Tuesday, May 29, 2012

France Diaries: Infinite Omaha.

I'm in France right now. This is part of a series of game architecture diaries about France.

Walking through French farms and wandering Parisian streets has been somewhat unreal because merde, I've been here before... even though I haven't. Among all the Omaha Beaches, the Caens, and the Parises I've visited, the layout has been new and foreign, but the architectural language and landscapes are always familiar. It's the same place but it's also not.

Sure, we've all visited countless virtual New Yorks and Londons and Iraqs too, but France is different.

France, as depicted in military shooters, has always been the battlefield of stone farmhouses, green fields, medieval towns, cathedrals -- and it's up to the Americans to sprint up the beach and save this poor bleeding land. It's surprising, then, to discover that France's France is not a smoldering ruin covered in grass sprites.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Balls and conversation; let's narrativize the sports genre.

The mechanics in baseball video games usually work like this: the pitcher chooses between a fastball, a slower pitch (change-up), or one that rapidly sinks / curves (breaking ball). The batter tries to predict the trajectory of the pitch to hit it. Both players try to fake each other out. It's rock paper scissors with a heavy element of timing.

However, I'm making a game about a specific pitcher named Troy Percival, and Percival rarely threw slow pitches. In fact, he pretty much only threw fastballs -- but they were deadly, among the speediest fastballs in the history of the sport.

Bases loaded, Jeter at the plate? Percy threw fastballs.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Parsons post-mortem: "Games and..."

Parsons is a bit of a secret games school: they don't advertise much, and the students / faculty rarely shill for the program. (I'm an exception, I guess.)

I enjoyed my time here, but it's not for everyone. I find most prospective students are trying to decide between Parsons / NYU / USC or something, so this post is mostly tailored to them. (There's also a tl;dr at the bottom.)

Here are, what I think, the strengths of studying games at MFA Design and Technology at Parsons:
  • Diversity. A Model UN's worth of international students. About 40-50% of the students / faculty are women. Also, there's a healthy LGBT presence and culture, e.g. some of our bathrooms are branded "gender-inclusive", and ~10% of our cohort was LGBT. Some students are 36 year old engineers; some are 24 year old dancers and biologists. Altogether, this makeup is VERY rare in the monoculture that is the technology / games field.
  • Breadth. You will go to gallery openings and interact with the larger New York City art scene. You will learn soldering, coding, and typography. You'll get a general sense of where the "new media" art scene is at, to the point where you can go to a MoMA exhibition and yawn at their curation with knowing confidence.
  • Flexibility. If you realize you're not into games so much, you can totally do something else without any disruption toward your degree. Start welding something! Sew a dress! Make a video performance! Grow algae batteries! Build robots! Just start doing it and you can.
  • Maturity. MFADT is a very old program (15+ years old?) compared to most dedicated games programs. The veteran faculty know what they're doing. The courses and curriculum generally work.
  • New York City isn't AAA! The NYC indie scene is among the strongest in the world, with frequent meet-ups and events. Killscreen and Babycastles regularly partner with museums to do stuff, and there's always at least one games-related thing going on every weekend.
Now, as for the gaps in the program, I actually regard them as strengths, but I understand people see things differently -- so here are the "weaknesses"...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Levels to Look Out For, June 2012: "Future of the FPS"

I don't normally theme these posts around anything, but these three indie FPS experiments share so much DNA that it's impossible to ignore. They're all very grounded in digital / virtual / "futuristic" aesthetics, but they're confident to sometimes let that futurism be incredibly alien. Also, I'd hazard a guess that few of these designers have worked on many FPS games in the AAA manshoot tradition, but these "outsiders" are the future of the FPS.

(Coincidental but shameless plug: if you pick up a recent issue of PC Gamer UK, there's a "Future of the FPS" feature I wrote, though I guess it's already inaccurate now, seeing as I've neglected two of these beauties...)

