Declan Kolakowski

Strategies for Empowering Players to Compose

Added on by Declan Kolakowski.

One of the things I touched on in my last post on empowering creativity in players was the relationship between interactivity and music when empowering players to create and its general neglect in videogames today. The most common form of music game today are rhythm games, which are not at all creative. They give the illusion to the player that they are creating music by forcing them to be a monkey who just repeats back what they hear. Something which the game rhythm heaven even commented on.

In my game NORnS I tried to created some interactive music elements for the game. I found however that for the most part players were unaware that they were having any effect on the music. I felt for the most part that my attempts to improve the creative output on audio in my game failed and I wanted to explore why that was. I think the creative and aesthetic nature of the music in NORnS was successful but not its ability to empower.

So here are another set of strategies based on things I learnt that you can use to improve creativity with the audio a side of your games:


  1. Keep it simple. Given the nascent state of this type of game, the player base for it is relatively small and inexperienced and so, simple is better than complex, especially at the beginning, Make it easy and perceptible to the unmusical ear what is going on.

  2. Harmony first, rhythm second. Offering players a pre-written harmonic language that they can play around with gives them a lot of space to create and will almost always yield results that sounds pretty good. Rhythm is a lot harder to pin down for the unmusical, despite it being something we take for granted as musicians.

  3. Synths over samples. In terms of player usability the clearness of the synthesized sound is much more accessible. Again this goes back to general inexperience with this type of play. The synthesized sound with none of the muddiness of real instruments is easy to understand initially.

  4. If you do use rhythm use of a grid. Or slap on so much reverb it doesn’t matter.

  5. Make it fun!

Many of the things I discussed in my previous article about general creative empowerment apply here too. You still want to create a safe space for your player to compose in. You still want everything to be integrated. And you still want to not overly tie the explorative nature of creativity to your games objectives. To close out, here is one of my favourite interactive music scenes.

Strategies for Empowering Your Players to Create

Added on by Declan Kolakowski.
Electroplankton's music composing game

Electroplankton's music composing game

For the most part, the way we conceptualise games media and our players today is as a passive relationship. Yes there is interactivity between the player and the game. But the game is there to primarily function as a form of entertainment that the player receives and plays with. They are not expected to give much to the creative instantiation of the game, even if they might be expected to give quite a lot in terms of patience.

I created a game earlier this year called NORnS in which I tried to explore the creative potentialities of empowering players to create (something I touched on in my previous post when talking about allowing creativity autonomy in glitch art)  and in this post I am going to do a short post mortem of the game from that perspective. Before I started developing NORnS I found the number of games that actually allowed you to control the visual environment / audio environment and be creative is very low.

Interactive composing section from Kentuck Route Zero

Interactive composing section from Kentuck Route Zero

My guess, is that this problem has arisen due to the discontinuity of the strict nature of game objectives in games and open explorative nature of creativity. Games like scribblenauts might come to mind as a good example, but they don’t allow true creativity, only an on rails set of pre-agreed things you can create. Similarly games with dynamic sound tracks like Kentucky Route Zero might suggest a path of a creativity but they are far too limited. Similarly most rhythm games have this on rails feel. Indeed the best examples I’ve seen of player agency and creativity being expressed in games is when players exploit mechanics or use game objects in ways they were not intended to create art, one example that comes to mind is Casey Brooks’ GTAV photo essay.

Here then are some strategies I discovered in integrating creativity and play when creating NORnS based on things that did and did not work:

  1. Do not shove your games objective in the players face.

  2. Do not institute explicit fail states that result from doing something creativity. Being creative is already scary enough. Giving your players a safe space to do what they want is very empowering.

  3. Integrate your games progression / objective in a relaxed way with the act of creation. For example, award points etc. for the player just messing around and exploring their creativity.

  4. Integrate challenge into the creative process but not in a way that commodifies creativity. Offering players objectives that make them stretch their creativity is a good strategy for improving engagement and getting your player to make better, but it doesn’t mean your game should judge aesthetic value. For example, if you had a drawing game, the objective could be “draw with at least two colors”. In this case it is up to the player to judge how good their drawing is to progress. One could validly just put two splodges on the page and another could do an intricate recreation of a face in two tones.

  5. Place randomness in your game to boost the creative process.

  6. Give your players a method of capturing or presenting their work. This is really good from the perspective or promoting your game as well. People will share their stuff online naturally and drive more traffic to you.

  7. Make it fun!

Creating the Aesthetic Language of NORnS

Added on by Declan Kolakowski.

I recently released a game called NORnS which was praised for its aesthetic language. I released it as part of Ludum Dare 31 the theme of which was “entire game one screen”, I took this to mean only one screen refresh. I allowed screens to change and switched but never once refreshed my drawing canvas. Creating exciting effects like this:

One of the aesthetics which is overused but under utilized is glitch art. Its a form of new media art creation that I love, but actually creating it is often a slightly distancing affair as it often requires converting or corrupting file formats with no real control over what is produced. While there is nothing wrong with aleatoric processes, they are often seen the beginning and end of the creative possibility space in glitch art, and so, in creating NORnS I wanted to try and take a glitch inspired aesthetic but make it accessible.

