Monday, December 20, 2010

An Introduction to the Future and Now of Media Distribution

Newspapers are dead. So are magazines, CDs, vinyl, tapes, video game cartridges and books. Soon you won’t even need to download any of it either – it’ll all be in the cloud, accessible from any computer or device with an Internet connection. The old model of media distribution, in which information is thrown down from the top to the masses in timed intervals, is disappearing in favor of user-driven production and distribution. Scarcity of information has been eliminated in favor of a huge abundance, and sophisticated user-based filtering systems help people navigate the plethora of content available.

I’m writing this as an introduction of sorts for later essays I plan on writing, which will deal with the economic and philosophical impact of the information age on society. Think of this as a guide to the present and future of media. What I’m going to do here is outline the new model, going step-by-step from producer to consumer, back to producer.

Let’s start at the beginning. The artist or author creates a piece of genuine original content, which can be anything – a song, a video game, a news article, or a review for a local restaurant. Maybe even an essay about the future of media. No matter what it is, it’s created, recorded, or copied onto a computer. Sure, we can separate the creation of the media from the digitization of that specific media, but for the purposes of this essay we’ll assume that it’s already in a digital format.

The birth of this piece of content is the beginning of a potentially VERY long lifespan. Chris Anderson, editor in chief of Wired magazine, calls this “The Long Tail,” which refers to the countless pieces of content in the demand curve. In his book (also called The Long Tail), he posits that all content, no matter how niche, has a potential consumer somewhere. The trick is connecting the two.

Once a piece of content (henceforth referred to as the POC) is put on the Internet, it is subject to a vast array of filtering processes. Most popular websites today act as filters for content, with users selecting and promoting the information they deem worth sharing with other users (this user-driven internet is referred to as Web 2.0). There are a few types of these sites, so I’ll briefly go over them.

Blogs and blogging are an integral part of today’s Internet experience, as they provide a basic platform to publish ideas and filter content. Blogs work on a broadcast model, with one or a few authors creating or finding content (essays, photos, podcasts, etc) to share with users, who may choose to comment on it. There are blogs that have mostly short-form entries, and blogs with primarily long-form entries. Twitter works mostly on the same model, except it limits posts to 140 characters, which changes the nature of the content posted (mostly facebook-like status updates or links to content elsewhere). RSS feeds allow users to aggregate all of the blogs they follow into one page for them to sort through later (and possibly repost POCs on their own blogs!).

Sites like Reddit and Digg, which let a community of users deem what they think is most important, emphasize the importance of the group in finding and sharing content. They operate on the idea that what’s important to many people must also be important to the individual user. Content on these sites comes from all over the Internet, from blogs to news websites and everywhere else. Unlike on blogs, users on these websites are fairly anonymous, and therefore group identity is emphasized. Think of these websites as the TV of today, providing content that everybody familiarizes themselves with. Instead of “did you watch,” the question is now “have you read it?”

So far, our POC has been published on a blog, linked on twitter (and possibly “retweeted”), and widely “upvoted” on Reddit. At this point, a particularly lively POC could be widely circulated, reblogged multiple times and popular on many websites. If deemed worthy or valuable to a user’s social circle, it might find itself on a social networking site like Facebook or Myspace. Even on these, a POC can find itself reposted by multiple users within a social network, though the chances of it “breaking out” are lower than it finding its way in due to the private and insular nature of these sites (hahaha…).

The last type of site I’m going to mention is the algorithm-based site, which collects user information and presents content to the user based on their perceived tastes and the tastes of other users. Google, Netflix, Last.fm and Amazon are all prime examples of this, though many other websites (including Facebook) do this as well. In a way, these are similar to sites like Reddit because they operate on the belief that what’s important to other people is important to the individual user. For example, Amazon isn’t going to recommend me Reign in Blood after I buy Ride the Lightning because it has an in-depth understanding and appreciation of thrash metal – it’s going to recommend me Reign in Blood because people who buy that album also tend to buy Ride the Lightning. On sites like these, the more users there are, the more valuable the recommendations. And the more of yourself you put in, the more of yourself you can take out.

So far, our model covers content creation and filtering. The last step in the cycle before more creation is consumption. In a world where analog media is becoming less and less relevant, consumption of information no longer requires a gazillion different platforms and formats. One can view everything on a computer, but the future isn’t in thousand-dollar machines with high processing power. No, ladies and gentlemen, the future of media consumption is in the cloud, which means the hardware we use to access it is going to change.

On Apple’s iPad, one can play games, listen to music, watch movies, read books and magazines, and even create some content. The tablet is designed for long-form media consumption, and has as much functionality as the average Internet user ever needs. As broadband technology in America becomes more advanced and less expensive, tablets and cell phones will be able to stream higher-bandwidth media such as high-performance video games. What does this mean? No more laptops. The only people who will need to own computers are the content producers.

What does this future (this now) look like?

Jimmy sees the Weinermobile drive by his campus and he takes a snapshot on his cell phone, tweeting it and his GPS data. Nearby, Doug sees his tweet and rushes to snap his own shot of the Weinermobile, posting it on his Facebook. Samantha comments on the photo, saying “You’re a weiner, LOL.”

Wired magazine publishes on the iPad, including videos, interactivity, and up-to-date information that a piece of paper just cannot provide.

James’ punk band “Revolting Youth” posts their demo on a website called Bandcamp, which offers free hosting. A popular punk blog links to the demo, and Leeroy links to the blog on his Facebook. Alex sees the link while looking at Facebook on his cell phone, and listens to the demo before class starts. Alex lives in America, James lives in Singapore.

