Category Archives: Articles

Impostor Syndrome: I’m not really qualified to write this article

I recently attended Feral Vector – an independent games festival in Hebden Bridge in the UK. It’s a fantastic event if you’ve never been, I recommend it. This year I wanted to get involved with it, so I did short talk on Imposter Syndrome which focused on mental illness and creativity. It was an honour to get up on that stage and for a hall full of people to listen to words that I said.

Afterwards I received a lot of positive comments on the talk from a lot of wonderful people. They mostly seemed to like the slides that I produced, but the content of the talk resonated with quite a few people. I thought it would be a good idea to write up the talk in a nice article and share it here. I didn’t use notes or a script, so I’ve tried to stick with roughly what I said, but with a few bits of extra information added in.

My name is Stuart Lilford and I guess I would describe myself as a game designer. I worked for studios for 3 years in QA/Design roles before making games independently and lecturing in game design in a Yorkshire-based college. Most recently I made The Temple of ADVENTURE for the Adventure Jam and I’m currently working on Splodey Vaders for Android and iOS.

But enough about me. Let’s find out something about you. I want to begin this article by asking you a question: “Did you have an imaginary friend as a child?” Have a think and put your hand up if you did. I asked this to the audience at Feral Vector and there was a steady stream of hands raise around the room, so a number of people have had imaginary friends when they were younger.

So I *did* have an imaginary friend, but he appeared in my life when I was a bit older (around the age of 14) and is still around now. However, he was less of an imaginary friend and more of an imaginary asshole. His name is Jason.

Jason is an asshole because he’s one of those people that are always putting you down. Whenever I decide to try and make something creatively, Jason pops up to question why I’m even bothering. Whenever I put something I’ve created online, be it a game or some artwork, Jason will arrive to suggest that I shouldn’t have done it and that I look like an idiot. Whenever I receive some praise or recognition for something I’ve done, he’ll be there to tell me that I’m a fraud, I don’t deserve the recognition. I’m not as good as other people doing the same thing as me. The person praising me has made a mistake.

Jason appears all the time, but there are a number of occasions when he’s had a really negative impact on my mental state. Here are some of the main examples of when Jason has appeared in my life:

This is me when I was just about the start my first job as a Game Designer. I would be working at an independent studio working on games published by Sony.  I was incredibly excited. Ever since I was a child and the first time I played Super Mario All Stars I wanted to be a game designer. I was well-aware of how difficult it was to get a job as a designer when you’re inexperienced as I’d read many an article on the subject. I felt extremely lucky to be offered the role. I’d been to University to study it and now I’d be doing it as an actual job! This was my dream and I couldn’t wait.

But then, Jason turned up

“What do you think you’re doing? You’ve got no experience designing games and now you’re going to go into a job doing it? You’re University wasn’t even that good. It was run by a graphic designer who didn’t even play games and you only got a 2:1. You’re going to screw up. You’ve no business having that job”.

Despite Jason’s whispers I did the job for around a year, but the contract was a 3-month temporary role that they topped up at the end of each 3 months. One month came when I was told that the contract wouldn’t get rolled over and I found myself no longer employed in the industry. I took this as an affirmation of Jason’s whispers and I told myself that he was right, rather than it simply being a business decision. I had no place in that role, I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t belong in that industry.

I decided not to apply for roles in the industry again and I stopped making games full stop for a while. I turned my back on it and instead went into working in the exciting world of business-to-business sales. I sold non-ferrous metals at a stainless steel and aluminium stockholders to fabricators and engineers. Sales wasn’t for me and I hated my time working thee. It wasn’t long though before the itch to create came back to me and I started making games again.

I made Time Stone, a short point and click adventure game made with Adventure Game Studio. Desperate for a change in career from sales, I used this as an example of my game making skills when applying for a job to teach game design to 16-18 year old students at a local college. At first this was just on a zero-hours contract, but within half a year I was employed as Curriculum Leader for Game Design.

I was excited for the role. It was a permanent, full-time job and I was enjoying teaching game design to students. The role offered me the security that was missing from my roles in the games industry and I would be working with a subject I loved (as opposed to sales which I hated). But I wasn’t that experienced with teaching and it wasn’t long before Jason showed up again.

“You got a job as Curriculum Leader where you’re overseeing an entire course? You’ve not even been teaching for half a year and you’ll be overseeing people with more experience than you! This must be some sort of administrative error.”

I felt like a huge fraud when I got that job, but I stuck with it and I’m still there 3 years later. I love the job and feel like my input has improved the provision in a number of ways which I’m proud of. I’m glad that I got the job, but it took me a while to feel like I deserved it.

More recently, I was looking to attend Feral Vector. It’s an event I’ve been to before and I wanted to do more than just attend. I was interesting in doing a talk or helping out running a workshop or something.

I sent an email to the event organiser proposing a few ideas for talks and just generally wanting to get involved. But no sooner had I clicked send on the email that Jason appeared on my monitor whispering at me through my speakers.

“I can’t believe you just sent that email. Why would they want *you* to do a talk. Nobody even knows who you are? There are going to be much more qualified people giving talks there and then you’ll get up and everyone will think ‘who’s this bozo’ and switch off. You’ll break under pressure and they’ll soon realise that you have no idea what you’re talking about.“

I panicked and was up late worrying about this until I read an article called ‘Living with Imposter Syndrome’ by a chap called Danny Moore. He’s a game writer and discussed his experiences with Imposter Syndrome and the article and it really struck a chord with me. I started reading more and more about it and found myself nodding and agreeing and thinking to myself “that’s me!”

So, just what is Imposter Syndrome? It’s essentially the feeling that you’re a fraud and that you’re not a successful, competent or smart person – you’re only imposing as one, despite any evidence to the contrary. You’re constantly worried about being ‘found out’ for not being smart, talented or hard-working even though you’re probably all of these things. The games industry is made up of a lot of smart, talented, hard-working, creative people and so naturally we can assume that many individuals within it have had these feelings. Though there’s little definitive information on imposter syndrome, there are some recurring themes when it comes to symptoms. These are a few common ones:

Periods of avoiding creative work

Feeling like an impostor can make you feel as though you shouldn’t bother and it can lead to long periods of avoiding creative work. In Danny’s case he was asked by a colleague if he had dyslexia when receiving feedback on some of his writing, this really knocked his confidence and he took some time out of writing. With me, when my contract wasn’t renewed when I worked as a designer, I took this as confirmation of my imposter feelings and didn’t create anything for months.

