True Immersion, Shvitzing, and Some Rug Burn


True Immersion

Having fantasized about owning a VR headset for years, I finally committed and bought the HTC Vive. With the base stations securely attached to my office walls, I wasted no time in building a library of games/apps that the community has been raving about: Tilt Brush, Google Blocks, Waltz of the Wizard, SUPERHOT VR, Raw Data, Vanishing Realms, Mindshow, and Virtual Desktop to name a few. Thus far, my standout favorites are Tilt Brush, SUPERHOT VR, and Vanishing Realms

Let's take a look at Tilt Brush. This art application combines an intuitive interface with some simple, yet captivating visuals. One hand becomes the paintbrush, while the other provides access to your palette and menu controls. As someone who has been drawing and sculpting since childhood, I fantasized about creating beautiful 3D masterpieces, harnessing this tool that combines artistic disciplines and has become a unique medium unto itself. Instead, I spent the first few hours drawing happy faces, swirls, and scrawling "Tom Marvolo Riddle" in the air. I was truly amazed at how much wonder simply doodling instilled in me. Not to be distracted from my goal (too much), I set out to spend a night creating something I could be proud of. Stumped at where to begin, I pulled up the Tilt Brush menu and discovered that it provides a number of translucent volumes that you can use as models to paint around. Testing these out, I discovered that the shapes are subsequently invisible to when viewing your final piece. With that knowledge in mind, I chose a dress form model. Having been interested in pursuing costume design a number of years ago, I was instantly drawn to it. Starting at the neck, I began my work.

There were a false starts, but after getting comfortable drawing on the form I soon found myself building a dress composed mostly of intricate rose-like swirls. After constructing half of the bodice, I had a moment where I realized that to fully embrace the medium, I would need to discard some of my thinking related to the constraints presented by physical, real-world costume design. Looking at the other half of the bodice, I promptly switched brushes and constructed it out of what resembled purple lightning. In the end, I created a skirt composed of long, rough-edged strokes that evoke swirling feathers. Enjoying the asymmetrical aspect of the dress, I added a small shoulder piece made of geometric patterns and swirling smoke.

Click to examine the piece in 3D.

Click to examine the piece in 3D.

Some of the bodice detailing.

Some of the bodice detailing.

Finally done, I uploaded the piece to Poly, Google's hosting service for 3D content. Unfortunately, I found that the intricate details I had so painstakingly composed weren’t easily visible when viewing the dress as a whole. Above is a GIF showing some of that detail work, but it's otherwise washed out and muddy when viewing the entire piece. This taught me a valuable lesson about composing content in three dimensions- just as in real-world cinematography, the lighting and environment of my pieces are just as important as the subject.

For those interested in seeing Tilt Brush being pushed to its limits, check out my friend Estella Tse, as well as Danny Bittman and Liz Edwards. If they don't convince you that VR is a fantastic new medium, nothing will. 


Having spent my first night in VR using Tilt Brush, I decided that it was time to dive into some games. SUPERHOT VR has been repeatedly suggested to me and I was excited to finally give it a try. The premise is easy enough to understand: you navigate beautiful low-poly levels and use your fists, guns, and all manner of objects to defeat your enemies. The main gameplay mechanic, though, is where the fun is- time only advances when you move. Any movement you make, whether it’s with the controllers or the headset, is registered by the game. If you stop moving, so does everything else; bullets freeze, objects in mid-shatter are suspended in the air, and enemies seem to watch you as they stand trapped in immobile bodies.

Dodging bullets, snatching guns from an enemy's hand, and even throwing your emptied gun at an enemy is all possible in this game.

Using the control of time to your advantage, you can dodge bullets while delivering your own deadly shots.

It. Was. Awesome. In less than five minutes, I completely forgot that I was swinging my arms in an empty office, jumping and dodging as if my actual life depended on it. In fact, I even earned a trophy for dodging a barrage of bullets like Neo in this famous scene. After finishing a particularly long level, I took off my headset to find myself sweating and out of breath. I was so absorbed in the game that I was temporarily unaware what was happening with my physical body! After buying a less...absorbent...foam band for the headset's interior, I jumped into what would become the most immersive VR experience so far.

Some Rug Burn

I only heard about Vanishing Realms a few weeks ago. Speaking to one of my coworkers about the different games I've played, he recommended it to me after hearing about my love of the RPG genre. Satisfyingly, my coworker hit the nail on the head. Let me preempt this next bit by saying that the game isn't perfect. It's not the best gaming experience I've had by a long shot, and the graphics are reminiscent of cel shaded games circa 2000. 


