Drunk* Dungeon at GDC


Jolly proud to announce that Drunk Dungeon featured as part of Doing It On The Table, Eric Zimmerman‘s wonderful compendium of table-top games. The game got to be in some pretty stellar company, and it was a ton of fun thinking about how to revise it to make it work in a conference setting. Turns out it involved more B-Daman Crossfire Marble Reloads than you might expect, which is how you find out that Bomberman has been hanging out on a TV show about shooting marbles for the past 15 years.

* It should really have been renamed Sober Dungeon, since we couldn’t do drinks, but I’d miss the alliteration.

Indiecade Feast


Last year, my husband Kevin Cancienne and I were asked if we’d like to chair the Indiecade East conference, which is one of those questions you don’t have to think about too hard. Indiecade has long been a part of our lives – I have particularly happy memories of meeting them first at Nottingham’s GameCity, many years ago now. The idea of getting to put together a speaker line-up for an event on our home turf – Indiecade East is hosted by the magnificent Museum of the Moving Image – was a very delicious prospect.

We had a riot at the conference – thanks so much to everyone who came, and everyone who spoke, and everyone who helped make everything run so smoothly for those who came and spoke.

If you’re interested in the thinking behind the event, Kevin and I wrote a series of conversational blog posts, which you can check out over on the Indiecade blog. We tried to pull out the big themes we wanted to cover – history, Who And What, community, criticism, and Getting It Done.

And if you missed the event, there are a good few talks you can catch up on over at the Indiecade East YouTube channel.

Trapped in your radio

A few weeks ago I had the chance to participate in the great BBC World Service show ‘The Forum’ – the Forum takes key idea each week, and then asks three people from differing fields to talk about their take on that idea. This week’s show was about traps, and they had the very fun idea of getting a wildlife photographer, a neutrino hunter and a game designer to talk about what traps mean to them.

I got to be the game designer in question, and you can listen to either the game designer part of the show here or the whole thing (highly recommended) here.

Mind games

by dominicjan

by dominicjan

I spent  - no, wait, invested – a chunk of yesterday morning hooking up my laptop to my TV so I could play FTL on the big screen. I am increasingly sad about how my gaming life is ergonomically identical to my working life, where by ‘ergonomically’ I mean ‘ergonomically catastrophic’. Getting to adjust the angle of my neck up 8 degrees feels like stepping out of cave.

I’m not, at this point, going to tell you about how good FTL is. It’s terrifically good. You know that. The thing about having it on a big screen, though, is that it immediately becomes a two-player game. Whoever else is in the room is suddenly your second-in-command. Someone whose eyes can be where yours aren’t, who can help you stave off panic and stay strategic. There are no ABCs of FTL, but there is an ABP: always be pausing. It’s just that in the heat of battle – four rooms on fire, medbay out of power, auto-doors burnt out, two Mantis teleporting into your sensor room, enemy cruiser going cloaked, engines ion disabled, O2 at 34% – it’s easy to forget in your frozen, fascinated horror that pausing is a thing you can do, unless you have someone yelling ‘PAUSE!’ at you.

It’s taken the crown away from Borderlands 2 as my favourite co-op experience of the year. I like co-op games where the other player gets a beer, not a second controller, but can still be utterly pivotal to the outcome of a game. FTL, whose pause function lets it tick-tock between everything happening at once, and an eerily huge possibility space, is remarkably well geared for collaborative play.

Unpaused, you’re equals, sharing duties of observing, monitoring, gauging. How effectively is the enemy ship evading? Will we ever land enough Ion blasts to get the shields down low enough to make the Halberd effective? If we can suppress his drone control will it drop the rate of incoming damage enough that our shields can recharge fast enough to absorb, even if we send our shield-room crew member to run sensor repairs?

Paused, you’re equals: now it’s time to discuss what you learned. Is momentum moving in our favour? Is it time to cut and run? What’s the Hail Mary we’re not seeing? What if we forgot the Ions and respecced for a double Halberd attack? Sure, we’d need to shut off oxygen, but just maybe….

It’s an experience that delivers every ounce of the satisfying, social interaction that we love in real world games. Face-to-face negotiation. Trust building. In-joke coining. Mistakes and miracles. I’ve never been very persuaded of the vision of single-player videogames as the antisocial, weirdo-loner opposite of wholesome, well-adjusted multi-player games. I’ve always loved singleplayer games and I’ve always loved the social structures they sit within. The spectators, the pad-passers, the morning-after-note-comparers.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t just play FTL yesterday morning. I played it while I ate lunch. I played it while we watched a perfectly good episode of Parks and Recreation. I played it in bed, half awake and half aware. I’m playing it right now. Not on a laptop. In my head.

FTL is a magnificently compact bit of game design. Compelling, unpredictable drama and rich strategic possibility unfold from a single static screen. A drawing of a spaceship and some numbers. Every now and again a little person blob toddles from one room to the next and a red line appears to represent some laser damage. It’s not a paucity of visual design – it’s a masterclass in UI and atmospherics – it’s restraint.

