Ken Levine GDC 2014

Industry Insights – Ken Levine on ‘Narrative Lego’ [GDC 2014]


In this entry to my Industry Insights we’re treated to an interesting theoretical proposal by acclaimed Creative Director/Writer Ken Levine a veteran of the industry known for his work on the critically acclaimed Thief, System Shock and Bioshock series.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full, original, unaltered content refer to the sources, listed at the end.


The talk exists more as a starting point for a creative discussion on potential future dynamic narrative systems amongst developers, rather than a pitch for a finished design idea. As such, Mr. Levine is very careful to note that this is NOT the design for a specific game, a product pitch or a specific development plan.

So why attempt it?

  • He discovered that the linear model locks you into always going bigger and bigger and outdoing yourself
  • This gets exponentially more costly time and budget wise
  • You work years and years on a project, ship it, people play through the 12 or so hours of content and that’s it gone – there is no continuous engagement
  • Linearity also puts boundaries between developers and the audience
    • For example, conceits such as the iconic “Would you kindly” only work once
  • It also stems from Ken Levine’s inherent love for systemic games – he grew up playing Civilization games & XCOM

The System – What it is

So, what is this magical dynamic narrative system? I will call it the “Passions Project” and the reason why will become clear as it is laid out in the following text.

It is essentially an attempt to start the conversation on the idea of building a player driven replayable narrative gameplay system.

Below follows a breakdown of some of the key pillars of design behind the proposed system, grouped loosely into sections:

Negatives of Linear Narrative

  • Expensive to make – bespoke, setpiece-centric experience
  • Pieces don’t speak to each other
    • Nothing in the beginning of Bioshock: Infinite speaks to the ending – not on a systems level
    • As opposed to something like Civilization where the “player narrative” is heavily dictated and affected meaningfully by their choices throughout
  • Branching exists, but with limited states and interactions
    • Can be very expansive but always inherently limited
  • Doesn’t fully embrace the unique power of games
    • Namely – replayable and player-driven
  • Can only add ON, not add IN
  • There is naturally a lot of really great work out there (Witcher etc.) but he is seeking a fundamentally different approach

The Traditional Approach to AI

One of the common questions that come up from people unfamiliar with the games industry is “when will game AI pass the Turing test” a question that is fundamentally flawed according to Mr. Levine due to the following faults of Game AI:

  • Simulates a person, not a character
  • Everybody on the planet is bad at that
  • A truly robust solution lies beyond any technology or creative horizon
  • Overly ambitious leads to failure
  • Easy to give up and never even try

Physics Wasn’t Built in a Day

  • It began with simple things – 2D circles, rectangles, 3D Spheres, then moved onto ragdolls, cloth, fluids…
  • Gradual improvement.
  • People weren’t expecting perfection from the start, they knew you had to start somewhere.
  • The key was to know not to model everything – instead focusing on a limited set of believable and impactful things.
  • This same logic can be followed for procedural characters – don’t try and model everything.

The Opportunity

The concept and goal is t create a narratively driven narrative system where:

  • narrative elements are non-linear and interact with each other
  • All narrative elements trigger off PLAYER action
  • Such triggers are generally TRANSPARENT to the player

The Passions System

The core idea of this (somewhat unfocused) section of the talk is to give a practical abstract example of how such a system might work in an actual product.

The setup is simple – 4 villages, each with their own tribe. Within those exist numerous generic NPC’s but the key focus is on 5 “Stars”  – or notable major players. The number is purposefully low as we don’t want to overwhelm the player.


It is with these Stars that the system really starts to take form. Their overall state and opinion of you is affected by what he refers to as “Passions”. These are the defining traits of each of them, which are systematic variables that are a systematic representation of an actual personality.

Each action in the world will influence each of these Passions for every major NPC and as a result, if done well and granular/reactive enough, you’d end up with a mostly dynamic narrative structure.

Or in simpler terms – the first of its kind truly systemic narrative. By ensuring that dialogue and events in the world are tied to them you’d (in theory) end up with nearly infinite narrative opportunities, entirely based on each player’s countless individual choices.


I have purposefully avoided diving into the specifics of Mr. Levine’s examples – not only because they are bog standard fantasy fare of orcs, elves and such – but also because I recommend viewing it in detail on your own. However, I believe that the above is a reasonable summary of the core concept and should be enough to decide whether or not the talk is worth your time.

Personal Opinion

This last section doesn’t really contain any additional content but is rather my take on the idea, being primarily a gameplay/systems designer. As Mr. Levine himself admits, he is not a technical man, and as such this is more of an artist’s vision of how it would work. It focuses overtly on the end result and the magical possibility space it affords, rather than on the actual systems of it (as charming as the graphics may be).

