Best Games - Penguin Kun Wars
Two tiny, adorable animals face each other grimly across an empty ping pong table. On both sides sit a lineup of brightly coloured balls. These are your weapons. When the whistle blows, the opponents will make a frenzied dash to whip the balls at other side of the table. All balls are in play. If a ball ends up on your side, you can pick it up and send it hurtling back. If one of the animals is struck with a ball, any ball, they will be dazed for a few seconds. If a dazed animal is hit again, the knockdown is extended. When the round timer runs out, and the final buzzer sounds, the player who has managed to end up with the fewest balls on their side, wins. Occasionally an iridescent slinky undulates across the table. That slinky is a dick.
In concept this is the simplest game in the world. If you have ever rolled pool balls back and forth across a pool table, you have played a version of Penguin Kun Wars. Since the fictional world of a video game obeys a strict set of rules, none of the looseness and unpredictable behavior of real physical objects exists. This is dodgeball or marbles or shuffleboard stripped to the very core. The game is iron hard.
Compared to its contemporaries, games from Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami, UPL created a spartan and dull looking game. There is very little in the way of graphical flourishes present in Penguin Kun Wars. The audio is basic and sounds largely lifted from other titles. It looks and sounds like a game several years older than it is, from a less technically capable time. Damning stuff, if the game didn’t play as tightly, as singularly focused as it does.
There are small interstitial mini games and additional wrinkles as you move from match to match in the tournament structure, but none of that really matters. All that matters is that you get those balls to the other side of the table. Roughly two rounds in, the tactic that seemed cheap and unsportsmanlike of continually pelting that poor animal across from you so they never get the chance to stand back up, becomes a basic survival skill. You would toss a knife at that cute, saucer eyed monster if you had it.
Penguin Kun Wars devolves this block coloured world full of stuffed toy creatures into a screaming, clawing death match, never once betraying the games internal violence through its presentation.
Play Penguin Kun Wars, and I defy you not to curse through your gritted teeth.
Penguin Kun Wars is one of the best games.
I nearly fell into a classic game development blunder. At least I assume that it’s a classic, I haven’t really made enough games to know the full spectrum of blunders. I figure if I drunkenly stomp my way into a few of them every week or so I’ll eventually get to all of the classics.
This particular blunder was trying to shoehorn gameplay into a theme.
Most games will hang some sort of story, even very loosely, around the mechanics of the game. Chess names the pieces as if they were mock kingdoms at war. Chess needs no story. It could exist entirely in the abstract. The pieces could be ranked by size, or numbered, or have their movement options etched into them. Any of these options could actually serve the game better, by making it more user accessible. Rather than having to teach a new player that the horse is actually a knight, maybe, and its movements are completely different than any other piece on the board. At one point during the evolution of chess from a much older Indian game, Chaturanga, the horse made good sense. Now it is just a weird relic achieved by having a game adhere to a battlefield theme.
Of course there are several games that are completely abstract, like Reversi (which had theme applied to it when it was later marketed as Othello), Go (which may or may not have arisen from siege tactics), Backgammon, and Tetris. In the case of videogames, a game without a theme is rare. It might have something to do with how we experience them. Fast action on a screen is the domain of drama. We are accustomed to seeing and hearing stories delivered through screens, so adding story, theme, and characters to videogames might be a natural extension of that familiarity.
Whatever the reason, videogames are historically linked to theme, and I made the mistake of prioritizing theme over mechanics. The truth is, games are a do, don’t show, medium. Mechanics always trumps theme. Or always should. Even the mechanic of a Choose Your Own Adventure story is more important than the theme, since the story devolves into nonsense as soon as you diverge from the mechanic of making choices and turning to the appropriate page. The theme is interchangeable with other themes, but the mechanic is not. It is the mechanic of choices in a branching narrative that makes a Choose Your Own Adventure book what it is, not the story.
I had, or maybe have, a theme based around chemistry, or at least a comedic outlook on chemistry. I had done a fair bit of research into actual, real world chemical reactions, and began applying what I learned to the mechanics of my game. I am certain that a game could be built around atomic interactions as we understand them, but I was finding that it was becoming more and more difficult to make the game fun. Or at the very least, not needlessly complex.
