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GDC 2015: A Journey in Learning

GDC was such a whirlwind of experiences, inspirations, and constant learning. Learning came in many forms, whether they were in workshops, at chill-out lounges, at talks, in the Yerba Buena Gardens, at parties, at the expo, at luncheons, at roundtables, and more. It was cathartic to be surrounded by so many talented individuals from so many diverse backgrounds, and, because of that, I can only have room for improvement in my own craft. I think that it is so important to have people in the industry to look up to and also to approach and talk to about work and life. GDC is one of those places where that there will always be a diversity of people to share their insights and inspire others.

I would not have had the opportunity to attend GDC if it wasn’t for the generosity of the GDC 2015 Dames Making Games Scholarship and the sponsors which made it happen for our convoy. Thank you especially to our Convoy Partner, ID@XBOX, whose generosity helped support women developers who can travel to GDC for the first time. Sharing the GDC experience with so many diverse talents is incredible, and developers I’ve talked to have been very excited to hear about the initiatives to encourage more women and other minority groups into the games industry.

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella

IGF 2015 with Nathan Vella (Capybara Games) hosting

 

I went into GDC with the mentality that I wish to experience a little of everything that the conference had to offer. I was successful on trying something different each day. On looking back, there could have been an additional networking strategy that I should have struck out with: To find developers and designers who did similar work with similar themes and tonality, so that I can inquire as to their failures and successes and perhaps even find a suitable mentor there. I think that I met a lot of diverse individuals at all stages of game development, from students to seasoned pros, but I should have been more proactive and forward-thinking in seeking out specifically narrative game developers. I think, should I go to Indiecade Festival this October (22-25), that should be one of my top reasons to make the trip.

Playstation booth at GDC Expo

Different folks will tell you different strategies of how to tackle your first GDC or major developer conference. Student guides will always say to go to events during the day and party till you drop at night. Veterans will tell you to skip the talks because they’re all in the GDC Vault anyways. Some will say that the expo is a see-once experience, but worth it for the swag.

Everyone buzzes about the parties, parties, parties, but there’s certainly no agreement as to which one is the “best party”. I personally like the ones where I can network and chat at normal volume without feeling rushed; Others like thumping dance parties where they can decompress the conference day away. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed dance as a practice, but my brain is one of those that finds it hard to switch off from networking, once I’ve got the ball rolling.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

Resting my feet at Mild Rumpus, in the middle of a packed day of networking, learning, and chatting to other devs.

This is also what worked for me, which my boyfriend picked up on easily: “What is it that the pass really pays to get you into?” he asked me, “The talks, the workshops, the roundtables. Go to those. They’re in the Vault, yes, but the people who are there bothering to attend the presentation are those who share the same niche interests in game dev as you. And they’re the people that you need to talk to.” And the thing is, I’m the kind of person who feels really engaged with lectures. So I tested this theory on Thursday, Friday, and indeed, I felt like I connected very well with people who are also attracted into a certain specialized talk. As diverse as game-making can be, people at highly specific talks are attracted to the same concerns and questions that I have in my own career trajectory.

Since everyone likely has such a different experience of GDC, I will document my highlights:

Daniel Cook on Emotions of Game Design

  • Game Design Workshop, lead by Robin Hunicke (Funomena, thatgamecompany) in my section to iterate in design teams of six on a tabletop game that emphasizes Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics in a causal loop (MDA Framework). We learn how to tune our card game in an iterative feedback system that balances cooperation, betrayal, negotiation, and aesthetics. Slides are available from 2014 session here!
  • Design Bootcamp elective on Putting More Emotion into Play, where my favorite take-away is that design should evoke a “body loop”. It is the idea that there should be a direct emotion involved with game mechanics’ direct motion, so to encourage the player to remember and to be stimulated by gameplay actions. One of the most obvious loops is the feedback of delight in an “aha” moment, a really clear example of which is expressed by figuring out a puzzle. Daniel Cook (Spry Fox) lead the workshop and he has more articles here on experimenting on emotions in game design
Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

Alexander Martin, Damian Sommer, Leisha Riddel, Taylor Bai-Woo and friends at Yerba Buena Gardens

 

  • Exchanging stories in the Yerba Buena Gardens with game dev friends from around the world, old and new

Paloma Dawkins presentation at Mild Rumpus GDC 2015

  • Chilling at the Mild Rumpus with friends and in awe of Paloma Dawkins’ presentation of her exploratory 3D game, Gardenarium. It’s so immensely dazzling, you should check it out here

Disasterpiece and Teddy Diefenbach's GDC 2015 musings + music

  • Keep Grooving: Teddy Diefenbach + Disasterpiece’s live scored “poetry slam” about gamedev life & musings was an experience with spiritual transcendence. It was beautifully tempered and a most engaging performance piece. Glad I got to see this live with so many great friends!

Unreal Engine booth at GDC 2015

  • Spending hours at the Epic Unreal expo booth talking about rendering distance field, procedural generation, and especially the new UMG UI system, or just generally about the Blueprint system in general. The support teams from Epic are just phenomenal. Then, spending hours at Intel Lounge also talking about Unreal. Haha!
  • Getting a perfect score on SpaceBro at Alt.Ctrl with developer @nkornek
Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

Brittney Oberfeld, Gabby DaRienzo and Kara Stone at XBox Women in Games Award Luncheon

 

  • Enjoyed Xbox Women in Gaming Awards Luncheon with fellow DMG convoy members, catching up with @stinkerfish over academic interests and meeting our ID@XBOX Convoy Partner Sponsor. The Xbox Luncheon highlights the achievements of women in gaming. Four female game development leaders – Colleen Macklin (Parsons School of Design, PETLab), Abby Lee (LXP of Microsoft Studios), Amy Robinson (EyeWire), Robin Hunicke (Funomena) – delivered incredibly personable and inspiring talks, an experience that I would not trade for anything: From the art of failure, to embracing difference, to prototyping often rather than just ruminate on ideas, to having the positive outlook to believing in others.

Never Alone Slide of Inupiat Cultural Values GDC 2015

 

  • Adventures in Storytelling: Telling the World’s Stories Through Games discusses the community collaboration that brought the indigeneous Inupiat representations in Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa) to culturally respective design. Creative director Sean Vesce and Writer Ishmael Hope shared the oral tradition which has a direct source back to the lineage of Elders, and how to transmit emotion and specificity of culture in game form. What particularly resonated with me was their tips on how to create partnerships: To build trust, mutual respect, and exist in a framework of equal power – that is, that game developers do not have all the answers, but must be better listeners to be better storytellers. E-Line Media worked directly with the Inupiat community and was gratified that Elders and community members supported the game.
Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga GDC 2015

Ken Seto, Lyndsey Gallant and Andy Smith at Tonga

 

  • Meeting up with fellow Canadian developers at the OMDC party and Tonga, the most stylish Tiki bar in town
  • Startup Accelerators Roundtable run by Execution Labs’ Cofounder Jason Della Rocca, which helped cement the idea that I am much more project-based currently in my career, and may be more suited currently to seek grants and publishers in the middle term.
  • Meetings for potential sound and musician collabs
  • Low Budget Indie Developers Roundtable run by Oded Sharon of Corbomite Games: Developers from all backgrounds and experience levels share their ideas of how to find coworkers, how to leverage social media and Kickstarter, and how to keep motivated
  • Date dinners and bonding time in North Beach, Union Square, Telegraph Hill, Japantown; The breaks were necessary and helped me reset my enterprising and networking energies

And, my goodness, I think I missed meeting up with at least 60% of friends that I wanted to see this trip. The week felt like it came and went so quickly! I’m so sorry. Next year? Next conference? We’ll have to have the opportunity to meet up again!

