alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
This is a really hard game for me to write about, on many levels.

It’s a small budget independent game, but takes as its subject matter AAA game development. This is perhaps unsurprising, as about two thirds of the creative team were powerhouses on the Bioshock franchise.

I’d been looking forward to it for some time on that basis, but by the time it came out, I was terminally unemployed and broke :( However, a friend of mine recently gifted me a copy, so now I have (mostly) played it.

The main meat of the game involves wandering around in the side an unfinished game world, trying to fix (or sabotage) it, while the developers bicker and fail to accomplish much, like a particularly dysfunctional pantheon of gods. It’s delightfully meta-. Most of the story content is ABOUT the nature of story content in an interactive medium. Similarly, most of the gameplay requires the player to actively engage in thinking about how gameplay systems interact. Playing this main portion of the game felt a lot like being a QA tester again, reminding me how much fun I had when I first entered the industry.

The writing and voice work are both very good. Those not in the industry might be inclined to think that the satire was a little over-the-top. I have to say, not really. Compressed, maybe; you experience, in the course of a handful of hours, a range of craziness more typical of an industry year. But the extremes of what happens are all too accurate.

There were parts of the game that seems to speak DIRECTLY to my personal experience. Though I think they probably weren’t drawn from literal shared experiences, as these patterns recur across the industry. I felt similarly when reading Austin Grossman’s recent novel, _You_, based partly on his early years at Looking Glass. Several scenarios in that book were eerily familiar, despite the fact that Austin and I had completely non-overlapping time at LG.

I made it to (what felt like) the final segment of the game, but couldn’t actually bring myself to finish it. (Spoilers.) In this section, the player is dropped into what amounts to a simplified game editor, and tasked by one of the characters with building a small level and populating it with gameplay. I interacted with the editor for a little while, and then was suddenly hit with an overpowering emotional reaction. “I’m working on a gameplay design task, with no clear mandate of what I’m supposed to accomplish, and which will eventually be evaluated by standards I have no control over. I’m in HELL! AGAIN!” Just a horrible, visceral flashback to the worst periods of working with Ken Levine. Quit to desktop.

I’m reasonably sure that the game devs did not INTEND to spur that reaction. I can hardly be considered a typical audience member in this regard. But I’m unlikely to pick it up again anytime soon.

That said, I do strongly recommend the first three quarters or so of the game to anyone who is interested in the ins and outs of game development.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
For anyone who has ever contemplated (or had) a career in mainstream game development, you need to check this out. A short, devastatingly accurate game about a typical late-in-production game design meeting. It's from the writer's point of view, but the experience maps to most other jobs equally well.

The Writer Will Do Something
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Our first outside bit of PR just hit. We're still a long way from being able to make a big PR push, but I'm happy that we're already of some interest :-)

http://betaboston.com/news/2014/10/17/chalking-up-latest-wins-and-losses-in-the-local-videogame-scene/

Closure

Apr. 10th, 2014 05:38 pm
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
So yesterday, I finally finished playing the last bit of Bioshock Infinite DLC. The first time I've been able to play a Bioshock game with mostly fresh eyes in some years.

Not to get too spoil-y about it, but the story brought the "Bioshock saga" full circle in a way that I found quite unsatisfying. All the thematic development that was done in the full game was effectively UNdone by this DLC. IMAO, of course.

When someone leaves a game project before it completes, the standard industry practice is merely to list those people in the credits under "thanks". Irrational was at least a bit better. They put all such people (of whom there were *many* for this project) in a section at the end, with "Additional" next to their titles. So I'm credited as "Additional Design". That's the credit I had on System Shock 2, in 1998. Looks like I, too, have come full circle.

After the credits ended, and it brought me back to the main menu, I selected exit. "Are you sure you want to exit game?" Yes, I am. I've never been more sure. There are so many levels on which I am not playing that game ever again. That chapter of my life is OVER. There were lots of good times, but also way too many bad ones. Time to move on, and build something new.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
So, my chronic depression is in remission. I'd like to claim to be cured, but I think it's a lot like alcoholism – I get through *today* without misery and self-loathing, and that's a victory. That's a big part of why I haven't posted much in the last while, and I feel like filling y'all in on what’s been going on.

