How To Make Easy To Learn Games

Develop Brighton 2024 Mini-logoPleased to announce that I'm giving a talk at 11 am on Wednesday 10th July 2024 at Develop Brighton, in Room 1, entitled "How To Make Easy To Learn Games". Here's part of the blurb:

Everyone wants to make games that are easy to learn, but they also want to make games that are inventive and original. The hard truth is that these goals are in tension, and the more you innovate and create new experiences, the tougher it will be for players to learn how to play your game. But the flipside is also true: the easiest games to learn are those that do nothing new... and these will swiftly vanish from everyone's attention as forgettable. Navigating between these two extremes is a key skill in the delicate art of game design.

You can read the whole blurb at the Develop Brighton website.

ihobo at GDC 2024

Ihobo Banner Tableau 2023 (June)
Award-winning game design and narrative consultancy International Hobo is back at GDC in San Francisco this year!  We're looking for:

  1. INVESTORS/PUBLISHERS open to discussing future projects and bizdev opportunities for our developer clients
  2. PUBLISHERS who need 2-week design audit reports of projects at any stage from Vertical Slice through to Beta that will help steer discussions with development teams in productive directions (ideal for troubleshooting, or unblocking problematic projects)
  3. DEVELOPERS willing to invest ~1% of their development budget on ensuring superior player satisfaction and robust narrative experiences.

Does this sound like you? Get in touch with the contact link! We'd love to meet up. (Please, no service companies - we're not the gig you're looking for.) For a detailed list of our standard services, follow the Services link here or in the menu to the left.

Origins of Ghost Master, Part Three

Ghost Master 20 (Darklling 2-1)
This year was the twentieth anniversary of the release of one of my proudest achievement as a game designer, Ghost Master. The celebrations started last Halloween with part one of this Origins of Ghost Master series, and continued on the anniversary of the game's release with part two. These posts explore the creative origins of each and every ghost in the classic haunting simulator, and this concluding part for Halloween in the year of release covers all the haunters from the final Act of the game. I wrote these pieces for this games' many fans who kept the faith alive over the many years... without you this game would be entirely forgotten. Instead, it has enjoyed a remarkable afterlife

The Late Arrivals

As with Act II, the start of the third Act gifts the player some extra spirits who were completed even though the haunting they belonged to was cut from the final game.

(Old Man) Carter

Carter (Alt)Carter While his concept art is far scarier than the final ghost, he was, perhaps, too scary, and was eventually toned down into a more Ebenezer Scrooge-like final design. As noted in the description of Buck, Carter's dog, back in part 2, this character would have started out as a mortal in one haunting, but then returned as a ghost later. When this concept proved too problematic for production so the ghosts in question were found new homes.

Carter (still in my head 'Old Man Carter', as per the mortal's name) is named after Randolph Carter from the H.P. Lovecraft tales. The original name of his first (cut) haunting, "The Uninvited", is simultaneously a reference to Lovecraft's "The Unnameable" (one of the Randolph Carter stories) and also to the 1944 movie The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland. I note that Carter's original haunting also featured the mortal Herbert Lovecraft - one of four characters from this axed level that survived into the final game!

However, the actual storyline of "The Uninvited" haunting, which involved scaring away the filmmakers from "The Blair Wisp Project", drew just as much if not more from 1957's Night of the Demon and especially 1959's House on Haunted Hill, in which Vincent Price plays an eccentric millionaire who offers a cash prize for anyone who can stay the night in his mansion. Indeed, 'Vincent Scarlet' in that scenario would have been named after this character.

But wait, Price's character in House on Haunted Hill is named Frederick Loren - why is he not 'Vincent Loren', as per the usual way mortals are named...? The answer is that for a later 'whodunnit' scenario in the same location I was drawing against the classic Waddington's boardgame Cluedo (known in the United States as Clue). As you may know, that game features characters named after colours - and thus in this haunting we had Martin 'The Colonel' Mustard and Madeline White, as well as Vincent Scarlet, all named after Cluedo characters and the actors who played them in the 1985 movie Clue.

