Sep 21 2014

Encouraging More Voices, and TjejHack’s Debut

From my blog:

Earlier this week, TjejHack made its Stockholm debut. This is a scheme which was founded by Inger Ekman, and which encourages local girls and women to take their first steps into game development. I volunteer my services there, and have been given a new perspective on the push to increase gender diversity.

Gender equality in games and the industry is a topic which lays close to my heart. Ever since a series of women in games events encouraged my friends and I to found LadyCADE, I’ve been invited to talk at events, I helped to form a geek podcast with an inclusivity angle, and have generally been doing my own small part to keep the conversation moving. And yet, while I hope the things I have to say are of some value, I am aware that I’m often preaching to the converted.

Stepping back a little bit: I feel we’ve reached a point where the recruitment drive has begun to work. Not only are more women playing games, but they are making them too, thanks to supportive communities and academic institutions encouraging more girls and women to get stuck in. One of the many upsides to this is that if game development is becoming more gender-balanced, that means there’ll be more voices in industry to add to our own current minority.

I’m a firm believer in promoting a diverse range of voices, at least in part so that a mere handful of people may be spared the weight of apparently speaking for their entire minority group. The problems inherent to situations like that are too many to go into here, but I (for one) would no more willingly be asked to speak for all women or trans people than I would the British population, railway fanatics or goth subculture.

I think that on some level, I had all this in mind when excitedly joining Inger Ekman’s efforts to form a girls’ hacking club in Huddinge, Stockholm. TjejHack invites girls and women from the age of 10 upwards to a free, weekly meetup at a local library. The first meeting took place last week, and the group – who represent a good spread of ages – have begun by recreating the fundamentals of Flappy Bird in Scratch.

Inger Ekman guides the group through making their first game, applying movement scripts to on-screen characters.
Inger Ekman guides the group through making their first game, applying movement scripts to on-screen characters.

On some level at least, TjejHack offers a peek behind the curtain, showing just how easy it can be to make a game using contemporary tools. Very soon we’ll be encouraging its members to develop their own games in the likes of Scratch, Twine and Unity – supporting them in what they want to do, and encouraging the group to do the same for each other.

What this means to me is that – as well as being a fun and worthwhile endeavour – TjejHack becomes an opportunity to support women in creating games, where they never had before. It is, by its nature, a more active way to meet the gender equality goal. No matter where schemes like this are conducted, it serves to bring more people’s creative voices into the medium, and I think that is vital.

I feel I should stress that I don’t have any particular agenda here. I don’t believe, for example, that we are suffering any monotony or ego in the current push for a more inclusive medium and industry. Nevertheless, I’m beginning to feel (at a more personal level) that schemes like these, which work behind the scenes to make things better, deserve hefty focus for the fact they represent real action. If it’s at all within my power to do so, I’d like to encourage more women in games to do similar; in turn encouraging more women to add their voices to ours.

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Aug 29 2014

August Round-up

From my blog:

As I embark upon a fortnight’s absence from the internet, I thought I’d leave a handful of links relating to my time at Nine Worlds Geekfest, GDC Europe, Gamescom and Loncon 3 earlier this month. Full write-ups for all of these will come soon!

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

The 'Sex in Video Games' panel, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.
The ‘Sex in Video Games’ panel at Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.

GDC Europe & Gamescom 2014

A slide from Siobhan Reddy's talk at GDC Europe's #1ReasonToBe panel
Siobhan Reddy’s talk at GDC Europe’s #1ReasonToBe panel.

Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention

The exhibition game of Azad at Loncon 3, during which I adjudicated
The exhibition game of Azad at Loncon 3, which I adjudicated.

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Aug 24 2014

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

From my blog:

Despite it having happened a fortnight ago now, Nine Worlds Geekfest was the first in a string of four events which I attended recently, so I’m only now getting around to my write-ups. Check back later for my reviews of GDC and Gamescom in Köln, and Loncon 3 in London!

Nine Worlds Geekfest feels remarkably different when one travels to and from there almost directly by aeroplane. As my co-hosts from The Geek Night In have already remarked, Nine Worlds is a uniquely welcoming and inclusive event; thus, passing through security at Heathrow airport felt like crossing the border to a much friendlier place even than Sweden.

I took part in a handful of panels again this year – which I’ll return to in a while. Unlike last year’s event though, I wanted to take advantage of the fact everything was under one roof and experience more than just what was on offer in the video games culture track. I’m pleased to say that, while my partner was captivated by an impressively strong series of ‘future tech’ programme items, I was cheerily dipping my toes into Game of Thrones fandom, geek feminism and podcasting.


Finding Your Voice

Finding Your Voice, on the podcasting track, was a solid way for me to start my Nine Worlds experience. Here, panelists from a handful of successful podcasts (including the Hugo-nominated Tea and Jeopardy) shared their experience of the craft and gave out useful tips for those wanting to create – be it a literature review, something narrative or a regular discussion of geek media. I was particularly grateful to receive tips on hardware, considering how wide a gap there can be between podcasts like ours, which are (usually) recorded over Skype, and those which have access to studio equipment.

Perhaps ironically, The Geek Night In later benefited from actually not having to be assembled over the internet, as we recorded a live episode that same evening! This was the first time we’d all been in one country at the same time, and it was the first time I’d met co-host Kate in person. Our episode also had an audience, meaning we had contributions from ‘badassperger’, Cara Ellison and Eoin Mason. You can hear the episode here.

