Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Blade Kitten : Simple and fun

I came accross Blade Kitten when it was released on Steam, and I really liked the look of the game. As I was near the end of Final Fantasy XII and I had setup my characters in an auto leveling strategy, I figured I could give the game a go.

It turns out I enjoyed myself.

The game itself doesn't really feature an extensive story. The main character is led from one place to another either trying to catch someone or running from another. It mostly seems like an excuse to go from one stage to another and I actually had a hard time connecting one event to another.

By the end of the game, however, there seems to be some sort of plot going on, but by the time I finally had some sort of information about what the story might be, I encountered  a To be continued in episode 2 message. I guess there is a story to this game, but it's not really featured in the first episode.

The main character in the game is Kit, sometimes also called Ballard. The tutorials in the game refer to her as Kit, so I guess it's supposed to be the way to talk about her. She's basically a pink haired catgirl with a giant levitating blade.

As the game does not really feature a story, there isn't really some room for character development. Kit still has several witty lines throughout the storyline, along with references to well known memes here and there.

The game is a 2D platformer, automatically bringing you to the next stage when one is completed. It's mostly like anything you could expect from a game like Mario or Sonic, with the following key features and exceptions:
  • The levels do not feature holes as a way to die instantly.
  • Kit can climb on most walls and ceilings.
  • The main dangers are enemies, which must be defeated  using the blade. (Or by sliding :3)
  • The levels are almost never linear, and can be explored deeply to discover treasures.
  • Some stages feature a reptile like ostrich as a mount.
  • Some "puzzles" require the use of the skiff, a familiar that can access areas too small for Kit.
The game has quite a lot of content for a basic platformer. It's possible to collect money while exploring the levels, and money can be used to buy stat upgrades, new blades and costumes.

As it was stated in the gameplay part, each stage contains several treasure chests, and sometimes some data disks and skiffs. Treasures usually contain money, and there is an achievement for finding all treasure. I have no idea what the data disks and skiff are fore. Maybe they will be useful in the next episodes.

Fun Factor
The game is not that original, and it's really simple. At first, I was not really sure I enjoyed the game. I usually like to go fast in 2D platformers (Sonic :D), and the game actually features a best time for each stage, but it's not really possible to explore for chests while going fast.

After I while, I got used to the controls, I learned how try to find all chests while going as fast as possible. And I had fun. I really enjoyed going around in each level, trying to find secrets areas, climbing all around, jumping, grabbing stuff. 

If you really want to achieve everything, you will need to go through each level several times, to find all treasures and to try the time attack. As fun as the game can be, it's not really interesting to go through a level several times.

I like the style of the game, featuring 3D graphics with a 2D navigation. The characters had intersting designs, and I'm sure anyone can find a favorite in Kit costume's selection.

The game's music is very good. I particularly enjoyed the main menu theme, and I was really impressed with the music during some of the stages.

Blade Kitten is a game with a very simple design, but it is well done. It takes some time to get used to some of the controls, but after a while, the game is really a lot of fun.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Final Fantasy XII : Gameplay deeper than any previous Final Fantasy

Last night I finished Final Fantasy XII with a playtime around 180 hours. (A lot of these were dedicated to auto-leveling at the end, but it's not that important.) As I decided last, week, this means I will be doing a post to review the game and talk about my general appreciation.

This post will contain spoilers because I want to do an analysis about the whole game. I will try to evaluate the good and the bad about each category, but there will also be some discussion about certain of the games' elements.

Story : 8/10
As expected of any Final Fantasy, the game comes with a pretty solid story. A tale about a princess in a conquered country fighting back against the mean empire. I have heard a lot of people comparing this to Star Wars, and I have to admit that the end game battle scene with airships and lasers feels a lot like Star Wars. However, Star Wars was not the first thing that came to my mind when playing through this story. To me, the story in Final Fantasy XII is about the atom bomb at the end of WWII. The Empire won the war by completely destroying Nabudis with Nethicite, and the main party has the choice of using the power of Nethicite to fight back the Empire, or destroy it completely. If I recall correctly, I think this is the first time in Final Fantasy that the party has been confronted with an ethic question such as this one.

The main downside of the story is that it is actually short. During my playthrough I explored almost every aspect of the game, but I am not sure how long the game would have lasted if I had only concentrated on the main storyline. I think the story was good, but it could have been exploited into something a bit longer.

I noticed something at the end of the story, when Vayne apologizes to Venat. Venat states that his goal has been accomplished, and that people are now free from the Undying, since the sun cryst is destroyed. This suggests that Venat was actually on the good side the whole time. His goal was to manipulate people into destroying Nethicite and freeing them from the "gods". Since we saw that these gods were not really friendly, my interpretation is that Venat was actually a good guy.

