WTF… Is Happening?

This is an edited manuscript of a wrap-up speech at Shared Gems seminar 2012 at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences. The title was supposed to be a comment to the Petri Purho speech titled “WTF is… Game Design?”. He almost changed the title before the seminar, but I specifically asked him not to. So he only changed the speech… Kind of him not leaving me alone with a WTF-title.

So basically, what you are about to read, is a rant-type of summary of topics within the seminar (program here) targeted for game students, but also some kind of state of things from my perspective. The text is supposed to be provocative. I also tried to be funny, but I guess that is not my thing. I removed most of the jokes.


I teach and study games. My name is Annakaisa Kultima and I come from Tampere, the hot place in Finland when it comes to games at the moment.

This is my recorder. I have collected quite many interview data on developers both in Finland and abroad. But never enough. This area is so uncharted it hurts.

I do design research. This is a picture of my tequila shot at Mexico last autumn. Design research is similar to this drink. Some people take only the shot, some prepare the shot with lemon juice and some take the salty tomato juice to sooth everything at the end.

Design research works approximately on three levels too. You can study things that help you design better things, you can jump and design yourself to understand things better, or u can look things afterwards and analyze things that have already been done.

When I drank this drink, it was nice and warm night at the back yard of a local game designer’s house. It was a very good moment. I have similar fuzzy feelings for my research. And I try to cover all of the three steps.

However – one should remember that science and design by their nature are importantly different. Where science seeks general laws and tries to verify facts by repeating the experiments, design is interested in PARTICULAR and things that are not easy to repeat. That makes the relationship a bit uneasy. Sometimes design research is not considered science at all. And in some senses it is true.

I do design research, but perhaps correction is needed. I do GAME design research. One of my favorite sentences is this:

“Game design is a second-order design problem. A game designer designs the rules of the game directly but designs the player’s experience only indirectly.” – Salen & Zimmerman, Rules of Play 2004

It captures the pain and challenge of game development. Game designers try to build an experience that they can only bring alive through the rules and whatnots of the game. It is second order design.

You as a game designer do not come in a box – you don’t know how your audience is experiencing it all.

Since one cannot know how the game feels and how people response to it before it is done, it needs to be done. Several times. YOU don’t even know how it feels like. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And usually it is the fifth or even sixth or seventh time when you get it right.

Your head can imagine so many things that are not possible. Don’t do game design in your head alone.

There is a lot of talk about how game designers and perhaps the rest of the developers are player’s advocates. I hear that. And we have a lot of tools and practices to follow that order too. But at the end the industry WAS and IS built on passion. There were no schools and the pioneers were high school dropouts or did not fit to the university. But they knew what they loved. And as they cared what they were doing, they did things that you care too.

This is a game idea from one of my game design courses.

Now, the struggles that game developers had on 80s or 90s or 2000 are not the same today. It was not easy and it is not easy nowadays, the support is now better, there are more attention and customers, but the competition is getting harder.

Things are also changing all the time. If you concentrate on making your game for a long period of time, let’s say 1-2 years, which is very rare these days, things have already changed. For the past 5 years things have changed drastically.

First of all is the casual games. And no, it is not as simple as “easy to learn and difficult to master.” It is all about the transformation of game design values and so to say “normalization of digital games”. And not only about Diner Dash, but it goes all the way to the triple A.

With “normalization of digital play” I mean the way that games have been there for thousand of years as part of the everyday life of different people. For grannies it is Bingo. For some it was chess. For so many people it is Lotto on Saturday nite. Practically everyone play games.

Then there is the social media. We chat with our parents and relatives on the same space where we play. There is normally a bit less zombies and radioactive goo. Immersion is not the only value. Routine is important for modern people in the middle of all these changes and instability.

We do have new approaches. Games that are connected all the time have the advantage to measure all of the clicks. But it is not heaven; it just creates yet another profession on games industry. We now need also the stats people. And now game devs are doing what web developers and advertisers have been doing a long time.

Games are big business. It is not only art skills nor the stats that you need. You need to know how to bring the bread on the table. It is serious now.

And so it is not all about triple A titles. The holy trinity of digital games are FPS, RPG and RTS. If you DONT know what that means, perhaps you have a chance, you might see the similarities between scratch ticket and online gaming, football and Quake, board games and iPad games. For the rest of you, I hope u play outside your own comfort zone.

