Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sunday, April 28, 2013

EAE Day and Wrapping Up the Semester

We made some decent progress on our game this week and made some important decisions. First of all, I was elected the designer of the game. So the 100% pay raise was really why I did it (that's still $0). Seriously though, I was happy to take the job and its nice to have that job title's direction. I'm still currently implementing the Wiki (it's been a busy week, for everyone) but it seemed fairly unanimous that I was the person for the job, and its nice to know that I instill that confidence in people. We also decided that we wouldn't have a second designer. In this way, there's one person who deals with the tough decisions and does the work to get the design written down and figured out. Everyone else on the team is basically the second designer. We also decided that Brianne would be the Product Manager, and she'll be making sure we keep ourselves in check in regards to the scope of the design and the target of our design. So she'll focus on questions like "Who is the audience?" or "Would the audience want this feature?" or "What platforms does our audience want to play on?" I think the entire designer role brainstorm turned out really well, and everyone seems to be pretty happy about the situation.

Tuesday was EAE day, where the Capstone undergrad students and Cohort 2 got to show off their finished games, and we in Cohort 3 got to show off where we were in our game creation process. This was actually super helpful to get some outside playtesting in. I basically sat in the backroom and watched people play Vinyl for about 4 hours. It was great. I tried to go out to "network" as much as I could, but I was much more concerned with how people played our game than making contacts. I'll make contacts when I make something worth showing, but right now I'm trying my best to make something people want to play. I did wander around the room a few times, but most people were a little preoccupied with the finished games of course.

So what was the result of the feedback? Most people did not like our lack of gameness. JP, who was on the industry panel, didn't like the new direction. He missed the pitch modulation (which is coming back in; it was just broken for this build) and he felt like he could just hit buttons in a different program and get the same effects, without playing a game. And he's totally right. I wrote a fairly large playtest email last Sunday (after my last blog post) that said a lot of the same things. We've just lost the fun of the original prototype somewhere along the way, but that's okay. Better to know now what doesn't work than 6 months from now. The overall theme of the playtesting on EAE day was "What am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing? And what do the lasers do?"

So the lasers. Those don't work for me. Basically, I would see the rail to grind on the side of our pipe, attempt to get to it, and get blocked by a stupid laser on the way. Last weekend I added the ability to grind on lasers, using Jason K's code to grind on rails and modifying it slightly. It worked really well I thought, but I didn't want to upload a new build right before EAE day, so we still need to playtest that. But we have to do something with those lasers.

Anyway, a short post today. Finals week is next week and I have a few papers to finish up. We have a plan for the next week with a new sprint and it should be a good start to the summer work. See you next time.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Design Doc Writing and a Re-evaluation

This past week we got a build done, got some features implemented, and all in all everything went pretty smoothly. However, over the last week it became more and more apparent that we needed some kind of design document to make sure, at the very least, that everyone was on the same page in regards to the game design. Since, as Jason K put it, I was the closest thing we had to a design document, I should probably write that up. So, after spending a good deal of time looking for the best way to write a design up for our game, I came up with this:

To be honest, there was a little more selfishness to my plan to write up the design document. Part of me still holds on to that idea that Vinyl is "my baby" when in actuality it is now the collective baby of 11 people. I've just spent so much time with it over the last semester that it's hard for me to break from that feeling. But I'm trying. The other part is that I very much want to be a designer, and I recognize that most design work is not sitting in a room thinking of ideas; being the "idea person". That's the kind of thinking done by people who want to be a "designer" but don't know the first thing about actually making games. Also, design is very much a craft, and you have to practice a craft, so I wanted to practice.

Lastly, its been discussed with just about everyone on the team, individually or one-on-one, that we need some sort of designer, and I want to be that person. Basically, we need someone to steer the ship and make cuts. We started off very nebulous when we added our new teammates at the first gate, and for good reason. It was important that everyone contributed to the core of the game and to make them feel like they were a part of the team, that they were heard. At this point, as we are quickly approaching the summer and alpha, we need to make cuts and guide the design. As I want to guide my own education towards my desired career path, I want to be the designer on this game.

