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.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Third Time's A Charm

The final period of any project is a uniquely stressful time. The pressure of working to a deadline - whether arbitrary or financial - can really take its toll on your health, both physical and mental.

Glyph Quest Chronicles is no different.


Game dev family
The physical issues revolve mainly around a lack of sleep. Late nights - I can't recall the last time I went to bed before 3:30am - and long days. Those days are pretty full too. Most of our time is spent working but there's a lot of stuff to do with Willow too. I can't stress enough how lucky we've been with her - she's pretty self-sufficient and very good at entertaining herself*. All other things have fallen by the wayside.

Our house is a mess. We're waiting for the kitchen to develop its own sentience and feeling of self-worth so that it might decide that it needs to do the washing up. We dare not move the sofa for fear of what creatures might dwell underneath. A navigable path between discarded toys, abandoned foodstuff and other assorted detritus is what passes for our living room floor. A shelf in our wardrobe has decided to end it all, taking the one below it along for the ride and yet we carry on as normal - the floordrobe is in full effect.


When I do go to bed, I find it very hard to switch off. Despite being very tired, the brain just keeps going. What about this thing? Did you actually fix that? Oh, don't forget that you haven't written this bit yet! Hey, I've got a great idea for a game! This, in turn, feeds back into the physical resulting in more tiredness and being run down. None of this has been helped by a bout of illness that has gone through the three of us and is just starting its second lap now...

He's back! Everyone's favourite small hog.


But we're here now. The build has been built. Some minor XCode** and iTunesConnect*** quibbles aside, it has been uploaded and is currently Waiting For Review. With what happened with the first one, I'm quietly confident that I've actually done it right this time.

Now we wait.

Thing is, this isn't even the proper launch. We've elected to go for a 'soft' launch. To those not in the know, that means launching in a select group of territories rather than worldwide so that you can test the water. Consider it a bit of a shakedown - like a beta test but instead of picking up on bugs, you're using it to pick up on player habits and see if the monetisation works and so on.

We've chosen four territories for this - Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The trick to a soft launch appears to be picking a territory that will give you representative data without torpedoing your actual launch. That is, you only get one chance at the launch and that window is the most important time in the game's lifespan, so you'd better get it right. One way of looking at it is that we're sacrificing these territories for data. Another is that we're saying "Hey friends! You get our game early! Send us Smash!".

Plenty of positive feedback about the Warhamsters
The beta, BTW, was very successful. Our loyal bunch of bug hounds gave us plenty of feedback and have ensured that, whatever happens, this will be our most polished and bug-free release yet. Oh, I'm not saying they found everything - I'll never assume that every bug has been quashed - but it's an order of magnitude better off for it. Either way, big props to the TouchArcade forums.

As well as the general public, we were also very lucky to be able to call on people like Nick and Mike - people with bonefide design skills that I trust to bring the serious design critique. With game design, I believe you should be able to justify any and each decision you've made. That means you need people to ask the tough questions and point out the flaws so you can address them properly. If you've ever met me in person, you'll know that there's nothing I love more than a good argument about how a particular game could and should work...

But, to return to the mental problem, my new bag is "What if the game doesn't sell at all?".

As I see it, we face several problems.


This is not really news. There are plenty of new games out there, so expecting people to stumble on to ours is a big ask. Whilst a lot rides on being featured, we're not particularly worried on that front -
they've featured our other games before, this one is even better and we've got a good relationship / dialogue with Apple. We should, therefore, be in a good position to be featured. It's by no means a certainty, but I think we've done all we can so there's no sense worrying about it now.

Discoverability is only a part of it though. All that does is place your game in front of eyeballs. The owner of said eyeballs still has to download the game - something obviously made easier by the fact that it doesn't cost them anything to do so, so hopefully we'll pick up on a bunch of people who are prepared to give it a punt.

See? It's got Match-3 written all over it


Our next problem is the fact that it just looks like a match-3 game. Sure, it's got a great art style and some amazing characters, but then again, so do an awful lot of other puzzle games out there. Without actually playing the game, it's very hard for people to get a sense of just how deep and compelling it is. How the underlying mechanics play off each other and allow for plenty of player authorship and skill.


Finally, we have the biggie - how well the game monetises. It may seem obvious, but we need this game to be a financial success. Not for our own benefit, but in order to repay the trust of our publisher and ensure that they are not left out of pocket for this enterprise. Chorus have taken a big risk with us and, as a close friend, we don't want to let them down. If I'm honest, I think this is what is contributing to the mental stress more than anything.

This is really what the soft-launch is really about - to hoover up a bunch of analytics that will show us how people are playing the game and where they're spending the money. Before we get that data though, I have a couple of worrying thoughts.

The way we monetise is fairly standard: The game features two currencies - one standard and one premium or 'hard'. Standard currency is accumulated through gameplay and is used to buy in-game items or goes towards upgrading equipment. Hard currency is drip-fed through achievements and filling the loyalty card as well as being purchasable with real money. It is used to upgrade spells and refill the energy gauge.

