Experiences of SXSW

I went to SXSW! This is exciting because it’s an event which has grown increasingly relevant and influential over the last decade, has spread into every corner of every news website I read, and this year…I was there.

FXHOME kindly flew me there and back, accompanied by my colleagues Kirstie, Josh and Andrea. In summary: Austin is wonderful. SXSW is weird and confused but mostly good. Continue reading

Making Far Cry 3 better with self-imposed limitations

Far Cry 3 took me a long while to get into. I bought it long after release and even then it didn’t entirely click, with its ludicrous, mad playground of bizarre wildlife, open tropical island territory and huge arsenal being amusing but not terribly engaging.

It was a little too loose and lacking in focus, and its story too daft to be engaging. I’ve never been one to enjoy games which provide vast options, tending to prefer a game which specialises in a few key areas and gets them just right (Shadow of Mordor being a good recent example). Continue reading

Making games with Tom Francis & GameMaker

Back in November I mentioned I was working through FutureLearn’s game course. That never quite worked out, alas. It was an oddly pitched course, simultaneously focusing on complex and boring infrastructure stuff while being really basic in the creative areas. Lots of other people clearly loved it, but it didn’t click with me.

AND THEN TOM FRANCIS HAPPENED.

Tom Francis made GUNPOINT. It’s a delightful indie game where you can jump through windows, punch people a lot, and rewire entire buildings to do crazy, emergent fun stuff. He made it in GameMaker, and recently started publishing tutorials on his YouTube channel.

They’re utterly great, pitched at just the right level for me. He dives straight in to doing creative, responsive stuff – aided I’m sure by the simplicity of getting up and running in GameMaker’s IDE, compared to the faff of working in Eclipse for Android development. The tutorials are a perfect blend of technical insight and game design analysis.

Crucially, Tom clearly remembers exactly what it’s like to know nothing at all. Highly technical people tend to have an inability to remember what it was like at the start of their learning (often because they started learning as kids, and thus have simply Always Known). Tom knows exactly what I want to know, and how to teach me it.

As such, it now looks entirely possible that I could have a proper, simple game of my own in existence before the end of the year. Which is hugely exciting.

If you’re interested in making games but have literally no idea how to do it, click here to check out his tutorials.

Molyneux, Kickstarter & why fixed funding is good

Gosh, John Walker’s interview with Peter Molyneux makes for hard reading. It’s resulted in the usual outraged reaction from those gamers who get terrified of reading anything which isn’t a simple graphics/gameplay/replayability review with a percentage score. And, yes, Walker’s interview pulls no punches and its opening gambit is especially on the nose – but it’s also an astonishing, fascinating interview which gets to the heart of an issue that everybody else has danced around for about 10 years. Continue reading

Game design: Responsive characters

Despite this blog post’s lofty title, I’m not a game designer. I am, however, attempting to become one, pretty much from scratch (spot the noob programming joke!).

I’m currently taking Future Learn’s programming course, which is a mostly useful but very peculiarly structured introductory course. I suspect I’ll end up learning more by working my way through Unity tutorials, in the long run.

The other thing I’m doing is working on a Twine game. This is a choose-your-own-adventure engine with an interesting, intuitive flowchart UI and support for some decent variables, stat tracking and lite programming gubbins. It’s a really nice introduction, allowing me to focus on game design aspects and on actual prose writing, while keeping the technical challenges to a minimum.

Something I’m trying to bring to the game is a sense of responsive characters. Depending on your actions, I want characters to behave differently towards you. Practically this is unlikely to massively affect the overall storyline, but having that moment-to-moment customisation of character responses will, I think, lend the fixed narrative more of a personal note. Not a million miles away from The Walking Dead’s “she’ll remember that” stuff, basically.

I’m learning on the job, though, which probably means I’m doing things incredibly inefficiently.

