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The Longest Road

Ok, where do I start with this? Maybe it’s good to tell a little about myself first so there is some background information about why, who, what and where. So I have always been a positive person, I laugh a lot and am generally happy with how life is treating me. Considering that life is cruel and unforgiving I could have had a much worse fate than I have experienced up until now. Not saying that my life has been sunshine and rainbows throughout, but I managed to make it to 28 without too much hassle.

From, I think it was about the age of 13 or 14 i’m not really sure, I knew that I wanted to do something creative, for a while it was movie director, then it was comedian, at one point just before I started doing game design I wanted to join the army (glad I didn’t). But in the end, I ended up at the NHTV in breda, at the University of International Game Architecture and Design. Here I learned a lot of new skills, but I learned even more about the huge variety of games that I never knew existed. I played games all my life, even from a young age I always asked consoles or games whenever I could ask for a present. But, I was very limited in my choice, of course I preferred certain types of genre over others, but mostly I just didn’t know about the many different types of games that were out there. The university, and it almost feel a little cheesy saying this, really opened my eyes and I came in contact with a lot of different games over the course of my education. I think the one that stands out a turning point for my perception of games is, Spec ops: The Line. It was the very first game for me that helped me find a deeper insight into something that I knew nothing about. The game did something that no other game ever managed do with me, it made me step out of the reality that I was playing a game and it made me feel something. I felt regret for what I did, I felt regret for my actions which bestowed upon Non Player Characters. The game showed me what type of terrible things a combat zone could do to people, and the incredibly fragile position soldiers are in, the thing they have to deal with and that orders are orders where you hope your side made the right ones. The game taught me more about war than written pieces, television or any real world experience has ever been able to give me. That game opened my eyes to the impact games can have on people, that games can truly give people a deeper insight into a certain situation and after some time it also became clear to me what type of games I wanted to spend my time on making.

 

After I played Spec Ops: The Line, I started exploring other games outside the “mainstream spectrum” I talked to my professors about Spec Ops and they told me about a game called Flower. The professor advise me to play that game and after finally getting my hands on a playstation 3 (It was a PS3 exclusive) I immediately bought the game. Now many people don’t see games as art, now inherently I think this isn’t true at all, but I can see their point. Although it takes a lot of creativity to design and put together to get it working, the work itself speaks louder than the people behind the work. Like every movie is art, but only some are viewed as work of art (very good movies, according to society. Check Imdb, we give rating and everything). Games are the same, some games just aren’t that well written, or not so well put together or just have an entertainment purpose and that is where it stops. Just entertainment, again, like movies. But some game… Some game are simply art. Flower was one of those games to me, it did something new, it was a completely new game experience I had never had before. Like I said I played my way through every type of genre there was, (except the obscure ones) but this was something completely new to me. The premise was different, no shooting, no leveling up or getting to one point as fast as possible, it was completely without conflict, just freedom of movement and a level with a general goal. Seriously, it is such a pleasant game to play, anyone who reads this should really check out Flower. Now this game is stunningly beautiful and unlike any game you have ever seen. This game, for the first time in my life, made me think of a game as a piece of art. Now I do have to say in Spec Ops was in my opinion also art, but they packaged it in a sort of generic 3rd person shooter without a lot of very interesting gameplay moments, but then again a game about war will have shooter mechanics and there is only so much you can do with that. So i’m not saying the game had bad gameplay, it was ok, but the message that they told and the choices they made in the game which were interwoven with the story made the game so incredible. Ok back to Flower, stunning game, the story is a bit vague, but the game makes up so much with the stunning look and simple but amazing gameplay. Flower had widened my view of what games could be, but at the time I could not for the life of me think of a way to make such a game. Then the same studio came with another game Journey.

 

Now I think Journey is is quite possibly the best game that I have seen until this day. That game again can be classified as art, it has a fantastic story where the player has to piece together themselves what is going on in the world (most games do this, I know). Note that the game only uses music and images to tell the story, so what the players make of the story is very personal, everyone understands something different from what they see and if they can form a logic from what they see they make the story theirs. This realisation came to me when I was researching the game on the web after playing it, I saw a video of so many people that found meaning in what the game brought to them and helped them with personal issues. Now the game itself is very well done, it has a beautiful emotional curve which for the first time in my life I felt moved by a game. The game is set in a stunning and mysterious world in the middle of a dessert, they mystery keeping you on your explorative journey while the story slowly unfolds around you as you move forward. I find it hard to express this game in words, there is so much to tell about it so much technique and interesting choices about this game. But I think you should just play it, I just can’t describe how good this game is, words fall short. Now what this game did for me, was show me how games like this could help people (I’m referring to the video) and this inspired me, it inspired me to make games that could help people. I knew what I wanted to do in my career as a game designer, not right away, this took some time to manifest.

