CAT | Art

Puzzle Retreat as we know it today is a far cry from where it began in May 2011. It started as a third-person game about felling trees, and it finished as a relaxing minimal board game about sliding ice blocks. In between, it ventured into a massive variety of themes and styles, including one where you were responsible for unfurling dragons by the pool so they could sunbake. It’s had explosions, bad guys, tractors, floating islands and even storylines. The game you play today was only possible with eighteen months of refinement, simplification and a whole lot of love from a creative team striving to make the ultimate logical puzzler for mobile. This is Puzzle Retreat’s game dev story.

The Pitch

Yangtian Li pitches an idea for a game

Lumberjacks cut wood.

Carpenters make things.

Yangtian Li, our in-house artist at the time, pitched to the team an elaborate design for a lumberjack-come-carpenter game. You fell trees in the forest, bring them home and make furniture. You can then unlock, sell and buy different design schematics, paints, flourishing details, and then trade what you make with other players online.

Add a Splash of Puzzle

Henrik Pettersson was immediately inspired by the puzzle potential of felling trees in a forest.  His first design was a puzzle game where the trees fall into each other and knock each successive tree down dominoes style. The second design, and eventual winner, focused on your player character who stands behind each tree to push it over. You must have enough space to stand behind the tree to push and there must be space for the tree to fall onto. This puzzle design requires you to find the right order to knock all the trees down whilst keeping the appropriate spaces free, and not locking yourself in.

The first concept, and it starts with a forest of trees!

We really liked the potential depth of puzzles this mechanic presented, and the simplicity of the interaction. Playtesters were scratching their heads and smiling, and we could feel the potential of this game really standing out – it’s a brain scratcher that can fit into a few minutes a day on a mobile.

Save the Ozone

Icons avoid the problem of tall trees

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The best art style for a logic puzzle doesn’t get in the way of a players ability to see and solve the puzzle itself.

Agent Tian and I researched what art principles were used in defining art styles for logical puzzle games. This information will be  relevant to other small development studios, as well as artists and students of game design.

We gathered data about the audiences of various games from the Facebook pages and user reviews of those titles. We found that Train Conductor 2, being a score based arcade game, attracts a much younger and tech savvy audience than is common for logical puzzle games.

Here are two typical sets of demographic data we’ve gathered from users interacting on the games facebook pages:
If you’re unfamiliar with Quell it’s a fantastic logical puzzle game that is performing well on Android phones. On their website you can read about the Making of Quell where you can read their development story.

Train Yards is a successfull logical puzzle game developed by Matt Rix. In his postmortem at GDC this year he talked about the difference between developing for casual players and harcore players. The slides are available for free here and you can listen to the full talk if you have access to the GDC vault here.

When developing a game for gamers you can skip several levels of teaching. With 10 years of gaming experience comes vast a priori knowledge of computer interfaces and how they usually respond to player input. For example, I’m sure you have, at some point in life, been completely mind boggled by the inability of an old relative to move files across folders.

We’ve seen endless cases, while playtesting with a casual audience, where the play tester develops the most obscure theories of what the game rules are. The cause of these theories is simply miscommunication by us, the developers. By stripping the game of unnecessary art assets we can greatly reduce this problem: less art assets mean less objects for players to develop wacky theories about.

We can see a clear connection between logical puzzle games that value graphical prettiness more than usability, and bad chart performance. We see the opposite effect when usability is considered first. It is clear that puzzle games that value usability over art outperform on the marketplace. Sudoku is a good example because there so many Sudoku apps (Appannie gives 823 results).

The players top favorite Sudoku game out of those 823 competitors is the example to the right. Their secret? They have the largest buttons possible.

The GDC talk “How to make your player feel smart” by Randy Smith (available for free here) gives advice about puzzles in games. He references the book “The Design of Everyday Things” and further emphasises the following principle:

Look at the example on the right. Though you might not be sure of the rules or the objective at an initial glance everyone will know how a car moves and player will try to interact with the element in that manner. Logical puzzle games that stick to this principle are clear favorites among the players. For example, see Traffic Jam & Cross Fingers

I will hold off with the remaining slides of the presentation. They rely heavily on statistics and I don’t want to bloat this post with pie charts. If you like that sort of stuff send me an email (henrikpettersson@thevoxelagents.com) and I can provide you with the whole presentation but you will have to draw some conclusions by yourself. I will publish the remaining data with descriptions sometime in the future.

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In 2011 we made loads of prototype games; some small, some funny, some that sucked, almost all ugly (except the lucky few that receive Tian’s touch :D). Here’s a visual tour of 20 of the 24 games that we made in five months. Together they paint the picture of what Voxel Agent games look like when they’re born – a mish-mash of squares, circles and terrible colour schemes!


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We like to use paper prototypes to test our ideas. We find it helps to test ideas really quick, and playing board games is a pretty super job to have 😀 We like it so much, our next game came from a board game prototype.

It’s the weekend, and maybe you don’t have much to do… Or maybe you’re attending the Freeplay Festival like us and get all inspired to make some games. To help you, we put together a generic set of board game pieces that you can use to develop your own board game! Download the pdfs below, print them on A4 and get started prototyping new boardgames! The set contains a total of eighteen unique pieces for you to play with 😀
Three “good” characters
Three “bad” characters
A house
A treasure chest and a coin
Three environment pieces
A life
Five generic symbols
And all of these icons in easy to print PDF’s are available here and here.
So get crackin!