What astounds me about the whole trip is that I was able to connect with people, not just about work and games, but what makes them engaged about the world. I’ve talked to people I’ve never met previously about the flux of change in political states, I’ve listened to a conversation about military practices, I’ve exchanged style tips heartily, I’ve reminisced about our beginnings. That human connection between devs at every experience level and background is something that makes me so excited to be in the game development industry. I look forward to my own work, just as I look forward to new innovations from all of you!

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My 2014 freelance year in review: Remembering to Learn

People have encouraged me to keep my passions strong about my own work. But, there were some dark moments of 2014 that I took my own passions for granted. For example, during crunch times of consistent 80-hour-plus work weeks, I have forgotten the extent of how to manage my own energy output. I tunnel-visioned on actualized results and deadlines, and neglected the joys of learning. I mistook workaholism for passion and momentarily misplaced my personal identity.
 Eyes_final_sm
Because of this, I’m charting my career growth in 2014 in terms of what I’ve learnt, not what milestones I have met. I believe it is a positive and healthy mind-shift for one’s own professional goals. And learning is incredibly valuable to someone who is fairly new to freelance and developing their own projects. Self-employment has a kind of freedom that requires self-reflection and self-discipline. Freelancers ought to develop their own brand through how they work and what they want to learn. This, I found, is the best way to know how to say yes and when to say no.
At the same time, do I really have a “final product” to show for my learning this year? Not really. But, for my self-initiated projects aimed at commercial release, I’ve finally lived through what it truly means to pivot and transform a project. I needed to do this because otherwise I may be staring at a 3-year wall of work, but now I have a project that has a scope that better reflects its core strengths. And I will likely continue to pivot again and again. The growing pains are harsh, and they always will be, but I think that making myself more adaptable and malleable is for the better.
Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methodology demonstrates how employees’ mandate of meeting milestones and deliverables is a well-intentioned structure, but it isn’t actually efficient if the final product does not have meaning or contribute value.
Now, there’s several ways that we can understand value, such as value in the marketplace by real users, as well as value by the people who have worked on the product. We can measure value for professionals based on our empowerment, through learning and gaining confidence in our contributions. And I believe that this goes all the way down to the individual level. That, even and especially when there are failures, we ought to still measure our professional achievements by learning first, at the very least for ourselves. Because that’s how we create positive change from failures, and it’s how we pivot.
This is my 2014 learning chart:

LearningOf2014_sm

One thing that should be clear from such a chart, at least to remind myself, is that a lot of my efforts did translate into learning opportunities. And I don’t think anyone should forsake that. Instead, we should remind ourselves of our recent accomplishments which are meaningful and that we can feel proud of, even if they don’t contribute to a final product. I had forgotten, for example, how much time and energy I’ve focused into creative writing this year. This is compared to treating it as a hobby in the past, and it feels great to treat it respectfully as its own process. I think that I still have far to go, but practising it and utilizing a multidisciplinary approach can only make better practice. And I finally created a Babel: Episode 1 storyline that I am happy with. Even in October, as I stared at an abyss of really needing to pivot away from 3D, or face a high-risk project of years of development and multiple team-mates’ contributions on the line, the story was what kept it grounded.
But there is also a lot of room for improvement. For example, there was such little time spent on coding. I barely even remember anything of UE3’s Unrealscript because it was sandwiched between a lot of crunch and having too many obligations simultaneously. UE4’s Blueprint didn’t even register on my chart because I felt like I gave myself so little time to learn how to make dialogue and trigger objects work. However, as I move forward, I need to provide more time and patience into learning coding. The only time that I feel like coding started to click for me is when I recoded my TOjam game, Scar Tissue, into Unity for more flexibility. The first pass was also done in a crunch of four days, but it felt really neat to turn nothing into a set of workable and simple game mechanics.
City_SM
By assigning key dates to the work that I’ve done, I really became aware of how little breaks I have given myself. I was working non-stop from August 2013 to June 2014, worked straight through 2013’s Christmas holidays, and didn’t give myself a complete weekend off until early September 2014. It’s not healthy, and in hindsight I believe my pivots for both Scar Tissue and Babel would have been less painful processes had I just given myself real breaks. Half-weekend work days are still not entirely a breather. There were some instances where I should take a continuous two-and-a-half days off in “don’t-even-think-about-it”-mode, to look at it again with fresh eyes.
In terms of art, 2014 was the year that I had dealt with the most diverse aesthetic explorations, both of my own choosing as well as that of clients’ or teammates’. The biggest learning curve was for the Remington client project that I managed game engine-side graphics for, but a really valuable takeaway from that is that anything with aesthetic unity requires R&D / storyboarding / mockups. Lots of it. I will improve on my artistic practices in 2015, for I will develop a stricter process of experimentation to key the right aesthetic vision to Babel and other projects. 2014 as a whole was a good mix of both organic and inorganic artworks, and in mid-December I finally crunched out my first human 3D model since game arts graduation in 2012. All of the above learning feels rewarding and memorable.

