Game talkGDC Next call for submissions

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Apr 292013

The call for submissions for GDC Next is now open. I am on the advisory board.

The conference will be in Los Angeles, November 5-7. This is the conference that is replacing GDC Austin; basically, it’s intended to be the most forward-looking of the GDCs, intentionally looking at what comes next, not what happened in the last year. Because of that, the tracks aren’t quite what one would expect:

  • The Future of Gaming is going to focus on things like second screen play, new kinds of play around mobility, episodic, and the like.
  • Next Generation Game Platforms will be digging into not just next-gen consoles but stuff like VR headsets, and glasses, microconsoles, motion tracking, smart TVs, watches, and whatever else looks like it is around the corner.
  • Smartphone and Tablet Games is a bit more here and now, but given the enormous worldwide growth that still remains ahead of these platforms, there’s plenty of cutting edge stuff to discuss, and current lessons to share
  • Cloud gaming will talk about game streaming — the tech, the business, the design
  • The Independent Games Track — we all know that indies are where the future lies. Lecture, postmortems, rants, covering design, business, and everything else.

We’ve got a mix of folks from the GDC Austin board plus a bunch of new advisors.

Go submit your talks!

Apr 262013

This video by Matthias Worch is superb, an explanation of the communication gap that was exposed so sharply by “A Letter to Leigh.

“Talking to the Player – How Cultural Currents Shape and Level Design” | You Got Red On You.

In short, after seeing this, it feels like I have been arguing very much from a combination of the oral tradition and the digital culture — likely because of my background in online games. And the aesthetics of print culture are pretty much exactly the things I was commenting on seeing.

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Game talkOn choice architectures

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Apr 242013

Yesterday Andrew Vanden Bossche posted a great article called The Tyranny of Choice in response to the formal questions about narrative that were in my post A Letter to Leigh.

In the article, Andrew argues that every system by its very nature is a statement, not a dialogue. After all, if we artificially control the boundaries of the system, then every system imposes a worldview. (This is the same argument made about how the original SimCity espoused liberal politics through its simulation).

There are not some games that subvert player agency, and others that grant it. Rather, all games, by nature of being games, by nature of being systems, inherently restrict player agency in the exact same ways. The difference between the games with this “aesthetic of unplayability” (as Koster calls it) and any other game is nil. Other games are merely better at hiding their true nature.

…I question whether there is a difference at all between this games that subvert and refuse player agency and those that encourage and celebrate it. I wonder whether player agency, as we know it, this quality we assume games just naturally have, is actually an illusion. Koster implies that games are capable of create dialogue with their systems; I believe games can only make statements.

This led to a great little discussion with Andrew and also with Andrew Doull, which I have captured as a Storify post here.

It led me to think a bit about architectures of choice. As Andrew Vanden Bossche put it, “if a ‘fake’ choice is as meaningful as a ‘real’ one, is there a difference?”

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Game talkThoughts from the LA Games Conference

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Apr 202013

This past week I was on a panel at the Digital Media Wire LA Games Conference.

The big thing that I wanted to get across to people attending is that many publishers are really caught in a bind. They aren’t willing to take on speculative projects, which is what smaller indies want and need. They ask for vertical slices or even profitable titles before they are willing to sink money into something. But developers are starting to conclude that if they can get a title to that point, they may as well just ship it and make money for themselves. Stuff like the recent financial postmortem of Dustforce shows how many folks are quite willing to trade higher income for creative freedom instead.

With over 50% of developers now describing themselves as independent, and showing a marked preference for platforms with as little publishing friction as possible, we’re going to see a lot of smaller games, a lot of “at bats” for a lots of developers. And odds are greater that some chunk of those will establish a new franchise successfully than a big publisher will. I tossed some guesstimates for team sizes for next gen console development at Chris Early from Ubisoft, and my guess of six studios and 1500 people for a single game was too low for even current gen Assassin’s Creed (he said it took eight studios (!) which is a stunning feat of coordination).

So 1500 people for three years and one game; or half the active industry — let’s say 15000 people — making a game a year in teams of five. That’s a lot of smaller bets. That’s where the next Valves, Rovios, Blizzards will be born. And as predicted, there will be a lot fewer big AAA titles out there than in the past, as their manpower falls and risk aversion continues to rise.

Here’s a few bits of coverage of the conference:

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Apr 162013

020780-rounded-glossy-black-icon-symbols-shapes-spinner4-sc36The world is full of systems. Often they exist below the threshold of what we perceive. It’s all a whirling clockwork of near-infinite complexity, from the tiny mysteries of quantum physics to the wonder of a single tree spanning miles, to the vastness of neurons that sit inside our relatively small skulls.

