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Walking in Someone Else’s Shoes

1 Sep

August 25, 2015. David Brooks posts a column called “The Big Decisions” on The New York Times website. It’s an interesting column, to say the least, and surprisingly relevant to game design. Go read it and then come on back here.

Back? Good.

If you were too lazy or busy or just didn’t feel like reading the column, here’s a pithy quote that’ll give you the basic idea:

“Let’s say you had the chance to become a vampire. With one magical bite you would gain immortality, superhuman strength and a life of glamorous intensity. Your friends who have undergone the transformation say the experience is incredible. They drink animal blood, not human blood, and say everything about their new existence provides them with fun, companionship and meaning.

Would you do it? Would you consent to receive the life-altering bite, even knowing that once changed you could never go back?

The difficulty of the choice is that you’d have to use your human self and preferences to try to guess whether you’d enjoy having a vampire self and preferences. Becoming a vampire is transformational. You would literally become a different self. How can you possibly know what it would feel like to be this different version of you or whether you would like it?”

As that quote implies, the column is about the unknowability of feelings related to consequential choices.  Brooks has no answer for this, but he speaks in laudatory tones about a new book – Transformative Experience – that he claims gives us tools to make better choices and to anticipate our reaction to what he calls “big decisions.”

Now, I don’t know if Brooks plays games, though for some reason I assume he doesn’t. If he did play games, though, he’d know that they offer far more than speculation or advice for the choice-averse. Games offer the opportunity to make decisions and try out behaviors in a virtual world that we wouldn’t even want people trying in the real one.

In other words, games can let you walk in someone else’s shoes. Not watch someone else unlike you, or read about someone not like you, but to become someone not like you, at least for a little while.

In this, we are unique among media. Books can’t do it. Movies can’t do it. Theatre can’t do it. Painting, dance, opera… Nothing can let you experience for yourself life choices and unknowable, unpredictable situations. Nothing other than games.

You can call this hyperbole – I know I’m prone to that. But I truly believe we’re unique in this way. And to my mind, we have a moral obligation, or at least an artistic one, to exploit what makes us unique.

Clearly, there’s room for games that don’t even try to deliver a “walk in someone else’s shoes” experience. I like puzzle games and word games as much as the next guy. And the experience of walking in the shoes of a fat little plumber with a funny moustache isn’t exactly going to convince folks like Brooks of our potential. But we can let you become the “other,” and many games strive to do it. And I love them for it.

How else am I ever going to experience life as a World War I fighter pilot? How else can I become a knight and see what it was like to live in a medieval castle? How will I know (to use Brooks’ example) what life as a vampire might be like?

If we were really trying, we might even be able to give a taste of trouble to those of us who, by virtue of luck, genetics or upbringing, have never experienced hardship. Through games, you could feel for yourself the sting of racism or religious persecution or gender bias. You could even know what it’s like to be the last space marine standing between the Earth and alien invaders. (Oh, wait, we do that last one all the time…)

As I said, some games take advantage of this unique quality of our medium. Sadly, even games that do let you “become” someone else, usually do it badly or inaccurately or in a puerile manner. They don’t do their research or they don’t do it with intention. But they do it. And it amazes me that the mainstream doesn’t realize it.

Maybe that’s because most game developers don’t understand what they’re capable of. Maybe it’s because we don’t think about our medium’s capabilities enough, as we deliver profitable power fantasies and easy adrenaline rushes. Or maybe it’s just that we don’t crow enough about it. I don’t know why people don’t know how wonderful games can be. I just know, by and large, they don’t.

Hey, David Brooks, take a look over here. You don’t need books to speculate about how to predict the consequences of choices. There’s a medium of expression over here that can let you live your choices and see what happens as a result. Maybe you should give it a try. Play some games. You might like it. And you might learn something about yourself.

Hooray for Hollywood

22 Aug

Back before my last studio, Junction Point, was acquired by Disney, I had a grand plan – a mission, really, that I wanted to explore. (I’m going to talk more about mission in a future blog post, but just go with me here.) My mission had two parts:

First, I wanted to take inspiration from television, rather than movies. That meant, episodic content, digitally delivered, with each episode standing alone but also being part of a larger, overarching “season” narrative. You know what I mean – think about pretty much any police procedural you’ve ever seen on television. A crime gets solved in each episode, but the relationships among the recurring characters carry over from episode to episode until by the end of the season, those character relationships have changed in ways that keep us watching season after season. In other words, there’s both completion and open-endedness built into each episode. (I call that approach “limited serial narrative” but that’s so grad school I’ll just leave it at that.)

This approach seemed – and still seems – like a great model for games. Frankly, I don’t understand why games haven’t adopted it. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it a shot some day and see how it works “in the wild” rather than just in my head.

But limited serial narrative isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the original Junction Point mission.

That second part was all about partnering with folks in Hollywood – film-makers and television producers – to create what I guess you’d have to call transmedia productions. (Man, do I hate that term, but I can’t think of one that applies better here, sadly.)

The relationship between Hollywood types and game developers is typically one where the Hollywood folks are in control. The game types are reduced to being an “employee of game company #27 making a game based on someone’s last flick.” I had very little interest in a licensor/licensee relationship. (Though there was one IP I would have loved to work with. And, no, I can’t say what that was.)

Bottom line: I wanted to collaborate with folks in LA to create new IP that were designed from the start to work in a variety of media. They’d make the movies and TV shows, my studio would make the games and the property would be co-owned by them and by Junction Point, sharing in the profits both ways.

In working to make that happen, my agents at the time, Seamus Blackley and Ophir Lupu (among others) hooked me up with some Really Big Name guys. Pretty cool, I must say. I had the privilege of meeting and working with them, not in a subservient role, but as a peer and  collaborator. I wish I could talk about this in more detail but the only announced project was a collaboration with John Woo on an IP called “Ninja Gold.” (On that one, we actually had game deals and movie deals, and we built a bunch of prototypes, but In That Way, deals have a tendency to fall apart and so did that project.)

