Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Double Edged Sword we call QA...

I’ve officially been in QA for nearly 4 years now. I’ve learned a LOT over that time and progressed due to that acquired and retained knowledge and experience. You would think that would mean that I am better at QA and testing now than I was when I started, right? Most days I would say, “absolutely yes”. But recently I started to think about that question a little more... and in some ways I have to say “no, I am worse now than I was then”.

Now, before you start calling for my head at the next opportunity to release staff from the company, hear me out.

At the core of this issue, I AM without a shadow of a doubt MUCH better now at QA and testing than I was back in the day. And not to toot my own horn, but I actually consider myself to be better than most out there in the world of QA based on my wide knowledge of competitor products, the industry as a whole, and unending curiosity and creative thinking that fuels my ability to chaos test games like few others I have encountered.

So, here’s how I am worse...

Over the past few years I have learned a ton, about QA as a department, process, skill, and its place within the greater development team and company. I have read countless books, articles, and presentations by various veterans in the industry. I have played hundreds, if not thousands, of games from the companies I have worked for but also our competitors (as noted above with the analysis). I have worked with some of the most talented and inspiring designers in the industry, absorbed info and ideas from them via countless discussions, emails, and meetings on a variety of topics...

Wait, what? Aren’t those all the same things that make me much better at my job? Of course they are. But they are also making me worse for one reason...

I no longer qualify as the average consumer...

Because of all of those things I mentioned above I no longer accurately and honestly represent the average consumer’s thinking when I QA a project... at least not by default. I can still “trick my mind” to pull this off, but it’s something I have to force myself to do rather than just have it happen like it did when I was the average consumer.

Whenever I QA a title I spend part of my time posing as the average consumer of the product... the guy or gal walking into Walmart/EB/GameStop/Best Buy/Future Shop who is going to buy this game and take it home and hopefully have a blast playing it for hours on end. The other part of my time, when not knee deep in tracking docs and running from one meeting to the next, is spent putting all of my knowledge to use... meaning thinking of all the ways that the designer has designed system X or level Y and dissecting it so that I can ensure it not only works when I put it through the meat grinders that are my hands on a controller, but also that it’s fun. How do I quantify fun? Well, that’s a topic that will take several articles to cover, so for now I will just break it down into some high level categories. Things we look for on the QA Design side of testing generally fall under the subjective side of feedback, and how we come to those suggestions comes from a wide range of sources and ideas. Using other titles and their success as a gauge, using theories on what creates enjoyment for a person (not only in games, but anything really) and ensuring that our products contain those important ingredients, and several other means like focus testing and gathering large samples of feedback from a variety of user types over time. That is by no means a complete list, so please don’t go screaming that I missed something, trust me... I have an excel doc that is a gigantic list of the things we use as reference, resources, and assets when trying to determine the “fun” of a particular project.

So what does this all mean?

Well, the more that I think about it, the more it seems that in order to become better at QAing a title, the worse someone becomes at representing the everyday consumer. It’s a “necessary evil” if that makes sense... you have to allow yourself to slip further and further away from being an everyday consumer in order to catch all of the issues that could potentially ruin their experience had you not been there to do it.

What’s the worst part about all of this? Well depending on who you ask you’ll probably hear a lot of different answers... but here’s one I tell all new hires who join my teams.

Getting better at QAing projects means you’re most likely staying in that thought process longer than the 9-5 (or whatever core hours you put in are) of the daily grind.

Being in QA is a lot like what Morpheus tells Neo... Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. There’s no turning back...

Now, Morpheus was speaking to Neo about the Matrix as a false world being pulled over the eyes of the world’s inhabitants, whereas I am referring to seeing bugs within games, but it’s so truthful it hurts a little just thinking about it.