I've been having increasing troubles for roughly the last two years. It peaked in January, as my father's death sunk in. And the ongoing physical health issues certainly aren't helping. But in hindsight, neither of those factors was at the root of my problem.

I have lots of people in my life who regularly reinforce the notion that, socially, I am a Cool Person. This is necessary to keep out of depression, but not sufficient. What I *didn't* have for most of the last two years, but have recently regained, is having people in my life who assure me that I am a Worthy Professional. (It turns out that friends who are not in the games industry are no good for this purpose, even if they are gamers, because I just don't trust their opinions in this matter.)

[Digression: It seems that depression (especially Imposter Syndrome) is endemic in the games industry. People at mainstream companies don't talk about it in public, for career reasons, but a lot of them suffer. And tons of indie game creators have "come out" about their issues. Hell, there are at least three games out there *about* the experience of depression.]

Irrational Games (my old company, who laid me off last September) was not the most sanely-run company. I don't want to dwell on the details too much, but for my last few years there, I was feeling increasingly unappreciated and unvalued. This led to what I now acknowledge to be depression, though I was largely in denial at the time. And, unsurprisingly, being depressed negatively impacted my productivity, which made me valued less, which made me more depressed...

This was made even worse in the final year, when there simply wasn't enough work to go around. I'd sit at my desk web-browsing for hours on end. I tried to start writing my own game project a few times, but I found that just don't have all the necessary mojo to do that on my own. When the layoffs came in September 2013, it wasn't much of a surprise.

In mid-February of 2014, Irrational Games shut down entirely, which had a number of interesting effects. For one, it made the stigma of having been laid off earlier sting a lot less. For another, it meant that suddenly there were tons of HR recruiters pinging me on LinkedIn, which lifted my mood a bit. But *most* importantly, it started a number of people deciding to start up new indie gaming companies in the Boston area.

One such 'group' contacted me. It turned out eventually that it was mostly one slightly crazy guy who was trying to put something together based on charisma and business contacts, rather than a concrete plan. But he *did* have at least that much going for him, I liked him personally, and I didn't have anything better to do, so what the hell. He asked me if I knew anyone else who might be interested, so I sent out a few feelers. Most didn't nibble, but...

Flashback to about five years ago. I'm working on a small sub-project with a single programmer, named Shane Mathews. We click really well together. We think similarly, but our skill sets only overlap a little, and we produce work we're really proud of when we work together. In reference to things that were going on a lot in the industry at the time, I said to Shane "If you ever decide to split off and form your own studio, I am *totally* in." But that never happened, though we worked together at Irrational on and off over the years.

Last September, just after I got laid off, I got a note from Shane expressing his regret, and mentioning that he had (unrelatedly) just served notice, as he was joining a small financial software company that had a lot of ex-Irrational people at it.

So in February, I contact Shane about this new group, and he apparently had been missing the creative life, *and* working with me specifically, so he came on board part-time, though keeping his day job.

By early March, it became clear that the 'group', as such, was disintegrating. But Shane, mirabile dictu, *really* wanted to work with me. I had tossed out a dozen or so game 'design sketches' as proposals for the group to discuss shortly before we fell apart, and Shane was excited about one of them, and thought that the two of us could probably pull it off by ourselves (with some contract Art down the line). So we're going for it! Shane's keeping his day job, putting in some time on nights and weekends (or while waiting for compiles at work :-) I'm living on credit, plus an annuity from my dad's estate, plus a small stipend from Shane, but I can do that for a year or two. With luck, within six to nine months we can get the project to a state where we can start getting some income via Kickstarter and Steam Early Access.

(I'll write more about the game itself in another post.)

As soon as I was fully committed to working on this project, and also believed that Shane was as well (which, given my depression, took a lot of repetition on his part), I started feeling *tons* better -- even though, from a financial, career-oriented perspective this is a pretty insanely risky move. But it's the only path I see that has a real (if, realistically, small) shot at giving me long-term sustainable Bliss. And that makes the risk seem totally worth it.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
So, I read an article today about the ingrained sexism in the games industry. As I often do, I shared it on FB.

Then I realized that I didn't just have to stop there. I went into our game design wiki and added a page on Diversity. I didn't have to wait for Corporate or Marketing approval, I just *did* it.

