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February 28, 2009

Getting In

From time to time, I get emails or questions about how to get into the industry; usually, these are from friends of friends, friends of family, the wider network of people I don't know directly but to whom I have only a degree of separation. A few weeks ago I got just such a request from a friend who teaches high school English, and then his student got in touch this week with a few questions. He's looking at getting into the game development business in a few years (after finishing schooling), and after a preamble asked the following three questions:

  1. How did you get into the industry? I guess this would be most important to me right now, given that I only have the next four years to prepare.
  2. What sorts of things have you found to be most essential in the development of games you have worked on?
  3. Is there anything that you did in particular to get yourself taken seriously? I would certainly like to find myself, at least eventually, in a position to be able to persuade a co-worker or peer to approach a project from my point of view, as it seems you have accomplished.

In the interests not of putting off these questions in the future, but of not repeating myself too much and giving anyone else interested a starting point, I asked the young man if he'd be alright with me posting my somewhat edited response here. He was, and so here it is:

There are a million roads into game development; basically everyone I've met has gotten in a different way. I'm an engineer, so I have a particular lens which might be different from yours if you are interested in design, but I'll tell you a bit about what I do and how I got to where I am.

I started gaming when I was 8 or so -- though it was obviously different from the sorts of games you've been playing in the last ten years or so. I started out playing text adventures on a mainframe -- my father would bring home a dumb terminal from his job at a defense contractor and we'd tie up the phone line for hours, pouring out 14-inch wide green-and-white paper onto the floor as we made our way through caves and bizarre rooms and avoided a thieving dwarf. When I was 10 or 11, we got our first home computer -- an Apple II+ with 48K of memory (later expanded to an amazing 64K) -- on which I wrote my first games (as well as my first 3D renderer - in wireframe). These were usually text-based, though some had primitive graphics. I picked up BASIC, of course, and even a little bit of assembly and a variant of Forth, but I stopped programming much in the way of games or anything on my computer probably by the time I was 14.

I ended up going to college for a degree in the humanities (physics and philosophy) and decided in my senior year to look for something different. I had always enjoyed computers, so I thought about going to get an advanced degree in that since physics had turned out not to be for me and I already knew what people thought of stand-up philosophers. I got a masters and was on my way to get a doctorate when I decided that an academic life wasn't really for me. So I cast around for something else, and discovered that in the years I hadn't been doing much gaming, it had grown from being a garage business to big business. I thought it might make a fine career.

I didn't know anyone in game development, but I had played some games on occasion over the years and was a fan of the LucasArts adventure games¹. I received some good advice from a friend that when I was applying for a job with a company, it was a good idea to find someone in that company that you admire and contact him, as well as sending it to the HR department. So I sent Tim Schafer (then of Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island fame) a letter and my résumé, and then followed up with a call a week later. I was going out to the Bay Area anyway to talk with someone else about a job, and asked if I could take Tim to lunch while I was there, so I could pick his brain about getting into game development.

When I turned up in San Francisco, he had set up not just lunch with himself but interviews, which led ultimately to a job as a senior programmer writing the gameplay systems for Star Wars: Starfighter. I have been amazingly lucky in my career thus far, and that was certainly the start. Never did get to work with Tim, though I still await his releases with bated breath². Maybe some day.

Anyway, that's how I got in. The advice I received about finding someone in an organization whose work you really respect was excellent advice, and helped me a lot. I might have gotten a job anyway... but perhaps not. One never knows.

I can recommend a few general guidelines for getting in down the road, once you've gone to school. The first is college... go and get a degree in something that can hold your interest for four years. But experiment, too -- make sure you try a variety of stuff, you never know what might be grist for the creative mill later. There'd be no harm in some introductory psychology, and a whole lot of reading -- personally, I think I have grown immensely through the contact with minds far greater than my own reading the classics provides. Ultimately, to be able to learn to communicate and persuade, you need to practice -- write papers, do research, argue and debate. All the stuff you'd do in college no matter what you want to do later; but learn to think in specifics, not the big hand-wavy "and magic happens" we still see in design documents and discussions from time to time.

