IGDA SF Meeting
April 4, 2011 · Print This Article
I will be doing a quick game design rant at the IGDA San Francisco’s ‘Pecha Kucha Night‘ this Wednesday. Stop by if you’re in the area!
Build a Tower, Build a Team
April 24, 2010 · Print This Article
Important lessons to learn for game development (and many other walks of life).
April 9, 2010 · Print This Article
I want to catch up on a few articles that have been posted since the Game Developers Conference, all of them recapping and furthering the topics I talked about at the show:
Tim Stellmach, veteran game designer of many esteemed titles, weighs in on the topic of environmental storytelling. Using our GDC session as a starting point, he digs deeper into the idea of systemic environmental storytelling:
“See, for me, the interesting thing about this so-called ‘Systemic Environmental Storytelling’ is that it transfers authorship from the designer to the player. In fact, it has the potential to do so via emergent gameplay behavior, which gives it far more potential for player agency and self-expression than the scripted moments of ‘regular’ Environmental Storytelling.”
It’s a good article, I suggest you go read for yourself! On a different, yet very related tangent, Fantasy Heartbreaker (a blog dedicated to playing D&D “right”) published an article which applies concepts from our talk to the world of pen & paper roleplaying. It’s called Dangerous Archeology:
Smith and Worch are, of course, addressing video games, but their analysis has a lot to offer classic dungeoneering. [...] Environmental story isn’t just the communication of information, it’s another way in which the imaginations of the players and the GM interact. The process is, fundamentally, archaeological: the players unearth the world piece by piece and invest it with meaning from their own speculations and experiences.
It’s great to see both articles expand on the foundation that we tried to lay at GDC. One of the reasons that Harvey and I wanted to do this talk was a feeling that this is a topic many people deeply care about, yet that had been overlooked at previous GDCs.
Not to be outdone, our GDC level design tutorial receives comprehensive coverage on the WorldOfLevelDesign page. Sylvain Douce is covering the entire tutorial in a series of articles, the second of which is a detailed writeup of my session on my session on “Core Space Creation”:
The role of a level designer is to create gameplay through environments and systems. But the task is quite demanding since the gameplay implemented must be meaningful. If it’s not, the game is boring. The play must not feel arbitrary! Try to get all of the game systems connected together: the player can influence more than one of them with a single ability (e.g. the water in Bioshock which can be electrified with the corresponding plasmid).
It’s a good writeup for everybody who wasn’t able to make the tutorial. Admittedly, my session was superficial on a bunch of topics, because I tried to lay the groundwork on (too?) many topic for the rest of the day. But I think it’s a good introduction to 3D action level design.
Meaningful Button Mashing
March 28, 2010 · Print This Article
When we were kids, my brother and I would steal my parents’ calculator to play a simple game: entering 1 + 1, we would then repeatedly press the = button, incrementing the counter by 1 with every press. The objective was to reach 100 in the shortest time possible, with the (non-digital) clock ticking – leading to many rounds of wild button mashing (and a dubiously timed leaderboard). What does this primitive game, invented by two boys below the age of 10, have to do with modern game design? Quite a bit, if you go by the state of current console games. Button-hammering gameplay is ubiquitous in today’s titles, usually in the form of “press X quickly to perform some act of strength”.
It would be easy to react cynically to this historical parallel, to the effect of “oh boy, look how far we’ve come as an industry!” If a couple of pre-teens could come up with the mechanic in the 80s, shouldn’t today’s multi-million dollar games do better? But, if framed correctly, there’s meaningful gameplay in these button mashing minigames. That is true for three reasons:
Button mashing sequences are often connected to high-stakes, high-reward situations, with the player very interested in the result. In God of War, the player mashes a button to kill off various enemies (often by ripping them apart.) In Dead Space, the player mashes A to escape from grappling Necromorphs. Both situations are high impact; in the first the enemy gets back up and continues to attach the player if he fails, in the latter the attacking enemy quickly drains the player’s health which, if not shaken off, results in his eventual death. The player is heavily invested in the outcome of each situation, and this investment adds meaning to the mechanically simple action.