I’d initially considered a simple three-state setup for characters: Annoyed, Neutral and Happy. They could move between these states depending on what you’re up to, which would then drive their responses to your subsequent actions and dialogue choices. This wasn’t nuanced enough, though.

So the current system is an attitude rating, with 0 considered to be ‘neutral’. Player actions will then increase or decrease this variable. Do something a character likes and the variable goes down by 1. Do something which annoys them and it’ll go up by one. Do something intensely stupid and it’ll go up by 2. Save their life and it’ll drop by 5 – that kinda thing.

The benefit of this system is that you really have to pay attention to your actions. Piss someone off too much and you CAN still get them back on your side, but it’ll be difficult, because their attitude score will be really high. No matter how much you try to ingratiate yourself, it’s going to take a while to get that score down. Equally, if you’ve got into somebody’s good books and have a -10 attitude score, you’re going to have to do some pretty stupid stuff to really get them annoyed.

The trick is then in how many custom responses to craft. It needs to be a practical number which I actually have time to write. At the very least there needs to be 3 responses for any given situation – that annoyed/neutral/happy trio. For the system to work there really needs to be at least another 2 responses, for extremities – otherwise it won’t feel natural enough.

A problem with this setup is that I rapidly lose track of the limits of the system. With a myriad of choices and multiple narrative paths through each scene it’s really, really hard to know the potential range of attitude responses at any given time. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does run the risk of the system getting unstable, with the player unable to ‘fix’ early actions – then again, is that really a problem, or is it a decent game-representation of the result of mis-handling a relationship with another person?

I’m intending to blog about my continuing explorations of Making A Game. So far: it’s fun.

Lots of new words: HitFilm 3 Pro announcement blog

A couple of weeks back I attended a communications workshop run by John Bates. He’s very American. It was probably the best 5 hours I’ve spent in my entire professional career as a writer. I really wasn’t expecting it to be quite so revelatory, packed full of valid advice for both work and home life.

The downside is that I had to then rewrite everything I’d been working on, as it became apparent that it simply wasn’t good enough. The first fruits of that training can be seen in today’s HitFilm 3 Pro announcement, which I wrote over on the HitFilm.com blog.

In its published state the article does a far better job of explaining and selling the product than the pre-Bates draft. All the same information was there in that earlier version but the copy didn’t bring it to life in the way I wanted.

The blog post itself is just a taster of what’s to come. Once the new HitFilm 3 Pro website hits at the end of November I’ll be particularly excited as it contains copy of which I’m really, genuinely quite proud. I’ve been writing this stuff for many years and I feel like I’ve injected some real freshness into it this time around.

The real test will be in how the readers and customers respond, of course – and there’s always improvements to be made. But I now have much more strategy and purpose in my communications and copywriting. If you get a chance to attend a John Bates training session, don’t hesitate. It’s time and money very, very well spent.

Starting to learn to program

twine early days

I’m currently dipping two tentative toes into the murky waters of programming. Games programming, to be precise. I suspect games programming is quite a bit like normal programming but with more guns at the end.

That image above is from a game called Schism which I’m currently writing, based in the IAT Arms Race universe. It’s created using Twine, an engine specifically designed for writing Choose Your Own Adventure-style games.

I’ve dabbled with various interactive fiction engines over the years – BASIC back in the 80s, Inform in the 90s – and it’s never quite clicked. The problem with interactive fiction is that it explicitly relies upon prose writing, something which is hard enough at the best of times let alone when you’re having to code around it. Twine has a unique flowchart interface which makes it very simple to structure a narrative flow, while still allowing simple code to alter events and track decisions.

Next week I also start FutureLearn’s Begin Programming course, which aims to teach some core programming skills which are of use for creating mobile games. It’s a seven week course and I’m a little skeptical about what it can realistically achieve in that time – we shall see.

Schism is still in very early stages but I’m plugging away at it. One of my main goals is to create semi-dynamic characters which track your interactions and adjust their behaviour appropriately. I’ll be sure to write more about it once I’ve progressed a little further.