Gaming Reality

Exploring game design

Compulsion loops in the short, medium and long-term, if visualised, would resemble helm chain

Introduction:

Compulsion loop is a very fancy term isn’t it? It’s a recently coined term, perhaps a couple of years old, I’m unsure of its exact origin. However, there is no official definition of it, so as a result it’s often bandied around with slight nervousness lest someone asks you what it actually is. This of course is the point at which you run away screaming, mumbling crazily something about Zynga and the horrors of manipulation, death and pestilence or whatever.

My definition of a compulsion loop is that it is a construct designed to keep someone engaged by marrying their action/s with an appropriate level of reward. But in essence it has been around forever, we just didn’t have a name for it. The greatest creators of entertainment have had an innate understanding of it since we all sat around the fire scratching our heads as Neanderthals. It’s nothing new. Different mediums achieve it in their own way, but all essentially reward for attention and effort and when this equilibrium falters the loop dissipates.

Here is the rub though; reward for effort in the short-term is very different to what we want in the long-term. Whack-a-mole forever would be hell on earth right? At some point we want a deeper sense of reward from an activity beyond the short-term thrills and if we don’t get it, we move on. It is diminishing returns.

So we need to examine what keeps people compelled beyond the here and now. To this end I believe there needs to be three compulsion loops engaging us at the same time, tapping into our desire for different kinds of gratification in the short, medium and long-term. The most compelling experiences keep on giving through all these timeframes allowing people to form a deep and lasting attachment, which is of course a quality that society and all of us individually cherish in an experience.

So how do we aim to achieve this with our games? To answer this I think we need to look at what drives us in each of these timeframes, then ask how that can help inform the way we structure our games. Of course there have been special games we all hold dear that have already demonstrated a masterful understanding of this topic and I don my hat to them. Hopefully then, these examples may pop into your head as you read further.

 

Short-term: Preoccupation and instant gratification

This is, of course, familiar territory to us all; we live it moment to moment. It is this glorious realm in which instant gratification rules supreme and we revel in our actions having direct consequence and reward.

Of all the timeframes this is perhaps the easiest to reduce the human being to monkey-mash-button-for-banana (I’m not going to mention the games guilty of this!). It’s here where the player’s actions should have a tangible effect on the game world and be sufficient as to preoccupy the player.

Preoccupation is important in the short-term because it is also the point at which us humans are most likely to take flight and find the next pretty flower to buzz to. Your grip on the player is at its most vulnerable so you need to be sticky and your compulsion loops tight to keep the player occupied.

The aim here is for the player to form a sense of attachment. Preoccupying the player can achieve this because it means the player will sink time into the experience. This is significant because investment inevitably seeks a return and the player will naturally develop a growing curiosity on what form this may take.

The point at which the player begins to care is crucial as it ushers in the opportunity to loosen the compulsion loops a bit and build toward something with a bit more substance in the longer term.

Bee a sticky flower

 

Medium-term: Construction and deferred gratification

People are constantly looking for reasons to give up on something. If we don’t feel we’re getting back what we put in, we’ve become very adept at recognising the signals and moving on.

Our lives are now crammed with many opportunities promising instant reward and yes many of them are false and empty, but their potential for distraction is very real. You could indeed argue many people are permanently distracted by this chase (I’m looking at you western culture).

Now more than ever your game needs to give compelling reasons for the player to return. This needs to involve long-term attachment because short-term compulsion has such a weak hold, even when done well. A deeper hook is needed to keep the player caught.

The transition point between the short and long-term is therefore a critical juncture. The fragile attachment developed by players in the short-term can easily shatter and curiosity wane. That deeper hook needs to be alluded to in the medium-term by giving context to the player’s actions. Framing short-term activity as building blocks contributing toward a greater structure should be a key goal for the designer.

It is the job of compulsion loops in the medium-term to convert the player from folly and a dazed state of preoccupation to a sense of clear purpose. Action needs to be rewarded with a sense of contribution toward something, rather than being disparate, unconnected and meaningless.

If you still have the player in the medium-term you are afforded more leeway with your compulsion loops but it is crucial that they are leveraged as much as possible. The medium-term is about deferred gratification because the action here is not about offering a direct reward but the promise of a greater one if you continue building.

Frame the contribution toward a greater structure.

 

Long-term: Legacy and reflective gratification

As in life, players want their short and medium term activities to amount to something in the long-term. We all seek meaning, if the short-term can be the worst of us; the long-term can be the most noble in our pursuit of it.

Building toward something is therefore a hugely compelling force. Through leaving something behind we add definition to the universe and therefore meaning to others. Perhaps legacy is too lofty a concept for games to achieve or indeed for game designers to dare talk about in those terms. But actually, it is through play that we express our understanding of this world and our part in it. Games more than deserve their seat at that particular hallowed table.

