romantic compatibility as card-game mechanics: introducing Hook-Up Heroes

a quick look at a card game I’ve been working on in recent months.

1. Game Overview

In HookUp Heroes, 2-4 players compete to be the most successful dating agency in a land of might and magic. Each player starts off with a number of clients and items. Each turn begins by revealing a number of eligible heroes from the Hero Deck (1 per person playing) and placing them face-up in the middle of the play area. Players then pick a client to try to match up with one of the eligible heroes, based on compatibility mechanics (described later). They may also equip their “suitor” with an item from their hand in order to aid them on their date. Suitors and items are placed face-down next to the desired eligible hero, and all revealed at once. Compatibility is then calculated, and pairs of heroes with the highest compatibility score become happy couples who are retained by the owner of that “suitor”, for scoring. A new turn begins, players draw new cards from the Hero and Item decks, and new eligible suitors appear.

LOGO

(1980s kitschy dating gameshow colours + Diablo font. MY WORK HERE IS DONE)

Note: for prototyping and testing purposes I am using (non-licensed!) character portraits from Obsidians’ Pillars of Eternity, with the intention of replacing these within original art at a later date. I hope no-one at Obsidian or the original artists have a problem with this, but will make alterations if requested.

The traditional D&D style character art used in games like PoE and Baldur’s Gate is exactly the sort of thing I would like to have in the finished game, but may be inhibitively expensive with 50-60 unique characters plus items.

2. Compatibility: Traits and Desires vs. Likes and Dislikes

system comparison

Each Hero’s card contains a list of Traits and Desires. Traits represent what the character is like (a wealthy, studious hard-worker) whereas Desires represent the Traits they desire in a partner. Each Trait/Desire is represented by an iconic image of an object as well an accompanying term. I have learnt from experience with games like Elder Sign that if you have odd stat names (ES uses “terror”, “peril”, “lore” and “investigation”) then most players will just default to calling them by their icon (skull/tentacle/scroll/looking glass). So I’ve opted for including both. (These change literally every time I write them down!)

Brave (shield)
Wealthy (coin)
Powerful (crown)
Studious (book)
Nature-Lover (leaf)
Party Animal (tankard)
Refined (mask)
Musical (lute)
Believer (ankh)
Tinkerer (hammer)
Brooding (hood)

compatibility

In the older version of the game illustrated above, compatibility is calculated by adding 1 for each matching Like or Dislike and then subtracting 1 for any Likes/Dislikes that clash. In the initial testing I found that having to deal with subtraction made the whole process a little slower than I would have liked. The new system of Traits/Desires allows for characters who desire a different type of person from themselves, whereas in the old system, a homosexual or bisexual character’s ideal partner would be a clone of themselves! In the Likes/Dislikes system, every rogue would have liked Wealth, making them attracted to other characters who like Wealth, but with no way to actually track which character is Wealthy. In the new system, we can have a character who wants a Wealthy partner, and a partner who is Wealthy but happy to go out with someone who is not.

There is still the opportunity to include one deal-breaker “dislike” which will render a potential pairing completely incompatible (for example, a necromancer might have this in relation to “Believer”) but this may do more harm than good to gameplay.

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in early iterations of the game, with doubled-up cards, Garth the gay orc kept getting paired up with himself!

3. Gender and Sexuality as Mechanics (-eek!)

From the get-go there have been questions about how I am going to approach this.

First, there’s the issue of visual gender coding. I’m currently going with coloured borders around a character portrait to represent their gender. While I’d like to keep away from pink and blue, it’s also what people know, and adds to the overall aesthetic of the game (I kind of like the idea of tricking Magic the Gathering player dudes into playing something that’s pink and lilac and sparkly). I’m using violet as a rather ambiguous inter-gender marker; this could represent a number of things, but at the moment it’s used to mean “all/both”; a character who is attractive to anyone regardless of their orientation. It can be used for characters with masks, helmets, hoods, and maybe some races which are androgynous such as golems etc. I appreciate there are some issues with this, but I also want some of the characters to be fixed genders (what I want to create here is like a micro-version of the sorts of romances that occur in BioWare games!) while having some characters that are explicitly non-binary.

It’s hard to be inclusive when you’re working with analogue rules, which have to be more refined and simple than vidya rules because players themselves have to remember them!

In addition to the gender-indicator border colour, each character also has an “orientation heart” which is blue, pink or violet. For example, a homosexual character has a matching portrait border and orientation heart. In the images below, Aradhel is a male mage who likes men, whereas Anastasia is a female mage who likes either men or women. One rare item might allow a player to turn a suitor’s blue or pink heart to a violet one.

anastacia aradhel

This brings us into another problem. The way that bisexuality is handled here potentially feeds in to dodgy ideas about bi folks being “lucky to have more choice” or “greedy”. Using the set of mechanics I’ve described so far, drawing a bi character is more ‘lucky’; characters with violet hearts (and indeed violet borders) are overpowered in gameplay terms. Do I let them be overpowered cards, or do I balance them by giving them different stats elsewhere? Only testing will tell. Because of these balance issues it makes sense to have a slightly lower distribution of bi characters (while homo/hetero-sexual characters are 1:1)

Of course, there’s the option of having a gender and sexuality free-for-all where gender is not recognized and anyone can fancy anyone if their interests match up. I imagine that how this would play out is that a fair share of players are likely to just read all of the characters in heteronormative terms, meaning that people play the game with entirely different sets of rules. Maybe ‘everyone has violet hearts’ should be an officially-encouraged house-rule, but not part of the standard game?Also, having pre-determined genders and orientations allows for more of a diversity in terms of the types of people players imagine when viewing the on-card info, allowing each card to stand-out as a richer, more specific character; e.g:

Garth is a gay male orc warrior; he is a Brave and Powerful Nature-Lover, looking for someone who is Studious and Musical.

4. Classes and Items

Each character belongs to one of the three core classes used in most RPGs; Warrior, Mage or Rogue. In gameplay terms, the only thing these classes affect is which items they can equip when putting themselves forward as a suitor. I’m currently working on this part (following a redesign of the Traits used for Compatibility), but the main aim of Items is to give some tactical variation to the game and to also change the way different character archetypes “feel” to play; e.g. how might these 3 base fantasy RPG classes differently negotiate a romantic rivalry? Items will generally be pieces of comically-named clothing, jewellery or perfume which a fantasy character might wear to impress on a date.