 

In the beginning I was very focussed on being a Narrative Designer, trying to get into studio’s as a narrative designer, but easier said than done. Narrative design is a tricky market to just roll into, as if the industry isn’t hard enough to get into regardless, most studio’s have an in-house narrative designer or someone who does it on the side. Now I think the latter is a serious mistake, the story is such a large part of the player’s immersion, it is so important for the communication of the game. But some studio’s just don’t hold the narrative side very high, so I tried to get into the industry as most starting designers do, as a level designer. This would be the easiest route, but that turned out to be somewhat of a misconception. I tried with many studio’s but most were looking for people with two to five years of industry experience, which I  did not have. The last years of my education also weren’t without a few speed bumps, which left my portfolio in rather weak state. But I had some friends who were already working at a small studio which made games and controllers for kids with a disability which I could luckily join. Like many starting studio’s in the netherlands, they didn’t have a lot of money and I worked there as a volunteer. I worked there for a day a week to get some industry experience, the rest of the time I had to work somewhere where they did pay, so I could eat and pay the bills. This lasted for about a year, but at the end of it I left, the relationship didn’t end on good terms and it left me sort of lost of what I wanted to do. They offered me a job which I counted on getting, but eventually they backed out which left me without a plan for the future.

During that summer I visited my parents and while I was taking a walk with my father and discussing what my next move could be. My entire family works in the mental health sector, my parents, my sister and even her boyfriend all have job that have something to do with helping people. During the walk he asked me if game design was really what I wanted to do, he was very confident that I would be a very good caregiver and that I could also have good career in that as well. Which I do agree with him, being raised by caregivers it comes naturally to you. But my answer was no, it felt that there was a lot I still wanted to do in the games industry. Then, my father asked me a very important question which set me on this path. “What do you want to do in your career?” The answer came to me instantaneously, “I want to help people”. “How are you going to do that?” he asked, I couldn’t answer him right away, but after walking for some time, an idea I had been playing with came up. The idea had been in my head for a while. The idea was more of an image, a scene from a cutscene one sees often in games. We sat down on a bench and I told him about this idea I had for a game, the game I am working on right now, the game I am currently blogging about. He was so moved the story, he told me that it was something I should really consider making. Some time passed as I contemplated about the idea. Doing this, would mean I had to start my own studio, find a team and carry this thing to the end.  But my parents kept coming back to me, telling about the story and how they told their friends. Most, if not all of them, were moved by the story and it slowly dawned on me that I might be onto something worth spending several years of my life on. I started putting everything on paper and making the first version of a Game Design Document, a GDD is a doc that contains all the info about the game. Once the basics were on paper, I contacted one of my old professors. I felt like I needed some industry experience on the project and I inquired about consults with the him, after reading what I had so far, he agreed to see me once a month.

 

The first meeting we had he warned me that this thing I had taken upon myself, would not be easy to pull off. It was going to be difficult getting a game of such size developed with at that time only one person. I knew this, I needed a team to do this with me, cause I was very well aware that I would not be able to do it on my own. During the first meeting, we discussed the story, which at that time was still very vague and was about a 300 word paragraph on a google  docs file. He urged me to, get my story straight and set up something that fits the size of the game. I was very happy he agreed to help me on this game, the man is very skilled in telling a story and knows what works and what doesn’t. It took me a few tries, but I eventually got something nice set up along a storytelling structure. It’s this nice overview of how most stories get set up, the high and low points in a story and what it needs to contain to keep the story interesting. It took some time to get the story fitted to the structure, but it gave solid base from which I could iterate.

 

These meetings I can be about anything from things I encounter running the team, to design techniques that could be used for the game. If you can, find someone who can help you with these types of things. The project wouldn’t be where it is right now if it wasn’t for my professor and the advice I have had from him. Basically what i’m trying to say here, is find someone who you can spar with. Find someone you feel has knowledge about your subject and just once a month meet with them, pay for it if you have to. This knowledge is worth so much more than the money you spend on it, especially if you are just starting your career.

