E3 2010 or “Two Rooms, Eight Walls and the Coolest Thing Ever,” Part 3

June 24, 2010

On to day 2…

The show itself was a lot like Monday. I spent right around twelve hours each day (obviously, I started before the show opened and kept going after it closed!) in a room in the back of the Disney booth or a room over at the Staples Center – hence the title of this post. Get it? Two rooms… Eight walls… Running from one room to the other. That was my E3…

(And, may I just say, being in the Staples Center during the NBA finals was both cool and frustrating – cool, in that I could look down on the court and contemplate running down there for a quick pic and a probably takedown by a security guard, frustrating in that I was constantly reminded about the hoop fanaticism of which I would NOT be a part later in the day – no finals tickets for me!)

Anyway, 12-ish hours of interviews and demos each day on Tuesday and Wednesday. No breaks. Ate breakfast and lunch with cameras in my face. All I saw of the show was what I could see running to the rest room or running to some on-camera interview in someone else’s booth.

Just to be clear, I’m not complaining! The fact that I was so busy was a reflection of how well-received the Disney Epic Mickey game was. I haven’t experienced anything like that since Deus Ex.

Okay, so I’ve explained the “Two Rooms, Eight Walls” part of the title. What about the “coolest thing ever?”

Easy.

Nintendo 3DS!

Holy cow.

The last day of the show, I actually got out of the Disney Interactive booth around 4:15. I knew I was only going to get to see One Thing at E3. And I knew it was going to be either Deus Ex: Human Revolution or the 3DS. Though it pained me to make the call, the 3DS got the nod.

All I can say is “Wow!” Okay, I lied – I can and will say a lot more than “wow.”

The 3DS changed my life. Seriously. I can be pretty stubborn and when I decide I know something or I’m right about something, I don’t often change my mind. Well, I just want to say I’ve been completely wrong about 3D all my life. I never got it before. Until now. Until the 3DS. Check back tomorrow and I’ll tell you all about it.

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E3 2010 or “Two Rooms, Eight Walls and the Coolest Thing Ever,” Part 2

June 22, 2010

Last episode, I said I tell you what my E3 was like. Well, that’s easy. Basically, I saw nothing at E3 this year. Well, literally, I guess I should say “almost nothing,” but I’ll get to that later.

Monday, the day before the show opened, I could have walked around the show floor while everyone was setting up, but instead I found myself doing a couple of interviews (including one two hour, on-camera thing that was a ton of fun. I can’t talk about that one yet…).

But the big deal that first day was a rehearsal for the Nintendo press conference at the Nokia Theater. Talk about a thrill!

First, just walking out on that stage, where American Idol finalists sing for 7000 people and all, was fantastic. You don’t want to know how many times I was asked if I was nervous or scared. The honest answer is “no.” I love talking to people about games, whether it’s one person or thousands. It was just an incredible scene and ended up being as much fun as I expected it to be.

Frankly, one of the reasons it was so exciting and fun was Nintendo. Everyone at Nintendo, from the very top of the organization to the guys in the trenches, was incredible. The feeling of family, the sense of being on a mission, the development-centered culture was palpable. I have no idea what it’s really like to work at Nintendo, but if the outward projection of the company’s culture is anything like the working environment… well, let’s just say I have a richer understanding of why Nintendo games look, feel and play the way they do. Joy and positivity in the environment must translate to similar quality in the work, right? I should be so lucky as to create an environment like that at a studio of my own someday!

And the really cool bit? Everyone I met that first day at the rehearsal made me and Adam Creighton (the Junction Point producer, who drove my demos), feel like a part of the Nintendo family and contributors to the company’s mission. That was really special.

Anyway, from the Nintendo rehearsal, it was over to the Disney booth to rehearse for our own on-stage demos – two 15-ish minute demos a day, followed by a show by Disney Fine Artist, David Garibaldi.

Meeting David at the Disney rehearsals was over the top cool. I have some of his artwork on my walls at home, and I’d already seen some of his magical dance/music/art shows on video (you just have to see him in action for yourself to get a sense of how incredible his work is…). I guess what I’m saying is I’m a fan and was really pleased to meet him and be able to tell him so. It’s hard to imagine anyone better-suited to the task of bringing some of the Disney Epic Mickey characters and locations to life in new ways. He outdid himself!

From there, it was over to a theater to catch a sneak screening of Toy Story 3. Yowza! There was much laughing and crying… I definitely steamed up the ol’ 3D glasses, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Just pick yourself up and see it yourself, if you haven’t already.

That was Monday – interviews and rehearsals and Pixar’s latest. Day over. Saw nothing…

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the show itself.

E3 2010 or “Two Rooms, Eight Walls and the Coolest Thing Ever,” Part 1

June 22, 2010

So, I know it’s been forever since I posted anything here but with E3 behind me, it seemed like a good time to get back in the swing of things. I can’t promise I’ll be the most regular blogger in the world, but at least now I can talk about the game I’ve been working on!

The word is out about Disney Epic Mickey, and in a big way. I couldn’t be happier. This week, I’ll try to tell you why.

Here’s the story of my E3 (or, at least, part one of that story, with more parts following the rest of this week):

Man, what a show! Though we announced Disney Epic Mickey, officially, at an event in London last October, and the good folks at Game Informer ran a big preview feature around the same time, this E3 was our debutante ball.

And what a ball I had!

The Disney Interactive Studios folks put together a killer booth – not just for Disney Epic Mickey, but for all the upcoming titles. I thought everything showed well – Disney Epic Mickey, Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned, Guilty Party, TRON… I hope this shows the gaming world We Mean Business!

But, obviously, I was especially pleased about the Disney Epic Mickey area and the response to the game. First, a shout-out to the guys who put the space together. The Disney Epic Mickey area looked like a Mickey-fied version of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Classy and appropriate. I loved our space.

There was some terrific artwork by a variety of artists hanging from the walls and Disney animators were in the booth drawing original sketches for people (and, man, you should have seen the lines for that!).  And, of course, David Garibaldi was doing the amazing art/dance/music thing that only he can do. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Apparently, neither could gamers! The place was packed all day, every day. I brought about a dozen people from Junction Point to man the booths and they did me, the game and themselves proud. I can’t tell you how much I love the Disney Epic Mickey team. The talent, passion and commitment the guys and gals showed at E3 was incredibly special – and completely typical of what the entire team delivers on a daily basis. Definitely one of the top teams I’ve worked with in my career.

As for me, well, check back tomorrow and I’ll explain what I was up to and what the title of this post is all about.

Disney Favorites

October 25, 2009

So, a couple of things have happened recently that got me thinking I should post some stuff again. First, obviously, is the unveiling of Disney Epic Mickey. You can read all about it in the November issue of Game Informer magazine, and all over the GI website these days.

Frankly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the response. I don’t know why, but I expected to get more grief about making a Mickey Mouse game. Nice to see that, for the most part, folks are open to the idea — even enthusiastic!

As a result of all the press, I’ve been bombarded with emails asking me weirdly personal questions about my favorite Disney things — theme park rides, characters, comic book artists and writers. Figured I’d just post some answers here to settle things down a bit. (And if you’ve read my earlier posts about compulsive list making, you know I’ll take any opportunity to make a list of my N favorite things!) So here goes:

FAVORITE RIDES

If you’re expecting anything earth-shattering here, forget it. I love the traditional favorites:

  • Disney Animation Academy: Come on, they can even teach ME to draw Disney characters. How cool is that?
  • Fantasmic!: What a great show – exciting, romantic, technically amazing, and it’s as close as Mickey’s gotten to being a hero in years. Plus, the music just does it for me. Great, great score…
  • Haunted Mansion: Grim Grinning Ghosts, the stretching room, changing paintings. I’m in.
  • Imagineering Blue Sky Cellar: I love behind the scenes stuff. What can I say? I only wish this were bigger and even cooler.
  • Indiana Jones Adventure: Best. Disney. Ride. Ever. I ride it every time I go to the parks.
  • Mickey’s PhilharMagic: Great 3D and it’s genuinely funny.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Do I have to say anything?
  • Space Mountain: A mostly horizontal roller coaster? Count me in. I’m not wild about vertical g’s but horizontal g forces are great. And it’s in the dark. I love it.

COMIC BOOKS

I’m only talking Disney here, right? I’m a huge comic geek (about which I guess I’ll blog some other time), but as far as Disney artists go, here’s my list. Not many surprises here — well, it might seem odd that Paul Murry isn’t on the list, but I’ve just never really loved his stuff. And Romano Scarpa’s books are fine but, again, just never did it for me. Anyway, here are the guys who DID make my cut:

  • Carl Barks: Best. Comic. Writer. Oh yeah, and Artist. Ever. End of discussion.
  • Floyd Gottfredson: The Mickey guy for over 40 years. While the animation studio was reducing Mickey to straightman status, Gottfredson always treated him like the hero he should have been.
  • Noel Van Horn: My favorite Disney artist and writer working today. If you can find a copy of his story, Shadows, you’ll know why I love this guy’s work so much. He takes Mickey places most artists wouldn’t dare. And while his art style is simple, it’s so damn expressive. Love it.
  • William Van Horn: Like father like son, I guess. William is Noel’s dad and talent definitely has a genetic component! William Van Horn’s duck stories are over the top, action packed, slapstick at its best.
  • Don Rosa: The heir apparent to Carl Barks and many people’s favorite Disney artist/writer. I like his stuff a lot, but find his art style almost TOO detailed and his reverence for the Barks canon a little too constraining. I admire Rosa’s work a lot, but reading it is a little too much work for me to flat-out love it.
  • Carson Van Osten: I’ve had the incredible pleasure and honor to work with Carson and, man, can the guy draw! Holy cow. His personal take on Mickey Mouse was hugely important to the Disney Epic Mickey game. And he did a bunch of character design work for us that’s mind-blowing. His comics work from the 70s on ain’t bad either! (He tells great stories, too! And played bass in the band The Nazz! What a guy.)

CHARACTERS

Again, don’t expect a ton of surprises (other than that I’ve never been much of a Goofy fan… and I thought the introduction of Launchpad McQuack into the duck universe was unnecessary and kind of unfortunate).

  • Scrooge McDuck: Filthy rich, adventurous, fearless, softy at heart (but don’t let on!). He swims in the coins in his money bin. Coolest character in the Disney family, easy.
  • Mickey Mouse: Um. Hello? He’s the Mouse!
  • Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Funny, funny cartoons. Complete anarchy. Does completely impossible things, constantly.
  • Donald Duck: I’ve never been able to understand a word Donald says (sorry Ducky Nash and the rest of the Donald voice artists…), but who cares? When he gets red in the face and explodes with anger, it’s great fun. (If you haven’t seen the cartoon Donald’s Crime, find it.)
  • Ludwig Von Drake: I think I learned more from him than I did from many of my teachers! And that accent made me laugh every time when I was a kid.
  • Stitch: Easily the best of the recent Disney characters. The writers and animators really let loose with him!
  • The Aracuan Bird: The most trouble-makingest Disney character ever. As close as Disney ever got to creating something that would have fit right in in a Tex Avery cartoon.
  • Chernabog: Scary, scary, scary!
  • Maleficent: Scarier, scarier, scarier!

That’s a start. Let me know what your favorites are.

GDC 2009, day 2

May 3, 2009

Thursday, March 26th at GDC was more of the same for me — hanging out with friends, relaxing, attending some sessions… Here’s the lowdown.

First thing I did was hit Hideo Kojima’s design keynote.

Solid Game Design: Making the “Impossible” Possible
Hideo Kojima

I was introduced to Hideo Kojima once, at a restaurant where we both happened to be dining, but he was pretty into his sushi at the time, and I was anxious to get to mine, so I don’t suppose he even remembers. I certainly didn’t get a chance to talk to him and, so, figured I should take advantage of the opportunity to hear what he had to say this year. It ended up being a pretty interesting hour.

His key point was that game design is the art of The Impossible Possible — an idea I find pretty appealing. The talk was about the road he takes to make that happen. For him, making impossible things a reality takes an understanding of Hardware Capabilities, Software Capabilities and what he called Design Ladders (or what others might call “Raw Creativity” or “Designing Around Hardware and Software Constraints”).

In describing his creative process, Kojima talked about identifying a problem (e.g., Get a Character Over That Wall) and then coming up with a bunch of ways the problem could be solved. Eventually, he settles on the coolest solution and executes that solution. I was dumbstruck that he goes to the trouble of thinking up all those answers but then limits the player to only one. In other words, the concept of choice belongs to developers, in Kojima’s world, not to players! Pretty much the same approach I like to apply to design, but applied in a completely different way. My thinking is, if you’re only going to offer players one way to solve a problem, well, for starters, maybe you really want to make a movie… But, if you’re going to go to the trouble of thinking up a bunch of ways to “get over the wall,” as he put it, why not attach some consequences to different wall-climbing approaches and let players in on the fun? Clearly, you can’t argue with the guy’s success, but I can’t help thinking how much players are missing out on…

Anyway, the talk was structured around the history of the Metal Gear series. Pretty fascinating. He talked about each game in the series and how he tried to set a new, impossible goal for himself and the team with each one. Reminded me a lot of how Richard Garriott approached things when he gave me a crash course in electronic game design back in the day. But instead of Richard’s “scrap everything and build from scratch” approach, Kojima takes a careful, incremental approach to innovation, introducing just one new thing each game, building on the foundation of earlier games.

Pretty interesting talk, but I’ve let too much time lapse and that’s about all I remember. Have to listen to the audio to refresh my memory!

Next I went to a talk about “physical play,” not so much because I’m all that into the topic (in fact, I wasn’t even sure what the speaker meant) but because I was intrigued to hear what a guy from MIT’s Media Lab might have to say to a room full of game developers. Turns out, it was a swell talk.

Physical Play: Siftables and Other New Forms and Formats for Interaction, Collaboration and Creativity
David Merrill

Merrill, an MIT Media Lab researcher (http://web.media.mit.edu/~dmerrill/siftables.html), talked about alternate control mechanisms (alternatives to keyboards or switches), from the Theremin to the mouse to multitouch screens to the Wii remote. The most interesting observation in his historical overview was that nontraditional control schemes work much better when there’s force feedback involved. Guess that makes sense.

The bulk of the talk revolved around Merrill’s own project – something called “Siftables”  (http://siftables.com/). Siftables are little square blocks, each with a tiny screen, motion sensors and proximity sensors. Each Siftable can perform simple functions on its own (displaying a word or a number or a mathematical symbol or a face) but — cool! cool! cool! — can respond to what other nearby Siftables are doing. (At the trivial level, think of the opening of the TV show, The Brady Bunch. A set of Siftables can recreate that people-in-a-tic-tac0toe board sequence and look at and respond to each other…)

The possibilities inherent in the Siftables idea are incredible. I want ‘em. Now. Merrill talked a lot about the educational possibilities and all but the “board” games you could create with these things would be incredible. Check out the website and you’ll see what I mean. We should all just start brainstorming now so we’re ready when Siftables take the world by storm!

Experimental Gameplay Sessions
Jonathan Blow et al

Okay. Have to calm down. Take a deep breath. Be rational. There. Better.

This was easily the high point of the show, for me. I was completely blown away. The level of creativity on display here was amazing.

First up, Jenova Chen (That Game Company) talked about the iterative prototyping process that led to the creation of Flower (a game that’s totally worth playing if you haven’t already). Like all of us, the Flower team tried all sorts of things — all sorts of mechanics and goals and challenges — before settling on their final, leisurely, nearly goal-free game design. If anyone doubted that iteration was the heart of game design or, at least, of game design in a world of unknowns and new ideas, this talk would have convinced you.

One of the speaker/demo-ers showed off his “4D game” — Miegakure — a game set in a four-dimensional space, unfolded so mere 3D mortals can (nearly) parse it. I barely understood what the guy was talking about and by the end of his brief talk and demo my head felt like it was going to explode, but, man, do I want to try to figure it out! Proof positive that there are whole universes (maybe literally) of new ideas to explore in gaming!

Some guys from an outfit called Hazardous Software showed off “Achron” — which looked to be a gen-u-ine time-travel RTS. Incredible. I’ve been wanting to do another time travel game since I worked on Martian Dreams but didn’t know how to pull it off. These guys seem to have done it. Just go to their website and check it out. Really cool.

I won’t bother with all the details (this is already going on too long) but I have to say I was especially inspired by Shadow Physics, Closure and Unfinished Swan. All of the presentations were terrific (and I hate to leave anyone out) but these three really did it for me on the gameplay, aesthetic and creative levels. The ways in which each used lighting, physics and rendering as gameplay tools should provide all of us non-indie gamers a little kick in the butt to ratchet things up, creatively. Simple, beautiful and at least potentially incredible games….

Basically, the whole indie scene is killing me right now. Something changed in the last year. If this session, and the IGF booth proved nothing else it’s that the indie game movement is really on the move. It’s not just  a bunch of guys fooling around or building their portfolios — it’s a bunch of talented, dedicated, professional developers making great, polished, playable games. I don’t know whether to root for them to get publishing deals (so they can keep making their own cool stuff) or whether to root for them to fail to get a deal (so I can hire them all!).

Frankly, as a player, I’m really drawn to indie games these days. World of Goo… Flower… Braid… Just great stuff. Everyone in the mainstream of games who attends GDC should try to squeeze into the perenially-sold-out Experimental Gameplay session — if not to be inspired than to be scared witless by the creative guys who are going to be stealing all our jobs if we don’t up our game dramatically!

