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 is Headed to the IGF

To whom may be reading this, I really don’t write here much anymore. My writing/crit work feels far removed from a lot of the work I’m doing now.

What I’m writing tonight is a bit of an overdue announcement. Chambara has been nominated alongside a bunch of amazing games from students from places like OCAD and NYU for the “Best Student Game” award at this year’s Independent Games Festival! This is an amazing honor and it comes at the start of the next major development phase that we have to do. This is something that I hope that can inspire us to do our very best work and perform at our creative peak as we close this phase of our nascent careers as game designers. IMG_1550

Speaking personally about the IGF, I grew up in San Francisco, and saw GDC happen each year throughout high school. I was never allowed in because liability restrictions prevented minors from going into the conference, so I would catch every talk, awards show, and presser I could through live blogs and streams. It was slightly obsessive.

As a teenager, I watched the IGF awards and would be amazed at how talented and creative these developers could be. The college students that participated in the Student Showcase category seemed to live lives far removed from anything my limited existence could accommodate. My summer camp maze game and twelfth-grade shmup were not comparable at all to what these students made, and I could never see the work that I would make belonging there. Never would I have expected that something I will make five years into the future would be nominated for “Best Student Game”.

IMG_1380

Mired in a project, its easy to get into the mindset of just seeing only that which is right in front of you, abandoning the foresight and hindsight to be either reflective or strategic. The Kevin of six years ago would have been overjoyed to hear this news.

But for now, I just feel like leaping into this next, planned, phase of development with the resolve to create the best thing we can for our players and for the world we share with all, and leap we will.

To whom may be reading this, we hope to see you at this year’s IGF Pavilion. We think we’ll have a good build to show you.

Recent Shenanigans

It’s been forever since I last updated this blog. I’ve had plans to do some in-depth articles, specifically an in-depth analysis of the Metal Gear Solid series and a personal essay about my story and how I ended up doing games, but life has the tendency of getting in the way of unrewarded stuff that I really want to do. Topics worthy of discussion spring up and evaporate like springtime flowers, and stuff like Flappy Bird, Twitch Plays Pokemon, GDC 2014, and this weekend’s GAME_JAM controversy. But alas, I’ve found myself working pretty much every waking hour for the past two months on a number of projects.

Videogame Bookclubs

Bookclub?
Bookclub?

I’m giving talks and leading discussions now. Working with MEGA, the game developer’s club at USC, I’m running a monthly series of salons where people can come in and discuss contemporary games from thematic, design, narrative, and aesthetic standpoints, the format of which I’m basing off the similar Playthink art/game salon. I’ve run three thus far, respectively covering The Stanley Parable, Twitch Plays Pokemon, and Papers, Please, and each of them greatly exceeded expected attendance, making for very lively, often packed discussions. I’m planning on running for MEGA’s staff elections at the end of this week, so come out to SCI on Friday and let’s plan fun stuff for the next year.

The Observatory

I’m running playtests for a Master’s thesis project at USC, working in a dedicated observation lab, I record feedback and player behavior in hopes of improving Logan Ver Hoef’s thesis: The Observatory. I’ve run playtests before for intermediate projects, but this one is particularly interesting because it deals with game feel and environmental narrative, two things I’m very interested in learning about and deploying in my own games.

The Maestros

Maestros
Maestros

I’m handling website content for The Maestrosa competitive online RTS-deathmatch game being run this year as an Advanced Games project. The game is currently in public alpha, and you can easily download a build of the game, create an account, and begin playing immediately. The game’s core narrative is a bit uncomfortable for me, exploring themes about violence, imperialism, and its ideological ramifications through its mechanics, and maintaining websites and reaching out to the press isn’t what I’m interested in doing with my career, but I’m glad that it has been immensely successful, right now, its one of the most polished games to have ever come out of USC.

The Pilgrim

The Pilgrim comes from an original design document I wrote late last December. It was a very personal game dealing with religious belief and the life-compromises that observing those beliefs predicate, something that I’ve considered in my own life for years. This narrative would be delivered through an inverted-Metroidvania narrative, with the player surrendering powers and abilities to fulfill her purpose and complete the journey through an abandoned mine underneath a Temple. Teaming up with my good friend Catherine Fox, I decided to make the game my project for Peter Brinson and Richard Lemarchand’s Intermediate Game Design class.

