Archive for March, 2008

We Interrupt this GDC retrospective…

March 27, 2008

I still need to finish writing up my thoughts about GDC (assuming anyone still cares, given how much time has passed since the show!), but I had to get something out there first:

The latest online issue of The Escapist magazine includes an article by Brenda Braithwaite called “The Myth of the Media Myth.” It’s quite good, a nice, personal, but generalizable look at the way “normal people” and the media see us, see games and gamers.

My attitude toward the “Games are evil” dialogue is to ignore it as much as possible — I see “us” winning in the end, as the population of people who don’t play games…er…go away (as in, well, to be frank, age and, eventually, die off…). The enemies of games aren’t, by and large, kids — they’re not even young adults. The folks who fear games and their effect on society are older, non-gamers, and like similar populations of the past — anti-movie folks, anti-TV folks, anti-rock-&-roll folks — time passes, the older folks go away and the medium the kids love and adults hate becomes mainstream. Then something comes along that the erstwhile kids don’t understand and the up-and-coming kids love and the cycle repeats itself.

This is all a long way of saying, “Wait. Games will become mainstream. The grownups can’t kill the medium. Time heals all wounds.”

At least that’s my attitude.

Brenda’s article takes a somewhat different view of things and I strongly encourage you to check her article out. But, the thing that really go me going was Clint Hocking’s closing comments on the subect, which I quote here (apologies to Brenda for blowing the Big Idea with which she chose to close her essay). It’s Brenda talking about Clint talking about the anti-game folks and what he’d like to see happen with them:

Clint Hocking says what I didn’t think to say at dinner that night. “If I had a choice, I would want to include these distrustful folks in finding solutions. I would prefer it if they understood. I would prefer it if they could see the long sequence of events that is going to address their fears and create the medium they will inevitably love and participate in, whether they expect to or not.”

“What’s sad is that their ideological, ignorant, hostile, one-dimensional attitudes oversimplify one of the most beautiful problems in human history. It makes me very sad that many of these people will diefearing games. I would so rather include them, but they have to meet us in the middle or become sad, lonely, reclusive luddites.

“In the end, we will stamp them out if we have to, but it would be nicer if we all tap danced our way into the future together.”

Reading this, I felt kind of ashamed for counseling an ostrich-like approach to the situation when we could actually be doing something proactive to bring people into the fold. Damn, Clint’s a smart guy.

GDC ’08, follow-up, part 1 (a little late…)

March 23, 2008

Once again, work got the better of me and I didn’t get a chance to go into more detail on my GDC experience. Now, enough time has passed I’ve forgotten most of what I hoped to say, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

The IGDA Education Summit

The show got off to a good start, for me, with the summit and, particularly Ernest Adams terrific opening keynote entitled, “Ten Commandments for Game Development Education.” He’s posted the script for the talk at his website, so I won’t go into too much detail, but for those of you who don’t want to read the whole thing (and you should read the whole thing, btw…), I’ll just list the commandments, as I thumbtyped them on my phone, in reverse order as God and Ernest intended:

10. Thou shalt not give tests in game development courses, nor be dogmatic in thy doctrine, for even thou knowest not all.

9. Thou shalt reward precision and punish hand-waving, for the Lord loveth it not.

8. Except ye teach a master’s level course in experimental interaction design, thou shalt not emphasize aesthetics or story at the expense of interaction, i.e. gameplay.

7. Thou shalt teach not only game development, but also the history of games, the analysis of games, and the sociology of gaming.

6. With industry shalt thou build relationships; yet also shalt thou remember that “industry” explodeth in all directions, and meaneth more than PC and console games for the West.

5. Thou shalt require teamwork. Thou shalt teach project management, and gently discourage over-ambitious projects.

4. Thou shalt permit failure in thy students’ first-year projects, and encourage them to learn from it.

3. In their final projects, thou shalt encourage thinking outside the box.

2. Thou shalt require thy pupils to study other arts and sciences besides the craft of game development, for the ignorant developer createth only the derivative game.

1. Thou shalt integrate all the disciplines of game development unto the utmost of thy institution’s capacity.

Yeah, the pseudo-King James language is a little goofy but at too-early-o’clock on Monday morning, it struck the right chord with me and, while I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Ernest, in this case, I think he was pretty much right on the money. I hope the assembled educators got the message. Go read the full text and then come back here and let’s talk.

The next day, Tuesday, Ian Bogost, from Georgia Tech gave a talk on (are you sitting down?) “interdisciplinarity.” And love.

I’m not so sure about the “love” part (though you can decide for yourself by reading Ian’s text on his website). Frankly, I’m not even so sure about the “interdisciplinarity” part. But I really enjoyed what Ian had to say about ideas, and about designers (well, Will Wright, at least), exploring in their work ideas from outside the world of gaming. The need to find for designers to find inspiration outside the world of games and to be broadly enough interested, educated and read, is critical to our future. That’s been one of my hobbyhorses for a while now.

