I often refer to the team that’s building Gravity Ghost, and it’s time I gave a proper introduction. Many people have helped out along the way, but at the moment there are four of us: Courtney, Ben, Mike, and Erin.
Ben, Erin, and Mike, seen here in our natural habitat: a coffee shop with free WiFi and a loose policy about loitering
Here are three questions I asked everyone to answer:
- What is your background (education, work, etc.), and what are your favorite types of games?
- What have you worked on?
- Why work on indie games/Gravity Ghost in particular?
Erin Robinson, Game Design and Art
Erin + screenshots from Spooks, Nanobots, Little Girl in Underland, Puzzle Bots
Hey it's me, Erin!
This is my 8th year making games. I make indie games because of their unstated promise: that any universe you can imagine, you can create - and share with other people. A game is so different from a book or a film - when my work is done I can just say, "Here's how to move around" and give someone a complete world to lose themselves in.
I occasionally teach college courses in Unity/C# and game prototyping, because I love to see the worlds that other people create. It’s my third year of teaching and I hope I get to keep doing it for the next 50. I am always floored by the creativity of students. An offbeat game made in two weeks, to me, is more interesting and special than the latest multi-million dollar shooter.
I started my career as a psychology major, planning to become a neuroscience professor. I worked as a research assistant in a lab after I graduated (incidentally, if you ever want to hear how great the hippocampus is, hit me up). I decided research wasn't for me, but conveniently, I already had a publishing deal with Wadjet Eye Games to make my first commercial game, Puzzle Bots.
I learned to make games by collaborating with people I met on internet forums. My job - “independent game developer” - didn’t really exist when I got started, which I think says a lot about how much our industry has evolved. To me, it's also a sign of how hungry the gaming audience is for creativity.
Adventure games are good at creating experiences where story and gameplay are inseparable (and I love them), but I think adventure games as a whole are pretty broken. There's still no elegant remedy to the problem of 'what happens when I get stuck?' I’m still really interested in trying to tell a story through interactivity - and puzzles are only one of many ways to do that. At the start of this project I felt ready to try a new approach, so I made a physics game with story elements.
Gravity Ghost is the culmination of all my ideas about game design from the last decade. It’s a game about running, jumping, flying, and being a different kind of hero - one who must create, rather than destroy. I’m curious to know what you’ll think of it - and hopefully you won’t have to wait long. The game is scheduled for release in 2014 (yay!) and we’re all super excited about it.
Ben Prunty, Music and Sound Design
Ben + screenshots from FTL: Faster than Light
I'm Ben. I arrange sound into pleasing patterns for a living. I tried working at regular jobs, but I'm so bad at it that when an employer reads my resume, the company he's working for immediately goes out of business. Here are some jobs I've held in the last ten years or so: cleaning toilets, managing a GameStop, ripping apart about ten thousand computers at Google, unpacking shipping crates at 4AM, and helping volunteers record audio books for dyslexics.
Throughout all this time I was making music constantly and slowly working my way into the game development community. Then I made the music for FTL and now I don't need to keep a day job and employers no longer have to suffer.
The only thing you really need to know about me is that I've beaten God Hand. This act required a superhuman level of insanity and masochism. I suffered approximately 40 heart attacks and still get post-traumatic stress whenever I think of any one of its many, many boss fights, but now I can solve almost any problem with punching.
I hope I can punch the Gravity Ghost soundtrack into something vibrant and wonderful for you.
Michael Stevenson, Programmer
Mike + screenshots from Red Frame, Snail Break
I'm Mike, a programmer, educator, and former stop-motion animator. I started making games as a young kid, often building simple point-and-click adventures in HyperCard on an old Mac. I loved creating worlds, and this extended into all kinds of different media. In college I focused on film and animation, and spent a couple years as a professional stop-motion animator and prop builder.
During my transition from animation to game development there was one particular experience that stood out: while showing my film Pigeon Pilfer at an animation festival the kids in the audience would often yell at the screen in an attempt to guide the main character, but the film wasn't able to communicate back to them.
I realized that most of my creative ideas were actually much better suited to interactive experiences. It wasn't long before I stumbled upon the indie game development community - it was chock full of awesomely creative and technically savvy people who shared similar goals. I felt at home right away, and my career as a indie game developer was born.
