For most of this last week I’ve been in Köln at GDC Europe – where I gave a talk entitled “Hand Made Detail in a Procedural World” – and subsequently Gamescom, for a day-and-a-bit, before getting my flight back to the UK on Thursday. I don’t normally do conference write-ups aside from IRDC (though I have done one in the past about ProcJam) but since this has been the focus of my attention this week, and there were some interesting talks and interesting people, I thought I’d do one this time too. (Also, yes, the site was infected with malware for the past two days, but I have since purged it all – and both Google and my hosting company have confirmed the site is now clean – and updated/improved my security measures, though if anyone has any particular tips for WordPress security, do please impart them in the Comments section below). You can also download my presentation:
So, my talk was up as the second talk on the “Independent Games Summit”. The talk before me (Alexander Birke) was an interesting piece on the importance of automation to allow you to code large parts of your game extremely rapidly by creating distinctive scripts or sub-programs to serve these purposes. Indeed, several times he actually mentioned roguelikes and DF in particular, which quite unintentionally served as a decent lead-in to my own talk. It was 25 minutes, of which I spent about 10 exploring the benefits and drawbacks of both PCG and hand-made design (with a focus on PCG, which did of course expose my biases – but I am a roguelike designer!) in which I focused on some of the major pros of PCG (replayability, variation, challenge, the usual), the downsides (challenging currently to create puzzles, narratives, quests, etc), and the upsides (specific gameplay instances) and downsides (unchanging, inflexibility, rote-learning) of hand-made. Then I looked in depth at four examples which I thought were particularly illustrative – FTL, Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, Spelunky, and URR. I talked a bit about the quests integrated into FTL and the issues sometimes encountered with this system (where later checkpoints on the system are sometimes unable to spawn under certain conditions), the “vaults” of DCSS and how they both in aesthetic and gameplay terms serve to “break up” the game’s levels, the secret quest to reach Hell which runs through Spelunky and the “vertical” integration of these items across an entire playthrough of Spelunky, and finally URR’s blending of hand-made and procedural content in such a way that (hopefully) players are generally unable to spot which parts of the game have been made by hand, and which are algorithmically generated. I concluded with acknowledging that this is quite a new field, that integrating hand-made into PCG is generally far stronger than the reverse (witness the “procedural” quests available in Skyrim if anyone doubts that observation), and there’s a lot still to be experimented with. The talk seemed to get a very positive response, and my presentation was far smoother than my recent nucl.ai one, so I was happy with how it went. And I now have my first GDC talk under my belt! Next year I’ll probably submit one specifically about URR in some way (maybe something about culture- and religion- and nation-dependent conversation systems?!), though I’m not sure what just yet. I’d also like to make it to the US GDC at some point, but maybe that’ll have to wait until I submit URR to the IGF, and that’s a fair distance off, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
After this, I went to two other talks that day; one from Mike Rose about the roles of bluffing and misdirection in games, which was fascinating (and connected well with some of my post-IRDC reflections). It also made me all the more excited for the future URR idea (“future” meaning actually in the near future!) idea of allowing the player to don clothes, adjust their skin tone, speak in a certain way etc, and attempt to “bluff” their way through a culture. Of course, that needs me to figure out how the conversation system is going to work, and despite a lot of productive scribbles made between sessions, I’m still not sure about it… but back to the conference. The talk after that (Nicolae Berbece) was about death animations, which has nothing to do with my own work/interests (though I do have some very cool thoughts about what’ll happen after your death in URR, and for anyone interested in death this absolutely excellent piece by Meghan Blythe Adams should sate your interest), but was interesting nonetheless, and tremendously well presented with some audience engagement. In the middle of the day there weren’t really any talks which really caught my interest (in any track, the Indie one or the others) so I planted myself in the speaker lounge, wrote every bit of this blog entry above and including this sentence, and wrote a thousand words of a piece of academic work I needed to work on (which is the secret project oft-mentioned here in past weeks).