Overall, the general ‘flavour’ I have planned for the item cards is as follows:

Warrior: Warriors are the high-school jocks of the game, specialising in the elimination of other suitors. An example item might be a set of enchanted boots called “Sandcastle Stompers” which send a rival Rogue or Mage suitor fleeing out of the game and into the discard pile :(.

Rogue: Rogues are the suave smooth-talkers and rebels of the game, specialising in the manipulation of item cards. One rogue item may allow a player to take extra items from the item deck, to take items from another player’s hand, or to remove items equipped on rival suitors once they are revealed. The “charming” aspect of Rogues might be used by, for example, allowing a Rogue suitor to take additional Hero cards, or to cause break-ups between other players’ couples.

Mage: Mages are the quiet but intellectually-impressive geeks; specialising in the manipulation of other hero cards. For example, they may be able to swap the positions of two suitors once they have been revealed, resulting in worse or better outcomes for other players. Mages should be ‘glass cannons’, with some of the larger, more chaotic card effects but more lacking in certain traits such as Bravery. They should also have the sort of spying/knowledge abilities seen in CCGs like Hearthstone or MTG; the ability to look at other player’s hands etc.

Other cards might revolve around impressing an eligible hero by being the best at something, neutralising a Trait that rival suitors may have; for example an Tankard that gives a Warrior the “Party Animal” trait while removing it from a rival suitor. Alteration of Traits and Desires are probably less interesting mechanics, however.

Rovio (Angry Birds) as a case study in mobile devs learning through failure

Over the past two years I’ve delivered a general “introduction to the videogame industry” lecture to undergrads as part of a more general Media programme. In each of these I’ve used Angry Birds as a case study in the specific types of design choices that go into a ‘casual’ mobile game. Whether you personally like the game or not, understanding the technological platform and its user-base is essential to understanding the game’s success. I am differentiating between “well designed” and “designed with me in mind”, and if you can’t make the same distinction, you’re not going to get much out of this post.

angry birds1

The Forbes infographic above helps to illustrate Rovio’s journey as a studio. The main messages are pretty standard creative industry platitudes (“there’s no such thing as an overnight success” and “keep trying because even the successful fail a lot at first”). It’s good motivational poster type stuff, but it doesn’t really help an would-be developer understand what made Angry Birds specifically such a big success after so many duds. We need to critically analyse Rovio’s output prior to its release. There are external factors such as appstore features which contributed to the games success which are summarised pretty well elsewhere. But I want to start from the assumption that none of this counts for anything if the game isn’t well designed in the first place.

With all of that in mind, the task I have set students in the past is this:

Look at the screenshots in from “Rovio’s failed games before ‘Angry Birds'” (CNN, 2012). From a design perspective, what made them fail while Angry Birds succeeded? Think carefully about what is in these games which isn’t in Angry Birds and how this might affect the audience.

The purpose of this task is to illustrate that Rovio did not simply “get lucky” or triumph through sheer perseverance. Success isn’t attained by designing a greater volume of stuff, but by designing better (or, at least, by happening upon a good design by accident). So take a look at the images below (yes, all pre-Angry Birds Rovio games) and then scroll down and see if your answers match mine.

shot2shot1shot3shot5shot34

Heavy Use of Text to Convey Narrative Information

As I see it, there are some serious questions you should ask yourself before filling your game with text. Does this potentially limit the audience for my game? Can everyone read it? Even without language barriers, is the need to read excessive text going to turn off gamers who wanted a quick fix; something to play on a 20 minute train journey (I can’t overemphasise the benefits of understanding how devices fit into average people’s daily lives!) If the game does well, how difficult is it going to be for you to go back into it and change all the text to Spanish or German or Cantonese? This isn’t just a big budget soulless casual game wanting to make loads of $$$$ thing; go and read Lucas Pope’s account of localising/translating Papers Please.

Emphasis on Combat

There are two issues with games having an emphasis on combat. One is obvious, the other less so. Firstly, we have the general “violence” issue. Parents who heavily police what their kids can play are a barrier to success for games with zombies and bazookas. Whether or not you agree with it Apple are also starting to crack down on images of guns in promotional screenshots and icons. But in my mind the issue with assuming that all games must be about combat is more fundamental. People play mobile games to pass the time and to relax. The reason for the success of games on this platform is that those who don’t identify as ‘gamers’ don’t have to buy a dedicated machine; they already own it for other purposes. These gamers are less likely to enjoy dying over and over again. Angry Birds has a very quick start-fail-retry loop compared to many traditional console and PC games, even compared to arcade classics like Tetris which arguably are similar to contemporary

Self-Serious/GrimDark Iconography

Not everyone likes vampires and robots. If they did, we wouldn’t have conventions for people who are into that stuff. Jesper Juul points out that the artistic direction of a game usually signposts its mechanics and by extension its implied audience. A black box with a vampire on it is going to contain a punishingly difficult game, probably with an immersive storyline, which players are expected to play in long sessions. It will probably be the sort of game where you will have to have played a dozen games in the same genre to “get” in terms of controls and other conventions (think how taken for granted assumptions like “blue potions are mana which let you do more magic” are in hardcore game genres!) A brightly coloured box is more likely to contain something that anyone can pick up and play.

Did you spot any other things?

Sure, we are seeing a surge of traditional hard-core games on tablets (FTL, X-Com, Baldur’s Gate) but it is rare that the tablet is rarely the initial primary platform. Casual games are casual exactly because they don’t require the same level of pre-learning or taking-seriously of a fictional game-world. My takeaway from all of this is that the early Rovio games are very traditional hardcore genres of game on the wrong device. They have accessibility issues in relation to their complexity and dependency on reading, and they do not seem to acknowledge how mobile games fit into people’s everyday lives. They expect the player to be a seasoned video-game connoisseur who treats their iPhone like a Nintendo DS.

merging the mundane and fantastical in game design

A lot of games stick to the safe territory of superheroes, sci-fi and high fantasy, and for good reason. In these settings, the differences between people can be greatly exaggerated into noticeable differences in the way that characters behave in-game; their personalities, skills and abilities. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the merging of character personality, look and function in archetypes (the ‘fire’ character is lithe, quick, red and angry!) Videogames are often about shooty shooty, bashy bashy, so we use similar sets of crude numbers to represent what people are like (strength, agility, intelligence and so on) which aren’t necessarily relative to anything in reality. We use them because most players are familiar with them and because they’re easily relatable to stuff the player might want to do in-game.

