Author Archives: manojalpa

Three Games for The Fifth Season

I took a break from an existential crisis courtesy of Ta-Nehisi Coates to reflect on N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. As a game designer, I process things through systems. I imagine them as games. Luckily for me, The Fifth Season would make a brilliant game. Three, actually.

F2P Strategy Survival Game

I’m obsessed with creating a hundred year game, the greatest challenge being how to provide new content over time. Content here loosely means unprocessed stimulus - as Raph said, once we know a game, it ceases to be fun. Successful long-term engagement relies on enough of the content coming from algorithms (procedural content) or other players (social/UGC) that the game can evolve over time and supply players with novel challenges and unexpected situations. As it happens, The Fifth Season revolves around a very robust procedural system - that of plate tectonics - while also having built-in social structures - comms (communities). The game writes itself: work together with your friends to establish a comm that is capable of surviving the next Season (Season being a semi-apocalyptic period of time triggered by geological behavior). Not only did Jemisin provide plenty of planetary catastrophes in her appendix (“Acid Season”, “Boiling Season”, “Season of Changed Wind"), any of which could be triggered on a semi-random basis like a good F2P event system. She also provided us with a set of classes for the players, which in The Fifth Season are the use-castes people are born into. Each player would, of course, be responsible for their own house & garden, but the compelling part would be strategizing together and resisting the urge towards individual gain. Here’s how a few of those castes could play out:
  • Breeder - These players get the genetics mini-game, figuring out what traits are most desirable and ensuring proper pairings. Because there are generations between Seasons, players can jump from character to character over time. Breeders also have to manage the human cost/benefit analysis.
  • Innovator - These are our strategy players. They get access to the comm's caches and likely have a sim-city-ish interface for whenever mechanical/technological breakdowns occur. They also need to strategize about how to effectively prepare, regardless of what the Season is ultimately triggered by.
  • Leader - These are our moderators and guild leaders. They can wield the ban-hammer and have ultimate say on what shakes down in the comm, in addition to helping resolve interplayer disputes. Before a Season, they're responsible for organizing mutually beneficial trade agreements and can even ally into nations/empires.
  • Resistant - These players are the explorers. Before a Season, they can travel most easily, acquire knowledge, create partnerships, and map out unknown territories. During a Season, they are less likely to catch sick, and therefore can act as healers.
  • Strongback - These players are our classic fighters. They get weapons, they stand guard, they deal with other players and forces of nature that come up against the comm. When a Season is not in effect, their strength lets them transport supplies with ease - or invade and conquer nearby comms.
The repeatable-yet-random nature of Seasons (variable reward) inbetween more traditional home-improvement gameplay in the off-seasons, is perfect for long term engagement. Could you create an Empire that could endure through the ages? That could survive even the longest Season?

Emotionally Crippling Narrative-Driven RPG

As excited as I am about a Fifth Season massive mobile strategy game, that isn’t actually what The Fifth Season is about. In a recent presentation, Jemisin talked about the difference between low immersion and high immersion writing and world building. The Fifth Season is a high immersion story - which is to say, we learn about the world not because we have maps and genealogies and linguistic footnotes thrown at us, but because we care about the evocative personal stories that take place in it. The experiential core of The Fifth Season isn’t about Seasons, or comms, or Use-Castes. It’s about a survivor, a mother, a broken man. This is ripe for an RPG. You aren’t trying to save the world. You’re trying to destroy it. The Fifth Season has many RPG parallels, with the orogene Essun accreting party members and the world providing a host of foes - from natural disasters to Guardians to carnivorous scavengers to Stone Eaters to the everyday prejudice of your fellow humans. We ignored orogeny in the F2P Strategy Game - orogeny being a trait that lets certain humans channel geological forces - but here we’ll make it the central, distinguishing characteristic of our player. In any powerful RPG, choice is a central tenant. Let’s look at some choices we could make as an orogene (This section has MAJOR SPOILERS. If you’re skipping, suffice it to say there are heart wrenching moments in the book that would make for painful game choices):
!!! --- SPOILER ALERT --- !!!
  • Player Character: Fulcrum or Feral (whether your orogeny was bred or accidental)? Birthplace (character customization)? Name (occurs multiple times throughout the game)?
  • Leaning: In place of Paragon/Renegade or Empire/Alliance, we could have Complicit/Resistant (we’d find a better name for Resistant as it’s use-caste) - essentially, are you more inclined to accept the systems at work around you or rebel against them? As in most RPGs, your leaning may unlock unique story options.
  • Story Arc: Do you kill the kid who’s hurting you on the playground, or just scare him? Do you go quietly when they come to your village to take you away? Are you still when your hand is crushed? Do you obey your teachers? Do you follow Bisof into the Main? Do you have sex with the person they pair you with? Who’d you pair - or triple - off with? Do you explode a city to save your lover? Do you kill your son to keep him free? Do you destroy the world?
!!! --- END SPOILER ALERT --- !!!
And then, of course, we have the staple of all RPGs: battle. The long grind. It's easy to imagine this more Final Fantasy-esque - where players are on a map and as they travel there are "random battles" which are minute earthquakes or hungry Kirkhusa. But something more compelling might arise when orogenes battle each other - or battle Guardians or Stone Eaters. One can imagine the steps of finding heat sources, shaping a torus, and directing energy. One can imagine a variety of attacks - from spikes of rock to pools of lava to heaving boulders to sudden ravines. Plenty of diversity for a very enjoyable skill tree. Orogeny also has a clear progression system - the rings awarded to orogenes at the Fulcrum (a ... specialized university, let's call it). Even after leaving, there's story justification for the continued accumulation of rings. One unfortunate disconnect from the book would be party acquisition. In the book, the main character(s) continuously find themselves alone, starting over, isolated, whereas in an RPG it is preferable to give players acquisition of party members as a permanent progress bar.

