Getting into the habit of writing about games

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2013-03-28 15.06.29

People aren’t always aware of what goes into making a game, unlike with movies and all of those making of documentaries you can find.

It’s made personalities out of the people in the film industry, something games don’t have as much. Which is a shame because they have some nice people.

There’s nice people here at Mythic Entertainment, they must be nice to invite me, a total stranger who has had little experience writing about videogames professionally.

Paul Barnett, the General Manager had decided to invite me after finding this blog through my twitter account. It seemed rather surreal at first, initial emails I had sent back sounded a little hesitant as this is not something I’ve ever had the opportunity to do.

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This is Paul Barnett, the man who invited me to the studio.

After encouragement from university lecturers I took up the offer and made the long trip to America to visit the studio.

The studio takes up the top floor of a big tall building, I kind of expected them to have their own building. Bearing in mind this is the first time I have been to one of these places, it is quite possible the potential scale of an environment like this may have been over-inflated in my imagination.

There’s also a lot of press about game development being an incredibly stressful job to work in with no free time, this place didn’t come across like that at all, it came across a bit more relaxed and friendly. Sure all the people working there have their own things to worry about and stress over, but they all found the time to talk to me, and they were all very polite.

Mythic are usually known for their MMORPGs Dark Age of Camelot and Warhammer Online, but recently have transitioned into developing for mobile platforms.

They had managed to sit me down with people of very different disciplines. Designers, quality assurance, art, localisation, audio and video. It was fascinating to learn more about all the kinds of work that goes into making a game.

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Nick LaMartina creates music and video for the studio.

Nick LaMartina, director of Audio and Video at the studio came across as incredibly passionate about his work. Currently he is working on the Ultima Forever soundtrack, and since the game is taking influence from Ultima IV it’s encompassing that game’s score into it’s own.

Different devices come with different challenges. Working for iPad, art now has to be scalable, Art Director Pete Lipman was telling me. Large amounts of detail could be lost when players zoom in and out, something artists now have to account for.

These people aren’t going to get so much recognition, even though they put so much work into everything. It’s a shame really.

This is of course a place where videogames are made, and I got to see some raw, unfinished prototypes. I’m used to seeing games as fully functional experiences, so it was a little different to be playing something incomplete.

With prototypes, I learned that you have to understand not everything is going to be perfect. You can come across a bug, or find that something hasn’t been quite implemented yet. What they show off are ideas that could eventually be put to good use. I’ve been made to sign a non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t really talk about everything I have seen, some of that might not even see the light of day.

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One game I did see was Ultima Forever, an interesting take on Ultima for the iPad. It feels like it could be a good attempt to bring PC-style Action-RPGs onto a tablet. I took up quests and explored a few dungeons, as you do in most RPGs. It controlled rather well on the system, holding your finger on the screen to move the character, and tapping monsters to kill was fun and simple to pull off.

I got some time as the Warrior and Mage class, the Warrior being your usual hit-things up close strong man, and the Mage preferring to attack from afar.

The structure of dungeons did intrigue me as well, intending to be more bite-sized affairs around 5-15 minutes in length, as opposed to the gargantuan length dungeon raids in most MMORPGs that can last hours.

I had a great time at Mythic, and another opportunity to do something similar in the future could be very fun indeed. It was interesting to learn about what goes on backstage, see games that most of the public don’t know about yet, and speak to the people behind them as well.

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Ken Wong got his first videogame job from a piece of fan-art he did on the internet.

He created a piece of fan-art for American McGee’s Alice, and got noticed by the game designer who asked him for if he wanted a job. Eventually that led to him being the art-director of the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.

Most recently, Ken has been working on his own iOS game, Hackycat, which is a game of Hacky Sack except you kick cats in the air.

Hackycat is the first game that Ken Wong has worked on as an independent, solo developer.

He told me: “I have always been more interested in smaller more expressive games, and so when iOS came along, especially the iPad I got into these smaller tightly designed games, so that’s what I was interested in when I started Hackycat

“The barriers for entry are much lower for IOS, you can make a game with just a laptop and with some free software, and with an apple developer account, and that’s a lot easier than making a console game.”

Moving from a big project with a team, to a small indie title working by yourself can be challenging.

“you have to become very self reliant because you’re the only person there, you can’t turn to the programmer and say ‘hey can you fix this, can you work on this for the next couple of days?’ so I had to get used to not having anyone else and that often means taking on the role of producer, QA and handling marketing and all that kind of stuff.

