Group Critique Session Post-Mortem

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Yesterday I participated in a group critique session with several other Chicago-based game designers. It was incredibly helpful and something I haven’t really seen done before (at least not in the same format). Here’s a write-up about the experience.

Inspiration

Several months ago, I read about The Depth Jam, a four-day intensive design retreat organized by Jonathan BlowChris HeckerMarc ten Bosch, and Daniel Benmergui. Reading about that experience made me realize that while there are plenty of game jams to get beginners to make games, there is a lack of events for more experienced game designers.

Around that time, I had also attended PRACTICE, a two-day game design conference organized by NYU. Returning to Chicago afterwards, I wanted to create a format where in-depth discussions about games could happen. Chicago has a fantastic indie game scene, and throughout development, I have organized several one-on-one playtest sessions with other designers, and had been able to have very deep discussions about my game. However, I think there’s a tremendous amount of benefit to participating in a group with a more structured format.

I decided to organize an event that would fit this niche. I was originally calling it a mini-depth jam, but after we did it, we realized it was really more appropriate to call it a group critique session, since we weren’t actually jamming.

Participants / Projects

While I would have liked to open the event the everyone, due to the nature of something like this, it has to be a small group. Originally, we were planning on having 6 teams with 6 games to discuss, but due to timing and other circumstances, only 4 teams participated. In the end, I think this actually turned out well, because a full day of critiques is pretty exhausting (we were there from 10 AM to 4 PM), and 4 games seems to be just the right number.

To respect the other team’s privacy, I will not be talking about their projects or problems in detail, just listing the rough nature of it.

There were the participants:

My problems were concerned mostly with the design of ‘World 2’. Here are a few examples of the questions I presented:

1. Players can solve one of the major puzzles without realizing what they’ve done. Should it only be “playable” when players can see it, or can it be affected regardless of player’s location and visibility? What if player is in another world entirely? Should the mechanics still be consistent?

2. What are the “concepts” that you feel are being taught in the puzzles. Are the puzzles “clean” or do they feel muddled? By clean I mean that the idea that the puzzle is communicating is very clear and simple.

3. How does the world and level pattern compare to that of “world 1”. Does it get repetitive and feel like a checklist? Is this a positive or a negative thing? 

Sean and my projects were probably closest in terms where we are in development. Both of us have been working on our respective games for quite some time, so the issues we were facing were quite deeply embedded within the project.

Benedict and Greg’s, as well as the Young Horses’ projects were both very early prototypes, so the nature of the problem was very different.

Preparation
About a week before, an email reminder was sent out to everyone to get a build of the game ready. Then on Wednesday, 3 days before the critique session, we all sent out builds of our games to one another.

Location

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For the critique session, the Young Horses were very kind to allow us to use their office, which was pretty much the perfect setting for this event.  There is an area that has couches and a large screen TV. Whoever was presenting could use the TV to demo the game to show reference materials.

Format

The day started at 10:30 AM, and consisted of four sessions, each between 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Each session focused on one game, and would begin with the designer providing some context for the problem. This would usually consist of the designer playing through the game, and people would talk about the places where they got stuck or had issues.

After that, we would talk about larger design issues and problems, and try to work through them together as a group.

The playthrough at the beginning was in large part because this is the first session, so we all still needed to get familiar with the games and the issues at hand. I imagine for future critique sessions, we could probably jump straight into the problem since we will all have context.

I went first, followed by Benedict and Greg, then Sean.

At 1 PM, we decided to take a break and go to lunch. During lunch, we talked about what were things we liked about the format, what things we could improve, and how this can be expanded to include more people.

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After lunch, we returned for the fourth session, with the prototypes from the Young Horses.

We finished around 4 PM.

I think this was pretty much the right amount of people and the right amount of time. By the end of it, we were all pretty exhausted.

Conclusion

We all decided that the group critique session was very helpful and something that we’d like to continue doing on a regular basis.

