My Decade With GameMaker: About a Ball Turns Ten

As I was furiously working on my Emotional Mecha Jam game Orbital Paladin Melchior Y the other week, the tenth anniversary of my first GameMaker-made release, About a Ball, whizzed by without my notice.

So I’ve now been working in GameMaker and GameMaker Studio for over a decade. Before I purchased a license for GameMaker version 7, I hadn’t touched game design since 2003, when I collaborated with WiL Whitlark on the 24 Hours of ZZT game AdversiTurtle (I’d cut my game-making teeth in ZZT starting in 1997). My intervening six years had been devoted to filmmaking, having worked on over a dozen comedy shorts in some capacity with my collaborators at Bombdotcom Productions. In early 2009, I was wrapping up post-production on the feature film comedy I directed and co-wrote with Enoch Allred, Legends of Minigolf: The Flamingo’s Challenge. Somewhat to my own surprise, when I imagined my next creative project, I found my mind wandering back to video games and thinking I had some ideas about the intersection of narrative and gameplay (perhaps of interest is that one of the first projects I imagined was a Persona 3-influenced, visual novel-style adaptation of my own film Legends of Minigolf: The Flamingo’s Challenge)

I was reading a lot of anna anthropy’s articles about level design and was inspired by both her use of GameMaker in the creation of games like Mighty Jill Off . Not really sure where to start, I found a multi-stage tutorial Derek Yu had written on the TigSource forums walking the reader through the creation of a simple scrolling shoot-‘em-up. I followed along, creating a small shmup starring a space lion fighting black blobs. I improvised some power ups and other features and started to feel comfortable with how things worked under GameMaker’s hood.

My game-making ambitions were vague (outside of some way-beyond-my-scope blockbuster-budgeted pipe dreams), but I knew I had long wanted to develop a game like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link but with a stronger narrative and emotional component. I’d definitely have to learn how to make a platformer.

I downloaded a few sample platformer templates for GameMaker, but the kinds of coding I saw other people using didn’t mesh with what I’d come to understand about object interaction and movement from Yu’s tutorial. I was also still drawing  lot of my programming intuition from my teenage experiences with ZZT. So, instead, I took the GML (GameMaker Language) scripting I’d learned from my lion shmup, and painstakingly fumbled through the basics of jumping and movement (note that half of my ZZT output was made up of various types of platformers).

It’s cliché, of course, for amateur game-makers to hastily draw shapes (especially circles and squares) as the placeholder objects in their experiments, but I happened to add eyes to mine and began to think of it as a little character in its own right. Its enemies naturally became different, more angular shapes with crueler eyes. My experiments with collision, obstacles, and movement led me to crafting a small series of passages for the ball to traverse, and soon I found that I’d created a small network of rooms that folded in on themselves. I was making a game that I thought was actually kind of fun. I started implementing some of the ideas about level design I’d been meditating on, including the idea of the player’s goal being visible from the very first screen of the game.

About a Ball (a more or less meaningless pun on About a Boy, a title befitting an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon) is a brutal game. It took me a couple dozen tries to beat it again this morning, despite its short length. The version I have here is actually an updated and revised edition from 2012. Its original incarnation was even more brutal, with only five lives to lose before it forcibly kicked you out of the game (completely unnecessary, since the only progress that carries over from life to life is tripped switches and blood-stained spikes).

It has a fixed, awkward jump with no gradations and no variability (there’s no sense of gravity, as you fall and jump at the exact same rate in each frame, in much the same way as my old ZZT platformers, and you don’t hover at the peak of your jump). However, the game’s sole stage is designed around this limitation. There’s no real story to speak of here. From the moment your red ball appears in the industrial warehouse-esque environment, the player only knows they have to make their way to the Lemmings-esque portal on the other side of the starting chamber’s wall.

The game has an absolutely opaque, inscrutable scoring system based on time spent and (maybe?) lives lost. My score from my most recent completion was 62,682. I can’t tell you what that means. It would’ve been higher if I’d taken less time.

At any rate, About a Ball was released to my blog on February 13, 2009. This was before GameJolt and itch.io provided a good place to house free game releases, so it was almost certainly entirely played by people in my social circle. I wouldn’t complete another game until 2010’s Pirate Kart entry Watch Ducks, even though I did attempt a handful of narrative platformer ideas with scopes way beyond what I was ready for. My experience mucking around with the interactions between About a Ball’s platforming mechanics soon led to a half decade of focusing almost entirely on tongue-in-cheek riffs on game clichés like the scoring system in Watch Ducks or wholly mechanical explorations of tweaks on the basic grammar of platforming games like Bulb Boy and ExpandoScape, mostly developed for quickie Glorious Trainwrecks events.