Main_characters_of_Lost

How do the characters of the TV show Lost fit into traditional RPG class archetypes? What makes someone a Paladin rather than a Warrior? If Sawyer and Kate are both “Rogues”, do they represent different sub-classes of this archetype? Try the same exercise again with something even less fantastical (e.g. a ‘kitchen sink’ drama).

We make games in ‘tombs’ and ‘dungeons’ because these fantasy standards provide an environment designed entirely around navigating traps and monsters to find shiny stuff; a contrived assault course with some tentative link to reality. A dungeon can be relatively non-functional and abstract. So can a post-apocalyptic ruin. If everything is alien or ancient or destroyed then we don’t have to consider things like the logical placement of toilets in an office building. This is one of the reasons why Steam is so awash with procedurally-generated games with “dungeon” in the title.

I like epic dungeons and spaceships, but I have very little desire to make games set in them. Part of it is about maintaining a manageable scope*, but its also down to these settings being saturated. I don’t want to make a worse version of a game that already exists. I don’t even want to make a better version of an existing game, because ultimately I’m motivated by creativity and novelty. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take familiar tropes and make something fresh out them simply by turning them on their head a little.

robotcontroller

a tongue-in-cheek approach to an existing ‘geek’ genre may be more achievable for new developers with less resources.

Recently, I’ve been playing with the idea of introducing the mundane into generic fantasy and scifi settings. Terry Pratchett’s discworld took the normally grandiose genre of high fantasy and delivered the same epic stories but in a much more grounded and tongue-in-cheek way, in a world where there are  guilds for Lawyers and Glassblowers as well as Rogues and Mages. Comedy science-fiction like Futurama, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf is also able to explore big ideas and ‘what if’ scenarios without taking itself so seriously it becomes cheesy and unintentionally hilarious. And there’s a sizeable amount of people for whom the staffroom banter and romantic subplots in Bioware games are one of the most memorable parts (self included). I would happily play Mass Effect and DragonAge games minus the combat – no joke.

Back in early 2014 and friend and I made a short jam game** about running a VR Parlour in a cyberpunk future. During the process we both realised that we were essentially making a game about jobs we have both done in our late teens (he used to work in video-rental place and I worked in a record shop). Even Papers, Please is about doing something mundane in a setting which could easily have been used for a AAA shooter like Just Cause or Homefront. Fallout Shelter is also a very mundane game set in a fantastical world. So are Recettear and Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village. Often these games can be a way of using ‘hardcore’ gamers’ existing tastes to draw them into more casual modes of play.

Mundanity isn’t a goal in itself. Sometimes games about mundane tasks such as managing a business or caring for a person or creature can become time-sinks which provide the same sort of pleasure as scratching your butt***. But I am noticing this pattern in a lot of my ideas. What if the player runs a crèche for the children of superheroes? What if the player runs a dating agency for Tolkien-esque fantasy characters?

In the next post I’m going to talk about all of this in relation to a 2-4 player card game I’m developing called Hook-Up Heroes.

*I spoke about issues relating to scope for new developers here.

**You can play VR Tycoon over at itch.io but it is very very broken.

***”Richard Rosenbaum offers a good explanation of how operant conditioning techniques are used in casual games to make them addictive.

Fallout Shelter: “Better than Dungeon Keeper Mobile” still isn’t much to brag about

I don’t know why, but Fallout is one of the series that I fanboy hardest over. Fallout 3 was probably the first game that I followed the development of from the outset in around 2006. It was exciting and frightening at the same time, watching a game I had loved be squeezed and pushed into the engine of a different game I loved only slightly less.

If anything, the way fans have stuck with the series across genres really speaks to how a powerful setting can trump personal tastes with regard to the stuff we usually understand as game genres. From a top-down cRPG, to a FPS RPG-lite, to an unnecessarily needy Dungeon-Keeper-Mobile-like, people just love this setting.

Perhaps that’s because, as with the Elder Scrolls, the Fallout universe is very good at supporting the fantasies of players who want to be doing Something of Great Portent, while simultaneously catering to the (probably much larger) demographic who just want to watch the world burn.

The first couple of times you send dwellers out to explore and gather equipment is exciting, especially when you load them up with enough life-supporting stimpacks for them to get quite far and gather a bunch of neat stuff.

The excitement begins to wane around day two or three when you realize the need to check on your explorers – to see if they need to begin heading home lest a mutant bear munch their last few hit-points – is just the game’s way of bringing you back two or three times a day.

I never played Dungeon Keeper Mobile, but I remember the fuss – a pretty good example of the backlash that happens when you take a well-loved hardcore series and monetize the bejeezus out of it. Fallout Shelter seems to have learnt some of Dungeon Keeper’s lessons; it’s quite playable without spending silly amounts of money, for example. And it establishes a new mini-game set in the same universe, rather than bastardizing an existing game and watering it down.

But even though Fallout Shelter is arguably less of a dodgy FTP mobile game than Dungeon Keeper, it still feels like a time sink, in a bad way. I don’t feel like I’m having many ‘aha!” moments. It’s hard on the old pocket-watch and tappy-tappy finger and easy on the noggin.

It’s a fuzzy feeling to pan through my tiny underground bunker, with all my stupidly-named sycophants in their fancy outfits, like a tiny ant-farm in my Tesco Hudl. Those brief moments in a sim game where there is nothing to do and everything is stable and you can behold your work. But recently I’ve become more and more drawn to the idea that a lot of what games do is just shortcut some intrinsic human need for success or novelty, and Fallout Shelter feels much more like its providing the kind of low-level opiatic buzz I might get from completing the washing-up, rather than the big feelings that accompany other Fallout games – feelings that are meant to quiet my unmet drive to do Something of Great Portent in the real world.

