MGIF S2 E8: Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room


Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".


I've always been attracted to the idea of the mind as a physical landscape; an ethereal expanse of rolling hills, buildings and artefacts, comprising memories and experiences. Sometimes you're there voluntarily, tramping through vast, open fields, peering at the horizon for answers. Sometimes, you're a prisoner in a dimly-lit room, pressing your hands against the walls, looking for an exit. Sometimes, you wander through corridors built from moments passed; the architecture compressed with time; warped, reordered and distorted by emotion and the treachery of memory. 

The Chinese Room is a studio built on its worlds. In life, we build our own worlds with the ones we love and the people who matter to us. Videogame worlds, from Yaughton to Yharnam, can be reflections of our innermost thoughts and emotions. Taking a journey through our own minds can be a frightening and lonely experience, but we warm up those cold, empty, quiet places by filling them with memories and music, offering illumination and guidance in those dark places where we fear to tread.


My own journey to visit Jessica Curry and Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room starts a bit like an anxiety dream, as I accidentally sign up for a training course for Unison on my arrival. The Chinese Room are situated upstairs in Brighton's Unison building, and it turns out "training room" sounds a lot like "Chinese Room". When you consider the success of their games, and the scope of the heartbreakingly beautiful Everybody's Gone To The Rapture, it's easy to forget that they are still a very small, close-knit team, tucked away in the upstairs of a shared office building. After a few moments of confusion, I resist the temptation to go undercover like the world's shittest spy, remove myself from the training course, and find my way to the correct floor.

It's been tricky for us to align our diaries and I feel a little apprehensive about pulling Dan and Jessica away from Total Dark, the working title for their current game. This feeling is alleviated immediately when Dan greets me emphatically at the door, thanks me for coming down and gives me the tour. He makes it clear that he's glad I'm here and now I feel less like a distraction to their day.

Cup of tea in hand, I'm taken to an adjacent room, where Jessica is working separately on some music. Personally, I hate it when I'm in the middle of writing and someone barges through my door, but Jessica assaults me with a tsunami of niceness. You'd be forgiven for expecting to be met by a more serious, hardened character, given the changes she has had to make to her working life following ill health, publisher woes and the never-ending battle against systemic sexism, details of which she published in a blog post back in October of 2015; instead, I'm inspired by her positivity, warmth and energy.


 

As the three of us sit down and chat, I very quickly appreciate the dynamic between the two of them. Dan is an energetic, confident person who is fiercely intelligent. He bubbles with creativity and knows his own mind. He argues points passionately and, every now and then, as he picks up a head of steam, Jessica will cut in with an incisive interjection, one which will (lovingly) earth and temper Dan's emphatic point. You can see that it's an interaction that has been unconsciously refined and perfected over the course of many, many years between two people who deeply love and understand each other, and its beautiful to see. As they discuss and debate, there's an air of total respect, and it becomes clear that this teamwork must persist throughout their working relationship, and is one of the elements behind the success of their games.

"I generate a lot of the momentum and Jess creates a lot of the focus," Dan tells me, "in terms of how we work creatively together"

"I've always said that if I made a game it'd never get finished," adds Jessica, "and if Dan made one it'd be shit [laughs] but between the mad visionary and the anal retentive we've kind of had a good partnership I think; I've been Dan's editor in a lot of ways".


 

As a husband and wife to each other, as well as parents to a teenage boy, Jessica and Dan have built both real and digital worlds together. Dan is the one who brings a thousand ideas, Jessica is the one who distils and processes those ideas; if Dan is the train of thought then Jessica is the train driver. This special relationship makes the studio unique, but I worry how this will change now Jessica plans to take a further step away from The Chinese Room by leaving the office to focus on writing music. 

"The games we're developing now are the first games that I haven't had a direct day to day development relationship with," laments Jess, when I ask her how the step back has felt. "That's been really tough for me, actually; it's been very strange because I've been there every step of the way in every element for the first three games, whereas now I'm going to be basically writing the music for the new games."

It's this soft separation from the office that she feels isn't working, as the rest of the team hold too much respect for her to not ask her opinion on various matters.

"Every day someone will come in and ask me to have a look at something, so I'm only half out", she explains. "I'm going to move out of the offices at The Chinese Room because it's really tough to have one foot in and one foot out; it's quite painful.

"I feel like I need a clean break from the studio, because my personality dictates I'm not very good at having that half foot in. I love writing music and I think that's what I rediscovered with Rapture; that passion for what I'm really good at.

"Running the company was always Dan's dream, it was never mine. But I always helped. I really enjoyed running the company but it has taken me away from my own passion and my own dream, which is to write as much music as I can."


Dan will miss Jessica's presence in the studio, both as a loved one and a coworker, but he tells me that, "being a husband trumps being a business partner," so he feels that the decision is the right one. 

Jessica's position is an analogue to the position of the games industry in general; on one side we have self-described "hardcore gamers" telling us that the medium doesn't need or want change, diversity or deviation of any kind from the norm; on the other, we have the scoffing newsreader, who raises his eyebrows and voice with an air of incredulity when speaking from a position of complete ignorance about a game which has been nominated for ten BAFTAs.

And here we are, stuck in the middle.

Why does it so often feel like a fight? In what way does it help the medium to hound out people with different experiences who come at videogames from a different angle? Why use violent threats to oppose an approach which breeds innovation and progression? 

