We intend to create a world where everyone will enjoy our games without exception.


GDC 2011: My Introspection from GDC2011

Filed under: Thoughts — Tags: @ 18:09

GDC 2011: This past week, a sizable (though sadly incomplete) contingent of Universal Happymakers spread their probing tendrils into the warm light of the Game Developers’ Conference. Each of us saw our own successes, had our own stumbles, and learned our own lessons. This series explores the Happymakers’ reactions to this peerless event.

/*This was wrote as an assignment………..I somehow feel there might be things that I could have talked more……….but anyway……….*/

This is my second GDC.

I can still remember, last year, when I was carpooling with my classmates heading to San Francisco, and wondering what kind of world was in front of me that I’d step into in a few hours. I was too excited to think about anything, just try not to act like an idiot. New things are always so attractive that I can hardly really see whether that’s what I want or not.

This year, I was a volunteer for IGDA and so that got an expo pass. Although I wasn’t able to go to those great sessions, I met a lot of new people that share the same passion about making games. I saw how energetic, creative and friendly people are in this industry, no matter what genders, ages or occupations.

But more and more, I started to think about that whether I was doing the right thing, whether I was going towards the correct direction, whether what I had been doing for a long time was valuable.I like games. I want to make games. But am I really suitable for being a game designer for the rest of my life? When I  was wandering around the expo area, people were still waiting in long lines in front of the big heads, leaving those small booths play with themselves. I asked myself, do I really want to go to those companies as a designer or an artist or a QA and work as a tiny part of those epic titles, which may not even happen in 3 years? Of course, they are probably not interested in me either, who doesn’t have computer science back ground, couldn’t draw or model awesome robots, and even have trouble talk about today’s weather or TV show in fluent English. And there’s another huge gap that caused by different cultures, which might be even more crucial. I turned around and didn’t really see many indie companies that would welcome student designers, as they were starting up and needed more help than screwing up.

I used to be an engineering student, and I studied math for quite a long time even before that. I am good at organizing, observing or analyzing things, making, discovering and obeying rules, and as a result I can learn new things pretty quickly. But correspondingly, things get boring really fast, and unless there are other motivations or accomplishments, I can hardly repeat the same thing even twice. Meanwhile, at the opposite extreme, it’s hard for me to move on or give up if there are still parts of  what I’m doing that are “undiscovered” or “uncompleted”, and sometimes just for a small goal I can repeat the same steps for hundreds of times without stops. Maybe because, subconsciously I know, I will never come back once I leave; or maybe because, I need a “perfect” ending. Like during the 5 days of volunteering, I was super excited and concentrated because I had never worked like that before, but then became less active just the second shift of the day because I was basically repeating the same dialogue and action less than every 5 minutes, and since there were so many people, I couldn’t really talk with or get to know anybody. But during the last 2 days, I was quite energetic when most of others looked like burned out, because there were less and less people, as well as volunteers, so I got to do more new stuff or dealing with different people just by myself.

And here comes some other issues. Since I am good at observing and analyzing things, it’s also not hard for me to cater people, if I really think about it and treat it as a puzzle or challenge. But I have moral issue about interacting with people when it relates to utilitarian, and I hate to cater people if there’s other reason than simply making them happy. That’s probably also why during the first two days of volunteering, I felt quite uncomfortable when people were trying very hard to network and tend to grab any chance to talk with whoever looked “valuable”. I wanted to find an internship for this summer, and I could talk with HRs without problem, but I hate to make friends because they may give me a job in the future. So when there were some people randomly standing next to me labeled as “CEO/CTO/etc…” from some big companies, I usually didn’t have the desire to start a conversation. And when I put off my idea about finding an internship, I somehow became more “talkative” and quite enjoyed the last two days.

But normal human beings can hardly live their lives by just doing what they want, so I used to try hard to fake my feeling and do things that need to be done. And like I said, I was a good learner, so if I really enjoyed it I could have already became an engineer or a business guy or a general manager. But the more I faked, the more I hated it. And because of this, I may be doing good, but I’m not going to be doing great. So I told myself, I would not touch business or management any more, let me do something else, something more interesting.

I like playing games, especially those great puzzle games. I feel being challenged in every new game and I’m learning new things. So I came here, I jumped out of my past and entered a totally new environment, and I keep telling myself I am going to be a game designer, not a programmer, not an artist, not a producer.