Good job I have a dishwasher, so I have more time to play Fallout Shelter.

If you haven’t played the game yet, don’t worry, dorkly have already made a slideshow of interesting things that might happen in the game, so you don’t even have to play it yourself.

What am I supposed to do with all this Fallout:London headcanon?!

I just wrote about how you should not talk about making stuff and just make stuff, and now I’m going to go completely against my own advice and just dump some ideas that will never be a thing. (Trollface.png.)

Over the past couple of years I’ve been developing a bit of a headcanon for what a Fallout set in London would be like. Now, I could sit myself down and learn how to actually make mods in Bethesda’s G.E.C.K. But that would be time I could be using to develop my own actual games. So here is a general info-dump of those ideas, in no particular order. I’m mainly doing this to get it out of my brain and because I know a handful of people who will enjoy looking through it.

Enjoy.

General Thematics:

Rather than being completely destroyed during the Great War (as likely in the existing FO canon) three vaults were built around the city as part of an agreement with Vault-Tec. Each of these was dedicated to housing and maintaining a specific section of society. Alpha Vault, which housed military and political leaders, saw a military coup during the underground years, and is now the base of operations for The Party who are attempting to rebuild the city. The city is usually called “The Smoke” by its current residents (because nothing in the Fallout Universe retains its original name).

The whole game/mod/whatever would be set within the bounds of the city itself, creating a more claustrophobic experience. Whereas Fallout games have generally riffed on 1980s American post-apocalyptic scifi and only tangentially on ‘dystopian’ fiction (e.g. in small pockets like Vault City in FO2) a Fallout game in London would have a more generally Orwellian feel, because that’s easier to do in a smaller space and also more relevant to a lot of British scifi, which is more known for that kind of thing and less for Mad Max type stuff. Combine dystopian scifi with Fallout humour and you get something closer to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Given that Britain also lends itself to images of dreary green countryside as opposed to desert wastes (think Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows) the area surrounding the city has been enveloped by a dangerous forest of mutated vegetation and fungus (think Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind). The forest is considered poisonous and terrifying. Those from the city rarely leave the city, and outsiders living within or around the forest are considered dangerous.

Main Factions:

The Party represent draconian law and order and a more traditional idea of government. Their leader has a strong 1984-ish vision for “New London” (they don’t like the colloquial use of “the Smoke”. Their enforcers wear old reclaimed vault suits and riot armour/gas masks. The Party is represented by a white horse and its leadership is comprised mostly of the descendants of the military from before the Great War. The less damaged areas of the city, where people where fancy clothes and have electricity, tend to be quite supportive of The Party. The shanty towns in and around the city’s parks tend to take a different view.

The Order of the Thorn represent a sort of neo-luddite, Celtic-Christian mashup of Caesar’s Legion (FO:NV) and the tribe from Oasis (FO3) who have recently begun to encroach from their home in the forests bordering the city. They’re a bit friendlier than Caesar’s Legion. They generally ‘come in peace’ but they also kinda want to blow up all the city’s power stations because of some mish-mash of ideas  about scripture and the causes of the Great War. They generally refuse to use any sort of electronic technology or firearms, favouring instead crossbows, spears and trained wolves/bears (because awesome). They make their home in St. Paul’s cathedral, which is now partially dilapidated and covered in foliage.

Other locations/factions:

The Thirteenth Tribe of Israel are a pacifist group of neo-Rastafarians who study technology and generally keep to themselves.

The current “monarch” is an (apparently self-appointed?) ghoul of working-class origin. S/he is loved by many residents of the city, but loathed by The Party, whose power s/he undermines.

Misc. “Britishness” Stuff

  • Sunset Sarsaparilla > Ginger Beer (of course).
  • Guns are less frequently found but a smidge more powerful.
  • Post-war ethnicities in Britain; white British, Southeast Asian, Caribbean – game would reflect this.
  • Most cultural references would be 1950s, keeping with FO universe, but some would be from 60s because that is an iconic period in terms of how the rest of the world views “British culture stuff”. (this isn’t really canon-breaking seeing as there are some small 60s hippie culture references in existing FO games, see vault graffiti CND signs for example)
  • Hats. If it’s going to be 1950s and British you need flatcaps and bowlers.
  • Skinheads! Skinheads with boots and denim and tartan and pool cues!
  • Hitting people with pool cues.
  • More hitting people with pool cues.
  • Perk and trait names like “Top Bird” or “Diamond Geezer” that reflect a sort of bawdy old-fashioned Carry On British humour/lingo. “Lashings and lashings of…” etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum.
  • Unique local wildlife (maybe not Deathclaws… Mirelurks in the Thames I guess… how about some giant snails?)
  • Maybe one Deathclaw… but in a Beowulf reference quest and referred to as a Grendel.
  • There has to be a Triffids quest. There has to be.
  • Lots of Dr. Who references.
  • How about a failed experiment with teleportation, which has brought a single Brother of Steel member into the UK … unfortunately, his brain has been scrambled and he is just rampaging around the underground with Party infantry trying to stop him.

Overarching “Big Bad”.

We know how Bethesda RPGs work now. You have your two rival factions (they’re both as bad as eachother, don’t you know) and then you have a big bad like dragons or some such. So we’ll throw in a mind-altering virus for good measure, because I like those. The game culminates in a historically-decisive city-wide riot (maybe after 30 days or w/e of in-game time) which will play out differently depending on the player’s prior actions. Who did you give the big crate of plasma guns to? Who did you give that inexplicable power armour to? Etc. Etc. There’s an over-arching big-bag and a cool end-event that makes your subquest choices feel meaningful. That’s all you need to know I guess.

Player-Centric Subplot:

The player begins the game in an unusual prison/hotel complex (similar to the movie Oldboy). The mystery Hotel subplot involves trying to work out who imprisoned you and why they gave you a Pip-Boy. The player has to research Pip-Boys and hunt down a number of other test-subjects who were given them (surprise, they are mostly dead!). The big moment here would be a reveal about Pip-Boys being tested as a possible form of surveillance to be used on/by residents in New London. Cue “don’t you feel good about yourself, watching that little XP meter tick up, up up” kind of 4th-wall breaking meta ramble about RPG mechanics and/or social media design. I am a deep and critical thinker am I not. (Yawn).

