The New York Comic Con was nearly a spur-of-the-moment thing for me, as a press release one week before the media registration deadline ended up in my Inbox detailing the game development sessions that would be going on this year at the convention, which was held at the Javits Center in downtown Manhattan. Seeing that some fo the sessions ran simultaneously, I rang up Oluseyi since he resides in the city and got him attending as well so we could nail all the events. The game sessions ran on the last day of the 3-day convention, which was Sunday the 20th of April, from 11am straight through to 5pm. Unlike other conferences/conventions I've been to, every session was back-to-back with no breaks in-between, so we were hustling - luckily around a small area of rooms.
Dr. Micheal Capps, president of Epic Games, was on hand to give an over view of Gears of War 2, which was a session I sat in on - it was mainly a fanboy interview though, as he and two other members of the development team answered audience questions about the game. After that first session, Mike was rushing around like the rest of us, but as moderator of several panels, including Breaking Into Games and Writing for Video Games. There was also a session put on by 38 Studios (formerly known as Green Monster Games) about starting up your own game company, but it was more a presentation of how 38 Studios got their start rather than a lecture on how you could get started - unless of course you too can find a Major League pitcher like Boston Red Sox's Curt Schilling who's interested enough in games and game development to fund his own studio. Not to mention signing on author R.A. Salvatore and illustrator Todd McFarlane. This better be a damn good MMO when they release their game in several years.
Luckily the Breaking In, Writing for Games, Game Journalism, Iron Man and EvE Online sessions were worthy of some decent write-ups, and you can read on to learn more. NYCC is already scheduled for February 6th - 9th 2009, so I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for any more game development sessions that pop up in the programming.
The 2008 New York Comic Convention, surprisingly, had a rather involved game track, and while it was relegated to an obvious basement ghetto as far as session placement was concerned, its contents proved to be entirely worth the while. A mix of end-user focused demonstrations and announcements alongside information useful to jobseekers, especially writers, sprinkled with developer-centric details, the game track turned out to be as exciting, puzzling and intriguing a collection of sessions as its parent convention.
Another surprise was some of the names attached to the sessions, including the president of Epic Games, on hand for a reveal of Gears of War 2 as well as sessions on getting into the game industry and writing for games; the writer for the aforementioned Gears of War 2; the executive editor of The Escapist; and a whole raft of producers and developers associated with upcoming Marvel Studios movie games (perhaps the only "logical" presence of the bunch).
NYCC's game track will be one to keep an eye on, as a solid start like this is bound to lead to more impressive things in the very near future.
Getting a Job in the Video Game Industry
Mike Capps moderated the session, and started out by proceeding down the panel and asking everyone to give their top tip for getting into the game industry. He stated that, "You have to have tons and tons of passion, and it has to show. As much as it pains me to admit it, being a former college professor, I'm less interested in your educational background than I am of your passion for making games." He elaborated by giving the example of a fictional candidate applying for a job at Epic relatively fresh out of college who did one internship at a database company but claims "games are my true passion." In his opinion, a person passionate about games who has pursued a computer science/programming education will have tried to make a mod, get something into the Make Something Unreal competition, make a game on their own...
Jason Schreiber seized on that point as said, simply, "Make your game and SHOW it!" Continuing, he pointed specifically to mods as a good way to make an impact and establish your passion and prospective value to a development company. He also said that mods are valuable because they typically involve multiple contributors, and seeing how well you work with others is important to people looking to hire you.
Both stressed that artists need to show their content in a game engine, because working with the content pipeline is a critical part of the job description. Losing man-hours because a map broke the build due to an artist not paying attention to detail is a huge negative.
Julianne Greer, speaking primarily to the game journalism side of the industry, couldn't stress enough the importance of the cover letter. "Check your punctuation and spelling" - a statement she would come back to repeatedly, even in another session. "Show that you've done your homework."
Josh Ortega said that, for a writer, the key to getting a position in the game industry is getting your writing published. "It's hard to get attention if you haven't been published previously." Pointing out that there would be a separate Writing in Games session later in the day [DREW: we can place a link to that here], he said he'd reserve more detail for then. A statement he would repeat later was something he said his sister told him: "It only takes ten years to become an 'overnight success.'"
