ShutterBugs (2019): a 4-player arcade game about taking photos at the British seaside.

Shutterbugs is a (currently demo only) chaotic 4-player photography game where you pilot a cute little drone-robot around and take photos of, amongst other things, a scub diver, numerous pirates, and business Cthulhu.

It was produced in collaboration with Dr. Alan Meades, my teaching colleague on the Games Design BA at Canterbury Christ Church University. I built the game in GameMaker Studio 2 and Alan produced all of the pixel-art (with a couple of contributions from students which snuck in at the last minute!)

Over the course of 2 months, we made Shutterbugs to sit alongside an exhibit of British seaside photography curated by https://www.seasphotography.org.uk/. What started as an abstract Where’s Wally based game of competitive person-finding quickly became seaside themed and loosely based on “walkie” photography; where mid-century professional photographers would take seaside portraits on-the-fly.

Shutterbugs was made for exhibition alongside a collection of British seaside photography curated by www.seasphotography.org.uk. It took just over two months and was developed to work inside a four-player arcade cabinet custom built for the exhibition at the Daphne Oram building at Canterbury Christ Church University.

All environment art by Alan Meades. Most character art by Alan Meades with a few additions from students on the Games Design BA course at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Shutterbugs currently only works with 4 players and 4 controllers, as it was built for display in a custom arcade cabinet. You can download a PC demo version at https://warlockdad.itch.io/shutterbugs.


PseudoCode for Shutterbug collision .jpg

StarCross (2020): a frogger-inspired game about intergalactic love-letter deliveries.

Early in 2020, as the University term was rudely interrupted by a pandemic. To help us all cope with the new rules, and with social isolation, we ran an internal game jam called IsoJam, where staff and students were tasked with making a game around the theme “keep your distance”. One of our students – Matthew Fuller – did a more thorough write-up of the event over at Big Boss Battle, and you can find and play the game here.

For my entry, I wanted to clone a retro game and then slightly tweak some things until it became its own “thing”. This is a practice I highly recommend for people new to both the theoretical aspects of game design, and the technical side of using a game engine. It means that a lot of the core design is there, and you can see what happens to it by making small adjustments here and there.

I started out with the core movement and dodging mechanics from Frogger. After watching some reference videos of Frogger, I noted that the frog moved on a grid, but slid between grid squares. This was the central thing to get “right”; Frogger movement is not smooth-point-to-point, it’s based on stepping across a grid in time-delayed increments.

The jam theme “Keep Your Distance” was a deliberately easy one, because avoiding touching things is a pretty prevalent element in a lot of action games. “Avoid” is a main gameplay verb in pretty much any game involving spatial reasoning and peril.

I was hoping that, with the help of the space theme, I could take the jam theme a bit further, though. My “twist” on Frogger would be that instead of advancing upwards through a screen, players would move left to right between planets, and then right to left, and to-and-forth for as many runs as they could survive for.

Already having settled on a sort of 1990s Barbie/Dreamphone aesthetic for the game, I made one planet pink and one turquoise, and programmed them to inch away from each-other a bit after each trip the player made. You’d arrive at the turquoise planet on the right (delivering a love letter in the theming of the game) and then the pink planet would move further away and more layers of obstacles would be revealed; in this case, asteroids and spacecars.

My colleague and long-term collaborator Dr. Alan Meades helped out providing a massive sprite-sheet of vehicles to block the path of the player ship through space.

I added a powerup to allow the player to hold a Boost button to zoom ahead, which was really satisfying to program in gamefeel terms. I also added a shield which could be accumulated. The combination of these two powerups gave the player the ability to play in more risky way to accumulate score more quickly.

As in the above screenshot, I made each “run” between planets have a score based on how far apart the planets were, and then a multiplier which would decrease over time, encouraging them to rush back and forth.

To conflict with these scoring mechanisms, I also allowed the player to pick up 4 additional “gifts” on the way, which were all romantically themed, Valentines-day-ish gifts. These would add a bonus to the score for the run, but they lost value if they were identical. This created a tension between wanting to get back and forth quickly, and wanting to pick up four unique presents en route.

Although the theme is pretty tacked on, it felt poignant to me, to be living through this weird period of social isolation, and thinking about how important e-messaging was becoming to many of us, especially those of us separated from loved ones or partners by the pandemic and the rules governing social interactions in 2020.

I really enjoyed making StarCross, and I learned a fair few things about myself and my process as I did it:

  • I tend to lean toward making action games for small projects, even though action games are not really where my heart lies in terms of what I want to have designed.
  • That said, I really love programming game-feel and animations:
    • I loved making the ship poot out little heart-shaped puffs of smoke.
    • I loved unnecessarily procedurally-generating a starfield.
    • I loved implementing the screenshake and SFX for making the ship chug along faster when the player boosted.
    • I loved working out how to gradually zoom the camera out so that one of the less obvious “reward” for surviving a long time was seeing the enormity of space and screen crammed with cute little ships.
  • When you’re working as a solo developer, having an aesthetic in mind from the get-go (at least an art style and a limited colour palette) can really free you up to just plough ahead and not spend too much time on art assets when you should be programming.

I really enjoyed working on this project, and although it’s just a game jam game, it has a high-score feature implemented and, as such, is the sort of thing you can download here and get a few hours of gameplay out of.

