making trait icons attractive and colorblind-friendly

After the last gameplay prototype of my high-fantasy dating game, it was time to start bashing out some graphics I could use to represent traits on the game’s Hero Cards. Having represented traits through coloured sticky circles on the last test, I started making 10 coloured gems to represent the traits in a more appealing way.

I wanted them to be bright enough to see easily from the other side of the table, maybe a little bit kitsch/tacky looking, and to look somewhat 3-dimensional. Think of the blue mana gems on Hearthstone cards in 10 different colors. The first pass was just done using 3D/bevelled shapes in PowerPoint. Then I ran them through the really helpful color-blindness checker in Coblis and got the following readout;


I knew from the get-go that there might be some trouble differentiating red and green, but until you’ve loaded your graphics into something like Coblis, it’s easy to underestimate how hard it might be for a colour-blind person to engage with something that uses colour-coding so heavily.

So I returned to an older plan of using icons as well as colours. To be honest, I had been avoiding this mainly because of my own lack of drawing skills. There are some great packs out there like this collection of 700+ vector icons for RPGs but I wanted something that reminded me of classic late 90s cRPGs, to go with the eventual direction of the character portraits. I didn’t wanna use jRPG style pixel-art objects either, because that would be a mix-up with the portraits.

So I trudged back to Inkscape (the poor dev’s Illustrator) bashed together some new hexagons and started sketching out my own vector images, ending up with the three samples below. Just to reiterate, the items were chosen to represent the following traits;

red / shield = mighty
green / leaf = outdoorsy
brown / tankard = drunkard
purple / skull = brooding
grey / tool = technical
yellow / pouch = wealthy
blue / tome = studious
white / crown = influential
orange / lute = artistic
pink / mask = refined

icons1icons2 icons3

Still not happy. I preferred the sense of 3D-ness in the second two (I manually added the light/dark trapezoids to the gems to give them a 3D relief effect) and I’d also added a subtle texture to each gem by the third image, but the icons weren’t doing what I wanted.

What I really wanted was something like the icons in Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale (see left of following pic). These are bit more ‘painterly’ and required jumping back into GIMP where I could draw pixel-by-pixel.


It also occurred to me that I’d made this style of icon before, with moderate success, by tracing over photographs and other drawings in gimp in 3 stages (base, shading and highlight) to give the sort of “made of bronze” effect of the UI in those Infinity Engine games.

icon_gut icon_hair icon_mind icon_mood icon_skin icon_aware icon_chest

Above are 7 never-used icons from my 2014 #PROCJAM entry about running a potion shop. They are meant to represent; gut, ‘hairiness’, mind, cheerfulness, skin, awareness and chest – all things that might be modified by a potion at a dodgy 1800s apothecary shop.(I include these mainly as a reflection on how important it is to go back to previous work you’d thrown away and dismissed as evidence that; yes, I can do this thing, at least sort of, I’ve done it before).

So I ferried the vector gems across from Inkscape into GIMP and began importing images from photographs etc. which I could scale down and turn into icons.

Each image was shrunk down, high-contrasted, oversharpened, colorised and given a shadow. I decided to make each one a sort of bronze colour (bottom right) as this fitted with the jewellry theme of having gems, provided better readability and also looked a bit more like the Baldurs Gate UI style that I was going for.

icons4a icons4b

Finally I bumped up the icon:gem size ratio a little and here they are in action;

quentin voltan

Heroes with 5 gems will probably have to have one row of 3 and a row of 2 below. Luckily heroes like Drexxel (below) who have an additional rule to fit on the card, never have more than 4 trait gems.


It occurred to me that these still weren’t massively ‘readable’ especially taking into account colour-blindness. So I looked at the way gemstone items were modelled in late 90s cRPGs and had a go at drawing some differently shaped gemstone objects, using these trait icons as a sort of base, to continue the theme of jewellery.


I’m happy with how these turned out; they’re pretty! But they also take up a lot of space on the cards and trying to have 10 different distinct gemstone shapes ended up with some odd-looking ones like the orange triangle and the brown gem.


