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Happy new year

I wish you all courage and wisdom in 2008.

Coming up on Intelligent Artifice: a new design, and more posts.

As a last little joke for 2007: here is a website of a German WoW guild with an awesome name. The name doesn't work that well in English, but basically it translates to 'Minion of Snowshoe Rabbit'. You may need to know WoW to really appreciate the joke, but have a look at the screenshot on their site anyway.

Crossing the great uncanny valley

VFXWorld has a great article by Peter Plantec about the uncanny valley, Final Fantasy, Beowulf and Bill Nighy's excellent work as Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. It's a good read.

One snippet particularly fascinated me:

As an aside, the artists and engineers at Electronic Arts discovered some of that when they reverse engineered real-humans to make them appear virtual in a game cinematic. I was told that they had to remove such things like skin pours and arm hair, and that they gelled the real hair to make it seem less real. Habib Zargarpour, vfx pioneer and art director at EA, told me: "We had to remove all the stuff that virtual humans don't have right yet in order to get believable virtual humans -- played by real humans."
Mind-blowing - an inverse lens flare! Perhaps it is cheaper to make CG movies this way?...

(Here is an earlier blog post about the uncanny valley.)

Strange news about Hobbit movies

John Scalzi has some odd news about two (two) movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema.

* MGM and New Line will co-finance and co-distribute two films, "The Hobbit" and a sequel to "The Hobbit." New Line will distribute in North America and MGM will distribute internationally.
  • Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh will serve as Executive Producers of two films based on "The Hobbit." New Line will manage the production of the films, which will be shot simultaneously.

  • Peter Jackson and New Line have settled all litigation relating to the "Lord of the Rings" (LOTR) Trilogy.

Etc. etc. Jackson won't direct. Seeing "The Hobbit" might be cool (cooler than "Golden Compass", which I didn't find bad but didn't get me excited either). We'll see.

Balance of Power book by Chris Crawford finally available again

"Balance of Power - International Politics as the Ultimate Global Game", Chris Crawford's book about his hit game, is finally available again. It's been out of print and hard to get for a long time. I asked him about it last December, and he said that although he had gotten quite a lot of requests, he didn't want to break up one of his few remaining copies to get it scanned.

Well, it looks like someone called Kevin Nickel got their hands on a copy, because you can now download the book as a 400K text file. This is the most detailed book ever written about the design of a single game.

Oh, and Chris has started a blog on politics.

Happy Fifth Birthday, Intelligent Artifice

Five years ago, I wrote the first post on this blog. (And although it doesn't mean much: To the best of my knowledge, this is the oldest blog by a practicing game developer.) There are now 916 posts here, about one for every two days.

Looking back is weird. I used to make bad puns in entry titles. I used to put links at the bottom of the blog entry. There are entries I don't even remember writing, which is a bit scary. But nothing really embarassing, which is a good thing.

My plans for the future: make a spiffy new design, and write some meatier blog entries. Maybe between Christmas and New Year...

What would you like to see on Intelligent Artifice?

Gordon Walton Gives 12 Lessons from WoW

Many people have tried to identify the secret of Blizzard's success, a topic guaranteed to interest a lot of game developers. Still, when someone who has been around as long as Gordon Walton gives it a shot, it's worth paying attention. Not only is he a funny man, he knows what he is talking about.

Worlds In Motion has an article about Gordon's talk about World of Warcraft at the Austin GDC a couple of months ago. Here is my summary:

