Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Forward Motion and Immersion Cocoons

Ooh, my counter has hit 10,000. I'm not sure what it actually counts... but 10,000!


This caught my eye - presumably due to its claim to the 'experimental interactive narrative' throne.
Reviews are all acceptably favourable, with the same flaws being flagged across the board.
Intrigued, I followed the pixel trail to the dev's blog.

I have to say, I greatly admire Alexei for what he has achieved and for what he attempted to achieve. And throughout his blog, he references a canoe-ful of the major game design books, so he's clearly studied his craft. Most impressive is the way he's handled the recurring negatives (although you'd have to question his 'I agree' remarks for it's difficult to imagine that the public would give two marsupials whether he agreed with them or not).

Anyhoo, do go and take a looksee.

Sooo... two days from usability submission and I got to play the opening act today. Yep, two days to go and we start the playthrough. Sigh.
We're looking at major pacing issues, placeholder ui components, a HO scene with no HO, yet-to-be-implemented music, sound fx and vo, cursor inconsistencies, obscure leading and no exit button. It's a terrifying shambles.
But the wind effects are smashing.
As I maundered my way through the act compiling pages of notes, poor sweet coder Lucy turned rather pale. I do hope she's hardy enough to weather the approaching storm...

What the playthrough highlighted - or highlit - for me was the importance of immersion, and the influence that controlled forward motion wields over immersion. Every time a placeholder graphic sicked upon the screen, or a series of interactions invoked no aural response, or a line of dialogue came and went before I could register the meaning of its arcane shapes or even when a line of dialogue duelled for attention with the pretty coloured forms of a new zoom window, I was jolted further from the world. I can see the world there, interred in the earthy inadequacies and inconsistencies, and I even get to caress its bosom during those stolen moments of uninterrupted flow, but then she is dragged deeper beneath the soil, rent from my lips by the Valkyries of brokentude.

Silky forward motion is the womb of immersion, and credibility of meaning the, um, urethra. That would likely make sensory stuff the fallopian tubes.
Or, to put it another way, for the player to respond to any of the stimulae laced throughout the game like bear traps, the real world has to be kept apart from her conscious mind at all times. Hiccups within her artificial reality will fracture the cocoon which she willingly builds from the materials we provide for her. If the player isn't immersed, she won't care. It's one thing for me to state mid-blog post that Miss Thorn steps off a cliff, and quite another to immerse you into a vivid and interactive world of ethereal sights and sounds and lead you delicately to that one moment in time.
And that cocoon can be so very easily fractured at every single step.


MCF8: Escape from Ravenhearst came out. As predicted, the public reaction to this strange shaped wheel was mixed.
The two principal bones of contention were the morphing object scenes and the abstention from hints, followed closely by the text-less and user-unfriendly strategy guide, the invisible integration of CE material, the discriminatory minimum specs, and the question of taste, chased up by the omission of puzzles or mini-games.

There are two mechanical differences between a HO scene and a MO scene.
In a HO scene, the player is essentially given the instruction: Find several items in this scene.
In a MO scene, the instruction is: Find several items in this scene... oh, but they're only going to appear every five seconds or so.
You could also read the instructions this way:
HO scene: Find several items. Here's a list of those items.
MO scene: Find several items.
The results were:
* The momentum stalled as the player was required to wait for objects to reveal themselves. (The favoured simile was '...like watching paint dry'.)
* In order to identify items from subtle changes on the screen, players developed headaches or migraines.

I personally didn't mind the MO scenes (although they did appear with a dogmatic frequency).
It's certainly no surprise seeing Big Fish attempting to breathe new life into a tired formula.
It was a marginally risky decision. The bad decision, though, was to penalize the player for misclicking. Select a non-morphing object and a previously discovered morphing object is returned to the scene.
Attempting to find items in a HO scene causes a lull in the forward motion (due to the repetition and isolation), but does not interrupt it for the items are findable at all times.
Waiting for items to appear in a MO scene stalls the game.
Returning items to the scene reverses the flow of the game - just as the author who attempts flashbacks runs the risk of facing backwards.
Yep, we're back to the importance of forward motion - of continuously developing towards, and promising, a satisfying denouement.

Another way to stall is to remove hints. Player noodles, player reaches impasse, player thinks for a bit, player presses hint button and is back on track.
Take the end off that sentence and you leave the player in limbo without sign of resolution.

Curiously, the stalling and the reversing were sustained for longer than expected due to the life-giving nutrients provided by a cocoon wrought of detail and atmosphere - of rain splashing on leaves and lightning burnished upon the Irish Sea. This immersion cocoon was barely even grazed by the bottle opener which was used to move a boulder.

You know that 'instant rejection' faux pas? - that phrase in the covering letter that instantaneously raises a literary agent's blood pressure and hackles..?

Please find attached chapters five and seventeen. I know you requested the opening two chapters, but chapters five and seventeen are much better.

Yes, it's blinkin' difficult taking a sack of nothing and turning it immediately into something riveting and meaningful. But that's one of the skills a decent writer needs. I had the privilege of reading the MCF8 journal a few weeks ago. It was compelling stuff. (The last page was missing and I found myself cursing!)
So why oh why did Big Fish choose to open so coquettishly?
And do you know what they posted in the MCF8 forums?
Link This game has many chapters with several twists and turns, so you may want to play through more than just the demo before leaving feedback.

Really? You keep all that juicy stuff out of the demo and expect people to assume that the game is going to improve and that they should take your word for it and buy the full game?

Righty, that's an evening of Skyrimming that I've sacrificed for you my lovely maggoteers (or, more likely, for the opportunity to alchemize formless thoughts into barely decipherable sentences to see if I have anything to be concerned about). Are we doomed, or simply at a necessary and inevitable point in the development cycle? In the spirit of forward motion: let's go find out. (Insert ellipsis here.)

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Christmas's Children

Continuing a thread from my last post: here's the John Lewis Christmas advert that's reducing everyone to tears. It's one minute and thirty seconds long.



My thoughts on the employment of children as emotional pawns in fiction have changed several times over the last five years or so. They're such easy triggers. I have to confess that I wasn't expecting the young Edwina scene in M3 to move people to tears - rather, I was expecting goosebumps as a prelude to the denouement. I felt terribly amateurish when I learned that I hadn't controlled my players.
I guess children are the embodiment of all that is good, pure and innocent in the world, which gives us a pretty darned powerful default to begin with.

Here's Hemingway's six word flash:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Here are the Man Booker winners.
I'm not counting, but I can see at a glance that a healthy dollop of them, and possibly the majority, adopt the pov of a child, either in first-person or in third limited, either in flashback (recollection) or in present tense (or even both). Certainly I can recount a good deal of short-listed child povs too. (M. J. Hyland's Carry me Down is still a personal fave.) Moreover, it was Anne Enright's The Gathering that made me begin to question my treatment of fictional children (and last year's short-listed Room [Emma Donoghue] was a wholly predictable confirmation). I'd done my share of child cruelty, riding on the wave of child abuse books that were en vogue at the time, but I knew I would always, always make amends before the closing line, and I would avoid anything relentless. Anne's relentless tone disturbed me* - which is as valid an emotional hit as any other - and I vowed there and then (-ish) to find my own ethical and emotional stance. And we mustn't forget the trauma of Torey Hayden's unresolved Ghost Girl.
As such, I refused to allow young Edwina to watch as her father burned to death AND I would only allow such a flashback to occur once I had clearly imparted the knowledge that adult Edwina was just fine.