100 Word Review: Cyberpunk 2077 (2020)

Anyone who only spent a couple of hours with Cyberpunk would be forgiven for thinking it will be 200 more hours of insubstantial gun-porn. After a few hours the overlong onboarding gives way to the perfect love letter to an oft-misunderstood literary genre. Yes, this is a game where you can use a camera to hack into a man’s mind and make him shoot himself. But under its dense shell of buggy neon and edgy humour, there are well told, heartfelt stories which reward the curious. Others might dislike this dissonance, but for me it’s the best part.

Game Pitches: Types and Purposes

People often seem surprised when I tell them how much of my time in industry was spent writing pitches. Yes, I would spend most of my week designing or testing new features or bits of content for our current project. But a big part of the role of a designer is in trying to articulate ideas for new games, so that a studio can have a project to get paid to do when the current one runs out.

Maybe design isn’t your main bag because you see yourself more as an art or tech person. But it’s still worth learning the fundamentals of pitching. Most of us are pitching things all the time, whether we’re conscious or not. Which game to play at a social event. Where to go for dinner. What colour to paint the bathroom. Pitching is really just describing something in a persuasive way, and for that reason, it’s a general life skill. Pitching is a descriptive “here’s what we’re gonna do” and a persuasive “and here’s why”.

Types of Pitch

I’m going to describe three different types of pitch, both in terms of the tangiable document being produced, and the content it would be used in. This is not meant to be authoritative or restrictive, but to get you thinking about why different types of pitches might be built for different audiences and contexts.

  1. The single-page pitch.
  2. The deck of slides.
  3. The video pitch.

The Single-Page Pitch

When I worked in industry, this was by far the most common pitch-type I would produce. Single-page pitches are helpful to quickly check an idea to see whether it’s worth developing into a full slide deck or video pitch. I’ll give two different examples of what a single-page pitch might look like.

This is more of a text-heavy format. It works well if the game being pitched can be adequately shown in one “single screenshot” skech. Remember that some viewers will bias more towards the image than the written description, so even if you are leaving some mechanics vague you can gesture toward them in the UI in your mockup (see the wind bar, time limit, and spell icons; which in themselves also indicate that not all the spells are attacks due to the presence of a shield).
This one page-pitch is by Mike Farrant – a CCCU student. His initial idea was for a paintball game where players were shooting the ball to move it; sort of Splatoon meets Rocket League. Later in development, Mike realised that the paint element was a bit superfluous and Splurgeball became Surgeball (now on Steam).
Here is Kastelo Sol’s pitch for the game which would later become On The Brink. The limited used of colour here makes the image really easy to follow; the character is always pink, and the green in the gameplay sketches imostly used to highlight something specific and high-importance.

All of the above approachers are valid; it really depends on the game being pitched, and on how it’s easier to represent it. Whether or not you bias more toward text or images, you do need images of some sort. Remember that your audience may be more “words people” or more “visual people” and will likely be a mix of the both, and you’re trying to appeal to both of those. Use of colour can be helpful, both to explain mechanics (danger = red, treasure = gold) and to add some sort of flavour to the game (magic = purple, blue and orange = science).

Remember you can also use stylised typography and other decorative elements to sell the setting and tone of your game; just make sure any larger bodies of text are in an easy-to-read, simple font.

When do we use a Single-Page Pitch? When we want to be quick because we’re not sure about our ideas yet, or when we have to submit multiple ideas to test the water.

The Deck of Slides

One of the first pitching exercises I give students is to come up with a game based on a job or role you’ve had in real life. This is to encourage them to draw on their own experience instead of going straight for popular fantasy or scifi tropes in their designers. Above is my example of a game pitch based on my time working in a record store in my late teens.

Making a slide deck is a bit more involved than a single-page pitch, but it also gives you a lot of opportunity to bring in colour and imagery, and to structure the pitch as a linear experience. The example above has the following elements:

  1. a title page with a single-sentence elevator pitch (“a match 3 game with a retro, musical twist”) and a stylised typographic logo.
  2. a top-level description of the game (“What is Vinyl Countdown?) which describes both the mechanics and the theme/setting in a few sentences.
  3. a visual mock-up of the game with a bullet-point list of gameplay features.
  4. moodboard explaining the intended graphical style.
  5. mood board explaining other visual references from pop music and fashon history.
  6. a “list of demands” slide; a statement on what the pitcher needs from the audience.
  7. a closing slide with an invitation to ask questions.

Not all of the above are necessary, but all are helpful. It’s a good idea to have a full-screen mock-up of the game at some point, even if it’s just put together with scribbles and PowerPoint shapes. It’s also a good idea to show some basic knowledge of art direction, and to be clear what you’re asking for. The latter is usually “some sort of help to make the game”, but it may vary depending on whether this pitch is to make a publisher help you, or to show to a potential collaborator to get them on your team.

Common problems to avoid in pitch decks:

  • Make sure your pages have a border. Don’t put content all the way up to the edge.
  • Slides are for presentations. They are not books. Don’t put more than a paragraph on a single slide.
  • Understand how bullet-points work. Bulletpoint sentences should be short and should usually follow on from some sort of introductory sentence with a colon, as above.
  • Legibility; use a plain serif or sans serif font, and sensible colour combinations, for most of it. Save fancy fonts for titles.
  • Don’t vary font size too much between slides. Every time you make a reader squint at your work, you are subconsciously putting them off your idea.
A lot of the graphic design useability side of a good presentation is covered in Weinschenk’s 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, which is a book I recommend to anyone involved in any sort of design.

When do we use a Pitch Deck? When we’ve got a sense that our idea “has legs” and is worth the effort of presenting this way. When we have a bit more visual material (research and/or concept art/sketches) to show off. When we’re able to actually present the material to someone in a more conversational setting.