The idea of a controllable but glitch inspired aesthetic linked perfectly with the theme for the Ludum Dare as it recalled directly all the glitchy problems that used to occur on classics windows machines when they froze up. You could paint around with any still moveable components. I commuted this idea to NORnS thus intertwining glitch aesthetics with actual glitch.

The famous painting with windows screen failure.

The famous painting with windows screen failure.

Furthermore I built the objects that would be smeared across the screen in three dimensions, allowing players to manipulate these objects aesthetically in this space is in many ways a departure from traditional way in which glitch art is created which often in strictly two dimensional projected.

Reviewing my Analytics

Added on by Declan Kolakowski.

One of the things that is often talked about on games industry magazines is the importance of marketing one’s game, so today I’m taking a look at the analytics data for two games I’ve released in the last year and their analytics data. The two games are Larf Tack (releeased August 2014) and NORnS (released December 2014). Both were created for game Jams, Larf Tack for an unknown Vapor Wave game jam which had less than ten entries and NORnS for the Ludum Dare which had 2639 entries and is probably one the biggest jams in the world.

For Larf Tack I almost no effort to market it, for NORnS I contacted journalists, promoted myself on twitter and instagram, and made the best use possible of the Ludum Dare commenting platform to improve the number of people that played my game. I wouldn’t say I went to extreme lengths to promote it, but I certainly tried more than usual.

Below are the analytics for the two games.

Larf Tack:


and NORnS:


Bear in mind that Larf Tack has a fourth month lead on NORnS. However NORnS received a massive 258% increase in the number of people who downloaded it and a 55% increase in views. Furthermore the ratio of view to downloads conversion was 4:1 for Larf Track and 3:1 for NORnS, again a significant improvement. My guess is that much of this comes from the write up the game got in KillScreen, however, I also got some people with significant followings on twitter tweeting about the game as well which definitely helped to propel the game. Furthermore the fact that Ludum Dare forces others to play your game if they want theirs judged probably helped to spread the word, as I certain felt motivated to tweet about genuinely good games I found on the Ludum Dare.

This brings us to the somewhat uncomfortable truth about these analytics being misrepresentative as evidence by the ratio shift. While I promoted NORnS more than Larf Tack, I also think its a much better game, with a striking aesthetic and soundtrack, whereas Larf Tack is niche at best. I’m sure my marketing and promotion helped my analytics a lot, but the potential gains of actually having a better game seems hard to quantify.

In the current games culture we are often told, that if you market, no matter how good your project is you will have success. Actively working against a relationship between quality and success is not one of the games industries best qualities. Perhaps my experience is unrepresentative, as, in all honesty, the numbers are so small, but its nice to see that in my own work, what I think is better, is doing better. Seeing a direct relationship between my abilities to produce good work and market well, Rather than just my ability to market, is a very motivating feeling.

Way To Go

Added on by Declan Kolakowski.

Way To Go is a "thing" by Vincent Morisset. I like it...

It mostly consists of moving along a pre-determined path through a forest with the visuals composed by 360° camera footage and some 3D computer graphics environments, sometimes blended together with an animated avatar. (Although, interesting side note, if you look down, the physical camera rig is depicted in the world which raises some interesting questions as to what object the user is meant to identify with). The controls are limited to a run, a walk and a jump the last of which is pleasingly timed with some nice generative musical effects. If that was the beginning and end of the experience it would not be particularly deep, but there is in fact a depth of possibility space and whole range of little touches added to the experience that make it a much more textured and interesting experience; moving the angle of the camera can creates a whole range of different animations for your character, as you pause at different points along your walk there are lots of tiny pieces of detail that bring the wood alive, and the finale of the Way To Go is the first experience in ages I've had to give a sense of real speed. I'm trying not to spoil anything, but I'd recommend you try it and take your time to experience the possibility space as it is.

However... as you've noticed I'm taking pains not to use the words "play" or "game"... this is because Morisset calls Way To Go an "interactive film". I find this interesting as it points exactly to the compelling failure of any categorisation in New Media (particularly games) is facing at the moment.

If this had been made by a game developer they probably would have called it a game without raising many eyebrows, at least among the people who usually enjoy these sorts of experiences. Indeed, the experiential depth I mentioned before is actually greater I think than a lot of so called "game experiences", Way To Go certainly trumps some games I can think of in terms of its possibility space and attention to exposing lots of hidden levels of detail to the observer and waits and watches and looks around.

Its ironic that most small games, usually the products of game jams with little to no funding and even less time are often less game like and more prescriptive and devoid of possibility than this piece of media made by people who consider themselves film makers.

Yet at the same time Way To Go is significantly political in its regards for games. It condescendingly reminds the user when it begins that there are no points, nothing to win and that don't have to rush. This is a very loaded instruction and points to very patronising view of New Media, Morisset seems to be suggesting that most people expect all interactive experiences to have an aim, that the vast majority of New Media and Game-like objects can only be redeemed by artistic experiences through the cinematic medium, through the touch of the auteur and the dictatorial director.

Despite Way To Go's pretension to the cinematic medium, it's definitely a much better game than a movie as far as I'm concerned. If nothing else raises interesting questions about the futility of categorisation in the current media landscape.