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.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Krieg Jam

This weekend is Krieg Jam. "What's Krieg Jam?" I hear you ask? Well, it's a sorta game jam thing where a bunch of us will be making a playable prototype of Space Krieg.

For those of you not in the know, Space Krieg was an awesome MOBA* made by the late, great Richard Reed. It was brilliant, as anyone who was around the offices of Lost Toys, Mucky Foot or Big Blue Box at the time will surely attest. Sadly, we lost Richard to cancer before he had a chance to finish the game.

So that's what we're doing.

Right now, the aim is to make a playable prototype that follows the basic gameplay that Rich set out in the original. This is very important as trying to just explain what the game was and why it was cool is actually pretty tricky.

You start by explaining that it's a space dogfighting game viewed in 3rd person that is constrained to a 2D plane. Then people ask you why it isn't fully 3D.

Then maybe you explain that it's sorta turn-based, and people ask you why it isn't real time.

No, it's much better to sit someone down with a copy and say "Play this" and then they'll realise how awesome it is (and why it's important for it to be not fully 3D and not real time).

Show always beats tell.

The Crew

To this end, we have assembled a crack team of developers and holed them up in our living room.

We have a pair of infuriatingly young yet very clever coders in Alex Parker and Oli Carson who will be in charge of all the technical stuff. We already have the network code up and running, which is a great start.

Then we have industry veteran Mike Man providing us with art from his homebase in Ireland**.

Leanne is taking on key project management and UI tasks as well as being chief Baby Wrangler - a job whose importance cannot be overstated.

And I shall be doing my thing. This will mainly consist of starting sentences with "In the original game..." but may also end up getting my hands dirty with the code or art side of things as well as trying to keep you guys updated on this blog.

Wish us luck!

The Basics 15:30

Krieg Central. Plus some bunting from Willow's birthday.
Not much to see, but the wall is starting to get covered in post it notes again. This can only be a good thing.

The coder types have decided upon the best way of organising stuff like the network model and how the events are going to work. This makes me very comfortable, as that's some scary architecture things right there.

Although I have just heard the words "Quick and dirty" from Alex. Which fills me with fear...

And now we have a front end scene with a spinning spaceship and nebula skybox, both downloaded from the Unity Asset Store for free.

I love the Unity Asset Store...

The Best Laid Plans 16:58

Oli and Alex have thrashed out the architecture stuff in proper coder-debate fashion. It was like watching rutting stags as the various merits of two different approaches were considered.

Mike has dropped out of Google Hangouts to go into Maya - which I can only assume means that cool spaceships are imminent.

Willow has woken up from her nap, which means that productivity for Leanne and myself has taken a bit of a nosedive***.

Concerning Noises 19:04

Pretty soon after deciding how we were going to do the events and stuff, a flaw was discovered in the thing we were going to use for our serialisation. This meant that we've had to roll our own. Which we've now done. It's never a good sign when you hear programmers complaining about some system or other locking up...

Then Oli had a problem with his source control. But we've fixed that, so we're back on track.

We've got a grid and a starfield and stuff. Pretty soon, the network and event stuff is going to talk to the moving ship about stuff and then we're really going to be cooking with gas.

There were less concerning noises when the coders managed to connect to each other's game and see some debug text in the top left hand corner. Apparently, this is a good thing.

Willow has almost finished her dinner, which means it'll be bath time and then bed, so I might be able to get back to work. Leanne is in the kitchen, roasting a chicken.

It smells nice.

Dinner Done 21:55

It tasted nice too.

The code monkeys also made some very excited noises when they managed to get the ships moving around on multiple machines using the Space Krieg input method.

Mike's ship design is undergoing the mind-numbing process of UVing and currently looks like a colourful fruit bowl.

Willow is in bed. Note - not actually sleeping. Instead she is chatting to her toys.

I'm making explosions and have been put in charge of the in game camera.

Redesigns and refactors 00:18

The code geniuses have taken it upon themselves to re-write huge swathes of code to try and work around Unity things. It sounds like they're coming up with a whole new engine. None of this scares me at all****.

The prospective UI has already undergone a re-design. Part of the initial work was bearing in mind that we would like to do a tablet version in the future. BUT! This is game jam - not the future. So out it went.

New UI is looking a bit cleaner. New UI design, however, was done on a web-based shared whiteboard that just ended up covered in cocks...

Damn you BST! 02:13

We just lost an hour. Perhaps this wasn't the best weekend to do a game jam?

Calling It 03:24

Code monkeys need sleep. Willow will be up in a few hours.

Tomorrow, we jam some more!

* Proper MOBA - not a DOTA thing. See previous post if you're confused.
** Thanks to the wonder of Google Hangouts. Now, if only I could stop doodling on his face...
*** Although she seems to be enjoying Kiki's Delivery Service.
**** But we have had some wine, so maybe that's a factor.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

League of Vain Ancient Heroes

MOBA: Multiplayer Online Battle Arena
A game played by a small number of players in a single level. Whilst this moniker can be taken to cover a multitude of games*, for most people it's just synonymous with DOTA game.

DOTA: Defence Of The Ancients.
Started life as a Mod for Warcraft 3 but has since taken on a life of its own, spawning many, many clones.

DOTA games are hugely popular these days. Well, let's be honest here: two of them are hugely popular these days - Riot's League of Legends and Valve's official DOTA 2. There are also a bunch of also rans that come and go yet usually fail to distract enough of the existing player base to hang around for particularly long. But those top two - hoo boy.

Each has a World Championships competition for dedicated eSports teams. This is played out for actual cash money and is hugely lucrative for those involved. Something to show to your parents and teachers when they told you that no-one ever makes any money by playing games...

I started playing LoL back at Black Rock. It came about during the final roll of the dice from the studio when they decided that maybe this whole AAA thing was for the birds and we should be looking at F2P. The problem being that none of us knew a damn thing about F2P. So off we went, playing as many different freemium things as we could find.

