An interview with Chris Bateman: Imaginary Games

I was lucky to attend a Screen7 event called Adventure-X on Saturday, and I’ll be writing up a follow-up article ready for Christmas. For now, here’s an interview I did with Chris Bateman, co-founder of International Hobo, who is known for his involvement in Discworld Noir (fantastic play!) and author of 21st Century Game Design and Imaginary Games, available now from Zero Books:

So Chris, tell us a bit about yourself.

I work with a company called International hobo. We’re a consultancy providing games design, narrative design, dialogue and player satisfaction services. So, we support other companies making games, basically.

What kind of companies do you mainly work with?

Anyone who will pay us!

Fair enough, so what is it specifically that you do within the company?

Well it depends. Sometimes I’m managing a team of people as we’re working on specific things and I’m working directly on systems design and critique, often I’m working on the narrative design and sometimes I even write dialogue scripts. So it varies from different projects. So on Motorstorm Apocalypse for instance, which we finished working on at the beginning of this year, I did extensive critique of the multiplayer design systems for the team, and I was also managing the narrative designing concept with Richard Boon [co-author of 21st Century Game Design] who also went on to develop all of the cut-scene material and all of the story work. By that point in the project I was supervising and he was doing all of the legwork.

How long have you working at hobo?

I set it up in November ’99 and it’s still going strong now, so just over 12 years.

Good for you, then. Now, do you have any tips for upcoming, aspired game designers who are trying to make a name in the business?

Umm yes, abandon hope all ye who enter here! No, actually, as I was just explaining to another guy, it’s gotten better and worse inside games, and in terms of the upper market the number of developers is decreasing, the number of successful products is decreasing and so there are fewer and fewer slots for people who want to work on the really big titles, but on the other hand, things like the iPhone, and the success of social games [and ‘free apps’?] yeah, free apps too, games that are celebrities including things like Minecraft, all of these are great opportunities so that if you don’t mind not making much money, you can actually have a decent shot at breaking even as an indie developer, which wasn’t always the case. It’s hard to recommend for someone who’s into games development but if you are into it and you are dedicated you can make a living out of it, definitely.

What do you think is the most successful indie game on the market today?

Well, it’s boring and obvious to say Minecraft, but it’s difficult not to. It’s certainly had a degree of success but it’s hard to find an indie game in the same league that’s had the same degree of success. Casting my mind back a few years, there’s a sense in which Doom was an indie success story, of course it doesn’t look like it now, but originally they were sticking things like Doom out as shareware and they didn’t know what they were really doing, but they knew they had something successful when they saw how many downloads they were having, and I think they grew out of that. I think you just need to be recognised to make it.

What do you think of recognised successes like Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, the small ones that have become popular?

Is Cut the Rope popular? I mean, gamers talk about it a lot. Angry Birds has made a lot of money, so commercially it’s easy to pull off as a success story, but it’s an odd one because nobody can really say for certain why; it just seems to have been the right game at the right time.

Do you consider the addictive side of a game a big factor in its success?

Yes but there are dozens of other games that push the same buttons in very similar ways, that didn’t enjoy the success. So even though you can look at it and say ‘ah, these are things that have done well’, you could easily find ten other games that do the same things very well, but didn’t succeed. Somehow Rovio got the tailwind behind them, and they got the name out there, and then it just snowballed. I don’t want to say it’s all luck, because it isn’t; you have to have the right product too, so it’s a combination of that and the right circumstances and the right time. Many companies have done, it’s possible but they had somebody with them who was very canny with marketing, who made the right decisions to get the boat out there.

Smaller games such as Jetpack Joyride seem to do well with short levels and a certain sense of “put-down-ability”. Would you say this feature makes a game popular?

Save management has taken a long time for the games industry to really recognise that forcing the players to organise their own saves restricts how many players can enjoy the game. Some players do love managing multiple save files within an inch of their life but I think it’s a minority, and the more you have to mess around with the mechanisms to play the game, the harder the game is going to be to enjoy fully.

One thing that really annoys me and indeed a few of my friends is when you’re happily playing a game, and then you defeat a boss, switch off the console and forget to save. Do you consider ‘autosave files’ a lifesaver?

Yeah, any kind of ratcheting progress is good. This whole theme is a huge thing across the history of games, Nintendo’s games for the NES were, for various reasons, able to put very small save files into the cartridges, and at the same time the Spectrum had no means to start a save other than a code you would enter that would get you back to that point, the fact that Nintendo were able to put in these little files, that were just a couple of bytes, meant that games like Metroid could have this ratcheting progress so that as you compressed through it, some small aspect of what you were doing would be maintained, and that was a huge step forward for games; it changed games. Even today this process of ratcheting progress is central to almost all of the games you play; it is an important part of the design of a game. Being able to pick up a game at will and play a few short levels is what makes apps so addictive, in my opinion, and is how indie game developers will triumph in the future.

Thanks very much Chris, some interesting secrets of the trade there. I hope we can expect to see you at next year’s Adventure-X.

 

If you have any questions for Chris Bateman, International Hobo, comment below and I’ll be sure to send them to him!

– Will  : )

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