That being said, I think it is a very important step forward for the medium and I am glad that it was brought up as a discussion. He is very much right that it is a broken, inherently flawed system – every first iteration of something truly new is. However, only by trying (and ultimately failing) will we ever improve and I believe that this is a very powerful concept that is very much investing the time and effort into.

For investigations like these, I’d look at older systemic games like the clunky RPG series Gothic or even the Nemesis system in the Shadow of Mordor games. I think even those rudimentary implementations show the true power of something like this. Perhaps a truly systemically driven narrative is impossible but I do believe that you can shift the balance heavily towards it – and end up with a truly special product.

As such, I am incredibly interested to see the development in this and wouldn’t mind giving it a shot myself, if I ever one day end up in the position to work in Mr. Levine’s team – as it seems like he would benefit from some help on implementation 😉



Industry Insights – Advice for job applications: level designer edition [Mike Bithell, 2018]


This is going to be a very short and sweet entry to my Industry Insights series in which Mike Bithell of Thomas Was Alone and Quarantine/Subsurface Circular fame goes over his own advice on creating a good level design portfolio, inspired by his recent search for a freelancer on an unannounced project. This is a rare chance for direct and soberingly honest advice that many aspiring developers will benefit greatly from.

Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


  1. Communication skills are number one priority, especially in junior hires. You can learn almost anything if you’re willing to listen, and you can’t be a designer without being able to explain a position and fight your corner (professionally)
    1. So make sure to spell check. Arrange your CV/portfolio clearly. Show that you can get an idea across (in this case, the idea that you’re fantastic). Show that you pay attention by following the instructions (despite asking for email, he still got a fair few DMs, twitter applications etc.)
  2. Show what you did on games, don’t just offer a softography. It is of course impressive if you worked on a game that is known and even liked, but game dev is a team effort, so you need to highlight what you actually did, and the limits of that responsibility.
    1. The strongest candidates take you through their work history by naming projects and then actually bullet pointing “I was responsible for these specific areas of design in these specific parts of the game, or its systems”. That helps the recruiter.
  3. If they haven’t heard of your game, that presents an opportunity. If you’re just starting out and all your work is student or indie projects, then you have an amazing opportunity to walk them through your process. Some great students presented playthrough vids of their levels.
    1. One idea that wasn’t seen but might be worth a day’s work for any students about to start job hunting – make a GMTK style break down video of a level that was designed. Similar to the dungeon mapping ones – show the recruiter. SHOW NOT TELL.
  4. Be incredibly careful about oversharing personal info before work info. They shouldn’t have to get to know you personally before seeing your portfolio, so keep it fresh and professional. This is in your best interest: they might be a jerk who doesn’t like you immediately…
    1. It’s 2018 so if they’re into your work, they will google you and check out twitter to see if you’re an arsehole before getting back to you, but it’s a risky play to put your personality too far ahead of the work you’re hoping to wow a prospective employer with.
  5. One great tip for students is to share analysis of other people’s levels – one of the best portfolios ever seen included, among other things, a 5 page analysis of why and how rocket launchers were placed in Quake maps. Brilliant.
  6. They’re not going to download an executable. They’re not going to download a mod, a map or anything else at the first round of review. a) It’s slow b) I’m doing this on a Mac that doesn’t support your game c) I’m not logging into steam on this work machine. It sucks, but it’s true.
    1. Time is limited, so make it profoundly easy with PDFs (opens on anything these days) and YouTube/embedded videos. Flash intros are, thankfully, much less popular these days, but bear in mind that you have 5 minutes to earn their attention for another 5 before moving on.
  7. Show debug rendered overviews of maps that were made. In a very big pile of applicant, the ones that did it could be counted on one hand. It’s exciting to see level maps and layouts. A sexy gameplay shot is fine, but it’s more a showcase of the environment artist(s) you worked with. Show the unsexy debug view with spawner gizmos and grey boxed layouts. Show that you’re able to build and pace a space. It doesn’t matter if it’s ugly, for a level designer, it’s the meat of what they’re hiring you to do.
  8. The final one – if you don’t get hired for a job it’s almost certainly not because you were shit.
    1. No single application this time around managed all 7 of the above
    2. He was hiring for a genre you have no experience of
    3. You were second best, but there is only one job



Industry Insights – Let’s Be Realistic: A Deep Dive Into How Games Are Selling On Steam [GDC 2018]


This will be a more bite-sized entry to my Industry Insights series in which Mike Rose from More Robots goes over his own research into sales numbers and trends on Steam. The market of Steam has dramatically changed over the past years, going from a once highly-selective curate market to the current “everything goes” open market that even recently approved it’s first hardcore porn game. In this climate, it is more important than ever to get as much insight into trends as possible if you want to have any chances of succeeding as a small developer. Mike Rose does his best to do the research so you don’t have to – giving ballpark figures that should help with estimating development return on launch.

Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


It must be pointed out that Steam sales are notoriously obfuscated and with Valve’s new API (part of their Steam store redesign) this has further become the case (for more information, refer to the excellent NoClip interview with the creator of SteamSpy) requiring additional effort to squeeze out any hopeful bit of data that you can. Hopefully, going forward this will shift as a mentality, given that for most industries relevant numbers are widely available – from books, through records and to movies. For now, we have Mr. Roses’s estimations – as follows:

These estimates are for the “average” Steam game – eliminating outliers like the increasingly prevalent shovelware and asset flips that are drowning the platform.

In February 2018 the “average” game

  • Sells 2,000 copies
  • Has an average price of $12
  • Makes $12,500 in revenue during its first month

So as a rough revenue estimate (keep in mind this is for a successful Steam game) it’s:

  • 1st Year = (1st Month x 2.5) = (1st Week x5)
  • Or, on average, around $30,000 in first year

Now, that’s not a bad sum but considering the quality and caliber of game that must be released on Steam to have any hope of standing out, it quickly becomes a very worrying picture. For comparison, the average US salary is just under $45k. Not great.

An interesting additional insight is that, somewhat counter-intuitively, people are eager to pay more for games. Most likely, this is due to the flood of cheap, low quality games and the subconscious association with the dreaded mobile market. As a result of this, increasing the price of your game to $10 or more might actually help it sell more, due to user perception of quality.

“If they are asking this much, surely it must be better, otherwise they’d be mad?”

“Why do they think they can charge more?” etc.

In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend giving the full talk at least a quick skim, though most of the insights can be gathered from just the numbers. It is an estimate, a rough one at that, but could prove invaluable for any amateur developers out there subsisting on nothing but rationed ramen and stubbornness.



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Industry Insights – 30 Things I Hate About Your Game Pitch [GDC 2017]


This issue of my fledgling Industry Insights series I will have a look at a highly controversial 2017 talk from Brian Upton from Game on the Rails who is going to go over what he believes are some key mistakes and counterproductive things that trip up people who are trying to pitch to a publisher that he learned over his decades of experience. While many might view this advice as highly anachronistic, given today’s market where reductions in software prices and different distribution methods have transformed the landscape – freeing many from the dreaded publisher chains – there is still a lot to be learned from this. It is harsh and aggressive advice that is not for the faint of heart or those of a particularly delicate disposition.

Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


This talk was mostly delivered as a very rapid fire series of 30 “common mistakes” and some additional tips on what NOT to do when pitching to a publisher.

I encourage even novice developers to look into, even if they are far from the pitching stage with a larger publisher (or perhaps discounting the idea in general) – as there is a lot to learn about synthesizing your vision.

As always, take everything with a grain of salt – this is advice and should be treated as such, not gospel. The text is taken straight from the talk, so expect some controversial wording and aggressive phrasing. Without further adieu:

