Gearing up for GDC

Alright, I’m gearing up for this year’s GDC, which means two things for this blog.

The first thing is that, just as last year, I’m planning to update this blog with daily information on lectures from the conference. I’m not sure I can do this on time since I’ll be quite busy but I will eventually put up at least a short review of every single session I attend. For one thing because I want to for myself and then again because it’s kinda my job. I’ve been promoted to Team Lead Game Design here at Gameforge recently and with power comes responsibility or something. In short I have to hold a presentation on the GDC for my left behind co-workers (which I will be happy to do). So that said look forward to some writeups soon.

And while I’m on the topic of the GDC: If you’re attending and for one reason or another want to meet up feel free to get in touch with me, which shouldn’t be that hard. If possible I’ll also try to post my schedule ahead of time but I’ll have to figure that thing out first. There’s just too much good stuff to see.

The second thing is that this means GameArch is now officially one year old. It’s a good reason to take a look back at the past year: I’ve started this blog as a place for me to talk about and share my passion about games with the internet as a whole. My plan was to write about game spaces and occasionally do bigger articles that provide some value to the developer community as a whole. I’ve started out with the GDC reviews and eventually wrote a lot of smaller articles. I used to mirror most of the bigger posts over at my Persional Gamasutra Blog. I got some good feedback and discussions started over there which eventually motivated me to submit a big article to the site. Titled No More Wrong Turns (blog link, gamasutra link) it originally started as a post for this blog but outgrew it in scope. I’m still pretty happy with that article as I feel it was the one article that best fulfilled my initial vision. Admittedly after that activity on the blog kinda dropped off with only a few smaller articles now and again.

I’m hoping to get a little bit more impetus into this project though. Don’t expect any miracles but I’ve still got a couple of post ideas written up that I’m itching to write. And from those I’ve got one already as good as finished: My previously mentioned article on Boss Mob Design. Granted it’s again veering a bit off the game spaces idea but I believe it’s an interesting article and can be helpful for fellow designers. Because of it’s size though it might again end up at Gamasutra first. Let’s see how that goes.

GDC09: Day 5, Review

The last day focused primarily on Level Design for me. Unfortunately too many interesting lectures were again on the same time slots so I was forced to pick and choose.

Everything I Learned About Level Design I Learned from Disneyland
The first lecture was translating the experiences of the Disney Imagineers, the creators of Disneyland, to the discipline of Level Design. It was held by Scrott Rogers. The slides to this lecture are available on his blog here.

While the talk was entertaining I unfortunately didn’t get too much from it since I was already familiar with many of the mentioned techniques. Maybe from the other articles on using Theme Parks as Level Design inspiration, such as the book the Art of Game Design (See day 2 for more info) from Jesse Schell or the following three Gamsutra articles from Don Carson: Article 1, article 2 & article 3 (Thanks to Tinkergirl for providing the handy links at her blog post on the same subject).

Anyway, with all that said, let’s just get into the lecture itself and what I think might be interesting for you:

  • Weenies – Large visual eye catchers visible from far away (Castle at the center of Disneyland for example), that subtly attract the players attention, create navigational queues and great views to the player. They can be enhanced by making the surrounding terrain “focus” on the weenie. A simple way to test the effectiveness of your weenie is the squint test: Squint and the area that is the most obvious one (color contrast, brightness…) is the one that people are instinctively drawn to.
  • What are Weenies?

  • Exploring Paths – Even “linear” paths can convey an illusion of freedom and exploration by adding certain obstructions. Scott has a few diagrams in his slides that explain this in more detail. Important is that if the player spends time exploring, there should be a reward.
  • The Power of Paths - the Illusion of Exploration

Beyond Balancing: Using Five Elements of Failure Design to Enhance Player Experiences
This interesting take on game design was present by Jesper Juul who’s written quite a few books and articles on the subject of games. In this short lecture he took a look at how and why failures are important for design. Interesting for me was his distinction between Casual Gamers and the Hardcore. The former don’t like to fail while the latter do not mind to, since they want a challenge. When they fail their previous mode of play failed and so they need to adapt to overcome, something they enjoy.

