Sigma Play

I went to Sigma Play this past weekend. It’s a game design conference in Bloomington, IN.

I was giving a talk about the design of Relativity, and the infinite architecture that exists in the game.

Below are some pictures.

Welcome to Bloomington:

1

On Friday night, a keynote speech by Bernie De Koven2

After Bernie’s keynote, it was time for game demos:3 4

Stacks on Stacks on Stacks: 5 6

Really intense discussion about a board game: 7

Hanging out afterwards, which of course turned into more game demoing: 8

Jen Helm speaking on Saturday about educational games:9

The conference ended with a session of social games led by Bernie De Koven at WonderLab, a science museum in Bloomginton: 10

All in all, a really fun weekend for me. Bloomington has a very cool game dev community.

PRACTICE Post-Mortem – Part 3

Sunday 

Sunday was the third and final day of PRACTICE. The format of the day was more or less the same as that of Saturday. The talks were much more detail-oriented compared to those of the first day. For example, many of the talks on Saturday were about game design in the broad sense, the Sunday talks focused more on design choices within specific games.

Things I Liked at PRACTICE

1) The Size of the Conference - PRACTICE was one of the smallest conferences I attended this year. I think there were about 150 – 200 attendees. It felt incredibly intimate, and was very easy to meet new people.

2) Single-Track Activities - A single track meant that everyone got the same experience, and didn’t have to choose between talks thinking they were missing out. Another thing is that you got to attend talks you may not have had you had a choice. If there was a talk about outdoor social games, and a talk about puzzle design going on at the same time, I would have gone to the one about puzzle design just because of my current project. However, the outdoor social game talk may have had some really good insights for me. At PRACTICE, there wasn’t this issue, and I got to see a whole spectrum of talks and was exposed to some new points of view.

3) Open-Problems and Discussions - I can’t stress how awesome these are for getting feedback on specific design challenges you may be facing. If you go, definitely take advantage of the fact that there are some amazing designers in the audience.

4) Organizers are really open to feedback - You can tell the organizers are really interested in improving the conference, and are constantly seeking feedback from attendees. On Sunday, right before the closing talk, there was a session where the organizers took suggestions from audience for things they’d like to see and improve upon in the future. There were also plenty of other opportunities to offer opinions.

Things I’d Like To See In the Future at PRACTICE

There wasn’t anything negative that I didn’t like at PRACTICE, and as stated previously, the organizers are very open to suggestions and feedback. As such, there isn’t a list of “things I didn’t like”. Instead, I’ll list just a few things I’d love to see in the future at PRACTICE. Some of these were actually suggestions made by other attendees during the feedback session, and I really liked them, so I’m listing them here.

1) Talks from Experts in non-game fields - I would love to see a talk by a psychologist on how children learn, or a neuroscientist on how the brain perceives new information, or an architect on how to design physical space to guide people, or an urban planner on how to design cities. They don’t even need to talk about it in the context of games. I think a lot of their insights would be directly applicable to game design, and I’m sure a lot of the designers in the audience would be able to pick up on how it applies to their practice.

2) A live level design session - It would be awesome to see a level designer create a level with feedback and suggestions from the audience, and discuss why some things work well and some don’t.

3) Panel Sessions on specific topics - I think a panel session like this one from IndieCade, featuring Jonathan Blow, Marc Ten Bosch, and Droqen talking about puzzle design would be a awesome at PRACTICE. It would be great to hear what different designers have to say on the same topic.

Conclusion

Was it worth it?

For me, yes. I went to PRACTICE with a very, very specific design problem that was holding me up in the development of the game. I was able to present it in front of a group of people who were all passionate and interested in game design, and was able to get their feedback on it. There could not have been a better group of people to ask.

I haven’t had a chance to actually implement any of the solutions, so cannot know for sure whether the design challenge in the game has been resolved. However, I got a lot of ideas, and was able to discuss the issue quite thoroughly with a lot of other game designers.

Outside of this specific design problem, as someone who is very interested in game design, I found the talks and discussions of the conference really informative and insightful. If funds and timing allow for it, I would definitely return next year. Compared to all the other conferences I’ve been to this, it’s definitely the one where I’ve learned the most about game design in general.

Should you go?

If you’re a beginner, and are just standing to learn about game development/design, I actually would not recommend that you go to PRACTICE. I’m not saying I would recommend against it, but that I wouldn’t say “You should definitely go!”. This is not to say you won’t stand to gain anything if you do go, but I think a conference like IndieCade or GDC would be much better and more suitable. For one thing, at those conferences, there are a range of activities going on simultaneously, so you can customize your experience to suit what you’re looking for. At PRACTICE, if you’re finding the talks on design to be too in-depth, there isn’t really much else to do. Additionally, at other conferences, there’ll be talks in which they introduce the basics of a game engine, or talk about starting out with a project, etc, and those aren’t at PRACTICE.

However, if you’re a game designer, and are really interested in taking your practice and craft forward, I can’t think of a better conference to attend.