At the same time, it's probably worthwhile to keep playing games. But you can't just play them to play them, you have to play like a designer. Take them apart with your brain, analyze how the systems go together, how the various game mechanics reinforce one another (or don't). (As an graduate student in engineering I encountered Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and spent an inordinate time thinking about how I would design the C++ object hierarchy, or solve the various search problems they had.) Think about failures as well as successes. Read books on game design (there are a few good ones -- I like Rules of Play and have been reading Challenges for Game Designers as well). But when you think about games, think about why they entertain you -- if you are just being entertained, you're not doing it right ;) There isn't a games equivalent of Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, as far as I'm aware, but that sort of close reading is useful.

Finally, build games. You don't have to be a programmer to make games. You can make board games and card games. You can prototype that way, or make games that are meant to be played that way. Don't limit yourself... people who only play games are boring (and don't come up with interesting games or game themes). While you can't prototype certain types of videogames very well with pen-and-paper, such as shooters, you can still think about the interactions of systems that way.

None of this needs to be expensive -- you can often get enough of a game's design from its demo. You can build card games with decks of cards and some adhesive paper to stick onto them. There used to be a whole company devoted to making games cheaply -- you just had to supply the tokens and dice and stuff like that, they'd supply a cheap card stock board -- called Cheap Ass Games. If you're familiar with it, you can try stuff out in Flash, or in Flex, or in whatever other crazy things they have these days. Most colleges have student editions of software at a deep, deep discount for students, I bought my first C++ compiler this way.

I think that if you've been doing those things, you'll be taken seriously. Frankly, you'll need to pay your dues before you can be expected to be taken too seriously. But being in game development is great fun, offers lots of interesting challenges, and so paying those dues should be interesting. If you have passion for it, and work hard, you'll progress well. The best way to convince anyone of your seriousness is to work hard; producing good work is the only sure path to success. I've been successful not because of my big ideas of things I'd like to do down the road but because I've worked hard to make the projects I was part of a success by focusing on what needed to be done now. Being the best you can be at what you're doing right that moment is the best you can do... and it will open doors. If you have a game you want ultimately to make, you should keep it in mind and enrich it with your work over the years, and maybe some day you'll get to make it. But the only way to get that to happen is to work your hardest on whatever you're doing, and to take on additional responsibilities as long as you can do a good job of them as well. I don't say this to discourage, but rather to encourage -- take your energy and enthusiasm and invest it in your projects, and it will pay off. You may be able to make the game you want to make, or not, to be honest. Ideas are important, but they are only the seed; it takes a lot more to make a good game. Your energy and effort will be what leads to you having authority to persuade co-workers. Your effort and energy and results *are* your credentials. Even when I have been faced with projects or tasks I didn't believe in or agree with, I tried my hardest to make them work. I have been lucky in that these have been few.

¹These were not, of course, the only games I had played by any stretch. I also had a fondness for Ultima games and the occasional console title. I investigated a lot of companies. (back)

²Daron Stinnett, my boss for many years and a friend for more than a decade now, was kind enough to indulge me when I told him I probably wouldn't be getting much work done the week that Grim Fandango came out. I also waited until Psychonauts was released to get an Xbox. I'll probably by my next next-gen system when Brutal Legend finally releases. (back)

³I happen to have, somewhere, a stack of uncut cardstock for the Magic: the Gathering release that would become Invasion, though we called it Spectral Chaos. I also playtested what became Ice Age and it was made with paper stuck to common alphas like lands and walls of wood. That's how Richard made the original sets -- just existing decks of cards or card stock; he refined the mechanics with that. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:47 PM | Comments (0)

February 21, 2009

Difficulty Post Crossed to GamaSutra

A couple of days ago my post on "managing difficulty" went up on GamaSutra. Lots of great comments over there, some of which I'm addressing here.

One thing to keep in mind is that there's a meta-rule when you're discussing any aspect of design, and not just design for games. Design with your audience in mind. My "tips" were specifically intended for games with wide, mainstream appeal, often accompanying a license.

