More Thoughts for Mentors

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I recently posted a list of tips for managing Mentor/Mentee relations. It was pretty well received, but when I thought about it, really what I was setting up there was a list of expectations for the relationship for the Mentee – there wasn’t much in the way of advice for Mentors.

  • Be upfront about expectations. I already wrote out a list of things you can expect from me and ways I’m likely to work during the relationship, but having your own version of that is really important.
  • Fix a time to check-in on a regular basis. Make sure that it’s the Mentee’s responsibility to come to you and that you aren’t having to spend your time chasing after the Mentee. It doesn’t need to be set in stone – travel and holidays for example make regular plans, but unless there’s a good reason, I think keeping a standard slot sets a good pattern.
  • Use a meeting format that works for you. For me that’s voice chat. Emails tend to sit in my inbox not being dealt with – it’s a source of frustration that I’m not getting to them, but it also puts the onus on the me to find the time to answer and drive the relationship, which should be the Mentee’s role. My view is that you can email me by all means, but generally emails that need long replies become an agenda for the next voice call. Again, this is personal preference, but make sure sure that you define your preference.
  • Police your time carefully – some mentees are enthusiastic, others are demanding or needy – it’s important for your sanity that you set boundaries on your time and stick to them, otherwise what started as a one hour per week commitment can easily escalate to something much more intensive when you aren’t looking
  • Remember that there’s two sides to being a mentor – one is the hard skills (and as an AI specialist, this is what my mentees tend to fixate on), but soft skills like networking and broader professional development are also super important to develop in a mentee.
  • Don’t be afraid to course correct your mentee as required. If you don’t think they’re making sufficient progress, putting in enough work, then you need to tell them. The goal I set for myself is to ensure that my mentees are people I’m proud to introduce to my professional network and put forward for openpositions I hear about. In order for that to happen, sometimes, tough love is required – long term, it will be better than the alternative.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a few things that I’ve picked up. I’m learning how to do this a bit at a time, and I’ve benefitted from some great mentors myself – going back to when I was an undergraduate working at Edinburgh. These days, I have an awesome mentor – she’s wise, knows me far too well, and very forthright. A lot of what I know I learnt from watching her. Thanks Sheri :)

P.S. If you’d like to put some of this into practice, remember that the GameMentorOnline program is always looking for new members!


10 Tips for Mentor/Mentee Relations

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I was digging around in Evernote today and found an old note that I wrote back when I was supervising undergraduate students performing research. One of the things I do now is work with aspiring game developers through the GameMentorOnline program, and I was surprised by how much of this applies to this kind of relationship as well. I figured it might be of interest to someone who was looking to start mentoring but wanted to see how others structure their approach and set boundaries. I think the big thing for me is making it clear that my role is not to be a teacher or a tutor and ensure that my expectations are clear and upfront – so that we are both on the same page, but also early enough that the mentee can find another mentor if they need.