When Erin showed me the prototype of Gravity Ghost last year I was immediately drawn to it. The game cultivates the sort of player experience that I'd wanted much more of: exploration and discovery, without violence or urgency. It's something I had to be a part of!
Courtney Stanton, Producer
Courtney + screenshots from Hansel & Gretel: Lost, Fieldrunners 2, The River
Hi! I’m Courtney, and I’ve been making games for a few years now. My background is in project management (what the non-games world calls production), and I’ve worked with lots of different kinds of tech companies and teams, inside and outside the games industry. I’ve got a BA in Communications & Culture and an MS in Project Management, and my “day” job these days is working as a program manager for a pretty big tech company here in Boston, MA. My role on Gravity Ghost has been as a production consultant, working with Erin on the schedule, scope, and prioritization of tasks to develop and ship Gravity Ghost.
I like to play a huge variety of games, in terms of mechanics and narrative, but I mostly like anything that engages my brain in some way; this is also reflected in the types of people I like to work with when making games! I’ve worked on interactive storybook iOS titles, tower defense multi-platform games, and sometimes I go off in my own little corner and produce things in Twine when the mood strikes.
I like working with smart people who are good at what they do, which is how I started working with Erin on Gravity Ghost*. She and I were standing in line for a hot dog a few years ago and I mentioned that I was starting to think about doing project consulting for indie devs - a couple months later, she told me about a new game she was prototyping and I jumped at the chance to work with a talented person on an interesting project.
Production isn’t something that a lot of indie devs think they can afford to spend time on, and I don’t want to tell people they’re wrong necessarily -- as an indie, you know your game and your team better than anyone else. But for this project in specific, it’s be an absolute pleasure to see Erin and her team take a tiny demo that was more of a screensaver-toy than anything else and turn it into the amazing game that is Gravity Ghost!
*Editor's note: Aw, stop :)
I've prototyped a couple more of these story planets, and I'd say they're coming together quite nicely.
(click for full size)
Captured at an angle so you can see the slight 3D to the game world.
My ultimate goal is to create something that looks like a children's book illustration, but in a world you can actually explore. There are a few more planets to get done, but not too many now. This isn't the final art, but it will make all of the game's locations recognizable.
We're on track to have all of these playable in our GDC build, so if you're going to be at the conference and want to check out the game (especially if you're a journalist) just give me a tweet-holler. :)
Edit: The game is being developed in Unity, since a few of you have asked me that. A couple of the planet bits are built in Maya, but almost everything in this image is made of Unity primitives (cubes and cylinders). Eventually it'll look more like a digital painting.
The very first version of Gravity Ghost was pretty bare-bones, but I noticed something about the way people played the game that surprised me. Playtesters liked to run in circles around the planets.
Old build, featuring high-tech spinning cubes.
There was no reason to run in circles. It often would have been faster to reverse direction and run the other way. Yet players kept running in circles, sometimes many times in a row, just because it played into this nice feeling of continuous motion that was already built into the game.
Enough people even said "I like running in circles" that I decided to turn it into a game mechanic. It solved another design problem I was having, which was how to give the player a simple way to choose which planets to terraform. The colorful trail behind the girl character would now have a purpose: to show you which trail type she was carrying.
I've decided to call the girl character "Iona", so let's use that from now on. There were three different trail types Iona could pick up: dirt, water, and seeds. She could now run in a complete circle around a planet with whichever trail type she picked up, and they could be layered in a crafting sort of way. Here's what the first art pass for that looked like:
Water, dirt, seeds, and various combinations thereof.
And here's what that looked like with some nicer art for the trails and planets:
The miracle of life.
Cool, so that all seemed to work. The next thing I wanted to do was twofold: have the trails be a finite resource, and have the trails be made of Iona's hair. We built a system where flowers would make her hair longer, and encircling a planet would decrease the length of the hair by the circumference of the planet. A fully terraformed planet would create more flowers.
Here's a video with the various hair trail types (I turned off the gravity visualization circle for clarity's sake):
When you see her hair length increasing spontaneously, that's me cheating with a debug button. Normally you collect flowers to make her hair grow.
You'll see that Iona's hair now responds to gravity. It's a game *about* gravity, so that should work just fine, right?
Look again. Her long hair gets spooled around the planets and seems to get stuck. It interferes with the free, flowy feel of the game. If you play this build you'll swear her hair is yanking her back down towards the planets when you jump (even though that's impossible).