I'm genuinely haunted by The Darling Buds of May. I simply can't get my head around it. See how I was mentally subverting the plots not so long ago, warping them into drama. That's to say that it really doesn't qualify as drama, does it? (Or am I mistakenly assuming that drama is comprised of the dramatic?) I adore that show, and countless other people adore that show, but my head cannot imagine how I could make such a tepid (I use that word without any derogatory connotations) topography work for today's audiences, let alone for your average gamer. I guess Ico comes as close to the Darling Buds topography as any other game (and hopefully The Last Guardian: see video on right), with its gorgeous environments, bloodless skirmishes, and ethereal soundtrack and ceaseless winds.
That's where I've pitched Margrave 4, and I'm comfortable with that decision...
Could it be, however, that the big money is buried in horror..? Here's the trailer for the forthcoming MCF release: Escape from Ravenhearst. (Those teeth are far too clean!)



*On second thoughts, I think I found The Gathering depressing more so than disturbing. Anne's world seemed bleak and grey to me, in stark contrast to the previous winner, in which Sai inhabited a world of exciting and vivid colours and smells and tastes.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Cut

Edwina will even have animated hair this time!

Following on from our previous topic, I noticed today that Melissa from Passionfruit Games posted on the Big Fish forums. Her question sacrificed upon the altar of the vox populi was simply: Do you watch cut scenes?
Naturally, I've emailed her inviting discussion, fantasizing about witty and incisive exchanges of ideas over a flagon of gluhwein and, naturally, I'm expecting no response and a black mark shaped like a Ferengi ear adhered to my name. But hey... he who dares!

I'm uncertain how I feel about devs approaching the public in this fashion. In theory, it seems like it might be a good idea. However, I do think that devs should knuckle down and figure stuff out for themselves; after all, the public have no idea what they want. (The epitome of this is the interchangeable use of the words 'story' and 'plot' to encompass everything and anything.) Moreover, a cursory glance over the responses reveals absolutely nothing that any respectable dev wouldn't already be familiar with.

Our first cut scene (actually I'm going to revert to hyphenating that) - our first cut-scene is going in. Exciting times. Sal has done a smashing job overpainting (and I'm going to make overpainting into a word) the photos we took a month or so back, bar a few expressions that need a tad more definition. Capturing expressions is one of the hardest jobs an artist can tackle. The slightest slip in observation can devastate an expression which, in turn, can subvert the purpose of a cut-scene. (If you have five minutes spare, do go and participate in Professor Ekman's latest smile recognition test. For the curious/competitive among you, I scored fifteen.)

We're devoting a lot more energy to our cut-scenes this time round. The vfx are going to blow you away. Yes they are. And Ben's townscape is a miracle of beauty and convolution. I've been poring over my storyboards endlessly, contemplating the same questions over and over: How can I emotionally engage the player right from the get-go without resorting to melodrama?
And whilst I have absolute confidence, misguided or otherwise, that the denouement is going to shatter even the most obsidian of hearts, I wonder how close we can get to that kind of emotional connection in the intro. Is it possible to conceive of, say, a movie that has the viewer so immediately involved and emotionally attached that she is weeping within the first five minutes?
Well, we're giving it our best shot, using a blend of the story-independent techniques of wonder, peril, and character relationships.

My slightly facetious answer to Melissa's question would be: Are they worth watching?

Which leads us to another question that's congesting my neurons with far too much attention-seeking tomfoolery: Is it worth it?
What's the cost of this kind of endeavour?
I had the unbearably difficult task of letting my good friend 3D Raul go a couple of months back. My response to that arduous day was the blog post Rules.
When everyone ups their game and starts believing that we truly can create something super special, it becomes painfully apparent when someone has no, or little, capacity for improvement, and I was unable to find any way at all to save my friend, and believe me I tried.
As such, we're now over two months behind schedule and I've been using every bit of cunning available to me to massage the schedules into something viable.
Interviews over; on Tuesday we welcome 3D André.
(Interview anecdote: I had another of those 'I'm a writer!' types. He asked if we all write the story together. Despite being afflicted with the urge to reply 'Yes; and my deceased grandmother does all the coding!' I was very humble and polite. You would have been proud of me my dear maggoteers!)
Here's what I want André to know...

There's a saying amongst actors, but I've also heard it in other creative disciplines. It goes: Directors don't know what they want; they just know what they don't want.
I guess it's meant to be disparaging(?)
However, if you need to, give it a moment's thought.
I have no idea how this project is going to turn out. How can I? It's like playing a game of Guess the Celebrity by looking at their atoms. It's like dear Margaret Bingley - the author and consultant I visited many years ago - confiding in me that, even after all her successes, she still fears every manuscript she types - fears that it will be a major dud. It's like the cast of Star Wars who, when offered the choice between a percentage of royalties or a flat fee, took the flat fee (if urban legend is to be believed).
And, if you've ever written a full length ms, you'll know perfectly well yourself how organic the process is - how it is far more than the sum of its plot devices and characters. You have to observe - to watch where the project is going - to guide it, but not to stifle it - and to quickly identify those magic moments that fall from the preternatural aether and to nurture them and suckle them and clothe them in bottle green velvet and brass buckles.
(E.M. Forster reckoned that the writer who's fully in control of her characters hasn't even started to do the work.)

I empathise with my team. On Monday I might say one thing, and then change my mind on Tuesday. As the emperor of damage limitation, I try to impress upon my team the importance of testing the waters - of consulting me iteratively and concepting alternatives; and of the importance of research and consideration before that digital pen is even sniffed.
I'm also unapologetic about mind-changing. I've provided every microscopic detail of an invisible five plus hour game and I've made everything as, um, transparent as possible. But all of this cannot be anything more than a first pass: I am nothing more than a lowly human being attempting to pluck three hundred minutes of stuff from a magic land and capturing it and recording it and ordering it and moulding it into hyperreality.
I've learned that the easiest way to spot a professional is by asking them to revise something. The pro's understand; the amateurs are offended. The supreme ease with which Ben and I develop and refine our art is testament to that.

Ben and I performing thorough damage limitation.

And so it is that I face the prospect of derision and vitriol every day.
Today we received the first round of test dialogue from our luscious voice artistes. Some of the characters have been interpreted perfectly! In particular, Julie-Anne's take on Madeleine, the prophetic doll, is genuinely frightening. (Madeleine utters one line in the entire game. I gave J-A no direction other than: as scary as you can.) And Nigel, who may or may not be her hubby, has nailed most of the Seer heads. (Cargan is a scream!)
But Ula and Rudo are way short of what we want, and I have to find a way of attaining my vision without causing offence. Alternatively, I can sacrifice my vision. Which brings us back to my question: Is it worth it?
How many people get hurt along the way?
The answer: If they are all talented and foster a professional attitude and have the gift of ego suppression, none.

Can't recall whether I made Keelin laugh or cry. Perhaps Professor Ekman has a test?

But that's a perfect world. And, just like our Cyclopean town, that world drifts in and out of reality, and when it is with us the rewards far outweigh the hardships.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Forget the Gameplay

It's one of those topics I've been garnering bravado for... so let's jump back in with the controversy du jour...

Does the name Simon Parkin ring any bells?
How about Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception?

Have a look.



Isn't it strange: all these decades in, and we're still arguing about the amount of interactivity that is desirable in a game. Mid-way between the movie and the game is the interactive movie. Games, by all definitions (that I've read, and that's quite a few), must offer the player choices and allow the player to influence the world about him. Movies, conversely, are passive affairs.
With Drake's third outing, it seems as though we've finally reached that point inbetween.

Here's Simon's brilliant review over at Eurogamer.

And then the flamewars began.
As far as I can figure, the furore stems from a misinterpretation (as confirmation bias is wont to cajole) of the review. Some commenters read Simon's review as positive, and then are surprised to find an eight-out-of-ten score; some read the review as negative and are equally perplexed by the score; most are simply surprised that Simon didn't rate the game as highly as the other major reviewers.

Simon concludes his review:
The execution exhibits a kind of workmanship and polish way beyond the ambition of most other developers, let alone their abilities or budgets. As an expression of all that a video game could be, however, Uncharted 3 is narrow, focused and ultimately shallow. It is a majestic tribute to cinema, a movie game in the literal sense, and your enjoyment will be in precise step with your appreciation of that objective - and whether or not you believe it to be Drake's great deception, or Drake's great delight.

So the question facing game designers is: How much interactivity makes for a fulfilling GAMING experience?

I think if Bob McKee were here, he'd say it was a specious argument. And I'd agree. Heck, I'll always agree with my imaginary Bob McKee. I like to call him Mimsy and stroke his hairy shoulders.

Just to backtrack briefly, I'll explain why this has been on my mind for a while now.
Here's a snippet from Jayisgames' review of Margrave 3:

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart is all about the story and setting, and it paints such a wonderful picture with both that the gameplay comes in second. In fact, sometimes the actual "game" parts of Margrave seem like an intrusion...

Consider, too, our producer's remarks that players attempt to complete hidden object scenes as quickly as possible so that they can get on with the game.

Well hold up! What precisely is it that gamers want? Do they actually want to be presented with choices and given the power to influence their artificial world? or will they accept the most modest of interaction - just enough for a game to qualify as a game - provided that their ultimate experience is rewarding?

If there's one thing I've learned during my time as a game designer - and there probably isn't one thing I've learned - but if there is, it's that there's not a single design question that can't be answered by the statement:
It's all a question of balance!

I was, I think, amused when I played Deus Ex the other day. After some twenty minutes of 'on rails' gaming, about eighteen minutes of which was dialogue (exposition), I finally reached the opening credits and began the game. At that point I was given three choices of play. The recommended/default choice was something like:
Full story mode: This is how the game is meant to be played.

Which is why I think it's a specious argument. The old school HOGgers didn't much care for M3 because it had a good dollop of story. They wanted uninterrupted interactivity. The nu wave HOGgers - those whose EXPECTATIONS of the iHOG genre are different (as in contemporary) - did enjoy it; for them, the ultimate experience justified the anchoring of meaning through conventional narrative design.
How to appease both camps?
1) Give everyone the option to skip cut-scenes.*
2) Be sure to inject as much meaningful choice into any existing interactive elements as possible.
* N.B. Players judge on default. If you default to 'cut-scenes on', they'll moan if they don't like cut-scenes, even if you give them the option to switch them off. Weird, but true.

Here's another snippet from our Jayisgames review: (This was pretty consistent feedback.)

Another high point in the Margrave experience is the Dream Card mini-game... it's steeped in tarot artwork and mythology, so naturally you'll feel a bit like a psychic yourself each time you name a spirit.

I'll leave you, my dear maggoteers, with these questions:

Would Simon have scored Uncharted 3 higher if it had claimed to be an interactive movie rather than a game?
What does that say about the effect of expectations upon a game? And how do we deal with such expectations?
Would you be content to sit back and watch ninety minutes of this..?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Rules



My son starts his new school today!
(Um, meant to post this a couple of weeks back. Sorry.)

Even as I type, I can imagine him in his stiff and heavy uniform, chatting with other frightened kids in a dinner hall heavy with the sounds of clashing cutlery and chair legs scuffing varnished floorboards and a thousand boys discussing their summer hols, and with the smells of whatever has replaced the boiled cabbage and suet puddings of yesteryear.

He read through his rule book last night and had some questions for me.
Most of the rules are obvious, he said: Don't smoke and don't drink alcohol and don't gamble at school or on the way to or from school. We discussed briefly whether Top Trumps qualified as gambling.
Several rules concerned him however. It says we're not allowed into the school buildings during lunch break. So how am I going to get my lunch? And am I going to have to sit outside to eat it? And what if I need the toilet. (Yes, toileting is surely one of the top concerns for schoolkids. If it was a Top Trumps card, it would have an Anxiety score of ten.)
I allayed his fears by explaining that it was the same at my school, and the rules simply prohibit students from hanging around the classrooms and the like during breaks. Dining halls and toilets are fair game.
He also has games today and hasn't moulded his gum shield and wasn't sure which of his shin guards he needed. Multiple shin guards! I jest not!

Coincidentally, I'm reading Stephen Fry's (if I was gay, I certainly would! Heck, give me a couple of glasses of wine and I'd give it serious consideration) Moab is my Washpot, the first installment of his autobiography. Like my son, he's just started big school, and is surveying this foreign landscape. Looking back, Stephen bears no ill-will towards the masters who caned him; rather, he recalls the injustices, especially those acted upon him by other schoolkids.
Certainly something I've noticed in my son over the years, as he grapples with the concept of the fallibility of adults and the often uninformed judgements of teachers.

Lord help us all if we dare to breach the topic of rules whilst in creative company. Whenever someone would mention the word over on the writers' forums, I would pull a lemon-sucking face and recoil from my monitor. We prefer the concept of guidelines, or techniques, or methods, or tools, or anything that doesn't stand over you with a birch.

Thing is, 'creative rules' are nothing more than starting points. A writer who has mastered POV and plotting and all those dry techniques still has a very long way to go before she can craft an unforgettable tale. Or, to put it another way, if you bought me a tool set for Christmas, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to knock up a uniquely handsome, weatherproof gazebo. Oh no.
Creativity is about understanding how stuff works, and then setting sail on a long and lonely journey, where you make a million informed decisions, ruthlessly, um, paddling out brilliant mixed metaphors and splicing mainbraces with toasted emotions.
If a dead rat measured the creative process, and you started at the tip of its tail, you wouldn't even touch its arse with your tools.

When you get how stuff works and what it is doing, well that's when you can reinvent.
The learner artisan doesn't get this. I've known writers who will witness a professional author breaking POV and then exclaiming But you told me not to break POV! And amateur artists producing bland and hackneyed abstracts, confidently referring the viewer to Picasso's success. Just as the barber I visited as an art student was unable to distinguish between his infant daughter's painting of flowers and Van Gogh's Sunflowers.
Picasso didn't jump straight into cubism. Aged thirteen, he was admitted to the Barcelona School of Fine Arts. And he did this.
And, aged about seventeen, he did this.

And with that, he climbed into his boat, waved goodbye to his friends and his family, and set sail for terra nova.

Monday, 5 September 2011

High on a Hill

Crikey, standards are really going up. The new Enigmatis looks pretty darned polished.
But let me ask you this: Does it have a goat chocolatier? Eh?

You know how the saying goes: If you can't beat 'em, you're not very good at beating.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The Insecurity of Reinvention



Been a taxing week - one of those weeks where you question your work a tad too deeply. (We're in the land between paradox and non sequitur people!)

I'm currently assembling the hints system and it's about as mind-spangling as things get. It's nice to take a break for a couple of days to tidy my thoughts.

I've briefly allowed myself a tour of the recent reviews of M3 - just enough to perk me up a little, and not so much as to perpetuate a dependency on public adoration. :o)
And boy, I'm blown away. The scores keep going up and up, all across the board, raised on the shoulders of so many kind and encouraging comments.
As that comforting glow soaks into my soul, a panic eel spasms in my gut. All those high expectations! Can I really lead my team to an even greater victory? I've changed my approach to design and game narrative so much, and everything is once more uncertain. I mean, this game is, thus far, an unfiltered nozzle into my head, and that's a scary premise.

What do the greats do?
On the one hand, you have the MCF team who reinvent with breathtaking courage from game to game; on the other, you have the unfalteringly successful ERS team(s) who pump out 'cookie cutter' games with unnerving regularity.
The upshot is pretty straightforward: each new MCF game garners a host of negative reviews from those who dislike the new systems, techniques, and mechanics. The ERS games seem only to receive negative reviews concerning the lack of originality. ('More of the same' is a recurring review.)
And, in both cases, these games hurtle to the top of the charts and make heaps of money.
I'm quite sure my bosses would prefer that I adopted the ERS approach. But I simply can't do that. To deny myself the opportunities to improve and experiment and to push boundaries is to deny myself of everything that is necessary for my creative survival.