The Geek Night In at Nine Worlds Geekfest; photo by Hellen Grünefeld
The Geek Night In at Nine Worlds Geekfest; photo by Hellen Grünefeld. From left: Laura Kate, Tilley, Kate and myself.

My first panel of the event was held earlier on that Friday, on the subject of ‘Failing Faster‘. Here, Dan Pearce, Georg Backer, Dan Turner and I discussed our various approaches to prototyping when developing interactive media. I look forward to sharing the recording of this panel some day soon, as we had a lively discussion which I hope would prove informative to anyone starting out in design, or who’s looking to try new techniques.

I later attended a video games culture panel on Writing Better Characters, with contributions from Meg Jayanth (80 Days), Jack de Quidt (Castles in the Sky) and Helen Gould, an academic. Here, the panelists stressed the need to research in order to write better narrative generally, but also to avoid the trappings of stereotype – which is particularly important when writing in other cultures than your own. Gould gave a rousing talk later that weekend, on character creation in games; it was entitled Male, Pale and Stale. I applaud the delivery and her message, which included (amongst other things) the reminder that minorities still suffer erasure in media like games because we’re not viewed as people; rather as devices or a box to be ticked.

This set a good tone for the evening’s entertainment, as we were treated to a gig by LGBTQA-friendly, steampunk folk band The Mechanisms, whose performance is depicted at the top of this article.

The 'Sex in Video Games' panel, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.
The ‘Sex in Video Games’ panel, photographed by Tim Skew. From left: Maki Yamazaki, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth, myself and Jenni Goodchild.

My second panel was to a packed room, as myself, Cara Ellison, Meg Jayanth and Maki Yamazaki spoke about Sex in Video Games. I dare say the content was as colourful as everybody’s outfits (save for my own!), and in a fantastic way: we spoke about the need to reflect real sexual experiences in games, and Cara in particular was able to highlight the (often niche) titles which do this already. We also discussed those games which sit on the fringes of this topic (such as Japanese dating sims), and brought up examples of games which depict love poorly or lazily - which in my case, fed off what I experienced at Lyst Summit earlier this year.


My signed, wooden practice sword from water-dancing with "Syrio Forel", atop the stash of books given to us at registration.
My signed, wooden practice sword from water-dancing with “Syrio Forel”, atop the stash of books given to us at registration.

My Saturday began in energetic fashion, with a swordplay workshop by Miltos Yerolimou (of Game of Thrones fame). There is, of course, little of ludic use to be gleaned from such an experience, but it was supremely fun and did give me more of a (basic) appreciation for how swordplay was actually done, and how often the rules are broken for dramatic effect. I don’t often play games involving swords, but when I do now, I can at least get a rough idea of how showy/suicidal the combatants might be in their respective finishing moves.

Peter Silk moderating the panel, "Indies vs. Game Police".
Peter Silk moderating the panel, “Indies vs. Game Police”.

I freely confess that I was cheekily wound up in the tongue-in-cheek, Indies vs. Game Police panel, which was moderated by Peter Silk. It’s a topic which I believe should always be dealt with humourously, not least because I have pretty firm rules on what does and does not constitute a game. It is, of course, a non-sensical and pointless discussion but satire seems the best way to deal with those who take it too seriously online.

On a calmer note, I then had the privilege of attending A Conversation with Reiner Knizia, and I got chance to speak to the legendary game designer afterwards.

Me with Reiner Knizia
Me with Reiner Knizia

In his interview – which was hosted by Matt Johnson of the Haberdashery Collective – Knizia reflected on many of his own games, and spoke about his interest in hybrid gaming. I gather this was the subject of his talk at Nordic Game 2014, which sadly I had to miss: the notion of mixing digital and physical elements in tabletop and family gaming. It was especially fascinating to hear his take on prototyping, given that he’s a well-practised veteran of the non-digital games industry. It’s clear that these two arbitrarily-drawn strands of games media have more in common than I first thought.

Sunday was also my opportunity to once again enjoy social gaming with the aforementioned Haberdashery Collective. In a well-attended session, we rotated around a number of games including Lemon Joust, Engineering Corps and a chess-like battle whose name unfortunately escapes me.

Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective

The message of social gaming is something that this particular Nine Worlds track did well to push. It refers to those games which involve and encourage social discourse, and games like this one (in which two colour-opposed teams must cross the room, engaging in battles by revealing their value as a military unit) always prove rich in collaboration, a feeling of physical involvement in the game, and of course, laughter. If anyone’s attended the previous two Nine Worlds Geekfests and hasn’t managed to attend one of The Haberdashery Collective’s play sessions before, I urge you to fix that in 2015 (if not sooner).


My last day at Nine Worlds began with a fascinating and wittily-delivered talk on the Neuroscience of Swearing, by the brilliant Emma Byrne. This was more a point of personal interest do me, as someone who cannot seem to utter ‘hard’ swear words. I am, however, fascinated by language and communication, so I wonder about one day applying her insights to digital media. At the risk of repeating myself: it would appear that swearing is a far more communicative and important feature of spoken language than we might first think.