MMO Humanity Simulator

Of course I’m excited about an RPG that allows for polyamory and reflects a much higher level of relationship complexity - and choices - than we’ve seen before. BUT I’m still not sure that’s what’s at the heart of this book (psych!). It IS about a mother, and a broken man, and unspeakable choices. But those stories compel us because at the root of them is a terrible mirror of our own world. The Fifth Season is also about injustice. It’s about the way humanity separates itself so that some can feel superior at the cost of others. Which brings us to the final game, an MMO humanity simulator. Everyone starts the game with a random character - random parents, and parents determine genetics and birth location and so on. Just like real life. And just like real life, some of those random characteristics are preferred over others. And just like real life, some people will have parents who are already at the top of the class hierarchy, implicitly or explicitly. They're in the most sought after location. With the most resources. With caches upon caches of wealth. Everyone has the same goal: “Bring your people to greatness.” That’s it. Now let’s suppose each player has a “greatness” stat - something that combines tangibles like food and money and land with intangibles like influence, happiness, and knowledge. And lets say that at any time players can go to a leaderboard and look at the total greatness as divided by any characteristic. By location. By hair texture. By use-caste. Then we watch the world work. We never tell players who their people are. One of the most powerful things I read in Coates’ book was “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” He talked about “extinct" races: Italian, Irish, German, for instance - dividers we no longer use because we no longer judge ourselves along those lines. We no longer feel superiority/inferiority for those reasons. One of his later revelations is this: “What divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do."

The Deck of Fun

Over the years I've found several different ways people attempt to map, categorize, and present the amorphous possibility space of play, fun, and games. I reference them constantly, always with a grain of salt, as a sort of mantra for considering playstyles that are not my own. Doubtless the taxonomies I've discovered are a small subset of those that exist (if you find more, please share), and doubtless each is a small lens of truth on a much bigger picture. Some of them are decades old, some of them are brand new. Some cover fun, some games, some childhood play. They are useful in so far as any tool is useful, limitations and all. Last year, for my aforementioned IxD course, I wanted to put all of these taxonomies into one place to make reference that much faster. The Deck of Fun was born.

What's Inside?

The deck has 64 cards each with a unique front and back:
  • 1 title card
  • 7 color-coded overview cards (one per section)
  • 56 cards that each show a unique type of fun, play, or game

Who's Featured?

  • Richard Bartle: MUD Player Types
  • Stuart Brown: Types of Developmental Play, Player Personalities
    • Both of these can be found in his book Play
  • Roger Caillois: 4 Types of Games
  • CI Company: Types of Fun
    • One of the more curious entries, a consulting firm's research results, covered here
  • Nicole Lazzaro: 4 Keys to Fun
  • Mark Leblanc: 8 Kinds of Fun
    • Based on his work here, with a semantic edit from Extra Credits

How Do I Get It?

While I'd feel terrible asking for money to print something that is just a collection of others' work, I am happy to make the PDF available to all. The PDF is 100% vector, so can be blown up to any size.


If you are going to print your own, I recommend using the "print 9 copies per page" option, as this reduces the cards to the size of playing cards. They also all have a unique back and front, so make sure you print doublesided.

Special Thanks

Special thanks to Jenny Slife for beautifying the deck and giving me an amazing graphical template and to Hanna Brady for helping catch tons of pesky mistakes. Please feel free to send in edits and suggestions.

