Development, Interviews, LGBTQA

Blanket Fort Chats: Game Making With Philip Jones

philip-jones

Blanket Fort Chats” is a semi-regular column featuring women and nonbinary game makers talking about the craft of making games. In this week’s post, we feature Philip Jones, a nonbinary games professional best known as the editor of the queer cyberpunk adventure 2064: Read Only Memories and the expo hall director for the LGBTQIA+ games convention GaymerX.

Miss N: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got into making games?

Philip: I’ve known I wanted to be in games since I was very young; I’d been writing and podcasting for fan and news sites since I was twelve. I first launched my own podcast project at 16 and went on to have the subject of the game’s creative director on for three exclusive interviews. Kept a couple contacts and soon met Toni Rocca [GaymerX Convention President] online.

I was barely 18 and just came out as gay, and was fascinated by the potential of queerness in games, especially professional work. She enlisted me and I haven’t looked back since. Before that, I was a theater kid dealing with a sad queer life in Texas, doing whatever I could to put off the “grow up and get a real job” future staring me down that I knew I’d never survive in.

Miss N: Can you describe your your earliest memory of playing games?

Philip: Plenty of them. Playing the Ms. Pac-Man machine they had at the laundromat. Random babysitters that had N64s or computer games, mostly car racing or Disney. Lots of educational games. The SEGA Pico. All the late ’90s PC games. Fuzion Frenzy on Xbox. Tony Hawk and Mario Tennis on the N64 they had at McDonald’s.

By the time I was six or seven, I got a computer and was playing pretty excellent games, Roller Coaster Tycoon and Need for Speed, lots of LEGO games haha. Eventually, my best friend got a Gamecube and introduced me to games like SSX Tricky, Pikmin, Super Monkey Ball, and XG3. When I was nine, I finally got my own Gamecube with SSX 3 and Mario Kart Double Dash. Then, a Gameboy Advance SP with Golden Sun, Pokémon FireRed, Yoshi’s Island, and Sonic Advance. Soon, Harvest Moon, Smash Brothers, Mario Sunshine, and Animal Crossing.

Most of what I’ve mentioned remains on my favorite games list. Then I got a Wii, found the internet, and I was in deep. Some of favorite memories are the late ’90s/early ’00s SEGA arcade machines they had at Chuck E. Cheese. Crazy Taxi, Emergency Call Ambulance, Jambo Safari, Magical Truck Adventure, and Wild Riders. All very influential.

spreadsheet1
Spreadsheet game making plans

Miss N: Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Philip: My creative process is very visual: I make spreadsheets for fun! I like to have everything out in front of me where I can visualize what’s needed and how a scene will go [and] a basic framework in mind where it’s easiest for me to focus on an excerpt and plug away with a few vital notes scattered here and there.

spreadsheet2
Spreadsheet game making plans

With 2064, I wasn’t on the original core dev team so those theme inspirations came from elsewhere, but my devotion to expanding our queer content, humor, and subversive character quirks is what carried me through my intentions with the narrative. A lot of being an indie is knowing what KIND of game you want to make, but a lot of the finer details can be figured it out as you go — even features that end up very core to the experience.

Miss N: How do you go through creative blocks?

Philip: My usual response to a block is to just hunker down and crunch until I power through it, which can be effective at various times haha. I burn myself out way too often, as I can’t stop thinking that every hour I spend on a rewrite is one less hour of new scenes. Of course, that’s nonsensical in a group game project, so if I really get stuck somewhere, I have to decide whether I’m on the right track and need a little more editing or if I need to start over completely.

One of the major 2064 scenes was scrapped and completely rewritten 15 minutes before we walked into the voice recording session. Don’t tell anyone.

Read Only Memories
2064: Read Only Memories by MidBoss

Miss N: We’re such big fans of Read Only Memories — not only for its narrative, but also for the world that you all created. For those who have yet to hear about the game, can you tell us a little bit about it and what drew you?

Philip: Read Only Memories is a “bubblegum cyberpunk” retro-styled point-and-click adventure game that takes place in Neo-San Francisco in 2064. You are a journalist uncovering the mystery of a kidnapping with the help of the world’s first sapient (and most adorable) robot, Turing. It’s a linear 6-chapter narrative with ’80s aesthetics, pixel art, a dope synth soundtrack, and features LGBTQIA+ characters in major roles and a player pronoun entry.

Since our last October Steam release, we’ve created 2064: Read Only Memories, which has all-new full voice acting for the entire game, renovations to all puzzles, new scenes and expanded characters, an overhauled script, new animations, and more secrets to be found. Look for that on PS4 very soon.

Miss N: What was the process like making it?

Philip: Our team met daily on Google Hangouts every morning for scrum — a short meeting where everybody updates the rest on what they’ve accomplished and what they plan to work on that day. This kept everyone on track and accountable and on the same page, and gave us time to discuss problems or ideas together as well. We also have a large group Slack chat for all-day instant communication. The team is spread all over the world, not only California and Texas and Kentucky, but Mexico and Switzerland, too. So we had a strong team and that rarely faltered.

(Most of) Team MidBoss - Matt Conn, JJSignal, and Kossio
(Most of) team MidBoss: Matt Conn, JJSignal, & Kossio

Miss N: What was the most challenging part for you?

Philip: I guess the most challenging part for me was having to edit one or more of the writer’s dialogue while writing additional dialogue myself. Many of my early dev days were spent writing and implementing almost all of the flavor text in the game — the look, use, talk, item interactions with the set objects around the various scenes, and there are a lot of them.

