Since last year, while I was part of another site’s team, I came to know of the NFTS Game Development Courses and the students’ amazing titles. Earlier this year I had the opportunity (and the pleasure) of attending the Graduate Showcase and the imagination and creativity on display blew me away. Since then, I’ve kept a close eye on what NFTS and its students are up to, hoping for any chance to talk to them.
During April, UKIE held their annual GameJam and of course, NFTS students joined the fun. As soon as it ended, and the students were back to their usual routines, I quickly got in touch with Tony Evans, the NFTS Games Coordinator and had him pester them on my behalf. I had questions about their experience working on these “Identity Crisis”- themed games and I wanted answers!
NFTS sent two teams into the GameJam: Team “Ipseria” and Team “It Starts With a Square.” Today, we’re focusing on the first of the two and talking to some of its members: Xian Chua, Ellie Silkstone, John Lau and Naomi Kotler. Below you’ll find the interview with its members. You’ll find similar answers in a couple of questions, especially on the game design question. I was very interested in hearing how each of them would speak of their project and their approach to the design.
Could you talk a bit about yourselves?
Xian Chua: “My name is Xian Chua. I am from Los Angeles California. I have been interested in games since I was very young. I would bug my friends to let me play Pokemon during Lunch. Unfortunately my family didn’t want me to play games as a child. Probably why I ended up a Games Designer. The first game I ever owned was Diablo II, given to me by my Uncle. I must have played over 300 hours of that game. I used to play mostly RPGs on console (once I was allowed to buy a PS2 with my own money). Now I have branched out and enjoy all types and genres of games (except maybe Sports, still don’t like those). I chose to join the NFTS because I wanted to have and interesting and diverse skillset that would set me apart from what I would call “Cookie Cutter” games designers.”
John Lau: “I’ve worked in digital and games production for about 7 years now, but have played games all my life. It’s difficult for me to choose a favourite game, but if there’s one that I find myself going back to every once in a while in the way that people have books that they reread every few years, it would be Super Metroid on the SNES. I chose the NFTS program because, having been a games producer, I wanted to learn some skills that would allow me to realise my own ideas, and there’s nowhere else that offered the breadth that this course does.”
Naomi Kotler: “I have been a gamer since I first received my N64 at 10, after which I stemmed into PC Gaming (The Sims and Rollercoaster Tycoon all the way!) and now I am both those and Xbox. My favourite games are adventure puzzle, and also just open world environments as I love to explore. I also enjoy MMORPGs (Lord of the Rings Online). I chose to come to NFTS because I wanted to learn how to design in a medium I admired greatly.”
Ellie Silkstone: “My name is Ellie Silkstone and I’m a second year student on the course. I’d say my first introduction to video games was playing Crash Bandicoot on my cousin’s Playstation at about the age of five. Me and my sister were so enamoured with the console that we asked our parents if we could have one and they, being very diplomatic, agreed that we could, on the condition that we saved up our pocket money and paid for it ourselves. So that’s what we did, and I’ve been a gamer ever since.
“I grew up on platformers, so that’s a genre I always hold a soft spot for; I still have all my old Crash and Spyro games, and found that these were pretty useful icebreakers when I moved to university (“Oh my god! You have Crash Team Racing?! We need to play that like, right now!”) but I’m also a big fan of open world games like Oblivion and strategy games like Total War; I’m still holding out hope for another series of Time Commanders.
“There’s lots of games I really love so it’s hard to pick a favourite, but I if I had to pick a top six, I think it would be: Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped, Okami, Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Spyro: Year of the Dragon and Rome: Total War. I also recently played Never Alone which is a really lovely little game.
“I initially studied an undergraduate in film and TV, but found myself at a bit of a loss of what I wanted my next step to be after graduating. I knew I wanted to do something with visual storytelling, but that was about as far as I’d got. I’d sometimes see job listings for video game studio positions, but didn’t think my interest in them would ever amount to anything more than daydreams, until one day, very much by chance, I saw an advert for the games course at the NFTS. And that’s when I started thinking to myself, if I spend so much of my time playing games, and if this is a storytelling medium I really love, then maybe learning how to make games was worth a shot. I was very surprised when I was offered an interview for the course, and even more surprised that I was offered a place, so I really wanted to grab this opportunity with both hands; the amount I’ve learned so far has been phenomenal, and I get a real buzz from it. It’s been a very convoluted path which brought me to this point but in a lot of ways I’m grateful for that. There’s a sort of magic in unexpectedly finding something you love to do, and learning how to do something that you never considered a possibility for you.”
What game development area would like to focus on in the future: coding, art, design, etc?
Xian Chua: “In the future I am not sure what I want to do specifically. I just want to be making games. I do love doing 3D modelling, concept art, and coding most though. ”
John Lau: “I like it all, especially the programming that I’m learning at the moment. However I’m much more interested in stories and concepts and mechanics than I am in getting something to look or work perfectly, which probably means I’d end up focusing on game design more.”
