list of games cited in my Ph.d. thesis

Well, for a thesis that has been mostly about individual techie’s biographies, i sure did end up having to write references for a bunch of specific games:

A&F Software (1983) Chucky Egg [BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, Dragon 32, Dragon 64, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64, MSX, Tatung Einstein, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit machines, Atari ST, Commodore Amiga, IBC PC, mobile] A&F Software, Pick and Choose

Bethesda Game Studios (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360] Worldwide: Bethesda Softworks

Blizzard Entertainment (2005-) World of Warcraft [Windows, Mac OS X] EU: Blizzard Entertainment

Blizzard Entertainment (2002) Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. [Windows, Mac OS, Mac OS X] EU: Sierra Entertainment

Blizzard Entertainment (2010) Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty [Windows, Mac OS X] EU: Blizzard Entertainment

Bungie (2007) Halo 3 [Xbox 360; Xbox One] EU: Microsoft Game Studios

Capcom (1987) Mega Man [Nintendo Entertainment System, PlayStation, Android, PlayStation Portable] EU: Capcom

CD Projekt RED (2007) The Witcher [Windows] EU: CD Prokelt RED, Atari

Criterion Games et al. (2012) Need for Speed: Most Wanted [Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, iOS, Android, Fire OS, Wii U] EU: Electronic Arts

David Braben and Ian Bell (1984) Elite [BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Apple II, Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, MSX, Tatung Einstein, IBM PC, Acorn Archimedes, Amiga, Atari ST, Nintendo Entertainment System] Acornsoft, Firebird, Imagineer

Daybreak Game Company (2011) DC Universe Online [Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4] EU: Daybreak Game Company

Daybreak Game Company (2012) PlanetSide 2 [Windows, PlayStation 4] EU: Daybreak Game Company

EA Canada (2012) FIFA 13 [Windows, Xbox 360, PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation Vita, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, iOS, Windows Phone 8, Java ME] EU: Electronic Arts

id Software (1999) Quake III Arena [Windows, Xbox 360, Mac OS X] EU: Activision.

Jeremy Smith (1986) Thrust [BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Atari 8-bit machines, Commodore 16, Vectrex, Atari 2600, Atari ST] Superior Software, Firebird

Matthew Smith (1983) Manic Miner [ZX Spectrum, Amiga, Amstrad CPC, BBC Micro, Commodore 16, Commodore 64, DOS, Dragon 32, Dragon 64, Game Boy Advance, Microsoft Windows, Mobile phones] Bug-Byte et al.

Media Molecule (2008) LittleBigPlanet [PlayStation 3] EU: Sony Computer Entertainment Europe

Micro Power (1986) Imogen [BBC Micro, Acorn Electron] Micro Power, Superior Software

Nintendo EAD Group No. 4 (2015) Super Mario Maker [Wii U] EU: Nintendo

Neversoft et al. (1999) Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater [PlayStation, Nintendo 64, Game Boy Color, Dreamcast, N-Game, Xbox] EU: Activision et al.

Number None, Inc. and Hothead Games (2008) Braid [Xbox 360, Windows, Mac OS, Linux, PlayStation 3] Microsoft Game Studios and Number None, Inc.

Richard Garriot, Origin Systems (1986) Ultima [Apple II; Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, DOS, FM Towns, MSX2, NEC PC-8801, NEC PC-9801, Sharp X1, Apple IIGS] Various publishers

Rockstar North (2004) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas [PlayStation 2, Windows, Xbox, Xbox 360, OS X, PlayStation 3, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Fire OS] EU: Rockstar Games

Rockstar North (2013) Grand Theft Auto V [Windows, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One] EU: Rockstar Games

Sirius Software (1983) Repton [Apple II, Atari 8-bit machines, Commodore 64] Sirius Software

Treyarch (2010) Call of Duty: Black Ops [Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows, Wii, Nintendo DS, OS X] EU: Activision

Turtle Rock Studios (2008) Left4Dead [Windows, Xbox 360, Mac OS X] EU: Valve Corporation

Ubisoft Montreal et al. (2012) Assassin’s Creed III [PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, Microsoft Windows]  EU: Ubisoft

Valve Corporation (1998) Half-Life [Windows, PlayStation 2, Mac OS X, Linux] EU: Sierra Entertainment, Valve Corporation


Hook-Up Heroes dev log 3 : quick prototype items for thieving rogues

Rogues, rogues, rogues. I love playing them in RPGs because… well… you get to snoop about. And sometimes being a rogue is the only way to get a proper looksie around certain places.