Here are a few issues and tips to keep in mind:

1. Game Stage – Where a game is at (early prototype vs halfway in development) has a big impact on the nature of the discussion. A bigger game that’s more developed obviously has more to discuss and has deeper problems, but it also takes longer to provide context and explain the problem clearly. On the other hand, for early prototypes, it’s easy to get a sense of the problem and its context, but the discussion tends to be more speculative and more like a brainstorm. Lots of “what if” questions, but maybe not as much concrete solutions. One way to address this is to have different session lengths – not every project needs the same fixed amount of time or attention.

2. Have good debug tools – this is more of a general game development tip, but is incredibly helpful in a group critique session. You want to have debug tools that can allow you to skip sections and make changes very quickly when presenting the game. For example, my game doesn’t have any debug settings (I’m working on it), and during the presentation, there was a bug and the character controller got stuck in an area with no way out. To get to the problem, I would have needed to quit and replay the entire section again. I ended up communicating the problem using pen and paper. Sean, on the hand, had a set of fantastic debug tools for Even the Ocean, and was able to make changes and adjustments on the fly when showing the game, skipping to different sections. This was incredibly helpful, and I’d recommend all games adopt this.

3. When sending out builds beforehand, tell others what feedback you’re looking for, and how long they should spend on the game– work-in-progress games always have bugs and areas that are poorly designed where players can get stuck. Let others know what some of these issues are beforehand, and particular areas they should be paying more attention towards.

Future

We are planning to do this again on a regular basis, meeting once every two to three months.

For something like this to work well, the group has to be quite small. For the next meeting, we wouldn’t need to provide context for our problems, and can dive straight into the issues. If someone new is introduced, then we would have to catch them up on the issues we’re facing.

I’d love to get more people involved in critique groups like this, but I’m not sure how to address that. We were thinking what would be great is to have multiple critique groups in the city, and hopefully the information here can help people start their own.

If you’ve done something like this before, or have any suggestions and questions, let me know!

INTERPLAY Arcade/Conference Reception Post-Mortem

After I got back to Chicago from Toronto, I had another event I was showing Relativity at (last one for now, promise :) )

INTERPLAY is a graduate student conference on game studies jointly organized by the University of Chicago and Northwestern University.

The conference took place over two days, October 24th and 25th. On the first day, it was held at the University of Chicago campus, and the second day, it was held at Northwestern.

I didn’t go to the actual conference itself as I had just gotten back from Gamercamp and was quite exhausted.

At the end of the second day, there was a reception held at Jackson Junge Gallery in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. The reception was an arcade style event, and a number of different games by Chicago-based developers were being shown there.

The other games included: Pop Methodology OneWe Are Chicago, Tango in Paradise Simulator, and A Fitting.

I arrived at 6 PM to set up. A table was provided, along with a large-screen TV, and an HDMI cable. This is what my set up looked like:

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As I still had a few days left in the loan period for the laptops from Alienware, which were originally requested for Gamercamp, I was able to use them for the show at Interplay (Thanks Alienware! :) )

Here are some photos from the event:

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Gamercamp Post-Mortem – Part 2

 Day 2 – Pop-up Arcade

Saturday was the second day of Gamercamp and the first day of the pop-up arcade, which was more like a festival, as opposed to a conference.

It opened to the public at 10 AM, so I arrived just a little before 9 AM to set up. Coffee and pastries were provided, which was really nice.

This is what my setup looked like: setup

I had three laptops running the game, one of which was hooked up to the large screen TV. The TV setup could only be played with an XBox controller, while the other two had both keyboard + mouse and XBox controllers. One issue that made the setup a bit awkward is that the UI for the game doesn’t support controller yet, so to restart the game on the TV, I would have to go behind the table to operate the laptop.

This is what the entire setup of the first floor looked like:

gamercamp_layout_floor1A

As you can see, Relativity is set up on the left hand side, on the large table across from the bar. I shared the table with “Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes”, which was a festival favorite.

My Gamercamp show neighbors:

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On the right, it was a dining area, with tables and chairs where people could sit down and eat. There were also a couple of games on display there.