IxD Play

Over the past two years I designed the curriculum for and taught IxD Play, a junior level interaction design course at California College of the Arts. I had two fantastic co-lecturers: Santa Ragione's Pietro Righi-Reva last year and Catherine Herdlick this year. I've made my lectures available online, the first of which contains a rough syllabus. For those interested in the full syllabus, feel free to reach out and email me! I'm also not sure if the notes are showing up; some of these make less sense without that context, so let me know if you'd like the original file.

IxD Play 00 :: INTRO

This covers the basics of the class: our structure, our main deliverables, and how we analyze experiences.

IxD Play 01 :: PLAY 101

Our first lecture tackles the "what is play?" question, but first investigates why we should care at all - through the lenses of several different play theorists.

IxD Play 02 :: TYPES OF PLAY

The second lecture covers several predominant taxonomies of play, fun, and players. This analysis is used as a framework for the rest of the class in place of traditional demographic information (eg: age, location, gender). We strongly encourage player type identification and analysis, as it is more indicative of motivation than most statistics.

IxD Play 03 :: THE PLAYFUL

This lecture examines several different examples of play and questions what precise qualities make something playful (or not).


This lecture provides an overview of the fundamentals of games, then dives into common psychological motivations and preferences that help inspire players.


The fifth lecture examines two optimal experience theories - Flow and Enchantment - in the context of affective design, or design for specific emotional impact. (Adapted from my "Affective Design and the Future of Play" presentation at UCSC)


The final lecture discusses live games and games-as-a-service, with a focus on long term retention in freemium titles and designing games for "the long haul".

If You Wanna Jam

I've run the Global Game Jam in San Francisco four years in a row, along with a variety of other events like the SFMOMA GameLab-A-Thon and SF Indie Game Jam. Here's a few things I learned:
A table covered in stacks of colored paper with labels for areas of expertise

Don't make it a competition

The fastest way to disenchant people from being creative is turning it into a competition. The fastest way to make beginners and newcomers feel unworthy is turning it into a competition. The fastest way to make the majority feel bad about their creations is turning it into a competition. Just making a game in 2 or 24 or 48 hours is a momentous accomplishment worth recognition. Don't make it feel like wasted time because people didn't "win". If you want to build a strong community, keep everything collaborative. Celebrate accomplishments, recognize standout talent, but don't rank. Creating winners also creates losers. At the beginning and end of the jam we emphasize that it isn't a competition. At the end, we let the audience vote and we recognize outstanding excellence in different categories: technical excellence, excellent use of theme, etc. We do them quickly, humorously, and there are no prizes. We remind people that everyone completed the challenge. Everyone who made a game won.

Have an inspiring theme

I was delighted when GGJ this year returned to their phrase-style themes. Phrases, especially adages or common metaphors, give players an abstract dynamic with plenty of space for personal adaptation. Go too literal, and most of the games will be similar. Go too abstract, and people don't have jumping off points. One suggestion (courtesy of Ian Schreiber) which particularly tickled me and was successful for our SF Indie Game Jam, was to go to a random wiki page and let that be the theme, or go to several until majority accepted the theme.

Let people hear each others' ideas

Common creative advice is to throw out your first [X] ideas because they're the default, the obvious, the sputters before the gears really start turning. In jams, those are unfortunately also the ideas that get consensus - because they ARE the most normal, or obvious. To combat this, we started having each team pitch their game to everyone after about an hour of concepting. This lets people see which ideas are common, and we've wound up with much more diverse games since we started doing this.
People make colorful crowns around a table

Give specific opportunities for break ups

I didn't start doing this until recently, but we now have a set amount of time where groups can "break up" with each other. We call it out explicitly and always have food and drinks available, so people can excuse themselves gracefully from a group and try out other options. We got a hugely positive response from doing this. 48 hours is a long time to commit to a team you don't like, and we've seen our retention increase since we gave people explicit opportunities to search out better teams.

Healthy food energizes best

Food is energy, and at jams people need plenty of it. Most of the time we default to what's cheap: soda, chips, peanuts, etc. When we started getting the budget for healthy snacks (hummus, vegetables, fresh fruit, dried fruit, bread, cheese), we noticed people weren't crashing, and the energy was more sustainable over the course of the jam.

