Week 314

This week’s big pro­ject was fin­ish­ing a second ver­sion of the KOKORO prototype.

Alper and I spent a couple of days writ­ing javas­cript, html and sass, as well as good old copy. By Friday we had man­aged to com­plete most of the items in our back­log, and were quite sat­is­fied with the res­ult. Next up is demo­ing the res­ults to the client.

Earlier in the week the Free Birds team con­vened for a sprint ret­ro­spect­ive, and to plan the next sprint. It was the first time we did a proper ret­ro­spect­ive and I was pleased with the amount of valu­able pro­cess improve­ments it yiel­ded. The res­ults of the plan­ning ses­sion were approved by the cli­ent soon after, so we’re all set for another sprint this week and the next.

On the Bycatch front, Alper emp­tied his stock by ful­filling the last of the bump in sales we got after the XOXO announce­ments. And I did some work on our web­site and shop­ping cart so that it would also accept PayPal.

Finally, for TEDASUKE, we pro­cessed some final bits of feed­back on the mockups we’d delivered the week before, and we made a plan for how to go about the final deliv­er­able, a spec and a budget.

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Week 313

The big one this week as in the weeks before was Free Birds. After a suit­able amount of UI wrangling, bug hunt­ing (and squash­ing) we delivered the first pub­lic beta on sched­ule at the end of the week. It is now play­able in Airborne Museum. I am super proud of what the team has achieved, and I look for­ward to hear­ing what vis­it­ors make of it. Meanwhile, we will start plan­ning work on the next release.

Another not­able event was XOXO’s announce­ment that Bycatch is part of their Tabletop selec­tion. (A huge honor!) This lead to us being Boing Boing-ed, and with that, the Twitter floodgates opened…

People tend to respond strongly to our little card game. Many “get it” and sup­port our efforts, which is great.

Some come at it from a tra­di­tional boardgam­ing frame of mind and seem to have a hard time with the notion of eth­ical play. For a great counter­example, check out this redditor’s com­ment on Tom Vasel’s mer­ci­less review.

Still oth­ers dis­like us using a game to dis­cuss the topic of drone war­fare, pos­sibly because in their eyes it trivi­al­izes a ser­i­ous sub­ject mat­ter. Here’s an (admit­tedly extreme) example of the lat­ter case:

Thankfully, some people whose work in art, games and act­iv­ism we hold in the highest regard were kind enough to sup­port us:

So yeah, Bycatch is mak­ing some waves, which is great. By the end of the week Alper (who is tak­ing care of ful­fil­ment) had a con­sid­er­able amount of orders to put in the mail.

On to the remain­ing pro­jects. For TEDASUKE Simon delivered a first round of mockups which we got reviewed by the cli­ents. They seem to be happy with the dir­ec­tion so it looks like we will be able to deliver a second and final round next week.

I also did some read­ing up on agile plan­ning and estim­at­ing for a final bit of work we’ll do TEDASUKE, which con­sists of a pre­lim­in­ary spec and budget.

For KOKORO I did some more pre­lim­in­ary design work in pre­par­a­tion for some more intens­ive work on a second pro­to­type together with Alper in the week to come.

One more thing of note: Alper provided an intro­duct­ory talk for the screen­ing of Free to Play (a recom­men­ded doc­u­ment­ary on esports) at the lovely Game Science Center.

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Week 312

The big focus this week was once again Free Birds, our iBeacon-enabled museum game app for fam­il­ies, about free­dom. Alper con­tin­ued devel­op­ment, Tim worked on art and UI, and I did a lot of build­ing and test­ing, and production-type stuff.

On TEDASUKE, I got everything ready for brief­ing Simon on Friday, who will help us out with some visual design. This mainly con­sisted of fin­ish­ing wireframes.

And finally, on KOKORO, I took some time to think through some of the more com­plic­ated parts of what need to build, and came up with lots of ques­tions for the cli­ent. Once we have those answered, we can con­tinue design and development.

So yeah, very much a heads-down kind of week, with at least a couple more of those in the imme­di­ate future. Onwards.

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Week 311

The big thing this week was the start of a new sprint on Free Birds. Niels and Tim joined us again for copy and art respect­ively, while Alper donned his developer hat, and I switched between my pro­du­cer, agile coach, and designer roles. There’s a lot to do, as usual, but we’ve made good progress.