The Video Pitch

A video pitch works in very much the same way as a deck of slides, in the sense that you are combining a verbal explanation with a set of visual materials.

One of the best resources for understanding video pitching comes in the form of Double Fine studio’s Amnesia Fortnight. You can see examples of DFAF pitches over on Youtube.

However, you also have a bunch of advantages. One is that you can simply show the video to someone over and over again, and it doesn’t require the presence of your team’s strongest presenter. You can approach the voice-over more as a performance, and even record bits of flavour using “character voice” with background music for mood.

It’s also a lot easier to show off lots of concept art or prototypes and animation than it might be in the other formats.

When do we use a Video Pitch? If that’s what’s asked for. If we’ve got moving image stuff to show under the voice-over – such as prototype gameplay footage, or moving-image reference like a clip from an old movie. When we want our presentation to be available even when we’re not available to present.

What Should All Pitches Do?

A pitch needs to describe your idea with a degree of accuracy; the audience should come away with the same idea in their head of the thing you want to make as you have.

It also needs to boil down the game to the core of the experience so that you’re not promising millions of features and systems which – with further testing – might not actually add to the game.

At the same time, your pitch needs to be persuasive and generate enthusiasm. To do this, you need to lean on the audience’s existing tastes and preferences, while also indicating why your game will offer something unique and novel. There is a bit of a see-saw here; you want to get a balance between familiarity and novelty.

What Are You Asking and Offering?

Your pitch doesn’t need an explicit “help me make this!” message, as this may be implicit, but it all depends on context. If you’re a games student pitching to other games students, the end of the pitch might be a perfect time to say “I can code it, but I need an artist” or vice versa. If you’re making claims about what you can do, make sure they’re backed up by the pitch content. No-one is going to buy a pitch from someone who says they can code and has not produced a prototype of this or any previous game. No-one is going to buy a pitch from someone who is saying they’ll be the lead artist if their pitch isn’t showing that skill off, either.

Pitch Language is Marketing Language

One of the things I try to remind my students is that there is a massive overlap between the language used to pitch a new idea to a funder or collaborator, and the language you would use to market the end product to the public.

One of the skills taught in marketing is the “call to action” sentence. This is a sentence which basically tells the reader what to do, often by starting with a verb (doing word)

Try Me! Buy One, Get One Free Notice the lack of conditionality. It’s not a polite “would you like to try me?” or a complex “if you buy one, you’ll get one free”. It’s a blunt instruction.

When you’re writing a game design document for use in the studio, you might use longer, more technical sentences that start off with “The player…”. “The player collects acorns in order to grow more trees and gain Forest Points”. In a pitch, however, we never use “The player”; because it’s boring and unnecessary. And we rarely use “You” either, because a good Call to Action sentence assumes that starting with a doing word is the best way of making the audience feel more involved.

A really good example of a Call to Action style gameplay description can be seen in the marketing for Ape Out over on the Devolver website.
Notice how many of the above sentences start with doing words. These describe game mechanics in a way which is exciting. It’s not “You can unleash your primal instincts” is it? If you’re playing the game, you’re unleashing ’em.
Here’s the top paragraph again, but this time we’re looking at how it describes things the player is trying to do (actions in yellow) and their motivations for doing so (goals in red).

So, whether the pitch you’re working on is a single-page one, or a longer-format video or slide presentation, try to follow the above principle for your gameplay descriptions. Aim for quality of writing over quantity, with sentences which describe several player actions leading into a goal. This will keep your descriptionss short and manageable, but also make your pitch-writing more persuastive.

Other Considerations

I haven’t even begun to get into other elements a pitch might need; such as monetisation slides or business cases. Chances are, if you’re at the level where you need to know about those, you’ve already got a job, and don’t really need to be reading this website.

Reflecting on the Creative Urge: Don’t Dream, Just Do

When I was about 9 I was given my older brother’s AMSTRAD CPC. It came with a manual which taught you how to code some simple games in BASIC. My dad encouraged me to work through some of it and before long I had found an enjoyment in making things this way. I got to the point where I was writing and saving little text adventures with several rooms (graphical games were a bit more of a pain in the ass).

A little later I was given an old acoustic guitar by a family friend. I never excelled at it – for me it was really just for chords and singing – but I enjoyed playing it. I spent my teenage years covering the songs I enjoyed singing, dabbling in electronic beatmaking, and dipping back into game-making via RPG Maker and various PC games’ level editors.

Although I dabbled in music I didn’t really get into trying to play lead or write songs until I joined a band in my twenties. This experience taught me that the kind of external pressure you get from collaborating with others is an accelerant to practice. I like doing creative practice as a solitary thing. I find it soothing. Learning a new software or instrument occupies my hands – and the anxious neurodivergent brain which operates them.

But I’m also quite approval seeking. I’ve always been a person who felt a bit out of place and weird, so making bits of art or sound which had some sort of impact on people has always been a big thing for me. It’s something which made me feel some sort of belonging when I felt excluded from other areas of our culture; namely sport and anything “laddish”.

There’s a reason why I’m writing all this down and reflecting on it now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a big empathy gap with some of the young people who come to me for an education in game making. Most folks would not consider joining a degree-level course in music having never learnt any sort of musical instrument or at least some creative software… and yet this is what we often get in games. People think they can just pick it up at 18 with no prior experience.