Although I am saddened to learn of Jessica's plans to further remove herself from the studio, she remains a keystone of The Chinese Room and a major reason the studio's identity is so prominent in their titles. She is strong and maternal, resilient and sensitive, all the while maintaining an irrepressible joy for life, quietly and gently defiant in the face of illness and adversity. She is the kind of person who will read all that and chuckle about it, but I think that when we lose people like Jessica from the industry, we're walking backwards. Whatever the future holds for Jessica, she will leave her indelible mark on the studio's games - past, present and future - through her music.


 

 

 

 

 

 

MGIF S2 E7: Dan Pearce

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



I spent my twenties absolutely certain that I was immortal. Death just wasn't on the cards. Is it even possible to die before you're thirty? Death was a concept, a temporary setback in a videogame, not a feasible, inevitable eventuality. Death was always marked with the word "later", not "now" or "soon".

In the middle of the most hectic and complicated week of his life, Dan was being pulled in five different directions at once. He was already busy with Ten Second Ninja X when life, taxes, and everything else fell on him at the same time. Overwhelmed and running out of time, he absent-mindedly crossed the road, where he was knocked over by a van. He took the wing mirror off and suffered injuries to his arm and leg. Dan was given a wake up call in the form of a very heavy piece of moving metal; a wake up call that could very easily have been the end of his story. He had found his limit.

So he continued on his journey to Norwich Gaming Festival and had a swordfight with the team's programmer. Obviously. After a week or so, as the pain got worse, he finally went to the hospital to treat an internal bruise in his knee.

I'm sat in the conservatory of Dan's parents house in Maidenhead as he recounts this tale of pressure and stress to me. The sun squeezes and bullies its way through the blinds as we chat with the doors wide open to keep us cool. The birds twitter in the lush, well maintained garden as we talk, and we stop occasionally to shoo out a bluebottle who zips robotically around the microphone, keen to be a second guest on the podcast.

The more success you attain, the greater the pressure; Dan has had a very successful early career since earning a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit award at the age of 19 back in 2013. His game Castles In The Sky was BAFTA nominated and he has since gone on to produce Ten Second Ninja. 

We consider his career so far, in between discussing our fascination with open world game systems. Dan seems simultaneously pleased and dissatisfied with his progress. It's clear that high standards are important to him, and this was part of the rationale behind making Ten Second Ninja's sequel, Ten Second Ninja X.

Ten Second Ninja was a vehicle for expanding and testing Dan's coding and design abilities. Essentially, he wanted to make the sort of game he wouldn't usually enjoy playing, to see if he could do it. Following the game's release, he keenly soaked up and accepted the criticisms of the game from press, much of which he agreed with. Armed with this information, he created Ten Second Ninja X, a game he says he genuinely enjoys playing. 

Now, as he works under the banner of Four Circle Interactive on a new, as yet unannounced title, he seeks to test himself once more, taking on further challenges and greater responsibility with a new game which sounds like it will push a few boundaries. But he won't fully launch into that before releasing Ten Second Ninja X first; one thing at a time. Having had what he calls his "Whiplash moment", referring to a similar occurrence in the film, he is keen not to repeat the situation in the future, and has realised the importance of putting physical and mental health first.

That's not to say he isn't still brimming with ambition; we talk privately in more detail about Four Circle's next game, discussing the smart toolmaking of Hello Games and their upcoming game No Man's Sky. It seems like the creation of smarter game making tools and engines may be the way for smaller "indie" companies to close the distance between themselves and their AAA counterparts. If smaller companies can figure out clever ways of creating large amounts of content more efficiently, they could occupy the space in between, reclaiming the lost and much mourned "middle tier" of the PS2 era.

This focus on working smarter seems to be where Dan is heading now. No more flustered, crunch-heavy weeks, filled with 18 hour working days. No more being pulled apart by disparate, muddled responsibilities. Just focused, smart progress. 

No matter your age, it can do you good to step back for a second and take a good look at things in the eye of the storm. Even as a freelancer supposedly away from the regime of the 9 to 5, I suffer from the workaholic culture society compels us all to subscribe to; a gross badge of dubious honour which glorifies strain and stress. It's a curiously masculine attitude of "get on with it and don't complain" until it all gets on top of you and you can't handle it anymore. As Dan's recent memento mori revealed to him, as we move through life, whatever route we take, we mustn't forget to live. 

MGIF S2 E6: Anisa Sanusi

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



I love Cambridge, it's so powerfully English it's unbearable. As I walk through the city I am practically mugged by Gothic architecture; I don't understand how everyone isn't constantly walking around with their heads skyward, mouths open. I'm snapped out of my trance by the tinkling of a cyclist's bell as they pass; a long, slim, white dude in his late 50s with a white beard, head to toe in very lime green lycra. Obviously. The cyclist glides along like a middle-aged, neon bogey against a backdrop of opulent, medieval edifices.

Cambridge is a place where men and women use a long stick to push a very small boat around a river like it's a reasonable mode of transport in 2016, so it must've felt like a parody of England to Anisa Sanusi, a UI artist at Frontier Developments, when she first moved here. We wander through the streets aimlessly, looking for a places to shoot and, more importantly, places to eat. We're in no rush, however, and we soak up the brief window of sunshine before scuttling into a café to grab a bite to eat.

