Archive for the ‘Work’ Category

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.

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.

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.

Destruction and Design

Posted by pcollier under Creativity, Design Brief, Work

Destruction

Sometimes things have to be cut loose to save ourselves more pain down the line. The same is true of design. Through the process of destruction new ideas can often have a greater chance of flourishing. So although it may seem contradictory to our creative cause, our willingness to destroy is also vital.

Often we can be so bogged down in trying to get something to work that it can give us tunnel vision. We can be so fixated on the details that we lose sight of the bigger picture and our overall design goals. Becoming overly obsessive on the details can lead us down intricate, diversionary tangents and ultimately to a skewed design. It can be a neat trick as you become a more experienced designer to catch yourself doing this and learn to cut off where you started to run astray. We’re all guilty of getting carried away, become an expert at reining it in and cutting loose and I don’t mean in the free spirited way!

Sometimes it pays to turn the destructive eye to the whole design. In the past I’ve found myself much more capable of this after a break when I’ve rediscovered my objectivity. It is painful to throw away hard work but sometimes (as the film ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ demonstrated) you have to crawl through a river of shit to come clean out the other side. Every time I’ve decided to throw away work in the past it has subsequently lead to a stronger design. I hated doing it at the time but was always thankful after for having the courage to not be precious. It is just a process of refinement and iteration.

At any rate the aftermath of destruction is an interesting place. Taking a torch to your design will in turn give you the sturdy green shoots poking out of the blackened ashes. These survivors are the design elements that can be your winners and keepers.  This is why ‘create and burn’ can be a healthy design process. If we are aggressive and even-handed in our destruction and an idea still resolutely remains, then maybe it deserves to stay.

As you move forward with your design it will have a strong backbone of survivors. The ideas that you carried forward will help deliver more focus down the line and have the room to flourish. I guess all this leads us to my final piece of advice at this juncture. After all this talk of destruction, which let’s face it, us humans love, I really should support it with more fiery gusto whilst I have the chance, so here goes: Don’t be afraid to be a cold merciless bastard of an overlord. Design elements and ideas are in your dominion and should be scared shitless of your wrath. If they are not there to serve your cause, then quite frankly, they deserve to die. There you have it. Try not to cling onto something just because you created it. Creation is not always beautiful, so don’t be afraid to wield the knife, or even the torch…and yes it can be more fun if you do it with a crazed look in your eye.

Pieter Bruegel (The Elder) - The Seven Deadly Sins

I hate procrastination. It is the product of the weakest parts of our minds, yet a very strong force. It does its nasty deed in the short and long term and often we do it without even realising. It comes in many different forms, unique to each of us. You might even be doing it now!

What is procrastination? I think of it as anything which prevents us from doing the work that needs to be done. Nothing of value comes for free; we need to put effort in to get the returns. The problem is that the work is often hard and taxing. The part of our mind which concocts acts of procrastination feeds off this prospect.

I clean and tidy when avoiding work. I tell myself “clean and tidy means an unmuddled mind”. To be fair, it’s probably a little bit true, but in my heart of hearts it’s about me shirking from the real work. Let’s face it the world is never going to write “Had a tidy house” on your gravestone. It takes great physical and mental effort to achieve clarity of thought.  But here is the rub, somewhat perversely, it takes very little effort for your mind to concoct clever sabotage when facing exertion.

How to deal with this menace then?  Well self-awareness is a big factor here; you need to recognise the resistance and your acts of procrastination. How many times have you put off going to the gym but once there loved the exercise? Or once you sit down and focus on something literally felt the surge of mental energy run through your body? All it takes is for you to recognise the insidious Gollum like creature sitting inside your head. He craves the act of doing ‘precious’ sweet nothing. But he must be respected for he is cunning and tricksy, wielding procrastination as his greatest spell of all. He’ll try everything to subvert you from doing the work, but banish him you must. All it takes is seeing him for what he really is.

Here are some of my practical tips as a veteran of many battles with the ‘p’ word:

  • Remove yourself from as many distractions as possible (even if it means closing the door to the cat). Distractions are like Piranhas, they’ll keep eating away at you, specifically your will to work.
  • Nike were right; ‘Just do it’. Plonk yourself down and start working. I stared at this notepad for half an hour and faced off my usual nemesis when it comes to writing these articles, that being the rationale “I can’t write the article, I haven’t had the inspiration yet”. Its poppycock, I know it as the voice of my own personal Gollum. So what do I do, I just start writing. That’ll teach the little f*cker.
  • Recognising procrastination is the hardest part. The only way to succeed is to be honest with yourself. Seeing the enemy will help you fight it. It’s one of those weird things where you can catch yourself doing it, sometimes so ingenious that it’ll make me laugh.

We are all guilty of procrastination so no need to feel too bad about it. But I do liken it to the 8th DEADLY SIN, just so you know. Treat it like a game, a battle to outwit yourself, to overcome the cunning schemes of your own Gollum. Good luck fighting the little blighter!