Images courtesy of artist
The world of cutting edge indie game development is driven by the need to create engrossing, fresh gaming experiences on the cheap. Designers that focus on interesting gameplay mechanics—rather than dazzling their players with expensive graphics—are often rewarded with cult followings, like Braid creator Jonathan Blow, and even the potential for bigger budget success, like what happened to Minecraft designer Notch.
University of Southern California game design student Kevin Wong has taken this mantra to heart for his in-progress Mac/PC stealth fighting game, Chambara. The setting and primary gameplay mechanic was inspired by a cult classic episode of the Cartoon Network series Samurai Jack, wherein Jack faces off against a robotic ninja that can perfectly blend in with any shadow. Jack counters this skill by revealing that he can blend in with the light, making for one of the mor visually stunning—and narratively tense—sword fights ever to grace the small screen.
Wong and a group of his fellow USC students are developing Chambara loosely based on a similar mechanic: one player blends in with the dark, and another with the light, and whoever finds the other first wins. The group, who have dubbed themelves 'Overly Kinetic,' are halfway through an eight week game design competition called Dare to Be Digital. As competing members, they will be able to showcase their work at Dare Protoplay, the UK's largest festival for indie game developers, where they have a shot at £2500 in prize money and the BAFTA Video Games "Ones to Watch Award."
Wong, as acting manager of Overly Kinetic, aka Team OK, has been blogging about their experience as one of 15 teams which passed the pitching stage of the Dare to Be Digital competition. His blog posts delve deep into the process and philosophy behind making a game, so we thought we'd find out more about the man behind the keyboard.
The Creators Project: How did you get into game design? Was it always something you wanted to do?
Kevin Wong: I started off doing games writing for my high school newspaper. When a petition I wrote regarding the Brown v. EMA Supreme Court case got the attention of Senator Leland Yee, the sponsor of an anti-violent game bill, I figured that I'd take the videogame thing and see how far I could possibly go with it. Not long after, I ended up in a game production summer camp, where I learned to see games from the other side and start making my own. Soon after, I was accepted into the Interactive Media and Games Division at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where I met some incredible people and formed a team to compete in Dare to be Digital. So I guess the videogame thing has gone pretty far.
What games inspire your work, both in terms of gameplay and visual style?
One game that inspires me on a personal level is Chrono Trigger, and that's not nostalgia speaking. It’s a 90's JRPG without the superfluous, alienating elements that I find disrespectful of the player's time, rewarding instead tactical mastery and exploration. This game was made at the height of 90's pixel art, and the detailed, expressive sprites and rich, joyful pallet are emotive and beautiful. Yatsunori Mitsuda's thundering score sets an adventurous tone fitting of the game's monomythic story, accentuating that feeling of vastness and wonder that grows harder to capture with age. The game's story is a giddy adventure about heroism, sacrifice, and the ultimate triumph of good, themes that aren't as common anymore in today's game narratives.
Chambara is loosely based on the Shinobi fight scene from the classic Cartoon Network show Samurai Jack. What's your relationship to the legendary cartoon, and how much influence did it have on your storytelling?
Cartoons were a significant part of my childhood and remain influential to me today. I met Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky last year at an event at USC, where he was doing a talk on the show's art style and the challenges it faced during production. I found the show's ultra-stylized aesthetic appealing and its minimal dialogue an incredible formalism not seen in many other American shows from that time. Not long after, I watched the Shinobi episode with the friends that would eventually become Chambara's team, and while formulating ideas for our Dare to be Digital pitch, we found that a game inspired by that episode was one of the few game ideas that we were unanimously behind.
The dynamics of the game rely upon being able to hide in plain sight. What are some of the challenges you’ve come across in developing this type of gameplay? How do you balance these challenges with the visual style you've developed?
One challenge that we've encountered is that there isn't a lot of precedent for this kind of game, and a lot of existing knowledge about how to construct first person shooter (FPS) maps is useless when you have only two players and melee weapons. Game balance isn't easy either because in Chambara, it’s a matter of deliberate shadow placement, rather than adjusting values on a spreadsheet. Yet, all the polish and balance in the world won't make Chambara great if it’s morally broken.
