Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jet Engines

Creating high-performance technology in a competitive field? Managing your developers' weaknesses and ignoring their strengths may cost you.

Let me illustrate.

Iron accounts for 35% of the Earth's mass. And from iron comes carbon steel (iron and carbon) which accounts for 90% of steel production. As metals go, steel is cheap, abundant and easy to work with. Steel is versatile and good at most everything metals do. If steel was your employee, it would be a damn fine one. You might want all your employees to be just like steel. After all, compared to other materials, it has few weaknesses - but also few extraordinary strengths.

Steel can't do everything. It distorts at extreme temperatures. Steel is not brittle like ceramics but it's also not nearly as hard. It is much cheaper than titanium but weighs almost twice as much. It is a poorer electrical conductor than gold. And of course, steel's strength and hardness in extreme conditions doesn't hold a candle to the single crystal nickel-titanium superalloys* from which they carve jet turbine blades - albeit at enormous cost.

Every one of these other materials demonstrates incredibly high performance in a narrow space and is either prohibitively expensive or ineffective in other arenas.

Even so, it is impossible to build a modern, efficient jet engine with just typical carbon steel.

The bottom line?

Profound strength and profound weakness often come together. Yet without a spectrum of those profound strengths at your disposal, it won't be possible to develop cutting-edge technology at a competitive level.

I don't mean to say that a well-rounded developer can't also have profound strengths - I know several of these people. It's a no-brainer that you need to do what it takes to keep these gems. Reward reliable and well-rounded developers for their lack of weaknesses and, if you need their contributions, reward brittle, unorganized, high-maintenance, socially-inept (insert favorite weakness here) developers for their strengths. Or someone else will.


* Some of single crystal superalloys are nickel-iron alloys. If iron is the dominant metal in the alloy, these superalloys might be considered steel.

For More Information

Now, Discover Your Strengths

Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine

Excellent PowerPoint of the Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine series commercial jet engines
Rolls Royce Trent Aeroengine engine materials

Wikipedia: Iron Steel Ceramic Cermet Silicon Carbide Superalloys Complex Metal Alloy Composites

Development of Single Crystal Superalloys

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Senzee's Rule of Interface Complexity

If what an interface is supposed to do, how it's supposed to do it and the role it plays in a system is not apparent in five minutes of staring at it, it's too complex.

The Impossible Dream #2

Previous: The Impossible Dream #1

Ground Rules

Mantra 1: The mechanic first, then the game.

It's no fun putting blood, sweat and tears into an unfun game. We structure the game around a solid mechanic - prototype first to find addictive key element(s) and elaborate. Tag is one key element we've identified.

Mantra 2: Build a game, not an engine.

I've seen a number of home and indie game projects go south stuck at the "let's build our engine" phase. Nothing overly general - we build into the code what we need to do the trick. I'm not saying there's no place for useful abstraction here, I'm saying that a general purpose rendering or game engine is not our goal.

Mantra 3: Fit the design to resources at hand.

Building an open world game at all is our first violation of this. Still, we need to embrace this reality instead of fighting it. Operating with restricted resources can force us to come up with creative solutions to problems we otherwise wouldn't have looked at. Of course, it may also prevent us from finishing anything ever.

Mantra 4: Don't underengineer or overengineer, but if you must choose one, underengineer.

Why? Because underengineering is easier to fix.

A Unflinching View

Let's start the impossible dream by looking, somewhat realistically, at our available resources and the strengths and weaknesses of our position.

  • A few development hours a month divided among game design, software development and content creation.
  • A powerful target platform (PC).
  • Development tools - Visual C++ 2003.
  • Direct3D and its auxiliary libraries (see No need for portability in Strengths, below) .
  • Third party content creation tools - Milkshape 3D (registered), Unwrap3D (registered), POV-Ray.
  • Open source and free resources on the web for game development.
  • Free content from other sources that can be legally used in our game.
  • Strong software development skills.
  • A powerful target platform (PC).
  • No need for portability.
  • A great deal of freely available software for offline and runtime use.
  • Poor content creation ability.
  • Few hours to dedicate to the project - it'll be done in like one hundred years.
  • Little monetary investment.

Make the most of our particular set of resources:
  • Simplicity - a simple, compelling core game. No minigames, nothing like that.
  • Prototype the game mechanic first.
  • Automation - machine generated content, mostly offline, possibly at runtime.
  • Reuse/scavenge (to a point) freely available content generation tools and software.
  • Reuse/scavenge (to a point) freely available software for the runtime.
  • Seek out free content that we can legally use in game.
  • Creatively adapt the game design, including character and plot, to cater to our strengths.
  • Use a hooded figure for the main character, allowing us to skirt the animation issue for the main character. We can use a simple segmented model for NPC's. We can animate the hood & clothing of the main character with cloth animation, which is CPU-intensive, but nearly content-free.
  • Use public domain (classical, folk music?) music for the soundtrack.

Oh, and yes, there's so much more to come.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Red 5's Pitch

(First off, special thanks go to Ryan Burkett who allowed me to use his digital camera to photograph these items.)

