Tags: games


syllabus: the ensmartening

I am fed up with being constrained by the limits of my understanding, on a non-technical level, of the fields in which I work. Being able to write and code has ceased to be sufficient--how can I create anything new if I do not really understand what it is I am creating? What role it will play, what purpose it serves? So the next step in my education has begun.

Aided by reading lists graciously compiled by technology historian kezinge and media theorist virtualstar, today I set out to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library to acquire some Real Fucking Knowledge to replace my current set of Pretentious Undergraduate Bullshit Cleverly Pretending To Be Real Fucking Knowledge. It's not enough to be familiar with ideas like "the medium is the message" and "the signifier and the signifier are one." If I am going to be working with these ideas, I need to understand them, explore them, contest them, discuss them, not just toss them around like beanbags to see if someone better read than me will catch them. It's not just about getting into Media Lab. It's about knowing the big picture about what the hell I am doing, and finding inspiration in it. My CS degree taught me the what and the how, but it frustrates me how little I know about the when or why. And I'm tired of being one of those name-dropping, walking-Wikipedia, hedge-scholar intellectual poseurs who knows everything he knows only in broad summary. I want to actually know what I'm talking about.

The first step to knowledge is acknowledging your own ignorance. In this case that meant looking for it in the wrong fucking place.

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These are the books I obtained today. The very incomplete syllabus for a graduate-level course in New Ways To Think About Video Games. They are not decorative. They will not sit on a bookshelf until I get around to them, like the ones yuppies purchase to display in their TV cabinets as conversation pieces. Their ideas are going straight into my head, where they shall careen like brakeless bumper cars crashing about in the dark until I discover something new about them to talk or write or code about. Someday, hopefully, all this research will help me achieve my lifelong goal of telling a story in a way that's never been tried before, a story that would suffer if it was told any other way.

Titles in red are ones I am still looking for. If you just happen to have a used copy you'd like to give or sell me, I'd be immensely grateful. Suggestions for addition to the reading list are also welcome!


  • Brathwaite, Brenda; Schreiber, Ian. Challenges for Game Designers.
  • Crawford, Chris. The Art of Game Design. A classic from the legendarily batshit founder of GDC. It's been out of print so long you could get engaged for less than it'd cost to get a copy. But YAAAAAY IT'S ONLINE. "For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!"
  • Crawford, Chris. Chris Crawford on Game Design. Chris Crawford is a Lunatic Genius: Electric Boogaloo. (Or, rather, Chris Crawford Has Been Designing Games Longer Than I've Been Alive: A Retrospective.)
  • Dille, Flint; Platten, John Zuur. The Ultimate Guide to Video Game Writing and Design. Possibly the only game writing textbook in existence, much less the ultimate.
  • Salen, Katie. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The theoretical grounding to Schell's practical knowledge. Coined virtually all the current academic terminology on the subject, and is worth a purchase for that alone. Let's face it, I don't have any real business talking about "ludology" until I've read about it from the source.
  • Schell, Jesse. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Fat. The mother lode of applied game design theory, apparently. Praise for this book transcends the hyperbolic.

(Thanks to kezinge and retch)

  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin; Aspray, William. Computer: A History of the Information Machine, 2nd ed.
  • Campbell-Kelly, Martin. From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A History of the Software Industry.
  • Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922. About the early history of radio. How is this relevant to video games? Well, it provides a useful reference point in understanding how new technology is invented, improved, and adopted relative to the zeitgeist of the era in which it is created, which will help me contextualize future readings on that subject. Also talks briefly about the beginnings of geek culture, apparently!
  • Kent, Stephen. The Ultimate History of Video Games--The Story Behind The Craze That Touched Our Lives And Changed The World. I'm told it's like David Sheff's better-known Game Over, except broader. And 500 pages long.
  • Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture. If Sheff and Kent's massive flyswatters are the macro, this book is the micro--the tale of the young game company that came to define every stereotype of game developers in the '90s, and ultimately subvert them. I especially want to read this one because I've heard it is told from a game designer's angle, focusing on new technologies and experimentation with gameplay elements instead of the more typical business and historical-cultural perspectives.
  • Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution.
  • Montefort, Nicholas. Twisty Little Passages. Already read this one! Simultaneously an unprecedentedly thorough history of text adventure and a groundbreaking exploration of interactive narrative's unique place as a medium of expression. Montefort's bibliography is a major source for this reading list.
  • Sheff, David. Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped An American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, And Enslaved Your Children. Despite the absurdly sensationalist tagline, this is a pretty well-regarded history of the video game industry from the 1960s to the early 1990s. I read some of this book at retch's place and it was pretty fascinating.