Anyway, what I discovered working with movie/TV creators was that, by and large, they’re Just Like Us — smart, creative, out of do great stuff — and they’re held back by a lot of the same forces that affect many mainstream game developers — rising budgets, shrinking audiences, execs who don’t get it, etc.

I also discovered that some of them totally got that movies and games are different, some didn’t. Some were seduced by the superficial similarities — pictures on a screen, sound, camera, lighting, dialogue, etc. — and thought they “got it,” while some were intrigued by the differences and what they didn’t understand about our medium. (The latter were a lot more fun to work with, needless to say.)

In talking to these people, I discovered something interesting, myself, something I hadn’t thought about before, something that really brought home for me at least one of many important differences between movies/TV and games. (Many of those differences are obvious enough that I don’t need to go into them here, I hope. If I do, let me know and I’ll come back to this in a comment or future blog post.)

Almost ALL movie/TV makers, in my experience, thought in terms of moments. Cool, specific, unique moments. (And they were really, really good at coming up with those moments, let me tell you, even acting them out to show what they meant.)

But what do I mean by “moments”?

Movie guys have to fill just a couple of hours of screen time. We have to fill a lot more, even in a short game. And at least in part, because of that, we have to be about the repeated action, not necessarily, the uniquely memorable one. In a movie, if your hero does the same thing — even twice — you’re probably in territory where the audience is thinking about what a bad movie they’re watching, not about how cool the hero is.

In games, we have a completely different set of constraints. Designers talk about the “core loop” – the sequence of base level actions players repeat over and over during a game, with variations to keep things interesting as the game goes on. But all we do – all we do – is offer variations on the core, not radical changes. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called a “loop,” right? Players run through the steps, then go back to the beginning over and over again.

Even the most astute Hollywood folks tend not to get this.

I remember sitting in a room, listening to one director say, “the hero should leap off a building, glide down using his coat as a glider thing, land in a superhero pose and in one smooth motion, come up flinging knives.” And, yes, he acted it out.

Sadly, though many games actually do take moments like that and repeat them ad infinitum, I had to tell this guy I didn’t think that was a great game idea. “Yeah, that’d be cool the first time the player does it,” I said. “But by the hundredth time, it’ll be boring, at best, and probably actively annoying.”

Or, to use a John Woo example (not one he and I talked about, to be clear!), in a movie, it’s great to see Chow Yun-Fat, two guns blazing, leap onto a restaurant cart and barrel across a room taking out bad guys… It’s great when guns go off and doves fly… In a movie. In a game, those things would get old, and a little silly, after the tenth iteration.

John Woo’s a genius, and never even hinted that we should borrow those signature moments. I think he realized that such moments just don’t work in games (or, at least, I don’t think they work). Games are about finding sequences of actions that are as fun and exciting for players the hundredth, even thousandth, time they do something. The variety comes from changing circumstances, not a cascade of unique moments.

That’s our magic and our art. The ability to create compelling loops and changing circumstances that keep those loops fresh and interesting for 20 hours is what separates the great designers from the rest of us mere mortals. Recognize and act on this (and have a massive marketing budget) and you can rule the game world.

I’ll leave it at that, but I’d love to hear from you about examples of unique moments that did work when repeated over and over again. In other words, prove me wrong. (No cutscene moments, please.) And even more interesting to me, I’d love to hear about repeated actions that maintain players’ interest despite the repetition, and why they work. In other words, prove me right. Comment away.

Telltale May Not Makes Games, But They Do Make Magic

25 Jul

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while (since GDC, for sure, and long before that, truth be told). What prompted me to share my thoughts now was an email I got the other day from an Australian journalist — Patrick Stafford — about something that happened at GDC 2015. Here’s the portion of his email that led me to this post:

“At GDC, I was at a panel about Telltale’s games – a bunch of their writers were speaking. At one point, Kevin Bruner asked the audience something along the lines of, ‘does anyone here think that what we make shouldn’t be called games?’ I looked around, and I believe I saw you raise your hand.”

Truth be told, the guy was right. I did raise my hand in answer to Kevin’s question, and I have to own up to the fact that I was expressing a sincerely held belief. I’ve often said Telltale makes things that are game-like, but not exactly games. I think of them as some sort of interactive experience (obviously), but does that mean “game?” I don’t think so.

Now, before people get their shorts in a knot about this, let me say a couple of things:

First, the definition of “game” is so broad (and ill-defined… and debated…), Telltale’s work can clearly be said to fall under that umbrella, if you want to put it there. And if you do want to put The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and others in the “game” category (or, to cite a non-Telltale example, David Cage’s Heavy Rain), go ahead. I’m not religious about this. Labels, at the end of the day, aren’t all that important, you know? Understanding how something works is important, but labels, not so much.

Second, I love Telltale’s work. The fact that I think of The Walking Dead et al as wonderful experiences but not wonderful games may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one for me.

So, circling back to Patrick’s email, I figured I owed him a response and, at the same time, thought this was a good opportunity to think through – for myself – my feelings about Telltale’s work. So let’s tiptoe through the minefield.

When I think of games – narrative games — I think of several things: plot (of course), but also challenges, goals and solutions. I think of character progression. Unlike, say, David Cage, I think of systems and mechanics – I think a lot about that. I think of players having some impact on the narrative or, at least, how that narrative plays out minute-to-minute (given each player’s unique skills and the choices each makes in overcoming developer-created problems).