At the game education we do have a problem. We attract the kids that are happy with current games. You come in as a gamer, not as a maker.

This is Seth Killian playing NY game student’s combat game that was made as a token for love for street fighter and such.

You might think that you are unique and you have unique ideas, but if you look at the mirror and see a guy wearing t-shirt, jeans, funky sneakers and a messenger bag with badges and you played Diablo and Skyrim last night, we got your type already covered.

This is a picture from this year GDC. It attracts 20 000 game professionals yearly. They all look pretty much the same. If there are girls, they also look a bit like that. But things are changing.

I have visited San Francisco now for four times from 2008, skipping one year. I love to go to game conferences. I have more serious reasons, but I have enjoyed the space at certain facilities. I never have to schedule to pee in time. Not before this year. Girls are taking over the industry, they need to pee too. But they now also have to wait in line.

This is actually at the restroom on the Moscone center, SF. Im ok.

As things are changing so fast – perhaps not that fast – but usually way too fast to ship perfect product. That creates a problem for the education. Should we teach what you need tomorrow or what you need next week?

This is a picture of a debate between, mostly between, Nick Fortugno and Chris Hecker; Manveer Heir from Bioware in the middle. They are passionately arguing which is more important for a game designer – to learn to program – or not. Nick, which I admire tremendously, he is one of the smartest people I have EVER met, is stating that he would be better designer if he would have programming skills, BUT, it would take all the time from reading and researching OTHER things that affect his craft.

Learning takes time and you have to make choices how you consume your time. The study credits that we, as educators, can offer you ARE WAY TOO LITTLE to make you a professional.

What we should do is to make you take the AGENCY of your own learning process. This is because it DOES NOT end when you enter a company, or you have shipped your first hit. Imagine this: most of the successful people on this industry have MADE their path, it was not given to them.

One of the things in the future is hybrid experiences – such products as Skylanders that surprised perhaps everyone on the 2011 Xmas markets. Or brave openings like Makielab’s 3D printed dolls where the previous lead designer of Habbo Sulka Haro went. Or Mechatars. Or things that LEGO is FINALLY doing. And this is now when we finally started to think that we are all online, virtual and with digital distributing.

And this is important. There are industries that know these things better. They know how to do stuff. I mean like objects and surfaces to touch. And they are older and not that sharing and caring like digital games industry.

This is Life of George from Lego and if you don’t know it, you should check it out.

But at the same time these all are domain of design. And it means that we are dealing with things that are in the future. And so many things are similar to game design. Perhaps even more than what we think.

This is me asking from Eric Zimmerman, the co-author of the Rules of Play, a book that you should actually read from cover to cover, about his notation of second order design. Some of the things that we are learning from game developing are universal.

But don’t despair, things are cool. As long as u REALLY love MAKING games, you will be fine. BUT if you are just another gamer, perhaps you have more fun watching.

These are the things I want u to remember:

You are not the audience.

So don’t stand in the crossroads waiting.

As long as u are young and not too cynical, when you don’t know all the limits and problems that all the veterans know, use this naivety to make something brave, something that shakes yourself if not others.

And even though it is fun to be part of the community, don’t be afraid to stand out.

This is Dustin Clingman. He organizes the annual Golden Gate run at GDC and he runs in a kilt. Yes, you heard me right: game developers exercise too. Those with best fit are the last men standing at the parties.

However, be prepared to fail a lot. Sometimes you are too early, sometimes too late. Like Apple game center. It is always combination of bravery and following, leading the way or timing right. Innovation is not easy, in order to success; you usually have to be the second, Like Zynga. Yeah: it is also compulsory to imitate in order to make things work.

You set the future: there are no princes or princesses. Your teachers are not your saviors. They have no FUCKING clue what they should teach you. We don’t have the FUCKING clue where this industry is going. Today’s veterans don’t have the clue.. It is like that movie Cube, where the system is built in pieces without the thorough understanding of the purpose of this all and the one that walks out of it is — fucking retarded. Excuse my language.


The original presentation slides can be found here:

GDC 2012: How to use it & what to think of it

I had my fourth year of Game Developers Conference this year. GDC is like “the week of the year” for the game devs, even though most of them actually don’t see any presentations. They are there for the business meetings, and perhaps for the parties. But presentation-wise: this is the place to be if you want to understand the industry.

