Reality is a Game

Thoughts on the evolving game world around us.

Game Design And Development Continuing Education At Sheridan

Are you interested in learning more about to make or think about games? Then check this out!

I’m teaching Game Design and Development continuing education classes at Sheridan College and you should sign up if you’re interested in making games!

This is the first time that Sheridan is offering a continuing education class on Game Design and one Game Development. It’s going to be a great chance for you to try out if you’d like to further engage with the world of gaming. Perhaps you’re debating returning to school or you’re wondering if the games industry is for you. In either case, these Sheridan classes are for you!

The first class is on Oct. 17th, and you can still register!

Check it out:

Game Design
Game Development
All of Sheridan’s digital media courses

To answer the inevitable questions about my other classes, yes I’m still teaching at Ryerson and George Brown.

On Diversity In Games And Technology


When you think about people who work in the tech industry or in video games you probably think of someone who is white and male (like me). The demographic research backs this up. This lack of diversity is a problem because when an industry or any community is made up of a homogenous identity everyone suffers. We need diversity in communities for a whole myriad of reasons.

The current state of diversity in both games and tech reflects poorly on creators. Indeed, quite a few articles over the past month have looked into this sad state.

TechCrunch ran a piece interviewing David Perry discussing how some video game make everybody white for “historical accuracy”. Here’s just the first question:

AC: A few months ago, Tauriq Moosa got some epic blowback for posting an op-ed in which he criticized a game he really loved, The Witcher 3, for its lack of ethnic diversity.

The #GamesSoWhite hashtag and the opposition to it are the clearest examples in my recent memory, but there’s been a lot of buzz about the “diversity push” in TV this past year and other examples of backlash to whitewashed casting in historical settings like Exodus: Gods and Kings. There was even some buzz about attempts to add ethnic diversity to the Hobbit trilogy with the denizens of Lake-town.

As a scholar of medieval history, where do you fall on this kind of debate?

DP: First of all, in terms of history I’d like to say the vast majority of the medieval world as we think of it was all kinds of people with various shades of brown skin moving back and forth across borders. Yes, there were people in remote little areas who might have never encountered anyone who looked any different than themselves, but overall there was a lot of movement and a lot of contact and a lot of exchange of ideas, crossing transcultural, trans-religious, trans-ethnic zones.

There are a lot of people with different ideas about races, throughout the history of the Middle Ages, that talk about things like skin color — not in the same terms we do now, but thinking about the different ways we look and what that might mean. And so there’s entirely different ways of constructing “race” as well.

If all you care about is historical accuracy, it is certainly possible in any historical period to find a remote spot where everyone there looks completely homogeneous. But that is not, I would say, what medieval history looked like, in which people directly encountered and were highly aware of different parts of the world and what was going on.

To be clear, history in Europe involved all shades of people. Obviously today there is a whole mixture of people too from all backgrounds and from different experiences. However, even today people working in the tech industry tend to ignore this.

The Atlantic ran a business article titled When Discrimination Is Baked Into Algorithms, and in it they identify problematic approaches to computer automation design.

It’s troubling enough when Flickr’s auto-tagging of online photos label pictures of black men as “animal” or “ape,” or when researchers determine that Google search results for black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads about criminal activity than search results for white-sounding names. But what about when big data is used to determine a person’s credit score, ability to get hired, or even the length of a prison sentence?

Racism may not be as obvious as it once was, but it’s there regardless. We need to be conscious of this – or we may turn entire groups of people off of engaging in new technology or games. This the fault of the designers not recognizing their biases and not empathizing with their audience.

Juliet Khan has theorized three main reasons girls unlearn how to love video games. I won’t go into all of the rationale here, but it is a worth a full read. Here’s the three reasons summed up:

The first force is disqualification: It takes into account the fact that girls almost certainly have played video games, but then carefully categorizes the games they’re most likely to play as illegitimate.
[T]he second force that teaches girls video games aren’t for them: the social hierarchy of the gaming community, and the narrow, deforming spaces it offers to the women who do persevere.
This is the third force: marketing. “There aren’t really any games that seem positive to me,” my sister explains. “They’re all about violence and nudity. I don’t like how the female body is made out. It makes me really uncomfortable. All of the commercials are for guys.”

Seemingly inspired by Kahn’s piece an anonymous author wrote video games have a diversity problem that runs deeper than race or gender for the Guardian. It connects the dots between all these problems (and more) raised here into why it’s a problem all gamers should care about.