Not putting yourself out there

When an opportunity presents itself to you, such as applying for a job, submitting your game to an event or sharing something you’ve created. Imposter Syndrome can also lead to you feeling that the thing you’ve created isn’t worth sharing, your game isn’t good enough, you are not good enough. The feelings will naturally cause you to not put yourself out there or take risks.

Stress & Anxiety

It can cause a lot of anxiety as you’re convincing yourself that at any moment you will be ‘found out’ and over the long term this can lead to depression.

Understating your experiences

In the very first lines of this article I said “I guess I would describe myself as a game designer” using words and phrases like “I guess” and “I would describe myself as” already sets yourself up as an imposter, even though you aren’t. Sufferers of Impostor Syndrome will struggle to accept that any praise they receive is genuine and will downplay any of their personal accomplishments.

Attributing your successes to luck

Another symptom is that you can attribute much of your success to pure luck rather than hard work. I hated the majority of the time I worked in sales, but there was something that my manager once said that stuck with me. She is a successful woman, with a high status job and a good salary and she told me that her brother often acted envious of her. He would comment on her nice house and expensive car and say “you are so lucky”. Her response was “It’s funny isn’t it, the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.” This is something that I try to remember whenever I attempt to attribute any of my own success to luck.

Being nervous about meeting apparently successful people in your field.

After Thimbleweed Park recently released, I saw a lot of people sharing this screenshot from the game. It features a character from the game who is a game designer too afraid to talk to seemingly successful game designer at an expo.

People shared this image usually with a comment about how they could relate to it. A lot of the people that shared this are likely creatives themselves and are comparing their own success to the perceived success of others and feeling fraudulent about their own talents. This would be enough for anyone to think there was no point in talking to this other individual, that they were probably not worth their time.

 

What can we do about it

There are a number of ways that folks can combat Impostor Syndrome. I’ve narrowed them down to my top 5.

1.

Imposter Syndrome happens when your invisible Assholes like Jason tell you that your work is no good, so one way to combat this is for a whole bunch of people to tell you that your work *is* good. If we admire someone’s work, we should get into the habit of telling them. I understand that sometimes it can be awkward in social situations to tell someone you like their stuff, but even something as simple as favouriting, retweeting or preferably commenting on someone’s animated GIF of a game they are working on that you think looks neat, you are helping to drown out the voices of the Jason’s in the world.

2. 

This comes back to attributing your success to your own hard work and rather than focusing on the negative aspects of a project, look at the positives.

Take a recent example of mine – a game I made for the Adventure Jam 2017 called The Temple of Adventure. So this is a game I made in 2 weeks with some artist friends of mine so that I could learn to use Unreal Engine 4. The game is buggy, unpolished and unfinished. It wasn’t selected for the top 12 nominated games and some of the comments on the game stated that it was too similar to an existing game.

But actually if look at the positives and focus on the achievements of the game – it was featured on PC Gamer’s best free games of the week, it was featured in a list of 25 best games from the jam (number 24, but it still counts!), there are a number of let’s plays – 2 of which have over 10K views, it placed 19th overall in the Jams final votes (out of 122 games), but is the 7th highest rate game with the AdvJam2017 tag on gamejolt and it received 3rd place in the dialog category.  When I consider that we only worked on the game for 2 weeks around work and other commitments, plus I was using an engine I had little experience with, that’s not bad going, in fact it’s pretty good.

You need to consider your own acheivements this way, possibly keep a list. All those things I just mentioned could be written up into my own ‘achievement list’ which I can refer to. Whenever you feel like a fraud you can look back at this list and it will help you to continue doing what you love and putting it out there.

3. 

Imposter syndrome can make you feel like you shouldn’t bother when presented with an opportunity. I’m not really qualified to apply for that job or my game isn’t good enough to submit that competition/expo, etc. Everyone suffers from self-doubt, but allowing that self-doubt to grow and take control over your decision-making is lose-lose. If you don’t apply for that job you are potentially losing out on a great job and the employer is potentially losing out on a great hardworking, creative employee. The worst thing that can happen is that it doesn’t happen. If you don’t grab opportunities when they present themselves to you, then you could be robbing the world of a great game or a great member of a team.

4.

When you are stood in a room with a 20-year veteran with multiple awards under their belt and is just a terrific person in general, then sure you are going to feel like a fraud in comparison, but this doesn’t mean that you have nothing to offer. This is where that list of achievements I mentioned earlier comes in handy, if you’ve done this already then you will have actual proof that you provide something of value to someone.

If you compare yourself to leaders and veterans in your field then you are going to feel that you are not good enough, but these are apples and oranges. You are most likely comparing your inner self, with the outer self of others. You are comparing your insecurities, your doubts, your impostor feelings with the successes, the confidence and the experience of that other person. Ultimately you don’t know how that other person is feeling on the inside. If anything success can amplify the impostor feelings and they may feel that they are an even bigger fraud than you do. Compare apples with apples and stop comparing your inner self with other people’s outsides.

5. 

I’m really grateful towards Danny for writing his article on imposter syndrome. It really helped me at a time when I was filled with self-doubt. At this stage of my talk I asked the room how many people had had feelings like the symptoms of imposter syndrome I had described and the majority of the room put their hands up. Some studies suggest that around 70% of people have felt this way. That’s why I wanted to do a talk on it, that’s why I wanted to write this article. We need to share these feelings more, so that when people have them they can realise that when they have these thoughts that they should question them. Are you really a fraud or did you work goddam hard to achieve all that you’ve done? Find people that you can say “I feel like an impostor” to and how likely is it that they will agree with you?