In Hook-Up Heroes, characters sharing a class tend to have some similar traits. How the different classes really play out in terms of tactics, however, comes down to items. The Rogue class focuses on controlling the flow of item cards; amassing extra items for the player and denying items from their opponents.

Rogues are also the most agile class, meaning they play their Item cards first (with Warriors second slowest and Mages potentially the most powerful, but slowest of all).

These cards are ugly but hopefully functional. Common means there are 4 in the deck. Rare means there are two. Unique means unique.

This is quite a fun part of development, especially trying to work out how to make the ‘fiction layer’ (item depiction, flavour text) work with the mechanics in the most apt or humorous way. The idea that a Warrior has gone off to a date wearing an Impressive Medallion to give them the Influential trait, and the pesky Rogue sneaks up and nabs it off them. Or nips around to the other Dating Agencies on the way to their own date, nabbing the odd item.

Of course there’s a point at which the fiction-logic falls apart: why do rogues give the things they steal back to the dating agency manager? Maybe that’s how they pay you. I dunno, let the game be what it is I guess.

Let me know what you think (about the rules rather than the ugly presentation) in the comments! I’m always open to suggestions.

card design item deck rogue only-2 card design item deck rogue only-3 card design item deck rogue only-4

card design item deck rogue only-5 card design item deck rogue only-6 card design item deck rogue only-7 card design item deck rogue only-8 card design item deck rogue only-9


Hook-Up Heroes dev log 2 : dishing out traits and working out what to do with them

So, in a previous post I introduced my card game tentatively titled Hook Up Heroes  (I’ve since discovered this may be an icky name but maybe I can reclaim it?)

Time to follow up briefly with how it’s developing. Expect lots of open/unanswered design questions at this stage.

First off, I played around with the traits/likes/dislikes system mentioned previously. Visually this is represented as shown below (please bear in mind I’m still using the Pillars of Eternity portraits as placeholders and they are not representative of the end thing, although ultimately this is the classic D&D portrait style I would like to use)

blog 2 craeg the innkeeper blog 2 banditqueen

Each hero card has the following information:

Top left: Hero name, followed by a flavor title/description.
Top right: “orientation heart” indicating whether Hero prefers same, different, or any gender.
Centre, under portrait: class plaque
Bottom third: Trait/Desire plaques:

  • The colour-coded Trait plaques to the left represent traits that the character has. For example, Craeg the Inkeeper is Wealthy and Influential (of course) while Ra’ina the Bandit Queen is Rebellious, Wealthy and Destructive.
  • Rigth of these you will see trait plaques with darker backgrounds. these represent Desires; Traits which the Hero does not have themselves, but Desire in a partner. Craeg is looking for someone who is Artistic and Refined, while Ra’ina is looking for someone who is a Nature-Lover and Brooding. Desires and Traits are represented in a sort of “jewel and socket” fashion.
  • The red plaques represent Incompatibilities. Craeg doesn’t suit anyone Debauched or Destructive while Ra’ina can’t go out with anyone Influential or Refined.

Already I’m quite happy with how much can be inferred about a character based just on these snippets of information. When I try to think through the logic of how these were applied I get the following kind of back-story:

  • Ra’ina is not necessarily a Nature-Lover herself, but she’d be a good match for one because she spends all of her time banditing about in the forest. She wouldn’t like to go out with anyone Influential because she’s a rebel, and she’d be a bad fit for anyone Refined because she eats the flesh of her enemies (or something like that).
  • Craeg is Wealthy and Influential, working all hours behind the bar and doling out gossip and quest-tips to travelling adventurers. He’d like someone Artistic and Refined and preferably not Debauched or Destructive; basically the exact opposite of most of his patrons at the inn.

So there’s the basics of how the Traits/Desires/Incompatibilities (not sure on these technical terms yet) sit on the cards and what they mean before scoring is considered.

Sooo… then I went through nearly all of the PoE portraits and made a total of 40 characters (20 male, 20 female).

blog 2 boys blog 2 gals

(technical note: I had to save the powerpoint I was prototyping in as a .pdf and then convert it to a series of hi-res .pngs for printing, because Powerpoint only exports images as <300dpi and I was losing the text. Despite this, I still recommend Powerpoint for prototyping cards seeing as it’s got a lot of stuff in it now that you had to use illustrator for just 5-10 years ago)


As I have said before, there may be scope for a handful of genderless or non-binary characters, but I would need to have a proper think about that mechanically. As it stands, I’ve made each of the 2 present genders have 8 heterosexual heroes, 8 homosexual heroes, and 4 bisexual ones. But I may rethink this for reasons below:

As mentioned in the first devblog, the system I’ve designed so far inadvertently repeats some iffy ideas with regards to ascribing “easiness” to bisexuality (a bisexual hero is automatically easier to match) so I had initially scaled back the number of bisexual heroes for this reason. Actually I think I may take it in the opposite direction (for example 20 total = 8 bi/6 homo/6 het) because a higher number of potential matches puts more emphasis on the part of the game players actually have to use their brain for (the compatibility system). We’ll still end up with a situation where heroes attracted to only one gender are “pickier” or “more discerning” but I’d rather not go for an “everyone is bi” free-for-all either, for reasons already explored.