It’s incredibly hard, bordering on impossible actually, to unsee bugs in games. And as you get better and better in QA, more experience under your belt, and seen more projects come and go, you start to notice more and more, right down to the little subtleties that would escape most people, even the nitpicker fan boys and forum trolls out there 

As you start to play other games that should be a great distraction from the real world and work, and just a nice way to settle down and dive into the experience and fun of the game in hand... you see it... the bugs are there, and you can’t help but see them. You can see the level textures popping in, you can see the character’s animation twitch as one cycle ends and doesn’t blend smoothly into the next, you can see that when you speak to a character they still reference another character or item that you killed or destroyed earlier in the game, you see that if you try to force your way into a space that you shouldn’t fit that you can indeed get into it and cause all kinds of chaos (especially in online multiplayer games). They are all there. And I apologize to the non-QA folks who may be reading this, cause these things will likely start sticking out a like a sore thumb in the next game you play because at the very least you are aware of the issue possibly being there and your brain will be subconsciously looking for these things now. As a matter of fact, just to prove my point (that the power of suggestion is real, that is), there are sooooooooooo many Lexus IS250’s out on the roads these days!! They must be clearing those things out!! (I guarantee I will get a response in the coming days from someone saying “ man, I just saw like 10 of those on the road today!”)

So, with all of this said, do I dislike my job or feel I am not fit to do it anymore? Absolutely not. I am getting better by the day, and I find new things I love about my job each day, and when you consider the challenges that arise on a day to day basis in my job... you have to imagine that I get exponentially better day by day.

I don’t want to say I was born to do this job, but I was born to excel at it... there is another position within the games industry that is still calling my name and that I am endlessly pursuing... but we’ll wait for another day to discuss that 

Over n oot,



Narrati... sorry out of time...

The title above seemed to be the best way to encapsulate how I have been feeling about a lot of games lately, especially some of the more commercially successful shooters of recent years. I find this sad because I typically put shooters right near the top of the pack for my favourite genre of games.

Now, before we get too deep into this discussion, or more accurately me rambling and ranting to my heart’s content and you sitting there nearly falling asleep from reading this stuff, let me first clear something up. When I say “narrative” throughout this writing I am thinking mostly along the lines of story and how it integrates within the gameplay to form a complete experience, rather than simply a game of pong with someone standing behind a curtain narrating the eternal struggle between these two fierce competitors... er paddles.

Of course, narrative comes in several forms, and I am totally cool with that. But to keep everyone on track, including myself, let’s settle on the possibly flawed definition I mentioned above.

This whole topic is somewhat of a continuation of my recent rants regarding stories and gameplay in games these days not really offering the player anything other than a distraction... not taking the opportunity to open the player’s mind to other issues, ideas, or events that affect us, not only as gamers but as humans. So if you found that previous piece to be boring or ridiculous I advise that you turn around, head back to the ticket booth and demand a refund. The rest of you, please be seated, the main attraction is about to begin...

I have been playing a ton of games again lately... had slowed down for a bit while Mass Effect 1 and subsequent DLC and PC version came out over the last year... but I am back to my usual self playing games pretty much every night again...

One thing I have noticed recently... well noticed again, recently... is that a lot of the games that I enjoy the gameplay in are brutally lacking in story to drive that game forward... The narrative isn’t complete without the story and gameplay firing on all cylinders and in sync with each other for me.

Games like Halo, Gears of War, Resistance, God of War, Metroid, and countless others are all amazing games and their gameplay is some of the best out there... but I always walk away from them and feel like something is missing... there is often a disconnect between the story and the gameplay, or even worse... lately they all rely on brutally predictable cliffhangers to keep the player wondering, rather than having a strong enough story to get the player wanting to play the next one anyway.

I generally finish the game then find myself having to replay the whole thing again just to actually make sense of the usually completely broken plot and story continuity... think I am exaggerating? Try to tell me the plot of Gears of War 1 and how it makes sense... especially if you only played through the story once, and didn’t read someone else’s dissection of what everything was and how it was all connected. How did I get on that train? How about any of the Halo games... can you honestly remember anything beyond “Covenant are bad, I shoot them” and “Rings are weapons of mass destruction”? If you really paid attention you would probably throw in a third part about “Forerunners have some role in all of this”. Otherwise, I challenge most anyone to give me a proper recap of those stories...