 

 THAT IS ALL

How to stop talking about your brilliant game idea and make a sort-of-ok-ish game instead

 

A very enthusiastic, clever teenager I work with keeps telling me about these ideas he has for comics or games. I feel kinda mean doing it, but my response is always been the same; “How are you going to make this idea into a thing that I can consume?”. This is because I’ve been in his position. And now I’m a 28 year old dude with 2 kids still figuring out how to make my ideas into actual things. Ideas are like seeds. No amount of talking is going to turn that seed into a tree. (Maybe if you’re standing very close to the seed, so that your talking inadvertently provides it with an abundant source of CO2, and you’re simultaneously providing it with the right amount of water and the right type of soil. I don’t really know where this metaphor is going anymore). It’s a harsh lesson, but anyone who wants to spend their adult life paying the bills while making entertaining or expressive work needs to learn it quick and fast. I’ve done a string of creative things in different media, some successful, some not so much. I’ve learnt the hard way that ideas alone have very little value. Think of the worst movie or TV show you’ve ever watched. It’s often the case that the central idea could’ve been something you enjoyed, had the execution been different.

 Adjust Your Expectations

The trouble is – particularly for newer game designers who tend to think in terms of stories and settings rather than mechanics – the thing in our head is so often at odds with what we’re realistically able to achieve. Take that cool videogame idea in your head. If it’s mainly a narrative thing; could you make it into a Twine or Adventure Game Studio thing? If it’s mainly a mechanic thing, could you boil it down to a small arcade game first, or even something analogue p1busing cards or dice? Keep asking yourself these sort of questions and you’re already well on your way to Actually Finishing A Thing.

One friend of mine wrote a really great script for a sort of sci-fi comedy TV thing. It was a great script with humour and pathos, and I genuinely think I would have rated it highly even if this guy wasn’t a friend. After sending it off to THE TV PEOPLE and getting no reply, my friend had plans to cast the thing and shoot it himself. I keep trying to get him in the studio to make it into a Hitchhikers’ Guide radio-play/podcast, because that would be far easier to self-produce and it would take off easier in that format, with a potential conversion to TV later. Even with the script written, that idea is still very much a seed. It’s still just that.

So when I hear aspiring creatives talk about their ideas, I think about the unheeded advice I gave my friend: Don’t write a script for a relatively-high budget TV series that will never be made, make a script for a dramatized audio play and then make the thing. In order to do this, you have to adjust your expectations so that the thing you want to make is feasible. (I’m sure you can already see parallels with the way that every aspiring developers wants to make a VERY BIG RPG).

 

Do It Yourself

So you write down all your game ideas into a game design document and set about finding people to help you. The reality is that even if you’ve spent what seems like an eternity writing those ideas out, your programmer, artist, sound person etc. are all going to have to put in more work than you.

Dietrich (2004) developed this framework for understanding different forms of creativity. Being the ‘ideas guy’ is a spontaneous, non-time-dependent form of creativity, whereas tasks like writing dialogue, programming script or making tonnes of visual assets are more deliberate forms of creativity which take potentially much longer (and are more akin to ‘grinding’ in videogame speak).

Dietrich (2004) developed this framework for understanding different forms of creativity. Being the ‘ideas guy’ is a spontaneous, non-time-dependent form of creativity, whereas tasks like writing dialogue, programming script or making tonnes of visual assets are more deliberate forms of creativity which take potentially much longer (and are more akin to ‘grinding’ in videogame speak).

If they’re any good (i.e. they’re able to work to the standard of the Unrealistic Thing You Have in Your Head) then they’re unlikely to trust you enough to work for free. If they’re any good, they’re probably already regularly working freelance for people who finish projects. You’re an unknown quantity to them, and seeing as you’re reading this blog, I’m going to assume that you’re not wealthy enough to pay a team of people to water and feed your idea seed for you. Where does this leave you?

Well first off, you can start practicing an additional creative role, like programming or graphics. Make something that looks like it has enough potential for other people to want to work on it with you. I personally have been modding games since I was a teenager, and did a little bit of BASIC as a younger kid – I can’t really code, p3but I can use Stencyl and similar programs, so I’ve opted for making my own 2D assets. This is a slow process! But I did do art and design up until university, and I do believe that anyone with a good enough eye can do visual art if they stick at it. Part of this, again, comes down to readjusting expectations. So you can draw buildings but not characters? Great; make a game with buildings and no characters! (This is exactly what I’ve been doing with Beatopia). After a few hours messing about in Illustrator or Inkscape you can draw characters but they are kind of childlike and derpy? Great! Make a game that makes good use of that! Maybe you want to practice drawing static, un-animated characters? Then spend a little time working in a game genre that will allow you to practice that (a visual novel, for example).

Adjust your visual expectations! Think of all the web series that are quite loved but use quite simple drawing styles but are very loved (The Meatly, Cyanide and Happiness etc.). I hope Ben Ward and Dan Mashall won’t mind me using them as an example; but their adventure games Ben There, Dan That! And Time Gentleman, Please! are really good examples of this. The developers did what they could do at the time, and now one of them (Marshall) has gone on to make The Swindle and other games while outsourcing the artwork/animation jobs. Your art can be simple, just set yourself some basic rules (consistent approach to palette, line thicknesses, stuff like that) and roll with them.

 

Be Efficient

Although it hasn’t always seemed that way, the choices for me over last couple of years have been simple;

  1. readjust my expectations to something I can make and finish myself
  2. pay awesome artists and programmers with my non-existent family fortune
  3. never make games at all and just cry in the dark instead

One of those things is impossible and one is kinda sad. So I scale down my projects until they’re things where I can realistically do all or most of the work myself. If you’re constantly buzzing with ideas, then paring that list down to the viable ones can actually be quite liberating, allowing you to focus on brushing up whatever skills you need. And all those people who are better than you are coding or art or narrative design are never going to come and work for you until you’ve proven that you are a person who finishes stuff. I’m still getting there.

