A photo from November's WordPlay Festival

Looking Back and Looking Forward

2017 was an interesting year. Not interesting in the “may you live in interesting times” way entirely, although there were certainly a share of challenges during the year. One challenge that was a welcome one was the challenge of becoming familiar with my new home in Toronto and getting to know a city I haven’t had much contact with for twenty years. But instead of focusing on the challenges that 2017 had brought, I thought I’d focus on some of the highlights:

And all of that is just stuff I can talk about. There are also a few things brewing up behind the scenes that I hope to be able to talk more about soon. Unfortunately, this means that the “looking forward” part of this post is going to be a bit light in detail at the moment. Rest assured that more news will be forthcoming as 2018 progresses. You can definitely expect to see more news about Mandatory Upgrade related projects, and possibly something around a certain web-comic that remains near and dear to my heart. Oops! I may have said too much, ignore that. Regardless, 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Ironic Iconic Studios and I hope you’ll be joining me for the ride.


X Marks the Spot Wins First Place in Game of the Year Competition


In a great start to the new year, Ironic Iconic Studios’ first game, “Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot” has taken top honours at the 2nd annual TorontoGameDevs.com Game of the Year competition. Hundreds of people voted for their favourite game produced in Toronto and Southern Ontario and our game was fortunate enough to be voted #1 overall. This puts Mandatory Upgrade in the esteemed company of terrific games from other game devs such as DrinkBox Studios, Benjamin Rivers, and Ubisoft Toronto.

A game like this doesn’t just appear fully formed from the ether of the designer’s mind and so I’d like to take a moment to give a shout-out to the folks who helped make this happen. Firstly, my partners at One More Story Games who provided the platform to create and release great story-based games, StoryStylus. They also provided plenty of encouragement and technical support and were flexible enough to accommodate me when I started to use their game engine in strange and unexpected ways. I’d like to send props to Julia Harrison and Alistair Murphy, the artists who took my pages of descriptive text and reference material and whipped them up into a cohesive world with their gorgeous art. Also mad props to Steven G. Saunders (aka Mr Zoth and the Werespiders) who created the perfect musical accompaniment to the world of Mandatory Upgrade; a soundtrack that is evocative, moody, and fresh, all at the same time. Finally, I’d like to do a big shout-out to Pati Tozer, my editor and chief of QA who helped keep all of my mistakes in the dev room and out of the public eye, a service for which I am ever grateful.

One of the best things about contests like this is how easy it makes it to discover new games that you may not have heard of. I’ve definitely added more games to my ever-growing game queue as a result of this. And I hope that if you haven’t yet tried Mandatory Upgrade: X Marks the Spot then you may be inspired to do so now. You can play it via the One More Story Games Website.

Toronto Calling

As you may have noticed, things have been a little quiet around Ironic Iconic Studios of late. It turns out that there’s been a good reason for that, which I’m happy to share with you today: We’ve moved to Toronto!

When I founded Ironic Iconic Studios way back in 2003, we were one of the first game studios to exist in Victoria, British Columbia. Happily, over the years, the Victoria game dev community has grown steadily as more studios have opened their doors and more indie developers have thrown their lot in with this crazy, wonderful industry. I like to think that some of that growth was due in part to the efforts of myself and the other organizers of IGDA Victoria, the local chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) that grew out of the indie game dev group known as LevelUp Victoria. Regardless, I’m excited by the emergence of Victoria and the surrounding area as a game development centre.

The Victoria industry has grown by leaps and bounds and will continue to do so, I’m positive. But I feel like Ironic Iconic Studios has outgrown Victoria and is ready for bigger things, hence the move to Toronto. Toronto has a large and vibrant game dev scene and I can’t wait to be a part of it. I’ll definitely miss my friends and colleagues out west, but I’m excited to see what is in store for us in Ontario’s capital. I hope you’ll join me in finding out.

Cyberpunk Thriller “X Marks the Spot” First Premium Release for Story Worlds Platform

Premium game available on innovative new platform that brings story based games to the casual gamer.

March 9, 2016 – Victoria, BC, Canada – Ironic Iconic Studios’ first game, “Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot” is an exciting new story-based game that allows the player to assume the role of a government agent investigating a death by a suit of cybernetic armour run amok. Starting today, it’s available on Facebook and the web through the Story Worlds platform.

Story Worlds was devised by One More Story Games as a way to create narrative-focused storytelling games and deliver them to a wide audience through traditional casual game platforms, such as smartphones and tablets. Ironic Iconic Studios saw Story Worlds as the perfect venue to release X Marks the Spot as the game addresses both the rising demand for story-based games while being playable within a few hours time to reflect the trend towards shorter, more compact experiences.

You’re Rachel Varley, fresh out of re-entry training and eager to get back to work as a NASIA Agent. But before you get a chance to get your feet under you, you find yourself tasked with discovering how a fellow agent managed to get carved up by a mechanized SWAT suit. Sure, everyone at the West Harbour Complex seems happy to help out and answer your questions, but you can’t forget that one or more of them may have been involved in plotting someone’s death. At least you’re not alone, you’ve got your trusty drone Osprey and your Virtual Personal Assistant, the always sassy Brigid. Will you be able to get to the heart of the mystery and still manage to escape in one piece?

Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot is now available on the Story Worlds games portal, with a free demo version available prior to full game purchase ($3.99 CAD). Play it on Facebook and the One More Story Games website. For more information, please visit www.mandatoryupgrade.com/x-marks-the-spot.

About Ironic Iconic Studios

Ironic Iconic Studios has been making games since 2003 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Their clients include Harebrained Schemes, Tap Tap Tap, Paper Machete Games and GameHouse Canada. This is the launch of their first in-house game.

Direct Game Link: Mandatory Upgrade – X Marks the Spot

Stuff that has happened

There’s often a lot of things going on in my life, professional and otherwise. I really like being involved in a lot of things, which is no surprise to the people that know me really well, especially those who have seen me on the verge of insanity when attempting to do everything at once. I’ve fortunately been able to remain self aware enough lately to maintain a certain level of balance in my life while still getting up to the stuff I love to do. For example, I’ve managed to get some solid game design work done, speak at a few conventions, take care of my responsibilities with LevelUp – IGDA Victoria and still maintain a decent personal life. Mostly. But I don’t always think to take a moment to write about it. That’s right: I’m a bad blogger. I do tend to send the odd note to Facebook or Twitter or the like, so if you’re ever wondering what I’m up to on a regular basis, you could do worse than tune in to one of those. I do try to keep my portfolio and presentation pages up to date too, even if the blog looks like a barren wasteland.

One thing that I’d like to talk about is my recent PAX Prime 2014 Panel titled “You’re So Mature! Is Storytelling in Games Coming of Age?” It was a difficult subject to tackle, but fortunately my panellists were up for the challenge and I thank them for volunteering their time and brains. One of the cool things that came of it was that our panel was covered by journalist Derrik J Lang who wrote a very insightful article about it called “Game creators seek mature storytelling in games“. Most interestingly to me, he wrote it for the Associated Press, which means that it ended up getting picked up by various other media outlets throughout the world. I was able to watch as the story turned up on more and more media websites in North America such as the Calgary Herald, Fox Business, and Salon, and internationally as well from such diverse places as New Zealand, Taiwan and India. Not having personally encountered this before, as projects I’ve been involved with have not been covered by the traditional press, I found the process utterly fascinating. Hopefully I’ll get more opportunity to witness this again in the future.

GottaCon? Why Yes. Yes We Do.

So many colours!
So many colours! Double rainbow across the sky!

Just a quick note out that this weekend, from Feb 28th – March 2nd, I will be living large at GottaCon, Victoria’s premiere game convention. Not only will I be running an information booth for the LevelUp – IGDA Victoria group, but I’ll be participating in not one, but two video game themed panels. The first panel “Creating DIY Video Games – Indie Style!” is on Saturday at 10 am, and the second “Storytelling in Video Games: Telling Tales Around the Digital Campfire” will be on Sunday at 12:30 pm. Information on both can be found here.

