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Solace State in Netherlands, New York… and soon, Seattle for PAX West!

Summer 2018 has been a season to remember for Solace State!

In May, Solace State brought on board Gabi (@UndeadOoze) working full-time as a programmer from May through the first week of June, then part time for the rest of the summer. We also worked with Silverstring Media (@Slvrstrng), narrative consultants, and Seage (@Seageart), 2D character artist, on contract throughout the last few  months. Everyone has been contributing their utmost; Our first ambitious milestone was to make a submission to Indie MEGABOOTH. Indie MEGABOOTH for PAX West is one of the most competitive pavillions in the world to apply to showcase indie games to excited consumers.

 

In June, we continued to polish this build, and by the last week of June, I travelled to Utrecht, Netherlands, for the INDIGO 2018 Expo on June 29, along with 40 other games. Run by the Dutch Game Garden, most of the games are by the Dutch, and some are from European developers; Solace State was the only one invited from North America. From the event, we connected with Utomik, had three pieces of press, and was selected by XGN.nl as one of four best-in-show games. Later in July, Utomik even followed up to connect with me to do a live-stream!

 

 

On July 13, less than two weeks after my Netherlands trip, I traveled to New York City with an updated build to Game Devs of Color Expo that took in some of the earlier feedback to improve on its choice mechanic. We had been periodically improving on the game build since it has had a lot of public exposure and concentrated feedback from local devs. I also did a talk about how Solace State became a social impact game (full stream here). Both the game and talk were well received, with Solace State mentioned on 7 publications and shows, including Kotaku, NPR, Polygon, and Intelligame Radio. It was shortly after this trip that I realized how much I need someone to help me on vlogging, video promotions of development, and marketing in general.

 

 

I received some timely feedback that my business and marketing plan are weak, which is actually a blessing because it coincides with my gut feeling about how I should structure my company and project. After consulting with Ryerson Transmedia Zone (TMZ) Mentors, TMZ teams such as Blackout, Paere, and Cherrydale, non-profit leaders, friends working at tech titans, and other published interactive digital media studio owners in Toronto, I refocused on sharpening the company’s vision to create an audience-community that encourages social healing and advocacy for marginalized stories.

 

 

The hard work paid off. In July I received a wonderfully surprising email: That I have been invited to participate at Indie MEGABOOTH. I will be showing the game with new build additions at PAX West, in Seattle on Aug 31 – Sept 1, at the smaller, more experimental pavillion Indie MEGABOOTH’s MINIBOOTH!

 

 

Please stay tuned! After PAX, we hope to keep building more content and perhaps even a vlog or two about my experiences travelling to show our new Solace State demos!

 

Peace and love,

Tanya Kan

 

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Solace State: Reflections from Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards

This post has been a long time in coming! My game dev and related work have been thriving. It’s been quite an adventure in December and January: I had a great time showcasing the first build at the Canadian Video Game Awards with Bit Bazaar, and I continued working on some build ideas for Solace State. I took some time off during the winter holidays to relax with family and friends, managed to catch a cold, started writing some short stories, and began a new teaching job at university in intro to 3D game arts. I also started networking a bit more to see if there are any local collaborators who can help me with character art, localization and programming.

On Dec 5th and 6th, Solace State had its first outing with Bit Bazaar and the Canadian Video Game Awards Fanfest. Surprisingly, the vast majority people played through a 20-30 minute gameplay demo, which was beyond my expectations. I had set up the demo so that people can skip between scenes and levels if they wish, and practically no one took me up on that offer (unless they were manning a booth and had to run back to their responsibilities).

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There were many experienced devs who shared their insight and feedback to me, and is it ever so valuable! Many people enjoyed the main game mechanic, namely the “hacking-scrolling text environment”. Most people seem to enjoy that part of the gameplay more than the straight-forward visual novel mode, and have asked if that part can be longer. They also “get” it right away as long as they know which keys to press (arrows or WASD), which means that it’s only been my communication about it on devlogs and social media without gameplay input that has been the real problem.

Second, the constructive critique of primarily other gamedev community members have helped me re-scope. A lot of the times, what I see as less-than-ideal in the game are also highlighted by fellow devs. It seems that I’m not far off the mark with my own self-assessment.

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On Writing

As much as I’ve been writing in some academic or professional capacity for about 9 years, writing for a visual novel game is a different beast from all the creative writing that I’ve hitherto completed. I tend to write much more like a novelist than a typical comic book, where a lot of the key identifiers of the protagonist is clear on the first page. Of course, there can be twists and back-stories down the road, but nonetheless, key motivations are already set up in the first ten, fifteen minutes. Solace State doesn’t quite have that. That’s not necessarily game-breaking, as narrative-driven games like Gone Home and arguably Dear Esther has created a much more gradual reveal of their characters’ vivid colours and internal contradictions. But I do need to balance between what I save for later, and what I reveal in the first ten minutes of the game.

