Last Friday (4/1/2016) was the second annual Game Symposium hosted by the Local Games Lab ABQ student group at the University of New Mexico. It was tons of fun and somewhat amazing. It’s essentially a mini GLS conference put on by local students. There were students, faculty, and local devs speaking and in the audience.
It is hard to get people’s time and attention at UNM and in Albuquerque. This is true for student clubs, political parties, and everything else. The fact that this club is going strong after two years, has hosted many events, and has once again put on this symposium is a testament to the hard work and leadership of Gianna, Zack, Diane, and Joey. Logistically, the event was great too. Simple and competent.
As an audience member, what strikes me the most is that many of the issues concerning games and their uses that have come up for me as an academic are important to people coming from other perspectives, and that we seem to be able to understand each others’ struggles. Also, the sense of optimism that there are a lot of nascent opportunities with games, opportunities that the big players are mostly blind to but that will be explored through the expanding democratization of game making. It was clear that everyone in the room was speaking and listening from a core positive experience: games had enriched their lives and given them meaning, connecting them to the worlds they live in and people they meet. There was a sense of shared purpose, that continued dedication to this craft would take the benefits from early chance encounters and find ways to expand and further realize and share them.
Below are a few additional notes from the event. If you’re thinking about making games, or trying to dig further into just what we can benefit from considering the learning that happens in playing and making games, the concrete experiences below might be a nice counterpoint to more academic treatments, and offer some clues about how these big ideas are woven into and emerge from people’s lived experiences with games. I haven’t gotten the official schedule yet, so forgive the missing names. I wrote down those I could catch.
The first talk today was about the adventures to be had while playing Ingress. The presenters had traveled the world through their play of the game. It took them to mountain tops and foreign countries among other places. They are not casual players either. The talk ended with them handing out pamphlets with information about joining their local Ingress team. They also have a website, a Google Plus Community, where they share victories and plan trips.
In their pamphlet they really play up the backstory of the game. This kind of role-play was really refreshing and fun. It made me want to join their group even though they are resistance and I am hard-core enlightenment.
This work by Ingress teams in NM for March 14th put a smile on my face.
Seeing the amount of traction Ingress has gotten with people makes me very excited for the future of AR games generally. I’ve written a bit before about how Ingress is a bit hard to get into. Beyond some difficult onboarding, it also has the same problem of many MMO’s where you really can’t do anything as a novice player (WoW in part got so popular by “fixing” this) and so the game is less fun until you have already committed a lot of time to it. A third strike is the “technar” theme of the game. Probably skews very heavily to young males into sci-fi.
That Ingress has nevertheless succeeded with a fairly large audience gives me high hopes for the next title from Niantic Labs: Pokemon Go. It is due out later this year, and Pokemon has been a very popular and accessible media property, globally, for about the last fifteen years. I’ve heard it said that those born in the nineties have at least 20% of their cultural DNA wrapped up in Pokemon. Niantic’s data regarding place no doubt gleaned from Ingress give them what they need to launch an AR game with similar travel mechanics in a flavor that will be likely to enjoy real mass media levels of popularity.
This makes me excited for more than just to play and share Pokemon Go. With this kind of boost to mass engagement in AR game playing, my role in recruiting people to create and play other AR games may become easier to grok in the near future. One difficult thing in bringing people to ARIS is that they don’t have previous familiarity with the genre or basic mechanics it offers. It’s hard to make something in a form you are not familiar with. If Pokemon Go becomes as popular as I think it will be, bringing people in the door will get a lot easier.
Finally, though I titled this talk “well played” I believe I’m the only person in the room familiar with the ETC Press publication format and GLS talk-type. But the talk was very similar to the one Liz Lawley gave on Ingress at last year’s GLS. It was interesting to see a sort of convergent evolution in practice. What leaders from our field identified as an important format has been singled out by others far removed in time and place. Might be that they have something there.
