Possibly one of the most notable results of the MetaMakers’ work, was their research in fluidic games design. This ultimately resulted in the development and release of Wevva (Available for free for iOS: https://apple.co/2zRDmmt): a simple and intuitive tool for designing, creating and modifying small casual games on the fly. Mostly targeted to young audiences.
Which seemed fortunate, for if there’s something my haphazard career has prepared me for, is making quick and small games with new tools.
What’s more, other than the handful of researchers involved in the project, the tool has almost only ever been tested in the context of game jams with kids.
When I started working for the MetaMakers, we wondered what would happen if somebody like me: a somewhat experienced game designer, were to be left alone with Wevva. How would my games compare to the ones made by kids, researchers, and other people that had a chance to try the fluidic game design tool? All people, it’s worth noting, for whom Wevva was likely their first exposure to the world of video game-making and game design.
This is an account of my experience designing a number of games for Wevva. I go through seven of them, and you’ll be able to try them in the app by using the codes provided.
One thing I quickly learned to forgo whenever dealing with new game development tools, is the sense of exploration for its own sake. Tools are much too complex and comprehensive for designers to click around, hoping to figure out everything the tool has to offer. It’s much more effective, usually, to be task oriented. To choose something specific you’d like to do that should be possible with the tool, and try and do it. Which usually means the cycle ends up being something like this:
When I first tried to apply this to fluidic games design, it became clear pretty quickly that it would not work. I had tried a bunch of Wevva games made by others, and I had already seen what the kids did with it. So I decided to figure out if I could do a video game of a genre that seemed to be quite different from what I had seen done in the app already: a strategy game.
Quick note: you can play all the games I talk about here for free through the “download game from clipboard” function accessible by swiping right in the main screen of the app. All you have to do is copy the code I provide for each game (from “made with #wevva”, to the random characters).
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: EARTH-BATTLE:
Now, there is no way to simulate non-playing entities in Wevva. But a strategy game, while involving a certain level of simulation, in its basic elements is really just a number game with a flimsy balance between players’ and foe’s numbers. A balance that players are trying to break.
I started with the obvious: pumping up the spawn rate and number of entities at their maximum, making the two factions spawn in the opposite sides of the screen, to represent massive armies clashing with each other. I then selected the sprites for the two agents people would most obviously associate with opposing factions (human planes and UFOs). Looked surprisingly effective, once collisions and physics had been turned on. All this for some 30 seconds worth of work. Not bad.
Next step was to make it into a fun-ish playable experience. Which is where the hard work is.
There were a bunch of approaches that could have worked, game-wise, but in the end, I settled for a score based system. I think it would have been more effective if the app allowed for the score to go below zero, but as it’s balanced enough not to matter too much.
A life, be it alien or human, always has value, therefore the only way to gain points is to get the human planes on the UFOs side of the screen: to break through enemies lines.
The player can tap on planes to get them to charge, but a single Alien and a single plane clashing will always have enough human decency not to kill each other. Only if another agent (be it an alien or a human) is involved, the clash and chaos of battle will cause all three to die. That is to say: mixed clusters of 3 agents will explode and lose you 1 point.
This requires a certain amount of strategy, for it’s not about charging blindly anymore, but about having some planes engage enemies, so that others can be sent to slip behind enemy lines.
I still wasn’t fully happy with it. It was basically about sending your guys off to die as fast as possible. But war is a balanced number game of carnage. This was more of a power fantasy about killing armies of aliens thanks to “skill”. AKA: tapping on planes as fast as possible.
In order to avoid that, I built on something that, I realised through testing, was happening quite often: planes bashing on each other when one charges behind another one. Now, if they clash, they explode losing you 3 points, which forces you to think twice before sending one of your guys to kamikaze into the fray.
I had a bit of strategy, and a certain balance of forces. But was still not quite happy with how easy it was to get loads of points by quickly tapping on planes as soon as they come up. So, as a last balancing act, I set it up so that every time players tap a plane to charge, they lose 1 point. Because… I don’t know… They really don’t want to charge.
One thing the anarchist in me could not easily accept, was how the app seems to take a seemingly arbitrary set of characteristics of games as defining of what a video game is. Which is how Helpless Sod was born.
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: HELPLESS-SOD:
A “controller” is one of the three agents available in Wevva, and the only one that can be directly controlled by players. So I made a game that has it in the middle of the screen, doing nothing. In an attempt to subvert the app’s expectation, in Helpless Sod, players’ interaction don’t affect the controller at all.
Objects are thrown at the Helpless Sod spawning from all directions, and if they hit it, a life is lost.
While of course I experimented with no players’ interaction at all, it is admittedly not particularly fun to wait for a character to eventually be hit by something and die.
Instead, I allowed players to somewhat indirectly save the Helpless Sod by acting on the objects flying at it.