Young Ash had a couple of friends who were playing LoL, so he jumped in on their games to see what it was all about. Pretty soon, he started roping the rest of us in and we were soon suckling on Riot's MOBA teat.


It was at this point I started on a big explanation of what goes in to a DOTA game for the uninitiated. There was lots of talk of lanes, ganking, jungling, minions, towers and how easy it is to fall off the curve and have your entire game ruined by any number of factors beyond your control.

It was a long post.

And something that Yannick has just stuck up on Kotaku. Here, he pretty much makes every point I was going to, so...

The thing is, I only wanted to go through that stuff so that you had a vocabulary ready for what came next. You should probably go and read that post first.

Back? Good.

Bad Bits

Yup. Pretty baffling, huh?
I didn't enjoy LoL at the start. Like many others, I found it an immensely frustrating experience. There were so many counter-intuitive things** and each game would usually end in a hair-pulling hissy fit. But I kept playing. Surely, if that many other people are enjoying it, there must be something there, right?

I stuck with it and in the end, I was invested*** and, subsequently, jobless. This meant I could devote large portions of the day to playing. 8 games in a day was not unheard of - which, at anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes is quite the undertaking.

Probably about 50% of the games were horrific. Hateful experiences that you just wanted to end. But then you'd click the Play button again - if only to remove the taste of that last game. Others would leave you with a sense of satisfaction. Of hard-earned victory. Until, of course, you realised that you'd done nothing else all day...

So after about 3000 games I stopped playing. I've been clean for a nearly a couple of years. In fact, the only time LoL ever comes up in conversation is when I'm talking about 'good' freemium. I occasionally have to use it to bridge the gap between myself and other DOTA 2 players. Like when I was talking to Phil Co about his awesome Free To Play movie - something you should definitely watch (if only to realise how awesome that Dendi chap is).


A teamfight. In the jungle. On an iPad.
On a bit of a whim and, presumably, to scratch some sort of itch, I picked up Vainglory on iPad. It appealed to me as it seemed a bit of a lighter experience that LoL. There's only a single lane, three champions and, due to the interface restrictions, a bit slower in pace. Perhaps my ageing brain would actually be able to parse the events taking place during a teamfight?

Vainglory is pretty cool actually. The usual tropes are there - lanes, minions, towers, jungle, characters, items, abilities - but it's all just a bit more manageable. For starters there are only a handful of characters to learn as opposed to the 123 in LoL and 110 in DOTA 2, which makes combat much more of a known quantity.

Then they do a neat thing with their 'Baron'. Following the DOTA model, there lurks a big, badass monster in the jungle. Whichever team is able to defeat it gets buffed for a period of time, giving them a bonus in combat and enabling them to push the enemy team right back. Normally it is used as a game-ender - a way of swiftly dealing the killing blow to a vanquished foe rather than letting the whole thing drag out for an insufferable amount of time. Normally, this is purely represented as a swirly effect on each character indicating that they have been powered up.

Vainglory does it a bit differently in that beating the Kraken**** actually causes that badass mofo to get off its arse and stomp towards the enemy base, laying waste to anything in its path.

The ultimate effect is the same - enable your team to push for victory with a significant advantage - but the presentation is just so much better. Pootling along in the wake of the Kraken, attacking enemy heroes or picking off any other stragglers is incredibly satisfying. Likewise, if you're on the receiving end, being able to bring down the beast before it causes any significant damage feels like a victory.

A Storm Is Rising

As part of my recent fall from Indie Developer status to potential wage-slave once more, I was interviewing at a studio when talk turned to that of MOBAs. The weapon of choice in that place seemed to be Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm. They said good things about it, but I was sceptical. I'd seen some footage of a HotS game on YouTube and it seemed every bit as chaotic and baffling as when I first started looking at LoL. Was I really going to put myself through that process again?

I had a lot of concerns - the main one being that, in an act of apparent DOTA heresy, they Change The Map. Whereas almost every other DOTA game follows exactly the same template, Blizzard have given players a suite of different maps to play, each with their own special rules.

I'd say it's the difference between a Sport and a Game. In a Sport, the pitch / court / field / level doesn't change - it is played on a static thing. There is only one level to learn. Introducing more levels makes the whole thing feel like more of a Game to me.

This is not a bad thing at all.

Sure, I'm not sure how it helps the initial learning curve as, from one game to the next, you're binning off the strategies you were just beginning to get a hold of on the previous level and having to start from scratch. But it certainly helps keep everything nice and fresh and should, in the long run, ease player fatigue.

It also means that each level has it's own, stand out feature. For the most part, this means more Krakens...

Yes, like Vainglory, each map usually has some kind of uber beast or beasts that can be brought to bear on your opponents. Simply perform the unique task that the level is built around better than the other team and wanton destruction is yours.

One has you collecting Dubloons for what can only be described as the Ghost Pirate LeChuck in the centre of the map. Get enough to him and his ship will bomb the enemy forts back to the stone age. Another one has you descend into these haunted mines below the main play area to collect skulls. The more skulls you collect, the more powerful a Golem you can summon to trash the enemy base. The coolest one though, sees you trying to control two shrines at opposite ends of the map in order to enable a dragon statue at the centre. If you manage to do that, your character is transformed into a badass Dragon Knight, complete with new move set, and you can stomp around, tearing down anything in your path. Suffice to say that being the Dragon Knight and blatting opposing heroes all over the map is incredibly satisfying.

But doesn't this make the whole thing incredibly complicated and contrived?

Well, no. Not really.

It's balanced out by the fact that the character stuff is considerably simpler.

My current weapon of choice - Big Beetle Guy
Blizzard have eschewed the entire Item / Shop feature from the other games in favour of a much simpler tech-tree. As you level up, you get to pick from a suite of abilities available at that level for that character. It means you still get to personalise your character on the fly but it's much more accessible than the bewildering shop screens you find in the other games.

