Michaël & Auriea @ the Game Developers Conference Europe
26-29 August, 2003, Earls Court Conference Center, London, UK.
As your intrepid heroes continue their masquerade on the Ship of Fools...
In contrast to last year we had a bit more of a clue. We knew what to expect, we knew who to look for, and we were armed with our own bit of propaganda for our game 8. Determined not to be complete wall flowers, this time around we made sure to ask questions and get feedback on a few ideas we had in our heads. We demanded answers, and found only few. Our naive demands for clarity in the way the game industry talks about itself were met with the harsh reality that none of the developers, none of the publishers seems to know the culture they have created, what they are facing or where they are going in the years ahead. Some aspects of games development take on an almost hermetic air as you listen to their lists of grievances with seemingly no solution. To the outsider one has the feeling that surely it cannot all be so complex. With all the borrowing from the language and format of cinema, have they truely learned nothing of how their industry might be, as opposed to looking at just how it is?
A thread ran throughout the conference this year, that illusive thing known as "Next Generation Platforms". Very few knew what it meant, even fewer had actually seen let alone developed for these gaming platforms of the future, but that didn't stop anyone from telling the gathered audience what to expect. Figures, charts and diagrams were bandied about during the week illustrating an almost apocalyptic future where smaller game developers will disappear. Being unable to depend on polygons and particle effects to wow a new audience larger newly consolidated developers will have to *gasp* think! Yes, think about scary things like "non-cliché narrative", and "the emotions of the player." To make matters worse publishers will have to wrap their minds around such market expanding techniques as marketing to women and (sub)cultures other than their own.
Given that these were hot topics of wide discussion it did give one reason for hope. To spite predictions that a game developed for a Next Generation Console like Playstation3 or Xbox2 will require 10 million of their American Dollars, and 1000 people working 10 years to complete, there was hope. We saw in the audience far more women than last year, grey was the new black, long flowing hair for men, was in! Conference participants were calling panelists out for their paradoxes, academics and AI programmers, no longer satisfied with their roles at the backend were in full force to raise the perceived importance of their research and contribution to game content as a whole. In some ways, it was beautiful.
Again this year we decided to attend all the panels together. There were many sessions on offer but given the productive nature of our internal debates we felt it better to stick together and choose a variety of topics, sometimes appealing more to one or the other of us. We were pleasantly surprised to find that many of the talks were more interesting than we'd thought they would be. We were disappointed that it seemed to be a conference dominated by American and U.K. developers and publishers and if there is one wish we would have for next year is that they find ways to attract more deep European and Japanese industry professionals.
Tuesday, 26 August 2003
"London as game."
Won't spend much ascii on this but we had a very trying week. For the first time we felt that London itself was taking us to task. We felt the city in all its vastness and realizing just how huge gave us a better appreciation for the makers of a 3d duplicate of the city used as the setting for the game "The Getaway."
It was London Games Week and there was alot going on. ECTS was setting up and we had to find places to stay with friends of friends and arrange to spend other nights with last minute angels come to our rescue when we couldn't beat the clock or find the right street. Taking long train rides and avioding blackout fallout was what it was all about. Long walks in suddenly unfamiliar landscapes. As we stare down at our tattered A to Zed, the tube map on the back begins to resemble a mazelike Quake level. The shoppers on the street, NPCs. That scary, loud, schitzophrenic on the bus, a wayward resident of Silent Hill. Not to mention that we had two "boss rounds" scheduled for later in the week, but more on that later.
Wednesday, 28 August 2003
"Preparing for the Transition to the Next Generation, What Issues Will Arise and How Does THe Paradigm Shift as PS3, Xbox 2 and Gamecube 2 Come to Market?"
