It's All In Your Head

It's All In Your Head
In this episode we break into the world of video games. Daley Johnson, a game designer from Playtonic, joins us to talk about finding your way into telling stories for a living and how designing narratives for games is very different than a

Daley Johnson joins us on this episode to talk us through becoming part of the video game community. We turn the clocks back to look at her inspiration and experience working for companies like Rare and Playtonic. Daley also unpacks the art of game design, there's probably more to it than you think.

A big thank you to Daley for joining us on this episode you can follow her on Twitter at

This episode was written by Ollie Judge and edited by Rodger Morley. You can find more of their work at Adrift Entertainment.


Ollie: [00:00:00] I want you to think back to a time when you thought anything was possible when being an astronauts didn't seem implausible or your parents had drummed into your head, that you should probably start looking for a sensible job. I want you to think back to a time when you experienced the story late at night with the glove of flashlight on a book or the hazy aura of a TV or that little spidery spotlight that came off the side of your game.

[00:00:28] Boy. So you could stay in the story just a little bit longer. I want you to think back to a time when you wake up thinking that you wanted to write a book, direct your own movie, or make your own video game. For so much of our lives. We're told that it's not feasible to tell our own stories for a living it's looked down upon.

[00:00:47] And so little support has given you, so the people that do decide to chase what they love as a way of making their way in the world, if making this show has taught us anything, it's that every storyteller we talked to has a rollercoaster of a story of their own. So today I want you to bundle up under your covers and just for a moment, pretend that anything is possible.

[00:01:06] Again, this is Pathfinder. The show about storytelling.

[00:01:14] Daley Johnson: [00:01:14] So, like I grew up playing video games, really loving them and like totally getting soaked in the atmosphere of them. Like, I'd walk around sometimes with, you know, video game music in my head. Like, I'd, I'd see like a nice town at night and I'd get like Zelle theme play or whatever.

[00:01:27] And I guess, um, as I grew up and became a teenager and start thinking about what I wanted to do. Hmm. In video games, just a very natural when I gravitate towards. Cause I kind of felt like I wanted to give that kind of same sense of wonder to other people. So I was like, Hey, I want to do that. Definitely.

[00:01:42] I want to make people have weird music in the head when they see certain things,

[00:01:45] Ollie: [00:01:45] Staley Johnson, a game designer from the UK and she didn't have the most normal route into her current job. I wanted to bring her on the show because she's done what I'd always dreamed of doing, working in video games.

[00:02:02] Daily story had something in it that right now, I think we all need hope. Step-by-step she worked hard to learn, get to know the people she needed and ultimately built her own communities and stories in the video game world.

[00:02:15] Daley Johnson: [00:02:15] I think I was like 23 and I, you know, I definitely wanted to work in games. I I'd messed up at university.

[00:02:21] I dropped out. So she was working like a, like an office job. And, um, I actually put my heart and soul into it, even though it was totally dull and they fired me. Um, and I didn't like that cause I felt really screwed up and it just makes things click inside my head where I was like, I'm not gonna waste a single day of work in a job that I don't like this.

[00:02:40] So then I kind of was like, I'm going to work in video games, honestly, in terms of giving myself permission. I think it was Marcus of being really angry. I got fired. I think it lit some sort of fight within me. Um, it was just pure determination. Um, that, that kicked in there and, um, I guess just passion and belief in myself and what I wanted to do.

[00:03:01] But at times it was really hard to believe in myself because, you know, I had rubbish jobs and I was living off noodles, but I just, I went to work in video games. Not that I would encourage that kind of lifestyle, but it can be really quick. Can seem like all the odds are stacked against you sometimes, but you just got to the cyst.

[00:03:17] I've seen a lot of people who've wanted to work in games. Who've eventually made it. But then unfortunately I've seen a few people who didn't because they just gave up. Cause it felt impossible, you know? Like I've seen people, so I've dismissed it as if you're asking to be a famous actor or something like that.

[00:03:30] When the reality is it's nothing like that. Like if you just look at the universities, especially across the UK, there are lots of them who have had fantastic game courses, especially up North. Where I'm from in Middlesborough, there is a Teesside university has absolutely amazing video game costs. As you know, there's a lot of like education around it.

[00:03:48] People come from all over the world, come to the UK to study, um, game development. Um, so I would say to anyone who wants to get into that kind of thing, like just, just do some research into what's around you, because there's definitely more opportunity than is probably visibility right now. Cause I had no idea that I was literally living in.