We chuck a bit of lunch down us and form a plan to record in the café - a plan quickly scuppered by the arrival of the lunchtime rush and a very loud couple on the adjacent table. We're not in any rush, so we brave the rain and winds and go hunting for a quiet spot. Anisa is great company - easy going, friendly and funny - and we pass the time waiting for the rain to stop by buying cupcakes and laughing about essentially walking around in circles.

Anisa was born and grew up in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia. She's a city girl at heart, from her youth spent travelling in from PJ - as it's affectionately known - into the nearby city of Kuala Lumpur. Because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country, café culture predominates, as opposed to the somewhat aggressive pub culture of the UK. This is something she found especially alienating at first, seeing as anywhere that isn't a place to get drunk closes by the evening.

Anisa has always been interested in art and creating things: like most small children, she would draw on the walls of her house, the difference being she would complete her masterpieces with a signature. At school, Anisa got A's across the board, leading to others expecting her to move into law or medicine, but she was only interested in art. Support was strong from her parents, in a "well, she's so headstrong there's no way we'll change her mind, so let's roll with it" sort of way. Her mother being an architect meant that she had sympathy with Anisa's life goals; whenever Anisa's uncles see her constantly doodling away in one form or another, they remark on how she is just like her mother was at her age.

Her first experience of living in the UK came when she studied for two years at Teeside University from the age of 19. Anisa applied through UCAS to a number of universities, but settled on Teeside due to the Animax Festival, a celebration of animation and videogames. It was Anisa's mother that suggested she focus her career interests in animation, as it is an industry with a greater likelihood of a stable career than other artistic pursuits. Anisa tells me she has huge respect for comic book artists, who work incredibly hard making beautiful art for comparatively little money (and mainstream respect) but do it for the love of it.

Anisa tells me that Malaysians pride themselves on multiculturalism, and she grew up in PJ within a culture of racial harmony and diversity. She found it strange to have messages of diversity preached to her on a regular basis as a child, because around her, with the children of her generation, it had always been that way. It wasn't until she left her little bubble of harmony that she realised that life wasn't as harmonious as it seemed. As children, you don't see others as different to you. Nobody is born with prejudice, prejudice is taught.

Despite the upheaval of moving halfway across the world, Anisa found leaving home far less daunting than you might think. Anisa had visited the UK on holiday several times before, staying with family friends, so this just felt like a slightly longer holiday. The plan was never to stay in the UK, or maybe it would be more accurate to say she hadn't thought that far ahead yet. This meant that, instead of the stinging, gut wrenching feeling of being torn from her home, she just took each day as it came.

Before she knew it, Anisa had secured an unpaid internship at a small startup called Arcus Studios. It was a two hour commute from her home, so it cost her to work there. However, the wealth and variety of experience she gained from this set her up for her first paid role at Double Eleven in Middlesbrough as a UI (User Interface) artist. By adopting the "fake-it-til-you-make-it" approach, learning both on the job and studying further at home, Anisa soon cemented her role. Today, she works as a UI Artist at David Braben's Frontier Developments, creator of Elite Dangerous.

It was that fearless quality of the young that took Anisa on her journey from being a curious, bright-eyed girl travelling halfway across the world to study, to the successful, intelligent woman I see today. That perfect balance of naivety and optimism is something we lose as we get older, yet it's so important in helping us find our feet in the world. It allows us to take risks, to venture out beyond our self-imposed boundaries, to be less concerned about long term outcomes and to focus on each day as we experience it.

I'm hardly an old fart - I'm more of an "ageing smell" - but when you reach your thirties, responsibilities add up. You can be trotting along happily when life hits you square in the face; suddenly, heavily, heartlessly. Eventually, you gather yourself, find your balance, and trot some more. Your priorities and parameters shift, and although you grow stronger and wiser in some ways, in others you grow timid and cautious. So it's ironic that, if you're a doddering thirty-something like me, there is strength and knowledge to be drawn from the ambition of youth, and stories like Anisa's can help us remember that. 

MGIF S2 E5: THE DANCAST

Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".



Friday the 4th of December, 2015 saw the very first Making Games Is Fun live episode. I was joined by Dan Pearce, Dan Da Rocha and previous MGIF guest, Dan Gray.

We discuss school days, more BAFTA chat, as well as questionable and frankly cruel parenting methods. Plus, the devs discuss their own games and the inspiration behind them.

Thanks to everyone who came down to listen. To support me in creating more episodes of Making Games Is Fun, as well as more potential future live podcasts like this one, go to www.patreon.com/MGIF and get on the cool person bandwagon, where the cool persons hang out, and throw us some unwanted pocket change.

Failing that, share this far and wide on all the social media platforms you can bear to be a member of. 

Thanks for your support and interest so far and be ready for MANY, many more episodes of Making Games Is Fun in 2016!

MGIF S2 E4: Andrew Smith, Spilt Milk Studios


Hit play for the podcast interview below. MGIF is also available on iTunes or with whatever podcast software you use. Just search for "Making Games Is Fun".