That last one is the most important to me, personally, something to bear in mind here. Nothing else (literally nothing) is more important to me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m absolutely not saying that all games should or must empower players, giving them ownership of the narrative at the minute-to-minute level. However, if you accept that idea, even simple choices can make a difference. You don’t have to go full-on Mass Effect or, if you’ll indulge me, Deus Ex. It’s fine to empower players in small and/or conventional ways:

  • Which weapon do I use to defeat an enemy? A perfectly reasonable, if minor experience differentiator.
  • Do I go up here before going down there? Again, giving players even this amount of freedom is a small win.
  • Do I wait for a long straight piece to fill in a narrow gap or do I drop the L-shaped piece that’s already on the screen? Even Tetris tells a player-recounted story, of a sort.

You can probably think of dozens, hundreds, thousands more of these small differentiating elements, from games that most people wouldn’t think are particularly player-empowering. The ones I’ve listed, and the others you can think of, may be the lamest choices imaginable (though I’m not saying they are). Lame or not, each of these player-driven decisions significantly differentiates one player’s experience from another.

(As a note, the test of whether a choice has made a meaningful difference is whether two players, discussing their experience, describe a unique moment, even if the outcome of a choice is the same for both of them.)

For me, differentiated experience is a defining characteristic of games – maybe the defining characteristic.

By contrast, Telltale’s work, though incorporating a kind of player-empowerment, limits player options in significant ways.
Let’s go back to the list of things I think of when I think about game narrative – challenges, goals, solutions, mechanics/systems and character progression.

If you’ve experienced any of Telltale’s work you’re probably way ahead of me, but here’s my take:

Games like The Walking Dead certainly offer story, challenges, goals and solutions. Isn’t that enough to call them games and put all this seemingly nit-picky labeling behind us? Obviously, I don’t think so or I’d just stop right here and say “Oops. Never mind.” So what is it about Telltale’s work that makes it hard for me to say they’re games?

For starters, they basically have no mechanics (or when they do introduce simple mechanics — shooting while backing up stairs and such — they seem out of place and unnecessary). There’s no character progression to speak of. And there’s no real player control of the minute-to-minute. That last point is key.

Everything Telltale offers is pre-planned — even the game-like qualities they do incorporate. The challenges, the goals the solutions, everything is determined and constrained by the designers through a script that I’m pretty certain utilizes a traditional branching tree structure. (True confession time: I don’t have any inside information about how things work under the hood at Telltale, but I’d love it if someone who did know would chime in and tell me!)

If my experience of Telltale’s work has led me to the correct conclusion, you can’t really go where you want to go when you want to go there and I don’t think there’s ever the possibility of a player discovering a freeform, player-driven solution to a problem.

What that tells me is that Telltale is less interested in empowering players and, like a novelist or film-maker, more interested in the story they want to tell. It tells me they’re not much interested in the player’s impact on the minute-to-minute unfolding of the experience. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not a choice I’d likely make as a developer. What Telltale clearly does care about is character interaction and dialogue choices that give the illusion that players have a role in directing the narrative. And they clearly value choices that feel meaningful (even when they’re really not). Man, does Telltale get choices.

Paradoxically, these player-limiting characteristics and the focus on linear story elements are, I think, where the Telltale magic happens.

Magic? You bet. The magic is that the choices Telltale offers say little or nothing about the characters’ feelings about a situation… and they’re not about allowing players to min-max or optimize or save-and-reload until they find the “best” solution to the puzzle or problem. Do you know how rare these characteristics are in games?

Pretty rare. The magic of Telltale’s choices – the magic of their work, overall, is that I, at least, and I suspect many of you reading this, forget the character you’re playing. The choices Telltale asks you to make as you wend your way through their artfully crafted stories reveal something about the player’s feelings about right and wrong. Telltale forces you to, within script constraints, think about what would be the best thing to do in a given situation if you encountered that situation in the real world 9or a zombie-infested one…). “Game space” is subordinate to “real space” and character development is subordinate to players’ realizations about themselves.

Despite featuring strong, well-developed characters, Telltale’s scripts force players to think for themselves and about themselves. That’s awesome and, if I may say, what I’ve always tried to do in the games I’ve worked on. I’ll let others decide how successful I’ve been. Clearly, Telltale’s approach is working.

Telltale succeeds at this not because their mechanics are great or their puzzles are challenging or their worlds are open-ended. They succeed because their scripts are flat-out better than other people’s, and even more important, those scripts pose ethical dilemmas that are more subtle and problematic than anything anyone else in the game business has on offer.

Is there more to the magic than talented writers and an interest in ethics? I think there is. Again, I have no inside information, but I think there’s a structural thing going on that’s pretty old-school but still very effective: I’ve already mentioned the branching tree structure. Telltale’s work takes that to a whole new level.

Without meaning to disparage anything or anyone in any way, I often describe the Telltale (or David Cage) approach as jamming several movie scripts together. And, then, refining those scripts so they intertwine with one another to give the illusion of player choice, rather than the reality of it.

That has some interesting side effects that make it hard for me to apply the word “game”:

No matter how convincing the illusion is, I’m pretty sure no one at Telltale has ever been or will ever be surprised by any choice any player makes. Millions of players can play, but because writers and designers carefully craft every choice ahead of time, the possible outcomes all exist, in some metaphysical sense, in “script-space,” regardless of which choices you select.

And no player will ever surprise themselves as they play because they really have very little freedom, if any, to leave the tracks laid by the intertwined scripts. Players will be surprised by the choices and consequences afforded them by the talented, creative people whose scripts they’re experiencing, but nothing can happen unless a writer/designer implemented it in the first place. Being surprised by something – largely a result of interactions between tools/interactions with in-gameworld elements – requires giving players control at a level Telltale simply won’t allow.

That means that the only difference between my experience and yours in a Telltale game is that I chose one script and you chose another. You saw a slightly different scene than I did but, ultimately, your script and my script will converge again, maybe even in the very next scene. In reality, we’re both experiencing a single story, just a well-disguised one. We can compare our choices with other people’s choices – something Telltale exploits in an exceptionally elegant and compelling manner — and the results seem player-driven because branching done in a sophisticated manner works that way. But that comparison of my pre-planned choices versus your preplanned choices is all players can do. They can’t really make a difference. It’s cool that you made the same choices as 42% of players, but that doesn’t add up to a game-defining, player-driven narrative in my book.

