Interview: UFO creator Julian Gollop on UFO and XCOM.

I did this interview with Julian Gollop at GDC 2012 and it got put up on the PC Gamer website in several parts. The copyright reverted to me after six months, so here it is, in full.

I did this interview with Julian Gollop at GDC 2012 and it got put up on the PC Gamer website in several parts. The copyright reverted to me after six months, so here it is, in full.

Gollop
Julian Gollop

Dan Griliopoulos: In the original XCOM, an awful lot of the AI, the way they moved towards (you), they would make use of cover and they weren’t completely suicidal.

Julian: No, they weren’t. I can’t remember exactly how we did the AI in the original XCOM, but a lot of the time I tried to avoid moving into the direct line of fire of your guys. They tried to find cover  if they could, most of the time.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting, they have that for the Sectoids and the Floaters and the Thin Men, which were the Men in Black which you couldn’t put in because they were making another Men in Black game. They had quite a complicated AI system for them, but anything which was melee orientated just ran straight towards the nearest target. They didn’t take (into account) being shot at, or using cover or anything like that, which was very different. You’re talking about AI here (GDC) as well.

Julian: I went out of interest because back in 1995 when I was coming to GDC, guys like Neil Kirby, I was involved in their round tables. Every year we used to go to it. There wasn’t that many AI programs around at that time. A lot of them were actually involved in RTS games because that was the big thing that killed off turn-based games.

Dan Griliopoulos: I remember it well. After Dune II…

Julian: After Dune II… I mean, XCOM was really just at the end of the period where you had this turn-based strategy game as being a mainstream game.

Dan Griliopoulos: They’re coming back now, but they’re not coming back as mainstream games.

Julian: Not as mainstream games, no, because in those days, you had almost XCOM… Master of Magic and Master of Orion were, for me, phenomenal games. Colonisation, of course, came a bit later.

Dan Griliopoulos: I guess there were The Heroes of Might and Magic kind of games.

Julian: Yeah, but those… so, Heroes of Might and Magic developed a trend and then… but they weren’t in quite the same tradition of this grand strategy game which had big random elements in the generation of world, lots of AI and stuff. Heroes of Might and Magic is a bit of an exception. In those days, I believed firmly that the future of computer games was all about AI. That in twenty years time we’d be interacting with MPC characters in computer games that actually had real intelligence and could respond to you in really intelligent ways. Boy, I was wrong. So wrong!

Dan Griliopoulos: Do you think it didn’t happen because we never built on anything we built? As in, every time people build AI they build it anew, there aren’t AI libraries as far as I know…

Julian: I think part of the problem is keeping human psychology and interaction in games set to… a lot of computer games development went… a lot of effort was put more into graphics rather than anything else.

Dan Griliopoulos: It raises the review score, sadly.

Julian: Because it’s the thing that immediately impresses people. As soon as you start interacting with a world of pretty graphics then you realise that actually it’s not so interesting. It may be pretty but it’s not really that interactive. It’s always bugged me about the way computer games developed over the years. Even if you take Assassin’s Creed, which has  phenomenally complex game with all these NPCs wandering around, it is nothing but an elaborate paper thin illusion, to be honest.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s a paper thin illusion which is very clear about saying, “This is an illusion”. Inside the game, the framing device that they use to make it a series rather than a random collection of games by the same name, the framing device is that there’s a person playing a game within a simulation.

Julian: It is, but then again… Yeah, that’s true. (laughs)

Dan Griliopoulos: It feels to me like a huge joke, that they’ve done that. “How can we get away with making a game with paper thin mechanics, which are quite obviously mechanical? Oh, we’ll make it because it’s a simulation inside a game”.

Julian: You could say that, yeah. I mean, computer games didn’t develop really in that direction, and I guess what people enjoy and what they like at the psychological level is more to do with having their own ego massaged in certain ways through these very simple reward cycles.

Dan Griliopoulos: It always struck me as interesting in the Turing test stuff, that it’s not that AI ever passes the Turing test but people fail the Turing test. When you have the awards in England, it’s always somebody pretending to be a robot which causes an AI to pass the Turing test. Not an AI actually being convincing in any way.

Julian: Yeah, OK. That could be right. Um…

Dan Griliopoulos: There’s something about… it’s easier to fake intelligence than it is to even get anywhere near trying to generate…

Julian: Yeah, obviously when I was programming XCOM stuff we were faking intelligent. We had some very simple tricks to fake it. I talked a bit about the randomness element in XCOM and how we put it in the AI. But in actual fact, being unpredictable is a way of intelligently countering someone who’s predictable. If you play poker, for example…

Dan Griliopoulos: I knew you were going to make that reference. My friends hate it when I play (poker) because I’m random. I don’t really understand what I’m doing…

Julian: The good poker players say, depending on your opponent of course, they’ll say sometimes you need to mix up your game. Not necessarily that you’re completely random but you’re doing something which they’re not predicting. You’re maybe just changing the way you’revalue something and it throws them because (they) can no longer predict what you’re doing. In the original XCOM, as I said in the talk, we always tried to make sure that the aliens did not do things on a purely binary yes/no thing based on… always make a little bit of randomness in there. 10% of the time they’ll do something really stupid perhaps but most of the time, within some kind of reasonable constraints, that what they do is reasonable even though it may have some random element to it.

Dan Griliopoulos: That randomness actually sometimes gave them a good chance of survivability as it meant you might have seen something disappear round a corner but you can never walk round the corner because you can never quite predict… there is a thing it should do rationally, but it might not be doing it.

It’s interesting, the other person who was talking about the unpredictability thing was Gary Kasparov, when he writes about playing chess against a computer. Obviously, that whole peak of computing intelligence with rule sets, of chess, where the chess computers memorise the rule sets that every single Grand Master had learnt, Kasparov writes about it and says that the way he found of getting around it was having to always try and work out a way outside what somebody had done before. Going outside that rule set.

There was a period during the time you were developing and possibly during the ten years before, where an awful lot of UK brothers produced games. The Oliver twins, Football Manager… I guess there’s also Myst as well but that’s not the UK. There was this big period of brothers who were obviously in a bedroom somewhere with coding kit and… Why was it in the UK? Why were these brothers? Do you have any theories on this?

Julian: (laughs) Well, no. I can only say that in my case, how it came about… I’d already set up my company by the time my brother finished his university. I needed help and he needed a job. That just meshed.

Dan Griliopoulos: Big brother looking after little brother…

Julian: Well, sort of. Kind of… he’d done computing at university which was kind of helpful, I guess. It just kind of happened like that. I don’t think there’s any real grand conspiracy theory behind this.

Dan Griliopoulos: I’m a journalist, I have to try and get something!

The other thing that struck me about the talk (was) the humility of how you describe how the game was designed. You describe it as you’d done the battle bit and then all of these other bits were suggested by Microprose. There were an awful lot of people who would come along and say, “We did this, we did that,  we made this, we made that” and you’re looking at them going, “I didn’t think of any of that stuff. That wasn’t me. What I’d done was, I was just refining the game I’d been making several times in previous years”. It’s just unusual in this industry, especially with the superstar developers that are around at the moment…

Julian: Yes, it is unusual, but then again if you work with a lot of creative people over the years like I have, you realise actually that you depend a lot on them. I’ve worked as a producer where I’ve had to try and build teams of people, get them to work together and you really have to make sure people are leaving their egos in their pockets or parking them at the door because you can get into big problems. What I did for my post mortem, actually, was I tried to contact all these people over the last few weeks to try and figure out what their recollections were of particularly the origins of the game. It was very interesting. There were some conflicts in what people remembered, for sure, and there were some things that I learned because I had no idea about the Spectrum Holobyte cancellation story.

Dan Griliopoulos: You didn’t realise it had been cancelled?

I did have some inkling from the QA team many, many years ago, someone some years ago saying that there was a threat to cancel it but I never realised that Spectrum Holobyte actually did make that decision, to cancel it and that the Microprose UK guy said, “Hmmm, nonono”.

So I got this information when I spoke to people a couple of weeks ago, I guess. So I wanted to try and do an honest record of the development. Particularly guys who made a contribution which was never really recognised. Steve Hand, for example. because he wasn’t in the credits or anything. Also, for the guys that did work on the project all those years ago: John Broomhall, the composer; John Reitze, the graphic designer… these guys really contributed something fairly unique and memorable to the project, without a doubt. Really, without my input to a certain extent. They were just doing this based on their own creativity.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s interesting that you had such a …lacksadaisical approach to the development. It was like, we knew we were going to get music. We have these people making music. We trust them, because Microprose UK have told us that they’re going to be good at it, and you didn’t select these people yourselves?

Julian: No, not at all.

Dan Griliopoulos: It was almost like it was, “We’re doing our bit and they’re going to do their bit and it’s all going to work together in the end, so… that’s OK!”

I guess nowadays you get people like David Cage or Ken Levine, the auteur theory, who have to go over every single detail in the game…

Julian: I think stuff today is so overdesigned, it’s unbelievable. There are people obsessing about tiny details about stuff. Especially when you have marketing people involved about how your main character in a game’s presented suddenly becomes a huge PR and marketing issue…

Dan Griliopoulos: The whole thing with Booker in Bioshock Infinite… they wanted to put a girl with a gun on the cover of it, or something like that? There was something coming up recently where they were talking about what they wanted on the cover was someone looking gritty holding a gun and I think they went for a girl first, then somebody put Booker holding a gun on there and No, Actually. On the actual cover he’s just looking over his shoulder, posed, but it’s a marketing decision that the developers tried to push back on but many developers don’t have the power to do that so you end up with the standard cover of whatever the game is, somebody looking vaguely attractive. It’s like crossword magazines in the UK, always having a very attractive blonde girl biting a pen. It sells more copies, amazingly.

