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The Particle Trilogy

Posted by , 15 June 2010 - - - - - - · 248 views

As a little break from Caper Corp., I finished a making a new video game this weekend. This one is called In the Wind. Much like Balance and Doubt, In the Wind's entire visual style is driven by particle effects. Well 2D text too, but that's only because making particles to represent text looked ghetto at the size I needed the text to be. In the Wind brings an end to the particle trilogy style of games I started back in December. This game would have been completed back in January or so, but unlike both Balance and Doubt, In the Wind was started more because I liked this color composition:

Unfortunately, that was really all I liked about the game that I was thinking about making, so it never really got beyond some movement physics, a wind effect/simulation, and the tree. My goal with the game was to always convey a "natural economy," in that everything in the game was able to act because of the energy the center tree provided, and the player's goal was to just feed more and more energy into the tree. It was an okay idea, but I never really had the thematic commitment to it that I did for the other two games. My goal with the particle projects was: no more than seven average days of work (so an hour or two after work and then maybe a weekend afternoon) and a set of systems which mechanically conveyed a single, coherent theme. For Balance and Doubt, I had the theme and the systems down for what I wanted to convey and, between the two, Balance is the only one that really succeeded as a fun little project (though I still have some love for Doubt, despite that). For In the Wind, I never really had that and, as a result, despite the second wind I got that drove it to completion, the game kind of waffles. The other problem was that after a night of work on In the Wind, I was already prepared to go back to work on Caper Corp., so it was this weird divided interest.

Still, I was able to get In the Wind done in a fashion very similar to the other games in the series: a Saturday after returning from a run I realized I had to scramble together all of the final elements (usually some systemic touches, audio, and a starting/ending screen), upload it to my site, post to Twitter, and get some quick feedback, incorporate those changes into a new build, and voila. New game.

Working on these three games with the self-imposed constraints under which they were worked on was a fun little endeavor. It was nice to do something a little bit different and to establish a visual style that was (hopefully) uniquely mine and explore some one-off systems. And now it's back to Caper Corp., which should have another entry forthcoming at some point in the next week or two.

Final games in the particle trilogy (because they're not real games if they're not part of a trilogy):

GDC 2010 Wrap-Up

Posted by , 13 March 2010 - - - - - - · 252 views

Today was my last day at GDC and, at that, it was quite a short one. While I was waiting outside of my first session, a woman came up to me and announced she was a speaker and asked if she could borrow my Mac cord. I said sure. She said I saved the conference. I said "I do what I can."

My first session of the day was one which I, quite honestly, attended solely to write-up a mocking article later on. The session was Richard Rouse III's "Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry." And, if you check out my write-up on the session, you might notice a lack of mockery. This is a result of Rouse handling the topic far differently than I originally intended. I still think it's an absurd topic for a session and handling the material somewhat well doesn't change that fact, but it's not the source of humor I expected going in. Rouse gets extra points for showing the Mad Men scene where Don Draper demonstrates the advertising campaign for Kodak's Carousel.

Immediately after that twenty-five minute session, I went on over to "Designing Shadow Complex" with Donald Mustard. It's unfortunate that this equally short session had to be so abbreviated, because Mustard was not only an incredible speaker but also was showing some amazing procedural tidbits regarding Chair's approach to developing Shadow Complex. Most fascinating was that Mustard and the Chair team used Adobe Illustrator to create an entire 'paper' graph of the world map of Shadow Complex. It was divided into the squares/screens that divide the actual game's world and included various guards, pick-ups, blocked doors, ladder, and, seemingly, a level of clarity for the full game world that was completely fascinating at such an early point in the game's development. On top of this, Chair developed a "player legend." This is the size of the player, the way he can charge in either direction before he hits critical speed, how high a single jump goes, how high a double jump goes, and the maximum height of the player's hook shot. The team then dragged this player legend around the map to get an approximate idea for how Shadow Complex's planned game world would play out.

Once the team was happy with it on a paper level, the entire game world was blocked out in Unreal Engine in BSP and with some pick-ups and enemies and very basic cover. This allowed the team to get into the game with and iterate on and perfect the core gameplay loop. Mustard said handling the development of the game this way allowed them to add more and more weapon functionality that really worked together with the world to create emergent strategies and functionalities. It was a fascinating look into the game's development on a level that I would have adored to see in, say, the Uncharted 2 post-mortem. I asked Mustard how they handled changes once the BSP world had been made, and he said that once the game world block was in the engine that all changes were made directly to the BSP layout (which makes sense) and also that the original BSP brushes formed the basis of the game's collision volumes in a lot of cases. Lee Perry's prototyping talk the day prior had as imilar level of depth and behind-the-scenes to actually aid developers as well.

I ran out of the Mustard's session once I had my process question answered and ran into a nearby lecture hall to get my MacBook power cord back. It was here that I realized the woman who asked to borrow it was Christina Norman, lead gameplay designer at Bioware on Mass Effect 2, and had just finished giving a giant speech on the design refinements between Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. So that was awesome. Next up on my rushed attempts to get back to the hotel and head to the airport was a quick meet-and-talk with Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven Software. He was talking to Michael Abbott when I came to say hi, so it was great to briefly talk about Manveer's talk with him and once again thank Michael for organizing last night's dinner. And this brought an end to my first-ever GDC.

GDC was, quite simply, a totally fantastic week. I'm not a quiet person, but I am very shy about introducing myself and meeting people, so it was totally great to meet all these super friendly people who I've talked to online about games in various forms for years. And listening to five days of sessions gave me some great insight into various design processes as well as some ideas of my own both for my independent work as well as my work on our project at LightBox. My one regret is that there were some people I met that I didn't get to talk to in much detail, but that's just kind of a thing that's bound to happen at a ginormous conference like this.

