Tuesday, 27 May 2014

GUEST BLOG: Go With the Flow - A Fresh Look at Old Concepts

I suspect that some of you reading this will think “Why talk about something as obvious as flow when everybody in the industry understands the concept and gets it right?”
Well, believe it or not, there’s way more to flow than people in the industry might imagine.

Only the other week, Keith Stuart talked in The Guardian about the concept of flow as one of the reasons people find games like Candy Crush so compelling (

When players are so completely engaged with a game, to the extent that they don't even hear you when you call them or acknowledge you when you talk to them, there’s a very good chance that they’re experiencing flow in the game play. And when an individual is experiencing flow, they’re completely fixated on the task of playing the game, and you’ll find it pretty hard to break their concentration.

I remember late last year consulting at a large game developers studio and the fire alarm went off - it was lunchtime and a few employees were playing a game in the games room during their break. Despite the piecing sound of the alarm, they didn’t even look up from their games and the boss of the company had to literally go in and drag them out.

So you can see how flow, the state of utter engagement in gaming, can certainly account for how compelling video game playing can be.
A really great piece of work that I would recommend to developers is by Boyle et al (2012) – ‘Engagement in digital entertainment games: A systematic review’ - who initially uncovered a staggering 20,000 papers related to engagement, and then drilled this number down to 55 key papers to review.

The authors describe flow as the most influential construct used to explain the subjective emotional experience and optimal state of pleasure experienced in video game play. They highlight how flow is actually quite a complex construct involving eight different components. They maintain that central to the concept, is that the experience is intrinsically rewarding and enables immersion in the game, and they suggest that flow as a state evokes high levels of concentration and allows the player to have a sense of control, have clearly defined goals as well as providing direct feedback.
Further to this, is the motivation to escape the real world, because flow in gaming does offer opportunities to carry out behaviours not possible in the real world!

Last year I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the Charlie Brooker documentary ‘How Video Games Changed the World’. In the documentary I talked about the concept of flow and this really hit home with many gamers who watched the programme. In the weeks after, I had loads of emails from gamers who were quite relieved to understand what was happening to them when they were in this almost altered state of mind, completely fixated on a game.

Following the programme a blogger posted the stills of my contribution about flow on tumblr and so far nearly 60,000 people have reblogged or commented. ( As a psychologist, what this tells me is that gamers really want to understand what’s happening to them when they’re engaged in virtual worlds and that they very much want developers to make games that enhance this state for them, as they garner immense pleasure and contentment from the experience.

Alex Meredith, Cyberpsychologist from Nottingham Trent University says "Developers can really embrace the concept of flow and incorporate it into the development of their games, within ethical parameters of course, and of particular interest is how flow impacts on motivation to play and the sense of self during game play and cathartic release.”

And there’s a lot more to the concept of flow in video games that psychologists like myself are still uncovering, I’m especially interested in the group flow and recently saw a great presentation by Linda Kaye of Edge Hill University who examined the extent to which group flow experiences (versus solo flow experiences) impact on post-play positive effect. The results of her work indicate that post-play positive effect was heightened in group flow, something which is particularly interesting when designing for collaborative play.

At this year’s Evolve, on the first day of the Develop Conference, as part of the psychology track, a number of leading psychologists will join me to look at what it means to develop games that enhance this flow experience, and together we’ll be offering some ethical take-away tips about how to build in strategies that evoke the flow state in gamers and really heighten the gaming experience.
Berni Good is a psychologist who specialises in Cyberpsychology, particularly in video games and is the founder of Cyberpsychologist  Limited, This year Berni will curate the psychology track at Evolve which will see some of the leading psychologists and experts in the field of psychology in video games talk and give amazing insights and tips into how to develop games incorporating psychology to really heighten the experience for the gamer. 

Friday, 16 May 2014

GUEST BLOG: The War of Art

The belly. It was always the belly. Drawing Sonic the Hedgehog in my school book, trying my hardest to get it as accurate as possible, it was always the belly that was the trickiest. Too curvy and Sonic looked podgy, too slim and he looked like a 'hog with a drug problem.

Why the hell am I telling you about the fleshy tumpkins of fictional blue hedgehogs? Well, because that childhood memory of trying so hard to replicate my favourite character is burned into my brain and that speaks volumes about how much that group of blue and red pixels meant to me.