Then the act of gaining XP to level up itself is considerably easier. Instead of each character levelling up individually, the team levels up as a whole. Bam! In one sweeping move, Blizzard have completely done away with the relevance of Last Hitting - a feature I've never particularly liked. I much prefer it when you can just wade in to monsters and slap them around a bit rather than having to prance around so that my dude doesn't auto attack them until the right moment. It also helps mitigate those situations when one of your guys is maybe not quite pulling his weight and has died a couple of times as the rest of you still earn enough XP to level him up and keep him in the game.

In fact, I think that's the biggest difference I can see in HotS. In a LoL game, as soon as you fell off that level curve and got 2 or 3 behind your direct opponent, you were pretty much done. As it was a positive feedback loop for them, it was very hard to stage a comeback. In just a short time playing HotS I can confirm that this is not the case at all - or, at least, it's much more likely to happen. I've died a bunch of times in the early game only to bring it all back later on.

So now everything sounds like it's far too simple for someone to be able to exploit the systems and get good at it.

It's early days, but I don't think that's the case either. It's just a bit... well, different to the established DOTA norms. I never liked the Shop layer of the other games. Certainly not the in game aspect of it - let me tweak my build before I go in (although that opens up an entirely different can of worms).

Thus far the community seems, well... more of a community. Less vitriolic. More welcoming. Unless that's just down to the fact that people are less talkative thus far because everyone's still learning. But still, because one individual's failure carries less weight than it does in the other games, people are more forgiving. Of course, once the game gets out of Beta and is released to the general public, all bets are off.

But it's also helped by features like Blizzard's approach to matchmaking. Instead of picking your character once you're in the game, you pick your character before. This means you are only matchmade with other characters that would automatically make for a balanced team and you don't get any of those "but I wanted to be that champ" arguments. It's one of those things that make you wonder why people didn't do it like this before?

As someone who never really got in to WoW, I find myself often calling upon Leanne to explain certain character nuances to me*****. But the fact that I want to find out more about them is quite telling.

Go Astronaut Teemo!
In short, I find the whole thing quite enjoyable.

Which is a totally different concern.

* Counterstrike, for example.
** Although they didn't go so far as to allow Denials.
*** Thanks, in no small part, to the awesome Astronaut Teemo skin.
**** Okay, yes. Releasing the Kraken.
*****Her knowledge in this area is possibly only surpassed by her sister's.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Your First Game

I know a lot of people who want to make games. I know even more that think they have a great idea for a game, but that's a rant you've heard so many times in the past that we'll just gloss over that for a minute.

No, this post has been inspired by a couple of tweets from Rami Ismail (of Vlambeer fame) whereby people asked him what sort of games they should make first.

The conversation went like this:
"I haven't made my first game yet, and the problem is whenever I have an idea for it over time it becomes to[sic] Big for how I feel a first game should be. Should I do it anyway?"

Rami's advice:
"Make, in the following order, Space Invaders, Pong, Pac Man. If that works out and you're happy with the results, come back and ask again. If you're not happy with the results, improve them until you think they're 'close enough'. If you get stuck, don't fret asking for help.
Best of luck :)"

Some sage advice there as I'm sure you'll agree.

It's a very common thing. Most people want to get in to games to make their magnum opus. It's an idea they've had for years. Their dream game. The thing they most want to play. The thing that will be their legacy, their Elite, their Minecraft.

Here's the kicker though.

Rami's right - You absolutely should not start building that right out of the gate. Your ambition will be your downfall and you will get frustrated with the entire process, not being able to do your vision justice. You will either end up with a messy project or you'll give up on the whole thing, your dream in tatters.

Like he says, it's far better to cut your teeth on something simpler to start with. Use that to find out what works and what doesn't and get yourself a bit of experience to boot.

With that in mind, I present to you a selection of simple games that you could make and hopefully go in to a bit of detail about what sort of things you're going to have to think about when you try each one.


For most people, Pong seems like the simplest game on the planet. For the most part, it is. There are two bats, one on either side of the screen, and they each move along a single axis. Then there is a ball that bounces around the screen. If the ball ever hits the side of the screen, a point is scored and the process starts again. The player's job is to move their respective bat so that it deflects the ball before it can hit their side of the screen and send it back to their opponent, who will hopefully miss.

Why this is simple

  • There are only ever three objects in play at any one time - two bats, one ball*.
  • The players can only move in two directions.

What makes it complicated

  • You need two players, unless you're going to write an AI... which makes it more complicated. You could, of course, make Breakout instead - which is basically Pong against a wall.
  • Collision detection is one thing, but collision resolution (that doesn't just result in one or more of the things blowing up) is quite another. Again, you're not looking for Havok levels of physics here, but it's certainly a step up from the other games on the list. For extra credit (and to make the game a bit more exciting), you'll be looking to emulate the original which deflected the ball according to where on the bat it actually hit. Hitting the centre of the bat sent the ball straight back horizontally, whereas hitting closer to one of the ends would bounce it off at a more aggressive angle, making it harder for your opponent to read where it was going to end up.

Space Invaders

Like Pong, everyone's heard of Space Invaders. Simply saying the name conjures up images of a big, block of aliens, steadily marching along towards victory as a lonely tank does its best to thwart their advance.

The aliens start at the top of the screen and move left or right until they hit the edge. Then they drop down a row and repeat the process in the opposite direction. The player, in the meantime, moves left or right along the bottom of the screen to try and line up a shot. Both parties pepper the other with bullets.

Why this is simple

  • All the player has to do is move left and right and shoot down aliens.
  • Original versions only let the player fire a single bullet at any one time.
  • Easy collision resolution - just blow things up.