That it works at all is part magic trick and part something else (which I’ll get to in a moment – remember the words “familiarity” and “comfort”). And, just to restate in a slightly different way something I said earlier: I don’t believe Telltale’s magic tricks make their work “less than” or “worse than” other interactive narratives or works more irrefutably classified as games – far from it. Magic is cool – cool enough that The Walking Dead was my favorite interactive experience of 2012 and Telltale’s more recent work is compelling as well.

Going one step further, I’m so inspired by Telltale’s work that I actually thought about trying to make a game in that style. I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but I suspect it would be like writing a choose-your-own-adventure book (with pretty pictures). I wrote some pick-a-path stuff back in my tabletop days and had a lot of fun with it so, yeah, I’ve thought about exercising that muscle again…

Anyway, let me give you a sort of a bottom line (“sort of” because I’m not really done yet – this is just an illusion of closure…).

If you need to put a label on what Telltale does, here’s my answer: No, they’re not making games. They are, as I hinted earlier, making “experiences” (my preferred, if imprecise term). To be more concrete, and at risk of being mocked for resurrecting a term long thought dead, let’s say Telltale is the place that finally cracked the “interactive movie” code.

Terminology aside (and my embarrassment at using it), for those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 25 years, the true interactive movie has been the holy grail for a lot of developers and, now we know, the experience of choice for a lot of players. And Telltale’s better at it than anyone else.

I know there’s no great insight in trotting out the hoary old chestnut: “interactive movie.” (I fully expect a fair amount of grief about even typing those words from the deeper thinkers among you.) But I think an accurate hoary old chestnut is better than lumping Telltale’s work in with clearly categorizable narrative games that function in fundamentally different ways and offer players fundamentally different kinds of experiences.

One final semi-relevant thought (and now I really am wrapping up): A large part of Telltale’s success probably stems from the familiarity normal people – i.e., non-gamers – have with existing media like movies and television. People get movies and TV and, therefore, have a high level of comfort with a work that looks like a movie or TV show and feels like a movie or TV show – but one that can be redirected in simple, safe yet still compelling ways by the viewer. A lot of developers – I’ll include myself here – would be well-served by focusing a little more on familiarity and the comfort of our audience. Going to them rather than insisting they come to us makes a lot of sense, something Telltale gets (and I do not…).

So does Telltale make “games” or “experiences” or “interactive movies?” Honestly, despite having just spent pages making some sort of case, I really don’t much care what you call them. Call them poodles for all I care. As long as Telltale keeps doing what they do as well as they do it, I’ll be a happy guy.

BTW, I was going to end this post with something along the lines of “If you want to comment on this, I’m eager to engage in a dialogue about Telltale, games and narrative. However, I beg you to refrain from using the terms ‘narratology’ or ‘ludology.’ Those words make my skin crawl. I’ll probably ignore any comments that go there.” I was going to do that, but thought it might be too obnoxious, so I didn’t. Well, now that I think about it, I just did end my post with that comment (foolishly, no doubt). First mine, triggered, I guess. Have at me.

I’m done now. Got to go play some Game of Thrones

DSGA year one recap, part 5

6 Jul

We had a focus. We had a staff. We had students. So how’d the first year go?

The short version of the story is it went really well. Things weren’t perfect of course – on day one of the first year I told our 20 participants they were part of the DSGA Beta 1.0 and part of their job would be to help us make Beta 2.0 better. They did a terrific job of that, letting us know through their words and actions where we were succeeding and where we were falling short. Let’s just say they weren’t shy!

On the plus side, our plan to split each day into morning lectures and afternoon lab worked pretty much as planned.

In the morning, we lectured, laying out the concepts of leadership and management. We covered the mundane (what the heck is leadership and how does it differ from management?… how do you brainstorm?… how do you create a compelling resume; how do you interview; and how do you network effectively to enhance the odds of getting a job?… even how to run a meeting so everyone isn’t driven mad!).

We covered, well, whatever the opposite of mundane is (how to conceptualize, flesh out and pitch a concept… how to deal with interpersonal conflict… how to communicate across disciplines… how to turn a bunch of individuals of varying skill levels and diverse backgrounds into a great team with shared goals… how to set up the conditions in which positive studio cultures form… what bumps, challenges and changing expectations you should expect to encounter as you advance in your career…).

And in between, we covered the nuts and bolts of project management (strengths and weaknesses of various team structures… strengths and weaknesses of various project management methodologies… how to work with QA… how to deal with requests from executives who can be, let’s be honest, random at times… how to parse a P&L…)

Obviously, we tried to provide tools for taking the conceptual aspects of these leadership and management issues so they could be applied in the practical environment of actual game development, as experienced in the lab.

The lab itself worked pretty well, too.

For sure, those of us who’d been through building start-ups felt right at home. We had too many people in too little space. We had people with varying levels of knowledge of the their disciplines as well as the softer skills necessary to make a game together. We had people feeling each other out to determine who would be buddies and who wouldn’t. We had people complaining about chairs and where they had to sit. Like I said – it was just like a start-up studio.

But there were some differences as well. Because of our lecture schedule, we didn’t start lab time – actual game development – until after lunch (1-ish), and though the participants all felt they were working hard, their experience didn’t exactly reflect the reality of game development, where hours tend to be long and expectations high. Let me be clear – several of our students put in a lot of time and worked as hard as I would expect any professional to work. But there was a definite tendency for the lab to empty out around 5 p.m. except for our stalwarts. The staff expectation was that the whole team would be in there longer, working until tasks were completed rather than to a time limit. Next year, we’re going to make sure our dedicated few don’t get left alone “after hours!”