One of my great fears is that the next generation of developers will come to the medium with nothing but gaming experiences to draw from – and that educators, focused too narrowly on preparing people for Jobs In The Game Business, will focus only on directly game relevant courses, ignoring all those pesky liberal arts courses that teach us, oh, you know, what it means to be human and all… And that will lead to imitation and stagnation in a medium that already settles far too often for the former and can ill-afford the latter, if we hope to reach our true potential.

Ian kinda got at that in his talk and I’ll even forgive him for using the word “interdisciplinarity” if it’s in the service of ideas I agree with so strongly!

Tuesday also saw my only GDC speaking gig this year — I participated in a panel about what happens when pro developers get into teaching. I whined pretty dramatically about how hard teaching is, but since I already blogged about that some months ago, I’ll spare all of you and post thoughts on the rest of the show soon as I can jog my memory a bit and get my hands back on a keyboard.

Yes, that’s me on page 55 of Time Magazine!

March 5, 2008

Okay. I’ve received enough emails about “the guy who looks like me” in Time Magazine, the issue with Obama on the cover (not that that narrows it down much these days!) that I figuerd I should offer up an explanation, in an attempt to slow the flood…

First off, yes, it’s me. Second, I was as surprised to see me in the magazine as some of you were.

See, I did a photo shoot for Wired magazine a couple of years ago with a freelance photographer who had me sign a model release that, to my everlasting regret, gave her the right to sell my image to anybody she wants, any time, for any purpose. Without my permission. It sucks, but legally there’s nothing I can do about it. (Lesson learned: Always read contracts before signing them!)

Those of you who were paying an unhealthy amount of attention may have noticed that my picture (no name or attribution or anything) showed up last year in a Microsoft web ad for some enterprise software I don’t know anything about, with a made-up quote and everything! Same deal as this Time Magazine thing. Advertising a product I don’t use was bad enough, but it REALLY sucks that I’m being used now to illustrate an article about the lengths to which old people will go to maintain a semblance of youth and remain viable in the marketplace. Heck, I was always (if I may say so) a bit of a wunderkind — the youngest person in most of my personal and professional circles. Quite a change to be the “before” shot, as it were, in an article about old people trying to look young, I can tell you!

Oh, and as a note, I’ve had NONE of the procedures and done none of the stuff the article talks about. I mean, I work out two or three times a week, but as you can tell by looking at the photos, I was between trainers when the Time photo was taken! 😉

I guess it’s cool, in some sense of the word “cool” to be part of a stock image library. Immortality is mine at last (sort of)!


March 5, 2008

I was driving back to the office from lunch on Tuesday when a friend called to tell me Gary Gygax had died. I only met the guy a couple of times — my tenure at TSR coming a few years after he left — but the news hit me hard. Harder than I expected, frankly.

I knew he’d been in ill-health for a while, so I can’t say I was surprised, but I wasn’t ready for the news that he’d passed on. I pulled over to the side of the road and spent some time thinking about what the guy’s work meant to me. Not surprisingly, I discovered that it meant a lot.

I discovered D&D in 1978, about four years after Gary and Dave Arneson and their Wisconsin gaming buddies invented the game. My first Dungeonmaster was Bruce Sterling, now a well-known writer, but at that time an unpublished wannabe. The rest of the players in the group were writers or wannabes, too, of one sort or another. We met once a week for about ten years, as members of The Rat Gang, troublemakers in the River City of Shang who went on to become political and military powerhouses in the world Bruce laid out for us to explore.

I was in other D&D groups as well — once you get the itch, you have to scratch, right? We played a lot of D&D — modifying the rules to suit our needs. We tried other games, other rule-sets, including Champions, Runequest, The Fantasy Trip… a bunch of ’em. But none of them captured our attention or occupied our time the way D&D did. Eventually, my experience as a player led to jobs at Steve Jackson Games and TSR and a bunch of electronic game companies.

So, in a very real sense, I owe my career to Gary Gygax. No D&D, no…me.

Personally, that makes Gary Gygax a very important person in my life (and, luckily, I had the chance to tell him that several years ago. I make sure to tell Dave Arneson how important HE was to my life every time I run into him!).

But Gary’s influence goes way beyond creating an industry that has allowed me to make a nice living and do some fun, creative work. In a very real sense, D&D changed the world. He and Dave created a set of rules that turned child’s play — Cops and Robbers… Cowboys and Indians… — into something far more… into a tool for creativity and self-expression. And, beyond that, the rules Gary and Dave drafted were open-ended enough to qualify in a very real sense as “open source” — every group of players modified those rules, made them their own. Though D&D sometimes got a bad rap (before videogames replaced roleplaying in the public consciousness as the root of all teen angst), the real power of the game isn’t that it turns kids to the darkside but that it turns people, players, of ALL ages into authors. It provides a structure in which ANYONE can become a creator and in which many can become game designers and entertainment/experience creators. That was something entirely new in the world back in the ’70s, and it’s something some of us still aspire to deliver to people today.

