Paint It Back: Interview with Ed Brown

Paint It Back, a nonogram puzzle game, was released for the iOS this week.  It’s been my go-to game since, bringing back delightful memories of Picross.  The starting 30 puzzles are free.  The remaining 110 puzzles are only $2.99 (which is insane given what I paid for Picross 5-odd years ago).  It’s worth checking out.

The designer, Ed Brown, is an old friend from when he used to work at Popcap, and I had some questions about the game’s development.  I asked him if it was ok to share his responses with you, and he said yes, so I threw in a couple more questions for background, and here you go:

What inspired you to make Paint it Back?
The release of the iPad and my wanting to play Picross DS on it.  
How long did it take?
Pretty much three years.  But two side projects that took three or four months each and a few periods of sloth account for some of that time.  
Who worked on it?
I worked on it by myself up until it was time to add characters to the game.  I wasn’t liking what I was coming up with so I looked for a local artist here in St. Louis and found Jeff Weigel.  He drew the characters, the paintings in the ghost scene, the ghost, other stuff. 
What engine did you use?
Cocos-2D for iPhone.
What was the hardest part of transitioning to iOS from PC?
Probably learning objective-c.  It takes me a while to get comfortable in a new language.
Where can people find it?
Apple App Store.  [Here – Ed]
The images are quite varied and funny, but also quite limited in fidelity.  How did you come up with images?
There wasn’t one single overriding approach that I used, other than to draw them on an iPad using a pixel-art app called “Edge Touch.”  Sometimes I’d start with the title and then try to come up with a fitting image.  “Deer Tick Flying First Class” was one like that.  Others were finished scenes that needed punching up.  “Mugged While Tightrope Walking” was originally just a guy tightrope walking.  Some started from drawing random shapes and trying to see something in them.  A lot of the smaller paintings came from this method. 
Who did the art?  Both painting and scenes.
Jeff did most of the stuff that looks like a real illustrator did it – characters, paintings in the ghost scene, other stuff.  I did all of the puzzle paintings, ui, effects, animations.  A lot of stuff we worked on together, so it’s hard to say who actually did it.
How long did it take?  When did you start in earnest?
The whole game was 2 – 2 1/2 years of actually working on it most every day.  The time to create a single painting could take between 10 minutes or 10 hours. Some were a real pain to playtest and revise down to only one solution.  I’m looking at you, “Crazy Stairs.”  I made the majority of the paintings during the evening while hanging out on the couch watching tv.  That period stretched over several months.
How did you decide on the size for a painting?
That was dictated by the painting itself.  I found early on that trying to force an image to fit into a standard nonogram puzzle size like 10×10 didn’t always make for the best looking painting.  I decided to support strange grid sizes like 16×20 or 24×32 because a painting would just wind up looking right at that resolution.  If I liked how a painting turned out, I’d have to add support for that grid-size.  There’s paintings in the game that are the only ones at that particular resolution.  
How did you figure out what order to put the paintings in?  How did you figure out what was hard/easy?
I originally made around 75 paintings without thinking about where they would live in the game.  At some point I was looking them over and realized I could group some of them together by common themes in their titles.  The rooms came out of this.  After that I created paintings for specific rooms.
Determining the difficulty of a painting was just play testing the drawn image.  If it was unsolvable without guessing, I’d alter it and re-test it until it was solvable.  
How did you approach naming the paintings?
No single approach.  Although every painting title had to at least be intriguing. 
Who did the music?  It’s very catchy.
Coda.  I decided to use tracker music, looked around the net for a music person, and found Coda’s extensive backlog of songs.  I picked out a few I liked and Pay-Pal’d him the licensing money. 
Why the 2 modal buttons for paint and block?  How did you arrive at that solution?
Up until two weeks ago it wasn’t modal.  More than one beta tester suggested it to be modal, so I tried it out and I thought it was an improvement.  A user was complaining of accidentally painting squares because of fat fingers.  This helped to cut down on that.
[I’d recommend trying some of the puzzles without using the block tool, for extra challenge.  I find it kicks the mental gears an extra notch.  -Ed]
How much testing did you do, and when?
I started having people test it around a year before it came out.  The tutorial went through -many- iterations.  At first it was 17 paintings – and people complain about the 7 paintings in the current tutorial being too long!
Why does the game support device rotation, but only after the first few levels?
The tutorial room doesn’t support rotation.  I took the lazy way out there.  It has to do with the way I handle the recreating the scene when you rotate.  The artist’s dialogue complicated matters.
Why did you do Paint it Back over other concepts?  What’s the story of how you knew PiB would be what you shipped next?
A lot of reasons:
– It was a project I could handle largely by myself.  
– I liked making the paintings.
– There seemed to me to be an opening in the App Store for a quality nonogram game.
– It was a game I would want to play if I wasn’t making it.
– The theme of “museum art” seemed like new territory to explore in a game.
The project just felt right to work on.
What do you hope players take away from the game?
Mild amusement and satisfaction.
Having done both indie and industry, what are the highlights of each?
– steady paycheck.
– learn from others around you.
– see aspects of the game industry outside of your discipline.
– you can’t beat working on your own ideas.
– non-standard work schedule, if you want.
– you own all of the assets.
And what are you planning next?
No specific plans – totally depends on the reception to PiB.  If it goes well, I’d definitely  consider making more paintings.  If there was a scene of people making their own paintings, I’d ask people to submit them to me and I’d pick my faves, group them into a room, call it “Outsider Art” and release it as a free in-app-purchase.
I’ve got a backlog of game ideas I’d like to prototype.  I’ll probably pick one and start tinkering.  Or maybe I’ll do absolutely nothing for a while.  That sounds good, too.