We've all got our favourite computer game characters and we especially hold on dearly to those plumbers, hedgehogs and monkeys... sorry, donkeys that formed our early years of playing with computers. The colours, the sound effects, the feeling of blowing on a Megadrive cartridge when Streets of Rage wouldn't load properly. All these connections stay with us because our tiny little brains are so eagerly soaking up all the stimuli we can get, especially the wonderful worlds being presented to us in pixel form and this is what I'm getting at (albeit in a waffling fashion), it's THAT connection that is our responsibility now.

Us wanky media types in the games industry are the magic makers now, it's OUR creations that will be recalled in a rose-tinted conversation in 20 years time, how incredible is that!? Just as I remember how exciting it was to plug a 2nd controller into a NES to control the ducks in Duck Hunt, someone in the future will be sharing their glee at having to pop their PS1 controller into port 2 to beat Psycho Mantis on Metal Gear Solid. These moments stick in peoples brains because their interactive art, they are narratives they feel a part of, stories they helped unlock.

Now it isn't just triple-A games that this nostalgic badge of honour is reserved for, for me it's the indie games right now that are creating lasting memories. Just as my MGS memory is imprinted on my grey matter, so is the first time I saw that bloody terrifying spider in Limbo or when I realised perspective isn't all that it seems in Monument Valley. These games, these interactive pieces of art not only satisfy my inner child for gameplay, their aesthetics are so strong and unique that the way they look will be remembered as much as the interactions in the games themselves.

So, what's your point I hear you ask!? Well, it's that now more than ever we are incredibly fortunate to be the ones making long lasting memories for people. The slew of stunning 'casual' games inspiring and entertaining folk who wouldn't call themselves gamers is rising all the time, from Badlands to Leo's Fortune, Journey to Flower.

There's never been a more exciting or more accessible time to get into making the game you want to make, and to share it with people who want something a little different. Looking at the amount of beautiful things on offer today, I just can't wait to see what happens next.
You never know, scribbled facsimiles of your creations could be adorning the school text books of the next generation...

This blog was written by Gav Strange from Aardman Studios. Gav will be talking about Super Sleep Fighter II in the Art track at Develop in Brighton on Wednesday 9 July.

Monday, 12 May 2014

GUEST BLOG: Creative Process(es)

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with my drummer about writing songs and how different our writing process was to that of his other band. His other band lead with drums, he will write sections/whole songs creatively on drums and then the band will on that. This blew my mind because it’s so different to the way I’ve always worked. With my current band we will usually go one of two ways, either one of us will work on a near complete song at home, demo it, send it out to the others and then we will tear it apart at practice and work on it that way. The other way is we will take a vocal line, lyric or riff and just jam on it at practice and see what comes. I can hear you asking “Aj, what the hell has this got to do with video game development?” well, good madams and sirs, it got me thinking. 

I cannot even begin to imagine how many different creative processes there are in the world. You don’t often hear people speak of their processes very often so I thought I’d talk to you guys quickly about some things I like myself and the team to keep in mind when approaching idea generation:

1     There Is No Such Thing As A Bad Idea

So this is a big thing for Craig and I, I’ve probably mentioned it before, but we honestly believe that every idea deserves to be voiced because really no idea is bad. Now don’t get me wrong there are ideas that are inappropriate, won’t work and don’t fit the brief but they are not bad for the simple reason that they could be a spark. One throwaway idea you have could spark an idea in someone else that becomes the project of your dreams. So with that in mind:

2    Anyone Can Have An Idea

One thing that I really hate is when studios exclude certain disciplines from the creative process. It’s almost saying that you have to be qualified to have an idea. Which is bullshit, ANYONE can have a great idea and you should never be precious with this. I always get my best friend to sanity check all my ideas and the ideas of my team where possible. He doesn’t work in games but that means jack shit, he often inspires new ways of me looking at things.

  Write An Album, Not A Single

So I try to relate things to band life when I can to give a more simple explanation. This an example that comes up a lot. When you look to write a 14 track album you never just write 14 tracks. What you do is you write 20 tracks and you pick the best 14. This is because you sometimes need to get sections and songs out of your system to make way for your next great song. This is the same for idea generation whether it be for features, characters or full games. On our first day of looking at new game ideas we will just spend a day coming up with ideas and sticking them up on a wall, every single idea we have. We will then narrow it down over time to our favourite 8, then our favourite 4, 2 etc… each step of the process we add a little bit more detail to the game until eventually we’re pitching a game to the rest of the team.