“I was working from home at the same time, so it was really easy to get stuck in your own head. You’re working on the game design and you think it’s fun, but you’re not sure cause you know only you’re playing it yourself, so you need to get out there and have a few people play it and really listen to their feedback.

“It’s kinda hard when you know what you want and they’re just not getting it, they don’t think it’s fun, and that was challenging for me because I think I know what I want but you have to listen to the audience and analyse their feedback.”

Wong also warned those who wish to immediately want to go into indie development: “I do think that I can only do what I’m doing right now as an Indie because I spent many years working with a team of fantastic talented people who I learnt a lot from.

“I think it would be quite hard to do this without my prior experience, so I would say, if you can, work with people more experienced so you can learn for a few years.

“If you’re determined to embark on this indie adventure, listen and learn to the people around you, read as much as you can from people who have done indie games, listen to their advice, learn from their mistakes.

“I think there’s this idea of ‘I’m a game designer and I’m gonna make a game and people will like it’, it’s a more organic process than that, people will give you feedback and you have to respond to that.”

It’s too early for him to tell if it’s a big financial success, but in some ways, he’s already succeeded: “I think for me what I wanted to achieve with this game was complete the project, to make a game by myself and put it out, so I’ve done that and I’m really happy about it, so the next thing is just to see how well it does financially.”


RhiannaPratchett

Image by Joe Hudson

“Games writing has a chequered history,” said Rhianna Pratchett, writer of the latest Tomb Raider reboot, Overlord, Mirrors Edge and Heavenly Sword.

“It wasn’t usually done by a professional writer, it was usually someone who just fancied a go or someone who drew the short straw.”

The last fifteen years has seen videogames bring more focus onto narrative, Rhianna Pratchett listed Portal, Half-Life 2, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Dishonored as proof of this.

So when I met her at the Animex festival at Teesside University, I asked her what she considered when writing a game:

“It’s important to know how gameplay and story fit together, and how one informs another.

“With Tomb Raider we didn’t want the case that the story and gameplay were each created in a vacuum, we wanted it seamless and appear as a cohesive whole. It was important that both disciplines talk to each other to get this done.

“Tomb Raider’s not a story led game, it’s not a gameplay led game, it’s an experience led game, it’s a journey led game, so gameplay and story both come together to support that journey, to support that origin story of Lara.”

Overlord was a comedy-fantasy game, something not often seen, so I wondered why is videogame comedy not as big a thing?

“What worked with Overlord is that the humour was saturated throughout, it wasn’t just down to script, it was down to the overall premise, the animation of the minions, the voice acting and the level design. It was all very cohesive, it all kind of worked together. We had some really great voice actors.

“We sort of built the humour in from the ground up, through everything, and I think that’s kind of what you really need to do.

“If you look at something like the Monkey Island games, they take a similar way of doing things, they sort of built kind of comedy into the animation as well as the writing and the gameplay premise.

“I think comedy is hard to do in games because you can’t control the scenes in the same way as a film can. You can sort of control timing a little bit but because it’s an interactive medium you never quite know if the player is going to hit something at the right time.”

When creating stories, communication between divisions is important according to Pratchett.

“You really have to work closely with gameplay departments and level design, particularly with something like Overlord where I worked every day with the level designers.

“That meant that although it was my script, they had an input into it, it was shaped around what they wanted for their levels.

“On something like Tomb Raider which had a much bigger team, I drew reliance on creative director Noah Hughes and narrative designer John Stafford to be a conduit between myself and the team and make sure that I was aware of when things needed to change

“That’s quite a good way of working and it tends to work well.”


Over the last month, my objective was to finish four games that were in my backlog. I did just that. Those games were in order of completion:

  • Thirty Flights of Loving (PC)
  • El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (X360)
  • Persona 4 (PS2)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)

Now would I do this again, probably not any time soon. Clearing a backlog can sometimes be a stressful experience especially when trying to do it under a time limit.

When you get to a rather difficult part of a game that’s stressing you out, it’s probably best to put the game down and leave it for a while. I was trying to power through it, so I got rather angry at things rather quickly.

Also I am studying at university, playing games to finish them does not go well with having to get work done. I think I have to slow down at this point, as things are really starting to pick up in terms of work.