Here's a wrap-up of my daily GDC write-ups. It's also worth noting that I didn't do full write-ups of all of my sessions as I don't complete hate myself enough to do that, so there are analyses and summaries of various other sessions buried throughout my daily write-ups.And here's a list of all of the live write-ups I did on various sessions/lectures throughout the conference. I can't stress enough that these are very rough, but I felt it was more important to get them up for people who wanted the information than to spend a lot of time on polishing the writing. This is why I'm not a real journalist.Thanks to GameDev.net and LightBox Interactive for making this whole trip possible.

Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry

Posted by , 13 March 2010 - - - - - - · 336 views

Richard Rouse III, a narrative director at Ubisoft Montreal, begins his talk with a slide: "Five Ways a Video Game Can Make You Cry" and the image of a woman wiping away a tear from her right cheek. He opens it with the EA ad in 1983 "Can a computer game make you cry?" and pointing out that a lot of great works of art, like the Mona Lisa, do not make you cry. Our industry commonly makes the mistake that people cry due to melodrama/tragedy rather than any other emotion (which he believes is false).

Rouse displays a slide with the quote which will define the theme of his lecture: "Weeping is an interesting touchstone because it assumes that melodrama is the measure of narrative art." Janet Murray, George Institude of Technology, Hamlet on the Holodeck. Steve Meretzky said the crying debate is "so 1993." Richard Rouse says he crieda t the end of Titanic. Also a General Hospital montage in the mid-90s. Also a Rush concert because they're "so awesome."

The first way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen, with the text "This Was Your Life" in big, bold letters that fill the screen. Rouse shows a music video of Johnny Cash's "Hurt" which shows various clips of Johnny Cash's life, his family, his present, and other images were obviously important to him. So a montage. I was kind of hoping for a clip of the General Hospital one. Rouse says "the sort of flashback looking back at the life technique is a powerful technique used in a lot of tear-jerkers" as covers of the Titanic, The Notebook, and Away From Her are shown on the screen. Rouse then goes on to discuss the importance of long-term characters in The Sims. He then references and shows a clip of the end of Fallout 3, which had an ending that showed a montage of the player's accomplishments throughout the game. "I don't know if this is necessarily tear-worthy."

The second way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen is "Amplification Through Abstraction." I think: oh, come on, Richard Rouse, is showing a clip from the hyper-sad Grave of the Fireflies really, really necessary? Come on. That was completely tragic. Rouse says that the movie being an anime/cartoon allows for a level of abstraction that the viewer projects a person onto the little girl, rather than dealing with the barrier that a real actor would create ("poor performance" or "too specific"). Rouse now shows Jason Rohrer's "Passage." "I think the reason this works at all [...] is because it's just these two little pixel-y characters and not this photorealistic person" so the player projects his life onto these characters.

The third way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: "The Weak Shall Inherit (aka Transformation)." Rouse cites It's a Wonderful Life, which he then summarizes because it's such an obscure, unknown movie. George Bailey goes through life all philanthropic-like until he has his moment of crisis at which point he is shown how great it was and he begins to appreciate the life he led and then at the end everyone comes together to help Bailey out. I hate you if you haven't seen this movie, by the way. "It's interesting we're crying at the happiest part of the movie, not the saddest. Which is a recurring thing with crying," Rouse said. He goes to the game example with Bioshock which he details his player experience where he saved all of the Little Sisters throughout the game ("because [he is] sappy that way"). The "touching moment" is when the Little Sisters come in and band together to kill the bad guy while the player is weak. Let's face it, a bunch of little girls stabbing someone to death with Adam really is a lot like the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

The fourth way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: "Don't Know What You've Got Until it's Gone (aka Loss & Recovery)." Rouse displays a clip of an old silent movie where a husband took his wife on a trip where he planned to kill her, but in the end he can't do it because she's too important to him. She runs away and the man is forced to realize what he had. Eventually the two accidentally meet in a church with a wedding going on and the man cries a lot, the girl realizes maybe he really does care, and they re-fall back in love. And at the end of the movie the woman dies in a boat accident. Then, I guess, a woman found the man's wife and she really wasn't dead. Or something. Moral of the story: "it's only through losing it that you realize what you had." Rouse then brings in Portal and the confrontation against GladOS where the player destroys her individual personalities one by one and one of them begs for its life and it's this bittersweet moment. Now... Nintendogs! Rouse describes his dog in the game that, eventually, his daughter took over playing with. When Rouse was away on a business trip, his wife called him and said that Rouse's dog in the game is "gone." Rouse describes his sadness regarding the loss of his dog in the game until he came back to the game when he returned home and the dog came back and he was brought to tears by this joyful reunion.

The fifth way that a game can make you cry goes up on the screen: nostalgia. Rouse brings in Mad Men and the COMPLETELY AMAZING scene where Don Draper demonstrates the "Carousel" to Kodak. Draper displays a very emotional, meaningful slide show of his life with his family, causing Draper to rethink his current state in life. So we're back to montages again, basically. "Nostalgia -- it's delicate -- but potent [...] nostalgia, in Greek, literally means 'the pain of an old wound'," Draper says in the clip. Even I'm getting weepy here. It's so good. Rouse goes into the love between two children in Ico, the attachment to Rapture in Bioshock, the lives we never had in The Sims, or simply the experience in Rohrer's "Passage."