On the flip side of the coin, I also have to remind myself to keep conversations and scenes to be more organic, and less utilitarian to the greater arc of the plot. Without a doubt, there should never be “filler material”. But, I also strive to describe those moments and beats that reveal something intrinsic about the characters and how they feel to each other, what they mean to each other. It’s these little moments where relationships can be built, and can fall apart.

What’s interesting, of course, is that games are becoming more of something that doesn’t get consumed in one sitting, whereas plays and films are. The middle ground to all of this is to emulate some inspirations from television drama, which takes a more episodic approach to its narrative arc. At least, this is the way that I have framed it, and it has helped me acknowledge which scenes may have too much detail, and others not enough screen time to develop the right emotional beats.

Again, it’s worlds different from writing an article or novella; My usual playgrounds, where a single line can leave one breathless with its impact.

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On Art

There’s a few people who have pointed out the incongruity of the semi-cartoony character art with the rest of the universe, including the 3D environment and the tone of the writing. I happen to agree with them.

There are a few approaches that I would like to try out:

  • Realistic-styled graphite pencil or ink sketches in black & white , which I am capable of producing myself, but can take half a day for a single expression
  • A digital painting in lino-block style in black & white, which I or another artist can produce, and doesn’t take as long as the graphite pencil sketches. This would be in a similar style to what’s already produced in the mood trailer from Feb 2015
  • Collaborate with photographers and a lot of modeling talent. This requires a lot of upfront collaboration and is highly reliant on what kind of new faces and talents I can find. I’ve started making some inquiries into this. It may be the most expensive, but may also be the one that creates the nicest effect, giving the game a semi-mockumentary feel. It might also cost me less time (see prototype below)

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People seem to love wandering through the 3D environment as a purely artistic experience though, so I’m not going to change anything there. Just going to add more content!

On Design

With some feedback, I’ve decided to do a prototype of hack scenes that are more primary, cutting out the traditional dialogue format and UI typical to visual novels. There should be textual puzzles that must be solved within its bounds, as well as clickable objects to reveal more narration and dialogue. This is to ensure that the requisite narrative dialogue is met. Each scene should have an intertitle explaining Chloe’s goals, in her own words, so that the player knows what to expect in terms of narrative goals and broader trajectory.

In practical terms of the intertitles, the textual puzzles, and the clickable objects, it means that I should maintain a key plotline by consistently (re)defining where Chloe might find Rebecka with new sources of information. When we start off, we discover gradually who Rebecka’s last contacts are.

On Programming

Key stuff on the to-do list: Upgrade from 5.2.4 to 5.3.x; Create Save and Load variables; Create a history log for dialogue; Create a variable mini-encyclopedia for all characters and places as they populate in the narrative; Improve on the pause screen.

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Acolyte – Wizard hands game at GGJ 2016!

What a blast at Global Game Jam 2016! My teammates Douglas Gregory, Brent Mitchell and I wanted to create a VR experience during the jam. We had Oculus DK2 and Leapmotion devices on hand. Amazingly, GGJ’s 2016 theme was “ritual”, and the idea of wizard hands felt like a great excuse to try the Leap with the Oculus!

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We created an experiential game named “Acolyte” in Unity where you learn how to spell cast from magic books. With the Oculus Rift and Leapmotion, you use gestural controls and head motion tracking to find spellbooks that fly off of nearby shelves, and cast spells to pay homage to three god statues. Your hands are swirl in front of you in smoke form. A clap forms a magic circle that creates fireballs, and you can also telekinetically grab and launch objects around. Even the bookshelves and podiums can be set on fire! When you play with the peripherals, you feel like you’re actually creating magic out of thin air – Wizard hands!

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All three of us have always wanted to try incorporating the Leapmotion into our development, but none of us have ever tried it before. A weekend jam like this was a great way for us to explore the tech’s usability and functions. So, on the Friday evening of the jam, we had a leisurely dinner and brainstormed a lot of different game design ideas. All of us wanted to create an experiential game where the player can just try new things in a kind of meditative or pensive pace. We didn’t necessarily aim for a win/lose state for this sort of game. Doug plugged in the Leapmotion hand gesture capture controller and we got to see it in action for the first time that Friday night. Just played around with it, no coding in Unity yet, but started thinking about what gestures might work better than others, due to readability of the sensing tracking device.

