A Shock In The Dark – Game Design Process

From a game design standpoint, A Shock In The Dark is still evolving. It went through a couple of distinct phases. When it started, it was a game jam game, based around the housing market and Twister.  There is a bit of tension between the physical aspect of being shocked and the explorations of design. Its not enough to just to shock people with a thing, there needs to be some aspect of fun, or problem solving along with it.

paper prototyping
paper prototyping

Sagan and I have spent time exploring that tension. And there’s been a lot of group back and forth about the role of the board, vs maybe having a DM, or the interplay between people between the rules. There is a general feeling that it would be nice to have something where its not just based around the shock.

So after the twister end of it. We started doing some prototyping with just grids, and paper, and thinking about what rule sets are fun. First it started with kind of an “Avoid the shock” idea, and we started playing some basic grids. We toyed with the idea of having different kinds of pieces and making it more strategy based, rather than just “avoid the shock area”.

Sans shocking board setup.

But we nixed the scout / multiple piece strategy just because it started to feel too complicated.  The one common thread, has been the idea of finding, or uncovering shapes.  Eventually we settled on something akin to reverse battleship.  So you are awash in a sea of possible shocks, with some safe spots. This proved to be decently nerve wracking, but also fun in paper form.

We expanded a bit to try some different rule sets. So for example

  • Having an invisible safe or shock area that grew and changed as each turn passed.
  • having different islands, and trying to “steal” people’s islands.
  • Interconnecting safe areas
  • Getting people to draw and develop their own player boards
  • Thinking about clues, or cues, or house rules on trading.

Eventually we started thinking about clues and cards. We compiled everything into a document.

We think that for now, without the actual board, we will have some placement tokens, a third person, and a shock box, and some etched cards. The rule set isn’t too complicated, but has some twists in it. we think it’ll work out pretty well.

A Shock In The Dark – Technical Challenges

Working with RF radios is hard. Hacking them isn’t that bad, but they are quirky. They do things like fall asleep, and don’t work, or don’t have a strong enough signal. They can be pokey, like all technology.

My general exploration of shock radios started a while ago, outside of a game related framework. One summer, some of us were just hardware hacking, and a friend hacked a radio for something called Pomodoro Zap. Which shocked you if you visited a site during “work time”. She showed me how to hack the RF radio.

From there, I started hooking it up to things like the Muse. Mostly to try and do some funny stuff, but also I just really wanted to shock people with my brain.

Then, like all hardware it went in a drawer for a while until this game came into play. The radios themselves are pretty simple, but there were some challenges. For starters, newer versions of the radios didn’t have hard wired LCD screens. This meant picking modes, and channels was sort of blind. Originally I had thought that maybe we could have a 2 to 1 setup, where one radio controlled 2 devices, but that proved to be difficult because there’s no real way to track states of WHERE you are in the setup. Unlike open source devices that are set up to give you feedback, hacked devices just have some things you can’t track.

To work around that we ended up doing a 1 to 1 setup, 2 radios, 2 collars. Which works pretty well.

Guts of shock box

The board itself has been difficult to get going as well. In this case, I turned to my friend Jane, who is a great hacker, and very meticulous. They’ve been a real help to get the larger protoboard going. And tbh, I really enjoy working with people who just take things and run with it.

We all bounced some ideas back and forth about possible sensors to use. I explored some ideas of capacitive sensing, but realized that we’d have to do something with breakout boards, and that would drive the cost up quite high. We also thought about using just straight up buttons, but again, nice clear ones that would be good to use in a grid, were expensive as a per unit cost.

Eventually we ended up on reed switches. There’s been a quite a few interactive chess board projects done with reed switches, and we thought that it would be good to follow suit, because of the documentation, and ease of being able to find answers online.

The catch is that each of our nodes would also need a neopixel. Jane worked out a cool little PCB design, but the lead time on shipping wouldn’t have worked, so we assembled on protoboard.

So far our tests are going well and everything is working out. Which is nice. We’ll have to figure out how to design the enclosure to hold both the arduino and the radios.

