Friday, March 22, 2024

Thoughts After GDC 2024

The 2024 Game Developers' Conference isn't quite over as a I write this. But I want to jot down a few thoughts that it formed in my head before they fade away, which, at my age, they tend to do before I always notice.

First, I visited the expo floor. Haven't been to one of those since a SIGGRAPH conference long ago. In those days, the floor seemed huge. But, like visiting the house you lived in as a kid, this one (which was probably bigger in space than that SIGGRAPH show) seemed smaller than I remember. Sure, Epic (GDC's sponsor) had a big pavilion. So did a few others. But most were either pointless (I mean, really, what am I going to gain from visiting Unity's, uh, "booth?"), or oddly game-adjacent. By that latter, for example, I mean one that had a banner that said something like "Equal Access for All." I'm mildly committed to accessibility in my work, so I inquired. Turns out, they meant they were helping game publishers cope with trans-border cash flows and knowing how to introduce themselves to more international marketplaces. Nothing to do with wheelchairs or anything like that. Others were all about contracting out your need for a thousand rendering servers, or how to maintain version control for a project with hundreds of distributed workers (gig employees?).

Well, that was in the north floor. The south floor had a bit more of the old grass-roots feel, with an actual roller-based interface for a person to play games using their own, actual wheelchair(!). Black Voices in Gaming had a booth. I spent some useful time talking to the friendly folks there about how to engage more Black students in my courses, as I am mildly committed to that, too[*]. But the scale of the south floor displays was small compared to the north. The AAA stores and (this is the big takeaway) their support businesses are where the energy (read that "money") seems to be.

I went to several seminars. Three "roundtables" were the best, where most of the speaking was from attendees, not panelists. Got some insights that, again, told me this is all (as I already knew) a Very Big Business. People talked about their nightly renders that took hundreds of CPU/GPU hours on many servers; their problems managing thousands of animation sequences; their long nights unraveling countless inconsistent filenames from designers making them up as they go along. Eventually, it became clear to me that the shops whose names I (and you) know are not just noodling out clever mechanics and combining them with a few nifty models and a sound effect or two. What they're up to is rather like designing and creating a new car. It takes a lot of people working in a complex setting to produce millions of units that all must sell and work well enough to avoid returns and excessive maintenance.

It was all kind of depressing to a guy like me who, even after over 50 years as a programmer (got some applause for saying that at a roundtable, actually) still thinks maybe just noodling out clever mechanics and combining them with a few nifty models and a sound effect or two will make for a game he can sell.

See, I always say, "money is magnetic," by which I mean that, the more you have, the easier it gets to make even more than that. This time, I learned it has another kind of magnetic pull: The biggest money attracts the somewhat less big money towards it. So, a big game shop that is going to invest $100,000,000 in a game (yes, that's a real number) is naturally going to get the attention of a support company that might bill $4,000,000 (I would guess) to manage international tax accounting for their overseas outsourced contractors. Which means that support company is not interested in supporting a five-person boutique studio trying to do the same thing.

Now, what's that mean if you want to get into games? I hear a lot of people talk as though aiming to get into the big shops is the only career path worth having. But is it? Yes, only the big shops sink millions and millions into development. But where does the money go after the sale? Sure, some goes to pay all the people who made it (although, it really just repays the investors who fronted that cost; the now unemployed laborers already got paid). The rest goes to the shareholders of the business that made the product (and who, in all likelihood, had nothing to do with making that product).

In other words, you can make next to nothing working at a small shop on a small game, or you can make next to nothing working at a big shop on a big game. But either way, the only winners are the guys at the top of the big shops. That's how it looked to me after a couple of days at GDC.

Then I met a young man named "ZJ." He used to drive a truck. During the pandemic, his services were actually in less demand (guess he didn't do Prime deliveries). He thought about going back to school, but decided to learn Unity coding instead. No prior experience with games or code. At all. But he had a lot of time and wanted to get out of the truck-driving business.

ZJ wrote a boxing game. It's not out yet, but he's done some play-testing and says people like it. He's still improving it, but he has something that plays. Talking to him, I could tell right away that his coding skills are a bit crude. But he has something that plays. And it is all his. He designed it, he wrote it, he put it in front of play-testers, and they like it.

ZJ's game may never sell many copies. Or it might. I don't know, But it was certainly something, in the midst of all that discussion about such things as "how many people should there be on your version-control team?" to meet one guy who was still noodling it all out on his own.

So that's my takeaway from GDC: shoot for a modest living in a big shop making someone else's big game, or shoot for a modest living in your own shop making your own game. Either has the same small chance of significant reward, albeit in different ways. But one insures you are realizing someone else's vision, while the other is about whatever vision it is you have of your own.

Fact is, the folks getting rich off games aren't gamedev types. They are gamebiz types. I didn't see much overlap. Now, a good gamedev will learn the business they need to, if they are going to have a small or solo shop that sells a successful game. But I've spent most of my life self-employed and can tell you that the business, although necessary to success, need not be the larger part of what you do with your life. Meeting ZJ reminded me that may still be true, even in the business of developing games.