Now, I could easily make a comparison to movies in this case... and I was going to... right there... but I held off when I realized I was about to Michael Moore all of you reading this right now... I would have inevitably made some comparison to a movie with an amazing story like Philadelphia, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Marley and Me, Wall-E, The Dark Knight, Seven, etc (some of those were chosen by Tia... I’ll let you guess which ones, you’ll probably get a couple wrong J)... The problem with making that comparison fair actually comes down to 2 major issues... The games I mentioned kinda fall closer to the “Summer Blockbuster” or as it’s now called “Michael Bay” tree in terms of their movie equivalent... meaning that the story and plot take back seat to awesome explosions and amazing effects. A closer, but still not accurate comparison would be something like Lord of the Rings == Baldur’s Gate or Oblivion (less Oblivion due to its more sandbox-like structure rather than a linear story path), or Star Wars == Mass Effect... but then I get into the whole issue of I am talking about the shooters rather than the epic long RPG’s. Conversely, the closer and again inaccurate comparison for something like Gears is probably something like Bad Boys 2 (shudder... sorry Cliff if you ever see this...), Halo is maybe something like Star Ship Troopers (minus the cheesy but awesome dialogue) Now that I think about it, it was unfair for me to compare some games to movies in previous posts given certain limitations for each format... but maybe that is the issue... we need to find ways to make those limitations disappear. The other is that the whole issue I mentioned at the start of this rant is that I was looking for story and gameplay in one place... movies don’t have that interaction element that games have, so they only really need to deliver on the one front... (don’t you dare try to tell me “but Blu-Ray has interactive features...”, that’s a cop out and you know it) effects and explosions can be done across both so they kinda cancel each other out.

So I guess when you think about it, movies are just as “guilty” of this “crime” if you really look at it as “fairly” as possible... also, I need to stop using quotations in rants...

The difference for me I guess is that if you look at a movie that falls under that “Michael Bay” tree (sorry, I already failed myself), you’re probably watching that movie for about 90 minutes, in rare cases maybe 120, whereas those games are generally in the 6-10 hour range. Games have to fit gameplay into that time frame so they don’t have all of that time for story exposition and minute details... or do they???

Thinking back to a recent gem, a little title called “BioShock”, Ken Levine and the team at 2K Boston put together found some cool ways to keep the story flowing even during combats and wandering lost among the undersea tunnels of Rapture. Recordings. I know these aren’t new to BioShock... in fact they appeared in older games from the studio, but BioShock took it a step further and brought it into the present. BioShock was a little longer than Gears or Halo, at about double the length, but offered similar shooter style gameplay (with RPG elements... so again, not a perfect comparison).

This rant is kinda losing its steam and I actually have chosen to not do my usual proof reading this time around, mostly because I am trying to get a bunch of articles out that I have been working on for a few weeks... so I apologize for it being even more all over the place and unfocused than my usual stuff... but I am going to end on this one point...

I want games to evolve a little in the future... and not a huge thing, but it will have a huge effect, at least on a guy like me...

My idea of the perfect game?? A story mode that lasts about 6-10 hours, consisting of a story that I actually can recall at the end, that opens my eyes to something new or an issue I may have been ignorant about in the past, obviously has to have exciting and progressive gameplay, and should have a multiplayer component, preferably both co-op and adversarial...

Will this game ever happen? ABSOLUTELY! Why? Because people are so busy with other things in life these days they don’t have time for 100 hour epic games anymore (or at least a smaller percentage of the population still has the luxury of that much free time than in the past... I might be saying that because I have run into the fact that I can’t sit down with a game like Final Fantasy VII and devote the hours I did when I was 16 in high school with no major responsibilities). And the other reason it will happen? Because I am making it right now... and it’s not the project at work that everyone is dying to know about... This is something I have been working on for a while from home... and with some luck will be pitched to the powers that be in the very near future.

So my “perfect” game (I used quotations here because perfect doesn’t exist, and likely never will with games) is on the way... from someone else or me... but it’s going to happen, just going to take some time.

Over n Oot,


Oh, I should say.... one game that has come SOOOO close to nailing my description of the perfect game that is already on store shelves and hits a lot of the issues mentioned throughout this rant... Call of Duty 4... Not only is it the best multiplayer shooter of all time on the consoles in my opinion, it has a story that pushed some boundaries few have even thought to talk about let alone actually have in a game. The intro alone should get you pumped just at the thought of what is to come after you see the mature issues tackled during the driving sequence. And the final mission with the American soldier should seriously be commended as one of the best moments I have seen in a game in decades. So, as I mentioned at the end of the “actual” post, there is hope.

Pay careful attention at about the 40 second mark to see what I am talking about regarding the mature content in the opening.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Where are we headed?

This one might be a biggy... so get some coffee, a nice pillow, and prep yourself for a long read, one that will cover a lot of ground/topics...

