Indiscriminately Valuing Non-Violent Games

Starting with the 1980s arcade games Galaxian and Missile Command, games and combat became nearly synonymous. This was only exacerbated in the 90s by the advent of wildly popular shooters like Doom. The choice to focus a game around antagonism, combat, and violence was not a conscious design decision, but a necessity of the industry and environment. There were abstract games that didn’t contain violence, but in general the highest-profile games were about, in essence, murder.

Doom screenshot

Doom: you shoot things. Dead simple.



Then a renaissance occurred in academia, and suddenly games were art. Nobody really knew what to do with this fact or what it meant, but it was revolutionary, and regardless of anything else, games were definitely art. To support this, a number of innovative (perhaps iconoclastic) non-violent games — games like Journey and Gone Home — were foisted up as evidence that games are art. “Games are art, they can convey aesthetics beyond violence.” Good, great. Innovative games that are fun without using violence in their designs are awesome.

Journey screenshot

Journey is one of the seminal games in the recent wave of “artistically-valuable” indie games.



However, this easily morphed into a reactionary movement. Since these games without violence or combat were touted as being somehow better or “more elevated” than your run-of-the-mill murder simulator, it became obvious that a game that was violent was inherently less.

Obviously, this sort of indiscriminate valuing of non-violent games is a terrible idea. A game that doesn’t use violence can be poorly designed and not-fun (Dear Esther, Mountain), just like a game that uses violence and combat can provoke deeper aesthetics (Hotline Miami, This War of Mine). Part of the problem is that nobody has developed the proper critical skills to analyze these non-violent, pacifistic games. Those that could view the design choices evenly and rationally are too busy climbing up their own assholes and praising the games for not using combat. On the other side, core gamers are immediately turned off by the lack of combat and write it off as boring.

This War Of Mine screenshot

Refugees have said This War of Mine accurately conveys the constant fear of living in a war-torn region.



One result of this dysfunction is the proliferation of so-called “walking simulators”. These are games whose main play involves walking around consuming either written, visual, or aural media, perhaps with light puzzle-solving mechanics (or similar accents). Many enterprising developers, whether they realize it consciously or not, have seized on the fact that making such a game guarantees some measure of success. They will be praised by academics and critics interested in furthering games as a legitimate medium, and have their game purchased by the small-but-steady audience of non-core, non-casual gamers (most of whom probably chafe at being called gamers).

Some walking simulators are great; I actually enjoyed Gone Home, in a way that I probably wouldn’t have if it had been a movie. They do a good job of immersing you in a focused, meaningful experience. Others are scattered or diluted by dissonant design decisions — like Corpse of Discovery. But nobody cares, because these games aren’t being evaluated on their merits as a game. They are either praised for being a game without combat mechanics, or they are ignored because they are a game without combat mechanics. Little else tends to go into the evaluation process.

Gone Home screenshot

Gone Home gives the player a meaningful experience despite being limited to looking at rooms and listening to audio.



A student game at USC, Chambara, got changed during development to be “non-violent”. The game originally saw samurai dueling in a starkly colored world. Now instead of blood, hitting an enemy produces a burst of feathers. Apparently this one tweak now qualifies it as “a transcendently beautiful and artistic entertainment game with a pacifistic outlook”. That is a direct quote from a faculty member at the school. You may see why this is troublesome to me. First of all, changing blood to feathers doesn’t change the fact that your game is about sneaking around and hitting other people with sticks before they hit you. That seems a far cry from a “pacifist outlook”. Second, this change actually hurts the game aesthetically. The blood splatters beautifully complemented the dichromatic nature of the game’s world. I consider the stark look of a blood splatter to be more artistic than a burst of feathers. Yet the game’s devs decided to make this tweak. Did they do it because it would benefit the game? No. According to the devs, “we were uncomfortable with the violence the game displayed and did not feel like it accurately reflected who we were and what we believed.” In other words, they value a game that contains bloodshed differently than a game that does not. Are they allowed to make this decision based on their personal beliefs? Absolutely. But isn’t it absurd to pretend that this tweak lends the game a “pacifist outlook”, and that it in turn allows the game to transcend to the angelic ranks of non-violent video games?

Blood Splatters

Blood splatters…


Feather Splatters

…and “feather splatters”.



I would urge critics and academics to judge pacifistic games on their merits as a game, not on their merits as a non-violent game. I would urge developers to treat the presence of combat and violence as just one among a countless sea of other design possibilities. If it aids your experience goal, you should include it and tailor it to the needs of your game as an experience. If it doesn’t don’t include it. But don’t decide to make your game non-violent or exclude combat mechanics just because it means your game will be valued as inherently better by a specific set of people.

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History is Cool

I’ve seen some talk about education pop up both on Twitter (Twitter is awesome) and in real life. It’s fairly apparent to many people that education ain’t what it used to be. Which is, to some degree, true. But the fact of the matter is that education hasn’t changed so much as the role that education needs to fulfill. I believe I’ve described in an earlier post the shift from industrial to post-industrial education, but I’ll reiterate.

After the industrial revolution, the demand for factory workers was high. Factory workers only need minimal education, about up to the elementary school level. These blue collar workers would become manual labor. Those who were smart enough went to high school, and became white collar workers. A select few of those people would go to college and become doctors, lawyers, scientists, judges, etc.

The parallax between then and now is obvious. As the demand for laborers has decreased and the demand for engineers has increased, more and more people are attending college. Unfortunately, the education system has not responded well to this influx. The collegiate system has become bloated as it tries to accommodate the new waves of people who need a college degree to get a decent job. The world has lost sight of the true reason for getting an education; although a person does get a certification as a result of attending college, their objective should be to learn.

Public education in elementary schools and high schools has also done a shoddy job of flexing its methods to prepare students for the constantly changing future. For example, children were discouraged from becoming artists 20-30 years ago, yet there is a high demand for creative people to create all sorts of digital media. As a modern example, elementary school curricula stress plate tectonics and other basic geology, drilling it into students’ heads year after year. That may have been necessary 40 years ago, when the theory was young and a majority of people still distrusted it, but now it is commonly accepted fact and there is no reason to stress it.

Not only is early education slow to change with the times, but it actively discourages children, intentionally or not, from learning some necessary skills. For example, the vast majority of people I talk to, even students at TJHSST (one of the top high schools in the country) haven’t seriously read a book (and certainly not for enjoyment) since the 3rd grade. The early grades have given them such a bad experience with reading that they dismiss all books as boring. This, quite obviously, is distressing. Disillusioned and lazy teachers teach interesting subjects like history and math in ways that turn children off, perhaps for life.

But history is cool. Yes, it’s also boring. But so is math, science, programming, reading, writing, foreign language, and sports. My point is, every subject has areas that are uninteresting to the uninitiated, and EVERY subject can be taught in a manner that makes you want to eat your own skull rather than listen to another second of it. The key to teaching a subject is show the student that it is awesome, and then start teaching the basics. Most importantly, though, make sure the student realizes that the field extends far beyond what they are learning right now.

Here are some examples of sweet historical events/times/people:
-The transition from Roman republic to empire
-The Battle of Agincourt
-The Fall of Constantinople
-The Mongols beating the crap out of everyone and being awesome
Nikola Tesla
Charles Babbage (way cooler than Tesla)

But not only are there examples of people who were incredible badasses, but even periods of history like the colonization of North America and the Middle Ages are inspiring. I find that whenever I read a textbook, my mind drifts off as I build a science fiction or fantasy universe which mirrors the status quo of that period in history.

But I digress. Essentially, learning is REALLY FUN. It can also be THE MOST BORING EXPERIENCE EV-OH MY GOD I JUST WANT TO TEAR MY FACE OFF WHY IS THIS SO UNINTERESTING.

Come on guys (yes, you). Step it up.

I’ll end with a quote from Saul Perkins: “My thesis is that 21st century parents should teach their kids three languages: English, Mandarin and coding. Software is so much a part of our lives to today that this is just a fundamental skill that people need.”

Source Filmmaker: First Impressions

Meet the Pyro

Meet the Pyro



As you may have heard, the Source Filmmaker was released two weeks ago at the conclusion of the Pyromania Update for Team Fortress 2. To get it at first, everybody was required to submit a survey form that included basic hardware and software specs about your computer, including whether or not a microphone was attached. The idea was that a limited, graded release would help give a taste of what the tool is like without flooding the Internet with videos. However, after three weeks of semi-open beta, the SFM team has gone public. You can download it here. Here are my first impressions of the tool (there is a TL;DR at the bottom).

The Source Filmmaker is a tool that allows “players” to set up scenes within any Source game, and then edit the resulting clips as if they were in an video editing program. This hybrid system passes over a lot of the conventional paradigms in film making. You can simultaneously modify how you want a shot to look AND change how the sequence is cut together. Scenes still have props, actors, lights, and cameras. However, if you decide while editing that you want a shot of the same scene from a different angle, you can create a new shot from a new angle in seconds.