Naomi Kotler: “I mainly would like to focus on the art process, namely concept art. However 3D design is my background, and I enjoy working within 3D environments so designing those would also be of interest.”
Ellie Silkstone: “At the moment I’m leaning more towards the art side, so I suspect that will be the specialism I pursue; I especially enjoy character modelling. I do love coding though, so it’s difficult to choose. I think my ideal would be developing my own relatively small projects, as this allows me to keep doing a lot of different things.”
How was the Game Jam experience for you? Was this your first time?
Xian Chua: “It was fun. I was absent for half of it so I didn’t get to have much input on the idea. I was working with a very efficient and organized team so I didn’t have much to do by the second day. I have done 3 game jams over the past year or so. A few successful and fun, a few stressful and painful. ”
John Lau: “I had taken part in a game jam before – this one was actually quite calm and steady which was nice, and unexpected! There’s always a point towards the end where the only work that can be done, has to be done by one or two people, which means that everyone else is just kind of waiting around for moral support.”
Naomi Kotler: “This was my first game jam, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience! Working with different groups of people to usual and also being able to move outside of my comfort zone and work in a different part of the game design was interesting for me.”
Ellie Silkstone: “This was my second game jam, and it was a lot of fun. We’re usually pretty snowed under with work for our grad projects so it was nice to take a break from that and lovely to work with the first years. Everyone was pretty sensible about going to bed and eating and general life things like that which was nice. Being overtired can really suck the fun out of things so it was great that everyone was looking after themselves.”
Would you join another game jam in the future?
Xian Chua: “Of course. I love game jams.”
John Lau: “Absolutely.”
Naomi Kotler: “Definitely! I think it was a great experience.”
Ellie Silkstone: “I definitely would, the only problem is trying to find the time. As I said, we’re usually so busy with all our other work that it can be difficult to set aside a few days for something else. Having said that, it can be really refreshing to focus your mind on a new challenge for a couple of days; it allows you to come back to the work you were previously doing with a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh brain.”
Could you talk a bit about the game(s) you made? How did you approach the design of a game based on ‘identity crisis’?
Xian Chua: “Unfortunately I wasn’t available the first day of the Jam but my team came up with a really great idea. The premise is you are designing a character (like for an RPG) but they constantly comment on the choices you make. I found it hilarious and fun to work on. ”
John Lau: “So we discussed a few concepts when the jam started, and straight away our group seemed most interested in quite abstract or meta interpretations of the theme – like a game that didn’t know what genre it was. After a couple of hours we settled on a concept which we agreed seemed feasible; where the whole game was the character creation screen of an epic RPG. I think we liked playing around with the idea that, though we’d like to think that we can make whatever character we want on that kind of screen, maybe the character feels more comfortable with certain features than others, providing the tension that most people undergoing an identity crisis experience when they feel they should be something that they’re not. It also gave a lot of scope for humour which was nice.”
Naomi Kotler: “The game we produced played on the character creation screen in a RPG. We thought, what would happen if the character you created didn’t actually want to be what you made them, and commented back on the choices you made for them and then this would directly affect the game. This ran directly into the theme of “Identity Crisis” as the characters were literally having a crisis about what identity you were choosing for them. We tried to approach this with a lot of humour and make it quite light hearted.”
Ellie Silkstone: “The game we made was called Tales of Ipseria, which is a fantasy RPG-style character customization system in which the character you’re creating has opinions about the choices you’re making; the object of the game is try to make the character as close to what they want to be as possible. The idea was to explore the identity crisis theme in terms of the player receiving feedback from the character: maybe the player would make an orc with a warrior’s robe and sword, but the orc really just wants to wear a dress and be a dancer. It was designed to all be very silly and a good laugh.”
Will you continue working on the ‘prototype’ built for the jam? How would you improve on what you’ve shown?
Xian Chua: “It depends on the team. If they want to continue work I am willing to help. However I do have a Grad game to complete so most of my focus will be on that.”
John Lau: “For sure. Currently the game is quite unforgiving in that if you don’t select the exact combination of features, you automatically lose. I think we need to soften this a bit, perhaps add some more interesting or lenient fail states, as well as tweaking the copy for the clues so as to make it clearer what the correct answer is. I’d also in general just like to playtest the game to see how people respond to it – there are bound to be use cases that we haven’t thought of, so feedback on that would help tighten the concept up a bit.
“The way we approached the design was that everyone was free to suggest ideas, and ideas were then voted for in terms of how interesting they were, how fun they might be to play, how complete they were and whether they were achievable in the time frame. Once we were settled on the design, everyone just got stuck in.”
Naomi Kotler: “Yes I would like to”
Ellie Silkstone: “I think it would be nice to do a little bit of polish on what we’ve done, but we probably won’t spend much longer on it if we do go back to it. At the moment we’re pretty swamped with grad project stuff, but I also think we were quite fortunate in the fact that we managed to get most of the game finished in the time we had, so it’s already quite complete. The main thing I would improve is that I’m not sure it’s immediately clear to the player what they have to do, so if we can signpost that better with UI or an intro screen I think that would be worthwhile.”