Pippin Barr – Insights from a Game Designer

pippen barr

I had an awesome opportunity to talk to Pippin Barr, who’s a video game designer, with a PHD in Video Game Values. I came across a game called “Ancient Greek Punishment”, and I said wow – this is it. He’s even got a book out called “How to Play a Video Game” and i thought – hey, he would be the perfect guest to figure out why gamers make games. Designing a game is somewhat simlar to designing a universe, in that, the universe should be engaging enough to keep the player (you and I) interested. Plus Pippen’s  journey has some great insights into what makes people choose a specific career over another (more traditional or safer one). P.S. The introduction of his dissertation says – “Press Start to Begin” (Love it!)

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Pippin – “..I’ve always made things, from drawing as a child, to playing with HyperCard or Macromedia Director, to stop-motion animation, writing novels, poetry, etc. Games feel in some ways like the “culmination” of that process, but who knows, maybe I’ll take up the slide-trombone next week..”

Hello Pippin, onto the questions then. Super pumped! –

1. Pippin, why gaming? What go you into gaming in the first place and what was your inspiration to create games growing up?

I don’t really think of myself as a “lifelong gamer” or anything, but videogames have been part of my world for a long time. My parents were early-adopters of technology in New Zealand so we had computers pretty much from the get-go. My earliest memory of videogames is playing Aztec on our Apple II way back, great game. And it kind of went from there – never really developing an obsession with playing games, but always playing something. The Fool’s Errand on the Macintosh Plus. Golden Axe on a SEGA. Metal Gear Solid on the PS1. And on and on.
But then I also ended up researching games as part of my PhD, which is where the more “critical” stream comes into videogames for me. My thesis was about “videogame values” – the ways in which games have internal value structures that encourage you to perform particular actions over others, and how they communicate these values to you. So I spent quite a lot of time thinking “seriously” about videogames and what they do. And then the academic life led me to teach at universities. And weirdly I ended up teaching some game design courses, so I thought I should really actually make some games to live up to that. That’s when I made GuruQuest, and I’ve been going on since then…
Inspiration-wise I think I’m mostly interested in making games that explore particular thoughts/ideas I have. Often those ideas have been about games themselves, which has led to a fair bit of “meta” stuff, but lately I’ve been more interested in making games to explore other areas of life (music, art, etc.).

2. Is there a message behind your games or is just for pure joy and entertainment?

Well, “message” might be a bit too strong, but I’m certainly making things that  are “interesting” beyond gameplay (probably more “in spite of” their gameplay if we’re being honest). Most of the things I’ve made are much more about the ideas than about any particular enjoyment a player could have with the mechanics – it’s more about playful ideas, I suppose. But I’m not trying to change the world or change people’s minds about anything, just propose questions and non-answers within the games themselves.
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3. What’s the most effective way to keep a gamer motivated to keep playing the game?

I pay very little attention to what a player traditionally “wants” I guess. I’m interested in accessibility in the sense that I don’t want to make things that are “hard” to play, but because I’m not pursuing the idea of fun, I also don’t think much about motivation on the player side. It probably helps that most of the my games are so brief that you don’t really need to be “motivated” to play them and get what I’m up to, though. If I were making 10 hour epics in the same vein I don’t think it’s very likely that people would see them through!

4. Are there instances of gaming being more like real life – that you may have come across? (Skills, Challenges, Points, Money, etc) What are your thoughts on that?

I’m a little unclear on what you’re getting at this to be honest. To some extent it makes me think of gamification, but that’s more the idea of real life being more like games. In the other direction, well, I mean there’s always the ideal of perfect simulation that many companies/people are chasing all the time – more real graphics, sounds, movement, speech, etc. etc. I don’t know, though, it’s not something I necessarily think about much.

5. Is there a gaming community that supports all gamers? Or are game designers themselves segregated into “groups”, “clicks” or “niches”?

I think it’s pretty obvious that there isn’t one giant “gaming community” supporting everyone – it would be pretty bizarre if there were. Game design just isn’t a small enough world to think that everyone would know each other and be supportive of each other etc. So yeah, there are groups – but “segregated” makes it sound like a negative, whereas I’d say it’s just natural that in a field so big you’re going to have groups of like-minded designers spending the majority of their social energy communicating with other people who “get” what they’re interested in.
I’m sure that this can also lead to problematic situations with “in crowds” and people feeling excluded etc. – again, that happens in any very large social setting, and it’s not nice for the people involved.

6. I’m playing with this theory that the universe is created like a game (Simulation theory, matrix, etc.). Do you ever think about the motivation for the game designer to design a game? Does the incentive lie purely in the monetary, or does it also give you something else?

That’s quite a theory! Yikes. As I said above, my motivation for making games is largely about the exploration of ideas and of the kinds of things that games can express.
I have no direct monetary incentive because I don’t charge for my games – they’re all free except for Carp Life, which costs money as a joke. That said, there’s a weaker connection in that I rely on my reputation as a game maker to support my paying job as a game design teacher – so there’s a “credibility” element to game making for me in terms of livelihood.
But really, I’m just interested in having ideas and making them and seeing what happens when I do that! I’ve always made things, from drawing as a child, to playing with HyperCard or Macromedia Director, to stop-motion animation, writing novels, poetry, etc. Games feel in some ways like the “culmination” of that process, but who knows, maybe I’ll take up the slide-trombone next week…
— Thanks again for doing this, Pippin! You can find him here – Twitter, Website. Images courtesy – Pippin Barr.

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