Julian: What a shame.

Dan Griliopoulos: What are you doing at the moment? I know you’re working in Bulgaria.

Julian: Yeah, I’m working in Bulgaria. I am establishing my own independent games development studio. I’m working on a turn based strategy game. It’s actually a remake… well, not so much a remake. A sequel/remake of a game I made back in 1995 on the ZX Spectrum called Chaos which was originally published by Games Workshop. This was this just fantastic multiplayer turn based game where you’re a wizard, you summon creatures, You’re just looking at a black screen as an arena with your wizard but it gets filled up with creatures and magic fire and gooey blobs and stuff. It worked brilliantly as a multiplayer game so I want to update it with proper internet multiplayer connectivity.

Dan Griliopoulos: I recall looking at your blog with the concepts on there.

Julian: We’ve got concept art going on now. Although the concept art is obviously a lot more sophisticated than on a 48k Spectrum, we wanted to have some kind of feel or some kind of reminiscence of how the original game looked with it’s completely monochromatic but brightly coloured, primary colour sprites and this black background. We’re not going to have a black background but we’re certainly going to have a dark background, for sure, and a bit more of an abstract, stylish graphics which is more illustrative than purely real rendering stuff.

We’re just working on that aspect at the moment, but the actual core gameplay, I made a decision that I’m going to retain the actual core gameplay from the original game. We will elaborate a bit on the spells, for sure, there’ll be more spells. I think the core gameplay was actually very simple and going back to this whole poker mechanic thing, it had this great bluffing mechanic in there where you could summon a creature as an illusion.

There’s a lot of probability in the game, every spell has a certain probability to be cast, so the more powerful spells tend to be the most difficult ones to cast. You roll to make a creature like a gold dragon and it was something like 20% I think it was, for casting it. If you cast it as an illusion you would automatically get it. There was no possibility that you’d fail, which was cool because every player has a disbelief spell. If somebody summons a gold dragon, probably most players would think, “Well no. Now, that’s probably an illusion. I’ll try and disbelieve it”. But if you disbelieve it and you fail, you’ve wasted your opportunity to cast a spell and you could be in trouble.

So, this little simple mechanic creates little bluffing strategies between players. Because of the high element of randomness and probability in the game it kind of makes the gameplay less predictable and controllable for each player which in some ways is more fun because there’s always a possibility to win the game, however small. The gold dragon could come out to your wizard and attack you, you might survive. Not very likely. You might then attack the gold dragon and you might kill it. Not very likely… but you could, for example. The odds are in there. Trying to analyse why it works is quite interesting but I know for sure it does work well as a game and I want to bring it back.

Dan Griliopoulos: There’s the iOS and iPad version of the Settlers of Catan. Obviously Settlers is a dice based system so it’s random. They have a system in it where you can also choose a stacking system where the 36 possible results are treated as cards so you have to get through all the results before you move on. It kind of balances against pure randomness, with that.

Julian: So you know there is going to be at least one of each result there… It makes it a bit less… yeah, you could be screwed in Settlers of Catan, I’ve played it many times. I guess they’re trying to make it a little more controlled, but still retain some of the randomness. I’m just not worried about it.  Basically, if you lose, you lose. If you win, you win. If you’re a good player, you will tend to win and if you’re a bad player you will tend to lose but it’s not automatic…

But I’m adding a whole meta-game to the game as well, this is another aspect. A single player meta-game. But you might have some multiplayer effects as well.

Dan Griliopoulos: Is this the second level type thing the same as you had in XCOM?

Julian: It’s going to be a little bit simpler than XCOM, actually. The idea is that you’re asked as a player to name the world that you wish to explore. This is used as a random number seed generator for the environment. So you have a world which is full of different regions, different types of terrain, and you’re exploring. Your objective is basically to kill the Chaos King in the region but your secondary objective is to find stuff because there’s lots of artefacts in the game which are going to be useful to you in multiplayer battles or single player battles, so there’s a slight RPG element to it as well. So you’ve created this world and you’re exploring it. You go from region to region, you’ll fight any enemies in each region who have their own sets of spells or own personality. There’s different terrain types in each region. There’s special places within realms, places where you can learn your spells, places where you can teleport, places where you can move things around the world…

Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds a bit Super Mario Brothers.

Julian: Well, um… maybe. It’s a place that people can explore, still bearing in mind they have this requirement, this strategy, to find and locate the boss and kill him. Very simple.

Dan Griliopoulos: But it’s all procedural?

Julian: Well, it’s procedurally generated in the sense that yeah, you’re still within an environment (that) consists of distinct regions, but they’re randomly put together. Procedurally generated adventure, if you want to call it that way.

Dan Griliopoulos: It’s nice to see you’re still genre busting, anyway.

Julian: Well, yeah. I really like games that generate stuff for you rather than have everything… I complained about stuff being over designed. My obsession was always with scenario generators, if you want to call them that, where things are generated for the player to explore and it may be something nobody else has ever played because it’s pseudo-randomly generated.

Dan Griliopoulos: Which saves you programming time to some degree.

Julian: It saves level design, that’s for sure. Yeah. It does allow you to create something vast and complex to explore with less effort, sure. Because you’re not designing every single possible experience the player could have in the game at all. Yeah, it’s one of my little obsessions I guess, and I’ve still to see it done well in games. Rogue-like games have randomly generated environments and that’s part of their attraction, because apart from that they’re very simple games.

Dan Griliopoulos: Well, that and permadeath.

Julian: It’s true. So I still think this style of game has an attraction for a lot of people. We’re going to keep it nice and accessible and simple like back in the Spectrum days, but obviously there’s much nicer updated presentation of course.

Dan Griliopoulos: And the ability to patch.

Julian: Yes, and add extra content as you’re going, of course, and proper multiplayer online …

Dan Griliopoulos: Going on the net and having that extra level of… separate little worlds and endless little worlds.

Julian: The thing about this generating from a name you type is that you can say to a mate of yours, “Look, try this particular word because in this particular region you will find a tower of mist where you can get the Cloak of Fortitude”. You’ll be able to exchange stuff with other players and discuss what you can get where in a particular realm. Of course, there’s millions of possibilities of things that can be generated this way.

Dan Griliopoulos: Have you worked out how many possibilities?

Julian: More than that. It depends entirely on the limits of the random number seed, I guess, but it would be a lot.

Dan Griliopoulos: Sounds wonderful. Have you got an idea yet when you want to release?

Julian: Next year. I can’t be more specific than that, really.

Dan Griliopoulos: You have to finish it first.

Julian: Well, yes. Plus, I’m trying to build the team and get resources for the game as well, so this is all part of the process. When you’re an indie developer you don’t necessarily have to start with a fixed budget and a fixed schedule and fixed resources.

Dan Griliopoulos: Why Bulgaria? Is that because there are established programmers out there?

Julian: No, it’s where I live. I’ve lived there since 2005.

Dan Griliopoulos: I didn’t realise that. Why do you live in Bulgaria?

Julian: Because my wife is Bulgarian and I’ve got two children as well, two years old. I worked for Ubisoft from November 2006 to March last year, just over 5 years.

Dan Griliopoulos: What were you working on?

Julian: Ok, so when I first started at Ubisoft Bulgaria – it’s a small studio, 13 people – I was employed as a game designer. The first project they wanted me to work on was Chess Master which I was a bit surprised at. So that’s… 2006, 2007 they were working on Chess Master 11, I think, for PC. I’m not sure why they wanted me to work on this because I thought the game of Chess had already been designed. Actually, what they wanted was a DS version of Chess Master. We added some mini games based on Chess which I designed.

Dan Griliopoulos: So you redesigned Chess?

Julian: I actually designed some original games using some Chess-like rules. There was one, my particular favourite, called Fork My Fruit where the Chess board had bits of fruit on it and you had to, using the forking principle in Chess, you could fork fruit. You got the fruit from the board.

Dan Griliopoulos: What is forking?

Julian: Forking is attacking two things simultaneously. So you can move with a rook up there on a row and you might attack one on this side and one on that side.

Dan Griliopoulos: So you’re pinning two…

Julian: Not pinning. Pinning is where you’re attacking a piece which if the other player moves it, there will be another piece behind it that you could also attack.

Dan Griliopoulos: Even the language is different! (I couldn’t find a Chess game on Steam…)

Julian: I did Chess Master, then I worked on some projects  that were cancelled. Then I worked on Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars, which was a launch title for 3DS. This was a project that I actually pitched,  funnily?

Dan Griliopoulos: It fits in with the Ghost Recon thing, and it fits with what you like doing…

Julian: I just wanted to do a decent turn based strategy game again. I wanted to do something similar to XCOM still and I thought, well, you know, what’s Ubisoft got that could be used here? Looking at the franchise, OK – Ghost Recon, possibly. So I pitched it initially as XCOM meets Ghost Recon. That was the pitch, basically. One of the guys at Ubisoft central office in Paris said yeah, ok. He OKed the project and we did a working demo and design. I think we spent maybe 3 months on this. It did have aspects of XCOM. There was supposed to be a world view you know, generated battles and maps, different bosses in different parts of the world that you had to tackle. The tactical game system was, actually interestingly, the tactical game that we had for this design was very much like the new XCOM where you’d have two actions per turn for each character.

