Category Archives: Personal

#BringOutYourDead

Last week Emily Short hosted a pseudo game jam called #BringOutYourDead to encourage developers to share unfinished and abandoned work, and talk about what happened. This gave me a great chance to look back at the games I’ve worked on and. with hindsight, ask myself what went wrong. It ended up being a really good design exercise.

Most of my abandoned work exists in the form of text – when I get an interesting idea, I explore it in writing with mini custom game design documents. I’ve decided to skip those (since there’s so many) and go straight to the games where I’ve done some form of development. Some of these only exist as images and not in any playable form.

This is a long post. Below is a list of the games (in order of completeness) if you want to skip around.

  • Hero Adventure Quest RPG – tongue-in-check text role-playing game, unfinished but playable
  • Flesh Totem – text-based adventure game, horror themed, eventually cannibalized into other games
  • I Have No Quests Left To Give – play as a quest-giver in an MMO
  • Scratch-Off Simulator – the most unexciting lottery game ever
  • Historical Hangman – the most depressing hangman game you’ve ever not played
  • InfiniClicker – the most unexciting clicker game in existence
  • It Wore My Mother’s Face – a horror game-poetry experiment canceled because it’s too depressing
  • Tower of Babel – Unreal level design exploration of what a Tower of Babel game could look like

Continue reading…

GDC 2016 Wrap-Up

I’ve been to five GDCs now and each one has been different, and each one has been much, much better than the previous one.

This year I livetweeted over a dozen sessions I attended for those stuck back home without access to the vault. You can find them all here: https://storify.com/lizardengland/gdc-2016-session-livetweets

This year VR was huge. I initially thought VRDC would kind of segregate or corral VR people into their own separate, smaller conference but I was wrong. VR was everywhere, and lines for their talks filled up the hallways. I stayed away from them in general, since I worked in VR for the year prior to moving to Ubisoft and don’t really carry much developer interest in it anymore. (Small indie studios, please stop just testing sim sickness on yourselves. Test a wider range of people. Your products are going to give VR a bad name.)

I also saw lots of long lines for some of the indie summit business or marketing oriented talks, which obviously don’t carry much interest to me. I ended up only attending one indie talk – on procedural generation – and leaving the rest to catch up on the vault.

I filled Monday and Tuesday with a ton of talks from the Narrative Design summit. I had never attended it before but looking through the vault from previous years had stemmed my excitement because they largely seemed to be talks for writers with very little on design. This year felt different – it felt like design, systems, and narrative structure in games were at the forefront. My favorite talks were in the Narrative Design track, including my best-of-GDC award for “Forget Protagonists: Writing NPCs with Agency for 80 Days and Beyond” by Meg Jayanth, which delved into ways the player lacked power over NPC stories.

One of the trends I’m seeing from the Narrative Showcase, the narrative-focused games up for IGF and on the show floor, and the conversations I had around me is that systems are becoming a lot more integrated into narrative, and there’s a lot of narrative innovation coming out that is very specific to games. This might be my own biases sneaking in since I love interactive narrative so much.

Beyond the sessions, this year I attended a couple break-out sessions in the park organized somewhat spontaneously. Alex Jaffe from Spryfox organized a system designer hangout one morning, and Emily Short organized a group interested in procedural interactive fiction. Both were better than the official roundtable formats, since they encouraged mingling and smaller groups of similar interests rather than a handful of people dominating the conversation. Tying into my prior remark about narrative systems – the procgen IF group was huge, and the system designer group pretty much talked about procedural narrative and social simulation half the time. I suspect the rise of the “roguelike” and success developers have been making with procedural content is on a collision course with the narrative-focused developers. To be fair, I’m pretty trendy too – the last side project I made was a procedural interactive fiction game.

As usual, I said yes to any opportunity to do outreach. Last year I talked with IGDA scholars, and this year I spoke with women scholars from Diversi, a group that helped a whole bunch of students and scholars in games (and games-adjacent) programs attend GDC. This year I also was recruited to talk to a crowd in a less formal Q&A with two of the creative directors from Ubisoft Toronto – I think it went well, but I had to defer answers to others fairly often with my limited experience at the studio. For the first time I got on the list to attend the Women in Games Luncheon hosted by Microsoft and I definitely appreciated that outreach (in spite of their pretty epic stumble at their party the same night).

I did give a talk this year as part of Richard Rouse’s “Rules of the Game” microtalks. While I think the content is solid, I also think I flubbed a bit on my delivery (I think my 10min talk went to 13min). You can find my slides (as well as the other speakers) on his website here (direct download): http://paranoidproductions.com/miscwritings/RulesOfTheGame2016.pptx

This is also the first GDC where “I know you from twitter!” almost became a meme for me. It was great but also kind of awkward – I don’t know how to respond and my instinct is to question, “Do I tweet too much?” In the end it doesn’t bother me too much, and it was great to put names to lots of faces I’ve chatted with online. It’s even cooler when someone I want to meet from twitter also just happens to want to meet me for the same reason, and I found myself in a few ‘consultation’-like meetings where I let people extract whatever they wanted from my brain and vice-versa. Someone even brought me a birthday cake (no, I did not eat the whole thing). For all its flaws, twitter has been invaluable for making friends with like-minded designers.

There was one big downside to the whole conference: I was sick. Now, it wasn’t the GDC flu and thankfully I’ve avoided that. But I have had real issues sleeping starting about a month ago which means that almost every day at GDC there was a window of time where I started to fall asleep where I sat, regardless of how exciting the talk was or how hard I tried to stay awake. I was exhausted in the evenings and couldn’t stay out too late at parties, and I had about an hour commute on BART to the couch I stayed on at a friend’s house. I don’t really have a lesson here other than it’s hard to attend GDC without your full health and know when to take a break and take it easy.

That’s all. Fingers crossed I will be there again next year.

What I Learned From A Year of Game Jams

It was actually a year and a half ago – April 2013 – that I did my first game jam. Since then, I’ve made 6 games (two with a partner), each under a strict time limit, and each for a particular game jam – Ludum Dare, 7dFPS, Asylum Jam, IAmAGamer. I’ve been asked why I do jams, especially since I already make games for a living, so I have been thinking a lot about this subject – actually, ever since I started I’ve been asking myself what I am learning from the process.

The value I found in game jams is personal, direct, and incredibly insightful. I don’t think these are things I could have learned on my own. My lessons are very personal to me as a creator, so you could look at this post as a postmortem rather than my usual advice columns. I’m not sure how much this will help others – there’s certainly no “5 Lessons to Make Better Games” hidden within this post.

I first started doing jams shortly after a coworker did an internal presentation on the topic of deliberate practice for game designers. (This topic eventually led to this whitepaper, which I recommend people check out). I have starry-eyed dreams of not being just good at design, but being great – yet I had not worked on games outside of my job ever since I entered the industry. I had been putting my creative output into writing (fiction, not a blog like this) with very little to show for it.

I did my first game jam for Ludum Dare to create Title: Subtitle with my coworker, Nick Weihs (@NickWeihs) in his custom 2D platformer engine. The topic was minimalism, and we came up with the idea of replacing tiles with words. We each designed half the levels, and he designed the boss and I the endgame. I did the art, he did the enemies. As a postmortem, I’m really pleased by how the game came out – it was fun, it was whimsical, it was clever, and people liked it. I was pretty shocked when people did Let’s Plays of our game or write about it on their indie sites, and when commenters asked for a full-sized game (I’ve thought about it). I wasn’t really familiar with how the Youtuber’s worked, so the attention other people – total strangers – gave our game was flattering. I’ve since taken the time to learn a lot about Let’s Players and streamers and small independent press outlets.

The second game I made was ISIS, in which you play an evil AI psychologically torturing your human pilot. This is definitely the best received game (I’ve seen it a few times accidentally attributed to Porpentine, and I consider that a compliment). This was my first venture into Twine, and I can see my stumbles and growing pains in the game I released. It’s also the first piece of fiction I ever released for public consumption, and the reception to my writing was eye-opening. Turns out that I am not too bad and all that time spent writing and never releasing fiction paid off. I learned so much from this game: I learned what my voice was like. I learned how important tone is (the tone in ISIS is mostly on key, but there’s some obvious parts that are distinctly out of style). I learned that I could make a game by myself and I didn’t need any help. I learned that the main message I code into my games is too subtle for most people, and that I am fine with that (ISIS was about a woman taking out her resentment upon a male superior – one person caught it, and that made me very happy).

One day I will remake ISIS and do it justice. The reception taught me that I have ideas that are both distinctly mine (with my own authorial voice), and that strike a cord with other people.

The next game I made was In My Sights for 7dFPS, a game jam in which players make a first-person shooter in seven days. It was the first time I ever used Construct 2, and my scope was very small. Halfway through creating it I thought of how to end it – it came naturally to me, and its what struck a cord with so many people. I still get most of the hits to my site for that game (second only to The Door Problem), and most of those from Russian and Eastern European locations (not just bots, I’ve tracked down articles on my game in those languages) so it had some unusual cross-cultural appeal. I am still not sure what I think of In My Sights. I don’t think it’s very good. It is meaningful, but I don’t know exactly what it means. It was the first time that something I made creatively took on a life of its own and I am determined not to contest that. It is what it is.

After that I participated in another Ludum Dare, this time making Sacrebleu! with a coworker, Erich Meyr, who contributed the adorable pixel art. This is definitely my least successful game – it takes too long to play, there aren’t any really meaningful choices (there are lots of loops), it always ends the same way, and the jokey French accent gets old fast. But like the others it taught me a lot. I initially approached it with the goal of creating a rudimentary combat system in Twine, and I sketched out a reasonable concept and put myself to work implementing it. I discovered obvious flaws – how to make narrative meaningful in a generated environment, how to implement systems in Twine that are more complex than the tool is built for. I eventually removed the system I created and hand-scripted the combat loops. I learned a bit about implementing systems as a designer (rather than a programmer) and working against your tool.

Sacrebleu! also cemented that I have problems with ending my games – all of my games seems to have unsatisfyingly nihilistic conclusions, and they are the weakest part of everything I make. I haven’t found a solution to that problem yet.

My next game was Her Pound of Flesh, another horror game made in Twine, and it is my personal favorite. I set out to do something and the result is exactly as I intended. It matches almost perfectly to my initial vision – this has never happened to me before or since then. A few people have commented on the game but, like ISIS, not many seem to have delved into the deeper meaning (Her Pound of Flesh is about narcissism and personhood). And like ISIS, I was totally fine with people engaging with it and enjoying it on their own terms. I also very carefully, and apparently successfully, balanced my writing between saying too much and saying just enough to give an impression of gore or body horror, trying not cross the line into something too explicit.

Her Pound of Flesh taught me why I had problems writing fiction for so many years: I have trouble with linear works since I like to create narratives people can explore, not just experience in a prescriptive way. A narrative that only goes in one direction forces me to edit in a way that eliminates all those other wonderful possibilities – it closes doors rather than opens them. I want players to explore the world I create and let their curiosity guide them through it. I am deeply inspired by forcing readers to become complicit in the story – as you can see in my interest pairing horror and agency together – and the kind of emotional reaction I want to evoke is better suited to interactive narratives than strictly linear ones.

The final game I made, as of this post, was Please Hold: A Representative Will Be With You Shortly. The game is a joke – a long joke that lasts about 40 minutes with, again, an unsatisfying ending. Players responded by calling it awful and wonderful, incredibly frustrating and absolutely hilarious. There’s something of value, to me, when I can bring out some unusual emotional responses – and to evoke real, deliberate frustration on the player and yet have them continue playing is incredibly satisfying. This was kind of a game design therapy session for me, a sigh of relief to make a fun game that has no deeper meaning, especially at a time when I had a lot of personal stresses.

From all of this, I discovered I have two modes – whimsical fun (Title: Subtitle, Sacrebleu!, Please Hold) and thoughtful, psychological horror (ISIS, In My Sights, Her Pound of Flesh). I find the latter more fulfilling, but also a lot more draining on me. In the future I will continue to focus on horror, but to do so I will be sitting out on more game jams in order to work slower and more methodically.

