Don’t Shut Up, But Do Make Games

Videogames, the people who make videogames, do not exist in a vacuum.

Changes to the political landscape, actions taken by those in power, those with power, directly influence the lives of the people who make videogames.

One political decision, somewhere, can be the difference between comfort and discomfort for a person, it can be the difference between eating and not eating, it can be the difference between being safe and being unsafe, it can be the difference between being alive or being dead.

It can be the difference between being able to walk down the street without being verbally or physically assaulted or not. It can be the difference between feeling comfortable and safe in your own home or not. It can be the difference between feeling comfortable and/or safe in your own skin, in your own mind.

Videogames are made by people and people can be hurt.

People can be hurt by words. People can be hurt by physical violence. People can be hurt by corporate decisions. People can be hurt by legislation.

Politeness will not rescue people from political violence. It will not improve the lot of people. Civility has limits in its utility when the world we live in leans towards acts of violence towards people.

Racism is violence.
Sexism is violence.
Transphobia is violence.
Homophobia is violence.
Violence is violence.

It is not in the interests of anybody to sit quiet and accept the status quo when the status quo hurts them, when it hurts friends, family, children, the environment.

Insisting that people stay polite, that people never complain, never raise so much as a whisper as the world does its level best to crush them is inhumane, at best.

There is no good reason to keep silent in games, as with any other artform, medium or space. We all benefit from this place being better – but being better is not just everyone is shush, says please and thank you and never complains. No swearing at the back.

Being better is more safety nets, more empathy, more work to stand up against people and ideas that seek little more than to hurt or damage people just because. This does not, necessarily, come with politeness. Historically, few gains are made by just asking for things nicely. Few gains are made by accepting the status quo. Few gains are made by never, ever, talking about an issue in case it upsets someone when there is so much more at stake than someone’s pride and sensibilities. When for people, just existing is a struggle – a please does not tend to yield results.

Pushing for change does.

There are times and places for civility, it is an important part of being human, being able to show compassion, respect and deference to those in need. Civility without compassion, without listening, without understanding is worthless. It is an empty and useless gesture. It only serves to perpetuate the damage that gets done to people daily.

Videogames are a part of the world we live in. People who make videogames have lives, loves, troubles. Empathy with that costs so little, takes so little work.

Unfortunately, so does calling for people to be quiet and never speak of things that upset or turn your world upside down because videogames or something.

Don’t shut up. Do make games. Make this place better. Make this place safer. Be upset. Be angry. Be happy. Be sad.

Be human. Be humane.

It’s all we can be. For the best.

Boxed In

I am feeling terribly boxed in by most of the stores or services I tend to use regularly. It’s quite the frustrating thing.

I have never had much luck with algorithm’s trying to sort out what I’d like or what I’d want to watch/play/listen to/read – more often than not, the more a service moves towards this sort of thing, the less useful it becomes.

And more to the point, the more work *I* have to do in order to find anything.

I have no idea, nor care, if this makes me a minority according to someone’s data or not. All I know is that stores and services are effectively making themselves more of a chore for me to rummage around and I’m less happy using them.

I used to get a giggle out of Last.FM and Audioscrobbling, their suggestions were often so obscenely far away from anything I’d want to listen to that it became a sort of entertainment to see what suggestions it would throw my way. Paul McCartney again? Oh me, oh my.

The thing about Last.FM and Audioscrobbling that differs though is that Last.FM was a passive service. I listen to music, I enjoyed the brief period where so many other folks were scrobbling too and we would chat about music we liked. The algorithmic suggestions were no obstacle to me. The service, as This Is My Jam would also do later, was something to spark off discussion and yeah, parade my awful music taste to the entire world.

I’m not there to buy music, right? That’s important.

Stores and subscription services though? They’re just a pain.

Netflix makes browsing for anything take a torturous amount of time. I’m sure it makes for some lovely engagement figures but it reminds me of the worst video rental stores. Just idly staring at box after box after box hoping that at some point soon, you’ll find something, anything you like. Blockbuster Syndrome, if you will.

I mention this partially for a reason. For my sins, I did time in a video store – many, many years ago. I would chat to the customers, I would know who went for the straight to video just give me any old crap to fill an afternoon up stuff, who would go for the quality horror, who would go for the two pound fifty and a duck budget ones.