Panel discussion with Seamus Blackley, David Braben, David Lau Kee, Gary Liddon, Ian Shaw and Jez San
It was asked of the panelists to stop and reflect on what happened to their games during the last "paradigm shift" in the 90's ushered in by Playstation 1: what did they learn then that might help them now.... Not a lot from the sounds of it. The panelists seemed, well, frightened about what it would take to make a PS3 game... Primarily in terms of cost with prices for developing a game soaring with the time to produce a game shrinking but the cost of games staying the same for the consumer. Possible solutions to this cost
problem included finding ways to sell more games by connecting the game project to a well known movie or other francise. Splitting up the development process into pre-production specialists and production houses and in this way perhaps spend more time making a game fail safe in pre-production while cutting down the production time. Use of middleware, premade functions and tools between the content creators and the game engine, were mentioned frequently as a way to cut costs and time. Some panelists believed that the breaking down of game devlopment into its constituent phases such that one company may start a game and another finish it spelled The End of The Small Game Developer and what's more, also, The End of The Small Game. It seemed to be a unanimous thought that games for next generation consoles would have to be epic in scope and require movie rivaling production values, effects and audio in order to cope or
The time of bedroom programmers is over
compete in the future games market. Much of their thinking was explained away by the mythical What The Consumer Demands ideal. But we had a hard time believeing that these people have any idea What The Consumer Demands and were wondering where they get their stats on What The Consumer Demands. Apparently they are all believing that The Consumer wants to play games based on movies while the developers are scared to death that their industry will become just an on-hanger, a slave, to the film industry. At the same time they continue to reenforce this by making more and more games based on established francises instead of embracing original Intellectual Property (or IP as they say.) A recurring theme throughout the week: Original IP is dead, Small Independent Developers are Dead.
Only one in ten thousand is going to succeed
David Lau Kee
A few remarks of interest were made, however. James Binns of Edge magazine pointed out that games compete not only with each other, but also with other media for consumer's time. David Lau Kee argued that the fixation on technology is becoming more and more problematic and that the content will become the most important differentiating factor. James Binns added to this that if characters look photoreal, AI and physics will be expected to be better. He also mentioned that the Playstation2 will have a "long tail", the way that publishers are now looking for Playstation1 titles because of the large install base. David Lau Kee remarked that the value of a game is held by only a few people. Big teams are necessary but they do not represent the value of the game. Ian Shaw advised small developers to focus on content and avoid the cost of technology. The solution for small developers is not necessarily in making simple games. As James pointed out: simple games are cheaper to make, therefore there will be more of them, therefore you will need a bigger marketing budget.
Keynote: "Great Game Graphics: Who Cares?"
Jason Rubin gave a replay of his presentation origianally done at the GDC in the United States earlier this year.
Here's a man apparently responsible for what is in our opinion one of the ugliest games ever made and he's going to tell us something about game aethetics?...
No. Game aesthetics was not the subject of his talk. As with many art-related topics, aesthetics in the game industry is a matter of quantity, not quality. So this talk was not about making a game look more beautiful but about making it look "better" and why
that may or may not be a good idea. It's a funny thing with these games and their developers. They want things to look "Good&trade" which is a very different thing than making them look "beautiful" or to find ways of having an emotional impact on the player. Indeed there is a very typical look to games today, to spite the myriad options brought on by increased polygon counts and more powerful technology most games are surprisingly similar. It is absolutely essential that all Good&trade games involve a Good&trade combat system, preferably with big guns, or even better turn based! Women wear chainmail bikinis, have red hair, slinky catsuits with lots of straps of dubious function and big guns. Male characters have hair that sticks up, goggles for no obvious reason, and a snear on the their face and big guns. Or theres big eyes, oh the very large anime eyes (I know its a cultural difference but these are also Good&trade.) If there are nonhuman characters they must be FUNNY and silly or monsters or elves (choose something out of the world of Tolkien but nothing else.) Forbid that you make a game in any setting that isn't medieval Dungeons and Dragons world or 5000 years in the future on an alien planet. Games can and should be based on a movie just so long as its subject matter does not interfere with the rules of Good&trade game design. This is not to say that game artists don't do Good&trade work. Their Good&trade models and textures are flawless, finely crafted masterpieces. One can see the artistry of their creators but in the totallity that is the game there is an aura of marketing as design. The design is one made from fear, nay, panic that screams anything that strays from Good&trade may absolutely fail to sell and you can't take that chance! and a dirth of collective vision. All of these done to death conventions are Good&trade. You know a Good&trade game when you see it... It's the one made without any consideration for its content nor for the experience of the player. Given this assessment of what many game developers consider to be Good&trade game graphics and design we observed Mr. Rubin, tell us something new Mr. Rubin...
Grand Theft Auto is graphically not that impressive
His argument was interesting as it pertains to the business side of things:
"Video game graphics as a driving force for sales has turned a corner."
And he illustrated his statement by showing us timelines of how technology allowed for better graphics over the years and how the perceived increase of aesthetic quality (which drove the sales) became smaller with every generation. At times he resembled the weary postmodernist artist who, hands in hairs, sighs "What to do when everything has been done already?" Graphics won't improve racing games, we don't need to add guns and particles to tennis, etcetera. We agree.
