Musings on Game Engine Design

GDC 2009: The Year We Went Hungry

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I’ve written before that at SIGGRAPH you starve while at GDC they stuff you like a foie gras goose.  No more.  This year there were no breakfast pastries before the lectures started.  There were no cookies at the coffee breaks.  Some lines ran out of lunches and sodas.  Perhaps CMP took a look at the girth of the attendees and decided that the average game developer would benefit from a diet.

The lean times extended to the recruiting floor.  It was obvious looking at the career expo that, despite rumors to the contrary, our industry is far from recession proof.  There looked to be about half as many booths as there were last year.

Recruiting aside, GDC looked as crowded as ever–which is pretty impressive considering that attendance last year was 18,000 developers.  Unfortunately, this whole paragraph from my write-up last year is still accurate:

GDC hasn’t managed to scale to handle its growth.  Internet connectivity was poor throughout the convention center…. proceedings didn’t become available at all until after the conference, and those in the form of a slim handful of PowerPoint decks.  The clever people have taken to bringing cameras to the talks and snapping pictures of each slide that goes up, which is distracting but understandable.  The state of the GDC proceedings is an embarrassment to the industry, but it’s one that I don’t expect to change unless CMP stops handing out Gigapasses to speakers who show up without their slides.

This year, even AT&T’s 3G network was overwhelmed.  I had to switch my phone back to the EDGE network to get any bandwidth.   18,000 geeks use a lot of bandwidth.

What’s hot:  SPU task profiles.  Screen-space postprocessing.  iPhones.  AI.  Larrabee.  Producers explicitly defending crunch.  Margaret Robertson.

What’s not:  Spherical harmonics (still).  Every mobile phone except the iPhone.  Scrum (it’s lost its New Process smell… crunch is the new scrum).  The 7 to 9 scale.  OnLive.

In no particular order, these are the talks I found noteworthy:

The Game Design Challenge:  My First Time

This year’s Game Design Challenge was supposed to be about “sex and autobiography,” an assignment that the designers took literally.  The scheduled participants were Kim Swift of Valve, Sulka Haro of Habbo and industry veteran Steve Meretzky.  Management at Valve apparently decided that the topic was too explicit for them to be associated with, though, because Kim Swift withdrew on short notice to be replaced by the two-woman team of Heather Kelley and Erin Robinson.

Kelley and Robinson pitched a series of minigames that explicitly (in every sense) reenacted their first sexual experiences.  They proposed an arcadey Wii-style game, like a cross between Barbie Fashion Designer and Cooking Mama, with challenges such as:

  • Pick the least complicated/easiest to remove outfit
  • Shave your legs
  • Choose the sexiest LP
  • Unbuckle partner’s clothing
  • Etc…

Sulka Haro pitched “Your First Time”, a 4-6 player co-op anonymous story game.  One player would pick an image from Flickr.  Other players would respond with a brief fiction based on the image, and the original player would judge the results like you would in a game of Apples to Apples.  I think Haro’s submission was the most mature design, but it adhered least to the assigned subject.  The game sounds like it would work as well with stories about Star Trek characters as sexual experiences, and it’s in no way autobiographical.

Steve Meretzky looked back to his Infocom days, proposing a text adventure, “Wait.  Time Passes…” in which the player tried to pick up women at different phases in his life, starting as a loser high school student doomed to failure but eventually growing up into a successful game designer who has all the sex he wants.  The gameplay seemed somewhat questionable, though, since the player’s only real option at any point is to wait until he outgrows his adolescent awkwardness.

Kelley and Robinson won.  I find it notable that the women’s autobiographical stories have no possibility that they’ll fail to find sex if they want to have it, but also make it clear that they’re the ones who initiate the act.  Which I guess means that (a) they’re women and (b) they’re dating geek men, poor things.

Stop Wasting My Time, Margaret Robinson

Margaret Robinson gave the most enjoyable talk of the show.  She analyzed what kind of storytelling does and doesn’t work in games, offering less high-concept theory than a discussion of what storytelling mechanisms did and didn’t work in a variety of specific games.

Robinson cites Call of Duty 4, for example, not for its high-level plot (there’s a terrorist… and Russians… and a nuclear weapon… and, um, I forget the rest) but for the relationship between the SAS operator inhabited by the player and Captain Price, his gruff commanding officer.  At the beginning of the game, the player is the new guy, and Price and the rest of his squad treat him with casual disrespect.  Over the course of the game, the player gets better at the game and the other characters treat him as more of an equal.  Then, in a key chapter, the game does something that no movie or book could do:  it shifts point of view and lets the player become Captain Price in a flashback mission.  When he returns to being an SAS squaddie, his relationship with Captain Price has fundamentally changed.

In the notes for his last novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Action is character.”  And the equality of action and character is very useful to us, Robertson observed, because action is what games are good at.

There are lots of different ways of telling a story in a game, and they form a hierarchy:

  • HUD
  • art
  • animation
  • sound
  • text
  • voice-over
  • video

As you move down that list, cost increases while player engagement decreases.  Robinson’s point is that the thing that is easiest is the thing that is best for us!  Implicit storytelling is superior to explicit storytelling in games.  Story in games is important for setting tone and for putting the player in an emotional context.  Exposition is expensive–you need to hire voice actors and make cinematic animations–and it takes the player out of the game.  The best way to tell a story in a game is through the systems with which the player is already interacting.