So in practical terms what do we need to achieve in this timeframe? What can repay the player devotion exercised up to this point? The answer actually is that the journey repays itself, it is the reward; the long-term structures we allow the player to build toward are simple reflections and distillations of this. Yes it is corny, yes it’s a platitude uttered in many a Disney film but dammit it’s true!

Long-term compulsion loops then, are afforded the greatest size but it is imperative that the structure reflects accomplishment, allows for demonstration of mastery and serves as a meaningful embodiment of the player’s journey. In an ironic final twist the long-term compulsion loop is but a mere apparition. It never fulfils its loop, but it doesn’t matter.

What does the player leave behind?

 

Conclusion:

We are compelled to draw more from life, as we are in a game, the more we’re engaged by it. It is our conviction of purpose in the short and medium-term that ultimately justify our achievements in the long-term and keep us motivated to keep pushing forward. It’s when we lose this that things stagnate and we seek change.

Compulsion loops are often cited as the worst of game development, that it is somehow bringing too much science and manipulation into the art of making games. In my opinion it is actually the opposite and quite beautiful. It lies at the very beating heart of human nature and what we want from our experiences. I say, what better way is there, in fact, to frame how we should approach the way in which we make our games?

 

This is a question which can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the game design fraternity. This is largely due to the assumption that any designer worth his/her salt should immediately know the answer and regale the inquisitor with definitive pearls of wisdom on the subject. But the truth is, there is something quite slippery about game design and no clear answer for the question above. In fact trying to do so could be compared to attempting to nail jelly to a wall. So understandably game designers can suddenly look a bit broken when asked the question. This is largely because it involves summoning every ounce of every experience they’ve ever had and distilling it down into a few choice words on how they try to make things fun for people. In other words it’s a bit of an impossible ask, but hey, I like a challenge so my very own distillations on what makes a good game are below:

Engagement - Players should care about everything that is happening during play. Great games demand attentiveness to the clear and subtle shifts in game-play to achieve success:

“I have to pay attention or I’ll lose”.

Meaningful Choices - The decisions that players make during play should affect the outcome of the game. The more this impact registers with the player/s, the greater the sense of attachment they’ll have to it. People tend to care more for things they’ve had a greater influence on.

“Everything that I and other players do, matters”.

Purpose - Everyone likes to feel they have a purpose and games are no different, players will ask questions like; why am I doing what I’m doing? Why is it important? Any confusion in this area will detract from the game experience. The best games have clear goals. People don’t like to feel that they’re having their time or effort wasted, having a clear and meaningful purpose alleviates this.

“I know what I have to do and it’s important”.

Depth - There should always be something more for players to learn, either about the game or themselves or indeed other players. Mastery of ones actions is a compelling proposition for people because it reveals a refined view of things that can give us advantage over others. Great games have plenty of depth that allow for players to demonstrate this.

“Playing this game gives me a sense of empowerment”.

Accessibility - Players should never feel overwhelmed. An accessible game will always make the player/s feel in control whether a beginner or an expert. The best games reveal complexity with mastery rather than front-loading a player from the start.

“I feel like an expert at this game”.

Bounceability - This denotes the positive feeling players get at the end of a game where they strongly feel they can do much better next time they play. This is often combined with immediately wanting to play again and is tied very closely with the qualities of addictiveness. Evoking this from a player is a very strong sign of an awesome game. Not only does the player feel like they’ve learned from the experience but critically they also feel it is instantly actionable.

“Next time will be different, I’ve got this sussed”.

Player Expression - Everyone is inherently unique, games that allow players to demonstrate individual expression, talent or flair tap into an innate human disposition to show societal value. People enjoy games that allow this to be demonstrated in an obvious way.

“That chess-master clearly has an incredibly logical mind”.

Flexibility - Fantastic games can accommodate multiple approaches and still deliver. Well balanced mechanics form a self regulating system that always give a fun experience that feels unique to the player/s.

“I always have a fun game”.

Value - The best games give players multiple returns on their investment and I don’t mean financially, I mean in time and effort. This can be tangible, but more often it’s intangible; either way players always feel like they’ve got something out of the game. They feel rewarded for playing.

“I’ve got so much use out of this game”.

That final point is where I’ll end because it is one of the most crucial. What has value to people is that which is useful to them. This sounds cold, but actually, what is useful to people comes in many guises as well as games. Great music, art, films, poetry, people, theatre, books, TV alongside many other mediums found across our collective cultures are all useful because they help people find meaning to their own lives. They refine and distill messages, stories, emotions and lessons, they allow people to frame their own life experience in a meaningful way. Ultimately, this is all that people are searching for. The joy of each medium is the way in which it does it. The question we have to ask ourselves as game developers is how do our games fulfill this function? How are they useful to people? I hope this article has gone a small way to explaining how the best ones do.

