Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Babycastles Summit: Making Things No One Asked For In the Games Industry

Joe Kowalski, of Harmonix and Double Fine, gave a presentation about taking initiative in your work and finding success.
  • Joe is an UI graphic designer who started in the game industry in 2004. He draws a clear distinction between a game designer and a graphic designer. The first thinks about systems, the second thinks about visual communication.
  • In the old days, arcade cabinets were very clear and all buttons were labeled. In the console era, the controllers are abstracted from the games and there are way more buttons.
  • "More complicated interactions demand better instruction."
  • He showed a mock example of how Super Mario Bros. would be with a first-user tutorial, complete with popups for every new action. It seemed really ridiculous compared to the simplicity of the original game. A great interface is one that is not noticed at all.
  • "Your favorite things are things you take upon yourself to make."
  • "It's okay to make up things as you go along."
  • He first worked at Irrational Games, then moved to Harmonix. At that time, they were starting production on the first Guitar Hero. The first two buttons were deliberately green and red. It's where the primary fingers rest and those buttons double as Yes and No. All menus were vertical because you can only strum up and down.
  • UI is never mentioned in game reviews.
  • Joe wanted to talk about three experiences where he took initiative on tasks that nobody asked him to do and the lessons he learned from them.
    1. Guitar Hero logo
      • During production of Guitar Hero, he asked if anyone would make a logo. The team said that the publisher usually provides that.
      • He spent a weekend and made a logo himself. He showed it to his boss whose only comment was to "add a bevel." He updated the logo with the bevel and shortly after, it became the official Guitar Hero logo.
      • He took it upon himself to make the logo. He was the new guy at the office at that time and nobody would have came to him to design the front-facing image of the entire franchise.
      • "If you see a problem you want to tackle, tackle it before anyone is paying attention."
      • In a similar story, a designer at Microsoft named Vincent Connare saw a beta version of Microsoft Bob where the characters were using Times New Roman font in their speech bubbles. So he created a new font called Comic Sans. Be careful about taking initiative because you'll live with it the rest of your life.
      • Harmonix later had to design the Rockband logo. The requirements were to make it more emblematic of rock than Guitar Hero and look different from Guitar Hero.
      • The Guitar Hero logo was reworked for a mobile version of the game. The designers described the rework as "idiosyncratic with a vengeance!"
    2. Rockapocalypse pitch
      • "A looming problem in need of a solution is an opportunity."
      • The implied narrative of Guitar Hero was flimsy. During the pre-production of Guitar Hero 3, Joe took the opportunity to design a narrative for the game by mocking up a trailer.
      • In this post-apocalyptic world, rock is dead and guitars are outlawed. The people in power built a giant gun and blew up the moon. Some people in the underground hold onto their guitars, waiting for the day for a hero to rise up. A true guitar hero would wield his mighty weapon and fight for the oppressed.
      • The team was really excited about the trailer, but ultimately, the Rockapocalypse story didn't happen. Months later, Joe's boss showed him a magazine with an article about Brutal Legend. He said, "This kind of reminds me of your pitch." A few weeks later, Joe went to work for Double Fine.
      • Brutal Legend was steeped in heavy metal mythology. For the in-game menus, Joe designed a journal based on a notebook a roadie would carry.
      • "When looking for inspiration, look at obvious things, but also the things that inspired them."
    3. Brutal Legends menu
      • Joe pitched a crazy idea. What if the main menu of the game was this elaborate view of an album? The idea got the greenlight from Tim Schafer. That was great! But now he had to make it...
      • During development, there were many problems with the menu. Navigating was slow, you can only do one selection at a time, it was not apparent what selections there would be if there were there at all, etc.
      • The team suggested a lot of solutions, for example, adding text on the side or above the album to show the selections on the other pages.
      • When you work on something so closely, you start to lose perspective.
      • Joe himself suggested a cheat sheet that shows up the first time you play the game, teaching you how to navigate the menu. When he showed the idea to Tim, Tim said, "Man, that's like a big apology for our awesome menu."
      • Joe looked at Saul Bass for inspiration. In the early days of film, opening credits were completely throwaway and projectionists would start the film from when the credits ended. Saul, however, created interesting animations during these title sequences. This was so revolutionary at the time that his films were shipped with instructions to the projectionist to tell them to start projecting from the start. Saul saw these opening sequences as a way to create emotional resonance with the audience.
      • "People get nervous when they're faced with anything other than straightforward design."
      • But people will forgive shortcomings if you lead them with positive emotions.
      • "It's okay to sacrifice usability for personality, especially if it's a goddamn game."
      • "Design for your audience, but find areas where you can design for yourself."
  • Joe is now working on his own independent game called The Third Rail. It is an iOS game about subway trains. It was an interesting challenge to design the UI for a game about complicated subway paths, but "it's okay to make thinks up as you go along."
  • Brutal Legend's main menu got in about a month before the game shipped, so it didn't get user-tested as much as it should have been.
  • Joe has had many things rejected or needed rework.
  • Joe has gone from big studios to independent development. He can be more risky in a big project because there are more eyes looking at his work. On a small project, he has to be more careful because every little risk can have huge consequences.
  • He filmed the Brutal Legend main menu with Jack Black in about 90 minutes. Some things that took about 7 minutes to film took him about 7 hours later in post-production.
  • Brutal Legend's main menu worked because the core audience has already paid their money for the game and was already signed up for the experience. You have to be careful with free-to-play, casual games because players can easily drop off if they're bored in the first minute.
  • Amped 3 is his favorite UI design with all its different elements (ie. paper cutouts).
  • Double Fine uses ScaleForm for its UI. Harmonix had their own proprietary software.
  • Joe mostly uses Photoshop and Illustrator for his work, sometimes Flash for some animation, and After Effects for animation mock-ups but not for production.