Those who explored this website may know that my research-creation project is based on the MDMA method developed by Khaled, Lessard, and Barr from Concordia University. This method invites design researchers to map their own trajectory in game design space. I created this blog especially to engage in this process. By the time everything was up and running, important progress had been made to advance the project. Some backtracking appears necessary to retrace my initial steps inside the design space. Here I retell how my journey has begun. I’ll go in great details to be fully transparent about how everything started. It is my belief that this narrative will be useful in the long run, not only for other design researchers that may want to get inside my head, but mostly for me at the end of the project when I look back on my whole trajectory to do a postmortem analysis.
The idea of creating Bug Hunter was sowed in my mind midway during my Ph.D. Through the course of this research focused on the poetic and politic of video game glitches, I became interested in the “glitch-patch” dynamic that is pervasive in gaming culture. I developed a critical understanding of this political economy between players discovering glitches and designers patching them. I was (and still am) agitated by developers exploiting the free labour of glitchers to improve their products without compensating them anyhow. From that point of view, I saw glitchers (in particular) and players (in general) as unpaid playtesters. I was also shocked by the lack of critical consciousness from a player’s perspective. Most of the time, glitches caused by flawed products shipped too early and designed to be patched “post-launch” manage to escape consumer awareness and activism. I’ve come to the conclusion that the funny, playful, and social properties of glitches obscure their underlying economic and political nature. Brainstorming solutions to remedy the problem, I first dream of players getting unionized in an anarcho-syndicalist fashion to defend their rights against companies’ abusive and exploitative practices. When I woke up, I had the idea of creating a game that would address the matter directly. The main point would be to reproduce the tension between having fun toying with glitches from a broken game and doing that at the expense of being robbed of the fruits of our own labour.
As with many projects, everything starts with an informed flash that is written down on a piece of paper. The first sprout of Bug Hunter is formulated in summer 2017. As you can see from the figures 1 and 2, back then my design idea was about creating “a game about the ‘glitch-patch’ dynamic with a meta-reflexive dimension about the history of the FPS, its game engines, its iconic glitches, and the role of players and their gameplay on the transformation of play.” Players would have to deal with false leads, insects (a bug metaphor), and glitches to overcome puzzles. The goal is to discover a patch that would have to be applied on a faulty section of the game to unblock the next section. I had listed common glitches from the FPS culture that I have encountered throughout my research. This list contains elements like gliding through walls, animation cancelling, slow framerate, rocket jumping, object climbing, surfing, out of map, trigger skipping, collision detection problems, etc. I had in mind a time-critical plateforming puzzle inspired by speedrunning where glitches needed to be mastered to mess with the countdown and skip sections of the parkour. Other ideas envisioned puzzles based on the transgression of a time-based death barrier. I think of the possibility to hijack an animation error to gain unlimited ammunition. There is also a suggestion about the exploitation of a macro-keying system to optimize actions per minute. This preliminary sketch also holds intentions about a system of clues and Easter eggs based on glitch art and real cultural artifacts like YouTube videos showing how to exploit bugs. As written in my notes, the main target was for participants to feel inside an alpha/beta version of a future AAA game acting as a playtester of the product.
In August 2017, I pitched the idea to my colleague Étienne Brunelle-Leclerc who got interested. We set up 3 or 4 work sessions to start prototyping two game mechanics in the Unreal Engine. The first one is a rocket jumping mechanic. The second one is a teleportation mechanic where the avatar can pick up a primitive cube, throw it away, and teleport at the cube location. The following YouTube video shows how these two techniques have to be combined to escape an enclosed environment from above. Unfortunately, Étienne had to focus on university stuff so he left the project. Still, his contribution to the burgeoning of Bug Hunter was major. In the meantime, I also have to put the game aside to finish my thesis.
The next significant step forward goes back to a meeting with my supervisor Dr. Jonathan Lessard during summer 2019. Jonathan helps me frame my creation project as a research-creation endeavour. He introduces me to the MDMA method and advocates for the value of focusing on the design process rather than the design object (especially for a young designer establishing first contact with its medium).
From that point forward, the project gets structured around two axes. First, it’s a matter of producing a game that articulates a meta-commentary about the two main driving forces of the glitch political economy: 1) the transgressive and playful utilization of software errors by consumers and 2) the exploitation of glitchers’ playtesting labour force by game producers. Secondly, Bug Hunter was now about documenting the creation process of four small “interactive vignettes.” Instead of focusing solely on the aesthetic and rhetorical potential of glitches from the standpoint of the game object and its players, the idea was to scrutinize my interactions with glitches inside the game design space. The reasoning goes as follows. While implementing the glitchy puzzles and mechanics I have in mind, unintended glitches will necessarily emerge since they are part of the art form. Instead of trying to repress these imperfections, I will look at them from a positive angle. I will document their technical conditions of emergence, archive their behaviours for future game(play) ideas, and blog about their impact on the creation process as a whole. In doing so, my project will gather important data about how the nuts and bolts of game design and game engines are interiorized by a young designer who will have to deal with desirable and undesirable oversights. All this data would be made public for other people to study it and reach their own conclusions about game design as a creative and research practice.