These systems are dynamic. They move, they change. Had we only the right vantage point, we might be able to see how every gear, every electrical impulse, every vibrating superstring, all can be seen as a filigreed marvel of machinery, the insides of a grandfather clock.

Is everything only this? That’s a question for philosophers and the religious. Many of these systems are of an order of complexity that we may be simply unable to comprehend. Our mental capacity is not so great, after all.

So we arrive at heuristics, our good enough rules of thumb, for addressing these complexities. We can understand physics well enough to plant a robot on a distant planet, but we don’t understand physics. We can understand another person well enough to interact with them, but no one ever really knows anyone fully. We can read a novel — a vast profusion and entanglement of signs, story-worlds, mirror neurons, syllabic scansion, mythmaking, and metaphor — and take away some part of understanding, but likely never all.

Our means of coping with these systems is to simplify. We reduce great complexity down to signs. We classify and categorize and collate. We iconify, cartoon, sketch. When we stop to think about it, we know that all these simplifications are lies. But they are lies we use to live our daily lives, and so we carry on.


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Game talkEvery genre is only one game

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Apr 122013

Well, sort of. I really mean “systemic game” and I am really talking only about game systems here.

So let me preface this by saying that this article’s title is hyperbolic exaggeration. It uses the term “game” in my annoyingly formal, reductionist way. But I want to say it anyway, for the sake of the provocation; framing it this way jars some preconceived notions about terms out of my head. (At some point, I’ll do a post here about finding alternate, less loaded terms. But for now, since I want to get this out, I’m running with it.)

If you take as given that a game can be analyzed in terms of its grammatical structure — the verbs, nouns, adjectives that make it up – then it leads to the natural thought that you might get the same structure with minor variations.

  • This is a rose.
  • This is a blue rose.
  • This is a red rose with whitish leaves.
  • This is a thorny rose with a strong aroma.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; a rose is a rose is a rose.

And an FPS is an FPS is an FPS.

(Is this reductionist? Absolutely. It discounts all the things that sit on top of the same skeleton and make them radically different player experiences. But bear with me a moment).

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Game talkA Letter to Leigh

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Apr 092013

when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’

games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ’empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’

–  Leigh Alexander writing on Twitter

Dear Leigh,

I have such a complicated emotional response to this. And I think you like getting letters, based on what I see on the Internet.

I would rate better understanding of another human and the challenge of empathy as bare minimum requirements for something reaching for art.

The assumptions underlying this question are the interesting thing. A game of bridge demands great understanding of another human, and great synchrony of thought. A huge number of the games of childhood are designed to teach empathy. We play games all the time in order to get to know people.

But that’s not what you really mean, is it. What you are really talking about is something else entirely.

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GamemakingMy first game

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Apr 032013

At PAX East, there was a panel where a bunch of devs talked about their first games. They asked me and a few others to send in a video… and this is what I sent them.

The saga of how I managed to make it, though, is a little more intricate, involving copying all my Atari 8-bit floppies to PC. I used the USB SIO2PC interface from Atarimax to connect the floppy drive direct to the PC.  I then captured video directly within Altirra. Some of the disks were dead, alas, but I was able to recover about a half dozen games and partial games that I wrote when I was 14 and 15. Maybe at some point I’ll do posts on them.

You also get to see a glimpse of what was my real bootcamp in game design. It wasn’t the videogames. Frankly, I wasn’t a good enough programmer to make great games, really, and so a lot of the games were clone-like in a lot of ways. A truly ridiculous amount of them consist of nothing more than the title screen. No, it was the boardgames I did as a kid that in retrospect really taught me the basics… I must have made several dozen, and they’d get playtested during recess periods at school. At some point, I will definitely do a post about those. I still have many of them.

Game talkMoving on from Playdom/Disney

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Apr 022013

015-shrunkAs of today, I am an unemployed game developer!

It was in the summer of 2006 that I founded Metaplace in a spare bedroom. By 2007, we had built an amazing, deeply involved community, and a powerful platform. By 2009, we had failed to make money at it and were forced to shut it down. Since then I’ve been privileged to see several of the folks from that community go on to join the industry and do great work.

We switched to social games. In the space of six months, we launched three of them. I still get emails asking for the return of My Vineyard. We introduced some real innovations to Facebook gaming, and were quickly acquired.

Then came two and a half years with Playdom and Disney. So much learning! Amazing views into metrics and science and the mass market from Playdom. That incredible culture of creativity and deep commitment to values at Disney. I held a frame from Steamboat Willie in my hands. I watched everyday people who never thought of themselves as gamers wake up to the power of games. And above all, I worked with many wonderful people.

Now it feels like time to apply the things I learned.

So, I am off on my own!

What’s next?

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