My new hints system is, to the best of my knowledge, radically different to all others in the iHOG genre.
I've replaced the insipid omniscient hints (Collect the bacon slicer from the mortuary) with a character.
So now the hints are imbued with personality, and we move a little closer to turning a 'penalty' into a 'reward'. Furthermore, we increase immersion every time we shun omniscience in favour of important, narrative-driven characters.
I've also broken the hints into smaller increments. When coupled with the interactive in-game map, this method overcomes all the issues we experienced with the previous system.

One unforeseen by-product of all this is that the hints have rather ballooned.
Now that the hint can 'see' where the player is, 'he' needs to respond appropriately in order to sustain believability:

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is not in town.
HINT PERSON: Let's head into town and have a look around.

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is not standing outside mortuary.
HINT PERSON: There's a mortuary on Gallows Corner. Let's have a looksee.

PLAYER has not visited mortuary. PLAYER is outside mortuary.
HINT PERSON: I don't like the look of this place at all. Let's go in!

PLAYER does not have bacon slicer. PLAYER is not in mortuary.
HINT PERSON: Hey Edwina! I'm sure I saw a bacon slicer in the mortuary.

PLAYER does not have bacon slicer. PLAYER is in mortuary.
HINT PERSON: Ooh look! A bacon slicer! We can use that to create an origami pig!

(N.B. The hints are organised into linear bundles of loops. At the final 'idiot' stage of a loop, I've chosen to lead the player not just to the current choke, but also to the next.)
It's a teeny bit painful to compose a full ms of hints, knowing that any one player might only require a small clawful of lines from that almighty document.

The other problem - and this was not unexpected - is wrestling parallel game-play into a linear hint system. I faced this in M3, but in M4 the player might have three or four tasks open at once, and our intelligent, self-aware hint must intuitively assuage the player's current concern, whilst shepherding her to the next point in a linear system.

And I think these are possibly the moments when we most question our judgement - those moments when we are entrenched in something that is difficult and untested.
In my head, it's a brilliant system and everyone loves it!
But we're fast approaching the time when nigh on a year's worth of ideas and decisions will crawl from my head and into the outside world with all its glorious reality.
Man, if it stayed in my head it would be the best game of all time - the best, very lonely game of all time.

Should end on a high. Let's pick a review...

Absolutely beautiful game. The story was so touching, and the music was gorgeous. I even loved the side story that opens up once you finish the main game. It takes a lot to impress me, or keep me wanting to play, and this one definitely grabbed me completely.
[Jamie Machia of New York.]

And finish up with an actroid. Utopia or dystopia? (Ah, let's face it: they're all gonna end up as sex toys.)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Make Over


So, if you're up for playing our little game of 'find the essence', I'd advise you to scroll down to the previous post first, ensuring that you pay no heed to the illustration in this post. Then meet back here when you've had a thought or two.

One advantage I have over my art team is that I get the instant hit. Sal will call me over and I'll wheel across to her desk, my heart fluttering with anticipation, and I'll arrive at her side as a player: I get an instant response, and that response is paramount in making decisions. Similarly, I wheeled over to Ben recently and my immediate response was something like 'Wow: that's a powerful scene. I'm getting the storm clouds preparing for battle behind a mighty stone cathedral and a derelict bridge languishing in the shade of blossoming trees; I'm getting the river and the graveyard of steam boats. I get the sense of destruction and unholy power - and the sense of change, as the beauty and tranquility of the town is falling away to reveal something much more sinister.'
Nice.
However, I also found two elements which didn't work so well: the first distracted, the second was weak. Ben's composition was so overwhelming that he had created a regular vertical two-thirds of the way across the painting, and as a part of my instant hit, I found the sense that the piece was a kind of cut-and-shut of two distinct paintings. To remedy this, I recommended that Ben bled some of the golds across to the river and into the steam boats.
Secondly, his lamps were not achieving their potential. We had created an opportunity for orange street lamps (of a Victorian gas lamp style) set against the impending storm, and Ben had not quite made the most of the bright oranges - rather, he had stifled the glow beneath his adored repoussé metalwork. Two simple fixes upon a magnificent hit.

We all face this problem - the problem of become involved in the work and losing the perspective of a fresh-faced outsider. My solution is to take regular breaks, or to leave a work for a short time, and then to return with a slightly fresher perspective. But there's no substitute for having trusted eyes on your side.

So to Sal.
Which sounds like a great name for a character! So-to Sal. So Tosal. So To-Sal. Sot Osal. Soto Sal. Hmm. I like.
The narrative elements bombarded my bones like emotive X-rays, and lit up a panoply of responses...

I didn't really get enough of the sense of the Puritans' evil. Also, I wanted to feel more that Brites had been overpowered - that many burly men had swarmed about her and had actually relished the idea of harming her. To this end, we had already suggested this prepared intent by introducing the dual-functioning step ladder: on the one hand, it served as a functional means of crucifying her (and we acted this out to experience the problems of crucifixion); on the other hand, it demonstrated that the Puritans had come prepared, which is to say that this was part of a plan that had been brewing for a while.
As you'll know, I'm extremely fond of using devices that serve more than one function! Maximum impact from minimum work!
I knew we needed at least one more Puritan in there. I also wanted to up the evil ante. Imagine there's a crucifixion going on. You'd be horrified right? You'd probably be glued to the execution - at least momentarily.
I wanted this extra Puritan to have his back turned on the execution. Consider the effects of this. Perhaps this is his seventh crucifixion of the day and he's now bored of them. Pehaps he cares so little for the woman that he bears no interest. (Also, in body language terms, the act of turning one's back on another is the ultimate rejection and a powerful narrative tool!)
I then faced a new problem: What if the player invents an alternative, inappropriate reason for this action? Perhaps she will read the disinterest as revulsion? Perhaps she will invent a narrative (and this happens constantly and unfalteringly and we have to retain control throughout) whereby this extra character is so upset that he has turned away to vomit?
I read through the text again, looking for something with which I could regain control of the narrative, looking for some means of demonstrating evil.
We talked recently about motives and about humiliation. I found Brites' flowers and saw an opportunity to create an unnecessary action in this foreground Puritan: he tips her flowers from her basket. Also, by bringing him into the foreground, we were able to get something more from his expression, knocking a few of his teeth out and going for something of a leer.
To close the scene off a little more - to hone the sense of claustrophobia - I asked Sal to paint in some foliage across the top. We also looked at Brites' clothing and decided on a more authentic peasant dress with longer skirt and bodice; and then - and here's more duality - to return her bare legs to the scene, which were necessary for the crucifixion pose, we tore away a section of dress, which creates all manner of wonderful additional connotations. And lastly, I had Sal add a scabbard and sword to the torch bearer.
And all of these reactions, considerations, and resolutions occurred within me in under two minutes. And that's something that never ceases to amaze me about the writer's wily brain!

Sal is still learning about clarity - about simplicity and cleanliness. Consider all of my requests, and then decide how clearly these narrative features percolate from the illustration. (In particular, I had Sal use almost iconic flowers to keep the player from reading those small gangs of pixels as teeth or buns or anything other than flowers.) Do you get the torn skirt? Do you get the gappy grin and malevolence in the foreground Puritan? Is the sense of claustrophobia pervasive enough?

There we have another skill required by the art director: When do I let stuff through? How much of my bosses' real, actual money do I allocate to, say, a clearer flower? Or even a stronger narrative? Should I have let the previous illustration through? Or, for the sake of fifteen minutes work, are the effects worth the cost?