If there comes a point where I need to ascribe ‘levels’ to the characters based on how hard they are to match, then orientation may come back in there, alongside a consideration of how relatively common each Trait is.

I started messing around trying to work out the relative value of each Trait when Desireability and Undesirability of said trait are considered.
I started messing around trying to work out the relative value of each Trait when Desireability and Undesirability of said trait are considered. I doubt the end balancing will be this fastidious but you can start to see how the maths works. Each hero might end up with a “Level” used to score couples at the end of the game – the harder they are to match, the higher their level. Or something like that.

So then we get to the silly task of turning all of this into over-simplified rules that have no bearing on the real world, yay! (sort of like a rom-com then I guess),

The core rule in terms of determining compatibility should be: shared Traits are good, but Desired Traits are better. Everything else is additional to that.

Matching up heroes with similar traits should lead to an ok-ish level of compatibility. A couple get +1 compatibility for each shared trait. But if a hero has a trait which is desired by the other hero, the potential couple get a +2. That’s the basis of the whole thing. It allows for similarity to be attractive (for example two Wealthy characters feel comfortable with eachother while not necessarily desiring this) while weighting more towards finding strong matches based on mutual-meeting of needs.

blog 2 compatibility system

The above image shows how complicated scoring can get what we start messing with more parameters though.

  • Should two Heroes with a shared loathing of Religious heroes get an extra compatibility point? (yes, probably)
  • Should two non-Wealthy Heroes with a shared desire for Wealth heroes get an extra compatibility point? (yes, probably)

How much weight do I give to Incompatibilities? Should it be a minor (-2) or major (-4) score modifier? Or are those heroes just straight-up incompatible? Say we have a Royal Guard character who loathes Rebellious heroes. But maybe the Bandit Queen is so appealing to the Royal Guard in other ways that the Guard can see past those things? Or maybe there’s an item card called “Problematic Fave” or something that turns an Incompatibility into a Desire? Who knows.

Numbers, numbers, fiddly numbers.

A lot of this is going to come down to playtesting and working out how much players can deal with on the fly. My gut-feeling is to keep things simple but then at the same time, perhaps you wanna have a situation where people are misplaying, getting caught out on the odd thing etc. etc.

education/academia, game criticism, videogames

Press X to Nurture: on Fiction and Fatherhood

Jason Rohrer’s game The Castle Doctrine got some flak on release for how it instrumentalised wives and children as property to be guarded

Because most games are still primarily about agency – regardless of whether that is exercised through combat, racing or exploration – they can’t really convey to young male players what fatherhood is actually about.

Maddy Myers and Seb Wuepper both wrote some time ago about the proliferation of  games where the typical AAA grizzled dude protagonist is fleshed out a little and made more human by giving him a fatherly role.

“I think I’m just playing the wrong Dad Simulators. I can’t empathize with playing as a character that has immense social and physical power and misuses it to hurt the characters in the game that I have come to like, seemingly at the game’s behest. I don’t want to play a game and feel as though agency and value has been misattributed to the incorrect person” – Maddy Myers

One problem I see is that these games – like the movies Taken, Leon or Man on Fire – all frame the paternal purely in terms of justification-for-force. Home-invasion thrillers like The Purge (or its videogame equivalent The Castle Doctrine) provide a fantasy world where being a “Good Dad” is synonymous with being an agentic, forceful individual who dominates others for social status.

Themes of protectiveness associated with fatherhood are just there to provide some sort of moral veneer to typical power fantasies related to directing physical force at other people.These games aren’t really about fatherhood in any real sense.

In my experience, early fatherhood isn’t an exercise in the sort of agency we associate with traditional videogames.

For men, learning to nurture is often about stopping trying to exercise so much control. Fatherhood requires us to unlearn everything we previously thought we knew about manhood. Yet there are still men in the world who believe that doing dangerous things like dressing up as superheroes and climbing tall buildings is an appropriate way to convince courts of their ability to nurture.

