Meraki - Doing something with soul, creativity, or love. It’s when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing. It forms the core of my game design philosophy.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Elite: Dangerous Part 5

In which Commander Bulk Paint gets access to an HTC Vive and rekindles his love affair with spaceships.

Catching Up

Sure, it's been a while. It's not as if I haven't been dipping in every now and then. I guess the big push came after the Engineers update when suddenly loot drops appeared. They've also done cool stuff like improve the missions and little touches like radio chatter with the space stations. It's not quite Freelancer levels of immersion, but it's getting better. They've also added more customisation options - at least for the Sidewinder, Cobra MKIII and Eagle.

I've also bought Horizons, but that only works on PC - my poor Mac just isn't going to cut it. Additionally, the gamepad has been binned off in favour of a proper HOTAS system - a Thrustmaster T-Flight X, to be precise. Sure, it's not the flashiest and some compromises have to be made regarding power management and thruster control in combat, but it gets the job done and feels fantastic - all on a budget too.


I say my Mac isn't going to cut it and it's not. A series of interesting events have lead to me having a PC on loan. Not just any PC, but one that is specifically kitted out to be VR ready - we're talking GTX 1080 levels of awesome here. To prove said point, I've also got an HTC Vive to play with in the name of 'research'. Setting up the Vive was relatively simple and, barring one small error that was easily rectified with a single Facebook message, we were up and running.

In The Hot Seat

Next, it was a case of getting the controls setup properly. Top Tip: Bind Reset HMD somewhere accessible - you'll be needing that at the start of each session and it's not the sort of thing that you can take the headset off to do.

Okay, so all set up and good to go. Now since we last spoke, I've managed to get myself a weeny bit upgraded. There was a lot of grinding - not least of which because I was also trying to get up the ladder in Aisling Duval's power play faction. That seems to revolve around lugging cargo to nearby systems for precious little financial reward. Hopefully, that'll all work out now I'm the correct level and when I'll be able to afford Prismatic Shields...

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I'm now the proud owner of an Asp Explorer. I dabbled with a few ships on the way - loitering for a while on the trusty Cobra MKIII (which I actually preferred to the lumbering MKIV). But the Asp is a great machine. It's larger size means you can fit considerably stronger components, even if it occasionally means docking at outposts can be a bit of a pain. I've even spooged some real money on the White Apollo skin for it. Classy.

The other thing that strikes you about the Asp is the view from the cockpit. I'm not sure there's a ship in the game that has a less obstructed view than the Asp. As such, if you're going the VR route, make sure you pick one of these up because it's amazing. The detail in the cockpit itself is fantastic, from the avatar of the pilot to the various controls. The lighting, too, deserves special mention - you don't really notice the glow of the HUD until you see it in 3D and you can move your head around.

It's not just like a pitch and pan thing - you can move your head wherever you can move your head. That means you can lean over and peer over the side of the chair or look behind it. Did you know there was a door back there? I didn't until now. I tell you what's weird though - the distance between the throttle and joystick on my actual HOTAS isn't quite as wide as they are in the cockpit. That leads to a weird, tingly feeling in your arms as, if you reach for the controls that you can 'see', they're not quite where you think they are. There's nothing for it - I'm going to have to get me one of these...

Queasy Rider

Everything set up and we're good to go. First we need to launch, which is... woah - look at the station! It's so much bigger than it feels on a regular monitor. I mean, proper sense of vertigo bigger. Okay, focus. Time to thrust up... hey - why are my thrusters not working? Never mind - I'll sort that when we get out into space. Just pull back on the stick and throttle up and... urp, vertigo hitting pretty bad now. Line up with the exit and a little roll... yup, tummy's doing all manner of funny things. Push through it! Let's get this bad boy into space. Alignment is good, landing gear is up, thread the needle and... space!

So I feel I should qualify something. I'm actually pretty good in VR - I'm not really a motion sickness kinda guy. I'm actually going to chalk this one up to the sheer scale of things and the fact that it's probably the same feeling that astronauts have the first time they experience weightlessness. Yeah, that's right - I'm a frickin' astronaut.

Need to look into the thruster thing before I land though. Into the options, get them assigned to the coolie hat, where they should be... but that appears to clear the power redirection stuff. Unless I didn't have that set up properly. Go back in and set up the power redirection stuff... which clears the thrusters. I set them back to thrusters so I can dock. Come out of the options menu to discover that a Federal Agent has made it all the way to Cubeo, stripped my shields and taken my hull to 70% while I was faffing with the options. That's not on. Mild panic as I'm still not used to flying in VR, the controls aren't exactly what I want them to be and I don't have enough in my bank account to cover the insurance if this ship gets blown up. First problem is requesting docking clearance.

Normally, that's just muscle memory - hold the combination of buttons that brings up the left panel, tab over twice, select the station and down one to request docking. In VR it's simpler and more complicated at the same time. You just have to look to your left and slightly down and the panel appears. Then you can select the options you need as normal. That's okay, but if you move your head again, the panel goes away so it's important that you remain calm and focussed. Not an easy task when you've just got ganked by a Federation Assault Ship.

Somehow, I make it to safety despite everything being on fire. Time to leave space and engage in some Google-fu to find out what's up with the controls. Turns out, there's a bug that applies to digital controls. It's only an interface issue, so I solve it by manually finding and editing the keybinding file. Has it really been such a long time since I've used a Windows machine? Wow.

Thrusters Online

Okay, everything is now working as intended. Time to grab a mission and get some proper gaming in. Nothing too drastic to start - let's grab a cargo delivery one or something. Load up, launch - a bit gingerly, if I'm honest - and power away out of Mass Lock. FSD charging... 4, 3, 2, 1, engage!*

Hyperspace is very nice indeed. Again, it just gives you time to look around the cockpit as the lights flash by. Then up comes the target system and its main star. Holy crap, there's that sense of scale again. All Leanne ever really sees when I'm playing Elite: Dangerous is a screen filled with a big orange ball of flame. Now, part of that might just be down to timing, but it's fair to say you do spend a bit of time next to these nuclear bastards. Especially when all you really want to do is skim the thing for fuel and to take in the details and majesty of it in VR...