There IS a "just right" for team formation

Team formation is always a sticking point at jams. We've done it differently every year, but I think we finally found the right mix.
  • Jammers need autonomy: One year we tried assigning groups prior to the jam based on surveys jammers filled out. The majority of jammers were not happy, perhaps because skill compatibility doesn't equal social compatibility, but perhaps because people felt forced into something they hadn't chosen. Some pre-formed teams also showed up and were upset about getting split, or caused us to break our already fragile arrangement. Now we form teams on site.
  • Make the invisible visible: From the first jam, we've utilized crowns to help visualize people's skills and experience. Jammers create strange paper hats, the color(s) of which corresponds to areas of expertise: 2D art, 3D art, sound, design, production, and various programming languages and environments. This works for two reasons: it gives people something to talk about (admittedly this isn't the most inherently social crowd), and it lets people seek out others.
  • Suggest, don't dictate: We encourage group sizes of 2-4. We encourage people to come without pre-formed teams. But we have no rules. Ultimately, they just get in the way and make people unhappy. Team formation rules are useful to the extent that they enable people to have a fun, successful jam. Past that? Ditch 'em.
  • Emphasize team flexibility: Remind people that these aren't their final teams, that they'll have opportunities to switch later. They'll be far less stressed and much more open if they're not worried about making The Big Decision. (And with this method, they usually stay with their first team anyway!)
  • Facilitate ratios: We split people up by expertise and then make a game out of finding missing team members. "Each pair of programmers needs to find one artist and one designer or producer" is usually all we need to say. Thanks to the visibility, they handle the rest on their own.
  • Have a late team: Some people inevitably show up late. While sometimes they can sneak into existing teams, we found it beneficial to have a place where people who were still looking for a group could hang out. More often than not, the stragglers wound up forming their own coalition.
A man at a computer wearing an intricate crown made of many colors

Two projectors are better than one

This one is small, but at the end of 48 hours when people are exhausted but still want the payout of showing off their work, having two projectors is a godsend. Have one team setting up on one projector while another team is presenting on the first. It basically doubles the speed at which teams can present, letting everyone go home and sleep all the faster. Goodnight!

O My – Transformative Experiences

Every Cirque du Soleil show is a miniature master class in experience design. These are my insights from watching O last night:


You enter through the Richard MacDonald art gallery, a meandering hall flanked by bronze bodies extended and twisted and curved in stunning composition. Human figures, human forms, unfamiliar but beautiful : psychological priming for the evening's entertainment. Attendants wear tailed tuxedos reminiscent of old time three ring circuses - a nod to tradition and a nostalgia trigger. You smell water immediately, chlorine and wet that makes you wonder what's behind the enormous, somehow (magically?) bulbous main curtain. Its red bounce light fills the auditorium with rosy saturation, the only relief an irregular aqua ceiling with a swirling neon chandelier. Even in its initial architecture, the theme arises: we will break pattern and expectation.

Transformative Experiences

We expect pattern. Our default is pattern. Most of the textures we see, every day, form patterns. Not just visual but auditory, behavioral, speech patterns, collective habit. The strongest experiences are those that transform us. They break those patterns and in breaking the patterns draw attention to the pattern itself. By disrupting or taking something apart, we can see in new clarity what it was before. This transformational moment can trigger many different things, from mild intrigue and curiosity to awe and wonder. It can make us uncomfortable as it tosses wrenches in our mental models and plays with boundaries and expectations. Transformation is how we grow.

Breaking Boundaries

Fifteen minutes before the show, the clowns appear: haggard and incompetent sailors that sally up into the audience. Breaking boundaries. Stages are for stiffs. A drip, drip, drip noise begins in the theatre, but it isn't until the clowns call attention to it, with a wave of their cup, that the audience realizes the theatre is leaking - water is dripping down from the ceiling, right in the middle of one of the aisleways. The clowns offer hole-filled umbrellas to those around them, hardly enough to protect them from the spray. They are walking, gesturing delight machines. This is the invitation to play, the hint that you aren't simply observer but a part of this experience. That safe circle that keeps everyone up on stage is gone, and you may, with or without your consent, be touched by the magic. That particular boundary they toy with consistently. They pull a man from the audience up to the billowing curtain, force him to read the no smoking or photography card, and then, when you think he's being told to return to his seats, he is suddenly jerked up, up, up into the air, into the folds of the red curtain as if by the hand of god. He does not reappear. It pulls on our childhood play strings. It makes us wonder if we could be next, even while our adult joykiller says 'plant!' like it's some cool thing to be able to dismantle the magic. They continue to blur the division between participant and audience. Dripping swimmers run up and down the aisles, tossing their hair and misting those near the walkways. Another man is pulled on stage as he attempts to return to his seat, encouraged to climb a dizzying ladder before being pushed four stories into the vast, vast pool that is the stage. But just in case you thought it was water, the host begins to walk across it, stepping atop the surface like some god-touched messenger. He floats across our preconceptions and scatters them in the air with his toes.


