Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Rockstar is born

Molly and I (Rock) have a laugh about how rubbish the XBox is

It was Friday afternoon and I was in the pub where my game industry friends were all buying me drinks for being so much better than them at designing videogames, when a funny thought occurred to me. I stroked my chin and furrowed my brow in the way that only I can, and immediately there was a hush in the room. Molly looked at me over his half a shandy and whispered excitedly,

“Rock! Do I sense a witty yet thought-provoking anecdote forthcoming from your long and, dare I say it, legendary career?”

“I’m afraid not, Molly”, I replied mournfully, “But don’t fret, for today I offer not an amusing tale from the past, but a glimmer into what could one day be. Gather round my friends, for I have had an idea so wonderful that you must witness every syllable of its full majesty!”

After the crowd had stopped weeping, I went home content in the lives that I had touched, more so shaped, for the better. This kind of reminds me of the time that Rockstar named their company after me. That was nice.

It all started when my good friend Andrew Semple phoned me up to request my assistance doing some ‘mo-co’ for their new videogame Max Pain (obviously on account of my training in that bit of my life I mysteriously don’t tend to talk about), when the lead artist suggested that they use my likeness for the main character. I immediately suspected that this was a ploy to pick my gargantuan brain on a number of problems that I’m sure they were having in the studio. I was also concerned about the security issue on account of the bit of my life I mysteriously don’t tend to talk about. However, being brilliant, I accepted none-the-less and, of course, more importantly, offered my services as game-design-guru (anonymous) as usual.

Ironically, two weeks later, the head of QA phoned me up begging and pleading with me for permission to remove my likeness from the game, as the playtesters couldn’t bear to see me killed and maimed repeatedly (admittedly in pixelaticated form). So of course, I understood their payne. Instead they went with a picture of that Richard Hillman bloke off Eastenders, crapping his pants when he was struck by my greatness at the photo shoot.

A month later, Semple and I were thwacking our balls together in a friendly game of golf (of course, I was winning. By miles.). Semple had just sliced his ball into the sandpit for the twentieth time, and was getting rather frustrated, so I thought that this was the time to offer some friendly (and calming) advice that has been instrumental in his life to this day (as all my advice is).

“If you play the linear game, you’re never going to avoid the pits. Take your head out of the sand and drive the ball of design into the chasm of non-linearity. “

And that man went away from that golf game a different man, calmer, wiser, non-linear, more like me. He framed that advice and placed it on the mantelpiece next to the picture of me and repeated it, mantra-style, every morning. It was no coincidence that two years later, Grand-Theft-Auto hit the world like a golf ball of molten Rock and I just had to smile in that knowing way that only I can.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Meet the Readers

Miyamoto and I (Rock) catching up for the first time since I told him "a plumber might make a cool game character"

I promised in my last post that I would allow some of your mails the humble honour of featuring on my site. Although this will techically bring the quality of my site down, I will never-the-less fulfill my promise, this is largely because I am such a generally great guy. So without further ado, here are a random selection picked from the thousands I have recieved since starting this blog.

Dear Rock Jonson, Industry Legend,

Hi Rock, I am a character artist from
Toronto, CA, and I think you are brilliant and this site is definitely the best and most informative game industry site on the net, as well as being immensely funny and witty, and better than all the other rubbish like Penny Arcade. My question is this: I am rubbish at making my models look good, and all my textures are really ugly, but I’ve read your magnificent site over 40 times. Do I have a future in game design?


Frustrated Artist

Dear Frustrated Artist,

Of course you do! Just because you are crap at being an artist doesn’t mean you won’t be great at game design, quite the contrary, most great designers tend to be rubbish at everything else (except me). That’s scientific fact. Anyone that has read my site now has the required skills to be a good game designer. And you have read it 40 times. You do the maths.

Rock Jonson, Industry Legend

Dear Rock Jonson, Industry Legend,

Just wanted to say I think you’re the most important thing ever to happen to the industry. You are a wonderous person in every respect. I am a designer from Toronto, CA, who is having trouble earning the respect of the development team. Do you have any tips?


Frustrated Game Designer,

Dear Frustrated Game Designer,

First off, I’d like to point out that I am the industry. Secondly, have you read my site thoroughly enough? If not, go back and read some more, if so, I’ll dispense this additional nugget to help you further. Dealing with a development team is always tricky. Remember, they envy your great talent and you should treat them accordingly; with condescending comments about their work, over-simplifying the complexities of what you are asking them for, to an unsolicited pat on the back and knowing smile. Do this, and you will have your colleagues eating out the palm of your superior hands in no time.

Rock Jonson, Industry Legend

Dear Rock Jonson, Industry Legend,

Hi Rock, I think you are the coolest. You are great. You are my Rock. I used to be a game designer in Toronto, CA, and I am writing to ask for your advice on how I could get back into the game industry after an embarrassing and career threatening dismissal. I feel that I may have not followed your infallible advice correctly.


