- Ludic Cartography. Mapping Gamespaces
- Past Projects
- Preserving Virtual Worlds
- Research and Publication
This year’s Game Developer’s Conference was the most attended in the history of the conference, with more than 24,000 people descending on the San Francisco Moscone Center from March 17-21, 2014. There was something for everyone. If you wanted a hands-on experience, the MADE (Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment), the Videogame History Museum, Wild Rumpus, and the Indie MEGABOOTH showcase all offered playable games in their exhibit spaces. Feeling nostalgic about classic game titles? There were game postmortems for Zork and Robotron: 2084, plus a first-ever studio postmortem for Lucasfilm Games. Two of my favorite sessions from last year were repeated—the GDC Microtalks and the GDC Rants, where ten speakers are given about five minutes to talk/rant about a topic of their choice. If you wanted something a bit more in-depth, advocacy sessions and roundtables addressed complex issues ranging from gender equality to government funding to game preservation. The IGF Awards and the GDC Choice Awards honored game developers both old and new, and best of all, the GDC Choice Awards were hosted by a woman for the first time—Abbie Heppe, who is the community manager at Respawn Entertainment, and who I coincidentally worked alongside many years ago when we were both editors at Tips & Tricks Magazine.
If you want to skip around in the post, click on the links below to jump to each section.
1. The MADE
The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment exhibit showcased playable titles from Lucasfilm Games (later renamed LucasArts) and from the Zork series. This was a great way for attendees to refresh their memories about these games (what did that tentacle in Maniac Mansion want to eat again?) or to experience the titles for the first time. Once again the MADE put on an impressive display, demonstrating that people with enough drive and technical know-how can keep classic games alive for years to come.
2. Mild Rumpus by Wild Rumpus
A small section of the first floor of the Moscone Center’s West Hall was reimagined as a Zen-like gaming habitat, where exhausted attendees could kick back on comfortable sofas or bean bag chairs and play Kentucky Route Zero, Quadrilateral Cowboy, Samorost3, or Hohokum on one of the many televisions scattered throughout the space. During a break between sessions, I checked out Samorost3, a strange but beautiful little adventure game where thought bubbles provide enigmatic clues for what to do next, as a golden deer pranced around in the background. This was a moment of peace and quiet that I enjoyed, and judging by the number of people lazing about on the beanbags and sofas with their shoes kicked off, others quite enjoyed it as well. Of course enjoying the lazy living room life affected my work product, so I only have one shot of this area.
During last year's GDC, the Videogame History Museum created a display about the history of Sega. This year, the VHM turned their gaze on Nintendo, putting up an impressive display of arcade cabinets, consoles, documentation, and artifacts. My favorite item? The unreleased Nintendo Knitting Machine. Now You're Knitting with Power!
4. You've Got Game Show!
The difficult to classify iam8bit (art gallery, production company, concierge of creative capers) carved out its own unique niche at GDC 2014, staging a ‘pick-up game show’ where attendees could watch and/or participate in some rapid-fire old-school game show trivia competition. I dropped in on a couple sessions, watching the contestants sweat through questions about Final Fantasy (‘What was the only Final Fantasy title first released in the U.S.’) or Nintendo product design (‘What is the name of the material used on the Nintendo controllers’). I may be misremembering the exact wording of these questions, but I do remember that the first question was answered correctly by the contestant as Final Fantasy Mystic Quest, and that the second question was incorrectly answered as “I have no idea.” Neither do I, random game show contestant.
5. Doing It on the Table: a Lounge of Tabletop Games by Video Game Designers
Anyone tired of videogames could take a break with some board games. I didn’t partake but did photograph all of the board game displays. The one that was most personally alarming was the one for “When Dragons Fight: If China Invades Taiwan,” considering this is a subject that’s been a staple of most family conversations since before I was even born. One good thing—it shows the flag of Taiwan, instead of that ludicrous other flag the Taiwanese athletes were forced to carry during the Olympics opening ceremonies. Political rant over.
6. Indie MEGABOOTH Showcase
The strong indie games presence at this year's GDC was also buoyed by the Indie MEGABOOTH Showcase, an area on the third floor of the Moscone Center's West Hall where multiple indie developers pooled their resources so they could demonstrate their games on the show floor.
