A little personal reflection never hurt anybody

This Trimester was full of some really big changes for me. Until now I’d actively tried to force myself into every leadership role available. I endeavoured to have my hand on every aspect of the project and saw myself as a game design generalist.

I think it’s safe to say that at various point throughout the journey this Tri, all of those things have changed or disappeared entirely.

I took a step back on my projects and allowed my team to guide my actions. I actively (forcefully at times) tried my best to let friends and peers have ownership and agency over their own aspects of the project.

And I finally found the area I want to specialise, and not the vague, nonsense “specialisation” I’ve talked about in the past. A solid, tangible field with actual employment opportunities; with knowledge to absorb from years of literature, UI/UX design.

Unlike earlier trimesters though, these changes weren’t spawned from new knowledge or dramatic game dev upskilling. They happened because, in my eyes at least, I’ve matured. Both as a professional and an adult.

Things that were active mental efforts on my part, being kind in a team setting or looking out for my peers are now things I take great pride in saying are coming much more naturally. I’ve tried so hard to be someone that's better to be around, someone that’s encouraging rather than negative and works to help others improve as much as I do myself.

I finally feel like I’m getting there, getting to a point where I can say I’m proud of who I am and how I behave in a professional setting. People say it’s important to get along with the people you work alongside, but the more I progress in this regard, the more I understand how much further that goes. It’s not just about “getting along”. It’s about understanding them as people. Their likes and dislikes, their motivations and idiosyncrasies. And not just to be more “efficient” in the workplace, but because when those things come together, it brings everyone up a notch. Unknowns stop being scary and become new exciting challenges, obstacles become another thing to improve your skills.

I want to keep working towards this personal change, and I think that’s something that will keep ticking along in the background for my entire life. When I came into this degree, I saw myself as mean. I acted mostly with my best interests at heart and I was often awful to be around. In all honesty I don’t ever want to fucking see myself like that again.

But I think I have the tools, and more importantly the awareness, to keep this positive momentum up and continue to mature and grow as a teammate, a partner, a friend and a son.

This momentum is something I really want to bring into my professional aspirations. I want to start moving forward with a much more direct focus on improving my skills, knowledge and application of UI/UX design. Not only is this to improve my standing as a potential employee or intern, I also think it’s important to have something clear to work towards.

I’m going to (already have) start reading more texts on game design theory as well as try to absorb any and all information around UI and UX.

I also want to start playing more games with a critical eye. Recently when I’ve played games I’ve resented the fact that my perception as a consumer has changed. But knowing more about a band doesn’t make me like music less, knowing how a movie was made doesn’t reduce my experience, so why should I let it impact how much I enjoy playing the games I’m setting out to make?

Talking about this self-improvement is all well and good though. I’ve done it before. I’ve said plenty of times how much I want to get better at something.

But not once have I set myself any goals, no ways to measure my succeed and gauge my progress. But I do know what I want to achieve. It may seem trivial to some, perhaps unreachable to others. But it’s something I really want, it’s something I need

I want to be proud of my work, and I know the only way to do that is to make sure that I’m giving it my all in every possible way, including giving myself the time and care necessary to remain healthy and motivated throughout this endeavour.

Just as much as I want to be proud of my work, I want my peers and friends to see my improvement as well. Recently I’ve realised how important it is to be open to the people around me, to seek out feedback, criticism and approval from my peers.

Sometimes it’s hard. I have gotten better at it, but it’s still a really difficult thing to do. But the opinion of those around me, both of my work and me as a person, is one of the most important things to be aware of.

I also want to keep writing. I’m disappointed in myself for having let my blog fall to the wayside these last few months.I’ve finally sort-of-almost-nearly found my Google Doc voice (though I’m the first to admit my metaphors get a bit pretentious at times).

I think the next step I have to take to achieve all this is to be more public. More public with my blog, my projects, my thoughts and opinions (within reason, looking at you Twitter) and learn to use the feedback, positive and negative, to improve my practice and myself as a person.

These last few months have been exhausting, and I know the coming months are going to be even bigger. But I’m not dreading it like I have in the past. Because I feel like I’m moving in the right direction.