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t try, but to expect to become professionally competitive at something in three years is bananas. I’ve been making both music and games for 25 years and I only feel barely capable at either. This is how most creatives feel if they are pushing themselves.

It’s just deeply odd to me that people don’t try things as a hobby first before putting themselves into debt for something they might not enjoy. I know the real reason is to do with university as a perceived rite-of-passage; the obvious “what’s next”. Often, a universty applicant’s choice of course is secondary to just “going to uni”. And for some, they see the word “games” and think that it won’t involve work.

We tell our students that we can only show them basics of any given tool or technique, whether that’s something hands on to do with art or using a game engine, or something more conceptual like a game design principle. They have to want to take these tools away and play with them. If we have to force someone to practice, force them to work, then that person is already losing.

The addage “find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings very true to me, and I sort of cringe at the idea of people forcing themselves to do creative things that they don’t really like. If you don’t like doing it, you’re not going to get a job in a field where everyone else would be doing it for free if they could afford to.

Practice should be your happy place, a form of play, something you find equal parts rewarding and soothing. My previous games studio job wasn’t gotten by studying games at university. I didn’t do that; my time at university and grad school was in traditional, theory-heavy humanities stuff. My value as an entry-level games worker came from a portfolio of game jam entries and other personal projects I’d made just because I wanted to.

When I’m stressed, I play the piano and sing, or get my notebook out and work out little sections of whatever game I’m working on. I use game design to work through my ideas about how the wider world works, as well as my ideals about how it should work. I use songwriting to process more personal things.

There’s nothing wrong with having the odd Netflix or TikTok binge when you’re at a low ebb, but the production of art is not meant to be a chore. If your creative practice is something which is central to your being – which you do for the sake of it – you will get better. Showing what you do to critical friends will speed that up, but you have to have that innate desire.

I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because I taught myself how to do these things. Most creative people I know only learnt a fraction of what they can do from being formally taught it. That’s because you can’t really teach the desire part. And if you have the desire part, you are likely already teaching yourself our of curiosity, because YouTube tutorials exist and most game engines and art software have free versions.

I have this empathy gap with many of my students, because once you hit noncompulsory education and you’re paying for it, my assumption is that you should come through the door with dedication and enthusiasm. This isn’t primary or secondary school, where the government forces you to attend, and then teachers must try and make their subject exciting and fun in order to appease you so that their jobs are easier. Entering the field is optional. If it feels more like work than play, if there’s no pleasure, no compulsion, why are you here?

If the creative practice you are financially commiting to feels like a chore, you should reinvest in something which at least pays better than being a media worker. You have to have enough desire to outweigh whatever fears you have. And that desire can’t be for the end product; it needs to at least partly be about the enjoyment of doing the thing and wanting to keep doing it.

I have not invested all of my learning time into one thing, and I am weaker at most of the things I do as a result, but that’s ok by me. I do these things not because I’m good at them (although that feels good sometimes) or because anyone else values the things I make (they often don’t) but because if I did not do them I would go insane. I have made miserable music when my life has been miserable, and I’ve had times when the music I’ve made has been joyful, but I have never stopped making music. I pursue jobs where I can do and think creative things for a living purely so that I can spend a larger percentage of my time doing them, because they are what make me happy.

There is no cap on the variety of things a person can do, and you’ll also tend to find that aesthetic rules overlap between realms. Fine art theory has a place in makeup artistry. Most of the people I know who make a full-time living in the creative arts are freelancers who grab jobs even if they don’t know if they can do them, and then “wing it” and do OK. That is desire winning out over fear.

Do you feel demotivated by anything you’ve just read? When I was in my early twenties I had alraedy written off working in any sort of media or entertainment or artmaking capacity as a silly pipedream. This can be particularly common for people from working class backgrounds who don’t get to go to artschool or ever speak to anyone who makes stuff for a living. I did creative things as a hobby in the background, but moving into a games studio and then becoming a practice-based lecturer and researcher in a university took some serious life adjustments, leaps of faith, and in some cases the cutting off of unsupportive people.

“Quitting my day job and starting my life as a writer was a tremendous risk. It was a fool’s leap, a shot in the dark. But anything of any value in our lives, whether that be a career, a work of art, a relationship, will always start with such a leap. And in order to be able to make it you have to put aside the fear of failing and the desire of succeeding. (…) Because things that we do without lust of result are the purest actions that we shall ever take.” – comics author Alan Moore

I recognise that my “meh” is often someone else’s “wow”, but that I have to show things to people or I’ll always just think it’s “meh”.

I want to finish my board game. I want to start another one. I want to mix, master and release more of my songs. I want to sell a painting. None of these are dreams; they are all in-progress tasks which are a decent % toward completion.

I’m working on an album with a friend. I just wrote some of what I think is the final track. Part of it goes like this:

I can’t give you any words of wisdom
You want a fortune cookie cutter guy?
Free fall ’til you pass out plummeting
Find your wings or fall into the light

This machine never shuts down
Never slows up, never stops moving
I don’t dream, I just do what I need to do
To stop my mind screaming

Sweat Machine is a collaboration between myself and composer Louis Palfrey; you can listen here: https://mouthless.bandcamp.com/album/hot and the other usual places.

Does it Really Need to be VR? Technology Fetishism and (Dis)embodiment

I first got a chance to play around with virtual reality at my old studio when the boss set up a rig and we started throwing around ideas for what, if anything, we would makdse in it. We weren’t a 3D-games-focussed studio, for a start. I remember “playing” some of the Oculus demo scenes, and particularly enjoying sensations of vertigo, of staring down a T-Rex and the phantom-limb oddness of having objects appear to pass through where my body should have been.

