Monday, December 23, 2013

Radiator Blog: Four Year Anniversary

This year marks the Radiator Blog's fourth year of existence. It's now ready for preschool, wouldn't you say? (They grow up so fast.)

Much like the first, second, and third times I did it, here's a "best of Radiator" list for 2013 along with some brief commentary -- and please eat some of this cake, forks and plates are on the table behind you.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

PRACTICE 2013 "Well-Made: Back to Black Mesa" talk video is now online.

So I gave a talk on Half-Life / game development at PRACTICE 2013, and the video is now online with a fancy title card and everything. Thanks again to NYU Game Center for hosting and having me!

Well-Made: Back to Black Mesa

The modern AAA single player first person shooter consists mainly of two things: shooting faces in implausibly realistic levels with a pistol, machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle, or rocket launcher -- and obeying NPCs when they trap you inside a room so they can emit voiceover lines at you. Half-Life's legacy in the latter is well-mythologized in history, but what if we re-visit Half-Life as a masterpiece of technical design, enemy encounters, AI scripting, weapons tuning, and architecture? Spoiler: we'll find out it's a pretty well-crafted game.

To learn more about PRACTICE, visit

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Untitled co-op Wild West boomtown management game that is populated entirely by stray cats

Me and Eddie were wondering what to play. We can't play competitive games because we end up getting too upset at each other, so we usually need some sort of co-op game. However, there aren't that many co-op strategy games out there, or at least ones that are lightweight enough. Then we thought -- if we're game developers, we might as well just make the game we want to play, right?

Also, did you know: Unity particle system can emit particles based on any mesh, not just flat billboard quads?

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reading public Google Drive spreadsheets in Unity, without authentication

I'm working on a project with a collaborator who doesn't use Unity and doesn't really have an interest in game development (gasp) but it is still important that she can add/edit item data for the game. From a practical workflow perspective, I probably would've kept the item data separate from the game code anyway, to make it easier to balance and tweak stuff. This is usually the stage at which you'd make your own level editor or game database editor or something, but maybe there's a better way -- we can just tell Unity to read from a public Google Docs spreadsheet and parse the data. That way, anyone can edit the game levels or localization strings or whatever from anywhere in the world, and the game client will update data seamlessly.

A lot of this post comes from Clark Kromenaker's great post on accessing Google Docs services with C#, and a lot of my setup process is the same as his.

However, my particular project didn't need any data kept private, the game itself didn't need write access to the documents, and authentication looked like a pain (e.g. using OAuth 2.0 requires you to open a browser window so the user can okay the permissions? Yeah, no thanks) so I worked out how to access read-only publicly published Google Drive spreadsheets without any logins or anything.

Monday, November 25, 2013

"Well-Made: Back to Black Mesa" @ PRACTICE 2013

Very special thanks for Frank Lantz for inviting me to speak, and to Charles Pratt / Kevin Cancienne for counsel and emotional support, and Brendan Keogh / Dan Golding for convincing me that people even want to hear about stuff like this. Many of the ideas in this presentation will be expanded upon for the book I'm doing with Press Select.

First I want to set the record straight: I love Half-Life, but that doesn't mean it's immune to criticism. It is flawed in many ways. (Hard mode is too hard. The game is too long. On a Rail induces hemorrhaging. etc.)

I also think games mean things so far as you can argue for certain interpretations -- and I think Half-Life's popular legacy does not endure much scrutiny. Specifically, Half-Life's narrative is not subtle nor sophisticated nor conceptually innovative: from what we know about its development history and acknowledged inspirations, it is designed to be a schlocky silly action B-movie about a sci-fi disaster conspiracy, and I argue that reading is more convincing than thinking it's "the Myst of video games" or something.

That does not mean a schlocky game is bad; schlocky games are often fantastic. What I'm arguing, instead, is that many players prefer the weaker reading of Half-Life because they are seduced by the promise of technology without actually understanding what the technology is doing. Half-Life is magical and interesting and subtle, but not in the way that gamer culture mythologizes it. (At the same time, let's still be critical of what Half-Life does, and the values it represents to both players and developers.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

PRACTICE 2013 post-partum

This year, I gave a talk at PRACTICE (more on that later) and I had a pretty good time in general. I think now (a) I am slightly more patient with board games (b) I love Nordic LARP even more (c) I have more respect for the depth of thought that goes into a lot of games that I will never ever play ever. Someone asked me what I thought the overall theme of the conference was, and I think a lot of it was about game developers honing our "awareness" of each other. The schedule was diverse:

Friday, November 15, 2013

Games without gamers; imagining indie game developer futures

Indie developers think about money a lot, and whether game development can sustain them. If you've managed to make a good living with selling your game on Steam, that's great and I'm happy for you. Now what about the rest of us? What if a game developer can have a different relationship with society, outside of a market model where self-identified hardcore gamers buy and consume stuff on Steam or in bundles?

There are two kinds of indie game developers: the ones who wanted to break away just from publishers, and the ones who want to break away from the game industry as a whole. A lot of the latter involves convincing gamers as well as the huge vast world outside of self-identified hardcore gamers to change their attitudes about what kinds of games are worth playing, worth making, and worth supporting.

What if we take games, but re-frame them in other terms with other values? What if couples commissioned games for weddings, or what if communities built games to celebrate their histories? What if games were a form of journalism? I think the first step towards making these games happen is imagining how they can happen, so here's a bunch of possible game developer futures:

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On "On cliques."

Mike Bithell wrote a post, "On cliques," about his perspective on exclusivity in the indie game scene. I think the example he gives, of going to a party while not really knowing anyone and then getting upset when no one is dying to talk to him and then feeling foolish for getting upset, is understandable and human. I'm sure everyone's felt that way at some point. It sucks to feel like you don't belong.

At the end, he says everyone should talk more, and try to be more understanding of each other, and I think that's good. Let's all do more.

However, I've seen some other peoples' responses and takeaways that strike me as, uh, callous, or even poisonous.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

#0hgame and making games in zero hours.

The way you hear the video game industry tell it, the problem back in 1983 was that video games weren't gatekept enough -- too many people were making games, and that's terrible for The Gamers because that results in low quality games flooding the marketplace! Newsflash: shit floods the AAA marketplace all the time anyway. What they really wanted was control, control over who got to make games and who got to play games and who got to call themselves game developers.

So here's the deal: every game you make is valuable, no matter what AAA says or what AAA has trained its customers to hiss at you. Take any excuse to make a game: make small games as gifts, make games as jokes, make games for school projects, make games because you feel like it, or make games because daylight savings is turning back the time an hour which allows you to claim that you made a game in "zero hours."

I clicked "get theme" and got "sombrero." So I made a game about a sombrero.

Enjoy, or don't enjoy -- because really, I didn't make the game for you.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Queering Game Development, slides

Hey. QGCon just ended and it was a blast. I'll post more thoughts later.

For now, here are the slides from my talk, "Queering Game Development", which I think was fairly well-received? Some of the slides may not seem very clear / might need some unpacking; I'll post a more comprehensive essay adaptation of the talk later too, or maybe make a video? (EDIT: recording of talk on the archived stream starts at around 2:37:00)

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Game Studies of Game Development

This is an excerpt from "Queering Game Development", a talk I'm giving at QGCon (October 26-27) at UC Berkeley. Registration is free and open to the public.