What makes it complicated

  • AI. Simple AI, but AI nonetheless. The aliens need to follow their master plan - move to the edge of the screen, drop down a row and carry on. Thing is, the alien's position relative to the edge of the screen is somewhat dependant on the other aliens around them.
  • Also worthy of note is the fact that the original's speed up mechanic was purely a by product of a technical limitation. Only one alien was updated each frame - you can see this as a characteristic 'shimmer' in the formation during the early part of the game. As the number of aliens was reduced, the remaining aliens got updated more frequently meaning that they moved faster and faster. It actually ended up being a pretty neat difficulty scalar - the more aliens you kill, the harder it becomes to kill the remaining aliens.
  • Shields. The original had a series of 'houses' near the bottom of the screen. These could be used as shields by the player as they would absorb any shots that hit them. What makes them a bit complex is the fact that each shot would take a chunk out of the house in question**. Then you've also got to resolve the situation where the lowest aliens are now low enough to intersect the tops of the houses. The simplest option there is to remove the houses at that point.

Pac Man

The face of a thousand pie charts, Pac Man sees the player running the eponymous hero through a maze, chomping dots and avoiding ghosts. Chomp all the dots and it's on to the next maze. You can even turn the tables on the ghosts by eating one of four power up pills which allows you to also eat ghosts for a limited period of time.

Why this is simple

... actually, it's pretty complicated when you start thinking about it.

What makes it complicated

  • Collision. Unlike the previous games, the player can now move in four directions... provided the maze isn't in the way. Whereas all you did before was ensure that the player couldn't move outside either the vertical (Pong) or horizontal (Space Invaders) bounds of the screen, now you have to restrict their movement based on their position in an arbitrary maze.
  • AI. At the simplest level, you need to make the ghosts move through the maze. At the start, this can be done randomly which only requires that each ghost knows which way it can move whenever they get to a junction***. But this will create almost no challenge at all and you probably want to look at making the ghosts chase the player down. Of course, you don't have to go so far as to worry about super accurate path finding and you could just have the ghosts select a corridor based on their relative position to the player, but that's still a step above 'move left and right and drop down whenever you hit the side of the screen'.
  • Then you have to worry about switching them into 'run away' mode whenever the player has gobbled a power pill. It's still pretty simple - reversing the direction choice thing alone should do the trick - but it's another thing that you're going to have to take into account when writing the thing.
  • Level Design. You need some method of building the maze. There are many different ways of doing this - at the simplest level you could manually enter it in code, or you could try reading in a texture from an art package.
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My choice would be Asteroids. The player controls a ship that rotates and thrusts around the screen. It fires at large asteroids that break into medium then small asteroids when hit. Small asteroids are destroyed and, when all asteroids are gone, a new batch of large ones is spawned.

Why this is simple

  • No AI at all - just very rudimentary physics. Unless you're also going to model the UFOs from the original which would move erratically across the screen, shooting at the player.
  • Easy collision resolution - not quite as easy as Space Invaders as you potentially have to be creating new asteroids when you blow an old one up, but still pretty easy.

What makes it complicated

  • Physics. Along with 'maths', the word 'physics' is often the thing that puts most people off an idea. Add to this the words 'Angles' and 'Velocity' and you really start confusing people. If you're rolling your own engine, this is a very daunting process. I can remember writing a version on the Spectrum back in the day that only had 8 directions of rotation just to make my life easier. But the version of physics you need for this is about as simple as it comes. The only complexity is working out how the velocity changes based on your direction of travel and how much thrust you're applying.
  • Wrapping. In the original, any object that moved off the edge of the screen would wrap around to the opposite side. It makes life slightly more complicated, but only a little.

Too complex?

Whilst Rami puts forward the argument for Space Invaders, I lean towards Asteroids. Personally, I think it's a simpler task - as long as you can get your head around the rotation thing which is already done for you if you end up using a third party engine like Unity.

But perhaps there's another way? A game you can make that takes all of the simplest concepts from the games I've listed and bins off the complex ones.

Pongy Asteraiders, Man.

The player controls a ship at the bottom of the screen that can move left or right and fire up the screen, like Space Invaders. Asteroids spawn at the top and travel down the screen for the player to shoot.

For added complexity, have the asteroids drop at different speeds and move at different angles, like Pong. Once you've got them blowing up when they get hit, consider introducing the 'split into smaller asteroids' feature, like, well... Asteroids.

Then how about having some kind of power pill that drops down the screen for the player to collect? Have it increase the number of bullets the player can fire or make him immune to asteroid collisions for a time.

Where next?

With all of that said, any of these games make a fine starting point, so long as you're aware of the extra little things you're going to run into along the way. I'm pretty sure that you guys can also think of many other examples that fit the bill for a first game - feel free to justify your selection in the comments section below.

But once you've got your game up and running, there's no reason for you to stop there. Take the original concept and rules then embelish them on your own. How about multiball in Pong? Aliens that divebomb you in Space Invaders? Asteroids that bounce off each other? Power ups? Upgrades? Multiplayer?

Remember - most experts will tell you that the idea itself isn't the important bit - rather the execution of it. Look at Pac Man CE - it's just Pac Man but taken to extremes. Or the Galaga series of games that took Space Invaders and layered on all manner of funky stuff. Or Infinity Gene that distilled it all back down again.

Old-Bullfrog Anecdote Warning

In the early nineties, we ran a competition with a magazine to Win A Job At Bullfrog. The idea was that people would write a version of Space Invaders. It's important to note that we weren't just looking for vanilla Space Invaders - instead, people were encouraged to add their own twist to it. The response we got was pretty cool. There was a large variety amongst the entries. Some had the invaders spiralling in whilst the player rotated in the centre of the screen. Others had the aliens moving along like chess pieces. The winner, though, was Disky's Mr Wobbly Leg, which saw you first building your tank out of bits you had to retrieve from the other side of the screen as the aliens bombed you. The more bits you managed to recover, the  more powerful your tank was when you finally got to face the invaders. It was the one that felt most like a complete game out of all the entries, so he was awarded the job****. Funnily enough, the guy behind the Chess Invaders game was one Demis Hassabis, who also ended up with a job there and would ultimately go on to be worth an awful lot of money.

