Nikki Wilson talks to Chris Rickett
18 Jun, 2024
Member of the Month: Chris Rickett

Each month, Nikki Wilson interviews an Ignite Member, asking five simple questions, to find out what creativity means to them, and how they see culture and creativity, and its potential, in Chelmsford.

This month Nikki talks to Chris Rickett .

How would you describe what you do? 

I’m a Principal Programmer at Dlala Studios, a video game studio based in Essex.  We primarily make games with visual styles inspired by cartoons, and we make use of hand drawn frame animation, so that’s like the old flipbook style that you would have seen from classic Disney Animation Studios’ films. 

An upward-facing shot of a futuristic city skyline with a monorail curving through towring skyscrapers and a large full-moon in the sky. In the foreground are the three Battletoads jumping into shot. The Battletoads logo is overlayed in the bottom right.

I’ve been working at Dlala Studios for over 10 years, I stopped counting at 10 years, I actually think it’s coming up to 12 years in a few months. I’ve been a part of Dlala since the very early days of the company and I think I’ve worked on everything that Dlala Studios has released. I’m proud of that, that I’ve had a hand in everything that they’ve made.

My role normally involves designing, architecting, and then implementing and programming various features across the entire product. Another aspect of what I do as a Principal Programmer, is that I’m responsible for maintaining a high quality codebase.  This involves collaborating with the team to devise patterns and coding standards that aim to make the code easier to understand and contribute to.  When the codebase becomes messy or convoluted, or simply cannot support the adding of new features cleanly, I will facilitate the refactoring required to resolve those issues.

When it comes to individual features, or day to day tasks, they could cover anything from gameplay, rendering, animation, audio, AI, physics, optimization, tool programming, or platform integration.  I’m really lucky that my role is so varied, and no two days feel the same.  It’s incredible that I get to have a hand in everything, to be able to expand my knowledge, I never get bored.

On a given day, I could receive a design concept from the design team that I’ve never implemented before and requires a lot of research to determine how we’re going to tackle it.  Or it could be something interesting that I’ve read on a blog post one morning that I want to try to adapt and leverage for our current project. Or discovering something new within the proprietary engine that we use, there might be an edge-case or a bug somewhere in there that requires tracing and debugging. 

I guess that it basically boils down to creative problem solving. You get presented with a problem, whether it’s technical constraints, design requests, or otherwise, and it’s coming up with a creative solution that we can then implement.

A key art piece for Dlala Studio's released title Disney Illusion Island featuring Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy moving into shot from the left in the foreground; the Disney Illusion Island logo just off centre and the Island of Monoth in the background.

Something that I find really, I guess, humbling is the fact that so many people choose to do what I do for work in their spare time, as a hobby. It’s insane when you finish your day, and you go off and do some other hobby, go and play some sport or you go and do some art or something, and there are people doing the opposite. I’m really lucky to be in that position.

And who, or what gives you creative inspiration?

The team at the Dlala are incredible and they are very, very good at what they do. It’s a really fun creative space; we’re all friends, there’s no one at the studio that I wouldn’t choose to spend time with outside of work.  It’s a great catalyst for creativity and we constantly inspire one-another. 

Every team member from every discipline, animation, design, art, IT, I’m not gonna say them all, because I’ll definitely forget one, but they all have input, and they all have creative ideas that get heard. It’s really nice, just organically bouncing ideas off one another. You’d be surprised how many of our best ideas come from those conversations across disciplines.  It’s not always just design, going into a room and coming up with an idea.  They’ll come up with an idea, but then they’ll listen to everyone’s feedback and the concept gets fleshed out and stronger because of it.

A partially candid shot of Dlala Studios celebrating on arrival at the BAFTA Games Awards 2024. Featuring Dlala collegues left to right: John-Evans Wagenaar talking off-camera to the left; Luke Amer and Luke Peek talking in the background; and Chris Rickett turning to smile at the camera.

I also take a lot of inspiration from indie developers and smaller studios that do the really brave thing of taking a small concept or single mechanic, and polish it up to a really focused idea.  I’ve got a lot of respect for the teams that are often developing it in their spare time, maybe even without funding.  They take a small idea all the way through the creative process to create an experience that’s unique. It’s scary and risky doing something new and unproven but it’s these projects that are so well received by the gaming community for being so fresh and exciting. 

Other than that, I would say, ultimately, watching someone play something you’ve made, is an incredible experience, and I think that it’s addictive.  When we manned booths at games expos in the early days, when we were smaller, we would go out and be hands-on with the consumers. It was so fulfilling, seeing a family come and play your game, and be laughing and enjoying themselves, and then you’d notice the same family come back again later that day, and maybe just before closing just to play something that we made, it’s so rewarding. That definitely spurs you on for the next project, especially at the end of a project where you might be really tired, you’ve had all these deadlines, and then to see the reviews come in the players enjoying it, that gives you a lot of enthusiasm moving into the next project each time. 

I also have a bit of a guilty pleasure for reading bad reviews.   I’ll often use the filter to sort reviews worst-to-best.  The creative way people structure their criticisms and insults gives me satisfaction that they took time out of their day to critique our work. I even enjoy the brutal ones that are unembellished and blunt.