Bug-Induced Environmental Storytelling
March 13, 2010 · Print This Article
When driving home from GDC on Friday night, the iPod shuffle started playing the Dungeon Theme from Ultima VI. Of course I started to reminiscence, and with our environmental storytelling lecture fresh on my mind, I remembered something that strongly relates to the topic of our talk. You see, I played Ultima VI on the Amiga – and that is very important in all of this.
Dismissed as technically infeasible and not financially viable early on, Origin eventually released the Amiga version of Ultima VI two years after the original PC version. I loved it, but the conversion did come at a price: some music had to be cut to fit into memory, dungeons with many enemies often slowed to a crawl (forcing the player to wait as long as 10 seconds between moves), and the game had a few bugs. One of those bugs is of particular interest here: Ultima VI, on the Amiga, liked to duplicate inventories. Every couple of hours, upon either loading or saving the game, the party would end up with two versions of every inventory item they had possessed. But rather than celebrating this unexpected gift from the heavens, I cried foul! As the Avatar, I wasn’t in the business of saving Britannia through cheap tricks. So I diligently went through my belongings, character after character, weeded out the duplicate items, and dropped them on the ground. Of course the game saved all those item locations, and after a while I had “taboo” item caches all over the world, reminding me of my journey thus far I returned to the various towns and dungeons.
Samuel Drake and Baby Crunch Time
February 25, 2010 · Print This Article
Our first child, Samuel Drake Worch, was born a week ago. It was quite a journey: from rushing home because Victoria’s water had broken; to driving to the hospital and seeing my wife go through six hours of painstaking labor; to supposedly seeing him being born “any minute now”; to rushing to surgery for an emergency c-section because as it turns out, Sam was so tangled up in the umbilical cord that it was pretty much impossible for him to come out the natural way. But mom and baby are doing fine, and we’ve been home since Sunday. The first few days have indeed been challenging – little rest, irregular sleep patterns, mid-night feedings, lots of diaper changes, and the ever-present need to care for somebody who simply doesn’t yet have that capacity for himself. I should be absolutely exhausted and dead in the water right now, but somehow I’ve managed. And I believe that a lot of that has to do with thirteen years of professional game development. Because really, all that Sam is asking of us is yet another crunch time.
“What Happened Here?” – Environmental Storytelling
December 28, 2009 · Print This Article
After a two-year hiatus, I’m returning as a speaker to GDC 2010 – not with one, but two sessions! The first session is game design lecture on environmental storytelling that I will be giving together with Harvey Smith. I’m very excited for this talk, I feel that we assembled a very comprehensive and thought-provoking dissertation on this topic. Below is the official session description from the GDC webpage. I’ll post more information on time and date as it becomes available. Hope to see you in San Francisco!
What Happened Here? Environmental Storytelling
Speaker: Harvey Smith (Game Director, Arkane Studios), Matthias Worch (Senior Level Designer, Visceral Games)
Track: Game Design
Format: 60-minute Lecture
Experience Level: All
This lecture examines the game environment as a narrative device, with a focus on further involving the player in interpreting (or pulling) information, in opposition to traditional fictional exposition. We provide an analysis of how and why some games in particular create higher levels of immersion and consistency, and we propose ways in which dynamic game systems can be used to expand upon these techniques. The lecture presents the techniques for environmental storytelling, the key to the creation of game spaces with an inherent sense of history; game spaces that invite the player’s mind to piece together implied events and to infer additional layers of depth and meaning. In addition to commonly-used environmental storytelling tools (such as props, scripted events, texturing, lighting and scene composition), we present ideas for using game systems to convey narrative through environmental reaction. Environmental storytelling engages the player as an active participant in narrative; game systems that reflect the player’s agency can do the same. The lecture will analyze existing cases and provide a framework for dynamic environmental storytelling in games.
This session is aimed at creative directors, narrative designers, level designers and level artists who want to take the environmental storytelling of their games to the next level. A good understanding of the subject matter, and game environmentalal design in general, is a bonus.