For the better part of my life I have wanted to do something creative... it started with art, or more specifically drawing. From drawing comic book characters, or my favourite sports stars, I loved sitting down for hours and just drawing... breaking down an image that I thought to be awesome, and trying to recreate it while adding a bit of my own touch... making it my own in a sense.

As I got older I started playing more and more video games. I loved the way that they looked, moved, and allowed the player/user to interact in a way that comics, toys, tv and movies couldn't match.

So the next step from here seems inevitable right? Start drawing video games. I did. I would start drawing characters from all sorts of games... Mortal Kombat, Sonic, Mario, you name it... I even tried drawing the players from NHLPA Hockey '93 because at the time I thought that game was so amazing I was obsessed...

When I was a teenager I started telling myself I wanted to be an artist in the games industry more than anything... even more than an NHL player... (that was likely due to the fact that I had been told by a lot of people at the time that I wouldn't make it to "the show"... and knowing my family didn't have the money to put me into higher caliber hockey, I just figured those people were right). My biggest problem with this new dream was my shortsightedness and stubbornness... I refused to do homework, even in art class... I had the "invincibility" of being young and somewhat talented... my ego was very strange back then... So while I should have been learning about art history and the theories and practices of some of the world's greatest, I was convinced I would make it on my own with my own talent and ideas... I dodged university and more or less told myself that I would make it big just because I was me and people would like what I put out there. Unfortunately, during my early 20s my creativity took a major blow... I almost completely stopped drawing for years...

Then one day, after coming home around 2am after working two 8 hour shifts at different jobs (both jobs being selling video games), I signed in to MSN and an old friend and former co-worker at one of those game selling jobs pinged me and mentioned he was working at EA as a game tester. I knew he had headed out there a while back, so it was cool to catch up with him. Over the chat I explained I was starting to realize I wasn't quite going anywhere with my jobs... I was successful at them, to the extent that I could be in a retail chain selling games at least, but I wasn't moving towards anything I wanted to call a career. And, while I was working with video games, I was a long way from doing what I hoped to do when I said I wanted to work with/in the industry for a living.

He mentioned that he might be able to pass along my resume to some of the hiring staff at EA. I immediately got a resume ready and into his hands the following day. A few weeks later, the job posting appeared on EA's website and I jumped right on it and applied again, this time "formally".

To shorten this history lesson, I got the job. I started back in May of 2005 and have been working in the industry in various positions in the QA department at a couple companies since.

Like several people who get into the QA department of a game development studio, I was using this as my foot in the door, my launching point for something "better"... something in a creative position...

I wanted to create games... I wanted to be a producer, or what is now commonly called a "game director"... the creative lead on a project or brand. The person that holds the vision of what that game will be when it lands in the hands of the gamer.

Let's take a short time out now to step back a few years...

I remember being about 17 years old... a couple games were set to come out. One of those was "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time" for N64, the other "Metal Gear Solid" for the PS1. I owned both consoles at the time... but I was definitely still a Nintendo fan at the time... not to the point of fanboyism, but I definitely gave my N64 more attention than I did the PS1.

I started playing both around the same time... but I found myself getting very involved with Metal Gear Solid. I stayed up until 5am one night playing the game, then beat it the following night around just after midnight and immediately yelled at my brother to come see the ending with me (he wasn't really big into games at the time so I wasn't spoiling anything for him). The game was awesome! It found a way to blend fantasy, sci-fi, and tidbits of reality into an over the top story, that I would have a hard time believing today (mainly because of the crazy boss names/characters), but a story that I couldn't pull myself away from. When I think back to the game, I remember watching in awe of some of the cutscenes... these were mostly the ones when Snake first finds Otacon (Hal Emmerich) in the locker in the lab.

Otacon begins to explain to Snake what has been going on in the lab, and the cutscenes start rolling (yes they are lengthy, but they were so damned good I didn't care... in fact I rushed certain areas of gameplay to get to the next cutscene) explaining studies being done in the fields of genetics around the world, nuclear arms races and the history between certain nations, the cold war, Water Gate, etc. I was a decent student at that time... I was doing pretty good in history/social studies, but I found the way my teachers were delivering the info/material to be incredibly boring... it wasn't stimulating me at all. Very rare were the moments where I said, "I want to go home and learn more about that". But this game was doing just that. It had opened my eyes to certain issues around the world that I was more or less completely oblivious to. Yes, I am aware that these issues were presented in a fictional setting, but the seed was planted in my mind... the issue existed in the real world as well, and now I was curious. I was finally starting to get the appeal of the Tom Clancy movies my dad was always watching, but I found to be boring as a kid. They work off the same premise, use real world issues or conflicts to start a fictional tale. Using the real world places, references, etc, that the brain can make a connection to is a perfect way to get the audience into that "willing suspense of disbelief".

