Different Perspectives: Damiano meets Los Angeles

Thought I’d take the time to supply another perspective on the conference. Savant has done a good job of summarizing the content, as always, but as we all know, individual perspectives always color our writing, whether we intend them to or not. So, here’s mine to add to his, from which you can maybe get an even clearer sense of what it was actually like to be there, if you didn’t have the pleasure of attending yourself.

First, I admit it: I was late the first day. My comrade-in-arms/co-worker/navigator had to put up with my antics in trying to run my business from a hotel where even the basic phone service was balking at my laptop and I during the first night. That and jet lag will do wonders for your mood, I assure you. The challenging quest to find and procure a parking spot was a wonderful addition to the early morning schedule as well. I felt like I was suffering an EverQuest flashback for a few minutes – but, to paraphrase Monty P.: “I got better.”

The Computer as Storyteller: Procedural Narrative

(As Savant wrote, just what we needed, another catch phrase.)

Anyway, we finally ambled into the conference during the secondspeaker’s address. The discussion of the Creatures game was interesting to me in demonstrating how much real emotion some people could attach to such constructs, and hinting at how such an attachment can be encouraged. The designer from the Sims (a game I’ve never played, and often downplayed the relevance of, I am now ashamed to admit) was also quite interesting in terms of generating that kind of attachment: my “ignorance” tag line is all too often a commentary on myself, I’m afraid. Setting the “Equal Rights for Norns” thing aside for the moment, these examples do represent one of the kinds of attachment to a game you would hope to generate in customers to drive long-term success.

The discussion afterwards was vaguely interesting, although far too short to generate any real insight into design techniques. Having missed the “Rock-and-Roll” segment, I had no preconceived notions of the first panelist, and while she was obviously an in-your-face type of person, her participation during the discussion did seem to indicate a basic, if prejudiced, understanding of what games can be. All three panelists were on the same page, so to speak: although the entire “procedural narrative” concept seemed to get lost in the noise.

The Movie Game

In contrast, the next panel seemed to illustrate an absolute dichotomy of thought on entertainment. First, you had Ms. Kinder, who not-so-gently reminded her audience that books and film came first, thank you, and that we can learn a lot by frog-marching to the beat of those mediums. Then Mr. Barwood of LucasArts comes up and states emphatically that interactive entertainment and the older forms cannot mix. Period. End of argument. Just ask Mr. Lucas if you don’t believe me. Finally, Mr. Perry hits the podium and says, basically, “I don’t know or care much about all of that, but I do know that trying to work with both sides can be an absolute b**** – but it made me pretty wealthy, thanks.” I guess, from my perspective, the most interesting facet of it all was the simple fact of the three irreconcilable viewpoints co-existing on the same stage. Does it indicate a failing or an opportunity, this conflict of views between “old media,” “new media,” and marketing gurus? More questions than answers out of this session.

The most disturbing part of all of this to me was the basic attitude expressed. It seems rather odd to have a roomful of people, each of whom will individually admit that no one has all the answers, scoffing collectively at people with alternate

backgrounds and viewpoints. Ms. Kinder’s apparent arrogance was mildly annoying, I admit, but whatever her personal failings may be, they shouldn’t necessarily color a critical examination of her viewpoint.

Lunch and Keynote

Lunch was a surprise, considering the fact that the conference was free. I wandered around a bit, got to talk to a few people about speech recognition and got the usual “oh, that stuff never works” replies, and didn’t feel like pressing the issue without a counter-example at hand. Met some interesting personalities in the buffet line, and actually shared tables with an academic from Indiana University (www.mime.indiana.edu) who is apparently using game frameworks to teach Native American lore and language, amongst others. My reserved nature and a persistent feeling of being an “outsider” got in my way a bit here, and I didn’t make as much of the opportunity as I probably could have, but it was an interesting table to sit and listen at, nonetheless.

Will Wright’s demonstration was quite interesting, I thought. Again, I’d never played the Sims game, but I was quite intrigued at some of the techniques for enabling socialization they were looking at for the Sims Online title. Whether the overall concept works or not (and I think it will), there were several creative design conceptspresented that gave me (as a non-socializer) some insight into what that style of player might be looking for.

It was also interesting to note who was sitting with whom, although there were few surprises. Verant and LucasArts people co-mingled at one table near the door, while the Maxis people congregated near the podium, for example. Social dynamics, gotta love ’em.