In this time, “narrative” (in its most conventional definition) in my game design work was mostly explored as a humorous framing device or an ironic counterpoint to a game’s mechanics. For my more mechanical experiments I was very into an idea of games inherently possessing narrative so long as they were running—if a player avatar progresses from the starting post to the goal post, a narrative has been expressed, even if it lacks traditional representational ideas. So into this concept was I that in 2012, when I released Caverns of Khron, I left out any contextualizing text within the body of the game itself and when I approached my friend Jane Allred to write a backstory for the game’s manual, I gave it the header of merely “A Story”—its own text fairly vague, but intended to allow the player to project whatever they saw in the adventures of a purple-haired adventurer’s sword-aided descent through increasingly bizarre screens purely derived from the interaction of objects on screen.

Only in the last couple years have I started to get back to exploring the richer narrative concepts that drew me back to game design a decade ago and resulted in the narrative-light About a Ball: Knight Moves, Liz & Laz, Nibblin’, and Monster Hug all have integrated story sequences. Further, while Temple of the Wumpus leaves a lot unsaid, it is a game all about reading and studying hundreds of bits of text to guide your avatar through a spiritual journey to which I want the player to bring a certain amount of their own experience (and, by no mere coincidence, is my most direct riff on Zelda II to date). Orbital Paladin Melchior Y fuses the action shooting genre with a visual novel format. What’s more is that I’m doing all of this in GameMaker Studio, having moved beyond awkward jumps and minor tutorial variations to scripting an entire visual novel system that integrates with a shmup. Having written my first visual novel, I’m eager to continue to explore what can be done at the intersection of my focus on mechanics and level design and the power of story.

Explobers at SAAM Arcade 2018

Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz

I’m very pleased to announce that my game Explobers will be featured as one of fifteen games in the indie game showcase at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s fourth annual SAAM Arcade event in Washington, DC, on Sunday, July 22, 2018! I’ll be there with the game with two computers running a special abbreviated edition of the game built for this exhibition. If you can be there, please stop by and say hi!

You can read more about the event on SAAM’s website. Admission to the museum is free. The theme of this year’s event is game spaces.

In addition to Explobers and the other indie games, there will be classic arcade and console games be presented by MAGFest and Arcades4Home, while Boolean Girl will be doing coding workshops. Artist Saya Woolfalk will also be giving a talk at 4pm.

Explobers is available for free download at itch.io and GameJolt. Please consider donating if you like it!

_______________________

The Explobers press kit is available here.

Ninety Games in Two Decades

~In which I celebrate a game-making milestone by indulging in some navel-gazing bullshit~

This website is now home to a full ninety (90) free games! The earliest game on the site dates back to September 1, 1997’s truly embarrassing ZZT game Bob: The Adventure and runs up to June 7, 2018’s Liz & Laz: Episode 1: The Control Cubes. This isn’t as interesting a number as 100 will be–I expect I’ll hit that some time next year–but if you’ll forgive me, dear reader, I’m gonna get all retrospective for a bit anyway.

Relatedly, the release of my 90th game coincides roughly with the twenty-year anniversary of the launch of my first website, Newt’s Pond, which first went up on Geocities on June 10, 1998. It was a true Geocities site, and you can see a facsimile of what it looked like at launch archived at Neocities. The site would change over the years, but it was initially home to two webpages, ZZT Planet (a place to download my (Newt’s) games) and Moo@You, a page that advocated role-playing as an obnoxious cow in random chat rooms. Before the launch of Newt’s Pond, my handful of ZZT games had been released on my cousin Glynth’s site.

Liz & Laz is a fitting milestone for a personal game-making history that starts in ZZT. I was inspired to create it when revisiting some old ZZT “engine games,” particularly platformers. Engine games were ZZT worlds that used ZZT’s standard, uneditable four-direction player character to touch other objects that would manipulate a scripted player object. Playing some other vintage platformers led me back to thinking about some of my own. This dual player mechanic is actually pretty interesting!