During this day I also bumped into the great Kornel Kisielewicz, developer of DoomRL, AliensRL and DiabloRL, and now developer of Jupiter Hell (I hope my postdoc office is even a fraction as nice as the one in that picture). Kornel was one of the only big names in the RL world I hadn’t yet met (only Thomas Biskup, Josh Ge and the Adams brothers are still on that list, I think?) and we spent a good few hours chatting about our respective master-plans for our games, exciting super-secret endgame ideas (for which we both swore the other to secrecy, so nothing will be repeated), and we had a wide-ranging discussion over difficulty, adaptive difficulty, out-of-depth monsters, player learning, the different forms of randomness and chance that roguelikes other games can deploy, tactical and strategic death in roguelikes, our respective academic endeavors (making yet another RL dev who had, or had previously been studying for, a doctorate). It was great. I then ate too much potato salad and felt quite queasy for at least an hour afterwards.
After that (I now move forward a day in my writing) I realized there wasn’t actually a single talk on the second day which was relevant to my field! Lots were to do with managing teams, developing multiplayer, production cycles, etc (and the Indie Game Summit I was a part of was only on Monday) – so instead I just went for a bit of a wander around Köln, and shacked up at this rather nice Vietnamese restaurant/bar for most of the day to do some URR work – fixed a bunch of edge cases in religious and military districts, ensured that NPCs behave intelligently in slums and hunter-gatherer settlements (still called “settlements”, but I really need to change that properly to “encampments”), created the procedural graphics for campfires in hunter-gatherer settlements and got them spawning (those’ll be in the next update), and fixed a few other minor bugs.
Wednesday, however, brought with it Gamescom, which was rather more exciting than Tuesday – this was my first time at a massive games convention, and I wanted to both see what there was to be seen, and think a little bit about the experience of wandering around this kind of massive game/media event. Firstly, I learned a very important fact – that although the first day wasn’t even, technically, the “public” day (most people were “trade visitors” like me, though there were still a lot of general public attendees), I had seriously underestimated the size and scope of this event. By far. The convention building itself is colossal (consisting of 10 immense buildings, each of which would comfortably fit in every room in every games conference I’ve been to in the past), and there must have been… I don’t know, 10,000 people there? It’s difficult to estimate, but the crowd was uniformly dense around the venue, and I’d say there were easily 500+ people in each room at each time, plus many many hundreds in the corridors… either way, the thing is colossal.
First off I had to pay a visit to Jo and Riad in The Curious Expedition booth to catch up with my fellow roguelike-with-detailed-art developers, and I grabbed two of their incredibly nice buttons to bring back home with me. And in the very nice “Indie Arena” booklet, just like at this absurdly endearing pixel art of two of the explorers riding dinosaurs and giant turtles! I know I rave a lot on here about TCE (probably third only to the Souls series and Command & Conquer?) but it really just makes me grin every time I see it – it’s so endearing, and so interesting to play, and so much care and passion has so clearly gone into it (and I also appreciate that it takes very much the same kind of thoughtful critical stance on race/sex/history etc which I have in URR). Anyway, yes, pixel turtle riders:
If Jules Verne himself had been a game designer, he couldn’t have done better. After that, I decided to have a look at the Dark Souls 3 playable demo. Now: ordinarily I keep myself assiduously and borderline-religiously spoiler-free when it comes to most games, and none more so than Souls games. However, DS2 lowered my expectations for the series so heavily after the unbelievable masterpiece that DS1 was that I felt I should give it a look. For those who’ve seen the trailers, you remember that massive grey-ish castle with the diffuse yellow sky background? The demo had us wandering around there. We only got ten minutes (I am convinced the group I was in got less play time than the one before us, but I’m sure that was just down to actually playing the thing) and in that time, I have a bunch of reflections. Firstly, the combat felt slightly “heavier” and slightly slower a la DS1 rather than DS2; the area appeared to have many directions like DS1 rather than being far more linear like DS2 (it is this aspect which particularly gives me hope); and I didn’t find another bonfire other than the one we started at the entire time. However, there were a large number of enemies which is a crutch DS2 tended to use (not that I’m saying DS1 didn’t have areas of that sort, but DS2 definitely propagated the “lots of enemies = difficulty!” thing as a rationale where the original game generally didn’t) although some very interesting incidental objects in the level design. After a moment we came across a half-dead dragon lying across