As a rule of thumb, anything within the first hour of gameplay needs to be as near perfect as we can achieve, as this constitutes the trial period, and is where the player decides whether to purchase the full game or not.
Also, anything that functions to drive forward the story and, hence, anticipation, context, and a powerful climax, needs to be as clear as an invisible crystal.
However, provided that the milestones are met, we face the miasmic question:
When is a heap not a heap?

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gem Polishing


Phewee.
Been a fascinating few weeks. Of course, I'm more than happy to share them with you...

Much of my time has been spent mentoring dear young Sally and her impossibly short skirts.
It's a role I take very seriously. (The mentoring.)

What's fascinating is to witness Sal's transformation - seeing how effortlessly she absorbs certain requisites, and how she struggles with others. There have quite literally been tears and laughter. This is Sally's story as seen through the eyes of her art director - me.

Technique
Much of technique is easily assimilated. Sal already had a good grounding; in particular, she demonstrated a sophisticated control of form. Years of life drawing can drum this into an artist: if you don't quite capture the subtle curves of a leg or shoulder, your work sucks. Sal is a whiz with curves and with pose and, in the main, composition.
She has struggled on and off with the style, but guiding her through the more clandestine and vainglorious halls of Photoshop, and providing her with hands on demonstrations, have worked wonders. Thing is, Sal is good at leaving her comfort zone, a rare trait born predominantly from a desire to improve, and an ability to listen.
Technique is largely about tools - about the means by which we can achieve an end.

Judgement
So what is that end?
I gave Sal an illustrated keepsake task.
She was required to create an illustration for a piece of text. The text related the crucifixion of Brites, bride of the cyclopean blacksmith Oban.
I was interested to see how she would interpret the text: which mood/s would she aim for? How would she decant the essence of the text? (Note that I was never in doubt that Sal would understand to choose a mood and then pursue that mood with robust technique.)
Sal went for loneliness. She depicted Brites nailed to the tree, her head hung, and nothing more.
This really was missing the point of the text. It was the evil of the Puritans that was paramount - an evil which would bond the player to Oban - his sorrow and his lust for vengeance.

Immersion
This is a topic that Ben and I discuss frequently.
Sal's next attempt at her crucifixion scene was an improvement. She worked in the Puritan nailing Brites to the tree. But the scene still seemed superficial.
Ben and I have noticed that this ability to enter 'the zone' - to tune out the real world and to step into the fantasy world - is one of the recurring characteristics that distinguishes the good artist from the bad. Oh yes, this applies to the writer too in bucket loads.
I sat with Sal and we walked through the events leading to the crucifixion, taking in the scene and smelling the sea air and then listening to the gulls and then the nails being hammered through bone and the sadistic laughter of the bystanders. We talked about how Brites would behave and how the Puritans would behave. We sought the key ingredients - and only the key ingredients - that would capture the very heart of the mood which we had decided upon.
We chose the moment immediately after the crucifixion. We found wooden steps which the executioner had used to reach up to work; we found his aide who would hold Brites' limbs to the tree, and we found authentic early 18th century tools and costume. We found expressions and relationships. We found the drama of the scene.
Often, Sal finds little trouble capturing a mood through the thoughtful implementation of her techniques; but she tends to capture a secondary mood over the primary mood, and this is a question of judgement - a deep understanding of the function of any scene.

Sal's third attempt captured enough of the essence to receive the thumbs up. I'll probably make some notes and add them to the wishlist for later: I'm still not wholly sold, but it's more than adequate to the task.

Design
I've come to realise that this is a rare talent, and not the fundamental skill which I imagined all good artists must wield. We need many icons and elegant designs and concepts in the game; and yet they all fall to Ben and I to originate. Beyond her occasionally questionable judgement, I've watched Sal painting in little flourishes and spending sometimes hours on details which I would then ask her to remove in a flash because they detracted from the key functions in some way. Everything we add to a work must perform an important function. If it doesn't, then it is clutter and detracts from the whole. Check out these famous logos. To add or to remove any element of any of these logos is to detract from its success. And this is precisely what Hemingway referred to when he spoke of the mot juste.


Designing narrative for an illustration is a task fraught with danger. The slightest nuance in a facial expression, a stance, the shape of a leaf, can all mould the viewer's response, and the more we add, the more chances we create of introducing something inappropriate or contrary or disparate.
Sal, like so many other creatives blessed with raw talent, finds it difficult cutting through to the essence, and masks this shortcoming with superficial ornaments. And let's be fair, it's one of the toughest skills to learn, and is seldom absolute!

In Sally I see enormous potential. She has good technique, and an attitude that allows her to build upon her tool set. And she uses her technique to create emotional responses. The subtleties and judgements come in time through experience...

I've just finished the new dream cards and I'll be posting the full set of eighteen cards along with a little insight into some of those subtleties and judgements as soon as possible. And remind me to talk a little about how I'm attempting to add character to each puzzle!
Oh, and we have a goat chocolatier outstanding if I'm not much mistaken.

There's one particular skill that a creative director needs which an artist doesn't: I need to be able to immerse myself instantly in a multitude of assets. I'll breathe the air of any given dream card, and at any moment be torn from that vivid microcosm and throw myself into Ben's scene, then back into my own work, then into Sal's painting, then into a 3D scene...
That's my day and it's splendid!

P.S. Speaking of school reports, here's what my son wrote on his end of year report under 'funniest moment':
My funniest moment was when my class began a conversation about my dad's ear. Even Mr. Kittle was interested in the topic.

But check out the irony in this misspelt statement from his teacher:
Accademically, [he] has excelled in all areas of the curriculum...
(Oh, there were many more spelling mistakes in that report! Sigh.)

P.P.S. Actually, I've just spent a few minutes studying Sal's crucifixion scene and I know just what's needed! See if you can figure out how best to capture the essence of that text, and I'll post our solution soon...

Saturday, 30 July 2011

An Awkward Death

I was a prisoner in a prisoner of war camp. It was halfway between The Great Escape and The Sound of Music. We were in the mountains, and it was grassy and sunny and a little cool, and we were herded through barbed wire compounds. I had been here a while. The guards were all generic - faceless to me - but there were two officers whom we feared. There was Officer Kelly. Some new guy sniggered when I spoke his name, and I wondered if there was an Officer Kelly in a movie. But I was trying to warn this guy. Officer Kelly strode before us. He was earnest and intense, and he could not stand still for more than a couple of seconds at a time. He would keep a distance from you and lean forward, and his eyes would open really wide. He never smiled. He was the torturer guy; he would extract information with the greatest ease. I don't know what he was talking to us about - I think because I was too terrified to listen. My whole body was definitely shaking.
He stood before a woman who wore a headscarf and he ordered her to approach him. She stepped forward. He yelled at her and told her she could only approach him from the valley at the bottom of our mountain peak. I left pov and entered omniscience and watched from the opposite side of the valley as the guards pushed her from the camp, and she hurried down the grassy slope to the valley, and she was struggling for breath, and then she climbed back as fast as she could, holding the hem of her skirt.

Officer Kelly marched off, and I wandered into this stone guard house which was a bare room with a door at either end and an antique wooden desk to one side. I think an officer lived here, in a small but luxurious room just through a door behind the desk. I think I could hear music playing on a gramophone. We didn't fear her so much. She was in her fifties and had red hair. Her face was much like Officer Kelly's: it perpetually scowled and the cheekbones were pronounced and the skin tight and heavily dimpled and the nose hooked and sharp. Her son worked at the desk when she took breaks. He was about seven. He wore oversized, round-framed glasses and looked a little goofy. He sat reading his comic. I think he might have been a mute. His mother ushered us outside, waving a Luger.