And speaking of Vincent Scarlet...

The Painter

The Painter...this mortal was originally a painter who had been commissioned to produce a portrait of Old Man Carter, and who eventually killed himself when Carter rejected the painting and hid it in the attic. The Phantom version of the Painter would have been bound to that painting in the next haunting in the sequence, which was called variously "The Butler Didn't Do It" or "While There's a Will..." This latter title (which is not, as one of the Ghost Master wikis has it, "When There's a Will...") is from the 19th century adage 'While there's a will, there's a way'.

I don't think this painter connection to Vincent Price has anything to do with the play Darling of the Day, in which Price played an eccentric artist, and although I feel a nagging connection to the Vincent Price horror movie Theatre of Blood (which also influenced my work in Discworld Noir), I can't see what it would be. On the whole, the more likely explanation has more to do with the fact that Price was an avid collector of art himself. Indeed, his collection survives in the Vincent Price Art Museum in Monterey Park, CA. Check it out next time you're on the west coast!


Lady Rose

Lady RoseAnd last, but not least, a spare Fetch (a mirror ghost) in the form of Lady Rose. She was originally intended for the cut haunting "The Abysmal", where she would have been a British noble evacuated from the Americas, and the bride of the gold-stealing pirate ghost Thorne (who didn't make it into the final game). Her lay to rest puzzle involved her being true to her vows to Thorne, even though he had not been true to her. Revealing this to Lady Rose would have freed her to join your team. Instead, she joins you at the start of Act III.

Why the name 'Lady Rose'...? I'm not entirely sure, to be honest, but it may have to do with Henry VII's beloved warship, the Mary Rose, which sank in the waters north of the Isle of Wight where I grew up and whose wreck can be visited in nearby Portsmouth. The connection being that "The Abysmal" was set in and around a shipwreck, and either myself or Neil (who worked closely with me on the design and also comes from 'the Island') may well have been thinking of the Mary Rose while working on this ghost.

Spooky Hollow

It will come as no surprise at all if I reveal that the inspiration for this haunting is the classic tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", by Washington Irving and first published in 1820. Although I had heard of the story before the 1999 Tim Burton film, it really was the movie that put this into my head and committed me to this storyline. That said, given my research process involved identifying all the European and American (and a few African) ghost stories and seeing what types of supernatural entities they entailed, I feel confident I would still have come to the Headless Horseman as an archetype. I might not have got the sign off from Gregg Barnett, the game's director, however, without the movie to put it into the popular consciousness.

That said, it's not the only influence on this haunting. There's also a great deal of references to, of all things, the classic TV show The Waltons - which I absolutely love, and doesn't quite deserve the mundane reputation it has acquired (for instance, one of the storylines involves Mary Ellen's husband having his testicles shot off in the attack on Pearl Harbor, which is pretty eye watering!). Anyway, every mortal in this haunting is taken from this show, taking the first names of the characters and the surname 'Hamner', after Earl Hamner whose life story the TV show was based upon. This is also why the bad guy controlling the ghost is is called Earl Walton.

The Dragoon

The DragoonGiven what I've said about this haunting (regarding the Irving story, not The Waltons) it is no real surprise that we come to our main Headless Horseman, the Dragoon. Fans of Ghost Master insist that his backstory is historically impossible, for all manner of salient reasons. Chiefly, there would be no dragoons in the United States during the civil war, and even if there was why would he be in New England, and why would he be buried at a farm? Let me try to set the record as straight as best as I can.

The Dragoon is a mercenary during the civil war - it's left ambiguous what country he is from, but I assume he was one of the dragoons that patrolled the Texas-Mexico border in the 1840s. In 1861, the dragoon name was withdrawn from use and all mounted troops became 'cavalry'... but if he left military service to become a mercenary, it makes perfect sense that he would pick up the nickname 'the Dragoon'. The latest that the Dragoon can have been in service is 1861, and the civil war starts in exactly this year, so there is no problem with him being a Dragoon.

