On Wednesday I headed over to Santa Monica to meet Robin Hunicke and Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany to just chat with them about their emotion based games and their experiences as women working in the game industry. I was really grateful that they were able to take time out to just talk with me. I didn’t record the conversation cause I didn’t want it to feel like a formal interview, just a casual chat. But I sort of wish I did cause there was just so much good stuff in there.
But I took some notes and when I got back I tried to download all the nuggets by writing out what I could recall. It’s not word for word exact or anything, and unfortunately I sort of forget who said what but I have several pages of notes.
These are just a few of the nuggets:
More co-operative games are starting to emerge from the edges lately, especially puzzle based games. Most digital “co-operative” games in the past have tended to be about conquering or taking turns, and there’s a lot of room to expand the realm of co-operative play. They both sort of agreed stylistically speaking, pixel art is sort of played out, while generative graphics are sort of in.
A lot of games still look the way they do because there still just aren’t very many artists who program (and vice versa). And traditional big studios physically separate those people, whereas in smaller studios like tgc people tend to wear multiple hats. Having that mix allows for a tighter collaboration.
The environmental context of virtual worlds really influences people’s behavior. Kellee equated them to restaurants, for instance you would never act the same at a fancy restaurant with a date as you would at McDonalds. So if you want to change behaviors you have to focus on the environments.
Low level generative systems can be a good way to foster emergent change in behavior. Robin brought up how, for instance, someone dropping papers suddenly creates this temporary environment for strangers to help and interact. When there is a shared problem it’s suddenly much easier to talk to other people. It’s these little changes in our life that make us human.
Technology always goes through some growing pains. Robin explained how new tech starts as a concept that people have to grasp, slowly becoming a tool, then adopted by a small user base before ultimately being embraced by a larger user base. At the early stages it’s so experimental and people are trying to solve just basic problems of the thing so it’s hard to really “edit” it. But once things are sort of established and embraced it opens up and becomes very editable.
Designing a game that was artistic in the early days was just a whole step away from just trying to figure out the basic mechanics. Games went through this transition in the 90′s where it use to just be viewed as a kid’s toy and people started to realize it could be for adults too. But generally during the early stages the games weren’t really that good because people were so focused on what it could do.
The early games are very much a product of the people who were making them. And a lot of the people making them were into heavily rule based games and trying to beat computers to make them feel smarter. Very few were concerned with collaboration.
Some of the most interesting games come from outsiders with different perspectives. People who are approaching it with a different set of values and interests help add to the complexity. Kellee mentioned a lot of the most innovative games lately have come from companies with women in leadership positions.
Games are like the early film industry, and there was this idea of the auteur and this sort of alpha male culture. Games were sort of part of this subculture of alpha male types. Kellee says now that things are opening up for a wider range of audiences it’s not just including more women, but also other men who maybe didn’t fit into that alpha male type either.
It’s sometimes still hard to be taken seriously as a woman in the industry. Many people still tend to be unprofessional in the way they interact with women at industry events. It’s especially hard for young women who are trying to network while having to turn down unwanted advances. They proposed a little reminder card to give out at these events that say something along the lines of: “Did you ask her about the game she’s working on or her interests before offering to buy her a drink or telling her how cute she is?”
Afterwards they let me play test the new game they’re working on, Journey, which was really awesome.
Went to Indiecade today. I sort of totally forgot it was happening until this morning. There were lots of interesting indie games there including a card game about applying to college. I talked to one of the game designers while playing for a little bit. He said the game had been very well received by both high school counselors and students. I asked about the impact the game had on students real life application process and I guess he said it made them think about it differently. I wonder how much of a difference the game actually makes to the high schoolers but it’s still interesting. Lots of just lovely looking games too.
I think the most interesting part was the talk/workshop by Mary Flanagan called Values At Play. I feel like this values centric design process is exactly what I’m trying to get at with things like the serial entrepreneur game. I like the notion of “Critical Play” and setting values goals as part of the design process. I find that many of my values align with the VAP toolkit pretty well. Although I would say Privacy is pretty low on my list of values personally, maybe because I’m an over-sharing online kind of person.
We also played a meta game called grow a game, which is basically a card game about game design. It is also closely related to the Serial Entrepreneur game. We have been talking about taking off the screen and into the card world for several reasons. One is that we like the idea of using actual business cards (or at least the format of them). I also like that it can become more multi player and more complex as a table top game. The other idea was a massively multiplayer real life game where you would be gathering cards from real people around the city. I think there’s lots of interesting ways to go with the general idea of generative start up creation.
I have been playing around with claymation as a material for both the 3D modeling and interfaces as well. Partially because I am really not very good with “proper” 3D modeling. And also because I have always loved claymation. I figure I should leverage the things I’m actually good at. Plus I feel like no matter how well rendered 3D is, there is always something very raw and expressive about clay. And it’s more real. These are the kind of things I grew up loving:
But now we have things like this:
(This took me less than 5 minutes to make with Xtranormal)
And all that machinima shit that got really popular a few years ago:
(MTV2 apparently had a whole series of these music video mods)
I think there’s definitely some digital nostalgia for these low-fi cg videos. And similar nostalgia for 8-bit style stuff lately. Maybe I’m just nostalgic about non-CG animation. I feel like the tools are there for clay to come back. The only problem is that the people who are into claymation do not seem to generally overlap with the people who are into making digital tools.
I’m thinking I would love to make a generative claymation animator or movie maker. Initially I was thinking just within the streetview interface. But I feel like even beyond that it would be great as its own thing. Obviously companies like Xtranormal stick to the CG stuff cause it’s a lot faster and easier to produce more of these things and it scales well. But with tools like Dragon, stop motion is significantly faster and more accessible than it has been in the past. I have seen some people play with code & clay a little bit but not very much. I feel like there is something there.
Also this quote from Paul Graham’s book Hackers & Painters (which I just finished reading the other day) makes me feel like I should pursue it just because it’s harder:
Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim of your company, but also at decision points along the way. At Viaweb one of our rules of thumb was run upstairs. Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him.
What this meant in practice was that we deliberately sought hard problems. If there were two features we could add to our software, both equally valuable in proportion to their difficulty, we’d always take the harder one. Not just because it was more valuable, but because it was harder. We delighted in forcing bigger, slower competitors to follow us over difficult ground. Like guerillas, startups prefer the difficult terrain of the mountains, where the troops of the central government can’t follow.
I like the idea that as an individual I have more leverage to work on things that are not terribly efficient, but in the end perhaps more interesting to me. I also think it’s interesting because I had initially bought this domain last year thinking I would use it to sell stock hand-made stop motion assets, which is actually kind of related still. Creating that stuff is labor intensive but what if I those things were usable assets for many people?
I love this quote from Keita Takahashi, who made Katamari Damacy but has since left games for playground design (my bolding):
When making videogames, I’ve tried to develop them in such a way so they may be enjoyed by anyone. Also, I believe that things other than what’s usually considered the game, such as a settings/options screen, can be a part of play. Gameplay isn’t just inside the game; everything is the game. Everything should be part of the fun. With this approach in mind, a playground wasn’t something for children only—I want to make something they can enjoy together with their parents as well. That skill, or rather, attitude, is definitely there.
I remember watching this video last year, but re-watching it again just now it’s clear how super relevant it is to the stuff I’m thinking about. Lots of great little insights in this, particularly about our emerging hunger for reality. Jessie is also a very animated presenter and it’s full of funny little things. And I think this pic is awesome. I don’t know who to attribute it to aside from The Internet:
We went to Crash Space for a class on making 3D games with Valve’s Source SDK. I didn’t realize the SDK was only available on the PC side so I spent a good part of the time downloading Half-Life 2 and the SDK for VMware while watching him go through how to get things done. By the end I was able to make a room and texture it and be able to walk around in it. It’s kind of fun but a little too much for what I want to do I think. But the part that I thought was super valuable was talking about other platforms for 3D game making, which I spent today researching/playing. Here’s an overview of the various engines I’ve messed with this weekend, from Lo-Fi to Hi-fi
8-bit style block based ‘sandbox’ game. You have different elements and things you can put together in various ways. Also some 8 bit monsters you have to avoid when it gets dark out. Apparently the game already has a huge following (3 million downloads) despite the fact that it’s still in Beta. I sort of like it but of course it’s pretty limiting. Not sure if it would be useful for my purposes yet. I think I like the idea of it more than the actual game..
Second Life (free)
I have never really been interested in Second Life, but I figured I should at least give it a go to see why not. For some reason it’s just always been terribly uninteresting to me. Maybe because even though you CAN make stuff it seems like its main purpose is more about going to various worlds and hanging out with random people. Just a glorified 3D chat room. I also realized I just think it’s horribly ugly, like the old MySpace of 3D worlds, which I guess has some charm. But I dunno, not into it.
Valve Source SDK & Hammer Editor (as little as $8 for one Valve game)
What I was originally going to the class for. Super powerful stuff if you want to get into the nitty gritty of making your own maps and things. But it’s PC only and the editor is like working in CAD. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff to tweak parameter wise. In order to test it you have to “Run Map” which loads up in Half-Life 2.
Garry’s Mod ($10 + a Valve game)
Garry’s Mod is the most exciting ‘sandbox’ game to me. It’s built off of Valve’s Source SDK so it works with the other Valve game assets if you bought the original games (Half-Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress came with my pack). But there’s not actually any goals or missions or anything in the game. You just make stuff (and of course destroy stuff if you want).
Unlike other editors there is no separate “editor” view. Everything just gets spawned into the game realtime, resulting in a very bottom-up vs. top-down view of things. So if you’re placing things you have to walk around and see where it’s going to go. It’s not exactly like building in real life (you’re using a big physics gun to position and rotate huge things after all) but it gives more of a user-centered kind of view. The rendering engine is also super powerful so things look pretty nice, and objects have physics built in already. Although sometimes I don’t understand the wonky physics. I was just trying to put some cars on the road and I kept accidentally throwing them across the way, which is only funny the first few times. I spent about 3 hours off an on messing with this today. Mostly just trying to figure out how everything worked. I had couches hanging from ropes on water towers and cars piled up and random houses and just a bunch of stuff. Favorite thing is probably the BBC radio which is just a little radio prop that streams live music from BBC. (It’d be cool to get a KEXP radio up in there too). The above screenshot is my little sculpture/playground installation : ) I like the idea of using it as a tool to prototype big interactive architecture installations.
Another really interesting thing is that you can also script things for it using Lua, which looks pretty simple. Also exciting are things like this Kinect + Gmod video example.
Unity 3D (free–till you want a commercial licene for a game)
I’ve heard Unity 3D come up several times in conversations. It’s obviously SUPER powerful and capable of making a wide range of games from the looks of their demo reel. And one of the guys at the workshop says they use it at work all the time to make marketing games for various movies and things. Still has a somewhat typical 3D editor view but also has a tab for the game view so you can test it out while in the editor. The above game is a free demo that come with it. Super nice graphics. And runs natively on the Mac. I think if I wanted to get more serious about building 3D games I’d dive into it more, but for now it seems a little bit over kill for my needs.
Garry’s mod definitely wins for me.. at least for now. Unfortunately no matter what 3D first-person game I play I get physically queazy after I play them too long. There is something about the crazy control views and things that messes with my equilibrium where I seriously feel like throwing up after playing too much. Jeremy wonders if taking Dramamine would make it better. It seems like it’d be weird to take a drug to not feel sick while playing a game, though kind of interesting. But this is one of the many reasons I prefer side scrolling games. (Another downside is I think I may have inadvertently gotten Angelo hooked to Half-Life 2 now.)
The weird thing is I’m not actually even that much of a gamer, though having played when I was younger I certainly have an appreciation for them. I don’t want to make some machinima movies or anything either though. I think the most fascinating part is the weird mash up of 3rd party content in gmod, where people are just creating their own assets to share. For instance there are tons of Minecraft assets you can add. Or there was a map that was made to look like an old school NES Mario Kart track where you could race with the Half-Life 2 jeep.
I’m mainly interested in these engines as tools for creating interactive prototypes for other things, especially larger scale architectural things.