  1. I don’t give a crap about your backstory
    1. Very important. Don’t present 100 pages of lore before the core concept is defined
  2. I don’t give a crap about your inventory system either
    1. Don’t go into needless details. Focus on the core.
  3. I’m not going to design your game for you
    1. Be expected to answer questions and fill in gaps. Don’t leave open ended questions and uncertainties.
  4. Pillars are not hooks!
    1. They are the essence of the game but won’t necessarily pull the player in
  5. You never explained what the player does
    1. Don’t focus only on the story or other auxiliary elements. Games are interactive. You play them. Focus on that first and foremost.
  6. Don’t use realism to excuse bad design
    1. Just. Don’t. For an example look at the dreadful design decisions behind the ill-fated Bravo Team
  7. You don’t need a framing device if it’s not necessary
    1. Stick to the core
  8. Is it really a game, or just a knockoff
    1. Originality isn’t the most important but don’t just ape existing things
  9. You never mentioned your glaringly obvious tech risk
    1. Don’t forget games are technical products with their own unique challenges
  10. Your proof of concept does not prove your concept
    1. Self-explanatory 😛
  11. Having lots of shitty art doesn’t make it less shitty
    1. If you can’t make good art, don’t have any or hire someone. DO NOT use programmer art. That’s the first impression of your product and it just might be the last.
  12. I can’t tell what’s placeholder and what’s not
    1. Explicitly state this
  13. You polished too early
    1. Again, focus your effort on things that matter
  14. Your sample dialogues suck
    1. Again, first impressions are crucial
  15. You’re pandering to the latest tech craze
    1. Don’t
  16. You just pitched a phone game to a console publisher
    1. This is more common than you’d think
  17. You’re making a Gone Home/Minecraft/PUBG ripoff
    1. “Insert latest fad here”
  18. You want us to negotiate a risky IP deal for you
    1. You should be the one negotiating
  19. I know more about your monetization than your mechanics
    1. Games are a business like any other but this is not a business pitch
  20. You have no idea how much money/people/time you need to make this thing
    1. This is notoriously hard to answer and prepare for, comes with time
  21. You don’t have a team
    1. This is crucial, don’t expect the publisher to handle this for you
  22. Your business plan is based on outliers
    1. Again, plan as best you can
  23. You seem like you’d be a huge pain in the ass to work with
    1. This might seem silly but you deal with people, not robots and that relationship is crucial, especially when projects hit crucial stages
  24. You expect me to know who you are
    1. Have a proper intro and be humble
  25. You’re annoyed that I’m asking questions
    1. This is the publisher’s job
  26. We’re trying to watch the pitch on your phone
    1. Come prepared, don’t ruin a great idea at the presentation stage
  27. You brought a laptop but no headphones
    1. Pitching often happens in loud, public venues so come prepared for this
  28. You’re hungover/drunk/high
  29. Don’t trash other games/companies/developers
    1. Very important, respect is crucial in this industry, so is humility
  30. You need to take a shower
    1. Again, harsh but something that sadly needs to be said way too often

The Root Questions:

A) Is this game worth making?

B) Can this team make the game?


And for a little sprinkle of positivity, several Do’s:

  • Be enthusiastic
  • Be honest
  • Sell your hook
  • Know your scope



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Industry Insights – Classic Game Postmortem: Deus Ex [GDC 2017]


In this article of my Industry Insights series I will be looking at a very exciting 2017 talk from Warren Spector who is going to go over some key development insights from the development of one of gaming’s biggest classics – the original Deus Ex (2000), which incidentally is one of my all time favourite games. He goes over how the whole inspiration behind the game was to have a cohesive thread of meaning interwoven throughout the development. This, while primarily a narrative conceit, is what helped drive the choices in the game and ultimately creating one of the best immersive sims of all time. Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


This talk focuses goes over a lot of key aspects of the development of Deus Ex and its hour long runtime is far too loaded with development gems for me to truly summarize it.

As such, I will focus on the advice given by Warren that could be applied to most developer’s projects. It is broken down loosely into 9 “guiding design questions” (with example answers) as follows:

  1. What’s the core idea?
    1. Elevator pitch
    2. Example from Deus Ex – “The real world role playing game where players tell their own stories”
    3. Doesn’t need to be too descriptive or unique but should contain the core & soul of the game
  2. Why do this game?
    1. Why? – a simple but incredibly difficult question to answer – think of all angles from creative to business ones
    2. Is it gonna be a hit? – artistic expression is great but so is being able to survive
    3. Is it something you burn to make? – game development is hard, really hard so if you’re going to make something you best be sure your heart and soul are really into it otherwise you will easily burn out and creativity will be stifled (for reference, most of the mobile market)
  3. What are the development challenges?
    1. Hard is good, impossible isn’t
    2. It’s good to push to break new ground and do something unique or challenging but it should also be at least remotely feasible. Don’t try and make an MMO with 10 people or tackle a huge technical challenge if you are a fledgling development studio/team
  4. How well-suited to a game is it?
    1. “Doing” is better than “Being”
    2. Think of the verbs and exploration of spaces
    3. What might be an awesome concept in your head might end up better as a book, movie or another kind of more static media format
    4. Games are interactive – use that to its advantage, make games in which it is fun to do things and have spaces that are enjoyable to traverse, explore and interact with
  5. What’s the fantasy?
    1. Is it being a badass? Very charming? Unique situation?
    2. What is going to captivate player’s imaginations
    3. Example from Deus Ex: “You’re a James Bond figure who is equally good at sneaking, fighting and charming”
  6. What are the verbs?
    1. Sneaking, doing, talking, fighting etc.
    2. As popular as walking sims and narrative games are, try and utilize the interactivity of games as a medium to its fullest
  7. Has anyone done this before?
    1. If so – what can you learn from them? Do your research.
    2. If not – What does that tell us? Is it just a bad idea, or was it simply not feasible before due to other factors (technological etc.)
  8. What’s the one thing?
    1. What is the one thing that hasn’t been done before
    2. You need this unique defining feature that will surprise players (personal addendum – it could also be doing something others have done before but doing it better than ever – though this is a bold approach – not every game can be Spiderman [2018])
    3. Example from Deus Ex: unique combination of genres and player freedom
  9. Do you have something to say?
    1. Is there a meaning behind the game, a message?
    2. Deus Ex was heavily loaded with messages about technology, the future of mankind and the power of governments and corporations
    3. (personal addendum) Not every game needs to have a profound message, but having something to say is always important

