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Notes in Brief

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One Experiment, Four Theories

You could say that Portal and Portal 2 are games about game design. GLaDOS is, of course, our game designer, piecing together test chambers for her test subject(s) to solve, helplessly addicted to the process.

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Don’t, Mention, The War!

Chances are that if you work on big-budget video games for a living you’ll eventually make something with Nazis in it, and while the coming of that day may not be a surprise, the news that your project will be released in Germany often is.

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Games Don’t Need a Message to Be Smart

It’s a common mistake to assume that the delivery of some big message or the exploration of some weighty modern theme indicates the possession of an underlying intelligence. Thus, there’s an incorrect perception by some commentators on the game industry that games which do feature these elements are necessarily “smarter” than their counterparts that do not. This naïve and unfortunate attitude is on display in full force in a new interview on Gamasutra with Derek Littlewood, the Project Lead of the forthcoming Haze—not by him, but by the hysterical game industry journalist that is interviewing him. “Did you make Haze because you were simply fed up with the stupidity of most video games?” he asks at one point. Later on he repeats much the same thing, in an accusatory way: “Why are games so stupid? Who's to blame?” Beyond being bad journalism, this is a completely misguided line of questioning. A game (in fact, any form of art) does not need to have a message to be smart. A good counter-example is Portal. Erik Wolpaw, its writer, made this point in a sly way in his own recent interview:
Also, there is cake. Why’s that? Well, there are lots of message games coming out now. Like they’ve got something really important to get off their chest about the war in Iraq or the player is forced to make some dicey underwater moral choices. Really, just a whole heck of a lot of stuff to think about. With that in mind, at the beginning of the Portal development process, we sat down as a group to decide what philosopher or school of philosophy our game would be based on. That was followed by about fifteen minutes of silence and then someone mentioned that a lot of people like cake.

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Why You Should Be a Game Developer

You never truly begin to understand a language, no matter how much you are exposed to it, until you try to speak it and write it yourself— until you grapple with it to express your own thoughts and feelings. In the same way, through no amount of just playing games can one really get to the bottom of what they are about, why they exist and where they are going. To play a game is to be forced to come to terms with the game’s limitations, but to design a game is to face the world’s limitations. When you have been making games for a while, you become acutely aware of what the real triumphs are and where the corners were cut. Features that once seemed like difficult feats of technical trickery to you are exposed as the developmental equivalent of a parlor trick, while the very best games soon become all the more impressive to you, knowing acutely all the hurdles they must have overcome. If you want to appreciate games to their fullest– as everyone who professes to love them should – don’t just play games. Make them.

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Getting One’s Due Credit

As a cost-saving measure, Activision has joined the ranks of publishers that do not print the full credits for a game in the accompanying manual. Rationally, this may seem like a small, perhaps inconsequential loss in the overall battle for the recognition of talent and hard work (the credits can still be seen in-game, after all). But it’s somehow saddening all the same. Not everyone hungers for fame or recognition beyond that of one’s close friends, but as a kind of professional courtesy it doesn’t seem prohibitively expensive. A name in print is nice, as any journalist will tell you.

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A Metaphor for Graphics Technology

Sometimes I get the sense that people have started to consider video game graphics a “problem” that has been largely “solved,” and that any further development is an exercise in diminishing marginal returns. Like a skyscraper, after too many stories have been added the building becomes too expensive and simply not worth the effort to construct. It is then usually suggested that now we can finally stop worrying about graphics and go on to begin making the great, innovative gameplay we’ve all been waiting for (even though we do not really seem to agree on what that actually is). However, just the opposite is true: the more development that has taken place in this area, the more that is possible to expand upon. Instead of a single skyscraper, the development of graphics technology is more like the construction of roads: the more development that takes place, the more valuable the resultant network as a whole, and the more further development becomes possible. The next generation consoles have opened the way to all kinds of new territory– areas of which we are really only beginning to scratch the surface in shipping products. There is a huge amount of work still to be done: a myriad of problems to be solved, and plenty of opportunity to seize.

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