Form Follows Function

I’ve been doing a lot of armour design work lately, primarily for Repair Her Armor and conceptual art for Wyrmhole Gaming‘s futuristic horror-punk Dead House; I’m intending on cosplaying a character from that game for this year’s ConnectiCon, where they’ll be running an open playtest for their system, and I’ve reached the stage where I can consider buying materials.


As a former member of re-enactment and living history companies, I have a strong interest in accurate armour design. Featurettes about design work for films such as Lord of the Rings are fascinating for me — I have a lot of respect for John Howe, whose living history association, Company of Saynt George, features in some of my reference books. I love when effort is made towards making armour — even sci-fi or fantasy armour, where historical accuracy can be thrown out the window and style is open to experimentation — look like it’s not only functional but as comfortable to wear as armour can be.

So I might be a bit biased with regards to preferring games and films where people aren’t running half-naked into a battle. A lot of terrible armour design has been committed over the years in the name of style and visual design. But what if you want to design armour that isn’t traditional? Well, the trick — as with all things — is to know and understand the rules before you go about breaking them. Welcome to Armour 101.

Mediaeval kevlar

Mediaeval kevlar

The most persistent design error is in armour layering. Armour is intended to protect vitals, but there are areas such as the insides of the elbows, armpits and knees where flexibility is required; obviously you can’t just wrap plated leather over those areas and call it a day. These are also locations containing vital tendons and arteries, so leaving them unprotected is a fairly effective method of suicide. Additionally, bearing a heavy suit of armour over unprotected skin or a simple shirt will leave vicious bruises, particularly on the shoulders and upper chest area (I don’t speak from personal experience, but I know someone who can). The typical mediaeval knight wore a padded gambeson or arming doublet with gussets of chain sewn over the exposed joint areas beneath their armour. The padded under-layer includes leather straps or ties which are used to secure the armour in place. This detail is frequently neglected in a lot of game armour — many games show plate armour as being too close-fitting to possibly have anything lighter than a silk shirt or layer of leather underneath, if anything at all. This happens frequently in films as well, where design accuracy may be sacrificed for style and making the primary characters more recognisable.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

Chain mail. Effective protection against swords, not so good against arrows, poignards and smaller daggers.

The result of leaving the under-layer out in the design phase is that the remainder of the armour may be too tight. Freedom of movement is essential — and far more possible than one might think even in a full suit of plate armour. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s possible to engage is extreme athletics whilst wearing armour — or it ought to be. Armour is not a corset, nor is it intended to be. If it’s close-fitting plate over padding, it needs to be lapped or else the person inside cannot do their job; if it’s a padded brigandine or jack, it needs to be loose enough for the wearer to be able to fold their arms.

So where is protection most needed? Everywhere. If a piece of armour doesn’t help absorb impact, hinder stabbing, or guard against cutting, it needs to guide piercing attacks away from the most vulnerable areas. This last is an important factor when designing fantasy plate, as many designers lean on a thorny, intimidating appearance which would render mobility impossible and cause enemy weapons to get caught on the surfaces. Important factors are the knees, elbows and shoulders — spikes in the wrong locations or pointing the wrong direction would cause plates to lock, or worse, stab the wearer, and bear in mind that if metal plate gains more than an average thickness, it’ll be unreasonably heavy — big chunky pauldrons look awesome and are used all too frequently in games, but are more likely to hinder than help a character. Conversely, if a body part’s sole protection is limited to a piece of fabric or nothing at all — a popular non-tactic for “barbarian”-type classes, and all too common an occurrence when ill-fitting pauldrons do not provide more than a passing acquaintance with protection  — you may as well have gone in starkers. Sometimes you can go light in one area if there’s something elsewhere to compensate; for example, a longer gambeson or chain  skirt instead of full leg armour, or a full chain shirt over a gambeson beneath a breastplate rather than pauldrons and upper-arm plates. Unless someone was very wealthy, armour was more likely to be made of essential parts purchased as they could be afforded, and there was a surprising amount of variation.

One size fits most.

One size fits most. Not glasses-compatible.