Richard Rouse concludes by pointing out the sentimentality in relationships with people and characters in games, rather than in tragedy.

GDC 2010 - Day 6

Posted by , 13 March 2010 - - - - - - · 211 views

I'm kind of a big fan of this whole game development and game developers conference thing. This is especially true since the main conference started on Thursday. The Indie/Serious Game Summits are both fantastic, but the lectures and sessions in the main conference are just so good. And it's hard to deny how awesome it is to see people you respect and who made great games talk about a topic they're passionate about.

After the normal, at this point, morning in the Marriott lobby writing about the prior day, I went on over to the conference to attend Richard Rouse III's "Environmental Narrative" talk. Coincidentally (or not?) enough, this session took place in the same room as the excellent Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch talk on environmental storytelling on Thursday. This means that there was a significant amount of people who wanted to get into this session in one of the smaller rooms of the conference that were unable to fit in. Rouse's lecture went through a series of examples on various types of objects/scenarios that can be used to both convey a story in the environment as well as aid players in navigation through a level via visual cues and flow hints. Much like Smith/Worch's talk, Bioshock was frequently cited as a brilliant recent example of a game with a very carefully and effectively designed environmental narrative. Once Rouse had gotten through a series of techniques and practices, he used his work on The Suffering (a superb game, by the way) to demonstrate ways that he and the rest of the development team handled the game's design. One of the more interesting examples is that, despite gathering an abundance of information on prisons through the internet, The Suffering's development team did not actually get to visit a real prison until late in the game's development. This trip gave them several ideas as to how they could make a more cohesive, believable prison (such as using awful shades of paint to visually separate various wards of the prison), but since it was so late in development a lot of the more interesting discoveries were unable to be used.

While Rouse presented some solid level design techniques and ideas, I feel like the entire presentation failed to make the leaps in critical thinking and design methodology when it was so close to doing just that. And this was actually an issue I discovered with a couple sessions throughout the day: a seeming unwillingness to attempt to draw general design lessons from experiences or to think critically about why (and where) a given design technique "works." Going up to the podium to talk about how a game handled its approach to level design is interesting, but failing to think critically about why that design approach works is a step I consider both incredibly useful to a wider audience of designers and necessary for a compelling lecture. Granted, it's hard to think critically about why the practices and techniques we employ as designers "work" (or don't), but it's the effort put into that thought which should define our role as designers. When I think about the talks/presentations I've heard from GDC either in-person or ones which have been archived online, they're the ones that make that extra logical leap to answer "why?" When Clint Hocking gives a talk inspired by one of his games, he talks about the design lessons (such as intentionality vs. improvisation, simulation boundary, etc.), he does not point to a feature on a game, show the audience a video, and then cap it off with "so we did that." The Worch/Smith session from the day earlier, for instance, covered how people, in general, "fill in the blanks" of a situation by going through an elaborate series of events to, ultimately, come to a conclusion. Worch/Smith then take that extra step to explain that this player-initiated investment into a situation not only enriches the environment they're in, but brings that player closer to the game as a whole. I'm not intending to single out Rouse's talk for this rant (because it's actually inspired by another session that I won't mention), but Rouse gave a very solid lecture that just came so close to that last necessary step.

Next up: Sid Meier's keynote, "The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know is Wrong)." I had been told by several people throughout the course of the week that, generally, the keynotes are generally a letdown. Supposedly this is due to the incredibly large, diverse audience of people and disciplines that keynotes have to appeal to, but I was hoping that, being Sid Meier, this wouldn't be the case this year. Unfortunately, it was. Sid Meier took audiences through a series of explanations as to why things that seemed "cool" ended up being received poorly by players. The primary example that Meier cited was that of "Mathematics 101," which he exemplified in the display of Civilization Revolution's pre-combat information. When the aggressor had an attack rating of 1.5 and the defender had a defense rating of 0.5, Meier said this was a fairly self-explanatory display of the odds (3:1): the aggressor would win three times out of every four attempts. Players, he said, did not interpret it like this and, instead, assumed that their number was higher so they should win. He then took the audience on a few iterations of this concept in what I actually took to be somewhat of a condescending manner towards the players. In essence, the combat in Civilization Revolution evolved because players couldn't get the "mathematics 101" of the game, so Meier went on several iterations to make the ratio representation make sense to the player as well as to take into account how prior battles fared so that if the attack:defense was 2:1, then players wouldn't lose two fights in a row.

One of Meier's strangest examples throughout the keynote was that of flight simulators, though. He feels the genre started out by being "accessible" and "easy to play." Then as they went through iterations they became more complex and more realistic and "pretty soon the player went from 'I'm good' to 'I'm confused'. My plane is falling out of the sky." Then, Meier said, "the fun went out of it." He wrapped up this analogy by saying "keep your player feeling good about themselves." I thought this little anecdote actually put me off from a lot of the rest of the keynote: who is anyone to say that the evolution of the flight simulation genre was a bad thing? It's a definite niche genre, but that doesn't make the genre bad or completely invalidate the design evolution it took. Then again, it's an anecdote, so I'm probably over-thinking Meier's intent.

After meeting with some old friends from Stardock for a bit, I went to the "What Color is Your Hero" panel featuring Mia Consalvo, Leigh Alexander, Manveer Heir, and Jamin Brophy-Warren. Without even a doubt in my mind, the panel was one of my highlights of GDC. It was an intelligent, insightful, and important conversation about the role of diversity in both video games and in the game development community. I wish I had some of the stats that Consalvo presented at the beginning of the panel, but alas. Heir championed the idea that utilizing a character's racial/social background can enrich a game experience in ways that most all video games fail to realize; specifically, Heir cited the Native-American protagonist in Human Head's Prey. The lead in Prey was ashamed of his background, wanted off the reservation, and was completely uncomfortable with who he was, but through the course of the game he learned to "spirit walk," talked to his ancestor in a vision (which took place at what looked like a burial site, if I remember correctly), and so on. This feature of Prey's narrative transformed what would have otherwise been a game about dudes shooting aliens into somewhat of a Native American spiritual journey.