They toy with gender and clown the race off all the performers. People become divisible by outfit, makeup. Our white-wig-wearing assistants suddenly become spectacle performers. The stately men twist on the trapeze, revealing black garters as their coat skirts billow up and leaving the audience to wonder how they're supposed to feel about that. Masculine meets feminine meets androgyn. They use motion, gesture, and gaze with such intentionality that it demands attention. Every person on stage moves with complete mindfulness and awareness. One cannot help but be spellbound - look where they look, trace their lines. Perhaps my favorite moment was when the floor rose up through the water, bringing with it a dozen of the completely black-decked scuba divers whose invisible presence enables all of the incredible aquatic acrobatics. Beached on the suddenly solid stage, they kicked their flippers like stranded whales, both part of the show and the means to the show, a secret you perhaps weren't supposed to see. Of course everything Cirque du Soleil is known for impressed: the acrobatics, the contortionists, the clowns, but the detail of showmanship goes above and beyond. That is what separates Cirque du Soleil from other circuses, their capacity to transform you, to fill you with awe and wonder, to take what you think you know and defy, challenge, twist, and shatter it. They can make you walk on water.

Books for Game Designers

When Brenda asked Facebook what books Game Designers should read, the results were eye-opening. Compiled here, with links, so that your wallet can hurt as much as mine.
Homo Ludens1Games & Culture
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art 2 Visual Arts, Psychology
Theory of Fun 2 Game Design, Psychology
You Game Fiction
Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative 2 Visual Arts
REAMDE Game Fiction
Ready Player One 1 Game Fiction
Medium is the Massage Artistic Mediums
House of Leaves 1 Universal Design
Story 1 Storytelling, Screenwriting
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience 2 Psychology
The Power of HabitBehavior Design
How the Mind WorksPsychology
Predictably Irrational 1 Psychology
The Open Work 1 Artistic Craft
Convergence Culture New Media & Culture
Community Building on the Web Community
The Design of Everyday Things 9 Universal Design
Emotional Design 2 Affective Design
The Shape of Design Universal Design
A Pattern Language 2 Universal Design, Architecture
Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight Play
Thinking, Fast and SlowPsychology
Glued to Games Psychology, Engagement
The Paradox of Choice Psychology
Film Directing: Shot by Shot 1 Cinematography
Universal Principles of Design Universal Design
Freakonomics Psychology, Behavior Design
Normal Accidents Technology & Society
System Effects Systems Design
The Language of New Media New Media
Man, Play and Games 2 Games & Society
Play Psychology, Culture
Game Feel 3 Game Design
Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible 1 Universal Design, History
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter Game Design, Game History
The Dramatic Imagination 1 Theatre
A Book of Lenses 2 Game Design
Designing Virtual WorldsVirtual Worlds
The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation Animation
Trigger Happy Comparative Entertainment
Oxford History of Board Games Game History, Game Design
Science of Human Nature Psychology
A Whole New Mind Psychology, Creativity
Masters of Doom 1 Game Industry History
The Tao of Pooh Team Management
99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style Storytelling
Space, Time, Play Virtual Spaces, Architecture
Moneyball Free To Play
Amusing Ourselves to Death Entertainment & Society
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Fiction, Values
The Tipping Point Virality in Culture
Comics and Sequential Art Visual Arts
Maus Subject Matter
Maus II Subject Matter
Architecture: Form, Space, and Order Architecture
Emergence Emergent Systems
The Design of Future Things Technology Design
How to Win Friends and Influence People Communication, Game Industry
Critical Play Serious Game Design
The Complete Wargame Handbook Game Design
A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre Theatre
A Mathematical Theory of Communication Communication
The Man Who Lied to His Laptop Technology & Society
Statistics for Dummies 1Statistics
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Autobiography
Impro: Improvisation and Theatre Theatre, Improv
The Game Designer's Bookshelf Additional Resources
Hero with a Thousand Faces Storytelling
Godel Escher Bach Systems Thinking
Snow Crash Game Fiction
The Electronic Eye: The Rise of a Surveillance Society Technology & Society
In Pursuit of Elegance Ideas, Expressive Art
The Soul of a New Machine Technology & Culture
Art as Experience Esp. Ch3: Having an Experience
Thinking in Systems: A Primer Systems Thinking
Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System Systems Design
Videogames of the Oppressed Serious Games, Society
The Game Design Reader Game Design
Human Values and the Design of Computer Technology
First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game New Media
Rules of Play Game Design
Gender Inclusive Game Design Diversity in Games
Half Real Game Design
Simulation versus Narrative: Introduction to Ludology
Twisty Little Passages Interactive Fiction
Game Over Game Industry History
The Ultimate History of Video Games Game History
The Reverse Design Project Game History
Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 Game History
1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die Game History
Killing Monsters Game Violence
Congressional Testimony on Media Violence Game Violence
The War Between Effects and Meaning Game Violence
Lucky Wander Boy Game Fiction
Damn Good Advice For Independent Creatives
The Well-Played Game Play, Philosophy
Poetics Storytelling
User Centered Design
Beautiful Evidence Information Visualization
Visual Explanations Information Visualization
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information Information Visualization
The Origins of Architectural Pleasure Architecture
Chambers for a Memory Palace Architecture
The Animator's Survival Kit Animation
Traffic Emergent Systems
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Psychology, Persuasion
Made to Stick Communication, Marketing
Good to Great Business
The Study of Games
Supercrunchers Data
The Denial of Death Existentialism
Everything Bad is Good For You Popular Culture
Bird by Bird Writing
A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness Psychology
The Mind's I Philosophy, Ontology
My Tiny Life Virtual Communities
Play Money Virtual Economy Hacks

What Else?

I'll continue updating based on responses to the post and comments here. What do you love? What's missing?

IndieCade: Critical, Inclusive, Revolutionary

Last year, IndieCade felt like an ode to the inspired artist. We talked in tiny bubbles about specific games, upcoming instances, or the highest level global trends. We knew we were important, but we still weren't quite taking ourselves seriously, or maybe we just hadn't learned how to. We were a jenky, diverse group trying to find cohesion and direction - from the awards ceremony to the conference to the festival floor. This year, across all levels, that changed. This year, IndieCade wasn't an ode - it was a call to action. This year indies staked out their place in the collective history of art, technology, expression, and politics. We weren't just diverse - we were championing diversity, inclusion, and the variety of perspectives necessary to make great works of art. And most importantly, we were reminded that what we were doing isn't the norm. We are, willingly or unwillingly, revolutionaries.


The critical element was most boldly marked by the three IndieCade keynotes: two discussions between very different but equally vital forefathers of our industry, and an overarching history lesson of the people responsible for our current, humble movement. John Romero interviewed Steve Russell, who coded the first ever shmup, Spacewar, on a PDP-1 in 1962. Listening to Steve Russell talk about punch cards, sine algorithms, and 1 KB memory was a valuable lesson for the greener indies at the conference: we didn't emerge from nothing, and we don't exist in a void. We have a rich and powerful history. Eric Zimmerman interviewed Bernie DeKoven (whom I recognized as Mr. Fun), one of the founders of the New Games Movement in the sixties and author of The Well-Played Game, a piece on the philosophy and psychology of playing and game-playing. Bernie talked about the inherent paradox we all work within: the difference between play - driven by autonomy, curiosity, exploration - and game-playing - fueled by strategy, determination, rules. He showed the power of putting play into the player's hands - by making us all improvise a performance variant of rock paper scissors. He proved that while the trend today is towards giving players a line of cookies and hoping they follow it - that's really nothing near the underlying psychology of play. Finally, Mary Flanagan gave an impressive quick-hit history lesson of 7 phenomenal people who in one way or another had a powerful effect on our industry. Starting with Joseph Marie Jacquard, who created the first punch-card-reading machine (a loom for art) and ending in fact with Steve Russell and Bernie DeKoven. She made a point of including the queer, the technological, the artsy, the revolutionary. This is our history to own. Many other talks contributed to this sense of elevating indie games: giving them a history, giving them a vocabulary to analyze and reflect upon themselves. Bennet Foddy discussed the power of pain (challenge, frustration, difficulty) and its addictive and necessary qualities for engagement. A brilliant panel including Amy Hennig, Jenova Chen, Ian Dallas, and Dan Pinchbeck went deep into the philosophy and trial and error of experiential games, echoing much of Bernie's philosophy on the play element in games.


At the end of a year marked by appalling sexism, unsafe conferences, and unbelievable affronts to women's rights, IndieCade felt like a haven. This isn't coincidental. It was purposeful and apparent that the organizers supported a safe space, and that those who showed were invested in maintaining it. There were women on every panel, audiences that weren't the typical 90/10 m/f split. There were people of color, transgender speakers, participants that IndieCade sponsored because they didn't have the finances to go on their own dime. This IndieCade was about voices being heard, and those voices had so much to offer. Anna Anthropy was at the forefront, making the entire audience repeat: queer games are important. Queer games are important. For so long it's been the same people making games for themselves - the same straight white male perspective being shipped to a world of different people. Queer games - used more broadly than just games with LGBT themes - diversify and enrich the dazzling sphere that is indie games. Queer games are important. New voices are important. Different voices are important. Mattie Brice interviewed Christine Love about Analogue: A Hate Story - a proudly feminist game that used an empathic approach to creating realistic characters that illustrate, if not comment on, women's issues. Celia Pearce joined Akira Thompson, Megan Gaiser and Anna to discuss diversity and inclusion in the industry. Megan passionately declared that we not only have the ability, but the responsibility to take action. We need to create safe spaces. We need to amplify voices too often talked over, silenced, or ignored. We need to embrace, encourage, and embody diversity. And we did. We are. This is our community, and we've created an inspiring kaleidoscope of invaluable viewpoints, varied perspectives, and powerful histories.


Bernie DeKoven said, of the sixties, that all play was revolutionary. Playing, in public spaces - in public spaces together - was subversive, subtly defiant, even dangerous. To play is to toy with systems, to learn cause and effect, to understand. Play implies agency and autonomy, the capacity to act and affect outcomes. It is the ability to make change. Johannes Grenzfurthner and Molleindustrias' Paolo Pedercini said play, and games, continue to be tools of the revolution. They are seductive, persuasive, and powerful. They are not instrumental to change, but inherently transformative. It is the nature of a game to change a player. The question then became: what are you changing? How are you using this power? What are you saying with your voice? - because we all have one now, because game making has reached the commons, because anyone with any will now has a way. Don't just do the same. Don't be derivative. Don't create selfishly. Create for the future, for the community, for the unheard or ignored. Create with intent. Create to change something, to be someone, to make a difference. We're all of us capable now. We're all of us responsible now.


It was a weekend of empowerment. We learned the past, glimpsed the future, and celebrated the present. To all those who shared the weekend with me, and moreso those who made it possible: thank you.

Experiencing Renga

A starscape glittered on a suspended screen, the projector mingling with twilight at the edge of IndieCade Village. Red, jittery, chaotic spots flicked alive one by one, until dozens of laser pointers fritzed across and beyond the projection- onto palm trees, trash cans, people's faces.

The Hokku

An old school computerized voice called us to action - most definitely us, even though I didn't have a pointer, even if I couldn't touch the screen. From the very beginning, I, the observer, the inquisitive designer on the sidelines, was drawn into the shared experience. It started with bright geometric shapes slowly rotating in space, unwound and destroyed when there was at least one laser pointer on each vertex. Red lights flit everywhere, darting and twitching in tiny circles as players fought to discern their pointer from over fifty others. I held my breath as the shapes started to disappear, grinned when a static pop and particle effects signaled success. These first exercises in coordinated laser pointing were, as the cheeky computer voice told us, not even the beginning of the end. After this abstract tutorial, the real game started.

The Waki and Daisan

Renga is aptly named after a Japanese style of collaborative poetry, and mimics its structure. After an initial stanza, the Hokku, two stanza styles alternate repeatedly ad nauseum. Renga's first phase involves collecting floating blocks from space while defending from antagonistic geometries. The second is using the collected blocks to build out a spaceship. The spaceship has three elements: Silos to store blocks, Harvesters to go out into space and fetch them, and Launch Boosters, all four of which are required to battle the final boss. Our initial harvesting missions were… a bit pathetic, as emphasized by the computer's "Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear." Enormous spoke-monsters appeared and before we'd halfway depleted them they'd lurch at our ship and destroy our harvesters. People were unsure whether to use their pointer to unlock the floating blocks, move the harvester to collect them, or focus on the encroaching enemies. Similarly, the first time we were building up our ship (done by holding a laser pointer still in a certain location to "vote" for where you think a block should be placed) the line connecting us to the Launch Booster we wanted was two blocks thick, jagged, with wasted blocks everywhere. We were a mess. Then the next round began, and the next, and the lines between our ship elements got more and more precise. We were better able to handle those aggravatingly random and aggressive monsters. We realized that keeping our harvesters closer to our silos saved time. 10, 20, 30 minutes passed. The crowd grew, oozed out onto the sidewalks, collected passersby. I had no pointer, but I cheered, gasped, hollered, and felt so much a part of the experience it made no difference. The moments belonged to all of us, actors, observers, and otherwise.

The Ichiza

Those with laser pointers shook out their hands before the initial vote on whether or not to fight the final boss. We'd unlocked all of our Launch Boosters, but our blocky exterior had a hole in it and we were just finally figuring out how to strategize as a collective. "What a bunch of cowards," the computer said as we voted for another round of harvesting and building. It was the most difficult round yet, but we came out of it with more resources than we'd ever had before. We reinforced our walls, filled in the holes, and when the next vote came, the majority agreed: it was time for the final boss. We'd been annihilated by the boss at the end of the tutorial, and tension tightened up the air as we held our collective breath.

