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Trouble at Ion Storm

From Shacknews:

"Multiple sources tell us that all is not well at Deus Ex & Thief 3 developer ION Storm. Apparently some 20 - 25 people have been laid off at the Eidos owned Austin based developer. That's not all though as Warren Spector is said to be leaving the company as well. If we receive any more details we'll be sure to post them."

Update: Slashdot Games links to many more mentions and sides of this story.


Yes, I have not updated in a while. No, writing this does not count as an update. I am, in fact, alive. In related news: I am changing my internet provider, which also involves moving my site to another web server. This may lead to outages. I apologise in advance.

Update: No, wait. This site is fully hosted by TypePad. Changing internet provider does not affect it one little bit. Also, my other site was effortlessly transferred in about one minute.

Reinventing the camera

I just read this interview with Guy Maddin and Isabella Rossellini on indieWIRE. Guy Maddin is a director whose movies have been on my Amazon wishlist for a long time - they sound fascinating. And Isabella Rossellini... I've always had a major weak spot for her. But that's not why I'm mentioning this interview here.

Here is an interesting quote from Ms. Rossellini:

One of the things that fascinated me is that cinema still is looked at as a technology. It was presented 100 years ago in magic shows, like a trick, and they're still waiting for the new technologies. It's still promoted that way, the new cinemascope or the new special effect or the digital camera. It's always the new technology and what artists can do with the new technology, and all the technologies impose a certain storytelling that is forgotten as the technologies progressed.
The reason why this is interesting is that a relatively common argument in the interactive entertainment industry is that we are reinventing the camera for every new work we make, and that this is Bad.

Analogies can be great ways to make a point, but they can also be misinterpreted and lead to mental traps. It always feels strange to me to criticise an opinion without having a concrete instance of it. Nevertheless I'm going to launch an attack, Don Quixote-style, on a point of view that nobody may actually have.

One problem with the camera analogy is that it seems to suggest that there is no technological innovation going on in movies. The quote above shows that this is not the case, and has never been the case. Perhaps the pace is slower than in games, but a closer look reveals that technology in cinema is continuously evolving.

Another problem with the camera analogy is that it can lead to the idea that "content" and "technology" are mutually exclusive concepts. The artist does not spend time building a camera from scratch: the artist uses the camera as a tool to make a work of art.

This is a highly misleading idea. The line between content and technology is very vague, both in cinema and in interactive. In cinema, the director of photography is responsible for making highly technical decisions in order to achieve certain effects that support the experience the director is trying to evoke. This can go as far as developing new cameras, as Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Darren Aronofsky's movies have shown.

In interactive it would be even more foolish to consider content and technology as two separate things. In interactive, technology is content. From scripting to AI to character control, many essential aspects of the player experience are generated in and through code. Interactivity is a function of process, and process implies code - technology. To separate technology from content, the generic engine from the "content" which defines the game, can be useful when thinking about development, but it does not reflect the reality of game development as I know it (and I've seen some extreme manifestations of this idea).

If there is something we can learn from the camera in cinema, it's that it is a form of technology that is well-understood, and, crucially, offers a broad enough range of expression to allow for the creation of many very different works and styles. This is something that we have not yet achieved in interactive. However, I think technology is neither the source of the problem, nor its solution. We're not limited to a narrow range of subjects and styles because we're missing some key technology somewhere.

In the context of development, we're limited because we do not know how to use technology for anything beyond our limits, and we do not have the time or money to learn to go significantly beyond those limits. Even with an eight figure budget and 30 months of development, you likely will not have enough time to explore new ground.

In the context of the industry, we're limited because nobody wants to remove those limits hard enough, neither people inside the industry, nor our audience. To a significant degree, important creative decisions are based on a more or less accurate idea of what people will or will not buy. This takes the form of a chain of fear. The developer fears the odd idea will be shot down by the manager, the manager fears the idea won't find a publisher, the publisher fears the distributor won't want it, the distributor fears the gamers won't buy it. And gamers don't know what they want. It's not good enough if someone in the chain has the right idea: everyone in the chain has to agree. This is a deep problem.

Nevertheless, I remain optimistic. Things are improving, if slowly. The will is there. At some point, it will conquer our fear.

Sex in games

Chi Kong Lui has written an article over at on sex in games. That is, actual intercourse, not just mere sexiness or what not. He excludes non-mainstream games, although the boundary is vague. Of course I immediately thought of some titles not mentioned, and they are all games Rockstar Vienna was involved in somehow - a coincidence, I swear. I think the sex in GTA3 and especially GTA: Vice City is graphic and overt enough to merit inclusion, and if I'm not mistaken there is some sex in Max Payne 1, although I still haven't played that myself.

Anyway, given that this article is volume 1, there will probably be a volume 2. I hope there will be some analysis - what is the conclusion drawn from this list of games, and what does it mean about the medium or the industry? Love, sex, romance, etc. are a popular topic among game designers, only slightly less so than "when will games make people cry?" Case in point: the GDC session on romance in games (with Eric Zimmerman, Warren Spector and Will Wright) was apparently one of the better ones. (Sadly, I missed it.) It remains a fascinating topic, worthy of a deeper blog entry.


I am, in fact, still alive, although very busy. Many interesting things are going on without being commented by me. And yet... life goes on.