7. Deathmatch with John Romero
During a GDC session, one of the other attendees complained that John Romero wasn’t physically present at the lauded “Deathmatch with John Romero” where attendees could challenge Romero in the original DOOM. While wandering by the bank of computers set up for this event, I spotted the elusive John Romero standing at the last computer. Similar to other mythic creatures, all photographs of him turn out blurry.
1. Classic Studio Postmortem: Lucasfilm Games
Whose bright idea was it to schedule the Lucasfilm Games postmortem at the same time as the IGDA Game Preservation SIG Roundtable? Didn’t it occur to anyone that someone interested in the history of a classic game studio might also be interested in the preservation of classic games? Torn between two conflicting desires I ultimately chose to attend the Lucasfilm Games postmortem, thinking I could catch the tail end of the IGDA Game Preservation SIG Roundtable. Maybe whoever designed the schedule realized this choice was reminiscent of a point-and-click adventure game and they did it on purpose.
The Lucasfilm Games panelists included Peter Langston, David Fox, Steve Arnold, Chip Morningstar, Ron Gilbert, and Noah Falstein (who moderated). Individual segments are broken out below.
a. Noah Falstein
Noah Falstein moderated the panel, and made some opening remarks about the recent history of Lucasfilm Games (which later became LucasArts). Around the same time last year, LucasArts was sold off to Disney, and many of the veterans of the company spent time reminiscing about their experiences, trying to express just what it was about the company that made it so unique. It also seemed like a good subject for a panel, so a Lucasfilm Games postmortem was pulled together for GDC. Although he didn’t speak about this during the introduction, many long-term fans of the company know that shortly after Disney purchased LucasArts, it unexpectedly shutdown the company, breaking gamer hearts and also ending several very high-profile games that were in development at the time, such as Star Wars 1313 and Star Wars: First Assault.
b. Peter Langston
In April of 1982, George Lucas’ people contacted Peter Langston and asked him if he wanted to start a new enterprise outside of film. In the movie business, once the money starts rolling in after the movie is released, movie studios would have to pay a lot of it back as tax if they didn’t immediately reinvest it. Many studios purchased more land; George Lucas invested it back into the business. When the profits earned by The Empire Strikes Back came in he invested it into a computer division. Profits from The Return of the Jedi were used to invest in the use of modern technology within entertainment industries outside of film, with an assumption that this probably meant games. Many others were offered the position Langston eventually took, but most turned it down because of the perception it wasn’t serious work, and couldn’t possibly lead to an actual career. Langston, who was already an experienced game creator in the UNIX community, didn’t have this bias, so he took the job.
Back then, console technology was extremely limited, with blocky graphics, repetitive music, and awkward physics. They had to run on machines like the Atari 2600, a 6502 processor with 128 bytes of RAM. Langston’s computer division therefore first concentrated on creating tools. These included using larger computers to model and compile code that could then be used on the smaller 6502 computers. He hired people who had the aptitude to create tools, and to both use and create computer languages. In the first year the computer division earned $1 million based on making tools, not products. In order to test their tools and development concepts, the computer division also created two “throwaway” games—BallBlazer and Rescue on Fractalus. As a result of the unique environment in which they were created, the games featured innovations that hadn’t been seen in games before, such as music composed on the fly, or music used as cues for hidden areas. Another was the ability to generate anti-aliased graphics in real-time on a 6502 processor.
c. David Fox
David Fox was working on a book called Computer Animation Primer, and as part of his research for it he was able to meet with the Lucasfilm computer division. He met Loren Carpenter, who was working on fractals. Carpenter had worked on the portion of the film in Star Trek 2 when the planet is being terraformed. A year later after Fox had published his book, he learned about the creation of the Lucasfilm Games group. Since he’d already met the team previously, he called them up to see if he could get involved. He showed his completed manuscript to Peter Langston, and since he’d been working with the Atari computer, and the company was going to be making Atari games, he got the job. Fox asked Carpenter if he thought it was possible to do a fractal-based first-person shooter on an Atari 800. Carpenter taught himself 6502 quickly, and created a demo, a fractal-based first-person shooter for the Atari 800 that would eventually become the basis for Rescue on Fractalus.