(On a related note, there were a ton of games on display at the Independent Game Festival booth (http://www.igf.com/02finalists.html) worthy of note. Tag: The Power of Paint… Pixeljunk Eden… The Graveyard… Night Game… Blueberry Garden… Feist… Musaic Box… Amazing stuff!

Oh, and if you want to read more about the Experimental Gameplay Sessions (and find links to a bunch of games I didn’t get into here), check out this article from the Guardian by Aleks Krotoski. Reminded me of a bunch of games I neglected to mention that you ought to check out. Too many games, not enough time or space to blog about them all…

So that was day 2 — quite the inspiring day, actually.

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 (http://globalgamejam.org/). 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 (http://www.avantgame.com/), who’s affiliated with the Institute for the Future (http://www.iftf.org/) 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 http://artofgamedesign.com/.

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…

Another legend gone.

April 11, 2009

I just heard from a friend that Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died. Damn. I eulogized, if I can call it that, Gary Gygax a while back, and now Dave…

Dave never really got a fair shake, or appropriate credit, or his due as one of the creators of roleplaying, but he never let that get him down, at least not around me. He was one of the sweetest, kindest, humblest guys I ever met. And, man, did he loves games. He was an ace designer, by all reports a creative player (though I was never lucky enough to play with him), a dedicated teacher and a mentor to scads of up-and-coming game developers. He always had time to chat, was always interested in what others were doing, how they were doing, what they were playing….

It’s unlikely the mainstream press will report Dave’s passing the way they noted Gary Gygax’s, which is a real shame. Those who knew him, and those who know the facts behind the legend, will remember Dave with equal, maybe greater, affection. He was one of the Good Guys, an all-around fine fellow, as my wife would say, and he’ll be missed. More important, he’ll be remembered as long as people roll those funny dice and create characters and tell stories together in a way they might never have been able to if Dave hadn’t arrived on the scene.

Dave changed things, but was never changed by them. I can’t think of a better epitaph than that.

I’ve joined a cult – the iPhone cult

April 6, 2009

My AT&T Tilt gave up the ghost last week (you should see the screen — it looks like something Jasper Johns might have painted) so I decided to take the plunge and replace it with an iPhone.

The decision was pretty straightforward, really. If this year’s SXSW and GDC did nothing else, they convinced me that the iPhone’s a legit gaming platform and, to keep current, I need to know what’s going on in that space. Plus, everyone I know is joining the iPhone club and I’ve been feeling a little left out.

So I’m now in Day 4 of cult membership and, I have to say, though the experience has been largely positive, I have mixed feelings about my new digital pal.

One the plus side, as a phone it’s really pretty rockin’. The call quality is terrific and I seem to get better signal strength than I used to, even though I’m using the same provider and going to all the same places.

As an internet device it’s amazing. I feel like I’m really web-surfing for the first time ever on a phone.

As a game platform, it’s swell. I already have more than a screen of games of high enough quality that, if I were Nintendo, I might be a little bit concerned. And the ease with which I’ve been able to acquire those games (along with a bunch of cool apps) is astonishing — the App Store is everything online commerce should be and usually isn’t. If I’m not careful, I’ll go broke — a buck here, a buck there adds up quickly.

As an entertainment device, the iPhone is as cool as everyone says it is. That screen! It’s beautiful (at least it was for the first three hours I had it, before it got all thumbprinty). Movies look great. Pictures look great. Music sounds great. Books — hm, nice, but I’m spoiled by the Kindle.

(A brief aside — anyone who thinks the iPhone is a great ebook reader hasn’t played with a non-backlit e-ink device. There’s simply no comparison and people should just stop talking about how the iPhone’s going to make the Kindle and devices like it obsolete. This Will Not Happen.)

E-book lameness aside, the iPhone is really remarkable, if what you’re after is seamless connectivity and constant distraction.

However, as a “smart phone,” at least as I use smart phones, the iPhone actually seems kind of dumb.

For the longest time, I was a Treo guy. If not for a falling out with my service provider which doesn’t warrant discussion here, I’d STILL be a Treo guy. After that, I became a Tilt and Blackberry guy. And I’ll tell you right here and now, no virtual keyboard can match real buttons. The iPhone comes as close as anything I’ve tried and it’s not remotely comparable.

The iPhone’s inability to sync with Outlook Notes and Tasks is deadly. I use Outlook’s Notes and Tasks functions as brain-extenders and have a hard time living without them (especially Notes).