some of the battlements, who continued to spew fire at various intervals (not sure if it only had one fire spew animation, or whether there were different areas it could hit) – this had obvious echoes of the Fire Drake in the Burg in DS1, but having always liked the idiosyncrasy of the Drake in DS1 as a kind of non-boss setpiece (something DS2 generally never had) I don’t mind the similarity (which was perhaps intentional?). The glowing/smoking “globes” that denote something to pick up were also slightly smaller, and I didn’t even spot them until I’d been playing a little bit, which is just a side comment but a slightly odd change (or perhaps they just meshed unintentionally well with the colour palette of this specific area?), whilst I was pleased to run into a challenging knight-like enemy (very akin to the Balder Knights of DS1) who was fast, powerful, and hard to stagger (and honestly vaguely reminiscent of the Black Knights of DS1, which I hope for a return of: that kind of generally-optional miniboss enemy scattered around the world is a very interesting change of pace). The world also seemed very dense with enemies in terms of their spatial placement, not just their number, whereas DS1 always gave the player space to breathe and just wander in many regions: again, we only saw one part, but I hope there are some larger spaces where we are allowed to just take in the beauty and intrigue of the world. So, basically: far too little time to tell, but although there were some hints of DS1, it still seemed to have that DS2 “slickness”/smoothness which spoke of lots of harsh corners being rounded off (even though in many cases it was those same corners which made DS1 what it was). I really used a lot of parentheses in that paragraph, didn’t I?
After that, I noticed that there was a CS:GO tournament being hosted and streamed from Gamescom as a prelude to a much larger one (the “largest CS:GO tournament ever”) at the nearby arena at the end of August. I was disappointed I’d be long home before the huge event started, but since I’ve wanted to start attending eSports events (well, basically Melee and CS:GO are the only games I follow, but I’d probably watch SC2 at a pinch) I decided to wander along.
I watched one full game, and part of another, until my stomach insisted I go and find something to eat. It was fun to be part of the crowd (even if it was quickly clear that Gamescom wasn’t, perhaps, an event where a very competitive gaming/eSports-friendly audience would congregate?) and the game I saw was actually a rather good one – the score become 15-7 quite rapidly (first to 16 wins a match in CS) and the other team pulled it back to 15-12 before being defeated, creating just a little bit of “hang on… can they actually do this?” in the crowd by the time they got to 11 or 12. However, I must also just grumble here: I had to spend a long time even figuring out how the hell to get into this area, as the first security person on the area didn’t have a lot of English (not that I’m being judgemental, da mein Deutsch ist Scheiße) and we couldn’t make each other understood, whilst the second guy vaguely said I needed to get a “bracelet” and explained nothing else. After a lot of wandering, I finally realized I needed to show my passport somewhere and get a bracelet denoting that I was 18+. Really, CS:GO tournament guard person? You really think a semi-muscular 6’5 guy with a significant beard and a trade visitors pass might not be eighteen and he’d better go off and present his ID somewhere to make sure? Good grief.
Anyway, now for some more general reflections. Firstly, the noise was bloody deafening. No matter where you were there was a constant low ebb of dull conversational noise pervading everything, which honestly got a little bit trying after a while, especially as one got the impression a lot of games had turned their volumes up to be heard over the hubbub, and thus all the other games had responded in kind, and so on and so on in a kind of deeply futile aural arms race. I was also struck by how, even if one can be a game scholar, and a game designer, and high-level competitive gamer, and someone who has been playing games from the age of 3… there are so many parts of the gaming world that I’ve just never touched, and never will! Now, maybe you’re thinking – “well, obviously that’s true, Mark, why are you even saying this?” – but hear me out. It made me realize how much of gaming I know about without ever having played it (I can talk reasonably intelligently about MOBAs, say, or MMOs, or modern FPS games, despite the fact I’ve only ever seen them played or read about them, and never directly experienced them) but particularly as a young games academic, and as someone who (as I’m sure many of my blog readers have!) has spent uncountable tens-of-thousands of hours gaming, it was weird to get this feeling of having only “scratched the surface” of gaming. Now, admittedly, the genres I don’t play are naturally part of a deliberate choice: I don’t play MOBAs because I have no interest in MOBAs, so I don’t feel I’m “missing out”… but it was still a weird moment to realize that even with games as my career, my primary creative outlet, and my primary hobby, there are still immense volumes of “gaming” I’ll never really touch. Weird.