On to the remain­ing pro­jects. I pro­duced a first round of wire­frames for TEDASUKE and reviewed them with the cli­ent. For KOKORO, we wrote user stor­ies and sched­uled the next sprint. And finally, for BANKEN, I tested the release can­did­ate (so close!)

Not much move­ment on the Bycatch front, but we hope to make some cool con­fer­ence appear­ance announce­ments soon.

And finally, two pub­lic­a­tions: Sebastian reviewed Play Matters in Game Studies, and I repor­ted on an auto­mated game design sym­posium.

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Procedural Instruments Enable Powerful Ways of Making and Seeing Playable Systems

No Man’s Sky is so big, the developers built space probes to explore it for them.” That’s from a Polygon report on what is prob­ably the most hyped video­game of the moment. The main thing that seems to fas­cin­ate people about No Man’s Sky is its extens­ive use of pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion (PCG). Put simply, PCG involves using soft­ware to gen­er­ate game con­tent in stead of cre­at­ing it by hand.

No Man's Sky

The game con­tent cre­ated in this way can be any­thing. Visuals are the most com­mon thing, but it can also include stuff that play­ers inter­act with, such as the arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence of a com­puter con­trolled oppon­ent or the place­ment of items in a level.

A few weeks ago I atten­ded a sym­posium organ­ised by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (HvA) on “auto­mated game design”. Over the course of the day vari­ous research­ers and prac­ti­tion­ers presen­ted their efforts related to this topic.

Anders Bouwer of the HvA opened the sym­posium by talk­ing about how the aim of game design auto­ma­tion is to speed things up. This can be achieved by accel­er­at­ing the trans­ition from design to soft­ware devel­op­ment, and by accel­er­at­ing the flow of feed­back from playtests back to design. The main way to do this is to cre­ate tools that sit between design and soft­ware development.

Two approaches to game design auto­ma­tion became appar­ent to me over the course of the day. The first and most obvi­ous approach is to use soft­ware to auto­mate work that a designer would oth­er­wise have to do manu­ally. This is part of the com­mon story told about No Man’s Sky. The game’s developer is a small inde­pend­ent com­pany which does not have the resources to cre­ate the game’s huge galaxy by hand. So in stead, they have craf­ted soft­ware tools which gen­er­ate plan­ets, veget­a­tion, anim­als and so on.

The second approach is to provide a designer with what are essen­tially tools for inspir­a­tion. In stead of auto­mat­ing things a human could also do by hand, a designer is enabled to do things she could simply not do without those tools. So it is not about speed and volume, but about qual­ity. It is focused on pro­cess in stead of product. Such tools can poten­tially sur­prise the designer. Conversely, the stuff pro­duced by No Man’s Sky’s tools must adhere to rules which have been pre­de­ter­mined by designers.

In one of the symposium’s first talks Joris Dormans argued for the lat­ter approach.1 He argued for the use of pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools in the ser­vice of improv­ing the game design pro­cess. He wants them to be tools to think with.

Thinking with a tool implies a kind of part­ner­ship. In stead of being the slave or mas­ter of a tech­no­logy, we become col­lab­or­at­ors. In pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion research, this approach is explored through mixed-initiative tools. “Mixed-initiative” refers to the fact that such tools allow for a con­tinu­ous dia­logue between designer and soft­ware. One example is Tanagra, a level design tool for 2D plat­formers. It gen­er­ates levels in real time while the designer manip­u­lates geo­metry or a more abstract rep­res­ent­a­tion of the level’s pacing.


Mixed-initiative tools such as Tanagra are excit­ing because they aug­ment a designer’s cap­ab­il­it­ies bey­ond speed and volume. Because of their fluid nature they become some­thing like a musical instru­ment. A designer can per­form with these tools. They allow for some­thing sim­ilar to sketch­ing. There is a real poten­tial for sur­prise here, and for dis­cov­ery. When mak­ing such tools the ques­tion is not what out­come it should reli­ably pro­duce, but what pro­cess it should reli­ably support.

In his talk, Joris described his ideal tool as a thing which gives him a lot of vari­ations. He should then be able to tell it what he wants to see more of. In this way, a designer can more eas­ily scan through a game’s pos­sib­il­ity space. But this way of work­ing does not enable her to see the full range of things a tool might gen­er­ate. The designer in this case is a bit like the Hello Games probe, scan­ning the pos­sib­il­ity space of No Man’s Sky, one anim­ated gif at a time.