Another big difference between real world development and the DSGA was our commitment to giving everyone a chance to lead the team of 20. To accomplish that, we put into practice a plan involving a rotating leadership structure. Every three weeks a different pair of participants would take on the roles of Producer and Game Director (Creative Lead), and those new leads could (if they made their case to the staff) actually change the team structure during their tenure. In practice, this didn’t happen often, but it did happen. Though roles and team structures do change in the real world, they rarely change that often or that regularly, and participants had a hard time maintaining the kind of consistency you look for, both on the management and creative sides of game development. We have some ideas about how to address the artificiality of that approach in year two, without compromising on the idea that everyone will get a chance to lead the team of 20.

Finally, as far as the class/lab split went, we didn’t always see people putting into practice in lab the lessons learned in class. There were communication, skill level and creative clashes exactly like you’d expect in the real world. But where we expected everyone to go right from concept to practice to address those challenges more effectively than untrained (or experientially trained) leaders might, some of the participants had trouble with that. To be clear, many of them were able to use the tools we gave them to lead our diverse team members effectively, but others of them foundered when putting things into practice. This coming year, we’re going to use a lot more exercises and roleplaying to ensure that more of our participants are successful in bridging that concept/practice gap, to their benefit and to the benefit of team and project.

At the end of the day, despite some hiccups, I think it’s safe to say that all 20 participants left with an understanding of how hard the jobs of project leadership and management are. They learned how hard it is to keep a team motivated during an extended development cycle. They learned what it means to be an effective team member and a leader regardless of title and position on a team. All wins…

And here’s one of the most amazing things to me: Despite hiccups, despite radical (though not unrealistic) creative changes along the way and some team restructurings implemented by different leadership duos, the end result was a complete, playable game – The Calm Before (which you can check out here: I told everyone at UT that a completed game wasn’t the product they should expect at the end of the program – the students and what they learned would be the product – but a good, fun, replayable game DID come out of it. (It actually had some of the multi-solution/multi-path stuff I love so much in games.)

So, that’s the high level on class and lab. There were two other aspects of the program that I thought worked really, really well – mentoring and guest visits.

Taking that first one first, the staff met with participants one-on-one on a regular basis, discussing the unique challenges each of them experienced, as a team member and as a lead. The personal and professional growth I saw in our participants as a result of these one-on-ones was inspiring. Of all the things we did, I think these sessions may have been the most valuable.

And then there were guest lectures. We had over 30 industry folks come in to talk about their experiences as game development leaders, as entrepreneurs, as business experts, as discipline leads, and as industry pundits. I’ve been making games for over 30 years and I learned a TON from these folks. Each guest stuck around for an informal lunch, where students could ask questions, engage in conversations and just hang out with people most game developers never even get to meet in their entire careers. I mean, we had the Creative Director from Harmonix come by… founders of Bioware, Bethesda and Certain Affinity… the co-creator of Words with Friends… the President of the Entertainment Software Association… legends like Richard Garriott… industry analysts like Michael Pachter… experts in analytics, HR, game law, contracts, games as a service and even more. The varied viewpoints were critical to what we were trying to accomplish at the DSGA – “there’s no one right way” was one of our mantras – and our students were able to make some amazing connections.

Oh, yeah, and when the program came to an end, many of our students made effective use of the tools we taught, the career fair we organized and the networking opportunities they had and got some really good jobs – at Telltale, Gearbox, Turbine, Disney, 2K and elsewhere.

So that’s it. The first DSGA year is behind us and we’re rocketing toward year two. There’s more information available at and you can always check my blog posts from December 2013 through April of 2014 – If you already know you want to join us you can apply at But act quickly – the application deadline is just a week away and the class is already filling up!

And with that, maybe I can now get back to blogging about things other than the DSGA!

DSGA year one recap, part 4

29 Jun

Now that my little foray into the messy world of VR is sort of almost please let it be over, it’s time to get back to the DSGA recap. A lot happened in our first year and I still want to talk about it.

When last we spoke, I described how the DSGA found its focus and how we found our staff. Our next challenge was finding students – a program without students doesn’t make much sense, obviously.

We knew what we wanted:

  • People right out of school who wanted to continue their education (without digging themselves a deeper hole of student debt) and who wanted to learn things they hadn’t learned in undergraduate or graduate programs.
  • People from industry – mainstream or indie, we didn’t care either way – who realized they needed to become better team members and team leaders if they were going to achieve the success they desired without spending a lifetime acquiring the necessary skills.
  • People who were so damn good and with such obvious leadership potential that we had no choice but to admit them. I mean, I didn’t want to be the guy who turned down the next Richard Garriott or Chris Roberts just because they lacked an appropriate degree!

But regardless of where these folks came from, we wanted only people who aspired to and had the potential to grow into leaders – official, titled leaders or people with the ability to lead from any position on a team.

Where the heck do you find such people?

It wasn’t rocket science: We spread the word through personal connections the staff had built up over seventy years of game development experience. We asked our Development Council of industry notables to contact their contacts. I went on the road, speaking at a variety of colleges and universities offering game development courses and degrees. We took out ads on Gamasutra. We got booths at conferences to pass out fliers, get email addresses and press the flesh. We built a website and a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. I blogged up a storm. In fact, if you want more information about the program plan, check out the series of blog posts I posted last year (see below for more info) – most of that information’s still valid and useful if you’re thinking about applying.

Out of all that effort, we got a ton of applications, complete with resumes, statements of purpose, portfolios and descriptions of work done on teams and in solo efforts. We played a bunch of submitted games. We argued amongst ourselves and, ultimately, came up with a list of people we wanted to talk to.

We did a bunch of phone screens – 60 or so of them – approaching the process much as we would have if we’d been hiring for a real game team, with the added twist of sussing out leadership aspirations and potential. We looked for people who would be a good team fit, or a challenging fit, or people we thought we could help grow in ways that would further their careers.