The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker utilizes cel shading and low poly models to produce a cartoon-like effect.


You might be wondering how a game with cartoonish qualities can feel more immersive than something like a 360° video. What the developer, Indimo Labs, understood about creating immersive VR experiences is that people want to interact with the virtual world in the same way that they interact with the real one. If a player sees something on a table, they should be able to pick it up. If they see a candle, they should be able to light it. That's where so many VR games cut corners, and that's exactly why Indimo's experience delivers. My first few hours in the game weren't spent leveling up or trying to earn new weapons; rather, I was teleporting around the world, picking up coins, lighting archaic candelabras with my Indiana Jones-style wall torch, and climbing chains to get aerial views of the area. Every single item placed in this game can be interacted with, and it's incredibly satisfying to do so, the game rewarding exploration and creativity over speed. Inevitably, I soon found myself face-to-face with a large ogre . Having no weapons, I swung at the creature with my torch. It blocked my blows deftly, and as I frantically ducked a sword swing (spinning my physical body so hard that I gave my foot rug burn), my torch accidentally touched the pile of dried leaves we were standing on. To my astonishment, the leaves caught fire and the creature started taking damage, slowly backing away to try and escape the flames.  Even more surprising was that I took damage as well, having been standing on the leaves too. With my health bar low and regenerating too slowly for my liking, I felt my fight-or-flight instinct kick in, and quickly found a place to hide and recuperate. Though the ogre eventually died from the fire damage it had incurred, I had no idea if more would spawn from that spot or if they would come looking for me if I dawdled. Looking around my hiding space (a small room off the main hallway), I noticed some bread sitting on a table. I picked it up, and took note that my inventory icon indicated I could store the bread, which I did by stuffing items into a pouch tied to my belt. If I could store the item, it most likely meant it was something I could use. Knowing that many games provide food as a healing item, I retrieved the loaf from my inventory but stopped to consider how I was supposed to "use" it. When playing the usual console games, consuming an item is usually as simple as tapping a button. But I was holding the bread in my hand. And that's when it hit me. I lifted the bread to my face, and to my satisfaction my character began munching on it. Between my panic at being attacked and the surprise I felt at discovering the fire, I half expected to taste bread in my mouth because of how immersed I was!

Reflecting back, it's moments like these that really impress me about Vanishing Realms. So much of the VR content on the market struggles to correlate virtual actions with their real world corollaries, and Vanishing Realms shows how well it can be done. Playing this game really makes me excited about the possibilities of VR. While realistic visuals play an important role in a player’s immersion, I think it's important that developers take a cue from Indimo and focus on creating engaging environments and interactions. My experience seems to only add support to studies about immersion and presence, and it’s important that these lessons become canon going forward.

What's Next, News, and More

Now that I'm settled into my job and our house is no longer filled with boxes, I'm going to commit to writing more frequently. Especially now that my days are filled with things like VR tournaments, I can't help but feel reinvigorated about the immersive tech community. Along those lines, I recently tweeted about my friend's experience in VR, and how developers can work on making the medium more accessible. I have a call with a developer in Australia who is doing work in this field, and after I speak to her, I'm going to be taking an intensive look at the responses I received and what we as a community can do to create content and hardware with accessibility in mind.


  • Pixar has released a VR experience for their upcoming movie, Coco. Check it out on Oculus.

  • Amazon has announced that they will be developing a TV series based on the Lord of the Rings franchise.

  • HTC has officially announced their standalone VR headset, the Vive Focus.


Feedback! I want to hear from you. Do you like the topics I've covered? Do you want to see something different or wish I had talked more about a specific concept? Comment here or click the "contact" button at the top of the page. Being new to writing a blog, I want to make sure I'm creating relevant posts that answer the questions you're asking.

Thanks, and game on!

Update Coming Soon

Hey there Heroes! Sorry for the short hiatus. Between getting things done around the new house and adjusting to a new commute, things have been hectic! Excited to be more settled though, especially now that the entertainment center is mostly set up:

I've been thinking a lot about what I'm going to write for my next entry. While looking over a recent post in the Women in VR/AR Facebook group (a private but well-known group composed mostly of women aimed at furthering gender equality in the VR and AR tech spaces). The post included a TechCrunch article declaring that VR is DOA and that the medium is destined to fall into obscurity. I've drafted a fairly long response to the utter garbage that is this article. 

