Last month, I found out last-minute about an IGDA Los Angeles meeting. The guest speaker was Mark Cerny. No way I was gonna miss out on that! I’ve been super inspired by the stuff I’ve read about him, like working on some of my dream projects (I wanted to work on Sonic 2 when I was 8 years old 🙂 ). I left work on time and ended up getting lost on the UCLA campus, but I managed to catch the tail end of the presentation.

My coworker was smarter than me and actually saw the whole talk. His synopsis described what I missed — like Mark talking about the arcade business back in the 80’s. Arcade programming was tough because each game ran on new hardware so programmers never got the opportunity to master the hardware. With consoles, the benefit was that they had a lot of time to learn all of the inner working, tricks, reusing engines, and whatnot. Something like that, ha.

When I jumped in, he was getting to some points. Game budgets are commonly exceeding $20 million. He made fun of no game development team being complete without a “combat designer”. The leap from vertices to pixels has taken its toll on the industry during this generation. But there is hope.

There’s hope in taking the time to actually learn the craft. There’s hope in learning what is and isn’t important. There’s hope in breaking out of budget climbing.


Mark stressed importance of UN-learning. Learning is easy, unlearning is hard. He focused this unlearning around many of the conventions of games inherited from the Arcade Era.

Arcade based games have frequent death and great difficulty at the end. He then did a quick overview of 30 years of arcade style games.

  • Dragon’s Lair had simple gameplay but required players to memorize each sequence to complete the game.
  • Space Ace was designed to be hard as hell for people that mastered Dragon’s Lair.
  • Robotron was mentioned because difficulty was the appeal of the game.
  • Mario 3 was a great example of an arcade game because even though it was a console game, it worked great as Play Choice arcade release.

After that, he talked a little about the Crash Bandicoot games he worked on. The first Crash Bandicoot was hard as shit. In it, you had limited number of lives and although you could restart from the same level, you had to progress to and complete a bonus stage just to save your game. With Crash 2 they had more consumer awareness, they tested it more for difficulty. The players performance in the game is tracked and the game helps when possible.

Dynamic Difficulty

He then talked a bit about dynamic difficulty in games, sometimes you notice and sometimes you don’t. The first example was Sly Cooper, in which the Sucker Punch “solved” jump problems. The solution was that if you missed a jump a certain amount of times as cartoon hook would grab you and put you where you need to go. Maybe not the ideal solution, but it fit the vibe of the game’s world.

Next he mentioned Ratchet & Clank, where reviewers had a problem because the difficulty adjustment was too obvious. When you die too much in Ratchet & Clank, boxes that would normally drop money start dropping health. Last he mentioned Uncharted but just that many people didn’t realize that Uncharted had dynamic difficulty systems, he didn’t go into anything specific.

End of Death

We are fighting our arcade heritage. If you aren’t dying, you aren’t playing. Is Farmville a game? Even though you can’t die?

I think this was an important point. Many games I love for the challenge, like a Mario game for instance, but many other games I enjoy more for the experience, like NiGHTS.  Mark asked the crowd to raise their hands if they thought Farmville was a game. There were some vocal Farmville haters expressing that they didn’t think these kinda games were games at all. Is it because you can’t die? No clear challenge or goal?

I don’t think they are good games, but it’s kinda hard to deny that they share much of the same basis of the games we all love.

Can a game be enjoyable without rewards and punishment? I’ve been playing Earthbound recently, and I’m into it solely for the story and scenario. I feel like I could skip out on much of the “game” of it and have a great time. I’m willing to experiment with these ideas.

Today’s Vocabulary

At the end, Mark talked about today’s gaming vocab, we have “co-op”, “social game”, “3rd-person-shooter”, “deathmatch”, etc. But we need new words for new social paradigms. His example of this was Demon’s Souls. It’s a single player action RPG… but it has many forms of social interactions. But not necessarily directly. For instance, you can leave messages for other players and your spirit shows up in other players games. So what do you call that?


I believe during Q&A he states that he thought 80-90% of games could work with socialization and monetization. I agree with this, and this seemed to be his point of “un-learning”. Developers need to stop thinking of “social-games” as leaderboards and Farmville.

When asked something about independent development without a publisher he said that it’s possible to scrape together enough cash to make a console game but even if you manage to do that, you’d need a publisher for marketing. With a console game having about $10 million marketing. On the subject of the iPhone market he said something like “There’s someone successful out there. Odds are that’s not you.”

That’s it!

