2016’s Games Read/Watchlist

I ran an impromptu Twitter poll the other day, asking my followers what were their favorite pieces of games writing & criticism of this year. I got a number of responses. They’re all good, so let’s list them down here off of Twitter for future reference. This listing is not complete at all, especially when avenues like Patreon and Medium have continued to flourish with a glut of great writing.

I’ve been thinking of throwing my hat back in the ring myself, having ceased games writing three years ago.

To be honest, I haven’t been able to pay as much attention to games writing as I wish I had, being so mentally dug into making Chambara happen, though I did discover the wonderful long-form videos of Noah Caldwell-Gervais, who is one of the smartest new cookies around. I think this was a good year for smart games writing.

Heather Robertson puts forward this long form critique of Fallout 3.

Jocelyn Kim suggests two videos and two essays. One by the amazing Mark Brown, who runs Game Maker’s Toolkit, one of the best new YouTube shows of the year, and another by Dan Floyd from Extra Credits.

There’s also a good article about the surrealist art roots of “walking sim” games, which goes back to stuff like derive, as well as Robert Yang’s piece on VR’s potential as a haven for queer & fringe artists. Its all good.

@Wirehead2501 suggests Enjoying It: Candy Crush & Capitalism, which seems to be in the same thematic vein as Games of Empire, which was a formative book for me on imperialist politics in games.

@20xxJester puts forward a Waypoint article (Waypoint’s fantastic, you should read their stuff) about a secret door in an MMO that could only be opened by players who reached an absurd level of experience. One player made it through, and the mystery of what’s behind that door remains only known by them. Wow. Mystery like that which arouses the imagination is stuff I live for.

@TheGreatDarkOne suggests Cara Ellison’s amazing article about this year’s Kentucky Route Zero episode and what it meant to her, as well as Jason Yu’s examination of the musical storytelling of Undertale.

Colin Horgan suggests this article about culture & gender as expressed in Final Fantasy XIII’s last episode, and these videos.

A longform video-examination of Bloodborne in relation to From Software’s other Soulsbourne games.

And Matthewmatosis’ longform analysis of Devil May Cry on a beat-by-beat level. Its a curious video and its interesting to see Resident Evil’s design approaches mutate into the action-game it ended up being.

Patrick Scarborough suggests this retrospective by Philip Kollar on WoW’s evolution from expansion-to-expansion.

Abhishek Biswas brings up The Game Design Forum, which has this series of “reverse-design” analyses which deconstruct JRPGs on a design level.

Mike Effenberger suggests this video by John Romero, where he plays through a level he built for Doom. Its a nice piece of creator commentary, and I love stuff like this.

@TacticalMullign suggests this haunting Waypoint piece about Dark Souls II and Walter Benjamin’s idea of historical teleology and a certain relativity to modernist narratives about “progress”.

While I was in Scotland two years ago, this video about Phil Fish and the impact of attention and notoriety made the rounds. @gayanimegirl suggests this video about Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide by that same person.

@Warstub suggests Electron Dance’s video about The Witness, its curious structure and progression, and where it stands as JoBlow’s Bizarre Adventure. It goes into great detail about its pacing, with its aspirational goal of creating a meditative rhythm of play.

@OnyxOblivion suggests Patrick Klepek’s piece about the opaque systems that govern the “Poise” stat in Dark Souls 3.

@tfeatherson12 puts forward Jason Schrier’s review of Final Fantasy XV, which has a nice, nostalgic rhythm to it with considerations to the multiplicity of things people want out of a Final Fantasy game. I can’t wait to play it.

@StefanSterber1 appreciates Mark Brown’s Boss Key series on Zelda level design. Its a fun series since you get to see his ideas, theses, and language evolve as the series goes on.

That’s what I have from 2016. What are your favorite bits of criticism & writing?

I’m not a curator or critic by any means, but if you’re looking for good writing, you might want to consider checking out Critical Distance for more nuanced craft.

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A Letter Regarding Chambara’s July Launch

I originally wrote this post in July shortly after Chambara’s July 26th launch. I put it on the cooler and held off on publication until the time was right, adapting bits and pieces of it for two talks I gave at USC. Since 2016 is on its way out and we intend to have news about the game in 2017, this might be the right time for a li’l retrospective on the game’s journey. If you’d like to support us, consider purchasing the game on PlayStation 4 or playing it with your friends. 

In Fall of 2013, I was in my Sophomore year of game school, and the egotism and imposter syndrome common in rookie games students had largely left my system by then. I had friends across the school, and a few games and a lot of writing under my belt. The previous year had opened me up to a beautiful, vast world  that went deeper and wider than I could ever possibly imagine, and the optimism of the time had yet to wane.