Hogrocket Logo 

It has been almost 6 months now since I co-founded our games company Hogrocket. I’ve learnt a lot over this period and it feels like the right time to write some of that down and share it. I hope that it’ll be of interest to you. Some of the points may be obvious; all that I’ll say is that I set up the company to learn and I certainly don’t claim to be any kind of authority. The following constitutes the most important discoveries and lessons I’ve learnt so far:

Making decisions is critical for momentum: Indecision and constant discussion is a comfort trap and a big time sink. Make decisions with conviction and then learn your lessons. You’ll learn far more than endlessly debating over the perfect course of action (which doesn’t exist anyway).

You’ll swiftly learn your strengths and weaknesses: Which is fantastic because knowing them is a strength in its own right! Working in a small team is like a boiling pot, things will bubble to the surface quickly. This tends to give you a heightened sense of everyone’s skills and character traits, including your own, which is a welcome side-effect to the volatility.

You’ve got to be in the same room together: Working from home seemed like a good idea, we would save on fuel, use Skype and not have distractions. However, creative collaboration needs face-face communication to effectively exchange ideas and the energy behind them. Even more important is focus, when working remotely it’s all too easy for team members to start pulling away and heading in their own direction. Working remotely becomes an exercise in reigning things in rather than getting stuff done.

Running your own company is a different kind of stress: Note that I didn’t say more stress, I can certainly attest to the stresses of working for someone else. The difference is the increase in stress you place upon yourself. There is more internal pressure than the usual external because things matter much more to you personally. As a result I’ve gained more self-discipline, more appreciation for the benefit of exercise and just as critically, the need for rest.

Let your experts be experts: If you’re contracting people to do work for you then give them clear direction on what you want to achieve and then get out of the way. Just because it’s your company or your project it doesn’t make you an expert on everything. Sometimes sticking your oar in can serve only to muddy the water. You’re paying them for a reason; because they can do something you can’t do yourself.

Make money: This attitude you may think is not becoming of an ‘indie’ studio doing things for the love. And although I care a lot about what we’re creating ‘love’ is not guaranteed to pay the bills and I’m getting kind of tired of the romanticism surrounding being ‘indie’. I want to create a viable business, let’s not fool ourselves here, whether making games or crackers if you’re not selling then you’re screwed. Seth Godin always talks about the fear of shipping and he is absolutely spot-on. I think we’ve created a great first game and hopefully it will make money but I’ll be a lot more comfortable once we’ve shipped it and next time I don’t plan for us to take nearly as long.

Humility: I’ve gained a much greater admiration for those who manage to run successful companies and projects. This has been particularly apparent for me because after writing my blog for a year now I’ve realised quite how much of a difference there is between saying and doing. I’ll be held accountable to what I have written by the quality of our games and quite honestly this scares me to death! But there’ll be no greater judge on those accounts than myself.

That final point is a good place to conclude this review because it ties in with a broader lesson that I’ve learnt – which is the need to make mistakes for yourself, its one thing to be told, but quite the other to learn the hard way. Lessons tend to sink in more when they affect you directly! So in this regard the life experience has been invaluable and worth taking the risk for.

I would love to hear about your own experiences, feel free to contact me or comment below.

It was spring 2010 and there I was sat on the edge of my couch shouting excitingly at the television. I was gripped in the frenzied concentration and exacerbated stick wiggling that can only come from a game such as Fifa. Playing over Xbox live with a good friend (in this case Gavin Bartlett – Associate Art Director at Playground Games) and with headphones is a particularly heady combination guaranteed to cause maximum competitive stress and ridicule for the loser; great fun.

In the middle of a particularly hard fought game Gavin suddenly paused play. I glanced down and noticed that I was crushing my controller with all the ferocity of a crazy person. The intensity of the game had been so high that it wasn’t until it was interrupted that I saw how caught up I had become. It was this moment that was to become the catalyst for a fascinating journey into measuring intensity of player experience. In the words of the fresh prince – this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down…by biometrics.

Reflecting back on this mid-game moment it had got me thinking about whether the intensity of a gaming experience could be measured by how hard a player gripped the controller. The first thing to ascertain was whether I was a freak or not, was this phenomenon just unique to me? Turns out that thankfully it wasn’t, enough people at the studio (at the time – Bizarre Creations) shared the same experience. High intensity, it seemed, equalled feverish grip.

