Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Paseo, devlog

the original prototype from early 2017, with a weirder style to match the artist's vibe
A few months ago, a big record label asked me if I wanted to make a short gay sex thing set to one of their artist's tracks -- for a few weeks, I thought the collaboration was going well, but then one day they just stopped answering my e-mails. Oh well, that's just how it goes sometimes...

I still kind of like the basic idea, so I'm going to replace the music and expand it to be part of the Radiator cycle. It's tentatively called "Paseo" (but the name will likely change before then) and it's about stripping, which is a popular intersection of sex and money. As a male performer, you will do strip routines and incorporate beautiful dance movements, but you also have to work the crowd and collect your tips.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Bevels in video games


Like a lot of digital artists today, I learned Photoshop in the late 90s in order to make awesome-looking fan sites and "professional" forum signature images. One of the Photoshop tricks I learned was the "Bevel" layer style, which embosses a faked thickness and depth onto a layer, as if it's popping outward toward / inward from the viewer.

When I first learned it, I felt powerful, like I could use Photoshop to "paint in 3D" and make my Starcraft fan forum avatar look even more professional. But then I realized that the bevel had a very specific look to it, and I started seeing that look everywhere. My astounding bevels quickly lost their sheen. To this day, the conventional wisdom in 2D game art is that you should just handpaint your own bevels, and it only takes a few minutes when you get good at it anyway.

Today in 2017, the bevel has arguably taken over 3D environment art, and like all the other game art gods, it demands labor from us. But unlike 2D bevels, there's no strong consensus on what the best 3D bevel techniques are, which means we're free to experiment...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

On first person one-roomers and grass games

old WIP production still from an early version of The Tearoom
I want to talk a bit about the formal design constraints in my gay sex games -- I don't usually emphasize this aspect of my work because it's a very game developer-y thing to care about, but sometimes I guess a little bit of shop-talk is called for:

A lot of my games have been what I'd call short form "one room" games, where I constrain the scope of the game to one room or one small area. When I first started doing Radiator 1 ("Polaris") in 2009, that constraint emerged from my frustration with working on a large international group project like Black Mesa Source, where I wasn't sure if we were ever going to finish and release anything. I wondered, could I work alone, and quickly make a short experience in a small room?

Cut to today in 2017. I've just finished and released The Tearoom, a game that takes place in one single public bathroom. Because it was so small and controlled, I could focus on the interactions and production value very tightly, and produce something with relatively high fidelity and density even though I was working mostly alone. (But it still took me like 8-9 months of part-time work to do all that! Maybe the room should've been even smaller?)

But I also don't exist in a vacuum, cut-off from the rest of video game culture. Maybe my attitude is also a reaction against the rise / dominance / golden age of open world games and walking simulator-type hiking games today? I know other designers counter AAA hegemony in different ways, like how Firewatch adopted a non-photorealistic illustrative art style, or how The Signal From Tolva focused on a somewhat sparse rocky-chunky-sculpted look. Both games feature large open world environments that differentiate themselves with talented art direction that also helped them scope better too.

However, I'm not really a good art director, and I still feel really tied to realism for political reasons, so I guess I have to differentiate my creative strategy in a different way... I specifically set my games in small man-made domestic spaces instead of trying to build huge sweeping landscapes. And even if I did attempt to build a huge landscape, my shabby default Unity 2 tri indie grass will never be able to compare with photoreal translucent Unreal grass, or Breath of the Wild's lush Miyazaki grass, so maybe that's why I don't bother. As much as I enjoy and admire all these grass games, I recognize that it's out of my wheelhouse and capability. Instead of trying to build a giant grassy forest landscape, I can rest with a decently crafted urinal and lean on that.

It might seem like I'm boxing myself in, and maybe I am, but honestly it doesn't feel that onerous to me. Grass is nice, but perhaps there's enough people making grass games already. I'm not sure if I have anything new or interesting to say about grass or trees anyway. (But who knows? Coming in 2018: gay trees)

By constraining the physical-geographical space, I think that helps me explore a wider conceptual-cultural space. One room doesn't just mean one idea? Or if it does, then for now, I think I'd rather make 5 one room games than 1 five room game, or 0.271 forest games.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Tearoom as a record of risky business



WARNING: This post spoils what happens in The Tearoom. If you care about that, you should probably play the game before reading any further.

The Tearoom is a historical public bathroom simulator about anxiety, police surveillance, and sucking off other dudes' guns. In it, you basically cruise other willing strangers for sex, and try to have some fun without getting caught by undercover police. It's heavily inspired by Laud Humphreys' epic Tearoom Trade (1970), a meticulous 180 page sociological study of men who have quick anonymous sex with men in public bathrooms ("tearooms" in US, "cottages" in UK), along with interviews, diagrams, and derived "rules" for participating in the tearoom trade.

My game is set in a small roadside public bathroom in Ohio in 1962. Much of the game sequences and gameplay are based on Humphreys' notes (in his book, Humphreys even calls it a "game" himself) and the layout of the bathroom is based partly on diagrams from his observation reports. And while I wanted the game to be about gay history, I also wanted it to speak to how video games think of sex and violence.

This is also the most complicated sex game I've ever made. It took me ~8-9 months of on-and-off work to finish it, it has several different systems going on, so it's going to take a while to unpack the history and my intent. Buckle up!...

Monday, June 26, 2017

Lol we're all poor


Some recent posts on indie dev failure have been going around lately -- Introversion Software talks about how their experimental exploration game "bombed in a big way", and also Cliff Harris argues "Your Indie Game Will Flop And You Will Lose Money", while Greg Wohlwend writes in his Tumbleseed postmortem about how they will likely never recoup their development costs, and each collaborator earned maybe $10 / hour. You can also connect these threads back to Hugh Monahan's Full Indie 2016 talk "What Scuttled Brigador's Launch", as well as Daniel Cook's theory of "minimum sustainable success" right around when the Indiepocalypse talk was in full gear. I think it's fair to say that the general mood in commercial indie game dev land has been kind of dark for the past few years, and it's getting darker.

