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Foundations of Digital Games

Last week, Jesper Juul and I attended the Foundations of Digital Games conference. This is a conference on a Disney Cruise ship. Yes, you heard me right, on a Disney Cruise ship. It's not a bad idea if you think about it. Why network in a bar when you can network on the beach? And as the attendees kept pointing out, we're all trapped on the same boat. Plenty of time to ask your questions, right?

Yes and no, as it turns out. Cruise ships are HUGE. Thank goodness Jesper and I were in rooms next to each other or we may not have seen each other for the entire trip. Also, Internet and cell phone usage was very expensive, making meeting up with people rather cumbersome. Twitter was non-existent, and just walking around and finding other attendees wasn't as easy as one would hope. Still, dinner turned out to be a good time to network. There were FDG tables set aside, so you could walk in and be seated next to other attendees. I was also assigned a roommate, Amber Settle, a computer science professor from DePaul. Excellent person. Well worth sharing a drink and conversation with.

In terms of presentations, I found them very hit and miss. The diversity of the conference meant that there were often slots that had nothing of personal research interest to me, and what few there were seemed to conflict with each other. Not that I minded, after all the jacuzzi beckoned, but it did make me feel slightly guilty in terms of going on company time. There were a few gems, though.

Christina Strong from UC Santa Cruz discussed her work on conversation tools for game writers. Since I've been working on conversation games recently, this was particularly germane. Her particular work was creating a tool for Telltale Games to allow NPCs to make small talk. Writers would write phrases and comments for the characters to say, tagging with keywords as needed. The tool then used ConceptNet (go MIT!) to create more connections, so conversations would spring up based around related topics. For example, a conversation that started out about chili could then lead to Mexican food which could then lead to Mexico which could then lead to the beach and so on and so forth. The conversations would evolve over time. Cool stuff. Sadly, she implemented her system for Telltale's internal writing tool, so the rest of us can't see it, but neat ideas all the same. Also, I couldn't find a current website for Christina, but here's her old Georgia Tech webpage.

Damián Isla, a new addition to the Boston games community though not to the games industry in general, gave a surprisingly accessible talk about artificial intelligence tools. I very much liked his comparison between AI and method acting, suggesting that a good tool might follow the format of a theatrical rehearsal. The AI is the actor and the designer is the director. The AI has an initial set of instructions in terms of character and motivations, then does the best it can. The designer can then stop a scene at any time and correct behavior, which is then incorporated into the AI's character.

Shannon Duvall from Elon University had an intriguing poster about creating a games class that actually contained a video game style economy. Coins were earned by students who could then use them to buy extra credit, more time for an assignment, or other perks. They also could barter with each other, which she said was the more common, so less experienced students could purchase time from senior students to help them. I found this part very intriguing. It seems it creates a situation where students can specialize and market their skills to other teams. Also students would more commonly float between teams, spreading knowledge and expertise. I didn't get a chance to speak with Shannon so never heard the punch line of whether it worked or not, but I'm psyched that experiments like this are being done.

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my own presentation, Easy to Use and Incredibly Difficult: On the Mythical Border between Interface and Gameplay, co-authored with Jesper Juul. The gist is that there's an instinct that good games have simple user interfaces but difficult gameplay. We argue that this idea doesn't always hold, both because it's hard to find a clear line between interface and gameplay and because good games can also have difficulty in the interface. The presentation went well, if I do say so myself, and we got lots of compliments after it. Some asked me if we were going to keep going with the idea, but it's such a simple idea, I'm not sure what more there is to say.

So, was I glad I went? Yes. I got to meet some cool people and had a lovely time away from the office. Will I go next year? Not sure. We'll see if I get a paper in.

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