Sure, the industry is a tough place for everyone – it’s constantly changing. But if you already fit in, you’re going to have more ways to chase your passion through the hazards. I’ve seen women throw in the towel after a couple of years in the industry because they just don’t see a path forward that appeals to them. Others stay but find their creative fulfilment elsewhere. Studios wonder why they don’t get a more diverse range of applicants but the lack of project variety cannot be overlooked as a barrier to entry. If you’re a creative person and don’t feel passionate about the sorts of experiences a medium is producing, it’s tough to find the strength and inspiration to carry on.

Reasons to support diversity shouldn’t hinge on getting more games and more money. The only reasons you should need is that you are human and everyone else is a human. Respect each other.

I’ll leave this post on a bit of a positive note. Over in Sweden they are looking into ways to bring the Bechdel test to video games. Dataspelsbranchen is looking into it and Kill Screen covered it well.

Those social justice warriors known as the Swedes are at it again! Last year, four Swedish cinemas started indicating whether the films they screened passed the exceedingly low bar set by Bechdel Test for female representation. Now Dataspelsbranchen, Sweden’s videogames industry organization, is considering putting a label on future games produced in the country denoting whether or not they promote gender equality. Good on Dataspelsbranchen.

What’s Going On With Indie Business Plans?

Every indie game studio has the same problem: how to make enough money to make the next game.

It seems every month there’s a new post somewhere about how indie game studios are doomed. This is – and isn’t – one of those posts. Sure, it’s hard to make a profitable gaming company in the indie space today, but it was hard in the past too. It can be done! Many people have found ways to make money and games at the same time.

Making money isn’t easy

Making a profitable game depends on a lot of variables and in the indie space small decisions can add up to big costs.

“At the moment, our expectation is about 1/3 the return of the original Spider for 5 times the man-hours.”
– Tiger Style’s David Kalina

Recently, Tiger Style released a sequel to their successful game Spider. Pocket Gamer interviewed Tiger Style and they looked into the disappointing sales trend that the studio is seeing. It used to be that if you got onto a platform you were guaranteed some returns, now that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“[I knew] the biggest companies would come along and colonize the market, establishing the rules about how games make money and locking the rest of us out of the majority of the revenue.”]
He refers to the major onset of free-to-play as “the tipping point” for the App Store’s push towards big money, a weighted market in which companies like Tiger Style have no hope of competing.

With the premium approach on mobile stores no longer a solid option what can be done? Of course one game does not signify the approach is broken, but it can make people think twice about the strategy.

All of this is following the notion that there aren’t any business plans for studios of any size.

People are still making it in the indie world despite the obvious challenges of making a game. The strategies have evolved over time and here are some options each served with some scepticism on my part.

Make a good game

If you think that you can make a good game and just sit back and collect then you are sorely mistaken. Indeed, just a couple weeks ago Total Biscuit tackled this very concept in a video. It’s worth listening to at the very least.

The video looks at Airscape and the creator of the game wrote a very interesting piece on Gamasutra about the release and promotion of the game.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that we can eliminate bad marketing as the main cause of the game’s failure. Press were given ample opportunity to write about the game, and for the most part, thanks to the great work done by the PR company, they were made aware that it existed. Indeed, we actually heard back from many large press outlets saying they would not review or cover the game’s launch. As mentioned before, it wasn’t exactly a busy period so I think it would be incorrect to chalk it all up to bad timing.

If your games are really niche or really artsy then maybe the commercial metric doesn’t work for you.

Try cultural funding

This summer the innovative indie studio Tale of Tales shut down because they decided to pursue their individual art and because their most recent game, Sunset, was a commercial flop. They wrote a nice post and the sun sets…

In its 12 year existence Tale of Tales has always teetered on the edge of sustainability, combining art grants and commercial revenue to fund our exploration of video games as an expressive medium. We considered it spreading our dependencies. And that was fine, because we assumed this situation to be stable. All we really wanted was the opportunity to create.

They have been fortunate enough to be able to make their games with the support of arts funding. This is not practical for many studios and can be nearly impossible. I know that in Canada you can leverage some arts funding and it’s usually focused on helping individuals – not studios.

Last month Tales released their numbers and a bit of introspection on the whole experience since their announcement. They were able to breakeven on the game and are now trying out Patreon to fund their efforts.