Our feeling - from nothing other than experience in playing these sorts of games and other, purely anecdotal evidence - is that people don't pay for stamina. That has been largely proved correct with the limited sample data from the beta where the analytics are telling me that, when prompted with the option to exchange hard currency for stamina so they could carry on playing, 100% of the people refused.

The other thing is that as achievements are generally front-loaded to reward players early, there's no real reason to spend on hard currency early in the game. By the time they reach a point where they've used up all of their initial currency, they're quite far into the game and, although they'll have a lot to spend it on, the big problem is that the game will need exceptional retention for people to get that far. Thankfully, more than anything, that's something that relies on quality, compelling gameplay, which we think we've got covered, but it's still a major worry. 

My feeling is that the majority of our revenue will come from the non-consumable Alchemist (coin doubler) and Loyalty Card purchases. That and the Starter Pack bundle which combines the pair of them as well as some currency and crafting materials at a bargain price.

Also, in what will doubtless have traditional F2P evangelists head-desking with aplomb, we've got Patron Mode. Spend enough money in the game and we bin off the energy model. You're then free to play as much as you like. From a traditional F2P standpoint, this is suicide as it removes whales. For gamers, it is, in theory, what they've been asking for even if there is compelling evidence to suggest that one-time payments for things just don't really work in the mobile space. Of course, there's another argument that states that, since no-one pays for stamina anyway, there's nothing to lose by trying this and surely it'll get us some goodwill?

So there you have it. In theory, Glyph Quest Chronicles should be out this week in Scandinavia. That doesn't mean to say we're done - there's still plenty of work that has to happen before the worldwide launch. We're still waiting on localisation to come back - then it'll have to go back again for extras and the odd tweak here and there. Then there's Facebook integration. And that's before we even get to the monetisation and balancing tweaks we have to make based on the feedback.

Leanne did not enjoy making this guy at all
But for today, at least, I think I might take a bit of a break.

*Although at the time of writing, she was having a big ol' strop and has had to be put down for a nap...
** There are always XCode and iTunesConnect quibbles. Big points to young Parker who is somehow able to debug my code through Facebook when all I do is cut and paste error logs.
*** Top tip: Does it say there's a problem with your localisation? What it actually means is that you're missing a couple of screenshots. Very helpful...

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Cancelling The Apocalypse

It is here, dear reader, that I derail this blog once more in the name of politics and to share a thought that occurred to me just the other day.

I'll start with something fairly simple - America: you baffle me.

I mean, on the surface, I think I get the principle. But in practice, I'm not so sure. Of course, post-Brexit, I feel we Brits have somewhat lost the right to use the 'holier-than-thou' smugness card, so it is with some degree of reverence and foreboding that I present to you my thoughts.

Trump is a twat. I mean a complete buffoon. He is the US version of Boris Johnson - full of rhetoric and a self-serving agenda but sadly devoid of any actual plan to get there.

Hilary is corrupt. Oh, she plays the game much better than most of those around her, but it really does feel like she's in the pocket of people you don't really want the leader of the free world to be in.

In short, they're both really quite bad choices for president. Which is a shame as, barring a frankly ridiculous scenario, one of them is going to be voted in.

And this is where the bafflement starts. It all comes down to the 22nd Amendment. This states that no-one can be president for more than 10 years. Although a relatively recent development (ratified as it was in 1951), it stems from a considerably earlier principle - America doesn't want a monarchy. That is, America doesn't want the same person in charge for too long.

At the start, this was an entirely voluntary thing - presidents would step down after their second term with only a handful going on to try and secure a third*. Usually by then, fatigue has set in and the population are looking for a fresher face anyway.

As to why America doesn't want a monarchy, you only have to look to their formation and relationship with Britain. It's fair to say that, under our monarchy - however ceremonial - they got the short end of the stick.

It's also why the most contentious of Amendments exists - good ol' number 2. The right to bear arms.

See, if the unimaginable happens and the US finds itself staring at a leader that has somehow managed to repeal the 22nd Amendment and install themselves as dictator-for-life, they'll have a fully armed militia able to march straight to the capital and depose the chap.

Again, given the circumstances of the country's conception, a completely understandable and reasonable thing to enshrine into law.

And this is where my thought kicked in.

Are you familiar with the theory that states you should never go food shopping whilst you are hungry? Let me tell you, I have had plenty of first-hand experience of this. What happens is that, yes, you will definitely buy the food you need, but you'll also end up picking up an awful lot of snacks and other stuff that seem like a really good idea at the time but end up going to waste and costing an awful lot more than you had planned for.

Well, I put it to you that a country shouldn't write its basic laws shortly after fighting a brutal war of independence**.

But that's what they've got - a lot of laws and amendments that make sense given the context of the country's foundation but that can seem a little... outdated perhaps?

Anyway, to return to the immediate issue, I propose this - the 28th Amendment - which states that the 22nd Amendment shall be upheld except in the circumstances whereby either of the nominated successors are complete asshats.

* Or fourth, Mr Roosevelt
** Although, ironically enough, that's exactly when you're going to need a set of laws in order to prevent anarchy.

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.