Helen Gould asks us to spot the trend in character design
Helen Gould asks us to spot the trend in character design

The aforementioned Male, Pale and Stale: Character Creation in Gaming was delivered later on Sunday, kicking off a trio of video games culture talks, the latter two of which were Ideal Control Methods and No More Heroes, delivered by Joseph Gavin and Ben Meredith respectively. Gavin spoke eloquently about the types of controls applied to games, making a point of highlighting the likes of QWOP and Surgeon Simulator 2013 as something outside of arcade controls (simple, responsive) and simulation (complex, semi-realistic). Meredith’s talk was based on his academic work, evaluating the role of the hero (one which is typified by the hero’s own set of morals and rules) in spaces where the player’s own agency can lead to such rules being broken. What’s interesting is to see examples even within the same series, where games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City actually lend the player more license with the protagonist than later GTA games.

The last programme item I saw before having to leave Nine Worlds Geekfest was a talk from and with Laurie Penny, around her latest book, Unspeakable Things. While my first Nine Worlds programme item was rich in practical advice for a particular medium, this one – the one I departed with – was a cascade of inspiration for social good. Penny spoke about geek culture and how it can be a space for socially progressive ideas; about how we have media available to us which can be – and sometimes are – actively inclusive. She spoke passionately about the anger some privileged people feel, now that their world view is no longer the default. I left feeling solidarity with my geeky peers, but also encouraged that by creating in and speaking about these media, we can do good.

So it was that I left Nine Worlds Geekfest – and the UK again, but only for a short time. I had booked an evening flight to Köln, and while delays kept us in the terminal and then the gate for over two hours past our original departure time, I was able to see the top of the hotel venue from gate 5c at Terminal 1 – there to reflect on the rainbow-coloured spotlight which Nine Worlds shines on geek media.

Plane in Sight

Nächste: GDC ‘Eu und Gamescom, nach Kölnmesse, Köln, Deutschland.


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Aug 04 2014

Schedule: Nine Worlds Geekfest, GDC Europe and Loncon 3

From my blog:

This week is the start of a succession of four games and geek culture events, stacked back-to-back across two countries. I’ll be attending Nine Worlds Geekfest in Heathrow, London; GDC Europe and Gamescom in Köln, Deutschland; and Loncon 3, the 72nd Worldcon in Docklands, London.

I’ll primarily be an audience member at GDC and Gamescom, attending on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. With that having been said, I’m keen to talk to interested parties about Mimic, the game I’m currently working on – and to generally meet up with people in the European game development scene!

I’m a returning panelist at Nine Worlds, speaking on the video games culture track there. I’m involved in a number of items at Loncon 3 - primarily on the games track, but also around the convention’s exciting attempt to create Azad – the game which gave its name to an empire, in Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games.

My schedule for those is as follows:

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2014

  • Friday, the 8th of August
    • 12:45-13:45 Failing Faster [VG culture]
    • 17:00-18:00 The Geek Night In Live Recording [podcasting]
    • 20:45-21:45 Sex in Games [VG culture]

Loncon 3 logo

Loncon 3

  • Thursday, the 14th of August
    • 15:00-16:00 What is Azad? [Iain Banks, games]
  • Friday, the 15th of August
    • 19:00-21:00 Games Like Azad, and The Ideology Game [Iain Banks, games]
  • Saturday, the 16th of August
    • 13:30-15:00 Making Azad [Iain Banks, games]
    • 16:30-18:00 From Indie to AAA [games]
  • Sunday, the 17th of August
    • 13:30-15:00 Loncon 3 Presents… Azad! [Iain Banks, games]
    • 18:00-19:00 LGBTQ Gaming: Industry and Design [games]
    • 19:00-20:00 Industry-friendly Games Development [games]
  • Monday, the 18th of August
    • 11:00-12:00 The Politics of The Culture [Iain Banks]

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Jul 01 2014

Lyst Summit Write-up (part 2)

From my blog:

Part 1 of my recap-cum-travelogue was published a short while ago; you can read it here!

There’s an unwritten rule of almost every game jam I’ve taken part in, which states that the first 5 or so hours will be devoted to anything but the final project. I’m pleased to say that with practice, this period has shifted from becoming something terrifying, to actually rather productive for me. When the jam starts, we (as a group) will tend to fixate upon an idea which seems feasible, expressive and daring within the bounds of the jam. We’ll sketch it out, start prototyping.. and then realise the idea has no traction or depth.

I panicked, the first time this happened in a jam – thinking I was a lousy designer, unqualified to play my part in a game jam team. I’ve soon learned, however, that quite often sleep will bring with it an epiphany. This is precisely what happened at the Lyst Summit game jam.

As the conference deck filled up, our team retired below to set about paper prototyping.
As the conference deck filled up, our team retired below to set about paper prototyping.

Our first concept, designed on the Friday night, was a card-based tabletop game on the theme of sexual taboo. Over the course of some frank and therapeutic discussions about our own experiences, we created something which explored sex as a literal chain of prescribed events. Calling upon such fallacies as “the done thing”, the baseball metaphor, and the mythology which surrounds virginity, our game had each player lay down cards on their own or other player’s chains in order to form sexual experiences, which were to be described for the titillation (or arousal) of the other players.

Some of the cards and tokens from our paper prototype of "Sex Chain".
Some of the cards and tokens from our paper prototype of “Sex Chain”.