I've written in the past about how I don't expect to make a living off of my games. I give away my gay sex games for free because (a) they're short-form games in a market that demands "replay value" even though people don't even touch most of their Steam libraries, (b) I don't want to invest all my time and hope into commercializing it, just to earn like $5k a year if I'm lucky, which does not go far in NYC, (c) when an indie game has poor sales, then that often becomes the game's entire legacy forever. I don't want the conversation around my games to orbit around the awkward pity of my SteamSpy numbers! To me, there's a certain peace of mind in not trying to make the next gay sex minecraft blockbuster happen.

And yes this is totally a weird defense mechanism on my part. I understand that everyone has a different living situation, and I'm not holding myself up as a role-model to emulate. We all have different ways of working in games, but personally I feel like I can't access the same tools or methods as successful commercial devs, so why should I bother trying? If Cliff Harris and Greg Wohlwend can barely make it work, what chance do I have?... I want you to understand why I ask this question:

Why is it so important for us to make our living from selling our games? Why can't we make our living from doing something else?

Friday, June 23, 2017

Some recent conversation on cultural appropriation


A few months ago, I wrote about how I think VR "empathy machines" are basically just a form of appropriation, where VR brands associate themselves with vaguely progressive political causes in a bid to make VR seem more relevant.

Maybe a lot of people still aren't really sure what "cultural appropriation" means? It's also a bit more of a US-thing, because of how race in the US works, so if you don't live in the US then you might not be as familiar with it.

If you're in a hurry, Amandla Stenberg made a popular 5 minute video in 2015 called "Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows". Back in 2015, white performers like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus were incorporating black music, black hair, and black memes into their acts, but it seemed like that care suddenly evaporated when black people got killed by police. Are white people actually the anti-racist allies they thought they were? If this is "cultural exchange", then black people were getting a pretty bad deal -- in return, they weren't even getting their own lives!

However, the conversation on cultural appropriation has shifted since 2015. So as a sort of public service, I'd like to highlight some more recent writing on cultural appropriation, all published within the last month or so, to give a small sense of what some people are saying right now.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

On "Let's Meat Adam" by Soulsoft


Let's Meat Adam is a short gay erotic-horror visual novel puzzle game about being a hunky West Hollywood white dude trapped in a gory escape room. It was released back in March 2017, but I didn't see anyone talk about it, so now I'm bringing it up, and I want to unpack both its commendable bravery and its mistakes.

I think my main beef is the inconsistency. First, it's as if 3 different artists worked on this game, and none of their visual styles cohere. But "inconsistent" also describes the game's politics: it admirably wants to reconcile intersectionality with the gay eroticization of white muscle dudes. This is a difficult design problem that I also struggle with in my own games! So much of the culture of gay sex, touchstones like Athletic Model Guild or Tom of Finland or Kenneth Anger or Joe Gage or the vast majority of gay porn, focus on a small subset of body types. It's surprisingly difficult to refer back to that history without perpetuating that same narrow focus.

Let's Meat Adam, bravely, tries to address this problem head-on. However, I think it doesn't quite succeed...

(⚠ SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to discuss the plot, structure, and ending of the game!... ⚠)


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Against simpler times


Years ago, I wrote about a hypothetical 2013 Queer Feminist Agenda for games. What an innocent time that was! Back then, I argued that we needed to pursue industry-wide reform, build-up theories of queer games, and combat gay apathy about queer politics.

Obviously a lot of that didn't really pan out, and now the world feels totally different: since 2013, Gamergate, Ferguson, Pulse, and Trump all happened, to say the least. Many people have now left video games for greener pastures, or have taken on more urgent politics beyond games... and anyway, Twitter just feels so much more stressful now. It's honestly kind of hard for me to still care about video games like I did back then. (Did we really use Twitter to argue about formalism in games? That's what we used Twitter for? Wow.)

Four years ago, we were talking about #1ReasonWhy, and GDC started the Advocacy track. Did any systemic reform actually happen? Did the industry end up hiring and retaining more women and black people? Did it get better for minorities? Some good-intentioned straight white male allies probably believe that "we won" because several games at E3 have black women in them. But beyond video game characters, I still feel like we're still having the same old conversations about the same old basic shit. The "discourse" feels extremely stagnated. It's hard to feel like there's any progress when every new Milkshake Duck of the Month pulls us back to basic questions like "wait why is it bad to harass women again?" and then suddenly the gamers are torn between supporting women / minorities vs. liking games about Blade Runner. As I've argued before, games probably aren't going to get "better" through this kind of desperate moral math.

Four years ago, we were also talking about a "queer games scene" and thinking about how to direct that momentum. For a variety of reasons, that energy ended up dissipating. On the plus side, there are definitely more people doing this work now, which is good, but there's also much less appetite for concentrating it into a "scene", which hurts our visibility and solidarity. Well, at least there's now a loose body of thinking and theory about queerness in games? I contributed to a new book literally called Queer Game Studies, which came out of the first Queerness and Games conference in 2013. When people ask what "queer games" are, I can now point to that book and event, even though it doesn't really feel so urgent to me anymore.

These days, I imagine a lot of us are very tired and disappointed, and I get it, and yeah I feel it too.

But however we feel, we definitely shouldn't nostalgize that supposedly simpler time, that now-mythical era before monthly milkshake ducks and anime frog nazis. That promise of 2013 (or 2012, or 2011, or 2010, etc.) is long gone and we can never go back. Instead, we must forge new kinds of promises and new kinds of trust.

We're still alive. We can still make new energy, new movements, and new alignments. And yeah, it won't feel the same. It won't feel like what we had before, or even what we think we had before. But I promise you, at the very least, whatever it is -- it will be ours.

Friday, June 9, 2017

On that one brilliant episode of Murder She Wrote that thinks VR is kind of bullshit


Murder She Wrote was a long running TV show about an elderly mystery novelist (played by Dame Angela Lansbury) who happens to solve all these murders wherever she goes. Like other long-running TV shows on CBS about older women having adventures, it was popular mostly with grandmothers and gay men -- which is why it's so surprising (or maybe unsurprising?) that it also had one of the most accurate on-point less-rosy depictions of 1990s VR on television.