Characters : 9/10
The best way to start this section would be to say that I generally do not think that characters are very well designed in Final Fantasy. I usually feel like some of them are added to the party for no particular reason, and that while they have very cool designs, they feel empty, as though they lack the realism a character should show from his actions and personality.

Final Fantasy XII was a very good improvement in this aspect. When I first saw the character concept art back when the first previews were released, I have to say that I was very skeptical. Now that I have completed the game, I honestly think that these were the deepest characters I have seen in any Final Fantasy since Final Fantasy VI.

I would not go as far as say this was perfect though. There are still some characters' with a stronger purpose than others. Fran is mainly here to follow Balthier, and Penelo is mainly here to look after Vaan. And while some characters are really original, like Fran and Balthier, others fit more into a very common stereotype, like Ashe or Basch.

The thing that I really liked about the characters was that they felt real. In the first hours of the game, Vaan is being bullied by imperial guards. As a player, I felt angry towards them, and that is exactly how Vaan reacted. That is only an example, but this happened a lot during the game. The actions and thoughts displayed by the characters in the game felt very intuitive, as if that is what I would have expected if that had happened in real life. It feels as though this should be a given, but that is not something I have observed a lot from Final Fantasy before.

Gameplay : 10/10
I have seen a lot of negative reactions about Final Fantasy XII's gameplay. About how the game plays itself and you actually have nothing to do as a player. I completely disagree with those statements, and I think that the gameplay in Final Fantasy XII is probably one of the best I have had the opportunity to enjoy up to now.

The first major difference with previous games in the series is the fact that there are no random encounters and that enemies are visibly roaming in each areas. I think this is a very good step forward, as random encounters were only a fabrication of hardware limitations. Seeing enemies really makes more sense than their appearing out of thin air. Now that enemies are visible, it is easier to avoid fighting them, and it also made it possible to have enemies of various levels in each area, along with enemies with various aggressiveness.

In my opinion, the best feature in the game is the gambit system. At first it seemed a bit weird, as it is very different from the way RPGs are usually played, but I got used to it really quickly. I then proceeded to play the whole game relying solely on gambits and never playing manually. I really enjoyed trying out different strategies, and building a different "job" based on the gambits for each character. By the end of the game, each of my character had a very unique gambit setup, each setup being a very cool strategy. I do not think gambits play the game instead of the player, it's simply a way of doing what I would have done anyways by pressing the buttons. By the end of the game, gambit setup played a very important role in boss battles, and I enjoyed changing my gambits on the fly to adjust to the pattern of the boss.

The main drawback to the gambit system is that the player needs to find the gambits, and at the beginning of the game the player is left with very limited options to setup strategies for the characters. The game can be very difficult in the first hours, but after a while it becomes easier.

Content : 10/10
I stated in the Story section that the game felt quite short when it came to the storyline. This is really compensated by all the side quests available to the player. From hunts to side-quests to secret Espers, there are really a lot of areas to explore and secret bosses to defeat.

This is not something new for the Final Fantasy series. I think the level of content was comparable to Final Fantasy VII, another game where I spent a lot of time trying to complete every side-quest in the game.

I think hunts made up a very cool asset to the game. I like being in a clan and going out to defeat marks, then come back and feel like I earned fame and glory.

Apart from quests and bosses, there are also a lot of different equipment the player can use. I think it was cool that it is open to the player to choose from any type of weapon to equip their characters. It allows for a lot of customization, which is added content in my opinion.

Presentation : 8/10
The game has good presentation for a PS2 title. The characters, environments and textures were beautiful. The design for the cities and ships were very cool.

This may be a drawback of the story not being that long, but I had the impression that for a Final Fantasy title, the game did not feature that much FMVs. I guess all the efforts for this went on the ending FMV with Penelo, which I enjoyed a lot.

The music in the game is good, and I think Hitoshi Sakimoto did a great job. However, it lacked the punch one could normally hope for a Final Fantasy, as were the ones where Nobuo Uematsu was the composer.

The game had a very good presentation overall, without being really overwhelming.

Polish : 8/10
As any Final Fantasy game, it is normal to expect a high polish level from this game. There is a lot of content in this game, and it really feels as though everything has been thoroughly tested. I did not encounter any bug in the game, nor did I notice any typo. I did not notice any design flaw either. I think it can be safely said that this game did not suffer a lack of work.

The only thing I could criticize would be about enemy models being reused a lot during the game. At the beginning we would be fighting wolves. Later in the game the same enemy would show up with a different color scheme, and it would be a different enemy. One would generally expect different models for different enemies. I can very well understand that using a lot of resources is a technical issue, but I still think it would have been a better product if the variety of enemies had been greater.

Overall : 9/10
As a closing comment, I would say that Final Fantasy XII is one of my favorite games in the Final Fantasy series. I liked how the characters felt real, and I definitely liked the huge amount of content and the gambit system.

It might not be the best story, nor the best way to show feelings in a game. For all the reasons stated above I think that this was an excellent game with only a few flaws preventing it from being perfect.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Criminal Minds Review : Profiles over evidence

My girlfriend and I stumbled upon Criminal Minds on TV back in July, when we had only recently moved in. We did not have much to do except watching TV, and we ended up watching Criminal Minds.

After three random episodes from the third season, we decided to go through the whole series.

The general setting is about a special team of profiler working for the FBI, whose goal is to use psychology and profiles rather than physical evidence to catch serial killers. Each episode is a different case, generally going from the moment the team is in to the culprit being arrested.

The show is basically a form of crime fiction, coming with all the usual fun trying to resolve all the enigmas at the same time as the characters in the show. This is generally a winning formula, and it is exploited in a different way in each episode.

Apart from the general setting, the characters are what makes the show really interesting. The team has several team members with very different talents and personalities, going from the socially awkward genius to the overachieving alpha male.

By following the team from case to case, we end up watching the evolution of all the characters in the team, which opens up for pretty good character development.

I think this series makes up for a very good casual entertaining, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the crime fiction genre.

Friday, November 12, 2010

More blogging

The desire to share things about the MIGS 2010 made me come back to my blog, and I realize and haven't been using this platform enough.

I would like my blog to be something more professional, as part of a website that I could use to show what I can do and what I think. I also think it would be a good way to share progress on any personal projects I am currently working on. As I am starting development on an indie game, I feel the need to post about this.

The general purpose of this post is to lay out my plans for this blog's expansion.

First of all, I decided to talk about more stuff here, and I decided to split those ideas in the following categories.

About Me

Basic page. Simply to explain my general background, what I can do and what I like.

Personal Projects

This would contain general information about the projects I'm working on.

General Thoughts

Any random thoughts about life in general. Like the idea of expanding my blog or my take on any controversial subject.

Event Reports

This is what I have been doing the most up to now. I generally like to attend events. I have been to events like Fantasia, Otakuthon, Fan Expo, MIGS. I think it would be a good idea to create a post after each day for events I attend.

Video Games

Video games being my main hobby, I would like to write about it here. I decided to write a review post whenever I finish a game. I think it is better to wait until I have completed a game to write the review, because it would allow me to cover the whole game.

I have already thought about the contents I want to cover when reviewing games:

Story : The general appreciation for the game's story and characters.

Gameplay : The general appreciation for the game's gameplay

Content : This is about the amount of content in the game. Most reviews generally talk about replay value, but I tend to think that some games have a lot of content for a single playthrough.

Presentation : By presentation I mean the visuals of the game like graphics or style, and the sound and music.

Polish : The amount of perfectionism in the game as it is. For example, a game like Final Fantasy would get a high score for polish because the game feels complete, while Fallout would get a low score, because of the high amount of bugs in the game.


I have done this a bit because of my coverage for Fantasia 2010. Like the video games reviews I think I could create divisions but I will probably do this on the fly for each movie. If I ever find that I could create general divisions I will probably do it.

Progress in my personal projects

I would like to be able to post whenever I have made significant progress in any project, to share what I have done.

What next?

I have tried to make those divisions this morning using blogspot, and I wasn't able to get what I wanted. I am currently thinking about switching to another platform to be able to format this website like I really want it to be.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

MIGS Day Two

Allright. Day two.

I had to opportunity to get familiar with the event yesterday, so there was no uncertainty as to what to expect on the second morning, apart from the contents in the conferences.

I got there a bit later than on the first day, but early enough to visit the expo room before the first keynote.

Video Game Symphony

Upon arriving on site I realized that there seemed to be an event going on in the main room. I was very surprised, because I made sure to double check the schedule before coming, and it clearly said that the first keynote was at 10:00 AM.

It turned out that there was some sort of video game symphony, where someone was playing a game with only sound effects on, while a live orchestra was playing music to fit the mood that was currently in the game. I think that it a really cool idea, and I am a bit sad that I missed it.

Expo Room

Even though I missed the video game symphony event, I still had time to go around the expo room to see if there were any new stands that I could visit. There were obviously none, so I headed to the main room to get a seat for the keynote.

I encountered a friend who wanted to visit video game studios and leave his references. I went with him, which was a very good idea because we were given a beanie hat from Gameloft and a t-shirt from Eidos.

I think that is a pretty awesome way to begin the day. :)

A Brief History of Indie
Ron Carmel, Co-founder, 2D BOY

The first keynote was supposed to be a brief history of indie, as the title implies, but it was more about the opposition between indie and mainstream, and creativity in general.

Ron Carmel started with a comparison between video games and TV series. According to him, we have only recently begun having masterpieces in TV series (The Wired, in his opinion) while video games are still not mature enough to have created anything that could be considered a masterpiece.

He thinks that in order to witness the first video game masterpiece, the video game industry still has a long way to go exploring creativity. While there have been some games, like Shadow of the Colossus, who tried to push creativity to a new point, he still feels that it is not enough.