A terrorist bombs an embassy in the Middle East. The New York Times posts an article about it, and somebody submits the link to Reddit. Within minutes, thousands of people upvote it and it reaches the front page.

Chuck frequently watches and rates movies on Netflix. He’s a big fan of sci-fi, and Netflix recommends the obscure flick “Krull.” He streams it on his iPad before quickly becoming bored and deciding to browse through his RSS reader to see what his favorite bloggers are talking about. He reads something interesting, and decides to post his own take on it on his blog, which is reblogged by somebody else.

Kathy follows Oprah’s book club on Twitter. Oprah tweets about the next book everybody should read, so Kathy decides to download the book through Amazon’s Kindle application. Kathy likes the book, and Amazon recommends her something else she might like, though a little more obscure. She enjoys that as well.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Producers create content, which is filtered by a variety of systems and then consumed. After consumption, a user may comment on the content or be inspired to produce their own original content, both of which are valid forms of information production.

The future and the now of media distribution is user-driven in every aspect, from creation to distribution to consumption. This new model has far-reaching economic and philosophical implications, of which I plan on expanding upon later. The status quo has changed though. Power no longer rests in the hands of the media corporations, but instead is distributed among all the users on the Internet.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Adam Saltsman (AdamAtomic) Interview on Indie Game Development

This is my second interview with a guest I've brought in for EGaDS. This time it's local developer Adam Atomic, creator of Canabalt, one of my favorite games of last year.

Me: I like video games, so I want to make video games as a career! What’s my first step?

Saltsman: MAKE SOME GAMES. It sounds totally obvious and/or ridiculous, but a really good way to get paid to make games is to start making games without the getting paid part first. You'll learn a lot, you'll build up a portfolio, and, hopefully, have some fun too. If you're not enjoying game-making without getting paid, then chances are you won't enjoy it very much after you get paid either. There are lots of great tools to help you make games right now, on almost any platform - Flash, Unity, Game Maker, XNA, UDK, etc. No excuses!

How did you end up in the role you're in now?

Mainly through persistence and accidents. I got my BA, then worked as a software developer for 2 or 3 years, before working as a freelance pixel artist for a couple years. Along the way I got enough connections and experience to start freelancing "right" (see http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AdamSaltsman/20090508/1343/Going_Commando.php ), and was able to start doing some internal development in Flash and on the iPhone. I was also lucky that one of my rock climbing buddies happened to be a computer genius with a great iPhone game just sitting around that needed some art! Was pretty happy to have a couple years as an artist behind me when he brought that up...

What piece of advice do you have for anybody who wants to be in the game design business that you wish you had at the beginning?

Make small games FIRST. You don't have to always make small games, but make small games first. And two or three small games is not enough. Make like ten. It won't take long, they're small after all! You don't even have to release them if you don't want to. Trying (and failing) to make big games can be a good experience too, but you need a lot of maturity or perspective or something to cope with that properly I think. Also, a college degree in no way, shape or form "guarantees" you a job. It never has, it never will.


What skills do you think are vital for people who want to make games for themselves?

Hopefully this doesn't sound circular or corny but the main thing you need is the ability and motivation to hunt out answers and tutorials and solutions for yourself. Along the way you will likely use THIS ability to pick up some secondary skills: scripting, practical visuals, practical audio, etc. This is all different from "real" programming, art, etc. You don't have to be a master of some discipline or other in order to produce stuff that at least communicates the basic idea.

What courses in college would you recommend for somebody who wants to make games?

I think it's really valuable to have a basic grasp of programming C-style languages. College is a great place to earn credit AND get that step out of the way, in a framework where you can get assistance, and get pushed through the nitty gritty stuff. I think writing is really, really important too, but finding a good writing course can be really tricky. I'm not talking about writing as in like... writing dialog for game characters though. Writing is really useful for communicating with other team members, with prospective clients, with the world at large (say from your dev blog), and with other humans on forums. Being able to do it well and comfortably will make your life a lot easier. So much of what we do relies on written language still that being able to do this properly is pretty much invaluable.

How tight-knit is the Austin indie development community?

I think we're fairly loose-knit at the moment, but not in a bad way. I'm looking forward to seeing our group grow and do some awesome over the next year or so.

What are the trade-offs between working for yourself and working for a bigger company?

Assuming you survive the first year or two on your own, the big trade-off is really responsibility, not stability. I think there's this idea that working for a big company, you know your job is safe... but that's just old-fashioned at this point. I may only have 6 months worth of money to live on, but I at least know I'll have my job for the next 6 months! The big thing I struggle with is making decisions about what to do next - what projects to take on, what projects to pass on, etc. I think that is a pretty huge burden, and I totally understand that not being right for some people, it's pretty stressful.

Where do you see indie development going in the next few years?

Anywhere it wants to, I guess. I think small developers with more room to take risks will continue to be responsible for the major advances in game mechanics and serious/mature content.

Can you describe the creation process for a game, starting at inspiration?

