Thursday, October 13, 2011

All Men, Great and Small

Prologue: I apologise in advance for the repeated use of the term 'Great Man'. In the spirit of this little musing, it is not meant to be sexist but the common term used to denote a historically significant, great individual. There are/have been many Great Women, but I didn't want to go down the route of talking about Great Men & Women or Great People as these seem less emotionally resonant than the - admittedly rather patriarchal - term used herein.

In the wake of Steve Jobs' passing I find myself, like many, musing over a world minus a Great Man. This isn't Apple-fanboyism, but a simple statement of fact; however flawed or odious one may find Apple's working practices, it cannot be denied that Mr Jobs was a key part of Apple's image, their development mindset and vision. If we must admit that Apple is a Great Company (measurably successful, valued by its clients etc.) then it it seems mealy-minded to keep the GM accolade from Mr Jobs himself.

This, in turn, has led to me thinking about others I have met who would willingly don the GM mantle.

[For the record, I am not one, nor do I have any expectations of becoming one. I do what I do fairly well, and enjoy patching up my flaws as I discover them, one at a time. Despite my sympathies for the Randian mindset, I am no Howard Roark. Do not construe this musing as some sort of masturbatory ego-stroking]
I have met many impressive people from different walks of life who either were - or had the potential - to take on the GM title. It strikes me that they share a number of common traits. Others have studied this subject in great detail: there are many MBA case-studies in prestigious universities across the globe on exactly this subject.

This is a personal blog (or collection of musings) so don't expect too much research. Think of it as 'Bloke Down Pub Said This' and we'll all be fine.

I believe the attributes shared by all Great Men are (in no particular order): Confidence, Intellectual Honesty, Clarity. These might not mean what you think they mean in this context, so let me elaborate.

1) Confidence
This is the ability to make a mistake, understand it, learn from it, and not be crushed by it or allow it to define ones personality. Successful entrepreneurs all have an elastically enthusiastic ability to bounce back from even the most disastrous business ventures without it harming their mental health. I believe this requires a certain amount of delusional thinking - but no more so than its opposite, where every tiny failure or misfortune is seen as a personal indictment of ones value. Without confidence, one cannot convincingly lead, and without leadership one cannot be Great, but merely Good.

2) Intellectual Honesty
By no means am I suggesting that good businessmen are scrupulously honest. They are no more so than good poker players.

In this context, what I mean is: having the ability to ask the right questions and answer them honestly - without biasing the answer toward the path of least resistance. In the case of Apple, it seems to come down to repeatedly asking:

"What do people really want?" and "Is this good enough yet?"

Jobs was notorious for forcing his most talented staff to return to the proverbial drawing board. My guess is that each time this occurred, stress and fatigue levels in the staff-members involved were high enough for them to have stopped asking these questions of themselves.

Being honest about your own work is hard - especially at the end of a long development cycle... or even a tough week. When you are the poor bastard doing the actual graft, weariness is going to affect your judgement on occasion. Welcome to being a human being.

Great Men can retain an element of Intellectual Honesty denied to their staff; partly due to doing all this work by proxy. This is not a criticism, but a nasty, professional fact.

3) Clarity
By Clarity, I do not mean knowing every aspect of what you want from the very first moment. This is usually impossible. However, if you are able to answer the (right) questions you have asked honestly, you know the key things you are looking for in your staff/product.

If you know that 'The Thingy' has to be easy to use, you have a clear mental model of the user, their ability level, and - when faced with design decisions - can imagine how that individual would react to the product. Clarity requires that the key ideas behind the product are known, and in some way measurable.

If you are designing a game that is meant to be a fun puzzle game, then it must have puzzles. And be fun. These sound vague - but they are not. If you start asking the right questions, these things become very precise quite quickly.

a) Fun for whom?
b) What sort of puzzles?
c) How difficult?
d) What happens if the answer from a) alters the values for c)?

In the case of Incoboto, I know the answers to these questions. It took a lot longer than I planned to get there, but I muddled my way toward the end and discovered the answers. I wish I had spent more time at the beginning of the project focusing on these 'big picture' questions and achieving the necessary clarity. It would have made my life considerably more pleasant.

Falling From Grace
Back to Great Men (rather than 'small, strange games').

