maandag 4 april 2011

my game design story, part 2: late childhood

After a long delay, finally the second part of the story of my life. This part will somewhat overlap with the previous post in terms of time period, because the first post got a little too long and I could not interweave both parts of my childhood in a coherent story. This part of the story will be split in 4 sections, sorted chronologically, for a better overview.

Paper quests

As I was playing the defining games of my childhood, something in me woke up and decided that I wanted to make games like that myself. Because I was too young to work with a computer properly, nevermind program for it, I started drawing adventure games on paper. My first series was called Castle Quest (might sound familiar to some of you), quickly followed by all kinds of Quests inspired by the Sierra series. I was not pushed in doing this; it grew organically out of my obsession with drawing (and reading) Belgian comic books.

Instead of the linear, uncontrollable nature of comic books, I was more drawn to the interactivity of videogames, and started challenging (pestering) people in my environment to play my fantastic paper-based adventure games. They were just hundreds upon hundreds of pages of drawings if envorinments with puzzles in them that I would explain patiently to the player who was playing the game. I'm not sure the players enjoyed these mastodont adventures as much as I did making them, but they definitely were my first step in game development. I must have been 7 or 8 years when I made my first adventure.

Important games

After my early childhood, which was dominated by computer games and mainly focused on adventures, it was time to explore new worlds, and the Game Boy my dad brought back from a trip to Singapore did just that. With action/platform games such as Super Mario Land, Turtles 2, Mortal Kombat and so on, I discovered that games were more than just point-and-click adventures. I started drawing platform games on paper (seriously). The player would play with his fingers, avoiding obstacles by lifting their fingers in different motions, depending on which obstacle was to be avoided. To my surprise, these games were a huge success on the elementary school playground, and people would line up to play them. This was probably my first success as a game designer.

As I explored new game genres on the Game Boy, so did my dad on the PC. Games such as Sim City 2000, Transport Tycoon, Command & Conquer and others found their way to our home, and changed my view of what a video game could be. Now, I will discuss several of the most important games from this period of time, up until my transition to high school at age 12, which will be the third part of my story, and will start with Warcraft 2, and the introduction of Blizzard into my life.

  • Chip's Challenge (1989) only got to me several years after its release, when I was older. And I guess this is a good thing, because this game is HARD. Probably one of the hardest, most hardcore puzzle games ever made. But also one of the best ones. This is illustrated by the fact that, 20 years later, the game still sports a very active fan community, which are hard at work making new levels, sequels and so on. This game was a top-down game in which you move a guy around collecting computer chips to open up the portal to the next level. On your path are opponents with predictable movements (left-wall huggers, bouncers, etc) and hazards such as fire, water, and so on. One misstep kills you, and forces you to replay a level that might require hundreds of moves in which every single misstake is fatal. Crazy, but surprisingly addictive and fun, and I still recommend playing it today (I replayed the entire game a couple of years ago, and it was still fun).
  • Super Mario Land (1990) for Game Boy was a masochistic game for the simple reason that it did not support save games. Every time you turned of your Game Boy, you had to play all from scratch again. And they didn't make the game easier to compensate either; Super Mario Land was quite tough. After months (perhaps years) of practice, I finally made it to the end. I can't recall any game in my life that took so long to finish in terms of years.
  • Syndicate (1993) was a surprisingly adult and shocking game for the time, but I was too young to grasp this. Instead, I noticed a totally unique game, with very open-ended, nonlinear gameplay, complex depth and intense action scenes. This game is quite unique, even up to this day, and there hasn't really been a game like it since. It learned me that open-endedness can really add to a game's replayability, and can give the player the illusion that he is in complete control.
  • Theme Park (1994) was the inspiration for the superhit Rollercoaster Tycoon a couple of years later, but this one had a more profound impact on me. Again, I was a little too young to understand the somewhat complex research aspect of the game, but it didn't stop me from having massive amounts of fun building, running and ruining theme parks. The theme of the game, which obviously has a great appeal to children, was very well integrated in the gameplay, and the excellent, accessible graphics made this game an easy sell to any child. Bullfrog was in a roll these days, these games (along with Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital) made Peter Molyneux my first idol game designer.
  • Command & Conquer (1995) had a profound impact on not only me, but the entire game industry. While Dune 2 introduced this new genre called RTS, it was C&C that laid the foundations of the genre so well that it would take 10 years until people started deviating from the basic concept ideas of C&C such as resource gathering, base building and unit training.
  • Sim City 2000 (1995) was one of those games that could really get you hooked. Even when you didn't really know what you were doing, such as me at the time (what the hell does a 11-year old know about finance and loans?) Building cities just speaks to people's imagination, and it was so well-done in this game that the only games that ever improved the quality of this one was the second sequel (Sim City 4).
  • Civilization 2 (1996) was another game that pretty much fits the same description as Sim City 2000. It was quite perfect in its design, incredibly addictive and was built around an inspiring theme. It appealed to me naturally.