It is often stated in popular belief that indie developers try to go towards creativity, while mainstream developers only wish to make money. Ron Carmel thinks that we should ideally have some sort of in between to get better creativity.

The problem is that mainstream studios will not try this option because it is too risky, and indie developers will not try this option because they will argue that it is not indie.

He also wanted to redefine the opposition that was illustrated between indie and mainstream. In his opinion, the "indie" label is really ambiguous. A lot of developers are considered indie while they are in fact, divisions of mainstream studios, small studios or any other similar example. A lot of different people have different opinions about the definition of indie.

It is however true that there are some differences between people that make game. In his opinion, this opposition can be translated into "Design Studios" vs "Commercial Studios". The goal of design studios would be to try new ideas and aim towards creativity, and the goal of commercial studios would be big productions generating a lot of money. I think this is actually closer to reality.

If we get back to trying to get in between, this would mean that he thinks we should be seeing more intermediate studios, trying to get more creative on big projects.

The question period was a bit controversial. Some people argued that the design vs commercial opposition was actually a developer vs publisher opposition. Others argued that none of the stated examples were indie. 

This confirms the fact that it is clearly difficult to define precisely what is indie,  that any game maker who considers himself indie should be indie, and that in the end the indie label does not really change anything. What is important is the intent that the game developer has.

Building a Global Technology Strategy When East Meets West
Julien Merceron,Worldwide Technology Director, Square Enix Group

I was looking forward to this conference. The first reason is that Square Enix is one of my favorite game developers. The second reason is that the recent acquisition of Eidos could be the first step towards increasing collaboration between the western and eastern video game industries, and I am actually very curious about how this could develop.

This presentation was divided into two parts. The first half tried to highlights the cultural differences between Japan and America when it comes to video game creation. The second half was about the current technological strategy Square Enix is trying to implant in order to increase collaboration between Square and Eidos.

I think that the first half of this presentation was the most interesting. In the past year I have seen a lot of conflict about the difference between Japanese and American games. I have read a lot of different comments about the Japanese industry being far behind in game making.

By defining clearly the cultural differences between Japan and America, Julien Merceron exposed something that should have been obvious : the fact that both industries simply approach game making in different ways and that they do not have the same goals. For this reason, the products are very different, and the technologies used are very different too.

In the western market, video games are about gameplay. Western companies try to make better human machine interactions, more subtle UIs, more realistic animations. They try to give excitement and emotion to the player through the actions he makes and the way he controls the games.

In Japan, video games are about storytelling. Japanese companies spend a lot of times creating characters and stories. They spend a lot of time trying to make realistic characters, but sometimes lack on the animation part, which is a risk towards the uncanny valley. Because storytelling is so important, Japanese companies have developed very advanced pipeline to create cinematics. For this reason, japanese games still use a lot of cinematics even though it could be possible to use only in game graphics because of the current generation of hardware. The main difference is that japanese developers do not try to give emotion through controlling the game, they are using the game as a medium to give emotion, so it does not matter to them if the player is not controlling anything while there is a dramatic cutscene.

I think that this is a very simple explanation about the cultural differences between Japan and America, and that when you think about it, it seems pretty normal that there are so many differences between those games, and it does not feel at all like one or the other is doing it wrong.

This gets intersting when we get a company like Square Enix, which has access to staff members all over the world. Those cultural differences also lead to differences in technology. This also means that it would be possible to share that expertise. 

Square Enix is slowly trying to merge some of those ideas. There are some people from Japan who are eager to work in Montreal. On the other hand, there are a lot of people from Montreal willing to learn Japanese and work in Tokyo. This could lead to great new ideas, and I am looking forward to it.

Pipeline Design: A Non-Intrusive Data Driven Architecture
François Paradis, Tools Technical Lead, Ubisoft Québec
Jonathan T-Delorme, Tools Programmer, Ubisoft Québec

This presentation was based on tool improvements that were used in making the Scott Pilgrim video game, so the visuals and examples featured Scott Pilgrim, which was very cool. :)

The presentation focused on tools developed to make a data driven architecture. Nowadays, data driven design is a very desirable thing in game development. Games use a lot of data, and the engine should not need to be modified because the data is different. 

While this has been achieved in several ways, Ubisoft Québec tried to push it to a higher level.

The first step was to clearly separate the tools from the engine. And when they mean separate, they do not only mean to encapsulate stuff in different projects or solutions. They mean to separate it entirely.

What this means is that their tools are using C# and XML data, while their engine are using C++ and binary data. This means that they have access to very different functionalities in their tools, and that the data is duplicated to work on the engine. The general concept is that the tools are easier and quicker to make, while the engine can still benefit from the execution speed coming from C++.