If you want to know more about the episode "A Virtual Murder" (S10 E05), read Laura Hudson's full write-up for Wired.

If you're in a hurry, here's a brief synopsis, along with my short analysis... but first, please enjoy this GIF of someone (spoiler) shooting a guy in a VR headset:

Friday, May 26, 2017

From modders to mimics: a people's history of the "prop hunt" genre

This post contains minor gameplay spoilers for the first hour of Prey (2017).

Contemporary game design is built on the blood, sweat, and tears of countless modders. MOBAs, tower defense, realistic squad shooters, walking simulators, survival royales, all started as mods. (For those keeping score: Aeon of Strife for Starcraft 1 or DOTA for Warcraft 3, innumerable tower defense UMS maps for Starcraft 1, Counter-Strike for Half-Life 1, Dear Esther for Half-Life 2, Day-Z for ARMA.)

Add the "prop hunt" to the list. The prop hunt is interior design meets hide and seek, where hiders "hide" in plain sight, disguised as the decorative clutter common in video game worlds, and seekers must guess what is inanimate clutter and what is sentient clutter. Arkane Studios' recent sci-fi shooter Prey (2017) cleverly commercializes this mechanic in a way that modders never could, and while it's nice to know they're paying attention to current trends, I think it's also important to remember the modders that usually get erased from game design histories. In this case, I argue that modders predate AAA design practice by at least 19 years.

CrateDM was a Quake 2 mod released on April 14, 1998, made in an hour by Chris "Shatter" Holden. As far as mods go, it was really simple from a technical perspective: a small map full of crates, and a PPM (plugin player model) that let players appear as crates, and no custom code or anything... which, I think, is brilliant. We often argue video games are made of code, and here was a new game genre created without any code at all!

Here is Holden's process and notes from the readme.txt:

Monday, May 22, 2017

So I'm joining NYU Game Center as full-time faculty in Fall 2017... (and a bit about adjuncting)


So some brief career news stuff -- I'll be joining NYU Game Center as full-time faculty ("assistant arts professor") starting in Fall 2017 (along with Matt Boch). This might be a bit confusing. Wasn't I already teaching at NYU? Well, I'm so glad you asked...

Until then, I was/am still a part-time "adjunct" teacher at 2-3 different university programs around New York City. Adjunct faculty are treated very differently from full-time faculty: we don't usually get any benefits or health insurance, we are paid much less and at a per-class rate, and we have no real guarantee of re-appointment / job security. The average US adjunct (more than half of all faculty across the US now) would be pretty lucky to make more than $30,000 USD a year by teaching 5-10 courses a year, assuming they can hustle that much work together. (You'd also be very stressed-out and unhappy with such a heavy work load. I've heard horror stories of some adjuncts trying to teach 6 different classes at once across New York and New Jersey!)

Meanwhile, my adjunct situation is a bit unusual. The pay in NYC is a bit higher, and NYU / New School adjuncts unionized to negotiate better contracts. If you adjunct anywhere else in the US, you might have much lower pay and no union. I was also lucky to be working in a "hot" field right now, where I have a rare skillset and my classes fill-up regularly. If I were teaching first year writing and composition, I'd be considered infinitely replaceable. If I was teaching a class about 19th century Estonian poetry and only 3 students registered, the university would likely cancel the class for low enrollment. Compared to those cases, teaching video games and VR is like a golden ticket.

It's hard to talk about all this because the individual people involved -- the academic bureaucracy of directors and administrators -- are often perfectly kind people. It's not one person's fault, or even one department or university's fault. The bigger problem is cultural and systemic throughout the entire world: is a university supposed to organize knowledge and help educate everyone, or is it more like a fun resort where you drink and party and hopefully make friends with rich people? Well, if you're a university and the US government defunds you for the past 50 years, and a recession wipes out your endowment, and your alumni donors think you're getting "too PC" to deserve their money, then maybe it makes more sense for you to become a resort... etc.

Anyway. Promotions like this are pretty rare, and almost never happen for adjuncts like me. I'm thankful for the support of all my mentors and colleagues over the years, and I'm sad that I won't be teaching at Parsons MFADT or at NYU IDM anymore -- but also, again, I'm thankful for this opportunity to invest more of my time into teaching / research / being a "public intellectual" or whatever.

Some of the stuff I've been doing with a public bent already:
  • curating and helping to organize No Quarter, an annual NYC show where we commission new public games from 4 developer auteurs
  • broadcasting Level With Me, my weekly stream about level design on Twitch / YouTube
  • writing about VR, talking about VR at various events
And here's some of my plans for Fall 2017:
  • hold "open office hours" on the internet (kinda like Zach Lieberman) where anyone most people can call-in for advice about whatever
  • help spin-up NYU Game Center's streaming operations (you're gonna love "Bennett Foddy's Amiga Minute")
  • wear one of those professor jackets with elbow patches
Plus, I'll be sharing an office with all-American game studies good boy Charles Pratt. (Oh dear.)... Who knows what wacky arguments we'll have on a daily basis?! Stay tuned for our inevitable reality show.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eyes on the prize...


I've been working hard on my historical bathroom simulator The Tearoom, and I'm desperately trying to finish it within the next couple weeks. Basically, I've been doing lots of art passing and tuning. I've added the two last characters, for a total of 4 possible dude archetypes to encounter in the bathroom. I also have 2/8 possible dicks implemented, I still need to add 6 more, but at least I have the workflow and functionality figured out. In the meantime, please appreciate all the care and detail going into modeling the bathroom stalls -- and enjoy them in their clean pristine state, before I dirty them with layers of graffiti...

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"Consider the Chair" in Heterotopias 002


For the new issue #002 of the video game architecture zine Heterotopias, I've contributed a piece on chairs in video games (though I focus on Half-Life 2) and about how these games' chairs function -- from the paradox that we are rarely allowed to sit in these chairs, to the "environmental storytelling" of the chairs' placement and arrangement, to the chairs' materials and history as a designed object. At the end, I posit a speculative political future for chairs in video games.