Later on we got both an Oculus and HTC Vive rig for one of the teaching computers at my university and I got a chance to play properly, but not much. I did enjoy playing Robo Recall for sweaty half-hour full-body-workout sessions. It also showed (when compared to something like the fantasy swordfighting title Blade & Sorcery) that up-close-and-personal VR combat can only work for most audiences without being icky if the game developer isn’t presenting us with too-human characters. But, overall, the technology is not something I care for enough to want to bring home, and I think this is because – for the most part – my engagement with videogames is about wanting to dissociate from my body as much as possible with an activity entirely about brain, eyes and hands.

Robo Recall (2017) remains one of the better “flail around shooting things” VR experiences.

So, I can admit that even as someone who practices and teaches game design, I am not massively versed in VR as a gaming platform. I don’t think it’s bad. I would like to see games lean into some weirder uses of it, though. I don’t necessarily want to be embodied as a character with limbs. Give me god games in VR. Give me Populus VR. Give me Sid Meier’s Civilisation with a big rotatable orb of a planet to poke, prod, and populate.

There’s also the socioeconomic element: I don’t have a great deal of interest in developing for something which is financially inaccessible to most people. I have “senior” in my job title and I am unable to afford the current generation of consoles, letalone additional peripherals.

I’d rather spend my time trying to address the dearth of couch co-op videogames than to make something which is, to my mind, an example of extreme narrowcasting; a piece of media which can only be consumed by one person at a time.

Honorable shout out to Keep Talking And Nobody’s Explodes for being a game which directly addresses and designs around the “only one person in your friendship group has VR kit” problem. The players not using the VR headset are made to give the VR-enabled player instructions from a printed document. It’s genius and (for those of you who are British and aged enough to get the reference) has a lot of Crystal Maze vibes.

All of that personal context aside, I now have a series of questions for my friends in the field, fellow designers, colleagues etc. who feel drawn toward this technology for their projects.

  1. How many different VR experiences have you had? Have you had enough to have a real sense for what makes good VR stand out from bad VR? Consumption leads to taste, taste informs how you use a skill well. How many albums do you think most msuicians have consumed before writing one?
  2. Do you want a smaller potential user base? Some of the most impactful phenomena in gaming over the past two decades have been the product of users not requiring a dedicated gaming computer; Minecraft and casual mobile games being two examples.
  3. This is particularly relevant for non-games uses; but how does the tendency toward first-person-embodiment in VR work with or against the goals of your project? Are you trying to give people a “feet on the ground” experience? Do you want them to be able to whoosh around (if so, please revisit point 1 until you know what does and doesn’t make people sick on an instinctive, gut level)? Does either form of first person experience actually hit the goals of your project better than being able to more easily manipulate something on a desktop screen with a mouse?

In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2010) Ian Bogost argues that what makes videogames special is their ability to explain – through interaction – how systems work. This is a quality which is arguably more salient in genres which give us a gods’ eye view of a situation. Building a model of a place and giving a user some means by which to navigate its floors is only one use for the technology. It’s an easy option, and one which barely scrapes the surface of what we might be able to do with VR if we think a bit more laterally about experience design in ways which move away from the bodily metaphor entirely.

I think the last point is particularly important for those of us in academia who would like to use VR for research project, whether to make them more accessible or to present information in a new and innovative way. While it might be cool to be able to project a user into a physical location and allow them to move around, this only provides one type of experience, and it’s an experience which really mimics the limitations of being a singularly-embodied human entity in the real world. (I, for one, tire of being a singularly-embodied human entity at the best of times).

Different technologies enable different perspectives for game designers. It may be that VR is simply “better” at doing first-person embodiment, but this might be an assumption based on what we assume will have the widest appeal. For example, it used to be a bit of a game development truism that “simulations and tycoon games don’t work on console”, but this attitude has diminshed in recent generations.

I think we also need to be honest about our personal reasons for wanting to do a project with a specific technology. It’s totally fine to start a project with a new technology just to learn how to use it. But most developers are not going to produce something worthy of an audience’s attention on their first, third, or perhaps even thirtieth foray into a new area. Even then, if they’re not critically engaging with the work already out there, their best efforts are likely to produce a dull version of something which was already achieved years ago.

Just as many middle-aged men learn the expensive way that owning a Stratocaster does not make one Hendrix, technology fetishism can often obscure the amount of work it takes to bridge the gap between making something and making something good

This is why any education in technology needs to do more than drill languages and software. It should also give students the conceptual tools to be able to make things which are innovative and useful rather than just functional. Those of us who can access and harness these technologies on academic institutional budgets are a lucky few, but whether we are able to do anything interesting with them is a matter of thoughtful design, not simply learning to use hardware and software kit.

We’re All in This Together (2015): a dystopian text adventure about connection and mental health.

During 2015 I made a scifi-horror Twine called We’re All In This Together.

In the game, you play an “inspector” in a near-future London, tasked with rooting out individuals with a hallucinatory affliction by scanning their memories. The story unfolds through the protagonist’s daily work routine.

Gameplay revolves around using a “neuroscope” to scan your patients’ recent memories, before deciding whether to release or quarantine them. The neuroscope returns 3-line haikus composed of random memory fragments. I’ll do a technical write-up at a later date if there’s enough interest.

The first few scenes may take a little while to load, particularly on mobile devices, as this is where all the heavy-lifting is done in terms of preparing all these memory fragments.

