Last year was my first GDC. The conference comes again in March, and I couldn't be more excited about it, honestly. The sessions, keynotes, and Game Developer's Choice Awards were all outstanding and tend to make one terribly excited to be working in games. As I was telling a colleague, GDC has given me that sense of anticipation I used to get as a kid waiting for Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

It goes without saying that I'll be there for Miyamoto's Keynote, and the GDC Awards. Phil Harrison's thing, I dunno, probably not. I got my fill of his shitty infomercial company line at last year's Keynote. Why does this guy get to Keynote two years in a row?

I'm also planning to take the whole week off and attend...

(305) Game Design Workshop Marc LeBlanc
Monday, 10:00am - 6:00pm
— Tuesday, 10:00am - 6:00pm
Game Design/
Two-Day Tutorial
Overview: This intensive 2-day workshop will explore the day-to-day craft of game design through hands-on activities, group discussion, analysis and critique. Attendees will immerse themselves the iterative process of refining a game design, and discover formal abstract design tools that will help them think more clearly about their designs and make better games.

I've heard from a number of people that the workshop can be really fun, not to mention enriching in how one thinks about game design. LeBlanc has pioneered some of the biggest "Big Ideas" in design philosophy since his stint at Looking Glass, and I think it'd be fascinating to have two full days of intensive work study with him and my fellow attendees.

Let's take a look at some of the other sessions that have grabbed my attention:

Chaos vs Control: Creating Gameplay From Crowd Behavior in Assassin's Creed Jade Raymond
Matt Mazerolle
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Crowd Gameplay is one of the big promises of Next Gen consoles. Having seen the consoles of the future, we thought "Bigger, Faster, Stronger!", "More Polygons, More AI, More Physics!!", "More Enemies, More People, Real CROWDS!!!". Bigger can be better, but it rarely brings anything new to the player experience. This talk explores how the Assassin's Creed team hit upon the interesting conclusion that lots of people on screen does NOT equal crowd gameplay.

I think that fully-realized, engaging NPC crowds are going to be one of the big leaps from this to the next evolution of games, not to mention that I'm psyched for anything related to Assassin's Creed.

Creating and Extending Original Franchises Samantha Ryan
Matt Allen
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Hear hard-won lessons from Monolith's CEO and lead artists on creating and extending these original franchises from inception through sequels across multiple platforms.

I love studios that bank on their own original IP, and the Lith maybe most of all. Sign me up.

Designing GEARS OF WAR: Iteration Wins Cliff Bleszinski
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Cliff Bleszinski, designer of GEARS OF WAR, outlines the design processes that yielded GEARS OF WAR. He takes the various features that worked in the product and breaks them down, step by step, describing how the collaborative and iterative process made them shine.

Designing Games for Everyone: Harmonix Design in Practice Tracy Rosenthal-Newsom
Rob Kay
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Why does Harmonix design accessible games? Because we want everyone to have fun! It's often said games should be "easy to pick up and hard to master", but that's easier said than done. In this talk we share our design insights, best practices and production experiences (both good and bad!) to illuminate the craft of accessible game design.

These both sound like excellent design overviews/postmortems from a couple of wildly divergent but highly successful developers. One is a breakdown of how the most successful recent "core gamer's" game was designed, and the other how the breakthrough mass-appeal title Guitar Hero came to be. Tell me all about it.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions Jonathan Blow
TBDGame Design/
2-Hour Panel
Overview: A collection of short presentations showing new and experimental game designs.

This is a big one-- a showcase for recent, usually small-scale experimental game design hosted by Jonathan Blow, whose time-bending Braid brought the house down last year.

Exploration: From Systems to Spaces to Self Clint Hocking
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Whether we are exploring a system-space or a simulated two or three dimensional space, every game is in some way an exploration game. This presentation examines exploration in games, and how designers can better utilize our human compulsions to explore in order to offer players a more meaningful experience.

Clint Hocking is always a fascinating thinker and speaker. He's heavily into the MDA thing and the whole emergent/Looking Glass philosophy, which should come into full practice now that he's broken the bonds of Splinter Cell. I wish his talks could go on for longer than an hour.

Game Design in Agile Development Rory McGuire
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: In the leap to next-generation, traditional development methods are starting to show their seams. Larger technical complexities are giving designers shorter periods to find the fun and polish game play. This session covers Agile and Scrum methods, focusing on how their fundamentals benefit designers in the next generation development environment.

Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light Tim Willits
Deborah Todd
Matt Costello
Chris Charla
TBDGame Design/
2-Hour Panel
Overview: A fast-paced and hands-on audience participation experience in game design from the blue sky process though character development, story wraps, puzzle design, level development, and ultimate greenlighting. Come ready to play, think, and be challenged!

Two sessions addressing two cutting edge approaches to design, iteration, and production flow. Maybe they'll be a little dry or over my head, but I'd love to be up on the newest approaches to next-gen studio game making.

Innovations in Fable 2 Peter Molyneux
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: When attempting to create a sequel the temptation is to add more of everything but is this enough? Lionhead Studios ambition for Fable 2 is to create a sequel which is truly a land mark title and to achieve this there must be evolution and revolution. This talk will centre around revolutions in Fable 2. This talk will examine how key game play elements have been refined and expanded. It will also look at what inspiration was drawn for the original game and what lessons were learnt from Fable. The processes used to arrive at these design decisions can be applied to a broad spectrum of genres and so are relevant to a large sector of the development community.

Plus Peter Molyneux has promised to reveal a totally unexpected feature in Fable 2.

Molyneux is generally full of shit and ditched out on his session last year, so hitting up this presentation should be good for gossip-making at least.

Interactive Cinematography Thiery Adam
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Film has developed a set of camera rules and influences that have become the language of cinematography. For some reason, its wealth is largely unapplied to the camera in video games. This lecture is about learning from other mediums and figuring out how to go beyond with interactivity's possibilities.

Active camera control is so much more important to the player's perception of a game than most people give it credit for. The incredibly dynamic camera in God of War, Gears of War or Resident Evil 4 are great examples of an effective, active in-game camera. I'd like to see what this guy has to say.

Narrative Landscapes: Shaping Player Experience through World Geometry Brian Upton
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: When a player moves through a game world the physical geometry of the virtual space imposes an implicit structure on the play experience. This session explores practical level design techniques for shaping that experience, drawing on examples from real games and theme parks as well as academic research in virtual environments and city planning.

Directly tailoring the player's experience through space design? Yes please.

Reflections of Zelda Eiji Aonuma
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Aonuma explains the development team's formidable task of progressing the epic franchise across multiple generations of Nintendo systems. This is a rare opportunity to learn behind-the-scenes development challenges and triumphs from Link's latest installments.

Zelda... Seeee-crets! Sounds like fun if there's nothing else going on in this slot.

Punk's Not Dead Goichi Suda
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: Creating successful games from original IP

Grasshopper is not a big company, and each member of our staff has something important to contribute to the games we make. Just like in a band, if the one of the members leaves, the product and the team is forever changed.

Game creators should be faithful to their vision and instincts, if original games are what interest them. The players in turn will respond favorably to this originality, as there's an innate desire to experience something new. There is severe stagnation in terms of game design these days however, as creators are afraid of taking risks. This talk will discuss our production style at Grasshopper, which is rooted in appreciation of our native Japanese culture and aesthetic. This is how I worked as director, game designer, and scenario writer for Killer7 and the upcoming title, No More Heroes.

I love, love, love Suda51's crazy ass. If you think I'm missing him in person you've got another thing coming.

SPORE's Magic Crayons Chaim Gingold
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: This lecture discusses the appeal, challenges, and techniques used in the design of games with a strong player creativity component. Many programs will be compared and analyzed, but specific emphasis is placed on the design and methodology used in the development of SPORE's editors.

Spore session. Pretty much a given.

The Future of Storytelling In Next-Generation Game Development Warren Spector
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: A follow-up to the session, "What Would Aristotle Do?" presented at GDC 2004, Spector looks at recent developments in game narrative and what the power of next gen hardware allows developers to do - and players to experience - that may not have been possible before. What's the current state of the art in game narrative? Where will progress be made? Where must progress be made? Are the challenges facing interactive storytellers technical, creative, or simply a matter of will? A partly philosophical, partly practical, partly ranty talk about games and stories, past, present, and future.

Warren Spector musing about the state of the art in game-driven narrative? I'm not missing this one.

The Imago Effect: Avatar Psychology Harvey Smith
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: The Imago Effect: Avatar Psychology Creating an in-game representation often holds a strange fascination for players; for some games, we spend more time crafting our avatars than we do playing. On the surface, character creation seems simple. This session explores the notion that there's much more going on in the player's mind, taking a look into the ways we let our audience engage in self-express through avatar.

Avatar creation and customization is one of my favorite feature of any given game in practically any genre. Being able to fully customize my own avatar in the upcoming Mass Effect sold me on that game about twice as hard as I would've been otherwise. I don't know if I can ever forgive Harvey Smith for Deus Ex 2, but I'm into this subject and he seems like a smart guy.