Game Thoughts: Hero Academy

I’ve been enjoying Hero Academy for iPhone, and rather then do a traditional Game Thoughts, I was inspired to do some traditional game design instead.

First, my best units in the game:

  1. Necromancer
  2. Ninja
  3. Archer
  4. Wraith

Why the Necromancer?  Because he’s

  • Range 3 with 200 damage and
  • can fully kill units at range 3 (instead of the standard kill range of 1).

Hero Academy is a game about using fewer actions then your opponent.  The Necromancer can guaranteed kill any unit in 5 actions at range 3 with 800 hp or less, without risking himself or his position.  No other unit can do that.  And 800 hp is the standard amount.  If the Necromancer has a sword, you even get a bonus action afterwards.

But the Necromancer is even better then that.  Being range 3 means you can hit them when they have to spend a turn to hit you.  Range 3 is safe.  And the range 3 full kill is even more important, since that saves you 2 turns (all other full kills are range 1 – so one moving in and stomping, and one getting away so you don’t immediately die).  I haven’t done it, but there’s a game designer with a matrix somewhere that shows # of turns it takes each unit to kill each other unit from “safe range” (which is normally range 3), and the Necromancer just wrecks that chart.  And the Archer is second, and the Ninja and Wraith are third (because they have move 3, range 1).  So the Necromancer is the best assassin in the game, in a game where assassination is nearly always the best play.  Plus, you get more Necromancers then you do Ninjas and Wraiths.  So, Hero Academy players, protect those range 3 units!

But, that’s all system balance-y stuff.  More interesting is coming up with your own team for Robot Entertainment to ship next:

The Dwarves.  Deploying unit heals all allies 10% of their health.

  • Cleric – 800 HP. 2 Move, 2 Attack range.  Heals friendlies 200 or revives them.  On attack, if in straight line also pushes back target and leaves square consecrated (enemy can’t step on next turn).
  • Bombadier – 800 HP.  2 Move, 2 Attack range.  Throws bombs for 200 Magic damage, can reach over blockers.  Also leaves bombs behind when moving, which if next stomped by enemy explode for attack magic damage.
  • Rifleman – 800 HP.  2 Move, 4 Attack range.  Shoots cannon for 400 physical damage.  Can only shot in straight line, and only 1x a turn.
  • Miner – 900 HP.  2 Move, 1 Attack range.  Swings pickaxe for 200 physical damage, does 2x damage to crystals.
  • Goliath (Super) – 2000 HP.  1 Move, 1 Attack range, 200 damage.  Shakes the ground with each step.  Think mechanical golem.  Enemies around destination take attack physical damage, and can get stomped.
  • Potion – Heals or revives and grants extra movement square on next move.
  • AoE – 3×3 200 magic damage AoE, enemies gets debuff that reduces next movement 1 square.
  • Scroll – 3x damage
  • Sword – 50% bonus damage.
  • Helmet – 20% MR, 10% Health.
  • Grog – 20% bonus health, heals for an extra 300.

Fun stuff!  So yes, I had to push the range power some more.  The core idea behind the Dwarves is unit coordination and board control, which is an orthogonal axis from the Council and the Dark Elves that hopefully would excite players.

