Sunday, May 27, 2012

Book review: Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, by David Kushner, is a history of Id Software, famous for Doom and Quake as well as many other games, and its founders John Carmack and John Romero.  This is history written in a very personal form, as though it was a novel, and it is written very well.  The author had extensive access to almost all of the major characters, and even then there is much dialogue that had to be invented by the author because no one who was there was going to remember all of those details – and these guys don’t seem like the types who would be recording almost everything they said, though Romero has an extensive archive.

In fact, the guys as a group seem to be the opposite of meticulous, except where programming is concerned.   For years they worked in an apartment amidst pizza boxes and soda pop cans and wild and crazy nights of game playing and programming.  It’s a quintessential story of misfit kids rising through video games to become the equivalent of “rock stars”.

The story of the two Johns is told in great and fascinating detail.  It’s like the kind of novel that you have a hard time putting down.  This is true even for me, long past the young adult stage and not at all inclined to worship anybody, especially “rock stars” – though I grew up with the beginning of Rock I never wanted to be a rock star. 

This book certainly gives youngsters a story to wish for and heroes to emulate.  Unfortunately, the software industry has passed the stage where innovation alone has value: it has matured.  Games must appeal to a broader market, and designers often must design for other people, not for themselves.  The Id Software guys designed games that they wanted to play, and had a great deal to do with the invention of first-person shooters and the fascination of hard-core players with realism in blood and gore, but what really made it go was the genius of John Carmack, who programmed the game engines used in the software. 

I remember when Doom first came out (as shareware, mind you).  I played it for 15 minutes, said “that’s nice”, and had no desire to play again.  I’ve never been a fan of shooters beyond something very basic like Space Invaders.  Yet a 20-something friend of mine who only had a laptop (which couldn’t keep up with Doom’s demands) came over and played it on my desktop, with the speakers turned way up, cackling and laughing as he slaughtered the enemy, and I really enjoyed watching him having so much fun.  Though after a while I left him to it!   My friend was representative of how Doom was received by experienced video game players. I am still fascinated to watch people play shooters, perhaps because I don’t find them interesting to play.

The early history of Id shows the advantages of teamwork when the skills of the team members complement each other.  Workaholic Carmack really does seem to be a genius, someone who found ways to go beyond the evident constraints of early PCs and make them do more than anyone thought possible.   Romero provided the game design, some of the marketing, the tools programming, and the hype, but ultimately Carmack was the linchpin, and when they fell out Romero was forced to leave.  He formed ill-fated Ion Storm and created the even more ill-fated Daikatana, while Ion Storm owed whatever success it had to Will Spector and his game Deus Ex.  In the end Eidos bought Ion Storm and fired Romero and his people, keeping the Deus Ex gang.

In contrast to the late 80s and early 90s, nowadays the technology is not usually a limiting factor.  Any game designer operates under a variety of constraints, and in the past the technology limitations of the platforms was one of the biggest constraints. Where in the past video games have often been as much about technology as about games, now we’re at a stage where most people aren’t interested in the technology, they just want to play games.  While platforms are still a constraint they are much less so than 20 years ago.  And I think this relative independence from technology (along with the costs of the best technology) limits pretty strongly the possibility that a small group of people can take the gaming world by storm because they’ve solved technological problems the way Id Software did.  Games that are big overnight successes like Angry Birds or Draw Something, or games with vast numbers of players like Farmville and Mafia Wars, do not begin to push the technology envelope.

The book is so obviously based on interviews with most of the participants that I was almost surprised to find a list of sources at the end.  The biggest source was extensive interviews with dozens of people, and especially the two John’s themselves. There are end notes and a bibliography as well.

I have a 2004 paperback edition (original was issued in 2003) with an  afterword by the author.  You can carry the story further through Wikipedia.  Kushner, a video game journalist, has recently published another book, Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto.  He didn’t get quite the full access to participants that he did for Masters of Doom, but I expect it will be similarly riveting reading.

(It’s often interesting to see which names are recognized by Dragon NaturallySpeaking, my voice recognition software.  It appears that some of the more well-known people in the contemporary world are embedded in the software.  At any rate it had no trouble with either of the Johns’ last names.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Attending Origins in Columbus

I'll be at Origins in Columbus OH next week.  I'm fairly easy to spot if you'd like to talk, at 6'6", 305 pounds (I was impressed with the size of NFL offensive tackles until I became that size), bald on top (not male pattern baldness, just a general lack of hair), mustache, glasses.  I may be wearing a hat at times so the baldness may not be evident.