The fact that I can’t create and edit Office documents is causing me amazing grief already. The fact that I can’t seem to just get a list of documents I have stored on my device is totally weird. And I’m really having a tough time to adjusting to what seems to be a complete lack of menus that allow me to do things like Select All from a list of emails or documents and such like. I mean, I get that Apple and Microsoft are enemies, but hurry up and get iPhone OS 3.0 out there so people can start making some real productivity apps for this thing!

It’s like the iPhone is working so hard to be my friend it’s incapable of being my co-worker. It’s all fun and games when, at times, I want it to be serious. Still, there’s enough to like that I’m trying to stay calm and make do. Until 3.0 comes along and MS Office or Documents to Go or QuickOffice or something becomes available, I’m messing around with Evernote and a couple of other note-taking apps that seem promising. And I’m experimenting with Google Office for document, spreadsheet and presentation work. It’s too early to say if this’ll work, but I’m trying — really trying — to embrace the iPhone.

Right now, the device is feeling a little “emperor’s new clothes-ish” to me — amusing but not necessarily what you want in a ruler, and everyone’s too afraid of looking un-cool to say anything. I hope I’m wrong and come to love my iPhone as unreservedly as the rest of my fellow cult members. I hope it’s just too early in this relationship to be reaching any conclusions.

I hope that’s the case. For now, if you can help me learn to love the iPhone (as opposed to just liking it pretty well), lend a hand. If you’ve found games you absolutely love or apps you can’t live without, feel free to comment and let me know about ’em! And if ANY of you have found ANY way to get an iPhone to sync with MS Outlook Notes and Tasks, PLEASE let me know — that’s just killing me.

Kindle update

April 5, 2009

So, I’ve now lived with my Kindle a few more months and, gotta say, I still absolutely love the thing. The ability to sample books before buying, the lack of stress involved with picking a book before going on a trip, the fact that you can always find exactly the thing you feel like reading at any given moment — just amazing.

I loved my Kindle 1 so much, I preordered a Kindle 2 the day Amazon started accepting them and I couldn’t wait — cooler looking device, longer battery life, better screen, quicker “page” turns, a little nubbin thing to move the cursor around instead of the goofy scroll wheel and no more accidental button presses. What could possibly go wrong?

Strangely enough, just about everything went wrong.

I know, I know… everyone’s all gaga over the Kindle 2. It solves all of the problems Amazon should have solved before shipping the first one, everyone says.

Well, I have to ask, are all these reviewers actually comparing the two devices or are they just making this stuff up? I’ve spent a lot of time with both now and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Kindle 1 is a better device in most of the ways that matter to me.

In fact, I gave my Kindle 2 to my wife, the lovely Caroline. (She loves it, btw…)

Here’s the scoop:

The Kindle 1 has a zany, asymmetrical look, rather than the sleek Apple-ish look all designers seem to strive for these days. But in making the 2 taller, they’ve thrown off the balance just enough to be annoying — it wants to tip backward in a way the Kindle 1 doesn’t, putting a small, but annoying, strain on the wrists. And in making it thinner, they’ve made it almost impossible for me (small-handed as I am) to hold it in one hand.

In making the buttons smaller, the designers of the Kindle 2 have forced the user to hold it just below the center point of the device, with hands in the 9 and 3 position — great for driving, perhaps, but not the greatest position to be in if you want to read a book for an hour or two. Sadly, you simply can’t reach the next and previous buttons unless your hands are positioned the way the designers intended. On the 1, I move my hands around all the time and can always reach the gigantic buttons I need to reach.

The inward hinged buttons do solve the problem of inadvertent page turns, but, in combination with the new form factor, my left-hand-hold with finger-flick page-turns is now impossible. Good gosh, people, it isn’t THAT hard to avoid accidentally pressing buttons!

Surely, though, there’s a huge win in having real cursor control instead of being limited to selecting a line and then using a menu to choose what you really wanted to select, right? Not so much. The cursor doesn’t move smoothly on the screen — it jumps one line at a time, vertically, and not very smoothly horizontally once you reach the line you wanted. I actually prefer the scroll wheel of the Kindle 1.

So there it is — the Kindle 1 is a better device than the Kindle 2. I’m used to the page-turn speed, I’ve never come close to running down my battery and, man, do I LOVE the fact that I have an SD card for infinite storage space.

There are, for sure, things that need to be fixed on the Kindle, but the 2 isn’t the answer — at least not for me. Bring on the Kindle 3, Amazon. I still love you and I’ll be ordering a 3, day one, too.