I'm a visual artist and writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada.

For more frequent updates, follow me on Instagram or Medium.

Posts tagged “Game Design” (page 1 of 2)

Interview with PRISM International

PRISM International Fall 2016

My essay Comfort Zone was shortlisted for PRISM International‘s 2015 Creative Nonfiction Contest, and was printed in the Fall 2016 issue. PRISM Prose Editor Christopher Evans interviewed me about videogames, systems and stories, and books that have maps in them.

Plopped into a platform-strewn obstacle course, haunted forest, or asteroid field, I would ransack every nook and cranny as if looting a couch for lost coins. I was a relentless adventurer, and one of the thrills of the 8-bit games I grew up with was that it was possible to exhaustively plunder those worlds. Even years before the internet wound its way to my small town, I could be reasonably certain that I had picked every pocket of the little planets that fit inside those plastic cartridges. There were fictional cities I knew more intimately than my own neighbourhood.

Probable System Sketches

Some sketches and notes I made a few years ago while working on Probable System, an experimental web game inspired by bpNichol’s “Probable Systems” series of poems. It’s a little adventure game, and the map is based on a computer keyboard. This was the first game I made using JavaScript.

ONOPO on Co.Design

  • ONOPO 3D model
  • ONOPO board
  • ONOPO property cards
  • ONOPO instructional cards and bills
ONOPO 3D model

ONOPO 3D model

ONOPO board

ONOPO board

ONOPO property cards

ONOPO property cards

ONOPO instructional cards and bills

ONOPO instructional cards and bills

I recently created ONOPO, a reimagining of an iconic American board game. It’s been featured on Co.Design, the Fast Company design blog. Editor Mark Wilson sent me some questions about the project when researching his article. I’ve posted my responses in full here.

Q: Why simplify Monopoly to its most basic?

Monopoly’s central theme (wealthy landlords gobbling up property) is layered on lavishly, with names for each individual property, elaborate narratives for the random cards (second prize in a beauty contest!), and plenty of illustrations. This is part of the charm and culture of the game, but it could also be thought of as superfluous to how the game works.

I thought it would be challenging to try reducing the visual design of the game down to an iconographic system representing its basic mechanics. I did this by removing metaphors such as street names, and using as little text as possible. For example, nothing happens when you land on the Free Parking space in the original game, so in ONOPO it is entirely blank. The place names and narrative text have been entirely replaced with visual symbols. My approach was inspired in part by abstract strategy games, and the iconographic system used in the card game Race for the Galaxy.

Of course, the game design of Monopoly is notoriously awkward. Everyone remembers Monopoly sessions that might have gone on for hours if everyone hadn’t agreed to stop. There isn’t a lot of strategy involved, and the conditions for winning have been described as “almost unreachable”. I think this is why Monopoly comes in so many different themes (like Star Wars Monopoly or SpongeBob SquarePants Monopoly), because the theme is really the only thing that makes the game fun. I also think this is why everyone tends to have “house rules” for playing Monopoly that make it more interesting.

Q: How did you decide on the visual systems used? Was there anything you had a tough time translating?

My approach was inspired partly by the visual echo between the three Os in the original game title and the groups of three spaces on the board. I decided to use concentric rings to represent increasingly valuable properties. The “railroad” spaces needed to contrast with the rings, so I used an X shape, which was also reminiscent of a crossroads. The rest of the iconographic system evolved from there.

The instructional cards were the most challenging, since they use so much text. One particularly challenging component was the Get Out of Jail Free card, which is different than the other cards in that it can be “kept until needed or sold.” I decided to indicate this by giving it the same diamond motif as the bills, which is meant to indicate that the card can be kept and used like money.

I’m particularly happy with the design of the “houses” and “hotels,” which in ONOPO fit together in a way that better suggests their relationship, and with the property cards. I may still try to improve some of the instructional cards. I’m not sure my design for the “collect $50 from every player” type cards is ideal, and the word “back” on the “Go back 3 spaces” card irritates me (I included it partly because otherwise it would be hard to tell which side of the card was the top).

One constraint I gave myself was to using the same size board, cards and bills as the original. In this way, ONOPO is more of a re-skinning of the original rather than a complete redesign. Leaving certain remnants of the original (such as similar colours) also makes my project easier to understand at a glance.

Q: How do the chance/community chest cards work now?

They work the same way as before, and there are still two different stacks of cards. I’ve just used visual symbols instead of narrative text to convey what the cards do. Nothing about the mechanics of the game has changed with ONOPO.

Q: Is this still Monopoly?

Just as I’ve removed some letters from the word “Monopoly” to make “ONOPO,” my version removes enough of the identity of the original that I think it feels quite different, even if the underlying structure is the same. Because so much of Monopoly’s substance is in its theme, I’m not sure that what’s left in ONOPO could really be called Monopoly. If you created completely flavourless ice cream, would it still be ice cream?

Q: Have you played your own game? Do you find it fun?