[00:04:06] I hope of the game development, but I was, I just, you know, you just got to know wet. I just, you just got to figure out where to look. Um, and it's really, it's really not on the same level as becoming a famous actor or actress it's, um, You know, it's a, it's a very viable career. I would say for anyone,

[00:04:22] Ollie: [00:04:22] they didn't go to university to get into video games.

[00:04:25] She took a bit of a different path. She had to find her own way in. So she went to seek out some game developers out in the wild,

[00:04:31] Daley Johnson: [00:04:31] but I had no idea what I was doing. And, um, There was this, um, building and a town that I live in. That's the only place I knew. I game developers worse. I literally just walked in and was kind of like, can you help me?

[00:04:44] I'd love to work in video games, but I honestly, I don't know what I'm doing. And they said, well, actually tonight there's a bunch of game developers meeting in this bar and it's like the first of these meetups. So you should go to that. And I was like, all right. Okay, cool. Um, so I turned up to that in my office uniform and just said like, Hey, I'm daily.

[00:04:58] And, uh, I really want to make games. And that was like that since the start of it. And, um, the people that I met there are still my friends to this day. You know, they, they really like embraced being guided me, even though I had, I had no degree, no experience. I just, I just had, you know, a dream. So yeah, that it kind of built from there.

[00:05:17] I was working small jobs to keep paying the rent. But at the same time I was writing for a video game website called sinner links. Um, I was a contributor for their gaming side of things. So I'd write reviews or I just write feature pieces. I like to write a lot of like retro gaming lists and stuff like that.

[00:05:32] I kept it. I kept just doing things like that. And I would also highlight indie games from the town that was in as well. So I'd go to events and I'd write about these into games and put them on the website. And people really liked that. Um, and then I was also building my Twitter presence a little bit at the same time.

[00:05:46] And eventually someone at one of these events came over to me and said, I've heard that you good with Twitter. And I heard that you're right. It's pretty good. Do you want to come in and be our community manager? Honestly, it was crazy. And I was just like, yeah, absolutely. I had a little interview, but it was very informal.

[00:06:00] We ate ice cream and talked about world of Warcraft for the most part. But yeah, it was just very much, I think I did it for like a year and a half where I was just kind of grinding with my writing and attending events and talking to people and it kind of just eventually I built up a nice enough reputation, I guess that I got it.

[00:06:17] Ollie: [00:06:17] And so after one fateful ice cream daily had made her first steps into the world of video games. She wouldn't be building the welds of his dreams just yet though. She was hired as a community manager. At this point, I would usually try and explain what a community manager is, but it's more complicated in video games than you

[00:06:34] Daley Johnson: [00:06:34] might think.

[00:06:36] When you ask someone who is a community manager, who, or who has been a community manager, what's the community manager. We all kind of go, Oh, here's the question, but yeah. Um, so I've got to think about this one. And basically I think a community manager is. It's still a very young role, I think, in the games industry, especially like we're still kind of trying to define what it is.

[00:06:54] Um, I think the requirements of the community manager pet D fully depends on what studio you're working for and what kind of projects you're on. Because if you look at a community manager who was in an indie studio that likely spinning a million plates and trying to be PR and mocking as well, then when you look at AAA, you might have someone who's more specialized.

[00:07:10] He literally only runs a Twitter account. So they're kind of, um, there can be a Jack of all trades master of none that can be a master of. A few things, you know, it's, it's very varied. Anything across like marketing PR. Sometimes the class gets classified into community management. It's it's, you know, again, it just depends on who you with.

[00:07:31] Ollie: [00:07:31] Ultimately, the community manager is the person who is always going to be talking to the people that play your game the most. Every little bit of news responses on social media and outreach can come from a community manager. It's a daunting role, especially if it's your

[00:07:44] Daley Johnson: [00:07:44] first one. I started an indie studio called coat sink and I worked at for three years.

[00:07:49] They're the ones who gave me my first chance dealt with me for three years. Um, and they were an indie studio. I was like, The 13th person to join the company. So we were tidy. And so there, yeah, I was spinning a million plates and trying to do different things like sending emails at 5:00 AM at one point hell on earth.

[00:08:07] And then when I moved to rare, it definitely did become more special.

[00:08:13] Ollie: [00:08:13] Red was a bit of a jump for the listeners that don't know rare or a much bigger game company. If you grow up playing Nintendo consoles, generation defining games like donkey Kong country, battle, toads, golden eye and banjo Kazooie, where the product of the designers at rare it's a company that's very different from the independent studios.

