Monday, November 22, 2004

Contributions to a new book about video games.

A few months ago I was asked to contribute my thoughts to a new book tobe published by a projected called Public Beta. My input took the form of answers to a series of questions -- hence the title of the book, Difficult Questions About Videogames. The book is now in print, I'm happy to say, and I just got my copy yesterday. You can buy it here from Amazon.co.uk.

The contributors to the book are among the leading lights of game development: Dave Perry, Robin Hunicke, Aleks Krotoski, Demis Hassabis, Noah Falstein, Helen Kennedy, and many more. Their answers to thequestions range from the incisive to the flippant, and cover the whole spectrum of thought about video games from the highly practical to the purely theoretical. Among the questions we were asked were:

  • What is a video game? (and what isn't a video game)
  • How can you tell if a video game is rubbish?
  • Why do you play video games?
  • What will video games become?

My answer to the question "Why do you play video games?" was simply this: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. I'm not kidding."

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Lecture to the Game Development Society, Leeds University Union

Leeds University, Leeds, UK

Since I was in northern England anyway for the Game Development Technology Workshop in Liverpool, I took advantage of the opportunity to address the new Game Development Society at Leeds University. This is a young but very energetic group of people led by the multi-lingual Toby Allen. Leeds University doesn't have a game program itself, but several other universities do and they're hoping to build up their membership through outreach to them (and perhaps persuade Leeds U to take notice). In addition to hosting meetings and an active bulletin board, they're also working on a game of their own, a fighting game that promises something very different from the ususal lineup of samurai and bare-knuckle bruisers. This is a group to watch.

I gave them "Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!" and took questions for about half an hour afterwards; after that we spent the rest of the evening in the pub talking about all kinds of things -- from the great Reform Acts that changed British democracy, to the merits of the brightly-colored new Windows XP interface. Oh, and games, too.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Events at the Game Design and Technology Workshop

Liverpool, UK

Liverpool John Moores University logoAfter the TMF Game Awards in Utrecht, I flew to Manchester, then took atrain to Liverpool for the Second Annual Game Design and Technology Workshop, sponsored by Liverpool John Moores University. I was at the first one of these last year, but it was only one day long and held on the campus. This second one has grown quite a bit and went for two days in a downtown hotel. I gave a one-day game design workshop for about 25 students from the University, another lecture ("Exploring the Fringes: Interactive Entertainment for the 21st Century") and stepped in to do the opening keynote when the original speaker was unable to be there.

For a small and young conference they had a good lineup of speakers, including Craig Lindley from the University of Gotland in Sweden, Jesse Schell of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie-Mellon, and Chris Bateman (International Hobo), Dino Dini (Abundant Software) and Andrew Oliver (Blitz Games), representing industry, as well as several others. At the end of the conference I moderated a panel of just about all the major contributors, and we talked about everything from mobile games to the social effect of everyone serving as their own TV news crew-- live television blogging, in effect, which is just around the corner.

I think one of the most useful things I learned came from Andrew Oliver, CEO of Blitz Games. Blitz has managed to weather the storms that have capsized so much of the British game industry, and I asked him how he did it. He said it was simple: Blitz builds licensed products that people pay them up front to build. There is no genre that they're too proud or picky to work on, and in fact their Barbie Horse Adventures game, which most developers would turn up their noses at, is one of their bigger successes.

The moral of the story is, if you really want to build games -- but you can't supply the money yourself -- then build the ones that people will pay you to build. Don't sit around waiting for your dream project, or let pride get in the way of having a career. Blitz is above water because they take an extremely pragmatic view of the business. They make good games that they can be proud of, even if they aren't necessarily the ones they personally want to play. That's professionalism.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Presenter at the TMF Game Awards, GamExpo 2004

Utrecht, the Netherlands

TMF is an international music television channel -- the Netherlands' answer to MTV. In conjunction with a big Benelux game trade show, GamExpo 2004, they held an awards show in Utrecht. The awards were for games and gamers in a variety of categories, and each category had its own "celebrity" presenter. I was invited to come and be the presenter for Best All-around Game, which turned out in the end to be Doom 3. Not the one I would have chosen, but the games were selected by a popular vote of gamers.

Being an award presenter consists of tedium intermixed with terror. The process consisted of sitting around for a long time during rehearsals, stepping in for my 30 seconds, then sitting around for a long time during the real thing, and finally stepping in for my 30 seconds again. The show was being recorded for editing and broadcast later, but because it had a live audience it was effectively live TV -- there was no time for re-takes. Much of the time I didn't know what was going on, as proceedings were conducted in Dutch; but at least when I spoke to people they replied, quite well, in English.

While I was on stage, I took the opportunity to plug a game made by some friends of mine: Killzone, from Guerilla Games. They're the most successful of Holland's (very few) game developers, and as they weren't in the running for the awards this year, I thought they'd appreciate a mention. Since they were the hometown team, it went over very well with the crowd.


Technicians setting up the awards stage.

After the awards show there was a big party with a lot of food and drink, and music so loud that it was difficult to talk to anyone. Why do people insist on doing this? Nobody was dancing, and the sex ratio was, as usual for game events, about 20:1 male-to-female in any case. I took my leave when I started to get hoarse.

I enjoyed my visit and I thought it all went well, despite the tension of being on live TV.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Grieg Art Gallery opening and lecture, University of Teesside

Middlesbrough, Teesside

University of Teesside logoThis week I was honored to be asked to say a few words at the opening of a new gallery of videogame art at my academic home, the University of Teesside. Thanks to the untiring efforts of Maggie Parker, a graduate student there, the university now has a place to show off some of the best of its work, and that of others in the northeast. The gallery is named for Bill Grieg, a former head of the Department of Mathematics at the university, who was instrumental in building up its reputation as acenter of excellence in computing.

I think things like art galleries are an important step in the advancement of our medium's cultural credibility -- see my remarks below. I also gave an open lecture on game design which was very well attended; I think about 150 people showed up.

Here is the text of my remarks at the gallery opening:


Good afternoon, and thank you. I'm honored to have been invited to speak at the opening of this gallery, and I would like to first offer my thanks to Maggie Parker for bringing me.

What I'd like to do is take a few minutes to give you the benefit of my thoughts as a longtime observer of games and game developers.

The first requirement of the artwork in a computer game is of course to serve the gameplay. In many games, where the gameplay is fast and furious, or in which it's abstract and artificial, the artwork need not be very sophisticated. But other games entertain by other means, and the graphics play an important part in creating the player's experience of a fantasy world.

Unfortunately, we often don't get the time to appreciate it as we would like. The process of gameplay doesn't always lend itself to aesthetic experience. We're often trying so hard to accomplish something that we don't have the time to admire the surroundings. And unlike a VCR or a DVD player, games don't usually offer a pause or freeze-frame feature. That's the first and most immediate benefit of this gallery: it gives us the chance to explore these images as creative works in their own right, separated from the context of winning and losing.

But there's a larger issue as well. With all the advertising, the press coverage, the blogs and the bulletin boards that surround the video game industry, it is easy to forget that the computer game is a creative medium, not a commercial market. There is nothing about the microprocessor or the monitor that requires games to be about shooting aliens or searching for treasure. And yet this is how video games are perceived by most people.

This problem has occurred before. In the 1950's, in the United States, comic books were labeled as, and indeed forced to be, nothing more than light entertainment for children. For thirty years, the potential of the comic book was unexplored because of this essential confusion between the medium itself and the content for which it was best known.

With the computer we can do much more than comics could ever do. What Escher did for two dimensions, we can do for three. What comics must do in single frames, we can do in continuous movement. What they must do silently, we can do with sound, and so on.

Yet video games still lag behind comics in the struggle for cultural acceptance. Comics are now recognized as an art form capable of producing serious works of literature. Video games are not. Yet.

Comic books only achieved their newfound respect when a few writers and artists had the courage to look beyond their traditional themes of saving the universe and fighting crime, and when a few others were willing to help publicize their achievement. And the same will be true for us. It is we, the pioneers in this medium, who must expand the frontiers of what it can be -- we who must change the preconceptions of those who would judge us -- we, who must correct the stereotype that we have wrought for ourselves.

Before we can do this, however, we must act as if we believe that games are an art form.

And that is why this gallery, and others like it, is an important step in the development of our medium. It gives us an opportunity to identify, and to publicize, the work of the best among us. To select these works not with the mindless democracy of the marketplace, but with the keen aesthetic judgment of the expert.

The people who establish art galleries are the philosopher-kings of their medium. They do not decide what is best on the basis of what the mob likes; they decide what is best on the basis of what seems best to them. This is a grave responsibility. There were times in the past when this authority was abused, or when it was so hidebound by tradition that it was incapable of recognizing important advances. Fortunately, I think that is unlikely to happen here. The people who have established this gallery have more in common with Joseph Turner than with Sir Joshua Reynolds.

So, as we examine the works on display today, let us also remember the larger implications of what it means to have a gallery of video game art. Whether you like or dislike an individual piece is not the issue. What is important is that this space is here, available to be a place where people can gather to experience, to analyze, and to debate, the nature and merits of video game art. And I believe that is beneficial to the game industry, industry, to students and teachers, and to society at large.

Let me offer you my congratulations and my thanks for having created it for us.