A 3.5-year PhD studentship is now approved by the University as part of its support for the project. It offers a great opportunity for a recent graduate or someone with related work experience to work on an emerging research topic along elite industrial and academic partners. The job advert will be online soon on jobs.ac.uk and the University’s website and open to applicants of any nationalities. The application deadline is early January (for a March start).
I accepted an invitation from Science Foundation Ireland to conduct a project review for one of its prestigious research programmes. It was a fantastic experience to visit Ireland and see how resilient people are off the back of hurricane Ophelia. The work at the host institution is forward-thinking and I am glad to witness all the positive changes made by a single research project over two years of time.
And yes, I did have a couple of hours to spend in Dublin before my late morning flight back home:
It has been a great visit to the BBC R&D South Lab in London. The main purpose of the trip is to discuss potential collaborations and an MSc student project on immersive TV with Rajiv (thank you for inviting us!) off the back of our success in ACM TVX 2017. I gave a talk on the modelling of human perception in media synchronisation and (shamelessly) inserted a quick intro of SDCN project at the beginning of my talk (like that kind of YouTube advert which you can’t skip 🙂 ). In fact, media sync and SDCN are two great examples of how multimedia research and communication network research complement each other.
I also sampled some very interesting VR demos arranged by Vino and her VR team. We exchanged some thoughts on future directions on VR particularly in the context of TV broadcasting.
Inspired by some interesting discussions with the game team at work, I recently picked up Scott Rogers’ Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design in an attempt to learn how to design an engaging game. There are a lot of fascinating conventions, rule, and forms of thoughts in game design we can borrow in pedagogy, psychology, and immersive media (virtual/augmented/mixed reality) research. The book has 18 levels (chapters) and 11 bonus levels, and I am leveling up very slowly…
To better engage with the theories in the book, I also had to conduct 120+ hrs of “research” in D3 Rise of Necromancer. The book also repeatedly refers to BioShock, so I’ll have to get back to that at some point.
Below are my progressively updated notes. They probably don’t make much sense to anyone who has not read the book.
Level 1: N00bs
What is a game: an activity that 1) requires at least one player, 2) has rules, and 3) has a win and/or lose condition.
A game needs a clear objective so the player knows what the goal is. As a designer, you should be able to sum up a game’s objectives quickly and clearly.
Games have two types of genres: story genre ( the type of story such as fantasy, sports) and game genre (the type of gameplay such as action, puzzle, shooter).
Games are made by people with different skills: programmer, artist, designer, producer, tester, writer, product manager, creative manager, marketing, etc.
Level 2: Ideas
Think what gamers want (good games). Make players feel something that they aren’t in the real world (powerful, smart, sneaky, bad, etc.).
What’s the age of my audience? Kids always want what is made for an audience older than their own age group. Don’t make mistake by oversimplifying and talking down to younger audiences. Kids today are far smarter and way better gamers than we give them credit for.
Despite some academic definition of fun (e.g., Marc LeBlanc’s sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, and submission), fun is completely subjective.
You have no guarantee that your game idea is going to be fun. Theory of Un-fun: Remove all the un-fun, all that should be left is the fun. Don’t be afraid to kill bad ideas. If un-fun is ruining your game, kill the un-fun.
Ideas are cheap; it’s how you use them that matters.
Level 3: Writing the story
The most basic structure of a story:
There is a hero with a desire (rescue a princess)
The hero encounters an event that interferes with obtaining the desired, causing a problem.
The hero tries to overcome the problem but his methodfails
Reversal of fortune. The fail causes more trouble.
An even greater problem and one last problem (boss).
The hero must resolve the finalproblem, and gain the object of desire.
Every time someone plays a game, she creates a narrative. As a designer, you need to look at all the narratives possible and make them ALL fun.
Designers help players to create the narrative. As each experience builds on the next, the goal is to create rising emotional states for the player. (Left 4 Dead uses AI that monitors players’ stress level – calculated using variables including health, skill, and location – then adjusts the items, enemies and the music.)
Players’ narratives can end up quite different from the game’s story.
The Triangle of Weirdness. Choose ONE from characters, activities, and world (to be weird). Choose more than one will risk alienating your audience.
Make the story be in service of the gameplay and not the other way around (example: BioShock have non-mandatory collectible audiotapes that reveal deeper storying without intruding on the main story). Keep your stories lively and moving. Change in the plot or action every 15 minutes.
Theme (e.g., love conquers all, eat or be eaten) can be more important than a story to a game.
Determine how long the game should be.