You could see "games", as a complex field of theory and practice, as roughly the sum of three sub-fields: Game Studies, Game Design, and Game Development.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

"Developing a Half-Life Mod: Science and Industry" at NYU Game Center, Oct 23

"Indie-game developers, Kevin Cancienne and Peter Ginsberg, will talk about their experiences developing Science and Industry, a Half-Life mod. Hear about the design process of this humorous and innovative team-based multiplayer game and the community that helped bring it together. Robert Yang, first-person shooter scholar and developer, will be leading a question and answer session after the lecture."
2 Metrotech Center, 8th Floor Lecture Hall
Wednesday October 23, 7pm
RSVP for the event; free and open to public.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Two talk descriptions at QGCon and Practice

Sorry that this blog's been suffering a bit as of late. I've been busy.

My teaching load is ramping up (which is good, having more day job is nice) and I've been devoting most of my free time toward working on games, transcribing Level With Me vol. 2 at Rock Paper Shotgun, and writing / researching for two talks I'm delivering -- one at QGCon, and the other at Practice.

Here are the two blurbs:

"Queering Game Development" @ QGCon, Oct 27 in Berkeley, California
Queer and feminist critiques of games often rely on high level conceptual approaches to games -- that is, analyzing games as cultural products or media objects. The hegemony's response is to go technical and go low-level, to argue that their game engine could not support playable women characters, or to argue production schedules allowed no time to support queer content, etc. Ignoring temporarily how those are bullsh*t reasons, what if we chased them into the matrix? Perhaps we could disclose the politics inherent in game engine architectures, rendering APIs, and technical know-how. If we learn about (and *practice*) actual game development, then we can articulate alternative accounts of game development at a low level, and achieve more comprehensive critiques of games.

"Well-Made: Back to Black Mesa" @ Practice, November 17 in New York City
The modern AAA single player first person shooter consists mainly of two things: shooting faces in implausibly realistic levels with a pistol, machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle, or rocket launcher -- and obeying NPCs when they trap you inside a room so they can emit voice-over lines at you. Half-Life's legacy in the latter is well-mythologized in history, but what if we re-visit Half-Life as a masterpiece of technical design, enemy encounters, AI scripting, weapons tuning, and architecture? Spoiler: we'll find out it's a pretty well-crafted game.

(I imagine the "Well-Made" as a counterpart to the "Well-Played" or something.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Indiecade 2013 postpartum

So Indiecade 2013 came and went. I had a pretty great time and I still think it's a pretty good games event. I also think untempered compliments are the least useful form of feedback, so here are some notes, observations, and thoughts:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Indiecade 2013

Hey blog readers. I'll be hanging around Indiecade this year, and Nostrum will be on display at the Oculus booth there. Feel free to say hey to me. (It'll probably be awkward for everyone involved, and that's okay.)

On "How to Destroy Everything"

"How to Destroy Everything" is a fairly comprehensive argument for destroying everything.

That if games are art, or if games are culture, or if games are communities -- then we must recognize how art fractures, how culture is in tension with itself, and how communities constantly collapse and re-form into new ones. "Destroying everything" is about celebrating change and diversity and resilience, with the confidence that together we have the power to make something better in the future.

One of the more common instances of bullshit gamer presser-preview snake-oil-speak, alongside "day 1 purchase" and "immersive" and "cinematic," invokes the idea of "our young evolving medium." Whose medium is it? Why, it is We, the Gamers' Medium!!!! But does this Dorito-flavored ruin of Ozymandias -- does this "gamers" even realize what it whispers to itself, about evolving mediums?

At the core of evolution is sex, sex, and sex. Vulnerability! Energy! Trust! Passion! Grunting, feeling, throbbing, moaning... yes... yes... YESSSSSSSS!

I'm pretty sure the "Ludic Century" is already over.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Nostrum update: now with a map!

I added a map. This was the first version.

Then I tweaked the colors a bit. And animated it so it flaps in the wind based on how fast you're flying.

Then I added a border from an old atlas, and a map trail that indicates where you've been...

... But now I'm probably going to remove the trail, since I want the player to orient themselves with the compass and local landmarks.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nostrum and clouds.

Hey! I made "Nostrum," a short flight sim game for the Oculus Rift VR Jam thing, and I placed 2nd. I won a bunch of money and a t-shirt, so I'm pretty happy with that.

For the first week of the three week jam, I was actually prototyping a lion simulator game. Then I watched Porco Rosso and thought, "wow, that'd be a fantastic game." So I stashed away all that previous work and started something new.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Teaching struggle.

The other day, I sat down with a student in my Unity class to review some course material and answer some questions. They were wondering why their code wasn't compiling. Their code looked something like this:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Hacking blend transition masks into the Unity terrain shader.

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that grass rarely fades linearly into dirt. Grass is often quite clumpy. I wasn't satisfied with the non-clumpiness of my grass in a certain project, so I hacked Unity's terrain shader to add some blend mask support. You could probably use this technique for cobblestones, bricks, debris, gold coins... whatever you want to remain clumpy when overlaid on top of another texture.

First, let's think a bit about how Unity's terrain system renders the textures you paint on it:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Level With Me, series 2

Level With Me is a whole new batch of "candid interviews with game developers about their design process" going up on Rock Paper Shotgun, one a week.

The first half of each interview focuses on their past work / approaches, and the second half is a conversation where we design part of a first person game together, based on what previous interviewees did. This way, you get a 90s net-art pioneer indirectly collaborating with a veteran AAA level designer indirectly collaborating with an indie horror game designer, as they all deal with the weight of each others' design decisions.

The goal here, as before, is to demystify game development. Games are magic, but not because they are unknowable -- they are magic because they are so hard to execute and they require so much work and blood and sweat of human wills. I believe we can talk about game development / struggle, straightforwardly, in plain words.

This is also how we design games: we ask ourselves questions, and then try to answer honestly. Different people will ask themselves different questions and give different answers.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


It's not much, but it's what I can do:

I promise not to attend PAX, ever again, in any capacity.

I promise to advise my peers and colleagues not to attend PAX, ever again, in any capacity.

I promise to help organize / build / support new institutions and communities, to try to replace PAX and counter its owners' poisonous influence on its fans.

I can't promise that my actions will matter. They probably won't matter. But that's partly the point of a promise.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Further notes on developing games for virtual reality.

I'm pretty sure no one remembers that I promised to release Radiator: Polaris at the end of August 2013 (shhh), but here's what happened -- I was asked to join the Oculus VR Jam, so instead I've spent the last 3 weeks working mainly on Nostrum, a Porco Rosso inspired arcade flight sim / narrative-y roguelike. I think I'm going to work on it for another week or so before going back to Polaris.

A lot of my interest stems from VR requiring developers to re-consider a lot of basic ways of doing things in video games.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On "Shelter" and the power of ambiguity.

WARNING: This post spoils Shelter and Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

It makes sense that Thomas Grip likes Shelter -- functionally, Shelter is basically like Amnesia, except you're a badger mother in a colorfully illustrated forest instead of an amnesiac scientist in a haunted castle. Same thing.

In Shelter, there's a constant fear of starvation and eagles. The only thing you can do is keep going to forage and replenish your food. In Amnesia, you're told to keep moving and solving puzzles to replenish your sanity. So, both games rely on transforming the idea of "single player video game progression" into a symbolic struggle.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Press Select" is officially announced / update on the Half-Life book.

So the cute-gay-dad couple that is Daniel Golding and Brendan Keogh (oh gosh this is how rumors start) have officially launched a swanky website and stuff for "Press Select," their publishing venture for long-form video game criticism. Each author will follow Keogh's example in dedicating one whole book to one game. (It's not announced or anything, but I already called shotgun on Half-Life 1.)