Mike gave specific advice to artists: "Be good at getting people to look at your portfolio. Pay attention to detail." He advised a "small, perfect" portfolio: "Send me three or four images, not 50. Don't start with your first drawing ever, because I'll never get to your good stuff." He also gave advice on culling portfolios: "Three good and one bad will sink you. Send only your best stuff!"
Jason Schreiber said artists had to be willing to submit to an artist test. "Sure, it's uncomfortable and inconvenient, but you have to be ready to prove yourself. Prove to me that I should take you over the other guy who's just like you, but who can also bang out something decent within a half hour, on the spot."
Julian Greer reminded all prospective applicants, "Sell yourself!" She continued: "Don't apologize for writing to me in your cover letter. I know you want a job. Tell me why I should give you one."
Josh suggested an unusual tactic specifically for writers. "Writing is a tricky gig," he said. "Try to get your work presented to the lead designer, maybe through a friend or contact you've cultivated." Explaining, he pointed out that often, in games, the basic story framework and character outlines exist, created by the designers, and writers are brought in to flesh that out, fill in back story and write dialog for specific situations. "Getting your stuff in front of the designer can help, because if he likes your voice then he's going to push for you over someone else."
Mike Capps pointed out that writing is probably more valued or easier to get into at an RPG or MMO company like Blizzard or Turbine. Blizzard reportedly has 40 staff writers, because of the volume of descriptive, narrative or spoken content required to sustain their games. Again too, the suggestion of mods came up, in this case, a mod centered around a story.
Jason Schreiber encouraged writers to "go make a game that shows off your story and writing." He gave the example of New York based independent developer Dave Gilbert (Wadjet Eye Games), who built story-driven games on top of Adventure Game Studio and gradually progressed from free "chapters" for the community-driven Reality on the Norm to critically acclaimed original games of his own (The Shivah, Blackwell Unbound).
Mike Capps stated that QA is one way into the industry, due to the large number of testers hired and the fact that it's easier to network and get your skills noticed once you're in the door. Jason Schreiber followed up with, "We're hiring testers!", to laughs from the audience. He also added that in almost every case, people who have started as testers have gone nowhere but up. Examples include Tommy Tallarico and Blizzard's CEO Mike Morhaime. "It took me 20 years," said Jason, "but now I have my own company."
Opening up to questions from the audience, Mike said the Bay Area and Los Angeles, Austin, Montreal and a few other cities were probably the "best locations" for game development, but encouraged everyone to check out the Game Industry Map to see where there are concentrations of studios.
Responding to a question about telecommuting as a worker in game journalism, Julianne Greer felt that it was possible for online writing, but she preferred staff writers to relocate. Both Epic Games and Themis Media are located in the Raleigh, NC area. Continuing, Julianne said it's possible even for staff writers, but you have to be "super, super communicative. Have every IM and chat application, be an email fiend, provide your home and cell phones, and be very much in your editor's face even though you're not in the office. The key to telecommuting is to be a superb communicator," but she felt most people really weren't equipped to do it. There would be a greater discussion of this in the Game Journalism session [DREW: link].
Asked why developers seemed to stick to only one genre and become known as, say, "the FPS studio," and whether a programmer with a portfolio focusing on another genre has a chance, Jason Schreiber pointed out that Powerhead Games fights genre stagnation and typecasting every day. "Other companies, however, may prefer to stick to one genre if they're at the top of their market." He said, "Show us your app and your code. That's your portfolio as a programmer."
Mike Capps seized on this to give the example of Epic Games: "Guys come to Epic to make kick-ass adrenaline games, so we can't say we want to make a horse simulator!" He also pointed out the impact of lengthy development times. "We work on a game for three years, just about. If it was three months, then I could say, 'Guys, we're going to make the Horse Simulator, then the Barbie Game, then Gears 2," and my guys would say, 'Okay, that's six months of crappy games I don't like - I can stick that out.""
When asked how best to locate QA openings or internships, and specifically whether there was an online resource for them, Jason Schreiber stated that those positions were really not advertised for. "Be a pest to the companies you're interested in. Check back with them and see if they have new openings that you can fill. But," speaking to the audience member who asked the question, "if you create an online resource for that, you could make a lot of money!"