Dirac by "Orihaus"
Descriptions offered so far seem intentionally cryptic and foggy -- a multiplayer co-op wandering survival sim (?!) with an emphasis on atmosphere over gameplay, set in a stark Mordor-Tron world, with a little help from Structure Synth. What grabs me most is how the forms are so mechanical yet still incredibly abstract and inscrutable. You always see generic sci-fi corridors with gubbins and doodads embedded in the walls, and they're always encoded as "electrical panel" or "fuel pipes" or something. They're obsessed with being knowable because supposedly that's good design; I think Dirac shows how nice just a shape can be. (Unfortunately I missed the last multiplayer playtest, but there's another open test coming up on May 20th at 8 PM EST, just meet in #merveilles IRC on esper.net. Check the TIGSource thread for the most recent schedule.)

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Souvenir and abstraction.

I was the main artist on Souvenir and did the bulk of environmental modeling / level design / art effects. The cypress tree and archway were one of the very first things I made.

Back in September, we realized that if there were any limits on what Souvenir would look like, it would probably reflect my own personal limits as a novice 3D hard surface modeler, as well as my partners Ben and Mohini who weren't incredibly experienced artists either. (Know thyself!... and judge others, I suppose, too.)

We needed an art style that would emphasize simpler forms with very little surface detail, and we made a very early decision to pursue a papercraft / untextured color direction. Otherwise, the UV mapping required would be time-consuming and cost prohibitive and wouldn't really look good anyway because I'm not a great painter. There were also huge performance gains in using just one small palette texture for virtually every environment mesh in the game; that means Unity can batch all the polys efficiently and reduce overall draw calls.

Our early experiments with the mechanic indicated that falling / shifting over long distances felt good... Which meant that our final game world had to be huge, and that most of the world would be experienced from afar as silhouettes and shapes. (Again, our mechanics suggested that investing in surface detail was pointless.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Souvenir prototype (build 08) is public!

You can play an early version (and by early, I mean still really unpolished, buggy, and unfinished) of our collaborative thesis at Parsons: "Souvenir." It's basically VVVVVV + Proteus + Dear Esther + a bit of Portal. For some of the thinking behind the design, read "Against Puzzles?"

Here are some bugs / glitches / issues we already know about:

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"What were the main trends of GDC 2012?"

So I checked my spam folder and found out I'm signed up for this thing called Quora, which wanted me to answer the question, "What were the main trends of GDC 2012"... which I found compelling because lately I've been wondering, who writes game developer history? Who decides "what happened" and where? What goes in the Wikipedia entry?

Here's how I answered, with a heavy indie bias. I invite competing accounts in comments or on the Quora thing if you happen to have a Quora thing:

What were the main trends of GDC 2012? 
Like, what were people talking about? What was on their minds?

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Wot I Think: "Indie"

Context: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/05/03/why-indie-has-become-a-bad-word/

The mild Socialist streak in me says:
  • Don't let EA co-opt a word. Don't let EA set a dangerous precedent, the moment when this golden age ends.
  • Nothing is inevitable. Fight back. Define indie ourselves by performing it.
The linguist / English lit student in me says:
  • Indie will mean whatever it will mean. Linguistic prescription, toward more use or less use, is pointless.
  • Words do not have to have stable meanings to be useful / important. "Occupy" = "we're pissed off about something" + _____. In the same way, "Indie" = "there should be more kinds of games" + _____.
The indie game dev in me says:
  • I'm indie because I say I'm indie. Now leave me alone so I can make some games; why don't you make yourself useful and go gossip about the new Call of Duty guns DLC trailer or something.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ode to Neil / Jed "Wunderboy" Jedrzejewski

The Source modder community has always been a bit apocalyptic, but still its community leaders generally kept things going. Jed has been one of the most selfless and important mod tool developers out there since 2002: his updated Half-Life 1 model viewer with alpha texture support, his collaboration with Nem on VTFEdit / VTFLib, his early work on 3DS Max plugins, and the VTF Thumbnails plugins... all his tools were utterly indispensable.

On April 8th, he announced his "retirement" from the mod community, citing real-life stuff / general disenchantment with modding / the stagnation of his own Source mod, Ham & Jam.

I won't chastise Valve. Given what we now know from their employee handbook, you'd do the same too: you'd work on Half-Life 3 or Portal 5 or something new entirely, with all of your friends, instead of fixing an outdated SDK for an old engine branch that a handful of ungrateful fans use. Would you rather do fulfilling work or thankless work?

Anyway. Thanks for everything, Jed.