Ryan Laley of Friendly Fire Games
In this day and age gaming has taken off into many directions. From primitive bleeps and bloops to thought-provoking titles that examine society’s troubles today. The scope of the video game industry today appears to be boundless.
In my pursuit of uncovering the creative output provided in games I recently sat down with Ryan Laley, a video games design lecturer at South Essex College along with immersing himself into creating games himself at Friendly Fire Studios.
We chatted about Ryan’s pursuit into the game industry, along with looking at some of the unique games of today as well as the trails and tribulations an average games designer has to put up with in creating the perfect game. Proving that games development is a very gruelling process.
Michael: What games inspired you to pursue a job in Games Development?
Ryan: All the early Mega Drive games such as Sonic the Hedgehog I was playing those quite a lot and early Playstation one classics. Final Fantasy’s and Metal Gear Solid’s all sorts really. I say the Mega Drive games were the ones that inspired me to go forward with it.
Michael: How attached did you get to the games that you played? Did it grow over time or did it just start?
Ryan: Basically it was strong from the start I was an avid gamer and more so than most that I wanted to try different types of games rather than just one particular type of genre or one particular brand. I like to try and step it up a game especially the one’s that a bit more kooky and weird and out there. I look for that rewarding gaming loop and interesting game mechanics that make it fun.
Michael: Have you got any examples of those weird “kooky games” you were talking about?
Ryan: Yeah a couple of big ones include Viva Piñata being an excellent game. Probably one of the most addictive games I’ve ever played. It’s all about gardening and attracting animals to your garden and it is a finally crafted game. I cannot wait if they announce a third one. I’ll probably lose it because I love that game to bits. For the smaller titles things you don’t really see most places such as Spelunky, Hot line Miami and Papers Please. Papers Please being a very weird game. You basically play as a border patrol agent, in the customs area checking people’s passports in this Eastern European city. It’s a brilliant game, great commentary on the political stance of immigration and things of that nature.
Michael: Yes I’m familiar with Papers Please I read about it in the Guardian.
Ryan: Yeah it’s a very interesting political piece as well as an awesome game as well.
Michael: So what big responsibilities do games designers face these days?
Ryan: Oh my God, All sorts. I think the main things they focus on and face are mostly financial. So you are looking at for big game companies, publishers and investors will throw a lot of money towards game developers to get games out at a certain pace and a certain time and depending on who’s funding that money expectations are sometimes off and a lot of game companies have suffered because of that and because the ever changing landscape of the games industry say the rise of mobile and free online gaming, it’s really hurt a lot of what we call B tier gaming studios
Michael: And of course the big companies have obtained the smaller ones with Microsoft recently buying Minecraft. What do you make of this?
Ryan: As for the indie studios it’s more in lines of can they actually get the money to fund development of the game or will they ever recoup there losses trying to break into a market that is ever growing makes it difficult for them especially if some of them use it as a part time hobby until they make some money out of it.
Michael: What skills do games designers have that people don’t usually associate them with having?
Ryan: Patience, perseverance and dedication. A lot of Games Developers work ridiculous hours with not much sleep in between especially as things get closer to deadlines or cutbacks and get pushed to put something out as soon as possible. People put in 16 hour’s a day just to get work done. I know for myself when I’m developing. It’s just an endless cycle of work. I think a lot of people glamorise games developers as these guys who wear a shirt and jeans and sit on beanbags all day making games now and then. But No, it’s a lot of hard work where people are put into dire circumstances and are pushed into jobs that they don’t necessarily want to do.
Michael: There is that initial appeal of learning about games and sounding like it could be a lot of fun but I take it is a lot tougher than it seems?
Ryan: Oh yeah. A couple of problems some people have is the nature of games development. People are hired for a project and then let go for that project, so working in a big studio for example coming in as a 3D modeller you’ll be working for six or seven months and then you’re let go and you have to find work again.
Michael: I think we can agree that video games are a fun habit but do you have any problems within the industry that you think should be resolved or addressed?
Ryan: We have a massive problem with gender inequality. The female work force is very small compared to the male side, which is a massive shame, and quite confusing with the split of games players being 50/50 playing games so as seeing that workforce is kind of a jarring aspect.
It is getting bigger so hopefully we’ll get to the point where it is a bit more equal along with adding a bit more interest in the games industry and it’s not just gender either in inequality we’re looking at just race as well. Hopefully we’ll see cultural diversity throughout the industry because that’s how we get those interesting game ideas that come from people with different backgrounds and experiences which provide a better insight into there lives and thoughts and ideas.
Michael: So what’s the ratio between male and female students at South Essex College?
Ryan: It’s still very small. It’s quite representative of the workforce in the industry about 95% of it is male! I think all we have right now is about six or seven female students across all our courses.
Michael: There have been a few influential games designers who apply video game logic in a real world context such as Jane McGonigal. What do you think of these games that attempt to solve real world problems?
Ryan: It’s very interesting and it’s the right step forward. Games are in this transitional period of getting out of the stereotypical geeky bedroom coda of a social shut-in and is now a more common practice from mainstream audiences. Similar to how films are today, slowly growing into this norm. There is potential for games being used for anything other than entertainment purposes it’s slowly growing.
We’ve seen a lot of it being used for education as well as scientific research as well such as this molecule game who gave it out to all these game players and made it gamified by recreating this protein molecule but it can’t match any other pre-existing molecule and within a few days a protein was found which could help cure a certain disease of some kind. That scientists would have taken forever to find because they didn’t have this idea of game players-who like puzzles and solving riddles things like that nature. It’s interesting to see it grow from just being entertainment purposes.
Michael: Do you encourage the teaching of these serious games?
Ryan: Oh yes. I think it’s important for people especially for those interested in games and games development to understand that games could be more than just the some of its parts. That it can have meaning and philosophical discussion and political discussion and can have an impact on society. As I was saying with Papers Please, that is a very interesting game to look at from a political standpoint about the use of communism and immigration. The game isn’t designed for you to have fun, it’s designed as this monotonous task that you have to be done over and over again too highlight the dreariness of this country and the war-torn state it’s currently in. It’s a very good game in the messages it sends and there are plenty of games like that out there that tackle very important themes. They’re the games that students going into games development should be looking at rather than making stuff explode and shooting zombies.
Michael: And finally what three games do you personally believe to be breakthrough games?
Ryan: Super Mario 64 it was a revolutionary step from a 2D game to a 3D game and before then no one knew how to do it until it came out with Mario 64 and showed the world how it’s done so they done quite well with that.
I’m going to say also Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time. Again for a very similar reason they took a 2D formulaic design and made it 3D and for the first time you had this fully realised 3D world that was interesting and the story, characters and dungeons from a 2D element and made it 3D and it was a great innovation for that world.
Lastly, I would say Half-Life on PC before Half-Life came out First Person Shooters were very much the Doom and Quake style layout where it was just run through corridors, blow stuff up get to the exit, next level. Rinse and repeat. Half-Life was the first to offer this narrative and thread for the whole entire game it was very much exploring how to traverse this landscape and solve the mystery of the narrative while experiencing the story being told around you it didn’t use cut scenes or any que cards.
Keep a look out for my second interview with Ryan where we explore the games he creates for his independent company Friendly Fire studios.