Student expectations, course marketing, and the invisible labour of game development.

There’s been a lot of discussion this past week about how universities should approach teaching videogame development and even just what the basic responsibility of game schools even is. This started with this Twitter thread by Danette Beatty from ustwo. Robert Yang wrote these good reflections in response about some of the challenges of teaching game development. Innes McKendrick wrote these good thoughts in a thread. I wrote this thread about how lacking a broad knowledge of game development disciplines is a problem in countries without large studios. Anna Anthropy wrote this good thread about balancing soft/hard skills in games education. The point across these responses: teaching game development is hard and educators and institutions alike are still trying to figure out how the heck you even do this while, at the same time, the global game industry is dramatically restructuring itself.

There’s one side of the discussion I haven’t really seen come up yet that I encountered first hand in the classroom: the fact that the overwhelming number of students who enter game development programs have no idea what the everyday work of game development actually entails. Worse, many of them have wrong ideas about what one does day-to-day to make games. I want to talk a bit about how this happens, how the marketing for game dev programs often exploit this ignorance, and how the responsibility typically falls on teachers to ensure these students know what they are actually getting in for.  Continue reading

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An Update

2018 is bringing with it a whole lot of changes for me, one of which is trying to use social media a whole lot less while still maintaining relationships and friendships and discussions online. So that partly means a return to semi-regularly blogging, hopefully. So towards that, here is an update about some of the various big changes 2018 is bringing to my life:

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Wolfenstein 2 and Mending Broken Things

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Expect spoilers.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.

William “BJ” Blazkowicz is the quintessential videogame protagonist: a large, rectangular slab of white man-meat whose very shape belies how he has been a part of videogames since his flesh was square pixels. In the previous game, The New Order, he was an unstoppable hero—right until he was stopped, at the end of the game, by a lone grenade. That game saw this relic of the past of both his own world and videogames, revived after 20 years in a coma, left behind for dead. But sequels do what sequels do, and BJ was rescued, if not salvaged. When The New Colossus starts, his body is still destroyed. The opening stage has you pushing BJ’s heavy body through the level in a wheelchair, shooting Nazi’s with one hand while the other is on the wheel. Stairs are inaccessible and when the wheelchair inevitably gets tipped over, BJ is helpless. For a significant portion of the game, you are stuck with 50 health, instead of the typical 100, in levels that feel like they were balanced for a character with 100. It’s frustrating. It feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s the frustration of a perfect, white male body encountering something unfair that is just a typical day for anyone forced to live in this society with any other form of body.  Continue reading

Why Hitman (2016) Works

hitman-episode-one-review-501715-22The superpower of the protagonist of most challenge-oriented videogames is time travel. Through the loops of failure and dressage that conventional videogame design depends on, the player fails at a task again and again until they have memorised how to proceed through the events that, on the current playthough, have not actually happened yet. This might be a muscle memory, ingraining in your hands the exact rhythm of movements required for a Rock Band track or a Super Meat Boy level. Or it might be a more traditional memory of remembering placements and patterns: the trap door full of monsters you could not have predicted in Doom kills you once and then, on the next attempt, you’re ready for it. Instead of dying you get a glimpse at what is about to happen. You remember what hasn’t happened yet.

The analogy has been made by various critics in the past (I think Janet Murray might have been the earliest) that the videogame player is not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, repeating the same system over and over again: at times taking it seriously, at times playing with the system, at times bored and frustrated by it. The more recent Edge of Tomorrow provides a similar conceit, but is I think more accurate of how videogames train players, killing Tom Cruise over and over again on the battlefield until he makes the exact right movements to get through it alive—exact movements he can only make with the memories possessed from the previous attempts. Edge of Tomorrow is how videogames work to train their players; Groundhog Day is more the wide range of emotions that players go through while existing in such a temporal spiral.  Continue reading

50 Games in a Year: The first 14

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As I’ve previously discussed, in 2017 I have set myself the goal of developing 50 videogames. I’ve played around with Unity here and there in the past, but never really committed to actually just doing the hard yards and learn how to make videogames. The best way to get good at something is to do it a lot while you’re still bad at it. You need to play a lot of bad piano before you’re good at playing the piano. You need to write a lot of bad poetry and stories before you’re a good writer. You need to make a lot of bad videogames before you are good at making videogames. The goal of 50 games in a year is an attempt to force me to do just that: to prioritise quantity over quality and make a lot of bad videogames in order to get better at making videogames.

It’s something I regularly tell my game design students: no one really cares if you have a degree in game design, they care if you can make videogames. Or, flipped the other way: don’t wait until you have a degree in game design before you start making stuff. Just… make stuff.

I chose ’50’ so I could more-or-less make a game a week with a fortnight of breathing room. At the time of writing, we’re at the end of the 16th week of the year and I’ve released 14 games, so I’m going well! I also meant to blog about the games as I released them, and I’ve been less good at that. This post thus serves as a summary and reflection on the quarter-and-a-bit of this experiment.

All the games listed here are available on my itch.io page, here.

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An Incomplete Game Feel Reader

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There is a nebula of essays and talks that circle the concept that we reluctantly call ‘game feel’. (No one likes this term, but it’s what we’ve got. Personally, I would like it if we borrowed from music and called it timbre or, at the very least, just talked about ‘how a game feels’ rather than ‘a game’s game feel’, but whatever). Across a range of talks and essays (some directed to designers and execution, some to players and analysis) is an emergent idea of the experience of videogames not being centrally one of engaging with mechanics but, rather, of encouraged affective states. Of some sort of fusing of meaty flesh with audiovisual signs and plastic buttons.

Historically there’s been a reluctance to talk about this because it’s soft, ambiguous, and wishy-washy. Talking about a videogame being tight or crunchy or sluggish or sticky feels like it is at odds with the hardcoded and definitive code and programming logic and on/off switches that videogames are made out of. We have historically intellectualised videogames as hard configurative systems while downplaying the fact that the reason we really play a videogame is because it feels real good within our soft meaty body. Videogames are a carnal pleasure. Continue reading