A game by Any Other Name – Still, choosing a name is the most important thing.
Create characters your players care about. Give players time to bond with the characters. Make death matter.
Game for kids: teach your players things without their even knowing it.
Level 4: Paperwork
Making a game design document (GDD) – communication to the player, your team members, and to your publishing partners. The book provides templates in the bonus levels.
Step 1: the One-Sheet – keep it interesting, informative, and short. Unique selling point – get readers excited about the features of a game without going into lengthy detail about them.
Step 2: the Ten-Pager – people who finance your game will read this. Plenty of relevant visuals. Can be in PowerPoint. Tailor for audience type (the production team or marketing/executives). Includes the Title page, Game outline, Character, Gameplay, Game world, Game experience, Gameplay Mechanics, Enemies, Multiplayer/Bonus, and Monetization.
Step 3: Gameplay progression – several different ways to start a game (start with nothing, several skills but needs to unlock, skills but no knowledge of how to use them, power but lose it after a fight, etc.).
Step 4: The Beat Chart – describe level by level, as a “map” of the structure of the game.
Step 5: GDD – Game designs are living things. GDD provides that launching pad from which to soar. Documents connect the producer, the designer, the artist, and the programmer.
Step 6: Stay open-minded to ideas.
Level 5: Three Cs 1/3 – Character
The Three Cs – Character, Camera, and Control – are probably the most important elements of gameplay.
For the character design, an important rule is “Form follows function“. We want players to easily understand the personality of characters by their appearance (square->strong/dumb, circle->friendly, downward-pointing triangle->powerful or sinister depends on whether its body or face).
Anything you can do to let the players customize their character furthers their feeling of ownership (including physique: eat too much junk food and get fat).
Realistic or stylized design?
Using all the parts to communicate information to the players (movement, appearance, inventory, weapons, etc.).
Use a second character (playable or companion) and make players care about them. Use opposites attract where characters complement and contrast each other. Let the relationship develops early in the game.
Differentiate characters so that each one has a weakness and a strength. Rock, Paper, Scissor (RPS) design.
Use Non-player characters (NPCs) and how they are needed for the players to succeed (tools, access, gear, backstory, compliments,etc.). Given NPCs something to do when idle, which helps to enhance the environment. Have NPCs physically distinct in dress and body language. NPCs may even start a challenge with the player, mimicking a multi-player experience.
Characters are determined by their metrics including height, speed, jump distance, attack distance, etc. Keep the metrics consistent.
Walking is not gameplay. Avoid player travelling for long stretches sightseeing. Add moves, events, etc. Westerners are accustomed to reading things left to right, so have your characters walking to the left makes people feel “ill at ease”.
Alternatingfast and slow gameplay is interesting.
Give your characters some short animation while they are not moving (idle). It’s the art of doing nothing.
Jump is a complex movement. Think the mechanics of jumping. This reflects the decision on physics: real-world vs game physics. A certain fidelity to real life is necessary to sell real-world physics but break it to make the game fun.
The book then elaborates on jumping and falling. The key messages are: 1) make the rules clear and consistent, 2) let players recover quickly (and continue with play).
Shadow design varies. A simple drop shadow lets players understand where they’ll land.
Level 6: Three Cs 2/3 – Camera
Nothing will cause players to stop playing your game faster than a poor camera
Choosing the right camera view impacts the game design, control, and artwork.
Static camera – fixed position, focal distance or field of view
Scrolling camera – add advantages of a movement (better engagement) and reveal hidden stuff in a dramatic way. Parallax scrolling (world moves with camera), Forced scroll (players forced to keep up with camera movement or die), Mode7, multi–plane camera (multiple layers of objects moving independently, used a lot by Disney. aka 2.5D)
First person camera – watch DIMS (doom-induced motion sickness), influenced by the field of view. Remedies: high framerate, late stationary reference object, avoid whipping the camera too much, etc. No view, thus less bond with the characters.
Third person camera – clear view of the character (‘s backside). Challenges on camera design:
Camera movement: treat camera as a person, give it room to manoeuvre
Sorting: move through a geometry with a collision. 1) detection radius to avoid collision or 2) turn object translucent, etc.
Link to controls
Camera flipping: camera bounces between objects.
Obstruction: something gets between the camera and the player
Position: camera strictly follows the player or laid back and follow freely?
Who has the control of camera?
Player control – 1) Allow players completecontrol over the following camera: players can get quickly disoriented, miss events, DIMS. 2) Free-look camera: simulating character’s head. limited range. Put cameras on hydraulics (or elastics). In certain context, simulate a piece of equipment such as binoculars or transition to the first-person view.