  1. Learn from the past. Anyone remember the idea of World of Warcraft being against conventional wisdom when it was first announced? Surely Blizzard would fall on their faces making a fantasy MMO...
  2. Aim for a broad user base.
  3. Quality counts. As someone once pointed out: World of Warcraft was the first MMO developed by a company that knew how to make AAA offline games. I have been playing a lot of virtual worlds and Asian MMOs recently, and boy, they suck. In terms of user interface design and player guidance they are miles behind the top offline games.
  4. Support solo play. I wonder if this was an innovation because MMOs before WoW tended to come from MUDs?
  5. Simplify the GUI. If you've played WoW for a while, you might know how odd it feels to go from a level 70 raiding character to a lvl 1 nub with no add-ons. You suddenly have only 3 buttons. I really like Gordon's remark about the GUI customization being a release valve for the hard core. It's also great for Blizzard: they've taken most of the really popular add-ons and put them into the standard GUI.
  6. Tons of content. WoW was way more expensive than I expected. I have heard numbers between 50 and 80 million dollars. One thing that pays for is content.
  7. PvP content. Blizzard had lots of experience here. It's easy to underestimate everything they learned from
  8. Don't tune for the hardcore. Yeah... I know people who still haven't gotten to level 60.
  9. Let them quit. Gordon kinda makes the same point in this and the previous lesson: You can force people to do stuff by clever game design, but they will probably hate you for it in long term (and in fact complaints about grinding are the number one reason I have seen for why people stop).
  10. Offer the right amount, and the right kind of choices. This is worth a couple of blog post of it's own.
  11. Easy to learn, difficult to master. More on this below. I am still learning new things about WoW after almost 3 years. Like why parry mechanics make it a bad idea to attack mobs from the front when you're not the tank. Or how you can increase your DPS by 5-10% if you understand how the client communicates with the server.
  12. Brands matter. This is the most secret ingredient of Blizzard's secret sauce: how they got where they are.

What I consider one of the most impressive parts of WoW is the progression design. How you're taught about the game. How you're led through it. How there are always just the right number of carrots dangling in front of you. This comes up in lessons 5, 6, 10 and 11. I think the progression design in WoW is perhaps the best I have ever seen in a game, even beating Zelda: A Link To The Past. (I've been meaning to analyze how both games do this - now there's some useful games research.)

The article concludes with:

The thread that tied the talk together was changing the mindset of the developers: it's about understanding that a general audience is not the power gamers. If a game is to be successful with a broader audience, it has to be more fun, more directed, more accessible, and faster-paced.

Emphasis mine. Think of lesson 8: Don't tune for the hardcore. But hey, developers are the hardcore. And the hardcore are the first to set up camp in your forums and tell you what they like and don't like about what you say you are building. (This was first pointed out sixteen years ago, by Chris Crawford.) It takes a clear head and nerves of steel to ignore all that. Blizzard uses mantras for design: that's a great way to continuously remind yourself what you set out to do.

"Rockstar Head Ascends to Take-Two Throne"

I just got sent a link to an article called "Rockstar Head Ascends to Take-Two Throne". Here is more or less what I was thinking as I opened it:

Sam Houser got promoted? Nice comeback: This must be related to that expiring contract business.

Reads article

Gary Dale, formerly the Chief Operating Officer of Rockstar Games [...]

... Who?

[...] said Ben Feder, Chief Executive Officer of Take-Two.

... Who?

Ohhh.... part of the post-Hot Coffee management shake-up.

[...] make him an excellent choice to take on this new corporate Executive VP position [...]

... Vice President of what exactly? Ah well.

As for Michael Pachter's belief that the Housers might leave over money when their contract runs out: I disagree. They don't need money, but in their shoes I would be quite dissatisfied at Take-2, ever since Rockstar Games was no longer mentioned here (i.e. after June 15th 2006). And the Houser brothers would have the balls to walk away.

Still, the new GTA IV trailer looks nice.

Back from Lyon

I am back from Lyon. Well, I got back on Wednesday, but with catching up at work, watching Beowulf and The Golden Compass (both of which I liked) and the company Christmas party, I've hardly been near my computer at home.

The GDC was fun. Also, did you know that whole "Can't carry more then 100 ml of liquid on board" stuff also applies to cans filled with duck thighs and duck fat? But I got my cuisses de canard confites back to Austria. The security people had a sense of humor, and we made many jokes about my thighs.

Anyway. More soon.