Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Darner's Digest, vol. 1


Darner's Digest is a series of occasional posts about the game dialogue system Yarn.

As I've written before, there are a variety of different narrative system plugins to use with Unity. Fungus is a full visual scripting solution ideal for beginners, Ink is great for text heavy games with huge word counts (like 80 Days), and Yarn / Yarn Spinner is a lightweight extensible Twine-like dialogue system for games about occasionally talking to characters (like Night In The Woods).

I don't know what's going on in the Fungus community, and I loosely follow Ink -- they are running an upcoming Ink Jam to encourage new users, and the maintainer Inkle Studios is doing exciting dynamic narrative research in Inkle with their upcoming game Heaven's Vault.

However, I can definitely speak to more detail about what's happening with Yarn these days though, so here's my attempt to recap:

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Tips for working with VideoPlayer and VideoClips in Unity


Traditionally, game developers use Unity for real-time 2D and 3D games and shun any use of pre-rendered video, partly out of design dogma but also because the MovieTexture system was a nightmare. However, the recently overhauled VideoPlayer functionality means that *video* games are now much more doable. You can now feasibly make that Her Story clone you always dreamed of!

I'm currently making a video game that makes heavy use of video, chopped into many different video clips. It's been fun trying to figure out how to build basic video functionality like playlists and clean transitions between clips, except in Unity.

The thing they don't tell you about re-inventing wheels is that it's fun and exciting to re-invent the wheel, and it gives much more appreciation for the craft that goes into wheels. It was fun to think about how a live telecast cues up video footage on multiple monitors, and how a real-world broadcast works, and I learned a lot about why they do it like that.

Let's talk video in Unity.

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Forgotten City (Skyrim mod) as dense quest


This post kind of spoils (but not really) some of the Skyrim quest mod The Forgotten City.

Bethesda open world RPG games have developed certain quest tropes. One trope is the conflicting stories quests like Two Sides of the Coin (Oblivion), In My Time of Need (Skyrim), and A Business Proposition (Elder Scrolls Online) which present two NPCs with conflicting stories and no real way to discern who is right, so you just have to pick a side and hope you feel good about it. Naturally, this provokes heated debates among fans, such as this epic two year 500+ post multi-thread argument about which NPC was ultimately truthful in Skyrim.

I heard about the popular Skyrim mod The Forgotten City after their E3 2018 retail remake announcement. After playing it, I think The Forgotten City exists within a different open world quest tradition of complex "dense quests" with many characters and possibilities in a small space. It reminds me a bit of Whodunit (Oblivion), Tenpenny Towers (Fallout 3), Beyond the Beef (Fallout New Vegas), and Diamond City Blues (Fallout 4)... the retail version of Skyrim conspicuously doesn't have any comparable dense quest, so The Forgotten City sort of fills this gap.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The DreamboxXx Bundle


Me and my collaborators on The DreamboxXx project (the commission for my recent game Dream Hard) have launched a queer arcade bundle. In the tradition of past social justice oriented game bundles like Devs With Ferguson, the proceeds from this bundle will benefit local queer / trans / pro-immigrant nonprofits.

It's a limited-time offer, running from June 24 - July 24, and it consists of 8 games for $8, a 69% discount off the $26.23 retail value. (Nice!!) Here's the blurb / more info:
Most of these games are for two players, all can be played on the keyboard, and the majority are cooperative. Most of these games are also experimental, and don't really fit the standard idea of a traditional arcade game. These games include:
  • queer sex party simulator about lovingly eating cuties before the last train
  • stark auto-biographical explorations of social anxiety
  • a day at the beach, because you deserve it
  • an abstract notebook about migration and queerness
  • retro 3D brawler about fighting fascists, in glorious Playstation-era graphics
  • gay space RPG about fucking friendly aliens
  • a competitive arena game about gay orbs... I mean, it's orbtown, enough said
  • cooperative strategy game where you literally create a safe space large enough to rescue the entire planet
Most importantly, all these games were made by LGBTQ people to support their community! Proceeds from this bundle will go toward local social justice non-profits of each artist's choice, such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (local legal-aid organization serving low-income people of color who are trans, intersex, or nonbinary) and Make The Road New York (local grassroots organization dedicated to immigrant rights and working class communities)
We hope you consider donating toward these worthy causes, and thanks for everyone's support!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Dream Hard as queer brawler defense



This post spoils the gameplay and ending of my game Dream Hard.

In collaboration with local arcade collective Death by Audio Arcade, me and several other gay / queer artists made games for a Brooklyn queer arts space called The Dreamhouse. My contribution was a retro low polygon 3D brawler called Dream Hard. If you ever find yourself around the Bushwick or Ridgewood neighborhoods in New York City, you can play this (and many other queer games) on The DreamboxXx cabinet at The Dreamhouse.

While making this game, I was interested in what it means to appropriate a game genre with queer intent, and I wanted to figure out why the brawler genre would be a good fit for this kind of aesthetic. Some of my early prototyping and design direction is already covered in an earlier post. I wanted something that recognizably belonged to the arcade era, while staying fairly simple and accessible to a general audience.

