An Indie Game Afternoon

Indie Game Madness at Fantastic Fest

Spent a chunk of the afternoon at the “Fantastic Arcade,” something I had no idea existed until a few weeks ago.

I was pretty impressed with the polish on most of these games, which are ripe and ready for DLC publication. Some of them are doubtlessly soon to hit Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Here are some snaps of the most notable indie games my friends and I saw, but it was impossible to see them all in the time we had.

If you’re a developer on one of these games and want me to pull any of these images for any reason, or if you’d like a full review, just say the word.

Papo Y Yo

This charming game was a little rough around the edges, but has some promise. This shot shows one of the best sequences, where you (the little boy) lift a cardboard house, only to see a full-sized house on the opposite side of the gorge rip out of its foundations and hover in the air, mirroring the movements of the cardboard one. The protagonist also works with a little robot, reminding me of Ico gameplay, which the producer acknowledged as an influence.

Journey

Coincidentally, this game, another Ico-influenced experience as far as I can tell, was right across the aisle. I think our new pal Lauren said it’s from the same devs as the indie game Flower. Gorgeous minimalist art design.

Sideway

My friend Daniel was especially impressed (as was I) with the innovation of this title. You play as a graffiti character, and when you pass between, say, sidewalk and wall, the perspective shifts and suddenly you’re looking at a new set of Mario-esque challenges and rewards on that new plane.

Closure

Reminiscent of a top-notch Flash game, Closure’s gameplay seems to focus (ha ha) on the challenge of arranging floodlights so they properly light your path ahead. The moody grayscale environments and character design add to the flavah.

Fez

Like Sideway, this is another Paper Mario-esque game that puts rotating/alternating 2D gameplay in a 3D context. Very popular with attendees, featuring attractive yet chunky 8-bit style graphics.

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Game Designers Actually Write?

game-designer-writerGame Writers Aren’t the Only Developers Who Need Writing Skills

“Game designer” is an oft-misunderstood label that, like all labels, sometimes fails completely in describing the variety and depth of tasks tackled by the many talented people who fall into this bucket. Many times game consumers and friends have told me they thought game designers were the people who put faces on avatars and choose the colors for game environments. (I believe the confusion stems from the word “designer,” which evokes “graphic designer” and all things visual.)

Perhaps it’s a related consequence that few non-developers understand how much writing figures into the workload of a good game designer. Randy Smith’s latest blog at the excellent British game publication Edge Online addresses this, and the oxymoronic way in which we are often forced clumsily to use words to describe the indescribable. It’s a little-known fact that game job postings for designers specifically ask for English degrees. A game designer must be an idea generator, but she must also be an idea communicator. If a game designer can’t draw a vivid picture of her concept with words and the occasional diagram*, she can’t expect her teammates to bring that vision to life using often-recalcitrant tools and code.

* And yes, a good game designer needs the ability to use art tools to communicate visually as well as verbally.

Game Design Tips from Jordan Mechner

Game design pointers don’t get any better than when they come from Jordan Mechner, the man who designed Prince of Persia, The Last Express, and one of the main reasons I became a game designer, the elegant and stylish Karateka.

Here’s his blog on story-based game design. Today I’m giving props to design tip #6: “The more the player feels that the events of the game are being caused by his own actions, the better — even when this is an illusion.”

And yes, the new Prince of Persia movie looks promising. They scored Jake Gyllenhaal, Alfred Molina, and Ben Kingsley on the cast. It’s helmed by Mike Newell, whose resume is a lot more balanced than, say, Michael Bay’s (Newell’s work includes Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Love in the Time of Cholera, and the indie darling Four Weddings and a Funeral).


A Game Job: Not for Everyone

game-jobDo You Want a Job in the Game Industry?

Game jobs aren’t easy to land, and we get pretty regular inquiries about how to do just that for game writer, game designer, and other game industry jobs. The game industry is small, insular, and fiercely competitive. There are a lot of very smart people who would give their eyeteeth for a game job. Are you one of them?

One of the first questions I ask people is, “Why do you want a game job?” Many young idealistic game-job seekers have only a fuzzy idea of what the day-to-day grind is like in the inner sanctums of the game industry.

Game Job Upsides

You’re probably familiar with the glory. It’s a huge emotional jolt to see your creative work packaged up in a glossy box, discussed in magazines, and enjoyed by thousands of people around the world. One of the games I worked on was followed slavishly by fans, blogged about, anticipated, and on release, quickly analyzed and reverse-engineered so that fans could extend the game and create their own levels. Just being able to make such work is enormously satisfying, even without the public angle. Creative people love to share their efforts. We’re no different.