One of the most interesting things he said was pointing out that gaming has sort of come full circle. People are scared and violent towards the trends of monetization of social gaming. But it’s the same concept that the industry was founded on — arcade machines eating players quarters to cover development costs.

I think it’s best to embrace it if you can, think about it differently and find a way to make it work for you.

Some Links:

IGDA Los Angeles

The title of the talk was ‘Writing Games: Tall Tales of Triumph and Terror’ and it was held last Thursday at the Writers’ Guild of America, West headquarters in Los Angeles. It went alright, with some discussion of what it’s like to be a game writer, the new and growing position of game writers within the WGA (which allows game writers to join according to lower standards than film or television writers), and lots of nods to Uncharted 2 and Half-Life.

Everything pretty much went as I expected, but I found it very unfortunate that we did not see a discussion of the art or craft of game writing. We only really heard about the differences in work environment and technicalities. For example, it was generally agreed that game development involves far less clearly defined roles than filmmaking, so a writer can expect to play some role in game design and should expect the game designer to play a role in writing. A script writer should also expect his usual 125 page script to shoot up to around 800 pages for a game, since games are longer and a player may only experience a fraction of a game’s writing in a single play through. We did not, however, hear about anyone’s ideas on game writing, how a game is structured, approach, how they use the game to convey meaning or feelings. At one point it was mentioned that while in film it is said that a writer should ‘show’ and not ‘tell,’ in games a writer should ‘do’ and not ‘tell,’ but that was the extent of artistic discussion.

I stood up for the Q and A at the end and asked about the difference between games with mute protagonists and those with talkative protagonists, citing Half-Life and Uncharted and asking how each writer felt about the different approaches to game writing. This, I thought, was a question they could bite into. Surely one of these guys struggled at one time or another with the contradiction of a game’s protagonist being both a unique character and being played by the player, or at the very least, thought it was interesting, thought something could be done with that. Right? One of the writers reiterated that Uncharted 2 and Half-Life were both great games and simply said sometimes you go the one direction with a mute, and other times you go with the yapper. Nobody else had anything to say. So that was my shot. Oh well.

Anyway, I had a good time, especially talking to some of the writers over cokes. I even met a flash developer by the name of Tamar Curry. Seemed like a cool dude.

This is my second IGDA meeting and I recommend checking them out, especially if you want to meet some local LA game developers. Students and indie devs show up in addition to folks from some of the larger companies, so it’s a good bunch.

-Christopher J. Rock

Chris and I attended the IGDA LA Chapter’s July meeting for a panel discussion titled “Running a Small Development Studio: Perils, Pitfalls & Promise.I was interested in checking out the event because it was a relevant topic and I’ve yet to attend any of the LA Chapter meetings. I’ve been an IGDA member on 2 separate occasions but failed to see value in the membership since there were never any meetings. This year they’ve restarted and are having meetings the 2nd Thursday of every month.

The talk was excellent. The speakers gave a good idea of some of the challenges of getting a company started and keeping it rolling.

The speakers were:

John Beck CEO, WayForward Technologies (A Boy and His Blob, Where the Wild Things Are, Space Chimps)

Jenova Chen Creative Director, thatgamecompany (Flower, flOw, Cloud, Journey)

Tian Mu CEO, Co-Founder, Naked Sky Entertainment, Inc. (Star Trek DAC, RoboBlitz, RoboHordes)

Jesse Vigil Founder, Partner, Psychic Bunny (Codename Games, Lead Balloon)

After the talk, it transformed into a mixer. It was good chit-chatting with some of the homies and the regulars. Met and re-met a couple people we saw at the USC Global Game Jam. I had a good chat with the homies Nite and Deon, who worked on Lulu Cao’s thesis project, SomeDay.

This IGDA-LA event is every 2nd Thursday. It hasn’t been updated for a while, but you can try the website for info about the next one. If they keep having meetings of this caliber, I’ll have to renew my membership.

Oh yeah, baby. I came up. Won this wonderful game at the raffle.

At the IGDA leadership forum in San Francisco Chris Hecker demanded that game developers ask themselves why they are making a game before they design it. Hecker is a renowned contributor to game graphical and physics technologies and a long time proponent of indie gaming.

‘Why’ is step one in any other art form, but Hecker is right. We don’t hear that question too much in games. It is my opinion that the earmark of great art is the purpose behind every choice involved in its creation. Even if that purpose is ambiguous at best, there must be justification for artistic decisions. But Hecker did a good enough job of making this point, so I’m going to say something that may be to the contrary. Continue Reading…