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February 26, 2008

Three Stars

So, yesterday I was describing my recent trip to California to the boys, and recounted my very excellent meal with Jen and Andrew at The Village Pub. Luc asked me if it was a four-star or a five-star restaurant, and I said that I thought it was really quite good, probably five-star (and quite pricey). I said that I thought it was certainly better than anything I myself can cook. He said that he'd "give me three stars", whereupon Jordan piped up that he'd "give me three and a half stars."

I'd be prouder of that, I suppose, if not for the aforementioned review inflation.

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:05 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2008

GDC 2008

I've just got back from the 2008 Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco, and it was again a great time. Great to see people who I generally see once a year now that I'm out here in Maryland, and great to get all energized about game development again. Last year I don't think I posted anything about the conference, but as I used to do at LucasArts, this year I'm going to go ahead and post little capsule reviews of the talks I attended. I'm not going to go into lots of detail on any of them, but these are what I saw for better or worse and the slides and such should be available on the Game Developer's Conference site eventually; some contributors post their slides and text to their blogs.


I arrived for 10:30 on Wednesday, not expecting there to be much that would interest me; what I didn't realize was that that would also be the time of the Microsoft keynote, which didn't interest me enough to have me pile into the big hall in which it was held. So, I ended up bumming around the West Hall expo, running into friends and generally getting a handle on what I was going to do that day. Onward to the talks...

Rules of Engagement: Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design

This was a solid, practical talk by a VP at Blizzard, Rob Pardo. While I haven't myself spent a lot of time worrying about multiplayer game design¹, I appreciate the issues involved. While there were several good points that came out of this talk, the big one for me was to Overpower everything, at least at first. There are several reasons for doing this:

  • Every strategy seems unbeatable, until it's beaten. The idea is, people feel really powerful with overpowered strategies, tactics, and all that, and what you need to do rather than super-balancing things and thereby making everything equally bland is making sure there are appropriate counters in place.
  • It makes things get tested in beta. If you overpower things by a little bit, it will focus your beta testers on that strategy because they're competitive and want to win. If you simply bring something up to be on par with other strategies, it won't likely get the test time it really needs. Giving the impression that it's overpowered will cause more people to experiment with it, which will help you find the balance more quickly.

Design Reboot

I'm a huge Jonathan Blow fan, I'll go ahead and admit that right up front. I had listened to his Montreal Game Summit talk some time after it was given and was looking forward to seeing his further thoughts on that topic at GDC. Of course, since he was already happy with the talk and it had gotten plenty of press, he decided to give another talk, which turned out to be about ten ways of looking at games.

I didn't have a particular takeaway from this talk except that we should continue to re-examine our assumptions about what games can be. Jon gave ten different ways of looking at games, and only the first two were the common ways we look at games, as consumer products and as escapist entertainments. He presented eight more, and there are almost certainly others. Instead of attaching those two viewpoints to our heads as a pair of nicely matched blinders, we should only put those on when they're appropriate.

Structure vs. Style

Chris Hecker gave an interesting talk² about how to view programming problems, and AI problems, as a differentiation between structure and style. (His canonical example was that the programmatic data structure encapsulating a polygon or a triangle is structure, whereas the actual model data is style). He thinks AI is the big problem for games coming up and for the near future, and he thinks that this is largely because we haven't found the structure/style distinctions in AI yet. I'm sympathetic to the view, but I need to think about it more before I can say I think he's right or not. Anyway, interesting food for thought.


Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

I largely went to this talk because this product is what I would have been working on had I decided to stay with LucasArts several years back and not moved to Maryland. I still have a lot of friends at LucasArts, and it was nice to finally see a bit of the game running. The takeaway: you can't afford to build a game, a team, a studio, and a technology pipeline at the same time unless you have the backing of someone like George Lucas.

I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Game Design

Clint Hocking is another one of those guys who I have lots of respect for -- I've made it to his talk each of the last three years and always find them interesting. Clint talked about two types of immersion, sensual and formal, and how they work in games -- taking Trespasser as a touchstone for much of his discussion. While I had some minor quibbles with some of his specific non-Trespasser examples (in particular, Guitar Hero), I thought his final points about how being able to explore things like emotions through formal systems could allow us to reach out and touch people by presenting games and other interactive experiences which actually explore the human condition. Look for his talk to be posted on on his site in the not-too-distant future.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions

This was another Jonathan Blow session, though he's primarily there as the organizer in this case. This year, I actually almost sent something in for these, but I don't think I would have had enough time to get either of my ideas finished for the show. There's always next year, I suppose. In any case, about a dozen interesting games were shown, mostly small web- or downloadable games, around a few different topics, such as Obfuscation or Two Worlds. I'm hopeful that Jon will put up the full list and links over on his site.

The Game Design Challenge

Hmmm... this is another one I go to every year. Perhaps I'm getting into a rut. In any case, this year, returning champion Alexei Pajitnov faced Brenda Brathwaite and Steve Meretzky with the challenge of designing a game for humans and one other species. Personally, I found Brenda's superior, though Meretzky's delivery was hard to beat.