(Thanks to kezinge and virtualstar)

  • Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. I am already a fan of Bogost's criticism and essays, so I'd read pretty much anything he writes. He is also the world's foremost only authority on newsgames and the potential of games as agents for political and social change, and a good reason to consider applying to Georgia Tech's Digital Media M.S. program as well.
  • Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design.Misleading title: this is apparently not a standard game design book but a set of personal and ethical reflections on the nature of gaming by the senior creative officer of Sony. Appears to be very widely read in the industry for some reason.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. If you've ever been asked "Is the medium the message?" and bullshitted an answer, you really need to be thwacked over the head with this book. And then you need to read it.
  • Mitnick, Kevin D. The Art of Deception. Seminal text on information security by the world's most infamous hacker, particularly because it has very little to do with defeating technical security measures and everything to do with exploiting human interactions with technology.
  • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. According to kezinge this book is the main reason why parents used to tell their kids that TV rots their brains. "Go read a book!" they'd say, not realizing that reading is an equally sedentary activity. When I grew up, it was, "Kevin, stop playing video games and come watch TV." It's about time I understood why.
  • Kidder, Tracy. The Soul of a New Machine.
  • Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Eeeeeee so excited to begin reading this one. A forward-looking evolutionary history of prose, as written by a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech with an academic background in literary theory. This book is kind of a big deal right now.
  • Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet.
  • Turkle, Sherry. “The Subjective Computer: A Study in the Psychology of Personal Computation,” Social Studies of Science 12 (1982): 173–205.
  • Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit, 2nd ed.

(Thanks to virtualstar)

  • Barthes, Roland. The Pleasure of the Text. Awkward yet influential postmodern philosophy essay comparing the experience of reading to the experience of having sex. Cited relentlessly in papers about interactive narrative, as it provides a useful and well-known model against which the experience of playing a video game may be compared. Montefort all but fetishizes on citing this work. Which I guess is appropriate, given that The Pleasure of the Text is reportedly pretty fetishistic in itself.
  • Barthes, Roland. Elements of Semiology. Ever hear art and literary theorists argue about the distinction between signifier and the signified? This book is where those terms were first defined. I am told that digital media breaks a lot of traditional assumptions about how media is perceived, so I should learn what they are. (It's amazing how the human brain interprets out of the many layers of abstraction, a series of electromagnetic pulses representing a sequence of numbers representing a set of instructions representing movement vectors for a three-dimensional ordered set of points representing a series of polygons projected into a two-dimensional space represented by a rectangular grid of rapidly flashing lights, sixty times a second, as a single continuous experience. And to think cinema blew the semioticists away.)
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation.
  • Eco, Umberto. Theory of Semiotics.
  • Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge.
  • Foucault, Michel. Order of Things.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics.


  • Barkan, Seth Flynn. Blue Wizard Is About To Die! Self-proclaimed first published anthology of poems about video games. Expensive.

palib is dead


Well, shit.

I knew the Nintendo DS homebrew scene was already beginning to slow down (DSi hacking notwithstanding), but...yeah, it might be time to move on to something else. I could just move over to pure libnds, but...life's too short. I'll continue working on Lasers! Pew! Pew! but the future of the project is now unclear.