*Wow*, that feels good!
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Feminist Frequency has been doing a Youtube series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games. If you haven't checked it out already, I commend it to your attention. The latest episode touches on an issue I have a bit of personal experience with; how even a game which is relatively non-sexist in its *content* can appear extremely sexist *as advertised*.

I remember when Ken unveiled the BioShock Infinite box cover art for the company. Many people on the team were dismayed. We had been spending considerable time and effort working on a game that had as a central Design Pillar "Elizabeth is the soul of the game", and yet she wasn't even on the front cover. As Ken explained, first to us, and later to the press, it was all about Marketing. This was the cover that Marketing believed would sell the most copies.

Feminist Frequency is arguing for social change. It's no accident that the positive examples noted therein are all games from small, independent companies. Games from large corporations are beholden to the Almighty Dollar. Marketing departments, by and large, want to sell games to the audiences that *currently* exist. Attempting to expand the potential audience, or to try and change the attitudes of the existing audience, are not on the agenda. Indeed, they would be seen as financially risky maneuvers, ones that most corporations would not approve.

Of course, change *is* risky. And any tentative experiments which result in failure (or even *perceived* failure) make the suits even less willing to try new things.

Once again, it comes down to Capitalism. When profit is the only standard of value, social issues get ignored.
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
Here's a great article on my old colleague Jon Chey, with a lot of talk about his forthcoming indie game, Card Hunter. http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/2/5/3950872/bioshock-card-hunter

Sharp-eyed viewers may spot a much younger [livejournal.com profile] jducoeur in a group photo :-)
alexxkay: (Bar Harbor)
We recently had a press event where journalists got to go hands-on with the first section of our game. The embargo just lifted, and the articles are pouring in. They love it! Here's a few favorites of mine. The first one is pretty much spoiler-free, the others have some significant spoilers, but only for the first few hours.

Escapist
Eurogamer
PC Gamer
OXM
Videogamer.com

ETA: Good interview with Ken on Gamespot. No spoilers.
alexxkay: (Default)
Bioshock Infinite itself is still a ways away, but there's now a pre-order incentive minigame available, called "Industrial Revolution". I did the vast bulk of the game design on it, and am very happy that people finally get a chance to play it!

http://www.ign.com/videos/2012/10/23/bioshock-infinite-industrial-revolution-commentary
alexxkay: (Default)
Just finished playing a great iOs game called Waking Mars. I really, really enjoyed it. It's a science fiction game about explorers on Mars, discovering the remnants of an ancient ecosystem, whose seeds are still viable. You study the relationships between the various organisms as you attempt to restore this ecosystem to full working order in the mysterious cave beneath the Martian surface.

The game is, in the broadest sense, an action-platformer, but doesn't require extremely high hand-eye coordination. (At least on an iPad. I suspect it would be a bit trickier on a phone-sized screen.) When you bring up the menu of seeds to throw one, the game pauses, making it generally easy to aim.

Besides being an enjoyable experience on its own terms, I got the strong impression that the makers of this game were making some implicit political statements about the possibilities of games, as opposed to the 'accepted wisdom' of the big game companies. This is one of the few games I've played lately that *can't* be described as "shoot, shoot, take their loot"; it's entirely themed around growth, restoration, exploration, and discovery. Yet I found it no less exciting, for all that. The two human protagonists (there are a few AIs in the cast, also) are a Chinese male and an African female, so there's complete gender balance, and not a single Caucasian to be seen. I didn't have any trouble identifying with these protagonists.

Very highly recommended.
alexxkay: (Default)
Here's a great article by one of my favorite game journalists, Tom Chick: Bioware plays the gay card. It starts out about the portrayal of a gay relationship in Mass Effect 3, then goes in some unexpected but interesting directions before looping back 'round to the start. Especially recommended to [livejournal.com profile] londo.

Pax East

Mar. 28th, 2010 01:00 pm
alexxkay: (Default)
I went to Pax East on Friday. There was some neat stuff, but not enough to go back. Have I mentioned lately that I'm mildly crowd-phobic? 17,000 people is (IMAO) too many to cram into the Hynes, and that was just Friday; the following days would be worse. Huge lines to get into everything, so I didn't see any of the scheduled events. (And when I say huge, I mean it; I think the longest was over a quarter mile.) Also, very very loud.

