Friday, December 6, 2013

Practice 2013: Well-Made: Back to Black Mesa

(by Robert Yang)
·         Writes about the art of FPS levels on his blog
·         Luigi was cut from Mario 64 because of hardware limitations and they needed it for more elaborate landforms.
·         Most of teaching game development is about teaching attitude. It’s not about being a great coder or artist, but being a great thinker, connector of fields, etc.
·         Half-Life = a new frontier in interactive drama, interactive storytelling, innovative deep amazing art, but Robert doesn’t really care about this. 95% of the game is about shooting things and jumping into small spaces.
·         The narrative in Half-Life is really an afterthought. The game was rebooted in 1997, a year before it released. Before the reboot, it was filled with a bunch of random levels. Valve still works like this and did the same thing with Portal.
·         Footnote: mythologizing crunch is gross. Valve crunched for 6 months before the game released, working 16 hour days. Two developers stayed up for 48 hours straight to get a feature in. We praise these developers as heroes, but we should not be encouraging crunch.
·         Half-Life’s Legacy = depth and diversity in environmental storytelling and scripted sequences, you just watched a bunch of people die in scripted sequence, and writings on the wall are not very subtle, the narrative was not subtle at all.
·         Half-Life was considered the Myst of video games, but really it’s just a Stephen King novel mixed with some Outer Limits
·         It’s not a debate about ludology vs. narratology. Half-life is 100% schlup.
·         How to love a game’s guts and you can too. Read through Half-Life’s source code, it’s beautiful poetry, Robert’s programming style is based a lot onHalf-Life’s code, the way he names variables and files, are curly braces on the same line or new line? is art center-aligned or top-left aligned? File structure is absolutely important.
·         Should the next-gen dumpster get two 1024x1024 flats? There’s a hundred decisions that goes into making one dumpster art. Fetishizing this process is gross, it’s amazing that we are even able to make games when we are faced with so many decisions.
·         Art history to games = AAA sandbox / open world = large sweeping pastorals even with post-apocalypse or urban setting, function and values are the same, awe and manifest destiny, the landscape is big and beautiful and it is yours, almost everything looks like Thomas Kinkade paintings.
·         Game development = code + asset + content + concept + design + workflow + politics = transcendence.
·         Black Mesa Inbound (the first level) and its legacy = work commute, nothing happens, slow foreshadowing, mindblowing, revolutionary, brave, there’s no shooting. In the beginning, you are on a tram and you just witness the facility going on. It’s also meant to be a tech demo (color lighting, character animations, size of the space, color palettes per texture).
·         func_tracktrains = have a platform, you lay out the path track, you have to manually drag them all out and tell each one which the next one was. The level was also made up of many different levels strung together (due to texture limitations).
·         The object ontology was by far the worst component. Half-Life had two sorts of objects, static brushes and dynamic entities, and you could not parent one object to another one.
·         Magic in motion = how did they glue a moving door to the moving train without parenting objects? When the train reaches the end of the track, it loads a new level, swapping out the old train with a new train.
·         Rachet & Clank – an online game that shipped without a patching mechanism, they sent an oversized EULA, you grab an EULA from the server which held important stuff and handler pointers, it exploited code executes and unpacked main code, this is how they patched the game.
·         There’s a set piece in Half-Life where you are attacked by a giant shark. The game didn’t have physics simulation, so the cage is actually a “train” using the func_tracktains.
·         Shark Cage behavior and scripting = the shark was named Ichthyosaur, added a trigger point to tell the shark to come eat you, has another sensor to tell the shark to not eat you (the level design made up for the lack of AI), the shark was technically a flying monster (by code inheritance), the shark moved based on node paths (simple pathfinding)
·         Valve’s design philosophy is that you should be able to see what is about to kill you, then see it kill you, and see it after it kills you. Team Fortress 2popularized the kill-cam.
·         Shark Cage health, damage, and tuning workflow = these variables were externalized to skill.cfg (a text file), but some things were also hardcoded like how long you can hold your breath underwater and the number of crossbow ammo you get. It’s a good idea to hardcode some stuff and softcode others. Underwater time is a good thing to hardcode because tons of puzzles probably are designed around it and it shouldn’t be changed so easily.
·         Smells are a type of sound. Monsters can smell your sounds.
·         Furniture in Half-Life is a type of monster, just so it can react to the player attacking it.
·         Well Made (instead of Well Played) = learn from the code of games.