Game designer Jesse Schell writes that "We aren’t [only] designing games, we are designing experiences, and experiences are the only things that can change people," and, "If you aren’t willing to take responsibility for the games you make, you shouldn't be making them."
We've thought a lot about the effect that our game can have on the world and the message that we are communicating through our mechanics. As a fighting game, Chambara's conflict is violent and resolved by the elimination of "the other." Judgment is binary, and victory is a matter of domination. These ideas don't reflect our values, and aren't what we want to instill in our players. Thus, we want to use the representational aspects of our game to convey positive, sportsmanlike values. As game designers, we need to be cognizant of what the elements of our game mean and how they influence/are influenced by the rest of society.
You wrote a veritable dissertation about stealth games on the your blog. Can you elaborate on some of your ideas, and how they fit into this game?
My stealth game article applies mostly to single-player stealth games, and there isn't much precedent when it comes to multiplayer stealth games. I think there's Splinter Cell, which I have never played. There's also Metal Gear Online, which never really took off outside of Japan. So most of the knowledge about how to construct this kind of game comes out of our own experimentation and testing. Really, Chambara draws more from fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and Towerfall than anything Kojima has crafted.
You've been involved in the Reddit game development community throughout the making of Chambara. How has your 'audience' influenced the game's production?
While we have numerous industry people coming through and hold regular playtests at Dare to be Digital, we realized that the feedback of other designers was inherently biased. In order to get precise feedback and suggestions for usability, we had to reach out to communities and groups of people outside of our own circles. Reaching out to forums like Reddit was an ideal way of achieving that, and the critical feedback we’ve gotten from strangers has been super-helpful.
What type of technology or creative processes did you use to design this game? How does the making of a vector-based game differ from a more traditional game?
We're building Chambara in Unity3D using the "playcentric" method of game design taught at USC, which emphasizes rapid prototyping and frequent external playtesting. The most important part of our game is the "feel" of our character's movement and how player input generates kinaesthetically pleasing feedback. Thus, we poured a lot of time into our controls and physics, constructing the rest of the game around the design pillars established by those fundamentals.
Our design pipeline allows us to prototype levels extremely fast, as the lack of textured surfaces completely negates the need to texture and UV 3D objects. This frees us to experiment more and get feedback faster, implementing necessary changes soon after. Dare to be Digital asks its contestants to complete a game in eight weeks, and I believe that our rapid cycle of polishing and playtesting allows us to thrive in those constraints.
What about this project excites you most?
The prospect of doing something mechanically innovative is most exciting to me. In my awareness, nothing quite like this has been done before in this medium, so learning what works with our mechanics and creating new design knowledge is exciting. The prospect of being exhibited at the Protoplay Festival in August and being nominated for the BAFTA's "Ones to Watch" award is incredible, especially for someone still in game school.
Do the creators of Samurai Jack have any connection to this project? How do you imagine they'll respond?
The primary inspiration for Chambara was Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack, but throughout our time working on it, we’ve worked hard to give the game its own identity and imbue it with our own tastes and personalities. The game started off with a very German Expressionist look, with sharp angles, harsh edges, and dreary shadows, and we wanted to distance ourselves from that style.
We’re interested in a number of lesser-known Japanese art movements that are not very well represented in pop culture. There’s a bit of Metabolist architecture in there, as well as the Mono-Ha art movement from 70s, and a lot of 90s Nintendo.
While we admire a lot of what Cartoon Network does, we have no personal connection to them nor any of our other influences. If this project takes off and gets their attention, I hope that they will be supportive and allow us to finish the game with its own identity. Fan culture is a vibrant and significant part of our growing remix culture, and in our postmodern world, where media artifacts are collaged pastiches of influences from other media, I hope our game will be received well.
Chambara will debut at the Dare Protoplay Festival on August 7-10, in Dundee, Scotland. If August is too far away, you can test a prototype of the game here—just be sure to give Team OK some feedback. To learn more about the game process, read Wong's blog, and if you like what you see you can support the game over at Team OK's Indiegogo.