design notes, a bit on definition hell, and building an “art toy”…

Sometime last week I released the breakfast tool update to the Electric Zine Maker!

You can download it on itch: https://alienmelon.itch.io/electric-zine-maker
Or on GameJolt: https://gamejolt.com/games/zine/426661

I also have a lengthy devlog about it on itch.io (here) so you can read that for a detailed breakdown of what’s new.

Overall I feel like it’s a major update for all the cute tools it brings to the table (including a more elaborate ASCII art painter, which I can’t shut up about because it’s ASCII art) BUT ALSO because it clearly defines the tone of the overall program…more than before imo.
So far most of the tools have been kinda goofy, especially the SCREAM INTO THE VOID one, but in this case a lot of time was invested in making really silly ones (themed around food) that could also be super useful.
Like I talk about in the devlog, Bacon lets you draw these infinite ribbons of Bacon. In itself this might be useless (there’s only so much use for Bacon in art)…but you can customize it as well as change the colors, so use can extend to anything where you want to draw an interesting multicolored line. I was imagining it would be fun to use this for drawing rainbows, or hair.
Eggs is also interesting because it simulates very messy splashy lines (Jackson Pollock). You can customize these also by changing both colors that it draws with OR (my favorite) customize the look of the splashes. You can have square drops of color. Interesting thing about this too is that you can totally glitch out this tool and just draw with image distortion.


(some egg art)

For each of the tools in the Zine Maker I try really hard to offer an option where you can use it totally broken (for glitch art), or control it.
I keep talking about this, but I think it’s really fascinating how computer art tools typically are restricted to trying to simulate the art tools that happen in real life. We get very little expression that’s unique to the digital format. You actually have to work pretty hard in Photoshop to simulate glitch art. Even pixel art isn’t very directly supported (you kind of have to work a little to get that).
So when you’re approaching an art tool and the specific goal is to be unique to digital art… designing that is really fascinating. Even just coming up with concepts of “Ok, how do you even support glitch art?” “How should someone draw with a glitch?” is an interesting problem to approach. There’s not defined design language for how you would enable “brokenness” in an art tool.
Brokenness aside, what is unique to computers and how would you properly enable that in an art tool?
Tool design is weirdly a lot like game design. When the tools are very new (unique, and no practical “art language” exists for their purpose), you also have to teach people how to use them. They have to be approachable enough for people to feel comfortable to mess around in them. You can’t have any sense of failure or judgement on part of the tool. If things were presented in such a way as there were “stakes” involved, or some kind of urgency for efficiency looming over experimental tools, then I think people would be too intimidated to explore them.
Like surrealism, abstraction, or a humorous presentation (environment) for them helps a lot.

The tone a program sets is how people will feel inclined to use it.

I’ve been thinking about this pretty much non-stop since I started building it, but I feel like if designing something like the Zine Maker were approached from an angle of “efficiency, usability, accessibility…” the tools themselves would be the next thing people complain about. I don’t think you can really have super experimental, weird, glitchy…tools in a setting that doesn’t set the tone in a way that encourages people to have different expectations.

The goal so far with the Zine Maker has been to encourage play. It’s so much like game design at this point, that I would go so far as to call this a game. Toy would be more accurate tho, but you play games with toys, so this tool gives you the objects you need to come up with your own types of play… ya, that sounded really douchey indie, but ok. These are all considerations while building this.

I think that toy design, and just understanding what makes a toy fun, is a really interesting mentality to bring to games. I’m often really uncomfortable with how rigid games are, even when discussing designing mechanics, because I feel like most of our design language centers around preferring a specific type of result.
The idea of a magic circle, a mechanic, mastery of a pattern, and progressing with some kind of incremental difficulty… Is great, but it’s also frustrating how people view that as The Way to make a game.
Things are really interesting when you just remove one of those. Like get rid of “mechanic” or get rid of “mastery”.
I probably wouldn’t mind as much if it wasn’t for Game’s obsession with validating itself as A Legitimate Art.
For example, other digital art movements have existed long before the current indie scene touting Games As Art. We had really interesting conversations about Dadaism in digital art, net-art had fascinating ideologies underlying it, experimental interactive literature, hypermedia, interactive poetry… I was there for a chunk of these (participating) and used to proudly label my work as a lot of that. There were plenty of festivals, communities, and events that gave these a platform. We had a dialogue.
The Game Label grew and quickly appropriated a lot of these preexisting movements as “game”… in a way that can be great, but it also kind of “paved over” a lot of the work done by artists in these spaces. It’s not net-art anymore, it’s “a weird game”.
Doing this can be frustrating and really hold back a dialogue, or understanding of this work, that we had long before games…
I probably wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t for game’s double standard of wanting to take experimental work like this when it suits legitimizing the medium, and (at the same time) throwing work like this under the buss when the obsession to be a commercial entertainment object takes over.
It’s an interesting space to be in. Sometimes I don’t think it’s fair to blindly slap the word “game” on everyone without examining the purpose of it first.

..So ok, good talk. This all will probably be the eternal struggle for anyone who’s work lies on that blurry line of “is it a game…or…” Can any other type of interactive digital art exist comfortably anymore if it’s not called “a game”?
What are you anymore if you’re not fitting the mold of Game Proper, but still do interactive computer art?

I view myself as a good game designer. I think I’ve made enough work that can qualify as a game, as well as all the other stuff… So I hope I’m beyond having to validate myself here…
The challenge I’m facing now is, take all the design knowledge surrounding a game, and apply that to software. This is basically what’s going into the Zine Maker.