When I read Danny’s article it helped me to do this, it made me think and question all of the murmurs that Jason had been whispering in my ear and I looked at Jason and I thought “hang on a second”.  I looked at Jason differently and I decided that I had had enough. I removed Jason’s hat and his Groucho Marx glasses and his overcoat to reveal the ugliness underneath…

Jason was nothing more than a weird slug monster thing that had been posing as my own thoughts. He had been wearing a disguise this whole time.

So when you have these thoughts that tell you you’re not good enough or that you shouldn’t be here or that all of your successes are down to luck, question whether that’s true or whether you may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome and just remember who the real imposters are, it’s Jason and imaginary asshole’s just like him.

Thanks for reading!

Apologies to anyone called Jason.

Additional Reading:

http://www.wygamer.com/blog/living-with-imposter-syndrome

https://thehustle.co/why-70-percent-of-millennials-have-impostor-syndrome

http://impostersyndrome.com.au/

https://www.bustle.com/articles/119129-12-signs-you-might-be-suffering-from-imposter-syndrome-fellow-perfectionists-im-looking-at-you

https://startupbros.com/21-ways-overcome-impostor-syndrome/

The 8 lessons I learned from making a Twine game with less than 300 words

RPG-ish_Logo_GameJolt

Lesson #01: Keep an eye-out for cool jams

Twiny Jam – Make a Twine game in under 300 words.

I read the Tweet and was immediately intrigued. I’ve always wanted to take part in a game jam and although I’d made attempts in the past, they’d always been unsuccessful. I’d also always wanted to make a Twine game, having read about the tool and even played a few games made with it. 300 words wasn’t a lot either and I think this is what ultimately led me to take part in this Jam. The 300 word limit made creating this game unintimidating as I felt it could probably be done in a few hours. On top of all of this it was Easter weekend and my wife was working long shifts, so I’d be in the house alone, free to jam for a couple of days.

Lesson #02: Try something new

I set to work, firstly learning the toolset. From what I could tell, twine has 2 versions, the older desktop version and a newer in-browser version. I opted for the desktop version as a part of me didn’t trust using the in-browser version to save my progress. Twine is a great bit of kit, easy to pick up and simple to use. Plus there are a bunch of helpful tutorials and resources online.  Once I had a handle on Twine I started brainstorming ideas for a game.

Lesson #03: Don’t settle on the first idea you think of

My first idea drew inspiration from my time working in a call centre trying to sell PAT Testing. The game would be a series of dialogue options that would lead the player to make a sale or the person on the end of the phone would say nasty thing to you and hang up. When they hung up, the player would *sigh* and make another call. The game would be an endless loop just like my days in that call centre. Call after call after call. Every call would go one of a number of ways and the game would reflect that with only the slimmest chance of making a sale. I quickly ran over the 300 word count for this game with dialogue options, I would have to think of something else.

Lesson #04: Be inspired by the work of others

I started playing some of the existing Twiny Jam entries and played one where you were in a tiny dungeon and you had to give a kettle to a dragon before you could win. This got me thinking about creating a miniature role playing game and my mind drifted to past RPGs that I’ve played. Games like Golden Sun, Final Fantasy and Pokémon sprung to mind and I found myself thinking about that place I had always gotten to when playing RPG games: Wandering around some cave grinding to Level Up. I thought about how this mechanic (although it’s more of a side effect really) was present in a lot of RPGs that I has played. I thought about how even though killing low level enemies to gain XP sounds intrinsically boring, there is an element of fun to it, it’s almost therapeutic. This is what I decided to make my game about.

Lesson #05: Be prepared to drastically downsize your game

Initially entitled ‘Every RPG Ever’ the idea was that you started in a village and progressed through grasslands, mountains and eventually a dark castle to reach a boss at the end. The different locations would have increasingly difficult enemies, forcing you to level up by grinding against lower level enemies. You would have bare minimum dialogue and battle options, but enough to feel like an RPG. After implementing the first area into the game, I realised that I would have to cut a lot of planned content in order to land within the 300 word limit. Initial plans to include numerous items that increased HP, armour that increased DEF and weapons that increased ATK, multiple areas and a boss that had 3 final forms where all scrapped and the game was now a mere third of the original scope. I instead I chose to focus on making the game appear non-repetitive.

Lesson #06: Randomness is your friend

I included a lot of random elements to the game. Whether you find treasure, nothing or an enemy while exploring, the type of enemy you encounter, should it be a Rat (Oblivion), Spider (Skyrim) or Boar (A reference to that South Park episode Make love not Warcraft), the damage dealt by an enemy as well as enemy HP, the number of XP and currency found at the end of a fight are all randomised between a certain range. This allowed the game to at least feel different for every playthrough, while still having the player doing essentially the same thing.

Lesson #07: It’s never too late to research

After a quick google to see if the working title would clash with anything existing I came across an infographic entitled ‘Every RPG Ever’. It’s a pretty accurate representation of RPG games (my experience at least) and I even took a few things from it such as having an inn that replenishes all HP, having to go on a quest for a Questitem and I even managed to fit a plot twist in there, all in under 300 words. Because of the infographic I decided to change the name and went through a number of name ideas including Micro-RPG, Mini-RPG, Twiny-RPG, RPGrind, but eventually settled on RPG-ish as the game isn’t quite there in terms of a full scale RPG.

Lesson #06: Seriously, you’re going to cut a bunch of stuff from that initial idea

In regards to the word count, I went through the game quite a few times to cull any superfluous words where the space could be used by a more useful word. I also looked for any repeated sections which could be avoided by using the same passage within Twine and referencing it from another passage. The stats shown within the game for example, display before a fight, after a fight, when you level up, etc. but each section merely references the ‘stats’ passage, so this kept the word count down.

Lesson #07: Think of ways to quick polish your game

One important aspect for me when making this game was to make sure it didn’t just look like a default Twine game. I had seen some really cool examples of games made with Twine and although I knew I didn’t have a lot of time, I focused on trying to get the game as far away from the default template as possible. I used the Final Fantasy menu system as a base and found a suitable font, replaced the cursor icon and even learned some CSS to get that Final Fantasy blue gradient colour. Sound was also an important factor when distancing the game from other twine-made games. I didn’t make the music, but found some very good RPG-ish sounding things on Newgrounds by some talented people who are credited on the game’s pages.

Lesson #08: Be prepared for criticism (but also nice things)

I made the game across 3 days in chunks of a few hours at a time and submitted the finished result to itch.io and Game Jolt. I didn’t expect an adoring reaction from the indie game community, but I figured someone from some corner of the internet may appreciate it. When I checked the pages the next day, I found the odd comment stating that the game wasn’t for them and a couple of people had rated the game 2/5. I must admit it was a little disheartening. It sounds ridiculous really, I mean, I only spent a few hours on the game and knew it wasn’t a masterpiece by any means, but there’s still a part of you that gets a little upset when players don’t enjoy your game. Later I found someone comment on how impressed they were with the game given the limitations and they enjoyed the random aspects. The comments on the games Jam page were really supportive, discussing how a lot had been done to say it was made with Twine, which I’m really happy with.

Summary

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience and learned a lot. I had never taken part in a Jam before, never used Twine, never used CSS, and never made a game that was playable in a browser. It might be far from perfect, but I’m proud of what I accomplished in such a short space of time.

The reason I think that I was successful in finishing a game for this Jam comes down to the limitations. Knowing that I only had 300 words made it easier to cut things from the game and reduce the development workload.

You can play RPG-ish over on Game Jolt or itch.io.

My first Ludum Dare and how I failed miserably

This is a list of advice that I want to write to my future-self, in case he attempts to take part in a game jam again.

The Condensed Version:

Don’t waste time

If the majority of your time isn’t spent on actually developing the game, you’re doing it wrong.

How much Time Do you Really have?

Yes the game jam is for 48 hours, but how many of those hours will you actually spend making the game? Plan accordingly.

Don’t make an adventure game

Adventure games are all about pace, exploration and investigation. The design process is the same and therefore not suited to be done in 48 hours.

SCOPE! SCOPE! SCOPE!

Make something super basic to start with and build on it over time.

The Longer Version:

This Bank Holiday Weekend, I attempted Ludum Dare for the first time. For those of you that don’t know, Ludum Dare is a Game Jam in which a person must make a game within 48 hours on their own. I failed miserably at it. the following is what I think went wrong.

Wasting Time

For Ludum Dare I attempted to make an adventure game. I got as far as having 4 backgrounds, 2 character sprites and barely any functioning puzzles. How did I manage to have so little by time the competition finished? Well, I tried to keep a timesheet to monitor my progress and this is pretty much how it went:

07:30 – Got up, looked at the theme. It was “Connected Worlds”. Rather then jump straight into making a game, I thought about it over a cup of tea and discussed it with my wife before she went to work.

08:15 – The wife just left for work leaving me with the whole house to myself… And my 2 dogs. I should probably walk them. During our walk I thought more about what game I could make for the theme. I came up with the basic idea for an adventure game.

photo 1

09:40 – Arrived home. Had breakfast: Porridge [pictured] for energy. Set up my work space. Looked at Ludum Dare Website whilst eating for inspiration and to nosey at other peoples work in progress. Realised that shit… some people are actually really far ahead.

photo 2

09:50 – Started fleshing out my game idea.

10:00 – This idea is going nowhere. I know, I’ll start making the basic game and add in the details after. I used Ghost’s BASS Template for Adventure Game Studio (http://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/forums/index.php?topic=48441.0)

10:07 – Remembered Ron Gilberts Puzzle Dependency Charts article (http://grumpygamer.com/puzzle_dependency_charts), so had a quick read through to see if it would help. It didn’t.

10:33 – So far, all I’ve done is add basic navigation to the game with placeholder art. Still no idea what puzzles to include in the game. My notes say “Maybe something with a tree?”

10:54 – This note just says “DESIGNERS BLOCK NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

11:10 – Okay, got a few puzzles designed now, making tracks

11:25 – This note just says “This is Hard. FUCKING SHIT THEME.”

12:05 – Spoke to a developer chum over Skype. We pitched each other our ideas. Thinking ‘He’s a proper coder, so he’ll probably finish.’ However, I managed to complete my puzzle dependency chart!

photo 4

13:08 – By this time I had now added some of the basic puzzle mechanics into the game as well as adding in the additional characters with placeholder images.

14:17 – Ran into an issue where I needed the game to know which character was currently the player character and I thought it would be a simple thing, but ended getting confused with it. My not here says “BULLSHITE!!!!”

Outside

16:06 – By now I spent some time in Google Sketch Up creating basic environments for me to paint over. I also started to think about my colour palette. Having never worried about a colour palette before, I used this website: http://paletton.com/#uid=73G1f0kmjsEaSqPgosKsGvoEIxS to come up with one for me. This was my work in progress background before I remembered that I needed to go to shop:

Progress002

16:43 – Got back from shop and figured I should probably tidy up some of the days mess.

19:11 – All the time before this was spent painting all of the backgrounds. Now that they’re all done, time to start work on character sprites.

19:28 – My notes here say “Feeling Broken. Adventure Games are a bad idea for game jams.”

19:58 – Stopping for today

Progress003

And I never went back to it. I wanted to try and figure out where I went wrong with my time and so if we break it down in to a chart where we can see where the majority of my time was spent.

Time01

We can from the chart that the main time was spent painting backgrounds, creating 3D models, designing the game and actually making the game. Which sounds okay, but if we look at it like this:

Time02

I wasted a lot of time making art assets, which didn’t even look all that good. The time I roughly spent on actually making the game is almost equal to the time I spent not doing anything related to the game at all. In the future, I think that the biggest chunk of this chart should be actually making the game. The art can fall into place around that.

Adventure Games Are a Bad Idea for Game Jams

The reason I like playing adventure games is that they have a steady pace, exploration, beautiful art work, hand-crafted animations, intriguing dialogue, clever puzzle design and a gripping story. The design of an adventure game should be exactly the same. You should go at a steady pace, explore ideas, spend time on creating nice art, painstakingly create each frame of animation pixel by pixel, think carefully about the dialogue, spend time thinking of innovative puzzles and create a story and game world that the player wants to explore and interact with. These things should not be rushed. I think that an adventure game CAN be created in 48 hours and I have played ones that have worked and played well, but they were made by more than one person and much more talented people than me.