After finishing Metal Gear Solid once, I picked up the controller again (after the cool phone call post-credits, of course) and beat the game a second time the following day (using the tuxedo :-)). After the second time I was still so immersed in the game that I chose to play through a 3rd time, even after seeing both endings. I played through the 3rd time, saw more cool fan-service type easter eggs and loved the game just as much as the first time I played it.

So, now what? Well, I picked up the N64 controller and started to play Ocarina of Time of course! Except, then I put it down... the game couldn't capture me... at least not the way the previous Zelda games had. At first I thought it was because this new Zelda game wasn't quite as good as the others... after all, "A Link to the Past" is a tough act to follow. Then I wondered if my nostalgia for those older titles was making me think they were better than they were, but I went back to them and loved them for what they were... It was then that it hit me...

I now had a greater expectation for what games could and should be for me, for any fan/gamer, and for the industry.

Before Metal Gear Solid, I had wanted games where I could just run and jump and kill enemies and feel powerful. If the game had those basic elements and they were polished up, I was content with my purchase. But after MGS, I was looking for something more. I wanted a game that made me think about things differently. I wanted games that opened my eyes to issues I was previously unaware of. I wanted games to pass on knowledge or a message about the world around me. And unfortunately Zelda wasn't that game.

Now I know what you're thinking... "you never finished Zelda: Ocarina of Time"???? I did. but it happened nearly a year later... after I realized there weren't any other games out there that would do the same things that I loved about MGS so much, I returned to my other games and played them. I loved Ocarina, but for different reasons. It's gameplay was fun and I enjoyed the puzzles again, even if they were more or less just 3D versions of similar puzzles in the old titles... and maybe that's why I did enjoy them.

I understand that not everyone is looking for what I am looking for in a game... but I figure if I am looking for these things, and I am a pretty average guy, wouldn't that mean there is a sizeable audience that is looking for something similar? Maybe, maybe not. I am also aware that several gamers out there play games as a form of escapism. They come home from school, work, family, whatever life throws at them on a daily basis, and they want to escape their reality and dive into the role of a hero character, or possibly a villain character. They probably don't want to be playing a game with a bleak, financial crisis, or wars in countries where they may have friends or family members fighting. It's a form of therapy for some. That being said, I know of people in those exact situations I mentioned above for not wanting a game to touch on those subjects that would love to have a game that touches on those issues because they can use their game character to make a difference, or do something they maybe can't in this life for various reasons.

So, this brings me to my 2 big issues now...

1) Ever since MGS, I have wanted to be able to make games that have those messages, or bring awareness to issues that many may not be aware of. I don't want to make games that preach my beliefs or push my agendas, but rather bring awareness to issues that affect everyone. And that's it. Awareness. From there it's up to the gamer playing the game to make that decision to pursue it further, tell their friend, form an opinion of their own, or completely dismiss it as something that was entertaining or not.

I believe this is one of the things that is holding the gaming industry back from reaching that benchmark/milestone of being considered seriously as "art" by most... the fact that most people that are not playing the games look at them and say "that's just senseless violence" or "what do I take away from this?". When you look at other art forms, for the most part they have a section or genre that is dedicated to awareness or messages. In photography, it could be a collection of photos on a particular topic, person, cause, etc. In painting or sculture, the same can be said. In film, it's usually in the form of documentaries, but also in fictional stories.

One example I like to use for film, that had a great impact on me when I was younger was the movie, "Philadelphia". When I first saw the movie, I was probably about 11 years old or so. I had never heard of AIDS or homosexuality, aside from completely inaccurate and inappropriate comments in the school yard. I had no context for their actual meaning or what they actually were until I saw this film. At the time, these 2 topics would have been considered taboo by many. After seeing the film, I suddenly found myself feeling incredibly satisfied. Not only was it a phenomenal story, and movie, but I walked away from the movie with a better understanding of the world and the people around me. It was a story that taught me, regardless of what our personal choices are in life, or our beliefs, or who we associate with, or if we are sick or healthy... we are all humans. We need to help each other. We need to look after each other. Whenever we discriminate for any reason, we are hurting everyone. The race takes a step backwards.