Having children has been a difficult adjustment for me precisely because of the reduction in agency it entails. I’m psychologically wired around things that are very difficult to do while carrying a baby around or playing Duplo with a toddler.

Childcare is The Sims or Jostle Parent.

Childcare is a tamagotchi with a direct line to social services.


The boy’s experience of early separation and loss is traumatic. It leads to a strong desire to control his environment … Men see a hierarchy of autonomous positions. Women see a web of interconnections between people. – Sherry Turkle

Books and movies have generally done a much better job of helping me come to terms with the change.

We had our first child when I was starting the final year of my undergraduate degree. During my wife’s first pregnancy, one of the film geeks on my course leant me the DVD of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Eraserhead is one long nightmare sequence which, from where I was sitting, seemed to centre primarily on the horror of agency-loss. The protagonist – a stand-in for the director – is left alone with a sick baby to care for, and suffers various metaphorical castrations (the standard Freudian metaphor for a loss of agency).

Lynch likes to say that this is his most ‘spiritual’ movie, which I think is just his pretentious way of saying it’s the only movie he ever made which is primarily about his own feelings.

Why does a movie like Eraserhead exist? If men are bad at expressing themselves, its doubly true when their emotions are socially unacceptable; childish even. At its core, Eraserhead is about the selfish, stupid feelings that creative people have about becoming parents. When will I finish my magnum opus? How will I ever get to become heavyweight boxing champ now? The film allowed me to acknowledge that this is to some degree normal, even if it’s something that people don’t talk about.

A spiral of guilt. Feeling bad about wanting to do things that require focus and the use of both hands. Seeing your partner take to the whole thing more naturally than you. Finally seeing your inner child for the spoilt brat they are.

Will Self’s Book of Dave pretends to be a piece of post-apocalyptic scifi, but it’s primarily a parable about how our culture churns out men who are ill-prepared for fatherhood. Titles like The Last of Us fail to address this because their mechanics leave little room for dadly expressions that move beyond the vengeful or protective. They can’t correctly emphasise inaction. The medium won’t allow it.


Traditional videogames are poorly equipped to deal with a transition which is primarily about the diminishing of agency. It’s not rare to hear game designers raise these sorts of concerns. Lofty ideals about how there must be something more that games can be about. I’m not talking about the stuff of cutscenes and dialogue; but the mechanics that make the game a game.

Games stop feeling like games when they deny us agency. We start to call them slurry terms like “walking simulators”.

hockey dad
most contemporary representations of fatherhood in games aren’t a long shot off the “Hockey Dad” fighting game in a 2003 Simpsons episode

Being a grad student is a lot like being the presumed player of the latest open-world 500-hour completion sandbox game. You’re assumed to be the kind of person that can just show up whenever and play for 9-hour sessions. A teenager with a never-ending surplus of free-time and paradoxical cravings for fantasies of free-roaming.

As I moved through the Ph.D., things mostly went well on campus and at home. That’s primarily because I tried my best to treat the thing as a regular weekday 9-5. During the first year I only worked 4 days a week and had The Boy to myself on Fridays to do bonding and stuff. I’d usually be around at breakfast time, and home to cook dinner and put His Majesty to bed.

But there was a creeping sense that I was entering a place that was unsuitable for people with young children. When you’re a dad in their mid-20s, academia is full of older folks who think you’re a bit young to have kids.

The archetypal grad student is a bastion of agency; working until 3am everyday, generally swanning about doing what they want most of the time. These assumptions were embedded in things like conferences, where I felt great guilt going away for 3 or 4 days to arse about drinking and using long words in self-indulgent contexts under the guise of professional networking.

I feel an ongoing conflict between wanting to have a high-status job before the time my children are grown, and knowing that academia will most probably mean less money and more away-time than other more mundane things I could be doing. Combine that with the imposter-syndrome that comes with studying games in an old-fashioned uni with no games programme, and it has been paralyzing at times.

lee clem
press R2 to STFU and listen for once in your life

Fatherhood is like one of those bad escort missions, long ago consigned to game-design history by fans and developers alike. Children are mission-critical NPCs with bad AI and friendly-fire permanently on.

Some days I wish that the only requirement for being a good dad was punching a bunch of Bad Dudes in the face which looking cool. Then I remember I’m probably not alone, and that’s why The Last of Us and its ilk are so popular in the first place.




game accessibility, game development, games culture, videogames

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.

(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)


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.

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.

game accessibility, game development, videogames

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.


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.

game development, games culture, videogame development, videogames

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.

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.

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 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.