Hubbub has gone into hibernation.

Week 316

Anoth­er week large­ly tak­en up by Free Birds. The whole team (Alper, Tim, Niels and myself) worked togeth­er on fin­ish­ing anoth­er release, which we did with only a small bit of over­time on Fri­day. With each sprint we learn more about the intri­ca­cies of Uni­ty’s UI sys­tem.

We also deliv­ered a spec and a bud­get for TEDASUKE, which the client will use to back up a grant appli­ca­tion for the pro­duc­t’s devel­op­ment. We used a list of user sto­ries as a light-weight spec­i­fi­ca­tion. To arrive at a bud­get we then assigned a size esti­mate to each sto­ry (using t‑shirt sizes) and for each size we assigned an aver­age amount of hours for the dis­ci­plines involved. The whole process was rel­a­tive­ly pain­less but did yield the required amount of detail.

In the lead up to Lekha’s pres­ence at XOXO we updat­ed the Bycatch web­site with a link to our artist state­ment and an endorse­ment from Lea Schön­felder. Per­haps most sig­nif­i­cant­ly, we qui­et­ly switched to charg­ing our cus­tomers in dol­lars in stead of euros, for var­i­ous rea­sons too bor­ing to go into here.

I updat­ed the page for Cam­parc in our port­fo­lio to include the excel­lent video made by Syl­van of our run at STRP this year. I also added a descrip­tion of how the whole thing works now, as well as some more photos.

And final­ly, on the week­end Alper vis­it­ed some new spots for an upcom­ing update of Cup­pings.

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Week 315

Last week once again was very much a heads down kind of week. Alper more or less exclu­sive­ly worked on Free Birds. We also talked to the client about the next phase of the project, which kicks in after we fin­ish this sprint, and involves scal­ing up to mul­ti­ple muse­ums. Fur­ther­more, we pre­pared a bug fix release, and we received a first batch of sur­veys from play­ers of the Air­borne Muse­um beta, which were large­ly positive.

On the Bycatch front, I taught around 30 peo­ple how to play the game at a Hack­ing Habi­tat event. Peo­ple seemed to enjoy it, and much dis­cus­sion hap­pened dur­ing and after play­ing the game, which was a lot of fun to see happen.

People playing Bycatch at Hacking Habitat Life-Hack Marathon #3 'How to Cross Borders'

On to the remain­ing small­er con­sult­ing engage­ments. For SHIJIMI I attend­ed a pitch for the pro­duc­tion of the con­cept we helped devel­op. For TEDASUKE I draft­ed a spec for the prod­uct we’ve helped envi­sion in an agile man­ner, by whip­ping up a list of user sto­ries. And final­ly, for KOKORO, I tied up a few loose ends left over from the pre­vi­ous week’s delivery.

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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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