Also, there were precious few culinary options for somebody with a gluten allergy, and the carrots I was forced to eat were the most pathetically flaccid vegetables it has ever been my misfortune to consume.
However, this isn’t to say my grumbles dominated the day: it was pretty awesome to see the increasing variety in the gaming public more generally. There weren’t a lot of families/children there (though I assume there were more on Thursday onwards) but I was very reassured by the gender balance I could see. Equally, I was glad I got a glance over the Indie Games section, and got to play a bit of DS3’s early build, and just to experience the very… singular… experience that Gamescom certainly is/was. It’s an awesome (in the traditional sense of that word) sight to see so many gamers in one place and caring about the medium (even if I wouldn’t touch most of the AAA games there with a barge pole!) and I thought the indie area was quite strong, even if it was barely advertised in the main booklet and far more space was given to the commercial partners and businesses! Indeed, I actively had to ask around to find the thing after spending 15+ minutes searching every part of the booklet I was given as a visitor trying to find even the slightest mention of where the Indie Arena was, so they really had “hidden away” the Indie Arena compared to the “ENHANCE YOUR GAMING PROFITABILITY!!!” people. It was also curious to attend a conference/convention as, in essence, a “fan”, even if I knew a couple of the developers presenting and might well be showing off URR in similar venues in 2017 onwards. For the last 12+ months since I moved into game studies every conference I’ve gone to has been one where I’ve been “behind the curtain” as a presenter/speaker/etc, and it was a slightly odd reversal in that regard to be an ordinary visitor. Next time, I’ll have to make sure I’m presenting URR!
So, lastly: on Thursday my intention had been to hang around at Gamescom a bit longer, but much as I’d realized with GDC that there just wasn’t that much else “for me”, I came to have the same feeling here. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed my visit to both this and GDC Europe and will certainly come back when I have a talk to give at GDCE on URR, or URR is in a games-convention-presentable state (i.e. let’s say 2017), but GDCE is a primarily industry conference, and Gamescom is an industry+game-fan/player convention. I’m not in the games industry and never will be, and whilst (obviously) I am a game player… I’m not a player of 99% of what was on display at Gamescom (and honestly, to an extent, I never have been, even back when I did play a lot of FPS/RTS games). I just looked around Köln a bit more, ate at that splendid Vietnamese place again (when one’s food choices are very limited, one tends to really stick with places which have proven themselves as viable instead of branching out), and made my way back to the UK (I’m now done conferencing for the year, so I can actually focus on my work from this point until the end of the year!). Since returning I’ve been continuing to work on general ambient NPC life, with the goal of having it all finished by the blog entry I post on the weekend of the 22nd/23rd. I’m currently making sure NPCs behave correctly in all buildings, and know what to do in the more unusual buildings, and dealing with the wealth of bugs in the existing game one always finds when adding new content.
Next week I’ll be posting a review of a new book about roguelikes coming out! Week after that, I’l be doing the final post about ambient NPC behaviour inside buildings, and then moving forward with other NPC behaviour in 0.8, either into what I’m calling “stationary” NPCs (e.g. priests in churches, guards outside mansions, etc) or “special crowd” NPCs (so groups of NPCs having festivals on religious festival days, etc). After that, it’ll be probably be “special” NPCs (i.e. those which need to be tracked no matter where the player is), and then I’ll be working on the conversation system. This is clearly going to be a huge update, and I’ve actually debated releasing an interim version with NPCs and clothing/face generation but no conversation system, but I’m disinclined to do this, so I’m probably going to take a little longer and push for a massive update instead. Thanks for reading this marathon entry, and see you all next week!