Dan Griliopoulos: What do you think of the new XCOM?

Julian: It’s great. It’s very very good. It’s different from …

Dan Griliopoulos: Was it Jake? Solomon. The lead designer on it. Seems to have been very respectful to elements of it and has obviously just gone “…but we need to make this work on consoles”.

Julian: He was worried what I would think of it. He’s changed so much. I think he was probably worried that I’d come up to him and say “Jake, you’ve been a naughty boy. What have you done to my XCOM?” but no. It wasn’t like that at all.

Dan Griliopoulos: You’ve played it then, I take it?

Julian: I have played it. I’ve actually restarted it twice. Maybe I should try it on an easier difficulty level because I haven’t managed to get to the end yet! If there’s anything that’s a problem with the game, it’s that you can be playing it for quite a while without knowing that you are actually completely screwed and you should have stopped and started again.

I think my second playthrough I did a lot better but it got to a point where I could see I was in a bit of a downward spiral, and I just couldn’t see a way out of it. I thought, well ok. I’ve got to restart again. I was losing too much funding. It’s quite unforgiving, actually, in that sense.

Dan Griliopoulos: I was lucky that I never had a satellite shot down but I forgot to put any more up. I was just running with that minimal level…

Julian: That’s the mistake I made on my first run through. I wasn’t paying enough attention to the satellites. I wasn’t getting the funding.

Dan Griliopoulos: Yeah, you need to sort of circle the world… it’s something that you learn as you play. Which is an interesting game design element.

Julian: It is, and pretty much every decision you make has to be fairly carefully considered, because there’s always a very distinctive trade-off in decisions. I think Firaxis did a really, really good job. If you ask me, would I have designed the game in the same way? I would have to say no.

Dan Griliopoulos: How would you have designed it?

Julian: (laughs) I certainly would have gone back to my idea of generators again. I would not have accepted anything less than pseudo-randomly generated maps. I probably would have had more… less contrived elements to it. I felt that the… was it the Terror missions? Where you had to pick one out of three spots where you had to… Aliens are terrorizing three places. You’ve got to pick one of them and you have to –

Dan Griliopoulos: Ugh, God, yes. You know that the other two continents are going to be on minimal support and if something goes wrong, they’re already on minimal support, you’re going to lose that funding on those two countries…

Julian: You’re going to definitely lose out somewhere. You have to choose which one you’re going to lose. I would have designed it differently, for sure. Would it have been as successful as the new XCOM? Probably not. No, I’m afraid.

Dan Griliopoulos: They probably wouldn’t have given it the marketing money, to be honest. An awful lot of it was (that) they actually backed it, which was amazing. They backed a turn based strategy game on console.

Julian: That is absolutely incredible. I mean, it’s unheard of really, unless it’s Civilisation. Civilisation was the only game that was really surviving as a turn based franchise.

Dan Griliopoulos: And thriving, with Civilisation Revolution as well which was wonderful.

Julian: Exactly. It’s actually made Take 2 Interactive the new Microprose because they’re the only company that’s got these really popular well known, established turn based franchises. Civilisation and now XCOM.

Dan Griliopoulos: Was there anything you would have added to the XCOM as it stands? Is there anything you felt, that little bit was missing from my…

Julian: Well, yeah, the Geoscape is kind of missing. In the original game, the position of your bases – what you put in those bases – was important because aliens were active in particular areas, but the position of stuff in the new geoscape from the new game is actually, irrelevant, really. It doesn’t really play any part in the game, so you don’t have that. The Interceptors are based in each region. I guess my original game was a bit more simulation-ny and the new game is a bit more board game-y.

Dan Griliopoulos: Which is a way the industry’s going. There’s a whole video games made by board game designers section in the West Hall at GDC, so everyone plays board games now. I went to Jagex and Jagex have a whole room dedicated to their employees playing board games.

Julian: Yeah. This is very good and the new XCOM shows a lot of board game-y influences, without a doubt.

Dan Griliopoulos: You are a board gamer yourself, aren’t you?

Julian: Yeah, I play board games. Absolutely. Far more than computer games.

Dan Griliopoulos: Would you design board games? Is that something you wanted to do or have done?

Julian: I do. Well, I have done, yes. Interestingly, Chaos, the game that I’m now remaking, was originally a board game.

Dan Griliopoulos: Was it board game or card based?

Julian: Card based. Basically you had  grid of squares, your board or arena. You had a wizard character, you put it on your wizard card and you had a hand of cards which was your spells. So to cast a spell you put your card down, roll the dice to cast it. If it’s a creature it goes on the board, you can start moving it around and attacking enemies. If it’s a spell, you have to resolve the effect of the spell. So yeah, it was originally a board game. On my blog I’ve got some pictures of the cards. I put them up a couple of months ago. So, I still have the original cards from this board game that I made. I often had lots of ideas for board games. I made one – a couple, actually – while I was at Ubisoft which we played with the level designers there. I’ve never tried getting any of them published.

Dan Griliopoulos: You’re still a relatively well known name in games to some degree. Possibly amongst people who like XCOM…

Julian: Well, I’m well known in games for people of a certain age. Who have a certain disposition towards strategy games, that’s about it!

Dan Griliopoulos: It is odd how your generation, there weren’t many superstars. I’m not saying there weren’t people who deserved to be superstars but there wasn’t the eulogisation of the designer as one person. “He’s made this game and he’s brilliant, look at this!”

Julian: Apart from Peter Molyneux, yeah.

Dan Griliopoulos: He’s still going, isn’t he?

Julian: Yes, he is.

Dan Griliopoulos: (There’s no culture like Film Buffs). I knew about Citizen Kane, WC Fields and the Marx brothers and all of this kind of stuff, but that’s from way before I was born. I don’t think the same thing happens quite so much amongst young gamers, that they go, “oh, the Gollops” or…

Julian: No, they don’t. Shame really, isn’t it? (Laughs)

Dan Griliopoulos: Well, you’re one of my heroes so I’m quite happy to be interviewing you. What do you think of the Gollop Chamber?

Julian: I haven’t reached that, so I don’t actually know what it does yet.

Dan Griliopoulos: I won’t spoil it for you.

Julian: I’m on my third play through at the moment. I’m fairly confident that I will get to the end stage!

Dan Griliopoulos: The Gollop Chamber is the ultimate thing on your base.

Julian: Jake sent me an email last year some time, saying “We’ve got this thing in here we want to call the Gollop Chamber, is that OK?”. I said “…yyyeees…” but of course, he wouldn’t tell me what it did.

Dan Griliopoulos: You hope when you finally get to see what it does, it’s something nice. It’s nice, don’t worry. it’s fine.

I’ve got a question about Terror from the Deep, were you involved with that?

Julian: I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Dan Griliopoulos: When I was a kid, I knew that it came out (and) I was extremely excited and then I played it and it and went, “This feels like an asset swap, except I can’t use some of my guns on land”.

Julian: I think pretty much the entire code base was identical to the first game. I don’t think they really changed very much.

Dan Griliopoulos: Last year at GDC I spoke to Frederick Raynal who made Alone in the Dark. He had this thing where he made Alone in the Dark, he worked on it like a bastard for a year and didn’t sleep more than about 3 hours a night for a year. It got to the end of the year and they said, “It’s doing really well! We’re going to put another one out. We’re just going to do exactly the same thing. We’re just going to make a clone and change a few bits” and he quit, obviously, immediately. Terror from the Deep had that air about it. It was just one of those games that… it’s been put out because they wanted some more money and the theme had done surprisingly well. Had you left the company?

Julian: No, no, yeah. What happened was, we started working on XCOM: Apocalypse pretty much the same time as they started work on Terror from the Deep. What really happened was that myself and Nick wanted to do a different game to XCOM, or at least do something a little bit different than just remake the original, so that’s how XCOM: Apocalypse came about. There were some significant differences in the way that the game worked.

Dan Griliopoulos: It had a bit of Sim City about it, I remember.

Julian: You were in this city and it had different organisations in this city with diplomatic relationships with each other and stuff. But they wanted a sequel within 6 months basically, this is what they wanted and we had to say “Well, it’s not possible to do anything except re-skin the game with some (new) graphics”.

Actually, they changed the story of course, I guess the clever bit, it was all about under the sea rather than Mars. Actually, it took a year to do the game. I had a huge team on it. Well, when I say huge I mean like, 15 people. Compared to just me and Nick and Helen, John and Martin on the graphics side of the original, was… much bigger.

Dan Griliopoulos: It must be strange to see studios with 400 staff, like Destiny, which is the Bungie game that’s been announced.

Julian: Well I know from working at Ubisoft they have hundreds upon hundreds working on Assassin’s Creed – more than 400. Assassin’s Creed 3 is absolute bare minimum 600 people, probably, were working on it for most of the time worldwide across many studios.

Dan Griliopoulos: Their studio in Montreal, is it 2100 people?

Julian: It’s huge. Ubisoft and probably other big publishers actually, they’re making games by pure brute force.

Dan Griliopoulos: Having the Shanghai studio which is cheap to do lots of asset generation…

Julian: Yes. Obviously, these games require a huge amount of asset generation. It’s like a factory. They’re an immensely difficult undertaking, to be sure.

Dan Griliopoulos: You had your huge team of 15 people on Terror from the Deep, is that right? Or XCOM: Apocalypse?