Along with those blessed with the potential to be GM I also know of those who seem to fundamentally fail on one or more of those three points, yet still believe themselves to be GM. The result - rather sadly - is not merely a Good Man, but something far worse. The stresses caused by attempting to fulfil the points beyond their reach seems to cause the others to warp: sometimes into something very nasty indeed.

With no confidence, one cannot lead. With no leadership, clarity is muddied (if not for you, then for the team) and honesty is eventually swapped out for expedience.

With no honesty, the foundations of confidence are shaky, and clarity is merely a straw man waiting to be unpicked by rivals, customers or - in some cases - the team itself.

With no clarity, confidence mutates into arrogance, and honesty is shoved aside to make room for ego. The Small Delusional Man merely stumbles on to the next ill-conceived project having learned nothing.

Big Jobs
Someone once said to me that remaining in an environment inimical to ones nature devours the soul and leaves nothing but a 'hungry ghost'. It's a colourful metaphor, but I can see exactly what was meant.

I have met some people who claim they want to be writers (who never write), designers (who never design) or musicians (who never write or perform music). Their problem is that they miss the point: the title is not an end in itself, but a side effect of what you are doing. It is notable that none has been particularly happy.

There are also those who see becoming a Great Man as an end in itself. They, likewise, have missed the point. It is a by-product.

If I were to don the trappings of a chef, to bully people in my kitchen and constantly lose my temper, it would not make me a better cook.

If I were to grab a guitar and sneer at passers-by while wearing shades, it would not make me a great musician.

This sort of unpleasant behaviour is seen in many Great Men. It is tolerated and often (inaccurately) presumed to be a necessary side-effect of that greatness. This may be true in some cases - if the traits are genuinely due to an honest, clear, confident pursuit of excellence. In these cases, inspiring others to share the ethos still works because the end-goal is clear and desirable to all involved.

If the team's not with you, it's your fault. You've failed in one of the important areas. Bullying won't help.

To those who look at Steve Jobs' more belligerent, unpredictable, and unpleasant behaviour, and use it to validate acting in a bullying, brutish or antisocial manner I offer this piece of advice - from a Small Man:

A dick without Confidence, Intellectual Honesty or Clarity is just a dick. No caveats. No 'but he's always right's to make up for the nasty bits. No 'but look at the results'. Just... dick.

R.I.P. Mr Jobs. May those who seek to follow in your footsteps fully understand your path and not simply mimic your peculiar walk.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Galaxy Map, Tea and Agent Cooper

Just a quick teaser of info for anyone out there who might be interested.
Here's a screenshot of the game as it currently stands:

In the shot you can see Inco (little guy in helmet) and Helios off exploring a planet featuring Helions (stars) encased in quartz, swingable Grapple-points (huge fun to use), PowerPod generators, Microportal units, and a computer screen with a message from The Corporation apologising for the genocide of all other life in the universe. Fun stuff.

Here's the overall Galaxy Map for Incoboto:

I always find it a huge amount of fun creating maps like this. For me, it's a sort of statement of intent, and a mark of confidence: one of the first things that must be done to make a world 'real'.

Creativity is all arbitrary. Meaningless. If Agent Cooper had preferred tea, he'd have been a different, but equally good Agent Cooper. There would have been 'Damn Fine Cup of Tea' mugs, bumper stickers and similar merchandise. People would have said: "Bet he's going to have a cup of tea! That's soooo Cooper."

If this seems wrong to you, it is only because you have - as Lynch would put it - eaten the Donut and not the Hole. As an end-user, you don't get to see what was thrown away. You don't get to experience the alternative universes of potentialities that might have been. Lucky you.

For us inside the creative process of a project, creative decisions are only made convincing and 'real' by acting as if each decision is correct, and maintaining this for a prolonged period of time. This can be difficult due to the many forces that buffet creativity around and attempt to alter or influence the constructs you have in your head.

This map may change due to the realities of development, but I'll be sitting here for much of the time looking at this map and by sheer force of magical will, making it as real to my own mind as I possibly can.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

First Sightings and the Name Game

First Sightings

Went to BAFTA a week or so ago and took Inco with me. I had a vague intention of showing it to a couple of people I knew - more from a sense of 'this is what I've been doing with my time' than from a PR message point of view. Having not shown it to anyone other than family and friends before I was a little nervous.