Another time, one of our crazier employees***** came up with the idea of writing a Pong kernel and having an AI writing competition. The basic Pong engine would take two pieces of code and run them as the AI for each of the bats. All they would be told was the positions of the bats and any of the balls currently in play. It was then up to each AI to work out its strategy and return either -1, 1 or 0 for whether it wanted to move down, up or stay put.

* Probably not the sort of thing you should go looking for a video about. Just saying.
** The very first example of deformable terrain in a video game?
*** Bonus points for not letting them double back on themselves and super bonus points for having them look in the direction they're going to turn before they get to the junction.
**** Also because we thought he had a very funny surname - "Diskett".
***** Mark Adami, if anyone is keeping score.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Nifty Board Game Mechanics

This past week, Leanne's sister and fella were over for a bit of a break from work. This means several things:

  1. Nobody sleeps*.
  2. Sales of rosé and fruity ciders from the local Co-Op increase.
  3. Board games are played.
This week was no exception. It was great fun - especially the small diversion we had one day when we decided to hit up the local Games Workshop, er... shop, and get stuff for painting miniatures. These miniatures belong to Super Dungeon Explore - a game we have still yet to play**.

Anyway, the whole thing got me thinking about the little mechanics that particularly tickle me from the board games we have played.

Settlers of the Stone Age

BGG Rank: 975

By the guy that brought you Catan, we have a very similar game set in the Stone Age. If you've played Catan (and if not, why not?) you will be very familiar with the set up. Hex board of different resources that are awarded whenever their number is rolled, settlements on the corners, trade between players - that sort of thing.
But the desertification is the interesting thing. As players rush to explore and try to find those elusive victory points, the continent of Africa gets gradually turned into a barren desert. This means it no longer produces resources and the settlements there rapidly become useless. The players then have to migrate across Europe to find new resources. It feels like having a HUG*** in a board game.

Whilst being a pretty good analogy for what actually happened, it plays pretty well too. You're always having to re-evaluate the current situation and you can't just turtle up to gather resources. Likewise, if you're the player doing all of the rapid exploration, then it's also likely that you're the one yet to move out of Africa, meaning that in your greed you may end up scuppering yourself in the late game.

Castles of Burgundy

BGG Rank: 11

Interesting game this one. It's a town-builder where each turn a new set of potential building options is revealed in the communal part of the board. The players then take it in turns to remove those options from the board and place it in their own town.
The thing that makes it cool is the way the turn order is decided. At the start of the game, a simple dice roll sorts out the initial ordering. After that, it moves to this system whereby placing a Ship tile that you've managed to accrue moves you up the pecking order. There are a total of 6 Ship slots for each player and every time you play a Ship, you move up one. Whoever is furthest along that track goes first and so on. In the case where two people have played the same number of ships, the person that played their ship last is the one who takes precedence.
It makes for an interesting, rolling boil of turn order - not entirely dissimilar to the chaos you get in the middle of a Mario Kart race. If you manage to get two Ships ahead, you're okay, but if you only get a little bit ahead, you're constantly being buffered and shunted to the back of the line.
Castles of Burgundy also includes a system whereby a resource can be traded in to modify dice rolls. For each worker you trade in, a dice can be modified by 1.

Kings & Things

BGG Rank: 1167

Something similar exists in Kings & Things. Before most crucial dice rolls, a player can elect to buy modifiers with gold. It costs 5 gold per extra point the player wishes to add to his roll. The kicker here is that the player is also able to modify the roll after he has actually rolled the dice but this costs 10 gold per point.
It's a lovely example of risk vs reward coupled with a nice little soft fail buffer.
Actually, another feature I like in Kings & Things is the Bluff. All of the creatures in the game belong to a particular type of land. So long as you have that land type in your empire, all is well. If you don't, however, that creature is a Bluff and, as soon as another player points that out, it is removed from the game. The thing is, they have to point it out. If they don't notice, it acts just like a normal creature and can be used to slay your enemies and conquer territories and the like.
Something similar exists in Chaos - the Julian Gollop tactics game from way back****. In that, you could summon creatures to do your bidding. Attempting to summon a creature would only be successful a percentage of the time, depending on the strength of said creature. More energy could be spent to increase this chance or you could elect to make that creature an Illusion with a 100% chance of success.
Illusory creatures work in exactly the same way as regular ones but if a player ever elects to use a Disbelieve spell on them, they vanish. 


BGG Rank: 27

I don't think I've ever talked about Dominion before, but it's a neat little deck-builder game where the deck-building takes place simultaneously over the course of the game itself. Broadly speaking, there are three types of cards - Currency, Action and Victory. Currency is used to buy new cards for the deck, Action cards are played during your turn and the winner is decided by the value of the Victory cards come the end of the game.
So whilst Victory cards are ultimately the most important ones to have, they have no value during the game itself. In fact, an abundance of Victory cards during gameplay will actively hamper your efforts to improve your deck. This means that players will tend to ignore them until the first player decides to make his move and start pushing for the win. You can liken it to a cycle sprint event when, for the first bit, both riders just cruise around the track, waiting for the other to make a move then go balls to the wall for the line in the last couple of laps.

Risk Legacy

BGG Rank: 111
Risk is a tried and tested formula that has been around for ages. Legacy just adds an interesting Meta to it.
The basic game is pretty much vanilla Risk. But each time you play it, someone will get to alter either the board or the ruleset. The more you play, the more the game morphs into something new. It's like you progress through your own tech tree with each game.
The thing is, each decision you make is final. Every town you place on the map alters the strategy or value of territories. You can also name them. Or name the continents. Or change the value of the continents. Or... well, there's a whole bunch of stuff that you can do that will make your version of Risk Legacy that little bit different from every other copy out there.
It's a brilliant system and really highlights the draw of a decent ownership / authorship system. If you've got a regular gaming group, I can certainly recommend it, even if you think Risk is a bit tired these days.