The way pop-up arcade worked was there were two sessions. The first was from 10:00 am to 2:30 pm, and the second session went from 3:00 pm to 7:30 pm. In between, everyone who was not a developer or organizer had to leave Gamercamp. This gave developers a break, and also helped to manage crowd density.

Here’s a shot of a group of people playing Relativity: gamercamp_setup1

It was never too crowded during Gamercamp, and with the three laptop set up, it meant that people didn’t have to wait in line to play the game, and also there was almost always someone playing.

Here’s another shot of people playing: gamercamp_players

Some people even managed to finish the demo!gamercamp_players2

Second Floor
The second floor of the hotel was also an open lobby-type area. There wasn’t a bar or dining area, but there were many more games. All of these games were part of the offical Gamercamp selection.

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Third & Fourth Floor
The third and fourth floor had a really cool setup, as they were where the hotel rooms were. The third floor was XBox games while the fourth floor was PlayStation games. Inside each room, one or two games were being shown. Out of all the conferences and festivals I’ve been to, this was by far the best way to show a game.

Each game got the attention it deserved. The lighting was right, it was comfortable and intimate, and the sound didn’t travel between the rooms. So you could have people playing a local multiplayer game like Nidhogg in one room, and be shouting and screaming, then walk down the hallway and see someone playing Night In The Woods and just hear the sound in that game. I’d love to see more festivals adopt such a setup.

Here’s the Sunset Overdrive room:

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And down the hallway, Lovers In A Dangerous Spacetime:gamercamp_lovers

Night Arcade
After the day sessions ended, it was time for Night Arcade! This was a special session on Saturday night starting at 8 PM. It was for age 19 and older, so it felt much more like a party. The local multiplayer games were especially popular during this session.

Here are some people playing Nidhogg:

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Gamercamp Post-Mortem – Part 1

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After IndieCade was over, I had only one day in Chicago before I had to travel again, this time to Toronto for Gamercamp.

So, what is Gamercamp?

Gamercamp is an annual festival celebrating games that takes place in Toronto. It was started six years ago, and sadly, this year was its very last run.

Application

There was an online application to submit a game to Gamercamp, with a due date on September 2nd. I submitted the game, and was informed via email on September 15th. I remember the exact moment I read the message, because I was at the airport in Toronto, standing in line to board my flight to Tokyo for the Tokyo Game Show, when I got the news.

It was really uplifting for me to hear that Relativity had been selected, as only 5 days prior, I had gotten my rejection to IndieCade (see, don’t give up! you have to keep submitting).

Location
Gamercamp takes place at Hotel Ocho, a four-story hotel located in downtown Toronto.

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Gamercamp actually rents out the entire hotel for the duration of the festival, as games are shown on every level.

Preparation / Sponsorship

Prior to Gamercamp started, the organizers sent out a manual to all the exhibitors. I was told that I would have a 4′ table to demo the game on, and large screen TV would be provided. From past shows, I know that having multiple computers works best for a game like Relativity. A lot of a local multiplayer games work best with a single TV, since you can have multiple people playing at the same time.

However, with a single player game, you can really only have one person playing at a time. On average, people seem to play the game for about 10 – 15 minutes at convention settings. I’ve  noticed that when people have others waiting in line behind them, to start to get self-conscious, and will constantly be asking other people if they want to have a go. This usually happens before they’ve gotten to the good parts, and they haven’t gotten the best impression of the game they could have.

To avoid this, I decided I would have multiple computers at Gamercamp. From having shown at Indie MEGABOOTH back at PAX East, I knew that companies like Dell and Intel were often quite interested in providing sponsorship to indie developers.

I reached out to Alienware to ask if they were interested in sponsoring the show in Gamercamp by providing me with laptops. They were more than happy to do so, and after a discussion on the phone, they sent me a loaner request form. I filled this out, requesting two 14″ Alienware laptops, and they mailed them out to me. I did this while I was in LA for IndieCade, and the laptops arrived just in time in Chicago for me to bring them with me to Toronto.