Cargo delivered and it's time to get some serious stuff going. Let's get us some combat going. Conflict Zone (Low Intensity) locked in and jump. Well, this is exciting. There are ships everywhere, all shooting each other. Again, a single, forward view doesn't do it justice - there's just so much going on all around you. Anyway - time to pick a side and... what's this? A wing invite from another player? Cool.

Turns out there's a Fer-de-Lance and Vulture here and they want to team up with me. Excellent. Why not? I sign up and we go a-hunting. It's a proper furball too - lasers, multicannons, plasma all over the shop. Partly because I'm simply playing it at a much higher graphics setting, the ships look amazing. Incredible detail from the engines, thrusters and heat sinks. But it's the sense of... well, space... offered by the VR that really makes it. It feels like I'm actually there. Like frickin' Han Solo or something.

The Asp isn't the most manoeuvrable beast out there and taking on an Imperial Eagle or Courier can be quite challenging. But being able to track them with your head gives you a hell of an advantage and, again, just makes it all feel so real. Like you're really in a titanic space battle and your very life depends on it. Especially when you start taking damage, sparks are flying out of your console and the whole cockpit is filling with smoke and flashing lights.

It's almost as if I've been playing it in a bubble all this time. Even things like the engine noises somehow sound better - Vipers have this gutteral growl; Eagles scream**.

Does it sound like I'm gushing a bit? It sounds like I'm gushing a bit, doesn't it? Well, that's how good it is. I've never played anything like it. Nothing makes you feel like you're in the cockpit of a spaceship as much as this does.

Seriously - the whole experience was so intense, I had to go and lie down afterwards.

* Does it bug anyone else that the jump actually kicks in at what would be -1 in the countdown?
** That might just be down to the fact that I'm playing with headphones on this time.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

No Man's What?

Have you been living under a rock for the past few years? Are you unaware of the 'game' known as No Man's Sky? Well, then you are silly.

I've played a few hours of the PS4 version and I think it's probably about time I stuck some notes down.

What's The Game About?

Well, that's an easy question. No Man's Sky is basically an entire galaxy for you to play around in.

What's The Game About?

I just said... was it not clear? It's an entire frickin' galaxy. You've got a spaceship and a spacesuit and a jetpack and... well, the rest is up to you.

What's The Game About?

Oh, FFS. Think Survival Mode from Minecraft and put it in space.

At least, that's how I see it. A huge, interstellar sandbox for me to lose myself in. The problem appears to be that people want more... direction. They don't seem to be happy with "Here are the systems - go nuts buddy!" anymore.

Now I'm assuming NMS has tried to address this with the Atlas thing - a big, red sphere that gives you a couple of options right at the start of the game. The thing is, I told it to bugger off and leave me to explore on my own, so I'm not entirely sure of what it actually has to offer. I've subsequently met an alien that basically gave me what seemed like a second chance to follow the Atlas' directions, but I told him where to go too.

The long and the short of it is that the game is about the stories that emerge from it. Everyone will have their own experience. Everyone will have a tale to tell.

I, for one, welcome our Alien Overlords.

A Song Of Ice And More Ice

Right now, my own story is still pretty embryonic. I'm in my third or fourth system, on a planet I have name Frozonia - due to the ridiculously low temperatures. Still, that's better than the toxic and irradiated lumps I've visited prior to this. At least you can mitigate the cold by resting inside structures or caves until your temperature returns to normal, unlike the other planets which require a constant top up of your hazard protection.

Shortly before arrival, I had managed to trade in my starter ship to one that was slightly less rubbish. Emphasis on the slightly - I think this new one had maybe 2 more slots or something. I had also seen that there was a hefty bonus for finding and scanning all of the wildlife on the planet, so that became my aim. I would find all the creatures, name them appropriately and only then would I be able to move on.

As luck would have it, I arrived on the planet by following a beacon which lead me straight to a trading post. This would form my base of operations during my stay. I would venture forth, discover stuff then return to sell the resources for huge profit. Also, the station appeared to be located in a large, hard to miss basin which was also home to many different lifeforms.

Part Stegosaur, part Rat. Obvious, really.
I dutifully began tagging - the clumsy Lumpwolf, the almost familiar Choconope, and something that can only be described as a four-legged dick with an aggressive streak a mile wide. Dispatching said dick-beast with my trusty bolt caster, I also came across a cave. Not only did this provide a modicum of shelter from the freezing cold, but it was also littered with Vortex Cubes or something. Turns out, these are quite a lucrative little commodity, so I started shuttling back and forth to the Trading Post to make a tidy little packet.

With the cave depleted, it was time to cast my net a bit further. There were still plenty of species to find - the snouted Flørpian, the elusive, flittering Butterbat - and I'd have to look a lot harder to find them.

Occasionally, a storm would roll in and the temperature would drop alarmingly fast. Being so far away from any kind of shelter, my only recourse was to make my own. This was achieved by a liberal sprinkling of plasma grenades to blast a hole in the ground and tunnel beneath the surface. I could then use this burrow as a shelter during the storm, never venturing too far from its warm embrace while the weather raged. It really did put me in mind of the first night you experience in Minecraft, cowering in your shack made of dirt, listening to the groans of the undead all around you.
If only The Jam knew.

On one of my forays, I found some kind of device that, upon activation, allowed me to search for a certain type of signal. I'd seen a few of these before and I'd normally plump for Monolith so that I could increase my language ability. This time, however, I went for the Beacon option and, sure enough, it found one not too far away.

It turns out this signal was an automated distress beacon from a crashed spaceship. Now in most games, this spaceship would simply be terrain, an obstacle or purely window-dressing for loot containers.

Not so, No Man's Sky.

The ship was an actual ship - albeit one in a terrible state of repair. Hyperdrive, Launch Thrusters, Pulse Drive and Shields were all busted. As were a few of the mods. Most interestingly though, I would be able to claim this as my own ship for no money at all.

And this one had more slots!

So the old warhorse was binned off and I basically started the first part of the game again - searching for pieces that could get this new clunker off the ground and into the black where it belongs.

