Earlier this year I took the opportunity to attend ‘Crossover Play’ – a lab organised by Frank Boyd of Unexpected Media.
Crossover is a unique series of ‘innovation labs’ designed to explore and invent new media forms. Each lab fosters new collaborations between talented and experienced producers across different sectors in the audio-visual industries, sparking innovative projects that push the boundaries on existing and new platforms. Crossover is supported by Screen Yorkshire, North-West Vision and Media, London Development Agency, NESTA, The Skillset TV Freelance Fund and The Wellcome Trust.
Crossover Play was designed to explore new forms of entertainment for interactive and participatory media: the relationship between play and narrative, formats dependent on user contributions, mobile or location based entertainment with a broadcast component. And of course, games: social and casual games, games that involve live events and performance, augmented or alternate reality games, games with emotional depth, games that appeal to non-gamers.
The Lab comprised a blend of masterclasses, presentations, workshop, screenings and, naturally, play. Participants had a unique opportunity to explore and experiment with game forms and digitally mediated play; working as individuals and in teams they also brainstormed, developed and prototyped ideas for new ones.
Arriving on Sunday evening I read the diverse biographies of the delegates and it became apparent that this was going to be different from the usual conference, summit, or seminar. I had been expecting to encounter many others from the console game development community at the event, but soon realised that out of the thirty or so attendees the only other direct industry-related people were Margaret Robertson (Games Consultant and former editor of Edge magazine), Mark Sorrell (Senior Creative Developer for Screenpop/Fremantle Media), Adam Russell (Games Studio Manager and Lecturer in Games Programming, University of Derby), and Maurice Suckling (Director, The Mustard Corporation). In this situation it would have been very easy for cliques to gravitate towards one another and form groups that would persist for the duration of the event, but that was not to be. I’m glad, as from a console programmer perspective the MacBook to XPS ratio was disturbingly high…
After introductions from Frank Boyd (Unexpected Media), Heather Croall (Sheffield Doc/Fest), Matt Adams (Blast Theory), Mark Atkin (Independent Producer), Peter Grimsdale (Novelist and Executive Producer), Margaret Robertson (Games Consultant) and Kirsty Roach (The Wellcome Trust), we were informed that in the next hour or so, we would all learn one another’s name. Immediately, everyone (myself included) confessed to being terrible with names. An hour later I could recall the names of twenty-seven or twenty-eight of the thirty or so people in the room, and so could many others. How had we achieved this? Through playing a couple of games. It was time to sit up and take notice. Then the work started – no lazy Sunday evening at the bar as may have been expected, it was obvious that not a moment was going to be wasted during the week.
The following morning more formal introductions informed all the attendees of the background and skill-sets of everyone present. Personal passions were also highlighted and broadcast, as well as goals for the week. I felt the need to explain that I was not looking for any truly tangible project opportunities to come out of the lab for two main reasons; a) I work for a publisher-owned development studio, therefore collaborations outside the realm of customer-supplier transactions could potentially be complex, and (possibly more importantly) b) I saw this lab as a unique opportunity to ‘throw off the shackles’ and not worry too much about feasibility. To quote Boyd “It’s easier to make the interesting feasible than to make the feasible interesting.”
The following five days were a blur. Constantly changing teams and activities resulted in my working with almost all of the delegates at one stage or another. Although fed to the congregation in bite-sized chunks, in retrospect I feel that there were certain distinct ongoing themes running throughout. The Lab had no headings, subheadings, or rigid terminology, but the following is my personal take on the format of the major themes and activities.
Environmental Scanning – “What’s out there?”
OK, so no-one actually referred to it as Environmental Scanning, but working in pairs we identified the extent to which media of different kinds pervades our everyday lives. My partner was Luke Williams-Ellis, Creative Director of Pixeco, a company that helps film and broadcast projects reach new audiences though digital solutions. He lives and works in the trendy big smoke, whereas I dwell in suburban Cheshire. So yes, we have quite different days, and could teach each other something about working patterns, commutes and the daily experience of play.
Following on, the whole group contributed to formulating a mission statement for the week; “To develop playful cross-platform experiences”. So what does that consist of? Again, it was fascinating to see the perspectives of such a diverse group, including those who claimed to have ‘no experience of games whatsoever’. A claim that simply was not true. Almost everything is a game – that’s the conclusion the group came to. Juggling emails, programming, commuting, looking for a parking space – these are all games when viewed from a different perspective. So, instead of scaring folk half to death by asking for a STEEPV analysis of the environment, a vast map of what factors should be considered when maintaining the group vision was initially teased, and eventually flowed, from the group.
Creative Thinking – “Brainstorming?”
I know you’re not supposed to use that word any more, but I guess I’m just not that PC. Anyway, it was incredibly refreshing and enjoyable to see people comfortably spewing ideas onto the army of flip charts. People were making mistakes in thought processes, breaking industry ‘rules’, and although experience caused an initial urge to say ‘that won’t work because…’ or ‘you can’t do that because…’, taking a ‘Yes AND…’ approach was constructive and fascinating. Even if it validated the initial negative thoughts, just seeing the thought processes of people from different backgrounds converging to the same logical conclusions through diverse creative ideas was both enlightening and reinforcing.
