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Monday, December 29th, 2008

Back in Southern California: New City, New Team

How to Make Your Shooter Level Successful

FireBatHero’s StarCraft Victory Ceremonies

Sniper Rifle Armed Robotic Helicopters – America’s Solution to Piracy

How to Make Your Shooter Combat Better

Bioshock: The Most Important Game of the Generation

ESL Global Finals: Korean Team HON Wins Best WoW Tournament Game Ever

Brad Borne’s The Fancy Pants Adventure and Bruce Branit’s World Builder

What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer?

What’s Good About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer?

Akira Live-Action Adaptation Director’s The Silent City

A Real Guitar Hero – Sungha Jung 12 Year Old Prodigy Fingerstyle Guitarist

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Campaign Playthrough Notes

American Badasses and a Russian Who Became a Hero by Doing Nothing

Resident Evil 5 Demo Impressions

Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet

Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Crayon Physics Indie Game Released Today and 9 Theatrical Movie and Short Film

Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)

What Video Games Taught Me About Life

TapDefense Reviewed Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Tao of Jeet Kune Do Book Review – The Art of Street Fighting

2 Months: Star Wars Vs. Star Trek, Super Mario Level Mod and Flash Game Sonny

Tony Huynh Recommends

Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP

Why and How I Broke My Addiction to Caffeine

Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2

The iPhone 3G & AT&T Service Review

My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer

Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay

Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2

10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1

8 Ways to Make Your Goal a Certainty

Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1

Welcome to 1 Month

Money: What Steps I Have Taken to Save It

My Student Films

Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time

Mirror’s Edge Demo Review

Environmental Heresies – Wired Magazines Contrarian take

Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1

Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

Bet on the US, I am

Book Review of Craig Thompson’s Blankets

Book Review of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust

San Diego Versus Chicago

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Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer

Thursday, November 13th, 2008




Dead Space
Just finished playing through Dead Space and since I always take notes on every game I play through, I thought it would be useful to compile them all together and write a short disposition for Dead Space from a game designer’s perspective. Warning: Some very minor spoilers in this article.

Dead Space is a third-person survival horror game that closely resembles Resident Evil 4 only with better controls (strafing included) and taking place on the set of the movies Event Horizon and Sunshine. Dead Space was developed by EA Redwood Shores, whose previous effort was the licensed title, Godfather.

The Dead Space team runs a real clinic on great design decisions. Dead Space does a number of things to immerse the player in their world and keep them there.

One of the most important decisions made was to never take control away from the player. What this means is that the entire story takes place from the player’s camera. The great thing about this mechanic is that the player’s immersion is never broken by cutscenes. The negative is that story telling is more difficult for the developers as they cannot rely on cutscenes to drive the story forward. The developers at EA had to be extra inventive in the way they told the story of Dead Space and they managed to do a great job with audio and video recordings spread throughout the gameplay spaces as well as using NPCs to drive the exposition.

Another difficulty that the team must have faced was in introducing new enemy types to the player in a fair manner. That is to show what the new enemy type is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. Dead Space manages to get around the cutscene crutch in a number of interesting ways. They minimize the likelihood of the player looking in the wrong direction by picking spots like tight corridors to introduce their enemies or by placing the enemies behind glass and showing what the new enemy type is capable of by allowing the player to view the new enemy attack and kill another member of the crew. Another way that the game introduced a new enemy type is through foreshadowing. An example is when the player, passing through a room to complete an objective cannot help but notice the numerous holes punched through the walls. Returning to the room you are attacked by the giant worm that has caused all the damage in the room and it is pulling you towards the large holes. While this is not new to games, as Valve used a similar methodology in their title Half-Life, it is not often done because it is simply not easy to pull off. The developers at EA should be given credit for applying and following this rule, and it is a formula that I would implore other developers to follow.

The second decision made to promote player immersion is that Dead Space has no on-screen HUD. The player’s health is displayed on the character’s spine and gun ammo is read directly from the gun. This system is incredibly well executed and I am sure that going forward, there will be many games that will be copying this mechanic.

There are a few minor issues with not having a HUD that Dead Space did not handle gracefully. One example is since there is no “press A button to open” dialogue on the screen, I did not even know you could open any of the small crates laying on the ground until half-way through chapter 2, when I opened one by accident.

While on the subject of lack of information, the tutorial does not go overboard and lets the players discover a surprising number of the game’s mechanics. The alt-fire mode is not even explained until chapter 2 and the waypoint path is never mentioned and the first time I used it it was during a cinema, which caused it to not function at all.

Dead Space does manage to pull off many aspects of their game very well. Not being able to pause the game to use the inventory or map brought a risk versus reward and a heightened sense of danger anytime the player wants to check the map or use an item from their inventory.

Even the reuse of environment is handled well. Every one of the game’s 12 chapters start the player in a hub area where the player can save, replenish on items from storage and buy upgrades and items at a store. The hub branches off into multiple directions where the player will accomplish each of their objectives for the chapters. This allowed for reuse of the environment as the areas were populated with enemies on the way down to the objective and repopulated on the way back. This repetition is somewhat mitigated by very good scripted events both ways through as well as the player’s desire to reach the hub again to replenish supplies.

The Zero-G environments are impressive visually and offer a lot of unique gameplay from a platforming standpoint.

The dynamic lighting in Dead Space is shown off to great effect through the use of flickering lights, sirens, wires that flail all around spewing electricity and even random objects hinged to the ceiling just swaying back and forth casting shadows. Little tricks like these really help to make the game environments seem less static and more alive.

The audio is one of the highlights of the game. Creepy singing from people driven insane, screaming in the distance, Necromorphs wailing, objects being knocked around and even the occasional music are all dead on and set up the creepy mood.

The telekinetic powers and puzzles helped break up the pacing and the way it is used reminded me a lot of Star Wars: Force Unleashed. This made me start to wonder how a Jedi would behave in a survival horror style of game. Back on topic.

Last note: Guns whose parts animate all over the place like the Line Cutter are always cool.

Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. As with most middle portions of games, they are usually slow and uneventful. Sadly, Dead Space is no exception to this rule.
2. Playing on a console I was surprised by the absence of aim assist on the turret sections of the game. It was immensely frustrating attempting to aim at precise points on the Xbox Controller without any assistance. You can get away with this on the PC Mouse, but with a console controller this is simply not acceptable.
3. Taking away the player’s ability to run on sticky substances was intriguing, but not explored. I am really surprised EA Redwood Shores did not take advantage of this more. The player’s inability to run could have led to a number of cool scare moments. Just off the top of my head, imagine the fear and anxiety of the invulnerable Necromorph chasing you through a corridor where you cannot run from it, but must slow it down with limb shots to make your getaway. This is a missed opportunity.
4. The red explosive barrels that do not affect the enemies are a “wtf moment.”
5. Why does the game reset my plasma gun alt-fire position to default at the beginning of every level and on reloads? This gets annoying.
6. The way the game spawns enemies behind you or when you turn a corner and the tiny Necromorphs (which are out of your view frustum because they are tiny) immediately latching onto you is pretty cheap. If you are going to do that at least give the player some warning and a chance to react. An example of this warning could be, the player enters in a room and hears a crash through the ceiling behind him and then hears the roar before the Necromorph attacks him.

Despite these relatively minor issues, Dead Space is an achievement and is one of the first fruits of a welcome shift within EA to create more original IPs. This is a game that developers, aspiring developers and gamers should not miss.

For aspiring developers, this article is an example of what a designer is looking at when they play games. To learn more about how to become a game designer please read: Become a Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1.

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See my other related articles also:
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008



Introduction
I have been asked the question of “how do you become a video game designer” countless times. Instead of answering each and every time (like I had been doing), I decided to write this article. I hope this is helpful to you.