I think the worst thing to happen is to release something and it goes under the radar with no one talking about it. I’d prefer that the discourse is divisive, including players talking about how much they hated it, than people not discussing it. So when people say things like, “oh, I don’t like the art style”, it’s like, “well, that’s personal to you. It’s not the art style is bad, you just didn’t like it”. I’ve got no problems with that. And I do enjoy seeing how people react very differently to something you’ve created.

A huge inspiration for me is the charity Special Effect. I’m generally not very emotional but their stories always get to me.  They work on making games accessible for everyone, and every time I watch one of their videos, I’m moved by the fact that games can provide a sense of control and escapism for people who may have life-limiting conditions.  Seeing the huge impact and value that video games can have on someone I find incredible.  For something initially created to entertain, it’s such a joy seeing what a positive impact the medium can have.

We always joke, my partner and I, because she works in education teaching children, and I’m making games to distract them from their homework. Games are often seen as this bad thing so seeing the good that games can bring is a moral boost for those working in the industry.  I urge everyone to take a look at the great work that Special Effect does.

If you could try any new creative or cultural experience or practice, what would it be?

This is an incredibly difficult thing to answer,  I could probably talk about this for days and it would probably change everyday you asked me if I’m completely honest. It wasn’t too long ago I was talking to my partner about how I have this picture in my head that we all start off with like a wooden cube, and every time we learn a new skill, or we have a new profound experience, one of those edges is sanded a bit to make another another facet, and obviously, the more facets you get, you end up being more rounded, you sand one edge too much and you become less balanced.

Maybe that’s just justification for being a bit of a jack of all trades.  For the most part, I pick things up just because I want to have a go and then tend to, not discard it, but it just goes on the shelf. So as a result, I don’t know how I would pick just one or two things, but I’ll give it a go.

If I had to pick something professionally that we haven’t had a go at yet but that I’d love to try, two genres come to mind. One of them would be an old-school first person shooter, I think they’ve recently become known as “Boomer shooters”.  I grew up playing Doom, one of the early first-person shooters, and it played such a pivotal role in my development and relationship with games. The games that I had played previously were puzzle games, platformers, turn-based games, and they didn’t invoke any new emotions compared to something like a board game, they weren’t very immersive. I was young when Doom was released, so it scared the hell out of me, but I was like, “Oh, wow, this is like playing what I  would have thought a horror film would be like”, the fast paced action was incredible for the time, and I’ve always wanted to create a game like that. We haven’t done that yet, so that’s definitely something I’d like to explore.

Another genre of game that I mention tongue-in-cheek every time the design team is trying to come to a decision, no matter what genre of game we’re working on, I’ll say something like, “Oh, what if instead of fighting the boss, they all jump in karts and race?”, which at this point rarely gets a laugh but I’d love to work on a kart racer akin to Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing. It’s something I’ve thought about in my own time, but I’d love to explore that professionally and get to implement some features in a karting game.

In my private life and hobbies, I dabble. Earlier this year I visited a Picasso Museum and seeing his artistic journey was really inspiring.  I’ve always wanted to paint and I now have some unused watercolour supplies that I’m itching to get stuck in to.  I’m colourblind, and I’m hoping that the various watercolour layering techniques will improve my understanding of colour.

Music is a big outlet for me, I play the drum kit, and I try to play every day.  During COVID, I learnt to play a few songs on the acoustic guitar but I’d really like to learn to play the piano, even if it’s just enough for a sing-song at Christmas.

I’ve already given you too many answers, but if I could squeeze one more in: I love travelling and I’d like to see as much of the world as possible.  I’ve always wanted to live abroad and never got around to it. It’s never been the right time but I think it would be awesome. There’s something very different about visiting a country for two weeks and touring it, compared to living in a small town or something and fully embracing the area. I’d really like to experience that.  I’m not sure how likely that is, but it’s definitely on my bucket list.  

What excites you about creativity and culture in Chelmsford?

I really enjoy the theatre and I’ve been to Chelmsford Theatre a number of times. Growing up, Chelmsford was a great place to go to experience live music.  It was nice seeing and supporting those up-and-coming bands, that during their performance would give it everything and leave everything on the stage.

What would you like to see in Chelmsford that isn’t here yet?

Early on at the studio, when we were incubated within a London studio, there were a few video game bars that we used to visit over lunch. They’re essentially a bar or cafe, but they have consoles, board games and arcade cabinets set up. You could go in and you could sit down with your lunch, order a milkshake or a snack, and all just play video games together.

I’m from that generation where you’d go over to someone’s house, and they’d have a console and you’d either take your controller or you’d plug two of their controllers in, sit next to each other, and you’d play a game. It’s awesome that there are places to do that at our age in bars and things.  As we’ve grown up, that culture has grown up with us. I would love to see more of those kinds of video game bars and cafes, in town centres so that people can go, meet up and have fun playing games together.  It’s wonderful that people can connect online, but there’s something about sitting next to the person you’re playing with that I think we’re losing a bit. So I would love to see some video game venues opening up.

The logo for Dlala Studios. "Dlala Studios" written in a white text with a thick pink outline. A large "D" on the left and "LA LA" split over 2 lines form to occupy the space of a square with the word "STUDIOS" smaller running on along the base.

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