I have seen this movie countless time since that first time. Each time, I grow more fond of it. I see more subtleties in the actor's portrayals of the characters, I see more of the human story each time, and I love it for that reason.

I also love the movie Syriana, for similar but different reasons. The movie does a fantastic job of showing several characters lives and how they go about them, in their own little worlds, and then shows how it all comes together at the end. How all of their stories intertwine and affect each other's even though they were completely oblivious to each other's existence. It's one of those stories and movies that really shows the bigger picture.

Now, of course there are hundreds of movies that do this. I am always looking to find more (send me your suggestions :-)). And I know there are a few games that have some underlying tones... but I really want to see games make these kinds of leaps. I believe it's necessary for the industry to reach that next level of storytelling and audience immersion.

So, while there are great games out there, many of which have some underlying tones and themes that some people get... games like Metal Gear Solid, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, BioShock, and Mass Effect... I would like to see not only more of these types of games, but I would like to see them tackle bigger issues. Recently, Far Cry 2 brought up the topic of Malaria, a serious issue in parts of Africa. After having only played a small amount of Far Cry 2... I don't think it's doing what I was hoping for... instead of calling attention to the disease, it seems like it's merely using Malaria as a naming convention for it's in-game health system. (I could be wrong on this so feel free to call me out if I am)

2) Well, you had to know there was a reason for all of this right?

I've mentioned above that I believe that for someone like myself, a 27 (nearly 28) year old, male gamer, I need more substance to my gaming stories and themes going forward. Part of that is due to a maturing taste in content. Also as mentioned above, this applies to movies as well for me... not just games. But, there had to be something more personal for all of this right???


And here's where things get a little rougher...

During my senior year in high-school, just before christmas, my mom came to my brother and I with some very bad news. My aunt, my mom's sister who was also my brother's godmother, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Up to that point I knew almost nothing about cancer. I had heard of people that had it, including my favourite hockey player, Mario Lemieux, but otherwise was pretty oblivious to what it actually was and what it did. We were told my aunt only had 3-6 months left to live. It was incredibly tough on the family when she passed. When she had passed, I had actually learned a bit more about the illness, but still felt confused and had no idea how to deal with what had happened.

Actually, one year earlier, I saw one of my best friends lose his cousin, who had gone to school with us for years, to cancer.

About two and a half years ago, in the spring of 2006, I was working away as usual at EA. As I was filling out some spreadsheets, I saw the 'email received' notifier from MSN/Hotmail appear in the lower corner of my screen. I saw that it was from a friend that I hadn't spoken to in a while... my heart sunk and I felt lightheaded almost immediately. I was positive that I knew what happened before I even opened Hotmail. I opened my browser to Hotmail and saw the title of the email. One of my best friends since I was a kid had just passed away from cancer. This is still to this day one of the toughest things I have had to deal with or talk about. I had known for a while that he had cancer, and was upset that I was unable to see him during most of his battle. He was living in Ontario when I learned he was diagnosed. I remember when I was getting ready to leave Winnipeg to move to Vancouver to start work at EA, he was able to make it out to my going away party. I hadn't seem him in a while. I was beyond happy to see him even if it was just for a few minutes. He was telling me at the bar that he was feeling pretty tired and weak still. The doctor's had to remove part of his quadriceps muscle to remove the cancer from his body. It was really tough seeing him using the cane. but I was ecstatic to see him doing better at the time. When I got home about 6 months later to visit for christmas, my dad apparently told me at that time that the cancer had come back and it didn't look good. When I got the email of Chris passing, I felt like I had been blindsided, but my dad insisted he had told me... I didn't believe him... how could I have forgotten hearing news that my best friend had terminal cancer?? When I think back to that time now, I actually do recall the conversation with my dad in my parent's living room, looking out to the driveway... I can actually picture everything, crystal clear now... It was one of those moments you usually only hear about in movies or tv, where the character completely blocks something from their memory because they don't know how to cope with it, or it's too painful to think of...

I apologize, I didn't intend for this to get too emo... but there is a reason for all of this.