He concluded by mentioning two things that, in his opinion, will have impact on the sales figures of future games: innovation and attachment. In terms of innovation, he mentioned novel gameplay and "3D personalities". And he illustrated the latter by showing us a cut scene form the next version of Jak&Daxter: now the pointy-eared plastic puppet in this platform game has a love life!... Yes, that will solve everything, give us bad character design and cover it by letting your scenarios play in the garden of cliche movie plots! perfect! By attachment, he meant licenses and sequels, i.e. games based on movies or on other games, of course. This being the obvious way to go for risk-averse publishers because of proven gameplay, no new property risk and lower development cost. And one look at the market will tell you that the publishers agree: there is an endless stream of low-quality games coming our way whose sole selling argument is that they are derived of a Good&trade movie.
"IGDA Town Hall Meeting"
Jason Della Rocca, Fred Hassan, Frans Mayra, Mike Rawlinson, Antoine Villette
After being lead through the ECTS trade fair to pick up our lunch (two sandwiches and an apple.), we found a table and a chair in this informal lunch meeting moderated by IGDA's Jason Della Rocca. We sat at the left side of the room (tent?), which turned out to become the place of choice for a substantial group of females. Yes: females! They made a big impression on this year's conference. If not by their number then by their voices. We knew that the feminists had already discovered computer games
as something to write about but now, it seems, girls are starting to develop an interest in game development, it seems (or at the very least the marketing of games). And about time too. Maybe they can save us from yet another hockey-armoured muscular male hero wielding a sword much too long for any of Newton's laws and his barely legal, legally bare female side kick wearing a low-cut version of ditto armour. During this "Town Hall Meeting", they were loud and cocky. And they got our full support.
Can I give you
male game developer
Only if you have one
in my size!
female games enthusiast
Mike Rawlinson is Deputy Director General for ELSPA in the UK. So we seized the opportunity to throw in one of our pet peaves: why does ELSPA only rate games according to presence of death or violence and not usability? Many games that do not contain sex, are simply too difficult to use for children and yet they are rated "3+". It is one thing when a grown-up is confronted with an overly complex game interface, but when a child is, it doesn't know that it is the victim of bad design and it blames itself. And the parent ends up having bought a game that the child can't play. He waved us away by saying that usability was just too difficult to judge. And we said "Surely game developers know when they have designed a complex interface!" to which a big man with a red beard and hat replied "No, they don't". That man turned out to be game designer and columnist Ernest Adams, of whom we were going to see and hear more later during this conference.
After having had a brief email conversation with Atari's Francois Masciopinto, the weeks before the conference, he told us to meet him at ECTS, a games trade fair that was taking place at the same time and in the same building as the conference.
So we went to the Atari booth to be told to come back by 5.
We had emailed with Mr. Masciopinto about a year ago, when we were starting the development of the demo for 8, concerning possible interest. Atari was still called Infogrames in those days and he was one of the few publishers who actually answered our email.
"Preparing for and Transitioning to Next Generation Platforms:
Simon Carter, Julian Davis, Richard Evans, Gil Jaysmith, Chris Kingsley
It is always a delight to see Lionhead's Head of Artificial Intelligence, Richard Evans present. We had very much enjoyed his presentation last year and were looking forward to hearing what he had to say about programming for the next generation of game technology.
The first half of the discussion was filled with the tired fears of the increased complexity of developing for more sophisticated hardware that we had witnessed in the Preparing..." panel this morning. Until we asked some questions concerning what they wanted to use the new opportunities that this technology will offer for. This seemed to be the sign for Richard Evans and Simon Carter (from Big Blue Box, a Lionhead sattelite working on the extremely promising upcoming X Box title Fable (previously known as Project Ego)). Suddenly they turned into passionate geeks elaborating on how the new technology would allow for much more interesting Artificial Intelligence that could really become a
decisive factor in the gameplay. Characters would have more complex emotions and they would be able to deceive you and this would lead to completely new games. The improved CPU power will also allow programmers to move away from the complexities of C++ and embrace the ease of use of scripting languages or even visual tools. The latter they considered to be required for expressing AI properly.