Narrowing It Down – “Too many choices.”
It was interesting to see the difficulty people had when asked to generate initial concepts that supported the mission statement, when given a blank piece of paper. The difference in productivity when participants were provided with cues, no matter how random, was tangible. Again, this was reinforcement for the mechanisms in day-to-day use within the games industry – lateral thinking, random word association, and so on. Moving on, more structured cues were created, simply by listing all potential customers, genres, platforms and any specific aims. Morphological Analysis (or Idea Boxes) was used for either structured choices or random selection (depending on the masochistic tendencies of the team involved), and these selections formed a requirements specification that could be developed further; yet more reinforcement of collaborative ways of working and sharing knowledge. Voting was also used in the lab, giving each attendee a number of points to allocate to preferred options, allowing for spread-betting, out-and-out endorsement, or anything in-between, and this was a great catalyst for discussion.
Game Development Activity 1 –“The Twittering Ghosts of Crathorne Hall.”
“Create a game using ‘History’ and ‘Twitter’. You have two hours.” Each team of three or four people had a subject and a platform to work with. Here, I thought, we can really go to town. A few hasty meetings later, some ideas for clues and answers within the Country House Hotel, and we had an idea. Twitter would enable the players to converse with ghosts, who would provide clues to guide them to a certain ‘treasure’ item (hidden behind the chair beneath King George’s portrait). But how do we guide the players to the correct Twitter account? Being a programmer, I knocked up a quick C# application that asked a simple multiple choice question based on the coat of arms above the fireplace. The correct answer navigated a browser to Twitter, and supplied the player with a username and password. Swish, I thought. And it was. And it worked. What I hadn’t counted on was the plethora of incredible ideas from the other teams:
· Blood-soaked actors.
· ARG (alternate reality game) SMS messages. These not only caused a couple of delegates to complain to the hotel about spamming, but also resulted in a (to all but one of us) hilarious ranting maniacal accusing email being sent to a completely innocent third party. To explain, the sender thought he knew who was behind the ARG messages, and sent him a picture of a dead squirrel in retaliation, along with various threats. It just so happens that innocent party was also the guys employer…I don’t think he has got back in touch yet.
· A parody iPhone audio tour of the house claiming that certain locked rooms were actually hiding the only remaining features of the 1960s leisure centre which was the original structure on which the Edwardian country house was built. These ‘features’ included an eleven-foot running track and the world’s largest vending machine. Genius.
· And so on and so forth…
The point I am trying to make is: I completely underestimated everyone. And that was a great thing.
Game Development Activity 2 – “Goat vs Goat.”
Need I say more? OK, I probably do. One of the more laborious sessions involved everyone scribbling down the names of as many games they could think of (not only video games) and then segmenting them based on their primary mechanic. I say laborious purely because of the subjectivity involved. The activity was of course perfectly valid, and there was a noticeable change in the way the non-gaming fraternity and sorority were now looking at games - they had lost their innocence. Football was no longer about ‘The Reds’, it was a shooting game. Or was it a management game? Or was it a battle? Hopefully, the delegates had not changed their perspective, they had gained another one. One mechanic was chosen by each person, and then mysterious envelopes provided a context in which the mechanics should be incorporated into a game design. Four of us were presented with ‘goat farming’, ‘controlling an unstable object’ and ‘calculating probability’ as parameters, and ‘Goat vs Goat ‘was born half an hour later. A third-goat-racer (TGR) including: genetically modified goats, the lure of female goat attention as a prize, shortcuts by eating long grass (but then the risk of being too fat to breed), and the danger of bent horns rendering you unattractive to the opposite sex, being only a few of the USPs. At this point, everyone was REALLY thinking games. Silly games? Some maybe, but games nonetheless.
Meaningful Feedback – “Tell it like it is.”
Each concept that arose over the course of the lab was condensed to an A4 sheet of paper slapped to the wall, and by this point, they numbered around sixty. The group as a whole was now performing, and ready to focus and exploit their current state of awareness of games. Again, another validation of a commonly-used practice then took place. De Bono’s ‘Six Hats’ thinking has been around a long time, but it was still a new concept to some. For accessibility, only three of the hats were used (Yellow, Black and Green), but forcing small groups to think purely in terms of either the logical positive, the logical negative, or creative-alternative comments at any one time demonstrated a way of communicating without finger-pointing or defensiveness. Similar to previous exercises, the formal (again, De Bono) term ‘Provocation Operation’ was not used, but appeared to be the aim; if you have an idea, want to know what people think, and you can take criticism and filter out extreme views, then put your idea out there and see what comes back. One thing is for certain - if it looks like you are ready to action something, it is unlikely you will be met with apathy.
Game Development Activity 3 – “Hang on a minute…these ideas are actually getting… good.”