Screenshot 2014-02-23 22.56.51
The Pilgrim

I learned more from this ongoing project than from any project I’ve done before, except for perhaps Dark Deceptiona RPG system and campaign I ideated back in high school. Working on the project as part of a two-person team, while coordinating external testing and audio, I dealt with more scripting than I’ve ever had before. We also dealt a lot with scoping, and The Pilgrim shrunk from a short Metroidvania-styled adventure to a short-form platformer/adventure game more resembling the mountain scene from Journey, with the avatar becoming increasingly feeble and hard to control as she progressed towards her goal.

I hit a few major hitches while working on the game. I became very sick one week in early March, causing me to lose an entire week from our production cycle, forcing me to crunch later on. I also spent two weeks prototyping myriad versions of a single feature that was ultimately cut due to performance issues. Communication with the rest of the team has also been a challenge, and making sure that everyone was on the same page and understood our vision and codebase has been something I’m not personally satisfied with, having blocked off progress from other team members by not communicating well. A rough project, but one that I’m glad to have undertaken.

FROM WITHIN

From Within
From Within

I ran into my CTIN-488 TA, Jesse Vigil, late last week, who was impressed with my team’s final project and suggested that we submit it to Indiecade. I don’t think any of the digital games in my portfolio is festival-quality, but FROM WITHIN was an interesting and exciting project that I really enjoyed working on. It’s a party game for nine players meant to be played in eerily-lit basements around snack-laden tables. The mechanics are rather simplistic and exist to create intense dramatic tension and catharsis, contextualizing the rich social play of scaring and deceiving other players. I’m excited to get my team back together to revise the game for submission come this May. If anything I’ve done is festival-quality, its definitely that game.

Secret Scotland Project

This is a project that I’m excite to work on. I’m working with a small team of some of my best, most talented friends to pitch a game for Dare to be Digitalan international game design competition in Scotland. If we get accepted, it would be the single greatest game design challenge that I’ve ever faced in my life, but also the most exciting. We’re super-eager to work on this game, and the prospects of traveling to the UK to compete on the world stage for a BAFTA is thrilling.

Reality Ends Here – Season 3: Postmortem

105 days, 191 players, 251 projects, 648 cards, over 300,000 points.

After nearly a year of work, the third season of the Reality Ends Here game has finally come to a close. I joined the project as a narrative/puzzle designer back in January by taking the ARG practicum class, and the game has come a long way since its cloudy inception. Past iterations of the game have been incredibly successful, having won the 2012 Indiecade Impact Award and being cited by Extra Credits in their episode about games in education. The game helped me take my first steps forward into the most creative and prolific period of my life when I played it, this year’s iteration is a bit different, the air of mystery surrounding the game isn’t quite as pronounced due to a multitude of reasons, inhibiting the desired feeling of anarchic excitement critical to the game’s success.

A typical Reality Ends Here justification
A typical Reality Ends Here justification

Nonetheless, I’m incredibly proud of our work with this game. Reality Ends Here – Season 3 has served its purpose, connecting its players into a diverse network of friends, mentors, and rivals, changing how they go about their everyday lives at USC, bringing any given idea into oft-amazing fruition. Reality Ends Here was my favorite game of 2012, and I am incredibly grateful to have been granted the blessing of working on its next season. I hope that I have been able to create an awesome first-semester experience for this year’s Freshmen, and hope to seem them step forward into fruitful, prolific careers of courageous integrity.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

1. PROLIFIC CORE PLAYERS

In terms of players to content created, the third season of Reality Ends Here was one the most successful ever run. Over the course of eighteen weeks, over 250 projects were created ranging from the punk, to the postmodern, to the absurd. This is impressive given that the 2012 Season had approximately 196 deals and the 2011 Season had 112. The core group of players consistently put effort into their work, creating roughly a new project each week. Familiar faces were seen regularly in the Game Office, allowing us to form a relationship with our players and understand them and their work on a deeper level. A greater variety of non-film Maker cards was included in the 2013 deck, allowing players to do work in different mediums such as derives, manifestos, and zines, marked by the largest number of nondigital games to have been seen in any version of Reality. Cross compatibility with the Annenberg version of the game allowed players to explore themes and mediums left untouched in film school, expanding their horizons substantially. One of the most notable additions was a “Solo Project” Special Card, which would bestow points for working alone on a project. While this falls slightly outside of the intended aesthetic of friendly cooperation, this was a heavily used card which players enjoyed playing with.