This is definitely the direction that movies are headed as a medium. Computer graphics have reached a level of visual fidelity that allows filmmakers to create entire new elements and mix that with live footage. For instance, Sky Captain (an awesome movie, by the way) was shot entirely on blue-screen in some guys basement. All the environments and non-human actors were computer generated. This allowed the maker to move the actors around as he pleased. If he didn’t like the direction they were facing or their position on-screen, he could simply move them around like another 3D asset.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow



So far I’ve used the Source Filmmaker for a little over one week, on and off (I made this). From what I hear, experts at the program can deftly make complex scenes in minutes. However, I have yet to figure out all the hotkeys and efficient methods, so it takes me a long time to even sketch out a rudimentary scene. My speed is hampered, in some part, by the strange choice of hotkeys; The lower left part of the keyboard seems to have shortcuts distributed at random. Yes, every program has such a learning period in which shortcuts are committed to muscle memory. The SFM, though, for all its similarities to 3D programs, seems to have flipped the traditional hotkey set.

I digress, however. The primary aspect of SFM that impedes my work in the program is the tool’s concept of time and animation. To illustrate, let me explain the structure of the program: Each file is called a “session”; a self-contained clip. A single map is associated with each session. A session contains a strip of “film” which is composed of different shots.

Shots are independent scenes within the same map. Each shot has a scene camera and various elements that expand upon the base map set. Each shot also has an independent concept of time. You can move a shot “fowards” or “backwards” in time, which doesn’t move the clip in relation to other clips, but changes which segment of time the shot is showing within its universe. You can also change the time scale, which slows down or speeds up the clip.

If you move a shot to be before another shot, it will not change the shot, only the sequence in which the shots are displayed. This can be confusing and/or annoying. For instance, if you have a shot of someone talking, and you want to have a close-up shot or a different angle inside of that clip, there are two ways to do so. You could go into the motion editor and move the camera within the specific segment of time within the shot. The easier way, however, is to split the shot into three clips. The end clips remain the same, and inherit the elements from the single parent shot (which doesn’t exist anymore). In the middle clip, however, you change the camera to show a close-up angle. Both of these methods look the same; until you change your mind.

After you split a clip up into different shots, you can’t (to the best of my knowledge) add in a common element that spans all three shots, even though the elements that were there beforehand were inherited by all three. If you move a prop in one shot, it doesn’t translate over. This problem lends itself to a strange workflow, in which you set up the entire scene from one camera view, and only when you are satisfied do you split it up into different clips.

But how about the other method I mentioned? The motion editor allows you to select “portions of time” within a shot’s universe. You can make changes to objects and their properties, but the changes will only be visible within that time segment. For smooth transitions, it allows you to “partially” select time, and blend between two different settings. This feature can be extremely useful and powerful, but it is also a pain in the ass. While trying to hand-animate actors, I often find myself getting annoyed because I want to go back to the same time selection and add in something, or smooth over multiple curves. Since each entity stores its animation separately (each bone in a actor’s skeleton, for instance), I often find myself annoyed because I change an animation, but forgot about a bone. The animation ends up completely screwed, and its easier to start over than fix it.

Yes, a lot of this pain is due to my inexperience with the workflow. I’m sure I’ll get the hang of working with the strange animation system. But for any filmmaker or animation starting out, it will be quite a jump from the traditional keyframe methodology. In the Valve-made tutorials the guy talks about the graph editor, which seems to liken itself to a keyframed timelines. However, I have yet to glean success from the obtuse interface, and in any case the “bookmarking” system seems unnecessarily complex.

I want to cover one more thing before wrapping up. What can you put in a scene? Any model from any source game can be added in and animated. There are also new high-res versions of the TF2 characters. Lights, particle systems, and cameras are also available. For each of these elements, you need to create and Animation Set, which defines how the properties of the elements change over time. IK rigs can be added to some skeletons, and any property of any object in the session can be edited in real time via the Element Viewer. Another huge aspect of the program is the ability to record gameplay. At any time, you can jump into the game and run around like you are playing. All the elements of the current shot are visible as seen by a scene camera. You can even run around while the sequence is playing. You can also capture your character’s motion in “takes”. This is great for generic running around that doesn’t need gestures or facial animations. If you need to change something, you can convert the take into an animation set, which can be edited.

On the note of character animation, lip syncing is extremely easy. Gone are the pains of the phoneme editor in Face Poser. You can pop in a sound clip, run auto-detect for phonemes, apply to a character, and then go in with the motion editor and manually change facial animation and mouth movements.

TL;DR: To summarize my feelings, any person who admires the Meet the Team clips or the Left 4 Dead 2 intro trailer should definitely check out the Source Filmmaker. It’s free, and the current tutorials let you jump into making cool short clips; every clip looks really nice after rendering. The program does require a lot of memory and processing power though, so you will be unable to work efficiently if your computer doesn’t get decent framerates in TF2.

Unity and tjSTAR

Here is a soundtrack for this post:

Everybody should use Spotify. It’s like magic, but real.

So I wanted to talk about Unity. For those who don’t know, Unity is a game engine. But it’s way for than that. The best way to describe is an IDE for game development, similar to UDK. Every part of the development cycle (aside from asset creation) can be done within the program, from placing assets to creating game object behavior to playtesting. The engine also has built in support for pretty much anything you would want to do. Behavior is described through scripts, which can be written in JavaScript, C#, or Boo (which seems to be a Python/C# hybrid). Assets can be imported from almost any file format, without external conversion. For instance, any 3D file format that can convert to FBX works, and image formats from PSD to PICT. Unity constantly checks for asset changes and updates them in realtime.

A good analogy involves programming languages. UDK is like Java, while Unity is Python; Source is C++. You don’t really understand how much annoying background work you are doing with Source until you start using Unity. However, unlike Python, Unity has an enormous learning curve. This comes from its being extremely powerful. I’ve only just started working with it (a few days) and I can see that there is a huge amount of potential. I also still have no idea how to most of anything.

The event that sparked interest in Unity was tjSTAR, an annual symposium held by my highschool. In addition to Design Challenge events and student presentations, there are also panels and professional talks. I attended 5 talks, all of which were fairly interesting.

Game Design and Development as an Academic Path and an Industry
This presentation is an in-depth look into majoring in game design in college, what universities offer the best programs, and how to get in; accompanied by an overview of the game industry and the careers it offers.

Mr. Danny Kim
Student
University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Interactive Media Division

This was the presentation that got me interested in Unity. Of course, I had seen it before, such as at SAAST(the computer graphics course, specifically) when we looked at projects the undergraduate students had been doing, they used Unity for the most part. Danny Kim (a TJ alumni himself) also talked about how TJ is a great source of talent, both due to the large number of talented programmers, but also the great writers and artists. Any interested reader should check out his blog, See Play Live.

Big Data: What Is It and How to Cope With It
With the digital world enveloping our lives through mobile devices, digital home appliances, digital sensors and controllers, and video, data growth is expected to be massive in the coming years pushing into peta and zetabytes. Of this data, only 5%-20% will be structured. Find out how is the technology world is preparing to cope with this onslaught.

Ms. Rumy Sen
President & CEO
Entigence Corporation

This talk was about processing large amounts of data, especially sampled from online sources and social media. The objective is to analyze the whole of customer feedback across the Internet rather than from small testing sessions performed by marketing and consultant companies. However, this requires entirely new structures for storing and processing the data into a usable form. She talked about Hadoop and other forms of managing unstructured data that differed from conventional database methods, as well as processing methods such as massively parallel processor arrays.

Computer Vision: Challenges and Applications
Computer vision is the art of teaching computers to see and to understand what is in images and videos. The presentation will discuss some of the key challenges, and show practical applications.
Dr. Peter Venetianer
Director, Commercial Science Development
ObjectVideo

Computer vision is obviously interesting. The big brother of computer graphics (the two are inverse problems), it has stumped researchers for decades. The first professor to attempt the problem was sure that a summer with a lab of grad students would solve it fine. Now, 50 years later, we are starting to make some headway. Dr. Venetianer discussed some of the methods for separating critical objects from a noisy environment. Spotting movement from a fixed viewpoint is fairly easy. If you have three consecutive frames, spotting moving objects is simple using the three-frame method (it involves comparing differences). However, identifying the objects is much harder. If you know what to look for, the problem simplifies somewhat, but there are still numerous exceptions. A car is usually wider than it is tall, except when it is coming towards or moving away from the camera. A person is usually taller than they are wide, but a group of people is more likely to match the profile of a car.

Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation and Control
Guidance, navigation, and control (GN&C) is a specialty area in Aerospace Engineering that involves determination of how a vehicle gets to its target, knows where it is, and maintains its position or trajectory. These concepts and related technologies will be highlighted for spacecraft application. Some of the projects involving GN&C at Emergent Space Technologies will be summarized.

For more information, visit http://emergentspace.com/.
Dr. Sun Hur-Diaz
Vice President
Emergent Space Technologies, Inc.