I am giving four different (free) talks about game design, Friday at 7 PM, Saturday at 11AM and 7, and Sunday at 10AM. One hour to talk, then up to an hour for questions.  See the program for topic details.

Monday, May 21, 2012

A Eureka Moment about Training, Education, Puzzles, and Games

I was thinking about a time when my department head came to my game design class unannounced to evaluate my teaching, and I wasn’t “lecturing” to the students.  They were working on game projects.  (This was not an introductory class.)  She seemed surprised that I wasn’t lecturing, but that may be because she typically taught introductory computer literacy style classes such as how to use Microsoft Office.  Classes that teach use of specific office software can be taught more or less by rote: if you want to make something bold you highlight it and press control-B or click the Bold button.  If you change margins you do thus and so.  And so forth.

(These intro software classes don’t have to be taught entirely by rote but commonly they are, complete with what I call “monkey books”.  These books have students follow steps to accomplish something, but students tend to focus on getting through as rapidly as possible, and when they’re done they don’t know what they did and haven’t learned much.  Like the monkeys who, if they type long enough, type Shakespeare’s works . . .  You can learn from monkey books, but only if you want to learn and make the effort to learn.)

Designing games is not and can never be taught by rote.  Teaching by rote is training not education.  Education is about why you do things, why some things work and others don’t, about understanding what you’re doing.  Training is about exactly how you get a particular thing done.  I recognize that not everyone follows those definitions but I find it very useful to make this distinction, and other people with other purposes when defining education and training may make different distinctions.

Designing games is about education, not training.  Designing games is about critical thinking, and much of it is thinking, which is the antithesis of training.  You’re trained to do things automatically, without thinking.

Game production at the outset can be taught by rote because people are learning how to use particular software, for example Maya or 3DS Max, or they’re learning how to program.  In the long run there is a process of education there, especially for programming, but in the short run for introductory classes a lot of it is simple straightforward “this is how you do it”.  There just isn’t much of that in game design.

But where the Eureka moment occurred was when I realized that an analogy can be made from this to games and puzzles.  A puzzle is something that has a solution, or perhaps several solutions, with the defining characteristic that once you figure it out the solution always works.  So you can teach someone by rote how to beat the puzzle by teaching them the steps required.  It’s possible that those steps require certain skills such as hand eye coordination levels that the person may not have attained, but once they attain those levels they can follow the solution and beat the puzzle, or as it is said in video games “beat the game”.

A game does not have these kinds of solutions, and cannot be “beaten.”  To be good at the game requires something much more akin to education than training.  You have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and when that isn’t the best thing to do, when something else is the best thing to do.  There is certainly problem-solving in games, but there aren’t solutions to the game as a whole that will always work.  Frequently this is the difference between having human opponents and having no opponent or a computer opponent, though computer opponents continue to become better over time.  Frequently this is the difference between perfect information or uncertainty that can become predictable, typical in puzzles, and uncertainty that cannot be predicted or accounted for by simple mathematical processes–the kind of uncertainty that comes from having several human opponents.

You can teach someone, by rote, how to win at Tic-Tac-Toe, or even Tetris, and you could for chess if anyone had completely solved the extremely complicated puzzle.  The checker program Chinook, as I understand it, plays by rote, playing what it knows to be the move most likely to lead to a win from whatever the current position is–no reasoning required.  You can’t teach someone how to win at Britannia or Dragon Rage by rote, they have to understand how it all works and then think as they actually play.

Friday, May 18, 2012

2012 East Coast Game Conference, Raleigh North Carolina

[I posted this on my game design blog and on Gamasutra, and have just realized it makes sense to post it here.]

2012 East Coast Game Conference, Raleigh North Carolina 25 to 26 August

This is both a report about the East Coast Game Conference and comments about the nature of video game markets and the new mass market.

The fourth annual East Coast Game Conference (ECGC), billed as the “largest gathering of video game professionals on the east coast” took place this past Wednesday and Thursday.

Unlike many professional video game conferences, such as the GDC conferences, that are money earning concerns for a company that makes much of its revenue from conferences, the ECGC is still organized by volunteers, and this is reflected in the relatively low $99 entrance for professionals and much less for students.  For co-founders, John Austin, Walter Rotenberry, Troy Knight, and Wayne Watkins it is still a labor of love, not a labor for profit.  I don’t know what the attendance was this year but it was about 800 in 2010 and 1,200 in 2011.  One critic on Gamasutra has compared this conference to the very much larger Game Developers Conference in California, and of course there’s no way a four-year-old volunteer run conference can compare with professionally run and enormously expensive GDC.  Yet it provides a practical alternative for those who cannot afford the long journey and expense of GDC.  You could say that ECGC reflects the “new South” as well as the old in the same way that GDC reflects the great size and sheer craziness of California.