My peers (announced so far) in this thing are:
  • Patricia Hernandez, of Kotaku and Nightmare Mode fame
  • Michael Abbott, the man behind The Brainy Gamer
  • Maddy Myers, freelance critic for various outlets including Paste and formerly The Boston Phoenix.
  • Chris Dahlen, critic, co-founder and former editor of Kill Screen, and writer on Klei’s Mark of the Ninja.
  • Tim Rogers, game critic for and founder and director of Action Button Entertainment.
  • Jason Killingsworth, features editor of Edge Magazine.
  • Jenn Frank, game critic, formerly of EGM and 1UP, Editorial Director at Unwinnable, and voice of Super Hexagon
I'm a little intimidated because books are really long and complicated things, but I'm also excited and confident that my lovely editors will keep me on track.

Right now I'm just working on a rough outline and scribbling a bunch of notes. If you want a sneak preview of the material, you can attend one of three upcoming conferences. Each one will be pretty different and talk about different things and aspects of Half-Life 1 and other games, but they'll all be emblematic of a similar argument: that Half-Life 1's legacy of pioneering "in-game scripted narrative" has resulted in the crappiness of military FPS shooters today, and it overshadows what's actually a very finely tuned arcade-ish shooter -- and as with anything, there are politics and tensions embedded within an arcade shooter.

The conferences I'm speaking at are:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

What should you learn in Games 101?

I'm teaching an undergraduate "Games 101" class at Parsons this Fall semester, and putting together the syllabus has been... not easy.

It's supposed to introduce students to a body of game history / game theory, while also letting them dip their toes into non-digital and digital game design. This is like 4 different classes being merged into one, so it's going to be hard to cover all the bases while accommodating everyone's varying experience and fluency in game design.

Many of the students will already be familiar with video games and board games -- but just as many will be taking this class because their advisor said it was good for learning interaction design, or maybe they wanted what sounds like an easy elective -- or maybe they played Temple Run once (a month ago) and they haven't touched any video games since then, but they sure like playing beer pong and basketball and tag, and those are games, right? (In some respects, the "gamers" might have the most to learn.)

Some pillars of my approach to Games 101:

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Gone Home" and the mansion genre.

This post does not spoil any specifics of the "plot" in Gone Home, but it might sensitize you to its delivery mechanisms and some details.

A mansion means: old, rich, and scary. The most quintessential "mansion games" that emphasize these qualities might be Maniac Mansion, Thief, and Resident Evil -- these games would not work without the mansion tropes that figure prominently in their game design. Most importantly, mansions are big.

Gone Home is very aware of its place in the mansion genre, a genre that emphasizes the primacy of inventories, objects, and possessions. Here, the lightweight puzzle gating and densely hot-spotted environments evoke adventure; the first person object handling and concrete readables evoke the immersive sim; the loneliness and the shadows evoke horror. In a sense, this is a video game that was made for gamers aware of all the genre convention going on -- in particular, one moment in the library will either make you smile or wince -- but in another sense, this is also a video game made for humans. Gone Home carefully negates or omits core "gameisms" of the very genres it comes from.

The characters in Gone Home are tolerable (or even great) because they do not hesitate in doorways and stare blankly at you. It's the same trick that Dear Esther pulled: fictional characters in games develop full-bodied, nuanced personalities precisely when they're *not* constrained by fully simulated virtual bodies present in the world. (Maybe Dear Esther is actually a mansion game?)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Ludonarrative dissonance doesn't exist because it isn't dissonant and no one cares anyway.

"I'm a living breathing person... but I'm just going to stand frozen in this spot forever. Also, I'm a tortoise."
I complained about Bioshock Infinite before. Here, I complain some more, because I really can't get over how bad this game is. Hopefully this'll be the last complaint post. I'm sorry.

Clint Hocking famously coined "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe moments when what's happening in a single player action game doesn't fit with what the game is telling you is happening -- maybe it's just plain wrong, maybe the tone doesn't match, or maybe the game thinks this thing is more interesting than it is -- either way, it doesn't quite work.

It's when you realize your sympathetic handsome male player character is a sociopathic mass murderer, or maybe when a character in an RPG "dies" despite having already died and revived dozens of times before, or maybe the brief instance when an elite soldier NPC glitches in the middle of a doorway despite all the boring game lore dumped on you. Sometimes it's intrinsic to making a game about killing people, sometimes you hope fridge logic kicks in, and sometimes it's a technical quirk you forgive.

But I feel like that theory doesn't explain what actually happens out in the field: if Bioshock Infinite was forged entirely, purposefully, from solid ingots of 100% pure ludonarrative dissonance, why didn't this annoy the shit out of everyone? Isn't ludonarrative dissonance supposed to be jarring and horrible? Why was the unusually unified critical response to Binfinite something like, "wow this game is colossally stupid," but the mainstream response was, "this is amazing"?

So I have a new theory -- most players do not find dissonance to be dissonant, and therefore ludonarrative dissonance doesn't really exist.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

7HFPS: "Harriet"

For 7 Hour FPS, I imagined some sort of Tribe-ish Mechwarrior game where you're a Harriet pilot ("Harrier + Jet") and you fly around shooting homing cluster missiles at things, deforming the terrain to make new skiing slopes / carve new lines. But in my early control tests, I decided the "piloting a death robot" fiction wasn't really helping / wasn't terribly interesting, so now I'm ditching it. I'm not sure what to do with this, now, but I think I'm leaning toward a game about the undesirability of godhood / immortality, and maybe I'll polish it up for 7 Day FPS in that direction.

Similar first person games about movement / hopping / surfing / skiing: Perfect Stride, Purity, the endless CS / TF2 surf maps, the notorious Tribes series... typical first person movement just seems so terribly boring in comparison.

In other games, surfing / skiing is a byproduct of messing with the engine's friction implementation and using strafing / jumps to build-up momentum. It's kind of fascinating, to realize that these player communities have invented a new way of walking, a sort of expressive movement without strategic or instrumental purpose -- a type of dancing, maybe?

Play prototype #5 here (< 1 MB, Unity web player):

In Unity, my implementation is really simple but it works: just a standard terrain collider and a rigidbody-powered player capsule with a low-friction physic material. To help prevent a tunneling / falling-through-the-world effect, I also set the rigidbody to "Continuous Dynamic." Everything from there was a lot of testing and tweaking.

The biggest technical problem, though, is something I have very little control over: uploading data to the Terrain object causes framerate hitches. Generally, it seems like modifying the texture blend splats is very cheap and performant -- next, editing the TreeInstance array starts getting expensive after you have a lot of trees (~10000+ trees), and editing the structs unfortunately does not refresh the tree renderer, so you're stuck with having to insert a whole new array every time -- but by far the most expensive thing is modifying the terrain and deforming the heightmap / geometry. I think the possible workaround here is to use some sort of "cell approach" -- make one big mega-terrain from dozens of smaller stitched-together terrains. If I pursue this prototype further, that'd probably be the first thing I look at. The alternative is to make my own terrain system, which sounds like something that's not worth it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Radiator Book Club: Architecture, design and criticism.

Book Club posts recommend books and approaches to consuming them for today's go-getting game developer / enthusiast.