In conclusion, this is an excellent talk that I HIGHLY recommend watching in full but if you don’t – keep in mind the above list is, as always, one approach to looking at Game Design and is naturally not suited to all development scales and aims. Nevertheless, it is always important to keep asking yourself questions as you design something and when someone with such a pedigree speaks – you listen.

I also recommend the excellent and thought-provoking Deck of Lenses by Jesse Schell – the companion to the equally useful The Art of Game Design book. It is essentially a deck of cards containing various guiding questions that aim to break your design down to bits. If it survives, you have a solid idea 😛



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Industry Insights – 10 Biggest F-ups from Drinkbox Studios [GDC 2016]


In this article of my Industry Insights series I will be looking at a 2016 talk from Drinkbox Studios best known for standout luchador platformer Guacamelee and it’s recently released sequel (both games that I highly recommend!). Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


This talk focuses on their experience as a longtime indie developer. These tips might not necessarily apply to large studios or solo projects but there is a lot to learn here, so without further adieu:

1) Be careful with referrals – make sure you can trust the people you hire, especially “experts”. Be mindful of taxes and bureaucratic overhead.
2) Ensure comfort and Quality of Life in studio – Lack of comfort means notable drop in quality of work done. Studio tried to cheap out on this early on and it had catastrophic consequences.
3) Be careful with launch date announcements – hold back as long as you can to guarantee flexibility. Getting locked into a set date can be extremely tough to get out of, especially for a small team that doesn’t have the marketing budget to afford spreading news of changes.
4) Use a PR company – saves a lot of money in the long run, especially if you are small and/or not well established. They displayed stats that it very quickly pays off and you shouldn’t be scared of the initial cost.
5) Choose your ports wisely – Make sure that the adaptation to a different platform doesn’t ruin the experience. Making a quick extra buck is nice but often times consumer good will and studio reputation is more important.
6) Use at least a day of buffer before events – accounts for emergencies that might come up & feeling fresh is crucial for important events and public appearances. Very important for showing off at expos – a crucial chance for exposure when a small studio.
7) Handle side projects with tact – employees having their own projects on the side can be great for creativity & productivity but keep it open and transparent to avoid them interfering with studio performance.
8) Beware of hidden costs (mostly for smaller devs) – for expos it might end up being cheaper to just outright buy equipment instead of hiring from the event host or third party providers. They showed that after doing the math it ended up being cheaper for them to buy their own TVs and setup for expos than to hire.
9) QA patches thoroughly – even a seemingly small patch can have a huge impact so never skip on QA time, particularly with regards to save data testing. Be mindful of certifications and other headroom for fixes/reverts. In their case, a seemingly small change to chicken mode meant that player saves could be corrupted and the game unbeatable. Pushing a fix through console certs took ages.
10) Stay cool – even with leaks/reviews keep in mind that everyone is just doing their job. Business relationships are very important and as good as it might feel in the moment – anger and outbursts are never the way to go and will just hurt you and your studio long term. Important for when a journalist slips up.



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Industry Insights – Made out of Meat: Health Systems in Video Games [GDC 2016]


In this first article from my new Industry Insights series I will be looking at a 2016 talk from Catacomb Kids creator Tyriq Plummer. Keeping with the spirit of this series, I will do my best to be as brief and concise as possible, hard as that may be for me.

As a disclaimer –  I will inject some of my own interpretation and expansion of the ideas, as this is unavoidable. For the full picture, always refer to the sources, listed at the end.


The concept of the talk is to have a frank discussion about health systems in video games. One of the first points raised is that if your character can be replaced by a ball, then you’re probably working with a very high level of abstraction.

People are sacks of meat, after all – the author states in a very HK-47-esque twist.

This statement echoes throughout the talk as developers are urged to think of reinforcing a more authentic and engaging player experience – not just with narrative and aesthetic conceits but also through gameplay and mechanics.

Dwarf Fortress is cited as an interesting example – it’s stupidly in depth damage and affliction mechanics making it possible for people to get sick or get crippled and a hundred other cases that enhance its emergent gameplay. This is of course a very extreme example, that while great in that particular case for enhancing player engagement, is obviously not exactly well suited for wide scale application.