So avoid adventure games, pick ANYTHING else! Make something really simple and build on it over time.

Be aware of how much time you really have      

In my head I was thinking that I had 48 hours to complete a game, when actually I had 12 hours or less. For some, they can easily spend near-enough the full 48 hours making a game. But for me, I have certain responsibilities, a house, a wife, two dogs and I wouldn’t be winning husband/owner of the year if I ignored my family for 2 days straight. If I’d of taking into consideration this factor and planned accordingly, then maybe I could have achieved something.

SCOPE!

Time Stone took 3 months to make. It contained 1 background, 1 playable character and 6 core puzzles. My game for Ludum Dare was going to include 4 backgrounds, 2 playable characters and 10 core puzzles and would need to be finished at the end of a 48 hour period. When I write it out like that I realise how much of a big stupid idiot I am and am even mad at myself for even attempting to make this game.

I teach game development as my day job and I always tell the students to think about Scope. Here I have completely ignored my own advice and tried to make something too big. I’d like to tell my future self to think along the lines of Space Invaders or Pong and build upon that over time.

 

There you have it. I hope that future-me listens to my advice. I think there’s another Ludum Dare in December and after failing to meet the deadline for MAGS (Which became Time Stone) and this Ludum Dare, maybe third time’s the charm?

The Background Art of Time Stone

Or ‘How I cheated to get the right perspective’

The following may shock you, but… I’m not that good at art. I mean, I get by okay, people tell me they dig the artwork in my games, but when I look at the art I can just tell it isn’t that good. People say that as a designer, you’re your own worst critic and maybe that’s true, but I don’t really think about things like colour pallets, perspective, shading etc and I feel that my artwork suffers for it.

One of these things that I’ve managed to find a way around for, a cheat if you will, is perspective. Yeah, sure you can sketch something out on paper or in Photoshop or whatever and have vanishing points for perspective and then create your background based on that perspective adding in objects to the room and such, but what if you do all that and it still doesn’t look right to you? This happened with me quite frequently when creating backgrounds for Entrapment (which was one of the things I mentioned in my Entrapment Post-mortem). I would create a rough draft of the room using vanishing points and perspective and place a character sprite in it and it just wouldn’t look right. Especially if you moved the character around the room and the scale would look all wrong. Then I would have to start from scratch with new vanishing points/horizon lines which was really frustrating.

For Time Stone, I tried something different. I thought, instead of messing around with all that perspective stuff, why don’t I just create my scene in 3D? That way I can move the camera around to get the right angle and my perspective will always be right. I can also move objects around when I please to change the composition without compromising the perspective like it would in Photoshop. So I did just that. Google SketchUp is free and simple to learn if you’ve never used 3D modelling tools before. You can use it to create really simple 3D interiors using an effective toolset, but the best thing about it by far is components. Components are basically, a collection of 3D models that people have already made and shared so that anyone else can download and use them in their 3D scene. Need a bed? There’s a ton that people have made. What about a bookcase? Yup, got that too. But you would think it would be difficult to find more obscure things like a giant birdcage, cauldron or a crystal ball? What? They have those too? Of course, they have just about any object you could think of. From random items of furniture to whole buildings! Even a football stadium!

Now I’m not saying that you need to find the exact item that you need for your game, you’re just using this to get the right perspective. For example, the bed in the scene above is different to the bed which was drawn for the background in Time Stone. I simply used it as a base when painting the bed in, in order to get the correct perspective for it. You also can’t rely on the lighting from the Google Sketchup image as you may have light sources in different locations. You need to think about this carefully when you are painting over the objects from your 3D scene.

beds

Once you have created your room and added in all of the key objects for your game then you can set up the camera and export an image of the current camera view. This would work from any perspective. Side on, top down, some weird perspective from an awkward angle if you’re going for a certain style. For Time Stone, I chose a side on view of the professor’s house. Below is the final camera view used or the background in Time Stone:

It contains all of the essential items from the room. Any object that would warrant me needing to get the perspective right for it such as the bed, the table, the fridge, the bird cage, etc. But notice that I didn’t bother with the paintings on the walls or the tapestries. These were added in later using the existing objects within the room as a guide for the perspective. The reason for this is that I know enough about perspective in order to draw these items myself. I also included a handy scale model, so that the character art and background art would look correct in terms of scale. The only thing I wish I had done is adding in foreground  features. Maybe next time.

After that it was simply a matter of painting over the scene to create the background for Time Stone. This Gif shows roughly the steps taken.

1. The base image, before I started to paint over it.

2. I blocked out most of the colour and detail for major objects

3. Coloured in the rest of the image

4. Added in some smaller objects for detail

5. More detail

6. Lighting and shadow (also made some changes to a few objects).

Some things missing from the background are the objects. This is anything that needs to move/animate in the game. For example the main door and the blanket over the cage are missing. These won’t have been painted as part of the background as they would have to move and so there obviously needs to be something behind them. These were done on separate layers to appear in front of the background.

Something that is easy to forget is to make sure you remember your interface. That’s what the black space was for at the bottom of all of the images. You need to think ahead and figure out if your interface is going to take up any of the screen. You don’t want to waste your time and effort and creating an awesome part to your background only to cover it up with the GUI.

There you have it! A few insights into how I created the artwork for Time Stone. So if like me, you have trouble getting the perspective right on your adventure game backgrounds (or artwork in general), then try out this method. It was a much more efficient method than the one I used for Entrapment and although it might be “cheating” in terms of not learning how to create a correct perspective, it gets me the results I want and who knows, using this method a few more times may help me learn a thing or two about perspective and scale.

Entrapment Postmortem

It has been over a year since Entrapment’s initial release with the AGS Bake Sale and this space of time has allowed me to contemplate on the development of the game. As I recently released a slightly updated version of the game it seemed like the ideal time to write a postmortem of the development behind the original game. This article was featured on Game Career Guide as a Student Postmortem as the game was created initially during my time at University. In it I discuss the good and the bad elements behind the development of Entrapment.

