If you know me and my game-design style, you know I’m all about rapid iteration. I like testing, experimenting, taking the best bits and starting fresh. Hopefully a few times per hour, if I can.
I kind of expected this three-month-trip to Mexico be relaxing, like a vacation with sporadic spots of work. It’s turning out to be quite the fertile ground; it’s interesting how, once you are removed from your comfort zone, you start finding ways to make things happen with the materials at-hand. Like a game-design MacGuyver. Check it:
Armchair Game Design
We (myself, plus Colin and Sarah Northway) had a few visitors last week; Aaron (AppAbove Games) and his wife Stina came to visit us, and we were also joined by Fieran – on his way back from a trip to Cuba. Since we had a lot of devices on hand, we decided to give Artemis a try.
Wow. The game is incredibly fun. Surprisingly fun. I often played the Captain role, in which I didn’t actually interact with the game – I just spoke with my teammates. It was exactly the experience I was trying to capture with my earlier (shelved) project, SubSub.
I’m finding myself spending hours swinging in the hammock trying to redesign my own ideas about what makes a fun in-person co-op game. It’s taking a lot of brain-bandwidth, and I might end up leaving Mexico with a new prototype or two.
Joust is an amazing video game (check that link for a video showing off how it works). It’s a lot of fun to play, but it has steep requirements: PS3 controllers, a server, speakers… During a backyard BBQ I was hosting just before OrcaJam last September, we were lamenting that we could not fire up a game right then and there.
Colin Northway looked at the table in front of him, saw the array of food and cutlery, and figured out a way to make it work: Balancing apples on plates. And thus, Japple (A mashup of “Joust” and “Apple”) was born. It was exciting enough that it was covered in the PA Report.
Here in Mexico, we wanted to play as well – we have a nice, wide-open sandy beach, but no apples or convenient plates. So I went out hunting. Trying different objects, trying to replicate the experience in an interesting way.
I ended up settling on coconuts – of all shapes, weights, and sizes. Some filled with water and heavy (giving them momentum and stability at the cost of tiring out your arm); some lightweight and hollow (making them easy to carry around but very unstable). To minimize potential damage to person and property, I first tried balancing the coconuts on elbows – but it ended up being much too difficult. We tried a three-finger support, open palm up, back of the hand – all either too difficult or too prone to easy cheating. I swapped in nice, lightweight, durable tupperware lids – bingo. Stable platform, difficult controls. Each lid was slightly different, much like the coconuts, and constant swaps of coconuts, lids, and people made for ever-changing strategies and gameplay styles.
Joco was born (“Joust” mashed with “Coconut,” this time). We played for hours until we were all sweating, bruised, and exhausted. Then we played some more. Each player ended up settling on their favorite “Character” (coconut and lid combo), and began developing strategies and styles. It was really interesting to see how personalities emerge through the gameplay.
For such a simple game, I’m very surprised at how fun it is. More fun than Japple, I’d say.
We have a swimming pool here, and I am a beautiful dolphin that lives in it (when the temperatures are warm). Of course, swimming length to length is boring and floating there staring up at the sky gets old fast, so I’ve been making up challenges and games for myself. Often Colin will join in and try to match performance.
Most of them revolve around being underwater throughout, so have a breath-holding component, but also physical exertion and efficiency. One of my favourite achievements is crossing the length of the entire pool, by only pushing off one wall with your legs and not kicking/swimming with your hands. Just a one-shot torpedo-like push, trying to keep your body friction as low as possible in the water.
Another favourite of mine is doing a hand-stand on the bottom of the pool (it’s shallow enough that your legs would easily stick out of the water) and crossing the length of the pool length-wise for that. It’s interesting, learning how to balance your body in and out of the water, to make that possible.
I was too big to succeed, but Colin was able to dive into the pool and swim between the legs of a standard plastic deck chair. It was a bit too narrow, so it required careful body positioning immediately after a high-speed event (a dive!), so it was pretty amazing to watch.
We eventually ran out of physical ideas and started looking to props to help us along. After several attempts to make something, we came up with…
In this game, two players start at one end of the pool. One person tosses a marker (in this case, a palm-sized conch-like shell) to any point in the pool. The players then close their eyes, visually imagine where the marker is, and (one at a time) attempt to swim over top of it. As you do so, you drop each of the three rocks you hold in your hand. Whoever drops rocks closest to the marker wins!
Bocce is a similar game to Mexican Curling, but played on dry land with coconuts. A small coconut is used as a marker, tossed by one player, and each other player (in our case: 3 players each with 2 coconuts) tried to either get as close as they can to the marker, or knock the other players aside with aggression.
Playing with coconuts is really interesting, because of all the size and weight differences, plus the uneven (sandy) ground. Very high tosses are hard to get accurate, but will keep the coconut toss still; more direct tosses are easier to aim but have a very high chance of rolling too far. Very interesting!
A few rounds of CocoBocce I decided to throw the marker very close to our starting position (about 6 feet away). This made aim no longer such a big issue, and it became a bit more like curling – trying to bash everyone else’s coconuts away! Very fun stuff.
Colin has been kiteboarding since Thailand and we have a good beach for it here, so he did a refresher lesson and picked up some equipment. After seeing it in action, up close and personal, I decided to take lessons myself!