The players’ ‘sex chains’ (and the game itself) were divided into four main acts, based loosely upon the aforementioned baseball metaphor:

  1. Kissing
  2. Fondling
  3. The First Time
  4. Subsequent sexual encounters (repeated 1-3 times, depending on the intended game length)

Each act was ‘bookended’ with main event cards, which players could place from their hand at any time in order to move on in the game. Between these were smaller event cards, which each player would use to describe the main events in greater detail. These cards could be positive, negative, or really open to interpretation. For example, a player might begin playing footsie while kissing, only to have their partner’s filling fall out. Where we wanted to focus was on the more interpretive cards, such as with one player interrupting another’s gentle fondling session with a confession that they enjoy wearing latex. It would then be up to the whole group to vote on how that experience went down - adding an element of role-play, and distancing from one’s own particular tastes.

Our 'work station' on board the MF William Jørgensen. Ene is in the foreground to the left; Ida is next to her, to the right.
Our ‘work station’ on board the MF William Jørgensen. Ene is in the foreground to the left; Ida is to the right.

We iterated on this concept a few times, generating an assortment of interesting cards as we went. Many of these were marked with an minimum ‘act’, so that for example, a player could not place a “new erogenous zone” card inside act 1, which was reserved simply for kissing. We also toyed with the voting mechanics, and a character profile idea inspired by The Sims, which reformed the mechanics into something more akin to tabletop roleplay.

In the end though, we killed Sex Chain off due to its complexity, and the fact it wasn’t quite challenging us in the way we felt we wanted it to. However, thanks to the input from our new team member, Patrick Jarnfelt (also of Copenhagen Game Collective, and co-organiser of the Lyst Summit), on day two we shifted onto a project which lay further outside of our comfort zones. It also expressed what we all felt was the most interesting thing to come out of our earlier discussions: the duality in sex between hard and soft, rough and tender, formulaic and emotional.

I describe Play-tex as a sex toy (albeit one with an unusable name, thanks to a non-rubber underwear manufacturer). It arose as a product of our limitations, and I think upon it very fondly for that. Built in Unity and rich in audio/visual tactile feedback, the central premise (or goal) is to explore whatever your iPad is currently into.

Play-tex presents you with an abstract environment, filled with sexual paraphernalia such as balls of latex, fur, spike chains and bound flesh. All of these items interact with each other and the background, which is itself a canvas of skin and nipples.

"Play-tex" running on Patrick's iPad.
“Play-tex” running on Patrick’s iPad.

Our prototype has the player controlling a ball of latex, which they can pet and drag slowly around the environment using their finger. As they do so, small snippets of texts appear on-screen, reflecting the complex array of thoughts and emotions which we thought represented the harsh/vulnerable duality of sex. The game is also rich in sound effects, offering a variety of squeaks, moans and metallic clinks in order to inform the player’s experience of what is positive, negative and (in the case of some sado-masochistic combinations) good-negative.

Our game may only have won a few hearts out of Lyst Summit’s rather wonderful voting system, but in the course of making it, myself, Ida and Ene each had chance to try something we’d always wanted to. Ida was able to code the game (a lofty task which included plugging in a rather diverse range of media and inputs), while Ene was given free reign over the art. I was able to design something which barely qualifies as a game, and to practice more sound editing - a task I’d adopted in previous game jams and which I now take some enjoyment in. I also seized the opportunity to practice my presentation skills. Granted, this was a pretty strange first project to try presenting – to a room filled with creative individuals, many of whom were industry veterans and recently-acquired friends – but I was proud to play my part.

In truth, Play-tex is a strange little toy but it’s definitely a child of Lyst Summit. It’s borne of passion, and I believe we hit our unspoken goal: of making something which has playful, adult fun with the taboo concept of sex. I hope this came across to those who played at the summit, and who may have had the chance to play at Nordic Forum in Malmö, a week later.

The Lyst Summit jam wrapped up with worthy praise heaped upon crowd favourites Custody (a fascinating implementation of multi-platform, social gaming), Sushi Hands (a delightfully inventive physical game game, which I was proud to lend my burgeoning hand modelling skills to) and Fever (a beautiful game which required two or more players to manipulate nearly every input on an Xbox 360 controller).

"Custody" - a game played on two PCs (representing parents) and a mobile, which represents a child being passed between the parents.
“Custody” – a game played on two PCs (representing parents) and a mobile, which represents a child being passed between the parents.

The summit ended with a Lyst-ful arcade, and a gorgeous dinner, but sadly I had to leave before dessert could even be served. It really was a terrible event to try and leave, and in fact were it not for some fluke train delays, this part of Scandinavia may not even have let me go.

My return journey was also subject to delays by strike action. Couple that with the fact I couldn’t simply meander back to Københavns Høvedbanegård by boat and on foot – I had a schedule to keep – and I had to turn to public transport. Fortunately a bus runs from Holmen Nord directly to Christianshavn Metro station, and so it was there I got my first taste of København’s rather tasty ‘Tube’ network.

Christianshavn Metro

.. except here’s where I need to make a frank confession. Whether it be because of fatigue, the hasty glow of post-Lyst accomplishment and love, or being distracted by the fact these Metro lines are like somebody combined London’s DLR with the Jubilee line, I neglected to check that what was signposted on the departure boards corresponded to the destination on the train itself. What I expected to be the M2 mod Lufthavnen actually turned out to be an M1, headed towards Vestamager. I didn’t realise this until I’d passed a few stops and wound up at Sundby, on the wrong branch for the airport, which is where the rail replacement bus service would take me across the Øresund.