·         “The technical” is relevant to everyone and you are wrong if you disagree and here is why = game development killed Luigi, game development affects game design so much
·         QGcon, a lot of children’s animations were hand-animated, they kept the cast small so they didn’t have to draw as much, created a lot of “loopy narratives.” Now with new technology, we have so many characters, wars, accumulation, instancing, mobs, etc.
·         Dead Island was a painfully mediocre zombie game. Looked at scripting files and one of the skill abilities was named “FeministWhore”, developer released a response where they said it was just a private joke for an obscure debug function, but this is a lie
·         “a computer language is not just a way of getting a computer to perform operations… programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.”
·         Pay a lot of attention to the things you’re making. Don’t be a jerk.
·         10 Print and Criminal Code: Procedural Logic and Rhetorical Excess in Videogames.
·         “Screen Essentialism” – there’s so much of a game that’s invisible on the screen
·         There are apolitical games that are actually not apolitical when you look at the code.
·         This is game development – cultural, political, social, technical, scientific, artistic, creative, diverse, relevant
·         Press Select
·         The tension between “crunch is terrible” and the horrible workflow of Half-Life being beautiful. Crunch usually happens because the producer didn’t do a good job. Do not hold people as heroes just because they can work late and long hours. This is also a concern for indies, and we should all be concerned about our work-life balance.
·         The finished water towers were really boring compared to the untextured surreal ones.
·         Code is so proprietary now. Robert is interested in open-sourced game code.
·         Well Made should be really great engine overviews.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Practice 2013: Understanding Players Panel

·         Davin Pavlas (Riot Games), Morgan Kennedy (Assassin’s Creed), Naomi Clark (GameLab, FreshPlanet, RebelMonkey)
(by Davin Pavlas)
·         Research at Riot Games, Senior User Researcher
·         Research as player focus, being player focused requires understanding players (we’re players too, but many kinds of players play our games). Research equips us to understand wants, needs, behaviors.
·         League of Legends – MOBA game with lots of players, competitive 5v5
·         Research definition = propose a model of the world and test that data without bias.
·         Actual definition = test design assumptions to ensure player experiences are positive and intentional.
·         Data-informed approach for design = informed but not driven (use knowledge and data alongside intuition, work with goals and assumptions, intended experiences), players are collaborators and not just data, research isn’t a gate for a box to check (integrated into the design process in an iterative fashion)
·         Interdisciplinary inquiry = telemetric data, modeling, surveys, community management
·         Case Study #1
o   Lucian the Demon Hunter with two guns (Equilibrium style). Sleek, speedy, serious ranged damage character with finesse gameplay.
o   Research flow = concept testing, 3 lab studies, release, post-launch
o   Concept test = simple read of concept art, survey & interview (fantasy, mood, personality, role, fit into the fiction), high appeal scores, good theme conveyance. People thought his two different colored guns meant something.
o   Lab test = moderated one-on-one with players, think aloud protocol, streamed and recorded for designers and team
o   Lab study #1 = felt like stiff movements, not what was promised by concept, movements felt like a turret, abilities didn’t fit player model of the concept art, visual theme compelling but his gameplay was problematic. Solution = remove stuff movements and confusing abilities.
o   Lab study #2 = aesthetics still a mixed bag, high base speed but players feel he’s still slow, ultimate was cool but frustrating to use.
o   Why does he feel slow?  Animations
o   Lab study #3 = he finally felt fast,  gameplay and aesthetics fit the concept, mix of animation and frame speed changes make Lucian feel fast, ultimate was easier to use.
o   Post-launch = fiction quality, theme quality, and default aesthetics were considered high. Visual quality was okay and gameplay quality was low.
o   Summary = difficult champion to get right, theme was very compelling but its mechanics needs to be matched with experience design
·         Case Study #2
o   Champion select screen is where many intense interactions happen. There’s very little time and little information to help make players make these tough decisions.
o   Champion select is not an effective setting for collaboration. Solution = remake champion select to be more collaborative and have intent-based queuing that does not set the meta-game.
o   Externalize all the assumptions and test them.
o   Research flow = concept testing, global testing, prototype testing, lab studies
o   Initial survey = random sample of 1000 NA/EU players, player preferences (each role has at least 15% favorite rate), feature disposition, composition reactions
o   Global testing = initial survey revealed lack of role terminology consensus (fighter, carry, tank)
o   Prototype testing = an idea with merit still needs to be executed correctly. Results = positive disposition, Captain vs. Solo experience, usability flow
o   Onboarding study = test with brand new players, Team Builder vs. Champion Select
o   Public beta testing = more testing with the player base
·         Summary = system and character testing are similar (test assumptions, validate and ensure intended experiences are being made)
(by Morgan Kennedy)
·         Understanding Players (Assassin’s Creed 4 Silhouette and Behavior Differentiation)
·         Was a manager at Gamestop before working at Ubisoft. Worked on Assassin’s Creed series, Ghost Recon, Michael Jackson Experience, Your Shape, and Just Dance 3.