But now, when I finally start to look at it, I feel I just want to LEARN game design. Do I really want to be a game designer? I am actually not sure. If you really think about how the world is working, a lot of designers are not really designing games. They are busy programming, or making art assets, or simply feeding themselves. A lot of designers are too busy running their own studios/business or  just don’t have the rights to design the games they are working on.  A lot of designers are implementing games that their bosses, clients, customers, investors demanded. I enjoy making mini-games to make my friends happy, but more than that I want to make something big and valuable enough to change the world in a good way. To achieve it, being a game designer might have the longest way to go.

Besides, though I am trying hard to be creative, I feel I am lacking something that very important. At the same time, I can still see my advantages of being a producer or project manager, although I am actually losing them by being antisocial.

It seems already pretty late to rethink about this. I am not making any decision here and I am not willing to. I’d like to give myself the remaining time before graduate to think more carefully, giving the truth that thesis project will probably be my last chance.




GDC 2011: Unexpected Adventures in Classism

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , @ 23:00

GDC 2011: This past week, a sizable (though sadly incomplete) contingent of Universal Happymakers spread their probing tendrils into the warm light of the Game Developers’ Conference. Each of us saw our own successes, had our own stumbles, and learned our own lessons. This series explores the Happymakers’ reactions to this peerless event.

PART 1: The City of San Francisco

I am what my boyfriend likes to refer to as a “Country Mouse.” (From the Aesop fable. Look it up.) I’m not comfortable in cities at the best of times; I’m nervous around strangers on the street, particularly if I’m walking by myself, even if it’s in broad daylight. Part of it is because I grew up in rural Middle-of-Nowhere and attended undergraduate school at Slightly-North-of-Nowhere, and part of it is undoubtedly the numerous warnings I received before I came out to LA: don’t walk by yourself at night, make sure you’re always aware of your surroundings, cross the street if you see someone who makes you uncomfortable, etc. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m all of five feet tall and barely over a hundred pounds, not to mention the fact that I’m a young woman.

So when I came to LA for the first time to attend graduate school, I was nervous. My feelings were slightly mollified by the numerous enormous old trees on and around the USC campus – trees never fail to cheer me up and make me feel at ease – and the laid-back air of the city. Gradually I got used to life out here, and though I’m still far more nervous just walking the streets than I want to be, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable here than I ever expected.

This was my first year at GDC, and my first time ever visiting San Francisco. My very first impression of the city was that it felt far more like a city than LA did. It reminded me much more of being in Manhattan – tall buildings, people in a hurry to get somewhere, and a general air of tension and busyness. LA feels like someone took a city and placed it in Southern California, where everything from the city’s geography and the attitudes of the people within it melted in the heat, spreading out and slowing down and dripping across the map. San Francisco feels like a place where hip things are happening, where you have to keep on your toes and stay alert and grab hold of life as it swings and twirls around you. It’s got the beat and rhythm of a city, rather than the strange desert patience of LA. (Which is not to say that nothing happens in LA; very important things happen all the time – they just happen in air-conditioned office rooms. And they usually involve lawyers, which means they take at least three times as long as usual.)

After spending a little more time in San Francisco, my impression extended to include, most notably, the homeless. The homeless in San Francisco are not like the homeless in LA. For one thing, I’ve never seen a homeless person in LA with a sign saying “Need Money to Buy Weed.” The idea of giving someone change for having a sign that’s clever or something you want to read somewhat baffles me, but the signs – and the assumption that they would work – was everywhere we looked. Furthermore, it was the first time I’ve been approached by an obvious pan-handler trying to sell me a story. My own experience involved a woman who claimed to be diabetic, but I have a friend who experienced a full-on con – someone tried to get him to help pay for parking for a car that was about to be impounded with his family inside. Aside from these more notable eccentricities, the homeless were also just more aggressive and far more numerous than I’ve seen in LA. In the ten blocks that my friend and I walked home one evening, we were approached by perhaps five different people asking us for change – and saw several others that were asleep or didn’t come up to us.

I don’t want to preach or turn this into some kind of moralistic diatribe. This is obviously a problem in San Francisco, and the bizarrely entitled attitude that we seemed to get from some of the pan-handlers is probably a part of it. I just know that it brought to the forefront my urban paranoia – only in feeling it fresh again did I realize how much it had faded over my time in LA. This isn’t a reason to not go to San Francisco by any means – but it’s something I was acutely aware of while I was there. I wonder if the residents are aware of how large the problem is, or if they’ve simply become used to it.


PART 2: The Problem of Passes

As most people know, GDC is incredibly expensive. I was able to go only because I received a free Expo Pass as part of a raffle. The value of my pass – even if you pre-ordered it early – was roughly $200. This is basically out of my price range barring exceptional circumstances, and it’s actually the second-cheapest pass at the convention. The cheapest is the student pass for $75, which gives you access to almost nothing, and in order to receive the full, heaping-platter, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink pass, you’d need to pay $1500. The next price bracket above mine – the summits and tutorials pass – was $600, a significant price jump.