It’s been a hard year for a lot of people in the entertainment and video games industry. I’ve seen how hard people have worked to get to where they are. I’ve seen how prototypes and final products feel like two divergent paths, because the former feels like a roadtrip and the latter feels like grind. I know now how difficult it is to hit that sweet spot of game design that feels meaningful and heartfelt to players and unifies the game as one cohesive journey. A lot of us are perfectionists. Some of us go through this self-destructive passage in forgetting the rest of the world, or even our own, and burn out.
It happens. The greatest privilege is to know that you can dust yourself off because you’re learning, training yourself anew from the shells of your old projects. And I must recognize my own privilege that I’m in a game development community that is very supportive of emergent voices and experimentation. There are friends who encourage me to follow my dreams. Experienced designers and engineers who send the elevator back down, to encourage the growth of opportunities for the next generation. I don’t want to squander anything that I’ve learned over the years, whether in school or starting out like this in freelance. I have finite energy, but, by focusing on learning, and aiming to share what I can, it all feeds back into a cycle of renewal. We ask questions and we learn more as we teach what we know. I want to encourage that aim for a great journey, of wondrous lessons and its stories, and not just that perfect result.
(All images in this post are illustrated by yours truly; Header image is an “unfinished” concept piece for Babel.)
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My First Lean Startup Machine: A Network of Possibilities

So hey, I’m one step closer to being a triple-threat model: 3D modeler, photographic model, business modeler.

All joking aside, I was really nervous about joining up for Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop this weekend. Sure, I had read The Lean Startup book by Eric Ries, but to apply it as a group in a concentrated 48-hour workshop series was different than reading up on inspiring methodology. After all, I’m most comfortable when I get to hide behind a book to give me insight to the world.

The moment that I stepped onto Decentral where LSM would headquarter over the course of 48 hours, people who are strangers to me did an elevator pitch of their startup idea, and then we coalesced into groups around the best ones to create a viable product-market fit. That’s the goal. And the process is something that would otherwise take businesses a few months or more: We had to create the Minimal Viable Product and present it in front of a panel of judges within that time. Plus, we had to gather as many interviews and people-based metrics as possible to declare whether or not we actually had a useful product, and not just a product that no one would buy.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photograph by Rami Sayar.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photo by Rami Sayar.

