Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Turning Off The Talent

Earlier this week I did an interview with a Concordia student who was doing research on Montreal as a hub of game development and what contributing factors I thought were leading to this growth.

Of course I rattled off the usual suspects. I focused on our ethnic diversity creating a melting pot of cultures and a strong mix of North-American and European cultural sensitivity; a good mix of both creative and technical schools and, of course, the infamous government subventions that make setting up shop here financially attractive for new studios.

As I was giving these points, though, I found myself wondering whether or not they would have the desired effect on me were I considering a move from California to Montreal. Are these the things we should be reinforcing to try and attract foreign talent?

I wonder if the Montreal development community repeats this rhetoric so consistently (creative and cultured) that we risk alienating talent due to a perception of ego and elitism. Sure Montreal has an excellent development climate, but so to do many other cities. I wonder if this message isn’t losing some weight in our quest to add new blood and new perspectives to our ranks.

As an aside, we then covered some of the issues I thought prevented people from wanting to work in Montreal: the perception of the city as being predominantly francophone; the hard winters and the effects on morale that an absolute salary drop can have (that is, it is hard to attract someone making $75,000 USD to Montreal with a salary of $55,000 CAD even if their actual standard of living would go up).

The next time someone asks me what I think makes the development industry here special, I'm going to try to answer the question without implying that Montrealers have some sort of cultural and creative superiority over other major hubs in our industy. I don't think its true and worry that in implying this during the interview I may have helped to reinforce a message that is driving away the very talent we need to attract to bring fresh perspectives to our wonderful development community.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tower 8

A friend at work recently directed me to a site called 'Tower 8' as an amazing example of mixed media art on the web.

I don't think the 'group' tower8 lends itself very well to pigeon-holeing -- they are musicians, visual artists and web geeks all roled into one. Check out one of their two 'music videos' by going to, and clicking on 'video'

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Story In Games

So this is an issue that has been brewing in my head for a while now. I'm not sure I'll do it justice in one post (plus I'm battling a cold) but I at least want to lay the ground work.

First some background points to help paint my mood:

A few days ago I saw this MTV interview with Alex Ward (Creative Director of Criterion Games). It gets a little ranty, but burried in here is one very interesting point -- the story in Black, the game that was marketed as 'Gun Porn' was written by Alex as a form of social commentary on America's foreign policy. Alex, it would seem, is a little frustrated that most gamers these days just skip the story to fast track to the explosions.

The next piece that caught my attention, also on MTV, is an interview with Midway Creative Director Harvey Smith. Harvey talks about his efforts to take the played 'Area 51' mythos and turn it on its ear a little by injecting some modern dilemas and, once again, social commentary. I like this quote:

But the hook that makes this game matter to its creator is its political
charge, its twist on the typical good-guy/ bad-guy gaming relationship. "You
could just make a metaphor for terrorists. But the most interesting sort of
multidimensional part is, 'Wait, what if they are terrorists we helped


We have here two over-the-top action games (one shipped, one in development) where the core gameplay mechanic is to shoot things -- a lot. And yet here these guys are saying, even with a game like Black, they need their games to say something - to mean something - or they'll have a hard time developing them (or, at least, thats what I read between the lines). I'd like to buy them both a beer.

The game I'm currently working on has a similar ambition. We want the core experience to stand on its own -- to be fun and sexy and appeal to all levels of our target demographic. But, we also want there to be meat and substance to the story and the meaning of the game -- something that can make the player stop for a second and consider what message they think we are trying to make with a given sequence.

And yet I'm torn. I'm currently playing Okami (yes, only just now) and on the one hand I am loving it (really rewarding gameplay and, of course, a visual aesthetic that screenshots just don't do justice to) but I find myself impatiently trying to skip through the dialogue in order to continue on in the game. As a developer, I want to explore the story Clover developed, but as a gamer I find myself wanting to skip ahead to the next sequence where I get to heal the world. It is difficult to reconcile the two (and no, before you ask, the writing in Okami isn't bad, so I can't lay the blame there).

What are the games that draw you in with the narrative and story and make you stop and think, but still keep you itching to jump back into the action and play all the way through to the end?

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

SMS 'To Do' Lists.

For a long time now I’ve been exploring different ways to leave myself ‘notes’ as reminders of things to do at work. I’m often away from my desk when a ‘to do’ item pops into my head, and I’ve struggled with ways to ensure I remember to act on it.

One obvious solution is a blackberry or some other form ‘smart phone’ device. This never worked for me for a variety of reasons, but the biggest one is that my wife would kill me if I got even _more_ addicted to staying in touch with work. ;) I’m holding out owning a blackberry/smartphone for as long as I can (although I fear that the iPhone might be the end of this resolution).