Mike followed up by admitting that Epic only advertises for QA in the local paper and internships on Vault, because "we're not going to move a guy for QA," implying that local candidates make for the best QA applicant pool while interns would normally be responsible for their own relocation and would thus look in areas where they have the means to be.
The next question dealt with what sorts of writing clips to send to a publication. Responding, Julianne Greer said they would depend on the specific position the candidate was applying for and the focus of the publication. Miss Greer did point out that she's always looking for writers and new content, and encouraged interested parties to send her their resumes, writing samples, videos and other journalistic game content.
Asked about submitting ideas to development companies, both Mike Capps and Jason Schreiber were quick to shoot the notion down. "No. We reject them flat out. We have no shortage of ideas, and legal issues abound" Mike said.
Responding to a redirect about genre specialization and applicant portfolios, Jason said, "We don't ignore cool demos because they're not in our genre. Send me something creative and cool."
A number of education related inquiries were next, leading to some quite funny mocking of the "game design degree" commercials on TV. "Yeah, QA/testing is nothing like that," Jason went on. "It's mind-numbing, tedious work that would drive most people crazy, not 'Hmm, we should remember to put that special effect in this level over here!'" For programmers, he said, a solid background in math is preferred. For artists he suggested a classical arts background. Both Schreiber and Capps pointed out that this wasn't to take anything away from digital arts programs around the country, specifically naming DigiPen in Washington State and Full Sail in Florida. Mike pointed out that the wildly successful first-person puzzler, Portal, released by Valve Software was a final project made by DigiPen grads, and an excellent game to boot.
Nevertheless, he said "The information you need to get started is available for free online."
Asked if there was any way for an applicant to get prepare himself for console development, Jason Schreiber pointed to the homebrew scene. "The GBA and DS scenes are vibrant, and those skills are valuable."
Session coverage by Drew Sikora, Oluseyi Sonaiya
Writing for Games
Starting off the session, Josh Ortega said about writing for games, "Don't tell the whole story all of the time. That's not a game; it's a book." The entire session was much more of a Q&A than the others, with aspiring writers in the audience effectively dictating what issues were touched on.
Asked about narrative structure when writing for games, all of the panelists agreed that classical literary theory - five acts, nine steps, whatever - generally doesn't apply. They encouraged whatever works for the specific game in question as king.
The next question was about which companies tended to employ the most writers. Mike Capps reiterated his earlier [DREW: link to getting a job session] position that large numbers of writers are typically employed in RPGs with branching stories and elaborate histories for items. Don't try and look for openings at studios like Epic, that focus on the action genre, where "twitchy-thumbs syndrome" tends to make storytelling take a back seat to the action that the player is really seeking from the game.
In response to a question about what format game writing is delivered in, Josh Ortega pointed out that game writing is still in its infancy, with the script format evolving. Cinematics will resemble a screenplay much more than in-level dialog, for instance. Mike Capps elaborated, pointing out that even for cinematics some art directors will prefer to do their own blocking, so the precise form of the writing submission will vary from company to company and project to project.
Mike also addressed the issue of writer freedoms with respect to narrative staging: "Balancing a 'forced walk' voiceover versus a full cinematic, it's often about our 'rollercoaster moments.' We don't want you to miss the Berserker busting through the wall for the first time - it took a guy 2 months to make that sequence! - so we take away control of the camera and say, 'Hey, look at this really cool thing.'" Writers will need to work within the framework of the game design, gameplay and key emotional moments like the above.
"It's a bit of a challenge for someone who is used to having control over every aspect of the creative process to now be told that various things are eliminated or required because of gameplay needs," he admitted.
Shawn Smith stated that such restrictions should not necessarily be viewed as negatives, but as creative challenges. "There's always a way to make something work. It may require you to get creative, to find a reason for something to happen, but you can still deliver that emotional or humorous moment within the framework of the game the way the designers need."
Josh Ortega spoke on when writers get involved in the process: "There's a move toward writers working closely with the designer early in the process. Traditionally, however, writers have been recessive in games."