The consequence of this approach is that tools can make use of C# reflection to adapt to data. Data can change a lot during game development, and it can be a pain to modify the tools each time a new data type is added. With reflection, it is possible to look up the types at runtime, and use whatever is really there at the time. The main downside to reflection is that it is done at runtime, so it is slow. But it does not really matter because those are tools. They can still generate the data that will be used by the engine in the same way.

The second proposed solution introduces data inheritance. In the same way that classes can inherit properties,  data can inherit properties. This enables them to define some data, such as a character, then to define a character that is a specialization of the previous character, and use data inheritance to specify only the differences between the two. This recudes the need for copy-paste all over the place when needed to modify some data, and it also makes it easier to adapt the data to some varying situations, like applying the same game to different platforms.

The whole idea to this data driven approach is simple, but it is still a new approach, and I liked the way they implemented it.

Balancing Game Mechanics Using Game Theory: Modern Analytical Approaches to Achieving Desired Gameplay Dynamics
Christopher J. Hazard, President, Hazardous Software Inc.

The goal of this presentation is to use knowledge from scientific/mathematic background in game theory and to apply it to game design. This allows to predict gameplay dynamics, especially when it comes to game balance.

At first I had no idea what game theory was. And I was not sure what to expect from this conference. After listening to the whole stuff, I can say that this was in my opinion the best conference at MIGS 2010. The general idea was pretty complex, and I did not understand everything. But I am eager to look more into game theory, and I am really looking forward to a future where more companies will be using game theory in their game design.

The basic principle of game theory is to apply mathematics to games. It is possible to use game theory to predict what people are going to do, to quantify utility and risk, and to solve games.

Game theory can be used to oppose skill vs strategy when it comes to games. I had never thought about it, and I generally hear about skill and luck in games, but it is true that games are more skill and strategy than skill alone. 

Skill is the ability to do something efficiently, and is revolves around decision theory. Strategy is the approach to do something, and it revolves around game theory. As an example that was not in the presentation that comes from my own understanding, being able to dodge in a fighting game is skill, while staying away or rushing in is strategy.

I would not be able to explain clearly how game theory can be applied to game design, as I am not an expert. What I can do is talk about some of the things I understand can be done.

The thesis is that is possible to define gameplay mathematically. 
  • It is possible to measure payoff and risk. 
  • Problems such as rock-paper-scissors can be given a level of transitivity and have predetermined probabilities.
  • Any game can be expressed by a currency, the most basic of which is player time to obtain an achievement.
  • Feedback in a game can be positive (skill leads to rewards, like in Modern Warfare) or negative (skill leads to hindrance, like in Mario Kart).
  • The effect of feedback can be measured.
  • A good way to evaluate when balanced has been attained in a game is when players complain about every class or unit as being over powered. 
  • There is a direct relation between the utility and cost of any item in a game.
The application of all theses principles is that it is possible to evaluate mathematically if a game is balanced. The general feeling that I get from games nowadays is that they try as best as they can to make the game balanced, and if they get the feeling that it isn't, they semi-randomly try to fix it. If we could balance games based on mathematics, this would be a huge progress in competitive gaming.

The whole idea does not simply apply to game balance. It is possible to predetermine gameplay mathematically and apply it to the game afterwards.

I think this is a very promising subject. As of today I do not understand it fully, but I really want to look more into it. And I hope to see this applied to games in the future.

The Narrative of Narrative
Rafael Chandler, Narrative Designer & Scriptwriter

Last choice of the day. At this point I was really not sure about choosing between a very advanced conference on body animation using hardware acceleration, a conference on tips to start your own gaming studio, or a conference on tips for narrative content in games.

Normally the default for me would be to choose the tech conference, since it is my domain of expertise. However, I had the feeling that this was going to be a very advanced conference on a field that I know nothing about. It was also getting late and I did not feel like listening to complex technicalities.

Starting your own game studio seemed like a good conference. However, while these could be very good tips, and I not planning on creating a studio in the near future. And if I really wanted to create a gaming studio, I would have to hire an attorney anyways in addition to listening to the conference.

The narrative content one was about game design. And I figured that out of the four other disciplines featured in the summit, design is probably the one thing that I could end up doing if I am not doing something that is tech. I pictured this as if my main class is software engineer, my secondary class could very well be game designer. 

(It could be argued that in fact business should be my secondary class, as engineers - especially software engineers - do a lot of project management and planning. However, the business part here felt more about law and finance that project management. On the other side, I am currently considering working on some video games projects demo/indie development/whatever. I know that I am not a jack of all trades and that if I do that I will need help from other people. But if I start creating games, I guess I should need game design. I realize that this is a very big parenthesis and that it has absolutely nothing to do with the MIGS.)

So I decided to go to the design conference. I honestly have mixed feelings about this one.

The conference was about narrative of narrative. My understanding is that the conference was about writing, more specifically about how you should try to make your writing tell what you really want it to tell.