The Expo Pass gives you access to the main awards ceremonies and to the show floor. I figured that would be enough – especially since I’d only be there for two and a half days or so – and that the floor would keep me occupied with interesting content. I came to GDC looking forward to learning interesting new things about game design and being inspired to create something new.

The reality I soon discovered was that my pass essentially ranked me as a second-class citizen. I was astounded by how ostracized I felt at the conference. It began on Wednesday morning, when I traveled to the conference at 8 AM in order to accompany my friends (with summit passes) who were planning to attend the Keynote at 9 AM. Now, my pass did not entitle me to attend the Keynote, which I knew, but I figured that I could at least take advantage of having a mere Expo Pass to check out the floor early, when all the higher-level attendees were busy elsewhere.

However, upon reaching the expo hall, I discovered that the doors didn’t open until 10 AM, when the Keynote let out. I was barred from entering, and had to sit twiddling my thumbs in the lobby, waiting for the important people to get out of their meeting so we could start the show. A few other Expo Pass holders waited nearby, while exhibitors hurried into the hall to complete their last-minute preparations.

When I finally did step onto the floor, I was indeed wowed by the display of technology that I saw. Everything new and cutting-edge in the industry was on parade, although with notably fewer flashing lights and booth babes than E3, for which I was thankful. I had a great time just strolling around the floor, checking things out.

The thing is, the GDC floor does not match E3 for size, and touring the floor doesn’t take more than a few hours. Additionally, most of the vendors are (understandably) there for business; if you’re not handing out resumes, attending a pre-scheduled business meeting, or purchasing several dozen Maya licenses for your school, then the vendors are generally polite to you but ultimately disinterested. The only exception was the IGF corner, where all the IGF games were available for demo. This was certainly the highlight of the floor for me, and I spent a great deal of my time there playing the games and at the IGDA booth playing ninja.

When I met my friends at mealtime, I was subjected to the frankly tortuous experience of listening to them talk about how amazing the summits and lectures they’d attended had been. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t resent them for it, and I wanted to hear what I was missing as much as possible. But the knowledge that I had wandered around mostly bored after the third or fourth hour while they’d been hearing from some of the most fascinating people in the industry on topics I really cared about was crushing. I went to GDC as an academic, but I only had access to the sales pitches.

The evening of the first day was the awards ceremony, and finally I felt like part of the community once more – despite the roped-off section of VIP tables in the center of the awards hall with guards at every entrance. But given the caliber of some of the people in that area who were nominated for the awards, that felt almost reasonable. The awards ceremony even made me feel strangely elitist – being familiar with so many of the games nominated for the IGF awards made me feel like someone who’s seen all the short films nominated at the Oscars; it’s not exactly general knowledge for the general public.

The next day I spent almost exclusively at the IGF games booth, having nothing really better to do. I went to one of the IGDA Special Interest Groups, but was unimpressed (although the second such that I went to was a bit better). The games were fun and interesting, and it was great to get a chance to play them. I saw a lot of stuff I doubt I would have seen otherwise. It was a great mini-vacation from my classwork, if nothing else.

On Friday I had brunch with my friends and then headed for home. Overall I have to say that I’m glad I went – I would encourage people to go if they can, and particularly if they want to network or hand around resumes or similar. I did have a free pass, which was excellent, although travel and living expenses were still significant. But if I go next year, it will only be if I can get a higher-level pass – even if it’s free. (And it will probably have to be – if $200 was out of my price range this year, I doubt $600 will be in my budget for next year.) The Expo Pass experience was fine to do once, but if I attend again, I’m going to some of those lectures. I don’t think I could stand going again if I didn’t.



GDC 2011: Confirming the New Dumb Hypothesis

Filed under: Thoughts — Tags: , @ 20:59

GDC 2011: This past week, a sizable (though sadly incomplete) contingent of Universal Happymakers spread their probing tendrils into the warm light of the Game Developers’ Conference. Each of us saw our own successes, had our own stumbles, and learned our own lessons. This series explores the Happymakers’ reactions to this peerless event.

The New Dumb philosophy came out of the Happymakers’ own experiences in making games. While the advice seems obvious—to focus on player experience rather than simulation fidelity, to favor selective visibility of internal systems over hidden complexity—it can prove hard to follow in practice as one’s specialist and perfectionist instincts override the simple desire to make a fun game. At this GDC, we took heart when we learned that the problems we cited may be nearly universal among independent game developers. Therefore, one at a time, we take the main concepts of The New Dumb and see how they were affirmed during the past week. We also add two new features to New Dumb Theory: Sennott’s Corollary (that the love put into making a game has little to do with the love perceived by a game player) and a warning against design by default (seeing a game as a set of features to be implemented).

