20 August 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Not Just, Justifiable, nor Just A Joke

Harassment seems ubiquitous, inevitable and inescapable in the world of videogames, and targets of harassment run the gamut from folk who show the slightest interest in games, to folk who regularly play and write about games as a career, all the way to folk who create games – and that harassment can come from folk in those roles, too.

People from any given group of people has experienced some form of harassment in videogames if they’ve spent any time playing with other people; women, however, experience far more harassment than men do, especially in the form of sexual harassment – suffice it to say, it’s not necessary to be a woman to be targeted for harassment, but being a woman is apparently a sufficient reason to be targeted for harassment.

Folk of other sexes and genders don’t fare much better, nor do gay gamers, or indeed, folk from any given group of people that aren’t the “straight white middle-class cis male” profile that’s continually reinforced as the norm.

(You can read the rest of this article over at GayGamer.net!)

12 August 2013

[myGameDev] The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG

The Loch began as a small solo project in RPG Maker VX Ace Lite for Sophie Houlden's 7-Day Fishing Game Jam, which was held on the 20th to the 27th of May 2013 - the theme was "fishing", which could be interpreted as literally or figuratively as anyone wanted to. Since I was looking for an excuse to make games over the summer between semesters at uni, I decided to take part!

...and that's despite the fact that closest I've ever come to actual fishing was in the form of a small box that my older brother owned: a green plastic container which might once have been a First Aid kit. Inside was a number of cone-shaped weights made of metal, or stone, and a tangled mix of lures and hooks - my favourite piece in the box was an orange squid with wiggly plastic tentacles, which I've since discovered is a lure skirt, a piece added to a lure to make it seem more alive (and thus more attractive to fish). The box had an esoteric quality to it, a secret treasure from a bygone age where each individual piece had a very specific purpose that was totally occult to me.

The rest of my fishing knowledge comes from an anecdote of my mum's that, when I was four or five, she saw me sitting on the edge of the pier of my hometown with a fishing rod made of bits I'd found lying around, including a metal chain and some twine from a fishing net, angling for those most elusive of fish, "splats". I can assure everyone that I used every piece of fishing wisdom I possibly could from this entirely anecdotal account that I have no memory of ever experiencing in the development of The Loch.

I only had the vaguest of intentions when I began working on the game that would become The Loch at the start of the 7-Day Fishing Game Jam. I'd just finished playing Yume Nikki, and I had some lofty intentions of making a game where the player character could fish from atop a cloud, under an abandoned oil rig, inside an ancient catacomb, inside their own dreams, etc, etc. I only had a week, though, and there was only so much I could do while getting to grips with RPG Maker for the first time. I decided I'd map out the levels of the game using the basic RPG Maker tilesets, and if I found time later, I'd have a go at making some assets for areas that are a little more out-there.

Over the course of the week, I kept a development diary on the Fishing Game Jam forum, with some daily updates on the progress of The Loch; and, by Sunday, I'd made a playable version of the game available. As with most projects - especially games projects - there were a lot of features that had to be dropped to make the cut-off point, a number of systems that had to be simplified so that they were even marginally usable, and a number of art assets that were unfinished or entirely missing from the version of the game released on Sunday. And, by that point, I'd realised I desperately wanted to keep going.

So I did!

After the weeklong game jam was over, The Loch just continued to expand in a way that I like to describe as "feature bloom" - it's like feature creep, but nice! Over the course of the next couple of months, I managed to get a lot done, including adding (and creating portraits and sprites) for 5 player characters and 15 non-player characters, 19 individual fish, and a fishing system with four different types of tackle, plus lots of little extras for those people who like to explore. When I'm designing games, I tend to keep in mind the categories of "The Bartle Test", a system that classifies players based on whether they're Achievers (who want a sense of accomplishment and concrete goals to complete), Killers (folk who like to make stuff dead), Socialisers (who like to talk, chat, roleplay and the like), and Explorers (who enjoy grokking the system, the environment, and so on). Although the Bartle Test is generally used for MMOs, I've found it's a pretty useful design system for single-player games as well.

Eventually, the "feature bloom" was rapidly becoming "feature creep" - I'd started considering adding in secret areas, additional characters and special events that were a fair bit removed from the original vision of the game - the thing that put the brakes on it was when I went to make a new level for the game, and was told that I'd reached the maximum number of levels for one project - the Lite version of RPG Maker VX Ace has caps placed on a lot of different elements of the game, including the amount of enemies you can create in one game (or in my case, fish), the amount of characters you can have, the amount of "common events" you can use, and so on. Up 'til this point, I'd managed to create workarounds for some of these limitations, but by that point I realised it was time to stop creating new things, and to polish what I already had.

Testing took up a fair amount of time; a lot of that was down to playing through the game at various points, to see any common problems that might show up on the average playthrough, scribbling down when they cropped up (alongside a possible diagnosis for why they appeared), and then continuing with the playthrough, provided they weren't significantly game-altering. Then, I'd go through each, one-by-one, and cross them off as they were fixed. Other times - such as after implementing a big new system, like adding in a new type of fishing tackle, new playable character, or a new sequence of events - I'd have to carefully design a way to test that system in isolation (for internal errors), and then how that system worked with any system that it interacts with (for external errors), which often meant adding in new events, new start points, and adjusting lots of variables just to simulate as though I'd been through certain parts of the game.

Once I'd done all of my own playtesting, I set up the Facebook group and let other folk playtest that version of the game - which turned out to be a massive help, because not only where there errors I'd completely missed, but there were errors that had been created because of things I changed so I could playtest the game myself!

As is often the case, there are a lot of things I'd like to improve, include, or modify, but time is always an issue. The Loch almost exclusively uses the default RPG Maker VX Ace Lite tilesets - I'd initially wanted to make my own tilesets for the game, simply to distinguish them from other games made with RPG Maker, but, for the sake of actually finishing the game before mid-August, I decided to set that aside - which was ultimately for the best, considering most of the sprites I'd drawn were either overly-simple or overly-complex!

I'd also have liked to include more distinct audio. I had the benefit of finding inchadney on the Free Sound Project, who has a girthy library of sound assets that were recorded in Scotland, including Scottish birdsong, which helped make the environment feel more like Scotland (and made it recognisable to Scottish people as well). However, I'd've liked to include Scottish ambient music - but, as ever, time was a factor, and it would take a lot of it to source a Scottish recording artist or two with free, open-source music, which could easily be looped, then implement it into the game at the appropriate points. The ambient background sounds of birdsong, waves, wind and rain were enough, I think, to put across the feeling of being by the side of a loch in Scotland.

All in all, I'm incredibly pleased with how The Loch turned out - I've gotten good feedback on it thus far, and I managed to include a lot of the systems and mechanisms that I felt the game required. It also meant that I could finally create a game that was distinctly set in a Scottish location, which, as a Scottish game designer who's also pro-Independence, was pretty close to my heart. The Loch definitely feels like a major success for me, and I hope at least some of the positivity I got from it comes across for all the folk who play it too!

You can download The Loch: A Scottish Fishing RPG from this Dropbox link:

Run the .exe file to extract the files, then run "Game.exe" to play!

1 August 2013

[GayGamer.Net] Queer Mechanic #1: "Identify As..."

Queer Mechanics is a new regular feature over on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanics is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Character customisation is present in some form in the vast majority of games, but it’s only recently that we’ve seen an explosion of games where you can design the lead protagonist from top-to-toe, such as Mass EffectThe Secret WorldDragon’s Dogma, or Skyrim. Sometimes, we get the option to have the characters have romance options with a character of the same sex, but as of yet, we never get the option to explicitly state that our character is gay, or bisexual, or trans*, or any other terms of identity. We often have to read these identities into the characters, come up with personal “headcanon” where we decide, in our own heads, what our character is “really” like (even though there’s no way to represent that in game, and it often contradicts what actually happens in-game as well).

There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach – it means your character isn’t necessarily shackled to their sexuality because you ticked the “gay” or “lesbian” box. For example, Oscar Amell, one of my characters from Bioware’s Dragon Age, started a relationship with Leliana (a woman), and then, when the relationship came to an end, he and Zevran (a man) got together. That was only possible because of the “laissez-faire” approach to sexuality in the game, where I wasn’t choosing what Oscar was (e.g., homosexual), I chose what Oscar did (i.e., had sex with a person of the same sex as himself). Any character trait I read into that – that Oscar was homosexual, or bisexual, or pansexual, or situationally homosexual, or heteroflexible – would only ever exist in my own head. In the world of videogames, our characters are only ever WSW, MSM, WSM or MSW.

Many folk interpret that as a perfect world that we’re striving for in reality, where we’ve moved beyond the need for restrictive labels, where gay folk don’t need to define themselves as gay, where trans* people don’t talk about being trans*, where queer folk are Just People like the rest of us. But I don’t think bigotry suddenly disappears if we just stop labeling ourselves – I’m pretty sure a bigot will still understand the significance of two men kissing one another and that it is A Thing That They Hate.

Besides, identity is important – it literally informs who were are as people, and its importance, significance and ubiquitousness is immediately apparent if you start noticing every time you use the verb “to be”, or count the number of times you refer to yourself in speech. Identity influences everything from our daily lives all the way up to the peaks of human culture and society – and it’s a system that’s rife for exploring in games. And, with that in mind, let’s present the very first of GayGamer’s Queer Mechanics – the “Identify As…” Mechanic.