Actually doing work is hard

My time to spend at GDC this year has expired and well, I have to say it was much more interesting this year than it was last year. I spent a good portion of two days either on BART or in talks at GDC trying to keep my back from hurting in their crummy chairs. Now that it is over though, I have had some time to look back over it and build a better understanding of what I paid for.

GDC is a costly experience, by any measure. That is not to say that it is not worth the price tag. There are ways to ensure that everyone gets their pennies worth – Sharing the load by distributing it across multiple people and choosing the person with the most androgynous name works well for getting through security because they don’t actually check ids in or out, and you can do some really interesting stuff once you get past the security guards. Most of the fun comes from the summits and tutorials pass, where you can get into all of the cool stuff and even participate in a few of the round tables – the primary benefit of the all access pass is to be given access to the vault. Also an amazing experience because they cache their presentations going back to damn near the beginning.

There is one hidden danger, however – Repetition.

On a recent episode of the daily show Ricky Gervais was on, and almost as if he thought it was new, he jumped into a joke he used in his 2003 stand up show Animals.

You can see the daily show interview here.

Unfortunately, I had watched Animals earlier in the day while waiting between classes (read doing homework) and so it was fresh in my mind. Comedy is one of those things where you can only really laugh at a joke the first couple times you’ve heard it, so now I get to reevaluate what I expect from one of my favorite living comedians. Wait, are you telling me they all reuse their jokes… FFS!

As I mentioned last year, the Math and Physics talks are backed by white papers* and while it means there is a level of stability and sturdiness, it also leads to a level of stagnation.Very little changes from year to year and considering how long peer review can take, things get backed up quite well. Getting vault access gives you a peek behind the curtain and with this being the second year I’ve gone a similar level of amazement washed over me when my wife tapped me on the shoulder and showed me a stack of slides from the current speakers GDCEurope talk from 2009 sharing a shocking amount of content.

In an industry as driven to innovate and diverse as this is, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling in my stomach. those of us who go to these conferences spend a pretty hefty penny to get in past those crazy security guards and as such we expect that innovation to shine through. The movers and shakers of the industry show up with opinions and don’t really have to back them up beyond their power point slides and a little shoulder shrugging, but in the realm of science and math we expect to be dazzled.

Dazzled I was not, but I was (and am) definitely very interested in how this all fits together. I am very interested in what is to come, and how I can help the industry achieve those goals.

If they could find one more Erin Catto I think they would be much better off. I have loved his presentations thus far.

* Not all of them are. One this year was on the topic of Data Oriented Design, and it devolved into a rant about the lack of merits in references, inherent weaknesses in data structures and how templates are the root of all evil. I think that Mike Acton is one of the more interesting figure heads of this community I am trying to move into, but all of his clout seems to have come across more like an old man yelling at the younger group of “Kids” who just don’t get why playing on the lawn is bad. A shame really, he had a chance to really drive home some important themes and philosophy.

  • Mike W

    Much love

    3rd round of Amazon interviews today – wish me luck. In Amazon’s annual, they indicate “sometimes academia does not meet our needs, so we invent in between the lines drawn for us.”

    I think you and I know games is very unscientific because it’s a bastardization of the optics equation to accommodate processing efficiency. Then again, we never quite maintain resources to model reality as such. It is an art at best to simplify our variables surrounding our system to preserve an operational purity that truly reflects reality.

    White papers aren’t all it’s about as you’ve clearly indicated. I think that games is suffering from a same old, same old as well.

    I wish you more confidence to your own voice and ideas. Stop commenting on the world around you. Project: White was pretty cool man. You’re smarter than a lot of the stuff I see you trap yourself into. You may not be the type to seize the stage, but that probably makes you all the more the person to be given the stage.

    p.s. I’m seeing a lawyer, looks like you married one, something to laugh at

    • As usual, you and I are in lock step.

      I have to agree that the games industry has proven itself to be more art than science, it is simply more frustrating than anything under the sun that the portion of the industry that i find myself paddling through and enjoying the rapids is proving to be a partially stagnant pond.

      There is definitely truth in pointing to the same ol’ same ol’ campy nature of this industry. The most disappointing aspect is the fact that it prides itself on innovation, as many other industries tied with tech do. They are really only justifying their existence with faster, smaller and hotter hardware, and as much as i love what i am doing i think that there is an elephant in the room that people need to accept.

      On the way home from GDC my wife and I got into a bit of an argument regarding mobile. On one hand, mobile is the newest fad and tablets are king. It is entirely true that this is not going to just disappear, but at the same time – mobile gaming has only been around since about when i graduated high school. It is a hell of a wager to attach ones self to a market that has yet to really define itself. Each years smart phone is better than the last and btw, yes you need to upgrade + a new contract. It is frightening and understandably so, that the video games industry itself is in a similar position.

      I think there has to be a healthy line to be drawn, however. Games are going to be at their best if they steer clear of reinventing reality, and instead focus on modeling it. The uncanny valley is one thing, but more than anything else, as you have pointed out, we are artists. If you want photo realism, you take a picture, but a painting or pastel drawing can never be that.