Finally, we made offers. Astonishingly, we had a nearly 100% acceptance rate – we made an offer; the offer was accepted. In all cases save one. Frankly, we were pleased but shocked.

We ended up with three people who’d been running their own studios but wanted to learn how to build a sustainable, growing business. We had six who came to us with industry experience at studios large and small. We had nine with educational backgrounds and two who, well, let’s say they fell into the “other” category. We had people with no college degree and others with Masters degrees. We had writers, level builders, UX/UI folks, 3D artists, 2D artists, modelers and coders. And, without going into detail, we ended up with a more diverse set of people than I’ve had at most of the studios I’ve run – and we didn’t try for that; we simply brought in the best people we could and the diversity issue became something of a non-problem.

Anyway, by the end of summer, we had our people. Classes were scheduled to start on August 27th and before that day arrived, we had to figure out how to mold all these people – people used to being in charge – into a functioning development team! We’ll come back to how we did that, and how the first year really went in the next post.

In the meantime, there’s still time to apply for next year’s class. The DSGA is looking for candidates for the 2015-2016 school year. More information about the Academy is available at Even more information can be found in some of my earlier blog posts from last year, starting in December 2013 and continuing until April of 2014 – And if you’re already sold, to apply go to

One last (I hope) word about VR

27 Jun

I got an email this morning from a friend who’s working in VR. His comments made it clear that I hadn’t been particularly clear in some of my statements and, certainly, not in my motivation for making them.

So here’s one (last?) set of observations/clarifications on VR and then, if you folks will let me, I’m going to sit back, watch what happens and let history take its course:

1. As an individual, I find VR cool, interesting and compelling. I’m not anti-VR. The content is coming, I have no doubt – I know too many super-smart, super-creative people working to create the unique content that will make the VR experience desirable if not irresistible.

2. As a developer, speaking strictly personally, I’m not much interested in making VR games. That could change, but right now I’m interested in other things. That isn’t to say other developers should follow my lead. I’m just a guy whose head is in a different space these days. (Mostly a mobile space, if you want to know…)

3. As a friend, I hope I’m wrong about VR’s long-term commercial future in the game space. I have lots of friends working on VR projects and I genuinely, truly, unreservedly want their hard work in the VR space to bring them satisfaction and success.

4. As a consumer, I’m torn. I’ll probably buy some sort of VR gear when I can because I’m affluent enough and enough of a geek to be intrigued by new tech, cool content and potential new futures. The question is, am I anti-social enough not to worry too much about isolation from the world or how I look to anyone observing me wearing a goofy headset? Probably, but I’m still wrestling with that.

5. As an investor (not that I am one!) I’d be pushing VR developers to explain how they’re going to overcome non-technical challenges for which I, personally, see no answers. There seems to be an attitude in the press and among fans, at least, of “If you build it they will come.” I suspect that same attitude prevails among VR hardware and software developers, but I don’t know – either because I haven’t paid close enough attention or because they’re just not talking. “If you build it they will come” works really well in movies but not so well in real life. This is the heart of what I’ve been saying about VR and despite trying to be as provocative as I can be without getting downright offensive, I still haven’t heard anyone address the ergonomic and user challenges VR faces – all anyone wants to talk about is content. Maybe there are answers to the non-content questions, maybe not, but I’d love to see people in and out of the field at least try to address them.

So that’s it. To summarize: I’m a VR fan but not a true-believer. I believe VR will be a game-changer (as it were) in many aspects of our future lives but not necessarily in gaming. I want to see VR succeed as a gaming device, but see potential roadblocks being ignored. I see history working against this new tech, but hope smart people can write a new kind of history.

In closing, I’ll just say that if anyone working on VR stuff wants to show off their work I’m always up for demos. Despite appearances, I’m not the enemy and I am interested in what you’re doing. Like I said, I think VR is challenged, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t damn cool…

Thoughts on E3 2015

20 Jun

I still have more to say about the DSGA’s first year, but I wanted to offer some thoughts on the recent E3 show before it became old news.

For starters, either consoles are far from being dead, as many believe, or the hardware guys are exceptionally good at pretending to be alive, kicking and relevant. I’m not sure which is true.

Content-wise, I went to the show expecting non-stop sequels. To some extent, I was right. You had to work hard to avoid all the games with a 4, 5, 6 or 14 after their names. I will never understand why people put up with what basically amounts to the same old same old gameplay. But put up with it they do – the crowds lined up for some sequels were ridiculous.

It was also hard not to notice all the great graphics. (I mean Forza 6… the new Tomb Raider game… holy cow.) Having said that, there were times when I literally couldn’t tell what gorgeous game I was looking at if I didn’t look at the signage. That was kind of sad.

Couple of mysteries:

With the exception of Oculus Rift, which attracted the usual enthusiastic crowds, I really didn’t see much interest in VR or AR. (I didn’t see Microsoft’s Hololens, but everything I heard says it’s pretty special so take everything I say here with a grain of salt.) The other VR/AR stuff seemed like a big ho-hum to me. Maybe that’s just my prejudice – I think VR’s going to be a fad (again) and at best a minor part of gaming’s future, not unlike stereoscopic 3D, which I also called out as a fad. (I still think I’m right about 3D. Check back with me in five years and you can tell me what a boob I was about VR.)

And where was all the mobile stuff? I saw a smattering of mobile games here and there, but I expected a lot more.

In terms of content, there were lots of multiplayer shooters… lots of multiplayer battle games… lots of old classics making a return with modern graphics. Yawn.

But hidden among all the old hat were some gems of originality. Bear in mind that it’s impossible to see everything at E3, so I’m sure I missed a ton of interesting stuff. Also, bear in mind that I was unwilling to stand in line for six hours (or pull in favors) to see The Last Guardian. And I couldn’t find any evidence that No Man’s Sky was being shown. Those caveats out of the way, here’s what stood out for me at E3 2015:

First, the console guys are clearly serious about indie games and showed a lot of  them – a LOT. That was great to see.