At the moment I am playing Chrono Cross, and I am rather enjoying taking that game slow, it feels like the right kind of game for that style of play. There’s something about Squaresoft RPGs from the early 2000s I can really get into, they feel as if they have some sort of consistent atmosphere, all being about the stranger in a strange land reforming the world he ends up in. You can really see it in Final Fantasy X and the first Kingdom Hearts.

Anyway, my approach to my backlog is going to be much more relaxed for the time being, I have more important things to be focusing on, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be putting up some content on here. There’s some pretty good stuff coming that I’m kind of excited about putting on here.


So I set myself the challenge of beating four games in February, and it’s been a week since I started. Check out my plan here.

I’ve already finished Thirty Flights of Loving, purely because that is a fairly short game. It’s really fun, but it’s also rather clunky in spots.

If you’re one of those silly people that value a game for how long it takes to finish is, then this really isn’t for you. If you just would like to play a good game regardless of length, then I think you should give it a go.

El Shaddai and Persona 4 I have been making clear progress in, but not finished with them just yet. I’ve yet to touch Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword this month, from what I’ve been told I was already over halfway through it anyway, so hopefully it won’t be too long before I am done with it.

Anyway, I’ll be sure to keep you guys posted on how this is progressing. I also have some exciting features planned in the future, so keep your eyes peeled.


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I may have just stolen this idea from a Kotaku article I just read, but I found it pretty cool.

It is what it says, beat four games in February. Use this as an opportunity to finish off some you’re still playing through, or play games you’ve always wanted to but never tracked down.

They must be games you’ve never finished before, it’ll be all too easy to pick a load of games you’re pretty much finished.

If you’re thinking of going for it, decide those games now and commit to them.

It’s difficult for me considering I’ve got a backlog that includes a lot of 40+ hour RPGs, but I’ve already chosen my Four.

  • Persona 4 (PS2)
  • El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron (Xbox 360)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
  • Thirty Flights of Loving (PC)

It’ll be a challenge in itself to finish Persona 4, it being an 80 hour JRPG, but then I’ve also set a personal target to finish it before the Vita version comes out, which is the 22nd.

Are you people going to try it out? If so what games are you planning to finish?


2012 has had some serious surprises. We were shown the right way to do stealth-games, smaller companies are getting much more recognition, and the adventure game genre has been completely reinvigorated.

I’d like to give honourable mentions to Binary Domain and Dishonored, two great games, but didn’t make this top ten list.

Here are some of the best games that came out, I seriously recommend picking up any of these if you haven’t.

Mark of the Ninja

Stealth games are usually a fair bit frustrating. Sometimes they don’t give you enough of an indicator of how enemies are going to notice you, or sometimes you might not be able to tell where they are. Mark of the Ninja does an good job of indicating both, while also being a great stealth game, giving you free reign to handle the situation as you please, as long as you do it without being noticed. I suppose it really gives you the feeling of being a ninja. When everyone can see you, you are completely useless, but under cover of darkness, you can really be the most powerful person in the room. Constantly introducing small mechanics that can build on each-other and gaining new skills that could change how you play the game really adds to it. This is definitely worth a purchase.

Analogue: A Hate Story

Probably the most non-traditional game to make the list, more of an interactive narrative really, but it’s an amazing interactive narrative. You’re tasked with searching through the data files of a ship to find out what exactly happened there. To gain information, you have two AIs you have to reason with, of two different perspectives. One of them a harsh critic of the misogynistic culture of the ship and the other more of an apologist. Both sides give you reason to doubt the other, but you have to pick a side. You might find it easy, or incredibly hard, it’s possible to get to the end of the game without all of the information on the ship, you have to make a judgement on what you know, and that may be a very difficult one to make.

Max Payne 3

Max Payne 3 is one of the more challenging shooters I have played in a long time. Max is vulnerable, head straight into the line of fire and it doesn’t take you long before you’re dead. However this game does give you the tools to act like a total bad-ass, you just need to know how to use them. Pull off a good shoot-dodge and take out four guys before hitting the ground, and it’ll make you feel fantastic. While I’ve found the other Max Payne games to be rather clunky, this one manages to take those games’ mechanics and fuse them with modern choices to build a superb shooter. Throw in a stylish movie-like presentation, and a great story about a cynical American ex-cop stuck in a country he knows little about, and you’ve got yourself an all-round great game.