No player control – less to worry about, designers focus on visible polygons or textures, no risk players missing key elements, must consider and match players movement, let players get out of it easily if the camera is blocked.
Probably a hybrid of the previous two.
Isometric camera – God view with no perspective adjustments. map 3d objects to 2d surfaces. In many cases, iso views are actually bi-metric view since only two axis pairs share the same angles. This is to accommodate 2:1 pixel for less pixelation. Elevation can be an issue for iso.
Top-Down camera – sometimes top-down/side view.
AR cameras – make sure things are scalable. try not to clutter up HUD elements (to avoid DIMS).
Special case cameras – underwater or flying.
Tunnel vision – player moving through tight environments like caves. use a rail camera to maintain the feeling of claustrophobia.
Camera Shot guide – From extreme wide shot to Point-of-View shot and over-the-shoulder shot.
Camera Angle Guide – Eye level, Worm’s-eye, Dutch tilt, etc.
Camera Movement Guide – Arc, Dolly zoom, Pedestal, etc.
Always point the camera to the objective. Even if players can’t see the objective, provide tools such as “detective mode” to pinpoints objectives, show an arrow/tag, turn obstruction transparent, etc.
Level 7: Three Cs 3/3 – Control
Controls are universally applicable to every style of game.
Away remember that humans are playing these games and we should avoid making the control itself too challenging (whilst the gameplay can still be).
Assigning controls to different fingers based on what they are (not) good at.
When designing for young players, keep the controls (button presses, etc.) simple.
Do not go nuts with the uber complex controls.
There are a lot of different controls on touchscreens. Use as few as possible to minimise confusing.
A good designer will think about how the game is played in the real-world as well as in the game world. Button smashing -> Claw hands -> Occupational overuse syndrome.
Never have a button do nothing when pressed:
Play a “negative response”
Make it clear that a button is inactive, then make a big deal when it is unlocked.
Assign a redundant but related function (to engage players’ memory of that button)
Map the moves to logical control locations helps immerse the player into the game world.
Resembles that of other successful games.
As the button is pressed, the action should happen (more or less promptly). Use long animation carefully and with a purpose.
Most game controls are character-relative. Camera-relative ones don’t make much sense…
Actuators and gyroscopes in a controller. Silent Hill used two actuators at different frequencies to simulate a heartbeat. Creepy… Tilt controls getting popular in mobile games. As the gyroscope is hidden within the mechanism of the controller, remind players that this function is available.
Camera-based motion controllers – broad and mimic reality.
Level 8: Sign language: HUD and Icon design
The heads-up display (visual screen overlay) is the most effective way of communicating with players.
HUD is used for a wide spectrum of game elements to assist gameplay:
in reverse: damage bar
as a story device that represents the game’s narrative
wait for health?
replaced by first-person-style effects or a third-person view
stickiness (aim assist)
colour/contrast consideration, zoomed-in mode
quick access to items
how players arrange items?
permanent location or “magic box” that follows players through the game world
online gaming leaderboards
“Finish him!” keep players excited about their performance
Positive re-enforcement for their actions that they don’t receive for their actions in everyday lives (or perhaps they are used to receiving those in real lives)
big and flashy. make players feel good
legible but not too big
make it easy for the player to move and look at the map at the same time
legend for icons to identify checkpoints, items, etc.
indicate changes in elevation
show current direction
fog of war (clear as players moving through it).
incorporate visual themes into the mini-map
Icon of the button players have to use
Characters thinking loud – players feel like the characters
Use them as NPCs
Indicates where to jump or travel
Balance between HUD and “cinematic experience“
Perhaps remove HUD altogether? Use sound, animation, and visual effects instead?
Or temporary HUD
Icons – keep your symbols simple
Quick-time event (QTE) – not button mashing, use as an emotionaleffect? “Press x to save Jason”.
Location of HUD
Avoid middle of the screen or translucent/holographic
Upper left used for most important information
Bottom of the screen – watch out for clipping
Should game continue while accessing inventory? Dead space didn’t – they wanted players not to be able to rely on the “gamey” mechanic.
Title screen – movie poster, heroic pose, enigmatic (secret message, etc.), logo.
Pause screen – order by most common selection. Think how players use them. Should be part of the game.
Loading screen – Can be seamless by disguising the loading screen with slowly opening doors, long elevator rides, etc.
Credit screen – give credit where credit is due.