New Genres

Emma Westecott and Alex Mayhew co-presented their latest creations as the first presentation in this session. There was an obvious European air to these two, from style of dress and accent to the tone of their creations. It was quite striking to note the differences in reactions and areas of interest. Their games, Dreamer and Hive, both had a very artsy, Victorian montage feel to them which I actually found to be quite compelling, but demonstrated almost overtly simplistic game play underpinnings (which may have been a result of the limited time to demonstrate… but I think not.) This seemed to me to be a prime example of allowing the story to overshadow the game. What I wasn’t quite clear on is whether this is a true representation of a difference in European vs. American desires and styles, or simply an outreacute; example of sub-culture clash. It should also be noted that their presentation was one of the mere two that suffered from major technical difficulties. (The other was related to the U.S. Military. Go figure.)

Mr. Tomlinson from MIT then hit the podium and presented a completely different angle on “new genres.” In essence, he showed off some MIT projects looking at both cognitive AI concepts and new I/O interfaces. He presented three projects during his time at the podium. First was a cartoon duck-and-raccoon conflict, where you manipulated the duck by maneuvering a toy duck (teddy bear style): move the legs to walk, flap the wings to fly, etc. Second was a project using receptors implanted in a pair of dinner rolls with imbedded forks to manipulate characters on screen (dinner rolls as feet, forks as legs), and using AI techniques to develop plausible emotional reactions from the characters based on the input. The third project was amazingly compelling for the topic as well… it involved simulating interaction within a wolf pack, allowing the player to do his own howling, growling, and the like into a microphone and having the pack respond as a result.

The third speaker was an academic from NYU heavily involved in VRML and using it in a variety of presentational (as in museum-like) and educational settings. I’m afraid lunch caught up with me at this point… both my recollections and notes on his talk are rather sketchy. Also, he must have been a late addition to the program, as he’s not listed on the conference web site so far as I can see: you can find some samples of his work at http://fargo.itp.tsoa.nyu.edu/~gauthier/, if you’re interested.

With no discussion time to follow for a variety of reasons, summarizing this session is rather difficult. I suppose it was meant as a collage of new and different viewpoints on where games might go in the future. In retrospect, however, the presentations were almost too diverse in viewpoint to put together in that way.

The Audience Takes Charge: Game Engines as Creative Tools

With a bit of time to wander around, find caffeine, etc., the audience (and especially me) found its second wind for this set of presentations. As Savant mentioned, Mr. Spector from Ion Storm went first and showed off his version of great tools for enabling players to design their own stuff, then the Bioware duo went to the podium and showed off their version (E3 promo reel and all). Not much new here, if you’ve followed those games at all, but it was still fun to see them show off for the crowd.

Then came Ms. Schleiner with her somewhat unique perspectives: I found myself wondering whether her nervousness was from being at the podium or wondering whether some ultra-conservative would take her to task over the rather “permissive” anime-style graphics at the end of the presentation. I’m from the Midwest, what can I say? Nothing against it personally, but my upbringing is that such content is meant to be private, not projected onto a 20-foot screen at an academic conference. I guess you could say I found the context, rather than the content, disturbing… a fine distinction, I admit. On the other hand, her status as someone looking to buck the “big money” trend in on-line gaming represented a perspective I wanted to explore further. Oh, well.

Finally, there was brave, brave Sir Eddo. To me, he represents the fact that the computer gaming culture has come into its own: we have our own artist to point at and say, “You think WE’RE odd?!?…” His web site says it all: check it out (at your own risk). Not being an art person myself, I was left shaking my head at the hairpin turn into the Twilight Zone that this session took…

Overall, I walked away from this session longing for a return to sanity. A nice Diet Pepsi later, my calm restored, we ventured forth once more into the breach…

Games and Cognition

This session was more interesting than it had a right to be. It was a group of educator/clinician/entrepreneurs looking for ways to harness games to achieve positive real world results. Ms. Strickland discussed some work she had done with programs for teaching autistic and Down’s syndrome children basic life skills, such as fire safety and crosswalk use. I have some experience in dealing with these types of individuals, from my years working as controller and software developer for a Sheltered Workshop for the challenged/disabled, so I was quite impressed with the level of effectiveness they were able to achieve.

Mr. Rizzo demonstrated some psychological techniques he was working with and highlighted their effectiveness in terms of changing behaviors in conjunction with a tailored psychological regimen. Ms. Kafai showed some surprisingly interesting video of elementary school children struggling to create their own games to educate others (the project was to teach about fractions, for example), and how much the “developer” learns in creating programs to teach/assist others. Finally, Mr. Hodges showed some rather compelling video of his work in assisting Vietnam veterans in dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress syndrome.

The two points of this session were solidly driven home. First, games can and do have a definite function and usefulness in education and therapeutic settings. However, the second point was just as relevant: they have little influence in and of themselves. Their effect on a person is directly tied to how they are used, how they are supported in the environment. In short, they are tools, and as such, can be used or misused like any other tool.

And thus ended the First Day.

