Monday, July 25, 2011

The Path to Brains

In late 2006 (yes, this story starts five years ago) Microsoft released the first version of XNA, a development platform for writing games on the PC and Xbox.  It put all the nitty-gritty details that generally plague game development behind a modern type-safe programming language (C#).  It let developers focus on the more interesting aspects of game design.  As someone who has dabbled in game development in the past, this simplified platform sounded like a great way for me to get back into it.

I wanted a project that fit me and my personal strengths, so I decided on a 2D game where I could provide the art with old fashioned pen and paper.  This would accomplish two things: it would give me an excuse to reconnect with the visual arts, and it would produce a different visual style from most of the other stuff out there.  I imagined a sketchy hand-drawn style, like doodles in a notebook come to life.  Of course I wasn't the only one to have this idea, and in fact many games have come out in the years since with this style.  Many have fallen short because they fail to embrace the look completely, while others have pulled it off brilliantly (like the enjoyable Parachute Panic).  But from my perspective at the time, it wasn't a look that had been done.

In grade school I used to draw stick figures doing terrible awful violent things to each other.  It's one of those things little boys do to vent their natural homicidal tendencies (medical term: testosterone), similar to throwing rocks and blowing stuff up with firecrackers.  The thing that somehow makes this sort of thing vaguely less disturbing is that... well, they're stick figures.  It's cartoon violence at its most cartoon state.  I'm not going to get into a discussion about violence in media right now - I'm just presenting this a data point.

The trick with violence is that you need a morally justifiable sponge to soak it up so that the audience doesn't feel morally queasy.  Very few realistic targets hold up to that job, so we've invented all sorts of other options to fill out the ranks.  In particular, zombies are somewhat of a violence loophole.  They're almost indistinguishable from their living counterparts, yet for some reason we heartily approve of them meeting their (second) end via a chainsaw.  I think it's the outnumbered survivalist viewpoint that allows us to use a certain "vigor" in our zombie eradication methods.  It's not as simple as the "its your or me!" factor; it's the "its you or… oh god where did you all come from… must… escape...  aaaaarrrrrgh!" factor.

Where am I going with this?  Well, when it comes to video games, violence is a common crutch because our brain easily understands "death == losing".  And when it comes to violence, zombies are a generally agreeable adversary.  So when I decided to make a game, I decided to make a zombie game.  It's also possible that its just because I had recently rolled off of playing Dead Rising.  In going back to unravel the timeline I remembered that I'd actually already posted about the topic of zombie gaming here in 2007.  That post was actually a product of me thinking about what sort of game I wanted to make.  And that exercise led me down the path of discovering modern designer board games.  Which it turns out has turned into quite a hobby for me.

Well, despite the crazy cascade of events that this project kicked off, you'll notice I never released a game during all those years.  In 2008 a version of XNA was released that supported the Zune device.  At the time I worked on the Zune team at Microsoft, and developing for our little music player seemed like a fun goal.  So I took what I had built before and adapted it for the small screen.  I got it pretty far along, but in the end I lost steam because there frankly wasn't any market to release it to.  It was fun as a toy for myself, but it would never be more than that.

A couple years later XNA added its fourth platform: Windows Phone.  In the years that had passed, the iPhone had become a great market for indie game developers.  And I had software that could run on a phone, more or less ready to go.  So I got it up and running as soon as the developer tools were available.  But I never quite pushed it out the door and on to the marketplace.  Why?  Well, full disclosure, I worked on Windows Phone.  And I was too busy busting my butt on that product to have any free cycles to work on some programming side project.  I code for a living; it's rare for me to get the capacity for additional coding.

It took me another year to find the time and finish the project.  I decided to rework the art style, switch to a female protagonist, streamline the touch controls, build the features you expect of a phone game (e.g. save/resume), and of course polish it all as much as possible.  The end product is something that I'm proud of, but it isn't anywhere near as grand as the ideas that initially got me started.  It's a simple little action game.  That's it.  I think it's a good little action game, and I haven't played anything quite like it on Windows Phone, but it is a little bit of style over substance.  I'm okay with that.  This is my first ever release as an independent developer.  Now that the hard part is out of the way I can hopefully tinker more and work one some of those deeper ideas.

MustEatBrains is now available for download for Windows Phone here.

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