So when I say to adjust your expectations, the same goes for mechanical features too. If you’re new to game-making and coding then you will probably have similar experiences to me. Standard game systems; things like dialogue boxes and inventory systems that we take for granted in software like RPG Maker – these are a pain in the butt to put together. Does your game really need a massive inventory system where you can slide things around? Have you ever tried to build one of those from scratch? And finally, the most important question you should ask yourself: are there ways in which your game might actually be better if you don’t include this or that complicated (but taken-for-granted in AAA) feature? Maybe your characters should only have 3 inventory slots. Maybe your game will be emotive and immersive if you chop out those 10 screens of expository text [that you didn’t even write very well anyway]. Remember earlier when I asked if your game would work as a card game or a Twine project? Keep asking yourself how you can chop that Ridiculously Ambitious Idea down into Something You Might Eventually Finish. And in doing so you can reflect on whether the feature bloat we see as ‘standard’ in some genres of game is actually good design in the first place.

So, what is your ‘minimum viable product’?

I’ve been talking to a successful graphics guy I know about making some sort of visual novel in the near future. Something where I can concentrate primarily on narrative/world design type stuff and he can really flex his muscles at making static monster and character portraits. He’s an artist but he’s also a business-dude, so his approach is very pragmatic and informed by lots of TED talks by wealthy successful types; what is your minimum viable product. Those of us who are more artsy don’t like thinking of what we do as product (and that’s perhaps why he’s making a living solely off of design right now, and I’m not).

mvp

To understand minimum viable product in relation to games or similar work, you need to imagine what you’re trying to make, and pare it down to the version of that thing that will get the most buzz with the least effort. It’s less risk – it’s putting less eggs in a single basket. But mainly because it’s a way of getting as many of those cool ideas to fruition. If your game is narrative heavy, can you release it episodically, giving people the first part of an overarching story while only having to produce the content for a quarter of the whole game? If your game is more of a mechanical, arcadey affair, can you work toward an early version with less levels just to build some buzz?

Throughout this post I’ve been emphasising just getting something finished. Make a thing and put it on The Internet! Getting feedback and validation from players you’ve never met is so important to growing and keeping yourself going. But also, if you can start to get a trickle of money coming in from itch.io or an appstore or similar, then you’re on your way to becoming a professional. Unfortunately we live in a world where the worth of what someone does is judged by whether and how much they get paid. “Oh, Jennifer’s wedding band is getting so many bookings she is only working at the office part-time now!” said the person who thought Jennifer could never have a career in music. Those around you – your immediate emotional support network who may know or care little about games – will often need to see those first steps being taken, in order to take you seriously and to be able to fully get behind what you do and let you get on with it. That’s not people being mean, it’s just realistic in a world where everyone has a ‘good idea for a game’ but isn’t willing to put in the grind to make it.

But I’m only an expert in how to fail!

So feel free to share any further tips or opinions you have in the comments.

Vault_boy_bobblehead_repair

early-access sims need to study the Bullfrog secret sauce

I was relatively strict with myself in the most recent Steam sale; grabbing only a couple of things that had been on my wishlist for a while. One of these was Pixel Piracy. I’d been watching it in development and I’m a sucker for pirates and cuteness and so on. I got about five minutes in and the ‘tutorial’ pretty much consisted of dropping me into the same scenario as a more seasoned player, with a few added pop-up tips. It didn’t really introduce me to the core gameplay experience I would have for the remainder of the game. Rather, I started at a shop and was met with several walls of text and dialog boxes. Oh no, I thought. The Curse of the Steam Early-Access Strategy Game hath struck again. I am such a fool.

p1And so after about 20 minutes of muddling about some dialogue screens which made heavy reference to statistics I had yet to learn the meaning of, I had quit that cute little pirate game with no experience of what it was actually like to play it.

No-one expects a game to pop out into early-access fully formed. But accessibility is a pretty worthy goal, and perhaps worth front-loading a little bit more. Sometimes a game can be structured in such a way that just dumping a player in the environment and letting them trial-and-error it out can work. Minecraft is an example of this. But Minecraft gives you contextual tips as you go along, and doesn’t daunt new players with massive scary menus. Sometimes, teaching isn’t so much about what you tell people, but what you hide from them in the earlier stages, to prevent information overload. Pixel Piracy gave me a little tutorial on how to move around and grapple hook etc. but then dumped a lot of info on me that I just wasn’t ready for, certainly not in the hour-or-so I had set aside to play. In more general tech language, PP is, as it stands, a UX nightmare.

p2Another early-access sim I had similar problems with was Prison Architect. I’ve put a lot of hours into this game, and I do love it, but I still feel that it would have benefited from frontloading the teaching aspect of it a little more. One of the problems here may be that developers prioritise the most vocal feedback-givers in their communities – often  self-professed hardc0r3 gamers – whose desires don’t best represent the needs of the much larger majority of a game’s potential player-base. The most vocal early players may be the sort of people who take particular enjoyment in figuring stuff out on their own – building wikis etc. – and may even shy away from admitting when a game is inaccessible (making them potential enemies of better UX!). For these games to be as successful as they should be, dev need to listen to the sort of people who start threads asking for better tutorials, and less to the sort of people who make excuses.

There’s an interesting discussion about the need for a better tutorial in PA on Steam, with one perspective being that the game is still in development, so building a tutorial would be like aiming at a ‘moving target’. While I respect this, I think we need to take a better look at exactly what ‘tutorial’ has meant, historically, in the context of sim games. There are a few of these building-and-management games out there that feel like loveletters to old Bullfrog games like Theme Park/Hospital and Dungeon Keeper. Although nearly all successful games are built around a model of gradually teaching a player to use tools that were previously unavailable, I would say the delivery of this teaching part was a vital part of the Bullfrog secret sauce that aspiring Bullfrog imitators need to play closer attention to when thinking about how much to show players in early access.

p4in the Dungeon Keeper games, players begin with a limited range of potential buildings and unit types. Rather than requiring one long, dense tutorial, the game is segmented out into levels. What I’m suggesting here is that a well-realized sim or strategy game doesn’t need much of a tutorial because the campaign is designed well enough to teach players as they go. Again, this is a pretty standard good design practice across genres but the issue is particular pronounced in sim and strategy games which can become dauntingly heavy in terms of on-screen info.

