Sunday, October 30, 2005

Reality versus virtual.

So which one's more real?

Yesterday the Weather Guy at the station I work in comes up to me and says "My sources tell me you've got a blog. I'm going to investigate and confirm if this is true or not." Without thinking I tell him just to visit and he'll be redirected to it. I actually regret it. The accusatorial tone in which he said "My sources tell me you've got a blog." was hilarious. It's like he's just discovered some hidden treasure. (Maybe he was expecting pages of me crying about high school and dark poetry?) I guess I should've at least let him feel like he 'discovered' something, rather than leading the way. Ah well, sorry Chris. But it's okay pal, you're a solid cat.

I never really gave much thought to someone I know in real life finding this. It doesn't bother me; rather it's interesting. It brings up that whole debate of self versus virtual self. CmdrTaco of Slashdot fame had quite an interesting experience himself the other day.

Blizzard said he couldn't use 'CmdrTaco' as his name. That's a shame. Who am I, if not Jeffool?

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Wideload Games' Alexander Seropian

I told a pal of mine "Dude, Alexander Seropian said he'd answer a few questions for me!" He responded with "Who?" and I wept a solitary tear.

Okay, not really. I sighed heavily and said "Damn it... He made Bungie. Y'know. Folks who did Halo? Then he dumped that and made another company, Wideload Games and just released Stubbs the Zombie." Of course then my pal went "Ohhhh." (Of course a Mac-loving friend of mine's jaw hit the floor when I told him that.)

1. On a scale of 1 to 'hippopotamus,' how was working on Stubbs and how was your foray into studio-model game production?
Alexander Seropian: For the most part I'd say full out hippo. Launching a brand new company, business model, and game at the same time is a big challenge, but we had a lot of fun and we learned a lot. Apart from the really long hours at some times, it was a blast.

Personally, I set out to build a work environment that's focused on being creative and the business model that supports it. We've done that, but we still have a lot of potential to fill. I'm looking forward to taking Wideload to the next level.
2. Do you think that the studio model will become the norm, or will it remain an alternative production model?
AS: Yes, I think so. Games will continue to get more expensive and complicated to produce and the quality/accessibility bar will continue to rise. Both of those reasons are big drivers for the Wideload production model. Will every studio be set up like mine? No. But I think most studios will begin using some of our techniques.
3. Every project has its own setbacks and challenges. Did the studio model help easy any difficulties in the process, or produce any new ones that you'll know about next time?
AS: Our model enabled a lot of things for us. But of course, this project wasn't without its hiccups :) The obvious big wins or us were the things we foresaw - being able to work with talent without restriction to location. Avoiding a fifty person overhead. Being able to switch up personnel quickly. There were lots of subtle things that we didn't expct - like how much work it is to get accurate bids, things like that.
4. What is the size of your core team at Wideload, and how does your team break down by field?
AS: The core team is about a dozen evenly split between programmers, designers, and artists.
5. Were those your starting numbers, or did you ever need to change the team size to better suit the project?
AS: The core team has been consistent throughout the project.
6. As a developer who's doing something completely different in the means of production, have you considered also trying alternative means of distribution (Steam, etc.)?
AS: Yes we did, but I felt like there were only so many of those groundbreaking nuts we should try to crack at once.
7. Recently Stephen Spielberg signed a deal to work with Electronic Arts on three games. ( Do you think that, aside from a development model, there are things that games can learn from films?
AS: Absolutely. Film is an ancient form of entertainment compared to videogames. Film can teach us a lot about storytelling. One thing that we tried to do from the beginning was to make writing an important part of our development process. It's amazing how important good writing is and how catastrophic crappy dialog can be to the whole experience in film or games.
8. Gaming is an industry that's largely publisher branded. Do you think that the attachment of a popular name like Spielbergs will draw attention away from the designers/developers who will actually be making the game?
AS: I'd say no. Regardless of Spielberg's involvement, games bearing his name will be judged on the one thing that matters: how fun is it? From that perspective, I really hope they team him up with some talented game designers. I think that will be the telling part of the equation.

The film studios have tried to make games many times without much success. Game making is a different literacy from film. I'm guessing spielberg understands that fact considering he sold off Dreamworks Interactive long ago and is getting back in through a partnership with EA.

Much love to Alexander Seropian. He was a swell fellow to bother answering my curiosities. For the record, this was actually intended to go along with Corvus' "Blogs of the Round Table" which usually kicks out pretty good articles. I've intended to participate in them all, but have never quite gotten that 'timing' thing down.

And for the record, I'm going to start calling cool things 'hippo'. "That is so hippo."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Help me catch up?

Okay, so after being offline for about a month, I've been trying to catch up with all the stuff I've missed. The two that really have my attention thus far have been the Revolution controller and Greg Costikyan putting his money where his heart is, in Manifesto Games. Talk about something truly commendable.

So, while I'm going back and reading the (literally) hundreds of blog posts I missed, is there anything as equally 'wow'-ing that I'm leaving out?

Monday, October 10, 2005

An 'update' post.

Y'know the type. The kind that just tells you that I finally have a computer again, though my AIMing will be sparse while my brother and I fight about the computer. I have no doubt that by now my coding abilities have gone to poop. (Try as I may to stay abreast by reading and thinking programming.) And while re-learning to ride that bicycle, I've decided to punish myself by entering NaNoWriMo. Anyone else out there getting into it?

For anyone who doesn't know, NaNoWriMo stands for 'National Novel Writing Month'. It's more or less a genius idea someone had to get tons of money by motivating people to write a ton. But it looks fun. The idea is to register on the site and starting November 1st, write a 50,000k novel by the end of the month. Now the question is which obviously-plotted story do I want to write? The zombie novel, the quarter-life-crisis novel, or the
post-apocalyptic one? Ahhh, decisions decisions.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

RussianRocket Rendezvous

I'm still not 'back online', but I've grabbed a few moments to check email here and there, which is where this comes from.

The games industry is a small world after all. Within a few clicks you can get from any blog/forum to any other blog/forum. Taking advantage of this I've asked questions of many people I've met, and struck up friendships with others. Hell, one or two have offered me a helping hand and for that I'm appreciative. One thing that I've heard about constantly is the industry's insane turn-over rate, so I asked around. People get burned out and just plain pissed off at the industry. Sometimes for the same reasons that gamers get angry, but sometimes a bit more personal.

And it's on that note that I present a few questions I asked a developer for a rather well known studio. I hate the thought of anyone catching any flack over their honest opinion, so I offered the developer anonymity. But to their credit they answered my questions and said that they didn't need it. They believed what they said and didn't think any of it was malicious or false, and I quite agree. But I'd hate never forgive myself if they caught any flak at all, so I'm choosing to go ahead and give them anonymity anyway. You've likely played a WWII FPS game this person has worked on, and another WWII FPS they worked on is coming out soon. I knew going in that this person wasn't completely happy with the industry, so we talked about why.

1. How and why did you get into games?

RussianRocket: I can't recall exactly what the titles were, but i remember the first time i discovered video games. I was very young and I was hooked from the first moments of just watching other people playing them. After that, besides school of course ;) hehe, my days as a kid were based around video games. Years later i acquired my top-of-the-line 200 mhz PC, and with it a copy of Duke Nukem 3D and Quake. I played both games to no end. I completely admired both of those titles, but Quake felt and looked so different. The ambiance, the music, the gameplay, the look and feel, excellent multiplayer; everything about it was so engaging that it pretty much monopolised my time. And that is when i became aware of the mod community and was introduced to a level editor for quake called Qoole. That same feeling when I played a video game for the first time, was back. So, I spent countless hours tooling around with the editor and building levels that made no sense really, hehe. But, just the thought that I now had a capability to make and place my own levels into a game world was incredibly exciting. That was the point where I realized that this was what I wanted to do for a career and that one day I would achieve that goal.

2. Do you have any tips for those of us who would like to get into gaming, as someone who made it?

Yes. Decide on on area of main interest, for example 2D/3D art, level design and building, concept art, programming, etc. Decide on what you really want to focus on and do just that; focus on it. You can find the tools and lessons you need to begin online and/or at a good book store. You do not need a college degree but, you do have to be very proficient in your expertise if you want to break into the game industry. It is not easy to get into this industry without experience, so having an impressive portfolio of work (be it personal projects, mod community work, or freelance) is a must, in my opinion. I suggest including only your best work. So, until you feel like you have reached a point where your stuff is close to industry quality, keep it to yourself. Once you are happy with your collection of work, make a simple yet professional resume, (you can find templates online) and start applying. Your big break will most likely not find you, so be prepared to spend some time looking for it. Keep practicing and improving in the meantime and if you are dedicated enough and have even the slightest bit of talent, then you have a good chance of succeeding :)

3. You've made it clear to me that you're not completely happy with the state of the games industry. Is this a feeling shared by many people around you in the industry?

Absolutely. Almost everyone I work with is pretty unhappy with the state of the games industry, seeing as how it used to be, and how it is degenerating in the present. A good friend and a co-worker of mine that got hired at the same time as I did, is very much contemplating leaving the games industry for something else. That is a bummer because just about 2 years ago, this was his dream.

4. Often in games when a team of developers becomes known for something, that's what they do. Over and over. For instance, id software does FPS'. Tiburon does Madden. Rockstar North does GTA. From what you've told me, I assume you started wanting "a job in games" so you could share your art via games. Not necessarily "a long-term job working on WWII FPS'." As someone who wants to get into the industry myself, I must admit that the prospect of success is pretty damn scary. How do you deal with it?

Success is a good thing, don't let it scare you. I feel fortunate to be where I am, working with the people that I work with. If you ever feel like you are just being completely held down by being restricted to doing the same type of content, then you can always apply somewhere else. If you are successful at what you do, then you will most likely get hired somewhere else that currently suits you better. Problem is, that in a couple years you might be in the same situation with your new company as you were with your old one. Success is definitely a good thing, the bad part is that if you really like the people you work with, the place where you live, the weather, etc., you really might not want to move companies and states and sometimes even countries. That to me is the biggest scare. You start to enjoy where you live and your co-workers become like a second family. It is hard to leave that behind for a question mark of what this new company and location might hold in store for you. This of course, is only my opinion and my outlook; you might feel differently.

5. For all this talk of being stuck in a category, some companies have been able to break the mold they themselves built. Neversoft first got my attention with Spider-Man, then repeatedly stole my heart with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (boo THUG!), but are now making their western 'Gun.' Blizzard made Warcraft into an MMO. The rumor is that EA didn't like Will Wright's The Sims at first, but he's Gaming's Spielberg. We don't know what he's going to make, but we do know it will have that Wright-air about it. And we know that it will make most other games out there feel like small potatoes. And Sid Meier appears to have the ability to put his name on any box cover he pleases. Are developers like these the future of gaming, or are they just a small faction of game development rockstars that can break the rules "just because?"

These guys get to do their own thing because they have earned the right and the respect to do it. They have proven that they know what they are doing and they will get it done, and more often then not, it will pay off, big time. I believe that with time, more of these "game gods" will emerge and gain enough of a rep to be able to lead their own thing with their own ideas for the most part. While we might see more developers like Will Wright, who have tremendous talent and the ability to think outside-the-box with the means to execute their visions, I do not believe there will be too many of them in the future.

6. Film and recording artists constantly drop bombs. Hollywood had a horrible summer. While I understand games are not yet on that level, in the games industry we often hear that the budget of 'millions of dollars' for a game that takes three years to develop is too much to gamble on new untested ideas. I know that you're not in charge of finances for a company, but as a developer, do you think that the claim that 'taking chances can be too cost prohibitive' holds water?

While I can go pick out hand fulls of recent video games that are complete bombs, you are right in the regard that video games do not yet have horrible quarters of time as a whole. Within those games that will be considered junk, you may still find a good collection of new, quality titles which will keep you interested and busy for sometime. Now, most of these titles will probably be FPSs or RPGs, sport titles, etc. So, there might not be much innovation but still fun and refined gameplay to be had. Now, to answer your question :) I don't believe the claim that taking a chance on a new, original idea is too cost prohibitive for a major publisher. I'm sure everyone is aware that only the big boys of publishing are still thriving in the games industry. I don't think that a big publisher, which pulls in millions and millions of dollars in profit per successful title, not to mention per year, would be hurt by an unsuccessful try at an original idea here and there. It is not too uncommon for a publisher to do this. Look at Neversoft and their try with GUN. Here you have a team of developers and producers that proved themselves with numerous successful, shipped titles, and now they get this new opportunity. It would be nice if this happened more often and not only after 4 or so proven attempts at the same thing to show that "Hey, we have the talent, we have what it takes. Let us do something that wont have us falling asleep at our workstations with the feeling of 'been there done that', now i have to do it again..." :) If you want your developers to work at their full potential. Do not pigeon-hole them in a cycle of rehashed ideas and content.

7. Do you feel that you're consistently able to achieve your full artistic potential when you're forced to use someone else's IP?

Yes, as long as I am not working on, oh lets say a WW2, FPS shooter over and over and over again :) I can't reach full potential unless I get to dip into different genres. If I can't completely do my own thing but, if I get to work on a variety of different genres, then I think I would be pretty damn happy with my career.

8. My blog is 'Outside Looking In'. As you are 'in' the industry, is there anything you care to share that us 'outsiders' might not see that this interview hasn't touched on?

I just want to add that even with the negative changes the games industry has undergone in the past years, it is still a very satisfying experience if you truly dream about making it in. Seeing a game that I helped develop on the shelves and knowing that many people will play it and hopefully enjoy it, is very satisfying. If you know you would share that feeling, then the games industry is definitely for you. Don't give up on it, be persistent, practice, and you will get there.