We’re hoping that next year is going to be a good showing for #AltDevBlogADay authors at GDC12! I’ve started collecting up some of our submissions here. In the spirit of the site, please share your thoughts and give us feedback on how we can make those presentations that are accepted by the GDC committee really useful and interesting for you next year!

I’m also going to leave a link to this post on the right panel and keep it live so we can keep the discussion open between now and then.


Creating Your Dreams – A Gentle Introduction to Experimental Hardware and the World It Opens

Track: Programming (Design secondary as it’s about enabling new experiences)
Format: 60 minute talk
Speaker: Richard Sim

Where and how we play games is rapidly changing. With new markets emerging and existing markets diversifying, new experiences are becoming available with each change. The Wii was hot in the past, mobile, tablet, and social games are hot today, and who knows what will be hot tomorrow. The electronics industry is undergoing similar transitions; with the bar for entry for what used to be sophisticated technology coming down so low that it’s now within the reach of casual experimentation thanks to the advent of open source hardware and what is often referred to as the Maker Movement.

This presentation will provide the audience with an overview of Android USB Accessories, the Arduino platform, what open source hardware is, and how they all come together to give developers new, unbounded power to define what tomorrows innovations will be. There’s nothing in the way of a regular developer coming up with the next Guitar Hero, AR Drone, or Ubisoft tablet.

I will not be focusing on electronics or hardware design per se, but how open hardware can be leveraged as building blocks that can be used to easily create new controllers, feedback and output devices, and other such peripherals, which can then be programmed in a similar fashion to what we’re used to on established platforms. It is these building blocks that have lowered the bar for entry so dramatically, and it’s all happened very fast.

Once the foundations have been covered, I will go into the details of creating a simple controller that will act as an Android USB Accessory. If time allows I will also cover changes required to create a Bluetooth accessory, which opens up the possibility to target both iPhone and Android devices.

To close I will take the audience’s imagination one step further and onto creating games that are played in the Real World(!). I will show how sensors, data logging, real-time feedback, and simple gameplay mechanics can be used to add a new dimension to existing sports. Why play SSX online when you can go down a double black-diamond with your friends and compete for the highest score in real life?

The take-away for the audience will be a spark to dive in and get started creating devices that nobody but themselves have ever imagined, to enable the gameplay experiences that have only ever existed in their dreams, with enough knowledge of the subject to know where to start and hopefully with all the excitement they need to get them on their way to a working prototype!

Game Tools as a WebApp: Lessons from Insomniac’s Next-Gen Tools and Engine

Track: Programming
Format: 60 minute talk
Speaker: Mike Acton

Insomniac, like many developers, has traditionally treated development tools as a second-class development effort. While we have had dedicated Tools programmers for many years, very little effort was put into the overall user experience and runtime performance was always valued over development effort. This resulted in a systematic increase in development cost and an entire “Engine Economy” based on brute-force effort. Two years ago, we decided to tackle this problem head-on. The result is an entirely new suite of tools, written from the ground up to fundamentally change the way we work as a studio.

It was also clear that the world was changing. The explosion of web-based enterprise applications, fully-web enabled mobile devices (like the iPhone and iPad) and browser-based gaming sent a clear signal that the era of native applications living in a sandbox was over. Not just for games, but also for the tools we use to develop games. We felt this was an opportunity to make a strategic change that would position us much better and net us valuable experience for the inevitable changes to operating systems, development tools and user expectations.

This is the story of our experience so far.The first game Insomniac will ship on these tools is Overstrike. We will share our most significant choices and the costs of those choices. We will suggest alternatives where we feel that better results can still be achieved. And we will share details of the technical architecture of the new tools suite.

Details such as:

Usability is not random. We needed first-class information to develop first-class tools. We set up a formal usability practice without a lab or additional budget using a single PC. We will also share specific, novel tools features such as our “neighbor” and “tile” mode which allowed us to increase production time on common tasks by as much as 20x.

The choice to go webapp. The initial version of the tools was not web-based. It was a native application which used Flash for the front-end. This model was not significantly improved over the traditional native model and introduced the same data complexities. Webapp tools allowed us to not only take advantage of many available development tools, it forced a clean separation of UI and back-end data.

Client/Local-server model. One of the concerns of browser-based tools is adding latency. We largely solved this issue by running a mongoose-based web server local to each machine.

Additional details. We will also share our experience with allowing custom tools and UI development by non-tools programmers. Our take on the Flash vs. HTML5 debate. Details of integrating a native engine. And browser and security workarounds.

We’ll share enough about how we made our tools and why so that you could begin to duplicate the process. We’ll share why we made the choices we made so that you can justify the effort and search for reasonable alternatives. And we’ll share where we went wrong so that you can avoid the same costly mistakes.

#AltDevBlogADay Post Mortem: The First Year

Track: Business and Marketing and Management; Programming
Format: 60-Minute Panel
Speakers: Jaymin Kessler, Jonathan Adamczewski, Michael Jungbluth, Mike Acton, Tiffany Smith, Wolfgang Engel

#AltDevBlogADay is all about the sharing of knowledge and ideas about game development in a way that is unprecedentedly open and eager. What better way to continue the online initiative of transparency for all things game dev related than a post mortem?