Good stuff:
* Seeing some BioShock cosplayers (photo below).
* Also in the costume dept, a bunch of Team Fortress 2 characters: Sniper, Mechanic, Spy, and Medic.
* Seeing Phil Speer, [livejournal.com profile] shaggyman, Sara Verelli, [livejournal.com profile] darusk, Andrew Plotkin; meeting Elizabeth Short for the first time.
* Seeing [livejournal.com profile] juldea briefly, hanging out with JoCo at the merch table.
* Getting a (relatively) cheap copy of the new, improved, Tales of The Arabian Nights boardgame.
* Having a long-time fan from the UK approach me due to my improvised name badge.

You can tell that the organizers come from internet culture, not fandom culture. The passes were anonymous, and only a few old fogeys like myself had improvised name tags.

Most of the office was there, and I ran into them at one point or another. A couple of my colleagues mentioned that I had a big goofy grin on my face when they saw me across the hall, and that I seemed to be having a great time. Must be a subconscious defense mechanism, 'cause I mostly wasn't.

I might go back next year if they take steps to reduce the density. Somehow, I doubt it, though.

splicer picture )
alexxkay: (Default)
Metaphysics of Game Design
Will Wright

Alexx: This was sort of a surprise keynote. Wright wasn't sure he'd be able to make it, so this was listed in the schedule without any description, and with an obvious pseudonym for the speaker. Apparently the truth got around pretty widely as a rumor, but I stumbled in by accident, thinking the topic sounded intriguing. Not that the actual talk had a lot to do with metaphysics per se. It was exciting and entertaining, but also rather scattered, and trying to say too much in too little time. Is this an endemic problem with GDC keynote speakers? At least this talk, unlike Sid Meier's, was future-facing. Still, I didn't get many directly useful notes out of it.

Read more... )
alexxkay: (Default)
Motivating Casual Players: Non-Traditional Character Progression and Player Retention
Speaker/s: Laralyn McWilliams (Sony Online Entertainment)
Day / Time / Location: Saturday 10:30-11:30 Room 133, North Hall
Track / Format: Business and Management / Lecture
Description: RPGs and MMOs rely on leveling up, stat increases, and item unlocking for the carrots that retain players. Multiplayer shooters and fighting games rely on competition and a skill ramp that encourages players to fight for positioning on ladders and leader boards. Traditional single-player games rely on new areas, new abilities, and storylines to encourage continued play. Yet all of these things are forms of progression.
This presentation presents examples of alternative player progression, using games like Free Realms, Pogo and Halo for development examples. It compares and contrasts progression at both ends of the spectrum to develop a methodology that steps you through the usual and some unusual choices in progression. It also takes a critical look at how casual games, social games and large brands are innovating in progression.

Alexx's notes )
alexxkay: (Default)
Development Telemetry in Video Games Projects
Speaker/s: Georg Zoeller (BioWare Austin/EA)
Day / Time / Location: Friday 4:30- 5:30 Room 131, North Hall
Track / Format: Programming / Lecture
Description: As developement teams increase in size, new methods are required to deal with the ever-increasing complexity of videogame projects. Learn how Bioware leveraged a developer-facing telemetry solution to cope with the challenges of creating games like Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect. This session will provide details on our implementation of development telemetry, discuss some of the practical workflow improvements it has lead to and provide some interesting insights into what happens when you roll out achievements for game developers.

Alexx: I am extremely jealous of this toolset, and want to adopt as much of it as feasible. As a smaller, single-project studio, I presume we can't do all of it, but let's see how much low-hanging fruit we can grab!

Read more... )
alexxkay: (Default)
The Connected Future of Games
Speaker/s: Ray Muzyka (BioWare Corp.), N'Gai Croal (Hit Detection), Brian Reynolds (Zynga), Min Kim (Nexon America Inc.), Jason Holtman (Valve) and Rob Pardo (Blizzard Entertainment)
Day / Time / Location: Friday 3:00- 4:00 Room 306, South Hall
Track / Format: Game Design / Panel
Description: The world is moving online. This shift of content and consumers is challenging every aspect of our business, including design, pricing, distribution and marketing. Companies must not be creatures of habit as the industry evolves from products to services. The definition of games is expanding beyond what one is playing to encompass who one is playing with - and how they play. Come join our thought leaders as they explore the connected future of games.

