Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Are you kidding me?!

I used to be a real game junky. It didn't matter what the game was, if it was new and I didn't have it, I was buying it. Then I started playing UO and slowly but surely stopped buying other games. Granted, I play plenty of real time and turn-based strategy games, lots of those Shockwave puzzle and dash type games, the occasional random action adventure game (hell I did play Thief and Splinter Cell and GTA!) but I'm really picky with the games I enjoy playing.

My beloved brothers (all four of them!) started giving me an earful about that. What kind of game designer are you if you only play a select few games? There's nothing worse for a girl than to admit that your brother is right. Seriously, it sucks! But I can't help it that I dont get excited at the thought of playing yet another FPS, and the sports games don't do it for me either. Combat games can be cool though, especially when I whoop my brothers!

So I went shopping for a few console games and grabbed a few recent games that I normally wouldn't bother with. I have a thing for older games (who would have guessed right?). I had just finished replaying Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy and was itching for another game of the type, or something like Soulreaver when I spotted Full Metal Alchemist in the discount bin.

I get home and decide to start with the Alchemist (Devil May Cry can wait a little). Intro starts, a few cut-scenes here and there, here goes the tutorial. So I get on this train and have a few meanies to fight. Aight, bring it! They tell me to hit the circle so I can transform something (I think it's a box) into a spear. Then once I have the spear, I need to press the Triangle to equip it. Ok, so far so good. Then they tell me to perform this combo: Square + Circle + Square + Square. Hmmmm ok, I can handle that. I dont think I got it right a single time but who's keeping counts right? And the tutorial keeps going so I must not suck all that bad. Oh wait a minute, new combo. Now I have to hit Square + Square + Circle + Square + Square... At least I think that's what it was. Moving right along, here comes the next combo. This time it's Square + Square + Circle + X + Square.


I know I hit Square, not sure what I hit after but it wasn't the right combo, that I know for a fact. Right... I don't think I want to know what the next combo will be. I simply cannot picture myself button mashing those combos everytime I want to spank some baddy. So I put down the controller, turned off the TV, put the game back in its box and played some LOTRO.

The Devil will wait a little longer. Tomorrow, I'll see how I fare with Mass Effect...

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Hook Up

People have a certain impression of what being a game designer is all about. The usual reaction when I tell people what I do for a living is "OMG, that is soooo cool!" and more often than not followed by a "you dont look like a gamer!" -_-

Most of the time, they will ask me how I ended up in that field, how did I "score" such a job. And I tell them I've been playing games for as long as I can remember, that for many years I wrote and ran events and fiddled for quite some time with graphic design programs, level editors, etc. which in turn allowed me to build a decent enough portfolio that got me accepted in the game design program at the Ubisoft Campus. From there I was given the choice to do an internship in a video game company or do the school project. I went with the intership and got hired there, until the day I moved to the US to work on UO.

Since my joining the UO team has been announced, it's funny the number of people that didn't use to give me the time of day who suddenly think I'm the sweetest person under the sun. But beyond that, it's incredible how passionate those same people are about game design and how they feel they would be the perfect fit. Invariably, they ask for some sort of a hook up. "Can you get me in? Can you push my resume if I send it to you?"

Now here is where I get offended. It's not the fact that they are trying to use me to get where they want to be because I understand that sometimes you've got to be ruthless to get places. If that's what you have to do to get your foot in the door, then better shameless than sorry. No, what gets to me is the fact that these people do not actually care about the profession, and often they dont even care about the game or have quit playing it.

It's all about the glamour. Being able to brag about having "the cool job". When you ask them what they think the job entitles, they have no clue. They give me ignorant remarks such as "adding stuff to the game?". When you ask them what their qualifications are, why they think they deserve an interview more than the next guy, most of them fumble. Have you ever been a DM? A what? A DM, you know a Dungeon Master? Errr no? Hmmm, ok, have you ever writen fiction? Short stories? Fantasy tales? Quests? Puzzles? Errr no, none of that either. Wow, ok... Have you ever tried to create your own map with the map editors that come with certain games? Hell no! That looks too complicated. Sheesh, lets see. Have you ever done anything game related at all? Graphic design? 3D modeling? Scripting? 3D animation? Been a QA tester anywhere? Something? Anything? Oooh you Beta Tested a couple games and you feel that should suffice to qualify you as a game designer? I see.

So hmmmm, assuming that by some sort of miracle I do manage to get you an interview, how are you going to convince the team that you can do the job? You don't know? Haven't gotten to that part yet?

This is not a game.

All the people on the team, be it the artists, the designers, the engineers, the testers and yes even CS (despite all the bad press they get) are really hard working, passionate and creative people. We don't play games all day. We WORK.

You want to work in games, earn your place. It doesn't have to be with a billion diplomas or years of experience. But it certainly has to be with undeniable passion and commitment. You cannot just wake up one day and expect to be handed over a game design job (or any other job) without some sort of credentials or verifiable talent or skill. You can't afford to go to school or there are none in your area teaching that field, then you build yourself a portfolio at home. Start playing with the map editors that come with your games. Start learning programs such as Maya and 3DS and Photoshop. Take advantage of the free online scripting programs. Start writing some fiction. Start setting up some player run events. Do the work for a bit to see how that shoe fits. Once you know what kind of work we're talking about, then you can ask for the hook ups.

Stop asking for free rides.


Friday, July 18, 2008

Insider Trading

As a game designer, working on a MMO is so insanely different than working on an offline game. It is mostly different because imho, to be a good MMO designer you must also play your game as you cannot fully understand the repercussions of your choices, the players, the community, their needs, struggles and aspiration unless you are right there alongside them. But if you do play the game, every decision you makes as a designer also affects your own gameplay, with the power to tip the balance in your favor or against yourself.

And with this power comes knowledge... knowledge which can also be your worse nightmare...

So here I am with my guild. We just finished a spawn and are rolling for scrolls at the GH. One of the guildmates tosses his 105 on the ground. A few others do the same with their 105 and 110. I look and say nothing. But I know in 2 days when the publish hits, those scrolls will actually be worth keeping for the extra turn in points. That first guildmate then proceeds to throw a map of Sosaria on the floor. I stare at him for a couple seconds and clear my throat saying "you might want to hang on to that, it could sell for a pretty penny". He goes, "Pfft, I have those coming out the wazoo, so does everyone else. Can't even give them away! Let the damn thing decay. Anyways, I've thrown most of the others out already".

I bite my tongue. In a couple of days they will be worth 10k pts. I should know, I coded that myself...

I try to think of a good way to get him to keep it, but frankly I can't without making him suspicious that I have insider info and maybe even blowing up my cover. I keep quiet...

For a minute there, I think of picking it up. I mean, I could use those 10k points myself. But then I feel like a sleeze and leave it there to decay. I don't know if anyone ever picked it up. But I remember thinking if I had been smart, I would have picked it up and given it to him when the publish hit. Oh well...

The next day, I'm in Luna. I need some explosion kegs but I'm too lazy to make my own. While shopping, I see tons of items for free or dirt cheap which I know will be worth a bundle of points. This guy is selling forged metal for 50 gp, they will be worth 250 pts tomorrow. Talk about a good deal! He's got at least 15 of them on his vendor. I buy 4 and as I'm about to buy the 5th one, it suddenly hits me: this is insider trading!

I try to rationalize this: 1) I'm not doing anything illegal within the rules of the game, a player has the right to buy off a vendor; 2) if I dont buy them, someone else will plus the seller is getting the price he asked for; 3) if I wait til tomorrow when everyone else knows, I will be at work when it hits the shards and by the time I get home, it will all be sold out...


Another player has no way of knowing about this. The vendor would (and will) raise the price if he knew about this. Tomorrow, other players too will be at work when the news is posted on the Herald and they too will miss out. I mumble for a while then walk away. I grab my keg and recall out.

The next day after work, I rush to Luna and straight to the forged metal vendor. He sold out... Big surprise... I check out the other vendors nearby. The few that still have forged metal are selling them anywhere between 5k and 10k a piece. What a rip... I cuss some more and recall out. I'm annoyed and slightly frustrated but at the same time, I somewhat feel good about myself for not abusing my priviledge.

Then I get in vent. My guildmate is cussing himself out for losing well over 100k points because of all the maps and virtue armor pieces he threw out... Our GM tries to cheer him up. I feel bad all over again...

I discussed my dilemma with my colleagues later on. The consensus seemed to be that I can't help but knowing what I know and I cannot share that knowledge with players, friends or not, even if they're screwing themselves over. And that at the end of the day, as long as my actions remain within game rules, what I do for myself is between me and my conscience.

I guess sometimes knowledge just sucks...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Wormy Tale

The following is a fiction inspired by real events. The case displayed isn't at all an actual request, just a made up example to demonstrate how things aren't always as simple as they seem.

* * * * * *

I wake up a fine morning, all excited to head out to work. The project I'm working on only needed a wee bit of tweaking then off it went to QA for testing. I don't really want to start on my next big task until QA passed the first one so, having some time to kill I glance at the forums and see players request yet again for something we promised them a while back and some other stuff they've just been wanting forever because it was omitted originally.

Feeling like a good Samaritan (and frankly to quell the outcries too), I grab one issue which seems like it would be a quick fix and start digging through the code...

If you're a fisher, come see me, I've just uncovered the bait stash of the century!

So the players were saying "Why can I write in the red and blue books but not in the burgundy ones? Can we please write in the burgundy books?" I figure, heck, I don't have a problem with that. It's just fluff, doesn't create imbalances and if it will make them happy, have at it!

I dig up the code controlling books thinking this is a 10-15 mins job. Then I start reading through it and feel a cold shiver running down my spine as it downs on me there are actually 5 different scripts controlling things. So I open each script look through them and realize how one is included in the other or inherits from that one and how this other function defines how the blue and red books react and dictates what interactions are allowed with all other books.

I take a deep breath...

"You can do this, girl! It seems more complicated than it really is! Just think how happy the players will be once Com posts it with the next patch notes!"

So I changes a few lines here and there. Go to next script, change a few more lines, add a couple more. WOOT! It compiles! Test it in game. Ugh, talk about miserable failure. Go back to the code, fiddle some more. Doesn't compile. DANGIT! Work on it some more ("OMG, has it really already been 2 hours I'm at this?!). Yay! It compiles! Test it. Hmmmm, this part works, but now I've just broken all other books. Wait a minute, worse than that!! I've broken All other items!!! I don't think double-clicking a trashbarrel should open a writable book gump.


A little bell goes off... I just received an email from QA. My previous task passed successfully! Go me! I have to write and setup a new event, which is fairly important... at least definitely more than being able to write in the burgundy book vs the red and blue ones. Plus in terms of bang per buck, there really is no comparison...

By now, the worms are crawling all over me and throwing a party on my desk, high fiving each other.

Decision time...

I take another look at the clock. I've already spent (wasted?) 4 1/2 hours on this dang thing. I know what the problem is, and if I fiddle with it enough, I know I can fix it, but it will be another hour or two atleast. If I stop now and revert what I've done so far, it will truly have been a waste of time. So I shake off the worms that were nesting on my arms and plow on. Another 1 1/2 hours later, touch down!

So 6 hours, lots of hair pulling, head banging on the wall and thousands of worm squashing later, players can finally write in burgundy books without it breaking previously working features of the game. Yay?

I'm a little annoyed it took so long but I'm happy it's done and smile at the thought some players will be pleased at that little bone thrown to them in the next publish.

* * * * * *
Two weeks later...

The patch notes of the latest publish have been posted. I'm curious to see players' reaction to all the stuff the team and I have worked on the past weeks/month. For the first couple of days, no one seemed to even notice that burgundy books are now writeable. I'm a little disappointed but shrug it off. Then someone finally seems to notice and starts a brand new bandwagon:

Player 1: "Wtf? Instead of working on balance issues, or major bug fixing, or new content, you Devs have nothing better to do than allow players to write in stinking burgundy books? You morons need to be fired! Get a (censored) sense of priorities!"

Player 2: "No kidding! This is (censored) pathetic! No wonder this game is going to hell!

Me: *sighs*

* * * * * *

Another two weeks goes by...

A colleague drops by my office to ask a few question regarding something I submitted to make sure QA is testing the right things. While talking, she mentions some request she saw on the forums and points out a couple which she felt might be worth taking a stab at, despite our pretty tight schedule. She didn't look at the script (that's not her job anyways) but unless she's wrong, she thinks it might be a quick fix.

I smile and reply "yeah, I read it as well this morning". She says "Ok, cool!! Just thought I'd throw it out there if you had time to kill". I nod at her, still smiling, while she saunters out of my office. The nodding turns into headshaking. I had a quick look at one of the issues and a conservative guess says a full day for that "quick fix". I let out a sigh that almost sounds like a painful moan. As I turn back to my monitor to continue on my current task, I spot worm trying to crawl its way back up the top of my desk. I flick it off. "Dont be so impatient you slime ball. It isn't time for you to party yet. You'll get another turn soon enough".

Saturday, July 5, 2008

What was I thinking?!

I've been debating for a while what the first topic of my blog should be, not for lack of ideas, but because there are so many things I do want to talk about. It took a news snippet on CNN to finally convince me to get off my lazy bum (well not really since I had to sit to do this), and finally set up my blog and start writing.

They were talking about AoC, WoW and Warhammer. Somehow, Ultima Online managed to get a nod. It was funny to read the UO forums and realize players had a reaction similar to mine when they viewed the footage: "Argh!! Of all the things from UO they could have shown, they presented the oldest, least exciting stuff!! Dangit! Oh well, at least it's some exposure". From there, another thought crossed my mind, a question I've been asked so many times before I joined the UO team and even more so now that I have: Why UO?

Why indeed!!

Lets see here...

Left a good job where I was working on a next gen game? Check
Passed on teaching game design to aspiring new designers? Check
Left family and friends just to be lonely in this foreign land? Check
Moved to an overpriced new city where I feel out of place? Check
Working on an old game with dated graphics and code? Check
Making less money because of the cost of living here? *mumbles*

So what the heck was I thinking?

I could go on a long explanation of why, but I will simply give an analogy.

Remember "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"... Jessica, the bombshell married to the clumsy, goofy rabbit. She could have any toon (and probably most men too!) that she could possibly want. But nuh uh, she wants the rabbit. Why? Because HE makes her laugh, not the rich dude, not the "omg you make me drool" sexy guy, just the plain silly little rabbit.

I've worked on next gen games. They're cool with their bad ass graphics. Didn't love it, didn't hate it. It was a cool job. And when that job would be over, I would start another job on another cool game, with kick ass graphics, that I didn't overly care about either.

So what was I thinking?

That working on a game you love beats working on one you don't.
That it's awesome to actually look forward to Monday mornings.
That UO doesn't make me laugh but it sure as hell makes me smile.