My new ride. The Green On Green.
And that's just the start of this story.

Of course, if you know how the sausage is made even slightly, it's quite easy to see the systems at work here. But that in no way detracts from the pure technical achievement. Also, if you're not prepared to have your own narrative running in your head and be able to set your own goals, then this might not be the game for you in the long term.

But for me, it's excellent.

Now, where can I find the stuff I need to build an Atlaspass v1...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

A Welcome Spot Of Gaming

It's fair to say that the amount of time I get to actually sit down and play games is in pretty short supply these days, what with a teeny, tiny toddler to wrangle and us being hard at work finishing off Glyph Quest Chronicles. The time I do get tends to be spent on mobile which means either Clash Royale or Pokemon Go.

So it was quite refreshing to have two awesome, insta-purchase games pop up on PSN recently.


From the start, Abzu is a stylish feast for the senses. It's an underwater exploration game in which a robot diver chap bimbles* around, fixing little robot buddies, freeing fish, finding shells and... well, opening doors to get into the next bit.

I don't think I've played a game that does a better job of capturing the feel of scuba diving than this. The controls are sufficiently floaty (pun intended) which really does speak to the theme. The diver wheels and turns with an otherworldly grace but it feels just one step removed from the player - in any other game, this would be a bad thing, but it really works here.

"Turtles! It Turtles daddy!" - Willow
The representation of the undersea flora and fauna is also excellent. They move in a particularly convincing matter and I was particularly pleased with the fact that I was allowed to swim with Manta Rays and Whale Sharks over the course of the game.

The levels do a good job of mixing it up too - with everything from bright, colourful shallows to dark and gloomy monochrome depths.

In fact, mechanically, everything works.

I think it's biggest problem is its Journey DNA.

This should be a great thing. I mean, Journey was amazing - one of the most incredible experiences in gaming and Abzu does pretty much the same thing. You wordlessly progress through the game, piecing together the narrative from icons and murals all the while marvelling at your surroundings.

All the way through, you can feel the Journey-ness shining through - the currents taking over from the surfing section**, the mysterious and sinister contraptions, filling the chambers with light and life, the music that rises and falls with your emotions.

But it's not quite as good.

I'll quantify that with the statement that it's still excellent and more than worthy of your time and expense, but it's not as good in the way that [YourFavouriteBand'sSecondBestAlbum] isn't as good as [YourFavouriteBand'sBestAlbum].

Simply put, if Journey didn't exist, Abzu would be it. Everyone would be gushing about it (well, more than they're already doing) and rightly so. But Journey does exist, so Abzu has to settle for the silver medal.

Still means you should definitely play it though.

If you get a chance, play it with a toddler that loves fish and especially turtles, then watch them lose their shit.


I played a version of Overcooked at Games By The Sea at Develop and had a great time, meaning this was another no-brainer.

It's a 4-player, couch co-op cooking game. Each player is a chef in a kitchen and the team is tasked with producing specific dishes for clients. The more dishes that can be prepared in the time limit, the higher the score.

Each player can perform one task at any one time - either carrying something, chopping / preparing an ingredient, washing up a plate or putting out a fire. That's it***.

Dishes are made by combining the various ingredients in prescribed ways before dumping the whole lot in a plate and delivered to the serving hatch. For example, a burger requires meat to be chopped into a patty before being fried. Then you need chopped tomato and lettuce (assuming the order is for one with the works). The whole lot then needs to be put in a bun and on a plate.

The neat thing is that there's mostly no real order to the events. Sure, you have to prepare the meat before you can cook it, but the actual assembly can take part in any order. Since cooking the meat takes time, there's plenty of scope for optimising your routine - get the meat on then use that cooking time to be preparing the other ingredients or doing a spot of washing up perhaps.

It is immensely satisfying to work with your teammates and get a routine going. Getting to that point normally requires some (also immensely satisfying) shouting and abuse. Once everything is working like clockwork and the 3 star ratings begin to pop up, the sense of achievement is superb.

Leanne and I have played through the campaign - there's still some work to do to 3 star everything and we're very much looking forward to that. I don't know what the single player is really like and, unless you've got at least one friend, this really isn't that sort of game.

A calm kitchen. This almost never happens.
Even if you've only got a single controller, the game still works as you can get two players using half a controller each. That's something that I haven't seen since Micro Machines 2 on the Megadrive - it was pure chaos then, so I'm kinda looking forward to trying it with this when Vicky and Seb visit next.

If you get the chance, play it with someone who doesn't punch you when you accidentally set the kitchen on fire or fall in the lava with a fully prepared meal.

* Bimble, verb. A diving term meaning to just sort of wander around an area with no real plan other than to look at all the cool stuff.
** Complete with the camera that turns to give you a side-one view of an impressive vista as you glide by.
*** Apart from shouting. Each player can, and will, shout at the other players. A lot.
**** Note that this only applies to games and in no way relates to my desire to be anywhere near the kitchen in real life.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Of Expertise and Democracy

I wanted to post something about the current state of affairs in the UK and, indeed, worldwide. Rather than just tweet or post a long Facebook status, I thought I'd dust off the ol' blog and just get some stuff down.

(As an aside, I notice some half-finished posts that I should really get around to finishing and publishing, so do bear with me)


Democracy is a wonderful thing.

Well, unless you listen to Churchill who quoted others, saying "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time..."

As an idea, it's a pretty good one. Everyone should have a say in what goes on around them. It seems like a very fair place to start and this is something I wholly agree with.

There are two main problems with it.

The first is that I firmly believe that opinions on subject matters should be weighted towards those who have expertise and experience in said matters. I'll give you an easy example.

When Leanne was pregnant, we were asked what our birth plan was. This was our first (and, to date, only) child. As such, we didn't know what our birth plan was. The options were plentiful and bewildering. There could be drugs or no drugs. Pool birth. Home birth. Standing. Sitting. Lying down. Episiotomy*. Cesarean. Gas and Air. There was probably even an option involving tame swans, rose petals and a lute player if we'd wanted it - I mean, this was Brighton after all.

We could have stated our demands and been an integral part of the decision-making process in a very democratic process between us and the midwife**.

