Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Back to ENJMIN for a day

Angouleme and Paris, France

One of the students at this French video game school where I'd had such fun a few months ago asked if I were planning to be there to see them present their final projects. I said, "Well, nobody's asked me, but my wife might like a quick trip to France." A few hours later I was invited, with my expenses paid -- all we had to do was buy her train ticket. We took the Eurostar via the Channel Tunnel, then the TGV from Paris to Angouleme. She spent a day exploring the town, and I went off to the school to hear the students present their projects and give feedback to the instructors.

They had done some pretty interesting work, although the quality was variable. By far the best, and also the most complete, was a retro -style game called Nippon Salary Racing Championship, about racing around an office building in desk chairs. (The "box cover" mockup is visible at left.) Although it used a 3D engine, most of the objects in the game were made up of tiny cubes, giving the world a distinctly pixelated look. Another game, Psychedelia, was about a purple-skinned Rasta-looking god working to defeat the forces of squareness with flower power. The squares were, indeed, squares -- hostile cubes with teeth. Fun stuff.

After the day was over my wife and I went off to Paris, and had two full days just to be tourists. We took in the Asian Art Museum, the Musée d'Orsay (always a favorite, although we didn't have long enough there), a walk under the Eiffel Tower and down the Champs de Mars, Les Invalides and Napoleon's tomb. There are rooms full of plate mail, swords, and other late-medieval arms at the French Army Museum, far more than at any other museum I've seen. We also wandered along the Seine looking at the bookstalls, but it was pretty cold for riverside walks. And of course we ate fantastic meals every day; French cuisine deserves its reputation. The only downside is that there's no such thing as a quick restaurant meal; once you're seated, you're expected to want to sit there for a couple of hours.

Gotta go back, sooner rather than later. I'd love to have a full week in Paris sometime.

Friday, March 09, 2007

GDC 2007!

San Francisco, California

GDC logoI can't believe how much stuff I signed up to do this year... and at the end of the trip I was sick into the bargain, with some sort of nasty bug that went around the conference. You shake a thousand hands at GDC, and if one of them's got a virus on it, chances are you'll get it too.

First up, I went to the day-long Academic Summit for the International Case Blast session organized by Dan Hodgson from Northumbria University. The Case Blasts consisted of 5-minute presentations from instructors about their curricula and approach. Dan asked me to step in and talk about my game design workshops.

Following that I blitzed off to the big Women in Games International event being held at the Electronic Arts campus in Redwood City. I haven't been back there in about six years and had no idea the place had grown so much -- when I left it had three buildings; now there are six or seven. Anyway, the event was really well-organized, with a number of top industry women present among the speakers and about 400 attendees all told. I sat on a panel about designing games for women, and was also privileged to deliver the closing keynote, "Developing Backwards and in High Heels," which I've given before to other women's groups with considerable success. The picture at left is me addressing the crowd... wearing a black hat, standing in front of a black curtain and behind a black podium. It would be nice to think that "EA" stood for "Ernest Adams" but...

On Thursday was the Accessibility Idol competition, a game design challenge. Four other designers and I were required to design a game for a quadriplegic player that enabled him or her to compete head-to-head against able-bodied players. The list of competitors read like a Who's Who of industry old-timers: Brenda Brathwaite, the longest-serving woman in the business; Ellen Guon Beeman, formerly of Origin, EA, and Monolith, and now a program manager at Microsoft; Noah Falstein, another consultant like myself but with an even longer track record; and Sheri Graner Ray, who's the head of Women in Games International and another design powerhouse. My design was an alternate-reality 3D combat flight simulator for... zeppelins! I called it Dreadnoughts of the Skies, and tried to create a game that combined mouse-based input (which quadriplegics can usually control via a head-mounted pointing device) and voice commands. Alas, I came in second. Sheri beat me by one vote with a very interesting design about training dragons using a pitch pipe. Still, it was a fun exercise, my only complaint being that it was badly under-attended. They're planning to repeat it next year, and let's hope it generates more interest.

Friday was my main lecture, which this year was called "Rethinking Challenges in Games and Stories." It went quite well and was voted one of the top five lectures at GDC, which is saying something considering how many dozens there were. I've now put a printer-friendly version (with pictures) online on the Lectures page of my website.

To top off the conference, I went off to the Video Games Live concert on Friday night, which I've missed on both of the last two opportunities. It was amazing, despite the fact that by that time my cold was getting pretty bad. Not only did the orchestra play famous game tunes from Pong to the present day, they even played some of them correctly as a player played the game in real time! I can imagine a single pianist managing to do this, but an entire orchestra? And many of the great game composers were there in person: Koji Kondo, of Super Mario Brothers and Zelda fame, actually played his own pieces live on the piano, which had the audience on their feet roaring. The whole thing was a marvelous celebration, and I'm really glad I finally got to see it. If it ever comes to town near you, go!