We all love an award ceremony: the glamour, the drama, the bit where someone reads the wrong name – and who doesn’t like winning prizes? Perhaps the real value of award shows however, in the world of games anyway, is the annual chance to take a look backwards in an industry that’s always hurtling ahead. We can celebrate our achievements, sure, but we can also take stock of things and dig into just what goes into making award-worthy projects.
This was the sentiment behind the recent BAFTA Scotland Game Design event, which hosted a candid discussion between some of the personnel from this year’s nominees for the BAFTA Scotland Game Award. On the panel were head of development at Denki and co-creator of Autonauts, Gary Penn, lead designer of Ant Workshop’s Dead End Job, Tony Gowland and writer and narrative designer on Ion Lands’ Cloudpunk, Tom Welsh.
Development in the time of Covid
First, the speakers discussed their experiences living and working in the Scottish games industry. This was a particularly interesting topic for Penn and Gowland, who have both relocated to Scotland from south of the border, albeit more than a decade ago. The two expatriates agreed they felt a strong sense of community working in a relatively smaller industry. Penn suggested it can often feel like a village, in that there are always games professionals just around the corner, and recalled times that other developers had given Denki a place to work in their own offices. Gowlan, meanwhile, spoke about friendly rivalries that exist in the Scottish scene, as well as fantastic social events like We Throw Switches’ Games Are For Everyone. Gowland also gave props to Scotland’s strong indie heritage as a source of encouragement, citing its multiple generations of independent developers.
Next came the inevitable question – how has 2020 affected their work and day-to-day lives? Gowland said he’d been finding it a little harder to keep up with what’s going on in the scene without the usual events and socials, and speculated that folks were likely finding business developments a little trickier to get off the ground. He was positive, however, about the steps that hardware manufacturers had taken in allowing developers to take their shiny new equipment home with them – a surprising development, given the draconian security measures that typically come attached to dev kits.
Conversely, the pandemic has caused very little disruption to the working lives of Penn and Welsh Both said they were already in the habit of working remotely and meeting virtually with their collaborators. Welsh explained that he had never actually met the rest of the Cloudpunk team in person, what with Ion Lands’ staff being spread across Europe, and in fact hadn’t even realised one of his colleagues was also stationed in Scotland.
Getting the look right
Autonauts, Dead End Job and Cloudpunk all have distinctive visuals, so it was great to hear a little about how the look of each game came together. A huge part of Cloudpunk’s early success came from people sharing gifs of the game on social media, which is as good a testament as any to its visual flair. Part of its unique look comes from its voxel-based style, though according to Welsh many players don’t realise it’s made with voxels. The game apparently started life with a much more blocky appearance akin to the similarly voxel-based juggernaut Minecraft, but the team added more and more layers overtime, resulting in the more pointillist style it boasts today.
As for Dead End Job, Gowland explained that although he had a clear vision for the game’s style – a vibrant 80s look, reminiscent of classic cartoons like The Animaniacs – he deliberately didn’t start incorporating original graphics until fairly late on in the project, focusing on first nailing down the systems of the game using a generic dungeon tile set. When he met Joe Blakeston at Develop in Brighton however, he was so taken by the artist’s website header (a naked, dancing caricature of himself) that he knew he’d found just the person for the job. Gowland said that he saw the games protagonist Hector as something of a cross between Homer Simpson, Spongebob and John Goodman’s character from Arachnophobia – a character as full of enthusiasm as they are prone to clumsy catastrophes.
With Autonauts, Penn explained that they reached the final style through lots of trial and error. While he noted that the game’s use of simple shapes and bold colours is “very Denki”, it was his first time applying that style to polygons, so it took a lot of refining. “We spent a lot of time going around in circles, but upwards,” he said. “A sort of upside tornado, I suppose.”
Games for everyone
Another thing all three games share is a conscious lack of violence. All of the panellists are parents, and while Gowland and Penn admitted that they didn’t set out to make kid-friendly games, having children certainly shaped the kind of content they chose to include in their work.
Penn said his goal with Autonauts was to make something universal about designing efficient systems, and hadn’t anticipated that the the very visual way the game teaches its players about basic programming could be a great learning tool for kids. He was careful to include no violence towards any lifeforms, which meant binning an early idea which allowed the players to eventually run a burger chain out of their farm.
Gowland, meanwhile, spoke about his reluctance to include a gun in Dead End Job, beginning instead with a ghost vacuum à la Luigi’s Mansion. Unfortunately the workings of the vacuum proved a little too difficult to communicate to the player, and in the end he compromised with a Ghostbusters inspired plasma stream, which brought more gameplay opportunities – the ability stun enemies and general make a mess of the place, for example. Speaking as an ex-Rockstar employee, he said he was glad to be able to share his work with his seven year old, a privilege which many in the industry don’t share.
An early version of Cloudpunk did actually include shooting, Welsh revealed, but it was dropped because the team thought the game would be more interesting without guns. Unlike the other two nominees, Cloudpunk was made specifically with an adult audience in mind and deals with subjects like substance abuse and sex work. Players will almost certainly come up against characters with whom disagree, and the team thought it would be more interesting and true to life if the player actually had to negotiate with these people rather than simply dispose of them with a bullet. It’s partially due to those non-violent, interpersonal dynamics that Welsh attributes the richness of the games’ world.
And the winner is…
No matter which of the games takes home the BAFTA Scotland Game Award on December 8, all three are very different and very inspired projects worth checking out. Props to BAFTA for taking the chance to celebrate all the nominees ahead of the big night, and for the welcome reminder that it’s not about what you win, but what you learn along the way.
For more information on BAFTA Scotland and the Game Award here.