Chasing dreams

My dad tells me to always have a dream. I think what he’s trying to say is to always find a way to stay alive. For a guy who escaped death, and probably living with survivor’s guilt, I trust this advice.

I’m living a dream. Maybe not THE dream, but definitely one of my dreams. It’s taken me half my life to achieve, some pretty lucky opportunities, and lots of lowered expectations.

The thing is I have too many dreams, so I end up having issues with FOMO, Fear of Missing Out, or a sort of grass-is-greener syndrome.

In the game industry, what I appreciate the most is working with the team. But the audience that we are creating products for could learn a thing or two about how to treat women as equals. Coming to Japan, and hanging out at BitSummit for the first time this weekend, it’s great to see girls attending and enjoying the games for themselves. But then I heard a guy having a one-sided discussion with a girl who only giggled, and I mentally rolled my eyes.

I am finding that my passion in making games has changed to provide an alternative way for people to learn. It’s a medium that I enjoy learning how to figure out things, and I want to share that.

But I gotta work on communication first.

We Are Game Developers

A colleague just launched a website that interviews more of the game developers that you don’t often see in the usual game media outlets and it inspired me to write a bit.

When I was a kid, I wanted an NES. That thing entertained me for years, in addition to cartoons on TV. At one point, Samurai Pizza Cats was playing, so when my mom brought back a cart from a trip to Vietnam, I was surprised to see Speedy, Polly, and Guido. I was so excited to play this game, thinking that no one else had, but I couldn’t really share it because I couldn’t read it. It had a game feature I’d never played before: switching characters with different powers to overcome an obstacle. Since I couldn’t read the Japanese, most of the fun was figuring out the UI and HUD elements, and what button activated what, and in what menu or play state. But there were also a lot of cut-scenes with story-telling and dialogue that I couldn’t understand beyond the simple character animations, and the melody of the chiptunes. キャッ党忍伝てやんでえ was one of the discoveries that motivated me to study Japanese.

A few months ago, I sat in Makoto Goto’s lecture at Aizu University. He’s one of the developers of the latter Final Fantasy series, and is currently developing middleware for making particle effects. He recounts his first experience with programming, growing up in the rural mountains of Niigata, and having to travel 3 towns away to the nearest bookstore that carried a book on BASIC. Where he got the computer to practice executing BASIC is a question for another time.

One thing he said that I never really thought about was “Making games is to bring your dreams to reality.” It’s sort of a “duh” thing to say about any art medium, but I was reminded to when I felt limited as a kid, when dreams are still being explored and waiting to be discovered, and connections between what we experience to what we imagine could be true were being made. So things like Mario walking into pipes and Sonic the Hedgehog running through the city become iconic because we were just trying shit out.

But the game industry grows older with us. There will always be a place for experimentation, but individual experiences provide different interpretations. Possibilities and access are more open to those who carry certain privileges, and we soon discover that those who lack those privileges have other ways of achieving goals. And I think that’s where today’s impactful games are going and need. Presenting problems that many people don’t think about with solutions that are challenging to find.

The design structures are already there, now we just need to fill it with content.

Fukushima Game Jam

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So I only found out about the Fukushima Game Jam this morning after following a tag from one of the people I met at the Hackathon. The tweet mentioned that she was at a game jam, and that’s how I came to know about FGJ.

It’s the 5th year that IGDA Japan has put this event on, following 3/11 as a way to support and bring attention to Tohoku. The game jam is held all over Japan, as well as Taiwan, Switzerland, and Boston this year. The main event is in Koriyama in Fukushima, so a bunch of developers from big companies came to help the students build their games and connect with other game students. Yay, empowerment!

This year’s theme was “Soaring”, so there were a lot of flying games. The ones that stood out to me were Fukushima Crossing Ultra Fight (福島横断ウルトラファイト) and SoaRING. The former is a tapping game for kids to push against a stampeded of Akabeko, a symbol, and awesome mascot character, for Fukushima. The latter is a regenerating donut that you fly through the air, and shoot bits of “yourself” (which takes away your “self”, or your life) at UFOs that carry characters which I think you feed/collect for points.

These are my picks because I think the world would love to get to know akabeko, and a flying donut with de/regenerating health states is kind of hilarious.

Fukushima Game Jam also Skyped with other schools around the country in Aomori, Sendai, Okinawa, Okayama, and of course Tokyo (they had a failed call in Nagoya). The most polished looking games seem to have come from Tokyo, but my favorite from the other schools would have to be flying a cloud of tanpopo (dandelions) as far as you can, and the ending depends on where you land. As the dandelion cloud, you have to avoid birds, spider webs, and even human hands reaching out to get you (hah!).

My favorite Skype session was with Shohoku Junior College (湘北短期大学). The organizer was a Takagi-sensei, who really entertained everyone with her incessant time-keeping to fill in the empty spaces. I think I saw the most girls present at this school, and I thought it must be so nice to have a female mentor in game development as a woman. It definitely left an impact on me.

