The Joy of Play

Last year I had two projects on the go, one of which is continuing now, one was for the iPad and another that is being pitched to another company. There is one thing in common with both of these projects, they both have to comply with the usual expectations of a game. They have to have set goals, antagonists, and the expected rules of a game that the player has to learn and adhere to to complete the experience. Now all these are valid forms of creating a game, a game has rules, the agreement that when the player(s) enter the magic circle that the normal rules no longer apply and the game rules apply instead.

This got me thinking and then writing this post, thoughts on paper as it were, as I find myself conflicted at times about this. One side of me thinks about the game as a piece of entertainment, as something that is designed to be an input – output system and provides the sense of fiero to a player and is just fun. The other side of me thinks that the interactive system of a game can be used for so much more, a means to convey an experience to others that they may not otherwise get. A means to explore topics and help people, be therapeutic, or cathartic and educational.

However with the defunct debate about ‘what makes a game?’ these days, as at the end of the day the video game market is more about interactive experiences, from ones like Proteus to those created by Tale of Tales, why are companies and education establishments are still fixated on the rules of the game? I suppose as Vander Caballero points out that you need to have a deep understanding of the rules of a game so you know how to use them and repurpose them to say something different. Yet I can’t help but feel that this is a little counterproductive when in an environment where you can experiment without fear of financial loss, such as a degree program where you can learn the rules, but then also learn how to bend them.

A lot of revolutionary products have been created by those that break convention, and yet it seems we are being taught that this is bad thing to in the games industry. No wonder there was the explosion of ‘indie’ developers, with the view that the big AAA companies don’t take enough risks. It is a shame that in this capitalist society every creative product has to be created to make money. There was something to be said about the artist patron set up of old, at least then artists like Da Vinci were allowed to pursue their creative whims. Obviously I understand the need to make the return on a product otherwise you won’t be able to continue making products. I am also impressed by Sony’s embrace of creative ideas and funding innovative games recently and giving them a showcase on their systems. (My wish for a PS Vita right now couldn’t be stronger!) 🙂

I guess as much as I want to work for the big companies like Sony as I know I can learn from them and I have always admired them. As I can’t help but feel constrained by the rules of play and the expectations of what is a game. And that at the end of the day I imagine that even pitching a product to them it has to either have a proven track record like Proteus did or have an obvious way in which to market and sell it.

I suppose all this comes from why I originally wanted to get into games in the first place, I was the kid with the overactive imagination. I created games for me and my sister and our friends to play, stories and worlds for us to interact with. Sometimes they were structured, sometimes they were just experiences and ideas that we inhabited for a time. This was all through make pretend, computers were a part of my growing up but video games were a limited and unknown world to me, my computer time was spent drawing or learning more about how they worked. The imaginary games were a reflection of how my mind works I suppose, it’s all over the place until it gets something to focus on. So I see connections that others miss and remember things that most forget and tend to lean towards wonder and thought rather than structure and expectations. As I grew up a lot of this was lost, not only to the usual means of growing up but also due to growing up quick.

The joy of play and pure experience is lost, and it’s something that I regret, the freedom of a kids imagination. We get to see it and experience in games, the ones with the rules and the ones without. From Zelda: Ocarina of Time to Proteus there is the child like wonder in both, the ability to just let your imagination soar. The reaction most people had to Flower was what I got to NiGHTS playing it for the first time on the Sega Saturn. The sensation of flight and relaxation in a beautiful and colourful environment with awesome music was what I found in NiGHTS for the first playthrough, you can’t really see it these days as graphics have moved on, but I still get the feeling when I boot it up, usually at Christmas.

Anyhow I think I am going to ramble off topic a bit here, as I said this would probably end up being a thoughts on paper post. As I am still trying to find my way into this industry, so far I’ve made about six small games/demos/experiments now, on my own and with teams (GameMaker, Stencyl, Unity, iPad) and although my own coding ability holds me back so I have penned detailed designs for a few more. Through all this I love the challenge of design, and find that my thirst for gaming experiences (by playing and reading and watching a lot) I can usually offer references and ideas from tried and tested methods when going through that concepting phase. The reading I do for pleasure and the references* I used for my dissertation all focus more on the psychology, theory and expansion of the medium. Which is probably why the projects I’ve been working on most recently feel a little stifling as the focus is mainly on the game layer the core compulsion loops that will always get the player coming back for more risk/reward through skill based gameplay gates, rather than just the joy of play.

*A reference list that I need to put up here at some point as it is all fascinating reading. 🙂

A long summer and a busy first week…

After my degree I knew I was going to head towards Birmingham to start my next step in my education and my preparation for work in the games industry. What I was not expecting to happen was to move to Derby within a week, it has been an exciting journey and nice to settle into a new city I hadn’t even visited before. It’s a welcome change from Wales, there is more going on in my new city that matches my interests and I have good friends nearby. Consequently I have not spent the summer as intended and have instead been settling into a nice new house and exploring the nearby area. At the start of August it felt as if I had all the time in the world to do that, but it has gone by very quickly and I have just finished my first proper week of my MSc.