I was anxiously certain that I would stick out like a sore thumb. A burden. I have no experience whatsoever in business, finance, accounting, nor even entrepreneurship. Instead, I have a background in academic humanities theory, 2D and 3D visual arts, game engines, and a tendency towards esoteric and tangential conversations. None of them felt like they translate very well to Lean entrepreneurship. But the tipping point is this: There’s no guarantee that people can derive value (emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual) from my art, and that’s the scariest proposition that any artist have to deal with. Everything else, like my worry for lack of business experience, pales in comparison to this desire to do something about this productive stagnation.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

This is how I work: You think that this 3D real-time game scene below looks pretty good? Think again. I can name forty things off the top of my head that’s subpar with it: It’s in an old game engine, so the lighting shaders and occlusion aren’t as great as it can be. The amount of weathering and grime between bed, lamp, walls and floor are unmatched, making it look like they all come from different decades. The 3D effect could pop out more for the tiles. The metal frame is too shiny. The mattress should be lumpier. And so on goes the tunnel vision. Believe me, it’s legitimate, this is how professional artists ought to think. Similarly, too, this carries into my level of discernment and aggressive rigour for creative writing.

ParturitionWard_120818_Render03-1020x710

Even the perfectionists are wary of this. But you learn to be satisfied with what you’ve got, because inevitably there’s a deadline. And I suppose there’s a reason I’m pretty obsessive about modelling hospital-related assets… P.S.: It’s really hard for me to post the blue comic doodles in this post because they look really unfinished to me. I had a huge internal fight with it the whole way through.

LSM teaches the opposite of this type of behaviour. It’s much more proactive, focusing on asking questions rather than executing based on a particular set of parameters. They’re two divergent ways of creativity with some very contrasting set of goals. If I could summarize one of the key teachings of the Lean mindset, it is to not assume anything about your final (or even preliminary) product, no matter how “cool” you think that it is going to be for your potential customers. It’s about not thinking about the solution right away until you know the problem that you are trying to solve, and who has that sort of problem or is in need of a new benefit and convenience in their lives. Put that way, it’s incredibly empowering because you’re putting something together for a non-abstract “somebody”, not just taking something apart to put together for the sake of the exercise.

I'm pretty sure that this isn't the solution to the puzzle.

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the solution to the puzzle.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean that it has to negate the personal vision. It’s not a zero-sum game. The most non-abstract “somebody” is myself. And I’m trying to tell myself this, even though I know that it’ll be a psychological fight all the way: Don’t work in isolation. Don’t be the artist who completely forgets to look at the discerning eyes of another person while working on that beast of an oeuvre. For creatives, I believe that there are times when, as we hit a plateau, it seems impossible to move past that “block”. It shouldn’t be that way, because all art pieces and all forms of storytelling are conversational. They’re meant to communicate.

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Art is also meant to listen. As Todd Charron explained, “Listening is the willingness to change.” Art is often very much about listening to a broader society in order to cultivate a meaningful reflection of it. So, many of the ideas embedded in LSM itself doesn’t necessarily always have to pertain to customers, but it can work as well for audiences or other receptive learners. Instead of asking people, “Will you buy this”, I can always ask “Is this meaningful to you”, should my key goal privilege cultural and expressive values.

Much of what I’ve learned at LSM is really something indescribable because it is the process of learning for yourself and your team – and learning to fail. What I can say is, I agree with Ramli John when he wrote that “LSM is not a rulebook. It’s a mindset.” And there’s nothing to say that mindsets and pipeline-specific methodologies can’t co-exist together. But it will be an experiment all the way, and many testable hypotheses. It’s where I can’t let too many ideas bubble over without being able to look at the basic chemistry behind it all. Fellow attendee Cherry Rose described it best, and even with a drawing: You start off with a lot of seemingly brilliant ideas, but then you test it and find that you can only take the best, and then layer on new ideas, and keep building and culling. Like layers of sediment.

Bear with me, I'm an Arteeste.

Bear with me, I’m an Arteeste.

The LSM learning would not have been so eagerly appropriated by me for potential use in a non-profit centric mode of production, were it not for the community atmosphere there. I love all the learning and shifting of mindsets at the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) weekend. I have not met a mentor that was not supportive and willing to share their insight, as well as give us the necessary push to move us out of our comfort zone. Everything felt well-paced. There’s almost an “aha, I’m joking”, because the pace was so frenetic and kinetic that made you look back and go, “wow, I didn’t realize I was capable of that”. But the point is that we are capable, and we achieved a lot in those 48 hours.