GDC is a good place to have an overview of the industry. It is not like people are telling you directly what is the future, but you can read a lot between the lines and from the general atmosphere. The one of the reasons I keep coming back to this conference and prioritize this over academic ones is that people are actually pouring their ideas instead of vague and abstract notions of historical theories of whatnots. Academia can be so slow and stupid from time to time. But it is not so that the whole GDC is gold. It requires some skill to get best out of it.

GDC 2012 at Moscone North

Let me first tell you my tricks how to “use” the conference and then share my thoughts on what this particular year is telling me.

Some of the tricks I have inherited from the veterans and some of them I have developed myself:

  1. First of all, let yourself shop. The conference has altogether over 400 sessions spread for 5 days. It is most probable that you will not be able to see all the sessions you find mildly interesting. You have to prioritize the sessions, but leave second or third options too: eventually you only need about 5 minutes of the session to know whether it is going to be good or not. If you feel agitated, just leave the session and go for the second best on your schedule. This will not insult people. The worst-case scenario you end up bashing the presentation on Twitter as you feel trapped inside bullshit generator. That might be insulting.
  2. Follow Twitter #GDC. You can read the best bits from other sessions while they are happening. Feel free to jump to that session if something caught your eye. Unfortunately this is not the best trick, since ultimately the best presentations are silent during the presentations; people are really focusing every word of the speaker.
  3. Utilize the Vault: most of the sessions of GDC are recorded and if you have all access pass, you can check those later. My advice is that you DO NOT prioritize those sessions that are the most awesome information-wise. Just leave them to check from the vault. Think it this way: will you REALLY have time to watch the session online later when the buzz has gone? If so, you are ok with that session to be left for the Vault. If not, go and check it NOW. So if you have to choose; go for the second best; the ones that are slightly peripheral to your interest. This actually relates to the next rule:
  4.  Don’t go (only) for your core. If the session will address something that you already know through and through; chances that you will get something new out of it are small. It is best to go and browse something that is interesting but not necessarily your domain. This way you learn more and get bigger picture.
  5. Lastly, there are certain formats of speeches that always work, or names that always indicate a good speech: my personal favorites are game design challenges and rants as well as design postmortems, experimental gameplay session or year in reviews. And favorite speakers include: Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno, Paulina Bozek, Sott Jon Siegel and Jason Rohrer to name a few from this year. I also like to go at least one Japanese session with simultaneous interpretation, just to amuse myself by the interpreter and to get at least one Japanese thought in my head to spice the bias of Northern American speakers. On my pooplist based on this year is at least Sid Meier. He really had nothing to share other than his fame – and the room was packed. I would recommend anyone with a moderate understanding of game design to avoid his speech. But if you are a total beginner he might deliver points that really get you going.  Also Spry Fox Daniel Cook was not that great. But average is not always bad. You need to mix proven formats and safe names with totally random speeches. Go and listen also nobodies, they can be the next big things on this industry.

So those were my tips. Now, let me explore what I think that this year was oozing for me:

  1. Bifurcated maturity. Summits were surprisingly good and main conference was highly detailed. Past years mobile summit and other summits have been a bit less great. Social, casual, smartphone areas have matured. The processes are well thought; there are bigger players involved and there is no difference in the quality of the speeches comparing the “new” and the “old” players. On the other hand, the main conference was very detailed, loads of detailed technical speeches. Nothing that striking or revolutionary: perhaps even slight stagnation: Uncharted 3 was covered by eight speeches, similar to four presentation of Saints Row: The Third.
  2. Metrics are here. It is not that crazy anymore – it is not about evangelizing the power of metrics within the innovation process. Instead the speeches were subtler and more detailed including loads of formulas and best practices. Metrics are like bread and butter for at least social game developers and A/B testing is the thing.
  3. It is time for design. In the meanwhile as we wait for another technological leap (if there is one coming), it is time for design. For the past years, there has been a lot of innovation within business models and even though I did not take part of any myself to verify this, I heard that business track was poor this year. Nothing new under the sun. But I think that after couple of years of technological changes and business oriented innovation; there is a lot of pressure for design innovations. We do have the improvements in 3D, probably also in motion detection in upcoming year, perhaps something rather new like brain controllers etc. But in general, the potential of these have not been actualized for various reasons. Whether we can actually have push from the design side is yet to be seen. The strength of the indie track within GDC is one of the indicators that it is time to let designers play more.
  4. Developers hate free-to-play (at least some of them). Last year the hatred was cast on gamification. Last year it seemed that the bastard child of serious games was taken over the whole conference. Loads of jokes on how to lifificate games or even gamify games were addressed. Now this year the joke was on free-to-play. During the decades of digital games, a strong identity has evolved. Now there is need to maintain it. It is time for ludological manifest number two. Games for their own sake.
  5. And as a last point, which is not necessary visible in the presentations: This year is the GIRL year. I had never ever had to wait in line for a toilet at GDC before. This was the year one. I also overheard two girls behind me discussing in deep details of social game design on a street one morning. Never happened before too. I mean, I don’t think there has not been someone discussing passionately about viral design last year or years before, it is just that what are the odds? I bet this year the odds were much higher than last year. I only wish we will see more girls also on triple-A productions. This might be the last year guys own the industry. Who knows?
Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor
"Thou shalt not monetize thy neighbor." & "God hates game designers."

