NEU Annual Games Showcase w/Levine

It was excellent returning to my alma mater to see all the senior capstone games and other projects, not to mention Ken-fucking-Levine speak.

Shoutout to all the excellent Northeastern showcase games (which will be available here):

Split Circuit (2 awards wow!) – excellent VR 3d-space racer, lot of fun, very challenging, took Best Overall and Best Gameplay

A Disorganized Sport – Twitch integrated sports games, starts with zero rules, Twitch chat decides rules on-the-fly

Untitled Ludum Dare 35 Game – One of the developer’s of A Disorganized Sport, Mark Trueblood, crapped out this fantastic puzzle game in 48 hours!

Oceanheart – Beautiful ocean game with themes around pollution, took Best Art

Threads – Probably the most advanced gender-neutral mobile game ever, something like 90-quadrillion unique different avatar possibilities

Subconscious – Portal-eqsue game that I had first seen in my Business For Games class last year, has come a long way – could totally be bought out by Valve one day!

Star Crossing – Gorgeous space-escape game, had a lot of depth in story and characters

Marblehead – BB-8 droid inspired game with really unique gameplay, player can switch from rolling physics by throwing the “ball” the droid rolls on, unlocking to platformer-esque controls.

Tattoo! The Game of Ink – Awesome tabletop card game by Michael Epstein (that I missed at PAXEast but luckily caught here!). Build the best possible tattoo sleeve with individual tattoo cards (with real art from actual tattoo artists around the US).

Shampoo Simulator Extreme – Excellent QWOP-like shower simulator, very fun

First Person Photo Shooter – Crazy-fun 4-player party game, each player has a camera and runs around a small wonky level trying to catch a picture of the other players. You get bonus points if you can snap a pic of an opponents adorable buttocks, makes for really silly and hilarious games.

Learning from a Legend

Ken Levine really isn’t a celebrity type, he spoke as if he was just a regular joe despite the fact that every other person in the room considered him a deity in the industry. It was incredibly refreshing and inspiring to learn how he got into game development, and how he created BioShock.

The summary is, he was basically a 28 year old IT guy that saw an ad in NextGen (magazine that no longer exists) for “Game Designer” at Looking Glass. He thought “the fuck is that?”, but had been a huge fan of LG games and applied anyway. They flew him up to Boston, and he described their studio as “a dream – game art all over the walls, people sitting around talkin about robots and dragons and shit all day…who wouldn’t want to do that?”  But after returning home he thought “As amazing as that was, that’s not me. That won’t happen to me. I’m just gunna keep going to my IT job.” Few days later, they call him up to offer him the job. The rest was history.

As for BioShock, the original inspiration game from a nature show on television. He watched a predator chasing prey, and loved how it told a story without any words. He wanted to recreate that sort of dynamic with game AI, which is what gave birth to the Splicers and Big Daddy, and really the starting point of what eventually became the BioShock we know today.

Furthermore, he told this fantastic story about how the opening sequence came to fruition. Close to the deadline release, they did a focus group test with local Boston yuppies that absolutely shit all over the game; they called it garbage. He said the team went home that night and cried themselves to sleep. The next day, he thought that maybe it was because players didn’t have enough context, that they didn’t know who they were. Levine explained that the game had originally started with Jack in the water, after the plane crash. He retrospectively now knows the addition of 1 minute of content (the plane ride, Jack smoking a cigarette, 1 line of dialogue, then the crash) is what gave players context – explained who they were, how they got there, and why they should care. However he admitted that at the time, with the release deadline so close, he essentially made a guess. He made a guess to add that 1 minute, and it was what very likely made the difference between “garbage” and a seminal genre-defining game. And he thanked those Boston yuppies for shitting all over the game, otherwise he wouldn’t have made that guess. He went on to humbly say: “from the wrankest amateur to the most wisen successful designer, all you really have is a bunch of people guessing”.

Lastly, it was an honor to have the question I submitted to Susan Gold some weeks ago asked: “What is your fondest memory of a mistake you made in game development?”. Truth be told, I was hoping for a big grin to come across his face as he reminisced about a mistake he made that actually turned out to be great, or taught him something valuable, or that he found hilarious in some way. Not the case – he said that he isn’t too fond of any of the mistakes he’s made, but he did speak about how he wished he would have been better at being a business person and manager. How, if he had been better, he could have better leveraged the talents of the people beneath him to make better things.

Special Thanks:

Susan Gold for hosting, Northeastern Game Dev Club for organizing the event, Sarah Zaidan for the awesome Q&A with Levine

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