So if you’re creating a game, ask yourself if you need a story at all.  If so, what’s it for?  What’s it about?  What’s it really about?  What systems does it depict?

“I read a load of game pitches that start with the inner psychology of the character, and that’s not a good place to start,” Robinson said.  “Think about your game idea, and if it would look really good on the silver screen–dump it!”

Margaret Robertson talks about games with a rare mix of enthusiasm and insight.  If you get a chance to hear her speak, don’t miss it.

Valve’s Approach to Playtesting

I’ve listened to a talk or two about Valve’s playtesting process before, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much from this talk by Mike Ambinder, but it ended up being pretty remarkable.  Where Valve’s earlier playtest talks have focused on why they do user testing, how they recruit testers, and how they integrate testing into their content creation process, this talk focused on the lengths to which Valve goes in order to extract accurate data from their testers.

There are a lot of problems with getting honest responses from experimental participants.  Humans have strong cognitive biases toward consensus, toward confirmation of preconceptions, and toward self-serving interpretations.  Ambinder said, “If you ask a group if a level is hard, the first person to respond wins.”  Even individually, they tend to give the answers they think questioners want to hear.

Valve tries to work around these issues to some extent by using multiple choice surveys so that players can’t equivocate and by asking questions designed to give specific limited factual answers.

A more direct path to honest answers, though, is to use biometic data to measure the player’s emotional state directly instead of quizzing him about how he feels.  Valve tries to gather data by measuring players:

  • heart rate
  • skin conductance
  • eye tracking (blink rate, pupil dilation)
  • facial expression
  • EEG readings
  • EMG readings (electomyography, which infers emotional state by measuring facial muscle contractions)

They caution that all of these measures are noisy and sometimes hard to interpret.  But they’re refreshingly free of the biases that make focus test results so frustrating.

Valve is clearly pushing the edge of the envelope when it comes to gathering data from user testing.

Game Critics Rant

I went to the Game Critics Rant because I wanted to see Tom Chick, who moderates the Quarter to Three forums on which I spend more time lurking than I should.  In the event, Chick didn’t make it–really, SciFi?  You couldn’t afford to buy the guy a lousy plane ticket from LA?–but the rant session ended up being so much fun that I stuck around anyway.

N’Gai Croal, formerly of Newsweek, opened the event by vivisecting the idea of a “hardcore gamer.”  “Hardcore,” he points out, describes a genre rather than how games fit into people’s lives.  Why is a person who plays Bejeweled sixteen hours a day considered a casual gamer while a person who plays Halo once a week is considered hardcore?  “Please Google the phrase ‘a new taxonomy of gamers‘,” Croal said.

Stephen Totilo continued with another critic’s rant against his own.  He pointed out that game journalists are often criticized for not being reporters.  “Our reporting is fine… it’s our writing that sucks,” he observed.  “We abandon what should be the mandate to write in clear crisp ways.”  He then called on game reviewers to abandon:

  • “Compelling”
  • “Visceral”
  • “Very”
  • Adverbs

I thought his rant was very viscerally compelling.  Also, very is an adverb.

Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra gave a rant that was a little incoherent, opening with the complaint that Gamasutra is “dealing with an unpleasable audience that sends the message that they don’t care about quality” and going on to say that there’s a “three-way ecosystem of negativity” between readers, game developers and writers.  She suggested that she wanted to establish trust–but then immediately blamed game studios for making her talk to PR drones instead of letting her talk to developers who’d tell the unvarnished truth.

Still, if her message was a little mixed, she made some good points.  Journalists in the game industry don’t have any contact with the people who actually make games.  Most of them don’t come from game development themselves and don’t have a detailed understanding of the development process.  No matter how talented they are as writers and cultural critics, these are challenges that make it hard for them to do their jobs well.  So if any writers out there ever want analysis from an actual developer, feel free to drop me an e-mail.

Jason Della Rocca talked about why he’s stepping down as chair of the IGDA:  “In IGDA, 1% were doing the work.  The rest of you were really fucking lazy and didn’t do shit…  Sorry about not doing better when you guys bitched of getting you to do stuff.”  Geez.  All I said was that I missed the cookies.

Author Heather Chaplin continued the transition from critics criticizing their own industry to criticizing mine.  Specifically, she complained that we’re still making games about space marines and big-boobed chicks in metal bikinis.  Some people say that the industry is still immature because games are an art form that’s only 35 years old, she said.  But by the time rock and roll was 35 years old, it had created The Beatles.  By the time movies were 35 years old, they’d produced Fritz Lang and film noir.  The problem, she claimed, isn’t that games development is in its adolescence, it’s that game developers are permanently stuck in adolescent “guy culture”.  Guys, Chaplin said, fear four things:

  • Responsibility
  • Introspection
  • Intimacy
  • Intellectual discovery

When you’re talking about culture makers, she said, this is a problem.  “What, if you sure that you’re really sensitive people might pick up on that you’re basically a bunch of kids masquerading as men?”

I’ve got a lot of respect for Chaplin for having the guts to get up in front of a room full of developers and give that rant, but I think her ire is misplaced.  Here are the ten best-selling games from 2008:

  1. Wii Play
  2. Mario Kart (Wii)
  3. Wii Fit
  4. Super Smash Bros:  Brawl
  5. Grand Theft Auto IV (Xbox 360)
  6. Call of Duty:  World at War (Xbox 360)
  7. Gears of War 2
  8. Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3)
  9. Madden NFL 09
  10. Mario Kart (Nintendo DS)

Here are the ten best-selling movies from 2008:

  1. The Dark Knight
  2. Iron Man
  3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  4. Hancock
  5. WALL-E
  6. Kung Fu Panda
  7. Twilight
  8. Madagascar:  Escape 2 Africa
  9. Quantum of Solace
  10. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

I’m supposed to believe that game developers are adolescent because they make Mario Kart instead of Horton Hears a Who?  Big hit movies are every bit as childish as big hit games.  Sure, you can find movies that actually say something meaningful about the human condition, if you watch indie films that don’t sell very well.  But you can also find games that challenge players preconceptions and aspire to be art if you look at indie games instead of the big-budget lowest-common-denominator stuff that clogs the shelves at Gamestop.

Chris Hecker was invited up to present this year’s “Duct Tape Award” to Ubisoft’s Clint Hocking for the best rant from last year.  Hecker then gave a rant of his own, starting from three axioms:

  • Journalism is an important job.  (Probably even more important than game development.)
  • Journalism affects people.
  • With great power comes great responsibility.

Hecker then proceeded to eviscerate two particular stories.  In one, 1up took two posts in different on-line forums and turned them into an article titled “Chris Hecker Apparently Responsible For Simplified Sport Gameplay”–despite the fact that one of the two forum posts consisted of Hecker calling the accusation “nonsense”.  No one at 1up ever actually tried to talk to Hecker about the story.  In his other citation, Hecker quoted as an example of game journalism:

“There’s a tendency among the press to attribute the creation of a game to a single person,” says Warren Spector, creator of Thief and Deus Ex.

Ouch.  Coming on the heels of so many liberal arts majors, Hecker rants like a programmer:  his points are like mathematical proofs.  There’s just not really any counterargument to make.

The final rant, from Adam Sessler of G4, was titled “Fuck Metacritic”.  Sessler said that he had heard from an angry developer because he had given a game a 40%.  But he’d given the game two stars out of five.  When Sessler complained to Metacritic that they shouldn’t map that to a 40% score, they told him that they’d map it however they pleased.  Sessler said he didn’t understand how a hundred-point scale worked, anyway:  “Somebody in the room tell me the difference between a 73 and a 74!”

Sessler lamented that game publishers are now actually using Metacritic scores to determine how much developers get paid.  “Shame on you ever single publisher that’s pulling this stunt…. There’s a really good tool for determining if a game as good or not:  the market!”

Robot Testing to the Rescue

Paul Du Bois of Doublefine described how the company uses a robot “player” scripted in Lua to drive functional tests of Brütal Legend, their upcoming open world rock-and-roll fantasy game (which looks like Savage Skies).  Their Lua scripts simulate controller input to progress through combat, skip cinematics, and generally cheat a lot.

This is all administered by a TestRunner app running on a host PC that looks for idle dev kits and starts test sessions of the game on any that haven’t been used in the last five minutes.  TestRunner monitors each test for errors, warnings and crashes.

Their Lua implementation emulates cooperative multitasking with sleep calls.  A player test script might look something like:

function Class:waitForActiveLine(self, ent)
while true do
    if ent.CoVoice.HasActiveVoiceLine then

As a debugging tool, this has several useful characteristics.  “Failed tests tend to be that the game has crashed or the bot has gotten stuck,” Du Bois said.  They also catch “desyncs”–determinism failures when they’re running two networked copies of the game in lockstep during multiplayer.  And they generate graphs of performance/memory usage that can be analyzed either over the course of a single game session or from one build to another.

Debug builds are usually so slow that humans don’t want to play them.  But the test robot is infinitely patient.  It will play at any framerate, however slow, and crashes with debug symbols.

Best quotes from GDC

“Entertainment is supposed to be enjoyable.  If it can’t be enjoyed, it’s not the consumer’s fault.  The fault belongs to us.”  — Satoru Iwata

“There’s nothing more humbling than looking at regular people trying to play your game without assistance.”  — Gordon Walton

“One of the danger signs [on Star Wars Galaxies] was that people didn’t play the game.  In a AAA game company, everybody plays the game.”  — Rich Vogel

Written by Kyle

March 29th, 2009 at 10:50 pm

Posted in GDC

One Response to 'GDC 2009: The Year We Went Hungry'

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  1. Hey Kyle, you haven’t posted in a while and I was wondering if you intend to blog again some day.

    I enjoyed reading your blog, please consider posting if you have the time 🙂

    Take care,


    23 Dec 10 at 12:47 pm

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