Develop:Brighton 2021: I am a speaker!

I am very excited to announce that I will deliver my favourite talk “Meditation for Game Developers” at the wonderful Develop:Brighton conference this year. If you happen to be in Brighton at the end of October or are planning on going, it would be lovely to see you there. My talk is on Wednesday the 27th of October at 6pm. 

I will talk about mental health, which is a topic that is rarely discussed but it has now become more important than ever, especially in the games industry.. I will share with you my experience of building a regular yoga and meditation practice whilst managing a busy game studio. I will talk about how it impacted my own life and how it helped me navigate my own project from financing through to release. 

Running a business is risky and we face doubts on a daily basis. Will I get investment for my project? Will I be able to ship the game in time and will people like it? Yoga and meditation can help you stay positive and productive in the face of these challenges. 

I will share my own journey with you and show you examples from my asana, meditation and breathing practices. I will also give simple, practical tips on how you can build your own practice. It’s a topic I am excited about and I love to share because it has worked for me and I hope it will work for you too. 

Game Mixer Barcamp 2018 © Stiftung Digitale Spielekultur / Niels Freidel 

You will learn how to:

  • Develop mental resilience to help you navigate tricky business challenges.
  • Build your own yoga and meditation routine that works for you.
  • Use short breathing exercises to help deal with stress and anxiety.


Who is this talk aimed at?

This talk is aimed at a general audience and entertaining for most people. I approach it from my own experience as a producer but in a way that’s easily relatable for others and anyone who has been through a crunch will be able to identify with the topic.

#DevelopConf #DevelopIsBack #GameDev #GameDevelopment

Meditation for Game Developers

Talking about Yoga and Meditation to fellow Game Mixer delegates in Cologne.
© Stiftung Digitale Spielekultur / Niels Freidel

Recently, I was invited to Cologne as a delegate of the fabulous Game Mixer programme. At the previous edition, which took place in November 2017 in Johannesburg, I already talked a little bit about Ashta and there seemed to be a lot of interest in the topic of Yoga and meditation. Specifically, what exactly I do every morning at an ungodly hour.

So this year, I prepared a little presentation on my own meditation practice, which started ten years ago. In many ways, I am still at the beginning of what looks like a life-long journey but I have learned a few things along the way, which I love to share. 

Many people experience stress for one reason or another. For example, I used to feel that nothing I did was ever enough. My accomplishments were quickly followed by a feeling that I still hadn’t arrived and that in spite of my successes, there was something lacking.

Of course, this begs a few questions like “what is a success” and “what is it I want” neither of which I was able to answer. Instead, I would simply pursue new goals. But achieving them always left an empty space, which was invariably filled with the next project. 

I know this type of behaviour is not uncommon especially among people in the entertainment industry. For many years, it left me stranded in a hamster wheel, chasing a promise of fulfilment that never arrived but often led me into exhaustion and disillusionment. 

Yoga, meditation and other little routines and exercises I practice throughout the day have helped me overcome these feelings. They might not work for everyone as they have for me but it may be helpful for some to share my process so they can build on it or find out what works best for them. Here is roughly what my typical day looks like right now:

  • 3.15 – 3.20 am: rise and shine
  • 3.20 – 3.50 am: shower and bathroom routine
  • 3.50 – 4.15 am: get dressed and cycle to the gym
  • 4.20 – 5.50 am: asana practice 
  • 5.50 – 6.10 am: cycle home
  • 6.10 – 6.50 am: pranayama
  • 6.50 – 7.05 am: meditation 
  • 7.05 – 8.00 am: breakfast 
  • 8.00 – 12.00 pm: creative work (if I’m lucky)
  • 12.00 – 1.00 pm: lunch
  • 1.00 – 4.00 pm: administrative work (and procrastination of the same)
  • 4.00 – 5.00 pm: light creative work and exercise 
  • 5.00 – 6.00 pm: dinner
  • 6.00 – 9.00 pm: leisure time
  • 9.00 – 3.15 am: sleep –> REPEAT

Depending on my current circumstances, the timing of the routine might shift but the durations remain the same. The reason why I do what to some might appear an excessively lengthy routine because for me, it is the foundation of happiness which is one of my ongoing projects.   

I realise that this is a tricky schedule to maintain and I sometimes deviate from it; especially when I am travelling or during time of illness or injury. Also, you have to keep in mind that I have been doing this practice in one form or another for over ten years and in the beginning, my schedule wasn’t anywhere near what it is today. If you want to start exploring your own practice, my advice to you would be to find a good teacher and not to rush it. The key to a successful and sustainable practice is consistency, not speed or acrobatic ability. I am happy to share what I have learned so please feel free to reach out with any questions you might have.