Oh man, that is a big question. For me it usually starts with a very simple concept, like "a platformer with only a jump button". Sometimes its a little more nebulous than that, but there's usually a nugget like that at the core of the thing. My next step varies a little - sometimes i'll try to flesh it out on paper, with sketches or something, which is usually a failure for me. Sometimes I'll prototype it in Flash, which is frequently a failure as well, but a little more productive usually. If the prototype feels good and I have a good idea of where to go with it next, then I'll start adding in some variety to the existing mechanics, and usually put in a bunch of possibly-final artwork, to at least start to get a feel for the world and the fantasy of the thing. At this stage, if it's the right kind of game, it starts to kind of make itself. You can immediately see a bunch of cool things to add, and it becomes a matter of which ones to choose, and which ones to abandon, based on whatever arbitrary sort of rules you set for yourself. It's pretty much the best process ever.

/Interview

Monday, October 25, 2010

OneY

I made a sub-reddit on Reddit.com called OneY (short for "One Y Chromosome") that, after merely a day, has more than a thousand users. I designed it to be a place where men of all kinds could talk about being men and what it means to be a man today.

I wasn't sure if it would take off or if people would even be interested in talking about such things (there's a popular perception that Reddit is already a boy's club), but more than 1000 people have decided to join, so I guess I did something right. So far, the community has been really excited about the direction it's going in, and I'm excited about it too.

Hopefully it will become a forum for honest and open discussion about manhood and the male experience.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

MPAA

In my RTF 319 class, we recently had a teleconference with two people from the MPAA. We had an interesting discussion about copyright and the movie industry, and I got to make a few questions and comments. You can read it here.

My questions/comments are in the transcript but they aren't labeled as questions by me. So here are the ones I said:

"Student: You mentioned the development of alternative business models. I wonder what kind of examples you had."

"Student: I’m curious as to how much of a large portion of older movies made up DVD sales and whether or not services like Netflix which offers streaming services hurt those DVD sales?"

"Student: Can you really compare circumventing the software to breaking into a store when you own the disk? When it’s your property?"

Also, there was this exchange which I'm proud of:

"Craig: Okay. Academy Award for best picture right? Ten million illegal downloads of the Academy Award winning movie The Hurt Locker occurred on BitTorrent while it was viewed in theaters around the world by fewer than eight million people in total. The Hurt Locker did not make money.

Brett: We have another question or response here.

Student: The Hurt Locker also didn’t have great distribution."

Zing!!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Johnny Chu - Interview on Game Design

For EGaDS, as part of my industry officer position I have undertaken a project that involves interviewing the guest speakers that come in to talk to the group. The purpose of this project is twofold - one, to compile enough information to be able to create a sort of booklet or article or something on "getting into the video game industry" at the end of the year, and two, to let these people speak more fully on their own experience in the video game industry. I'll be posting the full interviews here as they come.

The first is from Johnny Chu. Chu works as a Designer at Total Immersion, and has worked at other notable companies previously.

For this interview, I asked him questions specific to Game Design and becoming a Game Designer. For those of you not in EGaDS, keep in mind that they're from the perspective of somebody going to the University of Texas with an eye towards getting into the video game industry. Here are his answers, un-edited.

Me: I like video games, so I want to make video games as a career! What’s my first step?

Chu: First, decide what you want to do in the industry (programming, design, art, animation, sound, production). Make sure it's something that you'll enjoy doing even if games weren't involved at all (this is easier with everything except design). Then hone your skillset through classes, mod-making, and other experiments on your own. The goal is to become familiar with basic and common tools and concepts.

Tools for the various roles:

Programming - Languages like C++, C#, Java, etc. as well as scripting languages like ActionScript and Lua
Design - Office, 3D level editors like UnrealEditor, 3D modeling software like Maya and 3DSMax, Adobe Illustrator, scripting languages like ActionScript and Lua
Art / Animation - 3D modeling software such as Maya and 3DSMax, Adobe Photoshop, Flash
Sound - SoundForge, FMod
Production - Office, Project, and brush up on both Waterfall and Agile development structures

How did you become a game designer?

I went to UT and got a BS in Computer Science. I joke that my diploma is sitting fallow seeing no use as a designer, but that isn't really true. What is true is that I'm lowering the collective average of CS graduates everywhere. :P

I knew early on that I did not have the interest, and more importantly, the drive, to be a programmer, but I was too far down the hole to start over. Plus, my Asian parents would've killed me. During my 5th year at UT, I was lucky enough to get an internship at Edge of Reality as a scripter, which (depending on the company) is like half-junior programmer, half-junior designer. After graduation, I started there full time and became a junior designer. I rose up the ranks and eventually became a senior designer, leading a few of the port projects Edge did. I later moved on to SOE, and am currently at Total Immersion.

What knowledge or experience is invaluable for a game designer?

The game development process as a whole is important to know, from pre-production through beta and RTM (release to manufacturing), and not just what the designer's responsibilities are. Knowing what the coders and artists are doing is helpful as well, if anything to be able to compromise when inevitable requests get shot down.

It's also mandatory to keep up with current games, regardless of genre, or even quality. Every game can have some nugget that you could reform into something usable for the project you're currently working on. Original ideas are actually very rare, because most good ideas work for a reason and are copied and morphed to fit into other games. Don't be afraid to steal something because it's good.

One more thing, it's very rare to work on games that you would actually play at any point in your career, let alone just getting into the industry. This is another reason to be familiar with all genres. Very, very few people have the resume and resources to be able to only work on games they want to, and even then, moving from company to company can take a toll on your endurance and your (prospective) family.

As an aspiring game designer with no art or programming experience, what can I do to flex my skills for my future in the industry?

Make mods of levels on your own, even in games that you don't necessarily want to work on professionally. Think Warcraft 3, Neverwinter Nights, Half-Life, etc. At it's very base, a graduate in any major with a few mods or small personally-developed games will be hired over a new "game design" graduate with only a diploma. Experience is much more important, which is why so much game curriculum at universities focus on projects and level design rather than theoretical design.