Frustrated Ex-Game Designer,

Dear Frustrated Ex-Game Designer,

Funnily enough, I have received letters from a game designer from another games company in Toronto. Have you thought about contacting him in order to query him on his great successes?

It is clear you are like-minded individuals that would probably have a lot in common. He may even like to share his game design responsibilities with you, and offer you a life changing job opportunity. Glad I could help!

Rock Jonson, Industry Legend

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Design 101

Since this blog has started I have received literally thousands of e-mails, some of which I will give the great honour of adorning my site. You will naturally already be familiar with every facet of this “bible”, having read it several times and discussed the many nuggets of wisdom over the pub with your friends, colleagues and of course children (for they are the future)

So in accordance with these pleas, let this be the first of my, soon to be legendary, Design 101’s. Let the great advice commence!

How to conceptualize an award winning game like me

Every planet has a Rock at its core. Every game has a nugget of what it is, and that is the concept. The conceptualization of the game is the stage where you decide what is in the game. Conceptualization is really important.

Some great concepts include ones where the player has to do really cool things, like save the world or destroy something, or rescue a princess. A concept can also be something that is different about the game. It could involve no shooting, for example. Or it could involve shooting different things (like aliens, or innocent people)

Anyway, as you can see, ideas spray from my brain like a geyser of genius, but that is to be expected. For you this process may be hard. But do not despair, for even a Rock is fashioned from smaller Rocks. If you don’t know what I mean by this, I mean that I may be better than you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t become better. Just probably not as good as me, that’s all. For even the ant that stands on the pebble stands taller than the smaller ant, in the mud beside the pebble. I think that is the best way to express what I mean.

So, as you can see, conceptualizing is very important.

How to construct an exciting and absorbent narrative like I can

Narrative is very important. A litre of water can be displaced by a Rock. And that Rock is the Narrative, in a bucket of Story.

The narrative is what happens in the story, and how the game happens to the player as they are playing the game. A narrative requires a narrator, and that narrator is you, and you must narrate to the player the story in the form of a narrative. This is what a narrative is.

Always start your narrative with a cut-scene!

This cut-scene should be long and impressive. Now, some gamers are lazy gamers, and they just want to get to the game-play as quickly as possible. Of course, we know that the narrative is very important, so it is crucial that you make sure this cut-scene is compulsory. A good way to do this is to disable the joy-pad (this is programming speak for making the joy-pad not work)

Gamers get tired hands

It is important to interrupt game-play frequently to give the player’s hands a rest. Adding numerous non-story related cut-scenes, a great example of which is the brilliant Resident Evil series (some of my finer work) and it’s fondly remembered opening door animations, which were actually not related to load times, but a genius bit of game design to rest gamers’ hands. You can use similar devices like overly complex “picking item up off floor” sequences, or blissfully long death animations.

Story drives game-play, not the other way around!

A car cannot be driven without a driver. That driver must be the story pushing the pedal of narrative. It is important that what happens in your story happens, whether the player likes it or not. It doesn’t matter if the player isn’t having fun right away, if it’s important to the story then put it in, because there’ll be plenty of time for fun later on.

Adding the plot twist

You must have a plot twist because it makes your story sound clever. A good way to add a plot twist is to make one of the characters a bad guy, even though you thought they were a good guy (like in Star Wars). This is a great example of a plot twist. Market Research scientifically shows that this plot twist will do, so just use that one. Also, make sure that this plot-twist is explained in full on the back of the box, to show the gamers that they are buying a clever game.

Think big (like a Rock, a big Rock like me)

Some small and boring game is not going to get to #1. Gamers are hungry for bigness, and only bigness will do. For example, it is generally seen as a bit of an embarrassment in the upper echelons of the game industry to release a game that fits on a single DVD (or perish the thought, a CD), so make sure your cut-scenes are high definition FMV that would make Peter Jackson bluish. Your story deserves it.

Ending on perfection

Spending time on the ending is not as important as the beginning, as only a few gamers will get to it. Junior designers or placement students would be ideal for this task, so you can spend your time making that all important intro! Remember to get your name first on the credits, and that the credits are accessible from the main menu (or better still compulsory at the start of the game). Remember whose hard work this game is down to. (Yours… and mine)

Despite the many offers of being credited for my advice, remember I have no desire to be glorified in this manner. For I am already a legend. This one is on me!

Friday, April 21, 2006

How I started the 3D revolution and invented “shareware”

It happened back in 1990. I was drinking alone in a coffee shop in Texas one warm Sunday morning when I spotted a table of young nerdy types sat around a small table in the corner. From where I was sitting, I could see that they were all hunched over pieces of paper that littered the table, talking feverishly. College students, I thought, and that was that. It wasn’t until I heard one of them mention the word “sprite” that I began to take an expressed interest in the young snipes' conversation.