While I explored these different genres, it dawned on me (and my dad) that I couldn't really keep making games on paper. Adventure games can be somewhat reproduced in paper form, but any of the games mentioned above cannot. When my dad brought home a package called "Superlogo: programming for kids" (1994), it changed my life.

This frankly quite brilliant package contained a Dutch programming language called Superlogo (based on LISP), which was designed to learn children to program. It also came with a very hefty Dutch manual which patiently learned the child step by step how to program complex software and games in the language. It was very well-written and easy to understand, and learned the child complex concepts such as encapsulation, functional programming, recursion and so on. It really got me hooked to not only programming, but game development as well. For more information about Superlogo, please refer to this article (Dutch).

Klik 'n Play

But, because it was a low-level programming language, it was still quite tricky to write complex games in it. My ambitions were too large for what I could realistically achieve with Superlogo. However, this problem was solved by the next game development package that my dad brough thome, called Klik 'n Play. Where Superlogo showed me what was possible but did not bring it within my grasp, Klik 'n Play did.

Klik 'n Play was a visual environment which hid the underlying programming behind a mouse-based interface. Instead of writing functions, you could trigger actions such as "destroy object x" on events such as "object x collides with y". It contained a HUGE library of animated clipart and backdrops for you to drag and drop in your games, and allowed you to write complex interactive games with just mouse clicks and some creativity. Things such as collision detection, platform movement, shooting, animations, and so on were already implemented for you, allowing you to focus on the creative side immediately. In Superlogo, writing collision detection was hell.

Klik 'n Play unleashed an unparallelled productivity in me: I literaly made hundreds of games (and never finished most of them). For years, I dropped "real" programming entirely and focused only on making games in Klik 'n Play and its two successors The Games Factory and Multimedia Fusion. Why? Because it abstracted away the low-level concepts and let you focus on the important and interesting side of game development: the game design. Klik 'n Play and its sequels are so good that even today, some of the most celebrated indie games were made in it. The best example is Knytt, a more than excellent platform game by Nifflas.

While Superlogo was important because it set me on the right track, Klik 'n Play (and its sequels) made it clear to me that there was really only one thing I wanted to do later. I directly credit Klik 'n Play for unlocking my creative side and encouraging me to explore it and actually do stuff with it. I seriously recommend to every parent of a 8-12-year old to get them a copy of one of Clickteam's products (for example, The Games Factory 2 released in 2006). This stuff is better than paint or clay or lego.

3 opmerkingen:

  1. goed geschreven! en cool om te lezen hoe computerspellekesmakers "ontstaan".

    ik vind het wel een beetje raar dat er zo'n dingen gemaakt werden als "superlogo" en "klik&play" destijds. daar kan toch geen grote winstgevende markt voor geweest zijn toen? aleja, hoeveel kinderen zouden daarmee gespeeld hebben? da's toch puur geluk dat papa dat kende omdat hij in die branche werkte.

    ik herinner mij die papieren computerspelleks trouwens nog. op een bepaald moment had gij toch ook zo'n kartonnen "computer" gemaakt en dan hield ge uw tekeningen voor het "scherm" zodat dat echter leek als wij die speelden :D.

  2. Ik denk dat papa die dingen ontdekt heeft omdat ze in het computerwinkeltje lagen. En ik denk dat er inderdaad een kleine markt voor was. Maar ik denk ook dat van de kleine minderheid die als kind die software gebruikt heeft, een groot deel later informatica is gaan studeren. Ik ben namelijk niet de enige in mijn vriendenkring die als kind met Klik 'n Play/The Games Factory gespeeld heeft (oa Slimmy ook).

  3. Idd goed geschreven ;-). En dat van het HCW is juist.