Rambling About WonderCon 2011
Bear with me here. This post rambles Lester Bangs style and ends up somewhere that really doesn’t have anything to do with WonderCon per se.
I'm writing a book on game design and that's about the extent of my self-promotion at this point. Y'see, self-promotion is a big problem for me because I have a crippling case of shyness in front of crowds (five or more people) which causes me to sweat, turn red, and talk too quickly. To put it into perspective, I actually had a court stenographer tell me that I was talking so quickly that she couldn't keep up! Anyway, my good buddy Scott Rogers recently published a book on game design called Level Up! which is a damn fine book for anybody looking to learn more about game design. He has absolutely no problems with public speaking or appearances and actually seems to thrive on the limelight. He's fully aware of my affliction and decided to help me out by asking me to speak on a panel with him at the 2011 WonderCon, "It will help you get past your public speaking problems!"
WonderCon April 1st, 2011 - Nerds! The Secret Origins of Game Designers "Comics. Movies. Games. Did you know that a life of fandom might be perfect training for a career as a video game designer? Learn the secret origins of industry veterans Haden Blackman (Star Wars: the Force Unleashed 1 & 2, Batwoman), Tim Longo (Star Wars: Jedi Starfighter, Star Wars: Dark Forces), Jason Weesner (Tomb Raider Legend, Vectorman), and Scott Rogers (God of War, Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design) as they share how their love for all things nerdy led to successful careers in video games... and how you can start your own career too!"
On the night prior to the panel, I could already feel myself getting anxious, so I purposefully stayed out late at the Rickshaw Stop (Australia’s Bag Raiders are terrific if you haven’t heard them or seen them), had one too many drinks (crappy vodka and Red Bull mixtures), and made sure that I got up at 6 AM the following morning to get ready. By the time I sat down at the WonderCon in front of three or four hundred people and three cute elf girls, I was operating on only a couple of hours of sleep, buzzing in my ears, and a slight hangover. Nervousness cured!
Despite some overall fuzziness, my 10 minutes of presentation went fairly well. I didn’t sweat or talk too quickly and the crowd laughed when I expected them to (and also when I didn’t). To frame my geeky selections properly, I separated my topics into two categories: things that influenced my interests and things that changed my perception. I'll give you the quick version:
- 2000 A.D. - Famous UK comic that primarily featured more grounded characters (i.e. no superpowers or spandex per se) and some early writing from Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Expanded interests!
- Robotech - One of the first anime series I ever watched was also the first cartoon I remember that featured a main character dying (poor Roy Fokker!)! Prior to this, cartoons were very safe. I mean, any time GI Joe shot down a Cobra helicopter, there was always a little parachute that popped out to let you know that the bad guy didn't die! Perception changed!
- Atari 2600 - With very few exceptions (Adventure and Yar's Revenge spring to mind), Atari 2600 games were either severely limited in scope or poor imitations of popular arcade games. Most of the time, we got stuck with a dog like Maze Craze or Haunted House where we spent more time making up our own rules and stories for the sparse gameplay variations. Expanded interests!
- Dungeons & Dragons - Despite the obvious social stigma (role playing was not very popular with the fairer sex or cooler people at school), D&D taught me more about game development than any other nerdy past time I had! Skills I acquired included: map making, design documentation, story / narrative integration, level design, and systems design. Expanded interests!
- Boy Scouts - There is no greater stimulation for fantasy than reality. The Boy Scouts took us out on real life adventures and taught us about camping, survival, knife skills, horseback riding, teamwork, etc. Despite the geeky uniform, Boy Scouts effectively trained us all to survive any eminent zombie apocalypse! Perception changed and expanded interests!
- The Exorcist - In 8th grade English class, our teacher showed us the uncut version of the Exorcist complete with backwards vomiting heads and bloody crucifix masturbation. This movie single-handedly changed my perception of storytelling, character development, and horror. It effectively pulled out the safety net from every movie I saw afterwards! Perception changed!