Much of my personal memory of arcades focuses on big licensed beat 'em up games like the X-Men brawler cabinet or The Simpsons arcade tie-in. I also liked playing old 16-bit console games like Golden Axe II or Streets of Rage 2 on the Sega Genesis, but neither of those franchises exists today. Other than a few notable indie releases, the classic brawler game is mostly dead. I wanted to channel my nostalgia for these games toward The Dreamhouse.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

PRACTICE 2018, June 21-23 in New York City


Hey all, just a quick reminder about PRACTICE 2018, a yearly eclectic game design conference put on by my employers and colleagues at NYU Game Center. It's happening very soon, during this coming weekend in New York City, June 21-23.

I go to stuff like GDC all the time, and I'm often frustrated by huge industry events' limitations -- they're huge crowded anonymous affairs that must cater to an entire field and assume a wide general audience, or they focus too narrowly on a technical detail without reflecting on deeper implications. At this point, GDC probably can't change itself very much, but what if there were a bunch of different events that could do what GDC can't?

So I think this is one way of making the game design conference we'd like to see in the world. The PRACTICE speaker lineup is tightly curated, seeking a variety of deep case studies as well as deep primers outside the niche world of video game design. Generally, there's usually at least one tabletop game design speaker and one sports design speaker, and this variety helps a lot. In the past, there's been professional poker players, race car data scientists, breakdancers, rock climbers, all going into the actual problems and examples they work with -- as well as AAA game designers talking about combat systems and indie developers talking about game feel. There are zero 101-level intro talks here.

Basically, this is a conference for working game designers who already kinda follow what's going on, but appreciate deep critical takes on what's happening. Unlike a lot of these types of events, the post-talk Q&A actually has some good audience questions and isn't terrible! It's also great if you want a more laidback environment where you can chat with everyone, instead of running to the next party and apologizing to the folks you missed.

If you live in the New York City area, I hope to see you there -- and if you live outside NYC, maybe you should look at some last minute airfare deals... and the city is especially lovely this time of year too, you know...


Thursday, June 7, 2018

Why I'm not super excited about Valve's new Steam policy

In case you haven't heard: Valve recently announced it won't attempt to moderate the content on Steam anymore except when legally required to, or when it's "obvious trolling", whatever that is.

On the face of it, this is supposedly a net-win for queer people and marginalized creators. Supposedly I'll be able to publish as much dick as I want! But after many years of dealing with platforms, and their intentionally vague policies and selective enforcement, I've grown extremely wary of these many public statements that promise to do better, and then never do. Even if this new policy is for real, I can easily imagine a future where Valve suddenly changes its mind to disallow my games -- I'm used to being treated as a "controversial" edge case in games, and all these companies have successfully trained me not to trust them or take their word for it.

There's a lot to unpack in Valve's post, and you can read a lot of different editorials all around the internet for the full scope of those ideas. Personally I'm not interested in regulating "spam games" or "asset flips", and my analysis will focus more on my experience and attitude in using Steam as a developer.

I think one big problem with "Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store" is that it doesn't recognize how some developers are more On The Steam Store than others.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Remastering Rinse and Repeat

Rinse and Repeat remastered, for Radiator 3 (2018)
Rinse and Repeat (2015)
I'm nearing the end of the remaster process for my shower game Rinse and Repeat, as part of a future re-release planned for late 2018. As I've said before: if you have the time and energy, I highly recommend remastering your games -- you get to revisit all the compromises and sacrifices you inflicted on yourself, and now you're not desperate to get the game out the door -- you can finally do things calmly and properly.

The time difference helps you see the project with new eyes. In my case, it's been about two and a half years since the original Rinse and Repeat release in October 2015. Game engine technology has changed, my skills and tastes have changed, and it's surprisingly therapeutic to revisit my past decisions. Like, why did I give everything a weird green tinge? I don't remember. Maybe I had good reasons that I've now forgotten.

Here's some of the specific changes I made to the shower scene, and some of my reasoning:

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

On the indie story RPG's use of "encounter-space" and Fortune-499


This post spoils some gameplay systems / moments in Fortune-499 and its general themes, but none of the specific plot events.

I just finished playing Fortune-499, a short stylish story RPG replete with millennial career angst and light deckbuilding. It does what other strong indie story RPGs like Undertale do: it actually questions the logic of its battle and progression systems, exploring its own design space for narrative effect.

Few video games ever do this. Acclaimed AAA RPGs like Final Fantasy 12 ask you to fight many monsters and level-up via "license boards" or whatever, but rarely explore what those metaphors mean / interrogate the logic of these metaphors within the game world.

So if a game is about programming your party members with "gambits" as a metaphor for command and decision-making, then isn't it weird that you have to buy gambits at shops? Does that mean poor people in this fantasy world literally have less sophisticated reasoning and mental capacity because they can't afford better gambits? Or if a character has low self-esteem, shouldn't that affect their license board / upgrade tree, which is a metaphor for self-improvement and growing-up -- or vice versa, if there's a story beat where they renew their commitment and self-confidence, shouldn't they get a million experience points to emphasize their growth? (This isn't over-thinking it, this is just a demand for designers to follow through on their metaphors.)

Of course Final Fantasy 12 isn't alone on this, and AAA games don't usually care about this dissonance / disconnect, while most gamers probably don't even notice it anymore. However, I think Fortune-499 is one of those rare exquisite indie story RPGs that really does care enough to ask questions about its own game systems.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Games as Research symposium, after-action report


A month ago I attended a one-day Games As Research symposium, hosted by TAG at Concordia University and organized by Rilla Khaled and Pippin Barr. If you want my rawest thoughts, here's my live tweet thread from that day.