Jesper further elaborated on how to properly design failure. He focused on the fact that bad failure is one that costs the player too much while good failure punishes just enough. He laid out the 5 costs of failure that a designer should be aware of when designing the failure mechanisms in his game:

  • Failure Count: How often does the player fail?
  • Failure Awareness: Is the player aware of the possibility of failure, even if unlikely?
  • Failure Communication: How is failure communicated?
  • Failure Setback: What is the cost of failure to the player?
  • Failure Repetition: Do you have to repeat the game after a failure or is the experience a different one (random content)?

Using these five questions failure should be designed to fit into player’s lives.

Aarf! Arf Arf Arf: Talking to the Player with Barks
Patrick Redding from the Far Cry 2 design team at Ubisoft Montreal held this 30 minute talk on the use of random audio snippets of actors to enhance the game experience. The talk was quite technical at times but interesting to listen to. The primary takeway for me was:

The functions of “Barks” are:

  • Bring the game world to live
  • Make the AI seem smarter than it actually is
  • Communicate their status and “thoughts” to the player
  • Support the themes of the game

UI Art Production from the Ground Up
The description of this talk from David Rose, Lead UI Artist for Neversoft sounded intriguing. Shortly after start I chose to leave the presentation though. Not for the subject matter but for the way it was presented: Unfortunately David chose to simply read out loud the text written on his slides, something that is too dull for me to pay much attention to. So instead I left and went to see another lecture:

Learning from the Atari 2600
Coming late to Ian Bogost‘s talk on the Atari 2600 and it’s technologically based game design was worth it. – more later.

Art Directing Horror and Immersion in DEAD SPACE
Ian Milham – more later.

The Iterative Level Design Process of Bioware’s MASS EFFECT 2
Corey Andruko & Dusty Everman – more later.

GDC09: Day 4, Review

GDC Microtalks – One Hour, Ten Speakers, Unlimited Ideas
The first session of Thursday were the Microtalks, each one being 6 minutes from one speaker talking about some aspect of games. Unfortunately I got up a bit too late and missed the first half. I only saw Robin Hunicke, Eric Zimmerman, Clint Hocking, Jenova Chen, Frank Lantz and Jane McGonigal.

Regardless I have to say though that this was one of the best lectures at GDC. The talks were all very interesting and refreshing, each one handling a different topic. In short:

Robin Hunicke said that home sucks because it’s no fun. Players are searching for their on fun, like trying to stand on benches. She had a couple of play-like suggestions for features to add to increase the fun: For example a graffiti-like system.

Eric Zimmerman was more of an action than a talk. What we did was play a game where normally useless scraps of colored paper suddenly became meaning as groups of the audience tried to form up.

Clint Hocking ranted about the problems with the 100% rating system and opted for a simpler, less inflationary 5 star system.

Jenova Chen was talking about the possibility of different kinds of “fun”. Like the early cinema games offer “primal” experiences. Film has moved beyond that with a wide variety of genres. What is in store for games and how can social play evolve beyond chat lines?

Frank Lantz argued that games are not a medium as we often say, since they were present before the advent of digital computing and will be around afterwards.

Jane McGonigal, the last and in my opinion best, speaker was talking about “kindness to strangers”. How behaving like this makes us feel good. The internet tends to have a bad kindness ratio since people are very anonymous. Left 4 Dead on the other hand has very kind players who help one another.

From COUNTER-STRIKE to LEFT 4 DEAD: Creating Replayable Cooperative Experiences
Held by Valve‘s Michael Booth it dealt with the thoughts behind the design of Left 4 Dead. Their initial thoughts were the lack of co-op games, which is both a risk and an opportunity. Togeter with Valve’s skill at creating epic singleplayer (half-life) and compelling multiplayer (counter-strike) experiences this would provide an opportunity to merge these together to create a multiplayer game with singleplayer feel.

