What have I learnt?

Following on from my previous post, I thought it would be helpful to enumerate a simple list of things I have achieved this semester, which I’ve never done before:

  • I have created a working prototype, with game-play and aesthetic polish
  • I have developed a template for level based projects in Unity
  • I have created a diverse range of prototypes and games
  • I have implemented AI into several projects
  • I have mapped out professional goals for the next four years
  • I have engaged with my school as a departmental rep, in order to add value and support for current and future students
  • I have begun tentative steps towards introducing enhanced facilities, such as digital and analogue gaming for all students
  • Such steps could lead to employment in the future

Review of my learning and development in semester 1

This post will likely be the first set of coherent thoughts which try and draw together my learning experience throughout the first semester. I will try and offer a bit of reflection on areas where I’ve grown, areas where I’ve not (and possibly why) and hopefully outline some ambitions for my growth as a game development practitioner going forward.

This inevitably will lead into my assessment submission for GAM701 and I’m reluctant to do the same piece of work twice. That said, I think it might be helpful to enumerate some of the above and hopefully spark some talking points for my critical reflection report.

I’m a ruminator by nature and I tend to internalise my reflection. This is just one of several methods. Some people might find it helpful to talk to others, or read stimulus material. I’m sure there are many more. For me, my comfort zone tends to be an internal state of analysis and reflection. My method of reflection will hopefully be something I expand upon in my report.

I’ve really struggled to engage with GAM701 and its taken a good deal of thought and reflection over many weeks to try and understand why. Its only towards the end of the of the module that I’ve discovered why I’ve had this instinctive, quite visceral gut feeling to reject the premise of the module. I recognise and value the use of critical reflection. Indeed, I think its a very critical tool in deeper understanding and learning and can be extremely helpful in getting ‘unstuck’, either creatively, proceedurally or even emotionally. I’ve even undertaken critical reflection work in my Bachelors degree and didn’t experience the same level of instinctual rejection.

I think on some level, the practice as a whole and much of the subject matter is very familiar to me and its very hard to embed new learning when I’ve already covered the subject matter before. Indeed, it is very hard to discern and evidence learning and discovery when you are already well-read in a field and reaching for that extra layer of understanding is hard when you have covered so much ground.

For me, there’s also an emotional aspect to this. Throughout all of my Bachelor’s degree, I had a very strong sense of imposter syndrome. I’ve always either undervalued or been concerned about my level of technical ability and this has led me into honing non-technical skills, such as leadership and scrum/project management. I’ve also come to University as quite a mature student and there is a certain degree of attainment associated with having had career success before coming to University to retrain and start from scratch. It really can knock your self-confidence, particularly when your peers might have recently undertaken training on skills such as 3d modelling prior to coming to University and I’ve not been in the classroom for 20 years.

The final aspect of this I believe relates to mental health and resilience. Whatever your thoughts might be on crunch culture, it still exists within the industry. Employment is both competitive and volatile and there may be expectations, both internally and externally to over-perform in perhaps an unhealthy way, in order to enjoy career approval and success. I have a very deep-rooted concern that critical introspective thinking could feed into negative working practices and I’m concerned that such skills are ‘priming’ me on both a personal level and game development professionals as a whole for workaholic, guilt-driven crunch practices. Its a controversial topic and I’d happily confess to being a fool if I thought I knew the answer. Commercial game development practices are exactly that – the market decides and when a studio has a deadline to ship or deliver, it must be met. One of the perils of working in a creative industry is that there are a vast number of unpredictable and disruptive factors which might risk derailing or extending a project and they must be mitigated in some way. I suspect this topic will be ripe for further elaboration and insight when I compile my critical reflection report.

Sprint 2 – System Error. Post-Mortem

This post is going to focus on the production side of a recent sprint undertaken with two other practitioner’s on my course – Ben, an aspiring level designer with a background in Computer Science and Billy – a game artist, who is leaning towards character art and modelling.

The brief was actually quite simple and we had a lot of freedom with the scope and scale. We were to create a digital artifact for this sprint and include an aesthetic and a system. Unlike previous sprints, we had the opportunity to form groups ourselves and I was quite keen to work with Ben and Billy, as we are all quite focused on games. We could have easily picked a non-ludic digital artifact, but I think the two strengths of our team composition had were both a well-rounded selection of skills and a desire to produce something which would be of value for our portfolio.