A potential middle ground is to have a sectional damage system – splitting the player into “chunks” as to better simulate a living being. An overall health total can result in a death state past a certain margin but getting to that point can happen through multiple different afflictions. Perhaps these could also change gameplay – could you still use a shield if your left arm was lobbed off?

Thing to keep in mind when designing a more engaging or authentic (not realistic!!) health system is to consider how real human beings work. We can recover from small and large ailments but it takes us time (and resources).

Simulation – defines as employing the rules of the game to work with the representation accurately. A balancing act between Abstraction, Simplification and Simulation.

Aftermath – once the damage is done and time has passed, how do you recover from it? Play around with this. Doesn’t have to be as boring or as linear as most “one solution solves all” implementations currently out there

Active healing – do thing, get better. Besides small animations there is rarely waiting in games – especially meaningfully done. Think of resting in D&D or Banner Saga. Try and tie multiple mechanics to it, to transform it into a unique action, rather than an annoying chore.

In summary – be mindful of your character, how they work and how they might hurt. We are but meat, after all.



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Timely Thoughts – Just Cause 3

This is the first in a series of focused opinion pieces on games aiming to eschew the oft lamented and reviled (with good reason) review format that has plagued the interactive medium since its inception. Given the recent announcement of Just Cause 4 and the lukewarm reaction to it – this seems like as good a time as any to reopen the wound.

Pretense translation: I am too disorganized to create a more structured review format and I’d rather faff about with big words and rant about my stance on key elements 😛

As any questionably written piece on the internet, we begin with everyone’s favourite bit. Unnecessary and overdrawn exposition.

Our tale begins with Just Cause 2. More specifically the freely available demo (remember when those were industry practice?) that I downloaded on a whim for the PS3. The demo was very clever in its simplicity. It offered a basic mission structure, sure, but at it’s core it was a chunk of the world – a veritable playground. Here’s a part of the map- go crazy in it. Have fun. Blow everything up.

I vividly remember my first two passing thoughts upon booting it up for the first time.

  1. Man, this actually doesn’t look that great, especially the UI
  2. Wow, these controls are very floaty and the shooting is kind of unpleasant

Yep. Not exactly love at first sight. Yet that unassuming game with it’s unashamed lust for explosions and chaos won my heart. That demo is to this day my most replayed piece of content (rivaled only by classics such as HoMM III, AoE II or the original Deus Ex). I must’ve “beaten” it over 10 times before finally succumbing and buying the full title. An impressive feat for my (even more so than now) financially limited self.


Just Cause 2 – A tropical paradise

The big open world. The freedom of movement. The speed, leniency and sheer amount of action. They were all serviceable individually but together they sang. A beautiful and energetic song of destruction and energy to rival Vivaldi. Despite the questionable plot, nonexistent mission variety and identical settlements peppered throughout the map I couldn’t stop. After several months of dedicated play it became the first (and to this day only) open world game that I have reached 100% completion in. It was the right product, at the right time, with the right balance of core ingredients.

With that said… what went so wrong with the next installment?

On paper it’s a textbook sequel – bigger and better in every way. A larger world, sharper graphics, enhanced physics, improved combat even a slight bump of the narrative budget. Yet for all its beautiful Mediterranean sights and outlandish arsenal Just Cause 3 can’t help but feel like a notable step down.

The expanded arsenal, boosted variety can’t help it from feeling like it has lost its soul. That elusive, intangible thing that so many developers desperately chase after. That perfect blend of intent, unified vision, mechanical execution and polish.


In the beginning, everything seems great. It stumbles through rudimentary control introduction but you grit your teeth and push onwards through this sadly accepted status quo in larger games. The wingsuit is a very logical and much appreciated addition to the already stellar traversal that the series was known for. The improved visuals make a pretty noticeable difference in the gameplay of a game so focused on spectacle. Each broken tower topples dramatically, lighting up the forest with fancy and questionably violent explosions. The improved gunplay makes mowing down soldiers almost fun, compared to the nuisance and chore that it devolved to in the original (though the shooting is still highly floaty and imprecise – a necessary evil, perhaps, given the breakneck speed at which the action takes place). the controls of Rico are also more natural and intuitive bolstered by much smoother animations/responsiveness, resulting in less cases of you awkwardly dangling from the odd bit geometry like some misguided nocturnal nature experiment gone wrong.

Sadly that initial joy and optimism quickly gets crippled by two key problems.

Big bad fault number 1: The progression.