ON MEDIA LITERACY

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM FAKE NEWS?

Intelligence agencies, politicians and businesses are using psychological profiling to target individuals with messages on social media with the aim of swaying public opinion and persuading people to behave in ways that suits them. Often, these messages are not based in fact but designed to provoke emotional responses that serve the agenda of the poster.

The fact that people are susceptible to these kinds of messages shows how easily we can be persuaded of half truths and falsehoods. This has been successfully exploited by the advertising industry for many years but never to such dramatic effect as we have seen over the last two years.

Photos and videos are often used to assert validity but widespread access to image editing technology means that it will become increasingly harder to tell whether they have been altered. We live in a world with abundant opinions and information but limited means of judging their quality.

A recent study on information literacy revealed that the majority of school children cannot tell the difference between a news item and an advertisement. Another asserts that false messages are more likely to be believed than true ones.

But how can we maintain democratic principles if we are unable to make informed decisions? One way to address the problem is by teaching media literacy in schools. Three years ago, I was interviewed on that topic. I am reposting an abridged English translation below. The original German text can be found here.

Why should we still be learning when there is the internet?

The Internet offers knowledge for everyone. A massive library of content with aisles and aisles of shelves that multiply every second. The problem is no longer availability, but the sheer abundance of information. It is therefore less about finding, but more about learning to evaluate the quality of what there is. Therein lie both possibilities and problems and media literacy should be considered in this context. However, I would like to concretise this term, because studies such as ICILS 2013 [International Computer and Information Literacy Study, editor’s note] show that students must, above all, gain information literacy, which requires like many areas of life reflecting on the own real and digital environment.

So, should we remove textbooks from the classrooms?

One thing is certain: Despite this development, the textbook is still in the classroom is still the undisputed number one source of information. Textbooks are products of professional editorial work and the tasks are adapted to these materials. Once printed however, they can no longer be extended or updated and because the world continues to move, students often feel disconnected from the content.

This often causes young people to feel misunderstood not taken seriously by educational institutions. “What do I have to learn that for,” they often ask. This does not mean that textbooks are obsolete – on the contrary. There is much to be said for the haptic experience of the book. The printed word is not only a valuable cultural asset but they are also reliable. They still work, if the power fails or the computer doesn’t cooperate. I see digital content as a supplement not a substitute to analogue content.

From your point of view, what does this mean for teaching?

There is often a gap between school and the reality of life. The more technology permeates society, the greater this gap becomes. Our task is to continuously assess the objects and methods of learning; to test and compare them with the reality our children are exposed to. The extensive factual knowledge that pupils commit to short-term memory year after year like sizes, names, dates for example can be recalled in seconds, and often more reliably with the use of technology. But the subject of learning should not be limited to the use of computers, but must include the connection between the individual pieces of information. The context is key to understanding the meaning and evaluating the quality of information.

Learning with media and in context – how does it work?

I believe that children – and incidentally also adults – learn best when learning is embedded in an exciting context. In other words, we learn best when we are interested. An original story is a highly motivating context. People love good stories. Why should we not use this passion that is deeply rooted in us? There are many digital offerings that teach children how to handle media correctly; many of which are also fun to use but probably because work at the computer is still considered an exception and therefore partly is not perceived as ‘real’ teaching. Offers that use media in a considered and targeted way are still few and far in between. If children have spend an entire lesson watching a film or using software and at the end can’t tell what it was all about, then what was the purpose of the exercise? There is a lack of products that take content seriously: this is the starting point for the idea of the real world game and its first incarnation “Professor S.”.

I believe that story telling can be a powerful driver of our intellectual development because by creating stories we not only learn to recognise a good yarn but the research that goes into spinning our own helps us to develop critical thinking. One of the most useful skills I learned during my education is the ability to judge the quality of information. Like all things worth having, it doesn’t come over night and requires exercise which is why the sooner we start to teach these skills the better our world will be for all of us.

A DAY BY THE SEA

Last week, we were invited by UKIE to present Ashta at the Games Funding Conference in Liverpool. It was a fantastic opportunity to meet people developing, financing and distributing games in the UK and also a wonderful chance to introduce the youngest member of our team to a vital aspect of game development: presenting ideas.

Carmen joined LUDINC for a work experience as part of her International Baccalaureate. She wanted to spend time with us because she especially loves working with children. I was happy to have Carmen with me not just because she did a fantastic job but also because I value her curiosity and unique point of view.