What we wanted was as safe a birth as possible, resulting in a healthy baby and mother. To that end, we decided that it would be far better if we eschewed our democratic right in favour of doing whatever the hell the people who actually knew about this stuff told us to. We need drugs? Give us drugs! It would be better if Leanne were suspended from the ceiling whilst an album of ELO's greatest hits plays in the background? Okay, it sounds weird, but if you're telling us that's the best way, we're all in.

In short, we should trust you, the experts, to tell us what the correct thing is to do.

Trust. This is the second major issue with modern democracy. Not in the system itself, but in the way people are convinced or coerced to believe in a particular outcome. The people billing themselves as experts when they have, in fact, ulterior motives for taking their stance. Perhaps the outcome they require isn't the best outcome for all concerned but rather for themselves or their friends at the expense of everyone else?

So really, the issue lies with the trustworthiness of politicians.

Really, the two things that have prompted me to put finger to keyboard are the EU referendum in the UK and the frankly baffling events that have occurred across the pond in recent months.

Starting with the referendum, let me say that no-one really knows what will happen if we leave. Most people have postulated some scenarios, and that's fair enough. The problem for me is that this is exactly the sort of thing where we, the great unwashed British public, shouldn't have a meaningful vote.

We don't know. We're not qualified.

We should absolutely leave this up to the people that do know, or, at least, know more than we do.

Of Rocks And Hard Places

By that, I don't mean the politicians - by far, the worst thing about voting in this mess is that you're going to have to side with one bunch of shitehawks over another bunch of equally shite, er... hawks. And I'm certainly not taking the stuff the media is saying at face value. I mean, after Murdoch (who owns Sky, News of the World, The Sun, The Times, et al) has made his view perfectly clear on why he wants us out of Europe, it should be obvious that his outlets have all been tasked with skewing public perception in that direction.

It's like our own little version of the fetid demagoguery that we've witnessed in the US. Stir up hatred and whip up the ill-informed into a frenzy so that you can steer them in the direction you want, all under the guise of being good and democratic (small 'd').

The idea of Trump as president scares the living shit out of me. It was amusing at the start but only because no-one could really see it happening. I mean, surely America would work him out and realise that he would be a disaster. But then he's all but clinched the nomination (AIUI, the GOP still have to officially name him as their nominee at the convention even if, on paper, he has the delegates) and even if the polls (for what they're worth) have both Clinton or Sanders beating him in the general, if Sanders decides to run as an independent, all bets are off. I'm not saying he'd win, but he could take enough votes from Clinton to really put Trump in contention.

Fired Up

Actually, maybe it's just Republicans that scare me - solely on the issue of Gun Control. Full disclosure - my knowledge of US politics is derived entirely from mainlining all 7 seasons of The West Wing.

But it's not just me, right? The entire Rest Of The World can see the correlation between 'lax' gun ownership restrictions and the sheer amount of people over there who end up getting shot on a daily basis. So why don't they do something about it?

It's the Second Amendment. That bit about the 'right to bear arms'. An idea that represented the best perceived wisdom of its time***. A young country that was justifiably afraid of ever being under the yoke of a dictator ever again, sought to ensure that would never happen by allowing its general populace to arm itself so it could rise up and overthrow those in charge.

Because that's the way it was done back then, which is fair enough. But it's not the way things are done now. Things move on. Develop. Dare I say, evolve.

The people refusing to acknowledge that US Gun Control laws probably need a once-over are those with their own agenda. The fact that they like their guns. The fact that the NRA has power, money and therefore influence over politicians.

Decisions are being made not by experts but by those being coerced by people with ulterior motives.

In short, all over the world some people we can't trust are being told to make us do something clearly detrimental to our wellbeing by a whole bunch of other people we just can't trust for reasons of their own.

Now I've got that off my chest, it'll be back to your regular**** scheduling of game design philosophy and top tips for new parents.

* Don't look it up. It involves cutting... things.
** It's worth noting that the hospital staff will always try to accommodate your wishes up until the point where medical necessity takes over.
*** Another West Wing quote, albeit one from a different issue.
**** Not actually regular at all

Friday, 13 November 2015

Konsoll 2015

It's a bit after the fact, but here is the fun and games that was our Konsoll 2015 experience.

Konsoll is an annual games conference that takes place in Bergen, Norway. Regular readers will already know that I like both games conferences and Norway, so this one hits an awful lot of bases.

This year we were only slated to do a workshop on game design and I was also set to resume my traditional place on the Dragon's Den panel. We were also bringing Willow with us, which always puts an interesting slant on conferences like this. Instead of staying at a hotel, we were taken in by Yngvill from Henchman and Goon. This also meant that, like last year, her mum, Anne, would graciously take on babysitting duties.

Flying out with us were fellow speakers Gary Napper, Creative Director on Alien Isolation and Clare Blackshaw from Sony. The flight was largely uneventful, which would lull us into a false sense of security for later.

Snow Cannon

The night before the conference proper saw the official launch of Snow Cannon Games. Essentially, a bunch of Konsoll stalwarts and Norwegian business types have got together to form a publisher - something that has been a little thin on the ground over there. Their launch party was held at a library, of all places. But wait - this is a Norwegian library, which means it also has a bar. I have no idea if that's a thing that's repeated throughout the country, but it's certainly a different approach to the way we do books and stuff over here.

Day One

Reindeer hotdog. Delicious.
First day of the conference proper and we're pretty much left to our own devices. This means catching the bus in to town* and wandering up to the venue. Rather than catch all of Lee Petty's talk on Headlanders, we loiter outside, catching up with Andy (who we really don't need to catch up with) and Alex (who we shouldn't need to catch up with seeing as how he lives in the same town as us and yet we only see him once a year in Bergen).

After another lesson in marketing techniques from Emmy, it was lunchtime. After huffing a sandwich and engaging in a spirited debate with Clare in the greenroom on the car crash that is Star Citizen, we had to pop back to sort Willow out. That meant public transport followed by a quick trip to the store to pick up food**. That was an interesting exercise that took far longer than it actually should have but that was nothing compared with trying to operate Yngvill's oven...