Julian: On XCOM: Apocalypse the team size for that actually was 5 of us at Mythos Games working on it and there was a team of artists at Microprose working on it as well. Again, it’s a similar arrangement to the first game where we were doing the programming and Microprose were doing the artwork. But it was a disastrous project, even from the beginning, because one thing that happened is that the Microprose art team were trying to change the design of the game. Then they were failing to actually deliver anything that they promised. They just couldn’t get the isometric graphic system sorted out in their heads. They did things which just didn’t work, like they hired a guy whose name I forget to design the aliens, and this is a well known Science Fiction artist and he built these big models of the aliens and the idea was that they were going to scan them and put them into a 3D modelling software. It just didn’t work. He had all this fine detail in these models and this scanning system just wasn’t good enough.

Dan Griliopoulos: I do remember the aliens in it looking a bit blobby.

Julian: Then they had to recreate them basically in a 3D software they were using at the time. They looked… yeah, they were awful, blobby things. They were nasty.

Dan Griliopoulos: You couldn’t tell what they were.

Julian: Terrible graphics. It was very difficult.

Dan Griliopoulos: I still enjoyed playing it in the end, mainly because of jet bikes, plasma cannons and missiles.

Julian: We had a real time system as well which was interesting, actually. It had some interesting aspects to it, but I don’t think you can beat turn based games for simple straightforward playability.

Dan Griliopoulos: And planning tactically, as well. Responding on the fly was just tough, especially when you could just pause. Let’s just quickly deal with Interceptor. What was the other first person shooter style one?

Julian: XCOM: Interceptor, yeah. That was the X Wing thing…

Dan Griliopoulos: That was a spaceship thing. Was there an FPS one that was planned, or…?

Julian: XCOM: Alliance was an FPS one, yes. It wasn’t a straightforward first person shooter, it was like a team based shooter, allegedly something similar to Rainbow 6.

Dan Griliopoulos: But with aliens.

Julian: But with aliens, yeah.

Dan Griliopoulos: At what point did you stop being involved with making these games?

Julian: After Apocalypse. So, I had absolutely nothing to do with XCOM: Alliance or XCOM: Interceptor or any XCOM anything else.

XCOM: Enforcer? Well, what happened there was that Microprose or Hasbro as it was by then, they had three Unreal licenses, I think, that that had to somehow use. XCOM: Alliance was using Unreal but because that project was going nowhere, they decided to “Well, let’s just put out a straightforward Unreal-style shooter using the assets from XCOM: Alliance. We’ll at least have something there to show for all the effort”.

XCOM: Alliance was in development for a long time. How the development got screwed up, I don’t know. As you’re probably well aware, quite often games companies start and you’re going for a long time and it just doesn’t happen.

Dan Griliopoulos: This Milo and Kate seems to have broken Peter Molyneux’s heart. They just gradually realised they couldn’t make something believable. Yeah, it happens a lot.

Julian: It does. It’s quite frequent.

Dan Griliopoulos: What about the clones? After Microprose and Hasbro stopped making them, suddenly in the late 90s / early 2000s people started making XCOM clones with names like UFO: Afterlight, Aftermath. Some of them were really good, some of them were dreadful.

Julian: UFO: Aftermath arose out of my Dreamland Chronicles project. We did one game for Virgin Interactive called Magic and Mayhem, then I proposed to Virgin, “Why don’t we try and do a remaining or remake of the original XCOM with, obviously, a different story? Make it PC and Playstation II”. It was still a turn based game, still had all the elements of XCOM there. The tactical part was a little bit different because you controlled characters using a traditional third person controls for a console game.

If you’ve played Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3 then you’ve got an idea of how Dreamland Chronicles worked, because it’s very similar. We had a little action point bar that would go down as you moved your character just like in Valkyria Chronicles, and when you wanted to shoot somebody you’d get the over the shoulder view, just like in Valkyria Chronicles. When you select characters it was on an overhead map, just like in Valkyria Chronicles.

So, it was looking promising, but Virgin Interactive had problems. They were sold to Interplay and then to Titus Interactive. Titus Interactive took one look at our game and said “This is rubbish. This is so bad. Sorry, we’re not interested in this”. Well, Titus were more interested in the IP that they got from buying Interplay. Whether they managed to do anything productive with it is another question.

So, we had to close the studio. We had a 4 game contract with Virgin and now Titus but they were not going to fund this or any other games and we couldn’t go to another publisher, so we had to shut the studio. What they did was they took all of the assets that we’d done and they ultimately ended up in the hands of ALTAR Interactive who made UFO: Aftermath. Unfortunately they stripped out our fantastic Valkyria Chronicles -style turn based stuff and they put what I thought was a rather weak real-time thing in there.

Dan Griliopoulos:The last game they made, Afterlight, was actually good; good characters, a fun plot, interesting Geoscape mechanics…

Julian: I played it very briefly, I seem to remember. Certainly not very much, no. Unfortunately I very rarely finish games these days. Well, from my point of view I don’t have the time. A lot of my game playing is more about research than entertainment because with limited time to play games, my interest is finding out what people are doing rather than…

So at the moment, my main obsession is trying to find turn based games for iPad, for example, to figure out what is there out there that’s interesting.

Dan Griliopoulos: I get an awful lot from BoardGameGeek.

Julian: There’s a lot of board games coming out which is really cool. Very nice. But I’m talking about original turn based, to be tactical turn based games. There’s one I like called Battlefield Academy which is also on PC, of course. That’s quite nice.

Dan Griliopoulos: What are you playing at the moment?

Julian: What am I playing? Uh… well… I know what I’m about to play because I just downloaded it before I came to GDC, which is FTL. I purposefully did not start doing it ’cause I had to finish my presentation so I guess as soon as I get back that’s … at the top of my list. Before that, I was playing XCOM, of course.  I do play games on the iPad as well. The latest one is Battlefield Academy. Outwitters, I quite like. Outwitters is nice. Online turn based game, cutesy graphics, brutal gameplay. Chess-like.

Dan Griliopoulos: I haven’t heard Chess mentioned once, apart from you, during all the time at GDC. It’s not something people learn from any more. They don’t reference it any more. That’s really odd, considering it was, for 6000 years or however long it’s been around…

Julian: I don’t know. Maybe people think it’s boring and that’s all there is to it. If you like Chess, you’ll like Outwitters. Outwitters has got a brilliant mechanic in it which is very simple. Each piece has a certain move, a certain strength – attack strength and defence strength – but you can only see the board as far as your pieces can move. So, there’s a hidden area of the board, you have to be careful. You’re not entirely sure what your opponent’s doing. Very simply done. That gives the game a little bit of uncertainly and a bit of edge. It’s quite nice.

Dan Griliopoulos: Can you see what your opponent can see?

Julian: Not exactly. You’re not entirely sure what he can see. Most of the time, actually, you’re not sure. Some of the time you’re sure because the long range scout units, if you’ve got those up front on your front lines you know that you can see as much as he can see, because his scout units can’t see further than yours sees. It’s an intriguing game.

Dan Griliopoulos: Oh, that reminds me. The other XCOM game that was in development which has gone very quiet. Did you ever see that?

Julian: Oh yeah, the 2K Marin game. The only thing that I read is that they sort of rebooted it. Obviously, gone back to the drawing board a little bit trying to figure out what the identity of this game should really be. I think they got some bad reactions on several levels. One was the fact it was an FPS. Secondly, the presentation was a bit… this 1950s style alternate reality thing probably didn’t go down too well with a lot of people, either, so it may be they’re rethinking that. I’m not sure. Graphically, it was amazing.

Dan Griliopoulos: Thank you!

 

A Basic Marketing and PR plan for Indies.

Nowadays, I’m mainly a writer, designer and journalist. But I spent three years in video games PR, working for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more. Here’s a basic media campaign for an indie developer.

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Okay, so I spent three years in video games PR. After a few months I wanted out, but I stuck around for three years because… Nowadays, I rarely do active PR any more for projects I’m not personally creating (though I’m happy to advise / consult / draw up marketing plans / etc.) In my short career, I worked for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more.

So (sotto voce: appeal to authority) please believe me when I say that kind of PR and marketing is mostly inappropriate for indie game development.

PRs are expensive and best placed when dealing with large numbers of large visible media targets who don’t move around much. Their careful mixture of quartermaster and pimp is appropriate given the industry’s origins in wartime propaganda departments. They’re best when using their extensive contacts or cold-calling relevant media to place stories. Using them for an indie campaign is like building battleships when you’re fighting insurgents.

PRs have two aims; to make sure their client’s product is well-known and liked, and to maintain their relationships with as many people as possible who are relevant to their continued career. To do this, they charge a lot of money – £200-600 a day weren’t unusual amounts when I worked in a PR agency, though self-employed individuals will charge less.

Indies don’t need that. If you can afford to pay a PR, you can probably afford to pay a community manager who can do the role part-time. And if you have that money, I’m hesitant to call you an Indie (which is, just, like my opinon, dude.)

(Joe Martin mailed me to disagrees with this bit. He says: “Indie can mean the one guy who’s putting out his first Itch.io game. It can also mean Mike Bithell. It can mean people like Phil Fish, who arguably would have been better off with an agency to shield them a little.”

“Importantly, ‘Indie’ can also apply to people in the middle ground. There are people who do well but could do an order of magnitude better if there was a more robust PR plan in place or that freed them up to work on the game. Earlier I asked indies on Twitter what the biggest problem of doing their own PR was and nearly everyone said that it was that it took up so much time – time they could spend on the game instead. PR support of some sort is genuinely useful to these people – and it doesn’t have to be in the form of a big agency because…”

“The same is true for PR. You’re absolutely right that a big agency like Bastion would be inappropriate for an indie; but there are other options that could really help a one-man team get some extra reach at a reasonable rate. Simon Callaghan is someone I’d recommend for mid-sized indies or small studios. There are a bunch of freelance community managers I know who could fill the middle-ground.”)