The Game Design Challenge: The Needle and Thread Interface Eric Zimmerman
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Panel
Overview: The Game Design Challenge is back for another year, with three talented designers tackling a very unusual design problem. Their assignment? Design a game with a highly unorthodox input device: a square of fabric, a needle, and some thread. At the session, each panelist will present a unique solution to this game design enigma, and the audience plays an important role as well � by voting in the winner of the Game Design Challenge 2006.

The Metagame: A Battle of Videogame Smarts Frank Lantz
Eric Zimmerman
Warren Spector
Marc LeBlanc
Jesper Juul
Clint Hocking
Jonathan Blow
Tracy Fullerton
60-minute Panel
Overview: The Metagame combines a gameshow format with strategic competition and lively debate. Inspired by Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, in the Metagame six videogame sages compete in a battle of aesthetic analysis and critical connections.

Here are a couple of frivolous, fun sessions run by the insufferable Eric Zimmerman. But everybody likes seeing design superstars playing little games. I'll be there.

Writing Great Design Documents Damion Schubert
TBDGame Design/
60-minute Lecture
Overview: A brilliant design idea is worthless if you cannot communicate it to your teammates and publishers. This roundtable discusses strategies to improving your documentation style and processes to improve inter-team communication, reduce rework, and ensure that great designs get executed well.

Sounds useful.

Censorship of Video Game Content: Time to Fight Back Lawrence G. Walters
60-minute Lecture
Overview: The intent of this lecture is to educate the attendees regarding the current legal climate associated with video game content laws, and evaluate some potential future trends.

Who's the Real Bully?: Rights and Responsibilities in the Anti-Game Debate
Daniel Greenberg
60-minute Roundtable
Overview: Beating up on the games industry is easy and grandstanding carries little political price. Defending any new media is very difficult. What can developers do? What are our rights, what are our responsibilities, and what are our choices in defending ourselves and protecting our work?

A couple of sessions about the current state of games, regulation, censorship, and freedom of speech. Zeitgeisty!

Preserving Games: Saving the Past and Setting Safeguards for Today
Henry Lowood
60-minute Roundtable
Overview: This roundtable meets twice. The first meeting emphasizes preserving digital games of the past, many of which are rapidly becoming endangered. The second shades towards organizing an archiving strategy for games produced today.

I've started to think about historical game archiving and game culture heritage preservation. I'd hate to see so many games of today and yesterday go the way of the thousands of films that have been lost to history through neglect. Games have the advantage in that they're non-physical in their essence so there's no flimsy film to dry out or burn up. This seems like an interesting topic to explore.

Game Criticism: Opportunities and Approaches (Day One) Ian Bogost
60-minute Roundtable
Overview: What contributions can criticism offer to the medium of videogames? What unique opportunities exist in different critical media, for example, blogs, traditional journalism, and academic criticism? What techniques are most useful for such critics? What are the good and bad examples of game criticism that already exist, and how can we learn from them?

Games are just now developing their own critical approaches and language. As representative of an arm of critical thought still in its gestation period, I'd look forward to what these guys have to say.

Ten Games You Need to Play: The Digital Game Canon Henry Lowood
Steve Meretzky
Warren Spector
Matteo Bittanti
Christopher Grant
60-minute Panel
Overview: This panel mixes up game designers, researchers, and journalists -- all players, too -- to answer this question. And expect to hear an appeal or two about the need to solve the problem of long-term preservation of these games as part of our cultural heritage . . . before they disappear forever.

Game design icons discussing what they'd term as the most significant games of all time. Sounds like fun.

Looks like the space under my Christmas tree is overflowing! Hope to see you there.




I've been thinking about my own self-induced stress lately. Here are the factors:

  1. I work in QA
  2. I am eager to begin working in a design role
The problem is how that's to happen, and the timeframe. There are a lot of possible paths-- I make maps, I apply as a level designer at a studio, I get a level design job; I continue working in QA, I put myself forward internally as a junior designer, I'm moved into that department; or I'm referred by someone I know in the industry and am approached for a design position by a lead at a studio. In any case, I know that all I can do in the meantime is work on my level design portfolio, maintain my contacts, and do the best possible work at my day job. That's all I can do, and I'm trying to do it. But it's not coming soon enough for me.