Most objects on the screen are interactive in multiple ways, and one early design decision I made and enforced myself was to have at least two unique lines per interaction, so players would be encouraged and rewarded for exploring more than they might usually, which allowed us to hide more important plot points and world building details in those player interactions.

Those lines are usually more humorous as well, and that was a big focus of mine, so I had to make sure that writing fit within the overall tone, and that when I invoked the characters, I recreated their voices well. The result is a script with many different inspirations and appropriate tonal shifts that makes 2064 a very robust experience — going from pop culture reference humor to some very dark, meaningful places in the end. I had also never forayed into cyberpunk until now, which I think gave me a fresh enough perspective to subvert it.

Miss N: Were there core aspects of the game that your team knew had to be included above all else?

Philip: The first one that came to mind was our decision to include no romance in the game. This was because it was very integral to our goals to both portray our queer characters very well and to allow the player to identify in the game as they do in their real life.

When you add romance into the mix, you either end up gendering the player or you make the characters dateable by anyone/an enigma, and thus, all pansexual by default, and it sort of limits the very specific personal stories we wanted to tell. The bartender from Pakistan who later on turns out to be gay, your detective ally throughout the game who you know because she used to date your sister, the trans tech CEO talking shit about other male execs trying to hit on her poorly — all of these characters were positioned in specific ways to put them in places of power and respect in their communities, while also being queer and living successful lives in love or out.

I think romance is something that can and will likely be added to our world in the future, but for this first experience, it was very important we did things this way.

spread1
Spreadsheet game making plans

Miss N: Is there one thing in the game that you’re really proud of that maybe players won’t notice at first glance?

Philip: I’d go back to the flavor text. It was very fun only doing writing work on the game’s tiny interactions (at least for the original game), which allowed me to focus on the quality and creativity. If the flavor text was boring, players would drop interactions beyond the bare minimum early on, and we likely would have settled for far fewer interactions than we have.

Do you know how many times I had to write lines for six different items on three or four plants per scene? (Dear JJ, why all the plants?) Despite this, the challenge for my creativity kept me inspired, and I get a kick out of seeing players laugh at my terrible puns and reference humor. Sometimes little joke interactions carried on into future scenes and then were eventually written into dialogue.

spread2
Spreadsheet game making plans

We’re a team that takes our silly ideas way too far sometimes (looking at you, Hassy), but hopefully nothing in the game is too much of an eyeroll. Beyond the jokes, there’s a lot of depth and world building to be found as well; I got to really shape the vibe of the world however I wanted, and a lot of those smaller details I got to include in the 2064 rewrites, which is rewarding.

2064: Read Only Memories by MidBoss
2064: Read Only Memories by MidBoss

Miss N: Looking more broadly, what’s the most challenging thing you’ve encountered when making games?

Philip: The separation between working creatively all day and then having to do business work at the end of it. I put a lot of passion and everything I had into the game as I started to believe in it, and if something on the business side went wrong one day, you look at your work on the desk and wonder if the effort you’re putting in is going towards the right place. I don’t think anyone has that answer until the game launches and it’s out of your hands. I’ve had a really difficult time letting go.

Miss N: On the flip side, what’s the most fulfilling?

Philip: One of my favorite things to do while working on the game is putting on a Twitch stream. I LOVE watching people playing the game, streaming, at our booths, whatever friend or colleague I’ve weaseled into trying it out. I get the best new ideas from seeing the subtle reactions, but especially on Twitch where they try harder to make comments.

“I wish I could say [xyz] to them here” is a comment that I often respond to with a swift flurry of scripting and push to master. I’m notorious for sneaking into chats and dropping keys to the game as well. It’s a great source of satisfaction to me, getting to see people interact with and enjoy my art in a way that no other medium has ever provided me. It’s this unique social aspect of gaming that I think is more rewarding to a developer than the industry ever has been before.

Luna by Funomena
Luna by Funomena

Miss N: Are there any games that you feel have really pushed the boundaries of the medium?

Philip: Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One deserves all the praise it got for its narrative; I had been following the company closely for years and years, but that was really above and beyond anything else.

Technically, I’m really looking forward to what I’ve seen of Funomena’s Luna. I was able to play it recently and it’s the most charming VR experience I’ve ever seen — much more feasible for me to enjoy gaming at home.

Personally, the versus multiplayer mechanics of Left 4 Dead 2 are much deeper on the competitive level, especially as the special infected. I played the shit out of that game on a high skill level for years and I am very good.

Miss N: Are there any women or nonbinary game makers who you really admire?

Philip: Squinky known for Dominique Pamplemousse is a wonderful designer and friend, and has really been a strong leader in the nonbinary games community I’m trying to foster as well. They started the Slack channel and I sort of expanded it to Facebook shortly thereafter, so between us both, we have a nice little group. Anyone looking for an invite to either should tweet me. Squinky’s next game is gonna be so cool, though!

I’m also a big fan of Zach from bracket; [out] was a wonderful Twine about queerness and I cannot wait for To Azimuth. Additionally, Felix Kramer, Raine Scott, Kris Ligman, and Zoyander Street are all some of my most cherished industry friends. Plus Mel and Aeryn who work at GaymerX! Enbies kick ass!!

Miss N: If you could give yourself advice when you were starting out, what would it be?

Philip: Do everything with purpose.

Miss N: Thank you, Philip!


If you’re interested in following Philip, follow them on Twitter @probearcub. To find out more about 2064: Read Only Memories, follow them on Twitter @ROM2064 or visit their website. As always, if you know of any women or nonbinary game makers who you’d love for us to feature, drop us a comment or contact me.

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