For me, what indies need from PR, it’s best that they do themselves, because much of their appeal is in their individuality, which a journalist wants to make a personal connection with. When I get an email through from an Indie PR, it tends to not even get starred, because I know they aren’t expecting a reply most of the time – but when I get an email from the Indies themselves, I feel obliged to reply (except for super-Indies like Mike who have enough coverage already). That might just be me, but I’m betting lots of the press (subconsciously) feel the same. (I’m happy to hear I’m wrong)

Anyway, I promised a basic media campaign for an Indie. Infodump follows…

BASIC INDIE MARKETING CAMPAIGN PLAN

  • BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WHILST YOU’RE DEVELOPING.
    • This is just a matter of talking to journos and other devs.
      • If you need a foot-up, I maintain a Twitter list of journos here and developers here
    • Don’t talk about your game until you’re ready for stories to appear.
    • Engage on Twitter.
      • Cynically, questions are a good way of eliciting replies.
      • But you should genuinely ask them what they’re looking for from devs to get coverage. Personalised communications are much more time-consuming but are worth it.
    • Engage on developer forums. Show your stuff off. Your fellow developers are a great source of buzz about your game.
  • PLAN BEFORE YOU SEND ANYTHING OUT.
    • Think about when you’re realistically going to be done on your project.
    • Then check that you’re not going to clash with any other major announcements at that stage – you don’t want to come out at the same time as Minecraft 2. Move it back if you have to.
    • When you’ve got a date you’re confident you’ll be done by, subtract two months from it. That’s when you should start chasing for previews.
      • Previews are much more important than reviews because journalists (mostly) will only do previews if they’re interested in a product. So they’re mostly positive.
    • News pieces should appear in the two months before that.
      • This is to build buzz rapidly – Indie games typically only get one or two bites at the coverage cherry before review, so we’re not aiming for the long campaign of a AAA game. You need to get news piece, preview and maybe review as fast as possible.
      • As Joe reminded me, you also need to get this stuff up on Reddit. Find the right community, post the direct link from your press site / website (if you’ve built one – which you should. I know, I know, it’s all more work and you’d rather be coding.)
    • Reviews should appear in the week of release. You really want people to be able to click ‘buy’ right then and there.
    • Add an extra month lead time for any print publications you want to hit.
    • For important media, think about exclusive content you could produce – screenshots, skins, movies, beta codes, whatever…
    • If you have to do any contract stuff (like NDAs!) contract() can do that for you.
  • NEWS.
    • When your game is a good enough state to show off, you want an announcement news email / tweet. In that you’ll need:
      • Some assets.
      • Preferably an embeddable Youtube video of your prototype running.
      • A short, taut description of your game. Lots of active phrases, hyperbole.
      • A bit of blurb about your background.
      • Say you’re available for a chat about the game.
      • Keep it as casual as possible – Indie charm still works.
      • Personalise that email to each person you’re mailing. Hopefully, you’ve already been talking to/at them on Twitter. Try to talk about what you’d like from their site, and show that you’ve at least read it.
      • Feel free to chase on Twitter then email when a little time has gone by.
        • You want to remove friction at every stage. Every click to get something will lose some journos – every form or sign-in page will lose 90%. So minimize clicks.
  • PREVIEW is your second email.
    • It’ll have all the same bits as the above, all refreshed.
    • It’ll have a release date.
    • It’ll also have a preview code, if you can manage that. Steam or iOS codes are best. Use distribute() to get builds out.
  • REVIEWS should be tried for, but are hard to get these days.
    • You should also consider honestly whether your game is going to review well. If not, you probably shouldn’t chase reviews. Coast on that positive feeling from the previews and make a better game next time.
    • If you’re not sure, send it out anyway – the coverage from a positive review gets people to buy it. Negative reviews stop people buying it who weren’t going to buy it anyway.
      • I know certain PRs try to guess the intent of individual press and restrict access from potential negative impressions. That’s an option, but too stressful at this stage given your time.
    • Generate as many codes as you can. Many press won’t be happy to pay for your product, so make it easy for them to get it. Steam codes are best, iOS next (yes, I know they’re annoying), or even a version to download.
    • I’m torn between asking if they want codes or just sending them. The former means you’ve started interacting, which lets you communicate again, to chase coverage – but requiring them to email for a code is friction and friction stops coverage. It’s your call here.

Of course, having contacts beyond those you’ve made through Twitter is important. If you ask me nicely / donate to Games AID, I’ll point you in the right direction for any publications you’re missing. And, of course, if you invite me to write for your project instead, I’d be *obliged* to share my contacts for the purposes of PR. Hint, hint.

How Are Games Changing SF Literature?

Walking into any bookshop, the science-fiction section seen, from a distance, is healthy; an island of colour and variety amidst the sad faces of the ‘misery memoirs’, the black and bone of the ‘Dark Romance’, and the silver-backed Penguin classics. Yet, get closer, and there’s something strange. The colour comes in bursts, great streaks of the same style dominating the shelves, logos iterating across shelf after shelf. Stars Wars and Star Trek are there, for sure, but they’re not in charge; video game franchises are dominating science fiction and fantasy.

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This article originally appeared in PlaySF magazine, way back in 2012.

Walking into any bookshop, the science-fiction section seen, from a distance, is healthy; an island of colour and variety amidst the sad faces of the ‘misery memoirs’, the black and bone of the ‘Dark Romance’, and the silverbacked Penguin classics. Yet, get closer, and there’s something strange. The colour comes in bursts, great streaks of the same style dominating the shelves, logos iterating across shelf after shelf. Stars Wars and Star Trek are there, for sure, but they’re not in charge; video game franchises are dominating science fiction and fantasy.

The video game market is huge, especially compared to original science fiction. Yet, game fiction is often ignored by the publishing industry. I talked to Tony Gonzales, the writer of the Eve Online tie-in novels The Empyrean Age and Templar One, who bemoaned the short shrift given to game fiction; “it’s all piled into Fantasy / Science Fiction,” he said, “located in the most inconspicuous section of the store. It’s the same with digital sales. The obscurity is compounded by the fact that some literary trade publications won’t even review game tie-ins.” So why do SF literary journalists turn their noses up at this burgeoning genre, when it’s bringing new readers to the market?

Gonzales thinks that “general SF purists scoff at gaming because most games reuse ideas and concepts that have been in print for a decade…” Hard science fiction fans also have particular problems with games. Gonzales explains; “(also) most enjoyable games makes some patent flubs to science in the name of creating fun gameplay. That’s pure sacrilege to the hard SF fan because it shatters their immersion… the game audience is used to instant gratification… they have short attention spans and authors trying to capture them better get to the point quickly.”

Given this, it seems necessary for the best SF author to adapt to gamers’ tastes by avoiding challenging material – and this is already happening. “I see a certain amount of literary science fiction trying to appeal to the gamer audience,” Niall Harrison, Editor in Chief of speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons, said, “Mostly in near-future thrillers that incorporate MMORPGs or ARGs as a plot element – I’m thinking of Charles Stross’ Halting State, and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game, not to mention Stephenson’s Reamde.”

It’s also happening in the way that further-future SF is written. “Ten years ago I might have talked about a ‘blockbuster’ sensibility in the work of writers like Richard Morgan (who has since worked on the story for Crysis 2).” says Harrison “Now I’m thinking more of an ‘FPS’ sensibility in novels like Greg Bear’s Hull Zero Three (and Bear has of course written Halo tie-in novels).” Gonzales agreed; “There’s a struggle between what audiences want to read in SF versus what authors who work in the genre want to write.”

Neil Tringham, an ex-games designer and now editor on the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction told me that “there are presumably some people who buy spinoffs from SF games such as Starcraft who wouldn’t otherwise read SF.” What’s new is that the generic science-fiction of the past has been replaced by branded tie-ins, including games. “I do suspect that the part of the book market that was occupied by long running but not especially original sf adventure series, such as E C Tubb’s Dumarest sequence, has to some extent been taken over by long running but not very innovative series based on company owned concepts, such as Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000,” said Tringham.

Not that branded science fiction is new, as Strange Horizon’s Niall Harrison notes; “there has been tie-in fiction for decades and well-respected writers have written it in all periods of the field’s history. It’s always looked down on by the ‘serious’ sf readers, and it’s almost always sold buckets more than the original stuff.” Gonzales hasn’t produced his own universe fiction yet but if he did, “just about all brand-driven fiction would outsell my work… the marketing resources that can support that brand will be vastly greater than will ever be thrown by publishers at standalone books.”

It’s just a pity that so much of in-game narratives and worlds of games are cheesy, badly conceived or safe. Take the Mass Effect universe, where the height of daring for the writers is to accurately depict the same-sex relationships that exist in our society today. “I do see a certain amount of gentle mocking of the Mass Effect universe for being built from elements of umpteen existing franchises.” says Harrison. “A possible exception might be BioShock, thanks to its dialogue with the work of Ayn Rand.” (Rand’s ideas – about superhuman entrepreneurs being held back by the average man – informed the story of the dystopian shooter Bioshock). On the whole, though, when the fiction is reviewed it garners bad scores – probably worse than it would get if it wasn’t branded.

