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Data visualization

Today, one new link about data visualization, and one older one which I hadn't blogged about yet.

The new one first: Here is a video of home prices in the US from 1890 to the present, visualized as a roller coaster ride. It's a cute idea. I would have loved to see more data and more context (especially of the era the coaster car is in). But it was made using Atari's Rollercoaster Tycoon 3, so it's really a testament to using cheap, unconventional methods to show something.

For a much more mind-blowing look into what can be done with data visualization, have a look at Hans Rosling's talk at TED 2006. During his talk, he uses very cool data visualization techniques to draw counter-intuitive conclusions from data on human development. It is very convincing, and a powerful talk.

I find this topic interesting for several reasons.

First of all, data visualization, as a part of interface design, is something that can be used in games to clearly show important aspects of complex data, which is what you need in some genres. Simulations, tycoon games, city-building games and 4X games all seem obvious candidates for this, although I can also see it used in hard-core analyses of less obviously complex games (I say this as someone who analyzes World of Warcraft combat logs for raids with up to 40 people for fun). Data visualization techniques might be a powerful tool to make complex simulations more accessible. Inversely, it should also be possible to use techniques from games and game development to improve data visualization applications.

Secondly, the game development process itself can generate complex data, and data visualization could be used to analyze it. Bug reports and repository access statistics come to mind, although right now I can't think of anything I might want to tease out of that data that isn't fairly obvious and can be extracted using trivial methods. But you never know. A more promising field could be the analysis of play-test sessions, one of my pet subjects. Having data visualization techniques (not to mention knowledge of statistics and other mathematical fields) in one's toolkit should be of great help. (And this seems as good a time as any to link to Edward Tufte.)

Thirdly, it might be interesting to build (serious) games around data visualization. I am currently imagining a variant of Clue... "The drop in child mortality in Paraguay in the 60s is responsible for the increased GDP in the Mercosur region in the 90s... with a candle-stick in the library." Hmmm. Needs work.

Finally, there are areas where games are superior to data visualization (which, after all, uses static data) in conveying deep insights. This is a fairly fundamental idea that is not often discussed (I can't think of many people apart from Chris Crawford who have written about it directly), but interactivity is a way of conveying information just like text or images, and there are types of information, such as causal relationships and complex processes, that are better conveyed using interactivity than anything else. So, in theory, there could be a game developer at TED one day showing how games can produce powerful new insights into the world we live in.

(Roller coaster link via Jason Kottke, Hans Rosling link via all over.)

Greg Costikyan won the Maverick Award

This just goes to show how much I am not paying attention to games news: I only just found out that Greg Costikyan won the Maverick Award at this year's Game Developers Choice Awards for his work at Manifesto Games. Congratulations! You can read his acceptance speech here.

Interview with Andreas Varga

NDSwelt, an 'inofficial' online magazine (in German) about the Nintendo DS has an interview (in German) with Andreas 'Mrsid' Varga about homebrew programming for the Nintendo DS in general, and his port of Great Giana Sisters in particular (watch a video here).

Giana Sisters is a famous game in the history of game development in Germany, not least because of Nintendo's legal pressure. Armin Gessert, the programmer, went on to found Spellbound Entertainment and develop Desperados. Manfred Trenz, the graphic artist, later created the Katakis and Turrican series, doing not only the graphics but also the coding. He also created the mythical Rendering Ranger, a game for which I'm in the credits at Mobygames but which I've never seen in its finished state. It was only released in Japan as far as I know.

I've had the pleasure of working with Andreas at Rockstar Vienna. If he ports Giana Sisters and Descent to the DS in his spare time, you can imagine the kind of amazing things he does at work. In an ironic twist of fate, he is an Austrian working in Amsterdam (for Guerrilla Games on Killzone 2), while I am a Dutchman working in Vienna. It is only a matter of time before his Dutch is as good as my Austrian.

That 'Road To Ruin' Article

I assume many people who are reading this have read David Kushner's article "The Road to Ruin: How Grand Theft Auto Hit the Skids" in Wired magazine. Although this is exactly the kind of gaming news I have trouble getting excited about, I figured I should write about it.

To be honest, the article bored me.

Nothing against Mr. Kushner, who contacted me in October 2006 for an interview about Rockstar Games for New York Magazine (the interview never happened). It's a nice enough article, and as far as I can tell it's all true, as one would expect.

The thing is, I just happen to not be a fan of the 'journalistic' approach to certain subjects, specifically subjects I know something about (unless it's in The New Yorker maybe). Typically, facts are taken and carefully arranged to conform to a story, and that story is about the rise and/or fall of something: a person, an organization, etc. A couple of years back we had rise-of-Google-the-plucky-underdog stories, now we have Google-is-too-big-they-are-bound-to-fall stories. A classic from the games industry is Christine Biederman's article about Ion Storm for the Dallas Observer. We've had stories about working conditions at EA, recently we've had stories about trouble at Sony. It gets schizophrenic when you have plucky underdog stories about the Xbox 360 at the same time as negative stories about the DRM in Vista. But all of this is hardly new. You build em up, you tear em down. I don't know if it's Western civilization or something more universal.

The 'Road To Ruin' article is a good example of this. Rockstar Games was insanely successful, now they've run into some trouble. Or have they? The thing is, this article contains little new information. Financial trouble at Take-Two? I honestly cannot remember a six month period in the last five years without stories like that. Hot Coffee? Hardly news. The origins of Rockstar Games? Public knowledge, despite the tight control on information (read this article if you want to know more about how Rockstar Games came to be). The article doesn't even reference the recent upheavals at Take-Two. The timing of the article seems entirely arbitrary. Except for the suspense regarding GTA IV it could have been written 6 months ago.

The 'Perhaps Fall of Rockstar' narrative, on it's own, is of no interest to me. I don't have entirely neutral feelings towards Rockstar Games, but I have better things to do than indulge in Schadenfreude. The issues I saw while there are not the issues that are brought up in articles like this one. Of course the article might be of great interest to others, nothing wrong with that. Let them read Wired (I don't... but that's another story). What does interest me is analyzing the successes and failures of Rockstar Games through the lens of design, game development processes, business strategy. But that kind of article is much, much harder to find in a mainstream magazine.


I've added some doohickeys to the site and fiddled with the feeds. Let me know if anything has stopped working or is acting up.

Game Focus Germany 2007

On February 14th and 15th I attended Game Focus Germany, a game industry conference in Hannover Germany, organized by Nordmedia.

There's a 3 minute video (partially in German) showing some of the speakers after the jump.

(I think that's the first ever video I've embedded here.)

Kind of like a reverse trailer. Anyway, it was good fun. I got in because I helped out by suggesting some people I knew as speakers.

Risa's speech was great. I think a lot of people expected it to be dry or boring, but at some point I had current or former co-workers from three different companies sitting next to me, all nodding their head at what she was saying about common production problems. Completion bonding for games has been around for a while, but I don't know anyone who can explain it as clearly and logically as Risa: not so much how it works, but how having a neutral third party changes the dynamic between developer and publisher and solves or reduces the inherent problems caused by the motivations and incentives of both parties.

I missed the speeches by Uwe Boll and Lee, I hope they will be available on video at some point. Thad's speech was good (he wrote about the conference here). I met Dr. Richard Bartle, who is a very nice guy. I also got to know Barbara Lippe a bit better, which is ironic since we both live in Vienna and I had been seeing her around in the Viennese game development party scene (yes, there is such a thing) for years.

Small conferences with high-profile speakers, like this one or FMX or Imagina (in 2004 at least), are a lot of fun because you can spend a lot more time having interesting conversations than at a mass event like GDC.

This was the first time GFG took place. It went well for a first go. I hope it becomes a regular event.

Update: Fixed the links.

The Game Design Job Description

'Grassroots Gamemaster' wrote this post about what they don't tell you on the game design job description. It's pretty funny and pretty accurate.

[Company] is seeking an experienced Lead Game Designer to join our team developing games for [console] and other next-generation platforms. The ideal candidate will have developed and released multiple games in the role of Lead Designer. Experience on consoles, handhelds, or casual games is highly valued. We are located in [some bland suburban place with cheap rent; you can't walk, bike or take transit there, ensuring you pile on extra pounds and diabetes] minutes [via car] from [big exciting metropolis, which we are too cheap to have an office downtown in] and we have a highly collaborative, low ego culture headed by game industry veterans [meaning we want you to be passionate... but not THAT passionate...].

It is about the conflict between industrial reality and artistic ideals. It shows to which degree a game designer's 'creativity' is dependent on his or her environment. It shows the somewhat schizophrenic double definition of 'game designer' in the games industry - on the one hand you have the 'capital G' Game Designer, as it's sometimes referred to: the Peter Molyneuxs and Will Wrights and Sid Meiers. And then you have the 'normal' game designers who do stuff that is neither art nor programming but that needs doing anyway, while perhaps someone else, or no-one, is the visionary. (And good arguments can be made that perhaps you don't need a visionary.)

Even though I personally tend towards the 'artistic ideals' side, I can see both points of view expressed in that post. I have been on both 'sides'. I have had to work with game designers who were too attached to artistic ideals to do a decent job, and in some cases I had to remove them from my team. Similarly, and longer ago, I have left teams and companies because of what I felt were unbearable compromises in the artistic approaches taken.

Anyone in the industry who has some creative ambition has to come to terms with this conflict between 'industry' and 'art', between the pragmatic and the idealistic. My solution has been to be patient and professional and to hone my skills. More recently, my solution is to work as a free-lancer. The parameters of free-lance work are so much clearer than when you're employed. You don't 'own' anything you work on, and when the project or task is done, you're done as well. There are hard limits on the amount of time and emotions you can invest into a given project. It's hard to be a prima donna free-lancer. There are downsides as well, but so far I am loving it.

There was a great cartoon in the New Yorker some time back. The punch line was something like 'I want to slowly lose sight of why I originally chose this profession, with benefits'. I wanted to cut it out and stick it on my wall, as a permanent reminder. One thing I've always liked about my career is that I am doing something I feel passionate about. The downside is that setbacks hit you much harder. This is something I had to learn to deal with, and I think I have. At the same time, I don't want to become jaded (or, not the wrong kind of jaded) or an apologist for the 'System'. I still believe there is much that can be done to advance the medium of interactive entertainment. This can be a tough balancing act, especially if you are often in a managing role as I am. Perhaps one day I will stop balancing and solve the problem once and for all. People change with time. But right now, I am still up there on that rope.

(Via Robin.)

Update: Someone found that job description (without the comments) and sent it to Robin.

Another update: Catching up, I found some echoes of the thoughts above in this post by Robin. It's hard to care and invest, but it beats the alternative.

Update (for real this time)

Alright, enough about my adventures in procrastination.

So, I am back from Hamburg - have been back for a while, in fact. It's great to be back in Vienna. Alternating between intensive work periods and intensive, um, not-work periods is interesting. Basically, I have a different mind-set now than I had in Hamburg, and than I had last summer, and this is reflected in my blogging.

I didn't have a lot of time to read news last winter (not having a private internet connection didn't help). Now I have time, but somehow... meh. I have about 1200 unread games news items in my news reader. I can't really get excited about games-related stuff somehow. GDC came and went, I had a couple of items I thought of posting, but, well, I didn't feel it was worth the trouble for me to write and for you to read it. Time to rethink my blogging style - and my website, probably.

I've fired up my Xbox 360 for the first time in 6 months or so, though, and there's a couple of news items I do feel I have to comment on in some way, plus some meatier items perhaps... Please have patience while I get back into the groove.


Yes, I am still around.

I just now started writing a blog post and ended up rebuilding my Spotlight index, go figure.

Um. More later.