Then there’s headgear. I’ve been playing Dragon Age again, and the metal helmets bother me because they’re too small. The pic on the right is my spangenhelm; it only looks oversized because I’m not wearing an arming-cap underneath, and I haven’t finished lining it for the chain aventail (see above pic for the chain). It also looks flat-out ridiculous (especially if I’m not wearing any other armour), but one combat scar on my face is more than enough. I learned the hard way in Dead House that forgetting a helmet on a close-combat character is a good way to get one’s virtual head split like a watermelon — with something like the spangenhelm, the spans would deflect an overhead blow off to the side. Even modern military helmets are fairly bulky, because the last part of the body you want to leave exposed is the head. And yet, in Kingdom of Heaven, the first thing Balian does during any battle is make certain he isn’t wearing a helmet. I love that film, particularly the director’s cut version, but that detail always irks me. The heroic long hair flowing in the gore-flecked winds of battle is much less heroic when you’ve painted a big shiny target on your forehead.

So now that we’ve covered the basics of traditional armour — under-layer protection, manoeuvrability, outer-layer defense, and headgear — let’s apply it to, for example, sci-fi armour. You’re unlikely to be flailing about with swords (unless you have a scenario where blades are preferred due to the potential for vapourising a hole in a ship’s hull and depressurising the section you’re standing in) so you’re looking for an underlayer that mitigates the effects of energy discharge and an outer layer that deflects projectiles. If your fantasy characters are using rapiers, you’ll want to forego chain in favour of armoured brigandines, because all those holes won’t do as much good against a fine-tipped pointy object. And bear in mind the characters’ jobs: a mediaeval pikeman wouldn’t wear the same armour as a cavalry officer, and a sci-fi police officer wouldn’t wear the same armour as a career space marine (non-capitalised). Conversely, if the character’s intended to get in other characters’ faces with a sword, don’t have them lightly dressed.

And for the love of little fuzzy kittens, give them headgear.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.

Multiple layers make a swordfighter happy.


Shady dealings.

Shady dealings.

I was a huge Shadowrun player back toward the end of high school and beyond. If you’re not familiar with Shadowrun, as a concept (since it’s now a computer as well as tabletop game), then a good quick summary is that it’s Dungeons and Dragons set in a corporate-dystopian cyberpunk future. While the thought of magic returning to the world in the future was intriguing, what really caught at my imagination was the projected future corporate culture: you’re either raised from birth within a corporate system which feeds, clothes, houses, educates and eventually employs you… or you’re scraping by on the fringes of society, often turning to employers who are on the wrong side of legality who may choose to pay you in bullets rather than cash. It’s a game with few pure spots of black and white, and quite a lot of grey.

It’s easy to see where the creators were coming from, back in the late ’80s. Reaganomics was becoming a buzzword as the former actor stepped out of office and made way for the corporate-minded H.W, the leashes on corporate self-governance had been loosened and the accompanying anti-union sentiments were sneaking closer, and the economy was easing towards the early-90s slump, layering over the top of a fading punk aesthetic a haze of despair that the value of a human life no longer lay in its individuality but in its conformity to the overarching system.

That light you see is just a sodium lamp

That light you see is just a sodium lamp

Shadowrun took that sense of caged hopelessness and dialled it up to 11 for the future world of 2050 (I’m going to pause here to add that the last edition I played was third, which had moved the timeline up to 2063; I’m not aware of the developments past that point). It was the sort of grim neo-noir prediction popularised by Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Ray Bradbury; a neo-noir prediction liberally seasoned with the sort of punk rebelliousness only available in the fantasies of those who are already feeling trapped.

Do you feel trapped? I know a lot of people who do. We’re already living in a dystopian corporate hegemony.

I first encountered the wage-slave box in 2005. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and was unable to land even the simplest bar job due to my age (long story short: the UK has a minimum wage for people below the age of 21, which is what’s usually offered for jobs available on college-student time schedules; being 21 when I started uni, I didn’t have a chance of getting anything). I attempted to apply for a summer position at a clothing retailer, and their automated phone system asked me a bunch of personality questions, then determined that I was not an ideal worker and hung up on me.

