10 February 2016

Jam Jar for GamesAid - A Review

Since starting work at GamesAid I've challenged myself to celebrate the job with doing a bit of fundraising.

For those of you to whom this is news, I started this January working at GamesAid, a UK video games charity who help disadvantaged and disabled children and young people. What originally started as an intern position got upped to the fancy name of Operations Executive - a title I'm still warming up to. Currently I am their only employee, surrounded by a circle of very talented trustees who volunteer their time to the cause. They all represent the best of the UK video games industry and they are also all inspiringly lovely.

To celebrate I decided to organise my own fundraising event for GamesAid. The Global Game Jam was around the corner and inspired by Matt's "Lollies for Lolly" event, I pitched "Jam Jar at the Global Game Jam" to Ian and Matt, Chair and Vice-Chair of GamesAid. With their blessing and support, I began to contact the organisers of Global Game Jam sites across London and then further across the UK.

The pitch was simple: We will place jars of candy at Global Game Jam sites and offer the sweets to jammers. In exchange for the candy, they can place a donation towards GamesAid.

The execution was difficult. First, I had to get GGJ sites on board. Up to a day before the GGJ began, I was emailing back and forth with sites who jumped in at the last moment, arranging meetings and transporting more jars with candy. In the end all GGJ sites within Greater London participated:

  • SAE Institute London
  • City University London
  • London Metropolitan University
  • Popped
  • Goldsmiths University
  • Brunel University
And we even had some engagement from further afield, from individuals that decided to run their own Jam Jar:
  • Staffordshire University
  • Warwick University
  • Brighton
That is 9 sites out of 42 sites across the UK, one in every five sites participated. Not bad for a first time event.

 I ordered six jars, a set of fliers I designed for the event, and Matt kindly ordered 10kg of candy for me. With all the materials set and ready to distribute and six sites to distribute them to, I began the biggest pinball game of my life. I was the pinball and London the pinball machine.

There was a lot of walking. In fact 71.87 km of it (more or less the equivalent of walking from Houses of Parliament to Heathrow Airport then further out until you are standing, slightly confused, just outside of Oxford). I sat with jars of candy in buses, tubes and overground trains, sandwiched between confused tourists and stirred by commuters. I met many wonderful faces, all who were eager to collaborate with GamesAid, and offered candy to many more.

During the Saturday of the Global Game Jam, I even decided to bake some cupcakes for the lively jammers at City University London. They came out delicious! In exchange they donated generously towards GamesAid and even showed me their games. Some of my favourite were: Alien Growth and The Secret Handshake Society.

On the last day, Des and I visited the SAE Institute where I walked around the building offering more candy. The jammers were rushing to finish off their games yet still welcomed a moment to munch on a sweet and give to GamesAid. Des gave a cheerful thank you to all the jammers at the end of the night, then we all got to play the wonderful games. Some of my favourite: Solstice and Cracked Up.

There are so many thank yous to give out! All the wonderful trustees of GamesAid for giving me a hand (and offering me the opportunity to work for them!), the site organisers in London for going that extra mile for GamesAid, those individuals outside of London for setting up their own Jam Jars, and of course the Global Game Jammers who donated towards GamesAid. All in all, we managed to raise over £200! Thank you!

To become a member of GamesAid and keep up with our events: check out the website or follow us on twitter.
Finally, here are some wonderful images people sent GamesAid from across the UK.

23 January 2016

Game a Month: Jan 2016

I am making a game a month. Born out of the idea that making games shouldn't be a commercial endeavour, Christer Kaitila sparks us to make games as a hobby and, in so doing, experiment fully with the medium. The initiative is called Game a Month Challenge and below is the key note:

So what have I made this January? Mainly a lot of unfinished text exploration games as I try to experiment with different forms of storytelling structures. My first completed one is also the shortest but probably the most freeing. Made during a few hours at Loading, I used the telescopic text tool to play with folding and unfolding narratives. It only takes 3-5 minutes to play. Here it is!

This is very much an experiment, filled with all the enthusiasm and coarsness that experimentation entails. The story evolved as I was writing it as did the voice of the character you are questioning. Looking back, this made a lot of sense thematically as the mechanics revolve around the increasing understanding of a story through exploration. As I began to shape the game, the character openeded up and the player finds out more about the mystery.

Finishing the story was the hardest. As each word branched off into smaller narrative layers, I found it difficult to make them all combine physically on screen. Instead of drawing a conclusion, I left small puzzle pieces at the end of each narrative layer. Thus when the player is done unfolding all the branches, they can read the full, unfolded paragraph and draw the conclusion on what they think happened to poor Tim.

For those wondering, Tim is a real person. You've probably seen him various times on this blog. Inspiration from a real life experience included in this game... always... in all games.

16 January 2016

What do we do next?

Learn how to make a creative project a reality. That was my one wish when I applied to Blast Theory's volunteership. As someone who has spent the last 4 years in academia I've become a professional at writing 6000 word essays that lie forever hidden in the folds of pixelated PC finders, or prototypes that twirl and fade behind secret doors. "The best thing you can do is show your games to people," our professors lectured us. I could almost hear the question whispering through our heads: 'But how do you do that?'

