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Meet me at GDC Lyon

I will be at the Game Developers Conference in Lyon this Monday and Tuesday. I am there to moderate a panel discussion on next-gen AI ("What's Next for Game AI: Challenges and Opportunities", Monday at 4 PM) with Alex Champandard, Axel Buendia from Spir.Ops and Pierre Pontevia from Kynogon. It should be fun.

Drop me a line if you are going to be there and want to meet up, although chances are we'll probably run into each other anyway.

I have a new job

In fact, I've had a new job since November 1st, but I've been quite busy and it's taken me a while to find out what I can mention on my blog.

I am working as a producer at 10tacle Vienna, where I am working on a multi-user 3D online world developed in cooperation with MTV Germany. So I have been doing a lot of research into virtual worlds, MMOs, online games, server architectures, social networks, internet marketing... anything that is vaguely related. It's a fascinating subject.

"But Jurie," attentive readers might ask, "weren't you skeptical about 10tacle back in May?"

Why yes, I was. But I've gotten to know the company a bit better since then. I've weighed the risks, and it seemed like a good idea to go and work with them.

What makes me particularly happy is that they specifically wanted me because of the broad range of areas I have worked in or know something about. I much prefer synthesizing across disciplines than being squeezed into a pre-defined box in an org chart, and in fact my current job description is quite different from the classical role of a producer. So I am getting paid for being an insufferable know-it-all! One step closer to my role model.

Three hundred mechanics, with comics on the side

Surprisingly, Three Hundred Mechanics has nothing to do with Seven Hundred Hoboes, although I see no good reason why not.

It is a web site by Sean Howard listing 300 game mechanics (well, currently about 60). I like them. It's like the ideas one occasionally has about game design, only with a neat formal twist, not to mention nice old school pixel graphics to illustrate them. I think it's a really good method for writing down ideas - it beats letting them moulder in notebooks or never writing them down in the first place. Making it a flat list of 300 and not claiming any kind of usefulness means you can judge the ideas in a different way than if someone said "Look look I have this cool idea that will make a million seller". Many of the ideas are interesting or thought-provoking.

(I feel tempted to steal the meta-idea... with credit of course.)

I also highly recommend reading Mr. Howard's webcomics. Especially IF Only..., a not-really-a-comic about interactive fiction (again). It has a running joke that had me in stitches. The other comics are fun too.

Pac-Man as interactive fiction

This is probably really old but I am not really keeping up to date with the Interactive Fiction world: Pac-Man as a text adventure.

Pac-Man was a junkie, eyes oozing pus, haunted by the ghosts of those he'd killed.

They called him Pac-Man because he was always packing heat, lightning-quick on the draw with a personal arsenal second to none. But today he woke up in an alley, all weapons missing but his mouth, an animal, starving hysterical naked, trapped in an unfamiliar maze of mean streets. Needing a fix. Needing a fix like nothing else.

And the ghosts are coming.

You can guess the rest, but it's well done.

On Team Fortress 2 and Portal

Let's get the most important fact out of the way first: I don't have the Orange Box yet. Regardless, here are some Team Fortress 2- and Portal-related items you might find interesting.

Rock Paper Shotgun has an interview with Erik Wolpaw, who is currently working at Valve and who was the writer of Portal. I think one reason why Portal resonates with a lot of people (with me, at least) is the surreal setting, and the writing is an important part of that. I knew Mr. Wolpaw was one of the people behind the amazing Old Man Murray, but I didn't know he was also the co-author of Psychonauts. (Psychonauts didn't spring fully-formed from the brow of Tim Schafer? I am shocked.)

Anyway, the interview is highly amusing but low on actionable intelligence. For that, I recommend Rock Paper Shotgun's interview with Robin Walker and Charlie Brown (in two parts). They seem remarkably sane despite having worked on a game for, what, 10 years or so? Although it wasn't all TF2:

RW: Well, we worked on TF2 a lot. We tried three or four different version of things we called TF2. And we all worked on Half-Life 2 and Episode One. Valve's a small enough company that everyone works on everything. So it hasn't been all TF2.

From which those who remember how Half-Life 1 was developed can conclude that one important key to success is having the freedom to throw entire games away and start over again. (On the other hand, so many companies throw entire games away yet never end up with a successful game... hmm.)

I think one of the things we've learned as designers over the time we've been here is to better preserve our ideas while still making them more understandable. We're personally very proud that TF2 is the best product we've produced at doing this, where we don't think we've sacrificed any of the depths or complexity that we wanted, but at the same time players can sit down in front of it and have fun without really understanding half of what's going on. Most things that happen tend to be visually understandable at face value. [...] RPS: That acceptability really struck me, prompting to write about how welcomed in I felt by the game. In contrast to this, I once had a two hour lesson in Counter-Strike and didn't learn anything, other than it was incredibly hard. RW: That was something we spent a heck of a lot of time on. [We've] really spent a lot of time on trying to make sure wherever we could that in visual and sound areas of the game it was up-front about what was going on. The obvious place where that occurred was in the visuals. We really built an art direction that was totally formed for the game. This was one of the advantages of the development taking so long. We really understood our game, so we knew the areas that the art direction had to be able to solve.

More about that art direction in a future post.

RW: We've been building multiplayer games now for so long that we have an understanding of the first set of problems that any play-tester runs into. In any multiplayer game you play, there's this batch of problems you always run into, and we made sure we addressed every one of those in TF2. You can regard any multiplayer game as a constant optimisation problem for players — they're getting in and they're going to try something, and they're going to need to be told whether it worked or it didn't. And then they'll try something else, and they'll need to be told again. And the more explicit and successful the game is at showing the cause and effect of any of your actions, the better you're able to learn.

... which I believe corresponds to a basic principle of user interface design. There is more about this in the interview.

I found this quite interesting:

One of the things, technically, that we really wanted to do with the project was bring a lot of the knowledge that we had in the single player space into the multiplayer space. Like pacing, and things like that, which we spent a lot of time on in the single-player experience. Our multiplayer games haven't really had that kind of pacing. TFC, its pacing while consistent, was flat. It wasn't spiking as far as having a bunch of highs and lows, or building to a final crescendo. We wanted to capture that and bring it to multiplayer as best we could. Which was some of the ideology behind trying to avoid stalemates.

I expect you could learn a lot about pacing in multiplayer games from board game design.

I think the intentional use of humor was very smart:

CB: Funny stuff just happens. So when we started, we knew what kind of weapons we wanted, we knew the physics, we knew we had really fast movements speeds and not all our weapons were realistic, and so it was pretty easy to see during testing that these funny moments happened way more frequently than they did in our other games. That was one of the reasons we chose this art style in the first place. We said, let's just embrace the exaggerated funny things that happen. We used that to our advantage. RW: It led to a lot of ideas that I don't think we would have had. One of my favourites is the gib call-outs, where in the Death Cam, if there are little pieces of you on screen, they'll get little labels. CB: My personal favourite would be the Spy masks. We never would have done that in something serious. The humour solved a bunch of problems.

The reduced realism caused by humor and a cartoony art style can make games more immersive, not less. And it totally differentiated Team Fortress 2 from anything else on the market, plus it distracted from the whole 'Wait is this the game you've been working on for ten years?' issue.

I was fascinated by the medium- to long-term dynamic of class balance:

RW: It's been really fun watching the online communities go through a micro version of the passage we've all gone through here. It's like, "Oh, they're all at the Heavy/Medic phase! They're soon going to get to the, Holy crap, Snipers kick the crap out of that phase!" They're saying, "This is too powerful," and we're thinking, "Well next week you're going to find that this destroys that." It's really fun to see. [...] RW: So much of the class interactions are a result of the best choices on your server. If you're a hopeless optimiser like I am, then as the numbers of the Heavies and Medics increases, the value of Snipers increases, so I'll often switches classes after about five minutes once I've seen what the enemy make-up is, or I can see what they're trying to do. That's why it's been really fun going out on public servers with an over-abundance of Spies these days. Internally we all have a fairly effective Spy radar in our heads, so you get to have a lot of fun. I've had friends message me with Steam Community and say, "There's this Spy that's causing us a lot of trouble." So I'll go in the game and dominate the Spy pretty easily, because at this point most of the Spies are still using pretty simple tactics. They haven't been forced to learn the harder tactics the Spy uses, and as people get more and more experienced dealing with Spies, they're going to be forced to do that. Right now the population of Spies is such that you can have a blast just running out there as a Pyro. That back and forth is an interesting one, and I don't think it ever stops. There's always going to be a flavour of the month. And that's always a response to what the flavour of the last month was.

This makes me understand the PvP parts of World of Warcraft patch notes a bit better.

Coming soon: something about Team Fortress 2's art style. First I need to find out if I can get an English-language Orange Box from

Game development areas

Clint Hocking wrote a blog post about the number of developers in Montreal, and several people have commented with info about other geographical areas.

My guess is there's between 100 and 200 professional game developers in Vienna, if not all of Austria - I only know of a handful of companies outside of Vienna.

In Germany, I expect the biggest areas to be Frankfurt, Berlin and the Ruhrgebiet. Maybe Hannover, Hamburg (which has a surprising amount of publisher offices though) and Munich. But I have not kept a close eye on the German industry for a long time, so I may be off.

Career advice from Shuna Fish Lydon

I realized yesterday that I am currently spending more time on cooking than on making games. Reading blogs, researching recipes and techniques, lusting over equipment, finding out what is in season, scouting for good ingredients, planning dinner parties, digging through magazines and cookbooks. It's weird. Perhaps it would be different if I could make multiple games a day, all on my own?

During my reading I came across this post on careers and mentoring over at Shuna Fish Lydon's Eggbeater blog. She worked in the kitchens of Thomas Keller so I bet she knows what she's doing. A lot of it is not at all specific to kitchen careers, but can easily be applied to the games industry:

I know I'm not the only person out there mentoring, giving advice, leading, managing, forming relationships, pushing, prodding, teaching, guiding, and more. There are thousands of others out there like me. But it's not enough. Too many people are stepping into positions they have no business being in. Too many people are lying to those employees. And too many of those employees are happily swallowing that lie.

Too few game companies do any kind of long term thinking, especially regarding employee retention, employee development, or quality of life.

This industry is selfish. It wants what it wants and it will continue to gnaw until it breaks you down. It will take every last drop of blood. It will use you up and not give back, if you don't watch your back.

Chris Crawford made an observation in the late 90s that because there is a near-infinite influx of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters willing to make games, the industry can afford to treat developers badly because they can be easily replaced.

In the short term, at least.

This has changed a bit, and it is different in different countries. One sees a lot more older developers in the US, for instance - 'older' meaning 'over 35'. But overall I'd say the problem is still there.

In the interview look around. Do some homework. Is this The Chef you want to work for? Is this the kitchen that's going to kick your lazy ass? Is this restaurant going to be a place you'll be proud to have on your resume? Is this house well known in the industry? What can you learn here? Who do you want to learn from?

These are certainly factors I take into account when looking at a new potential employer.

The pay sucks, we all know that, that's a given.

Although you can make a living in the games industry, don't come here to get rich. Not as a developer at least. The odds are too low.

Every name you put on your resume is like lining up the cue ball in pool. It's always about the next shot. Now you don't necessarily know what that will be, until you get there, but every name on your resume should mean something, not just to you. Work is not sentimental. Yes, it's about the relationships you form, but this industry is competitive. Few people care about the warm fuzzies you felt in your last kitchen. Did you get the job done? How long did you stay? Why did you leave? Can I call for a recommendation?

... Why aren't you in the credits?

Last year when I was looking for work, I didn't follow this advice. I had several offers that would look good on my resume, but I wasn't sure if I would enjoy the work. So I decided that after 15 years, I wasn't going to take jobs just because they would look good my resume. At some point, it's time to start spending that investment.

Why are you working in that kitchen? Do you prefer being a big fish in a small pond or do you take pleasure in being eaten by piranha? Do you only want to work in the big shiny kitchens with million dollar re-models? Or do you prefer mom-and-pop joints? Do you learn best in militant kitchens or laid-back ones? Do you work in kitchens because everyone is nice or do you pick your future homes based on skill level? Are you applying for that job because you think you have something to give and you want your ego stroked? Do you always work in 3 star kitchens or have you worked the gamut?

This can be directly translated to the games industry.

You can't be a good boss if you've never had a boss. Who has been your most inspiring chef? Who do you want to manage like? Which restaurants ran in the black the soonest? (And do you know what that means? What information have you been privy to?) Who moved you up the line when they thought you were ready not merely when you were bored or cocky?

I've had the privilege of working for (and with) some good people, people from whom I learned a lot. But it's been rare. In fact, this is why I wanted to become a producer: because I thought I could do a better job. Or at least I wanted to suffer because of my own mistakes, rather than someone else's.

If a person goes to culinary school for 9 months and then gets out and becomes a chef they are generally working alone or with an assistant or two.

I don't think this translates well on average, although I can see it happen. If you're fresh out of some game development course and you're made lead, chances are you didn't pick a good employer... Why can't they hire someone with more experience?

You are a much better employee the more you know how to do. This includes knowing how to work a commercial dishwasher, how to clean floors, how to jump on another station to get a cohort out of the weeds, how to do more than what's only in your meek little tunnel-vision.

Well, I agree. But I can say that one of the hardest career problems I've personally had to struggle with in the last 5 years, if not longer, is defining what my role is. At Rockstar Vienna, I worked on 3 different hierarchical levels and in 3 different departments. I've done game design, production, programming and QA. In the worst interview I ever did, I presented myself as interdisciplinary while my interviewers were trying to figure out which discipline I was applying for (talk about a communication problem). I usually spend more time discussing my role and title than the basic question of whether I can be useful. It must be nice to just be really good at programming or modeling or something...

While talking to this cook, I saw so much. I saw beyond her back to her past jobs. I saw other kitchens I've never stepped foot it, in my mind's eye. Did she work in anarcho kitchens with little to no leadership or was she lazy and expected all teaching to come to her in secret specific way, which she kept to herself but quietly seethed over its injustices? Were there chefs there who loved mentoring but were tired by the time she worked in their kitchens? Was she too shy to notice that all chefs teach differently and she was expecting everyone to be like her instructors at culinary school?

This is more or less like the games industry, except the culinary school bit. It is amazing how company cultures shape people. I constantly have to judge: Is my instinct right in this situation? Or is it something that was right at a previous employer?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have about a 1000 unread items in the games folder of my RSS feed reader. And I need to start making chicken stock so I can cook a bolognese sauce and vegetable soup later today.

Update: Seems I am not the only game developer who likes to cook. Damn, I need to work harder.

Next Generation article on video game credits

There's a nice article on Next Generation about video game credits and the IGDA standard, which includes a couple of comments from myself. I sound a bit more anti-Rockstar than I really feel. I don't really lie awake seething with hate or anything. Serves me right for choosing the word 'outraged' - it sounded better than 'indignant'...

Alexander "The Garbage Man" Hager, one of the awesome people I worked with at Rockstar Vienna, has reported his feelings on his blog (in German). Great post!

Phase, a music game for the iPod

Phase is a music-based game from Harmonix for the iPod (to be precise: any iPod that plays video).

The gameplay video shows a limited selection of songs, but apparently you can use any song on your iPod. Which means they must be analyzing the song in real-time... Well, if Vib Ribbon could do it on a PlayStation 1, why not do it on an iPod. Although my guess is that the songs that come with the game will be better balanced.

(Via Chris Foster, who was the designer and one of the programmers on Phase.)