Category Archives: Game Design

Falling In Love With Game Development Again At IndieCade 2017

Last weekend IndieCade – or more formally, the International Festival of Independent Games – celebrated its tenth anniversary at a new venue: the Japanese American National Museum, the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, and the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. IndieCade CEO Stephanie Barish and Co-chair for IndieCade West GameU Chris DeLeon were kind enough to invite my Los Angeles Film School Game Production students to join other game student groups for free admission to the event on Friday.

After distributing the admission wristbands to my students and allowing them to enjoy the festival independently, I was drawn to a session called “Fall In Love With Game Development Again,” presented by Brett Taylor, founder (and lone game developer) of My Dog Zorro.  The focus of his talk was to give attendees a toolbox of enjoyable, low-commitment strategies to try out at home to increase their happiness and productivity; and empower them to define their happiness goals with intention and take more control of their lives.

Here are some of the actionable strategies and practices Brett shared with us:

  • Have a weekly kick-off of what you plan to accomplish, and a week-end reflection on what you actually did accomplish, to keep yourself aligned.
  • Write down something for which you are grateful, every hour. It doesn’t have to be anything profound; it can be as simple as, “I’m grateful for the two sandwiches I packed for lunch.
  • Filter your vocabulary to eliminate negative thoughts like, “I should have…”, “It was hard,” “I am poor”.
  • Take a mandatory 30 second dance three times during the day to rejuvenate your body and spirit.
  • If you find yourself getting too stressed about your work, go home and relax.
  • Schedule loving reminder alerts to yourself on your phone or computer: “Do it anyway,” “Finish that task”, “Tell someone you love them,” and most importantly, “Write more loving reminders to yourself.”

Finding easy-to-implement techniques for maintaining a positive attitude can be very important in the stressful and often lonely life of a indie game developer, but what makes me fall in love with game development again is looking at the innovative games that these developers are making. IndieCade is an opportunity to see more than two hundred of the latest innovative indie games of all types and from around the world.

Having developed games for close to four decades, I’ve seen the same ideas recycled over and over again, so the more unusual a game is, the more I like it.  Here are some of my favorites.


Maybe it was because I was famished, but the first game I gravitated toward was Feast, a storytelling/role-playing game for five players about power and memory, that’s played during a communal meal and uses eating and tasting as game mechanics. Players take on the role of entities (ghosts, aliens, parasitic fungi, whatever they wish) possessing and eating the personalities of ordinary people. Prior to the game, players each prepare one food item with one dominant taste (sweet, umami, salty, sour or bitter), to be shared among the others. Each round, players eat a morsel of food and describe a memory or thought that they consume from their host. The specific memory they eat is determined both by the dominant taste of the food they eat, and the round in the game. When all the food has been eaten, the players have subsumed their hosts’ personalities and the game is over.

You can find out more about this game, developed by Sharang Biswas and Sweta Mohapatra at Feast.

Keyboard Sports

In this puzzle game developed by Triband, you play as the young apprentice to Master QWERTY who takes you on a wild adventure across oceans, through temples and into dreams in the search for your inner key using the entire keyboard as your controller.  Now, a keyboard may not be the coolest interface there is, but as someone who learned touch typing in high school, I appreciated a game that had me racing around the keyboard, often using the keys in very punny ways.

You can learn more about this game at Keyboard Sports.


This multi-sensory virtual reality (VR) installation developed by Team Santiago that explores the idea of escapism through psychedelic visuals and music. The experience revolves around a physical sculpture of Santiago, an ancient fish god, that transforms into a living, breathing musical instrument that can be played through touch. The music created by the player affects objects and visualizations in the virtual environment, giving each player the agency to shape his or her experience. The piece is built for the HTC Vive and uses Leap Motion technology, allowing users to move freely around the sculpture and physically interact with Santiago.

You can learn more about this game at Santiago VR Experience.


As someone who usually develops story-based games, I really appreciated Vignettes as being the opposite of what I normally play.  Developed by Skeleton Business, Vignettes is a casual and whimsical exploration game without text or characters, where objects shapeshift as you spin them around in a kaleidoscope of different moods and orientations.  Your only hints about what to do are in the form of icons that suggest how to manipulate the object.  Vignettes is a game of surprise and discovery, in which players wander through a silent but colorful narrative.

You can learn more about this game at Vignettes.

Emotional Fugitive Detector

This is a two-player cooperative game which uses the human face as both its primary controller and screen. One player is instructed to give an expression of emotion — anger, happiness, sadness — and the second player must guess what that emotion is being conveyed.  But here’s the trick: the firs player’s face is also scanned for emotions by the installation robot’s face tracking technology, and if the robot detects emotion, the two player’s lose. Players must find a difficult middle ground in this emotional Turing test: expressive enough for a human, too subtle for a computer.

I asked the developers– Sam Von Ehren, Alexander King, and Noca Wu — how they came up with this idea behind Emotional Fugitive Detector.  They told me that initially they tried to come up with a facial expression input interface for a fighting game, but when they couldn’t get it to work properly, they turned decided to lemons into lemonade by changing directions and developing a game that took advantage of the technical problem. They also said that while showing the game at IndieCade, they received feedback that this game might be good for helping autistic children to learn to interpret emotion.

Turning a flaw into a feature and possibly benefiting society at the same time — now that’s a story to make me fall in love with game development again!




Moving Out Of The Comfort Zones Of Single-Player And Multi-Player

Last week we adopted a Golden Retriever named Grady. His personality was very different from our previous dog, Scout, who had recently passed away after being part of our family for fourteen years. Scout was very much a loner: he would spend much of the day snoozing under the dining room table, and when we had to leave for the day, we simply left him in our den by himself with food, water, and his bed. Every evening he’s like to play with me for about five minutes, but when I took him on walks, he would bark at passing dogs and people he didn’t know.

Grady is the polar opposite. He follows me from room-to-room and is always ready to play or cuddle. He is a pleasure to take on walks, wagging his tail happily whenever we pass by someone else walking their dog. However, he does not like being left alone. We tried keeping him in den while we went out for a couple of hours, but when we returned, he had gnawed away half of the door frame, trying to get out.

People can be just as different from each other. There are introverts who need their alone time, and extroverts who get energized from being around others. Similarly, there are gamers who prefer playing single-player games and gamers who prefer multi-player games.

There are many different elements that a game designer can use to engage a player in a single player game: a compelling story with interesting characters in an immersive environment; activities that allow for the construction of game items and other forms of creative expression; the exploration of uncharted territories and the discovery of Easter eggs and other surprises; completing a task before a countdown timer runs down; gathering rare items and completing collections; solving puzzles and overcoming other obstacles; surviving a situation for as long as possible; or earning achievements and besting one’s own record.

There are also many elements of either a cooperative or competitive nature that appeal to players in multi-player games: storytelling and role-playing with other players; fulfilling group quests; being the last one standing in an elimination contest; becoming the king of the hill in a goal that can be achieved by only a single player; or simply having the opportunity to meet and chat with other players.

One thing to remember is that a game doesn’t strictly have to be a single-player or a multi-player experience. Sometimes introverts enjoy the company of others, and even extroverts need their alone time. So, it is quite permissible to combine single-player and multi-player elements in a game, either to give each player an opportunity to change their playing habits for a time or to appeal to a broad audience.

Another thing to bear in mind is that even players who prefer the single-player experience may like to interact with other players but not necessarily in real-time. For example, someone who likes single-player games may like having their score posted on the scoreboard either to boast about how high their high score is or to have the goal of being someone else’s score. Players in single-player games may enjoy opportunities to boast about their other game achievements or to share their creative expressions with other players of the game, a feature that was very common to Facebook games. Some players might even prefer to chat asynchronously, by sending emails or other types of messages rather than engaging in real-time chats that they may find to be distracting.

As I’m typing this, my very social new dog, who preferred to sleep by my feet as I work, has now felt comfortable enough to try out a bed that we put out for him on the other side of the room. Just as dogs can learn new behaviors, so can people, so think about putting in a variety of loner and social opportunities in your game for players who have lived in your game long enough to move outside of their initial comfort zone.