Just tapping and exploding them felt too easy and boring. Changing their direction (while somewhat engaging on account of them colliding with each other), still felt too obvious. Instead I pushed interactions as far as I could by morphing them into a less threatening object with a first tap, and by reverting their direction of movement if this newly morphed object is tapped.
In this, the theme was chosen almost as the last step. But seeing the mechanics, and working with the selection of emoji available in the app, it made perfect sense to have the Helpless Sod be a bird, and the objects threatening it, helicopters. When tapped they become much slower and harmless paper-planes, as it happens.
It was still quite hard, though. I could have pumped up the number of lives, but since after every death the game starts again, and it takes a bunch of boring seconds before the threat is tangible enough to be fun, I preferred sticking to the archetypal 3 lives.
Instead, I made helicopters explode if they collide with those pesky little paper-planes, as it of course happens quite frequently in real-life.
But this is still a job, I had been tasked to demonstrate the flexibility of the tool, and had been specifically told of some of the options in Wevva that are not used as much as others. So I set out to make a game with one of the least used features.
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: CANADA-RESCUE:
If I remember correctly I actually started working on this one because that leaf sprite, in its standard colour, reminded me a lot about the maple leaf in the Canadian flag. Wasn’t quite sure what to do with it, so I figured: Might as well use one of the less-used mechanics I had been told to try and use.
This is the “chase” control scheme, where the controller chases the players’ finger. It’s somewhat hard to control, but as one plays, it is possible to get a sense of the physics of it. However it only works in games where it’s not essential to control the controller’s movement very precisely, I would say.
My solution was to make quite a simple collecting game. Where a Canadian hero in a hang glider has to safe precious maple leaves flying in the sky while avoiding treacherous helicopters.
Add to this a substantial amount of lives (for it’s quite easy to die with this control scheme), and a fair amount of points with each leaf collected, and you have a pretty decent game.
It is quite unremarkable, though, admittedly. So in a last attempt at making it a bit more interesting, I dived in the sound design section and designed a subtle ambient noise with no music, occasionally interrupted by simple drum notes for each point collected or life lost.
Making war games and reverting the app’s assumptions made me wonder if it would be possible to make an extrinsically political game. Enters:
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: PLASTIC-OCEAN:
Again, it didn’t fully start as an attempt at making a political game of any specificity. Instead, I just happened to stumble into the fish sprite, while freely exploring Wevva. I wondered if I could somehow simulate an underwater environment.
The movement was the easy part. The “move” control allows movements on all axis, which feels as much as underwater movement as one can expect in a 2D representation.
What was more problematic was finding an environment. The Seasons and weather theme of the game (“Wevva” is a British abbreviation of “weather”), make it so that there is nothing resembling an underwater environment in the selection. So I went with the next best thing:
Now, the first thing that naturally comes to mind when thinking about fishes in the sea, is of course, the implacable presence of killer, human produced, plastic in the oceans. Which gave me the chance to find an answer to the most pressing question relating Wevva and fluidic games in general: is it possible to make a political game out of it?
So I quickly implemented a simple mechanic that I knew would work with this control scheme: threat avoidance. I selected the two most “plastic looking” emoji as the threats (making sure their colours were as distinctive as I could make them from the background and the controller), and there I had a decent enough looking game.
One feature that’s actually quite flexible in Wevva, is the selection of a controller’s shape. I always had a feeling that using that tool would be the best way, in Wevva, to represent thingsthat are quite different from the relatively limited selection of emoji provided. With Leaf Lx Bees Rx, I resorted to test this out.
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: LEAF-LX-BEES-RX:
I quickly settled for a helix looking shape, which I thought could allow me to create a windmill of some sort. Now, a windmill without a body can hardly be made to look like one, but Wevva only allows the controller to be made into one of these shapes, and there can only be one controller. But in playing around with the rest of the options, I stumbled into a mechanic which was surprisingly engaging: using the collision of the helix to throw objects around the screen.
It didn’t take me a lot of experimenting to balance it out and make it properly fun. I just made it so that some objects had to be sent out one side of the screen, and others on the other side of the screen.
What was trickier was how obscure the mechanic is. It’s not something most people would get right away, as opposed to most other games I had done in the app until then. My solution was to forgo the title of the game, in favour of clear instructions. Now the only thing left was to find two objects that looked different enough to make them easily spottable in-game, and that had short enough names that could fit in the title of the game (which has a characters limit).
One thing that it would be reasonable to state, would be how Leaf Lx Bees Rx is ugly. The objects need to have clearly recognisable colours, but their colours cannot be changed, so to make it playable, I had to give up on its beauty. But would it be possible to make a truly beautiful looking video game with Wevva?
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: KEEP-EM-UP:
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about beauty, to my tiny, nerdy mind is of course: space.
So I mustered all the advanced knowledge four years of film school gave me and dropped a massive Earth on the lower third of the screen, changed the background to a night scene, and there I had a scene with a decent composition and space-looking enough.
Adding a moon to the scene was pretty obvious, making it falling down on the earth not so much. Meteor shower? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
With no sound it’s a bit anticlimactic, though, so I went and found a sound that would be as far as could be from what you’d expect a meteor crashing on earth would make: a little lovely “clink” that sounds like two crystal glasses gently bumping.
Now I had actually a pretty lovely scene, with meteors clashing on Earth making a satisfying “clink” sound, rolling down the earth and eventually off the screen.
I just needed a game.
As I’ve been often doing in designing in Wevva, I explored control systems I hadn’t been using much. The “spring” interaction seemed to work: tapping a moon would now keep it up in the air.
But it felt a bit underwhelming as a game. Also, if I had too few moons falling, it was a bit ugly, if they fell too fast, hard to keep them all up. If they just stayed up, since there’s a limit on how many agents can be on screen at the same time, eventually you’d just end up with a sky full of moons and nothing else to do. There needed to be a way to destroy them.
I experimented a bit with the “cluster” tool, until eventually, I found a balance that made the game somewhat fun: now, if enough moons are clustered together, the whole cluster blows up.
I would say the game it’s not perfect, though, also because of some limitation of Wevva. For starter it would be better if once a moon hits Earth, it didn’t keep subtracting points every time it bounces off or rotates. I would also probably have increased the cluster number, since I do find it a bit hard to gain points in the game, for it being a reflective, relaxing space-game.
But it does look pretty. It seems like lovely looking things are actually pretty feasible in Wevva.
We’ve been subverting assumptions in games, the app’s expectations and the app’s creators’ expectations. We have not shied away from politics, and chased beauty within the limits of the app. All this only after proving how a traditional game could easily be made in Wevva.
This can only lead to a natural conclusion of my design spree with the fluidic games app: the creation of an ostensible, somewhat pretentious, art game.
Made with #wevva from @ThoseMetaMakers: A-FLY:
The process was long.
After all the games I had worked on, I started focusing on fully understanding the affordances of the tool, looking for its limits and borderline scenarios.
One that struck me was how in the volcano background, it uses the “fire” sprites flying all over as embellishment. Which prompted me to attempt a misleading game, where I set an object to that same sprite and programmed its movement to imitate the ones on the background. Clicking the object would give you a point, the ones part of the background, obviously, nothing.
I was also curious to explore one thing that’s pretty easy to do in Wevva: endless games. You don’t necessarily have to set winning conditions, in which case the game can really only be stopped by pausing it and quitting it. Could there be an actual endless game made in Wevva, considering the limited amount of extrinsic rewards that Wevva games can be designed to push to players?
I was told some kids in the jams did make some variation of endless games. They did not have interactions per-se, but the kids challenged each other to make a game that would generate points as fast as possible. Which is basically an emergent form of idle game.
In this example, I would argue, we still have a game, it just happens not to be called so by the app. The design screen becomes part of the game, and it’s effectively another way to subvert the app’s assumptions. Which I had been trying to do with most of the games until now. If anything to explore its limits and ways in which it could be improved (which is kinda my job).
Now, possibly my favourite thing to work on in games is the simulation aspect, which is hardly present in Wevva. But I did wonder if I could push the tool to make objects being independent entities, that is, feel like independent characters. Again, subverting the app’s assumption that objects are to be used exclusively for more or less direct interaction with the player and player’s controller.
Finally, the two main assumptions the app seem to make is how interaction of any sort is the necessary requirement for a video game, and how a game involves a certain level of challenge and skill to succeed in it. Both assumptions to be argued in the modern games’ landscape.
By assembling all those reflections, A Fly came to exist.
In it, a single fly pops out one side of the screen, and slowly, trapped in the wind, flies to the other side. When it makes it, a single point is awarded to the player and a new fly pops out.
As in the fire-scape misleading game, I used the autumn background, which incorporates the leaf sprite moving randomly to represent the wind.
Right away I made sure to set the winning condition to “game never ends”. Wanted to include a way for points to be made, like an idle game, but nothing like the ones the kids were making. Those games are still very much slaves of skill, which I wholeheartedly wanted to disclaim in this game.
The independent object would slowly perform an action, and when successful (it was important it was always successful), would reward a point to the player.
In choosing the agent I wanted to make independent, I tried to find the most unremarkable of things one would expect to find in an autumn environment. Until eventually settling on a fly.
A fly goes about its business regardless of its environment or obstacles. We might benefit from something flies do for the environment, or be annoyed by them, but ultimately they keep going regardless. For a fly does not care about you. Does not care about the player.
I’ve added a bit of random movement to the fly to imitate the wind that moves the leaves in the background, and with an added wind sound effect (the only sound in the game, other than the buzzing), the illusion that the fly is struggling against the wind worked quite nicely.
I liked the fly in the wind as a metaphor as well. It felt representative on what making video games with Wevva feels like. We, game-making people, are as unremarkable in the market as a fly in the wind. Driven back and forth. But with Wevva as a guiding wind, we might still fly all over the place with no structure, but will be accompanied to our own conclusion. To our own game.