"Building Massive 3D Environments that Work in Real-time"
Since we are going to make a multiplayer game called The Endless Forest and it will contain an endless forest, we were interested in hearing something about this form the pros. Turns out that Susie Green is a senior artist on the Sony team that made
The Getaway. The Getaway is a gangster game that is set in London. London, as we have sorely felt during this trip, is a "massive 3D environment"! And these people have not only made a digital replica of the whole city, they also managed to display that thing on a measly Playstation2. And that was the topic of this round-table discussion: how to display huge worlds within the constraints of current hardware. The problems being, that [a] there is never enough memory in the machine to store everything (memory is much faster to acces than a disk) and [b] that you can always only show a given amount of polygons on screen (a polygon is the building block of a 3D world, all objects are made out of these triangles, the more you show on screen at any given time, the slower the program runs).
It was interesting to hear from the people around the table how they solved these problems but we didn't really learn anything new. The methods they discussed have been around for a while and they didn't go into enough detail for it to be really useful to us.
Five o'clock. Time to meet The Man From Atari. We snuck out of the elevated conference into the mundane trade fair only to be told to come back in half an hour.
"Preparing for and Transitioning to Next Generation Platforms:
Ernest Adams, Ed Bartlett, Dene Carter, Jon Hare, Demis Hassabis
We knew we were going to have to leave this panel discussion early, so we sat ourselves in the back of the room.
This talk was to be about the future of game design, so we were very interested. Also because we admire
the writing on the topic by Ernest Adams
and were curious how this confrontation with the people he tends to criticise a lot, would go.
The impression we got from the beginning of the talk was that design of games in the future would have to be even more driven by commerce. If only because of the huge cost that will go along with developing the high quality assets that the masses seem to demand as soon as it is technically made possible by the hardware. In contrast to this, current games based on movies are almost always of low
quality. They seem to rely solely on the familarity of the public with the movie for sales.
We wonder how long it will take for this public to realize that they are being cheated.
We are living
in a very
Other developers were more creative and less fatalistic when discussing development for much better hardware. Dene Carter clamied that AI will help solve the problem of enormous amounts of assets. And that middleware can be used to free up more resources for AI development. Middleware is "ready-made" software that can be used for creating a game. Believe it or not, but most game developers seem to think that they have to write the complete program from scratch every time they make a new game.
We had to run out of this interesting session to go and meet with the man from Atari, as we had been told.
So we went to the Atari booth, stared at the games on display, trying to appreciate them.
Having a short conversation with someone from Alienware who came to demonstrate a new notebook computer that had a graphics card thingy that could easily be replaced. Fascinating. No sign of Mr. Masciopinto.
After ages of hanging around attempting to avoid looking like utter imbecils, the man shows up.
Politely we wait until he finishes his conversations with other, much more professional looking guests.
And when it is finally our turn, we mumble some nervous words desperately trying to make sentences, knowing that we only have five minutes to explain what we have been passionately working on for the last year and a half.
He listens very politely and ends the conversation with telling us to send him the demo when it is done but he warns us that Atari" does not publish much original IP these days". We give him our propaganda and leave, trying to imagine a worse encounter.
Due to the waiting, we missed an appointment with a secret admirer of our work: Greg Coomer, graphic designer at Valve, the makers of a popular shooter game called Half Life. He had responded to the little message we had send out to the Tale of Tales/8 news letter list, saying that he would be at ECTS presenting his company's newest game and that he would like to meet us.
Thursday, 28 August 2003
"The continuous World of Dungeon Siege"
At first sight Gas Powered Games's Dungeon Siege is a traditional Dungeons&Dragons type of computer game commonly refered to as a Role Playing Game. Yes, the funny thing about computer games is that most "role playing games" are not simply a game that involves playing the role of a character. No no, it is much more specific than that. A role playing game, or RPG, must be set in the neo-neo-gothic pastiche universe created by Tolkien or at least contain some Elves and Dwarves. And it must have an inventory system for storing the things you find in the world limited by your character's capabilities. These capabilities can be improved by acquiring experience points. Anyway, the whole genre is a stiff cliché. Much like any other game genre. Adventure games for instance are not about adventures! No, adventure games require a pre-rendered background, static cameras and a 3D character that walks in front of them, if any.
But looks can be deceiving. Dungeon Siege, in fact, is not much more than a "Hack-and-Slash" game that simply involves, well, yes, hacking and slashing everything in sight. It does have in common with traditional RPGs that the representation of this violence is extremely static, with the fighting parties taking turn in stabbing each other, much like the paper version of Dungeons and Dragons that requires a roll of the dice before you can attack your opponent.
The intriguing aspect of the design of Dungeon Siege, however, is the fact that, during the game, there are virtually no pauses for the game to load extra assets. Nevertheless, the game world of Dungeon Siege is considerably large and your character can run around in it freely.