These are books that I find useful for learning about architecture as design and theory. I've never formally studied architecture; my reading usually has to pass a "can I apply this to video games?" test that is intellectually cynical but like whatever. Fortunately, few things in architecture fail that test.

Grammar of Architecture (Emily Cole)
Every single environment artist should have a copy of this book; it's basically a 300+ page cheat sheet that talks about common decor patterns / floorplan structures of most pre-Neoclassical architectural styles around the world. Cole generally does a good job of balancing discussion of ancient Indian temple ornament with the The Alhambra's mathematical dimensions, trying to explain the history and ideas behind individual elements. It's effective because it doesn't try to be deep and is content to be a general survey, relying heavily on (numerous, small) drawings and pictures. It gives you a fast surface understanding of a style (e.g. a few pages for Gothic, and that's it) -- enough to build it and move on. These are, essentially, 150+ pre-assembled moodboards.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Experiment 12

I'm not sure if it's in the spirit of the thing to actually explain or say anything about the thing, so I'll say very little about it, I suppose:

Terry Cavanagh thought it was cool how the RPG Maker community did chain games, so why shouldn't we? We agreed. And so: Experiment 12. My chapter was kind of disappointing -- I went out of my comfort zone and came back with mixed results, especially after following the great work Michael Brough did on his chapter -- but I guess it's okay, you can't win 'em all... And overall, I think everyone did good work, and the diversity makes it all feel really human and raw.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Radiator Book Club: the Game Design Bibles

Several independent parties have asked me for book recommendations and stuff, so now I'm starting a series of posts about books to read, and some notes on how to possibly approach them.

These are core books that establish terminology and basic theory about games and development. If you've played games for a long time, much of this material will seem obvious / simple / not worth saying... but that's only because games are in your blood. A lot of it isn't obvious to everyone. So, it's important to maintain a "greedy" attitude in reading -- pick and choose what you like from these texts, and don't feel obligated to like (or read) the entire book.

Rules of Play (Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman)
I'm pretty sure Rules of Play is taught in, like, every university-level game design class in the world. It's extremely comprehensive in approaching game design as science and culture -- it's pretty much a primer on everything. The problem I'm seeing, though, is in the people who've rarely played games but want to make games as a career: they read this book and think this theory IS games, rather than a tool that sometimes helps you think about games. (see: "the map is not the territory") These "textbook developers" have a strange way of doing things, often wondering aloud how best to satisfy The Five Different Types of Players or how to Teach the Core Mechanic, instead of, uh, talking like a human being. I think game design is really lucky in that the veterans / masters of this field will usually preach against simple fundamentalism like that... well, usually.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Radiator 1-2 Handle with Care, Sourcemod gameinfo.txt fix for Steampipe VPK file format shift

In the last few weeks, Valve has dropped the GCF file format. A "GCF" was like a ZIP file containing thousands of game files. They were usually quite large (several GB was common) and so they were prone to file fragmentation, which balloons loading times as games need to load more files and assets. With Left 4 Dead, Valve started shifting their filesystem infrastructure to a "VPK" format -- instead of being stuffed into one or two colossal files, game assets are distributed among many more smaller .VPK files, improving loading times. Valve has now converted all their older games to use the new VPK file format too.

It's great, but it has also broken most Source mods made before 2013. Fortunately, the fix is pretty trivial: it involves editing the "gameinfo.txt" to mount the file assets in a different way / order than before.

If you want to play Radiator (or any single player mod based on Episode Two), just follow these instructions:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Half-Life book: some pillars.

(CAVEAT: Manifestos, by their nature, must be militant. I use environmental storytelling theory all the time in my games; however, that won't stop me from pleading for its death as the pre-eminent narrative methodology in action games. There are countless other ways to tell stories and mean things, we must simply discover, articulate, and disclose these new ways to each other.)

I guess I'm writing some sort of book, about Half-Life 1, for Brendan Keogh / Dan Golding's new recently sort-of launched book publishing project. So what's there to say about Half-Life?

I know I definitely don't want to focus on Half-Life's authored narrative (dialogue, scripted sequences) or "environmental storytelling" -- I think that approach is played-out, and the promise of that approach has proven to be a failure -- it's convinced so many game developers that a ragdolled corpse with some blood and bullet decals is supposedly a "good story" instead of a weak, generic vignette that's not really about anything. Two ragdolled corpses next to each other isn't a good story. A chair with a shotgun next to it isn't a good story. There are very real limits to this methodology if that's the most "subtle" we've been.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

I made a video game trailer

I've had this song sitting in a folder (called "trailer music") for about 3 years.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How a "Last of Us" art dump thread teaches "vision."

At Polycount, Rogelio Olguin posted an art dump of some environments from The Last of Us, as well as some notes on his environment construction process. All of his posts are worth reading, but I'm going to copy the part that really stuck out to me:
"One thing I hold true is that one texture will not make things look awesome. Imo well balanced shaders will. I think we are starting to move away from this one texture looks sick. Like the below textures are kind of boring alone but together it looks sweet. I really do not think anything we did in ND is "special" it just well balanced from good forms and composition (Modeling) to materials treatments (texturing)"
This shift in AAA art workflows, from focusing on individual art assets to thinking more holistically about how shaders, lighting, and art direction work together -- I think most AAA-affiliated 3D game artists agree with that in concept, but a cursory look around the Polycount forums shows that many of them still focus on honing one perfect asset for one screenshot.

Part of the problem is a games industry that demands certain types of presentation, style, and specialization in portfolios. ("To work here, you must have one normal-mapped sci-fi crate prop, with perfect topology and no wasted UV space.") But I think most of this problem stems from a lack of vision.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Handle with Care" at Queer Arcade, July 27-28 in Toronto

The original Half-Life 2 mod version of Handle with Care will be on-display, alongside much better games with queer themes, at the "Queer Arcade" in Toronto near the end of July. They have a solid-looking lineup, including quite a few creators and designers I've never heard of before, so it should be a pretty cool show. Wish I had time to make it out to Toronto, but maybe some day..

Full blurb is below:
Team Vector X VideoFag: Queer Arcade.
July 27-28 @ VideoFag
187 Augusta Avenue, Toronto, Canada
12pm-10pm both days.

Queer Arcade is a curatorial collaboration between game art curatorial collective Team Vector and the Toronto exhibition space VideoFag, which addresses the theme of queerness in video games.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Radiatorpalooza 2013: "Technical criticism"

The Fall games conference season is in the works. (Get excited.) Here's my current schedule, subject to change...

September 14th: No Show Conference (Boston, MA)
October 3rd: Indiecade West (Los Angeles, CA)
October 26th: QGCon (Berkeley, CA)

In my talks at No Show and QGCon, I'll be talking about game levels and approaches to close-reading them, emphasizing their technical construction as a locus of analysis. The talks will be slightly less political than last year, focusing more on what I think good "meat and potatoes" / "basic analysis" might look like -- criticism that considers games as not just play systems and media objects, but also as technical artifacts engineered within certain constraints. (Of course, code is political too, but... baby steps.)

Uncharted looks and plays the way it does partly because of how its 3D engine works (texture memory constraints for consoles, deferred + forward renderer, no level of detail system), how Naughty Dog organizes its artists (does one artist "own" a level? outsourcing procedures?), and how level designers work (mostly in Maya, no in-house editor?) Yes, it also exists within AAA shooter culture and cribs freely from Indiana Jones pulp adventures, but all video games are also digital artifacts that run on some sort of code. How do technical contexts shape aesthetic contexts, and vice versa? Answering that question is traditionally called "game development," but I think effective game criticism can do much of the same work.