I have set out on a mission over the past year to bring awareness to certain issues I am concerned about in the world, that I feel more people need to be aware of... via video games. I want to present these ideas in a format that the largest possible audience can jump in and GET. And from my experience, you find the medium that people relate to, and you adapt your training to that so that it sticks. Given the way the 18-34 demographic keeps itself busy these days, I feel that video games might be the best approach.

I believe that by having these issues brought to the forefront in games, whether it's directly calling out the issue, making reference to it enough that people make the connection, using metaphors to demonstrate the issue or the struggle, etc... games can be a new way to bring these issues to the masses. It doesn't have to be so invasive that it detracts from the ultimate goal of these products... entertaining the audience, but what if you learned that your favourite game was actually a metaphor for what a human body goes through when fighting off a condition or disease? What if the game you love was actually teaching you something about the issues that are plaguing our planet? Maybe it's something like you are a modern day Robin Hood who is trying to fix the world hunger crisis? What if game developers found a way to take proven gameplay and place it around a story that actually mattered beyond kill the alien invaders?

I would LOVE to see a developer make that leap. Even going to the point of building a codex or reference chart that the player could see after they finish their gaming session, like a score card. Imagine playing a game like Halo, and after you have killed an enemy, a little icon appears in the corner of the screen to notify you that you have unlocked something new in your vault. After you finish playing, you return to the menu screen and open the "vault" screen to see that you killed Enemy X. An image and description of Enemy X are present. By selecting the enemy from the list and clicking on them, a more detailed chart comes up and the text informs the player that the enemy is actually based off the effects of the HIV virus on the human immune system. The player still gets all the entertainment they expect from their favourite game, but is also now more aware of how one of the most deadly viruses on our planet functions. What about Metroid games mentioning something about a brain condition like a tumor or aneurysm? With some luck, this might get this player to get off the couch and start learning more about this virus and illness, or maybe they say they will start to donate money to research... maybe the developer takes that step for them and says "we'll donate $1 from each copy sold of our game towards charity Y". Some may argue that creating games or enemy behaviours based on these things that kill or impair our friends and family members is insensitive, I would say how is it any worse than having enemies based on stereotypes and other people who kill each other? At least with the ideas I mention above there is some learning involved. If someone made a game and told me "this is our interpretation of how a person's internal organs combat a disease" as the premise of a game, and I knew someone who was suffering from that disease, I would want to play the game to learn more, or maybe it's the ice breaker for me to learn more through that person. I can ask them, is it accurate? Trying to understand more about what they are going through. What I can do to help them or the cause? These are just a few examples of the ideas I am looking into and hoping someone in the industry is thinking of too.

So, with all of that said... and like I said, it was going to be a bit all of over the place, I don't want to reveal much more for now... but something has been in the works with myself and some friends and coworkers for close to a year now. I believe we have a pretty solid foundation on which we hope to keep building on going into this new year. With some luck, a lot of hard work, and maybe some good timing our group hopes to make a presentation to a select few closer to spring of 09.

That's it for now... I touched on a lot of subjects in this post, some of which I have spoken to various people about in the past, others not so much. Either way, I am hoping that anyone who reads this post chimes in with their comments and thoughts on where we, as an industry, are headed...

over n oot,


Thursday, November 13, 2008

crazy crazy

Over the past couple of weeks things have been pretty crazy, at the office and on the home front... most of it I mentioned in the last post...

With the move from one project to another at work, I spent part of last week tying up the lose ends on the old project while attempting to ramp up as quickly and smoothly as possible on the new project. Unfortunately, life didn't want to cooperate with that schedule. Aside from some minor issues with getting things all closed off on the old project, my original schedule for ramping up on the new project was being interrupted and "hijacked" on a minute by minute basis... usually when making a switch of this sort, the first thing to do is spend a few days just playing the game. Get acclimated with the game, controls, story, themes, gameplay, overall design, etc., and then file some feedback on the current state. While I had intended on taking that route, I instead had to get started right away on learning where everyone was at working on the project, where the other Design QA Analysts were focusing their time and effort, learning what reporting and feedback had been done to this point, and start coming up with a plan on how to get us from "now" to the end of the project.

With all of that in mind, I had booked off a few days for an extra long weekend... I had actually requested the time off before learning of the project swap... the timing just turned out to be unfortunate...

On top of all of this, I received a very sad phone call from Tia last wednesday... her grandpa in Nova Scotia had passed away. It was really sad because Tia and I had been talking for the past couple of years about going out east sometime next year to be able to see her family... so, this definitely dampened the excitement of that trip, but I really hope we can still make the trip out there because I would really love to meet the other side of Tia's family and finally get a chance to see the beautiful countryside that I keep hearing about and seeing in Tia's photography.

So, after getting a little bit of work done on the new project last Tuesday, I missed the better part of Wednesday, worked some more on Thursday, had Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday off, and returned to work today/yesterday depending on how you look at it. Now, we are essentially 3 days into our first week of a 3 week sprint, and we have a LOT of work to get done before the sprint ends on Dec 5, and even more that needs to get done for Dec 19 when we break for the holidays for a couple weeks.

And that is where I am right now... awake working on documentation and scheduling for the next couple of weeks... while my beautiful girlfriend sleeps down the hall... I really need to get this stuff done so I can go get some rest with her :-)

Needless to say, it should be an interesting few weeks as we head down the homestretch to holiday break.


(note I am already posting more regularly here... told ya :-) )

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

ah geez!

Well, as expected, I forgot about this blog... :-P

Actually, that's not entirely true... I just got really busy and didn't have a lot to write about for a while... at least not regarding me.

I have been writing a lot lately, but it's all for a "secret project" and also for documentation for a project at work... which brings me back to the being busy thing...

For the past 4 months or so I had been working on an unannounced project at the studio, but the studio has gone through some changes and I have now been bumped to a new, also unannounced, project. I am making a straight lateral jump onto the new project. Moving from the QA Design Lead title on my previous project to the same position on the new project.

This is actually a pretty exciting development for me. While I was getting a lot of stuff ready on the previous project, this new team is more established, I am pretty familiar with most of the team, and I am also working with more QA Design Analysts right away instead of waiting for the team to ramp up. The best part for me though is part of my personal goals for joining this project is to see the project through to release as the QA Design Lead, and train up and prepare one of the QA Design Analysts to be able to officially take this role on the next project, while I hopefully make either another lateral or possibly forward jump to a new position on an upcoming project down the road.

The Analyst I am working with to "mentor" is actually someone I have a tremendous amount of respect for. He constantly is trying to learn more about the projects we work on, the industry as a whole, and improving process. So my role working him will be more guidance than true teaching. He's got a tremendous foundation already laid out for his career. He actually reminds me of myself quite a bit, as far as work ethic, eagerness to learn and excel at new tasks and challenges... overall, couldn't be happier about this opportunity, for myself and for him. It's going to be awesome to have someone to talk game design and theories with, and our skills actually look like they will compliment each other really well. An opportunity for both of us to learn and grow our skill sets over the course of the next year or so.

I've also been keeping very busy with creating some documentation, previously for the old team and now for the new team. I'm actually hoping it's something we can use for the department as as whole as well. I have been learning a tremendous amount of new stuff over the past 2 years since I joined the BioWare family. That new knowledge continues to grow on what seems to be a minute by minute basis... and I LOVE my job for that exact reason.

As for the personal/home front... it's been a busy time there too...

The house is finally starting to come together, and just in time too... my younger cousin is set to move into our home in the next couple of weeks when he takes a job as a term tester at BioWare. It should be pretty cool having him here... hopefully this experience will show him a career path he may not have considered or been fully aware of previously. Plus, now I'll have someone to help me tackle the co-op modes in a ton of the games I keep telling myself I want to finish :-)

Tia and I are busy as always, her with work and school, and me with work and side projects, and I'm back to playing hockey on a team again. Of course both of us are always doing work in the house as well.

Been trying to get caught up on my ever growing backlog of games to play while at the same time trying to get some concept art and level design learning work done, and let's not forget learning more and more about the various design theories out there... all this leads to a lack of sleep... but it's all worth it :-)

Anyway, that is enough for me today... but I hope to make posting to this blog more of a regular thing... I even made it one of my starting tabs in Firefox, so that should serve as a reminder going forward :-P

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One more thing to forget about...

Well here is my first post on a new blog that I am likely to forget about like I have all my previous blogs :-P

Anyway, I thought this time it/I would stand a better chance of staying up to date since there is a lot more going on in my life to talk and update about...

And even though there is tons of stuff to talk about right now... I am going to bail until later since the new NHL 09 demo on PSN is just too awesome to stop playing.