Our local game developer club, Iowa Game-Dev Friendship, held what I think was our 8th game jam in Ames this weekend. As expected, it was an awesome time. This time my team had a big setback, and because of it I came to a profound realization about game engine authorship and its importance for a meaningful creative experience.  Developers and designers talk about the importance of videogame authorship, but this weekend I realized in a new way how that can translate into game development tools as well.


Before I explain in more detail, you should know I’m increasingly becoming a “get things done” kind of guy, which is manifested by my avid support of the Unity game development tool due to its ability to get something up and running quickly.  Naturally I want to use it for every game jam, and this one was no different.

While brainstorming ideas over pizza, my friend Evan Balster of Plaid Notion (Infinite Blank, Sense of Wonder Night finalist and Kickstarter fundee) and I came up with an interesting game idea based on a mutual affection for glitch art and decided to team up for the game jam. I convinced him to use Unity, but due to some apparent bug in Windows 64 bit, it simply would not install on his machine after at least an hour of effort. In the end, we decided to use his own engine Plaidgadget, and I had to face one of my biggest game jam fears: spending the first 8+ hours setting up the dev environment. I thought we were doomed, but I guess God had other plans…

Evan as game engine

If you’ve ever met Evan, it won’t take you long to realize that he’s a character. He’s very eccentric, which would likely turn off some, but he seemed to me to have a certain innocence and lovable genuine-ness. This feeling was recently confirmed when he offered to help me in a way that only a true friend would.

It didn’t take me long to realize how much of his own character was present in Plaidgadget. If anyone could ever call a game engine “charming in its quirkiness,” I think you would say that about this.

Plaidgadget interface

Plaidgadget is a strictly 2D vector-based game engine – designed with a specific goal to not be a generic do-everything engine. It even has some of its own art tools, including a “figure editor” where you can draw vector shapes and even skin them to bones with simple IK. The workflow is pretty unique, designed with the help of Plaid Notion partner Beau Blyth (Action Fist, Fish Face, Uberleben) and includes a transform tool based on concentric circular areas for pivot, move, rotate/scale, and rotate. It even lets you animate with forward and backward keys and primitive previous-frame onion skinning through showing the outlines, but has no real visual interface for keyframes.

Animated character in Plaidgadget

At first glance, the figure editor seems ghetto and very limited, but eventually I came to realize that those limitations really helped me to focus. It actually changed the way I thought about creating, which is what all of my favorite tools do. By using this tool, I understood more and more how providing a large number of options to perform some task can sometimes slow you down by making you value specific techniques more highly than you should, causing you to spend too much time trying to determine the best course of action. I thought it was funny how much I valued Unity’s “get things done” ability yet missed how it can also sometimes work against that by offering so many choices and by trying to do everything. I was beginning to form a dogma.

Because Evan had a vision for a specific engine that could do one thing well and really put himself (and Beau) into it, Plaidgadget is essentially following the same mentality as many indie games. As a result, it’s both interesting and inspiring to use. Here was this tool that, despite some flaws, still allowed me to focus precisely because it was limited.

Game development philosophy repentance

This realization was liberating in a sense because it freed me from a sort of judgmental mindset about game dev tools. It lifted what was becoming an evil burden off my shoulders. And by the grace of God, that led to a sort of creative breakthrough toward the end of the weekend. This freedom inspired me to design a character and animate a simple walk cycle “traditionally,” i.e. with no skeleton, in about the course of an hour. It was a pretty big accomplishment for me considering I did no planning or sketching at all beforehand and since I don’t consider myself very good at drawing. I essentially sketched a character animation the way one sketches a thumbnail, and it gave me a whole new level of confidence.

I often read about people who say “I can’t believe what I was able to accomplish,” but don’t really experience it myself very much. This was one of those experiences, and I’m not sure if it would have happened had things gone the way I wanted them to. I still love Unity, but I feel like a changed man with an appreciation for what I now consider “indie tools” that have a singular vision and try to take one interesting idea and run with it the way indie games do.

In Part 2, I talk about our game more specifically and how it was impacted by different tools.

The Importance of Game Engine Authorship, Part 2