We initially conducted a few administrative tasks; I set up source control on Bitbucket and made sure that both Billy and Ben had source control set up on their laptops. I also set up a Kanban board using Gitkraken Glo and we put our initial brainstorming and ideation together on conceptboard. We all very quickly came to some conclusions about the kind of artifact we would like to make and there was little disagreement; We would make a game, it would be of a standard we would all like to present in our folio, we would use a system of security/control and we also shared our main requirements from a technical perspective. Ben wanted to include a fairly strong pass at level design. Billy wanted to include a robot character from his folio and use a camera system and security cards and I was quite keen on implementing AI. By adding all of these elements together, it seemed that a stealth game would be most appropriate.

From this, we undertook some research:

This gave us a good starting point to start collecting the assets together and compiling our project. Ben focused mostly on level design and after searching the asset store, managed to find a free modular asset pack with which to build an orbital space station. I had an AI script available from a previous project and was able to retrofit and apply it to a prefab of our robot and Billy retextured his model, rigged it in Mixamo and imported assets into the project. He also produced some keycard assets, which the player would have to find in order to pass through a few ‘gated’ sections of the level which Ben had designed. I then undertook bug fixing and patched up any issues as best I could and we all relied on technician support whenever we encountered a problem we couldn’t fix ourselves.

Although it took a few days, I managed to implement a nav-mash and get the AI tracking the player. There were a few problems however. I regret not being able to change the facing on the robot so that it always looks towards the player. Instead it does a very quirky moonwalk and although likely a simple fix, we ran out of time when it came to compiling and submitting a build. I will likely return to this project over the semester break and fix small, but important issues like this.

The experience was overall, a successful one. I thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with other students and in contrast to previous sprints, felt that I made a tangible contribution to this artifact. I believe it was well-received among the cohort and I’m glad that I’ve now ‘checked’ a box within my folio. I’ve made a prototype which features AI.

Design in practice

I wanted to add a short, but hopefully quite meaningful post on insights I had gained recently as a result of reviewing my work and the course material over the semester.

One element of creativity that has been presented is the convergence of different, sometimes divergent ideas, elements, things or artifacts to create something new. I’ll refer to this as additive design and is a long establish principle underpinning creativity in a great many of the arts.

A thought occurred to me which is to perhaps invert this principle and adopt a design practice I’ll call subtractive design. Instead of adding elements, the practice would be to critically analyse something from its constituent parts and remove one or more elements. This would then offer the opportunity to develop something new from an established, but reduced foundation and create something new.

One practical example of this in game development that comes to mind might be the modding community. It is a long established practice and indeed can spawn whole new genres of game (such as MOBA games like league of legends, DOTA, et al.) out of established genre such as Real Time Strategy games like Warcraft and Starcraft.

I expect to undertake a module on Experimental games next semester and this might provide a helpful starting point for game design ideation, as well as provide a hopefully robust practice for future divergent development.

Key skills for a games designer

I have always found Games design to be a somewhat nebulous title. It is many things and only a few things, all in differing context. It is therefore quite hard to answer the very straight-forward question “What do you do?” when asked. It is intriguing to me that such a simple and basic question should require quite a deep level of thought and insight in order to offer an answer which might make sense. I suppose the answer to the question relies on context.

The simple and blunt answer is “A Games Designer delivers an experience” although I find myself often adding the suffix to this somewhat woolly answer of “or solves a problem”. I’ve found that Designers can wear many different hats and still be effective and add value to a project or enterprise. Some designers facilitate a necessary communicative divide behind the process-driven way that programmers think and communicate and the more abstract and experiential perspective of an artist.

Many casual observers may mistakenly refer to a games designer as an ‘ideas person’ and whilst there is some degree of truth to this, I firmly believe designers show their value in shepherding an array of ideas through to one, distilled, immersive and effective experience or solution to a problem. There are many functions of design and even artists and programmers will adopt design principles as part of their job, which makes it harder to pin down a useful skill set.

The truth is that there are many kinds of designers and as an analogy, whilst you mind find lots of kinds of programming specialists, who may focus on AI, Systems, Full stack or any one of many countless roles, a designer may choose to specialize in any number of fields, including, but not limited to; Level design, User Experience (UX), User Interface (UI), Concept, Narrative etc. Each of these specializations deploys a number of skills and tools in order to serve the role and responsibilities they may hold.

So I guess the question for me is, what are my key skills as a designer. That’s a much easier question to answer. I consider myself a generalist, who is particularly robust in concept and theory, and project management. As a generalist, I can jump into any engine (and particularly Unity) and rapidly prototype. I can conduct product evaluation, user testing and practice any number of design practices, such as Future-proofing, Experimental, Serious/Applied and Iterative design. I’m good at communicating, managing teams and developing disruptive and divergent products within the game design field. I’ve even done a bit of 3d modelling and animation as well and would note a bias towards User-Centred Design in the way I practice.

It is important to note these skills and traits in myself as a design practitioner. As much as it gives me some confidence in being able to operate effectively and confidently as a practitioner, it also enables me to identify gaps in my skills and prospective opportunities for me to develop. Earlier stages of this module has provoked reflection in various domains and I find that opportunities technical improvement come easily to me; I’d particularly like to learn how to make shader’s suitable for use in Unreal and Unity. I’d like to experiment with networking and adopt Markov Chain mathematics within a procedural generation context. I’d like to develop my understanding of architecture from both a functional and cultural/historical perspective in order to become more adept at level design and world building.

This all leads into my philosophy as a designer. As I encounter new techniques, skills and perspectives throughout my study, I unlock a myriad of different opportunities for further development and growth and I relish the opportunity to further expand on how I practice my craft, review recent and current design thinking and with some eager anticipation, hope to blaze a trail in design theory as I begin an academic career.

Creative Prototyping Process

For this post, I’d like to focus in on the more practical and technical aspects of my discipline – Prototyping. Prototyping is an essential part of any designers practice and skill-set. Many who aren’t familiar with what game designers add to a project tend to assume they are the ‘idea’s guy’ and whilst to a small extent this can be true, the larger truth is that designers are much more collaborative and actually experience an alternating dynamic with colleagues between facilitating their work and directing some aspects of it.

A crude example would be to define programmers/developers as those who implement systems and artists as those who add a, mostly visual, aesthetic. Designer’s roles tend to be one of defining the experience, helping the two often disparate methodologies to communicate together in order to deliver an experience or solve a problem.

A designer can offer value at any stage of the Game Development process. From initial concept and game-play, through to prototyping and beyond, designers often bring different skills to different stages of the project and I will likely expand upon the designers role within a product life-cycle in a subsequent post.

So to focus back on the topic of this post – my prototyping process. I like to use prototypes to give an indication of how a game might feel, or look, or function when it is played. A starting point for further iteration. With this in mind, I’ve developed a fairly methodical and systematic approach. My preferential bias is to adopt user centered design, right from the beginning. It goes without saying that my approach isn’t necessarily better than any other and my design philosophy my be far surpassed by other approaches. My hope is that I can learn additional methodologies and approaches as I develop as a designer and add more tools to my toolkit and skill-set. My initial brainstorming tends to follow a linguistic path and at every incremental stage, I tend to find it helpful to invert a meaning, word or context. ‘Doing things differently’, adopted as a practice. A practical example might be seen within my third prototype. From a prompt of ‘Local’, I derived the idea ‘Infection’ and mind-mapped several words from that. But the inverse might be ‘panacea’ and with this inversion, I instantly pivot from mechanics and a dynamic of degradation, into one of growth and rejuvenation.

Narrative examples of this practice can be found in my post-mortem video’s, Here and Here.

For me, a good prototype normally meets the following criteria:

  • a) it meets any requirements within a given brief
  • b) it conveys a ‘feeling’ or state of flow that I want the player to experience as they play
  • c) it gives an indication of how the core mechanics interact to deliver the experience
  • d) it gives an indication of how further iteration can easily be added and lastly,
  • e) it is a clear and obvious response to the elevator pitch

 

 

Mindfulness, purpose and a future career

I’ve recently started reaching out to PhD programs and this has been my first initial foray into defining what a future career after graduation may look like. I thought it would be helpful to make a note of an email I’ve recently sent with some potential academic pathways/supervisors.

I would say that if there was one question driving my curiosity in research it would be the question; “Why do we play games?”. This is obviously too broad for the topic of a doctoral thesis, but I at least hope it indicates a direction of travel.
I’ve yet to arrive at a thesis question, but I’m particularly interested in the behavioral, motivational, and cognitive factors affect our decision to play any​ kind of game and in particular, the extent to which our decision meets that real, or perceived need and I hope I can refine this further throughout my research. I anticipate any research in this field will not only draw upon game theory, but also psychology, sociology, and anthropology, but regardless, the primary focus will likely be towards digital and analogue digital and games and other creative media.
I have a broad range of interests within the Game Development field, including, but not limited to:
Serious Games
Applied Game Theory
Social Gamification
Behavioural, Motivational and Cognitive factors in Gameplay
Social Engineering through Gameplay
Epistemic motivation and interaction
I am particularly interested in the IGGI program: https://iggi.org.uk/apply, as I feel I would be a good fit as a candidate and the program is fully funded (fees and stipend). I am not able to self-fund a PhD.
I have identified several potential supervising academics, most of whom are at York University.
My shortlist is currently:
Prof David Beer – https://davidbeer.net/

Prof Sebastian Deterding – https://www.york.ac.uk/tfti/staff/research/sebastian-deterding/ (https://twitter.com/dingstweets/status/1323272896475762688)

I would happily entertain a studentship under others I’ve yet to discover, however and I’m willing to study remotely, but not able to relocate outside of the UK currently.