Gygax and D&D begat Garriott and Ultima… and Garfield and Magic: The Gathering… D&D was the impetus for the series of Dragonlance novels which, long before Harry Potter, convinced teenagers that reading could be cool (in some nerdy sense of cool) and helped drive a resurgence of interest in fantasy literature. Go to the movies these days and you can see the effect THAT had on the world.

I could go on all day about Gary, about D&D, about roleplaying and games in general, but I’ll stop there. I have a ton of work to do — a ton of games to make. And making them is probably the best way I can honor Gary’s memory.

I’ll tell you, though, I’ve said for years that every game developer and papergame player and videogamer should take a break every day, face north to face Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and say some words of thanks to Gary and Dave. With Gary’s passing, that seems truer than ever.

A Bit of Shameless Spousal Promotion…

March 3, 2008

My lovely wife, Caroline, is a terrific fiction writer. Yeah, yeah, I know — I’m prejudiced. But that doesn’t alter the facts in any way. She’s a terrific word-slinger, especially when it comes to character and dialogue and, man, can she bring a location to life…

Anyway, back in the day, she wrote a bunch of novel/hintbook hybrid things, about some of the Ultima and Might & Magic computer games. (Basically, if you do everything the main character does in the story, you win the game — nifty idea, I thought, and I’m not sure why there aren’t more novel/hintbooks like that.)

She’s also responsible for some of the oddest but most appealing stories in FASA’s Earthdawn and Shadowrun game universes. (I say “odd” because Scars and her other FASA fiction books are more character-driven than plot-driven, which flies in the face of the game novel norm.)

Now, she has a story in the latest book in the Wildcards series, edited by George R.R. Martin and I kinda want to tell the world about it. Not having access to The World, the readers of this blog will have to do!

The Wildcards stuff is pretty awesome, not least because George is such a good editor and has such a strong sense of how the Wildcards universe works. The series is well worth checking out — especially Inside Straight and especially now that Caroline’s involved, of course!  😉

Seriously, Tiffani and The Amazing Bubbles, Caroline’s characters, rock pretty hard. And the stories and characters created by the rest of the Wildcards crew ain’t too shabby, either.

To learn more, check out the official Inside Straight website. Caroline’s website is worth a look-see, too.

Master Class Videos

March 3, 2008

A bunch of people have asked about this, so here ya go: The University of Texas has, apparently, decided to post video of the evening sessions from my Master Class in Video Games and Digital Media. (They didn’t talk to me beforehand and I hope all the appropriate permissions are in place!)

Anyway, you can check out the sessions at the class website.

I have to admit, I haven’t watched the videos myself, but I learned a ton doing the interviews and listening to my guests’ presentations so I hope you’ll find them interesting.

If you want to watch them in order, here’s the scoop:

  1. September 10, 2007: Warren Spector (Intro Lecture)
  2. September 17, 2007: Patricia York (HR Director, Disney Interactive Studios)
  3. September 24, 2007: Harvey Smith (then Creative Director, Midway Austin)
  4. October 1, 2007: Hal Barwood (Game Designer, Screenwriter par excellence)
  5. October 8, 2007: Matthew Bellows (GM, Floodgate Entertainment)
  6. October 15, 2007: Marc LeBlanc (Designer/Programmer, Mind Control Software)
  7. October 22, 2007: Mike Morhaime (President, Blizzard)
  8. October 29, 2007: Tim Willits (Lead Designer, id Software)
  9. November 5, 2007: Seamus Blackley (Talent Agent, Creative Artists Agency – also, “Father of the Xbox”)
  10. November 12, 2007: Paul Weaver (Director of Development, Junction Point Studios)
  11. November 19, 2007: Gordon Walton (Co-Studio Director, Bioware Austin)
  12. November 26, 2007: Richard Garriott (Creative Guy whose title I don’t actually know, NC Soft)
  13. December 3, 2007: Richard Hilleman (Guy With No Title – and proud of it – at Electronic Arts)

Not a bad lineup, if I say so myself — and some of the lesser known folks will surprise you, so don’t just go for the Big Name guys! And I’ll warn you, I can’t remember which week it was, but early in the semester, I gave what has to be one of the worst lectures of my life. Trust me — you’ll know what I’m talking about if/when you stumble across it!

GDC ’08, initial thoughts

March 2, 2008

I arrived in SF on Sunday, January 17th, thinking I was going to have a relatively quiet week — a couple of days of attending the IGDA Education Summit, where I’d take part in one panel and an advisory board dinner… then GDC, where I’d do a couple of press things and some recruiting stuff but, mostly, just hang out with friends and attend interesting sessions. Maybe learn something about this wacky game business…

How wrong I was!

