Category Archives: GDC2011

GDC 2011: Day 3-5 Expo and Career Pavilion

Wednesday through Friday contained the Expo and Career Pavilion, in which lots of the cool new hardware and software of the industry were shown off to the press and… well… the industry. The Career Pavilion is where hopeful future industry employees got to talk to a wide variety of professionals and HR people about how best to proceed to get into the industry.

Day 5 also included the Game Career Seminar, in which important people in the industry held very specific seminars about getting your first job, and even did private portfolio reviews for a couple hours.

Getting Hired Tips:

  • “Your worst piece is your most remembered piece.” Thus, get rid of your worst work ASAP
  • It’s not enough to simply have your website and portfolio. It’s important to get known in the communities you’re trying to be a part of, such as, This sort of community involvement generates both contact and experience, which is why I’m now a member of Polycount and will be making use of it once Thesis ramps down.
  • Show your portfolio in such a way that provides easy access to the awesomeness. People don’t want to waste a lot of time looking for the cool parts of your portfolio. Don’t waste their time with crazy flash galleries and things like that. The work will speak for itself.
  • The note of “Focus!” came up a lot, but it’s tempered by the fact that everyone wants someone with a wide variety of skills. I think it was best summed up by Seth Gibson: “Don’t be a scalpel [really good at one very specific thing] or a Swiss Army Knife [having a broad range of talents]. Your goal should be to be a Swiss Army Knife with a scalpel attached.”
  • That said, it’s possible to be too focused. For example, I love vehicles, but there aren’t exactly a lot of job listings for Junior Vehicle Modelers, so I need to broaden my portfolio a little bit.
  • Load your portfolio with things you’re passionate about. You don’t want to get hired to come in every day and do work you hate.
  • It never hurts to show Process. Knowing how you think is important to prospective employers.
  • Attention to detail is key. Know how the things you’re creating should work, and use your attention to detail to infuse them with backstory.
  • “There’s a big difference between ‘no’ and ‘not right now.’ ” Most of the time, not getting the job is a side-effect of needing to give something a bit more polish or applying for the wrong job at the wrong time.
  • It’s neither what you know, nor who you know. It’s both. Who you know and what you know are equally important.
  • Learn every lesson you can from everyone you can. You never know when it might prove valuable.
  • Be picky about who you work for. If a company tries to hire you to work on a crappy product, remember, that crappy product will be on your resumé for a while.
  • Establish a voice rather than simply parroting what you expect the industry will want.
  • Know your weaknesses, and then work on them.

    On the Expo side of things:

    • The 3DS excites me, more because of its remakes of classic games from my favorite of Nintendo’s past consoles. The 3D kinda hurt (it was also very picky about viewing angle, which meant it started to hurt my arms, not just my eyes after a while), but when I turned it down, Ocarina of Time seemed, from the brief demo I got, like it had aged rather well since 1998, or at least triggered the Nostalgia Center of my brain pretty severely.
    • Spy Party is shaping up to affect the same parts of my brain that keep scheming about Diplomacy long after the turn orders have been submitted and long before they’re due. Having finally played instead of just reading the blog, I’m very excited about it.
    • The Octodad team seemed to have a pretty effective marketing plan, in that it got me to wait patiently enough to actually play a game at IGF that wasn’t Spy Party: “Free Shirts… if you play our game.”

    GDC 2011: Day 2 Better Game Writing in a Day

    Day 2 of GDC continued the Summits & Tutorials tradition of being more cool stuff that’s not immediately valuable to an aspiring game artist. This session was all about Game Writing and Narrative Design, hosted by the lead writer on Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. The session was navigated via a 234-page powerpoint that I’m still going back over, so I’m mostly transcribing and contextualizing the notes that I took to augment that presentation.

    Much of the session was reiterating basic story structure with things like 3-Act Storytelling and the Hero’s Journey, and then relating that back to games. After all, the vast majority of good writing is founded in generalized rules with only a little bit of it being genre- or medium-specific.

    The most important takeaways were that “story is conflict,” and, in games “Story is Gameplay’s bitch.”

    It’s important to keep in mind how much story your game actually needs. A puzzle game needs little or no story, but an RPG needs a lot of story, with other genres falling in between those two extremes and the MGS series being out somewhere beyond RPGs…

    Some important rules and tools:

    The classic rule of “Show, don’t tell” becomes “Do, don’t show” in games. Whenever possible, avoid showing the player something cool when you could have them do it themselves.

    Generally, the viewer needs less exposition than you want to give them. Game audiences aren’t stupid, and they can figure things out for themselves. Giving them too much exposition just gums up the works, or, as we came to call it during the session “chokes the baby.”

    It’s perfectly acceptable (in fact a very good idea) to slowly dole out exposition on a purely need-to-know basis.