Also, I didn't discuss the latest critical darling, Left 4 Dead in the post about difficulty, and not because I don't have thoughts about it, but more because I'd need more information to make an informed decision. However, the bulk of the comments focused on the story manager, which I think is a bit separate from difficulty -- the story manager manages a sort of difficulty, but within an overall difficulty setting. We have been playing the game on Hard in our co-op group, and the difficulty is just right -- hard enough that we have to do encounters a few times to get them right, but not so hard that we can't -- but basically, that's a factor of overall difficulty, and not specifically of the story manager. So, I'm not sure how I'd talk about it, though it's an absolutely splendid implementation. Stephen Chin does make an interesting remark about more experienced players coming in for more attacks in L4D... I haven't noticed that, but if true, it's a great way of managing difficulty in a co-operative game.

Story management, however, is definitely a very interesting area and one worth mentioning. I think this is a technology many will be attempting to rip off from Valve in the years to come. I do like Spencer McFerrin's suggestion on the GamaSutra post that the world and fiction reinforce what's going on in the difficulty space -- it's a variable we know about, why not design a little dialog system around it? Great thought.

I did stay away from Bethesda games, though not consciously. I'm a bit too close to Fallout right now to be objective, and I haven't been through a cycle with the design team yet thinking about our audience. Also, who knows, they might not be happy about it if I talked about it here. Also, I play relatively few open world games, and so I don't have much basis for comparison. And they aren't licensed games. So, they were pretty far from my mark.

Bart Stewart mentioned unique challenges, places where it's okay to be a little harder. I agree with this, so long as they conform to the other rules; it should be easy to change the difficulty levels in these contests, and the easiest setting should be completable by anyone in your potential audience.

I got a comment on the blog and I'll reiterate here -- we need to permit people who are motivated by challenge to participate alongside those who aren't. If the dial is there to change difficulty "whenever", well, don't turn it if you want the challenge. I would say, in response to one of GamaSutra's posters, that though Jedi Knight offered additional rewards to players who finished the game on harder difficulty levels, this unfortunately broke the rule about not giving rewards for difficulty that make the game easier. Great idea, though, and maybe a stretch goal for players. Some others in the post commented on this as well, but it bears repeating.

Post-post Erratum: So, actually, I was wrong about this. I happen to have one of the designers from Jedi Knight in town, and he clarified for me. The Light vs Dark Force Power bonuses in the game at the end of each level were for a) not killing (or killing) the non-combatants, and b) for finding secrets, as far as he recalls.

Rubberbanding came in for some heat; I haven't formed any opinions about that. I prefer games in which the driving AI can manage on its own, but I haven't really thought about it enough to speak intelligently, so I'll just leave that one up to developers who work in that space.

OK, I'll keep an eye on the post and round-up for any more comments I might have missed. If anyone's come over from GamaSutra to visit, thanks for dropping by! Give me a shout in the comments, let me know you're lurkin' :)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:48 AM | Comments (1)

February 16, 2009

A Zombie Game Done Right

When I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of zombie movies -- I remember seeing a pared-down version of Night of the Living Dead, but beyond that I hadn't really seen many. I mostly got my "horror" fix when I was quite young from Channel 56's "Creature Double Feature" and then later from the early novels of Stephen King¹, as well as the occasional horror comic I could score from the houses of much older cousins, which were shocking even by today's standards, as they were pre-Code, though I didn't know it at the time.

By the time I was an adult, I hadn't seen much in the way of zombie pictures, and didn't really care to see any more. That pared-down version of Romero's classic had turned me off on them, and there was no way my parents would have let me see some of the other classics, like his follow-up Dawn of the Dead, as they were far too violent, had I even cared to. But a few years ago, a friend of mine recommended 28 Days Later and I added it to the queue. Eventually I bumped it up near the top and watched it one week when I was alone in the house.