GottaCon has been steadily growing over the past six years and this year it should be bigger and better than ever, with a new downtown venue and a lot more participation from the exploding local video game scene. Why not come and check it out? If you do, be sure to drop by the IGDA Victoria booth and say hi. And maybe even ask about the upcoming Video Game Start-Up Boot Camp while you’re at it. See you there!

Which Subverted Medium Are You?

I’ve recently spent time doing a number of those “which (insert pop culture artifact) are you” quizzes that have been ubiquitous on social media for a while now. I find them to be an amusing moment’s diversion and an opportunity for casual banter with my friends (“You’re Pink Floyd? I got the Doors. *sigh*”). I was tickled to discover one called “Which Punk Icon Are You?” which promised to reveal my inner punk. As I was very much the young, spiky-haired anarchist during my formative years, (There may even be photographic evidence of floating around the internet. I’ll leave finding it as an exercise for the reader.) I was completely game for this quiz.

After answering a short series of deeply probing questions such as “What would you like to smash?”,  I was rewarded with the insightful revelation that I am Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. Being a lifelong fan of Mr. Rotten (or John Lydon, as he is also known) I happily posted my result and moved on with my day.

I was soon dragged back to the social networks by the usual manner of comments from friends on my posting, but one of which stood out to me as a bit different:

“As a committed admirer of John Lydon, I have to be the buzz kill here and say that if you are doing pop culture identity quizzes, you are pretty much being the polar opposite of Johnny Rotten.”

Strangely, that comment lingered in the back of my head for the rest of the day, bothering me more than I thought it would. At first I assumed that maybe it was because my “punk cred” was being brought into question, but quickly rejected that idea as I haven’t concerned myself with “punk cred” for decades. But there it remained, tickling my lobes and demanding my attention. And the more I thought about it, the more I found that the central argument, that Johnny Rotten and pop culture identity quizzes were completely incompatible, was what was bothering me the most.

Why did this strike me as so wrong? I started by asking myself: what are pop culture identity quizzes really? Aren’t they just an extension of social media which is, at its heart, a DIY form of media? One of the ideas that forms the basis for the Sex Pistols and punk culture in general is the notion that you could make culture for yourself, that you didn’t need “experts” to do it for you. And, if you’ve taken any of these online quizzes, it becomes apparent that they were certainly not made by experts.

Also, although John Lydon is not a big user of social media per se, if you look at his history and relationship to the media in general, he appears to embrace media wholeheartedly, in fact, he never seems to shirk any sort media exposure. Apart from giving copious interviews to promote his work, he seems to enjoy making appearances on both serious programs such as the BBC’s Question Time, as well as pop nonsense like Jukebox Jury and Judge Judy. Why does he do so? I think his reasons can be made clear by looking at his response to the kerfuffle surrounding his involvement in an advertisement for, of all things, butter.

In late 2008, John Lydon appeared in an advertising campaign for Country Life, a British butter company. The campaign included a television commercial that he starred in, and he consequently received a lot of criticism from various camps for “selling out”. He defended himself in an interview with the Sun saying that not only was he happy promoting a British product that he truly enjoyed but that:

“It was the most maddest thing to consider doing. I thought it was very anarchic of the dairy company to want to attach themselves to me. And they treated me with the utmost respect and I love them forever as it all allowed me to set up my record label and put out this record.” (emphasis mine)

In a nutshell, he used a media opportunity to generate capital to self-finance a record label and release a new album by his band Public Image Ltd. If you look at his other appearances you’ll see a common thread: he uses the media, subverting it to his own agenda to promote his opinions and ideas about the world, and to potentially finance his musical projects. These activities are done knowingly and are done for the sake of his art.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, Lydon doesn’t appear too keen on social media himself; having said on at least one occasion that he has no interest in it. However, there are official social media accounts for PiL on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like, so I don’t think that he’s necessarily opposed to it altogether. I personally believe that social media is just something he’s unfamiliar with through lack of exposure and that he can’t be bothered with learning. And why would he, if he gets what he wants through traditional media?