What are a few things every game designer knows how to do?

Bitch. A lot. :P

Good game designers know the basic rules of game design. In my opinion, the most important rule is to design for the game and not for yourself. That means knowing what your target audience wants and being able to cut something from the game that might be your favorite part but doesn't fit thematically or mechanically.

Bad: "... but that's how I want to play it."
Good: "That's how I want to play it, but..."

I’m a freshman in college and I want to be a video game designer. What kind of classes should I take now? What would be the smartest major to take?

A vast number of game designers have backgrounds in either art or programming. Because "fun" is so subjective, it's very hard to quantify what to teach designers. This is another reason why majors (and even masters!) in game design often don't mean jack unless there are specific projects and tangible evidence of experience.

A degree in art or animation will give you experience in building models, rigs, environments and levels. A degree in programming will give you experience in different languages and give you a background in logic. Either is recommended, depending on what you are more interested in. Lately, more and more designers are scripting their own encounters and levels, so the programming background might currently be more utilized.

Personally, I also recommend the class, Interpersonal Communications. The game industry is full of people that basically never grew up, so there are a lot of big egos that can't take constructive criticism. Learn to not become one of these people, and also learn how to compromise with them.

In addition to design skills, are art and programming skills valuable for designers as well? What kind?

See #6 above.

More specifically, both 2D and 3D art will help as you'll get familiar with level layouts, environments, and even modeling. There aren't too many overlaps with animation.

With programming, you'll learn the basics of programming and scripting languages (once you learn a couple, every subsequent language is easy to learn), and also lessons in logic and efficiency.

How difficult is it to get a job as a designer as compared to a programmer or an artist?

The problem with getting respect as a game designer is that many people believe anyone can be a designer. It's true that artists and coders have specific skills that can be evaluated much easier. Plus, most people that want to make games, but don't really know how games are made, often default to wanting to be designers. So there are a lot of resumes that go around for design positions. The good thing is, most of them suck. Horribly. So really, it's up to the company to be able to sniff through the bullshit and non-team players. As long as you have the drive, a good work ethic, and some demonstrable experience, it really isn't as hard as any other job.

Anything else to add?

I mentioned this earlier, but I truly believe that a designer's personality is almost as important as his creativity and skill. Few people have the time and resources to make a game on their own, so you will most likely have to work in a team, whether a team of designers or a team with programmers and artists. Remember, this entire industry is subjective, so never settle that your idea is best. Always try to see arguments from the other side, as that will also help you figure out what exactly the other person really wants (which can be really hard when all you get is "I don't like this").

/Interview

More to come!

Fantastic Arcade: The Rest

The first day might have been the most exciting for me, but that's only because I got to be there all day. I didn't get to go for the second day, and on the third and fourth days my time was abridged because I had to go to work.

However, I tried to see as much as I could in the last two days, and I actually got quite a bit covered. Here's what I saw:



The only two "featured" games I hadn't played on the first day were Machinarium and Monaco. The first, Machinarium, is an adventure game set in a robotic world in which you do robotic things with your robotic self. If you like "can I use this"-click-hunt adventure games, this is for you. I myself am not a big fan of these kinds of games, so I didn't play it very long. Sorry, Machinarium.

Monaco was an MGS-style top-down stealth game with an arcade feel to it. Of course, you could always go with the creator's explanation, which is that it's "Gauntlet meets Hitman." In it, each of four characters has four special skills that they can use to make the mission easier. I didn't think about it that way, but I kind of wish I had now. This is a game, unfortunately, that I didn't spend more than a level with. I think it would be a lot more fun with friends. Also: apparently the website says the platform is unannounced, but I'm willing to bet anything it will be coming to XBLA.

In addition to the "spotlight" games, there were a lot of other games on display, as well as a couple other really cool games available for preview.

One of the cooler ones (and I know a lot of people in the indie community have been dying to play/see this) was Limbo. Apparently it's out now on XBLA. Limbo is a moody game about a little boy who is in a world clearly too dangerous for him. Like Feist, the art style is based around silhouettes, though the tone is considerably darker here. The darkness is reflected in the gameplay, as death can come suddenly and horribly at the most unexpected times. Also similarly to Feist, the game is a puzzle-platformer, though it doesn't focus on physics so much. This was an awesome game that is definitely worth checking out if you have Xbox Live Arcade and like interesting platformers.



The other REALLY COOL game I saw was Sword & Sworcery EP. I, unfortunately, was not one of the lucky ones who got to play it because I had to leave early to go to work. I took detailed notes from Superbrothers' presentation about the game, and I will bullet-point them here.
  • Jim Guthrie did the music
  • The game is considered "Input/Output Cinema"
  • Coding done by CAPY
  • Inspired by the old Commodore 64 games in which you had to "poke and prod it until you figured it out." Considered a 21st century treatment on old-school adventure by the creator
  • Since it's an "EP," there will be two "sides" to choose from when beginning the game.
  • The game is designed so the player can make "a decent amount of progress without trying too hard" but deep down there's "something to chew on."
  • It will be for the iPad and iPhone, but will look prettier on the iPad.
  • Robert Ashley did some voicework for a character called "Logfella." I won't spoil it for you, but it's really funny.
  • The art style is called "Rustic 21st Century Minimalism." The entire game just looks beautiful. I really want to play this on an iPad.
  • If I were you, I'd check out some of the cool stuff on superbrothers.ca. Superbrothers (one dude) has created a lot of interesting videos.
And that was Sword & Sworcery EP. It almost makes me want an iPad.