Initially Fox wanted it to become a Star Wars game, but at the time their group was not allowed to create Star Wars titles. They demoed the title for Lucas, who noticed there was no ‘fire’ button in the game. Fox wanted the player to defeat enemies by forcing them to crash, rather than merely shooting them. Lucas wanted a fire button added. He also wanted tension added, by making the pilots the player was rescuing sometimes be the aliens you were fighting. They accomplished this by having a Jaggi monster appear to smash the pilot’s screen. There is no indication in the game that such a creature is going to appear, and it only pops up in level eight, startling players unprepared for the sudden attack. Amazingly, Atari kept the secret of the Jaggi monster under wraps and did not put it into any press. In today’s world of instant global communication, the idea of hiding a secret of this type for any length of time would be impossible.
d. Lucasfilm Company movie 1987
Noah Falstein provided some context for the Lucasfilm Company movie. Every year each division would share what they’d worked on during the last year. Inevitably, the Lucasfilm Games group always went right after ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), which showcased five minutes of the best state-of-the-art special effects used in some of the biggest blockbuster movies of the century. The Lucasfilm Games group’s portion of the 1987 company movie featured segments about Habitat, Labyrinth, and PHM: Pegasus. They made claims that Habitat could be the first 10,000 player computer game.
e. Steve Arnold
Steve Arnold spoke about the unique position of Lucasfilm Games. They were the only group that was allowed to create completely new stories and still brand them as Lucasfilm. He was brought in as a general manager to take the team from being a research group into a development and publishing group, but needed to do so without losing the essence of innovation and drive that characterized the team from the beginning. When Arnold asked George Lucas for advice, he was told to “stay small, be the best, don’t lose any money." Lucasfilm Games had an indie sensibility despite being part of a larger corporation. Art was valued as much as technology, and as a result the culture surrounding game creation was very collaborative. If there was a better way to do something, they would spend the time to fix it. They tried never to sacrifice what they called ‘funitivity’ for making ship date. If it was possible, they would first try to make the game more engaging, and more fun for the player. Falstein confirmed that quite often Arnold would ask the others, “What’s the funitivity quotient?” As a result many concepts got proposed, though not all were implemented.
f. Chip Morningstar
While introducing Chip Morningstar as the next speaker, Falstein gave some background about Lucasfilm’s groundbreaking title, Habitat. The game Habitat was played on a Commodore 64 running at 1 MHz clock speed with 300 baud modems. Chip Morningstar was originally a tools programmer, and has a unique claim to fame as one of the people who helped coin the term ‘avatar.’ In order to support their game development while still being true to the ‘don’t lose any money’ portion of the mantra Lucas originally said to Arnold, Lucasfilm Games often found outside funding by making deals.
One company they collaborated with was QuantumLink, which was creating a consumer-oriented online service for owners of the Commodore 64 computer. QuantumLink had just received an influx of cash from Commodore International, and they were looking to see what they could do with their service. Morningstar dug up an old concept he’d come up during an earlier brainstorming session, when they’d been discussing artificial intelligence, and said that since they were not able to create an automaton as interesting and smart as a real human being, why not just connect players to other players? Arnold met with an executive from Commodore and showed him the idea, and the executive loved it. Several months later they had an offer going. Now the real problem was after they were able to successfully pitch the concept to Commodore, they had to deliver. Since it was Morningstar’s idea in the first place, it fell to him. Although he was the “tools guy,” the egalitarian nature of the Lucasfilm Games group meant that all of the programmers were also artists, and once the Habitat project was greenlit, he was tapped as the lead on the creative project.
g. Ron Gilbert
Ron Gilbert is known (along with Tim Schafer) for creating some of the most entertaining and humorous adventure games that were ever produced by LucasArts. He started off his segment by saying his most vivid memory of working on Maniac Mansion was almost getting fired. He and Gary Winnick had been working on the game for about nine months, but the code was not going anywhere because Gilbert was trying to do everything in 6502 assembly language. Steve Arnold called him on the carpet and gave him a “talking to” regarding the game’s progress. During this point David Fox was also brought on board the project as a scripter. Gilbert spoke to Chip Morningstar about the issues he’d been having with the 6502 assembly language, and Morningstar suggested they write a scripting language, and build a compiler and an interpreter. This discussion led to the birth of SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion). The SCUMM adventure game scripting language was used to power many subsequent adventure games in the LucasArts catalog.