My first engine game was Punctuation People, made in the summer of 1998, a game that began its life as an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros. game in ZZT (all the game’s enemies are modeled on Mario enemies, a fact somewhat obscured by the ASCII character set). It was my first game that wasn’t a sloppy “comedy” adventure game. I was thinking of Punctuation People with its awkward occupation of a sizable portion of screen real estate. Like a lot of engine platformers, it surrounded the player on all sides with control objects. I was also thinking of my 1999 Lemmings clone Zem! 2 in which the player instead has indirect control over Zem, who marches forward mindlessly, but the player can have Zem perform actions by moving themselves along a row of buttons and touching them. The additional movement the main player object is required to perform impacts the rhythm of the game significantly.

 

Liz & Laz started out from this observation about a ZZT genre as something intended as a kind of intentionally frustrating homage; I thought I’d make it a brief sketch of a game that I’d tinker with for a couple nights and then release half as a joke. I was surprised at how compelling I found the mechanic to play when testing it, though. Soon I was polishing up animations and fine-tuning level design (I was also inspired visually by the glorious platformer games by Kabusoft which I’m in the middle of writing up for my new review blog Jots on Dots). I reinterpreted the ZZT command objects to a human-sized gamepad and decided I’d make it a two-tiered platformer, in which Liz in the control console jumps on gamepad buttons to make her unseeing partner Laz walk, jump, and shoot.

I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and when I counted up how many games I had on the site, I was delighted that my 90th game had so many connections to places I’d been before.

It is perhaps unsuprising that at this phase in my game-making I’m reflecting on my past work a lot. The 90 games housed here are spotty in quality and it’s sometimes a little weird to me that unfunny “comedy” games I made when I was 14 sit presented here with almost equal weight as games I’ve spent three months polishing. But I like that uncurated retrospective of my own work. And I’ve been taking surprising inspiration from it, as well as revisiting and rethinking the scenes I was a part of.

My output has been spotty, with long lulls. In 2012 alone, I released 38 games, including Caverns of Khron, which I worked on for 11 months–all while attending school full-time, working part-time, and relocating to Japan for a year of study abroad (I should note that 25 of these were made in the span of two weeks for Pirate Kart V)! This was a giddy period of experimentation and exploration, when I was getting good enough at Game Maker to make more complex games quickly, was standardizing and streamlining my bag of programming tricks, and was brimming with mechanical and aesthetic ideas I hadn’t tried yet, all drawing off the infectious creative energy at Glorious Trainwrecks. Between 2013 and 2015, I released no games for almost two full years, occupied by other interests, life events, and the beginning of grad school. Most importantly, making games didn’t sound all that fun for a little while.

My creative impulses ebb and flow. Since ending my game-making hiatus in the spring of 2015 with one of my personal favorites among my games, Shadow Wrangler (like Laz & Liz another Lemmings-inspired game that could be defined as “platforming by proxy”), I’ve been making a few games a year and tending toward larger, more polished projects. It’s harder for me to sit down and make a game in four hours like I used to six years ago; I’ve become increasingly interested in stronger game cohesion and narratives, accessible player experiences, and more careful, focused development in my practice.

I have some very exciting plans yet on the horizon in 2018, and some of it is going to involve revisiting unfinished projects and a return to old titles and ideas (a return to Zem! might even be on the table). At the same time, I’m really not sure where things go from here. Liz & Laz, like a lot of my games, started as a lark that spun into something else entirely (and a 1,000-word, self-obsessed ramble). I’m about to head deep into developing a game for the Wumpus Jam I’m hosting (please join!) and I only have a vague sense of what that’s going to look like. Thanks for playing!

(And thanks Alexis JAnson for STK!)

Jots on Dots, a New Review Blog

I’m happy to announce the launch of my blog Jots on Dots: Thoughts on Digital Games. In order to explain what the blog is about and what I hope to accomplish with it, I’ll just quote the mission statement from the site’s About page:

Purpose

Jots on Dots: Thoughts on Digital Games is a blog that seeks to offer two solutions to problems I have: one, I’d like to write about games more; and two, I’d like to see small games written about more.

There are a handful of great sites that regularly recommend (mostly) new free and indie game releases (including some personal favorites like Warp Door, hmtwvcicbid, and FreeIndieGa.me), which tend to follow the freeindiegam.es model of zero or minimal commentary. I love this work and it’s supremely valuable. These sites also post a much higher volume of games than I will be able to here.