2. RABBIT-HOLE & “ARG-SAUCE”

Outside of trading cards and “leveling up” by passing predesignated point thresholds, solving complex puzzles

Tim Taylor was an accidental element of a puzzle that evolved into a meme.
Tim Taylor was an accidental element of a puzzle that evolved into a meme in later deals

was the primary means for players to get new cards. While nothing as complex or sophisticated as Season 2’s Minecraft world emerged from this season, the seven puzzles that we did deploy sparked players imaginations and had them exploring the campus, scouring it for its secrets. Every little indication or hint that we would drop our players would quickly pick up, analyzing them and seeking meaning in the clues. One puzzle had players rearrange a set of directions on basis of Oscar History to form a map that would lead them to a secret card stash. Another had players seek out a secret phone number that they would call to receive a string of numbers corresponding to a hidden book in the library, where they would find their cards. These challenges were quite complex and were rewarded with enough cards to reenergize a players bank and put them ahead in the game. This could be disconcerting though, as the biweekly frequency of these challenges might have caused players to construe these scavenger hunts as a core mechanic of the game.

Aside from the scavenger hunts, the “Rabbit Hole” sequence, the initial week of Reality where the existence of the game is kept secret and players are challenged to discover it, was incredibly successful, if perhaps due in part to greater awareness of the game’s existence. Nonetheless, we had over eighty players signed up in the first day of the game, and the game’s first deal was submitted within the first hour of the Game Office’s opening.

3. QUALITY OF WORK

While power gaming and forced-pointsing did indeed happen with this season of the game, all players put substantial effort into almost all of their deals. Players experimented with unusual mediums that required substantial effort to pull off, such as animated shorts, Kickstarter Projects, drawn-on-films, and faux New Wave. Video-based deals were substantially longer, the longest reaching upwards of seventeen minutes. Projects made in the were submitted to festivals, and were screened in CNTV 101. One team developed a particularly distinct punk aesthetic, dealing with queer themes in all of their diverse work. Another player wrote a full season of full-length courtroom dramas. The most notable project to have emerged from the game is the UNI School of Bollywood Arts, a transmedia franchise taking place in an alternate universe where India has colonized Hollywood, resulting in a film school dedicated to Bollywood film. The franchise consisted of a successful crowdfunding campaign, a series bible, and a short film, created by a large team with a pronounced structure, complete with auditions, casting calls, and dedicated roles, resulting in likely the largest and most complex project to have ever emerged from the game. 

4. BALANCING & NEW MECHANICS

All of Reality‘s Green Maker Cards were redesigned to accommodate special challenges that could be completed for point bonuses, incentivizing increased effort and higher quality work. This resulted in better, more complex deals that were not necessarily “thrown together”. Players had a lot of fun attempting to fulfill these optional objectives and played more competitively.

One of the most controversial new mechanics was the “Scan Card”, a mysterious card which could only be acquired by solving a puzzle. The Scan Card had a QR-code, which, if played, rolled a dice and applied a random effect to the deal it was applied to. One play may double the points of a deal or win players additional cards, other plays could destroy the Scan card, reward other players points, or delay the deal’s publication to the next week, essentially making the choice of playing the card one of high risk. Players initially played the Scan Card with gusto until Logan Austin rolled the “Self-Destruct” effect, forcing him to tear apart the card. All players used the Scan Card very conservatively thereafter.

5. MINIMAL EMBEDDED NARRATIVE

The original design of Season 3 had an underlying narrative to it, aligning it with other traditional ARGs, which would be delivered through notes left by an opponent to the Reality Committee that players would discover at the end of each puzzle sequence. This entire element of the game was cut, as interacting with embedded narrative is an aesthetic of consumption, which contradicts the game’s intended goal of promoting creation, distancing players from the game’s goal of fostering creativity and collaboration within its player base. Instead, a similar narrative arc appeared emergently as previous years players would interfere with the game, granting players overpowered cards intended to be removed from the system by putting them through unusual and difficult challenges.

Nonetheless, the embedded narrative elements survived and were included into the game enhanced player’s experiences substantially. The first element was “Vintage Cards”, cards that were used in the game’s previous decades that we found and included in the game as rewards for solving puzzles. These Vintage Cards could be played like any other game card, and alluded to the game’s history of being played by students as an underground subculture.

WHAT WENT WRONG

1. DROPOFF

While the player base for Season 3 is the largest it has ever been, the drop in active players was more pronounced than we expected. The game started with a group of nearly 170 players, but dropped off substantially as the semester ramped up, going down to twenty players and ending with a core group of roughly sixteen players. While this core group was indeed prolific, it is surprising to see how drastically the number of players dropped off after the first few weeks. Substantial drop-offs have been characteristic of previous seasons of the game given the plethora of other commitments students have, ranging from fraternity commitments, to midterms, clubs, and non-game related projects, the players that do survive and remain committed and passionate about DIY-media making go on to create the game’s best content. Nonetheless, when designing future iterations of the game, Reality Game Runners should take into consideration the reasons that this phenomenon takes place and take measures to keep players engaged with playing and project-creation without compromising the game’s core aesthetics of aggressive, creative competition and self-motivated, creative agency.