Gilbert also demonstrated a section of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to show how SCUMM worked. In this segment the player needs to instruct Indy to use his whip on a wooden plug in the ceiling in order to let water flow through.
During the Q&A session, Gilbert also explained why at one point in The Secret of Monkey Island the player finds a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. They wanted the player to use the rubber chicken to slide down a cable, but during a brainstorming session determined a regular old rubber chicken isn't particularly well-suited for this purpose. And then someone suggested putting a pulley in the middle of the chicken. Problem solved!
2. Classic Game Postmortem: Robotron: 2084
Eugene Jarvis took the stage to walk everyone through the development of Robotron:2084, a classic arcade game developed by Vid Kidz and published by Williams Electronics in 1982, where the player is tasked with the responsibility of rescuing the last human family from a robotic horde. Robotron was created in six months, and serendipitously, everything worked out without any issues. The team had just finished working on Defender and Stargate, and since they’d spent the last 18 months working in the side-scrolling shooter genre, they wanted to go in a new direction. They started with a simple concept, “robots are really cool,” and were also influenced by other games. Chase for the Commodore PET was a turn-based game with text-based characters, for example robots were represented by Pi symbols. The goal was to lure the robots into mines, there was no actual shooting in the game.
Another inspiration was Berzerk. The game was turn-based, and players could fire one shot at a time in eight different directions, while seven or eight enemies were on screen. This put significant pressure on the player but gave them just enough power to control the situation if they were good enough at the game. The 8-way joystick was somewhat difficult to use, since the player had to move while they were firing. However, Jarvis noticed that if you pressed a button the player would stand still, and if while holding the button you moved the joystick, it would fire. This inspired him to create the dual joystick controls used in Robotron, with one joystick for movement and the other joystick for firing.
Game software in 1981 was limited. Jarvis put up a screenshot of the video hardware available at the time. He mentioned that CRT monitors are much faster than LCD displays. Almost all LCD displays have a frame lag of at least 32 milliseconds. This made CRTs better for “twitch gaming” because of their fast response time. Robotron hardware used only a single frame buffer, another reason there was less lag in the game. A picture of the video hardware shows a battery backup installed in the upper left.
For the audio hardware, there was a CPU + DAC (Digital Analog Converter). There wasn’t any hardware really, they had to create sounds using software. It was so difficult to generate sound they limited it to a monophonic system, which meant Robotron could only make one sound at a time. The designers used a complex priority scheme to ensure that the most important sound was the one the player heard at any given time.
There were no high-level languages, no real operating systems, no Windows, no APIs, no middleware, no tools, no Photoshop or Maya, and machine language ruled all. This gave programmers the ability to know and control every minute detail of their games. It could be easier to just create your own operating system than to attempt to learn an API with a complex user manual. Jarvis then went on a detailed explanation of technical and coding specifications that whooshed over my head posthaste, leading me to space out until he started talking about the kind of stuff I really care about, which is game design and storytelling. Here are some of the screens of the technical details.
In the story of the Robotron: 2084 universe, the human legacy is one of massive pollution, climate change, nuclear wars, mass extinctions, and an increase in selfishness, laziness, and obesity. As a result, parts of humanity decided it was time to create something 'better than humans,' and thus were born the robotrons. These new creations were used as slave labor. However, the humans did not consider the effect of Moore's Law -- machine intelligence doubles every two years. Since machine evolution outpaces human evolution, it will reach Von Neumann's Singularity, a point at which machines are so much more intelligent than humans that it changes the future. In this case, the robotrons decide to alter the future by killing all humans.