Resilience

I’d like to explore some of my thinking around part of the core purpose of this module – critical reflection and analysis. I’ve found this module extremely challenging throughout and it has taken some very deep reflection in order to try and understand why I’m encountering fairly extreme discomfort around the practice.

During this semester, I’ve experienced some fairly significant health problems, often around mental health and well-being and this has resulted in some pretty seismic shifts in my ability to perform. I won’t go into the symptoms, but I’ve been quite reluctant to engage with some of the activities, because of the discomfort they have provoked.

After a bit of reflection, I’ve acknowledged that one of my stronger personality traits might be at play here – I ruminate a lot. I’m largely an introverted person and so self-reflection comes naturally. I suspect that the pressure to uncover some ‘deep insight’ in order to achieve a higher grade might be quite difficult for me. Plainly speaking, I feel like I’ve already harvested much of the low hanging fruit which another student who is new to the practice might find easy to find. It’s quite a lot of pressure.

This in turn has lead me to question my own resilience. In order to pursue this deeper insight, I suspect I may need to gain a level of insight one might expect from a psychological study or through in depth therapy. No doubt, I have plenty of room to grow as a person and as a reflective practitioner, but it is a deeply uncomfortable experience to go through and I have concerns about the ethical boundaries it might push me as a student into. Specifically, is it wise to take a deep dive into one’s own psyche? It is commonly accepted that a professional should not practice on themselves, as among other reasons, one can never be truly objective and retain the perspective to operate within appropriate safeguards.

This, coupled with my own insecurity about imposter syndrome and my ability to integrate within a field where I feel like I might be a natural outsider has shaken my emotional fortitude quite a bit. At the start of this course (and this module), I was nervous about my ability to raise my professional standards, but equally, if not more committed to pushing myself harder, at least from a technical perspective. In my other module, GAM702, I feel I’ve done this quite well and delivered some good work as a result. It has given me the confidence to pursue technical competencies I wouldn’t have dreamed possible even just 6 months ago, such as implementing AI.

This module however has undermined that confidence and upon reflection, I’ve felt like I’ve ended up in a weaker emotional and professional position as a result.

Reading List

I’ve found it helpful to main a reading list of useful books related or complimentary to my discipline. I’ve felt that maintaining a professional library at home is not only helpful as it lets me quickly refer to relevant material, but also helps guide me towards considering myself a true professional. In no particular order, here is my current list of books I either have and are ready to be consumed, or are on my wish list:

An architectural approach to level design by Christopher Totten

Quests by Jeff Howard

The art of game design by Jesse Schell

The gamers brain by Celia Hodent

Game design workshop by Fullerton, Swain and Hoffman

and Games, Design and Play by Macklin and Sharp

Week 9 – Communities of Practice

The content for week nine of the module has drawn my attention to communities of practice, specifically; communities with which I’d like to engage in on from a professional or vocational level.

Several communities come to mind. Foremost, I’m interested in the academic world of game theory. Much practice, originating from computer science has branched out over time and now my particular field, game design draws heavily on architechture, art, history, culture, anthropology, psychology and many more.

I’m starting to steer my thinking towards further academic opportunities, as outlined in my blog post here: https://journal.falmouth.ac.uk/rf233694/2020/11/25/doctoral-studentship-opportunities/

The life of an academic appeals. I would relish the opportunity to explore a deeper understanding of current academics work in my field, perhaps collaborate on interesting research questions and I hope that my contribution may eventually similarly inspire the next generation of academics. This group would be a ripe prospect for ethnographic study.

I’m also interested in immersive theatre groups, such as Punchdrunk, who specialise in ‘boardwalk’ or ‘interactive’ theatre. Participants can enjoy cinematic levels of detail in props and scenery as they follow one or multiple intertwined stories in an authentic narrative environment. I would particularly enjoy to add some gameplay elements to a production.

Lastly, I’m interested in developing my study in serious and applied games and turning this theory into practically applied projects.