Archive | April, 2009

GDC 2009, day 1

26 Apr

The show proper opened on Wednesday, March 25th and I hardly knew what to do with myself. I mean, as I said in an earlier post, it’d been YEARS since I had attended GDC and not been stuck in my hotel room madly revising slides for one talk or another. Mostly, I spent the day sitting at one of the tables on the 2nd floor of the Moscone Center, waving at friends who were distracted by the need to prepare for their talks and talking with folks who drifted over to say hi. (Spent a fair amount of time that way with ex-Champions game guru Steve Peterson, MMO guy Raph Koster and got to meet Cory Doctorow, whose book Little Brother I happened to be reading on my phone thanks to Daily Lit…). Good times, as they say…

I did manage to attend a few talks on day 1, though. Here’s the scoop on those:

Discovering New Development Opportunities (Nintendo Keynote)
Satoru Iwata

I was a little surprised that much of this talk was about Shigeru Miyamoto’s development style — not disappointed, but surprised that someone other than Miyamoto himself would discuss it. Anyway, from the sound of it, Miyamoto seems inspired by the things in his life (as are, I think, most successful designers). Starting with an idea you think is “marketable” or “niche-filling” or any of the other myriad starting points for projects seems foolish to me. Great games come from personal passion, not business objectives. Someone burns to do something and they do it with dedication to quality that goes as far as anything can to ensuring success… Anyway, I was not at ALL surprised that Miyamoto’s games come from a personal place… From what we heard at the talk, once a subject’s been settled on, the approach is very methodical, very iterative, very into defining the essence of fun with a small team (and often for a very, very long time) before expanding into a real game and a real (for which read “expensive”) team. We could all learn from that!

Iwata also talked fairly extensively about how Nintendo wanted to be friendly to developers of all types and went to some lengths to make clear how important hardcore gamers are to Nintendo. This was all great to hear. But what floored me were the sales stats he talked about — notably that the Wii Balance Board has shipped nearly as many units as the PS3 has total! Wow. I mean, it’s pretty common knowledge that Nintendo has surpassed both PS3 and 360 in units sold, but to hear there are — what did he say? 15 million-ish Wii Balance Boards out there. That took me aback. That starts to sound like a peripheral more people should be supporting. (Of course, that was probably EXACTLY what Iwata hoped the audience would leave believing, so I’m feeling a little used right now…)

There was some talk about the DSi and camera games and all, which looked kind of cool. (Now that I have a DSi I’m a LITTLE less excited than I was before, but still a nice little device.) A demo-er came out and showed off a camera game and a simple animation toolkit that looks like it’ll allow users to create some lovely 2D cartoons. Can’t wait to get my hands on that.

But the best came last — video of a new Zelda game for the DS is coming “later this year.” Woohoo! Bring it on!

And then everyone who attended the talk got a copy of Rhythm Heaven for the DS – a variation of Rhythm Tengoku, one of the best DS games ever, but never shipped in the US. If you don’t have it, go get it. Great little game.

Lighting with Purpose
Jay Riddle (Disney Interactive Studios), Paul Ayliffe (Blackrock Studios)

Okay, I admit I went to this talk mostly because Jay and Paul are Disney guys I like and respect a ton, but I’m hugely into lighting these days and wanted to make sure I didn’t miss out on any pearls of wisdom because I work with these guys and assume I’ve heard all they have to say on the subject.

As it turns out, that was a really good idea. The talk was really nice and did touch on some stuff I hadn’t heard them talk about before about how to use lighting to achieve aesthetic and gameplay effects. Jay was nicely conceptual while Paul was nicely concrete. I love that Jay comes at things from a film background and was able to show examples from movies as well as games. And I’m always blown away by what Blackrock does graphically and take advantage of any opportunity to learn how they do such amazing things, vusually. Frankly, I need to get both of those guys to give those talks at Junction Point some time.

Next year, a follow-up that gets into even more specifics, particularly with regard to how lighting can create specific moods, and how color plays into things would be great.

David Perry’s Lunch with Luminaries
David Perry, Gary Whitta, Brian Fargo, Rob Pardo, Will Wright, Neil Young (and me!)

Other than the super embarrassing title of this event it was a ton of fun — one of those things that has me gawking like a kid in a candy shop wondering what I did to deserve being here with all of these guys! There’s been enough online coverage that I won’t go into details, but I got to give Blizzard’s Rob Pardo a (totally joshing) hard time about MMO’s and how much I’d prefer it if Blizzard would Just Give Me Diablo 3 RIGHT NOW. And for the first time in MY life, at least, I actually got Will Wright to admit that I was right about something we argued about — specifically, the big impact cloud computing was likely to have on games and game development. (I think it’s going to be huge and he, at least at the start of the discussion, didn’t think it would change things at all.) I got into a little good-natured sparring with Neil Young as well, about how I totally don’t get the mobile gaming business and development model, and I got to hang out with Brian Fargo (one of my heroes when I first got into the videogame business), all of which, together made the lunch a huge win for me. Hope I get to do it again at some future GDC!