 

When I started making this game I already had a pretty clear idea of what genre this was going to be. Something atmospheric, a lot of nature and mechanics that fit that type of environment. I already knew that the game would have one particular mechanic, I wanted the player to be able to slide. I have always gotten a lot of enjoyment and the feeling of freedom out of snowboarding, and I was sure that this mechanic would fit the game perfectly. The other mechanics, were a bit more difficult to to get down and it took a lot of changes before they got to a point where they fit the game and possibly will go through a couple of changes still. The importance here is that you keep on looking till it fits and not just fits the environment but fits the scope of the project to, always keep in mind what your team is capable off. For the design of the mechanics, I feel it’s something that comes naturally, as you move forward in your design it’s not something that can be left unattended. It is what is going to drive your game and what the player will be using constantly to progress in your game. So when thinking what the player will be doing will require you to keep on checking how you want the player to be doing that. When trying to think of this action you are going to force the player to do over and over, keep in mind that it needs to be fun to do. If the action is inherently fun to do, the game will do a lot better. Just think about all the tedious mechanics that games have forced upon you, doing them over and over. It’s going to work against you when you are marketing this game and therefore I advise that you test, and test and test and test. Test until you can’t test no more and then test it again, do this until you feel confident that the mechanic feels good and is not too hard to execute. Do this for every mechanic you put into your game, for some simple mechanics, like switching on lights or something simple like that, this rule doesn’t really apply. However, the core mechanics of your game need to be fun and can at no point in the game become tedious to execute.     

 

Up until this point I thought about the game as a eight level game, taking about 10 to 20 minutes to complete, with a short cutscene for exposition in between. The thing with game design is, your game is going to go through a lot of changes and the best thing to do is just start working on something. It will eventually take the right shape, just as long as you’re working on it and it is in the back of your mind, the right idea’s will come to you. At least, that is how I work. So with the base story line thought out, I started making more levels. I based these levels on the emotions the girl would be feeling and the emotion I want the audience to feel with her. The emotions where then based on the five stages of grief one experiences dealing with loss. With all this information I had created for myself, it was a lot easier to give get a general idea of how the level could look. I had already been playing around in my head with how some levels could look with the mechanic I thought about. I managed to make the first level pretty early in the development, but it was nothing like what it is now, or well a bit like how it is now. The point I’m trying to make here is that it is never too early to start building levels, it’s a growing process. You will probably end up using some of it, or even inspiration you had because of it. Just start early and keep working at it, inspiration for the details will come over time. Just be free in the size and way you work, it’s game design you can always adjust the size. The other point I’m trying to make is, if it’s a narrative game you are working on, getting the core of your story straight is also very important. I found it very helpful to have something to base the shape of my levels on, knowing what emotions would be present in that time of the game when a certain level would come up helped me shape that level so much better.

 

It took me a while to get every level thought out, but it gave me a pretty solid base to work with when the development reaches that level. But it can also happen that you only have a very vague idea of what you want to do with a level, and don’t really know how to start. This is only natural, you can’t expect to know exactly how every level should look from the very beginning. These things take time to develop. For instance with me, I had a pretty clear idea of how I wanted levels 1 till 7 should sort of look, but the last level, that one remained an idea for a long time. Just because it had manifested itself as a clear image I hadn’t felt the need to start with it, if it isn’t there yet let it come to you, don’t force it. Sometimes these things take time to manifest, as long as you sometimes think about it, keep your mind molding over things about the level. Eventually something will change in the design which will give you a more distinct idea of how the level will look and the only thing you have to do is be open to it. Just keep on playing games, watch movies, read books, everything leaves something behind you can work with later in the process. Just make sure the games you play the movies you watch and the books you read are related to what you are working on, or at least that you can relate them to your work.

 

Inspiration is a tricky mistress, you never know where she is gonna come from and sometimes things you do seem like they are just a waste of time, but then turn out to give you a breakthrough on something you were stuck on for months. So sometimes you as a creative thinker need to reserve time in your scheduled to play a game or take a moment of low work energy and fill that time with playing a game or reading a book watch a movie. What really works for me is taking walks in the forest as well, doing physical exercise or meditation. Things like physical exercise is something that you need to enjoy doing, otherwise sticking to it is a lot harder and easier to give up. A change of scenery and something different to focus on clear and quite the mind and when the mind is still there is more room for the creative mind to be heard. You need to find as many opportunities as possible to do this and find moments where you give your creative mind the opportunity to be heard.

Now meditation is a tricky one, here it’s again focussing your attention on something else to clear the mind. However, not everyone can meditate, for one because some don’t believe in it or just don’t want to take the time. But as an advice, at least look into it. There are many different ways to meditate and you might be able to find one that fits your style. To me it’s just another way to clear my head and calm my mind.

Don’t underestimate the effect of what being in nature does to you, a change of scenery is always good. You need to get off your computer and head into nature once in a while, it’s incredible what kind of peace of mind the forest can give you. Being in nature is in some strange way (Or actually not that strange we have lived in it the forest for thousands of years) calming, away from all the noise, commercials, ect that modern day society throws at us. As creative thinkers, we need to get away from the endless stream of information that normal life feeds us everyday.

 

Once you have found that inspiration you want to start building, you might already have a few assets but most likely you will start from scratch and nothing but the editor to work with. My advice here is to start whiteboxing, this is a level design technique that allows you to quickly shape the scene with primitive shapes that serve as placeholders for the actual assets. Among designers is it a widely used and accepted technique to communicate that basic layout of a scene or a level. Especially when you are working with buildings and structures, the way to quickly build a scene you can walk around in is through whiteboxing. But this basically goes for any model that you want to use in your game, fact of the matter is that making an asset for a game is rather time consuming. If you just want to test, you don’t want to wait on your artists to make all the models so you can start testing. You want to start as quickly as possible and that is why we use whiteboxing, because

For the workflow of your inside activity, I feel it is helpful to invest in a few asset packs. Get yourself set up with a few packs that you feel resemble the style you are going for. For me this it really helped to invest a bit in the project so things already sort of look like the way you want them to look. Granted that you already know how things should sort of look, otherwise you need to spend some more time whiteboxing until you have a clearer idea of what you want. Once you have established the setting of your game’s universe, you can start researching what type of assets might be applicable to your game. Find the ones that you feel you might need and invest in those assets, it will make shaping your levels a lot easier. The same goes for the communication toward the rest of your team and the people you will be showing it to. I’m not saying that this is the best way of doing it, it just helped to paint the picture. Know that even if the asset packs might not end up in the final product, the fact that they helped move the project along is valuable in itself.

If you want to show your game to the public, granted that you feel the game is in a state worth showing, the use of asset packs might get you to that state a lot quicker than using whiteboxing and custom assets. You want to be able to produce as much as possible by yourself and not having to rely on others too much. This is useful for you and your team, you will be able to keep working without the help of others and really make some progress by yourself. The rest of the team will be able to focus on the assets that are important for the next deadline you have set. In my experience, the designers are often busy working on several things at the same time and are in need of a few things to make a scene work that way it’s supposed to look. In the time the rest of the team is working on making the assets and writing the code for the scene, it is useful for the designer to be able to do preparative work for other levels as well. Once the team is ready with the assets and code for the initial scene, the designer can then jump back to that and build the scene the way it’s supposed to look. If you are able to get this into a certain rhythm where the designer and the team do this back and forth, this will certainly reduce the downtime of any member of the team.   

 

Once you have an idea of what you want in the level, start building. The sooner you have something to walk around in and test, the sooner you will see what your level is missing. I know I have said this before, but I can’t stress this enough. Designing a game is a working process, if you design a level and it doesn’t look like you had imagined it is not a bad thing. Just keep at it and the process of working on the game will automatically bring forth missing aspects of the levels. What else is important here is that the game you are making, they need to be seen. People need to give their opinion about what you are working on, make sure the people that see you product have some knowledge about what you are working on. Remember the mentor figure that I advised you to find, that is the first person you need to be sharing your project with. He/she will be able to help spot things that might be missing and help you not overlook crucial aspects of what your game needs. Remember that working on something can make you blind to the most obvious things, with so many things to think about when making a game, it is very easy to overlook pretty obvious things. Just keep doing this until you feel that the game is ready to be tested by the public, as soon as this happens you will have a ton of feedback to work with. Keep in mind that if you let people from the general public test your game, not every piece of feedback is going to be as valuable as the other. Some people might know that they are talking about, but you should always keep in mind that most of them do not. The trick is to use every piece of feedback you get and try to understand what the underlying meaning of that feedback is. The feedback itself might not make any sense, but there is a reason why this person said these words there is a reason why they have that opinion. It is up to you to find an applicable way to do something with the feedback for the project. Also pick the location for where you’re gonna showcase your game carefully, do not go to a large event, but to a place where you can receive some honest feedback on your work by colleagues or interested parties. A big event might not yet be the place to show the first version of your game, especially if you are early in the development stage you don’t need hundreds or thousands of people giving feedback. As long as you get feedback from a few different people, you will be able to get enough information out of it to determine what you are still missing or if it is ready for the next step in the development process.

 

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