Of course, without testing, these are probably mostly wrong.  Playtest, playtest, playtest.  My first area of testing would be if the Cleric Barrier, Goliath Stomp, and Bombadier’s Movement are too complicated, not the balance.  Hero Academy started with an admirable 2-line character description, and I might be pushing it too far here.  The Cleric Barrier also doesn’t manage range 2 diagonal attacks cleanly, which might be its doom.  But playtesting will probably find superior powers anyways, so I normally wouldn’t sweat it too much at this stage.  Making these games, you tend to end of with pages of power ideas lying around you can use.

Edit:  Also, this is like the most important Hero Academy post ever, and should absolutely be built into the “player info” screen.  It doesn’t count as hidden information (because all players have equal access) and is critical.

My Most Interesting Games of 2011

What were your top games in 2011? Consider all games eligible, board, video, card, etc, even if they didn’t come out this year. What was the most interesting game you didn’t get to play? What was the biggest non-personal innovation to your gaming this year?

Mine are here:

Most Interesting:
Minecraft.  First year I’ve really got to experience the social side of the game, and experienced the community mechanics and roles. A real revelation about social game design.

League of Legends. Serious ultra-competition. I’ve played more of it then any other game, and it’s now the largest western online game.

7 Wonders. Drafting made made accessible, while still deep.

Echo Bazaar. Game I just kept coming back to. The qualities system I find very inspiring.

Jejune Institute. I had a blast with this. The combination of city history, puzzle hunting, character drama, and good exercise was a great revelation for me, too.

Tiny Wings. A simple game I played nearly every day for months. One button done amazing well.

Most Interesting Unplayed:
Capes. I’ve read a lot of RPGs this year, and this one stood out. GM-less, simple, unlimited power level, all with an interesting system and narrative combo. Seems like a great gateway game.

Johann Sebastian Joust. Everything I’ve heard about this game sound amazing. But playing it feels like I first have to win the 6 degrees of separation game.

Biggest Innovation:
My iPad. It got me to junk my laptop, which I didn’t think would ever happen. The world is a different place now – instant on portable, light, touch sensitive, and full of new games.

L.A. Noire: Meaningful Conversation

We’ve been playing LA Noire quite a bit at home, and enjoying it.  It’s also driving me batty.  I’ve been a long running fan of the story telling dialogue tree genre, going all the way to it’s heyday in the 90s – KOTOR back to Blade Runner, Laura Bow, even Star Control 2.   I absolutely love it as a coach game that’s more focused on dialog choices.  It works really well as a group game.

The core of this genre is the conversation system.  LA Noire is  a quantum leap forward here.  The facial performance is really remarkable.  We’ve still got a long way to go, but LA Noire marks a turning point, the first time human facial animation itself drove the gameplay of an entire 10+ hour game.

I think the designers made 3 key mistakes though on the fundamentals, mistakes that have been made in the past and I hope won’t be made again.  They’re easy to make.  It’s just a dialog system, right?  But dialog and morality systems are incredibly tricky to get right.

1.  Be clear what the player’s choices mean.

This is probably the easiest mistake to make, and one of the hardest to get right, because every single choice you write has different context.  In LA Noire, you can answer the suspect with “Truth”, “Doubt”, or “Lying, and I have evidence to prove it”.  These sound clear, but sometimes it means:

  • “I, as the detective, think the suspect is being untruthful”, or often
  • “I, as the player, saw the suspect do shifty eyes”, or
  • “I, as the detective, think that is a factually incorrect statement (whether or not the suspect believe it)”, or sometimes
  • “I, as the player, think the designer is trying to trick me and I should doubt them”, and sometimes
  • “I, as the player, think the suspect believes that is true, but could be lying to me, and I need to doubt them to determine that.”

It’s not at all clear which of these is the right interpretation of the system, and it often changes from question to question!  I have this weird sense that the different designers didn’t know either.  This is equivalent to telling the player “A jumps, now go jump over walls”, and then having jumping over walls sometimes succeed, sometimes fail, and sometimes outright kill you.  It makes the game frustrating.  Compounded by…

2. Correct and Incorrect make each question a game

The game judges you, and judges you immediately.  Each question has a particular right answer, and it informs you immediately (with a great musical cue) if you got it.  The interrogation becomes not about the success of any conversation or the case, but the success of each individual question.  In normal system design, this would be good.  Immediate feedback!  But in LA Noire it makes the previous problem worse.  It makes the confusion around what your choice meant immediate and obvious. It becomes a game – “which type of choice is this one?  Ooooh, got it wrong, shoot.”  I am now more directly trying to guess what the heck you (the designer) meant.  And if I guess wrong, egg on my face, irrespective of if it’s actually the wrong call for the larger case.  Maybe I thought they were telling the truth, but wanted to push the suspect just in case I am wrong?  That’s perfectly good detective work, but in LA Noire that’s w.r.o.n.g.  Any deviation is punished, and I have to trust the designer that playing their way gets the best result, breaking the 4th wall.  But I already have learned not to trust the designer (see problem 1).  Oh no!

Remember how I said this was notoriously tricky?  Player intent is scary stuff to try and predict.  I think it’s possible, but it’s hard, and you have to be a heck of a lot more accurate then LA Noire is.  Immediate Correct/Incorrect feedback has to be 100% clear on why it was correct or incorrect, or it will backfire.  And furthermore…

3. You only get one shot

In LA Noire, if I get it wrong, I can’t go back.  Each subject is a one-line, high stress ticket.  It’s completely yes or no.  Succeed or fail.  No other option.  I can’t learn from my mistakes.  I can’t see the rest of the story I’ve missed.  I can’t interact.  All because each question is unattached to the next, and case outcome for each suspect is often completely determined by one answer.  Even sillier, I’ve several times tried to show damning evidence to a lying suspect, only to be told Wrong.  But on the next topic, the subject clearly lies to your face as if they just hadn’t seen the evidence.  And, of course, if you present the evidence a second time you get Right.

This one’s particularly frustrating to me as a designer because there is an obvious (if difficult) solution to pull from reality.  We don’t have one-shot conversations.  If I don’t get the answer I want, I ask again.  I’ll push as far as I can go.  This goes triple for police work, particularly in an interrogation room.  All in a game that’s deliberately exploring  the meaning of false confessions and imperfect evidence!  Plus negotiations frequently hinge and flow around the presentation of key facts like evidence – it’s a great way to get the same sort of “No going back” they are looking for, while not making the player feel screwed by the designer.

These systems in games are in a weird places.  On one hand, they are the gameplay.  They are the game.  The less game-y they are, the more you have a movie.  But on the other hand, they are trying to tell a story.  They are trying to be vague. LA Noire is about a time and a place and a set of people.  And I think that’s right.  The immersion, the context, the cutscene is more important then the system here.  The key is there are lots of different kinds of game systems on lots of different time scales.  Dialog interaction doesn’t have to use the same type of feedback as a Mario jump.

If I was going to make the next game in this genre, I would try 3 things first:

1.  Make the options clearer, and stick to them.  Pick a point of view, and make sure the script revolves around it.  My gut is “the player’s reading of the face” was a good shot, but it’s not consistent enough.  Go with controls for “the player’s belief about what the suspect is doing” – are they being helpful, holding back, or need a hard dose of evidence-reminding.  Describe the avatar’s goal, not the suspect’s goal.  Let the facial animation inform instead of drive.

2. Outcome is never final.  Succeed and fail on a larger scale.  What you learn is what determines your success.  How you get there, the individual steps, are not worth grading.

3. Conversations loop and flow.  Conversational failure isn’t a 1-step process.  People can be aggressive multiple times, loop the conversation back and forth, react to suspects getting more (or less) defensive.  Evidence can be shown multiple times – the first can be to shock, the later ones are to rub the suspect’s face in their inconsistencies.  Record the extra dialog here.  This is your whole game.  It’s worth it.

The best thing about LA Noire is it’s human-ness.  In LA Noire, I can pick up a pencil.  In LA Noire, I can read your face.  Chris Hecker would be proud.  This is the kind of game we should want to make.  To explore being human on a social level.  Talk about things like morality and psychology and life.  But that’s hard, and it’s not because we can’t do it technically.  But the systems still fall short.  It’s because reality is a bad game.  It’s hard to make clear, it’s hard to make repeatable, it’s hard to make structured but natural.  I’m looking forward to our next stab at it.

IFOG 2011 and the Gamer Face

The Inventing the Future of Games Symposium 2011 was on Thursday, and I’m glad I went.  Got to see a lot of friends and hear some interesting speeches.

The one that stood out the most for me was Rod Humble’s.  While he took a rather bleak perspective to the future, he was asking great questions.  Can games reflect humanity in a way that has never been done before, that changes our cultural viewpoint of ourselves?  I found it fascinating that he flat out said, paraphrasing here for memory reasons: “Games are art.  We showed up with signs to protest our exclusion and they held the door open for us,” and “The power of our medium is frightening.  What other medium is designed to focus us for 500 hours?”  and “The most noble art to make is one that reflects nature. Including human nature.”  It’s well worth a watch when the video comes out, and perusing the twitter feed (#ifog2011).