[00:08:32] Daily was used to working with.

[00:08:34] Daley Johnson: [00:08:34] It's the first time in my career, I was within a team of community managers and I had a community manager manager as well. He would, you know, mentor me a little bit. Um, so it was very different because then when I was at rare, I kind of had more of a tunnel vision view. I would write articles to the websites, like many other community managers, and I would, um, run the Twitter accounts.

[00:08:53] And that was pretty much my responsibilities. It was nice to kind of. Focusing, I would say at that point from red

[00:09:00] Ollie: [00:09:00] daily looked backwards to move forwards a few years prior, a group of developers that had previously worked on the nostalgic games from rare that started their own studio. Platonic platonic had launched their first game ukulele, a charming platformer, starring a chameleon called Euchre and a bat named Lily daily entered the scene as Playtonic had embarked on the second game.

[00:09:23] Ukulele and the

[00:09:24] impossible

[00:09:25] Ollie: [00:09:25] lair for daily, it was back to an independent studio, but with a bit of a difference.

[00:09:30] Daley Johnson: [00:09:30] Yeah. That was back to spinning a million plates. Um, but basically, um, since I walked into platonics I was interested in working there and I saw them working on impossible layer, which is essentially again, it looks like donkey Kong country, which is one of my favorite games.

[00:09:43] I was like, I absolutely have to work here. Don't care if it kills me. So, yeah, I came in and again, I was spitting a million plants, but this time I had the benefit of working with team 17 too, cause they helped with a lot of the marketing. So it wasn't quite as heavy on me. And, but there's still a lot of coordination and, and back, back and

[00:10:01] Ollie: [00:10:01] forth developers, it's important to keep your audience involved, not just because you want them to hopefully buy your game, but also because that community of people will help you tell your story in a much broader level.

[00:10:13] When Daley joined Playtonic the social feeds, which were always friendly, took on a bit of a different field. They almost felt like they were a character in the story of the games they took on the playful tongue in cheek, humor of the games, writing and fostered a community that was inclusive. It felt like the old days of huddling around the Nintendo, 64 were back in bite sized chunks in your Twitter feed.

[00:10:34] Daley Johnson: [00:10:34] So when I first came in, I guess I went in to get a feel for the community and it took me while I was kind of warm up and sort of figure out what they would respond to. And I think the personality of the account, it just, I think one day I was having a bit of a mad one and I thought I'm going to tweet this and just not think about it 28.

[00:10:49] It might have been, the kazoo is always pregnant to it. It might've been. The thing about feet, but I just did it. And the reaction was huge. And I was like, Hey, they respond to this. So I kind of started to continue ship in the account in this playful way and just seeing how the community would react. And thankfully.

[00:11:05] My bosses allowed it. There hasn't been a point yet where I've been pulled into an office until you can't tweet that. Thankfully. So, yeah, it's been a lot of fun for all

[00:11:17] Ollie: [00:11:17] those that may not have had the privilege of experiencing why? Cause of me being pregnant is maybe so shattering. I'll do my best to illustrate it for you.

[00:11:32] Siri is a bird companion to a bear named banjo. The game banjo Kazooie is based on their adventures in trying to vanquish a witch called grunt Tilda as one of the moves in the game that helps the geo through the levels. Cause Zooey is able to fire a near limitless amount of exit enemies. What seems like a semi homeless move in a nineties video game quickly was turned on its head while daily had a knack for community management and had a great bond with her communities.

[00:11:59] There was still an itch that she was trying to scratch. Community management was the way in, but it wasn't exactly where she did.

[00:12:07] Daley Johnson: [00:12:07] I went in with a scatter gun approach. I was like, I just want to get into the games industry. Like I need to prove that I can do something, anything, and it just, so I just so happened to London, community management, because I displayed that I had good writing ability.

[00:12:21] I liked to promoting stuff and people engaged with me. I fell into it naturally, but I definitely. Didn't aim specifically. Although I always knew I wanted to be a designer. I, I wasn't like, okay, I'm going to try and get into game design. I was like, I had this kind of mentality where I was like, I need to find the door to the games industry and kick it down and just take on whatever's on the other side, I'll say,

[00:12:44] Hm, definitely. I always showed an interest in design and like, if I was ever allowed. An inch or tick a mile when it came to sort of contributing to projects, like little bits of writing or just learning about stuff. I'll just creepily watching what the design is doing. You know, like I was very, I think I showed a lot of initiative and interest in becoming a designer slash narrative designer and, um, With impossible hour, I got to contribute very small bits of writing.