Until you think about it, determining where you are in space might seem trivial. But because hardware never reacts perfectly, a spacecraft needs to constantly be checking its position and orientation. But you need a variety of instruments, such as sextants and telescopes, to determine orientation. To find your location in orbit you need at least four GPS satellites. Finding which orbit you want to go into requires some physics simulations, as well as constant corrections to maintain it. In fact, finding an orbit to optimize fuel usage and time for a set of destinations is a huge field.

Millimeter Scale Robotics Research and Development at the MITRE Corporation
As we continue to look for ways to keep soldiers and first responders out of harm’s way, the capabilities of robotic systems improve and demand for them increases. While large robots have been used extensively, the development of smaller robots opens up a range of additional potential applications, such as accessing confined areas for search and rescue or surveillance purposes. To address this emerging need, MITRE’s Nanosystems Group has been developing rugged, low-cost robots, designed to be carried in a pocket. They can be operated from a mobile phone and reconfigured in the field to quickly adapt to specific missions.
Ms. Jessica Rajkowski
Systems Engineer, Sr
The MITRE Corporation

I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I am working at MITRE this summer, albeit in a different division. The talk was still fascinating. Some of it was about developing micro-scale “robots” using interesting properties of polymers and metals. The speaker also discussed MITRE’s development of a hand-sized field robot designed to be low-cost, low-maintenance, durable, and easy to control. Obviously this would normally violate the rule of “cost, speed, quality; pick two”. To some degree it was speed that was sacrificed. It took years to develop the robot, but at its current stage it is pretty amazing. Another subject of the talk was the speaker’s project to set up a consistent test for testing whether a producer’s robot was up to MITRE standards.

I’ve also continued to use Google AppEngine and I’m working on a forum, seen here.

Starting a Game Studio

How do game studios get started? We always hear about game studios releasing a hit game and being boosted to fame. But whence do they come? I suppose most large companies and studios start as some guys in a garage or in a basement. Nowadays many companies are funded by the groups of venture capitalists, waiting to hit the next media goldmine. But in terms of game studios, are there still grass roots talent being formed and emerging? Or has the market environment become too hostile, and now new talent is forced to hop into the large studios as an insignificant piece of a game producing machine?

With most mainsteam games coming from the huge studios that have been bought up by corporate syndicates, there has been an increase in indie games recently. With the increased popularity of Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, fledgling studios don’t have to sign onto a corporate distributor to get their game noticed. Tiny, 5 dollar stocking stuffer games are now feasible to distribute, since releasing on Steam costs virtually nothing. Gone are the costs of creating discs and advertizing.

Studios still have to come from somewhere, though. I guess college is a great time to form a game studio. People are already there and live relatively close together, they don’t have a job, they have been studying their trade and want to apply it, and they have the time and motivation to accomplish something. I would go about creating a core team of one writer, and two coders, one or two artists. I would be a coder, but also keep the group coherent. Although 5 people may seem a little big to get off the ground, there would only be 3 people actively involved at one time on average. We would also need a couple voice actors, but that is outside talent and can be dealt with on a one to one basis.

After assembling, we would create our first game. No doubt it would take a couple iterations to get something desirable, but as long as something gets made, we’re fine. The game would probably be built on a pre-existing framework to speed up the development process. Once we have our first game out, we can bring one or two more people on board, and improve our infrastructure with the money from sales. After a second, larger game, we could probably get some investments and move into a building once graduated from college. As a standalone studio, it would probably be tough to make ends meet, but as a lead producer, I think I could keep projects on task and on time, yet still deliver an exceptional product. Perhaps we would eventually be bought up, but we could certainly argue a large amount of freedom in our contract if our games did exceptionally well.

Being the head producer of a studio would be great. It is your job to make sure good games are made, which means checking out and guiding every part of the process, from writing to coding to art design. It is your job to make sure people are working together, working quickly, and doing quality work. Such a job would suit me, as I have an interest in all aspects of game creation, an ability to hold a grand vision, the ability to help people communicate and work together, and the ability to split up an idea into steps and develop a timeline.

Another side of being the lead producer at a game studio would be dealing with management. If you belonged to a larger company, you would have people above you that don’t really understand or care what makes a specific game good; all they are dealing with is sales and other numbers. It might come down the chain of command that I should implement a certain system in my game, because it increased sales for these other games. Of course, my game is completely different and incompatible with that system. So it is up to me to please the management but still make a good, undiluted game. That sort of challenge is what makes producer an especially appealing job to me.

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