    Chekhov’s Gun, which I hope you know as the rule that “If you place a gun on the stage in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 3,” should be innocuous. A Chekhov’s Gun should not telegraph its future significance so that it can still be a surprise when it’s fired. By the time it’s used, the audience should half-forget that it was there in the first place. It should be showed off early, when tension is low, because if you have to establish how it works when you actually need it, it will feel like a Deus ex Machina.

    Abilities in cutscenes should never contradict abilities in-game. I should be able to do all the cool stuff I see in a cutscene, and I should never be screaming at the TV for my character to use the cool ability I’ve been using at a time when it would be pertinent to do so in a cutscene.

    Cutscenes are a good opportunity for a lot of subtle foreshadowing. The experiment we did was to watch the opening cutscene of Bioshock, from the plane crash to Jack leaving the Bathysphere, and, for those of us who knew the game, to keep track of every instance of foreshadowing in those first couple minutes. Hint: There was a lot! Many of the key mechanics were hinted at (such as the Plasmid ads). There were plenty of story foreshadowing moments, like Atlas asking if you would kindly grab the radio. The one that blew my mind the most though was realizing that Andrew Ryan’s infamous line about the scientist “not being constrained by petty morality”, the artist “not fearing the censor” and the “great not being constrained by the weak” was foreshadowing the three major bosses in the game.

    Believability is the product of consistent, fully realized worlds, characters, and events. Avoid coincidences whenever possible, although, sometimes they will be unavoidable. Hopefully the unavoidable ones are small and easily dismissed, like the R5 unit blowing up in A New Hope so that Luke can find R2’s message (though I still cling to the notion that that droid happened to have lots of midichlorians in the oil between his grears). Too big of a coincidence, and you’ve got a deus ex machina on your hands.

    “You don’t want the audience to feel the writer’s hand, firstly, because it’s disgusting…”

    Bigger is not always better. Any conflict can feel huge if it means a lot to a sympathetic character.

    Villains are important, also tricky. They’re the source of the main conflict. A good villain is more than a match for the hero, and we need to see them as a viable threat. The hero needs to overcome the villain’s henchmen before he can even get to the villain. Most importantly, the villain considers himself a hero, not a villain. He needs clear, believable motivation beyond simply “he’s evil” or “he’s crazy.” A good exercise is to try summarizing the story from the villain’s point of view. Without changing the overall plot, convince yourself that the villain believes he’s heroic. It’ll make a stronger characterization.

    Story is conflict. Characters change over the course of the story, and they will often change physically to reflect changes in their personality/philosophy. For example, Saavik lets her hair down at the end of Wrath of Khan.

    Humor extends the length of a story because humor demands specificity. You can’t just say “car,” you need to specify “Oldsmobile,” or the joke won’t connect.

    Editing is the time when you make your story lean. Do this by referencing scripts to see how the pros handle tight dialogue-writing, especially scripts for movie adaptations of novels. Those have to be cut way down while still maintaining the meaning.

    Lastly, the only real way to become a Narrative Designer (aka, the guy who corrals the writer[s], largely dictates the direction of the story, and advocates for the story to the producers, artists, programmers, and other designers) is to get hired as a Game or Level Designer, know a thing or two about writing (having written in the past is apparently a good way to do this), and then volunteer when your fellow designers are shying away from story duties.

    GDC 2011: Day 1 Level Design in a Day

    On Day 1 of GDC2011, I attended “Level Design in a Day”, in which a panel of professional Level Designers from studios like Bethesda Softworks, Epic Games, Irrational Games, and LucasArts spent all day giving tutorials on Level Design.

    The first LD in a Day session was all about how to avoid becoming a scapegoat. Level Design is a poorly understood job, which apparently makes it easy for anything that goes wrong to be blamed on Level Design. The speaker explained avoiding Scapegoating with his Four T’s: Tools, Time, Talent, and Trust.

    • Tools would be things like the editor. If you have good tools that allow the level designer to work visually and quickly test changes, you’ll get more iteration and better opportunities for something awesome to arise.
    • Time is all about making honest estimates and keeping scope realistic so that the Level Designer has time to experiment, and, presumably, everyone else has time to polish the product.
    • Talent is about the people. A successful Level Designer (and I suppose, anyone else successful in the industry) needs to be great at communication and problem-solving, as well as improvisation and flexibility. The Level Designer needs to be able to work with the tools he’s got, so he needs to be “MacGuyver, not Bond”
    • Trust is how the team works together. A team that’s constantly communicating, constantly providing feedback, and making sure everyone knows everyone else’s challenges and responsibilities will not give in to applying blame where it’s not actually due.