The problem of motivation was a major theme in this year’s GDC talks. Spyeart’s Michael Todd bravely explored the problem of depression for game designers, and offered concrete advice to avoid the death spiral of dwindling productivity and depression: to get straight to gameplay, to avoid perfectionism, and to work on games that were playable progressively (mechanics building atop one another) rather than in the gestalt (requiring nearly all rules and systems in place before playtesting). In Todd’s view, one must build as much of the game as possible during the brief period of intense passion for the idea. Andy Schatz (Pocketwatch Games) prototyped Monaco as an attempt to recover his dwindling motivation for a different project, and maintained his interest in Monaco by implementing one cool thing every day, avoiding features that took more than a day, and ensuring that every day ended with a playable build.

Front-to-back design is a core tenet of the New Dumb, and has its roots as far back as Crawford’s First Law of Game Design (“What does the player do?”). Schatz also considered this concept and selected how best to apply his limited resources: rather than aim for visual realism (and approach the uncanny valley), he chose to use extremely realistic recorded audio for the game’s sound effects. This gave him an immersive benefit at an extremely low cost, showing that front-to-back design doesn’t only apply to programming problems. Patrick Redding (of Ubisoft Montreal) mentioned how Splinter Cell: Conviction‘s multiplayer maps were lit in reverse order to its single-player ones, beginning with designer-placed light areas and ending with artist-refined diegetic lighting.

Two concepts that saw little specific treatment at GDC were the myth of replayability and content is important. This may have been a function of the specific talks I attended and the speakers I heard, but just because they were not mentioned does not mean that they are not real.

A difficult thing for a programmer to learn is that a game is not its source code. At least four talks specifically cited the danger of a programmer’s mindset in game development. Chris Hecker (designer of Spy Party, in his speech at the Failure Sessions) described five years of technological ratholing for a mountain-climbing game, burying his nose in research and development on constraint solvers, integrators, physics models, tech demos, and the like, without contributing to gameplay in any way. His new policy is that any new feature must be playable on the same day. Brian Provinciano (VBLANK Entertainment), in the same session, spoke of his seven years of development on Retro City Rampage and its predecessor, an NES demake of Grand Theft Auto 3. He built a macro assembler, a custom NES development kit, and a huge variety of tools, but none of it took him closer to making a fun game. Peter Molyneux re-contextualized Populous as a series of workarounds for poor technical ability: the raising and lowering of terrain was a way around shoddy pathfinding, the transforming of characters on flat land into buildings was a way to relieve strain on slow AI code, and the papal magnet that drew followers to specific locations was implemented instead of improving the AI agents’ cleverness! Radiangames’ Luke Schneider, who worked at a pace of a game per month, suggested that we “build games, not engines” and never to start from scratch—going so far as to copy and paste the past month’s game code when starting a new project.

Two related ideas inhabit the feedback loop between player and game: Games should be dumber than people and show your work. Dajana Dimovska (Knapnok Games) and the Copenhagen Game Collective of which she is a part leveraged people as adjudicators and input devices for their social games like IGF nominee B.U.T.T.O.N. Will Wright supported the latter point by confessing that Raid on Bungeling Bay‘s inner simulation—an AI-driven resource acquisition and defense construction cycle that formed the game’s progressive difficulty system—was invisible and unknowable to basically any player. This was a mistake he would not repeat with data-visualization-rich SimCity and The Sims.

Game jams are a central aspect of New Dumb’s suggestion to adopt more constraints. Needless to say, they are quite popular with independent game developers, with Kyle Pulver (of Retro Affect) agitating for the two-hour game jam as a crucible of extreme pressure and constraints leading to fearless creativity, and Chris DeLeon encouraging developers to “game jam outside of Game Jams”—to explore, rather than to impress.

Of the two new elements to New Dumb Theory emerging from this Game Developers’ Conference, Sennott’s Corollary is the most painful: The sense of love engendered by playing a game bears no relationship to the actual love and tears put into developing a game. This was hinted at in several talks, but phrased most clearly by Schatz’s advice that everything put into a game should make it feel more awesome. This was reinforced during the keynote, when Satoru Iwata (president of Nintendo) said that a game’s “central appeal must be immediately visible”. This is an important metric related to front-to-back design, but deserves its own entry for its intense emotional risks.

