Out of the Water


… This blog was always intended to be a place for me to store my thoughts when I had them, a way of venting meaningless things in a public forum so that I could taste the words when I wrote them – by forcing myself to formulate ideas I would perhaps gain new insights. That was the reason for the blog format in the first place, having a public place meant having to think a little more about what was written than writing in a mere diary would. Or maybe it just made me cowardly.

My point being that satisfying exhibitionist tendencies was never the primary intent of this blog, but I will not deny I like it when people read what I write and comment upon it. As such I feel bad about not writing anything for longer times.

A couple of months ago I moved to the United States and started working for Blizzard Entertainment – trying to settle into a foreign society and a new job has taken up a lot of my time and attention and I have not been able to reflect upon the happenings around me as I would perhaps have wanted. Due to how information is handled in the games industry – perhaps at this company in particular – there is little I can say about my job but the way different views affect how a company functions has been an eye-opener.

At Starbreeze (and I suspect at many other similar companies), most ideas came from a perceived experience. It was all about hitting the emotional target and anything that would help deliver that could be added without much thought; I imagine it was similar to working on movies in some ways. Blizzard, on the other hand, are focused on delivering gameplay first and the purity of it supersedes everything else. As an engine programmer, going from a console development environment to developing exclusively for PC has been a big change. As a gamer and part-time designer, moving from a company where games have traditionally been cinematic, single-player experiences to one making the world’s largest MMORPG and the world’s biggest e-sport has been kind of overwhelming. It all reminds me of the piece on Game Design Cognition from a few years back.

I have almost resolved the practical issues  involved in moving abroad though, so hopefully I will soon have more time to consider more interesting things again.

Posted on Jun 25/11 by Saint and filed under General game development, Meta-blog | 1 Comment »

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To be honest, 2010 has been kind of tough. Not that there hasn’t been good things happening, but after 2008 and 2009 offered grand new experiences the main thing I learned in 2010 was that it was time for me to leave my job. The conclusion came as a matter of necessity and I did not have a hard time doing it, but I still have not resolved everything it actually means to me. For almost 20 years I wanted to work with games and when I finally got employed I did not imagine I would ever want to leave Starbreeze – reaching this decision has created a lot of questions I never really thought about before. Luckily, I am free to follow my dreams yet again and it looks like 2011 will be a lot more interesting. But enough about that! A lot of games were noteworthy this year but I have boiled it down to four, three of which are rather obvious.

Mass Effect 2

I played a lot of JRPGs when I was younger and I distinctly remember not liking Lufia 2 because I could not sympathize with the main character – despite the game being fairly good otherwise. The problem with story in games is just that – it is hard to write an involving story without giving the main character a personality, and this means games usually have bland stories or stories that some people just do not like. Mass Effect 2 is fantastic in this regard as it gives you an involving story where you really feel that you play the character you want to play and that the game responds accordingly, and I am really looking forward to the third installment.

Hero Core

Hero Core had a pretty long polish phase for a game of its scope, but playing it it becomes clear that it was worth it. Daniel Remar is a master of creating more with less and makes creating great design – core mechanics as well as level design – look effortless. It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw a line between “mainstream” and “indie” games, but that hardly matters as long as lone developers create virtual masterpieces and inspire hopeful future game developers.

Starcraft 2

Starcraft 2 oozes refinement and as a gamer who is increasingly more interested in a good story it is very refreshing to see a game that has such intriguing mechanics and careful balancing that you can play it in a multitude of different ways for hours and hours and still learn something. Sure, a game made with professional gaming in mind is bound to be deep, but even for a rookie or casual gamer Starcraft 2 is fun to just mess around with.

Alan Wake

Returning to the heavily story-based games, Alan Wake takes a completely different approach than Mass Effect and instead embraces a very static script with heavy influences from Stephen King and Twin Peaks. Now, the game sometimes feels tacked-on as the story is central, but it is very well-written and immensely well-presented both aesthetically and technically. I suppose if I hadn’t liked the source material my opinion would have been more in line with the reviewers’, but as it is I really loved the game.

Posted on Dec 31/10 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog, Reflections | No Comments »

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Those who have known me for a long while know I like handicrafts and used to do it quite a lot when I was younger… Like any pretentious developer I like to be creative, and I like to keep my hands busy. It is not that I prefer knitting to other crafts, but it can be done without paying too much attention to it which is great when enjoying non-interactive entertainment such as watching movies – hence I occasionally knit stuff. Long story short, I decided to get rid of it a few months ago and started selling for the Child’s Play Charity in the beginning of November through this page.

All in all, the auctions gathered somewhere around $600, thanks in no small part to Terry Cavanagh who helped out by offering a bonus to those interested in the VVVVVV socks… I am not sure what to do next, but for those interested there is this thread on TIGSource.

… That is all. This was an extremely egocentric post, but it was fun to something out of the ordinary for Child’s Play instead of just buying something from amazon.

Posted on Dec 02/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, Homegrown, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Moving On

 Due to the nature of information in the games industry this post is going to be intentionally vague.

Today is my last day as an employee of Starbreeze studios, incidentally (actually, not quite so incidentally) it is also exactly five years since I was employed. Time sure does fly, I have been a part of four productions since then but I still have vivid memories of my first few months in Uppsala.

Describing it, times sound like they were pretty harsh. The first couple of months I slept on a couch outside of my office more often than I slept in the hostel we lived, after that I lived in a small room where I couldn’t prepare food so I spent most of my time at the office anyway since I had nearly no money and couldn’t afford to eat out. I thought it was pretty great though – during my times at Gotland University I had been involved in a lot of different things that all took up time, it felt really good to be able to focus all my energies on a single project for a change. Also, I learned a lot and got to hang out with really talented people, so at the time I did not think I would ever want to leave.

Even if you can’t feel it passing, though, time changes things. I had dreamed of working with games since I was very young, so now when I was finally there it became time to re-evaluate my dreams and goals. After talking a lot to my superiors and trying different things, it became clear to me that I wanted to go in a different direction than Starbreeze. Rather than spending my time fighting a plan I did not agree with I would let more experienced people decide what to do and try to find a place with a plan I could agree with.

I am not sure what to do now, actually – though I am not done with games, not by far. I have toyed with the idea of joining the ever-growing independent crowd, but there is also something in the AAA games industry you cannot really experience anywhere else.

Time will tell, but finding out where to go next and hopefully again gaining more focus will be a welcome experience.

Posted on Oct 10/10 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog | 2 Comments »

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No More Sweden 2010


No More Sweden occurred again, this year in the town of Skövde. Less places to go to, but easier to get around and a – thankfully – air-conditioned locale. I did make a game, but it wasn’t very good… And not in a “I had a cool idea but it didn’t work out” – way, rather a “I did something completely uninspired just to do something” – way. Anyhow, I’m not going to post it so the above picture is from Daniel Remar’s brilliant entry Man Enough. Hopefully the game and the soundtrack will be available within the next few days.

The organizers have stated that they want this to be more of a gathering than a jam though, and it is definitely moving in the right direction. Lots of interesting presentations were held on different topics and a lot of time was spent just relaxing in discussion and trading stories. Coming straight from an increasingly commercial mainstream games industry, it is a true breath of fresh air to meet people who think that games can be something more, do something new and mean something else – and people who also are not afraid to try it out.

Posted on Jul 12/10 by Saint and filed under General game development, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Global Game Jam


The Global Game Jam was this weekend, and after failing to set up a local event me and a few friends decided to go to the Nordic Game Jam, reportedly the largest GGJ site. Besides hanging out with friends, acquaintances from the indie scene and making a few new connections, we (Juha, Martin, Tobias and I) created a short game called “Fake“.

We were in development up until the final minutes so there is no proper tutorial; consider this an introduction. Your role is that of an art forger working for the mysterious mafioso “Don Key”. Funds being sparse, you are limited to cut and paste existing images in order to reproduce the paintings.

Start out by selecting a painting, then selecting a theme for your photos on the right. You can re-select the theme later by clicking the button on the top-right but it will reset your work. Click any of the images on the right to select a source, then use the left mouse button to cut out a pattern and use it on the forgery. The left menu bar can be used to select or move the active layer, you can also use the right mouse button to delete a layer. When not cutting a picture, you can move the active layer with the left mouse button, rotate it with the right or press both mouse buttons to scale it. The button on the top left will swap the preview mode of the real painting, how it is shown will have no bearing on the final result, though. When you are done, press the button second from the right at the top to submit the painting for approval by Don Key.

I was really out of my element when hacking this together and too much time went into hacking GUI elements that a proper tool would’ve provided for me. This being the case, the final version does not only miss a proper tutorial but also some basic UI elements and it comes with a lot of bugs. That being said, the game was fairly fun for what it was, the idea feels solid and we managed to make a game out of the development itself by taking pictures of jam attendees and using them in the final version – always fun to do at events like this. All in all, we had a great time at least.

Sadly, we had to leave halfway through the finals and I have not seen very many of the other games from NGJ yet. I would like to give a shout out to Shoot Stop Lollipop and Shadow Ninja… Monkey though, as they both had genuinely interesting gameplay mechanics.

Posted on Feb 01/10 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, General game development, Homegrown, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Less obvious than last

Again, it feels good to be a rebel. But I digress. Games to honor, and all that.

Spelunky, for a lot of reasons. My main point would be the balance between what’s expected and what’s randomized, and how the randomized parts feels interesting every time. You always know what you’re after, but you have no idea of what you’ll have to encounter to get there. For years the commercial gaming industry have been pursuing different multiplayer modes as means to prolong the lifetime of a game, Yu’s take on procedural content might just provide an alternative to that.