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The Voxel Afternoon Tea! Sound’s awesome, doesn’t it?

As creative individuals we are always producing new ideas, but how can we continually produce without also absorbing ideas?

So, we came up with this idea of holding an ‘afternoon tea’ session every Friday lunchtime. During tea each Agent shares something that they have recently discovered or found interesting and we all discuss.

We thought you might be interested to check what each person shared!

 

Name: Agent Matt
Material shared: Not Tetris 2
Play it on: http://www.stabyourself.net/nottetris2
Reason for sharing: I think it’s an interesting subversion of a classic game. The ‘broken-ness’ of it just works, and it is self documenting.



Reflection
Henrik: I’m impressed of the product. It’s been taken way beyond what he needed to show the concept. I’m not entirely sure what the developer is trying to tell or show us more than that its works but regardless I’m impressed.
Simon: I like how the whimsical controls match the developer’s attitude in destroying a classic 😀
Tom: Subversive! Loved how he broke the rules of tetris by making the blocks not behave the way they should, but the players objective remained the same. I’d love to see someone clock this game (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keeSEJG4XzU).
Tian: It’s interesting to watch it, but I don’t think it will be as enjoyable as the original Tetris…
Ramsey: Great Rehash on a classic, lovin it bro

 

henrik

Name: Agent Henrik
Material shared: Amnesia Dark Descent Gameplay Video
Reason for sharing: Along with Limbo, Amnesia was the best game I played last year.



Reflection
Matt: Watching videos of people’s reactions is always interesting. It’s incredible just how psychologically hooked people can get, even though they can just walk away at any time.
Simon: Amnesia looks like an horrifying ride and I want to take it 😀
Tom: I need to play this game, but after watching that video I also need to play it on skype with Simon.
Tian: I was worried at first when you told me it’s going to be scary, because I tend to scream if I see something scary. But I didn’t and it was kinda confusing… and funny. However I still would not play the game, just because it’s a scary game and I’ve experienced enough scary things.
Ramsey: Looked fantastic, I’ll get on it as soon as I grow a pair to play horror games lol. It seems the developers really understood how to manipulate the emotions and fear of the player and tweak it to ALMOST the point of snapping.

 

Name: Agent Simon
Materials shared: Live coding!
Reason for sharing: These guys inspired some of my final year work at uni and have been an ongoing inspiration. I like the idea of using a computer as an instrument, and not just to play samples, but to use it’s logic to generate interesting melodies on the fly.


Reflection
Henrik: Much admiration to the people who travel in new direction of creativity. Extra interesting since it’s an area I too wish to explore.
Matt: Code as performance is awesome!
Tom: Loved the performative aspect of this. Reminded me of conditional design more than generative design.
Tian: It’s always amazing for me when someone can do both art and programming. They would have some really symmetrical looking brain I think. 😀
Ramsey: Future sailors, taking retro to its logical conclusion! Boosh aside, this looks really cool and I’d love to see where these guys end up creatively in a year or two’s time. It seems to me that once they master their tools ( which they created lol ) they will definitely come into their own.

 

Name: Agent Tom
Material shared: We are the Strange (trailer).
Reason for sharing: Striking visuals and an amazing story. I love how it combines so many different types of visual elements and twists them into an unholy creation of amazing awesome.

Reflection
Henrik: Don’t know if I’d enjoy the movie but will see it because of it uniqueness. If we did not have creations like these our culture would be very dull.

Matt: Crazy video, I imagine it would have been very difficult to juxtapose all of the various techniques.
Simon: I don’t know whether I like his commitment or his craziness more.
Tian: Interesting find, I would love to know how he can afford to make such a long movie by himself. 18 months of production time doesn’t sound like a long enough period for making a good quality movie to me. Also I would love to know how he promoted and sold it, I think it’s really hard to market this kind of film.
Ramsey: Really cool animation man, I can’t wait to pull out the popcorn and anti-seizure pills and let it siege my senses.

 

Name: Agent Tian
Material shared: Get Out – Animated Short
Reason for sharing: Awesome story and imaginative visual style, and the concept is very funny yet heartwarming. Best animated short I saw at MIAF so far this year.


Reflection

Henrik: Fantastic short by people with skills and understanding that goes beyond animation goodness. I think the isolation cell metaphor worked for the most part. The additional details noticed through a second screening were few but impressive.
Matt: Great surprise ending. I was starting to feel really sorry for the guy. Sometimes you think if people can be happy in their own head-space, why should we force them to change? I think this video shows why.
Simon: Cleverly French.
Tom: Great animation. Interesting world. I didn’t actually like the ending. It made everything ok and nice and fine in the world… to me that’s as good a story device as “it was all a dream”. Nice twist in the tale though, I’ll give it that. Animation: 10 points.
Ramsey: Really great little short, beautiful animation and characters, im glad you shared this with me, I will definitely be showing this to my friends!

 

Agent Ramsey shared a top secret idea, so will remain in the vault 😛

Where do you find your best sources of creative inspiration? Please post in the comments any interesting things you’ve found on the internet as we’re really interested to see what inspires you.

 

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So, here is another piece of concept art that I’ve been working on… Other agents find this scene a bit too dark – but maybe they are just too bright for it! 😉 What do you think?

Ravens in the graveyard

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For those of you who appreciate art, here is two piece of concept art for you. 🙂

What are they? Top secret apparently.

But I can tell you in the first picture that Leprechaun is a girl named Pamela.

If you like to see these art styles in our future game, let us know! 😀

Happy Garden?

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