  • I always read my email. I don’t always reply immediately, particularly if I need to look something up or test something first (e.g. debugging). Then I forget about it. If you haven’t heard from me within a day or two of sending me a question, remind me about it and nag at me til I do what you need.
  • I typically expect you to meet with me for up to an hour per week, but there are going to be weeks where you haven’t made enough progress to warrant a meeting. It’s totally acceptable – preferable really – to drop me an email and say that rather than come in and waste both our time. The sooner you can let me know, the happier I’ll be, and if you blow it off 10 minutes before, I’ll be quite unhappy. An hour or two should be considered minimal notice, the evening before would be better.
  • I’m not good at beating around the bush. I could ramble for a paragraph or two about how good what you’ve done so far is and pander to you a bit, or I could cut right to the chase, point out what you need to fix, and spare us both the waffle. Don’t take it personally, but also consider that the things I’m not talking about are implicitly OK.
  • Your project is a major piece of work, it should take a lot of work from the start to the end. You can’t throw something together at the end and expect a good grade. Equally, my job is not to get you a good grade. I will guide you, be a sounding board, tell you when I think you are going wrong, but ultimately the responsibility for the work lies with you.
  • With that said, I want to see you succeed, so pay attention for “suggestions” during meetings and advice that isn’t necessarily as optional as it might sound – if I suggest that approach X might be a good place to look for an answer, I’m not saying “check Y and Z first”, I’m saying “Do X and let me know how it works” :)
  • This is less a tip about working with me, and more in general : Always, always assume that the problem is with your work. If you find yourself complaining that Eclipse doesn’t work right, Java isn’t behaving the way it should do or the codebase you’re building on is broken, make sure that you’ve checked your side of it thoroughly. Nothing is going to get people irritated more than crying wolf. With that said, if you can verify a problem, have the confidence to flag it and make sure it gets sorted. No code is perfect (god knows a lot of the codebases you guys are going to be working with aren’t), but it is very frustrating to be told there’s a problem with the code only to find that it’s blatantly a basic mistake with the student’s code.
  • I was a total screwup of an undergraduate. I’ve used every excuse, I’ve heard more since then. You’ll get more respect by acknowledging your mistakes and dealing with them than by trying to pass them off. We all get RSI, headaches, sickness. The dog may actually eat your homework. The true test is whether you can get the work done anyhow.
  • Speaking of RSI, expect to get at least a mild version toward the end of the project. Plan accordingly. Allow more time than you think you will need to write up.
  • We’ll get you set up with SVN. This means you can keep a single version of your files, rollback when you make mistakes and all the other good things that version control allows. It also allows me to look over your shoulder without having to chase you for source on a regular basis, so try to keep it up to date reasonably regularly – at least once a week – and please use meaningful commit messages so I’m not chasing through looking for changes that aren’t important, or wondering why something doesn’t work because you didn’t indicate in the commit that it was incomplete. Commenting your code is always a good idea and can be a big help, but making it readable and accessible (for instance, not using obscure names or giving method names that don’t reflect the actual purpose of the method) is more important. (This one was very specific to the research supervision I was doing at the time – as I’ve moved to mentoring, I now set the expectation that I won’t be looking at my mentee’s code)
  • Finally, I’m not paid to supervise you. I do it because I love the work, and maybe occasionally something publishable comes out of it, which is good for all our CVs. As a result, you’re going to get from me what you put in – if you work hard, I’ll work as hard as I can to help you. Equally, if you don’t work hard, don’t expect me to go very far out of my way for you.

Hopefully this will be of use to someone, but if not, I now have an easy reference to it to share with my future mentees! Let me know in the comments if you have a different style, or what your tips would look like.


The Rest of 2013

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As you may have noticed, I’ve been pretty quiet on here lately except when I’ve been able to recycle some older material from things I’ve written previously and get them up. As always, events have got a bit away from me, and my new responsibilities with the IGDA have been sucking a lot of time, so I haven’t had a lot of chance to write insightful things, at least not here. The good news is I’m making good progress on my PhD so there’s insightful things being written there. Well, good for me at least.

Looking ahead, the rest of the year is going to continue to be fairly hectic. I’m running a panel at Develop this year, and it’d be great to see people in Brighton if you are around during that conference. I’m also going to be out at GDC Europe running the Scholars program there (and if you’re eligible to apply make sure you do – 14th June is the deadline). So that’s July and August. September I’m a bit hazier about as I’m hoping to submit my thesis that month, so I suspect I will be keeping my head down, and not attending the Vienna Game AI Conference this year, which will be my second year off in a row. October though I’m back on the road and I’m excited to be visiting Norway, Phoenix AZ and Boston MA minimally.

Most recently getting things organised for IGDA Scholars at E3 has been the thing taking the most of my time, so I’m hoping that things will ease up a bit but there is always one more crisis to be dealt with and more fires to put out!


The End of an Era

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Continuing the theme of “I’m really busy but hey I wrote about that years ago”, here’s an article from March 2011 that went to the same now-vanished website as the previous one. I’m glad I saved a copy of at least some of the things I wrote for that place.