Look for that soon, and until then, keep questing Heroes!

VR Inception: VR Embodiment Viewed in AR

Hi Heroes!

I wanted to take a moment and share something I came across today. It’s a video showing a woman painting inside of VR, while an AR avatar stands next to her, mirroring her movements through the tracked headset and controllers. Created using the ARKit beta and an HTC Vive, it demonstrating the potential of cross-reality interaction. Imagine yourself ten years in the future: you're wearing your sleek AR/VR combo glasses, hanging out in your room, thinking about how much cooler you are than the people of ten years ago. A call pops up on your display- it's your friend asking to come over and watch a movie. You accept the call, and a squishy, Totoro-esque creature appears next to you. They look over to you, and see you as a smiling lollipop who burps sunshine and rainbows. Just like that, two people are inhabiting a shared real space with virtual bodies. 

Think about that. Go ahead, I'll wait. Pretty cool right? Instantaneous, embodied interaction. What's more, as hand/eye tracking technology continues to refine, our ability to believe the experience is only heightened. There's been some fascinating research on presence in VR, examining what helps and hinders our ability to believe that the virtual world is a real one. One component of this presence has to do with how realistic graphics are. As a culture that’s still new to VR/AR, looking at a cartoon lollipop person is probably not going jive with our brains. But take a step back an look at how communication has changed over the last 10-15 years. We've already trained ourselves to think of our friends in the context of Bitmojis and GIFs. There's even a movie coming out about anthropomorphized emojis and the life they live inside of our phones. The more our brains are exposed to virtual avatars of real-world objects and people, the easier we will accept these pixels as our best friends. Add that to what will eventually be seamless AR/VR (looking at you VR contact lenses), and a friendly lollipop won’t seem so strange anymore. 


Queer Inclusion in Gaming

Happy Pride! While things are still rockin' and rollin' with escrow, I wanted to take the time to really celebrate the number of gaming and tech companies that took a stand for pride this year. I am touched and completely surprised. Gaming is for everyone, and most of the LGBTQ+ people I know are gamers themselves. Maybe it's the ability to express ourselves in a safer way, or maybe it's simply that (up until more recently) gaming has existed outside of the mainstream - a place that queer folks have called home for centuries. Whatever the reason, it gives me gaymer pride to see other queer folks and allies getting so much support from the community that they love. Here are some of my favorite nerdy/gaming pride sightings from this year:



Repping Debuffed Hero at E3!


Hey All! I know it's been a little while since I posted, but I promise I have a good reason: we're in escrow! It's wild and crazy process, but it's exciting and I can't wait to have a gaming palace...I mean house...

In the meantime, enjoy my E3 photos below. This was my first (official) time attending, and I really enjoyed myself. I do have to say that after talking with Amos about his experience over the years, it seems like the overall atmosphere was more similar to a con this year, rather than an industry event. This doesn't surprise me since this is also the first year they've opened it up to the general public. I have somewhat mixed feelings about that. On one hand, I admit that the massive crowds felt overwhelming at times, and I barely got my hands on any games given the size of the lines. On the other hand, I took three days off work to immerse myself in gaming. First world problems?

My favorite part had to be the Coliseum talks. In the comfy, though somewhat frigid, seats of the Coliseum, E3 rolled out their series of panelists. By far, watching Neil deGrasse Tyson ascend to his throne as High Lord of Science during the World Builders talk was amazing - being broadcast in from lord knows where, his brilliant (and somewhat beleaguered) visage popped up on the screen behind the other panelists. He had quite the time cackling and looking down at them from his rightful throne as Overlord. James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Chris Hardwick (Actor/Comedian/TV Host), Randy Pitchford (Gearbox), and Kiki Wolfkill (Microsoft) all joined Neil in painted an amazing picture of how they approach world-building in their various professions. Not to crush too hard on Neil, but hearing him talk about how rooting your game in science doesn't weigh you down; rather, it frees you to explore the impossibilities and fantastic wonders that science can accomplish. I had a recent experience with this when writing a new section of my novel: in toying with the idea of a more phenotypically varied human population, I was exploring environmental changes that would have caused these phenotypes to evolve. One of the ideas I had was to have either two suns or a much larger moon constantly bathe the planet in light. This would cause different populations to evolve varied skin tones (just like on our actual planet) but with some fantasy twists. However, I did a little research and found that circumbinary planets, rare themselves, are very unlikely to maintain enough stability to support life. Sorry George! For me personally as a writer, I find that the more I root myself in the real, the more I can expand into the unknown and fantastical in a believable way. It's not for everyone, but Neil's way definitely speaks to me.