Most new titles that are released are a testament to the fact that a large number of games are still made for male consumers. Our industry needs fresh perspectives and diversity to continue to thrive which is why I would love to see more young women in games. If you are currently considering a career in games I would like to hear from you.

“Ashta”

It is a great joy for me to announce today that after the success of Professor S. and with the kind support of the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg and the German Computer Game Award LudInc is now developing a new game for kids between the ages of 6 and 12 called:

 

The story follows the adventures of a little octopus girl called Ashta. She was born in a river at the northernmost tip of Indonesia on a little island called Pulo Aceh together with 51 little brothers and sisters. Ashta likes to swim close to the beach and listen and dance to the music the humans are playing. She loves to sit in the coral trees and watch the world go by. Unlike her fellow octopi, she is very sociable and she has a lot of friends in the lagoon. She loves to scare her friends by hiding and imitating different animals. Her father Bob is Ashta’s favourite relative and mentor. Bob enjoys the little pleasures in life. Ashta’s mum calls him lazy but Ashta loves his easy going attitude. Bob often takes Ashta to the beach to collect shells and candy the humans leave behind.

First character design draft of “Ashta”, the little octopus by Agnieszka Michalska.

One day, a group of sharks are feeding in the bay. Ashta barely manages to escape and gets separated from her family. Followed by the sharks she swims into the open sea. Having lost her way and with the sharks still in pursuit she swims farther into the ocean until she reaches the east coast of India. There, she makes friends with a young bull from Mexico and together they embark on an adventurous journey to reunite “Ashta” with her family.

The idea came to me last summer after I had spent almost every day over a six months period practising the physical exercises of the Ashtanga Yoga primary series. The practise continues to improve my life in many ways and I wish I would have discovered it sooner. Yoga not only promotes physical health and fitness but also emotional well-being, concentration and learning abilities. I believe I would have greatly benefited from being introduced to Yoga while I was still at school. However, when I was a kid, Yoga was virtually unheard of. That is why I am grateful for the opportunity to now introduce a younger audience to the practice using the tools I am most familiar with: storytelling, gaming and music.    

A big thank you goes out to the Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg who continue to believe in us. A special thank you also goes to the German Computer Game Award (DCP) and the Goethe Institute who invited me to Sao Paulo last year for a wonderful opportunity to meet with and learn more about the Brazilian games industry. During my stay in Sao Paulo I also met our Brazilian co-producer Paula Cosenza. Paula’s company, Bossanova Films has recently opened an animation department which produces high quality children’s content and I am very much looking forward to working with her. “Ashta” will be our first international co-production and I am very excited about that.

The people that make “Ashta” possible from left to right: Paula Cosenza (Bossanova Films), Roshanak Behesht Nedjad (LudInc), Jan von Meppen, Ina Göring (Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg), Anja Riedeberger (Goethe Institut Sao Paulo). During the Berlin Film Festival in February we all met at the Brazilian embassy.

Our gratitude also goes to the Arnold Zweig School in Berlin, where we already had an opportunity to try the story and exercise sequence with a third grade class. There will be other opportunities to test the game mechanics later this month but even at this early stage of development, “Ashta” is a big hit with the students and teachers.  

We still have a lot of work ahead of us and you can also help by sharing your thoughts: Do you practise Yoga? Do you think Yoga would be beneficial for your kids? Would you spend money on an app that teaches your kids yoga? Do you think an animated story is a useful teaching tool?

We All Have Our Skeletons

Jan likes his coffee black. He is leaning back in one of the blue lounge chairs by the bowfront window. At this point, he is getting comfortable being interviewed by me. After years of dedicated work, he is ready to look back and marvel at how it came together. As Jan is digging in the archives of his memories, it seems like he is not only telling me about the early days of “Professor S.”, he is telling himself.

The road of an explorer is never a straight one. “It was very rock’n’roll,” Jan concedes. “There were many spontaneous decisions during working on the episodes.”

With the surprise casting of Paul as Professor S., Jan was eager to start shooting the first episodes. “The film element was part of the idea from the very beginning,” Jan explains. “During my work in schools, I noticed how people used computers and media,” he continues. Seeing how many teachers used films as part of class inspired Jan to what would become LudInc’s signature dish: a storyline delivered in entertaining episodes with cliffhangers that require the audience to become active and add to the show in knowledge and character.

Bringing together both the entertainment and the educational aspects was Jan’s biggest accomplishment in those early stages of writing. A one-man operation for good parts of the early way, Jan had to step out of his comfort zone of composing and producing by having to divide his attention between all aspects of filmmaking, including camera work or the prop department. Jan soon found out that passion projects have a way of screaming for attention from all different angles simultaneously. What counts, though, is not how much you know but how well you are connected. “At the time, I was working on a feature film called Dark Fibre, together with Jamie King and a very talented director called Peter Mann,” Jan remembers.