Anyhow, last night’s Xbox One reveal has, I feel kind of shown the prescience of the argument I (and many others) have been laying out for a couple of years now – with the end of the AA titles, the console manufacturers are having to look elsewhere to shore up their financials; they can’t rely on a glut of licensees anymore. In Sony’s case, that has meant a strong consistent move to embrace the indie game developer and offer support, good routes to market etc. For Microsoft it seems to have been more about backing away from games and making deals with other media providers like ESPN, CBS and sports franchises.

Both are probably valid tactics for surviving this cycle, but I’m curious/nervous beyond that – especially for MS who seems to be shackling the value proposition of their new device to what many see as a dying medium, emphasising a very “BroGamer” demographic and pushing platform exclusive titles as a stick to drive adoption, without a significant gaming-related carrot to counterpoint. All things considered, it’s a very interesting time for the industry, and I’m truly glad that I don’t yet have all that much riding on the outcome career-wise.

 

With a history spanning nearly ten years in the industry, and more than 20 released titles including the Unreal and Gears of War franchises, Clifford “CliffyB” Bleszinski is a guy who you’d think knows what he’s talking about. So when he commented that Double-A titles are pretty much finished, it’s not someone clueless talking. As a Lead Designer at Epic Games, CliffyB ought to know his stuff. Yet there seems to be a decent amount of people who disagree.

I can see his point though. Triple-A titles will always find an audience – regardless of what else is happening in the world, Halo and Call of Duty will always sell, to an extent regardless of quality, these teams could literally take a dump on a plate, stamp the brand on it and it would sell. It isn’t the top of the market that is ever going to have an issue. Equally, at the Indie end of things, the price point is low enough, and the ideas quirky enough, that people are never going to stop spending less than a dollar to get a copy of Tiny Wings, or the latest xBox Live Arcade title. When you can get a solid game for a few currency units, why would you buy a reasonable mid-range game for full retail price? CliffyB thinks you wouldn’t, and that you are far more likely to find these mediocre games being played on rental, where you can pick them up without having to pay full price. For my part, all I can tell you is that I just sent back Quantum Theory and Kane and Lynch 2 on rental. Before that I had Rogue Warrior and Darksiders. Read into that whatever you want.

I think that this is another facet of the debate that has been raging around the next generation of handheld consoles. The core question is whether or not an expensive stand-alone piece of equipment has a role anymore in a world full of Android and iOS devices. Although Sony’s NGP still doesn’t have a price point, we can guess it will be at least as pricey as Nintendo’s 3DS, which retails at around £200 in the UK. Given it’s billing as a serious and powerful piece of equipment, I’d be surprised if it launched below £300. That’s a large chunk of change for a device that is almost exclusively a gaming device. There’s been a trend across the board to move away from the designation “gaming device” in the living room. The PS3 has been at the forefront of this, offering consumers an affordable entry into the BluRay world from the get go, but both PS3 and XBox are pushing to put their consoles at the heart of your “media centre” with more and more streaming media options. It’s possible that these new handhelds will follow suit, but what really differentiates them from the current generation of smartphones, besides an inability to do proper communications.

In many ways I think the challenges facing these new consoles are exactly those that faced camera manufacturers with the introduction of the camera-phone. I have a fancy DSLR camera, and a reasonable point’n’shoot, but the camera that gets used most frequently I find is the one that I have in my pocket anyway – I’m loathe to carry round a second bulky bit of kit on the off chance I’ll want it. If I know I’m doing something that deserves high quality pictures, then of course I will use the DSLR, because the quality of the photos is higher, but generally I’m prepared to sacrifice the quality of the experience for convenience. I think I’m not alone in finding my play habits following a similar model. Is Tiny Wings the most immersive detailed game experience ever? No of course not. There are better management sims than Game Dev Story, and NOVA isn’t the most amazing first person shooter. On the other hand, they’re already in my pocket because I have my phone with me, and the experience they offer is adequate – better than adequate. In fact, the whole concept of the handheld device is already a tradeoff of quality and portability, but we’ve grown up accepting that handheld consoles lack the power and visual refinement of non-portables. The point is that while ever there is such a gross disparity between the price of the smartphone games, and the price of the handheld games, and I have a smartphone anyway, I think that the smartphone games will tend to sell very well. Is the new Pokemon game 20 times better than the latest App Store sensation? Maybe it is for some people, but I wonder in general if people are going to be willing to pay 20 times more for it.

Which brings us back full circle to CliffyB. How do games that aren’t necessarily bad, but at the same time aren’t great, fit in? Games that score in the 60-80% range. The fact is that marketed at full retail price, they won’t sell well. There are far too many games coming out for most people to keep up, and when they can afford to get a game, there’s no reason for them not to go with AAA title. When they are in the market for a quick fix, there are tons of cheap options that don’t require forking out full retail price for a sub-par experience. It makes sense that when people are going to spend a lot of money, they will be discerning, and equally when they just want a new game, any new game, they’ll tend to be frugal. This will polarise the marketplace into high quality and low budget, and it’s going to mean that the mid-quality high-budget games are going to be left out in the cold.

Only time will really tell if CliffyB’s predictions will come true, but they certainly look sensible to me. Rental services like Netflix, Gamefly and LoveFilm mean that I can plough through mediocre titles without it being prohibitively expensive, but that doesn’t help the developers much to recoup their investment. It’s a shame our industry is so governed by popular opinion and review scores, and it’s even more of a shame that games that don’t do anything wrong can be panned as a colossal failure, despite garnering reasonable enough review scores. Ultimately though, this is what we have to work with – and it’s not just the AA titles that are suffering, so are innovation and experimentation, sacrificed in favour of safe “me-too” AAA sequels.


Telling Tall Tales

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This is an article/essay I wrote a couple of years ago for a website that has since shut down. The conversation has come up again in context of The Elder Scrolls Online, which seems to be using a lot of the same problematic story telling techniques we’ve seen in MMOs before. The latest developer video talks extensively about “the player” and how central and special they are to the story, which is typical of an Elder Scrolls game, but jarrs terribly with an MMO setting. I’m interested to see how Bethesda makes this work, cos frankly as it stands, I think they’ve painted themselves into a bit of corner. Anyhow, here’s my 2011 article “Telling Tall Tales”.

A shout rings out amongst the court, and the King rises from his throne. “All hail the Champion who has slain the dragon that plagued our lands. Let all the people rejoice!”. The celebrations last about thirty seconds, before the king returns to his throne. You approach, seeking a task from your liege : “Ah young knight, a terrible dragon plagues our lands and your king requires you defeat it.”

We’ve all experienced this in some form or other. Whether queueing up waiting for quest-related mobs to respawn, or watching a procession of players blithely turn in the same quest all in a row, the concept of narrative and story telling within MMOs has become stuck in something of a rut. If you don’t believe me, let me ask this : how many times do you find yourself looking for the same lost equipment as other players. Today a zeppelin lies crashed in the marshes, and it will still be there 6 months from now. A whole group of games rely more on your suspension of disbelief than they do on designing a narrative process that makes sense in the context of thousands of players.

Recently, I played through the Rift beta. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game, but when the the storyline hinges on the premise that you are the first Ascended being to be reanimated (Defiant tutorial), and you can look around and see hundreds of others, maybe we need to address the way the storyline plays out. A few levels later, an NPC faints at the sight of a mighty Ascended being. That girl does little else but constantly fall over!

MMO games in general are very bad for this. It seems to be a question that as yet doesn’t have an answer : how do you go about telling an engaging story which acknowledges the player is one of potentially thousands of equals. Escapism is an oft-cited reason for people to play games, so building a story that plays into the concept of the player being a very small, potentially insignificant cog in a large machine probably isn’t going to go anywhere – people can get an awful lot of that in the real world for free. But at the same time, the model perpetuated by Rift, WoW and others is the telling of an epic story in stages. Being destined for greatness is one thing, and it works well as a mechanic in a single player game. When everyone around you is also destined for greatness, suddenly there seems to be a lot less value to it.

Eve Online bypasses the problem altogether. With no player-centric story, and a gradually evolving universe, CCP have created an ultimate sandbox. A player’s actions are as significant as they choose them to be, with options for cog-in-a-machine play or convoluted plots and schemes with the player becoming the protagonist in stories of their creation. Eve is a harsh and unforgiving game, but it is also the venue for some of my most memorable gaming experiences.

City of Heroes and Champions Online take another approach to the problem. Instead of allowing you to watch as “unique” events occur for others, these games make heavy use of instances to remove as much of the storyline and individual moments into their own areas. The underlying concept is fairly solid, the thing that breaks the narrative process most isn’t that players experience the same events, it’s that our noses are rubbed in it while it is happening. By, as far as possible, making it happen in separate zones the problem isn’t removed but the effect is. City of Heroes went a step further by having many missions occur in instances that took place inside random buildings, further meaning that the player didn’t experience the immersion breaking scene of watching a group entering a building, following them and ending up in a separate instance. The idea is that by distributing the starting locations, immersion is maintained.

With the introduction of the Cataclysm expansion, WoW makes substantially greater use of a technique known as phasing to in some respects combat this issue. Phasing could be thought of as layered instances – instead of inhabiting a completely different space, players occupy the same “physical” space, but what they can see in this space depends on their phase. This allows for much greater immersion in the world – instead of having to decide if an environment will be rendered in it’s original form, or with the ground scorched from a dragon attack, phasing allows both to be “present” in the world at the same time. Which one you see depends entirely on whether you are in the phase that represents the time before the attack or the time after the attack. It’s a neat trick that gives the player a much slicker experience, but it doesn’t fundamentally solve the problem, and the complexity of maintaining phases limits their utility and their likely uptake.

The core problem is that the player is receiving an “experience”. The best analogy I can come up with is that we are currently being treated to an amusement park ride. With a fixed not-quite-on-rails progression, the story of the world is told to us as we are moved inevitably through it, but if we can hear what is happening to the car in front and occasionally see the animatronic characters resetting ready to “surprise” us, then we are fully aware of the man behind the curtain. These rides are entertaining sure, but they aren’t good devices for telling stories – if they were there would be no need to turn one into a very good Johnny Depp vehicle. At the same time though, movies are not a good model either for two reasons – they are external to the audience and the audience experiences the story simultaneously. What we need is a new method of telling our stories in the context of MMOs, that allows the audience to experience it at their own pace whilst not interfering with each other’s experience, and without necessarily leading them by the nose from set piece to set piece.

This may be one of the reasons that hopes are running very high for “Star Wars: The Old Republic”, a forthcoming title from Bioware (with the other reasons being in order “OMG Star Wars”, “OMG Bioware” and “OMG lightsabers”). With an established track record of narrative driven games spanning 15 years, and a proven ability to innovate new and interesting approaches to story telling, if anyone can crack this problem, my money is on them. Even their recent releases have shown a startling ability to focus on the thing they do best and make it better. Mass Effect built on earlier dialogue tree systems to provide a detailed and immersive set of possible responses to situations for the player to choose from. Dragon Age : Origins used this same approach and added a novel approach to character generation and tutorial by providing each combination of race and class with a unique initial story arc, with this then being referenced throughout the common storyline – in essence creating a phased approach to narrative. Most recently, Mass Effect 2 developed this idea even further, allowing characters to be imported from the original game to continue their saga. Details of choices taken within the plot were then used to create the starting point for ME2, and other, seemingly minor, choices from the first game were occasionally mentioned, with characters making reference to the outcomes of decisions taken in a completely separate game by a character I hadn’t played for a year.

Bioware has continually pushed the narrative envelope, so there’s no reason to think this will stop now. They’ve demonstrated an ability to take a branching plot line and not only maintain it, but reference back to it, but of course all their achievements so far have been exclusively in the context of single player experiences. It remains to be seen whether they can make the leap that will be required of them to create the kind of interactive story telling that will redefine the MMO genre as a legitimate interactive experience, rather than the current crude and fumbling efforts to retro-fit a narrative over a planned set of game mechanics.