2. “POINTSING”

“Pointsing” was a term that players coined to describe the forced integration of loosely-justified cards into deals in an attempt to maximize the score-value of an individual project or any other behavior that may be construed as “pushing the rules” of the game in order to maximize the score of a deal. While this behavior did create interesting dramatics and make for more competitive, aggressive play from other players, I am concerned about the effect that this behavior might have on other players. Richard Bartle’s categorization of players of MUDs posits that the behavior of different kinds of players in a game space can substantially affect the game experience for other players. “Power-gamers” that aggressively balance and min-max their builds and play styles can potentially overpower other players and make them feel impotent and powerless, disincentivizing their continued play given the knowledge that they could not necessarily match up points-wise against the other teams. While the negative feedback system integrated into the cards with the “depletion” mechanic reduced each card’s value with each consecutive use, this behavior was still present. One thing that could be done to address this issue is to better communicate the fact that the Reality Committee pick weekly winners in terms of both points and quality.

3. UNIMPLEMENTED MECHANICS & CONTENT

A plethora of mechanics, rules, and content was created for the game during the Spring Practicum. Only a fraction of that content made it into the final iteration of the season. Many of the cut elements reasonably improved or preserved the experience of the game, such as the removal of an embedded narrative, which would have detracted from the exploratory, self-motivated aesthetic critical to the game’s success. Nonetheless, out of oversight or lack of time and resources, we had to scale back on many things, such as the complexity of each of the puzzles. One of the game’s first puzzles involved cracking open a hidden safe to discover a secret cache of cards. This puzzle was scaled back due to time and budget constraints to feature only a suitcase and a combo-lock. The collectable “audio-diaries” alluding to the stories and experiences of past students and alumni of SCA were cut entirely, instead, we included artifacts from the game’s past: a collection of “vintage cards” from prior decades runs of the game, a grainy image of the Bullpen as it existed in the forties, a blurry photograph from last year’s Wrap Party.

Perhaps the mechanic that we most unfortunately left out was the inclusion of “weekly challenges” that players can undertake for special bonuses. Shoot a deal using only a cell-phone camera, shoot on 35mm film, collaborate with someone you’ve never worked with before. These special challenges would have shook up the game substantially and kept players on their toes, constantly experimenting and trying out new methods of media-making.

4. CHAOTIC SCHEDULING

Season 3 of Reality Ends Here was run entirely by three people with the intermittent involvement of the Reality Committee. Esteban Fajardo and I were Game Runners and Simon Wiscombe was Game Master. Esteban and I both have full eighteen-unit class schedules and are working on Advanced Game Projects, limiting our availability in the office during the week’s peak periods and ability to create complex, involving challenges that multiple groups of players can engage with. One particularly rough scheduling fiasco occurred during a “Double Points Week”, wherein the points value of all submitted deals is doubled, incentivizing players to create and submit as many projects as they can during that week. I was running playtests for an Intermediate Games Project as part of my Usability Testing Class on the Friday of that week, preventing me from being available at the Game Office on that day, forcing me to ask last year’s Game Runners to substitute for me and run justifications.

5. TECHNOLOGY

We revamped the entire Reality Ends Here website in order to streamline the process of submitting and justifying deals, and for the first few weeks of the game, the new site served its purpose admirably and effectively. But past the mid-game and escalating throughout the entirety of the late-game, the website started exhibiting serious issues. Entire submissions were lost and had to be redone again, the site would lag and stutter at the most inappropriate times, players who changed their account names found themselves with multiple accounts, each with its own score on the leaderboard, and players would find themselves inexplicably in the lead with tens of thousands of points, or suddenly lose all their points. While the site is effective and usable from the front-end, it would be important to look into improving the sites stability in the next season of Reality Ends Here.

CREDITS

Designed by:
The Reality Committee

Season 3 Game Master:
Simon Wiscombe

Season 3 Game Runners: 
Kevin Wong and Esteban Fajardo

Season 3 Backup Game Runners: 
Michael Effenberger, Will Cherry, Althea Capra

Download the Game Master’s Manual at
http://realitycommittee.org

Nascence: A Reflection

This is a reflection about my first year at game school. Its long and reflective, deal with it. 

