Tuesday, April 29, 2008

JoinGame 3.0 Conference

Drammen, Norway

JoinGame is a new resource network for Norwegian academics and companies involved with video gaming. They've been holding a series of small conferences, and they invited me to come to their third one, thanks to the lobbying of my friend, client, and fan Tinka Town of Ravn Studio. When I got there I was surprised to discover that I was the guest of honor. There was a crowd of about fifty people from all over Norway, plus Simon McCallum (late of the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand and now working in Norway) and me. Most of the talks were in Norwegian, so Simon and I sat in the back and chatted (quietly) about this and that.

Image of Drammen's pedestrian bridge I talked about the future of computer entertainment, and a bit about designing educational software for use in the classroom. Several people said my talks were inspiring, which is always nice to hear. Simon's talk and mine overlapped a surprising amount; we both discussed the changing value chain as software distribution switches from bricks-and-mortar retail stores to electronic means. Simon's company, ESP Gruppen AS, seeks to create gaming portals that benefit telcos, developers, and gamers alike. One of the things they can do is provide useful demographic data back to the developer about who is playing the developer's games online: age, sex, length of time played, frequency of play, and so on. This is data that those of us who are more used to the bricks-and-mortar world seldom get access to.

After the event there was a nice dinner for the whole crowd, and I got to talk to Tinka and her business partner, Stine Waern, whom I had never met, about goings-on at Ravn Studio. If all goes to plan I'll get to do a bit more design consulting for them, which I really enjoyed the last time I had the chance.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DeVry Austin, old friends and new ones

Austin, Texas

DeVry logoI went off to Austin, Texas this weekend to do a lecture for the existing students and a recruiting event for the prospective ones. My hosts were as hospitable as ever, putting me up in a nice hotel and making sure I had everything I needed for my workshop. It all went very well and the participants came up with some fun stuff. The big news, though, was that I got to meet Bruce Naylor, who made important contributions to the development of BSP (binary space partition) trees, which are data structures used to perform efficient rendering of 3D scenes. Naylor was a longtime, but largely uncredited, advisor to id Software on the early Doom games, which may have been the first game to use BSP trees. Anyway, Bruce now teaches programming at DeVry Austin, and we had dinner together along with Shane Sokoll, the dean of the center, Shane's wife, and a couple of students. I feel privileged to have had the chance.

As Austin is such a major center of game development, I have a number of friends here, and I took the opportunity to catch up with a couple of them: Tess Snider, who was very helpful while I was working on my books (she knows tons about MUDs, MUSHes, MOOs, and so on) and Sheri Graner Ray, current head of Women in Games International (I'm on the advisory board). Sheri and I and her husband got to chat about WIGI's prospects and plans. Like all volunteer organizations, it struggles with fundraising and to have enough warm bodies to do all the work required, but things are looking good at the moment and the mixers they give around the country are as popular as ever.

I'd like to attend the Austin Game Developers' Conference one of these days, but the opportunity hasn't yet arisen. Maybe next year.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Workshop and Consulting at Crytek

Frankfurt, Germany

Crytek logoSten Hübler is one of the key designers at Crytek, which is acclaimed for its graphically spectacular first-person shooters. Several months ago he attended a game design workshop I gave with Martine Parry in London. He decided that it would be worthwhile for several of Crytek's designers to have the same experience, so he invited me to come to Frankfurt for a day. We did some back and forth to find a mutually convenient time, and I finally made it on Monday. I gave my Fundamental Principles of Game Design lecture to anybody in the company who wanted to come -- there was an audience of about 50. After that, 18 of their creative personnel did the three-hour version of the Fundamentals workshop. I deliberately chose some of the harder games to design, knowing that this was a group of experienced professionals -- and as I expected, they knocked some of them out of the park. Several teams took approaches that I had never seen before, and interestingly (for a company that designs monster 3D shooters) often chose to imagine their designs as small, web-based casual games rather than large AAA titles. Sten Huebler and Ernest Adams at Crytek

From there we went on to interactive storytelling. I gave them an introductory lecture just to establish a common vocabulary, and we spent the rest of the day discussing different design issues, seminar-style. The folks at Crytek are hoping to improve the stories in their shooter games, to make them richer and more emotionally meaningful. That's not always easy when your primary way of interacting with the world is at gunpoint. We spent a lot of time talking about the merits of predefined characters (e.g. Lara Croft), versus player-defined ones (e.g. MMOG avatars), versus completely neutral ones (e.g. Gordon Freeman), and which ones best manage to combine player freedom with emotional engagement. Someone made the interesting observation that the real hero of Half-Life 2 isn't Gordon Freeman, but Alex, the player's supposed sidekick. Because Gordon himself has no personality, the player identifies more with Alex and her goals than his own.

After the work day was over, we went out for a splendid dinner and a lot more shop talk. I had a great time and got a good insight into the way they work. I hope I get a chance to go back one of these days.