I immediately caught the next train back to Christianshavn, waited on the next genuine M2, and proceeded to panic my way around Kastrup Lufthavn until I found a togbus (train-bus). Rather than appreciating the scenery again, my trip back across the bridge was spent counting each minute, and after I near-sprinted with my heavy suitcase across the plaza at Malmö Hyllie, I was almost praying for a train to turn up. I flung myself at what I hoped was the right platform just as a train arrived. It was busy, and some folk were left behind on the platform, but as I caught my breath I also grabbed my ‘phone and checked the Skånetrafiken website, to see if I would make it to my night train.

To my utter amazement, the pågatåg (purple train) I was stood on had arrived at Hyllie two minutes late. If it had been on time I would have missed it, and - given that I ended up arriving at Malmö Centralstation with only two minutes to spare – that would have left me stranded at the southern tip of Sweden. As it was, I made it to my train-cum-hotel by the skin of my teeth, and was thus in an excellent state to collapse and actually get a good night’s rest atop my flat, rocking bunk.

Never have I been more glad to see a bunk.
Never have I been more glad to see a bunk.

So it is that I was brought home from Lyst Summit – sweating, exhausted and deeply relieved. Fitting, no?

The post Lyst Summit Write-up (part 2) appeared first on Raygun Gothic.

Jun 29 2014

Lyst Summit Write-up (part 1)

From my blog:

I’m certainly embarrassed by how long it’s taken me to get around to my Lyst write-up - things have been very busy in recent weeks - but in some many ways, it’s taken until now for me to actually process the glorious things which happened there. What follows is more of a travelogue than a simple game jam recap, split into two parts for your convenience.

Lyst Summit is a unique gathering on the subject of love, sexuality and romance in games, and its first event was held in early June aboard the MF William Jørgenson - a boat moored in København (Copenhagen), Danmark. I was honoured to be able to attend, so taking part in a fascinating series of talks, followed by a 48-hour game jam unlike any other. It was my first time visiting the Danish capital since a very brief change of trains last year, and I’m pleased to say it was as rich in friendship as it was in inspiration and creative output.

The "Love Boat" at Holmen
The “Love Boat” at Holmen

My journey began at Stockholms Centralstation. Rather than making my journey more grim, the fact I had to attend on a budget actually justified my taking a night train for the first time in my life. Only weeks after I’d made the same (daytime) journey to Nordic Indie Game Night, SJ nattåg 1 brought me from the Swedish capital to Malmö – this time with sheets and a bunk provided.

Back in Malmø - seeing the station before 6am once again. It's becoming a habit.
Back in Malmø – seeing the station before 6am once again. It’s becoming a habit.

From here, the plan was to catch the Öresundståg directly to Københavns Høvedbanegård (Copenhagen Central Station), but a strike was limiting all rail travel over this link between Sweden and Denmark, and so my journey took in a few extra Metro stops and that most familiar of British concepts: the rail replacement bus service.

Still, I got there in one piece, and as I restored my sensibilities with breakfast just outside the station, I had time to contemplate the last time I had visited København. The very definition of a flying visit, I hadn’t even seen outside the station before, because it is here we changed trains on our journey from Hamburg to Stockholm, back when my partner and I first moved to Sweden. Now perhaps you can appreciate why I linger upon this part of my journey – it wasn’t just about trains for trains’ sake.

I’d made a point of crossing the Danish capital on foot as much as possible, given that a game jam is not the best excuse to see a new place. My walk took me through some rather beautiful places, and while the architecture there may have much in common with the old town in Stockholm – now rather familiar and welcoming to me – it’s spread around a canal network which is much more evocative of Amsterdam. It’s easy to see how a place like this can be such a hotbed of avant-garde culture.

Nyhavn proved to be a particularly captivating node on my journey.
Nyhavn proved to be a particularly captivating node on my journey.

The last step of my journey was a havnebuss (harbour bus) from beautiful Nyhavn, right up to Lyst Summit’s gangplank at Holmen, just off the Bohemian district of Christianshavn. So, the tone was set for our exploration of all things erotic, familial and romantic in games.

As has been mentioned, the first day of Lyst Summit was a series of talks. Our host was Richard Lemarchand, who lead us through a fascinating range of experiences: from radio play sex mechanics in LARP (Jaako Stenros, Game Research Lab) to games ignoring platonic love (Dr. Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Uni. of Surrey), and from slumber party fun (Lau Korsgaard, KnapNok Games) to robotic dildos (Johannes Grenzfurthner, Arse Elektronika).

Richard Lemarchand at the summit's commencement.
Richard Lemarchand at the summit’s commencement.

To my mind, what cemented this all was Ernest Adams’ talk on the “Mechanics of Love”. His talk reminded us that, according to Greek philosophy at least, there are four branches of love to be considered: storga (familial), agape (unconditional), philia (friendship) and eros (passion). The final talk of the day added yet more food for thought, as Dr. Hanna Wirman (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) described her work, communicating with non-human species.

With all this in mind, the summit came to a close and the attendees broke into some games, including a rare, interactive performance with the Indie Bird Game Collective – a group which formed around their Lovebirds project at Nordic Game Jam earlier this year. Although the game was demonstrated at Nordic Indie Game Night in May, it benefits immensely from a more intimate setting, and particularly from a player base and audience who’ve just been contemplating human affection and emotion for the past 7 hours.

A hands-on, pre-dinner game which thrust my Weighted Companion Cube into the limelight! Photo by Martin Nerurkar.
A different hands-on, pre-dinner game which thrust my Weighted Companion Cube into the limelight! Photo by Martin Nerurkar.

It’s hard to describe Lovebirds, and even harder to do the game any justice in such a description, but its staging involves live music, wonderfully macabre masks, and a gentle nature documentary host. In all, I believe some 13 players were involved: 9 lovebirds, and about 4 trees. I had the privilege of becoming a lovebird for the evening.

As the music started, the host introduced the lovebirds to the audience: their mythology, their temperament and their goals. We, the lovebirds then set about our task: a surprisingly intimate one, involving rubbing the beaks of our masks gently against other lovebirds’ in order to find out who we were romantically compatible with. This was to be done under the private shelter of umbrella-style trees, and the only way we could know a mate from our lovebird threesome was to communicate about a single glowing light on our ‘faces’ – which only our partner could see.

Once a threesome was found, the lovebirds were instructed to gather for a grand procession – the culmination of the performance. I had the unique pleasure of a Lovebirds threesome with Richard Lemarchand, and Patrick Jarnfelt of the Copenhagen Game Collective. That’s something you don’t get at any other games event.

As night finally began to fall on København, we of the weekend-long Lyst Summit settled into our game jam groups – decided by the colour of our delightful, hand-made heart badges. I became part of a small group, with Ene Esgaard (freelance illustrator) and Ida Toft (Copenhagen Game Collective). Our planning was decidedly alcohol-fuelled, but also refreshingly open. The games we designed were meandering, ambitious and personally enlightening in a way I haven’t felt since Boob Jam. With all this philia (and a little eros!) saturating the atmosphere, it’s little wonder we made what we did – but that’s a teaser I’ll fulfil in part two of my round-up.

Those of us who stayed on or near the boat ended day one with a rather respectful few rounds of Strip Poker.
Those of us who stayed on or near the boat ended day one with a rather respectful few rounds of Strip Poker.

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Jun 28 2014

Loncon 3 Draft Schedule

One of the things I’ve been meaning to post for a while is my (draft) schedule for Loncon 3

I’ve been looking forward to this for well over a year now, as my partner and I bought membership to what will be our first ever Worldcon back at Redemption, in 2013. A lot of time has passed since then though, and so it’s with shock as much as pride that I can say I’ll be on four panels at the ExCel centre:

From Indie to AAA
(Saturday, 1.5 hours) with Sylvia Wrigley*, Colin Harvey, JW Alden, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris and James Swallow.
Should Indie games aim for AAA status, or are they better off as a forum for arts and creative development? Can the two live together?

LGBTQ Gaming: Industry and Design
(Sunday, 1 hour) with Tee Morris*, Leo Adams, Michele Howe, Foz Meadows and Richard Calder.
We investigate some of the ways that LGBTQ perspectives are developing in both Indie and Mainstream titles. What challenges do designers need to address in order to develop LGBTQ games, characters or ideas, and how should these be articulated within the larger sphere of gaming culture?

Industry-Friendly Games Development
(Sunday, 1 hour) with Sebastian Bleasdale*, Karen Davies, Adrian Hon, Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris and Alice Taylor.
In which we discover if all three of these concepts can live happily together.

The Politics of The Culture
(Monday, 1 hour) with David Dingwall*, Rachel Coleman Finch, Ken MacLeod and Lalith Vipulananthan Lal.
In her review of “Look to Windward”, Abigail Nussbaum suggests that the central paradox of Iain M Banks’ Culture is that it is “both a force for goodness, freedom, and happiness in the galaxy, and an engine of its citizens’ selfish, childish needs to imbue their lives with meaning, to which end they will cause any amount of suffering … both are true, and both are reductive.” To what extent is the Culture, as a political entity, built around this unresolvable duality? How do the Culture novels grapple with the contradictions at the heart of this utopia? And how do the actions of the Culture connect with the more immediate political choices we face in the present world?

Details may of course change as we get closer to the dates in August. I’m certainly quivering with excitement; I hope some of you will be interested too!

May 30 2014

Utopic Notebook

From my blog:

In design, it is generally understood that we must learn to let ideas go. If you are to successfully prototype either one project or many, you have to learn to divorce yourself from ‘precious’ ideas, lest you start awkwardly accommodating nuggets of ideas which, in reality, simply will not work as you might hope. What I’ve found more recently is that I have to apply this philosophy to the way I generate ideas, too. I have to learn to let go of design techniques.

I am a tidy person who aspires towards orderliness in a great many things - be it the upkeep of file naming conventions or ensuring that every one of my photographs is geo-tagged. As such, I place great stock in (and derive enjoyment from) coming up with systems to help keep organised. However, as I’m sure a few people could relate: I seem to spend my life perpetually moving from one system to the next, never quite managing to finish what I started the last time around. I don’t just keep one backup of my hard drives – I have four, and this is not because I want to be absolutely sure and safe. The truth is, each backup is only half-complete but bears a different folder naming structure, and I have yet to integrate everything into one, cohesive pattern.

This same organised chaos plays itself out in my design notes, and while I pride myself on thorough note-keeping for client work, my own projects and ideas are a relative mess. To explain, my current setup is like this:

Note Media

From top left, clockwise:

  • The first of what I hope will be a few A4, narrow-lined ‘logbooks’ for taking down lasting notes -particularly about new working methods.
  • My laptop (represented by a keyboard), Nexus 7 and Galaxy S4 Mini, all of which run Evernote – for taking portable, rich-media notes. As I type more quickly than I can write on all but my phone, this is where I often jot down snippets of game ideas, or ideas for blog posts.
  • Whiteboard, mostly used to keep track of time-critical notes on a variety of projects.
  • Post-it notes, mostly used to keep track of events, as I find it useful to frame complicated travel itineraries in one neat, transferable form.
  • Reporter-sized notepads, for day-to-day use. On the rare occasion I do manage to write these up into either Evernote or my logbook, I tear the respective pages out and bin them.
  • A5 sketchbook, nowadays mostly used to jog my visualisation of an idea. I haven’t ‘finished’ a sketch in one of these in years.