The IGF Awards/Game Developers' Choice Awards

The IGF Awards remain great largely due to the energy and eccentricity of the indie developers themselves. Lots of good titles were shown up on the big screen, and some truly interesting games won.

Regrettably, the Choice Awards were presented by Jason Rubin. Admittedly, it would have been difficult for anyone to top Tim Schafer. And perhaps, in their desire to be "presentable" for a G4 audience or something, perhaps the writers of the show simply stayed away from anything... funny or meaningful or really of any substance whatsoever. Message to CMP and IGDA: Bring back Tim Schafer, let him do his shtick. He almost certainly won't have a crab or octopus or other form of marine life in his chest next year.


Treat Me Like A Lover


I dragged myself out of bed Friday morning both to be there in time to meet someone and to attend this talk, about which I knew nothing but the title. I am so glad I got there in time to see it -- it was a presentation by British journalist Margaret Robertson (whose blog, Lookspring, has been added to the sidebar). The hook of the talk was looking at games (and designing them) through the lens of a romantic relationship with the player. Though this was useful, what was particularly great was the specificity of her examples -- she pulled out little bits of games that did things right and wrong for each point, and her analysis seemed spot on. An absolutely terrific talk; I hope she'll come back next year.

What's Next for God Games

I generally really enjoy Ernest Adams' talks, much as I generally enjoy his GamaSutra column. But this year's talk, which was essentially the God game Adams pitched to EA years ago (and which was never built, though it was prototyped), fell entirely flat with me. While I agree with his main thrust, that exploring different areas such as actually addressing religion in a God game is interesting, telling me so would have taken about the 5 minutes it took me to write out this sentence. I have high hopes for the return of a more interesting talk next year. Perhaps it was simply that he didn't have his usual top hat.

Game Designers' Rant

Hmmm... yes, another I attend every year. I was particularly moved and motivated by Jane McGonigal's talk, and to a lesser extent, by Clint's. I suspect Jonathan Mak has simply always wanted to get a huge room of people playing with balloons, so I'm glad he got his wish here. McGonigal pointed out that game designers are the smartest people on the planet at making people happy -- it's time to get out there and solve reality, since in her view, "reality is broken". A terrific talk, well presented, and thought-provoking, although the problem is probably just that game designers looking to fix reality just haven't met up with the right programmers... :)

Three 20 Minute Sessions

I attended an hour comprised of three 20 minute sessions. One was by my friend and former co-worker Tim Longo, who tried to present 10 keys to working with an established IP in 20 minutes... which was about half an hour too short. I worked on most of the projects whose examples he cited and still had a hard time following him -- perhaps you can bring it back next year as a full hour, buddy? I think it would work that way. How to Create the Greatest Boss Battle (and Why Not to Do It!) and How to Pick a Lock: Creating Intuitive, Immersive Minigames were a bit better-suited to the time allotted, and presented good examinations of those topics. If you're working on either minigames or boss battles, I recommend tracking down those slides to see what those guys had to say.

Dynamic Cinematic Gameplay

This was a talk addressing the specifics of issues the speaker had in creating Stranglehold's "Tequila Bombs", which were cinematic moments in the midst of gameplay. While I think the idea of the topic was a good one, I felt like the presentation got mired in details about the specific elements in that game, which I haven't played. A slightly higher-level talk would have almost certainly been more helpful to the audience; I think there are lessons there that can be more globally applied. As an example, it's probably worth saying "Plan to have multiple camera views of your character during each shot... and schedule plenty of time for them" rather than going into the minutiae of what kind of cameras you had and what bugs each exposed in your engine.


I got to see lots of friends while I was out, both during the week and on Saturday. Great to see you, Andrew, Jen, Evan, Tim, Harley, John, Jamie, Bill, Nathan, Greg, Daron, Reed, Chris, Susan, Hal, Pat, Jeremy, Matt, Riley, Morgan, Charlie, Troy, Tim M., John S., Haden, Chris, Rich, Ric, Geoff, Jeff, and anyone else I ran into but who I've forgotten in this mad list. I'm looking forward to next year already.

¹Though each of the games I've shipped had some sort of multiplayer component, and I worked on an MMO for a couple of years, I haven't been terribly involved in the design of the multiplayer aspects to any great degree. I do contemplate multiplayer issues for my own game designs, but that isn't my particular focus. (back)
²And one I admit I hadn't planned on attending -- the creator of Heroes was supposed to be on at that time. I'm a big fan of the show and so I decided to take that in... but Jesse Alexander was a no-show. Bummer. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:41 PM | Comments (5)

February 01, 2008

You Tell 'em Gabe

So, Gabe over at Penny Arcade has this to say. (Those with tender ears... er, eyes?... Anyway, Mom, Dad, I apologize for Gabe's language.):

There are a few games I'd much rather see them make though. The fact that they have not made a sequel to Republic Commando is fucking criminal. That's not a joke either. I mean that someone over there should be put in jail for the rest of their life. RepCom was an incredible squad based shooter, and unlike most games in that genre it was packed with awesome characters. This games deserves a next gen sequel.

Coming right on the heels of that, there's this on Kotaku.

Coincidence? I think not!

Yes, I know I haven't posted in a while. Soon. Really!

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:54 PM | Comments (0)