"This is Socks, this is Mum, that's Chump and over there is Mo", says Andrew of Spilt Milk Studios. He's not introducing me to his team, he's pointing out the cats from next door that they've ended up semi-adopting. This is the way of the modern indie; an hour's bug fixing, a four second commute to the back garden to fend off a herd of hungry cats, a quick sandwich, then a four second return journey to the PC to fend off a herd of hungry Early Access customers.

After putting out some milk for the cats and an update for the Internet we retire to the dining room table. I'm sat in a beautifully furnished, tidy home. Behind Andrew is a large, glass doored cupboard full of different whiskies and spirits. His PC is set up in the corner overlooked by a large art print of Shigeru Miyamoto, a coding father figure presiding over Andrew's work with his familiar grin. Andrew lives here with his girlfriend and it's very much a home first and an office second, the PC tucked away in the corner on a standing desk, inconspicuous and inkeeping with the decor. At the time of visiting, Andrew and his team are on the cusp of releasing the final version of Tango Fiesta, a game that has been available on Steam Early Access for the past year.

Tango Fiesta is Spilt Milk's third game and their first time using Early Access. "We wanted to do Early Access to learn", Andrew tells me. "At the time...it was still seen as a way for a game to get out and get some really useful feedback, generate some kind of community around it, some buzz and then, basically, make a better game as a result. For various reasons it didn't quite work out exactly as expected, and that's fine because we've learnt from it and that was the whole point."

The initial spark of debate around Early Access has dampened since its introduction back in 2013. At the time, it was unexplored territory for all involved, making villains of some and champions of others. Discussion was often centred around customer interaction and community management. Communicating well with customers, listening to complaints and transparency have been key to the success of many Early Access games.

Andrew discovered that, broadly speaking, the community response was a more pleasant one than he had expected. "We were expecting a lot of people with a lot of demands - 'we want to see this in the game' -  and actually what happened was people just played it, had fun with it and complained about what was broken rather than what wasn't in it". 

Andrew feels he is a little more thick-skinned than others when it comes to handling 'Furious Internet Feedback' aimed at the game; inflammatory Steam reviews were often resolved with simple, friendly enquiries into the specific problem the aggrieved was having with the game.

"You ignore the anger, you know, and just engage with their point and almost every single time, their second response is much more reasoned; you get to the actual issue and they end up really appreciating you for having treated them like a person. They become a fan when initially you thought maybe they would be the opposite".

"If someone's angry enough about one little thing in your game to come and post about it, it means that they probably quite like the other bits. They're not going to be angry because it's objectively a bad thing, they're going to be angry because it's spoiling something and it can only be spoiled if it's good, or potentially good".

Despite the positive experiences from taking a game through Early Access, Andrew feels that Spilt Milk are finished with that model of development for the foreseeable future. "One of the key things we learned is we probably wouldn't do it again with a game like this...it's a bit glib but unless your game is about surviving or crafting, you're probably limiting the success you can have in early access". 

Although slightly tongue-in-cheek, Andrew makes a good point: Early Access has moved on significantly since its inception, and the novelty of playing the game early has given way to a model driven by community expectations. People want to be treated to regular new additions as well as more heavily influence the direction of new content and features.

It's fair to say that making games has always been what Andrew has wanted to do. Starting with a degree in Computer Arts at the University of Abertay in Dundee, back when only three videogames related courses existed, Andrew went on to get a junior designer role at Visual Science. He then moved on to Realtime Worlds for a brief period but found he clashed with the corporate culture:

"The straw that broke the camel's back was when I got an email from the producer, who sat [a couple of metres away] telling me to stop laughing," he tells me. This prompted a move to Proper Games, a company founded by ex members of Visual Science. Once that grew too large, however, he decided to leave and create Spilt Milk Studios. He was back to the environment he loved; small teams where you are afforded a lot of creative and meaningful input on a game from the start.

We've looked after the cats but now it's time to forage for a little sustenance of our own as lunchtime approaches. We decide to take a stroll along the roads of West London to gather the ingredients for a barbecue from the supermarket. It's a bit of a change for me in this series to be plodding through a familiar semi-suburban environment as opposed to the usual East London coffee-scape. There isn't a giant omnibeard in sight. It reminds me of home, which is probably because I live twenty minutes away; a fairly typical suburb, green enough, unremarkable, but pleasant. This is where you find people who are in or approaching their thirties. It's where you go when you've stopped caring what people think about your appearance. And that's okay; we like it out here, with our tiger bread and our walks along The Grand Union Canal.


Prior to moving here, Andrew stayed with his parents while he got Spilt Milk up and running. Andrew's family have supported him from the start, both materially and emotionally, and they have made a continued effort to properly understand what he does. The turning point came when Andrew's mum saw a family friend's six year old son playing one of his games. She saw the enjoyment, the smile across his face and the level to which he was engaged. It helped her understand why he's always wanted to makes games for a living. These days, they are even more receptive and willing to learn, and Andrew is planning to send them some books on videogame culture to read, in order to get a grasp on the world he lives in.

"The next step," he says, "will be getting them to play something."

The cats are keen to join in with the barbecue so we put some dry chunks of crunchy cat food out in a futile attempt to distract them from the sizzling platter filling the garden with delicious smells. It doesn't work, and lunch is fifty percent eating and fifty percent playing whack-a-mole with hungry feline bonces as they appear over the edge of the table.