While each medium tends to have a particular key ‘use’, my current system means I will keep notes in at least 3 different places, never quite bringing them into a whole unless there’s demand for a design document. Some time ago I wondered if there would be a way to unite all this, probably in digital format. I gave that a try with Evernote, and it failed miserably.

Whether or not a single product is actually capable of achieving this lofty goal is a matter on which I have no authority to speak. In working towards this design utopia*, however, I realised a greater and more practical truth: my ideas directly benefit from being expressed in so many different ways.

The act of moving concepts from one notebook to another results in two things:

  • you break away from the environment you were creating in originally, gaining a fresh perspective and an opportunity to edit;
  • and you instinctively tweak what it is you’re actually capturing to fit the new note-taking medium, be that sketches into words or shorthand into long.

I consider this to be the first, subtle step into true and progressive design – challenging an idea, to ensure it can stand up to user experience and still communicate what it needs to. Even if it only comes down to tweaking the way your notes are expressed, that’s still a vital skill where you hope to involve other people in your vision.

It may well be that in order for me to construct a two-page design brief, I have to use enough note-making media to cover a coffee table – but at least this way I can see how far the idea’s already had to travel.

* Given that many† view utopia not as an achievable state, but rather something which was always intended to be an aspiration, and that good and orderly society may form while on the path towards achieving it.. I think this terminology is rather apt.

† This was revealed to me in a fascinating lecture by Gerald Farca (Uni. of Augsburg) at the Swedish Game Awards Conference, on the subject of dystopia in game narratives – however ironically I cannot find the notes I made at the time. Dystopia is clearly only an in-tray away…

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May 13 2014

Not a Game Podcast, and the Multiplayer Sweet Spot

From my blog:

The Not a Game podcast has just released its 40th episode, and I’m delighted to say that host Tom Hatfield invited me on this week! Not a Game is a weekly panel-type podcast with freelance games writers and developers discussing all manner of games-related topics.

Designed by Jacob Smiley

The “Not a Game” logo, designed by Jacob Smiley

In this episode: Tom, myself, Paul Dean and Jordan Webber discussed Halo 3‘s rather baffling plot, what we felt was wrong with Bioshock,  and the potential for a game-cum-storytelling platform like Storium.

We also discussed whether or not a game like DotA can be relaxing, which put me in mind of the multiplayer games I used to play online. In the podcast, I cited the example of Wintergrasp in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. I realised that I seem now to have left this sort of gameplay behind, in favour of so-called ‘couch co-op’ -and while there are many other, more nuanced reasons for this, the most obvious reason is that I want to include my partner in these games, rather than playing with friends. Still, I long for this sort of gameplay and until now I wasn’t consciously aware of it really being ‘a thing’. Now that I think about it though, there is real value to be had in creating a game which accommodates this relaxed, social play – both for building loyalty and allowing players to explore the game at their own pace.

I am inherently fascinated by strategy games, and have put many hours into titles like Command & Conquer: GeneralsCompany of Heroes and StarCraft II (though I still haven’t even installed my copy of Heart of the Swarm). However, my problem with them has traditionally been that the single-player campaigns are poorly tuned, with difficulty spikes actively jarring against my sense of progression. I almost never enjoy playing competitively against strangers, either – I end up feeling that there’s too much at stake, and it becomes stressful for me. The sad thing is that tends to be the feature such games are sold on, and so I feel somehow outcast by them.

I am, at heart, a co-op gamer and what I’ve loved about StarCraft II in particular is feeling able to explore the confines of a strategy game, working out the tactics and strategies I feel best suited to, all the while being able to converse with a friend or two. Considering that for a long while, my gaming partners were based halfway up the country, this also had real social value to me. So, I’ve always recognised this value as a gamer – but I now believe in the idea of nurturing this sort of behaviour as a step towards encouraging mastery at the players’ own pace.

I would go as far as saying that I learned far more about either of the games I mentioned earlier simply by creating a custom game with friends, than I did by playing the tutorials or campaigns. In fact, Company of Heroes proved quite a difficult game for me, and while StarCraft II has a superb single-player campaign it actually undermines the multiplayer experience by allowing you to use campaign-specific units. These perform worthy roles in single-player, but they would break multiplayer skirmishes. Even when combined with basic units which do appear in multiplayer, they have enough of an impact that they encourage tactics which simply wouldn’t fly in arenas.

So it is that my former house-mate and I spent a good 4 months playing lengthy, co-op campaigns against varying levels of AI – something we structured around the game’s rather nice achievements system – before we began dipping our toes into multiplayer competitions.

StarCraft II

Of course, I’m not so naive as to believe that ‘co-op vs AI’ had prepared us for human opponents either, but it did lend us something of a sandbox in which we could explore key tactics, such as getting a feel for building times and resource acquisition, and working out which units work well together. The race for barracks, for example, can be drilled down to split-second timing, with demands on precise construction of exactly the right number of gatherer units so that you don’t over- or underspend resources. Unless you’ve been given the chance to practice this art, you’re likely to be swamped early on in a game and perhaps never understand how the enemy player beat you.