Not an ideal worker.

Ideal worker.

Roll those words around in your head a bit. A computerised multiple-choice Sorting Hat put me into Slytherin and then told me how worthless I was to their corporate society, because I failed to tick all the boxes to indicate that I was not, in fact, willing to be mindlessly loyal to a company I only wanted to work for because they were hiring.

Modern corporate culture has a loyalty problem. It values its profits and its shareholders, and ascribes very little value to its workers whilst demanding everything they have and beyond. Sometimes they get it right, such as offering training or higher-education degrees to potential employees, with a promise of solid employment upon completion. You do good work for them, they’ll express their appreciation by treating you like the valued member of the team you are.

Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.

Hope you have medical to help with that computer virus, hacker.

But human loyalty is expensive. It requires medical care, enough pay to afford housing, work-quality clothing, food, family support and transportation; if the company starts tossing workers around like chattel, the workers are more apt to leave… unless they’re trapped in a system where leaving puts them at risk of financial insecurity, where complaining about low pay, terrible hours, high stress and poor management put workers at risk of being “made redundant”, replaced by another cog who’s just grateful to BE a cog. You hear this a lot from politicians: “You should be grateful just to HAVE a job!” And a lot of corporations ascribe to the idea that their reputation is so amazing that people will put up with any indignity just to be able to tell others who their employer is.

Let’s get one thing perfectly clear: That isn’t loyalty. That’s an abusive relationship.

Corporations are reaching a tipping-point; Charles Stross wrote a very good article relating to this last year. A lot of them have trouble finding applicants with the precise skillset and temperament they’re looking for — rather like shopping for a workhorse instead of looking to build a relationship of trust and loyalty with a person; a self-destructive race for quantity over quality. It’s not a massive stretch to expand the old training/apprenticeship model into a system which provides a lifetime of education (and subsequent indoctrination) which is shown in the Shadowrun universe. The beginnings of such a system can already be seen in parts of the US and Europe, and it really is the best way to make employees who fit perfectly into the Human Resource box.

I filled out another job application a couple days ago. It included a 12-page personality test, and I didn’t receive a failure notification. I think I’m getting close to cracking their algorithm.

Welcome to the future, chummer.

All artwork used in the post is © myself. Please be polite if you borrow any of my work, thanks!

Self-Fulfilling Disappointment

Shae Tiann -- Gallente renegade, Gurista. Threat level: Taranis.

Shae Tiann — Gallente renegade, Gurista. Destroys ships for fun.

In 2010, I was moderately known as a blogger writing about EVE Online; those of us seen as “regulars” with decent writing skills were loosely known as the Blog Pack. One of our number, CrazyKinux, ran a monthly event known as the Blog Banter, where a subject would be chosen for all of us to venture opinions about.

I rarely participated in these unless the topic was of enough personal interest that I could contribute a couple thousand words. One in particular was a topic which made me just roll my eyes: the question of “How can we get more women to play EVE?”

EVE has an extraordinarily low percentage of female players for an MMO; an estimated 4% of EVE accounts are known to be registered to women, while most other MMOs average 25% or more. There are a number of theories as to why this might be, from the competitiveness of the game to the lack of a human-like character one can use to interact with the game world.

So anyway, I initially had no intention of getting involved in that particular Blog Banter. I’d heard it all before, how the game ought to be changed to appeal more to women; as far as I was concerned, most of those proposals were more likely to drive myself and a majority of the existing women subscribers AWAY from the game if they were ever given serious screentime.

But then I browsed a few of the responses, and the sheer volume of stupid just blew my mind. Some of the comments made during the course of the responses were so outrageously clueless that… I couldn’t stay silent. I just couldn’t. Something had to be said.

So I wrote this in response to the responses. It got a lot of the right attention, and a bit of the wrong attention, and I felt my point had been made, particularly here:

In order for a person to enjoy playing games, they have to WANT to play them in the first place.