I explained my theory to a close friend (James Thompson) who is an engineer by trade. I asked him if he knew of a sensor that measured pressure on an object. His first thought was a strain gauge. The problem, on further investigation, was that this was more suitable for measuring the deformity of an object, a shearing or twisting force. This wasn’t what we wanted, what we needed was more a measure of how hard the controller was being squeezed, in effect the tightness of the grip. On further investigation we found another sensor called a ‘Force Sensitive Resistor’ or FSR for short. The FSR did exactly what we needed by measuring direct force or pressure on the sensor. To my great delight it also turned out to be pretty cheap and even better it could be bought in a small enough size to fit on a 360 pad, what a result! A cunning plan had begun to form in my head!

Now not being much of an electronics man I needed a solution where I could visualise the data from the FSR sensor. This came in the form of the wonderful Arduino board; a DIY electronic prototyping platform that even total amateurs like me can use. Not only could I buy an Arduino board but I could also buy a pack of FSR’s and a bunch of other wires and other necessary paraphernalia from a wonderful specialist electronic website in the UK called Oomlout. These guys are also particularly awesome because they provide, free of charge, very well written step by step printed tutorials with each sensor that tells you how to get the sensors hooked up and working on the Arduino board. The FSR tutorial rig hooked up with an LED that would get brighter the more pressure that was applied to the sensor. This video was the result:

I felt like a kid again. There was something magical about playing with electronics again; it brought back memories of playing with those Lego motors as a kid. Having something tangible in your hands that you can fiddle and experiment with brings a certain joy that is lost on screen I think. I guess I could have stopped there, but I was a little bit hooked by this point. I’d become caught up in the excitement of rediscovering the simple joys of messing around with toys and electronics. I asked myself, how could I take this to the next level? How can I measure the force of player grip via more than a blinking LED!

Retro Lego Motor

The answer came as a result of some feverish googling. As a non-coder I’ve become somewhat of an expert in finding snippets of web-code on random websites and kind of hamming it into things until it eventually works through trial and error.  It’s a style I’ve honed over many years and it wasn’t to disappoint me this time around either! I found this brilliant website: www.ladyada.net. This page gave me a snippet of script that could be run with the Arduino SDK that measured the actual Newton force being output second to second by the sensor. Unbelievable, I guess this sense of euphoria would have been even further pronounced had I coded all this entirely by myself, but hey, progress was being made and that was more important!

What this new data output had provided was a means for me to sell the concept to my colleagues at Bizarre. If I had this Newton force data outputting in real-time from the FSR surely this could be visualised with a line graph? If recorded alongside someone playing our current games (at the time – Blur and James Bond: Bloodstone) we could determine the game-play intensity felt by the player when playing our games. This, I felt, would be really useful because at the time we had excellent resources gathering quantitative data and game metrics providing qualitative data but this would provide an extra dimension.

So I jury-rigged the FSR to a 360 controller and the Arduino to my netbook with it running the Newton Force script in the SDK. I have to say, it all looked pretty awesome in its nerdiness:

Jury-rigged FSR to Xbox 360 controller

It drew a small crowd when I showed the FSR in action. I don’t think many game developers can resist mad experiments so it was a successful demonstration. Everybody was pretty excited at the potential and interested in exactly how useful the data could be. We discussed other potential ways of visualising the data, Chris Pickford (now super developer at Jagex) and Michael Evans (our Tableau man) were convinced we could run the data through Tableau and get some really interesting overlays on our maps. So the next step was some further pillaging of clever coder brains. Two were to become my absolute heroes – tools programmers Ken Macleod and Jamie Hales – Jamie for joining me on this mini-project and Ken as his manager for giving him time in his schedule to do so!

Jamie was quick to write an application that communicated with the FSR. He connected to the Arduino via a COM serial connection and exposed variables in a debug interface that allowed tweaking of the sensitivity values. This allowed them to be placed in a range that was attuned to a natural gripping of the pad. Jamie’s program then communicated this data via a TCP/IP connection to the game, overlaying a graph showing the current sensor input value in a vertical bar, and a graph showing the input history for the last X seconds. The game then used its logging system to log the sensor values in a database as a per-frame and per-second average. This was logged alongside other game data such as health, position etc and allowed visualisations showing the mapping areas where people were gripping the pad the hardest.