The player is a genetically engineered superhuman mutant who must protect the last human family, which consisted of Mommy, Daddy, and Mikey. The player starts in the center of the screen already surrounded. Different types of enemies attack using unique styles. The first and easiest to design was the Electrode, which didn’t move and would only kill the player if they touched it. Grunts, or “ground unit network terminators,” had low IQs and would seek out the players. As the game progressed, their velocity would increase, similar to Space Invaders. Jarvis did acknowledge that if in the story the robotrons are supposed to be super intelligent the grunts are a bit odd. But the bottom line was, he said, “People want to kill stupid robots.”
Robotron limited the player to four active shots at a time, which meant they were rewarded for making kill shots. If they hit a robotron the shot would respawn immediately, whereas if they missed they would have to wait longer for that shot to become available again. The game was still a bit unbalanced, since the player was too powerful in comparison to the robotrons. In response, the team added more robotrons to the screen, eventually settling on 128. They could have stopped there, but instead they followed the Noah Falstein philosophy of “Avoid the VOID.” In this case, VOID stands for “varies only in difficulty.” Just making the grunts harder to kill as the levels progressed would have been boring.
Therefore they decided to add different types of robotrons, each with a unique personality that was expressed in how they engaged with the player. Additionally, every projectile shot would also behave in a unique manner. Hulks were inspired by The Incredible Hulk, and Evil Otto (from Berzerk), and they were indestructible. Since a completely indestructible enemy that kills the player easily is not very interesting, the hulks were programmed to walk around in random patterns. The player could also use their shots to defend against the hulks even if they couldn’t kill them.
Enforcers were a spawning enemy that used a projectile that increased in velocity with the amount of distance between it and the player. The further away they were from each other, the faster the projectile traveled. Quarks could spawn tanks, which could in turn shoot bank shots at the player. These were the only reflective projectiles in the game. There were also enemies described as Brains that shot cruise missiles, which would follow the player around the game field. Several years after the game was released, Jarvis learned about the “Mikey Bug” that affected the Brain behavior during their initial wave of attack. Due to an initialization error, instead of seeking out the nearest human, they all go after Mikey. If the player kept one Mikey alive without actually rescuing him, they could devote attention to rescuing the other humans, racking up points in the process. They also had to be careful that they left a single enemy alive as well, since if the last one was killed the bug would end. Jarvis said some of the best features in the game were bugs, just as long as the bugs didn’t crash the game. One crash bug involved a diagonal shot that would go off screen and straight into the program stack.
3. Classic Game Postmortem: Zork
Dave Lebling, the senior scientist and senior principal software engineer at Infocom, spoke about the origins of Zork, the classic adventure game. He mentioned that the game was influenced by Will Crowther and Don Woods, who created Adventure, the first text adventure game. Woods noticed that what Crowther had made was basically a cave crawler (in fact it was patterned after Colossal Cave in Kentucky aka Bedquilt Cave), and he wanted to add some gameplay elements to it, like hidden treasures, creatures, and puzzles. Woods wrote everything in FORTRAN, and then posted it on the ARPANET. This caused all work on the ARPANET to stop for two weeks. Lebling enjoyed the game but admitted it had some defects. Adventure used a two-word parser, didn’t understand adjectives, and wasn’t written in a modern computer language.
Lebling and his compatriots at the MIT Lab for Computer Science decided to create a game that improved upon the Adventure model. They already had experience creating games, including Maze, Hunt the Wumpus, and a crowdsourced Trivia game.
The original mainframe Zork was written by Marc Blank, Tim Anderson, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling while they were all at MIT, either as research assistants or graduate students. Zork, unlike Adventure, used a three-word parser. Elements of the game included Cyclops (because of an interest in Sinbad), trolls, thieves, reservoirs, echo rooms, pits, and grues. These last are most famous for eating players, as a frequent game over text indicates, “You have been eaten by a grue.” Strangely enough, the Infocom staff learned later on that the word “grue” actually means crane in French. There was never a story outline, mostly the story of Zork grew as the developers implemented new ideas. For example, vehicles cause unintended consequences or robots could follow commands.
Although the first implementation of Zork was on a mainframe computer, Infocom wanted to do something with Zork using microcomputers. In support of this ambition Joel Berez and Marc Blank created the Z-Machine, a virtual machine they could use to input instructions that were portable to other platforms. The Z-Machine tools included ZIL (Zork Implementation Language) and a ZIL compiler (so the team didn’t need to look at assembler code.)
The original Zork for the mainframe computer was written in MDL (MIT Design Language), pronounced “muddle.” Infocom published the PDP-II copy of Zork. When they wanted to publish on a microcomputing platform, they took a copy of Zork to the publisher Personal Software (later known as VisiCorp), which was best-known for publishing VisiCalc, the first microcomputer spreadsheet program. Zork I was published in November 1980, and contained approximately 40% of the content from the Zork mainframe title. The box cover featured a brave warrior adorning the front, misleading the consumer into thinking this was a typical action game, and showing a tonal disconnect between Infocom and Personal Software.
Eventually, Personal Software lost interest in game publishing and changed their name to VisiCorp, concentrating instead on making more Visi products. Infocom decided to publish their own games, and hired an ad agency called Giardini/Russell. Giardini/Russell redesigned Infocom’s logo, and made new packaging for Zork I. The box cover might look simple by today’s standards, but back when it was released, it was fairly impressive, since most other games were just shipped in baggies.
The 60% left over from mainframe Zork after Zork I, was salvaged for use in Zork II, which was published in 1981. This title included a nearly impossible to solve puzzle designed by Marc Blank in the Bank of Zork. The solution was based on where and in what order you came from when passing through the shimmering wall. Old features from the mainframe Zork such as Bank of Zork, Baseball Land, and Wonderland were ported into Zork II. New elements were the wizard’s workshop, a glacier puzzle, and a topiary garden. The wizard could cast “Fantasize” on the player to make them hallucinate.
Infocom eventually established their first physical office at 55 Wheeler Street, Cambridge, MA. Prior to that all of their collaborations were through ad-hoc meetings. When they started working on Zork III, sharing a common office space increased the speed of feedback between team members, leading to an improvement in quality. Zork III was released in September 1982. There were new puzzles, and a new aspect to the design. It was possible for the player to not only exhibit characteristics that marked them as a good person, but also their actions could determine if they were fitting replacements for the current antagonist, the dungeon master in charge of the environment. Zork III featured a slightly smaller map than Zork II.
When the postmortem was wrapping up, one of the audience members asked about the grue. No one knows what it looks like. Infocom’s response to this was, anyone who knew what it looked like, was dead. They also spoke about how Zork IV turned into the game Enchanter, which was the first title in their magic trilogy – Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker.
1. GDC Microtalks 2014: One Hour, Ten Speakers, a Panoply of Game Thinking!
Featured speakers at this year’s GDC Microtalks came from Naughty Dog, Kongregate, and Ouya. They worked as critics, programmers, and composers. Emily Greer, the CEO of Kongregate, spoke about community, connectivity across constituencies, and the need for frequent regular contact. Brian Sharp, a self-employed programmer formerly of Bungie, told us how to handle a difficult one-on-one conversation with a difficult colleague. Susan O’Connor expressed a desire for gameplay to tell stories by depicting emotions through action—something done all the time through dance. The entire talk is available online.
2. Rant Apocalypse: The 10th Anniversary Mega Session
The GDC Rants started off with recaps of all the previous GDC Rants from 2005-2013. The recaps ended with a face-off between 2005 and 2014, determining how many of the issues from 2005 have been resolved now that it’s 2014. 2014 won with 6/10 issues fixed, although some entrenched issues from 2005 (diversity, storytelling, discrimination) are still creating problems in the industry.
The speakers all came with an axe to grind. Here’s some quick summations of a few rants.
a. Greg Costikyan
Greg Costikyan from Loot Drop took apart the AAA game model, suggesting that these systems kill innovation. He ranted that although a revolution of sorts occurred within the last 10 years, with the growth of online, indie, social, and mobile platforms – now the walls are closing in on these developers as well. Since indie games are primarily supported by Steam, and XBLA is no longer a factor, Valve has a monopoly. The Apple store is a nightmare and if a game isn’t “featured” it won’t be discovered. Developers have to work as marketers as well as developers to stand out in the non-curated free-for-all that is indie distribution. Right now indies need a viable business ecosystem but they are currently trapped into monopolistic distribution channels.