$99 a year for an iPhone SDK, and a couple more Benjamins for an actual iPhone, might be a practical investment right around now.

(edit) $200 for a development iPhone (which becomes locked in "test" mode and can no longer be used as a normal iPhone), plus another $700 for a Mac Mini since (doy) Apple's development suite only runs on OS X...wow, this got real expensive fast. Good thing I already have a DVI monitor, a USB mouse, and a PS2-to-USB keyboard adapter. DREAMS ARE MADE OF DEBT

we got game

My contract with geakStudios terminates on Tuesday. (Not coincidentally, this is the same day their grant money expires). Over the past week I've been scrambling to put the finishing touches on a game prototype I've been building for them, and now it's finally done! Hooray!

Play it here. (Be sure to enjoy the other games we've got while you're there, too!)

Melee Hooters is a "beat-'em-shmup"--think of it as Strider meets Touhou and you have not entirely the wrong idea. We made it by tearing out the guts of an old shmup Adam never finished and filling it with yummy yummy nougat until there was virtually nothing of the original code left, nothing, NOTHING but nougat. Delicious sticky nougat from CORE TO SKIN.

Also, turtles. I like turtles.

Anyway. Eliot Lesar on design! Adam Hull on art and initial programming! Kevin Chen on ActionScript, additional art, enemy wave design, sound effects, and everything else! One two three four WE ARE SEX BOB-OMB GEAKSTUDIOS MELEE HOOTERS TEAM.

Despite our official company policy of "no babies" each programmer at geakStudios takes on a pet project, where one person takes charge, and this one has been mine. There's a lot of stuff I wish I had time to put in (to name a few: visual score indicators, enemy hit and death sounds, projectile-shooting enemies, a few more interesting enemy waves, water ripple effects, a scrolling parallax background, better-looking explosions, and so on) but you go to war with the game you've got. Also my Flash CS5 trial ran out and I can't afford the full version. Perhaps the other geaks will see fit to finish what I have begun. Who knows.

Play. Enjoy. Let me know what you think.

And now...time to pack for the big move tomorrow.
  • Current Music
    NemesisTheory - Snapdragon
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difficulty settings

"Don't worry! Everything will work out. It always does."

  • Twice as much starting gold
  • Cheap healing
  • Bosses are manageable
  • Skill costs are minimal
  • Few random encounters
  • Missions have fewer objectives
  • Bottomless pits have safety nets
  • All challenge time limits are extended
  • You support allies, instead of allies supporting you
  • Gold farmers do the heavy lifting for you
  • Monsters are half as tough to defeat and give two-thirds as much experience
  • Character penalties are halved
  • Quests never time out, and can be suspended indefinitely
  • Guardian NPCs have unlimited funds and provide free inn
  • Unlimited saves--redo any challenge, fully healed, immediately after failure
  • Default profession (if you fail to choose one): Law Student, Med Student (requirements waived), Engineer

"Hey, worst comes to worst, you could always move in with your parents."

  • Bosses are difficult
  • Decent quality starting gear
  • Guardian NPCs provide small amount of income
  • Allies offer strong support
  • Discounted healing
  • Slow character growth
  • Can undo a limited number of actions
  • Never have to choose a character class
  • Wide variety of available sidequests
  • Can suspend a quest to "take time off for a little bit"
  • After failure, wait to respawn, then start afresh from last major milestone
  • Default professions (if you fail to choose one): Paralegal, Advertising Intern, Systems Analyst, "Social Media Expert"

"What, you want a fucking medal or something?"

  • Demons respawn endlessly
  • Bosses are invincible
  • Epic-level monsters spawn in early levels
  • You must go into debt to buy your starting equipment
  • Cover erodes almost instantaneously
  • Status afflictions are devastating
  • Skills are costly
  • NPCs turn hostile after one offense
  • No support
  • Professions require heavy treadmilling
  • Gold and item drops are rare and give little
  • No saves--you get one shot, and that's it
  • Double experience
  • Default profession (if you fail to choose one): Retail Clerk, Foodservice Specialist
  • Casual players will offer condescending pity and normal players will try to convince you the game isn't that hard

the annaform oracle (part 1)

(part 1 - part 2 - part 3)

So. Cupertino, right. (Months late--sorry. Life interferes with the process of its documentation.)