Alexx's notes )
alexxkay: (Default)
The Nuovo Sessions
Speaker/s: Daniel Benmergui (Independent), Ian Bogost (The Georgia Institute of Technology), Matthew Wegner (Flashbang Studios), Steve Swink (Flashbang Studios), Ian Dallas (Giant Sparrow), Jarrad Woods (Farbs Farbs Farbs), Jonatan (Cactus) Soderstrom (Cactus Software), Alexander Bruce (), Terry Cavanagh () and Justin Smith ()
Day / Time / Location: Friday 1:30- 2:30 Room 306, South Hall
Track / Format: Game Design / Lecture
Description: 'The Nuovo Sessions' is a look at some of the new, alternative games and game concepts nominated for the Independent Games Festival's Nuovo Awards, along with prototypes and productions from like-minded individuals. (It replaces the time slot originally held for the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, which will skip 2010 and return in 2011.)

Alexx: Lot of nifty stuff shown off very quickly. Not much relevant talk, but the games themselves were often interesting. Links here.

A Slow Year
creativity arises from constraints
making a game for the atari 2600 must create infinite creativity!
previously made a game for both atari 2600 cartridge, and for iPhone - Cartridge made more money (audience applause)

Chaim Gingold showed a bunch of prototype for works in progress. One of them I loved: "adobe illustrator with castles"

Tuning: mechanics of a classic platformer, but innovative display techniques to make it seem harder than it is.

unfinished swan
Wants to create curiosity and wonder -- not puzzle challenges, more relaxed exploration
goal: new stuff every 30-60 seconds
alexxkay: (Default)
The Psychology of Game Design (Everything You Know Is Wrong)
Speaker/s: Sid Meier (Firaxis Games)
Day / Time / Location: Friday 10:30-11:30 North Hall D, Lower Level
Track / Format: Game Design / Keynote
Description: When designing a game, particularly one based on real-world or historical topics, it might seem that hard facts, physical principles, painstaking research, and mathematical formulas would provide the foundation for a successful game. Wrong. These and many other seemingly useful tools will have to take a back seat to the real driving force in game design: the psychology of the player.

Gameplay is a psychological experience: it's all in your head. The vagaries of human psychology define your game more than the laws of physics or algebra. Egomania, Paranoia, Delusion - these are tools to be wielded with precision and care. For the player, perception is reality and the center of the universe is right here. As we follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion we discover a number of amazing things, among them: everyone is above average, 2/1 is not equal to 20/10, and the player is his/her own worst enemy.

Using actual examples from Civilization Revolution, Pirates!, and other games we'll look at how including player psychology as a fundamental part of game design can lead us to some strangely counterintuitive places and save us millions of dollars in time and resources. Along the way we'll learn why AI's should not be too smart, how nuclear weapons are like knocking over a chess board, and why gamers can't be trusted.

Alexx: This talk was very disappointing. Sid Meier is undeniably one of the greatest game designers of the twentieth century -- which ended some time ago. He hasn't kept up. He seems totally unaware of the growing role of metrics, and is still trying to design his games entirely by intuition. That said, some of what he covered is still true and valuable, if not exactly news. Here's some of that:

* When the player fails, always make sure they know what went wrong. They are then motivated to prevent that outcome from happening next time -- encourages replay.

* Designers tend to like to mathematically simulate situations -- players' expectations rarely match reality, though!
(Alexx version: We're not simulating reality, we're simulating an action movie.)

* Leverage the player's imagination. Go with flow -- present things player already wants to believe (I'm teh awesome!) with little art support.

* AI doesn't need to be another 'real' player -- role of AI is to be a foil.
- Players are predisposed to see AI as either dumb or cheating -- making the AI actually smart tends not to be perceived.
- Another AI function is to acknowledge and validate the player's actions; adds a bit of social dimension to single-player games

* Interesting decisions are ones which cause the player to think about the future, and to later wonder if they made the right call.

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Alexx Kay

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