Long Time No Siggraph

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 (abi.exdream.com). 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.

13 Responses to “Long Time No Siggraph”

  1. Jennifer Goddard Says:


    luv to hear more about “Game Words mind map exercise”

  2. Morgan Ramsay Says:

    You forgot about the panel discussion with Raph, John, and Steve already!?

  3. hot92 » Long Time No Siggraph Says:

    […] all the details here […]

  4. wspector Says:

    To Morgan Ramsay: I can’t BELIEVE I forgot about a panel I was actually on. (Basically, I wasn’t taking notes during my panel so, given my sieve-like mind and utter dependence on note cards and/or a PDA, it didn’t make it into my Sandbox report.)

    The evening panel –When Worlds Collide — was a ton of fun, of course and (I hope) at least a little informative. Seems like we talked about a little of everything — advantages of big companies versus small companies… multiplayer and singleplayer games… all sorts of stuff.

    For me, the cool thing about the panel wasn’t so much the specifics but how much it reminded me of the conversations my developer buddies have in hotel rooms, late into the night, at GDC and other conferences. It was like a public version of a private activity — an insider’s look at what developers talk about when the cameras aren’t on… except, with the cameras on!

    There’s video of the panel available online somewhere, isn’t there? Anyone know where it is? A link here would probably make sense…

  5. Morgan Ramsay Says:

    The video’s embedded on this page. By the way, I sent you a few e-mails to your JPS address. I was just wondering if you received them?

  6. mikearthur Says:

    Hey Warren, I’m interested by your views on the legal problems of open-source software.

    More and more businesses now are making use of this software in their core products and their haven’t been any notable legal problems that I have seen. The only “problem” is those who use open-source software in a way that violates the license, in which case they are ALWAYS contacted quietly outside of the courts, asked to release the source and if they don’t legal action is taken but no damages are pressed for. Compare this to if you violate the license on most vendor’s products.

    I don’t think open-source is the answer in gaming, I don’t think an open-source creative approach really works for the complex narrative required in games but for tools it seems a bit silly to write off using the plethora of valuable tools that are out there.

    OpenAL and SDL (both open-source) seem to be good enough for iD and Epic’s engines, two fairly major players, and various other companies. Almost all multiplayer games have Linux dedicated servers available which will, inevitably, have to at least interface with open-source software if not use it.

    Hope I haven’t seemed too antagonistic, I just think some of the perceived legal uncertainties are are best exaggerated and at worst outright lies, so felt the need to correct some. 🙂

  7. mark3000 Says:

    I know with Playstation 3, I think they have a dev platform of choice with the new Unreal Engine (C++) that was based off of the Reality Engine and it’s creator. XML is really the thing that has made dev tools so much easier (larger levels) since the first Unreal Ed 3 came out in 2003 and it became harder to use all that mesh, shader or extra data. In 2003 I thought the Totality engine was real cool from the Republic: The Revolution game though, although I am not sure if they used XML. Have to start playing that now from my OFFICIAL copy.
    The XNA Game Studio Express seems to be geared for the hobby market now as I don’t think they have a major game out for it out now. I don’t think there is a preferred XBOX dev platform now except maybe Visual Studio itself. Teehee. Playstation devs use the GNU compiler/OpenGL mainly. Unreal ED is OpenGL.

    If you’re into Silverlight, I would pick up a copy of the book. I really like the C# community too, especially that ASP.NET is so stable. It’s nice structure if you don’t want to use PHP or an alternative servlet.

    I played a Quake 2 demo with the new Java, that is very similar to XNA or C#; and I was very surprised at how smooth and stable it ran. Seemed to duck out to the desktop quicker back and forth.

    I might use C# for some Internet based 3D graphics for now until a major game is sold with it on XBOX or just use it partially. I have some little tools I did with C#, but didn’t submit them to the Microsoft Codeplex website which is very .NET, open source heavy. (Silverlight seems pretty sweet, and the new Java VM is allot better now as well because they copied the .NET compiler. I think they might be using Silverlight on Netflix.com and it really is a great player.

    .NET is used partially in some pro games now I think, like DnD online. I noticed you have to have .NET installed for it. Maybe using it for the GUI.
    I use Java to mess around with the Fereemind MindMap software.

    Playstation 3 Development section from Wikipedia:
    The PlayStation 3 is based on open and publicly available application programming interfaces. Sony has selected several technologies and arranged several sublicensing agreements to create an advanced software development kit for developers.
    Open standards for OpenGL, matrix algorithms, and scene data are specified by the Khronos Group, and are intended to work with nVidia’s Cg programming language. Scene data are stored with COLLADA v1.4, an open, XML-based file format.[89] Rendering uses PSGL, a modified version of OpenGL ES 1.0 (OpenGL ES 2.0 compliant except for the use of Cg instead of GLSL), with extensions specifically aimed at the PS3.[90] Other specifications include OpenMAX, a collection of fast, cross-platform tools for general “media acceleration,” such as matrix calculations, and OpenVG, for hardware-accelerated 2D vector graphics. These specifications have GPL, free for any use, and/or commercial implementations by third parties.
    Sublicensed technology includes complete game engines, physics libraries, and special libraries. Engines include Epic’s Unreal engine 3.0. Physics libraries include AGEIA’s PhysX SDK, NovodeX,[91] and Havok’s physics and animation engines.[92] Other tools include Nvidia’s Cg 1.5 (a C-like shading language, which HLSL was based upon), SpeedTree RT by Interactive Data Visualization, Inc. (high-quality virtual foliage in real time), and Kynogon’s Kynapse 4.0 “large scale A.I.”[93]
    Sony has considered using IPv6, the next generation of the Internet Protocol.[94]
    Some titles, such as Genji: Days of the Blade and Ridge Racer 7, allow users to install 4–5 GB of game data to the hard drive, which dramatically improves load times. In Genji, for example, the cached data reduces load times from 15 seconds to around 4 seconds.[95]
    Recently, Sony announced a new tool set that will be free to all developers known as “PlayStation Edge” that will offer highly optimized lightweight libraries for CELL SPUs. These libraries will provide code for animation, compression (expected to greatly improve loading times), and many more features. The package will also provide ‘GCM Replay’, a powerful RSX profiling tool to allow developers to gain the most out of the PlayStation 3’s graphics chip.[96]”