In another room, an American officer had just arrived. He had been made to stand with his back to a wall. I think he had been there a while. He was dirty and a little bloodied. He had fair hair and a fair moustache, and he smiled at me. In that instant, I felt I knew what women looked for in a man. He made me feel safe. All that terror which I lived inexorably with vanished. Well, just for a moment. I told him he was going to be tortured and he didn't seem to mind. He smiled more. I liked him.

Officer Kelly came and shouted at me to come with him. Immediately, we were in a pitch black room, illuminated by a single cone-shaded lightbulb. He would walk into the light and then back into darkness. I said I would tell him anything, and that I knew lots of useful things. The smallest spark of courage fired inside me and I amended my statement to... I know a few useful things.

Then we were outside. The sky was wide and blue, and we sat twenty abreast at field tables eating and chatting. I was relieved that my interrogation had not been physically painful. The red-haired female officer came and shouted at us about something and she fired her pistol a few times.

I was on the floor, and I don't know how I got there. I could see people's legs like a tunnel in the shade beneath the table, and I could hear the female officer talking still but her voice was muffled and I was lying a bit and sitting a bit, and I shifted my weight to one arm, to my elbow, and felt the back of my head and ran my finger over the soft lip of the hole and pushed my finger gingerly into the hole. My first reaction was annoyance: I was annoyed that she had taken my - I thought about it a bit - my future. I spat the F word. Then I realised I didn't want my last word to be a swear word, and was going to say something else, but was too confused to think of anything else and a black vignette was filling my vision and some female prisoner looked under the table at me in horror and I tried to smile at her like the American officer had smiled at me. I don't think I replicated it very well, but I don't know because I was clumsy and then I was dead and I knew as I scurried from my bed to the computer in my pants that I could demonstrate the clumsiness and the stupidity of my death by not ending with I was dead or use any punctuation marks in the last line or even pause between dream and reality because I could really use a coffee and I am flipping between tenses across thoughts as I desire and that is better to create the clumsiness of the death and what I think of as controlled madness which was what it felt like. But then I wondered if everyone tries to smile at the end.

And for those with a fancy for a refresher, here's the distinction between who and whom.Link

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Shoe

My son and I are loving the Penn and Teller: Fool Us show.
Having hung out with magical peeps over the years, and having dug out a fair few books on illusions, I can often figure out how the tricks performed for Penn and Teller are done. Heck, I even have a magnetic ring of my own! (It was given to me by a friend, along with the warning: Keep it well away from credit cards.)
Richard Bellars had me stumped. If you missed it, prepare to be boggled...



So what d'you think? I reckon I've cracked it...

Many tricks rely on a force. There are a handful of dead simple ways to force any playing card upon your victim. In these instances, as P&T recently commented, whatever occurs beyond the force is trivial. If I know beforehand that my victim is going to end up with the seven of spades, I can pre-book a Lancaster bomber painted with the seven of spades to fly over my victim at the very moment I guess their chosen card incorrectly.
In this case, I can't believe that the results were forced. (That said, I have seen Derren Brown force a dart, but there could be any number of ways he could have achieved that result outside of a studio filled with a live audience.)
Ergo, the results were written down after the event and placed into Richard's shoe.
When and how?

What's with the briefcase then? Richard initially alludes to his prediction being placed in the briefcase, and later asks Teller to bring 'the prediction up to the table'.
Misdirection right?
Well, I'm guessing it serves partly as misdirection, but it's a double misdirection because it primarily serves as a means of bringing a 'table' onto the stage. Yep, some stage-hand brings a table onto the stage after the results are known. We don't get to see this because the camera has cut to the audience. And P&T don't notice because they're walking back to their seats. But you can catch the stage-hand leaving the stage at 6:15/6:16. (I find tables easier to spot than police stations.) It's a seemingly insignificant occurrence, and all but identical to how P&T wangled a victim's mobile phone off stage in the pilot show. (It was then inserted into a fish backstage.) Furthermore, with no hint of the prediction being stored in his shoe, all attention is focused on the briefcase.
I'm going to guess that, hidden in the table's pedestal is a shoe containing the 'prediction' which has just been written off-stage. Sure, Richard ultimately slips his shoe off with ease, although he feigns an amount of resistance. Those laces, which he sees fit to crowbar into his script, really aren't doing their job too well eh! Note how his feet are obscured by the pedestal at 6:31 and how he looks down at his feet. Once he has left the pedestal, he nervously checks his feet several more times (notably at 6:50), presumably to ensure that the shoe is on properly and that the prediction isn't hanging out. Finally, check out one last nervous glance at the pedestal at 10:41 the moment Richard has shaken hands with Jonathan to scuttle away.
What d'you reckon? Nice trick with some wonderful choreography and a great plot. :o)
Now to figure out that blasted spirit cabinet...

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Margrave: The Conjure of the Cut Ticker


Hey nonny nonny!

Along with hot grey clouds and a plague of thunderflies, July has welcomed phase three of the M3 staggered release strategy and we're currently the second highest ranked game across the board! Yes, we've conquered Big Fish and iWin, and we're now top of the Gamehouse charts with an average score of 4.5/5. We're also pedalling up the Pogo charts (number 7 at time of typing, and second highest download rate) and we're receiving superlicious reviews over at Shockwave and Wild Tangent. And best of all... dev costs have now been recouped and it's profit all the way. I think all the localisations are also complete now, so we should presently be threatening Koreans and Italians and Chinese and so forth. (I'm particularly impressed by the Korean take on the Margrave logo :o)

Oh, and I love this witty exchange I discovered on Yahoo! Answers:

Gates Vafa: Hi I just go hooked to playing Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart and I wanted to know where can I get Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart for free no trial.

Best answer - chosen by voters:

My Neck is Like a Shrubbery: Have you tried using your faith like a mustard seed to teleport a copy from the middle of the ocean to your local sycamine tree. (Luke 17:6 in reverse.)

And another hilarious mutation of my hard-won copy, fresh from the slitted throat of a babelfish:

Wakeless in the Humanities countryside, Edwina Margrave has returned to the cottage where her parents died, impatient to verbalise with the one soul who power remove white on the tragedy - the volatilisable landlady, Missy Prickle. But her sensational revelations are not what Edwina predicted! Recruit the aid of the spirit experience and evade the wrath of a disfigured savage as you explore Margrave: The Conjure of the Cut Ticker, a heart-breaking Hidden Target Teaser Labor mettlesome!

I'm very happy with M4's progress. I finalised the new schedules today and we're looking to hit the first survey a fortnight before Christmas. Ben's scenes get better and better, and Sally has blown us all away with her preternatural ability to nail the art style in under a fortnight. Already she's creating faultless work! Ade's first stabs at ambient music are bumping geese and 3D Raul's new-found adoration of displacement maps has added a lovely organic quality to his latest offerings. And the harder everyone works, the more anxious I become, wondering if I really am shepherding them all towards something special. Or not. If we screw up, there's only one direction that gnarled finger can point. A little piece of sick has made its nest in my gullet.

I'm perpetually tired, and not thinking clearly enough to tackle any of those outstanding topics I recently jotted down, but Sally's monumental task has made me think...

Style is a git. As art lead on Warhammer Online, I had to quickly immerse myself in all things Warhammer. In particular, I remember learning the names of all those lumps of architecture (crenels, merlons, flyers, etc.) and armour (pauldrons and greaves and chamfrons and such). I had to learn the particulars of Skaven weapons and Dwarfen caverns and I had to memorize the number of breasts per any given demoness. It was a leviathan task.
I remember, too, the wonderful biographer Sunny explaining how she had been asked by Peter Cox to change her style, and how it was the toughest thing she had ever attempted.
I recently completed the M4 in-game map (top of post). I think it's still recognisably me, but I examined medieval maps and fell in love with the ridiculous switches in perspective and the intricate cross-hatch techniques and pointillist shading methods. The architecture was all second nature to me, and once I had identified the elements that I thought would work well, and also those I thought would clutter or mislead, it was a relatively effortless task working the piece up. As my favourite art tutor would say: Art is 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration.