Those visuals, so simple, start to live behind your eyelids. I could draw The Adjudicator right now, from memory. Hang on. Man that was harder than I thought.

My effort.


For reference.
But the possibility remains.  I can close my eyes and posit FTL. The human brain is bad at random, but FTL is a game where emergent outcomes are just unpredictable enough that you end up in interesting places even if your brain started out in old familiar patterns. Close your eyes, hear the noise as you come out of jump and…it’s slavers! What to do? Easy. Fight. Always fight. OK. Let’s see they have 2 shield. Let’s say one drone. Missiles and beam. OK. And we’re off. Should be an easy win. Power down Medbay. Power up Leto. Wait, still short on power. Dammit, forgot one Zoltan still in Sensors. Oh god missile hit oxygen on fire. What to do. Reroute helmsman? Halberd alone isn’t getting past their shields. Fire spreading. Zoltan back in Weapons. Leto charging. Open doors? Yeah, open doors. Evade is 27%. Should leave helmsman where he is. Oxygen gone. First Leto misses. De-target Halberd. Just wasting it. Our shields gone. 3 hull damage. Run? But these guys should be *easy* and I should land one new crew. Fire in doors. Oh shit fire in doors. Weapons room hit – orange. Leto offline again.

And you know what? Now you’re screaming ‘PAUSE!’ at me, which means that not only am I playing a videogame in my head, I’m playing a singleplayer videogame in my head, and now you’re playing asynchronous co-op with me *in my head* and I don’t even know who you are. How do you like them next-gen apples, PS4?

Stories You Can Win


I had a chance to be one of the speakers – or more accurately videoers – at the inaugural Future Of StoryTelling.  As a speaker, instead of speaking, you pre-record a video, which attendees have a chance to watch before they come. Then in a series of roundtables, you’re all able to discuss together whatever people have found interesting, or problematic, or absent, in your videotalk, which is all in all far more invigorating than standing in a darkened room trying to imagine everyone in their underwear, or whatever the default public speaking advice is nowadays.

The Future Of Storytelling is, as you’d expect, focused on stories, but in trying to express how games do story differently, I ended up hitting on a few other fundamental questions of what makes games games. Plus they made me do googly eyes, which you may enjoy laughing at.

In which I don’t try to write like a man


I have a friend, whose name is Mark Sorrell, who yesterday posted this column. It’s probably worth going and reading that first, or none of the rest of this will make sense.

That column triggered a bunch of discussion, part of which was a reddit thread, and part of that thread was this comment from a reader called LadyKeen.

It shouldn’t have to come to this. It isn’t about just accepting the fact that you will be harassed, but being a legitimate prescence in the gaming world. Women in the gaming industry aren’t just being shat on because they are women. It is because they are used/using themselves as sex symbols or they come out with outrageous claims/ideas about something (ala Hamburger Helper). Successful women in the gaming industry do their job without being a nut about it and therefore do not get the flack.

The whole comment thread is worth reading, partly for Mark’s smart answers, and partly for the bit when someone says that Jade Raymond is letting herself be used as a sex symbol in the photo at the top of this post. The one where she’s wearing jeans and a cardigan and smiling, the filthy, gaping whore.

Here’s what makes me sad.

My position used to be exactly the opinion quoted above. I don’t get the flack that a lot of other women-on-the-internet, and especially women-on-the-games-internet get. And that, I used to think, was because I was clever and smart. I didn’t cam-whore. I didn’t flirt. I didn’t do anything to make myself a target. And therefore I was better than the stupid women who courted the hate-mail and the rape threats and the knee-jerk dismissals.

Here are some other things that I included in my ‘not making myself a target’ strategy:

- not wearing skirts
- not wearing heels
- not coming to the defence of other women on the receiving end of abuse and threats and dismissals
- not, under any circumstances, ever ever ever ever indicating that there might be any sexual activity in my thoughts or my life or my body
- not talking about ‘being a woman’ or anything dumb and feminist like that
- judging the success of my approach on the number of people who didn’t realise from my writing that I was female.

These things pervade everything about how I comport myself online, and indeed in the industry. I posted a picture of my skirt on Twitter the other day, because the pattern reminded me of a Pokemon. I was anxious about posting it, in case it seemed like something that would lay me open to accusations of being a camwhore or an attention-seeking flirt. In the end, I decided I would, but was careful to take a picture where you could only see the pattern, and not – god forbid – some of my leg or something like that.

In a word where Jade Raymond gets accused of being a sex-token for standing in front of her team and smiling, these are sensible precautions to take.

So when Mark talks about women who self-censor, he is talking about me. It took me a long time to recognise that, because since expressing what I think is such a central element of who I am that facing up to that fact is miserable.