Andrew is having mixed feelings about the impending release of Tango Fiesta. "I want it to do well and I keep changing what that means to me...if it makes its money back and sees a profit in six months to a year, by the industry standard that's good, so that's...good? I should be happy with that, but what if I'm not?"

Andrew seems finally settled where he is now, in a position where he is in full control, where he can engage with his audience how he sees fit, where he can be open and honest, free from corporate nonsense yet still be an "actual business", a concept that still feels slightly alien to him. It's encouraging to see the business of games evolve to a point where it's possible for people to branch out on their own like this, to pull away from the traditional model and for it to be as valid and as viable a way of earning a living as it is to rise up the ranks of a major developer. Do you want money and stability, or do you want creative control? Does your happiness come from being an important cog in a giant machine or does it come from being close to your audience? It's easy to romanticise the go-it-alone approach, and no single approach is right for everybody, but to have the option is exciting, and speaks to the continuing diversity, growth and freedom of game development as a medium.

You can find Andrew on Twitter at @spiltmilkstudio . Tango Fiesta is out right now on Steam, and you can find it here

MGIF S2 E3: Dan Gray, usTwo

Success seems to follow Dan Gray wherever he goes - or is it Dan who is creating it? He seems to leave a trail wherever he sets foot; little buds of achievement sprouting and flowering on whatever he touches, like a Mancunian Amaterasu. Starting his career with Lionhead Studios in Guildford, Dan went on to work as producer at Hello Games before finding his way to usTwo.

It is in usTwo's lobby and break area that I now await Dan's arrival. It's impossibly trendy; space-age coffee makers, printouts of team members branded with memes, stencils, sketches, slogans. Also there is a very large plastic cow. I turn my head to investigate a commotion and see a group of men with beards high fiving each other following a game of table football. I have died and passed into Hipster Valhalla. Good job I came in disguise, then, what with my large, groomed beard, video game tshirt and low carb lunch purchased from Pret a Manger. Kale crisps anyone?

In truth, this seems like a great place to work, and the general air is of an artist's playground, as opposed to a forced, soulless, corporate "thinkspace". Those on their breaks in the lobby are friendly and open, happy to accommodate a conspicuous stick insect with a jesus haircut slinking around and photographing them.

Dan appears and welcomes me with open arms; he's always so laid back for someone who is never off his feet. In fact, I have had to arrange two separate visits to the studio in order to get everything I need, as he is permanently busy. He is happy to make time for me and takes this extra thing to do in his stride. Much has happened since we last spent time together in Cologne in the murderous heat of GamesCom 2012: an iTunes chart topping mobile game, two BAFTAs, but he remains exactly the same Dan, padding around, shoeless, in the studio, calm and just a little bit strange, but in a loveable way; he made a kunai at the weekend and brought it in. Nobody knows why.

This is either a kunai or a really dangerous bottle opener.

This is either a kunai or a really dangerous bottle opener.

We venture upstairs, past some sort of old fashioned cargo elevator, and into a minimally decorated, large studio space. The usTwo studio seems like the most natural place in the world for Dan to be, although this might just be his ability to seem at home wherever he is. He lies on a soft leather sofa, laptop resting on him, tapping away at his work, as I document the area. Although it's not immediately apparent, it's been a long, hard working and sometimes painful journey from his hometown of Glossop to this comfy leather sofa in the middle of East London. Videogames have always been an important part of his life, and this becomes increasingly apparent as we talk, exploring his childhood and beyond.

When Dan was ten years old, he sat down to a meal with his extended family. All the children were being asked what they want to do when they grow up. Dan told his family that he wanted to make videogames for a living. The family chuckled at his sweet little aspiration, shrugging it off as a cute answer. As a ten year old in an adult's world, nobody realises how serious you are when you say things. In response, Dan ran into the kitchen and made a commitment to following this dream, by writing it on his nan's notice board in permanent marker. Admittedly their smiles may have fallen a little when they realised they needed to buy nan a new notice board but, as Dan grew older, the assertion of a child started to become a reality.

Dan made his way through school, college and university, always with games on his mind. After working a variety of odd jobs - supermarket checkouts, window cleaning, retail, anything that paid - Dan began badgering Lionhead for an unpaid work experience placement. He was told that there was no space for at least another four months. So he called them again, and again, every Friday, hoping to find a cancellation to fill. On the sixth Friday, he was in luck and Lionhead offered him a cancelled slot. The perseverance paid off, his family were ecstatic; they had had an appreciation of his dreams and goals since he first committed them to cork on his nan's notice board.

Support from his family, alongside his own hard work, are the foundations of who Dan is, and throughout our interview he makes a point of praising the whole team. It's not that he's uncomfortable to talk about himself, it's about the importance of making everyone feel valued. He recognises that it took everyone on the team to create Monument Valley. When a company focuses on a handful of people, other hard working, intelligent, creative people don't get the recognition they deserve. In the studio I see Dan support, encourage, include and empower his workmates. Dan holds a genuine respect for anyone who puts time effort and sacrifice into a game for the good of the team, and I believe there's a reason for that.

Back when Dan was offered a week's placement at Lionhead in Guildford, he had moved back north to work at home and be near his mum, who had fallen ill with cancer. The weekend before his placement was due to start, Dan spent a lot of time with her. She told him "Daniel, I'd wish you luck but I know you're not going to need it because you work too hard, and one day you're going to make a game that everybody really loves". Dan's family knew that he would give up the week's work experience to spend more time with his mum if he knew just how ill she was, so they underplayed the seriousness of her situation. They knew this placement could mean big things for him, and they weren't about to let him slip up now. 