If you're into level design, you'll basically love Heterotopias. I've been a fan since issue 001, where they have a great interview with a Kane and Lynch dev about trying to evoke the alleys of Shanghai. I urge you to support this fine publication, and consider buying an issue to support independent games criticism. I'm also honored to appear next to all these other great writers, and Gareth / Chris were phenomenal editors. 10/10 would write again.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Games-related NYC end of year student shows, Spring 2017

If you're around NYC this month, a bunch of games-related university programs are running their end of year shows. It's always very rewarding to see the fruits of so many students' sweat and tears (a lot of tears), and it also doubles as a fun social event where you often run into old friends or Twitter acquaintances.

Here's a rough schedule (in chronological order) and some brief commentary about what to expect from each show. Hope to see you there:

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The war in heaven: a three-dimensional VR culture clash


Virtual reality is a weird collaboration between several different fields / industries, and each practice brings its own assumptions and baggage. When I go to VR events and conferences away from the influence of games, I often feel bewildered and confused by the different language and norms.

One time I was at a businessy VR event near Wall Street and some tech-biz guy said he had a "VR-ready industrial robot" deployed in a warehouse, and would any angels [investors] be interested in taking a tour? I was so confused (what the hell is a VR-ready industrial robot?) so I joked aloud, "is it a sex robot?" -- but no one else reacted at all, they just continued with the conversation and asked him about market caps or something, as if I didn't even say anything! Not even a pity smirk or furrowed brow or roll of the eyes!

This is part of a larger skirmish about language, and about how to talk about VR. The PC manufacturers have adopted "VR-ready" as a euphemism for "expensive gamer computer"... In tech, you have to be able to refer to an investor as an "angel" without laughing and bursting into flames. These are kind of trivial examples that don't seriously impede communication, but I do think they hint at how we're trying to shape cultures and norms for VR. There's not even agreement about whether to call VR "VR" -- maybe VR is just a subset of "AR" (augmented reality), but really those are both just subsets of "MR" (mixed reality) -- or maybe let's unify under the recent umbrella term "XR" (x-reality?)... terminology and labels and language matters.

And since angels are involved, I guess this is a war in heaven.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A survey of video game manifestos



I've written a few manifestos for making games -- Radiator 1 had a short "PIES" manifesto, and these days I also work off a loose "games as culture" not-manifesto and a more recent "Gay VR" utopian manifesto. To me, a manifesto is a funny thing because you're trying to predict what you're going to make over the next few years, and people will easily be able to judge you for it. (Well, Robert, did you actually achieve Full Gay VR, or did all that stuff fizzle out? I guess we'll see!) In this way, I think a manifesto is like a weird paradoxical show of strength as well as vulnerability. It's a bit of a risk.

There is, of course, a long history of manifestos, and any time you write a manifesto you're also participating in that history. The most famous manifesto is, perhaps, the Communist Manifesto. In art, we have a Futurist manifesto, a Dada manifesto, a Surrealist manifesto... in film, I've always admired the Dogma 95 manifesto... and in technology, there's the Hacker Manifesto. Most of these manifestos try to distill a complex ideology into a page or two of bullet points and prescriptions, and that's part of the fun of it. Discard relativism to the wind, and let's shape the world to our vision!

In games, we've had a variety of visions. Older industry folks often like referencing the Chris Crawford GDC 1992 "Dragon" speech or the Bruce Sterling AGDC 2008 keynote... but here I'm going to try to confine my discussion to stuff that explicitly says it's a manifesto, because I think the label matters. Let's start, shall we?...

Friday, April 21, 2017

Radiator 3 is Greenlit on Steam!

Radiator 3 is officially greenlit for distribution on Steam! Thanks everyone for your support and votes. Look for the game sometime in Fall 2017.

Some fun stuff: in Steam, apparently I can set the game page's "primary genre" to action, racing, simulation, rpg, etc... as well as "sexual content" and "nudity." Nudity games! I like the sound of that. Wonderful genre.


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Level With Me: Half-Life 1, complete!

I do a first person video game let's play livestream show with level design / environment art commentary called Level With Me, and I've just finished playing through Half-Life 1.

I started with Half-Life 1 because it's a game I know pretty well, so I thought it would be a good first choice while I figure out how to do all this streaming malarkey. I'm still learning a lot about how to play / pace / perform, but I hope it's been entertaining and educational to watch nonetheless.

I've collected all 14 episodes into a playlist for your convenience. Each episode is usually less than an hour long. Also, you can "like and subscribe" the channel, and/or hangout during the live broadcast on Twitch every Tuesday usually from 6-7pm EST (GMT-5).



I haven't decided what the next game will be. If you have any strong opinions, please leave a comment. See you next week!

Monday, April 17, 2017

new feature: subscribe to e-mail notifications for updates to Radiator Blog

Due to a reader's request, Radiator Blog has finally joined the 21st century and now offers an e-mail subscription service via FeedBurner integration with Blogger. (FeedBurner is an old Google acquisition that scrapes and re-formats RSS feeds. RSS feeds kind of fell out of fashion like 10 years ago, but you can still access this blog's RSS / Atom feed directly if you want.)

To subscribe for e-mail notifications on new posts and such, you can type your e-mail address into the sidebar widget near the top-right of this page, or the footer widget at the very bottom of this page. Or use the sign-up form on the FeedBurner website itself. It's up to you. Here at Radiator, we're all about choice.

