Each fortnight this year, I’ve been writing a game design column at Rock Paper Shotgun called The Mechanic. It’s all about putting games up on blocks, and taking a wrench to hack out their best features to see how they work.
They’re all based on interviews with their designers; what I really like to try to do is to find a feature of a game that players might not be aware of and yet is central to why it’s good. What I love is to be able to explain how much thought and creativity went into something players may never have considered.
I like to cover indie games and big AAA games - if it’s a great game that has a really interesting thing about it which its makers would love to talk about with me, I’m all over it. Maybe you have suggestions, or maybe you’ve made a game that I could cover? Let me know!
In short, I love writing The Mechanic (thanks for taking it on, Graham). Look out for it every other Friday at 9pm, UK time. Next one is July 29.
Hey so I’m giving some talks on Minecraft soon! The first is at Gamecity on October 25, and then early in November I’m going to Sharjah International Book Festival in the United Arab Emirates, which is kinda incredible.
The talks will be based on the Blockopedia, where I look at the amazing properties of a few different blocks. Here’s the blurb!
To really master Minecraft, you need to know the science behind its many kinds of blocks, from birch wood to brewing stands. Alex Wiltshire, author of the Minecraft Blockopedia, will take you on a tour of the blocks that make up the world of Minecraft, including how grass grows, fire spreads, redstone conducts and beacons … beacon. On the way, he’ll uncover and share the amazing facts, delights and crazy secrets that lie behind this pixel land, and help you build and survive even better!
I’ve delivered talks like this before - like this one I did in Chester at the WayWord Festival:
I have to say that I find them TERRIFYING because I’m pretty sure the audience of kids knows far more about Minecraft than I ever could. But they’re really nice about it, and when it’s time for Q&A, they mostly tell me more stuff about Minecraft rather than show me up. So, thanks, kids!
From April 2013 to August 2015 I was communications manager at Hello Games, which was a role that kind of evolved as I went along, but it boiled down to: if it involved talking with the outside world, I’d have had a hand in it.
So I ran Hello’s social media accounts, wrote blog posts and other bits and pieces, managed its public email address, dealt with press and lined up interviews and meetings. I worked with Sony and Valve’s internal teams, and I also established and managed Hello Games’ presence on various store fronts including Steam and PlayStation Store, and many other bits and pieces.
Working at Hello Games was a remarkable experience. The team is a set of amazingly talented and fun people, all of whom are dear friends. We had some amazing adventures together.
I started out in spring 2013 working on the Joe Danger series, with updates to Joe Danger Touch and the PC version of Joe Danger. For Joe Danger 2’s release on PC I had the idea of adding Team Fortress characters, getting approval from Valve. I also helped launch Joe Danger Infinity, and ports on PS Vita and Android, as well as a Humble Bundle sale.
For No Man’s Sky, I arranged press for its first reveal at VGX in December 2013, and managed its presence at E3 2014 and 2015, where it got an amazing response. I also took it to PlayStation Experience in Las Vegas in December 2014, where I also helped organise a gig with 65daysofstatic.
Outside of those crazy times, I also designed and built the No Man’s Sky website, and arranged major press outings, including these personal highlights:
- New Yorker A full feature in the magazine by writer Raffi Khatchadourian, which was utterly remarkable to be involved with from start to finish
- IGN First IGN devoted the month of July 2015 to a set of features about the game
- Edge It featured on the cover of the September 2014 issue. A surreal experience, since I used to work there, but it all came from them, and NMS being totally an Edge game, I would’ve jumped to put No Man’s Sky on its cover
- Game Informer One of the biggest magazines in the world and I managed to get No Man’s Sky on its cover
- New Yorker Festival I left having lined it all up and started to get things rolling
- The Late Show with Stephen Colbert I negotiated and signed up Sean’s appearance on the show
My final act at Hello Games was to publish a big post summing up what No Man’s Sky is about, which seemed a fitting swan song as I departed to pursue some new personal projects.
Very soon, a book I edited on the early British game industry called Britsoft: An Oral History will be released. This is really exciting!
It’s published by the excellent Read-Only Memory, and it consists of interviews with some of the leading game makers from Commodore PET to Amiga, like Peter Molyneux and David Braben, Rob Hubbard and Mo Warden, Andrew Braybrook and Sean Cooper and many more. It charts the rise and fall of a movement in which self-taught British kids kickstarted an industry making games for home computers, from playing around in BASIC in the late 70s and early 80s to when the consoles and big international business took over in the early 90s.
It’s probably the biggest single thing I’ve ever worked on. The final manuscript was about 125,000 words, sculpted from some 850,000 words of interviews made for the documentary From Bedrooms to Billions by Anthony & Nicola Caulfield, plus a few extra ones I conducted.
When Darren Wall of Read-Only Memory asked me to edit it, he simply gave me a folder of rough transcripts and the direction to produce a “collection of ‘in conversation’ pieces”. This was daunting + perfect! Daunting because I faced a of wall of 850,000 words to turn into something you’d want to read. Perfect because the chance to shape such a great collection of voices with such freedom doesn’t come along often.
The make-or-break challenge was to figure out a structure. I wasn’t sure I wanted it to be simply a set of individual autobiographies, one after another. I wanted it to reflect a span of years and the things the interviewees felt were important. It had to be thematic and also chronological.
It all started to come into focus when I thought back to the Fighting Fantasy books I was obsessed with in the 80s, where you turned from passage to passage to choose your own adventure. What if the interviews were broken up into chunks, with page references so you can follow individual stories while reading from page to page to follow the grander one?