Level 9: Level design
The design of levels has different aspects:
An environment or location where game play occurs
Break up physical space based on a specific gameplay experience
A unit of counting a player’s progression
Rank of a player based on earned score, experience, or skills.
Cliche video game themes: Outer space, Fire/ice, Dungeon/cavern/tomb, Factory, Jungle, Haunted house/graveyard, Pirate, Gritty urban, Space station, Sewer, etc.
Name your game based on function, location, descriptive, punny.
You can learn level design from theme parks like Disneyland. Theme parks are designed to move guests from one adventure to the net in the most effective way possible, like how a game should moveplayersthrough different experiences.
Build a map to help the team understand the connection between all levels.
Use Foreshadowing to build anticipation.
Design goals for each level: Escape/survive, Explore, Educate, or Provide a moral.
Moral – Morals and consequences in games
Use Beat chart to design and revise levels. Help to alternate between experiences and keep things fresh.
Be smart with your art assets and repurpose them.
Use landmarks to help players re-orient themselves. Never intentionally get players lost.
If you need to make players go to a location more than twice, do something to make that experience different.
Fingers is a way to make a world feel deeper and fuller without complex geometry and multiple paths. Every finger should have an award at the end.
Alternatingelevation and weather make an environment feel natural.
If it looks as if players can go there, they should be able to.
Don’t be bound by realism, especially when it contradicts game experience/camera, control
Design your games between “big moments” and “small moments” so players can get a rest between.
Paceout your game so you can control the overalllength of a game.
Level 10: The elements of combat
Many video games are violent – easy to introduce actions.
graphic, dramatic, visceral
quick response feedback
pleasure principle – the instinctual seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain
other human interactions such as conversation, romance, humour, etc are often hard to re-create
Think of a uniquecombatstyle for your character
distance – close-range, medium, long, area effects/bomb
What is productivity? A solid 8-hour of coding without interruption? Does it matter much if our project is on time or on budget, if we end up building something nobody wants? It would be a waste of human effort, investment, time and individual creativity, wouldn’t it? The Lean Startup by Eric Ries explores how we can avoid working efficiently on the wrong things by understanding what really matters to a product/project through iterations of (quick) Build-Measure-Learn loop.
I came across the concept of lean manufacturing/development a few years ago while doing project management for some EU/UK research projects, but I was very sceptical about it. Releasing any “minimum viable product (MVP)” was a bad idea to me not only because I wanted the user experience to be absolutely great from day one but also because I believed that building MVP is a waste of resources. If our plan is to build a car, why do we want to spend a few days glueing two push bikes together for an early version? Surely we can never reuse any technology or know-how of building and glueing bikes together for a car, right? Well, the key is whether we factor “vision” as part of project management. If we are absolutely sure about the vision (e.g., we know exactly what car we’ll build), then it’s a matter of system-level efficiency (get the programmers to work as hard as they could and make sure they are “in the zone” all day and every day). However, we often don’t know what our users want. In fact, the users are often not sure about what they want either. Therefore, learning what we should build should be an integral part of the exercise to run a project and the learning must be done using the right testing and measuring methods such as sandbox split test, actionable metrics, etc.
One of the main reasons that I picked up this book again and read it from cover to cover is that we witness an increasing number of students claiming that they followed the “Waterfall” model in their dissertations (Seriously? you did a one-man waterfall?!), despite that they surely have learned other models like RAD, V-model, Agile, etc. So I am going to do a trial and introduce the lean framework in my second-year Interaction Design course. Many of the lean principles already resonate with elements in that course so I hope it’s a good starting point (by “hope”, I mean build, test and learn. LOL).
Disclaimer: I am not sponsored by the author of the book nor any publisher/reseller to use it as part of my course.
I am fortunate to be involved in both communication networks and multimedia community. Following my visit to IEEE IM, I ventured to Hilversum, the Netherlands for ACM TVX, a flagship conference on interactive online TV and immersive experiences. I am a regular attendee of TVX and there are simply too many reasons for me not to miss this year’s iteration: 1. It’s at our doorstep. 45 minutes flight to Amsterdam (although my driver did pick me up 4 HOURS before the flight, because “You never know what will happen on M1 southbound to London airports at that time in the morning”…). 2. My MSc student Hussein presents his short paper. 3. Felix and Jing from TU-Berlin did a great job getting our full paper accepted. and 4. I look after the WiP track this year along with Elena and I am asked to chair the “Madness Session” in the conference programme.