Being able to tweak the sensitivity of the data proved to be critical. It was much more manageable in this more reasonable range rather than spiking so drastically second to second. By this time Mike had set up Tableau ready to take the data and visualise it. The harder the player squeezed the pad larger circles would be drawn along with a deeper shade of red. Because we were getting second to second data from the sensor a happy bi-product emerged where we could see the player’s path through the level. Of course what we were capturing from the player was very much open to interpretation as to exactly what emotion/s we were capturing by the player squeezing the pad. But intriguingly what we were getting through from the map overlays appeared to match up with where we expected the intense player stress to be; fire-fights, tricky track sections on racing levels. Not only that but we were getting granularity in the data, seeing a build up in stress levels and a come down from events. What we appeared to be getting was an emotional trail through the level. This was incredibly useful to see if you were aligned with your design requirements for the level regarding pacing and beats. Here is an example of one of the images we generated, click the links to see further hi-res examples:

Dam Entry Level with FSR positions

Image 1 – Dam Entry

Image 2 – Mercenary Camp

Image 3 – Dam Finale

Image 4 – Refinery Escape

Image 5 – Monaco Casino

Image 6 – Istanbul Ruins

Image 7 – Istanbul Driving

For me this was a fantastic conclusion from where I had been sitting on the couch a few months before. It was a great feeling taking a spark of an idea and running with it to fruition. Not only this but working together with the people that got wrapped up in the journey along the way made it immensely satisfying. Our industry is full of passionate, very clever people who love little experiments like this one. So if you’ve ever held back on an idea before, I encourage you to run with it next time and see where it takes you!

So you may be wondering what became of the project? Well I’m sure some of you may be aware of this technique popping up in other peoples list of biometrics techniques. Hell there may have been even before I did this experiment back in early 2010. I certainly couldn’t find any at the time but on looking recently I’ve found examples like this presentation from early 2009:

http://www.slideshare.net/acagamic/next-generation-testing-biometric-analysis-of-player-experience

Right there on slide 25 at the bottom of the page I noticed pressure sensor. So I think I was very likely beaten to the punch. Not only that but the technique certainly has its flaws too, people hold pads in different ways, certain groups of people might not even react to pressure by tensing up. As with all data gathering this would need to be combined with other biometric techniques to corroborate perceived trends.

I took my findings to someone who I thought may be interested in the project; Graham McAllister over at Vertical Slice. They are experts in measuring player experience and use biometrics extensively. He was interested to hear about the project and we remain in contact now. This is a good point to end this story on because it demonstrates my final point. I wouldn’t say I’ve got anything materially out of this project; sadly the whole rig now sits in a plastic bag in my wardrobe! But what I did gain from it was huge when it came to relationships with people. This project brought people together and what is greater than that? I established new relationships, cemented current ones and learnt the power of positive energy and perseverance; people naturally gravitate to these things. It’s funny how far an idea can take you if you follow it through and I look back on this mini-side-project with great fondness. I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

Mr Ego

Leave your ego at the door” is a well used phrase and so it should be. I don’t think many would argue that ego is good, especially in a team environment. Yet all too often ego is allowed in through the studio doors. As the very thing that defines a person it’s hard to simply say to someone to leave ego behind. Ultimately then, the best way to get rid of it is to not allow it in the first place. An effective recruitment process is therefore crucial to building a good team, but it’s easy to become complacent, especially when teams ramp up fast. So here is my list as to exactly how destructive ego can be as an argument for being as diligent as possible with your recruitment.

  • The problem with ego is that it can be quite deceptive – quite often people who have strong-armed a decision using bluster and belligerence are given the benefit of the doubt when it works out. Here’s the rub: with a talented team they’ll always find a way of making things work. Don’t let this cloud your judgement when looking at whether things could have been done better. Relief can hide a multitude of sins and ego can often be allowed to win again and again.
  • Ego takes the focus away from the work – We’re social animals and it can be very easy to lose focus on our work and concern ourselves more with pecking order. A well established structure where everyone’s role is clear will leave less room for social ambiguity and more room for effective game development.
  • Where there is ego there are irrelevant battles – I say ‘irrelevant battles’ because there are meaningful battles to be had on what matters, yep, the game. Ego battles become about who shouts hardest, longest and loudest. This creates what I like to call the black hole phenomenon where everything else in the room is sucked into a universe of meaningless bollocks. Ego is a big distraction away from what matters.
  • Where there is ego there is time wasted – decisions in government are made slowly because politicians must also consider their positions on an issue and the political ramifications as well as (and often more than) the actual decision in hand. Game development mired with politics is doomed to failure, or at best, massive expense.
  • Ego distorts effective decision making - if ego is the dominating force in your organisation the best politicians will rise to the top, but not necessarily the best decision makers. Ego tends to breed contempt if people don’t feel decisions are being made for the right reasons. I don’t need to tell you how destructive negativity then becomes.
  • Pandering to ego leads to compromise – and it is inevitable that you’ll have to pander to ego if you don’t want constant battles and strife in the team. Compromise is more often than not the most socially cohesive resolution, but alas, not for bold innovative design. Compromise leads to mediocrity. If Johnny Big Tantrum is always throwing his toys out the pram every time things don’t go his way, then however talented he is, you have a big problem.
  • Ego necessitates the need for damaging management mechanisms – even diligent management who recognise that large egos are having a distortive effect are between a rock and a hard place.  They’re forced to react with methods to reset team balance. However over-management can be stifling in a creative environment. Especially if the perceived solution is more formalisation in an effort to get everyone’s voice heard.

