Niall Moody is a Scottish game developer whose work focuses on the subtleties of sound design, inspiring creativity, and improvisation. He also lectures on game audio at Abertay University. We met up at a nearby coffee shop to discuss the indefinability of creativity, and moving away from design orthodoxy. Interviews conducted February to March 2018.
What is the first medium that you did creative work in?
Growing up I had no intention of becoming a game developer. I wanted to be a rockstar, but that seems silly now. I was making music on my own, and then I went to university and wanted to do a music thing, so my first degree was in electronics and music.
After that I did a masters in Music Technology. I designed this idiosyncratic piece of software that lets you chain together different instruments and effects. It also had secret interactions. As well as having buttons and things, you could also fling the buttons about the screen, and they’d bounce off each other. And if you did it too hard, or too often they would break. None of this was communicated to the user initially, the idea was that they hopefully realise and that would stimulate their creativity to explore the software.
Off the back of that, I got offered a PhD, because I was in the right place at the right time. The electronics department had a spare place that they needed to fill. It was one of those things where I figured I’d probably regret it if I said no, so I said yes.
My PhD was about building a musical instrument that would output and sound. For most of this I was doing the usual academic research, paying attention to papers and journals and conferences. Towards the end of it I started to realise all the things I was really interested in; like the interaction of sound and visuals were being explored in far more interesting ways and with a far wider audience in video games. I started making some prototypes, and thinking maybe this is what I want to do.
How do you feel your work has developed after that?
After my PhD I made more video gamey video games. That was the time when Braid was a big thing and I bought into the design orthodoxy. I was focusing on more typical video games, because I naively thought I’d make something that would make me money. But I got tired of that and wound up moving back to stuff that was less interested in video gamey “rules” and more interested in weird interactions and colour and texture.
You describe many of your projects as tools to help players create imagery and sounds, so how do you see your role in terms of game developer or artist because of that?
If someone asks me what I do, it depends on the context. Usually I say “artist” because it covers a lot of things and I feel like I straddle a lot of different areas. I don’t know how to explain where I fit in terms of the weird intersection of all the things I’m interested in. One of the things I’m interested in is musical improvisation, but importing that into a video games context. Like a bunch of people working or playing together, not with a specific goal, but because it’s enjoyable to play like that.
I like it when that works, and there’s something really magical about having that feeling with a group. With musical improvisation you need a lot of mastery, but video games have a lower barrier of entry. There’s the potential to create something people can get to grips with quickly, and then experience those kind of group interactions.
Is the design orthodoxy and rules why you moved away from more typical video games?
I got tired of constantly being given goals in video games. There are some games that are about achieving goals I enjoy, but it starts to feel constricting. You have to tell the player what they’re supposed to do, you can’t just let them explore.
I like Bernie DeKoven’s The Well-Played Game because to me, that feels very close to musical improvisation. The point of a well-played game is to listen to the other people and pay attention to what they’re doing, if they’re cool with what’s happening, or maybe you need to change the rules and go in a different direction.
Do you feel like your development process has also changed over time?
Yeah. It started as a side thing and my plan was to work part-time and make some game that I could sell. I wound up doing a year temping and six years working part-time in a supermarket. I was making things, but I never got to the point where anything could sustain me. But as I made things and I went to events and started meeting people, people started inviting me to places, and I started to get known as somebody who can make things.
At that point I started getting wee jobs and commissions. I started to feel like I could make a living freelancing, so I attempted that, and it started off well, but the work dried up. At that point Dayna Galloway at Abertay posted some job adverts and one of them was a games audio lecturer. I thought, again, I can’t turn that down because I’ll regret it.
What I will say is that during my PhD, I began to think of myself as an artist. The work I did I’m not particularly enthusiastic about anymore, but it was really valuable to have four years to just figure out who I am.
How do you go about working on a project?
Sometimes I would start with a jam. That was really useful for sparking creativity, but I drifted away from that. There was a point where I felt like video games have such a big issue with crunch and game jams introduce young developers to the idea that crunch is fine.
I go through fallow periods, which I think is necessary, but I still get antsy. Sometimes I just feel I need to make something. When I did my masters, I did some research into the psychology of creativity, and a lot of that was researchers complaining about artists who can’t explain what they’re doing.
It’s not always easy for me to explain what decisions I make, but one thing that’s interesting to me is the way that different mediums feel like they have a different process. If I’m making music that’s different because it feels very exploratory… I just start playing with some sound and that leads me in a direction.
I code my games in C++ and don’t use an engine. I started out programming audio plugins, which at the time were all done in C++. Most developers wouldn’t even think of doing something so silly as writing your own code that way. What that means, though, for me, if I’m making a game I have to have some idea of the structure first. It’s not necessarily easy to do the music thing where you’re just following what sounds good. But I’ve built up this library of code to do certain things in specific ways. So now, any kind of software I make, it’s distinctively my own, because it’s based on the history of my game development stuff. Particularly audio-wise, I have a lot of synthesiser effects codes that I think are what makes my stuff sound unique.