Sure, most of what I figured would happen, happened, but it never occurred to me that there’d be so many press folks who wanted to talk — I mean, it’s not like I could talk about the game (or games) we may (or may not) be working on these days at Junction Point, since we joined the Disney family.

But there it was — by Sunday night, my calendar was full to bursting with press interviews. Twenty-eight of them, if memory serves. I did a podcast (where I got to meet Paul Wedgwood from Splash Damage — awesome guy) . I did a bunch of on-camera stuff, including an Xplay thing with Adam Sessler and Chris Taylor. I talked to a bunch of print folks, too, of course (too many to link to — try Google and keep an eye on the newsstands, if you’re really interested).

And, you know what really surprised me? I had a great time. Instead of the same old questions, it seemed like each journalist came in with his (no “hers” to talk to, sadly) own set of issues and interests. The variety of questions I got was fantastic — trust me when I say I’m not used to that. It’s usually the same questions asked over and over. I spend a lot of time trying to keep myself entertained by coming up with new answers to old questions. That was TOTALLY not the case this year. The interviewers kept me very much on my toes. No telling how the actual coverage looks (since I don’t actually read the press stuff about myself — that way lies madness!). But, assuming I didn’t say something really stupid without realizing it and the press guys actually print what I said, I have to give a big shout-out to the gaming press. Great job, guys!

So, other than talk to the press, what did I do and/or take away from the show this year? The short answer is that I went to the IGDA’s Education Summit, which had some real highlights (about which, more later).

I also got to attend a handful of sessions and panels, all quite wonderful. At the high level, the show was bigger than ever (which is both good and bad) — the ratio of fans and wannabes to working developers seems to be a bit worse than in years past. I mean, I’ve never had a kid’s mom stop me at GDC and ask if it’d be okay if she took a picture of her son and me together ’cause he’s such a huge fan but too shy to ask me himself… That is WAAAAY too freaky.

As far as the various tracks went, the tech track seemed really, really strong; I paid no attention to the art track (mea culpa); and there were tons of design talks, which ordinarily I’d applaud — there were lots of people talking about story, that’s for sure. But looking at the list of talks (and, bear in mind, I wasn’t able to attend many of them, so I’m talking through my hat here), it almost seemed as if the organizers said “everyone wants to talk design so let’s load up on design talks.” When I  looked at the actual topics being covered, it seemed like a lot of people talking about stuff we don’t really understand very well –which, now that I think about it, describes the situation precisely! Maybe quantity, which reflects growing interest, is a necessary first step on the road to quality. Let’s hope so.

So what sessions did I make sure I had time to attend?

  • I had to check out Clint Hocking’s talk on immersion (Clint being the most consistently interesting/challenging/entertaining speaker at GDC the last few years);
  • Noah Falstein’s interview with Sid Meier (which proved that Sid is, as he always has been, the designer’s designer and as all-around great a guy as you hope he’d be);
  • A round table led by Henry Lowood on game preservation — preserving our history in the form of the actual games themselves and the materials associated with their creation (one of my personal obsessions);
  • And then there was one of the best GDC talks I’ve attended in years — the Super Smash Brothers Brawl talk by designer Masahiro Sakurai. Wow, that was something!

I’ll post more detailed thoughts on all of this stuff as time permits, but wanted to get something out there in the blogosphere before GDC faded in everyone’s memory.

On Infrequent Blogging

March 2, 2008

A guy emailed me the other day (or maybe it was a comment on one of my infrequent posts — I can’t remember…). Whatever, the guy said something about how he was even worse about posting than I was. Man. Not good. I mean, I know I ought to post more often, but it just seems like something always comes up — work gets crazy or I get sick (dig the crazy flu that went around this season. Yowza!) or something…

But you know what? Those are excuses. The real reason I don’t post more frequently is quite simply that I don’t really get the whole blogging thing.  My pal, Raph Koster, once told me that blog posts should be really (really!) short and posted really (REALLY) frequently. A few words here and there on a regular basis are better than than more words posted less regularly.

 See. That’s the part I don’t get. I always joke that I can’t even say “Hello” in less than 1000 words but there’s more truth than humor in that statement. I don’t think in sound bites or short sentences (and few of them). I think in long form. (And I’m not very good at self-editing, in case you hadn’t noticed!)

What that means, blog-wise, is that I don’t want to post anything until I’ve thought it through and come up with a relatively coherent argument, with a beginning, middle and end… thesis, proof and conclusion…

Or maybe I’m just a wordy bastard, and a lazy one at that. Who can say?

Anyway, just felt I ought to get that out there and hope you’ll stick with me through the dry spells.