Everything in the design had to follow the fact that cooperation was to be essential. This strong focus can be considered one of the strenghts of L4D and it’s responsible for things such as a lack of classes or the small number of weapons.

GDC L4D lecture

As a L4D player I also enjoyed the look at the pacing algorithms of the AI Director and how to create anticipation and suspense. Also the reasons for why the special infected were designed the way they are in the game were very interesting.

Helping Your Players Feel Smart: Puzzles as User Interface
Randy Smith of the recently founded Tiger Style Games was holding this lecture on the design of puzzles. The puzzles he concentrated on are those that are spatially present in video games, such as Tomb Raider. Considering those as “normal” User Interfaces and viewing them as such was at the core of this lecture. One of Randy’s chief inspirations seemed to be an interface design book called The Design of Everyday Things, which looked really interesting.

Basically the mentioned principles boil down to the following:

  • Visibility – Make sure your Puzzle Objects are recognizable
  • Affordances – Make sure the intended interactions of your Puzzle Objects are intuitively understood
  • Visual Language – Be consistent in your visual language of your Objects.
  • Mapping – Ensure that the player can visually or conceptually link the different Objects.
  • Conceptual Modelling – The player understands the inner workings of the puzzle and which action does what.

All in all the lecture was interesting but I didn’t feel that it brought me much new information. I believe that it could be held in half the time and still work just as well. An important tidbit though was the comment from another member of the audience: She(?) mentioned Cognitive Walkthroughs, a “usability inspection method”, as a sort of method to analyze your Puzzles.

Have You Got Perfect Pitch?
A panel of industry veterans giving a view on the pitching process from the other side of the table: Lee Jacobson (Midway), Michael Denny (Sony Europe), Sebastien Motte (Microsoft) and Dan Winters (Activision) all provided some helpful insight.

In general it seems to break down to the following points:

  • Don’t be boring (20 minutes max, know your audience, no backstory)
  • be passionate (send the right person, be excited about your project)
  • Have a good project (2-3 important points, intriguing)
  • Have a good team (previous projects, experience)

What was surprising to me besides these (somewhat obvious points) was that pitching a project is not done to the decision makers but rather to a subset of the company. These guys have then to promote it within the company to make sure it gets through. For this reason it’s good to build your pitch so that it gives them something to work with when trying to convince the decision makers.

GDC09: Day 3, Review

With the Summits over after Tuesday it was now time for the regular conference. The noteable differences were: More people, no unified theme for the sessions and just plain less time for lectures.

Indies SIG
My first stop of the day was attending the Indies SIG roundtable. To elaborate: the Indies SIG (Special Interest Group) is a small, informal group of people within the IGDA (International Game Developers Association – gotta love dem Acronyms). This was basically a meeting trying to figure out what the IGDA in general and the SIG in particular can do to be of more benefit to it’s members. Since membership in the IGDA costs (~50 USD a year) the association has gotten some flak lately from it’s members that it does not really do anything substantial.

The roundtable was very poorly attended though. We were maybe a dozen people but there were some good ideas. Best (IMHO) among those some were sort of event calendar (Indie awards, Game jams) and a mentor program. Let’s see what comes of this.

Building Your Airplane While Flying: Production at Bungie
Because I forgot my SD card I couldn’t really make any pictures but for Wednesday I borrowed Kevin’s (the friend I’m staying with) SD card and made a few photographs.

Here’s one from this lecture:
Bungie Lecture 4

The talk itself was about the improvements Bungie made in it’s production organization after the mess that was Halo 2 without losing the studio culture. Allen Murray outlined the methods used to get there: One was increasing the number production staff (11+ Producers for 150+ Developers). Of course this alone is not a solution so there are a few other things in place, for example: There is a non-negotiable polish phase planned. This can not be removed under any circumstances and is (IIRC) 2 weeks per person. Also the producers at Bungie do not design, that is they do not take design decisions. They also worked to make their scheduling more transparent by providing a HTML output to everyone. Team members are constantly updated on their own schedule but can also look into everyone elses planning.