What if we could zoom out, though? At this year’s Game Developer Conference, Tanagra cre­ator Gillian Smith, accom­pan­ied by Julian Togelius, talked about “the power and peril of PCG. Towards the end of this talk, they show work on under­stand­ing the range of out­comes afforded by pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools.

The approach is simple: first, cri­teria are determ­ined by which out­comes are scored. In the case of Tanagra, a num­ber of levels are gen­er­ated and scored on how hard they are, and on how lin­ear they are. Then, each level is plot­ted on a heat map. The res­ult allows us to see the shape of Tanagra’s pos­sib­il­ity space. In this way the biases in a par­tic­u­lar con­fig­ur­a­tion is more eas­ily uncovered.

2D histograms visualizing generative space

Enabled with such visu­al­isa­tions of pos­sib­il­ity space, pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools become instru­ments in a second sense, namely that of sci­entific instru­ments. They can be used like micro­scopes or mac­ro­scopes. We can use them to “see inside of” games and the tools used to make games. They afford power­ful new ways of seeing.

It is this prom­ise of new ways of see­ing that I find most excit­ing about pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools of the mixed-initiative type, or “pro­ced­ural instru­ments” as I pro­pose we call them from now on.

Games are just one kind of algorithmic cul­ture, and more and more kinds of algorithms are used to gen­er­ate media. However, in media cri­ti­cism the term “algorithm” is often used rather naively. What the study of pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools can teach us is that there is no such thing as a sin­gu­lar algorithm that gen­er­ates a piece of media. They are assemblages of dif­fer­ent approaches to com­pu­ta­tion, com­bined with dif­fer­ent design practices.

Attending this sym­posium on auto­mated game design has made me excited about pro­ced­ural con­tent gen­er­a­tion tools aimed at aug­ment­ing the cap­ab­il­it­ies of design­ers. The big chal­lenge ahead is get­ting such tools out of the research labs and into the hands of prac­ti­tion­ers. This is a non-trivial task. Many of these tools are quite com­plic­ated and expens­ive to get right.

A dis­sem­in­a­tion of such tools will only hap­pen if we recog­nise the power they afford us. If we want to become bet­ter at mak­ing games and play­able sys­tems more broadly, we need tools with which we can per­form bet­ter, and with which we can see bet­ter. We need pro­ced­ural instruments.

Addendum: Cases Presented During the Symposium

  • Loren Roosendaal (IC3D Media) talked about how they made earth­quake dis­aster relief train­ing soft­ware for the Indonesian gov­ern­ment. They were on a tight budget, so they cre­ated a tool which col­lapses build­ings. These col­lapsed build­ings were then used as a start­ing point for level design. He also talked about nego­ti­ation train­ing soft­ware developed for the Dutch Ministry of Defence called Cultura. It meas­ures player per­form­ance. IC3D Media and the MoD use these meas­ure­ments as input for bet­ter level design. They might in future do some­thing like A/B test­ing of dia­log options.
  • Thomas Buijtenweg (NHTV) demon­strated a gen­er­ator he developed for col­lect­ible card game (CCG) cards. The gen­er­ator provides a designer with a bunch of card options which they can then select from. It bal­ances all options using a for­mula for the card cost.
  • Daniel Karavolos (HvA) provided sev­eral examples of how he used a tool called Ludoscope to gen­er­ate video­game levels. It is based on graphs, grids and trans­form­a­tion rules. The approach focuses on mod­el­ing the pro­cess of cre­at­ing game con­tent. (PDF)
  • Rafael Bidarra (TU Delft) showed two pro­jects. The first demon­strated gen­er­a­tion of a meadow in real time based on a veget­a­tion model. The second showed how we they used grammar-based pop­u­la­tion gen­er­a­tion to con­nect gen­er­ated game geo­graphy with gen­er­ated game stor­ies. They gen­er­ate set­tle­ments in the geo­graphy and rela­tion­ships between those set­tle­ments based on resources and needs. These in turn give rise to “stor­ies” (inter­ac­tions between indi­vidu­als in the set­tle­ments). The place­ment of set­tle­ments is done in a mixed-initiative way.
  • Stefan Leijnen (HvA) and Paul Brinkkemper (Firebrush Studios) talked about MoneyMaker Deluxe, a game about frac­tional reserve bank­ing. They used Machinations to describe mod­els, which were then used as a blue­print for the gen­er­at­ors in the game. (PDF)
  1. Joris is asso­ci­ated with Hubbub. His research on engin­eer­ing emer­gence was instru­mental in start­ing the HvA’s work in this area. []
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Week 309–310

It’s been a while since we fell off the week­notes horse, but here we are. So let’s get down to it.

In week 309 we reviewed Q2’s OKRs, and dis­cussed our plans for the future. Let me tell you, it isn’t easy being a boutique play­ful design agency. But we’re sol­dier­ing on.

The big pro­ject still on deck is Free Birds (pre­vi­ously referred to as Home Rule and SHACHI). This is an iOS game about free­dom for fam­il­ies vis­it­ing war and res­ist­ance museums, for which we’re using iBeacons and a con­ver­sa­tional interface.

We’re get­ting ready for another sprint so to that end I demo’d the game to our launch­ing museum’s new dir­ector and also handed over the game’s copy and art for review. I also did some pre­lim­in­ary inter­ac­tion design work on upcom­ing fea­tures, and groomed our backlog.

Meanwhile, Alper developed some soft­ware for test­ing a web API with which we’ll be integ­rat­ing at some point.

Our remain­ing two cur­rent pro­jects are shorter con­sult­ing engage­ments. For TEDASUKE I did some rough sketch­ing of wire­frames and reviewed them with the cli­ent. For KOKORO we reviewed the out­comes of the last playtest and draf­ted a plan for the next sprint, which I also reviewed with the client.

That leaves Bycatch. We had a call to catch up on things. I replied to a ques­tion from a player over at the game’s BoardGameGeek forum. And Lekha con­tin­ued to work on an artist state­ment which should see the light of day soon­ish. Plus, she dropped off a bunch of cop­ies at NYC’s Compleat Strategist, a very cool shop to be car­ried by.

Alper was ill for most of week 310, but I’m happy to report he’s feel­ing bet­ter now. So bring on week 311!

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Week 308

Lots of work on KOKORO this week. We fin­ished the first pro­to­type and play­tested it with a bunch of teen­agers. Received plenty of help­ful feed­back. We need to do a proper eval­u­ation but my first impres­sion is that our decision to struc­ture the product around a con­ver­sa­tional UI has been validated.

For the remain­ing pro­jects on deck, we mostly took stock of things and planned next steps. I reviewed the KOKORO release can­did­ate with the whole team and made a list of final things to fix. Alper and I did some ser­i­ous plan­ning on the next phase of SHACHI, which should also cul­min­ate in a release can­did­ate. And I went over to TEDASUKE’s cli­ent to review the user jour­ney we mapped and to make a list of screens to mock up.

We had a call with Lekha to dis­cuss some upcom­ing mar­ket­ing efforts. Lekha has been work­ing on an artist state­ment which should go out soon. Shortly after our call Bycatch got “hunted” on Product Hunt.

Alper pub­lished a fun post on Slack’s emoji reac­tions fea­ture.

As the week ended, I star­ted writ­ing up my thoughts on the auto­mated game design sym­posium I atten­ded recently. Meanwhile Alper star­ted port­ing SHACHI to tab­let, and invest­ig­ated ways of improv­ing our iBeacon read­ing performance.

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Week 307

Last week Kars was on some­thing of a road show trav­el­ing the length of the Netherlands for pro­jects old and new. At the same time I was in the stu­dio work­ing with technology.

Kars went to Tilburg to pitch suc­cess­fully for fur­ther fund­ing on SHIJIMI. Now that that cycle is closed we can move for­ward with actu­ally design­ing stuff. Kars also cre­ated a user jour­ney for TEDASUKE. I went over to a ven­ture firm to see whether they need our ser­vices (it turns out they do).

We built a pro­to­type con­ver­sa­tional per­sonal coach for KOKORO using Foundation. I briefly tried out Foundation for Apps but found it too com­plex and too sparsely doc­u­mented for what it offers. For this pro­to­type speed of devel­op­ment and being able to test the assump­tions of the UI and the main loop are most important.

It was also nice to see Camparc fea­tured over at Playscapes. Last week we dis­cussed next steps for that pro­ject as well.

I went to an offi­cial Unity developers meetup held in Berlin on Thursday even­ing. It was inter­est­ing to see what dir­ec­tion Unity is devel­op­ing into and what kind of people use it. The audi­ence unfor­tu­nately was one of the least diverse I’ve seen at a tech event in ages. Given the fact that game devel­op­ment is so pop­u­lar, the fact that only a cer­tain type of people can get into it is pro­foundly unhealthy.

For SHACHI we are get­ting the new dir­ector of our first museum up to speed before we start the next sprint. That sprint will cul­min­ate in a release can­did­ate that will run in the museum for some time.

Kars also atten­ded a con­fer­ence on auto­mated game design organ­ised by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. There were a bunch of pro­jects that flowed from our asso­ci­ate Joris Dormans’s work on engin­eer­ing emer­gence. We have been an industry part­ner of the pro­ject and have given input on the tools we use when design­ing games. We will be report­ing back some find­ings from this pro­ject here later as well.

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Slack’s emoji reactions are playful product design in action

Last week Slack launched their Emoji reac­tions fea­ture. This allows you to attach emoji to a mes­sage and for oth­ers to chime in and vote for an emoji or add their own. I am very excited by this for a num­ber of reasons.


We use Slack fairly heav­ily. We have chan­nels for spe­cific pro­jects and we have chan­nels that cre­ate a frame of shared pres­ence and cul­tural ref­er­ence for our close net­work. In these chan­nels we already use emoji and anim­ated GIFs quite intens­ively. They are visual frag­ments of emo­tion that can be quickly thrown across the digital divide. Many people like to trivi­al­ise these but they are in fact essen­tial non-verbal cues.

Slack nailed the product design of this new fea­ture. That much is to be expec­ted from a com­pany with their track record. What makes it par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant for me to write about here is that this fea­ture is a great example of play­ful design. Kars iden­ti­fied it as flux in action because: “This is adding vari­ab­il­ity to what used to be one-dimensional.”

With the emoji fea­ture Slack has iden­ti­fied an exist­ing beha­viour that they could bet­ter sup­port. People respond to each other with emoji and other images. This is fun but it can quickly become over­whelm­ing. Emoji reac­tions are just the right amount of func­tion­al­ity and struc­ture to allow people to more richly express them­selves. The res­ult is more express­ive inter­ac­tions and more effect­ive communication.

Emoji reac­tions is a great new fea­ture that will see a lot of use (at least from us) and it demon­strates how play­ful design is a cent­ral part of product design.

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Week 306

At the start of this week, we looked back on the playtest of pro­ject SHACHI’s second beta ver­sion. I went over to the cli­ent to dis­cuss the out­comes, and the whole team col­lab­or­ated on a plan for the next sprint. Meanwhile Alper took a moment to update the pro­ject financials.

More plan­ning happened on KOKORO. We’ll have roughly two weeks for the first design sprint on a product which will help teen­agers improve their men­tal health. I vis­ited the cli­ent to dis­cuss the plan for the sprint, and we col­lab­or­ated on a sketch of the product’s under­ly­ing system.

We’ll be explor­ing a con­ver­sa­tional UI for this pro­ject so copy is really import­ant. Because of this I imme­di­ately star­ted writ­ing in Gingko—a use­ful tool for this sort of thing because it sup­ports a mul­ti­di­men­sional doc­u­ment struc­ture. I also did a tiny bit of sketch­ing on the inter­face itself, but we’re keep­ing it super simple. Alper mean­while explored the best tech­no­lo­gies to pro­to­type with.

On Thursday I joined Erwin for a num­ber of Skype calls with teen­agers about KOKORO’s sub­ject matter—what com­mon causes of “hassle” are, how they deal with them, etc. We’re try­ing to involve the tar­get audi­ence in as many ways as pos­sible in this pro­ject. Challenging, but enjoyable.

Last but not least, I pro­cessed the out­comes of our work­shop with SodaProducties for pro­ject TEDASUKE into a sketch of a user jour­ney. I headed over to them as well to review and amend the sketch. The next step will be to clean it up, deliver it, and move on to sketch­ing of the product itself.

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