At the end of the placement week, Dan was called into the boardroom at Lionhead and offered a permanent position. It was a huge moment in his life, he had finally managed to get a foot in the door, the perseverance and hard work had paid off. Still giddy from the offer, Dan hadn't even left the boardroom when he received a call. He was to rush back home immediately.

Dan's mum passed away the same day he was offered the position at Lionhead. It was a sacrifice only a parent could make.

A month later, Dan was left wondering how he would actually afford to set up down south to begin working for Lionhead. There was no way he could let this position slip through his fingers, but affording it was a major issue; he was still paying off student loans, overdrafts and credit card bills. He also needed a deposit on a place to live. His mum had left him £10,000, which she had been saving up. This final act set Dan on his journey to an award winning studio in East London, the place where he helped create Monument Valley.

Dan tells me that, as part of their last conversation together before he left for his week's work experience, his mum assured him "I'll always make sure you can do what you want to do", something she had proven to him time and time again in the past and throughout his childhood; supporting, encouraging and empowering him. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree; gratitude for others, hard work, recognising the value in supporting and empowering those around you are all qualities I see in Dan.

And just as it takes a whole village to raise a child, it takes people working together and supporting each other to achieve something truly special.

In case you've somehow missed one the most successful mobile and tablet games in history, you should go and buy Monument Valley, then follow @ustwogames . Dan himself is @Dan_Gray

MGIF S2 E2: Aubrey Hesselgren

Hit play or download on the bar below for the podcast interview with Aubrey. Making Games is fun is also available on iTunes

The need for control is a constant presence in our lives. We want to control everything: our appetite, our temper, our stress levels, our careers, our futures. Everyone knows that feeling of being out of control; when we feel like we're blowing off course; when no amount of struggle and strain can set us straight; when we dream about missing a step on the way down the stairs, awaking with a start. We're all afraid of losing control. Control is such an important factor in our own personal happiness; it's an intrinsic, inextricable quality of human nature.  

We enjoy fluid, responsive control systems in videogames. We love that the game is doing what we ask. We appreciate the feeling of power and connection granted by the tactile influence we are having. Frustration arises when we feel like something is out of our control. You die and it was the game's fault, not yours. Nothing's quite so dissatisfying as feeling like death was out of your control.

And maybe that's what we're all worried about: we know that we'll die at some point - we're not scared of that - we're scared we won't get there in the way we want to, spiralling out of control as we attempt to navigate our lives.

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Control is of great importance to Aubrey Hesselgren, ex dev at Splash Damage and Preloaded, now independent. Control pervades all of his work and much of his life. Aubrey worked on Brink's freerunning system, taking what was originally pitched as a simple feature point and pushing for its inclusion as a central mechanic. The resulting system was the most exciting element of the game. Aubrey freeruns himself a little, so he setup a headcam and captured some footage at his parents' place in Somerset. By using the data from the footage, Brink's freerunning was shaped into an enjoyable and expressive control system. 

Technical appeal aside, this research video gives us a little insight into Aubrey's relationship with his family

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Sadly, the game suffered a troubled development and was met with poor critical reception, failing to live up to the hype surrounding its release. It must be a uniquely frustrating feeling to invest so much love, care and effort into your work, only to see it lost amongst factors entirely out of your control.

This was not Aubrey's first experience of struggling with control. Prior to Splash Damage, Aubrey met Tommy Refenes, co-creator of Super Meat Boy, at Streamline Studios. This meeting led to Aubrey's first stab at going indie. However, just like with Brink, Aubrey found that, as he built systems of control, control disappeared from his own life. 

Together, Tommy and Aubrey worked on Goo, a uniquely interesting, strategic fighting game. The hook lay in the abstract and expressive control system, as you attempted to encircle your opponent's goo with your own. Tommy and Aubrey worked hard to get the game up to standard, and it was nominated for the Technical Excellence award at the 2008 Independent Games Festival. Halfway through the games creation, before the good news of the nomination hit, Aubrey suffered a breakdown and returned to his parents' home to recover.

Aubrey recalls those nine months in bed, and how he would both marvel and despair at movies he watched: how could a person even hope to achieve something so complicated, so grand in ambition and scope, so beautifully put together? He remembers watching the film Ghandi, and considering the gulf between his position and that of the technical, artistic achievement playing out in front of him. He tells me he remembers thinking "how much effort is this, and how has anybody even managed to get out of bed to do any of this?". 

In an effort to help him, Aubrey's parents began to give him small jobs to do in their stables, such as mucking out the horses. The introduction of responsibility and routine gave him a handhold with which to pull himself up, to regain control of his life. Piece by piece, he recovered, leading him on the journey that has brought him here, halfway through his very first week of being indie for the second time. Although the journey has been long and sometimes painful, it has not been a waste: lessons learned along the way have both strengthened and prepared him for the future.

We sit down in Aubrey's room and he shows me a variety of systems and projects of past and present. Whether it is a menu system, a proof of concept for a game or a current project, they all share the qualities of tactile, analogue control. Even the menus he builds have a flow and malleability to them. I begin to understand how the perfectionist in him caused the self-inflicted pressure he once suffered from, as he doesn't let me try out any of the unfinished projects we look at. It's a shame, because they look like a lot of fun.