I will not share your e-mail address with anyone... not even with myself, because I'm probably not going to login to the FeedBurner dashboard ever again. It's all automatic now. Ah, the wonders of technology...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Spring 2017 progress report

I usually plan my project work roughly month by month, swapping out projects based on timeliness / recent progress. Here's my plan for the next few months:
  • My historical bathroom sex game The Tearoom will hopefully be finished and released by the end of this month / early next month. Most of the main functionality is implemented, I just need to fill-in some more content and do more user testing. Will hopefully have a lot more to say about this soon.
  • I need to dust-off my sexy strip-Go game, tentatively called AlphaGogo. I aim to finish and release it near the end of May / first week of June, soon after the next Google DeepMind AlphaGo tournament ends in China. When I last worked on it, I had some intermediate-level Go AI working on a 9x9 board. The idea is that it'll teach you how to play Go, and then the sexy "Go daddy" coach will take his clothes off with every match you win. Go usually has a reputation for being really abstract and dry, so I wanted to inject it with some humor and intimacy.
  • I have another project marinating on the side, it's a sexy pole-dancing stripping game, and it's a possible collaboration with a musical artist. One crucial touchstone for this one is the 1983 film Flashdance, which has a gorgeous iconic burlesque scene -- but then the other 90 minutes oddly condemns stripping and sex work as immoral? It has some strange politics and sexual anxiety that never completely evaporates from the whole "sexy dance" genre film lineage, even today.
  • Over the summer, I want to go back and finish Good Authority, a critical city-building sim inspired by the biography of Robert Moses called The Power Broker. People enjoyed the initial prototype, but they also didn't even get to the second half of the game, or even knew half was missing -- so we're trying to re-design the core gameplay to alleviate that. More on that later, when we've figured out more of it.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"If you walk in someone else's shoes, then you've taken their shoes": empathy machines as appropriation machines


EDIT, 23 June 2017: want to know more about "cultural appropriation"? I wrote a post about it, where I also try to recap a lot of conversations around cultural appropriation happening that month. Read it here.

In a 2015 TED talk (pictured above) VR filmmaker Chris Milk claimed that virtual reality could be the ultimate "empathy machine". Instead of fading away into irrelevance like most TED talks, this concept of the VR empathy machine has somehow survived into 2017. VR boosters like the United Nations' VR program and influential podcast Voices of VR continue to push this line of thinking.

I'm here to argue absolutely in the strongest terms: I am against the promise of any claim to a "VR empathy machine", and I am against it forever.

The rhetoric of the empathy machine asks us to endorse technology without questioning the politics of its construction or who profits from it. Empathy is good, and VR facilitates empathy, so therefore VR is good -- no questions please. (And if you hate VR, that means you hate empathy!) It's a disturbing marketing strategy, and I hope it's obvious how making a refugee tourism simulator your "flagship" VR experience can come across as an extremely cynical use of pain and suffering to sell your product.

I also doubt any empathy machine supporters have ever been the actual "target" of an actual empathy machine. Ironically, as empathizers, they seem totally unable to empathize with the empathized, so let me spell this out. The basic problem with empathy machines is what if we don't want your fucking empathy?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Vote "YES" on Radiator 3 for Steam Greenlight!


So I've been giving some thought as to what a sequel to Radiator 2 would look like... and I think it'll be a similar format, with a flagship game + other bundled scenes in the same package. It's fairly straightforward to put them all together in one deployment, which is probably one nice advantage to making all my games in the same Unity project folder.

Introducing: the highly anticipated sequel Radiator 3. (Steam Greenlight page is here.) Right now the only segment that's definitely going into it is Rinse and Repeat, I'm still deciding what else I'd want to include with it... What will be new in Radiator 3?
  • Steam Achievements and gamepad support
  • SteamVR support! Probably targeting a "Standing" spec, for Oculus Touch / Vive support.
  • remastered super duper ultra high HD graphics and hair physics
  • ... and so much more!
Please vote YES on Radiator 3 for Steam Greenlight, and please forward it to your friends and parents. Together, we can make Steam a steamier place!

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lighting theory for 3D games, part 5: the rise and fall of the cult of hard shadows

This is part of a series about a critical theoretical approach to understanding video game lighting, while staying grounded in technical realities, and not focusing on a specific game engine.

Last time (part 4), we ended with the idea that video game lighting is a carefully assembled pile of hacks / effects that hopefully seems like a unified phenomenon of light. It might seem annoying to fuss over many details all the time, but this bespoke workflow exists because we need so much control to make sure the lighting calculations doesn't slow our game's framerate.

One of the most "expensive" (computer-intensive) parts of 3D video games is rendering shadows. To calculate a shadow in a video game, we must test-fire many light rays out from the light source. If these rays hit anything (see diagram above) then that means the light casts shadows past that object. To give you an idea of how much we sacrifice to shadows, Crytek said in a 2013 SIGGRAPH talk that they offer ~20% of their frame budget (5-7 FPS out of 30 FPS) to the shadows. (20% of their entire game! just for shadows!)

Since shadows are so expensive to do, it's impressive when we manage to do it anyway. But that also means we want shadows to pull their weight and help sell the game, to justify the work we put into them. We worship shadows while praying for something in return.

The cult of hard shadows began on February 21, 2001, at the Macworld conference in Tokyo:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Take ecstasy with me": a manifesto for Gay VR


Before I explain what the heck I mean by "Gay VR", let's review why Gay VR would be necessary. I gave a MVR talk on this topic at A/D/O a few weeks ago, and someone tweeted my slide above and it went mildly viral. A quick explanation:
  • "failsons" (failure + son), coined by popular "dirtbag left" podcast Chapo Trap House, are a particular type of 20-30-something men who have failed to fit into capitalism for whatever reason -- they don't have promising jobs, or careers, or relationships, or futures -- and they definitely feel the shame of it. When they hit rock bottom like this, do they blame capitalism and start listening to Chapo Trap House, or do they blame women + people of color and they join some Reddit hate mobs?
  • But when they buy video games, the right-wing failson finally fits into capitalism in some small way, and so they stake their self-worth on it. Instead of philosopher-kings, they are consumer-kings, who think they're so good at consuming video games that they can impose their radical conservative racist misogynist politics on the rest of gamer culture...
  • ... and they basically succeeded, thanks to tacit support from the game industry. It's now way too late to reverse this deeply unhealthy attitude toward art and media, and gamer culture is never going to get "better." These toxic conservatives have basically shit the bed, and now that shit will stay there forever.
To save a newly emerging VR culture from this poisoned gamer culture, I believe that we must act now, to fortify and insulate pockets of VR culture from the inferno. Ideally, we all pursue many different strategies in tandem, and here's a tactic that I'm working on, it's two short sweet words: Gay. VR.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Bleeding between alternate realities in Metal Gear Solid 5 and other open world games


I was playing the open world stealth game Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (2015) and I kept failing Mission 33 ("Subsistence: C2W")... The "Subsistence" label means it's a remix of a past mission, but this time you have to complete the mission without any starting loadout, and rely purely on whatever equipment you find after you begin the mission.