I talked to Rod for quite a bit afterwords.  A couple of points of our discussion struck me that I wanted to leave up to pair with that video:

1)  The Potential of Art.  Rod was really uncomfortable with the idea that The Marriage could have hurt real marriages.   Uncomfortable with the responsibility of being an Artist.  He talked quite a bit about how careless game designers are with their power.  I love how passionate and caring and responsible Rod is here.  We need people in our community who shout and hold us to task about these things.  Art also has the power to heal, to positively affect people.  In fact, historically, Art has had value precisely because it tends to heal rather then harm.  Granted, it’s debatable how well we’re doing on that scale, but being Art isn’t in and of itself something to fear.  Great power, great responsibility, yada yada.  This is more an argument to release better games, rather then to not release games at all (something Rod mentioned wrestling with).

2) Who is responsible?  Where does that responsibility reside?  It’s difficult to blame Artists for the power of their work when it’s their livelihood.  There could be any number of reasons to release irresponsible work.  Patriotism, selfishness, even ignorance.  As an Artist, given these factors I find it impossible to judge others, even while I struggle with my own responsibility in a corporate setting.  Instead, I think the responsibility has to be shared.  Rod called me out – where else can you put it?  I think you can lay responsibility on the audience and the critics.  More precisely, it is incumbent on the audience to educate themselves, and it’s incumbent on the critics to educate society at large.

I don’t mind laying responsibility at the audience’s feet here.  I actually think the responsibility’s good for them.  This is where I think behavior habituation saves us:  Games get stale.  Simple games don’t attract the same players forever.  In fact, they train players to avoid similar works in the future.  New players will try them and move on.  That is a great treasure.  Simple games become a method of training new players in the new medium, like cartoons.  Complaining about Farmville being too simple misses how it is training new players to habituate and demand more as time goes on.  And since games reflect systems (plus mathematics and economics and reading, among others), learning to play even simple games translates into thinking skills for the real world, skills that are hard to get in other ways.

3) The Power of the “Gamer Face”.  Rod was clearly frightened by the stone face of players.  In a sense, the lack of humanity they showed.  I do find it scary, but I wonder if our mind isn’t playing tricks on us.  I tried finding photos of people studying or reading alone.  It’s surprisingly hard, because I think but what I could find suggests that the stone face is more a reflection of two factors:  the lack of social behaviors and intense focus.  People seem to use their face mostly for social interactions and when they are engaged heavily on other tasks, the brain let’s the face go numb to focus on other things, so to speak.  My anecdotal guess is it probably speaks more to the power of our medium to focus the mind then anything inherently ill.

At the end of his talk, Rod said the ray of hope for our medium is that, despite it’s power, it’s inherently Socratic.  That the author couldn’t completely dominate his work.  I’m curious to see what comes out of that, whether games continue to evolve in that direction.


After yet another  TED talk espousing the mind-controlling properties of games, it is time to say again: “It’s not that simple.

Games are not just ultimate Skinner boxes.  In fact, as we know (thanks Alfie Kohn), Skinner boxes don’t really work on humans.  The talk even says it directly. You can only give people 5-20 repetitions before they get bored.  After that rewards stop working.  You get acclimated.

Games are the grand experiment.  We developed the power to make universes.  Places where every sound, every object, every rule created by a human being.  A place to try being God.  And what did we do with this power?  We turned it on ourselves.  We choose to study who we are.  How we think.  We discovered rewards.  We discovered motivation.  But we are also discovering acclimation.

Consider story games vs. game-y games.  Story games are games like Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, or Uncharted 2 that, rather then use deep sets of interesting rules, rely on an outside motivation to drive you through the universe.  Traditional stories, rigidly enforced and passively received.   And often it works.  At least until you get to the end.  But then the rules suddenly stop feeling compelling.  Why?  Why don’t you keep playing?  Acclimation!  We want end points.  We want to see differently, try new things, explore.  Develop and grow.  No single task or grouping of tasks is enough to contain us.

As designers, acclimation is our burden and our saving grace.  We have to overcome it to maintain engagement.  But it trains our players.  It makes them smarter, wiser, more engaged the next time we do something different, interesting, worthwhile.  It’s what breaks the “addiction”.  It’s the learner mastering the subject, and walking away with a new piece of knowledge.  It’s what gives the next designer a chance to entertain.

Games can’t “control” people.  Jesse Schell talks about it like it’s something to fear.  And while I agree the coming point-pocalypse is something for concern, all I think it does is make us stronger.  We are human.  We’ve built universes to test that out.  And we always win, in the end.  We walk away, and do something else.