I ended up going to the next town over and staying in the kite-school’s bunks while I took a 3-day course. Being a weather-reliant sport, it took a bit more than 3 days, and I still haven’t fully completed it yet (I’m back in my familiar bed now but still have 3 hours of training paid for).
KiteBoarding is almost a game unto itself. It’s hard to fly the kite. It’s hard to ride a board on waves. It’s hard to figure out where exactly your balance should be, where the wind window is, and what you should do in any given moment. You’re using muscles that you haven’t stressed before, and with forces that are so powerful that I got hauled out of my board and flew (in a classic super-man pose) about 6 to 10 feet horizontally (about a foot or two over the water) before slamming into it, hard. Thankfully it’s just water!
It’s very hard. But the only way to learn is to just keep iterating on it. Playing with variables. Slowly, one-by-one, locking things in.
On my first day, I was very frustrated – I couldn’t drag my butt out of the water, I couldn’t stand up on the board. I got hauled around a bit, but always in the water. I was frustrated because I didn’t know why I was failing; was it my posture? Was the kite not strong enough for the wind? Was I not aggressive enough flying the kite? Did I aim my feet wrong? Was my balance off? I had no idea, and the instructor couldn’t either. At that stage, I’m so sloppy with everything that it’s impossible to point at any one thing.
So I slept that night incredibly bummed out.
The next day, my muscles had a chance to regain their strength, and on my first attempt – POP! Right out of the water, and I was kitesurfing! (albeit for a second or two, but I DID IT!!) I have no idea why or how it happened, but my body figured it out on it’s own. I didn’t have to think too hard about exactly what muscle should go where – the mere fact that I was iterating at all is what made it possible. Sometimes things happen by accident, and they can’t if you don’t try.
There’s a really good metaphorical lesson in that, game designers!
I love making pizza, and we do a lot of eating-in here in Mexico. I decided to treat the gang and whip up some awesome pizzas, and it turned out great (though I needed someone to smuggle yeast into Mexico for me. Can’t find it in the shops!).
Last night, I was going to make a few pizzas for Colin and Sarah, and I started laying out the ingredients. But, ohnoes! The tomato sauce had gone bad and been thrown out. I didn’t have any ingredients to make more!
I sighed, despondently, and poured myself a beer. I sat down on the patio heavily and told Colin our options: I could walk to the store in the sweltering heat. I could put it off for another day. Or… I could get CRAZY EXPERIMENTAL. Colin lit up and was totally for my wacky experiments, so I ran back to the kitchen and took stock of what we had.
All I needed was a base sauce. We had everything we needed for the dough and the toppings, but the sauce is what brings it all together. I needed something that could do that.
But we seemed to have nothing. Everywhere I looked, every tin, every vegetable in the drawer, didn’t seem like it could fit. I was on the verge of calling it all off. But then, seeing two things next to each other in the refrigerator, I grabbed them and figured “what the hell.” Let’s make pizza sauce out of a coconut and a tub of leftover black bean paste from taco night. BECAUSE I’M CRAZY!
First I sliced open the coconut and drained the water that was inside of it into a pot, and brought it to a simmer. I then stirred in the black beans, and started frying up some fresh shredded coconut and half an onion in a pan.
I mixed them all together after the onions carmelized and kept simmering – it was a bit too soupy and I needed to boil off the water. I added subtle dabbling of habanero hot sauce a tiny bit of flour as a thickening agent.
I gave it a taste. Wow. Coconut water is very sweet. The onions were sweet. The coconut shavings were sweet. And the black beans made it very very savoury. It was like eating ground beef mixed with sugar – a bit overwhelming! Put that on top of the sweet-tasting pizza-dough and top it with sweet pineapples…. Disaster! Too much sweetness!
But then I remembered my pizza-sauce-training: The key is the acidic edge of the tomatoes, the “sourness” it brings to the pizza. Is there some way I can make this taste acidic?
So I used our brand-new juicer and squeezed two limes dry. I stirred it in, let it simmer for another minute or two, and gave it a taste….
PERFECT VICTORY!!! The sauce was now perfectly balanced. I was overjoyed. Plus, with so many local ingredients, I dubbed it “Yucatan Pizza Sauce.”
I put toppings on the pizza that I thought would suit the mix, and it came out amazingly. Everyone loved it. I think I might even prefer this sauce to my standard tomato sauce that I love so much!
If I wasn’t here in Mexico, if I wasn’t low on ingredients, and if it wasn’t for the adventuresome spirit of my compatriots, this amazing dish never would have come to pass. And I can probably bet – fairly safely – that it’s never been made before. UNIQUE FLAWLESS VICTORY.
This trip is iteration
This whole trip feels like I’m iterating on life now. I’ve lived a bunch of different ways – I’ve been married, had roommates, worked a desk job, went indie, did physical labour, worked in kitchens, lived in several different towns. But I never tried this before – living on a beach. Living it up. Getting work done. Stretching my experiences, making do with what I have, altering my diet to fit whatever was at the vegetable stand today.
This seems better. I kinda want to keep living like this – travelling, staying at new places for long periods, and getting work done to boot.
The kicker is, living like this would be cheaper than living in Victoria.
We’ll see if I can keep it up though. For now: More experimentation and iteration!
More game design!