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Tales from the Design Trenches

Listen to veteran developers share war stories, their experiences of how design has changed over the years, and horror stories of working with programmers. :-)

Phil Carlisle, Stephane Bura (Designer and writer consultant, previously Creative Director at IDTacle Belgium), Noah Falstein (Freelance designer & producer of The Inspiracy, and LucasArts veteran), Jurie Horneman (Creative Director at mi’pu’mi, formerly designer/producer at Rockstar and Kalisto).

AiGameDev summary.

My Thoughts

Interesting kind of discussion but a bit random and not much on the interactions between designers and programmers! Although maybe that is well trodden ground…

Panel Discussion

Q. How did you maximise the hardware in the early days?

Noah: 1Megahertz, 32kb memory – processor had to run everything, like the operating system of the game, written from scratch for each game with some parts reused. Need to be as sparing with AI as possible – an algorithm to use – imagine what the simplest possible solution even if it could be too simple or might not look good, implement it and iterate on it.

In Sinnistar; having individual characters deciding what to do, took too much cpu – so simply looking at it in reverse, where each task finds the nearest people to assign to it worked a lot better and faster.

Q. What is the dumbest design mistake you’ve seen a programmer make?

Stephane: Not so much a mistake, but thinking about architecture before thinking what the game is meant to do. In pre-production and talking about features it is frustrating to talk about architecture there.

Noah: Got an easy target; was doing a squad combat game in WW2, but creative person didn’t want that so worked on Trespasser; procedural landscape and big AI but it for the player was controlling a disembodied hand and a poor interface. It is important there that the designers were so excited about the sophisticated AI; like setting up cans to knock down was something that happens

Jurie: Manhunt 2; sophisticated AI was built – but the design was very controlled situations set up in the game. Needed to make the AI deaf and blind for it to work. Errors occurs when a second AI sees the player and activates others nearby instantly; so had to make a second friendly group then activate it when needed to attack the player; written in a badly written pascal interpreter!

Q. What is the kind of process you go through as a designer, with an AI programmer?

Jurie: In the design phase the really tricky bit is expressing the requirements for what you want to happen. Was a programmer so trying to write a good design document but still has some terms that are hard to explain. Designers say “Why isn’t this doing what I wanted it to be?”.

Q. Is a designer a programmer who cannot program any more? (Speaking as all past programmers).

Stephane: As a past programmer can still talk about implementation choices and technical level stuff. Prototyping phase think it is so cool as a designer to get ideas down, and implementation

Phil: Always thought the designer did all the fun stuff at the start and left the grind to the others!

Noah: That sometimes isn’t far from the truth. Got a lot of project management too though. Emphasis does change depending on the project. Always do recommend for designers to do an introductory programming course at minimum, but perhaps becoming less necessary with social games. Stuff that sells in social games is not high end graphics, particle effects or sophisticated AI at all. Looking forward 5 or 10 years, think it is frustrating now? wait until they’ve not ever played online social games on facebook!

Q. You’ve all changed from programmers to designers. What would you recommend doing to go into design?

Jurie: Gameplay programmers are the closest probably. Talk to designers; help them get their work done, and read up on design. After that depends on your company.

Noah: The Book of Lenses is the best book on game design ever written. Doesn’t do a taxonomy on games but teaches you how to think like a game designer – do the exercises he recommends.

Stephane: The Art of Game Design by Jessie (someone), really step by step tutorial on how to be a good designer. There is a lot to read online if you are interested. Project Horseshoe, The Theory of Fun, Game Design Workshop by Dave Perry. Rule of Thumb to do 10,000 hours to be an expert – hard doing the first few hundred hours.

Q. If you had a pet programmer to do whatever you wanted what would you have them do?

Stephane: Big on thinking about designing functionality (how to get things to do other things). Want to apply the methodology to interactive narration. Done a lot of design work on it but need programming.

Q. Is there anything from an AI programmer that will make an designers life easier?

Jurie: A tool for balancing probably; economics as well as combat since it all involves dynamics. Some very accessible economic books now. Of course going on from that dynamic balancing.

Phil: Can’t just know someone has done something, but the why behind it too.

Noah: Done a lot of work on Serious ames, and is a huge growing area as big as the entertainment stuff. Serious games have a purpose outside of just entertainment. AI programming problems are like folding@home or seti@home being something to do. Interesting problems in AI for instance doing infectious disease.

Stephane: If you’re an AI programmer on a project be assertive. You’ll get designers who don’t know what the limitations of the design area – better to show them; better for them to take it into account to make your programming shine. Asking for more memory, more information from the world – bring your ideas forward.

Q. Anything interesting right now?

Jurie: Left 4 Dead is interesting but I’ve not played it yet (horror!), interesting in how to see how using AI to affect the experience. Opposite to Manhunt which needed changing a lot.

Noah: Advance Wars games on the DS – the AI in the latest one is quite amazing especially compared to the earlier versions where it was so much easier to attack. It is flawed and so can be beaten even if not quite human. It doesn’t make huge mistakes and it is obvious why most actions are taken.

Stephane: Anything that requires a clever solution is AI; like Super Mario Galaxy; the camera is good and you don’t notice it. It is beautiful.

Noah: Similar to Advance Wars and seeing how they’ve progressed from Super Mario 64 and improved it in Super Mario Galaxy; sometimes it takes 5 or 6 games in a row to get things right – or if you are Blizzard do 5 or 6 games but only release the last one!

Audience Questions

Q. Where is the crossover of AI and designer?

Jurie: Depends on the team. Designer on some team might write the code.

Noah: Let the people best at each area do what they do. Sometimes meddle in low level programming stuff but it is better to back off since it likely screws up what the programmer is doing. Hopefully the programmer will promote design suggestions but get out of the way if it isn’t in the designers interest. Such a joy to work with people where you know what people can do.

Q. How do you balance corridor scripted sequences with emergent AI sequences?

Jurie: Was hoping to learn that here.

Noah: Starting simple and building it from there – sometimes this means scripting is the simplest solution. Sometimes the programmer comes up with a way to do something which otherwise was done by hand. It is something to like about it being hand crafted but something to improve on to.

Stephane: Can have both in games but it depends what the game is.

Jurie: Probably run into trouble mixing the two directly together.

Q: With Dragon Age, Heavy Rain etc. is the game development community falling back into big narratives?

Jurie: Didn’t like Dragon Age. Heavy Rain was sophisticated though. Not optimistic (nb: He said more, I only managed to note this down).

Noah: Disagree with that. Many different trends and variety; sophisticated games like BioShock and so forth all coming out and while not consistently achieved it is getting there. Good area which is seeing a revival. Also a return in humour in gaming for instance such as Deathspank by Ron Gilbert.

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