When it comes to board games, I’m much more of a Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico fan! ONOPO was mostly a design challenge for myself, so I haven’t playtested it, but I may print a physical prototype just for fun. Since it draws heavily on an existing game, it’s strictly a personal design project, not a commercial product.

two people and a map

Written / overheard at Paper Chase, my favourite Halifax coffee shop, in October 2007. I’m going to try to scan some notebook writings and sketches and post them over the summer.

Make No Wonder – Canoes, Ziplines, and other things

Make No Wonder launch screenshot

Finally, after almost a year of development, I’m launching Make No Wonder. It’s fully playable and pretty much finished, although I plan to keep adding things to the game, streamlining the code, and working on an app version. You can play the game at makenowonder.com.

I didn’t blog as much during the development as I’d planned, as I’ve been busy teaching. Here are some of the changes since I last posted a demo:

  • I completely reworked the way the game is drawn on the screen, using HTML5 Canvas instead of DOM elements and CSS. This version also draws only the area which is near the player. This became necessary because previous versions simply drew everything on the map all the time, which meant that the browser spent tons of time drawing things that weren’t even in view, causing obvious performance issues (especially on larger maps). Over the past few months I’ve also spent a lot of time optimizing the way things are drawn, making the game load faster and reducing memory usage. I’m using sprite sheets for most of the graphics. There’s still some progress to be made here, but for the most part it’s working quite well now. DOM elements are still used for the cursor, the inventory, and other interface elements.
  • The game interface has changed a lot, as previous versions were full-screen. Now the game is played in a smaller window, with space on the right for a mini-map, energy bar, actions list, and inventory. The game area can be resized using a control in the top-right corner, so you can make it fit better if you have a smaller or larger browser window.
  • The energy bar is new. I initially wanted to avoid videogame conventions like an ‘energy meter’ and just let the player explore, but the game needed a mechanism to encourage the player to think about the most efficient way to do things, and add a little bit of tension. You can keep playing if you run out of energy, you just start fainting occasionally. You can also fall in the water now, which makes you cold. When you are cold your energy depletes more quickly.
  • The player chooses what they want to build from a menu on the right side of the screen. In previous versions of the game, you would choose what to build by simply hovering the mouse over the map, since each buildable item was built on a different kind of tile anyway. This kept the interface simple, but also restricted how many things I could add to the game. I also wanted to move away from interactions that rely on mouse hover events, as I’d like to eventually make the game playable on touchscreens, which do not have hover events.
  • The game now uses a grid-based inventory system. Items can be stored at various sites on the map (caves, camps, and so on), and some sites provide an infinite source of certain items. Some special items take up more than one inventory space.
  • I added forests with larger trees – firs and birches. The game really started to come together when I added these, as they serve as large obstacles (until you build an axe), making exploration more complex. The smaller trees are still around, as a source of wood when you don’t have an axe. The smaller trees drop seedlings and spread as you play. The larger ones don’t, mostly because there are so many of them that it seems unnecessary.
  • The terrain is more complex, with larger mountains and more variation in land terrain tiles. I animated the waves, and the area outside the map shows larger animated waves instead of empty space. A few other things are animated as well.
  • The map has a softened effect, with tiles that blend into each other. This was something I always wanted to add, but it was tricky since to keep the game running smoothly it’s necessary to draw as little as possible. In the end, I discovered that I could create a ‘fuzzy’ map by basically enlarging the mini-map in the corner, placing it behind the tiles, and drawing slightly smaller tiles. Since the game was drawing the mini-map anyway, this turned out to be fairly efficient, and I’m really happy with the effect.
  • There are tons more inventory items to find and build – 20 different kinds of items so far. This is a big difference, as earlier versions only had wood, stone, and a few special items to find. I’ve replaced most of the special items with buildable versions, so (for instance) you can craft an axe instead of finding one randomly on the map. I think this makes the game more fun, and less dependent on chance.
  • There are lots more structures, vehicles and tools to build, too. You can see a few new ones in the screenshot above – ziplines, canoes and quarries. The ziplines are particularly fun, as it’s possible to build pretty complex transportation networks. Other new stuff includes shovels, which let you dig for items Zelda-style, and snares, which provide a new food source. I haven’t provided any complete list of things you can build, preferring to let players figure things out for themselves. For some hints, see the FAQ and screenshots.
  • There are a couple of key sites to find, with special items. These are placed randomly and right now their locations are marked on the mini-map when you start, but this will probably change. I would like to hint to the player which direction these are in, without marking their exact locations.
  • The game has an ‘ending’, which is not so much as an ending as a reward for players who figure things out and pay attention. It is fairly tricky to figure out, and I need to work on the logic of the ‘story’ a little more. I may expand this ending in the future, or add alternate endings.
  • The game has a home at makenowonder.com, with a newly redesigned logo, a snazzy map size selection menu, frequently asked questions, and so on. Try it out!

Make No Wonder – Fir Forests

It’s been a few months since I posted an update, but my game project is really coming along. I’ll have a new demo version and a longer update soon.

Make No Wonder version 4 screenshot

Content ©  2017 Matthew Hollett. RSS