    The next LD in a Day session was about Encounter Building, hosted by the Principal Level Designer at Irrational Games. He broke the planning of an encounter down into three separate lenses to look at it through, each of which were broken down into their own component chunks. Most of his experience was with First-Person Shooters, so all the lessons are framed in a FPS-mindset, requiring a little creative reinterpretation if you were to try and apply them to a vastly different genre of game.

    The first lens was the Stages of the Encounter. Each encounter is made up of four basic parts. Sometimes these stages repeat multiple times in an encounter. Sometimes certain stages are given more time or weight than other stages, but they’re good ways to look at how a player will approach an encounter.

    • Plan: The player gets the lay of the land, sees where the enemies are, what their obstacles are, where their goal is, and what they can take advantage of. In this stage, the player uses this information to formulate a plan of attack to see how they’re going to go about winning the encounter.
    • Execute: The Player puts the plan into action. Starts the moment the first shot is fired. Here is where it came up that it’s good to give the player multiple options about how to start the fight. Also, a reminder that if the player isn’t the one to fire the first shot, it can cut into their planning time, which can be frustrating for the player.
    • Improvisation: The moment the encounter deviates from the plan. This can happen when a grenade flushes the player out of cover or the enemies bring in reinforcements. The idea is that something changes the player’s relationship with the space they’re in. Something forces them to move rather than camping in the same cover until all the bad guys are dead. Be careful with how you do this, especially with regards to player assumptions like “The space I’ve cleared already is safe,” or else it can feel unfair to the player. This is also the stage where it was pointed out that Usability-Testing was very important because designers tend to make encounters too hard due to their perfect knowledge of the space they’ve created.
    • Regroup: The final stage, in which you take care of everything post-combat, like reloading all your guns and looting corpses. It’s important to let the player relax and come down from the High of Combat.

    The next lens is the narrative of the encounter. Every encounter should have its own little mini-narrative to give it context. When setting up an encounter, you should answer questions like “Why are the character fighting?” “What does the player want?” and “Why are the enemies there?” Enemies standing around just to fight the player is rather uninteresting.

    The final lens is Decision Layers, which covers the wide range of decisions the player can make, from strategic decisions throughout the whole game to moment-to-moment decisions like whether to shoot or duck.

    • On the strategic level, you have to consider things like the player’s style of play and planning capabilities. Do your encounters support every available style of play? Are there ways for the player to win whether they picked up the Sniper Rifle or the Shotgun? If they’re completely screwed in a given situation, is it because they made an informed decision to bring a less optimal loadout into the encounter, or was it the designer’s mistake that left them unprepared for the type of encounter they’re heading into.
    • The tactical level covers planning on an encounter-by-encounter basis, similar to what was discussed under the Stages of an encounter. How flexible is the encounter? How well does it foster improvisation? Does it enable the player and the AI to switch up their tactics mid-encounter? Is it one, big, up-front choice at the start of the encounter, or are there lots of smaller decisions available throughout the encounter?
    • The most intimate decision layer is the twitch layer. This covers moment-to-moment decisions. At any given instant, does the player shoot, reload, move, duck etc.? What are the options to allow the player to survive? How can the bad guys survive? How can cover be negated or how can people be forced out of cover?

    Some final notes on the Encounter-Building Session:

    • Remember the limitations of a player’s inputs, e.g. the Quick-180 button a lot of console FPS games include to make up for the slow turning on an Analog Stick
    • Also, keep in mind what players on small, crappy screens can see. Hunting for single-pixel snipers is no fun.
    • Be difficult without being frustrating (afterwards, I went and fought Moldorm in a Link to the Past. I wish the level designer on that game had gotten this note…)
    • Level Design != a Contest between the Designer and the Player. If you go in with the mindset that it is a contest, you will win every time, and everyone will hate your designs.
    • Variety: Once the player understands what each type of enemy does, it’s important to then include multiple enemy types in each encounter.
    • Rules are meant to be broken, but be sure you have a very good reason when you deviate.
    • On LD Portfolios: How would you recontextualize the game’s existing assets in new ways? How would you approach making DLC for the game? That’s basically what the designers have to think, so showing you can think that way is a good start towards working there.

    In the next session, Joel Burgess, Senior Designer at Bethesda games talked about the challenges of designing for the type of players attracted to Open World games. These types of players like to defy direction and get into places they’re not supposed to. They like to be in control, but, as Joel had to keep reminding us, they aren’t actually jerks, even if they act like it on occasion. To that end, he explained Bethesda’s Player-Designer Contract:

    • The Player is in Control
    • The Designer stays backstage
    • The Designer fulfills the Player’s expectations
    • The Player’s Story is always more important than the Designer’s Story.

    With these in mind, it’s important to nudge the player. You want to draw his attention to Points of Interest (hereafter abbreviated as “POI’s” because they come up a lot in this session).  There are a number of tricks to drawing the player’s attention:

    • Distant Landmarks: For example, Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland is always visible, and it draws you into the hub, from which your attention is drawn to…
    • Nearby Landmarks: smaller landmarks that you may have missed if you hadn’t been paying attention to the main landmarks.
    • Movement: When confronted with a lot of static imagery, we will be immediately drawn to anything that moves.
    • Prior Knowledge: Often, the player will go into an environment with some idea of what they want to do. Perhaps a townsperson told them about a haunted house, or their friend told them that when they buy the game, they totally have to check out this cool thing as soon as they can.
    • Audio: Bethesda actually sort of discovered this one by accident. Occasionally, randomly spawning AI characters in Fallout 3 would end up fighting each other. The sound of their gunshots was a major draw to playtesters to check out what was going on.

    The next guideline that Joel covered is goals and Player Motivation. Their aim is for the player to always have a goal, whether it be an explicit quest, or a POI the player really wants to check out, or something out-of-game, like an Achievement, or simply a minor detour that they saw in their peripheral vision. The player will juggle their goals and prioritize them based on their perceived risk and reward from achieving the goal, as will as the time commitment it takes to achieve that goal versus how much time they’re willing to put into a session of the game, or even just how much it interests them.

    At this point, it’s starting to feel like the Designer is pretty much at the mercy of the player, which may be an accurate way to look at it, but it sounds much less negative if you just shuffle around the designer’s goal. Under this model, a designer’s real job is: Provide interesting opportunities for the widest possible variety of interests.

    There’s a number of ways they handle this task. First of all, there’s the philosophy of Deliberate Distraction. Under this model, if the player is at Point A, and intends to get to Point B, then either looking at their map or simply across the world, there had better be Points X, Y, and Z as distractions for them. Maybe they’ll still run straight to Point B, but maybe they’ll check out any possible combination Points X, Y, and Z, and either way, they’ll find something cool.

    Secondly, every area should have some gameplay interest. Leaving things “just for looks” will get boring. Thirdly, there’s the idea of consolation loot. As we established earlier, the player in an Open-World game will often try, and succeed, in circumventing the designer’s intentions. A lot of times, they’ll go through a lot of trouble for this. If the player is working real hard to circumvent your barriers, they should get some reward to show that you knew they would figure it out. Maybe it’s a little treasure, maybe an Easter Egg. Be creative.

    The final note in the Bethesda talks was that in an Open World Game, the World itself is the Main Character. Think like that, and you’ll generate a sweet open world.

    The fourth talk was by the Lead Designer at Splash Damage studios. He was mostly talking about the challenges they underwent with their upcoming new title, and pretty much everything he said was very specific to their new title. I didn’t get very much out of it because of that specificity. However, what I did get is actually interested in Brink. It’s some sort of terrifying monstrous hybrid of Quake 3 and TF2 with a whole lot of Mirror’s Edge parkour elements. The gameplay videos excited me something fierce, so I’m now keeping an eye on it, which is more than I could’ve said before LDinaDay.

    The final session was about what it means to be a Level Designer. The fact is, like so much else in the industry, there’s not an agreed-upon definition. It changes from studio to studio. There’s a wide variety of approaches to and focuses of Level Design, from a more Systems Design approach, to a more architectural and flow-based approach.

    What is agreed upon by all these big-name level designers is that, moreso than anyone else at the studio, the Level Designer forms a special relationship with the player. They combine everyone else’s component parts, the programming, the art assets etc. into a special experience for the player. Good LD makes the player forget who they are and what they’re doing.  If they fail, it should be their decision, not the designer’s mistake that makes them fail. The LD needs to put the player first and never forget who they’re making the game for because they are the advocate for the player.

    And that was Level Design in a Day 2011.

    GDC 2011: Overview

    Game Developers Conference 2011 lasted from February 28 to March 4th 2011 in San Francisco, CA. It’s an annual opportunity for people in the games industry, or just who want to be in the games industry to get together and network, as well as check out various tutorial, sessions, and roundtables by industry professionals, for [hopeful, soon-to-be] industry professionals. It also features a major expo showing off upcoming technology and talent, as well as many major developers having recruiters and artists on hand to scout for talent.

    I went with a Summits and Tutorials Pass, which got me into a couple daylong sessions on Monday and Tuesday, as well as the Expo on Wednesday through Friday and Friday afternoon’s Game Career Seminar. It was one of the cheaper passes, but I’d question its immediate usefulness for a hopeful Game Artist. This year, at least, the Summits and Tutorials options were clearly geared more towards working professionals, or at least people better equipped to try and work as level or game designers. It also didn’t let me into a lot of the cool artist talks happening during the Main Conference.

    The next couple posts will be my long-winded summaries of GDC 2011. For more information, check out