That year, William Huber, professor of game studies at USC, was preparing to leave for Scotland to teach at Abertay University. William taught my theory-centric classes, and while throughout high school, I grasped for any elevated discussion about games I could get my hands on, William guided me directly to it. His classes were foundational and influential to me.

On the last day of the semester, the students of my year rushed to the second floor office to say goodbye to Willam before he left, but his office door was closed shut, and he was nowhere to be found. On the whiteboard outside the main office, we wrote farewell messages for him and took a picture posing in front of it. I uploaded it to Facebook and posted it to his timeline, tagging everyone in it.

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That evening, William responded to the post, “Hah! I’m in the office!”. I rushed out of my apartment and down the stairwell to grab Catherine Fox and rush over to meet Esteban Fajardo, who was already in the games building. We found William and went to the Starbucks at the dilapidated shopping center across the street from USC. He bought us all drinks and two packs of crackers to share. As we thanked him for what he did for us, he urged us to apply to Dare to be Digital, a summer game-design competition ran by the university that he was going to teach at.

We promised to apply.

And hence began our odyssey. 

Our base of operations was my living room. Cardinal Gardens, apartment G465. We met around a little, square table on hardwood chairs, drinking store-brand chamomile tea.

Our first task would be to recruit two more people to round out our team. We decided on Alec Faulkner, a film-school expatriate whose games floored us with their creativity and character, and Tommy Hoffmann, Esteban’s creative partner from high school, and a expert with Unity. We wanted to form the team before coming up with a game idea because we thought team members would be more personally invested in the project if they were involved in selecting a game idea.

We met in early February to brainstorm projects. We put forward several, but none of them connected with everyone. At that point, I suggested a fighting game based off episode XL of Samurai Jack, where Jack fights a ninja by hiding in an abstract, black-and-white world. This was a game idea that Esteban had already ideated from a personal brainstorming project in high school, and this, was the game that would become Chambara. 

The rest of the story is fairly straightforward. We settled on a title, came up with a pitch, filmed and submitted it, had a Skype interview, and were accepted into Dare to be Digital. With the help of our families and a bit of IndieGoGo money, we travelled to Dundee, Scotland in the summer of 2014 to compete. Fifteen teams were there from across the world, and our job was to build Chambara over the course of two months for the ProtoPlay Festival that August, where all the Dare games would be judged by a community audience. Helping us along the way were industry specialists and our friends back home, who we delivered weekly builds to for playtesting.

We were one of the three winning teams at Dare Protoplay, and were nominated for the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award.  The other nominated games were GlitchRunners, a multi-device platformer from Manchester, and Sagittarius, a VR shooter from an Indian team. As the confetti rained down above us, my heart pounded with anticipation, knowing that what we did at Dare to be Digital would not end with Protoplay. We travelled home to Los Angeles for our third year of game school.

The BAFTA Game Awards would not happen until the next Spring, but their presence crept across my mind through the months and days. News of our accomplishments had already reached home by the time we returned, and our peers and professors welcomed us with congratulations, even the new freshmen had heard the word by the time we returned. In our new visibility, we found ourselves tasked with the responsibility of being role models for the younger students, and there was new consequence to our words and actions.

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That Spring, we traveled to London for the BAFTA Game Awards, and I was anxious. Our careers as game designers could change, or stay the same, from Academy’s decision.

How would it feel to lose? What would happen to us if we won? As we sat in the great hall of London’s Tobacco Dock, waiting for the “Ones to Watch” category to commence, my body was wracked with anticipation. My heart pounded and every invisible itch, urge, and pain became glaringly accentuated. The MC opened the envelope, and we were declared the winners of the award. We walked up to the stage, pushed forward not quite by our volition, but the energy of those who rooted for us back home.

The project expands! 

At the recommendation of some of our professors, we put forward Chambara to become a capstone project at USC Games. The new USC Games publishing label was in its conceptual stages, and contacts Tracy made with Sony and Microsoft were planning on providing gear to the school to support student projects. We were obligated to finish Chambara after Dare to be Digital, and the Advanced Games capstone class would be the ideal proving grounds to take the game forward.

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We pitched Chambara again and were accepted. We were joined by body of new leads, including Max Kreminski, Zach Vega-Perkins, and Nikhil Bedi. We started building a team of students to take the game forwards. We had the artists, engineers, and designers standard to student games. We also had usability researchers, web designers, foley artists, composers, planners, lawyers, translators, and testers.

Some of them stayed for the entirety of the project, some of them came on just to do a few days of crucial work. All of their talents, interests, and skills were necessary to make Chambara happen.

