  How much they model and how accurately they model changes with each title.

This school of open world game modelling that Sega has championed begins with Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue, and this shows.  Shenmue is one of the pioneers in the modern day sandbox game.

Simulation games have to be selective in the information that they expose, and the amount of variables that the player can interact with.  Yakuza 4 seems to be especially linear in its approach.  Players play through several 4 main stories and sub-stories for each, which are not procedural.  Players have a certain freedom to engage with these stories, but each story is often strict in how it ends.

An exciting peek into an ancient underworld

Yakuza 4 is set in the Kamurocho district in Tokyo.  This district, meant to be a fictional representation of Tokyo’s Kabukicho district, is a city entertainment hub, the center of Tokyo’s ‘water trade’. This is a term that describes the night-time entertainment businesses: bars, nightclubs, host and hostess bars, and cabarets.

From left to right: Saejima, Kiryu, Akiyama and Tanimura. Image Source

The game offers 4 story lines, told through 4 different characters, that come together in the last part of the game.  Each of these characters have different roles in this world. Akiyama is a loan shark, owner of Sky Finance corporation; Saejima is a fugitive from the law with a mission; Tanimura is a police detective; and Kiryu is a gangster.

Scene from Yakuza 4: Ueno-Tojo Clan meeting. Image Source

All of these characters interact with the crime world in this game.  Players learn about the story through conversation with city dwellers and expository cut scenes.  The world and the logic of the Yakuza is represented here quite faithfully:  the syndicates referenced are fictional, but the appearance and manners of the members, as well as the member hierarchy, concerns and ways of doing business of modern Japanese gangster associations are presented faithfully.

Walking, Item fetching,  Simulation-RPG and Fighting

The gameplay, as some tend to describe it, is a ‘walking simulator’:  characters walk through this crowded district, talk to NPC’s and collect items. Along the way they eat at various restaurants, shop at anything from convenience stores to high end clothing boutiques, drink at bars, play pool, gamble, play arcade games, visit the sauna, go fishing, practice at the batting cages,  and talk to NPC’s of various types.  Players can spend time at hostess bars, karaoke bars, cabarets, date hostesses and, in the case of Akiyama, recruit and train hostesses for his own hostess club.

Players also take part in ‘action’ segments.  There are chase segments, where players chase an NPC or try to flee from an NPC, and then there is the fighting. The fighting engine has been called ‘Virtua Fighter Lite’. Players use the four face buttons: the Square button for a standard attack, the Triangle button for a slow, powerful attack, the Circle button for grabbing enemies or weapons, and the X button to execute a quick step. The L1 button makes the player guard against enemy attacks.  Depending on the button pressed and positioning of the enemy, sometimes special attacks will be triggered that launch a brief cut-scene. The player can also pick up random items off the street: bicycles, steel pipes, clubs, knives, wooden signs and more can provide a temporary boost in attack power (these items break after some use). 

The story progresses through key fights between the player and various groups, be it the police, gangsters, or lesser criminals.  In addition, the player is constantly challenged to fights while exploring the city streets.  Beating all of these earns the player experience points and an item of some sort. Experience points increase player stats and allow the unlocking of various fighting moves.

A simulation game with personality

In this sense, it would be appropriate to describe the overall design as a game of progressive gameplay with emergent gameplay moments.

While some may argue that this approach favors the game stories over the realism of the simulation (to the detriment of the gameplay), when Yakuza 4 makes it work, the game is marvellous.  The simulation comprises realism for fun and story.

A large amount of elements are represented in the game that really drive the experience of living in the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife.  Busy crowds of trendy youth, office workers , petty criminals and elderly vagabonds roam the streets and parks.  Hawkers, promoters and scouts of all kinds try to attract customers to their stores.  Restaurants and convenience stores are full of authentic items that you can purchase and consume, even if the items are redundant: the end result of most items is to increase your health or HEAT gauge (this is an attack gauge).  The same goes for the clothing available in the game.

 

Image Source

Then there are the hostesses and hostess clubs.  Previously taken out of Yakuza 3’s American release, this very Japanese establishment returns.  Host and hostess clubs are places where adult men or women go to chat and share drinks and snacks with hosts of the opposite sex.  Patrons pay a lot of money for these activities.  Needless to say, the career of a host or hostess is competitive and short.  Patrons look for young, attractive hosts/hostesses, and the frequent drinking and smoking takes a toll on their health.  In order to keep customers returning to the bar, the host/hostess often goes out on dates with their customers.