The game I'm most excited about really took me by surprise: Assassin's Creed Origins. For some reason, while I love the artwork and design of the AC series, I've never been drawn to play them. Having watched some of my friends play, I always felt like the game was trying to force you into stealthy gameplay. As a gamer who like to wreak havoc every now and then, it just never held much appeal. But then Origins came along and WOW! With a release date just before Halloween this year, Origins explores the rich backstory that drives the series. With enjoyable looking stealth, intense (and sufficiently havoc-wreaking) battles, and an INCREDIBLY vast world to explore, I'll admit that I will be pre-ordering that gorgeous triumph of a game. What's more, the demo was being played live and even for an unfinished game, it is so far above and beyond most games in terms of design, art, and innovation. Will I credit the anthropologists/archaeologists/historians who informed the design of the game? Damn right. I mean, a guy should be allowed some nepotism every now and then.

Anywhoozle, enjoy my photos. More to come soon!

Zombies, Unicorns, and Pooping in the Jungle


Happy Monday Heroes! 

Hope last week was good for all of you. For me, it ended on a pretty awesome note. If you haven’t heard of the show Kicking and Screaming, it pairs survivalists with people who know very little/nothing about living in nature. At first, I was completely uninvested as my fiancé started watching. But then Nati Casanova (aka the ZombiUnicorn) appeared on the scene. This unicorn-haired gaming goddess hops onto the island and I knew immediately that a.) I was going to be obsessively watching this show and b.) despite my fiancé's love of reality TV, he was going to have to limit his enjoyment to when I was present because this was my show. As the episodes progressed, viewers were given insights into each contestant's life, fears, and dreams. For me, both as a gamer and a feminist, I couldn't help but root for her as she struggled, fought, and conquered. Her performance epitomized what it means to be a gamer – to be determined in the face of challenges, to respect both the game and other players as vehicles for personal self-improvement, and to push yourself beyond what you think you're capable of.  


Not to say that I called it, but I distinctly remember telling my fiancé that I thought she was going to win because gamers know how to BRING IT!


Much like how recess is modernly being found to have not only physical but social benefits for children, emerging research is starting to reveal the benefits of playing videogames.

How one study, published in American Psychologist, categorized games for the purpose of understanding specific benefits.

These benefits, which can be seen in the areas of cognition, motivation, emotion, and social interaction, are just beginning to be understood. While this doesn't address some of the negative aspects present within some games (sexism, bigotry, etc.), it does give us some inspiring goals for the future. By encouraging gaming within the context of losing fairly, being persistent, and building teamwork, teachers could reach their students in an entirely new way. The best part is that kids are already predisposed to playing games as a part of their psychology. If we allow games to be a portal to real-world success, it could change the way that we view gaming in our society.  

I'll leave you with this conclusion from the above cited article: 

"We began this article by summarizing the rich and long history of the study of play. Video games share many similarities with traditional games and likely provide benefits similar to those provided by play more generally. Both traditional and video games are fundamentally voluntary in nature, they can include competitive and cooperative objectives, players immerse themselves in pretend worlds that are safe contexts in which negative emotions can be worked out, and games allow a sense of control with just enough unpredictability to feel deep satisfaction and intense pride when formidable goals are finally reached. Yet video games today and those on the radar for development in the near future are also unique forms of play. Video games are socially interactive in a way never before afforded. Increasingly, players are gaming online, with friends, family, and complete strangers, crossing vast geographical distances and blurring not only cultural boundaries but also age and generation gaps, socioeconomic differences, and language barriers. The large amount of time invested in playing video games may also mean that they provide qualitatively different experiences than conventional games. Although we may remember spending whole weekends playing Monopoly with siblings and neighbors, few traditional games can boast the weeks and months of game play that many video games provide. These differences in space and time likely hold wholly new benefits and risks that have yet to be conceptualized. 

After pulling together the research findings on the benefits of video games, we have become particularly inspired by the potential that these games hold for interventions that promote well-being, including the prevention and treatment of mental health problems in youth. Remarkably, there are very few video games that have been developed with these aims in mind. Given how enthralled most children and adolescents are with video games, we believe that a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, clinicians, and game designers can work together to develop genuinely innovative approaches to mental health interventions." 

Congratulations ZombiUnicorn, and thank you for being a role model for gamers everywhere.


VRLA 2017 Debrief

I'm here at VRLA 2017 and I am stoked! I just met one of my VR idols, Kent Bye, who operates the Voices of VR Podcast. Listening to his in-depth interviews with industry visionaries is part of what inspired me to start this blog.

Read on to hear about the world's largest immersive technology conference.

Here are the presentations/panels I attended:

I was privileged to attend, and I hope you find my coverage of this conference enjoyable and enlightening.

VR Game Development: Developer Diary, Presented by First Contact, HTC, and Dell

The focus of this talk is on how to collaborate with partners (hardware developers, etc.) to elevate the quality of your final product. First contact is the group that produced Rom- a popular FPS (first person shooter) VR game. They successfully worked with HTC and Dell (Alienware) to create a polished, innovative, and enjoyable game. The takeaway I left with was that hardware companies want to partner with developers. They want to be associated with the best and the newest. If you, as a developer, can market your product as being able to attract consumers, they will work with you. It doesn't matter if you're a dinky studio with three employees- if you have something you're passionate about, use that passion to sell people on your product. And if you're not passionate about it, don't make it!

Side note: one of the really unique mechanics of Rom is the arm animation - they designed their game to accurately simulate the player's arms inside of the game. People were blown away by the convincing immersive experience they had due to this mechanic. This brings to mind a talk I heard about how if you can convince the brain that at least one element of the virtual world is indistinguishable from reality, it will fool your mind into feeling like the rest of what you're looking is real too.

News: They announced that they are working on a multiplayer VR experience! Not only that, they said it will have full locomotion capabilities. Based on what they described, these experiences will be playable at home and in VR arcades. AND, if that didn't already get you excited, this is what it's going to look like:

Photorealism! Given the power required to run VR, this mystery game may break barriers for gaming in this medium. Very excited to see whats coming next from this studio and their powerhouse partners.

Robo Recall: An Epic Journey in VR, Presented by Unreal Engine

For those unfamiliar, Unreal Engine is what's known as a game engine. In short, game engines provide the framework for running games. To demonstrate the Unreal Engine's capabilities, Unreal has been known to produce some wildly entertaining games (how I miss thee, Unreal Tournament).

To explore how their game engine works with the mechanics and technology of VR, Unreal produced a game called Bullet Train. This game showed the designers what mechanics worked and what didn't, as well as how to adapt to these new user interfaces. For example, they found that by integrating slow-motion effects into the gunplay, players had an entirely new level of interactivity. Another fun mechanic that tested well was the "throw the gun at the robot" move: players can throw guns at enemy robots after they run out of amo, but if they catch the gun after it bounces majestically , players will find that their shurikened weapon (yeah I made that a verb) has been magically reloaded! This is a great example of how mechanics that would be hard or impossible to create in traditional games work amazingly in VR. A new medium forces new ways of thinking.

Side note: The panel talked about the odd problems they encountered testing games that had, up until that point, only been worked on by a single person. Let me elaborate: if you design holsters that a player needs to reach for, it's probably a good idea to make sure they can be reached by people of all sizes...otherwise they may end up inside the body of a player. Similarly, stationary objects need to be small enough so that people of all heights can actually see around them! While these concepts seem obvious, it's one of the aspects of VR that designers are adjusting to as they transition into working in both virtual and physical space.

*shovels food into mouth*

Okay lunch is over! And now...

Google Daydream: VR Lessons from 10+ Years as an Executive Producer in Game Development

This talk was from Jonathan Krusell. His background is in gaming, and he boasts a number of famous games under his belt like Bioshock. Specifically, his work in gaming is with motion capture. This gives Jonathan a unique background when he started his work in VR. He had to learn how to "embody" physical people and objects in a digital space. He talked a good deal about the importance of improv from character actors. The only difference is that, in VR, the programming needs to be accurately reactive to our improv.

He went through his portfolio and discussed general ways he applied his knowledge. The general takeaway: don't be scared by a new field just because it turns everything you know on its head...that's half the fun!

Inducing Emotional and Cognitive States in VR, Presented by Liminal VR

The presentation started with a psychological study that was done in the 90's: People were given sentences to unscramble. The control group was given neutral sentences, and the other group was given sentences about being older (retired, grandmother, etc.). Amazingly, the scientists found that the second group took longer to move from their rooms to the elevator to leave after unscrambling their sentences. What's also amazing is that when this study was repeated with computers timing participants, the result was null - turns out, it was the researchers, rather than the participants, that were being primed and perceiving the situation differently. The message here: it's pretty damn easy to influence our perception.

There is already extensive research showing the power that meditation and biofeedback can have on the body's physiology. Using this research on how sound, color, and motion affect human psychology, Liminal VR went about designing different prototypes of VR experiences to induce specific emotions.

Elements that contribute to participant experience

They found that some of their designs did, in fact, relax people! They also found that some of their designs made people tense, but then oddly happy. While confusing at first, they realized it was the same phenomena observed after riding a roller coaster: tension -> endorphins -> excitement. Amusingly, one of the simulations made the designer's wife fall to the ground, rip the HMD off, and curse him profusely. Apparently floating in a peaceful cloud high up in the sky isn't as enjoyable if you're afraid of heights...

This is how they broke down their work:

  • Research
    • There is already a wealth of information (as I mentioned) on these approaches to inducing emotional responses. The trick lies in the next two steps.
  • Design
    • Given that our emotional responses are heavily dictated by our previous experiences, high level concepts can be dangerous to work with. In this case, high level means designing a virtual beach, cloud, etc. While some people in Southern California are going to respond very well to seeing a familiar beach, other people with different experiences may feel nervous. Maybe they're scared of sharks; maybe they don't like looking out over such a vast body of water. Whatever it is, these "high level" designs are highly dependent on the user (i.e. angry wife).
    • So where does that leave us? Simplicity is the answer. Simple designs, breathing exercises, nondescript music, etc. Things that don't invoke (or at the very least minimally invoke) personalized responses that are best. For these purposes, we want to be the sole source of emotional control, rather than the reaction being user-dependent.
  • Application
    • Explain what users might experience to them so that they can understand what to expect. For example, telling a user that they may be tense at first but should feel energized/excited afterwards allows users to choose experiences based on the possible outcome rather than how they may feel at first. Keep in mind that this after research has been concluded - you don't want to prime your user.
    • Make sure you understand the platform: Understand the science of the technology you're working with. For example, while white may seem like a relaxing color, white light actually contains the full spectrum of colors, some of which aren't actually relaxing to our brains.
    • Collaborate with experts in the field- measuring brain activity and biometrics aren't necessarily areas that designers can research on their own. Go to the experts- that's why they're there!

Liminal VR has created resources for devs interested in working with emotional induction: look into their partnership program if you're interested.

How VR Entertainment Will Finally Take Off, Presented by Inception VR

This talk was presented by David Neyman, VP of VR Content Development at Inception VR. Inception is a company that develops VR platforms for lifestyle brands. Examples include travel companies, Playboy, and the Dali Theatre Museum. David talked about VR adding levels of experience that could never have been achieved before for these consumer products. For example, the Dali Theatre Museum created an interactive experience to explore Dali's paintings in three dimensions.

But how do we sustain this? How do we keep the VR truck moving? The answer: bonfires, not fireworks. Huge VR experiences are common now; big, expensive productions that take a long time to produce. But we need more household experiences. We need to bring VR into daily life- music videos, shopping, TV. The more that we tap into established and recognizeable IP, the more willing consumers will be to start exploring the medium.

Given the newness of consumer VR, the biggest hurdle will be to get large brands to sign up. After that, the rest is just a game dominos.

That about wraps up my summary of all the talks. The expo floor was much larger than last year's, and it was so nice to have the extra breathing room. Unlike my last time at VRLA when I was just eager to try out VR, I was there to listen to the talks; I didn't even put on an HMD! It's odd how your priorities shift when something goes from hobby to career goal. 

I hope you enjoyed by coverage of this year's conference. To conclude, here are the remainder of my photos. Fight on my heroes!



Evolution, Gaming, and Those F#%&?ing Orbs

Hey party people! It’s (unfortunately) Monday. Our country’s political climate is in an…interesting place, work was hard but super rewarding, and I enjoyed another awesome game mechanics class at SMC this last Thursday. One of the really fascinating points our professor keeps making is that games are instinctual; evolutionary. As someone with a degree in anthropology, I can’t help but agree (and be fascinated in the nerdiest of ways).  Look at how other animals play games- play is learning and modeling adult behaviors in a safe space. These behaviors- survival, competition, coordination, ingenuity, life skills- all have built-in imperatives that demonstrate genetic fitness. We are built to play. That’s why games need to have a “point” to game actions. If we don’t see a point- like finding one specific item that doesn’t have any particular use or navigating from one side of a maze to another with no reward- then we won’t want to do it. Play is tied to reward. Whether that reward is winning, collecting, discovering- it doesn’t matter. They all have evolutionary equivalents. Competition for a mate, collecting food or resources, discovering shelter, etc. And that’s also the crux of why games fail. For example, I’m playing Fire Emblem Heroes on iOS right now. At the beginning, there’s a lot of winning and collecting and leveling up. Even as someone who isn’t super familiar with the franchise (except for Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance, which I loved), I really enjoyed it. But having completed the story sections, the game now only presents me endless grinding with the promise of very few rewards. In fact, I get more rewards for just simply logging in for the day than by actually playing it. Want to know why? Because they want you to spend as much real-world money, as it would cost to buy Destiny 2 a few times over, to purchase the all-important orbs that are used as in-game-currency. You exchange them for items and stamina, and they are necessary for adding new characters to your collection- the main mechanic of the game. 

As game designers, we have to consider why people are playing our game. Whether our players are competitors, explorers, collectors, achievers, artists, directors, storytellers, performers, or craftsman- we need to stay true to that core concept that drives their desire to play. It’s why games like Skyrim and Destiny are so successful- they include multiple driving mechanics that appeal to a wide number of player types and merge them all into a cohesive game. It’s also why games are “indie” hits- when the core concept is unique and appeals to a select, but passionate, fan base of a specific player type. Interestingly, it is also behind why simple but fun games are also the most lucrative- the mechanic is consistent and people are willing to pay money for something they feel is a rewarding trade-off. 

How do we advance the game while not deviating from these enjoyable mechanics? How do we add variety and avoid monotony? Most importantly, how do we find that balance of a successful business venture and an enjoyable game for consumers? When games focus on ways to make money as the primary rather than secondary objective, that’s when fun grinds to a halt (eh…ehhh…see what I did there?). We’ve evolved to play games, so let us play damn it.

So how do we go about doing this? I believe the first step is consistent and evolving goals. For example, let's examine a basic game mechanic- collecting rupees. First, we need to create a why: collect enough rupees and you can buy a new sword. Why do you want a new sword? So you can beat the next boss. Now, a lot of games (still looking at you Fire emblem Heroes) will stop there. But that will only take you so far. Why do you want to beat the next boss? What makes all of that rupee collecting worth it? Well I know for me, THAT'S where story comes in. The dramatic narrative that overlays the mechanics. In my opinion, good games combine those evolution-driven mechanics with a deep and compelling story. As a designer, you need to make the final objective important. Is your protagonist a young heroine fighting to protect her family? A traveling merchant who finds himself on an epic quest? Whatever your story, it has to make your player care enough to spend their time cutting grass to discover hidden rupees.

There's one problem to that: games that have no/little story but are wildly successful. Let's look at Angry Birds. Up until recently, this game has operated on a basic principle: pigs steal bird's eggs, bird gets eggs back by attacking pigs. Where this game shines, and where its developers rake in the money, are in two areas: game mechanics and updates. Let's look at game mechanics:

A basic example of a level layout you may encounter while playing Angry Birds.

You pull back on the slingshot to launch a bird into the dominoes-like pyramidal piggy palaces. Variety is added by having different birds with different functions- one shoots forward and destroys wooden blocks, another splits apart and crashes through glass blocks, etc.  It's a fun mechanic. But how does that one mechanic span so many levels and still stay fun? Challenge. Challenge is that elusive goal that everyone wants to beat. They can see what they want and they just have to aim...BAM. There it is, the perfect shot. You watch gleefully as an elaborate stack of baconated building comes crashing down. You pat yourself on the back as you out of three stars. Not only does each level get progressively harder, but the player can try and earn a higher and higher score as they replay those levels. This allows players to move from level to level in two ways: just focus on clearing the level before you run out of birds OR only progress to the next level after receiving three stars. I have to admit, I am definitely the later player type. 

The second area we can find success in is a consistent stream of game updates that include level after level of unkosher fun. Not only that, the franchise also gives players a multitude of themes and mechanics they can choose from by releasing a ridiculous number of games.  

There are so many ways we can make games enjoyable. We as consumers know this. Whether we're playing solitaire next to our cat or hosting an epic three-day D&D adventure, we know what gets our Pac-Man chomping.  So tell me, what's yours?



And here we go folks- my first blog post!  Well actually it’s my second one because Squarespace glitched and erased my draft, but anywho... 

