Winter Wrap-Up

Winter quarter just wrapped at UC Santa Cruz, and it was a doozy. In addition to a wonderful development in my private life, I managed to ace four classes, tutor a class, make two games, take a whole week off of classes to volunteer at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, and complete a serious piece of creative writing for the first time since elementary school (that still counts, right?). Suffice to say, I’m feeling pretty chuffed.

Considering all that has happened, I wish that I had more to share about it. I’ve already written about each of the games on the games page of this site, but I’ll sum them up briefly here:

Snakeman Tries His Best

Snakeman Screenshot
I made Snakeman by myself for the Global Game Jam over the course of a January weekend. It’s a simple little Robotron-like, but the theme of a monster trying and (brutally) failing to to help people managed to charm the other Santa Cruz Jammers, and it was the overall favorite game produced at the event. It’s built in Unity using the 2D Toolkit plugin — which I absolutely love and highly recommend for the $50 asking price — so you can play it in your browser on my site or on Kongregate, if you’re into high score tables and all that jazz.

Escape From Violence Island

Snakeman Screenshot
Violence Island was developed by my classmates Ryan Anderson, Rob Giusti, Adam Wardell, and myself for our Game AI course at UC Santa Cruz. We started the project with the idea that we wanted to create a compelling AI opponent that could play an action game with a level of intelligence and unpredictability similar to that of a human player. To properly show off our AI work, we decided that everything about the game needed to be designed to focus the player’s attention on this AI. With this mindset, we designed a simple 2D deathmatch game in which the player is pitted against a single opponent that grows slightly more intelligent with each battle, thus providing the game with its difficulty curve.

For those that are interested, the main AI components are provided by an A* pathfinding implementation, a grid-based tactical analysis of the arena’s waypoints, and a decision engine that compares the utility of various goals. The same A* implementation is also used to guarantee that each randomly generated level is fully playable for both characters. The game was written for Adobe Flash using the Flixel game development library.
Escape From Violence Island is currently playable here on this site, but a version with high scores and stats tracking should be up on Kongregate within the week.

Game Developer’s Conference

I went to GDC for the first time this year. As a long-time Bay Area resident and game enthusiast-cum-developer, I’ve always been jealous of those who can afford the passes (the All Access badge, which is the only way to get into talks throughout the entire week, will cost you about two grand). This year, though, I heard about the Conference Associates, or CAs. Volunteer to work for twenty hours over five days, the pitch said, and you’ll get a free All Access pass for the week. For the lazy or math-illiterate, that works out to a rate of over a hundred dollars an hour. Not bad. Sure, I knew I’d have to be standing outside of doors or directing attendees during some of the talks that I wanted to see, but the All Access pass includes a year of access to the online Vault, which contains every GDC talk every recorded on film, including almost all of the ones from this year. Good deal, I thought, and sent in the application.

I had expected the competition to be fierce, and I was right. Without giving out any numbers, the majority of applicants to the CA program are denied. By a very wide margin. What I hadn’t expected was how well-picked the accepted CAs were. Of the four hundred or so CAs that worked the 2012 GDC, every last one was cheery, helpful, interesting, enthusiastic, and a brilliant person to know. Talk about a networking opportunity! Between talking to the CAs, guarding doors, attending talks, and being refused entrance to every corporate party, I didn’t have time to take a single picture of the conference. Shame!

Still, I’ll tell you this: if you have an interest in game development, you owe it to yourself to go to GDC, and you especially owe it to yourself to try to become a CA. Don’t think of it as a way to get a cheap conference party, although that’s certainly a bonus; think of it as entrance into the most exclusive club of fascinating, affectionate game fans and developers that you will ever meet.

The other great thing about GDC was the Independent Games Festival. I’ve been to PAX and other consumer-oriented conferences, where you get to see such upcoming hits as Gungrimace, Warface, and Battleshoot 2013 pitched to you by a professionally excitable PR minion (minigame: guess which one of these games is real product from a major studio). That’s all fun and good; we all like getting sneak peaks at upcoming releases, but the majority of these major releases are AAA safe bets, and you’re not going to get much out of Activision’s Community Feedback Associate that you couldn’t read off of the back of the box yourself. That’s not the case at the IGF, though. I remember walking around one of the playtesting booths with my jaw hanging open — pretty much every independent release that I was excited was represented there in playable form, with several other fascinating games that I had never seen before interspersed between them, each demoed by the developers themselves. There is really nothing quite like having a fifteen minute play session with an interesting new game, then turning around and discussing it in-depth with the single guy who made it in his garage. Ed Key, developer of Proteus, and Douglas Wilson, creator of Johann Sebastian Joust, were especially interesting to talk to. Brilliant stuff.

Oh, and those talks that I went to see with that pricey pass of mine? They were pretty good, too. My main takeaways were the following:

  • Always take Steam’s advice about when to put your game on sale and how much to discount it by.
  • Noise-based UV manipulation on particle textures is just about the coolest thing ever.

GDC: Come for the lectures on development, stay for the people. Retrospectives, postmortems, and lessons learned are one thing, but nothing beats talking to volunteers, developers, and attendees alike about their own special genius: what are they doing now, what are they interested in, what drives them. That is what really binds the development community together, the real magic of GDC.

Alright, that’s enough from me for now. I’ll leave you with this final piece of wisdom: play Journey. It is possibly the best, most polished, most beautiful slice of gaming I have ever played. I think you will enjoy it.

Jon Gill