Game Job Downsides

  1. The work itself can be gruelling. Unlike almost any other kind of software development, game designers and even game writers often find themselves facing problems that have never been solved before, using tools that are not designed for that purpose or are barely functional due to a shortage of programmer resources. Most everyone enjoys the challenge of writing a grand epic storyline. But would you enjoy spending months writing background chatter for the interstellar highways – the space equivalent of CB radio hogwash? How about creating a detailed map of dialog choices that shows exactly how a 10-minute conversation could go, depending on player choices and hundreds of possible player characters? What if there’s a bug in your level, and you have to play the same 30 seconds of the game over and over, varying your approach slightly, monitoring CPU cycles and polygon counts, hoping the game will crash? If you want to annoy a game veteran, just say, “I’d love to have a game job and do nothing but play games all day.” Riiight.
  2. The hours. After months of working on tedious tasks, using buggy tools, under ambiguous guidance, even game industry veterans find their patience depleted and their sanity tested. The hours required by a game job are just as heinous, and well-known for destroying families and marriages. Game job quality-of-life is an ongoing issue and worthy of a blog of its own. For now, I’ll just point you to the infamous “EA spouse” blog, where a frustrated wife of an EA employee railed against the life-sucking game job routine. (Mandatory seven-day work weeks? Minimum 12-hour days? Yes, been there, done that.) “EA spouse” and her husband went on to found Gamewatch.org, which also has a lot of useful information. If you’re thinking of working for a game company, you might want to search for them at this site before you take the offer.
  3. The pay. Game jobs don’t pay that well, on the average. Sure, some ace game designers and programmers make bank, but they’re usually at the top of their fields. Game writers usually have demanding designer responsibilities as well, or they work on a contract basis – their tasks get completed and then they are out looking for new jobs. Huge hit games rarely have profit-sharing agreements for employees. And most importantly, see #2. Even if you have a decent salary, does it justify the hours you’re investing? If you’re well-paid, but you’re working 110 hours per week, you might want to divide your salary by your hours. You might find that you’d be earning more money – and getting more sleep – working for Roto Rooter.
  4. The competition. There’s no room for mediocrity in a game job. Budgets are tight and schedules are tighter. If you’re not a top producer, you’ll be found out quickly. There are some exceptions to this rule, as in any industry, but the dead wood doesn’t float much when the standards and the competition are so intense. For every game job, there are 20 or 50 hungry, intelligent, hard-working candidates dying to have that spot. It’s like Hollywood, where the security guards all have theatre backgrounds and scripts they want to sneak to a star actor or director. If you didn’t do really well in college, or are drifting through your current job, chances are that things will be the same if you get a game job, and it’ll be very difficult to get that opportunity. Sorry to be brusque, but that’s the honest truth.
  5. The temporary nature of game jobs. The average game company never gets to age 5. Many never get two games out the door. Many never see their product on store shelves. Games are like movies; the winners win big, and everyone else is a loser. When business is a gamble, the losers quickly find themselves on the street again, looking for a new game job. This means it’s very difficult to build a track record or traditional career. Instead, you find yourself moving to a new town every two or three years, doing the same thing you did on the last game, hoping to latch on to a game job that doesn’t evaporate after one dev cycle. The industry is small, and good people look after good people, but the work does move from place to place. In the real world, meanwhile, your friends are buying houses, building families, and getting promoted.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a blast working as a game writer and game designer, and I love the work. If I know that I’m working with good people, I continue to work on games. But there are caveats now. I’m aware of what I sacrificed to take game jobs, and it’s not inconsequential.

I remember when I got my first game job. I was working as a computer lab manager at the business school of a top California university. I mentioned the change to a coworker, our ace programmer and a guy with a mind like a finely-honed blade. He congratulated me and said, “I have some friends who worked in games. They all enjoyed it for awhile.”

The caution was clearly there, but I wasn’t exactly sure what the causes were for that warning. Now I am.

Game Designer Hopefuls, Read This

Game Design Competition at SWSW 2010

Game designer wannabes, this is your opportunity, but you’ve only got a few more hours.

The Screenburn at SXSW Game Design Competition deadline is today.  This is a two-phase game design contest in which you file an entry first, and then a followup presentation if you’re picked as a semi-finalist. Nice of the contest designers to construct the elimination process to avoid torturing the entire group of wannabe videogame brainstormers. All semi-finalists get a free 2010 SXSW Interactive badge — not a bad deal.

Effectively, this game design contest will proctor you through the process of creating a game concept document and pitch. The eight finalists will pitch their game concepts to a panel of professional game designers at South by Southwest.

There are two categories – casual game design and full game design. Last year, the two winners walked away with Xbox 360 Elites and other goodies, along with a fair bit of press and new-found cred. Wish I could enter!

