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.

At the River

We were approached by a client to make a game which could be played by a group of people in a festival tent.

The idea was that anyone could join in (or drop out of) the game at literally any time. The game should be instantly understandable, suitable for children and fully co-operative. It should feature a group of up to four players travelling down a river and tackling mini-game tasks that promoted a spirit of working together and helping others.

Paddling down the river - note the 4-way split screen
Paddling down the river – note the 4-way split screen

Co-operative game design presents an interesting set of challenges. In most co-operative games, gameplay can be very interlocked and quite ‘formal’ – i.e. there are puzzles and challenges where each player has to do a certain particular thing in order to complete the puzzle (e.g. one player stands on a switch to open a door while the other one runs through it and props it open from the other side). This didn’t fit our game for a number of reasons: we didn’t have the time/resources for this intricate design; it didn’t fit the more simple co-operation that would be required between a group of people (possibly children) that had never met before; and most importantly we had to ensure the game was still playable by someone playing on their own!

Instead we tried to design games where everyone could contribute, but where it was clear who was doing the most work, where players could mess things up and get in each other’s way. In this way a lot of fun can emerge from very simple games. Players shout at each other, boast, encourage, remonstrate and generally have a good time – exactly the sort of thing you’d want at a festival! Examples include pushing crates into place to make a bridge, and patching & pumping up a giant (and very leaky) balloon.

In this mini-game, players push crates together to form a bridge - other players can join at any time
In this mini-game, players push crates together to form a bridge – other players can join at any time

However, the game had a very limited budget and time-scale. Roughly speaking we had about four weeks each for a coder, designer and artist. So we had to make some tough decisions early on: the mini-games would have to be very simple; we would adapt art assets from the Unity Asset Store rather than making everything from scratch; we would use a single PC and 4-way split-screen on a large screen rather than networking four PCs together.

We built the game in Unity. I’d never used this game development environment before last year, and I am still amazed at how much it speeds up and improves the development cycle. I would estimate that using Unity at least doubles the speed of development. The coder can ‘expose’ all the important variables, which means the designer can tweak gameplay and difficulty directly in the editor without any code changes. And if you search the Asset Store you can find some great assets for tens of pounds that would have cost tens of thousands to produce in-house.

The game in the Unity editor - note the variables for changing the boat handling on the right-hand side
The game in the Unity editor – note the variables for changing the boat handling on the right-hand side

Kev Cook did the coding – I’ve worked with him a number of times over the years and he is quite simply the best (and fastest!) coder I’ve ever worked with. We have a similar broad-brush approach to game development, which makes it very easy to work together. I think the following email exchange nicely illustrates this approach:

Kev: I’m whipping together the Rhythm game at the moment. It is good that they’re all coming together nicely. I love working like this. Rough blockout of the whole game. Then another pass, getting it very roughly playable. Then revisiting and filling in some more gaps, adding animations, control tweaks, sound etc. Having people play it and offer opinions at each pass.It’s very ‘Top Down’, a bit like an artist would with a painting.

Most coders would tell you this is the wrong way of doing it. You need to break down every task at the start and build up the components. “If it’s planned correctly, then it only takes one pass”. But I’ve been doing it for 24 years and know that’s bullsh*t. So f*** ‘em! Only after each iteration can people get their hands on it and see what will and won’t work, what art and animations will look best and where. Changes can be made mid-process. Game development should be a very flexible process. Unity suits me down to the ground because it allows me to knock up prototypes in no time. Me and Unity sitting in a tree…

Tom: I absolutely agree with every word of your email. This is definitely the way to make games. It’s impossible to design and plan a game completely in advance. You can make an educated guess on what will be fun, and what assets you need and how long it will take. But you need a process of iteration to make things feel right and fun.

I am conscious that when I write designs sometimes it comes over a bit wishy-washy, because I say “we could do this or we could do that” but often it’s just a case of trying something and seeing if it works, and having a plan B ready for if it doesn’t. And the best way to do that is trying a very rough version and tweaking it and then being prepared to abandon it if you need to (which is a pain, but at least you haven’t plowed huge amounts of time, effort and finished art assets into that one perfect version which seemed like a good idea on paper but which is actually no fun to play).

In summary: yeah, f*** ‘em!

Kev: Exactly! How many projects have you worked on that have been planned to death, detailed schedules, task breakdowns, etc. Then months of work by tens of people manage to produce something that just doesn’t work. Sounded ok on paper, but actually, it’s no fun at all.

And amazingly, almost everyone you talk to in development houses will still insist that this is the way to do it.

The thing is: developing a little co-op game this way really is fun in a way that, sadly, big game development so often isn’t. And it looks like we’re not the only ones to think that the days of behemoth all-encompassing game design documents may be numbered.

Floating off over the rainbow at the end of the game
Floating off over the rainbow at the end of the game
Big Game Hunting

We wanted this year’s Playful to be more interactive than ever. I spend far too much of my spare time designing board and card games, so it seemed like an interesting challenge to design something that could be played by everyone at Playful and which fitted this year’s theme of “Hidden”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year playing the hidden-role card game “One Night Ultimate Werewolf” (ONUW) which takes the classic party game “Werewolf” and condenses it down into an intense 5-minute experience without losing any of the negotiation, pleading and fun of the original.

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Some of the role cards from One Night Ultimate Werewolf

ONUW has an interesting genesis. Social deduction card games have become all the rage over the last 5 years. Games like “The Resistance” and “Coup” had players trying to work out who was on their side, and what role (and therefore what abilities) they had. Japanese designers, especially Seiji Kanai, further distilled these ideas down into ‘microgames’ such as the multi-award-winning “Love Letter”, a game consisting of just 16 cards.

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

Some of the role cards from Love Letter

The Japanese designer Akihisa Okui applied this microgame ethos to Werewolf, and the idea was refined by American designer Ted Alspach, who made the inspired decision to add an app which played the narrator/moderator role (one of the annoying thing about the original Werewolf was that one person was required to sit the game out in order to play this role).  I could (and may!) write a whole blog just on dissecting a single game of ONUW. For now, suffice to say that I have never known a game that packs such a punch (and so much fun) into such a short space of time.

So for this year’s Playful I wanted to take some of these ideas and design a game that could be played by 300 or more people over the course of a day (we think this may well be the biggest card game ever played in the UK!). There are many interesting factors to take into account with this sort of game.  The three most difficult limitations are that you can’t really have a draw pile, you can’t have turn-taking (people need to be able to wander round and play with who they want in a completely ad-hoc manner) and you can’t have many rules – the game needs to be instantly understandable. You also want to avoid player-elimination, and ideally keep the victory conditions at least partly hidden (because you don’t want the game to be over in the first 5 minutes, or someone thinking that they’ve got a winning hand and then hiding for the rest of the day).  I had 5 or 6 ideas for games… some of the rejects are shown here.

First set of test cards.

In this game you have 2 or 3 cards and try to make the longest word possible. There wasn’t much incentive to swap cards once you’d made a word as it usually meant destroying the word you’d already made.
Second set of test cards.

In this game you try to match a sequence of icons (these are actually symbols from Zener cards used for testing ESP) which are revealed one at a time over an hour or two. This was fun until people realised that there was no way someone was going to trade a card with a partial match.
Third set of test cards.

We tried the icon match game again with more lines (and therefore more ways of matching longer sequences) and a subway-map aesthetic, but it was just too confusing and still suffered from the ‘why trade?’ problem.
Fourth set of test cards.

This version ‘borrowed’ ideas from Lucas Pope’s amazing indie video game Papers, Please. Players swap cards trying to find a matching set of papers (and one in which there are no other ‘mistakes’ such as expired visa dates or mismatched serial numbers). This was good fun on a small-scale test, however we decided not to pursue it because of the amount of work in producing around 1000 unique cards, and the fact that there was no easy way of testing whether the game would work when scaled up to 300+ players. (Of course we would have changed the graphics/theme from Papers, Please if we had decided to take this beyond prototype stage)
Fifth set of test cards.

These are a few of the cards from the prototype for the game we finally went with. It uses some of the ideas from Love Letter, but changes and extends them so that the game will work in a free-form, simultaneous format and scale to hundreds of players.
Near final test card.

Near-final version for one of the cards for our Hidden game.

But in the end, after several playtesting sessions (though it’s difficult trying to extrapolate from 5 testers to at least 300 players), I returned to the design that is closest to social deduction microgames such as “Love Letter” and its ‘sequel’ “Lost Legacy” – though it’s very different to either of those games, to allow for the limitations described earlier, and the game has over 600 cards rather than 16! I’d like to explain it in more detail here, but I think the game will be more fun if people don’t know the rules in advance, so we’ll save the detailed description for another blog after the event (along with an analysis of how successful – or otherwise – the game was!).

A few tickets are left for Playful: buy yours now.

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.



Designing Cold Sun

An exploration into a strange future; narrative, weather and consciousness.

Cold Sun is a dual-mode adventure game that is affected by real-time weather. In the game you flip between your Existence which is set in the future, and your Dream world which is a one-touch platform game where you must navigate a magnified environment—generated by the real weather data. Matt describes the state of this research project so far.

Some themes we explored for this stage one prototype included:

· Coils. Mortal coils, electric coils, etc.
· Circles as a general theme. Sun, timers, time running out, the globe.
· Colours and it’s variation in weather patterns.
· Dreaminess. Blurry. Disorientation, spirals.

After poring over images we pulled together using Pinterest (a really useful collaborative moodboarding tool we love to use) we started to generate some of our own visuals.

Spiral experimentations.

Wind denotations.

A cold sun.

We then started to explore how using these visual ideas could work as a title for the game.

A playful option for Cold Sun.

Cold Sun using ‘weather front’ sign.

We arrived at a really atmospheric graphic that we could use for a title screen, some Dream mode disorientating circular gameplay, and more.

Final Cold Sun title screen.

Dream mode gameplay.

Mudlark creates games, from small mobile and desktop games through to real-world experiences based on your heartbeat or games the size of London. Game design and playful thinking are central to Mudlark’s creative processes. Take a look a other games we have made.