Second Day: Meeting Savant

After a long but eventually somewhat fruitful night of warring with the hotel telephone, we arrived at the conference the next day early enough to enjoy the continental breakfast provided. And so, I’m standing there, watching people straggle in,

and suddenly a robust “There you are!” booms out nearby. Naturally curious (and bit worried… L.A.P.D.?), I turn and, lo and behold, encounter Savant. A very friendly and outgoing person, it was a real pleasure to meet him in person. [I’m not friendly nor outgoing, dammit! -ed]

We went through the normal introductions, hand-shaking, “did you read my article,” “what medications do you think Eddo is on” type stuff, and talked games for a while (Dawn was a recurring theme in our encounters throughout the day, of course). We also met a very interesting gentleman by the name of Jason Ray (http://www.explorati.com) who joined the discussion, as well as reeling in Raph himself briefly. It was fascinating just watching the interplay between all these people (including myself) with different backgrounds and perspectives. Anyway, the conference began way too soon for my taste, and we separated to our respective corners to partake.

Narrative Environments: Worlds that Tell Stories

Savant pretty well covered this one, but I had a few additional comments. I thought the interplay between the four viewpoints was fascinating. First, you have Ms. Murray taking the long view toward complete intertwining of games and various media. Then Raph stands up and talks about enabling people to create their own stories within a setting (Go, Raph, Go!). Then Mr. Schafer (Grim Fandango) goes to the podium and talks about the opposite viewpoint: games as vehicles for creating stories for players to explore. And finally, Mr. Lobb of Nintendo goes up and reminds everyone that sometimes the game itself is the point, story or not.

Throwing Mr. Spector’s rather indelicate commentary into the overall mix was the kicker. It became obvious that none of them had the “ultimate” answer as to how to make compelling games. Each had his own viewpoint, like any of us, the only difference being how many times they have had the opportunity to express themselves and test their theories. All of which is quite comforting to a person like myself, looking to test his own theories in the arena, many of which fly in the face of the “conventional wisdom.” To quote from some Mercedes Lackey fiction, “There is no One True Way.”

The Tail that Wags the Dog: Is Entertainment Driving Technology?


Great stuff in this segment for anyone looking to design their own games. While Mr. Hershey from Sony didn’t show much in the way of material, he talked a bit about the way the technology to combine traditional media and computer games was being developed. The next two people represent good resources, however. Paul Debevec and Ken Perlin both showed off material that could easily be adapted to a wide variety of games… and they apparently provide the source code of their demos for free to assist anyone interested. Mr. Javelosa then demonstrated some sound-related tools and techniques that emphasized the fact it’s not just a visual medium we were discussing.

Some good stuff in this segment from my perspective… a host of resources for further research and development toward my goals. I’m sure others thought it was rather stale overall (although Mr. Perlin’s presentation in particular was entertaining as well as instructive), but my mind was churning with accelerated possibilities as we broke for lunch.

Buffet Lunch

Being well fed for the second day in a row was almost beyond belief, but it happened. Despite scanning the crowd in hopes of joining Savant for a deeper discussion, my comrade and I ended up sitting with our friend from Indiana University from the previous day, instead. We joined Mr. Ray from Explorati.com, and were blessed with a solid Maxis contingent across the table, including Mr. Will Wright himself. I could have kicked myself for my choice of seats the moment I sat down: as it was, my companion was seated next to the Maxis crowd as they discussed some social design concepts I only caught snatches of from across the table. In addition, we discussed the relevance of traditional role-playing techniques and the role of player expectations in on-line role-playing game design on our side of the table.

It was a great lunch.

Educating Game Designers

Another “sleeper” session, as the conference director Celia Pierce put it. When I first saw this one, I wondered what kind of attendance it would get, given the topic and the probable audience. As it was, however, it actually became an interesting session. Hearing educators speak passionately about the need for a program teaching interactive media/game design principles and lamenting the lack of serious recognition of the genre as a viable field of study became more and more interesting as the presentations came and went. MIT and Carnegie Mellon both have intriguing Masters programs in the field, and of course, Mr. Nideffer from UC Irvine was recently featured in the news for his struggles to create such a program at UC.

Overall, it was refreshing to see at least some people outside the industry itself take the hobby seriously. Yes, it was still an excessively convoluted approach in some cases, and there was as much discussion of campus politics as curriculum design, but in the end, it offered some hope that the genre might be taken a little more seriously in years to come. Hearing about 40-year olds “confessing” that they still enjoy games is a pretty sad state of affairs, to me.

After the session, I wandered upstairs for refreshments and happened across Savant once again, as well as meeting (I presume, my memory for names and handles is atrocious, so I may have the wrong person) Alex Ross. We got in a couple of minutes of discussion during the break, but were, of course, all anxious to catch the next session, so it was a short-lived interaction.