Everything Old is New Again: Using Musical Style to Enhance Storytelling
Lennie Moore, Garry Schyman

I went to this session expecting to hear about music gameplay – a topic I’m intensely interested in. (Not music games per se or rhythm games, but how we can introduce musical play ideas into traditional game types.) The panelists didn’t actually address this topic at all, but it ended up being a great session nonetheless.

What these guys DID talk about was how composers can suss out what developers really want, musically speaking, and how they research and echo specific musical styles and/or the music of specific time periods.

I came away impressed enough by both composers – their working methods, their collaborative process, their musical knowledge, their connections, their versatility and, of course, the quality of their work. A nice surprise, only because I didn’t know either of the panelists and expected the panel to be about something it wasn’t about, yet I learned a ton.

That was it for day 1 of GDC 2009. I’ll be back with whatever I can remember of day 2 soon.

GDC 2009, Day 0 and 0.5

18 Apr

I know some time has passed since GDC, but I’ve been meaning to post some thoughts about the show since I got back, so here goes. I spent a week out in SF and did enough stuff that I’m going to break this up into several posts. Part one, covers Monday, 3/23 and Tuesday, 3/24.

First off, let me just say that this was a weird show for me — good, REALLY good even, but weird. I’d have to go back and check, but I’m pretty sure this year was the first time in way more than a decade  that I had no obligations at the show — no lectures, no panels, no business meetings. I had some lunches planned but that was it.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but GDC is a heck of a lot of fun when you don’t have to edit slides and fret about stuff! I love speaking at GDC, and hope I get the chance to do it again soon, but it was a nice change of pace to be just a civilian.

My week started on Monday, with the IGDA Education Summit. I’ve been involved in one way or another with the IGDA’s education effort for quite some time. Fact is, I’m really proud of the curriculum framework Robin Hunicke, Eric Zimmerman, Doug Church and others (and I) came up with years ago — as proud as I am of just about anything I’ve done professionally. It’s not so much that the framework was so great — that’s something for others to determine — it’s the fact that this year, as in so many prior years, I’ve seen evidence, and been told, that a lot of colleges and universities are using the thing as the foundation of their courses and programs.

And this year’s Edu Summit revealed that there are more colleges and universities offering game development/game studies programs than ever. I spent a fair amount of time hanging with faculty and students at some of these programs and was pleased to meet people who weren’t employed by or being educated at the Usual Gang of Suspects. Lots of places offer game studies and game development courses and degrees now.

Frankly, the people teaching in these programs still often lack professional experience, but there are more and more ex-pros teaching now than in the past. Things are trending in the right direction there, if you ask me. The students I interacted with this year seemed sharper, better trained and better prepared for careers in development than at any time in the past. (This, by the way, jibes with the fact that more and more of the people I hire are coming from academic programs. I always expected this would happen, but I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Wherever the academics are coming from and whatever they’re doing, they’re really starting to do it right!)

One of the edu summit panels covered the recent Global Game Jam (http://globalgamejam.org/). The concept of “game jams” is one that seems worth embracing, whether in an academic setting or a professional one — as a way to generate ideas, build team camaraderie, refresh creative juices, etc. All of the speakers had interesting things to say, but I was most intrigued by some comments from Ian Schreiber. Specifically, he talked about the need to impose constraints when “jamming”: constrain theme or mechanics or aesthetics or tech. That’s great advice even when you’re not thinking about a game jam. Constraints are, as we all know, good for creativity in any context. It’s amazing the impact a different set of constraints has on design and the development process (something publishers — and developers — should pay more attention to!).

Jane Macgonigle (http://www.avantgame.com/), who’s affiliated with the Institute for the Future (http://www.iftf.org/) gave a really interesting keynote. I disagreed with some of what she had to say, but it was certainly interesting, entertaining and thought provoking. Basically, she claimed that over the next couple of decades, games would change the world (we’re in agreement there!). She saw games driving educational efforts, moving people to political action, bringing people together across cultures, creating happiness and so on. Game designers, she believes, are going to be the prime movers and shakers of this century.  She wants us to call ourselves “fungineers,” something I refuse even to consider. Basically, I don’t think of myself as a guy who provides “fun” or even “happiness” to players.

I much prefer to think of myself as the pea under the mattress (I hope SOMEONE gets the reference…) or, put another way, I like to think of myself as a provocateur. I want players to think about what they’re doing, as they do it… to think about WHY they’re doing what they’re doing… to have something they can take from their game back into the real world. There’s certainly fun to be had in that sort of thinking activity, but it’s not the first thing I think about.

