Tag Archives: game industry

Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
Continue reading

Narratology vs Ludology; Pictorialism Revisited

Video games are currently facing a slew of legislation attempting to ban or criminalize the representation or discussion of some topics within video games — effectively censoring what can be made in games, or even what can be defined as a game. This is hardly the first time this sort of action has come up, however, if you look back to other contemporary forms of media. In the early 20th century, photography had split into factions on the nature of photography as an art form. The division was between a style known as pictorialism, which allowed and encouraged image manipulation and pre-composition, and straight photography, which disallowed any pre or post-processing manipulation of the image. About the extent that was allowed in straight photography was some dodging and burning applied during the printing process. These two factions each had an advocate in the public fora, notably William Mortensen on the side of pictorialism, and Ansel Adams on the side of straight photography. The debates often became heated between the two, with Adams becoming the winner by default after Mortensen passed away. There was also some dirty pool played on the part of the straight photographers, who deliberately removed any but the most cursory mention of pictorialism as a photographic movement in Beaumont Newhall’s work, The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present.

My personal contention is that this turn of events has significantly marred the public view of photography as an artform, encouraging the mindset that photography is simply an objective view of what is or was (which is not the case even within straight photography). It has taken decades and a fundamental paradigm shift in the realm of photography (ie digital manipulation; Photoshop, Painter, et cetera) to even make a dent in this perception, with considerable inroads still needing to be made. This denial of the more expressive, authorial form of the medium encourages the public view of the medium as a sort of stepchild to more accepted forms of art.
Continue reading

A Wii Little Bandwagon

There has been a considerable uproar about Nintendo’s choice of name for their new system in the days following its announcement. I’m not going to get too much into the reasoning or opinions about the name, since those topics have already been addressed ad nauseam by most of the web. Instead, let’s look at some of the facts surrounding ‘Wii’. First of all, love it or hate it, everyone is talking about this new system, which is a marketing coup that is hard to ignore or downplay. This buzz is also mere days before the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), where they have scheduled a major press conference to announce further details about the console, meaning additional time in the media spotlight.

What’s particularly interesting, however, is that they also used this buzz to gloss over their announced release date, which is apparently not until Q4 of 2006, which was covered by only one major gaming news outlet. This will be confirmed and properly announced at the E3 press conference, but it’s still interesting. It is also worth noting that even amid all this attention, Nintendo has still remained tightlipped about the technical specifications of the system. They are, in essence, generating an unprecedented media buzz over a system that no one knows much about — we know that it uses an innnovative new controller, and that they’ve opted not to pursue High Definition with this console generation. That’s about it. There’s been no gameplay footage to speak of, though there have been several high profile companies signing on to develop for the Wii, and they even had a prototype mockup in a locked display case at their booth at the Game Developer’s Conference this past March. There has been a not insignificant amount of speculation about the specifications of the machine, but Nintendo themselves have been quite tightlipped about it.

I must say, I’m rather impressed by this little gambit. Satoru Iwata gave a keynote at the Game Developer’s Conference about disrupting the industry, and from the looks of things, that’s exactly what they’re aiming to do. My vote is more power to them: we need to shake things up a bit, and show that there is more breadth and depth to games and what games are than is commonly accepted today. There’s more to that than simply deconstructing what came before, just as there must be more than just a new marketing campaign. To borrow a trendy slogan, it is not enough to Think Different. We must also Do Different. Nintendo is certainly showing signs of putting deeds to their words, and I only hope that it proves to be true.

GDC Day 5

This was the last day of the conference, and you could definitely feel people were getting worn out. I didn’t manage to make it through the expo before it closed, which is unfortunate but not the end of the world, and frankly the panels I went to were more important. I managed to make it to all three panels I’d planned to attend, albeit I got into the first of the day about 20 minutes late due to the shuttle hitting some traffic. All three were about methods to create a new game company, and essentially different routes people took to do it.

The first session was about bootstrapping a company, and mostly worked on a “work for hire”/contracting system to raise cash for their internal projects. This was held from one of the guys at Demiurge, which is based in the Boston area, and it’s worked quite effectively for them. We swapped cards, and I’m hoping to make it down for one of their game nights in the not too distant future, for the socializing if nothing else (I definitely took the advice from my first panel this week to heart, about encouraging you to surround yourself with a brain trust of people smarter than you).

The second session was about taking a game from design to product as an independent developer. The speaker had started his own company, and put together a game for about $25,000, “and could have done it for $10,000 if I knew then what I know now.” This was definitely encouraging to hear, and while a lot of his advice was common sense to me, it was still reassuring to hear that it’s still possible to do what he did.