One can also practice this solo in custom games, of course, and many do, but personally I feel there’s a lot can be said for simply having another player at your back. Not only can you share tips and observations on the fly, you can also mix strategies up much quicker, such as by combining a force of mostly-infantry with mostly-vehicles - broadening your experience of what you can deploy but also how enemy players might work together. All this and the chance to stay in touch, contributing to a relaxing and fun evening? I adore this style of co-op play.

All of which adds up to an increased sense of player confidence, the likes of which tutorials and single-player campaigns cannot deliver. I strongly believe that the chief reason I don’t play FPS games competitively, in multiplayer, is because the combat is too far removed from what I’ve previously encountered (or in other words, been taught). The punishment for that, dealt by the hands of other players, can feel severe. There are FPS games which allow offline custom games, but the nature of the genre means that AI opponents will simply never match up to a human player – and with death a mere button press away, there is very little room for experimentation.

Strategy games allow me a chance to at least feel sufficiently comfortable with a game’s intricacies that I can step into a competitive match and not feel like I’d lose outright. I’ll often lose anyway, but I can do so knowing not only that I have co-op multiplayer to return to, but that it’s also not because all my tactics are wrong. It might be that I need to tweak my build order against a  particular kind of factional player, or that other players have adopted an unwritten and unexpected tactic for advancing through a particular map.

It just so happens that while playing multiplayer co-op, I wrote a few strategy guides and walkthroughs of my own for StarCraft II‘s single-player campaign. The articles have not aged well in this age of patching, but if anyone is interested they can be found along with a bunch of World of Warcraft gameplay guides at Manual Override.

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May 10 2014

Heterodachi Life

From my blog:

Nintendo’s ‘apology’ for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life is both unsettling and disappointing to me.

For those who aren’t aware: Tomodachi Life is a social game for 3DS which involves Nintendo’s Mii avatars. It was announced relatively recently, but my understanding is that the game’s already seen release in Japan and will be coming to North America and Europe soon. Its brilliantly bizarre trailer paints a picture of personalisation, pets, concerts and other fun activities, with the Miis developing relationships with one another. However, those relationships are glaringly heteronormative, and when challenged on the point, Nintendo stated that same-sex relationships weren’t allowed.

Tomodachi Life

I refuse to call this an oversight, or suggest that anything is lacking because there has clearly been a mechanical decision made somewhere to exclude same-sex relationships in the game. Since the trailer was announced and then challenged on these grounds, the dialogue between players and developers seems to have gone:

“Fun for everyone!”
“Yeah, but.. can the Miis have same-sex marriages?”
“Er, no.”
“.. why not? Can you patch it in?”

After which followed a bit of mumbling and hand-wringing until Nintendo finally put out a statement, basically claiming that it’s too late to do anything about the problem.

Their apology seems ignorant of the fact that somewhere along the line, someone either built a system in which all Miis could have relationships with each other regardless of gender marker attributes and then added that constraint, or at the very least raised the question in a design meeting, but had the proposal refused.

Basically, I find it very hard to see how Tomodachi Life could have been designed any other way than with an intentional heterosexual bias. That is, unless Nintendo are admitting to employing some very narrow-minded and therefore incapable designers, not one of whom ever thought to raise the point about homosexual relationships either at either the mechanical design stage, or in terms of how the game would be received by its players. This, of course, sits counter to Nintendo’s ethos of ‘games for all’.

I’m being a tad blunt here, but what I do know is that my perception of Nintendo has been shaken. When I try to imagine the thought processes which went into making Tomodachi Life into a heteronormative game, I can’t help but wonder if the company is inherently dismissive of same-sex relationships. Perhaps no-one on the design team dared speak up about such a feature for fear of dismissal. Perhaps it’s the realisation of one of our greatest concerns about games development today: that all involved were simply of the same mindset, and so it never occurred to them to be inclusive towards this branch of their diverse audience. Worse: perhaps they’re of one mind when it comes to being exclusive of homosexual Mii players.

All pretty scary ideas, but sadly this is where I feel I’ve been left standing. Somewhere along the line, Nintendo decided not to feature same-sex marriages and while they could well have built this system with such complexity that it cannot now be patched, their reliance upon there being a fix in Tomodachi Life 2 comes across as a weak - and perhaps naive – apology, especially since they’re pitching inter-Mii relationships as being one of the most enjoyable game features. It’s also insulting to contemplate a system which is built so heavily around perceived gender norms that it cannot now be changed. Is it the case that all female Miis act a certain way to male Miis’ inputs, as per the Samus scenario in the trailer? Is that why Nintendo can’t fix the game by simply removing an ‘IF’ statement here and there?

Creamy Coffee

All of this is a shame, because I really like the look of the game – but not the fact its designers took the decision to declare that the avatars of some of my close friends could never show romantic affection for one another. EA/Bioware encountered this with their Star Wars games, and a forum thread famously closing with the line, “there are no gay people in Star Wars“. Games set in the Old Republic, do not, however, rely upon the avatars we make of our friends and family on the pretext of reflecting ourselves in the game world. However much Nintendo might want to distance Tomodachi Life from reality, I don’t feel they can ask us to make Miis of our friends and then strip away the relationships we feel they ought to have. That’s Nintendo taking the lives of its customers and fans, and reflecting them back at us through a heteronormative filter.

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