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.

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.

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.