The third session took a different tack to starting a company, and went the venture capital route. It was held by the CEO of PlayFirst, which had just completed it’s second set of fundraising ($5million in the first round, and another $5million in the second). It was interesting to see the difference in presentation between the three meetings, with this third session being significantly more business-like and number crunching in nature. It is both more intimidating, and reassuring to know that the money is out there, though. I don’t think venture capital is the route I personally want to take, but I’m not averse to it, and managed to swap cards with a VC who was in the audience that focuses on startups in the tech and media sectors, for seed and series A funding (30k to 2million). This could potentially be immensely beneficial, should I choose to pursue this route (especially since one of the things they bring to the table is financial and business tutoring to help you get your business running solidly… that’s something you get out of the deal. They usually aim for the 5-15% range for a stake in the company, which is acceptable. I may actually put Kevin in touch with them for UberCon, especially since they’re based out of DC).

By the time the last session ended, the convention center was a ghost town compared to the crowds that had been there all week. It was strangely refreshing, though it did very little to bring closure to the event for me. I took the shuttle back to the hotel, and spent the rest of the evening playing Brain Age… my current brain age is 49 (lower is better, range is from 20 to 70)… lot of work to do on that. I completed about 12 sudoku puzzles, though.

GDC Day 4

This will be a shorter post, since I already talked a fair bit about the keynotes that were today. By today, I was pretty worn out (being an introvert by nature, the swarms of people I don’t know really puts a drain on me, even knowing that they’re all geeks like me), so other than the keynotes, I spent most of the day hanging out in the IGDA lounge, catching up online and just in general trying to relax. It was moderately successful, and even with that, I managed to collect still more business cards (I’ll hopefully be doing follow-ups with them when I get back home). Overall, I feel like I should have made more effective use of my day, but I really needed the down time, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

In the evening, my cousin Cortney called, and we grabbed some dinner at a tastey Indian place called the Tandoori Oven (for those in the San Jose area, it’s over on First, near the Repertory, and across the street from the Fairmont). That was fun as ever, and was nice to chat with her and in general relax a bit. After that, I did a circuit through “Suite Night”, and ultimately left after about half an hour (the place was PACKED, and I just wasn’t in the mood to deal with a bunch of drunks).

Will Wright Keynote

Will Wright is one hell of a nice guy. It’s pretty remarkable how self effacing he is. The actual title of the keynote is “Why I get too obsessed with my game research”. I think it says something that just a few minutes in, we’ve all laughed probably a dozen times. “Learn to embrace your inner Otaku”

He started with a bit of a postmortem of The Sims Online, which was this massive, massive, heavy project with an amazing amount of inertia to deal with, compared to Spore, his next game, which was fast and agile in terms of development. Which then migrated into a discussion of application of ownership; this in turn gets brought back to Spore.

Will then discussed the initial ideas and research he did to come up with Spore. The history of life, the universe, and everything [sic]. Different theories on how life possibly came to Earth, the idea of “cross talk” between planets, or even interstellar cross talk (matter from one planet going to another planet).

The basic premise of the keynote was to drive home just how important research is to game development, and how sometimes the most random thing can be the inspiration for some really fantastic games. Overall, it was a fantastic keynote; I think it would be amazingly fun to just sit down and chat with Will for a while.

Nintendo Keynote

This has proven to be a delightful keynote. Iwata has a very dry sense of humor that works very well with his thick japanese accent. The topic is about disrupting the market, much in the same way that Pepsi did when it diversified into snacks and alternative drinks (sports drinks, water, et cetera).

Some of the comparisons are interesting… the PS2 sold 6 million worldwide units in 21 months. The GBA sold 6 million in 20 months. The DS did it in 14 months. Nintendogs sold 6 million units in a year. Brain Training has already sold over 5 million units collectively, and hasn’t even reached a global release yet. (It’s worth noting that the Nintendo booth at the expo has DS lites running Brain Age, which has proven to be great fun.)

He discussed the process of developing Brain Training, which was a small team personally produced by Iwata, working with developers new to game development. I think this is awesome, and encouraging both for working with Nintendo in some role.

Iwata then brought on one of the developers of the localized version (Brain Age), who is demonstrating the game. It’s fucking fantastic — I’m REALLY looking forward to it now. I also think Mom would love this game, though it would mean she would need to get a Nintendo DS (not a bad option). They brought up some people who hadn’t played it before (including Will Wright), and had a brain age competition, which was fantastic fun. The neat trick is that it actually does help you train your brain into functioning better.

Really, the main point of his keynote is that it’s not enough to just do what others are doing… take a chance and do something new, and you might be surprised. He’s also giving everyone who attended the keynote a free copy of the game!!!

From there, he’s begun talking about other parts of Nintendo’s plans. Notably, their networking service. Keeping it as seamless and simple as possible, to encourage the social dynamic of being able to focus on playing and chatting.

Then they showcased Metroid Prime Hunters… I’m impressed. The gameplay is slick. D-pad is movement, L button is shooting, and stylus is aiming (double tap to jump, use stylus to select weapon). I’m pretty impressed. The gameplay is arguably the best console adaptation of a keyboard and mouse control.

After that, he showcased a NEW ZELDA GAME FOR THE DS. It’s cell shaded like Wind Waker, looked damn fun. That’s coming out sometime later this year. While he was at it, he announced the inclusion of support for virtual consoles of the Sega Genesis and the TurboGrafx 16, operating like an “iTunes Music Store for Games”. All in all, it was a really excellent keynote, and I’m glad I went (and for more reasons than just the free game).

GDC Day 3

Day three of GDC started with me missing my first panel, which is unfortunate, but not unsurprising… despite my efforts at staying on eastern time in order to get up for morning panels, I’m slowly getting more and more on pacific time, and having more and more trouble getting up in the morning (probably helps that I’m not staying anywhere near hydrated enough). Still, I managed to make it in for the Playstation 3 keynote, which was interesting and fun. I’d have to say that there are some things that he discussed that make a lot more sense when heard than read; in-game advertising, for instance. In the actual keynote, the discussion made sense given the audience, and the nuances of speech made it clear that he wasn’t talking about tossing in advertising where it didn’t make sense, which simply hasn’t translated to the written accounts on the news sites and forums. I’m not saying I’m necessarily FOR it, but I’m also aware that games cost a fuckton of money at this point, and additional sources of revenue are necessary, plain and simple.

After the keynote, I wandered through the expo (which had just opened), and unfortunately missed some of my mid-day panels in the process. That said, I put my card in a lot of hands and introduced myself to a number of companies. I chatted briefly with Epic, and got a chance to see some actual gameplay of Gears of War and Unreal Tournament 2007, both of which are looking excellent. I also got a chance to check out their tools pipeline, which really has come a long way since the days of futzing with UnrealEd for Unreal Tournament. Needless to say, if I get enough funding to make it feasible, I’ll be chatting with them about licensing their engine (and in the meantime, a mod proof of concept sounds appealing).

I swung by the Bloggers Gathering and chatted with a number of bloggers that I read, as well as being introduced to a few that I plan to start reading. It was useful discussing the benefits and drawbacks of blogging (the inherent “cult of personality” that occurs, for instance). Also, the concerns with discussing specific games or situations, since that can (unfortunately) potentially impede you from getting hired, and possibly even getting fired (which is stupid, in my humble opinion… what I say or do on my own time, in particular before I worked for a company, is my own business).

After the Bloggers Gathering, I went and wandered through the expo some more, as part of the Booth Crawl (various booths around the expo floor had beer, and even some soda for people like me, as well as cookies and snacks and even some lo mein). In the process, I collected some more information concerning possible employment if this whole “start my own development studio” thing doesn’t pan out, plus some potential contract/commission/intern work for Erica for the summer. I made brief inquiries with a number of companies about working out a publishing deal or partnership… not many bites, unsurprisingly. In these days of ginormous budgets, people are loathe to invest in unknowns. That said, Namco Bandai expressed some interest, so I’ll be contacting them to explore this in the near future.

After the Booth Crawl, I headed across the street and attended the Independent Games Festival Awards and Game Developer’s Choice Awards, which was a lot of fun. Shadow of the Colossus swept the awards, winning 4 or 5 of the awards (out of 8? 9?). Psychonauts also did well. Interestingly, despite being nominated for nearly every award, I don’t think God of War won a single one.

I got back to the hotel around 9-9:30 local, and chatted with Erica for a while on the phone, wishing her a happy birthday since it was technically tomorrow by then. I was completely wiped, though, too many people and too much having to be “up” and social and functioning. Very very glad that my first session isn’t until 10:30am tomorrow.

GDC Day 2

I ended up waking up a bit later than I’d hoped today, and barely made it over to the convention center in time to get some coffee and a muffin before my tutorial started (Player-Centric Game Design Workshop, which is being presented by Ernest Adams). It was a really excellent all day tutorial where the first hour or two was a lecture on good design practices, and then we broke into groups of 5 and designed games for the rest of the day, before presenting them at the end of the workshop to the rest of the group. My group made “Sim Elves in Space”, which was based around the idea of wanting to build and manage a space station. Each part of the 5 person group had a role in the design: lead designer (manager), game designer, art director, ui designer, and level designer. I was the game designer, so my job was figuring out the game mechanics and internal economy of the game — I think I did alright, considering it was my first time working with a group in this fashion (this is the curse of going to a school like Vermont College… you get used to doing things on your own, with little to no collaboration). I had a pleasant chat with Ernest Adams during one of the breaks, and he seemed receptive to my theories on focusing on more theatric tools and elements over cinematic elements in games, to creatie a more compelling story. He’s got a lecture on Friday that I’d love to attend on the subject, but it’s opposite a lecture on bootstrapping a small development studio, and unfortunately that needs to take precedence.

After the workshop, I went back to the hotel and had a platter of vegetarian sushi, some edamame, and some miso soup… and then promptly got invited to dinner with my friend Robert, and some of his friends that were in town for the conference (they all went to Digipen together… half the table was from Valve). That was good fun, and ended up with everyone going back to one of the hotel rooms for some Karaoke Revolution (I managed to get out before they were subjected to my singing).

Overall, another tiring but good day.