I sat with my peers at the graduation ceremony, our certifications for a successfully completed MA folded on our laps. Legs crossed, gowns tightened, between the closed cardboard file, the word "distinction" burried itself in the page. - But how do you do that? - I flapped my certificate in front of friends and family until the word "distinction" glided on the words "congratulations" and "well done". - But how do you transform a project into reality?

Starstruck into a corner of a Blast Theory couch, I murmured this question to Matt, Ju, Nick, Kirsty and Dan in turn. Their knowledge soared into the air in waves of spectacular performance and honesty. I hurriedly scribbled their words on paper. Below is a peak:
  • Identify the 3 people that can change your future. Send them an email inviting them to play your game.
  • Submit your games to all the festivals. Get seen. Showing a game speaks to people much more than talking about it.
  • Go to talks and in the question and answer session raise your hand and start with "Hi! I'm Rosa from Ludic House and I have a question about...".
  • Get big names to give a testimonial about your game. Use it everywhere! In all the funding applications, everything!
  • Write personal emails to people you are inspired by and show them your work or ask for 30 minutes of their time.
  • Sign up for talks. Even if its not your game, you can talk passionately about other games.
  • Even if there is no money, do it. Start with what you can do and things will snowball.
On December 18th I hugged the Blasters goodbye and walked along the seafront from Portslade to Brighton for the last time. More than the sugar of the goodbye-gifts or the hangover hum from the night before, it was my notebook, penned with the knowledge of giants, that lifted me to an exhilarating high. Blast Theory is a family of artists who were never afraid of showing themselves. Even their work, in a world of high-rise anonymity, is a call for strangers to open up and connect. In the two months volunteering at Blast Theory, what my professors taught us finally solidified. I know what to do. Thank you!

8 October 2015

Dissertation: Month of September

Most of the month started with one big content rush to complete the pre-alpha stage of my game in time for playtesting day and the rest was spent implementing feedback and getting supportive friends and family to review my written submission. In that time I managed to polish my writing, to make sure my points came across clearly and thoughts flowed smoothly. Also I made some major changes to the UI and fixed bugs in the game. More of that can be read about on the playtesting day blog entry. On the 23rd, I successfully submitted my masters dissertation.

Overall I feel very proud of what I've managed to achieve in 4 months. I think the power of environmental storytelling and games as an expression of an artist's subjective state is an area that is only just flourishing in the games industry. Being able to dedicate an entire semester to psychogeography in games has been very enriching and I've had so much fun immersing myself in the spirit of the Romantics.

There were also challenges in spending four months on independent research and development. When working on a solo project, self management became such an important task in assuring the health of the project and myself. It was thanks to all the Gantt charts and sticky notes that I didn't have to take an all nighter at any point. A vast improvement from the weekly all nighters when undertaking my architecture undergraduate. The input of others also became invaluable to the short-sightedness that often occurs when working alone. That includes not just the kind friends and family who took the time to read and/or playtest my dissertation, but also those that asked me in passing what my project was about. Being able to describe it in a sentence or two really helped me put the project in focus and perspective.

Should my dissertation be deemed worthy by my professors, I plan on taking my work onto more public platforms. With so much great feedback, including this very well written and humbling review by Jack Lowe, I'm hoping to optimize my game for tablets by the end of the year. I'd love to be able to go to events and gatherings and pop out the game for others to play. As it is such a short piece (now that the key issue has been fixed) it would work quite well as a self contained experience.

All in all, it has been a very rich year and I am incredibly melancholic it is over. This course had not only helped me gain confidence in my game design skills but has also been the seed of lasting relationships and budding opportunities. We are a cool class and I have no doubt we are all going to do some amazing things. As for my own path, I have moved down to Brighton where I will be starting my volunteership at 4 times BAFTA nominated and all round geniuses, Blast Theory. In the meantime, look out for blog posts on cool indie games events and artist's happenings in London and Brighton. 

And bring on the next stage!

12 September 2015

Dissertation: Playtesting Day

On the 10th of September our professors kindly let us invite non-Brunel students onto campus to try our games. With that extra pressure of completing something presentable for outside eyes, us masters bonded over tight deadlines and development sprints. Hours before the doors opened we were pinched over last minute bug fixes, keyboards clacking as we polished gameplay.

The event was busy, guests traveled from as far as Canterbury and Cambridge to play our games. (Thank you!) We were overwhelmed by the interest and we welcomed everyone with drinks, cookies and controllers. With only three hours in which to play games and so many playtesters, not everyone got to play all the games. However everyone seemed satisfied with what they got out of the day and we ended the event with some celebratory drinks at the pub.