Here’s why this is a challenge… If it’s an “Art Tool” it falls under “Software”. When people come in expecting An Art Tool they judge it as Software, and insist that all the usability, functionality, approachability, accessibility standards apply to that.
The work now gets judged as A Software.
This is extremely frustrating for the people that come in, download it, like what it does, but really miss the point that it’s supposed to be bright, loud, goofy, silly… and not Photoshop.
I’ve had projects like this in the past were I decided to “Ok, I’ll follow everyone’s needs and make all the changes!”
Once the bright colors, UI design, and animation in all the UI goes, then they will want the tools to change to be more “normal”… so you end up having something that finally fits in the mold of a productivity tool, but is totally dead.
At some point a thing stops being up your alley, and you just have to cut it loose. There are so many tools and games out there, I don’t see why I need to drastically change mine to accommodate someone else’s personal taste.
I feel like people asking me to change it really miss the point of why it looks and exists the way it does. It’s kind of like asking Become A Great Artist in 10 Seconds to be less glitchy.
Defining an art program that supports really weird experimental drawing tools as “different” from the get-go is important.
The entire point is to be disarming, not serious, and come across as a toy.
I think I’ve done this successfully, but this is the difficult space of having to go against people’s expectations in software (it’s a lot like problems you encounter when going against people’s expectations in “a game”).

There are a lot of different approaches that I could have taken to build this.
Yes, it could be less colorful. Yes, it could be more functional…
Part of this update supports copy/pasting your art into Photoshop (or any other art program) so you can edit it there, and copy/paste back into the Zine Maker. I think this will help with people that don’t want to use the Zine Maker but still want to use it.
Another (future) update will include turning everything black and white so you can get past the bright colors… overall that’s going to be it tho in terms of traditional accessibility.

To me, it’s important to make something that’s disarming. In no way intimidating, or geared to being “productive”. If it’s screaming goofiness at you, you can’t take it serious. You can’t get intimidated by something like that.
That design decision was important.
It really HAS to be a toy in which you can explore strange tools. A bit like what Play-Doh is. It’s a toy, but it also lets you create impressive things (if you felt so inclined to get good at Play-Doh).
The majority of feedback I get about the Zine Maker is that it’s relaxing to use, therapeutic, and has helped with creative block.

I feel like, overall, that’s a great thing to put into the world.

Ok… moving on from all that…
Part of this Zine Maker’s breakfast tool update is an ASCII drawing program. There are a few ASCII art enhancements to it that make it a viable ASCII art tool too (tangentially to making zines). These all allow you to export, or save, your ASCII art as a text file (it’s totally text format friendly). This way you can have ASCII art in the traditional sense, and use it all the ways you use ASCII art for…
I really like this concept: smaller tools that allow you to tangentially explore other outlets. Kind of like meta tools.
So you can make your zines, and use cool ASCII art in your zines, BUT you can also use it to JUST make ASCII art completely aside from zines.
I’m hoping to do more of that. This would allow for much more interesting creative exploration… like just eliminate the goal of making zines completely if you wanted to.
It encourages you to really just mess around and be creative.

I have some fun things planned for the next update.
I mentioned this in the devlog, so you should probably just read that… but I’m basically going to step back from building more tools and focus on supporting more templates (for different zine types). My first will be booklets. People have been using the Zine Maker to make games (this is so cool!) so I feel like supporting booklets will be a wonderful addition to enable that more.
This will be a good time to also focus more on building out the opening UI (not the Art Tool, the main menu area).
Originally I wanted to add more backgrounds (some interactive), so you can have something like a living room setting, or aquarium, or other silly settings, that are in the background. Customizing this could feel more like a home then. I’m looking a bit at Microsoft BOB, or other software that was a mix of “environment” with UI… like the Creative Writer and Creative Artist Suite. I loved these for how it set up a weird, silly, almost impractical virtual space along with tools. If I do this right it’s going to feel less like an art tool and more like a game… which at this point I really want.
I’m also going to add some level of customization, like the ability to change your cursor into silly things (think Windows XP, or Windows 2000 desktop themes for the cursor).
Some of this is intended to be fun for children, so a lot of focus will go into adding these cute things for kids (or adults who are open to playing around with cute things like that).

I’m kind of excited about all this. I feel like it will reinforce what the Zine Maker is supposed to be.

Wrapping this up…
I published a couple other things over this last month or so.

I released a browser version of the ASCII drawing tool (ASCII Paint), so you can freehand draw ASCII in your browser and export that to text.

Check it out here: http://ascii.alienmelon.com/

I also shared the code to github: https://github.com/alienmelon/ASCIIpaint

Aside from that, I also put out this cute cat called Cat.js…
Live demo: http://tetrageddon.com/catjs/
Github: https://github.com/alienmelon/cat.js
It’s a little cat for your website. You can pet it. It also puts a cute cat in the console that meows when you pet the cat.
…Most of my stuff on github is focused on adding some weird cute element to websites. I’ll probably be putting more of those out there because they’re fun & easy to make.

I also published a little desktop experience called SHARED_ANXIETIES_WITH_A_FRIEND_ON_YOUR_BIRTHDAY.exe

It’s a small interactive short about a friend that checks in on you and shares things.
What I probably enjoy most about it right now is the very customized itch.io theme for the page… There’s a goldfish swimming around! You can download that here and use it on your own pages.

Ok, that’s about it…

Thank you to everyone that has been so supportive of my work. I wouldn’t be able to do this without you, so thank you for sharing, supporting, and buying it. I appreciate it!

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