I really enjoy the theme I was working with. I even liked some of the jokes I had written based around that theme, but I had lost sight of what makes a game, a game. What is it they always tell you when dealing with creative works? You have to be ready to kill your darlings. If the theme isn’t working for the game, then the theme has to go, not the game mechanics. The very moment this sunk through my head, I came up with (and began implementing) several ways to make the game fun. They will have to be tested as abstract game mechanics to see if they work, and they can’t rely on theme to prop them up if they don’t. Maybe, eventually, I’ll be able to draw the original theme back into the game. If so, then great, but if the game mechanics and the theme are at odds, it is the theme that has to be cut loose every single time.
All of that talk about interfaces and input schemes last week wasn’t for nothing. I was figuring out a few things and, well, this is some of the results.
That video is a prototype interface for the game I’m making. I had messed around with all sorts of mouse and touch control setups and nothing really felt right. It needed to be simple, yet analog enough to give the player a feeling of control. Previously I had a button with a sort of timer on it. The longer the player pressed the button, mouse button, space bar, or x button, the more force would be behind the launch of one of those little marbles. That worked but it felt like landing an intended shot was based more on luck than any learned skill. I had a crude mouse aim setup going for a while, but that didn’t work very well and felt weird.
When I finally arrived at the slider mechanic for launching the marbles it felt natural, offered great player feedback, and works well with mouse, touch, and controller input. Pull down on the slider to apply the desired amount of force, wait until the right moment to let go, and then let go to launch. It’s incredibly simple, but it took a fair bit of work to get it all working consistently well.
The game itself is a riff on games like puzzle bobble where the aim is to fire object accurately at a field of similar objects to make things happen. As you can see in the video, one of the things that can happen is a violent explosion. I have the bubbles set to explode when certain criteria are reached. In the case of this test it’s the countdown of a random timer, but really it could be almost anything. Exploding won’t be the only thing that could happen, it probably won’t even be one of the most common things that could happen, but it’s sort of fun and makes for a good test of the game physics.
Everything in this video is way deep in the prototype phase. I even had some crummy art in place in an earlier test version, but I took it out so that I had to focus only on the gameplay. I have the presentation elements of the game completely separated from the code. I could have it launching bananas and Buicks by tomorrow afternoon, and the game wouldn’t know the difference. I do have a plan for what the presentation will be,but it won’t be food or car related. I’ll get to writing about that later.
I’m looking at this xbox360 gamepad sitting on my desk. There are 6 buttons, two bumpers (which are also buttons), two triggers (squishy analog buttons), two analog thumbsticks (which are buttons if you press down on them), a digital directional pad (4 buttons linked under a single piece of plastic), and a power indicator led (you guessed it, a button). When I pick the thing up I have a minimum of two fingers on each hand not directly hovering over an input. The playstation and wiiu pads are much the same. This standardization is both a boon and a constraint for developers. While you have at least a baseline expectation of the controls your players will be familiar with, you are also restricted to those inputs. To be fair, that is an awful lot of potential inputs, and if you can’t find a way to fit your game into the controls offered in modern gamepads, it might not be the pads that are at fault.
There is also another input system that, inarguably, more people, potential players, are intimately familiar with. Touch screens are so interwoven into most people's lives at this point that pressing your finger to a piece of glass is a many times a day event. Touch screens are interesting, since they offer only one type of physical input, pressing your finger to a piece of glass, but they can be tuned and adjusted to offer an almost limitless number of interactions.
Gamepads, touchscreens, keyboards, mice, and motion detecting devices are all input methods for whatever software you have running. They aren’t controls though. Game controls are how the player tells the game what they want to do. Controls have to work within the constraints of the input methods, but they are two separate things and require a different mindset. I laid out how many buttons are on a standard gamepad earlier, but that variety is meant to accommodate any game a developer can come up with. Designing controls is more like creating a conversation.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about controls schemes lately. For one, I have been working on the controls for my own game, so that gets the old gears a turning. Also I have been playing a lot of older games recently. It’s really at looking at older video games that you can start to tear down control schemes. If you only look at more recent games, the controls are either so well established that they have become dogma, or they are so novel that we are not yet aware of how they could be improved.
