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").


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 (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.