Yu Post Mortem

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Yu was a four-week collaboration between myself, Benjamin Phillips (@Benjamin_MBP) and Ethan Tilley (@EthanTilley_). It managed to become a project of firsts and gave me the  opportunity to tackle a variety of new obstacles, including:

  • Developing a game in VR (on both the Oculus Rift and Oculus Go).

  • Taking the role of the sole artist on a project

  • Exploring  the concept of "Mindfulness"

  • Collaborating with experts from a different field (Psychology)

Designing for Mindfulness

"Yu" was a 5-minute experience that was intended to help guide players into a state of "Mindfulness". We knew going into the project that the entire concept of Mindfulness is an intensely personal thing. Each of us as individuals understand it in different but equally important ways.

So how do we go about creating an experience that can speak to all these individual needs and preferences?

Expert Advice

Without an outside perspective, Yu could have started out on a  swift, downward trajectory. Thankfully, we had the opportunity to engage in an enlightening conversation with Ally and Sarah, two Counsellors that work on our campus. Their take on Mindfulness became crucial to the foundation of Yu.

"Mindfulness isn't about ignoring the world around, it's about bringing awareness to your role in that space and accepting everything that may come with that."

Hearing this from someone with years of knowledge in the field really helped to shape our approach to Yu's design. We were able to move forward with a clear design goal:

Each individual finds their "mindful state" in a different place, so let's provide players with a space in which they can simply be calm and thoughtful. Let's take this chance to be a small part of their larger journey.

Our Own Experiences

Building on this design goal, the team and I all felt it was important to first examine how we perceive mindfulness. We did some research on mindful practices, looking at existing tools like Headspace and OneGiantMind for inspiration while also drawing on our own personal experiences.

Many of the practices we found involved "Bodyscans", actively directing your focus to individual parts of your body, or verbally guided meditation/thought exercises. None of us connected with these practices and though we know they work for others, trying to create an experience based on something we didn’t understand didn’t make sense.

We wanted to do better, so Ben and I decided to talk through some things we’d both found useful in the past, and we managed to find a common thread. We’ve both (sporadically) practised yoga, and guided meditations were a huge part of why we connected to it. We thought there was huge potential in this base, and so we asked Ally and Sarah if they’d engaged in anything like this in a professional sense.

Ally then guided us through a simple breathing exercise designed to help refocus the individual on themselves and their breathing rather than the outside world.

We immediately realised that was the direction we wanted to go. We were going to take our players through a guided meditation via a simple breathing exercise. We weren’t going to be able to force the player to be mindful, especially with a television attached to their face, but we could help to change their perspective, even if it’s only brief.

Constraints

VR brings with it so many unique gameplay opportunities. The flip-side of that, however, is having a whole bag full of constraints.

Text:
With the resolution and layout of VR screens, text is either completely illegible or incredibly difficult to read. It can also cause some users to feel ill. We were trying to create a full experience for the players, one that didn't have any tattered edges that draw the player out of this crucial state of mind.

We had to figure out ways to guide the player without written prompts or verbal guides.

Movement:
Movement can be a huge issue within VR. Players can become disoriented and sometimes violently ill. This was obviously a huge concern for us, so we decided to remove it as an element altogether.

Performance:
Standalone VR units like the Oculus Go have strict performance limitations. Units like the Oculus Rift that run from a PC, although better, are also plagued by similar issues. We had to make sure to scope all of our assets, especially costly elements like post-processing, accordingly.

Limiting Factors Become Creative Tools

Taking on board the constraints of the project helped us design something with a much more refined focus. We knew exactly the experience we were trying to craft and had a clear set of parameters to work within.

These clear guidelines led to the formulation of two key elements that allowed Yu to become what it is today.

  • A distinct art style that didn't rely on post-processing or adding effects to achieve it's intended effect.

  • Diagetic UI: gameplay prompts that were built into the environment in order to avoid drawing the player out of the experience.

Being so aware of our constraints was hugely beneficial to the project, but it might have made us too comfortable in terms of the design space we decided to occupy. We didn’t take risks or really try to push the limits of what we could do with the hardware.