A few points of critique:

  • Game design is basically a toybox of game mechanics, and Japanese game design is no different. Since the Japanese market clusters around mobile smartphones and tablets, game design was central to those devices. I saw a lot of the same game mechanics, just a bit dressed up to fit the theme. As far as input goes, I didn’t see anything innovative, except for pairing a Nexus tablet with a Mac to control a paper airplane.
  • Games in the West have pushed into reality, while games in Japan are still in the imaginary. This is perfectly fine, but in one conversation I had, “serious games” was a repeated comment. I’m not sure if it was serious or not, but it felt as if “serious” games were not very popular. “Immersive” games are what I think is more appropriate, and was the buzzword 5 years ago. Western games do well beyond the niche gaming community because they give the player a sense of limitless possibility in the real world (whether that’s good or bad is another conversation),  or at least a new, but realistic, experience to learn. Japanese, or even Asian games, is just grind and grind and grind, giving a false sense of productivity.

If Japan wants to succeed, the young people need to go abroad and learn new things rather than learning from what’s already available. There is a foundation to be learned from the past generation, but that foundation needs to also nurture young minds to enjoy learning and creating on their own. This is how the West has moved forward in games. It has the power to educate, and if knowledge is power, then learning something after finishing a game is its own reward.

Industries

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I used to work in the video game industry as a producer. Some might correct me and say, “Associate,” but there were quite a few projects where I was given the autonomy to get the gears rolling. The only thing that set me apart from the producer was who called the shots. But even then, I was the one giving the options for shots.

I have to admit, though, that negotiating terms with clients was probably my weakest point. My style of communication has always been blunt and to the point, but it seems that only those who’ve risen to a certain level of power are able to be taken seriously with that sort of attitude.  Men, I guess. Even as a genderqueer woman, I could only be taken seriously as long as I had good people on my team, those who understood the value of people, regardless of gender, and didn’t feel the need to be loud and macho about their ambition. People who were modest, but confident, and strived to do a good job, and you can trust that in the end, they will always do a good job.

This was my Rock Band 3 DS team. We worked together almost independently from Rock Band 3 because it was another genre of game than the consoles and not entirely dependent on them. Of course, the development process was never without issues, as we worked on new tech to integrate a network co-op feature, and had to figure out how to crunch millions of polys onto a small screen without it looking like Starfox, and tweaking design until it was bug free, but in the end, we were on time and within budget. Heck, I had enough to get my team DS LL’s as team schwag. The whole experience was a lot of fun. My only regret is that I couldn’t get a Tegan and Sara song on the game’s soundtrack. I think it would have been my biggest credit to the queer community.

But in the project following that, I failed to pull my team through. We worked with a new client, who sent new producers to work with us on a sequel. We had a good start, discussing thoroughly the game design document during pre-production the features we could offer, the features they wanted. We negotiated openly and professionally, making direct calls whenever necessary for requested changes. But once production started, those calls kept coming.  Features started creeping in. Our amazing contract concept artist was constantly busy adding and deleting requests from the client, our awesome engineers, who were trying to adjust to a new engine, experimented to make proof-of-concepts to see if we could do what the client was feature creeping. I finally had a firm talk with the client, telling them that we need to settle on some final concepts because all these requests were burning into our production time. It was late one evening, and I remember it being a very emotional and angry conversation. The phone call ended with me feeling guilty about getting the last word, that I went to my designer and wanted to know if he thought I was a ranting banshee. I doubt he was really listening, as I didn’t get much feedback, but I could tell he could see my frustration.

The client took a step back, but would sometimes request for more. Before shutting them down, I would seriously think about what could be done and bargained for such a change. That’s how my conversations with them came to be. You want this, we’re cutting this. We finally got our tech up, and things were looking up, except I was so mentally exhausted, worrying about the schedule, worrying about what the next request would be, worrying that we wouldn’t be able to achieve it because there was still so much tech to build that I just couldn’t handle anymore setbacks. I asked for help, but I was at the lowest point that there was no return. I simply checked out, and I was guilty for it because my leads were also exhausted, and we weren’t even halfway through our goals, even though our schedule was already halfway over. When I told them I was planning on leaving, I felt even worse when I got their blessing. I swore I would help them however I could.

The day I put in my 2 weeks notice was my weekly meeting with my boss. He told me he considered my request to have an actual producer on the project with me working with him, since they weren’t ready to promote me. I had requested either a promotion to producer, or have an actual producer on the project because the client was steamrolling us, and I felt that the lack of a producer caused the lack of respect. I couldn’t talk with them on equal terms. Never did I think gender was a factor, but now, sometimes I wonder.

