Archive: Matt Watkins, Co-founder & Creative Director

Thoughts on an innovative location based game engine

We have been working on a European project called Magellan for the last 2 years. The aim being to design a new platform to build computer games that take place in real world situations. The platform is being designed to accommodate linked technologies like VR, Augmented reality, iBeacons and indoor location systems. We as Mudlark as one of the user partners have been tasked to come up with a game that makes use of some of the features of the platform. The working title of the game is Tribal. As the game progresses we will release more information. We are still at a stage where frustrations bubble up because of the spread of partners across Europe and the difficulty of communicating coherently with each other on some of the finer points.

The character designs for our game contribution to the Magellan Platform - Tribal

Some character designs for Mudlark’s game contribution to the Magellan Platform – Tribal.

In an attempt to convey some of my thinking about how such a platfrom should work I put my thoughts into a short video. I am sharing it here. Originally It was supposed to be internal memo for the project members. But I thought that it might be useful to share it more widely.

Note – I am not a regular vlogger, so please ignore the fluff on my jumper and the tshirt hanging from a cupboard in the background…ahem.

I include below a transcript of the wording of the video below:

I have been thinking quite extensively about what is an ideal location based game engine with particular reference to playability and the eventual business case.
In order to do this I looked at the fundamentals involved. What does a user want and what does a user need when it comes to playing or making a location based game?

In order to do this we need to get to the essence of games what is universal to all games and absolutely essential to their existence.
Having spent the last 6 months teaching students about game design I became aware of one essential feature of all games that for some reason, had previously passed me by – collision.
This may be obvious and has been stated by far greater minds than my own. But it’s important to state this from the outset.
Objects collide, meet or crash into each other and the players aim is either to make that collision happen or to avoid it. Collision also defines the boundary of play – a wall or a forcefield. Even a sandbox game like Minecraft is limited by the blocks that the user creates boundaries with.
Whether it’s a game of Grand Theft Auto, Pac man or chess, players are engaged in this constant quest to either make a hit occur or avoid one in order to protect their existence in the game arena.
All other events are merely by-products. Outcomes, feedback or stats resulting from collisions

In a conventional video game these collision occur in a virtual space either 2D or 3D where collision detection engines, rigid and soft bodies are constantly aware of a potential intersection. Super fast frame rate listeners waiting for that bullet to hit or that tunnel to end. This space is defined in a fixed ordered universe of code and geometry.
However in a location based game the rules are different. The arena of play involves the real world and the spaces within it. The boundaries are loose and ill defined – there is nothing to stop a player going wherever they choose and redefining the rules of engagement.
When looking for fundamentals in a location based game we need to look at another area of rule based experience in order to define these essentials of play.
We find it simplified best in childhood games played on the street, like ‘tig’ or ‘tag’, ‘hopscotch’, ‘bulldog’ or even ‘kiss chase’. In these worlds the rules are loosely bound around simple constructs. players become “it” and have to chase the others, or they become “out” because they move to a space that has been defined as ‘off limits’. Often the rules change or evolve during play, sometimes the arguments about these rules actually become a part of the play itself.
Games are normally defined by geographical boundaries: the end of a street, the edge of a field or a park, a garden or a room. But often these places are movable the same game can occur in a radically different space, as long as the new boundaries are universally agreed. In a location based game proximity is important: who is near and who is far. In kids games proximity in terms of the ability to see and interact with another physical body is essential – the experience is limited to the sensing capability of the human body. In hide and seek sensing the other players is the name of the game.
In a location based video game augmented by digital sensors and processors. The sensing capability and knowledge of the surroundings can be extended and enhanced by the technology in the users hand or pocket. Real world objects meet digital ones depicted on screen, felt and heard through haptic or audio feedback. Distances can be shrunk by servers and 4G connections, players can operate out of eye contact as map bound avatars and IM messages.
Despite these enhancement there is still an element of ill defined and ad hoc rules dictated by the contours and chaotic fluctuations of real world environments. Not only does this effect the planning of a game but it also effects it’s execution and delivery. Each game can be different to the next – disrupted by a parked car, a network drop out or a rain shower.

I would define the fundamentals of location based gaming as this; Location based games need to be fluid and evolving, they respond to their setting adjusting themselves to the needs of the players.

If I were designing a platform for location based games. I would start with a simple premise.
The person in a real space. Where is the user right now. I would have the editing tool as part of a mobile app. If I were a young person or technically less literate person. I would want to experience building a location based game from the ground up as I go, in situ. To see it evolve in front of my eyes.

To expand this idea lets imagine a user journey:

Jane walks onto a street with a device and places a digital object somewhere on that street. Perhaps she would make it a pick up and she would go and experience the sensation of walking in a real space and picking up a digital object. Perhaps she would want that collision to have more impact. maybe it would explode or move away from her.

Perhaps she would then want to generate multiples of these pickups all over her local area. So she could take a walk and pick them all up. She wouldn’t want them to be inside buildings as she might not be able to pick them up, so maybe their distribution should be limited to parks and streets.
Perhaps she would want to attach an outcome to that maybe a score or value that increments with some way of representing that.

Perhaps she would want some of these objects to become enemies and allow them to chase her or have negative impact on her health if she gets too close.

Now her friend Dino has joined and he is on the street with his smartphone. Jane wants Dino to be able join the fun so she invites him to the game she has created. They discuss their roles and decide that some of the objects are Dino’s allies so they will not attempt chase him but they will chase Jane. They set a flag raiding marker in 2 locations. Both Dino and Jane need to avoid the agents of the other player and the mines they have laid in order to steal the other persons flag.

They try it out and reconvene to see where they can improve, after some tweaking they invite another friend to play.

Later on they decide that they want to design more elaborate custom graphics that represent their avatars more faithfully. One of them wants to have 3D Augmented Reality to represent the enemies in the game. Jane activates this function so all the players can spot the enemy through the camera. That evening they design new graphics and add them to the game using the desktop editing software. The next day they test it out and tweak parameters further.

They have to end the game abruptly so they save the game in it’s current state to return to it later.

Later on Jane decides that she wants to make a new game that takes place inside her work building so she pay’s for the internal sensor expansion pack and waits for it to be delivered. Once it arrives she sets up the receivers and starts to build a new game object by object, collision by collision.
…and so it goes.

Experience location, collide with objects and evolve the game play in real-time – This is my vision for an innovative location based game platform and engine. One that takes the concept of a sandbox environment and makes the real world a laboratory for sandbox games built straight out of the box.

This links directly to the business case, as the player learns about the value proposition of locative gaming while actually engaged in building it. A niche concept is made more marketable, through direct and instant interaction with the notion of location as a game space.

They can be the architect of their own experiences from inside the locations around them.

Playable Supermarkets
Loyalty cards
A range of current  loyalty cards

Chromaroma was in effect a gamification and a Quantified Self  facility for the public transport user, using the Oyster Card sytem. We wanted to explore how else we could develop this thinking and very quickly we alighted upon loyalty schemes. People use their various loyalty cards as easily and seamlessly as they use travelcards. Why not investigate turning a loyalty platform into a game platform?

We’ve started that investigation as a Innovate UK- supported Proof of Market.

Loyalty programmes classically aim to retain and grow loyalty using mechanics such as points, offers and discounts based on purchasing behaviour. Retailer loyalty programmes use members’ transaction data to minutely analyse their  behaviour and  to better target customer communications, with data also analysed for business optimization. Although explicitly consensual (“we will collect and use information about you…Your information may be analysed” says one prominent scheme’s Privacy Policy), it is essentially a one-way data relationship.

We are studying  the case for the transparent return of this data back to those who generated it, firstly by demonstrating how users would understand that data and find it useful.

Our motives are:

Idealistic – we really believe that shoppers should get their data back for their own benefit;

Playful – we have several brilliant concepts for gaming shopping;

Commercial – we can show players in this sector a trick they are missing, and work with them to develop a new disruptive model.  We want to explore how, by using gaming techniques, they can improve retention with the ‘stickiness’ of the customers’ engagement in the game, and devise challenges specifically aimed at increasing spend, frequency and cross-selling.

For sector expertise, Chris Jacobs is part of the team. His has worked in systems for over 40 years, the last 20 of which have been exclusively in consumer-focused marketing applications. He has been personally involved in the design and implementation of over 90 customer loyalty/CRM schemes and is familiar with most available customer loyalty and CRM solutions.

We’re also working with two preeminent academics in the personal data sphere. Dr Kieron O’Hara and Dr Max Van Kleek are senior research fellows on the SOCIAM Social Machines project at the University of Southampton. They specialise in the interface between society and technology, the use of big data and open data for citizen and consumer empowerment and technologies to enable data subjects to gain benefits from their own personal data.


Wending Our Way into Europe

We are very pleased to be announced as one of the first companies to secure phase-1 grant funding from the SME Instrument of the EC’s new Horizon 2020 scheme, which supports the formation of the business and development plans of innovative SMEs.

Mudlark is among the 155 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) selected from 2,662 proposals from 21 countries. We have won funding to do a business feasibility study for the successor to our travel game Chromaroma, in a proposal entitled Off the Rails.

Chromaroma started as an experiment in ambient gaming – using Transport for London’s iconic Oyster smartcard system to return people’s travel data to them in the form of gameplays.

Chromaroma visualisation

The visualisation mode inside our Chromaroma game.

Since its 2010 launch, Chromaroma has had thousands of players, attracting global interest from transport systems and operators. Mudlark has consequently grown a unique expertise not only in data-driven game design but also in transport policy, behaviour change, sustainable travel and mobility technology.

We are now calling the Off the Rails product “Wend”, reflecting its multi-modal ambitions to give players back useful, playable information across all their transport modes as they wend their ways through the world. Unlike Chromaroma, it will not depend on a ticketing infrastructure, using mobile devices instead of smartcards.

Sort of not right

Turning on the Radio 4 Today programme yesterday morning, I found myself in the middle of an interview with the novelist David Mitchell explaining why he was publishing his new short story on Twitter.

Image from The BBC
Image of David Mitchell from The BBC

Given our experience with Such Tweet Sorrow  several years ago, I was both interested in the project and keen not to be too critical of it. I remember how sensitive many of us were to what looked like stupid criticism from some people who were really creating their own bandwagons and weren’t giving themselves a chance to see all the ambitious things we were doing  with the project: its live-ness; its “acted-ness”; its woven appearance into just about every emerging or emerged social platform we (mainly the wonderful Tim Wright) could think of. Not to mention all that interactivity.

We had to listen to stuff about betraying Shakespeare’s poetic language, as if Shakespeare was both utterly sacrosanct and terribly vulnerable.

So I wanted to give what sounded like another bold literary experiment with social media (and Lord knows that there aren’t many of them) a chance. But there were things in the Mitchell interview that just felt wrong. He was so guarded – so priggishly above the medium he’s chosen. He doesn’t tweet. “I’m not really a social media animal… I don’t want to add to this ocean of trivia…” If it was just a marketing ploy he wouldn’t do it… “I don’t want to feel like a gimmick chaser”. Already, this doesn’t sound bold – just cautious.

Then the thing itself. Again, a minority of critics fell on the first day or two of Such Tweet Sorrow without giving it a chance to get into its stride for the best part of another 5 weeks, so I am reluctant to cast aspersions, but…really? Really?

He has simply crafted a narrative in a series of tweet-sized passages. And played them out over Twitter.

There’s a ten hour gap between two tweets that clearly describe the same set of instances. And then more this morning – still in the time frame of the story, but not of the medium.

Mitchell so far fails to realise that the quality of Time is crucial to Twitter – its currency, its spontaneity, its asynchronicity, its ability to be both live and of record. If you don’t play with all of this you might as well give up.

The Right Sort is not “of Twitter” in any interesting way at all. The only people the account is following are a handful of publishing (and Twitter) marketing types. It’s not that cynical to assume one of them is pushing out the content for Mitchell, out of the sausage machine.

Not that this delivery method matters –  there is no interactivity to mention. No interactivity at all. In fact there is no argument for it taking this form other than that the hero experiences much of the story in bite-sized, trippy “pulses” and that the author found it very demanding.

His claim that he’s been through “escapological challenges posed by diabolical treble-strapped textual straitjackets” may be true for the experience of composition, but none of that jeopardy appears in the tweeted result.

Maybe he found it so difficult because he feels so lofty about the medium through which he’s chosen to push his message – and he hasn’t bothered to understand it.

From Mr Cloud Atlas, this is just disappointing. It’s not even a gimmick, and hardly a stunt. To me it reads terribly safe, maybe the most un-experimental thing of Mitchell’s I’ve come across.



Cold Sun – The rain wont stop play

We are just approaching the final phase of research into a game called Cold Sun. This is still very much in the realms of a prototype, however the initial results both from the point of view of the graphics and the game play are very promising.

The initial idea emerged from a drunken conversation with Canadian developer Jesse Blum and Mudlark founding member Rachel Jacobs while working in Brazil in 2012. We were doing some experiments in a farmhouse in the rainforest outside Rio de Janeiro, the isolation was quite profound, we were 3 hours walk from the nearest road.

The Game Intro Screen

We started riffing on –  what if you woke up alone in a place like this with the rain coming down hard, as it does a lot in this part of Brazil. A lone survivalist, having to piece together what had happened to the world while they were asleep. This is such a classic trope so beloved of games and movies – the loner who wakes to find themselves in a world changed beyond compare. But what was attractive was not only this classic narrative structure but also how weather could play a vital part. Our time in the farmhouse was hampered daily by the pattern of heavy weather, sometimes it was so heavy it seemed to affect peoples dreams. So we wondered if there was a way we could create a game where real weather data was essentially invading the imaginary universe of a game. We also liked the idea of the player being unsure of who they are in the game. Neither male or female, man or beast, they must survive in order to find out the truth of who they are.

What we have come up with is a mobile game that takes real-time weather data from a player’s location and amplifies it in a game universe where climate change has drastically changed everything. Challenging the player to think adaptively, notice weather changes around them in the real world in order to plan their next move in the game.

The text adventure in survival mode

Our research has taken us on many journeys into many approaches as to how you might build a game like this. We have gathered research with a number of partners including Lancaster University, Anglia Ruskin University and Candace Howarth a climate scientist currently working with the Department for the Environment. We have been given insight into stark futures of climate change and have factored some of this thinking into our game world. Topically this information is what is informing recent news reports about the future of the British climate.

Infinite runner in dream mode

We have distilled the research into a game that has 2 modes – dream and survival mode. In survival mode the character has awoken to find themselves on the point of death, they must make decisions in what is essentially a text adventure, to stay alive. Barely able to move and in their confusion and weakened state they pass out frequently at this point the game switches mode to dream mode. In this mode the game becomes an infinite runner where they have to dodge enemies and jump across strange spheres. In both modes aspects of the game play whether it is narrative features or game parameters are influenced by the state of the weather outside the players window.


We are releasing the game to a test audience in the next few months, they will test (alongside ratings of levels of fun and engagement) whether they feel a heightened awareness of the real weather as a result of playing the game. Bring on the rain!