One of the worst opening sequences for a game all about freedom and exploration

When people think of Skyrim do you think they vividly remember the horridly overdraw and cripplingly lacking in player agency introduction? Or do they remember exploring a vast and endlessly intriguing world at their own pace? When they remember Breath of the Wild and The Witcher 3 do they remember being sucked into an organic and emergent world or an engrossing narrative or do they think of tutorial text prompts and walking slowly from step to step?

I think we all know the answer to that (deliberately) loaded question.


The first thing you do when you wake up in DOOM is break the shackles of awful railroaded sequences and gun down demons in a gory celebration of player agency

There is a reason why 2016’s DOOM begins by speeding through the tutorial. The very first thing you do in the game immediately after your character wakes up is take control and gun down a demon. For a game where the vast majority of your time and enjoyment will be spent slaughtering the endless hordes of hell it is fitting and welcomed. The developers know what you came for. You know what you came for. Even the game’s protagonist knows exactly what you are after. And the game gives it to you. And it feels oh so good.

In as stark a contrast as can be the bombastic and liberating Just Cause 3 begins… heavily scripted. Then you are let loose on this beautiful (if somewhat less immediately striking than the tropical setting of its predecessor) coastal area. And immediately you feel the opposite of the freedom and power touted so prominently on the game box & promotional materials. Boldly lettered promises of the Michael Bay-esque content are strewn across videos and posters and yet… here you are, with a measly chunk of your arsenal and most of your skills locked behind an inherently flawed progression system.


A system that was supposed to give players choice, incentive and variety – ends up being a grindy mess

Even at first glance the inherent problem is apparent – a lot of your core functions are locked behind arbitrary gated progression systems. I understand the need to pad out and stretch content as well as the choice to push players towards the numerous side activities in order to unlock more content, however this is not the way to do it.

Additional content should enhance the core experience, not detract from it. Players should be encouraged and should want to actively seek out and take part in bonus activities – usually because of the promise of non-essential but nevertheless tantalizing extra rewards. Be that lore for the lore buffs, extra XP to help ease the difficulty curve, bonus weapons/vehicles/gear that fit in the “fun/experimental” archetype or just valuable story content a la Witcher!

In the case of a game like Just Cause 3 where these side activities basically amount to little more than randomly generated or loosely cobbled together filler content in the form of time trials and races (not really helped by the purposefully floaty driving, which is really fun during chaotic action but endlessly infuriating when you are trying to optimize a route) Ever tried to drive a sports car on butter? Or fly a plane with your feet? Explode from a gentle breeze? Fear not for Just Cause 3’s race events will fulfill these unrequited fantasies of yours.

To make matters worse, beyond locking away many of the absolute core parts of your skillset (the progression system should’ve only been there to add variety/offer different playstyles, it should never hamper a starting player in a way that makes them feel the “real” game doesn’t start till tens of hours in – it didn’t work for FF XIII and it sure as hell didn’t age gracefully) the system is also agonizingly slow.

So not only are fundamental pieces needed to enjoy playing the game fully stowed away in some obfuscated menu but you also need to grind receptive and derivative events endlessly. Well, at least the payoff is worth it. After all that grinding and content gating it is finally time to unleash hell and have fun the way only Just Cause can…



The game continues to take a nose dive

Big bad fault number 2: Core gameplay loop

Here it is. The main event. The meat. The heart and soul of this game. All the gorgeous scenery, all the stupid progression mechanics, all the loosely cobbled together narrative thread – all exist as setup for the core gameplay loop. The thing Just Cause was always known for. The reason that even to this day, years after it’s release, there are still gifs and videos constantly circulating of Just Cause 2 and all the outrageous and silly situations you can get yourself into.

If there’s one thing this series always excelled in, it was bombastic action. It is part of this games core essence even down to the unashamedly cheesy title. Yet… for all its improvements on paper Just Cause 3 somehow left everyone less entertained than it’s predecessor. It is easy to dismiss this as franchise fatigue but that would be an oversimplification and a pretty big leap, considering JC1 was a niche title so in reality this is only the second effective installment – and a highly anticipated one to boot. So what happened then? Where in the transition from concept to execution did the magic get lost?

The answer is multi-fold an complex and as such could deserve an entire paper. Instead, I will attempt to untangle the giant web of elements that caused all this woe best I can and lay them out briefly.

Like any playground it’s only as interesting as the stage. Super Mario Odyssey may been a whiteboxed clump of planes and cubes but it hardly would’ve garnered as positive a critical reception without it’s vibrant and excellently designed level layouts. Red Faction Guerilla had a destruction system so fun and impressive that it was “remarstered” in 2018 yet for all that fun the empty and repetitive red planet wore down most players early on into the experience.