Also, I played Niddhog against Messhof and lost, but I swear I held my own.

Other stuff I saw, summed up shortly because it wasn't quite as cool as everything else:
  • Inside a Dead Skyscraper was a frustrating, annoying "music video game" that was apparently about 9/11. I got tired of the song and trying to figure out what the game wanted from me after a while and I quit.
  • Super Columbine Massacre RPG is apparently so controversial they had to make a documentary and bother kids who were in the attack about it. It was obviously made with RPG Maker, but was well-done for a game like that. It gets points from me for existing for purposes other than pure shock value and actually trying to get into the minds of the killers but loses all the points for shoddy gameplay that gets in the way of that.
  • Tiny and Big had a grapple gun, a laser beam, a physics engine as well as a few kinks to work out.
  • Tube Monkey was the weirdest game I saw there.
As far as the Arcade part of the Fest goes, I think it's a brilliant idea and I can't wait for them to expand it next year, which they will undoubtedly do. Hopefully next year they won't let kids under 13 in though, and will find a bigger area to have the Street Fighter tournaments in.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fantastic Arcade

"Don't be a fucking pussy."

This is something Johnathan Blow, maker of widely acclaimed indie title Braid, told everybody today at a panel about indie games. "Making indie games is only terrifying if you have nothing serious to worry about" he continued, responding to comments made by fellow panelists Jim Monroe and Derek Yu that getting into the indie development scene can be "terrifying."

This was one of many highlights of day 1 of the festival, which also included special movie screenings, showcases from local Texas developers, after parties that I didn't go to, and of course many, many awesome games. So below I'll briefly go over the coolest things I saw and did.




The first thing I saw was a 1:1 recreation of the room I was in in Left 4 Dead 2. Joshua Driggs (AKA Zapwizard) was commissioned by Fantastic Fest to recreate the Highball, Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and parking lot in the game. He did an extremely good job and literally recreated everything to an absurd degree. He told me that the map will be available for download in a little more than a week, so stay on the lookout for that. His website also goes into detail on how he made it, if you're interested.

The first indie game I played was Enviro-Bear 2000. This game, like the other "spotlight games," was given its own detailed arcade cabinet in addition to a spot on the computers they set up in the main room. I almost dismissed it, but once I figured out its insane controls I was hooked and played for seven levels straight. In the game you play as a bear driving around the woods looking for enough food to hibernate before time runs out and winter starts. The catch is, you can only drive the car with one hand. That means pressing the gas and break, holding the steering wheel and switching gears (from drive to reverse and vice versa) one at a time. Obviously the car is difficult to steer. The artwork relays how ridiculous the concept is, though if you eat a colorful mushroom in the game all the graphics turn photo-realistic. Somehow, it's more bizarre that way.

After that, I went to go see Richard Garriott deliver his "keynote speech to kick off the inaugural Fantastic Fest Arcade." It was merely okay. In it, he mentioned how important it is to focus on selling an authentic experience in a game, that he's an "indie" developer because he has a new company, that he likes to collect stories, that you need to work hard and play hard, that he went into space, and he summed it all up by saying "geeks and gamers will rule the world."

I asked the person next to me if they could summarize what the man's speech was about in a sentence. They couldn't. But I could do it in two words: Richard Garriott. The man basically talked about himself for a little under an hour. So that was weird.

Following that was the panel with Johnathan Blow, Jim Munroe and Derek Yu, hosted by Brandon Boyer. The panel was called "Declaration of Independents" and was about how each member of the panel got into making indie games. At one point Boyer asked the panel whether or not they would consider today to be a "Golden Age" for indie games. Johnathan Blow responded by saying that there are a lot more people making games today thanks to stuff like game jams, but that "game jam culture" is damaging because it doesn't focus enough on exploring game mechanics more fully, and that we would benefit greatly from artists deeply investigating their subject matter.

After that panel, I went and played Feist for a while. Another game with difficult-to-master controls, Feist surprised me with its puzzles and strange enemies. Eventually it won me over with its floaty physics engine and strange silhouette-style art. The idea that your main character was a fuzzball whose health was measured in how much hair it had amused me though. I won't be surprised if people compare it to Braid when it comes out, though this game is far less mechanic-oriented and more style/narrative based.



In Cactus's Norrland, you essentially play a redneck on a hunting trip, and not one grizzly detail of the process is left out. There are Warioware-style mini-games for eating, drinking, pissing, shitting, masturbating (yep!) and dreaming (those are the most interesting ones). There are also mini-games for fighting deer, bears and other woodland creatures that may attack you. The game's style is one of the most interesting I've seen, with an extreme retro look overlayed by what I can only call distortion. This was possibly the most engaging game I played during the festival, at least so far.

Then I was the first to lose during the Canabalt tournament, which is essentially the same thing as saying that I was the first person to play in the tournament. Oh Canabalt. If we were playing the iPhone version I would have won, just saying...

Nidhogg was an incredibly simple and incredibly fun multi-player game. The setup included two NES controllers, which was a plus. The way the guide book describes it is "fencing meets football," and that's essentially what it is. You fight with the other player to the death, except you have infinite lives and the point isn't to kill them, but to get as far on their side as possible. Once you get all the way to the end of their side of the map, you win. Simple mechanics done well make this a great multiplayer game.