Why would he be in New England...? Here, the fan community forgets that Ghost Master is not set in the real world but in a fictitious town. Just as The Simpsons is set in a town that is every town, Gravenville is a haunted town that is every haunted town. But let's suppose that it is in the north east of the United States: there is still no problem to him being a mercenary in the civil war - if he isn't fighting for either the North or the South. By definition, anyone can hire a mercenary... indeed, plenty of adventure stories depend upon this detail, and his epitaph expressly tells us he "ravaged the area" during the time of the Civil War. I presume I was thinking he was a mercenary for some nefarious land owner, and not for the armies as such.

The least problematic aspect as far as I'm concerned is why he is buried in the farm - because of course, the farmers have killed someone and in no way wish to be found out (especially if they mistake him for a serving military officer). Murder is murder, even in wartime, and if you take into account that this mercenary is probably employed by some influential ne'er-do-well they have extremely good reasons to try and cover up their crime and pretend nothing happened. And when you own a farm, you have a lot of land to bury the evidence... This backstory also explains why the Dragoon is a restless spirit, after all...

Black Crow

Black crowI was keen to get in a bunch of Native American inspired haunters, and Black Crow is the one that represents the people rather than their mythos. I believe the inspiration for this character, although distant from anything in the game, is the 1991 movie Black Robe, about Jesuit missionaries in 17th century Canada and the people living around Lake Huron they encounter. The movie contains a dream sequence involving crows, and unless I'm very much mistaken it is from these disparate influences that the idea for 'Black Crow' emerged. However, I must also acknowledge the Marvel character of Black Crow, who appeared in an issue of Captain America, who I may have encountered in the Complete Guide to the Marvel Universe, which I collected in comic form. I don't think this is where the idea came from, but I also cannot rule it out.


Scarecrow and conceptAnd speaking of crows, this haunting also features the Horde named Scarecrow, who has a pumpkin for a head. Each Horde required its own critter to go with it, and as a fan of Hitchcock's The Birds I wanted a bird-based spirit to complete our set. I did not propose the jack-o-lantern head, which was entirely an invention of concept artist Nick Martinelli as far as I know. But I love Nick's concept sketch for Scarecrow, and was very pleased with how this ghost turned out.


Stormtalon and Thunder Sprit MTGThere is a secret haunter in Spooky Hollow named Stormtalon, who you recruit if you cause a thunderstorm using weather powers thus destroying the tree he is fettered to. Fans speculate that Stormtalon is inspired by the Native American mythology of the Thunderbird - and this is partly true, and certainly how I justified the creation of this haunter to Gregg (although the Thor-style hammer is absolutely an invention of Nick the concept artist!). However, I can now reveal that the entirely secret reason behind the creation of the category of Thunder Spirit to which this (and only this) ghost belongs is... Magic: The Gathering.

For the first three years of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering, I was an avid tournament player, who competed in - and indeed won! - various competitions around the North West of the UK. My main tournament deck, nicknamed Revelations, was White-Blue, and was built around taking advantage of a White creature that didn't tap called Serra Angel. Near the end of my tournament days, I added Thunder Spirit as a lower casting cost flying creature to defend me while I waited to get out my angels. So much was my love for this card, that it made it into Ghost Master as Stormtalon.


GhostbreakersIt will come as no surprise whatsoever that the Ghostbreakers are inspired by the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, itself the key cinematic influence on the game after Beetlejuice. However, Gregg put a lot of his own substantial film lore into these characters - basing the individual designs on the Three Stooges, and taking the name from a 1940 Bob Hope comedy The Ghost Breakers. The parallel is with 'strike breakers', who in the early decades of the 1900s were called in to, well, break up striking workers, with that delightful disregard for civilian rights that existed at the time. I consider myself a film buff, but of all the huge number of people I've shared cinematic history with, I discovered more new and wonderful things from Gregg than anyone else.

Evidently, a fair number of mortals here are named after the original Ghostbusters - Dr. Maureen Ramis, Raymond Akroyd, Janine Potts, and Laurence Murray. Wait, why not Peter Murray after Peter Venkman? I'm not sure, but I think this is a reference to Larry in the Three Stooges, since Maureen could be Moe, which would may Ray into Curly (amusingly, he has no hair in the game). However, the rest of the team is made up of another classic set of investigators - the cast of the 1980s TV show Moonlighting (the ever-inquiring Ghost Master fans successfully tracked this down, but have erroneously credited it to a movie and not to the show). For what it's worth, all the remaining mortals - David Willis, Maddie Shepherd, Agnes Beasley, Burt Armstrong, Jack MacGillicuddy, and yes, even Richard Rocket, who the fans seem to have missed - are made from the forenames of Moonlighting characters and surnames of the performer, which is the standard mortal naming trick for Ghost Master.


Windwalker and conceptHere's another of the Native American inspired ghosts that for reasons I don't actually recall ends up in Ghostbreakers rather than, say, "Spooky Hollow". He's the one and only Wendigo in the game, and a refugee from the cut level "Gone With the Wendigo", and at one point was part of a class of ghosts called Whisperers along with another cut haunter, Rustle (I still enjoy this terrible name pun!). These were also tied to a cut level "I Know What You Did Last Summer Camp", which would have smashed up the obvious horror reference in that name with Friday the 13th, but fell out of production entirely. It slightly irks me that there are ghosts with a single occurrence in the final game, but types of haunter were effectively free (it was power animations that were the bottleneck in production), so Gregg let me get away with all sorts of oddities - as with Stormtalon, above. The final design is very close to Nick's brilliant concept sketch, and works much better as a Wendigo than as the more nondescript type 'Whisperer'. I note the text in the corner of the concept sketch stating 'spins around like Tasmanian Devil', which did not make it into the final game but it would have been awesome if it had!

Full Mortal Jacket

HilesWell it's hardly a surprise that this military base level is named after the 1987 Vietnam war movie Full Metal Jacket. I'm delighted to report that it seems the Ghost Master fans have successfully tracked down all of the inspirations for the mortals in this haunting - a full fourteen are from the classic 1970s and 80s sitcom MASH, two are from the 1980 comedy film Private Benjamin, and one is Windsor Davis' bossy Sergeant Major from the marvellously terrible 1970s British sitcom It Ain't Half Hot Mom, a role he half-reprised as Sergeant Major Zero in the Gerry Anderson puppet show Terrahawks (which I'm re-watching with my kids right now).

However, I have one tiny titbit to reveal. I really wanted to include some reference to the brilliant 1996 Peter Jackson movie The Frighteners - but I struggled to find a way to squeeze it in, as its lore didn't quite match up with anything in Ghost Master. But there's one ghost - the drill sergeant named Hiles - that was an entirely purposeful callback to R. Lee Ermey's equivalent role in Full Metal Jacket. Thus the mortal Gunnery Sergeant Ermey in Ghost Master. So the very fact this haunting is called what it is has everything to do with The Frighteners, and much less to do with the Vietnam war film its named after!


WisakejakOur final Native American haunter is Wisakejak, which is one of the many names of the trickster-spirit known most popularly as Coyote, along with 'Whiskey Jack'. I went for this particular spelling because it's brings to mind the US insult 'wise acre' (actually descended from an old Dutch word, wijssegger meaning 'soothsayer'), and this Trickster is certainly inspired by that idea! His design, as is readily apparent, is directly inspired by Wile E. Coyote from the classic Chuck Jones cartoons. Indeed, he was originally called 'Wily' - but as I was finding material in Native American mythology to raid, I came across Wisakejak (also transliterated 'Wisakedjak') and thought I might as well loop back to why we were talking about 'wily coyotes' in the first place.

Now I know there are those who will condemn me for cultural appropriation here, but honestly all culture is appropriation, and anyone who says otherwise could benefit from reading more histories. I can see no sense whatsoever in refusing to draw attention to Native American history and mythology because I myself am not Native American, and excluding it from consideration would be a kind of erasure that surely should be more worthy of our disdain than being free to be inspired by other cultures. Ethical reflections aside, it does amuse me that all our Tricksters are cartoon-inspired, but it also makes a great deal of sense to me that they would be.