Alexander, in a discussion about the role of the developers and creatives in creating a more diverse cast of characters in their own games, raised a very noteworthy point: Resident Evil 5. In the case of Resident Evil 5, there are developers who were attempting at diversifying the characters and settings of their game and this, essentially, completely blew up in their faces. Alexander went on to say that it is understandable that a culturally homogenous development community would be nervous about attempting to portray a non-white character and subsequently screwing it up. She went on to say, however, that it can be done, the cultural/gender research just has to be done. The Wire was cited as an example of the work that series creator/writer David Simon did to present a wide variety of characters in a responsible way (though the series did take fire for its presentation of women). This was a great panel which gave a proper kick-off to some very necessary, important conversations.

My final session of the day was Lee Perry's "Prototyping Based Design: A Better, Faster Way to Design Your Game." Perry, a senior gameplay designer at Epic Games, took audiences through Epic's process for game design starting with Unreal Tournament as the studio moved forward to the bigger, more cohesive project that eventually became Gears of War. The studio had a very design document-heavy and haphazard design process which was yielding poor results for what needed to be a more well-designed game than the studio's prior projects. Kismet, which was an unrelated tool and "smaller problem" at the time, was being developed around the time when design documents were being tossed around the studio. One day Perry mentioned that he was screwing around with Kismet and tossing scaled-up shoulder pads on this big monster in order to, in a way, get this buff, big dude in the game. He tossed some "boom" speech bits on the character, showed it to some people, and eventually this little prototyped monster became the Gears of War Boomer.

Perry took the audience through the transition in design practices that occurred after this prototype was done; this involved the change from "design bibles" (very large, unwieldy design documents) to very active, designer-driven prototypes in the Unreal Engine using very basic Kismet parts such as elevators, triggers, and so on. Perry indicated the need for a designer to be more of a Chef, actively involved in the creation and iteration on a design, rather than a Food Critic, a designer who writes a doc and waits for the plate to be prepared by someone else before providing feedback. Perry's session was a very practical, thorough, and well-presented lecture on the importance that rapid iteration and quick prototypes when it comes to showing everyone in a studio an idea. The importance of feedback (blood, audio, camera shake, etc.) to a prototype was also stressed; regardless of how quick a prototype is, the prototype must sell everyone in the studio on the idea and, as a result, it needs to properly and effectively communicate that idea.

Immediately after this session ended, I went on over to the IGDA/GameDev.net mixer being held at Jillian's in the Metreon. I was held up at the door momentarily since I didn't have the proper "IGDA Party" ribbon on my badge, but then I flashed my badge at Joshua Caulfield at the door and say "I'm GameDev.net" and was let immediately in. I felt powerful for approximately five minutes. And that was a fun little power trip.

Finally, I ended the day with an immaculate dinner organized by Michael Abbott. I met people like Matthew Burns, Simon Carless, Borut Pfeifer, Chris Dahlen, Krystian Majewski, and oh my god the list goes on and on and on and on. It was an incredibly couple of hours filled with the kind of fascinating conversation you'd expect from some of the most insightful writers in the game industry. It was a great 'end' to GDC (as I only have a couple sessions on Saturday and then I'm off to the airport).

GDC 2010 - Day 5

Posted by , 12 March 2010 - - - - - - · 218 views

Yesterday I learned the meaning of the oft-heard phrase throughout the early part of the week: "GDC hasn't even really started yet." It appears that the Summits/Tutorials make up only a fraction of the total GDC audience once the main conference has started and the expo floor is opened up. All of the parts of the Moscone Center that I've gotten used to navigating have approximately three times the amount of people as they did during the days prior. The other main difference is the kind of people you just randomly see; I left a session a yesterday and ended up pushing through a crowd of people right behind Reggie Fils-Aime. That was kind of a random thing.

I started off my day with the typical write-up and catch-up on my MacBook at the Marriott Lobby across the street from my hotel. At some point during this phase of the day I realized that my first session was at 9:00am, instead of the 10:00am start time for the summits/tutorials, and quickly packed up my stuff and booked it to my first session of the day: "The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design" which I somehow failed to realize was a presentation by Peter Molyneux. The session was, fundamentally, about Fable 3 and about 50% of the presentation was irrelevant as a design talk, but I still managed to get some really great insight into why the changes between Fable 2 and Fable 3 were being made.

Immediately after Molyneux's talk I went over to check out what I felt would be one of the best sessions of the conference: "Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metegame of EVE Online." One unique aspect of this session is that it was given by a player, not a developer. That said, this was also one of the most complex talks that I attended over the course of the entire conference thus far (and for some reason chose that one to write up). The speaker was Alexander Gianturco (The Mittani), a director-level member of SomethingAwful's EVE corporation: GoonSwarm. Over the course of the talk, Gianturco illustrated all of the crazy depth, time, and subterfuge that makes up EVE's espionage metagame. I already wrote-up the talk, so I won't go too much into it, but this talk was far and away the most original of all of the GDC presentations of the year. I pointed this out in my write-up, but it was just mind-blowing that such an infamous EVE player actually plays the game very rarely these days. Most of Gianturco's work in EVE is the management of the espionage metagame versus ICQ, Jabber, and forums.