Four years later, and I still firmly believe it is true that the people who are aware of a game’s existence and do not play it, are simply not interested in getting to know the material further.

But the bigger picture is still being left out. What about the people who might be interested, if only they knew the game was there to be played?

Responsible adults; yes, we are.

Responsible adults; yes, we are.

We live in a world where the overwhelming majority of the under-50 population are gamers. They might not consider themselves gamers, but whether your entertainment of choice is Angry Birds on your phone, a round of Trivial Pursuit with your family, Netrunner over a pint at your local, or Halo on a console, it’s still a game and you still qualify. There’s a good pdf resource here with demographic comparisons. Playing games is no longer the venue of nerdy loners, it is an indelible aspect of modern life and can be found in nearly every country in the world regardless of its development level.

And this is why it’s not just annoying but outright disgraceful to see, in 2014, people still saying “There are no women on the internet” and “Girls don’t play this game”. Because there are women online — quite openly and obviously — and we do play those games. Some of us helped make those games. And yet, we live in a world where a male developer can tell a female developer, who has played the game since its early days, “you are not the target demographic”.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The impression that women are not proportionally represented online is directly fed by marketing for online content which not just ignores but actively excludes women, which is in turn run by people who have bought into the idea that women don’t use online or game content. It’s an unfortunate, circular cycle. It is also long dead; a fossilised relic of a bygone era, a zombie mantra clinging desperately to a world that has moved on.

Part of this is the result of standard marketing technique — if your initial campaign grabs 40 out of 50 representatives of Demographic 1, and 20 out of 50 from Demographic 2, it is patently more cost-effective to go after that last 20% of Demographic 1 than it is to try for the remaining 60% of Demographic 2. The problem, however, is that an additional 20% of Demographic 2 is potentially also interested, but thanks to standard marketing technique, a full 60% of that demographic is getting ignored.


Source. I wouldn’t be caught dead reading something that looks like this.

In 2014, I still hear the same infantilising suggestions as I did at EIEF back in 2007 about getting women interested in games. Pastel colours! Dating sims! Let them decorate stuff!

Here’s a totally crazy, insane concept; it might be a little tough to grasp, but give it a chance. What if… no, really, just suppose that companies’ marketing approached women as if they were sensible adults willing to spend money on your product just the way it is? No changes to the product. No content added or modified to “cater” to the demographic. Just… modify the marketing approach.

I know, crazy, right? It’s so utterly off the standard approach, it might as well be popping in through a wardrobe from Narnia. I’ll give you a moment to recover your sensibilities.

Look. In our example marketing test, 40% of Demographic 2 likes your product the way it is, and another 20% might be interested in it if you just approached them the right way. The remaining 40% wouldn’t be interested in any case, and offering to change the product to appeal to that 40% is going to utterly drive the initial 60% away (and possibly a substantial chunk of Demographic 1 in the process). That’s clearly the wrong direction to go; so why do so many people — people who really ought to know better — make these proposals?

Is it a joke? A way of saying, “Do you really want women in your game? Because we’d have to add dress-up games and pink paint, and you don’t really want that, do you? We didn’t think so”? That’s almost worse than these proposals being serious.

I’d like to make a suggestion that can fix all of this:

Revise your target demographic.

What kind of audience are you targeting with your game? Trekkies? Adrenaline junkies? Lovecraft fiends? The kind of people who will spend New Year’s Eve watching the entire Lord of the Rings Extended Edition with their friends, or the sort who prefer to go paintballing for an afternoon?

What kind of gameplay are you offering? Suspense? Shooter? Roleplaying? Can the player accomplish a goal within half an hour, or would it require the entire evening?

How complex is the content? Is it straightforward, or does it require abstract thinking to work through it?

And please, please, stop using exclusionary tactics. “We only want certain types of players” is the wrong mentality — I saw this enough at the office, and while I will agree that certain types of people will not be a good match for certain games, it’s not up to the developers to actively enforce it. Let the player decide for themself whether they’re the type of player who will enjoy your game — don’t drive them away before they’ve had a chance to at least consider it.

You never know when a new demographic will surprise you.