Started by Mike Acton, #AltDevBlogADay is a grand experiment in decentralized collaboration and information sharing. With hundreds of authors from around the world spanning a full range of specializations and levels of experience, and each author posting once every 15 days, there is always something new and interesting to read. Select articles even appear on Gamasutra, GameIndustry.biz, and in Game Developer Magazine. This talk will bring together a handful of those contributors to talk about how it formed, why they think it is valuable and what more can still be done.

The panel will start with how the idea came about, straight from the founder Mike Acton, and how it grew through social networks such as twitter and google groups. He will also discuss how it maintained a consistent stream of posts through server changes, copyright discussions and initiatives with other websites and publications, all the while keeping it casual and barrier free for anyone wanting to post.

Authors on the panel will speak to why they felt it important to join the website and keep up a continual posting schedule while balancing a full developer workload. They will speak to any benefits they have found from posting from networking to even advancement opportunities in their careers. One student contributor even got recruited by the studio he now works for after the studio’s owner read one of his posts.

Panelists will also speak to what responsibility they feel for the content generated, correcting any faulty information on the site, and any need to affect the wider culture of game development. In one instance, Mike Acton put out a call for more female developers to join the site, to help drive forward a gap in the industry both he and many others identify as cultural concern. Both he and panelist Tiffany Smith will touch on how that initiative went and if more can still be done.

Authors will also touch on some of the topics that have gotten the most attention industry wide, be it about a specific discipline’s skill set or opinions on general development culture or practices. This includes how they have dealt with the replies, when the traditional role of developers is to not engage online comments, especially when the post goes viral outside of the traditional industry community through sites like reddit or facebook.

Finally, they will touch upon where they want to see it grow and what the future can hold for this initiative to give a daily voice to the developers of the world.

Attendees of all disciplines will walk away from the talk with new tools and insights towards getting their voice out there and realizing that every day can be a networking and learning experience like the one at the conference.

Cutting the Pipe: Achieving Sub-Second Iteration Items

Track: Programming (Design secondary as it’s about enabling new experiences)
Format: 60 minute talk
Speaker: Niklas Frykholm

Often there is a perceived conflict between dynamic/flexible systems, where objects can be manipulated directly and high-performance systems that pre-process and pack their data as efficiently as possible. This session will show that this conflict is not innate, by presenting a pipeline design that combines sub-second iteration times with highly efficient load-in-place data structures.

This is achieved by combining several techniques:
Game resources are organised into binary pieces that can be compiled and reloaded individually. A central resource manager keeps track of all resources and a reload broadcasts a function call with the new and old resource pointers to all affected systems. Each system is responsible for handling this in the correct way.
A data compiler process is always kept running as a local TCP/IP server to eliminate startup/shutdown times.
Data that persists between compile sessions is kept in fast in-memory databases.
Directory watching eliminates the need for file tree scanning.
Tools use the actual engine and final data formats for visualization.
Tools talk to the engine over TCP/IP and can tell it to reload individual resources.
Lua is used for reloadable gameplay code and also acts as an interface for the tools (over TCP/IP).

By using this method, the recompile time for a project becomes proportional to the number of changed resources, rather than to the total number of resources, with a very low static overhead. A zero-compile (no data changed) touches no files on the disk.

Additional benefits include:
Immediate drop-in play from the level editor on both PC and console.
Live near-instant reload/recompile of all game resources.
Artists and gameplay programmers see the result of changes immediately.
No central data compiler needed, everyone can work distributed in local repositories.
Consoles can run in slave mode to an editor running on a PC and immediately show what levels, particles and animations will look like on the final hardware.
Tools can be written in any language.

This method has been implemented in the BitSquid engine and is being used by multiple titles currently under development, including the recently released Hamilton’s Great Adventure. Using this method, a recompile of a 10 000 file project with one changed Lua file takes less than 500 ms.

Technical Animation Roundtable

Track: Visual Arts
Format: 60-Minute Roundtable
Speaker: Tim Borrelli

Over the last 2 years, the Technical Animation Roundtable at GDC has been very successful, and I plan on keeping that success going.

This year, there will be a much broader range of discussion topics that will keep people coming back each day. For example, one topic that has been discussed from many angles is character performance. Since a large part of technical animation relates to getting a character to look its best in-game, the conversations have veered towards discussing how, as tech animators, we can better work with and facilitate meaningful dialogue with modelers, animators, designers, writers, and AI programmers. I plan on promoting this as a full session topic for one of the days.

I will change the intended audience to be broader, to include not just tech animators, animators and programmers, but also modelers, writers, designers and concept artists. In order to get that audience, I will become more active pre-GDC to encourage other disciplines to attend. I know the title will still cause some people in the aforementioned disciplines to skip over it, but my hope is that word of mouth will bring in these other disciplines so that more cross-discipline discussion can occur.