 I sent out a couple of long emails this weekend, mostly regarding new position in the team (to be taken on top of existing responsibilities) and with my design document attached for everyone's perusal. I also started a wiki on ShoutWiki, since that was the easiest way to have something remotely hosted which used the MediaWiki technology. MediaWiki seems really well made and is used be Wikipedia. I think the MediaWiki software will allow us more freedom than the Google Sites wiki template we were using before. Although the wiki will soon become a repository for design/tech/art/etc., right now its just a front page. But check it out, that color scheme is awesome (thanks Alice):

My plan for the design part of the wiki is to have an overall design layout (very similar to the document above), but each mechanic will have its own page. On those pages, the template will look something like this (click on the picture for the actual Google Doc):

I want to call attention specifically to the Why? section. This exists because our team believes mechanics need to be tied to a problem that needed to be solved, or a situation which needed to be more enjoyable/unique/interesting/etc., and this is the place where a mechanic can be defended. If it lacks a strong defense, we'll probably cut it. Everything needs to have a place and a reason for being in that place.

I've started to put the designer plan in motion, but democratically and rationally. Our team is a democracy, (or a cabal or whatever) and so we decide things together. So far I think the team is responding well to these ideas. I've sent the email putting myself up for a design position, and also recommending Jason K as a designer as well. He's been with me from the beginning and contributes a lot of great ideas and feedback. I've also recommended Brianne for the Product Manager position. This is something we came up with to get a different point of view for the game, and it holds fairly close to the idea of a Product Manager in the Scrum process. We want someone to advocate for the users of the software who doesn't necessarily have to "design" the game, and Brianne does a great job coming from a different point of view than most of the people on the team. 

Of course I also told everyone to recommend themselves (or anyone else) for these positions if they want them and to make their case. So far, I haven't received a lot of feedback, but I think we'll get this hammered out pretty quickly. I think we'll have a meeting early Tuesday and decide.

That's it for now. Now we take our current build to EAE Day on Tuesday, and get some feedback.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Back to Work!

I didn't update the blog last week as there wasn't anything to interesting to discuss. We had half of our engineers in Montreal for the Ubisoft competition for the entire week, a person sick (JJ's Taco Bell diet), and another with other travel needs (i.e. Zeph being a boss and playing in the ACHA All-Star Hockey game in Philadelphia). Work-wise, it was a rough week. But some good stuff for things outside of our thesis game. The Ubisoft team didn't end up winning the event, but they took home the awards for Best Creativity and Theme and Jason K (one of our engineers) and Andrew (Producer from The Co-Signers) received internships at Ubisoft over the summer. Congrats guys!

So that week I spent most of my time trying to figure out how we can use the CryENGINE successfully. The people at Crytek have been super awesome, responding to all of my inquiries and keeping me in the loop the best they can. Right now, we're still waiting on licensing options for the Free SDK. However, I contacted Desura to find out if we could publish on their service even if we require a dev log-in. They think it may be a problem, but they would like an example. Right now we're still working on finding one. I can't seem to find one on Desura, and the Crydev forums have a lot of people posting screenshots, but no actual games. The games I can find are usually published as mods, so they require Crysis, not the dev log-in. We may end up just giving them an example of one of our own prototypes, just so they can see what we mean. If not, Unity is still a very good possibility, and we're currently using it to continue our work.

In that regard, I spent the remaining free time that week studying up on Unity, using the Digital Tutors learning series. I'm doing this for two reasons: we may be working in Unity so its important I understand how to use it for filling in work gaps, and even if we don't end up using Unity, I want to use it to prototype new ideas quickly so we can fail fast. I believe both of those ideas are very important to the success of Vinyl, but I also have some personal reasons.

I've been getting this itch that can only be scratched by getting my hands dirty making a game. In my head I know that a lot of this game is based off of ideas I had, or ideas I've been a major part of, and it's evolving really well with a lot of other ideas from a lot of other people. And that's terrific. Games either evolve or die. But I just need to contribute something more concrete, and its really bothering me. Sure, I can list tasks all day in Hansoft, or write up design ideas, or brainstorm design, or contact people about using engines, but I'm the kind of person who needs to get in the mud and do some work. Now I'm not saying I want to write our physics engine; I'll leave that to someone much more capable than I, but I would love to tweak the feel of our physics, or program a small feature like particle walls. So, in response to these feelings I've been learning as much as I can about Unity in my free time, so that when the time comes I can contribute in even more ways, assuming the engineers let me get in there and mess up all their code.