Small talk with a hostess: choose the right dialogue choices and her affinity to you will increase. Image Source

All this is represented very well in Yakuza 4.  The rituals inside the hostess club are also presented accurately. Players can chat with random hostesses or request a specific one.  The hostess lights the player’s cigarette, orders food and drinks for the player, and shares banal conversation with you.  Topics range from pets, ex-boyfriends, hobbies, dreams, gossip, cell phone games and beyond.  Depending on the player’s responses, the hostess will like you more or less, as measured in a ‘heart bar’ in the top corner of the screen. Once the time is up, players pay an exorbitant fee (at least 20-50,000 yen ,approximately 500-200 dollars).  Once out of the club, the hostess sends a text message full of emoticons and punctuation, thanking the player and hoping for his soon return to the club.

The simulation falls short

While the gameplay modes, minigames, NPC’s and substories come together to create an interesting city experience, each of these elements lack a certain polish that undermines the whole game.

Overall, the simulation is inconsistent in its level of detail.  All simulations must do this, of course, but in the exploration segments, only a fraction of the buildings in Kamurocho can be entered.  This is a shame, as many locations are intricately decorated from the outside. It probably couldn’t be helped, as this district is way too big to be able to detail all of it.

Earlier reviews comment on how the game has been made much easier than previous Yakuza installments.  Others say Yakuza 4 is just part of a trend to make contemporary console games easier, often by hand-holding the player with the use of task lists for the player.  This is present in our game: clear maps denote points of interest, task lists clearly describe the next objective for the player, and if the player is left standing idle for long enough, the player mutters to himself what the next objective is, which appears in the dialogue box.

Following the suggestion of these online commenters and reviewers, I started playing the game in ‘hard’ difficulty.  This difficulty setting seems to mostly affect the action segments.

When players -are- given freedom to move between cutscenes, the main story is suspended, and the player to move around Kaburocho.  Day and night does not change in a cycle, it only changes according to what the story needs.  (Mind you, this is a review of the main gameplay mode, and not of the -free play mode- that is unlocked after beating the game once).  The city dwellers, the game’s NPC’s, are mostly not meant to be interacted with.  They look and act realistic enough when the player is just running past them.  The walking routines of most NPC’s are also very arbitrary: following a random NPC’s walk for more than 3 seconds and you will see NPC’s end up walking in circles or zigzagging.  The few NPC’s that can speak display one unique dialog tree, or just repeat the closing statement of their dialog tree once the dialogue or sub-story has been completed.

The fighting stages remain very easy, it hasn’t been until the 2nd character story arc begins that I’ve had true challenges in this department.  The game throws many enemies at the player, when the engine seems to be designed to fight, at the most, 4 enemies. Most player attacks target one enemy, and most annoying of all, groups of enemies stand back, while the player picks off 1 or 2 enemies at a time. Fighting in the Kumarocho streets is too easy, as the player is usually given a healing item after every encounter.

Enemies frequently hold back, as if waiting for the player to attack. Image Source

Minigames range from very complex( the pool game, casino games), but some games are too simple to engage long-term.  For instance, the local arcade allows you to play Boxcelios, a ‘shoot-them-up’ style game. It has great graphics, but gameplay consists of a player ship shooting at a single enemy blob over various stages.  It would have been great to play a more complex game, even it had simpler graphics.  It should be noted that the upcoming Yakuza 5 includes Virtua Fighter 2 as a playable game in the city arcades, which is great, deep game.

Conclusion: a flawed, but interesting product.

Yakuza 4 is a nuanced ‘city-exploration’ game, allowing players to explore a small area with many gameplay options.  It provides depth in exchange for the breadth of bigger games like GTA V.  Not all of the game modes are as fully fleshed-out as you’d like, but the sum of its quirky parts make for an unforgettable experience.  Yakuza 4 shows a side of Japan that may be quirky or uncomfortable, but help to understand how Japan and the Japanese mind function.  It allows us to explore the dynamics of the city, by having players move and interact in it.  This reviewer would love to be able to play as a local in other cities.  How about a game set in downtown Tehran, or a district in Nairobi, or Old San Juan?  Those of you curious to explore big cities, interested in Japan or the Japanese underworld should play this game.

Looking at the Korean Air ‘Nut Rage’ incident with an unfinished newsgame.

By the time many of you read this, this incident will be old news.  But like many other Asia observers, I was surprised by this incident and its aftermath.  For those that don’t know, here is some background.