I try not to have second thoughts about entering this industry. We’re riding the wave of Ludus Florentis, the massive sea change, maybe even movement, that James Portnow predicted three years ago, a term that I’ll refer to a lot in this article.

While as a player of games, I welcome the earthquake of creativity that is shaking up the industry right now, I remain concerned about what that could mean for my career. Right now, more people than ever are entering the game industry, and the old guards of yesterday can not possibly employ all that talent that’s flooding out of game schools. Independent developers like the ones I admire seldom look to hire or expand, and the few ones that do rarely seek applicants in design. As the bar to entry lowers, the bar to be competitive inches higher.

Chelsea Howe’s diagram of the factors that contribute to “Ludus Florentis”, a phrase that I’ll use here to describe what’s going on right now in gaming.

To be competitive in this world means to make necessary sacrifices, everyone is going to give up a little bit of themselves. I personally, ended my political outspokenness and stopped distance running, two facets of myself that I thought important to who I was. In retrospect, the former won’t be missed and the latter was mooted anyway by life in Los Angeles.

Nonetheless, anyone entering game school can expect to work harder than they ever have in their life. They must expect movement, and must be ready to relocate to get the necessary experience that would fulfill their goals. And challenge, those entering this industry must be ready to confront the stark reality of crunch time, demographic homogenity,  limited compensation, family separation, the crossover of social and professional life, and a brief career likely lasting less than a decade.

But that’s barely an issue.

Maybe I’m being overly idealistic or something like it. To be part of this snapshot of time means that I’m part of a greater whole, and only with the combined creativity of game developers everywhere will we unlock a grand future. Being part of the microcosm of USC Games means that I am intrinsically part of this movement, and that the person I form myself to be in this moment in time will determine the direction of this movement and what the medium will become in the future.

What happened over the course of my first year at game school has sent me on a journey of my own (sorry), while I’m far from that designer that I want to be, I’ve already met strange new people from walks of life radically different from my own, I’ve traveled to the conventions and met the visionaries of the medium that I only dreamed of years ago, I’ve joined and worked on projects continually pushing the boundaries of what games could be and what they can do for the world.

And Things Got Strange.

By stepping into unknown territory, I opened myself to the risk of failure. But the finite nature of our existence, and the infinite nature of the unknown, moots success or failure in any professional domain. What really matters are our relationships to the people who are closest to us with whom we share our brief journey through this wilderness. ~ Jeff Watson

I worked on the next iteration of my 2012 game of the year, Reality Ends Here. A message went out that Jeff Watson was opening up an experimental class to design future iterations of the ARG, having received a grant to expand the game that had changed many a freshman’s life, connecting them to the friends they would paint the future with. I joined the team as a narrative designer, and was in charge of designing an overarching environmental narrative to create the atmosphere of subversive, self-motivated creativity that the future of entertainment demands from its practitioners.

A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.
A typical Reality Ends Here dev meeting.

Most of the details about what exactly we did to next year’s iteration of Reality Ends Here has to be kept under wraps, because, hey, spoilers, but I will say that working on it reminded me of the necessary constraints that time, manpower, and budget placed on these projects. When we began designing the narrative, we had this grand vision of an epic participatory story involving immersive theater, hundreds of audio-logs, story-rich spaces, fictional characters, and a simulated conflict. We ended up cutting out most of that content to only that which would maintain our laser focus on creating the desirable atmosphere of discovery and excitement that we want to provide to our players. Film school is a rabbit hole taking those who choose to explore it to strange lands of magic and adventure, we want to reinforce that aesthetic with this narrative.

I have great hope for Reality Ends Here. We made a huge number of fundamental changes to the game and expect to see the payoff in the quality of students that partake in this school. And given my knowledge of some of the plans we have for the game, Reality Ends Here may end up making some great difference in the world as a whole. Keep an eye out for us.

And Even Stranger.

Around the afternoon of March 28th, I received a phone call from my friend Esteban.

“Hey Kevin, wanna come up to GDC with us?”
“Uh, sure, I guess…”
“Great, meet us at New/North in an hour.”

So began an impromptu road trip.

We took the Highway 1 to San Francisco, the grand road running along the California coast. To our right lay rocky, grass-covered cliffsides hundreds of feet tall, to the right, the setting sun shimmered off the gold-tinted ocean, painting the sky an incredible orange-pink. A few hours later, we were in the grassy farmlands of the Central Valley, I  reclined in my seat to look out the window, and saw stars brighter than anything I’ve ever seen.

I was born and raised in San Francisco, city lights and fog would drown out any sight of the night sky. To see hundreds of glittering specks in the sky and ponder the vastness of the universe was a strangely cathartic experience that I could never have in the city.