You do not have to be a programmer to understand (on a basic conceptual level) what a game engine is doing and how that has changed over the years.

Friday, June 21, 2013

"Press F to Intervene": a brief history of the Use Key Genre

There are NO *detailed* spoilers for BioShock Infinite in this post, so relax. I try to speak in a really general / vague way about what happens in the last third of the game.

Can a game about picking the right hat to decrease your machine gun recoil by 45.2% -- can that game reasonably do the work of talking about what it's actually about, much less talk about what it thinks it's about?

No, of course not.

But if there's one image from BioShock Infinite that I'm going to remember, it's this:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Design reboot: Thief.

This post relies on familiarity with the gameplay / affordances in Thief. You may want to read Dark Past or my write-up on "Assassins." You're also encouraged to read through Mr. Monahan's Design Reboot blog.

I've been watching Thief 4 coverage over the past months and I'm increasingly convinced that I'm going to hate it. So let's pretend, just for fun, that I'm making a Thief-like... What are the best qualities of Thief to preserve, and which parts of the sacred cow would I lop-off? Here's what I'm thinking:

KEEP: Level size. Thief levels vary from medium to extremely large. "Life of the Party" was a single mission where you had to traverse an entire cityscape of rooftops through two dozen buildings and then also infiltrate a huge skyscraper at the end. Sheer architectural scale is important to maintain a sense of...

KEEP: Infiltration and exfiltration. You have to get in, rob the place, and get out. There's always an outside and an inside, and it's great to feel that you're not supposed to be inside. But previous Thief games usually neglected exfiltration as redundant backtracking or worse -- something totally nonexistent because you've already incapacitated the entire guard garrison by the end of a mission. (My favorite Thief 1 mission, Assassins, is one of the few missions to really do something with exfiltration.)

ADD: Organic use of dynamic lighting. With dynamic lighting and shadows, you can do totally unimaginative setpieces where you have to hide in a guard's shadow or hide in the shadow of moving objects on a conveyor belt. But something else is going on here: with dynamic lighting, open doors and windows become light sources -- and if you can close the door or block the window, you've "extinguished" that light -- but if there's a ramp in front of that window, you can't put anything there to block it because it'll just slide down, etc. That possibility sounds much less horrible than a contrived puzzle that you designed to death.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Amnesia, Among the Sleep, and horror economics.

I used to have a low opinion of the many busywork-type interactions that fill survival horror games. To me, it seemed like these games were about managing this totally artificial-feeling, designed-to-death resource scarcity ("I need more red herbs! I need more lantern oil! I need 9mm ammo!") and scavenging your environment for supplies. How can you optimize your ammo usage for the future when you don't know where you'll be or what you'll be up against?

Maybe these horror games work sometimes because, really, they're about the experience of being poor. They're about paralyzing uncertainty and the inability to plan, but still surviving. It's about how math can tire you out.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

No Show Conference is an intimate game dev / game crit conference at MIT. And they want talk proposals.

Last year, last No Show Conference, I had a pretty good time. I met many MIT games academics, East Coast indies, Canadian indies, and interactive fiction authors. It's kind of a strange crowd but I think it works, and the lack of bullshit really helps everyone talk to each other as people instead of networking opportunities. For this year, No Show's back -- and they've even lowered the price to make it more affordable -- which is pretty much unheard of, among the game conference circuit, and to me it shows that they don't just talk the talk but they actually go and do what they argue for.

Much like last year, they offer a $500 travel / hotel stipend for speakers.

So go and submit a talk! You have until June 7th. It's a conference and community worth supporting.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Design futures: AutoBrushes, levels that build themselves, and the politics of procedurality.

If Bethesda's detailed GDC presentation about modular level design kits for Fallout / Skyrim showed me anything, it's that modularity is actually a huge pain in the ass -- and not the good kind of ass pain either. Why should we keep building 3D levels in this slow, totally unnecessary way, with a workflow that's at least a decade old?

I remember a time when level design was slightly faster, and that time was the time of the brush. What if we could combine the benefits of modularity (variety / adaptability / abstract detail out of design) with the benefits of a brush-based workflow (simplicity / speed / focus on "platonic forms" of design)?

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Cubemapped Environment Probes: Source Engine-style cubemap implementation in Unity 4 Pro

I wanted a static baked-in solution for doing cubemap-based reflections in Unity. Using cubemaps instead of (or with) traditional Blinn-Phong specular is great for games if (a) the light sources / environments stay static, and if (b) the player's camera will frequently be close enough to see small surface details. If that sounds like your game, maybe baked cubemaps are the way to go for you.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts on VR aesthetics

The current working standard for first person games is Valve's VR implementation in Team Fortress 2: the player uses the mouse to move an on-screen reticule, and if the reticule leaves the middle "dead space" screen area then it rotates the player's torso. Head tracking does not change where you're aiming -- and outside of giving you peripheral vision, it is somewhat meaningless within the context of the game.

Is that the best VR implementation we can do? To render it meaningless?

Right now, the Oculus Rift exists mainly in this realm of performance art -- where most of the interesting stuff happens when watching other people use the Rift, and imagining what they see and what their experiences are. The vast majority of videos out there focus on the player instead of the game ("This is the future of gaming. It looks like a dog trying to escape from under a duvet."), and the best Rift games focus on the intersection between virtual and non-virtual, like players who physically kneel on the ground to play the guillotine sim Disunion. I think much of this dynamic is informed by the growing dominance of Let's Play (LP) culture... which is to say that the "best players" are now the ones who can "perform" the game in the most compelling way and reveal new aspects of the game that we didn't realize before, and that way's context usually exists outside of getting high scores / headshots. What it means to be "good at a game" is slowly shifting from sport to sport as theater.

Virtual head animation has never been more human and true. We are all now cinematographers who can directly share our fields of vision in extremely subtle ways; the act of looking is now the most expressive input in video games today. And right now, the "best VR standard" is rendering it meaningless?

Don't forget that the Rift isn't just a display -- it is also a controller. Let's do stuff with it.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Post-partum: teaching Unity.

Here's a bit of reflection on my first semester teaching Unity at an art and design school, mixed undergrad / grad level. They're in the form of rough guidelines that I'm giving myself for next semester:

» Don't assume mastery of coding fundamentals. Some students will be able to formulate and solve abstract problems with little help, while other students will need to be taught the difference in syntax between variables and functions, repeatedly. Course prerequisites, even if enforced by your school's registar (at Parsons, they usually aren't), are no guarantee of mastery. In my class, I put a code comprehension section on the midterm exam, only to realize that some students didn't understand nested for() loops, which implies they don't fully grasp how unnested for() loops work either; but it was the midterm, and it was already too late. Some students didn't know how to use AND or OR, and some didn't understand scoping. I should've caught these problems earlier instead of unintentionally punishing them for it.
Recommendation: On the first or second week, conduct a diagnostic quiz that asks code comprehension questions, and assess which students need which kinds of help.

» Cover vector math, every day. Do light drilling. Even students with significant code experience may have trouble conceptualizing how vectors work together / what vector operations do, especially in 3D. I don't think I'd necessarily impose grade school drilling, like worksheets with 50 problems and 1 minute to solve all of them, but a few minutes or short drill, every day or week will help a lot.
Recommendation: At the start and end of each class, do some vector math problems together as a class. Practice thinking about vectors in multiple modes: visually as spatial coordinates, abstractly as sets of numbers, and procedurally as variables in code.