And when LadyKeen makes her point, I sympathise and identify. But I also despair, a bit. Everyone – absolutely everyone – has to decide how to handle themselves online, how to construct themselves professionally. Everyone has to decide where to draw the barriers between their private and public life. We all self-edit, and we all *should* self-edit. It’s a pleasure and a responsibility, both, to ensure that we are who we want to be and we have a generally non-shitty impact on the people around us.

But it has taken me a horribly long time to understand what an insidious impact the fear of attracting the degree of negative attention has on the way I present myself. It’s taken me a while to recognise that a big part of why I don’t post things like this is because I’m *scared*. Actually scared. Actually worried that I’ll terminally undermine my credibility. And that’s because the degree of abuse you can attract is of a different order from the generality of internet rough-and-tumble [interesting, newly-self-aware side note. I would normally have deleted 'rough-and-tumble' after writing it, because it could just about be interpreted as something titillating. Today, I'm leaving it in there]. General internet rough-and-tumble doesn’t phase me. I’m secretly delighted that the 4th Google result for my name is ‘Margaret Robertson is full of shit’. It amuses me enough that I’ve bought www.margaretrobertsonisfullofshit.com, even if I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it yet. I think, on the whole, I can make my peace with being called a cunt for what I write, but I find it more daunting to be called a cunt for just having one.

That’s a thing I wouldn’t have written out-loud before today.

So I’m not saying that a degree of self-editing is bad. And I’m not saying that women (or men) shouldn’t be try to be good at their jobs, or act professionally if they want to be treated professionally. I think women being great at what they do is the single best advert for that fact that women are great at what they do.

But in the end, I was right to think I was clever and smart. I have avoided making myself a target of sexist assholes by playing by their rules. I’ve done a *blinding* job of that so far.

I think I’m going to stop doing that now.

Basically, it’s a fat joke.

A few people have asked me about the thinking behind my new Gamasutra columns, “Five minutes with…”. While I’ve been explaining it, I’ve been aware of a voice in the back of my head, saying something scathing but too indistinct for me to catch. I realised the other day it was a memory of this legendary diss, delivered by the Reverend Sydney Smith on hearing that a friend had set his cap to a widow twice his age and four times his size:

Marry her? Going to marry her? Impossible! You mean a part of her: he could not marry her all himself. It would be a case, not of bigamy, but trigamy: the neighborhood or the magistrates should interfere. There is enough of her to furnish wives for a whole parish. One man marry her!–it is monstrous. You might people a colony with her, or give an assembly with her, or perhaps take your morning’s walk round her,–always provided there were frequent resting-places, and you were in rude health. I once was rash enough to try walking round her before breakfast, but only got half-way, and gave it up exhausted. Or you might read the Riot Act and disperse her. In short, you might do anything with her but marry her.

And this, I’ve realised, is how I’ve come to feel about reviewing games. Review a game? You mean a part of it, surely. No-one could review a game all herself. There is just so much going on there, so many thousands of interesting design choices to talk about, so many experiences to share. I’m simply not equal to the task of reviewing a whole game anymore, nor willing to keep deleting the dozens of interesting little points in order to make way for the big, sweeping statements. So instead I’m taking little walks around them, with frequent resting places. Five minutes at a time. The second of the columns was about Minecraft – I’m hoping to reply to some of the very astute comments it generated here later. Next month I suspect I might be finding even five minutes of play too daunting, and talk about some particularly juicy menu screens. I think Rev’d Smith would approve.

Give me five

Last night, I found out that knot it a nautical mile per hour, which I sort of knew, and that a nautical mile is equivalent to one minute of an arc of longitude along a meridian, which I really didn’t.  But between them that means – snarf – that a knot is measurement of minutes per hour. Ho!

To apologise for that, and to make sense of my current obsession with minutes, do please take custody of my first ever Gamasutra column, Five Minutes with Deadline. It’s the start of a series of investigations into what five minutes of play reveal about a larger game – a chance to step back from all encompassing reviews and do some hardcore design drilling into interesting games. It’s a massive treat to get to write professionally for a properly nerdy audience, after a long spell of translating games for a wider BBC/Wired readership, and I’m looking forward to being myopically, self-indulgently fascinated by five-minute segments of all sorts of things in the coming months.

Very happy to take suggestions, too – which five minutes of which games have most fascinated you?


In other Edinburgh news, I’m now public on Twitter. I’m doing that thing of keeping @mugla closed for my meatspace friends, and kicking off @ranarama for anyone else who has an interest in subscribing to my shortform over-excitement about iPhone Dodonpachi. I’ll be doing a bit of pruning on @mugla in the meantime, so that I can use it as a place to vent my more intimate spleens.

Why @ranarama? For shame. Obviously mostly because every decent permutation of margaret and anything-beginning-with-r have long since gone, but also because I owe Ranarama a lot and it’s easy to type and burned into the brain of a whole generation of 16 bit fans. Here’s my One More Go on it, for anyone who isn’t a veteran.

Videogames and things