Each level of Dungeon Keeper unlocks a number of new buildings and units (perhaps only one in some cases) and effectively teaches the player to use them. The same is true for the campaign modes in RTSs like Command and Conquer or WarCraft and StarCraft games. What we tend to ‘get’ in an early-access strategy or sim game on steam is just the final ‘sandbox’ mode from one of these titles, without the incremental learning provided by a campaign. While this may be what hardcore early players say they want, it’s not what the rest of the potential player-base needs. An added irony is that DK came with a physical manual large enough to use as a car-jack, even though it was well-designed enough not to need one.

Maybe I’m asking too much, but in cases like Prison Architect this just seems like a need to gate more content off earlier on to avoid overwhelming. I don’t just mean ‘grey it out until you have the prerequisite on the tech tree’; make players complete a small prison with only a handful of the buildings first. You can still give access to the sandbox for the hardcore ‘work-it-out-myself’ people. But a well-structured campaign and a funny/charismatic advisory figure shouldn’t be seen as some sort of end-polish or ‘juice’; they’re a vital part of some of the most seminal examples within the genre. I acknowledge that you have to build in all the features you want before you start designing a campaign, but I’m also concerned that the wants of the vocal early-players (just let me arse about in a sandbox and update my wiki) might end up stunting some of these games, preventing them becoming brilliant.

Skyrim’s race problem: a [subtractive] design perspective

Edit: this post doesn’t deal with some of the fundamental issues with dealing with racism in fantasy/SF settings. nor do I advocate making sure players feel ‘oppressed’ in every game; games are about escapism. this is specifically about Skyrim, because that’s a game that ostensibly tries to be about racism.

I’ve just been re-reading A.L. Brown’s post on the failure of Skyrim to appropriately depict racism and it really resonated with some of the things that irked me about that otherwise great game. Playing as an Argonian or Khajit (either of the game’s socially-excluded ‘beast’ races) and being welcomed by the xenophobic nationalist Stormcloaks as some sort of fabled savior really clashes with the way that NPCs of the same race are included in the game. Brown’s piece isn’t the first example I’ve seen of this complaint, but it is one of the most in-depth. I just want to info-dump a little about how this sort of thing can be tackled from a design perspective.

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As far as I know – there’s no mod for the PC version of Skyrim to introduce more system racism. Searching for this, I found several reddit threads on the topic of how to better implement racism in the game. Interestingly, manly of the participants of these discussions seem to interpret racism solely as “being called mean names”. I found some people even complaining that the game was too racist because their Kahjit or Argonian was being called names. But what I (and Brown) mean by a more meaningful portrayal of racism is to systemically treat the player differently based on the race they chose. Dialogue shouldn’t be the be-all-and-end-all of this.

New Vegas attempted this to a small degree by making female PCs have a more difficult entry into Caesar’s Legion, although that approach tends to reify the idea that it’s only horrific cartoon villains who “do” sexism. The whole point of Skyrim, as a political backdrop, is that both of the major factions are morally quite ambiguous. You’re supposed to be able to see noble and ignoble traits in both sides. But you’re never really directly subjected to the latter.

I wanted to take a quick look at this problem from more of a developer-centric perspective. The only real acknowledgement Skyrim makes of your initial race-selection really boils down to statistical difference and how you look, as well as the odd comment thrown your way in combat. But here’s the thing about modelling discrimination by actually excluding players from some activities in a sandbox – you don’t really have to add much new stuff as much as gate off what’s already there. A handful of extra lines of dialogue to the effect of “we don’t like your kind” but more importantly, to just prevent certain races from being able to do certain things (or, to model privilege – from having to do things the player might not want to do). Maybe there’s only one shopkeeper in Windhelm who will serve an Argonian, and so on. There’s no content to add, and if you’re scared this will upset players, you can always telegraph it on the character creation screen early on.

Brown makes a good point about DragonAge games doing this better. At the same time I would argue that this is less a case of both games trying equally as hard to do something with different degrees of success, and more to do with design ethos. DragonAge is an RPG, but it’s not a sandbox in the truest sense. Sure, it’s non-linear and you can choose at any point to fight, talk, craft etc. but it doesn’t have the same sort of “arsing about doing nothing in particular, GTA with swords and magic” appeal that Elder Scrolls games have. You can see similar differences in the ways that these two series differently treat religion; in DragonAge you see little evidence of any of the major faiths being ‘true’ in the literal sense. DragonAge is ‘about’ religion in a narrative sense (because its a more narrative-oriented game) whereas Elder Scrolls games for the most part treat religion as just another mechanical element of the sandbox (worship the God of Trees to get a bonus to Sweet Nugs or whatever).

I would argue that Bethesda’s general aversion to making the narrative theme of discrimination any more tangible to the player is less a case of “tried and failed” and more a case of “avoided trying at all for reasons relating to markets”. In a 2013 video posted on Gamasutra, a speaker from WB Games suggests that midcore games (or ‘bros’ more disparagingly) are a really important market to capture – making up >80% of console owners – but are fickle; easily frustrated with games which seem inaccessible or unfair. It’s likely that the Conan-esque muscular viking imagery was foregrounded in Skyrim’s promotional material for this demographic (after all, Wizards are for turbodorks who read manuals). An RPG that properly acknowledges my character-creation choices by actively excluding me from certain paths has a massive appeal to me and gamers like me – but perhaps publishers are wary of how these sort of design decisions might play out with that broader audience. This is particularly pronounced in a genre that is so heavily marketed on a “go and do whatever you want” kind of appeal.

skoomaIf Bethesda were so intent on making a game which was quite overtly ‘about’ xenophobia, nationalism etc. then they need to get over that aversion to locking players out of $$$content$$$. Developers need to stop thinking about games as buckets for content and begin to pay more attention to how gating said content can provide an important kind of social immersion in the gameworlds they spend so much time and effort building.

