First six months at Quantum Soup

qs_logo_colour_transIt’s funny that I thought I’d have MORE time to blog once I started Quantum Soup and was working for myself. Hah! Running a business is a continuous effort of working towards long-term goals while also grasping at short-term opportunities as they arise – funding, conferences, training. I’m doing a lot more biz dev than I expected and a lot less programming.

But it is also glorious. For the first time in my life, I’m working on a commercial project that is my own idea (well…just over 50% mine). But it’s certainly nowhere near 50% my work. After six months we have the core team together and everyone is bringing enthusiasm and ideas to the project, creating something I couldn’t hope to accomplish alone.

An enthusiastic team really raises your energy. We’ve built a bunch of stuff, some of which didn’t work and had to change, but the game’s better for it. We’ve bounced ideas around and made unexpected creative connections. We’re getting into what is – for me at least! – a really enjoyable working routine.

And soon we will be ready to show some of that work, which is both exciting and terrifying. It won’t be long now…

Button Bash: The Witcher 3

There’s some cracking design choices in the Witcher. The casting of the player as a professional monster-hunter-for-hire makes all the usual quest tropes seem so much less contrived – plus the ability to haggle over the price of a job πŸ™‚

In addition, it limits the player’s character development choices to a very specific set of skills – still plenty of options, but this is fundamentally and unashamedly a game about melee combat. The freedom of Skyrim allows the player to play how they want, but often that creates a very unbalanced experience (I played Skyrim as a full-on Mage, spells only, no armour. It involved a lot of running backwards shooting fireballs). The Witcher gives the player plenty of choices within a very specific field instead.

Finally, the depth of story in every side quest is brilliant – for example the haunted well in White Orchard, which sounds like a simple “go here, kill monster” but unfurls into an elaborate backstory that links with several NPC backgrounds and other side quests. That sense of consistency and rich detail makes for powerful worldbuilding.

The menu text is far too damn small on a console though πŸ˜‰

Button Bash: Life is Strange

DontNod’s “Life is Strange” is a wonderful game with a refreshing setting and design. But what impresses me most is the mileage they get out of their primary gameplay verb. The time rewind is fantastic in the context of a branching narrative, allowing you to see all the ways any given encounter can play out in the short term, but without removing the mystery of what consequences will happen later on. But it’s also used to retrieve information from the future, unlocking new narrative choices. And it’s used as means of teleporting past obstructions because in some areas the rewind does not affect your position. The game is a masterclass in getting maximum value out of a single mechanic.

Button Bash: The Banner Saga

I’m particularly taken with The Banner Saga’s map, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, every feature on the map is clickable for a snippet of lore about that part of the world. It’s a lovely way to add depth to the gameworld and reward the player’s interest in notable landmarks.
But further play reveals something even better. An entire chapter of play covers a journey of two inches across a two-foot-square map. This world is HUGE, and difficult and dangerous to traverse. Much as I love Skyrim, the ability to fast travel to previous locations turns the explored regions of the world into a homogenous mass – the player is encouraged to teleport directly to quest locations like a globe-trotting NightCrawler. If you actually attempted to log your “journey” on the map it would look like a child’s scribble. This makes distance a trivial thing, and the epic landscape is reduced to background vistas for the towns you warp directly into. The amazing sense of place conjured by your first explorations is sacrificed on the altar of convenience. And yet there’s no attempt to mitigate the inconvenience of a cave full of dreugh. The Banner Saga makes the trials of travel one of the pillars of the gameplay, and the far-flung corners of it’s world are all the more intriguing for it.

Button Bash: Endless Legend

I am loving this game, apart from one minor niggle…don’t place all your buttons right at the edge of the screen if you’re using push-scrolling. I am constantly brushing the edge of screen with my pointer and moving the map away from what I was looking at. At least offer the *option* to turn it off since you already have the drag-to-scroll alternative.

On the positive side, I absolutely love the seamless zoom from close-in 3D models to strategic territory overview. Clearly a LOT of thought and effort went into getting that right, because it’s beautiful and shows me exactly what I need to see at every scale.