Incoboto is a bit of a weird game. Trying to describe it is quite hard: 'Mario meets Portal meets Ico meets... um... Flaboo? No, you really have to feel it all together with the art and the music and Helios' weird dialogue and... oh, I give up.'

Thankfully, the people who saw were:

a) Lovely folk I liked working with in the past
b) Kind to someone clearly utterly uncomfortable demoing their work

The good news is they seemed to like it. Seeing people struggling with one or two of the controls gave me some really valuable feedback and now the controls have been tweaked to 'playable at social gathering after alcohol' level.

After Kara (my wife) gave me a good kicking the other week for wallowing in self-doubt and self-indulgent examples of artistic temperament Inco is now on track for getting finished in a reasonable time-span. The current release date is set for around the end of August. As Helios would say: "Woohoo! Where's the coffee?!" Inco wouldn't even gesture. He has no arms.

The Name Game
The one really niggling thing remaining (apart from weeks of content creation and bug-fixing) is the name.

The reality is that this is an iPad game. The iPad store is only really set up to work on searches and thus names people can remember. As a result, Incoboto is probably going to change to something more clearly memorable in the next few weeks. I have a few ideas. None quite fit, but that's the problem with working titles; you grow to love them quite quickly, and they soon become mentally entangled with the game overall.

I can expect a few shocked reactions when the renaming occurs - but that's wonderful. It means people care.

The reason for dealing with this name malarky now is that I'm going to have to produce a promo video relatively soon, showing the promise of this game and why people should be interested. It'll need a firm title by then. The good news is that I'll have to write some more 'music' for it, which is always enjoyable. I had written an entire album for it, but on reflection it got a bit... um... dark and strange.

For those who haven't listened to it before, it's available for free download here.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Game Changers

We're Back
It's been a while since the last blog. Incoboto is not gone, nor even resting.

The reason for my silence is simple: I've been very busy sorting the game out. I've begun to adopt the Team Ico approach (no, not take 4+ years to make a game) but to start stripping away elements of the game that aren't engaging or fun, and to highlight and accentuate the areas that are proving to be interesting. As such, two main areas have changed - and they are huge.

Incoboto's story has always focused on the two themes of longing for the unattainable and loneliness. Helios, the sun-creature was always a (malevolent) puckish figure, offering you the universe while quietly taking you further away from that which was truly important. Things have changed somewhat.

At one point in development his cheeky little face loomed up from behind a planet and surprised me. I suddenly realised that his central placement in each solar system was nonsensical. He's an enormously appealing character who was in a strangely off-screen role for most of the time. Silly.

I felt this had to be fixed, and thus initially just had him follow you about a bit, mocking you. This in turn pointed out that - far from being a menacing figure - he was actually quite comforting and friendly: indeed, the only friendly thing Inco had seen in his lifetime.

As such, Helios could not stay as he was. Now, Helios is no longer so menacing and has a wide range of powers he puts at your disposal. The player can now draw a lens on the screen by placing two fingers upon it. Helios will guide a beam of light through this lens. In this way the player can discover hidden things, kill off shadow baddies, power up contraptions and ultimately feel that his big glowing friend isn't just there to bob around like some infernal balloon.

Controls - or 'the Hardest Button Two Button'

The game's controls are now completely different, and much better for it. An entirely touch/tap/drag/hold style no-button interface was proving far too taxing for newcomers.

I watched as they failed to grasp the difference between a tap and a press ("How difficult can it be? I said tap! No, that's not a TAP that's a PRESS... and now that's a slide... TAP! TAP, GODDAMNIT!")

As a result, the game now has two buttons; one in each of the bottom corners of the screen. Press the left one and you'll go left. Press the right one and you go right. Press both and you'll jump. No tapping, no hold and release. Just press. Easy to explain.

This left me the entire screen free for the player to use as a 'more interesting interface'. You still pick things up, throw them, draw lenses and drag machine-levers around with the nice little tap and drag interface I developed before, but now it never clashes with the basics of movement.

It's lovely. And it's finished. Hoo-rah.

I'm now heavily into the scripting part of the game. I have largely abandoned the total randomisation with which I had planned to populate my world. Imbuing randomness with meaning is very hard indeed.

The game now creates and populates each universe to a very basic degree, but then I go in after and choose where key items and characters go. It's a nice compromise, and I hope it works out as the levels come together over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here are some screenshots: