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!
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
On talking about his ‘man-cave’ Guillermo del Toro talks about why his immense collection of curious possessions are important to him:
“Everything in the house for me has equal importance whether it’s a rubber toy or an anatomical model, whatever it is, it’s here to try and provoke sort of a shock to the system and get circulating the lifeblood of imagination, which I think is curiosity. When we lose curiosity I think we lose, entirely, inventiveness.”
After seeing his awesome house it got me thinking more about curiosity and creativity.
The delight of investigation is crucial in design. Exploring a concept and finding unopened doors is a skill which as you get older can become harder to find. Today is my birthday, so today of all days I am ever more acutely aware of the lengthening pursuit back to the magical outlook of childhood. But without curiosity the designer’s will to investigate can only diminish. A childlike view of the world is as integral to your success as your professional adult persona. It is only through curiosity where true value can be found.
Through exploring the odd and the peculiar we can escape from mediocrity. So seek out and surround yourself with those who see the world differently, their company will pay dividends many times over. As Del Toro alluded to, imagination feeds off curiosity. An inspiring design can only come from a designer prepared to be daring. Be unafraid to venture into the unknown and come back with something people have never seen or experienced before. Fight back against those who try to pull you back to safety and have the guts to explore where others fear to tread.
Curiosity lies at the very heart of human nature, so if you’re not knocking on that door then why bother? Ask yourself, are you offering anything new? Does your design excite and raise curiosity? Are you creating a need to explore or indeed easing the fear of exploring? You should aim to constantly be both creating curiosity and rewarding it. You must provide the joy of discovery.
It is through experiencing that which is new and odd to you that your brain can really flex its creative muscles. By trying to understand something never seen before, it will generate new insights, unique thoughts and synaptic sparks that the muse inside of you will revel in. Your enemy is the mundane, the well trodden path and the insidious voice inside your head that tells you to conform. Don’t do it. People will see value in the fruits of your curiosity and thank you for engaging theirs.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”– Voltaire (1694-1778)
The best designers I know are good because they like to get their hands dirty. They are not afraid to try something out to see if it works. They have a healthy attitude toward prototyping. Bad design is thinking you have all the answers and therefore no need for questions.
You know that person in your life who is always the first to say ‘That’ll never work’, well next time they do give them a slap. What’s frustrating is that quite often these people can be extremely intelligent and highly convincing in their arguments as to why you needn’t go further with an idea. And you know what, 90% of the time they may very well be right…on the original point. But you know what is insanely criminal in any kind of design? It’s not allowing exploration, often ideas are the genesis for fantastic and unexpected revelations further down the line. Prototyping is so intertwined with creative thinking that to stunt an idea at its source can severely limit the natural design process. Innovative thought can only occur from action, never inaction. So test out an idea and see what tumbles out, the naysayers might be surprised as to what actually does turn out to work.
Now going back to the traits of the best designers… they will without doubt always have confidence. But not cocky overly assured confidence, true and honest understated confidence. They are open to being wrong and indeed relish the prospect as an opportunity to learn. Being wrong broadens their outlook and opens doors. But on the other hand an unwillingness to be wrong can bring those guilty ultimately to ruin. One path leads to exponential growth in wisdom and experience. The other a linear and narrowing path saddled with a deepening propensity for close mindedness. The moral of the story being; prototype, or be prepared for your final designs to fail a lot more. How is that for irony?
Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of action. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally on August 28, 1963.
“We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing. Action always generates inspiration. Inspiration seldom generates action.” – Frank Tibolt
For a long time I’ve held the assumption that it is ideas that change things. I was wrong, people change things. Ideas are cheap, without action they have little value. It’s easy to romanticise the notion of ideas, but let’s get real. It’s the execution of an idea that people can then experience for themselves and make it their own that matters.
But before all of us designers start slitting our wrists and lamenting the very point of our existence let’s hold our horses. We do have a role to play. An architect of change needs to understand people. He/she needs to have emotional intelligence. To actualise an idea you need to be able to communicate, motivate and collaborate with others to take action. Designers need to be evangelists; their power is to create movement, to generate energy, to galvanize people behind their cause and to listen, not just talk.
Every form of design work is a pitch, its clarity and a declaration of purpose that sells on the worth of making whatever it is into something real. Any designer worth his/her salt has people that believe in them and their ideas. But the thing with ideas is that they never come fully formed. Being in a position to hold the belief of a team through the refinement, prototyping and testing of your design is crucial. However without belief and ultimately without trust you are dead in the water.
So let’s stop perpetuating the status quo and instead choose to change the world and innovate on whatever scale we can affect. Let’s forget mediocrity, ego and meeting after meeting. Let’s do something that has meaning, value and truth of purpose…now that feels better.
Evidence of our lives and personal story are all around us. Everywhere we spend any time. I like to call it emotional residue. If you look around your study or living room and pretend you’re a stranger, what could you tell about your life? Our imprint on the world is determined by how we leave things and the extent of the impact. Like a safari tracker you can tell a lot about a person by their trail.
In game design we exploit this idea with environmental story-telling. In a narrative driven game it’s very important to flesh out the entire back-story of events. Ask the question, what has happened in the world you’ve created leading up to this moment in time? In a specific room or area we can then fill in that trail. Literally inject story, journey and life into that environment.
The fascinating thing about games as a medium is that they allow for personal discovery a lot more. I’ve touched on this before. In books and to an extent in films they selectively show or describe a world to you. In games there is more freedom for personal exploration and discovery. This means more to people. As a player it is your insight not someone else’s. Or at least that is the impression we create!
We can craft an emotive experience a lot better by looking at emotional residue. Games have got very good at dealing with action. The here and now, what you role is and what you have to perform. But to miss out on filling in all previous actions and life in that environment is a big missed opportunity. What can you learn from what has already taken place to make this moment more meaningful?
People talk about a place being steeped in history and of feeling a deep spiritual connection. This is emotional residue. We are reaching out back in time and connecting emotionally with every person who has ever occupied that space. Our physical environment is a deeply emotional canvas. You are sharing a collective footprint and mark in the world. To ignore this incredible opportunity to impart emotion and story in a game where players can physically (at least through an avatar) occupy that space and leave their imprint would be a travesty. It’s a remarkable string to our bow as a medium that few others can access.
* Thanks to Ian Hall, Liam Morrey, Neil Walker and Anthony Filice for the inspiration for this article.
“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”
James Joyce – Ulysses (1922)
What is fascinating about human nature is our capacity to not learn from the mistakes of others. Yet we are totally reliant on outside stimuli for validation or adaptation of our thought processes. Activities which test and scrutinise this internal drive are important, as they allow us to fine tune our view of the world.
Of course these activities come in many different forms. Games can specialise in a degree of pliability, allowing players to push boundaries in a safe environment. Players can explore and even enjoy the process of making mistakes because they are free of real-world repercussions.
The process of discovery is more exciting than having something shown to us. It has value because it is unique to us and the gain provides personal advantage over others.
In game design this is an essential tenet to remember. The more the player feels led down the garden path the less interesting your garden becomes. A rigid or overly engineered design can often fail within a game system for this reason.
Clever movies, clever books, clever games, clever whatever, all resonate by allowing discovery. Give answers too readily or obviously at your peril as it’ll not easily be forgiven.