Because your work encourages people to be creative, and so many of these related processes are hard to describe and define, is it hard to evaluate when your own work is successful?
Yeah, figuring out whether it’s successful is hard and for most things I make, I have my own idea for what it would mean.
There’s definitely times I’ve made things and thought this hasn’t turned out at all like I’m hoping. Being an artist on the internet, is that you’re acutely aware how many people are engaging with your work. My motivation for making things is because I want to, and it’s nice if other people see what I see in them, but if they don’t it doesn’t mean that I haven’t created something that I’m proud of. But the way the internet is designed, you have analytics that explain exactly how many people are paying attention.
I made a plan that for a year or so, everything I released would be released in such a way that I couldn’t possibly know how many people had looked at it. I was going to make games and put them on USB sticks and hide them in the hills or write zines and slide them into bookcases in cafes. I like the idea of art as a gift for anybody. I think there’s something kind of magical about stumbling across something that you didn’t expect in an unusual place.
I haven’t yet, and I’m still hoping to. I do have one secret project that is half-finished. That one I want to upload to the internet without any kind of attribution. I’m proud of it and I really want to show it to people, but I want it to be this thing that appears on the internet one day and is totally baffling, but still has an internal logic, so it’s something that people can figure out. I can’t go into detail… but I want it to make the internet feel a bit stranger, because it definitely feels less strange these days, and more scary and threatening than it was when I was a teenager.
People are able to do these more experimental practices thanks to the internet and being able to download tools and share their work, but it can have those drawbacks. So now that you have some distance from that, do you experience working with video games more as a local, Scottish thing?
That’s a very recent thing for me since coming to Abertay. I started in a more global mode, and still most of the developers I know live elsewhere. I probably wouldn’t have gotten started making games without being on forums and things, but my first week at Abertay it felt like there were all sorts of people coming up to me and asking if they could work with me.
Has that changed the approach to your work, or what you feel like the outcome is?
I’m going to do a lot of collaborative work in the future, rather than just working on my own. That’s probably why I wound up with this weird collection of skills, because I had to do everything myself. I enjoy having absolute control over what you make, but I think a lot of what I want to do in the future will be about collaboration, whether it’s making something with other people or creating things for groups of people to play together.
Do you feel like you’ve figured out what you enjoy and what your skills are, and now you want to see how working with other people can affect that?
Yeah, I think so. It feels like so many video games are designed around mechanics that feel exploitative to me. Lootboxes are a recent thing, but also things like having to level up or take on a bunch of big bosses in the first place. A lot of those games feel unpleasant to me and I’m never sure if it’s intentional on the designer’s part. Is it something they actually enjoy? Or are they doing this because that’s just what video games are? When you’re playing with other people and you’re kind of in that playful state, you can get a better sense of the shape of the world, and it’s easier to start to explore structures of things.
I need to spend a bit more time working in teams, because I don’t really have a sense of what that’s like. I’ve never actually worked in a traditional games company. It does make my experience at Abertay kind of weird, because there’s the expectation for students to work in groups. Some students take the role of Producer with teams of eight or nine people and that’s enormous to me! I realise that’s small for the games industry it seems like a really interesting problem, to get them to work together and communicate.
Do you have any collaborations planned?
I’ve joined Biome Collective, so I’ll be doing stuff there. I’m also helping Mona Bozdog with her PhD project, making some apps and things for that. Those are the two main things.
Have the events where you’ve gone to demonstrate your work been instructive in terms of what works well or doesn’t work?
There are specific games where I kind of don’t care, but anything I’ve made that involves people collaborating or playing together, I definitely care. If it was designed to facilitate interesting interactions between people and they’re not doing that, that’s obviously not working.
One game I made called Music Is For Everyone, is a four-player musical improvisation game. I didn’t realise it wasn’t going to work, until I saw people playing it, because it requires four players. It uses every controller button on an Xbox game pad, which is a lot of stuff for people to learn.
Every player has an instrument, and they control it with their controller, and they can also trigger rule changes. So a player can say “alright, you’re going to play a bass solo for two bars,” and that player can’t say no, they just have to do it. There were too many rules, too many things to pay attention to, and it didn’t feel good, when it came to making the music. That feels like something that has a lot of potential but I want to figure out how to make it work.
Is there one you think came off well in a group setting?
I made a game called Screaming Snakeball. It’s two player football where the players have snake tails behind them and the ball will bounce off the tails. There’s also microphones mounted elsewhere so you can have a crowd of supporters and as they cheer into the microphone it powers up their player. I think there’s something interesting about that, making literal the idea that a crowd of cheering fans can take you over the finish line if you’re an athlete. I took that to Gamecity and they put it on in the market square with these two huge screens and the players were sat at one end of the square and the microphones were pointed away. It was amazing. We had kids just coming up and screaming their heads off! I think it’s the best reaction I’ve ever had to taking a game somewhere.