Asura’s Wrath

Asura’s Wrath is power fantasy distilled into it’s purest form. It is a game purely devoted to making you feel awesome. To throw it off as some quick-time-event heavy simplified beat-em-up is to do it a disservice. I’d go as far to say that this is a game that “gets” quick-time-events as they compliment all of the over-the-top crazy action that happens on screen so well. All of the action throughout the game gets so much crazier as it goes along, and it all builds to one hell of a final battle. In it’s presentation alone it may have made a great action anime series, but it’s the interactivity that gives it that extra punch.

Mass Effect 3

It’s hard to believe that BioWare managed to create such a fantastic conclusion to it’s epic trilogy. It could have easily gone so wrong, while some would debate that it did in some respects, as a whole package it left me incredibly satisfied. It could seem a little convenient that every character gets wrapped up and done with by the end, but the game did it so convincingly and emotively that I couldn’t help but get somewhat emotional by the time it had to end and I had to let go of my Shepard. I had built up my Shepard’s story over three years, I had put significant investment into it. Having to say goodbye was a little hard, but it was handled greatly. Also I might add it’s a brilliant game to play, with some of the most engaging combat in the series and great sound design to push it that much further to being an amazing Sci-Fi shooter.

Catherine

Sometimes if feels like videogames compromise on their difficulty in order to tell their story. Catherine doesn’t. It uses it’s hard-as-nails gameplay to further complement it’s narrative. The game is all about adult relationships, and they can be difficult, you have to earn them. Even without it’s strong story, solving Catherine’s puzzles feels absolutely great, but the story beats help serve to make it feel even greater. Having played this makes me excited to see what these guys will do with their next game, Persona 5.

Fez

My first impression of some preview material of Fez made it look like just some quirky retro 2D platformer, where you can rotate the world 90 degrees. Upon playing it I also had that same impression again, until I discovered something much, much deeper. The game can be played as a nice little platformer where you just collect cubes, and that works perfectly fine. but written in the background of the game were codes, systems of numbers, things that added up to some incredibly complex puzzles that have been some of the most satisfying I have solved in any game to date. The internet went crazy for Fez, the best time to play it was while everything was still being discovered, and I felt great to be involved in the game during that search. It might however still be worth it to pick the game up and keep yourself away from all the information already out there. Just be sure to bring a pen and paper. One thing’s for sure as well, it certainly has in my opinion, the best soundtrack to a game this year.

The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is a game that does it’s best to make you feel absolutely awful. This narratively focused game eschews with the standard good and evil choice, and leaves only bad ones. This isn’t your typical teenage power fantasy, it’s an incredibly mature powerless fantasy. Sure you’re making choices throughout, but everything leads to the same horrible end. It’s emotionally harrowing and at points even brought me to tears. It also took advantage of being released in episodic instalments, each episode getting everyone excited. As much as those choices may not have mattered to where you ended up in the game, it really helped develop the main character how you wanted him. It may have been the same horrible events, but at least it’s your version of the same horrible events. This helped to create a massive discussion about what choices were right, as none really seemed clear. It may just be the strongest game narrative this year, and it’s going to be hard for developer Telltale to top it.

Super Hexagon

With all this emphasis on narrative integrating into games, while not a bad thing, it’s great to see something come around that’s just pure game, and also excel at it. Super Hexagon is difficult, so much so that the lowest difficulty setting is “Hard”, and all you do is dodge lines. It’s the sort of thing that if you were to describe it at a basic level, it could sound incredibly boring, but it’s just so exciting. The game’s blaring chip-tune soundtrack and colourful always moving visuals help to convey that so much more, and in some ways increase the game’s difficulty. Having to navigate amongst lines in such a crazy atmosphere is brilliant and tense, as a single mistake can set you back. It’s always good to have something to remind you that all a game needs to be great is a good challenge.

Hotline Miami

Hotline Miami is not your standard top down shooting game. In some respects it feels like the videogame version of the movie Drive, with its 80s look and sound, and its use of extreme violence. All your objective is in each level, is to go through a building and make sure no one is left alive. Sounds simple enough, one hit with a weapon takes down an enemy, but just know this, the same applies to you. It makes it all the more challenging, but gives you such a good feeling when you’ve cleared a room. Then you have to walk back, and see the bloody mess you’ve made. It’s very strange, how the game manages to make you feel fantastic, but then make you feel awful for what you have done, because this game makes it very clear, this is all your doing.



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