Introduction

I was probably 7 or 8, when my older sister’s boyfriend gave me his Super Nintendo Entertainment System. He was into sports and racing games and so had a couple of driving games and golf, I think, but I was never really into sports. I found the games dull and boring and so it wasn’t long before I went to my local Gamestation and bought something with brighter colours and a familiar face. When I first put the Super Mario All Stars cartridge into my second hand SNES I was blown away. What appeared on screen was a world that I could explore, characters that I could manipulate and interact with and secrets that I could discover. What I witnessed resonated with my childhood self and left a voice in my brain that would echo around my head for the rest of my life. ‘This is it’ it said, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life’.

From that day on I was obsessed with the notion of making games. I drew characters, I invented worlds, I wrote detailed scribbles on game mechanics and began coming up with stories rather than having them read to me at bed time. Throughout my education I strived to cater my subjects to courses that would benefit me in my dream goal of becoming a game designer. This eventually led me to the University of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, UK, where I would study a degree in Computer Game Design. In my final year I started work on my major project, which started off as a demo for an adventure game, but within a year grew into a short game that was included in the AGS Bake Sale Bundle and helped to raise over $4000 for Charity.

This is the story of Entrapment, but more importantly, it’s the story of the lessons I learned from making it. I will be covering the good and the bad, but let’s start with the good part first.

Screen01

What Went Right

 

1. Using the Right Tools

I’m not a programmer by nature. Throughout school, I much preferred making my ideas come to life through words and concept images, but that will only take your game so far. When I hit 17, I decided it was time to actually make a game instead of writing them down or filing ideas away in my brain. I opened my laptop and began searching for a FREE game creation tool. The idea of having to program something really scared me and I kept being put off by phrases like ‘programming language’ and ‘code’. I began to feel that my search was fruitless as I had no idea what I was looking for, until I stumbled upon a game editor specifically for Adventure Games. I should take this opportunity to mention that I. LOVE. ADVENTURE GAMES. Even before they made their come back, I was always fascinated by games like Broken Sword, Monkey Island and Simon the Sorcerer. With this Game Engine I could create my very own. What I proceeded to make was an abomination called ‘The Adventures of Turquoise Macdonald’. I returned to the game engine years later to make a few games for University. When it was time for my final project, I had accumulated enough basic AGS programming knowledge to create a decent demo. I then felt comfortable to continue the project and make it my first fully finished game (not counting Turquoise Macdonald). Selecting the right tools for the job is essential for development. By all means, try new things out from time to time – it’s the only way to make sure you are using the right tools – but for something like a final project at university, you need to ensure that you go with something you’re comfortable with. Choosing the right engine to make Entrapment in was a vital factor in it seeing the light of day.

 

2. Reaching out to the Community

I was working on Entrapment pretty much on my own. As well as being an awesome tool for making games, Adventure Game Studio also has an excellent community.  The forums are full of friendly people who are willing to help out whenever you need advice on your code or the best way to do something or even something totally non-game related. As I was working alone, I felt it was important to reach out to the AGS community for feedback on the game. I posted screenshots of artwork asking for improvements, I asked people what they thought was the best adventure game interface as well as looking and offering comment on other people’s work. This brings me to my favourite thing about Entrapment, the music. I don’t have a musical bone in my body and when it came to putting music into Entrapment I didn’t want to take some random loop I found on some website, I wanted it to be tailored to the game. I was looking for a way I could find someone who would be willing to make music for the game for free, and I thought what better place than the community of people who are interested in creating things with AGS. I added a post on the forums asking if anyone was interested in helping out with the game and within a week I had a number of replies. Because I reached out to the AGS community, I went from having no music in the game and no idea how to make it, to having someone who was talented and dedicated to creating an original soundtrack for the game. I asked Brian ‘SwordofKings128’ Carnrike to make the music for the game and he did a spectacular job. He also offered some valuable input on the game itself and without him and the AGS community I believe that Entrapment would have nowhere near the creepy atmosphere that it has.

 HallwayLivingArea-1

3. Joining the AGS Bake Sale

To begin with Entrapment was just going to be something I put out there for free on the Adventure Game Studio website and that would be it. It would probably be played by just a handful of people and it wouldn’t have received very much exposure.  Around a month before I was due to release the game, I heard about the Adventure Game Studio Bake Sale. The AGS Bake Sale was going to be a bundle of games made with AGS where players could pay what they want for the games and the proceeds would go to a worthy cause. Initially, this cause was going to be helping out the cost of maintaining the AGS website and forums, however this was scrapped in favour of donating the money to charity. I felt this would be an opportunity to give something back to the AGS community, gain some exposure and help out a worthy cause. I offered Entrapment up to the Bake Sale and it released in January 2012. Managing to get Entrapment to be part of the AGS Bake Sale offered exposure I wouldn’t have thought possible otherwise, appearing on The Escapist, Rock Paper Shotgun and Indie Game Mag. It also felt amazing when I heard that we had managed to raise over $4000 for charity. Joining the Bake Sale also gave me an awareness of the importance of seeking out opportunities for your game to gain exposure, even if it is a free one.

 

4. Including Humour

Initially I wanted Entrapment to contain very little to almost no humour due to the story and themes of the game coming from a very dark and creepy place. As soon as I started to write dialogue for the game I felt as though the exclusion of comedic elements was going against every adventure game I had ever played. From Monkey Island to Broken Sword, all these games included elements of humour, even if it played only a small part. Writing heavily serious dialogue for Entrapment felt wrong and so it wasn’t long before the odd joke began to slip in. Once I had written the dialogue the game contained hints of dark humour. Looking back, I’m happy that I made this decision. I feel as though the inclusion of humour allowed players to enjoy the game a lot more. Otherwise the game could have ended up being a dreary depressing mess. I believe that as long as your game isn’t focusing itself on a deeply serious topic, then the inclusion of humour can never be a bad thing and, if done well, will only enhance the player experience, just as those adventure games did throughout my childhood.