Scott Bilas explained that all the geometry was continuously being streamed from the disk. The game would load only those assets that were in the immediate vicinity of the character. This was done through a system of nodes. you can think of a node as a tile and of
the game world as being made up of tiles, one next to the other. The only difference is that these tiles did not need to be of the same size, as long as they fit together. Each node contains the objects and vegetation of its part of the world. A very inspring idea indeed of our Endless Forest game.
Destroy as many objects as possible
The trouble with large worlds, however, is that precise measurements become increasingly difficult the further one moves away from the origin of the world (the 0,0,0 point). This means that cracks would start to appear between tiles, or nodes, that are far away from this origin. The solution, if we understood it well, was to not define a position in the world as absolute but as relative to the node that the character was walking on at any even given point. Such a position would be defined not simply by x, y and z values, but by a node ID and the x, y and z values relative to it. This "central node" would become the temporary world space origin for 5 seconds, unless the character remained standing on it. Fascinating.
Just like we do in "8", Dungeon siege, uses a 2D path finding system and simply fakes the 3D where necessary. Much more efficient than having to calculate a path in 3D.
The text of this presentation can be found here (HTML).
The slides of this presentation can been seen here (PPT).
You can download a Powerpoint viewer here.
"Learning AI & Game Development"
Alex J. Champandard
We went into this session sure that it might all be over our heads but knowing that we need some level of sophistication to the AI of our little girl in 8 we figured it was best to find out more about how the AI programmers do what they do and how AI can be used better in games. The result was that, yes it was technically over our heads, but the moderator gave a very good mini history of AI programming which was enlightening and gave us a desire to go and look up some of those mysterious algorithms. Another thing we noticed was that unlike the game artists we had heard speak so far (that seemed rather jaded by the things they are "forced" to make), the programmers were the ones with the most passion in their voices for their craft. Also the most optimism, brimming over with ideas on how their work could enhance gameplay and even contribute to new types of games. Let's hope that this enthusiasm is not just because the programmers have not yet been the focus of marketing, as the graphics makers have been. The time is coming where the mechanics of a game and not the graphics are the selling point, let's pray that doesn't kill the momentum that these backend artists are trying to build.
"Preparing for and Transitioning to Next Generation Platforms:
Sam Coates, Craig Gabel, Mike Haigh, Paul Steed
This was just a sad thing. Sad, sad, sad. Not even at a conference, not even in that informal gathering of 40 or so people, many of them young graphic artists, modellers, texture artists, could these big boys of game design responsible for the graphics creation in some of the biggest games in history (Quake 2, anyone?) bring themselves to discuss anything more than spreadsheet economics. I mean, what must their lives be like?
They had an opportunity to tell those gathered some exciting things on what the Next Generation Platforms would allow to be accomplished. But any questions pertaining to the capabilities of these future machines was brushed aside with the statement that "you are going to have more, more of everything." No techniques were shared, no philosophies offered. Just a discussion about how hard it all is, how unbelievably difficult it is going to get... how awful. One of the announced panelists could not attend and was replaced by Demis Hassabis from Elixir Studios that had just finished up work on the highly ambitious Republic: The Revolution. It seemed the other panelists were giving him sympathy over how incredibly long hard and difficult the production of the game was. But still, the game is said to have a very advanced graphic engine, in addition to an uncommon premise, which we heard nothing about in the presentation. There seemed to be consensus on the panel that there were some serious communication problems within game development teams that make the game artist's job even more difficult (if one could imagine that by now) and this was leading to some pretty lame games being made, but not many practical solutions on how to fix this. It was said by several panelists that in order to bridge the communication gap it was up to the artists on the team to broaden their skill ser to include more knowledge of level design, lighting, even scripting and programming in order to be an asset in the games industry of the future. Obviously the solution would have to be something drastic and it seems that egos within many development houses are not ready for drastic.
You have to think more corporate
Afterwards we attempted to query Mr. Steed about the non-photorealistic real-time rendering capabilities of the XBOX, the possibilites, and all he could ask in return was "But is it going to sell?" Not even a theoretical discussion of game graphics seemed possible. I expected more from these guys. Next time, just try to fake a little bit of interest in your craft guys, for the benefit of the children.
