Cynicism and blind optimism in equal measures.

May 26, 2014

Deconstructing XCOM

The Bureau: XCOM Declassified is a bad game. Not all, entirely, 100% bad, but distinctly sub-par. I wouldn’t recommend playing it, but if you are going to then be warned there will be spoilers here.

So, XCOM, in broad strokes: the voice-acting is ok, but the script is dreadful. The story has potential, but is told in such a ham-fisted way it feels like someone left half the script on a bus and they decided to carry on anyway. Parts of the combat are fun, when you actually manage to fight aliens instead of the clunky UI. It does has retro silver spacesuits, which are pretty cool, but there’s much clichéd nonsense that no amount of fancy costumes will help.

In general, the narrative is pretty pap, but there’s one particular bit that I found to be quite powerful. The game starts with Agent William “Angry Face” Carter carting a mysterious briefcase around. He’s attacked by an alien imposter, there’s a big glow and a whoosh and then the game starts and you’re in control, playing the part of Carter as he confronts the alien invasion. From then on it’s tepid combat missions and dialogue for about eight hours, until one particular cut-scene made me sit up.

After some glowing space-octupi and clunky dialogue, it’s revealed that Carter has been controlled all the way through by a mysterious glowing puppet-master alien called an Ethereal, floating invisibly above his head the whole time. There’s some more dialogue – and then you realise that the glowing thing is actually you, the player. Until this point, you assume that you’re playing the part of Carter – that you’re him in the game world, and it’s him that you’re ducking and dodging through all these missions – but actually you’ve been playing the part of the alien that’s controlling him.

Shortly after that, Carter temporarily breaks free of the alien’s control and glares at the Ethereal, at you – staring directly into the camera, out of the screen – and curses you for controlling him. His fixed-in-angry-mode face actually looks appropriate here, rather than just looking a bit like he forgot to go to the loo before the mission started. He primes a bomb and tells you that he’d rather die than be under your control a second longer. A few seconds later and we’re back to the hum-drum of plasma weapons and death by dialogue wheel, but there’s something really interesting in those scenes.


The part that the player plays is rarely addressed in games. You’re the silent controller, either “playing as” a character, in which case you are them, or you’re an abstract god-like entity that doesn’t really exist within the game aside from your effects on things. But in XCOM you’re playing a character controlling another character – an alien controlling Carter… and Carter doesn’t want to be controlled. It actually makes you feel something – the cutscene reveals something new and unexpected about your role, rather than just the story happening within the world. I actually felt a bit bad for Carter, guilty almost; all that time when I’d been making him forward-roll through corridors because I was bored he was cursing and rattling his chains against the control I was unwittingly inflicting on him.

It’s something that makes you question the whole relationship between the player and the character they’re controlling – something that’s usually taken for granted because it’s just the way things work. You control Mario, or you are Master Chief. You’re controlling Carter – except you’re not controlling him in the usual way, where your control is an unspoken game mechanic. Here, your control over your avatar is something more sinister: Carter growls into the camera that he’d rather die than be controlled any longer.

It makes you wonder how many other playable characters are gritting their teeth, and straining every sinew against the player. Mario and Master Chief and Gordon Freeman never seem to struggle – but what if they don’t actually want to be controlled either? I wrote a while ago about how I’d love to see more games that make the player think about themselves, that help them learn something outside the game – and maybe, in the most unexpected of places, that’s actually happened.

December 9, 2013

Conversations about Spotify

Spotify has completely transformed the way I listen to music – and has probably changed how whole generations of people will think about music too.

These days, when I listen to music I don’t have to get up to change the CD, or flip a tape, or even download and play MP3s in Winamp: all my music is streamed from Spotify. I use it as a way to play music and organise tracks, share cool things I’ve heard and discover new music. It’s quick, and convenient, and above all it’s incredibly easy. But, sometimes, as I merrily skip from album to another with the click of a mouse, the 30+ year-old in me grumbles that maybe it shouldn’t be so easy.

In the same way that I tend to skim-read books on an iPad, I listen to music on Spotify as background noise. The act of having to get off the chair, walk over to the shelf and choose what to listen to next tends to make you concentrate on what you’re listening to more.