The Ageku

It was chaos, but this time we knew how to deal with it. Little teams of five went off to tackle the spoke monsters, while the majority mass swarmed the boss from the inside out, destroying continuously larger geometries, each with more vertices than the last. Two circles - the largest - remained of the boss, with 45 and 50 vertices respectively, by estimation. They rotated faster than any of the previous geometries, and were slowly moving across screen, forcing our ship (which was now controlled by just a few lone laser points) into a corner. "Everyone on the boss!" came shouts, as we slowly realized we didn't have enough pointers to attack both the small enemies and the boss. Little red lights tracked back across the screen and fell into line around the perimeter of the circle. I'm not sure I breathed as its life depleted, and then that static WHUFF and it was gone, and we were cheering, and the next one went that much faster. Red pointers made circles, whirls, and joyful streaks as the computer voice congratulated us. I was clapping furiously and whooping along with everyone around me, who'd sat enraptured for the better part of an hour because this was something special, something spiritual, something sacred.

The Henka

We hear about mob mentality and think humans fall apart and disintegrate in large numbers. We think they become thoughtless, angry, stupid. But here, without a leader, without any chance to form strategy, without any plan or pretense, over a hundred people not only worked together, but got better. The same way an individual's skill improved, this collective's ability visibly, markedly increased over time. It wasn't chaos, it wasn't stupid, it wasn't random. It was beautiful. Renga ended and I wasn't sure what had happened. I knew in that soul-deep way that it was important, that it had changed me, and that it was unforgettable not in a puppy-love sense but in that truly transformational capacity. I knew that it had, in a single hour, kicked the field of game design ahead by leaps and bounds. I felt it had seeded the potential for stadiums of people to be as engaged as football fanatics over a team of strangers all building, fighting, defending together. I felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the developers, to the game master, to everyone around me who made the experience what it was. Few games deserve the word sacred, none as much as Renga.

Alone in the Light

A year ago I started a series of posts about Project Aurora - an experimental iPad game I was making with a group of students and the amazing artist Kim Koskamp.
Sparkle Bear

The Breakdown

It started brilliantly - we had unique concept art, a strong design direction, and a diverse team of programmers. But two months in, my posts went dark - and so did the project. I was in the middle of writing about project management, highlighting communication as the make-or-break quality of a team. At the same time, it became our team's biggest weakness: emails went unanswered, and the developers were rarely available to talk synchronously, whether by phone, skype, AIM, or gchat. The semester ended and we had a beta version, but no enthusiasm to carry through, polish and release it to the app store. I had failed. But there was one person for whom I had failed more than any other, and that was Kim.

The Backstory

When I was scouting for an artist, I emphasized and re-emphasized accountability: this was a project other people were getting graded on, that we couldn't up and disappear, no matter the friction. If you were in, you were in until the end. I kept worrying about the artist flaking, oblivious to the fact that it could go both ways. So Kim poured her heart and soul into this project. She does this with most of her work; she's a truly inspirational artist, dedicated against all odds. When faced with an enormous challenge - she'd never done art for a game before, much less animation - she buckled down and for the project's entire three month roadmap was continuously iterating, improving, and learning new techniques to ensure what she delivered was the best it could possibly be. For a project we knew from the start was going to make very little money - if any - she worked harder than most salaried employees. So when the end came, and I had nothing for her - not a playable demo, not a published game, not even an alpha version that was accessible to her - I knew I'd let down Kim more than anyone. And that was something I couldn't really handle.

The Secret

For the past several months, I stole odd hours here and there to redesign Aurora for the web. I knew I didn't have the ability to create it for iPad, and for once I wanted to be in control of all the variables. Because Aurora was so fundamentally tied to touch and gesture, the design had to be gutted. We kept the art, but the mechanics were redesigned from scratch. Michael Molinari, with whom I've worked on several game jam projects (<3), volunteered to get the game running in Flash, and we batted ideas back and forth, and chewed our nails over a timeline, and finally came up with a simple concept we could create in a few months that would do justice to the original experience. It was hard not to tweet, share or screenshot the progress for the past several months, but now we finally get to put it out in the world:

The Surprise

Kim, this is for you! Failing might phase you, but it never stops you. You hit walls and find ways to leap over, dig under, or just barrel right through them. You are an incredible person, a brilliant friend, and one of the best people I've ever worked with. Thank you for being you, and sharing so much of yourself with others. You put your heart and soul into this project, and I hope at least some of that's honored with this version:
Alone in the Light Button