Is LSM for everyone? Not at all. It’s not a stroll in the park, but more like scaling a mountain. I think some would absorb the value of it much better than others. It’s a draining, sometimes heart-breaking process. It’s like going through an emotional relationship in a compressed timeline. It’s all about facing up to rejections, but also moments of high reward because you know things just clicked. But, most of all, it’s about the willingness to learn and listen. The willingness to help others and to be clairvoyant to the strengths and weaknesses in human nature, of yourself, your team, and of the people that you interview to find your customer base.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

As a “mountaineer” of LSM this weekend, I think that I really got a glimpse of how different the whole atmosphere of thinking at this strata is. To evaluate my performance through this analogy, I think that I packed fairly light but was not really capable to carrying anyone else’s load. Sometimes my gaze would wander to the faraway vista or the flowers rather than the task at hand. And, while breaks are very necessary, sometimes the tangents strafe away from the goal, even if it was only a few seconds of unrelated discussion. One of my teammates, Joe, was very good at getting me back on track, as he never scolded me when I did not comprehend something. Instead, he led the way by kindly re-enunciating the useful examples, once even with diagrams, thus allowing me to more proactively contribute ideas that are more pertinent.

That’s the other thing: Like scaling a mountain, it takes patience with oneself and with the team. This was something that I think that my team members exemplified well.

I think that, by the end of the week, I had made it to the middle of the mountain. I was looking up at the parts where there are icy slopes and deemed it a bit too scary for myself. I was not able to sell a product to a customer, whether it was product concept or an actual, physical prototype, in order to most truthfully replicate the exchange of value with the early adopter. Mike from my team put forth the Herculean effort to do just that, carrying around 10 pounds of our product to our target market.

If there was one thing I wish that I had discussed more with fellow participants, it is how they learned how to become more comfortable speaking to strangers that they ended up getting some really engaged conversations. Team leader Neil and I did have one case of that where we had a young woman get so excited about our product that she told us what design consideration would work best for her usage. I want to know what would trigger that more, and I will ask for more advice as well as just learn by discovery.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

I had asked the question of whether or not the Lean mindset can be applied to “art” projects. MC and Mentor Jason Cheong-Kee-You offered me the open-ended response: When we are designing startups at LSM, much of it privileges text and speech. What has yet to be explored is the power of visual imagery and interaction, both of which game-making exemplify. How we can create simple and meaningful experiences out of those two additional modes to connect with potential audiences is a very relevant realm to explore. And the neatest tidbit? These experiences do not need to be complicated in order for it to be a testable experiment.

To close off, I subtitled this blog post as a “Net-Work of Possibilities” because it really is about understanding how our work and our solutions are tied to a network of different groups of people, whether they are consumers, audiences or developers, and what they each need. Cast too wide of a net, and the product that you have spent all your energies building might be something that is not useful to anyone, and thus not useful to a company. But at the heart of it, it is also about motivation and creation, and thus the core observation and organization skills enhanced through LSM can be adapted through so many kinds of projects, even when maximizing monetary gains is not its primary goal.

 

Thank you to all those who made the weekend possible: Mentors Jason Cheong-Kee-YouIan Gerald King, Robert Mackenzie, Nick Piquard, Todd Charron, Jane Wang, Rami Sayar, and many others! Thank you also to my team Neil Lachapelle, Mike Imeson, and Joe Goski, whose creative energies are really inspiring! Thanks also to fellow participants Cherry Rose, Padraig O’Shea, Sergey Kalnish, Andrew Witchell, David Lewis, Shuai Zhong, Ashlam Abowath, Fahad Khan, Juan Galt and numerous others for welcoming the sharing of ideas! Hope to meet up with you all again to continue such creative conversations.