That idea was cemented when I sat down to our first meeting with Darren and the book’s designer, Hugo Timm from graphic design house Julia. At the risk of sounding awfully effusive, it was the best design meeting I’ve attended, where everyone understood and wanted exactly the same thing. We all wanted to make something progressive, and yet simple and clean, something you can read from cover-to-cover and also dip in and out of.
I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve made. It has been hard work, but it looks amazing, and hopefully reads amazingly, too. I want to thank Darren Wall for taking me on to edit this book and for all his support, and Hugo for making it look and read so beautifully. And I hope you enjoy it. Y’know, if you buy it. (Please buy it.)
I wrote a book! It’s called the Minecraft Blockopedia and it’s a guide to all the blocks in Minecraft, with each entry examining their behaviour and uses, and it’s going to be published by Egmont on December 4.
It looks like this:
Yeah, it’s hexagonal, which marks a rather dramatic debut as a book author, hey. Must’ve been a complete nightmare for Egmont’s production team. Or exciting. Probably a bit of both.
It got into the Bookseller, which I used to actually read back when I used to work in book publishing, wishing the things I was working on would get into its pages:
The book is hexagonal in shape to reflect the blocks in the game and was written by Alex Wiltshire, former editor of games industry trade magazine Edge.
The design and presentation - with foil and a slipcase so it can actually sit on bookshelves - is down to Junkboy, Mojang’s great art director. The entries are marked by a full-bleed isometric view of the block which looks fantastic.
Thanks to all at Mojang and Egmont, especially Stephanie Milton, Owen Hill and Lydia Winters, for taking me on to write such an amazing looking book. Especially as it gave me a chance to one-up my kids’ knowledge of Minecraft one or twice. (Admittedly, they contributed all sorts of details to it that I’d otherwise have had no idea about.)
I always thought Alessi were a pretty grotesque design company, making expensive objects that bastardise functionality and beauty. The classic: Starck’s Juicy Salif, an orange squeezer that appears to reinvent the way we extract juice from citrus fruit with elegance and simplicity, and which makes a whole fucking mess of it. And what’s this? Here I am beguiled by founder Alberto Alessi in a new interview with The Guardian. He calls Alessi customers ‘design victims’ (“Design victims are very important to our business model”) and calls another Starck project, the Hot Bertaa kettle, “a complete fiasco”, going on to say something amazing:
It’s very important to work on the verge of the impossible, without veering into products that people will not understand or buy. We must have one or two fiascos a year to retain our leadership in design.
Maybe that’s a pretty amazing attitude to have.
Fugazi have been archiving and making available to buy live recordings of their about-a-billion gigs, which is such a fantastic project, partly for the fact the whole thing plays so true to their attitude. Done themselves, and in this context:
There is a lot to be excited about in the ways we produce and consume music in 2014, but it’s often difficult to decipher where the music ends and the contextual media structures around it begin. The best thing about Fugazi, and the live series, is that the music is always the message. There are no Facebook or Twitter logos polluting its pages; no publicist blasting emails about how Dischord is revolutionizing music; no attempt to sell to a nostalgic market. For MacKaye, it remains a matter of completing a simple task demanded by a pile of tapes that captured a small slice of American history.
→ Fugazi’s sound and fury, now on demand
Soon after we moved to Bath in 2007, my wife started up her own cake making company called Baby Cakes. It’s turned out to be rather successful! Her cakes have been featured in American Vogue, she’s Stork margarine’s official baking expert and has judged national cake competitions, and she’s left a trail of many happy customers behind her.
Anyway, my small part in it is that I made her website. Actually I’ve made three of them now. We launched her latest back in spring this year; I built it on Wordpress with the intention of really whetting visitors’ appetites by featuring big pictures and just a few words to describe them. It therefore benefits from some great photos of Hannah’s work by John Barwood.
The main design challenge was that most pictures of cakes are portrait, which isn’t an ideal format for websites. I think the site solves it reasonably well, using panels to take visitors through the site and two side-by-side portrait pictures for galleries.
It really popped, though, when I found its two typefaces: Maiola for the main body text and titles, and Brandon Grotesque for navigation and caption text. Together I think they convey the sense of simple elegance and character I wanted to achieve. I’m pretty satisfied with it.
Dyad is a lovely game, and I reviewed it for PC Gamer.
There aren’t many games that can be described as beautiful, but Dyad is one of them. Spinning together a mesmerising blend of music and image with tight and ever-shifting game rules, it’s one of the most beguiling and uplifting games I’ve experienced. And that’s speaking as a Rez obsessive.
→ Read in full at PC Gamer
AGES ago, I reviewed for PC Gamer Ubisoft’s standalone offshoot of Far Cry 3. Blood Dragon is an odd game, engineered to achieve multiple aims: to get the internet LOLing at its 80s action game stylings; to reuse as much of FC3’s graphical assets as possible; and to somehow fit into Far Cry’s Heart of Darkness-y pondering of the nature of masculinity and unfettered violence. It kind of works! At least in the sense that chops away anything that gets in the way of running, leaping, driving and firing guns. But the screenshot I took above kind of epitomises my thoughts about it.
I’d just dropped the kids off at school when one of the fathers asked me what games I was playing. He’s no gamer but I thought he might at least gel with the concept of Blood Dragon: a sci-fi shooter and heavy pastiche of ’80s action films, voiced by Michael Biehn. You know, out of The Terminator. Neon, synths, one-liners, chrome, ultraviolence, pixel graphics. He looked confused, maybe appalled. I faltered. “It’s kind of, well, a joke.”
→ Read in full at PC Gamer