Turning back to how to get into the industry, Shawn Smith offered the path of having characters and stories which you license to developers and publishes, but admitted that this was a rarity and dependent on your already being well-known or having a truly unique concept. Josh Ortega was quick to follow up, "Don't come with a screenplay and a 'make my game' attitude."
All three panelists agreed that there is no one set path, with Josh cautioning aspirants not to quit their day jobs.
Asked about the creative process as far as writers were concerned, Mike Capps spoke on the process at Epic Games. "We start with a character concept and hand it over to Josh along with concept art, and then there's a back and forth to evolve until something we're all happy with."
Josh Ortega, writing the story for Gears of War 2, said, "Cliff [Bleszinski, lead designer at Epic Games] will come up with a rough idea and then we'll collaborate to refine it."
Shawn Smith, whose original creation Ninjatown, a spin-off of one of his Shawnimals characters, is being developed into a game by Venan Entertainment, provided an alternate perspective. "I developed the characters, but when the game developers approach me with a scenario I may create a new character or whatever makes sense."
With the session drawing to an end, the panelists were asked what they enjoyed about writing for games.
Ortega: "Games are awesome, and it's fun to watch them evolve. The stories are pretty incredible now, and getting to see your story in the game is pretty fun. Having the world's greatest video game artists make something I wrote... it's amazing!"
Smith: "The end product of all that work and collaboration, alive on the screen, is very cool."
Capps: "We get so much more immersion from players with our games than movies or books or comics... That's exciting and very rewarding."
Squeezing in one last question, an audience member asked how the writers feel about balancing narrative and interactivity by inserting controls during what are effectively cutscenes as seen in Resident Evil 4 and the God of War series. Mike Capps answered:
"There's a challenge with the interactive cinematics because I'm either watching for the input and not watching the incredibly cool cinematic that someone worked hard to build, or I'm watching that cinematic and miss the input sequences."
Session coverage by Drew Sikora, Oluseyi Sonaiya
Video Game Journalism
The video game journalism session was moderated by a PR guy, in an ironic twist given the tensions many gamers perceive between editorial freedoms and publisher PR wanting media outlets to stay "on message." Quinn Wageman began by asking all the panelists to introduce themselves, and then share their paths into game journalism. Educational backgrounds and precise paths varied wildly, but the constant element was a passion for games and actively writing. Julianne Greer, for instance, found herself writing a lot of training materials and coupled that with her love of games, ending up at the Escapist publisher.
Andrew Yoon, on the other hand, wrote a blog and commented frequently and articulately on forums. Seeing an advertised opening at joystiq, he applied and waited. He said it took so long for them to get back to him that when he finally got an IM to the effect of, "Hey, so... you wanna work for us?" his first reaction was "Who are you?!" He stressed that patience is key while trying to break in, and that it is imperative to just keep writing.
Asked what they enjoyed most about their jobs, all panelists agreed that it was interacting with everyone else who shares their passion for games, from the developers to the gamers and readers of the content they produce. Asked what they enjoy least, Hal Halpin put it succinctly as "People who have no passion for games, and can't understand our passion." Halpin's work at the ECA, which includes running the GamePolitics.com and GameCulture.com blogs, involves interacting with law and policy makers, and he described the hostility that some of them respond with as draining. "Not to mention [the infamous] Jack Thompson," a comment which drew chuckles.
During the Q&A session, an audience member asked what the panelists felt the prognosis for game journalism in print was, in the era of the internet, and how to elevate game journalism beyond being a PR outlet to dealing with larger issues about gaming as part of life and culture. Julianne Greer felt that "the economics of print are just not there. The stories that need to be told, the ones that people feel won't work online because the audience doesn't have the attention span, will emerge over time as the audience continues to mature." In her experience publishing The Escapist, she said, Themis was finding that lengthy, genuine criticism was working online.
Matthew Hawkins pointed out that costs continue to rise for print while circulations continue to decline. "The writers I've spoken to at Kotaku and other online outlets mostly don't want to write the stuff they write. They want to do the big exploratory pieces and talk about the culture of playing games, but the mainstream is mostly interested in a number or letter review and what's coming out."
