Friday, March 18, 2005

Lecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Cambridge, Massachusetts

MIT logoI've given a lot of lectures in different places over the years, but this has to be the most prestigious so far. Chris Weaver, the founder of Bethesda Softworks and one of the industry's oldest old-timers, is now a visiting professor at MIT, and he asked me to come talk to his class there. Chris is part of the Comparative Media Studies program, the one so ably led by Henry Jenkins. We had a great time gossiping about our colleagues and exchanging news. The lecture I gave was the same one as my GDC lecture this year, "Interactive Narratives Revisited: Ten Years of Research," which you can also read on-line by clicking the title.

Photo of buildings at MIT.

MIT has a huge, sprawling campus beside the Charles River in Cambridge. Although most of the architecture is pretty uninspired, there are some distinctly odd buildings... such as the foregoing. I think this is the place where we had lunch, but I'm not completely sure, because it's an easy place to get lost.

Photo of steam tunnels.The other thing MIT is famous for is the fact that every building is connected to every other building by underground steam tunnels, including one that is known as The Endless Corridor. (The founders of Infocom were from MIT, and The Endless Corridor featured in one of their early games.) Once you go into any building, it's never necessary to go outdoors again, no matter where you want to go on campus -- a boon during the icy winters. Or at least, it would be if the tunnels were reasonably signposted. They're not, however; you have to know your way around. Apparently the denizens of MIT take a perverse pride in the fact that you can get lost for hours in them. I only took one quick look...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Lecture at Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester, Massachusetts

Photo of WPI faculty clubI first met Darius Kazemi at the Academic Summit of the Game Developers' Conference a couple of years ago. He's a student at WPI, and expressed an interest in trying to get me to come give a lecture there. This year, we were able to make it happen. I stopped by Boston on my way back from GDC, borrowed a friend's car, and drove out to Worcester. I had a meeting with several of the faculty to discuss their new game design curriculum, gave my talk to the students ("Exploring the Fringes", my GDC 2003 lecture), and then sat around and talked to anyone who wanted to for another hour or so afterwards. Everyone was very hospitable, and in addition they gave me lunch in this rather extraordinary building... much more like something I'd see in Europe than the US!

Only one thing concerns me about Worcester... (the town, not the Institute): their courthouse has on it the single most Fascist sentiment I've ever seen expressed in American public life. Get a load of this:

'Obedience to law is liberty' on courthouse.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Commencement address at Collins College

Tempe, Arizona

Collins College is a small-but-growing school in Tempe, Arizona that concetrates on animation and other new media education. They have just created a game design program, and invited me to be the commencement speaker at their spring graduation ceremony. This is the text of my address:
Thank you, and good evening. Before I go any farther, I'd like to express my thanks to the faculty, staff, and administration of Collins College for inviting me tonight. It's an honor, and a pleasure, to be able to celebrate your achievements with you this evening.

Because I have written a book about getting a job in the video game industry, I was asked to begin with a few tips on jobhunting tonight from my own experience. So this talk is going to be a bit prosaic at the beginning, but I'll try to make it more interesting later on.

As your instructors have doubtless told you, in the creative digital industries, your portfolio is even more important than your resume as an expression of who you are and what you can do.

Let me tell you something about the way hiring managers think. Nobody does hiring for fun. They see hiring as a tiresome chore that takes time away from what they're really supposed to be doing. Often they're under pressure to replace someone who has left recently, or to staff up a project that's supposed to be starting soon. So while they want to make the right choice, it's not always a pleasant process for them. It should be your goal to make yourself stand out as a potential employee, but perhaps even more importantly, you want to make this an easy decision for them.

Always put your best material first in your portfolio. Speaking as a former hiring manager, I can tell you that you have about 30 seconds to get my attention from the moment I start up your demo reel or CD. If you can keep my attention for 30 seconds, you have it for another two minutes. If you've still got it at the end of that time, then you've have it for another five. After that, you've definitely got an interview, but even if you're Rembrandt, I can't afford to spend any more time on you. There's no point in dumping hundreds of megabytes on someone. Keep it short, keep it punchy, and make sure the best is first.

My next point is that diversity is more important than depth. Things change fast in the commercial world and I might suddenly have to shift you to a project with a completely different aesthetic style. So a person who can show me a range of talents has an advantage over one who concentrates on a single style. Be sure I see your whole range in that first 30 seconds.

Finally, make your demo self-running. Do not require your viewer to install any software, or I guarantee you, you've lost two-thirds of them before they see the first image.

There's an old adage that it's not what you know, it's who you know. I used to think this was really cynical, and it meant that the old-boy network would always prevail, and that unless you knew the secret handshake, you didn't have a chance no matter how much talent you have. Later I realized that it means something different. First, there is no old-boy network in the creative digital industries. We need the best no matter where they come from. We can't afford to hire somebody on the
basis of what fraternity they were in.

What it really means is that professional contacts are the linchpin of
your career. Get to know people in the industry. We're much more approachable than you might think. If you like somebody's work, send them some E-mail and say so. We all love praise. Be courteous but not obsequious, respectful but not flattering. At conferences and group gatherings, don't hesitate to go up and introduce yourself. Busy professionals may not have a lot of time for you, but they're unlikely to be directly rude, so go for it.

Join whatever professional society is appropriate for your discipline and then go to the meetings and mingle! It's much easier than it sounds. In my case, it's the International Game Developers' Association, and it has local chapters all over the world.

Above all, persevere. Finding a job is a job, so get out there and hustle. You don't get to roll the dice in this world, but you actually get to do something better -- you can load them in your favor before the throw. You've already done one great thing by getting a degree from Collins College. The more you search for opportunities, the more opportunities you will find.

One last piece of advice about jobhunting. There's a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Confidence is a sign of maturity. Arrogance is a sign of immaturity. Always be sure you're on the right side of that line.

I now want to talk for a bit about how I first got interested in this business.

If you go to Berkeley, California, and you take the road up Strawberry Canyon behind the university, it winds up and up, past the botanic gardens, until eventually you'll come to the top, and a magnificent view of the whole Bay Area. And there you'll find an ugly, grey, concrete building. This is a museum called the Lawrence Hall of Science, and it's the place where I played my first computer game.

I first went there in 1970, when I was ten years old. Now you have to remember that the microprocessor had not been invented at that time, so there were no video games, only computer games played on a mainframe computer.

There was a sign at the desk that said, "Computer games, two dollars an hour." Now two dollars was two whole weeks' allowance for me at the time, but I was excited by the idea and decided to give it a try. So I went down into the basement, and there in a bare, windowless concrete room with Formica tiling on the floor and fluorescent lighting overhead, I sat down at a teletype machine and played my first computer game.

I don't imagine many of you have seen a Teletype, but it was an old printing terminal that printed out upper-case letters on continuous, yellow roll paper -- like an electric typewriter. It printed very slowly, with a clattering sound, and it smelled of machine oil and ozone. And I sat down at this thing and began to type.

Half an hour later, I had landed on the moon. And I had designed a dragster and raced it. And I had commanded the starship Enterprise. I was Captain Kirk, sitting in his chair, and Mr. Spock was giving me information, and Scotty was saying "She canna take much more, Captain!"
and I was fighting the Klingons with phasers and photon torpedoes.
Sitting there in my bare windowless room with the concrete walls and the fluorescent lighting, I was on the bridge of the Enterprise, even though I was only reading about it in upper-case letters printed on yellow roll paper. I was Captain Kirk.

What I'm trying to say is not to forget the power of your viewer's imagination.

We have so much capacity for creating wonderful images these days that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the object is not merely to create an image, but an impact.

It was the power of imagination that got me excited about computer games. I didn't need fancy graphics to feel as if I were sitting in Captain Kirk's chair on the bridge of the Enterprise.

And even a photograph, concrete and definitive as it is, still invokes the power of imagination, because it begs the question, "What's outside the frame?"

So I urge you, as you go forth from here in your career to create your works, to remember that you're not only making a thing, you're interacting with a person.

You have the power to take people away to wonderful places and there let them do amazing things. Use your power wisely. Use it well.