Thank you Ashley for the picture!
My notebook is filled with notes. Some of the biggest observations was my gross underestimation of the time it would take to play the game. While originally I was expecting it to take 10 or so minutes, the reality of it was closer to 40 minutes. It was a similar mistake to the one we did during Meeting. A puzzle that would take 1 minute to complete for us designers would take 20 for two completely new players. In this game, the time difference was greatly to do with the amount of content in the game (people spent an average of half a minute looking at things, then rechecking them for the number code for the safe). However what took the most time was the fact that the key was accidentally really well hidden. While it took up a quarter of the screen, everyone seemed to overlook it to the point that I would have to interfere in every game session at around the 30 minute mark. It was an interesting optical illusion and while funny to a lot of players, it will have to change.

Some things that worried me before playtesting day were settled. My game has a strange navigation system that might be more intuitive for tablets but on PC might seem a bit esoteric. However the instructions were clear to almost all players and after two minutes they could control the device with ease. To be absolutely sure, I might add an extra line of text to go with the current animations.

While I like everything being diegetic, it will also be easier to include a system that makes it clearer what objects can and can't be interacted with as some players would resort to clicking on everything. This might not need to be the case in the tablet version but for PC, the platform on which it is being graded, it will make interactions smoother. Also, I will have to add in the option to read handwriting as typed text as some players had difficulties with a few words.

The overall feedback was fantastic! After finishing the game I would ask my playtesters: "What do you think happened?" What a relief it was to hear them relate back to me what I was trying to say! Everyone understood my main point while reacting differently to it, the more observant players would go deeper into the story, others caught the references to surrealists and romantics. One of the playtesters, Adam, put it wonderfully: There are many layers to the story. Not everyone will explore the deepest layer but everyone got the overarching concept.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to play my game:

Negin Aminy Raouf
Charles Weston-Smith
Adam Chladek
Jack Lowe
Joseph Moran
Ivo Chladek

Your feedback is helping me greatly in polishing up this game. And apologies to those that wished to play but where cut short by the time. Drop me an e-mail and I'll be happy to send you the prototype.

With so much to do, us masters are living 24/7 in the labs while we all finish up our games. Wish us luck!

4 September 2015

Dissertation: Month of August

The quick rundown: The paper has been sent to various of my very kind friends and family for proofreading. Thank you everyone who gave me feedback! I owe you a beverage for taking the time to read a very lengthy essay and put in the brainpower to criticise an academic text. After standing so close to my writing, getting fresh eyes has been very encouraging. I can safely say the paper is a couple of days off from being ready.

Most of the month of August has been spent creating the ludic sketch. No matter how short I've tried to make it, a game takes its time and getting it all done in 6 weeks is proving a challenge. The most time consuming factor has been the content but, as it is a game based on environmental exploration, content is everything. I'm not very happy with the art but with how little time I have it is going to have to wait. But all is going well and I should be going into testing next week. Which brings me to...

On the 10th of September we are holding a playtesting day at Brunel University London. This is all thanks to our very kind tutors who let us open the labs to guests. Setting myself such a harsh deadline has been tough but productive. The game definitely needs to be of a good enough quality by then.

And with that, I'm delving right back to work.

2 August 2015

Dissertation: Month of July

Brunel students, there is a wonderful patch of tall grass between Isambard and Cowley Road in which to get lost. If you keep exploring you might find perfect picnic alcoves and secret gathering spots. Keep walking and you might come across a 20-something talking animatedly into her phone, except no one is on the other line. That would be me, and just this month I was wondering why a town, street or house would lay completely abandoned and what the core message of my game would be.

The story and the mechanics of the game are there, both birthed out of each other and capture the requirements I outlined the month before. Even some of the ideas that arose from that one afternoon on a Barcelona balcony made it's way into the game. I spent some time placing the story in various settings and observing how it changed however I ended up going with what made the most thematic connections, with a setting that represented from all perspectives what I will be trying to say.

I'm thinking these two images, by the same Caspar David Friedrich, when placed next to each other. And Sylvia Plath's "Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can, I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night." I'm thinking Anna Karenina, her mind consuming itself indoors. Le Corbusier calling homes "machines for living" and Will Self's spiritual exultations in the classroom and on walks. Yes, I am being vague on purpose because nothing will show it better than the game (if all goes well).

After the walk, I set off to test the core mechanics. Nine lines of code later and I had a rhythmic walk that made use of parallax and the technicalities of a tablet. Some digital brushstrokes later I had a sky (shown below) and some mountains which move to the rhythm of the tablet. Watching it come together in one satisfying afternoon is getting me all excited to get this game done and out there.

But there is still a lot to plan until then. Like for example the placement of the story in the environment. Something I have been working on through the help of post it notes and markers, and of course by making friends play it through like a text-based adventure game. The shape of the house has changed so much while placing the story in it. Everything from the objects to the style of the architecture is becoming a metaphor for the characters and the mechanics.

Over the course of the next week I will be working on re-drafting the first version of the essay. Maybe it's because I've been in the same room for so long while writing, it's been a really slow process. I'll be printing out the essay and writing by hand this week in hopes it might help loosen up that creativity. Onwards!