This last week, on the other hand, has been very productive. Tuesday we had a great design discussion spurred by ideas Cody had, inspired by a GDC talk from the SSX 2012 audio design panel. Cody made this great video showing off audio ideas with extreme sports, and then we had a great design discussion. We've really began to solidify what this new and improved game is from our Gate 1/Industry Panel prototype, and it seems like everyone is very happy with the direction its going. I know I am. I'm super stoked to see some of these new ideas in action. We're still debating if we should have an actual design doc/wiki. Right now we're using the game as the living design doc, with tasks and all that in Hansoft as our sort-of feature list. This leaves a lot of the moment-to-moment design up to the engineer or artist (or producer), which seems to empower them much more than design handed down from on high. It also spurs some interesting discussion when people have different ideas of what a mechanic is, and I think we become better for it. On the other hand, it is slow, and sometimes people just want to know what to make without doing too much design. At the moment, I'm considering writing up a very top-level design document with all of our features, in an easy to read format. I would guess that most of the issue with the design lies in Hansoft, which is just a list of a bunch of things. Its really hard to break down visually what is going on without reading every single task. Maybe this works in large corporations, but for a small team that needs to be multi-faceted its rather dense.

Even with the lack of work going on and busy schedules, Yuntao managed to add in an awesome feeling physics system in Unity (which he did by taking all of the physics systems in Unity and throwing them away, and then making his own). So now we have a nice momentum system, that starts to feel a lot like a snowboarding or skating game. It was great. We did some playtesting in a group, for about 30 minutes, and decided on some adjustments and tweaks, as well as trying it out with a new pipe (which Alice and I made). I really look forward to trying that out Tuesday morning. Jason K got our rail grinding in (mostly) and Jason T got our new static balls and particle walls in. He also got leprosy, or something like that (not really, but he did have some hand bump thing going on). Hopefully he's got some good news about it come Tuesday. And our artist Alice got some color palette ideas up and we voted on them. Check them out:

I voted on the middle one. I think that's where we're starting. Although they were all awesome.
And I think that's all for updates for now. Sorry for the long, mostly picture-less wall-of-text post today, but there were some exciting developments and interesting debates that we just didn't have pictures for. Next week will all be kittens and rainbows. Okay maybe not, but I'll see what I can do.

Monday, April 1, 2013

GDC! (and possibly Bed Bugs!)

GDC has come and passed, and it was a pretty great experience. I'm not sure I did GDC the way it's supposed to be done, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I purchased the Expo Pass, which was great for my budget but there were plenty of talks that I wish I could have attended. I'll keep my eye open on the GDC Vault this year (so I can stream some of those talks), but next year I plan on buying a better pass. Hopefully some of that saved money from this year carries over to next year (or I become independently wealthy, whichever). 

I was told before going that GDC was all about the parties, and schmoozing people so I can make contacts and get a job. Honestly that sounded incredibly terrible. So, at the mecca of game development I need to glad-hand a bunch of middle-manager nobodies at these parties that everyone goes to (when they can't get into the other, better parties) so I can get a job? No thanks. I would love to meet a bunch of great people working at great companies, where I can discuss the merits of their game design or game creation process and show off a little of my work. I just don't feel that these second-rate parties (see YetiZen incident, Gamer's Ball, etc.) are worth the effort. I'm not spending all of this money to party; I'm spending it to learn and meet people. I would rather talk to a group of great people at the conference, or lunch or whatever, and be well-rested than go out all night chasing this ghost of an idea that important people in the industry or going to the "Gamer's Ball". Turns out I was pretty vindicated in my assumptions. I only heard of one person making a contact at a party, and it was a University of Utah alum who happened to work for the company throwing the party. Everyone else who went hung out at parties for half the night hoping for someone important to come in so they could swarm them like vultures. Perhaps this is my independent, rebellious nature coming out, but I'm so happy I didn't waste my time at these events.

As a side note, how sexist was that YetiZen party? Good for Brenda Brathwaite and the others who left the IGDA after that. I can't believe that the IGDA thought it was okay to tell all the women at GDC that they're services were needed elsewhere, specifically the variety where they hang out in fur-bikinis and entertain men. As a man, I'm pretty upset they thought that such a cheap tactic would entice me to attend. It did the exact opposite for me. I may be even more upset that it worked so well on others. I heard the party was packed.

So what did I do with my time? I spoke to a ton of industry HR recruiters, who were all super cool. I spent a great deal of time traversing the career pavilion and talking to people. Specifically, ArenaNet, WB Games, Irrational, and Ubisoft stick out in my memory. Irrational was great and willing to take the time to look at my resume, even though they weren't necessarily hiring. I got a ton of good feedback on my resume from them, and while working for Irrational would be insane right out of school, I'm not fooling myself about it. WB Games was looking for possible interns and entry level applicants, and the HR woman there was extra nice, and took my resume.