Another is to just carry a notebook around with me. This certainly works for some, but my ideal solution would be to get this information automatically onto my desktop where I am sure to act on it. Also I’ve never been able to maintain the habit of carrying an agenda/notebook with me everywhere, so I don’t think this is sustainable.

So I’ve been looking for a solution that can take advantage of the one thing I always have with me – my cellphone (not a smartphone, just a V300 razor with basic text messaging plan).

So, three options here:
  • Configure my phone to support email, and send myself emails with reminders. Not a bad idea, but I don’t actually want to pay the premiums for wireless data with my carrier.
  • Simply call in the reminder to my voicemail. Again, a solution I’ve depended on in the past, but not ideal as there is still that last step involved (check voice mail when I get to work, write down reminder in some format that I’ll act on).
  • Use text messaging. This has been the holy grail for me as it is fast, easy, cheap (txt messaging plans are generally much less expensive then data plans) but up until now I’ve not known how to get the text message onto my desktop once I sent it from my phone. Today I’ve finally put the last step together and so wanted to create a little tutorial for others who might want to implement a similar system.

Two tools are recommended for this (both free). The first is a new web service I recently came across (via a link from called twitter. Twitter is basically a ‘micro-blogging’ service encouraging people to blog about their lives on a much more granular level. A typical twitter page for someone will have multiple short (less then 200 characters) entries for any given day. And, of course, being a ‘2.0’ app at its core, every twitter ‘blog’ has its own RSS feed. Below is a sample shot from my twitter page.

Signing up is quick and easy, and within seconds you’ll have your own twitter page along the lines of:

The great thing with Twitter (as I hinted at above) is that you can add ‘tweets’ via SMS. Once you have created an account and signed in, you need simply connect your phone to your twitter account (do so on the Settings -> Phone & IM page). You’ll receive an SMS from Twitter and from then on adding a ‘tweet’ is as easy as sending an SMS to the twitter number you’ll add to your phonebook.

Note: I personally suggest that you keep your twitter page private (you can do this in the ‘settings’ page) in case you want to send yourself sensitive reminders. There are certain advanced twitter functionalities that do not work with private pages, though, so you’ll have to decide for yourself how sensitive your personal reminders are.

The second tool I suggest is called KlipFolio which is a feature rich desktop RSS aggregator. There are a lot of desktop aggregators out there, but I like Klip for many reasons:

  • It’s free.
  • Developed in Ottawa (Go, Canada!)
  • The ‘Klips’ (basically the windows that host the various RSS feeds) are done in ‘Post-it’ note fashion so you can resize, place anywhere, expand, set transparency, etc. In short, they integrate very nicely on your desktop.
  • Klips are not limited to RSS feeds. From their site: “More than just news. KlipFolio displays weather, stocks, photos, lists and more”.

Additionally I like KlipFolio over any of the existing Twitter specific apps for desktop display, since Klips are much more multi-functional so less clutter and memory footprint.

Now that you have created a Twitter account and downloaded KlipFolio, follow these steps:

  • Go to your Twitter page and look on the bottom left corner for the ‘Rss Feed’ link. Right click, view properties, and copy the path (should look something like
  • Launch KlipFolio and organize it on your desktop as your see fit (I personally deleted almost all of the klips that it sets up by default).
  • On the KlipFolio menu bar, click the ‘Add RSS or ATOM Feeds’ button (see image below. I highlighted the button yellow).
  • In the window that pops up, paste the Rss feed you copied in step 1 into the field titled ‘Enter URL or path…” and click the ‘Add Feed’ button.
  • That’s it! Your custom ‘Twitter Reminder’ is set up on your desktop.

Enjoy! And if you have any questions or suggestions, don’t hesitate to email me or leave a comment.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Ubisoft Announcement

Today, Ubisoft announced the creation of a new CGI movie studio in Montreal and an even more aggressive growth strategy then our previous, already ambitious plans.

I worked closely with our local High Res cinematics department while working on POP3 and was very impressed with the quality of their work (see first embedded video below). Others, too, agreed, as the VES awarded one of the game's cinematics the Best Pre-Rendered Visuals in a Video Game.

If you haven't already seen it, the E3 2006 Assassins Creed (done by the same team) is even more impressive.

The team that made both of these movies are going to be creating the core of the new CGI studio, so expect to be floored. I am obviously biased, but I think Ubisoft ranks up there with Blizzard as creating some of the best high-res work in the gaming industry so I can't wait to see what this new studio creates.