Day One - After Party

Then it was back in for the evening's festivities in a rather fancy hotel in the middle of town. The highlight of that for me was being invited to sit on the panel for people to ask questions.

What normally happens on these things is that everyone is quiet and polite and you normally get the same answer across the board. In fact, I'd like to see some stats on just how many answers start with "What he said", or "I agree with...", but these things, whilst useful insights for those with the questions, generally run the same way.

Not this one. Largely thanks to Clare who was only too happy to call bullshit on peoples' answers and tell it how it really was. It lead to some incredibly cool debates and was most entertaining to be a part of - even if it did take the organisers a little by surprise.

Day Two - Workshop

Second day and it was workshop time! For the uninitiated, my workshops are centered around making a game out of whatever junk the conference organiser can lay their hands on at the time. Normally, when I run this thing at Animex, we have a whole day. That means the morning can be spent coming up with ideas and prototyping and the afternoon can be used to playtest and refine. By the end of the day, most teams have got something pretty nifty going on.

At Konsoll, we only had the morning, which meant we needed to compress the format slightly. Do away with the icebreakers or the get the creative juices flowing bits and just dive straight in. To this end, we applied a few more restrictions to the design process to make it a bit quicker and easier.

You'll note I said 'we' up there. Yes, Leanne was there to run the workshop with me. This made my life much easier as we could be in two places at once - each roaming around the teams and observing, then meeting up to compare notes and point out the interesting features from each one.

Workshop space is always limited and usually goes pretty fast***. We were told we had space for 30 and it had filled up real quick. On the actual day, only 15 turned up - I guess that's what happens when you're scheduled for the morning after the party the night before. It was a bit of a shame as we had to turn away a whole bunch of people who were enquiring after spare spaces. Never mind - 15 made for 3 teams of 5 and away we went.

The items available to people included coloured card, pens, boxes of matches and bags of balloons. Now if you can't make a game out of that little lot, you're in real trouble. The teams did pretty well - there was one game that played a bit like the hacking bit in Paradroid, another that added a strategic meta-game to rock, paper, scissors and the last one which... well, was bonkers and genius in equal measure.


Jonathan in action.
It was eventually called Jonathan, for reasons that will become slightly clearer in a bit, and I'll try to explain how it works.

It's for as many players as you want really - 5-6 is a pretty good number. Each player gets a balloon and stands around the table. In the middle of the table you tip out the matchsticks, placing the box upside-down in the centre. One player starts by picking up the box and placing it in front of them. They're now the Picker and they can pick up matchsticks one at a time and place them in the box. The person to their right becomes the Blower and they must start blowing up their balloon.

The Picker continues to pick up matchsticks. If they run out of matchsticks in the middle, they can start taking sticks from any player they choose. They can stop at any time by turning out the matchbox in front of them. Any sticks inside are added to their stash. They can then place the matchbox face down, back in the centre of the table. At this point, everyone else shouts 'Jonathan!', which is the cue for the Blower to become the new Picker and the person to their right to start Blowing.

The game continues until a Blower manages to overinflate and pop their balloon. At that point, any matchsticks still in the box are awarded to the Blower and everyone else must pay one matchstick in tribute. The person with the most matchsticks is declared the winner.

It's a pretty simple game, but one with lots of interesting strategy. On the one hand, you want to spend as long as possible collecting sticks. But the longer you do, the more the guy next to you will inflate his balloon, potentially ending the game - and giving themselves quite an advantage when it comes to scoring. There's an interesting physiological element in play too - having to start a slightly fiddling manual task after effectively hyperventilating is entertaining****.

The only thing that remains is to somehow work alcohol into the mix. Then be prepared to see this baby at the Olympics.

Day Two - Dragon's Den

See the level of bemusement?
Each year I sit on the Dragon's Den panel and each year, people come up and pitch their projects at us with varying degrees of success. This year was simultaneously the least successful and yet, conversely, most entertaining.

The scoring mechanic had been revamped - for the better. Now we had three tokens per pitch. One for marking it out as a high-risk investment, one for low-risk and one for hell-no-but-I'd-like-to-play-it. This got around the problem that arises with either a fixed monetary resource or a traditional out-of-ten scoring system whereby the earlier submissions might get gimped as you want to save your big score for what might be coming up. Instead, because we had enough resource to fully 'fund' each and every project, this went away. The winner would be decided by whoever had the most high risk tokens with the others being used in sequence in the event of a tie.

I'll start with the final pitch of the day. Basically, this guy had written Minecraft. I mean, it was a carbon-copy. Technically, it was impressive enough - especially since he actually had plenty of ingame footage, but his entire pitch was "Minecraft but more". When pressed on what the "more" part actually was, he revealed that's what he was going to have to hire a designer for as he had no idea. Brilliant. To top it all off, when the finance guy pressed him on investment and equity, simple maths dictated that he valued his company at £10m(!). He received precisely zero tokens from anyone and a rather incredulous look from Finance Man.

The second pitch was one of the funniest things I've seen in a long while. I mean, crazy and delusional, but hilarious. This guy's design centred on three core tenets - Brains (those brain training apps), Boobs (does that really need an explanation?) and Hard Sci-Fi (er... what?). It seems like, after a particularly intense play session of Hunie Pop, an anime, Match-3 dating game, he came up with the idea of ripping out the Match-3 bit and swapping in Dr Kawashima instead. Skin it all up to look like Mass Effect and boom! Sit back and watch the money roll in.

I had no words as there are just so many problems with that as a concept. But the pitch had us in stitches.

So it was left to the first game. A game that I can't remember many of the details about. I think it was some kind of RTS where people would take it in turns to send their troops out in particular directions and watch them shoot the crap out of each other. A little bit Pikmin, a little bit Galcon but easily the most well-rounded title of the three.

Day Two - Wrap Party

Prior to the evening's events, we just had to pop back to the house. Largely to welcome back Yngvill's husband, Thomas, from his stint out at sea in the Navy. It was the first time Yngvill had seen him for about a month so naturally we just dumped the kids on him and left him to go to the wrap party.

This year's wrap party was held at the Bergen Game Collective - a shared office space for a number of Bergen-based game devs including Rain Games and Henchman And Goon.

Special props to Anders from Antagonist for graciously sharing his pizza with us and to Gary for trolling people on Twitter who don't like odd socks. Actually, that last bit entailed going around to find people who wouldn't mind swapping a single sock with someone else so we could take a photo of a larger group.

There was much alcohol and discussion of games as well as several bags of Smash, so I was properly in my comfort zone. As was Leanne who, whilst critiquing Rain Games' latest project, managed to make Peter cry with her vicious barbs...
Don't think she's afraid of heights.


The next day was spent recovering from the night before. Oh, and taking the kids to an awesome soft play area. Seriously, that place was fantastic. Willow spent most of her time in the ball pool or doing laps on the slide but they had everything from rope bridges to trampolines to cannons that fired foam balls at a big pirate ship. All of that for what amounts to £5 for the whole day. "Adults" go for free.

Little did they know that I was the biggest child in that place...

Return Trip

As always, we had a fantastic time at Hotel Yngvill and it was a real shame to leave, but leave we did. Thomas took us to the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We grabbed some Smash in the duty free and a bite to eat in the small cafe.

It turns out there was plenty of even more time as our flight was delayed due to the ridiculous level of fog at Gatwick. After a couple of hours, we were getting a bit antsy. Not only was Willow a little bored of the small cafe - there's really not much at Bergen airport - but we were now a little concerned that we'd miss the last train back from Gatwick when we landed.

Willow makes a great Smash mule.
Three hours later and still no flight. The airline gave us vouchers for food, which, as we'd already eaten, pretty much spent on more Smash, loading it into every container we had - including Willow's backpack.

By now, I was frantically looking around for other methods of getting home once we reached England. We could probably get as far as Brighton and then cab it, but it was going to be pricey.

Eventually, our flight took off and we were homeward bound. We meandered through passport control, baggage claim and into arrivals before we realised that we actually had 5 minutes before the last train to Worthing would leave. Thank you Westward flight and Time Zones!

I ran ahead to the station to get tickets... only to find the queue snaking back into the airport itself! Obviously a little concerned at this state of affairs, I tried short circuiting the system and going to the guard by the ticket barrier. Explaining our situation, I asked if it would be okay for the three of us to nip through and buy a ticket on the train.

Thankfully he said yes!

So we scuttled through and, just as the elevator arrived at the platform, so did the train. We hopped on and breathed a sign of relief... which turned into a gasp of concern as the tannoy announcement asked for the three people who just got on without buying a ticket to get back off again. Did they mean us?

Thankfully no, but now we knew we had to deal with a guard who already had previous for throwing people off his train. The train pulled away as he approached, positively reeking of Jobsworthness.

He was a bit taken aback that they'd allowed us through the barriers at Gatwick, but he was only too happy to let us buy a ticket. Hell, he even did us a sneaky group one that saved us... well, 3p, but it's the principle of the thing.

After that, Willow promptly fell asleep and we were home free! Back from another excellent Nordic adventure. Thanks go out to Linn for inviting us, John for organising everything, Yngvill, Thomas and Anne for looking after us while we were there and Unnamed Conductor Chap for not being a dick when you could have so easily done so.

*It's always entertaining taking public transport in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
**It's always entertaining buying food in a place where you don't speak the lingo.
*** It must be fun or something.
**** To the other players or spectators at least.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Unlocking Content

There is an article over on Kotaku that really touched a nerve with me. You should go and read it first and then come back.

Welcome back. You didn't read it? Well, I'll try to catch you up.

Simply put, they believe that all content in games should be available from the start. It's a follow on from the news that the new Call of Duty will allow the players to experience the campaign in any order they like as the traditional system of unlocking content as you go is archaic and, as a paying customer, you get to dictate how the content is delivered.

Here is a slightly rambling response to said article, based in large on the replies to my subsequent Facebook post about it.

UPDATE: Added another bit at the bottom about unlocking as reward, inspired by this other article.

Sweeping Generalisation

My biggest problem with the article is that they open with the word 'All'.

Straight off the bat, it's a bold claim and, like 'all' sweeping generalisations, it's wrong.

Certainly, some games would benefit from this approach. The oft-cited example is Rock Band. Linked in to that article is a bit of Dara O'Briain stand up that, curiously enough, I always bring up when I'm talking about what makes games special.
When all you want to do is rock, not unlock

In the early Rock Band and Guitar Hero games, the fiction was that you were a band member and had to build your way up through the game, using the standard game technique of ordering songs in terms of difficulty. This makes sense from a pure gameplay point of view - you don't want to overwhelm a player with too hard a song because they won't enjoy it and will, most likely, give up on the game.

But songs are such an emotive topic - people pick up those games because of the individual tracks that appeal to them. Those are the songs they want to play and they don't want to have to wade through tracks they haven't heard of and aren't interested in to get there. Subsequent versions of Rock Band and Guitar Hero have realised that this is the case and that, semantically, they're not so much games as toys. To this end, the newer version have done away with traditional game trappings such as failure and progression and the experience has been improved because of it.

Likewise, driving games. Once you try to step away from the young-driver-working-his-way-through-the-forumlae, er... formula, you see that again, cars are an emotive thing. People have specific cars or tracks they want to race and don't want to have to jump through arbitrary hoops to get there. If FIFA or Pro Evo's only mode forced you to start out at Dagenham and Redbridge or Accrington Stanley, they would rapidly lose their user base and Little Big Planet's decision to lockout editor content based on progression was a little frustrating to say the least.

The key thing is that this doesn't apply to every game out there. Narrative games, in particular, would suffer enormously if you could just hop to the end. Your experience would suffer as a direct result of that. You don't start watching, say The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense with the punchline. By the same token, you wouldn't want to drop into Bioshock halfway through.

Games in which the narrative is incidental could definitely pull this off. Call of Duty is actually a pretty good example of this - assuming they aren't dropping any more (nuclear) bombs and are just getting down to the nitty gritty of blowing up whoever the US currently regard as the Bad Guys.


It's a tired old subject, but I do belive better descriptions of games and their mechanics would be beneficial here.

If your game doesn't have a fail state or a presented narrative then I would suggest what you have is a Toy and a Toy should be able to be played with any way the user desires. This means no unlocks and everything available at the start.

If your game has failure, progression and rewards then it should probably have some kind of structure to it. Not always, by any means, but these are all things that a decent designer can use to enhance the player experience.

It's worth pointing out that neither of these things is quantifiably better than the other. It's also worth noting that both can exist within the same base game. For an example of this, look no further than Minecraft. The creative mode is enjoyed by so many people and used to make so many awesome things. There are precious few restrictions - not even gravity - more on that in a bit. Then you can add a couple of restrictions and have survival mode which puts a totally different spin on things.

Even if you don't want to deal with the semantics of things or you think I'm being picky, surely you can see the benefit of having subcategories - if only so that the use of the pronoun 'all' becomes a little more relevant.

All 'Toys' should have their content unlocked and available from the start to be played in any order. Even if it isn't perfect, it's something I can get behind a lot more than any 'All games should...' statement simply because of my own definition of 'Toy'.

Of course, you can do away with semantics altogether and just refer to these things as Games. But then I'd argue that you lose the right to use the word 'all', because it just doesn't apply across the board.


And this is where I can throw out my own generalisation.

Gameplay only exists through the introduction of restrictions.

Think about that for a moment. If you are blocked from doing something you want to do - score a goal, reach the alien space ship, rescue the princess - but there's something else you can do to lift the block - beat the keeper, shoot the alien hordes, work your way up to the highest platform - then that's where the gameplay (and challenge) lies.

If you could just place the ball in the back of the net whenever you want or press a button to make all of the aliens disappear or teleport to that highest platform, the gameplay vanishes along with the fun.

The metagame can (and some would argue, should) still be a game. It doesn't have to make the same choices as the main game as it can be an entirely different entity. Mix and match. Do what you want. It doesn't even have to be black and white - linear or open. You can blend the two approaches as much as you want. Have linear bits then let open it out for sections or make players choose paths or anything in between.

Here's another argument - a literary one, no less, that applies just as well in this situation:

A hero is only as strong as the villain he defeats.


Stepping away from the narrative, one of the main gameplay reasons to restrict access to certain levels is if your game contains any form of persistent progression. By that I mean your character levels up or something similar. If each level allows the player to bring in things of a given level, it makes a degree of sense to lock out levels for which the player doesn't possess the item / skills / resources to complete.

A lot of territories to balance
One of the biggest problems we had with Syndicate was that the metagame was almost entirely open. Save for the geographical constraint of only being able to select neighbouring territories, the player could pick whichever mission he wanted in whatever order he wanted. This made balancing a nightmare as you could never count on a player reaching a certain point with a certain weapon.

The issue with this kind of approach is that it is likely that the player will end up in a situation that they cannot handle. When that happens, you're banking on the good nature and perseverance of said player to have them not just throw in the towel and go play something else. With the attention span and patience of the modern playerbase at an all-time low, this is definitely a problem.

Of course there are exceptions. Wonderful, glorious exceptions but I'm going to try and get through an entire blog post without mentioning Dark So... d'oh!


Done well, unlocking new content is a very established reward structure - a little thank you to the player for playing the game and a little motivation for them to continue with something that they enjoy. It's not the only reward by any means but merely another weapon in the designer's arsenal.

In a narrative or linear game, the reward is the continuation of the story, but that's by no means the only reason.

Consider the puzzle space on mobile - a hellish melange of unimaginative 1,2 and 3 star levels, unlocked in sequence. Some break the mould and let you play boards in any order. Others snake you through a linear map, only gating progression as part of their monetisation strategy.

As an aside, that latter approach is probably what's feeding this argument. Players are frustrated at their lack of progress and being unable to see all of the content. Yet it's that very frustration that developers are relying on them to get players to pay up. It's a whole other can of (regularly opened) worms.

But, if you remove monetisation from the equation (ha ha ha ha ha), you can return to something where locked content is an impetus to do better. You could have pages of levels that the player can tackle in any order - even moving on to other pages whenever they feel like. Then, if they manage to complete a full page, bonus levels open up.

Annoyingly, my main takeaway is, again, a semantic one. Do we need something to differentiate between 'unlock' as part of gameplay and 'unlock' as part of monetisation?

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Theory On Monetisation

The first thing to note about this is that it contains both the word 'A' and 'Theory'. That means it's just one theory and, as such, may be wildly off base. YMMV.

Monetisation is still seen as a dirty word in game design. I myself am not fond of it. But that's only because it has dragged along so many negative connotations with it. Primarily, these manifest themselves as the phrase “How do we get people to give us money?” which, for the majority, simply translates into “How do we trick people into giving us money?”

I put it to you that, if you start with that premise, you're doing it wrong - subjectively. Note that this comes from a purely moral and ethical high-ground rather than something that makes economic sense – all of the evidence would suggest that if you're doing it 'wrong' you stand to make so much more money than doing it 'right'. Then again, the fact that we all need to feed our families and stuff would suggest that maybe your definition of 'right' is the correct one after all.

The way I see it is that there are two main problems.

Does this need a caption or are we good?
The first is that people are dicks.

People will begrudge having to pay anything for their entertainment and, wherever possible, try getting it for free. Obviously, there are exceptions to this but I think this holds true for the vast majority. It's why F2P exists – I put it to you that, were people not dicks – tight-fisted dicks no less – then the standard retail model would still work perfectly and we wouldn't have to have invented F2P.

Secondly, people are dicks.

Not those first people, but the people in charge of the apps themselves. The ones coming up with ever more devious and lucrative ways to scam money out of Joe Public. The ones for whom making games is merely a device for producing money rather than something they love doing. The ones for whom enough money is never enough money.


I think this is what it's all about.

Developers and Publishers don't trust Joe Public. They have seen how JP would rather burn a box of puppies than cough up 99c for an app. They can't be trusted to pay fair value for this entertainment that costs a lot more than they think to produce. So alternate methods of reimbursement must be sought to keep the Developers and Publishers in business. But it's okay – I, as a developer, have come up with a new, completely insidious method of getting paid. Now, what are your bank account details?

No gas? That's a shame.
Joe Public don't trust the Developers and Publishers. They have seen how D&P make loads of money from coming up with ever more devious methods of extracting money then brag about it down the pub. They are annoyed by energy systems, worried by seemingly random difficulty spikes and requests to bug our friends. But don't worry – I, as a gamer, will never fall for these tricks. In fact, I will go out of my way to not spend any money on you because you don't deserve it you filthy tricksters. Now, where's that next set of bonus levels?

Each of these things feeds back into the other – a desperate arms race, if you will.

Of course, those assertions can be wrong. Very wrong.

Did your game not make any money? There are many reasons why this is the case. It might not be that people didn't want to pay your asking price or buy any of your IAPs. It might just be that, with the marketplace as crowded as it is, they just don't even know you exist. It might even be that – and this might be hard to hear – your game just isn't very good.

It's at times like these I'd really like to be able to give JP a little credit. I'd like to think they can recognise a cookie-cutter, by-the-numbers, lazy implementation of a formulaic experience designed solely as a revenue stream and simply not fall for it.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd like to see new things – not just re-hashed versions of something I've already played. It's true that sometimes all this means is to take that existing thing and raise it's production values through the roof, but even that is getting a bit stale.

Alongside the word 'trust' I'd like to offer up the word 'fair' as well. It's pretty obvious to me, but games should always be fair. They can be difficult, sure, but they should always be fair. The player should never feel cheated. They should enter into each and every play session with the feeling that their destiny is in their own hands and they're not about to arbitrarily suffer at the hands of unseen forces. Only by repeatedly presenting things in this fair way do I believe developers will be able to allay any suspicions and convince players to offer up fair payment for their services*. Quid pro quo and all that.

Public Opinion

Frustratingly, it's very hard to gauge public opinion. It's very easy to find a lot of folks on online forums who decry the very nature of IAPs and clamour for a return to the 'good old days' where they could just pay a fixed amount up front and never be bugged for money again. Likewise in app reviews – they're either asking for premium or a flat payment to disable ads or the energy mechanic.

The problem is that this support for premium simply doesn't manifest itself in the sales numbers themselves. As soon as you stick a premium price tag on an app, your downloads will suffer enormously, yet the only people who seem to champion the F2P approach are Developers & Publishers who have already reaped the benefits of said approach. Given that these people are by no means in the majority, I'm finding it hard to see where this discrepancy is. I wonder if it's partly due to the stigma that's still attached to F2P in general? If you voice support for it, you're seen as money grabbing or not a 'true' gamer perhaps? Possibly even that you're less potent as a lover...

Either way, what it boils down to is that tricksy F2P is the dominant approach whilst Premium is dead in the water.
Nothing uncanny about this valley.

Uncanny Valley and Outliers

But, like all sweeping generalisations, that's wrong.

Just as there are, in fact, free games that don't using gouging wait timers or intrusive ad models out, there are also tales of breakout hits that have worked and made money using the premium model. Games like 10000000, Monument Valley and The Room series spring immediately to mind. These are games with a premium price tag** that were successful. As such they intrigued people enough to get featured and talked about for long enough so that they would rise above the detritus in the stores.

This is where I'd like to propose another theory. One that I am calling the Uncanny Valley of Premium Pricing. Actually that's too much of a mouthful.

From now on, it shall be known as the Uncanny Value. Boom.

Bear with me here and remember that I don't actually have any stats to back this up – I refer the honourable reader to the 'Theory' bit at the top of the article.

I shall assume that you are already familiar with the Uncanny Valley from which my theory takes its name. Well, what happens if we apply a similar principle to premium prices, albeit one rooted to the other end of the scale?

Firstly, we shall assume that your game looks really cool and reviews well because, you know what? - you made a good one. Yes, that's one hell of an assumption but those are the things that should be all under your control and it gives us a decent baseline to work from. We shall also assume that people can discover your app***, which is even more outrageous...

Next, the challenge is to get people to download it. Other than the stuff just mentioned - previews, screenshots, reviews, word of mouth, favourable theme / genre, etc. - this relies a lot on the price point.

At a price point of zero dollars, people don't tend to be put off. Sure, there are some – the vocal minority from earlier – who rail against anything F2P and refuse to download things that contain IAPs regardless of how they're implemented, but the keyword there is 'minority'. After all, what have they got to lose? That's right – nothing!

At any other price point, people have to ask themselves whether or not they will be getting value for money. This is, understandably, a very key decision.

Whilst steadfastly not backing any of this up with stats – 'theory' remember? - I put it to you that the most common price point is the lowest one – normally around the dollar mark. This is largely thanks to the race-to-the-bottom mentality of being cheaper than the competition to attract more customers. Then there are a few titles at the $1 - $2 mark, a few around $3 - $5 and fewer still braving it into double figures.

But here's what I'm thinking.

That $1 - $2 range represents the Uncanny Value. There's so much dross out there that anything in that price range stands a very good chance of being dross itself. At some point though, that perception changes. Where, exactly, I'm not sure – my theory-filled gut is saying somewhere around $4 - $5. If the developers are prepared to value their work higher than that, doesn't it stand to reason that it's of higher quality? Might it not, at least, look like they have some degree of faith or pride in it?

Sure, it would be a bold move to stick out a premium title with what amounts to a price tag 5 times greater than your competitors but given all of the problems you're faced with already, isn't it worth a shot? The optimistic approach is that you only have to sell 1/5th of the units to make the same money, which, with discoverability being as it is, might not be such a bad idea after all.

Are you ever going to hit #1 on the Top Grossing chart using this approach? No. Don't be silly. That shit is locked down for years to come by powers beyond your comprehension.

Might you make enough to feed your family and continue the kick-arse profession that is making games? Who knows? Maybe?

I certainly hope so.

* Sadly, the real world is unlikely to agree with me. After all, people are dicks.
** And, crucially, premium production values or premium gameplay.
*** Think Steve Ballmer but replace the word 'developers' with 'marketing' – for the love of God, nobody make that video...