PRACTICE Post-Mortem – Part 2

Saturday – Talks / Discussion Groups / Open Problems

The day started at 9 AM with breakfast, which was provided at the conference. It was in the same place as the reception. It was a nice way to get to talk to some of the other attendees just as the day was getting started.

The first talk of the day was from Joanthan Blow:

jon_blow_talk

The format of the talks was pretty straightforward, either 30 minutes or an hour, with some time for questions and answers in the end. Like I said in part 1, since the videos will go up online, I won’t talk about the content of the talks.

Here were some of the other events on that day:

Lunch/Discussion Groups

practice_lunch

Lunch wasn’t provided, but there were plenty of spots around NYU where you could grab food. Just outside the lecture hall, there were several tables set up, each with a discussion topic, and people who were interested in that topic could just sit down at the table to eat and talk. If you had a specific topic you wanted to discuss, you could write it on a card, and give it to one of the conference volunteers in the morning.

So everyone went out, grabbed some food, and came back for the discussion sessions.

Personally, I thought these sessions were more effective for meeting new people, than they were for actual discussion of game design. I think this is largely due to how broad the topics were. For example, I sat at a table where the topic was “Level Progression”. Most of the conversation centered around examples from games I didn’t play, so I couldn’t really follow along. I think it might have been better if the topics were more specific.

In any case, I think it’s more important that discussion groups facilitate meeting new people, and I think that it accomplished well.

Feedback Loop
This was something that the organizers were trying out for the first time. It was basically like a lightning impromptu panel session. It happened after lunch on Saturday and Sunday, and of the organizers would go up on stage and ask a question, and get some of the people in the audience to talk about it. The first day the question was about puzzle design (I think? I don’t remember), and the second day the question was about the role of puzzles in narrative games.

These were kind of cool, but I don’t think they were super effective. A large part of it was that the conference was always running just a little behind schedule, so the feedback loops got cut short. For example, the feedback loop on the 2nd day got cut short, and didn’t allow for people in the audience to participate.

Open Problems

open_problem

This was my favorite part of PRACTICE, and pretty much the main reason why I went.

Open Problems is an hour-long session where conference attendees can get up in front of the entire lecture hall (so pretty much everyone at PRACTICE), present a problem, and get feedback. You have one minute to present your problem, and then about 3 minutes for the audience to respond.

A few days before the conference started, an email was sent to all the attendees with information for signing up for Open Problems. About 8 people signed up in advance. I was a little surprised at this, because I thought everyone would be clamoring for a spot. I mean, this is a room full of the best minds in game design! What better group of people to ask for feedback regarding a game design problem?

Several people did sign up on the day of Open Problems, so I think in total there were about 15 presenters.

The Problem I Presented: 

In my game, the core mechanic is the ability to walk up walls and ceilings. Each surface has a different color associated with it, and certain objects that you can use or activate when in that color:

V076GUN

Here’s an early problem, where we use a blue box to “counterbalance” the purple box and prevent it from sliding down:

suss8o7

Because you can walk on any surface in the game, there is no “objective up”. This means that I cannot have an infinite ground, because that would be “objective down”. Therefore the world has to be a floating platform. This introduces the problem of players falling off the world. One solution to this is to fade the screen to black and respawn the player, but this is boring.

Instead, the world wraps around on itself, so if you fell off, there’s just a duplicate of the world right below you:

HirdVbI

You can do this along every axis. So let’s say the world in the gif is level 1. How do I get the player to go to level 2 seamlessly? Level 2 cannot exist in the same physical space as level 1. It can’t be above, below, or to the right of level 1, because that’s where the repetitions of level 1 are.

One way to connect levels is through portals. However, players then get really confused about the relation of the worlds with one another. And let’s say you go from level 1 to 2, then 2 to 3, and so on and so forth until you’re at level 10. What if you need to go back to level 1. Would you have to go through 9, 8, 7, 6, and all the other levels? That gets really tedious.

Anyway, I presented this to the group, and got a ton of great responses. In the next few weeks, I’ll be working through this issue, and will go into the topic in more detail, but for now, these are the notes my friend Rob Lockhart took for me of the different responses:

open_problems_notes

As you can see, there were a ton of ideas and suggestions.

The best part of Open Problems though, is actually not what happens during the session itself. You’re on stage for less than 5 minutes, so there’s really no time to dive into the topic. However, now everyone at the conference is familiar with your game and your design challenge.

For the rest of PRACTICE, a lot of people would come up to me and say “I’ve been thinking of your problem, and here’s a thought…” I was able to get into a lot of deep discussions this way. Additionally, in the past, when explaining my game, the biggest challenge was that it was hard to visualize the mechanic and what was going on. But since I had shown a video of the gameplay, everyone knew what I was talking about. This helped tremendously.

If you do plan on going to PRACTICE in the future, definitely take advantage of Open Problems to get feedback.

Here are two tips to help you maximize your Open Problems experience: 

1) Provide Visual Aid - Definitely provide visuals so that the audience can know what you’re talking about. This also will save you time and allow you to fit in more information, since you won’t have to describe something, you can just show it. If possible, provide video footage.