In hindsight, this really was an enormous missed opportunity. We could have challenged ourselves in a new way. I’m disappointed we didn’t try and push ourselves like I know we can.

The Core Loop

We broke the game down into a very basic loop that was based on the breathing exercise we ran through with Ally.

00:00 - 01:30
Players are introduced to the area and given control over some of the elements on the screen.

01:30 - 03:30
Players are guided through a breathing exercise, breathing in for 3 seconds, hold for 3 seconds, breathing out for 3 seconds.

Control over the environment is removed at this point.

03:30 - 05:00
Players are eased back into their location and once again given agency over the environment.

The idea was simple, allow the player to become comfortable environment, direct them through the meditation, then allow them to “snap out” of the guided section and relax once more.

The loop itself was executed well, but despite many adjustments, we struggled to make the loop feel anything but “long”. Changing the duration of each section didn’t make the game flow any better, so I feel there may have been something missing. Perhaps a new interactable could have been added towards the end of the loop to create something new for the player to explore.

Creating the Art

Yu was the first time in my short game dev career where I was the sole artist on the project. I’m usually working in collaboration with someone else, so t gave me the opportunity to try my hand at really refining my own aesthetic. The freedom this gave me was really refreshing. I was still consulting my team, but the bulk of the decisions fell back on me, and I think it gave me the chance to really craft something visually cohesive.

First Pass Sun Sprite

First Pass Sun Sprite

Final Sun Sprite

Final Sun Sprite

We established Okami as an aesthetic reference early on, an idea born from our desire to use carp as the main interactable feature within the game.

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I was able to draw, animate, and design the colour palette. The solid design inspiration and clear visual direction base helped me take what I could see in my head and tangibly transfer it into Yu’s world.

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I chose to combine the distinct calligraphy style with a pastel colour palette in an attempt to create a softer feel throughout the environment. One of the largest issues I came across was ensuring that elements in the environment felt cohesive but remained distinct enough from one another for the player. This was crucial due to the resolution limitations of our platform.

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I felt like I almost achieved this goal, but some elements felt a bit jarring. The hills didn't quite match the pine trees and the yellow of the sun felt harsh at times. I need to do some more research in the field of colour theory, it's such a crucial part of a game and devastating when not given the attention it requires.

Wrapping Up

Yu was an interesting project for me to be a part of. Although I wasn’t initially inspired to work on VR, I think it gave me the chance to learn some really important things.

Being aware of your constraints is incredibly important, but letting yourself be entirely bound by them can stunt your project and limit your creative capabilities. You have to be able to embrace them as tools to use rather than see them as the outer limit on what you could or should be doing.

Playstyles With Personality

How many times have you sat down to write something clever or insightful and just, you know, ranted?

I've just spent 5 hours putting cheese on shelves at a supermarket. My daily quota for internal ranting has well and truly been met.

I thought maybe I'd ask you something for a change, god knows this blog has heard enough about what I think.

If you can, try and picture your favourite "playstyle" from anything you've played in the past (I know, there's a lot to choose from, bare with me).

Maybe it's that build in World of Warcraft you beat your head against a wall trying to farm for.

Is it that champion from League of Legends you know inside-out and back-to-front?

It could even be as simple as a weapon or a skill. Maybe you just fucking adore the sniper rifle in all of its glorious iterations.

Think as big or as small as you'd like.

Now, I don't know you. I don't know what types of games you play. Don't know what you do for a living. But despite that, I can guaran-fucking-tee the answer to my question wasn't "Mercenary".

I'll put money on the fact that it wasn't "Technology".

I'd also wager that generic, incremental stat increases don't exactly butter your bread (although I am admittedly a sucker for crit chance).

Whatever you thought of, whatever you chose, it's a small part of your personality. It speaks to you in a way that feels different from other things you've played.

It stands out.

So why do I keep seeing so many skill-trees with the blandest,  most generic bullshit I've ever seen?

Brawler. Hunter. Survivor.

It just feels weird to me. For a medium that connects so tangibly with its audience, it makes no god damned sense to see such a white-washed view of what the "average player" wants

The "average player" really doesn't even exist. It's made-up, a thing we use to make some informed guesses about what average people want.  Aiming for Average players is a financial consideration. It's not about designing things in the most interesting way.

This is really important for videogames as a whole. I think as the curators of a young, growing medium, the onus is on us to make something that's different than what's come before. To take what's already been explored and add a piece of ourselves.

That's why it's starting to bother me so much to see AAA companies (that are obviously brimming with creative talent) churn out an endless series of beige "talent systems" that are inspired neither by creativity nor personality.

I think games should have systems that encourage growth, progression and experimentation. They shouldn't just aim for the path of least resistance.

I adore Path of Exiles' dauntingly beautiful Skill Tree.

I relish the opportunity to try (and fail) to craft the perfect deck in Slay the Spire.

I embrace being beaten down at every opportunity because I forgot to upgrade my armour (again) in Darkest Dungeon.

And I think there are some central elements to why these are the things that speak to me.

 And why "Mercenary" doesn't.

  • They all provide interesting and dynamic moments of frustration that are based on the decisions that I make.

  • They speak to the intrinsic value that's associated with learning and mastering new mechanics, rules and techniques.

And this is the most important for me by far:

  • They have a clear mechanical personality. They aren't trying to please everyone, they're trying to be themselves and have as much fun doing that as they possibly can.

We should be designing new systems that are based on these elements. I don't think we should just tell the player that something is going to make you a "Hunter" or a "Brawler", we've moved past that (plus they're shit titles). We have to show them.

We should be making things with a mechanical identity, exploring weird new ideas that haven't been given life yet.

We need to start making systems that are based around a real, tangible personality, not just a throwaway theme (this is obviously not indicative of the entire games industry).

I'll leave you with a line that sums up my next major work:

"The Hook is the hook."

Make of that what you will, it's gonna be weird.

I'll be talking about it more in the weeks to come in my blogs as well as on my personal Twitter.

 

Riley.

"Mini"

Why is it the term "Minigame" used to put things down?

Just because it's small doesn't mean it isn't as finely crafted as a sprawling 60 hour RPG. On the contrary, I think the ability to convey an experience to an audience in such a succinct way is kind of beautiful.

Length == Quality is an equation that seems lie at the core of so many games in recent times. But is it really better because it's longer?

Lord of the Rings isn't a good movie because it's 3 hours long. It's good because Tolkien was an auteur genius and Gandalf is a baller.

But forcing length seems to be the way of the industry. Even titles like Witcher and God of War, whose critical response was amazing, can feel a bit long in the tooth at times.

Why don't we have more 5-hour games with shorter, more focused narratives over these 50-hour monoliths with endless side quests and a thinly spread story?

To take it a step further, why can't a 20-second "minigame" be just as powerful?

At one point, someone made a passing comment that a project I'd been working on reminded them of a minigame in Mario Party.

At first, I was offended.

Then I was confused.

Then I was curious.

I realised that maybe a small, shitty little toy can be meaningful too.

I went back and looked at some of the stages in Mario Party. I revisited an old favourite in WarioWare. I even had the chance to run through What Remains of Edith Finch with my peers.

They all seem to do it in their own unique way, but each game manages to one, connected experience through many individually crafted pieces (even if that experience is sandwich-munching and cat-dancing).

I realised how little the length of a game had to do with its quality. As I piece together nuggets (with sweet and sour sauce) of information here and there, my vision of how games mean shifts.

A game really isn't one huge "thing". It's dozens or even hundreds of small, finely tuned "minigames" all working together to form something with meaning.

Being able to explain an idea with just a few words is an art.

"Mini" is actually a compliment.

It means the picture that you've painted is clear, that you're using each of the individual colours at your disposal to their fullest potential.

It means you know what you're trying to make people feel, even if it's only brief.

I need to do more of it.

 

More soon, Riley.

Stumbling

In an earlier post, I spoke briefly on those moments where a solution seems to just fall into your lap. You probably knew there was an issue, you might have even pointed it out to your team.

But you didn't really have to "solve" it. It looked after itself.

While I'm 1000% for solutions just popping out of the snow (like daisies), it's not something I can learn from. A conscious effort should always be involved in solving design problems, even if the initial inspiration is accidental.

We reached a breaking point during the production of Roast-it-Notes. We felt trapped by a number of the decisions we'd already made, and instead of wading through the murk to try and clear a path for ourselves, we just floundered. We didn't make a concerted effort to explore new options and find the root of the problem.

It almost became one of many things I've tossed into the "Too Hard" basket over the years.

On the surface, our problem was simple, "We don't know how to make the player do what we want". But we had no idea where to go. Our initial concept had started to cave in on itself and what we thought were going to be solutions had already been tossed out the window.

In what felt like an (albeit tame) moment of despair we asked those around us for help.

Our peers and facilitators gave up some amazing suggestions, and without them, the project would probably be sitting right next to "Get Jacked for Summer" in the aforementioned Basket of Too Hard.

But having someone else solve our problem isn't the takeaway in this scenario, not for me anyway.

When we came to various people with our problem, they all had the same response.

They asked us questions.

"Who is the player?"

"Why is the player doing "x" "

"Are you giving the player a goal?"

And as I wrote that out just now, I realised how painfully obvious the answer was. We find the solution by calling ourselves out on our bullshit.

Interrogate what we already have.

Why did we put that there? What purpose is this serving? What can the player do?

We needed to rattle the cage a bit to see what fell down and what stayed solid. There's no point in looking for a solution to something if you don't even know what your project is about.

Bottom line?

Ask ourselves more questions, have more answers.

 

More soon, Riley.

Hide & Seek

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I think it's fair to assume that we've all played Hide and Seek at some point throughout our lives. It's a pure and simple concept. You go hide, I'll come and find you. That's all that's been necessary to keep children (and adults, no judgment) entertained for generations (so long as my dick brother doesn't leave me for hours without looking).

I think the thread that I've tried to tease away from this childhood pastime is the idea that we love to look for things, even if we know what they are. The act of searching for a specific goal gives us something singular and tangible to focus on. It challenges our perception of an environment to adapt as our internal aperture unconsciously adjusts as we go. It allows us to see the things that we'd not have noticed in the past and may not notice in the future.

A new goal, a new focus.

A new focus, a new perception.

Although there are obvious exceptions to this statement, it's fair to say that the narratives that reside within video games are often approached in a way that would have my Year 12 English teacher convulsing:

"Tell, don't show"

Here's the story, here's what's important. Now go do the things I said.

There is some merit to this approach. Giving the players a strong initial premise can help to create a strong foundation for them to build the perception around. It can also provide them with purpose and motivation that propels them through their world.

But for me, less is always more.

I think game developers have the unique opportunity to create a world that someone can physically inhabit. Why tell them straight out "this person is bad and this is where you should go" when instead we could gift them a series of opportunities to explore the world we've crafted?

"Show, don't tell"

Dead Cells approach to narrative is a masterclass in this line of thinking. Though the over-arching goal of each run remains the same, kill the guys and reach the end, the smaller "sub-goals" (find a weapon blueprint, gain a new rune, unlock a new path) changes our perception of each area in between individual runs. Though the world remains the same, our view of it has shifted. It can unveil things we'd previously overlooked and allows us as players to build our own understanding of the area.

Something meaningful doesn't always have to be thrust in your face. Maybe sometimes we can just let the player find it for themselves, whatever that may mean to them.

More soon, Riley.

Just The Corner

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Roast-it Notes is an experience that's summed up by tossing stools around a kitchen to the score of 50 Shades quotes (yeah, really). Unsurprisingly, the project has been throwing up some interesting things to wrangle. We've had to make several large-scale pivots, script over 10 minutes of nonsense radio segments, and try our best to carve a narrative into the world without actually telling anyone what's happened.

It's been an interesting project for a number of reasons so far and throughout the whole process has been characterised by design decisions that none of us had ever been faced with.

"This isn't what the game was supposed to be about, why do people like it?"

"How the fuck do we get people to do what we want?"

"This feels like a box. How do we make it feel like not a box?

With each slight hiccup, we've had the opportunity to explore our options when it comes to solving them. Many were based on the feedback from both our peers and facilitators (who are all beasts). Others were dealt with in a way that very consciously stayed within the constraints of our initial concept, in order to not skew this vision. We made changes to the entire control scheme, we shifted the narrative several times and we altered the flow of the experience overall. We really tried to take it from a scene with "things you can do" to an environment that sets up a narrative, gives the player a clear direction and then spurs them on with specifically crafted interactions.

One of our biggest issues early on was making the space (a sharehouse kitchen) feel like it was a space that people actually live in. It sounds cliche' "oh daaaarling I want this space to feel lived in!", but removing the sterility inherent to a digital environment was something really important to us.

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It didn't matter how many times we changed colour palettes or adjusted the scale of the benches, we just couldn't wipe away this veneer of fakeness. We tried to add some clutter al naturale, but it felt about as natural as the scenery in a snowglobe.

The solution (at least partially) came at the hands of a bit of a cock-up on our end. With little 3D modelling experience, it was pretty clear that we were going to make a few mistakes. Turns out these mistakes meant we had to redo the scene from what was essentially scratch. Not ideal, but as it turns out, quite beneficial.

So when we started to put the scene back together (it was actually the third time we'd had to do this) someone suggested that we needed a door. "I'm just going to cut off this corner real quick, I'll throw a door on it later".

"Oh shit. Check this out."

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It turned out that, more than any other seemingly significant change we'd made, the actual shape of the room itself was the element we'd overlooked.

I've already learnt so many interesting things from this project. Sometimes it's not your initial idea that ends up as the star of the game. Maybe it's not always bad when you have to redo things?

More than anything I think it's going to change the way I problem solve on my future projects. It's often the case that I'mt trying to solve for functionality rather than feel. But what's the point of something that works if it feels like a steaming pile of shit? What's the point of having something cool if you're not drawing the player to it and giving them the utmost opportunity to explore it?

It's nice to feel like I''m finally starting to take strides as a Developer and as a Designer. I don't just feel like a "maker of things" any more. I'm trying, at least, to craft specific experiences for other people to mess around with and break and enjoy.

At the end of the day, I just want people to have the same stupid grin on their face that I had when I was making it.

More soon, Riley.

I Think I like You. Like, Rogue-Like you..

"Why do you like that?" is sort of a weird question to ask someone. It's a bit like "Why are you tall?" or  "Why don't you like beetroot?" (which, btw, is wrong. Beetroot is the business).

It's weird to ask and often even stranger to answer. But it's something I've started asking myself. Why do I have as many hours in Slay the Spire as I do unplayed games in my steam library *cough* 50 *cough*? Why do Enter the Gungeon and Darkest Dungeon (sick rhyme) strategies fill my thoughts while I'm stacking shelves at my part-time job?

The last time I felt this way was during my first, beautiful playthrough of Borderlands 2. It occupied an unhealthy portion of my thoughts and it consumed most of my (admittedly limited) social life. God, I loved every damn moment of it. I loved the guns, I loved the skill-trees. I loved trying out weird new builds only to get thrashed in Fink's Slaughterdome and respec immediately. I think above all else, I adored the fact that amongst its bulging skill trees, and often unwieldy mechanics (looking at you, health-gating), it never took itself too seriously.

I think for the first time as a "Gamer", but more importantly, as a Game Developer, I found my "Why?". I want to make skill trees that people can pour their heart and soul into, but at the same time, I want to make unusable guns that shriek at you when you pull the trigger (fuck you, bane). I want to make satisfying, thought-provoking combat buuuuut I also want that combat to be against giant living bullets that shoot smaller versions of themselves.

Roguelikes like Gungeon or Binding of Isaac seem to exist in their own little universe where dense mechanics and hours of pattern recognition slide in nicely right alongside crude humour and obscure references. That shit is me in a nutshell.

Guns that wear hats and do kickflips. Self-flagellation as an archetype. Items that memeily (it's a word) reference its predecessors. Sign me up.

I've been working on my professional presence, so here's a rough draft for my business card -

"Riley Lollback.

Roguelike liker.

Climber of Skill Trees.

Lover of stupid shit."