I approached the table and introduced myself, and they invited me to take a seat. I listened intently as they explained that they were bedroom game developers (meaning they made, or 'developed', games in their bedroom). They called themselves “idiot software”, and they were apparently going to “start a revolution in video gaming”.

They eagerly explained their latest creation, which they called Commander Keen, endearingly referring to it as one of the most “original and genre-busting games of the decade”. I smiled good-naturedly, in the way only I can, as they enthusiastically explained their “revolutionary jumping code”, and how it would set the standard in jumping sprite technology for years to come.

It was then, like many times before, a fantastic idea popped into my mind like a tornado from Saturn. “Listen guys,“ I said, their eyes all looking up at me with a glint of expectation that something amazing was about to happen… and it did.

“Listen guys,” I said again, “I’ve got an idea how you can really plant your feet in the soil of this budding game industry.”

“Please, tell us!” they cried longingly,

“Okay, so you have this platform game, and it sounds great and all, it really does (especially the jumping) but there’s nothing really new about a platform game.”

“But Mr Jonson,“ they protested, “You’re forgetting that Commander Keen can shoot enemies too!”

“That may be so, but what if I told you a way to make games that has never been done before. Moreso, what if I told you a way to make games that has never even been imagined before?”

It seemed they couldn’t wrap their heads around such a concept. “But surely everything that can be done has been done?” a long haired young lad pondered.

“Not at all! It sometimes takes a special mind to make such a leap into the unexplored facets of game design,” I told them. “Now I will take you on a journey into a new territory, yay, a new age, of video games. This is my gift to you.”

And so I began to explain my epiphany: “Imagine, if you will, a game in which the player is able to move not only up and down the screen, not only left to right… but also in and out of the screen?”

“That’s impossible!” a blond kid with glasses scoffed, “What you are suggesting is that a sprite could somehow move out of the monitor screen? You must be insane!”

“No,” I laughed, “I’m not suggesting that the sprites literally move out of the screen, but instead, and this is the amazing part, that you merely create the illusion of sprites moving in and out of the screen… by making them smaller or larger.”

They all sat there glassy eyed, their jaws resting on the table, an expression I’ve seen only too often in my career.

"Smaller... or larger..." the blond kid repeated, looking at me with a look I can only describe as "wonderment". And in the dim light of that coffee shop that fateful Sunday, a seed was planted, that would soon change the way people experienced video games for the rest of time itself.

My work here was done, and I stood up to leave at this point. But then another thought struck me and I turned back to them.

"Oh, and guys, one more thing before I go," I said, "I'd lose the name 'idiot software' if I were you. You need something shorter, cooler... punchier... idio... I don't know, I leave that one up to you." - and with that, I left the coffee shop.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Welcome to my Introduction

Will Wright and I (Rock) have a few beers as I tell him about my new game idea called "Evolution"

A great man once said: “In every industry, after years of stagnation and the following of false prophets, there comes a time of unbridled fruition, when one man steps forth from obscurity and changes the face of the industry forever.” Who this great man was is not important (as I am a modest and humble kind of guy) but he knows of what he speaks, and he speaks of the game industry.

Speaking of the game industry, my name is Rock Jonson – Industry Legend, but you can call me Rock (Industry Legend). My career as Game Design Consultant spans decades, and I have played muse, inspiration, and dare I say mentor (I dare), to many of the industry figureheads you know and love today. Always in the shadows, my collision sphere of influence has intersected with over 10,000 AAA titles (being a skilled programmer as well as design guru, I know what that last sentence means intimately).

Yes, it’s true. If it was not for me, Pong would have been one paddle short of a tennis game, this is the kind of influence I’m talking about here.

“So Rock,” I hear you ask, “if you have been content with having such a commanding role, steering the games industry from the side-lines for so long, why have you now decided to step forward into the spotlight?”

Well, dear reader, it all started at last year’s E3 festival.

I was standing at the Firaxis booth talking to my old chum Sid Meier, whose career I have nurtured like a small Bonzai Tree, or a little crippled bird, or something, when he turned to me out of the blue and said:

“You know Rock, I can’t thank you enough for the wise council you have offered me over the years. I can only imagine what would have become of the Civilization series if you hadn’t talked me out of adding all those killer badgers. But myself, Molly (Which is what us industry high-fliers call Peter Molyneux), Wrighty and Hare were all talking the other day, and we feel it’s mighty unfair that the world at large cannot be blessed with your great insights. Have you ever considered writing a witty and informative blog on the net about the intricacies of game design?”

Of course, I had already considered the idea long before Sid had (which is, unfortunately for him, usually the case), and so that is how it all began.

So sit with me a while, dear reader, and open your eyes to a wonderful creative world with no limits except that of your imagination. No, you're not dreaming. You are drifting through the creative hotpot that is my mind. Enjoy your stay.