The road trip up to GDC
The road trip up to GDC, oddly moving.

I knew that GDC took place in San Francisco annually for several years by now, and as much as I wanted to go, even if only to meet people on the other side of development, restrictions caused by age and school would always prevent me from doing so, and frustratedly, I would watch the online coverage of the events and talks that were occurring only a few miles away. When I finally arrived to the crowded convention floor, I took a moment to take in the sights and sounds of the conference: hundreds of booths from every conceivable gaming company in the world, renowned visionaries like Ian Bogost, Robin Hunicke, and Keita Takahashi scuttled around the Moscone Center, and facial hair.

Sony made an incredible indie push at this year's GDC.
Sony made an incredible indie push at this year’s GDC.

And yet, something was different. An ecstatic energy pervaded the hundreds of developers at the conference, as if they were anticipating something huge to happen.

Evolution was in the air, everywhere you’d go, there were symptoms of the nascent renaissance. You’d see it in Chris Hecker’s wordless GDC rant, you’d see it at the crowdedness of this year’s Experimental Gameplay Workshop, you’d see it in the pervasive frustration over gender exclusivity at the major talks. Nowhere was this more obvious than at the GDC Awards, of the 14 available categories, only two were won by AAA games, and at the IGF, a poverty-simulator named Cart Life by Richard Hofmeier won Grand Prize. Being around for the Friday of the conference, I was surprised to see that the keynote speakers at the Game Career Workshop weren’t business executives for major publishers giving advice on how to get hired, but independent developers like Robert Boyd or Anna Anthropy.

The indie presence at GDC has been around for years, and while Ludus Florentis has been brewing in the waters a while now, I can’t help but think that something massive happened this year at GDC. We’ve moved down that metaphorical junction point, all that’s left to do now is to continue. All I have to say is that I’m grateful to be part of this moment.

Final Games.

After GDC, I returned to USC and joined a final game called Proving Grounds as a community manager. Given my experience dealing with blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages for projects in the past, I decided that I would make my most useful contributions doing community management for the project. Proving Grounds was an isometric action game focusing on emergent uses of the environment to resolve combat situations. Vines, explosive barrels, unstable floors, breakable walls, hanging lanterns and wires could all be used in combination with each other to damage enemies, and the relative weakness of the player’s avatar would force creative use of the environment, making survival a battle of wits rather than numbers, channeling almost a Shadow of the Colossus-esque aesthetic. My job, make sure that the world recognizes the game as a unique and creative project.

Pitchin'
Pitchin’

Proving Grounds was part of the Final Games sequence, which could be summed up as a microcosmic simulation of the game industry as a whole. Advanced Games students would assemble teams to prototype a game, build an audience, and pitch it to a panel of professors and industry professionals. Of the 17 or so games that were pitched, only seven were selected. Only by passing the extremely competitive pitch sequence would a project get greenlighted to be developed, the goal: exhibition at major festivals, creating the very best student games in the world. Two games from last year’s sequence got major attention, Core Overload and Scrapyard were picked up by Intel and exhibited at their booth at GDC 2013. The Unfinished Swan and fl0w both owe their genesis to similar processes at USC.

All was going smoothly, I brought some great people onto the team, and each of the teams on the project worked incredibly efficiently. I connected with the community manager of thatgamecompany for advice on how to effectively create a public aesthetic around the game and effectively convey our vision to the world. Pitch day arrived, and the team’s producer and director put out a stellar presentation selling our vision for the game effectively. Things seemed to be going well, and while each of the 17 games that were pitched were unique and innovative in their own right, I was pretty optimistic in our chances of being selected.

The Unfinished Swan owes its genesis to a similar program at USC Interactive.

But we weren’t chosen. The team disbanded and the project was shut down, the constituent members of the Proving Grounds team split up and joined the seven accepted projects, the process of which to join had grown substantially more competitive, requiring interviews and resumes of prospective contributors. Disappointment pervaded as I saw a number of very interesting projects like The Kingdom Cold vanish with their rejection from Final Games.

I ended up with a project codenamed Maestros, an experimental real-time strategy game directed by a number of undergraduates, the first of its kind at USC Games. I again, was brought on as a community manager, fitting for this kind of project, as Maestros sought to create a competitive scene inspired by e-sports, and effective community management would be critical to the game’s success.

Camaraderie.

Oddly enough, I spent most of this semester sick. A nasty case of pnumonia that affected me over the course of four months, which I’m still currently shaking off. I think it might be in part stress-induced, but that doesn’t matter. Antibiotics yo.