Thanks to these jams, I have several unfinished games that will one day see the light of day. I have a game called “Flesh Totem” (working title) that is a hallucinatory exploration of technology, personhood, and body horror on a space station, with adventure game mechanics like inventory items and puzzles. It is the most Cronenbergian game I’ve ever made.

I have another one I call “Journey Home” in which a group of surviving soldiers in a fantastical land must march a thousand miles through a jungle, battling heat, pestilence, wildlife, starvation, and hallucinatory visions. It was inspired by J.G. Ballard’s “The Drowned World” and my own visit to the Amazon jungle. Each action takes you closer to your goal, but always with a cost, and always with yet another problem to solve.

And then there is “It Wore My Mother’s Face”, a game that was supposed to be a simple horror story about skinwalkers and doppelgangers, and ended up being a heart-breaking piece about Alzheimer’s. Every couple of months I try to get it back on track, but it stays that way no matter how hard to try. I don’t know if I will ever finish that one – it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written.

I obviously already spend a lot of time making games – at work, as part of a large team, on big projects. The games I make at my job are someone else’s vision: our creative directors, our publishers, and subject to the whims or needs of a mass market. I actually find this really fulfilling as a designer, and the challenges keep me on my toes. I’ve angled toward working as a system designer (think skill trees and economy rather than missions or levels). I love this kind of work, so it’s always curious to me that my independent projects I made for game jams are all very heavy on narrative, and very light on formal systems. I am not a programmer, so implementing systems is a larger hurdle for me. But that’s not the only reason – like I mentioned before, I’ve done a lot of unpublished, unfinished creative writing. In games, I finally found an outlet to put that hobby to use by combining it with another one.

The importance of an authorial voice (which I mentioned a few times already) can’t be understated. There’s very specific stories I want to tell that aren’t really appropriate for (or interesting to) mainstream culture (I am talking about my psychological horror projects). I don’t want to write under someone else’s vision, let alone write for the purpose of entertaining (or even satisfying) a whole marketing demographic. It’s very freeing to write without being beholden to an audience or to try to get buy-in from a team. There are no outside forces pressuring me to change or alter my narrative. It is completely from me with no input from anyone else.

I’ll admit this is an unusual post for me. I don’t really use my blog as a diary (even one as a game developer), but I’ve been ruminating a lot on what I have learned so far from these game jams and whether I’ll continue them. I’ve seen other posts around that are more like advice articles, with obvious tips on topics like controlling scope and finding the fun early. But these are all lessons that I have learned, in whole or part, prior to exploring game jams. I’ve had some game developers ask me why I bother doing game jams, since they know the quality of those games are low and the crunch-mode development style can be detrimental to your creative output. So I guess this post is answering that- this is what I have gotten out of game jams and why I consider them valuable, and it’s not really for any of the reasons I often see bandied about.

What Game Designers Do (According to the Internet)

I used to wonder why so many people had totally wrong impressions of what a “game designer” was. I mean, I just assumed it was because there wasn’t enough out there written about game design to help people and that they, in turn, weren’t really seeking it out.

I was so, so wrong about that!

Below are a list of quotes from advice articles on game design. These were found by simply googling key terms like, “How to become a game designer”, “How to make video games”, “Getting a job making video games” and “What is a game designer”. This is what I expect people to search for when they get the first inkling that maybe – just maybe! – they want to work in game development.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of content mills out there full of advertisements for for-profit schools offering degrees in “game design”, and Google hasn’t figured out how to deal with these yet. It took until about page 4 or 5 of the results to get any good articles from actual developers.

Exhibit 1: Digital Dreamer’s “How to Become a Game Designer”

These companies want to hire someone who knows what makes a game good, and what makes a game bad. They want someone who knows good level design vs poor level design. The only way to do this is by playing, and playing AND playing video games over and over again.

Playing lots of games is not going to make you a good designer. Just because you can play games doesn’t mean you can make them. I love to eat but that doesn’t make me qualified as a chef.

Exhibit 2: Education Portal’s “Game Designer: Job Info and Requirements”

Game designers have duties like designing characters, levels, puzzles, art and animation. They may also write code, using various computer programming languages. Depending on their career duties, they may also be responsible for project management tasks and testing early versions of video games.

This is a classic example of the “all people who make games are game designers!” myth.

    • Designers = levels and puzzles.
    • Artists = characters and art.
    • Animators = animation.
    • Programmers = code and computer programming languages.
    • Project Managers and/or Producers = project management.
    • Quality Assurance Testers = testing early versions of the game
    • Game Developer = all of the above

Exhibit 3: HowStuffWorks “How Becoming a Video Game Designer Works”

A video game designer must have a strong set of skills, including programming, video graphics and hardware essentials.

These are three different roles seemingly chosen at random.

Programming skills are for programmers. “Video graphics” skills are for graphics programmers, unless the author meant “art” in which case it falls firmly in the art department. “Hardware essentials” is bizarre but may refer to a console programmer or hardware engineer at, say, Sony or Microsoft developing the actual hardware. It may also refer to engine programmers, who help make the game run on a specific console or platform.

Exhibit 4: Study Magazine’s “How To Become a Game Designer”

It can be helpful for you to have a degree in something such as graphic design or web page design. You don’t need anything specifically to start, just a lot of imagination and persistence as video game creation can be a long and at some times tedious job.

Web page design might have been a degree… in 1997. Graphic design isn’t really a term we use in games – it refers more to developing 2D logos or websites or possibly UI artists (but they are usually called “UI artists”).

There’s a lot you specifically need to start a job as a game designer. Graphic design and web design aren’t really among them.

They got “tedious” right though.

Exhibit 5: eHow’s “How to Become a Video Game Designer”

Learn the terms and skills associated with video game related careers. Video game designers are also referred to as graphic designers.  Prospective video gamer designers must be familiar with photography, special effects, graphic design, and 3D animation.

The first sentence is so close! It’s perfect! It’s… followed up by a completely nonsensical statement. Video game designers are never referred to as graphic designers.

Game designers do not need to know anything about photography (no one does this), special effects (the role of the FX artists), graphic design (not really a thing), or 2D animation (the role of an animator, not a designer).

Exhibit 6: Shmoop’s “Video Game Designer Qualifications”

You might also be surprised to learn that a fair number of video game designers have at least some graphic design or art experience, if not a full-fledged bachelor’s degree. Think about it: you’ll be creating outrageous sets, character costumes, and battle scenes.

Designers do not need graphic design or art experience, though it’s not a bad skill to have.

Sets? Maybe they mean “levels”? If so that’s true, but it’s so vague and using the wrong terminology. “Character costumes” makes me thing this person knows about films and nothing about games – the correct term is “character art” or maybe “vanity” (to refer to clothing pieces), and both are the domain of a character artist, not a designer.

Finally, remember that real-world business experience will also help you excel in a video game designer job. You’re overseeing budgets, timelines, and team members’ work weeks.

Designers are never overseeing budgets, timelines, or work weeks. That’s a producer or project manager’s job. I have never, ever had any experience with financial figures in the game industry. I may know what a publisher is spending, total, on our game, but not clue how that breaks down. I have no control over the timeline – milestones are agreed upon by producers, studio upper management, and the publisher.

Exhibit 7: eHow’s “Requirements to Become a Game Designer”

The idea of an entry-level game designer is a bit of a misnomer. There are entry-level graphic artists, programmers and even game musicians, but designers work as each one of these during their career.

Designers do not necessarily work as graphic artists (proper term: artist), programmers, or game musicians (proper term: composers or sound designers). Some, like me, entered directly into design. Others have previous experience in QA testing and were promoted up through there.

There is such a thing as an entry level design position, but it requires prior experience even if that experience is developed in your own free time. The same is true of an art or programming position – entry level jobs exist, but you need to be a good artist or programmer before you can get the job.