While I am never planning to write stuff for video games, as I am not a good writer, and I think that I do not have imagination, I still learned interesting stuff about game writing. 

I seems that it is actually harder than one might think for game writing to project the good message. I also learned that game writing is actually technical writing. Game writing should not feature complex style. It should be straight to the point, and clear. The whole idea behind that is that you do not want the rest of the pipeline development wondering about the meaning of a word, or looking through your poetry when their goal is to find out which characters are present in a given scene. Game writing is different from writing in other media, mostly because it is interactive and not only narrative.

I also learned that every line of text in a video game should tell a story. While this is a very simple idea, I actually like it a lot. This is not necessarily intuitive, and I think that it is true.

Other than that, I did not learn that much from this conference. I guess this can be explained by the fact that I was simply not the target audience at all.

Maybe I should have gone to the business one about creating a game studio.

New Kids On the Block: Studio Heads Tell All
Ken Schachter, Founder, Trapdoor
Miguel Caron, CEO, Funcom
Yanick Roy, Studio Director, Bioware
Martin Carrier,Vice-President, Studio Head, WB Games Montreal

The final keynote was actually a sort of discussion panel featuring the heads of studios recently established in Montreal. 

I would say that it was entertaining overall, but not exactly instructive. I guess it was more for fun at the end of the event that as an academic event.

Next year

During the final keynote, the dates for next year's summit were confirmed. It was also stated that next year, the event will not only be Montreal's International Game Summit, but something bigger regrouping web, eLearning and games.

I am not sure what I think about this decision. This will definitely mean that the event will be bigger, and it would be good if a video game professional event in Montreal was bigger. On the other side, I fear that adding web stuff in there would reduce the amount of video game content and that the event would drift away from its original purpose.

I guess that as long as the MIGS inside the bigger event is at least as big as this year, I will be satisfied.

Closing comments

I think it is pretty obvious that I had a great time at the MIGS 2010. I learned a lot of cool stuff, I met people, and mostly, I am leaving the event with a very big boost in motivation.

I am looking forward to working in the video game industry, and I feel like I should start working harder. I have a lot of work to do on my grad school project, I need to read books to get new knowledge, and I should definitely start my own personal projects.

This would allow me to get some practice and something to show to companies in interviews. But this would also allow me to create stuff, which was something recurrent during the whole event. 

There are a lot of indie developers surfacing, it is now easier to make video games on your own, and you do not necessarily need a lot of money to create games. Most people in the industry agree that more creativity is always good, and they are waiting for us to create the new stuff. So I guess I should participate and try to see what I can do.

I think that every one who has the opportunity should attend, and I am looking forward to next year.

Monday, November 8, 2010

MIGS Day One

Today I experienced Montreal's International Game Summit for the first time. The overall experience had my brain working a lot, which had the effect to make me want to share thoughts. This whole process led me to my not active enough blog.

This post will follow this very basic structure. I will start with a small outline about the MIGS. I will then procede to relate the different events I attended during the day. Finally, I will give a general appreciation for day one of the event.

So what is the MIGS exactly?

The acronym MIGS stands for Montreal International Game Summit which is a direct translation from Sommet International du Jeu de Montréal. My guess is that the event's official name is probably the french one, as Montreal is a french-speaking crowd in majority. The event itself is obviously held in English to allow a maximum number of participants.

The MIGS is basically what its name tells us, an international game summit. It is an event where different people from the gaming industry can meet to make contacts, share ideas and attend professional conferences or other social events. The event is open to students and people working in the gaming industry.

The event is being held at the Hilton Bonaventure hotel in Montreal. Conferences are divided into five main categories, being Arts and VFX, Business, Design, Production and Technology. There is always one conference of each category during the same time period, so I was obviously not able to attend everything. As a software engineering student I tend to favor technology conferences, but I did not limit myself to only those.

More information can be found on the event's official website:

General environment

I arrived at the summit at around 9:30. This gave me enough time to get my registration, leave my stuff at the coat check, and briefly look around the waiting room hosting stands from various companies, schools etc.

Afterwards I met with other people from Polytechnique and we headed to the main room for the opening conference.

Beauty, constraint and the Atari 2600
Ed Fries, Former vice-president, Microsoft Game Studios

Alright so Ed Fries is the big guest for Monday and he's going to talk to us about the Atari 2600. Because this is the opening conference, there is no other conference at the same time. This means that everybody does not really have a choice and is going to attend this one. I have to say that at first I was not very excited with the idea of a conference on the Atari 2600. I am not really an old machine lover, nor a low-level code lover.

I have to say that I was really wrong, and that this was actually a very good keynote. The talk was divided into three main features, being old Greek vases, the making of Halo 2600 and beauty in games. (Halo 2600 is a Halo like game running on the Atari 2600 and made by Ed Fries.)