With two semesters as a student project in the Advanced Games class, we had about eight months to bring Chambara from game-jam prototype to complete experience. We had to structure the project around clear milestones, and since we knew Chambara had shown well at events and festivals before, we decided to build towards exhibitions.

The team would be showing the game off every two months. This meant we had to have four main exhibitions. These were to be IndieCade in October, USC’s Winteractive Showcase, the Independent Games Festival in March, and USC’s Spring Demo Day in May. IndieCade and the IGF were both selective and competitive, so we had to work them into the plan without the certainty that we would get in.

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This ended up being a good strategy for the team to enter development with. Exhibitions are great places to get playtest feedback on your milestones. They’re good for re-energizing your motivation and seeing what cross-sections of society your game’s identity connects with. This approach did direct our scope, the need to focus development on preparing and polishing features for festival exhibition created a game which shows its best self in crowds of friends.

This gave us the opportunity to reach many people and touch many hearts across many different regions of the gaming universe. The team got to show the game to different kinds of people and directly see how their decisions in their work impacted real players across professional and casual audiences. Some of the anecdotes I’ve heard from team members about their time exhibiting were extremely powerful and affecting.

The Independent Games Festival nominated Chambara for Best Student Game, and while we did not win, the honor of being considered for another award from a major organization electrified us with excitement and humility. Again, the chilling anticipation filled my presence as they read off the nominated games. The loss was not a crushing disappointment. I had time afterwards to meet the other nominees, and I have incredible respect for them and hope to see them again at future events.

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USC Games Publishing

USC started a game publishing label as part of their initiatives for the future.

The label would start with publishing student and faculty games, and later branch out to release games from marginalized creators and progressive game designers from the community. Its mission was to seek out radically different and culturally important games and elevate them to the zeitgeist and discourse by emulating the models of academic print publishers like MIT Press. By empowering developers near the fringes with the support and resources of a game publisher, USC hopes to bring games like those on itch.io to wide-reaching platforms like the PlayStation Store.

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This dream has potential, and if enriching and exciting games like Quiet Kissing, Waiting for my Protagonist, and Don’t Look at Me can reach people far and wide and can be granted whatever support they need, there is potential for a lot of good to be done to enrich the world.

Chambara was invited to be the debut game for this academic publisher. For Chambara’s specific needs, Sam Roberts granted us access to console devkits, software licenses, and a network of subject-matter experts across fields like certification, testing, and public relations. He also hired a small team of QA testers who quickly became a crack team that held us accountable towards a high standard of professionalism and polish. Chambara would have been impossible to release on consoles without the help of this publisher, and I’m glad to be able to help them further their mission.

There was a new pressure to succeed though. The more people who joined and contributed their hands to push this project forward, the greater the stakes became. As the debut game from an new publisher with an important mission, we suddenly found ourselves with great new responsibility. Carelessness and unaccountability would now impact other people and organizations, not just us on the development team. We could not recklessly charge into the future or avert our gaze from what we had to do.

In Conclusion, Thank you

What I’m trying to say with this post is that Chambara, like many other games that came before it, was an odyssey that spanned time, space, and hearts. The chapters of its journey intersected with the lives of hundreds of people from many walks of life. Their impact spans the quaint hometowns of its developers and reaches across international megacities like Tokyo, Chicago, and London.

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Chambara was built by its developers, yes, but it was also made by event organizers, speakers, account managers, journalists, academics, and bloggers. It was built by the developers we exhibited alongside and the players we exhibited to. Chambara was built by Lyft Drivers, printers, couriers, entrepreneurs, artists, mentors, rivals, fans, partners, friends. A game, and also a memory.

Many people united to build Chambara together. We built Chambara, and so did you.

We built a game, and in doing so, we formed a community. Even if Chambara vanishes into obscurity in a few days time, we should not forget this chapter of our lives that we wrote together.

~ Kevin Wong
July 28th, 2016

A Message for New Students

September 2nd, I was invited by USC’s MEGA organization to deliver a welcome talk to kick off their year of programming. I had to abridge my talk for the sake of time, but if you’re interested in reading it, here it is in its unabridged entirety.

Hello everybody, my name is Kevin Wong and welcome to MEGA.

During my time here, my friends and I organized a company called “team ok”, and by uniting a community of game developers, we built Chambara. Chambara won the BAFTA Ones to Watch Award and was nominated for Best Student Game at the Independent Games Festival. It exhibited at festivals worldwide before releasing on PlayStation 4 this summer to positive reviews.

Let me say that you are amongst good people, filled with integrity, talent, and the courage to follow their dreams.BfvzMV[1]

You may come from different majors and schools, different backgrounds, identities, skill levels, and ranges of interest in games. Whether you’ve been playing games since you were little, or have only recently entered into this baffling microcosm, you all have a home here at MEGA.

