Georgia Tech

March 18th, 2005

This was an extended shindig covering two days. The first day was a celebration of the Ivan Allen Award given to Will Wright. This award, given to native Georgians who do good, has previously gone to Jimmy Carter, Molly Ivens, and Sam Nunn. This was quite a big deal, and provided the focus for the subsequent events. I think it particularly important that the best and brightest of the games industry has been recognized in such a public manner. The affair was organized by Janet Murray, who acted like an electron, popping up all over the place and just as quickly disappearing. She certainly made everybody feel welcome with her bright smile and warm demeanor.

On Tuesday afternoon they gave us a tour of their various research projects, and I was greatly impressed with the freshness of the work being done there. We saw some student projects that were impressively original. I was especially impressed by the Robot Soccer lab, which programs Sony doggie-robots to play soccer:

(This image from a CMU site)

The video of one of their games was absolutely hilarious: little mechanical puppies waddling about, kicking the ball, blocking shots, and making goals.

Will Wright
Wednesday morning started with an address by Will Wright in which he demoed parts of his SPORE game project. I had not realized that it was so far advanced. How to describe it? It might be described as "simulate the galaxy, from microbes to space-faring civilizations", but the game play is more tightly focussed than that description suggests. There are a variety of levels in the game, and the player simply jumps from one level to the next level, without worrying about the intervening steps. There are, as I recall, about six levels in the game: microbe, animal, tribe, city, civilization, and space-faring civilization. Each level has its own editor in which the player can alter the structure of his avatars. The editors are brilliantly graphical in structure, although I hope that Will also addresses functions that are not graphically representable, such as brain size or digestive efficiency. The design drips with Will’s unique and fascinating wit. When the player adds some physical element, it does not merely appear; it drops down from above, hits the ground with a boom, bounces a couple of times, then settles into place. The creatures, buildings, and vehicles all have a brilliant graphical style that is readily editable yet communicates a sense of artistic flair. All in all, I think this will be another milestone in the history of game design.

My talk
My panel, "Procedural Narrative", spoke after Will; there were three of us. The first speaker, an EA employee responsible for the John Madden Football product, had nothing to say about procedural narrative, so he showed a five minute commercial for the game. Michael Mateas talked about Facade, the ground-breaking storyworld he and Andrew Stern are just finishing up now. I learned a few interesting new details about the design and was, as usual, impressed with their work. By the way, Michael’s last name is pronounced "Mah TEE as", not "Mat TAY as" or "MAT ee us" or "MA tyus" or any of the other mangled pronunciations I heard. If in doubt, just call him Michael.My own lecture went well enough. We had only ten minutes to speak, and so I had to keep my comments to a broad-level overview of the Erasmatron. I described it in linguistic terms, concentrating on the idea of the verb count. I am pleased to report that this meme of mine seems to be gaining currency; I heard several other people talk in terms of verbs. A digression: the day before, I had mentioned my careful preparations for the lecture to another speaker, who responded with the observation that s/he preferred not to rehearse his/her lectures, as this robbed them of spontaneity. In my opinion, the consequences of his/her attitude became apparent when the rubber hit the road: his/her talk was nice but not noteworthy, and it went overtime. My own talk, in my opinion, had much more content and impact, and came in at 9 minutes and 47 seconds. But should it come as any surprise that careful preparation produces better results than impromptu speaking?After my lecture, Will responded to the panel’s comments with some reactions of his own. This is where his genius really shone; he managed to come up with an insightful digestion of all three speakers and present it as a clean thesis to the group. Impromptu, no less! He continued to demonstrate his mental agility in this manner all through the day. He also proved much superior in the tact department; when somebody asked me a blunt question about the difference between the Erasmatron approach and the John Madden game, I could only come up with the dichotomy "Dramatic versus mechanical", which left me feeling guilty about a bad choice of words. Will had the better dichotomy: "research versus commercial". Afterwards a Swedish professor chatted with me and suggested that she’d have to get me to Sweden sometime. I’ve long wanted to visit with the Swedes -- they seem to be pushing innovation in game design much harder than the Americans, and that with only 9 million citizens.

Enter the Gecko
At lunch Bing Gordon lectured the group on managing creativity. I think that Bing’s lecture was the most salient one in the conference -- for reasons unbecoming to Bing. While Bing is certainly a nice chap and a charming speaker, he is undeniably the Gordon Gecko of the games industry. His title at EA is "Chief Creative Officer", and yet, in my book, he said nothing whatever about creativity; instead, he talked marketing as if it were creativity. One of his main points was that EA no longer needed game design per se; what he wanted was innovative features to add to existing designs. He went on at some length about particulars of this thesis, buttressing it with marketing figures to prove that his methods yielded higher sales figures. It quickly became clear that Bing defined creativity in terms of higher sales. The second half of his lecture was chilling. He proudly described a new organizational structure EA had developed to solve the management problems arising from huge creative teams. This structure has its strong points, but it seemed to me to be fundamentally an industrial machine taking fresh-faced college graduates as its inputs, squeezing maximum productivity out of them for as long as possible, and then replacing them seamlessly when they depart. He spoke of "desired departures" -- the departure of employees who are no longer productive. I wondered, is his phrase a euphemism to cover up low morale at EA? He also said that EA simply couldn’t find enough talent to fill its needs. This is a stunning revelation in a world where millions of kids have been desperate for years to get their big break into the industry. Bing seemed to suggest that EA’s problem arose from a shortage of experienced workers, but I know that this shortage exists only inside EA; out in the real world, there’s a huge surplus of talent. He mentioned that EA hired 1100 development employees in 2004, but he did not tell us how many development employees left EA at the same time.

Good students, the joy of teaching
That night I had dinner with some of the students in the Georgia Tech program and I must say, I was greatly impressed with their acuity. They had all seen right through Bing’s lecture; I had thought that my negative reaction was just typical Crawford acerbity. The questions came thick and fast, delving into all manner of interesting points; they put me on the spot several times. That’s always a good sign. All in all, I think these people are going to change the world. I fear that the real world they are about to enter might crush the creative life out of them, but somehow I suspect that their spirit will ultimately prevail. Is it just hopeful thinking on my part? I don’t know -- but I have a good feeling about these people. Janet Murray and the other professors in this program have much to be proud of.

Alpha Bravo Charlie
On my way home, I overheard an airline worker referring to "Gate C as in Charlie" and I mused about the factors that go into a good phonetic disambiguation system. Being a backward thinker, I toyed with the idea of what would make a perfectly BAD disambiguation system. I present my results here, taking advantage of my favorite punching bag:

A new alphabet disambiguation system a la Microsoft:
A as in "hay"
B as in "lambda"
C as in "Excel"
D as in "transformationalized"
E as in "pique"
F as in "RTFM"
G as in "knight"
H as in "knight"
I as in "pique"
J as in "jigahertz"
K as in "knight"
L as in "£"
M as in "mnemonic"
N as in "in"
O as in "oh"
P as in "pea"
Q as in "queue"
R as in "the 18th letter of the alphabet"
S as in "sex"
T as in "tea"
U as in "you"
V as in "Tchaikovski"
W as in "show"
X as in "Windows X"
Y as in "pyre"
Z as in "WKRZ"

So now I’m home; I brought several million new friends home with me, cute little guys with names like Vinnie and Victor and Vance. I’ll spend the next week interacting with my new friends.