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Unfortunately, next morning, we ran across technical difficulties at our jam site due to incompatibility of the drivers with the Oculus DK2, and we had to relocate across the city. So it wasn’t until 5pm on Saturday that we actually got started on the game development itself. We had 24 hours! Within that time, we managed to squeeze in more than just one game mechanic, and also had a pretty game world to look at. The particle effects that Brent and Douglas created that had a depth to them are just amazing to look at in 3D VR! They really pop. The smoky wizard hands look responsive and really fit a magical game milieu.

We had other things that we wanted to include, such as three separate spellcasting powers from the magical books to correspond to each of the god statues. We’ll just have to develop that at a later time! Also this gem:

When using the fire spell on the butterflies: …What if they turned into FIREFLIES, because SCIENCE?
– Brent Mitchell

This jam was such a great experience for me! I am the 3D artist on the team. I haven’t jammed for over a year (and had completed four playable game jam prototypes in the past), so having that different rhythm of thinking about games was like a great reset button for me. As Douglas said, jams are a great way to set aside the perfectionistic qualities, something that I am still learning to do. I also love our brainstorming sessions, it’s a great way to ease into a whirlwind of learning from Brent and Douglas work out the technical and design details of the game mechanics.

 

The cool thing as well is that each of us have now influenced how an actual playable game prototype looks, plays and feels, from concept to realization. It’s so magical to be able to do that over the course of the weekend! I’d definitely recommend working on a team for any first time jammers, it’ll definitely inspire how you approach game making in the future!

Rawr!
– Tanya Kan

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GDC 2015: A Journey in Learning

GDC was such a whirlwind of experiences, inspirations, and constant learning. Learning came in many forms, whether they were in workshops, at chill-out lounges, at talks, in the Yerba Buena Gardens, at parties, at the expo, at luncheons, at roundtables, and more. It was cathartic to be surrounded by so many talented individuals from so many diverse backgrounds, and, because of that, I can only have room for improvement in my own craft. I think that it is so important to have people in the industry to look up to and also to approach and talk to about work and life. GDC is one of those places where that there will always be a diversity of people to share their insights and inspire others.

I would not have had the opportunity to attend GDC if it wasn’t for the generosity of the GDC 2015 Dames Making Games Scholarship and the sponsors which made it happen for our convoy. Thank you especially to our Convoy Partner, ID@XBOX, whose generosity helped support women developers who can travel to GDC for the first time. Sharing the GDC experience with so many diverse talents is incredible, and developers I’ve talked to have been very excited to hear about the initiatives to encourage more women and other minority groups into the games industry.

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella (Capybara Games) hosting

 

I went into GDC with the mentality that I wish to experience a little of everything that the conference had to offer. I was successful on trying something different each day. On looking back, there could have been an additional networking strategy that I should have struck out with: To find developers and designers who did similar work with similar themes and tonality, so that I can inquire as to their failures and successes and perhaps even find a suitable mentor there. I think that I met a lot of diverse individuals at all stages of game development, from students to seasoned pros, but I should have been more proactive and forward-thinking in seeking out specifically narrative game developers. I think, should I go to Indiecade Festival this October (22-25), that should be one of my top reasons to make the trip.

Playstation booth at GDC Expo

Different folks will tell you different strategies of how to tackle your first GDC or major developer conference. Student guides will always say to go to events during the day and party till you drop at night. Veterans will tell you to skip the talks because they’re all in the GDC Vault anyways. Some will say that the expo is a see-once experience, but worth it for the swag.

Everyone buzzes about the parties, parties, parties, but there’s certainly no agreement as to which one is the “best party”. I personally like the ones where I can network and chat at normal volume without feeling rushed; Others like thumping dance parties where they can decompress the conference day away. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed dance as a practice, but my brain is one of those that finds it hard to switch off from networking, once I’ve got the ball rolling.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

This is also what worked for me, which my boyfriend picked up on easily: “What is it that the pass really pays to get you into?” he asked me, “The talks, the workshops, the roundtables. Go to those. They’re in the Vault, yes, but the people who are there bothering to attend the presentation are those who share the same niche interests in game dev as you. And they’re the people that you need to talk to.” And the thing is, I’m the kind of person who feels really engaged with lectures. So I tested this theory on Thursday, Friday, and indeed, I felt like I connected very well with people who are also attracted into a certain specialized talk. As diverse as game-making can be, people at highly specific talks are attracted to the same concerns and questions that I have in my own career trajectory.