The Raleigh Convention Center is a fine venue with lots of space.  As with most video game conferences the focus of the ECGC is one hour talks (48 altogether) by experts in various video game related fields.  There were also keynote speeches in the early afternoon both days, and finally there was “Unreal University” where people could learn about using the Unreal Engine developer kit (Epic Games is located in the area).  There is a small exhibition hall, but that seems to me to be a sidelight rather than highlight of the conference.

Before I describe some of the more interesting talks (to me anyway) I want to say something about how these are conducted.  Something that surprises me about this conference– I don’t know how it goes at GDC -- is that almost every speaker gets in front of the audience and talks at them for 45 minutes without interaction, then invites questions and comments.  Necessarily, when you write something (like this piece) it's very difficult to have a conversation with people, you are stuck with "talking at" them.  But when you have a live audience you should acknowledge that audience as you go along, especially at the start.  Why not make a few comments and ask a few questions?  The only questions I can remember any of the speakers (other than myself) asking were related to what proportion of the audience was developers and what proportion students.

Audiences at many of these talks are predominantly younger people, certainly people who love to use interactive video software.  They often crave interaction.  There is no interaction when you "talk at" people.  I look at it from the perspective of the teacher, and lecturing at students is a sure way to turn off all but the most motivated.  There may be times when there's not another practical way to convey information but these should be rare rather than the standard.  The university teachers who get up in front of 100 to 500 or more students and talk at them for an hour are not actually teachers, they are providing an oral book.  A book can certainly teach, and of course an oral book is in some ways easier to work with than a book you have to read, with young people much less likely to read now then a generation or two ago, as is often testified by game developers.  (Real teaching, influencing a person's behavior and worldview, requires much smaller groups.)

I am going to partially describe some of the talks I attended, and then the keynotes.  I hope I don't seriously misrepresent what speakers have said.

Alan Wilson (of Tripwire Interactive) described "A case study of failure in funding and success on Steam".  He described how his company, which began as a modding group, have become self publishers. They explored more traditional methods of funding your games but in the long run most of their funding has been through second mortgages and then the success of previous games, including their success in building communities that continue to invest in their games.

They have found ways to increase over three years the sales of their cooperative zombie fighting game Killing Floor.   Community map contests with cash prizes provide new free maps to users, but they do not sell new maps.  They don't want to divide their customers into those who can play on a new map and those who cannot because they haven't bought it.  Their policy is to only sell cosmetic additions, with the limit being new character skins. 

They found that some of their fans have become what Alan calls "collectionists".  When Tripwire decided to sell boxed copies of the game in Europe with an exclusive character the company got pounded on their forums by the collectionists who demanded to be able to purchase that character! 

While the effective copy protection of Steam has helped them, Alan felt that some of the techniques could be used for ordinary retail sales.  Steam obviously has helped them acquire up-to-the-minute statistics about play and purchase of their games.  They found that a sales spike occurred whenever there was a sale price or an offering of new content for the game, and more importantly that sales stayed higher after the spike than before.

I suspect that the cooperative nature of Killing Floor has helped them build community although Allen said similar techniques were used for their Red Orchestra games as well.

Ethan Levy discussed "Game design is business design".  When you design a free to play (F2P) game you have to design the monetization method that same time.  According to a recent survey 15% of the US population aged 2 and up have paid money to F2P games.  The question is how to persuade people to pay money.

In Levy's view emotion is the key to monetization, and when he is involved in the initial design of a game he identifies the emotions that will be used.  These can be:

    Impatience.  But there are more effective ways than the typical Zynga energy deficiency.  A company called Kixeye makes 20 times the normal daily average revenue per user (which is 4 cents).  Zynga makes 6 cents.
    Revenge.  Someone harms you, you offer a bounty for others to harm them if you cannot, as in Mafia Wars.
    Dominance.  You want better scores in your friends and you're willing to buy temporary boosts to help you achieve this.  If the scores reset every week you have a constant stream of revenue.
    Jealousy.  Your friends have a particular decoration or possession, you're willing to spend real money to get the same thing.
    Accomplishment.  Achievements and trophies.  People are willing to pay real money to unlock achievements that they can then pursue.
    Exhilaration.  I suppose this amounts to a form of gambling.  Levy's example was a game in which players could earn the opportunity to open a goodie box and get some perks.  They knew what the chances were for each perk, and they could use real money to increase their chances of getting the better perks.  This works wonderfully.

I am not a fan of games that put in "pain points" (frustration) to try to persuade people to pay money.  Most of the above emotions involve frustration, but the last two do not, and this makes me more optimistic about F2P games in general.

Rafael Chandler is one of the best speakers I've heard at game conferences and conventions.  While his talks about story in games usually illuminate the entire process of game production, this time in "Story Production for Games" he gave us a faux post-mortem of a game ("Full Metal Rabbits") to directly illustrate how the story of a game could be ruined by production problems. 

Ideas ought to be cut out as the game progresses from preproduction to completion, but in practice things are often added on, sometimes by the developers themselves and sometimes by people "above" such as publishers.  This makes a mess.  Someone has to be in charge of meetings and the focus of meetings (though not necessarily of final decisions).

Failure to prototype the sound early on using amateurs to provide voice acting leads to problems at the end when it's too late to fix the professional actor version.

Minutiae often distract developers from what's important.  That's because it's easy to research and discuss something that's not really important, rather than answer big questions about the core of the game.

Zany documentation can be a problem.  Skip the entertainment in the docs, which are a blueprint.  You don't expect the blueprint to be amusing or entertaining.  Concentrate on clarity and precision.

Creative direction is vital, there needs to be one vision not a different one for every person.  There must be a sole vision of the game that is jealously defended.

There is a notion that voice actors are too expensive.  It's better to spend more (money and time) on voice actors, not less.  Remember that under union rules you have 4 hours with an actor, don't just use him or her for 35 minutes, record alternate dialogue and multiple ways of delivering the same dialogue.

The first draft is not the best!  Drafts need revision, revision, revision.  "Writing is revision".

During questions Chandler pointed out that unfortunately in video games, much as in Hollywood, the writer may be the one least responsible for a game's narrative.  And where the choice is between gameplay and story then gameplay is more important.

Chris Totten, who has a Masters degree in architecture, described how architectural principles could be applied to make better video game levels.  He described how ideas of Narrow space, Intimate Space, Prospect Space, Refuge space, and Secondary Refuge could be applied to level architecture, as well as height, shadow, and shade to provide emotion in survival horror style levels, ending with a small level he'd created to demonstrate his points.

Totten's Gamasutra piece "Designing Better Levels Through Human Survival Instincts"   describes the same ideas.

There are lots of things more important when making a level than these subtle points of architecture, but once you have grasped those most important points then a presentation like this can make you think about level design from a new perspective.

I was trying to do the same thing in my own talk, for more than 75 people, providing a new perspective by talking about managing and creating frustration in game design. 

The slides and an audio recording can be obtained at  I expect a written version to become available on Gamasutra one way or another, though of course there are lots of differences between an oral presentation and an article.

Whereas there were six talks plus an Unreal session going on at the same time, the two keynotes had timeslots all to themselves.

BioWare Senior Creative Director, Paul Barnett, gave the keynote on Thursday.  Though he could have a second career as a standup comic, he nonetheless made some very interesting observations.  One was that every game player who wants to make games has had a golden age or golden years, a time when he was young and had no responsibilities and nearly infinite time and patience to play games.  The games of his Golden years, according to Barnett, tend to dominate the rest of his gaming life, and in many ways he is trying to remake those games.  If you want to communicate well with someone in the game industry, whether they are older or younger, you need to understand the games of their Golden years.  Here I can't speak for video game makers because my Golden age occurred before video games existed, even on mainframes.  But I'd like to think, and certainly believe, that the games I design now are not like the hex and counter Avalon Hill games that were much of my Golden years, and are in no way an attempt to remake them.

Barnett felt that there is very definite division and mindset between people who have actually made a game and got it out there for other people to play, and those who only talk about it.  It doesn't need to have been sold commercially but it has to be out there for people to play.  I agree completely: the last part of the subtitle of my forthcoming book for beginning video and tabletop game designers is "Start to Finish".  This is not meant to imply that one book can tell you everything you need to know, it's meant to mean you have to complete games, finish them, before you can really call yourself a game designer, and that the biggest mistake beginners make is to not finish anything.  Of course I don't mean finish as in quit, I mean finish as in get it done so that you have a reasonable product that other people can play.  "Get it Done" could have been the title for the book as a whole, though the most descriptive short title would have been "Learning Game Design".