Congratulations, and thank you.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Lecture at the Game Developers' Conference

San Francisco, California

GDC logoThis was, sadly, the shortest visit I've ever paid to the GDC. I was only able to be there two days. Family business kept me away during the two tutorial days, and on the third day of the conference I had to rush off to my next event. It was great to see old friends as always, and fun to be in San Francisco for a change.

I only made it to two sessions other than my own: a round table discussion on sex in games, moderated by Brenda Brathwaite, the lead designer on Playboy: The Mansion; and the Experimental Gameplay Workshop . Unfortunately the workshop got started late and I had to leave about halfway through it, but not before I had seen some of the more outrageous games created this year, particularly the Indie Game Jam . I also gave my own lecture, "Interactive Narratives Revisited: Ten Years of Research," which was pretty well attended. It's now available to read on-line -- just click the title.

Apart from that, it was the usual round of meetings, parties, dinners, and of course the Game Developers' Choice Awards and Indepdendent Game Festival Awards -- two events that I believe are increasingly important to the game industry.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Another 5-day Workshop on Interactive Narrative for Sagas

Munich, Germany

Sagas logo I grew up loving London's Underground -- one of the oldest subway systems in the world, with its tubular tunnels and its brilliant map. But having seen Munich's, my loyalty is severely tested. The London Underground is showing its age: small platforms, horribly crowded cars, numerous stairs, and hot, dirty stations. Munich's U-bahn has enormous stations with escalators almost everywhere, and big, comfortable trains. In fact, they seem about the same size as regular trains. The track and acceleration are both smooth, and extraordinarily, the whole thing seems to run on the honor system -- no guards watching, no barriers to queue for. You simply punch your ticket with the time and walk in.

I was in Munich this week to teach a five-day workshop on creating interactive narrative for the Sagas "Writing Interactive Fiction" project, which is funded by the EU and run by the Film and Television Academy in Munich. I did this last year as well, in Karlsruhe, Germany, but that was a fluke -- it was supposed to be in Munich but the space wasn't available.

I had never been there before, and unfortunately, I didn't get time to see much of it. Snow fell heavily and footing was just as treacherous as it had been in Sweden the week before, which made me glad of the U-bahn. Fortunately my hostess, the small and feisty Brunhild Bushoff, had bought me a week-long "go anywhere" ticket. But I was too busy with the workshop to see much of the city.

We had an interesting mix of people: British, Danish, Portuguese, Italian, and of course German. They devised a series of games from the eminently practical to the frankly bizarre (a real-time strategy game in which birds destroy the human race). And when we weren't working on game design, we were eating enormous (and occasionally rather heavy) German meals and drinking liters and liters of German beer together. It was a great time, albeit tiring, and as before I got rather tired of cigarette smoke. But some of the work was genuinely inspiring, and many of the attendees displayed real talent.Now that storylines are turning up in so many genres, I shouldn't have been surprised that many of the participants chose to leave traditional adventure games and incorporate stories into other kinds of gameplay. These were the games the four teams created:
  • Love and Cruelty: From the Favelas to Ipanema Beach. This was a hugely ambitious game that combined adventure game elements with a dance game and probably other mini-games as well. The favelas are Rio de Janeiro's notorious slums. The player takes on the role of either a down-and-out man or woman in the favelas, and tries to become a hip-hop king or queen.
  • Johnny Tallend, an action game combined with a romantic comedy (or was it a tragedy) about how a small person believes the only way to win the heart of his ladylove is to become a super-hero. So he does, taking on many exciting challenges.
  • Revenge of the Twin Witches, a classic puzzle-solving adventure game in which the player has to use exploration and political manipulation to bring her twin sister's killers to justice. This was the most thoroughly worked-out and commercially-viable concept.
  • Nevermore, a strategy game in which birds take over the world by killing off humans in a variety of ways. Different birds have different skills -- parrots, for example, are the only ones that can talk to humans -- so part of the game is about choosing your troops to win the particular battle at hand. Nevermore had a wry and twisted sense of humor. Secretary birds are responsible for looking after other birds whose job is to memorize and record important events; these latter are known as duckuments!