After the hilarious encounter with Paul Steed, we were more than ready to meet with Annette Bechamp, from the Canadian DreamCatcher Games/The Adventure Company (who had published Syberia, a game we really want to like). We had agreed per email to meet at 1 at the ECTS bar. We had send her pictures of ourselves but we had no idea what she looked like. So we walked around the bar as if it was the merry-go-round in Silent Hill. Then we saw Eric Zimmerman walking around with a piece of paper with a name on it, telling us that "it really works". So we attempted to do that but felt too embarrassed to be persistent.
After half an hour Ms. Bechamp shows up, we greet each other briefly. She doesn't seem to be inclined to find a more comfortable place to chat, so we end up pitching our game, standing in the middle of a trade fair surrounded by drinking games industry people. She very seriously listened and apologetically returned something to the effect of "North Americans like details, they like leaves on their trees. I am not sure how responsive North Americans will be to this type of imagery." in a response to what we had said about stylization or maybe because there was a dead tree on one of our screenshots that did not have leaves. You learn something every day.
"Advanced Shading Techniques Using Spherical Harmonics for Games"
Tom Forsyth, Peter-Pike Sloan
We snuck into this session when it was halfway over. All we remember are many, many cryptic mathematical equasions being projected very large, a long haired energetic programmer explaining that it all meant 1) a model of tweety bird could be covered with highly illusionistic three-dimensional textures in a game engine and 2) that light inside a cubic room could now pick up the reflected colors of the walls. Impressive. It was a beautiful presentation but this programmers art was voodoo magic to us. Still we couldn't help but wish we could accomplish such realistic lighting effects now. He was pretty jazzed that the programmers were taking on a task (lighting design) usually left to the art department. Bravo.
"Deathmatch: Peter Molyneux vs. Gary Penn"
Peter Molyneux, Gary Penn
This was not a serious presentation but an attempt to entertain the masses by having two unmatched game developers insult each other's efforts. To make this extra funny they spoke to each other very softly. We were sitting in the front rows but had no idea what they were going on about half of the time.
It is strange. Black & White (developed by Molyneux's Lionhead Studios) is probably the most ambitious game ever made. A side effect of this is that it can be a bit unstable and crash often. Maybe it is because of this, or simply out of utter horror and fear, that game developers and critics alike tend to downplay the merits of this game. Fear of realizing that Black & White is such a milestone, such a
monument of the potential of computer games that it would make everything that they are working on now completely irrelevant. Or maybe they are simply oblivious to the implications of its design and prefer to stare at the "controversial" gratuitous violence in Grand Theft Auto III, a game with similar non-linear gameplay opportunity, but not nearly as diverse as Black & White.
is a strong word
So here he is, this semi-god of game design. He is friendly. He lends himself to these situations, pretending for their benefit that He is one of them. Maybe he believes this himself. Maybe he just makes the only game that he can make, an honest effort, and the others do the same but they are simply not talented enough. Or they lack the courage.
Nevertheless, he did try to point out that now and in the future making games will be about making entertainment and not just this narrow category currently known as games. But the point was more or less lost on the audience who preferes to develop a 3D remake of Tetris in which the falling blocks are armed with guns and you are their squad leader who will free the world --once again-- of evil aliens.
Keynote Panel: "Are you Game?"
Seamus Blackley, Martin de Ronde, Mike Goldsmith, Jeremy Longley, David McCarthy, Julien Merceron, Peter Molyneux, Gary Penn, Chris van der Kuyl
Apparently we hadn't have enough panem et circenses with the previous and as a follow-up to last year's débâcle of the election of best game ever made, this year they offered us a veritable Quiz! Asking questions concerning people's knowledge of game industry history seems to be their idea of fun. No wonder their games suck.
We don't understand why they feel the need to introduce this type of entertainment, the staleness of which only illustrates the lack of imagination that typifies this creative community. So we slip out in an attempt to avoid complete depression and decide to try and attend one of the presentations of Half Life 2 that our friend was giving in a small black hot box in the ECTS trade show. People have been lining up for these presentations throughout the three days with Greg dutifully presenting the same thing over and over again. The main attraction in Half Life 2 for most gamers is the impressive new engine Valve has built for this game. It is capable of the most "realistic" physics simulation to date.
After the excellent presentation,
we helped Greg pack the enormous computer he used for the presentations, accompanied him to his hotel where we were saved from sleeping in cardboard boxes on the streets by the presence of continental electrical sockets and went out in a drizzle to a Thai restaurant that was recommended to him.
