Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Penny Arcade Expo: Reexamining My Values

As many of you probably know, this weekend marked the coming of the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) to Seattle. Being one of the few lucky enough to have not just the opportunity to attend PAX, but no less than a 3-day pass(!!!), I of course decided to make the most of the weekend. Unfortunately, due to some failures in the planning ahead department, I ended up missing or not getting into about as many events as I actually attended. However, despite this, I learned a great many things. The most important of these pertain not necessarily to the ins and outs of the game industry, although I did gain quite a bit of insight in that department, but to my goals as a game developer.

It has taken me a good deal of time to determine exactly why it is that I want to work in the games industry and what I want to accomplish there. For a while, I told myself that I wanted to make games that would make people happy; just as with singing, if I could make one person's day a little bit better with the work that I do, I would be content. As it turns out, I needed to become immersed in an environment that was completely dedicated to video games before I could really figure out what I really wanted to do. On the first day, as I wandered through the exhibition hall I discovered that the booths for all of the big-budget "next-gen" titles held remarkably little interest for me. Granted, part of this was that I didn't want to waste time waiting in line since I had a lot of panels to go to and wanted to explore the entire hall, but there was something else, too.

As the second day of the convention progressed, I pondered all of the things that I had been learning. Later in the day, I chose to skip one of the panels I had originally planned to go to in favor of exploring the exhibition hall a little more thoroughly. Once again, I found myself less inclined to visit the likes of Bioware, Microsoft, ArenaNet, Bethesda, Gearbox (despite the promise of Duke Nukem returned from the grave), Square Enix, or even Nintendo,  and more attracted to the smaller booths of the indie developers. That was when it hit me: all of those flashy sequels, even with their new technological and gameplay-related bells and whistles, are the same games that I've been playing for the past 15 years. I don't want to make those games, I want to make something new and different. And the reality of it is that I more than likely won't get a chance to do that at a large development company that makes blockbuster titles.

To do something new, something that's not what most publishers of games would consider "safe," you have to go independent and, as I've discovered, I'm more than okay with that. For a good while now, indie games have been growing on me, and I really came to appreciate them over the past month. The fact is the most unique gaming experiences I've had recently have been with indie games. Where else but XBox Live Arcade, PSN, Steam, and the web can you find games about a boy made entirely of meat, or using black goo to build elaborate structures? One of my favorite experiences this weekend was playing a game where I used a Rock Band-eque drum set as a controller in order to kill zombies. Sure, it may end up being mostly a gimmick, but it's creative and original, which is more than I can say for most of the highly-anticipated AAA titles.

Ultimately, I think starting at a larger company and then eventually going indie with some friends would be my safest course of action, assuming I survive DigiPen. Given how much money I owe in loans, I really can't afford to take chances when it comes to my first legitimate job.

Now, I could go on for a long while about all of the panels I attended and the things I learned from them, and the games I saw in the exhibition hall, and the wild costumes that some people were wearing, but ultimately the inner paradigm shift that I experienced takes precedence over all of that.

None the less, here are a few other important lessons:
-You don't have to write a story to tell a story
-Execution of an idea is more important than the idea itself
-Indie game devs are much more friendly
(There are more, but I can't think of any others that stand out right now.)

And a few titles to watch for:
-BattleBlock Theater (from The Behemoth, the creators of Castle Crashers)
-DrumSkulls
-Guild Wars 2
-Portal 2
-Retrograde
-Super Meat Boy

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Orientation, Part 1

I didn't think I'd have enough to write about after only one day of orientation, but it turns out I do! Yesterday was very informative. Between talking to some of the undergraduate students and the graduate student check-in/info session, I feel very much more "in the know" than I did previously. One of the first pointers that my roommate and I got from one of the undergrads was that we don't really need to know anything (initially) about game programming specifically to succeed at DigiPen. This in and of itself was somewhat comforting. It did become clear, though, from talking to some of them that these undergrads definitely know their stuff and it will be very beneficial to talk to them about game development.

From the graduate session, I gained a good deal of insight into what the next couple years have in store for me. I was initially under the impression that next semester's game project class was just going to be planning/prototyping a game, but as it turns out, it will be a full-fledged game project. If all goes well, I will have a working game by the end of the school year! How crazy is that? That being said, I'm definitely going to be working hard this year, especially next semester.

The advisor for all full-time graduate students and a third-year graduate student talked to us a little bit about the thesis and extra coursework tracks and what they entail. I learned that almost everyone who has chosen the thesis option has not graduated after the regular two years. We were also advised that, if we don't have a solid idea for our thesis by the time the second year rolls around, we shouldn't be taking that track. This makes me feel considerably less ashamed about gravitating, at least initially, towards the extra coursework option. Granted, the comprehensive exams won't be a piece of cake by any stretch of the imagination, but it seems like a much more sure-fire way (if there can even be said to be such a thing at a place like DigiPen) to graduate and to do it in two years.

I was also surprised to learn that one of the MSCS students, Jeff, is the computer networking instructor at DigiPen. The faculty want him to teach a graduate-level course in networking but, unfortunately, he doesn't yet have a MS or PhD, so he is currently unable to do so. Thus, they've decided to let him go through the MSCS program at DigiPen. This way, he can still teach his current classes, although I have a feeling that, even though he's doing the degree part-time, it's going to be a lot of work for him. Jeff warned us that if we end up having him on our team, he is not going to do the networking portion, seeing as he wants to learn something new. However, I understand that most graduate projects don't have networking capabilities, so this is probably a non-issue.

New insights into the way the program works has made the 33% graduation rate that I was given seem less horrible than I previously thought (what with a lot of people not graduating on time, or getting jobs and then not wanting to complete the program). Also, now that all of the second-year students have signed up, and there are 14 of them, it appears that the drop-off from the first year to the second isn't quite as dramatic as I thought. Granted, 6 out of 20 is still a fair amount, but it's nowhere near 66%.

Now my worries are more related to whether I can learn enough in the coming semester to prepare myself for working on a complete game project. Another thing to consider is, how do I choose a good team? We'll supposedly be working in teams of about 4 programmers. And if we succeed in making a game, will it be good enough to get me an internship? Regardless of what happens, though, I'm now thoroughly convinced that, within the next year or so, I will be learning more than I could ever possibly retain.

Until next time!