Biome Collective: Collaboration for good

For our December Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design feature we spoke to Biome Collective, a group of game developers in Dundee who do a lot of collaborative work.

Biome recently created an interactive audio and visual display on The Steeple during the city’s winter Light Nights, and one of the games that Biome have produced – Killbox, with Joseph DeLappe, Professor of the Department of Art at the University of Nevada, has since been nominated for a BAFTA as well as being exhibited across the globe.

The group are very open to collaboration and how people can get involved with their work, whether games developers or not. We spoke about working in the gaming industry and how they’ve worked with others to rethink design.

Why did you set up Biome Collective in Dundee?

Mal: “Dundee has a great community that I’m a part of, it’s a very creative community. I really enjoy it here. Biome Collective is not a traditional games studio, we are a more flexible model. Essentially we are a group of freelancers working together. We’re able to use our expertise in game and experience design to tap into different spheres such as physical play, public art or even the latest technology such as virtual reality. Our broad range of work helps us to be different. It also helps that we have an interest in engaging the wider community and collaborating with people outside of games.”

Albert: “I haven’t worked in any other city, so it’s a bit difficult for me to compare Dundee to elsewhere. I came here to study but it wasn’t until after I graduated, and joined the digital community, that I truly felt at home. I think Dundee is great because it’s small and filled with loads of amazing people. It’s really easy to collaborate and make things happen.”

Tom: “Dundee has a rich games heritage, and a vibrant art scene. I came up from London to study digital art, and connected to a community up for experimentation and trying things out. There is a positive and supportive attitude to creativity here, and it is a natural place for collaboration across disciplines. The community and city have shaped my practice and attracts creative people.”

Biome Collective’s projection at Light Nights.

What went into planning the recent Light Nights projection? Was it an easy thing to do?

Tom: “Playable Architecture was a natural extension of the approach to our work that encourages playful interaction- whether on screens or in physical spaces. We love the creative process and we want to share that with other people and include them in that process. Interactive art can really do that.

For PA, we built a large cabinet full of buttons which activated dynamic animations projected onto the surface, and sounds that emanated from inside the steeple. We enlisted some great people to help us build the structure and work out how to embed the electronics in it. Also working with a technical team was great- we didn’t have to worry about setting up the projectors and could get on with making the artwork. One of the great things about games is that they use movement, sound, visuals and people’s behaviour squashed together so for us, it was important that we had sound as part of the installation. We knew sound would bring attention to the project by allowing it to be heard across the city.

Watching people play it was so great. There was a look of genuine surprise and joy when they discovered that they were making the sounds and movements on the steeple.”

Mal: “21CC took care of setting up the projectors, and we took care of the technical aspects in terms of the interactive animated content and also creating sturdy buttons that lit up. We’d never worked with them before but because there’s a level of trust in the city with our work, it went really well.”

Albert: “Our Light Nights projection was unique for me, it was the first time something I’ve worked on has been displayed so publicly. Usually people have to sit down in front of a screen and keyboard to play our games but with the projections people were able to experience it in so many different ways. You could come up and press the buttons, watch it as you walk by or simply listen from afar. It’s really inspired me to make games and experiences that are much more accessible.”

Killbox was recently exhibited at the NEoN Digital Arts Festival in November. What was the inspiration for the game?

Tom: “Killbox started when Joseph DeLappe came to Dundee for a residency and spent time with us. We started working with him last year, after he put a call out for anyone who might be interested in working with him on a game about drone warfare. He had made artistic interventions in computer games before, but never made a game himself. Jo stayed in Dundee for a month, introduced us to the research he had been doing on drone warfare and we developed the basic structure of what became Killbox. We made the game specifically to be experienced as an installation. This had an impact on the design process, and gave us the opportunity to extend the experience into the real world.”

Mal: “Killbox at NEoN was a bit more different to the original game – it wasn’t just a game or digital art installation, there was a performance aspect to it also. An artist would ask players how many kills they got and then paint this on the side of the installation. It really was the coming together of this collaboration between us and Joseph, working together internationally to develop a game about drone warfare. NEoN was the perfect end point.”

You recently received the LightBytes Curiosity Award to collaborate with Theresa Lynn. What was that like?

Tom: “Theresa had a concept and feeling for a project that explores ancient spaces. The work included choreography and architecture, and Theresa wanted to incorporate a digital layer in parallel. She had experienced some of our mixed reality work and was keen to explore how we could work together to bring it to life. We had some really interesting conversations with Teresa, and I h hope this is something we can continue.”

Mal: “It was great to have conversations with another practitioner outside our normal working environment and have that supported by Creative Scotland. They said bump heads and see what happens! We came up with some great approaches, but the project itself would have been a project between even more parties and part of the process was about establishing relationships. We’ve been able to explore this process and see how it could be developed further.”

How do you get involved with the local community?