I had a video showing gameplay and the 3D world wrapping, and this was very useful. It’s important to take time to prepare this so as to maximize the amount of information you’re presenting, and make your situation clear. Think of it as 1-minute presentation. I did spend a few hours putting together the video in the week before the conference.

2) Keep you problem as specific as possible - I think it works best if you keep your question narrow and specific. Some people were asking much larger design questions, and I think these don’t work quite as well, at least in this format. A lot of the responses were much more vague, and also some people in the audience had to ask the presenter questions to clarify what the design issue was. Given that you only have a few minutes, you want to maximize the opportunity for people to throw out ideas.

Party
After Open Problems, there was a break for dinner, and then a party afterwards.

For dinner, I went with a group to Chinatown for Dim Sum:

dimsum

As for the party, it was a blast! The coolest part was that I got to meet Jonathan Blow!

I had so much fun that the only picture I remembered to take there was of the interior of the fridge :D

fridge

PRACTICE Post-Mortem – Part 1

practice

This past weekend, I attended the PRACTICE Conference in New York City. If you’re not familiar with it, PRACTICE is a conference organized by the NYU Game Center that focuses specifically on game design.

This year was the 4th year the conference was organized. Despite this, I hadn’t heard of it up until two months before the event, when Zach Gage announced on Twitter that he was going to be one of the speakers.

If you’ve been following this devlog, you’ll know that I’ve been writing about all the conferences and festivals I’ve attended. I’m going to write up about my experience at PRACTICE as well, sharing about how the conference is set up, why I went, what I learned, etc.

I’m not going to dive into the specific details of the talks themselves, as all the talks were recorded and will be posted online for free, so you can judge the quality and content for yourselves. I’m going to focus more on my point of view of the event, as an independent game developer/designer, who went with a very specific intention.

Why I Went

Between February and October of this year, I went to 11 game conferences and festivals. The first one I went to was IndieCade East in NYC. It had a tremendous impact on the development of the game, and made me realize the importance of getting regular feedback from players and other game developers. This is why for much of 2014, I went to every single show that I could.

However, while it is beneficial to show at these events, there is a decreasing rate of return. For example, the first few events gave me very high-level ideas that resulted in massive changes to the course of the game. I was rewriting entire levels and changing the progression system. Towards the end of the year though, most of the changes were more about finetuning and tweaking details – making a hallway shorter here, adding a window there, putting stairs here, etc.

By October, the game had been playtested by about 1,000 people, and I was starting to feel like I had a very, very solid first hour of the game. It had allowed me to sort out major design issues, and the game had improved tremendously. However, I was also noticing the limitations of this development process:

1) It’s hard to make large changes to infrastructure - After each festival, I would try to implement fixes for all the issues I observed, so that I could have a new build in time for the next festival. Technically, I could just show the same build I showed last time, but then I’d see the same problems, and wouldn’t get any new data. Each festival was an opportunity to try something new and see if it works.

The problem is that if there was a big infrastructure issue in the project, I couldn’t risk rewriting it from scratch, because what if I took it out, and couldn’t get it working again in time for the next showing. As such, even though I was able to make design changes on the surface level, it was all being held up by really bad code underneath.

2) Showing at Festivals really only allows you test the beginning of the game -  I would always have a few people at festivals who would play the game for over an hour, but most people played for between 5 and 15 minutes. This meant you got a lot of feedback about the early parts of the game, but not the late parts. It’s not even about whether your game is good or not, it’s just the nature of the setting.

After 10 conferences, the intro wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough, and it was time for me to move on to the mid-late parts of the game, which festivals/conference weren’t going to help.

So I had decided Gamercamp in October would be my last event.

Of course, the next day I saw Zach’s tweet and learned about PRACTICE. When I saw that it was a conference specifically about game design, and that the list of speakers included Jonathan Blow, I knew I just had to go.

I was struggling with creating progression between levels (I will go into the specific problem a bit later), and this conference seemed like the perfect place where I could ask about this problem and get feedback on it.

Conference Structure 

PRACTICE happens over the course of 3 days. I’ve gone ahead and posted the schedule for this year here:

practice2014_schedule

Everything happens in the same building on the NYU campus, and it’s a single-track conference, so you don’t have to choose between talks. I really liked this aspect of it, as it felt like all of us who attended got the same experience, and were able to discuss everything that went on together.

Friday – Opening Talk / Reception

holly_gramazio_lecture

On Friday, the first day of Practice, there was an opening talk by Holly Gramazio, and a reception afterwards. The reception happened just outside the lecture hall, and there were several stations set up with games for people to play.

Here are some people playing a social game designed by Holly Gramazio, which involved learning to insult each other in Old English.

insult_group_game

Here are some other pics from the reception, taken from the Game Center’s tumblr.

tumblr_nf34kw16ZL1rjspoho3_1280tumblr_nf34kw16ZL1rjspoho2_1280

 

After the reception, a bunch of us went out and got ramen!

friday_ramen

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:

IMG_7691

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.

gamercamp_floor2 gamercamp_floor2B

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:

gamercamp_room

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:

gamercamp_nidhogg

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