Unfortunately, I made the poor decision of switching from my planned attendance of "Design in Detail: Changing the Time Between Shots for the Sniper Rifle from 0.5 to 0.7 Seconds for Halo 3" to the Uncharted 2 Post-Mortem by co-lead game designer of Naughty Dog Richard Lemarchand. This wasn't a bad presentation by any means, but it was a completely sterile, typical post-mortem. Very little in the way of behind-the-scenes information or nitty-gritty design details were presented throughout the entirety of the talk. One interesting studio practice, however, was Lemarchand's discussion of the sole deliverable of the studio's pre-production process: a macro game design. Unlike some studios, Naughty Dog treats the macro game design as a somewhat high-level, abstracted spreadsheet of the entire game's progression, gameplay, story beats, characters broken up level-by-level. I would have adored to hear Lemarchand talk in more detail about how this document was created and what its level of granularity was (all that could be seen was a small screen shot), but that was apparently not in the cards.

While the EVE talk by The Mittani was fascinating, the absolute best session of the day was Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch's "What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling." This talk was given from the perspective of level design in first-person games and how to imbue non-critical small vignettes/stories into the environment of FPS levels where normally a designer would just mindlessly place props. Smith/Worch focused on the active process of thinking through a series of events and how intelligent prop/asset placement in a game environment can create interesting stories that the player can connect the dots with in his head. Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics was cited as saying, paraphrasing here, that the most powerful part of a comic is what happens in between the panels where the reader bridges the gaps in his own mind. The idea here is that inviting players to use their own minds to figure out what happened in a given scene and, in doing so, these players become more invested and more interested in the game world as a result.

It was at the point where Smith and Worch began discussing systemic environmental storytelling techniques where my glee hit its ceiling (well, that's not entirely true, but more on that soon). The pair brought up an example of the user of decals in Half-Life 1 where a player would shoot walls to make smiley faces out of bullet holes. This player did this two or three times in the same hallway. A bit further into the hallway, you see the dead body of a player right below a half-finished bullet hole smiley face (which has a bunch of other random bullets strewn around it). The story that arises from this is that there was this player just completely screwing around with environmental "damage" and he was so invested in creating his 'art' that he had no idea someone was right behind him when he/she shot him in the back. As the viewer, we saw none of this occur in real-time, but we put the pieces together by looking at the scene. Since multiplayer games entail players going through the same map over and over and over in a circular progression, systemized environmental storytelling was the long-term persistence of decals/bodies/shell casings (and anything else that is the result of a player action) which persists in the world to create an overarching narrative of player actions. I can't even convey how much of a nerdgasm I had throughout this talk. And then Clint Hocking asked an insightful question and then my glee level hit the ceiling; Clint Hocking action shot:

The sessions for the day ended with a psychology-focused analysis of the role that achievements play in video games and whether their use as external motivators for tasks is "harmful." The talk was given by the super intelligent, fast-talking, quick-thinking Chris Hecker and was a very responsible look at the role that these external motivators factor into our psychological development as we play games. It's hard to properly summarize the talk, but the general message is that while rewards for tasks are generally "bad," the closer they are to endogenous awards (thematically/media-appropriate/related) the less damage the reward does as a Skinnerian conditioning technique. Achievements, however, are not endogenous whatsoever and, therefore, become a completely abstract reward which damages a player's intrinsic motivation to do what should be an inherently fun task.

The night ended with my first-ever attendance at the Independent Games Festival/Game Developers Choice Awards. Over the course of this event I got to see Cactus deliver a hilarious acceptance speech, Warren Spector, Will Wright, Gabe Newell (introduced via a very earnest and fantastic speech by Chris Hecker), and John Carmack. Overall, the day was like a nerd heaven. It also ended with a meal involving margaritas and chicken flautas, so, I mean, an all-around win, really.

The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design

Posted by , 11 March 2010 - - - - - - · 179 views

Peter Molyneux's "The Complex Challenges of Intuitive Design" was first and foremost a talk about Lionhead Studio's current project: Fable 3. Behind all the talk about the new game, though, are interesting design discussions. The game aside, the theme of Molyneux and lead designer Josh Atkin's presentation was centered on this statistic that the company learned through Microsoft research: "more than 60% of players understood less than 50% of [Fable 2's] features."

Lionhead took this statistic to heart with the development of Fable 3. Molyneux started his talk by citing the statistical number porn of games like Wizardry, Ultima, and Fallout. Using Fable 1 and Fable 2 as a baseline comparison for all things, Molyneux detailed how the team was reworking the franchise for the third iteration on their overarching design. They started by identifying what was core to the Fable experience amongst which are: character morphing, choices, drama, and emotion. These qualities, along with a few others, are absolutely core to gameplay experience and should be evolved, not cut, as the team ventures forth on a new project.

As an example of the evolving design paradigm is the way that Lionhead is handling character morphing for Fable 3. One of the problems that Molyneux cited with the original game's character morphing was the oft-heard unfortunate-looking body image that female characters saw as they played through the game. The other primary problem was that all of the character morphing happened as a result of leveling-up which occurred in Fable 2's 2D UI rather than naturally in the game world as a result of player actions. The solution that Lionhead found for both of these problems involved mapping all character visual changes to in-world player actions. If a player uses a sword, his muscles will get bigger, and if a character uses a giant hammer (also a melee weapon, but a heavier one) the character's muscles will increase at a faster rate. Using ranged weaponry will result in a taller, more athletic character. Using magic will yield a character whose complexion looks like that of a heavy-duty magic user. The more followers a player has, the more "powerful" his character will look.