Andrew Yoon defended print. "I want to believe in print because I like the physical medium." However even he admitted that the outlook was bleak.
Hal Halpin spoke solely to the level of criticism, pointing to the ECA's GameCulture.com and stating that it was started to reflect the social, cultural and lifestyle issues around games and gamers.
Almost at the end of the session an audience member raised the termination of Jeff Gerstmann at GameSpot, and all the panelists agreed that there needs to be a careful separation of editorial and marketing interests. At the same time, they argued for boldness in writing based on a firm conviction in the merit of the things they write. Speaking of joystiq, Andrew Yoon revealed that they had been blacklisted by a publisher because of an unflattering piece they published about an upcoming game.
Ultimately, however, all agreed that delving into the intricacies of the Gerstmann affair would be an entire session unto itself, and better addressed some other time.
Session coverage by Oluseyi Sonaiya
Making the Iron Man and Incredible Hulk Video Games
The session began with Justin Lambros providing an overview of the business case for these games, both as "movie games," a term he used with an acute awareness of its connotations, and as games on their own. He spoke about the upcoming films, but also the true comic book fan - highly relevant at ComicCon - familiar with the lengthy histories of these characters, and consequently the opportunities to not merely tie into the film stories but to create deep, rich experiences that work on multiple levels.
Mr. Lambros commented on the ambitious scope of these productions, noting that Iron Man is coming out on seven platforms and Incredible Hulk on six. Concluding his opening remarks, he handed over to the producers attached to each game, Mike McHale for Iron Man and Beejay Enriquez for The Incredible Hulk.
Mike McHale stated that development was split into three teams across two companies: a team at Secret Level working on Iron Man for PS3 and Xbox 360; a small team at A2M, a Sega internal studio, working on the Nintendo DS version; and another A2M team working on the Nintendo Wii, PS2, PC and PSP version of the game. It was quite surprising to find the PC being classified alongside the PS2 and PSP, but that will probably speak to the design scope of the game.
He said that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are open-world games, challenges that Jeffery Tsang would address later on in the session. On the "current-gen" platforms, McHale stated that they overcame system limitations through clever design that utilized more interior areas.
Commenting briefly on assets for the game, Justin Lambros stated that the developer had access to digital assets used in the movie before passing control over to Beejay Enriquez.
Beejay informed the audience that development was split across two teams, with Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2 and PC development handled by Edge of Reality while Amaze handled a distinct DS version. Speaking generally, he said that the emphasis was on creating a living, breathing city with highly destructible environments, even on the DS, though the DS version is adapted to the system's capabilities.
As with the Iron Man game, elements were pulled in from the entire Hulk mythology, bringing in additional characters and creating experiences that are not strict movie adaptations.
During Q&A, Jeffery Tsang was asked about balancing the linear narrative of the mission-based game with the informal stories that each player creates and shares with friend. He responded that the game is a complete experience on its own, fully distinct from the movie. Players have freedom to pick their approach and strategy in completing objectives, with no artificial dependencies or restrictions on order. Even the dialog was written to reflect this style of play. "We just tried to handle all the cases of things we thought the player would do."
He continued: "We also explore what being a hero is all about. It's not just being cool and powerful; it's about putting yourself in harm's way to save others." Based on this, Secret Level added "Hero Choices" to the game, particularly challenging but wholly optional objectives that make statements as to what kind of hero the player is. Mike McHale followed up to point out that Xbox 360 achievements were attached to the Hero Choices.
Asked how the film assets could be used across all seven SKUs of Iron Man, given the variances in platform capabilities, McHale answered that there are similar narration points across all versions, so cut-scenes and voice dialog were largely reused. He stated that the "next-gen" games, PS3 and Xbox 360, used the movie assets, but the other versions of the game either had to downscale the resolution on models and textures or have new, lower-detail assets created. "We basically created three separate sets of assets - visual assets - for the game. For music and audio, though, we reused as much as possible."
Questioned why there was no planned PSP version for The Incredible Hulk, Beejay Enriquez first reiterated Sega and Marvel's desire to make excellent games rather than "crap it out," leading to their postponing a decision about making the PSP version. Justin Lambros pointed out that the PSP version of Spider-Man 2 was released later, too. "One of the challenges is fitting these open world games into the more limited platforms, so..."
