Blair Kuhlman works as a User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) designer at Synapse Games in Chicago, Illinois. She also works as a game designer, scripter, and 2D artist & animator on her own independent projects. Her experience with Art Works for Change, a nonprofit corporation that uses art to address social & environmental issues, has bolstered her fascination with educational, socially aware, and experimental games. Blair strives to continue to produce this type of work, and explore what the video game medium has to offer.
BLAIR KUHLMAN UI and UX Designer, Game Designer COMPANY Synapse Games EDUCATION Columbia College Chicago - BA Game Development WEBSITES www.BlairKuhlman.com
When did you first start playing games?
I have been playing games since I was a kid. As the youngest in my family, I was lucky that my brothers had built up a game collection by the time I was old enough to hold a controller. Hours spent trying to beat Double Dragon with them is what first got me into games. The more they improved graphically, the more interest I took. Ocarina of Time and Half-Life were the first games to really sweep me off my feet. The attention paid to the feel of the environment and story felt so novel at the time. It had a huge impact on my engagement with those games. For the first time, I genuinely felt excited to explore the world. Knowing I was about to approach a boss actually made my palms sweat. As a kid, defeating the blind pit worms in Half-Life was such a defining moment for my interest in games. All that nervousness and excitement sealed my addiction to the hobby and I have been playing ever since.
What made you want to start making games?
As an artist, I was always intrigued by the interactive nature of games. I loved the idea of co-authoring your work with the audience as they interact with the space you’ve created. For me, the main functions of art are expression and discourse. Video games as a medium are very intriguing in that sense; they allow for a tremendous amount of audience participation in the meaning of the piece. I love the challenge of not only expressing your own ideas, but also giving the audience the flexibility to react to them. As a designer, I find this very inspiring, and try to embrace it in my work.
As games were a big hobby for me growing up, it was always a tempting industry to explore. The technical skill required to make games was an intimidating barrier at first. I always imagined programming as a complex and tedious task, but I was only half wrong! Though the learning curve for game development is high, the learning process is enjoyable and challenging. Plus there are tons of tutorials available and an active community to help you along the way.
“I loved the idea of co-authoring work with the audience as they explore and interact with the space you’ve created.”
What’s a game you recently played that inspired you in some way?
I am late to the scene, but I picked up FTL recently and was blown away by it! The design of a lot of its “push your luck” mechanics have actually had a big influence in my current project. I loved how the game always gives the feeling that you’re just barely surviving (and often times not). It works so well with the ambiguity of the risk and reward system they use while exploring. As I make my way through my indie career, games like FTL really keep me grounded. They are a great reminder that strong mechanics and simple execution can take you a long way.
“For me, the main functions of art are expression and discourse. Video games as a medium… allow for a tremendous amount of audience participation in the meaning of the piece.”
What is the one most important aspect of a game that you feel elevates the good games above the rest?
Personally, I love games that are very expressive with their mechanics.
Journey is a great example of this. Its gameplay is boiled down to three mechanics: moving, jumping, and sending a signal to your partner. These mechanics interweave throughout the game, creating engaging yet simple gameplay that encourages the player to form a unique story with their partner.
“Creating such an elegant yet expressive set of mechanics is a challenge, but when you nail it, it makes for an incredibly captivating experience.”
Many of the scenarios presented in Journey encourage specific dilemmas to occur between partners. For example, (SPOILERS) there is a point in Journey where you reach a dark cave filled with giant creatures that are hunting you. They can fly, burrow underground, and easily out-maneuver the player. If you happen to get caught by one of these beasts, they send you hurling across the map. There is no health in Journey, so the player does not take injury, but this can still create a serious dilemma. Since players can easily beat the game by themselves, it creates a great sense of separation anxiety between partners. One player is left with the question “Should I go back and find my partner, or do I continue without them?” while the other is left with the tension of being separated and wondering if their partner is looking for them. This has potential to create a very genuine sense of joy when you see that your partner has been looking for you. They could have easily abandoned you, but they chose to continue the Journey together. (/SPOILERS) Creating such an elegant yet expressive set of mechanics is a challenge, but when you nail it is makes for an incredibly captivating experience.
Do you feel that you identify with a Ludology-first or the Narratology-first design process?
Clarification: There are two processes that most game designers use. Narratology-first: Some people start with the outside-in, where they find the artistic expression that they want to convey, and they then try to find the mechanics to do that. Ludology-first: Others start from the inside-out, where they have the mechanic, then are trying to have the feeling that also compliments it. Do you feel that you identify with one of those other the other?
Usually I am drawn towards a mechanic that has a lot of potential for expression. I enjoy making games that focus on drawing the narrative from the gameplay itself. A lot of the debate I have seen about these terms implies that Narratology embraces using tropes from older media. Though this perspective has its merits, I think it’s more fun to think of new approaches to narrative given the unique tools that video games offer. If I do start off a game idea with a stronger narrative gimmick over a mechanic one, I try to keep the details of the story as vague as possible until much later in the design process. It’s important to boil down your narrative to the basics. This gives you a lot more flexibility while figuring out how to express these ideas through gameplay.