Hello World: 11 Tips for Making Indie Games
Short and sweet, personal list of aphorisms from a local dev.
- Don’t worry too much about the engine you’re using.
- Don’t let game ideas stay in your head.
- Don’t do it if you don’t enjoy it.
- Don’t give up a game you’re working on to make a new game. You will always get partway through development and think you can make everything clean by starting over.
- If you’re not enjoying it, figure out what the problem is and address it.
- Don’t work alone.
- Playtesting cannot be overestimated in importance.
- Get feedback and pay attention to it. You’ll never be able to catch everything.
- Don’t fear failure. Failure and success both are temporary and lead to one another.
- Share what you learn.
- Make games for yourself, not others. If you try to aim for a mainstream idea as an indie it will just end up looking like a knock-off. Make something personal.
What It’s Like to Be an Indie
Ryan Leonski and Shandiin Woodward told stories about how they became devs and formed Subliminal Games. My biggest takeaway was the personal nature of their involvement with games and the depth of their commitments to this art form. Shandiin in particular grew up wanting to paint, but lacked direction. “I didn’t know what to paint.” She started a graphic design career but the purpose it provided lacked passion. Once she found game design, everything clicked. Her art in Skypets is quite good.
Sky Pets was their first big game together. It took three years. It might seem like a long time for a simple game. It takes a lot of time when you want to get something right—to have reality coincide with your vision. It’s clear that the path to success is full of failure.
They feel very committed to games due to their own positive experiences in connecting to each other and the world, the growing place that games are playing in media culture generally, and the artistic possibilities enabled through games (cites Brenda Romero’s Train. It is both about giving ideas new forms and creating places to be.
New Suggestions for Indie Game Engines
Any time I get to hear people talk about “democratizing game making” I ask for platform and engine suggestions. Today’s talk netted a couple I hadn’t heard of.
- RPG Toolkit – “It’s like RPG Maker if you don’t have money.” – Ryan Leonski. Currently it looks like RPG Toolkit is not actively developed. There is plenty of documentation but the hosting for the images has expired. It is a Windows tool.
- Amazon Lumberyard – Run by Amazon, 3D. Uses AWS on the back end for any network or multiplayer features.
- Godot Engine – Open source (MIT license), cross platform engine, 2D and 3D, deploy to mobile, desktop (Mac, Windows, Linux), and web. “Open source Unity”.
ABQ Game Dev Scene
Ryan and Shandiin are active members of the local dev scene, and shared some details of how this has evolved recently.
2009–2014: Local chapter of IGDA. It was a token chapter, a few meet ups but not a thriving community. He felt like the only game developer in burque. In 2014 things really fell apart. Didn’t have a space they could afford. Brooks (a member) started hosting meetings in his home. They also met at restaurants.
2014-present: New connections with successful business person with local connections helped to secure a place and start a new organization: AGDG. Membership has really taken off and Tuesday night meetings first at Levitated and now at Kosmos) are quite busy. There’s a lot of camaraderie and support to be had for those trying to make a go of game design.
Exciting Ideas Right Now
- Low polygon and other aesthetic movements that are anti-realist, embrace what videogames are made of.
- Procedural content allows them to build more than their numbers (No Man’s Sky).
- Procedural, gameplay derived music (Snow).
- Interactive storytelling to revisit old stories from a more personal point of view (80 Days).
- Explorative Narrative (Bioshock Infinite, Gone Home) where your movement through space is also movement through the place, uncovering the reality beyond physical details.
- VR. Being put into a world that you are more connected with is a fun new possibility.
- Democratization of game development. New engines I heard about:
- Making games is an entertainment pastime that is not being a couch potato.
- We need games that share new kinds of experience that AAA studios and the mass market will not produce.
- Game narrative is important because of the roles you take on and the agency that gives you within a world. It is a way of confronting ideas profoundly different from what you get in other media.