A joy to traverse but ultimately dull and lacking world cripple JC3

Just Cause 3 suffers greatly from this. While the map is notably better looking, the lighting is less dynamic and more flat, creating this lifeless and overblown feeling of the entire world. The map lacks the diverse biomes of the previous title (because if any game warrants a desert, next to snow, next to a tropical island it’s one with this name). The villages and settlements have a little bit more variety but sadly that quickly fades. The only marked improvement are the military bases that this time escalate and clearly condone increasingly elaborate approach tactics – a very welcomed change. Even vehicles somehow manage to look less detailed and interesting at times.

So you’re stuck in this weirdly lit endless expanse of fields and samey villages. Gone are the lavish cities, the mile high club, the time bubble island or any of the other highlights. With these “key locations” missing the world of Just Cause 3 quickly becomes a homogenized mess in the palyer’s mind, nullifying all the effort put into creating it by the code team.


Rico controls better than ever – but that does little to help the grind


So, the world is severely lacking – then maybe the skills will be fun enough to make up for it? Yes and no. On one hand, fully locked and loaded this Rico 2.0 is so much more pleasant to control and you can wreak havoc like never before thanks to generously expanded (or eliminated for explosives!) ammo counts and the wingsuit. On the other, it takes so long to get there that most players will burn out way before that – due to the already discussed godawful progression system. With no engaging narrative to pull you along it is easy to ask yourself the question – even if I do unlock it all, what’s the point? That’s a terrifying question for any developer to hear and it is one that crippled the title.

To make matters worse, the game suffered by a myriad of technical problems. It had memory leaks on PC, horrible CPU optimization, awful performance on consoles – dropping into sub 15fps category – unacceptable for this style of game and was overall a real performance hog for no overtly apparent reason.

And then came the DRM & Leaderboard integration. Just Cause 2 had one of the most successful mods (still has a higher playerbase than JC 1+2+3 combined) – a multiplayer mayhem of untold scale that allowed players to duke it out in its world. As such, it has been one of the most requested features of the franchise. The answer from the developer came with always on DRM that prompted a stable connection to authentications servers that would slow down the launch of the game to a crawl and might even prevent it from being playable altogether. All of this for a half baked leaderboard integration that allowed you to compare menial stats to people on your friends list as you played. To call it underwhelming would an understatement.

End Result

So, in conclusion, Just Cause 3 was on paper the sequel that everyone wanted yet a bland world, frustrating progression system, lack of meaningful progress and underwhelming graphics coupled with abysmal performance resulted in a very lukewarm reception and a massive drop of faith in the brand. As we look onto Just Cause 4 we can only hope that Avalanche has learned their lesson and will deliver a playground unshackled by common video game constraints and systems and silly things like “logic” or “justification”.

PS: Multiplayer pls without fps tanking from your fancy storm simulations kthnxbye

Congruence – Jamchester 2017 Creativity & Innovation Award winner!


Now that I’ve finally recovered a bit from a crazy sleepless weekend…

So proud to announce that our team Next_Level won the Innovation & Creativity Award at Jamchester 2017 – UK’s biggest professional game jam for our game Congruence(Yes, most people couldn’t remember/pronounce it either)!


Next_level team photo

The Next_Level team


Super honoured & humbled – cannot believe how far we got in just 48hrs! Huge, huge thanks to my amazing teammates Jeffrey Robbins, Greg Wray and Adam Westbrook for making the magic happen both visuals & code wise! It was an absolute pleasure working with you guys! Designing the world & puzzles for such a unique game was one of the most fun experiences I’ve had as a designer yet and we’re excited to keep working on it – so keep an eye out, might get a much-improved version in the future 😛

Here’s a link to our WIP quick run through the game showing off our unique game – phone interaction that got us the award 🙂

You can also check out more info on our Jamchester devpost page:


Unity 5.6 Released!

Wohooooo. Not long after UE4 blew my mind with its massive patch notes, Unity has been upgraded to 5.6! While I still somewhat lament the inclusion of a more elegant way to update Unity, I am very much pleased with the potential of the update. It focuses on numerous things like better lighting, improved Vulcan support, mobile performance and the video player getting a significant boost (it can now play 4k!).

However, my main area of excitement is with the 2D pipeline. There seem to have been numerous improvements to 2D games, including a more advanced collision system and the ability for particle systems to interact with 2D objects. There have also been improvements to tessellation, sprite outlines and newly introduced sorting groups for sprite clipping!

This is great news and both will be something I will make sure to utilize in my university project and beyond! In particular, particle systems will be a ton of fun to play around with!