      In this new age of everyone being self professed designers and concept artists it almost looks like it would be better to humble ones self behind what you can actually do. Accepting that as a jack of all trades I have learned to do a ton of things, but few very well, is a bit of a kick in the pants. I am reevaluating my goals now and fully intend to be on stage this coming year at GDC 2013 sharing what i have gone through, how i did it and why others should. As you say, my wife has – as have many around me, I need to be better about seizing the stage, considering where i started and where i have ended up.

      I wish you well with your interviews, it is good that you continue to dazzle them, i hope you took your movement engines in with you =)

      Good luck – We should catch up soon!

  • Jen

    As a newcomer to the gaming industry, GDC was truly a unique experience. While the science behind the art was entirely new to me, finding the slides readily available online was a source of disappointment. It appears every industry has a Dream Team but even they get complacent in their past achievements and the focus moves from innovation to riding the train of success. I get it, physics is hard. Quaternions alone is enough to make me regress from Doctor Bernoulli to Doctor Seuss. But these speakers are considered industry leaders. Not only should we expect more from them, but they should expect more for themselves.

    As a gaming layperson, I could probably write my own critique about GDC: the inadequacies of the “tracks”, the self professed “Game Designers” who have no understanding of what they do or what that title actually means, and the room devoted to “rants”. Why someone would pay close to a grand to bitch about lack of respect, not liking a programming method, or simply seek acknowledgement for being in the industry when the bounds of the internet are a smart phone away, I’ll never know. I’ll gladly take your money and you can give your rant to me.

  • Part of the rut is probably related to the fact that we’re at the end of a console cycle. Once the next set comes out (whenever that may be, but they will come), I suspect you’ll see a burst of innovation. My opinion (which may be colored by desire) is that innovation will be less in the realm of graphics and more in the realms of physics and AI.

    That said, I thought there were a number of innovative programming talks. Robin Green’s talk on spherical needlets could change how lighting and other spherical functions are stored. The presentation on FarCry’s dynamic global lighting was also interesting, and there were a couple on improvements in ambient occlusion. And yes, I admit, those are all graphics talks (though I think Robin Green’s talk will have far-reaching effects). There was also a physics talk which looked interesting but I didn’t get a chance to go to. And all the AI talks were in the AI Summit so I can’t comment on those.

    As far as the math and physics tutorials, knowing that you’d like to see more innovation and less review is useful feedback, which I hope you included on your comment forms. In the past, we’ve seen the opposite opinion, which is why we included a mix of “latest research” and review.

    • I think that you and I are in the same boat, regarding where we expect the innovation to be at this point in game developments history. This is exactly why I chose to hit the math and physics talks, primarily because I wanted to see the innovation going on, but also because I don’t think that I have a firm enough grasp on the concepts yet.

      There were a number of very interesting talks that were either conflicting with or on days I could not go that I hope to catch on the vault, but I think that in the position you are in, as organizer for both events, you have the opportunity to dazzle and impress upon us that the choice of being extremely technically oriented is not just about equations and white papers, but also includes a bit of rock stardom.

      I remembered you, Gino and Erin from last year’s talks because you had impressed upon and inspired me to specialize in engine and more technical game systems programming with your talks. This occurred partly because you had dangled a carrot just out of reach, mind you I walked out of the simulation of fluids last year and went straight to the book store to buy Game Physics Pearls, along with four Morgan Kauffman books on engine programming and networking. You are all amazing people, including Mike Acton and his opinions, and I think you have an amazing opportunity where you have a jam packed audience of people who are sitting on the edge of their seats looking for a bit more detail and a more fire, because you undoubtedly have it in spades when you get back to the office.

      I am by no means qualified to tell you how to do things, or even to offer myself up as a better presenter, but I would love to be involved in the process and I fully intend to pull together a talk for this coming year’s call for presentations.

      I did not get prompted with the review for the physics talk, but I think you would be much more satisfied with my thoughts on your presentation, along with the ragdoll talks as well as the others, because it seemed like all of you were much more interested in the subject.

      One piece of input I haven’t mentioned too well is that you seem to be spot on with the critique that you are trying to do a little review and some innovation. The people I spoke to seemed to be in that boat, where things were either already within their understanding or way over their heads. As an example, Squirrel’s talk on Splines was amazing, not just because it was illustrated well and he spoke with determination, but because the concepts were picked up by my wife who has not even picked up a calculator, except to give it to me, in a decade. In stark contrast Gino’s collision dual number and collision detection talks went right over her (and my) head. It was not for lack of information, instead it is tied to the fact that they are so involved and yet… no real connection to where they are being used or how to visualize them.

      Audience members were commenting on Quaternions, which I think would make an amazing presentation at the introductory level, and anything that Erin has his hands involved in is likely to make people extremely interested in the talks.

      Thank you for coming to my blog and not being defensive about how things went, it only makes me respect you and the work you put into GDC (I know it cannot be easy) more. I hope to bump shoulders with you and the other guys mentioned above over coffee or a sandwich at GDC next year, when I come back to sit in on your talks and hopefully give my own.