What is a game designer?
More so than any other discipline in the video game industry, the game designer is the most outwardly glamorous position. You are the linchpin that holds animation, art, and programming together. There are a great number of rewards for being a game designer, you get to see your ideas and creations take shape and come to life on the screen, your work gets seen by a lot of people, there is no dress code and work hours are usually very flexible. Since I love games and presumably you do too, you get to work in an industry that creates things that you love and is your favorite hobby.

Being a successful game designer is not without sacrifices. Despite the EA spouse letter, the industry as a whole is still terrible at work-life balance. You can expect to put in a staggering number of hours. Also, since most full-time workers are on salary, you will not be paid for overtime. I am not complaining about this, only that this is information that you should have before you commit to a career in game design. As a game designer I usually put in 50-hour weeks and this ramps up dramatically before monthly milestone deadlines and the inevitable crunch period that occurs before a game ships. The crunch period starts up to six months out from a game shipping. During this time you can expect to be putting in 12+ hour days 6 or 7 days a week up until the game ships. I have been in some really bad crunches where I was averaging over a hundred hours every week for months at a time without a break.

If the above warnings have not deterred you and you have decided you still want to be a game designer, your next question is probably “how do you become a game designer”.

Work ethic
You will need drive and determination. Game design positions are extremely competitive. Getting in requires an unquenchable desire, dedication and the ability to keep going despite setbacks. Only those of you willing to claw, kick and scream will make it. In order to get the drive necessary to succeed you should first answer for yourself the question of “why you want to become a game designer”. Your answer to this question should be something so strong that you can cling on to it in your bleakest hours and it will keep you hungry to succeed. Once you have the answer to this question, you will have the reason for all the hard work you are about to put in to be able to overcome any obstacles in your way.

Now that you have the proper mindset and work ethic required, we can start talking about how to best direct your work with the goal of obtaining a job as a video game designer.

Find a company to apply to
The next question you should ask yourself is what genre of game would you like to make? Select a genre or genres of games that you are drawn to, are knowledgeable about and enjoy playing and then find out and list all the companies that make these types of games.

The gaming industry as a whole is heavily situated in a few areas in the United States. If you are not currently residing in one of these areas, you must be willing to relocate to get the jobs. Some of the places in the United States with the most densely populated game studios are Southern California, Seattle Washington, Austin Texas and San Francisco California. Again, you will want to focus on the companies that specialize in the genre of game that you want to work in. Do not apply to a studio that makes first-person shooters hoping to work on a real-time-strategy game.

Once you have a list of studios, learn about their previous titles, the history of their company, the names of the founders, how their stock is doing, etc…

Education
Although you do not technically need a degree, I have found a rounded education to be very valuable. To be a successful game designer you will need a broad education. In fact, I became a game designer because it is one of the few professions that allowed me to apply my diverse interests in writing, history, movies and games in one job. If you are self-motivated to constantly learn about a broad range of topics and expose yourself to new things, you will be able to get by without a degree.

Needless to say you will need to play games. A lot of games. As a video game designer you should have an encyclopedic knowledge of games from all genres. Do not only play games that recently came out that received high marks, but go back and play older and lower reviewed games. As you play these games, write about why they are fun, what they did to promote replayability, what was not fun, what would you do differently to make a better game, what mechanics influenced the level design, how did the enemy and weapon placement affect the way you played the game, study the weapon balance, controls, interface, pacing, audio, etc.

Communication
Learn how to communicate effectively both written and orally. A major part of a game designer’s job is to communicate the design vision to their team. To do this effectively you will need to have good social and communication skills. These are skills that you will want to place an emphasis on to practice and develop if you do not already possess them.

Read books
Read everything that you can get your hands on about storytelling, game design and the process of game development. In subsequent articles I will be covering specific books in my book review section, but here is a list to get you started.
http://www.edge-online.com/features/50-books-for-everyone-in-game-industry

Read part 2 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

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Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 2

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008



<-Go back to Part 1 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

Tools of the Trade
Game design is an increasingly technical field. Here is a list of programs that will get you started. You should know at least one from each of these categories.

Commercially Available Game Engines
The commercially available game engine tools are the most important piece of software you can know as a game designer. Learn one of these suites inside and out. Even if a studio you will be applying to does not use a commercial game engine, it will be a solid foundation for whatever proprietary engine they do use. The great advantage these engines have are that they are shipped with games that are on the market and there is plentiful documentation and even tutorial videos to help you learn them. Here is one of the sites that helped me out when I was a new designer learning Unreal: http://www.3dbuzz.com/.

I will be covering this more in depth in the portfolio section of this article, but you should be trying to make a playable level with the engine that demonstrates your knowledge of the engine tools as well as shows off your design sensibilities and skills.
Examples of commercial engines: Unreal, Source, Radiant and CryEngine 2.

Top-down Level Layout Software
Using specialized software to create level layouts is very efficient, quickly conveys your level ideas and shows off your design sensibilities. While I much prefer using Adobe Illustrator, I have seen other designers work magic with Microsoft Visio. Visio is also great for creating flowcharts for events or AI behaviors.

Programming/Scripting Language
Learning to script and think in pseudocode is a very valuable skill for game designers. The syntax of the language is not as important as the thought process involved. Nonetheless, each of these following programming languages are popular and actively used in the game industry and it would benefit you to learn one of them. Examples of programming/scripting languages: LUA, Python, Unreal Script/Kismet, DoomScript and C++.

Microsoft Office
Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and Outlook are all indispensable to a designer.

3D Modeling Programs
With so many commercial engines now shipping with built-in BSP editors more and more development studios are moving their designers away from dedicated 3D modeling programs. While this is a trend in the industry, quite a few development houses still require you to know one of these programs. So it will depend on the particular developer you are applying to. Examples of 3D modeling programs: Maya, 3D Studio Max, and Sketchup.

Portfolio
As a designer who has poured through numerous portfolios and resumes and conducted countless interviews, I can tell you that the portfolio and the interview are the two most important aspects in being hired. The first step is building the portfolio, as a strong portfolio inevitably leads to the interview. A portfolio is used to demonstrate your skills and design sense. While a portfolio can consist of any number of different things, I would recommend samples that demonstrate your knowledge of the above listed programs. I would also recommend creating a sample tailored towards specific companies that you are applying to. An example might be creating and including a level design document for a game that a studio had previously released. A level design document should include a write up of your level idea, the events that will happen during the level and any puzzles that the players must overcome. This should also include top-down maps outlining how the map will look, where the enemies are introduced, where weapons and powerups will be placed. This document will show that you are capable of good design as well as possess the ability to communicate effectively through documentation.

More important than the level design document is the playable level or game. Pick one of the commercially available game engines above and create a playable level or game. If you choose to build out a level, if applicable, place down cover for the player to hide behind to create a front, place weapons, place powerups, place enemies and script their behavior. Think about pacing, encounters, what the player is feeling while playing and what choices are available to them. Remember that Sid Meier defined gameplay as “a series of interesting choices.”

Creating a thorough and polished portfolio is difficult and time consuming. When trying to get my first design job in the game industry, I would work a full time job and then immediately head home to work on my portfolio until 2AM everyday. Weekends were huge and I dedicated my entire weekends to improving my portfolio. With the singular focus of completing my portfolio with every free moment I had, it still took me over six months of constant work to get it to a spot where I thought I could show it to others. This may seem like a lot of time, but this is one of those sacrifice things I was talking about earlier.

Unless specified on the job application website, a portfolio is best presented in website format. This will save you the time and money creating DVDs or whatnot and the mailing postage.