With ego running rife in an organisation the final result is always the same; people problems masked by project problems. Before they notice the difference, or indeed are willing to admit to it, it’s far too late to do anything about it. I would hazard a guess that this (exacerbated by other factors) is the root cause of most failed projects and companies. So let’s do our best to stamp out ego wherever we see it rearing its head, good luck!

It’s good to Write

Posted by pcollier under Creativity, Work

Contortionist lady at typewriter

Next month it will be a year since I began writing my blog. This hasn’t been easy as I find the process of writing very taxing, as do many, so I’m proud of the accomplishment. Over the course of the year I’m reliably informed by friends that my writing has improved a great deal. This is good to hear because, as we all know, when change happens gradually it can be hard to notice.  In reflection I think the catalyst for improvement was the realisation that I was trying too hard to be something when writing. Finding a truer voice has been my greatest discovery throughout the past year. I know it was a significant realisation because the truer and closer to my heart I have written the more my articles have resonated with people. The purpose of this article is therefore a bit of a sales pitch if you haven’t dabbled into writing for a while. Even to those whom I’m preaching to that are already converted (AltDevBlogADay contributors I’m talking to you) hopefully it may give you some insight as to why you may be feeling good about yourself!

Creative people often suffer from very chaotic minds. The benefit to this wild storm of synaptic activity is its capacity to deliver unique and innovative thought. The problem however can come in marshalling these thoughts in a coherent way that is meaningful to others. The struggle comes from the fact that ideas are often born from many random sources that are hard to thread together into an explanation. Writing is one of the most effective remedies for this problem as it is forces you to structure your thoughts. In fact for this reason the process can be extremely therapeutic because it brings order to chaos. So somewhat paradoxically, as creative but simultaneously logical beings, this pleases us, aren’t humans messed up! So without further ado here is a list as to why writing can benefit us all:

  • Writing requires focus on a particular topic – to the mind that is used to sporadically and wildly swirling around, providing a focal point can help redirect this energy akin to a whirlwind touching down on the ground. I liken this process to laying down markers which you can return to when lost. If at intervals you’ve concluded and laid down structure to your thoughts on a topic they are easier to return to and muster when required.
  • You’re communicating to others – life has a lot to do with connection. It’s very special to do something which reinforces an existing relationship or establishes a new one. Writing allows you to do this by saying something which resonates with another person. That shared realisation and unity of thought for that brief moment creates a bond that never leaves us. There is nothing more pleasurable than the expansion of the human experience through another, writing is a fantastic conduit to achieve this.
  • Writing requires you to compose your thoughts so that they’re meaningful to others – this act of composition brings you closer to your reader because you’ve had to consider them. What’s created is a mutual appreciation of each other’s existence. This is a tremendously potent force when properly realised. Any great expression of art is beautiful for this reason.
  • In a world full of sound bites, headlines, status updates and 140 character limits sometimes it’s good to say a little more – there is a lot to be said for conclusive thought but done exclusively there comes the danger of a loss of depth. Expanding upon your thoughts through writing can add richness to your message and with it less chance of misinterpretation. Context is important to deliver meaning behind what you want to say, otherwise it’s just noise.
  • It keeps you honest – having a record of what you’ve said prevents contradiction and hypocrisy. Thankfully just the very act of writing helps to solidify your thoughts anyway. This means you’re less likely to confuse others with mixed opinions and more able to give a purer, truer account of yourself. Being held accountable to your words is very healthy because it ensures more careful consideration of what you say in the first place.

So that is my pitch as to why you should put pen to paper and/or finger to keyboard. The fulfilment from connecting with others through writing is something I’ve found not many things can compete with. Any time you write something meaningful to others a positive ripple is sent speeding through our collective consciousness. The energy you expel tends to return to you in multiples creating a positive compound effect that makes the whole exercise very worthwhile. I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole

Game development can become an increasingly tricky proposition as it progresses and losing objectivity is often the culprit. It is a hazard of the job that dogs us all. As with any labour of love we get tangled up in detail and can lose sight of the bigger picture. Retaining objectivity is important because it helps keep your game steered in the right direction.

One of the functions of a game director, or whoever is in overall creative control of the project, is to retain objectivity. The best achieve this by avoiding getting bogged down in detail and effectively delegating. The very best, in addition, have a handle of every detail but only with a view to how it contributes to the bigger picture. They have an ability to zoom in and out without getting stuck.