Since everyone likely has such a different experience of GDC, I will document my highlights:

Daniel Cook on Emotions of Game Design

  • Game Design Workshop, lead by Robin Hunicke (Funomena, thatgamecompany) in my section to iterate in design teams of six on a tabletop game that emphasizes Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics in a causal loop (MDA Framework). We learn how to tune our card game in an iterative feedback system that balances cooperation, betrayal, negotiation, and aesthetics. Slides are available from 2014 session here!
  • Design Bootcamp elective on Putting More Emotion into Play, where my favorite take-away is that design should evoke a “body loop”. It is the idea that there should be a direct emotion involved with game mechanics’ direct motion, so to encourage the player to remember and to be stimulated by gameplay actions. One of the most obvious loops is the feedback of delight in an “aha” moment, a really clear example of which is expressed by figuring out a puzzle. Daniel Cook (Spry Fox) lead the workshop and he has more articles here on experimenting on emotions in game design
Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

 

  • Exchanging stories in the Yerba Buena Gardens with game dev friends from around the world, old and new

Paloma Dawkins presentation at Mild Rumpus GDC 2015

  • Chilling at the Mild Rumpus with friends and in awe of Paloma Dawkins’ presentation of her exploratory 3D game, Gardenarium. It’s so immensely dazzling, you should check it out here

Disasterpiece and Teddy Diefenbach's GDC 2015 musings + music

  • Keep Grooving: Teddy Diefenbach + Disasterpiece’s live scored “poetry slam” about gamedev life & musings was an experience with spiritual transcendence. It was beautifully tempered and a most engaging performance piece. Glad I got to see this live with so many great friends!

Unreal Engine booth at GDC 2015

  • Spending hours at the Epic Unreal expo booth talking about rendering distance field, procedural generation, and especially the new UMG UI system, or just generally about the Blueprint system in general. The support teams from Epic are just phenomenal. Then, spending hours at Intel Lounge also talking about Unreal. Haha!
  • Getting a perfect score on SpaceBro at Alt.Ctrl with developer @nkornek
Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

 

  • Enjoyed Xbox Women in Gaming Awards Luncheon with fellow DMG convoy members, catching up with @stinkerfish over academic interests and meeting our ID@XBOX Convoy Partner Sponsor. The Xbox Luncheon highlights the achievements of women in gaming. Four female game development leaders – Colleen Macklin (Parsons School of Design, PETLab), Abby Lee (LXP of Microsoft Studios), Amy Robinson (EyeWire), Robin Hunicke (Funomena) – delivered incredibly personable and inspiring talks, an experience that I would not trade for anything: From the art of failure, to embracing difference, to prototyping often rather than just ruminate on ideas, to having the positive outlook to believing in others.

Never Alone Slide of Inupiat Cultural Values GDC 2015

 

  • Adventures in Storytelling: Telling the World’s Stories Through Games discusses the community collaboration that brought the indigeneous Inupiat representations in Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) to culturally respective design. Creative director Sean Vesce and Writer Ishmael Hope shared the oral tradition which has a direct source back to the lineage of Elders, and how to transmit emotion and specificity of culture in game form. What particularly resonated with me was their tips on how to create partnerships: To build trust, mutual respect, and exist in a framework of equal power – that is, that game developers do not have all the answers, but must be better listeners to be better storytellers. E-Line Media worked directly with the Inupiat community and was gratified that Elders and community members supported the game.
Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga GDC 2015

Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga

 

  • Meeting up with fellow Canadian developers at the OMDC party and Tonga, the most stylish Tiki bar in town
  • Startup Accelerators Roundtable run by Execution Labs’ Cofounder Jason Della Rocca, which helped cement the idea that I am much more project-based currently in my career, and may be more suited currently to seek grants and publishers in the middle term.
  • Meetings for potential sound and musician collabs
  • Low Budget Indie Developers Roundtable run by Oded Sharon of Corbomite Games: Developers from all backgrounds and experience levels share their ideas of how to find coworkers, how to leverage social media and Kickstarter, and how to keep motivated
  • Date dinners and bonding time in North Beach, Union Square, Telegraph Hill, Japantown; The breaks were necessary and helped me reset my enterprising and networking energies

And, my goodness, I think I missed meeting up with at least 60% of friends that I wanted to see this trip. The week felt like it came and went so quickly! I’m so sorry. Next year? Next conference? We’ll have to have the opportunity to meet up again!

What astounds me about the whole trip is that I was able to connect with people, not just about work and games, but what makes them engaged about the world. I’ve talked to people I’ve never met previously about the flux of change in political states, I’ve listened to a conversation about military practices, I’ve exchanged style tips heartily, I’ve reminisced about our beginnings. That human connection between devs at every experience level and background is something that makes me so excited to be in the game development industry. I look forward to my own work, just as I look forward to new innovations from all of you!