The way that Lionhead solves the problem of the character statistical evolution/leveling up is by giving "experience" an in-world currency. This currency, in Fable 3 is that of "followers." Followers are characters which, uh, choose to follow the player as he ascends to power and royalty. Molyneux said the inspiration for this came from his experiments with Twitter and the feeling of having internet followers and interacting with them over a long period of time.

Another major change that Molyneux is bringing to Fable 3 is changing up the "hero's journey" which a number of games (and both prior Fable games) and movies and books and films all employ as a character progression structure. Granted, Campbell's "Hero's Journey" was originally used as a means of critiquing and analyzing literature, but whatever. Instead of Fable 3's full narrative arc covering the entirety of the player character's journey from lowly street-rat to full-on hero, Fable 3 will have the player ascend to royalty (kingship or queenship) halfway through the game. The last half of the game, then, will allow the player to play from this place of power in the game world. More interestingly, the promises that the player can then make good on the promises made to the people of Albion as he rose to power. Molyneux said one of his inspirations for this mechanic was Obama's campaign versus his presidency.

Molyneux then showed Fable 3 and, well, it looks pretty amazing. The industry setting looked absolutely incredible and provided a nice change of pace from the theme of most games.

And, most importantly, the dog is back.

Uniquely Ruthless: The Espionage Metagame of EVE O

Posted by , 11 March 2010 - - - - - - · 371 views

"So apparently you really wanna hear about spaceships, I don't know why" says the representative of The Mittani, mittens [CHEATER], finally, Alexander Gianturco whatever you want to call him. Gianturco, as he says, is a lawyer, not a developer.

"What is a metagame?" Gianturco asks. "The purpose of the talk: description of the hidden aspects of EVE gameplay. Analyze EVE's metagame for application in other environments. Convince attending devs to create more games with vibrant espionage gameplay." The example of a metagame is, as Gianturco says, if you were i a tournament, telling someone that you slept with his wife, had him punch you, and therefore forfeit his space in the tournament. Gianturco's goal is to convey what the "key" is to having a "vibrant espionage metagame."

Gianturco goes into the disaster that afflicted the GoonSwarm alliance which was a result of not paying the necessary bills. Also GoonSwarm's chief financial officer (who ran off with their money) is named "Rapetrain." This is all that matters.

The birth of espionage in MMOs: the "Dark Ages: lootable PK MUDs - DartMUD and camera code and breeze code on MUSHs." Camera code allowed people to spy on people who weren't actually present and then use that information to mock them. After that it evolved into the early PvP of MMOs like Ultima Online, Everquest, and Shadowbane. Ultima Online, as Gianturco said, is the "granddaddy" of all PvP which allowed you to kill person after person and take their stuff. Everquest eased the ruthlessness a bit, but brought about the idea of "corpse camping.

Going forth, Gianturco cites: EVE Online, Global Agenda, and Darkfall as the three MMOs which feature solid "espionage." Gianturco's point in contrasting these three games is how completely different they are and how varied their settings are. Gianturco says the benefits of an espionage metagame are: "Free media coverage [which are] a dramatic recruiting tool. Players can use cunning as an in-game skill [and] espionage is the ultimate in [user-generated content]." There are "very few arenas in gaming where you can actually use the fact that you're a manipulative ass" as a benefit and marketable skill as a character/player quality. Allowing for player-based espionage can also ease the burden of a lack of high-end content.

The "hazards of an espionage metagame" are: "impact of espionage is completely unpredictable, outside of Dev control," it "offends sense of 'fair play'," and "customers dislike losing or being cheated." "One of the unfortunate things about being a human is that everyone loves winning and no one likes losing."

"Three key attributes of an espionage metagame are: player-created factions, significant consequences and risk of loss, supportive mechanics & dev environment." Gianturco draws a specific difference between developer guilds/alliances in games like World of Warcraft, but there is always that strict, forced segregation (Horde versus Alliance is cited, amongst other games).

One important key in player-create faction is that "Espionage requires a personal commitment which is a meaingless without player engagement in a conflict, most MMOs force players into fixed factions, limting the level of player engagement." People identify much more strongly with their faction because it's something that player chose and these hard ties enhance the sense of competition and comaraderie. The involvement in factions "the more personal the struggle, the more intense the espionage gameplay becomes." Gianturco cites "the Great War" in EVE Online as the pinnacle example where EVE's "Band of Brothers" assaulted a system of newbies called GoonSwarm for over two weeks.

The second important key is that of "consequences and risk of loss, espionage cannot exist in an arena where nothing is risked." Gianturco cites the loss of durability if you wipe in a raid in World of Warcraft, however if you lose a titan in EVE Online you lose the equivalent of $4,000 USD in in-game currency. Gianturco then goes into convertible currency and real-money trading, whose existence raises the stakes in the game. "Earn a living by selling isk" in EVE is a viable possibility. There are people who are rich in EVE Online who have spent over $100,000 in real-world currency on in-game currency.

The third key is "supportive mechanics and dev environment; must provide opportunity for espionage gameplay in the client itself. Must have 'clean' dev environment with rigorous policing against corruption, and laissez-faire attitude toward fates of players." As an example of the "'clean' dev environment" Gianturco cites that CCP has an internal affairs department to handle the metagame in EVE Online.