In 3 months, 17,000 copies of Sunset have changed hands. This includes copies in a Humble bundle and those for the Kickstarter backers. This has allowed us to pay our debts and save our company. Tale of Tales is safe now but we haven’t changed our mind about moving away from commerce.

Notice that they reference bundles as something that let them save their company.

Bundles of money?

Grouping indie games into bundles to sell them at a discount all started with the success of the Humble Bundle back in 2010. Now there are so many game bundle sites that I won’t list them all, thankfully.

Are bundles worth it? Absolutely. Are they the solution to all your money woes? No.

Bundles are part of a large marketing push for your game and if done properly can be successful. There’s a good look into how to effectively use bundles as an indie game dev at Video Game Marketing.

If you look at the decision to distribute your game through a bundle as an isolated event purely analyzed by direct earning potential, you’re going to be scared away. When you understand the “marketing mix” this decision creates and supplements, you likely can’t find a better way to gain attention for your game. Too many people write on the theoretically of important topics, and I refuse to conform – so here’s some practical market data.

Target a specific niche

Maybe you are going to make a game that appeals to a very specific market (like the platform game in the Total Biscuit video). There are problems here too.

As pointed out in this excellent article form the people behind Steam Spy, Your target market doesn’t exit.

The term “female gamers” includes both a woman in her fifties playing Candy Crush Saga on her phone and a college girl enjoying Call of Duty on her Xbox. They’re so far apart from each other, that it makes no sense to try and fit them into the same vaguely defined category. There are many female gamers, they’re different and there are probably dozens of categories you could divide them in.

Thanks Steam Spy!

So what to do?

Make games.

Just do it!


Jeff Vogel has an excellent piece on the “Indie Bubble”. In it, he predicts four things may happen in the indie games industry:

  1. People will abandon their dreams
  2. Ambitions will grow more modest. Budgets will be cut.
  3. “PR better” will stop being the answer to everything
  4. Indie gaming will survive

I’m confident that indie gaming will go on since what’s happening to the games industry has happened to pretty much every field of entertainment. Remember how Napster and GarageBand ruined the music industry and now there is no more music and nobody making money from it? Exactly.

Still, if you no longer want to make games you can always try to get paid by playing games. It sounds like you have to find a niche there and rely on direct contributions from viewers.

Where is all the money you’re making on Twitch coming from?

Fifty to 60 percent of my income comes from donations from people who like to watch me play. Combined with paid [voluntary] subscriptions to my channel, that makes up about 75 percent of my income. I’m finally at a point where ad revenue’s actually picking up. In fact, now I could probably live off ads alone.

Another Quick Glance At Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming better with every passing year and thus more interesting. I have no idea what the state of AI will be in years to come but for now, this is some noteworthy stuff for game makers.

Emergent AI

“You work for it” when you create emergent AI. in This talk Ben Sunshine-Hill explores what it’s like to create and work with emergent artificial intelligences.

To hear Sunshine-Hill tell it, you should aim to design AI that behaves just like people and creatures in real life do, and that means you shouldn’t rely on “emergence” as a crutch; you should know exactly why your AI does what it does. At best, players should find your AI believable — not surprising.

Artificial Intelligence Research in Games

The first in a multi-part series of public lectures on AI in games. Recorded on 20th October 2014 at the University of Derby.

In this first video, we detail some of the most interesting work in using video games as benchmarks within the AI research community. This is largely focussed on four competition benchmarks:

– The Ms. Pac-Man Competition
– The Mario AI Competition
– The 2K BotPrize
– The Starcraft AI Competition

What if AIs are more trustworthy than humans?

In this keynote session, Bitcoin developer Mike Hearn talks on the topic ”Fighting for the right to be ruled by machines”. He outlines a possible scenario over the next 50 years, in which an ever worsening political situation results in some people deciding that only computers/robots can be trusted to control the critical infrastructure of society (cars, planes, mobile networks, legal systems etc) and therefore that the people currently in charge of them need to be evicted from those positions of power.

If all of this talk about artificial intelligence gets you thinking then you should check out the Experimental AI in Games workshop at AIIDE 2015 which is just a few months away. Their accepted papers include Would You Look At That! Vision-Driven Procedural Level Design and An Algorithmic Approach to Decorative Content Placement.

Previously I posted about other conferences about artificial intelligence.

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