The most depressing game I saw was Ulitsa Dimitrova. The website sums it up nicely: "This is a game about a seven year old homeless child who lives in St. Petersburg. He's a chainsmoker and has to get cigarettes all the time. And if you stop playing, things come even worse..." Spoiler alert: you die.

Every game I played today was really good. Unlike today's mass-market pleasure-center-stoking games like Call of Duty or Halo or World of Warcraft, these games attempted to get the player to stop focusing on victory and start focusing on what makes them special. The common thread among all the games, whether presented in art style, gameplay or sound, was that they made you wonder why the games were made they way they were. That, my friends, is one of the hallmarks of good art.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Some Old BS

Here's some stuff I did for Crustcake but forgot to put here:

Buzzov-en get back together, tour, record album
Interview with Faiza Kracheni about Mindless, Hatred Surge, other stuff

What else have I been busy doing? School, work, etc.

I'm the industry officer for the Electronic Game Developers Society at UT Austin.

Big things coming up hopefully. In the meantime, peace.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Words on Wires

I've been busy. Man have I been busy, following impulse and being successful with it. Craaazy. Here's some stuff:
Bastard Noise Live review
Slaughter Strike Interview
The Crustcast, episode 4
Me getting excited about This Comp Kills vol 2:
eh
oh

Next up is an interview with the lovely Faiza Kracheni, who I talked to about her band Mindless and a couple other things.

In anything I write for now on, I'm not interested in putting hyperlinks in my text. They're distracting. I'd rather write everything, mention something, then put it in a list of links at the end of the article. Why spread your brain out like that? Focus. Focus builds you. Don't spread yourself out over technology and let the interbugs take little bits away from you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Crustcake: Weekend Nachos, Nails

Two bands I'm totally stoked on. Two posts.
1. Cake in the Oven - Nails' Unsilent Death
2. New Weekend Nachos song totally rules. That groove part in the middle is the best. My favorite Chicago band by far.

New stuff coming too, focusing on local bands like Mindless, Esclavo, etc etc. Hopefully some interviews. Podcast featuring special guests as well. Maybe a talk on the issue of hipsters.

Also, metal is dead. Maybe that's another discussion for the podcast.

One last thing: I've been at Crustcake for a year now, but it's a full three years old! Hell yeah!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Video games are art

Roger Ebert is a shit-stirrer. After sparking the "games as art" debate for the first time and then walking away to let us try and deal with it, he recently updated his personal blog with another entry on why video games can never be art. Of course people in the gaming community are getting upset. One person commented to Ebert that "you just don't get it" while this guy thinks that the stories in games are just as good as those in movies and therefore games can be art too.

I'm not concerned with arguing against any particular point Ebert made beside the one that says "video games can never be art." So that's what I'm going to do.

First off, gamers have it wrong. Orson Scott Card, who has written dialogue for a few games, was absolutely correct when he said that story in video games is about as meaningful as the windmills and props on a miniature golf course. In the games-as-art debate, "meaningful story" is one of the most oft-cited qualities of games that project them to the status of art. This is wrong, and it's simply the wrong direction to go in while proving that video games can be art.

I'll argue that video games already are art. Or, more accurately, video games are an artistic medium like music, paintings, film or poetry are. Another misconception that people have about games is that an individual game can be "elevated" to the status of art. That's not how art works. You can have good art and bad art, but bad art isn't disqualified from being art just because it's bad.

A piece of art is a work in a creative medium that conveys meaning in a form that is unique to that medium, to be experienced for its own sake. Poetry is the art of the written word, music is the art of sound and paintings are the art of paint. Video games are the art of digital interactivity.

Video games are defined by four properties:
1. They are digital
2. They are interactive
3. They have rules that define the interaction
4. They are played for their own sake

The first two properties define the medium of the video game. Something that isn't digital or interactive simply can't be a video game. I think everybody can agree with this.

The third property is perhaps the most important in arguing that video games are an artistic medium. The rules in a video game define the player's experience with that game. Even a game like Flower, which appears to have no rules or objectives, is at a base level governed by rules (such as those created by the in-game physics engine, which determines what happens based on player input). The rules of a video game are comparable to the laws of physics in real life - everything that happens is subject to and caused by them.

The process of game design is the creation of rules and arrangement of elements that will interact with them (including the player). Designing a game is like painting, or editing a movie, or writing a poem - you can set everything up the way you want and fine-tune it all, but the person experiencing your work will come away with their own interpretation. If you did a good job, it'll be similar to what you wanted them to come away with.

The question in your mind now is hopefully "but how can one create meaning through rules and interaction?" This is the right question. Truth be told though, very few people are asking it and there are even less answers. Jason Rohrer, an indie game developer, is one of those people. His game Passage is a good example of a game where meaning comes purely through playing the game. Rohrer has dedicated a lot of his time to finding out whether or not games "can be" art (though the question is whether games are art, and the answer is yes). He even typed up a new gamist manifesto, which is interesting, though I disagree with a few of the points.

To back-peddle a little bit though, I want to readdress story in games. While story in video games isn't the factor that allows them to be art, it can sometimes be integral to conveying artistic meaning. What one must understand is that story provides context for player action. Story, art and sound provide a lens through which to view player interaction, giving it artistic meaning. For example, Bioshock used its story to provide an excuse for its linearity, revealing to the player in a major twist (spoilers) that they were a lab-grown slave. This revelation also functioned as a reminder that while the player is in immediate control of their actions, ultimately they have to do what the game tells them to do if they want to progress. It was a brilliant commentary on false non-linearity in first person shooters, which they unfortunately followed by continuing with the linear experience.



