ludi

I’m at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose this week, and it’s been very enjoyable so far.

I’ve been interested in game development for a very long time, perhaps as long as I’ve been interested in video games at all; Mom will no doubt relate some story about me typing machine language into my C-64 from the back of Compute’s Gazette. There are a lot of things about the field that interest me quite a bit, but the main thing is, well, that there are a lot of things about the field that interest me. The inter-disciplinary nature — marketing, psychology, visualization/graphics, artificial intelligence, all manner of art issues, networking, simulation/physics, interactive information presentation and user experience, etc. — really turns my crank, you might say.

So I’ve been trying to hit a number of differently-targetted sessions here at the conference, while keeping my growing network of game-industry contacts fed and watered. I’ll try to write about some of the more interesting stuff over the next few days, starting, well, now. The first session I took in, on Wednesday morning, was about behavioural psychology as a system for discussion, investigation, and planning of gameplay systems. It focused almost exclusively on reward mechanics, which I suppose makes sense given the field from which the material is drawn, and while it wasn’t the best presentation I’ve ever seen — the speaker likely just needs a little more practice, and maybe some work on pacing — it was pretty informative, and had just the right number of examples of counter-intuitive behaviour to keep people listening closely. If nothing else, I have a whole new set of terms to feed into Google. (As if I couldn’t just have asked Madhava or Beltzner whenever I wanted.) It’s nice to see more of these “Something 101 for Game People” talks at GDC, because there is a lot of rich material out there in the more academic spaces just waiting to be applied to the task of improving game characteristics. Wheel reinvention seems to be slowly going out of style.

I’d intended, after lunch, to see any number of interesting sessions about AI or game design, but instead Vlad lured me into one of the many NVIDIA sessions showcasing the goodies documented in their new GPU Gems book, with special attention paid to the effects made newly possible by their upcoming NV40 chipset. The demos weren’t all that spectacular in and of themselves, but the technology elements that were underlying the presentations — especially the vertex texture fetch and full FP rendering — are very promising. I think I might have to buy a new computer this summer after all.

(I spent some time running around and chatting with various gaming types that I only “see” via email during the rest of the year, including some pleasant surprises from other parts of my career, like Netscape and Zero-Knowledge. It is indeed a small world, after all.)

The expo floor was relatively interesting, and much busier than it was in 2002. Lots of companies are hiring, often for multiple titles, and the combined onslaught of AMD64/NV40/R420/PSP/etc. made for a lot of relatively sexy demos. One game that really caught our eye is Saga of Ryzom, which looks like 4 MMO games jammed into one slick package. If I hadn’t watched the demo right there, I’d have dismissed it as impossible vapourware, but it does looking like most of the goodies will be there for the summer release. Definitely one to watch, if you’re at all interested in that game style. (World of Warcraft will be getting all the magazine covers, and perhaps not without reason, but Ryzom is nonetheless worthy of your attention.)

Next up was Brian Reynolds’ AI-and-design talk, which was a mixed bag. For one thing, it was more evidence to support my proposed inverse relation between the size of the audience and the speed of the presentation. As a semi-frequent speaker myself, I understand some of the factors that might cause this to happen, but it’s still annoying to see content drag out like that, especially when there’s only an hour for what could be a very rich presentation. I know that I would want to make better use of an hour of Brian Reynolds’ time, given my druthers. His suggestions for how to evolve AI and design in parallel and — more importantly — in harmony were good, though not earth-shattering. Given the generally-abysmal state of the art in game software engineering, though, the recommendation to “start small, refine to solve the most pressing constrain, and repeat until you run out of time” was likely a meaningful contribution to the industry.

Last session of the day was Peter Molyneux’s take on AI-and-design (read: showcase of Bullfrog/Lionhead games, past, present and future). Nothing really earth-shattering, but by that point in the day I was quite exhausted, so I wasn’t really complaining. Fable looks interesting enough that I’ll probably pick it up, and his presentation style was quite engaging.

I’m flat-out exhausted now, so I’ll leave today’s blurbs for, well, tomorrow. I left lots of stuff out, I’m sure, but I’ll try to answer questions if people care enough to leave them.

9 comments to “ludi”

  1. entered 26 March 2004 @ 10:20 am

    The conference sounds fascinating, and I look forward to talking to you about it in between period breaks as we watch what appears to be an inevitable first round matchup between the Leafs and the Sens.

    In the meanwhile, however, I admit to being very curious as to your thoughts on Microsoft’s XNA initiative. I read the 10,000ft level party-line, and had a hard time understanding how XNA <> DirectX++ where the “++” is some additional standardized APIs for graphics gorp.

  2. entered 26 March 2004 @ 11:25 am

    I don’t know what you mean by “inevitable”, with Boston only one point ahead with 4 games remaining, but we can fight about that long after it’s decided. (I am in such hockey withdrawal here.)