[*] You may be wondering why my DEI concerns are all described with "mildly." It's because I care about these things and pursue ways to support them, but I'm no hero and don't want anyone thinking I'm laying claim to any admiration I don't deserve, that's why.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Are We There Yet?

Meant to put this in with the prior item on the risibly erroneous Roger Kimball, but it was hard to find. Here's what he had to say about Covid-19:

In about three weeks, maybe four, it will all be over and many people will feel sheepish about their overreaction.

That was Kimball on March 12, 2020. Guess he was off, a bit.

Why do I obsess over this small man and his small ability to know what he's talking about? Because he, and a few of his clones, keep popping up next to credible reporters on sites like Real Clear Politics. That gives people a reason to take him seriously, when there really isn't one. He's a fool, he writes like a fool, and he has the credibility of a fool.

But he won't go away.

So, up there, for the record, is a link to proof that Roger Kimball is a fool.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mark Peterson, RIP

Dr. Peterson was one of my first teachers at Amherst. None ever surpassed him in his patience, empathy, or ability to create understanding. He also had a quiet wit that created a moment I will never forget.

After literally every other member of the physics department had declined to do so, I walked into Mark Peterson's office in 1979 and said, "Professor Peterson, you are my last chance. No one else will do a thesis with me. Will you?" He said, "Of course I will, but I get to pick the topic." It was a deal.

The topic he picked involved scattering laser light off microscopic glass tubes. Making the tubes was hard. Before our first success, I wrote computer programs that predicted the scattering pattern. At a mid-thesis presentation, most of the physics faculty looked at them rather skeptically, as those predictions showed highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

Towards the end of spring, 1980, we finally made a microscopic glass tube. Dr. Peterson watched over me as, ever so gently, I mounted the tube in a stand where the laser could light it up. We dimmed the room, switched on the beam and saw, all around on the walls, highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

I will always remember, in the darkness next to me, my advisor, Mark Peterson, saying, "Well. This ought to silence those doubters."

He was the kind of person who found a reason to have faith in you, when no one else could. I teach at a university myself, these days. With every student I meet, I try to do for them what Mark Peterson did for me: find something to have faith in. Thanks for teaching me that lesson, Doc.

Stevens R. Miller, '80
Lecturer, Computer Science
University of Maryland, College Park

But for these...

I'm pretty happy with my life. It's not over yet, but I'm in my 60s, so the bulk of it is past. How I got here is an interesting mix of unlikely events. To what do I owe my happiness? Well, a lot of hard work should be on the list, because American ethics are pretty clear that you're supposed to earn your joy that way. But I'd be lying if I put it near the top. There was some hard work, but not a lot of hard work.

Here's the most important stuff, in chronological order:

1958: I'm born to a couple of smart parents who take excellent care of me.

1972: Langley High School has dial-up access to a computer. I teach myself to program it, and stop hating school, a little.

1974: My parents move me into the "alternative learning program." I stop hating school, a little more.

1976: Explicitly because he "might want a military brat," Dean Ed Wall accepts me into Amherst College. Years later, I will realize I was a diversity admission.

1977: Amherst replaces its antique IBM-1130 computer with a VAX 11/780. As the school's sole "computer consultant," I get unlimited use. Everyone tells me I am wasting my time, using it to make abstract computer animations and mysterious synthetic sounds. 

1980: I graduate with a physics degree, cum laude. The Latin words are solely because Mark Peterson was willing to do a thesis with me after every other member of the department turned me down.

1982: A nearby business asked us to copy an eight-inch data tape onto five-inch reels for their smaller machine. My boss thought they made porn so he pushed me to make friends. Turns out they made computer graphics for TV ads. Quit my job, started with them.

1984: Living in Hoboken, was able to start a graduate degree in computer science, at night. This was not hard work, as I already knew everything they covered. Got the degree in only four years. 8-)

1988: Kind of on a lark, took the LSAT. New York Law School got my score and accepted me without application. With a scholarship. And a night school. Started a law degree, in New York, for free, while keeping my day job.

1991: Finished law school a little early. Yeah, that actually was hard work.

1992: Passed the New York bar without taking a bar review (I was too broke to pay for it).

1994: Met a stunning young woman who loves to read science fiction and play computer games. She works in a book store, and is utterly out of my league. Also, I'm sure she's a lesbian. We get married two years later.

1996: Faxed famous defense attorney Jack Litman to offer my help in the first big press case of a "cybersex" offense. He takes me on. No pay, but it's Jack Litman.

1999: Litman's old partner takes me on as computer forensics expert for his intelligence firm.

2001: Went solo as an expert witness.

2002: Passed Virginia bar exam without a bar review (well, took one by mail). Also, a stunning young woman delivers our son who, as it turns out, ends up being a really decent fellow.

2007: Won election to the Loudoun county board of supervisors, defeating the incumbent.

2020: Heard University of Maryland has a sudden need for a game programming teacher, online. My degree is a master's, not a doctorate, but I apply. They take me.

2021: Maryland starts a new department of "Immersive Media Design." Something about abstract computer animations and mysterious synthetic sounds. I apply for the spot. They take me.