But what about the young Mr. and Ms. Rottens of the world who grew up with social media and so are familiar with the ins and outs of it? I see many of them using social media as an effective tool for getting their own ideas and opinions out via Facebook groups, YouTube channels, and Twitter accounts. And if you’re serious about spreading your message, then why not use the tricks of the internet media to hopefully make it viral and reach more people? Why not make your own memes and quizzes and games? I’d be happy to take a “Which Corporate Criminal Are You?” quiz or play a round of “Inequality Crush Saga” if it meant that I could learn something more about myself and world that I live in and maybe even have some fun while doing so. And I’m sure that even though John Lydon wouldn’t partake himself, he would recognize and appreciate the spirit of subversion that lies behind it.

PC or NPC? – Video Games and the BC Election

As those of you who live in British Columbia are probably aware, we are in the midst of a provincial election. My approach to elections tends to be thus: I scope out each of the candidates for my riding and then choose which one I feel would best represent my interests. I have preferences as far as political parties are concerned, but I prefer to focus on the candidates themselves. This year, I was still in the process of making up my mind when I received a phone call from the office of Carole James, the current MLA and candidate for the New Democratic Party in my riding. After the usual question (Can we count on your support?), the caller asked me this:

Caller: Do you have any questions that I can answer for you?

Me: Actually, yes. Can you tell me: What is Carole James’ and the NDP’s policy on financial incentives for the video game industry in BC?

Caller: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I’ll have to ask someone and get back to you. Is it okay if we call you back later?

Me: Sure!

I hadn’t thought much about that conversation until a couple of days later when Carole James herself called me to answer my question. I was pleasantly surprised that she took my question seriously enough to contact me directly and that she was relatively informed on the issue. Carole was aware of the troubles that the game development industry had been having in Vancouver and the need to offer incentives that would keep BC competitive, especially in comparison to Quebec and Ontario. She told me that her party had already made plans to do something for the BC film industry and would look into something similar for the video game industry. After chatting a bit more and making plans to talk more after the election, I wished her good luck and said goodbye.

I felt pretty pleased about our conversation and told some friends about it, game developers and otherwise. One of my friends is an ardent supporter of the Green Party and suggested that I contact them with the same question and give them a chance to state their position. I thought that it seemed only fair, so I sent an email to Jane Sterk, the leader of the Green Party and the candidate for my riding. This was the email message that I sent:

Good morning,

I have a question that I would like to ask Jane Sterk: What is her and her party’s policy on financial incentives for the video game industry in BC?



A few days later I received this response:

We don’t have policies on incentives for video games.

Wow, that was terse. And I don’t think she was answering the question I asked. It almost sounds like she thinks that I’m asking for money to play video games. Maybe a handful of quarters for the arcade?

I’m pretty amazed at the difference in the response between the two candidates. One was polite, thoughtful, and engaging, the other was rude, brusque, and dismissive. I know that my concerns about the game industry may not be important to the majority of the electorate, but they are important to me, and they are important to others who make a living making games.

And you know what? Maybe the video game industry should be more important to BC as a whole. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, Canada’s game industry ranks third in the world, has a direct economic impact of $1.7 billion on the Canadian economy, and was expected to grow by 17% last year. Traditionally, BC has been a big part of that, but growth has flattened out in our province compared to strong growth in Ontario and Quebec, due in a large part to better financial incentives in those provinces. There’s a lot at stake for the industry and consequently for British Columbia, not the least of which are thousands of well-paying jobs.

To Jane Sterk and the Green Party: if you are interested in supporting environmentally friendly industries, you could do worse than support the video game industry. These days many of the games developed exist only in digital form, requiring no packaging or shipping, and no physical media to junk up the landfills. And in a time when we’re looking to move away from a reliance on the oil and gas industry, supporting the video game industry may be just the thing British Columbia needs.

A Blast From The Past – BioWare Interview From 2006

Option 2 may not be the most considerate choice.
Option 2 may not be the most considerate choice.

I was poking around through my files when I came across this: an interview that I gave as part of winning the 2006 BioWare writing contest. I entered my Neverwinter Nights module “Walking With The Ghost” into the contest and managed to get 2nd place in the popular voting category. I’m still pretty happy with the resulting module and very honoured about winning. Unfortunately, most of the projects I mention in the interview never saw the light of day, but, as you can see from the rest of this site, it never stopped me from continuing to create.

The original has disappeared from the BioWare website, but you can see it via the Wayback Machine here. And if you happen to have a copy of Neverwinter Nights, you can grab the module for free in the Neverwinter Vault and try it yourself. Enjoy!

Walking with a Ghost by Chris Tihor

Interview by Jay Watamaniuk

Where can fans grab your module Walking with a Ghost?

Freely available at Neverwinter Vault.

You have labeled this as a ‘contest’ version of your module. Is this part of a larger story?

That’s the plan, when I can find the time to do it (see below). While working on Walking with the Ghost, I found that a number of the ideas that came out of it struck me as worthy of looking into further. Specifically, the idea of having Nym as a companion and what it would mean given her unique qualities. That, and the idea of building upon the main character’s history, allowing the player to discover over time certain things about their heritage and the local history, how they tie together, and what their reaction is to uncovering this knowledge.

How did you get started in making modules?

By entering this contest. I had never gotten around to making a module before this one as most of my spare time had been taken up with other projects. I had always been meaning to work with the Aurora toolset, but I had never had a good enough excuse to devote some time to playing with it seriously until now. I work as a software developer and I have been working on developing a couple games of my own, on the side, over the past while, so this tends to eat up most of the free time that I have.

What writing project would you love the most to complete?

Hmmm…I would have to say my current writing project: a comic book series I am collaborating on with artist Myke Allen called Spiketown. It’s a collection of stories about the various people who live in, around, and under a bustling technological metropolis in a strange but familiar world. Spiketown tells of the lives of regular people living in extraordinary circumstances and extraordinary people trying to live a normal life. Spiketown will also set the scene for a future series we’re planning, tentatively titled Epoch. It’s an epic story of angels, androids, and apocalypse. There’s a good chance that there may also be additional things starting with ‘A’.

Sweet Validation (And I Don’t Mean Parking)

I was reading over an excellent interview on Gamasutra with game designer Chris Avellone (he of Fallout 2, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment fame), when one particular question caught my eye:

“What about in terms of the differences between narrative in film or books, versus narrative in games? It seems like there’s some key differences that a lot of games don’t really seem to pick up on.

CA: I think that people [in the industry] are appreciating scriptwriting talents more, especially as games become more voice-acted and cinematic. I [think that for] anyone pursuing narrative design, scriptwriting is the best way to hone your craft, because it’s a lot of what you’re going to be doing. It teaches you all the brevity; using the environment to communicate a situation, as opposed to just the flat-line vomit of text, like Torment had. Which we had to do at the time, but that’s more of a novelistic approach to writing, which isn’t necessarily the best fit for games.

Also I think comic book writing lends itself to training you to write dialogue for games, just because you have to think so visually about what’s happening in the environment. I really enjoy writing comics. For Star Wars [Knights of the Old Republic II], for example, I found myself thinking about the process a lot differently. About how the shot was framed, what was being shown, and how that reinforced what the characters were saying and [their interactions].”

Those of you who have seen my talk, Rummaging in the Geek Culture Toolbox, may have noticed that I made some of the same points in that presentation, particularly in the section on writing for comic books. I’d like to take this opportunity to say: it’s a pretty great feeling to see your theories confirmed by an industry professional whose work you respect and admire.

Walking on clouds will now commence for the foreseeable future.