I learned a lot about design history and current methodologies for studying how a game is made. Here's some of the common topics and threads that we kept coming back to, and a brief summary of each presentation:

Friday, May 18, 2018

So you want to try playing Thief 1


I've been streaming some Thief 1 for the past month, which has gotten some people interested in trying the game for themselves. You definitely should, especially if you like eclectic first person games, immersive sims, open world games, or walking simulators... it's almost 20 years old, yet it still feels really different and fresh and distinct from anything today.

That said, it can be a bit tricky to play for modern tastes, so here's a bit of advice for getting into Thief:

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Radiator does Australia, Summer 2018 tour (but, like, Winter in Australia though?): Artworld Videogames, August 9-29


People of Australia! Now hear this!

The kind generous people at Bar SK and the notorious Doug Wilson of RMIT Games, in partnership with National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) and Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI), and in conjunction with MEL&NYC Festival (phew, this is a lot of organizations) are running an "Art/world Video_Games" month and bringing three New York City area game designers to Melbourne, Australia this August.

Those people are me, Nicole He, and Zach Gage.

I'll be flying to Melbourne first, with a kick-off exhibition at Bar SK, later followed by a tag-team master class with Nicole He at ACMI. After that, I fly back to NYC and hand over all ceremonial duties to Nicole and Zach, who I'm sure will have further events / appearances planned. For more info and updates on the full Art_world Video-Games schedule, check out the main event page.

While in Melbourne, I'll probably try to hold some kind of open office hours in the afternoon (especially if it's raining) where anyone can talk to me about whatever (... well, within reason...) and I will graciously allow folks to buy me beers (... within reason).

See everyone in August.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

new interview: Tone Control with Steve Gaynor, Episode 26


At GDC 2018, me and Steve Gaynor sat in an empty rehearsal room and nerded out about level design and stuff for nearly two hours. Not only that, but it was also recorded for his developer-focused podcast "Tone Control"?! Make sure you also check out the rest of the Tone Control episodes too, like my colleague Bennett Foddy feebly attempting to defend cricket to a US audience.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Dreamhouse process diary and prototyping notes + a better retro 3D low precision vertex shader


In collaboration with local NYC-area arcade collective Death by Audio Arcade, me and several other gay / queer artists are making small games for an event at a Brooklyn queer arts space called Dreamhouse / (formerly known as The Spectrum). My contribution is shaping up to be a retro low polygon 3D brawler called "Dream Hard."

If you want to play it, you'll have to visit The Dreamhouse, which will house the only public display of the game in the world (for the time being), starting in late May 2018.

I don't have much time to work on this, so grounding the concept firmly within a clear retro arcade genre helps me work quickly with less realistic visuals and simplified character art, while also engaging deeply with the arcade tradition of game design. Specifically I'm riffing off one of my favorite genres, beat 'em up games like Die Hard Arcade, X-Men Arcade, Simpsons Arcade, or the iconic Street of Rage series, which all offer breezy brawling with strange setpieces and colorful sets.

Here's some prototype GIFs and notes from my development process...

Friday, May 4, 2018

What is the game university for?

I did not go to game design school -- not that I had a choice, since only a handful of game design programs existed when I attended college. Like many in the industry, I'm "self-taught" -- which is to say, I relied on informal learning from a network of creative communities and random online tutorials. Today, I teach in one of the better-rated and better-funded game design programs in the world. With my self-taught background, I'm often suspicious of the idea of formal technical education. So here's my experience with teaching game development for the past 5-6 years:

There's often very loud implications from students, parents, and industry developers that we, as universities, are never doing enough to prepare students for the "real world". This criticism exists alongside the skyrocketing cost of US higher education, the ivory tower elitism of academia, and a societal shift toward privileging "practical" "hard" skills like science and engineering, instead of "useless" "soft" skills like literature or ethics. This anxiety is understandable, but it also plays into a very politically conservative vision of universities: that we exist only to train a productive and compliant workforce.

Danette Beatty recently tweeted something that seems very reasonable and actionable, and her thoughtful thread started a long important conversation on generalism vs specialization and how we ought to teach game development... but a lot of people don't read beyond the first tweet in a Twitter thread so I'd like to get into why "set your students up with the skills to actually get jobs that are in demand in the industry" has been complicated for me as a game dev teacher.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A MAZE 2018 after-action report


This year I attended A MAZE 2018 in Berlin. It's still probably one of the best video game events in the world; it happens in one of the coolest places in one of the coolest cities around. In the day, you basically hangout in a beer garden and drink some surprisingly affordable beer. At night, hordes of punky post-apocalyptic Berliner teenagers hangout and dance. This unique audience and format makes it all feel pretty special, and I think this year's award show host Tim Rogers put it best: usually people at games events are frantically planning where they're going afterwards, but at A MAZE, the after-party is the festival itself, and many people often linger into the wee early hours of the morning in true Berlin fashion.

There's also a strong participatory focus at A MAZE. Each night, there was an open booth for anyone to plug into and DJ, and "open screens" for anyone to exhibit their projects. There were also stand-up comedy routines, hypertalks, and a "devolution" show featuring various old builds of Superhot to understand its 3-4 year dev cycle. In that spirit of experimentation, I ran a "democratic lighting workshop" where I solicited lighting suggestions from the audience, and then attempted to realize their designs in a Unity scene. We laughed and we learned!!!

But wait, that's not all...

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Advice for making a game design / game dev portfolio


After advising several game dev students on their portfolio websites, I realized I was basically giving the same advice and pointing out the same kinds of issues, and maybe I should write about it. So here's some thoughts for students making a portfolio:

First, figure out your audience. Who is your portfolio primarily for? If you want to get a AAA game job, you should try to tailor it to the norms of that industry -- if it's for some sort of school admissions application, then think about what an admissions committee would want to see. A small indie studio will want to see that you're versatile and that you won't need much supervision to solve problems. Each situation will have different expectations for a portfolio.

A portfolio is more curated than a personal site. A personal site can be whatever you want, and represent all your diverse interests and complex personality. In contrast, someone hiring for a programmer job doesn't care whether you play guitar or whether you draw sometimes, and anyway, they have 50 more applicants to look at! Your still life paintings are important to your identity, but probably irrelevant to a gameplay programming position, so you might want to consider keeping your portfolio separate from your personal website.

Next, here's some more specific advice:

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On "Marathon" as an almighty whoosh



This post spoils my game Marathon.

Marathon is a 0-99 hour game about the athletic endurance required to masturbate for very long durations. I only spent about 6 hours making the game at this year's Nordic Game Jam, but I do intend to revisit this prototype and update it later. (Coming in Q4 2018: Marathon HD?)

The game is a pretty simple one-button timing game: you have to hold down [SPACE] on your keyboard to arouse yourself, but you must avoid arousing yourself for too long or else you might prematurely climax; similarly, if you avoid holding [SPACE] for too long, then you will fall flaccid and you won't be able to get it up again. I wanted to keep the mechanic simple because I didn't want to focus particularly on strategy or skill. Instead, I wanted to test endurance, and how long a player would be able to keep edging themselves without getting sloppy and/or bored.

The game concept is heavily inspired by merritt k's article "The Man Trying to Break the World Record for the Longest Time Spent Masturbating", an interview with a man named Drake Hardy who is competing for the world record in time spent masturbating:

Monday, April 9, 2018

"Sex and Drugs and Video Games" at Nordic Game Jam 2018 - Friday, April 13th at 4:45pm


This weekend I'll be in Copenhagen to speak during the opening program of the 2018 Nordic Game Jam on Friday, April 13th. The talk is called "Sex and Drugs and Video Games"... it's intended mostly as an introduction / primer for thinking about sex games and intimacy in play, since most of the audience will be younger people or newer devs who might not be so familiar with this particular diversity of indie games.

Here's the blurb:
There are already many video games about simulating popular real-life activities such as jumping and killing, but what if there were video games about things that people never do, like sex and drugs? In this talk, we will explore this fascinating frontier of game design and learn about this rich history and community. Because maybe sex is a real-life activity too?
If you'll be at the jam, feel free to say hello. I'll probably jam a bit on Friday night and Saturday, but unfortunately I can't stay long and I have to fly back to New York on Sunday. See you around maybe!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

American Choppers debate the arches in a sewer level from Half-Life 2

This happened last night. I'm so so sorry.

I don't have the time to actually fit this into the American Choppers meme template... but at any rate, I'm clearly Paul Sr., because I'm clearly right and I also deserve the last word!

Full tweet thread embed (what Twitter calls a "moment") is below:

Thursday, April 5, 2018

A call for video game neorealism

Bicycle Thieves (1948)
This is adapted from a spur-of-the-moment Lost Levels 2018 talk.

In video games, we understand realism as meaning photorealism: a hyper-real commercial aesthetic that's cynically detached from politics, emotion, and reality. Photorealism is also about escalating the video game value system, where high production AAA games are generally seen as more "immersive" and well-crafted than something that's less photorealistic. These are supposedly the videogamiest video games.

But outside of video game aesthetics, realism means much more. There's a centuries old tradition of literary realism, that sought to plunge the reader in the banal moments of everyday life. Social realism was a movement to paint more of the poor and working class, while socialist realism was a state-sponsored hyper-heroic style about personifying socialist thought. And today, we arguably live in an era of capitalist realism, where art and culture cannot imagine a world outside of capitalism. Reality is not a fixed thing -- there is not one realism, but many realisms, and each realism has a different type of commitment to reality.

So to imagine a world outside of photorealism, I'd like to build-off of another historical moment in realism -- and that is (Italian) neorealism in film.

Friday, March 30, 2018

GDC 2018: How To Light A Level, slides and transcript


This post is aimed at beginner / intermediate designers. It's a summary of the talk I gave at the GDC 2018 Level Design Workshop with David Shaver (Naughty Dog) for the "Invisible Intuition" double-feature session.

David's slides on blockmesh / layout are here (PDF) with case studies from The Last of Us / Uncharted. You can also get my full slide deck PDF here, and my speaker notes PDF here... but I don't know when GDC will upload the talk to YouTube, sorry.


A very brief and simple history of light starts with the sun. Then let's not forget about fire, controlled burning in gas lamps, incandescent light bulbs with a filament... and these days, there’s a stronger focus on more energy-efficient fluorescent lights, and LED lighting is also becoming more common.

It’s tempting to think of this as a story about technology and progress and older light sources becoming obsolete... but the light bulb did not make the sun obsolete, and the LED does not make fire obsolete! We still use fire as a light source all the time -- in our birthday candles, in our campfires, in our romantic candle-lit dinners -- in fact, I hate those little fake flickering LED candles, because a real flame has a unique quality to it, you know?

Fire hasn’t disappeared from the world, but rather our culture around fire has changed. That is, fire used to be a common and practical tasklight in Shakespeare's time, but now it feels more like special decoration for a special occasion. As a designer, you need to sensitize yourself to how light feels and conveys these ideas, because this is how you communicate those moods to the player.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Interview with merritt k for MEL Magazine

merritt k kindly interviewed me for MEL Magazine, a publication which covers culture "from a male point of view" but also seems to employ a fair amount of not-men? Anyway, the discussion mostly focused on video game culture and masculinity. I argue that video game masculinity missed a few developmental steps, and I'm dutifully trying to plug that hole with my work. Here's an excerpt of my tirade:
[...] I bring it up because I think the game industry’s anti-sex stance means we never figured out the equivalent of teenage sex comedy games — so game masculinity jumped from a love of cruel mindless violence to a stilted masculinity about being a Cool Dad who raises their daughter to be a Cool Girl, which is totally unearned, right? Video games cannot continue to repress this whole “sexual anxiety” part of masculinity and growing up. Fuck that shit! You don’t get to reconcile with feminism until you actually put the work in.
Feel free to read the rest of the interview, I'm told I say some good words in it. Thanks to merritt for the thoughtful questioning.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dispatches from GDC 2018

In keeping with a tradition I've done for GDC 2012 and GDC 2015, I like to try to condense general moods and topics at GDC. What happened there?...

Post-indiepocalyptic. In past years, I've remarked on the tension between AAA developers vs commercial indie devs vs non-commercial "artists" -- that tension isn't gone, but it's certainly not as big of an issue anymore. Everything everywhere is kind of terrible for everyone. So many people are making so little money that it's hard to distinguish their precarity from another precarity. Besides, a massive political shift is now underway in the form of...

Unionization. I was one of maybe 150 people who attended the unionization roundtable session. My live tweet thread is here if you want my version of what happened. Throughout GDC I heard so many stories that made me realize working conditions are worse than I imagined, and there's a shocking sense of resignation when I spoke to one AAA dev who predicted they were going to burnout with their next 100 hour workweek / 6 month crunch, like it was just this inevitable natural disaster that was definitely going to happen... As someone who trains students in game development, I guess I'm extremely concerned about throwing my students into this giant machine that will mercilessly devour them! (For what it's worth, the IGDA moderator Jen MacLean seems to have walked-back some of her anti-worker positions as a result of the roundtable.)

Generations. I don't know how a lot of other "established" indies feel, but this year when I went to a party or looked out into a crowd, I didn't recognize as many faces as I thought I would. Maybe this is just what happens in every industry, as more people burnout or find something better or in some cases even die. I spent a good amount of my GDC trying to meet new people, and that was utterly exhausting, but I'm still glad I made the effort, because this year felt...

Gayer? I met so many queer and trans people at GDC this year. And one night when I asked someone whether they were going to "the gay party", they asked me to clarify my question: "which gay party?" (!)... As always, I'm reluctant to praise diversity efforts because that implies diversity has been achieved and no more work is needed, but I did feel like there were generally more LGBTQ people everywhere at GDC, or at least more than before, and it was kind of nice.

Overall. Everyone was tired, but there was a sense that maybe it was worth staying.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Tips for talking to Robert Yang at GDC


Everyone's doing a bunch of GDC advice for first-time GDC attendees on Twitter, so I thought I'd chime in with a few tips of my own. Here's a helpful tutorial for how to have a successful social interaction with me, assuming you'd ever want to:
  1. Do you see me? I look like this. Or try to sneak a peek at the name on the badge. It should say "Robert Yang" on it.
  2. Are you sure that person isn't Brendon Chung? Brendon looks more like this; we're about the same height, but he's a bit more handsome and has a deep voice, and I have larger lips and generally sound louder and shriller.
  3. If we met at some past event or party one time, and I don't regularly interact with you in-person or on Twitter, then there's a good chance I won't remember you or your name. (I'm sorry in advance.) If you want to remind me that I should've remembered your name, you can briefly mention something like "we met at GDC last year" -- but don't mention a specific number of months, days, or hours, because then it'll seem like you've been pedantically tracking our non-relationship.
  4. (For advanced users only:) I don't respond well to praise or compliments, unless you deliver the compliment in a tone that borders on sarcastic / flippant while still remaining essentially earnest. Your goal is to perform a chipper yet world-weary knowingness.
  5. If we're talking but you don't want to talk to me anymore, then just say something like "well it was nice talking to you" and walk away. If we're in a group or cluster of people, then just let the conversation naturally die down, and then turn to someone else and subtly emote that you're not paying attention to me anymore.
  6. Whatever you do, don't tell me that you read this guide.
If you're looking for a more genuinely useful primer for going to GDC, see "GDC Advice for young first-time attendees, 2017 edition"

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Apply to NYU Game Center 2018 Summer Incubator


Applications for the 2018 NYU Game Center summer incubator are now open! If you have a solid game prototype or a half-finished game, but you don't know how to finish it or how to do all that "indie biz" stuff, then this incubator might be a good fit to help you move toward release and financial sustainability.

The incubator is a 3 month period in the summer that also pays you a living stipend to come live / work in New York City, where you get mentored by faculty (such as the notorious Bennett Foddy???) as well as other local devs. In 2017, there was also a comprehensive series of workshops on how to negotiate, how to do market research, how to register as a business, and the devs even visited Kickstarter and other local partners around NYC for advice and feedback. You also get to meet a bunch of other indie devs, co-work in a friendly environment, and make new friends. (For more details, see "Incubator Curriculum")

The catch is that if you make more than $10,000 in a year from the game, then you pay 10% of the rest of your revenue back into the incubator to fund future projects. If you don't end up making money, then you don't pay anything. You still maintain ownership of your game and IP, and you can also negotiate these terms if you want -- but compared to a lot of funding deals, this is already pretty generous.

Here's some more info and rough math to help you decide whether it's a good fit for you:

Monday, March 5, 2018

Level With Me, BioShock 1 (2007) complete


Last week I finished playing through all of BioShock 1 for my weekly level design let's play series Level With Me. My playthrough wasn't without its problems -- I was playing lazily and haphazardly, which means I relied on the same combat tactics all the time, and I also actively avoided exploring audio diaries / optional areas / player upgrade systems for the sake of brevity. Playing on easy mode also meant the boss encounters lost their pacing, and side areas remained unexplored instead of desperately scavenged for supplies.

Most people fondly remember BioShock for its narrative and setting, but I was consistently surprised with how much ol' fashioned game design went into it. Lots of classic hub-and-spoke level design, and several chains of fetch quests about looking for parts and materials -- remnants of an abandoned inventory / crafting system according to former BioShock dev JP LeBreton, who occasionally graced the broadcast with his presence and offered interesting trivia or context. I also played through the famous Fort Frolic chapter by BioShock 2 lead Jordan Thomas and felt strangely disappointed -- its scripted sequences and theatrical flourishes were interesting, and it made novel use of BioShock's "camera" mechanic, but the critical path overall felt a bit weightless. Again, I couldn't really play leisurely and explore the other 50% of Fort Frolic that was purely optional, so maybe also take my reactions with a grain of salt.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Radiator University, Summer 2018 course catalog


Hello prospective student. We here at Radiator University would like to apologize for the hiatus -- due to circumstances Beyond Our Control, all our course catalogs (printed materials, digital copies, and all backups) for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018 semesters were dumped off the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. We were puzzled as to why absolutely zero students enrolled in any classes throughout the whole academic year, but please rest assured that we have switched to a different vendor for all our printed materials in the future, and This Will Never Happen Again.

On behalf of RU, I'd like to invite all new and returning students to quadruple-enroll in various summer courses to make-up for the lost time. Here is a sample of our Summer 2018 course offerings:

ARTM 252: SPECULATIVE GUN LAB (4 credits)
Modern assault weapons are not just controversial, but also extremely ugly. In this class, we will conduct an art history analysis of firearms as aesthetic objects to understand how it all went wrong -- and link the decline of gun aesthetics with the decline of American moral authority since World War II, or maybe even before? Students will be expected to travel every weekend to apprentice under artistanal heritage gun smiths, and as a final project, design and manufacture a new type of firearm that reimagines the gun's relationship to nationalism -- the only constraint is that this new "speculative gun" cannot fire bullets or shells. What else can a gun do or be?

Offered only at West Virginia campus. Lab fee of US$11920.87, including accidental firearm discharge insurance, will be assessed by the university bursar. Prerequisites: at least 1 semester of both METL 200: INTRO TO METALURGY as well as HIST 92B: WESTERN THEORIES OF JUST WAR.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

CFP: last week for submissions to Queerness and Games Conference 2018

Just a quick note / reminder to people: there's about one week left to submit your session and panel proposals to the 2018 Queerness and Games Conference, in Montreal this September 29-30. I've attended in past years and might attend this year, and I recommend it as a pretty inclusive conference for students, professionals, designers, and academics alike. Money for travel and free accommodations are also available on request. Maybe see you there!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Mapping the sea floors of Subnautica


This post spoils the core gameplay and player progression in Subnautica, but not the specific story nor scripted plot events.

Subnautica is a long open world survival game set in a vast deep ocean. In it, you have to forage for food, manage your oxygen when diving into caves and deep sea trenches, and collect resources to build your own underwater base(s) and submarine(s) to find out What Really Happened Here.

Much like the other first person indie survival game The Long Dark, Subnautica features no combat, no world map, and essentially no NPCs or quests to complete for anyone. The few lethal weapons are either cumbersome and annoying to maintain (poison gas torpedoes must be crafted and loaded) or practical but anti-juicy (your knife)... but most importantly, unlike The Long Dark's focus on hunting, killing creatures in Subnautica *never* yields any reward or drops -- even when the game confusingly asks you to collect shark teeth but killing sharks never yields any shark teeth.

(Why? Well, there's a few story threads about how use of force cannot get you what you want, as well as a faint anti-capitalist / anti-colonialist message. But the smoking gun of authorial intent is in the credits: a dedication to the families of Newtown, Connecticut. The design lead has also talked about their no-gun philosophy.)

PC Gamer already did a nice roundtable about Subnautica's early climactic story moment, so instead I want to focus on Subnautica's most interesting systemic feature: its depth-based 3D level design, and implications on the rest of the game.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Submit your impossible demands to #ManifestoJam by February 13

Just a brief note that a bunch of folks are doing a "Manifesto Jam" (which is maybe possibly inspired by my survey of manifestos in games blog post from last year) and there's about 1-2 days left to participate.

I even participated myself, writing a short screed called "KILL UNITY; WE ARE ENGINES." It was fun to try to figure out a specific aspect of games that I cared about, and to try to distill that into entertaining hyperbole. Remember: no nuance, no relativity, just pure belief! Go ahead and let your flag fly, and perch it on the swollen corpse of the old world order!

Here's the inspiring blurb, copy and pasted from the itch.io page:
THIS JAM IS FOR COLLECTIVELY UNCORKING OUR UTOPIAN ENERGY IN 2018

In times of crisis, uncertainty, conservatism and even just standard personal disappointment people overwhelmingly retreat to saying “be practical!” This doesn’t necessarily imply a way that is meaningfully better than any other but instead coerces you to chirpily go along with the way others are already comfortable doing it, or comfortable with you doing it, and keep and alternatives or resentments on priv.

Manifestos are important precisely because they are impractical. Whether positive or negative, whether embracing potential worlds or outright rejecting the one you’re in. They are visionary, they demand, they refuse. Manifestoes can be of any scale, defining your personal aesthetic or how to fix the entire world, but they cannot be satisfied.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Postcards from Unreal, pt 3: on spaghetti monsters

Unreal Engine 4
We're now a few weeks into the Unreal level design class, and things seem to be going OK. Our students have enough familiarity with Unity that they're able to digest a lot of the 3D workflow without too many problems. People are happily grayboxing here and there, and we recently did an intro to Blueprint scripting.

In the past, I've been pretty skeptical of teaching visual programming methods to students. Teaching a specific visual scripting tool always felt like we were locking students to that toolkit, versus learning how to code in C# or Lua or JS, which is a generalized language useful across multiple engines and multiple industries. Visual programming was considered a relatively niche practice, where you might mock-up an art installation in MaxMSP but not much else, and even Unreal used to confine visual programming to its Kismet level scripting system. (The precursor to Blueprint.)

However, that criticism of visual programming is gradually losing its power as this type of practice becomes more common in the game industry. Many Unreal Engine 4 devs (as well as Epic themselves) make heavy use of Blueprint for making games, a lot of Unity devs rely on the third-party Playmaker plug-in, and even upstart engines like Godot support a visual programming workflow. AAA texture generating darling Substance Designer also has a heavy node-based workflow. It's everywhere!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Video killed the video star: on "Un Pueblo De Nada" by Cardboard Computer

This post spoils Un Pueblo De Nada as well as a few parts of Kentucky Route Zero.

The newest Kentucky Route Zero interlude Un Pueblo De Nada is a "transmedia" narrative consisting of a 30 minute live action movie styled like a public access TV broadcast, a functioning real-life phone hotline to call, and a short tie-in narrative video game. I think it works as a transmedia narrative because it's so deeply concerned with this technology, especially the old deprecated media technologies like broken radios, rusty switchboards, forgotten overhead projectors, and dusty VHS cassette tapes.

A lot of transmedia narratives tend to focus on modern computing or the internet... but here, we're asked to imagine a vast archeaology of decaying technology. The iconic KRZ flat vector style evokes an era of older VGA games like Another World, the live action WEVP-TV broadcasts are styled as low resolution transfers from analog tapes, and I believe even the real functioning phone hotline seems to have extra static layered onto the voice recordings. Which is absurd, landlines used to be a vital communication technology... but to a filthy millennial like me, now it's just a salvaged material for making art. (As I dialed the phone number, I thought to myself, "how fun and quaint to dial a phone number on my phone!")

Friday, January 26, 2018

It's all about how you use it: on NSFWare, by Pierre Corbinais


This post is SFW-ish (somewhat Safe For Work, depending on your workplace)

Pierre Corbinais has a long history of making short poignant games about relationships and intimacy. (Before I had played this game, my personal favorite had been Tiny Soccer Manager Stories.) His choice of tool, Adventure Game Studio, is especially interesting -- this tool is very much not designed for Corbinais' abstract staging and gestural interfaces, but he makes it work anyway.

NSFWare, then, is a joyous and colorful collection of simple reflex-based games in an engine that is constantly trying to destabilize it. (When you press ESC, the quit menu confesses that it doesn't know whether the game is broken or not.) Corbinais' use of low-res neon pixel art is extremely effective here for several reasons: the bright nonrealistic color choices help soften the politics of porn, limited use of animation helps draw your attention to specific sex acts no matter how "small", and the chunkiness also helps mask how the engine wasn't designed for animated sequences like this at all.

Combined with the catchy minimalist beats and the retro-style rotoscoped animation handpainted in the Paint of Persia tool from diverse footage at Pornhub, this game makes a strong case for sex as craftsmanship: it's not how impressive or advanced your tool is, it's more about how you use it.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Watch and/or Read "GDC 2015: Level Design Histories and Futures"


GDC finally uploaded my talk from 2015 on level design history and futures... and already, the conservative gamer-gestapo is whining about how I have the gall to talk mention racism and sexism in a design history talk.

This prompted me to review my slides and notes from 2015, and I was surprised -- usually I hate whatever I write, but this time I was surprised by how the material mostly holds up. (I was also surprised by how much I anticipated the whiners' critiques and put disclaimers everywhere.) Really, the only thing I have to work on is, um, the frequency that I say "um", but you know, I'm working on it.

Personally, I dislike watching videos and vastly prefer reading talks, so for your convenience I've also uploaded my complete slides in a double-length PDF. The first half of the PDF has the talk slides, and the second half of the PDF has my speaking notes as well... here's also one last reminder, that I've edited / condensed this stuff into a shorter talk called "local level design."

Friday, January 19, 2018

On wikipedia-ing games culture and history

The other day, someone wrote to me but confessed they didn't know much about me, and that they had only played my games Intimate, Infinite and The Tearoom.

This felt like a really strange pairing of games to me. The Tearoom is a recent game that got a lot of press coverage, while Intimate Infinite is a much older, somewhat obscure game of mine that's mostly remembered only by some literary art game folks. What the heck is going on?

My suspicions were confirmed when I found out that I had a Wikipedia page as of July 2017, and that this page highlighted those two games with their own subsections. It made me realize that (a) people google me, and that (b) Wikipedia might be their first or second impressions of me. And yet, that page is still missing so much information about me; my dabbling in level design, my love of sandwiches, and so on.

When I whined on Twitter about having a Wikipedia page, boy genius game designer Michael Brough confessed his envy. I was shocked. How can Michael "Broughlike" Brough not have a Wikipedia page? I immediately sought to correct this injustice, and began writing a Wikipedia entry for Mr. Brough.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

CFP: Queerness and Games Conference 2018 at Concordia University in Montréal

photo of Tanya DePass speaking at QGCon 2017
The Queerness and Games Conference (or QGCon) is running again in 2018, this time in beautifully affordable Montréal. Here's the call for papers, panels, and talk submissions, copy and pasted from the website, emphasis added by me:
The Queerness and Games Conference is now accepting submissions for presentations at its fifth annual conference, which will be held on September 29-30, 2018 at Concordia University in Montréal, Canada! Proposals for conference talks and other sessions are due March 1st, 2018 (details and instructions below).

QGCon is an annual event that brings together developers, academics, educators, and activists to explore the intersection of LGBTQ issues and video games. Proposals for talks, pre-constituted panels, workshops, roundtables, and post mortems are welcome. Speakers from all backgrounds are encouraged to submit. Because QGCon is a community-oriented event that seeks to foster dialogue across areas of expertise, we especially value sessions that engage a broad and diverse audience. Please note that, since QGCon attendees come from across academia, industry, and beyond, different speakers may bring different ideas about what constitutes a “talk” or a “panel.” QGCon values these differences and kindly requests that, as per the submission guidelines below, prospective speakers describe the approach they hope to take to their proposed session.

Monday, January 15, 2018

LEVEL WITH ME, Winter / Spring 2018 schedule: Tuesdays 2 PM EST


I've completed my winter hibernation and I'm gearing up for a new season of Level With Me, my livestream show where I play video games and talk about what I think the level design is doing.

Since I work as a teacher and I get a different schedule each semester, I have to change my broadcasting schedule every few months. Now for this first half of 2018, the new time will be Tuesdays, at around 1 or 2 PM EST (GMT-5). (Sometimes I start late.)

If you can't make it for the live broadcasts, then you can always check out the YouTube archive over here.

Before the hiatus last year, we were a few hours into BioShock 1. In the game, we had just gotten a shiny new camera, and we were taking fun photos of bloodthirsty monsters. My current plans are to try to get as far as Fort Frolic at least, and then re-assess my interest in continuing. See you soon!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

"Coast Guide" for PC Gamer UK 0310


cover of PCGUK 310
A while ago I wrote about the process of importing Half-Life 2 levels into Maya -- but I didn't divulge why I was doing that work: because PC Gamer UK commissioned a design analysis feature from me, to complement their big Half-Life 2 retrospective / Black Mesa feature for their November 2017 issue (PCGUK 0310). (Thanks to editor Phil Savage for the opportunity.)

At the top of this post, you can see the "blank" overview map of Half-Life 2's d2_coast03. That's basically what I submitted to them for publication, along with some accompanying box-out text and images for their layout artists to use. Stylistically, it's similar to what I previously did for a PC Gamer UK retrospective on Half-Life 1, when I diagrammed the Black Mesa Inbound chapter and the "shark cage" setpiece in the Apprehension chapter.

But for this new illustration, I wanted to be more accurate and import the actual level geometry as a base. It ended up being rather time consuming to do all the test renders in Maya and iterate to that finished state, especially since I'm not used to working in a pre-rendered mode. I also didn't really know what kind of look I wanted? I knew I was partial to a sort of digital papercraft look, but I also struggled with keeping everything readable.

In print, the whole thing looked a little bit like this:

Monday, January 8, 2018

Resolutions, 2018

In keeping with tradition, here's some resolutions that I resolve to uphold for this new year...
  • Keep blogging for 2018, at about the same rate as 2017?
  • Don't die from all the travelling I'll be doing in 2018.
  • Finish and release three projects: Radiator 3, MachoCam, and Medusa.
  • Update some of my technical dev skills: get proficient with Unreal Engine 4, learn about compute shaders
  • Update some of my game art skills: do some more sculpting, get better with Substance Painter and Substance Designer
Sure, the new year is an arbitrary passage of time that has no real significance -- but that doesn't mean it's not fun to re-assess and wonder about where you're at.