Last week I received a Fed-Ex package at my desk. All excited to get a package, (kind of like those people who win on the radio and say "I never win anything!!") I grabbed Ryan Burkett to open it with me. Inside there was a ~3"x~6"x~1" paper box that looked like some sort of puzzle. The box was orange and black with an artist's rendering of the birth of a planet. It carried a large white digit 1 in the lower left-hand corner. Small print above the 1 read:

not the end
a beginning
a new beginning

One corner was cut out and a slightly smaller box was visible inside. I opened the first and pulled out the second. It was similar, with olive green instead of orange and a large 2 in the corner. It sported an illustration of a shard of molten rock (or perhaps the broken wing of a spacecraft?) and read:

not a new world
but an old world
made new

So, I figured this is some kind of Matryoshka doll package. I pulled out the third box, sea-green, marked with a large white 3 and a primordial underwater scene.

no change is peaceful
and through life struggles
it also thrives

Out came number four, peach-orange with a river of lava flowing through the gaping maw of a mountain pass.

to forge a new path
through the darkness
to rise to the call of glory

And then finally number five, red with the image of a blue elf from Red 5's website and the text:

not the end
a new beginning
with new eyes to greet it

The fifth opens like a book or a box of software and inside was an iPod Shuffle with my name engraved on it!

Now pausing for a moment, it occurred to me that everything about this is loaded with references that I don't think I fully understand. The images and text seem sort of Genesis with the days of creation and all, but that's six days, not five. So I'm not sure if that's the reference, but it seems an apt associaton with the creation of a new studio, a new game and the new changes of the people's lives who are coming to join Red 5.

So I power up the iPod and listen to track 1.

Paul, this is Mark Kern, President of Red 5 Studios and former team lead for World of Warcraft. I came across your blog on the net and was impressed with the depth of your inquisitiveness regarding game design, programming and mathematics. Your work at Tiburon is impressive and we'd love the chance to meet you. At Red 5 we're assembling a team of incredibly talented individuals dedicated to pushing the envelope in online entertainment. We're building a new type of game company and a new type of game. And we believe you're someone who just might fit into the Red 5 family. Log into and enter the code found engraved on this iPod. We'll tell you all about it.

So I pull up the site:

Who are we?

Red 5 is a creator-owned, newly formed studio driven to create new and orginal massively multiplayer online entertainment. We are world-builders, storytellers and game makers. We own what we make, and we have the financial backing to stand on our own.

So Here’s Why We’re Calling.

Red 5's CEO came across your blog and was impressed with the depth of your inquisitiveness regarding game design, programming, and mathematics. Your work at Tiburon is impressive, and we'd love the chance to meet you.

Because of this, you are one of one-hundred people in the industry we've invited to check out Red 5 Studios. We've played your games, and respect your skills.

Paul, we are hiring, so feel free to take a look at our open positions. We had a few in mind that might be a good fit, but we really believe in people and, specifically, your potential. If you don't see something that fits, we can talk about tailoring something to your specific talents.

Pretty impressive pitch, huh? Certainly very flattering!

Here's the original post.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Impossible Dream #1

True Story

In Mexico I met a poor farmer named Miguelito who lived in the little town of Metepec (Atlixco), Puebla. Many years before, in a vision, the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe entrusted him to build a cathedral, high up on the hill above the town. She promised him that he would not die until he'd set the final stone. He quickly enlisted the help of the townspeople and over 15 years constructed a small, beautiful hilltop church. At the time Miguelito showed me the rust-colored church it was nearly complete and he explained that this meant that his time was near. His mistress had been generous enough - Miguel was 104 years old!

My Impossible Dream - My Own Open World Game

So, is it possible, working a few scant hours each week on evenings and weekends to build a (simple) open-world game by myself? We shall see. I've occasionally been working on the game since about a year before I came to EA but I think I'll make a more public spectacle out of it on this blog - to keep me motivated.

So why do I even want to do this? Because it's impossible.

Some prototype screenshots
Some generated content and concepts

Next Time: in the next installment of The Impossible Dream, we'll look at what this game will be about and how we will use automatic content generation to build our world.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Red 5 Studios

This week I received a package from Mark Kern, former team lead of World of Warcraft and current CEO of Red 5 Studios who is, it turns out, a fan of my blog! Before I delve into more, let me say that Mark and company have the coolest recruitment strategy I've ever seen. And although I'm not looking to leave EA Tiburon at this point in my career, perhaps there's a future out there..

Mark and I spoke for some time about his company. Red 5 aims for the center of the emerging MMO phenomenon in ways that transcend east-west cultural boundaries to create an experience as compelling for Chinese and Korean gaming communities as it is for American, European and Japanese communities. What's more, Red 5 is staffed with a large number of ex-Blizzard game makers who know how to build the kinds of MMOGs that can do this. As an American company at ease with Asian cultures, Red 5 has given an enormous amount of thought to handling the cultural nuances to make this work. I'm not an expert when it comes to MMOs, but I'm convinced. If there's a developer to back in the MMO space, it's these guys.

Red 5 Taps Some Green
Red 5 Studios Aims To Be Pixar of Online Gaming