I was surprised to hear that a game had been released about the incident.  Since I’m always looking for games based on real-world issues (also called Newsgames), I became interested in trying out this game.

Alas, this is barely a game, because it’s very incomplete.  Interactions are sparse, and the experience is quite short. I have taken screenshots of the game and translated them.  As you can see, there are 3 choice points in the game, and the last one appears to be impossible to decipher. The game is playable here.

Let’s see the English translation of the screenshots.  I have marked what option yields which message on the screen:

 

 

Next, we have the original screenshots for the game in Korean:

 

 

There you have it, this is not much of a game.  Still, the concept is intriguing and it would be interesting to see a videogame recreation of the events.

 

 

 

 

Game Impressions: Tokyo Jungle

A few years ago, I realized games had left me behind.  The achievements, the head shots, the vacuous stares of legions of bald headed space marines and thousands of faux-anime styled super deformed social game avatars had catalyzed my decision to just freaking move on.

I preferred to stick with my memories of games, and forge ahead and live life itself as a game. As a grindfest of an RPG. I threw myself into the language learning. I remember buying a convenience store novel and reading it, just understanding around 10 % of it.  Just part of grinding, I would say.

And then one day, suddenly, I went to peek at what games had been up to for those years of gameless living.  And I thought that iOS devices where The Future of All That Was Good And Original about Games.

This very idealist notion eventually gave way to a more realistic view of What is Good in Games and What is The Ideal Platform (an answer to the latter: they are all good for their own reasons, though for most of my life I have been into ‘twitch’ gameplay).  My actual pause in mobile gaming will be brought up in another post.

3 years pass and I just buy a PS3.  Less than 3 months before the PS4 comes out.  I wasn’t sure what to expect  from a 6 year old machine.  I knew I craved to Hold That Controller; wrestle with Those Buttons, so infinitely responsive after trying to play Street Fighter with virtual ones.

I was afraid, sure. Afraid that this impulse buy would provide me with nothing but tired franchises in tired genres.  But intrigued I was: for years I had read and listened to (thank you podcasts) tales of rare gems , retro or otherwise, that could be downloaded and experienced through the joy of PSN or Xbox Live.  I knew there were alternatives.  And if all else failed, I had that discount copy of Virtua Fighter 5 to play with for a bit.

And it was while surfing through anonymous game recommendations that I heard of Tokyo Jungle.  Why not, I thought.  I like Asia.  I like Tokyo.  And that game concept sounds just zany.

Tokyo Jungle was to me, in 2013, the face of PS3 gaming.  It is the best calling card that a game console could have.  Addictive , endlessly replayable and paradigm-shifting.  It is the most played game in my console.  It is deep, like a lake, dark and funny.

I praise it for letting me experience the life of a wild animal.  Yes, it does romanticize it.  But I would have never thought that romping through the same environments would have been fun.

Endless narratives can be spun from the many events that unfold in this game.  It has given me new found respect for the cat; so much so, in fact, that I have passed the 100-year survival mark with the animal.

The nobility, savagery, harshness and immediacy of an animal’s life is captured perfectly here. Never mind that the quests are repetitive, that toxicity and acid rain are waaay too frequent.  I love this game.  This game is an example of gameplay research at its finest.  Download this game, and play it.  Unlock a few animals past the Pomeranian, you will enjoy it.

about The Puerto Rico Videogames Festival

Logo Festival Juegos MAC

Organized by hackerspace Laboratorio del Error Disenado (Laboratory of the Designed Error , or LED), this was the first independent games festival in Puerto Rico and the first to focus exclusively on locally produced games.  Two lectures on game studies and a game design workshop was organized.

When: July 20th, 2013
Where: Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) in Santurce, Puerto Rico.
Please check out pictures and a video (in Spanish). Here’s why we organized this.

The Games:

 

The Lectures:

1.“Juegos, Arte y Sociedad”  or “Games, Art and Society” by Albith R. Delgado.

    • An introduction to game studies and modern gaming trends such as indie games, newsgames and streetgames.  Audience: game players, developers and intellectuals.

2.“La Inteligencia Artifical, la Cognición y los Videojuegos” or “Artificial Intelligence , Cognition and Videogames” by Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera

    • Rogelio’s presentation of his graduate research in North Carolina State University.  In a few words, Rogelio is researching and developing technologies to create interactive narratives based on player choices, among other factors.

