How can a game report the news?
Journalism games (or news games) are a small subset of the broader field of “serious games” (games that serve a purpose beyond being fun). The goal of a journalistic game is to use gameplay as the source of news. For a few months I’ve been playing around with this idea, and this summer I made a game I would describe as a journalistic game. Much of the previous discussion given to new games have been from the perspective of journalism. I think it would be helpful to give a short starter guide from a game development standpoint on how to create this specific genre of games.
Journalism Games vs Documentary Games
A much more mature field in games are documentary games. These are games that use topics in current events as their source. At the top level News and Documentary games are one in the same. They have the same inspirations and goals as each other. The difference I define between them is the same difference between a nightly news segment and a feature length documentary: production time. A documentary games will follow the production schedule of any other game. A news game needs to have a production time that can keep pace with the news cycle. That means the development of a news game will feel more like a game jam; and should be scoped the same.
That’s the function of this guide. How to make a game that reacts to something in the news or to be more specific, for purposes of keeping things simple, a twitter meme (Memes are news.) The production time should optimally be no more then 24 hours, not because that’s healthy but because the news moves quick these days.
If done well and fast enough, independent news games can latch onto the viral success of a meme or news article. They can also be used by news institutions as an extra level of reporting that can explain succinctly what an article or video might not be able to. Whatever condition they’re made in, games will always be a way to attract a wider audience to a site.
This “how to” will uses examples from my semi-journalistic game: 30–50 Feral Hogs, that was made in 8 hours this August. It was, as the name suggests, a game based on the twitter meme asking how to protect small kids from a sudden attack of 30–50 feral hogs. My production was haphazard at best, so writing this guide will also help me more efficiently do this work in the future.
Before you begin
Know your tools
To optimize the time between inspiration to release it’s best to be comfortable with the tools you will use in to make games. This type of game will never be that complex, so a basic understanding will be sufficient. The most important tool to be comfortable with is the game engine. For this specific type of game Unity is what I would suggest. Not that your favorite engine isn’t great and correct if you think that, but Unity is versatile enough that comfort with it can allow for a wide range of games to be made. Along with that knowing your way around a good 2D and 3D art tool (2D: Photoshop or Gimp, 3D: Blender or Maya) is necessary if you expect to be making the art yourself.
If you have gone through a few tutorials and understand what goes into them you should be comfortable enough for this type of game development.
Read the News
I don’t say this lightly. News consumption can be mental and emotionally draining, but if you want to get the perfect scoop for your game your going to need to be aware of what’s happening in the world and online. I got lucky in 30–50 Feral Hogs as someone I already followed has suggested the idea to turn the meme into a game. However that might not always happen. You have to be ready for the perfect opportunity.
From Tweet to Game Design
Once in a blue moon there will be a tweet that calls to you, or at least in my case a tweet that calls to Gene Park. (Washington post Games Reporter and executive producer* on 30–50 Feral Hogs.) It should be a tweet that when read can instantly conjure a game idea. For example:
Can’t your just imagine a game where you defend your new found water bottle from other plane passengers? No? That’s okay, let’s go back to the tweet this guide comes from:
You gotta see a game in this. Maybe an FPS where you blast the poor pigs as they through a tower defense level as a yard? Yeah I like that! But that’s also a lot of work. Maybe a top-down sprite based game will work? Like have the feral hogs just run towards the kids and you shoot them. Kinda like a twin stick shooter, maybe just with directional pads Yeah let’s go with that.
It should be no more complicated then this, if it requires much more thought it might not be feasible within the time constraints. You should scope as small as you possibly can. Release your minimum viable product.
It’s a good idea to just make at least make a list of features and assets so your production schedule doesn’t slip away as you add auxiliary things.
Making the Art
My first step was to make the art. This doesn’t have to be the first step, but I wanted to get a visual of the game out quickly to update masses.
With how quickly the art needs to be created a there should be minimal animation and sprites. For 30–50 Hogs there are 30sprites: 15 for the main character, 8 for the pigs, 3 for the children, 4 for the background. Additionally, the pixel art aesthetic lead to easier asset design.
For each noun in the source material there should be at least one sprite.
Once you have some art assets the next (and maybe final step) in the game production cycle is to program the game.
This is not a guide to each you how to make a game. There’s many other people who will do a much better job of doing that. I will however give some tips for making a game quickly:
- Reuse, Reduce, Recycle
If somewhere in your game projects you’ve made a top-down movement script or platforming demo, use that. There’s no need to rewrite something you already have, and you just don’t have enough time to do it anyway.
Cut back on extra features until the game is playable and has some structure. The first priority is to get movement and interaction online. Once that is done you should just need to implement a win condition and UI. After that is done you can start considering extra polish or mechanics.
- Messy Code is Okay
Although readability and cleanness will make for better experience on long projects, a game at this scale will probably have no code that needs to be referred back to after it has been used. As long as you understand how it works and it actually works whatever code you write will be perfect for this project.
- Iterate at after every test
Every time you test the game there should be at least one thing you change in the game. Even if it isn’t something that will obviously improve the game, there’s no time for specific passes to experiment, test, and debug. That’s all one pass, every pass.
- Think in Game States
To make things easier to imagine, you should have discrete game states that make up the game loop. These states should all be essentially functions within the game controller script. Once one ends, it should some how trigger the next. Normal game state loops follow (game start -> initialize level -> play game -> game over -> initialize level) and so on.
Here’s my game’s update function that demonstrates how I used some bool statements to trigger run the game or reset it.
if (gameRunning && !GameOver)
}else if (GameOver)
- Final Tip: Make Levels just a List
Level Design is it’s own branch of design that focuses on theories of space and pacing in games. For this you have to forget that. Progression is still good for a game, but it should be simply defined. Each round of your game (or if it’s more dynamically paced, each time interval) can be simply defined by a few parameters defined in a list. Here’s the level list for 30–50 Feral Hogs.
The first element defines the time for each round. The second defines the number of enemies, the third defines where they spawn.
That’s the tweet game.
Even though this project has very little time, I can’t stress the importance of adding some polish to the game enough. It might be good to get the game out and add the some of the polish after it’s already online.
As stated before, playtesting should be happening throughout development. Try different things after each debug and find what feels good. Once everything is done do one large playtest to feel what the whole game is like.
Sound and Particles
The two simplest methods of adding some “juice” to a game are particles and sound effects. Don’t be afraid of ripping sounds off line if you don’t have much audio experience. Just make sure it fits the game. If you can, getting some simple particle effects can flesh out the actions in a game. In 30–50 Feral Hogs I decided to add a smoke particle after a gun shot to empahize the gun as a destructive object.
Once the game is “done” get a WebGL build and put it on itch.io.
Not Steam or an App Store. Those methods would take to long to publish and are not as accessible. Itch.io is a standard platform for these smaller scale games, and will allow you to share free browser versions of the game anywhere. Unless you have a website that you want to embed the game into, and even then, put it on itch.
After it’s up, you should spend the rest of the day marketing on twitter. I was lucky as I had a more popular account than my own that took the lead on getting the game out there. Your end goal is to get the game featured on publications taking about the tweet. This is one reason why this will happen rarely. There’s only a few tweets so big as to warrant full articles let alone a full game. Keep watch for it though, when it comes, you will need to go fast.
If everything goes well, you have made a game in like a day and it’s gone widely viral. Any game can be the news, memes games can really be the news. Revel in it, try to make some money from it, and hope you contributed something to society. Maybe you helped someone understand something more about the world around them, or at least you made someone smile.