In the end I went back to what I always kinda had in my head anyway – the elemental icons from Pokemon and Magic: The Gathering. Because my previous attempts at doing vector art had been so shoddy, I just made sillhouttes from photographic images and then transposed these onto a textured/colored background with a black border.


First I tried cascading them down the right-hand side of the card (see Drexxel, below) but it made more sense to keep them on the light-colored text-box so that they would stand out more (as in the Amariel picture below).

HEROES with simple trait icons


Now the cards have space to include a little bit of flavour text; maybe a quote from the character – the sort of greeting they might give if you clicked on them in a videogame. Maybe something flirtatious.

This is great, because the fiction layer is really important for a subset of players like myself who tend toward the “what if I made my MtG deck entirely out of fungus?” type questions rather than solely trying to win. It also adds a little sparkle in terms of the “imagine this couple actually together” element which should be key to the experience of the game to some players.

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back to basics and implementing “dates”

In the end I went back to a system whereby the traits that determine a couple’s compatibility are represented not by words but by a number of colour-coded gems. This just seemed to speed up the process of adding them up and working out who was compatible in-game. After one playtest where all heroes had 6 gems, I also brought this number down, so that they range between 3 and 6. Some of the 3-gem heroes are also offset by having an additional “perk” to aid the player who has them in play.


More on all of that later. Right now I intend to just lay-out the play order as it works in the current game, along with the role of “dates”, which are a form of item card.


The idea of “sending heroes on a date” has been missing from the game for some time. I initially introduced dates as a kind of item which would block that couple from being split-up until the next turn, but it soon became obvious that dates were a good way to “finalize” a couple; you’ve sent them on their date and your work here is done.

You play “dates” on appropriate couples to lock them in for the rest of the game, meaning another player can no longer split them up by playing a more compatible suitor. So it looks like the goal of the game will be to accumulate a set number of dates before your opponents. Dates are item cards and, as a result, they appear in the shop as indicated by the green cards below.


In the above image, both players have made 3 clients, but the player on the right has purchased a date item and sent one of her couples on a date. Ergo, she is currently winning (although she may also have lost some patronage or other benefits from having those heroes in play – that’s the tradeoff!)


sorry for the image quality; what’s happening here is that the couple have 4 compatibility (2 red + 2 brown; they both fighters and drinkers). We also get 1 patronage at the end of the turn from the character on the right’s yellow gem, and the character on the left works on a caravan, giving us a travel perk (-1 cost to buying dates in the shop). However, if we send them on a date, they are effectively out of play; we lose the travel perk and the 1 patronage.

a Turn

Player restocks the Shop using the item deck so that 6 items are face-up.

Player restocks the Inn using the hero deck so that 3 heroes are face-up (ignore if 3 or more heroes are at the inn already).

Player draws 3 heroes from the hero deck and plays them to make new couples, either by matching them with compatible single heroes from the Inn, or by beating the compatibility score of a rival’s couple. If the new match breaks up an existing couple, the “dumped” partner goes to the bottom of the hero deck.

When playing a hero card, the player may affix item equipments (which give additional trait gems or some other benefit) or expend potions (to change the hero’s orientation) or use other items that say “when you play a hero” or “when you play a <hero of this class>”.

At any point during their turn, the player may affix equipments to heroes, or “dates” to partners. However, equipments cannot be removed, and pairs of heroes are effectively out of play once they go on a date.

Any in-hand hero cards the player cannot match go to the bottom of the hero deck.

After all heroes have been played or discarded, the player may buy items from the shop. The total “gold” they have to spend is the sum of their clients’ yellow gems – this is called “patronage”. The shop is not “re-stocked” until the next player’s turn.

The player may also equip items and dates after the shopping phase and before the next player’s turn.

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list of games cited in my Ph.d. thesis

Well, for a thesis that was mostly about individual techie’s biographies, I sure did end up having to write references for a whole 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

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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

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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.

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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.




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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.

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