Pitch Board

5. Listening to Feedback

I think it is a good idea to gain feedback on your game as soon as possible. When you have a playable prototype, send it out to people that you trust and get them to give you feedback. With Entrapment, I got a lot of feedback from Brian who worked on the game’s music and it was him that suggested that I include some allusions as to Sam’s backstory and the possible reasons why he was doing what he was doing (could you believe I had an almost complete version of the game without coming up with this?). So I included the conversation at the start of the game to give a hint to players as to what was the cause of Sam’s *ahem* issues. Getting others to play your game and offer feedback is also crucial when it comes to testing. Listening to the feedback of others will ensure that your game doesn’t contain any serious flaws that players don’t understand or might not agree with and catching this early on in development is much easier than trying to fix these aspects further down the line.

 

What Went Wrong

 

1. Too Much Exposition

Looking back I realise now that the introduction to Entrapment is WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY TTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTTOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG. The series of cutscenes that start off the game are long, tedious and annoying. When you boot up a game, you want to be able to play the game. Take The Secret of Monkey Island for instance, Guybrush walks onto the screen, says “I want to be a Pirate” and that’s it, the game starts. If I had taken this approach with Entrapment and just let the player explore and piece together the story as they played, I would feel much better about the start of the game. When I watch people playing through that opening sequence it’s excruciating and not something I ever plan on having in a game ever again. Time Stone’s introductory sequence was tiny in comparison, but even then people felt as though it was too long, so imagine what people thought of Entrapment. People want to play games, not watch them and this is important to bear in mind when thinking of including cutscenes for your game.

 

2. Lack of Motivation

Throughout Entrapment’s development I had periods where my motivation was running thin. I would sense a feeling of ‘I simply cannot be bothered’ which led to poor animations, puzzles being cut and almost no polish to the game at all. The end result was that Entrapment lost some of its initial soul which it had when I started creating it and that then led to being less motivated as I felt I was working on a lesser version of the game I had envisaged. I’m not sure what caused the lack of motivation for Entrapment, but I didn’t do enough to maintain it. I should have given myself a clear development timeline with deadlines and interim deadlines so that it felt as though I was achieving things along the way. Take time to discover and reflect on what motivates you when working on a game and bear that in mind during development, otherwise you can lose steam and struggle to regain it.

 

IMG1

3. Art Frustration

I don’t consider myself an artist, even though I did the artwork for Entrapment and Time Stone. I DO think that my art has improved with each game I have made. I had a lot of frustration early on with Entrapment due to the fact that I couldn’t seem to get perspective right. I would draw out a layout of a room on paper using rulers to get the perspective right, then scan it in, put a sprite of Sam over it and see if it felt right. If it didn’t, I would start again with different perspective point locations. At one point I even made a small scale model of Sam Drake to put against these drawn out images to see if the scale was right. This may sound like a convoluted way around to do it, and IT IS! It took many attempts to find one I was happy with and it was a frustrating process. Now I have a much simpler method of getting the perspective right for my adventure game backgrounds. This method consists of creating simplistic 3D models of locations and then painting over them in PhotoShop, which is much easier than the method I used with Entrapment. My lesson here was to practice my art and read up on art techniques that could have saved me some time and frustration. Alternatively, there may have been someone I could have asked to help  out with the artwork, but for me, I wanted to practice my skills. In a way, I could look at the art frustrations as a positive, as they helped me hone my skills and find new ways of trying things, but at the time there was a huge amount of stress involved for me with trying to do the art for Entrapment when I doubted my skills as an artist.

 

4. The Ludicrous Storyline

This is my biggest regret with Entrapment. I could have spent the time creating a wonderfully simplistic story that still had elements that hinted at a bigger picture, much like Time Stone. Instead I chose to create a game about a man who is trying to frame himself for murder. When I write it out like that I honestly cannot see what I was thinking. How would anyone ever think “You know what, that sounds like a really gripping story” and it is. If you’re talking about it gripping hold of your gonads because it’s so painful! To make matters worse, the reason behind this character wanting to frame himself for murder is utterly ridiculous. The story for Entrapment is probably the worst thing about the game. I may be coming across as being really critical about it, but it’s just something that I feel really strongly about. I feel as though I have learnt from the experience and now know to think carefully about story and to get feedback early on to avoid making the same mistake again.  Games don’t *have* to contain a story, but if your game is centred around a story – as a lot of adventure games are – then you need to make sure it fits well and doesn’t detract from the gameplay.

The Letter 3

5. Long Gaps of No Work

The development of Entrapment suffered from long periods of no work being done on it. It could have been University, work getting in the way, personal life or lack of motivation as I mentioned earlier but, for whatever reason, I was unable to spend any long amount of time solidly working on the game and I believe that game suffered for it. What could have been completed in a matter of months ended up taking over a year to complete outside of other commitments. Sometimes gaps would last months and this may have contributed to the lack of motivation point from earlier. It meant that I would lose touch with the game and the longer I was away from development, the less I felt inclined to work on it. In the future, I feel as though it would be important to ensure that I will have time to work on a game before I start making it. The last thing I would want is to be really excited with an initial prototype, only to not work on it until months after and have lost all enthusiasm for it.

 

Summary

Entrapment started as a bunch of doodles in a sketchbook based around a simple game idea that I wanted to use as my final project at University. The end result was something I was only partially proud of. I like to think that players enjoy the music and the puzzles from the game, but I feel a little disheartened that I allowed myself to get as carried away with the story as I did. Here are the 10 lessons I learned from Entrapment in a handy list form. May you take away from them what you will; no doubt you will make your own mistakes as everyone does. Just make sure you learn from them.

  • 01: Choose the right tools for the job
  • 02: Reach out to the community when you need help
  • 03: Never miss an opportunity to increase exposure for your game
  • 04: Include humour where possible. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you. Weep and you weep alone
  • 05: Listen to feedback and get feedback early
  • 06: too much exposition can be damaging to your game
  • 07: Keep motivated
  • 08: Practice your art skills
  • 09: Revise your story until it feels right
  • 10: Stay on track during development

 

Entrapment Details

Developer: Stuart Lilford

Number of Developers: 1, with help on music from Brian Carnrike

Length of Development: 1 year

Release Date: January 2012

Development Tools: Adventure Game Studio, Adobe Photoshop, Fruity Loops

Platforms: PC

10 Things That Inspired Entrapment

It’s been just under a month since the rerelease of Entrapment and it’s received some good praise from around the interweb. It was featured on GameJolt and Indiegames.com and was number 2 on Game Addictz Top Free Indie Games of the Week. Some people also left a couple of Let’s Plays around YouTube somewhere.