Update: I realise I didn't add much in the way of my own thoughts or analysis into this post, and perhaps there might be one or two people out there interested to know what I think. So, in no particular order, some of my thoughts:

  • The demand for online video is exploding and business models are maturing. For now much revenue is generated simply through add revenue on services like YouTube, but recent marriages of distribution and billing systems (Apple, Xbox Live, Google Video, etc) means content owners can charge the consumer directly. By the time Ubisoft is ready to release the first product created by this new studio, there will likely be a variety of services who will happily host (and likely feature) our content for sale.
  • In addition to revenue generation, though, the digital video space has served as fertile grounds for marketers for years now. Is a truly successful viral marketing campaign worth the investment for a short 2-5 minute CGI movie? I'd bet yes.
  • Several major development studios (LucasArts and Sony Pictures come to mind) have already gone on record as looking for ways to find 'synergy' (awful word I know, but it is appropriate here) between their film and game studios. With a growing trend towards Hollywood and Game convergence, it could serve Ubisoft well to start developing the expertise to create film (even if only short ones) ourselves. If nothing else, it will benefit us to have internal expertise in the world of feature length CG movies so that we'll be able to better work with movie production companies should another King-Kong type partnership come up in the future.
  • Finally it seems like a brilliant way to grow our game development studio! We've reached something of a saturation point in Montreal in as far as the super rapid growth that has defined our studio for the past years. Ubisoft is aggressively exploring ways to help get new blood into the Montreal game development industry (Ubisoft school, etc) and by opening a cinematics studio we can suddenly appeal to talent that might otherwise have ignored Ubisoft because they consider themselves film animators (or modellers, or technical directors, etc). With time, though, and close collaboration between the game and cinematics studios, cross pollination between the two is sure to happen.

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

From pencil to 2.0 in under two minutes

Kim said it best:

it's the most concise explanation of Web 2.0 seen to date, and is entertaining and inspiring to boot.

This video was created by Michael Wesch, was released on YouTube on January 31st (less then a week ago) has been viewed almost 100,000 times you YouTube alone and has, in Michael's words: "quickly became the most popular video in the blogosphere."

As Kim said , everyone with a blog is linking to this because it does an excellent job of communicating visually what we all believe -- that the ability for anyone (insert standard restrictions disclaimer here) to have a voice and potentially an audience is a powerful shift in our world. I'd be willing to bet that technocrati has probably seen a spike in the creation of blogs since this video was released as the uninitiated draw inspiration from the message of power and simplicity Michael delivers.

This would probably also be a good time to give Kim credit for pointing me towards Shelfari in one of his recent posts. If you see a vertical widget on the right hand side of this blog displaying several book covers, you are seeing My Shelf of books (or, at least as much of it as I had the patience to enter). Shelfari allows people to list, comment on and rate their collections of books (and those of other shelfari users) but their innovation, in my opinion, is the excellent concept of using a 'shelf' both as an aesthetic tool as well as a logical and intuitive system for collecting groups of elements for display (in this case, books). Worth checking out.

And thanks, Kim, for the great finds.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

"Making Of"

A few months ago I started keeping a personal blog (didn't publish it online) of everything that was going on in my project. Every day before heading home I would take a few minutes to jot down the notes from the day -- what we accomplished, what roadblocks we ran up against, who I felt like murdering, etc.

The entertainment industry (like many, I guess) has to be careful about the public image it projects when describing the creation of its products. The fear is that if people were to find out too much about the making of a movie, game, album (etc) they might feel the magic had been ruined, or become disillusioned with some element of the creation process they found to be unjust or distasteful. The video game industry is certainly no different -- we carefully select what material makes it out to the public and strive to ensure that even the 'uncensored inside peeks' into the development process can still serve as a PR and marketing machine.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily, but I've always wondered whether there would be a public interest in a really honest description of the production process with no punches pulled. I think yes, and, additionally, I think that those people who would be interested in such a thing would not likely find their appreciation for the product adversely affected.

Of course, whether the company producing the product (and all of the partners that a production can touch) would approve is another matter entirely. There would certainly have to be limits and _some_ self restraint, if only to ensure that no trade secrets were being disclosed.

Unfortunately I fell out of the habit of maintaining this development diary and have had little motivation to start it up again, as I'm not sure it could find an audience (and I have this blog when I just feel like writing). However, a few days ago I saw a developer diary for God Of War 2 that motivated me to think about picking it up again.

If you haven't already seen it you should really do yourself a favor. In David Jaffe, it would seem, Sony has realised they don't have to tip-toe around every sensitive issue relating to game development -- that in the hands (or minds and mouths) of smart and professional people, the gloves can come off a little, giving a deeper look into the development process without upsetting "the suits" (is that the Pot calling the Kettle black?). This developer diary is really a documentary style look into the lives of the GOW2 developers, and it does our industry a service, I believe, by treating the consumer with maturity, knowing that exposing some of the tensions behind the scenes will not necessarily lead to less sales come launch day.

Update: I'm not sure why, but the gametrailers embedded video was wrecking havok on the already poor layout of my site, so I've had to delete it and replace it with a link to the video in question. Please don't let this prevent you from watching -- it really is worth seeing.

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