» Teach Maya and Unity, side by side, in parallel. I front-loaded the syllabus with Unity stuff, and only started Maya in the second half of the course. I think this was a mistake because we ended up having a 2 week break where students did very little code and focused on Maya, and it seemed to be like we were moving "backwards." I should've paced the class better to prevent this dead time.
Recommendation: When teaching the basics of 3D transformations in Unity, also teach the basics of 3D transformations in Maya, and emphasize the many similarities in interface and project organization: scene hierarchies, hotkeys, lights, materials handling, etc.

» Don't teach coroutines. I tried to teach this early in the course, and it ended up confusing a lot of people. Personally, I use coroutines constantly because I find them really useful for timing things... but maybe I shouldn't have projected my own practices on them.
Recommendation: Teach the use of timer variables and bookkeeping variables / using Time.time instead. It is worse practice sometimes, but it is a more immediately intuitive way of timing things, and reinforces fundamentals of controlling logic flow.

» End with procedural mesh generation / mutation? I really want this to be an "a-ha" moment of the course -- when students realize that everything is just a different way of storing data, and artists are just people who can figure out how to get the data looking and performing the way they want. Considering the emphasis on 3D, I think this is a much more coherent endpoint than my previous emphasis on AI and behavior.
Recommendation: If students have been working in Maya for a while and they understand for() loops, they might be ready to iterate through arrays of mesh data. Maybe look at implementing some Perlin noise or a simple sculpting tool.

This summer, I'm going to try to put these ideas into practice when teaching 6 week Unity intensives at NYU Game Center. Feel free to check-up on us on the class GitHubs (session 1) / (session 2).

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

On focalization, and against convenient understandings of immersion / flow.

This post is significantly changed from a talk I gave at Different Games. It was prompted by Jon Stokes approaching me and helpfully telling me that my talk made no sense, so hopefully this post will be more clear. SPOILER WARNING: I spoil Brendon Chung's excellent Thirty Flights of Loving.

As a self-proclaimed developer of "personal games", one thing that puzzles me about these games and empathy is that no one really knows how emotional transfer between players and games works -- like, what's really happening when you control a character in a game? Do you sympathize directly with the narrative situation, or are you role-playing, or do you think more in strategic terms, or what's going on? These words -- flow, immersion, empathy, role-playing -- how much do they really explain or predict how we, as humans, experience video games?

There's very little actual research on this because, I think, the game industry isn't interested in funding it and finding out. About the only researcher I've heard of is Jonas Linderoth and he argues for severe skepticism, or that games don't actually teach you anything outside of games -- and that isn't something the game industry would want people to hear.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Notes on first person virtual reality / implementation in Unity.

I've been implementing the Oculus Rift VR goggles into my first person projects, and the process has been... interesting.

Valve's excellent introduction to working with virtual reality (per their experiences in porting Team Fortress 2) is the definitive primer to working with VR in a first person context, and more or less the state of the art. However, it also ends with a powerful notion: we're only just beginning with VR, and it's going to take time before we know what we're doing. Here's a very brief summary of general design guidelines, as defined by Valve:

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Game development as drawing; gesture, iteration, and practice.

(NOTE: There are sketches of nude human figures in this post, with their anatomy intact.)

If you ask any great AAA game artist about the single-most important thing you can do to get better at art, they'll probably start mumbling about "foundation." Photoshop, Maya -- these are just newfangled versions of pencils or paintbrushes or clay. They won't really teach you how to paint, or how to sculpt, or how to look at things and represent them. In this way, a bit of traditional, non-digital fine arts education can be an extremely useful tool sometimes.

In the pretty casual 12 week, 2 hours a week drawing class I took, the teacher presented two ways of thinking about drawing:

Monday, April 29, 2013

Let's Play: the first section of Anomalous Materials from Half-Life 1

So I recorded a Let's Play for Jake Elliott's "Let's Play" event in Chicago a few days ago. Since the event's now over, I thought I'd share the video for the entire internet to see. In it, I talk a bit through the design of the first section of Anomalous Materials, and how it played with the affordances of first person views / represents two divergent ideas of "realism" / presence, and what being in a virtual world entails. WARNING: a good portion of the video is me staring at a wall and talking over it, sorry...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

"From Earth" mod needs writers / narrative designers / concept artists / voice actors.

"From Earth" is probably going to be one of the very last Half-Life 2 mods ever made. It's Mirror's Edge-ish first person parkour + a mechanical machine-shop crafting-puzzle system + original science fiction setting. If I had time, I'd totally help them out... I don't have the time, unfortunately, but I really want to make time...

However, I really do think this is a golden opportunity for people with some mod skills but want to collaborate on a bigger project and focus on specific design problems. This is a veteran mod team that has already finished and released 2 very big mods already; they're small, focused, and they know what they're doing. (Most mod teams have difficulty getting coders, character modelers, and animators -- but that's exactly what they already have, so they're in a really really good position.)

This project is looking for writers / narrative designers, level designers, concept artists, and voice actors. (Again, these are traditionally the easiest roles to recruit for mod projects, the so-called "idea people" who are considered plentiful and worthless. The fact that this team is focusing on recruiting for these roles, consciously and thoughtfully, demonstrates they're different from the vast graveyard of dead projects -- these people get things done.)

Imagine you're a writer / narrative designer who wants to get into AAA, but you're incapable of making games yourself. Ideally, you would learn how to make games yourself, go indie, and bypass AAA entirely -- but if, for some reason you still want to go into the mouth of the beast, this is fantastic chance for you to actually do what they would do... You'll make demands for animations and audio logs and scripted sequences; the team will helpfully explain to you why that would take several years of work; you'll work around these limits and genuinely improve your own ability to design narrative; it'll be hard, but rewarding.

This is a solid project. They're doing a lot of things right. They have most of the core game already working and implemented. If you're a decent writer or multiplayer Source Engine mapper or environmental artist or someone, looking to hone your skills or practice single player design, you should definitely jump on-board. You will make good work and get results.

(Disclaimer: I've playtested From Earth.)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

"Different Games" at NYU-Poly, April 26-27 2013.

This weekend I'm giving a talk called "First Personal" at the "Different Games" conference, this Friday and Saturday at NYU-Poly in Brooklyn. I'm going to talk about first person games and why I think they're really well-suited for making personal games. I'll also be showing the newest iteration of CondomCorps in the arcade they've setup.

The conference is free to attend, so if you're in the area you should come hang out for at least a little while.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"Let's Play" at the Nightingale Cinema, April 25 2013 in Chicago.

Jake Elliott and co. are running a "Let's Play" themed event at 8:00 PM on Thursday at Chicago's "beloved microcinema", the Nightingale. What is the LP and what's interesting about the form? What's the difference between LP and machinima, and what happens when that line blurs? (Extra credit: play the Stephen Lavelle classic Rara Racer for further commentary of the LP genre.)

Daphny and Liz Ryerson (and me!), among other artists, have made new original videos just for the show. I think some are even doing live Let's Plays as performance (!!!) Personally, I had never recorded an LP before and it felt really weird to me... are the results compelling at all? Find out in Chicago, tomorrow! Full description and info pasted after the jump:

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Urban scenes

Wrapping up work on CondomCorps this week.