Am I too impatient? Am I too hard on myself? Or am I too lazy? I feel like I don't spend enough time at home working on my mapping. But I don't have a good metric for that. How many hours per day did other level designers put into their maps and mods before they went pro? How many months or years? Do I spend too much time reading and posting about games online, or playing games? Or do I not spend enough time with my girlfriend, or reading, or traveling? I'm trying to find a balance, but I admit that I'm impatient regardless. I want to be where I want to be and I want it now. I don't know if I should expect myself to be making quicker progress on my work, but I do. So I'm sort of stressing myself out. I'll be happy when my night job turns into my day job, and I can actually enjoy myself when I'm not working. I'm looking forward to it.

Another short-term factor I've noticed in my own dissatisfaction is when I reach a point in the mapmaking where I'm not sure exactly how to proceed. I think part of learning level design is figuring out an effective workflow, recognizing exactly which aspects of the map need to be completed in what order, and being prepared to tackle them when the time comes. I'm facing some aspects of this map that I haven't had to deal with yet-- specifically, meeting a friendly NPC in person for an expository scene-- which I still need to figure out how to set up and script, not to mention writing the actual dialogue to be spoken, and recording it, and putting it into the game. I've gotten to the point though that I know my next step is to write the dialiogue, at which point I can lay out the sequence of the NPC delivering it, script it in, and then move onto the next scene. In general, I'm much more comfortable when I know exactly what work I need to do, and just have yet to do it, than when I'm uncertain about how to proceed. I think that's really true of myself in any regard; I thrive on certainty, knowing what goals I have to complete, and completing them. This probably figures heavily into why I'm drawn to games, and specifically the ones I am.

Here are some progress shots of the living quarters where you meet the aforementioned NPC:

"Sup bro"

A comfortable seating area, with dining table in the background (the two of each seat will become significant.)

Another outstanding bathroom set that I'm slowly becoming famous for.

Someday hopefully I'll learn to slow down and chill out.




Welcome to the first scripted sequences of BENEATH pt. 2!

Some dastardly ghosts swarm you:But that's just a trick.

Then, a Heavy and his cronies burst through this door! The Heavy easily tosses over this huge reception desk, scattering junk everywhere:Then you fight the dudes!

Next I'll either be scripting the NPC conversation sequence, or the next fight sequence... I also need to convert that overhead bridge seen in the last shot into a working retractable walkway.

More to come!




So far, I've built the entire shell of BENEATH pt. 2, and laid in the gameplay-relevant set decoration objects. Here's a general overview:

From a viewability standpoint things are still pretty dicey what with the fullbright and the stock texture, but the player's path is something like this:

Green star being the start point. I've learned a lot from making BENEATH pt. 1 and observing how levels are designed in retail games, and I'm happier with the layout and flow of Pt. 2. I was pretty happy with the beginning and end of pt. 1, in that they were pretty open and non-linear, but the central section-- the meat of the fighting-- was really cramped, and basically sent the player in a more-or-less straight line through a bunch of little rooms and little hallways. Also the fights often "felt like [the player] was fighting from a doorway," in that you were confronted with enemies as you set foot in a room, and basically had to stick to the front door for cover until they were dead. So, even though I personally really enjoy close-quarters tunnel fights, I think that more open environments with more cover and flanking opportunities play to F.E.A.R.'s strengths, so I've tried to give the fights as much room to breathe as possible.

For the bigger picture, I'm trying to unify the map as a whole by sending the player through various parts of it in multiple ways and making later parts of the space visible from the very beginning. Also building out ancillary areas along hallways and side rooms that aren't actually playable, to give the player a sense that the space is more of a "real place" that expands beyond the playable path, and exists as a complete entity (labs you can see through windows but can't enter, doors blocked off by debris, etc.) So that's the basis of my layout philosophy this time.

Here's the first arena you'll meet hostiles in:
It's a barracks area, with dividers between individual bunks (more playable space to the left and right, not pictured) and a split-level ceiling. There are no dead ends, giving both the player and enemies plenty of chances to hit cover and flank. It's a straight shot from one end to the other without stopping, except a heavy is going to burst those double doors and block the way until he's killed off.
One section of the map is a non-combat living quarters area where you speak with an NPC. This is the panoramic overlook from the quarters, where the player can look back down to the starting spawn, further down to the lowest level, or up to the roofs, to reorient themselves. Makes for good scenery for a semi-interactive sequence.

Stairs leading down from the "rooftops" (indoor rooftops) to an interior area, that the player must pass through to proceed. Alice is there for scale reference.

My first vent-crawling sequence! I think it'll be a pretty nice one, not stupid and drawn out. There's going to a scripted Alma appearance in here too, but not the scary stuff. Alma in BENEATH isn't a malevolent force.. hopefully her role will be clear by the end of pt. 2.

The server core-- the heart of the facility. It holds all the answers to what lies beneath.

Weirdly I already don't feel like I have THAT much more to do on the map. Logically, I know I do: triggered event scripting (which there's more of this time,) set dec, detailing the geometry, texturing, and enemy encounters. But somehow it doesn't seem especially daunting. I think I just have a better foundation this time.

More to come soon!



Blog comments: ENABLE!

If you're reading this, feel free to drop a comment. I've only been taking e-mail feedback up til now, and I've gotten some good ones.. but I figure no reason to keep he comment system turned off. If I don't like it, I can always go back to the old way.

I'm also going to put up the first development shots of BENEATH pt. 2 today. Figure I've been working on it for a little while now, I ought to start documenting it.




The holiday break is over, and I'm back from visiting my family and old friends in Florida.

When we were over at a friend's apartment, Zuma was up on the 360. I'd never played it before, and most everyone gave it a try. It's a PopCap game in strict puzzler mode: a line of multi-colored balls is rolling down a winding ravine, and the player must shoot more balls into the line to make like-colored connect-threes, destroying the group. The goal is time-based, to slow the approach of the line of balls, thus preventing them from reaching the endpoint of the ravine which results in a game over. Eventually the player destroys all the balls on the screen, passing the level and moving on to the next. As a newbie just getting into the mechanics, I had fun, but clearly didn't grasp the more nuanced strategies that drive the game.

My friend Lara, on the other hand, is an expert at the game. She owns the registered version on her home computer, and has put dozens of hours into the 360 version. What interested me wasn't necessarily her ability to breeze through the early levels of the game, but the way she addressed the elements of the onscreen conflict. She'd adopted a set of terminology that personified the groups of balls, and inserted herself into the equation as the opposing force in the conflict between "her" and the "guys" (like-colored groups) onscreen. When she was trying to destroy a certain set of like-colored ball, she would address it in a combative fashion ("I'm going to kill that guy," "Fuck you/fuck that guy,") and when she would destroy a set of like-colored balls, she would say she'd "killed that guy." When she missed a shot, causing her to lose ground in the conflict, she'd make pained sounds ("ow," "ouch!") or say that the "guy" in question was "hurting" or "killing" her.

I found it funny, but also really fascinating. Here is a puzzle game, the most abstract, non-representational genre of video game. The only actors onscreen are generic colored balls, and a stone frog that dispenses more balls onto the field.* But my friend had, presumably unconsciously, found a way to personify and insert herself into the events depicted, despite the lack of evidence for the designers having any intention of implying a human conflict through the content of the game. I assume that Lara's interpretation built naturally over the dozens of hours she's put into the game, as a function of "seeing through" the game-- not having to concentrate on learning and tracking the game's mechanics, allowing one's unconscious to occupy itself with constructing unique strategies, or re-interpreting the events onscreen in new ways.

I also assume that, in such an abstract game with such a simple goalset, this reinterpretation is a necessary motivating factor to keep the player going past the point where the experience plateaus, and they've absorbed all the depth that the game has to offer. Lara reconfigured the events onscreen into something more visceral and immediate than "balls rolling down a ramp," mentally placing herself as an actor in a physical conflict against these hostile "guys," allowing her to extend the period in which she could remain engaged with the game.

"Seeing through the game" is something that occurs in high-level, usually competitive play, such as with one-on-one fighting games. One of the things I found interesting about Lara's interpretation of Zuma is how, in seeing through, she constructed an interpretation with no basis in the designer's demonstrable authorial intent. Authorial intent is a concept central to some arms of narrative criticism in the film and literature worlds, but not one I'd ever considered in relation to games. The player has free reign to mentally build his own interpretation of a game's theme, as Lara did, or to tangibly circumvent the designer's intent through play, by devising and executing his own objectives within the gameworld's mechanical constraints, but outside its designed progression behaviors.

Most games that I play are difficult to thematically reinterpret as they're generally quite complex, specific and concrete ("Sam Fisher is an NSA agent who must prevent terrorists from carrying out their plans by using covert actions.") But PopCap style games, highly abstracted and simple in concept, are a fascinating platform for player reinterpretation, an aspect of the genre I'd never considered until I went home to Florida for Christmas.

*the holes that the balls advance towards also feature skull-emblazoned hatches, but I wouldn't classify them as "actors."