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.