One thing I found interesting about the rerelease was the number of downloads Entrapment had compared to Time Stone. Here’s how the Gamejolt figures look:

Time Stone

TimeStoneNumbers

Entrapment

EntrapmentNumbers

So Entrapment has less profile views that Time Stone, but over a thousand more downloads. I’ve been struggling to try and explain this, because of the two, Time Stone is the much better game. Maybe it’s the artwork related to Entrapment that people found more appealing, maybe it’s the synopsis, I don’t know. There’s a lesson to be learnt from it, but I’m still not sure what that lesson is. Oh well.

Anyway, to celebrate Entrapment’s mild success, I thought I’d rehash this old article I wrote on the many things that inspired it, including references to them within the game. WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS!

 

1. Fight Club

01FightClub

I remember seeing this film when I was young and most people seem to see the ending coming, but not me. I was blown away. The film itself contains such dark and mysterious content about what’s going on, it kept me guessing the whole way through. It took the film to get to the part where the main character is out looking for Tyler Durden and people are saying that HE IS Tyler Durden for me to start piecing things together. After seeing the film I became intrigued with the concept of Dissociative Identity Disorder in story lines.

Reference in Entrapment:

There are two! The iconic pink bar of soap on the metal tray in the Bathroom and the Graffiti on the side of the Hotel towards the roof says “Tyler”.

 

2. Adventure Games by Ben Chandler

02Hope
You may or may not know this, but Ben Chandler has made a ton of cool little adventure games using Adventure Game Studio. He is a fantastic artist and also a really great game designer. All of his games are available on Adventure Game Studio, but the one that really spoke to me was the game ‘Hope’. Ben Chandler and Steven Poulton created Hope in 48 hours and it’s a great simple adventure game. Its simplicity is the reason it caught my attention so much, it showed me that an adventure game doesn’t have to be an epic tale, it can be short and sweet and still give the player a feeling of satisfaction.

Reference in Entrapment:

Well, the receptionist  is named Ben after the inspirational designer behind all of these games.

 

3. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

03Jekyll
I read The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde while I was still in the designing phase of Entrapment. It’s a great book and was really the first story to investigate the disturbing psychology behind split personality disorder and the human conflict of good and evil. This is something I wanted to get across in Sam’s character and the book also introduced the idea that split personalities would take on a different physical form, which I also used for when Sam turned into Sam 2 as I dubbed him, or “Evil Sam”.

Reference in Entrapment:

If you look at the book case in the bedroom, Sam will say there are books by Robert Louis Stevenson before claiming not to know who he is.

 

4. 5 Days a Stranger

045Days
Easily one of the best series created with AGS, the Chzo Mythos games were created by Ben “Yahtzee” Crowshaw, now mostly known for his work on Zero Punctuation. It was mainly the art style that I took from this game, but it has a great story, atmosphere and great puzzles. It also involves a serial killer, which is also an important them of Entrapment.

Reference in Entrapment:

The Bathrooms in the two games share the odd item of furniture (The toilet, the sink, the rug).

 

5. Two Face (Harvey Dent)

052Face

Another Character that explored dual personalities, Harvey Dent is a tragic figure and embraces his psychological disorder. When working on the story for Entrapment, I realized that nobody ever has two good personalities? There is always one nice one and one really really bad one. I wanted Sam’s evil side to show on screen and using Two Face as a reference helped with that.

Reference in Entrapment:

Two Face – Harvey Dent – The Dent Hotel. I didn’t just make names up you know, I put a lot of thought into naming conventions.

 

6. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes

06LifeOn

These two fantastic British Television Drama series focus on the lives of people who have accidents and wake up back in time. The theme I took from this is the waking up, filled with confusion as Sam Drake does when we first see him in Entrapment. If you haven’t seen Life on Mars (The British Version), then I definitely recommend it.

Reference in Entrapment:

The main protagonists in the series are Sam Tyler and Alex Drake, a mash up of their names gives you Sam Drake.

 

7. Technobabylon

07Techno
Another great series made with AGS. Technobabylon is a series with great characters and a great story. The first game is also an escape the room game, so it draws similarities with Entrapment in that respect.

Reference in Entrapment:

When testing the game, it was made clear that the player needed more insight into why Sam had this psychological disorder. The opening of Technobabylon Part 1 involves a mysterious conversation between unknown people. I used this mechanic to add a small back story to Sam’s past (although you don’t connect this until later).

 

8. Sin City

08Si
Frank Miller’s Sin City is a phenomenal graphic novel series. It explores a dark gritty world, which is mostly conveyed through internal monologue. I used a lot of internal monologue within Entrapment for Sam Drake and I like to think that I kept Sin City and other graphic novels in mind when writing down Sam’s thoughts.
Reference in Entrapment:

Sadly, there is no direct reference to Sin City within Entrapment, maybe the black and white video tape section could count?

 

9. Doctor Who

00Doctor
I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who and it wasn’t the brilliant science fiction elements that I took from it for Entrapment (as there are none), it was the strong female roles within the series. The Doctors companions (usually female) all have strong characters. Martha is the only female in the game and I wanted her character to come across as a strong compassionate one with her conversation with Sam. I looked to Doctor who for that.

Reference in Entrapment:

I used the first name of one of the Doctor’s companions, Martha Jones, as the name for Sam’s wife as she was meant to come as strong as the character from the series.

 

10. Saw

10Jigsaw
Horror films aren’t usually my thing, but I really enjoy the Saw films. The whole mythology around the Jigsaw killer and the games that he makes people play are brilliant. I totally used the idea of a serial killer that traps you in a room and you have to escape. I love the whole Escape the Room genre such as Crimson Room and Entrapment is basically an escape the room game, with serial killers.

Reference in Entrapment:

As well as being an important point in the story, the camera in the bedroom closet is a nod to the Saw films.

Well that’s it, an extensive list of inspirations to me when I made Entrapment.