But we are in an age where there are thousands of games released every month–tens of thousands every year!–and hardly anything gets written about any of them, save for pre-relese hype and at-release reviews for the work of larger studios and a handful of celebrity indies. As a person who values criticism and scholarship, this dearth of discussion pains me a bit. You see responses on feedback store pages and creators’ websites, but these tend to be either written primarily for the benefit of the game creator or at as a sort of advertisement to the potential customer. Feedback isn’t really commentary. There are a lot of great, small games out there in the world and I want to do my small purpose to give them the consideration I believe they are worthy of.1

Here, I’m looking to write short reflections and essays (we’ll use the sloppy term “review”) that seek to work out in words what I think these games offer. Yes, I want to recommend games I enjoy, but I also want to do a kind of work on these games to expand their seen-ness, including indie games from previous years, many of which risk getting lost to time completely as they sink further and further into the back catalog of indie game portals.

Scope

I’m not limiting myself to new releases. Nor am I necessarily limiting myself to indie games. Expect to see some write-ups of old DOS games, vintage indies, and the occasional big-name game I’ve been playing lately. I’m sensitive to the fact that small, free games especially tend to be labors of love by individuals, so I don’t expect you’ll see much negativity here.

I’m a game-maker myself (see Whatnot Games). I’m also a scholar of Japanese literature and popular culture. The games you’ll see written about here will reflect my intensely personal tastes (and may reflect whatever games I’m playing to research current projects). I’m also looking to introduce small, interesting Japanese games that will be accessible to people who don’t know Japanese.

Developing with Glorious Trainwrecks

This essay was originally written for the “Glorious Trainwrecks X Babycastles” zine for the Spring 2018 exhibition of the same name at Babycastles in New York.

The “development” in game development emphasizes process. You write a novel. You compose a song. You develop a game. The term conjures up an extensive and lengthy process of experimentation, revision, rearrangement, expansion, and polish. The project folders–tangible and digital–of any number of game makers would attest to this process, full of in-development projects that failed to come together, exceeded manageable scope, or could not sustain the interest of the game’s author or team, none of which will ever see the light of day.

Jeremey “SpindleyQ” Penner’s original introduction to Glorious Trainwrecks states “this site is about nothing, if it is not about getting off your ass and creating.” The site’s (roughly) two-hour Klik of the Month Klub events aren’t game jams. They’re not don’t-sleep, days-long frenzies of activity with teams. They’re non-competitive. They liberate the game maker from the desert of half-thoughts and projects stuck in developmoent limbo by asking them to just have a thought and complete it.

To complete it and release it to a diverse community of interested individuals, no matter the thought’s genre or its execution. The games that others at Glorious Trainwrecks have made have entertained me, inspired me (both inside and outside of my game-making), made me rethink things, and fostered a strong sense of community. And the community’s always growing and evolving. It develops with new participants, new games, and new thoughts. A creative process with lots to show for it.

Unfinished Game: Zem! for Bang!

Around 2003, I was twenty and my friend ADV was developing a ZZT-inspired game creation system called Bang!. I had retired from ZZT a year before with the release of Zem! X, a final entry in a series of Lemmings-inspired games. At the time I was mostly focused on drawings and wasn’t especially interested in continuing game development, and certainly not in learning programming. While Bang!, heavily inspired by ZZT, used a language much like that system’s ZZT-OOP, it was much more powerful and, as you might guess, much more complex. While it retained a tile-based character system like ZZT’s, it allowed an infinite expansion of the character set and multi-colored characters, basically making sprites possible. Having primarily worked with text-mode systems, this was very appealing to me. But learning new programming somehow wasn’t.

In early 2003, ADV agreed to do the programming work on a new project if I’d lead up design on a project and provide the art assets. I still had some game ideas I’d been itching to try. And so I began plans for a game based on Zem! X‘s lemming hunter concept, to be entitled simply Zem!

At the time, I was enamored with the idea of open world games and Pokémon and wanted to add a bit of that grand scope to the project. Rather than the stage-by-stage challenge of Zem! X in which the player had to shoot one lemming, Zem, in order to move onto the next level, this game would find the player (choosing from a dozen or so potential avatars) on a journey to advance through the ranks of the Zem Catching Agency, an organization that returned pet zems to their owners, captured zems in the wild to be sold as pets, and removed nuisance zems. As you can see, “lemmings” had been replaced by “zems,” though clearly their designs were still inspired by the critters in Lemmings. Beyond the standard, blue-clad zems who simply marched ever forward, there would be fire-breathing zems, flying angelic zems, giant cyclops zems, and even goth zems–just for starters.

The game would have free-range areas where the player could hunt down rare or unique zems to raise in ranks or earn money as well as specific mission levels. Zem! was to have a massive world map that the player would need to expend resources to navigate by buying bus and plane tickets. There were to be major hub cities and little towns, belying my infatuation with Zelda 2. Somewhere in there, plans for online multiplayer modes were also sketched out, where players could compete or cooperate via peer-to-peer connections using the characters in their save files. There would be dozens of playable avatars.

It perhaps goes without saying that plans for the game quickly became unruly. In truth, I both had a hard time managing the scale and flow of the game and I’m not sure that I ever had the clearest idea where it was all going except for some vague vision. Eventually, WiL (who was already planning to provide music for the project) took over programming, but even still the game lacked direction on my end, I hit a block, and, as a result, the project was abandoned. Basically, the scope got out of control, my ambition couldn’t match by then-ability as a game director, and it was unsustainable.

ADV eventually discontinued Bang! and began working on his next ZZT-inspired game creawtion system, Plastic, which attracted an even bigger following, if I remember correctly. WiL made some awesome stuff for it. I think I flirted with getting involved with Plastic, but never produced anything.

In the meantime, WiL, Brian Polak, and I made Tetrovny! in Bang! (we were all really into exclamation points in titles in those days, it seems). WiL made a handful of really neat Bang! games, continuing his innovative and boundary-pushing work in ZZT.

A few months ago, I uncovered some of my old notes, old art assets, and some old builds that I could still get running (forgive the sophomoric humor and drug references–we were young). I took a couple videos of the game at different stages.

The first includes the opening cinematic sequence as well as a city environment and the game’s menu.

The second is a demonstration of the game’s weapons and different zem types. I can’t believe I thought that tile-based parallax scrolling underground was going to be at all acceptable.

Below is a lineup of the varieties of zems I’d designed for the game. As I mentioned above, each would have had its own behaviors, and there would have been even more than these:

And finally, I’ve dug up a video captured by YouTube user JaqMs of a build of the game I don’t have in my archives.

I’ve occasionally thought about revisiting this project–or at least the concept–and adapting it to Game Maker. After primary design work was done on Caverns of Khron I actually began a Game Maker version, recycling much of the assets from the Bang! version, but it again suffered from lack of a clear direction, and it stalled out before I got as far as programming the tranquilizers. Meanwhile, the basic ideas explored here and in other games of the Zem! series have heavily inspired my games Penguin Mania XSuper Stone BallShadow Wrangler, and the upcoming Explobers.

NOTE: If you’re looking for Bang! itself, I have the most recent release (1.1c) I had available for download here. It’s an old program now and originally came with an installer, so I can’t guarantee how well these files will work. I know someone wrote some documentation for how to use it, but I can’t find it anywhere. I may try to upload whatever games I can locate on my hard drives that were actually released, though most of what I have is my own and others’ in-progress builds.

Pirate Kart V Highlights: Volume 2

I can’t believe I made the first post almost half a year ago!  Still, I’ve been meaning to write up a few more of my favorite games from Pirate Kart V.  With Caverns of Khron recently released and a planned busy late-December working on a handful of other games (in addition to my classes), I figured I’d take a few minutes to write up another ten games.

secondsleftSeconds Left by Elektron

Elektron’s single-screen platformer is brutally difficult.  It’s perhaps a little too ungenerous when it comes to hit detection and so on, but for pixel-perfect, fast-paced platforming, it’s pretty darn good (when I played it x months ago, I got a lot farther than I did before playing it again this evening).  Where it really excels is its interesting punishment for failing to clear a level.  Rather than giving you finite lives or making you simply repeat the level from the beginning, the game boots you back to the beginning of the previous level.  It’s a pretty ingenious approach to progression, as advancing farther really feels earned.

Tower Defense by Bento Smile

You may know Bento Smile’s name from any of a number of excellently designed games with supremely charming visuals (and a modicum of fame with Air Pressure from a few years back).  I’ve played a lot of tower defense games in my time and this is by far the funniest.

skeletonsSkeletons in the Closet by JF Roco

I never had a Spectrum ZX-82, and have never even seen one (though I recently saw a shelf full of games at a game store in Akihabara).  I think I missed out, because people who played that machine a lot went on to make things like La Mulana and a trilogy of games made by JF Roco for Pirate Kart V.  This was my favorite of them, a simple but slick, stylish platformer.  Obviously, games like this have a special place in my heart, but really, this game’s biggest flaw is (as EffBee notes on the comments section for the game) that it just ends to soon.  I could happily play through 50 levels of this.

