Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

GDC 2009, day 1

April 26, 2009

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

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

Discovering New Development Opportunities (Nintendo Keynote)
Satoru Iwata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GDC 2009, Day 0 and 0.5

April 18, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on GDC soon…

Montreal International Game Summit

December 27, 2008

Last month, I had the honor and pleasure of giving the opening keynote at the Montreal International Game Summit. I’ll leave it to others to assess whether my comments had any merit, but I can tell you the rest of the speakers put on a heck of a show.

This was my second time attending MIGS and it really seems like a show on the rise — just keeps getting better and better.

Attendance seemed significantly higher than 2005, the last time I was there, and the roster of speakers was stellar. Sadly, I face-planted myself on a Montreal sidewalk at the end of the first day (gave myself a concussion and everything!) and was unable to attend the second day of the show, but on the first day I attended talks by Randy Smith, Chris Hecker, Petri Purho and Laura Fryer, all of whom proved enlightening and entertaining. I also got to see a bunch of folks I don’t get to hang out with often enough — Disney’s own Michelle Jacob, NYU’s Katherine Isbister, Jason Della Rocca of the IGDA, Jon Blow and others. And I got to meet a bunch of new people I hope to spend more time with at other shows. All in all, a great experience.

Randy Smith’s talk about games as art was eye-opening — weirdly like a talk I’ve given several times over the years, about the unique characteristics of the games medium, but Randy supported the argument with data in a way I never thought to do and illustrated it with visuals that brought the argument to life in a way my word-oriented nature doesn’t allow me to do (at least not without a lot of effort!). There have been enough blog posts about the talk that I won’t recount it here but just throw in my vote for this as “talk of the show” (or the part of the show I was able to attend when I wasn’t at the doctor getting my freakin’ head x-rayed…).

Chris Hecker blew me away, too, by throwing so much data at the audience it was all a little overwhelming. His talk was about user-generated content and, at least by implication, how it will come to dominate the world of gaming. He had more amazing visuals of more amazing player-creations from Spore than you can possibly believe. The number of people uploading Spore content for others to enjoy is mind-boggling. Still, I remain sceptical.

Depending on users for content seems less than ideal to me — the example I usually cite when defending my luddite stance — that professionals should provide content and players should enjoy content — is the old TSR story. Basically, there were, back in the day around 15 million D&D players, of those, probably 10% acted as DMs. Of THOSE 10% were good DMs and 10% of the good DMs generated their own adventures. Of those who generated adventures, probably 10% were pretty good. And, finally, 10% of those were publishable. That adds up to about 150 adventures worth playing from a user-base of 15 million. And finding those good ones? Pretty darn hard. My odds are better sticking with the pros and paying for their work.

I’m probably dead wrong about this (given Will Wright’s level of success relative to mine!), or maybe I’m just trying to preserve my own job, but I remain a believer in providing tools for collaboration with players, with pros offering the things WE’RE good at and giving players power to do the things THEY’RE good at, rather than just handing over authorial control to everyone. (And, yes, before anyone throws it back at me, I HAVE played Little Big Planet, and my opinion remains unchanged on the topic of user-generated content…)

Kloonigames’ Petri Purho gave a talk about indie game development and the creation of Crayon Physics (which, if you haven’t tried it, is a MUST play you should go grab right now…). I mean, I do NOT get how the guy does what he does. Come on! (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Purho is the “game a month” guy!) The idea that any game made in a month might be any good is mind-boggling. The idea that one of them could be as amazing as Crayon Physics is, well, it’s whatever’s more incredible than “mind-boggling.” The fact that he repeatedly said of himself in his talk that he wasn’t much of a designer is just ridiculous.

Honestly, as a non-programming, non-artist with deep roots in the commercial game business, there wasn’t much for me in the talk, in terms of career guidance, but there were some ideas that seem hugely applicable to folks in my situation, specifically: New ideas are out there and need to be grabbed and played with, rather than sticking with the tried and true; and you can and should turn ideas around as quickly as possible and with as little bureaucratic interference as you can manage, to cull the good ideas from the bad as quickly as possible. Frankly, “fail quickly and leave time for recovery” is my new motto and one that a lot of developers need to embrace. Petri came on that idea earlier and more productively than most.

Laura Fryer’s talk on being a producer was pretty swell, too. I spent most of the time wishing I’d been told all this stuff when I was a producer — and wondering how I could bring back the key points to my own production team at Junction Point. She really nailed the idea that being a producer isn’t about — or mainly about — schedules and budgets and all; it’s about fostering a culture of “production.” You want to create an environment in which everyone on the team is freed to do what’s best for the project. It’s about communication and doing whatever’s necessary to remove impediments to progress. It’s about ensuring that everyone on the team does whatever it takes to achieve greatness. Amen to that.

Sadly, that was all I got to see of MIGS this year, thanks to my nose dive into concrete that first evening. (Seriously, my face looked bad enough that I scared small children at the Montreal airport a couple of days later…) Still, though, I had a great experience at the show and look forward to attending again in the coming years. For all of you who didn’t attend, web search the various speakers and read up on what they had to say. Quite an education…