Game thinking from Adam Clare

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My Game About Animals Surviving Suburban Sprawl

Play as the protector of animals, Potnia Theron, and save the life force of creatures from the ever-expanding presence of human settlements.

 

TOJAM 2021: FEELS LIKE A RERUN

TOJam’s theme for 2021 was “once more with feeling” and like with many game jam themes one can go anywhere with it. I chose to go into the past. What if we could replay history, but feel more for animals?

For the jam, I made a game in which you guide animal spirits to safer places over the course of hundreds of years. You are Potnia Theron, protector of animal spirits. who awakes when animals need guidance and protection.

Early development in the game

Early development in the game

Whenever humanity builds permanent structures the local animals get pushed out of their natural habitat. It’s Potnia’s role to get those homeless animals to a safer place, away from the growing sprawl of humanity.

Animal spirits follow Potnia Theron in the game to get to safety, unless the animals get killed by human activity of course. As time progresses the obstacles to animals change, starting with snares and ending with vehicles and invisible pollutants.

The game asks: can animals stay safe despite the unsustainable suburban expansion in North America?

Motivation for the game’s theme

TOJam, like most game jams, are best done with a team. I went solo for this jam, which meant that the theme was entirely up to me.

I looked back at game ideas I’ve had in the past and combined one of them with the theme of the jam. The original idea was to create a corridor for humans to travel through as if they’re animals stuck in a preserve corridor. This was directly inspired by a day trip to Mono Cliffs outside of Toronto where I saw the sign pictured below. 

Mono Cliffs sign and map

Mono Cliffs

The other idea stemmed from growing up in the suburbs where developments are named for what they destroyed (Deer Meadows, Glen Field, Forest Walk, and so on). As a teen I was told a benefit of the suburbs lies in the fact that it’s all nature around us and it’s not polluted like “gross” cities. That was so wrong.

I won’t go into all the reasons why modern car-based suburbs are so problematic so here’s a quick list to other resources:

So I decided that I would revisit the suburbs “once more with feeling” and make the player protect animals.

The start of the 1920 level in the game

The start of the 1920 level in the game

The game spans hundreds of years, from “long ago” to 1820 all the way up to 2020 (and beyond!). Players show up at an increasing rate, at first it’s 100 years, then 50 years, then 25, and so on. This captures the increasing rate of environmental damage done to our planet from suburban expansion.

From ambitious experimentation to… walking

On this front, I’ll admit that my experiments failed (or worked, since I got results). I set out to try:

  • to make escort missions interesting;
  • integrating real-world geographic information;
  • trying some new toys from the Unity asset store.
Potnia Theron game level 2009

Potnia Theron game level 2009

Escort missions are a slog for a few reasons, one such reason is that the NPC being escorted is always a slow idiot who does all the time. Sounds like ducks or rabbits right? I wanted to try making an escort mission that used shortcomings to its advantage. The followers in the game respawn on their own, so follower death only impacts the measurement of success and not failure of the mission.

I spent time making obstacles which eliminate the followers and even building a death counter. These were more of a hassle than something that enhanced the game play. Just like in escort missions.

Using real world data is something I’ve done before with Lethal Strike; this time I wanted to use it on a more human level instead of hundreds of meters in the air. My original thinking was to use actual suburbs from the Greater Toronto Area (GTA); however the tool I used to create the maps lacked the fidelity needed. I compromised by only using real-world topographic data.

So yes, the game is set in the Toronto area using real world map data.

Toronto area suburbs

New neighbourhood in the suburbs.

I went too far with the “toys” I got from the Unity asset store, so many that the project size balloon to be too massive to package for HTML5. I thought using existing assets would make up for doing the jam solo, but I think it would have made more sense to just start from scratch next time.  Of course, some  of the assets are useful for other projects I’m working on. 

After all of this experimentation and failed game play outcomes I chose to categorize the game as a walking simulator on Itch.io.

Play the Potnia Theron game now

Play the Potnia Theron animal protection game by downloading it at Itch.io.

Playable on Windows or Mac.

 

ToJam goat in the game

I Made a Game About Social Distancing, Apple and Google Didn’t Approve

Last month, when I went out for a walk I noticed that the social distancing put in place to help us hold back the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t being as respected as I had hoped. Groups of people were walking around as if there wasn’t a contagious coronavirus being spread by asymptotic people. I wondered what can I do about this?  So I tried making my first endless runner game in which the player needs to avoid people.

Making a simple game to convince people to stay apart turned into a larger endeavour than I thought it would. Apple and Google wanted to keep their distance from the game with gusto.

Why make a game about social distancing?

The primary motivation stemmed from not seeing people adhere to good social distancing practices. It would be nice if more people stayed physically separated so we can flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19. Even though nearly ever y country on Earth is experiencing very real consequences from the pandemic there are people who are risking lives by not taking it seriously.

