I’m back from some travels – plural, which is extremely rare for me.
New York City (first time visit) followed by the usual annual trip to Stockholm
for EA’s Frostbite DevDays conference, where various game devs from the company
converge from all around the world to chat and drink.
EA is a weird company in the sense that, for a video game company, people tend
to stay there for very long stretches of time. It’s very common to talk to
people who have been at EA for more than 10 years – at EA Vancouver, DICE,
Bioware, whatever. This makes it difficult to find new points of views on
technical problems… although, well, maybe it’s the same in many other big
companies like Activision or UbiSoft, I don’t know.
Either way, I was happy to meet several people who not only have shipped AAA
games at other companies, but also worked on those games’ cameras – which is my
current area of interest, being in charge of the Frostbite Camera System.
Finding people who work on (and care about!) cameras is a challenge to begin
with, seeing how little infrastructure and long term investments are generally done on that
crucial aspect of any game (more on that in a future post), so I’m pretty happy
with this year’s conference for that, at least.
There’s not much to say except that, even before the Kickstarter campaign ended, half of us backers knew it would be a shit show. It’s just fascinating to see how exactly the shit show is going – from the totally dysfunctional project and scope management to the size of Chris Roberts’ balls for selling non-existing digital items for several hundreds of dollars… with the nice addition of fans that are so extreme they can make some Apple or Linux fanboy look balanced.
I personally backed Star Citizen for the same reasons I backed Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: as a big “Thank You” for having made, in the past, some of my all-time favourite games. I mean, I was so in love with Wing Commander that I wrote my school notes in its iconic font for several weeks after finishing it. And I still have, to this day, t-shirt that came with the awesome collector’s edition of Wing Commander III… but those new games? Meh. Star Citizen was suspicious from the moment I learned they were using CryEngine. Shroud of the Avatar’s use of separate zones with loading screens (probably because of limitations with Unity’s streaming features) and antiquated UI made it vastly unappealing to me – although I give it a try once every few months to see the progress.
Hey, at least, in terms of pure entertainment, we can’t say we didn’t get some of our money’s worth with Star Citizen ;-)
One thing stuck out for me: Molyneux’s obsession with creating “living worlds”, i.e. games where you’re free to do many things (plant trees, build a house, have kids) and choose many paths (be good, be evil, choose this or that in each situation), and all the while witnessing the consequences of such acts. He’s not the only one trying to do this in video games, but he’s probably the one who tried it the most – or at least talked about trying it the most.
Technically speaking, this is a potentially fascinating problem. Will video game RPGs have to implement advanced AI and machine learning techniques for the game to truly react to your actions? Maybe. Hey, who knows, maybe Fallout 9 will be where the first sentient computer program emerges, after some guy in North Carolina has played it for 7 hours straight or something. But I’m wondering – is that even the point? Should video game designers strive for this kind of “perfect” sandbox experience? Or are they just working in the wrong medium?
There’s already a type of game where you’re free to do whatever you want, and the game world reacts accordingly – not only in a logical or plausible way, but also a narratively interesting way: tabletop, pen & paper RPGs… or, you know, just “RPGs”, as we called them back in the day1. If you’re writing a comic book while covering all pages with descriptions and inner monologues, maybe you should be writing a novel instead… and if you’re struggling to make a video game where you can do whatever you want, maybe you should be writing RPG books?
Damn you video games RPGs – especially JRPGs, who have close to zero “RP” in their “G”. ↩
I believe that in recent years, while looking for revenue models that work for electronic games, game designers and publishers have stumbled upon some formulae that work only because they abuse segments of their player population. Games can have addictive properties – and these abusive games are created – intentionally or not – to exploit players who are subject to certain addictive behavior.
It’s a good read, as Garfield tries to formalize what’s OK and not OK in games, with clear guidelines about gameplay aspects that make a game become “skinnerware”, while still allowing some gray areas. Of course, many people were quick to point out that his own game, Magic, falls, at least, in these gray areas. After all, a certain percentage of Magic players are known to spend huge amounts of money to acquire rare cards, and, generally speaking, buying more packs give you better cards which gives you some advantage.
What saves Magic from the skinnerware category, in my opinion, is largely that it’s a physical game, not a video game1, so whatever you buy still has value and can be sold back. The other thing is that its “power-ups for money” mechanism is not quite open-ended. True skinnerware games typically let you buy an endless amount of coins or jewels or energy charges or whatever. Magic, on the other hand, has a limited (although quite big) catalog of cards. Trying to get them all by buying booster packs quickly gets you diminishing returns because of the rarity of many cards, so you would quickly turn to individual purchases at market price. It’s still a shitload of money, but it’s a finite shitload.
I’ve never had even the slightest opportunity to get my own office1 so I frankly have no idea whether a private office would be an improvement – I just don’t know any better.
We do a fair bit of asynchronous communication, however. This is pretty much unavoidable, since, over here on the Frostbite Engine team, we have to deal with customers and co-workers that are spread across a dozen various places on Earth with up to 9 hours of time difference.
In some ways, however, it’s funny that Larson recommends replacing meetings with emails since a lot of my coworkers mainly complain about having to deal with too much email already. Also, the way he describes how a “quick” email conversation can replace a lengthy meeting is misleading since – having turned off all notifications and checking email only a couple times a day to improve productivity – this “quick” 4-message back and forth would actually take 2 days to complete.
In the zone
The part that caught my eye the most is the part about reaching a “flow state” – something that most people call being “in the zone”.
I have almost no problem reaching that state – even in an open floor plan.
Arguably, I’m not important enough to receive enough emails or meeting invites to experience the problems a lot of other people (most of them more senior than me, I assume) complain about, so that must help… but I basically get “in the zone” often enough that, on a regular basis, I finish a task, take off my headphones, and realize that it’s 2pm and that everybody had lunch already.
While most people use the Pomodoro technique to help protect themselves from distractions, I was, for some time, using that technique to help me take a break every now and then… because being “in the zone” for too long would frequently give me painful migraines (at least once a week). Even when I used Pomodoro timers on my phone, I would frequently not notice them going off!
Then again, I’m one of those people that most of you probably hate: the ones who can fall asleep in less than 5 minutes. So I suppose my brain and I really get along well when it’s time to shut off distractions. Yay brain.
Video game companies are almost all using open floor plans, and nothing will change that any time soon. ↩