What Lies Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Our very last haunter is recruited in this revisit to the hospital that is obviously named by crashing together What Lies Beneath and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest which, incredibly, I have still not seen! (Every film buff has a small number of classics that they just missed out on, and this is one of mine.)

The Darkling

The DarklingAh, the Darkling - still probably my absolute favourite ghost design in the game, and absolutely freaky-looking when it peers into a mirror! I know the game just uses the name 'Darkling', but this monster is always 'the Darkling' to me, and was inspired by... well, I confess to not being entirely sure. 'Darkling' originally was an adjective meaning 'in the dark', but because of the sci-fi term 'Earthling', it has become switched over the years into referring to a being. I want to connect it to comics, and the most likely source of inspiration is a supervillain with this name (later renamed Asylum) from the early New Warriors comics, which I collected right up until Marvel annoyed me with too many cross-overs and I gave up the hobby entirely. The timing is right, I owned the relevant comics, so all-in-all I think this is the source of the name.

Shadow Darkling plus The BeastThe original concept for this ghost was that it would be made of shadows, and Greg and I looked at using volumetric shadows... but the technology simply wasn't there in the early 2000s, and Nick's original concept sketch of a being of shadow (right) was far too underwhelming to be the 'big bad' in our story. In the end, the concept design was based around the spirit known sometimes as The Beast from 1982's Poltergeist (far right), which is probably the third most important movie for this game. I am not at all disappointed that we went this way... the shadow ghost idea was great as a high concept, but we needed to cash this out as something really cool. The final ghost is everything I wanted, presents a far creepier and more intense design than The Beast, and I love it as much today as when I first saw it come to life.

The End is Only The Beginning

And that concludes my absurdly long account of the Origins of Ghost Master! It just remains for me to thank once again everyone at Sick Puppies who worked on this game, truly the finest development team I've ever had the pleasure and honour to work with. And more than this, I must express my gratitude now and forever to the dedicated fans of Ghost Master who have kept the memory of this game alive for twenty years. Special recognition and appreciation is owed to the Ghost Master Complete team, whose vast and ambitious modding project goes far beyond any mod for any other game I've worked upon in its attention to detail and unending love. To all of you Ghost Master fans, and all those who join you in discovering this wonderful oddity in the future, the Origins of Ghost Master series is affectionately dedicated.

May your plasm never run dry and your night be punctuated with the screams of those measly mortals who flee at the mere sight of your ghostly minions. Happy hauntings!

Ghost Master 20 (Extra 2-1)

ihobo at Gamescom 2023

Ihobo Banner Tableau 2023 (June)
Award-winning game design and narrative consultancy International Hobo is doing the rounds at Gamescom again this year!  We're looking for:

  1. INVESTORS/PUBLISHERS open to discussing future projects and bizdev opportunities for our developer clients
  2. PUBLISHERS who need 2-week design audit reports of projects at any stage from Vertical Slice through to Beta that will help steer discussions with development teams in productive directions (ideal for troubleshooting, or unblocking problematic projects)
  3. DEVELOPERS willing to invest ~1% of their development budget on ensuring superior player satisfaction and robust narrative experiences.

Does this sound like you? Get in touch with the contact link! We'd love to meet up. (Please, no service companies - we're not the gig you're looking for.) For a detailed list of our standard services, follow the Services link here or in the menu to the left.

Ten Player Motives

0a - Ten Player MotivesTen Player Motives was a twelve part serial examining the ten most commercially important reasons people enjoy playing games, and one non-commercial reason as well The serial ran from 22nd February 2023 to 19th July 2023 (with a short break in the middle). Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.

The twelve parts are as follows:

  1. The Ten Player Motives
  2. Victory
  3. Problem-solving
  4. Acquisition
  5. Luck
  6. Thrill-seeking
  7. Horror
  8. Social
  9. Curiosity
  10. Narrative
  11. Agency
  12. Aesthetic

Thanks for everyone who supported this serial - and if you enjoyed it, please leave a comment!