* Including Willow. Now her body clock thinks that 8pm is merely nap time and she needs to get up and play around midnight.
** Largely because we have yet to paint all of the miniatures that come with it...
*** Hurry Up Ghost - a thing that appears behind you and chases you across the world if you take too long.
**** And a re-vamped version that is currently on Steam's Early Access.

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Best Studio

I have had an interesting career thus far. It has taken me to many different places and enabled me to meet many different people. I have worked on loads of very exciting projects and even managed to release some of them as fully-fledged games.

This morning, for no readily apparent reason, I decided to see if I could come up with a scoring system for all of the places I have worked to see which one was 'best'.

It should be noted that 'best' is obviously highly subjective. I have tried to be as objective as possible, which shows in that a couple of the studios aren't quite where I thought they would be.


I came up with a series of different categories that should hopefully cover my time at each studio pretty comprehensively.

Years, Games and Productivity

The first three categories are the most scientific. It's a simple job to count up how long I was at a studio and how many games I released whilst there. Then I get a productivity value based on Games per Year. Seems fair?


The remaining categories are all highly subjective and scored between 0 and 10. First up is Quality - that is how good I thought the games we were working on were. 10 points for awesome stuff, 0 for mindless, unplayable shovelware.


Next we have the studio Culture. How did people get on in the studio? Was it an office or simply a place for creative people to come together and be encouraged to make cool stuff?


What sort of stuff did the studio do to make development easier or more pleasant? Free food? Chillout areas? Discounts? Parties?


How much time did I spend hanging out with workmates whilst not on the company dollar? After hours games or time down the pub - that sort of thing.


How much do I think I learned from this experience? I include things like being sent on courses or to conferences.


Finally, we have a simple formula to determine an overall score. It's simply a total of Quality, Culture, Perks, Social and Development multiplied by 1 + Productivity. It's important to note that, with Productivity as a multiplier, the whole score is heavily skewed in favour of whether or not I actually managed to work on a released title during my tenure. I may have had more fun and worked on cool projects but if they didn't actually get released then it was all kinda moo.

The List

So with all of that in mind and without further ado, I present, in reverse order, The List.

#9: Remode


Now defunct, I was only at Remode for a few months. It was a small studio largely doing work-for-hire web games. The people were cool but I wasn't really there long enough to participate in the social scene. It was also in Plymouth and I didn't get on particularly well with Plymouth. I did get to go to Helsinki and talk to the Habbo Hotel people, which was a great experience.
Shout out: Oli Carson. The beating heart of Remode. An indie coder with a heart of gold and an unassailable knowledge of 90's video game hardware.

#8: Kuju


It's no secret that I didn't enjoy my time at Kuju at all. The games were always being made on a shoestring budget with outdated technology and the projects were littered with terrible mis-management. The final straw came for me when, for two years in a row I found myself in the office at 2am on my birthday, crunching on a rubbish title that never came out.
At least there was a culture of gameplaying there - even if you had to fill out all manner of IT forms before you were allowed to install one.
Also worthy of note was the Summer Event - a company 'team building' day out, which generally consisted of flinging yourself around a muddy field in various forms of automotive hilarity. These were great fun*.
Shout out: Nader Alikhani. The man, the legend. Raised by women, for women.

#7: Weirdwood


Why the hell is Weirdwood so low? It's that damn Productivity scalar. We were working on an awesome game, but it just never came out. The people were ace and I learned an awful lot during my time there. Mostly about how you like the idea of running your own business but haven't really thought through all of the extraneous crap you'll have to go through to keep the damn thing going.
It's quite a zero-sum thing though - we didn't exactly start with a lot of capital and, at the end, we didn't owe anyone anything either. So it could have been much worse really.
Shout out: Ben Carter. The glue that held everything together and one of the best coders on the planet.

#6: Black Rock


I've never worked at a place that tried so hard to make its employees feel wanted or engaged. They couldn't do enough for us. It had production values coming out of the wazoo, even if some of the games didn't play particularly well. They were also only too happy to send you off on courses - relevant or otherwise. I mean, going to GDC I understand. Being taught how to drift a Caterham? I'm grateful and there's no way I was going to say no, but I'm not sure I get the relevance.
Sadly, this all came at a huge cost as the burn rate was enormous and, eventually, Disney pulled the plug.
Also I should point out that there was plenty of social stuff happening after hours...
... it's just it was in Brighton and I lived in Guildford so I never got to do any of it.
Still, it was an amazing place to work even if I have nothing to show for it.
Shout out: Adrian Selby. My commuting buddy and producer extraordinaire. Also does a mean Roger Daltrey when push comes to shove.

#5: Lost Toys


A Bullfrog splinter, Lost Toys was great fun. Small in stature and probably not somewhere you've heard of - it could be argued that we were very much in the shadow of our more illustrious neighbours: Mucky Foot and Lionhead. But we made a couple of games there. The timing was a bit unfortunate as, just as we were scaling up to put two teams in parallel, the great games company cull occurred and the rug was pulled from beneath our feet. I'm very proud of at least one of the games we managed to release**.
The culture was pure banter. There were plenty of games to play and, if I'm honest, a shade too many trips to KFC.
Shout out: Mark Pitcher. Solely responsible for the aforementioned 'culture'. Made every day an experience.

#4: Boss Alien


Boss Alien stemmed from Black Rock and the numbers reflect this. In terms of studio culture, it cannot be faulted - I'd say Jay Green takes the lion's share of credit for both this and Black Rock. The quality bar for entry is simply stratospheric - if you can even get an interview there, you're doing much better than most. The attention to detail is astounding and the level of production values has to be seen to be believed.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story. For a start, that single Game was CSR Racing - a title that I didn't really work on at all despite being in the credits. Take that away and suddenly you're looking at a final score of 30.00 and suddenly you're behind Black Rock.
The games themselves, whilst they look incredibly pretty, aren't anything to write home about. That is, unless you fully drink the F2P coolaid and are only doing this to make as much money as possible.
At least this time I was living in Brighton and was able to partake in the after-hours stuff.
Shout out: Alex Parker. Super talented coder type, if annoyingly young. Has gone out of his way to help us whenever possible.