Two additional factors that Gianturco does not believe are complete necessary are: "shardless environments which is not ar equirement for espionage, increases the risk of less and player engagement, and 'nowhere to run, nowhere to hide'." And while that is not required it is important to "avoid player segregation" for the reasons of "MMOs with most vibrant espionage lack a level-based system, EVE, UO, Darkfall." "[Leveling] reduces the relevant population or player factions. New players can contribute immediately in non-level-based games, helping factions grow."

Gianturco says "now we're going to actually get to the spy-craft" and someone in the audience giggles like an excited little girl. I love it.

The first component of gameplay is "intelligence gathering" where "agents gather information to remove or create an element of surprise." Gianturco talks about a secret agent who is hired by various factions in EVE Online to completely subvert people and gather information for his clients. The importance of intelligence-gathering in EVE Online can completely change any situation; when it succeeds, people can destroy other people's large, titan ships due to information about that player's titan to people who used it against him. Intelligence gathering "allows 'pure meta' gameplay, entirely separate from game client. [And] vibrant external metagame has several benefits: reduces game load [and] increases player involvement." Gianturco takes this further by raising the "sticky issue of hacking:" there is the "classic divide [between] human vs. signals intelligence." There is also "player agents vs forum hackers" and "competitive espionage in the alliance tournament."

The next component: sabotage. Sabotage i "dramatic, slash-and-burn events," "theft" which involves "stealing corporation/alliance assets." This theft can be used to retrieve assets from formerly-owned territory; Gianturco cites a situation where their agents used jump freighters to ferry cargo to-and-fro from a system "over eighty times." There is also "strategic sabotage [which is] altering the course of a war." Finally, there is "diplomatic sabotage" showing a slide with the text from one of their faction's players with his infamous line: "YOUR ALLIANCE IS A PIECE OF SHIT." The given example is that of a player taking money from people who didn't want to be branded as "evil metagamers" and taking the public position as the scapegoat for taking a large portion of their assets.

Gianturco talks about the "Band of Brothers disband story." During the "Great War" there was a period of stagnation that had been going on for two and a half years. One member of Band of Brothers was going to send an "unknown alt" into the worlds to see what the other side of the system was like. He took an invitation into GoonSwarm with a fake recruitment used to let the BoB man think he was legitimately recruited. GoonSwarm took all of his stuff and said "haha, you've been scammed." The Band of Brothers member, Hargoth, came back to GoonSwarm and was, actually, a fan fo GoonSwarm and was willing to defect and use his position as a director of Band of Brothers to essentially screw them over. Gianturco talks about a hectic series of meetings used to plan a way to smash-and-grab Band of Brothers using the information from Hargoth (the Band of Brothers defector). Gianturco talks about a eureka moment where he realized that he had an executive character in Band of Brothers and, therefore, could disband the entire alliance and kick everyone out of the alliance, take their name, and make for the biggest scam in EVE Online at the time.

Gianturco summarizes his story as the paramount example of "counterintelligence." He calls it "spy versus spy type stuff." "Spyhunting vs witch-hunting" is "when at risk, agents will always try to provoke a witch-hunt. Without technical knowledge, spyhunting is just torches and pitchforks." Inciting a witch-hunt is used to divert attention from the spy to the less intelligent, less informed loudmouths. Counterintelligence is the "bleeding edge of the metagame." Gianturco talks about an active private investigator who works as a counterintelligence agent for GoonSwarm. It actually entails computer forensics: "collecting IP addresses and geolocation," "timestamps: forums and teamspeak," "signature bugs," and "honeypots." "If you find yourself in a war against a bunch of people who are Finnish suddenly it becomes quite obvious" when your enemies are trying to subvert you, because you just look through your forum IPs for anyone from Finland. Gianturco talks about feeling bad for any legitimate member of GoonSwarm from Finland because, well, it's persecution. Gianturco talks about the "signature bug" of using an image to gather information about forum users; the "mittens signature" collecting the IP addresses of anyone who used it/loaded it. He then talks about the IP addresses of everyone in a given corporation through timestamped posts and using this information in any war against another corporation (essentially giving the faction an entire member list of the corporation).

Gianturco wraps up the counterintelligence section with the phrase "Honeypots are hilarious." He talks about the most recent use of honeypots who had a spy in GoonSwarm; GoonSwarm started "lying their asses off" in a specific public forum and spending a lot of money in a specific tower in a backwater system. Eventually, a fleet started attacking his tower and GoonSwarm sent a fleet themselves to engage them. Gianturco said, in the channel, that he was going to "send his titans in" which was an indication to any enemies that their fleet needed to escape and send in ships which could capture the titans. By this point, Gianturco said he had captured enough timestamps and sussed out who the spy was (a guy anmed "CaptainMutiny" who "surprisingly didn't start out as a spy"). Once this all happened, the enemy fleet revealed that "hey, you got the wrong guy; you got the wrong director-level agent" which told Gianturco and GoonSwarm that, essentially, they had a director-level agent and to keep spyhunting.

The talk wraps up with Gianturco talking about the role of fraud in EVE Online. The most amusing example is that of a person who ran a bank in the game where people "deposited" over 600 billion in ISK and then ran away with all the money. This is particularly absurd because each player in EVE has a "Wallet" which is a completely safe, completely unique, infinite storage place for currency.

My favorite reveal in the entire talk is that Gianturco rarely actually plays EVE but, rather, actually works the forums and various communication media more than anything else.

GDC 2010 - Day 4

Posted by , 11 March 2010 - - - - - - · 220 views

Despite being my first GDC, I actually feel like I'm kind of getting the hang of things. I started another morning in the lobby of the nearby Marriott by writing up the day prior (much like I'm doing right now). Unlike the last few days, though, I have 9:00am sessions to make rather than 10:00am ones, so my attempt at writing up the day is going to be much abbreviated. Which is unfortunate, because these little daily things are my favorite thing to write up.