In any case, it was too late. I was leaving, and I wasn’t sure where I was going. I was asked to work at a nearby company, but I really wanted to work in Japan, though I didn’t know how to go about it. My significant other at the time recommended I should take the job I was invited to work at. We broke up a few months later, and I was able to keep the apartment for myself because of the significant increased pay.

I started my new job about a month after I left, and things were going really well. Every now and then I heard news from my team and the new producer, and how they were doing with the project. I know I tend to over-dramatize things, but sometimes I felt like I had abandoned the team and left them in the gas chamber. There is a scene from Dr. Zhivago that I remember seeing as a kid, when stripped Jews were hoarded in a gas chamber, and when the gas came on, people rushed to the doors, begging for their lives. The actual scene lasts for only a moment, but every now and then, a flash of it appears in my head.

Actually, I’ve never seen Dr. Zhivago in its entirety, so I guess I ought to rewatch it again.

The one piece of news that I was able to get pleasure from was hearing that the producers I had worked with got fired or demoted. I like to think that my exit was a catalyst to this and it won the team a new client producer to work with, and hopefully extra time and money. But that’s wishful thinking.

Whether I was good at game production probably depends on who you’re talking to. As someone who is gender neutral, I like to treat everyone with equal respect. If I’ve got someone with an ego, with or without substance, I’m going to treat them just like everyone else, but if I’ve got someone who’s working hard, and doesn’t care what anyone says, including me (but is also a team player and finishes their priority tasks…!), I’m going to treat them like a rockstar.

The motivation for this post came from an acquaintance who called out all the women he knew who were or are game developers to help him with a project he was working on. I was disappointed I wasn’t called on, especially since he probably wouldn’t have met these women had I not referred him to my company, but considered that all the women he called were typical, attractive women whom people don’t usually peg to be in the games industry. I noticed that he didn’t call out another friend of mine that he’d worked with, who is female, but tomboyish not your usual girl. I think this says much to me about his, and perhaps the general, perception of what is women in the industry. Just as I’m starting to feel visible, I am once again made invisible.

It is in these instances when I am left out that is frustrating, and reminds me to hold on to these experiences tighter so that I may share them to anyone who would like to listen.

Trilogy Complete

I finally completed my favorite adventure trilogy, Gabriel Knight, with The Beast Within. Took me 20 years because there were no playable formats once technology advanced like mad, so you’d either have to find the right custom computer in order to play the game CDs you owned (which crashed on me all the time so I gave up), or wait until someone virtualized it, which 20 years later I did.

I love this series for a number of reasons:

1. Interweaving of real life history, culture, with fiction

GK1  focused on New Orleans voodoo history. GK2 mixed Bavarian history with the occult and werewolves. GK3 featured the Knights Templar and Jesus. There are those moments that remind me of what I remember from those games that makes the experience feel a little more familiar and encourages you to step out a little further.

2. Player engagement in deciphering puzzles from real life artifacts and locations

I can’t say that all the clues from the games are completely accurate, but every game featured locations and museums that are real and can be visited. These games are the predecessors to Dan Brown, and everyone who played them know it.

3. Each story takes place in a different location

New Orleans, Germany, France. I’m not a great traveler, but I do like to see different histories and cultures, and it’s so much more enticing to discover when there’s a mystery thrown right on it.

4. Each story utilized a different visual format (This is not necessarily a good thing, but I’m a sucker for gimmicks)

Beautiful 2D art and animation, Full Motion Video, and 3D art and animation (IMO, the worst).

5. Grace Nakamura

Best sidekick ever. She’s female, APA, witty, and smart. Though she could be a little less sour, but not much you can do when your partner is a slacker.

Adventure games have always had an issue with the hint system, sometimes you just never know what to do next. Designers never want to give something completely away, but I think a robust hint system which smart ways of delivering hints would have saved adventure games. A character’s thoughts on event triggers seems doable enough, but visual and audio cues are definitely more appreciated. It adds ambient life to the environment, and if done correctly, it stands out enough to engage the player. It was probably a huge resource in its time to do, but I think it would have been fun to play god and find ways to deliver “signs” to their protagonists, which the player would have to pick up on in order to know what to do next. For example, I was especially stuck with getting the lily and putting it in the water in memorial to Ludwig… Would have never thought of that unless I saw the lily plant blossoming, or a ghostly Ludwig calling from the water.

This series started in the 90s, so lessons have been learned since then. In any case, everyone agrees that the narrative is the backbone of a good game, but there are so many ways to present the story. I like to predict what’s going to happen in a movie, but I do appreciate seeing it being unfolded before me, so these kinds of games are exactly what I love to play.

Save games

I hate that you can’t transfer Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood save games to different PS3 machines. WTF, I invested so much time into uncovering the secrets of Italy! Don’t make me do it again!

Update: I’ve read that you need to subscribe to Playstation Plus in order to transfer saved games to another PS3 system. Guess I’ll just marathon through another day.