Whatever your breadth of influence on the project having a handle on how the details of your specific contribution add up is crucial to keeping objectivity. This is why being given a clear brief is effective because it help you ask the right questions in the context of the overall project. Part of remaining objective is the ability to ask questions of what you’re doing.

So what other things can you do to help prevent losing your objectivity? Here is my guide:

  • Talk to others about your work – explaining what you’re doing to another person forces you to approach it from an outside perspective and with a more conclusive eye. Another person is objectivity, so use it.
  • Leave your work and then come back to it – the further down the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled the longer you should leave it before returning.  It’s a simple and classic strategy but one of the most effective. However it takes self-awareness to recognise that you’ve lapsed and fallen into crazy-land. Taking action can sometimes just mean having a cup of tea or in more serious cases a longer break, like a vacation. The amount of times I’ve come back to my work and muttered “What was I thinking?!” is plenty. Artists; how many times have you overly tweaked detail that no one will ever notice but you? Coders; overly engineered a piece of code for its intended purpose? You get the picture.
  • Know your goals – It’s hard to look at things with an objective eye without an objective! Pretty simple, but I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen your fair share of developers, or even entire teams, getting caught up in needless details and tangents because their objectives weren’t clear.
  • How is your contribution relevant? Without a sense of purpose we can all stray. Refuse to take on work until you’re absolutely clear why what you’re doing is important and how it fits into the bigger picture. You can’t be expected to remain objective without knowing this. This ties a lot into effectively motivating your team.

  • Be passionate about your work, but leave your emotions at the door – emotional attachment prevents objectification. Any Pimp will tell you that one for free. We all need to be able to cut our losses and get rid if something isn’t fulfilling its purpose. Being sentimental, emotional and overly attached can be your biggest enemy here. So grab a flamboyant hat and a lovely big fur coat and your fellow developers will know you mean business.

  • Present your work to the team – A more extreme version of talking to just one person; this can be a really useful exercise. Fear of talking to a large group of people forces you to consider your audience and demonstrate a very clear grasp of your work. Succinctly summarising your work is impossible to do without looking at things objectively. Just simply out of respect for your audience you’re perspective has to be a wider one.

On the flip side to all of this, it shouldn’t be condemned as a wholly negative thing to lose objectivity and get lost in your work. It is the natural tendency of a curious mind to go off and explore. It should just always be tempered with an awareness of your end goal. It’s a skill to recognise when you’re straying too far and to redirect yourself. It’s a matter of self-awareness and discipline to maintain a firm grasp of the bigger picture. Good luck keeping that grip!

What other methods do you employ in keeping your objectivity? Have you any examples of how badly things have gone when objectivity was lost? I’d love to hear them.

Light filtering through trees

Teaching the player how to play your game is incredibly important. Under no circumstances should this area of game design be overlooked because getting it wrong means players may never see all the hard work you’ve put into the rest of the game. So the following is a list of what I’ve learnt about how to get it right…mostly from getting it wrong myself…but hey…that’s the best way right! So without further ado here it is:

  • Don’t teach too much too soon: No one likes to feel overwhelmed, even less so when they are playing your game to have fun. People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized.
  • Don’t be remorseless: Once you have taught something new allow time for the information to set in. Remorselessly moving on from one tutorial to another will makes players feel uncomfortable and not able to cope. Learning something new is a challenge and mentally taxing, so allow players time to feel good about doing it.
  • Reinforce: Demonstrate to the player the benefits of what you’ve taught. People are fairly efficient at marginalising seemingly redundant information. Reinforcing the benefits of a new piece of knowledge or skill will raise its relevance making it much more likely to be retained.
  • Nothing is worse than teaching something when the lesson has already been learnt: So for quick learners or inquisitive players who’ve already figured out what you’re about to teach them, allow them to opt out or at the very least shut you up.
  • Self-discovery and self-realisation are worth so much more to a player than anything you have to say: Make it as easy as possible for this to happen, that’s part of the skill of being a good teacher. Designing your tutorial in a restrictive way that only allows for the game to play according to your lesson plan is dumb, don’t do it.

  • Don’t try to be a teacher: People don’t like having that psychological inferiority of having to be taught something. So the less you rub it in their faces the better. Aim to be more of companion helping to guide them and no I don’t mean a ^@#!*#% Microsoft paperclip.

  • Don’t give the answers before the questions: Sounds simple doesn’t it, but if people haven’t asked the questions then they won’t see the relevance of your answers. In other words present them with the problem before giving them the solution.

  • Finally here is my number one tip, if you go away with anything from this then let it be this, and it’ll sound obvious, but here goes…Don’t be a bastard: There you go I said it. Any hint of you revelling in the players’ lack of understanding by mocking or teasing etc is incredibly naughty and a bit silly because this more than anything else will make the player hate you and your stupid game. They are doing YOU the favour by wanting to learn how to play YOUR game, so show them some respect.