Day 4 was all about indie. I was in the same session room (Room 135) all day long listening to what were, primarily, all superb sessions. The day was kicked off with Kellee Santiago and Robin Hunicke talking about "How to Manage an Exploratory Development Process." Despite there being far funnier, even somewhat more insightful and original talks throughout the two days of summits and tutorials, the Santiago/Hunicke talk was a marvel. It's so completely rare, especially in this industry, to hear a talk from people who are not only genuinely passionate but optimistic and who preach the emotional relevance of a team development atmosphere. The pair revealed (namely Santiago, as Hunicke was not, I believe, a member of the team at this point) that at the end of Flower's development cycle, Thatgamecompany was on the verge of self-destruction. Santiago said that if the team kept along their path at that point that they would not have lasted past their three game contract with Sony. Robin Hunicke was brought on that this point as a producer and, as she took the stage, talked about all of the lengths she went to in order to get a better, more comfortable, less anxious team dynamic. The pair ended their talk with the promotion of optimism and happiness because if the "five years to burnout" stat was true, the pair, they said, would not be able to play "your" games. It was a rare sort of talk for this industry and conveyed a mood and message that this industry desperately needs.

Next up was a talk by Mark "Messhof" Essen and Daniel Benmergui about "Control Inspiration" where the two talked about their various visual and interactive inspirations for their games. It was an odd talk given by a pair of incredible designers/developers, but it was unfortunate to see how scatter-shot Messhof's presentation of his material was. I know, indie, etc. Benmergui, however, took the audience through a completely interesting evolution of his remarkable game Today I Die. He talked about how the game's "poem mechanic" evolved over time from something simple, to something very cool but incredibly complex, to the final version that was in the game. Benmergui ended by showing off the iPhone evolution of Today I Die which looks promising.

As I was leaving this talk, I ran into Ben Abraham and Nels Anderson. These are, really, the first of a group of incredibly smart game critics/developers that have inhabited a special circle on the Internet. As someone who grew up in isolation of the game industry as a whole, it's always completely amazing to meet people you've interacted with frequently online. Unfortunately, as tends to be the case, I was already late for a lunch thing so I couldn't talk nerdy game stuff, but there's an entire dinner for that later in the week.

One of my favorite moments of the day was in the "Minimalist Game Design: Growing OSMOS" where Eddy Boxerman and Andy Nealen. Boxerman gave what was, largely, a somewhat uninspired and disinterested talk about the game's evolution over the two-and-change years of its development. Boxerman showed off OSMOS at various stages of its development talking about what worked and what didn't and how they maintained a minimalist approach to its design throughout its development. It was neat to see, but Boxerman's portion of the lecture paled in comparison to when Andy Nealen, a developer on the game and a professor at Rutger's University took the stage. For the next six-eight minutes, Nealen talked about the tenets of minimalism in game design from a somewhat academic/game theory approach. Nealen stole the afternoon with this incredibly abbreviated, dense, and insightful speech on "economy" and "coherences."

Immediately after the OSMOS talk was "Indie Solutions to Design Savvy Somethings" by Adam Saltsman, Alec Holowka, and Andy Schatz. I already wrote this talk up, but it was incredibly sad to see each of these three incredibly intelligent speakers cut short by time. Adam Saltsman was, for instance, only able to get about ten minutes into what looked like a twenty minute talk. The gist of this talk was promoting what was inherently indie about indie game development as opposed to the AAA style of game development. The best part of this talk was that all three speakers managed to laud the benefits of indie development without feeling the need to slag on AAA game development (because they're completely different beasts, neither bad).

The final two sets of presentations were an art panel with Derek Yu (Aquaria, Spelunky), David Hellman (Braid), and Edmund Mcmillen (Gish, Time Fcuk). It was a worthwhile panel overall, but, for the most part, it largely felt awkward and stilted until the panel started getting into more personal, process/artistic conversations.

Shortly before the next session I was able to meet and talk to Chris Remo, the incredibly talented and passionate gamer, writer, and podcaster. Once again, this is a person I've "internet known" for years and have had the pleasure of talking to online many times, but have never actually met in person. These kinds of meetings/conversations are one of my favorite aspects of GDC so far (along with the sessions themselves).

The Indie Game Summit ended with the "Indie Gamemaker Rant!" This is a series of five-minute rants by prominent individuals in the indie game community such as Robin Hunicke, Randy Smith, Adam Saltsman, and about eight or nine more speakers. As with any ensemble session, it was a mix of great and not-so-great. One ranter talked about her game's demise and eventual completion, showed a clip of her game, and then a slight plug for more funding/publishing which, indie or not, seemed in poor taste. Then there were the rants by Robin Hunicke and Brandon Boyer. Hunicke ranted about the completely lack of diversity in the game industry, both lamenting it and preaching to the audience to compose their teams of more varied types of individuals. The rant was passionate, true, and completely necessary and I really hope people took something away from it. Brandon Boyer's rant was about sorry state of the game press which, yes, we all know and acknowledge, but more important Boyer ranted on the unnecessary amount of snark in the press (and community as a whole). It was an earnest, heart-felt rant that everyone in the industry, press or not, should heed.

And, with that, Day 2 of GDC and the end of the Summits & Tutorials section of the conference game to an end. The rest of the day was occupied with eating and partying. Here are some awful pictures of Gamma IV (which I will hopefully write about in further detail later).

Also check out my totally rad dinner:

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