It takes around 30 minutes to play and contains violent imagery.

There’s a bit of background information here about the game’s subtext and the broader cultural themes that played into its creation.

Arcane Academy (in development): a dice-placement boardgame about managing a wizard university.

Arcane Academy is a euro-game (a board game mainly around economic/resource management) that I’ve been designing for a while now, and it’s finally reached a point where I think it needs it’s own page. I’ll give a description of the top-level features of the game up here, and then step through images and caption them with what they show.

Thanks in particular to the #tabletop community over on the Ranged Touch Discord server. The server in general is fully of lovely, smart, supportive folks, and the tabletop community there – despite being mostly interested in TTRPGs and sometimes wargames – have been very tolerant of my cube-pushing rants, my photo dumps, and my idiotic claims to have “just done a procedural rhetoric!”

Speaking of procedural rhetoric, I would say this game is intended as piece of interactive satire, but that is secondary to me trying to just make a good game with a unique theme. I love eurogames with unique mechanics, a bit of mid-game engine-building and multiple paths to victory, and I think that given my current occupation I am uniquely placed to make a game which is, under the veneer of fantasy, about how universities operate.


Designing around a theme like this always hold the challenge that you have to meet the player mid-way between the way they perceive the thing/place/system being represented, and how you want to model it. What I’m hoping for here is that players will approach Arcane Academy thinking that it is just about teaching and learning and training wizards, and walk away with a slightly more rounded and perhaps critical view of universities. If I get to the point where I need to write up more academic research papers around my own designs, I will probably be putting this process in conversation with Anne-Marie Schleiner’s “broken toy tactic” for creating political games, which you can most easily read about in an excerpted format here.


The game is played over multiple two-semester “years”, and at the end of each year, conditions are checked to see who receives what funding, and – more importantly overall – who has received the favour of the Archmage. Players win victory points for meeting certain conditions at the end of the year, and when one player (/department) is a certain amount ahead of others, the game ends with them ascending to the role of Archmage.

I know that in a lot of games, “victory points” are given out in large chunks. This allows for replayability insomuch as players who have clocked dozens of games of Carcassone, or Lords of Waterdeep or Great Western Trail are then able to compare their scores between games. While I understand this particular function of victory points, I am not particularly fond of it as a standard, and I will explain the reasoning for my use of single, chunky VPs (closer to what Catan does) a bit further down when we hit the appropriate image.


Each player starts off with two wizards (tutors) each of whom gets given a teaching die (coloured) and a research die (white). They roll these and place the teaching die in descending order left-to-right, and the white die in ascending order left-to-right.

They also start with a small set of cards representing spells which can used to teach classes.

Each player’s four starting spells can be taught in a classroom which is specialist to their subject:

  • Necromancy (black) teach in the Catacombs.
  • Destructive Elements (red) teach in the Target Range.
  • Enchantment (blue) teach in the Workshop.
  • Alchemy (green) teach in the Abortorium.
  • Illusion (purple) teach in the Lounge.

Each of these “classrooms” is really just a symbol on the board which corresponds to the player’s spell-cards too. However, every player’s school of magic shares one of their cards with another school…

  • “Curse” starts with both the blue and black player and can be taught in either the Catacombs or the Workshop.
  • “Corrode” starts with both the red and green player and can be taught in either the Target Range and the Abortorium.

… and so on. This creates a situation where sometimes it may be advantageous to “book” another player’s primary classroom to teach your class.

I won’t go into loads of rule specifics because ultimately I’m just trying to describe gameplay here rather than actually write the rules…

Eventually I’d like the board to resemble one of those kids books you used to get with a cross-section castle… so far, every time I try to focus on layout I get waylaid from thinking about rules, so it’s gonna have to wait until later!


On a given turn, a player will place both/all of the dice of a specific one of their wizards at once. Because of the way the dice are arranged, this will – at the start of the game – usually mean that they are placing their highest-numbered coloured teaching dice at the same time as the lowest-numbered white research dice, or vice versa.

Because teaching dice can only be placed on teaching spaces (booking classrooms or recruiting students) and research dice can only be placed on research spaces (writing publications or learning new spells) this creates a situation wherein going “high” on one area of activity leaves better spots open to the next player on the other area.

When players book classrooms they play as many cards as the value of the die which bare the symbol associated with the classroom. For example, a teaching die of three placed on the red “target range” classroom enables the player to play up to three cards with the red comet symbol on. Each symbol played this way with create a point of teaching power, which is used to push students up a set of towers for each of the 3 years of their “degree” in magic. Students who remain at the bottom of these towers at the end of the year become drop-outs.

Players can also use teaching dice to recruit students for the next academic year. Spending 3s and 4s in this way enables the recruitment of students who start higher up the Year 1 progress tower and therefore require less teaching. Recruiting students is important because, even if a particular player wants to aim for quality over quantity, total amount of students currently enrolled is an important way for their school of magic to get funding each year.

With their white research dice, players can write scrolls and grimoires (which correspond to journal papers and monographs in “real” academia). Enough of either can get your department regular funding, but only grimoires count towards your victory points for impressing the Archmage. Alternatively, players can use their white research dice to take new spells from a small market on the board (from spaces marked 1, 2, or 3, using a die of the corresponding value, or using a fourth space to “draw 4, keep one”).

So, each colour of dice has a couple of things it can be used for. A higher number is usually marginally better, which encourages you to use it earlier to avoid the space you want being blocked.

After each two-semester-year, players accumulate funding based on number of students and number of publications. Throughout the year, they can also spend this on:

  • hiring new staff (some of whom will be cheaper and only provide one die; teaching or research, some of whom will be more expensive and have simple special skills, such as adding to the value of teaching in a specific location)
  • building additional classrooms.
  • buying one-off reagents (mushrooms/herbs etc.) used to enhance teaching.
  • buying staff equipment to give them continuous benefits.

After funding is allocated at the end of the year, the Archmage reviews the departments’ progress, and awards VP for:

  • Whichever department has the most students who have graduated with top marks.
  • Whichever department has published the most Grimoires.
  • Which department has finished the year with the most remaining unspent funding (this is going to need some tuning to ensure players don’t exploit it by just never spending anything).

… and deducts VP for every x drop-outs in a discipline too.

As you can guess, the above is modelling the following ideas – which I think are probably an exaggeration to some extent, but as I said further up – this is a cynical satire:

  • The institution cares more about the “top” and “bottom” results than anything else.
  • The institution cares about income generation and the problem of “how do you have as much $ as possible from enrolment without jeopardising teaching?” is a problem left to teaching staff to deal with.
This is very out-of-date by now, but it’s useful for me to put here as a reminder of this process; I’ve designed a bunch of board games over the years (none published yet) but never before have I thought of just ignoring the board part out and just thinking about component density before I start drawing out the board. Seems so obvious now!
This version looks like it came later than the ones below, on account of having slightly more worked-up graphics, but it’s actually earlier. I tend to prematurely polish things, and then have to go “back to the drawing board” with a fail-fast paper prototype, but I’m the sort of person who loses motivation to work if I’m not occasionally dipping into and seeing what the end aesthetic might look like.
Back to basics prototype (mid April 2022?). More recently I find myself ignoring the idea of a “board” early on and using large cards like these to work out what the board areas would be, then worrying about how they inter-relate later. This has really sped up my process.
Prototype from the middle of May 2022; getting ready for the UK Games Expo. This is set up for 3, but I may try to make it ready for 4 or 5 before then.

Getting started with storytelling in your game dev project

This post is intended as a non-exhaustive primer for anyone who is making games from more of a mechanics and art perspective and who might struggle a bit with story or narrative.

Let’s start with what those two words mean, because they mean different things. “Narrative” implies the existence of a narrator. While a story is a series of events – real or fictional – the narrative is the *telling* of the story.

So, let’s fast-forward and say we’ve already decided on the story. There’s some bad stuff going on in the world, because of an evil wizard. So far, so standard. But maybe the king was secretly involved? That’s slightly more interesting, but it’s only interesting if we don’t know it from the beginning.

That’s the difference between story and narrative; as narrators – in any medium – we can choose to withhold information until specific moments, when it would be more impactful to the audience to find out. Or we can reveal it in more or less interesting ways, for example, having information come from an unreliable narrator or be delivered in a way that it might be missed – like background clues in a murder mystery.

Once we understand that distinction, we can start to think of the difference between story and narrative in terms of the audience (or player) experience. When is it most impactful for the player to learn of the king’s treachery, and how should they learn about it? Reading a letter? Overhearing a conversation? A slow drip-feed of subtle visual clues on things, royal seals where they shouldn’t be, and so on?

This question of “how” brings us into design and production considerations. When I teach students to make narrative games, we often use an engine like Twine or Ren’Py which is meant specifically for creating interactive fiction. The reason for this is that the on-ramp to adding elements like voice-over, text-boxes, branching dialogue and so on to an action game in an engine like Unity or GameMaker is much longer.

So the first practical question should always be; “does this game need an explicit narrative at all?” How much background information can be inferred just through the environmental design?

Do we, as players, care why the dungeon in your action RPG exists? Perhaps not. But even if it’s not worth the time to implement a system that can deliver extensive background lore to the player, it might still be worth having the dev team work through these questions to help guide their design decisions – both aesthetic and mechanical. Knowing that the dungeon was built by a religious fundamentalist cleric, verses a scientist obsessed with cruel experiments, is going to give the whole place a different flavour even if it’s only at the level of decorative objects. But it might also have a relevant influence on gameplay flavouring when it comes to things like enemies and weapons, too.

After considering what story can be told through the environment, my next piece of advice would be to consider the cost of implementing each type of narrative device. A narrative device, broadly speaking, is any “method” for delivering story content. In a movie, this could be, for example, a regular scene, a flashback, a voice-over. Games use all of these, and more medium-specific methods (like, for example, object descriptions in the Dark Souls games).

I would then think through different ways of delivering parts of the story I want to tell, e.g:

  • in the environment during gameplay
  • between levels (not as cutscenes, but as short interstitials visa vie Darkest Dungeon or Mirrors Edge)
  • through found documents or recordings
  • through voice-over and/or text-boxes (let’s not even think about implementing player dialogue choices at this point, urgh).

The list above is, in my mind, ordered in easiest to hardest, or cheapest to most expensive, or however way you want to think of development effort/time.

Environmental storytelling is not cheap or easy to do. So why have I put it first on my list? Because it’s about making clever use of the part of the game that you have to develop anyway – assuming that you’ve already got an action/strategy game taking place in an environment of some sort. Things like “the city is ruined” or “the forest is haunted” are such generic tropes that we don’t even consider them storytelling. But they are; and the visual specifics of how the city was ruined, or why the forest is haunted, are interesting to explore, both as a developer and a player. How far can you get with placing “clues” to these questions in the environment before even having to think about having to include a different type of narrative device?