The roundtable will focus on the process of a character’s performance in game, including the initial design spec, the concept phase, modeling for animation, rigging, creating animations for proper player input or AI controls, use of motion of performance capture, creation of state machines and blendtrees, voice recording, implementing in the game engine, and finally what the end user will experience.

I will encourage the entire audience of modelers, animators, tech animators, designers, writers, and programmers to participate in a productive discussion about how the process works for them, and how it can be improved.

Ultimately, the participants should walk away having seen the process through each other discipline’s eyes, and be able to go back to work with a newfound understanding on how to best communicate with their coworkers in order to deliver, as a team, the best character performance possible. Participants will also learn what common skills effective technical animators share and how to apply those skills to their specific company, as well as the value it will bring to their projects.

Animators Demanding Respect

Track: Visual Arts
Format: 60-Minute Panel
Speaker: Michael Jungbluth; Nate Walpole; Tim Borrelli

We are tired of seeing beaten down, unmotivated animators in the game industry. It shouldn’t be standard for designers and programmers to throw animations under the game dev bus with ridiculous rate scaling, blending animations that were never meant to go together into a Frankenstein’s monster, and tossing the wet blanket of universal compression rates over all the animations. Producers will often praise the performance of an actor in a mocap suit, and never once mention the animation team’s effort in pulling it together. We are fed up with losing some of our best talent to film where a character’s performance isn’t sacrificed for gameplay’s, when the two need not be mutually exclusive.

In this panel, three experienced game animators will talk about how best to deal with these pitfalls and misconceptions, all the while driving home the point that animation is more than just the motions of a character, but also their emotions. Their solutions for how to gain respect and push forward game animation as a whole include a better integration of technical abilities, a renewed focus on traditional artistic principles and a better understanding of the grey area between game design and animation.

Tim Borrelli will speak about the task at hand as a technical animator and lead, and how all the tools in the animators wheelhouse are making them more important by the day. This includes:
- Communication between tech art and animation
- Animation tech working WITH design, not around it (rate scaling tools, compression tools, performance issues)
- Proficiency with scripting (Maxscript, Mel, Python, etc) and Excel

Nate Walpole will talk about how its not just the tools but the need to fully embrace and implement the artistic and traditional roots of animation to take game animation to a new level. This involves:
- Use of appeal in character creation
- Need for pauses in acting, action and simultaneously gameplay
- Motion quality on par with other assets (lighting, fx, modeling)
- Motion style complimenting overall gameplay design (mocap on a twitch shooter?)
- Necessity for motion blur as resolution/visual budget increases and gameplay moves faster in parallel
- Animation fidelity and purpose (play as the character, not the UI)

Mike Jungbluth will focus on the need to embrace the area where game design and animation overlap and why animators need to step it up in this regard.
- How soon animation should be included in the design process
- What to do when 4 or more of the 12 animation principles are in the hands of game design, not animation
- Where animators need to inject more purpose (transitional animations and pathing)
- How player input should be considered as much as design output during gameplay (Making the button presses by the player match the intent of the animation on the screen)

Attendees will walk away with not only a renewed sense of respect for what game animation is capable of, but the tools they need to make it happen across their team.

Fail Tales: What We Did (Or Should Have Done) To Ship Troubled Projects

Track: Production
Format: 60-Minute Panel
Speaker: Ed Byrne; Keith Fuller; Marc Scattergood

This panel will provide real-world solutions to the pitfalls faced by well-known AAA developers while shipping MMO’s, original IP’s, and franchise sequels. Each of the three panelists will present the details of a project on which they were a key participant, delivering a description of things that went wrong and what was done to fix those problems and ship the product. While each participant takes center stage in this series of mini-lectures/post-mortems, the other panelists will be weighing in with their own thoughts as to what solutions should have been attempted. We’re encouraging each other to inject a little humor into the process while bringing alternative expert opinions to the discussion. Keeping the talk lively, giving personal behind-the-scenes accounts, and providing the audience with multiple viewpoints will make this session much more valuable than the standard white-washed post-mortem.

Some specific problems and solutions we’ll cover:

How 70 people can finish a game more easily than 150 people (a bigger team can be more problematic)
How experienced developers making something very similar to their last project can still have trouble – what you should watch for
How to cope when delays force you to ship well after your marketing budget has been expended
How good leadership can overcome technical failures, political upheaval, and design mismanagement
How you can go wrong by being too careful with your original IP

Keith Fuller (Production Consultant, Fuller Game Production) was Producer for Raven Software’s Singularity. He describes the design difficulties and leadership changes that took the game from studio darling to almost-canceled to a mid-70′s Metacritic. Although I’m submitting the session under my name, I’ll be an equal participant with the other panelists.

Marc Scattergood (Senior Product Manager, PopCap) was Associate Producer for now-defunct Sigil Games while working on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. He talks about the tumultuous 6-year development of this MMO.

Ed Byrne (Creative Director, Imba Entertainment) was designer of several games in the SOCOM series and brings to light the problems he encountered and the solutions he employed with that franchise.