It turned me back on to the whole phenomenon. It really transformed how I looked at the whole zombie genre, because of the fact that although the zombies themselves were a significant threat, and one that had to be dealt with, the real danger was the people surrounding the protagonists. In 28 Days Later, this was the military group who had plans for survivors. In Night of the Living Dead, which I finally saw in its entirety (both on DVD and then just last October on the big big screen at the AFI), it was some of the people locked up in the house with the hero, and then finally a bunch of good ol' boy deputies that did him in. In the original Dawn of the Dead, it's a gang of bikers. In 28 Weeks Later, it's just about everyone -- but especially Robert Carlyle, who's a big problem both in the opening scene of the film (which occurs concurrently with the original film), and not too long after, when he starts the whole thing up again.

One thing that has always concerned me about games involving zombies is how they fail to capture this basic element. Though I admit I haven't played lots and lots of them, zombie games tend to pit the player against the giant zombie army, with the tools to wreak major carnage. It's good fun, but it lacks the commentary that the zombie movies provide.

But I've finally found the game that makes other humans your worst enemy, and it's the four player co-op extravaganza Left 4 Dead.

Lots of virtual ink has already been spilled over Left 4 Dead, so I'm not going to belabor the point too much. While the game is certainly challenging, on its hardest difficulty level it virtually requires close coordination of the efforts of you and your friends to overcome. It rewards co-operative play in so many ways, and the costs of working against the plan can be extreme.

The first time I played, I nearly wiped our little party when I looked down into some tunnels and saw a critter lying, crying on the ground. Naturally, I thought, "Cool, easy kill" and shot the witch, waking her and sending her screaming up into our midst, causing all kinds of mayhem. "Who shot the witch, who shot the witch?" my buddies were yelling over the xfire or Steam chat² channel we had going. Sheepishly I said, "So, is that bad?" and had explained to me that the witch was basically a Terminator that didn't activate until you got too close or shot her.


We've had evenings where a horde would suddenly descend on us, depleting our ammo, because we hung back too much, didn't keep the forward momentum going because we're all so used to the pacing of games that allow you to spend time finding all the areas on the map. We had someone accidentally set off the fiery trap we had laid for a tank, saying, "Oops!" as his fellows fried. We've opened doors too early. We've left doors behind us open that should have been closed. We've taken painkillers we should have shared with our friends. We've failed to cover friends' backs when they manned the occasional turret. We've gone off chasing a smoker, forcing our buddies into danger trying to track us down. We left one partner to die at the very end of Death Toll, because we didn't realize he wasn't making his way to the boat, and we saw his name listed under "In Memory Of" in the credits.

I'd like to say we've made every mistake human nature allows, but I have no doubt we have several more to make. The zombies... well, the zombies are dumb, or at least, they follow easy-to-understand rules. It's the unpredictability of the humans around you that gets you into real trouble. Hearty congratulations to Valve and the team at Turtle Rock Studios for a job so well done.

¹I remember a few doozies from that time: Five Million Years to Earth, which I could recall only as "Hobb's End" until I started writing this article and found it again on IMDB, and The Brain That Wouldn't Die, now viewable on Google Video. That's what I'm listening to in the background while I post. Stephen King remains a guilty pleasure; the man scared the pants off of me for a solid two weeks of sleepless nights after I read 'Salem's Lot, even sleeping with a crucifix beside my bed; I think I was 12 at the time. Recently I read his new collection of stories, Just After Sunset and it was okay -- but last year or the year before I had to put down The Cell as basically unreadable. I give everything he writes a shot though and finish most of them. (back)

²We have an ongoing disagreement on this issue; some prefer Steam, some prefer Xfire for voice chat. It's a constant source of moderate amusement. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 10:50 PM | Comments (3)

February 14, 2009

SF Link

A little shout-out to Ye Olde LucasArts crew:

The Chronicle recently posted a list of the "Nine Best Star Wars Games". Happily, Starfighter made the list.

I don't think I've played that since the year it shipped. I should give it a look again. My kids might even be able to play the sequel in co-op now...

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:18 PM | Comments (4)

February 09, 2009

Managing Difficulty

Lately I've been playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer on last gen's Xbox, and it has stirred up a few thoughts I have about difficulty, mostly because it gets it so horribly wrong. I've been gaming a long time, and have come up with a long list of must-haves for most games, particularly games which target the mainstream audience. In my career at LucasArts I helped steer difficulty in some specific directions, some bulleted below, and I actually got a game credit in the "hey, thanks" list for a late but timely suggestion to the project's design director when he used it whole cloth.