Games and Education
It is interesting to hear someone not from Education, not from Academia, but instead coming in as a developer, to speak to this subject. Ryan’s take:
Gamification sucks, but the feedback games could provide could really help students not fall behind. Teachers being able to monitor their students’ progress and intent to direct them to things they would actually be good at would be a promising use. He also sees possibility in games as tools for learning. Example: learning programming through Minecraft. Games can give people new kinds of experiences and bring them inside the things they are learning about.
The Horror Genre and the Need for Innovative Mechanics
“I graduated from UNM with the wrong degree” – This offhand comment at the beginning of this presentation reminded me of the growing awkwardness between higher education and people’s lives outside the university. Although people go to college hoping to find their way to a career, college doesn’t seem to be set up well for this, particularly when it comes to the way our economy is different from 60 years ago, when higher education grew so much in this country in number but became so much further ossified in character.
The gist of this talk was a criticism of the usual mechanics of horror games. While there are tons of titles, they all seem to follow three very prescriptive methods:
- Jump scare – pretty obvious. Boo!
- Gore – also a clear marker. What the presenter noted about these is that with frequent use, audiences build up tolerances. What was a shocking amount of gore and a surprising twist of events a few years ago is not enough to move someone today.
- Rails – the player is pushed inexorably through to the jump scares. This likely comes from wanting to recreate the “don’t open that door!” moment from films. Within interactive media though, it can feel boring and fake.
His engagement with horror came from Majora’s Mask. It’s not where you think it comes from. The haunting of that game is in the passage of time and the feeling that the NPC’s are somewhat real people who you do not have the time or skill to save. Most games remove you so far from people you could be or worlds you could live in that you cannot deeply connect.
- Until Dawn – the teens at the cabin trope. what you do actually changes it. Not on rails.
- Soma – It’s possible to play the game and go in many different directions.
VR and AR seem like potential boons to horror. At least until people start having heart attacks. Vanishing of Ethan Carter – there are a couple jump scares, but more importantly the world it takes place in is skewered and surreal. That’s what VR should aim for.
The talk relied on understanding the shortcomings of popular examples. I feel like these were well chosen but hard to follow because he didn’t really tell the stories of what these games did and why it failed. He was expecting the audience to be very familiar with the material and did not have any sort of AV aids to help share that familiarity. Something I really liked is that he asked us all at the end to talk about our favorite “horror” experiences playing games.
This talk reminds me of Rebeccah Fischer and Seann Dikkers’ ARIS game Horror at the Ridges. They wrote about it in Mobile Media Learning: Innovation and Inspiration (Chapter 18 – “Horror at the Ridges: engagement with an AR Horror story”), specifically what it might mean to translate the horror genre into AR, and how this might relate to learning that we want to happen in our games.
Especially with new media formats, it is important to ask how we can find new mechanics to produce desired emotional experiences rather than relying on everything standard to translate from the media formats we know well. Kurt Squire refers to this as designing games and game platforms in genres that do not yet exist in his book Videogames and Learning (Chapter 5). This facet of educational AR game development is not talked about enough. It is a source of difficulty for sure, especially in recruiting people to this work, but it is also part of what makes it exciting and worthwhile: we are not just translating stale ideas and methods into a mobile platform, but really re-imagining how technologies and structures for participation can engage people in many different forms of learning. This remains true even as AR moves toward the mainstream.
Fischer and Dikkers argue in their chapter that instead of aiming for a research design in which you can measure learning outcomes as a first step, first try to produce something that succeeds on a more basic level of audience engagement—this seems rare in educational design-based research. Then later figure out how to address learning outcomes. To do this with horror, we have to try to first understand what is terrifying and why. This presenter, like Fischer and Dikkers, argued that a stronger source of horror comes from things that are unsettling more than obvious scares.