Personal note: I bought a new iBook G4 to replace my iBook G3. It looks identical, but is faster. Such is geekdom.

Harvey and Randy Smith leave Ion Storm Austin

Harvey is one of the people I saw a couple of times at this year's GDC, and figured I'd say hello to when we weren't both running around, and then that never happened. I actually sat next to Randy for some time at GDC but didn't recognise him the first ten minutes or so. So it goes.

Here is an interview with Harvey over at Gamespy, and here is one with Gamespot. What's nice about the interviews is how much he talks about the relationship between being an effective, creative person, and being a well-rounded person. Lame as it may sound, this is one reason why I occasionally post things here which are not directly related to games.

I can't find much word on what Randy is doing now, apart from the rants of irate Thief fans, but his departure seems to have been less than amicable. Again, so it goes. I wish all of them good luck.

GDC 2004: Game Design Methods of ICO

Kenji Kaido and Fumito Ueda gave a lecture on the development of ICO, one of my favorite games ever. The slides were often quite complex and went by really quickly. Luckily, my friend and esteemed coworker Gunter Piringer took really good pictures, which he gracefully allowed me to post online (link to 20MB ZIP file.) If I'd known this, I wouldn't have been scribbling frantically in my notebook.

The audience was asked not to record the movies that were shown, but they didn't contain much information anyway. ICO looked astoundingly good on PS1, and in general I was reminded of how beautiful the game is.

The lecture was interesting, but basically Mr. Kaido and Mr. Ueda confirmed what I believe is obvious when one sees the game: they ruthlessly removed everything from the game which did not support the emotional experience, and in this they went further than pretty much any other game I can think of. The result is a very intense and focussed experience. It's not something that can be done for every game, but it's a powerful lesson.

Mr. Kaido and Mr. Ueda explained the various details of their approach, but there were few surprises: they did a great job, using techniques which make sense, even if they are not easy to reproduce. The only thing which was really new to me, and perhaps my biggest concrete takeaway from this year's GDC, was Mr. Ueda's insistence on the importance of fingertips in animation. He said that he was unhappy about the quality of the animations and had the fingertips re-animated. Considering the on-screen size of the characters, and given that the game was under development for 4 years and there presumably was ample time to tune and tweak the animations, I was impressed by this detail. On the other hand (no pun intended), it makes sense. Hand movements are hard to capture, but an important aspect of human communication.

Finally, we were shown a few tantalising images of what was presumably ICO 2, but alas, no concrete details.

If you want to know what was said at the lecture, the following should help:

  • An interview with Mr. Ueda over at Gaming Intelligence Agency.
  • Another interview at Team PS2.
  • An article describing the development of ICO over at
  • Finally, a report of the lecture at Gamespy.

Update: Another set of slides can be found here. Although I did not compare them in detail, it looks like my collection is more complete.

GDC 2004: My overall impression

The GDC has always been intense and exhausting (a point which was particularly driven home at the wonderfully laid-back Imagina, where there was time for good conversation), but this year it was more so than the previous years. I was already feeling the over-stimulated on Monday and Tuesday, whereas these are normally the calm days before the full onslaught of Wednesday to Friday, when the Classic Pass hordes break through the gates. There were definitely more attendees, and the general buzz was a lot less subdued than last year.

If I didn't schedule time for talking to people, it was highly unlikely I would be able to sit down and talk with them. I would see them walking by, and assumed I would see them again later when we would both have time to talk, but often this never happened. Luckily, I did schedule time and did get to talk to many friends. It is always strange to meet friends from Europe in the US, but it's nevertheless a cool thing.

Good lectures (and round tables and panels etc.) can inspire, entertain and give interesting information about how other people approach things, or practical knowledge you can apply immediately or in the long term. Even if they do not do this, at least you get a feeling of where you are relative to others. Many of the lectures I saw were entertaining. Some that should have been interesting weren't, for some reason. I can practically not think of any practical knowledge I picked up (although I did get inklings of things to follow up). And I was not really inspired.

Perhaps I was not relaxed enough to absorb things, because of the general intensity, and because this was the first GDC where I actually had a fair number of meetings. I missed some of the lectures which I later heard good things about.

My reasons for attending the GDC are: meeting old friends and making new ones, getting a feeling of being part of a larger community, and learning new things. I definitely met a lot of people and had fun. I even went to some of the parties, something I've never done in the past, although I can't say it was worth it. I got the community feeling - I even joined the IGDA. But I don't feel I've learned a lot of new things, at least not from the content of the conference.

I wonder what it will be like in the future, in a new location and with even more people. I will miss San Jose. People are already discussing what is going to take the place of the Fairmont lobby. If I can attend again next year, it will be interesting to see how things develop.

Disturbing chicken-based entertainment

Yes. Well. There's this site, see? It's called "Subservient Chicken" and -

Wait! Come back!

It's not what you think. Well, it sort of is I guess. Except it's made by Burger King.

That's right.

And it is sort of interactive. You can type in commands. And the chicken executes them. Cause it's subservient. It's a 6 foot subservient chicken, wearing garters, sponsored by Burger King.

Go on then. Follow the link, you know you want to. And if it creeps you out, well, I got the link from a guy called Mike. Blame him.

Cheats. Try: dance, pray, jump, sit down, go vegan. Try giving commands involving McDonald's. Try naughty stuff. You perv.