#3: EA Bright Light


What the hell? Why is this so high?
It's because of that scalar again - I did manage to release a game there. Also, I learned a lot about Harry Potter, even if that doesn't really count towards my Development score.
Because they're a big company, they do score quite well on the Perks front - free drinks, promotional events, that sort of thing. But I wasn't there on anything other than contract, so I should probably knock a few points off for that.
But I did get to get up on stage and rock Suffragette City whilst dressed in spangly tight pants and heels. And form Bake Off Club.
Shout out: Sam Hart. BOC co-founder and the person who took me in when I had to leave Plymouth in a hurry.

#2: Bullfrog


Boom! There it is! Look at that! Lots of games. Lots of amazing games. A brilliant Culture***, plenty of Perks and an unrivalled Social scene****.
As my first gig, it's fair to say that I learned a hell of a lot during my tenure there. Coupled with the fact that, despite public appearance, we did actually release a lot of games. Sure, not always when we said we were going to, but it's not as if everyone else did either.
I got to go to E3 and CTS. I got to play games with my friends until the wee small hours every day. I got to waste my share money and bonuses on Lotus Esprits instead of doing sensible things like buying a house or something. I pushed Peter into a canal. I watched Gary Whitta throw up on a bouncy castle. I got my first picture in a magazine. We won awards. We built things with Lego. We went karting and paintballing. We played football and basketball. We built RC cars. I learned to ride a unicycle.
Bullfrog is easily the studio that gets the most recognition and I'm so proud to be associated with that.
Shout out: Mike Man. My partner in crime for all things gaming. Actually, this could be a list in its own right - see earlier post for the highlights.

#1: Indie


On the top of the list we have where we are now - operating as an independent developer. I fear, however, that some of these numbers may require a bit of justification.
The games we've made have been fun. Rough around the edges, granted, but fun. Bear in mind that I normally only rate games based on how much fun they are rather than production values and you'll see where I'm coming from.
As it's just Leanne and myself, I'm very happy with our Culture. We're both pretty similar people who want to make games. And talk about games. And play games. We have huge discussions about games and what we like about them.
Our immensely high Perk score is based solely on the fact that I've been able to carry on making games whilst also not missing one moment of Willow growing up. I put it to any of you new parents who have had to go back to working in an office how much value you would attribute to that and defy you to not say 'priceless'.
The Social side suffers - again, it's just the two of us. We try to do as best we can with the external gatherings, but parenthood occasionally gets in the way.
As for the stuff I've learned... well. So much of it is what not to do next time, but that all counts.
Shout out: Willow. I mean... Leanne! Leanne! Stop hitting me!

Final Scores

Boss Alien50.00
Lost Toys48.35
Black Rock36.00

The scoring mechanic was just the first one that came to my head. It was funny seeing the final numbers work themselves out of the system.
Is it a good system?
Yes and no.
It's probably weighted too far towards productivity, but that was the point of the exercise. Also, it favours the small, quick-to-produce game. Perhaps some extra layer of indirection which compares the length of time to produce a game versus the average time you'd be expected to take to produce a game of that type. For example, an old 'A' game should take a year, so the formula is probably quite accurate for things like Bullfrog. But later 'AA' and 'AAA' games should take a lot longer, so those places probably get penalised a bit. Mobile games can probably take a bit less - certainly the way we make them*****.
I've tried to be as honest as possible with the arbitrary scores in the other categories though but at the end of the day, it's all down to my personal experience. For the most part, the studios all had pretty decent social scenes but, for one reason or another, I wasn't a part of them. If I were to rank the studios in order of how much I enjoyed my time there, it may well look very different. Remode, for example, definitely doesn't deserve to be last and EA almost certainly should not be third. But I set out to do this as a scoring exercise, so the results stand.

It should also be noted that there's almost certainly a combination of rose-tinted specs in places and the fact that Leanne is adamant that the scoring should be skewed in favour of what we're doing now...

I don't tend to argue with her about things like that.

*And not just because my team won both years I went.
**Even if the cutscenes make my skin crawl.
***At least at the start
****Provided your social scene revolves around playing a shit-ton of games
*****Little or no time devoted to QA or polish.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Thank You

There's a hashtag on Twitter - #ThankACreator. The idea is that you use it to call out someone who is responsible for making something that had an impact on you or your career. What with other items currently doing the rounds in the games press, now seems like as good a time as any to turn my hand to something along those lines.

So here I present to you a few people that I would like to publicly thank for what they have done.

Peter Molyneux

That's a canal boat. We pushed him in. It was hilarious.
I'll start with a real doozy. Almost a quarter of a century ago, this man gave me my break in the industry. With him, I worked on some truly amazing projects and learned a hell of a lot about how to design a game*. Was he the easiest person to work with? No. One of the most creative? Charismatic? Passionate? Exciting? Yes.

During my tenure, the biggest compliment he gave me was that he trusted me to talk to the press in his stead and demo games to other people. Consider this - the only other person he trusted to do that was Cathy Campos and we all know what happened as soon as she wasn't around to be his guide.

The current situation with the press is really messed up. A lot has been said - things like how he lied to so many people and is clearly a bad person. It should be understood that the man doesn't possess a malicious bone in his body.

Peter's single biggest problem is that he never says 'No'.

If someone asks if a game contains a feature that they would like, he doesn't want to disappoint them. So he says 'yes'. He can also have those "Wouldn't it be cool if..." conversations in his own head on the spot. This means that, sometimes, he'll just be getting excited about a potential new feature on the fly and his brain doesn't filter out that information before it gets to his mouth. Also, if someone attributes a particular design or mechanic to him, he doesn't correct them. Note that he doesn't go out of his way to claim responsibility for it, but he doesn't say 'no' and explain who actually came up with it.