In terms of specific games, let’s start with Cuphead. Simply put, Cuphead rocked. I’m not usually a graphics-first guy, but I’ll make an exception here. Cuphead looked unique… absolutely phenomenal. Maybe it’s just that I’m a geek for classic animation, but I cannot wait to play it, even though the gameplay will likely be too hard for me as a twitch-skill challenged gamer.

Over at the Nintendo booth, it was nice to see a Zelda Tri-Force Heroes. It’s ALWAYS nice to see a new Zelda game. And Mario Maker is totally cool if for no other reason than the possibility that normal humans will find out how hard it is to make games…

In the realm of traditional mainstream publishers, two other  things stood out:

For Honor, from Ubisoft, is a sword-fighting game that looks like it’ll offer something new in the fighting game genre. Looking forward to that one.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how cool Deus Ex: Mankind Divided looked over at Square Enix. Nice to see DX in such good hands.

And then we come to Indicade. Ah, Indicade… If you want originality, that’s the place to go. There was plenty to see there, but three games stood out, all for different reasons. (Differentness is part of what makes indie games cool.)

Wattam from Funomena and Katamari Damacy designer, Keita Takahashi, is just crazy unlike any other game I’ve ever seen. (Frankly, I worry that it’s so different, it might run into some commercial difficulties, but let’s hope for the best.) Wattam is a wonder. Soulful in a medium that’s often soulless… a work of childlike wonder… a real sense of discovery… and often laugh-out-loud funny. I just hope people get it. I’m not even going to describe the graphics or gameplay. I don’t have the words. Just trust me on this one…

Chambara is kind of a stealth fighter. (Like Wattam, it’s hard to describe, which I love about it.) One player character is flat white; the other is flat black. And the world is all flat white and flat black, too, so your character blends completely into the background. Before you can deal with your enemy, you have to find him (or her, gender being kind of a non-issue here). I’ve never seen a game that uses color as mechanic and graphics as gameplay. Very impressive (even if I sucked at playing it).

In Tribal & Error you have to help out a bunch of stone age people who speak a language you can’t understand. When they speak, they display a variety of symbols above their heads. You have to figure out what those symbols mean, string them together to construct sentences and get the stone agers to perform various actions to get themselves out of trouble, (Man, this game is ALSO hard to describe.) A game that’s about language learning that involves no real world languages is something I’ve never seen before. Here’s the paradox: I found Tribal & Error incredibly frustrating to play, but, despite that, I wanted to keep on playing. Language learning as mechanic. I wish I’d thought of that.

So. E3. Mixed bag. A handful of interesting mainstream games. Several interesting indie games (apologies to the games I didn’t mention here…).

I’m left thinking the games medium is in pretty okay shape, but it’s likely to be a very different medium before too long.

Okay, next time, it’s back to the DSGA first year.

DSGA year one recap, part 3

19 Jun

Last time, I talked about finding a focus for the DSGA, one that met an industry need and differentiated us from all the other programs out there. Once that vision was in place it was time to find people who could help take it from conception to reality. In that sense, the situation wasn’t much different than the complex but fascinating process of putting together a game team.

I knew I needed people with real and recent industry experience – people who had built teams, run studios, managed real projects. I’ve never seen the point in having instructors who’ve never worked on a game, or who worked on games ten years ago. Even though lessons of leadership are, to an extent, timeless, the games industry changes so rapidly that recent experience seemed like a must if for no other reason than to provide appropriate context for the lessons we want to teach.

In addition, I needed staff members whose experience didn’t just mirror my own, but differed from it, in terms of the scope and type of games made, the size and makeup of teams managed and the studio/publisher cultures in which they had worked. Varied real-world experience was critical to me and, I thought, to the mission of the DSGA.

Why is that? Well, I’ve hired lots of developers straight out of school and a surprising (and, frankly, distressing) number of grads come to professional development with the idea that there’s One Right Way to do things. I mean, they learned it from their teachers so it has to be right, right? (The power of teachers is pretty remarkable, actually, which offers great benefits, but at some cost…)

Certainty about the One Right Way has always frustrated me. First of all, every team and every project is unique. What worked on one project might not be appropriate on the next. Second, every studio and publisher is different – often to the extent of having radically different vocabularies to describe the same things. And finally, speaking strictly for myself, my teams and studios have typically made different kinds of games than a lot of other developers so, not surprisingly, we’ve had a different way of thinking about and doing things than others. Applying a “one size fits all” philosophy just doesn’t make sense.

But I only know what I know – my way. And my way was born in the crucible of triple-A PC and console games. I’ve never worked on anything small, anything mobile or anything multiplayer. So, I needed people with different experiences, who’d disagree with me on all sorts of topics. (We’ll talk about how that worked out during our first year in another blog post. For now, suffice to say, differentness was a key criterion for me in the staff search.)

Finding people with recent real world experience – and different experiences, to boot – wasn’t easy. The search involved months of outreach and interviews. I talked to a lot of people! I talked to some great teachers with great academic experience. I found great developers without proven teaching skills. Ultimately, I found the two people I wanted and needed to make the DSGA a success.

The first staffer to sign on was Joshua Howard. Joshua was a 15 year Microsoft veteran, filling a variety of positions there – Program Manager… studio head at MS’s Carbonated Games… Executive Producer for the Microsoft Flight team… He also put in some time as Executive Producer at Crytek. That was the kind of professional resume I was looking for. And talk about different experience! But there was more.

Joshua had been a regular speaker at GDC Online conferences and IGDA Leadership Forums. His topic of choice? Leadership. He had studied the topic more deeply than I ever had and was able to articulate core leadership concepts in a way I never could. (Face it, for better or worse – mostly worse, I suspect! – I’m a fly by the seat of the pants guy…) If you’re interested in some of his talks, check them out on Slideshare at and if you want to check out his blog, it’s at He hasn’t updated it in a while (and feels appropriately guilty about it) but what’s there is well worth reading.

Oh, and I’m totally jealous of Joshua’s lecturing ability and style. Damn it.

Then it was on to the search for staffer #2. That search led me to David “D.S.” Cohen. David’s background is as different from mine as Joshua’s was, and different from Joshua’s as well.

David comes to the DSGA with 16 years of videogame experience. He started in 1999 as a Marketing Coordinator on the publishing and licensing side before moving into Producer and Senior Producer roles for companies large and small (Warner Bros. Interactive/WB Games, Brash Entertainment, Oddworld Inhabitants, National Geographic Society, and Schell Games). He’s also a student of video game history (see writing and editing series of articles about classic video games for

David’s experience runs the gamut from small projects to large ones… casual, educational and elearning… ports and licenses… mobile, PC and console.., online, multiplayer, single player… Like I said, very different from me!

Oh, and David wrote a book about game production – Producing Games: From Business and Budgets to Creativity and Design (

Both David and Joshua were clearly committed to helping leaders-to-be achieve both personal and professional growth. I was sold and convinced them to join me at the DSGA.

We had a staff.

Next time, we’ll talk about students.

DSGA year one recap, part 2

8 Jun

Last time, I described the challenges we faced in creating the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. Today I want to focus on one of them – focus… as in the finding of ours.

The clear focus was relatively simple to define. Thinking back on the 31 years I’d been making games I saw a pretty obvious training gap that needed to be filled.

Simply put, the video game industry has always done a terrible job training its leaders and managers. It’s definitely a sink or swim business! There’s very little systematic thinking that goes into the creation and communication of a clear, compelling vision… the conditions conducive to the creation of a positive, effective team culture… and there’s virtually no training in how individuals who aren’t yet in titled positions of leadership contribute to culture creation or how they can function as maximally effective team members within the constraints imposed by that culture.

I’m the last guy who’d say on-the-job experience isn’t valuable. Clearly, it is – heck, it’s not like I got any training except what I got from folks like Richard Garriott and Steve Jackson when I worked for them. But it takes time – time that experienced in-house mentors could spend on, you know, games. On top of that, the ad hoc nature of our non-training approach to leadership development does little to ensure that anyone will succeed. And, finally, assuming people will learn on the job all but ensures that a lot of the wrong lessons will be learned (or, at least, that lessons learned at one company, may not be applicable at another).

Now, before you go telling me that leaders are born, not made, think about where we’d be if, say, the military decided to let leaders simply emerge entirely by virtue of time spent in uniform. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it? So the military trains its leaders through the application of time-tested processes.

Ditto for many major corporations. In fact, lots of game developers and publishers are beginning to look for certified Project Managers to keep game developers on track, acknowledging the value of training, at least on the management side of things.

If you do a little digging, you’ll discover that there’s a lot that can be learned about management and, perhaps more surprising, there’s a lot of systematic thought on the making of great leaders and the creation of great teams for those leaders to lead.

With that in mind, a focus on leadership, management and team creation/participation seemed like something that would differentiate the DSGA from most, if not all, game development programs out there. And consulting with the members of our Development Council, we determined that it would even benefit existing developers and publishers, as well as newly-minted development studios on the indie side of things.

So we had our focus on leadership and management training. This was a gap that needed to be filled, and we were determined to fill it. Now all we needed to do was find the right people to teach the ways of leadership and management. (And I do mean “ways” – there’s no one right way, something I kept very much in mind when looking for faculty members and something of critical importance to the DSGA program…)

Next time, I’ll dive into the challenge of finding faculty members.

And, in the meantime, remember that we’re looking for candidates for our second year of leadership and management training. More information about the Academy is available at More information can also be found in some of my blog posts from last year, starting in December 2013 and continuing until April of 2014 – And if you’re already sold, to apply go to

DSGA year one recap, part 1

7 Jun

A year. It’s been a year. A year since I blogged. A year since we made the decisions about who would be admitted to the first class of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. Almost a year since the 2014/2015 school year started. And it’s been a month since we completed our first year. Where the heck does the time go?…

It’s been an eventful year, that’s for sure. One in which we learned a lot. And I mean a lot…

In a sense, the words “be careful what you wish for” apply perfectly. Bottom line? I decided to take a hiatus from game development because I was looking for some new and different challenges. I’ve certainly gotten them!

So what sort of challenges did we face in creating a brand new game development program?

The first challenge was simply figuring out what the DSGA should be all about. I didn’t see much point in simply duplicating what other game development programs do. Plenty of colleges and universities do a fine job of teaching people the nuts and bolts of making games. Trying to compete with such well-established programs seemed likely to end up in us getting crushed. The DSGA needed a unique focus.

The second challenge was finding the right people to teach leadership skills. I could have looked for faculty members with a ton of teaching experience as the number one qualification, but I knew what I really needed was people with real, hands-on (and recent) game development and/or studio management experience. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy finding people with those qualifications who were at a point in their lives where they were ready to give back to an industry that had done so much for them. I had to lure some people away from development and convince them that academia offered satisfactions they couldn’t find any other way.

The third challenge was finding students. We had a brand new, untested program and we needed to, first, get the word out and, second, convince people to give our fledgling program a shot.

Finally, from a pool of potential candidates we had to identify the 20 best and brightest from among our applicants. We needed young developers with aspirations and raw aptitude to lead.

With a little luck and a lot of hard work, all of those challenges were overcome. To be honest, things went even better than I hoped they would.

Next time, I’ll tell you how we addressed each of those challenges.

In the meantime, bear in mind that the DSGA is looking for candidates for our second year of leadership and management training. If you’re interested but want details, go to our website – If you want even more information, check out my blog posts from last year, starting in December 2013 and going pretty regularly until April of 2014 – You can also like our Facebook page at
. Finally, if you’re just ready to apply, go to