Attendees leave with a clear understanding of traditional environmental storytelling techniques, the current state of the art, and ideas on how to expand these concepts to new proportions using systemic environmental storytelling approaches.
10 Hour Gears of War Level
September 17, 2009 · Print This Article
Man, I love a good level design rush. When you’re in the zone creating a level, it’s a lot like playing a well-designed game: there’s tons of meaningful short-term tasks for you to do, each of which gets you closer to the greater goal of finishing the level. And you just find yourself doing “just one more thing” until it’s way past midnight. Monday night was one of those nights.
I found myself wanting to create a quick demo showcase of my level design abilities, and figured a little Gears of War level would fit the bill. “Just a quick demo.” When I started it was 7pm in the evening, and 10 hours later (8 that night, and another two in the morning) I had finished my first ever GoW level, showcased below.
Seeing how little time I had and how this was a showcase more than a fully fleshed out level, I decided to focus on one key attribute: “scenic vista”. I wanted to use a big, picturesque landscape as the backdrop, using all the skills and techniques I had acquired in my last few professional gigs; and I wanted to put a quaint (if that attribute exists in the GoW universe) mountain village on top of that. So I used all the tricks in my book to simulate and render out a nice-looking terrain (which ended up a 6700 tri static mesh with a 2k diffuse and normal map), which tiles 9 times to create the backdrop. The “city” itself is just a single road, and is heavily referenced from SP_Eba for quick turnaround. Throw in some atmospheric settings, cover nodes and enemies, and you have yourself a quick but pretty neat demo level.
This isn’t a complete map by a long shot, of course. More of a vignette, a small scene that describes the feel of the environment. The level is tiny, doesn’t fit into an overarching narrative and has no history. But I had a lot of fun assembling it, and in the process I reacquainted myself with UnrealEd (which I hadn’t used since the Unreal 2 days) and dug into the Gears of War asset library.
August 26, 2009 · Print This Article
When I visited Germany this year I found that my mom had dug up a few of my really old computer books. The original Amiga manuals hold marginal interest to me now, but there was one book that stirs some seriously cool memories: “Commodore 64&128 – Maschinensprache für Einsteiger”. It’s a book about programming the C64 In 6502 assembly, and that’s how I spent most of 1988!
Even though I never turned into a professional programmer, my first real contact with the computer (other playing than games, of course) was programming the C64. My dad had bought the system under the usual pretense; we were going to use it for bookkeeping and other useful tasks, of course, and he even took a BASIC programming course. But in the end, it was I who got the most use out of the machine, and I used his coursework to program various simple games in BASIC myself. This all happened when I was only 9 or 10 years old, so the programs were simple. But the first ever English words that I ever learned were “if”, “then” and “print”.
A couple of years later I had met an older neighbor kid who had a few connections to the local cracker scene. That’s how I learned about this newly released book, “Maschinensprache für Einsteiger”, advertised as the ultimate way of learning to program the C64 at its core level, Assembly. My friend was all over it; so I saved my allowance, bought the book, and found myself programming C64 assembly when I was about 12 years old. The young age was very much reflected in the complexity of the programs I wrote – apart from pushing various register values around and creating loops, the most I ever got onto the screen where simple raster loops that created 16-color rainbows. And after a while, I moved on to different things… probably the Amiga.
April 18, 2009 · Print This Article
When you work in 3D animation you’ll sooner of later hear of the term “retargeting”. That’s when the artist/TD takes animation that was created for one rig (the skelton used to puppeteer a character) and applies (“retargets”) it to a different rig. That’s how animation sharing across multiple, different characters becomes possible. But if you think that this practice is a modern development, think again! The 2D equivalent of retargeting is “rotoscoping” – and it looks like Disney animators did quite a bit of it:
Quite an eye opener! Of course production realities and deadlines often encourage these kind of shortcuts, so I’m neither condoning nor condemning. The resemblance is very fun to watch, that’s for sure!
Found at ThinkingAnimation.