[00:13:09] So like there's items in the game, I got to name them and write the descriptions. I wrote level tips and tweaked a little bit. It's a dialogue. Um, and I was, I was so quick to jump on that. So, um, I think I just, I showed that kind of side of myself over time. And eventually I, I felt comfortable enough to just approach my boss and say, Hey look, well, you

[00:13:27] know,

[00:13:27] Daley Johnson: [00:13:27] ultimately I'd love to move in this direction instead.

[00:13:30] And they embraced that.

[00:13:32] Ollie: [00:13:32] Game design is very different from the other types of storytelling we talk about on the show in linear narratives, like film or in books, you control the camera. You tell the audience what to see for a game designer. Not only do they have to create a world and tell stories inside of it, they also have to be ready for any eventuality, a video game player.

[00:13:51] If given options, we'll take them.

[00:13:54] Daley Johnson: [00:13:54] I will say, um, to caveat, like I'm definitely not an experienced narrative designer. Um, definitely not, but like one of the first things, when I, when I was like, you know, told, okay, yes, you can contribute to projects this way. I was like, okay. So I bought some books, like first step, um, I bought a book on just like straight up now if design is like, right, okay.

[00:14:14] I need to read this and figure this out. But also I think you can take a lot from actually playing games and paying very special attention to them. The dialogue within them and how the story is presented to you because it is different. Like it's, it's a complete again, rabbit hole of things that you can kind of disco it from actually just playing game and looking at how the dialogue is presented.

[00:14:34] Like, does it have voiceover, does it even have texts? Some Dawn, you know, it's, there's lots of different ways to present information and sort of crafting a story on top of that, I would say is a monumental task, because then you also have to consider actual design too. It has to match with the game. So.

[00:14:51] You can't imagine a game, like say it's a really fast paced platform again, but you couldn't just hack on like Witcher three narrative on top of that. Like I'd to be really impressed if someone did do that, but, you know, I don't, I don't know if that's even possible.

[00:15:06] Ollie: [00:15:06] It takes a certain kind of person to move into game design.

[00:15:10] At the end of the day, you really need to care about the little things. It could be details like the history of the world you've built or every interaction with even the most minor characters in your game that you need to think about.

[00:15:20] Daley Johnson: [00:15:20] I would sit, I'm definitely the type of person who cares about the tiny law bits and just little bits of information that probably don't even matter when establishing.

[00:15:29] So say for example, we're establishing a village of people. I think you'd want to do a lot of background writing on that village of people. Even if the players never got it. See, like the amount of it, you know, the amount of stuff you've written, they might never learn of like a personality trait of this village, or they might never learn that in his past, this happened to him, but there's always ways for you to convey that it did.

[00:15:50] And it makes things feel a little bit more real and believable. Um, cause if you didn't do that background work, I feel like everything would feel a little bit stale. So like, I would tend to like write up a massive document and tell you literally everything you'd need to know about this character about this place.

[00:16:06] But you just don't know how much of that's going to get to the surface. But then that means if in the future, someone actually cares about this stuff and asks you, you have an answer that maybe you wrote four years ago, but there it is, you know,

[00:16:20] Music: [00:16:20] the problem with being

[00:16:21] Ollie: [00:16:21] so obsessed with the little details, you've got to find a way of stopping yourself. How do you stop yourself from falling down the rabbit hole a little bit

[00:16:29] Daley Johnson: [00:16:29] too far? I always knew there was a lot to think about and a lot of rabbit holing to do. But when I jumped into the rabbit hole, I was like, wow, this is far bigger than I anticipated.

[00:16:40] And I was surprised at how long I could spend sitting and thinking on a single element. It could be just like a

[00:16:46] tiny

[00:16:46] Daley Johnson: [00:16:46] part of a mechanic. Awe. Where a specific rock is and how long, how much decision-making and, you know, and like just kind of trying to think, you think yourself in circles and then go back around again.

[00:17:00] It's absolutely crazy, but I love it, but I was surprised just how deep that rabbit hole goes and, um, how deep some of the logic behind it is to like, You know, I'm glad that we have programs with Matsi brand. Cause sometimes I'm just like, Nope, my brain's broken. I need someone to come in and help me now.

[00:17:20] So if I'm trying to think of my way around the solution to a problem, and it's a problem that I haven't created yet, it's just when I anticipate I would make myself implement it so that I can see the problem. And then if I can't solve the problem that it could just be something really silly, you know, that I'm missing.

[00:17:33] Another designer can see in an instant. And we often do that with each other. We're kind of back and forth, like present something. The interesting thing though, is sometimes that a problem actually becomes a feature because that's not a joke. Like I've had, it happened to me where I've created a problem and had been like, Hey, no, actually that's quite, I like that.

[00:17:50] W we'll keep that. Well,

[00:17:53] Ollie: [00:17:53] Daley is making waves into her design career. There is still a role for the community management side of things to affect the work that she does on the other side of the car.

[00:18:01] Daley Johnson: [00:18:01] There's definitely a balance between the two, I guess. You know, we have an example of that. We released the impossible there and a part of it.

[00:18:08] Was definitely too difficult for people. And there was a little bit of an outcry. Um, so we were like, well, yeah, this is actually fair because we're seeing the negative result. If we can see the negative result. And it's not just someone getting upset because they've had a horrible day. And if it's consistent feedback, then I think it's responsible for a developer.

[00:18:26] To react to that, if they can, you know, cause sometimes you can't just, sometimes it's out of your hands, like the budget's gone or something like that. But absolutely. If you can be reactive to feedback and I would say it has to be within reason though, you can't just on a whim, be like, okay, this person doesn't like that, that dog is, um, yellow.

[00:18:44] So it changing it to blue. Like it's, it's not as quick as I, it needs to be quite like a well thought out process. And, and sometimes I've noticed that communities can get frustrated because they feel like they're not being communicated. With on a certain issue, but usually it's because. The process is actually, there's a lot of attention going into it.

[00:19:01] So there'll be gathering the information and then getting a good response ready for that, you know? And that could be, we're not doing anything or it could be actually, yeah, we're going to do something about it, but you know, it's always, it's quite slow process and a lot of thought needs to go into it.

[00:19:20] I guess. It's, it's, it's getting to see. The passion from people who play the games that they get. Right. And some idea up to like, I love seeing people's fun and I love seeing people feel happy while they're playing something. And it kinda, it just, it fuels me, it makes me want to continue in my career in games.

[00:19:38] Cause I'm like, yeah, like that's the exact feeling that I want to nurture myself. So it's that, it's that kind of like happiness and because I relate to it too. That's how I feel about games. So staying on the other side of it is actually fantastic.

[00:19:52] Ollie: [00:19:52] Please tonic and daily's ethos around video games is very much rooted in a positive, colorful, and playful feeling. They're building games that feel like the games we used to play as children, but also making them for the children who will carry them for the rest of their lives. If there's one thing I took away from talking to Daley.

[00:20:09] It's that she's a force of positivity in storytelling, video games, hold a very important role in escape and happiness for people. They leave work in communities stoked that fire. And what comes next in her design work might just take you back to believing that anything is possible.

[00:20:24] Daley Johnson: [00:20:24] I want to work on the type of games that I would enjoy.

[00:20:26] I would have enjoyed when I was about tab. I like games that are about fun and being bright and almost innocent. I can't ever see me working on a, like a realistic shooter or anything like that. I want to work on things that emphasize charm and playfulness and humor. Absolutely. I, you know, I'd live to work on.

[00:20:47] Don shrunk 64, for example, it's something like that. Something ridiculous or Spyro Spyro was a huge influence to me. I just want to work on something colorful and cute and fun is where I'm at. As long as that's the vibe, I'd be happy. So I'm always trying to put my finger on what exactly is it that makes me obsessed with video games.

[00:21:07] What makes me love them as much as ID? Cause you know, I, I, I love them in a way that it feels like it's beyond the hobby. It feels like it's a part of who I am. Um, and I think it's. I think there's a certain level of intimacy you have, especially if you're playing a single player game and your bedroom, Muslim thing, you know, it's like, It feels like you are adventure.

[00:21:24] Like you're not just controlling the character. It feels like you are adventure. You are in this world. You know, sometimes I feel like I have memories where I can't remember if that was in a video game, my real, real life. And I think, I think that's a big part. I feel like you feel cause like physically connected to the console, right?

[00:21:41] You holding the controller and I just feel like you feel a stronger connection to a video game then maybe you would have maybe at least I do personally. I definitely feel that kind of feels like my world, my adventure, my fun, you know? I feel like I am spiral at that point that, you know,