The food was delicious, the restaurant beautiful and Greg turned out to be one of the most endearing people we have ever met. He told us the story of Valve and how he wanted to develop a game similar to "8" in some ways alongside to Half Life when the company started. Obviously the first person shooter Half Life is the game that made it to the market. We tried to console him by saying that at least it wasn't Counterstrike, an "anti-terrorist" multiplayer game. To which he politely answered that Counterstrike was also being produced by his company... oops.
Anyway... Greg is one of the few graphic designers who does not feel the need for using beveled gothic typefaces with flames coming out of them in games. His understated designs set Half Life apart from all the other shooter games on the market. That and a main character who is not muscular and who wears glasses, oddly similar to Greg's...
Friday, 29 August 2003
We came to the conference as students since no one knows that in the Jan Van Eyck Academy it is forbidden to use the S-word in favour of the R-word. We're supposed to call ourselves researchers. Since the conference reserved a whole day to discuss academic issues, we figured the attendance of students/researchers would be important to the organisers. To our surprise, attendance of the Academic Summit was not included in the student passes that we got.
IGDA's proceedings on this event can be downloaded here (Acrobat PDF document).
Jason Della Rocca
The program director of IGDA explained what his organisation is about.
He also gave an explanation of why our student passes for the conference did not include academic summit attendance. Basically IGDA is leeching on to this conference and for some reason the organisors think they are a beneficial parasite as long as they can control it well enough. I'm not complaining. It is a good combination. A way to confront the developers with broader issues like the social impact of their games and a way for academics to have contact with the real world which they usually study from behind a microscope.
"IGDA Education Committee Progress Report"
Jason Della Rocca, Eric Zimmerman
Eric Zimmerman is designer and CEO at gameLab, a company specializing in smaller games, often for the internet. They are the makers of the excellent Junkbot games for the Lego website. His voice was often heard during the conference defending the independant game developer and arguing that the market for on line games is much larger than the market for other games. In short: we should all be doing what he is doing. His company is the solution for all the game industry's problem. Strange, that's what I thought our company was...
He explained a bit more about the IGDA and the "curriculum" framework they are putting together to help schools set up game education programmes. So this day was going to be more about how to set up education and research into games rather than the actual results of these studies. Many people in the audience were teachers of some kind.
IGDA TIGA DIGRA ABRACADABRA
confused conference attendant
IGDA is in fact doing some very valuable and interesting work. But it is hard for a European to look past the oh so Northern American attitudes of Mr. Della Rocca and Mr. Zimmerman. Ah, racism. Oh, cultural prejudice... We also can't shake the impression that the whole European Game Developers Conference is just a weak makeover of the real Game Developers Conference that takes place every year in California. The choice of Britain testifies to this as the game industry in Britain is strongly linked to the one in the USA. This does not mean that there is no very active game development going on in France, Germany or even Russia. We think an opportunity is being missed here.
Eric Zimmerman (moderator), Matteo Bittanti, Richard Evans, Helen Kennedy, Ernest Adams
This panel started with presentations of each member.
Consumer magazines are hurting games more than politicians
Matteo Bittanti from the European Institute of Design Milan, pointed out that academia have evolved form technofobia to technofilia in one decade (1990->2000). He also mentioned a blossoming in the relationship between art and games and mentioned some of our friends (Jodi and Anne-Marie Schleiner) so suddenly we felt very knowledgable. There is also a growing interest from museums into games. But paraphrasing William Gibson, he added: "The future while bright is not evenly distributed".
Despite this growing awareness of games as cultural phenomena, mainstream game criticism did not evolve at all. Game magazines treat games as pure commercial products. He argued that game criticism should become more like film criticism. In the mean time, academics, while interested and excited, should stop talking just to other academics. And they should pay more attention to the people playing the games, they need to think of game designers as authors and compare them to authors in other arts and they need to treat game consoles as cultural objects and not just talk about the software that runs on them.
Lecturer Cultural Studies at the University of West England Helen Kennedy read two scenarios presenting possible futures of game studies and the world in general as a result of these. A dystopian one and a utopian one, neither of which was particularly appealing to us. In the dystopian scenario, males win and the world becomes hell and in the utopian scenario, females win and the world turns into some Brave New World where we can all be happy (without testicles). In short: women will save the world.
She did this with appropriate humor but I'm afraid that the feminist solution to the world's problems is just a bit too simplistic for our tastes.