The talk was very informative and I did like that Allen mentioned the importance of physical architecture on the design team. The Bungie offices have been redesigned into a more open space where teams can be easily formed by moving people around.

Balancing Multiplayer Competitive Games
David Sirlin held this lecture on the design of MP competetive games. Being a professional Street Fighter player for many years the talk was undoubtedly colored by David’s experiences with the game.

Nevertheless David made a few very nice arguments and he does get big bonus points for his nice handout. What I liked was the point that local imbalance (RTS example: not all same-tier units are the same) and global imbalance (RTS example: one race is better than the other one) are different and that local imbalance is a good thing, while global imbalance is not. He also mentioned a tier system he uses for development which sounded quite like a handy tool.

The most important thing though was what he called self-balancing forces. These are mechanics that are so designed as to make exploits harder or impossible. The example he gave from Guilty Gear (fighting game) was a mechanic to avoid juggling the opponent in the air with a constant flurry of punches. All the game does is increase gravity after every punch, eventually making it so high that the attacker does not have time for a further attack. That’s just god damn clever and yet so simple!

Germans unite
And that was the last session. I spent the rest of the day at the Expo, talking to the Germans I met. That is the Games Academy Booth and the boys and girl from Brightside Games who were at the GDC for the IGF nomination of their student game Zeit². I was also briefly at the German evening, organized by the Messe Koeln but left early.

GDC German Evening

GDC09: Day 2, Review

The second day was the last day of the Summits and Tutorials. Since one of my objectives was to broaden my horizon I decided to join one of the workshops today.

(201) Intense Screenwriting Techniques
I chose a writing workshop, held by David Freeman, of The Freeman Group and author of the Creating Emotion in Games
book. David has a background in actual screenwriting for movies and TV and he wasn’t too humble to share it with us.

The workshop mainly consisted in him explaining his method: He uses distinct techniques to make his characters/scenes/plots seem either deeper or more interesting. He presented us 26 techniques to deepen scenes from the hundreds he teaches at his famous classes.

Two examples are putting a character into a “No-Win” situation or having a scene where “Character A’s actions unwittingly cause Character B pain”. It was actually quite interesting but I was somehow itching to go back to the Indie Games Summit so I skipped the rest of the workshop after lunch.

(309) IGDA Education Summit Working Lunch
Lunch was actually another event, as there was an education focused lunch held by the IGDA and moderated by Oren Ross and Noah Falstein (The Inspiracy), the latter whom I met at the Filmakademie in Ludwigsburg.

There’s not much to say here. I sat down with a couple people and we had some discussion on the topic. One of the guys at the table was an iPhone game developer from Denver who represented the “What companies want from graduates” view.

(304) How Do You Manage Small Indie Teams?
As mentioned, I raced over to Moscone North Hall after lunch to join in the Indie fun again, and thank god I did! Kellee Santiago, Producer of the thatgamecompany was holding a lecture on how to manage a small indie team. Her presentation was exceptional and very helpful. Granted many of the things she mentioned should be common sense, but as is so often the case: it helps when someone spells them out.

I also had the chance to talk to Kellee after the lecture which was very insightful. Also she invited me to the Indie Party (sponsored by 2D Boy, thatgamecompany and someone else) later that evening. While the party was free for all I didn’t know about it until then and it was a blast!

(304) Indies: Beyond Single-Player
This talk by Jason Rohrer, creator of many very concept focused games (like Gravitation and Passage) was focused on the fact that many Indie games seem to focus solely on singleplayer. He made a few good points but all in all I have to admit that the lecture just didn’t stick. Maybe I was not paying attention or maybe there was not enough rough substance for my memory to hold on to. Either way, I have little to say about the actual content.

(304) Hothead Games: Episodic Content and The Evolving Indie Landscape
Vlad Ceraldi and Joel DeYoung of Hothead Games were holding this polished presentation to share their experiences with digital distribution and episodic content gathered from the creation of Penny Arcade Adventures.