Sally faces an even tougher challenge. She is the hand and mind of Edwina, and today we worked through a few of 'Edwina's' sketches. Sally will also become the unnamed engraver and the eight-year-old orphaned girl and the Cyclopean painter and the wood carver and stone sculptor and the creative automaton. At the drop of a hat, she needs to leave her own soul behind and dip into the soul of many other characters. Which is, I guess, one of the fundamental skills a writer needs to master.
Ed's sketch of the goddess of life.

Mostly, it's about understanding the character's state of mind. The eight-year-old orphaned girl is a good example. When she creates her picture of herself with the kind man who took her into his care, what will she focus on? Does she see him as a tall man with big, strong arms and a giant's smile. Does she see his hands as huge? How does she see herself? Small and fragile? Shy? Tall and strong? How will she reveal the space between the two characters? Will they be standing close together or far apart? Will they be dancing together or perhaps she will be hugging him, or him her? We each see the world in our own way, and this changes depending on our state of mind. Several years ago, a police station sprung up on the corner of my street. I didn't notice it for many weeks. I simply ambled past it, presumably lost in thoughts of intricate leaf designs or shopping lists or whatever. I routinely miss big things, but I can easily spot small things. I guess years of showering have seen to that. (I also discovered an inch-long hair growing from my ear hole the other day. Does that qualify as a big thing or a small thing? Man, that's another five minutes to add to my weekly preen.)

Okay, I'm flumped. I'm going to bed to fall asleep to my new favourite album: Max Corbacho's Ars Lucis, which sounds like a bowel disorder but is actually a subtle and sophisticated splicement of boundless sonic phantoms. Sleep tight.

Friday, 24 June 2011

It Lives!

What's that I hear you whispering into my ear my dear maggoteer?
Shut up and show pix?
No worries. Or, as the genie said to Aladdin as he puffed from the lamp: Here's the goat chocolatier.
My dear maggoteer.

Step one: Here's me sketch what I did. I gave it to 3D Raul and we talked about it a bit - about how it would function, where it would live, and how I wanted it to look.



Step two: Four hours later, Raul presented me with this. It made me laugh, which is a good thing. Go on... you're smiling a bit aren't you?



Step three: I make notes: mainly little tweaks for 3D Raul; plus a few things I'd like 2D Sally to quickly try out. 2D Sally starts next week! Hurrah!


Step four: Coming soon. But hopefully, step four is a brilliant, game-ready asset.

And for a bit of flavour, here's some misc dialogue:

GOAT CHOCOLATIER (CONT’D)
I once created a sour brandy macaroon fer me wife. She left me fer a dancin' sea urchin.

GOAT CHOCOLATIER (CONT’D)
(smacking lips)
One good thin’ about abandoned towns: there’s no shortage of fresh green grass.

GOAT CHOCOLATIER (CONT’D)
Sometimes I think that big dome looks like a jellyfish. Other times I think it looks like a hat.


I made him! He lives! He serves me! Mwahahahahaha!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Calculated Risk


Crikey, there are lots of things I want to blog about.
Let me jot them all down so's I don't forget and I'll come back to them:
Default status; changing trends; return to purity beneath plot; power of brevity; creating anticipation (again); forget the gameplay.

And today I'll disrobe calculated risks using just my teeth!

There are a few nuggets of literary wisdom that have stuck with me - that guide and inform my work. I could fill many blog posts discussing Bob McKee's ideas. I could ramble on and on about Hemingway's conclusions.
But I'd say the most influencial figure in my writing, and even game design, life has been Peter Cox - literary agent supremo and host of litopia. I am indebted to that man.

So here's how it used to go: Newbie writer would sign up to the forums, introduce themself, ask everyone what music they listened to when they wrote, disagreed with stuff they had not the first clue about, asked everyone to read their latest blockbuster, got upset when they didn't like what they were told, and then asked Peter if he would like to sign them up. Oh don't be misled, I was no different.
Mostly, they left after that. However, some would persevere.
With that all done, the most common question thrown next at Peter was: How do you choose?
There was a time - I'm imagining it has passed, but perhaps not - when this question would be augmented with the covertly defensive, but embarrassingly transparent: What about all those agents who turned down J K Rowling?
Peter would explain that there's no formula: that every time out, it's a guess - but hopefully an educated guess.
Or calculated risk if you like! :o)

After M3 came out, I found myself in a bit of a quandary. See, I've always tried to be honest and open in this blog. I believe that writing is about honesty: that a clever writer has the skill and confidence to use words to expose the truth behind stuff, and that the poor writer uses words as a shield. I'm as eager to share every failure as I am to share every success, truly I am; I'll blog when I'm on top of the world, and I'll blog when I'm hollow and spent.

So what I wanted to blog honestly about was the opposition to every reform I proposed. It felt, at the time, rather like Father Ted's award speech in which he took the opportunity to explain over the course of many hours how he was right about everything and how everyone else was wrong.

A writer should be able to pre-empt reactions. Or, to put it another way, if a writer intends to elicit pathos in the reader but actually elicits mirth, well then he has no place writing. Calculated risks are informed by a deep understanding of human beings - of the audience.
So in the interests of honesty, and as a Chekhov's gun to the rest of this post, here are some of my proposals that received the greatest opposition:

Replace the journal with a multi-inventory system.
Construct a proper plot with adult themes.
Create an emotional topography and conclude with a tear-jerking scene.
Include multiple cut-scenes, each with more than five lines of dialogue.
Have ghost animals.
Have ghost animals talking.
Have ghost animals singing.
Realise a fully voice-acted script.
Begin the M3 CE act in medias res, at a time after M4 plays out.

Of these things, the multi-inventory system was adjusted during beta testing, but everything else went down well and made it through to release.
Basically, nobody is on your side if you take risks. But to the writer soaked in human souls, such concepts don't seem as risky as they might to others.

Two changes were made last minute, and without my consent:
HO scenes were made harder. The thinking behind this was that gameplay would be distended.
The establishing shot going into the CE was edited and defiled.
Both changes caused confusion and displeasure, and I would have argued vehemently against them both.


I've almost finished the misc dialogue for M4. Fifty pages and still going.
Countless times a day, I have an idea which I wrestle with, experiment with, and then decide whether to use or to evict.
When I go with an idea, I'm never, ever certain, but I consider the risk to be worthwhile. Sometimes I run a few lines by Ben. Mostly, he responds appropriately. I'll re-read the previous day's work every morning, just as I do with my manuscripts, and re-evaluate my decision, typically making a minor alteration.
Same with puzzles: I thrash out an idea, break it over and over until it no longer breaks, look at the remaining pulp, and then decide whether to pursue the idea or not. Most of my puzzles are low risk because they are scalable: that's to say that they contain enough variables for me to make them harder or easier without altering the mechanics. The dream cards, for example, are highly scalable. It's the fixed puzzles that frighten me - the dials and sliders and tiled puzzle doors!
Of course, it's good to test this stuff out as soon as possible; and with our new super efficient coder on board, I get to test out my puzzles before taking them too far.

I think I can justify blogging on this delicate topic by warping it into an experiment.
I'd like to jot down a few of the more risky ideas I've had for M4, and we can see what happens between now and release. Will they change? Will they be scrapped? Will they make it through to release? Will the public go crazy for them, or will they be horrified and offended?
How well do I really understand my audience?
(Much of this stuff won't make much sense yet - rather like an episode of Doctor Who - but it'll be super to refer back to - rather like an episode of Doctor Who.)
See how every risk is riddled with doubt...