So there it is, it’s a pretty simple list but comprises everything I’ve learnt and stands me in good stead. Do you have any more tips that you can add? Have I missed something? Please do add them on the comments below. Finally good luck with tackling this part of your game, it’s a fascinating and challenging area of design, let me know how you get on.

Announcing Hogrocket

Posted by pcollier under Action, Creativity, General, Work

Hogrocket Logo

For a very special reason I’m taking a break from my traditional design orientated posts today. Today I am pleased to announce the launch of my very own company: Hogrocket. We are an indie game development studio focused on mobile, social and connected platforms. I’ve founded the company with Stephen Cakebread and Ben Ward who are two ex-colleagues from my former employer Bizarre Creations. Stephen is best known as the creator of the Geometry Wars franchise and Ben primarily for being the awesome guy who helped build community at Bizarre.

Forming Hogrocket is a big deal for me; I’ve always wanted to run my own company. To be able to combine this with my passion for design is a prospect I’m relishing. Don’t get me wrong it’s also very scary; going from a regular wage to surviving off your wits alone is daunting. But in some ways this is also the point, this is a challenge that I could not live with myself for not attempting.   I’m also incredibly lucky to be in a position where I’ve found two super talented people (and hopefully others soon too) to go on this journey with. That’s not something to be under estimated. Quite often however much you want to set up a company the timing isn’t right or the team isn’t there. Finding people who have the same risk profile and similar aspirations is a very specific ask. Suffice to say I’m excited about the future and already enjoying the creative freedom and liberations of working in a small, dynamic team.

The game development industry is in a very interesting state of flux right now. This is acutely apparent in the UK; mainstream game development here has been utterly devastated. This is through a combination of advantageous tax relief programs in Canada causing brain-drain in the UK and traditional large publishers in a flight to the safety of their established, biggest selling brands. This would have been a worrying death knell for innovation and creativity in our industry but thankfully a brave new world of game development is occurring at the other end of spectrum. From the fragmented remains of large scale studio closures small teams of indie developers everywhere are springing up. This is occurring because the barriers to entry are being removed, suddenly there are no gatekeepers. It is possible to direct sell to people online and multiple business models to do it. Additionally, say what you like about developing for Apple iOS devices (discoverability etc) but now there is the opportunity to make smaller games for low development costs and make a living. This state of play simply hasn’t existed in the industry for decades. So joining the indie ranks with Hogrocket is something that, as a creative, I feel an incredibly liberating prospect. Hopefully the adventure won’t end up simply liberating my bank account of cash!

So please join the community we will be building at Hogrocket, I look forward to talking to you and sharing our progress.

Rhythm

Posted by pcollier under Action, Emotion, Immersion

Kodo - Japanese Drums

Rhythm is a very primal thing. Right from the very first moment of our existence it is there, our own heartbeat offset against the comforting beat of our mother’s. So to design games without considering rhythm can only be detrimental to your cause. If you want to tap into merriment of the soul then beat should be a fundamental part of player experience.

When I talk about rhythm in game design I’m primarily referring to the players actions. Music is an obvious provider of rhythm, but in an active not passive medium it should only really be an enhancer (unless of course it is part of the game-play! i.e. Guitar Hero). In effect player input provides a beat and the quality of the game determines its suitability as well as the sense of connection the player feels with the experience. You can start to see why relying on music alone to give a sense of rhythm is a hallmark of weak game design.

The best games have a tangible sense of ebb and flow that imitate the natural cycles present everywhere in life. We’re very adept as humans at detecting things that aren’t quite right or broken. Things that are un-tuned or disjointed upset our natural balance. So we naturally gravitate toward things that are harmonious. Especially in this modern age with all its distractions we are calmed and excited by rhythm and the recognition of patterns and beats. They are comforting and give us a sense of control. This sense of control and of tapping into the heart of the game is therefore a critical sensation that you must get the player feeling.

The ease at which player actions fit into the rhythm of a game will affect their enjoyment. It is so important that player actions are not a disruptive force. They should be in-tune and in natural harmony with the game systems. Effectively the player should be the heartbeat of the game, the source of life that makes the system work. The player should have a very tangible grasp of how their input is affecting the game. In game design terms this desirable sense of ‘oneness’ with the game is a direct result of the player feeling an integral part of the experience and certainly not passive or secondary to it.

Empowering the player with rhythm is a massively useful tool in your arsenal as a game designer. You are directly responsible for how the player engages with your game and therefore the connection they feel with it. Creating that sense of wonderment from players really feeling they are bringing life to your game is something special. Rhythm, beat, ebb and flow are universal and essential to the very essence of life. As a game designer you should be considering them with every mechanic you implement.