The fact that I can carry all my music around with me in a tiny box in my pocket is still amazing. The thought that it’s not even really in my pocket, but in the cloud, is even more mind-bending. No more boxes of records, shelves of CDs, bags of minidiscs or even folders of MP3s… almost every physical embodiment of music has disappeared, beyond an implacable block of solid state gadgetry and some headphones.


I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, of course.

If I was still DJing I’d probably have all my tracks on an SD card, rather than carrying a small selection in a 15 kilogram box of vinyl. I discover new music daily, with the click of a button, rather than through radio stations and record shops. I’ve got more albums and playlists on Spotify than I ever had CDs, although I don’t actually own any of that music, in a legal sense as well as a physical one.

There’s certainly a lot less music-related clutter in my house these days. My wife and I cleared out our stacks of CDs a while ago, and had a great time digging through all the old memories on the shelves. We both had quite a few albums that we’d bought on a recommendation, or on the strength of one track, but then found to be mostly crap. Back in the day, CDs were generally between £10 and £16 – not cheap, especially when it was an album you listened to once and then consigned to the dusty top shelf, never to be heard again.

I don’t know whether to feel happy or sad that new generations of music fans might never have the dubious pleasure of getting home to discover that your new CD is actually one great track and 40 minutes of unlistenable jazz klaxon wanking. They’ll never have to buy a whole album just to get one track. They’ll never know what it was like to not be able to get hold of a track, or an album – to scour all the music shops in a city looking for one slippery CD that mysteriously sells out five minutes before you get to the shop. Those were painful and frustrating but ultimately formative experiences.

Between Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud and other streaming services I doubt there’s anything you can’t find online to listen and download (be it legally or illegally). The concept of scarcity in music (and “scarcity” is a relative term, considering I grew up in an age of CDs, tape-copying and dozens of radio stations) simply doesn’t exist any more, and I think that must really change how people see (or rather, hear) music.

More after the break…

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October 27, 2013

RADIAS circles the plughole

I’ve been working on a new game for the last couple of weeks, on and off. It’s called Radias, and it looks quite nice. The visuals are all shiny and clean, it runs well on various iOS devices and has a few cool  little UI touches in it. I’ve got some interesting ideas for how the music and SFX can work together with the gameplay. There’s just one small problem: I’m not actually sure it’s fun.

The aim of the game is to get all the arrows and coloured areas on all circles lined up at the same time. It’s simple at first, but later levels get harder quickly, with more circles, faster rotation and smaller safe zones. There’s definitely something promising going on, but the gameplay currently feels too simple. There’s no strategy to it, no risk or reward. The flow is all wrong too – it feels fragmented, disjointed.

I nearly had a creative sulk and binned the whole thing, but the point of doing something small and simple was to take a game from start to finish again in preparation for something bigger – and if I can’t get through this then there’s not much hope of that.


So I sent a very early alpha version out to a few people and got some really useful feedback, so I’ll be building that in and trying again. Getting positive feedback is a real shot in the arm, and I can go on with renewed faith in the idea now, thank fuck; I’d been dilly-dallying for days about whether to bin the lot and start something else (I did actually start something else as a secret side project, and it’s AWESOME, but more on that later).

Now I’ll be looking at how to improve the flow of the game, and how to introduce some more skill and strategy beside the core timing mechanic. The ideas I had for audio and music didn’t look like they were going to pan out either, so changing things up should let me look at that again. There’s some cool Flash tech that lets you pitch music up or down on the fly, which would be a good fit for the DJ/music creation vibe of Radias.

If you’d be interested in playing early versions (and ideally, giving me some handy-dandy feedback in the process) then find me on Twitter and say hi.

October 26, 2013

Why I’m not voting

Because casting a vote legitimises the system. When you vote, you’re implicitly giving your approval of the current political system and players – the flawed vote counting mechanism, the unrepresentative parties and their policies and the choice that you are presented with.

The available parties are all equally guilty of massive hypocrisy, shameless spin and populist headline-grabbing, cheap political point-scoring and seem generally only interested in power for power’s sake. I don’t trust any of them to do the things I believe in: protect the poor and vulnerable (and the environment), prioritise the wellbeing of the people over the rich and powerful, not swagger round the world bombing, dividing, invading and drone-striking, stop mass surveillance of the population, redistribute wealth, act with long-sighted integrity at home and abroad, ensure equality in health and education, and not become corrupt and spend all their fucking free cash on moats.

– Read More –

September 29, 2013

Announcing Game Two

I’m going to make another game. Hooray!

At this point this is more of a declaration of intent than an actual announcement, mostly because I have nothing to announce – I’m still kicking around ideas at the minute, but I’m aiming to turn these vague ideas into an actual game some time this year. Possibly something bigger than last time, or maybe a few little quick fun things to give myself more practice at the whole process of making a game, from beginning to end.

Having been incredibly busy with day-job digital all year I’m planning to take some time off to do what I really want, which is to make games. Digital media is great as a job to keep the wolf from the door but the lack of creative control can be incredibly frustrating, especially when it comes to making games for other people. I want more control and more creative freedom – and this is best way to get it.

I’ll be blogging some of the rough ideas for games I’ve got, partly because they might be interesting but also because I think that putting ideas down in words makes you think about things a lot more. Trying to capture ideas in a sentence or two can really help crystallise a concept, and in making the idea easy to grasp for other people I’m also making it easier for myself (and hopefully the player, in the long run).

It’s easy (and fun!) to throw ideas around and start things, but much harder (and significantly less fun at times) to see something through to completion and release. CUBD was the first game I’d finished and it feels like a real achievement; having done it once I’ve got a much better idea of the huge amount of work involved in actually finishing something, so I feel much more prepared for it this time.

Having even one finished game in my portfolio has been really good for me – on a personal level as an aspiring games maker and professionally as “someone who sees things through”. A bunch of half-finished things is no good to anyone, no matter how good the ideas are. The fact that I released CUBD as an iOS app has also opened a lot of doors. Flash on the web isn’t the sure bet that it used to be, but Flash has proved to be a great way to develop mobile apps and games, and that’s let me transplant my years of web experience into a whole new market.

I learned a lot from making CUBD, not least that you can’t just make a game and then start marketing it if you want it to succeed. While I’m still not expecting to get rich off whatever I make, it would be nice to attract a larger audience and (gasp) maybe even some media attention; blogging the dev process is part of that effort. So stay tuned, and get involved – I’d love to hear what you think about the ideas, prototypes and betas I’ll be putting out.

September 28, 2013

Make a Face by Lee Goater

I’ve been working with an artist called Lee Goater on an app as part of his latest awesome exhibition. The exhibition’s called Faces: The Anatomy of Autonomy, and it’s a collection of Lee’s distinctive black-and-white characters. Each little face is a simple but characterful little chap or lady-chap created from a variety of painstakingly drawn features and accoutrements. Make a Face is available now on iOS and Android, for free!

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September 22, 2013

Notes on TypeScript

I’ve been getting stuck into TypeScript recently and hit a few bumps along the way, so thought I’d be all nice and internety and share some tips. Firstly and foremostly:

It’s great.

Use TypeScript. If you have to do Javascript, and it’s becoming something of an inevitability these days, do it in TypeScript. TS is object-orientated, strictly typed and you can have classes. These things make me very happy. For an old(ish) coder still pining for the days of Flash, TypeScript is much more like the structured coding of AS3 compared to the flabby, flaccid, unstructured mess that is JS.

You might not like the idea of strict typing the way having to declare what kind of things an array is going to hold irks me, but the discipline is good for you. Like porridge, morning runs, and getting hit with soap in a sock at a posh boarding school. So here are some of the things I had trouble with, in the hope of saving you time and frustration.

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August 17, 2013

Far Cry 3: the gap between player and character

OK, so firstly: Far Cry 3 spoilers ahead. Like, game-ruining spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You’ve changed, man

Character development is a weird thing. Watching a character change and grow over the course of a story can be a fundamental to a satisfying narrative arc; the immature rich kid becomes a principled man, the girl from the streets flowers into a strong, confident woman who doesn’t need to smoke, and so on.

There are plenty of books and films that gift/curse their characters with interesting (and sometimes even profound) changes, but far fewer games that do it with any success. I think that this is partly due to a lower standard of writing in games in general, but I think it’s also much harder to write believable character development into a story when the character is controlled by a player, ie you. Unless the story and characters are written well enough for the player to relate to them, the player herself experiences nothing of the change portrayed on screen.

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August 4, 2013

The £0.69 question

I’m facing a dilemma.

I’m sure it’s a dilemma lots of people (specifically: indie game developers) are facing around the world, but I’m just going to talk about me.

I made a game. It’s called CUBD. It’s a 3D arcade-puzzle game for iOS, and I think it’s pretty good. CUBD plays like a combination of a Rubik’s Cube, Bejewelled and Tetris – it’s fun, colourful, simple and addictive, and I know several people who are hopelessly hooked on it.

CUBD won an nVidia competition while in beta, and has been awarded a prestigious Mobile of the Day award by the FWA (it’ll be featured on the 31st August – check it out!). I’ve got a solid five star rating on the App Store with about 30 reviews, and have been retweeted with praise for the game by people from Mike Bithell to Flash’s own Twitter account to thousands and thousands of people.

All of which has resulted in a grand total of about 170 sales. Not bad, considering 60% of the apps in the App Store have never been downloaded, but hardly on the scale of Angry Birds. To be honest, it’s not even on the scale of Hair Removal (“Oh, my god, there are so many hairs on my face in such a short time. Who can help me, please!”), a frankly shit-looking game that’s currently invading App Store Top 10s around the world, but there you go.

“Oh, my god, there are so many hairs on my face in such a short time. Who can help me, please!”

170 sales equals a lifetime profit of just under £70. Considering I worked on CUBD for about a year (as a side project, not solidly) that’s not a great income. Thankfully I’m not a full-time game developer and I don’t rely on sales of my games to survive. CUBD was a labour of love; the whole project was a Fifty Shades of Grey-ish mixture of pleasure, pain, curiosity and stubbornness.

So what’s my next move?

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May 14, 2013

User Experience round the bend

You know what bugs me? Toilets.

Toilet flushes, specifically – and even more specifically, toilets where you have a choice of a big flush and a little flush. This choice is usually presented to you in the form of a big button and a little button; sometimes it’s an actual big/small button combo, sometimes it’s two semi-circular-ish buttons combined into one – anyway.

The thing is: I never know which one to press. One button does a small flush, for wee and spiders, and the other one does a big flush, for poo and larger animals (goldfish, say). BUT WHICH IS IT?

As a super-pro UX designer, I’ve designed many an interface where the user has a choice about what to do next. Often there’s a common action, or one we want people to take, and this button is made larger and more friendly than its less popular comrades.

Let’s be blunt: people wee a lot more than they poo. Therefore, in the interests of saving water, you’d expect that the common action in terms of flushing toilets would be the small flush, ergo that the small flush button should be the big (and therefore most pushable) one.

But the problem is is that toilet buttons are generally unlabelled – and without anything overtly declaring the function of each button it’s natural to assume that button size = flush size, in which case the button you probably want is the smaller one.

As a toilet-user I want to use the correct flush to save water, but without knowing what the buttons actually do I’ve only got a 50% chance of getting it right. What’s the system? Is it button size = priority or button size = flush size?

I think the lesson here is that just because you have a system for your UI – colour-coding, icons, anything else that your UX and Design team know like the back of their hands because it’s, you know, OBVIOUS – that doesn’t mean that other people understand it.

A nice friendly “big flush” and “little flush” on your toilet digital thing will go a long way towards helping people understand what’s what. It’s very easy to be too subtle when it comes to designing UI, especially with all this minimalism malarkey what is in fashion these days. Your audience are not going to spend any time thinking about what a mysterious button means; they’ll either press it without understanding it or just close the toilet site and go somewhere else.

Something something unblocking your sales pipeline, something something round the bend! Does anyone else think about toilets this much, or is it just me?

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