The goal of C2W is to destroy some buildings, but "Subsistence" means you don't begin with any explosives -- and once you start attacking the base, they call-in an enemy helicopter that will kill you very quickly. So your two options are (a) sneaking around and clearing out the base quietly so you can destroy the buildings in peace, or (b) finding some heavy weapons (conveniently, some nearby guards carry rocket launchers) and quickly blowing everything up and escaping before the helicopter kills you.

I kept failing with either strategy, so I decided to look up some tips. The online guide suggested a rather dishonorable trick... (1) destroy the nearby anti-air radar station while in "free roam" mode, outside of the mission; (2) then, finally start the mission, set your own helicopter deploy point right on top of your mission objective; (3) and basically kill everyone with the helicopter's giant overpowered chain gun, easily earning the top S-Rank rating for your performance.

My (wrong) assumption was that changing the world in "free roam" mode would not change the world in "mission" mode. In most cases, this was still true... except in this one instance, the radar station was leaked between alternate realities.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Theorizing local games cultures in a post-TIGSource era

Colin Northway tweeted this about a week ago:

As Colin implies, I suspect there is actually no real equivalent of a central "cultural nexus" like TIGSource today. In fact, I've been in on the ground floor of several attempts to make new TIGSource-likes, such as Super Friendship Club and Makega.me, and both of them eventually petered-out in the end for one reason or another. I'm still not sure why, but maybe it's possible that internet forums are a poor fit for what we need these days?

The indie games moment arrived, and has now stabilized into a satellite commercial industry of the game industry. We don't need a central place like TIGSource to imagine it or to advocate for indies to exist. Commercially indie showcase events like Day of the Devs, The MIX, and Indie Megabooth have been been running for a while and will probably keep running.

Today, what would be a public game organization's "mission" now? Everyone has so many different needs and concerns. It's kind of absurd that we even imagined one global "public" that TIGSource was supposed to serve? Local games community problems here in New York City are very different from local problems in, say, Pittsburgh or Capetown or Teheran or Shanghai. One single internet place cannot hope to address all of that.

Many local communities and friend groups have Slacks and chatrooms, but most of these are private and unlisted -- they don't have the "public" face that TIGSource provides / provided. What, are you going to invite Colin Northway to your Slack now? Even if he accepted the invitation, he likely wouldn't stay very long, because Slack requires constant (hourly? minute-by-minute?) engagement and labor to function as a community -- and it'd still be difficult for Colin to understand the tone of your Slack, or what it's really about.

To me, a public games culture should serve two functions: (1) help a local community cohere together, and (2) articulate that community's voice(s) and concerns to the rest of the world.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The melancholy of screen space in "Universal History of Light" by Stephen Lavelle


WARNING: This post somewhat "spoils" the 2014 game Universal History of Light.

Stephen "increpare" Lavelle's "Universal History of Light" is a highly symbolic "adventure" game released back in February 2014. Reviews at the time hinged on describing it as an "insane dog simulator" game, which doesn't really capture what the game does, so this is me trying to offer a more robust interpretation and understanding.

Universal History of Light begins with a short lecture about the dangers of using laser pointers with dogs. Because a small red laser dot is incorporeal and intangible, a dog can never actually "catch" it -- and they will never understand their inability to catch their "prey", which will supposedly haunt them and cause psychological damage for the rest of their lives.

You then play as the lecturer at the front of the lecture hall, and you point your laser pointer at a student's assistance dog / seeing-eye dog, thus inflicting catastrophic hallucinations upon the dog. The dog now enters the brilliant burst pictured above; what awaits the dog in a new dimension of pure light and knowledge?

Turns out, it is a world of monochrome trauma. In the distance, we see countless planes, searchlights, and anti-aircraft flak illuminate the night sky. As the dog, we are basically wandering the outskirts of London during the Blitz.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

"Queer Utopian VR" for MVR 2.2 in Brooklyn, 7 March 2017


Next week I'm participating in MVR, an arts-technology presentation series by Pioneer Works and Nancy Nowacek. This particular installment, MVR 2.2, is hosted in conjunction with A/D/O in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as part of their "Utopia vs Dystopia" series. (Wow so many event series!)

I'll be doing some standard artist talk stuff for an audience largely unfamiliar with my work, but I'll also be trying to speak to the theme a little -- "virtual reality" as a historically utopian project that is quickly descending into dystopia on all fronts. I will connect this to José Esteban Muñoz's idea of queerness as a utopia itself, where we can perhaps use the "horizon" of queer performance to preserve / salvage pockets of utopia in VR.

The other presenters are Jacob Gaboury, Laura Juo-Hsin Chen, and Rachel White, also presenting on their particular practices with art and technology... Jacob Gaboury does cool research with the history of computer graphics and queer computing. Laura Juo-Hsin Chen does playful VR that engages with materiality, like "toilet VR" and physical VR masks. Rachel White explores the fuzzy intersection between internet bots and an internet of cuteness.

It should be a fun night. See you there.

Free / open to public, RSVP requested
Tuesday, March 7, 2017 @ 7 PM
at: A/D/O
29 Norman Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(subway: G at Nassau)