The color palette is heavily inspired by the "Benten" levels of Jet Set Radio, as those levels always felt the most "urban" to me. But if we're talking about urbanness, then "what is a city without its people?" The pedestrians on the sidewalks are particles, but obviously particles -- so I think they're actually less conspicuous than, say, the animated runner sprites in Mass Effect 3 skyboxes. To me, that's what most video games get wrong about cities: they are utterly crowded things.

And if anyone asks: yes, New York City has 2 Chrysler buildings...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dreamlab: VR research at Parsons.

Next year, me and Kyle are starting a (very small) virtual reality ("VR") research lab at Parsons. We've set our initial long-term research initiative as some sort of "virtual sculpting studio" -- so maybe one day you'll put on your Oculus Rift and power gloves, sculpt some virtual clay, and then send the model to a 3D printer? Wouldn't that be cool? We have lots of other ideas too, but those will require a lot more money / space / time, so this is us, thinking "small."

If you think it sounds awesome, please "like us" (ugh) on this weird startup grant social media platform thing so some giant well-funded entity can give us money. Or, if you happen to be a corporate or nonprofit entity that has money you'd like to part with, please get in touch.

The full proposal text is here:

We envision virtual reality as a “place” that allows us to do useful work and experience unique phenomena. Much like going to a woodshop to work wood, or a kitchen to work food, we imagine dedicated VR spaces for people to work and play with data in intuitive ways. How can we use the unique affordances of virtual realities to visualize, embody, and interface with virtual data most effectively?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A letter to a letter

Dear Raph Koster's Letter to Leigh,

You were right when you said that the authors of "personal games" would probably take you the wrong way... It's hard not to. It's impossible to divorce the politics from the forms of these games, which, yes, makes them difficult to critique as formal designed objects without appearing to attack their politics.

These authors argue that "apolitical formalism" is inherently political, that the worst politics pretends it's not politics. Porpentine tweeted that she prefers "blatant bullshit over honeyed poison." (Uh, she was talking about you, by the way!)

I'm sure you'll understand these authors' reluctance to trust this kind of criticism after the past decade of sustained critical attack on such games and their contexts -- perhaps these "crimes" weren't always inflicted by you or whatever, but it's certainly a trigger when you begin your letter with wondering, "what is a game?" My brain shifts into red alert. That line of inquiry has been a long favored tool of well-intentioned oppression, because these arguments often masquerade as thoughtful discourse but function as a weapon of de-legitimization, that argue these personal games can't really fit a formal definition of game. The emotional leap is that these people can't really fit a formal definition of people. Adding, "it's okay if it's not a game" comes off as sounding like, "it's okay if you're not a person," which doesn't really help you seem apolitical.

Again, you're aware of this. You are a very carefully written letter.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The joys of sub-projecting in Unity

Let's say you have a personal Unity framework full of useful models, prefabs, shaders, scripts, etc. that you'd like to use across several projects. How do you best deploy that framework?

If you use version control, then maybe in each Unity project folder you'd also have a special folder hooked up to an SVN or a Git submodule. (Though I find Git submodules to be scary and unwieldy and more trouble than they're worth.) If you don't use version control, maybe you'll keep a separate Unity project just for your framework and from that you'll export a new Unity package every now and then, then separately import and update the Unity packages across your different projects as needed.

There's a third way that I'm trying, inspired slightly by how the Source Engine's filesystem works: basically, you keep all your projects *inside* a main Unity project, so they exist more as "mods" or "sub-projects", and they interface with each other as well as a main framework folder that has core prefabs and scripts.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Post-partum: #lostlevels 2013

As 1/4 of the organizing force behind Lost Levels (the other 3/4 being: Harry Lee, Fernando Ramallo, and Ian Snyder), I'd like to talk briefly about it.

It went really well. Like really really well, much weller than I ever thought it could've went. At least 150-200 people showed up, and we had about 50-70 speakers in the end. Thanks everyone.

I'm sure all attendees and speakers have different takeaways from Lost Levels: on the power of organization, the ultimate uselessness of Powerpoint, why GDC must be destroyed, why GDC must exist, etc. At the very least, I'd like to think we succeeded, to some degree, to break down a sense of "exclusiveness" and unreachability among all game developers and players.

As a former modder, I occupy a strange space in the game developer ecosystem: my background is in AAA tools and techniques, but my politics and interests will often clash with AAA politics and interests. I can't identify completely with the more militant indies nor more militant AAAs. However, I do think militancy has a crucial purpose, and that purpose is to move the middle to a better place, and right now I think that place is toward those who have the gall to align themselves with the forces of human empathy.

Now, all throughout Lost Levels, I felt very conscious of this appearance that we're "against" GDC. Again, we are not against GDC; rather, we are against a pervasive system and mindset that prevents GDC from changing for the better. A giant corporate conference structure has strengths, but it also has very real gaping flaws -- its expense forms a prohibitive cost barrier that fundamentally limits the diversity of voices who supposedly represent all game developers, which enforces a monoculture of ideas and works. Monocultures kill games.

My main takeaway from Lost Levels: we all possess some degree of power. We must simply exercise it collectively, decisively, and tenderly.

Thanks for participating and see you next year!

(As a reminder: I am only 1 of 4 Lost Levels organizers and my opinions do not necessarily represent the rest of the organizers' opinions; it's okay if you disagree with me, you will still always be welcome at all Lost Levels existing and imaginary, whether I'm helping to organize it or not.)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

"You sleep rather soundly for a murderer": on murder systems and destabilizing virtual societies.

In many video games, you must kill stuff all the time, and quite frequently. Killing becomes the environment. It is so pervasive that killing becomes the context for something else -- clicking on a soldier's face rapidly enough to demonstrate mouse dexterity, or chaining together different button presses to make combos, or optimizing your stats to make a big number even bigger, or carefully managing various bars before they deplete. The killing is rarely about the killing. (Which makes you wonder why we need to wrap it in the narrative of killing.)

During an Elder Scrolls game, you will likely kill thousands of things. However, all of those killings are sanctioned by the NPCs in the game: you are killing monsters outside of cities and villages. Their deaths don't matter -- more will respawn to take their place, or maybe the game will delete them to free-up memory when you wander away far enough. They exist only to be killed. They are domesticated and farmed.

The Dark Brotherhood questlines in Elder Scrolls games, then, are one of the few instances in games that really focus on killing as killing. Specifically, it frames murder as a deeply anti-societal, anti-social, transgressive act, and explores the philosophy required to justify it. At it's best, it's also deeply systemic.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Summer 2013 @ NYU GameCenter

This summer, I'll be teaching 6 week Unity studio intensives at NYU Game Center. The "regular" class during the semester is usually 15 weeks, so trying to fit all that material into a summer course will be, uh, interesting.

The sessions themselves are pretty expensive, but I believe that they do count for credit that you can put toward a degree. I believe non-students can also take it for non-credit status, which might be cheaper? Unfortunately, I don't set the price, so all I can do is to try to help you get your moneys' worth. You can look at the Github for "Building Worlds", the (15 week) Unity course I'm teaching at Parsons right now -- as well as a blog post on my general approach to game development education.

You'll, uh, also get to hang out with me, I guess. That's a perk, right?

Monday, March 18, 2013

#lostlevels is an indie unconference on March 28th 2013, 1 PM, downtown San Francisco.

Lost Levels is a hyper-inclusive "unconference" about games and play that is FREE to attend, open to all, and anyone can run a session. It takes place Thursday afternoon of GDC week, in San Francisco. I'm co-running it with Harry Lee, Ian Snyder, and Fernando Ramallo.