I found especially interesting in how their percieved benefits for Episodic content came true (faster revenue, ability to tweak game based on feedback, smaller cost creates lower buy-in hurdle for new gamers). One thing that they did not expect though was the amount of negative feedback they got for their episodic strategy. A lot of players seemed to assume that they are simply breaking apart a game to sell in smaller chunks for more money. This actually lead to them abandoning the Episodic method for their next game Deathspank.

(309) A Guided Tour of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses
In this lecture the author of the abovementioned book gives an overview. And since I’m currently reading and recommending the book (borrowed from the esteemed Dr. Helbig) I though I’d sit in on that lecture. Unfortunately I had to cover quite a distance from one lecture to the next so I missed the first half. Not much to say about the lecture though. It was good and entertaining but I felt that he reiterated much of the book. I regret not having bought the cards to the book. Otherwise I could have done like the one guy from Crytek who had 3 sets and got them all signed. I will get them though…

(304) Making LOVE in Your Bedroom
Hurrying back to the Indie Summit I came in to see the last 15 minutes of this presentation. Eskil Steenberg was showing off his completely self-made MMORPG LOVE. The project is really beautiful and great to watch but the complexity of backend and editors he showed were just scary. He’s built his own modelling and uv-mapping tool for chrissake!

Funny was how he wouldn’t stop talking. The next speakers were already setting up and standing there. To continue with the program the room had to practically applaud Eskil off the stage. Even then he got some extra time at the end of the summit to show more of his stuff.

(304) How to Finish a Game Project You… Hate?
Contrary to the title, Alec Holowka (Aquaria) and Tommy Refenes (Goo!) did not talk about actual techniques to reinvigorate your love for your game. The lecture was more like a short postmortem for each game, focusing on the problems and troubles. Goo! for example was suffering from a lot of reworking and eventually of one person of a two man team leaving the group only later (after an IGF award) wanting to get back in. Beyond that I have little more to say on the talk but I guess the lecture was alright and Aquaria looks really nice.

IGDA and Indie Party
Tueday evening I went to the IGDA party, which was free since I was a member. Unfortunately the event just didn’t do it for me so I decided to skip after not even a full hour and I headed to the Indie Party, where I got drunk with a lot of other people I didn’t know. I had a lot of fun though, and there’s this picture here:

GDC09: Day 1, Review

My first day of the GDC 2009 is over and I decided to write up a short rundown of my day and review the different lectures. If you’ve got any questions I’ll be more than happy to share more information.

2D Boy: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Going Indie But Were Afraid to Ask
The first lecture of the day was held by Ron Carmel, one half of 2D Boy, the creators of the charming World of Goo. Ron was providing some interesting insight into the development process. What I found especially valuable was the look at the distribution: Things like percentages for the different platforms (WiiWare, Steam, 2D Boy Website…) and the develpoment of sales over time. Also the slides to the presentation are available here.

2008 IGF Finalist Overview
This lecture was basically just a quick rundown of all IGF Finalists presented by Steve Swink. It was nice to see the wide variety of the games. I’m just glad I’m not one of he judges because the games were so different that I’d find it really hard to compare them. Also I have to say that I do have a fondness for The Unfinished Swan.

Independent Games & Sales: Stats 101
This 30 minute lecture had the goal to present a closer look at the numbers behind indie games. This sounded really interesting to me since having some hard numbers would be helpful to judge going indie. Unfortunately Simon Carless‘ lecture consisted of too many slides with too much text presented in too little time.

And worst of all, the many many numbers were presented without context to one another. A few graphs would have been wonderful here. Regardless the lecture provided a few interesting numbers and I did like the fact that Simon was clearly marking which numbers were officially released and which ones were guesswork.

Indie Games: From Buzz To Business
Moderated by Game Attorney Tom Buscaglia, this lecture focused on using the Buzz generated from an adward or big press mention to create or boost a business. Present to share their experience were Dylan Fitterer, creator of Audiosurf, Michael Wilford from the Maw team and Zach Aikman, founder of Fishbeat.