 Persona 4, for sticking to its guns. Looking too deep into academia and (ironically) into reviewers’ opinions, it is easy to discern certain things that should guarantee a game being bad. There are many things about Persona 4 that I dislike, but they certainly helped make the things I did like about it feel like an achievement to get to – design by tedium might not be a wholly bad thing.

Uncharted 2 for the exact opposite reason. Making a game that does just about everything right from a technical and academically sound point of view does not make it enjoyable, apparently.

A decennium has come to an end, and for the first time of the three new decennia I have seen I feel like the Uggla song is an appropriate way of entering it. On the other hand, it might just be because I had not heard it at any of the other shifts. The future will tell.

Posted on Jan 01/10 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog, Reflections | No Comments »

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Gotland Game Jam 2009


Gotland Game Jam is an event consisting of a 48 hour game-making competition for students and ex-students of the Game development education of Gotland University. As my participation was offsite and I spent most of the weekend on IRC I do not have that much to say about the actual event, though I did play the games created and there were some delightfully weird creations among them.

My own contribution is metroidvania based on the theme “Popecat” called Leim [download]. I am reasonably happy with how it came out.

To be completely honest, I had decided beforehand that I was going to make a metroidvania platformer and crowbar it into whatever theme selected for the Jam; there are sure to be people who consider this the wrong approach to take to a gamejam (and with good reason), but to paraphrase Jon Mak it is usually a better idea to make something you really want than to force innovation for innovation’s sake. There are some other drawbacks though.

For starters, exploration games tend to be sort of a tall order and maybe trying to make a worthwhile one in 48 hours is a lost cause. You need a lot of content to make it interesting, and if you are growing the avatar abilities there are lots of things that can break the level design, forcing you to play it very safe if you do not want to create a horribly broken game. Also, going against what John Harris said about interesting environments I tried to force small areas where each had some gameplay idea instead of doing what I should have done, attempt to create ideas for the world and then build levels around those ideas (although again, maybe not feasible in 48 hours). Adding to this is the central hub I placed in the game and the ever-decreasing energy – originally the idea was meant to allow for incrementally more exploration as getting more energy allowed you to move further in the gameworld instead of having obvious borders, but the concept didn’t really mesh with that idea and all it did was discourage exploration. The cohesiveness of the experience was sort of tacked-on as well as I had to remove a lot of the themes and presentation ideas I had in store, again due to lack of time.

Technologically, this wasn’t really a challenging game and although I did sort of fail design-wise I would say I learned enough from it to make the weekend a worthwhile experience. Anyhow, it was very much fun so perhaps it didn’t have to be in the first place.

Posted on Nov 23/09 by Saint and filed under General game development, Homegrown, Meta-blog | No Comments »

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Max Barry on virtual violence

Australia is, like Germany, one of the countries in the world were unrated media is actually forbidden – games refused a rating by the government’s media classification organ cannot legally be sold there. What makes Australia unique is that it is also one of the few democratic countries in the world where the highest age rating you could grant is 15.

Max Barry, Australian author and originator of the web game Nationstates, has spoken up on this in a recent blog post;

the game developer, like other developers before it, deleted some of the gorier parts and resubmitted it. The Australian Classifications Board noted that “large and frequent blood splatters are seen,” but now “dead bodies and blood splatter disappear as they touch the ground.” You can still rip zombies to pieces with a chainsaw, but “no wound detail is shown.” It was awarded an MA15+ classification (meaning 14 year olds and younger require a guardian present), tagged: “Strong bloody violence.”

Instead of Australia having a violent, bloody computer game restricted to adults, it will have a violent, not-quite-as-bloody game on sale to children. This is the effect of our law: to take content that was designed for adults and tweak it until it scrapes under the MA15+ bar. We’re making available to children material they would not otherwise see, clustered at the extreme end of what is acceptable.

… An interesting point, to be sure. I get into more detail in my virgin post at the Game Industry Insiders blog.

Posted on Oct 12/09 by Saint and filed under Meta-blog, Moral panic | No Comments »

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Just Cause 2 looks nice

In these troubled times of layoffs and studios closing, it is nice to see the new Just Cause 2 trailer looking really good – I am not usually excited about sandbox games, but I will most likely pick up this one.

Though it is hard to deny that the fact that there are a lot of unemployed, experienced developers makes it easier in our own recruiting work, the situation is hardly good for either Starbreeze or myself. Disregarding the fact that a lot of my friends have been let go, less companies means less money and less people for the Swedish games industry. This in turn means less incentive for press and larger publishers to visit here, for educations to be held and less possibility for events like the Swedish Game Awards to be funded and staged.

Hopefully, this trend will turn – even if things did not turn out so well for Grin, I would go out on a limb and say Avalanche has a good chance of survival – if only because I recognize the situation they are in. Five years ago, Starbreeze had hired too many and grown too quickly, was forced to let go all but a small core team and then Riddick was released to rave reviews giving Starbreeze enough recognition to sign more contracts and today we are doing just fine.

Posted on Aug 18/09 by Saint and filed under Gaming culture, Meta-blog | No Comments »