Sky Pets Post Mortem
The team who spoke to us earlier returned to the stage to share a post mortem of their biggest project to date, Sky Pets. Some of the details connecting visibility on a mobile platform to financial outcomes was enlightening, but the best part for me was getting to hear about the existential bars for success as game devs.
Some general tidbits about their experiences making Skypets:
- Took 3 years, didn’t make much money. Less than $1K
- Very hard to gain traction on mobile. Around 500 new games a day are released
- Got to be #3 top paid for a day on Android (30 people total). That’s not much money
- Good reviews. Across both platforms, only one non–5
- Won an award: Imaginative Festival, top non-film entry
- Local TV spot twice
- Proposed marriage through the game
- Lofty goals: hoping to be on Ellen
Into the Design
There were design decisions where the main mechanic he envisioned was the wrong one. It was hard to hear from her and testers. Eventually he gave in and now knows they were right. It’s great as a game maker to hear about decisions that are hard to make but necessary. I think this is one of the best things that we can share with each other.
As release approached, it really drug on. It seemed like it should be simple. “It’s a game about falling pets. How hard can it be?” They experienced a lot of guilt about what better devs could do. The tried to set a hard deadline. It kept slipping but eventually, several months later, they got it. Uploaded the game at a live AGDG event. Waited a month to do some PR.
PR is a lot of work, soul crushing. Very different skill set than dev work. I am reminded of a TED talk I saw recently, a post mortem of sorts from Ernesto Sirolli, an Italian who had spent decades trying to provide aid in Africa before realizing the fundamental pieces that are usually missing. He said that the biggest thing they learned about entrepreneurialism is that you need at least three people:
- One to make things
- One to sell
- One to handle the money.
No one is ever good at more than one of these. I’m of course reminded too of how PR and marketing are the things that I am worst at; academics and devs both are stereotyped as lacking skills in these areas and for being blind to their value.
Overall, Ryan and Shandiin look back on their time developing Sky Pets as an incredible learning experience, one that has deeply affected who they are. This growth more than makes up for the game’s commercial failure in their minds.
Some of the areas where they feel they have grown/learned the most:
- Learning dev tools: Unity, Illustrator, etc.
- Project planning
- How tenacious they could be, and actually finish something big
- Can overcome difficult problems
That’s not to say everything was gravy. Some real let downs include:
- Financial failure made everything else feel like a failure
- Got a troll: some level of success, but not enough to make up for the awfulness of those interactions
- Small audience – didn’t feel connected to people through their play of their game. This was harder to take than financial failure
One of the biggest lessons they feel like they learned for their next endeavor is to look more realistically at what the successes of the whole process are instead of just the endpoints.
I don’t think young people get generally enough exposure to others’ origin stories (except in the cases of extremely successful, totally unrepresentative people). And they have no idea how hard work and failure can combine to result in eventually getting somewhere but maybe not to an obvious place. This is literally absent from any schooling that I was ever a part of. And this post mortem felt like a real positive step in the right direction. The speakers are not successes beyond belief; in a financial sense they have yet to break even with their games. But they are putting in good work, and are realistic and thoughtful about where it is taking them. Their commitments to this craft are deep and personal. It has not been easy getting to where they are and you can tell that their current optimism, while also being subtle, was hard earned. You can get a sense of what a person really needs to make it in the world which is a breath of fresh air compared to the sorts of bureaucratic regulations and hoops that are de facto reality in school. This talk was a nice way to close the main portion of the event.
After Party – Pizza and Games
One of the things this club has gotten right, and been able to do more of as they have built up official funds, is having informal time to share games over snacks. After the talks had ended, we went downstairs with some pizza and games to demo. It was relaxed and a nice way to get to meet the local devs who shared their stories today. We made some tentative plans to connect more often with the AGDG and maybe host some events for them here at UNM through the club.
I had a great time at the second annual symposium, and as you can see, it gave me plenty to think about. To find out more about the Local Games in ABQ student club and get involved yourself, find them on Facebook or the web.