The session was basically a moderated panel and there were a few gems but in general I did not find it too helpful. After fifteen minutes the most important things had already been said and the session seemed to lull. One nice funny point though: Dylan Fitterer simply put ads in the paper to get random people to test his game for a few bucks.

The Four-Hour Game Design by Cactus
Jonatan Söderström (aka Cactus) documented his reasons and methods for creating games in four hours. The presentation was very entertaining and diverse. I especially enjoyed the different methods for “quick and dirty” graphics. Even though the lecture was very funny I felt that it was only scratching the surface. Talking about sound, music and graphics is leaving out the topic of code, which (at least to me) is a higher hurdle: Everyone can do cheap graphics in paint or steal sounds and music from the interweb but coding a game is a lot more difficult. A small gem though: He mentioned SFXR, a tool to create sounds that looked really interesting.

Petri Purho of Kloonigames, the creator of the famous Crayon Physics shed some humorously tinted light on the project. It initally begun as a simple prototype in a 1 game a week project, he uploaded a YouTube video and the many many views it got showed that there was more to the concept than a throwaway prototype.

So the idea for Crayon Physics Deluxe was born and independent production began. And took much longer than expected. Demotivated by a wealth of clones Petri still completed the project and the game is now available for PC and iPhone, though the iPhone version was developed by Hudson.

Interesting to me was the initial idea of Petri that the game should encourage playful solutions to the given problems. And while there are players who come up with extremely complex, rube goldberg machines, most players simply blazed through the level in the simplest way possible.

A video of the lecture is available at YouTube.

Embracing Constraints
Dylan Fitterer, creator of Audiosurf was holding this talk on the importance of constraints for design as opposed to designing from an clean slate.

This is something I absolutely agree with and have been saying for a while now. I think that this is applicable to all createive endeavos and I’ve even adapted/developed a few techniques to create random constraints for myself to fuel my imagination. A good example is when I am the storyteller for a Pen and Paper Roleplaying game. I often tend to ask my players for random input – words, locations, settings, characters, scenes. I then use this input to come up with an interesting scenario much faster than if I was working from scratch.

What happens there is that this (not quite) random input forces my brain to think in ways it would otherwise not. It creates connections between the data from the different players that would have otherwise not happened.

Design Today
This lecture was a series of presentations from a wide variety of Casual Game Designers. (Jason Kapalka, Miguel Tartaj, Michael Wyman, Jane Jensen, Nick Fortugno, Kenny Shea Dinkin and Todd Kerpelman). Each one was talking about a certain “genre” of Casual Game, going into detail about the Design dos and don’ts.

While it was interesting to get an overview over the “genres” of Casual games, the lecture itself was quite boring after a short while since much information seemed to repeat itself. It went so far that I decided to bail early. However what I took from that is that there’s a series of genres – or rather templates of Casual Games. That is that a popular game has established itself and a lot of clones are created. Templates are things such as the hidden object game, the tower defense, the time management game…

No Publisher? No Problem! iPhone for Indies
After a long day, this presentation was the last. Held by Sergei Gourski (Fieldrunners) and Adam Saltsman (Wurdle) the two were discussing their path and experiences with Indie development for the iPhone. Unforunately I have missed a large part of it since I joined after leaving the Design Today lecture. What I found interesting though was that quality seems to be no deciding factor when it comes to the success of a iPhone game, it seems to be more about a short and simple concept. The “mood ring” game – or popping zits.

Game on.

Welcome to Game Architecture, my new blog about analog and digital games their spaces and the design of both with the occasional personal tidbit mixed in.

Since I’m visiting the GDC in San Franciso for the first time this year, it’s as good a reason as any to finally start this long planned project. I’ll begin this blog by writing about my experiences at the GDC in the form of short reviews of the lectures and workshops I visit. If you are interested in more informaion about these events, just get in touch with me.

As for the blog itself, it’s still a bit rough around the edges but that shouldn’t stop you or me.