Voting was used to reduce the number of concepts on the wall based on who was interested in ultimately working on what. I tried to stay away from anything too close to home as I wanted a challenge, and I didn’t mind who I worked with - I had enjoyed working with everyone. However I made a conscious decision to stay away from one particular person who had a similar skill-set to me. This wasn’t to avoid conflict or ego, it was to spread the knowledge more evenly among the groups. Over lunch we decided on two projects each that we would put our names to, with the option of changing our minds later. After seeing who had put their names down for each project, we could then remove one of our nominations, and change yet again if we wished. There were two projects I was interested in but I committed to a particular project, thinking I knew what I would be working on the next day. Then a strange thing happened - somebody I had worked with on the first day approached me and started to ‘sell’ me a project he was interested in. It wasn’t his concept, but he liked the idea and thought that I should consider it. It was a loose specification, more of a concept for a mechanic that a game, but it was ‘the other’ project I had been considering. I thought that this would be an interesting test of the cross-platform perceptions of another individual…how would he know if I would be any use on the project? So I accepted.
My team consisted of James Kilner (a Neuroscientist funded by the Wellcome Trust), Chris Walker (MD, BrightWhite Limited), Luke Williams-Ellis (Creative Director at Pixeco) and myself. The next few hours were spent on the Croquet lawn (unfortunately not playing Croquet) with marker pens, post-its, and a lot of physical moving around pretending to be actors and objects in a game, to see what mechanics worked. There followed many, many discussions, some post-midnight finishes, some C++, lots of Logic Studio, and regular ‘watering-holes’ with the mentors who provided food for thought, praise and criticism. Thirty-six hours later we had a concept, a logo, a demo, a mock-up, a business model and a pitch.
The Pitches – “Impressive.”
Commissioning editors for Channel4, the BBC, Heads of Industry, Special Projects, Project Directors for RDAs, and more, all arrived on the final day. For me, seeing the seven pitches was an inspiring event. The diversity was incredible, but the depth to which each avenue had been examined, and the sheer amount of thought that had gone into the concepts was astounding. People who claimed to be non-gamers on Sunday were now explaining the reasons for their mechanics (and doing a very good job of it) in a pretty daunting situation…and they were talking a lot of sense.
Each team had seven minutes to pitch their game to the panel. I’m used to talking games to internal parties and specialist press, all of whom are interested in not only the high-level aspects of the games, but also the minutiae; the technology behind it, the detail, so pitching a game concept in seven minutes seemed like a difficult proposition. We pitched it in five. And then someone said they were interested in funding it…go figure.
I went into the Lab with a deliberate aim to not get anything tangible out of it. I wanted contacts, inspiration, refreshment, and an idea of what was going on in the wider world. All of a sudden I have a game concept with a large amount of positive feedback from many people. The fact that there was an interest in funding the project means I have to present the concept to Juice Games and THQ; I have a responsibility to propagate the idea. It’s innovative and a little bit leftfield, but it’s also unique and viable, and came from a very unusual source – a crossover team.
So exactly what am I taking away from the Crossover Play experience?
· The importance of finding a common language. I’m not just talking co-ordinate systems, units of measurement, art compared to code, or Mac versus PC; I mean a language without jargon, and a language of patience and making an effort to understand and make oneself understood. The result is more than worth the struggle.
· It’s not just the idea, it’s the perspective. Take two or more ideas that sound similar, dig beneath the surface and hopefully find that there are completely different perspectives to be had depending on the people involved.
· Expectancy theory holds true yet again. Effort, performance and reward are inextricably linked. Only attend a Crossover Lab if you believe in putting in the effort. There were several days which ran from 9am to the small hours, but this was mainly due to the attitude of those involved; everyone was there to get as much from the experience as possible.
· There are some amazing people out there. Regardless of background, the level of contribution was quite remarkable. There was heated discussion at times, but no ‘Apprentice’-style egoistic episodes. In truth, a lot of the constructive abrasion was smoothed over by finding the ‘common language’ described above. Any residual heat was a bi-product of people striving to achieve the best possible results.
· Everything is ‘IMHO’. It’s OK to tell people your opinion. It’s OK to tell people what you think. But often there is no exclusively-right answer. It’s important, especially when talking to people from a non game-development background, to continually remind oneself that everything is subjective. Yes, there are guidelines, and yes, there are things that have worked in the past, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be right in the future. Personally I think the Lab could have benefitted from more delegates from the game development community in order to provide differing insights and perspectives - hopefully more will take the opportunity to attend in the future. It’s all about providing a balanced view, so tell everyone to assume that every sentence uttered is preceded by a virtual ‘IMHO’. Humble or honest, either will do.
Crossover Play, through intensity, method, and variety, induced some kind of Stockholm syndrome in a Country House Hotel. It could easily have been chaos, but the mentors guided (rather than managed) events towards a common goal. There were definite, recognisable, and effective tools and techniques being employed, but in a subtle and jargon-free way so as not to alienate the previously uninitiated. Every individual I spoke to came away exhausted, enlightened, and with a sense of shared experience that will hopefully ensure future communication, if not collaborations. There was a sense of instant nostalgia as the Lab drew to a close, and a feeling that something very worthwhile had just happened. Massively useful, thoroughly enjoyable, and highly recommended; probably best experienced as a complete stranger. That’s IMHO, of course.