For the rest of the summer until autumn of the same year, I worked hard with my mentors Dr. Lessard and Dr. Bernard Perron to prepare a robust application to get funding. It is easy to overlook the importance of preparing such documents. From experience, doing this laborious paperwork is a crucial step in any research project even if you didn’t get the funding. It helps clarify and synthesize your thoughts. It forces you to formulate your core problems and goals in simple terms. It makes you reflect on the potential and limits of your theoretical background and methodology. It pushes you to set a horizon of events and expectations to orient yourself. In my case, this documentation became the foundations of what you can read in the Bug Hunter’s manifesto and design document.
In October 2019, I submitted my application to the competition for the postdoctoral research-creation fellowship held by the Fonds de recherche Société et culture du Québec. After months of nervous waiting, I received an e-mail from the FRQSC in April 2020 informing me that the two-year scholarship was granted to my project, starting in summer 2020. By the time I got the news, the coronavirus pandemic had already forced all Montreal Universities to shut down and pursue their activities online. For this reason, I couldn’t (and still can’t) access the Technoculture, Art, and Games (TAG) lab which is the host environment where I am supposed to work full time. This means no access to the Concordia infrastructure and no contact with the community aside from online interactions. To limit the damage with the hope of a pandemic reversal, I decided to postpone the project starting date to September 2020.
With the health crisis nowhere near its end, I start working in confinement. Nevertheless, it didn’t prevent me from diving head first in design space. My first impulse was to get used to Unity, the game engine behind Bug Hunter. I install the software and get my hand on a really useful book titled Unity for Absolute Beginners (Blackman 2014). Between summer 2020 and spring 2020, I devoured the book with great interest. I learned the layout of the Unity editor and how the project’s files are structured. I trained myself in creating, transforming, and organizing game objects and sculpting 3D terrain. I experimented with the engine’s input manager and physics using primitive objects and a first-person character with a rigibody. I got acquainted with importing assets, tuning material quality with shaders, and creating reusable prefabs. I was introduced to Unity scripting with key C# programming concepts such as variables, access modifiers, console printing, comments, operators, conditionals, and various methods. I was familiarized with assets animation, environment composition, occlusion technique, and common game functionalities like camera placement, randomized enemies spawning, timers, and objects instantiation. I also have first-hand experience with explosive projectiles, enemy destruction, and special effects created with the particle systems.
Arriving at the end of chapter 8 (out of 11), I hit the code barrier. I was unable to replace a shot enemy with a dead replacement and its associated animation. With the help of the Unity Answer community, I eventually manage to identify and overcome the problem. My error was trying to instantiate a dead replacement at the location of a parent object that didn’t exist in the scene. I corrected the right line of code to spawn my dead replacement at the location of its living counterpart and I was back on track. Regardless of the solution being found, I had to rethink my strategy. I couldn’t be stopped by such basic lack of understanding. Before going forward, I decided that deepening my programming skills has to become a top priority.
To jump the code barrier, I put Blackman’s book aside and turn my attention toward Harrison Ferrone’s Learning C# by Developing Games with Unity (2019). As I’m currently entering the last third of the book, I gained a more in-depth understanding of C# programming language. More precisely, I refine my knowledge and know-how about C# syntax, class communication, defining and calling methods, if-else statements, iteration statements, and collections (arrays, lists, and dictionaries). I also strengthen my coding skills to put game objects in motion, detect collisions, use colliders to trigger events, and script jumping and shooting mechanics. I learned in greater detail how to program a game manager to keep track of players' actions and properties and to check if the game state meets the winning or losing conditions. I also discovered how to factor those changes in basic graphical user interface features. At the moment, I’m happily scratching my head over AI navigation and mechanics.
While I was reading Blackman and Ferrone books, I eventually had enough material to start sharing content about my progress. In the original planning, my goal was to set up a simple blog using Wordpress. After doing some research on web design platforms, I decided to go with Webflow instead due to its highly customizable features. A step that I first imagined to be relatively short and sweet, has become a small sub-project on its own. I thought that a simple blog wouldn’t do justice to the project I had in mind. I want users to be able to do more than just read posts about Bug Hunter development. I want them to have access to the underlying proposition, the theoretical and methodological framework, the evolving design document, visual materials related to the design process, and spaces to comment and discuss the various aspects of the research-creation.
From September 2020 until the end January 2021, most of my energy was dedicated to the creation of TheBugHunter website and its main content. I spend a lot of time writing the research document (Manifesto) and the game design document (DesignDoc). I participated in two sessions of the Design Conversation Group on the TAG’s Discord server where I had the chance to share the base lines of my project and show the evolution of my website. On that note, I have to thank Jess Marcotte and Gina Haraszti for their invaluable feedback about how to implement and test some of my ideas and also on the website aesthetic more broadly. Outside the TAG community, I also have to thank my colleagues Maxime Deslongchamps-Gagnon and Bernard Perron for their interest in my project and their precious commentaries on my website.
Having backtracked the design process of Bug Hunter from its inception to its exposition, one can have a better idea of my initial steps inside the game design space and those who played a role in kick starting this trajectory. In the next month, my goal is to finish the two books I talked about and start prototyping Bug Hunter. Now that the sociotechnical environment of the project is finally set up, I have all the channels at my disposal to have a proper hand in the MDMA method. I’ll be blogging more regularly from now on. If you are interested in the project unfolding, be sure to keep an eye on the website. You can also follow and share your thoughts on Bug Hunter through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Hope to hear from you somewhere.