The other thing that I ran across in the last few weeks was a little video project by a blogger where he discussed what he felt was the most innovative game of last year -- Prince of Persia, which in a way dropped difficulty altogether, by making the Prince more or less invincible. The Prince was accompanied by a companion who would rescue him when he misjudged, bringing something we saw the beginnings of in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to fruition: a less punishing form of death. Now, I'm fairly certain that I would prefer the latter to the former, but I understand the impetus to applaud the designers. After all, they took a thorny problem and tried something different -- they eliminated difficulty altogether.

Now, bear in mind that I'm targeting mainstream games -- these bullet points are not for games like Ninja Gaiden, which use their difficulty to club gamers into submission. That is more or less its design goal -- to provide an extreme level of challenge, and managing difficulty for them is and should be to make the game as difficult as possible. Similarly, performance games like Guitar Hero, which have difficulty levels but for which the practicing and not the "getting through the narrative bits" is most of the fun, are exempted -- they should adopt and have adopted some of these, but ultimately, it's not what they're about. Here I'm basically talking about mainstream-targeting games with a narrative through-line, primarily action-adventure titles and shooters.

(Program note: I started this post a week ago and a Firefox crash erased it for good; hopefully, I'll recover all the points I had in mind. Crashes always throw off my creative rhythm.)

  • Make it easy to switch difficulty whenever the player wants. This may have been somewhat more difficult last-gen, but not appreciably so, so I'm not prepared to give Buffy a pass for this. I'm several levels through this game, and I've decided that the difficulty level is distracting from my enjoyment of the game. I came in looking for some basking in the Buffy-sphere, and picked the "Normal" difficulty, thinking that I'd take it easy on myself, as I used to play games like this on "Hard".¹ However, here I am, maybe a third of the way through the game, perhaps half, and I'd like to dial it back and coast awhile, probably to the end, get a little extra Buffy fix. But changing the difficulty in this case means... starting over. Wow. What. Were. They. Thinking. This is rule #1. This one can't be broken.

  • Name your difficulty settings well; describe the user experience for each. We have enough space on the screen to say, "Use this setting if you are unaccustomed to first-person shooters; you can always make it more difficult!" or "You will die. Many times. Most of them unpleasantly. Regardless of your experience level." It's okay to say Easy, Medium/Normal, or Hard... but we have to know what that means to the designer. I thought "Normal" for Buffy meant, "Normal for the sort of person who would watch Buffy" but apparently it actually meant, "Normal for a game designer, who has played more hours of games this week than you do all year."

    Note: there may be a temptation to name this stuff from your fiction, but there's a fine line there. If Buffy named its Hard mode "Slayer", I'd want to play just because, hey, I want to be the Slayer. Isn't that why I'm playing this game? Mainstream players may not understand that you're being cute, and may be turned off when you call your easy level of difficulty "Puppy mode".

  • Adjust to the player. I'm not talking some extreme form of dynamic difficulty adjustment, that fabled Shangri-La of difficulty design which somehow magically keeps the player in the sweet spot of perfect level of challenge (and which we will never reach). Sucker Punch did an amazing job with this in Sly Cooper; I don't recall it making a return in the sequels, but it was in the original game and was inspired. After dying a few times on a level, the game would grant you a "lucky silver horseshoe" when you returned; this would prevent your death, returning you to full health once over the course of the level. If you died several more times, it'd give you a gold, which was worth two deaths. It was a simple little crutch, accommodated different levels of ability and the fact that the developers may have been unable to judge the difficulty of their levels. I recommended a variant of this to my friend years ago, and that's what they implemented.

  • Make it clear what dials the difficulty knob turns. This is one we sort of failed on my LucasArts projects; we had a very clear idea of what difficulty was going to be, but ultimately we didn't communicate it to the player. It's a few years back now, but what I recall is that we simply applied a multiplier to the damage enemies did to the player. The thinking was that players would get the same experience, they'd just survive longer and thereby be able to defeat more enemies.

  • Provide the player with more knobs. It's great to say Easy, Medium, and Hard, but it's even better to allow the player to adjust certain aspects of the game themselves. Perhaps a gamer wants harder puzzles but simpler combat or vice versa. If your game supports jumping puzzles, feel free to give the player a knob saying, "OK, you can jump a little further." The best example of this I can recall is System Shock 2, which gave three axes of difficulty via its configuration files.²

  • Do not hide the things that make the game easier. Buffy hides secrets in each level, and tells you on the pause screen how many there are to be found. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, these are things that make the game easier -- health potions that you carry in your inventory, and health and power crystals you give to Willow to power you up in between levels. This is insane. Not only is the game difficult, but I have to seek all over your levels (risking more spawning vampires) to find the things that'll make my life easier? Legend of Zelda has been hiding hearts in stray clumps of grass for years -- don't be stingy! Your mainstream players want to get through the game and feel a sense of accomplishment. Be big-hearted and let them.

  • Test your difficulty settings on real people. Years ago I was playing Dark Forces 2: Jedi Knight, which LucasArts had released shortly before I started working there. I was playing on the hardest difficulty setting and got to the mid-game level where Kyle Katarn has to escape a falling Star Destroyer, or whatever, within a certain time limit. I tried again, and again, and again. Finally I asked a designer friend of mine, and he said that the way they set the time for that level was to take the fastest tester's time to complete it... and to subtract ten seconds. I could have played that for days and not beaten that time. Finally, I just asked for the cheat code to move to the next level and moved on. Particularly when we develop for the mainstream, we are not our audience and we do not share our audience's goals. This is true for me with Buffy: I'm looking for more Zander-Cordelia banter and Willowisms... not another ten nailbiting vampire combats.

    This is true not just of combat. I knew someone who struggled with getting out of the Black Mesa lab -- because it didn't occur to him to break the glass on the elevator door with the crowbar he was carrying.

  • Give players time to get used to new tools before you throw a challenge at them that demands those tools. Buffy has thrown several new kicks and spins and other combat moves at me to absorb into my arsenal of moves. However, because I can only really use these in combat (since they use up a resource that I can't otherwise recharge), I'm kind of stuck. I'd like to be able to practice these before I have to use them in combat, but I don't have any option to do so. Zelda games have historically done this well also -- big challenges appear after you've gotten a new ability, but usually you have an opportunity to use that ability in a safer, less threatening environment, typically in level navigation.

  • Make suggestions. We have the tools to fight player fatigue. If a player spends a long time in an area, we can detect that and give them hints. That can even be one of the knobs, "give me hints when it looks like I'm lost." I know that Perfect Dark Zero got some flak for this particular decision, but honestly, I think it was a good one. Hardcore players should be able to turn it off, and it should never be a crutch to avoid careful level design... but it should be used as a crutch for players who are easily disoriented in virtual spaces.

  • Your easiest setting should basically be "push button, win game". You will think that it can't be made easier, that there are no wall missions. You will be wrong. Make it easier.Give them an out.

I'm sure there are more, and almost certainly I had another one or two in mind last week, but I'm getting tired and thinking of finishing a movie before hitting the sack. I'll add to this if anything from last week occurs to me again, and I encourage comments to throw out ideas I might have missed or forgotten.

Difficulty often breeds frustration, particularly in the narrative-plus-action games that licenses lend themselves too. Give your players a break... and they'll come back.

¹Sad but true, I'm also getting older, but it's not a lack of finger dexterity that gets me in the end, it's the lack of time to play on a more regular basis. I got very close to the end of Metroid Prime 2 some years back and then got quite busy with work. I've never gone back, because attempting to play once your skills start to fall away is no fun at all. (back)

²Normally I'd say putting it in the config files was bogus, but it was definitely a hobbyist game, and it was on the PC, where config files were practically the latest and greatest tech. :) (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 11:33 PM | Comments (4)