Self-Authorship: Role-Playing Games and Avatar Worlds

A very interesting session, although I was initially somewhat disappointed in the representatives chosen to present. Geoffrey Zatkin did a great job of defining some of the problems and concerns that arise from allowing such self-authorship within the game, referencing his arena of knowledge (EverQuest) without shilling for the game too extensively. Similarly, Mr. Ford from Microsoft did a great job of talking about how the Asheron’s Call team was striving to allow greater self-authorship without blatant plugging of the game, and even obliquely acknowledged UO as the leader in that particular field despite its age. Finally, you had Mr. DiPaola showing a different genre altogether, virtual realms where the entire space is defined by the users themselves. His focus on the emotional undertones of the setting was a bit off-putting, I thought, but with hindsight, was precisely reflective of the types of stories users of such venues look to create, so I’ve forgiven him for the somewhat melodramatic presentation as time has passed.

The core of my earlier disappointment was that there was very little mention of traditional MUDs or Rogue-like variants in the Self-Authorship discussion. I suppose it would be difficult, since there are very few recognizable authorities in either field, but it was still a fairly grievous omission, in my opinion.

The discussion at the end of the session was quite interesting, however. To me, the one thing they all agreed upon was that there were far more questions than answers at this point regarding the role self-authorship could effectively play in such environments. It was interesting to hear reps from the most recent two of the Big Three basically admit that UO, for all its issues, allowed far more of such self-direction than their own products. I thought Mr. Zatkin’s point on E-Bay was quite telling as well… that frankly, Verant’s main problem with the practice was not that people were making money off their game, but rather that the underlying design really didn’t accommodate it. His example of the parents buying a 50th level character for their son for a couple of thousand dollars effectively illustrated the problem for me. The thought of them complaining when he had fallen to 37th level in a couple of weeks time through a vast array of bad choices further accentuated by poorly developed interface skills was both hilarious and poignant. Ignorance, indeed. And how many other players lost days or weeks of effort toward advancement as a result of this bumbling, and suffered a bad game play experience as a direct result? Whether you agree with the underlying design strategy or not, even I have to admit the underlying reason for resisting E-Bay sales is a logical side effect of that strategy.

I missed the first part of Savant’s conversation with the G-man from Verant, although my travelling companion did catch it and mentioning something to the effect of “the blood draining from his face the instant Savant mentioned that he wrote for Lum…” For my part, I thought it was telling that Mr. Zatkin considered EverQuest and Asheron’s Call to be first generation MMRPGs right alongside UO, and that every title currently slated for release was also essentially a “first generation” design. He didn’t go into what he felt would make something second generation, but it was still an interesting and telling comment.

Games At Work: Simulation and Training

The final session of the conference revolved around how games are currently being used in training. First was one of the designers of the game “You Don’t Know Jack,” a trivia-haters nightmare, but it did demonstrate a few methods available to make even pre-scripted conversations moderately interesting and engaging. Hopefully, future commercial RPG designers were taking notes. Next up was a training simulator for Olympic bobsled drivers, an interesting topic in that it discussed some of the challenges in effectively creating the illusion of motion and inertia without duplicating it physically. Mr. Tuch then presented some very interesting footage on how room-sized simulators were used to prepare soldiers for peacekeeping missions in the Baltics, combining a variety of AI and graphic presentation techniques. And then, finally, NovaLogic presented us with our technical glitch of the day, demonstrating how an inability to get the video port on a laptop to work with a projection system can take even a Delta Force: Land Warrior demonstration and make it somewhat boring. I must admit, however, it was fun at the end watching the retired general up at the podium call in a bombardment on an innocent building. I simply hope the actual Land Warrior system itself is a bit less prone to technical glitches.

And that was that. My thanks to Savant for taking the time to look me up: since he had no wonderful little “Hi, My Name Is…” tag, and no picture on the web site, I would never have found him. He couldn’t resist dropping a few hints as to his upcoming projects, of course, but I’ll leave him the pleasure of springing them on us when the time is right, which will apparently be very soon. (Hey, Savant… if you need a beta-tester who will actually test, let me know… I’ve got some free time again, now.)

In total, I found the conference quite engaging and even reassuring in my pursuit of my own goals. The acknowledged experts in the field can’t agree on what tactics will work best for what audience: there is obviously no magical formula or defined solution to the problems facing these games. Admittedly, that was my assumption going in, but hearing the accomplished designers themselves say it was quite reaffirming. The interplay between dramatists, corporate designers, independent designers, and academics was also interesting to watch… there are quite obviously some deeply held prejudices still =

separating several of those parties from one another. It will be interesting to see whether those barriers stand or fall as time marches on.

That’s my version of the story… thanks for reading.