The people here will be your friends, collaborators, teachers, family. Together, you may embark on a great adventure that will intersect with the paths of many other people. There, you’ll discover truths about you, your friends, and the world.

While I was a student, I served on the MEGA board for the 2014-2015 term, and together, we organized events to unite the USC Games community with other communities across campus and Los Angeles. Attend these events and connect with like-and-differently minded people, you’ll help each other on the path to your future.

That said, if you’re looking for pointers on how to use your time here well, I have a few ideas that I’d like to pass on to you.

ONE.

Engage with the community, in and out of USC. Los Angeles has such a wonderful community of games people, and no matter what’s your relationship with games, you’re bound to find someone cool that you’d want to connect with.

Los Angeles is home to A-list YouTubers, a vibrant VR scene, indie games collectives like Glitch City and LA Game Space, curated art spaces like Giant Robot, electronic music groups like Galaxy Swim Team and Zoom Lens, academics exploring the intersections of games with other forms of art, and renowned companies like Riot, Naughty Dog, and Konami that make games admired everywhere.

We host events like E3, IndieCade, and GamesBeat that attract people from across the world. This city overflows with exciting and creative people, and count yourself amongst them. You are part of this scene, so get to know people here, share and receive knowledge, and build the community. MEGA can help you do that.

That said, do respect the community. Be gentle with others and treat them how they’d like to be treated. This means doing stuff like respecting people’s pronouns and not making assumptions about them. There’s etiquette to be upheld when you’re working with others, and interrupting people, dominating conversations, and generally leaving little room for others is toxic. One way to help is by becoming a good listener, which might be one of the most constructive ways you can grow here.

TWO.

Be considerate with the projects you take on. As you build visibility in the community, you might find yourself invited onto projects like AGPs and thesis projects. You have goals, an identity, stuff you’re into and a loose interpretation of what you want to do with your time here, recognize that.

Even if every project you take on helps you grow, not every project you do will help become the kind of person you want to be. So be selective with what you agree to, what roles you take, and curate experiences to move you forwards. Don’t tether yourself to relationships with people and projects that you don’t need unless you’re trying to get a taste for what’s out there and what your potential futures could look like.

This can manifest as a person who was a great artist in high school wanting to become a better coder, or someone who wants to have a large portfolio of small, personal work but not getting to do that since they end up agreeing to only big team projects. Four years isn’t a long time, and you should use that time productively. Take time to ask yourself, “Who am I, and why am I here?”, that could help you consider what projects make sense for you more smartly.

So, what I’d like to leave you with. Thank you for giving me your time and inviting me to speak here. I hope you have an amazing time, and if you’d like to talk to me more, I encourage you to contact me on Twitter, where my handle is @thatkevinwong.

Chambara @ E3 2016

I’ve graduated from game school two weeks ago. I’ll write something about it a little later, but for now, I need to stay focused on now and the future.

Immediately in that future is finishing Chambara for consoles. The game is almost ready, and there are just a last few details we need to prepare before we send it forward into the world. In the meantime, you can check out what Chambara will look like at E3 this year because we will be part of the ESA’s College Game Competition. If you’re attending, come by and say “hi” and check out the game.

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In addition to that, we’ve released a series of Chambara wallpapers for computers. You can check them out here. We have mobile dimensions of the game’s Key Art too.

Check out our developer diaries too! The last few episodes have featured us and the team reflecting upon our favorite memories from the project. You can check it out on our YouTube channel.

Chambara Environment Screenshots

It it me that on Google Images, quite a lot of Chambara screenshots used to come from our personal websites! The new Chambara website doesn’t have a place for screenshots right now, so I’m leaving some wonderful environmental screenshots for y’all to look at here!

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Chambara Environment Screenshot
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Chambara Environment Screenshot

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Chambara Environment Screenshot
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Chambara Developer Diaries! :O

Cathy Trang and Catherine Fox, who are in charge of our marketing and PR for Chambara, launched a documentary webseries of developer diaries detailing beats and stories about the story of the game’s development. We’re going to be regularly updating our Youtube channel leading up to our eventual release. Check them out, share them around, and subscribe to our channel, this is something we are particularly proud of, and I hope it shines a light on what things are like on team ok.

With that brief update, I enter my last week of undergrad! Thank you to all those who  saw me on my way. Chambara will have an important announcement at USC Games Demo Day on May 11th, 2016, and if you can make it out to USC, we’d be honored if you could be present for it at this amazing celebration of a wide range of student projects.

Woo!