However, it’s not only literary journalists who decry the quality of game fiction. Consider the recent comments of EA’s Chuck Beaver, the producer of the Dead Space franchise; “Gears of War… contains atrocious, offensive violations of story basics. Yet it doesn’t seem to ruin it for many, many people. It’s literally the worst writing in games, but seems to have no ill effects.” He even admitted that his own company’s Dead Space was itself “just a simple haunted house story that we later pasted a personal narrative on top of – a lost girlfriend who is really dead.” (He apologised after this statement.) Admittedly, Beaver’s not talking about the books, but if the original narrative of the game is bad, how far can the fiction improve on it? Is game tie-in fiction just bad?

A Quick Philosophy Lesson
Most game fiction falls into the ‘space opera’ category, AKA ‘science fantasy’; that is, unscientific futuristic fiction. It’s enjoyable, but it’s pulp fiction, like Mass Effect. Is there a moral argument for valuing hard science fiction over fantasy, beyond keeping educated SF fans immersed? Well, let’s assume we want to make as many people happy as possible, beyond the fleeting pleasure of actually reading the fiction. An old exponent of keeping people happy was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. In On Liberty he talked about “experiments in living” like so;

“As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so is it that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when any one thinks fit to try them.”

Now, speculative fiction has always aimed for this. It’s shown people other ways of living, on the basis of other ways the world could be, and explored the personal (Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon), social (H.G. Well’s The Time Machine) and moral (James Blish’s A Case of Conscience) consequences of this. It’s been damn good entertainment, yes, but it’s also opened up people’s minds to the possibilities of other ways our societies could work.

The best at this has been hard science fiction, because it takes the technology of the near future and extrapolates how our society would alter just from that – Clarke and Asimov are the classic examples here, though we might also point to John Brunner’s scarily prescient Stand on Zanzibar or Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus. This is exactly the sort of fiction that the new gaming audience doesn’t like and is getting squeezed out.

And the worst at throwing up these models of living? I’d argue the worst is ‘space opera’. Its relevance to our lives is purely in its unjustified assumption of social parallels. And that’s what’s dominating the shelves because SF video games are pure science fantasy. Indeed, they’re bringing new forms of science fantasy into existence, as the Science Fiction Encylopedia’s Tringham explains; “There are two trends in recent books which have at least been influenced by developments in SF games. I’m thinking of what the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes as Science and Sorcery ( the ‘genre-blending juxtaposition of sf and fantasy settings’) and Medieval Futurism ( ‘sf… with heavy overtones of the Middle Ages feudal systems as the governing bodies’.”

As a gamer, I’m overjoyed that games have such a large cultural impact; as a SF reader, I’m ecstatic that they may be extending the reach of SF beyond its niche; and I can’t deny that many of these books tell a terribly good yarn. Yet, as a good utilitarian, I’m depressed to see something so dominant which rarely mingles its undeniable entertainment value with philosophical lessons or images of our possible futures.

A counter-argument, as made to me by PlaySF’s editor Richie when discussing this article, is that the moral questions can still be raised by all fiction, including space opera; “I thought the patent flub of having clones in, say, Eve Online actually brings about interesting questions about the value of life when death becomes only a minor financial concern – which has been done to death in proper SF.” Indeed, SF games have had a positive effect on the acceptance of SF and fantasy ideas, across all media, similar to the way that Margaret Atwood’s or George Orwell’s near future dystopias managed to avoid the label of SF. “I rarely hear SF games discussed for their interest as SF.” says Strange Horizon’s Harrison. “People are excited by Portal because it’s charming and the mechanic is cool, rather than because it includes any particularly new SF ideas.”

Despite my personal pessimism, it’s likely that the fiction of games will improve, dragged up perhaps by the fresh innovation and quality we see coming from the indie development scene, like the hard science of Waking Mars or the softer humanism of To The Moon. Perhaps games will even be fed by the great Sci-Fi books of the past, as Roadside Picnic informed the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. If we’re lucky, this fiction will trickle over into the mainstream games and hence books pushed to the SF market. I can hope for all this but given the market’s appetite (and the prevalence of games like the appalling Dark Star), it seems unlikely. As Theodore Sturgeon famously said, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That’s true with both games and with fiction, derived or not.

On Pandora, Mars and making games.

There are these things we call games journalists – they’re funny creatures, all angst and acid, and they call themselves journalists, which these days has the connotation of news-discovery, which they rarely do, and truth-telling, which they mostly attempt, despite often having access to highly misleading sources. They also think of themselves as writers, because it’s all they do. But like all sports journalists wanted to be strikers and all music critics wanted to be the lead singer, all games journalists want to be designers. Or writers. Or just get to put their two pennorth in on a design. They – I mean, we – are so cute.

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Pandora: First Contact

There are these things we call games journalists – they’re funny creatures, all angst and acid, and they call themselves journalists, which these days has the connotation of news-discovery, which they rarely do, and truth-telling, which they mostly attempt, despite often having access to highly misleading sources. They also think of themselves as writers, because it’s all they do. But like all sports journalists wanted to be strikers and all music critics wanted to be the lead singer, all games journalists want to be designers. Or writers. Or just get to put their two pennorth in on a design. They – I mean, we – are so cute.

Anyway, what I’m saying is: I want to be a writer. You know, a real writer, with a Shakespearean ruff and a quill and a tilted leather desk and an antique spittoon full of discarded drafts of my great work. And I want to be a designer.

Along those lines, I’m drafting, loosely, a book with the theme of “What videogames can teach you about philosophy” and an inevitable embarrassing work of fiction that’s sitting in digital sheaves in my Google Drive – but I’m also attempting to make games.

The Martian Question

So anyone who’s been following me on Twitter (rather than here, which I update about my personal life all too infrequently since the trauma of the Ox-Bow Incident) knows that I’ve been working on games this year. Along with Byron Atkinson-Jones, I got Wellcome Trust funding for The Martian Question, a game loosely based on the Frederick Pohl novel ‘Man Plus’, about adapting a man bio-mechanically to live on the surface of Mars. It was a wild little ride, and we made a prototype (which you can see through that post). We’re probably going to pick it up again as soon as Byron finds the time. I’ve written a little more about that here.

Pandora: First Contact

More immediately, I’ve been working with the excellent Proxy Studios on Pandora: First Contact. Essentially, they were making an Alpha Centauri-style game, which was nearing completion, when they realised they didn’t have a backstory, dialogue, and the rest of the things you need a writer for. They told Adam Smith, he tweeted about it, I saw that and wrote them a piece of fanfic about their world that weekend, and they said “write our world.”

Now, it’s odd, but writing fiction for a world is a different joy. Obviously, there were hoops to jump through – the world was almost totally designed when I started on it, with a particular start date that threw up all sorts of madness in technology, and six factions that had been inspired directly by Alpha Centauri – but I still had a lot of freedom.

There are five different parts I’ve been doing. The first was defining a world history. The second was, following that, defining a history for every faction. The third was writing faction-specific diplomatic dialogue. The fourth writing colour and flavour text about every last object in the game. And the fifth, joyously, was to write six faction-specific short stories for the manual that were due in a week.

I made things difficult

Writing the world history and then the faction histories was fun. I just saw the endpoint (six factions on Pandora); found the nearest star (Gliese 667 e); looked at the science needed to get there and wrote it from the present day.

Then wrote it again. And again. And again.

Basically, when I came up with factions to fit the faces, it screwed around with start dates, as our timeline was so packed. Each change to the faction’s intermingled backstories mucked around with the possible science, narrowing our options. If the nearest habitable planet is 26 light years away, and we need a probe to get there, message back and then we need to fly out… well, you don’t get that much change from 100 years, which was all we had. There were times I should have defined the history and written out a clearer timeline.

I also should have got a clearer brief from the team. My sample piece was deliberately evocative of Warhammer 40,000 – a nascent base under siege from an alien foe – which gave them the impression that I was a hard-nosed pulp writer. And then they saw the dialogue I wrote for the Scientific faction, which turned the icy Professor Schreiber into a dappy buffoon, employing lab mice as his secretarial staff. You don’t take a game seriously when the brightest mind on the planet says things like “Oh! Um. We’ve been making a map. Did you want to see it? The 2 dimensional version, of course — the 11 dimensional ones always end up looking like donuts.” Or when he’s complaining your assault on his last bastion is spoiling his bathtime. The team were right to push back and ask for a more serious take.

But the short stories were, after the trudge of the endless XML object files, the simplest part. Sure, I haven’t written a short story for five years. Sure, I’ve never written pulp SF. But just banging a story out a day meant that there wasn’t time to dwell and overcomplicate them. They mostly came out as a straightforward narratives – one political intrigue, one black ops mission, one child’s fairytale, one biopic, one horror pastiche, and the base assault I mentioned before. I hope they work, but I’m mostly proud about how fast they were written.

Anyone, Pandora’s due out this month (November). I’ll probably update on it again soon, as I’m still working over the dialogue and object text. Thanks for reading this far and let me know if you want a beta code – I really need the feedback.

Democracy: Experiments with Manifestos.

What happens when no-one wins an election? All of the manifestos carefully crafted for the 2010 election by our political overlords were, more than usually, a complete waste of time. But us lovers of alternate histories couldn’t help but wonder how they would have ruled if they’d actually won, outright, and what the outcomes of those bizarre manifestos might have been?

This was a piece that I originally wrote for PC Gamer, back around the time of the 2010 elections. But they never ran it, so I got their permission to put it up here.

What happens when no-one wins an election? All of the manifestos carefully crafted for the 2010 election by our political overlords were, more than usually, a complete waste of time. But us lovers of alternate histories couldn’t help but wonder how they would have ruled if they’d actually won, outright, and what the outcomes of those bizarre manifestos might have been?

Only PC games can answer this question. Cliff  Harris’s Democracy games are amongst the most bizarre simulations created, being as much a visualisation of the politic and economic topology of various countries as a game. You play the role of a newly elected party leader, trying to get re-elected as many times as possible, whilst trying to retain as many principles as possible.

It’s not easy. In the Democracy games, almost every policy and economic decision affects other policies, the voting intentions of the population, and various key statistics about that population – many of which also affect each other. So putting a tax on petrol annoys motorists and pleases environmentalists, while reducing GDP and car usage. A reduction in GDP annoys capitalists, and reduced car usage improves air quality – which itself pleases environmentalists, and affects serious issues like pollution and asthma epidemic. Your aim is to cobble together a support base from a variety of factions, at just the right time to get re-elected.

The interface that presents all this is infotastic. The entire game is menus: striped tubes connecting linked issues, policies and factions, with the speed, direction and colour of the stripes indicating the amount and influence of the effects of each issue / policy / faction. You can remove and add policies at will, though Democracy 2 puts limits on your actions, depending on the loyalty, popularity and experience of your cabinet members, much like in reality.

So what would happen if we used these games to do what the political parties couldn’t, and carried out their election manifestos? With Democracy 2 as our laboratory and Great Britain as our petri dish, would we forge a utopian, economic powerhouse with Lib Dem ideals, or craft a new, compassionate society with the policies of the Conservatives? Would the Monster Raving Loony Party lead us to a new renaissance? Would environmental terrorists blow us up? Let’s find out.

How I Did It

  • Using my copies of the manifestos (yes, I bought them all), I’ve tried to determine the actual pledges that the parties had. I’ve matched these up to the extra policies you can implement in game and inputted them as the in-game start conditions for each party. For example, the Lib-Dems pledged to cut the size of the Department of Health by half (which I interpreted, perhaps erroneously, as the whole of the NHS), so I’ve simply slashed funding to the state heath service as one of their first moves (http://tinyurl.com/libdemmani); meanwhile, UKIP claimed they’d spend an extra 40% on Defense, cumulatively every year, so I tried to replicate that throughtout the sim.
  • For scientific rigour, I’ve run the simulations in Democracy 1, then attempted to duplicate the results in Democracy 2 to see how the extra features react. Of course, with assassinations, booms and busts, it was hard to keep the games parallel, but I did my best. When I wrote this, Democracy 3 wasn’t out yet.
  • Every party had the same background situation; terrifying economic volatility, a huge public debt, low interest rates, and relatively cynical voters; any policies we instituted are as near as we could get to the real party’s policies in that situation.
  • Democracy 2’s simulation is more complex, but doesn’t feature the UK. I’ve used a mod that adds it to the game, available from here.
  • (I’ve also tried to replicate each of the then party leader’s speaking / writing style as much as possible – so GB is all passive and far too many clauses, NC is vapid and sincere, DC is… Tony Blair.)
What happens when the wheels fall off the economic cycle...
What happens when the wheels fall off the economic cycle…

Labour Wins: The Eternal Empire of Godron Broon.

Gordon writes: “Och? We won? I have to run this place for another 5 years? Mandy told me that if I insulted the voters and did my best Vincent Price smile, there was no chance I’d have to serve another term, I’d get to have a holiday, and then the complete cock-up of the economy would be the Tories’ fault. Right, right. What did we promise? Hmm. Looks like we said we’d throw money at everything, whilst also cutting costs. How the bloody hell did I work that one out? Oh; eyebrows Darling did the maths.

The Pledge – A Fairer Society: As Labour pledged, I make tax fairer – dropping VAT and pushing up income tax, so the upper and middle class pay more – and funnelling the profits into supporting business and a high tech, green economy. When you cut taxes in Democracy tax evasion drops, so the Keynesians out there will be happy to know I’m actually collecting nearly as much tax as before. Transport, from new motorways and airports, to electric cars and trains, gets buried under cash, which is a huge stimulus to the economy. I also fulfil my commitment to deal with terrorism by giving GCHQ and MI5 enough money to monitor everyone in the country through spy satellites. Their first finding is that religious types don’t like the money I poured into hi-tech (Stem cell research), and are plotting against us. Let them, I think. It’s just as I’m signing a bill into law upping the minimum wage that the first bomb hits. It kills off Miliband Senior, which is no great loss. Onward!

Cabinet In The Woods: The debt is going down, but the liberals are getting antsy, pointing to my television-monitoring, the soaring homelessness and my rejection of freedom of information, to say that the comrades and I have been building a police state. Everyone else is getting antsy about the soaring crime rate and the disease epidemic – I even have to conduct a show trial for Miliburn, as he was threatening to “spend more time with his family.” Mandy is erasing him from the official photographs as I type. The next assassination attempt does for Blunkett, though thankfully his dog Sadie has survived him and will thrive in her new role as Home Secretary, where she will oversee the expansion of the DNA database. At this point, Archbishop Rowan Williams excommunicates me, and the polls have us on just 11%, with only a year left before the election. There’s no way I can pull this off again… Is there?

Great Browntain: Ten years pass, and Great Browntain goes from strength to strength; a technocratic, authoritarian, egalitarian utopia. The few Labour party MPs not killed during the multi-faith terror campaign have sadly moved onto more fulfilling roles in the Falkland gulags, so are spared the sorrow of seeing our beloved leader shot down at the 12th attempt by extreme Anglicans. It is with great humility that I, Comrade Mandelson, have agreed to step into his brogues, proudly dragging this country forward into a bright, red future.

Always with the religious extremists...
Always with the religious extremists…

Lib-Dem Victory: The Rise and Fall of Nicholas Clegg

Nick writes: “How the hell did the Lib-dems end up in charge? That’s a very good question, Tim, and a good question is a question worth answering. Answer it I will. Our goal is to answer that question, not in the old discredited way that the other two parties would have, but a new way. For a new question. A hopeful way for the 21st century. So thank you for that question – Tim. Vince has just passed me a note saying “answer the damn question, you crawly windbag”, which is a vital point, and a point we can trust…”

The Pledge – Education: As the Lib-Dems pledged, I immediately slash 50% of the NHS and defence budgets (I presume cancelling the Trident replacement and the new Eurofighters), and use it to raise public sector pay, increase state pensions, reform the schools, and provide student grants for all. I fiddle with the tax system, reducing VAT and moving the bills onto the wealthy, polluters, motorists and airlines; the excess subsidises the rail networks, rural communities and small businesses. Then we sit back, and wait for all of these changes to trickle through.

It’s My Party, They’ll Cry If I Want Them To: With all this intervention, it turns out that the liberal-democrats themselves are a bit pissed off, so I get Nicky to lay into the Monarchy and chop back the security services; now the liberals are happy, but the patriots are pissed off, and get more pissed off as the defence cuts kick in. The NHS cuts are literally killing us (through an asthma epidemic) as well as destroying us electorally, but it stabilises quickly as we use our massive surplus to pay off our international debts, then cut income TAX, VAT and corporation tax. A despairing gang of generals attempt to mount a coup, but are shot down at Downing Street; all’s going well, the UK’s well on the way to a technological utopia, and the Lib-Dems are proving that they’re not just a one issue party.

 “Vince here. While that supercilious meat-puppet swanned about saving the world, it was the job of twinkletoes here to keep the UK economy on the straight and narrow; it turns out the generals were just one prong of the attack though, as Nicky was assassinated by a lone patriotic gunman, just before the election. Without a leader, even one as flaccid as him, we couldn’t compete, so I start talks about coalition… with Labour.”

I disagree with Nick.
I disagree with Nick.

Tory Victory: Cameron and on and on.

Call-me-Dave writes: “No, I need the spotlight to bring out the blue in my eyes. Well, can’t you photoshop it in afterwards? And could you airbrush out the frown lines? Great, great. Oh, hi! Yes, we always knew we were going to win an absolute majority. With policies like ours, how could we not? I mean, basically, the plan was to keep our heads down and wait for Gordon to cock it up. Job done, Bullingdon boys in Number 10. Oh. The economy’s screwed.”

The Pledge: Tories are traditionally great believers in fulfilling their pledges, except when no-one’s watching, but sadly everyone is. So we spend the first month dealing with the deficit; that is, cutting taxes on the rich and corporations. Mad Cow disease re-appears, and wipes out our support amongst farmers. I freeze public sector spending and state pensions, and transfer the funds to the NHS. Then I cut corporation tax, and replace it with pro-environmental taxes, to get this country working on a, y’know, progressive footing. We push down the huge defense bill (which, with a spy scandal, has the patriots up in arms, but I back the monarch and they love me again), and transfer the funds to subsidies for the railways, green local transport and SMEs (small businesses). Then we limit unskilled workers entering the country. We cancel the Heathrow expansion, as our GDPs booming (mainly due to the longest boom in global economics ever) so we’re running a tremendous surplus with low unemployment.

A Well-Hung Parliament: The trade unionists are whingeing now, the liberals are enraged and I’m condemned by the pope; cynically, we drop middle class income tax in the budget, and promise to cut it more for the next election. A military whistleblower knocks down our right-wing ratings again, and running up to the election the polls are nightmarishly close – we win by a tiny majority again, and the party’s grumbling. Again, the economy is doing great guns, but our poll ratings are held down by dreadful events – more foot and mouth, another spy scandal, sweatshops caused by our cancelling the minimum wage. We last the next four years without changing much, and win the next election by a huge margin.

It seriously looks like we’re going to win the next election standing on our heads – but we forgot the pledges we made in our manifesto and are kicked out. Well, that was a good stint. I’ve become the longest serving Conservative PM since Robert Jenkinson in the 18th Century, and we only got kicked out because I’d made the country too perfect, thanks to an endless global boom, and couldn’t match the election promises I’d had to make. Looks like you can take the silver spoon out of the boy, but you can’t take the boy out of the… the… Coulson! I need an analogy!

This is what happens if you lie to the electorate.
This is what happens if you lie to the electorate.

Smaller parties:

BNP: Our first step; the death penalty for drug dealers and terrorists. It’s in the manifesto, don’t act surprised. Then national service, stronger prisons and police, and strong education and health systems. Then a prison island in the south pacific for the paedophiles and rapists. Then voluntary local currencies and tax cuts. Then… bugger. We’ve been bombed, by everyone except the conservatives. Should’ve kept one or two spies, perhaps, rather than throwing all that money at the army. Um… and that deficit? Ouch. At least we’ve got the homeless off the streets and into uniforms. Um… except I got hounded from office for being so in-debt. Funny, I was sure I’d be assassinated; turns out it’s really hard to turn liberals militant.

UKIP: As an elderly arm of the Tory party, UKIP has lots of spending commitments, particularly for pensioners. Their tactic, from their manifesto, seems to be to solve lots of problems through spending huge amounts of money – such as a 40% increase in the already-huge military budget, £30 billion on flood defences, more spending on cutting foreign ties… unsurprisingly, I find it utterly impossible to balance the books according to their manifesto and get hounded from office by my own party.

Green: The Greens, of all the parties, took the most care at the last election to completely cost their policies, which makes running the country as them surprisingly easy. As the only remaining national party of the left, they obviously slash defence and use it to pay for a huge variety of environmental and union-friendly proposals. Sadly, in our run-through, despite their clever costing and variety of progressive incentives, they lost the right wing entirely early on (with Patriotic plots galore), saw internet-based crime go through the roof due to their support for tech, and were wiped out by a horrendous global recession – as Cliffski always says “events, dear boy, events.” Before they could be kicked out by the electorate, Prime Minister Caroline Lucas was executed by a Patriot death squad that penetrated Parliament itself. Y’ouch.

Monster Raving Loony: The party now run by the late Screaming Lord Sutch’s cat promised many things, most of which are hard to implement in a simulation. Changing the ‘X’ you write to vote to a tick, because “X is as good as writing ‘monumental cock-up’” isn’t in the options. As are dedicated pogo-stick lanes on the motorways and allowing Hovercrafts to go anywhere they like because they’re inflatable, so “being hit by one is less painful” than a car.

As the manifesto seems to have been written by a five-year old with ADD, and most of their policies are anarchistic, anti-authoritarian jokes, I just remove all the funding I can, to end up with the sort of small government that backwater survivalists in Montana dream of. This results in inner-city riots, attacks by every sort of pressure group, drug addiction, gridlock, an antisocial behaviour epidemic, armed robberies and, weirdly, huge support from the trade unions. They must like a joke, then. Meanwhile, an enviro-mentalist group called The Green Brigades is sending me death threats and bombing our cities, while celebrities keep endorsing me. I have to fire half my cabinet before they can quit, but it doesn’t stop the Green meanies blowing up the undefended Downing Street and me with it.

The BNP's policies just don't work.
The BNP’s policies just don’t work.
Cliff Harris
Cliff Harris

Interview with the developer, Cliff Harris (conducted early 2011). 

How did you go about building Democracy & Democracy 2?

The original game was based upon a sudden epiphany when reading a book about robot chimpanzees, when I realised that a neural network could be used to represent the interconnectedness of the political and economic system, not just robot chimps. Once I had that idea in my head I had to code it. The original game was a bit basic in terms of presentation, and I thought that it had a really good base, so I did a sequel that basically expanded on it and made it more palatable in terms of shininess.

Do you have any background in psephology, economics or politics?

I thought psephology was the study of meringues, so definitely not, but in my defence I did study a degree in economics at the London school of economics, plus won my school award for being best in economics. So I guess I have some background there.

Are there inherent biases in the game? Liberals don’t seem to go militant so often…

This is by design, in that liberals do not have a terrorist group, in the same way commuters don’t. I might be showing my Englishness there, but a lot of the social groups in the game have no conflict state beyond ‘aggressive tutting’. I guess the worse case is that they don’t join your party and will not campaign for you in the election.

Have you ever been a member of a banned… I mean, a political party?

I have, and I am a member of one now, but I don’t publicly say who, because I think regardless of the answer people will think it’s skewed the simulation design, and hopefully it hasn’t. My own politics have varied dramatically over the last twenty years anyway.

Do you think politicians should play the game? What might they learn from it? Are there any problems that could have been averted through using Democracy? 

They should definitely play it. I offered it to politicians for free once. it’s literally insane they don’t. It is a great tool to practice managing a large scale complex political economy. You wouldn’t be happy for your brain surgeon to learn on the job, but our Prime Ministers do exactly that. What Democracy teaches you is to consider the long term implications of short term policy changes, and to consider knock on effects. I would like to think that a lot of practice with the game might have actually taught people prudence, rather than just how to say the word, for example.

 If you were making the games today, what would you put in?

The game really lacks an accurate model of the private sector for stuff we have nationalised in the UK. It’s the biggest flaw. I’d definitely put that in, plus some better modelling of house prices. Also, the game doesn’t have a ‘choose your child’s school’ policy, and that has such incredible ramifications for society, it should have been in there.

 Are there any politicians Democracy can’t account for?

I think libertarians may be critical that the ‘crowding out’ of the private sector by the public sector isn’t modelled enough for them to pursue a libertarian agenda accurately, so possibly the game can’t model them well.

 Any chance of Democracy 3? Or a Democracy “educational edition?”

I am busy making things explode for my next game, but I have pencilled in a return to this genre after that. I have lots of ideas on how to improve it.

Is there any way to win at Democracy?

No, you can only lose power, although you could argue that winning all of the achievements in a single game is a victory of sorts (in democracy 2)

I seem to get assassinated a lot by Patriots. Is that a design decision?

You should be more proud of your country, son.

Democracy2 GENERAL

Execution Summary – Bomb or Boot?

When and how our glorious leaders were carried from office.

  • Brown – 14 years, bomb.
  • Cameron – 15 years, boot
  • Clegg – 4.5 years, bomb
  • BNP  – 3.5 years, boot
  • UKIP – 3 years boot
  • Green – 4.5 years bomb
  • Loony – 3 years bomb

How to Apologise

My small section of the internet is getting a little hotter these days; games journalism has always had its corrupt elements, but the combination of low-level “broken window” freebies corruption and the rarer (because of the expense) top-end “bought editorial” corruption, means that more and more well-meaning journalists are having to learn how to do something they’ve not done since they were little kids; say sorry.

“Say sorry!”

My small section of the internet is getting a little hotter these days; games journalism has always had its corrupt elements, but the combination of low-level “broken window” freebies corruption and the rarer (because of the expense) top-end “bought editorial” corruption, means that more and more well-meaning journalists are having to learn how to do something they’ve not done since they were little kids; say sorry.

Now, me, I fuck up regularly. I fucked up when I blogged about my magazine without realising my editor was reading it. I fucked up last week by not checking an article on an old game called Doom enough, and so incurred the wrath of the section of the internet that loves that game, egged on by one of the programmers, John Romero. I looked at what I’d done, corrected it, and apologised fulsomely to the developer. I still feel crapper than an English toilet about it, but hopefully I’ll learn from that.

So, girls and boys, here’s a quick step-by-step guide to saying the hardest word of all.

  1. Look at your critic’s arguments. Don’t reject them out of hand. There may be a kernel of truth in what they say. It may be you’ve gone down a path you never thought you’d take, or drifted away from the moral person you wanted to be – but it’s sometimes hard to see when you’re angry or upset. Get calm and understand why they’re saying what they’re saying.
  2. If you still can’t get perspective, find a Teller of Truth. These are damn hard to find. You want a person who will say what they think no matter what. I typically recommend Slaktus for this because he’s intellectually superior, totally without empathy and mouthy. Ask him what he thinks and he won’t pull any punches.
  3. Apologise directly to the person who’s complaining. If they’ve opened your eyes to your flaws, say that. Do it in person if possible and in public if possible. You want everyone to know you accept the criticism, you want to drive that learning and apology into your mind, to feel it.
  4. Do penance. Not in the religious sense, but in the sense of fixing those wrongs. Focus on where you screwed up. Can you improve that area of your life? What changes are you going to make? How can you avoid it happening again?
  5. Try not to do it again. You probably will – if you’re the sort of person who makes stupid mistakes, you’ll probably keep making them. But, it’s worth making the effort. As Nietzsche said, “On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.”
  6. Take solace in poetry.
Do Not Make Things Too Easy

BY MARTHA BAIRD

Do not make things too easy.
There are rocks and abysses in the mind
As well as meadows.
There are things knotty and hard: intractable.
Do not talk to me of love and understanding.
I am sick of blandishments.
I want the rock to be met by a rock.
If I am vile, and behave hideously,
Do not tell me it was just a misunderstanding.