Giving the player things to notice and work out for themselves is great, but if they are fundamentally trying to play an action game, they will miss a lot unless it’s repeated. My favourite element of playing Elden Ring was observing the in-world funeral processions and gradually developing my own theory about how they tied into the gameworld’s economy in some way. Is there a document or character somewhere in the game who might have told me about this instead? Probably, but I don’t care to speak to them (they’re probably a weirdo).

Storytelling through interstitials like comics and animatics can be a relatively cheap way to give some vital information – or to provoke a sense of mystery. But my advice would be to always lean toward the latter.

When I teach narrative design, I don’t lean much on traditional Narrative Theory, but one thing we do regularly use from Roland Barthes are the concepts of action and enigma, and of paying attention to the balance between these things. To put it as simply as possible, how often is your game/book/film telling its audience something, and how often is it making the audience ask by giving some incomplete information?

This interplay is fundamentally what gets people hooked on serial TV series like Game of Thrones or Lost. Every time one question the audience may have about the world gets answered, at least one more gets thrown open. So they have to stay to find out.

So, when you decide to put that little comic-book cheap-excuse-for-a-cutscene between your levels, make it count. Don’t use it to exposit any more than you need to – let the player do the finding out during gameplay – if they can.

Let’s take Darkest Dungeon as a best-in-class example. In the interstitials we see and hear “the Ancestor” who is generally fretting over something awful he’s done. But in true Lovecraftian style, there is usually a considerable delay between hearing someone express their feeling of regretful dread and seeing the source of it. The interstitials at the beginning of a game section are used to create a call of “what have I done?” which is usually answered by the player encountering some in-game abomination. At which point they roll their eyes and say “that pesky ancestor, he’s been at it again!”

Found documents and recordings can be a great way of meeting in the middle, telling a piece of story that’s been frozen in time, but allowing the player-character to reveal it as they’re exploring the environment. They also add a bit of human character to post-apocalyptic or ruined settings which might otherwise be lacking that kind of humanity.

If you’re going to use audio notes or diaries in this way, consider the following things:

  1. How can I chain together entries so that the player learns a bit more each one. How do I make it so that there is a point to listening to three of these rather than condensing it into just one?
  2. What is the player learning from this set of recordings? If it’s something simple and local to the level (like learning where a key item is hidden) is there some way I can contextualise this in the broader world-event to add more information? (e.g. “I’ve hidden the key in the thing, because otherwise the looters…” < like that but better).
  3. What is the “voice” of the person recording the message? What is their unique character? Even if it’s just someone who appears for two or three diary entries, some sort of unique turn or phrase or odd preoccupation or obsession will help to satisfy players who want your story fragments to feel like genuine story and not just key items in a safe-combination puzzle.

As with most creative tasks, the truth of “how is this sausage made” comes down to planning. Make a rough table, split up what I’m going to learn about both the story and its storyteller into three parts, and maybe think about how the tone of each might change, before actually trying to write or record any of the player-facing text or speech.

The great thing about logs/diaries etc. is that, although they may be somewhat overused, they do allow you to experiment with characters telling stories in-game without having to have the characters interact dramatically in real-time. Which leads us to…

… the last category I want to talk about, which is actual real-time dialogue, where an in-world character is speaking as a voice-over or using text-boxes. In terms of “how to do this well” you want to attend to a lot of the same things I mentioned earlier:

  • What am I learning in this scene/dialogue, as a player.
  • Is this the most interesting way to learn about it.
  • What is unique about the character talking to me? Why do I want to interact with them?
  • What questions are going to remain unresolved, so that I still have some sense of mystery pulling me forward in my mission/quest?

But, those creative questions aside, in terms of implementation, you should really exhaust all the other options on the list before you attempt to implement characters talking in real-time.

You have to pause the game in a way the other methods do not require, and you have to have events/triggers which are of a magnitude more complex to get this working. If you want characters to speak during gameplay, you’ll also probably need to do stuff with sound-ducking (although the same would be true of found logs too).

If you’re making a smaller project (like a student game, for example) will the multiple weeks it takes you to get all of this working be worth it?

As with most advice I give, it’s not a hard and fast rule. Never say never. But sometimes the “cheaper” way to achieve something is genuinely better. If you want to make a first person shooter where the main character is constantly narrating things in a voiced-over internal monologue, that could be very cool, but there needs to be a good reason for choosing to do this, over other methods which might be easier (style and aesthetics can be reason enough – but you have to be able to justify them to your dev team).

Although I haven’t gone into any of these areas in massive depth, I hope this primer gives you what you need to start thinking about narrative in your games. Narrative is the method by which we allow players to encounter the story events. At the forefront there are two key areas; the form (narrative) and the content (story). In terms of content; trying to identify what would be most interesting or intriguing should be top priority. In terms of form, work through the different ways of delivering story and think about which gives you the most “bang for your buck” in terms of difficulty of implementation verses what it adds to the experience!

100 Word Review: Kings Quest III: To Heir is Human (1986)

I played a few games in this series as a kid, but KQ3 did something noteworthy in terms of its structure. The player-character is a young lad who needs to escape the abusive service of a horrible old wizard. The wizard leaves for periods, and while he’s away, players get to snoop around the house or scour the local countryside for help before he returns. It’s horribly claustrophobic, but KQ3 started my love for games where you explore a place over and over and keep finding secrets – much like the towns of Harvest Moon and the house in Shenmue.