Gamer Camp at Birmingham City Uni is worth every penny of the large loan and the 6am starts every morning so far. After some ups and downs on my undergrad degree I feel energised again after the first week here. The workload is very different from the very creative focused undergrad degree, and the pacing already feels similar to my BTEC when it was at it’s peak. (I had a fantastic tutor during that course who pushed us to do a lot more than was asked of us!) I was very busy on the BTEC course and found that the fast pace and intensive work schedule something I thrived on. It is something that I am going to have to get used too again! 🙂

As with all my varied education/work experiences none of it has ever been in vain, there is always a lesson to learn from every encounter and every experience. As I recover from a nasty bout of ‘freshers flu’ I keep that in mind as the next year is going to be an intense one!

However I will be unable to post about my Gamer Camp work here, as there will be live briefs being worked on and a public progress blog will not be appropriate. Instead I shall endeavour to ensure that this blog is updated with any work done outside of my course and other gaming industry related thoughts as and when I have the time to do so.

The End of the Second Year

Well as with most blogs dedicated to the chronicling of University there have been sporadic posts at best during the hectic and intense second year. I suppose the need for the first project to be a team blog and then the second major project to be under and mock NDA means that there was little that I could post about, but more often than not there was hardly time to post about things. Yet I think that is the trouble with most blogs and for most wannabe bloggers, when you have material to blog about you don’t have the time to blog! 🙂

Anyway the second project of the second year was a very insightful and interesting learning experience, and to be honest it is not one that I would like to repeat any time soon or share on such a public forum. However horrible the experience was there was some good too and it was certainly a lesson in team work that will stick with me, or at least take some time to come to terms with. It has certainly made myself and many others think about how we are to approach the tasks ahead in the third year. Despite the issues with the previous project I cannot stress how useful it was to learn by mistake and to go through unpleasant experiences with people to learn how to cope. Personally I could have done with skipping some of this learning as there were areas in my personal life that seemed to be providing the same one at the same time. Yet I am told that this particular project in the second year is designed to be like this and is always reffered to as the ‘train wreck’ as it never goes smoothly, I guess not everyone carries the curse of ‘May you live in interesting times…’ 🙂 However it is all done and dusted now, the project and the personal issues, what I do want to talk about was my results and my dissertation plan.

The not often talked about side of this certain degree is the written part, there is a lot of importance on the practical lessons and output, which makes sense as how else are you going to effectively going to showcase your game design skills? Yet it is the written side that I am equally, if not slightly more, interested in as we progress. I have always struggled with academic writing, and my unknown to me until a few years ago, dyslexia didn’t help. Yet when the opportunity arises in the past few years I have been getting very good marks for my essays, not only on this course but also while I was at Sussex before hand. After experiencing a stricter more academic University setting at Sussex, Newport couldn’t have felt more relaxed. However the expectation and the hope of the tutors seems to be the same and they certainly do encourage students to try and achieve that higher academic status that is probably not normally expected or found often on a course like this.

The dissertations of previous years are available in the library and I have skimmed through a few while desperately trying to get inspiration for my own. Two things are apparent, firstly the standard set by previous students is high secondly this highlighted to me my biggest failing when it comes to academic writing, actually getting started. I maybe able to get 70% in essays when I put my mind to it at Sussex and I maybe able to get the highest marks possible for the first essay I handed in at Newport, I still lack the motivation and inspiration to actually get started, so I always end up rushing things, not a situation I want to be in for this particular piece of writing.

This was most apparent on the first essay required in the second year, and I have to admit that I can’t even remember what it was about off the top of my head at the moment. It was rushed, not well laid out, not well researched and also got the lowest marks I have ever had, which it deserved I know that. I just wish I could switch it with my first year essay as this one counted to my overall degree grade! Anyway when it comes to the dissertation things appear to be done slightly differently at this University, the second year is when it starts and the Literature Review and Proposal make up the remaining module of study alongside the ‘train wreck’ project. Partly I think it is due to the difficultly of getting everyone in the class prepared and ready to write what seems to most artistic souls as a huge burden of stuffy writing that won’t help them much in the long run. (At least that’s the impression I get in class sometimes.) 🙂

Anyway it is now the summer and after a lot of commitments to friends and family have not been fulfilled I can now focus and actually expand on that Proposal and Literature Review already handed in. The former being quite strong the later obviously rushed, as it was. So I am going to try and avoid that pitfall this time around. It is however hard to start as without a job this summer I may have an abundance of time to work on my dissertation I am more frequently distracted as I don’t have much of routine at the moment. Even though I had little time I do sometimes prefer the stress of having a job alongside the studies as at least it eases the financial burdens but also makes you focus your time better. Yet that isn’t going to be happening around here as there is little work going in this city, and to be perfectly honest I would actually like to keep the summer off as I am aware it could possibly be the last one for some time. This also means it is a good lesson in self discipline too for me. Meanwhile though I am re-arranging things online and giving up my web-space as I can’t afford it any more, it came in handy in the last project, but I simply can’t afford it any more. I am also doing a full back-up and clean install of my laptop, it’s a little overdue. I guess it’s a belated digital spring clean!