·         Affordances in AC3 = a railing means that the player can free-run there.
·         Mental models = the idea starts in the players head, player learns things about your game each time they play them
·         Ship identification = players had problems telling the different ships apart, can usually tell the gunboat (smallest ship) and the man of war (biggest ship), but unable to tell the difference between the three middle-sized ships (Schooner, Frigate, Brig).
·         Perceived differences = small ships were faster and tended to flee, big ships were slower and more aggressive, the gunboat was the exception
·         Players identify ships = differences in behavior (speed, aggressive, size)
·         Ship archetypes should be optimized around familiar affordances (man of war kept its large size, made the medium long-ranged ship less aggressive so it was more differentiated with the other medium ship that was short-ranged)
(by Naomi Clark)
·         How Indies Playtest, enlisted over 20 indie developers about their playtesting process
·         “Playtest before you think you are ready. Is it too early for you to playtest? If the answer is yes, then playtest anyway.” – Eric Zimmerman
·         “Don’t playtest very early one.” – Dan Cook
·         Methodical time-slice testing = know your questions, know what your build is suppose to deliver, hit your targets
·         Doug Wilson doesn’t even like the word playtesting. Conventional playtesting was good for small UI tweaks, but not mechanics design. Get key suggestions from influential people.
·         Techniques = don’t talk while players are playing, ask players to think out loud, listen to what players say about problems they had and not the solutions they come up with, construct a heat map, do a more targeted demo (depending on the audience, tell them what to do instead of letting them go through the coded tutorial)
·         “Playtesting is for masochists.” You need thick skin, it’ll upset your expectations, let a day or two to let the ideas swim around in your head without thinking about them too consciously
·         Eric Zimmerman’s under-the-desk creative meditation
·         It’s very bad to show your game to other developers, they will tell you how to make the game instead, other devs can help you construct your own weak points, kid testing is great because they are honest and blunt, don’t necessarily listen to everything kids are saying
·         Maybe games aren’t meant to be played (lose/lose), or will never be played (Jason Rohrer’s A Game for Someone), or refused to be played (Train)
·         Lucian’s iterative design took about 3 weeks per cycle. Designer’s intention of the character can sometimes be quite different from player’s perception of the character.
·         Playtesting at Ubisoft is a different service, so testers are not considered game designers. They just provide a mirror of how players are playing the game. The Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag team is about 300 people, with 20 people being game designers. The testers write about 80 page book report every two weeks with lots of empirical data (telemetry data, player quotations and feedback).
·         “Data is fiction. Data cannot tell you anything. Only you checking your own assumptions and intuition will tell you something.” – Davin
·         The community from the internet is not representative of your full community. Everybody on the team engages with the community. You need to learn how to be qualitative with that data.
·         Adam Saltsman’s Grave has complete publicity and openness to the community.
·         Be wary of changing your entire design, which can happen if you listen to too much feedback.
·         Bad research is bad research, and it can come from anywhere.
·         The commonality between all designers is that playtesting is extremely useful for seeing how well your UI works. This is something that is not shared with films because films don’t need to test the viewer’s usage of the product.
·         There is more than just raw playability testing. Testing is useful for testing emotional resonance and connection that players have with the space and characters.
·         In Assassin’s Creed 4, players complained that they hated fog, but sailors hate fog.
·         Set is a game that Davin loves and cannot play because he is red-green color-blind. That is a game that wasn’t playtested enough.
·         It’s not about whether a course of action is correct, it’s about your goals and being able to meet them. Lucian was meant to be a very high skill ceiling char that is fast, and the playtesting and design choices should work towards that.
·         Tight-loop in game design when professional players become game designers of the game. There’s a natural progression at least in the triple A space for players to become its designers. You don’t need to be an expert to give data and insight, but you do if you want to be an effective collaborator.
·         David Sirlin’s games have a very developer-y like feeling to them.
·         People know they are compensated to test, but for League of Legends andAssassin’s Creed, the playtesters are so passionate and excited to test that the games that they give biased information.
