Thursday, February 23, 2006

A winter visit to the top of the world... and a great game.

Oulu, Finland

ELVI logoI went back to Finland again, as part of my ongoing consulting work for the Environment for Lucrative Virtual Interaction project at the University of Oulu. This was the first time I had been there in the dead of winter. I was expecting it to be bitterly, bitterly cold just 100 miles or so from the Arctic Circle, but it was pretty nice. The snow was deep, of course, and I actually saw some people using skis as their ordinary mode of foot transport. (OK, I know this is normal in places like Vail and Gstaad, but we sure don't see it in Britain. Not even in

Photo of University of Oulu in winter

The fun thing about working for ELVI is that I get to hear a lot of new game ideas from dev teams coming to their business incubator for advice. They're more than student projects; many of them are serious games that may have something important to contribute. There's one for children with speech disabilities; one for people with neurological problems; one about surviving in cold weather (what a surprise).

King of Dragon Pass splash screen.This time around, though, I got an extra bonus -- one of the teams (whose own game I can't discuss, unfortunately) was very inspired by a game I hadn't heard of, King of Dragon Pass. It's an indie game published by a small group called A-Sharp, and it won the Best Visual Arts award at the second Independent Games Festival in 2000. While the art is very nice, what really intrigued me was the storytelling design. King of Dragon Pass manages to create what seems to be a branching storyline without the usual combinatoral explosion of possibilities. They do this by having a very large number of situations that can occur during the game, and to some extent it's up to the player to decide which of several people will try to handle each one as it arises. The outcome depends on the player' choice, in effect it depends on how good a judge of character the player is. To put it in programming terms, situations are functions and the characters are parameters (inputs) to the function. With different characters you get different results. Events can change people and even kill them, so it's quite replayable. Fascinating stuff.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

A week teaching at the University of Skövde

Skövde, Sweden

University of Skövde logoThis was my third visit to the University of Skövde, and the second time I've been asked to come and teach for a whole week. The first day was spent entirely in reviewing the projects that the first-year students in the game development program were working on. Some of them were pretty conventional, but others very imaginative. That night I was invited to dinner with Ulf Wilhelmsson, Concept art of Malinka Khazak, Mongol host and the man who designed the game development program at Skövde. He's an amazing guy -- collects guitars, owns and does the machine work on his own Harley, a film historian, and is an audio engineer as well. You don't find a lot of game programs that were set up by a sound person. I spent the night at his house and stayed up late talking to him and his charming financée Anna.

On the second day I gave two lectures, and reviewed a few more projects.The third day was devoted to my Character Design Workshop, which I gave to the second-year students. The pictures illustrating this story are all from that workshop, drawn by Bjorn Hurri in the space of about three hours. Each team was given a character name and a job, and told to create the character, then design an action-adventure game around it. His team was given "Malinka Khazak, Mongol horsewoman." (I'm sure the name is nonsensical, culturally speaking; I chose it because it sounded evocative.) They also had to create one conventional enemy and one boss enemy, pictured below. The world they created was a strange fantasy of magic and bizarre creatures. Malinka's boss enemy is Genghis Khan himself, riding a huge clawed demon of some kind, and the conventional enemy is one of Genghis' generals. They also threw in an evil spirit horse for Malinka to ride, whose power is derived from her own hate and desire for revenge. Ripping stuff.

Concept art of fantasy version of Genghis Khan.Concept art of the general of the mountain fort.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Opening Keynote at Animex Game Day

University of Teesside, Middlesbrough

This was just a quick trip, up one day, lecture in the morning, and back the next. I was given the honor of being the opening keynote at Animex Game Day, and the lecture I gave was "Emerging Issues in Game Design," which I had already given at FuturePlay a little earlier. The best part of the day, though, was hearing Kaye Elling's talk. Kaye is from Blitz Games and was head of the art team that did Bratz: Rock Angelz. She gives a wonderful lecture on developing for women and girls. I had heard part of it before at the Women in Games conference, and so was anxious to catch the whole thing. She talked about the five C's that she feels are particularly important: Characterization (the avatar has to be someone that a female character can feel some empathy with), Context (the game has to take place in an environment she would want to visit), Control (one-size-fits-all designs and punitive systems that take power away from the player won't cut it), Customizability (women like to rearrange things to suit their own tastes) and Creativity (user-created content is going to rule the world).