I’ve been toying with the idea of creating this blog for a while now.  My fiancé isn’t particularly nerdy, so instead of keeping him up at night talking about my latest thoughts on gaming, VR, or my excitement about The Matrix reboot, I figured I could talk to all of YOU about them instead.

Let’s start with a little more about me.  I am a 26-years-old California native.  As I mentioned, I am engaged to a wonderful man, and we make our home in sunny Los Angeles.  Did I mention his last name is Marvel?  Yeah, that's a thing.

I'm the non-ginger in the back.

I'm the non-ginger in the back.

I should also tell you, for the sake of understanding my background, that in addition to being gay, I am also Jewish and Latino- I call that the bully’s trifecta.  I joke that I’ve been a game designer since I was a kid, creating schoolyard games like Zombie, which involved a mix of tag, dodgeball (this was of course when Koosh Balls were all the rage), and hide-and-seek.  My first foray into gaming happened after receiving a purple Game Boy Color, because that’s how I roll.  After that, it was all uphill- Game Boy Advance, GameCube, PS2, Wii, PS4, and Xbox One.  There was a PSP in there somewhere, but I’m trying to focus on the good.  From Pokémon, Legend of Zelda, and Metroid Prime to Skyrim, Destiny, and Halo, I have fallen in love with games on all of these platforms and in a variety of genres. 

I was THAT cool.

I was THAT cool.

In high school, I had some health issues which caused me to walk with a crutch for a few years and go on home study.  Games helped me maintain my sanity being cooped up in the house alone, and gave me an endless number of worlds to escape into.  To some “hardcore” gamers, my journey in the gaming world may seem cursory and laughable.  But understand that as an only child who came out at 12, I didn’t exactly have an overwhelming number of friends in a community dominated by white, heterosexual males who could show me the ropes.  I did the best I could with what I had, as all of us do. 

When I got to college, my love of storytelling and intimate familiarity with cultural intersectionality lead me to pursue a degree in cultural anthropology from UCLA.  After graduating in 2013, I went on to work for the UCLA Special Collections Library, a Jewish non-profit, and finally USC (because I apparently enjoy the turmoil it causes my soul).  While working, I have gone back to school to earn my A.A. in animation with a concentration in game design at Santa Monica City College.  After I am able to build an adequate portfolio, I plan on applying to USC’s Interactive Media MFA program.  I did stray from this path though, exploring career possibilities as an archaeologist, professor, character designer, costume designer, and many more (as my friends and family can grudgingly attest to). 

A bit of costume design.  I'm pretty sure I killed half of my brain cells with the amount of glue I inadvertantly inhaled making this...

A bit of costume design.  I'm pretty sure I killed half of my brain cells with the amount of glue I inadvertantly inhaled making this...

Each of these fields involved one passion or another, but the one passion I had been ignoring was the one that has been with me the longest: game design.  Creating worlds, imagining new stories, collaborating with similarly obsessed people- game design has it all.  Within game design, I am particularly interested in harnessing the burgeoning technologies of VR and AR.  They hold the key to what all game designers are chasing- true immersion.  You can expect a good deal of the content I discuss on this blog to involve them in one way or another.

In ten years, I see myself making games that I am proud to make.  Games that will give my future daughter(s) strong role models.  Games that make a lonely queer kid in Missouri feel slightly less alone because of the inclusion of queer characters.  As we’ve seen from the GamerGate Controversy and PewDiePie, the gaming community still has a long way to come before everyone feels welcome.  But we’re already seeing some creative responses to internet trolls that make my heart swell.  But that’s what a game can be when it reaches its full potential- something that has the power to transport, transcend, and transform. 

As I mention in the about section, I chose the name of this blog because I think about life in the context of gaming.  Hardship, tragedy, and heartbreak affect us all.  These “debuffs” can make daily life feel unlivable.  But these are also the things that make us stronger by working through them.  These are the things that push us to try harder, to fight for the things we love, and to cling to hope.  Games, like all stories, hold a mirror to these universal challenges and triumphs.

If you’ve read this far, I want to thank you.  As with any endeavor like this, I owe whatever this becomes to you- my first supporters.  I’m already thinking about what I want to post next, so keep an eye out for updates.  I will also be posting random thoughts and questions in the Dribs and Drabs section.  In addition, I tweet daily about gaming so follow me there if that’s your jam.  Until my next post, fight on my fellow debuffed heroes.

Thanks again!