After this, Lionhead's Richard Evans talked about his pet idea of a future in which the different elements of the game world would be closely connected and what the player did in a small part of it would affect the larger game. And vice versa. Refreshingly nerdy and totally out of place, he connected to the previous presentation by mentioning a game character being rescued from a sports accident by a big-bosomed nurse. Oops!
He was probably asked to participate in this panel because he is a game developer with an academic background. He is a trained philosopher and now works at Lionhead (the makers of Black and White) as head of Artificial Intelligence. He made a big impression on us at last year's conference when he linked writing C++ code for AI to the theories of Wittgenstein.
Richard Evans' lapsus was gefundenes Fressen for Ernest Adams's pet peave of games often being the result of decisions that were not taken rather than the result of conscious design. He believes that better education and research will lead to better games.
Apparently people were asked to submit case studies concerning games in academic circles and do so in a standard format.
Matteo Bittanti presented his series of books called Ludologica. Videogames d'autore that focuses on game designers as authors.
Dan Hodgson from Northumbria, Newcastle talked about their BSC Computer Games & Software Engineering.
Robin Hunicke is a PhD candidate in the Northwestern University of Chicago and talked about her experiences there.
Jon Purdy is measuring the way people's mood changes when playing games in very scientific ways. It made us fantasize about how this could lead to objective analysis of how much fun a game really is. Fascinating. Bob Steele must have talked about the School of Comp. & Man. sciences in Yorkshire. And Jeroen van Mastrigt, while not from Maastricht, talked about the Game Design & Development Programme at the Utrecht School of the Arts. From what he said, it seemed that this programme is one of the more interesting ones, focussing more on craft and less on trade.
The slides of these case studies can be downloaded here.
"Group Working Sessions"
And then the dreaded moment came. The audience was split up in groups to sit around big round tables to discuss topics of choice. I'm sure this was healthy therapy for some of us. Apart from the continuous interruptions by Mr. Zimmerman screaming to us every five minutes how much time was left after which he was silenced by an irritated audience, I only remember a very soft voice, as if coming from outer space -almost telepathically-, telling us how Microsoft could solve all our problems. It is funny to see how this company sends out its disciples as Witnesses of Jehova to these types of events. They are always very gentle and never pushy but they are always there, standing just behind you, sitting a little away from the table, whispering softly "Now, where do you want to go today?..."
"The Unformed Reality of Games Development"
Which is probably the reason why this man is not working for them anymore. Seamus Blackley is the Chief Creative Officer of Capital Entertainment Group and probably best known as one of the initiators of Microsoft's X Box. His new company wants to be a producer of games, a link between creative developers and uncertain publishers, which is, strangely enough, a new idea in the games industry.
Mr. Blackley started his talk by shattering the common belief that the games industry would be bigger than Hollywood. He further analyzed game development as being technology and market driven (marketing people approve projects and programmers tell artists what can be done) and license driven (the desire to make games based on movies turns the game industry into a marketing division of other media). Games are driven by pop culture and not vice versa.
He argued that it was time for game developers to become masters of their medium. Better game theory would help improve this situation.
Developers are pussies
Publishers are scared, he continued. they have no idea how to do development, they don't understand the potential of new ideas and they cannot categorize new concepts. And "Developers are pussies". They have no understanding of the business of publishing, they have little understanding of the consumer and don't know how to innovate systematically. And the audience is confused by the randomness of game reviews while we should be consciously training our audience.
"Enter CEG, the game industry's first production company!" ;)
But why don't we let the man speak for himself? Here are his very amusing presentation slides...
You can download a Powerpoint viewer here.
After that glowing presentation, we couldn't help but being drawn to Mr. Blackley like bees to honey. He is our hero. The man who tells things the way they are.
Later in the pub, he grabs us, physically, by the shoulders and tells us not to give up hope, not to believe all the commercial crap we've been bombarded with. Not to believe in that Death Of The Small Developer. Be aware of the realities, but do what we can to make our game. Compromise, but don't give in to the depths of despair we've seen etched into the faces of some of the developers we saw presenting. It felt like a baptism. Light at the end of some tunnel. And we were grateful to find at least one industry veteran, refreshingly unpretentious, with a vision on what the games industry can become and importantly with the power to put his dreams into action.
And while the wine was reaching our grey cells, we befriended Mr. Ernest Adams in a discussion about aesthetics in games. Yes, there is hope!...
At last we could relax, We came, we saw, and while we may not have overcome, we certainly felt a lot more comfortable and agreed to give it one more year, next year, our last Game Developers Conference. See you then.