I also reached out to some Toronto-based friends, to see if any of them could lend me a laptop for the duration of Gamercamp. A friend who works at interaction design studio Glabacore responded, and told me that the studio was able to lend me two 17″ Alienware laptops (these things are pretty sweet, but weigh a ton. They’re pretty much portable desktops).

Day 1 – Interactive & Games Conference

The first day of Gamercamp was Friday, October 17th. This was a conference format, different from the pop-up arcade, which took place on Saturday and Sunday. There was a small section showing games, but most of the main selections were not shown. It was geared towards industry people, and the day consisted primarily of talks on game development topics.

I arrived at Gamercamp just a little bit before lunch, and was able to catch a talk from PlayStation about what it’s like to work with them.

The way the talks were set up was there were two sessions simultaneously. One on the first floor and one on the second floor. The acoustics of the space weren’t so great for talks, as it was quite open, so the sounds between the two talks mixed a bit. However, it wasn’t too bad, and you could still hear the speaker.

Lunch was buffet-style and was provided as part of the event. :)

After lunch, I went to a talk by Kan Gao, the creator of To The Moon. I was quite excited about this because I had played To The Moon one afternoon several months ago. I had picked it up at some point via a bundle, and it sat in my Steam library untouched. I probably would not have played it, had it not been for recommendations from a few sources. Normally, I’m not a big fan of narrative-driven games, but a lot of the people played To The Moon found it incredibly moving, so I decided to give it a go.

Playing To The Moon gave me a lot to think about. Relativity is heavily mechanics driven, and most of the games I play are centered around a set of core mechanics. As a designer, I sort of subscribe to Jonathan Blow’s philosophy of games as an exploration of “truth” through the mechanic. However, To The Moon made me look at narrative-driven games in a new way. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but I’ll just say that I really appreciated what the game did.

Anyway, Kan’s talk was titled “Making Use Of Advantages In Indie Game Creation”.

One part that really struck me was this quote Kan used in his talk:

“We do not choose between experiences; we choose between memories of experiences. 

We do not think of our future[...]as experiences; we think the future as anticipated memories.”
- Daniel Kahneman

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Unless you have photographic memory, you can’t remember an entire game from start to finish. It’s important when designing to think about what are the moments that leave an impression on people, because those are the moments that will stay with people, and those are the stuff that people will talk about when talking about your game. What kind of memories do I want Relativity to leave players with?

Kan’s talk ended a little earlier ahead of schedule, so I made my way upstairs, where Brie Code, the lead programmer on Child of Light at Ubisoft was speaking. Unfortunately I only got to catch the tail end of the Q&A session:

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Later on, I went to a talk by Lyndsey Gallant of XMG Studio, titled “Simple Guidelines for Making Awesome Game Art”. It was a lot about creating visual hierarchy and how use colors, shapes, and contrast to guide the players.

This was a really funny slide about how content can be a way to attract player attention:

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The conference ended at 5 PM. I went to dinner with a bunch of game developers who were at the conference. Afterwards, we returned to Gamercamp for the opening party, which started at 8 PM.

Gamercamp Opening Party

As it was the final Gamercamp this year, there was a surprise element at the opening party to honor Jamie Woo, one of the co-founders.

Here’s Jim McGinley, one of the founders of T.O. Jam (Toronto Game Jam) talking about the impact of Gamercamp on the Toronto game scene. gamercamp_day1

Jaime himself also gave a brief speech, thanking everyone for being a part of Gamercamp.gamercamp_day1B

It was definitely a very emotional moment for everyone in the room. Even though it was only my first time at Gamercamp, it had been around for six years. For some people, it was around for as long as they were involved with indie games in Toronto, so it felt very much like a pillar in the community.

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It was a pretty amazing experience for me to be a part of.

Oh, and there was cake! :D gamercamp_cake

IndieCade Post-Mortem – Part 4

IndieCade Day 3 / Closing Reception

Sunday was the final day of IndieCade. I had seen most of the games at this point, so just took it easy and revisited a few of my favorites.