We arrived at Hilversum, a small town ~20 miles east of the capital city, at lunch time. Hilversum is at the heart of Dutch multimedia research and industrial community and centre of media-related innovation in the Netherlands. It’s Media Park is home to Dutch public broadcaster NPO, as well as commercial broadcasters and audio-visual production companies. The decor at the railway station gives away the themes of the Hilversum Media Park.
Situated in Media Park, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (NISV) is the host of ACM TVX 2017. NISV collects, preserves and provides access to Dutch audio-visual heritage for media professionals, education, science and the general public. Its collection contains more than a million hours of television, radio, music, film and other media from the beginning in 1898 until today.
In the photo below, you can see the workshop where movie reels are digitised (upper floors) and stored in a data centre (lower floors).
The conference was packed with exciting keynotes, presentations, posters and demos. Felix did extremely well with his presentation in the main track, considering it’s his first conference as an MSc student at TU-Berlin.
My Madness session was also a success. It might have been one of the most challenging session to chair, as we need to fit 20 talks in a 30-minute slot. The aim is to provide a very quick overview of all poster and demo work, so people can be more selective when they attend poster/demo sessions (it’s like going through 20 movie trailers and decide which ones to watch). I have to say a big thank you to all presenters who all executed the 1-slide 1-minute rule beautifully! Our MSc student Hussein did a good job introducing his work on an IoT middleware to enable immersive TV experience.
I particularly liked the Social VR and multisensory demo from TNO and University of Sussex SCHI LAB. The Social VR work superimposes live audio-visual feed of other gamers in a VR game, hence fostering the social interactions between gamers for better gaming experience. I did give it a go and lost the game because my opponent kept talking and waving at me and distracted me from the game (That’s my excuse and I’ll stick to it…). The multisensory work shows how we can use a matrix of ultrasonic speakers as a contactless haptic tool to enhance the movie experience. Despite being at a very early stage, both demos showed a promising start of some great research with substantial impact. Different parts of the BBC R&D also brought quite a few exciting work including 360 VR subtitle (best WiP paper), CAKE (object-based media production), and Tellybox (9 demos of future TV), etc.
My main takeaway from TVX is that games design, especially interactive narratives, is becoming a key element in VR innovation. VR designers often complain about people not turning their heads or moving their bodies enough to appreciate the immersive environment. But how often do we look around curiously in the real world? I am sitting in an open-plan office and I won’t voluntarily check what’s behind or above me every few seconds unless there is something attracts my attention. So we can’t expect people to behave like a searchlight when they have a VR goggle on. There is a lot to learn from the games design field, and I am taking free BSc Games Design/Arts/Development courses from my colleagues.
There are few things that bring as much joy to an academic as receiving an approval email from EPSRC (on Monday morning!). My First Grant proposal Software Defined Cognitive Networking: Intelligent Resource Provisioning For Future Networks (EP/P033202/1) has been assessed through the EPSRC peer review process and has been recommended for funding. I am very pleased to see all four reviewers unanimously giving the best score available (6 out of 6), which are highly valued by the EPSRC ICT Prioritisation Panel April 2017 (ranked 3rd out of the 11 proposals). The 2-year project is set to start in August 2017 and to be joined by a Research Associate (starting in early 2018) and at least one PhD student (funded by the host institution). I am pleased to have Hewlett-Packard Enterprise Aruba and Lancaster University as the partners, who have been very supportive from the very beginning.
EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering. First Grant is a funding scheme set up by EPSRC to help “early career academics” establish their research leadership. In ICT area, First Grant usually sees a higher success rate compared with the regular Standard Grants and yet it’s nothing less than a tough hunger game. Every eligible person has only one shot in First Grant. You wouldn’t even think of writing the first letter of your proposal before establishing a strong research track record and evidence of networks. A proposal (including several mandatory sections) normally takes six-month to write and often re-write while you fulfil your standard teaching and admin duties. In the proposal, the PI must prove its expertise (and potentials) in his research area and also managerial skills in project management, finance, and impacts generation. Once submitted, the proposal will then go through a rigorous reviewing process where EPSRC invites comments from several field experts from academia and industry. The assessment criteria include Quality, Importance, Impact, Applicant, and Resources and management. A panel, organised a few times a year, will then collect all new proposals accompanied with their reviews and determine which ones to fund. Needless to say, I am very proud to see my work being recognised and awarded by a prestigious funding body.
I will publish more posts on my First Grant journey, project partners, and all the people who supported on the way. For now, back to exam paper marking!