Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso – A Top Ten Game

The Independent, a UK national newspaper, has just published a top ten list of free games and they included my game, Mr. Smoozles Goes Nutso, which can be downloaded here.

I’m very honoured to be in the list, so huge thanks to Will Coldwell for putting the game in there.

(If you don’t know, the game is downloadable to play on PC only.)

MSGN Intro Screen

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Writing from my new phone

I got a new phone a couple of days ago and I’m still getting familiar with it.  It’s a Galaxy S3 and so much bigger than my previous phones.  However, I’m impressed wih how good it is and bow much better it feels than my ipad or my ipod touch.  If I need to replace the ipad at some point I may well switch over to a Samsung device.

I’m currently writing this on the phone and while I don’t think it will be a good productivity tool, in that I won’t be doing any major writing on it, it’s definitely better than the touch for this kind of short piece.  It’s certainly going to be better to take this to events like next month’s GaMaYo meet up.

All in all, a great upgrade.

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A note on creating characters

I’m currently reading The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker.  On the whole it’s a very good book and although it has a few small things I didn’t like, the good parts far outweigh the few minor poor parts.

I’m in a section on Character Building and the authors mention that Tony Jordan, who has a number of excellent TV credits, concentrates on three things about the characters he creates.  The first is to think of something they would always do; the second, something they would never do; and the third is a paradox in their behaviour, attitudes or situation.

I’ve never been a real fan of creating long lists of characteristics, likes and dislikes, tastes and backstory, so this struck me as a great starting point for character development.  The paradox aspect, or characters with contradictions, is particularly important because this gives characters depth.

One thing that struck me, which has nothing to do with television, is how difficult it is to develop character contradictions – and therefore character depth – for games.  So many characters do little more than react to the action taking place in the environments and on the few occasions where the main character is given such depth the other characters are likely to fall down.

The issue we face, of course, is how we give the best character and story experience to the player without disrupting the flow of the gameplay.  There are times that we have to realise we cannot give the depth of The Killing in a high action title or fun platformer, but that shouldn’t stop us from putting in the best characters we can, even if we don’t get the opportunity to show off every aspect of those characters.  As creators we should always know far more about our characters than the audience because we never know when we might get the opportunity to reveal their true depth.

So create the rich characters with contradictions because you may get the chance for them to shine in your games in unexpected ways.  Sometimes those ways may be subtle and may only be picked up by a small percentage of players, but if the richness is there you can take pride in a job well done.

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Denzo Steel

Denzo Steel

I am writing a new story called Denzo Steel and will be presenting it in comic strip format with episodes every week (all being well).  The style is darker and more serious than my normal comic strip work so I hope that people will enjoy it as much, if not more.  As ever, feedback will be greatly appreciated.

 

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20 Things I Learned…

…from 20 years in the games industry.

 

February 1st 2013 marks 20 years in the games industry for me.  I joined Revolution Software in 1993 and it’s been a fantastic career so far, thanks initially to everyone at Revolution and, now I’m freelance, to all those clients who have taken on my services.

Inspired by a suggestion from Maria Sif, here are 20 things I’ve learned over that time, presented in no particular order.

I hope I’ve learned many more things than just 20 but it feels like a good way to celebrate this milestone.

 

Have a great sense of fun but take the work seriously.

You must be serious about the work involved in order to achieve your goals but this should also include scheduling time to ensure your game is fun, which kind of sounds like a contradiction but it does make sense.  If you don’t enjoy making games, are the games you’re making going to be enjoyable to players?

 

Respect all deadlines and be open about the work you do at all times.

Deadlines are vital and it’s important to establish them properly so that you can achieve milestones without driving yourself into the ground.  Always be transparent in your work and progress with others in the team – secrets and hidden agendas will cause more problems than they solve and will bite you in the neck as soon as you turn away.

 

It’s the software that counts, not the operating system.

I don’t care if people have a Mac or a PC.  I care whether they can use Photoshop or Painter or Word or Final Draft or Scrivener or Maya or Blender etc.  I care if they use software of their choice to create great art, write captivating stories and dialogue, compose rich music or record dramatic voices.  The right software will enable you to realise your passions, the operating system hardly matters.

 

There is no magic button substitute for hard work. 