ArenaNet was crazy. While I was waiting in line, I got to speak to Mike O'Brien, the president and co-founder of ArenaNet. So that was intense. I was really excited to tell him about my research into the concept of positive interdependence in cooperative learning and how I think that can be applied to game mechanics (and also how Guild Wars 2 does such a good job with a lot of the stuff already). I then asked if they had looked into academia for game mechanic ideas or was it just a reaction to the way MMO's and cooperative games tend to give players an antagonistic attitude towards their teammates. He mentioned it was mostly borne out of the latter, and they were just unhappy with the current methods of cooperative gameplay. I then got to talk to the Recruiting Lead, Thomas Abrams, and he was more than cool. He gave me some great tips on my resume, and told me to email him my resume, specifically, Monday or Tuesday. I'm not holding my breath, but working for ArenaNet would be an amazing opportunity.

Ubisoft was great as well. I met the awesome HR person Michelle Larson, who is a contact of a friend of mine who runs She was tremendously helpful with my resume and all together just a cool, friendly person with tons of smart advice.

I also spent a bunch of time talking with people from other schools. They were all really cool and doing really interesting things. A few of them took the time to check out the gameplay videos for Vinyl, and many were really impressed with the concept. One student from Columbia, an audio designer, was very interested in collaborating with us during the development of Vinyl.

The IGF pavilion took a lot of my time as well. That was crazy. Walking around and talking with people from blogs I've read or twitters I follow was intense. The first person I got to talk to was from the Fullbright Company, one Kate Craig. She was super awesome and friendly. We spoke about her experience with their current project, Gone Home, "The Steve Gaynor", and she even mentioned an interest in going to play our games at the U of Utah booth (which was right next to the IGF booth). I also got to thank Terry Cavanagh for making the amazing Super Hexagon. It was more than a little intense playing Super Hexagon in front of its creator. Halfway through my play I realized just that fact, and started to freak out just a little haha. But Terry was incredibly nice and polite as I stammered out a sentence that was roughly "thanks for making an awesome game with touch screen controls". I spotted a few other cool people in the crowd at IGF, like Anna Anthropy, Kellee Santiago, and Anita Sarkeesian, but I didn't get the chance to go thank them for their work. So, by the off-chance any of them actually read this, thanks! But seriously, congrats to Journey for winning like a million GDC awards. Well-deserved. That game is incredible. And Feminist Frequency is the only Kickstarter I've actually donated to.

I didn't do the swag thing. Sure, I picked up a few things because the GDC expo floor is like a swag minefield, but I didn't go out of my way to grab anything. I've been a little anti-materialism lately (or at least anti-crap-I-don't-need-nor-have-room-for), so that was probably the inspiration for not picking up stuff. Fake lightsabers and balls that rotate inwards as you throw them are cool and all, but I just don't need it.

I also spent some time eating in some awesome places. Thanks to iJason (Jason Thummel of Team Vinyl) for recommending the awesome Chinese place, and JJ of Team Vinyl for recommending the awesome Thai place. Pictures below!

Overall my experience was great. The hostel was kind of crappy (and perhaps the initiator of the bed bug outbreak alluded to in my title), but I didn't spend much time there. San Francisco was beautiful and fun to walk around in (even to the karaoke bar in the Tenderloin where a homeless man warned us to not go before he asked us for money). And the conference was a blast. I had a great time just checking out all of the cool things going on in the industry and talking to some great people. Hopefully next year is even better.

For this week: trying to get some work done on Vinyl with half of our engineers gone. Also other classwork, like modeling a weapon and finishing that research paper up. I will be busy. I think I'll be able to fit in that episode of Game of Thrones though. That show is awesome. In tribute:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

One Week of Work, Two Weeks of Other Things

This week flew by quickly. We're slowly churning out work, but it feels like a crawl right now. Everyone is really busy with other things, and scheduling is sort of a mess. It's slightly frustrating. We did get a few things hammered out, and we made a decision on studio philosophy while filling out our new production backlog and getting some work done on audio mechanics.

The big issue is that last week was spring break, this week we work, next week is GDC (so that week is mostly a wash), and the week after that is the Ubisoft competition (which will be relieving us of half of our engineers for a week). Our engineers literally don't have enough hours in the day to work on everything. After all of that is said and done we'll be looking pretty clear, but its taking a huge bite out of our production time.

So how do we fix it? Well, we start by pushing alpha back until the first week of next semester. That way we get the summer to work on the game. Our team discussed this already, and everyone, as of now, is very excited to keep working on Vinyl through the summer. We believe that if we have a viable schedule and sound reasoning that convincing the EP's to let us push back alpha shouldn't be too hard. They know there's a ton of stuff going on this semester.