- Choose Your Own Adventure books - This concept wasn't necessarily new when I picked up the Cave of Time by Edward Packard. Anybody who's spent any amount of time in an American school probably picked up a dictionary where somebody had scrawled "turn to page 62" on the bottom of the page which led to another page with another page number to turn to until you ended up at the end of the book with some uplifting message like F*** YOU! However, these Choose Your Own Adventure books were the first time that I encountered something resembling a non-linear narrative. Perception changed and expanded interests!
- Apple II+ - My Dad brought this home with every intention of writing a novel. It never happened. There weren't a ton of games available to buy, so I either had to make them myself (I wish I could show you my low resolution version of Q*Bert!) or spend a lot of time typing in listings from hobby magazines. Inevitably these listings wouldn't work, so I ended up fixing bugs or changing chunks of code significantly to improve the experience. Expanded interests!
OK, so that probably gives you a pretty good idea of what the panel was about. After we were done speaking, we opened up the presentation to questions from the audience and this is where it gets interesting (at least to me). Back when I was in school (grade and college), there were no specific courses that were related to video game design. Other than limited computer classes, information came from user groups, magazines, hanging out at the arcade, or any of the influences I mentioned above. These days, a ton of colleges offer video game design courses (which is a whole article unto itself) and the majority of people asking us questions were from those classes. Here’s a sample question:
“I'm finishing up a degree in game design, but I don't want to be a programmer. How can I distance myself from programming?”
What?! Huh? I guess the first thing I’m curious about is what a degree in game design is all about? If it’s about actual game design, I would expect a student to know something about programming in relation to scripting (Java, some C++, exposure to XML, etc.), but that doesn’t mean they have to be a fully fledged programmer. It’s more about learning the necessary language that’s part of the tools needed to do your job and the ability to communicate with other disciplines. Perhaps the degree is really about game development. In that case, I would hope that there is a clear delineation between different disciplines and students aren’t forced to take courses that don’t apply to their areas of interest. Maybe it’s one of those degrees that concentrates on game art or computer science and has very little to do with design?
All of us on the panel answered those types of questions the same way, “always take advantage of opportunities to learn something new.” We also stressed the point that you can’t be a designer and not know something about programming.
There was another question that popped up in relation to starting a company, “I’m part of a startup, but I don’t want to do all these things I’m not interested in.” Again, I’m not sure where they’re adopting an attitude like this? Starting a company is all about doing whatever it takes to make that company successful! If it means that a designer or a programmer has to also be the person who goes out to pitch a project, then that’s the way it has to be!
I started out the panel nervously, but by the end of the presentation I wasn’t even sure whether the audience really understood the connections we’d tried to make between disparate, geeky interests and a career. I was actually a little bummed out. I can only assume that too much information and (implied) structure is undermining a lot of the traditionally looser aspects of game development that make it so interesting: breaking rule sets, working outside of the box, trying out new things, benefiting from happy accidents, etc. I’m also worried about the broad application of a term like “game design” when academia should really be calling it “game development” or “game art” or whatever it is that they’re really teaching.
The impression I get now from a lot of people is that they want to be game designers because they view it as some sort of ideal. Kind of like when I was a kid and all my friends wanted to be firemen or astronauts or lawyers. For me it was always different. At the time, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a game designer, but I did know that I wanted to do something that would provide me with an outlet for my creativity. My feelings were cemented by any number of influences and experiences. For example, a friend of the family took me to her work for the day. Her work happened to be at Pinewood Studios just outside of London. I spent part of the day with Ray Harryhausen watching him film the Medusa scene from Clash of the Titans. He was incredibly friendly and accessible and seemed honestly touched that I was so interested in what he was doing. After that, we went outside to watch Terry Gilliam film the scene from Time Bandits where the giant rises out of the water wearing a ship for a hat. I also got to wander through parts of the sets for Outland and what may have been the forest from Legend. All name dropping aside, the point I’m making here is that I left the studio that day feeling more inspired than I’d ever felt in my entire life. I wouldn’t think that our lowly WonderCon panel had anywhere near the same effect on anybody sitting in the audience, but I sure hope these people are getting something like this from somewhere outside of the classroom or whatever current perception of the game industry they might have.