Tools and great software may help you work more efficiently and smooth the path towards realising your vision.  They will not take away the hard work, which comes in many forms – creating new ideas, writing 500 pages of text or fixing tedious bugs (to name but a few) – and you just need to buckle down to it.

If anything becomes easy, you’re not pushing your limits hard enough.

 

Respect others and learn from them, particularly those who have special talents and skills.  Never stop learning from others.

Respect is vital because we’re all human beings with feelings.  Even if someone rubs you up the wrong way, they may still have something to teach you.

There is always something new to discover.  If you think there isn’t, then this is the next new thing for you to take on board.

Learning is often about picking up lots of little things, like how someone draws hands effectively or another person organises their story plotting.  But learning isn’t copying – it’s about seeing how others do things and adapting them to fit with your own work methods and style.

 

Just because I don’t like a game it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad game

It just may not appeal to my tastes.

I’m also not judging your choices or values.  We’re all different and our individual ranges of games may contain common choices, but none of us can like everything.  I don’t particularly like war based games but I respect the fact that many of them are very well made.

Sometimes people ask me if I’ve played a certain game and more often than not the answer is no.  Like everyone, I only have a limited amount of time to play games so don’t be offended when I haven’t played a game you like.

 

Don’t look down on a particular genre or style of game. 

As a professional you should always apply your best work to any project.  Never have an attitude where you effectively say “it’s just a game”.  The huge variety of games means that all kinds of audience tastes are catered for and we must remember that those audience members – the players – are valuable to all of us.  If you feel a genre you’re working on is weak, help to make it stronger with your game.

 

Games development people are generally very nice to know. 

Not only are they passionate and enthusiastic about games in general and the work they do, they are also a pleasure to talk with whenever I get the chance to do so.

They are also lots of fun.  (And Gamescom is the best gaming event on the calendar.)

 

Good characters will drive your story.

I’m not talking about whether characters are well drawn or well modelled in stunning 3D; I mean characters who are developed properly as people and not simply as a collection of stats, abilities and equipment.  Rich, memorable characters are the ones we care about and whose predicaments make us want to discover how the story progresses.

If we don’t care about the characters we can’t care about the story.

 

Good plotting is vital.

By this I don’t mean structure, which is something else entirely.  I mean the way you make the story work, particularly in an interactive environment.  It’s about the fine detail and the big events and all the connections between.  It’s about making sure that everything makes sense on a micro and macro scale.

It’s about making sure that if the player needs a particular key it’s found in a plausible way.  It’s about reducing coincidence.  It’s about linking everything within the world in such a way that player agency cannot break the logic.

 

Write games with the player in mind at all times.

The player is your audience and without an audience you’re just whistling in the woods.  Even while creating game stories and designs, part of your mind must be on how the player will see things and react.  If you cannot do this you really ought to learn how to do so.

 

Not every idea is a great idea. 

Learn to cut the crap and polish only the gems.

It’s easy to fall in love with an idea simply because it was born from your fertile imagination.  However, there are times when your imagination can be a bit evil and fool you into thinking something has worth when it doesn’t.  Be on your guard at all times!

Big Ideas are also rarely single ideas but often made up of lots of small ideas that work together and complement one another.  If you can, learn how to refine ideas by the development of this extra detail.

 

Ignore advice/articles that proclaim that “everything should be/will be done this way”.

If my experience tells me anything it’s that such proclamations are rarely true.  The number of times people have foretold the death of cinema should illustrate this.  If anything, cinema is stronger than ever in spite of Television, VHS, DVD, etc.

In games, this often manifests in terms of a developer announcing they are making a game in a particular way and therefore all other ways are rubbish.  This is clearly nonsense.

 

The more creative I am, the more creative I want to be.

I get quite a buzz from being creative and seeing ideas come together in a substantial way.  It’s like I get a creative momentum going, too, which can mean I get annoyed if I’m held up by slow feedback or cancelled meetings.

On a connected note: nothing fires up a great new idea than being in the middle of exciting, creative work.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but my mind seems very happy to work this way.

Sometimes this can be frustrating because you instantly want to work on the new idea, but if you make notes of all your ideas and keep them safe there may come a point when you can return to them and give them the time they deserve.

 

Casting good actors is as important as writing good dialogue. 

And when they come together, the two will dance and sing and make me very happy.