Modern first person shooters, for example, often include bindings reminiscent of other games in the genre since they are basically riffs on the same tune. They actually use the same controls as their competitors as a selling point. Moving from Call of Duty to Halo? No problem, there is a setup for that, just hit the same buttons and make explosions happen. This works well for that style of game, but what happens when we adopt that same fps control scheme to a game like Everyone's Gone to the Rapture. That game was roundly criticized for being too slow, too sparse, and maybe it just wasn’t a good fit for a control scheme built around high speed competitive games. Just because the controls are comfortable to a lot of players doesn’t mean that it is an appropriate conversation vehicle between them and your game.
Likewise, adopting a dual stick control system on touch screen devices is rarely optimal. Anytime gameplay can be obscured by the player's thumb, the conversation between them and the game breaks down.
I struggled with creating suitable controls for my own game. I attempted to incorporate properties of mice, gamepads, and touchscreens and everything felt poor. They were all half measure solutions. Then it occurred to me that what I really want is for the player to be able to converse with the game. The player provides input and receives feedback in equal measure. As soon as that clicked for me, I reduced all the control complexity I had been building down to one finger press, one analog stick, or one mouse movement. All now work equally well since I wasn’t designing for the controller, I was designing for the player.
Much has been made of the walking simulators. Games like Gone Home, Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, or Sunset. These are games where the players primary goal is to exist in a different place for a while, and maybe, as an aside, read, watch, or listen to a story. For such inherently gentle experiences they have proven to be polarizing, often in angry ways. There is an entire factions of people who wring hands about whether these experiences can be allowed to call themselves games. It’s an argument that I find so profoundly dumb I don’t really feel like addressing it head on. Since I’m the one writing, I won’t. We demolished the border between what is and is not a game sometime in the mid 90s when the band Primus put Macromedia director content on their “interactive” CDs. Game is a catch all term for interactive experiences. Sometimes words are hard folks. We don’t always use the right ones, and whatever the argument against using the term “game” is, that ship has sailed far past the horizon by now.
So game it is then.
I think I might know where the anger comes from though. There is an either/or mentality among some folks that manifests itself as fear. Sure games are a very trivial things, but they are also a lot of peoples main hobby. If they aren’t working, sleeping, or otherwise dealing with life they are playing games. The amount of time and energy sunk makes gaming important, regardless of any objective value. Now here is where the either/or mentality kicks in. If a game like Gone Home starts to receive a lot of praise, and it’s not the type of game that the person who puts a heavy value on games enjoys, there is a fear that developers will create more games like Gone Home, and less of everything else. Which is false of course. Except it’s not. That fear is at least half right. There will be a lot more walking simulators in our near future.
The reason is VR. There are at least three actual consumer products coming in the next year or so that a decent number of self identified gamers will be buying. The will buy these headsets with millimeter accurate positional tracking and positional sound systems and they will want to use them to play a game. The VR headsets ability to make you feel like you are existing in a different place weaves together so tightly with the walking simulators aims of telling story through environment, the result is inevitable. There will be a lot of games created where you move slowly and have a story told to you. There will be lots of elements for a player to interact with, to be sure games are still a medium of interaction, but the walking simulators are coming. They are coming, and they will just keep getting better.
Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Evil Dead, and On Golden Pond all came out in 1981. These are all very different movies, that seem on the surface to target different audiences. They are all amazing and intensely enjoyable movies. While I could imagine the person that wouldn’t seek out each of these movies individually, there is also an audience that watched them all. More importantly, the success of one didn’t come at the cost of the other. There is no either/or when it comes to what people enjoy. There is only ‘and’.
The walking simulators are coming, but maybe, just maybe, what we learn about creating interactive experiences will make all games better.