* Lengthy diatribe from Edwina in opposition to Cargan's unreasonable request.
To stop the flow of the game and fix the player passively outside the action for any length of time is, if you believe contemporary lines of enquiry, inherently a terrible idea. Well, I disagree. (That's going to be my 'forget the gameplay' post :o) Besides my multiple cut-scenes and cinematics, I've included an out-of-the-blue outburst - perhaps a quarter of a page of dialogue - in which Eddie attacks the very nature of the iHOG. Oh I'm so dumb that I run around tidying your messes, wiping your noses, running pointless errands...
I'm hoping for resonance - for the stand up and applaud reaction.

* Obsidian puzzle door which requires the player to connect cause and effect, and then to map out a solution.
Contrary to the evidence, statistics suggest that our players don't like having to figure out the mechanics of a puzzle: they like to be told precisely how a puzzle functions, and then to be left in peace to figure out a solution. But then, both RTR and Dire Grove asked the player to figure out the mechanics of a number of door puzzles. Is that really evidence? Is the popularity of those two games in no way related to such puzzles?

* Use of multiple characters, all of which are interactive.
To my knowledge, no iHOG has dared to feature such a large cast. Each character has everything you would expect from a well-developed character. Too much? Certainly, the parallel design of M4 and the variable interaction with multiple characters has ballooned - nay, mushroomed the script! It fills me with horror to look at... but then, any one player will only experience a small percentage of the dialogue, depending on their choices.

* NPC suicide.
Or professional suicide? Can I really pull this off? Is it really wise to place this in the opening act, at the very point where players decide if they will purchase the game or not? Brave or stupid?

* Spiders.
Three major turn offs in an iHOG: big boobs, snakes, and spiders. Have I alienated a vast portion of our audience by integrating a spider - even a cute mechanical child-like spider - so deeply into the design?

* Disjointed jump from SE acts to CE act.
M4 ends at the point where the M3 CE act began. In theory, this should be an Aha! moment of goosebump proportions. But, with a year between releases, will it limp into the sewers to live out its miserable existence in fecal gloom? Whatever, I'm setting up M5 in the same way. A double death of epic proportions?

* Story.
It's deep; it's philosophical; there's an evolving back-story to rival Lord of the Rings; there are twists and emotional shifts round every leafy corner. Does anyone care? Better simply to scare them aimlessly for a few hours?

* Animal parade: reaction-based mini-game.
Our audience doesn't much care for reaction-based games. As with M3, I've included one such mini-game. The bug-catching game in M3 got a few positive mentions. I'm hoping that the animal parade in M4 will combine the success of the bug-catching game with the success of the singing ghost animals. But, at the end of the day, it's still a reaction-based game.

* Rudo's dead-pan humour.
Are people going to take to him? Is he going to be another Jar-Jar? Is he irritating? Or is he hilarious and sensitive and believable and likeable? Humour can go so very very wrong, not least when it's migrated across continents...

* Perhaps I'll make you eat your own fingers...
Yes, there's some high risk dialogue in there, with references to slit throats and crucifixion. Well, we're all grown-ups aren't we? They do this stuff in books and films and tv don't they? Why not iHOGs? Why not?

* Re-use of dream cards.
Sure, they were 'original' features of M3. Now they're no longer 'original'. Will they be received as a dev cop-out, or will the invigorated design and extra twist see them through? Will they be familiar friends or hackneyed foes?


Thing is, I watch The Apprentice and rarely can I figure out if an idea is good or bad; rarely can I guess who has won. Everything makes sense when Sir Alan makes his point... but until he's loosing arrows of humiliation upon his victims, I'm as clueless as can be!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Right and Wrong

Baby Food: wrong angle.

So cast your mind back now, to those days as a fledgling writer, to all those discussions you had with other fledgling writers as you hammered out those fundamental techniques and principles which would underpin and inform every nuance of your art; cast your mind back to those 'how to' books you read and re-read until every word of advice became second nature and each time you went back to those books, they would make more sense, and finally everything made sense and you could turn the pages of any novel and see Neo-like through to the fabric of the plot and the gluons of the characters. Think back to that moment you discovered that you had learned enough to make your reader smile, then laugh, then cringe in terror, then shed a tear, then weep like a girl... and think back to the moment you discovered that these fundamental techniques could be blended in countless ways to elicit unfamiliar emotions - complex and sophisticated emotions - a dynamic library of emotions, at once humble, at twice intense. Think back to that moment you realised that you were, in actual fact, only at the very beginning of an epic journey and no amount of lifetimes would be adequate to the task of thorough exploration.

Now package that stuff away, tie a ribbon round it, and stuff it into the cupboard under the stairs - at least for a little while.
There's another place. It's an important place and, once you've visited, you'll come out another rung up the ladder of evolution. There are times when you must wilfully go against all the good stuff you have learned; there are times when you need to go wrong - wrong, but for the right reasons.

I don't much like that place, and I remain unconvinced by it. But that's just my heart. My head thinks differently.
Take chapters. Those things called 'chapters' in iHOGs really aren't any such things right? Anyone disagree? They have none, or scant few, of the characteristics of what you and I would recognise as a chapter.
So I decided on a scaffold of five acts - that's to say, four major turning points - reversals with a polar flip on the state - and a powerful denouement. My acts behave just as acts should. (That's not to say they're very good acts, just that I'm trying to do things right, and I'm trying to do things right because these right things consistently and irrefutably perform the task of moving the reader/player and providing a memorable experience. If done well, they're a safe bet.)

Here's the gist of what happened with M3:
Forumite 1: Just trialled M3.
Forumite 2: Is it good value for money, because that's possibly the first thing that concerns me! How long was it?
Forumite 1: Well, everyone plays at different speeds... but the strategy guide says it has five chapters.
(My head: They're acts you lovely fool!)
Forumite 2: Five? Man, I just played Dark Castle Mystery Asylum: The Mysterious Curse of the Spirit Hospital. That game has fifteen chapters! It must therefore be three times better value for money.
Forumite 1: Your logic is impeccable. I'm going to buy DCMA:TMCOTSH instead.
(My head: Apples and pears! You're comparing apples to pears! When is a heap not a heap? Stop breaking stuff!)

Okay, I'm being melodramatic :o) But you see my point. I can catch these people - I can snare them without releasing the other folks - more wood for the beach hut.

I'm poised... I'm coiled like a contraceptive, ready to tie a high tensile invisible thread to my towel, throw it into the ring, and then snatch it back when nobody's looking.
If I break each act down into, say, themed tasks, and then if I call these themed tasks 'chapters', I'll probably find I have something like twenty plus 'chapters' - maybe thirty. Heck, I could probably forge a mockery of a 'chapter' out of every minute quest.
Chapter one: Using the screwdriver.
Chapter two: Moving a bit to the left.
Chapter three: The return of the screwdriver.


And then we come to that word. You know the one I mean. We dare not speak its, er, name.
Inventory.
Forumite 1: Did you hear how Edwina says' inventory'? Nobody says it like that.
Forumite 2: Yeah. Those devs are thick.
(My head: Shut up! Everyone I know says it like that [pretty much :o]. It's not 'wrong'. That's prejudice that is!)
The evidence is conclusive. Be still my quivering heart. I'm going to have to ask Julie Anne to say 'IN- ventory'. She'll probably roll her eyes and think 'another one falls upon the blade of conformity'.


There's something I'm constantly aware of. It's a good thing to be constantly aware of.
I've been right many times before. Sometimes when I'm right, I get the effect I'm after - or, from time to time, something more than I expected.
Other times when I'm right, I don't get the effect I'm after.
I've been stubborn; I am stubborn. It's a prerequisite I'm afraid.
But I've learned - I'm learning - that sometimes it's better to be wrong. Ends and means and justification and all.