We go for a walk around the area, discussing his dabblings in parkour and how he aims to get back into it. He seems much more relaxed in the fresh air. We mess around on the playground across the way, running around the skate bowl and sliding down the enormous slide, before making our way into town to stop at a videogame bar. 

When I feel like I've done enough shooting, we close out the day with a few rounds of Street Fighter IV. A good fighting game offers you the freedom to express yourself creatively, offering innumerable solutions to the problem of controlling your opponent. We play for far too long and I eventually, after several declarations of "one more game", say goodbye and make the long trek home.

In modern life, there is a culture of placing enormous emphasis on hard work and success; it's constantly shoved in our faces. Adverts plead with us to take things "to the next level", to achieve more, to squeeze more in to our day, to exercise more, to rise up the ranks of a company, to give 110%, to do better than our best. We are rushed into achievement, encouraged to "fast track" everything, to speed to our destination, regardless of the consequences. The conceit is one of motivation but, in reality, it controls the pace of our lives.

It's clear that Aubrey has learned what's truly important to him. He appreciates that a game making business has to make stale, yet important, decisions regarding a game's content, as sales are paramount in a large company, failure coming at the price of people's jobs. This is why he has gone independent: not to make the next big game and live off the success of it, but to push forward systems that are interesting to him, to cover new ground and explore uncharted territory, free of the big studio cycle. It's this love hate relationship with the medium that now drives him forward. For Aubrey, success is a dirty word which gets in the way of innovation and progress. He's not afraid of failure the way he once was, just as long as failure is in his control and he can fail in his own direction.

Independence is the act of wresting control of your own destiny from the hands of others. Just as a parkour practitioner finds the perfect line through the city, we aim to be in greater control of the direction we are going. Sometimes, though, we try to run before we can walk; try to climb too high too quickly. This is when we need to learn to relax and find a flow, learn the value in making in our own mistakes, not worry about controlling every little thing and let the wind take us.

 

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You can find Aubrey on Twitter @hilariouscow and keep an eye on all his current projects

Have a look at the Making Games Is Fun Patreon and become my hero / heroine by lobbing me the change in your pocket to help me make more of these

 

 

 

 

MGIF S2 E1: Dan Marshall, Size Five Games

Hit play or download on the bar below for the podcast interview with Dan. Making Games is fun is also available on iTunes

London: busy, innit?

It's a sentiment which thousands have attempted to express in the opening paragraphs of articles related to London. A swathe of tablets pepper the capital's coffee shops, forming a constellation of journalists and frustrated writers, frowning at half-written sentences piled high with florid adjectives, until:

"Ah, Le mot juste", they declare, kissing the tips of their kale-stained fingers as they marvel at the impeccable, triple-filtered, TESCO's Finest range sentence lying emblazoned, black on white, on their screen:

"London: busy, innit?"

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For some, London can be stifling, both for creativity and personal wellbeing; this was certainly the case for Dan Marshall of Size Five Games, the company behind titles such as 'Ben There, Dan That!', 'Time Gentlemen Please!' And 'Gun Monkeys'. He's been out of London and in the English countryside for over a year now, and he's incredibly happy. He doesn't miss the unsettled feeling of being in rented accommodation. He doesn't miss the thoroughfare of temporary friends, coming and going. He feels rooted here, like he's finally in his home as opposed to borrowing someone else's front room.

Scanning the area just outside the train station, I turn around to a loud horn honk and see Dan roll up in his four wheel drive behemoth, churning up the roadside gravel and beckoning me with an eager wave. He jumps out of the car to offer to help me put my stuff in the back. He's a tall, solid looking dude, with a booming voice and a friendly disposition. It feels to me like he's always lived out here, exuding as he does a sort of rural chic (he owns a pair of wellies). We drive for a short while until all is fields and sheep. A familiar whiff of animal shite passes into my nostrils and, having grown up in the sticks, I inhale nostalgically; ah, country air. 

Since the move, he's been mostly concerned with making games and, when he's not relaxing, making token efforts at the several hundred mini jobs that require attention in a recently moved-into home. Floors have been removed, some yet to be replaced, stairs have been re...staired, and the third floor attic space has been converted into an office of sorts. The office comprises a desk, a computer, a printer, a devkit, a wooden floor and lots of empty space - delightfully uncluttered, by which I mean "not decorated yet". A single, small window offers plenty of natural light and a pleasant view into the surrounding greenery.

Rural England is often characterised as a sleepy, slow paced place, a million miles away from the rush of the big city. Since becoming freelance, Dan has made sure he hasn't fallen victim to this stereotype. He is a man with a great deal of self-discipline, his reasoning being the harder he works, the more likely he will remain successful, and the longer he can do the job he loves. He attributes this work ethic to treating self-employment like any other job, putting on a shirt and trousers and sitting down to work 9 to 5. These days, the shirt and trousers have gone - thankfully replaced with casual clothing - and he has no trouble maintaining focus.