Proximity Mime by Chris Chung

Are mime jokes old hat?  Yes.  Did I enjoy this game that involves dodging mimes?  Yes.  In part, because you yourself play a mime.  And further, the  mimes have pantomime apples that make you lose.  It’s a simple, fun joke played well.  Its core dodging and moving feel pretty good too!

beholderDie Hero by Petri Purho

In this game, your avatar carries a sword, but more importantly he–like the monsters he fights–is equipped with a set of multi-sided dice (that he gets more of as he levels up, defeating monsters).

The game occasionally rolls entire game boards that are effectively impossible (giving you nothing but enemies with more dice with more sides than your own).  But throwing the dice down after entering battle is just quite a bit of fun.  It’s something I wouldn’t mind seeing further developed.


waspsvdemonsWasps vs. Demons: A Love Story
by atuun

A surprisingly long and lush visual novel about the forbidden love between Wasp and Demon royalty.  It’s played at just the right tone to be engrossing and ridiculous.  The game came about as a result of one of the donor’s request rewards: “Wasps VS Demons! A love story!” It’s basically wonderful.

Also see the game’s Launch Day DLC.

Dammit Snake by Guilherme Töws

dammittttAt its heart, Snake is a game about managing your own space as you crawl and grow around the screen collecting pellets.  In this one, your body splits and becomes part of a permanent obstacle course, making you design your own level as you go.  Pretty clever.

Zaratustra also made another clever thing called “Flip” for the event.

penguinlostPenguin Lost by Max Weinberg

It may be unfortunately marred by that Game Maker Lite logo in the upper left corner, but this game is just lovely.

That’s all for now!  I’ll try to post another handful of games in the next few weeks.  I’m going to go searching again through the entire 1,005 games of the Pirate Kart V soon, and I recommend you do as well (download them all free!) to find the gems I’ll miss.

[Blog] Moore-Tech 2000 in 1996

Some time next month, I’m going to release Caverns of Khron, my biggest game project to date.  A few months ago, I found a folder in my filing cabinet titled “Miscellaneous Game Development,” containing dozens of pages I wrote and drew between 1996 and 1999.  Until I’d found this, I’d basically forgotten about all the games I’d made and planned before I started making ZZT games in 1997.  I’d actually been designing games on paper since about 1990, though I didn’t have any kind of computer till 1994.  I never learned C++ or any other “real” programming languages save for a very rudimentary knowledge of QBASIC that only equipped me for the simplest text adventures.  So, if you’re interested, you’re welcome to join me on a nostalgic, navel-gazing trip through what I thought about making video games before I even knew how.

My cousin Steven introduced me to QBASIC in the mid-nineties, and it was simple enough that I thought I could write a couple small programs.  I never actually spent much time with text adventures like Zork (I loved Return to Zork, but couldn’t get my hands on an actual copy of the Zork trilogy until like 1998), but I was in love with the idea, and had played around with a couple MOOs and MUDs, more interested in the promise than any execution of the idea I’d actually seen.  Before long, I’d programmed a virtual room-by-room tour of my house–called “My House”–which forever cemented in my mind the cardinal directional layout of Pocatello, Idaho.  This and other games would be “published” under a “label” called “Moore-Tech 2000,” and I’d hang this sign on my door:

Please note that this sign only ever hung on my bedroom door on the inside of my family’s house.  The prices listed were the fees I wanted to charge my two younger sisters to give them copies of these games on their own floppy disks.  It was an evolution of when I tried to sell my sisters and cousins the Nintendo fanfiction I’d write and illustrate, bound in construction paper when I was about nine-years-old.  I also offered customized games for the low price of only 75 cents to $1.75.  I don’t believe I ever made a cent from any of my games, and rightly so.  Eventually, I just tried to get my sisters to play them.

Of the games listed, very few without the checkboxes ever were finished.  “Text Color” simply changed the color of the MS-DOS text interface.  “Pilgrim Hunter” was a text game where the player searched a square field square by square for a turkey to shoot, like a festive, unchallenging “Hunt the Wumpus.” I also apparently finished something called “J.C.,” but I have no idea what that might have been.  I seem to have been planning something called “Aquaria,” and considering my then-interests, it surely involved mermaids.

Sadly, I finally disposed of my 486 PC last year, which had what I’m sure were the only remaining copies of all the games I worked on, including the first game I ever published, “UFO Invasion,” a QBASIC text adventure uploaded to AOL and co-written with my friend Caleb.  I also once had extensive pages of planning for the sequel, which I intended to be a Wolfenstein-like FPS.  Also there was another collaboration with Caleb, a Christmas-themed game called “The Reindeer Riots,” though I can’t remember for the life of me what actually happened in it.

“Magic Learner” is the one for which I have the most documents still and was the first game I intended to be released in the world of “Khron,” a text adventure with a magic casting system and a fair amount of open exploration, to be later paired with a game called “Power Quest” which would be a text adventure with an action and strength orientation.  I’d written some amount of lore for the games’ story world, and even drew maps.  Below is a map of the game world and a modified one broken up into a navigable grid for use in the game.

 

Of course, these papers are what inspired me to name my current game “Caverns of Khron” (before that, it was called “Ruins of Bufannei,” a contraction of “Bullshit Fantasy Name”).  If you’re worried about Khron canon, understand that the game actually takes place in Greschden Caverns, but the game doesn’t bear that name because it sounds stupid.

Note the copyright date on the map.  The world of Khron existed contemporarily with our own, but with a 1,960 year date offset.  P.D., I assume, once meant something.

I’d begun a Halloween-themed horror adventure game called “Mansion,” where the player explores a large mansion during a Halloween party to discover dark secrets.

 

This game eventually evolved into “Jack O’Lantern,” which began life as a text adventure, and I distinctly remember drawing this map for it in my ninth grade speech class:

In 1997, I learned about ZZT, and found it a more attractive design platform.  I actually adapted this design pretty faithfully into a ZZT game that I published.

In those days, all my ZZT designs happened on paper before they happened onscreen. I have pages and pages of ZZT-OOP code for games like the unfinished “Bob 3: The Amazon Adventure” and “Zem! X” which I began work on in 1998 and didn’t finish until 2002.

 

With my early ZZT games, I employed a “star” system like Tezuka Osamu’s, featuring recurring characters playing different parts in each story.  It was silly, but I was in love with the idea.  In the “Zem! X” paper, I love where I drew a picture explaining to myself what I saw in my mind and how I had to express it with ASCII characters.

My ambition was not limited to what I could conceivably produce at the time, of course.  What I wanted to make followed my interests, which in the mid-nineties became largely focused on real-time strategy games.  I have about a dozen pages of notes for “Medieval” and its expansion “Medieval Quests,” featuring a total of five factions, with unique units and campaigns.

I also possessed a strange, obsessed fascination with LCD games, and went as far as to plan the screens for half a dozen games on paper. One of these, “Mythical Commander” (left) was an intended LCD real-time strategy game. “Blif the Blot” (right) was a mascot platformer that had a secret versus mode.

 

Beginning in my later teenage years, I fell in love with the link cable racing game included in Super Mario Bros. DX for the Game Boy Color, and plotted an intricate expansion of the game called Super Mario Arena, featuring a character roster with different abilities, power-ups, and a greater focus on competitive combat. I possessed some vain hope that Nintendo would somehow find out about my plans and accept my pencil drawings as the design document for a million-seller Game Boy Color game and a long career in making video games.

I continued to make ZZT games and began playing around with Megazeux.  Eventually, I became more interested in filmmaking than my once-intended career of glamorous, professional video game development and programming.  I kept my toes wet, working on a graphic adventure game and an online RPG fighter with my cousin, though neither project came to full fruition, and I only advised design and worked on graphics.  I wonder what would’ve happened if instead of ZZT, someone had handed me a copy of Klik N’ Play (I saw it in software catalogs, and after it I lusted), or if Game Maker had come into my life a decade before it did.

I’m going up to my mother’s house in a couple weekends.  I’m hoping to dig up some more of these kinds of papers.  I have a vague dream about picking up one of the other game concepts I know I had once upon a time and seeing if I can’t bring it to life with what I know now, just to fulfill my 13-year-old self’s dreams on some level.  It’s been somewhat inspiring to examine what I used to think about games, see where I’m similar, and see where I’m the same.

And at the very least, the 16-years-in-the-making Khron world of games will finally see the light.

Caverns of Khron (2012)