    I haven’t really looked at XNA in detail, though it does seem to be analogous to a DirectX for a larger set of the game-technology problem space. Some interesting elements are bringing the Xbox Live matching/voice/networking to the Windows platforms — DirectPlay will not be missed — and some hand-wavey elements to support easier integration of middleware. I hope to find something meatier to read about it, or a Microsoft guy to pin down at the conference (note to self: no Mozilla shirt today), and will report back!

  3. George
    entered 26 March 2004 @ 4:25 pm

    Heya,

    I don’t know what you mean by “matchup”: a mack truck with a Sens logo on it runs over a wet maple leaf on the 401… it’s hardly a “matchup.” :)

    As for the gaming conference, Mike (Shaver), I’m curious about the types of companies that are there. To what extent do the large publishers dominate the discussions or the general vibe? Well, okay, I have other questions too. Here’s a bunch: How much of this is about celebrating an artform and how much of it is about running an industry? Another (equally clumbsy) way to ask that is: Are the people there really passionate about certain games, or are they looking dispassionately for “the next big thing”? Next: Is there any discussion of video games in politics? Addiction? Escapism (which is, in the end, devastatingly political)? I know these things get discussed in general, I’m just curious if they come up at an event like the one you’re at.

    But I’m also very interested in the pragmatics, which I think you will be reporting on… looking forward to more posts! What games in particular look to you to be expanding the playing field?

    Oh, one more thing: video games raise, as a medium, all manner of art issues, but as individual projects they explicitly address VERY FEW art issues, I would say. They seem to be mostly technique without critique. Which is something I’m interested in investigating further.

    Oh shit, there’s more to your post! Just noticed. I guess I should read that now. Cheers.

  4. Adam S
    entered 27 March 2004 @ 12:08 pm

    I dunno, it seems to me that they address a lot of important art issues, having moved from the pixelism of Picasso and (differently) the impressionists, to the post-structuralism of a Pollock, to a degree of hyper-realism reminiscent of a bad first year art project.

  5. Adam S
    entered 27 March 2004 @ 12:08 pm

    I dunno, it seems to me that they address a lot of important art issues, having moved from the pixelism of Picasso and (differently) the impressionists, to the post-structuralism of a Pollock, to a degree of hyper-realism reminiscent of a bad first year art project.

  6. entered 27 March 2004 @ 7:21 pm

    Heh – I still remember playing Doom over IPX on our crappy 486SX’s at Auriga, smacktalking over one giant interphone session, and draining the keg dry. that said, I find it upsetting that the only thing anyone respected me for at Auriga was creating bootdisks that allowed us to play Doom over IPX on our crappy 486SX’s.

    *sigh*

    Those were the days. Gaming’s come so far, yet fallen so hard, since then.

  7. George
    entered 28 March 2004 @ 2:10 pm

    There’s an article in wired news right now about the decline in creativity in games: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,1284,62838,00.html?tw=wntophead4

    It’s an old issue, really, but some of the stats I find a little troubling:

    “Out of the top 100 games sold in Japan during 2001, 10 were original titles, but that number was halved in 2002 and fell to merely two in 2003.”

    Stranger still, I think, there’s this weird idea that older gamers only like sequels: “”Core gamers are advancing in age and they are becoming more conservative,”".

    As I get older, anyway (though I’m still beneath the average age of 29 for a gamer, according to this article, and I don’t actually PLAY games because I’m scared of addiction), I find I just get tired faster of the formulaic eye-candy the industry is increasingly seeing fit to churn out.

    But I’m hoping that there are a lot of good new ideas and titles (and I’ve seen a few) that just fall under the radar of mainstream gaming because they’re distributed on the internet and reach maybe a hundred thousand people.

    Whatever, just thought I’d throw that link in. What gaming really needs, I think, is a few serious books written about its history and its future. Perhaps there are some, dunno. It’s just too easy for the industry to forget games like Herzog Zwei, Stunts, etc. I guess the real crisis is in “game design”, rather than art or programming… though maybe shaver has something to say about the quality of software practices in the industry.

  8. Robert
    entered 30 March 2004 @ 3:38 pm

    So games are getting too expensive to take risks, that sounds familiar. How many top selling movies last year were originals, I wonder? What gaming needs are some good independents that came produce the games they want to produce for a fraction of the cost. Then we’ll see some more creativity.

    I’m fossilized in gamer years, but I certainly don’t want to play remakes of old games. (Except, of course, for Gran Turismo 4.)

  9. entered 31 March 2004 @ 8:28 am

    I’m going to finish a post following up on this topic today while on the plane, I hope, but in the meantime some game-design-is-dead types might find “http://www.experimental-gameplay.org/”:http://www.experimental-gameplay.org/ interesting.