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Button Bash: Thief UI

[Experiment: “Button Bash” is a series of micro-posts which will hopefully encourage me to write more frequently :)]

The recent(ish) Thief reboot is fun, but I have some UI niggles. The light gem, critical to gameplay, which used to be centred at the bottom of the screen, is now tucked into the left corner and easily ignored. Perhaps because the gem is now so obscure, crouching adds a dark vignette to the screen, reducing your field of view just when you want to pay most attention to your surroundings.

I would have done away with both the light gem and vignette. A far simpler gauge of your own visibility is Garrett’s own hands, which are always on screen and would provide a very natural indicator of how visible you are.

BAFTA voting excitement

Towards the end of last year I was lucky enough to be able to join BAFTA, as a result of all the work my colleagues at TT and I have done over the years. I’m pretty chuffed with that πŸ™‚

One of the perks is that I get to vote in the Games Awards, so in the run-up to Christmas I had an awful lot of games I needed to play in order to make an informed decision. It was a very interesting experience – I played a whole lot of games I would normally have ignored, and most I enjoyed much more than I expected to.

Voting is still ongoing – the results of the first round have gone to the juries, who will spend another month or two playing the shortlisted titles in depth so that THEY can make an even more informed decision. I get one more vote for the Best Game, but the other awards are now up to those juries. It’s not going to be easy for them, as this has been an excellent year with a multitude of great titles.

Maybe next year I’ll volunteer for a jury. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to acknowledge the best work of the industry.

The Journey Effect

I’ve just enjoyed an epic weekend party with friends old and new, and I thought I’d share an awesome gaming moment that took place there.

We were all staying in a hostel for the weekend, with a number of small children who had very little to do during the day. I’d brought my PS3 for SingStar the night before, but my wife thoughtfully suggested I put Journey on in the communal lounge for the kids. No online features, sadly, but we thought it would be harmless fun for an hour or so.

5-year-old Ethan played it through start to finish in one sitting.

He struggled a bit with keeping the controller level, so I had to reframe the camera for him occasionally. And he asked me to take over briefly during the scary serpent sections, but bombarded me with questions throughout, which I tried to let him figure out for himself. In the background I heard a number of adults discussing the art style, mood and pacifism of the game appreciatively. But Ethan remained utterly engrossed, except to turn occasionally and tell me his interpretation of what was happening onscreen.

By the end of the game Ethan and the watching children were literally laughing aloud with glee as he sailed up the mountainside on the back of a cloth whale.

I felt wonderful just to have introduced him to the experience. ThatGameCompany should be very, very proud of what they created. It’s art like theirs that makes me proud to work in the industry.

Ludum Dare, and beyond

I have been neglecting this blog again – happens when things get busy at work (or outside work!).

It has been a very eventful December. Ludum Dare 22 generated nearly 900 games in a weekend, but due to some technical problems and a healthy dose of repeating my previous mistakes, I didn’t quite finish mine. Play “Lonely Island” here.

Then Unity released a beta build that exports to Flash’s new Stage3D, and announced a game jam…with prizes. Shame they announced it just before Xmas when everyone’s busy. I mulled it over until new year before settling on a steampunk space dogfighting game set in the Voidships universe. It made sense to use the contest as motivation to produce something that could generate a bit of an audience for our fledgling IP. It was a late start, but with some invaluable model work from an artist friend (Thank you, Liam!) I managed to cobble together something that’s very rough but fun nonetheless.

I’ve called it Voidships: Pilot Error.

My other game projects are temporarily on hold while Liam and I give it a proper polish ready for people to play in earnest.

Another Ludum Dare game!

One hour is a bit tight, but at least it’s all over quickly one way or another. Here’s what I managed within the deadline…and here’s what I intended it to be, which took an extra 3 hours.
Pills

I love these short events. You’d think more time would be beneficial, but it’s harder to sustain an hour or two every night for a week or month than to commit to one hour or even a whole weekend in one go. I wonder if I can break down my more ambitious side projects into bite-size chunks like that…