I also took issue with McGonigle’s idea that games should move people to specific, desired actions or beliefs. Certainly, we’re capable of doing that — we can be a very effective propaganda tool, I’m sure. But I don’t really want to convince players of anything, or get them to behave in a particular way — honestly, I don’t think anyone should aspire to that. If we turn our interactive medium into just another way of selling people on ideas, we’re missing the point. Games should be a dialogue, not a lecture… a discussion, not a lesson. What we should be doing is allowing people to explore conceptual spaces and draw their own conclusions about them. I don’t ever want to be as coercive as McGonigle seems to want us to be.

(As a note, Jane McGonigle was one of three people who, during GDC, spoke about the “science of happiness.” This is a meme I need to investigate…)

Jesse Schell gave the other edu summit keynote, in which he discussed his idea of game design “lenses,” another way (near as I can tell) to say “game design patterns.” Whatever he calls ’em, Jesse’s take on the design process — and ways to break out of existing molds and old habits — is worth checking out. His book and accompanying card deck are interesting and maybe useful (haven’t finished reading yet, so can’t say for sure…). Check out http://artofgamedesign.com/.

The rest of the edu summit was spent hanging out with students and faculty folks, which was great fun. A nice, relaxing way to start the week.

More on GDC soon…

Another legend gone.

11 Apr

I just heard from a friend that Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. Damn. I eulogized, if I can call it that, Gary Gygax a while back, and now Dave…

Dave never really got a fair shake, or appropriate credit, or his due as one of the creators of roleplaying, but he never let that get him down, at least not around me. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, humblest guys I ever met. And, man, did he loves games. He was an ace designer, by all reports a creative player (though I was never lucky enough to play with him), a dedicated teacher and a mentor to scads of up-and-coming game developers. He always had time to chat, was always interested in what others were doing, how they were doing, what they were playing….

It’s unlikely the mainstream press will report Dave’s passing the way they noted Gary Gygax’s, which is a real shame. Those who knew him, and those who know the facts behind the legend, will remember Dave with equal, maybe greater, affection. He was one of the Good Guys, an all-around fine fellow, as my wife would say, and he’ll be missed. More important, he’ll be remembered as long as people roll those funny dice and create characters and tell stories together in a way they might never have been able to if Dave hadn’t arrived on the scene.

Dave changed things, but was never changed by them. I can’t think of a better epitaph than that.

I’ve joined a cult – the iPhone cult

6 Apr

My AT&T Tilt gave up the ghost last week (you should see the screen — it looks like something Jasper Johns might have painted) so I decided to take the plunge and replace it with an iPhone.

The decision was pretty straightforward, really. If this year’s SXSW and GDC did nothing else, they convinced me that the iPhone’s a legit gaming platform and, to keep current, I need to know what’s going on in that space. Plus, everyone I know is joining the iPhone club and I’ve been feeling a little left out.

So I’m now in Day 4 of cult membership and, I have to say, though the experience has been largely positive, I have mixed feelings about my new digital pal.

One the plus side, as a phone it’s really pretty rockin’. The call quality is terrific and I seem to get better signal strength than I used to, even though I’m using the same provider and going to all the same places.

As an internet device it’s amazing. I feel like I’m really web-surfing for the first time ever on a phone.

As a game platform, it’s swell. I already have more than a screen of games of high enough quality that, if I were Nintendo, I might be a little bit concerned. And the ease with which I’ve been able to acquire those games (along with a bunch of cool apps) is astonishing — the App Store is everything online commerce should be and usually isn’t. If I’m not careful, I’ll go broke — a buck here, a buck there adds up quickly.

As an entertainment device, the iPhone is as cool as everyone says it is. That screen! It’s beautiful (at least it was for the first three hours I had it, before it got all thumbprinty). Movies look great. Pictures look great. Music sounds great. Books — hm, nice, but I’m spoiled by the Kindle.

(A brief aside — anyone who thinks the iPhone is a great ebook reader hasn’t played with a non-backlit e-ink device. There’s simply no comparison and people should just stop talking about how the iPhone’s going to make the Kindle and devices like it obsolete. This Will Not Happen.)

E-book lameness aside, the iPhone is really remarkable, if what you’re after is seamless connectivity and constant distraction.

However, as a “smart phone,” at least as I use smart phones, the iPhone actually seems kind of dumb.

For the longest time, I was a Treo guy. If not for a falling out with my service provider which doesn’t warrant discussion here, I’d STILL be a Treo guy. After that, I became a Tilt and Blackberry guy. And I’ll tell you right here and now, no virtual keyboard can match real buttons. The iPhone comes as close as anything I’ve tried and it’s not remotely comparable.