If you’re interested, check out the design contest entry page. Even if you don’t think you can toss a quick entry form and game idea together in the next few hours, bookmark it and come back next winter.

Brain Design Central: TED Talk on Brain Manipulation

Brain designer seems like a less interesting job than game designer, but it does have a certain ring to it. And let’s face it, your work is more likely to be described as “mind-blowing,” which is how I’d describe this TED talk from Rebecca Saxe, who studies the brain at the eponymous Saxelab at MIT.

The TED writeup emphasizes mind-reading. That’s all well and good, but that’s just the come-on. My takeaways from this stimulating (literally) demonstration are:

  1. Holy crap! Magnets can change the way you think!
  2. As we always suspected, judgmental people are mentally lazy. In fact, this research seems to indicate that a chronic lack of empathy is a physiological problem. Now we just need to strap a bulk eraser to the heads of inconsiderate people.
  3. The Pentagon is really calling Dr. Saxe about ways to use this research for military purposes. Greaaaaat. Shouldn’t it be NIMH calling instead?

Game artist: caught clipping

game artistA game artist goofup

A game artist has a hard life.

You spend years – nay, a lifetime – honing your skills and craft. You sketch incessantly, driven by your passion for visual expression. You paint, you sculpt, you design, you draft.

After your traditional art training, you pick up the digital tools of creation. Your fingers are constantly molded to a mouse or a Wacom stylus. Your eyes grow bleary from texturing armies of space soldiers and modeling armories worth of fantasy broadswords. Day after day, night after night, you trudge into the office to tweak pixels to satisfy the lead game artist or please the whims of some publicity flack.

Or you’re rendering a cover shot for the art director of a major videogame industry magazine.

And then, dear game artist from the mega-AAA title Gears of War 2, you <ahem> goof it up royally and send the art director this shot of Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix ingesting a Locust drone…

through the side of his face.

This is a phenomenon known as clipping, if you’re new to the game design world. Two gameworld objects, one personal space. Happens a lot in even the best videogames. It’s tough to get complex interactions between animated objects without a few polys getting intersected here and there.

On the other hand, it’s not every day that you see the faces of two characters mashed through each other on the cover of a big gaming mag.

In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.

So… happy holidays, Mr. Gears Game Artist. I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut, and made your life a little easier. But I couldn’t believe what I saw, and I had to share at your expense.

Game design innovation… in today’s market?

game-design

I guess a few game designers were paying attention

The game design plaint that I most routinely dispense is doubtlessly one you’re familiar with. Game design is a dying craft. Publishers have forgotten what makes great games. Sequels are the spawn of Satan.

But maybe I was wrong.

A few fresh game design ideas are out and thriving

That’s right – I surveyed the market today using regression analysis and a four-variable study of the current holiday offerings, based on SKUs shipped, sales totals, sales velocity, and foreign distribution per capita. (Just kidding. Totally unscientific, but based on media coverage, advertising, and the ol’ sales chart.)

I have to commend publishers and developers for actually taking a few real game design risks. The primary success I see, of course, is the Nintendo Wii, which demonstrates that fresh game design starts with risky hardware and a canny knowledge of the gaming audience, its potential for growth, and most of all, that elusive forgotten factor called “fun.” Nintendo game designers understand that “fun” and “gigaflops per CPU clock cycle” are not necessarily tied at the hip.

Some games that are changing the ‘scape

I’m also encouraged by these titles. Maybe there’s hope.

Mirror’s Edge. Brilliant visual design and gameplay that might actually make something out of the rooftop-hopping game dynamic that went nowhere in Assassin’s Creed.

Little Big Planet. A fresh world, a world-building approach, and not a bullet in sight. Is it possible? Don’t get me wrong. I love shooters as much as the next game designer. I just want a balanced game concept diet, y’know?

Spore. Will Wright still marches to his own drummer. Certainly appeals to me more than the Sims.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Sure, once you saw the game design for DDR, you probably could’ve come up with the concept for these two. But did you? And c’mon, you have to admit that rockin’ the living room with your pals kicks the pants off Jenga.

The game sales chart still says “FAIL”

At the same time, the game designs that are dominating the sales chart are indeed largely sequels. Madden. (I know, it’s football season.) Mario Kart. GT. Other Mario games. Soulcalibur IV. Tiger Woods.

Still, I’m encouraged to see some fresh blood slowly being injected into the game design bloodstream. Without new ideas, the industry will die, or become trivialized and marginalized like comic books and (shudder) the sports card collectibles industry.

Maybe someday game design will be less of a craft and more of an art.

Ah, what the heck am I saying. Set your sights low. We might get some eye candy that engages a few different brain cells than last year’s game design crop. And that in itself is a revolution.