I don't know about the others, but the main motivation to organize this, for me, was about imagining an alternate world. Yes, GDC conference sessions are fun, but they're really just an excuse for us all to get together and hang out, and we need a giant conference to motivate us all to fly over and converge in one place.

At its core, it's all about hanging out with people and enjoying each other. Everything else is just a fun ritual to facilitate that. But many people don't have GDC passes -- so what happens to them? The ritual isn't as fun if it prevents people from joining.

Our community will, inevitably, be incredibly diverse, chaotic, and messy. We should embrace the messiness and accept that diversity, and strive to lower barriers.

Please visit the site for more details and sign-up if you'd like to attend or give a talk or run a coloring session or dance it out to Tetris music or eat sandwiches. Thanks.

Friday, March 15, 2013

simian.interface, and filler puzzles as phenomenology.

simian.interface, by Vested Interest, is a game that never tells you the controls or how to play or what your goals are, but you'll immediately intuit all of those things just by interacting with it. In this sense, it's very toy-like: you're just playing with this thing, tossing it and turning it over in your hands. No instructions, hardly any rules.

Nominally, it's also a "puzzle game", but it really doesn't fit into the popular sense of a puzzle game. There's this concept of "filler puzzles" among puzzle games, where puzzles that don't demand any new skill or understanding from the player are not as valuable as more novel puzzles. You can be assured that in a Stephen Lavelle puzzle game, for example, every single puzzle has been consciously constructed and filtered and curated over the course of dozens of playtests. Same thing in Jelly No Puzzle: there's always a bit of additional new lateral thinking that trips you up.

In this sense, simian.interface is an awful puzzle game because it is made almost entirely of filler puzzles -- you're just doing the same thing over and over, and the shapes change a little bit. Most levels take about 15 seconds to complete.

... Except it's a puzzle game where the formal novelty of the puzzles doesn't matter?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Course catalog at Radiator University, Spring 2013

If I had a university, these are some of the courses I'd run:

There are two paradigms of level design in video games: the level as a constructed space, an architectured environment -- and the level as pattern of challenges, a series of situations and encounters. Students will build floorplans in Doom and engineer enemy attack waves for bullet-hell SHMUP games, build custom chess and checkers boards, and populate Skyrim dungeons with systemic parameters. We will also read an introductory body of architectural criticism and attempt to realize that theory as first person levels in Unity. In the end, we will argue that space and data are actually the same.
(4 credits; meets twice a week; satisfies "Spatial" breadth req.; Paris campus only)

This is the introductory course to Die Hard 1 Studies for students interested in majoring in Die Hard 1. We will watch Die Hard 1 every three weeks. In between screenings, we will read the novel it is based upon ("Nothing Lasts Forever" by Roderick Thorp), play Die Hard Arcade, tour several local modernist skyscrapers, and re-create scenes from the film in both analog and digital formats. By the end of the semester, students will be able to argue persuasively that Die Hard 1's many sequels do not actually exist.
(3 credits; meets once a week; bring your helicopter pilot license to the first class)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

GDC tips

It's GDC season again... Daphny has a lot of helpful advice on having a good time at GDC, so make sure you read that. Here's some bits of my own:
  • My write-up / thoughts / post-mortem of GDC 2012.
  • Don't over-extend / over-promise / flake on people, don't promise to meetup somewhere but then realize that you're actually somewhere else, etc. I did this to people last GDC and felt pretty bad about it. GDC, in particular, is really exciting because there's so much going on, so it's tempting to try to do everything at once... don't do it. Pace yourself.
  • That said: here's the official unofficial GDC 2013 party list curated by Brandon Boyer.
  • If you must be network-y, then don't be network-y with people who aren't network-y. Use your personal judgment as to whether the person you're talking to (especially an indie or academic) will care about the business card ritual or if they're like Daphny, who uses the business card to mean, "please go away."
  • Typical flow / activity of the week goes like this:

Friday, March 8, 2013

On EA's Full Spectrum event: "the AAA dev's burden" and their DRM on diversity.

"I feel like I'm in Gattaca"
I honestly thought the Electronic Arts' "Full Spectrum" event was going to be a lot worse, but it was actually pretty okay for an AAA-run event on diversity in games. Going into it, I knew it wasn't going to be some groundbreaking thing on gender and media representation: the event was an advocacy / awareness thing, but it doubled as a press conference for EA to flaunt their brand, and I think that's okay -- marketing is okay as long as we all know it's marketing. They didn't pick the location lightly, a massive sci-fi skyscraper literally 1 minute down the street from the United Nations. It was very symbolic.

Generally, the subject material and arguments presented were pretty basic and really obvious to everyone in the room: a collection of power gays, gay media, LGBT game bloggers, and academics. It was preaching to the converted. Which again, was okay. I thought it was going to be worse. (Later, it turned out to be bad / problematic, but in a different way than I expected...)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Portrait of the game designer as a young artist: Avant-Garde, by Lucas "AD1337" Molina

In the short but esteemed tradition of "games about being a struggling artist in the art world", like Jonathan Blow's Painter or Pippin Barr's Art Game, here comes the new and charming RPG-sim Avant-Garde. Look, it even has its own domain name and everything.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Unity to Android (Nexus 7) with Windows, notes / workflow troubleshooting

Some misc. "quirks" I encountered in setting up a build pipeline from Unity (on Windows) to Android on a Nexus 7... some is mentioned on Unity's Android quickstart docs, some required additional research. Anyway, if you're having problems, here's a pile of different things to try:

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Castle of the Red Prince, by CEJ Pacian

CEJ Pacian is probably the best short-form IF writer today. His (?) writing is usually firmly grounded in a genre -- Gun Mute in Mad Max / apocalyptic Western, Snowblind Aces in pulp adventure -- and Castle of the Red Prince is firmly rooted in magical fantasy.

The best part of his work, though, is that these genres and settings aren't really the point. In Gun Mute, Walker and Silhouette, as well as this newest entry, Pacian is clearly more interested in formal experimentation on a small but vital scale, and the genre is just a shortcut to approach narrative effect faster. What if navigation doesn't involve cardinal directions? What if everything is a metaphor? Above all, Pacian is interested in re-configuring how we perceive and navigate through space, in a way that only interactive fiction can afford.

Castle of the Red Prince's experiment, then, might follow these rationales:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

This one's for the hometown fans.

An image materialized in my head, and I was forced to try to realize it. We'll see how it goes...

Thursday, February 21, 2013

PlayThings, a toys and play symposium, 23-24 Feb 2013 at Parsons

PlayThings is a symposium about structures of play, and the ways in which design can enable or resist those structures. What does it mean to play? How meaningful is the distinction between toy and game? etc.

6 East 16th St, 12th flr
in NYC (near Union Square)
February 23rd - 24th
11 am - 5pm

Day 1:
a panel discussion around the ideas of play led by:
McKenzie Wark (Lang)
Colleen Macklin (PETLab)
Zach Gage (
Cas Holman (RISD)
moderated by John Sharp
a 3hr play session with various kinds of toys and games i.e. historical toys, mechanical toys, building blocks, plushies/puppets/dolls, board games, video games and physical games to introduce participants with the variety of things and activities that constitute as play.
(led by Kyle Li and Nick Fortugno)

Day 2:
Day 2 consists of a day-long workshop and play-jam session where participants come up with their own games, toys or other forms of public play and the creations are later reviewed by the panel and other participants.
(5 hr making + 1 hr judging/playtesting)
(basic toy building materials provided)