The iPhone’s inability to sync with Outlook Notes and Tasks is deadly. I use Outlook’s Notes and Tasks functions as brain-extenders and have a hard time living without them (especially Notes).

The fact that I can’t create and edit Office documents is causing me amazing grief already. The fact that I can’t seem to just get a list of documents I have stored on my device is totally weird. And I’m really having a tough time to adjusting to what seems to be a complete lack of menus that allow me to do things like Select All from a list of emails or documents and such like. I mean, I get that Apple and Microsoft are enemies, but hurry up and get iPhone OS 3.0 out there so people can start making some real productivity apps for this thing!

It’s like the iPhone is working so hard to be my friend it’s incapable of being my co-worker. It’s all fun and games when, at times, I want it to be serious. Still, there’s enough to like that I’m trying to stay calm and make do. Until 3.0 comes along and MS Office or Documents to Go or QuickOffice or something becomes available, I’m messing around with Evernote and a couple of other note-taking apps that seem promising. And I’m experimenting with Google Office for document, spreadsheet and presentation work. It’s too early to say if this’ll work, but I’m trying — really trying — to embrace the iPhone.

Right now, the device is feeling a little “emperor’s new clothes-ish” to me — amusing but not necessarily what you want in a ruler, and everyone’s too afraid of looking un-cool to say anything. I hope I’m wrong and come to love my iPhone as unreservedly as the rest of my fellow cult members. I hope it’s just too early in this relationship to be reaching any conclusions.

I hope that’s the case. For now, if you can help me learn to love the iPhone (as opposed to just liking it pretty well), lend a hand. If you’ve found games you absolutely love or apps you can’t live without, feel free to comment and let me know about ’em! And if ANY of you have found ANY way to get an iPhone to sync with MS Outlook Notes and Tasks, PLEASE let me know — that’s just killing me.

Kindle update

5 Apr

So, I’ve now lived with my Kindle a few more months and, gotta say, I still absolutely love the thing. The ability to sample books before buying, the lack of stress involved with picking a book before going on a trip, the fact that you can always find exactly the thing you feel like reading at any given moment — just amazing.

I loved my Kindle 1 so much, I preordered a Kindle 2 the day Amazon started accepting them and I couldn’t wait — cooler looking device, longer battery life, better screen, quicker “page” turns, a little nubbin thing to move the cursor around instead of the goofy scroll wheel and no more accidental button presses. What could possibly go wrong?

Strangely enough, just about everything went wrong.

I know, I know… everyone’s all gaga over the Kindle 2. It solves all of the problems Amazon should have solved before shipping the first one, everyone says.

Well, I have to ask, are all these reviewers actually comparing the two devices or are they just making this stuff up? I’ve spent a lot of time with both now and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kindle 1 is a better device in most of the ways that matter to me.

In fact, I gave my Kindle 2 to my wife, the lovely Caroline. (She loves it, btw…)

Here’s the scoop:

The Kindle 1 has a zany, asymmetrical look, rather than the sleek Apple-ish look all designers seem to strive for these days. But in making the 2 taller, they’ve thrown off the balance just enough to be annoying — it wants to tip backward in a way the Kindle 1 doesn’t, putting a small, but annoying, strain on the wrists. And in making it thinner, they’ve made it almost impossible for me (small-handed as I am) to hold it in one hand.

In making the buttons smaller, the designers of the Kindle 2 have forced the user to hold it just below the center point of the device, with hands in the 9 and 3 position — great for driving, perhaps, but not the greatest position to be in if you want to read a book for an hour or two. Sadly, you simply can’t reach the next and previous buttons unless your hands are positioned the way the designers intended. On the 1, I move my hands around all the time and can always reach the gigantic buttons I need to reach.

The inward hinged buttons do solve the problem of inadvertent page turns, but, in combination with the new form factor, my left-hand-hold with finger-flick page-turns is now impossible. Good gosh, people, it isn’t THAT hard to avoid accidentally pressing buttons!

Surely, though, there’s a huge win in having real cursor control instead of being limited to selecting a line and then using a menu to choose what you really wanted to select, right? Not so much. The cursor doesn’t move smoothly on the screen — it jumps one line at a time, vertically, and not very smoothly horizontally once you reach the line you wanted. I actually prefer the scroll wheel of the Kindle 1.

So there it is — the Kindle 1 is a better device than the Kindle 2. I’m used to the page-turn speed, I’ve never come close to running down my battery and, man, do I LOVE the fact that I have an SD card for infinite storage space.

There are, for sure, things that need to be fixed on the Kindle, but the 2 isn’t the answer — at least not for me. Bring on the Kindle 3, Amazon. I still love you and I’ll be ordering a 3, day one, too.