The general idea of this keynote was that humans need to give themselves constraints in art. It has been witnessed in almost any art form that at first there are some constraints, for example ink colors or memory quantity. Humans then had the tendency to try to develop new technology to be free of those constraints to be able to make what they want.

However, constraints have the effect of making people want to achieve more, and this is what can be shown with the Atari 2600. The system had so much limited hardware that programmers had to create really intense optimizations to create their games, which resulted in a form of artistic code and impressive result.

This lead Ed Fries to the hypothesis that constraints actually give more power to art. This can be easily illustrated with the fact that people are usually more impressed by an art product developed under some constraints, like a sonnet or an origami figure made from a single sheet of paper.

The gaming industry had a very impressive evolution over the past years, and we could say that it is now free from most constraints. This leads us to several game projects putting themselves under constrained development, like creating a game with only three colors.

I think this was a very interesting hypothesis, and I have to admit that it seems true. People need some constraints as a motivator to create better products. Now that the game industry is mature enough, it is able to choose its own constraints.

Collective Artificial Intelligence for Next Generation Gameplay

Jeff Orkin, PhD Candidate, MIT Media Lab
Artificial intelligence being my field of study as a grad school student, I felt this conference was mandatory for me.

The conference was based on ideas very similar to my research project. In the past decades, video games were the subject of very impressive growth when it came to graphics and visuals, but progress with artificial intelligence were very limited. The goal of this conference was to propose a structure for AI progress in video games.

In graphics, the basic elements that make up what we see on the screen are triangles and textures. Over the years, better hardware and software led to better computation power, which led to better graphics. 

But what is the basic element in artificial intelligence?

The problem with artificial intelligence is not about more power in the CPU or GPU, it's about content. Artificial intelligence systems need to know what the human mind knows, what we use to decide what we are going to do.

The structure proposed in this conference was a collective AI framework, where data was accumulated from users interacting in a given environment (in this case a restaurant). The goal was then to structure all this data to be able to infer intelligent agent action.

I realize that the whole idea in this conference can be summed up quite easily. This does not make it that simple though. The solution itself is a lot of work, and for this structure to actually make its way to video game production, companies would need to share a lot more than they are currently doing, which I am not sure will happen in the near future.

The Art of the Sell : Pitching Your Ideas
Chris Ferriera, Creative Director, Artificial Mind & Movement
Based on the title, this conference seems to be about marketing. That is not exactly the case. This conference was about selling your ideas to other people in your team or your video game studio, in the context of game design. A topic that could be very useful for me in the future.

It turned out that this conference was a bit disappointing. The ideas that were covered were good and made a lot of sense, but the conference was over after about 30 minutes. This felt as though the topic lacked content, for a talk that was supposed to go on for an hour.

Overall, the basic idea is to take the time to think about your idea and share it with friends before trying to convince people that it is a good idea. You should never oppose people directly, and try to make other people make the idea their own, by allowing them to add their ideas to your idea instead of forcing your way of thinking into them.

Leaderboards Can Suck It: 7 Better Ideas for Visualizing Player Data for Fun and Profit

Todd Northcutt, General Manager, GameSpy Technology
This was one of the conferences that I really wanted to attend. The title is bold and does not fear to expose leaderboards as what they really are. I mean, anyone who played a game with a leaderboard can relate to this. You get to see the overall ranking of people, and notice that you are waaaaaay down the ranks.

The basic idea of this conference is that if you want to gather data on your players, you should put some real effort into it, instead of just taking a global score, generating a sorted list and putting it under a "Leaderboard" menu in your game. It then proceeds to give general guidelines about what to do with leaderboards.

The first problem is that most of the time, you cannot even see your ranking in the leaderboard. The list only covers the top players, and most people are not top players. This means that most players do not know their ranking, and that's not fun. It is also better if you can get data about more that a global score. People like to see what they are good at. 

Another problem is that with leaderboards, you get compared with every single person that played the game. But most people do not care that the best player is someone they will never meet in their whole life. People like competition, and they will try to compete with their friends. Thus, it is better to show only the leaderboard rankings of the each player's friends.

Finally, the general objective of leaderboards is to make people want to play the game more in order to get better at it. And people don't like to be told that they suck. Nobody gets motivated knowing that their rank is 3938199 in the leaderboard. However, they like to be told that they are above average. The player's rank is the same, but in one case, the game is actually telling the player that he's doing well.

There are probably a lot of other good ways to improve leaderboards that are still not explored and will be discovered in the future. This conference still pointed a lot of errors that I know I have seen in recent games. 

This was a very interesting conference, and I am happy that Gamespy is trying to push game developers to host better leaderboard structures.

Designing a Future-Proof Multi-Core Games Engine

Andrew Richards, Founder and CEO, Codeplay Software

This was the very technical conference of the day for me. How should we make a video game engine that can easily adapt to parallelism and future development?

The first half of the conference was actually not about multi cores and parallelism at all. Well, it was about multi cores, but not in the way that you would normally expect. It was about the memory limitations that come with using several cores. 

Using several cores intuitively seems like a very good idea to get better results. You use more that one core, so you can do more stuff at the same time, and you get your game to run quicker.

Simple? Actually, it isn't.

Video games, and in fact any computer program is not solely about the processing unit executing instructions. It's also about data, which is stored in memory. And what happens when several cores try to access the memory at the same time is that "the memory controller dies". 

The most used solution is to use caches with each core in addition to the main memory module. While this allows to limit the memory access, it can lead to very serious synchronization problems when several cores need to access the same data, as they do not use the same cache.

Codeplay proposed what seemed like a very good programming solution to this problem using C++ template meta-programming. While I was able to follow the basic ideas during the conference, I honestly don't remember enough to explain here. But it seemed like a very good solution.

Apart from resolving the memory sharing problem, the conference approached several problems that could occur when using several cores, and ways to optimize speed and parallelism using SIMD instructions.

A very technical conference, but a very interesting one for technical people. And the guy from Codeplay Software seemed to really know what he was talking about.

The Technical Challenges of Developing MMOGs

Rui Manuel Casais, Chief Technological Officer, Funcom

Finally, the last conference of the day was hosted by Funcom, and was about the technical challenges with Massively Multiplayer Games.

MMOGs deal with very particular problems because of the very large number of people that these games need to host. Funcom thinks that in the future, all games will be massively online, and that the industry needs to be ready for it.

The conference went thought a list of challenges that occur most of the time when dealing with MMOG, and proposed several tips to try to counter them. These were divided into social, security and fun categories.

The most important idea about social is that you should provide the best platform possible in order to allow people to play with their friends. Even if the game is not the best game that was ever done, people will continue to play it if they can play with their friends. However, as soon as some people stop playing, others will follow because they cannot play with their friends anymore.

Ubiquity means that the game should be everywhere. You should be able to play from any device, be it PC, console, phone, web browser. Security means that the game server should always be on, and that people should not get any of their data stolen through the game.

Fun basically means that people should have fun. This is a very simple concept, but it is probably the hardest to achieve.

I think that the problems that were featured in this presentation were quite real and accurate, and that the tips provided were actually pretty good. I unfortunately could not memorize them all, but this conference was actually better than I expected.

General Appreciation

Apart from the conferences, I had time to go around the waiting room and talk to several game studios. I discovered new game studios and I talked a bit with people that I already knew. This is not really new for me but it is always good to know people in the gaming industry.

We had a free lunch around noon. It was a basic lunch with a sandwich, a bit of vegetables, a dessert and apple juice. This was good, but I was disappointed by having to eat on the floor in some random hallway in the hotel. There were a lot of attendees, and it was really chaotic to have all of these people eating all over the place.

There were coffee breaks during the conferences and I had a coffee before the Codeplay conference. I am not sure what happened to the coffee during the day but it felt as though it had been mixed with water. That's not the best coffee I had in my life. :\

Closing Comments

Overall, I can say that I had a very great day at MIGS 2010. The conferences were really interesting, I learned a lot a new stuff, and it always feels good to have direct contacts with people from the gaming industry. 

The organization was pretty good, apart from the lunch lacking tables for people to eat, and the bad tasting coffee.
I left this first day with a lot of motivation. I feel like I should go on with my research and get good results. I also feel like I should go forward with my idea of making an Xbox Live Indie game. I also feel like I should spend more time reading software engineering books. I should be getting on with this by the end of the week.

I think this is a great event. I should have gone last year, and I would really like to attend each year from now on.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Working from home -- Not as easy as it would seem

I'm a master student since May 2010. I have an office at school where I can work. However, it takes a long time  to authorize money transactions and administration, so I do not have a computer at my office yet. Up to now, I have been using my personal laptop to work at school or at home.

But then, my laptop stopped working last week. Video card died. That would not usually be something so bad. My laptop is still under warranty, I called DELL tech support and then sent me a box so that I can send my laptop for repair.

That means that for about two weeks, I need to work from home. And that is really not as simple as I thought it would be at first.

There are actually good things about working from home. There is no need to wake up really early. No time is wasted in the metro. You take breaks to do stuff at home like starting the dishwasher. Overall it seems like a gain in time.

However, there are also quite a lot of bad stuff about working from home. Since I do not need to go to school, I do not necessarily wake up early. That is a problem since I prefer to work in the morning than later in the day.

I also realized the fact that I am not as comfortable when working at home than when I am working from school. My apartment is not an environment from work. I get a lot of distractions. There is no guarantee that I will have silence to concentrate. On a final note, it is also way harder to share ideas with co workers this way.

I guess I wish my laptop is repaired soon so that I can go back to school. I would not get this feeling about wasting my time. :\