    Allot of open source tools are listed except for the major editor like Unreal ED and the Physics like Havoc. Basically the major games are closed source I think.

  8. lazarusledd Says:

    Wow I collect quotes too. Though, while I’m not poking myself with them, they tend to drown in my subconcious.

    That qoute you snatched reminded me of a british comic series. I guessing you may know of it since you recommended some BBC radio channel =D

    Remember RED DWARF and the episode where they visited the oposite world (Earth). Specificly, the town Nodnol 😆

    My oh my, i gotta watch that episode =) The scene where Cat takes a piss in the bush takes the whole new meaning when looked though the scope of that quote =D

  9. sylvesterink Says:

    mikearthur makes some valid points. Also note that the main reason companies are getting sued is that they’re taking the source code from whatever open-source project they plan on using, altering it, and then producing a closed-source game. For example, say a company got took the source code for one of the open-source game engines out there, modified it, then published a game using it as a proprietary engine. (Or even worse, marketing out the engine as their own.) Under many open source licenses (such as GPL) this is a violation. (However, there are some open-source licenses that do allow this.) The important thing is to read and understand the license before using the software.

    However, if a company were to instead use open source APIs, such as OpenGL (for graphics), OpenAL (for sound), and SDL (for everything else), it would be completely legal for them to release a closed-source game, mainly because most open-source licenses allow this to be done. (That’s the purpose those APIs were released after all.) The added benefit of using these open libraries as opposed to a closed library, (such as DirectX) is that it’s very easy to make your game cross-platform. In fact, using the aforementioned APIs, I’ve been able to compile games on Windows, OSX, and Linux without changing a single line of code. Granted this might change for a larger game project, but the changes wouldn’t be that hard to implement. (The worst I can think of is writing installers to work across multiple platforms.) Many open APIs are used this way. mikearthur already mentioned iD and Epic’s games, so to add to that, Battlefield 2 uses OpenAL, Supreme Commander uses LUA scripting, and MANY games use the C++ Boost libraries.

    As for using open source software to create game content, such as Blender for 3d models, or Audacity for sound, or DevC++ as an IDE, there are absolutely no restrictions. (Well, in general there aren’t. As always, it’s a good idea to skim over the license and make sure there aren’t any content creation restrictions for corporate use. However, this is uncommon with most of the OSS projects out there.)

    This doesn’t necessarily mean that a company SHOULD use open-source software/APIs/whatever. Sometimes there’s just no alternative to using a proprietary tool. (I know that there are many people who prefer using Photoshop to The Gimp, simply because it provides some tools that they can’t live without.) But it is nice to have an open, free alternative available.

    On a final note, there’s also the possibility of open-sourcing the code to your own game. There are several companies that have done this. iD regularly releases its games and engines as open-source after a couple of years. The Freespace games were released as open-source as well. (Though in most of these cases it was only the code, not the content, such as art, levels, sound, etc.) The importance of this is that the community will now be able to keep the game alive much longer than it would have stayed originally. In addition, it’s easier for the game to be preserved for posterity. (The community will often go to great lengths to make sure the game remains playable on all platforms for many years to come.) Both Freespace 2 and the old Quake games are testament to that. Granted this wouldn’t be a feasible option if the game used proprietary 3rd party code, such as the Source or Unreal engines, but it’s definitely an option if all the code was produced in-house.

    In any case, I hope that gives you folks a bit of insight into the workings of the open-source community, and how it isn’t quite so likely to result in legal issues. Of course, I’m hardly the most knowledgeable guy about this, but it wouldn’t be all that hard to come across more detailed info.

  10. Jeff On Games » Blog Archive » Open Source Says:

    […] found it interesting a few weeks back when Warren posted something about not wanting to use open source projects because of fear of legal […]

  11. tymo Says:

    Hey Warren, update your .txt quote collection like I just did! “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” was originally said by Existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard not this Erik Hollnagel fellow.

  12. kharza Says:

    On a previous project I used VMR9 for dx9 video playback, and we were considering using the open source xvid codec to play back the in game vids. This was the “poker school” section of the poker game Stacked.

    We ended up getting shot down by the publisher’s legal. However, they were ok with using the Speex codec for the voice chat. Seems like the devil is in the license agreement details.

    Good to see the G3D name being tossed around! I worked on that back in the Eclipse days.

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