4    Don’t Be Precious

This is one thing I learned the hard way but that we’ve tried to instill into our team. You should never be precious about an idea, sometimes something will seem like the best idea in the world and then an hour, day, week later it turns out it just won’t work, it’s not a right fit or it just isn’t that good. Thing is this is not a negative thing, this is awesome it means that the game has evolved past your early ideas and you should embrace it and not try to cling on to it. Good example of this is in our soon to be release game Overruled! we had a standard Deathmatch mode which we thought would be perfect. It took us 2 weeks after putting it in to finally admit that it’s just not that good, we used to be bored when it would come up and that we needed to scrap it. We didn’t complain about the work we had put in, we took it out and spent more time brainstorming game types and have come up with some of our best. Don’t cling on to ideas, be ready to move on and do better.

5    Love What You Do and Trust Your Gut

Now this is two rolled into one but I have already exceeded my word count for this blog as it is! These are two very simple points of the same whole. Never ever doubt how important they are. If you don’t love what you do then it will bleed through into your work creatively, people can only love what you do if you loved doing it and please please please trust your gut. Go with your instincts and don’t be afraid to try new things, ask questions and just get out of your comfort zone.
I’m not sure if these are my top 5 points or just 5 points that are really important to me right now but I hope it’s provided you with some sort of insight.
This blog was written by Aj Grand-Scrutton of Dlala Studios. Aj will be talking at the Indie Dev Day on Thursday 10 July.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

GUEST BLOG: Introducing the Develop Teardown workshop

GUEST BLOG: Introducing the Develop Teardown workshop

We're bringing something new to Develop this year – a multi-session teardown of Rare's Kinect Sports Rivals that will deliver a deep insight into developing innovative games.

I think it's an exciting innovation for the Develop conference, too.

At first glance you might think it's a bit over-the-top to dedicate so much space and time to just one game, but if anything the opposite is true. Here's why.

Alien activity

If some alien archaeologist of the future had to explain the shifts in video game development over the past five to 10 years with reference only to the historical record of conference programmes and trade magazines (the games themselves having long since vanished) then he/she/it might suppose we got bored of making and playing complicated productions.

And from the proliferation of free-to-play conferences and mobile workshops around the world, you could understand why a six-armed space-faring academic would reach that conclusion from the headlines.

Yet we all know big development hasn't been seen off entirely by smartphones, freemium MMOs, indies, and so on.

What it has become is harder to explain to outsiders.

Even 20 years ago, most people working on most top-of-the-range titles knew everyone on their team. Staff often had input into more than one aspect of the game. The era of the artist/designer and a myriad other 'slashes' was at its height, as studios struggled to cope with challenges that were steepening faster than the growth of their workforces.

Today, making big console games is a multi-disciplinary logistical nightmare, made feasible only by specialism, advances in development frameworks, and producers who've finally wrestled the whip hand from the most talented coders and creatives who used to speak for teams. There's simply no other way to drive hugely complicated next gen projects to completion on time and budget otherwise.

Mindboggling challenges

Indeed I often think modern game development makes blockbuster filmmaking seem a doddle by comparison.

You're working on the special effects for the new Star Wars? That's nice. Try doing that while devising the physics of the Star Wars universe, the AI of its free-roaming characters, a non-linear narrative to span 40 hours instead of the mere couple in a movie – and all for an audience that expects to see similar quality on the small screen as at the cinema.

Oh, and before anyone points to prima donnas sulking in their trailers game development also has egos to manage…

Making a triple-A video game is like making a fairground ride with a narrative plot and Newtonian physics on the side. There are so many moving parts.

As we continue to plod through the Uncanny Valley, it has to look and feel great, too.

Separate together

No wonder big budget game development is now the domain of specialists. Yet even today they hardly operate in a vacuum.

Game artists work to constraints set by the producers and programmers, for example, while constantly pushing their own requests back, too. Designers frequently see their vision for the game shift as concept art is produced or prototyping begins.

Agile development tries to address the Balkanisation of the creative process by re-integrating the difference disciplines involved, to harness their interdependence to best achieve the goals at hand. We hope our multi-session teardown can do something similar.

See the big picture

You see, all this complexity means it's very hard to get a true sense what it took to make a game in just a single 45-minute session.

Often I've left a conference session with more questions than answers!

Sometimes you hear about some particular aspect of a game's development in detail, for example, but it feels like learning about just one stop on a gigantic journey. Other times you get a good overview, but it's a Captain's Log bereft of colour from the engine room.

We hope Rare's teardown will give you as holistic a view into what goes into making a game today as is possible, short of being on the team yourself.

Please do feel free to make notes for the benefit of those extra-terrestrial game historians of the future!

This blog was written by Owain Bennellack who is Chair of the Develop in Brighton Advisory Board.