In response to a question on scheduling games for promotional release around movies and trying to sustain quality, Justin referred to the lengthy histories their characters have in the comic books, meaning that developers can begin prototyping and playtesting abilities and gameplay without waiting for near-final compositions from the film. "We're not going to do anything revolutionary to shorten the development cycle," he said, "but we try to get a leg up," speaking of the early pre-production opportunity presented by the fact that the movies are themselves adaptations.
Finally, an audience member mentioned the recently announced DCU/Mortal Kombat fighting game, and asked when Marvel would do the obvious - announce a new Marvel vs Capcom.
"We don't have anything planned for a fighting game," Mr. Lambros said, "but we're definitely looking into it."
Session coverage by Oluseyi Sonaiya
Ambulation in EvE Online
The presentation begins with a quick recap of avatar creation and appearance in EvE so far, and the stylized cartoon-type results. The look was deliberately achieved, but with the new ambulation features and 3D avatars, a more realistic look is desired. There's a significant increase in detail all around with the Trinity expansion pack released last December, and the planned avatar creation process will seek to bring player representations up to the same level of visual fidelity.
Character creation is a combinatorial system allowing for a wide range of characters without adversely impacting game performance. Players select:
- a bloodline for their avatar, which determines the starting skull shape;
- a physique;
- skull structure modifications;
- complexion, incorporating elements like freckles, which appear appropriately all over the avatar body, not merely on the face;
- facial modifiers like scars - with an intensity/transparency slider allowing you to create a character with an old, partially-healed scar or a relatively fresh one, telegraphing different things about your character - or makeup;
- head hair, including style, texture and color; and
- facial hair, from stubble to five o'clock shadow to full beard to mustache...
From a technology perspective, CCP has implemented a system that supports infinite morph targets apparently by cleverly using vertex shaders. Rather than keeping a basic mesh and morph target per avatar in memory, blending at runtime, the vertex changes are baked into the shader for the avatar.
Speaking to the literal meaning of ambulation, things like weight affect the appearance of the chin (double chins, for instance), cheeks and jawbone (roundness) as well as the character gait when walking. A heavyset player will walk with the arms further away from the torso and a pronounced step, as well as a slight waddle.
CCP has partnered with Morpheme (NaturalMotion) for more advanced animation blending. For instance, if a player was displaying a happy, smiling expression and transition directly to a frowning expression, somewhere during that interpolation you'd have a very weird face. Thanks to Morpheme, the mouth can transition from smile to neutral to frown while the eyebrows, say, go directly from smile to frown, yielding a much better looking overall transition.
To ensure that user experience is never hampered by some downright ugly looks, CCP has created an elaborate content pipeline for costumes, environments and other visual assets with multiple sign-off to ensure visual coherence and consistency.
CCP also has architects assisting with structural/environment design, incorporating a "functional block out" step during which an early build of an environment is examined in a manner similar to the content pipeline above to ensure they "feel right." For instance, QA goes through the environments to ensure that hallways aren't too long - a simple but important balance issue.
Ambulation is designed never to be a necessity. Its intended function is to enable players socialize, with all the complexity that entails, adding another layer to the game. It is entirely optional, and CCP anticipates that some players will launch the character creator simply to get a new-style avatar and then never use ambulation. It has no direct impact on gameplay, though it could potentially create meta-effects where to players further their cooperation or deepen their animosity thanks to social interactions undertaken via ambulation.
nvestments in character and outfit creation will be encouraged/rewarded by, for example, assigning a value to a player's appearance (as well as objects in the environment) such that as players walk by their avatar will turn to look at the highest rated object - including other players! A player could, for instance, walk into a bar and have everyone turn to look at them, making a dramatic entrance. Another player, however, may have modifiers in place such that seeing such a reaction from players around would trigger an I'm-not-impressed expression and pose. A little soap opera, but definitely very interesting.
Overall, CCP seems to understand the dangers in radically altering the formalized gameplay in EvE, and are consequently using ambulation to add another in-game "extracurricular," much like the trading of GTC for ISK.
Session coverage by Oluseyi Sonaiya