Among the finest pleasures I’ve had while writing for games are the times I’ve spent in recording studios listening to good actors bring my lines to life in exciting and dramatic ways.

 

Player choice isn’t the same as non-linearity.

I believe the games industry uses the term, “non-linear” in a wrong way.  Most of the time it’s taken to mean player choice when it really shouldn’t.  Non-linear should be reserved for stories/games that jump around in time or between different points of view.  (I don’t mean time-travel, by the way.)

If a game stays with one character as he/she progresses through the game and story, then this is linear regardless of the choices the player makes.  Replaying the game and making different choices simply gives you a different linear path through the game.

And when I talk about a game being linear I don’t mean that it’s “on rails”.

 

There are times when you will be wrong.

Experience and knowledge can reduce the number of times this happens, but we’re all wrong at some point.

Get over it and move on.  If you dwell on your wrongness you will only eat away at yourself and undermine your own professionalism, particularly if you argue your point and continue to fight a losing battle.

Of course, there will be times when you are completely right and are overridden anyway, in spite of doing your best to explain your ideas.  Fight your corner, but know when to compromise.

Sometimes it’s not about being right or wrong but what is creatively best for the project.

 

Work towards a clear vision. 

Without it, what are you working towards?

Adapt the vision if necessary when things in the project change, but always make sure it’s clear.  It’s vital that it’s a shared vision, too.  If the rest of the team aren’t working towards the same vision, you’ll never get a game that’s properly cohesive.

 

Detail matters, but ensure that it’s relevant and important.

Refine your gameplay, puzzles, plot, characters, etc. as much as possible, but be aware that overdoing it can be detrimental.

Also, lots of text doesn’t necessarily mean lots of interesting detail, particularly if you get carried away on a single point.  Be succinct.

Some details will only be known to you but they will be details that feed into how you see a character or a game world or how you keep the vision in sight.

 

Never lose your passion.

Ever.

Without your passion to drive you the work will become much more difficult than it needs to be.

But if you do lose your passion, look for ways you can rekindle it.  Play games that excite you, both old and new, and recapture what it was that made you love games in the first place.

Love your creativity.

 

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A new image

Here’s an adaptation of a photo in my logo colours.

Steve Stylised

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Happy New Year!

I hope it brings you all the very best you could wish for.

Happy New Year

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Game writing hangout

This Thursday, 15th Nov, I’m taking part in a Google+ Hangout in which I’ll be talking about writing for games.  The Hangout is organised by Heather Taylor of Red on Black Productions and you can hook up in a number of ways.

Google+ event page.

Facebook page

Youtube page

If you miss the live event, you can always catch up  on Youtube at any time you wish.  I hope you’ll be able to join us and post some questions live.

Also, if you drop by the Red on Black Youtube page you might like to check out the Raptured series.

 

 

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Open Letter to the NHS – Hygiene

Dear NHS,

I really love the wonderful things you do and all our lives would be very poor indeed without the on-going care and medical aid you give us.  However, I really get annoyed when I see reports in the newspapers about MRSA and lack of hygiene.

The reason for my annoyance comes from a regular display of practices that suggest a basic lack of understanding of simple hygiene from everyone involved.  In the last few years, for instance, I have seen a number of instances of each of the following:

  • Wearing cardigans over uniforms.
  • Wearing outdoor coats over uniforms.
  • Wearing uniforms to and from the hospital.

The idea of transfer of germs and bugs through such practices clearly escapes the grasp of those involved.  It is often impressed on visitors how important it is to wash/clean hands on entering wards and this is exactly right, but hospital staff should have much higher standards that include the right attitude towards clothing.

However, the above is nothing compared to one of the worst practices I’ve regularly seen happen – a complete disregard for how infection can be spread through the transfer from the curtains surrounding each of the beds on the wards.

Visitors constantly brush up against these curtains with their clothes, the patients touch them, everybody touches them.  Now think carefully about the main people who touch them – the nurses who attend the patients many times a day.

If they have just cleaned up a patient or re-dressed an infected wound, those nurses will push back the curtains with the soiled gloves still on their hands, transferring bacteria and the like to the curtains.

Worse still is that the next time they attend that same patient, nurses put on rubber gloves BEFORE closing the curtains, which immediately stops the gloves being sterile and risks passing on infection to the patient.  If this isn’t the cause of the majority of patient infections I’d be very surprised.