Exhibit 8: Creativepool’s “Game Designer Job Description”

Games designers work around 35 hours a week

Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Caveat: they do mention possible overtime, and it is a UK-focused article so their labor laws may be a bit better than here in the US, but this still made me laugh.

Different companies have different policies about crunch, and that deserves a whole other article to do justice. The main takeaway is that game development is a work-hard, work-late, work-often career for the most part, though there are a handful of places that have avoided this.

Exhibit 9: Sokanu’s “Video Game Designer” career page

Most designers will spend at least some of their time as testers, where they can experiment with coding and watch others’ mistakes firsthand.

Most designers do not spend time as testers. Some start off as testers and get promoted up through the ranks, but not all of them.

Testers do not get to experiment with coding. I’m not even sure what this would be referring to.

Lastly, an environmental designer is responsible for creating the different scenarios and environments of the game.

There is no such thing as an “environment designer”. There are “level designers” which create the scenarios (better referred to as levels, missions, and gameplay). There are “environment artists” which create the environment art (duh) and work on the aesthetics and visuals of those levels.

Exhibit 10: How Do I Become A’s “How To Become A Game Designer”

Computer programming language understanding is a must. There are several levels of video game design that want good idealists. Game production, game mechanics, level design, game asset reviewers, development analysis and more are all places where a good student can start depending on his skill level. Opportunities are open in specific areas of each game design project as well. Fresh out of school graduates could begin in combat systems design, game play design, economics director or even multi player game design.

Game asset reviewers? Economics director? Those are made up terms. I have no clue what “development analysis” means. The other terms are pretty inaccurate, too. This whole paragraph is a mess of terminology.

We don’t want idealists. (Similarly, a lot of articles use the term “perfectionists” – that’s also a lie). Game development is a lot of grunt work that is challenging and rewarding in its own way, but the process is far from perfect. It’s nice to have some optimism, but idealists are going to have their hearts broken really quickly.

Meanwhile…

There’s a really troubling trend of advice on these sites that contributes to an awful part of the game industry: predatory for-profit schools. Most of the advice articles are aimed at high school students or aspiring game designers and tell them, over and over again, that they NEED a degree in things like “Game Art & Design” or else they cannot get a job, but imply that if they get the degree there’s so many ‘limitless’ jobs out there.

Exhibit 11: Game Design School’s “How To Become A Game Designer”

In order to be a successful game designer you can’t only bank on your passion for video games. You need a solid education from a respected school to solidify your candidacy.

You actually do not need an education in game development from a school. I often recommend students to still get a 4-year bachelor’s degree from a traditional school because that is essentially a requirement for any white collar job in the US, and since the vast majority of them will not get into the game industry a degree will help in the long run.

A game-focused degree program does not give you extra points on your resume, let alone treated as a necessity. A lot of these programs are really bad and do NOT provide students with the skills they need to actually enter the workforce professionally. Many of them have developed such a bad reputation among game developers that seeing them on your resume is a red flag.

Your portfolio is the key thing that will get you a job, and you do not need a school for it. Some schools can help you develop that portfolio. Most of them can’t.

Exhibit 12: How To Become A Game Designer dot com

In order to become a game designer, you will need to attend either a two year or four year program at one of the many colleges and online universities across that nation that offer programs in either Game Design or Interactive Entertainment.

This is wrong. Wrong! This is an example of a website pretending to educate people about games but really acting as a marketing site for predatory ‘universities’.

 

For game developers, if you ever wonder why there are so many students in bad programs teaching them wrong ideas about game development and game design, you have your answer. They spend so much money on marketing and recruiting, almost every top-ranked information article about getting into games is basically a paid advertisement.

For students, take a look at these sites and check out what schools are ‘advertised’ on them. If you are attending one of these schools, or contemplating attending one, you should think really hard about that. An advertisement on a crappy content-mill website is a huge red flag that the school isn’t interested in quality education but in how many dollars students can bring to them in the form of tuition fees and student loans.

 

That’s the end of this for now. I’ll do a follow-up with misleading (and sometimes unintentionally hilarious) game development advertisements eventually but I think this article sums up the scale of bad information out there.