I would know that if it was a Monday, there would be people in early in the afternoon and that they’d be getting a new release to watch before the kids came home and stuff like that. This stuff, despite the beliefs of the tech sector is not stuff you can replace easily with an algorithm because it’s a constant two way process, it would take an algorithm six months to get even close to what I (or any other good counter assistant, really) could nail in a week. And crucially, I would never be boxing customers in and making just looking round the shop difficult.

I worked record stores as well. As much as it would leave me exhausted, I would love the Christmas shifts. Anyone working in retail knows these are brutal, seemingly unending and there’s never enough time or staff available versus the amount of people who’ll be wanting to buy gifts. I loved it because I would hop around the shop grabbing things for befuddled parents, chatting briefly to people about what they were buying (and trying to suss out those who just wanted to keep their head down and go without any of this so that I wouldn’t be in their face). Again, it doesn’t take long to get an idea for suggestions in these situations and it requires so little effort on behalf of the customer.

Were I on the other side of the counter… well, I am definitely one of those folk who sort of just wants to buy stuff and go most of the time but still, knowing that a good counter assistant is there and will be able to guide me towards what I’m after is nice. It’s reassuring. Because sometimes I just don’t know.

The best counter assistants in a store are there when you need them and nowhere to be seen when you don’t.

Aside from lacking humans and any humanity, these systems folk are setting up now online – they sort of claim to be algorithmically powered but really, they expect me to do the work to make the algorithm even vaguely useful and look, if I wanted to work in someone’s store, I’d get a job there. I get that no-one wants to fess up that their systems are actually built on free labour but you know, they are.

The fundamental problem I have with what most of them show me is it’s like someone standing in front of you going “this one?”, showing you something you have absolutely no interest in, rinsing and repeating 30 times. I find it quite emotionally exhausting to have to deal with this stuff. No-one asks me my opinion on some grapes before I can get near the apples in a grocers, yeah?

I have incredibly eclectic tastes in the arts – I also have incredibly precise tastes. Like, just because I like one movie with Hugh Grant in doesn’t mean I want to bother with everything else he sticks his head up in. I might like one, and only one, Beatles song. And maybe I only really like one game from Ubisoft or something. I literally could not give a monkeys about the rest and never want to see them in my life at anything more than a passing glance.

Yet, in order to train an algorithm, in order to try and get to the stuff I want, stores have settled on a system that requires me to engage with stuff I don’t want, wade through stuff I don’t want and to do all this just to see stuff they think I might want to see, which invariably means if I’m lucky, 1 in 300 things I look at might take my fancy but by the time I get to the 2nd one that might take my fancy I just want it all to go away.

And this is how I end up responding to these stores and services.

I cannot be bothered with Netflix most of the time because it takes me as long to find anything as it often does to watch anything.

I am sick of the sight of the same twenty games Google Play seems to desperately want to throw my way.

Amazon’s book recommendations are, look, I’ve got clumsy hands and often click the wrong thing – just because I was nodding off and clumsily boffed my way onto the thirteenth Vernon Coleman book on sale that day, it doesn’t mean I want to see another thirteen of them. Ever.

Steam is now borderline useless to me for finding things. As a result of the sheer amount of work it takes to look for anything most of the time, I just don’t bother now. I have gone (even before my health went for a bit of a wander on its own path) from buying a ruck of games to maybe bothering once or twice a month at a push. Life’s too short to be working in online stores for the privilege of maybe finding something to spend money on.

The only service that’s even got close to tolerable (despite its increasingly nonsensical and oblique interface quirks) is Spotify and that only works really well because I can speed through songs to find something pleasing to my ears and settle on something that intrigues me with so little effort.

Like I say, maybe it turns out that I am a statistical anomaly or something, just some old person who doesn’t get it. It doesn’t matter much to me really, the end result is the same regardless.

More and more online stores and services are choosing to make themselves entirely useless to me. Are expecting me to put man hours into making them slightly less than useless.

And you know, I don’t want to have an opinion on every single piece of media ever. I just don’t. I’m going to die someday, I don’t want to have to teach a machine that I have no interest in seventeen Police Academy films, one by one, or something.

I want to find the things I’ll be passionate about and every system folks seem to be building into their stores now is just making that more and more difficult.

On the bright side, it saves me a fucking fortune. So there is that.

Pause/Continue

Well, you might have noticed that I’ve not been writing as much as normal lately. There’s a couple of reasons for that, some more serious than others.

First up, I managed to fall over a couple of months back and lamp my ribs in. Whilst I’m picking up and I’m fairly mobile again, sitting at my desk for long periods of time is pretty much impossible still. Well, sitting at my desk for short periods of time too – the leaning over to type absolutely does me in and I haven’t found a comfortable middle ground.

I tend to draft pieces from the comfort of my bed and then tidy them up whilst at my desk later. So there’s that but it also means that with not being at my desk, I’m not anywhere near as plugged in to the game-o-sphere as I usually am. Which kind of means I’m not reading as much or even paying quite as much attention as usual.

I haven’t worked out if this is a better or worse state of affairs than normal, really.

There’s the pain thing too – it’s more managed than it was a few months ago (as in, it is managed somewhat rather than not at all) but I’ve only recently hit anything close to a vaguely medicated level with things. Unfortunately, rather than this wind down and go into remission for a while as I’m fairly used to – I’ve been riding this pretty much none stop since last October. It is simultaneously boring and irritating to have a lot of time taken up dealing with the pain instead of just about anything else.

Funnily enough I would sooner do anything else most of the time but it sort of is what it is. I try to fit stuff in around that but being a parent and a carer doesn’t leave me much time for anything else before everything kicks off again. Since December last year we’ve been having one fight too many on the financial front and family health front so that’s been a battle as well. Sort of used to it but it doesn’t mean I like it, obviously.

Then there’s the tired thing. Thanks to the joys of having a silly pain that you can set a watch to, well, it turns out this kind of leaves you knackered after a flare up. Which is not very nice! So again, it’s time taken up napping here over writing.

Right now, I seem to be accumulating drafts and stuff – I’ve got about 4 or 5 pieces which are ripe for turning into something more interesting and quite a few games I want to talk about. So it’s not like I’ve entirely got lost on this but there’s two other factors which are, right now, taking precedence over everything else.

I’m very burnt out on writing about games. A lot of last year was spent writing about really horrible things in games. I covered a lot of avenues and a lot of angles on the sheer chaos, hurt and upset that can come with being in games. It all sort of wrapped up in a piece for Eurogamer that brought a lot of these threads together and well, it was an incredibly stressful thing to write and prepare for. And, of course, you never know how this stuff is going to go down. You never know if this piece “will be the one”.

Anyway, turns out that repeatedly poking your head into The Bad Stuff for a year does in fact take its toll – not only am I struggling to muster the effort to talk about some of the more serious things that happen in games, I’ve sort of forgotten what it means to write about games without writing about this stuff. You know, like normal human beings who write about games. The ones that don’t stick their head into the videogame toilet at every opportunity for a very long time.

It’s not necessarily that I want to stop writing about that stuff, more that the money and support for doing so is entirely disproportionate to the emotional toll it takes *right now*. I’m not sure there is such a thing as ever enough money for doing it so I’m not entirely worried there and I do appreciate the support I have/have had but stuff like this, it’s hard to feel appreciated for. Not necessarily because doing it isn’t appreciated but the very nature of the work grinds you down so much that it’s hard to come up for air. It’s hard to see the good when you’re constantly knee deep in the bad, yeah?

And the other reason? Well. It’s keeping track of what I’m doing long enough to get to the end of a piece with a point intact. Normally, I employ a system of post it notes, remarks in drafts and whatever else to keep myself on track but between pain and pills, cutting through the fog has been exceptionally difficult recently. And whatever goes on, excluding pain and pills, already sees me struggle to keep track of what I’m doing, where I am or what my point was. That’s normal.

Just recently, it’s getting a bit more complicated and I’m having to check words more, spellings more, reread stuff to make sure it really does go from A to B. It’s a vast amount of more work than I’m used to. I’ve every intention of working round this over time but working through it is taking priority. I’m having to accept that maybe writing about games at the pace and wordcount I was doing so before is not sustainable. My health isn’t getting any better so quality and integrity (and something vaguely coherent) seem like smarter things to push towards as time goes on.

It’s all really complex and really messy and yeah, it’s not helped by the state of the world at the moment either. Just between health, fighting so many financial fronts, the huge amount of words on bad things I spent last year writing and my forgetfulness, something is going to have to give.

So with that in mind, I’m mulling over some changes to my Patreon over the next month or so – both to adjust expectations to what will have to be a slower output of words from me so I can use some of my spare brain power for writing a game and to offer something a bit more in return for the kind support I’ve been receiving.

I don’t know what yet and folks are happy to prod me on the Twitters over stuff or whatever. Or complain. I don’t know.

It’s a weird situation I’ve found myself in – I’ve been in increasing pain for years, I’ve had periods of exhaustion and burnout before now, I’ve had serious family stuff to deal with too, just very rarely all at the same time. I’m used to having to turn down travelling and this that the other but these past few months I’ve had to turn down stuff where the pay would have been nice simply because I cannot do it right now.

And as ever, I try and talk about these things to at least some extent as I know I’m invariably not the only person riding a wave of effluence out at the best of times and nor am I in the worst situation out of plenty of folks I know. But it is uphill right now. Everything sort of seems uphill right now.

And that’s all why I’m currently down to one or two pieces a month right now. Despite all this, I do sincerely hope you still find some enjoyment in them all the same.

Edge

I have huffed too much Edge this past week.

Not the recent and quite readable new Edge, old Edge. Early Edge.

I’d set out originally to find some lovely choice quotes from developers or interesting snippets of old news to talk about. Instead, around fifteen issues in I kinda felt like another issue would probably break me.

Edge’s sometimes wrongness is quite legendary. It is, genuinely, funny to read the early issues where there’s barely a page without a mention of the 3DO whilst the responses on the letters pages are “eh, no, we don’t talk about the 3DO like that. Come on!”

And then there’s the notorious “If only…” Doom review where the reviewer (there are no bylines in Edge) asks us to contemplate a game of Doom where you could talk to the monsters or form allegiances instead of the one we got. Which is certainly A Thing That Someone Put To Page and all that.

If only its wrongness stopped there.

It’s hard, post 2014, for me to give a generous reading to the bulk of Edge’s early content. In its early years Edge was a magazine that on one hand advocated for the future of games and games machines and on the other, sought to aggressively narrow down what could be permitted as games.

It was every bit the awful gatekeeping that not only still lingers today but we see the end result of touching so many of us.

I tend to go through phases where I reread old magazines and I think this is the only time I’ve ever thought “you know. let’s just put them away again and eurgh, curse them or something so no-one else should suffer”.

It’s all so silly, so inane. Barely an issue goes by without Edge maintaining that in the face of CD-ROM, games are under threat from non games. I’m not inferring this from their words, it is fairly explicitly stated on multiple occasions. I finally met my match in an exhausting and exhaustive write up on the ingredients of gameplay. An over long dictation of terms. This is what videogames are. Remember this.

Even though I spent a day tweeting it into the void, I’ve forgotten most of it. It’s stuff I’d read a thousand times before and went on to read a thousand times more. It is the argument that videogames are cause and effect, they contain violence, the player must be treated as a godlike figure, empowered and flattered at every turn. It was boring in 1994, it is boring now.

Videogames are in a state of constant flux but the hardware and software leaps in the early to mid nineties were incredible things and a good number of videogames from that time gave us templates we still adhere to now. It is an exciting and glorious time where who knows what’s next but look at the speed everything is changing.

Even then I found good reason to celebrate this. Edge, sadly, were more interested in telling people no, you can’t do this thing because… look, you just can’t. There’s a part of me that smiles when one article declares multimedia is dead because it’s just not fun enough.

And you know, there’s a part of me that thinks a lot of the content of early Edge should be taught at school in media studies or just in general. There’s a straight line that runs from so many of these ideas and editorials there to where the bad things are now. And like now, so many early issues of Edge are filled with the most amazing bollocks about making games. It’s a magazine that can explain a video compression technique over multiple pages in one issue but also fail to write how game development works in any sane manner.

My memories of Edge before rereading a year or two of its early nonsense was, I fear, overly generous. I had it pinned down as a big load of silly. I think it was a silly magazine. More than that though it worked really hard at driving a bigger wedge between the people who make the work and the people who buy the work for no discernible good reason.

I would say that history has been unkind to a lot of games writing, such is what happens with an enthusiast press. Edge though? I’m struggling to figure out how anyone took it seriously. It’s inane at best, wrong somewhere in the middle and had it been even ten or so years later still doing the same stuff as here, it would be dangerous

Sadly, I found myself walking away from it all with only a couple of nice quotes to talk about. The rest felt like it was dragging me under with it. So I stopped, walked away.

Because the thing is, for most of the stuff I found myself rereading, I can get that very same conversation in forums and comments sections a million times over. Today. Without feeling like the past let us down.

Even though, you know, it often has.

Compassion / Design

Given the games I write it likely sounds odd but I try to be as kind and compassionate in my design as possible. Well, you know, as possible as it is to be in brutally hard twin stick arena shooters that flash lights at people. Which believe it or not is plenty.

Finding and exploring different aspects of this is one of the more fun things for me. Trimming down rough and abusive design edges so that even when the game is hideously unfair, it’s difficult to get angry at the game itself.

In theory, of course.

Absurdity helps. With War Twat, my first proper jaunt into arena shooters – I turned the volume up to eleven, Mike’s music teetered on the ridiculous, the sound effects were set to “probable nuclear war” as were the visual effects. It is a loud game in a lot of respects and lasting 30 seconds is an art unto itself.

The player is also likely to find the cause of their death was either a bus, a silly alien or a balloon or a yellow digger. Or, just as likely, something they weren’t able to either see or avoid in any way whatsoever. It is a difficult game to be angry at precisely because nobody has a chance with it. Unlike, say, Super Hexagon which tries to teach you possibilities through practice, there are none in War Twat.

The entire screen is just noise in seconds. Bullets, sound effects, the music, the screen shaking in a way even Vlambeer would be all like “no way, steady” to.

It’s absurd, of course it is. There is a logic to it though – the player is permitted, by design, to know that death is inevitable and the only real way to play the game is to pretty much set their own goals to see how long they can last. If they want to. No matter how many times the player plays the game they will not learn any techniques to survive, they will not hit a difficulty wall because the entire game is the difficulty wall. It just keeps on going until they stop, are stopped, or somehow survive long enough to get bored and turn it off

And so in my experience, for a lot of players, this becomes just a silly thing. Killed by a bus or cleared the screen to the sound of Bruce Forsyth only for the entire screen to fill again in seconds. It is pointless. It is punishing. It’s the video game as ‘how far is too far?” and if I’ve done my job right, this should be so far over the line as to be baffling as to why anyone would make such a stupid thing – never mind call it *that* name.

Playing about with the SYNSO games and I don’t know, I don’t feel I ever got the first one in order – when porting the game to the Xbox 360, Andy (Noble) exposed *a lot” of design problems. Putting the SE version together at some point afterwards, I tried to correct a few but I tend to think of it as tentative steps towards a thing but very broken.

However, I digress! With the SYNSO games I tried to work on some simple principles.

The game would always be nice to the player – there would be a game over but it would still be somewhat celebratory. Not at any point would the game disparage the player, not even so much as a game over (I used the still final but a lot more ambiguous “Squidageddon has occurred” instead) and the death sequence would be as much a fireworks show as failure.

Any messages at all would have to be either surreal, pleasant or ambiguous. All to add a severe air of unreality and disconnection to things but also to try, wherever possible, to reduce frustration. All my games in recent years have asked the player to survive with just one life and no health bars and so designing against frustration is, for me, 99% of the job.

I am unapologetically happy for players to break my games. I’m not a great believer in my design as so precious and unfuckwithable. Whilst I didn’t have the time (twice!) to build options into Death Ray Manta, there is a near final-ish copy of the source code that ships with every Steam copy. I’m happy for players to do whatever they want with those – even release their own Death Ray Manta games if they so desire. If they wanted to hack in lives, remove the flashy stuff, tweak the stages, rejig the entire level set, remove the mines, I don’t care.

I don’t care because my work ended when I put the game into the world (if you exclude maintenance, obviously) – my ‘canon’ version of the game is the one that you buy on Steam with my name on it. I have no reason to care whilst that exists. And to be frank, if someone makes more money off it with tweaks than I do, I probably should have thought of what they did first. Mind, if anyone does this, I’d like to remind them that I am skint and I do have a Patreon and a donate button there to help me be less skint. I would like to be less skint one day.

With previous games, where time allowed, I’ve put options in to turn certain enemies on and off, to turn collisions on and off entirely, I’ve opened up all the stages from the start, I’ve measured time and score and let folks pick which one displays. Whilst a lot is certainly done for accessibility purposes, I am equally motivated by finding avenues for games to be kind, to be accommodating.

It is, of course, an avenue that essentially leaves money on the table at times. I get a few complaints that the stages in DRM are the same every time, that there is no reason to come back to the game because there is no persistence. This is a series of very deliberate decisions on my part.

The game is “learnable” so with practice, any player can hopefully get from stage 1 to 32 in time. There is an expectation though that twin stick shooters play a certain way – DRM is an extension of the work I put in on the challenge mode of Waves though so it sort of often brushes up against those expectations visually and then doesn’t really touch them much during play. Originally I set out to see if I could make this work with a single stick or easy keyboard controls and then with the more recent version, to play about with setting up a series of boards in a dual stick shooter.

DRM is an obstacle course, if you will. Every screen I will try to kill the player as fast as I can and every screen, I ask the player to find the best way for me not to do that whilst avoiding what I throw at them.

I also have no persistence. When the player hits game over, nothing gets added to a tally, nothing unlocks. I do not want to keep the player. Ten years ago this would not be the world’s most unusual thought but these days engagement is where it’s at. Which is fine but in a world where games are increasingly keeping the player, I want them to walk away. Enough is enough and fine, move on.

Trying to do this and keeping a game ‘fun’ enough to let people enjoy their time with it is, well, it’s an interesting challenge in 2017 and certainly, I get my fair share of complaints because I eschew addiction as a mechanism if and where I can. Again, this comes down to wanting my games to be kind and a challenge and this is just one route towards that.

It also, I hope, manifests in how I put the games together – clarity is important to me as I know the screen will get busy and so I try to add as many cues as I can think of whilst also trying not to overload the player with information. I overload the amount of things on-screen but I try (and don’t always succeed) to make sure I don’t obscure anything.

There is a caveat here that with certain folk, unless I strip the entire effects layer back it will still present them with visibility issues and I do regret not having the time to build the option to do exactly this into Death Ray Manta in both its incarnations. Luckily I have no such time pressures with the sequel, so fingers crossed.

So sound cues, visual cues and all that jazz. All messages again stay silly or ambiguous at best, nothing hurtful, nothing to ever say the player is not playing it well or rightly enough – that’s for the player to decide and not me.

It also means ensuring that I’m keeping screenshake and rumble to what I feel is necessary rather than anything that’s hurtful.

When I started messing around with this stuff I sort of felt like trying to mix difficult games with kindness made me an outlier – in the casual space there seemed to be a race to remove complexity over time and in the more traditional game space, to add ever increasing layers. I’m thankful that the industry has moved on and this no longer seems to be the case.

After all the years of presenting videogame design as antagonism, it’s nicer to see folk move towards balancing difficulty and complexity with a kindness. Loot Rascals and Graceful Explosion Machine are two recent examples of mixing fairly deep and traditionally nerdily obfuscated genres and making them friendlier to startlingly good effect.

It’s good to feel not so alone.

And yes, there is a reason I’m jotting this down now. It seems like a good time to remind myself of what I aim for whilst making games, yeah? *Cough* It’s been too long. And from the design of the game rules to the amount of rumble and screenshake to the way a game addresses the player, there are so many ways that kindnesses and difficulty can be bedfellows in game design.

Whilst I’m scarcely going to advocate for every game to be as kind as it can (unkindness in design has its own strengths), I personally find it enjoyable prodding at all the different ways I can toy with these aspects of games.

Now I’ve just got to hope I’ve still got the knack for making games, right?