But I owe a lot to my friends for getting me through this. When I stubbornly held onto the notion that I’d be fine and my sickness would pass, they persuaded me to see a doctor. When I was too sick to leave the dorm for a week, they brought me soup and medicine. On the many weekends where I was too weak to do anything outside, they kept me company and hanged out with me. I think we blew through the entirety of Avatar: The Last Airbender in a number of marathonic sittings (probably one of the best animated shows I’ve ever seen). But for that, my awesome friends, I thank you all.

at the 5D conference
at the 5D conference

When I was strong enough to get out of the dorm for a weekend, I ended up at the 5D worldbuilding conference with my good friends Catherine and Esteban, a SCA-sponsored event utilizing collaborative imagination to project the future given different sociopolitical, economic, and environmental circumstances. Our job at this conference was to create a fictional world in a day, a 2020 Los Angeles informed by the success of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the replacement of snaking highways with miles of elevated rails, and a substantial rise in ocean levels. On our team was Jenova Chen.

Yes, that Jenova Chen. Through all the interviews I read with him, I finally got to see his leadership style in person, forceful and direct and more than willing to redirect the entire conversation towards a different, more interesting direction. Working with the wonderful Richard Lemarchand and a number of upperclassmen from IMD, we built a wildly detailed and imaginative vision of a realistic future. Certainly one of the more unusual and interesting weekends of the year.

Aside from that, I’ve found myself doing an incredible number of things with some awesome friends. I’ve competed at the 2013 Global Game Jam, watched The Who in concert at LA Live, met Nolan Bushnell -the father of digital gaming, as well as Louis Zamperini -a personal hero of mine, attended a screening of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World with the cast and director, danced to experimental interactive digital installation artwork, got an article published on Gamasutra, set out plans for an innovative new gaming channel, and unsuccessfully attempted to crash a virtual world’s economy.

I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.
I had an idea for a photobombing game. This is us prototyping it.

Ludus Florentis.

Maybe this is the best time in history to enter gaming. A confluence of bold new ideas, and a consumer base hungry for something different welcomes an incredible disruption to preconceived notions of what the game industry represents. The big ships of today are beginning to reach over to academia, game jam, and the indie communities, indicating that having the most open, accessible platform will determine the outcome of the next console cycle, which will mean only incredible good for our medium. Being part of an incredible community at USC Games, I live amongst the friends, mentors, and infections energy that will enact that change we wish to see in the world.

Richard Lemarchand referred to our present moment as a “ludic renaissance” at a division meeting. Self-centered concerns about this career aside, I can’t wait to see the outcome of this chapter in history.

A tidal wave has come, let’s ride it.

Pictures I Took Recently

Wow, has it seriously been three months since I last did a photography post?

Down Market Street in San Francisco
Down Market Street in San Francisco
This shot has probably been done before. But I shot it.
This shot has probably been done before. But I shot it.
More dramatic shot from Market Street
More dramatic shot from Market Street
Looking down Hope St. in Los Angeles. Wish I shot this on film.
Looking down Hope St. in Los Angeles. Wish I shot this on film.
My friend Zach on the road trip up to GDC (I think I had a post planned for that)
My friend Zach on the road trip up to GDC (I think I had a post planned for that)
Whoa. Lights.
Whoa. Trippy.
Installation piece at the Rhythms and Visions event at USC.
Installation piece at the Rhythms and Visions event at USC.
Codeveloper Allison after a Reality Ends Here development meeting.
Codeveloper Allison after a Reality Ends Here development meeting.
Jenova Chen at the 5D Worldbuilding Conference at USC
Jenova Chen at the 5D Worldbuilding Conference at USC
My good friends Catherine and Esteban simultaneously photobombing my picture of the wall.
My good friends Catherine and Esteban simultaneously photobombing my picture of the wall.
Comics booth at the LA Times Festival of Books.
Comics booth at the LA Times Festival of Books.
Mudd Hall of Philosophy at USC. I like the little cloister they have here.
Mudd Hall of Philosophy at USC. I like the little cloister they have here.
Little hidden library I discovered before class.
Little hidden library I discovered before class.
The Who
The Who

Stuff I’ve Been Playing Recently

I’ve been doing games a lot recently. A lot of them are good, some of them are bad. A lot of them are digital console games, others are not.

First up was The Walking Deadthis is a narrative point and click adventure game and one of the most surprisingly amazing things I’ve played in recent memory.