It's never said with malice. The intent is never to deceive. He believes what he says when he says it. Like so many creatives, he occasionally lacks the resources to come true on his intentions and can be easily sidetracked by the next new idea. But it's never malice.

So yeah. Thank you Peter for giving me a chance and keep your head down until this all blows over.

Markus Persson

The man known simply as Notch, father of Minecraft and owner of a ridiculous LA home. You, sir, gain my thanks - not just for the many, many hours I sank into that game of yours, but for the way that, in spite of huge levels of both attention and money, you never let your ego get in the way.

If ever there was an example of how to pay it forward, I'd argue that Notch is right there. Made a stink load of money? Why don't I re-invest it in people trying to do the same thing that I did? None of this pulling-the-ladder-up-afterwards crap that others try.

Unless it's all an elaborate act for the public, he's never seemed to let it all go to his head. I can imagine he still has trouble believing what it is that happened.

Thank you Markus, for being incredibly level-headed, well-grounded and putting the other egos** to shame. Oh, and for Minecraft - that was pretty cool too.

Hidetaka Miyazaki

No other game in recent times has resonated more completely with me than Dark Souls. There are many facets to it, some of which I covered in an earlier post. Dark Souls conversations only come in too flavours. There are those who say "It's too hard - I don't like it" and then there are those who see beyond the difficulty and fully embrace the wonderfully engineered mechanics, tortuously intertwined level design and incredibly deep lore.

No-one is ever ambivalent about it - it's either not for them or it's the only thing they can think about.

I'm in the latter camp. Which is why I was so disappointed in Dark Souls II - a hard act to follow, but it wasn't a patch on the original. The reason? Certainly Miyazaki leaving midway through development to work on Bloodborne didn't help, but it felt like DSII made too many concessions and watered down the formula that made the first one such a success.

I know await Bloodborne with renewed fervour and can only hope that it doesn't let me down.

Either way, Thank you Miyazaki-san for bringing me back to console gaming and giving me plenty of material to talk about at conferences.

David Braben

When I was at school, all everyone could talk about was Elite. There were endless discussions about particularly lucrative trade routes, engineering failed jumps that landed you in Witch Space, which version was superior and, of course, what everyone's rating was.

I can also remember the guy in Esdevium Games over in Aldershot asking me what my ultimate game would be. I simply said Elite with multiplayer.

By all accounts, that's what Elite Dangerous is. I have a copy. A digital copy. It sits there, waiting for me to download it and play...

...but I have no PC - I'm now a fully paid up Mac owner. The only way I can sate my desire for space exploration, trade and piracy is to live vicariously through the various Let's Play videos on YouTube. Each one tears at me - taunting me with their icing stockings*** - and yet I cannot stop watching.

But still - Thank you David for making this game a reality. And thank you even more for making it in such a blatant fan-service way. Docking's too hard? Docking is supposed to be hard! This is Elite!

Gabrielle Kent

Gabby, chilling with the Aliens, post Develop 2013
"What genre-defining, addictive, life-stealing title has she worked on?" I hear you ask. Or perhaps "Who?"

For the uninformed, Gabby is a lecturer in game design at Teesside University. Actually, she's a bit more than that. She's also the person behind the Animex festival and, as you should all know by now, I do like me a bit of Animex each year.

I have been known to get in a bit of a downer with game design and academia. Mostly this stems from them being woefully out of date and out of touch. It's also the fact that most courses just seem to teach modelling, characters, story and level design with scant regard for mechanics and systems.

Gabby's lot don't do this. They learn proper, applicable gameplay stuff.

Thank you Gabby, for ensuring the next generation of game designers don't just fall into the same trap as an awful lot of the current crop. And a big thank you for putting up with me year on year at Animex****. 

The Old Guard

At the risk of getting all nostalgic and Old Boys Club, I'd also like to make a special mention to a couple of the chaps who were at Bullfrog when I first started.

Gary Carr, already a veteran back then, took me under his wing and explained how the industry worked. Sure, he did this with a can of Special Brew in one hand, but I learned plenty of things and he always had my back if things started getting twitchy.

Over the years of my career, I've probably worked with Glenn Corpes for about twenty of them in a variety of different studios. Peter aside, without Glenn there would be no Populous, Magic Carpet or Dungeon Keeper. Without Glenn there would be no Battle Engine Aquila and Weirdwood would not have even gotten off the ground. In short, without Glenn, my CV starts to look pretty damn empty.

So Thank you Gary and Glenn, for looking after me at the start and not disowning me once I became long in the tooth and a pain to work with.

Richard Reed

During my time at Bullfrog, I was very fortunate to be paired with one Richard Alan Reed. The Big Kahuna. Crusherfred. Our token septic, he was brought to task on a regular basis for everything that went wrong with that curious country. He took it with his usual, laid back, chilled out aplomb. In return, we taught him how to drink like an Englishman.

He was working on a game called Biosphere which he thought would make an excellent Bullfrog game. He was right - it would have. Sadly, it got kinda butchered along the way, but we still managed to release Gene Wars in its wake.

He was a brilliant coder and took it upon himself to try and teach me - not an easy task by any means. Somehow he managed to keep his patience with me even though all I ever seemed to do was break the build. He was a brilliant strategy gamer and was always tinkering with interesting ideas for new games. He was an amazing man who was loved by all who worked with him.

His final, unfinished project was incredible. Innovative and supremely playable - the people at Lost ToysMucky Foot and Lionhead at the time can attest to that.

Sadly, he was taken from us by cancer before he could finish it.

I never got a chance to thank him when he was alive but if, somehow, he is able to read this, I'd just like to say Thank You and I miss you buddy. If I get my way, your legacy will live on and I promise to do it the justice it deserves.

Myself, Shin and Rich - post E3 2005
*And how not to run a project.
** Mine included
*** Which makes no sense unless you happen to have been a Viz reader for one specific issue.
**** I suppose I should also thank Rhianna Pratchett for introducing us in the first place.