But the hair has some cool features, too: it collides with the planets in a neat way, and follow's Iona's motion. Sure, it's a bit visually noisy, but there must be some compromise to make it work, right?
Nope. It was time to give up on the physics hair. Why? There was one important piece of visual feedback that the hair didn't provide, and it was so subtle it took me a while to notice what was missing.
Look back at the very first video. The trail shows exactly where you jump, creating not only those nice round shapes, but also an important visual guide. Like the dotted line in Angry Birds, it let you adjust your course and correct your aim if you missed your jump the first time. And I had totally forgotten about it.
After a good chat with our programmer Mike Stevenson, we decided to nix the physics hair and start again. I still had a problem: I wanted the hair to be a resource you carried with you, so its length would vary. But I also wanted the player to always have a long trail, to show where you had jumped. Here's the solution I came up with:
And here's what that looks like in the game now (though it's running a bit slower than normal):
We're also re-tuning the movement a bit, so we switched off her animation for now.
The feel of the game is worlds better. Running around collecting flowers to make your hair grow is strangely satisfying. It's built to make your momentum feel *good.* The hair doesn't pull in behind Iona yet, and we still have to hook it up with the terraforming system, but this is likely how the hair will behave in the final game. Art-wise, it's functional and readable, and we can tint the hair to represent the different trail types. The next time we revisit this, it will probably be for the final art polish pass.
Speaking of which, I've been trying to reconcile my love of bright colors with the fact that Iona should read as a ghost. That's the main piece of feedback I've gotten about her: she's cute, but not particularly 'ghostly.' Ghosts are typically transparent or white, and in games they're usually surrounded by animated smoke of some sort. But somehow that didn't seem right for Iona - she's very powerful, and I didn't want her to seem intangible.
With this coloration, there's much more white at a distance. But I gave her bright colors for highlights and shadows, as though the light hitting her is from some otherworldly source. I'll have more to say about this later, just thought I'd update you on Iona's ongoing evolution.
Back to the main thrust of this post, running in circles is now a core part of the game, and one that has a few more uses beyond what I've mentioned here. It wouldn't have become what it is without the input of playtesters, who found a behavior they liked and wanted to be rewarded for it in some way.
On that note, another thing playtesters tell me quite a bit is that they love trying to stay in the air for a long time without hitting any of the planets. This is on its way to becoming a game mechanic too, so stay tuned. :)
Hey everybody! Exciting stuff is happening. I spent last week at E3, and got a chance to show the game to Kotaku. Head on over to their post to see the first-ever video footage of Gravity Ghost on the internet:
If you're building a game with a team, communicating the design vision in a clear manner is essential. So what does a game design look like?
The most well-known way to describe a game's systems is by writing a Game Design Document. But I much prefer to work visually, so here are 5 ways you can communicate your vision without resorting to long blocks of text.
Few things can sum up your goal like an illustration of the desired result. I sent this to my team on Friday, showing the systems we're going to be building for the next 90 days:
Pencil sketch, plus a Photoshop pass for color and contrast. Done is better than perfect, as they say.
Even if you've embraced the philosophy of rapid prototyping and iteration, at each stage you need a goal to iterate towards. A visual goal can focus the team on what's important, and help the designer avoid the temptation to add extraneous features. And don't underestimate the daily inspiration such an image can provide - I've tacked up the original sketch right next to my scrum board.
2) Slide Show
What if your game needs moving parts to explain what's going on? Not to fret. Presentation software is a remarkably easy way to present the actions of a game in sequence. Here's part of a Powerpoint I made for an educational game contract I worked on last year.
The final presentation had nearly 70 slides illustrating steps in the gameplay. I made a new slide for every animating progress bar and score increase. It took me about two afternoons to put together, a small amount of time compared to the 6 - 7 week dev cycle ahead.
If you're lucky, a series of mock-ups like this can do more than explain your goal: it can energize and inspire the team to do their best work. These particular mini-presentations were popular enough that sometimes a few of the senior faculty would sit in on our meetings. The goofy placeholder art and the informal nature of the presentation invited questions and discussion. It was a real boost for everyone - and reminded us that we were making something fun.
This is an activity I have all my game design students do. I didn't invent this - I first heard about it from the wonderful Steve Swink. The idea is to diagram all the basic components of your game and visualize how they interconnect. Let's take Pac-Man as an example.
Start by writing out all the game's nouns. Most likely these are the components represented by art assets.
Then connect those nouns with the appropriate verbs. This is what the player does in the game.
Next, write out any of the higher-order relationships between various nouns. These aren't necessarily in the player's direct control, but they do serve to make the game more fun. Note the many actions that add to the game's score, and how eating has many different purposes in the game.
I hope this helps to illustrate how even a 'simple' game like Pac-Man has an elegant underlying framework. If you try diagramming your own game, watch out for nodes that don't connect to anything. Everything in the game should have a reason to exist, and this is a good way to cull the things that aren't important.
Here's the Gravity Ghost flowchart (with some exciting secret features blurred out):
More complicated than Pac-Man, but nothing too unwieldy. The interconnections in the top half of the image help to unlock progress later in the game, finally unlocking...well, you'll just have to wait and see. :)
One of the surest ways to communicate your vision is to make it playable. These are screenshots of an earlier build of Gravity Ghost, a game assembled from basic geometry, a few simple scripts, and a single art pass.
The game felt very strange, and the control scheme left a lot to be desired. But a game that's really challenging can also be really fun, and I was amazed by how much the first playtesters got into it. I now had not only a playable prototype but a sense of what needed to improve.
One easy way to demonstrate your design vision is to steal it from a game that already exists. Keep a close eye on the top 100 paid iPhone apps, and simply copy the most successful... just kidding. Never do this. Every time you clone a game an angel smacks a puppy.
5) Illustrated Game Design Doc
If you absolutely must explain your game's systems using large blocks of text, use a visual aid whenever possible. Challenge yourself to present your ideas both visually and in words - people tend to learn better when given redundant information. For some more reading on the subject, check out Stone Librande's excellent slides about One Page Designs.
This is a screencap of what I call the Gravity Ghost "spec doc" - not a true design doc, as we're not updating it. The spec doc outlines the entire scope of the game in a broad sense - I created it to show to potential programmers. Luckily it served its purpose, and I found a programmer willing to dive into the fun world of radial planet gravity.
A little over a year ago my notebooks started filling up with tiny worlds.
I can't say what brought this on, except that I was traveling a lot, and still am. After 7 years making indie games, I've discovered a way to earn a living that lets me keep doing what I love. It means saying yes to every opportunity to share what I do, whether it's speaking in China, consulting in the States, or teaching in Sweden. Last year my trusty suitcase kicked up dust in 15 different cities.
One of my favorite things about being on the road is seeing how life is similar from place to place, and maybe that's how I hit upon the idea that the world is tiny.
The tiny worlds in my sketches had a few recurring themes. Beautiful, lush plant life, climbing into tiny atmospheres. Little animals. Ghosts. I didn't have much time to organize these thoughts, but I kept drawing them, kept wanting to see them evolve. I remember staring bleary-eyed out the window of my overnight flight from Chicago to Stockholm, pencil in hand. It was sunset when I left, sunrise when I arrived. Our plane raced the sun around the Earth, and I couldn't get the picture out of my head.
The project started as an exercise in learning to program. Wanting to improve my game-making abilities, I coded a bunch of things I thought were 'game'-y: health, lives, enemies, death. But the game rejected these transplants, and one by one I took them out. To my surprise I was left with a kernel of original gameplay, one that could likely be spun into a whole universe. I saw lonely planets teeming with life, and in the middle of their forests was a little lost ghost girl trying to find her way home.
I'm here to announce my new game, Gravity Ghost. It's an explorational physics platformer that lets you fling yourself from planet to planet, navigating gravitational fields and orbits. There's an equally important vein of terraforming and cultivating life. Gravity Ghost is being developed in Unity, with love, by a small and dedicated team (plus a good number of volunteers who lend a hand with code, web, and project management). I will have more to share about the project very soon, probably after GDC.
I'm going to make the development process an open one. I want to open a window to any game players, students, or game developers who are curious about how an indie game gets made. The screenshots above, for instance, show the game in its current state. Everything you see is subject to change, from the art to the UI elements. I love watching my games evolve, and I hope you will too.
For regular developments you can subscribe to this website, follow me on Twitter @Livelyivy, or get game updates from the brand new @Gravity_Ghost. On behalf of our team, we hope you enjoy learning about our game. Making an indie game is always an exercise in organizing chaos, and we really hope you join us on this journey.
Poster by Lara Kehler.