Imagine how much more artistically sound the game would have been if your character was forced to kill himself after the revelation instead of continuing with the linear experience. I'm sure there are numerous reasons the designers didn't have this happen though, especially because the average gamer wouldn't be able to handle it and would just say "it sucked." Perhaps the morality system in the game was a way to give the player some sense of control after they realized they ultimately didn't have any.

I digress though.

Moving ahead, gamers need to realize that what makes games unique is their interactivity. If gamers are truly interested in seeing games as art, they should actually study art. The search for the "most artistic game" is horribly misled if driven by a blind need to validate all the time sunk into a fun hobby.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What Makes a Video Game a Video Game

With casual and “self-help” games making up a large percentage of the digital entertainment market today, gamers and game journalists sometimes question whether certain titles are games at all. Can we really consider, for example, Brain Age to be in the same category as Super Mario Bros? To answer this question, one must answer another question first: what makes a video game a video game?

For something to be a video game, it must match three requirements. First, it must be digital. The computer is a playing field that can be restructured and reprogrammed into an infinite amount of configurations and the ways the player can interact with the environment are, again, potentially infinite. That interaction is the second of the three requirements, for if the player couldn’t interact with the software, then it would be dead weight on the computer – hard drive space that cannot be used or manipulated. However, interactivity isn’t a quality unique to video games. Perhaps the most important aspect of what makes a video game a video game is this: it must compel the player to master its mechanics.

I know that this is still a broad definition, and could still encompass many computer programs that aren’t intended to be games. However, a program like Microsoft Word wouldn’t be considered a game because it doesn’t compel the user to master its mechanics – the user brings their own motivation to Word and uses it as a tool. The player of a video game must be playing the game for the sake of doing so. Any other motivations behind the player’s interaction turn the game into a utility.

call of duty's scoreboard
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's end-game scoreboard

Keep in mind though, that in art, one must separate the creator’s intention from the piece and look at it objectively. If Microsoft Word compels somebody to master its features without that person wanting to use it for something else beforehand, who am I to say that Word isn’t a game to that person? It may very well be. On the other hand, a student may use a game like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to prove that they can get a higher score than their friends to gain social acceptance. In this instance, the game turns into a tool, even though the creators meant for it to be a game. However, we can question the game’s usefulness as a tool and the tool’s usefulness as a game, and perhaps they are better at their creator-intended roles.

Half-life 2's crowbar
Is Half-Life 2's crowbar better as a tool or a weapon?

While a weapon can be used as a tool and vice versa, the same is true less often for software. The digital plane allows for an infinite degree of customization. Environments that we could previously only imagine come to life in the realm of the computer, allowing video games to explore areas that can’t be found (or found easily) outdoors.

Metroid NES
The original Metroid didn't offer much motive or direction, yet players were enticed by the ability to explore and find new weapons and areas

Exploration of the game’s features is central to the nature of the video game. A game cannot be a game unless somebody is interacting with it – or else it’s just a piece of plastic, or megabytes taking up a hard drive. Interactivity (defined in my RTF textbook as communication that uses feedback to modify a message as it is presented) makes a game breathe and come to life. The way interactivity is presented makes the game what it is and defines our experience with the game.

Game mechanics are methods of interacting with games. Often, smaller games have one mechanic, as is the case with one-button jumper Canabalt. In larger, big-budget titles like GTA IV, multiple mechanics are combined as parts of the whole. Often, game mechanics stand out as purchasing points for games – Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, Red Faction: Guerilla’s realistically destructible buildings, or even Mass Effect’s branching story lines, which are based on the player’s narrative choices. The Sims combined mechanics of house-building and NPC management to huge success.

As in The Sims, video games do not have to have rigidly defined goals, or any goals at all. Game-defined goals are traditionally used to get players to use the game’s mechanics, as is the case in Space Invaders, Mario, or any game that presents an objective to reach. A few games offer no more reason to use the mechanics provided other than the fulfillment that comes out of doing so. When a person is using the presented mechanics for the sake of doing so, they are then playing the game.

Flower
According to Wikipedia, in Flower "it is impossible for the player to lose a level or even lose any progress. The game features no enemies, hit points, or time limits."

Game design is the art of arranging game mechanics in a way that compels the player to use them. We may judge a game based on its ability to make us care about our interactions with it – a bad game is one that inspires apathy or ignorance towards its mechanics. Whether the game presents cut-scenes, an immersive game world, a slide show or some expositional text does not matter, as long as the player wants to play the game. Narrative explanation for game mechanics isn’t even necessary, as a game like Super Mario Bros. can be played without the player knowing anything about the story. Alone, the game mechanics are still engaging.

Even as games get more complex and story-oriented, the focus will still be on gameplay. The question people should be asking about narrative-heavy games is “does the story compel me to play?” After all, narrative is just another way to get the player to use the game’s mechanics.

Mass Effect
In Mass Effect, narrative interaction was the most important mechanic

Fancy graphics are a good way to get people to buy a game today, just like they were a good way to get people to go see Avatar. But whether or not a game – or that movie – will stand the test of time depends on the substance that lies beneath the glitter. Good design, incorporating digital elements of interactivity, is what will immortalize a game.