 

The Workshop:

3pm-5pm: Analog Games Workshop, led by Albith Delgado.

This 2 hour  workshop included exercises adapted from the GDC Game Design Workshop and 8kindsoffun.com

3pm: Introduction to the concept of Game Mechanics.
3:30pm: Exercise: learn how to play Briscas (Spanish card game)
Modify the game of Briscas.
4pm: Challenge (if the first exercise is done): Turn an electronic game into an analog prototype.
4:30pm-5pm: Play the modified games.

 

 

 

The Puerto Rican Videogames Festival: why we did it

I spent this summer preparing this event, along with my friends from my hack group, the Laboratorio del Error Diseñado (or Laboratory of the Designed Error).

Taller de Juegos, Festival MAC

In the spring  I had  been bugging my co-conspirator, Jeffrey Concepción, about doing an event in Puerto Rico’s Contemporary Art Museum in Santurce.

I had just finished organizing the second Biercade Game Jam (thanks Biercade!) and was completely exhausted.  I did not want to do a game jam in the Museum so soon after the one in Biercade.

My attention turned to Indiecade.  I loved this event when I went to Queens, NYC for the Indiecade East 2013.  First of all, it was very cheap , only $80.  Second, the atmosphere was very warm.  Compared to GDC, people were very approachable.  Game creators , game scholars and attendees were very easy to talk to.  I was playing Cart Life right next to its creator, and chatted with him after playing.  If this were a bigger industry conference, I probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity.

Indiecade East Panel _Cow Clicker

I was determined to bring this indie + academic spirit to Puerto Rico.  

Game Playing, Festival Juegos MAC

I think we succeeded.  Shortly after IGDA’s Puerto Rico chapter started, we met Rogelio E. Cardona-Rivera.  He is the first Puerto Rican game scholar that I’m aware of.  It’s great to meet a fellow islander who digs  game studies!  This field is not well known here.  I quickly invited him over to give a talk on his research at NC State University.

Rogelio Lecture Festival MAC

We(the LED group and Rogelio) managed to do all that we set out to do.  We wanted to educate people  about game design, both in a hands-on way and through lectures.  We also wanted to celebrate local game development.  My fellow game developers work really hard on their games and we have to give them a platform to showcase them and have a good time doing it.  We had a great turnout!

 Game Playing Festival MAC

Crowd Festival Mac

Here’s to another Festival next year!

 

 

 

El juego, compañero del ser humano

‘Sahara boys playing draught’- from: The Secret Museum

He estado pensado mucho en el significado de los juegos en la actividad humana.  Hay que decirlo, los juegos son una parte inseparable de la humanidad.

Quiero primero llamar la atención a la antigüedad del juego.  Me atrevo a decir que el juego es más antiguo que la escritura, ya que los animales juegan.  El ser humano primitivo también jugaba, como lo reflejan diversos estudios arqueológicos.

Esto no es nada novedoso, es algo sabido por expertos en las humanidades y la ciencia.  Pero vale la pena recordarlo, especialmente en nuestra era de la informática.  Para muchos desarrolladores y jugadores de juegos digitales, el juego digital es algo reciente, y he oído al juego de video descrito como ‘una película interactiva’.

Esto es un punto de vista válido: hay juegos que se sienten como películas interactivas.  He notado que esta es la dirección en que van las grandes empresas desarrolladoras de juego, las llamadas ‘Triple-A’.  Da la casualidad que un juego con gran dependencia en lo visual cuesta dinero, requiere muchos artistas y tarda años en lanzarse.  Algo que se está volviendo mas difícil en nuestra prolongada recesión.

Volvamos a pensar en los cavernícola, en el ser humano en la naturaleza y en la civilización.  Ellos  jugaban, al igual que nosotros.  Jugaban con lo que encontraban a su alrededor, jugaban para aprender a sobrevivir, jugaban para divertirse.  Lo que no existía se lo inventaban.

El juego en ese tiempo y hasta la actualidad también se puede ver como un proceso orgánico, una actividad participativa, en la cual todos podemos ser jugadores y creadores de juegos.  Esta es una perspectiva mas progresiva, que promueve el pensamiento crítico y la participación activa.  Esta manera de pensar la encuentro en los desarrolladores de juego independientes y en la comunidad de jugadores que los aprecia.

Así que, compañeros, hagamos juegos con orgullo.  Estamos trabajando en un arte antiquísimo, necesario dentro de la experiencia humana.