One day, coming home from work, Cormac told me, "Hey! It's my friend Diana's birthday tomorrow, and we're going to go help her make cupcakes. She's a writer at Cryptic. I think you guys should meet."


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kevin, what the fuck are you doing

It has occurred to me, since many of you have asked, that it's been a while since I've posted what I've been doing with my life. So.

Have I found work? The answer is a resounding sort of. Remember last May, when I flew out to Cupertino to do speculative work for a possible video game startup? Well, it was a bit of a crazy move, but it is already starting to pay off. Now I'm doing part-time speculative work for two gaming startups!

(For peanuts, mind you. Startups, almost by definition, struggle to get the funding to will themselves into existence, much less pay their would-be employees. Cormac, for his part, paid me in a month's worth of food and lodging. My current employers aren't even offering me that much.)

One of my employers found me at the New York Gaming Meetup--apparently word had gotten around that an aspiring young programmer was showing off a homebrew DS game, and they'd fruitlessly gone looking for me at the last few meetups while I was in California. They are the people who do Yeti Knight--a goofy, cynical little interactive animated series that has already developed somewhat of a cult following. Ben is an artist fresh out of grad school and Donnelly is a business guy fresh out of business school, so all they needed to make a game, at bare minimum, was a programmer--and I ended up completing the game developer fetus trifecta. We are working on what will hopefully become a new Yeti Knight game; it will look a little like this. I'll link to more preview material as the project develops.

It's worth noting that Donnelly (I haven't met Ben yet) stood out to me as one of the few people at that month's NY Gaming Meetup who was serious about making good games, not making as much money as possible off mediocre ones. (I guess it didn't help that that month's topic was social media and gaming, meaning that half the people present that month were SEO and marketing types interested in coming up with their own Farmville. Which, basically, means they seek to engineer exactly the kind of tedious, repetitive Facebook games that give social gaming a bad name, the Pavlovian bell-ringing kind that keep you playing long after the enjoyment is gone.) So Donnelly is one of the good guys, as far as I can tell, and Ben--he really knows what he is doing; I am thrilled to be working with his art and his wry sense of humor. They've both met no success breaking into the mainstream games industry, so they're starting their own. A gutsy move--but they know their dreams. And so do I.

The other employer, geakStudios, heard of me via my Oberlin connections. They are an Oberlin-based startup, funded by a grant from the college, comprised entirely of recent Oberlin alumni! (If I had been smart, and a little less risk-averse, I would have done that when I graduated, rather than getting all worked up sending dozens of resumes and code samples to every company I'd heard of in a shrinking mainstream game industry, hoping they'd hire me to be the industry equivalent of a chimney sweep despite laying off seasoned professionals by the bucketful.) As a team of six, geakStudios is marginally bigger than the Yeti Knight dudes, allowing it to enjoy a small amount of mainstream-style specialization. We have a dedicated designer! And two programmers! And a full stack web guy who is doing only web stuff!

And, since geakStudios actually has a small amount of funding, we can afford to be a little more serious about our work. Not serious like my previous employer--I am delighted by how familiarly Oberlinesque the geakStudios team is, and how in many ways they are the exact reverse of Wall Street's very image-centered corporate culture--but truly and passionately committed, in that way that only a company of six or fewer people can achieve. Right now we're in the prototyping phase of the "fail-fast" model, in which, knowing that 80% of the projects we begin are going to be untenable, we seek to accelerate the process by churning out lots of crude gameplay prototypes over the summer and then culling all but the most popular ones for development to completion. We already have two initial prototypes done (a silly quicktime event game and a not-quite-shmup) and we're making great progress towards a third. Getting a team of six to work together is a bit of a hassle, especially with two people in Oberlin, one in San Francisco, and one in New York. But with weekly Skype audioconferences and regular Google Wave, we're somehow pulling a decent production schedule, even with the entire team only working part time. (I am proud to say that I have been slow in updating LJ lately because I have been so busy being productive.) I can't say when our games are going to go live on the site, but it looks like very soon. We're making this shit work, where doing it man, where MAKING THIS HAPEN.

I guess I'd better not self-advertise any further, lest I go broke doing nothing but free work for embryonic game companies. :b

But, this is real experience, I am learning new things, I am meeting motivated people my age with big dreams, and I am doing what I love. If this were even remotely sustainable this would be heaven. I could do this forever. Fuck it, pay my rent and groceries, cover my healthcare, toss me a small stipend for books and video games and theater every now and then and I'd do it for nothing else.

And yet. Oh man. Not even close to sustainable. This is a vacation in which instead of relaxing I am working very, very hard, that nonetheless burns through my wallet like a one megawatt laser through a CD case. I'm already living like a hermit, for a couple months I was even eating only one meal a day (bad idea), but saving money only goes far.

My raft from my Wall Street job and my last paycheck from Emily are close to running out, so I had to ask my parents for money. They've been trying to push some on me for ages--an absurd sum, more than they really can afford to be giving me--so I finally caved and took some of it. I feel horrible about taking it, in part because my parents have given me enough and they can't afford to support me like this, in part because money from parents is never free--there's always an implied debt of reciprocation. (Already you are so ungrateful for all the things your parents worked so hard to get you! That you never asked for and never had any say in receiving any of it, least of all the fact of your birth, is inconsequential.) But now I have another raft. It won't last me forever, but hopefully it will last me until I can turn my game-making addiction into a rent-covering, food-buying full-time job. My father, a self-made businessman himself, is very encouraging. My mother...well, how supportive she is depends on whether she's taken her meds lately, whether my father is away on business, how scary the mortgage on my parents' new apartment is at the moment, and whether the cat is thirsty.

I'll pay them back. On my own terms. Somehow.

Games. It's amazing how much I've invested in the craft of so frivolous (yet beautiful!) a luxury, something I myself can no longer afford. How many current-gen mainstream titles have I bought in the past two years? One? One and a half? Were it not for freeware and independent games--of the very sort I am making!--it'd be almost tragic how working on games means I can't afford to play them.

But, you know what? You see that part of my resume that lists my job experience, where I list all this impressive but ultimately gaming-irrelevant programming bullshit, a decent one-month residency, and that one game I did as a side project at the top? (Which, amusingly, has done far more for me than any of the more traditional resume hooks. It's caused some interviewers to skim past all this hardcore network I/O and multithreading stuff I've done for a multinational corporation and say to me in phone interviews, "Gee, it looks like you don't have a lot of experience, but this homebrew thing you threw together in your spare time looks promising!") By the end of the summer all of that is going to be game industry experience. All of it. My resume is not going to say "snivelling self-entitled web engineer who thinks video games would be more fun than doing enterprise applications," it's going to say "snivelling self-entitled game programmer with plenty of relevant experience WHY HAVEN'T WE HIRED THIS DOUCHEBAG YET."

And, well, if the unthinkable happens? If geakStudios or the Yeti Knight people somehow manage to beat the odds, and become one of the something like 10% of independent game companies to survive to the launch of their first title?

Then there's no point in breaking in anymore. We ARE the games industry then, even if we are just the newest face in a tiny niche market. And then, we get our say, in our little corner at least, in what corporate America is supposed to be. Our own gentle tug against the tide of the great beast of capitalism, and a chance to redeem one shining speck in its long, terrible history. (Remember, alma mater, your old motto: Think one person can change the world?)

Or, more likely, we'll all sell out and blow it all on skyscrapers, suits, and cocaine.

Only time will tell.