Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Game Design Research Orgy

Obsidian's Chris Avellone, guest-posting on David Edery's fine Game Tycoon, has some interesting things to say about game design research. He gets to research the Alien universe for to make a game thereof, the lucky bugger. Anyhow, I left a huge, rambling comment on it, repeated here just to slow down the IntarWebs:

This is great stuff, Chris. I’m absolutely in agreement with you about the importance of expanding your frame of reference. There are already enough games made out of bits of other games, TV made from more TV, movies made of elements of movies. My feeling is that most geeks/devs don’t need much encouragement to keep on consuming the media they’re already into, but need as much encouragement as they can get to start checking out new stuff, especially when it’s old stuff: history, literature, visual arts, let alone news coverage, scientific research or, gulp, Real Life.

You make some excellent points here and your illustrations would drive me mad with envy if they didn’t make me giggle so much, but I’d emphasize the difference between raw data and usable knowledge. For me, it’s part of what separate Pro’s from Paying Punters – Paying Punters point and clap at the puppet show; Pro’s get themselves backstage and work out which string pulls which limb. I don’t think people need much more practice at remembering the Cool Bits from games and movies and TV shows, but almost everyone needs more practice in working out why they’re cool, what it is about that technical solution that made it better than another, how was it put together, and what was so compelling about its presentation: the What isn’t as important as the Why and How.

For instance, why did New-Monster-Every-Week one-or-two-episode morality play SciFi TV series like Star Trek and Doctor Who come up with the Transporter beam and the Tardis respectively? To what production problem was that the solution? Why didn’t they go with an expensive but heavily repeated sequence to get their protagonists to and from their weekly new locations, like Thunderbirds? The relative production costs of a single special effect shot compared to a three-minute model montage will tell you more than any retro-con backstory explanation.

So my addendum to your advice to budding devs is to take all the games, TV shows and movies they love, and see those finished works not as monolithic blocks of Cool, but as a consequence of a series of design, direction and production decisions, decisions that can be analysed and reverse-engineered. Steal from the very best, I say! Just learning a few of the technical terms used by screenwriters, storyboard artists, directors, coders, sound designers, composers, actors and developers will give you more insight than memorizing every line of dialogue in every episode of every season of every franchise of StarTrek. Technical language is a kind of toolkit that lets you build something new, not just repeat something old. Knowing every episode featuring the character Data is just, well…data.

Being able to analyse the Cool Bits doesn’t mean you appreciate them less, quite the reverse – it makes the Cool Bits cooler. As an example, take the famous lots-of-short-shots montage technique pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. Every movie nerd will be able to tell you about the famous Odessa Steps sequence in The Battleship Potemkin, and most will know that Brian DePalma recreated it almost shot-for-shot for the train station shootout scene in The Untouchables (even the Great steal from the Best). The more I read about the critical theory that built up around Eisenstein’s technique, the more I appreciated his achievement, and dug the visual syntax of cinema, and how long and broad a shadow it casts on all subsequent movie and TV editing. But this was as nothing compared to the slack-jawed awe I felt when I found out that it was his work-around for a potentially show-stopping production problem: only very short lengths of filmstock were available at the time, so he invented a way of telling stories with very short shots. That’s not just smart, that’s flaming, strobing genius! Future developers, be inspired!

"Fornicate, Using Your Actual Genitals"

Unimprovable, as is the Increase and Persist letter he was sent by Second Life's lawyers.
OK, it was actually "Proceed and Permitted", but that doesn't scan as well. As ever, the rule of thumb with misquotations is that they have better rhythm and internal rhymes than the actual factual verbatim: e.g. "Me Tarzan, You Jane", "Elementary, My Dear Watson"," Play It Again Sam". If if does not have that swing, it does not mean a thing. Which reminds me of the awesome Dave Barry's Rhythmic Test For Political Affiliation: sing and clap along to "Hit The Road, Jack". If the result is "Hit the Clap...Clap" you are a Republican, if "Hit the Road - Clap - Jack - Clap", you are a Democraticperson.

(via BoingBoing, as almost all of my online life seems to be)

Sunday, January 28, 2007

There's a reason they're called that

Sloth: 1 Science: 0

Edit: As my wretchedly Funnier-Than-Me friend David points out, the story should be titled "Sloth completes groundbreaking three-year study on human persistence..."

Le Blog Bérubé, we hardly knew ye

On of the defining features of this smoking shambling excuse for a blog is a consistent ability to get around to things far, far too late. While tidying my cyber-shelves, I find this draft claiming it's about time I hooted and pointed at Le Blog Bérubé. So, now, a month after it slipped beneath the waves and the last bubbles popped upon the surface, the time is ripe for me to make grand prancing motions towards it. Obviously "introducing" a Koufax winner (OK, runner-up) to my non-existent readership is akin to dramatically disclosing the existence of Nelson's Column to Londoners, or the night sky or the tendency of things to fall towards the earth, but that's pretty much the purpose of BongoLudo - tardily re-exposing what everyone already knew with a queeny gasp and antic gestures of profound revelation.

Setting aside Bérubé's new opus "What's Liberal About The Liberal Arts?", let me count my debts to him and his "web" "log". Pre-Firstly and leastly, he did me a permanent solid by using the term "The InterNets" (instantly misappropriated and bandied about by me, here and elsewhere), but he provides an enviable Trifecta of webbery.

Firstly, Bérubé is a proponent of pointy-headed Literary Theory who actually appears to love books, and literature. This has proved a massive challenge to me, my clothes still shredded and smoking from my escape from the Clutches of Theory, but I hope I'm man enough to not actually change any of my cherished beliefs and admit there might be something to it.

Secondly, he's an actual participant in what I don't really want to think of as being the front lines of the culture wars - entering into disputation with various luminaries I don't want to specify, because naming calls, you understand? (said with squinty eyes, like Kevin McNally in the wretched Pirates Of The Caribbean cash dairy infomercials), thus actually doing what hardly any folks dare do - stop rolling their eyes, roll up their sleeves and actually engage in debate/abuse/parcheesi.

And thirdly, lastly, and by no means leastly, as well as the Byzantine politics and back-lit lit crit, he write enormously touching accounts of his life as the proud parent of Jamie, a smashing sounding urchin who has Down's syndrome. Nice to see that his other offspring Nick gets the odd mention also.

The Jamie stuff has me piping my eyes and emitting strange sighs and I can't add anything evey remotely useful. The added piquancy, I guess, is that Bérubé is a fully-fledged Literary Theory Person, a species I'd given up all hopes of being inspired by. I speak from a veritable pedestal of ignorance: my grip on po-mo literary theory is akin to that of a pair of tin sugar tongs on the pelt of a galloping mammoth – it simply affords insufficient purchase for any useful purpose. His blog is the first thing I've read that made my check my headlong flight, if not actually retrace my steps or meekly submit my neck to the yoke again.

Anyway, kudos, au revoir and thanks to the Bérubatollah. The web's a duller (if faster) place without ye.

Does not suffice...

I can't be the only one viewing the brou, ha and other ha over Blood Diamond and the ice cartel's Chris Morris-esque self-parody and then pointing mutely at The Atlantic's 1982 article Have You Ever Tried To Sell A Diamond? Odd to think of diamonds as semi-precious stones completely unconnected to notions of love or devotion. Surely one of the greatest marketing successes since St Paul Inc.?

T'Atlantic has a roundup of their ice coverage here, which leads one to hop skip jump via Anil Dash and Cory Doctorow to the NY Post's alps-atop-alps horror-beyond-horror story on the amputee extras used in the movie being stiffed by Warner Bros. Sometimes I think this is what the internet is for.