Resume and Cover Letter
I will not be spending time covering the process of making a professional looking resume because there are so many sites that cover this already. The cover letter in many ways is more important than the resume. The cover letter is your opportunity to sell yourself to the company. Introduce yourself and your skills and emphasize how you can help fill the company’s needs and realize their goals.

Interview
Here are some interviewing tips I have picked up over the years.

If you have followed the advice written above, at this point you should be very knowledgeable about the company you are applying to. I am reminding you again to learn about the company you are applying to because I cannot count the number of times a candidate has come into an interview with no clue what the studio has worked on in the past or what announced game we are currently working on.

Practice
Do not neglect the interview portion. Acing the interview not only means getting the job, but also gives you greater room to negotiate your salary.

One of the most important qualities I am looking for in a candidate during an interview is how well they communicate their ideas to others. Use cue cards to practice answering questions. Practice will make you more comfortable and will lower your anxiety levels and improve performance.

When asked about your previous employment, do not attack your previous company or co-workers during the interview. I am looking for loyalty from the candidate.

Dress
The gaming industry is one of the few places where it does not benefit you to come dressed in a three-piece suit. In fact it may harm your chances. We are looking for people that will fit in well and as there is no dress code for developers, wearing a 3-piece suit into this environment is a mistake.

My recommendation is to dress in a collared shirt or sweater, trousers and some comfortable shoes (no flip-flops) for men and a suitable top (not too revealing) and trousers or skirt for women.

What to bring to the interview
Bring several copies of your resume, some examples of your work, something to write with, a notepad, water and energy bars. I like to bring energy bars because interviews at a lot of game companies are structured with multiple interviewers over an entire day. If you need to, snacking in between interviewers will keep you energy level up.

Quality Assurance
Lastly there is Quality Assurance. QA is the “mail room” of the gaming industry. This is usually where most people get their first taste of the industry. A position in QA has a lot to offer to an aspiring game designer. Being in Quality Assurance will put you in an environment with others who are also trying to advance their game careers. Team up with them and work together to polish your respective portfolios.

Some of the other things you will learn are what bugs are and how to communicate them effectively to other developers. If you are working on console games, be sure to etch into memory Sony’s Technical Requirements Checklist (TRC) and Microsoft’s Technical Certification Requirements (TCR). These are industry requirements that a game must pass in order to ship on these respective platforms and you can learn to avoid these violations while designing your future games. You will also witness and be a part of how a game changes through the development cycle.

If at all possible, try to get hired in the QA lab of a game developer instead of a QA outsourcing company. This way you can hound and possibly show off your portfolio to developers and get feedback.

Lastly, work harder than everybody else around you. Volunteer feedback and stay late on your own. If you can get a QA position testing the game engine tools, be sure to learn them and start creating levels with them.

Conclusion
Most importantly do not give up. If faced with a setback, learn from it and redouble your efforts. Hang on to the “why” you want to be a game designer and let that drive you. So now that you’ve heard what I have had to say on the topic, it is time for you to get to work. Good luck! If you leave any questions in the comments section, I will try to answer them to the best of my ability.

<-Go back to Part 1 of Become a Video Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know

See my other related articles also:
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 1
10 Greatest Video Game Designers Part 2
Low Skill Cap and Luck (RNG) in World of Warcraft PVP
Top 5 Greatest Moments in Competitive Gaming (eSports)
What Video Games Taught Me About Life
Roger Ebert is Right: Games are Not High Art…Yet
What’s Bad About Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare Multiplayer Mode?
Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Call of Duty: World at War Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Gears of War 2 Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 1
Best Games of All Time by Genre Part 2
8 of the Most Underrated or Overlooked Video Games of All Time
Pimps at Sea err I mean Age of Booty & Gen 13 Cosplay
My Student Films 2: EverQuest Documentary and Guilty Gear Isuka Trailer
Best MMA Fights & Genki Sudo: Real Life Video Game Character

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Posted in Books, Video Games | No Comments »

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