Last week, Boar Games was able to speak to Daniel Carter, an indie game designer, who graduated from Warwick this year with a degree in French and German. He co-founded Mental Block Gaming, creating three player Minecraft maps such as There is no Learning Curve, whose most recent release is Prismatic. They’ve been highly successful, with over 170,000 downloads between their 4 maps. Dan is the creative lead, brainstorming the ideas that bring a game to life.
What is Mental Block Gaming and what made you start it up?
Mental Block Gaming is made up of three of us: myself, James, our coder and Jamie who’s in charge of marketing. We specialise in making 3 player puzzle maps within Minecraft and began during the exam period of June 2013 when we were procrastinating with our revision. We played around with the tools in Minecraft because it was an easy and accessible ‘engine’ to start in and it had a great community, so we came up with our first game called There is no Learning Curve. It was cool to put a range of ideas into an actual game.
We did it ourselves instead of joining an established group of mapmakers because we wanted to create our own opportunities. We started it as a hobby, but as things have gone on it’s been nice to have that creative freedom to design a game around what you want. There is more risk with it as it’s not guaranteed salaried work with a clear list of tasks, but the trade-off is that firstly you can say “we made that” and secondly everyone’s ideas are listened to, feedback is appreciated and it’s all hands on deck as there is only three of us.
We started with three player games because it was niche, I don’t know of any three player games other than the recent Zelda game for the 3DS. In Minecraft there are many making single player maps and a few two player maps but I don’t think there are any specific three player ones. A downside was that one player maps are way more popular but this at least enabled us to establish ourselves.
What’s a ‘day in the life’ at MBG like as a designer?
It’s really varied and there’s a lot to do. It depends on what you want to work on that day; there are lots of tasks to work on at the beginning of a project such as figuring out the structure of the Redstone or doing some work on sound effects or script writing. You can always swap to another task which is great. Today, I watched a few playthroughs of Prismatic and Learning Curve 2 and finished some translations for the latter, as well as contributing to some forum posts on the Minecraft forums. So even though I do design, I do other things too.
Designing depends on where you are in a project. I go through the design draft first, thinking of what game to come up with. You can get inspiration from anywhere. There are lots of things to consider, like the genre and, especially if you’re thinking about marketing, how long it’ll take to make a game. For example, we have a Christmas map being released in December so we had to start early. You need to have a consideration of how long it’ll take to make a game. One of our maps took six months longer than expected to make which isn’t uncommon in the industry where you can miss release dates, so you have to be careful with specifically stating a release date publicly.
As a designer, you don’t need to know the answers, but you need to think of the right questions.
I then form designs into prototypes to see if they work, I work with James and ask if it’s possible. For instance, if there are 200 enemies on the screen, will that kill your computer? As a designer you have to think of the technical limitations. You don’t need to know the answers but you need to think of the right questions. There are lots of times the idea doesn’t work, you may have the right recipe but you may need to change a couple of things about it. Then you do the development which is the tweaks and the numbers, making sure everything works properly. This takes up the most of your time, make sure you’re keeping to your core theme. Then you’re into the polish stage where you look at places that could be neater such as a blade of glass blowing in the wind. This helps everything come together really nicely leading to an improved user interface.
What learning experiences have you had?
You live and learn. You make something, you see others play it and see what was good and bad about it. There’s this big thing that once a game is released people think the designer didn’t spot things that were wrong. However you are well aware of your previous flaws, it’s just that no clean solutions were found or able to be implemented in time. Online games that rely on patching like League of Legends get to continually improve, but often you’re time bound with video game releases. You learn from your previous games and remove flaws when you design your next game so you know it will be fun. You’ll ask yourself the right questions on your next project, but that’s down to experience.
What do you love about making games? What don’t you like as much?
My favourite thing about it is watching playthroughs. Seeing stuff work out successfully is awesome, every person has a different experience even if they’re playing the same game. When it all falls into place and everything goes to plan it feels great. Laughing along with it is fun. I enjoy the design work, script writing and voice acting as well as recruiting others to do voice acting too, but I have a drama background so that’s where it comes from.
I dislike the repetitive tasks. You have to repeat steps when doing one room’s worth of coding but then you have to test the other ten rooms even if they have the same code for example. Also sometimes there are disagreements within the team on what will be on the game. I think the biggest thing is compromise and trying to find the exact reasoning and the root of the issue. We worked on a song within one of the games and one of us didn’t like the backing vocals, what he actually meant was a certain part of the vocals, but it was important to get to the core of it. There’s also having to look at things from a different mind-set as it makes you more receptive to other people’s ideas and it’s important to be objective e.g. when critiquing an idea say idea A/B rather than “Dan’s idea”. It helps.
Your work was picked up by the likes of the Yogscast and Achievement Hunters, what was that like?
I got to meet the Yogscast at EGX this year. They loved and complimented Learning Curve 1, it was cool to have had an effect on such widely known personalities as they remembered the game and by extension us.