Friday, February 24, 2017

GDC Advice for young first-time attendees, 2017 edition

I remember when I was totally bewildered and disappointed at my first GDC. Since everyone is doing little advice columns / threads on Twitter, I thought I'd chime in with my own shit. This is a bit of advice and info primarily for young people (ages 15-30?) going to GDC for their first time:
  • If you are a man, assume every woman you meet is a developer. Never ever ask a woman whether she is "in games" -- don't be so fucking basic, of course she works in games, she's at GDC! Women at GDC are not your mom and they are most definitely not your girlfriend: women are your colleagues. The secret is to understand women as skilled experienced professionals. Instead, you could ask:
    • "What are you working on? What's your current project? What was your last project?"
    • "What do you think about [area of expertise]? What are your thoughts on [related game]? Did you go to [related GDC session]?"
    • "Go to any good talks? See any cool stuff? Go to any cool parties last night?"
  • This is a business conference. If you're not here to "do business" or sign some deals or have meetings, then the conference is going to be kind of boring, and it'll be up to you to entertain yourself. On the other hand, if you do have something to show, this is a great time to try to talk to a publisher about a deal / getting a console devkit / getting some VR money.
  • When requesting business meetings / making appointments / approaching people, err on the side of doing it. Awkward first meetings are expected at GDC. Assume that you and your project are worth their time. If the meeting isn't a good fit, then let them decide -- they will quickly wrap it up, they're used to it... but also, use your judgment and don't annoy people if they don't look receptive.
  • Business cards exist to end conversations politely. If you ever want to leave a conversation, just make an excuse, offer your card, and then leave. Everyone knows this is bullshit, but the effort you put into this bullshit ironically indicates that you do give a shit.
  • If you ever have to choose between going to a talk vs. hanging out with people, you should usually choose to hang out with people. All sessions are recorded, you can always just watch it later or read a summary. (Personally, I've never regretted missing a talk.)
  • Stay aware of how tired you are, take short naps in the Mild Rumpus area or the park, and remember to eat enough. If you're hungover, you'll probably just have to drink a bunch of immune boosters and coffee, and try to hold it together until Friday.
  • If you are manning an IGF or Alt.Ctrl booth, it is totally OK for you to put up a "back in 30 minutes" sign and take a break, or maybe ask a friend to cover for you. Some people even just setup a looping video trailer and leave. The drawback is that you might miss some possible press coverage and interview opportunities.
  • Lunch recommendations near Moscone:

Monday, February 20, 2017

On cs_ppc, "school maps", and the politics of remediating / re-mapping real-life places


The excellent @dot_bsp Twitter account randomly tweets screenshots from different levels in various Goldsrc (Half-Life 1 engine) games and this February 18th tweet about "cs_ppc" by "Walnut<+>Warrior" really caught my eye and got me thinking.

cs_ppc is really clean and well-built with good height variation and composition. The shapes flow into each other very well, and the scale seems very realistic. On a technical level, there's also clever use of masked transparency textures to complicate silhouettes with fewer wpolys, centering around a pretty huge atrium with a lot of open sight-lines everywhere -- this kind of craft means it was built relatively late in the Goldsrc cycle, when high polycounts and heavy use of custom textures were the norm.

This level has relatively little cover and probably plays strangely for Counter-Strike, but the author clearly prioritized real-life resemblance over gameplay. It made me wonder about the level's relation to the real world. Fortunately, when I loaded cs_ppc.bsp into the engine, I discovered that the author embedded a commemorative plaque at the very front of the level. It is definitely intended as a recreation of Peter-Paul-Cahensly (PPC) vocational school in Limburg, Germany.

So what?...

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Apply to STUGAN, a bucolic game design residency in Sweden


Stugan is a residency program for indie game designers to hang out together in a beautiful cabin in the Swedish countryside and work on their stuff.

They call it an "accelerator", but don't that word dissuade you. If you consider yourself more of an artist than a businessperson, it's OK, they have hosted plenty of artsy experimental designer types too.

There's been some understandable criticism of Stugan's arrangements: Like many artist residencies and opportunities, there are certain barriers to access -- you're basically foregoing paid work for a few months as a sort of working holiday, and you'll need existing funds to travel to Sweden somehow.

However, I think it's worth noting that many art residencies often have hefty application fees and/or require attendees to pay for their own room and board. Compared to that inaccessible norm in the (messed-up) art world, Stugan is a somewhat reasonable deal that's firmly in the middle of the pack for art, and extremely rare in video games funding.

Of course that doesn't mean it's "accessible" -- so if you're interested in Stugan but don't necessarily have the resources, you might want to do some research into funding sources for artists, you might be surprised. Also, if you're a student, talk to your school -- many institutions offer travel grants for programs like this.

Or just cross that bridge when you come to it? You can apply to Stugan for free. Good luck.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Thoughts on Steam Direct

There's news today that Valve wants to transition away from Steam Greenlight, which is a crowd-source voting system where you pay $100 *once, forever* to let users vote for your games on Steam, and after a certain vote threshold you can put each game on Steam.

The new system planned for roll-out in Spring 2017 is something they call Steam Direct, where you pay a "recoupable" (whatever that means, here? Valve doesn't say) $100-$5000 fee *per game* (they haven't decided the actual rate yet) instead of going through the vote process. They want their storefront to seem more open, but they are also cautious about public perception of "shitty games diluting" the Steam store.

A lot of my thoughts are basically a repeat of past criticism of the Steam Greenlight fee, years ago, except this could be much more expensive and much worse? Here are my reactions:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Press Forwards" and the pleasing death of agency



Trackmania games have very robust track editors that let the community build and share custom tracks very easily. This ease of use and immediacy allows new track genres to emerge organically from "grassroots" player communities, a practice that I've characterized before as "local level design" -- it is not just new ways of using the game's building blocks, but it also suggests entirely new ways of thinking about the game itself.

The "press forward" genre (or "PFs") is one of my favorite examples of emergent level genres. Instead of challenging players to hone reflexes and maneuvers on a track, a PF beckons the player to simply hold down "forward" as a mindbogglingly complex track swirls around them. Through no skill of their own, a player ends up executing amazing stunts -- spinning 1080 degrees in the air before barely grazing a ramp in just-the-right-way to land perfectly on the track below. If the player makes any kind of choice, like letting go of the "forward" key, or (god forbid) turning left by 0.1 degrees, the consequences are often fatal.

There's a famous saying that "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." PFs are maybe the closest thing to actually dancing about architecture. Sometimes it feels like the track architect wanted to impress you, sometimes they are making a joke, sometimes they want to scare you. The PF frees us, to be more open and receptive to the ways that architecture speaks to us as we traverse it.