We’re all disgusted at the cut-backs enforced on the NHS by this current government, particularly when the majority of us have been paying for it through our National Insurance contributions, but this is not an excuse for a mind-set that cannot make the connections that lead to infection transfer this way.

Being in hospital is hard.  Working in hospital is hard.  But thinking about hygiene should be natural for all of us.

Please be cleaner in your thinking.

Regards,
Steve Ince
East Yorkshire

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We Don’t Need No Game Writers

Game writers have been harbouring a secret for years and it’s time to come clean – it’s not important for any game to use an experienced writer, even for a story based game.

Now this may seem controversial but it needs to be said.  After all, anyone can write, can’t they?  Everyone watches films and TV and most people have read books at some point in their lives – how hard can it be?

Level designers are talented people and a producer knows the project inside out (right?), so one of those guys can do it.  It doesn’t matter if they know little about all that malarkey concerning structure, character arcs, theme, sub-plots, subtext, motivation and suspension of disbelief – quality isn’t important when good gameplay will disguise any story problems.  (You have got good gameplay, right?)  And you can use spell-check and grammar-check to fix the dialogue; after all, everyone speaks grammatically correct at all times.

Games don’t need characters we care about – they don’t need depth, just cool stats.  The only characters anyone gives a damn about in games are the ones with big guns or big tits.  Preferably both.  Or fill your game with mindless robots – they don’t need quirky personalities players will find enjoyable and tell all their friends about.

Characters don’t need back-story or any kind of humanity that will lead to empathy.  Killing zombies will provide all the empathy necessary.

Don’t lose sleep over plot holes.  Who the hell finishes games these days?  You can’t tell me that all those people who complained about the ending of Mass Effect 3 actually played it through.  Besides, plot holes are a good thing – they encourage the player to give up on a game and buy a new one; a win for all developers, surely?  And I’m positive players will never remember these plot problems the next time they consider buying one of your games.

Anyway, players won’t have time to care about the plot if they’re busy killing their best friend’s girlfriend’s cousin’s teacher’s poodle.  (Remind me again why we’re doing that?)

Who cares about a believable bad guy?  Just make him a hard bastard it will be nearly impossible to defeat at the end of the game.  He doesn’t need to be seen in the rest of the game and we don’t need to care about his motivation or why he’s such a big problem for the player character.  If in doubt, swap any angst for cool looking weapons and a gravelly voice.

Drama and conflict is bollocks, except when it involves big weapons or improbable martial arts moves.  The player should be able to find out the important information without even trying – gameplay is shooting and jumping not investigation and interrogation.  Variety is for those players who want a rich, value-for-money experience.

You should always design and implement the game before worrying about the story.  A great story can be tagged on at any time because it’s just a bunch of made-up stuff.  Completing the gameplay before adding the story means that there is no chance the writer can take up your time with valuable suggestions on how to enhance the whole project.  You know what you want; there’s no need to improve it.

Quality dialogue is completely unnecessary.  No one wants to read or listen to what you wrote anyway.  The producer or the technical director probably once won a school prize for a poem they wrote about their dog, one of them can write the speech lines.

When it comes to turning the dialogue into recorded voice samples, this can be one of the easiest tasks of all.  Acting is a piece of cake and the guys in the office can put on silly voices so get them to do the voices at a bargain basement price.  They’ll have a whale of a time and can even ad-lib cheesy in-jokes while they’re at it.

If you really feel you need to use professional actors, don’t bother attending the casting session because the voice studio that’s doing it on the cheap will have no decent actors on their books, which only helps to emphasise that it wasn’t necessary to waste money on a writer in the first place.

Do you know of any game that was spoiled by poor acting?  Exactly!  So, even though your Cockney gangster sounds like a Russian diplomat, he doesn’t speak much when he’s avenging the death of his cat with a pair of grenade launchers.

So there we have it.  Don’t employ a writer who knows what he’s doing because he or she will only make things difficult with their high levels of expertise and expectations of quality dialogue, story and characters.

Who cares about the low review scores when they will be more than compensated by the money you save?  It’s not like you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into the game you just released.  It’s not like you set out to make a good game in the first place.

You’re just in it for the money, not the fact that you love games and want those you make to be the very best possible.  Right?

Right?

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