Altogether, it seems that industry is in a somewhat stable situation. Casual/Social/Smartphone has been established it’s position within the industry, we are waiting for design innovations from that side; business innovation has cooled down, f2p is not going away; Triple A companies do what they know best: better tech, better stories, deeper engagement and so on.

Perhaps it is quiet before the storm… Who knows? Am eager to see GDC 2013. If it is not any different from 2012 – I am definitely disappointed. 

Future Play 2008

Alhough the GameSpace project has been officially come to an end; we are still working with the last pieces of the project and putting things to final touch. Upcoming research report is under its way, there are plans for closing seminar and I have been continuing with some of the topics in another project (GAS).

But also our last conference paper is about to be published under ACM digital library: Janne, GameSpace project manager, is currently at Toronto presenting our paper “Designing Game Idea Generation Games” at Future Play 2008 conference. The paper is similar to our Meaningful Play conference paper, but the emphasis is on the design process and challenges that we faced with our idea generation games. I will publish the link to the paper in ACM, as soon as I will get information about it.

Presenting at Meaningful Play 2008

I presented a paper at Meaningful Play 2008 conference in East Lansing, MI, USA concerning the game-based idea generation tools that we have developed in GameSpace project and especially the experiences designers had with the idea games in our pilot study. The presentation slot was quite short (15 min. for the presentation, 5 min. for discussion) and I had to rush my 20+ slides, leaving so many interesting things out. But what I tried to concentrate at was introducing our games and discus why they were so popular, despite their flaws. The presentation and the paper are not identical, as I added some new thoughts that I am working on into the slide-show. Papers will be available online later on, here are the slides:

The presentation background is taken (and modified) from the GameSpace Tool that we have been working on the last weeks of GameSpace project. The tool will popularize the whole range of research findings from our project. We are going to announce the tool later this year, as soon as it is ready!

Media coverage on my GDC presentation

I have been too busy after GDC (planning future project, preparing Breaking the Magic Circle Seminar, writing an article, finnishing my studies on philosophy etc.) to actually post on my blog, but I will in near future. In the meanwhile, check out the media coverage for my GDC presentation:

Yes, it is a word!

Sometimes it can be rather funny to be a (Finnish) researcher. I have used word “ideating” and “ideation” in my presentations about creativity techniques in game design referring to the idea generation processes in general. This makes pretty funny faces in the audience from time to time and it is not rare to hear question: “Is it a real word?”. Even though we as researchers do have the priviledge to come up new and even awkward words suited to our purposes, it is not my invention or not even an adaptation from the Finnish word “ideointi”. This word DO exist outside my head as well.

Serious references could be found in the creativity literature, for example in the article of Maria M. Clapham “The Development of Innovative Ideas Through Creativity Training” from the International Handbook on Innovation (2003, Elsevier), which is actually nice overview of the effects of different creativity training approaches. Clapham says: “A critical component of innovation is idea generation, or ideation“.

More entertaining reference we found at the Future Play 2007 conference. One of the presentations was about prototyping and the presentators made some points on idea phase of game design on the way. There were three of us, Finnish researchers, taking photos of their slides when the word “Ideation” appeared as a title of one slide… Funny. It IS a word for others as well! For what comes to the quality of this presentation, I would not dare to say anything… But at lest we got entertained by one slide. It is a happy discipline, after all!