Will the future remember Super Mario Bros, Brain Age or both as games then? One could argue that both will be. Brain Age, which says that it will keep your mind fresh, might be considered a tool, but the promise that your mind will keep fresh is presented within the game itself, which makes that promise a motivation for the player to use the mechanics. Simply, the game compels the player to play the game, and that’s all anybody asked from a video game anyway.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Crustcake: SXSW Shows, News, CitO

fuck yeah!

News, in regard to SXSW this year:
Crustcake, Brooklynvegan and 1000 Knives put on a secret day show!"
ACTION! PR announce SXSW showcase featuring High on Fire's only appearance
Relapse Records announces SXSW showcase

So, I'm REALLY excited about this show we're putting on with Brooklynvegan and 1000 Knives. Fred, Rich and I (and also Sean kinda) all worked together to make this show happen, and it's going to be AWESOME. Not to mention, FREE. So, if you're in Austin during that time, go.

The Action! PR and Relapse showcases are at the same time at night - I suggest going to the Action! PR one, because it's taking place in the Mohawk, which is also hosting the Prosthetic records showcase. I like Relapse and everything, but I'd rather see High on Fire, Withered, Landmine Marathon, etc. I want to see Howl at the Relapse showcase, but the only other bands I like that are going to be at that show are local and I can see them more often. So, Mohawk it is.

Band-specific news:
Howl Release artwork for album Full of Hell
Southern Lord sign The Secret

Pretty sweet stuff, both of those bands sound awesome, and I can't wait for their new releases.

ALSO. I did a "Cake in the Oven" feature for Fuck the Facts' new EP Unnamed. It's a really good EP and I think you should order it and support this band. They put it out themselves, almost entirely DIY.

To come: Interview with Kill the Client, Crustcast Episode 3, more SXSW news, more local stuff, more love.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Crustcast Episode 2

Yeah, we did a second one. And yeah, it's awesome.

http://www.crustcake.com/2010/02/crustcast-episode-2.html

Thursday, February 11, 2010

7 ways Google can take over social networking

Google's Twitter-esque Gmail extension, Google Buzz, came out yesterday to mixed reception. Some people were overwhelmed by the fact that there was another social networking site, others didn't see the point, a few were worried about security issues, and still others said they loved it (like myself).

It wasn't the best launch Google could have had for it. While on the Buzz side of things users could sync with their Bloggers (like my own), Picasas and Google Reader shared items, integration wasn't what it should have been. Privacy was, and still is, a concern for some people, and Google could have gone to greater lengths to make the process easier to understand. It also doesn't help that they didn't launch with an actual iPhone app.

Despite all this, Google is still in a good position to become the best social networking tool on the web. Here's how they can do it:

  • Integration across all services: Blogger, Youtube, even Calendar need to function better in concert with Buzz. My profile on Blogger and Youtube shouldn't be able to have different information than my Google Profile. These should all by synced, so I'm creating an identity for myself across the web. As for Youtube in particular, why isn't there already a link for Buzz under the "Share" tab under every video?

    As for a service like Calendar, Google should go the distance and strive to make it a replacement for Facebook's events application.

  • Advanced Privacy Settings: When Buzz first hit, people were more concerned with privacy than they were interested in the product. Google should offer Facebook-like privacy settings for every item posted on every product. I should be able to choose exactly who sees the videos I post/share on Youtube, the posts I make on my blog, every Buzz I make, and each individual detail on my profile. Sometimes the link that's appropriate for your college friends isn't appropriate for your Grandma.

    I'm aware that Google offers various privacy options on each of their products, but they need to standardize them for the convenience of the user.

  • Better user organization features: Currently, Buzz gives you the option of following your most frequently contacted chat and e-mail buddies, but that's not enough. Finding people that you know over the service should be easier, and your "friends" on their other products should be your "friends" in Buzz. Currently, the closest thing Google has to a friend system is the "contacts" list in Gmail. If Google was smart, they would enhance the "contacts" feature to add more Facebook-like functions - networks would be a good place to start.

    If I have a friend on Youtube, shouldn't they also be among my contacts? Of course, how much they could see depends on the privacy features. Also, if a "friend" allows me to see their contact information on their profile, shouldn't that information sync with the "contact" I have for them?

  • Rip off Facebook - Hard: While there might be links to my Blog, Youtube profile and Picasa albums on my Google Profile, why not provide thumbnails and excerpts on the side in the same fashion as Facebook? It also wouldn't hurt to make the Gmail inbox a central place for access to all Google products, just like you can access all your apps from the Facebook homepage

  • Keep e-mail separate from it all: having a user profile that people can follow and contacts that you can communicate with easily is cool and all, but e-mails are private. Right now, you can follow somebody on Buzz without having their e-mail, which is good. It should stay that way for all services.

  • Create a real iPhone App: if I see the Weinermobile driving through my campus, I should be able to Buzz the picture, my witty remark, my geotag and maybe even a hashtag immediately. This would be easier if I didn't have to use a lame link through Safari on the iPhone.

  • Let people play with it: both Twitter and Facebook allow coders to make their own utilities that improve on the features of both respective websites. Hell, Twitter wouldn't have half of it's features today if it weren't for the users. Speaking of Twitter, why can't I search through public buzz yet?


  • In short, Google has to play nice with other people and even themselves, and start consolidating their empire of products more completely. If they do it, the internet will be a more convenient place than ever.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Crustcake: Them Crooked Vultures and Down

I made two more posts on Crustcake today. The first is a Cake in the Oven for Them Crooked Vultures, an album and supergroup I've come to like more than I thought I would. The other is a Crusty Clip of Down performing "Stone the Crow."