Notably, this is a track type that resists the dominant mode of playing Trackmania. It is a video game world that basically punishes you for even trying to wield any agency or control. When virtuosity is guaranteed, how many humans can resist the urge to fuck it up?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Teaching, Spring 2017

This semester, I'm teaching three game development classes. Here's a bit about each one:
  • "Intermediate Game Development" at NYU Game Center. This is maybe the 10th time I'm teaching the class; it's a mix of Unity, source control, and 3D art. It's intended for 2nd / 3rd year undergrads in the undergraduate game design program, to give them enough awareness of different tools so they can start to focus their practice in future classes. Teaching it is always challenging... some students double-major in computer science and think the coding lessons are too easy, but for many other students, this is only the second code class they've ever taken. That said, the main point of this class is that code is certainly important, but making a video game involves much more than just code.
  • "Virtual Reality Studio" at NYU Game Center. This is the second time we're running the VR class, and it's kind of exciting because the department is starting to equip some state-of-the-art Vive workstations. Last year, the lack of motion controllers and room scale capability really limited a lot of project ideas, so hopefully we'll be able to accommodate the student demand better. What's challenging about teaching this semester is that there's a lot of new material: I have to figure out how to teach a Vive workflow AND I'm also trying to mix-up the theoretical readings more. Last year, we spent a lot of time reading Hamlet on the Holodeck, which was helpful, but also way too concerned with narratology for a class that doesn't focus on storytelling.
  • "Recursive Reality" at Parsons School of Design, Design and Technology. This is the fourth time I'm teaching this VR studio class at Parsons, which differs greatly from the focus at NYU -- here, at least half the students are interested in VR for film / installations. The equipment situation here is a bit less ideal, because no desktop VR HMD is compatible with the school's fleet of Mac workstations. So instead, we're focusing more on mobile VR like Cardboard and Gear, which actually works well for a lot of the students' design goals.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Queer Game Studies, "On FeministWhorePurna and the Ludo-material Politics of Gendered Damage Power-ups in Open-World RPG Video Games"

For the upcoming book Queer Game Studies (2017), I contributed a chapter on the "FeministWhore" scandal in the game Dead Island. It is a "ludo-material" political analysis, looking at gameplay as expressed by source code, intended for general audiences. Here, I'll talk a bit about the ideas and process behind writing the chapter, and then briefly summarize the main argument.

First, to remind you, here's the reporting on the scandal back in 2011 from Kotaku:
One of the unlockable skills for Dead Island leading lady Purna allows her to deal extra damage against male victims. It's called Gender Wars in the game, but the original skill was named "Feminist Whore."
There's a lot to unpack here, and one goal of my chapter is to expand what we mean by "representation" in games. Currently, whenever we criticize a game character for its politics, such as a racist or sexist stereotype, we tend to focus on the character art, animation, writing, and voice acting. Why not expand representation to encompass the richness of the entire game experience and game engine itself?

My analysis follows Mark Sample's excellent "Criminal Code: Procedural Logic and Rhetorical Excess in Videogames" in focusing on the procedural politics of game mechanics and balance, and comparing that to the systems as intended from the source code. FeministWhorePurna is an ideal case study: it was a contemporary event with modern game engine architecture and a player / modder community that practically did the gameplay and forensic analysis for me already. (I also forced myself to play a bit of Dead Island to verify everything.)

You'll have to checkout the full book from your library, or buy it, or whatever, to see the full essay, but I'll try to briefly summarize the argument here, and in more game developer-y language as appropriate:

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

RIP, Vine.



The short video service Vine shut down today. I know a lot of game designers and devs who used Vine to document and share their work, and we're all pretty sad to see it go.

Below is my only claim to Vine fame -- nearly 2,500,000 loops before Vine died. This was a vine of the first sex game I ever made, called Hurt Me Plenty.



After I posted it, it quickly jumped to 1,000,000 loops within a few days. I was stunned. I had never really made anything "viral" before, and it only took me like 10 seconds to record that clip! I mean, numbers and view counts mean very little in the end, but when you haven't done much, even "very little" can be a strong boost to your self-confidence.

The breathtakingly thirsty response to this vine convinced me that there was an audience for my work, and that I should see it through, which is exactly what I needed to hear.

So thanks, Vine... rest in power.

Monday, January 16, 2017

rescheduled for Spring 2017: "Level With Me" Twitch level design show now on Tuesdays at 6 PM EST

Just a quick note that my weekly level design show on Twitch, called Level With Me, is now on Tuesdays at 6 PM EST (GMT-5) for the new season. (That's... tomorrow!)

Keep in mind that it's a different kind of video game livestream show -- I talk a lot about the level design and environment art, and freely use cheat codes during difficult segments. I care more about analyzing the game rather than experiencing it "purely" or whatever. It's more like a guided improvised tour than anything.

Feel free to tune-in and hangout as I stumble / cheat my way through Half-Life 1! See you then.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

"Pylons are my penis": a phenomenology of building in Offworld Trading Company and other strategy games


Game feel always has a narrative aspect tied to the player's in-game identity -- but in a top-down strategy game, who are you? Why do you know all this stuff, and why are you able to do the things that you can do?

I'm not asking for more bullshit handwave-y game lore ("it's the future, you're a space wizard") but rather I mean it in terms of interface and "raw experience". Even in strategy games with fog of war, there is still a fantasy of absolute certainty involved with your command. If you see a unit, it's almost definitely there; if you order a unit, they will definitely try to obey your order. If your unit dies, it is definitely dead.

These are all myths and abstractions away from how a real-life military often works, where commanders must constantly act on incomplete information, even about the state of their own forces. Few popular real-time strategy games let troops ignore an order, be routed, or be "missing in action", because maybe that's too unfair or it would weigh down the game a lot. (Some notable exceptions: hardcore military sim games often simulate supply lines and unit morale, the overburdened 2011 game Achron had time-travel and alternate universes of troop movements, while the admirable 2010 experiment R.U.S.E emphasized military intelligence and decoys.)

I'm going to propose that top-down strategy games let players build their own identities, and part of that identity is a body, in the form of your "base."

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Resolutions, 2017

A few general goals for this year:
  • be more active in VR communities, push for critical theory in VR
  • finally put out a publicly available VR thing
  • write more often, finish posts more often (fun fact: apparently I have ~300 draft posts)
  • finish more games and projects
And some more specific project goals for this year: