Tactical Error!

I drastically underestimated the amount of energy required to string together coherent sentences into actual posts. So, yeah, sorry if you’ve been visiting with the hope of daily updates. I’m capturing everything dilligently but have not the energy to repond and post. At least, not until a few days after the conference. *Head hits the keyboard*

GDC 2006 Session Picks

These are the sessions I’m planning to hit at GDC 2006. Also, what I’m hoping to get out of the session, notes about speakers, and experiences I’ve gleaned from six years of GDC attendance.

The first thing to note is that I have backups for almost all time slots in case it becomes clear the session is not going to be worth my time (as sometimes happens.) I’ve walked out on a lot of speeches over the years for a variety of reasons; I can smell a lemon within the first five to ten minutes :). Last year there was a particularly appealing-sounding speech by the lead programmer of Metroid Prime, one of my favorite games from the last few years. Specifically, he was talking about how he designed and implemented Prime’s exemplary camera system. Unfortunately, he didn’t really have anything insightful to share about how to design a better camera system. His speech could be boiled down to ‘I solved the problem by being a very smart man.’ Great. Thanks a lot.

*thumbs down + raspberry*

So I walked down the hall to a fascinating session about usability testing that yielded a wealth of practical information that I’ve implemented both in teaching and testing my games. Seems to be the way of it.

In years past, I’ve stuck around out of a sense of courtesy to the speaker or because I keep hoping they’ll finally get around to saying something useful, especially when the session title or topic is very interesting to me. The reality, though, is that there are a lot of crap speeches every year at GDC, and if you find yourself in a session that’s biting the Big One for whatever reason, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to go find something better. Fill out a comment form saying that you’re walking out and why, but don’t waste time and energy on a session that’s not valuable. I guarantee you’ll be able to find another session to go to. Try stuff outside your area or things that sound random or interesting. This is how I’ve stumbled on some of the best sessions I’ve ever seen. A session by Brian Moriarty enigmatically titled “The Secret of Psalm 46” comes to mind. It featured an hour long playback of a lunar eclipse writ large on the projector screen and some fascinating information about Shakespeare intertwined with a meditation on the nature of human creativity. It stands out in my memory as one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen, GDC or elsewhere. Delightful.

Game Design Workshop

Overview: This intensive 2-day workshop will explore the day-to-day craft of game design through hands-on activities, group discussion, analysis and critique. Attendees will immerse themselves the iterative process of refining a game design, and discover formal abstract design tools that will help them think more clearly about their designs and make better games.

Marc LeBlanc
Robin Hunicke
Tim Stellmach
Steve Librande
Randy Smith
Jonathan Hamel
Andrew Leker
Art Min
Frank Lantz
Austin Grossman

I’ve been to the Game Design Workshop numerous times, and I really can’t recommend it highly enough. I’m using it as a backup to the Emotion Boot Camp session this year simply because I’ve been to it many times, but if you’re any kind of game designer – aspiring, master, or otherwise – there’s something here for you. Veteran designers like Steve Librande, Randy Smith, and Marc LeBlanc enlighten by their simple presence. Robin Hunicke is a designer at Maxis, previously of the Interactive Entertainment Group at Northwestern University. She and I have a lot of crossover in our approach to understanding games, mostly stemming from flow theory, so I really dig the direction of her research. Also, I really liked her aesthetic experiment at Indie Game Jam 2. It’ll be fascinating to find out how her background has translated into her work as a designer at Maxis. Also, perhaps she interfaces with Will in some capacity. If so, I would love to pick her – and by extension his – brains. Actually, I would like to eat his brains. To steal his power. Yum.

I Heart Will

I’ve also found the Game Design Workshop to be a fantastic resource for brainstorming and creativity tools. In years past, they’ve introduced participants to various creativity tools and locked them in with immediate, focused exercises in game design and brainstorming. I try to emulate some of the environment they create in the Game Design Workshop in my Gameplay and Game Design class. In fact, I was introduced to my all-time favorite creativity author, Roger Von Oech, through this session at GDC 2003. If you haven’t checked out this book and are employed or seeking employment in any creative field, do yourself a favor and order “A Whack on the Side of the Head” right now – it’s the best $10 you’ll spend this hour.

Emotion Boot Camp: Putting More Emotion into Play

Overview: Using what players like most about play, this playshop offers tools and tactics for creating emotion for next-generation player experiences based on XEODesign’s close examination of players during play, and Isbister’s research at Stanford and the Rensselaer Games Research Laboratory.

Nicole Lazzaro
Katherine Isbister

Nicole’s research is interesting, though I disagree with some of her approach – some things she’s shoe horning into ‘emotion’ don’t sit quite right with me, something I need to articulate better perhaps. I also cringe slightly at the way XEODesign is trying to create a fit-all ‘system’ to apply to games and to sell it to everyone. Knizia’s ‘using the same approach often leads to the same results’ sits much better with me and my personal experience of game-centric creativity and design. Then again, this alone should be reason enough to listen to what she has to say:

“Most informative talk at GDC. Every designer should learn how to read this language.”
-Will Wright, Creator of The Sims

Based on their site, I’m not exactly sure which session Will Wright said this about, and if it was in fact theirs, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt ;).

I’ve been chatting with Katherine on and off for almost a year now; we may collaborate on something in the future. I really like her laid back, grounded approach. In a weird way, she kind of reminds of Carl Sagan – she brings a sense of awe and wonder to her work in a nonchalant way, and it’s hard to imagine disagreeing with her.

(Continue reading this post…)

Sweet Jesus on Rocket Skates…

…my voice is so nerdy! Why didn’t someone tell me? Why?! Whyyyyyy-enk!

Here’s something new: a podcast of sorts. Forgive me if I just file it under ‘audio’.

So, I’m working on a paper and I asked my friends Matthew Wegner and Matt Mechtley to do a bit of a brainstorm with me.
This is the delightfully low-fi and relatively vulgar result. Thanks to Shane for ripping and a-encoding.


Download SteveSwink.com Podcast #1 – Input Aesthetics Brainstorm 3.14.2006

Thoughts from GDC 2005 (a GDC 2006 Preview)

I wrote this last year during GDC. In essence, scribbling these impressions was the genesis of this site; I wrote this stuff up and had no where to post it. These are from the hip, shotgunned impressions written day-of, so excuse me if they’re a bit wide-eyed. As I prepare for GDC 2006 (next week) I thought it would be fun to post this, raw as it is. My plan for the conference this year is to do essentially the same thing with a daily ‘dump’ of my notes and thoughts. Hopefully, that’ll be useful in some capacity. As usual, I’ll be focusing on insights from master game designers, practical tools for game innovation, and things that seem noteworthy innovation-wise: anything that might help someone design an amazing game.

Without further disclaimer:

Thoughts, feelings, and inspiration (at GDC 2005)

GDC 2004 seemed tinged (again) with quiet, desperate futility. The theme of ‘sequelitus’ was now, by my count, on its third sequel. The industry was farther along the same crash course with homogeneity, driven by budgets and faceless Suits, led inexorably forward by Electronic Arts, the televangelist of the game industry. The Gospel: bigger, shinier, and more ‘to the X-Treme’. And hey, wow, now with crassly hip (hop) urban street flair.

According to the new religion, innovation and creativity are features to creep, a bullet of marketing copy, shelf space and buzzwords. Fewer publishers funding fewer titles made for far more money by fewer developers (most of whom are now owned by said publishers). Same old same old, essentially.

Enter GDC 2005.

This year a hand reached up and tried to jerk the wheel. Whether or not the course has changed is not easily judged, but one thing is certain: hope has returned to the game industry.

The Future, Period.

Or ‘What Will Wright Has Been Saying for Years About What he Learned About Content, Community, and Game Design From The Sims
…And Why Everyone is a Moron for Not Listening
…And How Procedural Methods Will Save the Game Industry’

If the Hand That Jerked the Wheel belonged to anyone, it belonged to Will Wright.

Walking through the conference center after Will’s ‘lecture’, the excited shockwaves rippling through the industry were almost palpable. Warren Spector was, as I understand it, somewhat dejected (having taken a stance on the story/Hollywood/data intensity side of the fence, he was seen hanging and shaking his head saying things like ‘how can I compete with that?’). I was elated, inspired, and full of hope.
(Continue reading this post…)


…so named by gentleman RC, who did the character art.

Exswinkbike 1.0

Development time: ~20h including creation of background art assets, mechanic tweaking, and briefly flirting with creating an editor (not quite ready for primetime.)

Exswinkbike Prototype 1
Exswinkbike Prototype 2
Exswinkbike Prototype 3

The Practical Value of Cloning

As the name might indicate, Exswinkbike started as a clone of Excitebike. So the design goal here wasn’t particularly lofty; it was mostly intended as a learning experience.

A note on cloning: in learning how to create art, one must master the ‘fundamentals’ – figure drawing, perspective, realistic rendering and the like. One way to approach this is copying the works of great masters. Picasso mastered photorealistic painting before venturing into cubism and making bulls of handlebars. Likewise, every competent artist has copied thousands of Bridgeman or Hale-Richter hands, heads, feet. Copying great works is a great way to master skills. In games, this is cloning. There’s nothing wrong with cloning successful mechanics as a learning experience; people who are learning to program games often start by making a Pac Man or Asteroids clone. As aspiring game designers this is what we need to be doing and doing rigorously. At some point I’ll move on to cloning Ski Stunt Simulator, Mario 64, and things of greater complexity. I encourage any aspiring designer to do the same.

‘Clone’ is not a bad word.

Aesthetics * Skill Ceiling * Input Sensitivity * Abstraction Layer

In its current state, Exswinkbike is similar to Excitebike in two ways. First, the agent you’re controlling is a motorbike with a rider on it which is viewed from a slightly angled side perspective. Second, succeeding at the game is mostly about properly aligning the bike to match the terrain you’re trying to land on. There it parts ways with Excitebike, now more closely resembling an amalgam of Trials and Ski Stunt Simulator, with just a sprinkling of Excitebike.

Exswinkbike has the beginnings of some nice impact aesthetics, provided by the physical nature of the mechanic. These could be enhanced with basic particle effects (dust or smoke particles from the tires, an explosion of particles if the rider hits the ground) and faked video effects (a screen shake on impact).

The input is at the “second layer” of input abstraction because your mouse movement controls the rider, not the bike. So, to influence the direction and rotation of the bike, you move the rider around. Moving the rider changes the center of mass for the whole system, altering rotational vectors. The result is that you can tuck her against the bike closely and lean her forward to increase the speed of your rotation, or push her away from the bike and backwards to decrease or reverse your rotation. The skill is in predicting the direction and speed of rotation you’re going to want and compensating early, sometimes before the bike is even in the air.

(Continue reading this post…)