For Dan, a strong work ethic and being approachable and helpful defines professionalism when your job is "sitting around designing guns and explosions". Sadly, nobody can escape the drudgery of bureaucracy, even those whose job entails making cool-ass robots. Being an indie company comprising one person certainly has its benefits, though; not only does Dan enjoy total freedom of control over his creative work, he also has the freedom to destroy it. Even in small companies, once budgets are assigned it can be difficult and ill-advised to abandon projects; if there's an office building and a team involved, work must be seen through to the end, even if it's not coming together as hoped. Dan can, in theory, abandon or freeze a project at a moment's notice.

Dan's upcoming title The Swindle was once doomed to the scrapheap - a game now in its final stages at the time of writing. The Swindle's AI routines had become too complicated and intelligent; realistic guards would have varying attributes determined on a sliding scale. This was an interesting idea, creating a more 'human' enemy but, sadly, outwitting the AI wasn't actually much fun.

It wasn't until Dan got his hands on Mossmouth's Spelunky that he identified the solution. He realised that the success of Spelunky's enemies lies in their set, readable rules; the definite paths and exploitable behaviour were significantly more fun to figure out and beat. Newly inspired, Dan fired up The Swindle and resumed work. 

I pad around, shooting Dan's top floor office space, until he distracts me by asking if I want to try The Swindle. Being the towering pillar of professionalism that I am, I immediately put the camera down and grab a controller.

The Swindle is a game Dan has spent an inordinate amount of time playing, tweaking, replaying, to the point of exhaustion, so it's always a treat for him to see how a new player will tackle the mechanics. A fresh pair of eyes on the game offers him the opportunity to step back and see it in a different light, a less readily available resource when working alone. He has to bite his lip to stop himself from blurting out all the cool things you can do in the game, what I should be doing next and why what I'm about to do is a terrible idea:

'I should just shut up and let you discover it for yourself', he concedes grudgingly - a familiar exchange between dev and player; in fact, Dan himself admits that he often has trouble with this element of development:

' The worst thing is putting someone else in front of it, ' he admits, ' when someone else plays it and they play it wrong, and they're playing it too slowly '

' I can play The Swindle now and I can blitz through the levels in double quick time. Put someone who's never played it before in front of it and they're going through stuff for the first time, and you forget [that it's new to them] '

It's important to remember that part of the fun of a game is that sense of exploration; that first cautious foray into a game world is interesting and exciting, as is the ensuing process of acquiring gradual understanding and mastery of a game's environment and systems. A developer's familiarity with their game comes at the cost of a sense of perspective, and puts them at risk of confusing enjoyable player failure with poor game design.

Over time, the developer becomes an unreliable tester, being the only person who will play the game every single day for ten months straight. A worry that the game might be boring seeps in, which can lead to new features being added when, in actual fact, you're at risk of overcomplicating things or overwhelming the player. 

It's time for a break from the game. We stroll around the village so I can get a sense of Dan's environment but mainly to photograph some sheep. At the nearby farm, I chat with the cows and coo at the lambs like a content simpleton. It makes me miss the countryside; the true fresh air, the calm, the quiet. I forgot how damn quiet it is. 

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For Dan, this atmosphere comes as a welcome change from the constant clamour of London. There certainly is an air of serenity in his country retreat, and I begin to appreciate what a great working environment this is. He tells me he prefers to work without distractions and can't understand people who listen to music or podcasts. Ironically, for a man with such a loud voice, he's at his best in the absolute silence of rural England, with nothing to distract him.

Dan's setup is that of the bedroom coder, except with the advantages of modern connectivity. As I photograph Dan at his desk, he gets an email through from a freelance composer he has commissioned to create music for The Swindle. He plays the piece that has been emailed to him and his eyes widen. Eagerly, he fires up the accompanying cutscene and layers it over the top. 

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" THAT'S PERFECT! " he yells, clapping his hands together loudly. As the industry has evolved, so has the indie dev. Working independently no longer means being alone; if anything, there is a greater sense of community as people around the world find solidarity in solitude, forming strong communities of people who share the same independent spirit; the same urge to make stuff. 

As the sun goes down and the light is lost, we sit a while and talk games. Dan has some controversial opinions about his favourites and what he feels is overrated. He's confident and strong willed, but any behaviour that could be interpreted as brusque is offset by a disarming warmth and friendliness. The Swindle reflects him as a person - it has a good sense of humour, it's colourful and characterful. It seems the game has flourished, benefitting from his new place of work deep in the heart of the English countryside, in the beauty and the calm, interrupted only by the odd muck spreader or curious sheep.

In many ways, Dan's setup is similar to mine: working from home by yourself, for yourself. There is a freedom in being your own boss, but a lapse in self-discipline can see you wasting three hours on Twitter before you've even started. Conversely, you can end up working too late on a project and sit there staring at the absolute rubbish you've just typed for an hour because you're too tired to be working. Dan seems a relentlessly positive and organised person though, one who doesn't dwell on nonsense like I might. He has learned to switch off properly in the evenings and 'leave work at work' , as they say, even though 'work' is only ever a couple of flights of stairs away.

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For Dan, independence is getting out of London. Independence is making room, finding a space in which to breathe and grow, by separating himself from the muggy throng that swallows so many.

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You can find Dan on Twitter @danthat to find out the latest news about The Swindle, as well as be amused by his frighteningly honest tweets about how development is going. You can expect to be playing The Swindle in the Summer of 2015.