·         What kind of affordances can you create with Team Builder to not dictate strategy? Team Builder decoupled roles and position, it focused on how players expressed themselves, not on how the character is meant to be played.
·         Riot uses a lot of designer intuition to make decisions so they come into failures a lot fewer times. Failures are usually not of testing and researching, but of interpretation of the data.
·         There are people who are very excited to use data to dictate decisions. We need stewards to guide the data and interpret them correctly.
·         Self-selection bias – compare to a random sample.
·         In Assassin’s Creed 4’s fiction, you are actually a game developer that’s making the simulation that you experience in the Caribbean. At the end of each mission, you will rate each level from 1 to 5, and it will actually be sent to Ubisoft. It’s gamified gamification.
·         Riot uses modeling to look at impact, temper risks, and find parts to sweat out and be agile about. You want to be able to knee-jerk and develop longitudinally.
·         Was Dark Souls playtested at all? It’s a beautiful disaster that makes you feel alone, afraid, and frustrated… so it clearly has been tested and achieved its goals. It has a very good tutorial too.
·         Riot has a whole team devoted to improving the community and encouraging positive behavior. Team Builder was made by that team. In general, the online player base is not very negative and the negative players that you see in games are not from trolls. Negative behaviors usually come from someone having a bad incident. This makes it easier for the developers because that’s a point where they can intervene and try to change for the better.
·         Testers are injected midway into the process and collaboratively co-design. It’s not a waterfall process.
·         Recommendations = Katherine Ibister’s book, Jakob Nielson’s Usability,Pedagogy of the Opressed

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Practice 2013: Creating a Nordic Style LARP

(by Cecilia Dolk & Martin Ericsson, Celestra LARP)
·         Martin has one Emmy win and nomination, and Cecilia has one Emmy nomination.
·         Created a LARP for Battlestar Galactica called the Monitor Celestra. Takes place in a real cold war destroyer.
·         Immersive live action role playing in the ragtag fleet of BSG. There were no actors in the game.
·         It was a massive undertaking. Different forms of culture all acting together.
·         Participatory Culture book. “Who controls the production of cultural stimuli?”
·         Audience culture = We perceive culture as a single author who produces a work, and then the audience sits down and consumes it.
·         Interactive culture = The author creates the productive stimuli and the illusion of or actual agency, there is some interactivity from the audience but the production is mostly scripted.
·         Participatory culture = People create the cultural stimuli for each other and there’s no grand author (ie. tabletop role-playing, BDSM party)
·         “Lightning Bolt” video clip has done a lot of damage to LARP’s image.
·         The IP of BSG and the fact that it takes place in a real destroyer drew a lot of players who were not traditional LARP players.
·         LARP continuum – Game/Structure vs. Story/Freeform. American LARPs tend to focus on game and structure, while Nordic LARPs tend to focus on story and freeform. The Monitor Celestra falls about 60% towards the story side.
·         Mainstream Nordic LARP has very strong ideologies
o   The Warriors Heart = 24/7 immersive, socialist dictatorship vs. rebels, steampunk theme
o   No Man’s Land = uses real airplane
o   Just a Little Lovin = beautiful memorial, very sad and emotional
o   A Quiet Evening With the Family, Europa, Carolus Rex
o   Till Death Do Us Part = middle eastern man and a western woman
·         Commonalities (pillars of classic “nordic style”) = participatory, physical, what you see if what you get, immersive, light rules, dramatic systems, socially conscious, meta-techniques and blackboxing, arthaus (modern day) and mainstream styles (fantasy, classical)
·         Nordic LARP design is the exploratory creation of frameworks for collective player co-creation. The players are the authors. Game engines, players, and stories are motivated by a well designed framework. LARP auteurs are impossible and destructive to the experience.
·         “I have stopped being an artist and have become a prostitute of the audience.”
·         Franchise framework = known clich├ęs are a designer’s best friend, you are not Tolkien so don’t write your own lore, adaption strategy (canon until it’s not, new characters, new situations), new main allegory.
·         All this has happened before and all this will happen again. BSG is a great allegory about cultural intolerance in Europe.
·         Culture framework = taken from Caprica, took the Tauron and Caprican values, “Caprica” as a primary source for culture. Explored collective vs. individual, privileged vs. minority
·         Story framework = Minos City, Tauron turned into a skeleton ship, starts from the end of the pilot episode so the audience can have context after one episode, starts from the Battle of Ragnar Anchorage,  after some jumps they end up in Sector GCS-2998362, players have the power to steer the ship anywhere they want
·         Character framework = writing process, crews (groups, subgroups, vertical groups), contact suggestions, character arcs, casting and costume, 5000 post-its
·         LARP design and production loop = vision, reality bites and test, compromise, realization, how can physical and legal problems coincide?
·         Producing a mad weekend = mid Friday to Monday morning, tasks (distribute costumes, props, signing wavers, cleaning the boat, fire drills, in-game food, feeding GM’s and phantoms, limitations on number of people onboard, etc.), four 6-8 hour episodes, include hotel and meals
·         Construction of the Celestra = took the museum and closed off some of the rooms
·         Physical framework = make players believe they are elsewhere, give time for players to learn each others’ characters
·         Costumes = looks vs. price, Celestra (reinvented the colonial warriors plus soviets in space), Vergis (jumpsuits), civilians (lab gear)
·         Dramatic systems framework = what are the rules, four episode structure, no guns fired in first act, no killing before second episode, and then anything goes
·         Standoffs and conflict systems (what rules are used to enable safe violent conflict), fist < knife < gun < bigger gun.
·         Color red was the next mechanic, none of the players were allowed to wear red, phantom actors wore red and spoke to individual players secretly, two of the phantoms happen to be twins so they confused many of the players.
·         Safewords = “cut”, “frak”
·         Play to lose = always submit to the demands of the other player
·         Simulation systems = hard-core space sub simulator based on Silent Hunter type of PC games, internal power struggle, external locations, exploration and endings, designed by Dr. Karl Bergstrom (iterative design in progress). Later on, the engineers in the game became the kingmakers of the game. There is actual agency and a lot of content so that people don’t actually get to see it all.
·         Technical Framework = 10 cased networked PC’s, 12+ network cables, lots of Arduino boards
·         Game mastering = by an outside group, spawning Cylon ships, 8 run-time game masters on deck who dress up as splinter groups
·         This game was produced with the insane idea that more is more, taking a lot of inspiration from the Nordic LARP scene.
·         Weird observations = rules heavy (on the game master side), is consistency worth it?, emergent gameplay, chaos vs. directed collective flow, genre clashes, hard consequences and impossible choices make players nervous, messy is messy, players will forget to eat but they will always chat
·         Online framework = Youtube Friday features, use interwebs to promote, going viral, mentioned in Ball Blooded Gnome, the IP people found out but didn’t take legal action
·         The creators made this game out of love.
·         Went to Galacticon and met some amazing people from the show.
·         They did not expect to bring this to the US, but the player desire is driving the movement.
·         Bringing Celestra home = challenges (physicality, liability, new crowd and culture, location), opportunities (passionate fans, fan-financed events, props and prices, official possibilities, the perfect fandom event for the US scene).
·         Disney acquired a patent for using costumes in a role-playing scenario for their theme parks two months after they acquired Star Wars.
·         Successes = the universe, visual spectacle, destroyer and consoles were real, crowdfunding, real online presence, all inclusive. Failures = impossible to deliver fully screen accurate LARP, aim for the stars, more is more work, game 1 frakked (tech failures, etc.).
·, #celestra, #celestralarp
o   Cecilia, @frkgeek,
o   Martin, @elricsson23,
·         Nordic LARP scene brings in a very diverse group of sexual orientation, ages, and genders. But the ethnic diversity is mostly middle-class Caucasians, which they are working on to change.
·         Players don’t need to choose between rules and story. If they feel bored, they can abandon their post at any time to move onto another post that is more interesting to them.
·         Always groups of people who are playing the game and trying to resolve the problems, but other people who are following along the fiction. It’s okay to have these dichotomies exist in the same game.
·         LARPs are just sandboxes for the players. Give the players really fun tools to play with.
·         A lot of off-putting things in LARPs are that people have to put up with tedious tasks like learning to bake bread. Started youth groups to teach people how to do LARPs and acquire skills for the game.
·         LARPs usually require people to come with their own costumes, but many people don’t have the skills to even take the first step. So they are giving costumes at the door to reduce the barrier of entry.
·         Before the LARP, they run several training workshops (trust exercises, improvisation workshops) to get all the players to form a common gaming culture.
·         Dungeons and Dragons is the American Dream essay, reluctance of players to just play what they are. Americans believe that everyone starts out even and levels up together. Nordic LARPs don’t believe in justice, it’s about reveling in what you already are. You can be an elf if you are physically fit.
·         Collective directing / game mastering, use effective episode structure and the players will self-police their actions.