The Walking Dead

The point-and-click adventure game is hard to understand as a game designer due to its lack of emergence. When I work with games, I try to design systems that allow for players to develop skills within systems of interesting rules that are conducive to meaningful play, in other words, one can be good at a game. It means something to be good at a shooter, and it means something to be good at a platformer or a fighting game. What then does it mean to be good at a point-and-click adventure game? After all, success at this kind of game amounts to little more than rehearsing a predetermined set of actions until players reach the end. Pick up that, give it to him, push that, talk to him. If the point-and-click adventure  game allows for such little player choice within its mechanics, why then is The Walking Dead  so damn compelling?

Maybe its because narrative is so crucial to the player’s enjoyment of this kind of game. Rules of Play defines something called cognitive interactivity, which is “the psychological, emotional, and intellectual participation between a person and a system”. The framed narrative of the point-and-click adventure game imbues the predetermined set of actions needed to progress with meaning. Every puzzle we solve by combining and using objects in the game world is woven with our emotional investment in the characters of the game.

Which makes The Walking Dead a narrative tour-de-force unlike anything I’ve ever seen from a game. Yes, The Walking Dead features only rudimentary dialogue trees and simplistic puzzles. Why the hell then was I moved to tears at the end?

Its because The Walking Dead is realistic with its narrative situations, while dialogue trees in other games provide only binary decisions with clear-cut notions of good and evil, and tie these decisions into mechanics by rewarding or punishing them accordingly, The Walking Dead does no such thing. All important narrative decisions have clearly negative consequences, and are timed, imbuing each of its five episodes with a dramatic tension unseen in the best of games. Making moral decisions becomes not a question of what’s right and wrong, but rather a question of who doesn’t get hurt.

Lee and Clementine

The Walking Dead has players leading a band of survivors on an adventure to escape a zombie-infested Georgia while tasked with protecting the life of a little girl named Clementine. Moral decisions come down to making choices about what kind of leader one wants to be: will you try to be idealistic and inspirational or calculating with the distribution of the party’s extremely limited resources? Will you be able to put aside emotional prejudices in the name of fairness even when members of your group threaten to subvert the integrity of the entire party? Moral questions change from questions of good and evil to decisions about who doesn’t get hurt. Your choices aren’t accompanied by fanfare. No paragon or renegade points are rewarded, karma isn’t gained or lost, the game simply takes note of your decision, nods stoically, and adjusts the narrative accordingly.

And how invested in the narrative you’ll be. The Walking Dead is a taxing game, not on the player’s cognitive functions (the game’s puzzles are simple), but rather on their emotional capacity. By the end of Lee and Clementine’s adventure, I was exhausted and tired from buffet of difficult narrative decisions and the jagged road of betrayals, confused motivations, and sacrificial redemptions. Even if I was simply enacting a scripted set of actions to get to the end of the game, I was emotionally invested in everything that I did in that game.

So what else did I play? Well for one, Super Hexagon represents probably the purest manifestation of the action game that I’ve seen in a while. Its short play sessions are perfect for casual play, and I find myself repeatedly playing the game over and over again, eschewing much more sophisticated play. I often myself tired after long days and unable to muster the effort to consume a big new AAA experience, Super Hexagon is a natural go-to game when I’m afflicted with this apathy.

Super Hexagon

I also had to play through Bioshock, The Binding of Isaac, and Frozen Synapse for my introductory game studies class. Unlike how I’d play other games, I focused on “reading” these games using the Nick Montfort model of game analysis. Its a cool, formalized and academic model for understanding video games at a deeper level. Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this generation, and having the opportunity to replay it, and study it at a deeper level, was a pleasant surprise. Returning to the game after having a deeper knowledge of the economic and philosophical ideas going into the game made the game’s social commentary all the more interesting. The Binding of Isaac was a interesting rouge like that incorporated elements of shooters, which would probably be fantastic once I get bored of FTL. Frozen Synapse plays like a Super Hexagon for a strategy game, easy to pick up and play in those moments of apathy.

And there’s The Unfinished Swan. I’ve been making a concentrated effort to play more of IMD’s (or IMGD, or thatgameschool’s) games. The Unfinished Swan was an adorable first-person puzzle game with a brilliantly pronounced visual style, a telling of a cute children’s story, and made interactive. Its video-game comfort food, a game that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and loved inside. Upon discovering more of the unfinished kingdom, or seeing a cool new gameplay mechanic be introduced, I found myself grinning gleefully. Try it out, especially if you enjoyed Journey.

I most recently began playing Botanicula, its also adorable and will make you squee with joy. Great use of sound in that game.