Finally, many developers—especially those from a programming background—warned against the abdication of game design responsibility. This may best be put as the maxim don’t design by default. Chris DeLeon forbade designers from using existing genres or game references when describing their designs to other people; Michael Todd encouraged them to design games for their own abilities and interests. Games are not merely bullet-pointed feature lists: 2D Boy’s Kyle Gray, Flashbang’s Matthew Wegner, and the aforementioned Chris Hecker and Brian Provinciano all had horror stories of months and years wasted going through the motions of game development without original ideas: art flair in place of long-term gameplay; “HD” as a way to make a game more, but not better; years spent in R&D for games that weren’t fun in the first place (avoidable if these designers had built prototypes instead of products). Technology development should not be a way to hide from game design! In the same vein, Andy Schatz suggested that developers avoid prototyping in engines that presume certain types of games. Will Wright also revealed how Raid on Bungeling Bay‘s map editor—technology that Wright had lying around already—morphed and mutated into SimCity. This echoes a talk that Raigan Burns (Metanet, developer of N) gave in 2008 which explained the value of controlling all of the programmatic knobs—that designers should design their own unique games from the ground up.

New Dumb as such is not a well-known theory, but the problems it approaches and the spirit it carries seem to be universal among game developers. It is our hope as Happymakers that someone might read this who feels these problems (but has been unable to specifically recognize or express them) may by understanding them begin to overcome them.

GDC 2011: Artist, Entertainer, or Hobby Designer

Filed under: Thoughts — Tags: @ 15:00

GDC 2011: This past week, a sizable (though sadly incomplete) contingent of Universal Happymakers spread their probing tendrils into the warm light of the Game Developers’ Conference. Each of us saw our own successes, had our own stumbles, and learned our own lessons. This series explores the Happymakers’ reactions to this peerless event.

As one of many lenses, we might stipulate that games fall into one or more of three categories:

  • Entertainment designed to be enjoyably consumed;
  • Earnest artistic expressions intended to be thoughtfully contemplated; and
  • Engaging hobbies and rituals that continue to be played, talked about, and appreciated as active practices despite the relentless march of time.

This third category—games that endure as pastimes—came up during several talks at GDC 2011. During a panel of indie start-up stories, Dan Cook (of Spry Fox) called for fewer throwaway entertainments and more hobbies—that more games help build relationships between people (whether of appreciation, shared practice, or joint activity).

Frank Lantz’s (of Zynga New York, though it pains me to write it) discussion of communication and the sublime in Go and poker was one of the conference’s strongest sessions. For Lantz, play is communication. The dynamics of these games (in the Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics sense, and the subject of a fantastic GDC talk by Clint Hocking) force players to re-examine of some of humanity’s deepest challenges and assumptions: Local versus global thinking, immediate profit versus long-term potential, emotional control, greed, the perverse joy of poor luck. In his words, they are “thought made visible to itself”, “behavioral psychology we apply to ourselves”. Lantz encouraged designers to make games about universals rather than stories, to leverage abstraction, to think about how a game exists in the world around it, and to leave a little space for the infinite.

Not all hobbies require multiple participants. Gardening, model-building, and others encourage quiet contemplation, provide personal goals, or offer avenues for self-expression. For Randy Smith (of Tiger Style, designer of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor), self-expression in games is comprised of players’ choices from a space of valid options and the real-world variance of these choices across players or play-sessions. He advised designers to “leave enough room” for this sort of expression, prescribing as little as possible in the way of playstyle. Spider and his new game both provide very permissive win conditions, making virtuosity and excellence their own rewards (a trait shared with Final Fantasy Tactics).

Games and hobbies that involve multiple people may best be understood as suites of social practices rather than hermetically-sealed entertainments. Traditionally, games seen as multiplayer pastimes have taken place in the physical world, gathered around the same field, playground, table, or television. In his keynote, Satoru Iwata (president of Nintendo) devoted a few minutes to the importance of such collocated social play, and Patrick Redding (of Ubisoft Toronto, narrative designer of Far Cry 2) provided a catalogue of dynamics of cooperative games, suggesting an axis of prescription versus open-endedness that echoes Smith’s comments on self-expression.

In recent years, the term “social game” has come to mean “Facebook game”. Mia Consalvo shared her broad study of these social network games, cataloguing the types of social interaction that take place and how many games feature them. This could help designers discover which social interactions are likeliest to encourage long-term hobby play, and where future research into hobby design may be fruitful.

Ultimately, every game rule, sign, and signifier factors into the communities, play styles, and traditions that form around it. One way or another, every game we make will find its own players, communities, and social norms—far better to design these with intention rather than leave them up to chance.