b. Justin Hall
Justin Hall (www.links.net) spoke about the ephemeral nature of indie game studios, and the loss to history that occurs when developers don’t take the time to preserve their own assets from disappearing. He spoke about his own experience running an indie company that eventually failed. He took his own code and made it open source. Additionally he published his financial data, player data, and stats. The hashtag he came up with is #OGDY – Open Game Data Yes, pronounced, “oh, goody.” He called for other developers to post their own content with the same hashtag. This will allow the games to live past their shelf lives, and let developers share and learn from each other to make games better.
c. Ian Bogost
Ian Bogost read from the ancient text, “Taxonomy of Extinct Terrestrial Tribes.” It suggests the future may have a somewhat dystopian retrospective view of the animal known as the game developer. The entirety of his talk is featured in his article for The Atlantic.
d. Heather Chaplin
Heather Chaplin spoke about the relationship between games and addiction models. In the Old West, saloonkeepers would lure patrons back by wafting the smell of whiskey into the air. Games create addiction through the action->reward model, which is addictive up to a certain point. Psychologist B.F. Skinner designed an experiment to find the extinction point of the addiction model by giving mice cocaine. The first pill was free, but the second one required the mouse to push a button once. Then twice. And so on. Skinner found that a mouse will eventually push a button thousands of times to get one pill. Chaplin asks game developers not to be pushers, but to be game designers. It is immoral and poor game design.
e. Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris
Mitu Khandaker-Korkoris runs the one-woman company The Tiniest Shark. She spoke about her experience creating Redshirt, a satirical science fiction social network simulation game. Playing as a certain type of character, the Asrion, upset one of her players, who wrote on Tumblr about how the game triggered certain feelings in her. The Asrion characters are designed to be objectified by all the others in the game. Mitu apologized on her blog and added a “trigger warning” to the game. After her blog apology, other game developers asked her if she was compromising her vision. Mitu felt more that it was being aware that certain states of game can evoke actual physical and/or emotional responses to people who have survived trauma. Trigger warnings are about inclusivity, and are used to mitigate harm.
f. Brenda Romero
Brenda Romero spoke frankly about sexual harassment, first citing an incident that happened earlier this year, between a male game journalist and a female game developer. During a professional exchange, the man began to make sexual comments. Although the woman ignored these, he continued to escalate the commentary. A link off this Twitter page shows the screen capture of the Facebook conversation, with the woman's name blacked out.
Although he apologized afterwards and said he’d been depressed and inebriated, the journalist’s reputation was severely damaged. And Brenda Romero found a NSFW title for her rant, which was, “Nobody Wants Your Cock.” She commented on the number of people who wondered why the woman didn’t immediately call the reporter out, instead of ignoring his lewd comments. As a parallel case, Romero talked about a time in her career, early on, when a game designer she highly respected ended their conversation by basically revealing to her that he had an erection. She tried to ignore it and continue as if nothing had happened, and in fact continued to walk around with him afterwards. She was humiliated and also felt bad that she didn’t say anything. But she emphasized that power differentials make people with less power feel unsafe. And nobody knows how they’ll react when confronted with an unexpected situation.
1. Women Don’t Want to Work in Games (And Other Myths)
Elizabeth Sampat’s talk about women in games was an entertaining and enlightening look at some of the biases both men and women carry with them into the games industry. She posted a transcript of her talk on Gamasutra.
2. U.S. National Investment in the Future of Games?
Federal agencies already care a lot about games. This is evident from their interest in the impact of games on culture, economy, and technology. There are four elements to consider when discussing future investment: what’s been done, future ideas, GDC involvement, and ideas from the cloud.
Jason Rhody from the NEH office of digital humanities spoke about some different game-related projects that cross-over into the digital humanities space. Metadata Games crowdsources metadata in a free to play tagging game. Mission US: A Revolutionary Way to Learn History immerses players into an interactive game that lets them step in the shoes of characters from the past, like an apprentice living during the time of the Revolutionary War. The NEH is a grant-funding agency and some of its start-up grants provide between $30-$60K.