Barnett was so amusing and entertaining as well as informative that he got a standing ovation at the end of his talk.  There were no accompanying slides but I hope an audio version will become available.  All of the presentations were being video-recorded for use by the local community college, Wake Tech.

Zynga East Coast Executive Producer, Paul Stephanouk, gave the keynote the day before.  I was surprised at his description of how much players of the many -ville games appeared to love what they were doing.  When he goes out he typically wears a T-shirt with the name of one of those games printed on the front.  For a period of six months he was batting 1.000 for having people come up to him when they saw the T-shirt and tell him how much they loved the games, even before they learned that he had worked on some of them (especially Frontierville).  To a typical longtime game player these games are very very very simple puzzles, but they mean a lot more to people who are not typical game players.  And Stephanouk had recognized this, saying that he no longer designs games for himself but designs games for his family, which includes a wife who is not a typical game player and a five-year-old daughter and somewhat older son.

This illustrates to me where video games have gone.  Although Paul did not use the term, video games have finally reached the same kind of market that mass-market tabletop games have reached for many decades.  Most video games that attract game players are too complex or too intense or involve too much opposition for the kind of people who like to play Monopoly, Sorry, Game of Life, and other traditional more-or-less family games.  These tabletop games cannot have more than two pages of rules because that becomes too complicated for most people.  The very simple social network "games" on Facebook are reaching that same audience.  Facebook itself has made this possible because people who do essentially nothing on a computer but use Facebook can play Facebook games even though they might struggle to install and play any other kind of game.  In other words the technological barrier is much lower.

The casual audience is not the mass-market audience.  Casual gamers may play games for many hours a week, they may not mind having the game oppose what they're trying to do, they might accept a little frustration, they might not need to be told what to do next as Cityville or Empires and Allies does.  Many casual gamers still recognize that they may be asked to earn something as they play.  Mass-market gamers want to be entertained, not challenged.  Even if they’re capable of overcoming gamer-like challenges, they're not interested.  They are the opposite of the hard-core who want to be challenged and who enjoy overcoming challenges.  Mass-market games make absolutely no demands on the player (which is why children can play them), whereas many casual games do demand some thought or quickness of action from the player.

This description of "entertained, not challenged" also often applies to casual gamers, and we can say that the mass-market gamers are the least challenge-oriented (and much the larger) end of the casual game market.

Modern action-adventure movies often have very simple, straightforward plots because movie-makers think that movie-goers are easily confused.  (I think most self-described game players are much more savvy.)  Mass-market games are similarly designed to avoid confusion.

Just as with the tabletop mass-market, people play mass-market video games because their friends told them about them and because they've been identified as easy to play by the very fact that they're on Facebook (the mass-market tabletop games are identified by being sold at Toys "R" Us and Walmart).  There may be games on Facebook that are not so easy to play but they're not the ones that everybody hears about, and they're not the ones that I hear elderly ladies talking about in the local pharmacy, just as I would be unsurprised to hear someone talk about Monopoly or Game of Life in the local pharmacy.

And make no mistake about it, to people who might call themselves game players, mass-market tabletop games are "the pits".  The Game of Life and Monopoly have just as bad a reputation amongst tabletop game players as the -ville games have amongst video game players.  But if you want to make a really large amount of money as a publisher of games then you want a successful mass-market game.  Hasbro has to sell 300,000 to 1,000,000 copies of anything they put on the shelves to make it worthwhile, even though typical tabletop games and toys sell 1/10th to 1/1000th of that.  Similarly a mass-market social networking game has to reach an enormous market of tens of millions of players to make it worthwhile for Zynga to support.

The American publishers of Settlers of Catan, which is a casual game rather than a hard-core game in both the original tabletop and computer versions, were working on a "broad market" version, not quite mass-market but simplified from the original.  Broad market is not well defined in the tabletop industry, no more than it is in the video game industry, though I think the casual video games that still attract self-described heavy game players, such as Bejeweled and Tetris, constitute the broad market.

The hard core video game market can still generate millions of sales for games like Call of Duty.  Hard core tabletop games like chess still sell in the millions, and hobby tabletop games that win the German "Game of the Year" award can sell more than a million copies.  But most tabletop games, like most video games, sell immensely less than a million copies.  In the long run, "millions of sales" are the domain of the mass market.
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle