Software Consultancy as a Scapegoat

I find it interesting that the idea of being a “consultant” is being bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if those who are that, are something less than good. A corrupting force, no less. Based on my experience, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of them, but it’s no different than the overall programmer cadre at large.

The whole point, to my mind, of the Agile Manifesto is that it’s a set of personal practices that may scale to team level. You do not need a consultant to show you how to do that. It may help to have someone facilitate, but you do not need a consultant. And yet immediately what happened was that everyone and their dog hung out an Agile shingle and the whole thing turned into a branding exercise. – Dave Thomas

Perhaps I’m reading too much into that passage, but he continues down that vein for the rest of the interview. Why does the employment status of a programmer matter? Consultant just means not permeant employee. Income reported on a 1099-MISC, not on a W-2. OK, not in the case of corporate consultants like an Accenture. Having direct exposure to those sorts of working arrangements, I can see how one could come to the conclusion that the quality of people added to your team by those large-scale companies could be quite low.

Like adding a bunch of hucksters, really.

But that’s something different, isn’t it? Because you if you add just one single poor programmer to your team, regardless of motivation, you’re going to lower your productivity, your quality, and efficiency. Adoption of Agile, as a goal, is tangential to that.

Bad brings more bad. Don’t hire bad – regardless of how you pay them.

What’s interesting in Thomas’s account is the view that Agile was a personal practice. Implicit is a personal way of orienting oneself towards a development process that accepts, even welcomes, change. – Andrew Binstock

I agree with this wholeheartedly. When asked what do you prioritize when hiring programmers my answer always starts with flexibility, by which I mean that practice. When asking that same question while hiring, that’s one of the key things I must hear.

However, I do not agree with the point that it must be a personal practice – to which I take to mean something which must come from within. Be discovered on one’s own. Applied first internally and solo before integration into a larger whole.

Horse radish.

The ability to learn from others is a base feature of human beings. Monkey see, monkey do. And through the doing – comprehension. You can change teams by temporarily adding people to them. They can introduce new ideas, practices, and shift the culture – and then leave. It happens every time you add or subtract a person from a group, whether you want it to or not. People come. People go.

Think through the inevitable changes and handle them well. Change, at both the team level AND the personal, are constant. Press toward the good and away from the bad.

That’s what matters. Not the superficial aspects of financial arrangements, branding, or permanent vs. temporary.

Got some feedback and need to emphasize a thing or two. I don’t have a high opinion of consultants. By that I mean, in my uncharacteristically diplomatic way, on average I think they’re a menace to the safety and well-being of any and every codebase everywhere.

Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one who was totally worth it – even though he was a consultant for purely selfish and mercantile reasons. He got done what others couldn’t, but we sure as hell didn’t want him around long term. The project we were working on, the launch of, failed for reasons other than that, but had we continued down that path… It would have become a serious risk to team cohesion, morale, and overall capability.

Interestingly, that was also my exposure to a large-scale consultant driven development process. At least a third of the development team was provided by an external contractor so every team had a substantial consultant base. A vast majority of them were a complete waste of space, let alone effort. (In fact, my finest hour on that project was cutting the Gordian Knot that they had turned our deployment process into.)

To recap: The average programmer is bad and the average consultant is worse. However, you can find the rare one who’s a perfect addition to the team, but only for a limited while. I guarantee you that there are people who jones on changing team culture and practices, who are really good at it, and who you don’t want to have part of your team forever (even if you could talk them into it.)

Queue Freebird… (Great song. Just need to lift the needle off the record in the middle.)

Warren Spector – Lecture 6 w/Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc

Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc

Work History:

  • BlueSky/Looking Glass
  • Origin
    ** Ultima Underworld
    ** Underworld 2
    ** System Shock
    ** Flight Unlimited
    ** Terra Nova:Strike Force Centauri
  • Ion Storm
    ** Thief
    ** System Shock 2
    ** Deus Ex
    ** Thief 2
    ** Visual Concepts – Sports Games
    ** NFL 2K2, NBA 2K2, NCAA Football 2K3
  • Mind Control Software
    ** Oasis
    ** Field Commander
  • Casual Games
    ** Stomping Grounds
    ** Arrrrrr!
    Spector met him when he was finishing up his MIT Masters degree and play testing games.
    Teacher, Lecturer, Writer, SMoG (Secret Master of Gaming)

Question: “What in your background prepared you for a career in gaming?”

Only child. Didn’t play a lot of games as a little kid. Played D&D. Played in the cell of the original town hall from the 1850’s.

Question: “All board games all the time?”

A lot of digital games once I got access to a computer in elementary school. [Boy is this a familiar story. For him it was an Apple II, for me it was a Commodore Pet.]

Question: “Was that the point where you transition from being a player to creator?”

None of the teachers knew what they were doing with it. People could just take a pass and go use the computer for whatever. They had no comprehension. [One could argue that most still don’t…]

First game was a Steve Jackson melee thing (fight and run.) Lunar Lander clone.

“Steve Jackson makes such wonderful roleplaying games, but once you get to combat it slows way down. A 15 second combat encounter takes three hours to play. I’ve always felt they should be on the computer.” – Spector [Paraphrased]

Question: “Cutting classes. Making up games… MIT?”

Was a huge Infocom fan. Zork, Planetfall, etc. They were an MIT startup. Wrote a Infocom parser. Better than most of their games. His english language parser turned into his science project. Tried to get a job there, but never heard back from them. Got him interested in AI. At the time, everyone thought strong AI was just around the corner. Used a taxonomy based approach (animals have hair, etc.)

Went straight from Basic to Lisp. Learned Pascal, some C, Prolog, Smalltalk, basic Assembly. [Interestingly, that’s Paul Graham’s list of languages almost exactly.]

Question: “I had expectations as to what working with a team of MIT team of students would be like. I’ve noticed how well-rounded they were. (At least the ones I’ve interacted with.) How real-world oriented they were – entrepreneurial. Is there something about MIT’s approach which fosters that culture?”

The CS department is in the Engineering department, not Math at MIT. [Long diatribe on the specifics of x32 programming. Answer diverged from original question.] MIT does give you a lot of perspective into the hardware as opposed to a math-based ciriculum.

Question: “One thing that amazed me about Blue Sky/Looking Glass was how strong and coherent a culture it had. That’s not to say you guys all got along. Screaming at the top of people’s lungs very frequently. I want to talk about the toxic and inspiring culture of Looking Glass in a minute. Did you guys all meet at a dorm? Doug Church. Tim Felman. Dan Schimdt. James Fleming. Moby Games is your friend, go look them up.”

Here’s the real story: Paul Shawcross used to run a D&D game. Right around the time when that happening, one of the other player’s had an uncle who was starting a game company. Doug Church left MIT for there. Once that connection got made, a giant long chain of nepotism. Friends. Boyfriends. They just kept pulling in MIT people.

Question: “Many of you started working at Blue Sky. Ended up living at the same house.”

Three guys at Looking Glass had forgotten to buy the heating oil for the winter. When they move, they get a few more people. Grew to 10 folks. Became “the house of 10 dumb guys”.

“Saw my 1st chia-pet there. Had my first hot mountain dew with with marshmallows. (Hot molten dew.) All of the machines were named. Had to name my machine before you guys would talk to me.” – Spector
At MIT, all of the computers had DNS names with formal names. If you weren’t part of one of those clusters, you could name them as whatever you want. Themed names per group. Status symbol.

Question: “Looking Glass culture was toxic and inspired. An yet great games came out of that studio? Is that an accurate assessment of the culture?”

It was very youthful and energetic. Basically of a particular MIT campus culture. Everyone assumes you’re smart. Who did the work first got to decide how the work was done. It’s all about fighting to have your vision. Collective ambition.

“Driven by passion and respect. Incredible. Spent the last 15 years trying to recreate that somehow.” – Spector
Some of that has to do with the time and place. A group that size and inexperienced could make a game. It really was the college startup energy. Actual ones. Not just games.

It’s not just MIT. If you have an opinion you’re supposed to rant, march, protest. Very much a speak out and express your passion kind of culture. That’s the base culture required. [This is not modern day American college culture for damn sure. Way too much groupthink. Downright Orwellian. He’s disconnected ]

Question: “Read Warren Bennis: The Secrets of Great Groups. Have you left that behind personally? Are you still trying to find that passion that adversarial group?”

There’s more of a constant struggle to keep the well full when I was just a kid. Some stuff I would gladly leave behind. Better communicator now.

Question: “You’ve worked on a huge variety of games at many companies. Are you a big company guy? Little company?”

Right now, I’m a little company guy. Easier to find the energy and passion similar to Looking Glass. There’s little agility in today’s games. The production schedules are so long. Pipelines are so deep. The small games experience is pretty charming.

In small games there’s an embarrassments of riches.

Question: “For all of the roles you play, you’ve been a critical resource on the games you’ve worked on. Yet, you haven’t had that Project Director title.”

Brief period where he was the creative, technical, and everything lead on a project. 6-9 months for a prototype. They didn’t pick it up after.

Question: “What does that say about the nature of authorship. Does it mater?”

It’s a who care sort of thing. I’m not a game designer. I’m a game re-designer. Recognizes what’s good about a high concept and turns it into a little nugget of fun.

Question: “Do you think we’ve see a Mark LeBlanc game?”

Oasis is basically that. There is a AAA game he hopes to do some day. A lot like the prototype one canceled. The Game Design Workshop he runs at GDC is the Mark LeBlanc game.

Question: “You do game every system. Including life systems. That’s one of the qualities of all game designers.”

[Series of insider references.]

Question: “You have said many times: I hate the word fun.”

First, it’s vague. Second, it’s this trump card which allows people to turn their brain off. Ends discussions. It makes game design too mystical. Humanistic mystery. Limits our ability to think about games as purely objects of entertainment. Would a cathartic game be fun? [I wager he’s following this: Critical Proximity.]

Question: “Senet?”

One of the oldest games in the world. Played for 3 thousand years in Egypt. Precursor to Backgammon. Spaces on the board start to get names based on Egyptian gods. If you make it to the end you become one with Ra. Eventually this game takes on religious significance. People start playing this game to determine what their afterlife is going to be like. Every great Pharaoh has one of these games boards in their tomb to help them through it. The game goes from the daily life, two player, game to a religious, single player, game. Like the Tarot except with ultimate stakes.

Fun is an inadequate word to describe that.

Fun allows you to characterize things as kids stuff. Waste of time. Comics are going through the same thing.

Question: “You substituted a taxonomy for fun.”

The 8 kinds of fun. What you’re trying to make the player feel. As a straw man, he has a taxonomy of different ways this is done:

  1. Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy
    Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative Game as drama
  4. Challenge
    Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship
    Game as social framework
  6. Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression
    Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission Game as pastime
    [Read the paper. It’s important. I should do a line-up with Koster’s Theory of Fun & Schell’s Lenses.]

Question: “Are there practical applications of it?”

It’s not part of a process. There’s no checklist for it.

“I think you’re underselling it.” – Spector
I’ve written design documents this way. It’s all about communication when you’re talking with other people about a game. Allows you to focus the conversation on a specific part.

Intuition and Intellect: Deconstructing the Design of Oasis

Oasis is a minesweeper variant with some city-building mechanisms.

Audience questions.

Question: Unintelligible.
Main indicator indicator of difficulty was the ratio of the city populations and the number of barbarians that were doing go come. Proportional to the difficulty level. Some map size tweaking to make the Oasis easier/harder to find, but was a minor effect. On higher difficult levels, there are time constraints. You don’t have enough time to do everything. Even on the lowest difficult level, we wanted that sense of impending doom, so went real-time instead of turn based.

Question: Unintelligible.
Games which inspired it: minesweeper and civilization. [Duh.]

Question: Unintelligible.
Original spark was being the anti-minesweeper. Every click in minesweeper is this moment of peril. Wanted to have the inverse.

Question: Tangible metrics to tune difficulty curve.
We did collect some high level metrics internally. Level # when you finished. Didn’t do rigorous measurement.

Question: Unintelligible.
Oasis compelled him to leave his previous job. Friends game him money to make a specific game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Specific to Oasis. One click failure possible with a plague city. Don’t do this sort of thing. “Bad click causes loss.”

Question: Paper prototyping.
Didn’t do it for this. Small game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Tuned around an arbitrary choice based on tech for board size.

Question: Unintelligible.
Publishers are pushing all kinds of stuff. Example given was a shared leaderboard system used by one of their publisher. Made the game worse. Channels gameplay. The sense of competition reduces freedom. External demands on the game aren’t necessary in the interest of the game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Why not publish the game in java. Didn’t feel comfortable with Java as a toolset. The Java that has a wide install base is really really crappy. [Can you say RuneScape or MineCraft?] At the time, the widely available version was Java 1.1. Thought they could make the game faster, prettier and better by doing it in C++. Partially because that was their background.

Question: Unintelligible.
People were making an uniformed choice about difficulty. Tutorial was mandatory. Unlocking required.

Game specific ancedotes

Ultima Underworld

Suggested that you should be able to a pole & a thread and make a fishing pole. Power of emergent gameplay.

Ultima Underworld 2

Only level design experience. Did the Ice Caves by holding down the mouse and scribbling.

System Shock

Some of his art might be in the game.

Question: “First time the team mushroomed and things got much more specialized. Someone owned the combat system. etc. How did that change the dynamics at Looking Glass?”
Made it more contentious. People had territory which could be horned in on.

It was the Microsoft Word user interface. Everything you could do had an interactive user interface element. Then Doom came out and then there was nothing on the screen. Perfect counter-example.

Flight Unlimited

Worked on stuff not related to the flight simulation. Credited as a pilot.

Terra Nova

Got kicked off it for saying that we’ve been working on this for 4 years and it’s not good yet. “He was bad influence and a naysayer.”

“In retrospect you were right.” – Spector


Underlying code system where designers could specify behavior. Didn’t write directly, simulated it. Gave designers tool-level flexibility. Class Type hierarchy-based.

“Hugely influential. Changed Ion Storm. Midway. Junction Point. When applied appropriately it’s a critical tool to getting that semi-emergent gameplay that we all know and love.” – Spector
Kind of stuff that everyone takes for granted now. [What the hell are they talking about? Don’t get it. Is this just straight OO inheritance or is it something else? There was a reference to Unreal, circa 2007, but it’s not their finite state machine stuff. Reference was between AI & Sound systems. Confusion all around.]

System Shock 2

Favorite the Looking Glass game because he contributed to the least creatively. Was purely technical. So it’s the one he can play as a “player” and enjoy.

Thief 2

Wrote one line of code

Sports Games

Everyone wanted to mimic television. Didn’t want to give you the in-stadium experience. More interested in ways that games are not like TV. Learned a ton.

[Spector is really dismissive of sports games. Why? Sports are as worth as any other game aren’t they? Again and again, turns his nose up at them. Well maybe not that far, maybe he’s just be melodramatic. I REALLY REALLY REALLY wish that more time had been spent on this point. I, for one, LOVED my interactions with EA Sports folks at all levels much more so than anyone from the EA Games side. Night-and-day.]


Took an $80,000 pay cut to make that game.

Field Commander (PSP)

Kind of “interestedly” architected piece of hardware to put it politely. Remote teams in three locations.

Stomping Grounds

Wanted it to be called Andrew Leaker’s Stomping Grounds


Was procrastinating writing code for a different multiplayer game. Found a tool to hook up multiple mice to a computer. Made a bunch of prototype games based on that idea. Cute little game. Should do on-line multiplayer to make it an actual games.

Warren Questions

Question: “Board Games. Electronic Games. How much translates from one to the other?”

Board Games => Electronic Games all of it. They’re all games. Game design is design within constraints. Wants to do a game design session with the NFL to work on the overtime rules. Would want to start a sports league playing basketball using the original rules and then evolve them forward every year to see if they go in a different direction.

Question: “How important is it to be able to program to become a game designer?”

To become a game designer it’s very important. Games in their formal structure are programs. You have to be able to get that procedural logic. Lots of psychology. “If you ask Gabe Newell that’s all you need to know.” Some engineering principals. Math (probability > game theory). Be someone with a broad educations in the classic seven liberal arts. [Warren reacted positivity to that last point.]

Question: “Favorite game”

Digital: Pikmin. XCom. Star Control 2. Archon [WOOT!]. Mail Order Monsters.

Board: Go. Tigris & Euphrates. Caliss.

Question: “Names and concepts. Reiner Knizia.”

Math PhD. Massively prolific. Lord of the Rings:The Confrontation.

Question: “Paul Neurath

Reason why I’m here.

Question: “Burtal Countdown”

Ritual which adds drama to counting up score at the end of the game. Chris Hacker named it as such.

Question: “Rock, Paper, Scissors”

One of the great mysteries of the human mind.

Question: “Simulation and Emulation”

I thrown an object and there is a Newtonian simulator behind it that carries the object through time and space.
Emulation is I click on a doorknob and the door objective, because there is a rule.

Question: “Embedded and Emergent Narrative”

Embedded is the traditional author narrative. Cut scene based.
Emergent is the gameplay and stories that the player find themselves because game designers were kind enough to allow to happen. A soup of events from which narratives can emerge.

Game Center UI and Ratings

Ran across a positive story about Cloud Breaker‘s custom Game Center UI. Sadly, few developers take the time to do this.

Here’s what I wrote in response:

Two reasons come to mind as to why most developers don’t do this:

  1. Doing the Game Center integration, with Apple’s UI, is less work. That approach “wins” when money is tight. Many games are developed on the rockbottom development budgets, so this sort of additional feature is hard to justify especially given the potential trade for additional actual game content. Leaderboards, achievements, etc. are typically (and incorrectly) viewed as outside of core gameplay.
  2. There’s no direct API to “rate” an app, but you can on Apple’s provided Game Center UI. In an App Store where ratings (and to a lessor extent Facebook Likes) are currency of enormous value. Anything that may potentially reduce the likelihood of getting even a single rating is not viewed… favorably.

Until the second issue changes, the first argument won’t even happen because, in most cases, it’d be pointless. The elegance will come once the iOS SDK has the APIs, and only for the most resourced teams (initially.)

Bonus issue: This isn’t that easy to do. Look at your screenshot – there’s at least one critical bug (overlapping text in two places) and, IMO, there needs to be a blur layer or something to make the text more legible because there’s not enough contrast between it and the clouds.

Warren Spector – Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood

Hal Barwood – Movies, Games, Stories



Question: “Where are you from?”

Dartmouth, NH. Got interested in movies early on because his father ran the movie theater. Citzen Kane.

Question: “What from your upbringing…make movies? or make games?”

Our house was filled with board games. Defeated by his brothers mercilessly. He couldn’t go into games when he was young because computers weren’t accessible. He didn’t really understand that games were designed and made by individual people. [Shades of Harvey Smith.]

Question: “You were designing games from when you were a kid. What kind?”

A kind of wooden box with a masonite box. Switches on each side for offense/defense. Football game. Plug jacks into various sockets completed circuits. Hit a bit button to indicate how successful a play way. Separate game board. His friends played it endlessly.

Biggest revelation of games ever experiences: “The inexhaustible depth of scissors, rock, paper. Been fascinated by that ever since.” Airplane, baseball games, etc.

“He’s right – that’s a really powerful idea” – Spector

Question: “How do you go from getting beaten in board games to designing sophisticated electronic games? Education?”

Liberals high school kid. Did well. Fascinated by the idea of robotics. The idea that computers could have it’s own personality. Interested in the fantasy of the thing. Not math or science particularly.

Question: “Did you go to college knowing you were going to do that? or film?”

Went in for the Engineering department. Decided once he got to the school to not do that. Went down painting and drawing path.

Question: “How did you get into animation?”

Puppet animations with stop-motion animation. 2D.

Question: “Brown University to Hollywood?”

Lucky. Did really well in college. About a year and half before he finished, he made some friends who were interested in movies. Made impressionistic documentaries. Interested in editing. One of his art teachers knew James Ivory. Applied to USC Film School. Got married & went to CA.

Question: “Your cohort had impressive people in it.”

List of names, 17:05. Included George Lucas.

Question: “You and Matthew Robbins?”

After film school, he did industrial films (Boeing, NASA). Training movies. Transitioned through commercials into writing.

Question: “Strange process? Don’t pass scripts back & forth.”

It took us 8 shots to get a movie made. 7 Scripts were thrown away. Working in a collaboration as a writer requires you to pay a lot more attention to how things get done. [Good prep for later game development.] Used 3×5 cards tacked on wall with headlines for what the scene was. X does Y to Z. They would shift them around based on the “Acts”. Our collaboration survived because we’d stay in the same room. Turn out the pages jointly.

Question: “That process sounds very close to what I’m doing right now on a game project.”

It’s pretty ordinary for people do it. Final Draft does this.

Question: “How did you get the gig? (Sugarland Express)”

“The tragedy of movies is your best ones doesn’t always get done.” Ripped from the headlines – but Hollywood-ized.

Question: “First thing you did on Sugarland Express was to make an ad?”

That’s the sort of thing you should be doing – otherwise you don’t understand your premise. There are some games which he’s made where he’s wish he did that.

Question: “To Bingo-land Express”

The movie industry is small. You meet a lot of people. Wanted material which could appeal to black audience. His one adaptation from books. He did lots of outside research.

Question: “MacArthur?”

We spent a year doing research. We needed to do it, because it was supposed to be reasonably factual.

Question: “Movies are getting bigger, up to Close Encounters without credit?”

Only 6 movies have his name on them, but he’s contributed to over 30. Better than average. Steve Spielberg had a huge hit in Jaws, so there was no saying no. Helped fix Steve’s script. Example: added Devil’s Tower to the movie. Fixed a bunch of problems. Climax is a moment of wonder and awe, but there is no drama or conclusion. Their idea of putting drama in was adding the return the child at the end. Mash potato scene.

Traded a percentage of the movie for not getting the credit.

Question: “Corvette Summer?”

The idea that someone is interested in Corvette Summer is so flattering. I don’t know how to respond…

Question: “You were the writer and you produced with your partner. How did you decide which role you’d each take?”

It goes back to film school, where he didn’t take the directing course, so he figured he shouldn’t do that. His partner (Mathew) went to film school expressly for that purpose. Ego wasn’t an issue.

Question: “How did you get Mark Hamill?”

It’s an original. Teen age quest movie. Original version very brutal. It was odd any way you think about it. Studio got nervous about how rough it was and he knew Mark through Lucas.

“I about wrote my dissertation on coming of age movies. It’s an under appreciate movie. You should watch it.” -Spector

Question: “Speaking of not particularly under appreciated movies, Drayonslayer. I’m doing what I’m doing because of 7 voyages of Sinbad and Ray Harris (unintelligible)?”

His acolytes worked on my movie.

“Stuff going on about religion. Oppression. Neat stuff.”
Remember that we had a president not quite as wonderful as our current president but doing stuff. Richard Nixon.

“The depth is there. The effects. They were over the top incredible.”
All I can say is I wish I had CGI. Took a lot of time on the set. There is nothing as badly behaved as a rubber dragon. It’s amazing how unlike photographs that movies are. Looking at discrete frames, everything is blurred. When doing animations, you need to worry about this to avoid strobes (i.e. old Disney animations.) The inking and painting would be done in such a way to produce those blurs. [Lots of film technical stuff here which doesn’t connect for me.]

Question: “You seemed 20 years ahead of your time. A film about biological contamination?”

I wish I had more money to get to where we wanted to be. Had $5million not $20million. It was a movie about an chemical which makes people crazy.

Question: “One more film question. In that 1975 interview, you talked about a movie called Clearwater?”

Post apocalyptic setting. Oregon. Group gets together and rebuilds a steam engine and goes out exploring.
Did you ever think about making that a game. 10 years before Road Warrior, it was Road Warrior with a train. (One of Hal’s favorite movies.) Almost got made. Cancelled because of money.

“Sounds like a perfect setting for a game.” – both.

Question: “After a while digits became more attractive than sprockets and now I’m a game guy. Actual quote. How?”

Epiphany moment on set of Dragonslayer. Didn’t own a computer, but did exist. He had a HP-41c calculator. [YEAH!] He found it more it more interesting to program it to play “Hunt a Wumpus” [DOUBLE YEAH!] than watch the filming of an elaborate scene with fire, villagers, and tons of action. He realized if that was really true, he was in the wrong business.

10 years later he went to work for LucasArts.

He didn’t realize that he should drop everything and try to get into the game business. He got slowed down by making another movie and didn’t transition.

Question: “You worked on two games as an amateur?”

Apple IIs were pretty slow. Exactly 1MHz. Shortest instruction were 3-4 cycles which meant about a quarter of a million things each frame. [Precise technical detail. Interesting. Don’t recall similar detail in movie discussion except maybe in reference to animation.] He knew Basic and learned 6502 assembly language. Made a tile based game – Space Snatchers, entirely in assembly.

Question: “Did the guys at LucasFilm know what you were unto?”

They sort of did. Because of Lucas, he got to know Steve Arnold (2nd guy who ran LucasFilm Games.) He also got to know people who worked there. [Dream Job technique.] They knew he’d done something so when they needed someone they went for him.

Question: “India Jones was an adventure game. In some ways straight forward, but it introduced one major innovation was the pick your play style?”

Originally a suggestion of his collaborator Noah Falstien. He went off to go do other projects, leaving him to hold that 3-path bag. That cost about 6 months of his life. He loved doing it but it was really hard.

Another innovation, mini-games. Whole bunch of them. They’d done one before, but added many other activities, not just puzzles.

Lucas had developed a phobia about any of his characters getting killed. If Indy couldn’t actually die, then there wouldn’t be any risk, so they did that. “Complete violation of the house rules.” [Good for him. They strangled creativity.]

Question: “Were you involved in the action version?”

No. First game in 256 colors with voice.

Question: “Did you have a sense that LucasArts were at a golden age?”

I thought it was great. That was wonderful. That was then, this is now. We all believe in adventure games in those days and did our best to advance the state of the art. Design seminars. Don’t see that going on quite the way it did then.

SCUM was the underlying engine developed 3 or 4 projects earlier.

Question: “What do you mean by adventure game?”

I think of a story. Driven by a story. The task of the player is to open up that story and to allow it to proceed by solving puzzles.

Question: “It seemed at some point the form stopped evolving. People tend to not make them any more.”

Truth is, Indiana Jones is the only adventure game I ever did. Action and RPG games aren’t adventure games. Most of the other stuff is what what I call action adventure. [Movie storytelling background coming through again…] Story elements which are very strong, with a coherent world – you can shoot the shit out of a bunch of bad guys.

Rules of Thumb: (Dan Airye (?)) You can’t just vary monsters by degree, you have to have different kinds. (i.e. Bosses.)

Question: “That’s one of our rules. Brings to mind the 400 project with Noah Falstien. Creating a lexicon of game design.”

That’s the hope, but not enough other people jumped on the bandwagon. It’s languishing a bit. Have more than 100. Started in 2001 with GDC talks. Was interested in summarizing how we make games. The problems that we face are so enormous in difficult and number that we’re not really good and find a way out. Some of these rules are explicitly known to us, and some are only passively known. Believes these rules are the substance of game design. In this respect, game design is similar to other arts and engineering. Beyond theory.

For example, in Improv theater, one the techniques is to “accept all suggestions.” Never say no, otherwise the act will stop. Another example, “If you want to stop an asteroid from colliding with Earth, you have to change it’s velocity by 1mm a second, 10 years before it hits to move it aside one Earth year radius.”

Example programmer rule: “Never believe a programmer when they say something will take two weeks to do.”

Question: “What were some of the inspirations for the Rules?”

Read a lot of science books. Broad interest. Interested that we can deeply focus on solving problems. Was reacting to Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. Doesn’t believe in them at all – worthless. Spector concurs.

The world is discovery. In the world of film, there was a discovery that “cuts” would work. How to manipulate material. That humans would accept that idea and enjoy it. People didn’t understand the close-up. Quickly you learn “film” literacy.

Materials, What it Does, How you reach psychologically => Game Design Rules.

Materials are constrained by time & budget. Mechanics are things you think will attract people to want to play. What do people want to do or not.

Example: Guitar Hero -> tracking game mechanic. Turns out people like that.

Rules concept come from this intellectual force, materials and human beings combining together.

Question: “One of the things I like about the 400 project is the rules are very concrete. As a designer I can see how they apply to my specific problems.”

If you to be in games, or a writer, what you want to develop is a productive understand of what you’re doing. So you know what to do when given a blank page. When you start.

“To some it is Napoleon; to some it is Alexander the Great; to some it is philosophical struggle. To me it is simply Allegro con Brio. [discussing the first movement of Beethoven’s third (Eroica) symphony. Other versions of this quote have Toscanini saying, Some say this is Napoleon; some Hitler; some Mussolini. To me it is simply Allegro Con Brio.] – Arturo Toscanini

“You just have to realize that if you’re going to be a creative person your ideas are always going to collide with solid material.”

Question: “Fight player fatigue.”

People get tired. Games are hard. There must be charms to keep you involved. If they’re not there, you abandon the game. Compare completion rates between movies >> games >> books.

Question: “In the longer rule descriptions there are specific examples. Maximize expressive potential. Everyone of these speak to me – even though we disagree on a lot of stuff.”

This rule is a favorite.

Dramatic writing rule: take all of the characters in your story and write a scene between every pair of characters, even if that scene isn’t going to end up in your finished product. Look for the maximum use for all of your characters. Try out all everything you could do.

If you have a mechanic, look at all of the options of what you can do with it.

It’s worthwhile keeping these rules in mind consciously, otherwise you won’t stretch to obtain this stuff.

Question: “Maintain level of abstraction.”

Be consistent to your game’s setting and aesthetic. When writing a book, for example, you need to make a decision about how far in you will go into the mental life of each character. Don’t change how deep you go.

“Unity of effect. Yours makes sense, and ours we have to explain.”

Question: “What’s been the response to the rules?”

Languishing. Proceeds by fits and starts. Noah tends the embers. [I wonder if this would be different in the era of Github/Google Docs.]

One of things you learn about rules is the trump or contradict others and even themselves. Domain [scope] of the application also is critical. If you have two rules, which one wins.

Rules are really more or less guidelines.

Question: “Do rules ever go away?”

He has his own little set. They’re not all in the list if he stuck them all in there. A lot of them haven’t been discovered – what else do people know about. [Wonder what he thinks about The Art of Game Design – lens concepts.]

“Allow the player to turn the game off.” You should have a save game system which has no effect if player turns the game off. [Death to checkpoint saving! Not really, but at least something. Replaying Ico, and I wonder if it’s “couch” save game system which requires explicit action by the player is compatible with it.]

Question: “India Jones & Desktop Adventures. Yoda Stories?”

Wanted LucasArts to get interested in casual games. Specifically wanted to attract female players. 5% female based on LucasArts demographics. Eventually casual market came in, but was way ahead at the time.

Always been interested in the idea that could keep telling itself again and again with some novelty – like chess. After a few moves you have a “unique” situation. Thought there was a way to do this with puzzles which could be algorithmically hooked up. Sounds like a lot of procedural generated content.

Jones got very bad critical reaction. In Jones there was only a single puzzle chain. Each puzzle lead to another in a predictable fashion. Reduced some of the sense of mystery – spaciousness. For Yoda Stories focused on raising speculation for the player. Broke puzzle chain in two and didn’t tell player which “chain” they were working on or what chain items went to.

Question: “During break you mentioned graphics were very simple?”

I still play Yoda Stories, because it has genuine replayability in a story game format. Very hard to get to happen. Isometric tiles instead of top-down would have improved reception. [Heard this from Harvey Smith re Technosaur as well.]

Question: “Higher the fidelity of the graphics means you have to display more of the outcomes of the internal systems. I don’t think you could increase the fidelity of Indiana Jones and Yoda Stories.”

“Unity of Effect” => Maintain level of abstraction. In naturalistic world, some of the artificiality can’t be scoured out of a procedurally generated one. Leads to uncanny valley-like issues.

Question: “Smaller casual games?”

I’m interested in smaller casual games. Last project was 39 months – creative for about 6 months rest was as a management droid. Little games allow for quick projects. Not a fanatical person – will never play Halo, Half-life, WoW. [Interesting choices because all of those, especially Half-life, are very story drive games. That said, the story is “on rails,” but based on the previous description of adventure games that wasn’t precluded.]

There’s an echo from the TV & Movie business. Most studios would rather gamble big bucks on something which might be a big hit rather than do something which would be only moderately successful, even if it had a higher chance of pay-off. [Thinking, Fast & Slow concept AGAIN.]

Question: “Mata Hari. A new approach to dialog. (Still stuck in 1992 narrative structure.) Concept of tokens. Tracking multiple scores.”

Adventure games are alive and well in Germany. It’s a classic adventure game. They do adventure games really cheaply compared to LucasArts. US would be 5 times as expensive. At LucasArts when he was there, there were 400 people, about 200 active developers, at least 100 were hardly able to do their jobs.

When you go to a small studio, example Nihilistic, where there very few people there, 100% people know what they’re supposed to be doing – otherwise everything would collapse.

Nevertheless, they’re heavily budget constrained.

To deal with the fact that they couldn’t produce enough material to have a full fledged puzzle game, they decide to introduce some light RPG aspects. For the completist player. [GERMAN!] If you complete without backtracking you get a higher Skill score. There are easter eggs hidden items which led to Spycraft score. She was a dancer – strip tease. You have to dance to solve puzzles and find inspirations for new moves. Using the new moves, you get a higher Money score.

Decoder games with wiretapping.

Tokens have to do with the dialog system. He’s been very unhappy with how this has worked for a long time. Doesn’t care for branched dialog tree structure. Likes the slight variation used by TellTale. Concepts instead of literal display of text. Not literal. Not bad, but idea from Brian Moriarty from idea from The Dick (cancelled LucasArts game.) You proposed want to say, to talk to someone with using tokens.

Be careful to not confuse puzzles and clues. A puzzle is something which must be done to proceed. A clue is something you need to know to proceed.

You should be able to do two things. Unify all materials in the game. If it’s an idea, it’s still an item. All it is a concept with a solid visual form as a token in your inventory. You can use them in the same way that you use an item. The inventory display grays out things you can’t talk about with an NPC. Good part is that this unifies ideas an object.

Turns player memory into physical items.

Also conversation is surprising. It’s critical that you know your character isn’t going to betray you. So you can have a lot of fun seeing what she does when you play token discussion items on NPCs.

Would never work in a 1st person game. Requires a 3rd person game. [Uh, why?]

Be careful NOT to betray the players trust. Everything you get Mata Hari to do must live up to players expectation. That the right things will happen.

“Never thwart player expectations.”

Players feel really confident when they’re doing gadget puzzles. They feel very comfortable about that sort of stuff. This way changes how you feel about approaching people – you approach them the same way.

There’s a seduction technique. Requiring dialog choices following other choices is a maze. Do as little of that as possible. Most dialogue in their game is, crudely, locks & keys.

You can combine tokens as ideas. “How’s the weather in Paris?”

Game may not ship. [Did…]

Question: “There’s never any real consequence for making a choice. Can you reuse tokens at will?”

I would like to do that, but don’t have enough resources to get that done. Building alternative scenarios means time and money.

Someday we’ll have expert systems…

Hal Presentation

A Reasonsable Way to do something…

That’s a way people try to be polite. What it really means is:

“I would never ever do that!”

A lens [ ! ] into the stubbornness of the game industry. Many of us are specialists, but few of us are writers. We don’t often borrow things. Summary of common production problem -> reinvent the wheel. Doing an FPS? Just use Unreal or Cyrtek. Reveals a certain aesthetic that we have. People in other disciplines are quick to look for allied fields for help. Not so in Games.


  • Chronicles
  • Missions
  • Stories
    The “Stories in Games” debate never goes away. It’s impossible, but we do it. Chronicles are the sort of thing which happens in WoW or in any group game. Vice City. You’re telling your own story. Missions have assigned specific goals – no character making a dramatic choice. Stories are propelled by a character’s choice (Example Ico).

Arts are Individual

  • They overlap
  • Get Experts
    Example, level design can be informed by architecture.

Rules of Thumb

  • Ideas meets Artists
  • Wisdom
    Practicality of rules… Supersedes theory.

No “I” in “Team”

  • Most Teams are Structured
    It’s a cliche from the Military and football and their assigned roles and hierarchy. Games are a bit of an exception to that. As a freelancer, toughest part of any job is trying to figure out who’s in charge and what the hell they want from me. [Not scoped to being a freelancer…]

Make Little Games!

  • Learn Your Craft
    “Make your material talk to you.” Paper doesn’t talk back to you in the same way that a thing will. Won’t put as much effort in. Teach you if you have what it takes. It’s hard to do games – not all of it’s fun. Joyful labor. Find out, if it’s not fun, are you still interested. [I thought this was really interesting. First, it’s COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY TRUE. But aside from that, it’s an interesting lesson vis-a-vis his film experience. He knew something about movies before going to Film School, but only spent a short time making scratch movies before going. Is there a minimum effective dose here? If so, sounds pretty small really. That’s good news if true, but likely to be dependent on the person in question.]

Trailer for RTX: Red Rock. (At 2:01)

Commercial flop, but proud of it.

Mata Hari Wiretapping Flash App Demo (At 2:02)

Like Scramble-Square. Puzzle edges have to match up. Squares can be moved or rotated. 9×9 square. Multiple possible solutions. Pattern puzzles (Rubic Cube) are evergreen. 5 min after you do one, you forget and have to learn/do it again. Need to turn it into something which actually does something. Paper isn’t good enough

Space Snatchers: Apple II Game (2:05)

Had cut scene. [God I miss playing games like that. You can’t really play them any more, because we’re so ruined, but wow.]

Yoda Stories (2:09)

[YEAH Star Wars!]

Audience Questions

Question: “Mass Effect conversation system?”

Not a big RPG guy. Played KOTOR & Jade Empire. Hated KOTOR because it was clunky. Jade Empire was much better. Somethings were totally divorced from reality.

Leery of emotional or ethical ideas. Deep and complex. Take a game like Fable. Crude representations of morality don’t work for him.

Games can thrive on fairly simple stories. Character is not Hamlet. In games we have Spiderman’s web. Indiana Jones is a good example. Have good credentials – place you in the action. Indiana Jones speaks languages, fists, pistol, whip, goes on digs.

Example from Movies: The Mountain. Dynamic of the movie is a moral delemina. In a movie you can’t make an environment a villain. It’s just a condition. In a game you can.

Question: “Mata Hari might not ship?”

Game is being made on a shoestring. [It did. Got both good and bad reviews. Sounds like a resource issue for most. SIGH.] Predicted another year before release. [Turned out to be 2.]

They’re falling behind a little bit. As a publisher how to you manage the release cycle. Every week his mood goes up and down.

“That’s pretty much the game business.” – Spector

Question: “How do we share technology in an industry that secretive?”

It is, because we’re organized into companies. Companies are run by foolish people who want to protect these assets which are semi-worthless. If you’re smart, you do as little software as possible.

This happened at LucasArts with an interactive sound system called iMused. Everyone does that now, but they were forbidden from talking about how they were doing it.

As an analogy in the movie industry, if you were doing a feature motion picture about football or baseball… [Long skycam description.] When the camera guy leaves at the end of that production, and will tell everyone else at his new company about what’s going on. So everyone knows exactly what to do.

GDC is ineffective and has to get changed.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime

Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance

The word that comes to me as I reflect on the story of this story is tragedy. There’s so much evidence that a change of course was required – seen and not heeded. There’s a strong parallel between Harvey Smith’s entry into the game industry story and what went wrong. It never occurred to him that people actual made games, yet he played them constantly. Such a strange disconnect. I simply can’t understand it, and frankly neither could he (at the time anyway.)

So, let’s accept that as a blind spot, non-judgmentally. We’ve all got them. That one is his. (A knowledge of one’s blind spot(s) is critical, so many of us don’t think on this at all.)

There’s a similar lesson in Deus Ex:Invisible War and Technosaur. In both cases, external input was set aside and ignored. The “outsider” opinion was rejected out of hand. One did not reject Don Mattrick at EA out of hand, and remain long there. It’s too bad he didn’t have more EA HQ “time”. Maybe that knowledge hadn’t seeped into Origin, but man, how could it not have by then?

The Deus Ex:Invisible War lesson was similar in that he focused on input from a selective (and not representational) group of people instead of as many outside opinions as possible. He gave voice to learning that lesson after the fact, but it’s unclear why it was necessary. Both him and Warren tut-tut’ed on this point, so clearly there was private context not presented.

The parallel remains though. Two dots which ought to have been connected, weren’t. The rationale for why they weren’t connected, outside opinion not taken, is the same. The consequences substantial – art less than what it could have been, and friends fired.

One thing that’s alluded to, but not explicitly communicated, is Warren’s role and awareness. It’s not definitive, but Warren appears to try to take some of the burden of responsibility. Not just in the section about who you should listen too and when, but also in the story about his decision not take the Looking Glass job.

It’s critical that you be in a group with the right people.

You’ll know ’em when you find them.

Both are cliched platitudes, so watered down to be almost useless. At least at the time of Deus Ex, he both knew that was with the right people, and they were in fact the right people.

That’s what makes this story a tragedy.

To have found, and achieved so much. To loose it, and not realize it’s absence. To not have changed, to be still be blind, and crash with such inevitability.

There were so many markers, even in this relatively short discussion that Blacksite:Area 51 wasn’t going to succeed. Sure, I come at this with 20/20 hindsight and years of distance. But there’s this inescapable feeling that I have when I watch him discuss his current project. There’s sense I get from the way of he was presenting. His body language, voice, and words changed subtly. In ways that I recognize, because I’ve done it myself with similar outcomes.

Mirror… Mirror…

Laying off your friends changes you. Being responsible, and not being the river to your people, even if only for a turn of a season, leaves a mark. It also gives you an innate sense – the ability to recognize it in others. Have they? Or have they not yet been the goat? It’s clear he has. On a lesser absolute scale then I, but that’s irrelevant. He clearly felt it and learned from it. His experience was enough for him to learn. (For me, the jury is still out…)

That’s what makes the glaringly obvious issue with Blacksite all the more frustrating. Satire, specifically political satire, is difficult to pull off and has only been done in maybe a handful of games. Trying to pull that off, using current real world events as a foil is just brutally impossible. I can only think of one game ever (Papers, Please) which managed to do it, and even there the world context is obscured.

CoD4’s terror attack on the airport or CoD:BLOPS’s murderous torture scenes aren’t satire. They’re ham-handed attempts at grabbing attention. They’re so over the top, so outside the realm of likelihood, that they aren’t taken as commentary on what is currently happening, or happened. Instead they are a cautionary tale (at best) for what might happen if things are taken to their logical (or extreme) conclusion. Following that train of thought, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that’s what Blacksite attempted/intended to do.

It failed miserably.

Here’s how you know that you’re doing it wrong. Are you suppressing feedback or opportunities for feedback? If you do that with a core element, with the heart of the thing you’re building, you’re well down the path to failure.

The part that kills me is that the clue is on the Warren’s second slide. “Do not undertake the creation of a bunch of brand-new tech if you are not prepared for the time hit involved.” Not tech – that’s too narrow of focus; “new” is the keyword. In this case, delving into the realm of political satire was the new thing. To do so requires humor, deftness, ridicule, and shame to make it go.

None of those things are “well understood” game concepts, even today. Look, I get how damn hard it is to listen to outside opinions – not only to listen, but to even want to acknowledge that they’re even relevant or desirable. Anyone who’s actually done anything has a variant of this story. Daniel Kahneman’s take on this, from a psychological perspective, is described in Thinking, Fast & Slow, as “irrational perseverance.”

Daniel learned three lessons from his brush with the similar circumstances. First, there are two distinctly different types of forecasting, the inside and outside view. The inside view is the one we’re all familiar with – it’s the estimate based on the perspective of the person actually doing the work. It tends to be the “best-case” scenario because, after all as humans we’re fundamentally optimistic.

How to do deal with that “planning fallacy,” as Daniel calls it, is the second lesson: one should balance all forecasts with both inside and outside views of the project. An example of an outside view is to determine what the base success rate of projects similar to the one we’re working on. In Daniel’s example, the outside view estimate was seven years, with a 40% chance of failure – a far cry from “another year or two” inside view estimate.

That huge gulf leads to the third lesson:

“I was slower to accept the third lesson, which I call irrational perseverance: the folly we displayed that day in failing to abandon the project. Facing a choice, we gave up rationality rather than give up the enterprise.

Excerpt From: Daniel Kahneman. “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” iBooks.

They dealt with the forecast discrepancy the same way that just about every other human on the planet would. They shrugged their shoulders, picked up their shovels, and kept digging. Paying heed, and doing that which should have been done, namely quitting the very day that you realize that you’re not going to achieve your goal within the amount of effort you’re willing to spend… Well that’s just not things that people do.

Not in real life. Not even when we know better. Not in our stories. I can hear Lex Luthor now: “North Ms. Tessmacher! North!”

We willingly throw away good money after bad. Our time and that of others. We trade away all that we have of value, and compel others to do the same. Down the hole in complete and utter denial.

Realizing that we’re doing this is something that people, for whatever reason, just don’t do as a matter of course. We try to prevent it from happening. It’s surprise to us when we do get outside opinions. If such a calamity does befalls us, we do our damnedest to ignore it.

Why do creative endeavors seem to require willful blindness?

I suppose without it, we would not take risks. Without it, we could not shoulder the responsibility necessary. Without it, we would not be free. With it, we are endowed with a superpower – one which allows us, and only us, to predict the the one true future.

Sigh, what madness is that?

That’s the moral to his story for me. That question and the roughest outline of an answer.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime

Warren Spector – Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith

The Life and Times of Harvey “Witchboy” Smith

Worked on

  • Ultima 8
  • CyberMage: Darklight Awakening
  • Technosaur (Never shipped)
  • FireTeam
  • Deus Ex
  • Deus Ex: Invisible War
  • Area 51: Blacksite
  • Speaker, Character in 2nd Life, Award-winner
  • Web Site:

My Favorite Harvey Quote?

  • “Focus so you don’t have to compromise quality.
  • Do not undertake the creation of a bunch of brand-new tech if you are not prepared for the time hit involved.
  • Good process is critical.
  • You’ve got to surround yourself with people smarter than you are in areas where you’re weak.
  • And you should pare your team back to positive, mature, people.” – Interview at, April, 2004

“If you don’t keep a quote file, you should” – Spector

Question: “You’ve described some of your early years as hellish. Where did that come from?”

What percentage are software engineers: 50%
Visual or audio oriented: 25%
Storytellers: 25%
Business people: 0

Every game developer I’ve ever met is a different beast. Driven by some of the same stuff, but a different background. Lived all over, including Germany for a while and the Bay Area.

The best thing about the industry is that it puts it mark on you as much as you put your mark on it. “Escapism was a huge huge thing for me.” We were rabid consumers of media in all forms. I was constantly looking for an outlet. Games was just another angle on that. “These [music, games, radio, books, movies, etc.] were like magical forces in the world.”

Question: “One of the things that I find disturbing about video games in particular is that they tend to be male adolescent power trips. Was it empowering for you as gamer? Or was it escape or an outlet for energies which you didn’t know what to do with?”

[SPECTOR! Holy hell was this a crap question. Talk about defining empowering as a negative. As something different than the necessary precursors of what it takes for something to be empowering. In order for something to be empowering, it must first show you a different and compelling [escape] version of the world, and a path [outlet] to get there. The or is really conduct unbecoming here. /STOMP.]
“I think it was both. … As much as people malign them [power fantasies], you immediately point to an adolescent power fantasy and talk about it as a cliche or as a nacient drive that young people have. As much as we dismiss it, it’s hugely important.”
[No kidding – How are we to find the capabilities of our agency and, in turn, ourselves as individuals without considering how they interact with others and society as a whole?]
“Fighting daemons is sort of a literal presentation of an abstract idea. … There kind of a cathartic process there. Part of it was expression and exploration.”
[Adults understand this. Kids do not. Yet Adults seem to forget this when evaluating games when they are played by kids. They use the wrong lens.]
Psychological term is Mastery.

Question: “For me as a D&D player, I loved putting on different costumes. To try out what it was like? Where you trying out who you were?”

I don’t think so. Gave a talk called The Imago Effect (2006). About ideal identity. Summary Notes. About the idealized self, because I realized early on because my game avatars, regardless of games which were very different from himself.

“I Want through therapy, because that guy [Spector] influenced me.” – Smith
“Only because I think that everybody should go through therapy to be a member of the human race not because I’m making a comment about Harvey.” – Spector

One of the interesting things I did early on was making a list of D&D characters that I had made. For the first time, I saw patterns in them – history, fiction, signature marks. For me, it was always a different aspect of myself – pushing it to the extreme.

Some players take on a different role. Some players take on an idealized aspect of themselves.
[Hey – look! It’s why so much of game criticism and commentary is so controversial. The other person is having a completely different play experience than you, because how they relate to the character, and the choices they make, come from fundamentally different wellsprings.]

Question: “Do you think that still informs your design sensibilities today? … People too old to be doing what they’re doing are really important to me. That was true even when I was the youngest person in the room, not the oldest one. Dysfunctional families.”

I find that totally true. You sit around and think about what you could do with technology, with the IP available. You stir the post for a while, find something that excites you and then you start running with it. Later, you back up and look at it, you’ll recognize it as a variant of something you made before. Patterns.

Question: “From D&D and Freeport, you went to the military. What the heck?”

He spent 6 years in the Air Force. Wanted to marry his high school sweetheart. Random chapter in his life. Wanted to get away from the small town. I was totally miserable before I talked to the recruiter. [LOL, have I heard this story before.] “I read comics since I was 4. I never realized that someone wrote comics for a living.” [How is this even remotely possible? He doesn’t understand how that leap didn’t happen and then it did happen either.]

[He was in Germany @ the same time I was. Part of the University of Maryland’s LitClub. Thomas More was his professor.] “These people [that he met while being the military] changed my life. It was like being around the parents that I had always lacked.”

Question: “You’re largely self-educated from the University of Maryland?”

He dropped out. He was a satellite communication technician. [I wonder if I met him @ one point or another. Odds are non-trivial. For sure, we worked on the same systems.] “My self-confidence was so low.”

Long story where he was surrounded by people working on video games. He thought about them continuously. He eventually came around. Used classic dream job tactics: learned about job, socialized with people (skydiving with Lord British), played pen & paper with them. By the time he got hired, people thought he already worked there. For six months, total failure, but kept the pressure on. Wrote nice cover letter. Took a job as a tester in 1993. Warren pulled him into a Technical Design Assistant role.

Question: “Was QA a good way to get in the business?”

It was fantastic. He wrote a novel in the six months while he was trying to get in. [Awesome.] Where most people put their heads down on a team, look up and it’s been two years and you’ve been beating your head against the same problems. In QA it was a cross-functional role across many projects. Testing System Shock changed his life. Directly on top of his interests: sci-fi, cyberpunk, immersive worlds, etc. It was a powerful experience. By the end, he was lead tester.

Question: “You’ve played a lot of roles. Tester, Lead Tester, Associate Producer, Creative Director… Talk about the roles on each of your games.”

Lot of quest for legitimacy in there which everyone in this room is going to struggle with. [No shit. Don’t think it’s any different for anyone else.] When he first started, he went after writing and game design positions. Once he put his ego aside and started in the testing group, it turned out to be the best thing ever. A strong QA person works with all of the key people on the team. At some point or another, everyone had counted on him for something.

[Origin was really amazing at that point. Such a small group but so many quality people. I met many of them, and worked with a few, but the transition from a publisher to a development-only shop really killed that studio.]

The industry transition form one programmer making a game to one which required game designers as a discipline. Letting specialists do their thing results in a higher quality product. “Who foresaw that the game industry would explode like this and we’d have all of these specialist roles?”
[Interestingly, the pendulum has swung back a lot since 2007 on the requirement and game team sizes can be much smaller now, but the game designer, as a discipline, hasn’t gone away. Proved its worth. Wonder what his thoughts on this are now?]

Question: “Where did that person [specialist] come from? Who should it be?”

He’s hired many people straight out of college. This thing that’s happened to me by accident… He started to recruit people out of the mod community. One out of ten would really take off. He’s talking at schools like Full Sail, Carnage Mellon. Focused on multi-discipled people, specialist plus additional skills. Enforced mentoring by co-locating people. In two months a person can pick up 80% of an advanced skill [example used was game tuning.] They won’t get the last 20% without years of experience and multiple projects.
[Codified a process similar to Joel’s recruiting strategy.]

Question: “Back to QA. Wing Commander.”

What is a bug? At the time he had no idea. Required specific training. First ones he wrote were terrible. Had to be taught that he needed to find repeatable use cases. Playing games continuously for hours get really boring.

Question: “System Shock.”

Was one of the first games with VR. The technology wasn’t ready for prime time. [Wonder if it’s ready now?]

“Totally ready for VR headsets to come back. As crazy as it was… Seeing the world as if it was with no distractions. It was an amazing experience” – Warren

Best thing about working on System Shock was the availability of the team. Able to have creative conversations about the direction of the game.

Being a Producer for a while was a really phenomenal experience.

Re: Job at Looking Glass Studio

Long story about a keypad at the Looking Glass Studio. Door code was 0451 which is the same key code used for the first keypad in System Shock. Illusion to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
“It wasn’t about being a genius it was about connecting the context.” – Harvey
“You got the job right there.” – Warren
He didn’t take the job.

Question: “From there – Ultima 8. That was you first real design challenge, right?”

When Ultima 8 shipped, he didn’t believe that it should have. He felt the development team was very hostile. “They were not about the end-user. They were about their own whims.” Some, not all. There were great people on that team. In terms of usability… user interface… [it just wasn’t fun.] Long example where a designer hid a death trap behind a tree, costing the him 30 minutes of his time. Players want to look out into the environment, see a problem, and solve the problem creatively with the tools they have. Highly constrained game or no. He likes the less linear experience. Figure things out according so rules without. The concept of information economy, where you deliberately withhold information, to make the player feel vulnerable (horror movies), there is a moment to do that. Need to choose the right time and be fair about it.

The response from the designer was really arrogant.

That made him really angry and sent a list of 100 things to Ultima 8 to key management. Richard Garriott, thinking three steps ahead, asked him to fix the bugs. That allowed them to release a much better game later. What he was really doing at the time was driving like a producer, but he didn’t realize it at the time.

Re: Cybermage & FireTeam

It’s very possible in the game industry to make a bad game, but realize later that you made something very innovative. Whether the game was a failure or a success, it was super interesting. One major failure of the process, was that this was the end of the era where one guy could do a game. It was the beginning of the era where you had to manage a team, of when you had to treat your customers well because you were no longer the only game in town. You have to respond to user feedback.

[Interestingly, while clearly true that there is more than one mobile game, there are truckloads which treat their customers really badly. I suppose they’re getting away with because of ignorance. I wonder how long before a social game-like flame-out happens.]

Question: “Technosaur. Terrific concept. Your first experience building a team. Every one of those guys is now a playa in the industry. What the heck happened?”

“One of the best experiences of my life.” He played Dune 2 and was blown away. Complexity and depth are not the same thing. Everyone gave you instant feedback with voice. He immediately wanted to do something like that. Describes the plot of the game at 1:05. He could describe it in such a way that excited people.

One of the truisms of games is that it’s very easy to put a demo together, but very hard to ship a game. The last 20% of the game, takes you 80% of the effort. There was one flaw – they wanted to have lots of animations with close-in zooming. The only way they could afford that was do them from purely top down instead of 3/4 angle like most other RTS games. At review at Electronic Arts, Don Mattrick rejected the top-down angle. He totally blew him off, but they ran into problems with it anyway because people couldn’t identify the units well. EA killed the project. “If I had just listened. I thought I knew everything. I was too hardheaded, so the project got killed. They fired all of us but 3. I watched 10 of my friends carry boxes out the door. It felt so bad.”

“The interesting thing is knowing what lesson to take away from that. In that case, the people who gave you that advice were right, but sometimes you have to stick to your guns. Making that judgement call is what separates out successful people.” – Spector

Re: FireTeam

“Art and I did our interview in the town of Diablo.” In chat. Over the top masculine warrior guys. Was a good experience. It was a video game in the video game sense. If you get that opportunity, you should take it. An arcade game teaches about dealing with compressed time. Everything has to happen very rapidly and clear. Distilled form of gaming.

Question: “This game was like a sporting event? Sounds perfect. What happened?”

The people who founded the company insisted that you can only buy the game over the Internet. [TOO SOON!] They made the game with VC funding and bypass the middlemen. [Interestingly this hasn’t happened. Steam has taken this place as a the digital distribution middleman. Credit Card on File is KING.]

Question: “Deus Ex. Harvey really functioned more as a Co-Director.”

So many people at so many levels contributed to it. The team even seemed small by today’s standards. ~30 people. Harvey, Warren, and Chris would fight like cats and dogs to make decisions. [Combative creativity.] Only the second time he had been a level designer. Really enjoyed that.

At the time, my then wife… [second ?]

Question: “You made huge contributions. I look back at two and thing Thank God Harvey was there. First, you redesigned the skill system. “

Lesser granularity, if a change happens in the game, you notice it. If it’s not demonstrable to the player, don’t do it. Originally the skill system was binary, he extended it and made it more granular than that. Didn’t remember actually doing that. Totally different perspectives on events. Signal loss. The next day it’s gone, from you even.

Question: “The other big thing on Deus Ex. Warren had huge grandiose stories and tried to ground it more. Harvey pitched a simpler variation of the same story which expressed everything.”

On a daily basis, we were building the rooms. They knew how long things were taking to do – what the limitations of the engine. If you routinely use the tools – you know what the limitations are. Intimacy with the technology. Very often a story is about a handful of people.

Example, Bioshock is really about story of Andrew Ryan who had this crazy vision – and thee player’s choice about the little girls. There’s probably five or so actual important characters in that game.

It wanted it to be more personal and intimate. Focus.

Deus Ex still had a non-stop cast. Guys would walk on screen and off without you talking with them again. It’s so hard for people to realize that whenever a player walks into a room, everything is new. The best games which take a small set of characters and repeat them over and over. That’s the best chance you have to get people to care about them.

Repeat Exposure. [Hey look – it’s a Thinking Fast & Slow concept.]

This is one of the basics of storytelling which we as developers were not applying.

[Long story about Gunther Herman. Talks about the kill codes of the cyborgs. ]

Give all of the characters a finale.

Question: “Deus Ex: Invisible War, you took a leadership position…”

This was a difficult project [separated from wife.] I feel like they had bad tech choices, bad AI, bad team chemistry, bad story, shipped too early. Moved into the future which undermined what made Deus Ex great by removing the grounded-ness.

Question: “There were certain thinks that we say as problems in Deus Ex which we wanted to address. I’ll start talking if you don’t…” [Nice…]

Really talk to the players that you’re aiming at. Don’t go for the extreme. It’s not selling out to cater to an audience. The listened to their designer friends and not to the players of the original game. They tried to fix some of those things, which took fantasy away from the player. Hindsight is 20/20.

Blacksite:Area 51 demo started at 1:33

Achievements are a collectable. Players love collectables. Game develop teams are going to start doing clever things with them. [Hadn’t ever thought of it that way.]

Never underestimate how much effort it takes to communicate something new to a player in a game. [I would remove the word new. Especially on mobile.]

[No wonder this game didn’t do well. Was very anti-US & highly political. Again and again. Katrina. Bush. Iraqi War. FEMA. Like all the damn time. Does NOT miss any opportunity to make an anti-American/anti-Bush statement. Using every tool available: pictures, words, setup, weapons, scenarios, story. As nearly as I can tell, the game embodied everything which made Democrats angry over the last six years of the Bush Administration. Preachy and ham-handed.

Here’s a tip: don’t piss of a potential 50% of your audience.

Here’s another tip: anger passes – it’s not a stable foundation on which to build art, or even a lasting memory.

Isn’t the commercial failure of this game a relearning of the player feedback lesson from Ultima 8?

Metascore of 62 didn’t just come from bugs. Sales.

Granted CoD isn’t much better on this point, and trending worse every generation but, for that series, the single player part of those games isn’t what sells them, it’s the multiplayer which is politically agnostic.]

Audience Question: Intelligible.

Tips of the day are a really good idea. You typically write these at the end with what people are confused about. It’s a stopgap, because it would better that the game would train you.

Question: “Section of questions about game design philosophy.”

Alternation is pleasing – color palette, gameplay situation, etc. Goes a long way for making an experience enjoyable.

Blacksite hits three or four of my most deeply held beliefs we hit: good story, fair immersive, alternates experiences. It misses on things like differentiated creature mechanics, second stage mechanics (example pac man interacting with ghosts). Every project you ever work on will be like that.

Don’t bury the lede. List it first, don’t build up to it. Use simpler words for communication. Had problems using jargon words when communicating within the team.

Question: “Orthogonal Unit Differentiation?”

Make each creature distinctive with different mechanics.

Question: “Emergent gameplay?”

Making the game as a chemistry set with five things which can be combined in interesting ways. You have enough tools, the environment works consistently, that you can solve your problems. You only have a certain amount of complexity to spend on the player. You’d better hope that players are signed up for a sandbox experience if there aren’t enough directed goals. I think most people need that.

He’s a big proponent of story in the game – by which he means the fantasy in the players head. Example: Band of Bugs. Interesting mechanics for good fantasy even though the story doesn’t appeal to him.

Question: “Gameplay ecology”

There are tools, rules, players and enemies. You could just make lists of each, but you will interesting second order interactions if you think of them as an interconnected structure. You need to pay attention that if you want to not “waste” your development budget. The game gets stronger if there are relationships between those things.

Question: “That’s a great way to think about analysis. Customizable avatars.”
Totally believe in self-expression in game combined with strong narrative. There’s a time for customizable and canned avatars. Some gamers would like to have a strong central lead. He’s learned to be less dismissive of the player. It’s a dialog between the player and the designer. It’s a bizarre thing to make entertainment software.

Question: “Balancing your creativity with the players. What’s the hardest part? Most enjoyable?”

The emotional component of the team is the hardest part. Management issues. Keeping the creativity moving in a consistent direction. Specialists who don’t get other’s issues. The stakes are high. Max out a skill + maxing out collaboration. How to loose arguments a certain percentage of a time.

Question: “5 favorite games?”

  • Doom 2
  • XCom:
    Players can imbue random generated content with their own emotional value. Example: random generated soldiers who you go on missions with. The game generated two characters who had the same last name, one male, one female, so he generated a fantasy that they were married and had signed on to fight aliens together. When one died on a mission, he could not move on. Kept playing the mission over and over until they both got out alive.
  • Underworld
  • System Shock
  • Sacrifice

Audience Questions

Question: “Is there a demo?”

There is a demo for Blacksite. It’s old.
[Long description of even more anti-America setup from one of the missions in the game. “I doubt Joe Walmart will notice that…”

Uh, no.

Further buttresses my core assertion that game failed because it didn’t listen to its potential audience. If I had to wager, that’s why it was ripped out of their hands and shipped early, because a business person modeled the sales and blew the whistle on further investment.]

Question: “How did you get such a subversive game made?”

If marketing at Midway had known, they wouldn’t have paid for it. There are characters in the game with “other views.” It largely falls back to things which I think most of us can agree on. “Torture is not good.” [CoD:BLOPS… /sigh]

It’s kind of an innovation to actually run around America as a shooter. [Agreed.] I think the game operates at two levels and you can appreciate it if you agree with our views or not. I don’t think everyone knew what we were going to because many of these elements came on very late.

At the end of the day, he’s paid to impart some of his vision into the game. Otherwise you’re going to end up with something totally diffused and derivative. [Long story about how he had a list of things like mission names that he withheld from most of the team. Placeholder art was allowed to exist for a long time, until the last possible minute sounds like. He keeps using the word ironically in the literary-correct sense, but also arguably in a foreshadowing way.]

You want someone watching everything to make sure that you’re moving in a consistent direction. So not everyone on the team buys into it. [“Blacksite is political satire.” Maybe… That wasn’t my reaction from his presentation.]

He does have the support of a bulk of the team. [All sorts of warning signs in just having to utter that sentence aloud… Echoes of my experience at LucasArts. I wonder if it’s part and parcel of creative-driven development that this occurs. Might well be…

I do wonder though, how much different this would have gone had Midway’s marketing department been fully cognizant sooner about the nature of the game being made. At a floor minimum, it would have changed the “buy-in” equation substantially and might well not have resulted in his departure from Midway. Can’t ever really know that for sure, but fodder for consideration.

Echoes of the EA/Don Mattrick lesson unlearned? Having worked with that level of EA management in the past, you don’t get to make that mistake more than once. I have to believe that Midway would have been similar.]

Question: Unintelligible

If I had more time, I would pick the five clunkiest and make them better. Art Director would do the same.

Sounds like a total brutal crunch period. “Happens on every team.” [Nope.]

For what it’s worth, I have no idea how good the game is or not – I’m too close to it. Same was true of Deus Ex for him and Warren.

You can work yourself into a trap of being a perfectionist. I don’t know if he’s ever going to ship it.

Scott Meyers has a new C++ book coming! /happydance

C++ programmers everywhere rejoice.

He’s looking for title recommendations.

Here’s what I suggested:
Effective C++ Now: n Specific Ways to Improve Your Use of Modern C++

1. Leverage your existing title recognition without confusion.
2. Gets rid of all of the reasons why someone wouldn’t want to pickup the book (11 vs. 14) while driving home the core point – this is NEW.
3. Gives you license to include (or not) STL related material.
4. The use of the word Now drives home a sense of urgency – your work is immediately applicable, even if you only read a single recommendation.

That said, your existing books are still pretty damn timeless. They are truly unlike most “technical” books which age out nearly as quickly as the ink dries.

Upon further reflection, and a close reading of the requirements, I’d go with this:
Effective C++ Now: n More Specific Ways to Improve Your Use of Modern C++