Nobody really plans a path like that, so I recognize that most of what has happened to me has been a mix of modest effort on my part, substantial good will and help from others, and a lorryload of really good luck. Never made a billion dollars, but I'm not complaining. (Well, never made a billion... yet.)

Saturday, November 26, 2022

The Eight Days of Winter (is almost over)


I am not a fan of the cold months. I do not ski. I hate snow. My skin gets dry and cracks. There's also this rash I get that does not bear a detailed description.

So, every year at this time, I prepare the schedule below, which consists of events marking the coming end of winter (or, if you prefer, the coming start of spring). No two of them are as much as four weeks apart, so whichever one is pending next can be thought of as, more or less, "not that far away." Each marks another opportunity to say, upon its arrival, that winter will be over soon.

I posted it to F__book a few years ago and got a surprisingly warm response. (Heh, see what I did there?)

So, since I am off of that service (and also off of Musk's train-wreck, preferring the revolutionary Mastodon instead), here it is on my personal blog. Hope you find it useful.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Where I Got The Question

I recently wrote that, when evaluating candidates for elected office, I only need them to answer a single question. It's not that I'm a single-issue voter, it's that a single issue correlates reliably with the other issues that I care about. (Reminder: candidates who are pro-choice swing my way on the other issues, while anti-choice candidates don't.)

To give credit where it is due, I connived the Just Tell Me This approach to political assessments from the writing of mediocre science fiction author L. Neil Smith. He was a lunatic about a single issue: guns. Here's his take:

If a politician isn’t perfectly comfortable with the idea of his average constituent, any man, woman, or responsible child, walking into a hardware store and paying cash — for any rifle, shotgun, handgun, machinegun, anything — without producing ID or signing one scrap of paper, he isn’t your friend no matter what he tells you.

If he isn’t genuinely enthusiastic about his average constituent stuffing that weapon into a purse or pocket or tucking it under a coat and walking home without asking anybody’s permission, he’s a four-flusher, no matter what he claims.

What his attitude — toward your ownership and use of weapons — conveys is his real attitude about you. And if he doesn’t trust you, then why in the name of John Moses Browning should you trust him?

Um, Mr. Smith? Since you trust everyone, why do you carry a gun?

Asking dead people questions is pointless and, really, kind of unfair. So let's put that one aside. The answer doesn't matter anyway because, of course, it is based on a false premise: Smith didn't trust everyone. That means his comparison of the voter to the politician is a classic example of the false equivalence. Smith asserts the voter should be given the unreviewable right to acquire deadly power over everyone around him, while ignoring the fact that the politician is asking for the consent of those over which he seeks to wield power. Smith's voter just buys power, while Smith's politician needs the voter's permission to get it.

It's a false equivalence to say the voter is being asked to trust the politician while the politician refuses to trust the voter, because the politician is presenting themself to the voter for the voter's evaluation. The politician has no access at all to power over the voter, unless and until the voter (and at least another 50% of the rest of the voters) finds the politician fit to have that power. A true equivalence would have the voter willing to condition their access to deadly power on the same review: are they fit to have it?

Returning, briefly, to the question I set aside: there is a difference between trusting one person and trusting everyone. Maybe Smith even knew that, as he referred to the "average constituent" being armed, rather than the outliers. Average folks don't commit mass murder. Outliers do that. So, sure, anyone who can show they are fit to have a gun, should be able to have a gun. Those who can't show it shouldn't have one.

I suppose Smith may have thought letting someone unfit to have a gun, have a gun, was still okay, since he may have been a quick-draw artist or something. But note that even Smith couldn't quite bring himself to say truly "everyone" should have a gun, because he qualified "child" with "responsible," which opens a can of worms Smith just ignored. For example, if he didn't think an irresponsible child should have a gun, was he okay with irresponsible adults having them? Again, was that because Smith thought he could shoot the irresponsible adults before the irresponsible adults shot Smith? I don't know. I just know I don't trust everyone, and neither did he or else, again, why did he want a gun?

Don't be a victim of a false equivalence. Smith didn't trust everyone, nor does any candidate for office. Nor do I. You don't either, I'd wager. Candidates must prove they're fit to hold power over others before they get any. Seems only reasonable that the rest of us ought to be held to that standard too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Best Not To Go There

 From an interview with some flight attendants:

What strange things do people leave behind in the cabin?

It's best not to go there.

Everything your imagination can drum up, we'll have found it.

Many years ago, I did an assignment for an airline. I was in the office of their head of security and needed to do a quick math calculation, but I didn't have my calculator (this was before iPhones). He asked me, "Do you prefer HP or Texas Instruments?" I answered and he handed me a device from a drawer in his desk.

"Do you have one of each?" I asked him. "No," he said, "not one." Then he pulled a box out of that drawer and showed me that it contained about a hundred calculators.

"I have at least one of every calculator, cell phone, PDA, and pager that's ever been made. If it can fit your pocket, it's been left on our planes." They do try to return them, he said, but if no one asks about a particular type of gizmo on a particular flight within some number of days, it just goes into a big pile where the employees take what they want. There are just too many of them to keep track of each one's origin for very long.

And here I thought I was a clever boy for realizing my dad left nickels underneath the couch cushions.