Developers can make RPGs that better acknowledge the characters players make – and that doesn’t always mean needing to add features or even new lines of dialogue. After all, discrimination is mostly a subtractive process; its about being denied something that others take for granted; work, citizenship, safety, protection, friendship, conversation etc.

can we learn about game design from kids’ play areas?

playareaMy son is four now. As a result I now spend a lot of time in indoor play areas; multicoloured dystopian mazes of squishiness and confusion. I know that, as a designer, there’s some lesson to be learnt from watching kids interact with these spaces. For a start I can see how the most expensive play area in terms of materials and labor isn’t necessarily the one that pulls my son in and makes him want to come back another day.

Today we were at an outdoor play area which was a reasonably well-sized thing; the generic kind of metal-and-wood “climb-up-and-go-around-and-maybe-do-a-slide” thing you see in kids’ outdoor play areas. From a distance it had a kind of wow factor but when you got closer you realized that there wasn’t actually much for kids to do after their initial few up-and-rounds. The size of it even meant you lost some of the smaller underneath parts that would normally make for imaginary kitchens or dungeons or dungeon-kitchens.

One of the terms that was thrown about in games studies was games as being – or having – “possibility spaces”:

“the possibility space of play includes all of the gestures made possible by a set of rules. As Salen and Zimmerman explain, imposing rules does not suffocate play, but makes it possible in the first place.” Bogost, 2008, p.120

Games are a Place For Stuff to Happen and those of us who are game-development indies or hobbyists generally want to build the digital equivalent of that playground with the perfect cost-to-possibility ratio. In terms of game mechanics, we want to enable a lot of different things to potentially happen in the most efficient way; three simple verbs (climb, collect, dodge) that combine in enough ways to make for compelling interactions. In terms of game spaces, we want to make every space have a meaning and something to do (unless its deliberately a negative space for pacing reasons). I don’t have any magic advice but I know that the biggest playground that cost the most time and money to build isn’t necessarily the most fun.

Now go and look at some neat play area designs or something, I guess.

patrick

Sources:

Bogost, I. (2008) The Rhetoric of Video Games. In Salen, K. (ed.) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Cambridge, MA: MIT, p. 117-140.

Life after the Ph.D. – plotting an escape into industry

I don’t write much reflective personal stuff on here, and I haven’t blogged much about my Ph.D. itself. That 80,000 word monstrosity has been so dependent upon analysing the lives of a small pool of interviewees and even though there’s nothing particularly sensitive in there, there are still issues around sticking that up on a blog. So this has mainly just been a place to dump the odd game-related thing I write or, more recently, progress on things I’ve been designing or making. In other words, it’s a home for all the things I’ve been doing to avoid what I should be doing.

It’s coming up to the time when I submit the final draft of my Ph.D. and naturally I’ve been thinking about where to go from here. Until recently I had felt 50/50 about staying in academia, a career that demands I uproot my two kids and my already-employed wife to chase sessional teaching jobs around the country. My wife is off for the next 10 months or so on maternity leave, and I feel like this is a crucial time for me to be starting a career, rather than faffing about doing dribs-and-drabs of teaching for an institution that has just forked out tens of thousands of pounds on my scholarly training. I really enjoyed the teaching I’ve undertaken during my scholarship; it felt like the best parts of me were getting a workout and being of use to someone else – a rare feeling for me if I’m honest. I didn’t enjoy the cover teaching and supervising I did when I was working at a secondary school in my early twenties, mainly because of the constant need to enforce rules I hadn’t personally committed to. But teaching adults is great, and I look forward to the sessional classes I’ve got lined up this year, even if they aren’t really enough to build a career on. I feel a little less certain about research itself though.

Tarot-Card-Meaning-The-TowerThree years of writing a Massive Document No-one Else Will Read has really made me realize that I’m not a writer. Not in the sense that I enjoy writing and want it to be the main thing I do. It’s a necessary evil for communication, and I envy those who are a little bit braver at putting their thoughts and feelings ‘on paper’. Yes, I’m fully aware that writing a thesis isn’t about writing a book for someone else to read. It’s a process of transformation; the evidence that you’ve done the work and thought about not only the topic you’re studying but also the changes that you’ve gone through as a researcher. But the main thing it’s taught me about myself is that “this isn’t for me”. Research? Sure. I especially love going to conferences, meeting a bunch of cool diverse thinkers and sharing ideas. But researching the same thing, on my lonesome, for long periods of time? Nah.

Also, being in the sociological side of games and technology can get a little… heavy. I feel weighed down by a million journal articles on socio-cultural problems that are seemingly there only to be analysed and never actually resolved. I had hoped to bag a teaching position and then do some action research – something like making games with disadvantaged young people in youth clubs. But I don’t think that sort of secure post is going to materialise anytime soon – not geographically near enough to where my family has put down its roots. I can commute from Kent to London but no further than that for the time being.

People talk about the ‘writerly craft’, and I know what it feels like to be deeply engaged with a craft. I just don’t feel that same engagement when I’m writing as I do when I make games or music. It was different when I was an undergrad, working 3 days a week in a secondary school while doing my BA. Then, writing was something I felt I excelled at. Undergrad university was a mixed bag. I didn’t really make any lasting relationships during that period; being a slightly older student and a bit of a weirdo. But the essays came in short manageable bursts on a variety of topics. They were an escape from everyday life into theory – especially in the third year when my son was born – and a way to get intellectual pats-on-the-back that I hadn’t really had before.

I feel like that thirst for knowledge dried up a little when it was disconnected from the everyday (I had to quit my job as a teaching assistant to take on my scholarship). Since I started my Ph.D. in 2012, I confess I haven’t read an academic book from cover to cover. It all became a bit of a grind. So, feeling slightly disheartened after losing a recent interview for the only local job going for what I can teach, I had a little moan on Twitter and an acquaintance on there came to my aid. They pointed out that people from games studies – especially those with design and/or education experience like myself – can do well in Instructional Design (ID). So today I’m heading home from the library with a heap of books on ID, UX and other acronyms, ready to start learning about something I can actually apply outside the confines of the university. Something that will use my skills, satisfy my need for project-based work and won’t require me to do the ridiculous trial-by-fire that is the academic tenure-track.

I’ve got a sack of books and I haven’t felt this stoked about reading/learning something in over three years. Thank you, random Twitter buddy.

theme tune from “The Great Escape” intensifies

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