Archive for October, 2007

Long Time No Siggraph

October 22, 2007

Once again, I find myself playing catch-up…  The demands of work and teaching the Master Class in Video Games and Digital Media at the University of Texas at Austin and, oh, you know, trying to have a life… well, that stuff all catches up with you. So here’s a catch-up post (probably the first of several). This time: Siggraph Sandbox


Drew Davidson, from Carnegie Mellon, asked if I’d give one of two keynote lectures at Siggraph’s annual game-focused event. The conference was held the weekend before Siggraph proper, in San Diego, this year, back in August. (Have I really waited two months to blog about this? Sheesh…) Anyway, the event was pretty cool. An interesting mix of academic, artistic and commercial approaches to the problem of what videogames are/can be/should be. It’s been long enough since the event that I’d be lying if I remembered everything I intended to write about, but (luckily for me, maybe less so for you), I took some notes, so here are the high points, as I saw them in realtime at the show:

I gave a keynote on Emergent gameplay, one of my pet topics. I think there’s audio and/or video somewhere online. The talk went okay, I guess, though I was hugely annoyed that my two rehearsals (two more than I usually do before a talk) ran 50 and 55 minutes, respectively — within the time limit Drew gave me — but the actual talk ran longer. I had to edit on the fly. Once I get up in front of real people, I start improvising and taking every possible conversational branch and, before you know it, my tightly planned talk goes right out the window. Sigh…

Prototyping Panel

I loved this talk. As a compulsive over-documenter I’m always looking for strategies, tools, tips, cattle prods, anything that’ll get me out of Word and Wiki and remind me of something I already know, intellectually: Get stuff on the screen! Now!

  • One of the speakers mentioned a book entitled Professional XNA Game Programming by Benjanmin Nitschke ( I was intrigued enough to jot down the name and the url. Anyone read it? Should I go the extra mile and grab a copy myself?
  • Someone commented that developers should “stay away from 3d game prototypes — almost everything can be tested in 2d. Get to gameplay fast!” This has certainly been a mantra of some members of the Spore team over at Maxis. Probably worth considering. Frankly, though, I’ve never had much luck convincing teams to go this route.
  • Someone said that protypes should be hacked, then refactored as shipping product. Man, do I agree with that. One of the most successful prototyping effort I’ve ever been associated with was on Deus Ex. The team whipped out a complete, playable White House infiltration mission in a month or two. I’m talking multiple characters, interactive conversations, multiple solutions to problems — the whole DX shebang. It didn’t look great, sound great or (frankly) play great, but it showed how compelling the basic concept could be and made believers out of some folks at Eidos who (justifiably, I think) had some doubts.
  • Someone described a hack from the XNA community, using C# to implement a USB interface allowing use of Wiimote on PC’s. Oh, man, does that sound cool, or what?
  • Someone mentioned the work of designer Bill Buxton and his book on sketching. I did pick this up and gave it the quick once over. There’s some stuff of real value here. When I get done with the book, look for more info here. In the meantime, if you have any experience with Buxton’s sketch concept, comment here!
  • I have no idea why I jotted a note that reads “Odd Job Jack animatic on Google Video” but I did, so there you go.
  • Glenn Entis, from EA, gave a talk about a Pre-Production workshop he’s run at various EA studios. Sounds a bit like Marc LeBlanc’s perennial GDC Game Tuning Workshop. I know Marc’s stuff is cool and useful, and Glenn’s similar deal sounds great. The things I like the best, I think, are: The approach of throwing lots of challenges at participants with very short timelines (all 15-20 minutes long). Learning by doing. Doesn’t have to be software. Paper, improv… A “Game Words mind map exercise” — I’m all about mind maps these days.
  • I can’t recall if it was Glenn or someone else, but someone commented that rapid prototypes are “Fast, Cheap, Public and Physical.” Love it.

Keynote #2: John Klima 

John Klima, an interactive videogame artist, gave a swell demo/talk. I was pretty inspired by his work. I don’t know that there’s much that translates to my day-to-day work, but just the idea that people are doing interactive things that are so far outside the mainstream, but clearly related to what I do, is very cool. Check out Klima’s website.

Warren Goes All Random 

My notes then turn, briefly, into even more random comments than before. (I often scribble notes meant to remind me to go Google things, rather than actually provide information or content…)

  • Multidimensional scaling and mental mapping. Mapping the Mental Space of Video Games.
  • Manifold learning.
  • Zeno Franco
  • Great quote. (I collect quotes, too…): “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” – Erik Hollnagel

Tracy Fullerton

Tracy, from USC, gave a great talk — an overview and demo of her work with video artist, Bill Viola. I was, frankly, both inspired and a little intimidated. I mean, check out the Night Journey project and then tell me you can just go back to making shoot-em-ups and save-the-princess games… The look, the pacing, the tone, the seriousness of the project reminded me how much untapped potential videogames have, and how far we still have to go before we can say “we’ve arrived.” (BTW, if you haven’t already picked up a copy of Tracy’s Game Design Workshop book (with co-authors Chris Swain

Open Source 

The Open Source panel was interesting. I’m not sure how I feel about the open source movement. I mean, I want to be supportive of people so obviously inspired to Do the Right Thing, but when I consider using open source stuff in actual, shipping games, all I can think about is the possibility of serious legal entanglement. Still, the panel was thought-provoking, at the very least. Lots of talk about specific tools (Bullet open source physics… the G3D graphics engine… OpenCV computer vision code… Blender art tools… Kolada… It’s kind of amazing all this stuff is floating around out there just begging to be played with. If I were a university looking to get into game development education or a wannabe developer looking for a way to impress potential employers, I’d be all over this stuff. There’s probably a role for open source tools in prototyping, too, of course, but then I’m back to my fear of lawsuits!

You’re Too Kind… 

My final memory of Siggraph Sandbox is of an attendee (you know who you are!) who was entirely too kind. The guy gave me a DVD of a Hong Kong film called Battle of Wits. Wow. First, way too generous. Second, very cool film. He also turned me on to a terrific website (if you’re into all things Asian, as I am). If you share my interest in the Monkey King and Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the full range of Hong Kong cinema, check out Yes Asia.