Jamie and Peter had asked Jan to provide the musical score to their film. One thing led to the next. “Peter is very good with technical camera work, so I told him about my idea,” Jan continues. “I told him that I wanted this professor guy to travel inside of his lab, because that is all I could afford in terms of setting,” he laughs. “I said: ‘Inside the lab, there is a window. How can I make scenes appear in the window?’ Peter gave me advice on how to position my camera in order to achieve this effect.”

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All of a sudden, support was coming from all corners of the globe. Jan had charmed Mark Twain School headmistress Verena Thamm into granting him the school’s chemistry laboratory as a set. Tako Taal, Jamie King’s girlfriend at the time, offered helping with the set design. Leonard Cetrangolo from San Francisco, whom Jan had met while working in the States, provided valuable knowledge of cinematography. “It was nice having so many people involved from the beginning. People wanted to help because they really associated with the project,” Jan recalls, ”even though it was very ambitious. We were nowhere near having the resources to pull this thing off. It was a very rock’n’roll kind of production.”

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Tako, freshly cast Paul and Jan went into the lab over a weekend in the middle of December. “We dressed the room so it looked like a time machine with lots of blinking machines and apparatuses. When I set up the camera, I called up my friend Leonard on Skype and I did a live cast of my laptop screen for him so he could basically look through the camera’s viewfinder and tell me how to adjust the camera and lighting.”

Every well-equipped school science lab comes with a skeleton and so did this one. It just briefly graced the corner of the lab setting before being handed a name and a role in the story, the sidekick the script had been missing. “Tako came up with that,” Jan laughs. “She just used it as part of the set at first. During filming, Tako crawled on the floor and started moving it around to make it come alive.”

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“The skeleton idea was great because it showed the obvious need for a companion for Professor S. in the Time Lab.”

Find out next time how our skeleton Pierre changed names, nationalities and genders all at once. Skeletons are weird that way.

If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance. –George Bernard Shaw

David Lütke, Editor

" rel="bookmark">Go With The Flow (流れに身を任せます)

Production for a movie or TV series can span months and years. A lot can happen during that time. Previous plans can come undone. It’s up to the producer and crew to roll with the punches. The fascinating part is looking at cast, titles or details that never came to be. These could-have-been’s are something the audience rarely or never hears about. Of course, a multitude of factors play a part when movies become iconic. Imagine how different some of the world’s most popular productions could have been. Could you see John Travolta playing Forrest Gump? He almost did. Or Sean Connery in the role of Middle-earth’s favorite wizard Gandalf? They were considering him.

Now, our dear Professor S. is no Forest Gump, although he does get himself into quite a few situations of historical significance. But did you know he went through several incarnations, both on paper and on screen?

But let’s recap: Jan von Meppen proposed giving his unique game model a try at Mark Twain Primary School in Berlin. Jan, with a background in filmmaking and alternate reality games, went to work on a prototype of the game over the summer holidays of 2009. His friend Frieder Klapp, fourth grade teacher at Mark Twain Primary School, helped him.

“Frieder put me onto topics like fire, whales & dolphins, which is basic fourth grade content”, Jan remembers. “So I took that information and constructed stories around it. I wanted to wrap the learning content into a story. That was the idea.”

The writing process went fairly quick, as Jan remembers. The time travel theme quickly established itself. However, there were initial detours. “One of the ideas was that Michael Jackson, who had died in June of that year, was not really dead but actually living in the school’s attic, communicating with the children.” Jan laughs, “but that was dismissed quickly.”

When the professor story came into focus, Jan recognised the need to put a face on his main character. “The first idea was to get a Japanese actor. The character was then called Professor Takeshi. So I was looking for an Asian actor because there is a stereotype according to which Asian people are widely associated with technology.”

An email from Jan to set designer Tako, discussing the possibilities of having a Japanese Professor S.:

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Jan set up the auditions at HomeBase Lounge, an event space at Potsdamer Platz in the heart of Berlin. Some people who came to the audition were just curious and weren’t even available for the planned shoot.  Others simply didn’t have the acting skills. It wasn’t looking good for Jan’s schedule. But, as he soon found out, good things sometimes happen unexpectedly.

“All throughout the auditions, there was a guy named Paul, working the bar”, says Jan. “He said ‘Why don’t you just let me do it? I can do it, I love kids and I can act’, so we tried him and he turned out to be very good, he had a lot of energy”, he continues. “And he was kind of chaotic which is something I wanted for the character of Professor S.” Paul Karopka shortly thereafter put on the lab coat and thick rimmed glasses that made him become the first official Professor S. Lucky incidents like this are dotted throughout LudInc’s founding years and seem to be proof that persistence is always rewarded. Jan is smiling, thinking about it.

So far, lady luck has favoured our heroes. What happens if you go into a project passionate, open-minded and with a rock’n’roll attitude? Are great things going to happen or is the project bound for disaster? Which way does the pendulum swing? Find out next time.

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David Lütke, Editor

Fishing In The Idea Pond

Great ideas come by accident. The trick is to be ready when they come. What helps is a generous dose of rebellious spirit and the ability to think two steps ahead. When Jan von Meppen was first consulted by schools about their server setups and computer infrastructure, he didn’t know it would lead him to creating the concept of the Real World Game. After all, school was an unlikely place for him to start afresh.

“I’ve always disliked school”, Jan laughs. “I became a master at avoiding classes with the exception of those attended by girls I liked and subjects I enjoyed. In any case, I received spectacularly bad grades.” Several years down the road, new doors opened up when his admission to the renowned University of Oxford rekindled Jan’s academic spirits. “Basically, at Oxford, I got to do something I was really interested in.” Between studying philosophy and a finance position at Harley-Davidson, Jan has always been keen to try out new things.

Jan, together with some fierce Harley-Davidson colleagues in 2003:

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He knew when to jump at a good chance. His first steps into the world of digital media led him to film production and score composition and paved the way for Jan to further explore the field.

“I had become fascinated with the concept of transmedia and alternate reality games”, he recalls. “I enjoyed this novel approach to audience engagement. I absorbed everything I could find on the subject.”

The key moment took place at Berlin-based Mark Twain Primary School in 2009. The principal, Verena Thamm, asked Jan to produce a short image film for the school. “I just replied ‘I could do that but I might have something better for you’”, says Jan and chuckles. “My proposition to Mrs. Thamm was that playing an alternate reality game as part of regular class activities would create more buzz than an image film.” Were these the magic words that led to the creation of LudInc? Whatever the case may be, the two agreed that it was worth a try and Jan went to the drawing board.

Frieder Klapp, then teacher of a fourth grade class at Mark Twain, saw the potential in Jan’s idea. Having been given a thorough overview of lesson plans by Frieder, Jan went all in and dove into writing and the production of the first batch of episodes for Professor S.

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The scene was set for an unsuspecting school class to experience the first real world learning game.

Naturally, not everything went smoothly during testing. One time, the whole class started crying because they thought Professor S. had been eaten by dinosaurs. “We had to reassure them that he was still alive”, Jan remembers, “and that he had in fact just sent a new message through the Time Portal. It was the fastest I have ever seen kids run back into the classroom.”  Believe me, the first months with Professor S. produced boxes and boxes of these funny anecdotes. Stay tuned for more.

David Lütke, Editor

Remembering The Work Bench

Jan von Meppen has rolled up his sleeves and is typing away on his laptop. Warm air mixed with street noise is coming in through the open window. Jan doesn’t seem to notice. He is in the zone. It’s 11.45 on a Friday. The weekend is almost here. Not that a weekend would mean much to Jan anymore.

It’s been a busy week. LudInc has launched a crowdfunding campaign to ensure funds for further development of Professor S., LudInc’s first interactive learning adventure and Jan’s brainchild.

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Over the past six years, he has watched his idea grow from a seed into a thing. Jan is a modern-day Gepetto. He is helping his creation on its legs and watching it take its first steps.

The LudInc offices in Berlin-Wedding are bright and sunny on a day like this, spacious rooms with a warm feel and wooden herringbone floors. The shelves are filled with remnants from the past, bits and bobs from over the years. Musical instruments, books of sketches and ideas, early technical models. They showcase Jan’s path and the long way his initial idea has come. Between strategy meetings with his team and an increasing number of press appointments, Jan rarely gets to sit back and take it all in these days. New storylines and episode scripts are being developed so that Professor S. will soon be able to played by kids all over the world, at home and on the go.

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Jan remembers the early days of Professor S. He started exploring the possibilities of story-infused learning models for the classroom back in 2009. At first, he was on his own but with resilience, patience and a bit of luck, the pieces started falling into place.

This is the story of Jan and Professor S., a diary of our work at LudInc over the past six years. We will meet early contributors and loyal companions from along the way, hear funny anecdotes from what it means to bring together a team of maverick thinkers and visionary lunatics and uncover some of the secrets around Professor S. Where did the Time Portal come from? Was Professor S. initially Japanese? Can skeletons talk?

David Lütke, Editor