Some of the games I really enjoyed at the Fire Station were Nova-111Mini MetroDrei, and Gemini.

Here’s my friend Jaime playing Mini Metro. According to the devs, she got the highest score out of anyone during IndieCade:IMG_7383

Later in the afternoon, the closing reception was held at IndieCade Village: IMG_7389

Post-IndieCade

I was set to fly back to Chicago in the evening of Monday right after IndieCade. I spent the day hanging out at Glitch City, alongside the regulars and a bunch of out of town devs: IMG_7398

Conclusion

So, was the trip worth it? Did I find what I was looking for?

The short answer is yes.

Here’s the long answer: Yes, I got a lot of feedback on Relativity, and was able to have many in depth discussions about my game’s mechanics and aesthetics with other developers.

The best part is that because I showed the game on the first day of IndieCade at IndieXchange, for that rest of the festival, I could continue to discuss the game in detail with people who had experienced it. Plus, they would say things like “I’ve been thinking about that one issue…” and offer me a bunch of suggestions and advice.

There were also a lot of opportunities to socialize, and because all of IndieCade takes place within several blocks in Culver City, you will keep running into people throughout the duration of the festival. You meet people for the first time on day 1, and by day 4, they feel like best friends. It’s really awesome in this sense.

In fact, to me, I think what’s best about IndieCade is actually not the game playing experience, but being able to meet so many developers. This is not a statement about the selection of games at IndieCade. On the contrary, I think they do a fine job with selecting the games. However, I think the format in which the games are presented (outdoors, in tents, with multiple categories), is actually not ideal for the experience of actually playing games, especially in contrast to the setup at other conferences and festivals.

I was discussing this topic with a fellow developer I met, and he pointed out how during IndieCade, he only really got to play around 10 or so games. Instead, most of his time was spent talking to people and hanging out.

So if you’re going to IndieCade, it’s really people first, and games second. I think it’s more about building relationships with other indie developers, and just making new friends. That’s what IndieCade does best and what makes it really great.

That being said, I think if you go as a developer, you should always be prepared to show people your game, or at least images of it. One issue I was trying to sort out, and which I’ve been dealing with for some time is, how can I have a minimalist art style with edge-detection, but differentiate the game from Antichamber?

What I did was that I used a screenshot of my game as my phone’s lock screen, and at every opportunity, I would ask people for feedback. This worked really well, because I could immediately take my phone out of my pocket, and show people the problem I was having. I got lots of valuable feedback this way, such as the use of screen space gradient and chromatic aberration.

Finally, while IndieCade is a lot of fun, and the atmosphere is on the whole very positive, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel isolated or alienated at some points. I think this is largely due to the fact that I’m still a relatively new member of the indie game scene. 2014 is the first year I started going to game events, and this was my first time at IndieCade. But IndieCade itself has been going on for 6 years, and for some of the people attending, it’s their 3rd or 4th IndieCade.

At times, it can feel like it’s a large group of really good friends that you’re just not a part of. I especially felt this way during the award ceremony on the first day. It felt like everyone there already knew each other super well, and I barely knew anyone.

However, it’s important to remember that this is nothing personal. A lot of these people are great friends with one another, and for them, IndieCade is an opportunity to catch up and see old friends. It’s not being done to exclude anyone. And when you start to talk to people, you’ll soon start to make friends. The whole situation is much less intimidating than it might initially appear.

Everyone there is just someone who is passionate about indie games, and are more than happy to meet new people, despite how “big” they might seem on the internet. Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone. You’ll easily make new friends, and they’ll introduce you to people, and by the end, you’ll feel like you know everyone. It was very difficult to say good bye to people at events later in the festival, because as you start to make your way to the exit, you keep getting drawn into conversations with different groups of people.

So yeah, if you get a chance to go to IndieCade, even if you’re not exhibiting a game, I highly recommend it. Make friends and enjoy the beautiful California weather!

IndieCade Post-Mortem – Part 3

IndieCade Day 2 – Night Games

Most of the day time activities for IndieCade on the second day (Saturday) were pretty much the same as those on the first day. The main difference was that on Saturday evening, there was Night Games.

Night Games takes place in IndieCade Village, from 7 pm to 11 pm. The selection of games changes over from what it was during the day. It featured more local multiplayer games, and more installation based games.

There was a really cool installation piece that had an image of Sound Dodger projected on the ground. But instead of controlling the cursor with a mouse, it was controlled by calculating the midpoint of the distance between two people. It was pretty cool, but I don’t know the name of it.

There was a Facebook tent where they were showing Oculus Rift games:IMG_7331

I also finally got to play a spontaneous round of Antimatters Matters, a quantum physics board game. IMG_7347

Here’s a pic of the whole Night Games area, courtesy of Sun Park from Turtle Cream5uLMaBZ

Here’a pic of me and Sun that he took sometime during IndieCade. He captioned it Good & Evil :D toKzc31

Post-Night Games at Glitch City

After Night Games, a bunch of people headed over to Glitch City to hang out. As to be expected, people soon started pulling out their laptops and it became another game demo session!

Here’s Sagar Patel demoing his audio-responsive game Frequency Domain with the Leap Motion controller: IMG_7368

IndieCade Post-Mortem – Part 2

IndieCade Day 1

Much of IndieCade takes places outdoors. There are 5 locations: IndieCade Village, Fire Station One, Culver City City Hall, Foshay Lodge, and the Ivy. indiecade_map

Culver City City Hall, Foshay Lodge, and the Ivy are where the conference parts of IndieCade took place. Since I didn’t have an access pass, I couldn’t go to any of the talks, so I didn’t make it to any of the locations. My time was spent instead between IndieCade Village and Fire Station One.

IndieCade Village

IndieCade Village is a collection of tents in a parking lot. It is where most of the games are. The tents are split up by sponsors. There are a series of large tents belonging to Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, as well as a series of smaller tents from places like NYU (showing some of their student games). Some of the official selections were there as well, in two tents titled “Digital Selects”. There was also a tent for big games (games involving large groups of people), a board game area, and a social game area.

There was also a stage where there were live music acts throughout the day. IMG_7321

Here’s a shot inside the Nintendo tent: IMG_7298

To be honest, I wasn’t such a big fan of the outdoor tent setup for a few reasons:

1) It was extremely bright out, and the glare made it very difficult to see anything on the screens

2) I have a prescription glasses, and was forced to constantly swap between sunglasses when outside and my glasses when inside a tent.

3) Because of how sunny it was outside, there weren’t really places you could sit down with people to look show each other games you’re working on, if you’re outside of the festival selection. When I went to IndieCade East in NY back in February, one of my favorite parts of that experience was being able to sit down in the cafe on the first floor, and show other developers my game. I got a tremendous amount of useful feedback this way. At IndieCade however, there wasn’t really a setup conducive to this.

Fire Station One

The Fire Station is an actual fire station. It’s where the official selections of IndieCade are shown. I quite liked the set up here, as it was a large indoor space, and there wasn’t as much glare on the screens, so you could actually see the games. IMG_7308

New Friends

I spent much of the first day going back and forth between IndieCade Village and Fire Station One. The best part of IndieCade is meeting other developers and making new friends! So many people have traveled to Culver City for IndieCade, it’s a really great opportunity to network.

Here’s me getting frozen yogurt with a bunch of new friends I had made:IMG_7302

A few of us stopped by Culver Hotel a little later for some snacks, and of course ended up playing more games: IMG_7303

In the evening, there was a party organized by Sony at a place nearby IndieCade Village. It was pretty fun.

After the Sony party, I went to a midnight screening of a bizarre movie called ‘The Astrologer‘ at an art house cinema called CineFamily, along with some Glitch City people: IMG_7306

All I will say about that is that it was a pretty weird movie.