We’ve had a lot of YouTube playthroughs, we’ve tried to keep YouTubers in mind when making our games. Not designing for them, but making sure it’s engaging for them. Especially with multiplayer puzzle maps, you don’t want someone waiting for another to do something, therefore it’s important to make sure everyone is included.
It’s nice to see big YouTube personalities play our maps. It leads to good repercussions. We have more traffic when a YouTuber has played our games. Often there are lots of comments on there, it’s good to go through them to see what people like, so perception of your game is important. On Prismatic many spoke highly of the sound design. So you know what people pick up. They are just important as your testers.
User experience is huge right now, with a great deal of research being conducted on what players enjoy given the market has become more diverse. How do you apply your ideas to not only make sure that your maps work, but are also fun for the player?
We don’t just use in-house testing. We use people that haven’t been involved in the development of the game with a range of interests and competences. There are many conventions in gaming, ‘WASD’ is common however those who aren’t used to general PC gaming may use the arrow keys so you may want to put in both types of controls. It may seem obvious to you, but it is not always clear for everyone.
Tutorials and the ‘on boarding’ process is important when testing so that people can understand what to do. We identify what is fun and we may have to change things like a level’s difficulty or adding more valuable rewards. It’s worth it in the end but sometimes you do have to go back to the drawing board and start afresh. You have to keep your target market in mind, even if they’re different to what you expected, you shouldn’t shy away from it as you don’t want to alienate anyone.
You need to empower the player, make them feel smart and skilled so they enjoy it, making challenges rewarding. It’s a difficult balance, because you have to make it challenging but not impossible, you have to make the mechanic not condescending to the player.
The sector is incredibly fast paced and changing all the time, how have you been able to deal with these demands?
We haven’t been in the industry long but our biggest challenge is keeping up to date with Minecraft updates. For example, the Unity 5 update allowed better user interface implementation; for us, Minecraft updates have given us better creative freedom through improved command blocks. We work around the technology and trends, learning how things work but also keeping an eye on the competition and adapting our game to build upon new ideas.
Leading on from this, how do you think the role of a designer has changed or will change in the next few years?
Previously arcade gaming was based around profitability, forcing a player to put in another few coins every time they died, and this mentality has stuck around even though games have moved to devices. Difficulty does not always equal fun and that’s something we’re beginning to learn. The industry is becoming more mature, taking on more serious topics which is something I have to consider now, like ethics and equal representation or even colour-blindness, things other sectors have considered. We now have a broader range of people in mind to ensure accessibility but also admit the wider repercussions of what we do not on just us but on everyone else too. It’s also becoming easier to program with drag and drop coding, virtual reality will soon be affordable and the gamification of education, like the use of Minecraft in schools are things you now need to consider, it’s all worth thinking about.
Having taken the non-traditional route of studying French and German, how do you think that’s influenced making your way into the sector?
I say use your skill set to maximise your potential. There was little overlap between my course and game design. So I did a lot in my spare time, it’s an advantage when you come to interviews as it shows you have a passion because you created this work of your own accord. The downside is that it was a lot more work, especially in my final year, balancing my coursework whilst building my portfolio. That said, it won’t seem like work to you if you enjoy it. We’ve had French, German, Spanish, Dutch and Finnish translations of our games. We’ve seen poorly received foreign language Let’s plays of our games; translations help to appeal to a wider audience where they could understand puns and jokes. It gives us a bigger pool of play testers. Any course you do, there are benefits to it, it comes down to how you apply what you’ve learnt.
The industry is notorious for being incredibly competitive and hard to break into. What other things have you done to ensure you stand out?
You speak to people. You network and go to gaming events like Gamecity and EGX. At Gamecity I met many great people and was able to build a network of which some asked me to work with them. So it works. There’s lots of groups out there, like ‘Midlands Indies’, making sure you’re getting involved with others. It’s nice to have a core group to test your stuff who will give good feedback. I went to Warwick Game Design (WGD) society on campus, it was perfect. I went to some of the workshops, my weakness is coding so it was nice to be around programmers to learn how things work. I started teaching myself how to use Gamemaker and have started to learn using C++. I took part in the competitions and won a few. I made a few games before I joined WGD, I watched a lot on Youtubers, read a lot and played a lot which is typical. I was more astute when playing and tried to understand how mechanics work. I also have done some playtesting in my free time.
Any tips for students looking to get into the gaming industry?
Start now. The important part is finishing a game, but make it simple and evolve as you go along based on what you’ve learnt. It’s better to work on short basic projects then as your confidence increases you can go big. Think about what you could do better. As a member of the community, be constructive with your criticisms, be positive, word spreads and it’s important to be responsible for your actions. Make something you believe in, that you’d want to play rather than making something you feel you have to. Maybe look into niche markets once you’re starting out. Be approachable and have a great demeanour, your personality goes into your games. I try to be funny, I hope that translates into the games that I make. It’s really impressive if you get a game into a store, it’s great to make a tech demo, but if you have something that can be downloaded from a store, it looks amazing and employers love it.