Elaine Raybourn from the Sandia National Laboratories suggested that game technology can be used to save lives, specifically by identifying combat stressors in military veterans post-deployment. Game developers interested in working in this space should attend several game tech conferences, such as I/ITSEC in Orlando, FL or ITEC in Cologne Messe, Germany. Raybourn also suggested game creators try their hands at the Serious Games challenge.
William S. Bainbridge from the National Science Foundation joined the panel remotely, through his Second Life avatar. Inside SL there were images of the shutdown Matrix MMO. This part was a bit hard to follow as the audio went in and out. However his talk revolved around other online games, like Everquest, EVE Online, A Tale in the Desert, and how they help in the study of artificial intelligence (and what I think was “cyberhuman systems” although maybe I heard that wrong.) While studying environments containing human subjects, what ethical considerations come into play? Bainbridge also touted the NSF’s track record of supporting groundbreaking technology, such as the Google self-driving cars and early search system.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin from UCSC wondered how federal agencies could invest in games with the aid of developers. He mentioned a project that was just wrapping up its final white paper that week, the Media Systems Workshop. This was a project started in 2012 that was a first-time collaboration between the NSF, NEH, and the NEA. They also had support from Microsoft. This was evidence that federal agencies (multiple) and game developers could work together toward common goals. He stated there were three areas where federal agencies can make difference. First, there is a systemic separation between tech researchers and creators. Game makers and tech researchers should support sharing of best practices, something that can occur with the support of the NEA or NSF. Second, they can start programs to support teams with broad skills – developers, designers, researchers, etc. Third, they can create better collections and archives. Agencies like the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services), LoC (Library of Congress), and the NEH can support the efforts of AAA developers to externally archive their closing kits. Indie developers can create pipelines for archiving their source files. Cloud-based game distributors like Steam, iTunes, and Google Play need to provide a downloadable solution designed for libraries, and a non-DRM version for archives.
3. IGDA Game Preservation SIG Roundtable
I raced over to the IGDA Game Preservation SIG Roundtable after the Lucasfilm Games postmortem and caught the host, Jason Scott of the Internet Archive, while he was in the hallway. Although I missed the meeting, I was able to ask him how IA dealt with copyright issues. Right now the Cabrinety project is in the process of contacting copyright holders in an attempt to gain permission to provide access to the software in a digital library. Scott’s response was that I should document the process of preservation, indicate the level to which it’s conducted, and note the comparison between Stanford’s stewardship and that of the copyright holder, who may have done nothing (benign neglect) to protect their own assets. Doing this work will describe the best faith efforts of Stanford to salvage and present to a specific audience the contents in a non-malicious way.
I asked if the Internet Archive got any complaints from their posting of The Console Living Room, a space on their page where users can play classic games through an in-browser emulator. He said they hadn’t received any so far, but for an example he brought up the website Cherry ROMS, which responds to letters of complaint by requesting that the complainant name the exact file specifics to offer proof that the version in dispute is the same one on the site.
1. IGF Awards
The 16th Annual Independent Games Festival happened on March 19, 2014 in the evening. This meant that my phone battery was dead. The key takeaway I got from the IGF Awards was that Lucas Pope, who created Papers, Please, was eligible for TOO MANY AWARDS. I think he won about 32 of them. Papers, Please is about the moral issues one faces when working as an immigration officer in a dictatorial regime. Here is a list of all the winners.
2. GDC Choice Awards
The GDC Choice Awards started off with a diagram of the female reproductive system. Abbie Heppe is the first woman to host the awards, and she kept the mood light and hosted with great enthusiasm. A highlight of the awards was when Ken Kutaragi—Father of the PlayStation—received a lifetime achievement award. Comedy video troupe Mega 64 put together a video, “Kutaragi’s Way,” describing the secret history behind Kutaragi’s rise to power.
Anita Sarkeesian won an Ambassador Award for her work exploring the representation of women in media, particularly tropes in pop culture, as well as confronting issues of harassment and discrimination against women in gaming spaces. Her video blog, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games is part of the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel.
Here is a link to all the GDC 2014 Choice Award Winners. As if he hadn’t had to troop on stage often enough during the IGF Awards, Lucas Pope also won the Innovation Award during the GDC Choice Awards. Maybe you should check out his game.
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