Ok, it seems that “ideation” is covered, but I am still lacking the coverage for the word “ideating”. For those who are still suspicious, check it for example here:

Now, I have done it. Stop complaining or I really start to invent my own words.. ;P

Ideation! Ideation again!!

Happy Discipline at Future Play 2007, Toronto

After discussing, tossing and turning, analysing, wiriting, preaching and presenting GameSpace views of casual in several different occasions, we finally made it as a paper called “Casual Games Discussion“. The paper was presented at Future Play conference, Toronto, where we also presented a poster on “Creativity Techniques in Game Design”.

The conference itself was quite fine, except for scheduling. There was no proper time slots for discussion and some keynotes were scheduled as “lunch keynotes” (poor Espen, for example). Organiser really did not want us speak to each others and socialise. As some of the “official” supporters (which name I cannot recollect) phrased game studies as a “happy discipline”, I started to think, if we were nonetheless mistaken as “listening discipline” from the “ADHD discipline” that I would find more descriptive…

Our Gamelab was rather well represented: Frans Mäyrä gave a keynote at Saturday, Jaakko Stenros paper presentation about pervasive games on Thursday and me and Janne Paavilainen about casual games on Friday. Because of the schedule (or other possible reasons that we also acknowledge), we did not manage to get any comments. Poster presentation on “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” was much more discussive success. That was my first academical poster (ever) and I enjoyd it much more than the traditional presentations, I have to say. Only thing that I did not got was that posters were not set all through the conference, instead of few hours (after that we had to remove them). I did not even have time to check posters of others.

Ok, I could say more: there is some stuff about karaoke, sushi, Scandinavian bunch backed with one American, sugar, margaritas, brownies, smokey salt, missing a stop on the subway, and couple of things alike. But to keep it short I end this post here and give you some pictorial material (much more you can find with a search word “futureplay2007” at Flickr, check also Jenny Brusk writing about the presentations of the conference).

Me, Alex and Janne (camouflaged) at downtown. Poster “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” 
Jaakko and his pictures. Espen getting deeper to the topic after people finished eating.
Espen and Frans talking about “not that happy” stuff. Jenny, Alex and Jennys student (they won the game price!! Hooray!). They eat, if you did not got it. Jenny and Alex fooling around since there was a funny building. Always a good reason.

NGC 07: Games, Rock and Party!

The University of Oulu and Elvi project organised a game conference in Oulu, titled as Northern Game Conference (NGC) last November. The two-day event included presentations from speakers such as Ernest Adams, Chris McDonough, Erik Robertson and Ilari Kuittinen. Speaches emphasising different parts of game development provided interesting take-outs for GameSpace project as well.

The conference was organized in a very professional manner. The stage looked like a talk-show setting and speakers walked in with their own theme music (Isn’t that cool!?). For example, Ernest Adams was introduced with the Hurriganes tune Get on and Tony Manninen with Guns N’ Roses tune Welcome to the jungle. The whole event was also streamed online.

But even more important: the Thursday party was excellent! We were provided with different sets of entertainment including, booze (of course), rock band playing retro game tunes and Pacman performance. This all happened as a private party in a nice and famous Oulu bar called 45 Special. I have to say that I enjoyed the party, the people and the whole event into the extent that I am really looking forward to the next year. Next time, however, i hope to see also broader “Northern” aspect, not only Oulu game industry. Isn’t the whole Finland north enough? 😉

Ernest speaking about interactive storytelling. Again.

Travel & conferences

I have been rather busy with travelling and starting up the idea generation study from the middle of September till now. The craziness ended last Monday when I arrived from Toronto, Future Play 2007 conference where we presented our “Casual Games Discussion” paper and “Creativity Techniques in Game Design” poster. It took me more than a week to recover from the jet-lag. It’s like Japan all over again. Well, some of the jet-lag problems must have been due to the lag of sleep that I gained in Northern Game Conference in Oulu, week before that.

Future Play 2007 conference was actually my second trip to Canada, since in September as I travelled to Seattle and Microsoft, I spent one day over border in Vancouver with Play New team playing our idea generation games.

In between these two I have been completely busy on putting finishing touches to our idea generation package that was sent for GameSpace industry partners. As we delivered the packages, we conducted pre-interviews with Hannamari Saarenpää and Johannes Niemelä and even though we have not have time to analyse the data, I have to say that we are holding a valuable piece of information. 🙂