Are there any development roadblocks you’ve run into more than once, or for an extended period of time?
A few games I have worked on in the past have involved new technologies such as camera sensors. There were many times during the development process that this technology placed a great amount of restriction on the gameplay and design. Unfortunately, new technology rarely comes with detailed documentation, so any big problem I ran into had a serious impact on the development process.
How did you deal with the roadblock and keep progressing with your game?
Knowing your limitations with any 3rd party software/hardware is important before starting your design process. Especially if this technology is used in the core of your gameplay. I worked on a project called A Fitting that used an Xbox Kinect Sensor as its controller. The game was about challenging the player to perform awkward and sometimes sexual poses. I knew going in that my ability to work with the Kinect would have serious limitations on what kinds of poses I would be able to track accurately. Many of the poses were designed to work with the limitations of the technology.
“The technical skill required to make games was an intimidating barrier at first.”
What is something you wish you had done on all your games?
I wish I had used the Agile process of development for every game I have worked on. For me, it has proven to be the best method to explore the potentials of a game while also keeping your mechanics as lean as possible. I also wish I had integrated the playtesting process much earlier in many of the games I have made. It’s a crucial part of the development process for executing finely-tuned gameplay and clean UI.
Do you have a process in place for play-testing?
Generally when I first start a project, I try to start playtesting as soon as possible. In the infancy stages of a project, playtesting is usually limited to other designers and myself. Once the gameplay has been refined, and I can set someone down in front of the game without telling them how to play, I start looking for any and every playtester I can find. Limiting how much your playtesters know about your game is a key step. It’s very tempting to provide hints during a play through, but restrain yourself! Players who know nothing are your most valuable asset for finding the weak points in the design.
Could you talk about the work flow you use when designing a game?
“I wish I had used the Agile process of development for every game I have worked on.”
I prefer to use an Agile workflow when working on a project. I have found that my best work process involves establishing an idea or feeling I want to explore, finding a mechanic that best expresses that idea, researching similar work, then building out the core loop of the gameplay and prototyping it as soon as possible. Once you have a prototype, you can start determining where the weak points are in your design, and find what is actually fun about your game organically. Once you have an idea of why your game is enjoyable, it is easier to iterate on the design to focus and and experiment with those mechanics. Agile is a quick and dirty work process. Whitebox as fast as you can, and don’t be afraid to let your work change.
How do you stay organized while working with other people?
Some type of task-tracking software is always useful when working in groups. Doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as you can prioritize and easily view tasks. Asana is my go-to program there. Proper version control can save you a lot of headaches, even on a small team. TortoiseSVN and the Unity Cloud Build services are what I have the most experience with. They are pretty easy to use!
Is there a game you’ve worked on recently that you’d be excited to talk about?
Yes! I actually just started a new independent project this year. As a designer and a psychology buff, I’m interested in what we can learn from psychological systems and how they can be applied to game design. In many ways I think these mechanics have great potential in creating interesting dynamics between players. I am also interested in how they can influence the way a player expresses themselves within a gameworld. This project is my first step in playing with this concept. It’s still very young, so I can’t spoil too much, but its roots lie in the psychology behind our personalities and how these principles effect how the player sees and interacts with the world.
What sort of games do you think there are not enough of? What direction do you want to see the industry take?
I would personally love to see more expressive and experimental games on the market place. There is so much potential for video games to innovate on the way we tell and understand stories. It’s exciting to see all the clever mechanics people are using to express their ideas. Luckily, now that making games is more accessible than ever, I think we’ll continue to see a growing presence of these types of games on the indie market.
“I enjoy making games that focus on drawing the narrative from the gameplay itself.”
What can big companies like Microsoft do to bring more women into gaming?
Helping to bring female success stories to light will be important for gender diversity in the next generation of game developers. An increase of female role models for young women will help them dismiss any stigmas that may steer them away from the industry.
What can I do locally to bring more women into gaming?
Events that show the accessibility of the medium may be of help. For example, holding workshops that de-mystify some of the skills involved in game development (programming, using game engines, game design) may provide the encouragement some women need to explore the medium further.
“An increase of female role models for young women will help them dismiss any stigmas that may steer them away from the industry.”
How do you think people with diverse backgrounds impact the development community?
Diversity is one of the most important aspects for any artistic medium to grow. The more perspectives a medium represents, the more mindful our language becomes when describing it. Diversity also helps to push the industry forward, often making games more desirable to new markets.
What do you want women considering a career in tech to know?
Do it! With so much powerful and free software available, many aspects of the tech community are wide open for anyone to learn. We are living in a golden age of plentiful documentation and active communities available to help you through the rough spots. There is no reason not to explore the industry if it’s truly something that interests you.