Making my social distance game

The game is divided into two parts: an endless runner and a stay at home option.

Gameplay is predictable for the endless runner since it works well with the theme of keeping away from things. The other part takes place in the home in which the player can look outside or watch TV.

I create rules for myself for fun little side projects like this one; the most important rule is my self-imposed time limit. The time limit is there to keep me in check and, as you will see, is a good way to keep my sanity.

Anyway, I stated by making a prototype using a kit. At first it felt like a match made in heaven and got a quick prototype up and running.

But then the kit and I didn’t get along. I ran into HTML5 build errors I couldn’t fix, Unity collaboration issues (even though I was the only one working on it) and a myriad of tiny annoyances with how the kit was built versus how I build things. I reached my self-imposed time limit of the weekend and decided to pack up the project and put in my archive of failed ideas.

Everything changed when the United Nations asked for help.

To be very clear, they never asked me for help they asked all of us. And they are paying in exposure.

A few days after packing up my failed attempt I the United Nations call out to creatives – help stop the spread of COVID-19 got released. I rebuilt my game from scratch the following weekend, thankfully I was able to reuse the home scene and models at least.

You can see on the right screen below a message directly from the UN call for creatives.

Finished and rejected

Keep Your Distance screenshot

Upon completion* of the game I submitted it to Apple and Google and got rejected by both.

I’ve never had a game rejected before, let alone one that gets flagged for “potentially objectionable content, such as nudity, pornography, and profanity.” At first I was shocked, but then I saw their rationale.

Clearly I have a Pollyannaish view of the world and I assumed my playful little game wouldn’t cause a fuss, heck it might even be a moment or relatable levity in a stressed-out world. I should have known better.

Obviously, I don’t think that what I made is offensive or is inappropriate otherwise I wouldn’t post this. It’s important to stop the spread by avoiding contact with other people. Don’t listen to me, listen to these smarter people.

It appears that any submitted app which mentions COVID-19 is rejected unless it is accompanied with evidence that it’s from a reputable source. And that makes sense to me. There is so much misinformation being spread that it’s rational to try and block any non-health app referencing COVID. I do see a problem that there’s no step to figure out what is unethical profiteering or spreading misinformation and what is somebody making a game just to commiserate with others (like mine). Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the reviewers end trying to filter through all the chum tossed at the respective app stores.

Each company reacted differently, with Google being the most severe.

Keep Your Distance logo

Google

Google went one stop short of the ban hammer for our entire account. Stating that even submitting the app was a strike against our developer standing and if we crossed the line again they might disable all of our accounts and related accounts! All hail the monopolistic flexing of Google.

Here’s the boiler plate text they sent:

Please note that additional suspensions of any nature may result in the termination of your developer account, and investigation and possible termination of related Google accounts.

I honestly have no idea if hosting gameplay footage on YouTube (owned by Google) will only get me more punished.

Apple

App rejected by Apple

Apple let me resubmit as much as I wanted, so for about a week I got into a routine of getting a daily rejection.

The rejections were vague at first with nothing specific mentioned, leaving me unclear what exactly the problem was. I naively figured using copy suppled by the WHO would be ok.At first, I thought it was overt COVID-19 text flagging the app. For example, linking to the COVID-19 Solidarity Fund (even though it’s legit).

As I submitted edited versions to Apple they finally narrowed down that COVID-19 was in the metadata. Fair enough, so for about 15 minutes each day (remember how I mentioned I limited how much time I’d spend on this) I would hunt down what I thought they found, modify it and resubmit. Searching Unity, then Xcode, and double checking all the non-game content for any mention of COVID provided zero results.

Ultimately, I gave up on April 18th when I got bored of the rejection routine and it became abundantly clear Apple won’t accept anything remotely connected to physical distancing. From the last rejection:

[Y]our entertainment or gaming app inappropriately refers to the COVID-19 pandemic in its concept or theme.

At least they didn’t threaten to remove my account and any related accounts.

So what now?

I heeded the objections from Apple and Google and updated the Itch.io page. It now warns people that COVID-19 is mentioned in the game. Play it for yourself and make your own decision about the game.

Removed from game

This was removed from the submitted game.

To be very clear: I’m not a victim in any of this. I just wanted to share this story about my social distance game with the world since I can’t effectively share the game itself. This whole episode also gets me thinking about how much cultural power Apple and Google have. I understand why they reacted to my app they way they did (well Google could’ve been more chill), but we must think about what other instances may exist in which these two American companies filter or censor what gets distributed globally.

*Obviously this can use more work and I would like to make it looks better myself but it’s the end of the semester and things like grading are more important.

tl;dr

Play Keep Your Distance

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