Mal: “We worked with Primary 1 school children on the V&A Dundee Schools Design Challenge and helped them to use design to change their everyday environment, with the end results exhibited at Dundee Design Festival. Our key theme is collaboration – we also did Imprint and Remembering Witches Blood with NEoN at Dundee Design Festival. Additionally, we worked with National Museum Scotland to develop a game about Dolly The Sheep with pupils from Craige High School and do a lot of game jams, especially with young people, which involves a lot of collaboration and introducing people to the way we work.”

Tom: “We’ve also just finished a year of working with Hot Chocolate Youth Collective which has been a very rewarding experience for us. We are working on a project with National Museum Scotland again with school children from Edinburgh to develop a game based around the museum’s collection of primates. A lot of the time we involve people in the design thinking process then we translate their ideas into something that fits the time and budget.

One of the nice things about doing the work we do is that games have a really broad range of skills that go into making them. When working with children, especially those who don’t feel confident about their abilities or that their approach won’t amount to anything, the nice thing is that we have an encompassing approach that can involve almost anybody. If you’re not interested in art, you may be interested in music or programming. By introducing people to that wide range of abilities, it can show them there is are ever-expanding opportunities for creativity of all types.”

Albert: “It seems like pretty much everything we do we’re collaborating with people outside of games, which is great. I feel like an area we can improve on is getting people involved directly with our process – we do that a bit with game jams but there’s so much scope to get people who don’t work in games involved. Writers for example, their skills relate directly to making games and I would hope that in the future we get to do more things with a variety of people. A lot of the truly interesting games that are being made right now seem to be coming from people who don’t have a gaming background. I think it’s really important that we and the industry collaborate more because without it we’re limiting what games can be. Anyone is welcome to approach us to work on collaborations or learn more.”

Killbox. Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic.

What made you want to work in games/tech sector?

Albert: “I loved playing games when I was younger and always wanted to be able to make my own. As it happened, I was also quite good at maths and programming which gave me a clear path into games. I was very fortunate in that way. That said, halfway through my University studies I realised I didn’t want to work on the kinds of games that were being made at that time. When I discovered the independent games scene I saw that it was possible for small groups of people to do really interesting and meaningful work. I think that’s why I’m working in games today.”

Mal: “I’ve grown up loving interactive and playful experiences as well as animations and comics. The interactive medium has always had a strong pull for me. The idea of building something where someone can choose their own journey really excites me. I love games because of stories and the challenges of puzzles so being able to create them is amazing. I also love working with people and games work better when made collectively. The medium and approach of games align perfectly to my creativity and it was a good fit for me.”

“What brought me to Dundee was this positive attitude to the gaming industry and I didn’t necessarily want to go through the traditional route of working with a studio so I chased smaller, alternative opportunities. Working in a games collective is a fresh, new approach to business which can be quite challenging as we explore different paths in our process which you may not get in a traditional job.”

Tom: “I didn’t originally want to. I loved playing games when I was younger, but stopped relating to the experiences as I got older. Games started to represent quite negative mainstream culture for a while and it was becoming obvious that the priorities of the large companies making games were not aligned with my own. I had become more interested in making weird music and basic programming for interactive and generative art instead.

Things came together at a really nice time for me when I arrived in Dundee for University. Processing was just kicking off, introducing programming and code based art to visual artists, and the App Store and mobile development were also gaining ground. These platforms encouraged small companies or individuals to develop strange little unique experiences and introduce them to large audiences. It totally opened up the idea of what a game was, and showed people they did not need to be a giant organisation with millions of pounds in the bank to make something amazing. The surrounding landscape was responding to this so I felt supported in the ideas that I was wanted to express. It was a really nice time to work on the kind of synesthetic experiences I love. Being in Dundee, game development was kind of inevitable- but my idea of what a “game” is, is pretty broad…”

What advice would you give to anybody looking to set up their own games collective?

Tom: “Be honest with yourself about why you want to do it and what you want to do. You also need to be prepared for hard work and need to find people who are aligned in your way of thinking. The best advice I can give is to be brave and go for it – the world needs every expression of games.”

Mal: “I would say don’t create it if it’s already there – check to see if there’s a games collective in your area. If that community doesn’t exist where you are then create it – meet people and collaborate with them. To follow on from what Tom said, also seek people who challenge you. A community should be very diverse but sometimes it’s good to have people around you who challenge what you do.”

Albert: “I think it’s important with any venture to make sure that you’re aware of what you’re getting into. It can be really challenging starting a business and there’s nothing wrong with working and doing your passion on the side. If you risk it all to start something, you may end up hurting yourself and the people around you. With a collective, there’s not as much at stake as a company – it’s a lot more open to adapting.”

Tom: “Yeah, it’s important when setting up any business to have a financial adviser or accountant because it can be quite challenging to work out finances on your own. It’s also good to have access to a counsellor or therapist because, especially when starting out, it’s so intense and complex. That relationship between financial stress and emotional intensity can have a real strain on your health – remember to look after yourself.”

Keep up to date with Biome Collective by liking them on Facebook and by following @biomecollective on Twitter.