As far as development goes, we've gotten even more great ideas, and really focused down just exactly we want to try. We've decided that we are going to have a very Valve-like, super-flat management style. This is something we strongly believe in. The other team has made the decision to go with a more traditional approach, and that's fine if that works for them. For us, we think it gets more people more involved if everyone has a say at all times. It does require more legwork in meetings and a lot of trust among coworkers, but we're getting there. Interestingly enough, this makes it a little harder to talk about what you do on a game, and forces you to talk about what you did on a game. A "Lead Designer" can just say that she's the design lead for X game. But when you don't have that title, you have to talk about your job in a way that discusses things done, and not some abstract role. It's kind of wonderful, and it makes everyone work to contribute in a concrete way.

The biggest hurdle right now for me is deciding what engine we should use. We really do want to try CryENGINE, but their free SDK requires a Crydev log-in to even play a game published with it. This will not fly for our program. We need to publish, even if its free, on a major platform (like Desura, Steam, iOS App Store, etc.), and we cannot publish requiring a Crydev log-in. I reached out to Crytek, but there wasn't much they could do. The information was helpful though. It seems that our only way of actually using their engine is to acquire an Independent Developer license, where they take a flat 20% of all investments and revenue. That's fine by us; we're just worried that if we decide to charge nothing if we violate the agreement. I sent out an email to Bob and Roger in regards to this, but no one apparently got my email (it was sent though, I checked my sent mail folder). However, after talking to Bob and Mark, they've given us the go-ahead to apply for the license through the Utah Game Forge, we just need to let them know what we need. Hopefully that goes well, and quickly.

For now it's fighting the good fight against time constraints and other commitments until the glorious day when everyone doesn't have three places to be simultaneously. I know it never gets perfectly clear of course, but right now it's just rather insane.

See you next week, after GDC.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Spring Break!

Spring break was this week, and I got to see a ton of friends and family back home in Las Vegas, so that was great. Although its nice to be back. I feel like I need a bit of break from the family now, haha! Vinyl took a bit of a backseat, but that's okay. Everyone needs a little unwind time. My little brother turned 21, so that was weird. I'm finally able to hang out a bar with him and grab a drink. I remember when he was five and we rented a Nintendo 64 while I was visiting my mom's house (remember when you could rent game consoles? So weird). That was the first time I played Mario 64. Such an awesome game, and its tied to an awesome moment in my life. And now that kid is 21 and I'm pushing 30 next year (and there are still awesome Mario games). Crazy times.
Play with Mario's face kids!
I didn't play a whole lot of video games while I was there. I brought my laptop, but it failed pretty hard trying to play the in-game cinematics of Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm. I look forward to having some time to finish that campaign. I did play a decent amount of Heroclix, which for the unfamiliar (which is probably most of you), it's a tabletop miniatures game where you build a force and fight your opponent, using mostly figures based off of Marvel and DC characters. The really ingenious idea in that game is the dial mechanic. Every figure has a dial, and the amount of clicks the dial has is the character's health. As the dial is turned, the character's powers and abilities change. It's a pretty brilliant idea that takes away a lot of the boring note-taking and stat-tracking of other miniatures games. It was actually created by the fairly famous game designer Jordan Weisman, who helped to create things like the pen-and-paper games BattleTech and Shadowrun , as well as the MechWarrior PC games. Needless to say he's a pretty smart guy.
The card is for reference. All the colors on the numbers of the dial correspond to standard powers.
I got to check out the WiiU game ZombiU, which seemed really interesting, and a couple deck-building games: Legendary and DC Deck-building Game (also, could they not come up with a better name than that?). Deck-building games are really interesting I'm just starting to get into them, but they have some very unique strategy elements. Creating and using your deck simultaneously is very weird at first, but can turn out all kinds of strategic decisions. I need to play them a little more I think.

Also, in celebration of my brother's 21st birthday, we played in a poker tournament. Poker has been a staple in my family for quite some time, and I love that game. Such a great use of hidden knowledge and random elements, where over time a player can play well and consistently win. Even if a player loses a hand, if she made the correct decision she's going to win that hand in the long run. Frank Lantz did a great talk about the probability spaces of poker for a TEDx thing, and it's really worth a listen if it interests you at all:

That's all for now. Time to get that presentation ready for tomorrow and prepare for the week ahead. See you next time.