I’ve been working on the game logic for a while, which is over on github:

There’s still some stuff to be done around win conditions, but its getting there. And hopefully it will be done in time for April 28th’s DMG showcase.

shocking games

So, sometimes you do a game jam with some friends, and you all come up w/ a weird idea about smashing up Twister and Monopoly with shock collars. You then decide to hang the idea off the Toronto Housing Market (which is pretty bleak). It turns out to be a really strange prototype. But oddly scary / fun.

Fast forward a week, and you decide to re-do that into more a chess board / reverse battleship idea. Where you are literally moving around a sea of shocks looking for safe land.  You decide to call it Sea of Pain, and start working on some design things and prototyping a smart board

That’s sort of where this game is at now. Tiny Oracles is being put on hold to finish this instead. Currently we’ve got some solid, but simple game mechanics, and we’re working on getting the board to auto generate islands.

The big challenge we are going to have is wiring and doing the logic for the board squares. A 9×9 board is going to be 81 inputs. The outputs can be handled by a neopixel strip / grid and co-ordinates, but its going to be difficult.

As a back up, if we can’t get the board together, we’re going to do a DM style, with a third person who is the computer, drawing their own islands. Both versions are pretty solid, but we want to try and tackle the board, for the general challenge and to learn new things.

Hopefully it goes well.


bench cat
bench cat
paper prototyping
paper prototyping
paper prototyping
paper prototyping
bad screen on newer radio
bad screen on newer radio
shock out of unity
shock out of unity
tape prototyping
tape prototyping


Micro Oracles

So for the start of my game project I wasn’t really thinking about personal experiences. I spent a lot of time when I was younger doing zines, and music, and a lot of it was autobiographical. Lately tho, I’ve been interested in the idea of digital oracles. Weird little systems that crunch their own data to be insightful. Examples: The Matrix’s oracle is probably the most famous, but fortune by Zach Gage, is a delightful oracle that remixes twitter.

I was also drawing upon a very long time ago visit to Las Vegas. I dislike Vegas, a lot. BUT the smash up in the environment is kind of amazing. Each hotel has its own ecosystem. You can stand on a street corner with a “performing” fountain, and a scale model of New York. But if you look around the back, there’s still an open door w/ a garbage dumpster.

Anyways. I thought about trying to combine these two things.

I started by just playing around with Unity and exploring what I could do with point lighting and assets. I knew I wanted to do something FPS-ish, because I hadn’t done that before, and in this course I’d like to get a handle on scripting a whole game. Eventually I came up w/ something I liked. I’d like to do something where I just run with this idea, and have each micro climate react to some kind of external force. Like twitter feeds, or news feeds, or weather.

Elephants for the elephant gods!
Deer for the deer gods!

I’d also like to explore basic rigging.

You can download the demo level here.

movement is: W(forward) S(back) A(left) D(right). And you can look around with the mouse. Currently you can collect the little floating neon elements. I’m debating if I want this to be a walking sim or a large fetch quest.

Gone Home – Find All The Things

So. I’m not going to post a video. Instead I’m just going to blog about Gone Home, and how I played it when it first came out.

Gone Home is an explorative story game from The Fullbright Company. You get home after a year away, and notice the house is super empty. Something isn’t right, so you spend time investigating what happened by going through things in the house. Eventually you find out that your sister is a lesbian and has run away w/ their high school partner. That’s a blunt description, but its done so well through finding notes, and zines, and tapes, and all sorts of things. Kotaku does a better waaaaay write up of it than me.

I played the game to find out the story, which didn’t take long. Then I found the secondary story and it was HELLA DEPRESSING.

omg what is happening?

I then spent about 9 more hours just going back, and poking around the house. I collected toilet paper rolls, and books, and toys. I tried placing things in the weird satanic circle to see if anything would happen. I stacked things in the hallway. I moved things randomly around to different rooms and sorted them.

Eventually just messing around w/ the environment and putting tapes in the tape player became WHY I played the game. ”


Apparently I was not the only who did this. And it become sort of an online thing.

all the things

I made up weird “hide the things” short games. Where I would take an object, and put it somewhere, and then had the controller to a friend and see if they could find it.

Basically I just started playing Gone Home as a weird series of collection side quests.

Sadly though, I never did get anything to happen with that satanic circle.

Oh and btw, yes, you can buy a button pack of all the buttons.

Vectorpark – A Short Profile

Vectorpark is the monkier of Patrick Smith, whose been building neat little experiences that ride the line between interactive toy, and interactive game for the past 15 years. You can read an in depth interview with them over on Montionographer.

Smith’s background is in painting, but after graduating in 1999 with a BFA, they found themselves getting into commercial design work. Despite building up a digital practice, they cite the most important tool for them is still drawing. Smith’s work has a consistent style of solid colours, clean lines, and smooth animation.

I had a chance to play Metamorphabet at a previous TCAF, and its delightful. You get a real sense of surprise and exploration when interacting with it. The debate around whether or not is a game, is one that Smith doesn’t take too seriously.

Smith’s other games explore little systems and whimsical outcomes. With Levers you try and balance a host of objects that have fallen out of the sky into the water on hooks. The catch being: you can’t touch the water. Its surprisingly difficult after a point, and I personally never made it past the snowman. Windosill is full of little puzzles you need to solve as you try and move your little toy car forward.

All in all, Vectorpark provides little vignettes framed through puzzles systems for online, iOS and mobile that are inviting and challenging.

MDA Analysis for Broforce

Broforce is a game made by Free Lives. Its so full of bro, that even bro’s can’t handle the bro-ness. SO MUCH BRO. But its basically satire about American Foreign Activities, wrapped up in a nice little engine with lots of emergent explosions, and many characters.


Broforce is a classic side scroller game with basic run and jump mechanics and physically based level puzzles. Players have simple controls like “jump”, “shoot”, “special attack”, and “taunt” and they can use these simple controls to kill everything, but also to interact with the environment (shooting through walls, the earth, setting off explosions etc) to try and get through a level. Death is treated like classic arcade death, you have no health bar, if you die, and all your lives are lost, the level starts over from either the beginning or a check point. Your goal on each level is to “liberate the area” which basically means “blow everything up and kill the red devil suited boss figurehead at the end of the level”. Sometimes you will have mid level, or final bosses to the tune of classic arcade games which means the boss has a health bar, but you don’t. Your other goal is to “Free” as many prisoners as possible. The more you free, the more characters you unlock, the more lives you obtain for that level. Broforce has an extensive list of action hero characters. Oh and at the end of the game YOU ACTUALLY FIGHT SATAN as the final boss. Its weirdly Metroid like. One thing I find interesting is that the levels themselves while related are not linearly connected. You basically use a world map to fly around and choose what mission to do. Which is nice, because you don’t have to play things in order. Or like a callback to Super Mario 3, even if you are ready to fight the end boss, you can go back and some extra levels beforehand.


Broforce has a weirdly emergent gameplay. Yes its a shoot everything side scrolling puzzler, but because you can mess with most of the elements in the environment, you can set off all kinds of weird chain reactions. This means you also have an itch to just explore stuff like “I wonder what happens when I put this dynomite on this building’s roof?” or “If I shoot these barrels with a mech, which way will they tip?” Its totally possible to beat levels just by turning the environment on all the npcs, or using it for advantage, and that’s kind of an unexpected level of amusement and sophistication for a shoot all the things side scroller. But be aware, you can also get stuck if you carve out too much of the environment. It some ways it becomes more of a you vs the territory, than you vs the npcs. Which is unexpected. Players don’t really interact too much in game, they mostly interact with one another using loose strategy to clear a level verbally in real life. Its a multiplayer couch strategy game, so Broforce is much more fun with friends.


Broforce rides a line between fun and insanely frustrating. Its like that same frustrating feeling you get from classic arcade games, or things like Super Meat Boy. Where, even though you might have died trying do a part in a level 10 times, you still want to go back and try it. Its pretty addictive, and while I wouldn’t call it emotionally engaging, but it is very charged, and the dynamic changes when you play it as a local multiplayer, because people really get into it.


As a side note, the design is hilarious, but also sort of insidious if you think about what’s going on politically state side this year. Suddenly all the joking about “USA USA USA” takes on a very different tone. I like Broforce because its setup as satire. A poking fun of american action hero like stereotypes. But sometimes I wonder about what the next year is going to bring in response to that and how playing this game will feel a year from now.